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,
Did you know what Chinese advice General Giap rejected? Well, unfortunately for the French, he rejected using the “Human Wave” tactic. Instead, Viet Minh dug trench approaches, to get troops closer to strongpoints, before their final assaults. This article is a primer on the battle of Dien Bien Phu. I hope it provides several interesting “points of departure,” that you might later encounter, or want to read about further.
Strategic Situation 1953 – 54
The Navarre plan called for strategic defensive in the north, offensive in the south.
However, General Giap understood the French “contradictions.” In fact, a copy of the Navarre Plan was given to Ho Chi Minh by the Chinese, who had gotten it from the Soviet KGB. The contradictions were in Giaps words: “. . .The contradiction between concentration of forces and occupation of territory; the contradiction between the buildup of a large-scale mobile force, and the scattering of his forces to various regions; between the strategic offensive and strategic defensive.”
Attempting to scatter French forces, the Viet Minh made diversionary thrusts into Laos. In April 1953, the 316th Division moved into Laos, overwhelmed the Sam Neua garrison, and pursued fleeing defenders towards the Plain of Jars. At the same time, the 148th Independent Regiment moved toward Luang Prabang, and advanced within a few kilometres, before French forces stabilised the defensive line. These actions forced the French to deploy Groupe Mobiles in reaction, and scattering their forces. It disrupted the Navarre Plan for 1953-54.
This forced the French into 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 spite of entreaties by General Rene Cogny, able commander of the Red River Delta, Navarre insisted on the Laos option. Operation Castor would proceed. The idea was to make the upland stronghold an attractive bait for Giap to commit his elite divisions .
Colonel Christian de Castries, commander of Groupe d’Opération Nord-Ouest, (GONO) led Operation Castor, which began 20 November 1953 with an air drop of three parachute battalions in the Dien Bien Phu valley. This area was picked because of its strategic location along routes to Laos, and it seemed, to the French at least, to be a good defensive position. The valley was 16 kilometers long and 10 kilometers wide, and surrounded a ring of low, but rugged hills. The Japanese had built a good airfield there.
Operation Castor was never conceived as a “large-scale airborne raid.” From the start, the mission was to become a “meat-grinder,” using “base aero-terrestre” tactic that worked at Na San. The French hoped the main Communist battle force would venture far from the vital Red River Delta, while the French Command could concentrate remaining forces on mop-up operations in the delta.
“Fortress” Dien Bien Phu would ultimately be defended by 12000 men, including seven parachute battalions, three North African battalions, two Thai and one Vietnamese battalion. Combat support was comprised of an engineer battalion, truck company, ten light tanks, two 75-mm and 105-mm artillery groups, and four 155-mm howitzers. Concrete fortifications and strongpoints were constructed. These strongpoints were: Anne-Marie, (Ban Keo;) Beatrice, (Him Lam;) Claudine; Dominique; Eliane; Francoise; Gabrielle, (Doc Lap;) Huguette; and Isabelle, (Hong Cum.)
Logistics was one problem for the bastion. C-47 and C-119 planes had to supply at least 200 tons daily from Gia Lam and Cat Bi airbases, 300 km away. Reconnaissance planes and fighters of the permanent squadron constantly flew over the entire region strafing and bombing. But despite the logistics problem, Navarre asserted that with such powerful forces, and so strong a defence system, Dien Bien Phu was “an impregnable fortress…”
Faulty French Intelligence Estimates
Viet Minh available artillery was estimated by French intelligence to be 40 to 60 medium howitzers. But in reality, they had up to 350 guns including Soviet rocket launchers. And, French never thought these guns could be brought to the battle in large numbers, and sited in the hills surrounding Dien Bien Phu.
In addition, the French did not think that the Viet Minh could supply a force large enough to capture Dien Bien Phu. Even though they were soon surrounded, the French didn’t think it could become a formidable force. As General Giap wrote about Navarre: ” . . . His greater mistake was that with the conception of a “bourgeois” strategist, he could not visualize the immense possibilities of a people’s army, and the entire people who were fighting for independence and peace; it was still more difficult for him to realize the evolution and remarkable progresses of our people and our army, understand and appreciate the great possibilities of an indomitable fighting spirit of a people’s army which was determined to fight and to win.”
Since his spring 1953 attacks in northern Laos, Giap retained four divisions in the Thai highlands and the northern part of central Vietnam, equidistant between the Red River Delta and Luang Prabang. Throughout the 1953 rainy season, Giap successfully avoided engaging his main force, while Navarre vainly sought to disrupt the Communist timetable.
In December, Giap was ready. The 101st and 66th Regiments drove across the Annamite moun Thain chain. They pressed against French Groupe Mobile 2, (GM-2) which had been hurriedly sent out of Hue to meet the new threat.
Once more, Navarre had to disperse his already thinly stretched reserves. Along the tried pattern of Na San, the Plaine des Jarres, and Dien Bien Phu, another fortified airhead was hurriedly created around Seno, and a separate Middle Laos Operational Groupment ( GOML) activated on Christmas Day 1953. This involved three parachute battalions from the general reserve, part of GM-2, and all of GM-1. A few days later, GM-51, plus assorted air and supply components joined this force. They were concentrated 640 km away from major battlefronts of the Red River Delta, and Dien Bien Phu.
On 25 December 1953, the Communists reached the Thai border at Thakhek on the Mekong, the overland lifeline to northern Laos was severed, and Indochina cut in two. In the meantime, Viet Minh Regiment 66 cut across the moun Thains, and one by one crushed a smaller French post strung out along the road from Vietnam to Seno.
In northern Laos, situation became worse. The entire 316th Division took the airfield at Lai Chau, 88 km north of Dien Bien Phu, and then marched toward Luang Prabang. On 13 February 1954, Navarre airlifted another five battalions, including a parachute battalion, into Luang Prabang, thus further dispersing his forces.
Giap thus had succeeded in forcing Navarre to throw his painfully gathered mobile reserve into the four corners of Indochina in pursuit of a “single-battle decision,” that was definitely not the goals of the Navarre Plan.
If that wasn’t enough, Navarre launched the Atlante Plan on 20 January 1954 against Tuy Hoa, a stretch of coast in central Vietnam. The objective was to seek out Viet Minh forces in the highlands. They found no Viet Minh regulars, (who were diverted north,) and instead were harrassed by guerrillas.
Viet Minh Dien Bien Phu Offensive Preparations
From a cave complex near Tuan Giao, (50 km NE DBP,) General Giap conducted a series of meetings with Ho Chi Minh and his staff. The Chinese provided 70 advisors, the “South China Sea Action Group.” They suggested using one massive “Human Wave” attack to take Dien Bien Phu quickly. They based this on their successes in Korea. However, after due deliberations with his men, Gen Giap rejected this advice and decided on a siege campaign, to strike surely and advance cautiously. In his own words, “we strictly followed this fundamental principle of the conduct of a revolutionary war: strike to win, strike only when success is certain; if it is not, then don’t strike.”
The attack approach would not be one single human wave, but would be a siege campaign. In Giap’s words: “We no longer conceived the Dien Bien Phu campaign as a large-scale siege battle, which took place unremittingly in a short period of time, but a campaign in which a series of siege battles, having the character of positional warfare, were fought in a rather long time. In this campaign, we would have absolute superiority in number to destroy the enemy, sector by sector, till the fall of the entrenched camp.”
For the Dien Bien Phu campaign, Giap selected the following forces: 304th, 308th, 312th, and 316th Infantry Divisions, plus the 148th Independent Infantry Regiment. In addition, the 351st Heavy Division would play a critical role. This was an adaptation of a World War II Soviet organization and was comprised of one engineer, one heavy mortar, two artillery, one anti-aircraft artillery, and one Katyusha rocket regiments. Total Viet Minh combat troops were 49500.
There were two key challenges. First, how would they move all the artillery, and place them in the hills around Dien Bien Phu, in protected bunkers that could be concealed? Second, how would they supply these forces with no good roads from their bases in central and southern Tonkin?
The answer was that the Viet Minh would mobilize countryside peasants. They built two roads, one from Phu Tho is 225 km away, and the other to Thanh Hoa is 340 km away. Thousands of workers, called Dan Cong, were conscripted to build these roads.
But, they also had to get the people to haul the supplies. Tens of thousands of pack-bicycles and wheelbarrows, thousands of craft, convoys of donkeys and horses were employed to transport supplies to the front, using roads and tracks, deep rivers and swift streams. Much of the travel took place at night, to avoid airstrikes. An estimated 15000 personnel were involved in an effort that became the prototype for the Ho Chi Minh trail in later years.
Finally, they moved the artillery pieces up the steep jungle roads, and set them into concealed bunkers, that had to be 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.
The other significant planning was air defense. The 367th Air Defense Regiment, part of the 351st Division, had about twenty-four M1939 37-mm anti-aircraft guns. These were placed in various locations to harass French resupply transports.
Gun Porters moving artillery into place at Dien Bien Phu
Beatrice fell first. On 13 March 1954 a fierce artillery barrage hit the command post killing Legionnaire commander Major Paul Pegot. The 312th Division launched a massive infantry assault, using sappers to clear obstacles. French resistance collapsed shortly after midnight. 500 Legionnaires were killed. Viet Minh losses were 600 dead and 1200 wounded. A morning counterattack was stalled by Viet Minh artillery.
The direct artillery fire surprised the French. Each gun crew did its own spotting. Indirect fire requires experienced well-trained crews, which the Viet Minh lacked. The French artillery commander, Colonel Charles Piroth was so distraught at ineffective counter-battery fire, that he committed suicide.
Gabrielle was next. Viet Minh resumed a pounding artillery fire, which permanently disabled the landing strip. Further supplies had to be parachuted in. At night, 14 March,
Two Viet Minh infantry regiments attacked the elite Algerian defenders. The next morning, an artillery shell hit headquarters, severely wounding commander and staff.
General de Castries ordered a counterattack to relieve Gabrielle. But the Vietnamese battalion, that had just jumped in the day before, was exhausted and ineffective. Artillery fire decimated them. The Algerian battalion abandoned Gabrielle.
Anne-Marie was abandoned by Thai troops, demoralized on seeing losses of Beatrice and Gabrielle. Propaganda leaflets had been distributed to them for weeks, telling them it was “not their fight.” Thus on 17 March, the first phase of Viet Minh attacks was succesfully completed.
A lull until 30 March gave the Viet Minh time to “tighten the noose” around the central zone of strongpoints: Hugette, Dominique, Claudine, and Eliane. They also cut off Isabelle, the extreme southern strongpoint. During this time, the Viet Minh made trenching and sapping approaches to get their assault troops closer to the strongpoints.
A French “crisis-of-command” emerged, as senior officers realized that de Castries was incompetent to conduct the defense. After Anne-Marie fell, de Castries isolated himself in his bunker, essentially abdicating command. The incompetence was also apparent to General Cogny at Hanoi. On 17 March, he flew to Dien Bien Phu, but his plane was driven off by anti-aircraft fire. He considered parachuting in, but was talked out of it.
Colonel Langlais confronted de Castries, and informed him he was taking control of the situation, and de Castries could handle messages to Hanoi and offer advice. From accounts, it appears de Castries accepted this arrangement. Langlais and Marcel Bigeard, (our dear Bruno,) maintained good terms with de Castries.
Dien Bien Phu showing Strongpoints
Phase II saw assaults on Dominque and Eliane. On 30 March, the 312th Division captured Dominique 1 and 2. The final strongpoint between the Viet Minh and the main headquarters in Claudine was Dominque 3.
Eliane 1, defended by Mooccans, was captured at midnight. Eliane 2 was under heavy attack. Langlais ordered a counterattack on Dominque 2 and Eliane 1, by “anyone left trustworthy to fight.” They were successful at retaking those on 31 March. But, the Viet Minh renewed their assault, forcing the French back.
At dark on 31 March, Langlais ordered Major Marcel Bigeard, who was leading the defense at Eliane, to fall back across the river. Bigeard refused, saying “As long as I have one man alive I won’t let go of Eliane 4. Otherwise, Dien Bien Phu is done for.”
The night of the 31st, the 316th Division attacked Eliane 2. Just as it appeared the French were about to be overrun, French tanks arrived, pushing the Viet Minh back. Smaller attacks on Eliane 4 were also pushed back.
Fighting back and forth continued for several nights. Attempts to reinforce the garrison by parachute had to be done with lone planes to avoid AA fire. Although some reinforcements arrived, they did not replace the growing casualties.
Giap decided to revert to trench warfare after fighter-bombers and artillery devastated a Viet Minh regiment, caught in open ground. On 10 April, the French tried to retake Eliane 1. The attack, planned by Marcel Bigeard, came after a massive artillery barrage. The strongpoint changed hands several times, but by morning was in French control.
Another stalemate period from 15 April to 1 May occurred due to lowered Viet Minh morale. Intercepted radio messages revealed to the French that whole Viet Minh units refused to attack. Prisoners said they were told to “advance or be shot.” To avert this crisis, Giap called in reinforcements from Laos.
Hugette 1 and 6 had been almost entirely surrounded by entrenchments. The Hugette 1 garrison attacked to cut through to supply water to Hugette 6. But with heavy casualties, Langlais decided to abandon Hugette 6. The Viet Minh continued isolation attacks against Hugette 1, and it fell 22 April.
Viet Minh assaults resumed on 1 May. A massed assault against the exhausted defenders overran Eliane 1, Dominique 3, and Hugette 5. This attack was accompanied for the first time with Katyusha rockets. On 6 May, the Viet Minh blew up a tunnel under Eliane 2, and within a few hours overran that outpost.
General Giap ordered a general attack on all remaining units. The last French radio transmission to Hanoi was: “The enemy has overran us.”
A White Flag
On May 7, 1954, the struggle for Indochina was almost over for France. As a French colonel surveyed the battlefield from a slit trench near his command post, a small white flag, probably a handkerchief, appeared on top of a rifle hardly 30 meters away from him, followed by the pith-helmeted head of a Viet Minh soldier.
“You’re not going to shoot anymore?” asked the Viet Minh in French.
“No, I’m not going to shoot anymore,” replied the colonel.
“C’est fini?” asked the Viet Minh.
“Oui, c’est fini,” replied the colonel.
And all around them, as on some gruesome Judgment Day, soldiers, French and Viet Minh alike, began to crawl out of their trenches, and stand erect for the first time in 54 days, as firing ceased everywhere. The sudden silence was deafening.
The Viet Minh counted 11721 prisoners, but 4436 were wounded. The able bodied ones were marched over 600 km into prison camps. Hundreds died along the way. Only 3290 were repatriated, four months later.
This loss was a severe blow to French prestige, and resulted in France agreeing to withdraw from Indochina, by the Geneva agreement.
“Dien Bien Phu,” General Vo Nguyen Giap
“Battle of Dien Bien Phu,” Wikipedia
“Revolutionary War Vol. 5,” Bernard Fall, Major J.W. Woodmansee
‘Indochina The Last Year of the War,” Bernard Fall
“Battle of Dien Bien Phu,” Rohit Singh
“Dien Bien Phu,” Pierre Langlais
Fate of Bruno
Major Marcel Bigeard survived Dien Bien Phu, only to be taken prisoner. But, his extraordinary physical condition and mental toughness enabled him to survive the four months of captivity.
General Marcel Bigeard – “Bruno”