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De Lattre Line

The prevalence and importance of field fortifications in the conflicts fought in Southeast Asia cannot be overstated. The French, in the Indochina War (1945-1954), constructed two extensive linear fortified positions in an attempt to check the Viet Minh. The effects of these fortifications were vitiated because the Viet Minh infiltrated the areas they covered.

One position was along the Chinese border, in the region Lang Son-Cao-Bang. The trace of this line, which was probably begun in the 19th Century and had been improved continually since, was that which confronted the Chinese during their 1979 offensive actions against North Vietnamese. The line along the Chinese border fell very quickly to Viet Mtinh forces when attacked from front and rear in October 1950; the French, in this debacle, lost 6,000 men, 13 gtms, and enough materiel to equip a division.

These devastating battles forced France to deploy one of its most able generals -- General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny -- to theater. He managed to rally the French with American aid, which was now freely provided given the Communistsuccess in China and the outbreak of the Korean War, and new operational concepts.

The second line, called the "De Lattre Line," enclosed the Hanoi-Red River delta area. General de Lattreregrouped his forces around the Tonkin Delta in a series of fortifications inevitablyknown as the "de Latrre Line," organized mobile forces into mobile groups of motorized combined arms formation of regimental size, and employed artillery and air support todefeat exposed Viet Minh.

General de Lattre formed his defensive line around the Tonkin Delta, and his mobile forces principally engaged in counter-attacks and reinforcements as the Viet Minh attempted to break into the delta in division-sized attacks. The distribution of artillery was such that by the time of General de Lattre'sreforms, the French had 228 positional pieces and 240 field pieces in Indochina. Exceptfor a single battery of 155-millimeter guns in Tonkin, these were mostly 105-millimeterhowitzers and a few 155-millimeter howitzers. The positional artillery was spread, usually in two-weapon platoons, along the de Lattre Line and at similar posts in the other commands. Typically, they were spread so they would be mutually supporting, so by the end of the war 323 pieces could have occupied 160 positions covering a 3,200-kilometer front. After the defeat of the Viet Minh's assaults on the de Lattre Line in 1951, the French artillery became less effective. Spread out over vast distances, it could not mass sufficiently. Late in 1951, as de Lattre leaft the theater due to an illness which would soon claim his life.

The French would in both the 1951-1952 and the 1952-1953 campaign seasons launch offensives with multiple mobile groups, supported by parachute battalions, armored units, and riverine units, into suspected Viet Minh base areas beyond the de Lattre line. The typical pattern would be a rapid French attaining of their objectives, only to find that the Viet Minh had withdrawn beyond range of the French.

During the year 1953 France became increasingly weary of the Indochina War, America demanded better results for its investment, and the Viet Minh continued toexpand both its regular and irregular forces. The new French leadership coordinated an outline plan, termed the Navarre Plan after the new French commander in Indochina, for improving the military situation such that a successful negotiated settlement could be reached after the 1955-1956 campaign season.

The fortress at Dienbienphu was constructed by the French near the Laotian border as part of an elaborate plan to decoy Viet Minh forces into a set-piece battle in which they could be destroyed by artillery and airpower. In the event, the French miscalculated and were themselves "pocketed." After one of history's most famous sieges (20 November 1953-7 May 1954), the French forces at Dienbienphu capitulated, and French control over Indochina was virtually ended. The fall of the airhead at DienBien Phu -- which was defeated after a lengthy siege due to French inability to supply or support it against the unforeseen Viet Minh ability to mass against it -- destroyed French resolve and left still-born the intended offensives.




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