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Bernard Fall's opinion on Paratroopers based on injury rates in Dien Bien Phu

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  • Bernard Fall's opinion on Paratroopers based on injury rates in Dien Bien Phu

    I remember when I read Hell in a Very Small place two years ago, one thing the writer Bernard Fall wrote really irked me to no end.

    Now as a bit of an introduction, Bernard Fall fought as a member of the French Resistance in the second World War and as opposed to most journalists, he actively walked into the battlefield into the midst of danger with professional soldiers. In fact I remember reading that when Dien Bien Phu fell, Fall was actually in the field with soldiers in another area in Indochina.

    So it wasn't like Bernard Fall was just some armchair critic journalist.

    But what he stated about Paratroopers and the Airborne specialization in general really disturbs me to no end.

    During the final days of Dien Bien Phu, troops absolutely untrained in Parachuting and who were not Airborne volunteered to jump into Dien Bien Phu.

    According to Fall, a miracle occurred in that injury rates of these troops falling into Dien Bien Phu were very few, at the very least being no higher than the injury rates of other the Airborne units dropped into the battlefield months prior.

    He stated that this is proof that(calling from my personal memory) "Parachuting and Airborne Assault were just means of transportation and did not require specialization". He implies that you can just send in untrained troops to do Airborne drops and they wouldn't suffer any more injuries than would actual paratroopers.

    All just based on ONE mere incident on ONE mere BATTLE!!!!!

    I really say this is a flaw analysis for a number of reasons but I'll put my 3 main ones:

    1)This was JUST one battle. Just because it occurred in Dien Bien Phu doesn't mean that other places would have similar results.

    2)Dien Bien Phu's terrain-it was pretty flat,even, and it was a small place for the standards of an open pitch battle (hence the name of the book "Hell In a Very Small Place"). Practically it WAS IDEAL for an Airborne landing.

    3)Last but not least, the number of untrained troops that jumped in the final days of a battle WERE VERY FEW at most no more than 75-IIRC it was actually comparible to less than 50. At most tens of men. Where as earlier when the French Airborne units were dropped in during the Middle of the battle, it was entire Airborne battllions(at least 6 according to a quick google search I just did)-we would be talking about over 1000 men being dropped into the battlefield.

    The troops who voluntered in the last days of the battle were hardly a 100 men and even if it ammounted to 1 whole battalion, that would still be much less than even 25% of the number of total Paratroopers dropped in Dien Bien Phu during the middle of the battle.

    I really feel Bernard Fall screwed up very badly here. He ignored basic statistics in making his opinion and ignored much of the factors that made Dien Bien Phu such a special locations from most other battlefields as well as ignored the overall factors in the comparison ( comparing injury rates of troops that amounted<1 battalion VS several Battalions).

    What do you think?

  • #2
    Fall is correct in that the parachute is merely another means of getting to the fight. Or, in the case of the United States, getting into the battle area where the combat units can fight and the supporting staff and services can do their bit.

    However, that does not mean that airborne assaults are "just another" means of getting to the battlefield. To quote Roger Trinquier, who had a few combat jumps to his credit, what matters is not how you get to the battlefield, but what you do once you are there.

    Airborne troops are not intrinsically better than non-airborne troops. Think USMC Recon, a self-selecting very small elite, versus some of the airborne non-combat arms units in the U.S. Army. I'd be willing to bet that the USMC Recon has a higher peacetime parachute related accident rate than some Airborne Military Police unit. But then, the standards of training are different in both units, as is their mission, which defines the type of parachuting their will train to.

    Some Armies view paratroops as specialized combat forces, capable of any mission that requires a parachute. The French are one such Army. They have Parachute "regiments" (really large battalions) that perform U.S. Special Forces missions, and they have para regts that train for airborne ranger missions, with the understanding that they can transition from hostage rescue to airborne raids, to peacekeeping, to straight infantry roles. Look at the organization and orientation of the 2nd REP (Foreign Legion Paras) and you'll find a seeming blend of Commandos (Ranger) and Special Operations forces within a force organized as infantry.

    In contrast, the U.S. Army views airborne as a means of strategic envelopment, delivering an entire infantry division plus supporting arms and services on the battlefield within a specific number of hours. That means cook, clerks, and bottle-washers also jump. Paratroop indoctrination and training within the U.S. Army takes place after jump school, within the parachute combat arms battalions themselves. Given the sheer numbers, it cannot make every airborne soldier a true paratrooper, able to shift from mission to mission, using strength, stamina, and imagination, on the battlefield. Many can only do the jobs they were trained for, and no more. In World War II, many of those clerks and cooks, etc, showed their mettle in places like Normandy, Holland, and Bastogne.

    In 1988 the CSM of the Army Gates, who had been a Ranger 1st SGT in Vietnam and earlier a 101st Abn trooper in two Vietnam tours , told me that there would never be another combat drop in the Army's history. He was on the Army Staff, so he obviously knew. A year later, his old battalion proved him wrong, in Panama of all places.

    So, to Fall, I would merely note that while anyone physically capable can jump, not everyone can conduct a parachute assault directly on top of the enemy as the 3rd Colonial Paracommandos (3e BCCP) did at Dong Khe in North Vietnam on 27 May 1950.

    Likewise, not many parachute units in the world would do what the 2e REP did at Kolwezi. I.e., jump Zairan packed T-10 parachutes with with they had zero familiarity, which were property of the Zairan Army and had been in storage for some time, which they used without a reserve, to get into Kolwezi so they could save the hostages. Anybody could have done the same, but my experience with conventional U.S. military airborne officers is that none of them would have allowed their unit to do so.
    Last edited by lirelou; 28 Dec 12, 13:19.
    dit: Lirelou

    Phong trần mài một lưỡi gươm, Những loài giá áo túi cơm sá ǵ!

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    • #3
      There is the story in SF circles about the time they trained a Middle Eastern country's airborne troops and the parachutes were so old many of them came apart during the jump.
      "Dost thou not know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed?" -Count Oxenstierna (ca 1620) to the young King Gustavus Adolphus

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      • #4
        Originally posted by rotorwash View Post
        There is the story in SF circles about the time they trained a Middle Eastern country's airborne troops and the parachutes were so old many of them came apart during the jump.
        Don,

        This story is in Inside the Green Berets by Charles Simpson. In early 1963 the Royal House of Saud asked for a demonstration of military support from the US. (Apparently the Royal House of the neighbouring Kingdom of Yemen had been overthrown by an Egyptian supported coup which the US now recognized.) The US sent C Company, 10th Special Forces Group, to conduct a series of public parachute demonstrations with the Royal Saudi forces.

        "The 250 men of my (Simpson's) Company C were slated for jumps in Jiddah on the Red Sea and in Riyadh, the royal capital. In each case, we were to jump in coordination with the 800-man Airborne Battalion of the Royal Saudi Army, an outfit based in Jiddah that had not jumped in over two years. The Jiddah jump came first on a drop zone, as flat and hard as an asphalt parking lot, east of the city. The local population turned out in air-conditioned pickup trucks and ringed the drop zone, but pressed in to gain better observation sites. When C Company jumped from three C-130s, the drop zone was little more than 1,000 yards long. Jumpers caromed off the roofs and hoods of the parked trucks, the lead and trailing jumpers in all sticks landing outside the ring of vehicles on both sides of the DZ. The Saudis jumped next from nine C-123s, but, unfortunately, their Egyptian cotton parachutes had deteriorated from disuse. Three troopers came all the way down without benefit of deployed parachutes. As they did not wear reserve parachutes, the results were messy.

        Somehow the Saudis got those troopers chuted up and loaded for the jump the next day in Riyadh. Having learned from the Jiddah jump, the Saudis had no vehicles near the drop zone, but the crowd was ten to twelve people thick and must have numbered over 100,000. I was the drop zone safety officer positioned in the upper third of the DZ. The C Company jump came off smoothly, forming up quickly and marching to the reviewing stand to be presented to the royal princes assembled there. The Saudi jump, miraculously, this time was also injury free, despite a snappy wind across the drop zone. Then, unexpectedly, the three C-130s made another pass and dropped six 600-pound bundles of C rations in cargo parachutes with reefers with barometric release devices. The idea was to have the bundles parabola down with the chutes furled, then open 100 feet off the ground and land relatively softly. I watched in horror as the first two bundles came all the way in without deploying their parachutes, landing in the lower one-third of the drop zone. The burst on impact, spewing rations in every direction. The crowd broke ranks, running into the DZ to scarf the manna from heaven. The second two bundles landed behind me, in the open again, and again spewed rations, while the crowd ran into the drop zone. The third pair of bundles, aimed directly at the upwind crowd, failed to deploy until the last possible second when both chutes popped, and the bundles floated over the crowd and landed softly outside the DZ. The crowd raided those bundles, and there was not a ration or scrap of parachute nylon or rigging to be found."

        Cheers,
        Dan.
        So long as men worship the Caesars and Napoleons, Caesars and Napoleons will duly rise and make them miserable.

        Aldous Huxley: Ends and Means (1937)

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        • #5
          Dan, thanks for that. Great story. I hadn't heard it, despite the fact I have Simpson's book. The SF crowd are a bit more relaxed when it comes to jumping than the conventional airborne forces. Under joint regulations,no one can jump a DZ for training that has not been approved by a USAF Combat Control Team type. They travel the world doing DZ certifications. I love the 82nd Abn like brothers. They have the right spirit. Unfortunately, they get the occasional officer who has spent all his time in training commands and only knows how to throw up obstacles to any creative training. Of course, I have also seen the unfortunate other end of that spectrum. Officers gung ho to add more dangerous jump altitudes and scenarios, usually until someone gets hurt, as which time they turn around and lay the blame on the victim, or his next higher in command.
          dit: Lirelou

          Phong trần mài một lưỡi gươm, Những loài giá áo túi cơm sá ǵ!

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