Historical Dictionary



The history of this highly secret commando unit is complicated and its importance remains controversial. The conceptual origins of the GCMA are to be found in World War II, in Allied commando operations run against German and Japanese occupied territories. The main idea was to send commando teams behind enemy lines to work with local partisans in gathering intelligence on the enemy, winning over popular support, and organizing and executing commando operations to harass the enemy (sabotage, assassinations, etc) or to rally the maquis to the Allied cause during a major military offensive (similar to the Jedburgh commandos working in occupied France during the Normandy landing in 1944). Many of those recruited to operate the GCMA had worked behind Japanese lines in Laos in early 1945, men such as Jean Sassi. However, between 1945 and 1950, most commanding French officers in Indochina had little interest in and often disdained such clandestine operations. Paradoxically, the push for creating the GCMA came from the Americans as the Cold War spread to Asia with the Chinese communist victory in October 1949 and the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950. The Americans hoped to draw upon earlier commando experiences in Europe and Asia to create a Service Action in Indochina to work in tandem with the French and with similar teams in Korea to help contain Sino-Soviet communist expansion at the global level. Like the Jedburghs operating in German-occupied Europe during World War II, commando forces in Asia would operate behind enemy lines among minority ethnic groups in the highlands of Indochina to harass Vietnamese and Chinese communists. In early or mid-1950, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) dispatched officers to Indochina led by Colonel Chester to meet with the high commissioner for Indochina, Léon Pignon, about the need to create just such a clandestine service. Drawing upon earlier experiences, the Americans were convinced that such a Service Action could work effectively among the upland ethnic minorities populating much of the highlands of upper Indochina and southern China. The CIA’s Thibault de Saint Phall further discussed such plans with the French and Bao Dai before taking up the question directly with the CIA’s natural counterpart in Paris and Indochina, the Service de documentation extérieure et de contre espionage (SDECE). The Americans eventually proposed that a commando school should be located in Vung Tau. Funded by the Americans, this school would be in charge of training ethnic minority commandos to operate behind Viet Minh lines in northern and central Vietnam. The head of SDECE, Maurice Belleux, objected to letting the Americans operate such a highly sensitive operation on their own. The newly arrived commander-in-chief and high commissioner for Indochina, General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, shared this opinion and braked the CIA’s ambitions. Nevertheless, the French recognized the importance of expanding cooperation with the CIA on this matter in light of the globalization of the Cold War into Asia and its relevance to their war in Indochina. And there was always the growing financial cost of the war. Between 1951 and 1952, the French reached agreements with the Americans by which the CIA and the SDECE established formal cooperation, including the development of a Service Action in Indochina to work with the American equivalent in Korea. The American overtures had effectively forced the French to create their own Service Action (SA). As a result, SDECE headquarters assigned officers from its metropolitan SA and the Direction générale de documentation (DGD) to compile dossiers on the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), the ethnic minorities, and areas where such operations could be developed. A commando school in Dalat began recruiting and training Hmong, Moi, and other ethnic minority soldiers who would serve as the vital guides and conduits to French officers sent to work behind lines. The Americans helped finance the French SA in Indochina. In exchange for this support, de Lattre allowed a special American liaison team headed by Helwin Hall to remain in Indochina, working in collaboration with the SDECE, on this project. On 7 April 1951, de Lattre officially approved the creation of a SA for Indochina, which came to life three days later and was jointly run by the SDECE-DGD. Given the sensitive nature of this project, in 1952 it was decided to create a camouflage unit to house the Service Action; it would be attached to a mixed paratrooper unit. The name chosen was: Groupement de commandos mixtes aéroportés (GCMA) and placed under the command of Edmond Grall. It was an organizational part of the SDECE/Indochina, known internally as Section 49. The GCMA was designed to build up French guerrilla activity behind enemy lines and develop a maquis among upland peoples, who, with Franco-American support, would harass the enemy and work in coordination with the French army to hinder enemy movements in the strategically important highlands, especially in the Hmong and Tai areas of northwestern Vietnam (near southern China). In January 1952, Roger Trinquier began running a maquis there to create a permanent state of insecurity in DRV territory. He commanded the GCMA from mid-1953 (when it was renamed Groupement mixte d’intervention or GMI). Upon taking command of the armed forces in Indochina, General Henri Navarre supported the GCMA/GMI, instructing it to “create, maintain, and generalize the indigenous resistance by exploiting methodically minority tendencies of a religious, ethnic and political nature”. However, in the end, the military and political effectiveness of the GCMA was limited. While Trinquier may have garnered thousands of Hmong supporters by 1954, his maquis could do little if anything to stop the DRV’s army from marching on Dien Bien Phu or blocking their logistics and supply lines. Following the signing of the Geneva Accords, the French would leave behind thousands of their ethnic minority allies and their families to the mercy of the DRV. On 20 July 1954, hours before the signing of the Geneva Accords, it was decided that the GCMA/GMI would cease all activities in the maquis (la mise en sommeil des maquis). As of 31 August, the GCMA, the Service Action created by SDECE, and pushed by the CIA, formally ceased to exist.[1] The Americans would resurrect this project in another form during the Vietnam War. However, it got its start during the Indochina War in the context of the globalization of the Cold War, if not during World War II. See also CHINESE MILITARY INTERVENTION, FRENCH ALLEGATION OF; OFFICE OF STRATEGIC SERVICES; PAYS MONTAGNARDS DU SUD (PMS); TAI FEDERATION.

[1]. This entry is based on the original sources held in 10H266, Service historique de la dÈfense, Vincennes, France.