The Decisive Battle No One Remembers
A disaster happens when calculated risks fail to take all factors into account.
The roots of today’s world were planted a long time ago by well-meaning people
At the Northwestern region of Viet Nam lies an area with the unlikely name of Seat of the Border County Prefecture, or Dien Bien Phu, in Vietnamese. There, from March to May 1954, raged a battle between the French Union Far East Expeditionary Force and the Viet Minh communists that profoundly affected three nations and whose consequences are still with us. The disaster was the result of a chain of seemingly logical decisions based on faulty premises, miscommunication between the military leaders and plain arrogance.
1954 marked the eighth year of France’s protracted Indochina War which had been going on since 1946 without an end in sight. The war was not going well for the French, to say the least. A succession of commanders had been incapable of putting an end to the Communist insurgency and after eight long years of bloodletting and enormous expenditures, the most that had been achieved was a stalemate which neither side was able to break and threatened to drag on. The problem consisted partly on the size of the theater of operations, which encompassed all of Viet Nam plus Laos and the further complication that whoever was unfortunate enough to be in overall command, could only count on a limited number of airborne battalions, insufficient aircraft and one helicopter for any offensive operation he might want to launch. The war was extremely unpopular in France and the public sentiment, egged on by the French Communist Party, was definitely against it. With the peculiar death wish exhibited by the West, the Viet Minh, as the insurgency was known, became the object of sympathy and their leaders lionized by the left leaning intellectual elite of French society.
It was against this backdrop that French Premier René Mayer asked Henri Navarre to take over command, replacing Raoul Salan; Navarre, a cerebral, cold and calculating individual was the complete opposite of the by the seat of the pants Salan. In Saigon, the decision was made to lure the Viet-Minh away from the guerrilla tactics that were decimating the French and into a set piece battle where superior French firepower would prevail. Navarre’s mission, as outlined by Mayer, was to restore and stabilize the situation to such a degree that “an honorable peace” could be obtained at the Peace Conference set to be held in Geneva.
Navarre was appalled by the laxity and lack of organization he found upon taking command, specifically the “school’s out attitude” of the outgoing military administration. They were going home, perhaps not as victors but not defeated, either; their reputations a bit tarnished but not destroyed. Navarre was well aware that the Viet Minh divisions in the North presented a threat of invasion to Laos and to the Red River Delta, its capital, Hanoi and its crucial port of Haiphong. To counter it, a plan was devised in Saigon to occupy the valley at Dien Bien Phu and establish there a land-air base. On paper, the idea looked sound. Dien Bien Phu, located at the northwestern corner of Viet Nam, close to the Laotian and Chinese borders seemed to be the perfect location to defend Laos and to interdict the Viet Minh supply lines running from China. Therefore, on November 20, 1953, French Air Force transport planes dropped the first of what would eventually amount to 14,000 (close to 20,000 overall) fighting men, engineers and medical personnel. Operation Castor had begun. It is at this point that the chain of miscommunications, misunderstandings and errors in judgment was forged.
Navarre envisioned Dien Bien Phu as a “hedgehog”, an outpost surrounded by several heavily armed positions and dependent on air support designed to provoke enemy frontal assaults, as it had occurred at Na San, where in Nov-Dec 1952, Vo Nguyen Van Giap, the Viet Minh military leader, launched wave after human wave against an impenetrable wall of French fire supported by air power. In contrast, the commander of the Northern Sector, General René Cogny, understood that Dien Bien Phu was to be a lightly armed base from where “aggressive” sorties could be launched in order to harass and disrupt Viet Minh communications, supplies and training areas in the North, much as the Viet Minh did to the French in the South. These were two incompatible visions. Moreover, in Paris, the War Council had decided that Navarre’s responsibilities did not include the defense of Laos, which largely preempted Dien Bien Phu’s reason for being. However, the Council’s decision came after the occupation of the valley, too late for Operation Castor to be canceled.
Another sign that Dien Bien Phu was to be a launching point for aggressive operations was the selection of Christian de la Croix de Castries, a decorated cavalry officer in the 18th Century traditions and noted for his aggressiveness, as garrison commander.
Dien Bien Phu is a rice bowl shaped valley surrounded by heavily wooded hills that incredibly, were not secured. In the dry months it is a dust bowl and in the monsoon season turns into a quagmire. The garrison consisted of French regular troops, elite paratroop units, Foreign Legionnaires, Algerian and Moroccan tiralleurs and locally recruited Indochinese. The total eventually reached close to 17,000.
The French command relied on the assumption that the garrison would be able to be supplied by air as the Viet Minh was presumed to have no anti aircraft artillery; it was further assumed that the Viet Minh would not be able to bring any artillery across the mountains and in case they were able to bring scattered pieces, they would be promptly silenced by the superior artillery from Dien Bien Phu. The main position was laid out around a landing strip built with steel planks. The command post was located at the central position guarded by seven satellite strong points that were deemed sufficient to blunt any attacks: Huguette to the West, Claudine to the South, Dominique to the Northeast, Anne-Marie to the Northwest, Beatrice to the Northeast and Gabrielle to the North. In addition, there was another position, Isabelle, some 3.7 miles to the South, covering the reserve airstrip and manned by Foreign Legionnaires and Algerians.
Some time before the battle started, there were signs that things were not going as it was hoped they would. Given that Dien Bien Phu was also expected to act as a mooring point for the guerrillas operating in Laos, a strongly armed column was dispatched from Dien Bien Phu to link up with the guerrillas at Sop Nao, in Laos, to prove it could be done. That was called Operation Regatta. The column eventually reached its destination, but it had been so badly mauled by the Viet Minh division in Laos, that it became painfully apparent that such operations could not be repeated. Another sign came when it was ordered that the garrison at Lai Chau, the capital of the T’ai Federation, allied with France, and deemed indefensible, was to evacuate Lai Chau and march to join the garrison at Dien Bien Phu. The column came under sporadic attack all throughout the march; of the 2,100 men that left Lai Chau, only 185 made to Dien Bien Phu. The rest had been killed, captured or deserted. That was the end of Operation Pollux. It became obvious that Dien Bien Phu was isolated on the ground and could only be reached by air.
All was not lost, however. Had the decision been made right then and there to evacuate Dien Bien Phu, the French could have pulled it off. They still controlled the air and a steady line of airborne troop carriers could have transported the whole garrison out of the valley, together with its equipment, before the Viet Minh artillery was fully deployed. The Viet Minh had no air force to oppose the evacuation. Giap would have found himself with 50,000 men stranded in the middle of nowhere, too far from the main fighting areas and since they had an acute shortage of transport, would not have been able to be redeployed quickly, whereas the evacuated paratroopers and legionnaires could wreak havoc on the weakened Viet Minh forces elsewhere. The small window of opportunity closed without any action taken. The stage was set for the tragedy that ensued.
Whatever illusions the French command still harbored were shattered March 13 1954 when Viet-Minh artillery pulverized strong point Beatrice and a human wave attack overwhelmed the shocked defenders. It quickly became apparent that not only had the Viet-Minh brought artillery across the mountains an in huge numbers, but had also hid it inside a vast network of tunnels, both feats accomplished by almost 10,000 coolies who dragged the heavy pieces uphill and dug the hidden casements. They had managed to acquire 200 pieces of heavy artillery, most of it American made, from the defeated Nationalist Kuomintang in China. Opposing this, the garrison had 24 105mm light howitzers and 4 155mm medium howitzers. They were deployed in a manner designed to offer supporting fire to any strong point that required it and as such, they were out in the open, where the Viet-Minh artillery made short work of them. The exposed landing strip came under fire and was severely damaged, repaired under incredibly dangerous conditions, damaged and repaired again until it was destroyed for good on March 27. The French senior artillery officer, the affable and well-liked one armed Charles Piroth was seen muttering to himself “I am responsible. It is all my fault” He went into a bunker and since he could not load a pistol with one hand, he took a grenade, pulled the pin with his teeth, laid it across his chest and blew himself up. Dien Bien Phu could now only be supplied by air.
Dien Bien Phu had been envisioned as another Na San, but the French High Command ignored many glaring differences; at Na San, the French commanded the high ground but at Dien Bien Phu it was the Viet-Minh who controlled the high ground with the garrison at the bottom of a rice bowl; at Na San, there had been a steady flow of air support, bombing runs on the Viet Minh positions and a continuous chain of airborne supplies. Dien Bien Phu, however, was at the extreme range of French aircraft. To complicate matters further, the narrow valley only permitted straight air approaches and the Viet-Minh anti aircraft artillery played havoc with the transport planes that by necessity had to fly slowly and in circles in order to disgorge their loads; one of the American civilian pilots under contract to the French remarked that the fire was thicker than what he had experienced on bombing runs over Germany. Eventually, supplies slowed to a trickle.
It was not only the French who tried to replicate Na San. Giap launched a series of human wave attacks as he had done there. The garrison’s fierce resistance beat back most of the attacks and inflicted heavy losses on the Viet Minh infantry. The attacks continued until there was a lull in the fighting on April 6. French radio intercepts of Viet Minh communications showed that the horrific losses incurred during the human wave attacks had sapped Viet Minh morale causing Giap to suspend the offensive; even some of the commanders, fearing a US air intervention, began to speak of a withdrawal. At this juncture the Chinese brought in Katyusha multiple tube rocket launchers and retrained the Viet Minh in siege tactics. From then on, Dien Bien Phu became a battle of trenches, reminiscent of WW I; the trenches were designed to isolate individual strong points and in some instances tunnels were dug to place heavy mines under certain strong points. The battle had become one of strangulation.
Given the reduced perimeter of the garrison, whenever a position fell to the enemy it became imperative to launch furious counterattacks to dislodge them; positions were lost, retaken, lost again and retaken, becoming what the French call a battalion grinder. This series of counterattacks slowly depleted the garrison’s personnel. The field hospital, originally designed to accommodate 23 patients was expanded by a network of underground tunnels; there Dr Grauwin, head of the medical service, operated ceaselessly assisted by Geneviève de Galard, who would be known as “The Angel of Dien Bien Phu”
Galard was a military nurse and according to French Air Force regulations, she was required to make five airborne medical evacuation flights. She had already four when on the fifth trip her plane came under such heavy enemy fire that the pilot had barely touched down when he was forced to abort the landing and get airborne quickly. Although officially she had completed the required five flights, she insisted that the last one did not count and volunteered for another flight; this time the plane was able to land after sustaining some damage. While it was being repaired, a direct artillery hit destroyed it and she was stranded. On April 30, the Foreign Legion sacred day, she was given the title of honorary private in the Legion. The paratroopers also presented her with their most prized symbol: the red beret. She went into captivity with the rest of the garrison, but was repatriated May 24 According to historian Bernard Fall at one point, while in the underground hospital, she turned to the orderly who had been helping her and said “If we get out of this, wherever we are, I will buy you a glass of wine” Years later as she and her husband were driving along the Champs Elysées, she spotted him walking along the sidewalk. She yelled for her husband to stop, ran out of the car, grabbed the ex orderly by the arm and dragged him into a cafe, where she made good her promise.
It was painfully obvious that the garrison’s high losses could not be made up with the meager paratroop drops that could be effected. The ever shrinking perimeter of Dien Bien Phu made it exceedingly difficult to reinforce and in some cases sticks of paratroopers were dropped into enemy territory, from where they had to fight their way out in order to join the garrison; nevertheless, there was never a shortage of volunteers, both in Saigon and Hanoi. What there was a shortage of was transport planes. Some of the volunteers had never jumped from a plane before, but with some verbal instructions, they were dropped. Curiously, the novices had equal, and sometimes less injuries than experienced paratroopers. At some point, the dropping of supplies with parachutes was abandoned and direct drops properly packed and not always well cushioned were instituted
Despite the ferocious and fanatical resistance by the paratroopers and legionnaires, the perimeter continued to shrink; losses, both of men and materiel could not be made up. At some point, a crisis of command occurred. De Castries, able and aggressive officer as he was, was completely unsuited, both by training and temperament, to command what had become a grueling, bloody meat grinder, and was isolated in his bunker. According to Bernard Fall, Pierre Langlais, commander of the 2nd Airborne Group (GAP 2 in French) took over the leadership. Orders were still signed by de Castries, but it was Langlais who issued them. Together with Pierre Lalande, Marcel Bigeard, Jean Brechignac and the paratroop “mafia”, he assumed direction of the battle. This is disputed by historian Jules Roy. Whatever the case, both de Castries and Langlais maintained, if not a friendly, at least amicable relationship after the battle was over.
The grueling nature of the fighting took a heavy toll on the defenders in different ways. At some point, dead bodies were found still in their positions with no evidence of bodily harm. They had died of lack of sleep, tension, unbelievable stress and plain exhaustion.
The French Intelligence Service launched a secret operation, known as Condor on April 30 in an attempt to weaken and disrupt the Viet Minh’s artillery assaults by attacking the Viet Minh coolies. The force consisted of Mèo partisans and French paratroopers dressed in the Viet Minh’s black outfits. The objective was to facilitate the evacuation of the besieged garrison. However, when strong point Elaine fell on April 30, the operation failed and the force had to turn back.
Another last minute rescue attempt was a proposed American operation called Vulture. That entailed raids by B29s based in the Philippines. The plan also included as many as 98 B29s from Okinawa that would drop 1400 tons of bombs on the Viet Minh positions. Another version called for 60 B29s supported by as many as 150 fighters launched from the US 7th Fleet. The plan included an option to use as many as 3 small atomic weapons on the Viet Minh held terrain. The top American military commander gave the nuclear option his backing. B29s, B36s and B47s could have carried out the strike. President Eisenhower made American participation contingent on British support, which London did not give. At the end he decided that the political risks out weighted the benefits and thus turned it down. Vulture was shelved.
On early May, an all out Viet Minh offensive overwhelmed the remaining strong points, including Opera, Sparrowhawk and the Nameless strong point and came within yards of the command post. After 56 days of heroic defense against overwhelming odds, the garrison at Dien Bien Phu destroyed all of its jeeps, M24 tanks, dropped grenades down the barrels of the remaining mortars and fired their last shots. On May 7 the French positions stopped firing. They had run out of ammunition. One crucial point was stressed on the radio communications between de Castries and Cogny in Hanoi: under no circumstances was there to be a white flag and there was none. Dien Pien Phu had been overwhelmed but never capitulated.
On neighboring Isabelle, it had become apparent that Dien Bien Phu had been overrun. Isabelle’s garrison consisted mainly of Foreign Legionnaires, whose tradition is to never surrender; accordingly they attempted a desperate breakout which failed and the remaining legionnaires were captured. Isabelle had not capitulated, either.
On May 7 the survivors of Dien Bien Phu emerged from their trenches, walking skeletons reminiscent of the concentration camp survivors of WW II, in an almost catatonic state after days of subsisting on coffee, cigarettes and reconstituted wine. Their ordeal was not yet over. In an effort to exploit the propaganda value of their victory, the prisoners were forced to march in a recreation of their capture, all for the benefit of Soviet cinematographer Roman Lazarevich Karmen. Some of the captives died in the process. Later on, Karmen would be honored and celebrated in Cannes. When Marcel Bigeard was ordered to come out of the command post with his hands up for the benefit of the camera, he stared at the Viet Minh officer and said “I’d rather croak”
The French losses came to 2,300 dead, 6,700 wounded and 1,730 missing. There were 11,271 captured prisoners of which 8,300 died after the battle on the death marches in stifling heat and humidity without food, water or medical attention. Only 3,290 were ever repatriated. There were also 4,400 wounded. Only 73 made good their escape from the destroyed strong points and were rescued by the French-friendly Laotian guerrillas awaiting them. No one knows what became of the Indochinese who were captured. Of the 420 aircraft available in Indochina 62 were lost and 167 sustained hits and 10 tanks destroyed. On the Viet Minh side, it cost them 25,000 casualties not including the many coolies killed or wounded. It also delayed the attack on the Red River Delta by 4 months.
The news of the defeat sent shock waves throughout France; the 4th Republic never recovered and eventually led to Charles de Gaulle’s presidency and the advent of the 5th Republic. In the multi nation Geneva Peace Conference, France, wounded and humiliated stood alone, as she had done throughout the conflict and essentially sued for peace. The result was the partition of Viet Nam along the 17th parallel, into a communist North and non-communist South, which since its inception, had to contend with a North Vietnamese communist inspired insurgence
The Viet Minh separated their prisoners into nationalities and set to work to disseminate their propaganda among the North Africans. They also worked on the French officers who, instead of absorbing the communist ideology, came to the conclusion that the key to victory was political action to galvanize the masses. Six months after their return to France the Algerian rebellion started and before they had time to digest and assimilate the lessons learned in Indochina, they were thrown into yet another colonial war. It was to have grave repercussions later on.
Would American intervention had turned the tide? Had Operation Vulture, minus the nuclear devices, been implemented, it would certainly have pummeled the Viet Minh, concentrated as it was on the hills surrounding Dien Bien Phu and perhaps even averted the partition of Viet Nam, making the Second Indochina War unnecessary and just maybe 58,000 Americans would not have died and the nation not so hopelessly divided. It is a game of might-have-been and difficult to evaluate but it is an intriguing thought nevertheless.
That is what makes Dien Bien Phu such a decisive battle and as such, deserves to be remembered and its heroes honored. They died for us.
Postscript: In the 8 years of the First Indochina War, the French Union forces killed and missing totaled 89,797 The Viet Minh’s losses, though never officially tallied, are estimated at 500,000
Christian de Castries: On his return to France he was appointed commander of the 5th Armored Division, then stationed in Germany. After a car accident, he retired from the army and subsequently headed a recycling firm. He died July 29, 1991
Pierre Langlais: By 1966 he had been promoted to brigadier general in command of the 20th Airborne Brigade at Pau, Pyrènèes Atlantiques. In 1986, in failing health and suffering from acute depression, committed suicide by jumping from an apartment window in Vannes on July 17
Geneviève de Galard: She lives in Paris with her husband, Colonel Jean de Heaulme de Boutsocq.
Raoul Salan: After commanding the French forces in Indochina, he then served as commander-in-chief of French forces in Algeria in 1956. He organized the putsch of 21 April 1961 and became chief of the OAS (Organisation Armée Secréte) He was arrested in 1962, tried and sentenced to death, later commuted to life in prison. He was pardoned in 1968 and died on July 3 1984. He was the most decorated soldier in France. Every year former members of the OAS bring flowers to his tomb on the anniversary of his death.
Marcel Bigeard: One of the most decorated soldiers in France. He was noted for his ascendancy from a regular soldier in 1936 to finishing his career as Lieutenant General (Général de Corps d’Armée) After Indochina he served in Algeria. His distinguished and legendary career of national service ended upon his death on June 18 2010.
René Cogny: He was a WW II and Resistance veteran and survivor of the Buchenwald and Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camps. During the battle of Dien Bien Phu, while in Hanoi, after the battle had turned against France, tried to reach the garrison to take command but his plane was beaten back by heavy anti aircraft fire. He tried again but this time he was dissuaded from doing so. On 11 September 1968, while flying across the Mediterranean, his Air France Sud Aviation Caravelle crashed near Nice, killing Cogny along with 94 others. He was 64
Vo Nguyen Van Giap: Was the most prominent Viet Minh commander after Ho Chi Minh. After the fall of Saigon he was Minister of National Defense and made Deputy Prime Minister in 1976. He died, aged 102 in Hanoi on 4 October 2013.
Hell in a Very Small Place: The Battle of Dien Bien Phu by Bernard Fall. Dr. Fall is the preeminent historian of the Indochina wars. He was killed when he stepped on a mine while accompanying an American patrol near Khe Sanh in 1967.
The Battle of Dien Bien Phu, by Jules Roy Is a blazing, exciting and moving account of the battle.
The Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall Is the story of the reopening of Route 41 to Hanoi, called “the street without joy” by the French. It is also a great overview of the First Indochina War
The Centurions by Jean Lartéguy An extremely accurate account, in novel form, of the transition of a group of French officers from Dien Bien Phu to the Viet Minh prison camps and then to Algeria. Even though the characters are fictitious, the real life inspirations can be identified, provided you know the historical background.