Wednesday, September 30, 2020, 13:27 (GMT+7)
Developments in military art in the 1950 Border Campaign

The Border Campaign in 1950 was the first large-scale offensive campaign launched by our military in the war of resistance against French colonialists, which annihilated a large number of enemy troops, led to the complete failure of the Revers’ plan, lifted the siege, extended and strengthened Viet Bac Revolutionary Base, and gained initiative on the Northern theatre of war. In addition, the Campaign aimed to liberate Vietnamese border areas with China, which laid foundations for Viet Nam to broaden relations and take advantage of support and aid of the international community for its war of resistance, especially those of the socialist countries. After 29 days of fierce fighting (from 16 September 1950 to 14 October 1950), our military and people won a massive victory, meeting the strategic requirements and ushering in a new period for the war of resistance against the French aggressors.

President Ho Chi Minh and VPA troops after the campaign (A file photo)

Victory of the Campaign affirmed the sound, sensibly leadership of the Party Central Committee and President Ho Chi Minh, and development of our military. It was the first time we had mobilised most of our regular force in a campaign. Victory of the Border Campaign also marked a significant breakthrough in military art in terms of strategic direction, operational art and tactics as follows:

First, as for strategic direction, in early 1950, the 5th year of the resistant war against the French colonialists, French expeditionary forces suffered heavy losses, were filled with terror and fearful of a long-running war, and so on. On realising that situation on the Indochina theatre was taking place in favour of us, especially after the building of some powerful mobile regular units (at regiment and brigade levels), the Party Central Committee, President Ho Chi Minh, and the General Military Party Committee decided to launch the Border Campaign. This created a favourable condition for us break the enemy siege of the revolutionary base, regain strategic initiative, and connect our rear with brother countries in order to take advantage of support and assistance of the international community. Initially, we mounted the 1st Le Hong Phong Campaign in the Northwest, but outcomes of the Campaign did not meet the objectives and requirements. It was within this context that we detected the advantages of the Northeast region. Consequently, the High Command decided to shift our strategic offensive direction from the Northwest to the Northeast in July 1950 and launched the 2nd Le Hong Phong Campaign (also known as the Border Campaign). This shift showed the creative thinking, ability to correctly assess the situation and seize opportunities of the Party Central Committee, President Ho Chi Minh, and the High Command.

The Northeast border area was the hottest theatre at that time. The enemy’s strength and weaponry were twice as much as those in the Northwest, which concentrated along the 4th Highway to turn this strategic route into a “strong line of defence.” Despite superiority in numbers and weapons, the enemy troops were deployed in an extended formation in the craggy forests and mountains. The locations of units were isolated and far from one another, thus making it difficult for them to reinforce units under attack. They had to employ movement and maneuver by land or air. This was the enemy’s most serious weakness we could exploit to shift our strategic offensive direction from the Northwest to the Northeast and change our  guerrilla warfare and maneuver warfare into large-scale operations using the tactics of “striking at one point to destroy the reinforcements.” This means we can strike at the point where the enemy feels the greatest difficulties, in order to draw his main force to come to the relief of the position by land or air, then, we send our main force to attack his reinforcements on the march.

Besides shifting our strategic offensive direction, the Party Central Committee set up the operation headquarters, which was composed of people with preeminent thinking and capability to command and control the Campaign. Accordingly, the Chief of High Command General Vo Nguyen Giap was appointed as Commander, Commissar, and Secretary of the Campaign Party Committee. Chief of the General Staff Hoang Van Thai was appointed as Chief of Staff of the Campaign. President Ho Chi Minh also went to the combat zone to direct and encourage our soldiers and conscript labourers to fight the enemy while quickly implementing decisions and directives of the Party Central Committee to ensure victory for ourselves.

Second, as for operational art, this was the first combined arms campaign mounted by our military to attack French forces’ powerful line of defence along the 41st Highway linking That Khe with Cao Bang (almost 100 km), thus we mobilised most units of the main force under management of the Ministry of National Defence, three battalions of the main force under management of Viet Bac Interregional Command, and armed forces of Cao Bang and Lang Son Provinces. Although Cao Bang and Dong Khe were the enemy’s complex of strong fortifications, these areas were particularly important and difficult to access. They were also far from command centre, thus making it difficult for the enemy’s supply and reinforcement. The Operations Command’s selection of Cao Bang-That Khe as the main operations area was a correct decision. Additionally, Cao Bang and Dong Khe linked Viet Nam with China via four routes, which facilitated the provision of supplies for the Campaign.

The Operations Command’s selection of Dong Khe as the opening fight was a prudent, scientific choice because we had time to make preparations to establish the certainty of victory. At first, the Operations Command chose to attack Cao Bang, and then leveraged the victory to attack Dong Khe and That Khe. Nevertheless, after conducting reconnaissance, we realised that the Town of Cao Bang was a rather strong complex of fortifications. If we had selected it to fight the opening battle, we would not have ensured victory. We might also win but must suffer great numbers of casualties. This would have an enormous influence on soldiers’ morale and subsequent battles. Furthermore, if we had attack Cao Bang, there would have been less chance for the enemy to send reinforcements. We would not have many opportunities to annihilate the enemy troops and transform the theatre. Meanwhile, Dong Khe was the least defended and vulnerable to attack. If Dong Khe was defeated, the enemy’s line of defence along the 4th Highway would be broken. Consequently, Cao Bang would be isolated, forcing the enemy to send reinforcements. This would offer us the best opportunities to annihilate the enemy troops. When the Operations Command decided to attack Dong Khe, they concentrated the overwhelming strength and firepower, and delegated some key cadres to directly command the battle to ensure victory. On deeply grasping the significance of the opening battle of the Campaign, our soldiers won a remarkable victory only after two days and took control of Dong Khe, which facilitated the annihilation of the enemy troops on the move.

After victory of the opening battle, the Operations Command quickly strengthened units to be prepared to engage the enemy reinforcements to maintain our initiative. Having grasped the enemy’s plan to reinforce Cao Bang by paratroops, launch a deception operation in Thai Nguyen to draw our forces to this area, and dispatch a mobile column of troops commanded by Lepage from That Khe to recapture Dong Khe and join the column of troops headed by Charton withdrawing from Cao Bang. Given their determination to prevent the meeting of these two columns of troops and closely follow operations guidelines, the Operations Command decided to concentrate strength and firepower on destroying Lepage’s unit, then engaged and annihilated Charton’s unit. Therefore, we captured the enemy’s Staff Department and destroy two columns of troops completely within five days.

Given our selection of Cao Bang – That Khe as the main combat zone and Dong Khe as the opening battle, the combat guidelines of attacking fortifications to destroy the reinforcements and concentration of forces and firepower, ability to transform posture, and leverage of initiative in preparation and conduct of the Campaign, we defeated French colonialists’ operations plan in the Northeast region and affirmed a significant development in operational art.

Third, regarding tactics, right at the onset of the Campaign, we identified ways of fighting (the assault of a fortified position and enemy troops on the march), and conduct of battles (tactics) in accordance with our soldiers’ competence and weaponry as well as command ability of cadres at all levels to ensure victory in each battle. The opening battle of Dong Khe was an attack at a fortified position and the first large-scale combined arms operation launched by our military since 1947. At this battle, we leveraged the concentration of forces, firepower, close coordination between the infantry and artillery; selected appropriate  points of attack; fought the enemy in the main direction; combined frontal attack with flanking attack to separate the enemy formation; combined offensive with strengthening and holding firm to seized areas. Besides, we overcame many limitations compared with the battles of An Chau, Ban Trai, and Pho Lu. This is a large attack at a fortified position. Outcomes of the battle demonstrated our military’s progress and significant development in fighting the enemy troops inside fortified trenches.

The key battle in Coc Xa, 477th Height was the most successful offensive maneuver of our military in the war of resistance against the French colonialists. We employed more than a brigade to attack the enemy in mountainous terrain within an area of nearly 60 square kilometres; separated and suppressed two mobile columns of the enemy to drive them into disadvantage before deploying our forces to encircle and step by step destroy the enemy troops, advancing towards complete annihilation. Thanks to thorough grasp of the enemy’s intention, we employed the 308th Brigade to take advantage of difficult terrain in Coc Xa to encircle, attack, and destroy Lepage’s unit. The 308th Brigade also collaborated with part of the 209th Regiment to engage and annihilate completely Charton’s unit at the 477th Height, stopping it from approaching Coc Xa. After 5 days of fierce fighting in Coc Xa and the 477th Height, given our tactics of offensive maneuver, we successfully accomplished the assigned tasks and destroyed two highly capable columns of the enemy. It was the opening battle but quite perfect in the tactics of offensive maneuver, a development in tactics at this period.

Victory of the 1950 Border Campaign was of strategic significance, which ushered in a new period of counteroffensive and offensive and affirmed a development in military art of Viet Nam in the war of resistance against the French aggressors. Victory of the Campaign remains intact and requires further research, application, and development in the war to safeguard the Homeland.

Senior Colonel Pham Duc Truong, Military History Institute

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