On this day in 1954, the
decisive battle of the First Indochina War at Dien Bien Phu ended with a
resounding victory for the Viet Minh. The war was fought between the
colonial French powers and a group of Vietnamese soldiers led by
communist Ho Chi Minh. The Vietnamese forces had been battling the
colonial French since the aftermath of World War Two, with each side
being funded by the opposing camps of the Cold War - the Vietnamese from
China, and France from the United States. In the Battle of Dien Bien
Phu, the communists were led by General Vo Nguyen Giap, who encircled
the French stronghold with 40,000 men and heavy artillery. After a
fifty-seven day siege, the French defense crumbled and the Viet Minh
were victorious. The decisive battle essentially ended the war, which
led to the Geneva Conference to negotiate peace. The conference, which
was attended by most of the major world powers, resulted in the division
of Vietnam along the 17th Parallel. It was this division which kept
tensions alive between the communist North and US-backed South, which
ended in war between the two and heavy US involvement to support the
South. In 1975, after the US had mostly retreated, the Southern capital
of Saigon fell to the communists and the nation was once again united.
Viets are everywhere. The situation is very grave. The combat is
confused and goes on all about. I feel the end is approaching, but we
will fight to the finish” - Christian de Castries, French commander at Dien Bien Phu, in the last hours of the siege
Like so many other conflicts that have been recently waged in the Middle East, every gun of every sort will find its way into the hands of combatants. Sometimes articles of history too.
MAS-36: French bolt-action rifle designed to replace the Berthier and Lebel. The MAS-36 was accepted for service in 1936 and started issue in 1937, but there weren’t sufficient numbers available by the start of WWII or the invasion of France in 1940
About 1.1 million MAS-36s would be produced, most after the war. The MAS-36 would be France’s primary rifle for much of Algeria and the French-Indochina War. Large amounts of MAS-36s can be found in Syria, though their origin in unclear.
MG42: Nazi Germany’s primary GPMG of the war, the MG42 was designed to rplace the more expensive MG34. The MG42 was cheap and effective, made of mostly steel-stampings and possessing a blistering rate of fire.
The MG42 earned the nickname “Hitler’s Buzzsaw” amongst western Allied troops for the sound it made when firing. It was described as something similar to a person tearing a piece of fabric.
Post-war, the MG42 would continue to serve in multiple different militaries. Though renamed and with slight variations, the MG42 has remained largely the same machine to this day.
Iteratives of the MG42 include the German MG1 and MG3, the Swiss MG51 and SIG MG 710-3, the Yugoslavian M53, the Austrian MG74 and the Spanish CETME Ameli. Designe elements from the MG42 would also influence the production of the Belgian FN MAG and American M60.
Mosin-Nagant: A nearly ubiquitous weapon as the AK series when it comes to irregular warfare, the Nagant served as Russia’s primary rifle from 1890 all the way to 1945, when it was replaced by the SKS and AK series. Not including copies, over 37 million Nagants have been produced.
Virtually every country that received military aid from the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe during the Cold War used Mosin–Nagants at various time. Syria was naturally one of these countries as well as most of its neighbors.
Today, scoped Mosins continue to serve as issue sniper rifles with the Afghan Army, the Iraqi Army and the Finnish Army.
MP40: One of the most recognizable firearms from WWII, the MP40 served as Nazi Germany’s primary submachine-gun for the war. The MP40 was born out of the earlier and almost identical MP38, it was heavily used by infantrymen, paratroopers, platoon and squad leaders.
The MP40s advanced and modern features made it a favorite among soldiers and popular in countries from various parts of the world after the war. It was often erroneously called the “Schmeisser” by the Allies, despite Hugo Schmeisser’s non-involvement. From 1940 to 1945, an estimated 1.1 million were produced.
The curious lip under the barrel is used for stabilizing the weapon when firing over the sides of an APC such as the Sdkfz 251. There’s no barrel shroud or hand guard though, so it was easy to burn one’s self if the weapon is held improperly.
About 200,000 MP40s were captured or surrendered post-war and were then redistributed to the paramilitary and irregular forces of some developing countries. The Norwegian army withdrew the MP38 in 1975, while the MP40 was used for some years more.
French Foreign Legion parachutists in cover along a jungle road in Indochina, 1950. They wear a mix of American M1942 reversible camouflage uniforms, French webbing and helmets, and are all armed with the MAS36/CR39 paratrooper’s carbine. The RTO carries a Luger P08 on his hip. The radio op previously served in the 2nd Waffen-SS division in the same role, and like many former SS members sought anonymity in the Legion.
By the late 1940’s, the French Army’s supply of submachine guns included an oddball collection of aging French made MAS-38’s, American Thompsons, British Stens, and captured German MP-40’s. By 1948, with conflicts heating up within France’s disintegrating colonial empire, it was decided that the military needed a new indigenously produced submachine gun. Developed by French arms factory Manufacture Nationale d'Armes de Tulle (MAT), the new MAT-49 was a weapon that was simple yet effective on the battlefield. Utilizing a blowback operated open bolt, it had a firing rate of around 600 rounds per minute. It was chambered in 9mm Para, thus maintaining common caliber with other NATO countries and doing away with the unusual 7.65mm Longue. For desert use it used a 20 round magazine specially designed to tolerate harsh desert conditions. In standard format it used a 32 round magazine. The magazine well itself had a grip machined into it to use as a forward grip. Most interestingly, the magazine well could fold up making it more compact for storage, transport, or during paratrooper jumps. Most of the submachine gun is produced from machine stamped steel, thus making it a cheap and easy weapon to produce but durable and simple. The grip incorporates a grip safety, meaning the weapon can only be fired when the grip is held. The stock is produced with collapsible wire, when can be retracted when not in use.
Produced of the MAT-49 began in 1949, and was immediately issued for use in France's numerous colonial wars as colonies made their bids for independence. It was used heavily during the Algerian War and the Indochina War. It was used especially heavily during the Indochina War (Vietnam) where it was ideal for use in the heavy jungles of Southeast Asia. After France’s defeat in the Indochina War, the Viet Minh captured a number of MAT-49’s. Many were converted to fire 7.62x25 Tokarev, a caliber which was commonly supplied by the Soviet Union and China. A number of domestic copies were also produced by North Vietnam and the Vietcong. Thus, the MAT-49 also became a common weapon used during the Vietnam War as well. France discontinued production of the MAT-49 in 1979 with the adoption of the FAMAS assault rifle.