The Battle of Dien Bien Phu (Bataille de Diên Biên Phu; Chiến dịch Điện Biên Phủ) was the climactic battle of the First Indochina War between French Union forces of the French Far East Expeditionary Corps, and Vietnamese Viet Minh communist revolutionary forces. The battle occurred between March and May 1954, and culminated in a massive French defeat that effectively ended the war. Martin Windrow claimed Dien Bien Phu was "the first time that a non-European colonial independence movement had evolved through all the stages from guerrilla bands to a conventionally organized and equipped army able to defeat a modern Western occupier in pitched battle.
As a result of blunders in the French decision making process, the French undertook to create an air-supplied base at Dien Bien Phu, deep in the hills of Vietnam. Its purpose was to cut off Viet Minh supply lines into the neighboring French protectorate of Laos, at the same time drawing the Viet Minh into a battle that would cripple them. Instead, the Viet Minh, under General Vo Nguyen Giap, surrounded and besieged the French, who were unaware of the Viet Minh's possession of heavy artillery (including anti-aircraft guns) and their ability to move such weapons to the mountain crests overlooking the French encampment. The Viet Minh occupied the highlands around Dien Bien Phu, and were able to fire down accurately onto French positions. Tenacious fighting on the ground ensued, reminiscent of the trench warfare of World War I. The French repeatedly repulsed Viet Minh assaults on their positions. Supplies and reinforcements were delivered by air, although as the French positions were overrun and the anti-aircraft fire took its toll, fewer and fewer of those supplies reached them. After a two month siege, the garrison was overrun and most French surrendered. Despite the loss of most of their best soldiers, the Viet Minh marshalled their remaining forces and pursued those French who did flee into the wilderness, routing them and ending the battle.
Shortly after the battle, the war ended with the 1954 Geneva accords, under which France agreed to withdraw from its former Indochinese colonies. The accords partitioned the country in two; fighting later resumed, among rival Vietnamese forces, in 1959 with the Vietnam War (Second Indochina War).
By 1953, the First Indochina War was not going well for the French. A succession of commanders – Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque, Jean-Étienne Valluy, Roger Blaizot, Marcel Carpentier, Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, and Raoul Salan – had proven incapable of suppressing the Viet Minh insurrection. During their 1952–53 campaign, the Viet Minh had overrun vast swaths of Laos, a French ally and Vietnam's western neighbor. The French were unable to slow the Viet Minh advance, and the Viet Minh fell back only after outrunning their always-tenuous supply lines. In 1953, the French had begun to strengthen their defenses in the Hanoi delta region to prepare for a series of offensives against Viet Minh staging areas in northwest Vietnam. They had set up fortified towns and outposts in the area, including Lai Chau near the Chinese border to the north, Na San to the west of Hanoi, and the Plain of Jars in northern Laos.
In May 1953, French Premier Rene Mayer appointed Henri Navarre, a trusted colleague, to take command of French Union Forces in Indochina. Mayer had given Navarre a single order – to create military conditions that would lead to an "honorable political solution." On arrival, Navarre was shocked by what he found. "There had been no long-range plan since de Lattre's departure. Everything was conducted on a day-to-day, reactive basis. Combat operations were undertaken only in response to enemy moves or threats. There was no comprehensive plan to develop the organization and build up the equipment of the Expeditionary force. Finally, Navarre, the intellectual, the cold and professional soldier, was shocked by the 'school's out' attitude of Salan and his senior commanders and staff officers. They were going home, not as victors or heroes, but then, not as clear losers either. To them the important thing was that they were getting out of Indochina with their reputations frayed, but intact. They gave little thought to, or concern for, the problems of their successors."
The most controversial issue surrounding the battle was whether Navarre was also obligated to defend Laos, which was far from the French seat of military power in Hanoi. Although Navarre assumed it was his responsibility, defending it would require his army to operate far from its home base. During meetings with the France's National Defense Committee on July 17 and July 24, Navarre asked if he was responsible for defending northern Laos. These meetings produced a misunderstanding that became the most disputed fact of the controversy surrounding the battle. For years afterwards, Navarre insisted the committee had reached no consensus; French Premier Joseph Laniel insisted that, at that meeting, the Committee had instructed Navarre to abandon Laos if necessary. "On this key issue, the evidence supports Navarre's claim that on July 24, he was given no clear-cut decision regarding his responsibility for Laos. Over the years, when challenged by Navarre, Laniel has never been able to present any written evidence to support his contention that Navarre was instructed to abandon Laos if necessary." The committee was reluctant to give Navarre a definitive answer because its proceedings were constantly leaked to the press, and the politicians on the committee did not want to take a politically damaging position on the issue.
The hedgehog concept was based on French experiences at the Battle of Na San. In late November and early December 1952, Giap attacked the French outpost at Na San. Na San was essentially an "air-land base", a fortified camp supplied only by air. Giap's forces were beaten back repeatedly with very heavy losses. The French hoped that by repeating the setup on a larger scale, they would be able to bait Giap into committing the bulk of his forces in a massed assault. This would enable superior French artillery, armor, and air support to wipe out the exposed Viet Minh forces. The experience at Na San convinced Navarre of the viability of the fortified airhead concept.
However, French staff officers failed to take into consideration several important differences between Dien Bien Phu and Na San. First, at Na San, the French commanded most of the high ground with overwhelming artillery support. At Dien Bien Phu, however, the Viet Minh controlled much of the high ground around the valley, their artillery far exceeded French expectations and they outnumbered the French by a ratio of four-to-one. Giap compared Dien Bien Phu to a "rice bowl", where his troops occupied the edge and the French the bottom. Second, Giap made a mistake in Na San by committing his forces into reckless frontal attacks before preparations could be made. At Dien Bien Phu, Giap would spend months stockpiling ammunitions and emplacing heavy artillery and anti-aircraft guns before making his move. Teams of Viet Minh volunteers were sent into the French camp to note the disposition of the French artillery. Wooden artillery pieces were built as decoys and the real guns were rotated every few salvos to confuse French counterbattery fire. As a result, when the battle began, the Viet Minh knew exactly where the French artillery were, while the French were not even aware of how many guns Giap possessed. Third, the aerial resupply lines at Na San were never severed despite Viet Minh anti-aircraft fire. At Dien Bien Phu, Giap amassed anti-aircraft batteries that quickly shut down the runway and made it extremely difficult and costly for the French to bring in reinforcements.
Navarre decided to go ahead with the operation, despite operational difficulties which would later become obvious (but at the time may have been less apparent) because he had been repeatedly assured by his intelligence officers that the operation had very little risk of involvement by a strong enemy force. Navarre had previously considered three other ways to defend Laos: mobile warfare, which was impossible given the terrain in Vietnam; a static defense line stretching to Laos, which was inexecutable given the number of troops at Navarre's disposal; or placing troops in the Laotian capitals and supplying them by air, which was unworkable due to the distance from Hanoi to Luang Prabang and Vientiane. Thus, the only option left to Navarre was the hedgehog option, which he characterized as "a mediocre solution.
In a twist of fate, the French National Defense Committee ultimately did agree that Navarre's responsibility did not include defending Laos. However, their decision (which was drawn up on November 13) was not delivered to him until December 4, two weeks after the Dien Bien Phu operation began.
The Viet Minh elite 148th Independent Infantry Regiment, headquartered at Dien Bien Phu, reacted "instantly and effectively"; however, three of their four battalions were absent that day. Initial operations proceeded well for the French. By the end of November, six parachute battalions had been landed and the French were consolidating their positions.
It was at this time that Giap began his counter-moves. Giap had expected an attack, but could not foresee when or where it would occur. Giap realized that, if pressed, the French would abandon Lai Chau Province and fight a pitched battle at Dien Bien Phu. On November 24, Giap ordered the 148th Infantry Regiment and the 316th division to attack into Lai Chau, and the 308th, 312th, and 351st divisions to attack from Viet Bac into Dien Bien Phu.
Starting in December, the French, under the command of Colonel Christian de Castries, started transforming their anchoring point into a fortress by setting up seven positions, each allegedly named after a former mistress of de Castries, although the allegation is probably untrue, as the names simply begin with the first eight letters of the alphabet. The fortified headquarters was centrally located, with positions "Huguette" to the west, "Claudine" to the south, and "Dominique" to the northeast. Other positions were "Anne-Marie" to the northwest, "Beatrice" to the northeast, "Gabrielle" to the north and "Isabelle" four miles (6 km) to the south, covering the reserve airstrip. The choice of de Castries as the on-scene commander at Dien Bien Phu was, in retrospect, a bad one. Navarre had picked de Castries, a cavalryman in the 18th century tradition, because Navarre envisioned Dien Bien Phu as a mobile battle. In reality, Dien Bien Phu required someone adept at World War I-style trench warfare, something for which de Castries was not suited.
The arrival of the 316th Viet Minh division prompted Cogny to order the evacuation of the Lai Chau garrison to Dien Bien Phu, exactly as Giap had anticipated. En route, they were virtually annihilated by the Viet Minh. "Of the 2,100 men who left Lai Chau on December 9, only 185 made it to Dien Bien Phu on December 22. The rest had been killed or captured or deserted. The Viet Minh troops now converged on Dien Bien Phu.
The French had committed 10,800 troops, with more reinforcements totaling nearly 16,000 men, to the defense of a monsoon-affected valley surrounded by heavily wooded hills that had not been secured. Artillery as well as ten M24 Chaffee light tanks and numerous aircraft were committed to the garrison. The garrison comprised French regular troops (notably elite paratroop units plus artillery), Foreign Legionnaires, Algerian and Moroccan tirailleurs, and locally recruited Indochinese infantry.
All told, the Viet Minh had moved 50,000 regular troops into the hills surrounding the valley, totaling five divisions including the 351st Heavy Division which was made up entirely of heavy artillery. Artillery and AA guns, which outnumbered the French artillery by about four to one, were moved into camouflaged positions overlooking the valley. The French came under sporadic Viet Minh artillery fire for the first time on January 31, 1954 and patrols encountered the Viet Minh in all directions. The battle had been joined, and the French were now surrounded.
Unknown to the French, the Viet Minh had made a very detailed study of Beatrice, and had practiced assaulting it using models. According to one Viet Minh major: "Every evening, we came up and took the opportunity to cut barbed wire and remove mines. Our jumping-off point was moved up to only two hundred yards from the peaks of Beatrice, and to our surprise [French] artillery didn't know where we were".
The French command on Beatrice was decimated at 6:15 PM when a shell hit the French command post, killing Legionnaire commander Major Paul Pegot and his entire staff. A few minutes later, Colonel Jules Gaucher, commander of the entire northern sector, was killed by Viet Minh artillery.
French resistance on Beatrice collapsed shortly after midnight following a fierce battle. Roughly 500 legionnaires were killed, along with 600 Viet Minh killed and 1,200 wounded from the 312th division. The French launched a counterattack against Beatrice the following morning, but it was quickly beaten back by Viet Minh artillery. Despite their losses, the victory at Beatrice "galvanized the morale" of the Viet Minh troops.
Much to French disbelief, the Viet Minh had employed direct artillery fire, in which each gun crew does its own artillery spotting (as opposed to indirect fire, in which guns are massed further away from the target, out of direct line of sight, and rely on a forward artillery spotter). Indirect artillery, generally held as being far superior to direct fire, requires experienced, well-trained crews and good communications which the Viet Minh lacked. Navarre wrote that "Under the influence of Chinese advisers, the Viet Minh commanders had used processes quite different from the classic methods. The artillery had been dug in by single pieces... They were installed in shell-proof dugouts, and fire point-blank from portholes... This way of using artillery and AA guns was possible only with the expansive ant holes at the disposal of the Vietminh and was to make shambles of all the estimates of our own artillerymen. The French artillery commander, Colonel Charles Piroth, distraught at his inability to bring counterfire on the well-camouflaged Viet Minh batteries, went into his dugout and killed himself with a hand grenade. He was buried there in great secrecy to prevent loss of morale among the French troops.
De Castries ordered a counterattack to relieve Gabrielle. However, Colonel Pierre Langlais, in forming the counterattack, chose to rely on the 5th Vietnamese Parachute battalion, which had jumped in the day before and was exhausted. Although some elements of the counterattack reached Gabrielle, most were paralyzed by the Viet Minh artillery and took heavy losses. At 8:00 AM the next day, the Algerian battalion fell back, abandoning Gabrielle to the Viet Minh. The French lost around 1,000 men defending Gabrielle, and the Viet Minh between 1,000 and 2,000.
De Castries' seclusion in his bunker, combined with his superiors' inability to replace him, created a leadership vacuum within the French command. On March 24, Colonel Langlais and his fellow paratroop commanders, all fully armed, confronted de Castries. They told de Castries that he would retain the appearance of command, but that Langlais would exercise it. De Castries accepted the arrangement without protest, although he did exercise some command functions thereafter.
The French aerial resupply was taking heavy losses from Viet Minh machine guns near the landing strip. On March 27, Hanoi air transport commander Nicot ordered that all supply deliveries be made from or higher; losses were expected to remain heavy. De Castries ordered an attack against the Viet Minh machine guns two miles (3 km) west of Dien Bien Phu. Remarkably, the attack was a complete success, with 350 Viet Minh soldiers killed and seventeen AA machine guns destroyed. French losses were only twenty soldiers.
The next phase of the battle saw more massed Viet Minh assaults against French positions in the central Dien Bien Phu area – at Eliane and Dominique in particular. Those two areas were held by five understrength battalions, composed of a mixture of Frenchmen, Legionnaires, Vietnamese, Africans, and T'ais. Giap planned to use the tactics from the Beatrice and Gabrielle skirmishes.
At 7:00 PM on March 30, the Viet Minh 312th division captured Dominique 1 and 2, making Dominique 3 the final outpost between the Viet Minh and the French general headquarters, as well as outflanking all of the position east of the river. But at this point, the French 4th colonial artillery regiment entered the fight, setting its 105 mm howitzers to zero elevation and firing directly on the Viet Minh attackers, blasting huge holes in their ranks. Another group of French, near the airfield, opened fire on the Viet Minh with anti-aircraft machine guns, forcing the Viet Minh to retreat.
The Viet Minh were more successful in their simultaneous attacks elsewhere. The 316th division captured Eliane 1 from its Moroccan defenders, and half of Eliane 2 by midnight. On the other side of Dien Bien Phu, the 308th attacked Huguette 7, and nearly succeeded in breaking through, but a French sergeant took charge of the defenders and sealed the breach.
Just after midnight on the 31st, the French launched a fierce counterattack against Eliane 2, and recaptured half of it. Langlais ordered another counterattack the following afternoon against Dominique 2 and Eliane 1, using virtually "everybody left in the garrison who could be trusted to fight." The counterattacks allowed the French to retake Dominique 2 and Eliane 1, but the Viet Minh launched their own renewed assault. The French, who were exhausted and without reserves, fell back from both positions late in the afternoon. Reinforcements were sent north from Isabelle, but were attacked en route and fell back to Isabelle.
Shortly after dark on the 31st, Langlais told Major Marcel Bigeard, who was leading the defense at Eliane, to fall back across the river. Bigeard refused, saying "As long as I have one man alive I won't let go of Eliane 4. Otherwise, Dien Bien Phu is done for." The night of the 31st, the 316th division attacked Eliane 2. Just as it appeared the French were about to be overrun, a few French tanks arrived, and helped push the Viet Minh back. Smaller attacks on Eliane 4 were also pushed back. The Viet Minh briefly captured Huguette 7, only to be pushed back by a French counterattack at dawn on the 1st.
Fighting continued in this manner over the next several nights. The Viet Minh repeatedly attacked Eliane 2, only to be beaten back again and again. Repeated attempts to reinforce the French garrison by parachute drops were made, but had to be carried out by lone planes at irregular times to avoid excessive casualties from Viet Minh anti-aircraft fire. Some reinforcements did arrive, but not nearly enough to replace French casualties.
April 10 saw the French attempt to retake Eliane 1. The loss of Eliane 1 eleven days earlier had posed a significant threat to Eliane 4, and the French wanted to eliminate that threat. The dawn attack, which Bigeard devised, was preceded by a short, massive artillery barrage, followed by small unit infiltration attacks, followed by mopping-up operations. Without realizing it, Bigeard had re-invented the infiltration tactics used with great success by Oskar von Hutier in World War I. Eliane 1 changed hands several times that day, but by the next morning the French had control of the strongpoint. The Viet Minh attempted to retake it on the evening of April 12, but were pushed back.
"At this point, the morale of the Viet Minh soldiers broke. The French intercepted radio messages which told of units refusing orders, and Communist prisoners said that they were told to advance or be shot by the officers and noncommissioned officers behind them. The extreme casualties they had suffered (6,000 killed, 8,000 to 10,000 wounded, and 2,500 captured) had taken a toll; worse, the Viet Minh lacked any effective medical service. "Nothing strikes at combat morale like the knowledge that if wounded, the soldier will go uncared for. To avert the crisis, Giap called in fresh reinforcements from Laos.
During the fighting at Eliane 1, on the other side of camp, the Viet Minh entrenchments had almost entirely surrounded Huguette 1 and 6. On April 11, the garrison of Huguette 1 attacked, and was joined by artillery from the garrison of Claudine. The goal was to resupply Huguette 6 with water and ammunition. The attacks were repeated on the night of the 14–15th and 16–17th. While they did succeed in getting some supplies through, the heavy casualties convinced Langlais to abandon Huguette 6. Following a failed attempt to link up, on April 18, the defenders at Huguette 6 made a daring break out, but only a few made it back to French lines. The Viet Minh repeated the isolation and probing attacks against Huguette 1, and overran it on the morning of April 22. With the fall of Huguette 1, the Viet Minh took control of more than 90% of the airfield, making accurate parachute drops impossible. This caused the landing zone to become perilously small, and effectively choked off much needed supplies. A French attack against Huguette 1 later that day was repulsed.
On May 7, Giap ordered an all out attack against the remaining French units. At 5:00 PM, de Castries radioed French headquarters in Hanoi and talked with Cogny.
By nightfall, all French central positions had been captured. That night, the garrison at Isabelle made a breakout attempt. While the main body did not even escape the valley, about 70 troops out of 1,700 men in the garrison did escape to Laos.
The prisoners, French survivors of the battle at Dien Bien Phu, were starved, beaten, and heaped with abuse, and many died. Of 10,863 survivors held as prisoners, only 3,290 were repatriated four months later. The fate of 3,013 prisoners of Indochinese origin is unknown.
Following the battle, the 1954 Geneva accords temporarily partitioned Vietnam into two zones: the North was administered by the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam while the South was administered by the French supported State of Vietnam. The last units of the French Union forces withdrew from Indo-China in 1956. This partition was supposed to be temporary, and the two zones were supposed to be reunited by national elections in 1956. After the French withdrawal, the United States supported the southern government, under Emperor Bao Dai and Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem, which opposed the Geneva agreement, and which claimed that Ho Chi Minh's forces from the North had been killing Northern patriots and terrorizing people both in the North and the South. The North was supported by both communist China and the Soviet Union. This dispute would eventually escalate into the Vietnam War (Second Indochina War).
France's defeat in Indochina seriously damaged its prestige elsewhere in their colonial empire, notably the North African territories from where many of the troops who fought at Dien Bien Phu had been recruited. In 1954, six months after the battle at Dien Bien Phu ended, the Algerian War started, and by 1956 both Moroccan and Tunisian protectorates had gained independence.
The battle was depicted in Dien Bien Phu, a 1992 docudrama film -with several autobiographical parts- in conjunction with the Vietnamese army by Dien Bien Phu veteran French director Pierre Schoendoerffer.
The United States did covertly participate in the battle, however. Following a request for help from Henri Navarre, Radford provided two squadrons of B-26 Invader bomber aircraft to support the French. Subsequently, 37 U.S. pilots flew 682 sorties over the course of the battle. Earlier, in order to succeed the pre-Dien Bien Phu Operation Castor of November 1953, General Chester McCarty made available 12 additional C-119 Flying Boxcars flown by French crew. Two of the U.S. pilots, Wallace Buford and James "Earthquake McGoon" McGovern Jr., were killed in action during the siege of Dien Bien Phu. In February 25 2005, the seven still living U.S. pilots were awarded the French Legion of Honor by Jean-David Levitte ambassador of France in the United States. The role the U.S. pilots played in the battle had remained little known until 2004; "U.S. historian Erik Kirsinger researched the case for more than a year to establish the facts. French author Jules Roy also suggests that Radford discussed with the French the possibility of using nuclear weapons in support of the garrison. Moreover, John Foster Dulles was reported to have mentioned the possibility of lending atomic bombs to the French for use at Dien Bien Phu, and a similar source claims that British Foreign Secretary Sir Anthony Eden was aware of the possibility of nuclear weapons use in the region.
The French forces came to Dien Bien Phu accompanied by two "Bordels Mobiles de Campagne," (mobile field brothels), staffed by Algerian and Vietnamese women. All apparently subsequently volunteered and served as nurses aides during the siege. When the siege ended, the Vietminh sent the surviving Vietnamese women for "re-education