The 1950 retreat from Cao Bằng, near the northern boarder with China, figures significantly in the histories of both Việt Nam and France and marked the first time General Giap and his Việt Minh forces took the initiative in their long struggle against French colonial rule. After the French were decisively beaten, Ho Chi Minh and General Giap understood their many years of struggle would lead to eventual victory.

In January 1941, Ho Chi Minh entered the Việt Bac region of Việt Nam after his long exile and lived in Hang Pac Bo cave 3KM from the Chinese border. He named the nearby stream Lenin Creek and the overlooking mountain Karl Marx Peak. He chose the area for the Việtnamese Communist party and military headquarters because the French, with all their cumbersome and modern equipment, had difficulty traversing the rough terrain. Airports were few and the rivers could not be navigated except with local boats.

For several years the Việt Minh had been receiving supplies, weapons, and ammunition from the Chinese in the Việt Bac region. The Việt Bac is a beautiful, stunning, but impossible region of high rugged mountains, deep valleys, dense jungle, and rushing rivers, along Việt Nam’s northeastern border with China. Travel in the area, even today, is difficult. Few roads exist. Even fewer roads, with the exception of RC3 and RC4, existed during the French occupation. Rivers flooded and washed out bridges. Mudslides rolled roads, highways, and trails into the valleys. Only Montagnards of various ethnic groups inhabited the area - tough people accustomed to difficult living.

In an attempt to stop the flow of military supplies to the Việt Minh the French established a string of 30 strongpoints, way stations, and fortified towns for 116KM along RC4 from Lang Son to Cao Bằng. Dong-Dang sits 15KM from Lang Son followed by Na Sam at KM 33KM, Thất Khê at 63KM, Đông Khê at 88KM, Nam Nang at 101KM and finally Cao Bằng. The highway parallels the border with China. All efforts to stop the supplies were fruitless. It became evident that the only ones suffering in the skirmishes were the French. Most supplies to French positions traveled along RC4. The highway soon picked up several names including the Highway of Death and the Flaming Highway Number 4. Việt Minh ambushes were frequent and deadly.

Engaging the Việt Minh proved difficult to because they could travel anywhere in the area. Villagers gave them safe haven and offered food, guides, shelter, and information. They also supplied porters called dân công, to carry supplies. A Viet Minh infantry division required 50,000 dân công carrying about 45 pounds of supplies plus their own rations. They were required to carry the supplies for seven days before returning home. The supplies were passed in relay fashion to the next group. The Chinese were sending 14,00 guns, 1,700 machine guns, 150 artillery pieces, 2,800 tons of grain, ammunition, uniforms, medicine, and communication equipment, across the border.

By 1951 the United States was supplying the French with 7,200 tons of military equipment a month. The French, restricted to the roads, were easily found. Since there were only two roads to Cao Bằng, RC3 and RC4, the Việt Minh always knew where they were. For the French there was no place to hide.

With over 500 turns, RC4 was ripe for ambush. The dirt road was a narrow, winding track, cut between mountains and passes, and shadowed by thick forests and jungles. The Việt Minh could launch ambushes almost anywhere along the route, and they did. Every convoy proved deadly. As early as 1949 the French Chief of Staff General Georges Revers, in a secret report to the National Defense Committee, testified that the road and strongpoints were untenable and recommended they be abandoned. Various generals disagreed thinking that withdrawal would be a sign of weakness so, at great cost, they remained open.

General Giap used the ambushes to help train his troops. They learned how to fight, coordinate attacks, and use their equipment with limited risk. General Giap carefully analyzed every attack and emphasized what tactics worked and discarded which ones did not. The French constantly repeated their mistakes relying upon larger and larger forces and equipment rather than different and innovative tactics.

Colonel Pierre Charton had built Cao Bằng, a tin-mining town, into the strongest fortification in the Việt Bac. Once a ruin abandoned by the Japanese, legionnaires had constructed the town into a respectable strongpoint containing over 20,000 civilians, a movie theater, European and Vietnamese style nightclubs, brothels, and medical facilities.

Colonel Charton, by any standards, was a remarkable man. His men loved and respected him, especially the legionnaires. He was a short, hard man wrapped in tight muscles. He treated everyone fairly and the men enjoyed his filthy mouth because he spoke to them as one soldier speaks to another soldier. Unlike most arrogant French officers, he demanded his soldiers respect the Vietnamese. Soldiers treating locals unkindly were quickly and severely punished. In this atmosphere the Vietnamese and the French thrived. Businesses flourished and the people lived as equals with the French. Many liaisons and marriages occurred between the men and the Montagnards and the population increased with newborn children. Charton’s love for the people would cost him dearly during the retreat.

General Giap and his advisors felt Cao Bằng or Đông Khê was the logical choices for their first major attack of the war. Cao Bằng lay between two rivers and had an old citadel recently repaired. It was deep in the Việt Minh rear and causing them great difficulty.

Giap understood that if he cut RC4, he could flood Việt Nam with equipment and troops newly trained in China. On May 25, 1950, the time to strike had arrived. The original target was Cao Bằng. Giap, not totally convinced, Giap was concerned. His forces had never attacked such a well-equipped French force and he knew their first strike must be successful in order to maintain morale. He decided to assign a new artillery regiment, Brigade 308, and Regiment 174 to the attack. Battalion 246 and Regiment 209 would launch a simultaneous attack against Đông Khê. They needed 3,000 tons of supplies for the campaign.

Although Giap had sent a reconnaissance force to report on Cao Bằng, he decided to survey the town personally. He had not been there in many years and wanted a good look at any changes. Leaving his horse at Ma Phuc Pass he met Quoc Trung, commander of the observation post, who took him and the small group to another observation post overlooking the town. Like a curtain the morning fog rose to reveal a stage of formidable defenses. He counted at least 15 small strongpoints around the town and the airstrip. His troops would have to attack across at least one bridge over the Bang River. Soldier’s and legionnaire’s barracks sat scattered about.

Giap asked the chief of the Army Intelligence Department, Coa Pha, about parts of the town he could not see. Strong defenses and fortifications had been built everywhere. There was a high rampart with watchtowers, artillery, and blockhouses. Foliage surrounding the roads and on nearby hills had been hacked down to provide clear killing zones and covered with machine gun emplacements. Giap tried to imagine how he could best use his forces for a successful attack. Without careful preparations, Cao Bằng could not be taken. The attack appeared too risky to guarantee success.

The Việt Minh needed to attack across one or two rivers. They would have to fight for several days during the day where, if the weather permitted, they would be devastated by aircraft and artillery. Strong defenses including blockhouses and machine gun bunkers needed to be eliminated at great cost. Given the troops and equipment he had, the task would have been daunting if not impossible. Giap changed his plans. The better target was Đông Khê.

By Giap defeating the troops at Đông Khê, the French would have to send a relief force to retake the town. If Đông Khê was not retaken, Cao Bằng could no longer be supplied by RC4 and would have to retreat. If he planed everything correctly he might accomplish several objectives – the elimination of Cao Bằng and a chance to destroy any relief force. If he was successful he could then destroy Thất Khê and Lang Son. The French would be pushed back into Hanoi.

To prepare for the campaign Giap set up supply depots in the hills along with medical personal to establish hospitals. Units moved to villages to requisition food. He reminded his commanders that victory required boldness, but not reckless acts. They must move in secrecy and move quickly.

Hoang Van Thai was designated as commander of the battle. Regiments 174 and 209 were assigned to the attack Đông Khê along with shock troops and recoilless guns. Brigade 308 would block and attack and French reinforcements sent to the battle. The units were in place by September 14th, 1950.

In 1949 French Premier Henri Queuille appointed General Marcel Carpentier as head of military operations in Việt Nam. Carpentier tried desperately to avoid the duty saying, “I know nothing about Việt Nam.” When that did not work he claimed illness - hepatitis and a heart condition. He was sent to a military hospital, declared fit for duty and shipped to Hanoi, arriving September 3rd.

He was also advised to abandon the forts along RC 4. He refused even though 30 GM trucks had been destroyed in ambush the day he arrivad. French pride and honor were at stake and he refused to admit any kind of defeat. Still, after reviewing the situation, he contacted Paris and said a political solution must be achieved. President Vincent Auriol replied, “Never! We cannot be the ones who abandoned Indochina.”

The arrogance of France, and later the United States, proved beneficial to General Giap, as historically it had when the Vietnamese fought the Chinese. Giap constantly used the belief that they could not be beaten, especially by a weak and primitive Asian people, against them. He knew better. Việt Nam had often been occupied, never conquered.

Regiment 174 of the 308th “Iron Brigade” had previously attacked Đông Khê on May 25, 1950. Working outside the auspices of the high command Giap infiltrated four Việt Minh battalions around the surrounding hills. Soldiers cut through the jungle to drag five camouflaged 75mm guns and placed them strategically in the underbrush. The regimentwaited patiently to attack.

French officers commanded the Moroccan Infantry at Đông Khê and awoke, completely surprised, by the barrage of the five guns. They never imagined the Việt Minh were capable of hauling guns through the jungle and into the hills so they had not prepared for such an attack. They learned nothing from this example later when, at Dien Dien Phu, from November 1953 to May 1954, they made the same mistake and were pounded into submission by over 200 guns secured in the hills.

Forty-eight hours of constant bombardment brought the French Moroccans to their knees. The Iron Brigade stormed the camp in a human wave assault and overcame the defenders almost instantly. The victory was short lived. The Việt Minh, content to celebrate their victory, did not set up any defenses against possible counter-attacks.

General Alessandri, the most capable French commander in Việt Nam, launched an immediate attack. Thirty-four aircraft dropped the 1st Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion (le BEP) onto a clearing outside town. They caught the Việt Minh off guard and, after hours of vicious fighting, drove them from the town and back into the hills.

During World War Two Alessandri had led the Foreign Legion on a fighting retreat across Việt Nam pursued by the Japanese during World War Two. After a final battle with them at Dien Bien Phu, they managed to escape across the border and into China. Why he was not made commander in Việt Nam remains a mystery. There was no more capable officer in Asia.

General Giap learned a valuable lesson from the first Đông Khê engagement. He would not repeat the mistakes. He asked for assistance from his Chinese mentor and friend, General Chen Cheng. After reclaiming Đông Khê the arrogance of the French increased claiming one battalion of our boys is worth a brigade of theirs. They replaced the Moroccans of Đông Khê with just two companies of legionnaires, the 5th and 6th, (about 260 men) from the 3 REI, (a pitiful amount) to occupy the strongpoint. The legion was tough, but there was only a limited of them in Country. The decision would cost them in the next attack.

After more attacks on RC4, General Carpentier finally admitted he could not maintain the forts and decided to roll them up in a retreat along the highway from Cao Bằng to Lang Son, then to Hanoi, if necessary. General Alessandri cautioned against the move. Using the road might prove fatal. Cao Bằng had an airstrip and he suggested the garrison be evacuated by air or down RC3, a safer route. Carpentier refused to listen.

Carpentier was a secretive man. His overall plan concerned Colonel Charton, withdrawing along RC4 from Cao Bằng, and a force from Lang Son commanded by Lt. Colonel Marcel Le Page. Le Page was not told of the entire mission which was to meet Colonel Charton at Đông Khê and together they would move back to Lang Son. Carpentier’s plans remained sketchy and he did not tell Colonel Charton of the action he was to take. The operation would be completed sometime in October. Before Carpentier’s plan was put into action, General Giap, on September 16th, again attacked Đông Khê.

General Giap was taking no chances. He threw five battalions of infantry plus artillery and mortars against the two companies of legionnaires and placed Hoang Van Thai in charge. Unfortunately, the commander came down with malaria the day before the attack. He still managed to direct operations. Giap was unaware the two legionnaire companies of 3 REI had replaced the Moroccans in the town. They had built a series of outposts on the rocky slopes surrounding the main camp and every position was strengthened.

Giap positioned himself at an observation post near Na Lan village, about 10 kilometers from Đông Khê. Ho Chi Minh joined him. He had walked to the battle a week before, disguised as a peasant. Ho enjoyed talking with the people disguised as a common man. He often said, “If you have the people you’ll have everything.” A well-equipped house was made available for him but, as was customary, he stayed and worked in a small village hut. Throughout his life he remained a man with a country, but no possessions.

Giap noticed the changes in the town. The legionnaires had built several strong posts including fortifications at Phia, Cam Phay, and the Yen Ngua Hills. The battle would be more difficult than he thought. He had confidence in his troops and they were anxious to finally confront the French in a major, if small, battle.

The battle started at 6AM with a heavy artillery barrage and caught the legionnaires off-guard. They destroyed a French 105mm gun, killing the crew. Regiment 174 attacked from the North and Northeast and occupied the bridgehead. One by one Giap’s troops destroyed the outposts. Surviving legionnaires retreated back into the citadel and the old lower fortifications. They fought hard but they were simply too few. Regiment 209, vital to the attack, was lost in the jungle. Six French Hellcats swooped in low to drop bombs and to strafe as the legionnaires attempted to recover from their surprise, regained their footing, and formed into efficient fighting units. Because of the Missing 209th Regiment, General Thai suggested the battle be stopped to readjust the Việt Minh forces and resume the attack in the evening from two directions. Like many battles, all plans had to be readjusted. Ho Chi Minh watched quietly and let the Generals make the decisions.

The battle raged all night as tracers and explosions cut through the dark and powdered the air. The French constantly shored up units ready to fall. Not until September 17 did Regiment 174 capture Cam Phay. Regiment 209 following the sound of fighting finally found their way to Đông Khê. They overran the southern Part of Đông Khê and captured Phu Thien, Nha, and the school. The legionnaires stopped the advance with a vicious crossfire and the Việt Minh could no longer advance.

Chinese General Chen Geng admitted defeat and recommended calling off the attack and fighting another day. Ho Chi Minh finally spoke saying, “However difficult the situation may be, the first battle must be won.” A defeat now would demoralize the troops. The order was given to reorganize all the units and to discus the mistakes that had been made and to correct them for the next attack. Đông Khê would be taken at all costs.

General Houang Van Tal finally launched an all-out Việt Minh human wave assault. Regiment 174 captured the bridgehead to the east of the fortress, advanced to blockhouse Number 7, and linked up with men from Regiment 209.

The legionnaires put up a stiff resistance and relinquished ground at great cost to the Việt Minh as they barricaded themselves behind the walls of the citadel. The Việt Minh had difficulty breaking through. When the northwest wall was breached the Việt Minh came up against a second wall of defense and devastating fire. The legionnaires refused to go quietly into that good night.

Soldier La Van Cau realized what needed to be done. His arm had been crushed so badly during the battle that he had a comrade cut it off and tie the stump with a rope. He felt he would not live. Disregarding his safety, he managed to rush forward and blow down part of the main wall down with a bamboo charge. Legionnaires fell dead or bleeding beside the blast. The survivors retreated behind their remaining 57mm gun. Enough legionnaires were found to launch a counter-attack and drive the Việt Minh from the compound. With both sides exhausted they stopped fighting for the night. La Van Chau managed to struggle into the jungle where a Việt Minh doctor recut the stump properly. He walked several miles through the jungle to a makeshift hospital where he recovered.

General Giap and his soldiers were relentless. They kept up harassing fire throughout the night and the following morning his guns pounded the citadel. The legionnaires retreated to the command post, the only building still standing, taking the 57mm gun with them. Tran Cu , a company commander of Regiment 209, broke through a blockhouse before being stopped by a concealed machine gun emplacement. Cu dove toward the emplacement and lodged himself into the opening until his shock troops passed.

For a time it seemed as if everyone in the hills was fighting against the French. Dinh Thi Dau , a young Montagnard girl fought through the battlefield and carried out seven wounded Việt Minh by strapping them onto her back. Trieu Thi Soi, a young Nung girl, carried artillery rounds throughout the fight and also carried out wounded.

On the 18th, the legionnaires realized they could no longer hold out and made a last ditch attempt to break free. Between five to twenty legionnaires worked their way through the jungle and emerged a week later at Thất Khê . (Exact figures are difficult to uncover. Books written by noted historians have conflicting numbers: 20 survivors, 9 survivors, 5 survivors, and one officer and 31 Legionnaires, for example. Other figures in this book suffer the same difficulty and amount to a best guess from numerous resources.) The battle had lasted 52 hours. General Giap admitted his casualties were higher than expected. The casualties did not discourage his officers or his soldiers as they celebrated their victory. They had beaten the French and were eager for more. Giap and Ho congratulated them on the victory but cautioned them not to get arrogant or they might suffer the same consequences as the enemy. There was much fighting left. The French, especially the Foreign Legion, did not give up easily.

Giap had finally cut RC4. He fortified Đông Khê town and waited for the French to respond. He knew they would not allow him to keep the town even if they recaptured it, only to abandoned Đông Khê later. He decided they would travel from Thất Khê along RC4 and the Po Ma Bo Bach road to support the paratroopers he knew would be dropped. The paratroopers were always called upon to retake positions. He positioned Regiments 174 and 209 around Đông Khê. From Brigade 308 he pulled Regiments 36, 88, and 102 and stationed them in nearby hills. The remainder of Brigade 308 was placed to attack the French at Na Pa, Lung Phay, and Khua Luong. While waiting patiently the health of the Việt Minh Troops started to deteriorate. They needed rest and food.

On September 29th General Alessandri launched attacks along RC3 and captured Thai Nguyen. The French secured RC3 taking Phu Lo, Vinh Yen and Deo Nhe. They finally occupied Thai Nguyen. Giap was not fooled by these attacks and realized they were diversionary attacks to distract French movements along RC4.

For a while it seemed Giap might have been mistaken and maybe the French were not coming. Giap met with his advisors and together they worked out plans to attack Thất Khê . The plan involved moving almost all his troops south. He still felt the French would attack Đông Khê and so he waited before adopting the newer plan. He did not have to wait long. He was proven correct.

With the capture of Đông Khê General Carpentier revised his plan to evacuate the forts along RC4. The plan remained essentially the same but this time Lt. Colonel Le Page was to retake Đông Khê, as if it was no problem, along the way. Colonel Charton was not to know until the last minute. Carpentier flew to Cao Bằng to assure him that everything was just as it had always been and they would remain at their present position. He even reinforced Cao Bằng with a battalion of North African Tabors as reassurance.

Rather than inform Charton of the retreat and launch a coordinated attack with Le Page on Đông Khê from two directions, he sent only Le Page, and even he was not sure of the mission except in very vague terms. General Alessandri was outraged when Carpentier put him in charge of the planning. He had done his part with the diversionary attacks. He insisted Cao Bằng be evacuated by air or sent down RC3, a route they could travel with immunity now that he had secured the entire route. He understood that traveling down RC4 was destined to failure. The Việt Minh outnumbered the French by at least 8 to 1 with 20 well-equipped infantry battalions and three artillery battalions in the area. No reinforcements were available to the French and there were no units supplied to protect the flanks of either column. No one listened.

Le Page was the wrong man for the job, a gunner with no jungle experience who had not seen action since World War One. Legionnaires described him as a tired old man just waiting to retire. They had no faith or confidence in him. He was not inclined to fight, was indecisive, and had spent most of his time in Việt Nam behind a desk.

The First Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion (Le BEP) was sent in advance to Thất Khê to reinforce Le Page’s lumbering 8th Infantry Regiment comprised mostly of indifferent Moroccans anxious to return home safely. Le Page departed Lang Son on September 8th and arrived at Thất Khê the following day knowing that the legion had secured the area. The Việt Minh were never keen to fight legionnaires and felt most of them were crazy. They fought as if unbalanced, refused to relinquish ground, and willingly attacked against impossible odds. They took glory in death and hopeless causes. Unsure of the plan Le Page waited another week to receive orders from Colonel Constans who was now in charge of coordinating the operation, from Lang Son. Constans was a puffy-faced commander much disliked by his men. He lived in the governor’s mansion and had a chauffeur and servants. Le Page demanded to know why he had no artillery support, no reinforcements, and no way to evacuate the wounded. No explanation was given. When ordered to advance on September 30, he was calmed to have said, “We shall never come back.” If the statement were true, his words proved prophetic.

Colonel Constans finally issued the final orders. Le Page was to move out and retake Đông Khê by October 2 using Le BEP to strike first and clear the way. Nothing was said about linking up with Charton. Le Page managed to move past the Việt Minh 308th Brigade ambush. Giap was furious when he found out and wanted an explanation. Two thirds of the Brigade, noticing a lull in French activity, were sent to gather food from villages. Regiment 174, at Đông Khê, had done the same. Giap ordered all men to rejoin their units immediately and move toward Đông Khê. He was not going to relinquish Đông Khê again. He sent units to the nearby hills, especially Cox Xa and Khua Luong. He wanted to push Le Page into the western jungles and valleys and not allow them to return to Thất Khê. Regiment 209 was placed in reserve.

The legion was successfully dropped to a clearing outside Đông Khê. Although principally led by French officers, the French Foreign Legion, as a mercenary unit, held no particular allegiance to France. French citizens were not allowed to enlist, although some did under assumed names and nationalities. The soldiers were men without a country. Many ex German soldiers, especially those from S.S. units attempting to avoid prosecution after their defeat in World War Two, joined. They were older than most legionnaires in Việt Nam. Spaniards had a long tradition of enlisting. Legionnaires claimed the Legion is my country and they fought for the Legion only and remain to this day the most formidable fighting force in the world.

Major Pierre Segretain commanded Le BEP. Captain Pierre Jeanpierre had built it into the toughest unit in Việt Nam. He was a legend, tough and resolute and had been repatriated to Vichy France after the Germans took control. He slipped into the countryside to join the Resistance and smuggled guns into Paris. Captured and tortured by the Gestapo he was sent to Mauthausen concentration camp and managed to survive. He held no animosity toward the Germans and, realizing their fighting ability, recruited many of them into Le BEP. He had risen from private to captain through battlefield promotions.

For Le BEP everything went well. Giap had removed many of the troops from Đông Khê to the hills and reinforcements had not arrived. Major Segretain felt he could retake the town with little difficulty and asked permission to attack. Permission was denied. La Page was still moving to the west side of the town and Le BEP was to wait until Giap’s forces were surrounded. Le Page finally positioned his troops but decided to wait another day when he could use air support to attack. He might have been slow but the Việt Minh were not. They poured into the town and the area.

Le Page ordered Le BEP to dig in and wait until further orders. The remainder of his forces was stretched for 10 kilometers from Đông Khê to Lung Phay, Khau Luong, Na Pa and Troc Nga. On October 2 he ordered two battalions, and the Legionnaires, to attack Đông Khê. Tabor Battalion 11 managed to capture an outpost near the airport but was eventually pushed back. Fierce fighting halted Le BEB in a mountain pass to the south.

As Le Page started to attack Đông Khê, Charton was finally given orders to evacuate Cao Bag the following day, October 3, giving him just 24 hours to destroy all supplies, fortifications, and form all units to withdrawal. The orders were unclear as to why he was to vacate, only to move south along RC4. He was especially confused by the orders to leave and destroy all his equipment, including artillery, and to travel on foot. He felt the order was pure suicide. Without artillery the Việt Minh would cut them to pieces. Leaving the civilians behind also concerned him. Legionnaires destroyed 150 tons of munitions and many cannons were dumped into the river. Disobeying other orders, he gathered up the legionnaires of 3 REP, Moroccans, Vietnamese Partisans, six armored cars, thirteen trucks, eight jeeps, two 105mm howitzers, two mortars, and six antiaircraft guns. Afraid of the treatment that might befall the civilian women and children, he also brought along about 1,500 of them for safety. After moving out he was told to meet with Le Page’s relief column at Đông Khê where they would be safe to continue south to Lang Son.

The column traveled for 16 kilometers under intermittent Việt Minh fire. Giap had anticipated the move and arranged troops along the route. RC4 was so narrow that when a vehicle was disabled the others could not pass. Casualties mounted. They tried to move ahead but the Việt Minh had constantly cut the road with deep trenches that had to be filled in before they could continue. The entire operation was turning into a disaster and Charton expected an infantry attack at any minute. He was unable to contact Lang Son for a situation report. Major Forget, Charton’s second-in-command and commander of 3 REP, dispatched six legionnaires under Sergeant Kress, to cover the rear. The column continued to struggle forward.

Le Page’s column was stalled and he informed Colonel Constans that he could no longer proceed. Constans, who had no perception of the difficulties, ordered him to continue at all costs; there could be no delays.

Le Page split his forces and abandoned all his trucks and heavy equipment and traveled on foot. All the French forces were now on foot. He ordered two companies from Le BEP, under the command of Lieutenant Faulques, to break off and attack Dong Key from the East. He would take the remaining forces to the west.

Like many plans during a battle this one proved a disaster. Le BEP waited for additional orders as Giap gathered a large force from the Na-Keo ridge and various valleys and attacked using heavy artillery, mortars, snipers, and infantry to push them back inflicting about 30 per cent casualties. They also swarmed down on Le Page in a vicious attack. Only now was Le Page told his ultimate task was to link up with Charton. Le Page said that Charton must stay in Cao Bằng because the road to Đông Khê was untenable. Too Late. Charton was struggling on the retreat, unsure of his mission. Le Page fought his way to an abandoned way-station called Na Pa. Giap hit him again with heavy artillery and Le Page ordered his men to dig in and wait for orders from Constans. The artillery force was larger than anything Le Page had seen in Việt Nam and he, confused by the resourcefulness of the Vietnamese, could not understand how they dragged the guns into the hills.

Giap understood the importance of Khua Luong and Troc Nga mountains. Khua Long was the highest mountain in the area. He knew Le Page would send a force to occupy the area. Việt Minh Battalion 29, under the command of Hung Sinh, was ordered to attack Moroccan Infantry Regiment 8 at the base of Troc Nga. Because most of Sinh’s men had not returned from gathering rice, he had only one company. When he attacked, the larger Moroccan force panicked and fled to the summit of the mountain and attempted to dig in. A Việt Minh platoon from Battalion 29 joined the fight. The Moroccans tumbled off the mountain and ran screaming wildly with terror. Battalion 18 cut them down at the base of the mountain.

An hour later Giap ordered Regiment 36 to attack Khua Luong. Battalions 80 and 84 were to lead the attack. These units had not fought in the mountains before and they found the fighting difficult. Battalion 84 became lost in the dense jungle. French Tabor Battalion 11 fought viciously to maintain their position on the mountain. The Việt Minh launched three separate assaults. All of them were repulsed. With enough incentive, the Moroccans could fight.

Colonel Constans ordered Le Page to leave the area of RC4 and take a trail to the west that eventually led to the village of Quang Let. He could then rendezvous with Charton in the Coc Xa Valley. Le Page ordered Major Delcros to defend Na Pa and reinforce Khua Long with his remaining forces while he headed west into the jungle.

Many of the French units became disorganized and several became lost in the jungle. After 10 hours of marching they had only covered 5 kilometers. Le Page ordered the legionnaires to gather at Na Pa with Delcros and cover his movement. Everyone was exhausted. They had been without food, water, and sleep for over two days. No one yet understood that the Việt Minh outnumbered them about ten to one. Lieutenant Tchiabrichvilli led an advance force of thirty Legionnaires to clear the way. The Việt Minh were waiting and killed them all except for three who escaped back to Le BEP. The survivors of Lieutenant Faulques two companies of Le BEP fought their way toward the Rendezvous at Na Pa to link-up with Major Segretain, Captain Jeanpierre, and the rest of the battalion who were waiting there.

After a heavy artillery bombardment, the Việt Minh resumed their attack against the Moroccans on Khua Luong. Again they were repulsed but the Moroccans were exhausted and were starting to lose their fighting spirit. Le BEP was sent to help. The sky was clear and for three hours French aircraft aided the resistance by bombing and strafing the Việts.

From the heights, Jeanpierre watched a straggling company of Moroccans being wiped out by the Việt Minh. Only one Moroccan managed to stumble back to Na Pa. The fire had lessened at Na Pa and Jeanpierre understood why. Giap’s forces were going after the main body of French moving toward the valley. Jeanpierre realized the only way to save them was to attack. He conferred with Delcros who contacted Le Page. Le Page refused to make the decision and contacted Constans. Constans agreed with Jeanpierre and they moved into the jungle in search of Le Page. The Moroccans left Khau Luong, followed by the legionnaires. The Moroccans had not gone far before running into an ambush. No longer wiling to fight they ran back in hopes the legionnaires would save them.

Major Secretain ordered the legion paratroopers to carry their wounded and fight toward hill 765. In the jungle they lost their way and there was so much gunfire and artillery fire they were not sure which way to go except to move in a generally western direction. They continued to fight until they found themselves stopped by a three hundred meter cliff. There was nothing to do except to dig in and continue to take punishment. After a brief rest they met Le Page the following day at Cox Xa.

Charton finally made contact with Lang Son and was told he could not get through to Đông Khê. He was given a new rendezvous point, told to meet Le Page, and was ordered to leave RC4 and take a small trail that led to Quang Liet. Charton could not find the trail. One of his Chinese prostitutes spoke both French and the local dialect. She found an old Montagnard who said he knew the route. Colonel Constans said the trail looked fine on his map. Charton had no choice but burn and explode any equipment and supplies that could not be carried. The men took two days rations and water. He hated to see the guns destroyed. What he hated even more was leaving behind the civilians. They were told they had to leave and do the best they could. Many of the women refused to go and, pulling their French children behind them, continued to follow the column. The six legionnaires under Sergeant Kress each picked up a small child and carried him on his shoulders. Many other soldiers did the same.

The Montagnard guide proved less then reliable. For almost three days, under constant harassment, the column wandered through the hills and valleys before finding the trail.

Le Page was overwhelmed with difficulties. His forces became scattered, some in the valley, others positioned on hills surrounding the valley. Giap ordered Brigade 308 to prevent his linking up with Charton or, if possible, eliminate him in the valley. Việt Minh began to overrun them unit-by-unit. Many of the Moroccans started to panic, dropped their weapons and ran into the jungle where most of them were killed, lost, or died of exposure, and hunger. The French had been drinking bad water to quench their thirst and soldiers were suffering from dysentery and other stomach and intestinal ailments. Leeches had a fest whenever the troops crossed a stream.

Việt Nam is flooded with water, none of it potable. Many soldiers, dying of thirst, could not resist drinking the bad water. Even the cleanest looking water is swarming with parasites. Hours after drinking the water, soldiers doubled over with cramps as their insides started to crawl with worms. Cuts and scratches also became immediately infectious. Except what could be carried, medical supplies had been left with the trucks. The ammunition was almost exhausted. Carrying the wounded seemed an impossible task and many were abandoned. Eventually they would almost all be left behind.

Giap diverted regiment 209 to attack Charton. They struck at Khau Ne. Charton left the track and attempted to go around. He did not get far when Regiment 88 struck. Again he attempted to find another way around the Việt Minh and work his way toward the peaks leading to Tan Be. That afternoon his Battalion 3 reached Na Lan.

The Việt Minh attacked the 3rd Legionnaire Battalion at the end of Colonel Charton’s column as they continued to make slow progress toward Quong Liet and Le Page. The legionnaires repelled the attack but the Việt Minh remained relentless and managed to push them off the trail and work their way along the ridge until they had the entire column under fire. Major Forget, commanding the 3rd, was suffering from an old wound and had been limping all the way from Cao Bằng. Charton explained the desperate situation to him. If the Việts could not be removed from the ridges they could not move forward and might be wiped out.

Forget ordered his men to fix bayonets. They attacked the Việt Minh but were repulsed. Their second attack succeeded but the Việt Minh counterattacked and drove them off. The fighting was vicious and hand-to-hand. The legionnaires attacked ten times before finally securing the ridges. Forget was shot in the head, chest, stomach and thigh. He had been bayonetted several times. He died congratulating the few remaining soldiers of his battalion. Clearing the heights allowed Charton to continue his march toward the valley and the new rendezvous point at hill 477. By 6 October they had reached their appointed place to link up with Le Page. But Le Page was not there. He was completely surrounded in the valley.

Late in the afternoon of October 6 and fighting through strong resistance, an advance force from Charton inched toward Le Page. Le Page finally made radio contact with Charton. Charton’s units were spread over four miles and the Việt Minh were picking them off man-by-man. Le Page, who was supposed to rescue Charton, was now waiting to be rescued by Charton.

Everything had worked out for General Giap and his army. He had first arranged his major forces on the eastern side of RC4, with other units covering his flanks, in hopes of pushing the French into the jungle to the west. Le Page had obliged by moving into the jungle on his own. Giap knew he could push them into the Cox Xa valley, then, wait for Charton’s forces to arrive. Le Page had moved into the valley. Now Charton, strung through the jungle, was coming. Giap placed 20,000 to 30,000 men around the valley including heavy artillery. It would not be the last time he caught the French in a valley.

Segretain and Le BEP fought to Na Keo above the valley. The Việt Minh hit him again and again with furious attacks. Ammunition was running short and food and water were almost non-existent. Le Page ordered him into the valley. As they started to move off the ledge, he changed his mind and ordered him to stay where he was. They remained for another day before he ordered him to again descend. Legionnaires slung wounded comrades over their shoulders and used ropes to descend over sharp cliffs. As they descended in the dark, the Việts attacked again cutting them apart before they reached Le Page. Heavy rain and fog prevented any air support.

Jeanpierre and Faulques sent small groups to support the crumbling Moroccans. Legionnaires moving down dark trails fought for every inch and Việt Minh sprang from ambush and cut several throats before slipping back into the brush.

Hong Son commanded three Việt Minh Battalions and was ordered to prevent any link-up between Le Page and Charton and to Keep Le Page surrounded. He cut off the only path leading to Caharton. Battalion 154 and 89 attacked, then drew back to wait for the final blow. A company had occupied the heights ready to spring.

Jeanpierre took a handful of legionnaires and slipped into the jungle on a reconnaissance mission. The hills were crawling with enemy soldiers and any attack at night to link up with Charton was destined for failure. Segretain passed the information to Le Page and recommended they wait until daylight in hopes the weather would improve so they could get fighter support. In the morning Le Page ordered Le BEP to break through to Charton’s shattered forces and his 3rd REP Legionnaires. He insisted the attack be taken before sunup. The legionnaires knew the mission was suicide. True to their tradition, they accepted their fate.

In the rain, the legionnaires climbed the crags on the mission. They had not gone far before they came under intense fire. Machine guns, grenades, artillery and rifle fire hailed down upon them. First company attacked the hills and was repulsed. Third company battled its way through and finally held the crest for a short time. They were knocked off. Second company lunged forward. Half the men were cut down, including Lieutenant Falques, his right leg smashed, his left split open, and shot through both shoulders. He lay, propped against a tree, as the Việt Minh swarmed over the company. Segretain and Jeanpierre refused to give up. On determination alone their units battled ahead. By morning they held the crest. The link-up had been accomplished. Fewer than 100 legionnaires from the original battalion had survived. Many of them were wounded. More fighting lay ahead. The attack is regarded as one of the finest actions in Legion history and allowed the separate columns to unite.

Before uniting, Le Page came under intense fire. Artillery rounds and grenades exploded into his units sending body parts everywhere. Moroccan troops broke and fled into the valley. Battalion 154 waited there and slaughtered them in masses. Le Page ordered his remaining forces to run toward Charton’s position. Ten Việt Minh machine guns from Battalion 11 chopped them apart but the survivors managed to get through.

Bringing the units together proved a disaster. Le Page’s advancing Moroccans, many wounded, trembled with fear. They started to scatter and ran through Charton’s units. The fear swarmed over Charton’s Moroccans and soon many, dropping their weapons, deserted into the jungle. When the Việt Minh attacked with a small force at four o’clock in the afternoon, Charton’s remaining 3rd Tabor’s broke and ran. The only units to put up any fight and retain their heads were the legionnaires.

With everything in disarray and no hope of any organized resistance, Charton gathered his remaining officers and instructed them to inform the men that all was lost. They were to break out for Dong Thất Khê – every man for himself. With four men, Sergeant Schoenberger, Orderly Walter Riess, and Lieutenants Clerget and Bross, Charton’s group escaped into the jungle. The other troops scattered. Le Page issued the same order although there were not many solders left to follow it.

Segretain split the surviving members of Le BEP into five groups, giving them each a map and a compass. His group was ambushed. They fought off the attack but Segretain was mortally wounded. He ordered his men to leave him in the jungle and continue their escape.

Colonel Constans ordered De Labaume to take 4 companies from Thất Khê and move to Lung Phay and Na Cao to cover any retreat. Carpentier ordered Paratroop 3 dropped into Thất Khê and reinforced with a newly arrived legion company from Algeria and wait for survivors.

Charton’s group hacked their way through thick jungle for almost an hour before being discovered and attacked. Charton was splintered by a grenade blast and shot through the hip. A Việt Minh rushed from the brush to finish him off. Schoenberger threw himself in the line of fire and was cut down. Charton shot the Việt Minh but another one rushed ahead to bayonet him. A political commissar, realizing Charton was a officer, stopped the action and they were taken prisoner.

Le Page had no better luck. He was soon discovered, wounded and taken prisoner by Tran Dang Khiem, a company commander from Regiment 88. He was only a mile from De Labaume’s rescue force. Le Page survived his time in the prison camp but died shortly after his release due to complications from the wounds.

Charton, recovering from his wounds in the prison camp, was surprised to see Falques still alive. They only met for a few seconds and did not have time to talk. He was so badly wounded that the Việt Min did not expect him to live and, through an arranged meeting, delivered him to the French. Not only did he live, Falques returned to fight again in Việt Nam and also in Algeria.

Jeanpierre and his group decided to avoid Thất Khê and make directly for Lang Son. For seven days, starving and thirsty, they trudged through the jungle toward their destination. He knew there would be a stand at Lang Son.

De Labaume retreated to Thất Khê . General Giap sensed another opportunity to surround and destroy the French and ordered the Ban Trai bridge over the Ky Cung River on RC4 destroyed south of the town. General Carpienter, realizing Thất Khê might be destroyed, ordered a general retreat. No supplies were to be destroyed because the enemy might be alerted to the withdrawal. He also ordered Colonel Constans to send a relief force from Lang Son to meet them. The entire operation seemed a repeat of the disaster they had just experienced.

The retreating garrison crowded around the river. With the bridge destroyed they searched for boats to cross to the south side. They managed to find 6 boats. Crossing was slow. Legion units crossed first to secure the area. The paratroop unit was left behind to fend for themselves. Việt Minh Battalion 418 caught up with them and attacked. They scattered into the jungle for safety. All night they retreated through a drenching rain attempting to reach the French post at Lung Vai. The Việts had beaten them there and Regiment 147 drove them back into the jungle. Only two officers and three soldiers reached the safety at Dong Dang.

On October 13 the French withdrew from Na Sam. Four days later they abandoned Dong Dang. On October 18 they started to abandon Lang Son.

Jeanpierre and his remaining legionnaires arrived from the jungle to find the town in disarray. Confused soldiers and civilians wandered in a daze or in panic. General Carpentier had ordered Colonel Constans to abandon the town. Rather than destroy the stores of equipment, ammunition, and food, Constans left everything behind. The abandonment gave General Giap a gift of 13,000 tons of ammunition, almost 5,000 rifles, 10,000 artillery rounds, and various cannons.

Although they continued to fight and refused to admit defeat, the battles along RC4 marked the end of French Colonialism in Việt Nam. The French had lost 6,600 soldiers during the battle. Approximately 12 officers and 475 men made it to Lang Son. Of the First Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion, 3 officers, including Jeanpierre and Faulques, 3 NCOs and 23 legionnaires survived. Le BEP was finished as a battalion. The French eventually reconstituted the battalion only to have it wiped out at Dien Bien Phu four years later.

Le Page and Charton took the blame for the disaster, Le page for dispersing his forces, even though he had been ordered to, and Charton for disobeying orders.


"Retreat from Cao Bang, a guide for tourists" is available from Amazon 

 

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