In the 20th century, Vietnam was a part of French Indochina. The first French tanks arrived there in December of 1919, two platoons of light Renault FT-17s in Saigon and Hanoi. As these tanks were destined for prolonged tropical service, their wooden idlers were replaced with steel ones.
WWII began. In 1941, when France was already defeated, the Japanese knocked out the last of the colonial forces and Vietnam ended up in their hands. The new "masters" did not lead an easy life; they had to fight the Viet Minh, or League for Independence of Vietnam, led by the famous Ho Chi Ming. After Japanese defeat in WWII, the Viet Minh managed to liberate the majority of North Vietnam.
In the fall of 1945, the French returned to reclaim their colony. The Vietnamese already developed a taste for their newly won freedom and no longer wished to bend to former overseas colonists.
Seek the wind in the jungle
In the battle between the Vietnamese and the French, the latter seemed to have the advantage. They had plenty of vehicles: French Hotchkiss tanks, captured Ha-Go and Type 89s, Lend-Lease Chaffees and Shermans. Plus, APCs, SPGs, and amphibious cars, irreplaceable when fighting on rice paddies and swamps. Aside from mass production vehicles, there were also improvised ones. The French did not hesitate to mount armour on jeeps and trucks.
Tanks showed themselves well in battle against the Japanese, successfully crushing them from Burma to New Guinea. However, as American specialists reported, using them in French Indochina was a constant headache. For the Japanese, the jungle was foreign, their garrisons easy to isolate and crush with a superior force. The Vietnamese fought in greater numbers, and the jungle belonged to them. French and American regular units did not have this advantage.
As much as the French tried, they could almost never cut off the Viet Minh from its supplies. This is not surprising, considering that some operations required the movement of tanks equal to the distance between Seoul and Tokyo. One platoon of motorized infantry on APCs needed a lot more supplies than the same amount of Vietnamese soldiers on foot carrying four days worth of rice and weighing half as much as the average European.
The French did not bring a single tracked bulldozer to tear through the jungle. Regular civilian bulldozers were vulnerable to a sniper's bullet. While French armoured columns slogged through the few winding roads, the Vietnamese took shortcuts straight through the jungle. Frequently, they managed to overtake the French on foot. However, the Vietnamese "tail" had more than just porters. A single bicycle could carry up to 300 kilograms, plus Soviet trucks slowly started appearing, about 800 by the end of the war.
Neither tanks, nor amphibious cars, nor paratroopers helped the French surround and defeat the Viet Minh. As a rule, they were already gone or managed to slip through the encirclement. Some units sacrificed themselves to let others escape. While losing many more men than the French, Vietnam was slowly winning the war.
The French position became strategically nonviable in 1949, when the Chinese army reached the borders of Vietnam. Now, the Vietnamese could rest and train on Chinese territory. In 1953 the Korean War ended, allowing the USSR and China to devote their full attention to Vietnam and its struggle against colonial oppression.
China shared its trophies readily: 105 mm howitzers, recoilless guns, mortars and bazookas. The USSR was no slouch either, even sending rocket artillery. The Vietnamese learned to manufacture their own weapons, up to rockets and heavy mortars.
The French forces were scattered among hundreds of fronts. In the evening of December 9th, 1951 the garrison of the Tu-Vu fort, 300 Maroccans and 5 tanks, was attacked by a significant Viet Minh force. Theoretically, the French forces were well fortified and could fight the enemy. The problem was that they were separated by a river, which also complicated sending reinforcements.
After a 40 minute long artillery barrage, the Vietnamese attacked with cries of "Tien len!" (forward!). French tanks depressed their guns as low as they would go, meeting the attackers with fire and tracks. On their tiny strip of land next to a checkpoint, the tanks were like chained elephants. The Vietnamese, losing dozens of people, climbed on the tanks in an attempt to shove incendiary grenades into their barrels or fire through observation ports. In the end, the tanks were shot up at point blank range with bazookas. All crews died with their vehicles.
French convoys met mines and ambushes on the narrow roads. The Vietnamese hid in the grass which could reach a height of several meters. Armoured vehicles were knocked out with bazookas and petrol bombs, infantry was cut off with suppressing fire. Then, the attackers methodically destroyed all trapped trucks. In 1954, French Mobile Group 100 was defeated in such a way. Despite the heroism of the drivers that kept driving even after their trucks caught fire so that they didn't block the road, the group lost all of its artillery, 85% of its vehicles including armoured cars, and several hundred dead.
The finale of the war at Dien Bien Phu became its symbol. The French wanted to create a stronghold that could threaten surrounding territories. The idea was logical, but inflexible. As a result, the situation was reversed. The stronghold was vulnerable to heavy guns and rocket launchers hidden in caves. The same situation with previous strongholds repeated itself, but this time the Vietnamese had more men and the battlefield was even more remote.
The Vietnamese prepared thoroughly. They dug roads through mountains and jungles, and camouflaged themselves well. Any attempt to supply Dien Bien Phu by air was met with 37 mm AA gun fire. The French only had about 100 C-47 transport planes for all of Indochina, so any loss was a noticeable one. In any case, moving any useful amount of cargo with such a miserly amount of aircraft was impossible. A few light tanks and APCs made it to the stronghold, but there was no fuel for them. On May 7th, 1954, fort Isabelle the last point of resistance in Dien Bien Phu fell.
On July 21st, 1954, an agreement was signed in Geneva dictating the complete withdrawal of French forces from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The French reign in Indochina was over, but all was not calm. A new war would erupt in only a few years.
Original article available here.