The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was the biggest and most ferocious battle that took place during the French Indochina War. It was fought between the French Far East Expeditionary Corps and the Viet Minh forces, commanded by Vo Nguyen Giap, from March 13 to May 7, 1954. With the complete support of neighboring China and the Soviet Union, the communist forces, which had surrounded the valley of Dien Bien with 50,000 men, defeated the French troops in northern Veitnam, suffering 14,000 casualties, 4,100 of which got killed in action, twice the number of French losses. The Battle of Dien Bien Phu influenced negotiations over the future of Indochina at the 1954 Geneva Conference.
During the French Indochina colonial period, Dien Bien Phu was the capital of the province of Dien Bien, located in the North of Vietnam, near the Chinese border. No one outside Vietman had ever heard of it, but after the long brutal battle it still resounds as one of France’s darkest moments.
Background to the Battle of Dien Bien Phu
In 1946, after World War II, France had returned to Indochina as the colonial power of South East Asia. However, the French noticed that things had changed, as Ho Chi Minh, one of the founder of the Communist Party of Vietnam, had just declared the independance of Vietnam as a Communist Republic the year before, creating the Viet Minh in 1941 to fight against the Japanese first, then against the French. As soon as the French government had set about clearing the Vietnamese territory of Viet Minh guerrillas, the French Indochina War broke out. The Viet Minh would often spring ambushes on French troops and attack their outpost in the jungle. Until Dien Bien Phu several military operations had been carried out by the French Far East Expeditionary Corps and Foreign Legion airborne units. The last one was Operation Castor, which had been conducted in November 1953 to establish an airhead (outpost) in the province of Dien Bien, in the northwest corner of Vietnam, with the objective of drawing the Viet Minh forces into fighting a final decisive pitched battle.
The French government had committed 10,000 troops, with reinforcements totaling nearly 16,000 men, to the defense of a monsoon-affected valley surrounded by heavily wooded hills which had not been secured. Artillery as well as ten M24 Chaffee light tanks and numerous aircraft had been sent to the garrison of Dien Bien Phu. The garrison consisted of French regular troops (notably elite paratroop units plus artillery), Foreign Legion units, Algerian and Moroccan tirailleurs, and locally recruited Indochinese infantry. All the French troops were commanded by General Christian de Castries and General Pierre Langlais.
With the logistic and military help of the Chinese, 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, as patrols encountered the Viet Minh in all directions. The French had now been surrounded by an enemy that greatly outnumbered them.
Summary of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu
The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was initiated at 17:00 hours on March 13, 1954, when the Viet Minh launched a massive surprise artillery barrage. The time and date were carefully chosen—the hour allowed the artillery to fire in daylight, and the date was chosen because it was a new moon, allowing a nighttime infantry attack. The attack concentrated on position Beatrice, which was defended by the 3rd battalion of the 13th Foreign Legion Demi-Brigade. The French command on Beatrice was destroyed at 18:15 hours when a shell hit the French command post, killing Legionnaire commander Major Paul Pegot and his entire staff. After ferocious fighting, French resistance on Beatrice collapsed at around 03:00 hours on March 14, about 450 Foreing Legion troops got killed in close quarter vicious fighting, taking with them to hell 700 Viet Minh soldiers (killed) and 1,200 wounded.
The battle raged on, ferociously. By March 14, after having been pounded by enemy artillery fire for several hours, Gabriel fell to the Viet Minh. By March 30, the Viet Minh had further tightened the noose around the French central area, which was formed by the strongpoints Huguette, Dominique, Claudine, and Eliane, effectively cutting off Isabelle and its 1,809 personnel. The French suffered from a serious crisis of command. The French aerial resupply was taking heavy losses from Viet Minh machine guns near the landing strip. The French air transport commander Nicot ordered that all supply deliveries be made from 6,500 feet or higher, yet losses were expected to remain heavy.
The next phase of the battle saw more massed Viet Minh assaults against French positions in the central Dien Bien Phu area. At 19:00 hours 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 positions east of Nam Yum River. Nevertheless, on April 5, after a long night of battle, French fighter-bombers and artillery inflicted particularly devastating losses on one Viet Minh regiment which was caught on open ground. At that point, Nguyen Giap decided to change tactics. Although Giap still had the same objective – to overrun French defenses east of the river – he decided to employ entrenchment and sapping to try to achieve it.
During April the French had no respite as there was intense gory fighting with the Legionnaires fending off waves after waves of Viet Minh attacks. By April 20, in their attempts to capture their defensive positions, several Viet Minh infantry regiments had been annihilated by the French. However, the French troops were exhausted and lacked supplies. Thus, one by one the French positions fell to the enemy: Huguette 6, Huguette 1, and Eliane 1.
On May 1, the Viet Minh launched a massive assault against the exhausted defenders of Dien Bien Phu, overrunning Dominique 3 and Huguette 5, although the French managed to beat back attacks on Eliane 2. On May 6, the Viet Minh launched another massed attack against Eliane 2. On May 7, Giap ordered an all out attack against the remaining French units with over 25,000 Viet Minh against fewer than 3,000 garrison troops. By nightfall, all French central positions had been captured.