Posted By Andrew on September 30, 2014
In the spring of 1954 a climactic battle was fought between the French, with their empire forces, and the Vietminh around Dien Bien Phu in North West Vietnam. This battle was the culminating point of France’s efforts since the end of “World War 2″ to reclaim her status as a great power by holding onto what was left of her empire. Desperate to win a significant victory against the Vietminh, an elusive communist revolutionary movement that sought to outlast French political will to win independence, the French army in Vietnam gambled on setting up a major confrontation between the two sides by luring the Vietminh into open battle. However, while the Vietminh took the bait and fought the French around Dien Bien Phu it was the Vietminh who won the battle and the war. The Vietminh won the “Battle of Dien Bien Phu” due to their advantages in topography and terrain, logistics, artillery and anti-aircraft capabilities and political will.
The origins of Dien Bien Phu go back to the mid to late 19th Century when France invaded, colonized and ultimately annexed Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos into what would become French Indochina. Without going into considerable detail it is fair to say that the French regime was, like most imperialistic ones, exploitative, autocratic and harsh. However, with considerable military might and effective counter-insurgency methods France remained firmly in power until the 1940s.
At this point French fortunes in Indochina began to decline. With the “Fall of France” in 1940 France became a puppet of Nazi Germany. However, France still had enough military and overseas assets to control her empire and the Germans generally did not interfere with the French continuing to run her colonies. One exception was French Indochina, which Japan, Germany’s ally, wanted for various reasons.
French Indochina held considerable strategic significance for the Japanese. Firstly, while the Japanese had occupied or blockaded China’s (with whom Japan was engaged in a major war) ports to prevent her from getting external supplies the French and British had been supplying China from Indochina and the Burma Road. Taking over Indochina would deny considerable outside assistance to China as well as giving Japan bases to operate against Southern China.
Secondly, Japan was also considering war against the western powers and having French Indochina would give them a huge advantage in attacking Malaya and Singapore, Britain’s main line of defense against Japanese expansion in Asia. Indeed it was Japanese warplanes and convoys from French Indochina that sealed the fate of the British forces during the ill-fated “Malayan Campaign” and the “Fall of Singapore” in 1942.
As such, after the “Fall of France” the Japanese pressured the French administration in Indochina to allow them to occupy strategic points in the country and the French, given their weakness, had little choice but to acquiesce. The Japanese then increased their presence significantly in 1941 which was one of the factors that led America to enforce an embargo on Japan which ultimately led to “Pearl Harbor” and American involvement in “World War 2.”
During most of the rest of the war the Japanese were content to let the French administer much of Indochina and retain their titular role as masters of the colony. However, this changed abruptly in March 1945 when the Japanese feared the French regime in Indochina was debating switching allegiance to the Free French and Allies so the Japanese quickly, and violently, overthrew the French regime. The Japanese massacred French troops and murdered, or humiliated, several officers and officials and this, like the “Fall of Singapore” in 1942 did much to quash the myth to the native peoples of european colonies in East Asia that the white man was supposedly superior to other races.
While French fortunes had been lowered by the war those of the Vietnamese Communists, or the Vietminh, led by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap, had increased significantly. While they did not do much damage to the Japanese occupying forces they did expand their forces significantly and began to politically mobilize much of the population. By the end of the war they had enough support among the people of Vietnam, and enough weapons (not least because the surrendering Japanese gave them much of their weaponry), to claim to be a legitimate party to govern the nation.
After the Japanese surrender at the end of “World War 2″ Chinese Nationalist forces occupied the North of Vietnam and disarmed the Japanese soldiers while British forces did the same in South Vietnam. Meanwhile France, keen to re-establish herself as a great power, was desperate to send forces to reoccupy Indochina.
Initially Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Vietminh, avoided fighting the French, even signing a 5 year cease fire (which obviously did not last) with them. His first priority was, along with the French, of getting Chinese forces out of Vietnam. China has a long history of involvement in Vietnam and when his subordinates criticized the cease fire Ho Chi Minh said “The French are foreigners. They are weak. Colonialism is dying. The white man is finished in Asia. But if the Chinese stay now, they will never go. As for me, I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than to eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life.”
Eventually the Chinese withdrew from Vietnam, not least because Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist leader of China, was focused on a showdown with the Communists in his own country. However, before the Chinese left Chiang Kai-shek forced the French to renounce the concessions they held in China’s ports such as Shanghai.
This left the Vietminh and the French, both suspicious of each other, in control of various parts of country. Any chance of compromise to share power was unlikely due to the irreconcilable goals of both parties’; France wanting to maintain her remaining colonies at all costs, while the Vietminh wanted legitimate independence for Vietnam.
Either way the various details and catalysts that led to war are ultimately unimportant and in late 1946 fighting broke out in the port city of Haiphong and the French decisively defeated the Vietminh with superior firepower and technology and the latter were forced from the cities and fled to the country side. As in plenty of other insurgencies in plenty of other wars (such as the “Chinese Civil War”) the occupiers would generally enjoy control of the urban centers while the insurgents would have the initiative, and much of the control, in the rural areas.
This was especially the case in Vietnam, and during the “First Indochina War” the French would never effectively control the countryside due to a lack of numbers, faulty doctrine, and the forbidding terrain of the country. Indeed the country is covered in dense jungles and considerable mountains. While the French dominated the coastal cities, urban areas, and open terrain like the Red River Delta the Vietminh generally held sway in the rural areas and the interior of the country.
However, despite having little control of the interior of the country the French arguably had the upper hand in the conflict for the first few years as they shipped in more troops and equipment while the Vietminh were isolated from outside assistance and had to rely on what they could capture or stocks of old Japanese weapons. Unfortunately for the French they squandered their advantages by trying to destroy the Vietminh by military means and coercing the population instead of attempting to enact effective counter-insurgency methods such a securing the population, winning their support, and separating them from the insurgents. While the French did inflict considerable casualties on the Vietminh, and even came close to capturing Ho Chi Minh during a daring airborne operation, their heavy handed tactics were ultimately counterproductive.
With the routine practice of murder, rape, torture, and pillaging, most of it done indiscriminately, the French alienated the majority of the Vietnamese and pushed them into the arms of the Vietminh. This is not to say that the Vietminh were incapable of considerable war crimes and excesses themselves. They routinely shot, or mutilated, French prisoners, ruthlessly murdered anyone who was seen as a threat or collaborated with the French, and also made enemies of Catholic Vietnamese and other minorities who decided to back the French instead. However, there is little doubt that with the Vietminh’s effective political indoctrination and social assistance to the masses, combined with France’s refusal to grant independence to Vietnam, that the Vietminh were destined to win the battle for the hearts and minds of the population.
The turning point in the war for the Vietminh was probably the victory of the Chinese Communist forces over Chiang-Kai shek’s Nationalists in 1949 which ended the “Chinese Civil War.” While Chiang-Kai shek, an ardent anti-communist, gave the Vietminh no support while he was in power, the Chi-Coms (Chinese Communists) gave overwhelming support to their fellow Reds in Vietnam once they secured the border. This support included countless weapons and supplies, military training, and even safe havens for the Vietminh across the border in China.
The consequences of this would be drastic as Chinese, and Soviet, support would allow much of the Vietminh guerrilla force to transition into a considerable conventional army that had a much better chance of beating the French in open battle. In fact General Vo Nguyen Giap’s regular divisions initially had much success in their conventional attacks launched against the French outposts near the Chinese border. These were seized, many French soldiers were killed or captured and much military equipment was taken.
However, despite the Vietminh’s new capabilities and early successes the French generally still had the advantage in firepower, training and technology and when Giap launched an all-out offensive to clear the Red River Delta to throw the French out of Vietnam in 1951 his forces were decisively beaten back with heavy losses. It was one thing to take out isolated fortresses with superior numbers in broken terrain, it was quite another to face the bulk of the French army in open terrain. Just as he would later do in 1968 regarding the “Tet Offensive” and in 1972 regarding the “Easter Offensive” Giap had underestimated his opponents’ morale and material advantages and believed that victory was in sight. However, Giap was also patient and learned from his mistakes and the Vietminh reverted back to guerrilla warfare more or less from 1951 to Dien Bien Phu.
Meanwhile the French, having defeated Giap’s offensive, were unsure on how to proceed. French policy during the war was remarkably ill-coordinated, ad-hoc and confusing. Not least was the fact that during the conflict the unstable Fourth Republic back in France went through an astounding 19 different governments. The French command in Vietnam also went through 6 commandersduring the war. Obviously the constant shake up of politicians and generals was a not a recipe destined to produce coherent, decisive and continuous policies that pointed the way to victory. With the political turmoil back in France precluding clear guidelines for action the generals in Vietnam were often left on their own.
Not surprisingly the conventionally minded soldiers again sought conventional militarily solutions. Emboldened by their victory against Giap in 1951 the French believed they would inevitably beat him in open battle. The French thus sought to find a way to bring Giap’s regular divisions to battle and destroy them. How this was supposed to win a protracted guerrilla war, or even affect a reasonable political solution to the conflict, was not clearly articulated.
Either way the problem with the French strategy was how to lure, or fix, Giap’s forces into battle and destroy them. Having reverted back to guerrilla warfare, combined with the Vietminh’s advantages in mobility and local intelligence, meant that it was easy for them to avoid superior French forces if they wanted to. As such the French resorted to taking strategic points in the hopes it would coerce the Vietminh to attack them and suffer prohibitive casualties.
Therefore in 1951 the French took Hòa Bình, and in 1952 they took Nà Sản. While in the former instance both sides took comparable casualties and thus cannot be seen as a French victory in the latter the French were more successful. At Nà Sản the French established a base and airstrip, covered by all around defense with strong points surrounding the valley and hills around it. It was supposed to be supplied completely by air and positioned to provoke the Vietminh to attack it. In the event Giap attacked the smaller French garrison there with 3 divisions. His forces suffered heavy casualties (3000 versus 500 French), did not occupy the high-ground and never interdicted French supplies landing at the airstrip. Giap was forced to withdraw and the French later left unimpeded.
Yet despite this French success the legacy of Nà Sản would prove to be more sinister. The successful defense of the base and their ability to supply the garrison completely by air led the French to once again underestimate the Vietminh. This meant that they did not note certain crucial lessons regarding the battle. These included the importance of occupying the high-ground, the vulnerability of a garrison completely dependent upon one airstrip for supply, or the fact that the French supply planes were stretched to their limit during the battle. As for Giap, having seen his forces slaughtered he wisely learned the key lessons of the battle. This would have decisive consequences when the “Battle of Dien Bien Phu” started two years later.
The immediate origins of Dien Bien Phu was the successful French effort at Nà Sản and a directive by the French Premier to the newly appointed French Commander in Vietnam in 1953, Henri Navarre, telling him to create military conditions that would lead to an “honorable political solution.” Additionally, since the independence of Laos the Vietminh had been violating its neutrality (as it would continue to do for more than 20 years) to use its territory for movements and supplies. These factors would motivate Navarre to launch the operation at Dien Bien Phu.
Essentially the French plan was to parachute into the valley of Dien Bien Phu, set up a strong garrison to cut the Vietminh supply lines into Laos, and lure them into battle and slaughter them. This would have to be done quickly as there was an upcoming diplomatic conference in Geneva which had as one of its main objectives ending the war in Vietnam; hence the French Premier’s directive to using military means to create an “honorable political solution.” This they would do via the Nà Sản method of using hedgehog (all around) defense combined with artillery and airpower. It was hoped that France’s supply planes in Vietnam and the airstrip at Dien Bien Phu would be enough to keep the garrison supplied.
While the French launched the operation at Dien Bien Phu in part to lure the Vietminh into a decisive battle before the Geneva Conference it could be argued that they could not have found a worse place to do so. Certainly regarding terrain, logistics and topography the French at Dien Bien Phu were at a distinct disadvantage.
Regarding terrain they set up their garrison in a narrow open valley surrounded on most sides by mountains covered in jungles. This meant that they Vietminh could easily see what they were doing while the French could not see what the Vietminh were doing. This would especially be detrimental for artillery as the Vietminh artillery could be well concealed, and its spotters could easily observe and find targets, whereas the French artillery was in the open and its spotters were relatively blind in locating the enemy.
Why the French allowed this was because they erroneously believed the Vietminh did not have the logistics to transport a significant quantity of artillery to the mountains around Dien Bien Phu, and even if they did that the French artillery could easily silence the Vietminh artillery. The French commander of artillery at Dien Bien Phu, Colonel Piroth even boasted that “no Vietminh cannon will be able to fire three rounds before being destroyed by my artillery.” Perhaps more absurd was the fact that the French had 100s of artillery pieces in reserve in Hanoi that could have been deployed to the valley but were never sent as it was felt they were unnecessary. Whether or not all of this occurred due to French racism, simple underestimation of the enemy, or pure ignorance does not matter; in the end it would prove decisive in battle.
From a logistics point of view Dien Bien Phu was problematic as well. The French had determined it unlikely to be able to relieve overland, the site was at the end of the range of their supply planes and the key to re-supplying the garrison was the airstrip in the main base area. If this were shut down the only way of re-supplying the garrison would be parachuting air supplies over the valley which was unreliable at best. Just like at Arnhem and Warsaw in 1944 such supplies often landed behind enemy lines. One scholar even makes the case, perhaps tenuously, that the French parachuted enough supplies of 105mm artilleryrounds to keep the Vietminh artillery functioning during the battle.
While the French did recognize some of these defects at Dien Bien Phu they also expected that the Vietminh would encounter similar problems. As noted above they assumed, mistakenly, that the Vietminh would not be able to place, let alone supply, artillery in the mountains above Dien Bien Phu. Likewise, the French felt the Vietminh did not have the capabilities to supply a significant force around Dien Bien Phu for a protracted siege or battle. The French estimated that perhaps 20,000 Vietminh soldiers could be supplied for a relatively short period of time.
Unfortunately they had once again underestimated their adversaries. Employing perhaps 100,000 coolies with pack mules and donkeys the Vietminh eventually deployed close to 60,000 soldiers, as well as supplying both them and their artillery for a protected siege and battle that lasted several months. General Giap, the commander of the Vietminh forces, described the support network as “an endless, linked human chain.”
Finally, the French erred at Dien Bien Phu in setting up the base in a low valley close to the monsoon season. Apparently the Dien Bien Phu Basin has the heaviest rainfall of anywhere in Northern Indochina with five feet of rain between March and August on average. Remarkably several French, British and American officers and generals toured the site and found it reasonably secure and had little to criticize the French positions. However, one French officer, General Blanc did voice some criticisms regarding the area during the Monsoon season. He was ignored.
Despite these disadvantages the initial phase of operation “Castor” (the code name for the operation at Dien Bien Phu) went well for the French as they parachuted over Dien Bien Phu, swept the relatively weak Vietminh presence aside, and secured the area. After clearing the valley the French established their main base, which also had the airstrip which was supposed to be the lifeline for the garrison. Then the French proceeded to construct several different strong points which surrounded the main base. Four were constructed nearby to the south, south east, east and west, while others were further away to the north, the south, north west and north east. All had female names and it was rumored that they were named after mistresses of the commander at Dien Bien Phu, Colonel Christian de Castries. However, the truth is likely more mundane as the names were probably just female names selected alphabetically as the names Anne-Marie, Beatrice, Claudine and Dominique would suggest.
These strong points were supposed to provide all around defense, and with the garrison’s artillery, be mutually supporting. They were located on the hills which covered the likely entrances into the valley and their smaller posts provided interlocking fields of fire. They were also supposed to be littered with barbed wire, mines, and other powerful defenses.
All of this sounded promising. In theory it should have given the French a good chance of beating the Vietminh in open battle. However, as with other assumptions the French made at Dien Bien Phu their system of fortifications would prove to be woefully inadequate.
Firstly, while the strongpoints around the main base were close enough to offer each other assistance, the more outlying ones, especially Gabrielle in the far north and Isabella in the far south, were essentially on their own.
Secondly, the garrison’s artillery, on which much of Dien Bien Phu’s fate was dependent upon, was remarkably inept. In his work “Fire Power in Limited War” Robert Scales exposes the less than distinguished record of the French artillery during the battle. The French only had 28 artillery guns (24 105mm and 4 155mm howitzers) in the whole camp, which represented a mere third of what a usual French contingent of that size would enjoy. As stated above the French had 100s of reserve guns in Hanoi but the French artillery commander at Dien Bien Phu, Colonel Piroth, felt they were not needed. Of the 28 guns only 4 were used for counter-battery fire to hit the Vietminh artillery, which incidentally ended up outnumbering the French in artillery 3 or 4 to 1. Scales suggests that “there is no evidence these guns destroyed, or silenced a single VM gun.” Additionally, the placement of the guns was poor and they could not provide support among distant positions. Moreover, apparently the fire coordination and control was poor and the French artillery often failed to intervene against enemy attacks and sometimes its fire landed on friendly troops. However, to be fair it is often thought that the French artillery did inflict the lion-share of the casualties on the Vietminh and it is well documented that they did suffer disproportionate casualties vs. the French.
Thirdly, the strongpoints suffered from a serious lack of resources. The French engineers at Dien Bien Phu estimated they needed 36,000 tons of supplies for a siege, much of it barbed wire, concrete, mines and other assets for defense. Ultimately they received a mere 4000 tons, 75% of it barbed wire. The lack of resources meant that defenses were not close to being ideal. Worse would come in Aprilwhen the Monsoon season began and defenses began to crumble and trenches flooded. A key reason for the lack of adequate supplies was the small amount of transport planes the French had available, about 80, and once the airstrip was shut down they were reduced to parachuting in supplies.
Amusingly, despite the serious lack of supplies and a shortage of aircraft the French made sure to airlift in two mobile field brothels and a considerable amount of dehydrated wine, which if anything at least shows the French were not uncaring towards their soldiers’ morale. However, it does make one question their priorities; a similarly comedic episode occurred after the “Battle of Rossbach” in 1757 when a French prisoner told Frederick the Great “Sir, you are an army – we are a traveling whorehouse.” The French army at Rossbach indeed had been a microcosm of excess and luxury while Frederick’s army had a more spartan existence.
Either way the French had cleared the landing zone, set up their base, and constructed their strong points in a relatively quick fashion with few losses. Between the French parachuting into Dien Bien Phu in November 1953 and the main battle which began in March 1954 there were some skirmishes between French and Vietminh forces. The French did not fare well in these exchanges due to their lack of local intelligence and the forbidding terrain around Dien Bien Phu. Along with intermittent artillery fire these skirmishes cost the French perhaps 1000 dead or wounded, amounting to 10% of the garrison, before the main battle started.
While the French were setting up their base and strongholds the Vietminh were busy planning how to defeat the French garrison and deploying, and supplying, their forces in the mountains around Dien Bien Phu. As stated above the French not only believed that the Vietminh did not have the ability, or logistics, to deploy more than 20,000 soldiers in the area, but would not be able to place significant artillery in the mountains around Dien Bien Phu as well. However, also stated above, the Vietminh had 100,000 or more coolies backed by pack horses and mules and made super human efforts to deploy nearly 60,000 men backed by considerable artillery in the area and supply them for a long siege.
The Vietminh were to enjoy most of the advantages in the upcoming battle. Whereas the French had deployed in a valley and all of its positions could be seen by the enemy the Vietminh had the cover of mountains and jungles. Whereas the French were far away from effective support and suffered from poor logistics the Vietminh massed its strength at Dien Bien Phu and were well supplied. Whereas the French artillery were few in number and poorly used their Vietminh equivalents had a prodigious amount and used them efficiently. Finally, whereas the French, including the French Public, the French Government, the empire forces from other colonies, and the French army, all had different degrees of motivation and belief in their mission the Vietminh were solidly committed to their cause.
Regarding the conduct of the battle the Vietminh advantages in terrain, artillery, and anti-aircraft were obviously their greatest assets. The terrain was good for the Vietminh as the mountains and jungles masked their positions, as well as absorbing much of the French firepower (including napalm).
Much of the rationale for Dien Bien Phu was to lure the Vietminh into battle and destroy them with superior French firepower. This plan was not completely without merit as was noted earlier when the French had been able to accomplish such feats before, notable in 1951 against Giap’s regulars in the Red River Delta when they assaulted the “De Lattre Line.” The French also successfully defended the base at Nà Sản that could only be supplied via air and inflicted significant losses on the Vietminh. Unfortunately Dien Bien Phu did not have the open terrain of the Red River Delta which gave the Vietminh little cover, and this time the Vietminh had the high ground and artillery superiority the French had enjoyed at Nà Sản.
As for artillery the Vietminh had a significant numerical advantage at Dien Bien Phu, perhaps 3 or 4 to 1 against the French. While the latter amassed around 30 artillery pieces and perhaps another 30 heavy mortars the Vietminh managed to deploy over 200 artillery pieces and heavy motors. The Vietminh also deployed 30 recoilless rifles and 12 Katyusha launchers, the same rapid fire rocket launchers that had terrified the Germans on the Eastern front more than a decade before Dien Bien Phu.
Besides sheer numbers the Vietminh held other advantages in artillery. Whereas the French artillery could easily be seen in the bottom of the valley (which the Vietminh eventually called “the rice bowl”) the Vietminh artillery was hidden among the mountains and jungles. Their artillery was also well dug in, camouflaged, and a series of dummy sites were made to confuse the French. The Vietminh gunners were also well trained, having gone to China to learn from the Chinese Communists (a rare advantage for an underground army) and their spotters, who could see all the French positions in the valley, were adept at controlling the artillery’s fire. Finally, whereas the French counter-battery fire was an unequivocal failure the Vietminh artillery managed eventually to take out all French guns during the battle.
The considerable amount of Vietminh anti-aircraft guns would also prove to be decisive. For the siege the Vietminh deployed 36 Anti-Aircraft guns around Dien Bien Phu that were supplied by the Soviets while the crews were trained by the Chinese. Given the small layout of the battlefield (the valley itself was only 10 miles by 4 miles)this number of guns was enough to give the Vietminh a good density of anti-aircraft fire over the battlefield. Anthony James Joes in “Resisting Rebellion” points out that the anti-aircraft over Dien Bien Phu was more thick than that over Germany in “World War 2.”
Besides the number and concentration of such guns in such a small area the Vietminh also benefited in how Giap deployed them. Given that Dien Bien Phu is mostly surrounded by mountains, and that the clouds were low due to the monsoon season it was difficult for the French combat and transport planes to provide ground support and resupply the garrison. As such Giap wisely chose to deploy most of his AA guns along the only 3 narrow corridors at which the French planes could approach. It was even more pitiful during bad weather when the French could only use one narrow corridor to the north east.
This deployment of anti-aircraft made low level bombing and strafing unrealistic and thus the French combat planes could not effectively intervene in the battle on the ground. The situation was even worse for the supply planes, of which 48 were shot down during the siege. Once the Vietminh artillery made the French airstrip unusable the French aircraft were forced to resort to dropping supplies via parachute. However, the intense anti-aircraft fire from the Vietminh which damaged and destroyed countless French planes forced the remaining ones to fly higher at 8000 feet instead of the usual 2000 and this made it much harder to drop supplies accurately to the French garrison. As noted above, like at Arnhem and Warsaw in 1944, much of the supplies dropped from the air landed behind enemy lines instead.
When one looks at the poor choice of Dien Bien Phu as a battlefield for the French, as well as the French lack of resources and their remarkable hubris, and finally how many advantages the Vietminh had regarding the battle it is actually surprising how long the contest lasted and how many casualties the French inflicted upon the Vietminh.
The main battle at Dien Bien Phu began on March 13 with a massive artillery bombardment by the Vietminh guns the French assumed could never be deployed in the mountains surrounding the valley. The initial focus of the attack was on the stronghold named “Beatrice” to the north east of the main base area. The Vietminh had some luck with their artillery as a shell hit the French command post and killed Legionnaire commander Major Paul Pegot along with his whole staff. Remarkably a similar coup occurred a few minutes later and another notable officer, Colonel Jules Gaucher, commander of the whole northern sector, was killed by Vietminh artillery as well.
This had a negative effect regarding the French command of the battle at Beatrice and the Vietminh had considerable success using human wave assaults to overwhelm the outnumbered French defenders. Besides their considerable artillery the Vietminh also used sappers with bangalore torpedoes to eliminated obstacles such as minefields and barbed wire. The Vietminh captured Beatrice just after midnight and managed to kill perhaps 500 French legionaries, while the French later estimated they killed 600 Vietminh and wounded 1200 more. Before French resistance collapsed a captain radioed to headquarters “it’s all over-the Viets are here. Fire upon my position. Out.” A French counterattack to retake Beatrice was attempted the next morning but was easily defeated by Vietminh artillery.
The French were given no reprieve as the Vietminh then quickly moved against Gabrielle, the stronghold to the north of the main French base area. However, in the initial assault the defenders, an elite Algerian battalion, managed to repulse the Vietminh attack. The latter decided to regroup and later launched a concentrated artillery bombardment in the afternoon of March 14 which had some effect on the defenders and there was serious fighting throughout the rest of the day and during the next morning. Like at Beatrice the Vietminh artillery scored another coup when a shell hit the battalion headquarters and wounded the battalion commander and most of the staff.
The Vietminh managed to take many of the posts in the Gabrielle strongpoint but did not inflict a decisive victory or drive the defenders out. However, the latter where in bad shape and the French launched a counterattack to reinforce them. The French sent their Vietnamese paratroopers, which although excellent troops were tired from jumping into the French base the day before. While some of these soldiers reached Gabrielle most were stopped by Vietminh artillery and the force took severe losses. Either way the French abandoned Gabrielle as the remainder of the base was found to be too badly damaged to offer a viable defense. Thus the Algerians and the French Vietnamese forces pulled back and the Vietminh moved into what was left of Gabrielle. The assault had cost the French forces 1000 casualties while the Vietminh suffered between 1000-2000.
In a matter of days the Vietminh had managed to secure two of the French garrison’s strongpoints at Dien Bien Phu. While the Vietminh had taken more casualties than the French these were not prohibitive and the former had significantly more troops at their disposal than the latter. Perhaps worse than the loss of the strongpoints and casualties for the French was the fact that with the loss of Beatrice and Gabrielle the Vietminh were now close to the main French base and could now shell enemy positions with considerable accuracy.
Perhaps the most important consequence of this was that the Vietminh artillery now made it impossible for the French to land planes via the airstrip at the main base and now they were dependent upon parachuting supplies into the base to survive. Of the supplies that were parachuted a significant amount ended up in Vietminh hands. Either way, and in a remarkable parallel to the 6th Army at Stalingrad, of the 400 tons of supplies the French estimated they needed to keep the garrison fed and supplied daily only 120 tons was dropped on average, and of that 20 tons usually fell behind Vietminh lines.
The ability of the Vietminh guns to help seize the two French strongpoints, its breaking up of the French counterattacks, and the closing down of the French airstrip both confirmed the effectiveness of the Vietminh artillery and the inadequacies of the French artillery. Indeed the French artillery efforts at counter-battery fire completely failed and French guns did little to prevent the fall of both strongpoints. Colonel Piroth, the French artillery commander, was so ashamed of the poor showing of his artillery that he retired to a bunker, pulled the pin out of a grenade and held it to his chest until it exploded.
The French also began to suffer from a problem of desertions. While their elite parachute, legionnaire, and Moroccan forces were loyal and confident to the end much of the French empire forces, composed of Vietnamese, Algerians, Thais, etc, began to desert in considerable numbers. It is estimated that there were 17 different nationalities among the garrison at Dien Bien Phu and apparently half of the total number were Vietnamese. Just feeding the troops became a logistical nuisance as the French had to airlift in 6 different types of food. According to the Vietnam War Notebook” Muslim troops would not eat pork, Vietnamese troops required fish sauce, the French soldiers demanded cheese and wine rations,” etc.
As for effects the first notable instance of desertions occurred on March 16 when several hundred North African and Vietnamese forces deserted. Even worse was what happened at Anne Marie, a stronghold to the north west of the main French base. Garrisoned mostly by Thai soldiers, Giap had continuously sent them leaflets telling them that Dien Bien Phu was not their fight and that they should go over to the Vietminh. This coupled with the fall of Beatrice and Gabrielle, which had thoroughly demoralized the Thais, convinced the majority of them to desert. Thus on March 17, under the cover of fog most of the garrison defected to the Vietminh. This forced the few remaining Thais and French to withdraw and Anne Marie was occupied by the Vietminh.
The French garrison would suffer disproportionately both from desertions to the enemy, as well as internal desertions by other soldiers who simply sat the battle out near the Nam Yum river. The number of overall desertions were not inconsequential as many studies have suggested that out of the 13-15000 man garrison at Dien Bien Phu perhaps only 6500 were effective combatants against the Vietminh. Once again this suggests that despite all the disadvantages the French had at Dien Bien Phu it is to their credit they held out so long and inflicted such disproportionate casualties on the Vietminh.
After the Vietminh seizure of Beatrice and Gabrielle, and the desertion of the garrison at Anne Marie, there was a brief interlude regarding major fighting for the next two weeks. The French at this point were desperate to neutralize the Vietminh’s advantage in artillery and devoted considerable resources, including dropping 10,000 gallons of Napalm in one day, in an attempt to do so. However, the inefficiencies of the French counter-battery fire, as well as the deception efforts of the Vietminh and the jungle terrain doomed these efforts.
More successful was a French counterattack on March 28 led by Major Marcel Bigeard, a distinguished paratrooper who had fought in “World War 2,” developed his reputation in Indochina and later served in Algeria. He was ordered to take a Vietminh anti-aircraft position west of the French base that was dominating the airstrip. After explaining to his superiors he could succeed but that he would only be able to do so at great cost he quickly organized the assault overnight. The plan relied upon surprise and sophisticated artillery support.
In fact Bigeard achieved complete surprise and the assault was a brilliant tactical success which killed 350 Vietminh soldiers and destroyed 17 anti-aircraft machine guns. This significantly boosted the morale of the French garrison after its previous defeats. Unfortunately this was to be the only tangible effect the French would gain since they had to abandon the position as they did not have enough men to hold it. The action also did little to prevent the Vietminh from continuing to stop the French from effectively resupplying the garrison. Yet the worst consequence of the assault was the loss of 20 dead and 97 wounded French soldiers, many of them the best junior officers among the garrison. The French may have inflicted more casualties on the Vietminh than they had received, but unlike the latter they were hard pressed to replace them.
The next major Vietminh attack occurred on March 30 and was mostly directed towards the strongholds of Dominique and Eliane. However, instead of the usual human wave tactics that had resulted in heavy casualties taking Beatrice and Gabrielle Giap decided to build approach tunnels to get as close as possible to the new strongholds which were close to the heart of the French base. Not surprisingly the French did not remain passive but used mortars extensively to try to thwart the Vietminh who were digging the tunnels. While the latter took a considerable pounding they continued to work unabated. The Vietminh plan was to use a heavy bombardment at night with the tunnels to provide as much cover as possible.
While the plan seemed sound the French command had recently reviewed the defenses in the area and had ordered in reinforcements, to be commander by Major Marcel Bigeard, the same venerable soldier who had successfully led the counterattack on March 28. Marcel and his men arrived in time to join the beginning of the battle.
After a powerful artillery bombardment the Vietminh jumped out of their approach trenches and assaulted several positions at the Dominique, Eliane and Huguette strongholds. Despite the recent French reinforcements the Vietminh captured the first two outposts at Dominique and only the 3rd remained between the Vietminh and the French headquarters. While much of the Algerian defenders here ran the situation was saved by two groups, one a group of Senegal gunners who, according to the Vietnam War Notebook, “dropped their guns to zero elevation, cut the fuzes to zero delay, so that the shells would explode as soon as they cleared the muzzles, and opened up when the charging Vietminh were almost on top of them and shredded the better part of two regiments.” The other was a group of French who used their anti-aircraft machine guns to push back Vietminh who came near the airfield. It was the NCOs, and Major Bigeard, who had saved the situation that their overconfident superiors had put them in.
Indeed Bigeard with French paratroops, and other trustworthy units, counterattacked again and again throughout the battles at Dominique and Eliane and prevented a rout. In another notable instance it appeared the French would collapse at Eliane but a group of French tanks arrived just in time. Ultimately Bigeard, his initial reinforcements, and the stubbornness of the French forces held onto both strongpoints despite ending up dangerously low on reserves.
On April 5 the Vietminh attacks began to wind down. The French intercepted signals from the enemy asking for more reinforcements and supplies. While Giap was disappointed his attack had not succeeded he knew that with the French supply situation becoming worse that time was on his side and that he could be patient and build up more strength. Additionally, despite failing to take the Dominique and Eliane strongholds they had inflicted significant casualties on the French which would be difficult to replace and they had also done considerable damage to the French defenses.
Between these attacks and the final Vietminh assaults in May the tempo of operations decreased around Dien Bien Phu. While the French had been battered and were running low on supplies the Vietminh had troubles of their own. Despite their considerable efforts at supplying their forces around Dien Bien Phu the Vietminh were having supply woes, especially regarding artillery ammunition. Additionally, they had taken considerable casualties and Giap began bringing in reinforcements from Laos. Perhaps most troubling was that there was a morale crisis among some Vietminh forces. After having sustained significant casualties many units began to refuse to advance. In a parallel to the Soviet army in “World War 2,” the Vietminh soldiers were told to advance or they would be shot by their officers or NCOs. Another reason for the poor morale was that the Vietminh medical system was rudimentary and the wounded had little hope of being cared for.
This led to fewer battles during April while Giap consolidated his forces and launched smaller attacks using more careful measures to limit casualties among his force. Much of this again involved digging more approach trenches and this period was marked by the Vietminh closing in on the French centre and strangling the garrison. Eventually the Vietminh would dig trenches to within 800 yards of the main French command post. The monsoon season was also well underway and the rain turned the area around Dien Bien Phu into a sea of mud and French defenses crumbled, trenches were filled with water, and air support, which was already ineffective, was more restricted. The French hoped that the mud would at least slow down the Vietminh’s resupply efforts and maybe even allow the reopening of the airstrip but none of this occurred.
However, there were a few notable engagements during this period, not least some significant French counterattacks. On April 10 Bigeard tried to recapture the Eliane post 1 after a short, massive, artillery bombardment and the use of small unit infiltration tactics. This position changed hands several times but the French ultimately secured it. A Vietminh assault to try to take it back was repulsed on April 12. Apparently this French success had an adverse effect on Vietminh morale and only considerable efforts by the political commissars prevented a crisis.
A less successful operation was launched by the French to resupply Huguette 6 with assaults launched on April 11, 14 and 16. While the French managed to get some supplies through they also suffered heavy casualties and it was decided to abandon Huguette 6. The garrison attempted to breakout on April 18 but most of them failed to reach French lines. This failure was followed by a successful Vietminh assault against Huguette 1 on April 22 which secured them 90% of the airstrip and strangled the already inadequately French resupply efforts to Dien Bien Phu even further. A French counterattack to retake Huguette 1 later that day failed.
The end for the French garrison was in sight. With the Geneva Conference about to begin Ho Chi Minh pressured Giap to finish the battle. When the Vietminh began their final offensive on May 1st the French were down to 3 days of rations and a mere 20,000 rounds of artillery ammunition. They were also strangled by the Vietminh on all sides with the latter’s trenches uncomfortable close to the French forward positions. They were so close in fact that the initial attacks were launched without an artillery barrage and much of the fighting was done with grenades and bayonets. By the end of the first day the Vietminh had conquered two strongholds.
The fighting during the last few days was brutal and attritional with the Vietminh alternating between massed infantry attacks and heavy mortar fire. The last desperate assault on the garrison began on May 6. The French managed to defeat the first wave with artillery, using an innovation called “time on target” where all rounds fired from different positions across the garrison would all land at the same place at the same time (perhaps suggesting that the French artillery at Dien Bien Phu was more effective than sometimes thought) which decimated an entire Vietminh regiment.
However, the Vietminh had some innovations of their own. The Katyusha rockets were finally unleashed against the French for the first time in the battle. A more effective stratagem was the detonation of a mineshaft full of explosives under Eliane 2 (much like the British use of mines during the “Battle of Messines” in “World War 1″) which effectively destroyed the position and allowed the Vietminh to continue to advance. This they did, slowly but surely, overrunning positions one at a time while the French ran out of space and ammunition.
On May 7 Giap initiated an all-out assault with 25,000 Vietminh regulars against the 6000 remaining soldiers of the French force. At this point the French were doomed as their artillery had been knocked out, their ammunition was all but depleted and the Vietminh were within 100 yards of the main French command post. During the last few days there was some hope that the Americans would intervene with B-29 Bombers, and according to some accounts even nuclear weapons, but President Eisenhower refused to act. The garrison was abandoned to its fate.
Dien Bien Phu fell on May 8, 1954, the ninth anniversary of “Victory in Europe Day.” As the French Prime Minister reported its fall to the French National Assembly all the deputies rose to show respect, all except for the Communist members. Incredibly the Communists in France had spent the war fighting the French effort and even had their labor unions sabotage supplies sent to Vietnam.
As for the cold statistics regarding the battle the French lost their whole garrison, roughly 13,000 men at its height. Perhaps 2-3000 were killed, 6-7000 wounded, and the rest (including much of the wounded) taken prisoner, including those who deserted. Of the estimated 10,000 French forces taken prisoner only 3000 would be freed later while the rest either died during captivity or were kept prisoner as was the probable fate of the French Vietnamese contingent at Dien Bien Phu. Among the lucky that returned home was Marcel Bigeard who was far from finished his long, distinguished and controversial military career.
Despite winning the battle, and the war, the Vietminh suffered disproportionate casualties versus the French. While the Vietminh had most of the advantages during the battle the French forces, especially the paratroopers and legionnaires, were generally better trained, and the French had the benefit of fortifications and defenses, if of variable quality, while the Vietminh constantly had to expose its ranks to considerable firepower attacking over open ground, often employing human wave tactics. Like the British Navy at Jutland in 1916 the Vietminh won strategically despite certain questionable methods while the French had considerable tactical success until they were overwhelmed. The price was not insignificant, costing the Vietminh perhaps 8000 dead and 12-15000 wounded, coming close to 25,000 casualties and representing nearly 1/4 of Giap’s total regular forces. The French losses at Dien Bien Phu by contrast represented a mere 4% of their manpower in Vietnam.
Dien Bien Phu was the catalyst which led to the end of French dominion in Indochina. While the French lost 4% of its manpower in Vietnam against 1/4 of the Vietminh’s regular troops the French public, and politicians, had had enough and decided to pull out and cut their losses. However, the Vietminh would not win an outright victory as the country would be divided in half with a communist north and an independent south backed by the Americans, who had supported and bankrolled the French during the war, and would now inherit the burden of fighting communism in South East Asia. Elections were supposed to take place in a few years to try to unify the two countries. These elections never occurred.
Instead the end result is well known as the Americans initially propped up the south regime against incursions from the communist north, and eventually entered the conflict themselves in a desperate bid to save the nation from falling to communism. While the Americans meant well for Vietnam and won every battle of consequence during the conflict they ultimately lost the media battle at home, did not invest enough in securing, or winning over, the population of South Vietnam, and could not save the regime in Saigon from its own corruption and incompetence. America ended its military involvement in Vietnam in 1973 and soon afterwards cut off most of its military and economic aid to South Vietnam. Meanwhile the Soviets and Chinese propped up the North Vietnamese with Billions of dollars of aid and in 1975 the North Vietnamese Army decisively conquered South Vietnam ending a protracted conflict that had been going on and off for nearly 30 years.
Yet despite the Vietnamese Communists’ impressive victories versus the French, and later the Americans (albeit with considerable backing of the Soviet Union and Communist China), there is a big myth regarding the “Vietnam War” where the people of South Vietnam were supposedly overall sympathetic to the communist cause and only American intransigence prevented them from joining their brothers in the north much sooner.
In reality while the South Vietnamese were not particularly fond of the Americans they had no wish to be communists either. North Vietnam was always more rural, agrarian and pro-communist whereas South Vietnam was more urban, cosmopolitan and leaned more towards the West. During the “First Indochina War” most of the battles, fighting, and support for the Vietminh had been in the north and this is one of the reasons that after the conflict the country was divided in two rather than simply being handed over to Ho Chi Minh. Additionally, after the war nearly a million Vietnamese fled south while perhaps a tenth of this number fled north. The final proof was that in 1975 with the fall of the South almost 2 million South Vietnamese eventually fled the country rather than live under communism, perhaps another 1-2.5 million were sent to “reeducation camps” and the NVA generals estimated that maybe a third of the population supported them. The inconvenient truth regarding the “Vietnam War” was that whatever faults and excesses the Americans were guilty of they were legitimately fighting for the freedom of the South Vietnamese.
Besides the ensuing “Vietnam War” another result of Dien Bien Phu was the accelerated descent of european imperialism that had already been weakened by the reduction of French and British influence since “World War 2.” Given the weakness of the British and French, the strength of the Soviets and Americans, and the aspirations of oppressed peoples in western colonies, european colonialism was doomed. However, while Dien Bien Phu was an important, perhaps quintessential, event in this regard it still took the ill-fated “Suez Crisis” in 1956 and the “Algerian War” from 1954-62 to finally convince the policymakers in London and Paris that european imperialism was dead.
Then there was the influence that Dien Bien Phu had on military thought. To some it seemed to vindicate Mao’s view of “people’s war” whereby political mobilization of the masses would lead to opposition to the government, and then later to guerrilla warfare which would wear down the opposing army while strengthening the people’s army and finally lead to all out conventional warfare where the oppressive government would be physically overthrown. Yet despite the well-earned victory the Vietminh accomplished at Dien Bien Phu this was an exaggeration.
Since Mao’s writing on the subject only his own army in China managed to accomplish this feat, and only then due to extraordinary circumstances. Indeed by the mid-1930s the Communists had all but been defeated by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces and had not the Japanese invaded China in 1937 they probably would have been wiped out. During the war the Nationalists had been severely weakened while the Communists gained in strength due to the cruelty of the Japanese and the perceived impotence of the Nationalists. After the war the Communists also benefited from significant aid from the Soviet Union whereas the Americans gradually cut off the Nationalists from military and economic aid. Finally, the Communists benefited from the fact that the Nationalists were never a truly united, strong, or technologically advanced government. These unique circumstances allowed Mao to triumph over Chiang Kai-shek and it began the myth that insurgent forces had a good chance of overthrowing governments by conventional military means. Needless to say such circumstances did not duplicate themselves in other conflicts.
No other insurgent movement in the 20th Century ever became strong enough to physically defeat and overrun the government it was fighting. Efforts by insurgents in Greece after “World War 2,” in Algeria during the 50s and 60s, and against America in Vietnam in 1968 and 1972, all failed unequivocally. The only ways insurgents succeeded was either out-waiting foreign powers as in Vietnam, Lebanon, or Afghanistan, or putting enough pressure on domestic governments to give them a share in power or the right to contest elections such as in Northern Ireland, Nicaragua, and even the brief establishment of the Palestinian Authority in the 1990s.
Dien Bien Phu itself was no exception. As stated above while the Vietminh won the battle fairly they had suffered prohibitive losses and had barely dented French manpower in Vietnam, let alone physically overthrown their presence in the country. They won the conflict by quashing French political will to continue the war, not by liberating the nation via military means. The fact that the Vietminh only secured Northern Vietnam instead of the whole country after 1954 confirms this.
In fact Dien Bien Phu would be a stand-alone case study where a rebel army (albeit one provided with significant conventional capabilities by donor states) defeated a modern, western conventional army. The specific circumstances that combined many French weaknesses and Vietminh strengths that led to the result at Dien Bien Phu would never occur again (just as the same factors which led to Mao’s victory in the “Chinese Civil War” never did either). Much like the dream of inflicting another “Cannae” was a hopeless dream for conventional soldiers the attempt to create another “Dien Bien Phu” would be an unfulfilled aspiration for many insurgents as well.
The French lost the battle of “Dien Bien Phu” because the Vietminh had the advantages in topography and terrain, logistics, artillery and anti-aircraft capabilities, and political will. The French chose a battlefield that was too remote to be supplied effectively and had terrain that favored the Vietminh instead of their forces. The terrain concealed the Vietminh hiding in the mountains around the valley, negated much of the effects of French firepower, and also allowed the Vietminh to clearly view the French positions in the open valley (not to mention the effects of the Monsoon season). The Vietminh supply system became strained during the battle but continued to function whereas the French supply system broke down early in the battle and never recovered. The French artillery was also outnumbered and inefficiently used whereas the Vietminh artillery was considerable in both numbers and effects, managing to adequately support Vietminh ground assaults and shutting down the French airstrip. The Vietminh’s anti-aircraft guns were also decisive in limiting the effectiveness of the French combat and supply planes by shooting down, or damaging, many planes, or forcing them to fly too high or abandon their missions, which greatly decreased French firepower and the amount of supplies the French garrison received via parachute. Finally, the Vietminh were united in their determination to win, despite a temporary crisis in morale at Dien Bien Phu, whereas the various levels of motivation among the differing components of the French effort in Vietnam ranged from excessive dedication to lethargic apathy. It is hard to see how a nation like France whose population generally disapproved of the war, which went through 19 governments and 6 commanders in the field during the conflict, who fought with a disproportionate amount of empire forces whose loyalty and motivation were suspect, was likely to triumph over a ruthless, disciplined and popular mass movement such as the Vietminh.
Yet despite fighting an unpopular war, despite being forgotten by politicians at home, despite being placed in perhaps the most unfavorable circumstances to fight a battle by arrogant generals, and despite being abandoned by many of their colonial comrades, much of the French garrison, especially the paratroopers and legionnaires, maintained their composure until the end. The last message from Dien Bien Phu before the surrender was “we’re blowing everything up. Adieu.” For France the goodbye was more than a lost battle, it was the farewell to her status as a great power.
Beckett, Ian. Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Boot, Max. Invisible Armies. New York: Liveright, 2013.
Joes, Anthony. Resisting Rebellion. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004.
Lewis, Jon. The Mammoth Book of Battles. London: Robinson, 2000.
Moran, Daniel. Wars of National Liberation. London: Cassell, 2002.
Polk, William. Violent Politics. New York: Harper Collins, 2007.
Scales, Robert. Firepower in Limited War. Novato: Presidio, 1995.
Van Creveld, Martin. The Age of Airpower. New York: Public Affairs Books, 2011.
Wiest, Andrew. Rolling Thunder in a Gentle Land. Oxford: Osprey, 2006.
Windrow, Martin. The French Indochina War. Oxford: Osprey, 1998.
Article from “Parallel Narratives”: Vietnam Notebook: First Indochina War, Dien Bien Phu (1953-1954) by R. Filippelli, 2014. http://parallelnarratives.com/vietnam-notebook-first-indochina-war-dien-bien-phu-1953-1954/
Study for the “Air Command and Staff College”: A Description and Analysis of Dien Bien Phu and Khe Sanh by Major Roger Purcell, April 1986. http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a166594.pdf
Study for the “Joint Services Command and Staff College”: The battles of Dien Bien Phu and Khe Sanh – An analysis of the influence of airpower by Wing Commander J M Whitworth, July 2012. http://www.airpowerstudies.org.uk/library/drps/Influence_of_airpower_at_DienBienPhu_and_KheSanh_Whitworth.pdf
Wikipedia article on the “Battle of Dien Bien Phu”: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Dien_Bien_Phu [September, 2014]
Wikipedia article on the “First Indochina War”: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Indochina_War [September, 2014]