France’s final blow in the Far East
After a 55-day siege, on May 7 1954, a small French-held stronghold fell to Vietnamese troops. The colonial power’s empire in the region was no more
Author Saul David discusses the events that led up to the French defeat in his work Military Blunders. The following are facts and extracts from the book.
The French found after World War 2 that they could not reinstate their pre-war colonial rule in the Far East. The communist-dominated party Viet Minh, under Ho Chi Minh, had provided effective resistance to the Japanese during this war, and Ho filled the vacuum when the Japanese left in September 1945.
Ho seized Hanoi and proclaimed the Independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The French made an offer of limited freedom, which Ho refused. What followed was the occupation of the cities of Hanoi and Haiphong.
The French responded by sending out Gen Jean Marie de Tassigny as a check to Ho’s military commander, Gen Vo Nguyen Giap. But De Tassigny, suffering from cancer, returned to France, where he died in 1952.
When the war started to slip away from the French, the main strategy of French general in charge then, Gen Henri Navarre, was the reoccupation of the of Dien Bien Phu outpost in a valley in north-east Vietnam.
As David explains, the outpost was planned to become an air-supplied “hedgehog” which could intercept Viet Minh forces advancing into Laos. Or, if Giap decided to attack Dien Bien Phu, Navarre believed Ho would not be able to muster a sufficiently powerful force. Such a force could, Navarre believed, easily be repulsed.
Operation Castor, as it was called, was launched on November 20 1953. The French dropped two parachute battalions on Dien Bien Phu, taking the Viet Minh defenders by surprise. Fierce house-to-house fighting followed.
More French troops and equipment followed that day. And David reports that the French turned their attention to constructing two airfields and a chain of nine strong points around the village.
When Navarre heard that four Viet Minh divisions, one with heavy artillery, were approaching the mountain stronghold, he was unconcerned, and rejected the proposal by Gen Cogny, the area commander, to “launch strikes into the communist heartland of Viet Bac to forestall a move against Dien Bien Phu,” David writes. But he says Navarre believed the attackers could be defeated. The reality, as David points out, “was to prove very different”.
The converging Viet Minh forces closed the ring around the stronghold and enemy heavy artillery was trained on its key points.
It got worse. David says parachute commandos were invariably ambushed. “Little was done to improve defences against communist attack.” Also, ammunition supplies were not replenished for a whole week “because of other priorities”.
On March 13 1954 Giap launched his first major attack. As David explains, the stronghold was “overlooked from its surrounding hills by four infantry divisions of 50,000 men in all, with 31,000 support troops”. Giap also had more than 200 artillery pieces.
Against this force, David reports the French could offer only 13,000 men, of whom fewer than 7,000 were combatant. They were supported by 60 guns of a calibre not greater than 57mm.
Matters went from bad to worse. “Communist artillery bombarded the main airfield, destroying fighter-bomber and reconnaissance aircraft on the ground.”
At that time, too, the French strong point called Beatrice, “manned by part of the illustrious 13th Foreign Legion, was stormed and taken”. David says in all 300 legionnaires were killed and all officers were either killed or severely wounded.
Strong point Gabrielle fell the next day and strong point Anne-Marie a day later. “In the three days the enemy had taken a third of nine strong points.”
David says a change of command stiffened the defenders and on April 10 more reinforcements were parachuted in, many of whom landed behind enemy lines.
By the end of April the French “were out on their feet”, David writes. Water flooded their trenches. The monsoon did additional damage, such as causing the French ground defences to collapse. That was not all, for the French fighting force was down to 2,900 men, while the Viet Minh still had 30,000 troops.
On May 1 Giap launched his final phase of the battle. A “huge artillery bombardment was followed by a two-division assault, resulting in more posts being lost,” David writes.
There were Foreign Legion counterattacks, but the Viet-Minh continued to advance.
Matters had become so bad for the French that badly wounded men returned to the front line from hospital. David writes: “If we’ve got to go, we’d rather go with our mates,” many were heard to say.
One highlight at the mountain stronghold relates to Genevieve de Galard, an Air Force nurse and an honorary legionnaire. She was stranded at Dien Bien Phu when her ambulance plane was blown up on the runway. “Her unflinching work under appalling conditions in the main field hospital was already recognised with the award the Croix de Guerre and the Legion d’Honneur. She was nicknamed the Angel of Dien Bien Phu.”
On May 7 the garrison commander, Col Christian de Castries, reported: “Still holding on tooth and nail ... extreme fatigue and weariness.”
The last message received from Dien Bien Phu was: “We’re blowing up everything. Adieu.”