2nd World War - 1939/1945

The French Air Force in Indochina : In 1939, the French Air Force in Indochina (Cochinchine South Vietnam, Annam Center Vietnam; Tonkin North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) only had at its disposition 94 obsolete airplanes that could not have been capable of opposing an eventual Japanese aggression: Those airplanes were spread out between the strategic points of this immense territory and consisted of: 17 MS-406, 1 Potez 63/11, 6 Potez 542, 4 Farman 221, 60 Potez 25-TOE et 10 hydravions Loire-130.

Beginning in July of 1940,the Japanese presence in China triggered confrontations with the French Forces. The Langson affair, caused by the invasion of a Japanese battalion in theTonkin territory resulted in savage battles, and the French Air Force intervened all the way to Hainan Island.
In spite of a cease-fire signed on September 25th 1940, the Japanese troops landed in Haïphong the next day, supported by aerial bombardments. Soon after that, the Siamese Forces joined the German-Japan Axis, disregarding the Laotians and Cambodians territories and causing border incidents.
Against the one hundred or so French airplanes, Siam had 230 airplanes of various types and origins at its disposition, one hundred of those coming from France. The Farmans 221 transported 400 men in reinforcement to Ventiane (Laos). This sector received 18 airplanes (Potez-25s and Morane-406s). The Cambodian sector received 6 Morane-406s, 3 Potez-542s, and 9 Loire-130s.

From October 15 1940
on, as a result of minor clashes and bombing on Savannakhet, the French responded with nocturnal assaults. French fighters were more efficient, inflicting heavy damages to the enemy, and they also provided air support for the ground forces. But, Japan delivered modern aerial equipment to Siam, and Japanese pilots were likewise engaged in the fights.
During this conflict, the Farman-221s, and the Loire-130s bombers dropped more than 40 tons of bombs on enemy territory, and at the end of the hostilities, on January 28th 1941, France had only lost 3 airplanes (1 Farman and 2 MS-406s). After the negotiations with Japan, and the signing of the peace treaty, France had to relinquish some parts of Laos and Cambodia territory to Siam.

In December of 1941,
the Japanese were solidly implanted in Indochina when they started the war against the U.S.A. They imposed flight restrictions on the French Air Force in the Southern zone, and demanded the acquisition of Cat-Laï airfield. During 1942, 1943, and 1944, the airplanes began to show signs of fatigue. The Morane-406s had to be abandoned at the end of the summer of 1942. The plight got worse yet in 1943, with the lack of fuel and replacement parts. In March of 1945, only 24 Potez-25s, 1 Potez-542, 2 Potez-29s and 3 Loire-13Os remained.

On March 9th 1945,the Japanese began operations aimed at neutralizing the 60,000 men of the French Force present on the territory. In Saigon, Admiral Decoux, and the chiefs of the Army, Naval and Air forces were captured. Using the element of surprise, only the Potez-25s intervened, strafing the Japanese that were pursuing the French retreating towards China. On May 21st 1945, only some missed-matched elements of the French forces remained in Laos and Annam, conducting guerilla warfare operations against the Japanese. Only part of the Indochina army reached China where they got rearmed by the Americans, benefiting from the lend-lease agreement.

Indochina War - 1945/1954

On August 15th 1945,following the atomic bombings, Japan capitulated, signed the armistice, and was committed to maintain order in Indochina until the allied troops arrived. The territory was already divided by the 36° parallel: The South zone was assigned to Britain and Indian forces, and the North zone was assigned to Chinese forces. The Japanese took advantage of this short interim to contact the Vietnamese nationalists (Ho-Chi-Min and Giap), raising them to governmental power in Hanoi on August 15th 1945, providing them arms, and educating their cadres. At the beginning of September, a violent xenophobic blaze started, marked by the massacre of many French residents. Then, the allied forces "authorized" the French to re-establish order on Indochina.

On September 1945,some Britain and French forces arriving by air landed in Saigon. Some elements from the 2nd D.B (2nd Armored Division) arrived at the beginning of October and cleaned up the Saigon suburbs in15 days. Little by little, the first aerial units was formed under Colonel Faye's command. The G.M.E.O. (Extreme Orient Marching Group) included Douglas C-47 Dakotas, 6 of them at first, and then 12 more from India. Naval aviation put in place the 8th Flotilla with 4 Consolidated PBY Catalinas, a few light seaplanes taken from the Japanese, and 1 Loire-130 that had been salvaged.

In November, the personnel of the 1st Fighter Wing, (Squadron I/7 and II/7) arrived in Saigon, but without airplanes. Later on, those Groups received Spitfires Mk-VIII, and then Mk-IX lent by Britain. They also reclaimed a few Japanese fighters Nakajima Ki-43 "Oscar" but those airplanes were not up to operational standards.
One section of single and twin-engine liaison airplanes taken from the Japanese completed this Air Force. It was used for to clean up the Mekong Delta, as well as to re-establish liaison with Cambodia, Laos, and to re-conquer South Annam to support the ground troops.
Dakotas and Catalinas were summarily rigged to fly bombing missions, inaugurating what would further develop during the 9 years of the conflict. (Junkers Ju-52s, Siebels and Martinets would also be summarily rigged as bombers).

In March of 1946, at the end of the first operational period, the French Air Force included one Fighter Wing consisting of 2 Groups of Spitfires Mk-IX, one Group of 23 Dakotas and one group of 18 Ju-52s that had recently arrived.
The airplanes of the first period: Dakota-C47, Junkers-52, Spitfire MkIX, Siebel-NC701, Martinet-NC702, Morane-500, Catalina-PBY.

On January 29th 1946, as per the Tchoung-King treaty, the Chinese authorized the French to replace their troops in Tonkin where HoChiMinh's government was established, and on the 6th of March, he agreed to the presence of 15,000 French militaries, but he limited the strength of the garrisons. Indeed, the Vietnamese felt a secular hatred towards their hereditary Chinese enemies, so they chose the lesser of the two evils!
In mid March
, General Leclerc entered Haïphong, but the Vietminh feeling that it would stop its march towards independence, was deploying its network in the entire Indochina peninsula. Some assaults began in several sectors: Haïphong and Langson in the North, NhaTrang and Moïs Plateaus in the Center, all the way to Laos. Dakotas, Ju-52s and Spitfires were engaged in difficult conditions, and over too great distances. During this period, the Morane-500 (a copy of the FieselerFi-56 Storch) also made its appearance for active duty. Equipping the Liaison Section, it would provide great services during the entire Indochina war: Observation, Liaison, Evacuations, etc.

In August of 1946, the 1st Fighter Wing was relieved by the I/2 "Cigognes" and the III/2 "Alsace" Squadrons. In the beginning of 1947, 16 De Havilland DH-98s Mosquitos from the Squadron I/3 "Corse" also arrived in Saigon, but those airplanes, which were made of wood, suffered from the tropical climate. In March of 1947, the Nam-Dinh garrison was encircled and 10 Dakotas along with 8 Ju-52s dropped 350 Airborne troops to break the enemy's encirclement, inaugurating a new tactic impossible to execute with ground troops

By the end of 1947, after the relief of the 2nd Fighter Wing by the 4th at the end of November, the French Air Force was positioned as follows: In Tonkin (North), the Transport Group "Tonkin", equipped with Ju-52s, and one Squadron of 8 Spitfires Mk-IX from the "Lafayette" Group. In Annam (Center), 12 Spitfires from the "Lafayette" and "Dauphiné" Groups. In Cochinchine (South), 12 Spitfires from the "Dauphiné" Group and the Transport Groups I/64 "Bearn" and 2/64 "Anjou". In 1948, the situation had somewhat improved. The Group "Tonkin" left definitively, and the Group "Lafayette" was relieved by the Fighter Group I/3 "Navarre". Three liaison sections were available, equipped with Martinet NC-702s, Siebel NC-701s, Morane-500s, and Nord-1000s.
The use of the fighter-bomber strategy as substitute for the artillery produced results. The Vietminh was steadily harassed, but they also learned the art of camouflage and dispersion.
Their antiaircraft defense was also organized.
During the operation on Tan-Nguyen in May of 1949, 25 airplanes were hit, including 1 Ju-52 and 2 Spitfires, which crashed to the ground.

In July of 1949, reinforcements were on their way. The 5th Fighter Wing (Groups I/5 "Vendee" and II/5 "Ile de France" equipped with Bell Kingcobra P-63s moved from Sidi-Ahmed Tunisia by steamship to Saigon/Tan-Son-Nhut, then on to Hanoi in November. (I was personally in the staff aboard the S.S. Champollion; a 22 days crossing!) . The transport section was also reinforced with the arrival of 20 Ju-52s "Toucans" from the Group II/62 "Franche-Comté". The fighter Group "Normandie-Niemen" and their P-63 Kingcobras also arrived in November. In the 4th quarter of 1949, the French Air Force saw considerable action. Despite the bad weather, they tried to stop the Vietminh attack in Tonkin where many positions were encircled (regions of Laï-Chau, Cao-Bang, Lao-Caï and Lang-Son).

At the beginning of 1950,
the Chinese communists, victorious against Chang-Kai-Check were positioned on the Tonkin's frontiers, and were providing their logistic aid to the Vietminh. The Indochina peninsula appeared as the last rampart against the communist expansion in Asia. Until then, the USA that had been reluctant to bring their support to "colonialist" France began to revise their position.
In March, General Hartmann, Commanding officer of the French Air Force in Indochina informed the American Military Mission about his project to install a "Battle Air Corp" composed of 4 Jet Fighter Groups, 2 Bomber Groups, and 4 Transport Groups. The jet being inadequate for this type of local war, they would opt for the Grumann-F6F "Hellcat", and F8F "Bearcat". The twin engine bomber Douglas B-26 (or A-26) "Invader" would also be chosen. A reform in commandment was also put in effect with the creation of three GATAC (Aerial Tactical Groups): North-Gatac in Hanoi, Center-Gatac in Hué and South-Gatac in Saigon/TanSonNhut.

Planes of 2nd Period : Bell P63 Kingcobra ; Grumann F6F Hellcat et F8F Bearcat ; Douglas B26 Invader ; Consolidated PBY4 Privateer .

At the end of October 1950, the first Hellcats arrived aboard the aircraft carrier "Dixmude" and were immediately engaged in combat. General Delattre de Tassigny's appointment as head of the Expeditionary Corps in the Far East seemed to result in a reversal of the situation. Alas, that would only be temporary.

In January of 1951,
the Groups I/5 and II/5 came back to the French Metropolis. Large forces were involved in heavy fighting in the Vinh-Yen sector (about 30 kilometers northwest of Hanoi). The fate of Tonkin hanged in the balance.
Participating in the fight were: the Fighter Groups III/6 "Roussillon" and I/9 "Limousin", providing about forty Kingcobras, 8 Hellcats lent from the group II/6 "Normandie Niemen" and I/6 "Corse". Junkers Ju-52s and Dakotas were provided by the transport Groups. The liaison groups also provided 24 Morane-500s and Siebels. Napalm was used the first time.
During the month of January 1700 fighter sorties were flown instead of the usual 500 to 700 in normal times. Hanoi was protected, and most of the Air Force (114 airplanes from the 147 in service) went under the command of Gatac-North. Only one fighter Group, the II/6 equipped with Hellcats, had to ensure the security in South Vietnam and Annam.
At long last, we had at our disposal for the first time a "real" Bombing Group, composed of B-26 Invaders, replacing the aircraft that were not designed for this type of missions (Dakotas and Ju-52s). Assigned to Bomber Group I/19 "Gascogne", the B-26s were engaged in battle as soon as they were received, as well as the Grumman "Bearcats" in the Mao-Khe battle, to protect Haiphong.

The "Aéronavale" (French naval aviation) during this time period already had at its disposal the four-engine bomber Consolidated-PBY4 Privateer. It was reinforced in September with the dive-bomber Curtiss SB2C "Helldiver" along with Grumman F6F "Hellcats" boarded on the aircraft carrier "Arromanches". All those airplanes participated in battles, alongside the Air Force airplanes until the Dien Bien Phu outcome.

On April 28th 1951, General Hartemann perished in a B-26 crash in the Cao-Bang territory. He was replaced by General Chassin. From May 28th to June 8th, the Air Force, using a strength of 48 Bearcats, 23 Kingcobras, 8 Invaders, 11 Dakotas, and 29 Ju-52s, participated to the "Day" battle, stopping a new Vietminh offensive. In November 1951, the high command decided to abandon a rather defensive tactic, adopting instead the attack of the Vietminh on his territory. The bulk of the Air Forces were again concentrated in Tonkin to support General Delattre's operation for the attacks on Cho-Bo and Hoa-Binh. Although the battles got a certain success in the beginning, in December of 1951 the Vietminh strengthened its forces and forced the French ground forces to retreat towards the Red River delta, under the protection of the Air Force and Naval Aviation. With the enemy anti-aircraft becoming increasingly more effective, the fighters were needed to escort the Dakotas and Ju-52s. Seeing the decisive role that aviation could play, General Chassin asked (but in vain), for a reinforcement of 10,000 Airmen. The fatigue of the personnel and airplanes was becoming disturbing.

At the end of August 1952, the Air Force had 300 aircraft at its disposal, including 60 for liaison missions. On October 10th, the Vietminh attacked the Nghia-Lo post, and despite the intervention of 100 fighters and 20 bombers, the post capitulated. During those combats, the French used a new tactic consisting of lighting the grounds at night, intending to nullify the advantages of darkness for the enemy; this operation was codename "Luciole"(firefly).
General Navarre succeeded General Delattre who was repatriated.

In April of 1953,
The Vietminh began a general offensive in Laos. A new command was created: Gatac-Laos, grouping fighters and bombers aircraft requisitioned from various units. Those aircraft flew 400 hours in 270 sorties.
In July of that year, operation "Hirondelle"(swallow) was put in effect intending to destroy the material provided by China which was stored in grottos near Langson. 56 Bearcats, 10 B-26s, as well as Morane-500s, and Helicopters participated in this operation. 58 Dakotas dropped 3 paratroopers battalions.
In August, 3 Transport Groups (II/62, I/64 and II/64) flying Dakotas, proceeded to the evacuation of 4,750 military personnel from Na-San Base

Dien-Bien-Phu, the dramatic epilogue

In November 1953, the Dien-Bien-Phu site, a basin near the Laos frontier, was chosen in an attempt to block the Ho-Chi-Minh trail, which was used for the transport of the material coming from China. It was also hoped, (and without any doubts), that the bulk of the enemy forces would be contained within this area, and that they could be neutralized, or even annihilated: That was the "Castor" (beaver) Operation. It was supported with B-26s, Privateers, and Hellcats from the Arromanches Aircraft Carrier, and several paratrooper battalions grabbed the village. A runway was built, and on November 24th, the first Dakotas landed.
At the beginning of 1954, the combats sprayed to the main part of the Indochina territory.
On March 13th 1954,
while the Air Force Units were being requested from the 15 Airfields where they were based, the Vietminh Divisions attacked the fortified camp in DienBienPhu. Three days latter, they shelled the airfield, destroying 6 Bearcats, 5 Moranes, and 2 helicopters. A counterattack could only come from outside units based more than 300 kilometers away. All forces in the North were mobilized for this counterattack, namely: 2 Fighter Groups flying Bearcats, 2 Bomber Groups flying B-26s, and Navy airplanes: Hellcats, Helldivers and Privateers. The Transport Groups provided one hundred Dakotas and 24 Fairchild C-119Cs "Boxcars" arrived in reinforcement from the USA.

A sort of aerial "bridge" between the entrenched camp and the outside world was established. On request from the ground forces Command, the Air Force dropped several tons of napalm, and anti-personnel bombs. But, the enemy anti-aircraft sites equipped with Russian 37 millimeters, and twin barrels 12.7 millimeters canons, inflicted losses to the Air Force.
Many airplanes were shot down, or returned riddled with shrapnel. In spite of reinforcements provided by the USA using B-26s and Fairchild C-119s, the aerial-bridge did not prevent General Giap's troops to capture the village of Dien-Bien-Phu on May 8th 1954.
The Air Force and Naval aviation lost 62 aircraft in this combat. The drama would continue with the painful exodus of the military prisoners. This defeat signaled the end of the French presence in Indochina.
On July 27th, the Geneva negotiations ended with an armistice. Vietnam was divided up into two zones: North and South, with clauses imposing autonomy and voting rights, which would never be observed, neither in the North, nor in the South. France would only maintain a few military advisors in the Southern zone. As for the Air Force, it would go on to train technical and flying personnel (I was part of this program from March 1955 to March 1956, in Nha-Trang). A few pilots were also employed by the Armistice Control Commission, equipped with De Havilland DHC2 "Beaver" airplanes.

Those pages were written using references from the MACH1 Encyclopedia, 1980 Atlas Editions for certain text excerpts, and a few pictures.
The Aviation Chronicles was also used.
I was personally involved twice in this sad "adventure" (as are all wars), and I have also added to this story, my memories, and personal pictures.
I am always receptive to the reader's, comments, or corrections, regarding the content of those pages.

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