In one last push, the Việt Minh laid charges directly in front of the last of the French positions. VNA/VNS File Photo By early March 1954, enemy troops numbering more than 16,000 had gathered in Điện Biên Phủ, including the most elite military units in Indochina. ‘Unstoppable waves’ of 25,000 machine gun-toting Việt Minh infantry engaged the last 3,000 able-bodied French garrison soldiers in brutal hand-to-hand combat in and around the trenches and ruined fortification and by the afternoon of May 7th, it was over. On May 7, 1954, however, the struggle for Indochina was almost over for France. Bernard Fall wrote that in comparison with other world battles, Dien Bien Phu could hardly qualify as a major battle, let alone a decisive one. All of that rode on Dien Bien Phu: the freedom of Laos, a senior commander’s reputation, the survival of some of France’s best troops and — above all — a last chance to come out of that frustrating eight-year-long jungle war with something other than a total defeat. Historically, Dien Bien Phu was, as one French senior officer masterfully understated, never more than an unfortunate accident. The French had lost 75,000 men (with another 65,000 injured and 40,000 taken prisoner) and the Việt Minh lost close to 200,000. Soon after French forces arrived at Dien Bien Phu on November 20, 1953, two of General Vo Nguyen Giap’s regular 10,000-man divisions blocked the Dien Bien Phu garrison, while a third bypassed Dien Bien Phu and smashed deep into Laos. Strongpoint Isabelle never had a chance. Even de Castries’ new general’s stars, dropped to him by General Cogny with a bottle of champagne, landed in enemy territory. This article by the late Bernard B. Their original aim was to spread the word of Christianity and as the 19th century came around, Vietnam’s independence had been gradually eroded until by 1884, the entire country – known then as French Indochina – had come under the rule of France. During the night of March 14-15, he committed suicide by blowing himself up with a hand grenade, since he could not charge his pistol with one hand. The Viet Minh were not old-style anti-colonial rebels, but a nationalist army equipped with modern weaponry. (Had not de Castries, in the manner of his ducal forebears, sent a written challenge to enemy commander Giap?). A French newspaper from 1954, with the headline ‘Dien Bien Phu is a tomb’. It may take a long time, but they can’t get out.’. You understand, mon vieux. The sheer magnitude of preparing that mass of supplies for parachuting was solved only by superhuman feats of the airborne supply units on the outside — efforts more than matched by the heroism of the soldiers inside the valley, who had to crawl into the open, under fire, to collect the containers. Anyway, the idea was to cut off enemy lines through the mountains into Laos and draw the Việt Minh out into open battle. The airdrops were a harrowing experience in that narrow valley, which permitted only straight approaches. At the same time, Vietnam was divided at the 17th Parallel into the Communist-controlled North Vietnam and the democratic South Vietnam and a particularly uneasy peace persisted for a little over a year until the Americans arrived. While their commander, Brig. to act for themselves. This Battle Analysis is written to illustrate the importance of logistics to complement tactical decisions with the war fighter on the battleground. In 1953, in order to engage in field research for his doctoral dissertation, he traveled to war-torn Indochina. Communist anti-aircraft artillery played havoc among the lumbering transport planes as they slowly disgorged their loads. Their century of colonial rule in Indochina – now Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – was over. It was becoming increasingly obvious that this war was unwinnable. Don’t spoil it by hoisting the white flag. The victory of the Vietnamese precipitated the collapse of French colonial rule in Indochina and forever redefined the perception of what nonconventional armies could accomplish. said the Viet Minh in French. In November 1953 General Henri Navarre, commander of French forces in Indochina, ordered the French Expeditionary Force’s parachute battalions to garrison and fortify an old Japanese airstrip – known as Operation Castor – and within weeks it was transformed into a major military base with nine separate camps. You’re not going to shoot anymore? French artillery and mortars had been progressively silenced by murderously accurate Communist Viet Minh artillery fire, and the monsoon rains had slowed down supply drops to a trickle and transformed the French trenches and dugouts into bottomless quagmires. Even the fact, which the unfortunate Navarre invoked later, that the attack on Dien Bien Phu cost the enemy close to 25,000 casualties and delayed its attack on the vital Red River Delta by four months, held little water in the face of the wave of defeatism that swept not only French public opinion at home but also that of her allies. All he could hope for was to hold out until nightfall in order to give the surviving members of his command a chance to break out into the jungle under the cover of darkness, while he himself would stay with the more than 5,000 severely wounded (out of a total of 15,094 men inside the valley) and face the enemy. He first came to the United States in 1951 as a Fulbright Scholar, receiving his Master of Arts and Ph.D. in political science at Syracuse University. The Battle of Dien Bien Phu is seen as the decisive battle of the First Indochina War between French troops and the Viet Minh (League for the Independence of Vietnam), a nationalist, pro-Soviet Union movement of Ho Chi Minh. The battle was the culmination of Operation Castor, a larger plan by the French commander, General Navarre, to lure General Giap and his Peoples Army of Vietnam into a conventional battle to finally destroy their combat power and break the military resistance against French colonial rule. Originally, the fortress had been designed to protect its main airstrip against marauding Viet Minh units, not to withstand the onslaught of four Communist divisions. The Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu signaled the end of French colonial influence in Indochina and cleared the way for the division of Vietnam along the … Even the residence of the French governor was dismantled in order to make use of the bricks, for engineering materials were desperately short from the beginning. Both his parents were killed by the Nazis in World War II. It was during that time that he succeeded in visiting Communist North Vietnam and interviewing Ho Chi Minh. The breakout had been detected. At his untimely death in 1967, Bernard B. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Vietnam Magazine today! Laos had signed a treaty with France in which the latter promised to defend it. Dien Bien Phu was ‘the only pitched battle to be lost by a European army in the history of decolonisation. The day after the battle ended, the Geneva Conference convened with the intention, amongst other geopolitical issues, to settle the outstanding issues brought about by the Korean and First Indochina Wars. Communist forces, in human-wave attacks, were swarming over the last remaining defenses. In 1954, French forces in French Indochina sought to cut the Viet Minh's supply lines to Laos. He gained firsthand guerrilla warfare experience while fighting in the French Underground from 1942 to 1944. Independence, given too grudgingly to the Vietnamese nationalist regime, remained the catchword of the adversary. With the Allied invasion of Europe, Fall joined the French army, serving in the infantry and pack artillery of the 4th Moroccan Mountain Division. Yes, I know. But Cogny was adamant on that point: Mon vieux, of course you have to finish the whole thing now. Y… Essentially, the battle of Dien Bien Phu degenerated into a brutal artillery duel, which the enemy would have won sooner or later. One may only hope that the lesson has been learned in time. For all practical purposes the Indochina War was lost then and there. In that case, I’ll fortify the command post, the signal center, and the X-ray room in the hospital; and let’s hope that the Viet has no artillery. Over 55,000 soldiers were sent into battle, and 260,000 labourers and 27,400 tons of rice were put on standby. The defence of Dien Bien Phu was a gamble, whose odds were not understood by the French. Few would survive. As Dien Bien Phu battles drew to the end, the Geneva Accords were signed by the involving countries resulting in the departure of the French from Indochina and the temporary division of Vietnam into: Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). Ferocious fighting ensued and while the French must have known they were done for, they continued to fight to the last man. By normal military engineering standards, the materials necessary to protect a battalion against the fire of the 105mm howitzers the Viet Minh now possessed amounted to 2,550 tons, plus 500 tons of barbed wire. Exact figures are understandably hard to come by and may never be known but officially, just 3,290 men were repatriated some four months later. History. A few figures tell how murderous the air war around Dien Bien Phu was: Of the 420 aircraft available in all of Indochina then, 62 were lost in connection with Dien Bien Phu and 167 sustained hits. Battle music: Vietnamese soldiers pull a heavy cannon over a slope to the battle of Dien Bien Phu. This now seems finally to have been understood in the South Vietnam war as well, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara may well have thought of Dien Bien Phu when he stated in his major Vietnam policy speech of March 26, 1964, that we have learned that in Vietnam, political and economic progress are the sine qua non of military success…. About 2,000 lay dead all over the battlefield in graves left unmarked to this day. The garrison’s only hope lay in the breakthrough of a relief column from Laos or Hanoi (a hopeless concept in view of the terrain and distances involved) or in the destruction of the siege force through massive aerial bombardment. Not long after, a white flag was hoisted high from a rifle over Colonel Christian de Castries’ bunker, not 20 metres from a flat-helmeted Việt Minh soldier. No, I’m not going to shoot anymore, said the colonel. The outlying posts, which protected the key airfield, were captured within the first few days of the battle. I am responsible. Dien Bien Phu: the battle that split Vietnam Save 50% on a BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed subscription France’s catastrophic defeat at Dien Bien Phu in northwest Vietnam in May 1954 ended its hopes of maintaining any influence in Indochina and set … Describing the scene to journalist Wilfred Burchett, Hồ Chí Minh took off his helmet, turned it upside down and said ‘Down here is the valley of Dien Bien Phu. But Navarre, an armor officer formed on the European battlefields, apparently (this was the judgment of the French government committee that later investigated the disaster) had failed to realize that there are no blocking positions in [a] country lacking European-type roads. In an effort to bring the war to an end, both sides threw everything into one final and ultimately decisive fight – the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. The surviving officers and men, many of whom had lived for 54 days on a steady diet of instant coffee and cigarettes, were in a catatonic state of exhaustion. These words were said to Billy Joel by a friend of John Lennon’s son Sean, so the 40-year old New Yorker decided to write a song to prove him wrong. There were other considerations also. After many years of foreign subjugation and a burning desire for independence, the Việt Minh started a guerrilla war against the French in 1946. Only Cambodia, then as now, was almost at peace: Prince Sihanouk (then king) had received independence from France in 1953 and galvanized his people into fighting against the guerrillas. They then turned their attention to Anne-Marie and Gabrielle which took a couple of days but they too were overrun and with them, the use of the airfields. Stephen Decatur, American naval hero during actions against the Barbay pirates and the War of 1812. This article was originally published in the April 2004 issue of Vietnam Magazine. A conflict between Communist Viet Minh forces and a French-established garrison, it occurred in a town called ‘Seat of the Border County Prefecture or, in Vietnamese, Dien Bien Phu. Inside the fortress, the charming tribal village by the Nam Yum River had soon disappeared along with all the bushes and trees in the valley, to be used either as firewood or as construction materials for the bunkers. There was a silence. It stank with the smell of death but also rotting flesh with all the wounded French soldiers lying there.’. De Castries ticked off a long list of 800-man battalions, which had been reduced to companies of 80 men, and of companies that were reduced to the size of weak platoons. A Web site about Bernard Fall is at It proved little else but that an encircled force, no matter how valiant, will succumb if its support system fails. The Viet Minh victory in this battle effectively ended the eight-year-old war. Following World War II, Fall worked as a research analyst at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal. On the 13th March the Việt Minh assault began. As a French colonel surveyed the battlefield from a slit trench near his command post, a small white flag, probably a handkerchief, appeared on top of a rifle hardly 50 feet away from him, followed by the flat-helmeted head of a Viet Minh soldier. THE END OF FRENCH OCCUPATION Dien Bien Phu was the battle that finally ended the French occupation of Vietnam. The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was fought from March 13th to May 8th 1954 near the Laotian Border. In Laos the situation was just as grim then as it is now: The Laotian and French forces held the Mekong valley and the airfields of the Plain of Jars, and the enemy held the rest. After eight years of fighting and with the French strategists propped up by American money, they tried tactic after unsuccessful tactic but eventually ran out of ideas.