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Historical Dictionary

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TRẦN ĐẠI NGHĨA (PHẠM QUANG LỄ, 1913–1997)

Vietnamese engineer and specialist in armaments production for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) during the Indochina War. He was born in Vinh Long province in southern Vietnam. Between 1926 and 1930, he studied at the provincial elementary school of My Tho, where one of his classmates was the future head of the DRV’s southern security forces, Pham Hung. Between 1930 and 1935, Tran Dai Nghia was in Saigon completing his secondary studies at the Lycée Pétrus Ky. Thanks to a locally provided scholarship, he traveled to France in September 1935 to study engineering and mathematics, and apparently successfully completed his studies in 1939, graduating from the École centrale des arts et manufactures. Despite repeated requests to study weapons engineering, the French turned him down. This was off limits to colonial “subjects”. On the eve of World War II, however, he found himself working in a French aviation factory. Following the French defeat in June 1940, the occupying Germans sent him to work in a central German aviation plant in Halle in 1942. He also studied and worked in a weapons research institute there and was thus initiated into basic German research in avionics. He returned to work in France towards the end of the war (leaving just before the Allied bombing of Halle).

During his visit to France in mid-1946, Ho Chi Minh persuaded Tran Dai Nghia to return to Vietnam to join the nationalist cause. As war looked increasingly likely, the Vietnamese badly needed weapons specialists and engineers. In October 1946, Tran Dai Nghia returned to northern Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh’s entourage and joined the armaments section in the DRV Ministry of National Defense. He put his French and German engineering and wartime training in Europe to work making home-made bazookas, mortars, grenades, and recoilless guns for the DRV’s nascent army. On 5 December 1946, he headed up the newly established Bureau of Armaments Production (Cuc Quan Gioi). He oversaw the creation of a network of weapons-making workshops across the country, though mainly located in central and northern resistance zones. In mid-1948, these workshops began producing hand-grenades and the first 60mm and 81mm mortars. In late 1949, his recoilless guns appeared in northern skirmishes. However rudimentary they certainly were, these weapons often worked. Even French military authorities recognized their effectiveness and the quality of Tran Dai Nghia.

He joined the Indochinese Communist Party in 1949, having already been named major general in 1948. In 1949, Tran Dai Nghia assumed the leadership of the Office of Artillery (Cuc Phao Binh), became deputy director of the General Technical Bureau (Tong Cuc Ky Thuat), and served as deputy director of the General Directorate of the Rearguard of the People’s Army of Vietnam (Tong Cuc Hau Can Quan Doi Nhan Dan Viet Nam). In September 1950, as the battles intensified with the arrival of the Cold War and increased military aid for the belligerents, he became vice minister for Heavy [Armaments] Industry, a post he held until 1963. He was also a founding member of the Vietnam–USSR Friendship Association.