1st Heavy Mortar Foreign Parachute Company

The 1st Heavy Mortar Foreign Parachute Company (1re CEPML) was one of the three mortar companies of the French Foreign Legion being participated in the First Indochina War. Its short history started in September 1953 and ended in May 1954. 1re CEPML remains the only heavy mortar parachute company of the Legion constituted in French Indochina (today’s Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos). The company was destroyed during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu (1954).

Foreign Legion - Mortar companies - French Indochina - First Indochina War


1st Heavy Mortar Foreign Parachute Company

1945 – 1946:
First Indochina War started
– French Indochina refers to French colonial territories in Southeast Asia
– today’s Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos
– in Indochina in the 1940’s, a conflict started between France and Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh led the Viet Minh (League for the Independence of Vietnam)
– Viet Minh was an independence movement
– in September 1945, Ho Chi Minh declared independence from France for Vietnam
– clashes between French forces and the Viet Minh started
– in 1946, first Foreign Legion units landed in Indochina
– in December 1946, the Viet Minh attacked Hanoi, Vietnam
– the war officially started

September 1953:
1st Heavy Mortar Foreign Parachute Company
1re Compagnie Étrangère Parachutiste de Mortiers Lourds (1re CEPML)

1re CEPML was created on September 1, 1953
– a Foreign Legion heavy mortar company
– formed with elements of the 1er BEP and 2e BEP
– Parachute Battalions, future 1er REP and 2e REP
– stationed at Quynh Loi, south of Hanoi
– 1re CEPML was administratively assigned to the 1er BEP
Lieutenant Jacques Molinier took command

– the company was equipped with eight 120 mm heavy mortars
– Brandt 120 mm, model 50
– up to 4,5 miles (7 km) fire range

– also furnished with 33 vehicles
– Jeeps, Dodges 6×6, GMC trucks

September-October 1953:
– mortar training for the company

– in October, a reinforcement
– fresh legionnaires coming from Algeria
– there, they served with the 3e BEP (future 3e REP)

November 1953:
Operation Castor
– November 20-22, an important airborne operation
– then largest airborne operation since World War II
– its purpose was to seize the Dien Bien Phu valley
– in the western part of Northern Vietnam, close to Laos
– over 4,000 French troops jumped over Dien Bien Phu
– between them, the 1er BEP and 1re CEPML
– the Dien Bien Phu valley was successfully seized

December 1953:
– 1re CEPML was reinforced
– at the time, it consisted of 4 officers and 95 legionnaires

– also, 4 another mortars were dropped into the valley
– so, the company operated 12 mortars in total

January-March 1954:
– at Dien Bien Phu, clashes with the Viet Minh
– 1re CEPML was supporting 1er BEP men during these clashes

– the majority of the original paratroopers had left the valley
– only three units remained at Dien Bien Phu in January 1954
– 1er BEP, 1re CEPML and 8e BPC (French Paratroopers)

March-May 1954:
Battle of Dien Bien Phu
– the best known battle of the First Indochina War
– an important struggle between the French and the Viet Minh
– it took place in the valley of Dien Bien Phu
– in March, France had roughly 11,000 troops there
– between them, some 3,100 legionnaires
– the Viet Minh had at least 45,000 troops
– stationed on the hills around the valley
– in the evening of March 13, French positions were attacked
– during the next two months, the valley would be overrun

– 1re CEPML made part of French artillery units’ group
– commanded by Colonel Piroth (later Lieutenant Colonel Robin)

– the company was stationed at Dominique
– one of the French defensive positions of the French garrison
– located north-east of the HQ of Dien Bien Phu

March 13, 1954:
Battle of Dien Bien Phu started
– in the afternoon, the Viet Minh launched its first offensive
– conducted from the north-east and north directions
– Viet Minh troops were led by General Vo Nguyen Giap

– the battle of Dien Bien Phu would begin at 05.30 PM (17:30)
– in the north-east, an attack on Beatrice
– in the north, shelling aimed at Gabrielle (a false attack)
– both were French defensive positions

– a 1re CEPML platoon was supporting Beatrice
– the platoon was led by Lieutenant Bergot
Beatrice was held by the 3rd Battalion, 13e DBLE
– attacked by three Viet Minh battalions
– in the morning of May 14, Beatrice was lost
– the 1re CEPML platoon suffered 12 men killed

Dien Bien Phu - French Garrison - Camp - March 1954 - First Indochina War
French camp of Dien Bien Phu, March 13, 1954. We can see all strongpoints existing to that date. The green areas signifies French fortified hills, the blue line marks the Nam Youm river. Later, the garrison would be reorganized a little bit.
Dien Bien Phu - French hills - March 1954 - First Indochina War
French fortified hills at Dien Bien Phu, March 13, 1954. Beatrice and Gabrielle were attacked the first day of the battle. The 1er CEPML was based at Dominique (composed of five strongpoints in total) and supported by artillery fire the 13e DBLE legionnaires at Beatrice. Despite their effort, Beatrice would be overrun.

March 14, 1954:
1re CEPML was sent to Claudine
– a French defensive position
– located south-west of the French HQ

Attack on Gabrielle
– in the afternoon, a Viet Minh attack aimed at Gabrielle
– 2,5 miles (4 km) distant from the French HQ
– held by an Algerian battalion
– also a platoon of the 2e CMMLE (Legion Mortar Mixed Company)
– the fighting took all the night

1re CEPML supported Gabrielle
– during the attack, the company supported Gabrielle
– placed at Claudine, its men shelled Viet Minh positions

Lieutenant Jacques Molinier wounded
– that evening, the company commander was wounded
– wounded during supporting Gabrielle
– a Viet Minh mortar shell exploded close to him
– he received dozen shrapnels in the beck
– a moment later, other three shrapnels into his face
– Lieutenant Molinier had to be evacuated
– he was sent to a military hispital of Hanoi
– the battle ended for him

Lieutenant Paul Turcy took command
– a platoon leader, he led 1st Platoon, 1re CEPML as well
– his platoon was also placed at Claudine
– still being attacked by Viet Minh artillery
– in the early morning, Lieutenant Turcy would be killed

Lieutenant Pierre Clément took command
– a French artillery officer
– he would jump over the valley on March 15, 1954
– he would also take command of the 1st Platoon

March 16-29, 1954:
– clashes with the Viet Minh
– 1re CEPML supported the French troops

March 30-31, 1954:
Viet Minh’s Second Offensive started
– in the evening, the Viet Minh launched its second offensive
– conducted from two directions
– east + north-west

– in the east, an attack on the fortified hills
– known as the Battle of Five Hills
– aimed at five important hills with strongpoints

– 2nd Platoon, 1re CEPML (Lieutenant Bergot) defended them
– based at Eliane (defensive position)
– positioned between Eliane 2 and Eliane 4
– the platoon’s artillery fire supported the defenders
– both Elianes managed to fight off the attack

April 1954:
– 1re CEPML supported the French troops
– at the time, the company had already lost 9 of its 12 mortars
– they were destroyed by the Viet Minh fire

May 07, 1954:
Battle of Dien Bien Phu ended
– the battle ended on May 7, 1954
– eventually, around 14,000 French troops took part in the battle
– those captured would be sent to Viet Minh POW camps
– only about 3,300 French troops would survive
– the Legion lost 6 battalions + 3 mortar companies in the battle
– between the annihilated units, 1er BEP + 1re CEPML
1re CEPML had 67 men being killed or wounded

– the survived 1re CEPML legionnaires were captured
– the men were sent to the Viet Minh POW camps near China
– they had to march some 380 miles (over 600 km) during 40 days
– many of them wouldn’t survive the punitive march
– the prisoners spent several months in the camps

only 17 men would return from captivity
– between them, Lieutenant Erwan Bergot

May 31, 1954:
1re CEPML dissolution
– that day, 1re CEPML was officially dissolved

– it existed no more than 9 months (8 months in reality)
– during that time, it fired more than 30,000 shells

August 1954:
First Indochina War ended
– August 11, the First Indochina War ended
– the ceasefire in Southern Vietnam went into force
– the last of the 5 ceasefires in Indochina (since late July)
– the French had to leave Northern Vietnam
– in 1956, French troops had to leave the entire Indochina pensisula

1re CEPML insignia
1re CEPML insignia, ordered in 1954 by Lieutenant Jacques Molinier, the company commander. 500 insignias were received on May 21, 1954, 10 days before its dissolution and two weeks after the bloody battle of Dien Bien Phu was over. 150 of them would be sold to company personnel serving at the 1re CEPML’s rear base in Hanoi, the rest were returned to France. Two gold insignias were also produced for the company commander.
Dien Bien Phu - Legion - CEPML - Operation Castor - 1953 - First Indochina War
Operation Castor. A 120 mm mortar operating by paratroopers identified as the 1re CEPML.
Dien Bien Phu - Legion - CEPML - Operation Castor - 1953 - First Indochina War
A very rare image of the same crew. In the center, their Lieutenant.



Information source:
Vincent Baillaud: L’insigne de la 1re CEPML


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See also:
1st Foreign Legion Mortar Mixed Company
2nd Foreign Legion Mortar Mixed Company

See Foreign Legion’s other disbanded airborne units:
1st Foreign Parachute Regiment
3rd Foreign Parachute Regiment
Parachute Company of 3e REI
CERA – Foreign Airdrop Company

See Foreign Legion’s disbanded regiments:
1st Foreign Parachute Regiment
3rd Foreign Parachute Regiment
2nd Foreign Cavalry Regiment
4th Foreign Infantry Regiment
5th Foreign Regiment
6th Foreign Infantry Regiment



The page was updated on: March 31, 2018


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