The Battle of Dien Bien Phu (Ãiện BiÃªn Phủ) occurred in 1954 between Viet Minh forces under Vo Nguyen Giap and French airborne and Foreign Legion forces. The battle was fought near the village of Dien Bien Phu in northern Vietnam and became the last battle in the Indochina War which had begun in 1947.
In 1953 the French had started the process of strengthening its defenses in the Hanoi delta region and were generally preparing for a series of offenses against the Viet Minh staging areas in north-west Vietnam. They had also set up a number of fortifed towns and outposts in the area, including Lai-Chau near the Chinese border to the north, Na San to the west of Hanoi, and Luang-Prabang and Plaine des Jarres in northern Laos.
That spring General Vo Nguyen Giap launched a major offensive against Na San. After several days of fierce fighting, the Viet Minh were broken, leaving 1,544 casualties at the base, and another 1,932 walking wounded. He withdrew the majority of his forces but left small numbers to hamper any attempt at a French withdrawal. Nevertheless Henri Navarre successfully withdrew the forces from Na San soon after his arrival in May.
It was at this point that the French started thinking about Dien Bien Phu. In pitched battles the superior firepower of the French forces invariably won out, but the Viet Minh generally avoided such battles in the past. With their size growing and a general need to be involved in some action, it appeared that the war would be entering a new phase. If a smaller hastilly prepared base like Na San could do so much damage in a pitched battle, it seemed that a well-planned one could bring them to task.
Several sites were studied, but Dien Bien Phu always rose to the top. It lies in a bowl-shaped valley with a flat enough bottom for a major airbase, was near or on several major roads, and was surrounded by easily defendable hills. By taking the hills the valley would be secure, and could be used as a major air-supply route.
All the advantages were equal disadvantages for the Viet Minh. A number of their troop concentrations were on the far side of the valley, supplied over the roads they would now cut. These forces would be forced to either move east over considerably roughter terrain, or attempt to open the roads with an attack on the base itself. The French hoped for the later. In addition the same terrain should prevent the movement of the Viet Minh’s Chinese supplied artillery into the area.
On the downside, Dien Bien Phu was far enough from Saigon that if a major fight did break out, the French air transport units would be very hard pressed to keep up with demands. Although they believed they were barely able to make it “work”, yet no steps were taken to improve this vital part of the operation.
In late 1953, as both sides prepared for peace talks, the French decided to strengthen their hand at the table with one major victory, and started the process of taking Dien Bien Phu.
Operations at Dien Bien Phu started on the morning of November 20th, 1953, when Operation Castor dropped for flew-in 9,000 troops into the area over three days. These troops set about building a huge airbase in the valley with two airstrips while others set out to capture all of the eight hills surrounding the valley and fortifying them, each named for a woman. By early 1954 the troop count had risen to 13,000, including a number of artillery units, and several light tanks.
The Viet Minh were too spread out to interfere with these preparations, and there was some concern that they were going to ignore the base and move east.
Things changed in early March 1954, when it became clear that an increasing number of Viet Minh troops were moving into the area. The battle proper opened on March 13th, when much to the surprise of the French, it started with a massive artillery barrage. By the end of the first night 9,000 shells had fallen on the area and the Beatrice and Gabrielle positions had both fallen, albeit at huge cost to the attackers. In a major logistical feat, the Viet Minh had dragged scores of artillery pieces up steeply forested hillsides the French had written off as impassable. The French artillery commander, distraught at his inability to bring counterfire on the well-camouflaged Viet Minh batteries, went into his dugout and killed himself. He was buried there in great secret to prevent loss of morale in the French troops.
The French responded by parachuting in reinforcements, but they were fired on by anti-aircraft guns, another surprise the Viet Minh had in store for them. Considering the vital need for air supply, this was a troubling development. The French also started using their fighter bombers against the artillery, but there were nowhere near enough to have any real effect considering how well they were hidden.
Realizing the importance of the air supply, the Viet Minh switched from their costly assaults to a siege mode, bombarding the airfields until both were eventually knocked out of action. In addition they started the process of digging long trenches towards the middle of the camp, covering their movements from direct fire, and allowing for a buildup and assault under cover. The first runway fell after a five day advance from the 18th to the 23rd. The last aircraft landed on the 28th on the second runway, but was destroyed in the process. The French responded with an offensive of their own on the 28th, attacking anti-aircraft positions. On the 31st the French recaptured two of the hilltop fortifications, but later had to evacuate them because of lack of reinforcements.
With resupply now entirely by parachute, supply flow started to dwindle. A good portion of the airdropped supplies landed in Viet Minh-controlled areas giving them much needed material. The Vietnamese had essentially won the battle at this point, and referred to the remainder of the battle as “slowly bleeding the dying elephant”. During the last week of April the yearly monsoon arrived, further reducing the effectiveness of any air support that could be given. Trenches became hazards and bunkers collapsed. The last replacements, 4,306 soldiers under General Marcel Bigeard, parachuted in between March 14 and May 6 did not even make up for the loses suffered between those dates, 5,500.
The French saw that defeat was imminent, but they sought to hold on till the Geneva peace meeting, which took place on April 26. The last French offensive took place on May 4, but was ineffective. The Viet Minh then began to hammer the fort with newly acquired Russian rocket artillery. The final fall took two days, May 6th and 7th, during which the French fought on but were eventually overrun by a huge frontal assault.
At least 2,200 members of 20,000-strong French forces died during the battle. Of the 100,000 or so Vietnamese involved there were an estimated 8,000 killed and another 15,000 wounded, almost half of the attacking force.
After the battle
The prisoners taken at Dien Bien Phu were the greatest number the Viet Minh had ever captured: one-third of the total captured during the entire war. The prisoners were divided into groups. The fit and walking wounded were force marched over 250 miles to prison camps. Hundreds died of disease on the way. The wounded, counted at 4,436, were given basic triage until the Red Cross arrived and removed 838 and gave better aid to the remainder. The remainder were then also sent into detention.
Prison camp was even worse. The French troops, many of them not even French, were constantly starved, beaten and heaped with abuse. Many died. The Viet Minh used the presence of former German World War II soldiers as propaganda against the French cause.
The victory by the Viet Minh led to the 1954 Geneva accords, which partitioned Vietnam into a communist Northern and pro-Western
South Vietnamese governments. This partition was supposed to be temporary, and the two sides were supposed to be reunited by national elections in 1956. The USA supported the southern government under Ngo Dinh Diem which opposed the agreement, surmising that Ho Chi Minh from the North would win those elections – even though the southern government was created under the terms of that agreement. Thus the competition for the whole of Vietnam began, and would escalate into the Vietnam War.
General Giap would attempt to recreate the victory at Dien Bien Phu in 1967 at Khe Sanh, but in this case the massively better US air supply and support turned the tables.
* Military History
* List of Battles
* DienBienPhu.org in English0