NOTICE: Citizendium is still being set up on its newer server, treat as a beta for now; please see here for more.
Citizendium - a community developing a quality comprehensive compendium of knowledge, online and free. Click here to join and contribute—free
CZ thanks our previous donors. Donate here. Treasurer's Financial Report -- Thanks to our content contributors. --

Difference between revisions of "Battle of Dien Bien Phu"

From Citizendium, the Citizens' Compendium
Jump to: navigation, search
(Viet Minh response)
(Immediate response)
Line 172: Line 172:
  | url =}}, p. 46</ref>
  | url =}}, p. 46</ref>
Giap then changed the plan. Karnow quoted [[Bui Tin]] as saying "[Giap] changed the entire plan. He stpped the attack and pulled back our artillery. Now the shovel became our most important weapon."<ref>Karnow, p. 196</ref>
Giap then changed the plan. Karnow quoted [[Bui Tin]] as saying "[Giap] changed the entire plan. He stopped the attack and pulled back our artillery. Now the shovel became our most important weapon."<ref>Karnow, p. 196</ref>
[[Image:DBP-strongpoints-at-start.png|right|250px|Communist Forces at start of main battle]]
[[Image:DBP-strongpoints-at-start.png|right|250px|Communist Forces at start of main battle]]

Revision as of 02:02, 12 December 2008

This article is developed but not approved.
Main Article
Related Articles  [?]
Bibliography  [?]
External Links  [?]
Citable Version  [?]
This editable Main Article is under development and not meant to be cited; by editing it you can help to improve it towards a future approved, citable version. These unapproved articles are subject to a disclaimer.

Dien Bien Phu is a valley and small town in North Vietnam, 260 miles northwest of Hanoi and the place of the 1954 decisive battle that soon forced France to relinquish control of colonial Indochina. In military shorthand, Dien Bien Phu has also become a synonym for an extremely unwise decision: the attempt to hold a seemingly strong defensive position, against which the enemy, cooperating with the defender's plans, will then destroy himself against the impregnable fortifications.

Unfortunately, the Viet Minh, commanded by Vo Nguyen Giap, did not play the part the French commander, Henri Navarre, had written for them. Navarre, in turn, believed his government had set a policy that he must follow: defend northern Laos. It cannot be strongly enough emphasized that the Dien Bien Phu operations were a broader part of Indochinese, not Vietnamese, campaigns, and that it is critical to understand the relationship of the base to the geography of Laos, not just Tonkin and the Red River Delta.

The French commission of inquiry, however, believed that the highest political authority had set Navarre's highest priority as protecting the French Expeditionary Force. [1]

Even with the much greater historical material available today, there are still inconsistencies in timelines and other information about the battle. The French command structure, which was to some degree split, is confusing both in its very makeup, the authorities at any given point, and the taking of actions while apparently simultaneously in possession of intelligence suggesting an action would be unwise. Unity of command, or having a single final decisionmaker, is a repeated problem during the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, unity of command problems were evident at the 1963 Battle of Ap Bac, with disagreements internal to South Vietnamese commanders, internal to U.S. advisory command, and Vietnamese-American relationships. There were unity of command problems in the 1972 Operation LINEBACKER II all-American bombing of the North.

The timing of the first Communist response, especially deliberate ones rather than immediate response to the paratrooper, is not clear. In particular, various accounts of the dynamics among Giap's headquarters, the Lao Dong Party (i.e., Indonesian/Vietnamese Communist leadership), and the Chinese Military Assistance Group (CMAG) as well as Chinese Politburo have inconsistencies. Some reports have the Chinese advisors demanding an immediate attack on the paratroopers still forming, some suggest it never happene, and others say Giap started but then stopped it to move to a more deliberate approach. There are also reports that some Chinese decisions reflected, very quickly, the results of secret U.S.-French meetings in Washington, with a distinct lack of clarity about how the Chinese learned about things held tightly in Western governments.

Even though there are joint Vietnamese-Western historical meetings, some of the truth may never be known, since most of the key officials have died. Giap, while retired, is one of the few living principals. See the talk page and bibliography for possible sources, not in English, which may add information.

The place

Dien Bien Phu general region

That the correct Vietnamese name for the area is not even Dien Bien Phu characterizes the misunderstandings that went into the battle. Properly, the area centers on a village called Muong Thanh by the T'ai tribesmen of the area. [2]

Previous military use

In 1952, Giap had recognized the French were weak in Laos, and sent three divisions and an independent regiment southwest from his mountainous bases. They pushed the French back, clearing road junctions and capturing small towns including Muong Thon, also known as Dien Bien Phu.

He was able to lay siege to the capital of the capital at Luang Prabang, but, learning caution, decided not to press the attack into the rainy season. In November, French paratroopers recaptured the town, although this was not part of the main fortification. Both sides decided to reinforce for the battle that would begin in March. [3]

Communist strategy

Dien Bien Phu was part of a larger Viet Minh strategy, to force the French to commit their mobile forces to static defense and lose the operational initiative.[4] In parallel with it, they marched divisions into the northwest, attacking local "bandits" and attacking the French column retreating from Lai Chau. They saw the French as losing initiative and mobility, as they concentrated at Dien Bien Phu and in the Red River Delta (i.e., Hanoi-Haiphong area).

Another offensive struck out toward middle Laos, especially the airfield at Seno. Threatening Seno forced the French to commit yet more mobile forces to static defense. The Viet Minh plan was to leave only a small reserve to protect the rear, while attacking the Western highlands. Kontum was taken and the French had to form yet another static defense at Pleiku.

In Upper Laos, Viet Minh troops threatened Luang Prabang, again forcing static defense.

French strategy

"Mission creep" was among the many French military sins. Originally, Navarre had planned to block Viet Minh access to Laos, and interfere with Giap's supply lines and his drug trade. As the Geneva conference of 1954 approached, however, he felt under pressure to produce a decisive victory. [5] Giap saw the Navarre plan as intending to defend the Red River Delta and leave other forces mobile. [6]

Navarre, an armor officer, thought the flat valley would be ideal as a base for mobile operations; he flew in 32 tanks, which were defeated by mud; only 2 were usable when the final attack came. Even Navarre, however, believed that the greatest strength of the garrison was artillery, commanded by COL Charles Piroth.[7]

Jean-Louis Nicot, the French air force transport chief, advised against putting the force into Dien Bien Phu, doubting his ability to keep it supplied.

Seizing the base

On November 23, 1953, the French dropped a paratroop force into Dien Bien Phu, using 65 transport aircraft, supported by fighters and bombers. [8] Once landed, the paratroopers would improve the airfield, so heavier equipment could be landed. There was confusion, however, on just what equipment and troops would eventually be needed. Approximately two weeks before the jumps into Dien Bien Phu, French intelligence learned that regular Communist units were in the area, equipped with artillery that paratroop units could not match. Eventually, heavier units would be needed; the later replacement of the Airborne commander with an armor officer would suggest this was soon realized. [9] The French knew what infantry strength they faced, but were unrealistic in their ability to deal with it, especially given that they totally underestimated the enemy artillery and 'anti-aircraft artillery resources.

BG Jean Gilles, the Airborne commander, expected some resistance, so he used the best available troops for the first landing:

  • 6th BCP (Colonial Parachute Battalion), commanded by MAJ Marcel Bigeard, 651 men
  • II/1 RCP (2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment of Parachute Light Infantry), MAJ Jean Bréchignac, 569 men
  • 17th Company of Airborne Combat Engineers
  • battery of 35th Airborne Artillery Regiment, MAJ Jean Milot
  • Headquarters, Airborne Battle Group No. 1 (GAP 1)

All the basic complement of paratroops were in place by the 22nd. Gilles went back to overall airborne command, and was replaced by COL Bastiani's airborne group headquarters. On December 12, LTC Pierre Langlais, a regular army officer, arrived as deputy to COL Christian de Castries, an armor officer who was being given overall command of the area.

Initial buildup

Eight 105mm howitzers of the Autonomous Laotian Artillery Battery landed on the improved airstrip, on November 28. Better artillery followed.[10] On November 30, paratroop units under Capt. Pierre Tourret began to maneuver out of the base, with the intention of linking up with French-led guerillas. Outside the Dien Bien Phu area, Groupement de Commandos Mixtes Aeroportes (GCMA) guerillas under Roger Trinquier moved toward the position. GCMA had some similarities to the later MACV-SOG, as a principally covert operations force.

On December 5th, Tourret's force ran into heavy Viet Minh opposition, and were able to return only with artillery support from the base. They did not successfully link up with the GCMA force.

Fortification and firepower

French artillery positions

Between December, and the main Communist attacks of March, the French built a position, at the bottom of a valley, of a set of strongpoints, with three main artillery firebases. As opposed to the Vietnamese, the French guns were in the open and not camouflaged. COL Piroth, the artillery commander, continued to increase his resources, but with what often turned out to be inferior weapons.

French artillery dispositions[11]
Unit Equipment Location
3rd Group, 10th Colonial Artillery (III/10 RAC) 105mm howitzer 2 batteries, Isabelle
1 battery, Claudine
II/10 RAC 105mm 2 battieries, Claudine
1 battery, Dominique
11/IV/4 RAC 155mm howitzer Claudine
I Battery, North-Vietnam AAA Group quad .50 caliber machine gun 1 section, Dominique 4
1 section, Huguette 1
quad .50 caliber machine gun 1 section, Dominique 4
1st Foreign Legion Heavy Airborne Mortar Company 120mm mortar Claudine
1st Foreign Legion Composite Mortar Company 120mm mortar Gabrielle
2nd Foreign Legion Composite Mortar Company 120mm mortar Anne-Marie
When the French Defense Minister and Chief of Staff inspected on February 9, he had refused more equipment, saying he had more than he needed; the French had no idea how much the Vietnamese had emplaced. [12] Nevertheless, Piroth, who took formal command of the artillery on December 7, told Navarre,
Mon General, no Viet Minh cannon will be able to fire three rounds without being destroyed by my artillery.[13]


Up to that point, the Viet Minh had made little use of artillery, and never artillery heavier than 75mm. Piroth made three assumptions: [14]

  • Nothing heavier, and longer-ranged, than 75mm would be used
  • They would be placed on the reverse (i.e., back) side of hills, traditional for protecting against observation and direct fire
  • 75mm artillery, from the reverse slope, could not hit the French positions, but the reverse would not be true.

Viet Minh response

While the French were in static defense, Giap considered it a strong position. Previously, he had avoided the French strength, after the lesson of the Battle of Vinh Yen.

It was quite proper military thinking for him to ask if he could be certain of victory in attacking Dien Bien Phu. No matter how important it might be to the Navarre Plan, no matter how much it might be a center of gravity, he knew he should attack it if and only if he was confident of victory. A fundamental principle of revolutionary war, according to Giap, was "strike to win, strike only when success is certain; if it is not, don't strike."[15]

The immediate question was whether to "strike swiftly and win swiftly, or strike surely and attack surely." The first option would have meant attacking the paratroopers before they had consolidated. Still, even in the early days, "our troops lacked experience in attacking fortified entrenched camps", and even the first French forces fortified from the beginning. Still, there was an initial attack.

Arguing against a quick strike was that it was cut off by land, in a mountainous area, and could be supplied only by air. The Viet Minh could keep the initiative, by concentrating troops and using the immense rear to keep them supplied. [16] Giap's chief of staff, who managed the logistics, was Van Tien Dung, who would later command the final invasion of South Vietnam.

Immediate response

Contrary to Giap's analysis, he did launch a first "human wave" assault in January 1954, partially at the recommendation of a Chinese advisor, Gen. Wei Guoqing. [17] Wei was the original head of the Chinese Military Assistance Group, assigned to it in April 1950. [18] Senior General Chen Geng joined CMAG in July 1950; throughout the war, he was insistent on his advice being followed, including at Dien Bien Phu; he would call Ho or Mao with his recommendations and threatened Giap with his resignation if Giap did not follow his plan. [19] These attacks failed both because Viet Minh artillery was not in position as yet, and the French reinforced faster than the Chinese advisors had expected. The Chinese central command ordered Wei to abandon the direct attack and "strive to eliminate one battalion at a time." China sent antiaircraft and engineering experts to help isolate Dien Bien Phu.[20]

Giap then changed the plan. Karnow quoted Bui Tin as saying "[Giap] changed the entire plan. He stopped the attack and pulled back our artillery. Now the shovel became our most important weapon."[21]


Communist Forces at start of main battle

After Giap had drawn the French strength toward Dien Bien Phu, he used human work to bring howitzers and anti-aircraft artillery into the hills surrounding the French base. He used his laborers to dig the weapons into impregnable positions on the forward slopes: a cannon could fire and be quickly pulled back into the safety of a cave.

He had had orders from the North Vietnamese Politburo to launch human-wave attacks on January 26, which he concluded would play into the French strength. Instead, possibly endangering his life, he called off the order, and continued fortification and besieging until March 13.[22]

He knew, however, that his own strength was in well-protected howitzers and anti-aircraft artillery. By the time the main attack started, the Communists had three times as many artillery pieces than the French: at least 36 105-mm howitzers, as well as 48 75-mm pack howitzers and 104 other field guns of 57-mm caliber or greater.[14] Additional fire support was waiting for the final assault.

Possible external relief

Other countries, as well as other French forces, were monitoring the situation. It is a matter of record that U.S. transport pilots, such as the legendary Earthquake McGoon,[23]were flying missions to Dien Bien Phu, to drop supplies. They worked for a Central Intelligence Agency proprietary airline called Civil Air Transport.

While the CAT personnel, a number of whom were shot down, clearly would drop military supplies, it is not clear if they were prepared for the greater structure of a paratroop operation.

Operation Damocles

This was a French contingency plan, more directed at a Korean War-style invasion more than at Dien Bien Phu specifically. It also assumed the use of U.S. air power, and it would have French forces fall back to a defensible position in the Red River Delta, much as U.S. and Republic of Korea forces would fall back to the Pusan Perimeter in 1950. [24]

Aspets of Damocles may have been discussed, among with other contingencies, by GEN Paul Ely, Chief of Staff of France, visited the U.S. starting on March 20.

Operation VULTURE

Ely's mission was not, initially, to ask for isolated help at Dien Bien Phu, but to ensure U.S. support should there be overt Chinese intervention. He also wanted U.S. help at the Geneva talks on Vietnam; France had already made the policy decision that Indochina would eventually be lost, and they wanted a stronger position at Geneva. Ely believed U.S. ground forces would merely prolong and worsen the situation. [25]

Ely obtained greater support from Admiral Arthur Radford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. [26] Radford was the strongest proponent of greater U.S. involvement, certainly including heavy bomber strikes around the Dien Bien Phu perimeter. Eisenhower had already rebuked Radford, on April 5, for misleading Ely about the chance of U.S. support. He told Radford, who, at the time, was not supported by any of the other chiefs, that the proposal was politically impossible. Even the hard-line Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, agreed it would be possible only with British agreement [27]

Reports of Vulture planning differ as to whether the use of nuclear weapons was considered, although it is fairly clear that there would be extensive use of U.S. B-29 Superfortress heavy land-based bombers. Gen Earle Partridge, commanding U.S. Far Eastern Air Force (FEAF), and BG Joseph Caldera, FEAF bomber commander, did fly an assessment mission in April; he found many practical problems with the draft proposals.[28] Assessments of feasibility differ; another report says that Caldera thought a day mission was feasible and could be launched in 72 hours. [29]

One technical unknown involves the weather over Dien Bien Phu. In principle, B-29 bombers could bomb fairly accurately, especially in daylight, above the range of Vietnamese antiaircraft guns. That was also true in principle over Japan in the Second World War, but unexpected high-altitude winds made that impossible. Still using unguided bombs, however, U.S. B-52 bombers were able to carry out accurate high-altitude bombing over the North during the 1972 Operation LINEBACKER II.

Operations Albatross, Condor and Woodpecker

Navarre considered a high-risk breakout of the garrison, moving toward Laos, which he mentioned to Ely in an April 30 message. During this time, Navarre's intelligence obtained a high-level clandestine human-source intelligence source in Ho Chi Minh's government, which gave some perspective.

Operation Albatross would involve dropping paratroops, for which the airlift might not have been obtainable, outside the base, to facilitate the breakout. Operation Woodpecker (Pivert), earlier known as Operation Condor, would drop paratroops only after a breakout had started. At least part of Condor was attempted. COL Nicot again said that the French air transport was insufficient to support such an operation; there would be as much a need for American logistics as there had been for firepower in Operation VULTURE.[30]

The Main Assault

According to Zhai, the Viet Minh hesitated in April, partially due to weather and partially due to potential U.S. assistance. It was not, however, indicated how China learned of the high-level Ely-Radford discussions. [31]

Situation by March 28, prior to "Strangulation"

In any event, the main assaults started on March 13. Giap describes the first phase as attacking the northern sector from our "newly built network of attack and encirclement positions."[32]

Strongpoints "Beatrice" and "Gabrielle" were soon ineffective. [33]

On March 15, COL Piroth, recognizing that his artillery was totally inadequate to counter the threat, said

I am completely dishonored. I have guaranteed de Castries that the enemy artillery coundn't touch us — but now we are going to lose the battle. I'm leaving.[34]

Probably on the night of the 15th, but possibly as late as the 19th, Piroth committed suicide. de Castries' chief of staff, LTC Keller, was in a severe clinical depression and totally ineffective. LTC Jules Gaucher, an excellent officer commanding a Foreign Legion unit at the Beatrice strongpoint, had been killed by shellfire. de Castries was rapidly losing his key senior subordinates.

The last French aircraft to successfully fly out of the base lifted off the runway on March 27. After that, only those supplies that could be dropped by parachute could be delivered. Parachute bundles often missed the French garrison; the Communists especially appreciated some of the food.

By March 28, the effective French perimeter had contracted, and the second phase of the main battle, called "strangulation", began. Even with the declining situation, de Castries wanted to suppress one area of Communist air defense, west of Claudine. however, Bigeard led a successful counterattack, with air and artillery support.[35]


To Giap, the next phase ran from March 30 into mid-April. To the French, after the attacks on Beatrice and Gabrielle, would become what was called the Battle of the Five Hills: Dominique 1 and 2 and Eliane 1, 2 and 4. Langlais decided that Bigeard's counterattack had proven French effectiveness in the lowlands, and expected the next attack would be on the hills east of the Nam Yum. There was still a belief that artillery could keep the enemy off outlying high ground.[36]

This phase, according to Giap, was a positional one, with strongpoints exchanging hands several times. His basic goal, however, was to dominate the communications trenches and the airstrip with fire; "our tactics were to encroach, harass, and wrest every inch of ground from the enemy, destroy his airstrips, and narrow down his air space.[37]


Giap describes the goal of the final phase, from May 1 to 7, as attacking the remaining pocket from all directions, taking the enemy headquarters. In this phase, he made unexpected use of Soviet multiple rocket launchers, which spread out over wide areas rather than possibly applying unneeded force in one spot, as do cannon.


French commanders outside the base, even when it was clearly to fall, made various recommendations for limited breakouts, but were very insistent that while the French forces might stop fighting, they must not raise the symbolic white flag. In turn, French troops generally rejected breakouts by the few that were able; they would abandon too many wounded. As one put it, referring to a legendary French Foreign Legion fight to the death, you can do Camerone with a small force, but not with 10,000. As a minor note, however, on April 30, one of the airdrops of supplies considered necessary by the French, including wine, did successfully land in Legionnaire positions on Camerone Day, April 30; there were many volunteers for counterattacks. [38]

The Viet Minh did not have the medical or military police resources to deal with the number of prisoners, but the prisoners were treated harshly even understanding those constraints. Part of the reason may have been Vietnamese recognition of the bargaining value of prisoners of war, much as the North Vietnamese did with U.S. aircrew in 1964-1972. Viet Minh treatment was harsh in general; no seriously wounded prisoners survived. Still, there seems to have been especially bad treatment, which Fall describes as a "Death March", for the Dien Bien Phu survivors, followed by extensive political indoctrination and other hardships in prison camps. [39]

Lessons learned

When North Vietnamese and American troops faced one another at another remote valley, both sides had Dien Bien Phu in mind at the Battle of Khe Sanh, and it was certainly a comparison made in the press. In reality, the situations were enormously different. Where Dien Bien Phu was essentially on its own, immense U.S. tactical air power was used as part of the defense, and, while it was supplied by air, the airfield was never closed. Further, while Dien Bien Phu was seen as the center of gravity for the French in 1954, the North Vietnamese, in 1968, saw the cities, and the general uprising they hoped to trigger, as the center of gravity.

Giap invited Moore and Galloway to visit the battlefield, saying he did not understand why the U.S. had not studied the war of the Viet Minh against the French, and Dien Bien Phu specifically. If the Americans, according to Giap, had studied what happened to the French, they would never have come halfway across the world to take their place and suffer as bad an ending. [40] He pressed the point that the Americans were paying for the operation, which Fall denies, saying U.S. expenditures, between 1946 and 1954, were $954 million where comparable French costs were $11 billion.[41]


  1. Fall, Bernard B. (1967), Street without joy: insurgency in Indochina, 1946-63 (4rd ed.), Schocken, SWJ, pp. 314-315
  2. Bernard B., Fall (1967), Hell in a Very Small Place: the Siege of Dien Bien Phu, J. B. Lippincott, HVSP, pp. 23-24
  3. Mallin, Jay (1973), General Vo Nguyen Giap, North Vietnamese Military Commander, Samhar Press, pp. 12-15
  4. Vo Nguyen Giap (1962), People's war, People's Army, Praeger, PWPA, pp. 161-162
  5. Moore, Harold G. (Hal) & Joseph L. Galloway (2008), We are soldiers still: a journey back to the battlefields of Vietnam, Harper Collins, p. 129
  6. Giap, PWPA, p. 163
  7. Moore & Galloway 2008, pp. 135-136
  8. Fall, HVSP, pp. 1-4
  9. Fall, HVSP, pp. 38-39
  10. Fall, HVSP, p. 53-54
  11. Fall, HVSP, p. 480
  12. Chapuis, Oscar (2000), The Last Emperors of Vietnam, Greenwood Press, Chapuis, p. 166
  13. Fall, HVSP, pp. 96-103
  14. 14.0 14.1 Curtis, Stephen L. (August 1990), "Fire Support and the Maneuver Commander at Dien Bien Phu: Tragedy and Triumph", Field Artillery, pp. 30-35
  15. Giap, PWPA, p. 170
  16. Giap, PWPA, pp. 168
  17. Karnow, p. 195
  18. Xiaobing Li (2007), A History of the Modern Chinese Army, University of Kentucky Press, p. 208
  19. Li, pp. 210-212
  20. Qiang Zhai (2000), China and the Vietnam Wars, 1950-1975, UNC Press, p. 46
  21. Karnow, p. 196
  22. Moore & Galloway 2008, pp. 45-46
  23. "Remains of 'Earthquake McGoon' sought after 48 years", Associated Press, Nov. 24, 2002
  24. Fall, HVSP, p. 297
  25. Lathers, John D., The Influence of the Considerations of Hearts and Minds on Eisenhower’s Decision Not to Assist the French at Dien Bien Phu
  26. Karnow, pp. 198
  27. Eisenberg, Michael T. (1993), Shield of the Republic, Volume I (1945-1962), St. Martin's Press pp. 607-608
  28. Simpson, Howard R. & Stanley Karnow (2005), Dien Bien Phu: The Epic Battle America Forgot, Brassey's, pp. 318-319
  29. Windrow, Martin (2004), The Last Valley, Da Capo Press, p.567
  30. Fall, HVSP, pp. 314-319
  31. Zhai, pp. 48-49
  32. Giap, PWPA, p. 175
  33. Martin, Norman E. (June 1955), "Dien Bien Phu and the Future of Airborne Operations", Military Review, p.22-23
  34. Fall, HVSP, pp 156-157
  35. Fall, HVSP, pp. 185-189
  36. Fall, HVSP, p. 192
  37. Giap, PWPA, pp. 175-176
  38. Fall, HVSP, pp. 347-348
  39. Fall, SWJ, pp. 300-308
  40. Moore & Galloway 2008, pp. 130-131
  41. Fall SWJ, p. 314