THE BATTLE OF DIEN BIEN PHU
HO CHI MINH GENERAL GIAP
The French had assumed control of the Southeast Asian country of Vietnam in the nineteenth century during the age of European colonialism. After France’s humiliating defeat and occupation by Germany in the summer of 1940, the French had no options but to abandon the country to the Japanese.
With the end of World War ll, France returned to Vietnam with the expectation that control of thier old colony would be a mere formality. However Vietnamese national’s under Communist leader Ho Chi Minh detested a return to European imperialism and made it thier main goal to achieve full independence.
The first confrontation occurred in November 1946, when French civilian’s were attacked and killed by Vietminh rebels in the city of Haiphong. By 1953, the overall situation was not going well for France, a succession of inept military commanders had proven incapable of suppressing the insurrection which had now spread to neighboring Laos.
In May, French Premier Rene Mayer appointed General Henri Navarre supreme commander of all military forces in Indochina. Navarre chose to establish a large fortified base camp at Dien Bien Phu. The area was strategically important for it possessed an isolated air base which was constructed by the Japanese during the Second World War.
The base would be near the Laotian border and its presence would cut Vietminh General Giap’s supply lines. It would also station a large military force in the heart lands of Viet Minh territory which would force the Vietnamese into a major battle of annihilation, in which the French believed thier superior technology would ensure victory.
However Navarre had made two serious tactical errors in his strategic planning. First off Dien Bien Phu was situated at the bottom of a large valley surrounded by thick vegetation and high rolling hills. Secondly the base itself would be operating at the very extreme limits of French aerial supply.
On November 20th 1953, the first French troops began to arrive at the base. By the end of the month the garrison amounted to 10,000 men comprising regular French Army, Elite Paratroopers, Foreign Legionnaires, Algerian, Laotian and Moroccan levies. This force was set up into nine interconnecting strong points under the command of Colonel Christian De Castries.
During the next two months General Giap would slowly move 50,000 men including the crack 351st heavy artillery division into the hills surrounding the valley. On January 31st 1954, the base began to come under direct artillery fire, the responding French patrols reported encountering very strong Viet Ming forces, Colonel Castries could only conclude that the base had been completely surrounded.
After a month of probing attacks, Giap was confident the main Vietnamese assault to capture Dein Bien Phu could begin. On March 13th, two hundred artillery pieces opened the attack on the airstrip and northern outposts.
From the start of the battle the French command structure was severely crippled when the headquarters within “Beatrice” was struck by a direct hit killing Legionnaire commander Major Paul Pegot and his entire staff. During the same bombardment, Colonel Jules Gaucher, commander of the northern most strong point of “Gabrielle” was also killed by Viet Minh artillery fire.
After three days of repeated human wave assault’s by the Vietnamese 312th Infantry Division, the airfield along with strong points Beatrice and Gabriell were captured. Colonel De Castries ordered an immediate counter attack to regain the airstrip the following morning, but all attempts were beaten back with heavy losses.
Two days later the French artillery commander, Colonel Charles Piroth, distraught at his inability to bring effective counter fire on the Viet Minh batteries committed suicide. For the next two days and nights General Giap concentrated his artillery against “Anne Marie” and “Francoise” defended by Tai and Algerian forces. On the morning of March 20th, under cover of a rolling fog both French allies abandoned thier positions fleeing into the jungle or surrendered en mass.
SITUATION MARCH 21st
A lull in the fighting now occurred as General Giap used this time to consolidate his new won positions, in the process effectively surrounding 2,000 soldiers within strong point “Isabelle”. It had now become plainly evident that Colonel De Castries had become utterly incapable of command. The French government in Paris became alarmed with the situation and relieved De Castries, replacing him with Colonel Langlais on March 30th.
The very next morning General Giap ordered the 18,000 strong 312th and 316th Viet Minh Infantry Divisions to launch a Mass frontal assault against the French eastern strong points of “Elaine” and “Dominique”.These were held by five under strength battalions numbering a mere 2,500 men.
Throughout the entire day and well into the night, wave upon waves of Viet Minh pressed forward thier attack. At 2:00am, just as it appeared the French were about to be overrun, the French 4th artillery set thier 105 mm howitzers to zero elevation and fired directly into the attackers, decimating thier ranks. This along with the arrival of French tanks halted Giap’s assault.
Repeated attempts by the French Air Force to reinforce and supply the garrison (April 2nd - 4th suffered heavily due to the interconnecting rings of Viet Minh anti aircraft batteries surrounding the garrison. However on April 5th, French fighter bombers caught and surprised the 148th Viet Minh Infantry out in the open as it assembled for an assault against “Dominique”, destroying nearly half the Regiment.
The morning of April 10th saw a renewed Viet Minh attempt to capture “Eliane” which fell later that afternoon. Colonel Langlais ordered an immediate counter attack which intensified the fighting as “Eliane” became the horrific scene of attack and counter attack as the position changed hands several times that evening. But by the next morning it was clear the French had regained control of the position but were isolated and surrounded.
WOUNDED FRENCH LIEUTENANT
On the evening of April 14th, with artillery support from “Claudine” and “Huguette”, the French attacked the Viet Minh positions around “Eliane” in an attempt to resupply thier trapped comrade’s. French attacks would continue for the next four nights with each being repulsed with heavy casualties. On April 18th, Colonel Langlais was forced to call of the operation and in an effort to consolidate his lines of communication abandoned part of “Huguette”.
Witnessing the French withdrawal, General Giap ordered an immediate night attack to capture the remainder of “Huguette”. Bitter fighting would rage for the next five days as both sides poured more reinforcements into the battle until the morning of the 22nd when the fort was overrun and captured.
With the fall of “Huguette”, re supply by air became near impossible, the French drop zones had become perilously small and under constant enemy fire, effectively choking off the much needed supplies of ammunition, food, water and medicines.
On the night of May 1st, the Viet Minh launched a massed assault against the exhausted defenders at “Elaine” and “Dominique”. This attack would include for the first time, Russian supplied Katyusha rocket batteries. After five days of savage hand to hand combat, the Viet Minh detonated a mine shaft dug under “Eliane” and destroyed the French defenses. Giap then switched his main attack against “Dominique” and within hours had overrun the defenders.
On May 7th, General Giap ordered a final all out attack against the remaining French positions with over 25,000 Viet Minh regulars against the last 3,000 garrison troops. The French defenders were swept aside and easily overrun and captured.
The last radio transmission from Colonel De Castries to the French general staff in Hanoi reported enemy forces were directly outside his command bunker, his last words before capture stated, “The enemy has overrun us, we are defeated, “Vive La France!”.
VIET MINH VICTORY
The battle of Dien Bien Phu was now over. In the fifty seven day siege, Viet Minh forces suffered 8,000 dead and 15,000 wounded. French casualties numbered 3,000 dead, 4,500 wounded and 11,700 prisoners. The French wounded remained in the camp until the international Red Cross arrived and provided medical assistance. The able bodied prisoners were then force marched over three hundred miles to prison camps in the north. Only 3,290 French soldiers were ever repatriated, there is no record as to what befell the remanning prisoners.
The Geneva Conference opened one day after the French garrison surrendered. The resulting agreement temporality partitioned Vietnam into two zones. The north was to be administered by the Communist Democratic Republic under Ho Chi Minh, while the south would be under the French supported state of South Vietnam.
The last French military units withdrew from Indochina in 1956. After the withdrawal, the United States began supporting South Vietnam. This arrangement proved tenuous and would eventually escalate into the Vietnam War.
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