6e BPC, "Opération Castor"
Dien Bien Phu Novembre 1953

Rolling Thunder French Indochina war studies for re-enactors

The newly formed Indochina Living History section of Rolling Thunder have done some specific photo shoots 
for uniform studies. 

 This study will give you a brief description of the unit and its involvement in the Indochina war 
with some war time photos and links as well as re-enacted photos. 
A full description of uniforms and equipment used by this unit is also included.

The French paratroopers in Indochina were the post-WWII elite forces of the French army. They were used as firemen for the Indochinese theatre and wherever a situation needed sorting out, they were engaged. 
As Elite troops, their uniform was always quite distinctive from the other French troops and evolved quickly 
during the war. French paratrooper uniforms worn during that famous battle were quite varied 
but helped us to identify the unit represented.

6e Bataillon Parachutistes Coloniaux, 6e BPC

The battalion was created in Brittany in 1948 under the designation of 6e BCCP (bataillon colonial de commandos parachutistes) and trace its lineage to WWII French SAS. It arrived in Saïgon in 1949 and was rename the 6e GCCP (groupement colonial de commandos parachutistes) on the 1st of Octobre 1950, then 6e BPC (bataillon parachutistes coloniaux) on the 1st March 1951. The battalion was dissolved on its return to France on the 20 August 1951 and then reformed in 1952 to return to Indochina. The battalion was dropped on  DBP during operation Castor on the 20th November. Them for a second time over DBP on the 16th of March 1954 and  fought in the valley until its destruction on the 7th May 1954.  6e BPC is one of the most famous French Airborne battalion and was commanded by one of France most known and decorated general, Marcel Bigeard "BRUNO" and was often referred as Bigeard's battalion.

"Operation Castor" Dien Bien Phu  

Opération Castor was the French airborne operation to established a fortified air-land base at Dien Bien Phu, an old airstrip built by the Japanese during their 1940-45 occupation. Commanded by Brigadier General Jean Gilles, Castor was the largest airborne operation since World War II. The Operation began on 20 November 1953 , with reinforcements dropped over the following two days. With all its objectives achieved, the operation ended on 22 November.

The French paratroopers of the 6ème Bataillon de Parachutistes Coloniaux (6ème BPC ) and the 2nd Battalion of the 1er Régiment de Chasseurs Parachutistes (II/1er RCP) dropped over Dien Bien Phu and the operation took 65 of the 70 operational Dakota and all 12 C-119 Flying Boxcar transport aircraft the French had in the area and still required two trips to get the lead elements into the valley. Also dropped in the first wave were elements of the 17e Régiment de Génie Parachutiste (RGP) (“17th Airborne Engineers Regiment”) and the Headquarters group of Groupement Aéroporté 1 
(GAP 1), (“Airborne Group 1”). They were followed later in the afternoon by the 1er Bataillon de Parachutistes Coloniaux (1 BPC ) and elements of 35e Régiment d’Artillerie Légère Parachutiste (35 RALP) and other combat support elements.

The following day, the second airborne group, (GAP 2) – consisting of 1er Bataillon Etranger de Parachutistes (1 BEP), 8e Bataillon de Parachutistes de Choc (8 BPC ), other combat support elements and the entire command and Headquarters group for the Dien Bien Phu operation under Brigadier General Jean Gilles were dropped in. The heavy equipment came down pm another drop zone and the engineers quickly set about repairing and lengthening the old airstrip.

On 22 November, the last troops the 5e Bataillon de Parachutistes Vietnamiens (“Battalion of Vietnamese Parachutists”, 5 BPVN), jumped into the valley. In the same “stick” as the commander of 5 BPVN was Brigitte Friang, a woman war correspondent with a military parachutist diploma and five combat jumps. 
General Navarre
created the outpost to draw the Viet Minh into fighting a pitched battle. That battle, occurred four months after Operation Castor and ended up in a defeat for the French on the 7th of May 1954 after massively under estimating the Viet Minh forces and capabilities.

The Battle of Dien Bien Phu did cost the CEFEO over 3,000 men, 1,700 dead and 1,600 missing; 4,400 French soldiers were wounded; 10,300, including the 4,400 wounded, were taken prisoner. The enemy lost at least 8,000 men and had over 15,000 wounded.

The Viet Minh’s victory in Dien Bien Phu heralded France 's withdrawal from Indochina. The Geneva Agreements of 21 July 1954 brought an end to the First Indochina War and recognised the democratic government of Vietnam. Out of the 10,300 French soldiers taken prison in Dien Bien Phu , only 3,300 were returned to their families. The others lost their lives along the roads that took them to the Viet Minh detention centres or camps were, they were left without any medical treatment, exhausted, starved or were summarily executed.

 ***

6e BPC, Operation Castor 20th November 1953  

Setting the scene 

At 10.30 on the 20st of November 1953 during Operation Castor, the 6e BPC was dropped as part of the 1st wave of French paratroopers into the valley of Dien Bien Phu. The objective was to secure a WWII-era landing strip and to later construct a fighting camp to draw the Viet Minh into another pitched battle against a well-defended position (similar scenario to Na San). Once on the ground the 6e BPC ran into contact with the Viet Minh 910th Battalion, 148th Regiment, which was conducting field exercise in the area along with a battery from the 351st Artillery Division 
and an infantry company of the 320th Division. 
Fighting persisted until the afternoon when the Viet Minh units eventually withdrew to the south. 

The 6e BPC (450 men strong which included 200 Vietnamesse) was dropped as re-enforcement in DBP on the 16th of March and operated from the central position "Claudine" as general reserve for counter attacks, 
unfortunately its strength was quickly eroded after bloody assaults to re take fallen positions. 
The battalion saw its destruction with the rest of the garrison on the 7th May 1954.  

 Re enacted photos are from HQ company showing 
an Officer,  a Radio and a NCO in the valley towards the end of the first day 
of "Operation Castor". 

***

We are on the second day of Operation Castor, the combat have ceased with the Viet Minh 
disappearing towards the South of the valley and the new Bigeard cap have now replaced the helmets!

 The men from HQ company are orgenising the drop zones for the second phase of the operation:
 the drops of the second airborne group, "GAP 2" in the Dien Bien Phu valley.

Bamboo canes were often carried by company commanders or platoon leaders

"GAP 2 are been dropped", 
no marker was available on this small secondary DZ, so an old Tricolor was got out of one of the ruck to mark current position!

 

    

Also a big thank you to two friends of mine:
 Greg,  from www.modernforces.com  for taking the role of the officer
Ian, from Rolling Thunder for taking the role of the NCO
and to Phil Royal from www.depthoffieldimages.co.uk for his hard work during the photo shoot, 
I am the Radio in this photo shoot.

I decided to use Phil's photos in colour to illustrate the uniform study and which are in keeping 
with the few existing colour photos of the battle of Dien Bien Phu.

***

A second photo shoot was orgenised on the 6e BPC this time with the help of more friends, 
Darren (NCO) from French Army Reenactment Group
FARG, Ian from Rolling Thunder (radio) 
and Bosnia War combat photographer Sean Vatcher, (Facebook Vietnam-báo chí).
I am the officer in this photo shoot. 
Sean decided to process all his photos in black and white to recreate that 50's combat photographer feel.




Both Photo shoot were taken August  2017 Military Odyssey show, Kent, UK.

***

Series of war time photographs from the ECPAD

6e BPC during "Operation Castor", November 1953
 (you can also notice an entrenching tool on the right side radio's Bergman ruck)

6e BPC Battalion Commander Marcel Bigeard (Code name: BRUNO) and  Major Bottella from
 the 5e BPVN (Vietnamese Parachute battalion)
Photo taken after the 2dn drop in DBP on the 16 March 1954

 
DZ Natacha, 6e BPC, DBP,  20 November 1953

More photos and info at: 
www.ecpad.fr/operation-castor-a-dien-bien-phu-20-24-novembre-1953/

Les images de Diên Biên Phu dans les fonds de l’ECPAD


 

***

This uniform study is of the 6th Colonial Paratroop battalion, 
which wore the full British Windproof uniform and mainly 
French equipment during Castor and the battle of DBP.

Uniform & Equipment description  

Officer
Full set of British windproofs, TAP/EO M1 helmet, footwear is the French M50 jump boots, gear include the TAP M50 belt, M50 pistol holster and suspenders with US M1 carbine pouch, TTA M47 water bottle, US WW map case. He has the TAP50 musette with entrenching tool,  M51 binoculars, weapons are the M1A1 carbine, Colt 45 in its TAP M50 holster, US M3 fighting knife and one OF37 in a leather grenade pouch 
and DF genade on his belt.

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Radio Man 
Full set of British windproof uniform but this time modified with the addition of a full zip, he is sporting the 6th BPC  latest headgear, "Casquette Bigeard" and TAP/EO M1 helmet, footwear is the French M50 jump boots, gear include the TAP M50 belt and suspenders with US M1A1 carbine pouches, TTA M47 water bottle. 
A PRC10 radio is slung in his Bergam on witch is attached a M35 tent. 
His weapons are the M1A1 carbine, US M3 fighting knife and OF and DF M37 grenades.

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NCO
Again full set of British windproofs , US M1A1 helmet, footwear is the French Pataugass jungle boots, gear include the US M36 belt and TAP50 suspenders 
with TAP50 MAT 49 pouches, US M1910 water bottle.  
He has French M35 half tent and a M35 quart tucked away under the flap 
of his TAP50 musette.  
Weapons are  MAT 49, US M3 fighting knife 
and one French OD37 in a leather grenade pouch.

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Bigeard Cap:

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The Bigeard cap was adopted  by the 6th BPC after the Raid on Lang Son (July 1953). 
The new cap took the form of the WWII Japanese cap but with a two part triangular neck cover instead of the rectangular one.
 This helped into the folding of it inside the cap if not needed.  Several models do exist with slightly different constructions, different stitching on the visor, different construction neck covers and caps were lined or unlined.  
The Indochina ones were made out of British Windproof but a few examples also exist in the US HBT cammo material. 
The same cap saw service during the Algerian war  in windproof material as well as in French TAP  Lizard material. 
The Bigeard hat has been the traditional headgear of French Para since the 60's.


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Re-enactors notes: genuine Indochina war time Bigeard hats are extremely rare and do go for a lot of money 
if they can be identified as genuine war time ones.

The ones that you do see occasionally for sale are either Algerian war or post war manufacturers with genuine material which were made when the British Windproof was affordable in the 80's-90's.

 I believe also that some of been made out of reproduction material to be sold to re-enactors, 
they can be easily identifiable as the material feel more silky to the touch. 

 Helmets:

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 The Para helmets were either the WWII US M1c or the US M1 with a modified liner which had received the TAP/EO Airborne Indochina modification.  The camo net was the US WWII  M43 net with its foliage band. On the photo above, the band  holds a US WWII Carlisle dressing which was much preferred due to water resistance.  The white cord looped around the foliage band is a piece of parachute suspension cord which was used to secure the helmet to the webbing during parachute jumps. 
In fact the TAP/EO modification were not that strong and sometimes broke during parachute jumps resulting with the loss of the helmet.  With the cord, the helmet would stay suspended to the webbing to be retrieved once on the ground.

IMG_0003.jpg (92359 bytes)

 Re-enactors notes: genuine war time TAP/EO converted helmets are extremely rare and command very high prices.  Conversion kits and converted post war M1 helmets are available from specialised dealers. 
Genuine nets are a little more difficult to obtain but repro are available.  Genuine bandages are very common.  

The jacket and trousers:

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WWII period British Army issue windproof came in a two-piece suit: smock and trousers, the Windproof Camouflaged Smock was intended to be worn as an oversuit over the Battledress. The pattern of printed camouflage was unique to this form of dress and it became popular with the Special Air Service and various commando units. 
It is sometime referred as SAS smock by collectors. This was know to the French army as "peau de saucisson" "sausage skin" due to it's feel. They were used as issued or received modifications:
  the top sometime received an half or full zip or an opening with buttons, the hood were sometime removed and made into a collar, the trousers were remodeled with a Zip or button fly and pockets were some time added.

Re-enactors notes:
Genuine British War time Windproofs are commanding high price now, 
l
uckily fairly good reproductions have been available for re-enactors and even collectors. 
As far as I am aware, there is 3 manufacturers of them, 
Panzerfaust, What Price Glory and Silverman, the last one been a poor replica due to the wrong colour print and heavy material used.

 The boots:

 IMG_0012 copy.jpg

 French military jungle boots  "Pataugas" officially started to appear in small numbers around 1948, prior and post that time, soldiers had to rely on civilian or locally made ones. They were light and quick drying and paras often wore them instead of their leather jump boots. The "Pataugas" is also another characteristic item worn by many soldiers in Indochina from 1950 onwards. The first one issued were from the famous "Bata" brand, but the manufacturing was soon sub contracted to many other manufacturers to fulfill the demand

"BONUSAGE" brand genuine 50's issue Pataugass

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Re-enactors notes: The same pattern was produced and used by the French army well into the 1980s so later models are not that difficult to obtain. Modern copies are made by Miltec and by French Surplus store "La Tranchee Militaire), Miltec one include their name and LTM "Operation Castor" on the black rubber ankle re-enforcement  making them easy identifiable as coppies. Beware, the French army had some post war Pataugas made with a green rubber sole and others with a buckle gaiter section added (similar to the Rangers).  These are no good for Indochina or Algeria.  

TAP Jump boots:

 IMG_0014 copy.jpg

 The French released their own jump boots in 1950, then a slightly modified version in 1953.

Detailed photos
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  FRENCHINDOCHINA (15).jpg
Italian copies on the left and genuine M50/53 jump boots on the right.

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Genuine M50/53 jump boots on the left and Italian copies on the right (shiny smooth dark brown leather)

Re-enactors notes: these French M50/53 jump boots are very rare and expensive to purchase.  For a long time it has been acceptable for re-enactors to wear the Italian para boots which, from the front, resemble the French model. The sole and the rear of the boots are slightly different as well as the leather used. 
What Price Glory are making very good reproduction boots to order.  The only difference is they use a Vibram sole.


Equipment:

The 6th BPC during Castor and  DBP was mainly equipped with the new TAP 50 and 50/53 French made equipment 
with still a few previously issued WWII US gear.

PR8_5040.jpg

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The photos above showing you the Officer set up, 
TAP 50/53 suspenders with  Carlisle bandage, a TAP 50 belt, WWII US M1 carbine pouch, TTA M47 water bottle,  TAP 50 holster with Colt 45 or MAC 50, WWII Airborne compass pouch and OF and DF M35 French grenades. 

PR8_5025.jpg P1140732.jpg (73519 bytes)
 Our radio man carry virtually the same set up, minus the compass and the pistol holster ( which was standard issued to radio men). He opted to take instead a entrenching tool much more handy for close combat. Under his "peau de saucisson" he his wearing a sleeveless white sport shirt, this were favored to the army issue under vest.

IMG_0009.jpg (92148 bytes)
Our NCO has a mixture of French and WWII US equipment with M36 US pistol belt and M1910 water bottle but TAP 50 suspenders, TAP MAT 49 ammo pouches, the US M3 fighting knife and DF M35 grenade in a leather pouch.

Re-enactors notes: The M50 belt is the one to get, but is rare. 
From the late 50's some M50 belts were manufactured in Europe or locally  for "Regimental  foyer"  which can be recognised by the flat metal belt loop instead of the rounded type  used on the original Army issue belt.  They are a lot less desirable.  
Buyers must be aware that fake M50 belts have been made from the French M50/53 belt webbing with 50's British web belt buckle and  the flat belt loop.
The M36 US WWII web belt would still have been common with the 6th BPC. 
The rest of the equipment can be easily obtained via the internet, except for the TAP musette which is rarer. 
  A genuine M3 knives are expensive, but good repros do exist.

P1140723.jpg (70160 bytes)

The NCO and Officer carry the TAP 51 musette/haversack. This one has a French M35 light khaki half tent rolled 
under the flap and you can just about see a M35 quart tied down to one of the strap.

Special notes "Information obtained from Philippe Fabre whose father served with the I/II RCP at Dien Bien Phu. 
French Para always traveled light and would usually carry in their "musette", a jumper, a spare pair of socks and underpants, half a shelter tent,  a ration  and a couple of emergency rations (to open only under order) and loads of ammo. 
 No mast or pegs for their half tent. For water a single water bottle with some purification tablets. 

Philippe's father was a radio repair man and carried a lot of radio spare for the Battalion in a Bergam rucksack, on the first combat operation he did, he took a MAT49 and a couple mag pouches (10 mags) plus loose ammo, as this was too heavy on his second one he took a 45 and found out that this was a little light, then he settle down for an M1A1 carbine, 3 mags and loose ammo in bulk. He said that on operations, they was a shortage of everything except ammunition.

To the unusual comment I made that in most photos I have seen, the French paras on operation in Indochina 
always appear to be well shaven despite having only one water canteen, 
he said that
they shaved every morning because drinking water was not required for a shave and he added that 
Bigeard said "
At the 6th, we die well shaven because it is not pleasant to shave a corpse"

 
The Radio man opted for the French TTA Bergam, to carry his extra load.

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 Both French model 1935 and 1951 tents were issued in Indochina. 
The Para mainly used the M35 or some US WWII 2 men tent "Tent Shelter Half) when available as the cotton was more waterproof  that the French ones. Both French models had a slit with buttons to be used as a poncho.
The French Paras did not carry the poles and pegs with them and used branches or bamboo 
to set them up when ever needed.
The M35 is designed once assembled to sleep 6 soldiers, with four sections for the two sides 
and one each for front and back, each individual section of the tent is 1.6m . These of course were often used as pairs to sleep two men. 

M35 tents

P1140727.jpg (63023 bytes)

Re-enactors notes: In 1956 (post  Indochina), a new tent was introduced, the M56 (1956) 
which was a copy of the US Tent (Tent Shelter Half) to sleep two men.

The weapon:

P1140711.jpg (73590 bytes)

US M1A1 carbine  (folding stock) were issued to Officers and many radio men also carry them.  
Standard M1 carbines were sometime seen in Airborne battalion, M1 and M1A1 with or without bayonet lug were used. The M1A1 carbine was well liked by the Para for it compactness and lightness, more ammunitions could also be carried, but the 30 Carbine caliber, with its 1990 fps muzzle velocity  lacked a little in punch and penetration specially in jungle environment. 

IMG_0011 copy.jpg TAP50holster.jpg (751057 bytes)

 The MAT 49, iconic weapons of the French army started to appear in Indochina during 1950. 
 The 9mm
MAT 49 SMG was an excellent weapon for close combat with a 32 round mag which folds under for transport. 
In the photo above is also a US WWII entrenching tool and a Colt 45 in a Vietnamese made holster, the other photo is of the TAP pistol holster, this is the rare model M1950, the 1953 model will receive re-enforcement rivets. 


IMG_0011.jpg (84172 bytes)

Standard US M3 fighting knife, the most common type of fighting knife found in the French Para units in Indochina.

Re-enactors notes: A genuine M3 knives are expensive, but good repros do exist.

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US MKII  pineapple grenade, French OF37 and DF37 grenades and 
a couple of the French leather grenade pouches used in Indochina. 


Re-enactors notes:
MAT 49 and OF/DF37 are rare and difficult to obtain here in the UK.


Map Case:

IMG_0007 copy.jpg

 Standard WWII US Army map case with genuine Indochina maps.

 
Re-enactors notes: maps are a little more difficult to obtain than a genuine issue map case, 
which are to be preferred to repro ones.  
Locally-made as well as German and British map cases were also used.

Binoculars:

IMG_0015 copy.jpg

French issue 8x30 M51.  
Those used in the photo shoot were 1944 Canadian ones.  
WWII British, US and German ones were also used in Indochina

 ***

 Please note the equipment and uniforms described here are time specific for the 6th BPC.  
For instance, 
some of their uniforms and equipment would have been different 
during the fighting at Tu Le in 1952.


***

Here is the list of our requirements for that specific photo shoot.

Helmet US M1C or M1 modified TAP

US 1944 pattern camo net with or without band  

Bigeard cap 

WWII British Windproof uniform 

French M50 - M50/53 jump boots (Italian para boots) or Pataugas (jungle boots)

Equipment

M50 TAP or M36 US belt

TAP M50 or M53 suspenders

French M47 or US WWII M1910 water bottle

MAT 49 and TAP ammo pouches
or
M1A1 carbine with US M1 twin cell pouch, or French M50, or M50/53 riffle ammo pouch.  

TAP M50 Para musette bag  

 TTA French Bergam rucksack

US WWII entrenching tool

WWII parachute silk scarf , camo or white (NOT RIPSTOP)

French or US WWII Carlisle field dressing (in metal can)

M3 fighting knife

OF and DF French grenade, or US Pineapple grenade

TAP50 holster, or US or M48 French leather holster

French or US M32 medic pouch

PRC10, SRC536, BC-1000 radio 

M51 French binoculars or WWII US, British or German

FM24/29 with TAP 50/53 ammo pouch

M35 light khaki rectangular half shelter tent

***

Điện Biên Phủ

These following leaflets have been translated in English by myself to illustrate the fate of French prisoner in Indochina. 
The original ones were produced by the National Association of former prisoners and deportees of Indochina.
http://www.anapi.asso.fr/

Dien Bien Phu prisoners

Photo from Google search, taken by Russian photographer

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Viet Minh prison camps in Indochina were 
equal if not worse than the German or Soviet prison camps during World War II.


One in four Dien Bien Phu prisoners will not return alive from their four months in captivity.  
The Viet Minh captured 11,721 men. The badly-wounded were looked after by the 
Red Cross.  The remaining 10,863 were taken as prisoners.  Only 3,290 of them were repatriated. 
Also, there is no record as to what happened to the Indochinese who helped and fought with the French during the battle.

***

 Some more data from an article from French Maj Turellier 
who spent 5 years 6 months as a prisoner of the Viet Minh 

A total of around 36,979 prisoners were taken by the Viet Minh during the war.
10, 754 were released and 26,225 died in camps or on the roads, which amounts to 71% of deaths .
The DBP prisoners mortality rate was, on average, 72% in four months.
The Viet Minh prisoner camps numbers 42 and 113 were the most deadly. They were simply
extermination camps, a grim reminder of the WWII German camps.
At camp number 42, out of 400 Dien Bien Phu prisoners, only 73
came out after four months.  That equates to 82% of deaths.
 
Article/Study in French byMaj Turellier - pdf download link below

http://www.atdm34.net/images/stories/souvenirs/Maj_Turelier.pdf

Photo from Pinterest, author unknown


The information published is to my/our best knowledge and may be altered if new information is uncovered. 
 Article written by J-L Delauve for/from Rolling Thunder, The Vietnam Experience, Nov 2016

All photos are from our collection unless stated and nothing should be re-use without our prior consent! 
Please contact us first.

RT uniform regulation
Hair, Beard, Tattoos 
list of minimum basic kit needed.

US Uniforms
Study of the jungle uniform 
and insignias
Class A uniform
US ARMY AG44
 
Underwear
T-shirt, boxer short and socks


US Equipments
Study of the M56 Load Carrying Equipment 
and 
Light weight ruck sack


US Personal items
Study of of correctional  glasses, 
sun glasses, watches, dog tags.


Special feature
AIR CAV 

Uniforms and equipments


French Indochina
Dog tag/Watches
Basic Uniforms
Equipment

Dien Bien Phu 1954
A study of 1st BEP uniform

Operation Castor Nov 1953
A study of the 6e BPC uniform

For your vehicle look
Vehicle markings and sizes

 

 
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