The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was the culminating piece of the guerrilla war fought between the French and the Viet Minh from 1949 until the garrison was overrun and the French withdrew from the country.
After fighting a losing guerrilla war, the French dropped paratroopers and Foreign Legionnaires into Dien Bien Phu, a small mountain outpost on the border with Laos. The base was ringed by mountains with the base occupying lower ground, which would prove to be decisive.
The siege began in late November 1953 and by March the Viet Minh with massive Red Chinese support were ready to attack and they kept the pressure upon the French, slowly sinking the perimeter of the base and closing the airfield until they capitulated on May 7, 1954, nine years to the day that the Germans surrendered in World War II in Europe.
When it was over, the French were out of Vietnam and the Geneva Accords temporarily would split the country at the 17th parallel between North and South Vietnam and the United States would get dragged into the fray.
Background: As World War II was winding down, Ho Chi Minh tried to establish a free Vietnam, free from French colonial rule once the Japanese were ousted from South East Asia. Just hours after the Japanese surrender, Ho proclaimed the independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
In 1946, Ho accepted a French proposal to allow Vietnam to function as an autonomous state within the French union. But the French soon reneged on that and tried to reassert colonial rule. That began an increasingly costly and bloody guerrilla war.
By 1953, the French had grown weary of the guerrilla war and had gone thru a series of commanders. In May of 1953 French Premier René Mayer appointed Henri Navarre as the commander of the French Union forces in Indochina. In a book by historian LTG Phillip Davidson, Navarre’s first impressions were not favorable.
On arrival, Navarre was shocked by what he found. There had been no long-range plan since de Lattre’s departure. Everything was conducted on a day-to-day, reactive basis. Combat operations were undertaken only in response to enemy moves or threats. There was no comprehensive plan to develop the organization and build up the equipment of the Expeditionary force.
Finally, Navarre, the intellectual, the cold and professional soldier, was shocked by the “school’s out” attitude of Salan and his senior commanders and staff officers. They were going home, not as victors or heroes, but then, not as clear losers either. To them the important thing was that they were getting out of Indochina with their reputations frayed, but intact. They gave little thought to, or concern for, the problems of their successors.
The French were hoping to repeat a victory at Nà Sản, where they established an air/land base in the Viet Minh’s rear area to deny him unfettered access to equipment, supplies, and reinforcements and cut off their attempts to take Laos.
But Navarre’s staff planners made several critical blunders that would lead to disaster. First, at Nà Sản, the French controlled the high ground and had a massive superiority in artillery. At Dien Bien Phu the base was surrounded by high peaks that the Viet Minh would ring with artillery. And the French troops would be outnumbered 4-1.
Opening Moves: The French began dropping paratroopers into Dien Bien Phu on the 20th of November 1953. Utilizing three different drop zones, the French had landed six battalions of airborne troops and a bulldozer to complete the airstrip by the end of November.
The French commander, Colonel Christian de Castries was a poor choice to direct the defenses. He was a cavalryman by his training and unsuited for a set-piece battle. He set up seven outposts each code-named with names starting with the first seven letters of the alphabet.
The French force totaled about 16,000 troops and included airborne troops, Foreign Legionnaires as well as Moroccan mercenaries and local troops. They also had ten light M-24 Chaffee tanks and aircraft. The French failed to secure the high ground surrounding the valley which was a tactical blunder and the Viet Minh quickly filled the gaps around the high ground where they massed their artillery. The Viet Minh commanded by Võ Nguyên Giáp had much more artillery than the French envisioned there and had more than five divisions with 50,000 men.
By the end of January, the Viet Minh began sporadic shelling of the base and the French patrols were finding contact in every direction. Dien Bien Phu was surrounded.
The Outposts Fall One by One: The Viet Minh were ready by March 13, 1954, and opened fire with extremely well-aimed artillery fire on Outpost Beatrice. One artillery round took out the entire French command group. By 1800, a massive infantry assault hit the French lines and by midnight they had overrun the base. Over 500 Legionnaires were killed. In the morning, a French counterattack was stopped cold by massed artillery fires.
The Viet Minh artillery had been skillfully dug into the sides of the mountains. French counter-battery fire was completely ineffective. By the second day, the French artillery commander, Colonel Charles Piroth, so distraught over his inability to fire on the enemy committed suicide by using a hand grenade in his bunker.
On the morning of March 14, the Viet Minh next turned their attention to Outpost Gabrielle. Following a massive bombardment, the French airstrip was now permanently put out of commission. All supplies would now have to be delivered via air drops. The tough Algerian troops holding Gabrielle were hit with a coordinated attack at 1700 hrs and were then reinforced by elements of the 5th Vietnamese Parachute Battalion early the next morning.
The counterattack failed and the Algerians abandoned Gabrielle to the Viet Minh. The die was already cast. The French could not hold Dien Bien Phu and now their enemy could rain down direct artillery fire right into their positions.
The Outpost Anne Marie was manned by troops of the Tai minority in Vietnam, but loyal to the French. For weeks, Giap had rained down leaflets telling the Tai, that this wasn’t their fight. During the night of 17 March under heavy fog, the Tai abandoned their posts and Anne Marie was lost.
The French in Hanoi realized too late the blunder of putting de Castries in command, but with no airstrip functioning, they were powerless to change. To the chagrin of his paratrooper officers, de Castries remained in his bunker and virtually had no feel whatsoever of the battle all around him.
Mass Assaults on Dominique and Eliane: On March 30, the Viet Minh attacked the Outposts Dominique and Eliane where some of the most brutal fighting took place.
After taking half of Eliane, the French unleashed a powerful counterattack that took it back. But the next day, the Viet Minh rushed in more reinforcements and took it back again. Just as it seemed the French would lose their grip on the outposts, the M-24 light tanks entered the battle and were instrumental in forcing the Viet Minh back.
The fighting took on a World War I feel to it with both sides taking part in trench warfare. The Viet Minh massed their troops for another assault and were hit hard by French aircraft providing close air support.
Morale of the Viet Minh units which had taken a lot of casualties plummeted. Giap was forced to bring in fresh troops from Laos. The fighting went back and forth like this for several weeks.
The Viet Minh Final Attacks Overrun the French: By the first of May, the French defenses were wearing down under the sheer weight of the attacking forces. Isolated outposts inside Eliane, Dominique and Huguette were overrun. The situation was becoming desperate for the French defenders. By May 7, Giap had 25,000 troops surrounding just 3,000 defenders. Giap ordered a full frontal assault.
The French radio operator inside the command bunker radioed French headquarters that the enemy troops were directly outside the headquarters bunker and that all the positions had been overrun. His last words stated: “The enemy has overrun us. We are blowing up everything. Vive la France!”
The remaining troops tried to breakout but none made it out of the valley. On one outpost, Isabelle, about 70 of the 1700 troops made it to Laos and safety.
Death March: The Viet Minh captured 8000 French soldiers of which nearly half were wounded. They then marched them 500 miles on foot to their prisoner of war camp. Less than half of them survived the march. Of the nearly 11,000 total prisoners (French and Vietnamese) the Viet Minh captured, only 3290 were repatriated four months later.
The disastrous outcome for the French would set the stage for the United States to become involved in the war between North and South Vietnam.