Battle of Dien Bien Phu

Eyridiki Sellou | Nov 11, 2023

Table of Content


The Battle of Diên Biên Phu (or Điện Biên Phủ in Vietnamese) was a key moment in the Indochina War, which took place from March 13 to May 7, 1954, and pitted French Union forces in Tonkin against Việt Minh forces in the north of present-day Vietnam.

Occupied by the French in November 1953 (Operation Castor), this small town and its surrounding plain became the scene of a violent battle the following year between the French expeditionary force, composed of various units of the French army, colonial and native troops, under the command of Colonel de Castries (promoted to general during the battle), and the bulk of the Vietnamese troops (Việt Minh) commanded by General Giáp.

This battle ended on May 7, 1954, with the cessation of fire, according to the instructions received from the French headquarters in Hanoi. Apart from the ambush of the mobile group 100 between An Khê and Pleiku, in June 1954, the battle of Diên Biên Phu was the last major confrontation of the Indochina War. This defeat of the French forces accelerated the negotiations begun in Geneva for the settlement of the conflicts in Asia (Korea and Indochina).

France left the northern part of Vietnam, after the Geneva agreements signed in July 1954, which established a partition of the country on both sides of the 17th parallel north.

Since 1946, France has committed significant military resources in Indochina to fight the Viet Minh (armed organization of the Vietnamese Communist Party), led by Hô Chi Minh, who is fighting for independence. Generals followed one another - Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque, Jean-Etienne Valluy, Roger Blaizot, Marcel Carpentier, Jean de Lattre de Tassigny and Raoul Salan - without succeeding in putting an end to the Viet Minh insurrection. In 1953, the Indochina War was not evolving in France's favor. During the 1952-53 campaign, the Viet Minh had occupied large swaths of territory in Laos, a French ally and Vietnam's western neighbor, advancing as far as Luang Prabang and the Plain of Jars. The French were unable to halt their advance, and the Viet Minh only halted its progress when its ever-stretching lines of communication became impassable.

Beginning in mid-1952, the French Expeditionary Corps in the Far East (CEFEO) attempted to block the advance of Viet Minh troops toward Laos. The French had begun to strengthen their defenses in the Hanoi delta region in preparation for a series of offensives against Viet Minh regrouping areas in northwest Vietnam. They had fortified towns and outposts in the area, as far north as Lai Chau near the Chinese border, and the Plain of Jars in northern Laos.

The French strategy was inspired by Chindits combat techniques: create an enclave in the jungle in the middle of enemy territory, an operational base supplied by air transport and allowing the control of a large forest area. The French will reinforce this concept with an important fire support: mortars, heavy machine guns and a huge quantity of ammunition. This tactic of the heavily protected "hedge camp" had been successfully employed during the battle of Na San, in October and December 1952, where a first entrenched camp had been set up.

In May 1953, French Council President René Mayer appointed General Henri Navarre, an officer he trusted, to take command of the French Union forces in Indochina. Mayer gave Navarre a simple assignment: to create the military conditions that would bring about an "honorable political solution. When he arrived, Navarre was shocked by what he found. No long-term plan had been developed since de Lattre's departure, operations being conducted purely on a reactive basis, in response to enemy movements. There was no plan to develop the organization and improve the equipment of the expeditionary force.

After evacuating the Na San base from August 7 to 12, 1953, Navarre drew up a plan that would last several years: first of all, he would adopt a defensive posture in Tonkin, with occasional operations ("Hirondelle", "Camargue" and "Mouette"), while continuing the pacification of Cochinchina until the Vietnamese National Army took over; when the situation improved, he would resume the offensive. Giap wrote in one of his books that this plan had worried him greatly, hence his resumption of the advance of the Viet Minh forces in August 1953. Informed of these movements, the French command decided to create a second camp at Diên Biên Phu.

Site of Diên Biên Phu

Diên Biên Phu or Ðiện Biên Phủ is a basin-shaped plain (the largest in the North after the Red River Delta) located in the northwest of Vietnam in the province of Lai Châu in Upper Tonkin, and in the center of which is the small village of Diên Biên Phu. It is located near the Chinese and Laotian borders, in the middle of the Taï Country (country of the tai dam).

In Vietnamese, Ðiện refers to an administration, Biên to a border area, and Phủ to a district, or in French "chef-lieu d'administration préfectorale frontalière". In Tai language, the city is called Muong Tenh, muong, designating the place, country or city and then, the sky.

The plain is covered with rice fields and fields, with the village itself, and a river, the Nam Youn, running through it. It is the only flat area for hundreds of kilometers around, with an average altitude of 400 meters. The habitat, mainly houses on stilts, is scattered. The valley has an old airfield built by the Japanese during the Second World War. It is oriented in the north-south direction and has two runways more or less parallel to the river.

The valley, also oriented north-south, has a length of 17 kilometers. The width from east to west varies from five to seven kilometers. To the east and northeast is an area of small hills gradually climbing to forested peaks that range from 1,000 to 1,300 meters. The difference in elevation between the valley and the mountain peaks varies from 600 to 700 meters.

Its tropical climate is very humid during the monsoon season. The sky is then overcast with a very low ceiling, which explains in part the operational difficulties (especially air intervention) during the battle.

Diên Biên Phu is linked to the rest of the country by Provincial Road 41 (PR 41), which leads to Hanoi, and by a track that goes north to China, via Laï Chau, capital of the Taï Country.

Operation Beaver

On the morning of November 20, 1953, as part of Operation Castor, two French parachute battalions, the 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion (6th BPC), under Bigeard, and the second battalion of the 1st Parachute Hunter Regiment (II

The old airstrip built by the Japanese during the Second World War had to be renovated, and after successfully parachuting in a bulldozer, the engineers set to work. On November 25, the first plane landed at Diên Biên Phu, and a flow of men, equipment, weapons and ammunition followed. This aerial noria was to operate for four months to create, supply and reinforce the entrenched camp. The heavy equipment (artillery and armor) was dismantled in Hanoi, transported in pieces, and then reassembled upon arrival.

Little by little, the parachute units were relieved by infantry units sent from Hanoi, except for the 1st BEP and the 8th BPC which remained at DBP until the end of the fighting. The new arrivals set up combat positions, built forts using wood from some of the village houses, sheet metal and beams, dug a vast network of trenches and installed mines and barbed wire networks. The command did not consider the threat sufficient to improve the resistance of the fortifications by concreting them.

Organization of the entrenched camp

The camp is designed to defend the 1,000-meter-long air strip through which all supplies and reinforcements are to arrive.

Around this track, four support points were set up, constituting the main resistance center. Colonel de Castries gave female names to these different support points (AP). The main resistance center thus included :

The main center of resistance is covered:

A remote support point, "Isabelle", was set up 5 km south of the main base, along the Nam Youm. It was established on December 15, 1953 by the II

Preparation viêt minh

For its part, the Viet Minh had guns and heavy equipment transported in pieces on tracks it had laid out in the mountainous jungle, invisible to French observation planes. The French secret services were, however, very well informed, but the position of the General Staff was that the Viet Minh artillery would be immediately destroyed by counter-battery fire from the base's guns; no one thought that the enemy guns would be buried in caves, and therefore undetectable. Although the myth of the Viet Minh artillery being transported by bicycle and on the backs of men still persists, especially in the propaganda films of the time, in reality, the Viet Minh used trucks of Soviet origin, thus positioning artillery pieces that would allow for the shelling of the French positions. The French army allowed this to happen out of negligence and an excessive sense of superiority. The transport of light equipment and foodstuffs was carried out on the backs of men and on bicycles on a road traced by the Viet Minh army through the jungle and the sides of the mountains surrounding Diên Biên Phu,

He will send regular patrols to test the French defenses before the assault. The French will do the same by attempting a few sorties outside the camp. But they realized that beyond a certain perimeter, they could no longer advance because of enemy pressure. From then on, they had the impression of being completely surrounded. In addition, some shells landed in the camp and some French soldiers mentioned the possible existence of one or more isolated guns on the enemy side.

Nevertheless, these skirmishes do not worry the staff too much, as they expect a massive assault.

Order of battle of the belligerents

The capture of the Dien Bien Phu camp by General Giáp's troops took place in three main phases.

First assaults of March 13 and 15, 1954

The attack began on 13 March at around 5:15 p.m. with an intense artillery preparation aimed at the Beatrice resistance center, one of the most remote APs in the area, held by the 3rd Battalion of the 13th Foreign Legion Half-Brigade (III

The Viet Minh assault was launched by the 141st and 209th regiments of the 312th Division from trenches built near the resistance center.

Without an officer to direct them, without artillery support, the legionnaires, left to their own devices, fought a desperate battle against the Viet Minh infantrymen who used the human wave technique, which consisted in sending a maximum number of soldiers, regardless of losses, to overwhelm the enemy by sheer numbers. Some of them did not hesitate to jump on the barbed wire to allow their comrades to pass behind them. The resistance center fell shortly before midnight, after several hours of hand-to-hand combat.

To add to the confusion in the French ranks, during the same night, Lieutenant-Colonel Gaucher, commander of the 13th DBLE and commander of the central sub-sector, was also killed in his dugout by a direct hit from Viet Minh artillery.

At the end of this first night of confrontation, the French suddenly realized that, against all odds, the Viet Minh had been able to bring in and camouflage around the camp a significant number of 105 mm caliber artillery pieces, whereas the 2nd office of the French staff thought that they could at worst bring in only light pieces, of 75 caliber at most. The French artillery was never able to silence the Viet Minh guns in this battle, nor were the Air Force bombers or the Air Force fighter-bombers.

Noting this failure, Colonel Charles Piroth, commander of all the artillery units at DBP, who had told the commanders that he was capable of countering the Viet Minh artillery with his 155 mm guns, committed suicide on March 15 in his dugout.

On March 14, around 8:00 p.m., two regiments of Division 308 attacked the Gabrielle resistance center, held by the 5th Battalion of the 7th Algerian Rifle Regiment (V

When the attack resumed at 3:30 a.m. after a new artillery preparation, fresh troops from the 312 Division were also engaged. The V

On the occasion of this failed counter-attack, the attitude of the 5th BPVN in the face of fire was the subject of much criticism at the time, with some, including Lieutenant-Colonel Langlais (Castries' deputy), reproaching it, in not very kind terms, for a "lack of punch" during the action. This was one of the many controversies that arose during the battle and which are still sometimes debated today among specialists. In defense of the 5th BPVN, others, later on, will argue that it was not necessarily wise to entrust a counter-attack mission to a unit that, having parachuted in the day before, had not had time to rest and was unfamiliar with the terrain, whereas a battalion like the 8th Shock, which had been present at DBP continuously for four months, having had time to familiarize itself with the terrain and to recognize counter-attack routes, would have had a better chance of success. In any case, the corps commander, Captain Botella, took drastic measures at the end of the engagement by demoting to the rank of private those officers who had shown weakness and by transforming into coolies those soldiers who had not behaved correctly in his eyes. Thus "purged", the 5th BPVN continued to fight until the end of the battle.

Lull period from March 15 to 30

Having suffered losses during these first two attacks, General Giáp was forced to take a break to reorganize his hard-pressed units, replenish his ammunition stocks and dig trenches to approach the APs. At the same time, the French High Command also decided to send reinforcements and the 6th BPC was parachuted in the afternoon of March 16th. The return of the "Bigeard battalion" to DBP helped to raise the morale of the garrison, which was shocked by the turn of events.

After a frontal assault phase, very costly in human lives, Giáp opted for a tactic of harassment of the entrenched camp. The Viet Minh artillerymen bombed all the important points of the entrenched camp, in particular the airstrip which quickly became unusable by day and soon by night. The last plane took off from DBP on March 27, 1954. From then on, the umbilical cord that linked the camp to Hanoi was cut, reducing the possibilities of supply and, above all, making it impossible to evacuate the wounded. The plane that was carrying her was damaged and destroyed by Viet Minh artillery after landing to evacuate the wounded. The Air Force courier Geneviève de Galard found herself trapped in the entrenched camp, where she spent the rest of the battle working as a nurse in the surgical unit of the doctor-commander Grauwin. She became famous under the name of "Dien Bien Phu angel" given to her by the Anglo-Saxon press. The legend that makes her the only woman in the camp forgets the BMC of about twenty prostitutes, mainly Vietnamese, who also became nurses. These prostitutes, according to a survivor, Bernard Ledogar, a paratrooper, were not nurses but orderlies. The severely wounded were no longer able to urinate or defecate under control, their main task was to wash them regularly. Finally, when the camp stopped fighting, they were executed by the Vietminh.

Operations were mounted every day to ensure the land link with the Isabelle support point, located south of the main resistance center. As time went by, these "road opening" operations became increasingly heavy and dangerous, and on March 23, 1954, during one of them, the 1st BEP lost 9 men, including 3 officers (Lieutenants Lecocq, Raynaud and Bertrand) and more than 20 wounded, in an ambush set up by infiltrating Vietminh elements. In view of the losses suffered, the daily liaison with Isabelle was finally abandoned: this support point, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Lalande, would fight autonomously until the end of the battle.

On March 28, the 6th BPC, supported by the 8th BPC, launched a counter-attack to the west of the entrenched camp with the objective of destroying the Viet Minh's anti-aircraft guns that were increasingly hampering air-to-air supply. The operation was only half successful: apart from significant quantities of light weapons, it only captured or destroyed a few heavy weapons (37 mm anti-aircraft guns) and resulted in significant losses. The 6th BPC suffered 17 casualties, including two officers (Lieutenants Le Vigouroux and Jacobs) and four non-commissioned officers. The 4th Company had no more officers, since in addition to Lt. Jacobs, the assistant officer, who was killed during the action, its leader, Lieutenant De Wilde, was seriously wounded.

Second wave of attacks from March 30 to April 4 ("Battle of the Five Hills")

Giáp had set as his objective the hills forming the northeastern and eastern defense of the main resistance center. On the night of March 30, after a new heavy artillery preparation, all the strong points quickly fell into the hands of the Viet-Minh, except for Eliane 2 (nicknamed "the fifth hill") and Eliane 4, which was not directly in the front line. The weak resistance put up against the attackers by the III

On Eliane 2, the Viet-Minh encountered fierce resistance from the other companies of I

On 31 March, the French Command decided to launch a counter-attack to retake the lost positions: the 8th BPC retook Dominique 2 (the highest hill in the entrenched camp) and the 6th BPC retook Eliane 1. However, due to a lack of fresh troops to relieve these two hard-pressed units (the parachuting of the II

Giáp continued his attacks on Éliane 2 until April 4, suffering very heavy losses, until he finally gave up taking this strongpoint. This failure caused a serious morale crisis within the Viet Minh units.

"Nibbling" of French positions during the month of April

The encircling and smothering actions continued throughout April, both on the Huguette APs, west of the air strip, and on the hills to the east.

Attempts to provide air support to ground troops failed. The planes coming from Hanoi (Douglas A-26 Invader bombers, Grumman F8F Bearcat fighters of the French Air Force and the 11F of the French Naval Air Arm then equipped with Grumman F6F Hellcat, Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar carriers (nicknamed Packet), were hampered by capricious weather (monsoon). They could hardly identify the firing locations. They dropped bombs and napalm at best, without radar and vaguely guided only by radio. The A-26s and fighters also made passes over the ridges to fire their 12.7 mm machine guns and rockets.

A cloudy screen, quasi-permanent in period of monsoon, makes the access and the air action difficult, with sight (the radars of flight existed little or almost not). In this context, the attack missions of the French planes were dangerous because of the terrain, the climate and especially the flak. These planes had to fly more than 600 km before arriving in the area: they were then at the limit of their fuel reserves and consequently had very little time for their combat mission. Moreover, the Viet Minh assaults took place mainly at night, when the French air force was less effective.

The French had 10 M24 Chaffee light tanks armed with 75 mm guns, relatively unsuited to siege warfare, often used to support the infantry during counter-attacks. Some of them were finally sabotaged by their crews, due to damage or to avoid capture by the enemy. The garrison could only count on counter-attacks by paratroopers on foot, their mission being to seize the opposing positions and the guns, armed with flame throwers. But these counter-attacks could not go beyond the line of the summits and were limited in time by the impossibility of supplying them and supporting them with fire. When a strong point is reached, the soldiers sometimes run out of ammunition. It is therefore a melee with knives and grenades that awaits them.

In this battle, the French were unable to rest and be relieved. There are many cases of death from exhaustion. Men can be heard fighting while singing La Marseillaise during the fighting. When the wounded were asked to return to the battle - for lack of able-bodied combatants - there were still volunteers. At night, explosions, tracer bullets and rockets lit up the battlefield as if it were daylight. The French cannons fired so much that they were red hot. Among the most notable acts was the fight of ten soldiers of the 6th BPC who resisted the Viet Minh assault without support for eight days. When they laid down their arms, they still held their position. There were two survivors, Brigadiers Coudurier and Laugier.

As for logistics, the French air force had difficulty coping with the magnitude of the task and had to resort to Fairchild-Packet C-119 ("Flying Boxcar") aircraft supplied by the US Air Force (under military assistance agreements), flown by French military crews and also by American mercenary crews from General Claire Chennault's CAT (Civil Air Transport). CAT (which later became Air America) was in fact the Flying Tigers Line, an airline close to the CIA and directed by Chennault, the former "boss" of the Flying Tigers. Several C-119s were hit by flak over DBP and it was there that the Americans suffered their first losses in the Indochinese peninsula, with the death of two pilots (James McGovern and Wallace Bufford) of a mixed French-American crew, while trying to crash-land their C-119, after being hit by flak during their drop operation. Thus, the United States never intervened directly in the conflict, in order not to provoke the direct intervention of China and an escalation of the conflict, contenting itself with providing air logistics and mercenaries to the French.

General Giáp gave his analysis of the fighting: the French military, "according to their formal logic, were right. "We were so far from our bases, 500 kilometers, 600 kilometers away. They were convinced, based on the experience of previous battles, that we could not supply an army on a battlefield beyond 100 kilometers and only for 20 days. However, we opened tracks, mobilized 260,000 porters - our feet are made of iron, they said - thousands of them using bicycles made in Saint-Etienne that we had cobbled together to be able to carry loads of 250 kg. For the French staff, it was impossible for us to hoist artillery on the heights overlooking the Diên Biên Phu basin and fire on sight. So we dismantled the guns and moved them piece by piece into caches dug into the mountainside without the enemy's knowledge. Navarre had pointed out that we had never fought in broad daylight and in open country. He was right. But we dug 45 km of trenches and 450 km of communication saps that, day after day, nibbled away at the hilltops."

Short of troops, the French organized the recruitment of volunteers in Hanoi to parachute into Diên Biên Phu. While everyone knew the situation was desperate and the fall of the camp was imminent, hundreds of men answered the call, some of them having never parachuted in their lives. Their motivation was to go and fight "to help their buddies", "for honor". In the fury of the fighting, and the confusion, some of the drops landed with the enemy.

The defenders of the camp hoped for a massive intervention by the American air force, which never came. At the beginning of May 1954, the Viets used multiple Katyusha rocket launchers (or "Stalin's organs") on the garrison on a massive scale, with devastating effects.

French attempts to hinder Viet-Minh supply by artificial rains took place under the direction of Colonel Genty, without going beyond the stage of experimentation.

Final assault from May 1st and fall of the French camp

The surface area of the camp having considerably diminished during the month of April, an increasingly large proportion of the parachuted supplies fell to the enemy. On the French side, the lack of ammunition was becoming very worrying, especially for the artillery, and the sanitary situation was turning into a catastrophe, with hundreds of wounded people crammed into the various aid stations. The final assault was launched on the evening of 1 May, preceded by an extremely intense artillery preparation that lasted three hours. The 312 and 316 divisions attacked the eastern side of the entrenched camp, the 308 the western side. The French artillery and infantry no longer had the means or sufficient manpower to face this massive and widespread assault. "Eliane 1" fell during the night of the 1st and only a few elements of the IInd Division were able to defend the camp.

The Command of the French forces in Indochina decided to launch a last parachute battalion into the battle, for the sake of honor. The 1st BPC of Major de Bazin de Bezons was parachuted in a fractional way at the beginning of May: Lieutenant Edme's 2nd company jumped during the night of May 2 to 3, Captain Pouget's 3rd company (aide-de-camp to General Navarre) during the night of May 3, and part of Captain Tréhiou's 4th company during the night of May 4. The remainder of the first three companies that had already jumped, i.e. 91 men, was dropped on the night of 5 May. These were the last reinforcements to be dropped on the entrenched camp. The drop of Lieutenant Faussurier's 1st Company, planned for the night of May 6th, was cancelled, as the planes were already over the camp, the Diên Biên Phu staff having preferred to give priority to a mission of dropping "firefly" flares, to support the combatants on the ground who were fighting hand to hand everywhere.

"Huguette 4" fell on the night of May 4. "Éliane 2" still resisted, but on the night of May 6, a two-ton TNT charge placed in a pit dug under the hill blew up the position held by Captain Pouget's company. On the morning of May 7, "Éliane 10", "Éliane 4" and "Éliane 3" were conquered by the Viet Minh who now held all the strong points on the eastern bank of the Nam Youm.

After abandoning the idea of breaking through the Viet Cong lines to get out of the camp, due to lack of sufficient manpower to have any chance of success, General de Castries received the order to cease fire, during a last radio conversation he had with his superior, General Cogny, based in Hanoi. On the instruction of General Navarre, he "must let the fire die by itself. But do not surrender. Do not raise the white flag. The order was given to the troops to destroy all the equipment and weapons still in condition. For the record, Lieutenant-Colonel Bigeard had to send a scribbled note on a sheet of paper to Lieutenant Allaire, commander of the mortar section of the 6th BPC, who refused to stop the fight without a written order.

It was up to General Vuong Thua Vu's 308 Division (vi), an infantry division that had been in all the battles in the high and middle regions, from the "disasters" of Cao Bang and Lang Son in 1950 to that of Diên Biên Phu, to deliver the coup de grâce. Noting the lack of reaction from the French during the preparatory fire for the new attack planned for the night, the Viets took over the entire entrenched camp. After 57 days and 57 nights of almost uninterrupted fighting, the entrenched camp of Dien Bien Phu fell on May 7, 1954 at 5:30 p.m.

This same 308 division was also the first Vietminh unit to enter Hanoi on October 9, 1954.

Failure of Operation D

In the last days of April, due to the critical situation of the camp, General Henri Navarre decided to launch a secret SDECE operation, Operation D (D for Desperado), directed by Captain Jean Sassi, commander of the GMI Malo Group. It consisted of setting up, from the GCMA bases in Laos, a relief column of nearly 2,000 men, essentially made up of Hmong (or Mèo) tribe maquisards, in an attempt to break through and evacuate the French troops.

Operation "D" began on April 28, 1954, but launched too late, it could not succeed, as the relief column arrived in the immediate vicinity of Dien Bien Phu a few days after the fall of the camp. Only 150 survivors of the besieged garrison who had managed to escape into the jungle were recovered.

Balance sheet

It was the longest, angriest, deadliest battle of the post-World War II era, and one of the high points of the wars of decolonization.

It is estimated that nearly 8,000 Vietminh soldiers were killed during the battle and 2,293 were killed in the ranks of the French army.

Once the cease-fire was signed, the count of the prisoners of the French Union forces, able-bodied or wounded, captured at Diên Biên Phu amounted to 11,721 soldiers, of which 3,290 were returned to France in a catastrophic sanitary state, skeletal and exhausted. There were 7,801 missing. The exact fate of the 3,013 prisoners of Indochinese origin is still unknown.

All the prisoners (including the "light" wounded, according to the criteria established by the Vietminh) had to walk through jungles and mountains over a distance of 700 km, to reach the camps, located on the edge of the Chinese border, out of reach of the expeditionary force. According to Erwan Bergot, of the 11,721 French Union soldiers, able-bodied or wounded, captured by the Vietminh at the fall of the camp, 3,290 were freed and 8,431 died in captivity. According to Historica magazine, out of 10,998 prisoners, 7,708 died in captivity or disappeared.

Rehabilitation camps

There, another ordeal awaited the prisoners. Those who survived best were the heavily wounded, taken care of by the Red Cross, who did not have to endure the forced 700 km march where the sick were abandoned by the Viet Minh on the side of the road. The others were interned in camps in appalling conditions. Thus, their daily diet was limited to a rice ball for the able-bodied, a rice soup for the dying. A large number of soldiers died of malnutrition and disease. They were not entitled to any medical care, since the few captive doctors were all assigned to the same hut, with a ban on leaving.

Prisoners were also subjected to communist propaganda bludgeoning with mandatory political indoctrination. This included self-criticism sessions where prisoners had to confess crimes committed against the Vietnamese people (real and imagined), beg for forgiveness and be grateful for "Uncle Ho's mercy in letting them live.

Most escape attempts failed despite the absence of barbed wire or watchtowers. The distance to be covered was too great to hope to survive in the jungle, especially for physically diminished prisoners. Those who were caught were executed.

Following the peace agreements signed in Geneva recognizing the creation of two free and independent Vietnams (the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam and the Republic of Viet Nam), France and the Viet Minh accepted the principle of a general exchange of prisoners. The surviving prisoners of Diên Biên Phu were taken in charge by the International Red Cross after the signing of the agreements.

War Crimes

Several hundred bodies of combatants from both sides remain buried on the spot. About a thousand French soldiers were buried in more or less organized and marked mass graves. In 1954, some remains of French soldiers were repatriated and buried in Fréjus. Urbanization projects at the beginning of the 21st century sometimes lead to the discovery of new bodies. In 2023 the association Le Souvenir français deplored the fact that the French Ministry of the Armed Forces had not committed to an archaeological operation in collaboration with the Vietnamese authorities.

The Indochinese conflict aroused little interest in France, for several reasons. The Fourth Republic was marked by great political instability. The country was in the midst of economic reconstruction and this war was far away. In addition, the expeditionary corps was made up of career soldiers and volunteers, who were often perceived as adventure-seekers (France had not sent the contingent to Indochina). It was the time of the Cold War, of the division of Europe by the Iron Curtain: the Soviet threat worried a part of the French population, and the Communist Party was the leading party in France.

From a demographic point of view, there had never been many French people in Indochina and the war had brought many of them back to France. Only a few thousand colonists and a few companies remained, in contrast to the situation before 1939-1945. Indeed, the Japanese had eliminated the entire colonial administration in 1945 and the nine years of war that followed had pushed the Europeans to leave the country. The France of 1954 had nothing to do with the colonialist France of Jules Ferry in the 19th century. In Indochina, the same desire to break away was present among the Vietnamese. One can say that a page of common history between France and Vietnam had already been turned even before Diên Biên Phu.

All these elements explain that this war did not fascinate the French. There was a certain weariness in front of a war that never ended, whose motives remained obscure for many. The defenders of Diên Biên Phu could have the feeling of being abandoned by the metropolis. The Indochina War could be described as a "dirty war", particularly in trade unionist circles and extreme left-wing parties. The CGT had even organized a campaign of sabotage of the material sent to the combatants of Diên Biên Phu.

Because of the censorship, there was very little information on the reality of the battle. Hence the stupor that struck the French population at the fall of the entrenched camp. Surprise was followed by anger and some members of parliament were violently attacked by the crowd on the Champs-Élysées. It was necessary at all costs to find those responsible for the disaster.

French point of view

The choice of DBP was not insane on the strategic level, at the crossroads of the pedestrian and horse trails to Laos. Giap wrote in his book on the battle that the decision to settle on this plain was the right one and that he won only because the French command largely underestimated the Viet Minh troops. Tactically, the airstrip allowed for massive airlift of supplies from Hanoi. The occupation of this position deprived the Viet Minh of a food supply since the entire plain was an agricultural area.

For the French strategists, the Vietnamese People's Army could not bring in heavy artillery because of the rugged and muddy terrain around the basin and the absence of passable trails. On the other hand, the topography was considered favorable to the defenders, high hills surrounding the basin would prevent the adversary from using his artillery: he would either have to fire from the counter-slope (the side hidden from the garrison) but with a strong arrow and therefore a limited range that would not allow him to reach the targets, or he could fire from the downslope, in view of the garrison, which would expose him to the French counter-battery. Giap had chosen this second option.

Moreover, such an artillery could only have a small quantity of ammunition, provided by a logistics estimated to be weak, because based on men on foot. The risk of an opposing artillery was indeed taken into account by the French, but considered technically unrealistic. From a purely military point of view, the Viet Minh's ability to use guns was doubted.

In fact, perhaps the greatest mistake of the French command was to consider that local peculiarities were an exception to the tactical rule that "who holds the highs holds the lows.

It must also be remembered that faced with a mobile and elusive Viet Minh adversary, which obtained all the logistical support it wanted wherever it moved, the expeditionary force sought an open confrontation at all costs.

It is also useful to recall the events of Na San in 1952. During this battle, an entrenched camp of the expeditionary force, in a remote and difficult to access area, was attacked by a Viet Minh army, already commanded by General Giáp. This was one of the few times - along with the battle of Vinh Yen in January 1951 - that the Viet Minh agreed to fight a conventional battle. Giáp used wave assault tactics, on open ground and in daylight. Like the offensives of World War I, the attacks were launched by bugle call.

It was a disaster: the 1st wave jumped on the mines, the 2nd became entangled in the barbed wire network, the 3rd was chopped up by the machine guns. After several attempts and given the extent of the losses, Giáp had no choice but to lift the siege. This failure made him reluctant for a long time to attack the French in a frontal and massive assault. He therefore returned to guerrilla warfare.

The success of Na-San reinforced the French General Staff. General Navarre decided to use the same tactic in 1953: to fix the Viet Cong troops around an entrenched camp and to crush its assaults. The whole conception of the DBP camp, from the choice of weapons to the configuration of the shelters, was based on the lessons of the battle of Na-San, i.e., the enemy's artillery was deliberately concealed and the order to bury oneself was not given. Except that Giap had learned the lesson of Na-San.

The French shelters were relatively basic: holes with sandbags and a metal sheet as a roof. They were connected by trenches. There were no concrete structures, no underground tunnels, the outposts were not surrounded by glacis to facilitate firing, they lacked barbed wire and the guns were not protected but placed on simple platforms, in full view of the enemy.

The conception of the camp thus suffered from a contradiction: the French General Staff saw Dien Bien Phu as both a base of operations and an entrenched camp. In reality, however, it was neither one nor the other. It soon became apparent that Dien Bien Phu could not conduct offensive operations and was not really an entrenched camp.

By air, DBP is close to Hanoi and very far by jungle tracks for the Vietnamese People's Army. The logistical calculations of the Planning Office therefore gave a very favorable ratio to the French side in terms of daily tonnage transported.

A few months before the fighting began, a government delegation went to DBP to assess the situation. It was reassured by what it saw and by the strategy explained to it by the officers of the camp. Likewise, journalists and foreign observers, especially American officers, found nothing wrong with the French plan. Another reason for the choice of this location was to cut the Viet Minh off from Laos, a possible rear base. Originally, DBP was to be the base for mobile units that could operate throughout the Lai Chau district with American M24 Chaffee light tanks (nicknamed "Bisons" by the garrison). It is for this reason that a cavalryman, Colonel de Castries, was put in charge of the GONO (Groupement Opérationnel du Nord-Ouest). The camp was protected by a network of support points with female names: Dominique, Éliane, Gabrielle, etc.

The French expeditionary force waited several weeks for the assault, motivated, impatient to fight and convinced that it would "break the Viet". Some officers declared: "I hope they attack! All that followed was a war of attrition between a numerous, supplied, indoctrinated aggressor, over-motivated by the stakes, and a French contingent trapped and hardly able to count on anything but itself.

Role of France's allies

From the beginning of the battle, the Americans offered the French air support with heavy bombers. This option was rejected by the French general staff, who believed they were in control of the situation.

Later, in view of the dramatic turn of events, the French military called for massive bombing raids on the neighbouring hills. Cornered in defensive positions, the staff was ordered to resist until a possible "Operation Vautour (en)" consisting in the intervention of B-29 bombers. These bombers could drop their bombs at high altitude, which made them invulnerable to the Viet Minh's anti-aircraft defenses, an advantage that the B-26s used by the expeditionary force did not have. A heavy and massive bombardment of the surrounding hills would probably have destroyed the flak, and part of the artillery used by the Viet Minh, allowing at least the evacuation of the many wounded, the resumption of the supplies and the dropping of traditional and napalm bombs (these last ones being necessarily operated at low altitude for a good precision). Approximately 60 B-29s were involved in the operation, some mentioning the dropping of three atomic bombs.

The American authorities feared above all an escalation with China after the Korean War. The American president Eisenhower was also a notorious anti-colonialist and viewed the French presence in Indochina negatively. Moreover, he was convinced that "there was no possible victory for the white man in this region.

Other reasons can be advanced: the United States needed the authorization of Congress to intervene massively on Diên Biên Phu and, according to General Bedell Smith (who was responding to the entreaties of the French ambassador across the Atlantic), "success depended on London's acceptance. Churchill received Mr. Massigli (the French ambassador) on the morning of April 27, (...) and told him: "Don't count on me (...) I have suffered Singapore, Hong Kong, Tobruk. The French will suffer Diên Biên Phu".

Viet Minh viewpoint

For the Viet Minh, the battle of Diên Biên Phu was a battle where the Viet Minh won the artillery battles and deprived the French troops of supplies. The French believed their adversary to be incapable of using their artillery and did not hide and protect their installations, which were destroyed as soon as the first salvos were fired (see Jules Roy).

Strategically, the choice to fight at Diên Biên Phu was the military argument for the Geneva conference that was opening to discuss Korea, but whose main subject was Indochina, as everyone knew.

The siege of Diên Biên Phu had both a military and diplomatic purpose: to force the adversary to negotiate from a disadvantaged position. The Viet Minh general staff was commanded by General Vo Nguyen Giap, but he was assisted by Russian and Chinese military advisors. Most of its weapons, of Chinese manufacture, were brought in from neighboring China, as well as ammunition and uniforms supplemented by guns and shells taken from the Americans and the French. The victory of Mao Zedong's communist troops in China in 1949 and the end of the Korean War had indeed made possible massive Chinese aid to the Viet Minh. This contrasted with the logistical situation prior to 1949, when the Viet Minh had to attack French convoys to obtain arms and ammunition. For the first time since the beginning of the Indochina War, the Viet Minh finally had heavy resources, well-trained regular troops, and modern, efficient weaponry.

The artillery consisted mainly of salvaged guns: American-made 105 mm (M 105 Howitzer), howitzers taken by the Chinese in Korea or during the civil war against the Chinese nationalists. Having learned the lessons of his crushing defeat at Na San, Giap benefited from massive Chinese assistance in terms of artillery, both ground-to-ground and ground-to-air, which was of capital importance in the interdiction of air support. This included 37.5 mm flak guns as well as hundreds of 12.7 mm machine guns that played an air interdiction role. The guns were hoisted up the mountainside on men's backs, using ropes.

It was relatively easy to direct fire against the garrison, since the Viet Cong positions overlooked the entrenched camp. The infantry fighting was intended primarily to keep up the pressure and demoralize the garrison defenders, who lost the initiative with the first artillery fire.

Vietnamese logistics were based on jungle trails and sturdy Peugeot bicycles adapted to a 250 kg payload, pushed on foot. It prefigured the future "Ho Chi Minh trail" that would later supply the fighting in the south during the Vietnam War. Speaking of these bicycles, General Giap declared to his staff "they will be our cabs of the Marne". These famous bicycles were also used for propaganda purposes, because in reality hundreds of Soviet-made Molotova trucks and thousands of coolies with their palanche contributed to the supply of Giap's troops.

It is clear that the Viet Minh won the logistical battle since, in spite of air raids by the Air Force, food, men and ammunition still arrived at Diên Biên Phu.

Lithographic poster

The novel "Waiting for the Wild Beasts" by Ahmadou Kourouma evokes the ambush of French soldiers at the foot of the mountains of Diên Biên Phu in chapter 2.


  1. Battle of Dien Bien Phu
  2. Bataille de Diên Biên Phu
  3. (vi) Ban tổng kết-biên soạn lịch sử, BTTM, Lịch sử Bộ Tổng tham mưu trong kháng chiến chống Pháp 1945-1954 [« Histoire de L'État-major dans la guerre de résistance contre la France 1945-1954 »], Hanoï, Nhà xuất bản Quân Đội Nhân Dân, 1991, p. 799.
  4. ^ Anthony James Joes (2010). Victorious Insurgencies: Four Rebellions that Shaped Our World. University Press of Kentucky. pp. 121–. ISBN 978-0-8131-2614-2.
  5. ^ Boylan & Olivier 2018, p. 286.
  6. ^ a b Riley 2014, pp. 194–95.
  7. ^ a b Davidson 1988, p. 224
  8. ^ a b c d "U.S. Pilots Honored For Indochina Service" (PDF). News From France. French Embassy to the US. 2 March 2005. Archived from the original (PDF) on 11 August 2011.
  9. Martin Windrow: The Last Valley – Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam. Cambridge 2004, S. 702.
  10. Martin Windrow: The Last Valley – Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam. Cambridge 2004, S. 709.
  11. Phillip B. Davidson: Vietnam at War – The History 1046–1975, Oxford, 1988, S. 224.
  12. a b c Martin Windrow: The Last Valley – Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam. Cambridge 2004, S. 624.
  13. ^ Davidson, Phillip (1988). Vietnam at War: The History, 1946–1975. New York: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-506792-4, pagina 224.
  14. ^ a b French Ambassy in the United States: News from France 05.02 (March 2, 2005) (PDF), su (archiviato dall'url originale l'11 agosto 2011)., U.S. pilots honored for Indochina Service, Seven American Pilots were awarded the Legion of Honor...

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