Saturday, 28 October 2017

A War of Logistics – Parachutes and Porters in Indochina, 1945-1954 - Charles R Shrader

This review has been submitted to Army History Magazine.

Title: A War of Logistics – Parachutes and Porters in Indochina, 1945-1954
Author: Charles R Shrader
ISBN: 978-0-8131-6575-2
Publisher: University Press of Kentucky
Year: 2015
Pages: 488
Photos/Maps: 15/13

The War in Indochina is best remembered today for the decisive French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954; however, the conflict that led up to that was protracted, brutal and new. New in terms of the style of warfare being fought and the impact that the result would have well beyond the borders of Indochina. The author has approached the war from an unconventional perspective, one that has been heretofore a facet but not a central theme of works on the war; that of logistics and its role in the victory of the Viet Minh and the loss of the French. This was a war won and lost entirely on the strength and weakness of the respective logistics capabilities and doctrine of the adversaries.

Shrader has effectively woven an insightful evaluation and analysis of the operational doctrine of both parties while maintaining his central theme of the key impact of logistics. Commencing with a strategic view of the conflict, he looks at the psychology and hubris of the post war French and their assumption of superiority over the Viet Minh. This, combined with an unstable national approach from France, precluded the resources from being assigned in terms of manpower as well as material that ultimately was needed for success.

He leads into the successful recognition by the Viet Minh of the necessity to not only outfight but also to outlast the French. The three stage operational approach combined with a successful utilization of the strengths of the Viet people – human capital – enabled for a flexible and dynamic asymmetric approach to conflict that the European approach of the French struggled to counter.

Shrader discusses at length how, from the French approach, heavy weapons and combined arms operations heavily based upon the lessons learned during the European conflict served as the central method of engagement. Artillery, armour, aircraft and naval contingents enabled the French to control set points but surrendered the countryside to the more mobile and agile Viet Minh and by extension, the initiative. The nature of the French approach to warfare resulted in a heavy logistics bill that had difficulty being met. Strategically, long lines of support stretching back to France or Japan due to a lack of an integral industrial capability in Indochina meant long delays in the meeting of demands. Operationally, the necessity of the French to establish isolated forward operating bases in order to counter the inflow of the Viet Minh forces and supplies required a reliance upon air or naval resupply methods that were costly, inefficient and resource intensive themselves.

Conversely, the Viet Minh acknowledged their inability to counter the French in set piece battles and, for the most part, did not allow themselves to be drawn into fights where they may be subjected to superior French armament. Shrader identifies how the Viet Minh leaders played a superior international hand by securing their lines of support from China. In addition, their requirements were far less extensive. The author has undertaken extensive in-depth research that backs up his conclusions. The typical Viet Minh soldier, for example only required approximately half of the daily weight of requirements compared with his French counterpart. The depth to which the author goes in his analysis of the typical demands of the respective forces is highly educational and telling for the reader; the French demands far outstripped their capability while the Viet Minh adjusted their tactics in line with their logistics capability and expertise.

The book also illustrates the flexibility of the Viet Minh logistics methodology compared to the French. Being far less technologically encumbered, they were significantly more agile in their mobility and much less rigid in their operational doctrine; thereby being able to manipulate their procedures far faster than the French. Unlike the French who were, for the most part, confined to pre-existing Indochinese transport infrastructure and vehicles, the Viet Minh developed a national level mobilization process whereby non-combatants were obliged to support operations through their use as porters. Regional command structures were created that facilitated the uninterrupted flow of supplies from one section to the next through its transfer between regionally assigned porters. They also developed the science of camouflage to previously unseen levels and maintained field craft discipline rigidly. The French were never able to develop a counter strategy to effectively undermine this tactic.

Shrader makes it clear that the French were not incompetent, merely hamstrung through a lack of logistics flexibility, non-responsive doctrine, a paradigm of their adversary based upon pre-existing hubris, a non-supportive National Government and a logistics dogma rooted in a European operational theatre. They were able to achieve some successes against the Viet Minh and their use of air and riverine resupply systems supported off road operations well. Unfortunately, the depth of capacity was heavily in favour of the Viet Minh as theirs was viewed as a national struggle and, consequently, given the support required through a more universally supported approach. The French certainly had the upper hand during periods of the conflict such as when they cut off Viet Minh access to critical rice growing regions (which served as a trade currency as well as supply for the Viet Minh). The logistics limitations suffered by the French were simply too great to enable them to follow up on their local successes.

Shrader’s book is an excellent study of the critical importance that logistics plays in the effective execution of tactical operations and strategic campaigns. For a vast majority of the conflict French technology heavily outweighed the Viet Minh; that they were unable to defeat them is testament to the ability of the Viet Minh to offset French advantage through non-traditional tactics and supply doctrine. The author has presented a balanced and in-depth study of this conflict and his conclusions are well supported through the use of primary source material from both sides. This is a book well worth reading for operators and supporters alike.  

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