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A Night on the Day


a Confusion of Commandos

Report of the engagement of 7 July 2007

by Peter Hunt


A Bit of Introduction


Song Day, or the Day River is the southern arm of the Tonkin Delta, where the Red, Black and Clear Rivers flow to the sea and create the fertile rice basket of North Vietnam.  For most of the Indochina War the Day was also the boundary between the French controlled Delta region and the Viet Minh controlled areas surrounding it.  For the French “controlled” is a cosmetic term as much of the Delta was actually firmly under Viet Minh control.  Two Main Force Viet Minh regiments were permanently based there, and other Main Force divisions could easily cross into the Delta.  One thing that prevented the Viet Minh from operating at will within the Delta was French control of the rivers by groups of armoured assault vessels, the famous “Dinassauts.”  Whilst large Viet Minh forces could cross any river, the dinassauts offered the French High Command the means of moving troops and firepower quickly to the threatened area to cut the Viet Minh supply lines.  This proved a decisive factor in the defeat of the Viet Minh at the Battle of the Day River in June 1951.


A dinassaut consisted of World War II surplus landing craft of various sizes, often up-gunned and up-armoured.  In 1950 there were two dinassauts in Tonkin but the concept proved so successful that by 1952 there were four, as well as “River Posts” of fewer, smaller boats at the major towns. Early on, the average size of a dinassaut was about six boats but later this increased too.  As well as having transport craft that could carry any unit, most dinassauts also had their own intrinsic infantry in a “Light Accompanying Company” (“CLA”), or they could embark one of the French Navy’s Marine Commandos.


If the dinassauts are one of the hardware reasons why the French Indochina War is such an interesting period to study and wargame, the commandos are one of the software reasons.  Every French service in Indochina had its commandos, Army, Navy, Airforce, Intelligence, even the Gendarmerie.  Normally a commando was of about company strength, with fewer heavy weapons, but often with a higher proportion of NCOs and automatic weapons, that gave them flexible command and control and good firepower.  Most of the commandos were composed of Vietnamese other ranks and NCOs, stiffened by French officers, NCOs and specialist other ranks.  However, the Marine Commandos were entirely French and retained this status for much longer than the French army units that were “yellowed” by adding local personnel under De Lattre’s programme to build up the Vietnamese National Army.  But it was from the local units eventually attached to the Marine Commandos, and the CLAs, that the formidable ARVN Marine Division of the Second Indochina War sourced its early recruits and traced its heritage.


Of the multitude of commandos formed I have two special favourites.  First the Marine Commando De Montfort is a must simply because of the uniforms.  They wore British Royal Marine Commando green berets and British Paratroop “Denison” smocks.  In my imagination they looked at themselves in the mirror, smiled, said “not bad eh?” but worried that something was still missing.  A light bulb went off in their heads and they realised that all that they had to do to give themselves the most “bitchin’ ” combat appearance in the entire theatre was to eschew the common-or-garden French MAT sub-machineguns, or the gangster-like American Tommy guns, and instead adopt the elegant menace of the German MP40 Schmeisser as their clothing accessory of choice…voila!


On the other hand the Commando 24 “Vandenberghe” didn’t have any uniforms but sported Viet Minh, i.e. peasant, dress and Viet Minh helmets for their operations.  The unit’s commander, Roger Vandenberghe is the sort of character that even Hollywood couldn’t invent.  Of Jewish stock he was 12 when the Second World War broke out.  His father died and his mother was deported and murdered in the Nazi death camps.  Roger and his elder brother were declared orphans but ran away from their foster home to join the Resistance, fighting the Germans in the Pyrenees.  With the Liberation Vandenberghe’s Resistance group was subsumed into the regular French army and he went on to fight in Germany, earning his first Croix de Guerre when he was 17.  In 1947 he was posted to Indochina where, with the exalted rank of Corporal Chef, he found himself leading a platoon of local partisans.  This platoon became the reconnaissance element of the 6th Infantry Regiment and later grew into the 11th Light Military Supplementary Company (“CSLM”), before becoming Commando 24.  Vandenberghe himself rose to the rank of Adjutant-Chef or Warrant Officer.


Commando 24 was composed of volunteers from the Tho, Nung and Meo ethnic groups who were traditionally hostile to the Viet Minh and also included many “turned” Viet Minh, who, with no way back to their old allegiance, should have been totally reliable.  However this practice also left the Commando open to infiltration by not-so-turned Viet Minh agents, and on several occasions Vandenberghe had to deal expeditiously with plots against him.  Commando 24 was one of the original 30 “Commandos de Zone” that covered the Delta.  It was probably a lot more effective at guerrilla tactics than any line company, and it certainly was a lot more “expendable” as far as the High Command was concerned.  So it often got the most dangerous missions, operating behind enemy lines as mock Viet Minh.


The high point of Vandenberghe’s career came in May 1951 when the Commando had to cross the Day and penetrate the lines of the Viet Minh assaulting the town of Ninh Bin (where Marshal de Lattre de Tassigny’s only son Bernard lay dead on the famous “rock” dominating the river), to reinforce the Vietnamese Army and Marine Commando defenders until relieved by regular forces.  Commando 24 infiltrated the Viet Minh position, stormed the rock, recovered de Lattre’s body, and held out until relieved – at the cost of one-third casualties for the unit and another bad wound for its commander.


Vandenberghe was finally commissioned lieutenant after Ninh Bin.  In his service he earned the Legion of Honour, the Military Medal, the Croix de Guerre for 1939 / 45, the Croix de Guerre for Indochina with 14 bars, six mentions in despatches and eight wound stripes.  Marshal de Lattre considered him one of the, if not the, best small unit commanders in Vietnam and said, “give me 100 Vandenberghes and Vietnam will be free”.  Alas though, soon there was not even one Vandenberghe.  The losses at Ninh Bin were replaced with more turned Viet Minh and the inevitable infiltration finally succeeded:  Vandenberghe was assassinated in January 1952 and his Commando destroyed from the inside.


For those of you who think that my descriptions of the Commando De Montfort and the Commando Vandenberghe are coloured by too much Vinogel or 33 Bier, click here to see the official French army photo archives of the “Pirates of the Delta”.  OK…  I appreciate that the early photos of the Commando De Montfort dressed to the nines are clearly of a staged exercise in the photogenic Ha Long Bay, and that the actual combat shots show them much more nondescript and scruffy, but which would you rather paint?


The Idea


As I mentioned in my “Why Indochina?” article a long time ago, one of the joys of this period from the wargames point of view is sourcing and converting the esoteric figures and kit.  For instance, out there in wargames land I discovered that SHQ Miniatures did British Paras using captured German weapons, ideal for the Commando De Montfort with their berets, smocks and Schmeissers.  Tim had converted a brace of Airfix / Heller LCVPs into their distinctive Indochinese appearance.  I took a Britannia British Habour Defence Motor Launch with its pom pom gun and bearded and duffle coated crew, and converted it into French up-armoured and up-gunned Vedette du Port, with a more tropically relaxed crew in bare buff and shorts from Raventhorpe and Britannia, commanded by an Airfix RAF officer as the immaculate enseigne de vaisseau in his tropical whites.  The final bit of colour was provided by Tim acquiring the new Liberation Miniatures Moroccans.  Having assembled all these toys all that was required was a scenario that would use them and keep five gentlemen entertained for an afternoon.


The basic scenario envisaged the Commando Vandenberghe attempting to infiltrate Viet Minh positions to pass on a high value prisoner to a dinassaut transported landing force consisting of the Commando De Montfort and a Company of Moroccan tiralleurs.  The game was to take place on a fictional, but typical, part of the Day, Ban Doa Quoc or “Patriots’ Point”.  The river defences were based on those shown in “La Marine Français Dans La Guerre d’Indochine” by Contre-amiral Bernard Estival, and included controlled mines and prepared positions.


As you can see from the orders the problem for the Commando Vandenberghe and the dinassaut was that they did not know where each other would be.  The problem for the Viet Minh was that they did not know what was going on.  The problem for everyone was that all this was all going to happen at night.  I did not tell the players their victory conditions although, in broad terms, they were pretty obvious to each, but the game was designed so that everyone could win.  For the Viet Minh and the dinassaut forces it would depend on recovery of the prisoner, and their own loss to enemy kill ratio.  For the Commando Vandenberghe it would depend upon whether they could pass on the prisoner safely and in how much secrecy they could do this.  With the participants pondering the uncertainties of their positions Jeff took on the role of Comrade Je’s turncoat cousin leading the Vandenberghe, Tim, represented the Bonenfant family’s naval arm commanding the De Montfort, Neil “Ben Ned” stepped out as the Moroccan Captain and Andrzej and Franky dug in as the hardened Viet Minh Regional Company Commanders Hahn Che and Li.


The Plans


The dinassaut and Vandenberghers chose diametrically opposed strategies.  Tim decided to move as far as possible into the Viet Minh position and chose his landing site as close to the expected entry point of the Vandenberghe as he could.  This entailed a long journey along the river which, if conducted slowly and relatively quietly, should be safe from detection until the final approach.  The downside of this was that, at some point, an equally long withdrawl along the river would be necessary with the Viet Minh fully alert this time.


Jeff decided that the Vandenberghers would move as little as possible.  Securing a perimeter with two platoons the third platoon held the prisoner safely in the rear and the Commando hunkered down to await developments.  Thus, as it turned out, the two plans complimented each other well.  Because Jeff didn’t move far from his entry point, and because Tim tried to land as close as possible to that entry point, both were well placed to link up.  The only problem being the time used up by the long dinassaut approach.


For their part the Viet Minh opted for defence in depth.  Patriots’ Point was split diagonally between the two Regional Companies.  Appreciating that the French would have a lot of firepower on the river both commanders only put one platoon forward in well dug in positions, supported by recoilless rifles to take on the landing craft, and screened by the village militia.  The other platoons and heavy weapons were echeloned back throughout the position where they could take on any French attackers after they had gone beyond the support of the dinassaut.


The Game Mechanics


As usual we used “Crossfire” Rules with my “Contre Les Viets” amendments.  Visibility was 12”.  Company commanders had a few Verey flares each which would illuminate their own position to a radius of 24” for their own impulse only.  Mortar parachute flares could be fired as directed and would illuminate the target to a radius of 24” for the firer’s impulse and the opponent’s impulse.


The Viet Minh mines, fighting positions and bunkers; and their troop dispositions were marked on maps so we didn’t have to use the usual dummy counters.  When a Viet Minh or Vandenbergher ordered a move I, as umpire, would calculate how long it would take and also throw for bogging where necessary.  This system worked remarkably smoothly.


Finally, to simulate the unreliable dispositions and morale of the village militia, the Viet Minh players were given civilian figures to deploy.   These would not move until enemy units came in sight and would then dice.  On a score of 1, 2 or 3 there was nothing there; 4 would get you one militiaman; 5 two; and 6 a squad of three.  A full size squad would operate as a normal Crossfire squad, being able to move when in command, and able to fire with the normal three dice.  The groups of one or two militiamen would fire with one or two dice respectively and could only move towards other militiamen; i.e. the had either to stay put and fight or regroup into proper tactical units.  If a sub-squad group suffered any combat result, including pinned or suppressed, it was killed – there would be insufficient leadership to hold them together and they would either permanently go to ground or disperse.  I was pleased with the way that this little rule worked.  Neither side could be sure what was what, and, although the Viet Minh could ensure some coverage of an area by putting several civilian figures there, they could not be certain how effective the resulting militia would be.


The Night


At 0015 hours a platoon of weary and muddy Viet Minh Regionals traipsed into the most north-easterly hamlet of the many in Ban Doa Quoc.  They exchanged fraternal greetings with some of Comrade LI’s men and explained that 42nd Regiment had given instructions for them to reinforce the river line.  LI’s men bade them well and the Vandenberghers, for it was they, traipsed out of the hamlet to take up positions in the paddy beyond.  As they did so the second platoon of Commando 24 that had been covering the move from the jungle bordering the hamlet relaxed their trigger fingers …  Having secured a perimeter that would allow them to move in any direction when the arrival of the dinassault was known, the Vandenberghers settled down to wait, with the croaking of the frogs and the bites of the mosquitoes to keep them awake through what could be a long night.


On board the dinassault boats, their engines ticking over to give them barely steerageway against the current of the Day River the long, but relatively silent approach was wearing on the nerves of the Moroccans and Marines.  Anything could give them away, a backfire from the worn out diesels of the landing craft, an ill-guarded cigarette, let alone an alert Viet Minh on the dark banks beyond.  But Bonenfant had put his faith in a covert approach and his faith was upheld … almost.


At 0215 hrs the dinassaut turned 90 degrees from its approach in column into its line assault formation.  The right flank was covered by a “Y” cutter vedette du patrol.  Then came two pairs of landing craft containing first the De Montfort, then the Moroccans.  The left flank was covered by the powerfully armed vedette du port.  Behind the assault forces the larger LCM du Train waited off shore until it was needed.  As they approached the shore details emerged from the darkness and the gunners behind their Oerlikons and .50 calibers took aim on anything suspicious.  On the right the gunners held their fire but on the left the cannon and machine guns spat out at the sampans moored on the river bank, leaving them burning and sinking as the landing craft touched bottom and the ramps splashed down onto the muddy banks of the Day.


Almost at once things started to go wrong.  Bonenfant’s plan had envisaged the entire dinassaut arriving in one compact mass.  During the long approach however the vedette du port had not kept station so, when the formation turned into the banks, she was further down river than she should have been.  This bad navigation would not have mattered except that Bonefant’s approach had fortuitously kept the dinassaut clear of the Viet Minh mines in the river, but the vedette du port’s lapse took her almost directly on top of a controlled mine.


On the river bank Platoon Leader Dinh of Li’s first platoon held his breath, flicked the switch that connected the batteries to the mine’s detonator, and prayed that the thousand-and-one things that could go wrong with a improvised electrical device under water did not go wrong.  His prayer was rewarded by a tower of water erupting just yards from the vedette’s port side.  Dinh stared, not believing that the mine had worked.  Then he recovered himself; put all reactionary superstitious thoughts of prayer out of his mind; and regaled his cheering men with a short discourse on the triumph of the Patriot Masses’ Socialist engineering skills over the capitalist hand-me-downs that the imperialist British had given to their country’s French oppressors.


To the Moroccans peering over the bulwarks of the landing craft the crippling of their largest escort was not a good omen for their own prospects, and this omen proved true.  As the platoons splashed ashore they came under heavy fire from Dinh’s men and were pinned down on the riverbank.  To their right the Commando De Montfort got ashore in good order, seeing off a few militiamen, but as they pushed inland a rattle of small arms from another of Li’s squads halted them and this was followed by the boom of an SKZ recoilless rifle shattering the night.  It was with mixed feelings that the Marine Commandos realised that the SKZ was not firing at them but at the ‘Y’ cutter in the river behind them, as a series of direct hits crippled the smaller vedette.


The Commando De Montfort reacted quickly to this threatening situation.  The Viet Minh platoon in front of them was actually split between two positions, one squad and the SKZ to the front, and the other two squads further to the rear.  With the heavy weapons on the landing craft supporting them the Marines made good use of fire and movement, suppressing and then close assaulting the two Viet Minh positions in quick succession.  They were now in a position to push inland and find the Vandenberghe.


The gunfire and explosions from the riverbank left Je in no doubt where the dinassaut had arrived and he quickly took his third platoon, with the prisoner, to reinforce the platoon in the paddy.  They then moved forward into some calcaieres and from these limestone crags they could look down to the banks of the Day.  Although in the darkness they could not make out fried or foe, the tracer, flares and fires on the river bank and the vessels beyond showed the positions of the combatants as clear as any map.  The calcaieres were an ideal position for Je but there was just one snag … they were also occupied by Li’s last platoon.


The De Montfort too could see the calcaieres, silhouetted against the night sky, and they splashed forward through some paddies towards them.  As they did so they exposed their flank to a squad of militia and the Commando’s headquarters was pinned down.  Bonenfant brought up one of his platoons to bring fire down on the militia to relieve the HQ, whilst the rest of the Commando pushed on towards the calcaieres.  As they emerged from the paddy they found before them an open field and a stream with the calcaieres beyond.  Suddenly a torch flashed in the darkness:  “…-”.  The Marines understood what the ‘V’ sign meant but still they were not prepared for the concentrated fire of three platoons pouring out of the calcaieres.  They were even less prepared to discover that, whilst two of those platoons were shooting high and wide, one was shooting in deadly earnest.  The lead squad of Marines took heavy casualties and the others had great difficulty in extricating themselves, falling back into the darkness of the paddy.  Out of sight of the calcaieres, where Bonenfant had regrouped and the flanking fire from the militia was very much the lesser of two evils.


Je conferred quickly with his second platoon commander and then led his third platoon forward, splashing across the stream towards the paddy in the darkness beyond.  Minutes later Li’s men in the calcaieres and the militiamen saw the centre of the paddy erupt in tracer and grenade explosions.  Then there was silence . . .


Back at the beachhead fire from the crippled vedette du port as it floated downstream, and from the landing craft was slowly wearing down Dinh’s platoon and bringing some relief to the Moroccans pinned down on the riverbank.  This was short-lived however as mortor rounds started to fall amongst the hapless North Africans.  Comrade Li had brought his Headquarters element forward.  He had sited a heavy machine gun just at the edge of darkness in front of the Moroccan position so that if they moved forward they would be enfiladed, and he was now carefully adjusting the mortar fire by virtue of Verey flares sent up by Dinh.  In doing so Dinh was signing his own death warrant as the return fire finally put an end to him and his platoon.


And what of Hahn Che?  His company had held the Western part of Ban Doa Quoc with his heavy weapons and Militia covering the riverbanks, and with his Regional platoons echeloned back in jungle and hamlets on a line dividing Ban Doa Quoc in two.  Thus his men were well placed either to counter attack or to take any forward move by the Moroccans in the flank.  Once the location of the French landing was clear Hahn Che redeployed his heavy weapons to reinforce the infantry line and by 0300 hrs his whole company was in place.  Having done so Hahn Che moved forward himself to direct the fire of his own mortar, cleverly moving right up to Dinh’s old position which had been thoroughly raked over by French fire and was now being ignored by them.


To command North African’s well it was necessary to have good “baraka” – an aura of luck and authority.  Ben Ned now demonstrated that his baraka was in fine shape.  Ignoring the mortar rounds he moved amongst his squads on the riverbank and rallied them.  Ben Ned’s instructions had been to push inland to cover the flank of the Marines and now he was at last able to do so.  But, just as he was shaking his platoons into line for an advance, which unbeknownst to him would take him straight into Li and Hahn Che’s killing zone, he was stopped by a crackling of radios and a blowing of whistles to his right – the Marines were falling back to their landing craft, it was time to pull out.


The evacuation could have been handled better.  The De Montfort embarked safely but in their haste non-one considered the battered ‘Y’ cutter, which was left behind in the darkness its crew making frantic repairs.  A few minutes taken out to rig a towline would have saved many sailors’ lives.  The Moroccans were also caught by the haste of the withdrawal and as a result one of their landing craft was badly overloaded whilst the other carried only a couple of squads.


The French had good cause to hurry as the lightening of the eastern sky told them that the cover of night on the Day was running out.  Seeing the French depart the Viet Minh redoubled their efforts, concentrating both mortars on the Moroccan’s landing craft.  Inevitably some of the rounds hit home and in the packed confines of the open topped armoured boxes the results of direct hits were devastating.  Hahn Che redeployed his heavy weapons to the river bank and as dawn came the dinassaut had to run the gauntlet they had avoided on their approach.  Sailing in a compact group the landing craft were battered, but putting down heavy return fire, were mostly unscathed.  The ‘Y’ cutter, following behind and alone, in broad daylight now, was left a floating wreck with its entire crew killed or injured and only the strong current of Song Day carrying it to safety.


With the guns silent Comrade Li surveyed the field.  He found the dead hero Dinh, still clutching his Verey pistol, his satchel of flares empty, surrounded by the survivors of his platoon.  Then Li inspected the remains of his second platoon, overrun by the French.  He congratulated the militia squad that had halted the Marines’ progress through the paddy.  Li assured them of their impending elevation to Regional status.  He put down their less than enthusiastic response to this honour to fatigue; it had been a long night after all.  Then he climbed into the calcaieres to find his third platoon.  The militia had told him of the firefights before the calcaieres and in the paddy so he expected his men to be relatively unscathed.  Aghast Li found them all dead or missing.  He looked at the bodies, some shot at close range, some shot in the back, some victim to knife wounds.  Now Li understood.  As he looked out over the scarred paddy and smoldering hamlets to the brown river beyond he knew that there had been treachery this night on the Day.




Extract from the Report of Je O Wen to Adjutant Chef Vandenberghe, Commando 24 Nord Viet Nam:


“… Realising that the Commando de Montfort could not advance into the fire of the rebel platoon holding the calcaieres I staged a mock advance with my third platoon in order to mask the rebel’s fire.  Before doing so I instructed the second platoon to remain in the calcaieres and to destroy the rebel platoon as discretely as possible to secure my own line of retreat.


Having entered the paddy I made the recognition signal and was answered by Captain de Corvette Bonenfant.  We passed on the prisoner under cover of a mock firefight.  Commando De Montfort commenced their withdrawal to the river and I then withdrew to the calcaieres where I found that 2nd Platoon had dealt with the rebels most expeditiously and effectively.  I then gave the order to withdraw in platoon order 3, 2, 1 and the entire Commando had safely broken contact with the enemy by 0445 hrs.  The Commando suffered no killed and only five wounded from 2nd Platoon during the fight on the calcaieres.”


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