General Giap's headquarters at Dien Bien Phu

Military Styles at Dien Bien Phu


Viet Minh General Giap proved that a history professor often leads an army better than the best-trained military professionals. The siege at the valley of Dien Bien Phu, in 1954, showed his considerable skill. Not just the way the battle was staged, but also the positioning of his troops around the battlefield, revealed his knowledge of desirable human conditions in a fight, especially a prolonged siege.

On November 20th, 1953, French General Navarre launched operation Castor in the North Vietnamese Highlands just --- miles from Laos. The French had been badly mauled throughout Vietnam and he decided on a plan to cover several situations with the limited resources he held. He wanted to stop any Viet Minh incursions into Laos; he wanted to occupy large opium growing areas and prevent their harvesting and sale by the enemy; he planned to use the valley as a staging area for incursions into the nearby hills; and most importantly, he wanted to offer what he called a “French Carrot,” a small and inviting force to draw General Giap into a set-piece battle and destroy his forces. He hoped this force would be too tempting for the Viet Minh to resist. He felt that superior French tactics, generalship, and equipment could overcome any superior Viet Minh force. His only fear was that General Giap would not take the bait. Unfortunately for General Navarre, General Giap took the bait and decided to do battle resulting in one of the most disastrous defeats in French history.

Many excellent histories have detailed the battle including Morgan’s “Valley of Death,” Windrow’s “The last Valley,” Simpson’s “Dien Bien Phu,” Roy’s, “The Battle of Dien Bien Phu,” and Bernard Fall’s classic, “Hell in a Very Small Place.” My own historical novel, “First a Torch,” accurately details the battle from a soldier’s standpoint as viewed from both sides.

Basically, through arrogance, the French were confounded with often amateur mistakes. They decide to occupy a valley and several low hills leaving the higher ground untended. They felt the Viet Minh could not deliver any guns into the higher positions and, even if they did, they could not be adequately supplied.

They decide to lump their 53 guns together in the valley and leave them unprotected. Only a low row of sandbags, totally inadequate, protected them. This allowed the guns to swing 360 degrees and supply cover to all possibilities. Viet Minh gunners had always been poor. Although the French understood the Chinese had been recently training them, they had no faith in Chinese gunners either, regardless of the devastation they had bestowed upon the U.N. Forces in Korea, so they were not worried.

When Marc Jacquet, French Secretary of State for Associated States Affairs, suspected there were not enough guns in the valley, he offered French artillery commander, Colonel Piroth, all the guns he wanted (there were hundreds sitting idle in Hanoi). Piroth declined saying they would only get in the way. He claimed his counter-battery fire would destroy any Viet Minh guns with the nerve to fire.

Perhaps the biggest mistake was overconfidence in their single means of supply, an unprotected airfield on the valley floor. The French laughed at the Viet Minh lines of supply since everything had to be carried overland, mostly by hand, almost 500 miles to the battlefield through dense, roadless jungles, over perilous mountains, and across rushing rivers. The French had only to retrieve their supplies from the constantly landing airplanes and distribute them to nearby units.

The French felt their combat troops were superior to those of the Viet Minh. They placed their finest troops into the valley including the much feared French Foreign Legion, a merciless group filled largely, at this time, with aging ex German Wehrmacht and S.S. troops who had often joined the Legion to escape war crimes or because they knew no other life except war.

The French also suspected no more than 20,000 to 30,000 Viet Minh would oppose them. More troops than that were probably unavailable and, if they were, could not be supplied.

From the opening round of the siege, at 5:00PM, March 13th, everything went wrong for the French. Although they knew almost to the minute the start of the battle, they seemed caught almost by surprise. Colonel Langlais, in charge of counter-attacks and later combat commander of the battle, was taking a shower when the opening barrage started.

French artillery commander, Colonel Piroth’s 53 guns proved ineffectual. Being unprotected, the guns, and more importantly, the gunners, were quickly devastated. Within a week he was down to only 40 guns. Throughout the battle, French counter-battery fire may have silenced only a single Viet gun.

More guns may have been useful during the battle, but this is purely speculative. If, like the others, they were not protected, they may have succumbed to the same fate. As the battle continued supplying the guns also became a problem and even the existing guns were often out of ammunition. The Viet Minh dragged and pulled over 200 guns over 57mm into the hills and dug them into the hillsides for protection.

The French airstrip was quickly destroyed. By the second day of the siege, the airstrip proved untenable. The tower was blown to bits and the airstrip littered with holes. Although a few planes occasionally landed, even this quickly ended. Supplies could only be dropped by parachute, many of which landed behind enemy line. In one of the greatest supply and engineering feats in history, the Viet Minh supply lines never faltered.

Although many of the French troops at Dien Bien Phu were the finest French combat troops in Vietnam, they had been badly beaten down through constant combat and overwork. The units were decimated and relatively exhausted. Their ranks had been filled with new recruits, and almost half the soldiers, even in the Foreign Legion, were Vietnamese who, unlike those with the Viet Minh, were not known for their fighting ability.

The French also had too few combat troops. Only about 6,000, of the eventual 14,000 troops were combat troops. The Viet Minh brought 50,000 soldiers to the 56-day siege including over 37,000 hardened infantrymen soon reinforced with another 10,000.

The outcome of the battle was seldom in doubt. The French, short of everything, capitulated on May 7th, 1954.

Most accounts say little about the physical care of the two armies. Giap understood the advantages of comfort his army needed to succeed. The French, partly because they had made such poor choices in terrain, did not.

Viet Minh guns ripped up the valley turning the area into a series of mud holes. The rain – Dien Bien Phu has one of the highest rainfalls in Vietnam – turned the area into a quagmire. Bugs, insects, and maggots, proliferated.

The Viet Minh lived mostly on the hillsides, dry and away from the mud except for brief periods. They only ventured into the valley during attacks or to dig approach trenches to reach French lines. While in camp, any rain that fell onto them drained down the hillsides and onto the French making the valley a quagmire. The French often fought in knee-high mud.

Latrines, blown everywhere, became non-existent and move without trudging through excrement became impossible. This waste fell into water supplies. Because of this septic material, infections permeated even the smallest wounds. Rotting bodies became a problem. The small cemetery soon filled and bodies were buried, when they could be buried, where they fell. Like everything else, bodies were blown everywhere.

Giap insisted sanitary conditions be maintained for his men. Latrines were dug well away from water supplies and never became a problem. The Viet Minh had all of Vietnam to bury their dead. Once buried they stayed buried, well away from French guns.

Although a valley, Dien Bien Phu had little water. The majority of the water came from the Nam Yum River, more mud slurry of mud water. The water was purified with two diesel machines but during the siege, soldiers did not always have success to it and they often drank what water they could find leaving them sick and crawling with parasites.

The Viet Minh camped beside perfectly clear streams. There is virtually no potable water in Vietnam and, although it had to be boiled (the Vietnamese call this purification “cooking the water”) the water contained no dirt, feces, human remains, and not did it stink.

Building materials had been scarce in the area so protection for the French was totally inadequate. The soldiers also believed they would be used on offensive operations so were not anxious to dig holes. Legionnaires, especially, refused to act like rats and were too tired from operations in the nearby hills construct shelters.

The Viet Minh needed no shelters and lived under the safety of the forest. The only thing they dug were the approach trenches.

While walking the battlefield today, the contrast between the two headquarters areas gives a striking contrast. Colonel de Castries’ bunker is dug under the flat valley floor with only two openings and no natural light. Exposed guns surround him. General Giap’s camp sits high in the hills defended by protected guns. Several crystal clear streams surround the headquarters. His buildings are airy huts above ground and fresh air and sunshine abounds. Butterflies congregate in the area as the gentle wind blows through the trees.

Fresh mountain streams for the Viet Minh

Viet Minh Guns protected in the hills

De Castries' bunker in the valley


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