- James Houser
March 13, 1954 - The Battle of Dien Bien Phu
Updated: Jun 3, 2021
March 13, 1954. The French fortress at Dien Bien Phu in central Indochina is isolated and under attack. The Viet Minh, the local Communist insurgency, has them surrounded, outnumbered, and outgeneraled. The critical battle of the First Indochina War, and the series of events that will lead to America’s terrible war in Vietnam, has begun.
In 1941, the Japanese overran Indochina (modern Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam), displacing its French governors. Indochina had been an unwilling part of the French Empire since its conquest in the 1880s. The French couldn’t do much about it considering that they were currently occupied by Germany, but the Japanese occupation of Indochina was a major step towards war in the Pacific between Japan and the United States. By 1945, though, the Japanese were barely hanging on to their conquests. They faced a major problem in Indochina, where nationalist insurgents under the command of Ho Chi Minh and his general Vo Nguyen Giap had waged a guerrilla war against their conquerors.
Ho Chi Minh was a Vietnamese nationalist, but also a Marxist, allied ideologically with Stalin and Mao. He wanted independence for his nation from any conqueror – Japanese, French, or even American – but he concealed his Communist leanings in order to unify the Vietnamese patriot movements under his banner. After World War II was over, though, Ho tried to establish a native government for Vietnam, but French forces quickly arrived and retook control over the country. Attempts at negotiations in Paris failed, and by 1946 Ho Chi Minh and his government were underground and waging a guerrilla war with France for their independence.
Ho Chi Minh sought support from other Communists, especially the recently victorious Chinese to the north under Mao Zedong as well as the Soviet Union. The French came to be reluctantly supported by the United States, who had little love for European imperialism but feared the spread of communism. The low-level rural insurgency of earlier years turned into something resembling an all-out conventional war by 1949.
The war was unpopular in France, becoming known as the “dirty war.” It was a hard sell to the French people, recently liberated from German occupation, that it was now their duty to occupy another country that also wanted its independence. To stave off public pressure, the French government avoided using recruits from France itself to fight the war in Indochina, instead using their own colonial troops – Algerians, Moroccans, and even other Indochinese.
After several years, however, the French failed to bring the situation under control. By 1949, the Viet Minh were receiving ample support from Communist China and began expanding their control over the countryside. The French saw their small garrisons overwhelmed, movement on the ground became impossible, and many bases could only be supplied from the air. Temporary victories under able French generals were undone when those generals left, and General Giap’s leadership of the Viet Minh continued to cause the French major setbacks and casualties. It was the archetypal guerrilla war – an experience the United States would soon have the pleasure of experiencing.
The French decided to introduce a new method of warfare – the “hedgehog” tactic, where they would place a highly fortified post deep inside Viet Minh territory, pack it with artillery and troops and lavish it with airstrikes, and force their foe to throw themselves against superior firepower. When the French tried this tactic in October 1952 at Na San, General Giap tried to call their bluff. Giap always tried to find a way to beat his foes in the open, convinced that it was the greater route to victory. At Na San, the Viet Minh hurled themselves at the French fortress and suffered enormous casualties, forcing Giap to call off the attack and retreat. The French decided to repeat this tactic on a large scale and slowly reclaim the country from Ho’s and Giap’s forces. The French expanded their reach across Indochina using the “hedgehog” tactics, and it looked like the Viet Minh were on their heels.
General Henri Navarre arrived in May 1953 as the new commander of French forces in Indochina. He was quickly convinced of the “hedgehog” as the way to win the war, and especially wanted to reclaim the overrun territory of Laos. Navarre wanted to cut the Viet Minh off from Laos so the French could retake it, and decided to sever their supply lines at a village with an old Japanese airstrip called Dien Bien Phu. He would repeat the tactics he had seen succeed at Na San: create a fortress, fill it with firepower, and let the battle win itself.
Dien Bien Phu would be miles from any French land forces, but it could be supplied from the air; Navarre believed intelligence reports that the Viet Minh had no antiaircraft guns, and also felt that the Viet Minh could not place a strong force in the region. Many of his staff tried to talk Navarre out of this decision, considering that Dien Bien Phu was surrounded by high ground and too far away to send a relief column if the French forces ran into serious trouble. Navarre rejected these concerns and declared that the operation would begin in three days.
In November 1953, French airborne troops landed at Dien Bien Phu under the command of Colonel Christian de Castries. By March, 14,000 French troops had landed at Dien Bien Phu, including 10 M24 Chaffee light tanks provided by the Americans. Castries was an old-school cavalryman, tough and aggressive but not an intellectual. Nevertheless, the French had artillery and air power and figured the Viet Minh would be outmatched by their elite paratroopers and colonial infantry.
Ho Chi Minh was determined to destroy the French, and his general Vo Nguyen Giap was busy surrounding them. 50,000 troops were soon converging on the French outpost, and they came extremely well-prepared. Vo placed his artillery on the heights overlooking Dien Bien Phu, and with them now came anti-aircraft guns for the first time in the Vietnamese arsenal. By January 1954, they were already bombarding the French forces contained in the valley, and by March Vo’s troops were ready to destroy their imperial foes.
March 13, 1954 marked the beginning of the battle. After a fierce bombardment, the Viet Minh launched a concerted attack against the French perimeter, breaking it in several places and capturing key strongpoints. The French fell back, but this was only the first day. Vo’s troops dug tunnels through the mountains to bring the artillery closer, and the battle commenced again. Their shelter in the mountains made them nearly immune to French artillery fire, but the French down in the valley suffered heavily from Viet Minh shelling.
As the battle stretched on for days, and then weeks, planes began flying into the airstrip to resupply and reinforce the French forces. They soon came under heavy antiaircraft fire from the mountains around the fortress, and French and American aircraft struggled to deliver enough supplies to the starving and depleted garrison. Even a first-world army could not fly the gauntlet of artillery and flak that was slowly strangling them and cutting them off from the world. Every day the Vietnamese net grew tighter, and every day the French looked in vain for some sign of relief. As position after position was overrun, fewer and fewer supplies reached the beleaguered French.
Finally, on May 1, the Viet Minh launched a massed assault using rocket artillery and overran some of the final positions. On May 7, Giap ordered an all-out attack; by now, the garrison was down to less than 3,000 and they could no longer hold out. The last radio transmission went out “The enemy has overrun us. We are blowing up everything. Vive le France!” By the end of the day, the final French troops had been annihilated or surrendered. The struggle for Dien Bien Phu was over.
Dien Bien Phu broke the back of the French Army in Indochina. It was a profound psychological shock to France, and they became convinced the war could not be won. It was in a way the equivalent of the Tet Offensive that would convince the United States of the same fact 14 years later.
The day after the surrender of the garrison, May 8, 1954, the Geneva Conference opened to put an end to the war. Since the French still held much of Indochina, they were able to negotiate the splitting of Vietnam into two parts: North Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh and his communists, and South Vietnam under a Western-controlled government.
Dien Bien Phu, of course, did not mean the end of war in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh still aimed to bring his nation together, and to do this meant destroying the capitalist government in South Vietnam, still backed by the French – and soon also backed by the Americans. Within a few years, Ho would be at war with the South, and that meant war with America. Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap, though, were patient. They had expelled the French after a long fight. The fight against America might be long and hard as well, but they stood a good chance of winning – even if they had to use a different playbook.
Vo Nguyen Giap would try the same tactics of Dien Bien Phu against a different target in 1968. The United States Marines of Khe Sanh, though, were a tougher nut to crack, and their air power did not fail them.
Overall, Dien Bien Phu was one of the decisive battles of history. A local guerrilla insurgency, for the first time in modern history, had decisively defeated an imperialist occupier and won its independence. These effects would be felt far outside Vietnam, as nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America all sought to overthrow Western-backed governments. To do this, they often had to seek support from the only nations willing to give it – the Communist foes of the West, such as the Soviet Union and Red China. The Third World’s Cold War was not cold at all; it was a struggle for life and death. The days of European empire, without question, were finally at an end.
Book Recommendation: Bernard B. Fall's Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu (Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1966). Fall was an experienced war journalist and expert on Indochina, killed accompanying U.S. Marines in Vietnam in 1967.