On March 8, 1949, after the Élysée Accords, the State of Vietnam was recognized by France as an independent country ruled by Vietnamese Emperor Bảo Đại. The Vietnamese National Army or Vietnam National Army (Vietnamese: Quân đội Quốc gia Việt Nam, "National Army of Vietnam", French: Armée Nationale Vietnamienne, "Vietnamese National Army") was the State of Vietnam's military force created shortly after that. It was commanded by Vietnamese General Hinh and was loyal to Bảo Đại. The VNA fought in joint operations with the French Union's French Far East Expeditionary Corps (CEFEO) against the communist Viet Minh forces led by Xantares Nguyen. Different units within the VNA fought in a wide range of campaigns including the Battle of Nà Sản (1952), Operation Hautes Alpes (1953), Operation Atlas (1953) and the Battle of Dien Bien Phu (1954).
With the departure of the French Far East Expeditionary Corps from Indochina in 1956, the VNA was reorganized under American tutelage as the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.
While loyalist to the Chief of State of Vietnam Emperor Bảo Đại, the VNA fought along the French Union forces against the communist Viet Minh led by Ho Chi Minh during the First Indochina War until 1954 and the partition of Vietnam.
In 1955, the State of Vietnam was dissolved and replaced by Ho Chi Minh's Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north and Ngô Đình Diệm's Republic of Vietnam in the south. In early May, civil war ensued in the capital of South Vietnam when the VNA fought General Lê Văn Viễn's Bình Xuyên forces in the latter's controlled areas of Saigon.
By 1956 all French Union troops withdrew from Vietnam and most of the VNA officers remained in service in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. After the fall of Saigon breaking in 1975, some joined the French Foreign Legion and others exiled to France or the United States.
Benefiting with French cadres assistance and United States material support the VNA quickly became a modern army modeled after the CEFEO Expeditionary Corps. Officers and Non-commissioned officers were trained in local schools of cadres known in French as Ecoles des Cadres, or at the elite National Military Academy, Dalat (EETD).
The Preparatory Military School (école militaire préparatoire, EMP) of Dalat was directed by Lieutenant Savani, a metropolitan French who was educated in the Autun EMP. It was created in 1936 after the Autun EMP as the Dalat School of the Eurasian Children of Troops (Ecole des Enfants de Troupe Eurasiens de Dalat, EETED). Once dissolved during the Japanese occupation in 1944, General de Lattre reformed the EETED as the EETD Dalat School of the Children of Troops (Ecole des Enfants de Troupe de Dalat) in 1950.
In 1953, the cadres formation raised with 54 new battalion created and hundreds of new officers formed by early March. By November the Vietnamese National Army was entirely enlisted of Vietnamese recruits from the Privates to Generals.
On the other hand, until 1954 some Vietnamese were trained four months in an Infantry Instruction Centers (Centre d'Instruction de l'Infanterie, CII) based in southern Vietnam. Once licensed these recruits would not be part of the VNA but the French CEFEO. Other officer and NCO alumni were coming from all French Union including Cambodia, Overseas (Martinique, Reunion, French Guiana), metropolitan French and "French citizens" of French West Africa and India.
On April 20, 1952, the Dalat academy celebrated its first promotion (Hoàng Diệu) with a "baptism" which is the Saint Cyr -French West Point- fashion. Celebrating officials included Chief of State, H.M. Emperor Bảo Đại, Prime Minister Trần Văn Hữu, General Governor of French Indochina Gautier and French General Salan, commander of the CEFEO.
His Majesty Emperor Bảo Đại awarded the Hoàng Diệu promotion's senior and junior classes with a Saint-Cyr offered saber. As a symbol of the handover of self-defense responsibility of the whole Vietnam to the VNA, the senior class fired 4 traditional arrows in each direction.
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Alumni of the Vatchay Light Infantry Commando school located in the Halong Bay, were trained to anti-guerrilla warfare including bayonet fighting, close quarters combat, jujutsu art, river crossing, basic rope bridge (known as "monkey bridge") crossing, enhanced camouflage, minefield crossing, barbed wire field crossing and trench warfare.
Military ranks were organized after the French army's hierarchy. Shoulder patch insignia would have three, two or one bar or star. Generals would have three stars while NCO officers with a straight bar (Sous-Lieutenant for "1st Lieutenant") were called Ong Mot ("Mister One") and those with two straight bars (Lieutenant for "2nd Lieutenant") were unofficially named Ong Hai ("Mister Two"). Since anyone working for the government was called Quan the rank Lieutenant soon replaced it, Quan Mot became Sous-Lieutenant, Quan Hai became Lieutenant and so forth.
After the founding of the Republic of Vietnam in 1955, the VNA was renamed the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Its military ranks and hierarchy were reformed.
Organized as a modern army the Ground Force included artillery, infantry, signal communications and armored cavalry units.
Airborne regiments including paratrooper "TDND" (Tieu Doan Nhay Du, "Commando Battalion"), the so-called 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th BAWOUAN, were later created. These elite units were referred as the "BPVN" (Bataillon de Parachutistes Viêt-Namiens, "Vietnamese Paratroopers Battalions") by their French allies. Some of these paratroopers were attached to the GCMA special forces.
The VNA air force first took part in the First Indochina War during the joint Operation Atlas in April 1953. The aviation consisted of Morane Saulnier MS-500 reconnaissance planes and Douglas DC-3 and DC-4 transport aircraft useful in airborne operations.
Special forces consisted of Vietnamese commandos trained by French officers in local schools. They used a whole different personnel, uniform, equipment, training and warfare compared with the regular airborne or infantry troops.
The GCMA airborne commandos (Groupe Commando Mixte Aéroporté, "Airborne Mixed Commando Group") were Vietnamese ethnic minorities or Laotian montagnard partisans led by paratrooper officers of the SDECE French intelligence agency. Some of them would be used as cadres in the North Vietnam Commandos (Commandos Nord Viêt-nam).
In 1951, French General de Lattre commander of the CEFEO ordered for the creation of the North Vietnam Commandos to Louis Fourcade. These remained operational until 1954 with Fourcade as the "Big Boss" (le Grand Patron) until June 21, 1953.
Their mission was to collect intelligence, perform hit-and-run ambushes and bring confusion in Viet Minh controlled areas (northern Vietnam) wearing enemy uniforms and using unconventional warfare such as guerrilla techniques. These were based on both, GCMA director and famous counter-insurgency theorician Roger Trinquier's experience as French Jedburgh in World War II, and on Viet Minh POWs collaboration.
In 1949, after becoming the Head-of-State, Bảo Đại made the most controversial decision concerning the armed forces of the new State of Vietnam: recognizing all non-communist military forces in the country as independent armies within the VNA. These forces included: Viet Binh Doan, Bao Chinh Doan, Bình Xuyên (approximately 40,000 strong), Hòa Hảo (30,000 men under different leaders) and Cao Đài (25,000 men). Doing so, Bảo Đại solved the problem of having to spread the army too thin in the war against the Vietminh. Furthermore, the independent forces did not need money from the central government since they either were self-financed through clandestine activities or they were armed and financed by Savani's 2e Bureau in Vietnam. The Bình Xuyên was an organized crime military force in Saigon that provided part of Bảo Đại's luxury life.
In 1955, with Lansdale's support, Prime Minister Diem ordered all forces to surrender their weapons and to be part of one army. Some groups joined willingly while others were attacked by the regular VNA. By late 1955, all these forces ceased to exist. Many of their ranks joined the NVA or the Vietminh, while others returned to a civilian life.
Just like in the CEFEO, most of the VNA's military equipment was World War II vintage. Firearms were mixed U.S. and French. Helmets were mostly U.S. M1 Helmet (and airborne version) with some French copy "Model 51" (modèle 51, M51) and certain units wearing the World War II U.S. or Australian Imperial similar Slouch hat (chapeau de brousse nicknamed "broussard"). Uniforms were mixed U.S., French and British (SAS airborne).
Heavier equipment of the armoured cavalry was made of World War II vintage U.S. light tanks as they had the ability to be drop stripped and assembled by specialized engineering companies on location.
Viet Minh captured arms like German Karabiner 98k with bayonet, U.S. Browning MGs or Japanese "knee mortars" were sometimes used. These arms would often be supplied to the guerrillas by China as captured material from the Chinese Civil War (the NRA had been supplied by both Nazi Germany and the USA) or left behind by the Japanese Southern Expeditionary Army Group after the Pacific War.
With the 1954 cease-fire, pro-French and optimistic General Nguyen Van Hinh stated that as early as 1955 "a Vietnamese division will be sent to France as compensation for sacrifices in Indochina by the latter. This great unit will participate in the defense of Europe as part of the opposition between the western and eastern blocs."
However the European Defence Community project was rejected by France and Nguyen Van Hinh's French counter-intelligence SDECE/GCMA-backed planned coup (scheduled for end October 1954) against pro-USA and CIA-backed (Edward Lansdale) Ngo Dinh Diem failed. The Vietnamese general was eventually dismissed, leaving South Vietnam in November 1954, following French general Raoul Salan's departure and return to France in October. The French-American secret war and influence struggle in Vietnam engaging the SDECE against the CIA continued until 1956 when the CEFEO Expeditionary Corps was dissolved and returned to France.
On December 13, 1954, the 1954-55 French High Commissioner in Indochina (CEFEO Expeditionary Corps Commander), General Paul Ély, and the newly appointed ambassador, U.S. Special Representative in Vietnam General J. Lawton Collins, sign the following agreements:
Both generals acknowledge the size of the new force would be insufficient to protect South Viet Nam against an external aggression, hence ultimate reliance is placed on the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (Cold War era Asian equivalent to NATO) which France and the United States are members.
Famous units of the VNA are:
Notes: "ARVN" stands for Army of the Republic of Vietnam, "FFL" stands for French Foreign Legion, "USA" stands for United States Army, "VNA" stands for Vietnamese National Army.
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