Military


Route Coloniale 4 / RC4

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. Route Coloniale 4 (RC4, also known as Highway 4) is a road in Vietnam, bordering the Chinese border from Hanoi to Cao Bang.

Indo-China adjoins China, but the border has never been pegged out. The real frontier is a string of French forts and outposts connected by a road called Route Coloniale No. 4 which winds between steep hills and dense forests. The French Foreign Legionnaires who manned the forts said: "The Route Coloniale No. 4 is a road a man travels only once alive."

The forts were to cut off Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh rebel Communist army from the Chinese Communists. The French plan was to isolate the rebels in the wild hilly country which lies between the frontier and the Red River to the west. By holding the frontier and the good rice lands of the Red River delta the French hoped to starve out the Communists. For a while it looked as if the plan might work. Ho's radio exhorted his supporters to save rice, "every grain as precious as a drop of blood."

The Indochina War began in earnest in December 1946. The first phase lasted until November 1949 and consisted of initial sharp battles that drove the Viet Minh into the countryside, a nearly successful decapitation raid at the Viet Minh leadership and supplies (Operation Lea), and then desultory guerrilla warfare. The conclusion of the Chinese revolution and the immediate offer to the Viet Minh of training, supplies, advisors, doctrine, and a sanctuary over the border introduced the next phase of the Indochina War. The immediate impact was the formation and training of a regular and highly capable Viet Minh Army, which made its operational debut by destroying the line of French fortifications along the isolated Chinese border.

The results of the Chinese equipping and training of the Viet Minh main force were seen in the 1950-1951 campaign season. The Viet Minh attacked in division formations the line of French outposts along the Chinese border.

Known as the Route Coloniale 4, it is famous for a French military disaster in 1950 in which several units of the French army, including some battalions of the Foreign Legion, were decimated by the Viet Minh and essentially ceased to exist as fighting units. In October 1950, facing defeat in Korea, the Communists struck a major counterblow in Indo-China. Within a few days, the Communists forced the French to abandon a whole line of forts and thereby wrecked the French plan of containing and eventually starving out the rebels. At week's end the Moscow newspapers were giving as much space to Indo-China as to Korea.

In a bitter five-day battle fought with the Communists last week on Route No. 4, over 3,000 Foreign Legionnaires were trapped. The line along the Chinese border fell very quickly to Viet Minh forces when attacked from front and rear in October 1950. The French, in this debacle, lost 6,000 men and enough materiel to equip a division. Destruction of this line permitted even greater Chinese support to the Viet Minh.

The outposts along the Colonial Route 4 gradually withdrew to the Tonkin Delta but not before the destruction of several battalions and the loss of much equipment. This Viet Minh victory shocked the French, and provided greater routes to benefactors in China. Indeed, the French never regained Colonial Route 4. For the French, the reaction to the defeats along the Chinese border was to deploy General Jean-Pierre de Lattre de Tassigny.




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