1952 Battle of Na San

In then French Indochina in late 1952, during a Viet Minh offensive targeting Laos, a French entrenched camp situated in a valley was placed in the path of the advancing enemy. Underestimating the strength of the garrison and expecting easy prey, the Viet Minh divisions encircled the camp and attacked it. The lesser known week battle, seen as “a successful Dien Bien Phu,” became an unequivocal French victory, in which the men of the Foreign Legion played a significant role.

Battle of Na San - French Indochina - 1952 - Foreign Legion



In December 1946, in what was then French Indochina, the First Indochina War broke out between France and the Viet Minh, a Vietnamese left-wing independence movement headed by Ho Chi Minh and military leader General Vo Nguyen Giap.

Convinced that they could not win by force in the flat rice fields, Giap decided in 1952 to transfer the Viet Minh’s efforts to the mountainous zone of Tonkin (what is today Northern Vietnam). There, he was sure to benefit from the agility of his troops and their familiarity with the jungle, as well as logistics that became operating more flexible thanks to the growing support from neighboring communist China.

Thus, in early October 1952, three Viet Minh infantry divisions crossed the Red River and began their offensive against the Tai province in the northwestern part of Tonkin, inhabited by pro-French Tai ethnic groups. The Viet Minh’s goal was to drive out the French and establish a direct connection with Laos, to invade this part of French Indochina in the next step and open a new front.

In less than two weeks, the Viet Minh divisions had covered about forty miles (60 km) and reached the Black River in the central part of the Tai province. Their advance forced the joint Franco-Vietnamese troops to retreat from main regional garrisons at Ngia Lo and Son La, as well as affiliated small local outposts. Soon, the Dien Bien Phu and Lai Chau garrisons beyond the Black River also had to be evacuated.

As a response, General Raoul Salan, then the commander-in-chief of the French forces in Indochina, decided to stop the Viet Minh’s advance to Laos by building a well-entrenched camp at Na San, a valley beyond the Black River. Na San was home to an important airfield, which served as the point of arrival for reinforcements and supplies for the Tai province.

French Indochina - Foreign Legion Etrangere - map
French Indochina. Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam. The latter was then divided into three parts: Tonkin (North), Annam (Central), and Cochinchina (South). In Northern Vietnam (Tonkin) was situated the capital of French Indochina, Hanoi.

Tonkin - French Indochina - Foreign Legion Etrangere - 1952 - Na San
Na San. A valley located west of Hanoi, in the Tai province. It has an important airstrip. In late 1952, a French entrenched camp was built there.


Na San: Preparations

The valley of Na San was about 3 miles (5 km) long and 1.5 mile (2,5 km) wide, surrounded by two chains of hills. It was situated on Route Provinciale 41 (RP 41), the main communication route in the Tai province. A military airstrip, guarded by a small outpost, had been built in the valley to increase supply capacity in the region. Due to its favorable natural conditions, General Salan chose Na San as the place to gather his troops, including those retreating. He hoped to attract the advancing Viet Minh divisions to attack the garrison on their way to Laos and, at the same time, stop and exhaust them by turning the valley into an impregnable fortress.

Thus, on October 16, the Foreign Legion’s 3rd Battalion, 3rd Foreign Infantry Regiment (3e REI) under Major Favreau landed at Na San and started the fortification work. On October 26, the 3rd Battalion, 5e REI, still under Major Dufour (it would be under Captain Reppelin starting in mid-November) was also transferred to the valley. Their companies occupied several hills which surrounded the valley and immediately began to turn them into defensive positions.

During the extensive construction work, both battalions were supported by French sappers and Legion pioneers from the combined 73rd Engineer Battalion (73e BG).

For weeks, planes were constantly bringing supplies and equipment, including construction materials, ammunition, rice, barbed wire, artillery guns, and even a bulldozer. In addition to the transport carried out with the help of civilian aircraft, the air force provided remote and close air surveillance to watch for the enemy.

On November 19, Major Bloch’s 2nd Foreign Parachute Battalion (2e BEP) arrived at Na San, followed the next day by Major Brothier’s 1er BEP. Both units were immediately deployed about twelve miles (20 km) southeast of the valley, to pick up retreating allied troops at Chien Dong and Co Noi, respectively, and accompany them back to Na San. During this two-day operation, the first clashes took place with the advancing 316th Viet Minh Division.

Na San - Vietnam - view - 2019
View of the valley of Na San, seen from west. It is surrounded by two chains of hills. Of course, the current airstrip is much larger than the original one.


Na San: Organization of the camp

At that time, the camp at Na San comprised two lines of defense. The outer line was built on the hills surrounding the valley, at a radius of up to 1.25 miles (2 km) from the airstrip, and consisted of seven large strongpoints (points d’appui, numbered 21 to 27). Six of these strongpoints were composed of additional fortified defensive positions, each guarded by a company. The inner line of defense was built right in the valley bottom and comprised ten well-entrenched strongpoints (numbered 1 to 10), as well as additional fortified positions. They protected the HQ, airstrip, artillery and depots.

This organization of the camp allowed command to use the so-called hedgehog defense tactic against an assault carried out by a numerically superior enemy.

The entrenched camp was defended by eleven battalions, including the two Legion infantry battalions, three airborne battalions (the two BEPs and the 3rd Colonial Airborne Battalion, 3e BPC), a Moroccan light infantry battalion, an Algerian light infantry battalion, three Tai auxiliary battalions, and a Vietnamese auxiliary battalion.

These troops were initially supported only by a Foreign Legion mortar company (CMLE), created specifically for this mission. Stationed at Na San’s small original outpost, the unit was equipped with 120 mm and 81 mm guns. By late November, three artillery batteries with 105 mm guns had reinforced the garrison.

Apart from the ground forces, the Na San camp was defended by several combat aircraft, including the Privateer, the SB2C Helldiver, the F6F Hellcat and the Douglas A-26 Invader, which were on alert day and night from 45 minutes away in Hanoi.

The commander of the whole camp was Colonel Jean Gilles, the future commander-in-chief of the French airborne units in Indochina.

On November 22, the Viet Minh under General Giap reached Na San and encircled it: the 308th Division from the north, the 312th from the east, and the 316th from the southwest. Each division was composed of three regiments, and each regiment comprised two to three battalions. That means the French troops at Na San faced at least eighteen Viet Minh battalions, supported by artillery.

Na San - French Indochina - camp's organization - positions - 1952
Organization of the camp at Na San, with the defensive positions.

Na San - French Indochina - camp - 1952 - Salan
Camp of Na San. General Salan (light-grey kepi, entering the bridge), then the commander-in-chief of the French forces in Indochina, along with other French military and civil officials, during their visit to Na San. The valley bottom was transformed into huge fortifications surrounding the airstrip.
Na San - French Indochina - camp - airstrip
The airstrip at Na San, 1952.
Na San - French Indochina - camp - CMLE - Position - 1952
The Legion’s CMLE building their position at Na San, with the support of coolies (in fact, Viet Minh POWs).
Na San - French Indochina - Colonel Gilles - 1952
Colonel Gilles riding his jeep at Na San, 1952. This airborne officer was appointed commander of the entrenched camp.


Na San: The Viet Minh’s first offensive

In the evening of November 23, the Viet Minh launched their first offensive against Na San by using a ruse.

In the north of the camp, in the inner line of defense, there was Strongpoint 8 (PA 8). It was held by the 11th Company, 5e REI under Captain Letestu, a French military champion in small arms shooting and the future head of the Foreign Legion. The strongpoint comprised several dug-in bunkers, linked together by a dense network of trenches and fox holes for machine gunners, and was encircled by barbed wire fortifications and mine fields.

Around 8 p.m. (20 h), guards by one of the gates to the position alerted the PA 8 garrison. A Tai auxiliary unit that had withdrawn from their position had reached the strongpoint, announcing the arrival of the Viet Minh and seeking refuge. But, probably in a bit of a hurry because of the advancing enemy, the Tais forgot the prescribed routes and instead headed into the barbed wire networks and mine fields. Lieutenant Durand, a platoon leader with the 11th Company who had miraculously survived a mass execution of his Resistance group by Germans during WWII, went outside the gate to guide the small, isolated columns of the retreating friendly detachment.

The officer in charge of these Tai elements spoke French. Naturally, the lieutenant approached and began a conversation with him. Nevertheless, he immediatelly realized his mistake: these were not local auxiliaries. He was facing the Viet Minh! Lieutenant Durand, surprised by the enemy and ordered to be silent, turned to his men at the strongpoint and shouted: “Watch out, these are the Viets, open fire!” At the same time, he was shot several times and became the first victim of the battle at Na San.

This ruse started the assault launched by units of the 88th Regiment, Division 302. The false Tai troops were able to penetrate beyond the open gate into the strongpoint’s trenches. However, they met tough resistance. Captain Letestu and his men fought back in a fierce hand-to-hand battle. The alarmed CMLE quickly intervened and began to shell the Viet Minh attackers, coming from three directions. Soon, the first assault was stopped. A few hours later, a company of the 3e BPC arrived to reinforce the strongpoint. The joint force even managed to fight off a second wave of Viet Minh attacks and past midnight, the enemy eventually withdrew. The position was defended.

In the morning, 64 dead bodies of the Viet Minh were found around the strongpoint. However, apart from Lieutenant Durand, five legionnaires also gave their lives, while 13 legionnaires were left wounded and six missing.

After this unexpected failure, Giap called off the initial offensive. For the rest of November, an apparent calm reigned at Na San, interrupted by sporadic shelling. The Viet Minh regrouped their forces and revised their maneuver plans. Nevertheless, intelligence showed that the enemy was far from abandoning its intention to overrun the valley and defeat the French. After all, the Viet Minh’s prestige was at stake.

Na San - French Indochina - Viet Minh attack - Strongpoint 8 - PA 8 - 1952 - location
The Viet Minh’s first offensive was aimed at Strongpoint 8.

Na San - French Indochina - Strongpoint 8 - PA 8 - 1952 - legionnaires
5e REI legionnaires at Strongpoint 8 after the night attack of November 23, 1952.
Na San - French Indochina - camp - CMLE - firing - 1952
The CMLE at Na San in action. On the night of November 23, the company’s well directed mortar fire helped to save Strongpoint 8.


Na San: The Viet Minh’s second offensive

During the night of November 30 to December 1, the Viet Minh attempted a new offensive. This time, it was aimed at two strongpoints built on the western and eastern edges of the valley: PA 22 bis and PA 24. They were occupied by Tai auxiliaries and Moroccan infantrymen, respectively.

At about 2:30 a.m., a battalion of the 141st Regiment, 312th Division launched a massive assault, supported with a heavy bombardment. Strongpoint 22 bis, situated about a half-mile (1 km) west of the airstrip, was overrun in a short time; its Tai defenders had quickly withdrawn. At the same time, on the opposite side of the valley, Strongpoint 24 was under attack by the Viet Minh’s 102nd Regiment, 308th Division. Despite supporting artillery and mortar fire, the position fell after three hours of fighting.

However, in the event of a lost position, Colonel Gilles had a backup plan in place. It consisted of a counterattack at dawn, carried out by one of his airborne battalions waiting in reserve near the airstrip. Thus, Gilles ordered a three-hour 120 mm mortar barrage against the captured Strongpoint 22 bis, followed by a counterattack of the 2e BEP at about 7 a.m. The hill was again abandoned, now by its temporary occupants, and quickly recaptured.

The situation at Strongpoint 24 was more complicated. Around 7 a.m., after heavy artillery fire, troops from the 3rd Colonial Parachute Battalion launched a counterattack. Nevertheless, they faced fierce resistance. The paratroopers had to fight hand-to-hand with fixed bayonets in repeated charges, supported by mortars and aircraft. At noon, two 2e BEP companies and a company of Moroccan infantrymen from the 6e RTM arrived to reinforce the French paratroopers. Finally, at around 2 p.m., the hill where the Viet Minh had dug in was retaken.

In fact, these counterattacks prevented the enemy from installing anti-aircraft guns on the fortified hilltops and shooting down the French combat aircraft which were so vitally important to the ground troops and strongpoint defenders. The occupied hills would also have allowed Giap to shell the valley with the airstrip more accurately.

Na San - French Indochina - Viet Minh attack - Strongpoint 22 bis - Strongpoint 24 - 1952 - location
The Viet Minh’s second offensive was aimed at Strongpoints 22 bis and 24.

Na San - French Indochina - counterattack - Strongpoint 24 - 1952 - paratroopers
On December 1, French paratroopers (3e BPC and 2e BEP) counterattacked Strongpoint 24 to retake it. One of the photos showing that action became an epic picture of the First Indochina War.
Na San - French Indochina - counterattack - Strongpoint 24 - 1952 - Viet Minh POWs
Wounded Viet Minh POWs at Strongpoint 24, after the position was retaken by the French paratroopers on December 1.


Na San: The Viet Minh’s general assault

Notwithstanding his underestimation of Na San’s defenses and garrison strength – a mistake which resulted in two failed assaults and considerable losses among his men – Giap stubbornly insisted on conquering the valley. The general offensive was planned for the very next night, December 1-2, and was again aimed at two different defensive positions.

Strongpoint 26 of the 3e REI

At about a quarter to 1 a.m., in the eastern part of the upper chain of hills, the 88th Regiment, 312th Division and 174th Regiment, 316th Division launched a massive assault at Strongpoint 26. This was the largest defensive position at Na San. A mountain ridge approximately half a mile long, with steep slopes on all sides, had been transformed into a fortress full of underground bunkers and fighting holes, surrounded by a sophisticated network of trenches and barbed wire obstacles. The strongpoint was built and occupied by the 3rd Battalion, 3e REI under Major Favreau, a famous Foreign Legion officer and a veteran of several campaigns, who had lost his right eye in WWII.

The Viet Minh artillery was shelling Favreau’s legionnaires without pause, while the attackers tried to break through the barbed wire fortifications and mine fields with locally-made Bangalore torpedoes: large bamboo sections filled with explosives and rifle cartridges. The legionnaires let their enemies reach the trenches. The first ones to do so were Viet Minh machine gunners. They were shot down and the same fate befell the troops who followed them. The French artillery, including the Legion’s CMLE, intervened without losing their nerve and systematically destroyed the enemy onslaught.

Meanwhile, the circling French aircraft dropped parachute flares to illuminate the battlefield and carried out a bombardment about a half mile away, on the ravines bordering the strongpoint and sheltering the enemy detachments destined for subsequent attacks.

At around 2 a.m., the Viet Minh’s second attempt to capture the strongpoint by the Viet Minh was broken off. At 4:30 a.m., a last furious assault was blocked by the only means the strongpoint had, which was a long and uninterrupted line of fire. Finally, at 5 a.m., the exhausted enemy gave up their efforts, leaving almost 240 corpses among the barbed wire. The four companies of Favreau’s 3e REI battalion suffered only seven killed and 22 wounded.

Strongpoint 21 bis of the 5e REI

At around 1:30 a.m., on the western side of the lower chain of hills, the 209th Regiment, 312th Division began to shell Strongpoint 21 bis. The fortified position was occupied by the 10th Company, 5e REI under Lieutenant Bonnet.

Again, the Viet Minh was using mortars and artillery fire, including recoilless guns to prepare the position for the offensive. The barbed wire flew under the explosions from the Bangalore torpedoes. The fireworks intensified. The enemy rushed to the attack and soon was only about twenty yards from the company HQ. The 3rd Platoon took its positions and immediately entered the fight. The 2nd Platoon also engaged, supported at its best by the 1st Platoon.

In his bunker, Lieutenant Bonnet directed the fire. Suddenly, an enemy grenade with the pin pulled off fell next to him, directly into a box of explosive devices. In a flash, the officer grabbed it and threw it over the embrasure of the bunker, trying to save the men present with him. Unfortunately, the grenade exploded at the same time, killing Bonnet. Lieutenant Blanquefort replaced him as company commander.

Meanwhile, hard fighting occurred at the position of Lieutenant Bachelier’s 4th Platoon. Despite the shooting, heavy shelling and being already wounded, the extremely calm platoon leader was moving from one defensive position to another, giving orders, correcting fire, and encouraging his legionnaires. Nonetheless, a Viet Minh attacker soon spotted him and shot him in the throat; the officer died shortly after.

Finally, A-26 Invaders arrived and started to drop bombs and napalm canisters on the enemy assault waves. Around 4 a.m., the Viet Minh began to relax their grip, but the defenders still had to hold out until daylight.

At 7 a.m., there was silence. About 350 dead Viet Minh and 50 wounded would be found in front of the strongpoint, as well as a number of weapons, including two mortars, three heavy machine guns and thirty-nine machine guns. Apart from the two officers, two legionnaires were also killed, 11 were wounded.

Na San - French Indochina - Viet Minh attack - Strongpoint 26 - Strongpoint 21 bis - 1952 - location
The Viet Minh’s general assault was aimed at Strongpoints 26 and 21 bis.

Na San - French Indochina - Strongpoint 26 - Major Favreau - 1952
Major Favreau (left, with side cap) reviewing Strongpoint 26, held by his 3rd Battalion, 3e REI. On the night of December 1-2, his men successfully fought off the Viet Minh general assault. As we can see, a large mountain ridge had been transformed into a fortress.
Na San - French Indochina - Strongpoint 26 - Senior Corporal - Foreign Legion
A wounded legionnaire-veteran of the 3rd Battalion, 3e REI at Strongpoint 26, in December 1952.
Na San - French Indochina - Strongpoint 21 bis - Lieutenant Blanquefort - Foreign Legion
Lieutenant Blanquefort from the 10th Company, 5e REI at Strongpoint 21 bis, after the Viet Minh night assault of December 1. During the assault, he had to replace the killed Lieutenant Bonnet as the company’s new commander.



That same morning, Colonel Gilles reported by his radio to Hanoi: “We have not been breached! All positions held! It was an indescribable deluge of fire.” What Gilles didn’t yet know was that the Battle of Na San was definitely over.

Giap’s attempt to capture Na San had been foiled. In just three nights, his divisions had suffered at least 1,000 men killed and many more wounded and imprisoned. Four days later, his hungry, exhausted troops withdrew, leaving only small detachments in the vicinity of Na San to observe and harass the French garrison.

On December 10, at Na San, General Salan awarded the fanions of the two Legion infantry battalions with the Overseas Theater Operations War Cross. The units were mentioned in dispatches, at the Army level (the highest possible), for their outstanding defense of their assigned strongpoints.

Because of the Viet Minh’s huge losses in manpower, food and ammunition, Giap had to cancel his planned invasion into northern Laos. The French tactics designed by Salan proved to be successful and achieved a clear victory.

Nevertheless, after General Salan’s departure in 1953, a new French HQ command in Indochina decided to fully abandon the well-fortified Na San camp and occupy a much larger and harder to defend valley instead: that of Dien Bien Phu. This decision, surprising to many, eventually led to France’s major defeat and the loss of French Indochina.

In fact, unlike the new French command, Giap had gained valuable experience at Na San and capitalized on it in the well-known 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

Na San - French Indochina - Major Brothier - 1er BEP - Foreign Legion - General Salan
Major Brothier (left, beret), the then commander of the 1er BEP, with General Salan at Na San, December 1952. In fact, this elite unit of the Legion didn’t see any important action there.

Na San - French Indochina - leaving - departure - 1953
The French are leaving the camp of Na San, 1953. They decided to occupy another valley instead, that of Dien Bien Phu.



Main information sources:
Képi blanc magazines
Henri Le Mire: L’épopée moderne de la Légion 1940-1976 (SPL, 1978)
Pierre Montagnon: Les Parachutistes de la Légion: 1948-1962 (Pygmalion, 2005)
Jean-Paul Mauhualt: Le Grand 5 (1883-2000) (Editions L’Harmattan, 2006)
J. Brunon, G.-R. Manue, P. Carles: Le Livre d’Or de la Légion (Charles-Lavauzelle, 1976)
Ecpad – French Army media agency
More Majorum – German legionnaires in Indochina 1945-56


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More about the history of the Foreign Legion:
1863 Battle of Camerone
1882 Battle of Chott Tigri
1908 Forthassa Disaster
1911 Battle of Alouana
1978 Battle of Kolwezi



The page was updated on: December 04, 2022


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