|Part of First Indochina War|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Jean-Etienne Valluy|| Vo Nguyen Giap
Hoang Van Thai
|Casualties and losses|
|6,000 killed and wounded
(Viet Minh Claim)
|9,000 killed and wounded
Operation Léa was French Union military operation between 7 October and 8 November 1947 during the First Indochina War. It was an attempt by the French General Valluy to crush the Viet Minh. An airborne force would capture the Viet Minh leadership and three French columns would strike into the Viet Minh heartland.
The parachute assault surprised the Viet Minh, nearly capturing Ho Chi Minh and General Giap but it soon recovered and began ambushing the three French columns. The operation was soon called off and the French forces withdrew to the lowlands. It was a tactical success, inflicting severe casualties on the Viet Minh but was strategically inconclusive, because it failed to capture the Viet Minh leadership or seriously to cripple its military forces.
After the outbreak hostilities on 19 December 1946, the French Union forces had made significant progress by capturing the cities of Haiphong, Hanoi, Lang Son, Cao Bang and most of the western and southern regions of Tonkin, which was the stronghold of the Viet Minh movement. The reasons for the fast advance were the superior firepower, naval and air support of the French forces. The main force of the Viet Minh was nearly surrounded by the French in the eastern part of Tonkin. There remained only a greater gap between the towns of Cao Bang in the north and Yên Bái in the south. During April 1947 Ho Chi Minh made a last attempt to achieve a ceasefire and to continue the independence negotiations with the French government from 1946. The French only demanded his surrender, because the position of the Vietnamese forces seemed to be desperate. On 26 April, Ho refused the French, offering: "In the French Union is no place for cowards. I would be one, if I would accept." During the spring and the summer, the French attacked the bases of the Viet Minh troops in Tonkin but could not bring them to battle; the Viet Minh returned when the French moved on.
The French supreme command in Indochina under General Jean-Étienne Valluy realized that the tactic of minor assaults to locate the headquarters of the Viet Minh would not lead to an end of the war. From their intelligence department, they received some information that the location of the headquarters of the Viet Minh was in the city Bac Kan. The French planned to capture Ho Chi Minh and the staff of the Viet Minh and destroy the main military force of the Viet Minh to gain a decisive victory over the Vietnamese independence movement.
Operation Léa began on 7 October, with the landing of 1,100 paratroopers at the city of Bac Kan. The paratroopers swiftly took control over the city but failed to capture Ho Chi Minh and the other Vietnamese leaders. Losing the opportunity to neutralize the Viet Minh headship, the French paratroopers found themselves fighting for survival as the Viet Minh counter-attacked and surrounded them.
Ten French battalions of French troops (about 15,000 men) had started moving at the same time from the city of Lang Son to Cao Bang in the north and then down through Nguyen Binh to Bac Kan, to cut off supplies to the Viet Minh from China. The second objective was to surround the Vietnamese forces and destroy them in battle. Delayed by bad roads, mines and ambushes, it took the French column until 13 October to reach the vicinity of Bac Kan, where the Viet Minh put up a strong resistance. The French broke through on 16 October and relieved the paratroops. A four battalion riverine force that was supposed to assault up the Clear and Gam rivers enountered so many delays that they played no useful part in the battle. The French were unable to destroy the Viet Minh forces and most of the 40,000 guerrillas escaped through gaps in the French lines, including Ho Chi Minh and his staff with General Vo Nguyen Giap. On 8 November, the operation was called off, the French claiming to have inflicted 9,000 casualties.
After failing to destroy the Viet Minh insurgency through knockout blows in Operation Léa and the later Operation Ceinture, the French supreme command changed tactics again. For financial and economic reasons, France was not able to send more troops to Indochina. The French began to establish outposts on the major roads (Route Coloniale 4 and Route Coloniale 3), to restrict the Viet Minh movement in north-east Tonkin but the Viet Minh was easily able to slip through the cordons and reinforce themselves from across the Chinese border. This would take the war from the stalemate into the first Viet Minh victories from 1949–1950.
- Summers, 1995, p. 48
- Herring & Fall 2005, pp. 28–31.
- Tucker, 1999, p. 55.
- Davidson, p. 50–54.
- Davidson, p. 49.
- Logevall, 2012, p. 203
- Davidson, Philip (1988). Vietnam at War: The History, 1946–1975. Novato, CA: Presidio Press. ISBN 978-0-89141-306-6.
- Herring, George C.; Fall, Bernard B. (2005). Street Without Joy: The French Debacle In Indochina. Stackpole Military History. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books. ISBN 978-0-8117-3236-9.
- Logevall, Fredrik (2012). Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam. Random House. ISBN 978-0-375-75647-4.
- Summers Jr., Harry (1995). Historical Atlas of the Vietnam War. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 978-0-395-72223-7.
- Tucker, Spencer C. (1999). Vietnam. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 978-0-8131-0966-4.