Dien Bien Phu 1954

v.1.0 July 22, 2001

"It is Verdun!"

 

A French commander at Dien Bien Phu to a visiting dignitary.

 

There is much about this famous battle that seems inexplicable to outsiders, and we will have to leave a serious background presentation to analysts more competent than ourselves. Our main sources include:

         www.dienbienphu.org the official website of the battle

         www.hawii.edu/cseas/pubs/explne/c1/v/n2-art2.html an article by Pierre Asseln at the University of Hawaii, containing significant new information from the Vietnamese side.

 

Dien Bien Phu, at the northwestern border of Vietnam with Laos, lay at the junction of all routes to and from Vietnam - to China, Burma, Laos, and Thailand. Its strategic significance was undisputed.

The need to occupy it included:

 

         The French requirement to protect Laos from the communists. Laos was preparing for its independence at this time.

         The need to strangle the Viet Minh's lines of communications, particularly with China, the Viet Minh's main support and safe haven.

         The need to gain an advantage in the unsuccessful negotiations with Ho Chi Minh. Negotiations at one level or another had been underway for 8 years, since the end of World War 2, but Ho Chi Minh refused to compromise his terms. Both sides knew a military victory was difficult, and wanted a political settlement. Both sides were preparing the groundwork for the Geneva Conference, but both also wanted a substantial military victory to buttress their negotiating positions.

         The need for General Navarre, the new French commander in Indochina, to bring some conclusion to this inconclusive war.

Dien Bien Phu lay in a plain 16 kilometers by 7, almost all flat. The French thought it ideal to establish their air-land base here, and so interdict the enemy's movements, and carry the war deep into his rear.

Incredible as it may seem after the event, the French did have some reason to believe their Operation Castor would succeed. 10,000 men had held another base, Na Som, for a year and every attempt by General Giap to take it was defeated. The French believed their success at Na Som could be replicated at Dien Bien Phu.

From the start several major difficulties appear not have unduly troubled the French senior commanders.

         To effectively deal with the Viet Minh, the French needed at the minimum to hold Na Son and Dien Bien Phu, and preferably even a third base. Lacking the manpower to hold more than one base, the French evacuated Na Som, and so permitted General Vo Nguyen Giap to focus his entire attention on one target.

         The base could be supplied only by air, from Hanoi, 350 kilometers to the East. Fighter cover was also available only at that distance. The base, located in the highlands, was subject to the monsoon in the spring, and weather could turn bad without warning.

         The number of men deployed, 16,000, was insufficient even with the comfortable assumptions made about at that time about the Viet Minh's abilities. The French merely shrugged off the weakness. If this attitude seems strange to Americans, it will seem quite normal to Indians, who continue to take incredible chances in their military operations with less thought than a man might devote to his choice of a tie for office. [Apparently 13,000 were in the garrison when fighting began.]

         Last, and this may be a peculiarly French problem, no war is won simply by setting up a fortress inside enemy territory. This leaves the initiative to the adversary.

Under Operation Castor, by the standards of the day, a lavish airlift was laid on and several thousands tons of supplies and materials dropped at Dien Bien Phu. Chasing away the lone battalion that occupied the site was a simple matter for the French, and they settled in to build up their fortifications. So confident were the defenders that the French artillery commander sneeringly rejected the offer of additional artillery. He was later to commit suicide during the battle when it became ghastly clear that he had seriously underestimated the Viet Minh gunners.

French estimates were that at the most two Viet Minh divisions could be sustained at Dien Bien Phu, 500 km from the Chinese border, and that minimal artillery support was available. The French understood quite well that if China increased its help to the Viet Minh, the equations could change, and this is exactly what happened.

The Viet Minh, using 75,000 labor, cut a brand-new, 100 km trail through the jungle, thus creating a continuous trail between China and Dien Bien Phu. They built up a major logistics base specifically for the campaign, 55 miles Northeast of the base. French aircraft attacked the trail at every opportunity, but the labor worked at night and on days clouds prevented air sorties, and quickly repaired cuts. The Viet Minh deployed an additional 33,500 labor to supply the siege; among other items, these workers moved 20,584 tons of rice on bicycles, horses, and junks.

The Viet Minh brought down 20 105mm captured by the Chinese from the US in Korea - some sources speak of 24 - and 20 75mm howitzers, more and heavier artillery than expected. They located the guns in limestone caves, making counter-battery work very difficult. They first brought down 100 12.7mm and 16 37mm AA guns, and then four more battalions with 64 37mm guns equipped by China. They were to stock 200,000 shells for their artillery at their main logistics base. The 105mm guns were to play the critical role at Dien Bien Phu.

Far from two divisions, the Viet Minh sent in five of their six divisions. The speed of their movement can be seen from the dates of arrival. The first division arrived on December 6, three more arrived December 24-28, and the last one January 24. Of the forces at hand, 27 battalions were used in the siege, and six were used to block French movement in the area. When the French realized what was happening, they decided it was too late to pull back the garrison.

We need to repeat that neither General Navarre nor General Giap saw the coming battle as creating a final solution favoring the winner. Both generals were maneuvering for advantage at the peace talks.

According to Mr. Asslen, General Giap first intended to attack on January 26. Convinced, however, that his troops were not ready, he postponed the attack to March 11. Accompanying him were two Chinese generals, veterans of Korea, and also Chinese advisors to help with the 105mm guns. Under their advice, General Giap launched human wave attacks against the base, and lost 2,000 killed and 7,000 wounded by March 16. General Giap then rejected the Chinese advice, and chose to rely on his own methods. These were based on digging massive trench systems, coming closer and closer to the core of the French resistance. The 400 kilometers of trenches dug took a great deal of time, but they provided his troops needed cover. This nibbling at the edges strategy required an additional five weeks, but succeeded.

General Giap had approximately 100,000 troops - including women soldiers - combat and support; the French had a mixed force of 13,000. Five of the defense's crack parachute battalions had been withdrawn on rotation to other stations; they had to be parachuted back into the perimeter one by one, and we may guess that their absence in the first place hurt any chance the French had for success. General Giap had 288 guns and mortars over 57mm; the French had 88. The French had about 100 aircraft to support, and while they surely prolonged the defense, they were too few to save the garrison, and were often unable to take-off because of the bad weather. The last aircraft to use the runway was a medevac flight that crashed on March 26, isolating the defenders from the outside world except for airdrop. Sixty-two aircraft were lost at Dien Bien Phu, including a small number based there; 167 other aircraft were damaged.

The French perimeter extended to 31 miles. The battle started with six battalions, as opposed to the 10 planned, because of the shortages of troops in Indochina. Eventually, with parachute-dropped reinforcements, 13 battalions were within the perimeter. A well-known phenomenon of combat is that piecemeal reinforcements seldom have the effect of their numbers, and this too must have played against the defenders. Only about half their troops were combatants. There was no manner in which so few could cover the perimeter, leave alone dominate the hills and conduct fighting patrols. The base received only 2,000 tons of the 36,000 tons of construction material needed for its defenses. The average daily air supply - as long as supply was possible - was 12 tons versus the 60 required.

A sense of morbid doom suffuses every account of the French defense. The French could not reinforce the base once the Viet Minh reduced the perimeter; they could not escape. They should not, by any logic, have been there in the first place. That they would lose was evident very soon to the defenders, and they resigned themselves to the inevitable in a curiously fatalistic manner. Their country had no concern to spare for them; perhaps the indifference of Metropolitan France arose because almost all the troops involved were from the Foreign Legion or Colonial regiments. France had just nine years before emerged from one of the darkest periods of its history, and it was getting bogged down in Algeria too. Perhaps events taking place 8,000 miles away in a different world were beyond identifying with for a traumatized France. There was great opposition to the war within France itself, with a divided political leadership. Moreover, everyone knew that only talks could provide a solution and France was disinclined to invest more in the war.

The officers and men fought on for no other reason than their self-image: they were professional soldiers, from storied regiments with obscure customs, and if they were going to lose, they were going to fight to the last round just because that is what they believed professional soldiers did. The battalions at Dien Bien Phu included the cream of the French paratroops. These men had their own mystique, including disdaining cover when attacking.

Their gallantry was perhaps theatrical by the reserved standards of the British and the make-fun-of-everything Americans, but it was very low-key compared to that of the Japanese, with their rituals, ceremonies, flourishes, and poetry. When the end came, the survivors did not charge the attackers, determined to die rather than surrender. Suicide rather than defeat was not the way of the French. Each man fought to the last. By the end of April, only 2,000 men including walking wounded and sick were left. The starving defenders fought till they were overrun, many out of ammunition and forced top resort to using their bare hands. Having done everything they humanly could, however, the survivors calmly surrendered.

One of the more bizarre incidents in modern warfare concerns the French deserters. The French have an amazing bureaucracy, and this is shown in the meticulous detailing of deserters, mainly Algerian, Moroccan, and Vietnamese irregulars. Deserters are listed as 1161. During the course of the battle, about 2,000 men announced to their commanders that they were deserting. Their commanders - and here is that Gallic fatalism again - let them go. But there was no place for them to go, as the base was surrounded on all sides. So the deserters deserted - to the middle of the camp - and made themselves as comfortable as possible while the fighting raged non-stop around them, draining the steadily dwindling resources of the base, and even relaxing with some prostitutes. One account says the French did not have the resources to attend to the deserters. This event and the way the French handled it boggles the mind. One wonders what the fate of the deserters would have been in just about any army one can think of.

The Viet Minh casualties till Mr. Asslen's research were only estimates, as the Vietnamese Government did not release figures. Vietnamese sources acknowledge 7,900 killed and 15,00 wounded, which fit in with the lower estimates made by the French. Four thousand Viet Minh are buried in four military cemeteries in Dien Bien Phu. Hundreds more Viet Minh and French were left where they fell, to become buried under mudslides as the rains destroyed the trench systems of both sides. Now, however, we know from Vietnamese sources that they acknowledge 7,900 dead and 15,000 wounded

The French losses were horrendous: 1726 killed, 1694 missing, 5234 wounded. When the garrison surrendered, 10,863 men - and one woman, a nurse, were marched into captivity, interspersed throughout the withdrawing Viet Minh columns, so that the victors should not suffer bombing on their way home.

The woman was the "Angel of Dien Bien Phu", Genevieve de Galad-Tarraibes, a nurse who arrived on the last, ill-fated medevac flight. That was her 149th medevac, including her 40th to Dien Bien Phu. Fortunately for her, she was released to the Red Cross along with several hundred seriously wounded prisoners within days of the surrender. She was given France's highest decorations, including some during the fighting. She was also made a private in the 13th Demi Brigade.

The prisoners were marched 500 km to captivity. Americans speak of the Bataan Death March, but consider this. The 10,863 POWs were in Vietnamese hands for only three months before their release subsequent to the Geneva accords. But only 3,280 returned. Many of those captured were Vietnamese, and in all probability many accepted reindoctrination and were well treated. Yet such a high percentage of prisoners dying in captivity within so short a time would certainly be treated as a war crime in our times. In those days, with World War II having ended, and the Germans having maltreated millions of Russian prisoners to death, and the Russians in their turn having taken their revenge, the French figures are not even a coda. Nonetheless, we can see how indifferent France was to her men at Dien Bien Phu that after some initial outrage, the affair was forgotten.

In another peculiar twist to events, the Vietnamese returned every single item taken from each prisoner - pictures, money, watches, ID cards and even coins. Yet these were the same victors who mistreated thousands of men to their deaths.

Viet Minh Forces

 General Vo Nguyen Giap

 304 Division

308 Division

312 Division (General Tran Do)

316 Division

351 Division (identified as an artillery division in one account)

 

Corps Expeditionnaire

(Incomplete list)

Colonel Christian Marie Ferdinand de la Croix de Castries

 13 battalions were in Dien Bien Phu at the peak of French strength; we may or may not have successfully identified all of them.

 2nd Airborne Battle Group

9th Airmobile Group (3 battalions)

?? Squadron M-24 Chaffee (three troops of 3 each, 1 HQ; tanks flown in dissembled)

3/13 Foreign Legion Demi Brigade (two battalions)

3/3 Algerian Rifles

5/7 Algerian Rifles

1/4 Moroccans

1/2 Foreign Legion Regiment

2/1 Colonial Parachute Regiment (third battalion to return)

5th Vietnamese Parachute Battalion (first battalion to return)

6th Colonial Parachute Battalion (second battalion to return)

2nd Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion (fourth to return)

1st Colonial Parachute Battalion (fifth to return)

8th Colonial Parachute Battalion

3rd Tai Battalion

Meo troops

 

(Several Tai companies sent to Dien Bien Phu overland from other bases were ambushed and destroyed before they reached their destination.)

 

4th Colonial Artillery Regiment

35th Airborne Light Artillery Battalion

1st Foreign Legion Heavy Mortar Company (4.2" mortar)

?? Heavy Mortar Company

?? Heavy Mortar Company

 

Artillery included:

1 155mm battery

6 105mm batteries

4 quadruple 50-calibre heavy machine guns

 

29th and 44th MASH (consolidated into one hospital)

3rd, 5th, and 6th Airborne Surgical Teams

 

The large number of French battalions is misleading because most battalions averaged 380-500 strength and were commanded by majors. One tank survived the battle.

 

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All content © 2003 Ravi Rikhye. Reproduction in any form prohibited without express permission.