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.