In northeast Vietnam lies a small valley surrounded by a vast mountain range. Here, the rolling hills and luscious rainforest are known by the locals as Dien Bien Phu – the land of heaven. Yet this picturesque landscape was the site of one of the bloodiest battles in the post-Second World War era. For the French defenders, heaven turned to hell on Earth as they were decisively defeated by the Viet Minh. The Battle of Dien Bien Phu marked the end of French influence in Indochina (and indeed most of East Asia), established Vietnamese independence and taught the Viet Minh forces how to defeat Western powers – knowledge they would later employ in their more famous conflict with the United States.
Since the 1880s, France had ruled over what is now modern Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Like many of Europe’s Far Eastern colonies, these lands had been conquered by Imperial Japan in the Second World War. This occupation only strengthened calls for freedom – from both European and Japanese rule – and led to the formation of the communist Viet Minh party. The first seeds of conflict were sown when the Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh, declared independence after the defeat of Imperial Japan. A year later, negotiations between the French and Vietnamese delegations regarding the future of the region stalled, hostilities flared up and the Viet Minh began to wage a guerrilla war. By late 1953, the situation was becoming increasingly dire, as the Viet Minh had seized control of the northern half of the nation and most of the southern countryside. To regain the initiative, the newly promoted Supreme Commander of French Forces in Indochina (Henri Navarre) established a defensive base at Dien Bien Phu and planned to lure the Viet Minh into a set piece battle.
Navarre decided to employ the recently formulated hérisson (hedgehog) strategy. This involved establishing a fortified airhead by dropping soldiers and supplies to positions adjacent to key Viet Minh logistical lines. In doing so, he would offer the Viet Minh a target sufficiently important to lure them into a battle, but also sufficiently strong that it could resist the onslaught. The hérisson concept was based on the French’s experiences at the Battle of Na San, where they had beaten back Viet Minh forces repeatedly, inflicting heavy losses. Now, the French hoped to repeat their victory on a much larger scale. Navarre decided the decisive engagement would be at Dien Bien Phu, as it bordered Laos and possessed an old Japanese runway.
On 20 November 1953, Operation Castor commenced. The French parachuted 9,000 troops into the Dien Bien Phu valley, with a bulldozer to prepare the disused airstrip. Over the next days, they cleared the local Viet Minh forces and began fortifying their position. By December, French forces had transformed the valley into a defensive fortress with nine separate strongholds. Adjourning the airstrip were Anne-Marie, Huguette, Claudine, Junon, Eliane and Dominique, while further out on elevated defensive positions were Gabrielle, Béatrice and Isabelle. According to rumour, the commanding officer had named the nine fortresses after his numerous mistresses. Soon enough, Viet Minh infantry divisions arrived and encircled the recently reinforced French garrison of 15,000. The Viet Minh had assembled a force of twenty-two infantry and six artillery regiments, giving the veteran commander (General Giap) around 50,000 troops.
Vo Nguyen Giap was an ardent freedom fighter who had become a master of guerrilla warfare. Regarded by many as one of the greatest generals in the 20th Century, he was known, perhaps ironically, as the Red Napoleon. Today, he is a national hero in Vietnam, with a reputation second only to Ho Chi Minh. The siege officially started on 13 March, but the Viet Minh had occupied the hills surrounding Dien Bien Phu valley and been shelling French fortifications as early as February. Viet Minh forces had disassembled their artillery and laboriously transported it through the jungled mountains to the edge of the valley looking down on the French fortress. The Viet Minh concentrated nearly 50,000 troops, 60,000 support troops and almost 100,000 transport workers to carry the artillery pieces more than three hundred kilometres through the rainforest. This outstanding feat of human labour and organisation was aided by China, which supplied the majority of the artillery, ammunition and vital petrol.
The efforts of the Viet Minh meant Giap now had two hundred pieces of artillery, more than three times as many as Navarre. The French had assumed their foes would have little to no artillery, and this proved a fatal miscalculation. The Battle of Dien Bien Phu degenerated into a brutal artillery duel. The camouflaged Viet Minh artillery pounded the exposed encampment in the valley, while Giap’s skilful positioning on hill slopes meant that the Viet Minh artillery was almost impervious to French counter-battery fire. On 13 March, the Viet Minh assault commenced at the two most northern positions, Gabrielle and Béatrice. Giap’s forces were repulsed many times with hefty losses, but after a few days of heavy combat eventually took the positions. Using an extremely effective combination of modern artillery and massive human wave charges, Giap rolled back the French positions. The French staged a valiant retreat, taking out two Viet Minh soldiers for every man they lost, but they were now pinned down.
Under siege, the garrison’s food supplies began to dwindle. The only way the French could provide the two hundred tons of provisions the trapped army needed each day was by using airlifts. Unlike in Berlin, however, supplies had to be parachuted in: as the airstrip was now in range of the Viet Minh artillery. Unfortunately, this was extremely difficult and inaccurate. Pilots found that the airdrops were harrowing experiences, as the narrow valley only permitted straight approaches. This left the pilots vulnerable to Viet Minh anti-aircraft fire, and the flak was as dense as anything encountered during the Second World War. Desperate to escape, the pilots flew higher than they had been expecting to, causing thousands of parachutes to miss their targets and drift into enemy territory. By the end of the battle, more than 80,000 parachutes littered the valley ground. The logistical struggles of the Dien Bien Phu garrison were only solved through the superhuman efforts of the airborne supply units. Their bravery was only exceeded by the heroism of the soldiers in the valley, who had to crawl into the open, under fire, to retrieve the containers.
The French government looked for ways to relieve their besieged troops, and they began to consider escalating the conflict by directly involving their superpower ally. American military officials supported the French rule of Indochina, which they viewed as a bulwark against communism. A US Air Force strike (codenamed Operation Vulture) was considered and, for a time, President Eisenhower actively contemplated taking the United States into war against Vietnam in order to uphold the Truman Doctrine. Operation Vulture would have seen almost one hundred USAF B-29s fly from Okinawa and the Philippines to Dien Bien Phu, to bomb the key Viet Minh positions on the edge of the valley. Officials even began contemplating a potential nuclear strike to break the deadlock. Ultimately these proposals were blocked by Congress, who feared starting another proxy war with China less than a year after the end of the Korean War.
Despite their earlier successes, Giap’s human wave offensives made little progress in the face of tenacious French resistance. By now both armies had terrible morale: the French seemed to be facing impending defeat, whilst the Viet Minh feared the terrible sacrifice in human lives they to pay for every yard gained. Numerous French counterattacks were successful and almost every engagement resulted in significantly more casualties for the Viet Minh. Intercepted radio messages revealed that whole Viet Minh units were on the verge of mutiny and refusing direct orders to attack, and that soldiers had been told they would be shot if they retreated.
Giap changed tactics. He continued the bombardment, but ceased the human wave assaults in favour of siege warfare and had Chinese military engineers train the Viet Minh in siege tactics. Viet Minh soldiers inched their way forward with webs of trenches and tunnels, isolating the strong pockets of French troops. Viet Minh artillery pieces were protected by being constantly moved through an elaborate network of mountain passes. April monsoon rains flooded the valley, transforming the trenches into quagmires reminiscent of Verdun. Soon Giap had taken the positions around the airfield, like Huguette, Dominique and Eliane.
On 6 and 7 May, the Viet Minh launched their final massed assault on the remaining French strongholds. With the aid of the new Soviet-supplied Katyusha rocket launchers, the Viet Minh overran the final defenders. They had deployed more than 25,000 troops in an all-out attack and swarmed the mere 3,000 remaining French soldiers. The last radio transmission reported that the enemy were just outside the headquarters bunker, before finishing with the words: “The enemy has overrun us. We are blowing up everything. Vive la France!”
After fifty-six days, the fortress had fallen. 3,000 Frenchmen had died in the siege and the Viet Minh had captured around 8,000 prisoners. These were marched more than six hundred kilometres to prison camps in the north and west, where many died of disease and being deprived basic first aid. Fatigued, starved and brutalised, less than half would return to France alive. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese claimed to have barely suffered 4,000 casualties, a figure criticised by many historians who claim it would be at least double if not far more. Historian Max Hastings stated that “In 2018, Hanoi has still not credibly enumerated its Dien Bien Phu losses, surely a reflection of their immensity.”
Ultimately, General Giap’s masterful command of artillery and strategy had proven decisive. He was further strengthened by the resources of China; the communist powerhouse had not only provided the crucial artillery, but also many labourers for its transportation and officers to train the Viet Minh. Finally, the Viet Minh army had proven itself an extremely determined force and, inspired by patriotic fervour, managed to achieve what should have been logistically impossible. As Giap himself stated “At the end, it was the human factor that determined the victory.”
The Viet Minh victory inspired rebel insurgents and resistance fighters around the globe. Forced to recognise their rule was coming to an end, the French partitioned Vietnam into two independent zones (a communist north and non-communist south) in the 1954 Geneva Conference. The defeat at Dien Bien Phu would play a role in bringing down the French government a mere month later. A new model of warfare had been mastered at Dien Bein Phu, a model which stressed the use of tunnel networks, complex supply lines and zealous combatants. The battle offered a sobering premonition for the future.
Dien Bien Phu was a bloody and somewhat Pyrrhic victory, but it had secured Vietnamese independence. However, while it may have seemed that the fighting in Indochina had ended, history would prove different. Throughout the 1960s, President de Gaulle would plead with Kennedy to not repeat the mistakes of France, and avoid deploying troops to Vietnam. Yet these pleas were in vain, and as one Western power fled the jungle, another prepared to step in.
Fall. B., 1966. Hell in a very small place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu. Da Capo Press
Vinen. R., 1996. France 1934-1970. St Martin’s Press