War Story: Col. Roger Trinquier and French Special Ops in the First Indochina War

17 July 2006

John B. Dwyer

The flood of recent books and articles on the war in SE Asia have, understandably, concentrated on the US role in Vietnam. Those that have dealt with French participation in the First Indochina War have, for the most part, not covered the activities of French special operations forces, the various Army and Navy commando units that saw action throughout the theatre.

One of the most unique of those units, whose organization and operations foreshadowed those of US Special Forces and MACV-SOG, was the Groupement de Commandos Mixtes Aeroportes – The Composite Airborne Commando Group or GCMA. This is their story.

Major Roger Trinquier, The Man For The Job:
In November 1950 General Jean De Lattre de Tassigny took command of all French Union Forces in Indochina.  The express purpose of assigning the dynamic leader to overall command was to re-invigorate stagnating battlefield strategy and tactics, now moribund and after four years of war.  Among De Lattre's initiatives was his authorization to form a new counter-guerrilla unit to fight the Viet Minh on their own terms in their own territory.  The brainchild of French Airborne Operations CO, Lt. Col. Grall, the new unit would be give the cover name Groupement de Commandos Mixtes Aeroportes (GCMA).  In reality it would be the direct action arm of the French CIA – Service de Documentation Exterieure et de Contra-Espionage (SDECE).  The GCMA was created to execute a three-part mission:

1.Establish French-led indigenous counter-guerrilla groups to be called "Maquis."
2.Set up escape and evasion routes where needed.
3.Organize sabotage squads.

Knowing he needed an especially capable man to command GCMA-Tonkin (Hanoi Sub-Hqs), Grall, in October 1951, sent for his old friend and multi-tour Indochina veteran, Major Roger Trinquier.  Prior to WWII Trinquier had commanded a Marine detachment tasked with controlling Chinese pirated and opium smugglers at the Vietnam / China border before being transferred to embassy duty in Peking.  Adjutant of the French Battalion, Shanghai at the outbreak of the war, he was imprisoned after the defeat of the Vichy forces in Indochina.  Trinquier was back in country a year following repatriation.  From 1946-49 he served as CO, Commando B4, Commandant Ponchardier's Paratroop Commando Group and 2-I-C, then CO 2nd Bn. Coloniale de Commandos Parachutistes, making four jumps into the Plain of Reeds.  For one of 2e BCCP's missions he and his men parachuted into the Tam Quan railway facility where they destroyed two locomotives, 40 RR cars and repair shops.  His battalion also successfully pacified Lai Thieu through sustained military and civic action operations, finally wresting control of the ville from the 301st Viet Minh Battalion.

Back in France Major Tinquier served as CO, French Colonial Troops Instruction Centre and Commander, French Airborne Jump School, Vannes-Meucon.  Then one day in October 1951 word reached him that he was wanted back in Indochina.

Before De Lattre authorized establishment of the GCMA, several proposals regarding formation of a similar unit, with American involvement, had been advanced during his predecessor's tenure.  One was proposed by the CIA's man in Saigon, Col. Edward Lansdale, who would gain notoriety by his early advocacy of covert operations against North Vietnam when the U.S. became involved in Vietnam.  Based on his successful counter-insurgency efforts in the Philippines, Lansdale offered to establish a special force under his command funded by American sources.  France's High Commissioner for Indochina rejected his proposal.  Lansdale's successor proposed that the U.S. take control of the French special agent school at Cap St. Jacques (Vung Tau), with Americans staffing and running it then controlling the agents.   De Lattre vetoed the plan upon arrival in country.

In his first meeting with Grall, Trinquier learned that his old friend had already established a GCMA detachment on the island of Cu Lao Re, south of Tourane.  There, a company of paras and 400 Vietnamese cadred by 12 junior officers, commanded by Navy Captain P.A. Leger used Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel and Zodiac boats to conduct night coastal raids and to insert and extract agents.  One mission was a raid against a village up the Quang Ngai River where intel reports indicated Viet Minh officers were planning to meet.  Working with the Navy elements, Leger stowed six Zodiacs aboard two small patrol boats and made arrangements for cover fire from assigned gunboats.  As night fell, the small flotilla entered the Quang Ngai River and made its way to within 300 yards offshore.  The objective was 500 yards inland.  Leger split his 20-man force in two, five men per Zodiac, for the landing.  Midnight neared as the commandos moved inland 200 yards.  Leaving a 10-man security detail in place, Leger led the others to the village where he and his men attacked, killing or wounding all VM Cadre in the meetinghouse, including a political commissar and the local VM commander.  That done, the men set plastique charges with time delay fuses and moved quickly and quietly back to their boats.  Just as their Zodiacs rendezvoused with waiting patrol craft the charges exploded, the signal for the gunboats to open fire with 57mm recoilless rifles and machine guns.  All hands returned safely to base.

Another GCMA detachment had been established on Hon Me Island, 40 miles off the important Red River Delta city of Thanh Hoa.  Commanded by Captain Bichelot's good contacts with the Catholic population of Thanh Hoa would prove helpful as a source of intelligence.

As for Trinquier, Grall told him he'd be going north to head up the GCMA-Tonkin sub-headquarters because of his prior service in the region and knowledge of native dialects there.  Grall impressed upon Trinquier the necessity of developing good working relationships with other commanders in the region especially since the GCMA had become a target of suspicion among some regular Army officers with an inbred prejudice against any kind of special force.

Finally, Grall informed Trinquier that he was his handpicked successor for command of GCMA-Tonkin CO tour ended he would travel to Saigon and take over.

Not long after his 1st Jan. 1952 arrival in Hanoi, Trinquier, mindful of Grall's advice dropped by Airborne Ops headquarters to brief the commander on his plans for upcoming GCMA operations and to begin a good working relationship with the person who'd be providing material support in the coming months.  Colonel Dulac was very receptive to Tinquier's plans and promised all possible assistance.

At his headquarters Trinquier was briefed on GCMA-Tonkin's initial missions.  These had been conducted by a group of operatives who called themselves Les Centaines which, for translation purposes, will be designated "The Centurions."  Though the name denotes a group of a 100, The Centurions numbered far fewer.  For months, operatives had been infiltrating the countryside to establish contact with likely groups of villagers and tribesmen for purposes of organizing them into counter-guerrilla forces to be called "Marquis" after the famed French resistance fighters of World War II.  Prior to Trinquier's arrival Maquis were being formed at places such as Tien Yen, Luc Nam, Song Thai in the Red River Valley and Phat Diem, near Thanh Hoa.  At Tien Yen, for example, Centurions recruited, trained and jump qualified 100 indigenous personnel, or "Marquisards," for operations in the rugged Chinese frontier area along Route 4 all the way northward to Cao Bang.  Commanded by LT Pierre Dabenzies, their first mission was to aid refugees from the recently captured town of Cao Bang, to keep local military commanders informed of all enemy movements, and to harass the Viet Minh along Route 4, the ultimate goal being clearance of the route from Lang Son, southwest to Hanoi.

With the eastern portion of his AO (area of operations) fairly well covered, Trinquier set his sights on the other half, across the Red River into the mountainous T'ai highlands, seeing there excellent opportunities for establishing outposts among the hill tribes.  Knowing the country well from previous experience, Trinquier knew that before sending in his Centurions he needed to emplace secret caches of food and ammo since re-supply would be problematical until airships could be built.

The Maquis Commandos – Organization & Operations:
Several months of intensive effort in the eastern AO resulted in establishment of Maquis groups – commandos at Nghia Lo, Thank Uyen, and the centrally located Lai Chau, where a commando school was set up.  Maquis commandos soon proved their worth.  The Nghia Lo group infiltrated a squad to the banks of the Red River where they began monitoring a Viet Minh offensive they'd detected.  The Lai Chau group, meanwhile, developed what amounted to an interdiction zone along with China, that country being an active supplier of arms and supplies to the Viet Minh while also having several divisions poised across the border for possible incursions.

The Maquis commandos became the backbone for the GCMA-Tonkin operations, for which Trinquier ensured they received thorough and rigorous training.  Selected volunteers attended Lai Chau Commando School.  Following successful completion of its courses they moved on to Hanoi and the Paratroop Training Centre.  Personnel chosen for special operations underwent further instruction at the Hanoi Centre.  Maquis commando missions to a large degree mirrored those of the Centurions: prevent the population form collaborating with the Viet Minh; create a "permanent climate of insecurity" in the Viet Minh's backyard; induce the population to actively oppose the VM then recruit some into Maquis units.  The ultimate objective – destroy the Viet Minh politico military infrastructure.

Special operations commandos were instructed in one of three areas of expertise: counter-guerrilla tactics, communications, or intelligence.  A typical spec ops component consisted of 50% commando fighters and 25% each commo and intel specialists.

Regular Maquis commando units had an ideal effective strength of 1000 trained and armed indigenous personnel.  Their organization structure reflected their politico-military missions, from psywar to civic action to direct action.  Trinquier, who visited his men often, impressed upon hi cadre the necessity of selecting the best possible indigenous personnel to co-command these units as they would help to ensure cohesion and effectiveness, and to take equal care in choosing a 2nd-in-command.  In most cases there leaders were sent to Vung Tau Junior Officers School.  As for the GCMA cadre who acted as military advisory to Maquis units, their mission from province to village level was threefold: establish a self-defence system; train Maqui recruits; establish a base of operations.

Of all the indigenous fighters in Trinquier's GCMA-Tonkin command, the Meo tribesmen of the western Tonkin highlands were acknowledged as the best.  The Meo produced by far the best Maquis commando and commando leaders.  One of these was a Lt. Nung from the Pha Long region, an officer Trinquier described as having uncommon valour.

In May 1952 Nung, a graduate of Junior Officers School, began organizing a Maquis in the upper Red River region from among the Yao Sam Meo and Col des Nuages highlands population near the Chinese border.  After choosing an able Montanyard, Lt. Long, as his 2-I-C, Nung set about selecting 40 cadremen.  All training and preparation completed, Lt Nung's "Maquis Cardamone" was ready to go by early 1953.  By the end of June he and his men had rallied 600 volunteers for their Maquis.  Some were from Phong Tho, a northwest Tonkin village Nung and his men had liberated from VM control.

Nung's intel net informed him in late September 1953 that the enemy was preparing to mount an operation to recapture Phong Tho, having set up a battalion staging area in and around the northern Red River town of Lao Kay, 50 miles west of Phong Tho.  After assessing the situation, Nung decided to hit the VM at Lao Kay with a combined ground-airborne assault before the planned offensive had a chance of maturing.  Lao Kay itself was situated on the east bank of the river.  The Viet Minh had established a temporary headquarters there, basing their troops across the river near the adjoining village of Coc Leu.

During the night of the 5 – 6th October 1953, 500 Maquis commandos led by Lt. Long infiltrated to within 100 metres of Coc Leu, a jump-off point that also served as a block position for any VM who decided to exit the area.

At daybreak, Lt. Nung and 40 of his commandos jumped from three Dakotas, landing in their designated DZ south of Coc Leu and Long's position.  After assembling and rendezvousing with Long's commandos, Nung's paras spearheaded the surprise attack.  Though caught off guard, the Viet Minh were able to mount a hasty counter-attack that was beaten back by Nung's men, who drove them across the river towards Lao Kay.  By the day's end the Viet Minh had been completely routed, their arms and supply caches destroyed, and a planned offensive thwarted.  As an exclamation point to their victory, Nung's men blew the only bridge connecting Lao Kay to China, thus severing for a while a primary Viet Minh supply line.

The overwhelming success of Lt. Nung's operation had the added benefit of rallying hundreds of new volunteers to his Maquis Cardamone.

The Finale:
In May 1953, his GCMA-Tonkin tour completed, newly minted Lt. Col. Roger Trinquier assumed Group command at Saigon headquarters, leaving his Tonkin operations in the capable hands of Captain Roger Fournier, who would earn a Croix de Guerre for his brave leadership.

Reviewing his command's operations from Laos to Leger's coastal raiders to newly emplaced Maquis formed from Hre volunteers in the Central Highlands, Lt. Col. Trinquier found himself in charge of 20,000 GCMA personnel.

Strategic changes resulted as the war progressed which directly affected the GCMA.  In December 1953 it was re-designated Groupement Mixtes d'Intervention (GMI), or Composite Intervention Group.  It took all of Trinquier's skills to ensure his Group's survival as an effective unit and to retain, though at a lower pitch, its hard earned airborne ethos.  But as a leaner GMI continued operations and battled strengthening Viet Minh units in the Tonkin region, most operational attention began to focus inexorably upon Dien Binh Phu.  Situated as it was in western Tonkin along the major route to Laos, GMI forces became involved with that historically famous battle.

With Operation Castor, the plan that would seal Dien Bien Phu's fate in place, there was nothing GMI forces could have done to alter the outcome.  Most were involved in running battles with the Viet Minh 316th Division along Provincial Route 41, drawing them away from reinforcing their comrades tightening the vice at Dien Binh Phu.  Maquis forces at Than Uyen were the objective of a Jan-Apr 1954 enemy offensive that also siphoned off combat support.  Elsewhere, Maquis units fought for pure survival.  As Trinquier would later write, "If Castor had been launched a month earlier with our Maquis provided all necessary resources, the drama of Dien Binh Phu need never have happened."  But it did and his Maquis were able to assist in re-establishing contact with the population around the camp, a lesson which had been learned the hard way – again.

The post-Geneva Accords period was a perilous one for Maquis units.  As Trinquier struggled to secure some kind of relief for them, he was informed by Fournier that Tonkin area Maquis commando units had formed the Upper Red River Liberation Committee.  The Meo and other regional peoples wanted France's blessing and support for their self government / self defence initiative.  Trinquier approved of their idea, believing they deserved it by dint of long, faithful service to France.  But he soon found out that his superiors in Paris took a dim view of such indigenous initiative and that clause in the cease-fire accord prevented him form any further support for his own people in the field.  This despite the fact that he and the Paris bureaucrats knew this meant abandoning the Maquis to Viet Minh retribution.  A bitterly disappointed Trinquier proceeded to close down all GMI operations countrywide, completing task by late 1954 and leaving Indochina forever in early 1955.

In its two years of operations the GCMA/GMI lost three French officers KIA and 2000 wounded, its forces killed or wounded 3500 Viet Minh while rallying 1,000 to their units.  Additionally, GCMA/GMI forces captured 185 automatic weapons, 248 machine pistols, 47 mortars and 160 tons of various munitions.  This on top of destroying 250 tons of enemy supplies.  From December 1952 to July 1954 Maquis commandos of the Tonkin region participated in 25 separate operations involving no fewer than 1,200 airborne insertions of personnel behind the line while earning 300 individual and unit awards and decorations.

There can be little doubt that many cut off Maquis were wiped out by the enemy, just as there is no doubt that some lived on to fight another day against the same enemy under a different name.

Sidebar One:
The French cover name "Groupement de Commandos Mixtes Aeroportes" was invented by Captain Deodat Puy Mountbrun.  An early member of the GCMA, he served as a Free French paratrooper in World War II, his heroism earning him the status of Commander of the Legion of Honour at the age of 36.

Being a covert direct action arm of the French CIA, the GCMA had no distinctive insignia.  Colonel Trinquier informed this writer, GCMA French or European personnel who were qualified wore the Colonial Paratrooper's red beret and on it, the insignia of the Marine (ex-Colonial Infantry) Parachute Infantry which featured the standard parachute regiment emblem over a large anchor.

The French did not use the term "Marines" in the same sense that we do – the U.S. Marine Corps – but rather in reference to troops descended from the old French Colonial Infantry who were specially trained for the overseas service.

Sidebar Two:
Following his Indochina service Colonel Roger Trinquier, back in France, failed to interest his superiors in the possibility of using counter-guerrilla tactics and special operations in other areas.  Many of those officers were totally focussed on the crisis in Algeria.  Like other Indochina veterans, Trinquier was destined to server there.  He was assigned as Adjutant, 10th Colonial Parachute Division, tasked with fighting Muslim FLN terrorists. During 1957 Battle of Algiers Trinquier was serving with the 3rd Colonial Parachute Regiment whose mission was securing the infamous casbah section of the city.  A year later Trinquier formed with General Massu, military supreme for Algiers, the Committee For Public Safety, a ruthless intelligence-gathering unit that rooted out FLN cells and individuals.

From 1959-1960 Trinquier, as commander of the El Milia district, led his 3rd Colonial Parachute Regiment in relentless pursuit of Algerian guerrillas, after which he was named Adjutant, Nice Military District.  He soon left the army due to French political turbulence, ending a career that earned him 14 individual awards, including the Purple Heart and Legion of Honour.  Not one to sit around, he went to the Congo and from January – April 1961 helped Moise Tshombe organize his Katangan Army.  When the Belgians learned of his activities they kicked him out.

Following a brief stint with the SDECE Trinquier launched a new career as a writer and lecturer.  He produced eleven books, including the ones used as sources for this article, Modern Warfare: A French View Of Counter-Insurgency and Les Maquis D'Indochine.

Right up to his death in 1986 Trinquier was writing and speaking about the need for US and Allied countries to do all they could to combat Soviet-backed subversion, insurgency and terrorism.

This article was originally published in Behind The Lines magazine. VietnamGear.com has reproduced this article with the kind permission of Gary Linderer.

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