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Battle of Dien Bien Phu

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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. 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]

The place

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]

The opponents

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; 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]

Seizing the base

On November 23, 1953, the French launched Operation Castor, dropping a paratroop force into Dien Bien Phu, using 65 transport aircraft, supported by fighters and bombers. [8] Once landed, the paratroopers would build an airfield on which heavier equipment could be landed.

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), LTC Fourcade, which would command these units plus a followup battalion


Eight 105mm howitzers of the Autonomous Laotian Artillery Battery landed on the improved airstrip, on November 28. Better artillery followed.[9]

Colonel Christian de Castries replaced Gilles as commander on November 29, so Gilles could go back to overall command. Castries was a protege of Navarre; he had risen from the ranks by dash and deed. While he was by no means a defensive specialist, he was respected by his seniors and his men, and could make use of mobile warfare; Navarre still expected tanks to be used.

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.

In contrast, his new deputy, LTC Pierre Langlais, was a graduate of the French military academy at St. Cyr, and was known for deliberation. de Castries and Langlais, however, were friends and remained so even long after the battle. Langlais, a foot in a cast, arrived on December 12.[10]

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.

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."[11]

The immediate question was whether to "strike swiftly and win swiftly, or strike surely and attack surey." 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. [12]

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. [13] Wei was the original head of the Chinese Military Assistance Group, assigned to it in April 1950. [14] 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. [15] 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.[16]

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."[17]


After Giap had drawn the French strength toward Dien Bien Phu, he used backbreaking 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: 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.[18]

He knew, however, that his own strength was in well-protected howitzers and anti-aircraft artillery.

Possible U.S. assistance

GEN Paul Ely, Chief of Staff of France, visited the U.S. just after the start of the battle. His 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. [19]

Ely obtained greater support from Admiral Arthur Radford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.Cite error: Closing </ref> missing for <ref> tag 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 [20]

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. [21]


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.

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. [22] 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.[23]

Moore, at LZ X-ray, remembered the Viet Minh tactics at Dien Bien Phu and those of the North Korean People's Army in the Korean War, and that they had always made frontal attacks. He drew on that historical knowledge, when he was short on troops, in "leaving our back door open" until reinforced. [24]


  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 & Galloway 2008, p. 129
  6. Giap, PWPA, p. 163
  7. Moore & Galloway 2008, pp. 135-136
  8. Fall, HVSP, pp. 1-4
  9. Fall, HVSP, p. 53-54
  10. Fall, HVSP, p. 58-59
  11. Giap, PWPA, p. 170
  12. Giap, PWPA, pp. 168
  13. Karnow, p. 195
  14. Xiaobing Li (2007), A History of the Modern Chinese Army, University of Kentucky Press, p. 208
  15. Li, pp. 210-212
  16. Qiang Zhai (2000), China and the Vietnam Wars, 1950-1975, UNC Press, p. 46
  17. Karnow, Stanley (1983), Vietnam, a History, Viking Press, p. 196
  18. Moore, Harold G. (Hal) & Joseph L. Galloway (2008), We are soldiers still: a journey back to the battlefields of Vietnam, Harper Collins, pp. 45-46}}
  19. 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
  20. Eisenberg, Michael T. (1993), Shield of the Republic, Volume I (1945-1962), St. Martin's Press pp. 607-608
  21. Zhai, pp. 48-49
  22. Moore & Galloway 2008, pp. 130-131
  23. Fall SWJ, p. 314
  24. Moore & Galloway 2008, p. 134