Bruno’s Bunker #12 – Castor dies

Campaign Series Vietnam | Bruno's Bunker

David Galster’s Bruno’s Bunker series of articles explain the evolution of the struggle in Indochina from a French and Viet-Minh perspective. Find out what happened prior the US involvement in Vietnam and how you can experience it while playing a range of upcoming CS Vietnam scenarios.

Mes compagnons d’armes,

The end for the French was inevitable, given the overwhelming forces arrayed against them, and the obstacles they faced for air replenishment of soldiers and supplies. But, the “fortress” fought on, until it was no longer defendable. On 6 May 1954, the Viet Minh made their final push.

Isabelle Alone

The southernmost strongpoint, Isabelle played a role in artillery support with 11 howitzers of 3rd Battalion, 10th Colonial Artillery Regiment. The 1800 soldiers and three tanks lived on a marshy river bend, which covered an area of only  0.65 square kilometers. There were no terrain features, like hills from which to hide, or no bushes or trees for camouflage. Trenches could not be dug very deep, perhaps only 1.5 meters deep in the mud.

Although, they couldn’t dig very deep, the men of Isabelle still used whatever timber was available, and put a meter of earth on top of their dugouts for protection against enemy 105s. The strongpoint commander, Lt. Col. Andre Laland had WWII experience, and advised them of this need.

Originally, an auxiliary airstrip was formed on the east side of Isabelle, and to protect it, another smaller strongpoint, “Wieme” was built there. It was manned by T’ai light infantry of the 431 and 432 CSM companies, and commanded by Lt. Wieme.

The auxiliary airstrip had landed only two aircraft before coming under Communist fire, and from then on, supply was through airdrops. And, because of its small size, a lot of supplies were misdropped. After the assaults began, only one other landing occurred on 14 March, when a single-engine De Havilland Beaver touched down long enough to drop off containers of blood, and pick up four seriously wounded. Nothing landed there afterward..

Isabelle came under constant enemy 75-mm counterbattery fire because of its fire support role for the main camp. And, by 2 April, only four of its original 105-mm howitzers remained capable of firing. By 6 May, only one gun was left.

General Giap appointed Lt. Col. Hoang Khai Tien the job of immobilizing Isabelle. Regiment 57, 304th Division, reinforced with Battalion 888, 176th Regiment of the 316th Division continuously dug approach trenches around Isabelle. Despite French attempts to keep the road between Dien Bien Phu and Isabelle open, by 1 April, it was impassable.

The troops at Isabelle consisted of the 2/1 RTA battalion, the 3/3 REI battalion, remnants of the 3BT from Anne-Marie, remnants of 5/7 RTA from Gabrielle, and the forces previously described at SP “Wieme.”

Operation Condor

This was originally planned as a largescale operation. But, it ended up as an attempt to pick up survivors from a Dien Bien Phu or Isabelle breakout. The following GCMA groups had infiltrated to within a several kilometers of Isabelle:  “Areca,” “Banana”, “Grapefruit,” and “Mollat.” These were 300-men Maquis battalions ultimately under Col. Roger Trinquer.

The other forces involved were under command of Col. de Crevecoeur, and consisted of 1st Laotian Airborne Battalion, (1BPL,) 2nd battlion, 2nd Regiment Foreign Legion, (2/2 REI,) and 4th and 5th Battalions of Laotian chasseurs, (4&5 BCL.)

On 17 April, the 2/2 REI began to move north along the Nam Ou River. They intercepted Communist cargo boats carrying mortars on 21 April. By then, the Viet Minh were aware of the mission and placed Regiment 148, and two battalions from the 316th Division in a screening position.

None of these units were able to approach closer to Isabelle than about 5 kilometers, “Grapefruit” being the closest. By 8 May, all elements of the operation were given the message: “The fruit are ripe,” which meant that Dien Bien Phu had fallen.

Operation Albatross

This was the code name for a breakout from Dien Bien Phu and Isabelle. Navarre did not authorize any planning until 3 May. De Castries had the ultimate discretion to execute it. The basic plan called for escape in the southeast direction of Muong Nha and Muong Heup, to connect to Condor screening forces. Maximum artillery and airstrikes would support it. Wounded would be left behind, with light duty disabled soldiers to provide fire cover. The timing would be near the day’s end, so troops could reach jungle cover by dark.

The plan had many critics,.One staff officer said: “Such an operation is both impossible and inconceivable . . .” The plan really only made sense for Isabelle. Indeed, Col. Laland radioed a command aircraft to advise on whether a southern or western direction would be more favorable. Unfortunately, he got no answer.

De Castries finally gave Col. Laland permission for Isabelle breakout on the afternoon of 7 May 1954.

T’ai remnants of “Wieme” and 12th Company, 3/3 REI made a break for the hill line to the south. They only got as far as the valley’s southern rim, and were captured.

Operation Vulture

This was an operation considered, which would have involved massive US Air Force carpet bombing around Dien Bien Phu. The hope was to drastically weaken the Viet Minh, and give the garrison a chance to recover, or abandon the position with minimum loss. US Brig. Gen. Caldera, commander of a B-29 bomber group at Clark AFB Philippines, visited Saigon on 26 April. He consulted with French Air Force General Lauzin. They considered an 88-plane mission. But, the US military and State departments could not come to proper terms, nor obtain diplomatic agreement for the intervention.

Castor Dies

Supply problems had become critical, and artillery ammunition stocks dwindled. Loss of Huguette 1 and enemy occupation on the airfield made the perimeter ever smaller. Parachute supply drops have even less chance of reaching French hands. On one evening, only 99 tons of supplies out of 117 fell into French lines. The daily requirement was 200.

French forces were about 15000 in the garrison. There were 3250 riflemen in the main garrison, and 1400 at Isabelle. The remainder were artillerymen and support personnel.

On the Viet Minh side, General Giap made up for most of his early losses, and had about 35000 infantrymen available. French aerial photography showed a tightening ring of 37-mm AA guns, particularly on the northeastern quadrant. A new 105-mm battery appeared at Anne-Marie, and new 75-mm batteries appeared east of Isabelle.

Another development was mine-shaft digging under strongpoints. As it happened, the Viet Minh 98th Regiment was recruited from Dong-Trieu, a major coal mining region. Many 98th soldiers were former coal miners, and familiar with digging tunnels, and using explosive charges. One day, Langlais was surprised when a a shipment of “geophones” arrived. The French had a new problem.

The main example was the tunnel dug under Eliane 2. This was called “A-1” or the “Fifth Hill” by the Viet Minh. Capt. Pouget became aware of a mine shaft on 5 May, but it was believed to have began two days earlier. Sgt. Chabrier’s later report indicates that Sgt. Clinel of 3rd Company 1BCP sent out a commando patrol to blow up the entrance. Unfortunately for the French, the patrol was caught in the open, and a Communist outpost killed them to the last man.

On 6 May, 91 paratroopers of 1BCP  dropped in. These were the last reinforcements. The day also began with the largest supply drop in three weeks, as a total of 196 tons fell into the fortress. The problem was that these could not be retrieved during the day, in plain sight of Viet gunners. The French had to wait until night to collect and distribute them. But, if an attack occurred . . .

The mine shaft under E2 grew to 47 meters, and the French could hear the scraping and hammering of sappers. Finally, the sounds stopped, and long lines of coolies transported in a ton of explosives, directly under the main bunker.

At 1000, Langlais gathered the battalion commanders for a briefing. Artillery ammunition was less than one day’s normal stocks. But, if they could collect the ammo that had dropped, perhaps they would have more. If the Viet Minh attack was delayed, they could get these supplies. And, maybe they might get the remaining 493 men of 1BPC. These hopes proved to be futile.

The disposition of strongpoint defenders was as follows:

D3   1/13 DBLE 1st company

E2   2/1BPC

E3   2/1/4 RTM, 1/13 REI

E4   Remnants 5BPVN + II/1RCP

E10   Remnant 6BPC

Epervier   8BPC remnants +1/5BPVN

H2 & H3    Composite company (1+2 BEP) Major G 1/1/4 RTM

L1 & L2     Two companies of 1/4 RTM

C2, C3, C5   1/2 REI

C4   Remnants 9/3/13 DBLE

Juno   414CSM White Tai, quad 50s, a platoon of 1/13 DBLE

Isabelle stongpoint   “Wieme” 431 + 432 CSM

I3, I4   3/3REI

I2    3/5/7 RTA + remants 9/BT3

I1   2/1 RTA

Isabelle artillery   3/10 RAC one 105 left.

Main artillery    7 Howitzers

The available air units were the 14e Flottille de Chasse – Belleau Wood – F4U Corsairs, and Groupe de Bombardment 1/25 “Tunisie” – B26 Marauders.

At 1730, Communist artillery barrages began. This time they were joined by Katyusha rockets.

The first assaults began around 1845 at dusk, and wave after wave of Viet Minh emerged from their approach trenches.  And, at 2300, the mine shaft under E2 exploded.

Scenario Description DBP#10 Castor Dies

[Dien Bien Phu][H2H][HIS][CSL]

On 6 May, the French situation was grim. Ammunition stocks were low, and could be depleted in three hours heavy combat. Airdrops were planned for that evening, but if an attack began, the supplies could not be recovered. And, because the perimeter had shrunken so, many drops would fall outside. Enemy counterbattery fire had reduced artillery to seven 105-mm howitzers and one 155-mm howitzer. The last parachute reinforcements were 91 men of the 1BPC. The French still held strongpoints in Claudine, H3, Epervier, and Eliane 2 and 4. Isabelle was hanging on, but had only one usable howtizer left. At dark, the Viet Minh began preliminary attacks. In the west, Regiment 36 of the 308 Division was preparing to attack Claudine 5. To the north, Regiment 165 of the 312 Division pressed against Huguette 2 and 3 and Epervier. On the east side of the Nam Youn, Regiment 174 faced D3, the 308 Division Regiment 88 faced E4, and Regiment 102 was attempting to mine E2.

(The Viet Minh called it A-1) Defending Claudine was the 1/2 REI battalion. The composite “Battalion de March” or BMEP made of Legionnaire remnants of 1BEP and 2BEP was stationed at Huguette 2 and 3. The 8BPC was at Epervier. A company of 1/13 DBLE defended D3. The 5BPVN and II/RCP were on E4. The newly dropped 1BPC was on E2. Initial attacks on E2 at 1845 were easily repelled by French artillery salvos on Viet Minh on the open slopes. However, the 102 Regiment had been tunnelling under the main E2 bunker. They placed one ton of explosives under it. At 2300 this was exploded. It destroyed the main bunker, and threw huge chunks of earth and debris into the sky. The blast left a huge crater. The 2nd Company of 1BCP was stunned by this, and for several moments, the Viet MInh hesitated. Then their advancing waves found it difficult to advance in the soft slippery rain-soaked earth. For awhile, 2nd Company regrouped and pushed the attackers back. But unable to get reinforcements, and with virtually no artillery support left, the 35 men had to abandon E2 at 0400. Similarly, French troops on E4 were low on ammunition, and gradually pulled back under heavy Viet Minh artillery and assaults. Finally, at  0900, E4 defenses caved in as hordes of fresh Viet Minh troops swarmed the strongpoint remnants. With E2 and E4 in Viet Minh hands, artillery spotters had had line of sight on remaining outposts and the main French command post. Now augmented with Katayusha rockets, Viet Minh artillery pounded the shrinking Dien Bien Phu perimeter. Colonel d’C radioed Isabelle and gave them permission to activate “Operation Albatross,” a breakout plan.

On the west, the Viet Minh captured Claudine 5 during the night and were threatening Lily 2 and Claudine 2 by 0700. By the afternoon 7 May, many units, particularly Moroccan were abandoning their positions and surrendering. By 1700, a cease-fire was arranged and the French began destroying their heavy weapons and documents. The last message from Colonel dC’s 9-DMO transmitter was: “We’re blowing up everything. Adieu”

[CSEE][NO VAROBJ][ALL: NO VV]

Screenshot of DBP#10 Castor Dies

Screenshot of DBP#10 Castor Dies

As of 1820 on 7 May, one of the last occupied strongpoints was Lily, in the West Sector. It was still held by some Moroccans under Major Nicolas. Looking over the battlefield from a slit trench, he saw a small white flag, perhaps a handkerchief tied to a bayonet, 20 meters away. A Viet soldier wearing a pith helmet was approaching.

“You’re not going to shoot anymore?” The Viet Minh soldier asked in French.

“No, I am not going to shoot anymore,” replied Nicolas.

“C’est fini?” the Viet Minh persisted.

“Oui, c’est fini,” Nicolas answered.

And all around, tattered, battle-weary soldiers, French and enemy, began to crawl from their trenches, and stand erect as the gunfire ceased.

Epilogue

The Viet Minh began rounding up the prisoners. The question about what to do with the wounded was handled by subsequent negotiations. On 16 May, the agreement was signed, and 858 wounded would be evacuated back to Hanoi. However, even by 25 May, the airfield was in no condition for     C-47 landings. The wounded would be taken out, a few at a time, by helicopter and single engine aircraft.

Dr. Grauwin and his 27 male staff members were taken as prisoner, but Genevieve was released, and allowed to fly back to Hanoi on 24 May. She  wrote a letter to Ho Chi Minh thanking him for his clemency for the wounded prisoners, and promised to “create an atmosphere of greater understanding between the two peoples.”

An estimated 16500 men had served in the garrison since November 1953. The overall French casualty estimate was 9000. With the wounded evacuated, and escapees included, there were about 7000 prisoners of war.

These were force marched, under very adverse conditions, to a camp 800 kilometers away, in Thanh-Hoa Province. Camp conditions were harsh, and POWs poorly fed. About 3000 Dien Bien Phu prisoners survived. They were released when the Geneva Conference ended the war, 20 July 1954.

The survivors included de Castries, who was promoted to General, Marcel Bigeard – Bruno, promoted to Lt. Col, and Pierre Langlais, promoted to full Colonel.

Viet Minh Flag over de Castries' Bunker

Viet Minh Flag over de Castries’ Bunker

Campaign Series Vietnam | Bruno's Bunker

General Marcel Bigeard – “Bruno”

Bruno’s Bunker #11 – Huguettes

Campaign Series Vietnam | Bruno's Bunker

David Galster’s Bruno’s Bunker series of articles explain the evolution of the struggle in Indochina from a French and Viet-Minh perspective. Find out what happened prior the US involvement in Vietnam and how you can experience it while playing a range of upcoming CS Vietnam scenarios.

Mes compagnons d’armes,

This next phase of the siege focuses on the Battle of the Huguettes, which ultimately strangled the French from the west, causing complete loss of the airfield. Also, this articles covers other situations. The French field hospital faced many hardships, but the doctors endured, with Genevieve’s gracious help. And, for a while, the Viet Minh suffered a minor morale crisis – or as General Giap expressed it: “rightist and negative tendencies.”

First Battle of the Huguettes

After Anne-Marie strongpoints 1 and 2 were abandoned on 17 March, the French renamed Anne-Marie 3 as Huguette 7, and Anne-Marie 4 as Huguette 6, or H7 and H6.

The next logical attack location in the west was H7, as it was nearest to Anne-Marie.

The 1st Company, 5BPVN was placed at H7 soon after the loss of Gabrielle. French Capt. Bizard led these Vietnamese paratroopers. A platoon of the T’ai light company, CSM 417 was also assigned there. Legionnaires of the 4th Company 1/2 REI held H6, which was near the end of the airfield runway. Lt. Rastouil commanded them.

The remainder of the Huguettes were defended by the rest of 1/2 REI and the T’ai light company CSM 418. Major Clemencon was the Legionnaire battalion commander.

The 413 CSM company abandoned strongpoint Francoise on 1 April. Their remnants were relocated to D3. Thus, the stage was set for the First Battle of the Huguettes. It was fought in two phases, the first Viet Minh attack resulted in the French abandonment of H7, and the second phase, in which a strong French counterattack, organized by Bruno, salvaged H6 from loss. These battles were fought during 3-6 April.

The Viet Minh attacking forces were Regiment 36 of the 308 Division and Regiment 165 of the 312 Division. In addition, the 401 Mortar company of the 308 Division provided much close artillery support.

There are two CSVN scenarios dealing with the First Battle of the Huguettes, DBP#7 Huguette Phase One and DBP#8 Huguette Phase Two.

Phase One

Initially, the Viet Minh took H7, but the French counterattacked and retook it. However, they realized that it was untenable, and it was abandoned. Here is a description of the scenario representing this combat:

[Dien Bien Phu][H2H][HIS][CSL]

The French western sector was under pressure from 17 March when Anne-Marie was abandoned.

Francoise was the next strongpoint lost when Thai auxiliaries of CSM 413 deserted 1 April. During the early morning of 1 April Viet Minh mortars opened fire on Huguette 7. In a ploy to exploit Viet inability to adjust to unforeseen situations, the Captain of the 1st Company 5BPVN pulled out of the northern and central portions of H7 and wihdrew to the southern bunker. The Viets moved into the positions, but with little room to maneuver. French artillery blasted them with high explosives. At dawn, the Vietnamese paratroopers regained H7. In the late evening of 1 April, the 36th Regiment of the VM 308 Division renewed their attacks on H7 and the 165th Regiment of the 312th Division began attacking H6. By 0400 2 April, swarms of Viet Minh were inside H7. In bitter hand-to-hand fighting, a mixed group of paratroopers, Legionnaires, and Thai auxiliries held through the darkness in a corner bunker. The Legionnaire commander of 1/2REI sent an ad hoc relief force which included three tanks. The Viet Minh infantry began to fall back. At daylight, H7 was back in French hands. However, the Viet Minh were still strong, and had recoilless rifles at Ann-Marie, which could continuously fire on H7. At 0800, French high command decided to abandon H7. Thus, Huguettes phase one finished with the Viet Minh taking a French strongpoint.

[CSEE][NO VAROBJ][ALL: NO VV]

Screenshot from DBP#7 Huguette Phase One

Screenshot from DBP#7 Huguette Phase One

Map of the Huguettes

Phase Two

Communist forces continued to press their attacks on H6 after gaining H7. But, the French were determined to keep control of H6, which also meant the airfield. The various units in the counterattack included 2nd Company II/1 RCP, Service Company 8BPC, Mixed Intervention Company 1/13 DBLE, tanks “Conti” and “Ettlingen,” and Bruno’s own 2nd and 3rd Companies 6BPC. In the end, the French managed to hold on to H6.

[Dien Bien Phu][H2H][HIS][CSL]

The French western sector was under pressure from 17 March when Anne-Marie was abandoned. Francoise was the next strongpoint lost when Thai auxiliaries of CSM 413 deserted 1 April. During the early morning of 3 April, Huguette 7 was abandoned after a major attack. A truce was agreed to for dead and wounded removal. But at 2200, Viet Minh artillery opened fire on Huguette 6. The VM 165th Regiment and 401 Artillery Battalion were moving into position to attack Huguette 6. At this point only 88 Legionnaires were left on H6.

A Composite Intervention Company – formed from the Legion 1/13 Demi-Brigade was sent to reinforce H6. At 0030 on  5 April, Hugette 6 was being attacked from west, north, and east. Other French reserve units were thrown in: Special Air Service Company of the 8th Assault Battalion moved north along the airfield drainage ditch. They were accompanied  by tanks “Conti” and “Ettlingen.”  The tanks sustained bazooka hits, but stayed in the battle. “Conti” later struck a mine, wounding some crew members. At 0315, the 2nd Company II/1 RCP Colonial Paratroopers were committed. They rushed onto the metallic plates of the airfield and attacked the southernmost elements of the Viet Minh force. And, at 0420 engaged in hand to hand combat and broke into peripheral H6 trenches. At 0500, Bruno organized two companies of the 6eBPC, and at 0600 reached the line where the 8th Assault had dug in.

The Viet Minh then committed a fourth battalion, 14/165 to their attacks. But, daylight had come, and French artillery began hitting the Communists hard, and by 0830, fighter bombers appeared and began hitting Viet Minh troops out in the open. By 1015, the Viets were in retreat, and more than 500 lay dead on the breastworks of Huguette 6.

[CSEE][NO VAROBJ][ALL: NO VV]

Hardships of the French Field Hospital

The French hospital was underground, and adjacent to the main command post. Langlais referred to it as the “Catacombs.” Dr. Grauwin was the Mobile Surgical Detachment 29 commandant, who faced almost insurmountable challenges in caring for the wounded.

It began as a space for only 44 beds, dugouts for operations, X-Ray and recovery rooms. There were two main problems: First medical supplies, particularly blood plasma, surgical gloves, catgut, and wound alcohol, were almost always short. And, there was the problem of having enough sanitary space for the wounded.

Later, after a controversy with intelligence group GC 8, the area for beds was extended so there was a total of 200. But, it was not completely sanitary by any means. It was being cramped by the ever-expanding graveyard nearby.

This proximity, coupled with the lack of disinfectants available, caused white maggots to spread from the graveyard into the hospital. Grauwin had to explain to the wounded how maggots fed only on dead or putrescent flesh, and though disgusting, actually contributed to keeping wounds clean.

An air landing mishap actually became a blessing, however with the arrival of Genevieve. On 28 March, ambulance aircraft Delta Coca 434 was piloted by Major Blanchet, on a familiarization flight for night landings. The rest of the crew included Air Force nurse Genevieve Galard. The plane landed, but developed an oil leak. In the shuffle of heavy fighting, repairs were delayed until daylight. When the engines started for takeoff, it drew Viet gunners attention, and the plane was hit and burned. The pilot and crew managed to escape, unharmed.

Genevieve was thus stuck at Dien Bien Phu. But, she joined Dr. Grauwin’s staff, and helped care for the wounded. At first, she slept among the wounded, but Langlais surprised her with a room, with walls covered by parachutes, and furniture scrounged from the mess. A  few days  later, she gave her room to some seriously wounded paratroopers, and went back to sleeping in the main room.

The modest girl with blue eyes, brown hair, and a cheerful smile was never called “The Angel of Dien Bien Phu” by the soldiers there. That moniker was given by the rear-echelon press. Camp personnel just called her “Genevieve.” Later, Langlais asked de Castries to give her an accomodation. Hanoi authorized the Croix de Guerre and Legion d’honneur for her.

Viet Minh “Rightist and Negative Tendencies”

There was also a crisis of morale, of sorts, in the Viet Minh forces. It was during the week of 11-18 April. French radio intelligence from within the fortress (Commando Group 8) heard agitated lower level VM commanders refusing to obey orders. Prisoners admitted that they had been forced to advance under threat of being shot.

Giap acknowledged in that at critical junctures signs of flagging and tiredness began to appear.  “After a  series of magnificent victories, we appeared to underestimate the enemy. We had to analyze and change this state of mind. Preparations were prolonged, notably after the second phase of the campaign, when fierce positioning battles were underway; it caused rightist hesitations during a time that affected the execution of tasks”.

Giap wrote further about this: “However, it was precisely at that time, that a rightist and negative tendency appeared among our officers and men,under various forms: fear of casualties, losses, fatigue, difficulties and hardships, underestimation of the enemy, subjectivism and self-conceit.”

As a result, the Political Bureau ordered: “All levels of the Party, the Party members, and the cadres must do their best to overcome rightist tendency, consolidate and raise their determination, heighten their sense of responsibility before the people, army and Party, resolutely correct the past mistakes, grasp further the principle of striking surely and advancing cautiously, at the same time, work against time, strictly obey orders, overcome all difficulties and hardships, and fulfil their task of securing’ complete victory for the campaign.”

French radio intercepts also discovered that the VM battalions 910 and 920 of 148 Regiment were being recalled from Laos. Battalion 970 of 176 Regiment was recalled. Giap ordered Battalion 900 of Regt. 148 to detach the 523 Signal Company and 121 Heavy Company for Dien Bien Phu. Also Regiment 9 of 304 was recalled back to support Regt. 57.

2nd Battle of the Huguettes

In the 2nd Battle of the Huguettes, that went from 12 to 21 April, the Viet Minh took H1, H4, H5, and H6. During this time, H4 was renamed Lily 3. Claudine 1 was renamed Lily 1 and new strongpoint, L2 was created to the northeast.

At this time, there are no CSVN scenarios for the 2nd Battle of Huguettes, but perhaps later, these may be developed.

Campaign Series Vietnam | Bruno's Bunker

Bruno’s Bunker #10 – Dominque and Eliane

Campaign Series Vietnam | Bruno's Bunker

David Galster’s Bruno’s Bunker series of articles explain the evolution of the struggle in Indochina from a French and Viet-Minh perspective. Find out what happened prior the US involvement in Vietnam and how you can experience it while playing a range of upcoming CS Vietnam scenarios.

Mes compagnons d’armes,

Now is time to “passer aux choses serieuses,” or get down to “brass tacks,” and talk about some very serious battles. This article covers the massive Battle of Five Hills, in which a large CSVN scenario is devoted. And, despite a time delay of ten days, we also discuss Bruno’s plan to recapture Eliane 1. Naturally, a CSVN scenario nicely depicts this operation.

Situation on 29 March

The successful western flak foray, led by Bruno, influenced Langlais. Instinctively, he felt that French forces in the western lowland areas had adequate strength. These included the several strongpoints of Claudine, Francois, and Huguette. Further, he felt that the next Communist attacks would be on the East sector hills.

Langlais concern was in the East sector strongpoints of Dominque and Eliane. Holding these hills were crucial to keeping Viet Minh heavy weapons out of range of the complex’s center.

In opening phase of the siege, these were defended as follows: Dominique had two Algerian companies of the 3/3 RTA, plus the 3rd Company of BT2, (T’ai.) Eliane was defended by the Moroccans of 1/4 RTM under Major Nicolas. Addtionally, the 4/11/4 RAC battery of 105-mm howitzers was positioned at D3 by the river, commanded by Lt. Paul Brunbrouck.

As can be seen, all infantry was either African or T’ai. Although most thought the Algerian and Morrocan units were solid, no one knew whether the T’ai of 2BT were dependable. After all, 3BT abandoned Anne-Marie without even a skirmish. The Moroccans were not impressed by the Algerians, either. This suspicion was evidenced by the loss of an Algerian battalion at Gabrielle. Langlais seemed to share this view.

Reinforcement of Dominque and Eliane

The strongpoint Dominque 4 on the west bank was renamed Epervier and the 8BPC stationed there under Major Tourret. He was reinforced with quad-fifty AA platoon.

At Eliane 4, two companies of the 5BPVN were sent to reinforce the 1/4 RTM. The 4th Company of 5BPVN was sent to D1 relieve a 3/3 RTA company.

On a subsequent inspection of E2, Langlais decided to reinforce the 2nd Company 1/4 RTM with a company of paratroopers from 1BEP under Capt. Nicod.

E2 and E4 faced Mont “Fictif” or “Phony Mountain” as it was called. This is because earlier, the French put fake fortifications there for deception. The other hill facing E2 was Mont “Chauve”, or rather “Bald Mountain,” because it was in “no man’s land,” and had become barren from innumerable barrages.

DBP Map

Rats of the Nam Youn

A problem plaguing the French command was the large number of deserters and forcibly disarmed T’ai mountaineers to be cared for. Eventually, they also had upwards of 2200 Communist prisoners. In addition, on 20 March de Castries ordered T’ai expelled from the villages in the valley.

Included in this mix were two mobile field brothels, one consisting of Algerian girls from the Ouland Nail tribe, and the other Vietnamese.

All of these ended up in a dirty camp on the west bank of the Nam Youn river, not far from the Command Post. They hid in this lair, “like land crabs,” according  to Langlais, coming out for a pittance, at the slightest sound. At night, they slithered out of their holes to steal parachuted rations, with which they organized a profitable  trade, a  food  black  market.

However, a certain group of these known as P.I.M. (Prisonniers Internes Militaires = POW’s,) served the French troops as laborers, or “coolies.” These men were not captured with weapons in hand. Rather, they were caught destroying trails, or erred in forbidden areas, or were suspects.

According to Langlais, “We’d shave in front  of a mirror, showered with water of the nearby river that was brought to us, strung on bamboos, by the P.I.M . . .” Some of the P.I.Ms developed loyalties and friendships with French troops. After the fall of Dien Bien Phu, one French prisoner, marching off to the POW camp, bumped into one of his former P.I.M.’s. Shortly thereafter, he reached into his pocket, and found a pack of cigarettes, that; at great risk, had been slipped in it.

Battle of Five Hills

The Viet Minh artillery barrage began 1700 on 30 March, as French commanders expected. “Incoming” was reported on the Dominques, Elianes, and the HQ areas. Assault waves of Viet Minh from the 312 and 316 Division charged through barbed wire and up the slopes of the strongpoints.

The Viet Minh regiments believed to be present were the 209 and 165 Regiments of the 312 Division, the 98th and 174th of the 316 Division, and were reinforced by the 102 Regiment of the 308 Division. Regiment 209 attacked D1, while Regiment 165 attacked D2. On the Elianes, Regiment 98 assaulted E1, and Regiments 174 and 102  faced off against E2.

Early in the battle, perhaps at 1900, D2 fell to the Viet Minh, with Algerians under Capt. Garandeau breaking completely and running away. It was in this situation that the

4/11/4 RAC artillery battery on D3 made thier “mark.” As waves of Communist infantry surged on the “heels” of the Algerians, the artillerymen could easily see the attackers against flaming outlines of Dominque 1 and 2. Lt. Paul Brunbrouck gave the order:

“- Canonniers a vos pieces ! Debouchez a zero !” The guns lowered to zero elevation.

With 105s pointed directly at the enemy, the gallant African gunners in open pits fired volley after volley at point blank range. And then, a lucky phenomenon occurred: The 312 Division riflemen were too close for their own artillery support.

The assault waves faltered, and began to fall back from the horrendous fire. Suddenly,  quad-fifties of Epervier started shooting. Seeking protection in the valley behind nearby D6, fleeing Viet Minh ran into a minefield, that had been laid only a few days earlier. 200 were killed there.

On 31 March, the French counterattacked. 8BPC retook D2, which was held for a day and lost again. 6BPC and 5BPVN regained E4 and E1 temporarily. Elements of 1BEP and 1/4 RTM plus some tanks recaptured E2.

Scenario Description DBP#6 Battle of Five Hills

[Dien Bien Phu][H2H][HIS][CSL]

The French command believed the 28 March FlaK raid proved their strength in the west sector lowlands. As a result, they predicted the next Communist offensive would be the hill positions of the east sector, Dominque and Eliane. They abandoned the isolated strongpoint strategy, and instead adopted large centers of interconnected resistance.

There was no longer a separation of Dominque and Eliane, and all strongpoints were interconnected, with trenches, barbed wire, and mines. The Viet Minh issued a new field manual for attacking fortified positions, calling for an overall manpower superiority of three-to-one, and firepower of five-to-one.

The opening of the first breach must penetrate into the fortification interior, and hold to the “bitter end,” relying on successive assault waves to overrun the defenses. The French East Sector commander toured the defenses, and decided to reinforce Dominque 1 with the 4th company of the 5th Vietnamese Parachute Battalion. (5BPVN) The rest of this battalion would reinforce the 1/4 Moroccan Rifles on Eliane 4 and behind them he placed the 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion. (6BPC)

A new strongpoint, at D4 called Epervier (Sparrowhawk,) was formed on the west bank of the Nam Yum with the 8th Assault Battalion. (8BPC) And a company of engineers was brought in to form D11, on the east bank of the Nam Yum behind E4. In late afternoon, the Vietnamese 4th company moved into position, bunched up in communications trenches and collecting theiir equipment and other paraphernalia. Murderous Communist artillery fire began to land on the Dominques, Elianes, and headquarters areas. Assault waves of two Viet Minh Divisions, the 312 and 316, appeared and rapidly blasted their way through the barbed wire and mine fields.

The battle of the five hills raged through the night. Eliane 1 and Dominque 2 were in Viet Minh hands by midnight. But the French organized a counterattack. 8 BPC attacked D2. 6BPC attacked E1, and Legionnaire paratroopers of 1BEP attacked E2. Although the counterattack on D2 succeeded, losses were high and 8BPC had to pull back. But as of the end of March 31, the French had at least regained E1 and E2.

[CSEE][NO VAROBJ][ALL: NO VV]

French Artillery

 

Map of Five Hills Battle

Map of Five Hills Battle

Bruno Grabs Eliane 1

On 6 April, the next battle initiative was not planned by General Giap, but rather the unwavering Major Marcel Bigeard, or Bruno. As the garrison had survived the Battle of Five Hills, and held on to at least part of the Huguettes, General Cogny agreed to drop in another parachute battalion. Assured of reinforcements, Bruno decided to retake Eliane 1. It would remain in French hands until 2 May, only a few days before the end.

With E1 in Viet hands since 1 April, the nearby positions were not defensible. No Frenchman could move on E4 without risking sniper fire. Living like cavemen, the men of 6BPC and 5BPVN were harrassed by rifle fire and grenades day and night.

Gen. Cogny suggested a choice of two replacement battalions: 2nd BEP under Major Hubert Liesenfelt, or the 1st Vietnamese Parachute battalion. (1BPVN) Although Langlais preferred the Legionnaire paratroopers, the decision was rumored to be settled by the two battalion commanders drawing lots. Liesenfelt won.

Headquarters, 7th, and 8th Companies of 2BEP parachuted in under monsoon rains on the night of 9 April. They were assigned to D3, as reserves.

Scenario Description DBP#9 BRUNO Grabs Eliane 1

[Dien Bien Phu][H2H[HIS[CSL]

The dawn of April 10 witnessed the French assault on Eliane 1 exactly as planned by BRUNO. To direct the attack on E1, a big hole was dug slope facing E1, into which a half-dozen radio sets were installed, each within reach. There BRUNO huddled for the next ten hours, directing the whole battle by radio transmitters as though the forces were musical instruments.

Contrary  to doctrine, BRUNO used commando tactics. Infantry was committed in small units advancing rapidly, leaving enemy pockets to be mopped up by the second or third wave. The advantage was that the Vietminh were unable to organize defensive fires because friendly and enemy troops were intermingled.

At 0550, 81mm and 120mm mortars opened fire. Subsequently, all twenty remaining French 105s fired, delivering 1800 rounds in ten minutes. Rolling barrages preceded infantry waves. When the artillery lifted, the four remaining tanks joined in  with the quad fifties from Epervier.

At 0610 paratroopers of 2nd Company, 6BPC began climbing the steep slopes of Eliane 1, under smoke cover, while dive bombers from Navy Squadron 3-F of carrier Arromanches began working over the enemy positions to the rear of Eliane and Dominique. They sealed off the battlefield completely.

The Vietminh boxed in the French rear with a counterbarrage. Second company was pinned on the western slope of E1. BRUNO then committed first company along with a flame-thrower team and an automatic rifle team.

The new company cleared the enemy 120-mm mortar barrage, with heavy losses. But, the flamethrower team got through, and the western bunker of Eliane 1 disappeared in a flash of flame, followed by a black cloud, and the smell of charred human flesh.

At 1400 the French paratroopers were on top of E1, looking down on the east slope in direction of Phony Mountain. Helldivers from  French Navy Squadron 3-F were finishing off remnants of the Vietminh battalion that had held the hill. At 1500,  a radio transmission went to the Dien Bien Phu command post: “Le garcs Pierre,  this is  BRUNO,  mission  accomplished.”

The two companies had hardly had time to become acquainted with what was left of the position when an enemy counterattack began at 1845. It was preceded by a violent artillery barrage.

The Communist command was willing to pay the price for E1: a full Vietminh regiment, the 98th Infantry of the 316th Division was involved from the beginning. French defenders were now in an impossible situation. Although fully equipped with automatic weapons, they were incapable of mowing down the onrushing waves fast enough.

BRUNO watched the agony from Eliane 4, and decided to make a stand for it. Frantic radio calls went out to the counter attack companies, organized on a stand-by basis by all the paratroop battalions.

1BEP was the first to respond. It sent two small companies of fifty men each into the blazing furnace atop E1. Simultaneously, the Vietminh threw a fourth infantry battalion into the battle.

Then something strange happened. This rarely occurred before in Indochina. As Legionnaires and paratroopers stormed  across the low saddle between E4 and E1, they began to sing.

Some songs were translations of German Army ones, like “Kepi Blanc,” [“Panzerlied”] and now, as they stormed forward, German Legionnaires sung in their deep Teutonic accents, while others hummed in French.

For a moment, there was a brief lull, the Vietminh attempted to understand the strange new sound. And then, the firefight atop Eliane 1 resumed. BRUNO decided to throw in the last available reserves: 2nd and 3rd Companies, 5th Vietnamese Paratroops.

Unflinchingly, the Vietnamese paratroopers began the climb. They, too, began to sing the only French song they had learned as schoolboys, the “Marseillaise.”

By midnight, remnants of Foreign Legion and Vietnamese Paratroopers had again cleared E1 in hand-to-hand fighting. The Viet-Minh began to fall back, stunned.

[CSEE][NO: VAROBJ][ALL: NO VV]

Screenshot for opening of DBP#9 BRUNO Grabs Eliane 1

Screenshot for opening of DBP#9 BRUNO Grabs Eliane 1

Campaign Series Vietnam | Bruno's Bunker

 

Bruno’s Bunker #9 – French Crisis and Countermeasures

Campaign Series Vietnam | Bruno's Bunker

David Galster’s Bruno’s Bunker series of articles explain the evolution of the struggle in Indochina from a French and Viet-Minh perspective. Find out what happened prior the US involvement in Vietnam and how you can experience it while playing a range of upcoming CS Vietnam scenarios.

Mes compagnons d’armes,

The French had a rude awakening, and a struggle for survival. But, they took positive steps to remedy the situations with Isabelle isolation, and plentiful Viet Minh anti-aircraft guns. Two scenarios,

DBP#4 Bruno’s Flak Raid, and DBP#5 Breakthrough to Isabelle are explained in this article along with other interesting information about the overall situation.

Command Crisis

After the quick successive falls of Beatrice and Gabrielle, and the desertion at Anne-Marie, French morale was understandably low. Aircraft landings were very risky, and now only undertaken at night

and with extreme precautions. This limited the flow of supplies, and parachute supply drops became the main delivery method. With decreased supplies came more troop discontent.

Artillery Colonel Piroth’s suicide was disturbing enough, but de Castries chief of staff, Lt. Col. Kelly had a nervous breakdown, and sat in his bunker wearing his steel helmet. He was later flown out in an ambulance aircraft to Hanoi for briefing and psychological treatment. De Castries was rapidly losing his first echelon of command staff.

High optimism in Hanoi became gloom as dreadful radio reports poured in. Gen. Cogny, Northern Theatre Commander or FTNV (Forces Terrestres du Nord Vietnam,) had been privately pessimistic about Dien Bien Phu since its planning. But at this point, Cogny sent a top-secret message to Navarre that “a disaster at Dien Bien Phu is a distinct possibility.” On 17 March, Cogny flew over the fortress for observation. He considered parachuting in to direct the battle, as de Lattre had done at the battle of Vinh-Yen. But, his chief-of-staff Jules Roy talked him out of it.

The most crucial crisis was the melancholy afflicting Colonel de Castries. He became withdrawn from his men and staff, and rarely left the underground headquarters. Jules Roy later said he acted as though “a spring had broken inside him.”

Lt. Col. Pierre Langlais became concerned that de Castries was not providing adequate leadership. According to eyewitnesses, on 24 March, Langlais entered de Castries office along with several parachute battalion commanders. He effectively told de Castries that he would assume command, although unofficially, and make decisions about the conduct of the battle. As far as the outside world was concerned, de Castries would continue to retain the appearance of command, and make communications with Hanoi. De Castries did not protest, and seemed to concur.

Langlais and Bigeard (Bruno) continued to have good relations with de Castries, visiting him in his quarters each evening, and exchanging information and pleasantries. Further, Langlais remained one of de Castries’ nighttime bridge partners.

Reorganization

Langlais now commanded the entire defense, with Lt. Col. Lemeunier his deputy. The fortress was redivided into a West Sector (Sous-secteur l’Quest,) and East Sector (Sous-secteur l’Est) divided by the Nam Youn River. Langlais directly commanded the East sector where strongpoints Dominque and Elaine were located. Lt. Col. Voinot took over the West Sector and used the old command post of Col. Trancart’s former Northern sector. Trancart was placed at de Castries’ disposal. Major Seguin-Pazzis retained command of GAP 2, which contained all parachute battalions.  Bruno became Langlais’ deputy for “intervention,” or rather counterattacks.

Viet Minh Trench Digging

The Viet Minh losses at Beatrice and Gabrielle were very high, and General Giap slowed down the attack sequence a bit. Siege tactics were more widely employed. To the west, trenches were dug from the Anne-Marie strongpoint, and then southward to Ban Ong Pet, and then to the southwest, all the way to the Nam Youn River near Ban Ten.

To the east, Viet Minh trenches surrounded Dominque and Eliane strongpoints, and tied into the river just south of the French perimeter. Isabelle now had a ring of trenchworks as well. These were about kilometer and a half away from French breastworks, and cut across Route 41 at Ban Nong Nhai. French movement of supplies and wounded between Isabelle and the main fortress became more difficult and hazardous.

From the larger ring of trenches, zig-zag approach saps were “creeping” in a radial direction toward French lines. The 80th OROM (Reconaissance Squadron or  Escadrille de reconnaissance d’Outre-mer) took daily aerial photographs of Dien Bien Phu. These were provided to Hanoi Headquarters, and dropped at Dien Bien Phu. The mosaic showed the ever tightening network that was beginning to strangle the French perimeter.

French Air Resupply Difficulties

Along with the trenches, Viet Minh anti-aircraft guns were closing in. The 37-mm guns were the main threat, with effective fire to 2600 meters altitude. But, many other guns such as the 12.7-mm DShK and some 20-mm guns were prevalent. The artillery, particularly on the west, had clear line-of-sight to the Dien Bien Phu airfield. Many aircraft had been destroyed there already.

Airfield landings at Dien Bien Phu and Isabelle were almost completely stopped, except for emergency evacuations, and even those were being fired at. Resupply by C-47s was completely done by parachute drop. With heavier enemy AA, the Hanoi Air Transport Commander, Col. Nicot increased the parachute drop altitudes from 770 meters to 1980 meters. This is still within range of the 37-mm guns, but was much safer. With higher altitude drops, the parachutes drifted more, and more supplies fell into Viet Minh hands.

The supply situation was worsening as a result, and the command was getting desperate. De Castries called in Bruno to plan a limited raid against Communist flak near Ban Ong Pet, about 2.5 km west of Claudine. (Whether this was de Castries’ or Hanoi’s initiative is not known.)

De Castries bantered: “My little Bruno, you will have to go out and get me that Viet flak out west.”

The attack was to occur the very next day, which gave Bruno little time to organize the attack forces, arrange artillery, and conduct briefings.

Bruno had a knack for coordinating forces. His radio skills were particularly good, with his knowledge of frequencies, and overcoming difficulties with static. He also cultivated good relations with all commanders to get their cooperation.

Radio callsigns were evidence of Bruno’s influence. They agreed to abandon standard radio call signs like Papa Cola, Golf Whisky, and Tango Zoulou. Instead, they used nicknames. Langlais was “le Gars Pierre,” Bigeard, “Bruno;”  Brechignac, “Breche;” Botella, “Dede;” and Tourret, “Pierrot D.” Standard radio procedures still applied: “Hello, Bigeard, this is Langlais” was said like so: “Bruno from Gars Pierre.”

Russian made AAMG

Bruno’s FlaK Raid

The Viet Minh were probably surprised by the attack, 28 March. The dawn raid was successful at taking out some 12.7-mm and 20-mm guns. The French paratroopers hit and then ran after destroying AA guns, and did not try to hold ground.

The CSVN scenario DBP#4 Bruno’s FlaK Raid simulates this battle. One new innovative feature used is variable objectives at Ban Ong Pet and Ban Ban. The French get credit for each turn they occupy the objective hexes, and don’t have to hold them to the game end to get the points.

Another feature, new to Campaign Series is the Event Engine, CSEE. In this scenario, the French get 200 event points for every 20-mm FlaK unit destroyed, and 100 points for 12.7-mm guns. The Viet Minh get 200 event points for killing or capturing BRUNO.

The first four turns are night, the rest day. This gives the French time to approach Viet Minh lines unseen. The M24 Chaffee tanks of the 3/1 RCC squadron also can play a role in the fight.

28 March 1954

[Dien Bien Phu][H2H][HIS][CSL]

Beatrice and Gabrielle fell, and the Thais abandoned Anne-Marie by 18 March. French supply problems turned from bad to worse, as artillery crowned all the heights around the valley, and Viet Minh 37mm  anti-aircraft guns now could fire directly onto the airfield. A crisis of command resulted in GONO reorganization. Col CdC knew the  fortress was going to die in logistical shambles, if they did not silence enemy AA fire. He tasked BRUNO, his “officier d’interventions,” to plan a raid to take out FlaK guns to the west of Claudine. Two parachute battalions, 6e BPC and 8e BPC would jump off at 0530, and attack toward Ban Ong Pet and Ban Ban. The 1st and 3rd tank platoons of the 1er RCC were in support. Plentiful artillery including twelve 105s fired a massive rolling barrage at 0600. Although the 6e BPC was pinned down at Ban Ong Pet, the tanks slammed into the Viet southern flank. By 1500, the melee was over and Viet troops were retreating in disorder. They left five 20mm Flak guns, a dozen DShK 12.7mm guns, and numerous other small arms laying in the field.

[ALL:N VV][CSEE & VAR OBJ]

Screenshot from DBP#4 Bruno's Flak Raid

Screenshot from DBP#4 Bruno’s Flak Raid

Roadblock at Ban Kho Lai

Slowly, the Viet Minh presence increased at Ban Kho Lai and Ban Nhong Nai on Route 41 between Isabelle and the main fortress. On 20 March, a French convoy suffered five dead and wounded in passing through. 2nd Lieutenant Alain Gambiez was wounded. He was the son of Gen. Gambiez, who was Navarre’s chief of staff.

Similarly on 21 March, Legionnaires had problems getting through, and it required two tank platoons to get through at 1655, instead of the usual midday passing.

De Castries decided to stay on the offensive as long as possible and attempt a major venture. A task force of 1BEP under Capt. Vieulles supported by a small detachment of grounded air force, and with tanks and Algerians from Isabelle, attempted to clear the Ban Kho Lai roadblock.

The Viet Minh 57th Regiment of the 304th Division defended the roadblock. On 22 March, the French attack began at 0730. Although smooth at first, the French soon encountered trenches that had not been seen previously. This caused them to request Algerians of the 2/1 RTA to attack from Isabelle.

The Viet Minh held onto the roadblock at all costs, but their losses were heavy. One company had only nine survivors. But, they inflicted high casualties on the French including 151 dead, 72 wounded, and one missing. This included three Foreign Legion paratroop lieutenants killed.

Breakthrough to Isabelle

The CSVN scenario DBP#5 Breakthrough to Isabelle simulates this battle of the roadblock at Ban Kho Lai. It is a typical “highway clearing” operation. The French get 6 airstrikes, Grumman F8F Bearcats, from the 1/22 Fighter Group “Saintonge.”

22 March 1954

[Dien Bien Phu][H2H][HIS][CSL]

As the Viet Minh began encircling Dien Bien Phu, more and more trenches appeared before French lines. Slowly, since 19 March, the roadblock at Ban Kho Lai and Ban Nong Nhai became tighter. Daily supply convoys between Isabelle and the main fortress had increasing trouble, hacking their way through Communist ambushes as they brought in wounded, and picked up supplies. On 20 March, the French convoy broke through with only a minor skirmish, but it cost five dead, two missing, and five wounded, including 2nd Lt AG, the son of General G, CEFEO chief of staff. So, a task force was formed to clear the way. The Foreign Legion 1e BEP would form the nucleus, with Capt V leading. Tanks of the 3/1 RCC squadron would join in the foray. After aircraft of the 1/22 Saintonge squadron were grounded, flight and mechanic crews formed an infantry detachment, which joined the effort. The mop-up operation began at 0730, 22 March in a heavy fog. At first, it proceeded smoothly, but as leading elements approached Ban Kho Lai, the strangulation tactics, and trench networks employed by the Viet Minh 57th Regiment became more apparent. The 2/1 RTA, (Algerian Rifles) stationed at  Isabelle were called to join the attack, along with the 3rd tank platoon also stationed there. The Viets fought to the last ditch, but a breakthrough finally succeeded at 1200.

[CSEE][NO VAR OBJ][ALL: NO VV]

Screenshot of DBP#5 Breakthrough to Isabelle

Screenshot of DBP#5 Breakthrough to Isabelle

Campaign Series Vietnam | Bruno's Bunker

“Bruno” Explains

Bruno’s Bunker #8 – Initial Viet Minh Assaults

Campaign Series Vietnam | Bruno's Bunker

David Galster’s Bruno’s Bunker series of articles explain the evolution of the struggle in Indochina from a French and Viet-Minh perspective. Find out what happened prior the US involvement in Vietnam and how you can experience it while playing a range of upcoming CS Vietnam scenarios.

Mes compagnons d’armes,

The first phase of the Viet Minh siege of Dien Bien Phu were assaults on strongpoints Beatrice and Gabrielle. These two northern outposts quickly fell, giving the Viet Minh even better line of sight to the airfield. Thus, the French supply crisis began. This article covers events leading up to these battles, and the CSVN scenarios about them.

Sorties

In November 1953, French forces assembled at Dien Bien Phu, and began two tasks. First, they began building strongpoints as best they could with limited construction materials. The 17th Airborne Engineers set brush fires to remove vegetation, and dismantled village buildings in order to provide the meager protection for the strongpoints. These were given French girl names: Anne-Marie, Beatrice, Claudine, Dominque, Eliane, Francois, Gabrielle, Huguette, and Isabelle.

The second task was to launch sorties, penetrating deep into the jungle to contact French-led guerrilla tribesmen of the GCMA. Paratroopers of Captain Pierre Tourret’s 8BPC hacked forward to Muong Pon toward Lai Chau.

Meanwhile, Major Jean Souquet led 1BPC troops northward along Route 41 toward Tuan Giao. When they got north of Bin Ham Lam, (later strongpoint Beatrice,) they suddenly encountered a Viet Minh ambush.

These French sorties continued throughout early winter 1954, but gradually grew shorter and smaller, as Viet Minh forces gathered to surround Dien Bien Phu.

Operation Pollux

Lai Chau was a French base 96 km north of Dien Bien Phu. It was endangered by Viet Minh, and in November 1953, the French command decided to evacuate the Partisan forces there, and bring them to Dien Bien Phu. This evacuation, known as Operation Pollux, relocated the 1st T’ai Partisan Mobile Group.

The VM 148th Regiment harassed them on the trek south, but II/1 RCP went north to link up with the Partisans. The commander at Lai Chau, Lt. Col. Trancart joined the complex at Dien Bien Phu, and became the Northern Sub-Sector commander.

Viet Minh Preparations

The Communist Central Committee decided the time was right to fight a major conventional battle, and General Giap began planningat the headquarters in Tuan Giao. Artillery was a major part of this. Having obtained large numbers of howitzers from the Chinese, the problem was how to get them to Dien Bien Phu. As discussed previously, the cannons were dragged into position by massive porter crews. They were placed in fortified casemates cut into mountainsides, and camouflaged.

The estimated artillery was 48 105mm howitzers, 48 75mm pack howitzers or mountain guns, a similar number of 120mm mortars, and 36 anti-aircraft guns of 37mm caliber. The 351st Heavy Division was created to command these assets. French intelligence was unaware of this, or at least of the numbers present at Dien Bien Phu.

Further, no French thought was given to the possibility that Viet Minh guns would be protected in reinforced enclosures. Indeed Colonel Charles Piroth, the Dien Bien Phu artillery commander said:  “Mon general, no Viet Minh cannon will be able to fire three rounds before being destroyed by my artillery.”

Supplies and troops were moved along the Routes 41 and 13, through Tuan Giao, simultaneously being built in the early winter months of 1954. French air forces of GATAC Nord attempted to interdict communist supply routes. But, the 367 air sorties during this period were inadequate to stop the flow of communist supplies. Years later, General Giap explained: “We did construct our supply roads; our soldiers knew well the art of camouflage, and we succeeded in getting supplies through.”

Only weeks after French paratroopers landed in Dien Bien Phu, General Giap began assembling forces to surround the fortress. Five divisions would eventually surround the French: 304, 308, 312, and 316 Infantry Divisions, along with the 351st Heavy Division. By the end of January 1954, French forces were completely surrounded, with no way to get supplies or troops in except by air.

By the opening of main assault on 13 March 1954, the Viet Minh had 49000 combatants with 31500 logistics personnel. The French had 10814 troops at that point. Of these, 2575 were tribal T’ai. During the course of the siege from 13 March to 6 May, 4291 airborne reinforcements parachuted in.

The French started with 24 105mm and four 155mm howitzers,  along with  30 120mm mortars. This is less than half Viet Minh strength, considering VM 75mm guns.

DBP Situation Map

Loss of Beatrice

In the weeks before 13 March 1953, the airfield had already been under Viet Minh fire by 75mm guns. In this period almost a dozen aircraft had been damaged or destroyed. Even one of the C-119 “Flying Boxcars” was shot to pieces. Each time, shells tore holes in the runway steel plates. Engineer welding crews had make repairs in full enemy view, potentially exposed to fire. This aspect of the battle is not simulated well, other than to provide no airstrikes during the attack on Beatrice.

Two news reporters flew in on the last C-47 to land safely. They visited the officers mess, and were briefed on the coming battle by a Foreign Legion officer. He informed them that: “The curtain raiser already has begun. Giap’s boys are giving their best cards: 81-mm mortars, 120-mm mortars, 105-mm howitzers, the whole works. Its going to be like Na San, only ten times bigger.”

After the small talk, the two reporters went back to the airfield to observe the shelling first hand. While photographing a burning Dakota, they were both hit with shells. One of them was killed, and the other lost his foot, but was evacuated by an ambulance aircraft under fire.

In the days leading to the assault, Beatrice was becoming more tightly surrounded. It required a battalion reinforced with two tank platoons to break through from the main camp to get drinking water to the Legionnaires at Beatrice. Major Jean Chanel’s 2BT opened the road in hand to hand combat, only after napalm had been dropped by French fighter planes.

After the road was reopened, Lt. Col Gaucher, commander of the Central Sub Sector drove his jeep to Beatrice. He met with Major Pegot, who informed him that his men were tired and nervous.

The Legionnaires on Beatrice were of the 3/13 DBLE or 3e Bataillon, 13e Demi-Brigade de Legion Etrangere. This legendary unit was considered one the best at Dien Bien Phu, and made a heroic last-ditch stand at Bir Hakeim in North Africa in WWII.

One survivor, Sgt. Kubiak related his thoughts before the battle: “I was flabbergasted, but nonetheless it seems that the nerves of the lieutenant hold up less well than mine. He simply announces the Viets attack tonight at 1700! Indeed we would have to consider as crazy the Viets who would have the idea to try and dislodge us from our Hill Beatrice, well fortified and defended by a whole Foreign Legion battalion. . .”

But Kubiak says further: “We are all surprised and ask ourselves how the Viets have been able to find so many guns capable of producing an artillery fire of such power. Shells rained down on us without stopping like a hailstorm on a fall evening. Bunker after bunker, trench after trench, collapsed, burying under them men and weapons.”

FFL Batch

Indeed the Viet Minh had 105 and 75mm guns pointing directly at Beatrice and in daylight, could direct fire.This was planned by General Giap as his artillerymen were not as experienced at the methods of plotting and bracketing indirect fire. This is reflected in the CSVN scenario. Further, Viet Minh guns are placed in bunkers to withstand counterbattery fire, as was done in the real battle.

The real bunkers at Beatrice were not built to withstand 105mm shells, as was discussed previously. In the CSVN game, Beatrice has one bunker hex for the command post location, and other five are represented as trenches. This seems to simulate the results of 105mm artillery fire on troops as occurred during the real battle.

The the Beatrice battle opening salvos are dramatically described by Lt. Col. Pierre Langlais, commander of GAP2:

“At 1715, I was taking my shower behind a weaved rush mat held up by four bamboos, when distant thunder immediately followed by deafening explosions of 105 mm . . . As I was getting dressed, Lieutenants Legrand and Roy and Captain de Verdelhan came running in. While it rained earth on my shoulders, I listened to the continuous din of incomings”.

“I went towards my field phones. The two lines to the forward positions were dead. No doubt the unburied wires had been shredded to bits. My third field phone linked me to the group’s CP. I immediately got an HQ Officer. Major  de  Pazzis  was temporarily at the disposal of Colonel de Castries and that the Beatrice outpost that was held by a battalion of the Foreign Legion, had already been whittled down by violent attacks of  the enemy. Major Pegot had just gotten killed in his CP by a direct artillery hit and his radio had gone dead.”

Langlais continues: “The phone rings, I recognized the voice of Colonel de Castries.

‘Is that you Langlais? Gaucher just got killed with all his HQ staff in his shelter, except for Vadot. You take over his job as Commander of Sub-central sector.’ . . .”

Indeed the Vit Minh began heavy shelling around 1700, with perhaps some daylight left, and the the 141 and 209th Regiments of the 312st Infantry Division began attacks on the position they called “Him Lam” by 1815. It was at 1830 that artillery shells penetrated the command bunker and killed Major Pegot and his whole staff. Gaucher managed to contact individual companies. But, he was also killed by artillery sometime after 2030.

Requests for artillery fire were responded to by French and African gun crews of the II/4 and III/10 Colonial Artillery. They raced to their pieces, in open gun pits, under heavy bombardment. Enemy counterbattery fire took a heavy toll, and two 105-mm howitzers were knocked out, and crew members wounded.

By 2030, all barbed wire entanglements were breached. Although the attackers took heavy losses, wave after wave charged into the strongpoint. By 2100, the French 11th Company was fighting desperately to keep control of the command bunker. 9th Company managed to hang on under Sgt Kubiak, but at 0014 14 March, their radio went off the air. At 0200, Kubiak and remnants of the battalion abandoned Beatrice, and hid for the night in a nearby jungle.

Scenario Description DBP#2 Loss of Beatrice

[Dien Bien Phu][H2H][HIS][CSL][All:NO VV] The French established Dien Bien Phu as a “base aero-terrestre” to invite attack on an “impregnable” fortress to destroy a large Viet Minh force in a decisive battle. But, during the time between the parachute landing 20 November 1953 and early March 1954, the Viet Minh brought in four divisions to surrounded French forces, and massed the artillery of Heavy Division 351. Viet Minh 105mm and 75mm howtizers were placed in solid casemates positioned on slopes, overlooking the valley, with direct line of sight to French defensive targets. The first Viet Minh objective of the siege was to overrun strongpoint Beatrice. (Vietnamese called it “Him Lam.”) The best French troops available, Foreign Legion 3rd Battalion, 13th Demi-brigade defended Beatrice. Two Viet Minh infantry regiments, the 141st and 209th assembled for the attack in the afternoon of 13 March 1954. At 1700, artillery opened fire on Beatrice. Shelling killed the French battalion commander and the Colonel commanding Groupe Mobile 9. At dark, Viet Minh infantry began assaults. Their losses were high as French infantry poured fire into the attackers. But, the Viet Minh cut through barbed wire entanglements, and continued firing and attacking. As Vietnamese soldiers fell, more kept coming. They completely surrounded the strongpoint and entered the northeast defenses. Attacks continued, and at 2230 they had completely annihilated the center. By midnight, the last French radio message requested artillery fire directly on the command post. Only 100-odd French survivors managed to escape into a nearby jungle for the remainder of the night.

Screenshot of DBP#2 Loss of Beatrice

Screenshot of DBP#2 Loss of Beatrice

DBP#3 Gabrielle Overrun

After Beatrice fell, everyone believed Gabrielle would be next. This thought influenced de Castries’ decision not to counterattack at Beatrice. And, with the expenditure of 6000 artillery rounds the night before,  French ammunition stocks were lowered by one fourth. Since the airfield came under constant fire, and heavy clouds loomed over the valley, aircraft landings were at a standstill.

Instead, de Castries requested another paratrooper battalion, and at 1445 on 14 March waves of the 5BPVN parachuted in at the three dropzones, Natasha, Simone, and Octavie.  This dispersion helped confuse Viet Minh flak, but artillery was effective at covering the landing areas, particularly Natasha, where the 1st and HQ Companies landed.

By 1800, the exhausted Vietnamese paratroopers assembled on Eliane strongpoints. Some of them had marched 16 km while under artillery fire.

Gabrielle was defended by the 5/7 RTA or 5e Bataillon du 7e Regiment de Tirailleurs Algeriens. Major Roland de Mecquenem briefed his replacement, Major Kah, and they methodically inspected all the troops and positions.

Gabrielle was the most well constructed strongpoint at Dien Bien Phu. In fact, it had won an inter-strongpoint competition initiated by de Castries, and judged by a team of outside officers. It was the only strongpoint with two lines of defenses.

The Viet Minh had to move some of their artillery from positions around Beatrice to Gabrielle. Rainfall slowed this process down. As a result, the artillery barrage began at dark on 14 March, but there was a pause at 0230 15 March. But at 0330, it resumed when two additional batteries began firing from the northeast.

General Giap was concerned about losses. He did not want to suffer losses as had happened at Beatrice. Regiments 88 and 102 of the 308 Division made the initial attack, but were reinforced at dawn by two more regiments.

Scenario Description DBP#3 Gabrielle Overrun

[Dien Bien Phu][H2H[HIS][CSL][ALL:NO VV]

The Gabrielle strongpoint was the second Viet Minh objective, after capturing Beatrice, in the Dien Bien Phu Campaign. On 14 March 1954, the Algerian defenders nervously went about their routines, knowing an attack was coming. They had high espirit de corps, however. The 5/7 RTA Battalion was awarded “best strongpoint,” for their construction of Gabrielle, with two defensive lines, and mortars well dug in, and registered on likely targets. Major Rd’M set aside a special bottles of champagne to drink after “. . . the Viets are clobbered.”  But, the Viet Minh was busy moving artillery from previous positions around Beatrice, to focus direct fire on the northernmost strongpoint, they called “Doc Lap.” Heavy rain caused delays, however, and the bombardment did not start before dark. The 88th and 102nd Infantry Regiments of the “Quan Tien Phong” (Vanguard) Division moved into position. At 1800, just after dark on 14 March, Viet Minh artillery opened fire. As 75mm and 105mm howitzers and 120mm mortars got into position, the bombardment gradually increased. By 2000, the 4th Company heavy weapons bunkers collapsed, and by 2200, the company command post was destroyed. Gabrielle’s bunkers were stoutly built, but few fortifications could withstand the amount fire deployed.  Slowly, Viet Minh infiltrated the Algerian 4th Company position on Gabrielle’s northeast corner. At midnight, Major Rd’M and his successor, Major K decided to counterattack to recover the 4th Company redoubt. A Thai mountain platoon of the 416th CSM fought its way forward, and closed the breach. Meanwhile, the French 105mm and 155mm artillery fire devastated Viet Minh attackers all around the strongpoint. At 0230 15 March, Viet Minh shelling paused. The infantry attack stopped as well. Gabrielle had already lasted longer than Beatrice, and it seemed to the French they might prevail. But at 0330, the barrage resumed, with additional batteries firing from the northeast. All out Viet Minh assaults restarted as well. At 0430 the 5/7 RTA battalion command post was hit and both Major Rd’M and Major K were wounded, leaving Gabrielle leaderless. Heavy mortars of the 2nd Foreign Legion Mixed Company were now disabled. Colonel CdC and LtCol PL organized a “Force d’Intervention” composed 5th Vietnamese Parachute battalion, the 3rd and 4th Foreign Legion companies of 1BEP, and two Chaffee tank platoons of the 3/1 RCC squadron. These would finally depart the airstrip and head north at 0600. They encountered a block on the Pavie track at Ban Ke Pha, and when daylight broke, they faced intense artillery fire and a Viet Minh battalion. At 0730, the French situation was hopeless. Remnants of the 2nd and 3rd companies were able to escape, and join the relief forces as they retreated south to the main French defense complex.

2D Screenshot of Gabrielle Overrun, with futile relief force attempt

2D Screenshot of Gabrielle Overrun, with futile relief force attempt

Aftermath

The Gabrielle relief force was unsuccessful, but did help some of the 5/7 RTA battalion escape. The Vietnamese paratroopers were probably not in top form, because they had parachuted into hot drop zones the day before, and had to hike many kilometers to get into the fortress perimeter.

Early morning of 15 March, the otherwise jovial Colonel Piroth had become despondent over the failure of his artillery to silence Viet Minh guns. With tears in his eyes, he lamented to Col. Trancart: “I am completely dishonored. I have guaranteed de Castries that the enemy artillery couldn’t touch us – but now we are going to lose the battle.” He committed suicide shortly after.

On 16 March, Major Marcel Bigeard – BRUNO, and his 6BPC parachuted in at DZ Octavie. This was 613 men, of which 332 were Vietnamese. Additionally, ammunition and supplies were now being parachute dropped rather than landed and offloaded at the airfield.

The last northern strongpoint, Anne-Marie was defended by T’ai mountaineers of the 3BT. (3e Bataillon T’ai) But 17 March, the artillery officer at Anne-Marie 2 reported: “The T’ai are getting the hell out of here.” Indeed they had began slipping through the barbed wire and headed for the mountains to the west. French officers, NCOs, and few faithful T’ai could not persuade them otherwise. Anne-Marie was abandoned.

Leaflets found in trenches revealed that the Communists had propagandized them with the help of civilian channels. The villages surrounding these positions had not been fully evacuated. Daily, women from partisan units, mobile field bordellos, and Meo tribesmen mingled at the markets of Ban Co My or Ban Loi. They met other tribesmen from Communist areas, that brought propaganda with them.

T’ai troops had been recruited from faraway Son-La and Nhia Lo, and already their families were in Communist hands. The area they were fighting in was not in their tribal jurisdiction. They considered it no longer their fight.

General Marcel Bigeard - "Bruno"

General Marcel Bigeard – “Bruno”

 

Bruno’s Bunker #7 – Bruno arrives

Campaign Series Vietnam | Bruno's Bunker

David Galster’s Bruno’s Bunker series of articles explain the evolution of the struggle in Indochina from a French and Viet-Minh perspective. Find out what happened prior the US involvement in Vietnam and how you can experience it while playing a range of upcoming CS Vietnam scenarios.

Mes compagnons d’armes,

This series covers the ten CSVN scenarios about Dien Bien Phu. The articles will cover additional information, that is not simulated in the scenarios, such as parachuting supplies from high altitudes, or desertion and where to house deserters, or the unending Viet Minh trench digging. I hope this provides CS Legion readers with a preview of CSVN scenarios dealing Dien Bien Phu, coupled with a greater understanding of that campaign.

Operation Castor

In 1954, French forces in Indochina attempted to follow the “Navarre Plan.” They found themselves facing two options, either attack Viet Minh bases in the Tuyen Quang and Thai Nguyen “redoubt,” or place troops astride the Laos invasion route. Staying true to his credo: “Always keep the initiative,” and “always on the offensive,” Navarre chose to defend Laos. In addition, Navarre sought a major decisive battle in which he could defeat the Viet Minh.

The initial parachute landings on Dien Bien Phu were called “Operation Castor.” Colonel Christian de Castries was the commander of GONO, (Groupe d’Operation Nord-Ouest) and at Dien Bien Phu. Likely, it was de Castries who chose the name, “Castor.”

Castor was a Greek mythological warrior hero, and twin brother of Pollux. They were sons of Jupiter and Leda. Through Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey, Castor became known for skill in horsemanship, and Pollux, for pugilism. (Operation Pollux was the evacuation of Lai Chau.)

You might wonder what branch was Colonel de Castries was from. He was a cavalryman. Castor – De Castries – cavalryman . . .  Coincidence?

Although raised in an aristocratic family, de Castries enlisted with the French Army as a cavalryman in 1922. After rising through the ranks to sergeant, he attended the Saumur Cavalry school as an officer candidate. He later excelled on the French International Riding Team.

In 1940, his commando troop operated behind German lines, and he was captured. Ultimately, he escaped from camp Oflag IV-D, and made his way through southern France into Spain, and finally Africa, where he linked up with Free French Forces. In 1944-45, de Castries commanded an armored squadron in Southern France.

After WWII, de Castries served at the War College in Paris, and was promoted to lieutenant colonel. General de Lattre was impressed, and requested de Castries for command in Indochina in 1951.

Later, Navarre promoted de Castries to colonel and assigned him the command of GONO, and the the Dien Bien Phu “base aero-terestre.” He put his faith in de Castries for success in the coming “major decisive battle.”

Base Aero-terrestre Concept

The base aero-terrestre is a remote base, with heavy fortifications. It has an airfield for resupply and reinforcements. The central core is heavily fortified, has abundant artillery, and is connected to the airfield, or even surrounding it. Strongpoints are placed around the core. They are heavily fortified with bunkers, and surrounded by barbed wire and mines. Finally, they are manned with infantry, heavy machine guns, mortars, and recoilless rifles. Between the strongpoints, there are open spaces, or rather “kill zones.” Here fighter-bombers and artillery barrages slaughter enemy attackers.

The idea is that attacking enemy would be “mown down” in the “kill zones” and would not even be able to close-assault the strongpoints. As long as the airfield were intact, the base aero-terrestre can replenish its supplies and ammo. And, it could fly out wounded, and bring in reinforcements.

This idea evolved from French success at Na San. This November 1952 battle first tested the fortified airbase, also known as a “hedgehog.” General Raoul Salan fortified the outpost and airstrip. It was supplied via C-47 Dakotas flying from Hanoi, and a garrison placed there. He thought that well-defended outposts, resupplied by air would invite Viet Minh attack, forcing them into conventional attacks.

General Giap reversed his previous avoidance of Na San, and planned an attack using the 308th Division and the independent 88th Regiment. The attack began on 23 November. With ten dug-in French infantry battalions, plus artillery and close air support, Colonel Gilles’ forces shattered two regiments of the 308th Division. After 7000 casualties, General Giap withdrew on 2 December.

General Navarre adopted the base-aero terrestre concept, and decided to use it at Dien Bien Phu, to defend Laos, and make the upland stronghold an attractive bait for Giap to commit his elite divisions. Navarre asserted that with such powerful forces, and so strong a defence system, Dien Bien Phu was “an impregnable fortress…”

Natasha

At 0500, a C-47 transport plane, crammed with radio communication equipment and meteorological instruments, took off from Hanoi’s military airfield at Bach-Mai, and flew 300 km to observe conditions over the Dien Bien Phu valley. Visibility was poor with dry fog, but Brig. Gen Dechaux looked out the window, and then conferred with his weather officer. He remembered General Bodet’s words: ” . . . if the weather is too unfavorable, Dien Bien Phu will never take place.” But, Dechaux got up and went to the radio operator, who then transmitted a direct message to Hanoi Headquarters.

The message reached General Rene Cogny, commander of French forces in North Vietnam. It was immediately relayed to the Transport Air Commander waiting at Bach-Mai with a fleet of transport aircraft waiting to take off. At 0720, 20 November 1953, Operation Castor had begun.

The three transport groups, 1/64 “Bearn,” 2/64 “Anjou,” and 2/63 “Senegal” managed to scrap together 55 crews for the C-47 transports, and ten for the C-119 “Flying Boxcars.” And, this may have been the first airborne mission in history with three generals and pathfinders flying together in the leading aircraft. Lt. Gen. Pierre Bodet, French Air Force; Deputy C-in-C Brig. Gen. Jean Dechaux, and Airborne Commander Brig. Gen. Jean Gilles dropped in with two parachute battalions: 6th BPC (Colonial Parachute Battalion,) and II/1 RCP (2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment Parachute Light Infantry.)

These battalions, 6BPC under Major Marcel Bigeard (Bruno,) and  II/1 RCP led by Major Jean Brechignac, were the first airdrop phase of the operation. The 1st BPC would drop later that day. These three parachute battalions formed GAP 1 (Groupement Aeroporte 1,) which was commanded by Lt. Col. Fourcade. In subsequent days, GAP 2 landed. Lt. Col. Pierre Langlais commanded this group which consisted of 1st BEP (Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion,) 8th BPC, and 5th BPVN (Vietnamese Parachute Battalion.)

The initial drop is the basis for the CSVN scenario DBP#1 Bruno Arrives. 6BPC landed in drop zone “Natasha,” which is just west of an old Japanese airfield north of the village of Muong Thanh. The II/1 RCP dropped on DZ “Simone” to the south, and subsequent heavy equipment dropped on DZ “Octavie,” to the southwest.

The name Dien Bien Phu means “Seat of the Border County Prefecture.” It actually designates the Tai village by the name of Muong Thanh. The Nam Yum river runs through the low valley, which is flanked by high mountains to the west and east. Route 41 runs from the south, and then northeast, and ultimately leads to Tuan Giao, a Viet Minh stronghold. Another road, Pavie Track, leads north to Lai Chau. It was at best a narrow dirt path, where even jeeps could not go in many places.

CSVN Scenario DBP#1 Bruno Arrives

This scenario covers the initial parachute drop of 6BPC and II/1 RCP on 20 November 1953. The Viet Minh 148th Independent Regiment was headquartered there, and operated a training camp. At the time, its 910th Battalion was in the valley, and French intelligence knew this. But, they did not know that the Heavy Weapons Company 226 of Battalion 920 remained there with mortars and heavy machine guns. It was joined by a combat support company of the 675th  Artillery Regiment. This outfit had 120mm mortars and recoillless rifles.

The French managed to land, capture the airfield, and with the help of the II/1 RCP battalion, finally flushed the Viet Minh out of Muong Thanh, and assumed control of the valley.

Operation Castor

CSVN Scenario Description

[Dien Bien Phu][H2H[HIS][CSL][ALL: NO VV] General Henri Navarre, commander of CEFEO decided to occupy Dien Bien Phu. He wanted to place troops astride the Laos invasion route, and seek a major battle, using the “base aero-terrestre” as bait. On the morning of 20 November, 1953 French paratroopers of the 6e Bataillon de Parachutistes  Coloniaux (6e BPC) and the 2nd Battalion of the 1er Regiment de  Chasseurs Parachutistes (II/1er RCP) landed on dropzones Natasha and Simone. Operation Castor’s initial objective was to secure the old Japanese airfield. With 65 C-47 Dakota transports, and  twelve C-119 “Flying Boxcars,” it still required two trips to get the lead elements into the valley, in the largest paradrop since WWII. The 6e BPC battalion, led by the daring Maj. MB, (callsign “Bruno,”) quickly assembled, and then secured DZ Natasha, while the II/ 1 RCP battalion ran into a difficulties as they were largely misdropped, and spread over a wide area. In addition, its mission to protect the Headquarters of Groupement Aeroporte 1 (GAP 1) slowed down efforts to join the attack. Poor radio  communications with the other units, and aircraft added to overall ineffectiveness. 6 BPC collided with the Viet Minh 910th Battalion, 148th Regiment, which had been conducting field exercises with batteries of the 675th Heavy Regiment and 226th Combat Support company. Fighting persisted until afternoon, when the Viet Minh eventually withdrew southward, hiding in heavily overgrown terrain along the Nam Youn River.

Overview Screenshot of DBP#1 Bruno Arrives

 

Zoom In Screenshot of Battlefield

Zoom In Screenshot of Battlefield

 

Transformation

With the landing of 4650 French troops, and the Viet Minh vacated, the work of transforming the sleepy river village into an “impregnable fortress” had just begun. Col. de Castries arrived by transport aircraft a couple of weeks later, (He was not parachute qualified,) as the engineers had finally refurished the 2000 meter airstrip with PSP, pierced steel plates.

The 31st Engineers played a major role in construction. One task was to build bridges capable of supporting the tanks of the 3rd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment. However, Major Sudrat warned of a virtually insolvable problem.

Col. de Castries ordered all strongpoints to be capable of withstanding 105mm shells. This meant two layers of wooden beams or logs covered by a meter of closely packed earth, and topped by sandbags.  To protect one infantry squad, 30 tons of material were needed. A combat bunker for one machine gun required twelve tons. Sudrat estimated that to protect all Dien Bien Phu strongpoints, and two artillery battalions, they needed 36000 tons of materials.

This would require 12000 flights of C-47 transports. With 80 transports daily, devoted only to construction materials, they would need five months. Sudrat warned that this would be insufficient, but his calculations were ridiculed by de Castries’ staff. Local materials would have to suffice, and many village huts were torn down, and the lumber hauled to strongpoints.

The tanks were disassembled in Hanoi and transported to Dien Bien Phu in pieces. The company reassembled them on site.

Viet Minh Preparations

General Giap began planning an attack on Dien Bien Phu. His main effort was building two roads for supply, one from Phu Tho, 225 km away, and the other to Thanh Hoa, 340 km away. Thousands of workers, called Dan Cong, were conscripted to build these roads.

The Viet Minh also formed supply battalions with tens of thousands of pack-bicycles and wheelbarrows, thousands of craft, and convoys of donkeys and horses. An estimated 15000 personnel were involved.

Finally, they moved artillery pieces up steep jungle roads, and set them into concealed bunkers, cut into the sides of the hills. These crews sometimes disassembled the cannons, hauled them in place in pieces, and then reassembled them in the final positions.

References

“Hell in a Small Place,” Bernard Fall

“Dien Bien Phu,” Vo Nguyen Giap

“Dien Bien Phu,” Pierre Langlais

“Ordre de Bataille de Diên Biên Phu,” WikiMonde

“Dien Bien Phu Order of Battle,” Wikipedia

“Bruno’s Bunker #6 – Dien Bien Phu,” David Galster

Campaign Series Vietnam | Bruno's Bunker

General Marcel Bigeard – “Bruno”