PANO – The French army in Vietnam was plunged into a passive defense after suffering a heavy loss in the Border Operations in the autumn-winter season of 1950 and being raided by our militiamen in the Northern Delta. Against this backdrop, in the end of October 1951, the French Government sent General De Lattre back to Hanoi to lead the French colonial regime in Vietnam. On the return, the French General voiced: “It’s time [for the French army] to regain the active position in the battlefield and force Viet Minh to engage in combat in the place chosen by the French.”

Accordingly, he planned to attack Hoa Binh, a locality only 76km way from Hanoi, within the operation of French bombers. In strategic terms, Hoa Binh was a land-water communication hub, connecting Viet Bac, Viet Minh’s headquarters, to the Northern Delta and central Vietnam.

A French tank destroyed in Tu Vu Battle. Archived photo

On November 11, 1951, the French army opened a surprise attack on Ben market in an attempt to prevent our regular forces from moving to plain areas from Viet Bac. On November 14, 1951, 3 French battalions parachuted into Hoa Binh town. On the afternoon of November 15, 1951, De Lattre chaired a press conference in Hanoi, announcing an early victory in Hoa Binh, and held that attacking Hoa Binh would require the adversary to engage in combat there and that the operations in Hoa Binh would have a worldwide influence.

After having occupied Hoa Binh, the French built a strong defensive base with the two main defensive lines along Road 6 and the Da River.

For our part, on November 15, 1951, General Vo Nguyen Giap called for a conference of the General Central Military Commission. The delegates considered that the French occupation of Hoa Binh town was a rare opportunity for our forces to decimate the enemy forces. They came to some conclusions: Hoa Binh was a large area so the enemy had to stretch out its force to defend it; the locality’s difficult terrain would make it difficult for the enemy to move between places; the enemy could not organize firm defense of the town in a short time; and it was a good opportunity for our forces to apply guerrilla warfare to destroy the enemy’s military strength.

On November 11, 1951, the Politburo at a conference passed the proposal of the General Central Military Commission to launch the Hoa Binh Campaign and noted: The army should make the best use of time to turn a small feat of arms into a significant victory.

Under the combat plan drawn up by the General Central Military Commission, the army was to focus its force on the enemy base of Tu Vu-Nui Che; at the same time, forces were to attack the enemy on their Da River defensive line to cut off the enemy’s reinforcement route and open our forces’ reinforcement corridor from the rear to the front, on the other hand.

The campaign was divided into 3 phases: In the first phase from December 10th, 1951 to 26th, regiment 88 was in charge of attacking the enemy base of Tu Vu-Nui Che. Although Tu Vu base was considered a well protected fortress and during the battle, the enemy fired some 5,000 cannon shells backing the base, it could not sustain for a long time and was finally wiped out by the troops of regiment 88 with high determination.

The second phase took place from December 27th to 31st. During the phase, our forces broke through the enemy defensive line along the Da River, conquering heights 400, 600, Da Chong and Che, and decimating enemy reinforcements maneuvering on road 87, in Ba Vi and My Khe. French troops then realized that they did not have enough forces to defend the Da River defensive line; as a result, they withdrew from the area but continued to maintain the grouping of bases in Dan The and La Phu, near Trung Ha, Son Tay. The enemy also planned to reinforce the defensive line along road 6 and Hoa Binh town. However, our forces did not give them a change to fortify their defensive lines and our forces opened fire, conducting operations in Hoa Binh town.

In the third phase from January 7th  1952 to February 25th, our forces continued to use the tactic “attacking enemy stations while denying enemy enforcements”, blocking French logistics and assets supply routes on land and by water in order to pin down and besiege the garrisoned enemy (the enemy had to deploy 6 battalions to protect road 6 only). In other directions, units of our force conducted thrusts into the enemy occupied areas in the hilly region and the Northern Delta, and at the same time our forces frequently assaulted French units there to distract and dispirit the enemy in the major front, which contributed to the success of the campaign. As a result, the French had to scatter all their troops over numerous localities, making them running out of reserves. In fact, the French High Command was confused and did not know how to respond to our forces while the cost of the war sharply increased, driving the France into confusions. Meanwhile, our General Central Military Commission considered that the French, willy-nilly, had to withdraw enemy forces from Hoa Binh. Exactly as the General Military Commission assessed the situation, on the afternoon of December, 22nd, 1952, 5 enemy battalions quietly left Hoa Binh town.

Tu Vu victory monument

But it was not the case even though the French spared 30,000 cannon shells to cover the withdrawal with a hope to minimize possible casualties. Our regular units intercepted and attacked the enemy on their way, causing casualties to them. What was more, local military units and militiamen raided the running enemy and eliminated a large number of enemy troops. In sum, our forces annihilated over 6,000 enemy troops, destroyed hundreds of military vehicles of various kinds and cannons, sank dozens of boats… and liberated an area of 1,000 in the Hoa Binh campaign. In both fronts, some 22,000 enemy troops were eliminated or captured, over 1,000 enemy stations were destroyed and conquered, and the liberated zone was extended.

The victory in the Hoa Binh campaign showed that the Party succeeded in directing the army in the operations and brought up the army to a higher level. Now the army was much better at warfighting, applying tactics, organizing and conducting a large-scale operation for a long time in two widespread and complex fronts.

When studying the French war in Indo-China, especially Vietnam, journalist and historian Bernard Fall held that the human and material losses that the French army suffered in the Hoa Binh campaign were not less than in the border campaign and Dien bien Phu Campaign.

In a letter applauding the feats of the Front Command, soldiers, local militiamen and people participating in the campaign, President Ho Chi Minh stressed, “Comparing to previous deeds, this victory is larger. Our army has marked a big step forward; in the campaign, it defeated the enemy attempt to fortify their defensive lines in order to turn the defensive posture into offensive later… To bring into full play the victory, our army and people in the liberated and occupied zones should actively consolidate bases and force, boost guerrilla warfare, decimate enemy forces, be ready to defeat all the enemy’s attempts, and bring the enemy strategy ‘war feeds war.’”

Written by Mai Danh Thu

Translated by Thu Nguyen