Warship Wednesday, June 29, 2022: PBR Rue Bande

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday, June 29, 2022: PBR Rue Bande

U.S. Navy Historical & Heritage Command photo NH79376

Above we see vedetes of French Naval Assault Division (Dinassaut) 8 patrolling the Bassac River in the sector of Can Tho, Cochinchina, August 1952. If you were to lose the traditional French sailor’s “bachi” caps, this image could have come right out of “Apocalypse Now.” 

When the French decided to reassert themselves in formerly Japanese-occupied French Indochina in late 1945, they found it a tough apple to bite. While control of the large cities, ports, and highways was cut and dry, the interior and its waterways were a whole different issue.

VADM Paul Philippe Ortoli, the French Naval commander in the Far East, and Gen. Jacques-Philippe Leclerc, at the time the top banana overall in the region, therefore directed career Fusilier Marin Capt. Francois Gabriel Pierre Jaubert– head of a group of volunteer French Marines and sailors dubbed Compagnie Merlet— to form a riverine force of landing craft and naval infantry to secure the Mekong and Bassac rivers.

Jaubert set up shop at the Saigon Yacht club– which is funny considering the U.S. Navy’s latter Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club nickname for Operation Marketime– and went looking for river craft to arm for his “flottille fluviale.”

For a deep dive into the Brown Water experience in Vietnam, I suggest the NHHC’s 91-page Combat at Close Quarters Warfare on the Rivers and Canals of Vietnam by Edward J. Marolda and R. Blake Dunnavant, available online.

As noted by Marolda and Dunnavant:

This initial riverine force evolved into the division navales d’assaut (dinassauts, or naval assault divisions). Dinassauts typically included 12 converted U.S. World War II landing craft mechanized (LCM); landing craft utility (LCU); landing craft tank (LCT); landing support ship, large (LSSL); landing craft, vehicle or personnel (LCVP); landing craft, infantry (LCI); and landing ship infantry, large (LSIL). French-built river patrol craft, referred to as STCAN/FOMs, augmented these units.

In addition to infantry small arms, each vessel maintained an array of larger ordnance such as 81mm mortars, 20mm cannon, 40mm cannon, 37mm cannon, 3-inch guns, .50-caliber machineguns, and .30-caliber machine guns. A total of six Dinassauts eventually served in Indochina [French resources say there were actually 10 different Dinassauts]. Their mission was to insert and extract troops and to provide emergency evacuation of isolated outposts along the rivers.

Marine Major Paul J. Kennedy’s superb 73-page paper Dinassaut Operations in Indochina: 1946-1954, detailed these vessels.

LSSL – Landing Ship, Support, Large
Displacement: 227 tons / 383 tons full load
Dimensions: 158 x 24 feet (6 ft draft)
Armament: 1- 3” gun
4 – 40mm gun
4 – 20mm gun
Speed: 14 kts

LSIL- Landing Ship, Infantry, Large
Displacement: 227 tons / 383 tons full load
Dimensions: 158 x 24 feet (6 foot draft)
Armament: 1- 3” gun
1 – 40mm gun
2 – 20mm guns
4- HMG
5- Mortars ( 1-4.2in, 2- 81mm, 2-60mm)
Speed: 14 kts
Note: Both the LSSL and the LSIL were used as command and control ships. These vessels were capable of providing fire support and robust communications. The high bridge allowed the commander unobstructed observation

LCU- Landing Craft, Utility
Displacement: 227 tons
Dimensions: 158 x 24 x 6 feet
Armament: 2 – 20mm gun
Speed: 10 kts

LCM- Landing Craft, Mechanized
Displacement: 36 tons
Dimensions: 50 x 14 (1.3meter draft)
Armament: variously armed.
Speed: 8 kts
Note: The LCM was the workhorse of the riverine fleet. These sturdy landing crafts were converted into armored personnel carriers by welding steel plates along the sides and covering the upper portions with mesh deflection screens. Automatic anti-aircraft artillery, tank main guns, and flamethrowers could be mounted in the “monitor” versions. Mortars were invariably added to provide inshore fire support

LCVP- Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel
Displacement: 13 tons
Dimensions: 40 x 12 feet (1.2 meter draft)
Armament: none
Speed: 8 kts
Note: these crafts were designed primarily for the transportation of troops and a single Jeep. Sometimes lashed together, especially under the cover of darkness, for ease in movement.

Gressier Barges
Displacement: 220 tons
Dimensions: 100 x 24 feet (1.2 meter draft)
Armament: 1- 3” gun
4 – 40mm gun
4 – 20mm gun
Speed: 4-8 kts
Note: These were the recovered barges the BMEO first employed in 1945-46. Although of questionable seaworthiness, they provided journeyman service in the early days of the riverine force. They were generally armed with one 75mm gun, three mortars, and various automatic weapons. Capable of carrying entire rifle company for short distances.

A few images of such modded WWII Yankee vessels are in the NHHC’s collection:

Engins d’assaut, of Dinassaut 8 during patrol and escort mission Bassac River 1952

Bren LCM Dinassaut 8 during patrol and escort mission Bassac River 1952

French Dinassaut 8 LCM. Note the M1 helmets and M2 “Ma Duece” 

French Dinassaut 8 LCM

French Patrol Craft Patrolling Saigon River during Indochina restricted-water operations, 26 April 1952. NH 79380

The French formed the 1,000-man Far East Naval Brigade (Brigade Marine d’ Extreme-Orient, BMEO) in late 1945, a force that morphed into the French Naval Assault Division (Dinassaut) in January 1947 after the recapture of Nam Dinh from the Viet Minh. The Dinassaut group would shine in Operation lea and Ceinture later that Fall, then make a name for themselves in the Gian Khau raid in 1948. After Mao started shipping arms and material to the Viet Minh in late 1949, the French would spend the next five years increasingly on the defensive and off-balance, despite a flood of U.S. Mutual Defense Assistance Program transfers (hence all the landing ships and patrol boats).

It was then that the Dinassaut would clock in as a fire brigade to repulse the attacks on Vinh Yen, Mao Khe, and along the Day River, repulsing a series of offensives by Giap in 1951. By 1952, the force was employed in repulsing the attack on Hoa Binh and the attack on Na San before the death spiral that was Operation Atlante and Operation Castor (Dien Bien Phu), with some French marines hastily trained to make combat parachute drops in the latter days of the conflict.

In the end, two weeks after the French and Vietnamese signed the Geneva accords in July 1954, the French Navy U.S.-built Casa Grande-class dock landing ship Foudre (ex-HMS Oceanway, ex-Greek Okeanos) picked up the remaining small craft of the Dinassaut and sailed for Saigon, leaving them there in the custody of the South Vietnamese, who later got some additional use out of them.

“French-designed St. Can river craft in use by the Vietnamese for fire support, minesweeping, and patrol missions. The craft is armed with .30 and .50 caliber machine guns. The length of the craft is 55 feet and operates at approximately 12 knots.” USN 1104731

While the French had upwards of 125,000 troops in Indochina at their peak strength, less than 3,000 of those at any time were the Marines and sailors of the assorted Division d’Infanterie Navale d’Assaut.

These groups developed a serious riverine doctrine during the First Indochina War to a level not seen except for the follow-on U.S. Navy in the conflict a decade later, and it should be pointed out that the latter’s TF117 borrowed heavily from the French experience to shape its own river war.

As for Jaubert, the 43-year-old French marine captain who formed the first riverine units to fight the Viet Minh, he was killed on 29 January 1946 at Than Uyên in Indochina, earning the Croix de Guerre and Legion of Honor, posthumously. In 1948, the French formed Commando Jaubert, an elite “berets verts” marine commando unit, from his old Compagnie Merlet, and it still exists today as a crack counter-terror/frogman group.

Commando Jaubert, in a salute to its origins, maintains an Eastern dragon on its crest.

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