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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
General Marcel Bigeard – “Bruno”