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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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
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”