Given arms and sanctuary, Giap organized his regiments into divisions, and in February 1950, blooded them in attacks on French outposts along the remote upper reaches of the Red River near the Chinese border. These attacks had the dual purpose of testing Vietminh organization and training and of diverting French attention from RC 4. At the same time, Vietminh ambushes cut off Cao Bang, the northernmost and largest of the outposts along RC 4; it could now be resupplied only by air. In August, Giap ordered an all-out offensive in Cochinchina. It failed, with French forces inflicting horrendous casualties on the mostly non-communist southern Vietminh, but the attack had its intended effect of diverting French attention from the north... and perhaps of ridding the southern Vietminh of unreliable elements. In October 1950, when the French belatedly realized the severity of their predicament along the northern outpost line and tried to evacuate Cao Bang, Giap struck, annihilating both the Cao Bang garrison and the linkup force. Two battalions of the Foreign Legion, three Moroccan battalions, a battalion of T'ai hill tribe partisans, and two parachute battalions, one of them the elite 1st Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion, were wiped out. It was the worst French colonial defeat since the loss of Canada in the Seven Years War.
In panic, the French prepared to evacuate Tonkin, but the situation was stabilized by the arrival of a new Commander-in-Chief, Marshall Jean de Lattre de Tassigny. Called the French MacArthur because of his flair for the dramatic and willingness to take risks, de Lattre breathed life into the French. He drove back Giap's divisions with heavy losses when they attempted to break into the Red River Delta - strategic key to the war - between January and June of 1951. De Lattre then went over to the attack, ordering the seizure of the town of Hoa Binh southwest of the Red River Delta, a terminus on the rice supply route between the Than Hoa region, the only rice-growing area under Vietminh control, and Vietminh base areas north of the Delta.
The French achieved surprise and easily seized Hoa Binh, but the Vietminh rerouted their rice convoys and returned to gnaw away at the French lines of communication. It soon became apparent that the pattern of the October 1950 disaster was repeating itself, and in February 1952, the French withdrew - weeks after de Lattre died of prostate cancer in a Paris hospital.
In October, Giap launched his divisions across the northern Red River into Laos, thoroughly out-foxing de Lattre's replacement, Gen. Raoul Salan. A Vietminh column nearly captured the Laotian royal capital of Luang Prabang before an opportune French ambush and the onset of the monsoon rains in May put an end to Giap's offensive.
At that point, with both sides nearing exhaustion, the French named a new commander in chief for Indochina, Gen. Henrí Navarre. The emotional polar opposite of de Lattre, Navarre, an armored officer with a background in intelligence, had a cerebral and distant personality, later described as "feline" by his detractors. At this point, the costs of the war, both economic and political, were beginning to wear on France. It was clear that the war must end soon and that the next year would be critical. Navarre arrived with reinforcements from France and a mandate to get things done. He started well, throwing the Vietminh off balance with a spoiling attack on the southern edge of the Red River Delta and an airborne raid on the communist logistical base at Lang Son. Click here to go to Part 2.U.S. Air Force (top) and French government (middle and bottom) photos courtesy Jim Mesko.