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“Street Without Jam”

- The French Indochina War, with Really Bad Dice Throws -

by Tim Goodchild


Operation Auvergne and the Battle of Phu Ly (July 1954)


In late August 2004 I had the great pleasure of running an Indochina War game with Peter Hunt.  This game was based on an incident in “Operation Auvergne”, the last French operation of the Indochina War.


Background to the Battle:


By July 1954 the elite units of the French expeditionary corps had largely been destroyed in the battle of Dien Bien Phu .  The French High Command understood that a ceasefire would soon be signed with the Viet-Minh, but they didn't know when, and they looked nervously at the victorious Viet-Minh regular divisions, now moving out of Dien Bien Phu towards French positions in the Tonkin Delta.  The French High Command decided to retract its lines, to give itself a more defensible position and to create a reserve to hold the expected Viet-Minh onslaught.


Operation Auvergne involved the evacuation of the Southern Tonkin Delta (including the Catholic communities – who were friendly towards the French - around Phat Diem).  During this operation, the French had to rely on their few remaining Legion and North African battalions, backed up by the AVN (“Armée Nationale du Vietnam” – the army of the “official” government of Vietnam , and precursor to the ARVN). 


Through a combination of surprise, planning, and firepower, Operation Auvergne was an outstanding success, allowing 63,000 soldiers and civilians, and 11,000 tonnes of supplies, to be evacuated to positions closer to Hanoi . 


But the operation was “touch and go” in places.  As soon as the Viet-Minh realized that the evacuation was underway, they closed in on the French, aiming to ambush convoys, over-run posts, and stampede the French into a rout similar to that of October 1950.  The French were thus forced, on several occasions, to turn in their tracks and fight off their Viet-Minh pursuers, relying of airpower, armour, and artillery to buy them time to evacuate troops, supplies and friendly civilians. 


The battle of Phu Ly started by accident.  At 5.45 am on 3 July 1954 , French armoured units began to move out from their firebase to the West of the village of Phu Ly , to clear the road leading North to Hanoi .  Mistaking this for evidence of a general French withdrawal, the Vietminh launched a major attack on the French outpost line to the east of the village of Phu Ly .  Backed by mortar fire, the Viet-Minh quickly over-ran the outposts and the village of Phu Ly , scattering an AVN company and two recon platoons (and capturing a French artillery observation team) in the process. 


Startled by the Viet-Minh attack, the French rapidly counter-attacked, throwing in 2 armoured platoons and a battalion of Moroccan infantry (the III/5e “Régiment de Tirailleurs Marocains”), backed up by artillery and heavy air support.  Pushing the Viet-Minh back through the village of Phu Ly (which was by now in flames), the French were able to recapture the artillery observation team, inflict 147 dead on the Viet-Minh, and win the day.


But the battle of Phu Ly could have gone either way.  The Viet-Minh were well equipped (with infantry weapons), well led, and highly motivated.  The French had a monopoly on airpower and armour, but their morale was less robust.  As one contemporary observer noted, “nobody wanted to be the last man to die in this war”.


The Game:


The game places two “French” infantry battalions (one Moroccan, the other AVN), with armour, artillery, and air support against a Viet-Minh militia battalion, reinforced (over time) by two regular battalions, with intermittent mortar support. 



The battlefield was bounded by the River Day to the South, and a series of inland lakes to the North.  The ground consisted of paddy fields surrounding Phu Ly, with thick jungle and scrub bordering the road to Phu Ly.  A thick hedge surrounded the village of Phu Ly itself.  To the east of the village, on a low hill, stands the AVN outpost, over-run by the Viet-Minh.


The French orders are simple - to re-capture the village of Phu Ly and the AVN outpost to the east of it, and to withdraw by stages back to their base line once this was accomplished.  Viet-Minh orders are to prevent the French from attaining their objective.  The Viet-Minh initially have a militia battalion on the table, and receive one battalion of regulars on Turn 10, and another on Turn 20 (see below).  


The Re-fight:


This could have been a short game, as it was (theoretically) possible for Peter to have blown through the Viet-Minh militia battalion and arrive in Phu Ly in 3 turns (well before the Viet-Minh regulars could turn up). 



But correctly suspecting an ambush, and keen to preserve his armour, Peter took a prudent approach.  Deploying his Moroccans on his Southern flank and his AVN on his Northern flank, he carefully cleared the jungle on both sides of the Phu Ly road, before moving his armour forward behind an infantry screen.  Scattered fire fights broke out between the advancing French infantry and the Viet-Minh militia, tripping an anti-armour ambush in the process, and generally chasing the militia off the table. 


But all this took time (allowing both Viet-Minh regular battalions to enter the table), and causing the Moroccans to get badly strung out.  The remnants of the militia, backed up by one of the regular battalion were able to inflict casualties on the Moroccans, and hold them in place in front of the village of Phu Ly (despite 105mm howitzer fire).  But it was on Peter's Northern flank that the battle was decided.



Lighter than the Moroccans, and more familiar with the local terrain, Peter's AVN battalion was able to move quickly through the jungle, with relatively little straggling.  The AVN battalion was then able to seize, just ahead of an advancing battalion of Viet-Minh regulars, a small hill overlooking the paddy fields around Phu Ly. 


Surviving a (far too brief) Viet-Minh mortar barrage, the AVN battalion clung to the hill (despite its shaky morale), stalling a strong Viet-Minh attack. Peter then skilfully manoeuvred his M-24s to take the Viet-Minh battalion in a flanking crossfire.  The Viet-Minh had a brief moment of glory, when a Viet-Minh RCL team, with its first (and last) shot, destroyed one of the French M-24s.



But firepower counted more than fervour this day, and it was only a matter of time until the morale of this Viet-Minh battalion broke, and the survivors took to their heals (as did the long-suffering militia battalion).  Two of the three Viet-Minh battalions were now out of action, and French aircraft were beginning to bomb the third battalion out of Phu Ly.  Sighing deeply, the Viet-Minh commander fired a red flare to signal a general withdrawal.  The victorious French were left to capture their objectives, locate the missing artillery observation team, and withdraw without interference. 


Reviewing his shattered units, the Viet-Minh commander began to understand the folly of fighting firepower in the open, and vowed “next time...”


French Orders:


3 July 1954 , 08h00

To:             Lieutenant-Colonel Chasse, III/5e RTM

From:        Commander, Mobile Groupement 8


III/5e RTM is ordered to immediately establish contact with S/GB1 and 18e AVN.  With these units, III/5e RTM will attack the village of PHU LY and destroy Viet-Minh elements occupying the village and the AVN post to the east of it.  Upon the destruction of enemy forces, III/5e RTM and attached elements will retire by stages to friendly forces. 


III/5e RTM will have on-call support from 64e RA, and limited air support will be available for this attack.  An artillery observation team from the 64e RA will be attached to III/5e RTM. 


Enemy strength in PHU LY is estimated at 2 (two) militia battalions, supported by mortars located in the LAT SON area.  Friendly elements (including elements from 64e RA) overrun by the initial VietMinh attack may still be in the environs of PHU LY.


Evacuation of the wounded, coordination of radio frequencies, and liaison between involved units will be arranged between the command elements of the units.




Message End


Order of Battle:


French Units:


3rd Battalion, 5th Moroccan Rifle Regiment (average morale):

48 men

1 x MG

1 x 81mm mortar


18th AVN Infantry Battalion (low morale):

48 men

1 x MG

1 x 81mm mortar


1st Armoured Sub-Group (-) (average morale):

2 x M24 Chaffee

2 x M3 Half tracks (2 x MG)

8 men


Headquarters Group (average morale):

1 x Command half track (1 x MG)

1 x radio jeep (artillery observation team)

1 x jeep

8 men 


Artillery Support (off-board):

1st Battery , 64th Regiment Artillery

2 x 105mm howitzers


Air Support:

2 x F6F sorties (2 x medium bombs)

1 x B26 sortie (8 x medium bombs)


Viet-Minh Units:


1st Battalion, 95th Regiment (average morale): - arrives Turn 20

48 x men

1 x MG

1 x 57mm RCL


2nd Battalion, 95th Regiment (average morale): - arrives Turn 10

48 x men

1 x MG

1 x 57mm RCL


7th Provincial Battalion (poor morale):

48 x men

1 x MG

1 x bazooka


1 x mortar observation team, 95th Regiment


Mortar Company, 95th Regiment (off-board)

2 x 81mm mortars


NB, can only begin firing on a “6”, and must cease-fire if a “5 or 6” is thrown, until a new “6” is thrown.  Throughout 3 July 1954, French fight-bombers flew numerous sorties against Viet-Minh mortar positions, in an effort to silence them.


“Rapid Fire” – Rule Amendments

  • Treat jungle and grass lands as “difficult terrain”

  • Moroccan and European French units move at “difficult terrain rates”  (i.e. 6 inches less D6)

  • Viet-Minh and AVN units move at 6 inches less (D6 - 1).

  • Visibility into, out of, and within jungle and grassland areas is 3 inches.

  • RCL teams move and fire like bazooka teams (with the same limitations on ammo).

  • Paddy fields are treated as open terrain for movement, and figures immediately behind paddy field dykes are treated as in soft cover (July is summer in Vietnam , and so the paddy fields are “dry”).

  • To reflect limited communications and rigid command structures, Viet-Minh units must operate on the basis of written orders.  A “6” on a D6 must be thrown for any variation to those orders.

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