On military arts in the battle of Dak Po
The battle of Dak Po (June 24, 1954) was a typical ambush of the armed forces of Inter-zone 5, destroying the entire the 100th Expeditionary Mobile Corps of France. The battle left us many valuable lessons about military arts that should be further studied and applied in the Fatherland protection cause.
After Dien Bien Phu Victory (May 7, 1954), our resistance war against French colonialists still carried on until the Geneva Agreements were officially signed (July 20, 1954) and the cease-fire came into effect. Implementing the policy of the Party Central Committee, promoting the combination of diplomatic struggle and military struggle, the people's armed forces nationwide seized the opportunity when the enemy was dispirited, took advantage of the posture and power brought about by Dien Bien Phu Victory, continuously attacked the enemy on all threatres, and gained several victories. Notably, in the district of Dak Po, Gia Lai province, the Central Highlands battlefield, the historic "Dak Po" battle was conducted by Regiment 96 - Inter-zone 5, annihilating the enemy’s entire 100th Expeditionary Mobile Corps withdrawing along Route 19 from An Khe town to Pleiku, thereby defeating General Navarre's Operation Atlante, making an important contribution to the victory of the Central Highlands battlefield. Together with the victories on the main battlefields of Tonkin and others, this victory forced the French to sit in the negotiating table and sign the Geneva Agreements to end the war and restore peace in Indochina.
Although the battle of Dak Po was at tactical level, it had profound strategic and operational significance, leaving us many valuable lessons.
1. Building and developing armed forces right in combat and on the battlefield. At the beginning of 1953, the French General Staff attempted to implement Navarre’s Plan in the South Central Coast (Inter-zone 5) and deployed the marching plan with Operation Atlante in order to concentrate their forces and form up strong mobile corps for strategic offensive into the South, occupy the free zones of Quang Nam, Quang Ngai, Binh Dinh, Phu Yen before returning to the North, reorganising with the main force to conduct the strategic matches against our main force to win a decisive victory.
To deal with that intention, the 5th Inter-zone Command planned to quickly build and develop the main troop by withdrawing troops stationed in the localities to supplement for the main units, and extracting some battalions from the main regiments to set up new units. “Within just 30 days, we formed Regiment 96, an infantry battalion (Battalion 375) and several other local companies”. Regiment 96 (the main force of Inter-zone 5) - the unit directly fought Dak Po battle, was established right in combat and on the battlefield of the Central Highlands. In fact, the regiment had been established in the early days of the resistance war against the French, under Division 31, which had fought and won many battles in Da Nang, but due to the requirements and tasks, it was merged into other units. Therefore, immediately after its re-establishment on May 1, 1954, the Regiment was tasked with “getting ready to assault An Khe sub-area, annihilating the retreating enemy”. Though its task was heavy while its cadres and soldiers were deployed from other units and localities, the regiment was soon united, proactive, flexible, creative, successfully completed the task of ambushing, chasing and destroying the French 100th Mobile Corps. This shows that the policy of building and developing the armed forces right in combat and on the battlefield of the General Command and Inter-zone 5 Command was correct and suitable to wartime conditions, meeting the requirements of opportunely and successfully countering the enemy’s intention of using strong concentrated and mobile forces for capturing our free zones.
2. Choosing the right location and target of ambush. In this battle, we chose ambush location in the vicinity of Dak Po bridge on Route 19 from An Khe to Pleiku. This road section connected two strongholds, namely Ca Tung and Mui Nhung which is less than 15 km long, but very dangerous and valuable in military terms, especially in ambush tactics. In the north of the road, there were many hills and mountains which were convenient for us to secretly deploy forces and means and promote firepower. To the east and west of the road, it was favourable for us to deploy the main forces, observe, and open fire. In general, when the enemy entered this section, they would be completely blocked and isolated, unable to deploy their force and firepower. They would have no choice but to abandon their weapons and equipment, run away and hide. Otherwise, they would be destroyed.
Why did we choose to engage the entire enemy formation that was retreating on Route 19 from An Khe to Pleiku, including the headquarters of the 100th Corps, but not the one stationed in their strongholds in An Khe? This is because fighting the enemy in strongholds is costly and less effective, while fighting the enemy marching on road is very advantageous: the enemy exposed their forces, making it easy for us to observe, detect, destroy; the rugged terrain ensured our secrecy and surprise; we were free to choose the time for opening fire and promote our strengths. Therefore, when the enemy entered our ambush, we opened fire on their formation from two flanks, blocked their front, locked their rear, making them completely passive and hastily respond. When we captured their corps and battalion commanders, they became more panicky and desperate.
3. Seizing the opportunity and posture to destroy the enemy. Regiment 96 was succeeded in taking advantage of the strategic opportunity on the entire Indochina battlefield when the French expeditionary troops were extremely panicky after our Dien Bien Phu Victory and their successive defeats on different theatres, and the war was at its final stage - the Geneva Agreements were about to come into effect. In particular, in the battlefields of the Central Highlands, the enemy was made passive. They had to cancel their Operation Atlante, stop marching to our free zones as planned, and return to hold their outposts, main towns and roads. The French Expeditionary Force was afraid of being destroyed. That was the time when they were extremely dispirited and demoralised, while Regiment 96 made full use of the posture created by its senior and friendly units, the dangerous terrain in the vicinity of Dak Po bridge, and the steady ambush posture built by itself. Therefore, even though we were inferior in strength, we still gained victory easily.
4. Determined to fight boldly. Although our main force consisted of only 2 infantry battalions with not much materiel, we were determined to engage such an entire strong mobile corps with airborne and artillery support. That bold determination was based on fact that the enemy was falling into extreme panic; their rules of operation and formation were clearly exposed, hence making itself an easy target. In general, they were totally disadvantageous. Although Regiment 96 was newly re-established, its commanding officers were seasoned and capable who had all been trained and challenged at units of Inter-zone 5. The terrain was advantageous for us to deploy a secret and surprise ambush, etc.
5. Using force rationally, bringing into full play the strength of the main troops, local troops, and militia and guerrillas. In this battle, we were very creative and decisive in force disposition. Battalion 79 was deployed to ambush the main part (from Dak Po bridge to the East); Battalion 40 was assigned to intercept and ambush the enemy from Dak Po bridge to the West; Local Regiment 120 was assigned to engage the enemy on the An Khe - Ca Tung section, destroy bridges and culverts, contain, restrain and prevent the enemy from retreating. Militiamen, guerrillas, and Ba Na people in the locality led by Hero Nup were mobilised to encircle and isolate the enemy forces in An Khe, creating favourable conditions for Regiment 96 to ambush and destroy the enemy.
Thanks to the rational use of force, flexible and creative apply of tactics and skills, bravery, ingenuity, creativity, and resilience, we destroyed completely the enemy’s 100th Mobile Corps - the strong mobile expeditionary force of the French which had just been withdrawn from the Korean War to reinforce for the Central Highlands.
In conclusion, the battle of Dak Po represents an exemplary ambush, demonstrating the cleverness and heroism of local troops and people, and forever a glorious victory of the armed forces and people of Inter-zone 5. Though the battle has receded for nearly 70 years, its valuable lessons are still valid and should be further researched, developed, and effectively applied in the cause of Fatherland protection to enrich Vietnam’s military arts.
Senior Colonel, Dr DOAN CHI KIEN, Army College No.1