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Sur La Rue Sans Joie

a book and a game ~ 6 August 2005

by Peter Hunt


If you want to read the best, short, English account of the French Indochina War get Bernard Fall’s “Street Without Joy”.  Although 44 years old, and although it was written with little input from the Viet Minh side, it is still unmatched.  The title passed into the language as a metaphor for the war itself, and for the Second Indochina War as well.  As a geographical evocation of sadness “Street Without Joy” is probably only equalled by “Vale of Tears.”  



The book set the pattern for later popular works of military history by interweaving historical narrative with military detail and personal accounts.  It is not a blow-by-blow account of every action in the War.  Instead Fall adopted a narrative overview of the war that was interspersed with accounts of the major actions and with details of smaller actions or personal events that were typical of the war.  The eponymous chapter “Street Without Joy” is one of the latter cases, describing not a major decisive battle but “Operation Camargue.” This took place on 28th July 1953 as the French tried to clear the Viet Minh (VM) 95th Regiment from the coastal plain between Hue and Quang Tri.  The 95th had ambushed so many convoys on Route 1, Vietnam ’s main highway running from Saigon to Hanoi, that the road was christened “la rue sans joie.”



Fall described the terrain as several zones moving inland thus:


Coastline Fairly straight with hard sand offering no particular difficulties.
Dunes In some places stretching two kilometers from the sea.  Not high, but very hard to climb.
Graves , Pagodas and Villages An area of interlocking villages, often only 300 metres apart, that had been well fortified with trenches, tunnels and arms depots.
Marshes Between the villages and Route 1.  These bogs channeled the approaches to the villages on to well-defined, and easily defended, routes.


The French attacked this position with three amphibious task forces, two coming from the sea and one into the village zone from the South via a salt water lagoon; two land task forces with armoured support; and two airborne battalions.  The battle was a classic case of Viet Minh guile and experience versus French numbers and firepower.  It was “crying out” to be wargamed… so, at the August meeting, we did.


The table was 8’ x 6’ and represented the first three zones outlined above.  There was no point in putting on the marshes but the avenues of approach of the land task forces were limited.  Jeff reprised his role as Comrade Je, the VM overall commander assisted by Bill. Tim, in the role of the recently demised Captain Bonenfant’s father, Colonel Bonenfant, was the French C in C and personally commanded the sea born amphibious units.  He was assisted by Andrzej in charge of the lagoon amphibious landing and the Southern land thrust which included the 5th, Royal Polish, Cuirassiers.  Ken and Andrilea commanded the Northern, mechanized task force and the paratroops.  The troops we used were not the historical ones, but what we had available, reduced by a ratio of about 1:4 for the VM and 1:6 for the French.


The rules used were Arty Conliffe’s “Crossfire” with the “Hit the Dirt” supplement and my “Contre La Viets” amendments.  We also used two other amendments: long range small arms fire over 10” was subject to a “penalty dice” as explained on Lloyd Nikolas’ “Crossfire” website; and, as the dunes did not give a significant height advantage, overhead fire was only possible within 10” of the dune, after that line of sight was determined at ground level.  I know that the idea of using ranges runs contrary to “Crossfire’s” design philosophy but both of these rules were to intended stop one, well placed, HMG dominating the whole table, and they worked well.  In the event we only had to use a tape once in the whole five-hour game to measure a range.


The villages had been fortified, so the houses were classified as “bunkers.”  In addition to VM squads being represented by markers, with lots of dummies to sow confusion, the villages were mapped off-table so that VM squads, represented by counters, could move through the tunnel complexes and houses without being seen by the French.  In Crossfire terms the VM were allowed to make retreat moves through the tunnels even for pinned or suppressed units.  To keep things simple the VM were only allowed one squad in each normal sized house or in each connecting tunnel section.  This worked well, and added a lot of fun to the game for the VM, and anguish for the French.


“H” Hour was 0630.


In the Northern coastal sector Comrade Bill’s Company Commander was savouring his first coffee of the day in My Thuy when the dunes above the little village erupted in a chaos of caterpillar tracks, diesel fumes and tracer rounds as the Alligators; Crabes and LVT(A) amphibious tanks of the Northern amphibious group descended upon him.  As Vietnamese infantry debussed from the Alligators and assaulted his hut, the commander was lucky enough to get off a burst of SMG fire to halt his attackers at the last moment. He then disappeared into the tunnel complex to play a cat and mouse game with the French as they attempted to clear the village and the second line of dunes beyond.


Further South the second French amphibious group made an unopposed landing.  Bonenfant had considered a high-risk strategy of moving them quickly across the neck of land and then into the lagoon and up into the center of the VM position.  He decided against this axis of advance, which was fortunate because the Eastern side of the lagoon was mined.  Instead the amphibious armour swung North and commenced methodically reducing the VM positions in Dai Lac and Lang Boa, eventually linking up with the Northern amphibious group outside of the latter village.  This left hook was a good example of fire and movement taking out the largely stationary VM platoons in these villages.  The French success was only marred later in the day as the French amphibious tracks emerging from these villages, that they had entered from the rear, used the roads that had been mined to stop them entering from the front!



The lagoon assault force consisted of a company of Algerians carried in LCVPs supported by a vedette du marine patrol boat.  The LCVPs grounded outside the fishing village of Lai Ha and as their ramps splashed down a VM HMG in one of the fishing sampans opened up on them. The .30 calibers on the landing craft quickly disposed of the VM boat but the disembarking Algerians were then pinned down by heavy fire from the village.  Although the Algerians suffered few permanent losses, clearing the village took the rest of the morning.


The patrol boat had an even less happy day.  Proceeding North through the lagoon the little vessel entered the river leading to Van Trinh at the center of the VM position, discounting the possibility of the river being mined.  It was, and the wrecked boat was soon heading South.



Further inland the Southern land task force consisted of a mixed bag of Viet Binh Doan militia, Moroccan Goums and the Coventry armoured cars of the Royal Polish. Rather like the patrol boat, the militia discounted the possibility that the most obvious approaches would be well defended and advanced straight up the road. They were ambushed from the paddies just South of Phu An. Whilst the Viet Binh Doan achieved little in return for their sacrifice they had at least disclosed the VM positions in the paddies and village which the Goumiers and armoured cars then set about slowly, but steadily clearing.



In the North Ken and Andrilea did the right thing and debussed their infantry from their GMCs, which were useless off-road in this sort of terrain, and proceeded on foot with close armour support and a rolling barrage of 105 mm artillery, to clear Dong Que.  Whilst this attack was methodically proceeding Comrade Je used his reserve from the central village of Van Trinh to move through the tunnel systems and tree lines and launch a dramatic counter-attack on the French vehicle laager.  The undefended vehicles were quickly torched, giving the French a very uneasy moment.  But when Je tried to swing around on the rear of the French infantry the VM were caught by the heavy weapons of the French Company HQ and halted on the edge of a paddy.  Suppressed, and with more French heavy firepower being brought to bear, now it was the VM who were in a sticky position.  But in a brilliant display of inspirational leadership (and exceptional morale dice throwing), Comrade Je rallied his men and was able to withdraw them through the tunnels and cover back to Van Trinh.  



There the game ended.  The only thing that hadn’t worked well was the “moving clock” which was supposed to advance 30 minutes at the end of each VM initiative on a throw of 4, 5 or 6.  Jeff and Bill seemed incapable of getting this throw.  As a result “time” passed slowly and the French para drop scheduled for 1030 hours didn’t get the chance to arrive.  If I did it again I would add one to the dice for each VM initiative the clock didn’t advance so after a maximum of three initiatives it would do so automatically.


Only rather late in the game had the French come to realise that suppressing fortified positions with small arms needed a lot of time and a lot of luck, whilst close assaulting them without suppressing the defenders was quick, but bloody.  The answer was to suppress the fortified village houses with direct fire heavy weapons ~ tank and armoured car main guns and infantry RCLs ~ used in a “bunker busting” role, and then winkle out the suppressed defenders.  If the defenders escaped through their tunnel systems just be grateful that you did not have to go in after them!


The French had effectively cleared five and a half of the seven VM villages.  They had taken considerable losses, although they had inflicted heavier losses on the VM.  The Northern task force had linked up with the two sea born amphibious groups and the lagoon and Southern task forces were now in a position to push North on Van Trinh.  Thus their cordon was about 80% complete.  The VM still had an escape route to the west from Van Trinh.  However this would have been blocked by the paras who had been assigned to drop on “DZ Andrilea” which would have linked the Southern and Northern land task forces and completed the encirclement.


As it was the game was adjudged a VM marginal victory on account of the French losses.  But had we continued the new French tactics and the airborne reinforcements would have swung the balance more in their favour.  All-in-all honours on the “Street Without Joy” in 2005 were about equal ~ just as they were in 1953.


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