Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Entry #10 to the AHPC - French Fort from 'The De Lattre Line', 1951

French blockhouse along 'The De Lattre Line'

This past week I returned to a project which I started a few years ago: The war in French Indochina, 1945-54.

After the defeat of the Japanese in WWII, Indochina reverted back to French colonial control. Nonetheless the Vietnamese nationalist, the Viet Minh, who had fiercely resisted the Japanese occupation, had set their hearts upon independence and so open fighting between the two soon broke out. 

By 1950 the French found themselves hard pressed and bogged down by the Viet Mihn and so within this setting General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, France's most senior commander, was called in to redress the balance. General de Lattre was only in Indochina for less than a year but within that time he reinvigorated the French forces and dealt the Viet Mihn a series of stinging defeats. 


One of de Lattre's strategies was to enclose the entire Tonkin river delta with a sequence of concrete fortifications in order to better protect this strategic region. These 1200 forts became known as 'The De Lattre Line'. The forts were constructed to house anywhere between 10 men to several hundred defenders, but were usually fairly small affairs, often hexagonal in shape. From what I've been able to gather they were frequently designed like a seashell, with the rooms winding in towards a central magazine/radio room. This way the garrison could fall back, room by room towards the center. Also, some forts had the luxury of an old tank turret being installed on the roof to provide additional fire support.




Not so easily deterred, the Viet Minh frequently attacked these outlying forts in order to break into the Tonkin area, cause havoc and try to reduce the French grip on the area. 

In his book, 'Street without Joy' Bernard Fall describes a typical attack on one of these forts and it's a harrowing read.  I won't go into great detail here but, in short, the Viet Mihn would usually use the cover of darkness to approach the fort and drive-in its defenders. As the French airforce had no capability for night-flying, and their artillery was nowhere nearly as plentiful as what the Americans would enjoy a decade later, the defenders had to hang on, fight through the night and hope for support in the light of the morning. 

The French would fight in pitch darkness, being as the use of interior lights would outline their fort's firing slits to the enemy. As the night battle wore on, the interiors would fill with choking cordite smoke, with the darkness only cut by the flash and roar of automatic weapons fire. 


Meanwhile back at French headquarters, staff officers would crowd around the radios to listen as the fort's radioman gave up-to-the-minute status of the fighting.  On more than one occasion a frantic last message would come over the wireless announcing that the defenders were out of ammunition and the Viet Minh were breaking into the last room (this often punctuated with a stentorian, 'Vive la France!'), or the next morning, the relieving French aircraft would fly over the besieged fort and discover the entire area masked by a cloud of red-brown dust, the fort obviously destroyed.


As soon as I read Bernard Fall's description of these desperate actions along 'The De Lattre Line' I knew I wanted to try to replicate it on the tabletop. I asked my good friend Sylvain to help me construct the fort, providing him with photographs and describing what I understood to be the interior layout. He provided me an excellent base model (thanks Sylvain!) to which I added some additional details, such as the raised viewing cupola, roof bracing and a Renault turret position. I then applied a skim coat of texture gel to reflect the concrete construction and painted it similar to my existing Indochina collection.  After it dried I liberally targeted various corners, edges and surfaces with a brown wash to mimic the mildew that would quickly grow in a jungle environment. 


I apologize for being a little liberal with the foliage in these photos. In reality, the French would have the whole area around their forts cleared to allow for effective fire lanes.  Nonetheless, I wanted to see if my experiment of a light overspray of khaki would take the shine off the plants' plastic leaves. It seems to have worked and so will be trying it with the rest of my 'Littlest Mermaid' foliage. :) 

There you have it folks, thanks for taking the time to visit.

43 comments:

  1. Beautiful piece of work and some great history!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Now there's some very interesting history I wasn't aware of, excellent reproduction from the photographs.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! Yeah, the First Indochina War was a revelation to me as well as it's not very well documented in English.

      Delete
  3. That is a brilliant build. I will be trying some de Lattre forts myself in the future, but for now it's trenches for Dien Bien Phu on the build list.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ooh, that would be very cool! I look forward to seeing that.

      Delete
    2. I found out yesterday that the Rubicon Sherman kit contains two turrets. There must be a higher purpose to that...

      Delete
    3. I found out yesterday that the Rubicon Sherman kit contains two turrets. There must be a higher purpose to that...

      Delete
  4. Really fantastic job. I have often considered building one of these as well after reading Fall.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Rodney. Yes, Fall's descriptions were so evocative that I had to see if we could get one done-up for the tabletop.

      Delete
  5. Fantastic history and beauty work! Big PLUS!

    ReplyDelete
  6. A cracking build Curt and certainly one of my favourite periods that you engage it.

    ReplyDelete
  7. A great piece of work.

    Looking forward to seeing it in a battle report.

    Cheers,

    Pete.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Excellent and accurate strongpoint!Well done!

    ReplyDelete
  9. The Indichine conflict is sadly often ignored by gamers. You've captured a wonderfully obscure part of it really nicely Curt- well done!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks you Paul - I aim to please. :)

      Delete
  10. Great looking model.

    I didn't know these forts existed.

    Tony

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, I only came across them in Fall's book and was immediately curious about their design and how they came about.

      Delete
  11. Chilling description of what happened in those battles.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Absolutely Michael, I have a hard time imagining what it must have been like. A stranger in a strange land indeed.

      Delete
  12. Great read and a great model. I will have to look up 'Street Without Joy' Sounds Terrific! The 'seashell' layout of the fort is very interesting. Thanks for sharing!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Definitely get a copy - it's a very good read. I found it shocking the scope and scale of the battles that were fought there during the early 50s.

      Delete
    2. It is a smashing read. Also look for Hell In A Very Small Place by the same author and The Last Valley by Martin Windrow. With those three books, you will be hooked on Indo-China forever.

      Delete
    3. Yes, Hell in a Very Small Place and The Last Valley are both excellent accounts of Dien Bien Phu.

      Delete
  13. Inspiring piece of work - I was unaware of these type of bunkers, nice to learn something new.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Stuart! They were a bit of a revelation to me as well until I read a description of them in Fall's book.

      Delete
  14. Hello This was a great help! You guys made a super fort there! Can I ask where you got photos of the forts? I to am doing a French Indochina war in 20mm I was trying to find the Legion in the Kepi ( I know they were not worn in the field much and early on mostly. Tho I have some pics of them in 50s ) but it seems nobody makes them in Kepi :( what is the best Miniature company to get good French troops in 20mm ? Thanks for any help:-) keep up the Great Work! Grey in Va. USA

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Grey, thank you for note. As to the images, I just did a search on the 'De Lattre Line' on google and went from there. Also, I'm afraid I don't know of anyone who does French Indochina in 20mm. It's a shame as it's a great scale. I know Eureka does it in 15mm and there is Empress/Red Star in 28mm, but of course that doesn't help you. Again, sorry I can't be of more help.

      I like the look of the French kepi as well. :)

      Delete
    2. Grey, the only 20mm Indo-China that I know of are Elhiems range. https://www.elhiem.co.uk/ourshop/cat_816745-French-Indochina-1950s.html but no kepis there.
      Headswaps might be your best bet. The Airfix WW1 set (http://www.plasticsoldierreview.com/Review.aspx?id=37) has two officers that wear a kepi that should be close enough.
      Cheers/Thomas

      Delete
    3. Thanks for this info Tom. I had forgotten about the Elhiem range. Good catch!

      Delete
  15. Hi thank you sir for the info. . I'll keep looking for the 20mm miniatures you have a super looking game there keep up the great work! Hey is there a good set of other free rules you would know of? Thanks for the Kind Reply:) Good luck in your games they look Great! Grey in Va.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have not tried any free rules so I can't advise there, but Chain of Command from TooFatLardies that we use is rather cheap if you get the PDF.

      Delete
  16. Hey Guys you have been very helpful I'll check out the site Thomas I'll try that head swap Thank you for this info. You guys are super for helping:) God Bless and Thank you both for the great help:) Grey in Va. USA

    ReplyDelete