Why Indochina?

Home About Membership Contact Despatches Supplies Forum Gallery News

Capitaine Bonenfant's Convoy

report of the engagement of 11 October 2003

by Peter Hunt


Lt. Col. Chasse shuffled the papers on his desk and tried to make sense of them: operational orders; intelligence reports; eyewitness accounts; all full of information, full of detail but Chasse knew that they would only go part of the way to telling him what happened that day.  It didn’t really matter.  Hanoi wouldn’t be interested in his report.  Three good young officers killed would be just another personnel problem for them, just another reason to push Paris for more, just another reason to hurry another intake of cadets out of St. Cyr and Da Lat and into the cauldron of Indochina .  But Chasse had liked all three of them, he owed it to them to tell their stories ~ they deserved it and it might be useful for those coming after them.


Chasse thought back to his first letter to Bonenfant nonchalantly describing the situation in the sector.  He had been impressed with Bonenfant’s workmanlike reply.  Clearly although Bonenfant was new to the Delta he knew his stuff.  Of course in this infernal county these orders were probably in Viet Minh hands before they were in Chasse’s hands, but Chasse couldn’t help thinking that even the Viets would have been impressed.


Chasse turned to the bloodstained operational orders taken off the dead enemy company commander.  Chasse recognized that he was up against a professional here, a Viet Minh commander who had spent considerable time in the training schools of Southern China and even more time at the front.  Yes Bonenfant and Je were well matched.  Chasse smiled when he saw that even the Viet Minh had problems with their logistics ~ and as in any army the biggest problem was usually the quartermasters who believed that stores were called “stores” because if they were meant to be issued they would be called “issues.”  


Of course orders do not survive contact with the enemy.  That is where the eyewitness accounts came in.  They told of the happy atmosphere at Ben Mi that morning.  The convoy had already made it more than half way unmolested.  When they had stopped to deliver mail and supplies to the fortified “Point Kilometre” Base at PK 37, Captain Ky commanding the Vietnamese National Army garrison had made Bonenfant welcome in his mess and introduced him to Lt Chane, Chasse’s own artillery commander who would accompany him back to Bac To.  Perhaps they were too happy, too relaxed.  For, after Chane joking about requisitioning a civilian saloon car in the convoy as his personal transport, they decided to share Bonenfant’s command jeep.  Chasse’s eyes arched skyward in exasperation at this point: experienced officers putting


“all their eggs in one basket” ~ when would we ever learn that the Viets would not forgive any elementary mistakes like this?


Je’s plan was simple and robust as suited his troops.  His veteran company and the heavy weapons would take out the convoy whilst the larger green company would conduct a text book attack on the fortified PK.  Machine guns and mortars would put down fire from across the road whilst the infantry would attack at right angles to the base of fire.  The assault on the post was to be led by treachery!  That was the Viet Minh way of doing things.


As the convoy left the PK “all hell broke loose,”  The convoy itself was stopped at the front by a roadblock but the initial salvo of bazooka and recoilless rifle rounds left the stalled vehicles relatively unscathed.  Further back however Bonenfant’s command jeep came under sustained sniper, mortar and HMG fire.  Bonenfant and Chane scrambled into the paddy next to the road.  It wasn’t clear from the reports whether they were untouched, or wounded, or already dead at this point, but they, and their orderlies and radio men, were to undergo constant enemy fire for the next hour.  To all intents and purposes the convoy was now leaderless.


Inside the PK a “Trinh Sat” reconnaissance squad posing as villagers had used satchel charges to attack the command bunker, which housed Captain Ky and the post’s HMG.  Although not destroyed outright the banker was suppressed and, like the convoy, the Pk should have been leaderless, but a young man, so boring and abstemious that they called him “the Bishop” as a pun on his Vietnamese name: Giam, the lieutenant in charge of the second platoon of the PK’s garrison showed that whether on the Communist side or the Nationalist side there was no discount on Vietnamese bravery that day.


Chasse had to admit that the Viet Minh assault on the PK was well coordinated.  The bunker was suppressed by the “Trinh Sat” attack and, although Giam’s men in the barracks gave covering fire they too were hard pressed by the Viet Minh heavy weapons bearing upon them from the village across the road.  Then, under cover of smoke, the Viet Minh assaulted the bunker, urged forward by their political officer comrade Trang.  From the accounts he read Chasse could not help respecting, even admiring, Trang.  As the novice Viet Minh because stuck on the wire surrounding the bunker Trang steadied them, disentangled them, and led them through the cleared lanes.  Then, as belatedly French artillery started to fall in support of the bunker, Trang led the assault and seized the heart of the fortified post ~ it seemed that the Viet Minh would sweep all before them.

Meanwhile the battle for the convoy twisted and turned.  At the head of the convoy the “Route Controller” Military Police had come across the roadblock and, although surviving the initial barrage of machine gun and bazooka fire, had de-bussed into the jungle.  Chasse shrugged.  The jungle belonged to the Viet Minh and only traffic cops like “le flics” would have ignored that ~ they were quickly dispatched by a Viet Minh section waiting in ambush.


After their first volley the Viet Minh heavy weapons found their range.  The M8 Greyhound armoured car was suppressed and under cover of this fire a Viet Minh platoon surged forward, assaulting and destroying the M8.  They then worked their way up the convoy but miscalculated.  The White scout car which should have fallen easily to them contained a French reconnaissance squad and a short, sharp skirmish left many Viet Minh dead at the roadside.


At the tail end of the convoy, stuck in the crossfire between the village and the PK, chaos reigned.  The escort platoon of French regulars debussed from their Dodge, scampered into the ditch leading back to the PK … and stayed there for the rest of the action.  Veterans all, they had got to that status by not risking their necks for anyone ~ and were not about to change now.  But at the very rear of the convoy came an armoured “gun truck” armed with a 40 mm Bofors and a .50 cal HMG.  After overcoming some minutes of stunned inertia, the gun-truck finally opened up with its devastating firepower to give both the rear of the convoy and the PK the relief they needed.


Inside the PK, with the fire from the village reduced, Siam was able to move one of his squads into the mess hut.  This gave his platoon mutually supporting fires across the PK and when Comrade Trang tried to move his men across this beaten ground even the smoke of his mortars could not protect him from the crossfire.  Chasse marvelled as he read the witness reports of Trang trying time, and time again, to rally his stunned troops for one final assault.  Despite all his exhortations he was never able to get more than one squad to its feet and finally, in exasperation led only them into the attack.  The Nationalist Vietnamese in the barracks held their ground, the Viet Minh were cut down, but they found a posthumous hero in Trang.  Chasse shuddered: with men like Trang leading them the Viet Minh would raise the stakes of this war to a point where even France would fold.  It might take time, and thousands of French and Vietnamese lives, for Hanoi and Paris to realize that, but the truth was plain for Chasse to see.

Beyond the PK Je had set about using his heavy weapons and last functioning platoon to destroy the military part of the convoy.  A Vietnamese Nationalist patrol had taken one of his squads by surprise but had been destroyed when it pushed its luck and assaulted Je’s headquarters.  The lesson should have been clear but perhaps even a wily old fox like Je had been carried away by the excitement.  Instead of withdrawing with his task more than half complete he redeployed to take on the PK, only to find himself ravaged by the fire of its defenders and the “gun truck.”


French firepower was bound to prevail in the end, but with Bonenfant and Chane incapacitated, it had taken a long time to bring the artillery, air and ground resources that should have given the French an overwhelming superiority to bear.  Without a forward controller the batteries at Bac To had deviated over the target area, admittedly doing damage because the Viet Minh were so thick on the ground, but rarely doing damage where it counted.  The French total superiority in the air had counted for little.  There was a “big push” on that day and all the B26s were diverted to missions well away from lowly PK 37.  A Criquet observation plane had improved the artillery fire for about half an hour but even it had left before the only Bearcat sortie of the day arrived.  Without good direction the Bearcat loosed its ordinance on some peasants in the paddy fields.


Finally however the armoured reaction platoon from Bac To broke through to the convoy.  The tanks, gun carriages and half tracks quickly manoeuvred against the Viet Minh rear.  Je, realizing that the tide had turned, made off to fight again, but Bu Ngyet, the commander of the second company seemed to seek death as he led his headquarters against the French tanks ~ to an inevitable end. 


As the “Bisons” broke through to the PK the recriminations started immediately.  The dazed French and Nationalist survivors had no doubt that they had almost been brought down by treachery.  Their response was swift and brutal, and, as later, more reasoned intelligence analysis was to show, totally misdirected against innocent villagers.


Chasse sifted through the motorpool’s report of vehicles destroyed, burned out and, even worse, looted of their heavy weapons, radios and first aid kits.  The Viets had made a good haul.  The command jeep was a complete write off.  Probably just as well thought Chasse ~ with two convoy commanders bleeding to death in the same jeep within a fortnight he would have been hard put to find another comfortable passenger for it in future.


Chasse finished his report.  Hanoi would read it as almost a victory.  Two Viet Minh companies had been destroyed for half a convoy and a Vietnamese National platoon.  Good for Hanoi thought Chasse.  He still had more paperwork to do.  He looked in the files for the addresses of Bonenfant’s, Chane’s and Ky’s next of kin.  The hard writing of the day was yet to begin.


The Game


The game was played at the October 2003 meeting.  Tim Goodchild visiting from Singapore via Dien Bien Phu was the eponymous “Bonenfant.”  Ken Chan was “Chane” and James Bishop was “Ky” and “Giam” ~ or Bishop in Vietnamese.  On the side of the masses Jeff Herbert was company commander “Je”, Neil Burnett was company commander “Bu Ngyet”, and the political commissar Comrade Trang was played by a 20 mm high lump of lead whose determination and courage, (if not his dice rolling,) won the heart of all present that day.


Both Tim and Jeff put a lot of effort into their pre-game orders which was an obvious indication that “the suspension of disbelief,” so important to a good game, was well underway.  The game was played using “Crossfire” rules with my Indochina amendments and the “moving clock.”  Tim had never used these rules before but he was soon up to speed.


By way of treachery, or “preparing the battlefield” as the Viet Minh prefer to call it, Jeff was given full access to the French order of march and Neil had a “Trinh Sat” squad inside the post posing as peasants to make a satchel charge attack.  Although the village head, (who, in his defence, had seen his predecessor murdered,) had assured the French that the village was secure, the Viet Minh were allowed to deploy throughout it.


Jeff’s plan was very workmanlike and well suited to the capability of his troops.  Really he intended to fight two separate battles:  His own veteran company, supported by most of the heavy weapons would take out the convoy; whilst Neil’s larger but less well trained company would conduct a classic attack against the post, using heavy weapons in the village as a base of fire whilst the infantry assault moved in at right angles to it. 


The Trinh Sat squad had a choice of three targets: the command bunker, the mortar pit or the barracks where Giam’s platoon was sleeping.  The former was the most important, but the best protected.


What Jeff didn’t appreciate was the length of the convoy.  We had played a similar convoy ambush game before with him as the French but in the year or so since then I had been happily building more and more vehicles.  Thus the convoy was much larger than Jeff expected so, although his chosen ambush point was halfway down the table, the rearguard had not yet left the village when the Viet Minh struck.  As a result the rear of the convoy tended to work in concert with the post defenders and this went a long way to finally defeating Neil’s assault.  Jeff now assures me that I have “enough” vehicles, but, being a lifelong wargamer, I have no idea what that word means!


Neither Tim nor Ken were able to come up with a convincing reason as to why they chose to both travel in the same vehicle.  It cost them clearly as the Viet Minh mortars, snipers and machine guns first pinned, then suppressed, then killed them over the next hour.  The air and artillery amendments worked well.  Without a forward observer the potentially devastating French artillery was delayed and inaccurate; and Ken had an uncanny knack of throwing for B26 bombers to arrive when I don’t have one.  (In the car on the way home Ken was seriously considering building one for the next game.  If he does I shall have to make him Viet Minh!)  When French air support eventually arrived they misacquired their target and bombed some poor peasants instead.


The game played out as described by Chasse above.  It was fast and furious although, in circumstances like this, time seemed to pass slowly ~ i.e. we had lots of initiatives but the French could not get the dice scores necessary for the “moving clock” to advance.  If there were three critical decisions in the game they were:

  • James’ splitting Giam’s platoon, a risky move it itself, but when he accomplished it his squads were able to give each other supporting fire and the Viet Minh were unable to use smoke or covering fire to neutralize the whole platoon.

  • Jeff, having demolished the front of the convoy, redeploying to help the assault on the post and exposing himself to the fire of the rear of the convoy and the post.  This was a calculated risk that didn’t come off.   

  • When the French armour eventually arrived the remaining Viet Minh should have pulled out there and then.  Jeff managed to get away with his life and Neil’s final attack with his company commander against the French attack was, as the French Chasseur a’ Cheval said: “magnifique, mais c’est ne pas la guerre.”

One of the most interesting bits of the game came after it ended when the French players were asked to identify who had betrayed them.  Although there had been several clues throughout the game the French players, nice chaps and gentleman all, acted on their instincts and chose civilians that they didn’t like the look of and were in the wrong place at the wrong time … innocent civilians as it turned out.  I hadn’t intended this as any kind of morality test but it was an interesting insight ~ someone, I suppose, has to be to blame.


  back to vietnam