On this day in 1954, the French garrison at Dein Bien Phu was overrun. It marked the end of the First Indochina War, the partition of Vietnam into communist and non-communist zones, and the beginning of American involvement that led to our own Vietnam War.
Like so many really bad plans, the strategy behind Dien Bien Phu was devised by some very smart people and looked great on paper. The war in French Indochina was not going well. The hopes of an independent Indochina after liberation from Japan had been crushed when General Jean LeClerc arrived in September 1945 and declared, “I didn’t come back to Indochina to give Indochina back to the Indochinese.” Over the ensuing years the Viet Minh, under some men we Americans would soon hear of — Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap — showed themselves to be the political and military superiors of anyone France cared to send to Indochina.
The French had ceded large swaths of the countryside and the population to the Viet Minh. The tactic the French decided to use to force the Viet Minh to withdraw from large areas of real estate was called the “hedgehog.” The idea was that you could plunk down a significant number of men behind enemy lines on their lines of communication, force them to attack you to clear their supply lines, and rely upon aerial superiority to attrit the enemy and resupply your garrison. Though the genesis of this tactic is attributed to French experience at the Battle of Na San in Nov-Dec 1952 the concept is eerily similar to that used by Colonel Paul Freeman’s 23d Regimental Combat Team at the Battle of Chipyong-ni in February 1951 to maul five Chinese divisions. (This link is not fanciful. The 23d RCT had a French battalion attached. That battalion left Korea in October 1953 and was redeployed to Indochina, reinforced, and renamed first, Groupement mobile 100, then Le Regiment de Corée. Under this name it fought the Viet Minh at the Battle of Mang Yang Pass.)
On November 20, 1953 the first of roughly 15,000 French and Colonial troops, and two bordels militaire de campagne, took up positions.
The area they selected was a critical road junction located in a natural bowl surrounded by mountains. The defensive scheme was based upon a central fortress and seven mutually supporting satellite fortifications:
The Viet Minh commander, General Vo Nguyen Giap, had been on the losing end of the original “hedgehog” battle. But, as history would bear witness, Giap was a very fast learner… and he wasn’t averse to spending men like a drunken sailor in Olongapo. On March 13, the Viet Minh took Beatrice, on the 14th they took Gabrielle, and on the 15th they took Anne Marie.
On the night of March 30, Dominique 1 and 2 fell. Eliane 1 and 2 were overrun but recaptured. But Dominique 1 and 2 were key high ground than looked down on the whole French defensive system. The French didn’t think artillery could be emplaced on the high ground (apparently having never heard of the Ardennes and the impossibility of using armor there). But Giap did it. As you might imagine a situation where you have artillery on the high ground and troops dug in on the low ground rarely has a pleasant ending for the defenders. He not only placed artillery but anti-aircraft guns which made resupply an interesting experience and close air support a much more challenging undertaking.
A grim, WW I style siege warfare settled in until May 1 when Eliane 1, Dominique 3 and Huguette 5 were overrun. On May 6 Eliane 3 fell. On May 7 a final attack was launched. Via Wikipedia:
De Castries: “The Viets are everywhere. The situation is very grave. The combat is confused and goes on all about. I feel the end is approaching, but we will fight to the finish.”
Cogny: “Of course you will fight to the end. It is out of the question to run up the white flag after your heroic resistance.”
By nightfall, all French central positions had been captured. The last radio transmission from the French headquarters reported that enemy troops were directly outside the headquarters bunker and that all the positions had been overrun. The radio operator in his last words stated: “The enemy has overrun us. We are blowing up everything. Vive la France!” That night the garrison made a breakout attempt, in the Camarón tradition. While some of the main body managed to break out, none succeeded in escaping the valley. However at “Isabelle”, a similar attempt later the same night saw about 70 troops, out of 1,700 men in the garrison, escape to Laos
About 2200 French or Colonial troops were killed. Nearly 12,000 went into the bag as prisoners. In true communist tradition, only 3290 survived their four month captivity.
On May 8, the Viet Minh and French began peace talks that led to the partition of Vietnam.
If you are interested in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, you could do worse than Bernard Falls’ classic Hell in a Very Small Place.