BRIEFING TO THE FRENCH COMMANDER:
|Location: Pleiku, High Plateau,
Annam Date: 30 August 1954
Come in Colonel Chasse, have a seat. Pernod? No? You won't mind if I do, it's been rather a long morning. Anyway, welcome to the Pleiku "hedgehog". I hope you had a good flight in.
I've been told to brief you, but most of the big picture stuff you'll already know. The Government in Paris has been unable to reach a ceasefire agreement that satisfactorily protects the honour of France, and so the war continues. The Government's crumbled, and Mendès-France has gone, but the Viets seem perfectly happy to keep on fighting. And who can blame them?
The Viets have been stalemated around the Tonkin Delta, and their attempt to take Hanoi has been halted, for the time being. That's the first reason you're here, of course. But given General Giap's desire to march into at least one of Indochina's "great" cities, High Command's worried about a potential Viet push out of the High Plateau towards Saigon. That's the second reason you're here.
The powers-that-be have decided to regroup all of the French forces in the High Plateau at Ban Me Thuot. From there we will safeguard the Northeast approach to Saigon, and keep the Saigon-ese tucked up safely in their beds. As part of this regrouping, Pleiku will be evacuated. That's where you come in. You will lead one of the Mobile Groups breaking out south along Route 19 to Ban Me Thuot.
We've learnt from the An Khe debacle that speed is essential for this sort of evacuation. Therefore, we haven't gone through the usual rigmarole of evacuating civilians by air, and preparing everything for demolition. That just sends a warning signal to the Viets. Instead, we'll hit the Viets like a thunderbolt before they're prepared, and smash through to Ban Me Thuot. Speed is the key, Chasse! Speed and surprise!
The terrain between here and Ban Me Thuot is damnably rough. I know, I used to hunt there back in the '40s. Hills, jungle, grassland, swamps. But we need to move quickly Chasse, and that means going by road. The Viets may have mined or cut the road. They usually do. And so I've made sure that you'll have sappers riding along with you.
I should also warn you that I'm assigning some Vietnamese civilians to your column. They're civil servants, the families of AVN soldiers, and those known to be "friendly" to the French. We aren't able to evacuate them by air, and we can't leave them behind, and so they'll be going along with you. Keep them out of the way, and try not to get them killed.
Now, let me tell you about the forces you'll have under your command.
First off, you'll have the second battalion of the "Coree" regiment. They're good troops, and did awfully well in Korea. But they are rather tired, and a little shell-shocked. You heard what happened to their first battalion? Terrible business.
I've also given you a battalion of light Vietnamese infantry, the 530th. The less said about them, the better. But looking at the positive side, they're delighted to be leaving Pleiku, and their enthusiasm to get back to the lowlands is positively boundless. But seriously, keep an eye out for them. There have been cases of these light battalions mutinying, and I wouldn't want that to happen on my watch.
But not to worry, I've pulled a few strings and got you some armour. You'll have a full company of the 5th Cuirassiers. Dependable chaps, and they know the terrain well. You'll also have an armoured reconnaissance company from the AVN. They've only got half-tracks and armoured cars, but their armour can stop a Viet bullet better than your shirtfront!
You'll be out of range of friendly artillery for most of the journey, and so I've assigned you some of your own - a battery of 105s. Lebanese, I believe. I've never entirely trusted the artillery, but they're better than nothing I suppose.
There are also some rats and mice units I'm sending along with you. A Garde National company. They know the ground reasonably well, and should be able to help you manage the civilians, but they're not soldiers. There'll be a company of PIMs, to carry your ammo. And I'm sending a truck company along with you, hauling essential equipment back to Ban Me Thuot. The sappers I've mentioned, and there'll be the usual medicos coming along with you. You'll also have a headquarters company. Fully motorised, or course, as befits your rank.
And I'm also giving you a company of the 7th colonial paras. Arrived yesterday. Sorry I can't get you the full battalion, they're stuck in the docks, and their equipment is God knows where. You might want to keep the paras close by you, just to be on the safe side, should anything happen. You know what I mean.
We've also got some of our light reconnaissance troops, "commandos" they call themselves, creeping through the jungle between here and Ban Me Thuot. They report through Nha Trang, rather than through me. But they've been told to contact you directly, should they find anything unpleasant out there.
Anything else? Yes, air support, thank you for reminding me. I've spoken to an ex-classmate of mine, who's back in Nha Trang, and he's agreed to give you full air support. You'll have B26s, fighters, and the usual spotters on call. And he's also said that they'll be flying plenty of missions over the High Plateau tomorrow, and so they should be able to divert something your way if things get really sticky. Just don't waste them. I don't want to read reports of air support being called in to clear out a few snipers.
You'll be jumping off tomorrow at 0600. I've spoken to the Met boys, and they assure me that the morning will be clear and bright. But there's a chance of rain in the afternoon, so make sure you get a move on. The roads around here are bad enough as is.
We've been pushing out our own patrols, of course, to see what's out there. We've encountered a few regionals from the 120th Regiment, but nothing heavier than that. If you move decisively, you should be able to reach Ban Me Thuot before the Viets move up their main-force units.
One thing I would warn you about Chasse, your experience in the Tonkin Delta won't be entirely relevant up here. And the High Plateau is a tough testing ground, so let me give you some advice. Always keep your guard up. The Viets could ambush you at any time. Don't mis-use your armour - keep them moving between your units like sheepdogs guarding their flock. And don't let gaps open up between your units. The moment there's a gap, the Viets will surround your individual units, and cut them to pieces. Remember what happened to the first battalion of the Coree. Think of your Group as a Phalanx of Macedonian pikemen, facing outwards, ready for any attack, always prepared. That's how you have to move around here.
And don't get any grandiose ideas about going off into the jungle to fight the Viets. That's like wading into a swamp to fight a crocodile. I've seen too many young men try it and end up dead, and it's much too late in the day for glory. Your objective, Colonel Chasse, is to get your men and equipment through to Ban Me Thuot, not to chalk up Viet casualties.
I only wish I could come with you, Chasse. It would be good to get back in action again. Unfortunately, HQ has ordered me back to Nha Trang, and I'll be taking a Moranne out in the morning. But don't worry, Chasse. Should anything happen during your break-out, you'll at least have the reassurance that there's another combat veteran looking over the shoulders of those chair-bound slackers in Nha Trang, making sure they give you the support you need.
Anyway, Chasse, you'll no doubt want to familiarise yourself with your officers and men. I won't hold you up any more. You can pick up your formal orders from my adjutant.
Au Revoir et la Bonne Chance, Mon Ami.