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Commanding strategic combat operations in Viet Bac Campaign - Autumn and Winter 1947

Late 1947, one year after National Resistance Day, our people and military won a stunning victory over the French in Viet Bac campaign, destroyed their strategic plan of “rapid fighting for rapid victory”. French forces had to engage in prolonged combat, getting bogged down and eventually being defeated. This was the first strategic victory of our armed forces, giving us invaluable lessons, with the work of commanding strategic combat mission as among the most important ones.

A workshop on Viet Bac Campaign

Plotting to capture our supreme leadership, eliminate our main forces, destroy resistance bases, terrorize and suppress the defiant spirit of Vietnamese people, early October, 1947, the enemy mobilized over 12,000 well-equipped troops and launched a major offensive to Viet Bac. This was a strategic move of the enemy and seen as their greatest effort at that time. The plan’s goal was by implementing “rapid fighting for rapid victory” strategy, they would conclude the war in 3 weeks as Raoul Salan – Commander of French forces in North Indochina, author of “Viet Bac offensive plan” – calculated.

After fully grasping the enemy intentions, the Party Central Committee and President Ho Chi Minh issued guidelines for a comprehensive preparation, shaping a people’s warfare scenario, maintaining readiness to defeat the enemy’s upcoming major offensive. Most notably, the French offensive met with our counteroffensive operations across the entire Viet Bac battlefield directed by the Politburo and the Party Central Committee  as our military and people managed to achieve a lot of significant victories, protect resistance bases and preserve the main forces. Strategically speaking, this was a success in both military and political aspects because we were able to completely defeat the French’s “rapid fighting for rapid victory” strategy, force them to take a passive stance and endure a prolonged war, altering the conflict into an all-out resistance with the participation of the entire nation in the long run as the Party leadership planned. This victory provided us with invaluable lessons in military operations, especially in commanding strategic combat missions, which were reflected in the following principles:

1. Fully grasp the situation, closely direct preparation work for the readiness in responding to the enemy’s major offensives. In summer – autumn 1947, based on various operations of the enemy, including mustering more troops in the North, increasing aerial reconnaissance activities and paratrooper training, the Party Central Committee and the General Command had made relatively accurate predictions about the enemy’s strategy. On May 19th, 1947, the Standing Board of the Party Central Committee issued a directive on preparation for a winter campaign, expressing that “all necessary preparations must be made to respond to enemy’s breakthrough spearheads, wide flanking maneuvers or airborne landings behind our lines”. This directive was extremely important in our preparation phase for the upcoming major confrontation. The National Military Conference in September 1947 concluded that we must defeat the enemy offensives at all cost, firmly control our troops, preserve the main force, seek to destroy enemy units separately, and protect our bases. These were the main points of our strategy. Despite being general, they were the basic principles for military zones and regional leadership to instruct preparation in responding to the enemy’s moves. Notably, this was the first time the General Command identified the exact areas of operation and the interrelationship between our main forces and local forces. According to its instruction, all military zones must launch extensive guerilla operations and actively seek to engage and destroy the enemy forces in mobile skirmishes, proactively and assertively mount attacks at suitable scales, avoid static frontal defence and holding unnecessary positions. To that end, with great strategic vision and a scientific analysis, the Party Central Committee had made precise assessments, especially on the enemy’s situation and proposed an appropriate strategy for the upcoming operations. Therefore, despite the fact that the enemy had managed to launch a large-scale and surprising offensive to Viet Bac, they were trapped in our unique people warfare scenario, bogged down and eventually defeated. Nowadays, many historians and military experts agree that the brilliant strategic guidance of our Party in the preparation phase had greatly contributed to the victory of Viet Bac Campaign in autumn – winter 1947.

2. Flexibly and creatively adjust combat deployment and scenario in a timely manner to defeat the enemy’s pincer forces separately to achieve victory. In Viet Bac Campaign 1947,  despite our prediction that the French Command would launch an attack to Viet Bac, we were not able to make correct assumption on their offensive capabilities and manners; therefore, our earlier preparation was insufficient, which led to passive and uncoordinated initial responses. Besides, in several skirmishes against the enemy’s airborne landings in Bac Can, our troops had shown weaknesses in command, organization, equipment and fighting capabilities, especially in engagements against enemy mechanized infantry and dug-in paratroopers. Hence, with a comprehension of the enemy offensive plan, the General Command opportunely made creative and proactive adjustments in combat deployment and scenario to ensure the steadiness and continuality for our operations. Accordingly, our forces were reorganized and deployed to 3 main fronts: Lo River – Route 2 Front, Bac Can – Route 3 Front and Cao Bang – Route 4 Front to exploit the enemy’s fatal weaknesses caused by their stretched supply line and operation far away from main bases and over rough terrains. On each front, our units were organized to ensure the availability of on-site and mobile forces, thus able to actively engage the enemy across the entire battlefield and focus on main objectives. These were timely, correct and very creative adjustments in accordance with the condition of the battlefield, our combat capabilities and the balance of power between the two sides. As a result, the French force could not fully employ their advantages (superior number, better weaponry and equipment) while we were able to exploit our strong points (close quarters combat, minor skirmishes, surprise attacks) to undermine and eventually defeat the enemy forces separately. Notably, in strategic guidance, the General Command laid stress on creating a flexible and favorable operational scenario for our forces. Consequently, our units were able to weaken and eliminate the enemy forces in wide areas, both on land and along rivers. In addition, the scenario enabled us to not only halt enemy’s spearheads and defeat their encirclement plan, but also pursue retreating enemy units. Developments of the campaign demonstrated that the adjustments made by the General Command had provided great advantages for our resistance forces and fundamentally shifted the balance of power in our favor by creating the element of surprise and exploiting enemy’s fatal weaknesses. Hence, our units were able to achieve high combat performance and took full advantage of the contradiction between the need for concentrating forces to employ breakthrough and encirclement tactics and the inevitable dispersion of units to protect stretched supply lines in the French offensive plan.

As a result, despite initially being surprised by the enemy daring attacks, our Party leadership, President Ho Chi Minh and the General Command were able to issue timely instructions to address early shortcomings and reorganize our forces to alter the balance of power in the battlefield and create the most favorable scenario possible for the resistance force to defeat the enemy.

3. Instruct units to employ proactive and creative tactics to decisively defeat the enemy’s large-scale offensive. After the French Command launched the offensive to Viet Bac, the Standing Board of the Party Central Committee suggested that their combat capacity was insufficient, they might have been overwhelming at the early stage but their formation would likely be dispersed later, and this was a great opportunity for us to engage them while their units had to operate away from fortified bases. Based on attentive assessments, the General Command instructed resistance zones to initiate extensive guerilla warfare activities, launch minor skirmishes along the French formation to weaken their offensive, hold them in place, undermine their fighting spirit and force them to disperse their units. At the same time, we reorganized our forces, closely combined on-site regular units and guerilla forces with mobile battalions to initiate concentrated engagements, and adopted  the primary tactic of small-scale ambush against the enemy’s mobile minor units. As a result, we were able to fully exploit the enemy’s fundamental weaknesses exposed when they had to operate away from fortified position without fire support, especially artillery, to destroy their elements separately and gradually neutralize and eventually eliminate their pincer forces. This creative tactic were widely employed across Viet Bac battlefield against the enemy’s ground, river and airborne forces, allowing us to achieve high combat performance. This tactic proved to be very effective in many engagements, for example: during the artillery ambush strike on Lo River (October 23, 1947), our troops sunk 2 French ships and damaged other two vessels; or in Bong Lau Pass ambush on Route 4 (October 30, 1947); an entire 30-vehicle French convoy (including armored vehicle) was annihilated; a lot of weapons and equipment were seized by our units; Route 4 became a “hell highway” for the French. Not only setting ambushes, our units also took the initiative to launch rapid assaults to completely destroy enemy units, for example: on November 29, 1947, Battalion 102 wiped out an entire reinforcing company in Luc Gia, or on December 1, 1947, two platoons of Regiment 174 eliminated over 100 French troops at Ong Gia vendor (Thai Nguyen). These extensive combat operations allowed Route 3 Front to simultaneously engage in fighting, evacuate central offices, depots and workshops, instruct civilians to abandon their home, and attack the enemy in the flank and in the rear, inflicting heavy casualties to their units. We mainly engaged the French forces at company and battalion levels, also properly combined infantry combat on land with artillery strikes against riverborne targets, prioritized small enemy units while they were on the move or temporarily stopped. As a result, the enemy offensive gradually felt apart, they were slowed down and unable to find our command elements and regular units and suffered heavy casualties. This creative strategy, which were fully employed by the General Command led to an impressive combat performance and directly contributed to the complete failure of the “all-in” strategy planned by General Jean Etienne Valluy, commander of French forces in Indochina.

The victory in Viet Bac Campaign, autumn – winter 1947 was a brilliant milestone in our history. The campaign provided us with invaluable and fundamental lessons for further successes in later campaigns. After 70 years, the importance of this decisive victory remains intact in the cause of national defence in general and the evolution of our military strategy in particular.

Snr.Col. Nguyen Xuan Dai, PhD, Vietnam Military History Institution

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