DIEN BIEN PHU

DIEN BIEN PHU

Dien Bien Phu, a garrison set up 350 kilometers from Hanoi in a remote valley near Laos border, was the site of one of the most important battles of the 20th century. In late 1953, the French established a stronghold here, manned by 13,000 Vietnamese and North African colonial troops as well as the French Army’s top troops and its elite Foreign Legion—all of which were routed by the Viet Minh, sending the French packing from Southeast Asia. A great inspiration to the nations of the Third World, the battle at Dien Bien Phu showed that a determined peasant army could bring a major colonial power to its knees.

Situated in a narrow valley among the jungle hills, Dien Bien Phu was a town in the northwest highlands Vietnam with an isolated air base built and used by the Japanese in World War Two. The government of Laos was under the control of the French though the Viet Minh had successfully infiltrated much of Laos. In 1953, the French General Henri Navarre was made commander of the French forces in Indochina and given mission of figuring out a face-saving way to get the French out of Vietnam. His plan was to establish a base in the middle of Viet Minh territory and use it as bait to draw the enemy out from their cowardly mountain positions and defeat them with superior Western military tactics.

Vietnam’s legendary general Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap is best remembered for leading Vietnamese forces to victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. His Chinese advisers told him to strike elite French forces fast and hard, but Giap changed plans at the last minute and ordered his jungle troops, clad in sandals made of old car tires, to besiege the French army. The French were defeated after 56 days, and the unlikely victory led not only to Vietnam's independence, but hastened the collapse of colonialism across Indochina and beyond.

In 1952, the French had set up a fortified camp at Na San that was supplied from the air. That battle yielded positive results. Giap had ordered frontal assaults on the base on the camp and lost many men and had to withdraw. Navarre wanted to repeat this at Dien Bien Phu. But there were a number of key differences between Na Sa and Dien Bien Phu. At Na San, the French had the advantage of height over the Viet Minh and their artillery could pinpoint Giap’s forces with devastating results. Another disadvantage of Dien Bien Phu was that it was at the very limit of aerial supply. The Viet Minh placed a large number of anti-aircraft guns around the area, making it difficult for the French to resupply their men. Senior commanders in the French Union Forces objected to the plan, arguing it was too dangerous and doomed to defeat. [Sources: Library of Congress, HistoryLearningSite.co ]

In his book "The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam" by British military historian Martin Windrow wrote: The French saw Dien Bien Phu as ''a carefully designed killing ground where they could destroy the enemy as he at last came out to fight them." The Viet Minh commander Vo Nguyen Giap had originally held ''deeply rooted misgivings" about committing his elusive guerrilla forces to a frontal assault on a heavily fortified position, but a victory would be a political advantage for the Viet Minh during negotiations in Geneva to settle the Vietnam conflict.

The battle at Dien Bien Phu was the climax of the French Indochinese War. Both the French and the Viet Minh suffered horrendous losses during the protracted siege and weeks of brutal combat. The defeats at Dien Bien Phu and in the winter-spring campaign compelled the French government to sue for peace. A vivid contemporary account of the battle was offered by French historian and journalist Bernard Fall under the title ''Hell in a Very Small Place."

See Places

Book: "The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam" by Martin Windrow (DaCapo, 2005). Bernard B. Fall was a prominent war correspondent, historian, political scientist, and expert on Indochina during the 1950s and 1960s. Hell in a Very Small Place is Fall’s classic account of the Siege of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Street Without Joy Book is Fall’s account of the French War in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Prelude to Dien Bien Phu

With Beijing's promise of limited assistance to Hanoi, the communist military strategy concentrated on the liberation of Tonkin and consigned Cochinchina to a lower priority. The top military priority, as set by Giap, was to free the northern border areas in order to protect the movement of supplies and personnel from China. By autumn of 1950, the Viet Minh had again liberated the Viet Bac in decisive battles that forced the French to evacuate the entire border region, leaving behind a large quantity of ammunition. From their liberated zone in the northern border area, the Viet Minh were free to make raids into the Red River Delta. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The French military in Vietnam found it increasingly difficult to convince Paris and the French electorate to give them the manpower and materiel needed to defeat the Viet Minh. For the next two years, the Viet Minh, well aware of the growing disillusionment of the French people with Indochina, concentrated its efforts on wearing down the French military by attacking its weakest outposts and by maximizing the physical distance between engagements to disperse French forces. Being able to choose the time and place for such engagements gave the guerrillas a decided advantage. Meanwhile, political activity was increased until, by late 1952, more than half the villages of the Red River Delta were under Viet Minh control. *

After eight years of fighting, the Viet Minh controlled much of Vietnam and neighbouring Laos. Before Dien Bien Phu the Vietnamese command launched the winter-spring campaign of 1953-1954. As had been foreseen, the fierce assaults launched by the enemy into the areas at Lang Son and Ninh Binh brought poor results, and the French forces soon withdrew after sustaining heavy losses. Throughout the 1953-1954 winter-spring campaign, fighting was fierce on all fronts. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

The newly appointed commander of French forces in Vietnam, General Henri Navarre, decided soon after his arrival in Vietnam that it was essential to halt a Viet Minh offensive underway in neighboring Laos. To do so, Navarre believed it was necessary for the French to capture and hold the town of Dien Bien Phu, sixteen kilometers from the Laotian border. For the Viet Minh, control of Dien Bien Phu was an important link in the supply route from China. In November 1953, the French occupied the town with paratroop battalions and began reinforcing it with units from the French military post at nearby Lai Chau. *

During that same month, Ho indicated that the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) was willing to examine French proposals for a diplomatic settlement announced the month before. In February 1954, a peace conference to settle the Korean and Indochinese conflicts was set for April in Geneva, and negotiations in Indochina were scheduled to begin on May 8. Viet Minh strategists, led by Giap, concluded that a successful attack on a French fortified camp, timed to coincide with the peace talks, would give Hanoi the necessary leverage for a successful conclusion of the negotiations. *

Dien Bien Phu, a Way to Break the Stalemate of the French Indochina War?

The famous French journalist and historian Bernard B. Fall wrote: The "totally stalemated situation required the French to create a military situation that would permit cease-fire negotiations on a basis of equality with the enemy. To achieve this, the French commander in chief, General Henri Navarre, had to win a victory over the hard core of Communist regular divisions, whose continued existence posed a constant threat of invasion to the Laotian kingdom and to the vital Red River Delta with its capital city of Hanoi and the thriving port of Haiphong. And to destroy those divisions and prevent their invasions into Laos, one had to, in American military parlance, find 'em and fix 'em. [Source: Bernard B. Fall, historynet.com, Vietnam magazine, June 12, 2006 //\\]

"General Navarre felt that the way to achieve this was by offering the Communists a target sufficiently tempting for their regular divisions to pounce at, but sufficiently strong to resist the onslaught once it came. That was the rationale for the creation of a garrison at Dien Bien Phu and for the battle that took place there. There were other considerations also. Laos had signed a treaty with France in which the latter promised to defend it. Dien Bien Phu was to be the lock on the back door leading into Laos. Dien Bien Phu was also to be the test for a new theory of Navarre's. Rather than defend immobile lines, he wanted to create throughout Indochina land-air bases from which highly mobile units would sally forth and decimate the enemy in his own rear areas, just as the Viet Minh guerrillas were doing in French rear areas. All of that rode on Dien Bien Phu: the freedom of Laos, a senior commander's reputation, the survival of some of France's best troops and — above all — a last chance to come out of that frustrating eight-year-long jungle war with something other than a total defeat. //\\

"But Navarre, an armor officer formed on the European battlefields, apparently (this was the judgment of the French government committee that later investigated the disaster) had failed to realize that there are no blocking positions in [a] country lacking European-type roads. Since the Viet Minh relied largely on human porters for their frontline units, they could easily bypass such bottlenecks as Dien Bien Phu or the Plain of Jars while bottling up the forces contained in those strongholds." //\\

French Arrive at Dien Bien Phu

On November 20th 1953, the first French troops arrived at Dien Bien Phu, lightly defended by Viet Minh forces. Within three days, there were 9,000 French and allied troops there. By the end of the month, there were six parachute battalions in Dien Bien Phu and their initial firefights against the Viet Minh were successful enough to give the French confidence to set up seven strong points around Dien Bien Phu with his headquarters in the centre of these. [Sources: Library of Congress, HistoryLearningSite.co \\\\]

One of the goals of the goals of the mission was to block an anticipated move on the Laotian capital of Luang Prabang by the Viet Minh. The French either received faulty intelligence data or ignored data they received. Almost immediately after they arrived, they were surrounded by 22 Viet Minh infantry battalions and six artillery regiments led by General Vo Nguyen Giap. \\\\ Michael Kenney wrote in the The Boston Globe: "After clearing a landing strip, a French-led force that would eventually number some 15,000 established a base camp with fortified positions, or strongpoints, on the surrounding hills. Meanwhile, the Viet Minh assembled a force of some 22,000 soldiers plus some 30,000 support troops, manhandling howitzers and mortars through the jungles and emplacing them in the hills beyond the French positions. [Source: Michael Kenney - The Boston Globe - January 4, 2005]

The French were very isolated. They were many kilometers from any friendly land base and the planes that supplied them were vulnerable to attack. On top of that Dien Bien Phu was surrounded by rain forests and jungles that were controlled by the Viet Minh. Five Viet Minh divisions (50,000 men) surrounded the French. Viet Minh artillery, based in the jungle, was virtually invisible and fired on the French for the first time in January 1954. Dien Bien Phu was at the bottom of a valley surrounded by hills controlled by the Viet Minh, armed with well-du-in and well-camouflaged artillery. When the battle at Dien Bien Phu began, the French artillery commander committed suicide as a result of his inability to hit Viet Minh positions. \\\\

Challenges for the French at Dien Bien Phu

Bernard B. Fall wrote: "Soon after French forces arrived at Dien Bien Phu on November 20, 1953, two of General Vo Nguyen Giap's regular 10,000-man divisions blocked the Dien Bien Phu garrison, while a third bypassed Dien Bien Phu and smashed deep into Laos. On Christmas Day 1953, Indochina, for the first time in the eight-year war, was literally cut in two. The offensive stabs for which Dien Bien Phu had been specifically planned became little else but desperate sorties against an invisible enemy. By the time the battle started in earnest on March 13, 1954, the garrison already had suffered 1,037 casualties without any tangible result. [Source: Bernard B. Fall, historynet.com, Vietnam magazine, June 12, 2006 //\\]

"Inside the fortress, the charming tribal village by the Nam Yum River had soon disappeared along with all the bushes and trees in the valley, to be used either as firewood or as construction materials for the bunkers. Even the residence of the French governor was dismantled in order to make use of the bricks, for engineering materials were desperately short from the beginning. Major André Sudrat, the chief engineer at Dien Bien Phu, was faced with a problem that he knew to be mathematically unsolvable. By normal military engineering standards, the materials necessary to protect a battalion against the fire of the 105mm howitzers the Viet Minh now possessed amounted to 2,550 tons, plus 500 tons of barbed wire. He estimated that to protect the 12 battalions there initially (five others were parachuted in during the battle), he would need 36,000 tons of engineering materials — which would mean using all available transport aircraft for a period of five months. When he was told that he was allocated a total of about 3,300 tons of airlifted materials, Sudrat simply shrugged his shoulders. In that case, I'll fortify the command post, the signal center, and the X-ray room in the hospital; and let's hope that the Viet has no artillery. //\\

"As it turned out, the Viet Minh had more than 200 artillery pieces, reinforced during the last week of the siege by Russian Katyusha multiple rocket launchers. Soon the combination of monsoon rains, which set in around mid-April, and Viet Minh artillery fire smashed to rubble the neatly arranged dugouts and trenches shown to eminent visitors and journalists during the early days of the siege. Essentially, the battle of Dien Bien Phu degenerated into a brutal artillery duel, which the enemy would have won sooner or later. The French gun crews and artillery pieces, working entirely in the open so as to allow the pieces all-around fields of fire, were destroyed one by one; replaced, they were destroyed once more, and at last fell silent.

Early Fighting at Dien Bien Phu

The siege of Dien Bien Phu began on March 13, At that time the Viet Minh had concentrated nearly 50,000 regular troops, 55,000 support troops, and almost 100,000 transport workers in the area. Chinese aid, consisting mainly of ammunition, petroleum, and some large artillery pieces carried a distance of 350 kilometers from the Chinese border, reached 1,500 tons per month by early 1954. [Sources: Library of Congress, HistoryLearningSite.co \\\\]

A massive artillery onslaught was launched on March 13th against one of the French strongholds. By the following day the Viet Minh had taken it. Also on March 14th, the airstrip was so badly damaged by Viet Minh artillery that no plane could land. After that all supplies to the French at Dien Bien Phu had to be dropped by parachute. Another of the French strongholds fell when T’ai troops, previously loyal to the French, deserted. \\\\

Taking note the increasing accuracy and number of ranging shots from Viet Minh artillery and the web of assault trenches, the aristocratic French commander Christian de Castries, told his senior officers at a briefing on the evening of March 12: ''Gentlemen, it's tomorrow, at 5 p.m." as that time approached observers in the strongpoints said the hillsides themselves seemed alive as Viet Minh battalions moved toward the French positions. And as ''the [Foreign Legion] mortarmen adjusted their sights, the world went mad" as ''the full weight of General Giap's artillery fell on Dien Bien Phu for the first time."

The effect, the British military historian Martin Windrow wrote in his book"The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam" was "stunning, both physically and psychologically." After 7 p.m. at the ''Batrice" strongpoint: ''Viet Minh shells fell murderously around the battery positions, and the [command post] of Lieutenant Lyot's 5th Battery was knocked out. At 6th Battery, Lieutenant Jean-Marie Moreau saw a fireball rise from his No. 3 pit, from which a blood-boltered African NCO staggered, roaring with pain: two shells had fallen right on the 105 [howitzer], destroying it, decapitating Sergeant Chief Scarpellini, killing one other man and wounding the rest of the crew." Wave after wave of assaults continued into the night. Then, sometime after 10 p.m., a captain radioed from Batrice ''the final message that every artilleryman hopes he will never hear: 'It's all over -- the Viets are here. Fire upon my position. Out.' " By dawn, both Batrice and its companion strongpoint Gabrielle —both said to be named for de Castries's mistresses — had fallen.

Artillery Battle at Dien Bien Phu

Bernard B. Fall wrote: "The artillery duel became the great tragedy of the battle. Colonel Charles Piroth, the jovial one-armed commander of the French artillery inside the fortress, had guaranteed that his 24 105mm light howitzers could match anything the Communists had, and that his battery of four 155mm medium field howitzers would definitely muzzle whatever would not be destroyed by the lighter pieces and the fighter-bombers. As it turned out, the Viet Minh artillery was so superbly camouflaged that to this day it is doubtful whether French counterbattery fire silenced more than a handful of the enemy's fieldpieces. [Source: Bernard B. Fall, historynet.com, Vietnam magazine, June 12, 2006 //\\]

"When, on March 13, 1954, at 5:10 p.m., Communist artillery smothered strongpoint Beatrice without noticeable damage from French counterbattery fire, Piroth knew the fortress was doomed. And as deputy to General de Castries, he felt he had contributed to the air of overconfidence that had prevailed in the valley prior to the attack. (Had not de Castries, in the manner of his ducal forebears, sent a written challenge to enemy commander Giap?) I am responsible. I am responsible, he was heard to murmur as he went about his duties. During the night of March 14-15, he committed suicide by blowing himself up with a hand grenade, since he could not charge his pistol with one hand. //\\

"Originally, the fortress had been designed to protect its main airstrip against marauding Viet Minh units, not to withstand the onslaught of four Communist divisions. There never was, as press maps of the time erroneously showed, a continuous battle line covering the whole valley. Four of the eight strongpoints were from one to three miles away from the center of the position. The interlocking fire of their artillery and mortars, supplemented by a squadron of 10 tanks (flown in piecemeal and reassembled on the spot), was to prevent them from being picked off one by one. //\\

"This also proved to be an illusion. General Vo Nguyen Giap decided to take Dien Bien Phu by an extremely efficient mixture of 19th-century siege techniques (sinking TNT-laden mineshafts under French bunkers, for example) and modern artillery patterns plus human-wave attacks. The outlying posts, which protected the key airfield, were captured within the first few days of the battle. French losses proved so great that the reinforcements parachuted in after the airfield was destroyed for good on March 27 never sufficed to mount the counterattacks necessary to reconquer the outposts. From then onward the struggle for Dien Bien Phu became a battle of attrition. The garrison's only hope lay in the breakthrough of a relief column from Laos or Hanoi (a hopeless concept in view of the terrain and distances involved) or in the destruction of the siege force through massive aerial bombardment. For a time, a U.S. Air Force strike was considered, but the idea was dropped." //\\

Dien Bien Phu Air Drops

Bernard B. Fall wrote: "Like Stalingrad, Dien Bien Phu slowly starved on its airlift tonnage. When the siege began, it had about eight days' worth of supplies on hand but required 200 tons a day to maintain minimum levels. The sheer magnitude of preparing that mass of supplies for parachuting was solved only by superhuman feats of the airborne supply units on the outside — efforts more than matched by the heroism of the soldiers inside the valley, who had to crawl into the open, under fire, to collect the containers. [Source: Bernard B. Fall, historynet.com, Vietnam magazine, June 12, 2006 //\\]

"But as the position shrank every day (it finally was the size of a ballpark), the bulk of the supplies fell into Communist hands. Even de Castries' new general's stars, dropped to him by General Cogny with a bottle of champagne, landed in enemy territory. The airdrops were a harrowing experience in that narrow valley, which permitted only straight approaches. Communist anti-aircraft artillery played havoc among the lumbering transport planes as they slowly disgorged their loads. A few figures tell how murderous the air war around Dien Bien Phu was: Of the 420 aircraft available in all of Indochina then, 62 were lost in connection with Dien Bien Phu and 167 sustained hits. Some of the American civilian pilots who flew the run said that Viet Minh flak was as dense as anything encountered during World War II over the Ruhr River. When the battle ended, the 82,926 parachutes expended in supplying the fortress covered the battlefield like freshly fallen snow — or like a burial shroud. //\\

Later Fighting at Dien Bien Phu

After human wave assaults failed, the Viet Minh began pounding French positions with 105-mm artillery pieces and anti-aircraft guns that had been lugged through mountains, rainforests and rivers. The Viet Minh artillery had the high ground and was well camouflaged and efforts by the French units, a third of which were of ethnic Vietnamese, were unsuccessful. The Viet Minh, aided by Chinese artillery, tightened their grip by employing trenches and tunnels to get closer to the French. \\\\

By late March, the Viet Minh completed their encirclement of Dien Bien Phu. The French launched a number of counter-attacks in late March but these were invariably met with strong Viet Minh counter-attacks. The French garrison of 15,000, which depended on supply by air, was cut off by March 27, when the Viet Minh artillery succeeded in making the airfield unusable. An elaborate system of tunnels dug in the mountainsides enabled the Viet Minh to protect its artillery pieces by continually moving them to prevent discovery. Several hundred kilometers of trenches permitted the attackers to move progressively closer to the French encampment. \\\\

On April 5th, a combined French fighter-bomber and artillery attack on Viet Minh soldiers caught in the open caused heavy casualties. This led to Giap to be more cautious and patient. The battle became one of attrition. The Viet Minh advanced slowly and usually countered any French attack. By April 22nd, the Viet Minh controlled most of the airfield, making parachute drops impossible. \\\\

The base at Dien Bien Phu found itself, within a steadily shrinking perimeter and under constant artillery bombardment. Its defenders called it the ''la cuvette" (the toilet bowl).

Stepping on Dead Bodies at Dien Bien Phu and a Plea for American Help

Bernard B. Fall wrote in the New York Times magazine: On the top of a hill on March 15, 1954, M. Sgt. Bensalem Abderrhaman "had spent his last ammunition and the small-boned but tough North Vietnamese regulars...were now all around him in their green fatigues."

"They wore short quilted jackets to protect them against the morning cold of the mountains and palm-leaf pith helmets covered with camouflage netting in which they had stuck leaves and branches from the surrounding foliage, rubber soled sneakers with broad cleats, and cheap-looking, thin web belts and pouches in which they carried spare ammunition, grenades and perhaps a fist-sized ball of cooked rice as an emergency ration."

"Beyond Sgt. Abderrhaman's trench there were perhaps 800 more of them—dead or dying, where French machine guns and artillery had mowed them down. A Communist officer...ordered the sergeant and his remaining squad in good French to get moving northward across the barbed wire to the rear of the Communist position. 'How do you want us to get across the barbed wire and the minefields?' inquired the sergeant. 'Just walk over the bodies of our men,' said the officer. As Abderrhaman approached a dying Viet Minh who lips were still moving, the officer told him, "Get going. You can step on him. He has done his duty for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam."

Gordon Goldstein wrote in the Washington Post, "Paris sought urgent American intervention in the form of a vast aerial bombardment, including the potential use of nuclear weapons. President Dwight Eisenhower rejected the French plea and the strident advocacy for attack by senior advisers such as Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Vice President Richard Nixon. [Source: Gordon Goldstein, Washington Post, September 28, 2012]

In his book "Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam," Fredrik Logevall depicts a conflicted commander in chief eager to find a way to engage: "Eisenhower actively contemplated taking the United States directly into the war and sought a blank check from Congress to free his hands." Other historians disagree with this interpretation, among them Jean Edward Smith, author of the recent "Eisenhower in War and Peace." "Privately Eisenhower was setting the conditions for American involvement in such a way as to ensure it did not happen," Smith argues. "It was typical of Ike at his best. Feint in one direction publicly, move privately in another." [Source: "Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam" by Fredrik Logevall Random House, 2012]

Fierce Fighting on the Last Day of Dien Bien Phu

In the final battle, human wave assaults were used to take the perimeter defenses, which yielded defensive guns that were then turned on the main encampment. A huge conventional attack was launched by the Viet Minh on May 1st. Several French strong points were overrun. Another huge attack was made on May 6th, yielding similar results. Six heavily armed French battalions parachuted into the region but bad weather and Viet Minh shelling prevented more reinforcements from arriving. After plans of using tactical atomic bombs and bombing with American B-52 were scraped, Dien Bien Phu was doomed.

On May 7th Giap ordered an all-out attack on the French positions at Dien Ben Phu. Bernard B. Fall wrote: It had become apparent by 10 a.m. that Dien Bien Phu's position was hopeless. French artillery and mortars had been progressively silenced by murderously accurate Communist Viet Minh artillery fire, and the monsoon rains had slowed down supply drops to a trickle and transformed the French trenches and dugouts into bottomless quagmires. The surviving officers and men, many of whom had lived for 54 days on a steady diet of instant coffee and cigarettes, were in a catatonic state of exhaustion. [Source: Bernard B. Fall, historynet.com, Vietnam magazine, June 12, 2006 //\\]

While Castries, reported the situation over the radiotelephone to General René Cogny, his theater commander 220 miles away in Hanoi, in a high-pitched but curiously impersonal voice, the end obviously had come for the fortress. De Castries ticked off a long list of 800-man battalions, which had been reduced to companies of 80 men, and of companies that were reduced to the size of weak platoons. All he could hope for was to hold out until nightfall in order to give the surviving members of his command a chance to break out into the jungle under the cover of darkness, while he himself would stay with the more than 5,000 severely wounded (out of a total of 15,094 men inside the valley) and face the enemy. //\\

By 3 p.m., however, it had become obvious that the fortress would not last until nightfall. Communist forces, in human-wave attacks, were swarming over the last remaining defenses. De Castries polled the surviving unit commanders within reach, and the consensus was that a breakout would only lead to a senseless piecemeal massacre in the jungle. The decision was made then to fight on to the end, as long as the ammunition lasted, and let individual units be overrun after destruction of their heavy weapons. This was approved by the French senior commander in Hanoi at about 5 p.m., but with the proviso that the men in Isabelle, the southernmost strongpoint closest to the jungle, and to friendly forces in Laos, should be given a chance to make a break for it. //\\

Cogny's last conversation with de Castries dealt with the problem of what to do with the wounded piled up under the incredible conditions in the various strongpoints and in the fortress' central hospital — originally built to contain 42 wounded. There had been suggestions that an orderly surrender be arranged, to save the wounded the added anguish of falling into enemy hands as isolated individuals. But Cogny was adamant on that point: Mon vieux, of course you have to finish the whole thing now. But what you have done until now surely is magnificent. Don't spoil it by hoisting the white flag. You are going to be submerged [by the enemy], but no surrender, no white flag. //\\

"All right, mon général, I only wanted to preserve the wounded. Yes, I know. Well, do as best you can, leaving it to your [static: subordinate units?] to act for themselves. What you have done is too magnificent to do such a thing. You understand, mon vieux. There was a silence. Then de Castries said his final words: Bien, mon général. Well, good-bye, mon vieux, said Cogny. I'll see you soon. A few minutes later, de Castries' radio operator methodically smashed his set with the butt of his Colt .45 pistol. Thus the last word to come out of the main fortress, as it was being overrun, came at 5:50 p.m. from the radio operator of the 31st Combat Engineer Battalion, using his code name: This is Yankee Metro. We're blowing up everything around here. Au revoir. //\\

"Strongpoint Isabelle never had a chance. While the main defenses of Dien Bien Phu were being mopped up, strong Viet Minh forces already had tightened their grip around the 1,000 Legionnaires, Algerians and Frenchmen preparing their breakout. At 9:40 p.m., a French surveillance aircraft reported to Hanoi that it saw the strongpoint's depots blowing up and that heavy artillery fire was visible close by. The breakout had been detected. At 1:50 a.m. on May 8, 1954, came the last message from the doomed garrison, relayed by the watchdog aircraft to Hanoi: Sortie failed — Stop — Can no longer communicate with you — Stop and end. The great battle in the valley of Dien Bien Phu was over. //\\

Viet Minh Victory at Dien Bien Phu

In the late afternoon on May 7th the French commander there, Colonel Christian de Castries, radioed Hanoi that "the Viets are everywhere. The situation is very grave. I feel the end is approaching but we will fight to the finish." The last French position was captured at nightfall. The French garrison surrendered on May 7, ending the siege that had cost the lives of as many 25,000 Vietnamese on both sides and more than 1,500 French troops. \\\\

Dien Bien Phu fell after 57 days of heavy fighting. All 13,000 men in the French garrison were either killed or captured. The Viet Minh captured 11,721 men. The Red Cross looked after the badly wounded but 10,863 were held as prisoners. Only 3,290 were ever repatriated. There is no record as to what happened to the Indochinese who helped the French at Dien Bien Phu. The Viet Minh lost 8,000 killed with 12,000 wounded.

Bernard B. Fall wrote: 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 50 feet away from him, followed by the flat-helmeted head of a Viet Minh soldier. You're not going to shoot anymore? said the Viet Minh in French. No, I'm not going to shoot anymore, said the colonel. C'est fini? said the Viet Minh. Oui, c'est fini, said the colonel. And all around them, as on some gruesome Judgment Day, soldiers, French and enemy 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. [Source: Bernard B. Fall, historynet.com, Vietnam magazine, June 12, 2006]

In his book "The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam" by British military historian Martin Windrow wrote: there was ''[an] indistinct fading away of the fighting" and the battle ''just . . . stopped." When the news reached France ''the Archbishop of Paris ordered a solemn mass.'Radio entertainment programs were replaced with solemn classical music such as the Berlioz 'Requiem.' "And people ''felt obscurely that they should cancel social engagements as a mark of respect."

Credit for the victory is often given to General Giap, according to Malcolm Browne of the New York Times, for his "masterly command of logistic and maneuver, and his deployment of artillery." Some historians have argued he couldn’t have achieved victory without Chinese help. The Chinese not only provided the Vietnamese with the artillery it needed it also commissioned Chinese laborers to transport it to Vietnam and provided valuable training for Vietnamese officers.

The victory ended the Franco-Viet Minh War and gave the Viet Minh control over northern Vietnam. Giap said, "Finally, we were rid of the enemy. It fullfilled the dreams of the Vietnamese people had held for hundreds of years." Giap later wrote in Newsweek, "When I returned to Viet Bac [Ho Chi Minh’s Northern base] and met Ho, he told us while were we celebrating the victory that we'd have to prepare ourselves to fight another war, this time against the Americans."

Places at Dien Bien Phu

The historical sites of Dien Bien Phu are located in and around the 20 kilometers-long valley of Dien Bien Phu. Almost all the sites of the battle lying to the east of the Muong Thanh Field have been preserved intact. The valley of Dien Bien Phu was 18 kilometers long and six to eight kilometers wide when the Dien Bien Phu campaign began. On November 20th, 1953, French paratroopers occupied the valley and built 49 strongholds in three sub-sections. Among these sites today are artillery emplacements, the remains of airplanes, Muong Thanh Bridge, the command bunker of De Castries, Hill A1 and the cemeteries. Some 35 kilometers from the center of Dien Bien Phu City, in a mountainous, forested area in Muong Phang Commune, is the Command Post of General Vo Nguyen Giap.

Places to visit in Dien Bien: 1) The Museum of Dien Bien Phu victorious battle: The museum houses a great deal of documents and objects relating to the 55-day arduous battle of Vietnamese soldiers and people to make the glorious victory of the whole nation in spring 1954. The museum exhibits its objects both indoors and outdoors. 2) The cemeteries in Hill A1 (644 tombs) and Doc Lap Hill (2432 tombs): This is the resting place of Vietnamese soldiers who sacrificed heroically in the Dien Bien Phu Campaign. In Hill A1 lie the tombs of heroic martyrs such as To Vinh Dien, Be Van Dan, Phan Dinh Giot and Tran Can.

3) Hill A1: This height stands block the way to the northeast sub-section. It has a significant role, controlling the whole battle of Dien Bien Phu. During 36 nights and days, the fierce battle claimed the lives of 2516 Vietnamese soldiers. Only until the night of May 6th, 1954 did Vietnamese soldiers win this decisive battle. 4) Muong Thanh Airfield: This was the stronghold 206 and the central airport of the entrenched camp of Dien Bien Phu. Currently this airport is renamed Dien Bien Phu and becomes one of the destinations in the flight system of the Vietnam Civil Aviation.

5) The Command bunker of the Dien Bien Phu entrenched camp: De Castries worked inside the bunker. The original shape and size, structure and arrangement of the bunker are kept intact. 6) Him Lam Hill: On March 13th, 1954, Vietnamese troops fought the first battle in Him Lam Hill, which is situated to the northwest of the valley. 7) Doc Lap Hill: Vietnamese troops liberated the hill on March 15th, 1954. 8) Hills C, D and E are well preserved. From afar, one can easily recognize the name of these hills. Atop D1 Hill stands the newly-erected Statue of Dien Bien Phu Victory. 9) The Command post of the Vietnamese soldiers from January 21st to May 8th, 1954

Command Bunker of General De Castries

Command Bunker of General De Castries (in the middle of the Muong Thanh Field) lies at the heart of the entrenched camp of Dien Bien Phu. Although it is a reconstruction the original shape and size of the structure and arrangement of the bunker have been kept intact. In 1954, one could see the top of the bunker from a high hill. To reach there, however, Vietnamese troops had to fight heroically during 55 days and nights, amidst numerous hardships and difficulties. Around the bunker were dense systems of defense lines, including many layers of barbed wires and four tanks. The bunker is 20 meters long and eight meters wide. It consists of four compartments, which serves as both working offices and resident places.

One now can still find the iron vaults and sandbags atop the bunker. There used to be a roofed trench connecting the bunker of De Castries with the blockhouse at Cay Da in Hill A1. French troops piled up wooden planks and sandbags to make trenches. They took the wooden planks from the houses of the Vietnamese ethnic minority groups.

Inside this bunker, De Castries received such high-ranking officers as French Prime Minister Joseph Laniel, Dwight Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, as well as well-known journalists. At 5:30pm on May 7th, 1954, Ta Quoc Luat, head of Company 360, Regiment 209, Division 312 captured General De Castries alive while he was sitting at his desk in the corner of the bunker.

The tunnel-bunker had four compartments as follows: Compartment 1is the office of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Piroth, who was in charge of French artillery in Dien Bien Phu. Prior to his departure to Indochina, Piroth submitted a tactical plan to Henri Navarre, in which he affirmed that "no artillery gun of Viet Minh could fire three times without being destroyed" in Dien Bien Phu. However, after experiencing the fierce attacks of Vietnamese artillery, Piroth committed suicide with a grenade in a tunnel at the end of Muong Thanh Bridge on March 15th, 1954. De Castries worried that his troops would lose their morale if they knew this so he had Piroth buried in the one end of Muong Thanh Bridge. Then he cabled to inform Navarre that Piroth had disappeared together with his jeep.

Compartment 2 is the office of Seguin who was in charge of the French air force in Dien Bien Phu. He was tasked with the protection of the Muong Thanh and Hong Cum airfields. He himself faced shameful defeat. Before attack of Vietnamese troops, the French troops carried out around 100-150 sorties each day, transporting some 100-300 tons of goods to Dien Bien Phu. After assaults of Vietnamese troops, especially when the runways of Muong Thanh Airfield were cut off, French troops had to parachute goods to Dien Bien Phu, many of which came to hands of Vietnamese troops.

Compartment 3 is the office of De Castries's secretary. Upon being promoted to the Commander of the Dien Bien Phu entrenched camp, he required to have this secretary, who was both a nurse and a journalist. When the Vietnamese troops attacked Dien Bien Phu on March 13th, 1954, De Castries asked her to come back to Hanoi by airway. Compartment 4is the information and radio transmission center of the French troops in Dien Bien Phu. When the Dien Bien Phu campaign ended, Vietnamese troops captured only one female French nurse, De Galard. She was among one of the first to be released under Vietnam's policy.

Hill A1

Hill A1 (in Muong Thanh Ward, Dien Bien Phu City, Dien Bien Province) was the strongest post of all the 49 strongholds in Dien Bien Phu fortified entrenched camp.It had three defense lines. The first one, stretching from the Cay Da blockhouse, protected the way to the hilltop. Currently this is the main road leading to the top of Hill A1. The second line was for counter-offensive assaults and the last one was a kind of underground bunker atop the hill. There were trenches connecting these three lines. Unaware of the underground bunker atop the hill, Vietnamese troops assaulted from the dried stream. To occupy one third of the hill, Vietnamese troops lost 2516 troops and discovered the bunker thanks to enemy’s flare.

Then the tactics changed. Despite numerous difficulties, Vietnamese troops dug a tunnel to destroy the bunker with explosive. After 16 days and nights, Vietnamese troops found a brick foundation, which was left from some building built by French troops in 1940. Considering that was the bunker wall, Vietnamese troops brought 970 kilogramsof explosive there and detonated them at 8:30pm on May 6th, 1954. The pressure of the explosion made the ears of the French captain in charge of the bunker bleed. He thought that was a new kind of weapon used by Vietnamese troops and surrendered. The explosion left an enormous hole like a crater, which is rather afar from the top of Hill A1. This hole now serves as a tourist attraction.

Command Post of the Dien Bien Phu Campaign

Command Post of the Dien Bien Phu Campaign (Muong Phang Commune, Dien Bien District, about 35 kilometers, 10 kilometers as the crow flies, from the center of Dien Bien Phu City) is where visitors will find the hut where General Vo Nguyen Giap worked and other huts for information and military operation discussion. Places of interest include: 1) Sentry box No. 1; 2) Information Center; 3) Hut of Reconnaissance Operation; 4) Hut of General Vo Nguyen Giap, Commander-in-Chief of the Dien Bien Phu; 5) The 96 meters tunnel through the mountain, connecting General Giap’s hut with that of Chief of Staff Hoang Van Thai; 6) Area for Chinese consultants; 7) Hut of Chief of Staff Hoang Van Thai; 8) Meeting hall; 9) Political sector.

Major General, Deputy Chief of Staff Hoang Van Thai, deputy head of the Chinese consultants’ group and chief of staff Mei Jiasheng and other officers left Viet Bac for Tay Bac on December 6th, 1953 to make preparations for the Tay Bac Campaign in winter-spring 1953-1954.

On January 5th, 1954, General Vo Nguyen Giap, Commander-in-Chief of the Dien Bien Phu Campaign and head of the Chinese consultants’ group Wei Quojing left for Tay Bac. The General’s first stop was at Tham Pua Cave (Km 15, Tuan Giao-Dien Bien Phu road). This command post had been set up as early as December 7th, 1953. In this cave, on January 14th, 1954, General Vo Nguyen Giap assigned the tactical tasks for different divisions, following the guideline of “sweep attack, sweep victory” under which the battle would last 2 days and 3 nights with the D-Day set on January 20th, 1954. On January 17th, 1954, the Command post was moved to the area beside Huoi He Stream in Na Tau Commune (Km 56+200, Tuan Giao-Dien Bien Phu road). Due to some reasons, the D-Day was changed to the 25th then the 26th of January 1954. At 11:00 hours in the morning of January 26th, 1954, General Vo Nguyen Giap decided to swift from the strategy to “strike swiftly, win swiftly” to “strike surely, win surely”. This military order was sent to all units in Dien Bien. The Command post was situated in Na Tau from January 18th, 1954 to January 30th, 1954.

At night of the 30th and early of the 31st day of January 1954, the Command post was moved again to Muong Phang Commune. It stayed there until May 15th, 1954. This was the third and the last command post of the Dien Bien Phu Campaign. Atop the Phu Ca Mountain, General Vo Nguyen Giap had a watchtower built to get a panoramic view of Muong Thanh Field through binoculars.

Legacy of Dien Bien Phu

Dien Bien Phu was a catastrophic defeat that brought an end to the French colonial adventure in Indochina. The following day, the previously scheduled Geneva Conference opened negotiations to end to French Indochina War.

Bernard B. Fall wrote: On May 7, 1954, the end of the battle for the jungle fortress of Dien Bien Phu marked the end of French military influence in Asia, just as the sieges of Port Arthur, Corregidor and Singapore had, to a certain extent, broken the spell of Russian, American and British hegemony in Asia.The Asians, after centuries of subjugation, had beaten the white man at his own game. Today, 10 years after Dien Bien Phu, Viet Cong guerrillas in South Vietnam again challenge the West's ability to withstand a potent combination of political and military pressure in a totally alien environment. Bernard B. Fall wrote: [Source: Bernard B. Fall, historynet.com, Vietnam magazine, June 12, 2006 //\\]

"Close to 10,000 captured troops were to begin the grim death march to the Viet Minh prison camps 300 miles to the east. Few would survive. About 2,000 lay dead all over the battlefield in graves left unmarked to this day. Only 73 made good their escape from the various shattered strongpoints to be rescued by the pro-French guerrilla units awaiting them in the Laotian jungle. Eight thousand miles away, in Geneva, the Vietnamese and Red Chinese delegations attending the nine-power conference that was supposed to settle both the Korean and the Indochinese conflicts toasted the event with pink Chinese champagne...What had happened at Dien Bien Phu was simply that a momentous gamble had been attempted by the French high command and had backfired badly. //\\

"The net effect of Dien Bien Phu on France's military posture in Indochina could not be measured in losses alone. It was to little avail to say that France had lost only 5 percent of its battle force, that the equipment losses had already been more than made good by American supplies funneled in while the battle was raging and that even the manpower losses had been made up by reinforcements from France and new drafts of Vietnamese. Even the fact, which the unfortunate Navarre invoked later, that the attack on Dien Bien Phu cost the enemy close to 25,000 casualties and delayed its attack on the vital Red River Delta by four months, held little water in the face of the wave of defeatism that swept not only French public opinion at home but also that of her allies. //\\

"Historically, Dien Bien Phu was, as one French senior officer masterfully understated, never more than an unfortunate accident. It proved little else but that an encircled force, no matter how valiant, will succumb if its support system fails. But as other revolutionary wars — from Algeria to the British defeats in Cyprus and Palestine — have conclusively shown, it does not take pitched, set-piece battles to lose such wars. They can be lost just as conclusively through a series of very small engagements, such as those now fought in South Vietnam, if the local government and its population lose confidence in the eventual outcome of the contest — and that was the case both for the French and for their Vietnamese allies after Dien Bien Phu. //\\

Legacy of the French Indochina War

By some estimates the French lost 55,000 men—nearly as many as the 58,000 Americans lost in the Vietnam War—and the French and the Americans each spent about $2.7 billion on the war, a lot of money in those days. Other sources say a total of 35,000 men on the French side were killed and 48,000 were wounded. Many Algerians and Moroccans and French Legionnaires from several countries were among the dead. The casualties were much greater on the Viet Minh side but firm numbers were never offered. Giap later famously said, "The life or death of a hundred, a thousand, tens of thousands of human beings, even our compatriots, means little." The New York Times reported in 2013: "About 94,000 French troops died in the war to keep Vietnam, and the struggle for independence killed, by conservative estimates, about 300,000 Vietnamese fighters."

In the spring of 1956, the last French soldier departed from Vietnam. After that the United States increased its military and economic aid and deployed intelligence operatives to advise the fragile regime in South Vietnam on how to counter a growing Viet Minh insurgency.

In his book "The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam" by British military historian Martin Windrow wrote:"''this was the first time that a non-European colonial independence movement had evolved through all the stages from guerrilla bands to a conventionally organized and equipped army able to defeat a modern Western occupier in pitched battle." Moreover it was ''the first step down a road that only ended with the departure of the last helicopters from the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon in April 1975."

By the time Dien Bien Phu fell, the war had cost France $2.7 billion, a lot of money at that time. De Gaulle later pleaded with Kennedy to stay out of Indochina. The defeat of the French, inspired rebels in Algeria, where war broke out soon afterwards, and raised hopes among Communists and rebel insurgencies around the globe. In the 1950s, there were strong Communist governments in China, North Vietnam and North Korea and powerful Communist insurgencies in South Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

Bernard B. Fall wrote: Still, as the French themselves demonstrated in Algeria, where they never again let themselves be maneuvered into such desperate military straits, revolutionary wars are fought for political objectives, and big showdown battles are necessary neither for victory nor for defeat in that case. This now seems finally to have been understood in the South Vietnam war as well, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara may well have thought of Dien Bien Phu when he stated in his major Vietnam policy speech of March 26, 1964, that we have learned that in Vietnam, political and economic progress are the sine qua non of military success…. One may only hope that the lesson has been learned in time. [Source: Bernard B. Fall, historynet.com, Vietnam magazine, June 12, 2006]

Legacy of the French in Vietnam

Michelle Jana Chan wrote in The Telegraph: "The French used to say of their former colonies in Indo-China: "In Vietnam they plant the rice, in Cambodia they watch it grow and in Laos they listen to it grow." Things haven't changed much. In Laos, meditation still seems to take precedence over farming. Cambodia, too, feels timeless: only politicians change with any regularity. By contrast, Vietnam is one of south-east Asia's "tiger economies", a hustling, bustling hub with no shortage of entrepreneurial spirit. Imperial France invested more in industrious Vietnam than anywhere else, and left more behind. The colonial footprint is stamped most heavily into the culture - architecture and gastronomy - rather than the rule of law or business principles. For the French, Empire was a mission civilatrice rather than an exercise in upping the trade balance. They tried to create a petite France in their remote colonies, enforcing the French language, a Catholic God and fresh croissants.[Source: Michelle Jana Chan, The Telegraph, July 16, 2005]

As Vietnam prospers and progresses, the French legacy is being hotly debated. To pull down or not to pull down is the toughest question for property developers and city planners. The gorgeous old colonial buildings of Hanoi and (to a lesser degree) Saigon often cost more to renovate than replace. But demolition would be a travesty because Hanoi, in particular, is one of the most beautiful cities in Asia, with leafy boulevards of teak, lime, almond and banyan trees shading Provençal-style villas and lakeside pagodas...In the 1950s, when the French left Vietnam, the easy thing would have been to tear it all down and erase any memory of colonial subjugation. But perhaps some things are just too beautiful to destroy.

The enormous French influence on Vietnam's cuisine is seen everywhere, from the slickest restaurants to the sweet-smelling bakeries and street markets. In no other region of Asia can you see baguettes carried in bicycle panniers or in woven baskets balanced on sellers' heads. Every street corner has a crowded café serving sweet, strong and gritty black coffee (cà phê ), as well as biscuits, cakes and pastries. One wet, misty morning, I puddle-jumped between the stalls at one of Hanoi's crowded daily markets on a shopping expedition with Didier Corlou, head chef at the colonial-era Hotel Metropole. He saidm "There is so much the same in France and Vietnam. The croissants here are maybe not sweet, but they are here. Bread has no salt, but is still bread. They have dill, and you do not find it anywhere in Asia. Then they make this beef bourguignon on the street, but cooked in rice wine, not red wine." Didier hardly took a breath. "This was fusion before I started doing it in restaurants."

Didier plucked scallops out of big plastic bowls, squeezing them between finger and thumb, complaining they were too white. He wagged crisp spring onions (for Asia's most delicate spring rolls) under my nose, pointed out the Vietnamese crèpe packed with shredded pork and the great slabs of mortadelle, jambo n and aspic. "Look at this artisan making pig's blood," Didier exclaimed, pointing to one of his vendor friends behind a table of deep-red sausages. "This is more expensive than fillet, say 75,000 dong [about £2, for a kilo], and fillet is 50,000. People really love it, just like in France. Now look at these snails. In all of Asia, it's only in Hanoi they have snails - best stuffed with ginger. There are a lot of eels because of the cold water. The same as in France. We don't see this in Thailand or China."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism. CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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