Indochine: The Kindling for Vietnam (Part 2)

Last week, I discussed the origins of the French presence in Southeast Asia and how their imperial attitude led them to wars with Chinese and Vietnamese troops throughout the 19th century. After the heavy losses, France was determined to hold onto their newly-captured land. With Chinese influence gone, the Vietnamese were on their own in achieving autonomy from their French rulers. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s recent miniseries on the Vietnam War explores the US in its longest war overseas, but the French presence is still very important to understand.

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French troops with an artillery piece.

After the so-called “Pacification of Tonkin,” the French officially established the colony of Indochina on October 17th, 1887. The colony encompassed all of modern-day Vietnam and Cambodia which had already been a French protectorate. By 1893, the French were at war again with Indochina’s neighbours, Siam. Siam, modern day Thailand, had been provoked by the French who had demanded control of Laos. When Frenchmen were thrown out of Siam, the French sent troops into Laos. A Frenchman in charge of a Vietnamese expedition into Laos was killed, and the French became outraged, sending in more troops to the area. The French navy bombarded the Siamese fort at Paknam, opening a route straight to Bangkok. Siam gave Laos to France to avoid destruction and the war quickly finished.

The French managed to capture more regions of Siam in 1904, but were forced to return them in 1907 due to pressure from the British in nearby Burma. As years dragged on, more anti-French sentiment grew in the area, especially in Indochina itself. On February 10, 1930, members of the Vietnamese Workers Party and rebellious members of the tirailleurs indochinois attacked French officers at Yen Bai. Troops quickly repelled the rebels and ended the uprising, but the effects of Vietnamese freedom movements were being felt. The Second World War erupted in 1939 and dragged France into a major conflict in Europe against Germany, one which quickly turned into a nightmare for them.

With pressure on France at home, Indochina was vulnerable. The first attack came from Ho Chi Minh, a Communist born in Vietnam who had recently spent time in China and the USSR. Minh created the Viet Minh, a Vietnamese independence group hich would fight any foreigners that were in Vietnam. Secondly, Laos was attacked by Thailand (Siam had changed its name in 1939) in 1940. Thirdly, Japan began to sweep through Asia claiming more and more land for its empire. France’s government fell and the establishment of Vichy France occurred. France allowed for Japanese access to Tonkin so they could better access China, but threats from the US convinced the Japanese to move to Malaya and leave Indochina relatively alone.

Thailand’s army outnumbered and outgunned the French who had most of their troops back home to hold against Germany. Constant attacks by the Thai Air Force put the French under pressure to react. Laos fell with one massive Thai assault but a rally in Cambodia helped the French establish a counterattack. Though unsuccessful, the counterattack shocked the Thais and eventually the Japanese arrived to bail out the French. When France was later liberated, Japan decided to control all of Indochina until their surrender in 1945. Japan gave all their military supplies to the Viet Minh in hopes they would eventually remove the French from the region.

The First Indochina War began in 1946 at Haiphong when Viet Minh members clashed with French troops. The troops had landed as a part of the campaign to make Indochina part of France officially. The French navy opened fire on the port of Haiphong and many civilians were killed. The two sides declared a cease-fire but war again flared up in Hanoi as French troops captured the city and forced Ho Chi Minh to flee.

The Viet Minh’s General, Vo Nguyen Giap, was originally a history teacher but was appointed their commander. Avoiding a head-on attack on the French, Giap favoured guerilla tactics to outwit and outmanouvre French troops. The war continued this way for years as the French desperately tried to make some kind of breakthrough politically or militarily. In 1950, Ho Chi Minh’s government was recognized by China and the USSR and they pledged their support. The Korean War broke out the same year, pulling the US into the region as they quickly stated their anger with a new communist threat in the area. Dong Khe fell in September, prompting the French to send massive amounts of Foreign Legionnaires to the area. At Vinh Yen, the French got their wish as they massacred the attacking Viet Minh troops in a head on assault- precisely what Giap was trying to avoid. Mao Khe and Day River also ended in disaster for Giap as his troops suffered around 24,000 casualties in 1951.

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Vo Nguyen Giap

The French built up small areas where they could lure Viet Minh troops into attacking them in hopes they could cause havoc akin to that in 1951. The “hedgehog” tactics did not help them much, as Giap captured French positions north of Hanoi. Operation Lorraine was executed in 1952 to recapture these positions but it proved ineffective. The hopes of the French were waning as Laos began to quickly fall into Viet Minh hands. French troops were moved to Dien Bien Phu and by 1954, Giap saw his opportunity to strike.

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French Paratroopers landing in Vietnam

Dien Bien Phu is very mountainous and slopes down into a fertile valley. Vo Nguyen Giap surrounded the base with his army and on March 13, the battle began with a bombardment of outpost “Beatrice.” The French commander, Christian de Castries, named the posts after various lovers. His 14,000 French soldiers were outnumbered by Giap’s 65,000 Vietnamese troops. “Beatrice” was captured and French attacks were repulsed. “Gabrielle” was taken the next day as did “Anne-Marie.” The French were pushed closer and closer together, relying on troop reinforcements and supplies from air. “Elaine” and “Dominique” were captured on March 30th after bloody assaults from both sides. A French attack at “Elaine” did not surmount to anything, nor did breakout attempts at “Huguette.” With the situation dire, the French chose to fight to the last instead of surrender, but many, including Castries, chose to flee to Laos. Over 11,000 French troops were captured.

The war finished with the 1954 Geneva Conference, separating Vietnam into the Communist North and Republican South. To learn more on Vietnam, feel free to watch Burns’ excellent series on PBS.

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Defending the Gates: Vasily Zaitsev

The 2001 Movie Enemy at the Gates brought a Russian sniper into the limelight once again- Vasily Zaitsev. Centered around the 1942 Battle of Stalingrad, Zaitsev, played by Jude Law, dukes it out with German sniper Erwin Konig. While the movie is not entirely realistic, the two really did exist. So who was Vasily Zaitsev and why is he so important?

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Vasily Zaitsev

Born in Yeleninka, a small town about an hour away from Magnitogorsk, Vasily Gergorovich Zaitsev was a natural hunter. His peasant origins made him an easy target for the Soviet military, who traditionally drew its forces from the massive peasant population. Zaitsev traveled to Magnitogorsk to study at a technical school. Eventually, he enlisted in the Russian Navy and became a bookkeeper in the Far East Fleet.

Vasily Zaitsev volunteered to join the 284th Rifle Division in the Soviet Army. The Division recruited most of its troops from Siberia and Eastern Russia in order to transfer more experienced troops from the quiet Manchurian Front to the German Invasion. Zaitsev’s sharpshooting ability was quickly noted, and he was trained as a sniper. He relied on a simple 1891 Mosin-Nagant Rifle, a veteran of the First World War. The Russian is most revered for his actions at the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942, in which he killed 225 soldiers & officers as well as 11 snipers. Zaitsev’s heroics made him a morale boost for the Soviets and a threat to the Germans. When Erwin Konig, a renowned German sniper, was sent to deal with him, Zaitsev managed to kill him on Mamaev Hill. Working with Nikolai Kulikov, the sniper developed his own tactics and sniper school during the battle. Firstly, Zaitsev never fired from the same spot. Movement was key in order to prevent any enemies from locking onto a particular position. “Sixes” was another of Zaitsev’s tactics. Three teams of 2 men would be positioned in order to cover a large area to maximize sight and damage. Zaitsev trained other snipers such as Tania Chernova, who he shared a relationship with.

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Zaitsev’s Mosin-Nagant Rifle

In January 1943, Zaitsev was hit by a mortar round and nearly blinded. He was immediately taken to a hospital where he slowly recovered. On February 22, he was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union. Zaitsev returned to combat later in the war, ending it in 1945 as a captain. Chernova thought Zaitsev was dead until 1969, when she finally learned he was alive and married.

Vasily Zaitsev is immortalized in William Craig’s book, Enemy at the Gates, and in the 2001 film of the same name as well as War of the Rats by David L. Robbins. Zaitsev died in December 1991, and was initially buried in Kiev before being moved to Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad). He was buried with full military honours.

Gebirgsjäger: The Alpine Warriors of the German Army

The Gebirgsjäger were the alpine troops of the German army during the Second World War, serving in many regions throughout the war. Using pack animals, these elite troops of the German army were tasked to defending and attacking mountainous areas where many regular troops would be unable to fight in. After the Anschluss, the German annexation of Austria, the Gebirgsjäger were formed, inspired by the Tyrolean Jägers of the Austro-Hungarian Army in the First World War.

The Gebirgsjäger wore a patch with an edelweiss depicted.The edelweiss is a flower found normally in alpine conditions and high altitudes. They wore the regular feldgrau uniform, but with hiking boots, and sometimes skis or snowshoes. They also wore a Bergmutze, similar to the cap of Austrian troops in the First World War. The cap could be buttoned under the chin to provide warmth in freezing temperatures. As well as their specific uniform, Gebirgsjäger carried a special carbine called the G33/40, produced in Czechoslovakia. The steel plate at the bottom was used to crunch into ice to give a soldier a stabilizer while scaling rocks and mountains. A small number were produced, but they were perfect for mountain warfare. Many Gebirgsjäger used Russian weapons because they were better designed for cold weather.

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Gebirgsjäger in the Russian mountains

With the German Blitzkrieg into Poland and Norway, many Gebirgsjäger were placed in Army Group South. The Blitzkrieg smashed through Poland towards Russia, and by 1941, Operation Barbarossa was in full swing. The Gebirgsjager fought through the mountainous country of Ukraine. The 1st Mountain Division managed to capture the city of Lviv (then Lvov). They crashed through the Stalin Line and into the Caucasus. The Gebirgsjäger lifted a German flag on top of Mount Elbrus. The Gebirgsjäger also fought ferociously in Hungary as well as Northern Greece.

In 1942, Operation Edelweiss was launched in an attempt to capture oil fields in the Caucasus. Spearheaded by Gebirgsjäger units, the Germans swept through Baku and along the Volga River. The Gebirgsjäger assaulted the western slopes of Mt. Elbrus along with Romanian Mountain Troops. They were held by the Soviet rear guard, eventually capturing the mountains with some difficulty. They attempted to reach the coast near Sukhumi in order to outflank Soviet positions, but poor weather and stiff resistance held their advance. Over the operation, the Germans took some 10,000 casualties, but managed to squeeze their way towards Stalingrad.

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Gebirgsjäger cap badge

A recurring theme for mountain troops was heavy casualties with success. The inexhaustible number of Soviet troops managed to hold the alpine troops in battle, but the Gebirgsjäger deserve credit for their abilities and quality throughout the Second World War.

The Very Brief History of the Falklands War

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1982

25 March- Argentine Marines land in South Georgia
2 April- Argentines land in the Falklands
26 April- British regain South Georgia
28 April- Total Exclusion Zone
30 April- British task force arrives
2 May- General Belgrano sinks
4 May- HMS Sheffield sinks
14 May- Pebble Island
21 May- HMS Ardent sinks
28 May- Battle of Goose Green
30 May- Moore arrives
31 May- Top Malo House
11 June- Mt. Longdon
13 June- Tumbledown
14 June- Argentines surrender