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Dien Bien Phu

Dien Bien Phu

 

CSC 1985

 

SUBJECT AREA History

 

 

 

WAR SINCE 1945 SEMINAR

 

 

DIEN BIEN PHU

 

 

 

Major Vincent J. Goulding, Jr.

 

1 April 1985

 

Marine Corps Command and Staff College

Marine Corps Development and Education Command

Quantico, Virginia 22134

 

Table of Contents

 

 

 

Intorduction i

 

Chapter I: An "Asphyxiating Atmosphere" 1

 

Chapter II: A Tale of Two Armies 15

 

The Victors 15

 

The Vanquished 19

 

Chapter III: A Long and Cruel War 24

 

Chapter IV: Operation CASTOR 38

 

Political Background 38

 

Setting the Stage 41

 

Base Aero-Terrestre 46

 

Into the Valley of Death 54

 

Chapter V: Conclusion 78

 

Chronology 82

 

Endnotes 84

 

Bibliography 91

 

 

MAPS

 

 

Regions of Vietnam 3

 

Viet Minh Operations: October 1950-February 1952 30

 

Battles of 1952 and Operation LORRAINE 36

 

Map of Dien Bien Phu 49

 

D-Day at Dien Bien Phu 55

 

Isabelle Alone 66

 

Introduction

 

 

 

May Fance, once illustrious among the peoples

of slaves, eclipse the glory of all free peoples

that have existed, become the model to the nations,

the terror of oppressors, the consolation of the

oppressed, the ornament or the oppressed, the orn-

ament of the universe....

- Robespierre

Report on the Principles of Public Morality

 

 

 

Peoples of Italy, the French army comes to break

your chains; the French people is the friend of

all peoples. You may receive them with confidence.

Your property, your religion, and your customs will

be respected... We have no grudge except against the

tyrants who oppress you.

- Bonaparte

Address at Cherasco, Italy, April 1796

 

 

 

The ideas of liberty and conquest have been getting mixed up

 

for as long as there have been men around to confuse them. Admit-

 

tedly, confuse might well be a poor choice of words; yet, it is

 

undeniably one of history's most consistent inconsistencies that

 

the terms are invariably uttered in the same breath by men try-

 

ing to use the former to justify the latter. The ingredient re-

 

quired to make either a reality is power. A weak nation's days

 

of feedom are numbered and only a strong state can forcibly

 

extend or defend its boundaries.

 

There is no nation on earth which should have been more

 

aware of this fact than the France of 1945; yet, it was this

 

same France which chose to look beyond its own national condition

 

before setting out to reimpose its own particular brand of free-

 

dom on a dedicated people halfway around the world whose strength

 

it severely and tragically underestimated. Under the guise of

 

anti-communism, a politically weakened and militarily second-

 

rate European "Great Power" sought to restore itself in Southeast

 

Asia after the Second World War. France, which in 1940 had been

 

dealt a stunning and humiliating defeat, turning over Paris to

 

the Nazis and Saigon to the Japanese, now sought, five years later,

 

to remount the pedestal of greatness as though what had just tran-

 

spired was little more than a figment of the world's imagination.

 

The Vietnamese saw through the charade instantly; the rest of

 

the world would very quickly. Unfortunately, the French them-

 

selves would be slow to grasp what to nearly everyone else was

 

rapidly becoming self-evident, and in the very same decade that

 

the defenders of Dien Bien Phu would trudge into captivity after

 

military defeat, so also would the Quai d'Orsay discover, in Al-

 

geria, that even victory on the battlefield is no guarantee of

 

success in a newly emerging type of war. The lessons were there

 

for the learning, and, most assuredly, not only for the French

 

Fourth Republic.

 

The May 7, 1954 surrender of the garrison at Dien Bien Phu

 

unquestionably terminated France's Indochinese adventure; but,

 

like the epitaph gouged on a dead man's headstone, hardly tells

 

an entire story. That Vo Nguyen Giap's People's Army soundly

 

defeated the flower of the French Expeditionary Force in a battle

 

of conventional arms and style is clear. It is important to re-

 

member, however, that Dien Bien Phu was the culmination of a

 

protracted war and as such cannot be studied in a vacuum.

 

It is the intent of this paper to examine the events which

 

led to this particularly famous and often misunderstood campaign.

 

To do this, the study must begin before the year 1954, for as

 

early as 1930, Ho Chi Minh was establishing himself as a force

 

with which to be reckoned. A decade later, the fall of France

 

and the establishment of Henri Petain's Vichy Government would

 

bring Japanese occupation and opportunity for Ho to consolidate

 

Vietnamese nationalism well before the reintroduction of the

 

"victorious" French in the autumn of 1945. Giap's creation of

 

a People's Army is no less worthy of study, and both his force

 

and that of the French will be examined. Most important, the

 

strategy each chose to employ in order to accomplish their de-

 

sired goals, however clearly or poorly perceived, will be an-

 

alyzed. Perhaps history provides us no better example of how

 

a progressive guerrilla war can be successfully waged against

 

a well-trained conventional army; more significantly, Dien Bien

 

Phu illustrates how the cohesion and consistency of state policy

 

manifests itself directly in the performance of its soldiers.

 

Operation CASTOR is itself examined in some detail. Much

 

more than the heroic siege which is commonly, and rightfully,

 

associated with the campaign for Dien Bien Phu, it is important

 

to remember and comprehend the political machinations which took

 

place in cities far removed from Tonkin, or even Paris. In many

 

ways, the 1953-1954 struggle in Indochina's northwest corner was

 

the misbegotten child of policies, and in some instances, lack

 

of policies, formulated in numerous unlikely locations around the

 

globe. Just as we all had a stake in what happened at Dien Bien

 

Phu, we all have a great deal to learn from it.

 

For instance, formal military training does not necessarily

 

create a successful professional soldier. Vo Nguyen Giap showed

 

a grasp of tactics and logistics far beyond that of even St. Cyr's

 

most distinguished graduates. Thus, the question is raised as to

 

how a military leadership which is steeped in political goals and

 

ideology can be beaten by a basically expeditionary force, led

 

by conventionally educated officers. The answer is more than

 

just cutting off sources of external support to the guerrilla,

 

although history proves that this too must be accomplished.

 

The French lost in Indochina, but it is critical that today's

 

officer understand why. For the same reason that Gallipoli was

 

invaluable to the architects of America's amphibious techniques

 

of World War II, so also should Dien Bien Phu be important to the

 

professional military planner confronted by the world of 1985 and

 

beyond.

 

I

 

AN "ASPHYXIATING ATMOSPHERE"

 

 

 

In 1938, at the time of the Indochinese Democratic

Front there emerged in Vietnam a big mass movement

such as was never seen before, while in dance the

Daladier government surrendered to the fascists and

itself became fascist.

- Vo Nguyen Giap

The Military Art of People's War

 

 

 

Even if you should manage to re-establish a French

administration here, it would no longer be obeyed:

each village would be a nest of resistance, each

former collaborator an enemy, and your officials

and colonials themselves would beg to be freed

from this asphyxiating atmosphere.

- Emperor Bao Dai

letter to DeGaulle August 20. 1945

 

 

 

Beginning in the second year of our own American Civil War

 

and continuing until nearly the turn of the century, the French

 

incrementally occupied and consolidated their grip on Indochina.

 

Vietnam was the centerpiece and was divided into the three king-

 

doms of Tonkin in the north, Annam in the center and Cochin China

 

in the south. The battle that was destined to break France's

 

power in Indochina would be fought in Tonkin, but the two Viet-

 

namese leaders who would fight it were from Annam. Neither was

 

new to the idea of nationalism and they both understood that pro-

 

tracted guerrilla war was its manifestation.

 

In 1931 Nguyen Ai Quoc, celebrated throughout the world as

 

the legendary "Uncle" Ho Chi Minh, founded the Indochinese Com-

 

munist Party (ICP) in Canton, as much on a nationalist as commu-

 

nist platform. Forced to remain underground in its early days

 

due to French military supremacy, the party was granted a semi-

 

legal status only after the 1936 election of a Popular Front gov-

 

ernment in France.1 In 1937, members of the French Communist

 

Party, representing the government of France, were dispatched to

 

nurture their ideologically infant relative in Indochina. In spite

 

of the fact that the respite granted by the election of this Pop-

 

ular Front government was short-lived, the fledgling organization

 

proliferated. The previously unknown Vo Nguyen Giap, heretofor

 

earning his keep as professor of history, was given the opportu-

 

nity to dedicate his efforts toward political writing. Ho, al-

 

ready possessed of an active pen from his refuge in China, now had

 

his writing freely circulated throughout the French colony. The

 

seeds of change were being sown under the benevolent wings of a

 

future mortal enemy.

 

When the Popular Front Government in Paris fell, however,

 

the reaction was quick throughout French colonial possessions.

 

On September 26, 1939, communist parties were outlawed and whole-

 

sale arrests were made. As is so frequently the case, adversity

 

provided the impetus for a renewal of dedication, in this instance

 

on the part of the communist leadership. The 1940 collapse of

 

France, establishment of Petain's Vichy Government, and the intro-

 

duction of a Japanese army of occupation into Indcchina had mixed

 

results for Vietnamese nationalists.

 

Click here to view image

 

Although it is true that the facade of a French colonial ad-

 

ministration was left largely intact by the Japanese, it soon be-

 

came clear that the real power in most of Indochina was in fact

 

the Japanese army. For the most part, however, it was not the

 

Japanese army which became the target of the rapidly emerging

 

Vietnamese maquis. Men destined to raise their flag over the

 

fallen garrison of Dien Bien Phu cut their teeth as guerrilla

 

fighters in operations against isolated French posts in a Japanese

 

occupied country. Most such raids were planned and organized just

 

a handful of miles across the Chinese border, often under the tu-

 

telage of that bastion of anti-communism, the Kuomintang.2 In all

 

liklihood, it was this unusual and oppressive double occupation

 

which provided the catalyst for the development of a real nation-

 

alist leadership within Vietnam. In any case, Ho Chi Minh return-

 

ed to his native country in May 1941 and quickly established him-

 

self as political chieftain and outspoken champion of national

 

liberation. Drawing divergent nationalist groups together, Ho

 

quickly founded the League for the Independence of Vietnam. The

 

French came to know his organization as the Viet Minh.3

 

If Ho was to become the pen of the Viet Minh, its sword would

 

be Vo Nguyen Giap, the man who gave his party "the fearsome mili-

 

tary apparatus that makes the Vietnam People's Army the strongest

 

native military force in Southeast Asia today." Giap is a most

 

interesting character; his very life provides a graphic illustra-

 

tion of not only what was taking place in his country during the

 

years of the Second World War, but also what a profound impact it

 

had on the people who lived there. During the early years of Japan-

 

ese occupation, warrants were issued by the French for the arrest of

 

both Giap and his young wife. Although the future general himself

 

eluded his captors, his wife and infant daughter were not so for-

 

tunate. Arrested and then tried in a French military court for

 

conspiracy against the security of France, Mme. Giap was sentenced

 

to life imprisonment. She and the baby died in a French jail, in

 

a Japanese occupied Vietnam in 1943. Giap's sister-in-law, Minh

 

Khai, was executed on the guillotine.5 The man who was later to

 

be dubbed by the Fench as the "Snow-Covered Volcano" personally

 

understood the meaning of foreign occupation, be it political or

 

military. Giap, and thousands like him, longed for the day when

 

Vietnam would be returned to its people. Hatred had transformed

 

idealists and scholars into zealots and soldiers.

 

It was not until late 1944 that Vietnamese soldiers were

 

actually organized into military units in order to take up arms

 

against their unwelcome guests from France and Japan. In fact,

 

the official birthday of the Vietnam People's Army (VPA) is Decem-

 

ber 22, 1944, a date which commemorates the day that a platoon of

 

Vietnamese soldiers overran two small French garrisons near the

 

Chinese border. By V-J Day, Giap's troops were militarily quite

 

potent, well-trained and adequately armed with an assortment of

 

French, Japanese, and even American, weapons (those of American

 

manufacture, parachuted in by the OSS).6 Of course, from this

 

day in August 1944 until after the capture of Dien Bien Phu, nine

 

years later, it was to be the soldiers of France who were to suffer

 

the wrath of Vietnam's rapidly maturing army.

 

September 2, 1945 saw the creation of the Democratic Republic

 

of Vietnam, founded in Hanoi, capital of Tonkin. Even such politi-

 

cal moderates as the recently abdicated Emperor Bao Dai seeming-

 

ly took interest in the prospect of a viable Vietnamese government

 

and therefore lent support to the Viet Minh. Bao Dai, in fact,

 

stepped down attesting that he would prefer to be "a common cit-

 

izen in an independent state than a king of a subjugated nation."7

 

Warnings to the Euopean powers that the Vietnamese would

 

not accept any attempt to restore the old order of things fell on

 

deaf ears.8 In any case the Second World War had barely ended

 

when, at the Potsdam Conference, the victors decided to return

 

foreign troops to Vietnam: Chiang Kai-shek's Chinese north of

 

the 16th Parallel, Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten's tommies to

 

the south. By late 1945 the overtaxed British were quite anxious

 

to leave, and during this time frame the arrival of French polit-

 

ical and military advance forces in Cochin China made it abun-

 

dantly clear that an independant Vietnam was not one of the press-

 

ing issues on the French (or British) political agenda. Fearful

 

that unless the former colony was reclaimed quickly, the newly

 

emerging American gospel of anti-colonialism would reach too many

 

sympathetic ears, President Charles de Gaulle acted quickly to

 

restore the status quo ante bellum.9 Thus, by early February

 

1946, Mountbatten's British occupation force had been replaced

 

south of the 16th Parallel by Marshall Jean Leclerc's Frenchmen.

 

The French wouldn't find their reinstatement quite as easy

 

in the northern part of the country (northern Annam and Tonkin).

 

Here they were confronted by Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh and not a

 

war-weary European ally and colonial power. The Nationalist Chi-

 

nese who moved in to fill the postwar void were of no consequence

 

militarily or otherwise; Generalissimo Chiang was adequately chal-

 

lenged by a communist movement in his own country. He had shown

 

the priorities which drove his military effort throughout the

 

Second World War, diverting the lion's share of his military ef-

 

fort to the crippling of the Chinese communists rather than the

 

defeat of the Japanese (from the Chinese view, this pre-World War

 

II civil war would continue after the Japanese had been defeated).

 

Thus, there was no reason to expect Chiang to become too involved

 

in Vietnam after 1945. As far as the French were concerned, the

 

writing was on the wall. The time had come when Paris would have

 

to fight if it expected to regain control over its former colony;

 

clearly, the followers of Ho Chi Minh and the soldiers of Vo Nguyen

 

Giap were not prepared to acquiesce to a return to a subjugated

 

status. The latter especially was a strong advocate of fighting

 

the French with weapons as opposed to words, describing the Viet-

 

namese people as "indissolubly united to fight to the death."10

 

The manner in which the situation took shape in 1946 and 1947,

 

however, suggests that the People's Army would remain first and

 

foremost a tool designed to attain the Viet Minh's political ends.

 

It is worthwhile to pause briefly at this point in order to

 

examine in a little more detail the motivation behind the Viet-

 

nam People's Army overall strategy, and the impact it had on how

 

the struggle in Indochina assumed a character all its own. The

 

Vietnam People's Army was a loyal disciple of Clausewitz' famous

 

dictum that military action was nothing short of the last resort

 

of political policy. What is so intriguing about this entire

 

business is that only grudgingly is credit given where credit is

 

due, which is to say, Mao Tse-tung. Without question, the concept

 

of protracted guerrilla warfare was the cornerstone of Mao's

 

method of achieving political victory. As the Chinese communist

 

wrote in May 1938, in an essay entitled "On Protracted War:"

 

 

...it can reasonably be assumed that this pro-

tracted war will pass through three stages.

The first stage covers the period of the en-

emy's strategic offensive and our strategic

defensive. The second stage will be the per-

iod of the enemy's strategic consolidation

and our preparation for the counteroffensive.

The third stage will be the period of our

strategic counteroffensive and the enemy's

strategic de feat.11

 

Mao summarized his thoughts on mobile guerrilla warfare in a

 

short article he wrote in 1936 entitled "Problems of Strategy

 

in China's Revolutionary War" by boiling the entire essence of

 

protracted warfare into the single statement of "fight when you

 

can win, move away when you can't win." General Giap refers to

 

this form of strategy as the "long-term Resistance War:" which

 

would progress through the three stages of defensive, equilibrium

 

and offensive.12 In his accounts of the fighting against the

 

French, especially from 1950 on, the former history teacher re-

 

flects personal pride in his accomplishment and seems reluctant

 

to acknowledge a military debt to anyone. The evidence would

 

seem to indicate otherwise. General Giap's strategy and tactics

 

smack heavily of the thoughts of Chairman Mao.

 

What is of considerable importance is the fact that the Viet-

 

namese nationalist movement was being guided by men who had no in-

 

tention of acting hastily in the face of French generals who

 

boasted openly that the pacification of Indochina would entail

 

only a month or so of mopping up. French politicians, however,

 

were showing that they could be circumspect as well. With the

 

formal withdrawl of Chinese Nationalist troops from northern

 

Vietnam, the returning colonialists quickly realized that the

 

real power there belonged wholly to the Viet Minh and that Gen-

 

eral Leclerc (despite his boasting) hardly possessed the means

 

to alter the situation. Thus, on March 6, 1946, Jean Sainteny,

 

assistant military attache in Chungking, signed a modus vivendi

 

with the Viet Minh.13 At this particular time, many Frenchmen

 

in Indochina, and in Paris as well, were rightfully of the opin-

 

ion that Ho Chi Minh was not yet a bitter enemy of France, but

 

rather a high-minded nationalist who probably had no objections

 

to maintaining diplomatic relations with the Quai d'Orsay and

 

could thus accept Vietnam's status as an Associated State. To

 

a point, Ho was a Francophile; but, where the misunderstanding

 

would always occur was in determining exactly where that point

 

was. Ho was an ideological nationalist before all else. Free-

 

dom for his country was much more important to him than hatred

 

for the nation which precluded it from becoming a fact. In the

 

Democratic Republic of Vietnam's Declaration of Independence

 

(drafted by Chairman Ho in September 1945), it is made clear that

 

the Vietnamese had no intention of returning to their former sta-

 

tus. The preamble has a familiar ring to it:

 

 

We hold truths that all men are created equal,

that they are endowed by their Creator with

certain unalienable Rights, among these are

Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness...14

 

Continuing in the same September 2nd speech in which he introduced

 

the Declaration, Ho reminded the French, as well as the rest of

 

the world that:

 

 

...during and throughout the last eighty years,

the French imperialists, abusing the principles

of "freedom, equality and fraternity," have vio-

lated the integrity of our ancestral land and

oppressed our countrymen. Their deeds run coun-

ter to the ideals of humanity and justice.

In the political field, they have denied

us every freedom. They have forced upon us

inhuman laws. They have set up three differ-

ent political regimes...in an attempt to dis-

rupt our national, historical and ethnical

unity.

In the autumn of 1940, when the Japanese

fascists, in order to fight the Allies, in-

vaded Indochina and set up new bases of war,

the French imperialists surrendered on bended

knees and handed over our country to the in-

vaders...

On March 9, 1945, the Japanese disarmed

the French troops. Again the French either

fled or surrendered unconditionally. Thus in

no way have they proved capable of "protecting

us"; on the contrary, within five years they

have twice sold our country to the Japanese...

In fact, since the autumn of 1940, our

country ceased to be a French colony and be-

came a Japanese possession.

After the Japanese surrender, our people,

as a whole rose up and proclaimed their sover-

eignty and founded the Democratic Republic of

Vietnam.

The truth is that we have wrung back our

independence from Japanese hands and not from

the French.15

 

 

Admitting that the above is not devoid of classic propaganda, it

 

is nonetheless clear that French influence and French domination

 

were two entirely different concepts and that Chairman Ho was

 

never likely to confuse them. He summarized the situation as it

 

existed in 1946 thusly:

 

 

We have no hatred for France. We want to re-

establish contact with her, all the more since

others are interferring in our affairs. A

settlement is possible. But if we have to,

we will fight.

 

By this period both the French and Vietnamese nationalists

 

had strong ideas concerning the future of the former colony, and

 

it is clear that the concepts were hardly agreeable. Both sides

 

seem to have realized, however, that early 1946 was not yet the

 

right time for them to attempt an imposition of their will on

 

the adversary. Thus, as is so often the case, the modus vivendi

 

was an attempt by both sides to better organize themselves before

 

setting out to achieve their long term objectives. In this regard,

 

it would seem that the French were the more deceitful of the two.

 

Everyone knew what the Viet Minh wanted; the French played a shell

 

game. Could it have been because they themselves were somewhat

 

unsure of what they wanted?

 

In any case, less than a month after Ho and Sainteny signed

 

the documents which made northern Vietnam a free state and a mem-

 

ber of the French Union, Generals Giap and Raoul Salan closed the

 

loop by putting their respective signatures on a military pact.

 

The terms were simple enough: France would provide aid for the

 

training of a Vietnamese army and for five years the French Army

 

would man its posts, principally on the Chinese border, augmented

 

by Vietnamese troops. Most noteworthy was one final item, however,

 

which stated that, at the expiration of the five year period (when

 

the Vietnamese army would be sufficiently trained), the French

 

would evacuate Vietnam.17 Even to the most diehard pessimist,

 

there seemed every reason to believe that a bloodless solution had

 

been discovered. General Leclerc, who had masterminded the French

 

end of the bargain, was proud that due to his effort a war-weary

 

France would be spared a costly war in an underdeveloped country

 

halfway around the world. Unfortunately for Leclerc, he was only

 

the first of many French soldiers destined to be undercut by his

 

political leaders, after being guilty only of acting according to

 

his own instincts in the environment of non-existent national pol-

 

icy which was apparently in vogue in Paris. The one great oppor-

 

tunity France had to stave off a long and costly war was tragical-

 

ly lost when Marshal Leclerc was recalled from Indochina after

 

being branded an appeaser by men who had chosen neither to guide

 

nor support him.

 

Subsequent meetings, both in Asia and in France, between

 

French and Vietnamese delegates during the summer of 1946 accom-

 

plished little except to convince Ho Chi Minh that the French

 

were dragging their feet. After the highly publicized Fontaine-

 

bleau Conference of mid 1946, Ho hoped for a satisfactory agree-

 

ment even after most of his fellow delegates had long since re-

 

turned home in despair. The pragmatist in the man made him re-

 

alize that his country was not ready to take on the French dir-

 

ectly just yet. As a consequence, on September 14th, he engineer-

 

ed yet another modus vivendi, which this time brought recognition

 

to the Viet Minh south of the 16th Parallel.18 Upon his return

 

in October 1946, Ho urged his countrymen to avoid violence, rea-

 

soning that the French were "coming around" on the issue of Viet-

 

namese independence. It is doubtful that he really believed what

 

he was saying; in any case, events were racing toward a far dif-

 

ferent conclusion. He was attempting to buy time for his country.

 

On November 20, 1946, fighting broke out between French troops

 

and Vietnamese militia in the port of Haiphong after a distur-

 

bance developed over the issue of customs jurisdiction in that

 

city. To say that the French commander on the scene, one Colonel

 

Debes, overreacted would be a vast understatement. Acting on

 

guidance received directly from Saigon, which was never routed

 

through the more liberal Minister Sainteny and General Louis

 

Morliere in Hanoi, the colonel unleashed all the means at his

 

disposal to settle the issue, with the predictable loss of life

 

to Vietnamese soldiers and civilians alike (the French admitted

 

to 6,000 Vietnamese killed; probably too high a figure).19 Gen-

 

eral Jean Valluy, commander of all French troops in Indochina now

 

sought to keep the initiative by gaining total control of the en-

 

tire city, not just the port, and so ordered from his headquarters

 

in Saigon. Debes, of course, was only too willing to comply. Ap-

 

peals by Ho Chi Minh to General Valluy urging restraint fell on

 

deaf ears.20 Even the volatile General Giap tried to rely on

 

words to preclude armed hostility; he also failed.21 When, on

 

December 15, 1946, Ho tried to alert Premier Leon Blum in Paris

 

as to what was taking place, his message was intentionally delay-

 

ed for nearly two weeks by French diplomats in Saigon. Given the

 

chaotic political situation in Paris, however, it is anything but

 

certain that Blum would have acted forcefully in any case.

 

Two weeks is a long time, certainly it was long enough for

 

the single-minded French soldiers and hawkish statesmen in Viet-

 

nam to reap the seeds they had sown in northern Vietnam. Between

 

December 15 and 19, 1946, Ho sent four unanswered telegrams to

 

Paris.22 While he was writing, French troops were marching.

 

On December 18th, Hanoi was formally occupied. That same day,

 

General Morliere, apparently now abandoning his stance of moder-

 

ation, called for the disarming of the Vietnamese militia in the

 

city. As far as "The Snow-Covered Volcano" was concerned, this

 

was the straw which broke the camel's back. Vo Nguyen Giap signed

 

the order for nationwide armed resistance the following day. It

 

is worth recounting it here:

 

Officers of the National Guard, Commanders of

units and members of the self-defense militia

and self-defense forces,

At 8 o'clock tonight, December 19, 1946,

the French troops have provoked hostilities in

the capital of the Democratic Republic of

Vietnam.

The Fatherland is in danger!

The hour of combat has come!

In accordance with the order of Chairman

Ho and the Government, as Minister of National

Defense, I order all soldiers of the National

Guard and Self-Defense militia in the Center,

South and North to:

Stand up in unison,

Dash into battle,

Destroy the invaders and cave the

country.

Sacrifice to the last drop of blood in the

struggle for the Independence and Unification

of the Fatherland.

The resistance will be long and extremely

hard, but the just cause is on our side, and

we will definitely be victorious.

Annihilate the French colonialists!

Long live independence and unified

Viet-nam!

Long live the victory of the resistance!

Determine to fight!23

 

 

Ho Chi Minh followed two days later with a similar appeal to his

 

people, telling the Vietnamese that they could either "fold their

 

arms and bow their heads and fall back into slavery, or to strug-

 

gle to the end for freedom and independence."24 A shooting war,

 

a revolutionary war, was on and no one was going to stop it.

 

II

 

A TALE OF TWO ARMIES

 

 

 

From the military point of view, the Vietnam-

ese people's war of liberation proved that an

insurriciently equipped people's army, but an

army fighting for a just cause, can, with ap-

propriate strategy and tactics, combine the

conditions needed to conquer a modern army of

aggressive imperialism.

- Vo Nguyen Giap

The Military Art of People's War

 

 

 

L'Armee frangaise etait desorganisee par une

demobilisation hative et desordonnee, par les

reductions massives de credits, les epurations

arbitraires et les degagements de cadres in-

consideres.

- General Henri Navarre

Agonie de l'Indochine

 

 

 

The Victors

 

The two armies which squared off in 1946 occupied positions

 

on quite the opposite ends of the military spectrum. From the

 

standpoint of organization, equipment and tactics they had little

 

in common, until, ironically, the very last campaign of the war

 

when the time became propitious for General Giap to beat his

 

French counterparts at their very own game, which is to say, con-

 

ventional warrare. Perhaps that eventuality more than anything

 

else makes the war in Indochina as intriguing as it is. One can

 

never lose sight of the fact, however that ALL WARS, AND PARTICU-

 

LARLY THOSE OF NATIONAL LIBERATION, ARE FOUGHT FOR POLITICAL PUR-

 

POSES. Here, even more than in the purely military aspect, is to

 

be found the greatest single dichotomy between the opposing armed

 

forces and the ultimate reason why one emerged victorious and the

 

other bowed its head in humiliating defeat. This discussion of

 

political and national objectives will be treated more extensively

 

in a subsequent chapter; our attention is now focused on the com-

 

batants. It seems only fair to examine the victors first, how

 

they were organized and the methods they used to win.

 

The military arm of the Viet Minh was a truly revolutionary

 

force, organized along standard military lines but under the con-

 

stant supervision of political officers at every level. It would

 

be difficult to find an European army that could provide a better

 

example of a military force being used to achieve purely political

 

ends. The complexion of the Vietnamese military establishment

 

changed as the war progressed, but what never changed was that

 

establishment's allegiance to the clearly stated goals of its

 

political leadership. As had been the armies of late 18th Cen-

 

tury Revolutionary France itself, the Vietnamese People's Army

 

was based on the concept of levee en masse. Vietnam was a nation

 

at war, in fact, in the early stages it was even more than that.

 

When the fighting first started in 1946, Indochina in its entirety

 

was broken down into fourteen regions, each administered by a

 

political committee answerable to Ho Chi Minh, who spent most of

 

his time in the nearly inaccessible Viet Bac mountains of north-

 

eastern Tonkin Province. Two years later, the political organi-

 

zation changed as Ho began to confine the war to Vietnam. While

 

unnecessary to describe each of the six new "inter-zones;" suffice

 

it to say that each was responsible for the recruiting and train-

 

ing of its own guerrilla forces.1

 

At the lowest end of the Vietnamese military spectrum was the

 

village militia, who although not a factor in the purely military

 

sense, did serve the crucial purpose of widening the base of com-

 

munist support throughout the country. The militia additionally

 

could be counted on to gather intelligence and act as laborers.

 

To underestimate this particular group's value would be to make

 

the same mistake the French high command did in planning for the

 

ill-fated Operation CASTOR in late 1953. The "customized" bicycle

 

and sinewy back of the village militia had every bit as much to do

 

with the great victory at Dien Bien Phu as did the automatic rifle

 

and pith helmet of the Viet Minh regular who raised his country's

 

flag over the French commandant's bunker there. Men and women

 

both served in the militia, as its place of duty was usually not

 

at the "front lines," but in the shadowy rear areas. Giap spares

 

no praise for the work of the militiamen in their role of provid-

 

ing "the main instrument of the people's power," and in general

 

supporting his more combat oriented units.2

 

Once a viable militia organization had been established in a

 

given zone, selected members were reassigned to regional "Home

 

Guard" units. Although political training was continued in such

 

units, their military purpose was a more active one. Not only

 

responsible for the physical secruity of specific georaphic areas,

 

regional troops were formally trained in guerrilla tactics. Au-

 

thor Robert Thompson regards this particular organization as "a

 

central factor in eventual Viet Minh victory."3 Certainly, there

 

is no disputing the fact that regional troops were eminently suc-

 

cessful in causing the French to dilute their military presence

 

throughout the entire country in order to maintain vital lines of

 

communication, and control of populated areas. To the American

 

soldier and Marine who came to fight after the French had been

 

defeated, the regional soldier was known as "Charlie," or Viet

 

Cong.

 

Protracted guerrilla war was unquestionably the cornerstone

 

of General Giap's strategy; but, like any good soldier, Giap re-

 

tained strategic flexibility for the changes he knew success would

 

bring:

 

According to our military theory, in order to

ensure victory for the people's war when we

are stronger than the enemy politically and

the enemy is stronger than we materially, it

is necessary to promote an extensive guerrilla

war which will develop gradually into a regular

war combined with guerrilla war. Regular war

and guerrilla war are closely combined, stimu-

late each other, deplete and annihilate enemy

forces, and bring final victory.4

 

It was the Chuc Luc, or regular force which was designed to train

 

in the conventional methods of fighting, in order to apply the

 

coup de grace to the French Expeditionary Force when the time

 

came. By early 1950, there "uniformed" regular units were formed

 

into five infantry divisions. Previously, they had operated for

 

the most part as independent battalions. Four of these divisions,

 

numbering approximately 11,000 men each, operated in the Viet Bac

 

area (the 304th, 308th, 312th and 316th). The 320th remained

 

south of the 16th Parallel. Before 1950 came to a close the

 

351st "Heavy" Division was organized, with a much heavier con-

 

centration of artillery (57mm and 75mm field guns) and 37mm anti-

 

aircraft weapons. The conventional divisions mentioned above were

 

organized along the familiar light infantry model with three in-

 

fantry regiments of two or three battalions each, heavy mortars,

 

some anti-aircraft weapons and, machine guns and small arms. By

 

the time the battle was raging for Dien Bien Phu, a seventh divi-

 

sion, the 325th, was in the process of being raised.

 

The Viet Minh had neither an air force nor navy, but as the

 

war progressed they received an increasing amount of material as-

 

sistance and technical advice from the Chinese Communists; how-

 

ever, always regarded the fight as one wholly its own. The three

 

types of armed forces created by the Viet Minh constituted "the

 

expression of the general mobilisation of the people in arms.

 

They [the three types] co-operated closely with one another to an-

 

nihilate the enemy."5

 

 

The Vanquished

 

To fight the three major elements which comprised the Viet-

 

namese People's Army, the French offered the French Expeditionary

 

Force; it was a predictably conventional werstern army which sought

 

to take advantage of superior firepower and technology to defeat

 

the Viet Minh. There are a number of reasons why the French Ex-

 

peditionary Force failed, some of which can be attributed to the

 

army itself, just as many others cannot.

 

The average size of the Expeditionary Force in Indochina

 

hovered around a figure of 150,000 men; yet, generally only a

 

third were French regulars. The army was quite diverse in nature.

 

In addition to ethnic French units, the French Expeditionary

 

Force relied heavily on colonial troops, which fought in units

 

organized identically to the regular French. The Moroccans, Tu-

 

nisians and Senegalese organizations were led by French officers.

 

Interestingly, Algerian units, because of their status as metro-

 

politian French troops, had their own officers.16 It goes without

 

saying that this fact had a profound impact on the war of national

 

liberation France found herself fighting in that country beginning

 

as she crawled out of Vietnam in 1954.

 

Two other elements rounded out the international flavor which

 

mainfested itself in the French Expeditionary Force. One is fa-

 

mous for its exploits, the other graphically points out France's

 

failure at "winning the hearts and minds," so to speak. The For-

 

eign Legion (Legion Estranger) fought hard and well throughout

 

the war, usually where the fighting was at its heaviest. The fact

 

that over 11,000 Legionnaires never returned from Indochina is

 

grim testament to the quality of the Legion's service there.7

 

Certainly, Dien Bien Phu deserves a place of honor alongside Cam-

 

erone and Magental as a legend in that renowned fighting unit's

 

glorious history.

 

In direct contrast stands the performance of the soldiers

 

France recruited from the "Associated States" of Indochina, par-

 

ticularly the Vietnamese. Organized haphazardly into conventional

 

and guerrilla units, the full potential of this tremendous man-

 

power source was never effectively tapped. The individual courage

 

and fighting ability of these native troops need not be questioned

 

now any more than it was then by the French. The problem lay whol-

 

ly in Paris' vacillation concerning how much reliance would be

 

placed on the indigenous troops and to what degree they would be

 

recruited and organized.

 

For the most part, the war in Indochina remained French in

 

character and never approached becoming a fraternal fight. Credit

 

for this must be given more to the Viet Minh's efforts than to

 

Paris' lack. The struggle at the grass roots was won handily by

 

Uncle Ho's political officers, although it cannot be ignored that

 

27,000 Indochinese soldiers died while fighting on the French pay-

 

roll.8

 

As has every conventional force attempting to defeat the in-

 

surgent, so also did that of France put its faith in a misplaced

 

reliance on the mobility born of modern tehnology, at least in

 

the initial stages of the war. Military units of the Expedition-

 

ary Force would hardly look unusual to the American analyst ex-

 

amining their organization and weapons. The heavy weapons which

 

were organic to the infantry battalions were the 81mm and 60mm

 

mortars, as well as the .50 calibre machine gun. Artillery sup-

 

port was provided primarily by 75mm recoilless guns, 105 mm and

 

155mm howitzers, and 120mm heavy mortars. Heavier artillery such

 

as the 175mm gun, proved ineffective due to its inherent lack of

 

responsiveness and mobility.

 

Mobility had to be the cornerstone of any stratey aimed

 

against an elusive enemy who espoused Mao's tenets of guerrilla

 

warfare. For infantry units it was provided by the ponderous

 

World War II vintage half-track and armored cars. More mobile

 

firepower came out of the muzzles of M-4 Sherman and M-24 Chaffee

 

tanks.9 Both of these veterans of the Second World War had ex-

 

cellent combat records, and at times proved effective in Indo-

 

china; however, in the cat and mouse scenario of guerrilla war-

 

fare, their value was limited at best.

 

The ultimate in mobile warfare was provided by the parachute

 

units, which went into the fight with self-contained artillery

 

and engineer support. Of course, just as such units are forced

 

to do today parachute units then were forced to look skyward for

 

resupply. Foreign Legion, Colonial, French and even Indochinese

 

troops comprised the various parachute battalions which fought

 

with nothing short of distinction during the entire war. During

 

the early stages of the conflict, air transportation for these

 

elite units was provided by the venerable Junkers JU-52, replaced

 

later by the American supplied C-47 Dakota and C-119 Flying Boxcar.

 

Of all of these there was never enough, and it was not unusual for

 

French commercial aircraft with civilian crews to be pressed into

 

emergency service. Later, even Americans became involved.

 

Troops on the ground looked to the skies for more than resup-

 

ply, and although French aircrews turned in yeoman service in the

 

close air support role, they were never equal to the task. The

 

principal bomber was the B-26 Marauder, while the F-8F Bearcat

 

and Navy F-4U provided the bulk of close air support. Helicopters

 

(the U.S. built H-19B) appeared only very late in the war and were

 

used principally for the medical evacuation. From the overall

 

tactical standpoint, the lack of adequate airpower sealed the fate

 

of the defenders of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and, as we shall see,

 

brought on one of the great controversies of that particular cam-

 

paign.

 

 

III

 

 

 

A LONG AND CRUEL WAR

 

 

Guerrilla warfare does not bring as quick results

or as great renown as regular warfare, but "a

long road tests a horse's strength and a long

task proves a man's heart," and in the course of

this long and cruel war guerrilla warfare will

demonstrate its immense power; it is indeed no

ordinary undertaking

- Mao Tse-tung

"On Protracted War." May 1998

 

 

 

France will remain in Indochina and Indochina

within the French Union. This is the first

principle of our policy... The continued

presence of France in this country is now and

henceforth a fact that realists must not leave

out of their considerations.

- High Commissioner Emile Bollaert

Speech in Hanoi. May 15. 1947

 

 

 

When in early 1947, both sides decided to take off their

 

gloves, the French Expeditionary Force was represented in Viet-

 

nam by one infantry division, assorted armored units, two battal-

 

ions of paratroopers and the equivalent of three fighter squadrons.

 

The total came out to roughly 40,000, a figure which would almost

 

double by the end of the year. In any case, the French derived

 

some satisfaction from limited successes in 1947, especially in

 

capturing fixed objectives which, contrary to their "doctrine,"

 

the Viet Minh sometimes tried to defend and hold. Toward the end

 

of the year, General Giap's strategy shifted to the more logical

 

one of hit and run. With this transition, the Expeditionary Force

 

found itself pursuing the standard objective of all conventional

 

forces in a guerrilla war, the "set-piece battle."

 

It didn't take the French high command long to realize that

 

the division was far too unwieldy an organization to right its

 

elusive enemy, considering the mountains and lack of good routes

 

of communication in the principle theatre of operations, Tonkin

 

(North Vietnam). By 1949, the battalion had become the basic com-

 

bat unit of the Indochinese war. This was an overreaction which

 

frequently gave the Viet Minh the opportunity to achieve isolated

 

numerical superiority and some resultant tactical victories. In

 

fact, 1949 saw such a pronounced reversal of the military situa-

 

tion in Tonkin that Dean Acheson was prompted to comment that the

 

U.S. State Department felt strongly that the Vietnamese "independ-

 

ence movement was too strong to be defeated."1 There were indica-

 

tions that his counterparts in Paris were beginning to feel the

 

same way. Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam were granted "independence,"

 

and that most malleable of emperors, Bao Dai was set up as a French

 

puppet in order to offer a non-communist alternative to the people

 

of Vietnam. This very same man who had abdicated in protest of

 

French policies now became the Quai d'Orsay's official representa-

 

tive, but he was still certainly no match for Ho Chi Minh. The

 

year 1949 was pivotal for other reasons as well. Chiang Kai-shek

 

was defeated and forced to displace to Formosa and suddenly a

 

friendly neighbor to the north provided support and sanctuary to

 

the legions of General Giap, enabling them to refit and train with-

 

out the worry of French interference. American equipment which

 

Generalissimo Chiang had carefully husbanded during the Second

 

World War now made its way to the Vietnamese People's Army.

 

Thus, 1950 loomed as a watershed, and it quickly became ap-

 

parent that both sides were determined to reap any benefits it

 

might produce. Not until late in the year did things begin to

 

happen. After conducting intensive training in China, General Giap

 

decided to escalate the war by synchronizing a series of attacks on

 

the widely separated French strong points located near the Chinese

 

border. The offensive began on October 1, 1950, with fourteen bat-

 

talions of infantry supported by three of artillery.2 By October 17,

 

the French had lost 6,000 men, 13 artillery pieces, 125 mortars, 450

 

trucks, three armored platoons, 940 machine guns and over 9,000 ri-

 

fles and automatic rifles.3 What was particularly disconcerting to

 

French officers was the fact that three elite parachute battalions,

 

dropped in to preserve the supply route to the isolated garrison of

 

Lang-Son, had been completely destroyed. The rabbit had become a

 

tiger; perhaps the set-piece battle French generals had all longed

 

for was more than what they had bargained for. To use the words of

 

Bernard Fall, "the French had suffered their greatest colonial de-

 

feat since Montcalm died at Quebec. Their abandoned stocks alone

 

sufficed for the equipment of a whole Viet-Minh division."

 

As 1950 drew to a close it became apparent that with the ex-

 

ception of the Red River Delta, the French had lost control of Ton-

 

kin. Giap had created his previously mentioned divisions in the

 

safe haven of China; now they had been bloodied, thus making the

 

critical transition to the status of veteran units. The Vietnam-

 

ese commander in chief now decided to deliver his knockout blow,

 

attempting to break France's military back before the stagnating

 

situation in Korea led to a wider participation by the United

States. This, at least, is what Giap would have us believe.4 and

 

unquestionably, there is some validity to the premise. What is

 

more likely, however, is that the unqualified success of the au-

 

tumn offensive had had a heady effect on the rookie general. In-

 

terestingly, in two of his published works, General Giap has very

 

little to say about the 1951 attempt to follow up his 1950 success

 

and expel the French from the Red River Delta. For one thing, the

 

campaign was unsuccessful; for another, it violated his own (and

 

Mao's) precepts of protracted guerrilla war and showed a certain

 

lack of judgement on his part which one would guess the general

 

would just as soon forget.

 

It might be opportune at this time to examine briefly what

 

was taking place in the camp of Giap's adversary before beginning

 

an analysis of the campaigns of 1951. On December 17, 1950, General

 

de Lattre de Tassigny assumed command as Commander in Chief of the

 

French Expeditionary Force, and the concomitant duties of High Com-

 

missioner. In the minds of many, he was then France's greatest

 

living soldier.5 De Lattre put an indelible mark on the French

 

conduct of the war, but tragically, became terminally ill with

 

cancer and was forced to return home to die in less than a year.

 

Knowing fully that a communist offensive was in the making,* the

 

future Marshal of France set about making the reception for Giap's

 

 

*It should be noted that French intelligence services per-

formed in excellent fashion during the war, very rarely not pro-

viding timely and accurate information. It was ill-considered

actions of commanders, in the face of such information, which

generally brought defeat.

 

minions as warm as time would allow him.

 

For the First time, the soldiers of the Expeditionary Force

 

observed some leadership at the top. DeLattre had his share of

 

idiocyncracies, and behind his back the men might fondly call him

 

"Le Roi Jean," but face to face the general was a fighter. One

 

anecdote aptly describes the man. Upon arrival in Saigon to as-

 

sume command of all French forces, de Lattre was, of course,

 

treated to a military review. As soon as the band struck up the

 

"Marseillais," the new commander immediately noticed that one of

 

the bandsmen was out of tune. De Lattre immediately rushed over

 

and verbally castigated the offending musician.6 A legend was

 

born. But General de Lattre did other unorthodox things as well.

 

The commander in chief sent a passenger ship back to France loaded

 

with wounded soldiers rather than the French civilians it had been

 

sent to evacuate. De Lattre reasoned that the men would fight

 

harder with their families in the war zone. He was (in addition

 

to creating a legend) making it clear that despite Vo Nguyen

 

Giap's boasts to the effect that the Viet Minh would be in Hanoi

 

by Tet (February), "Le Roi Jean" disagreed. The general also

 

pressed civilians and civilian aircrart into military service

 

(for use in rear areas) in order to put more soldiers in the field

 

and keep them adequately supplied.7

 

When Giap launched his assault on January 16, 1951, centered

 

around the village Vinh Yen, approximately twenty-fve miles north-

 

west of Hanoi, de Lattre quickly showed his ability to mass super-

 

ior firepower (particularly artillery and napalm) in the face of

 

poorly thought out human wave assaults. The result was 6,000

 

dead Viet Minh soldiers and a sharp slap in the face to General

 

Giap. Two more times the Vietnamese People's Army tried to break

 

into the Red River Delta and reach Hanoi; both times the result

 

was the same: costly defeats, first at Mao Khe in March and then

 

along the Day River in late May (see map page 30).

 

Two things were obvious. First, General Giap had severely

 

miscalculated the readiness of his own army; second, he had mis-

 

calculated the ability of his opposite number to mass forces, com-

 

mit reserves and bring air power to bear with decisive results.

 

In the case of Mao Khe and the Day River, de Lattre orchestrated

 

the use of river gun boats in coordination with parachute units

 

and fast moving mobile groups to crush Viet Minh assaults by con-

 

centrating superior firepower against them.

 

Forced to face the fact that the first six months of 1951

 

had cost him 11,000 troops, General Giap quickly decided to revert

 

to guerrilla warfare; but not before spreading the blame for de-

 

feat around widely. H graciously accepted some culpability, but

 

was also uncharitable enough to accuse some of his troops of being

 

cowards.8 De Lattre also made adjustments. His military exper-

 

ience told him that with his available resources he could never

 

hope to hold the seven thousand square miles of Red River Delta.

 

As a result, the French general commenced construction of the "de

 

Lettre Line," a series of fortified posts located around the bor-

 

ders of the delta, with a strong mobile reserve to concentrate

 

where needed. Obviously, in a guerrilla environment the value of

 

such a strategy was marginal and only serves to underscore the

 

mentality of even a brilliant soldier when faced with a threat

 

he is not sure how to deal with.

 

Click here to view image

 

On a more positive note, General de Lattre convinced the

 

French government that if the number of French troops in Indochina

 

could not be increased, then a Vietnamese National Army had to be

 

created to help shoulder the load. Paris had always resisted this

 

idea. The puppet Bao Dai did as well, fearing mass defections of

 

armed troops to Ho Chi Minh; but, in November 1950, de Lattre's

 

influence resulted in the opening of Vietnamese Military Academy.

 

Graduates, as well as private soldiers, however, continued to be

 

integrated into French units. As might be expected, the experi-

 

ment was a limited success at best; relatively few Vietnamese saw

 

the wisdom in fighting for the French, much to the exasperation

 

of "Le Roi Jean."9

 

The real legacy of General de Lattre de Tassigny would only

 

be seen after his death. De Lattre had vindicated the theory that

 

prepared defensive positions, supported by all the weapons to be

 

found in a modern western army, were more than a match for Vo

 

Nguyen Giap's People's Army. It was a strategy "which was ulti-

 

mately to prove fatal" to France's attempt to retain her former

 

colony.10 What is so tragic about de Lattre's impact is that it

 

should have had the opposite effect on not only the ailing general

 

himselr, but his successors as well. The final campaign which de

 

Lattre was to engineer, before his departure on December 19, 1951,

 

was the attack on the peaceful capital city of the pro-French

 

Muong tribesmen, Hoa Binh, located approximately forty miles south-

 

east of Hanoi. General de Lattre can be excused from missing the

 

significance of the battle, for he was a dying man. The same can-

 

not be said for a string of future generals and politicians in

 

Paris who chose only to see what they wanted to see and not face

 

reality until they were rudely awakened by a Vietnamese general

 

who was not too proud to learn his lessons from the early battled

 

in 1951.

 

As dawn broke on November 14, 1951, three battalions of

 

French paratroopers jumped out of their decrepit Junkers JU-52's

 

for the last time before the planes were to be replaced by equally

 

old American C-47's. The landings encountered no resistance, and

 

the French had seemingly cut Colonial Route 6, the road used by

 

the communists to keep their forces in central and southern Viet-

 

nam supplied. By sunset, the French paratroopers had linked up

 

with fifteen infantry battalions, seven artillery battalions, two

 

armored groups, two Dinaussaut river patrol craft, and a detach-

 

ment of engineers --- all having arrived via the Black River.

 

Clearly, the French not only expected, but very much desired a

 

scrap. They "had stabbed with all their might --- and had en-

 

countered empty space."11 In any case, what they were about to

 

get was certainly not what General de Lattre, nor his successor,

 

General Rauol Salan, were expecting.

 

Still smarting from his defeats at Vinh Yen, Mao Khe and the

 

Day River, General Giap had decided to revert back to Phase II of

 

Mao's guerrilla principles. He is uncharacteristically modest re-

 

garding the Hoa Binh campaign, relating that his army "took advan-

 

tage of their [French] exposed disposition of troops to get our di-

 

visions to strike blows at their rear.... Hoa Binh was released.

De Lattre's plan was checked."12

 

To elaborate somewhat, as the French were consolidating their

 

positions in and around Hoa Binh prior to launching a follow on

 

offensive to the northeast, Giap began to concentrate nearly all

 

of his available regular forces (304th, 308th, 312th, 316th, and

 

320th Divisions with artillery, anti-aircrart and engineer sup-

 

port).13 This time, however, he would not waste his soldiers in

 

futile assaults against the strength of the enemy, instead General

 

Giap would slash at the French lines of communications (Colonial

 

Route 6 and the Black River) and the string of isolated posts

 

which "secured" them. Before long, the "pistol pointed at the

 

heart of the enemy"14 by the French had become a death trap. On

 

December 9, 1951, General Giap ordered the attack of Tu Ve, a key

 

French outpost on the Black River about twelve miles north of Hoa

 

Binh.

 

Operation LOTUS now became a meat grinder in reverse. In-

 

stead of conducting an offensive against a Viet Minh stronghold,

 

the French soldiers found themselves fighting hard just to keep

 

open the lines of communication upon which their very lives de-

 

pended. By the end of January 1952, General Salan had no alterna-

 

tive but to withdraw his battered units from the Hoa Binh salient.15

 

A conventional western army needed to be resupplied constantly.

 

Cut off the tail and the head will eventually die. Given the size

 

of the territory to be controlled, the limited number of troops to

 

control it, and the miles of roads and rivers involved, it is not

 

surprising that the French encountered great difficulties in the

 

logistical area. What is amazing is that they persisted at their

 

"deep strike' strategy so long. Fighting an enemy which special-

 

ized in the ambush, the French Expeditionary Force seemed almost

 

eager to put itself in a position where it was forced to run a

 

veritable gauntlet in order to sustain itself in the field. Hoa

 

Binh would not be the final example of this folly.

 

Once the autumn monsoon ended, Giap set out once again to

 

lure the ever-eager French command to the limits of its sustaina-

 

bility. In October he again showed his knack for battlefield con-

 

centration, overwhelming a number of isolated French positions

 

about twenty-five miles northwest of the de Lattre Line. The

 

fight was on for the northwestern highlands of Vietnam. To keep

 

the irrepressable General Giap's thoughts away from the Red River

 

Delta, Salan decided to take up where his predecessor had left

 

off and launch a deep offensive into the Viet Minh rear. By so

 

doing, he reasoned that he would be covering Laos as well as forc-

 

ing Giap to fight for his own supply lines. Thus was born Opera-

 

tion LORRAINE, Salan's swan song and yet another indication to

 

the French that the Viet Minh danced to the beat of its own drum,

 

not that of the French Expeditionary Force.

 

The idea behind the plan was to trap the Vietnamese in a

 

classic hammer and anvil, where superior French fire power would

 

prove decisive. Operation LORRAINE failed for the same reason

 

LOTUS had and CASTOR would; it could not be supported logistically

 

in the face of Vo Nguyen Giap's well-founded fixation with lines

 

of communication. Four mobile groups ventured out of their Red

 

River Delta defenses on October 29, 1952, along two separate routes,

 

planning to link up at Phu Tho, which they accomplished on November

 

5th. The only opposition they encountered along the way had been

 

sporadic delaying actions by regional forces and militia units.

 

Instead of smelling a trap, the French continued their drive ever

 

deeper into Viet Minh territory, capturing sizeable amounts of

 

supplies (including a number of Soviet-built Moltava trucks).

 

Meanwhile, on November 9, paratroopers seized Phu Doan. They

 

justified their isolated position in enemy territory on the

 

grounds that the armored/mechanized force moving toward them

 

along Colonial Route 2 would soon join them there. This juncture

 

occurred as planned and the French set up blocking positions fur-

 

ther north in preparation for the expected counterattack. Since

 

Salan had dedicated 30,000 men to Operation LORRAINE, General

 

Giap decided to ignore it for the most part, assigning only two

 

regiments to stop it as they saw fit.16 These two regimental

 

commanders justified their general's confidence and in the ensu-

 

ing campaign showed that they had been well-schooled in the nu-

 

ances of guerrilla warfare. Rather than take the French on nose

 

to nose, they let the heavily equipped task force trudge slowly

 

ahead through the marshy terrain. By flooding selected areas and

 

damaging the few existing roads, the wily Vietnamese literally

 

wore out the French engineers; but, much more importantly, they

 

allowed the French lines of communication to steadily lengthen,

 

thus drawing off substantial numbers of troops to keep them secure.

 

Since air transport was over-committed, most supplies had to come

 

by road or river.17 Strongpoints established along these routes

 

were easily overrun by the Viet Minh and supplies arrived at for-

 

ward units in ever-decreasing amounts.

 

As he had been forced to do less than a year earlier, Gen-

 

eral Salan ordered a withdrawl, this time on November 14, 1952.

 

Click here to view image

 

Such a move, of course, was precisely what Giap's two trusted reg-

 

imental commanders were waiting for, and on November 17, they am-

 

bushed the column as it worked its way through a steep-sided,

 

heavily vegetated gorge. From this point onward, the French had

 

to fight for their very lives in order to return to the relative

 

safety of the de Lattre Line. The brilliantly conducted ambush

 

at Chan Muong alone cost the French over three hundred casualties;

 

by the time the column reached friendly lines, it would have spent

 

a battalion and never seen General Giap's main force. Two regi-

 

ments, properly employed, had proven beyond the shadow of a doubt

 

that in guerrilla warfare, it is not brawn, but brains, that sep-

 

arates the winner from the loser. Tragically, however, even in

 

the face of what had transpired during the conduct of Operation

 

LORRAINE, the French high command more than ever sought the great

 

"set-piece" battle which had thus far eluded it. Beginning in

 

November of 1953 it would find it.

 

 

IV

 

 

OPERATION CASTOR

 

 

We had no plan at all... After seven years of

war we were in a complete imbroglio, and no one

from private to commander in chief, knew just

why we were fighting

- General Henri Navarre

a lecture in Paris, 1957

 

 

A commander in chief cannot take as an excuse

for his mistakes in wartime an order given by

his sovereign of his minister....

- Bonaparte

Military Maxims and Thoughts

 

 

The determination to fight and win of our army

...was a manifestation of the boundless loyalty

of our People's Army to the revolutionary strug-

gle of the people and the Party.

- Vo Nguyen Giap

The Military Art of People's War

 

 

Political Background

 

The supreme irony of France's war in Indochina is that for

 

four years a string of Expeditionary Force commanders failed to

 

come to grips with the intricacies of guerrilla warfare. They

 

longed instead for the great "set-piece" battle that would enable

 

them to crush the People's Army once and for all; yet, when the

 

great showdown occurred it was the French who marched off into

 

captivity. The sentiments of Napoleon notwithstanding, the blame

 

for the defeat at Dien Bien Phu cannot be allowed to fall fully

 

on the shoulders of the soldiers alone. It is, in fact, in this

 

very area that the most significant lesson of the entire conflict

 

can be found.

 

The reconquest of Indochina was never very popular in Fance.

 

As is true in the case of most protracted wars, when the casual-

 

ties began to mount and few tangible results were seen, support

 

waned all the more. It is not within the scope of this paper to

 

recount the political machinations in Paris dealing with the con-

 

duct of the war in their entirety; there are, however, a number

 

of things which must be mentioned, even if only briefly. France

 

fought her la salle guerre on a shoestring, never formally ele-

 

vating it above the status of a pacification operation:

 

The government made the war, but it seemed re-

luctant to provide the means of winning it.

Operational plans drawn up and proposed by the

local command were emasculated in Paris... As

this was officially no more than a colonial

pacification, it was understood from the begin-

ning that only volunteers could be sent to

Indochina.... Despite the bounty given for en-

listments, the number of volunteers remained

inadequate.

 

As the Radical Deputy Pierre Mendes-France stated in a November

 

1950 speech, either France had to make the economic sacrifices

 

required to win militarily or initiate negotiations for a settle-

 

ment.2 The French government was never willing to do either.

 

The problem was a complex one, with roots far removed from

 

the Asian land mass and which reflect Paris' acute paranoia dur-

 

ing the years following the Second World War. If troop strengths

 

in Indochina were to be raised, the men were going to have to come

 

from units mandated for European service by the NATO Ten Division

 

Plan. This in and of itself could probably be accepted except

 

for the fact that if France could not provide the requisite num-

 

bers, the United States would clamor all the more for the rearma-

 

ment of West Germany.3 Thus, after General de Lattre's campaign

 

in 1951, the French govenment made the decision to find a way to

 

"disengage itself discreetly" by increasing its reliance on Ameri-

 

can money and Vietnamese manpower.4 Indochina was importance, but

 

the spectre of an armed West Germany and the resultant diminish-

 

ment of French bargaining power in Europe made it pale by compari-

 

son. Besides, America was willing to pay to keep France in Indo-

 

china, to the tune of ten million dollars in 1950 and one billion

 

four years later.5 What the United States could never seem to

 

understand, however, was that as much as Washington wanted a

 

military solution, Paris more and more sought a purely political

 

one.

 

France's last commander in Indochina, General Henri Eugene

 

Navarre, left Paris armed only with the vaguest of guidance: he

 

was to find an honorable way out of the morass (une sortie honor-

 

able).6 Reinforcements were out of the question according to

 

Prime Minister Rene Mayer, who underscored his comments by re-

 

ferring to Edouard Daladier's sentiment that "Parliament will op-

 

pose such a folly."7 Mayer's successor, Joseph Laniel, would

 

continue with a policy of ambiguity toward Indochina. In fact,

 

Laniel would exacerbate the problem by placing Indochina under

 

the auspices of the Resident Commissioner General, thus appointing

 

a civilian to a position of total control there. For a soldier,

 

it was an inauspicious beginning.

 

Setting the Stage

 

Not surprisingly, Henri Navarre initially declined the assign-

 

ment in Indochina, and had to be shamed into accepting it by the

 

soon to be retired Prime Minister.8 In any case, the reluctant

 

general arrived in Saigon on May 19, 1953 as a replacement for

 

Salan. At approximately the same time, Major General Rene Cogny

 

was promoted to lieutenant general and assigned the duties as

 

military commader in Tonkin. Dien Bien Phu is located in north-

 

western Tonkin, and the two general's mutual interest in the bitter

 

stuggle which was to take place there would be one of the few

 

things Navarre and Cogny would ever have in common. That their

 

finger pointing would continue long after the war was over is ad-

 

equate commentary on the similarity of their views as to how the

 

campaign should have been conducted.

 

All that would come later. Following General Salan's failure

 

in the previously discussed Operation LORRAINE, his opposite num-

 

ber began looking ahead at 1953. General Giap's strategy was to

 

broaden the war, and by so doing, stretch the already taut French

 

Union forces even thinner. To accomplish this he attacked north-

 

ern Laos in the spring of 1953, threatening its capital of Luang

 

Prabang. Even as early as 1953 the domino theory had its adher-

 

ents, and thus France assumed the position that it could not allow

 

a Viet Minh initiative in another of the Associated States to go

 

unanswered. Additionally, from the side lines, the United States

 

pushed hard for a renewed effort on the part of France to effect

 

"the speedy defeat of Viet Minh forces in Indochina [which] would

 

deter rather than provoke Chinese Communist aggression in Tonkin

 

since it would be a clear indication of our joint determination

 

to meet force with effective force."9 Thus, even to the Americans,

 

Vietnam was more a means than an end, and especially as long as it

 

was the French who were fighting there. In any case, there had to

 

be a counter to Giap's threatening gambit. The reaction was what

 

is known to history as the Navarre Plan, easily the least defini-

 

tive, most over-emphasized and least understood military strategy

 

to emerge from the entire war.

 

The reasons for the confusion are many. For one thing, even

 

Navarre himself agreed that the plan was more a philosophy than a

 

strategy. In his own words the whole concept was very general in

 

nature:

 

Pendant la campagne 1953-1954, consideree comme

le cap dangereux, chercher a eviter le bataille

generale avec le Corps de bataille ennemi et con-

stituer notre Corps de bataille.

Pendant la campagne 1954-1955, au contraire, re-

chercher la bataille generale, une fois notre

Corps de bataille porte a un volume et a un en-

trainement suffisants.10

 

Probably the best description is provided by an author who calls

 

it an amalgamation of the ideas of both de Lattre and Salan.11

 

As Navarre says above, it called for a strategic defensive in 1953

 

and early 1954 (a la de Lattre), followed by a general offensive

 

in Tonkin in the autumn of 1954. By so doing, the commander in

 

chief hoped to force a political settlement on the Viet Minh while

 

the military situation was at least temporarily favorable to France.

 

The Chief of the newly established U.S. Military Mission in Viet-

 

nam, Lieutenant General John W. O'Daniel, approved heartily of

 

the plan and recommended to Washington on July 14, 1953 that it

 

be given full support. Interestingly, however, O'Daniel's inter-

 

pretation of the plan was characterized by an expectation of early

 

offensive action.12 The Americans wanted to see their military

 

aid being used to kill communists and one cannot help but get the

 

idea that the American general was telling his superiors in Wash-

 

ington what they wanted to hear, as well as what would keep the

 

money pouring in. France (Premier Laniel) made it abundantly

 

clear that without 150 billion francs the Navarre Plan would not

 

work and his nation would have to disengage.13 The money had to

 

come from the United States and, based on O'Daniel's analysis,

 

come it did. On August 28, 1953, however, the Joint Chiefs of

 

Staff expressed displeasure to the Secretary of Defense that

 

Navarre was not keeping up his end of the bargain. Had the French

 

general misled O'Daniel? Had O'Daniel purposely misled the Joint

 

Chiefs? In all liklihood, we shall never know; regardless, what

 

emerges very clearly is the fact that even at its inception, the

 

vaunted Navarre Plan was vague in the extreme.

 

The man whose army the Navarre Plan was designed to destroy

 

provides yet another interpretation. As far as Vo Nguyen Giap

 

was concerned, the plan was little more than a "new Franco-Ameri-

 

can scheme to prolong and extend the aggressive war in our coun-

 

try."14 Although Giap's understanding of the plan is probably

 

somewhat distorted (for one thing, he states that it called for

 

massive reinforcements form France, West Germany, North Africa and

 

Korea, a policy Paris was unwilling to initiate), he does correct-

 

ly see America's expanding role in the war. He is also correct

 

in his description of the French strategy as one of initial con-

 

solidation followed by a series of offensives centered around

 

strong mobile groups, aimed at "annihilating the main part of our

 

forces later on."15 Like a woman's beauty, it would appear that

 

the strategy behind the Navarre Plan varied in accordance with

 

the eyes of each beholder, and what each hoped to gain from it:

 

money, victory, or propaganda.

 

By the spring of 1953 the People's Army cast its shadow over

 

Laos and its capital of Luang Prabang, causing General Navarre to

 

formally articulate his strategy. Laos could not be allowed to

 

drift away from its status as one of the Associated States of the

 

French Union. This eventuality could be prevented in one of two

 

ways: one entailed probable contact with the enemy, while the

 

other would force him to halt his advance in order to protect his

 

own extended supply lines. The fact that General Navarre chose

 

the former course casts even more doubt about the real intent of

 

his plan; however, it must be remembered that the general was a

 

soldier first and opportunity to fight a set-piece battle

 

might well have provided more of a temptation than he could resist.

 

Besides, General Salan's legacy to his successor had been the

 

ongoing battle of Na San, a campaign whose misinterpretation by

 

Navarre would ultimately contribute largely to his failure in In-

 

dochina. The French "victory" at this small hamlet now must be

 

discussed, because Na San engendered a fatal mindset in the French

 

command and in many ways served as a trial run for what happened

 

at Dien Bien Phu.

 

As the ill-fated Operation LORRAINE was grinding to a halt,

 

it became clear that isolated French units, regardless of how well-

 

equipped, were at the mercy of the Viet Minh if their logistical

 

pipeline consisted primarily of roads and rivers. Na San was one

 

of the strongpoints located on the critical Black River, and it

 

contained nene full strength battalions, supported by five batter-

 

ies of 105mm howitzers and on call air support. Cut off from

 

overland supply by the rapidity of the French withdrawl in the

 

waning days of Operation LORRAINE, the garrison's only connection

 

with the outside world was its small airfield, located on the

 

floor of a valley. The French troops fortified the highground

 

(the one lesson of the campaign which seemed to go unobserved),

 

dug in and were provided with a constant flow of supplies from

 

Hanoi. On November 23 and 30, 1952, the Viet Minh conducted sev-

 

eral brutal but wholly unimaginative frontal assaults, with pre-

 

dictable results. By December 1st, Giap's casualties numbered in

 

the thousands.16 To the French this was an impressive victory,

 

but after several months of supply maintenance, the garrison be-

 

came an ever-increasing burden for the French Air Transport Com-

 

mand. The arrival of twenty-eight U.S. Air Force mechanics in

 

January 1953 signaled the inability of French ground crews to keep

 

their overworked C-47's "up" at the level needed if Na San's be-

 

leaguered defenders were to be kept supplied. The French govern-

 

ment had asked for one hundred and fifty.17

 

Less than a week after assuming command in Indochina, General

 

Navarre decided to examine firsthand what was rapidly becoming a

struggle of epic proportions at Na San. Before departing France,

 

he had sworn that he would evacuate the post, apparently on the

 

grounds that such a display of static warfare offended his cav-

 

alry-oriented sensibilities. After a personal tour of the place,

 

the commander in chief was still of the opinion that the garrison

 

should be withdrawn; however, he had obviously been impressed with

 

what had taken place there, particularly the fact that French

 

troops had inflicted some seven thousand casualties on the usu-

 

ally elusive Viet Minh.18

 

 

Base Aero-Terrestre

 

The reasons behind General Navarre's decision to occupy Dien

 

Bien Phu are only slightly less obscure than is the rationale the

 

ill-fated garrison commander there must have used to explain the

 

tactics he used to defend it. There is no question that the Uni-

 

ted States made incessant demands to see some returns on the mas-

 

sive amounts of aid it was pumping into the French war effort;

 

this might have prompted hastiness on the part of the French. Na-

 

varre himself acknowledges that there was a problem of America

 

acquiring too strong an influence in French affairs, although he

 

carefully avoids any indication that such a situation caused pre-

 

cipitous action on his part.19 His strategic reason for launching

 

Operation CASTOR was simple enough: it was part of the "obliga-

 

tions permanentes du Commandant en chef en Indochine" to defend

 

Laos.20 It was a matter of honor to France. General Navarre

 

chose to do so at Dien Bien Phu because "la valeur strategique de

 

la position de Dien Bien Phu est comme de longue date."21 This is

 

probably true, as it had long been rumored that General Salan

 

longed to establish a veritable fortress in the strategic north-

 

western corner of Tonkin during his own tenure as commander in

 

chief.

 

Accepting the premise that Dien Bien Phu was designed to deny

 

Giap the main avenues of approach to Luang Prabang, it is necessary

 

to next determine the method with which the isolated base aero-

 

terrestre was to accomplish this task. It is at this point that

 

the strategy begins to get a little confused, as most firsthand

 

accounts reflect transparent attempts by the authors to avail

 

themselves of hindsight in order to exonerate themselves of blame.

 

Navarre consistently maintained that the base contained mobile

 

groups capable of lashing out at the enemy as he moved towards

 

Laos. This is undoubtedly what the general did, in fact, ini-

 

tially have in mind. He always stated that the last thing he

 

ever intended was for the garrison to degenerate into another Na

 

San.22 It was exactly this consideration which prompted him to

 

eventually appoint a fellow cavalry officer (Colonel Christian

 

Marie Ferdinand de la Croix de Castries) to the position as com-

 

mander of the post. The garrison's first commander, however, was

 

none other than Brigadier General Jean Gilles, who had commanded

 

at Na San and agreed to go to Dien Bien Phu only on the provision

 

that his appointment there was temporary. Rather than face the

 

prospect of fighting like a "rat," he told his commander in Tonkin,

 

Lieutenant General Cogny, to "make use of me somewhere where I am

 

going to get some fresh air."23 Gilles understood the true lessons

 

of Na San. He knew that the French were fortunate to have extri-

 

cated themselves from that potential trap and not care to person-

 

ally tempt rate a second time.

 

General Cogny himself was a critical player in the unfolding

 

drama. Although after the war he adamantly maintained that he

 

had always opposed Operation CASTOR, his is probably not the case.

 

Without question, Navarre ordered the operation, but there is lit.

 

tle to indicate that the Tonkin commander ever argued too force-

 

fully against it. Cogny muttered to himself that Navarre was at-

 

tempting to bite considerably more off than he was ever going to

 

be able to chew. His observation was based on the fact that while

 

CASTOR was to take place in Tonkin, Operation ATLANTE (a coastal

 

sweep in Annam) was scheduled at the same time. Since Cogny knew

 

that it was his troops who were going to have garrison Dien Bien

 

Phu to the detriment of all else he wanted to accomplish in Tonkin,

 

he didn't like the idea that all the theater reserves were going

 

to be tied up in a useless evolution far to the southeast.24 The

 

only real value the Tonkin commander saw in occupying Dien Bien

 

Phu was its potential as a "mooring point" (mote d'amarrage) from

 

which to conduct guerrilla operations against the Viet Minh moving

 

into Laos. With the evacuation of the guerrilla base at Lai Chau,

 

however, conducted at about the same time as CASTOR commenced (and

 

thus code named POLLUX), the French had abandoned a counterguerril-

 

la war in Indochina in favor of pursuit of the set-piece battle.

 

Surely, Cogny was aware of this.

 

General Navarre picked Dien Bien Phu for its strategic loca-

 

tion and, incredibly enough, for its topography as well. Before

 

explaining why, however, a short description of the physical char-

 

Click here to view image

 

acteristics of the place is in order. The hamlet of Dien Bien Phu

 

was located in the broad, flat valley of the Nam Yum River. Ac-

 

cording to Giap's statistics, the valley floor was approximately

 

eighteen kilometers long and eight wide. Surrounding the basin

 

was an almost complete ring of heavily vegetated and quite steep

 

hill masses. Low mountains might, in fact, best describe them.

 

At some places. these hills extended to within three kilometers

 

of the Nam Yum River, which would eventually become the center of

 

the French lines.

 

Navarre's seemingly incredible comfort with the lay of the

 

land was drawn from his belief in several questionable "givens:"

 

1. Vo Nguyen Giap could neither move nor maintain a large

 

body of troops in the area due to the harshness of the terrain and

 

the presence of the French Air Force.

 

2. The Viet Minh could never get guns of any consequence on

 

the high ground overlooking the garrison, and even if they did,

 

once they aired and gave their positions away, French counter bat-

 

tery fire would answer them with devastating results.

 

3. Once the cavalryman de Castries relieved General Gilles,

 

the wide, flat valley floor would provide plenty of room for him

 

to utilize his tanks (which were to be flown in disassembled) in

 

a battle of maneuver which would overwhelm the enemy.25

 

The key to success, obviously, was the ability of the bench

 

Air Force to keep the garrison supplied. As the crow flies, Dien

 

Bien Phu was nearly two hundred miles from Hanoi. It was air re-

 

supply or no resupply at all. The two airfields (of which one was

 

barely useable) were, as a result, absolutely critical not only to

 

the successful completion of the garrison's mission (as vague as

 

it might have been), but also to the very survival of the soldiers

 

who would fight there.

 

There were plenty of men who did not share General Navarre's

 

optimism concerning Dien Bien Phu. General Corniglion-Molinier,

 

French Minister of State and a pilot in his own right who had actu-

 

ally flown into Dien Bien Phu seven years earlier, described the

 

topography to the Committee of National Defense in terms any French-

 

man could understand:

 

Dien Bien Phu? Imagine an airdrome on the

Champs-de-Mars, with the enemy occupying

Chaillot Hill. What's more, at such distance

from Hanoi to Haiphong, planes will only be

able to fly there and back.

 

Navarre, back in France at the time (July) briefing the gov-

 

ernment on the plan which eventually bore his name, replied that

 

Corniglion-Molinier's opinion was only that of an airman!26 Sig-

 

nificantly, however, although the French government had been

 

schooled as to what its senior military man in Indochina had in

 

mind, not one statesman suggested that he lay Operation CASTOR

 

aside. As one author states it:

 

"M. Laniel was neither somebody nor something, but

utter nothingness. His ministry was manufactured,

like his speeches, with scissors and paste. At

Matignon, the Prime Ministerial residence, he was

called neither 'the Prime Minister 'nor 'the Chief,'

but merely 'poor Joseph.'27

 

In any case, even if not given an imprimatur, Operation CASTOR

 

was at least blessed with tacit approval. The Laniel government

 

did make one thing clear: Indochina would receive no increase in

 

the number of troops with which to carry the plan out.

 

As summer turned to fall, events in Tonkin forced the French

 

high command, at least, to make a decision. By late October, Gen-

 

eral Giap had begun shifting his 316th Division from the Delta to

 

the northwest, where it could threaten Luang Probang all the more.

 

Significantly, just a week before, Laniel had signed an agreement

 

with Laos, pledging French military protection. Could it be that

 

as much as Henri Navarre longed for a battle with Nguyen Giap,

 

Nguyen Giap wanted a fight with Henri Navarre? Jules Roy, after

 

an interview with the Vietnamese general, states that Giap was

 

bitterly disappointed by the aerial escape of the French garrison

 

of Na San. In his planning for operations in Tonkin, the former

 

history teacher mentions that as part of his broad strategy he

 

"would seek ways and means to attract the enemy deep into our rear

 

and then use part of our regular forces to put him out of action."28

 

Out of action, indeed. Both generals were looking for a fight; in

 

all liklihood, neither realized exactly how much their respective

 

wishes would be fulfilled.

 

In early November, Navarre told General Cogny to begin plan-

 

ning for the occupation of Dien Bien Phu. At this point, cordial

 

relations between the two generals still existed, so the northern

 

commander willingly set his staff to work. From all indications,

 

Cogny was not especially enthusiastic about Operation CASTOR, how-

 

ever, he must have seen some merit in it. His staff was much less

 

circumspect; almost to a man they disapproved and formally so in-

 

formed their superior on November 4th. Why then did General Cogny

 

tell Navarre on November 6th that he agreed with the concept? If

 

convinced that Dien Bien Phu would become "a drain on manpower,

 

without any useful influence, as soon as it is pinned down by a

 

single regiment," he never expressed such feelings to his chief.29

 

If there was to be a victory he wanted to be part of it; if there

 

was a defeat, the blame would fall on Navarre in any case. Opera-

 

tion CASTOR would go as planned.

 

Colonel Jean Nicot, commander of the French Air Force's air

 

transport arm, was informed on November 11th that Operation CASTOR

 

was on and that he was going to have to support it. Nicot was

 

against the plan. He told the high command, verbally and in writ-

 

ing, that he could not maintain a steady flow of supplies to Dien

 

Bien Phu.90 Navarre, in turn, told the colonel that he not only

 

could, but that he most certainly would. Perhaps less intimidated

 

by General Navarre's will than he was by Colonel Nicot's well-

 

stated objections, Cogny now (approximately November 12th) sent

 

a letter to his commander in chief telling him that he was now

 

against the plan. He did not say, however, that he could not im-

 

plement it.

 

On November 17, General Navarre held a meeting in his Saigon

 

office. All of his major subordinate commanders were present and

 

one by one they put forward their objections to Operation CASTOR.

 

"General Navarre listened politely.... His last question was: 'Is

 

it possible?'" This time the reply was in the affirmative; the

 

commander in chief then told them that if the weather was good,

 

Dien Bien Phu would be occupied in three days. His will had cowed

 

the soldiers, but Navarre was not as sanguine about Paris. The

 

government would not be informed until the operation was six hours

 

old.31 To his credit, General Navarre assumed full responsibility

 

for the last great act in l'agonie de l'Indochine. It is also the

 

title of his book.

 

Into the Valley of Death

 

Between 1035 and 1045, the first Dakotas appeared

from behind the crests and released three thousand

parachutes over the two chosen zones, one to the

northwest of the villages of Dien Bien Phu and

christened Natacha, where a company of engineers

dropped with the 6th Paratroop Battalion under the

command of the indomitable Biegeard, and the other,

Simone, to the south, for the 2nd Battalion, 1st

Paratroops, of Brechignac.32

 

As French intelligence had predicted, only one battalion (the

 

910th) of the 148th Independent Regiment was physically located in

 

Dien Bien Phu on November 20, 1953. What intelligence either over-

 

looked or failed to discern was that a sister battalion (the 920th)

 

had left its mortars and recoilless rifles behind, and, that a

 

heavy weapons company of the 351st "Heavy" Division's 675th Artil-

 

lery Regiment was on the scene as well. Heavy fire by the Viet

 

Minh greatly exacerbated the usual chaos inherent in any large-

 

scale parachute operation. As luck would have it, the Vietnamese

 

were also fully deployed for a training exercise when the French

 

paratroopers began drifting earthward. Bigeard's men on Drop Zone

 

Natacha bore the brunt of the fire, but at 1215 the major succeed-

 

ed in establishing communications with a flight of B-26 Marauders

 

which delivered a strike of "surgical" precision to relieve the

 

pressure on the paratroopers. A second air strike at 1530, aug-

 

mented by the effective fire of the French mortars (which had just

 

at this point located their ammunition) broke the back of the Viet

 

Minh onslaught. By 1600 the zones were secure and Airborne Battle

 

Click here to view image

 

Group No. 1 had 1,827 combat troops on the ground at a cost of

 

eleven dead and flfty-two wounded. Ninety dead Viet Minh were

 

found, but as usual, many others had been dragged off. The

 

first act of what was to become a very long drama was over.

 

The following day, November 21st, forty-nine year old Brig.

 

adier General Gilles and his headquarters, along with Airborne

 

Battle Group No. 2 jumped into the valley. Gilles landed cleanly,

 

folded his parachute according to regulations, pulled his glass

 

eye out of his pocket and assumed command of Groupment Operation-

 

nel du Nord-Ouest (GONO). As part of the agreement he had reached

 

with General Cogny, his tenure was only temporary. In fact, when

 

the northern area commander appeared on November 22 for a visit,

 

the outspoken Gilles told him that he was already anxious to leave.

 

Dien Bien Phu looked too much like Na San for his liking. Regard-

 

less, by November 25, the engineers (using their air dropped bull-

 

dozers) had repaired the main airstrip so that it could handle

 

transport aircraft. The wounded could now be evacuated and equip-

 

ment brought in with more efficiency and presumbably less break-

 

age. Soldiers took leisurely baths in the Nam Yum and the artil-

 

lery registered its guns. Peace had returned to Dien Bien Phu

 

and the storm clouds which were drifting over the ominous peaks

 

were largely ignored.

 

Two hundred miles away, in Hanoi, General Cogny was receiving

 

a startling briefing from his intelligence officer, a Major Levain.

 

Levain had uncovered information which indicated that Vo Nguyen

 

Giap had no intention of ignoring the garrison at Dien Bien Phu.

 

The Vietnamese commander in chief had seemingly lost his interest

 

in Laos and was directing it instead on the soldiers now at Dien

 

Bien Phu.

 

It was a grave situation that Major Levain depicted. Accord-

 

ing to his estimates, the Viet Minh 316th Division would reach the

 

Dien Bien Phu area about December 6th, the 308th about the twenty-

 

fourth, the 351st "Heavy" Division two days later, and the 312th

 

on the twenty-eighth.34 Cogny quickly informed General Navarre,

 

in Saigon, as to what was transpiring but his superior simply

 

could not bring himself to believe that the Viet Minh were capable

 

of doing such a thing; he instead chose to believe that only lead

 

elements of these units were actually on the move. After all,

 

everybody knew that the Vietnamese could not logistically support

 

four divisions in the isolated area around Dien Bien Phu. The

 

French general was foolishly underestimating the capabilities of

 

his opposite number. General Giap's feelings about the newly es-

 

tablished French strongpoint might have surprised the French com-

 

mander in chief:

 

Dien Bien Phu was a very strongly forti-

fied entrenched camp. But on the other hand,

it was set up in a mountainous region, on

ground which was advantageous to us, and de-

cidedly disadvantageous to the enemy. Dien

Bien Phu was, moreover, a completely isolated

position, far away from all the enemy's bases.

The only means of supplying... was by air.

These circumstances could easliy deprive the

enemy of all initiative and force him onto

the defensive if attacked.

On our side, we had picked units of the

regular army which we could concentrate to

achieve supremacy in power. We could over-

come all difficulties in solving the tactical

problems; we had, in addition, an immense rear,

and the problem of supplying the front with

food and ammunition, though very difficult, was

not insoluble. Thus we had conditions for re-

taining the initiative in the operation.

It was on the basis of this analysis of the

enemy's and our own strong and weak points

that we solved the question as to whether we

should attack.... We decided to wipe out at

all costs the whole enemy force at Dien Bien

Phu, after having created favorable conditions.35

 

For a man without formal military training, Professor Giap showed

 

impeccable military logic. A major battle was going to occur at

 

Dien Bien Phu, and as 1953 drew to a close, the Vietnamese general

 

knew it while Frenchmen chose to ignore it. As Bernard Fall later

 

wrote:

 

The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was lost during

the brief fortnight between November 25th and

December 7th, 1953. It was not lost in the

little valley in Viet-nam's highland jungles

but in the air-conditioned map room of the

French commander-in-chief.36

 

In keeping with his wishes, General Gilles was relieved on

 

December 7th, by Colonel Christian de Castries, the cavalryman

 

who would "roam the wide-open spaces of the highland."37 The

 

departing General Gilles offered more pragmatic advice: "If you

 

lose an inch of ground," said he, "you are done for...."38

 

De Castries was assuming command of a doomed fortress. Even

 

as he bid adieu to Gilles, General Giap's forces were sealing the

 

doors on the trap that was Dien Bien Phu. Covering twenty miles

 

by day or fifty by night, the soldier of the Vietnamese People's

 

Army carried his own weapon, part of a crew served piece, a thirty

 

pound bundle of rice, a shovel, one water bottle and a small amount

 

of salt in a bamboo tube (with which to soak his feet). He marched

 

fifty minutes in each hour, almost at a trot.39 These were the men

 

who General Navarre had convinced himself could only sustain one

 

attack before collapsing from exhaustion and lack of supplies. As

 

the French general soon discovered, customized Peugeot bicycles

 

(each capable of carrying five hundred pounds) and thousands of

 

one hundred pound coolies comprised the backbone of a logistical

 

conduit which his own Air Transport Command could never hope to

 

match.

 

In keeping with the sentiments or General Navarre, the new

 

commander at Dien Bien Phu attempted to exercise some or the

 

mobility he had been charged with employing in establishing the

 

garrison. Ever mindful of his instructions from Saigon; Colonel

 

de Castries tried to strike a balance between the manpower re-

 

quirements for active patrolling and the creation of a strong de-

 

fensive position. Even if General Navarre chose to discount the

 

grim news his staff brought him regarding Viet Minh troop disposi-

 

tions and strengths, at least Cogny did not and Dien Bien Phu's

 

commander surely knew that the enemy he could not see was rapidly

 

growing in size. One hundred and fifty tons of supplies were

 

arriving in the valley every day; everything from ammunition to

 

barbed wire, from dismantled tanks to runway matting. Navarre

 

was obviously not as confident in his heart as his public state-

 

ments indicated. By his actions, if not his words, the French

 

commander in chief was making it clear that it was his belief

 

that the ax was going to fall before too much longer. A policy

 

of optimism was one thing, but Henri Navarre was going to make

 

quite sure that if the situation did in fact present itself, the

 

troops at Dien Bien Phu were going to have the means on hand to

 

kill at least as many communists there as they had at Na San.

 

As December wore on, the ring around the camp was drawn tight-

 

er and tighter. Colonel de Castries' chief of staff, Lieutenant

 

Colonel Louis Guth, was killed by submachine gun fire literally

within sight of strongpoint ANNE-MARIE on December 28th.40 Even

 

before Christmas, any patrol which ventured into the hills which

 

surrounded the series of strongpoints which now made up the garri-

 

son invariably returned with dead and wounded. (See map page 49).

 

To make matters worse, intelligence now reported that the enemy

 

was using large numbers of trucks (both Russian and American made)

 

along roads which thousands of Vietnamese coolies miraculously

 

maintained despite constant aerial bombing by the French Air Force.

 

Confronted with all of this, General Navarre was forced to

 

admit that Dien Bien Phu was indeed surrounded. Armed with accur-

 

ate intelligence, senior French officers were beginning to openly

 

show their discomfort with the situation.

 

Incredibly, there were still those who chose to ignore the

 

obvious. Artillery officers, in particular, consistently main-

 

tained the position that the garrison's guns were more than ade-

 

quate to prevent Viet Minh artillery (assuming there was any) from

 

being effective. The validated reports of trucks using the supply

 

routes should have made it clear to all hands that Giap's forces

 

were, in fact, moving sizeable numbers or howitzers into the area;

 

this was consistent with the view that the Vietnamese could never

 

move them from the roads to proper firing positions in the hills.

 

The French Air Force, however, was not buying any of it, and on

 

December 29th, demanded that de Castries affix his signature to

 

a written agreement pledging that the airfield would not come

 

under artillery fire; that strongpoint GABRIELLE (which dominated

 

the airstrip's take-off axis and parachute circuits) would be re-

 

inforced; and, lastly, that any attempts by the Viet Minh to in-

 

stall antiaircraft batteries would be immediately and effectively

 

dealt with, regardless of where they were discovered.41 For its

 

part or the bargain, the air force would guarantee the delivery

 

of one hundred tons of supplies every day.

 

Not only the air force was worried. Perhaps nothing indi-

 

cates the increasing gravity or the situation more than General

 

Navarre's directive to General Cogny, ordering him to secretly

 

begin planning for Operation XENOPHON, a contingency plan for the

 

evacuation of the garrison.42 The fact of the matter, though, is

 

that by New Year's Day 1954, it was already too late to pull the

 

defenders out. In all liklihood, both Navarre and Cogny were

 

painfully aware of this fact. The twelve thousand men at Dien

 

Bien Phu who rang in the new year were virtual prisoners. Colonel

 

de Castries and a handful of others in the camp were aware of this,

 

but opted to keep the news from the troops so as not to damage

 

their morale.

 

By the end of January 1954, even the lowliest Legionnaire

 

knew that something was afoot. Intelliegnce had for some time

 

predicted a general attack for the night of January 25-26. The

 

attack did not come as expected only because General Giap was not

 

yet satisfied with the construction of his artillery emplacements.

 

His guns were being dug into the very sides of the hills which

 

surrounded Dien Bien Phu, the same hills which bench optimists

 

had said would act as a barrier to his artillery. These were

 

positions from which the howitzers could be rolled out in order

 

to fire, then quickly rolled back into once the counter battery

 

barrage started. The contempt of the French gunners for the Viet

 

Minh artillery is graphically illustrated by the fact that the

 

garrison's gun positions (twenty-eight 155mm/l05mm howitzers and

 

sixteen l20mm mortars) remained in the open for the duration of

 

the battle.

 

The garrison was treated to sporadic 75mm fire on January 31.

 

On February 3rd, a single Viet Minh battery fired on the camp with

 

one hundred and three rounds. This was the moment that Colonel

 

Piroth, the chier of artillery, had been anxiously waiting for,

 

and his batteries eagerly replied with over sixteen hundred rounds

 

of 105mm. Aerial and ground spotters directed the French barrage

 

onto dummy emplacements where Viet Minh troops ignited small ex-

 

plosions to stimulate artillery fire.43 A patrol sent out the

 

following day to verify the destruction of the enemy battery (which

 

was never hit) and locate new ones, was ambushed. The Viet Minh

 

killed the lieutenant in command and on his body found a copy of

 

the latest map (made from aerial photos) of the garrison. Not

 

surprisingly, the accuracy of General Giap's artillery improved

 

significantly after this event.

 

The garrison now tried desperately to locate and neutralize

 

Giap's batteries using combat patrols; in fact, it was not unusual

 

for half the garrison to be so employed. These patrols accomplish-

 

ed little, and when the expected major ground attack did not mate-

 

rialize during this period, Navarre and de Castries had the te-

 

merity to fear that the enemy had chosen to bypass the garrison

 

with his ground troops. They should have been so fortunate. Vo

 

Nguyen Giap was merely collecting his thoughts:

 

We had pledged to wipe out the whole enemy

force at Dien Bien Phu, but... how should

we do it? Strike swiftly and win swiftly,

or strike surely and advance surely? This

was the problem of the direction of opera-

tions in the campaign.

...we chose to strike surely and ad-

vance surely. In taking this correct de-

cision, we strictly followed this funda-

mental principle of the conduct of revo-

lutionary war: strike to win, strike only

when success is certain, if it is not, then

don't strike.45

 

By early March, General Giap knew the opportune time had ar-

 

rived. On March 10, he registered his guns around the garrison,

 

and the next day probed the crucial strongpoint at GABRIELLE. It

 

is estimated that at this juncture the legions of Vo Nguyen Giap

 

had amassed some forty-eight 105mm howitzers (U.S. made, and gifts

 

of the Chinese Communists), the same number of 75mm pack howitzers

 

and 120mm mortars, and probably about as many 75mm recoilless ri-

 

fles. Worse yet was the ever-increasing numbers of 37mm antiair-

 

craft weapons that were finding their way to the Viet Minh forces

 

encircling Dien Bien Phu. Although struggling along without the

 

background of St. Cyr, the wily Vietnamese commander in chief knew

 

what it would take to defeat his French enemy:

 

His greatest weakness lay in his supply, which

depended entirely on his air forces. Our tac-

tics were from the very beginning to use our

artillery fire to destroy the airstrips, and

our antiaircraft guns to cope with the activi-

ties of enemy planes. Later, with the devel-

opment of the waves of attacks, everything was

brought into play to hinder enemy supply and

gradually to stop it altogether.46

 

Colonel Piroth's braggadocio in December that the Viet Minh

 

could not get artillery into threatening positions, and even if

 

they could, would either be smashed or would run out of ammunition,

 

was to face a severe test. The results speak for themselves. On

 

March 15, the one-armed chier of artillery killed himself with a

 

hand grenade. His last words were prophetic: "I am completely

 

dishonored. I have guaranteed de Castries that the enemy artil-

 

lery couldn't touch us -- but now we are going to lose the battle."47

 

By the third day of the formal battle, the day that Piroth commit-

 

ted suicide, the airfield was completely untenable, strongpoint

 

BEATRICE (northeastern sector) had been overrun and GABRIELLE

 

(whose security the Air Force had demand) had been evacuated.

 

Significantly, the unit which General Giap's 312th Division had

 

thrashed on BEATRICE was one of the most renowned in the French

 

Army: The French Foreign Legion's 3rd Battalion of the Demi-Bri-

 

gade. It had been shattered in a well-coordinated infantry attack

 

supported by accurate and heavy artillery support, at times in a

 

classic rolling barrage.

 

GABRIELLE had to be abandoned when it became wholly untenable.

 

Attempts at furnishing the strongpoint with close air support re-

 

sulted only in two aircraft being shot down. Adding together the

 

loss of GABRIELLE with the destruction of the airfield as a result

 

of Viet Minh artillery fire, only 12.5 tons of supplies were para-

 

chuted in on March 13th. The French had shot up more than that in

 

howitzer rounds alone trying to silence the Viet Minh artillery.48

 

Logistically, de Castries was losing before the battle was even a

 

week old. Dien Bien Phu needed a minimum of 100 tons daily.

 

As regards the ground fighting, General Giap's approach was

 

one as old as warfare itself, and the French dispositions facili-

 

tated its early success. Like so many of the great captains in

 

history, Giap relied on initiative to mass his forces against

 

each isolated strongpoint. In his own words, he overcame French

 

resistance

 

...by regrouping our forces to have a great

local superiority, by striving to neutralize

as much as possible the enemy artillery fire

and mobile forces, bringing everything into

play to wipe out the centers of resistance

one by one, of a group of centers at one time

in a wave of attacks. By concentrating forces

to achieve absolute superiority at one point,

we were certain to crush the enemy [emphasis

mine], especially in the first days of the

campaign, when we attacked the enemy outposts.49

 

The Vietnamese commander in chief also mastered the use of

 

psychological warfare to help him achieve his ends. On the morn-

 

ing of March 17, mass desertions by territorial troops (T'ai) of

 

the 2nd and 3rd T'ai Battalions, as the result of leaflets being

smuggled into the lines by civilians, robbed strongpoint ANNE-

 

MARIE of approximately twenty-five percent of its effectives with-

 

out a shot being fired. It was finally abandoned the following

 

day.50 With the loss of ANNE-MARIE, the Viet Minh literally look-

 

ed down the throats of the beleaguered defenders. Observers on

 

the recently captured positions could now call in extremely ac-

 

curate and timely fire on the drop zones, making the retrieval of

 

parachuted supplies hazardous in the extreme.51 Needless to say,

 

use of the airfield was out of the question (actually there was a

 

small number of trasports able to sneak in and out until March

 

27th). This added greatly to the suffering of the wounded, who

 

could neither be evacuated to Hanoi nor adequately treated at Dien

 

Click here to view image

 

Bien Phu despite the truly heroic efforts of Dr. Paul Grauwin and

 

his staff.52 Extensive trenches were now beginning to show up on

 

aerial photographs, and even very limited combat patrols ran into

 

intense fire just beyond the freindly wire. Little wonder that on

 

March 19th, de Castries sent a secret message to General Cogny in

 

Hanoi forecasting the fall of Dien Bien Phu "which," he predicted,

 

"would be shortly followed by the inevitable fall of Isabelle."53

 

In his own mind, the situation was bad enough that de Cas-

 

tries requested authority to allow the commander at ISABELLE to

 

attempt an independent breadout attempt to the south. By now,

 

communications between ISABELLE and the main garrison were tenuous

 

at best. In order to maintain the supply line back and forth, it

 

was necessary to use tanks and even air support (see map page 49).

 

The command system at Dien Bien Phu was deteriorating. On

 

March 24th, Lieutenant Colonel Keller, de Castries' chief of staff,

 

was medically evacuated, the victim of a nervous breakdown. The

 

commander was himself unofficially relieved by Lieutenant Colonel

 

Pierre Langlais for basically the same reason. As the paratrooper

 

himself said in mitigation of his action, any one of the brass hats

 

in Hanoi or Saigon could have flown up and parachuted in if they

 

were unhappy with his pre-emption of de Castries, or if they had

 

a better idea themselves.54 In any case, beginning on March 24,

 

1954, the garrison was commanded in name by de Castries, but in

 

reality by Langlais and his clique of old friends known around

 

camp as the "paratroop mafia."

 

Although admittedly short on polish compared to the titled

 

cavalryman, there was no denying that the paratroopers could fight.

 

Appointing his cronies to command each of the vital subsectors,

 

Langlais simplified the entire command structure. The area east

 

of the Nam Yum, Langlais himself controlled (strongpoints DOMI-

 

NIQUE and ELAINE). West of the river, Lieutenant Colonel Voinot

 

was in command. The hard fighting Major Marcel Bigeard became

 

"deputy for intervention" (counterattacks). ISABELLE remained

 

autonomous, for obvious reasons. All correspondence continued

 

to be routed through de Castries and the cavalryman was consulted

 

on most matters pertaining to the defense. The former commandant

 

preferred it this way.

 

March 24th was a significant day on the other side of the

 

world also. Recognizing the fact that the French garrison could

 

not be held without aerial resupply, and realizing that the in-

 

creasing numbers of 37mm antiaircraft guns (many manned by Com-

 

munist Chinese) made this impossible, the Chairman of the U.S.

 

Joint Chiefs of Staff made a startling (albeit unofficial) pro-

 

posal to a presumably even more amazed Lieutenant General Paul

 

Ely, his French counterpart. Ely was in Washington petitioning

 

for more pronounced American involvement in Indochina. Admiral

 

Radford asked the Frenchman if he could use the services of sixty

 

B-29 bombers, escorted by one hundred and fifty fighters of the

 

U.S. Seventh Fleet, to loosen things up around Dien Bien Phu.55

 

General Ely answered in the affirmative and immediately returned

 

to Paris to discuss the possibility of this new and unexpected

 

wrinkle with his government. For his part, Radford kept the en-

 

tire episode a personal secret. Needless to say, the subject

 

would surface again.

 

On a more terrestrial level back in Tonkin, General Giap was

 

preparing a test of Langlais' mettle. What would become known as

 

the Battle for the Five Hills, the campaign which began on March

 

30th would be the bloodiest to date, centered around the strong-

 

points of DOMINIQUE, ELAINE, HUGUETTE and, to a lesser degree,

 

ISABELLE. Although in some respects a drawn battle, it had a dir-

 

ect impact on the overall result of the siege.

 

The fight began at 1830 in a rain heavy enough to have turned

 

the defenders' positions into quagmires. ELAINE, DOMINIQUE and

 

HUGUETTE (on the west bank of the Nam Yum) received heavy artil-

 

lery fire while the batteries at ISABELLE and the central garrison

 

were effectively neutralized. Fifteen minutes later, the 312th

 

and 316th Divisions simultaneously assaulted ELAINE 1 and 2, and

 

DOMINIQUE 1 and 2. The Moroccans and Algerians defending ELAINE

 

1 and DOMINIQUE 2 respectively broke in panic and by 2300 these

 

two as well as the other two posts had been overrun. A counter-

 

attack, which included seven tanks in addition to five companies

 

of infantry, recaptured part of ELAINE 2, but the perimeter's

 

size had shrunk once again.56 HUGUETTE, defended by young Captain

 

Alain Bizard and his Legionnaires held. Sporadic fighting con-

 

tinued until April 5th with negligible tangible results except

 

heavy loss of life on both sides. Since Viet Minh casualties for

 

the five day offensive numbered over two thousand, General Giap

 

chose to reevaluate his strategy.57 A welcome quiet descended

 

over the battlefield. The victim had been set up for the kill

 

and in Paris there was absolute despair.

 

Initially, when General Navarre was informed of Admiral Rad-

 

ford's offer of American air intervention, his response was a neg-

 

ative one. As mentioned earlier, the general was wary that over-

 

reliance on U.S. aid would make France an American puppet. After

 

the events which took place between March 30th and April 4th, how-

 

ever, the general reconsidered. The perimeter of the garrison

 

proper had been reduced to a mile in diameter (excepting ISABELLE)

 

and Viet Minh antiaircraft fire was now forcing transport aircraft

 

to fly higher and higher (eventually to 10,000 feet).58

 

The result, in view of the ever decreasing size of the peri-

 

meter, was predictable. A Viet Minh radio broadcast to the French

 

said it all: "Thank you for the 105's. We shall send them back

 

to you, but with their fuses lit."59 Jules Roy sums it up per-

 

fectly: "Moltova trucks... porters... and Peugeot bicycles were

 

now being supplemented by airplanes."60 Reinforcements were ar-

 

riving in piecemeal fashion (some without jump training) at night

 

directly into the barbed wire entanglements of the strongpoints

 

due to the lack of secure drop zones. The situation had reached

 

the point of utter desperating and Navarre knew it. He had to

 

have the B-29's and asked that Operation VULTURE take place in a

 

week. After a meeting of the war committee, in Paris, Laniel sum-

 

moned the American ambassador Douglas Dillon, and formally re-

 

quested the bombers to clear out the antiaircraft emplacements and

 

artillery positions surrounding Dien Bien Phu.61 Discussion of

 

the use of nuclear weapons was perhaps made in passing, but never

 

seriously considered by either side.

 

Admiral Radford had made an offer, however, which the United

 

States never really considered granting, especially unilaterally.

 

Obviously, Britain had no desire to get involved in a French colo-

 

nial war. When so informed by Secretary of State Dulles on April

 

8th, the French Ambassador in Washington, M. Bonnet only replied

 

that "in that case, I must express to your Excellency regret that

 

the possibility was considered and that the hopes dashed today

 

were ever raised."62 The man was a diplomat in every sense of

 

the word. All things considered, however, it was already too late.

 

The history professor was showing that he had remembered his

 

studies. As Langlais was to say later, "Giap understood Vauban."68

 

Turning away from the human wave assaults launched behind squads

 

of soldiers carrying satchel charges, the commander in chief of

 

the People's Army traded the rifle, if only temporarily, for the

 

spade. As did the Sun King's engineer use the trench to reduce

 

the fort, so would this student of history turned soldier -- with

 

similar results.

 

The Vietnamese had dug limited trenches up to this point,

 

but now this activity would become almost an obsession. Giap re-

 

alized that the defenders of Dien Bien Phu were hurt badly, but

 

like a cornered rat they still had plenty of fight left. Any sem-

 

blance of "lines" rapidly evaporated during the next three weeks,

 

as the trenches edged so close to the wire barriers that the op-

 

posing soldiers could take turns insulting each other. Nightly

 

artillery barrages took their toll, but for the most part an un-

 

easy lull settled over the valley. Surely all the defenders there

 

now had to sense an immensely visceral feeling of impending doom.

 

The garrison's commanders felt it. Langlais drafted a message

 

which de Castries released on April 14th, stating among other

 

things, that the"evolution of enemy works" threatened HUGUETTE

 

and that "the fate of GONO will be sealed by May 10 [if not given

 

reinforcements] regardless of parachute training regulations."64

 

(Cogny wanted to avoid using volunteers without jump training, de-

 

spite the fact that the record at Dien Bien Phu clearly showed

 

that such men suffered no greater incidence of injuries than those

 

who were jump qualified).

 

On April 15th, General Cogny informed de Castries that he

 

had been promoted and that he would parachute in his stars (French

 

brigadier generals were two) along with a few bottles of brandy.

 

He kept his word, and a story holds that the package, like nearly

 

one quarter of all the air dropped supplies, landed in Viet Minh

 

lines. In any case, Langlais and several others were also advanc-

 

ed in rank. The defacto commandant would undoubtedly have pre-

 

ferred a couple of trained battalions, but the French high command

 

had made the decision not to reinforce failure, at least not in

 

the quantity it would have taken to have had an impact.

 

About the only thing that General Navarre would do that could

 

save the defenders at this late date was break through the encircl-

 

ing Viet Minh and effect a ground evacuation. Although Operation

 

CONDOR (initially XENOPHON) had existed in vague terms as a contin-

 

gency plan since December 1953, serious planning for it only began

 

after any hope for Operation VULTURE had vanished (April 8th).

 

The existence of CONDOR was leaked to the men at Dien Bien Phu,

 

perhaps just to keep their morale up, but in the end it turned

 

out to be little more than a cruel charade. Even when augmented

 

by American Civil Air Transport (CAT) C-119's, (who totalled over

 

four hundred missions)65 the French could never hope to marshall

 

enough airplanes or crews to supply a huge relief force in the

 

field as well as the sinkhole of Dien Bien Phu. Predictably, how-

 

ever, Navarre launched a relief force, as detailed in CONDOR, from

 

Laos with neither the means nor the guidance necessary to accom-

 

plish anything meaningful. Under the overall command of Colonel

 

Boucher de Crevecoeur, commander of French Union Forces in Laso,

 

Operation CONDOR was a classic example of "too little too late."

 

The grim defenders hung on. As is so often the case, those

 

most affected by the indicision or stupidity of others were gener-

 

ally those most oblivious to the decisions made concerning them.

 

For the last two weeks of April, a deadly, savage war of yards

 

was being fought in a rain soaked, putrid heap of mud, unburied

 

corpses and uncovered excrement. Like two punch-drunk heavyweights,

 

the armies bludgeoned each other mercilessly, one trying to set

 

himself up for the knockout blow, the other desperately trying to

 

stay on his feet in hope of a miracle. On April 18th HUGUETTE 6

 

became untenable and had to be evacuated. Over one hundred men

 

died in the withdrawl. Five days later HUGUETTE in its entirety

 

was lost, making what was left of the airfield unuseable even for

 

paratrooper reinforcements (of which there were not enough to keep

 

up with daily KIA's in any case).66

 

This, in addition to the two feet of water which the monsoons

 

had deposited in all the dugouts (including the "hospital") could

 

not have made for anything but a feeling of absolute hopelessness

 

that is difficult for any non-participant to imagine. Visions of

 

Passchendaele somehow seem more appropriate than stereotypical

 

views of a guerrilla war in Southeast Asia. Counterattacks were

 

attempted, vigorously executed but invariably unsuccessful due to

 

the hopeless quagmire which all but precluded movement and practi-

 

cally eliminated the effectiveness of supporting arms.

 

By the end of April, the garrison's perimeter was down to

 

less than a square mile (again, excluding ISABELLE). General Giap

 

was now ready to embark upon the final phase of his strategy,

 

which he simply referred to as the "annihilation of the enemy."

 

The Vietnamese commander in chief accurately and succinctly sum-

 

marized the situation immediately prior to his attack:

 

the enemy was driven into a square mile

area and exposed to our fire. There was

no fortified height to protect them. The

problem of supply became very grave. Their

situation was critical: the last hour of

the entrenched camp had come.67

 

Make no mistake about it, however, General Giap's forces had hard-

 

ly escaped the earlier righting unscathed, a fact he himself free-

 

ly admits. In fact, there is some implication in his remarks at

 

this time that his own legions were beginning to reach the end of

their own tethers.68

 

General Navarre flew into Hanoi on May 2nd, and directed

 

another study by General Cogny's staff into yet another plan named

 

after yet another bird: this time, fittingly enough, Operation

 

ALBATROSS. ALBATROSS was to be a variant of CONDOR and XENOPHON,

 

calling for a general breakout south, in the direction of Laos.

 

When the planning for the breakout operation was completed, the

 

finished product would be forwarded to General Navarre himself,

 

with whom the command to execute would lie solely. This is any-

 

thing but surprising, since obviously such a step would be one of

 

giant proportions in view of all the controversy surrounding Opera-

 

tion CASTOR. Navarre had breathed life into the ill-fated opera-

 

tion; Navarre would snuff it out when the time came.

 

Events taking place two hundred miles to the west dictated

 

that something had to be done quickly. General Giap had celebrated

 

May Day by launching a series of massive infantry assaults along

 

the entire length of the garrison's perimeter. On May 4th, de

 

Castries received information from his superior in Hanoi relevant

 

to Operation ALBATROSS, and, as might be expected, turned the en-

 

tire matter over to Langlais.69 The paratrooper immediately sum-

 

moned his principal commanders and together they came up with a

 

contingency plan featuring a three-pronged breakout attempt. The

 

different routes were chosen by lots, since one of them was basic-

 

ally a suicidal diversion.70 The wounded would be left behind

 

with the camp's medical personnel and the men trapped in ISABELLE

 

were on their own.

 

Unbelievably, while all this was going on, volunteers were

 

still jumping into the raging inferno of Dien Bien Phu. The 1st

 

Battalion, Colonial Paratroops (BPC) arrived every night in dribs

 

and drabs right up until the very end. What thoughts raced through

 

the minds of these men as they "stood in the door" of transport

 

aircraft being bracketed by antiaircrart fire can only be surmised.

 

The jerk of their chute opening hardly meant the end of their prob-

 

lems. The paratroopers had to land inside a perimeter which was,

 

by now, "reduced to a size no larger than a baseball field."71 It

 

goes without saying that not all of them were successful; regard-

 

less, captivity or death was in their immediate future.

 

Shortly after 1000 on May 6th, a message was handed to Col-

 

onel Langlais just as his morning staff meeting was breaking up.

 

A mole in Ho Chi Minh's inner circle had reported to his superiors

 

in Hanoi that this very evening the final assault would be un-

 

leashed on the besieged garrison. Langlais commenced an inspec-

 

tion tour of his tiny perimeter, carrying with him a pocket flask

 

of cognac, which he shared with each of his strongpoint commanders.

 

These were men who were well aware that the end was only a matter

 

of hours away.

 

As was usually the case, the intelligence service had done

 

its job well. At 1730, the garrison shook under an intense bar-

 

rage that seemed to concentrate its effort on ELAINE. At 1845,

 

the screaming Viet Minh infantry poured out of their trenches con-

 

centrating on the northern half of the perimeter. It was akin to

 

a tidal wave, but with the French critically short of artillery

 

ammunition (600 rounds), this golden opportunity to slaughter Viet

 

Minh in the open was lost. Perhaps it was just as well. With the

 

onset of darkness, the fight degenerated into one of meters be-

 

tween small groups of isolated soldiers. At 2300 ELAINE 2 was

 

literally blown to pieces by an explosive charge which had been

 

tunneled underneath it, although miraculously, a number of defend-

 

ers survived the blast and the brawl there continued.

 

When dawn broke on May 7th, the new day was appropriately

 

drizzly and overcast. Sixteen French Navy fighter bombers and

 

twenty-five B-26's broke through the clouds throughout the day

 

and dropped their bombs on friend and foe alike. There were no

 

longer any lines. At 1000 General de Castries called General

 

Cogny in Hanoi to brief him on the situation and inform him that

 

he would contact him before the end.73 This he did at 1730 and

 

the battle was over. Operation ALBATROSS never actually commenced

 

The end had come too suddenly for the French commanders to do any-

 

thing but order the destruction of whatever equipment was left in-

 

tact. Forty minutes after de Castries walked out of his bunker

 

with his hands over his head, on strongpoint LILY a Viet Minh sol-

 

dier raided a white flag and asked if this last pocket of resis-

 

tance had had enough. Major Jean Nicholas assured the man that

 

his Moroccans were quite through. "C'est fini?" queried the vic-

 

tor. "oui, c'est fini," replied the vanquished.74 ISABELLE fol-

 

lowed suit twenty-four hours later. For the first time in a very

 

long time the valley of the Nam Yum was quiet.

 

It had been a very busy week on both sides of the globe. In

 

Oxford, England, a twenty-five year old medical student ran a mile

 

in less than four minutes. Everyone had said it could not be done

 

In Vietnam, a history professor had whipped a European army; no-

 

body thought that could ever happen either. In the United States

 

it was 1954 and the average American could not even point out In-

 

dochina on a map of the world; not yet, at least.

 

 

 

V

 

 

CONCLUSION

 

 

 

The fact that two battalion landing teams of U.S. Marines

 

waded ashore at Danang, Republic of South Vietnam on March 8, 1965,

 

is ample indication that although there were many lessons to be

 

learned from France's experience in Indochina, few were. America

 

involvement in the affairs of Vietnam hardly began on that date,

 

for already a number of her sons had shed their blood there while

 

serving as technicians or advisors.1 But what, then, are the les-

 

sons of France's la salle guerre? What is it that Americans should

 

have learned form this "dirty little war?"

 

It is unnecessary to recount the previously enumerated list

 

of tactical lessons which any military man can glean from the war

 

in general, and Operation Castor in particular. Although it is

 

true that the French Expeditionary Force was beaten on the battle

 

field, the tactical reasons why are self-evident and have already

 

been adequately covered. Ultimately, there are really only two

 

reasons why France lost in Indochina; tragically, these same two

 

reasons also explain the United States' failure there some twenty

 

years later. The first is confusion of national purpose at the

 

highest levels, and the second is a tendency by the western sol-

 

dier to hold his Asian adversary in utter and unjustifiable con-

 

tempt, overestimating his own ability while underestimating that

 

of his foe. Put together, these two factors blend to create a

 

foolproof formula for failure. There is ample evidence to indi-

 

cate that once the Viet Minh made clear its intention of not for-

 

feiting its homeland to the French without a fight. Paris began

 

looking for a graceful way out, une sortie honorable. What kept

 

France militarily in the war was America's sudden about-face from

 

being the world's greatest champion of anti-colonialism to that

 

of anti-communist crusader. The Korean War had "proven conclu-

 

sively" to the decision makers in Washington that this modern poli-

 

tical cancer had to be arrested immediately, or Asia was surely

 

lost. In order to deny the "expansion southward of Communism from

 

Red China,"2 Paris had to be convinced of the necessity of remain-

 

ing in the fight. As a result, France and the United States be-

 

came bedfellows of convenience and credibility of Uncle Sam

 

in Southeast Asia was dealt what might yet prove to be a fatal

 

blow.

 

What is so unfortunate about the entire episode is the fact

 

that the resolve of the United States throughout the war was lit-

 

tle better than that of the equivocating nation it so wanted to

 

use to check Peking's expansionism. It is very easy to criticize

 

a government which can do no better than instruct a general to

 

somehow preserve his army while his civil superiors try to ar-

 

rive at a means of escaping the quagmire of their own making.3

 

Of course, history has shown such a proposition is absurd. Poli-

 

tical victories can only be won by an army fighting for a clearly

 

defined reason and ultimately triumphant on the battlefield. Had

 

not France herself waited to help the American colonies until after

 

their victory at Saratoga? Did not Lincoln sign his Emancipation

 

Proclamation and provide a moral issue to the American Civil war

 

only after his army gave him victory at Antietam? The overriding

 

mystery which surrounds Dien Bien Phu has to be how a politically

 

sophisticated nation such as France could really believe that a

 

satisfactory end to its problem in Indochina could be arrived at

 

in the absence of a clear win by her Expeditionary Force. The war

 

was fought on a shoestring, especially regarding the numbers of

 

troops committed. American fears that France might opt for a ne-

 

gotiated settlement brought about a steady stream of dollars as

 

well as encouragement for the French to continue the fight.4

 

France would never have made the financial commitment unilaterally.

 

But what about America's own resolve? The United States

 

watched Henri Navarre dig his grave at Dien Bien Phu, surely in

 

hopes that it would set up the great right which would make Wash-

 

ington's monetary expenditures worthwhile. Yet, despite guardedly

 

optimistic reports from the Pentagon's senior man in Vietnam (Lieu

 

tenant General O'Daniel) regarding the strength of the garrison,

 

the preponderance of correspondence dealing with Dien Bien Phu

 

which found its way to Washington was anything but cheery.5 Na-

 

varre made it plain that he would countenance no interrerence by

 

the American military mission, regardless of how much aid the Uni-

 

ted States was contributing; but, in the final analysis, a faint-

 

hearted decision by Washington not to follow up on Operation VUL-

 

TURE hammered the last nail into the coffin of Dien lien Phu. No

 

one in the White House could possibly have been so naive as to

 

think that by confining assistance to dollars a great power could

 

remain uninvolved. Like it or not, there is a ring of truth to

 

General Giap's description of Operation CASTOR as a "Franco-Ameri-

 

can scheme."6 If not American planned, it was certainly possible,

 

to a large degree, only because of U.S. aid. Washington abandoned

 

France in May 1954, washing its hands of Dien Bien Phu as though

 

it had never existed. That is the fact. Forget that France was

 

fighting a colonial war. Forget that the French Expeditionary

 

Force was beaten by a seemingly rag-tag home grown army. Remember

 

always that Vo Nguyen Giap's troops fought for their political and

 

ideological goals while the French Foreign Legionnaire and Moroc-

 

can tirailleur never knew exactly why he was in Indochina. Indeed,

 

Henri Navarre tells us he never knew.

 

War is the supreme test of national will. With it, one side

 

emerges victorious. Without it, a nation wastes its time and

 

treasure even by only partially involving itself. Colonialism

 

in any form has no chance when pitted against ardent nationalism

 

supported by an ideological program. The Continental Army showed

 

it at Yorktown in 1781; the French army of revolution at Valmy

 

just a decade later. The world's two greatest champions of lib-

 

erty chose to forget their heritage in 1954. Look beyond the ter-

 

rain, the artillery and the logistics, for this fatal historical

 

omission is the true lesson of Dien Bien Phu.

 

 

CHRONOLOGY

 

1931                                Ho Chi Minh founds the Indochinese Communist Party

(ICP)

 

1936                                Election of Popular Front Government in France results

In the legalization of the ICP

 

Sep 1939 Fall of Popular Front Government results in the

Outlawing of the ICP

 

Jun 1940 Fall of France

 

May 1941 Ho returns to Vietnam from "exile" in China

 

Dec 1944 Formal creation of the Vietnamese People's Army (VPA)

By Vo Nguyen Giap

 

Jul 1945 Attendees at Potsdam Conference decide to return

Foreign troops to Vietnam once Japan is defeated

 

Aug 1945 End of the Pacific War

 

Sep 1945 Ho formally establishes the Democratic Republic of

Vietnam and introduces its Declaration of Independence

 

Feb 1946 French troops return to Vietnam south of the 16th

Parallel

 

Nov 1946 Fighting breaks out in Haiphong; French occupy the

City

 

Dec 1946 French occupy Hanoi; Giap declares onset of nation-

Wide armed resistance

 

1947 French troops enjoy military success as VPA attempts

to defend fixed positions

 

1948/1949 Giap reverts to guerrilla warfare

 

Dec 1949 Chiang Kai-shek retreats to Formosa; China becomes

A friendly neighbor to the north for the Viet Minh

 

Oct 1950 Viet Minh offensive pushes French back to the confines

Of the Red River Delta

 

Dec 1950 Arrival of General de Lattre de Tassigny; establish-

Ment of the "de Lattre Line" around the Red River

Delta

 

Jan 1951 Giap launches unsuccessful offensives around Vinh Yen,

Mao Khe, Day River; loses 11,000 troops

 

Nov 1951 De Lattre launches Operation LOTUS, which fails when

Giap cuts French lines of communication

 

Sep 1952 De Lattre relieved; dies of cancer within a year

 

Oct 1952 Operation LORRAINE fails for same reasons that LOTUS

Did a year earlier

 

Nov 1952 Siege of Na San begins; LORRAINE terminated

 

May 1953 Arrival of General Henri Navarre; Giap strikes into

Northern Laos

 

Jul 1953 U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff approve the "Navarre Plan"

 

Nov 1953 Navarre directs planning for the occupation of Dien

Bien Phu (Operation CASTOR)

Nov 20: Dien Bien Phu occupied by French troops led

by Brigadier General Gilles

 

Dec 1953 Dec 7: Colonel de Castries relieves Gilles

Dec 28: Dien Bien Phu surrounded

 

Jan 1954 Jan 31: Dien Bien Phu receives first incoming artillery

 

Feb 1954 Feb 3: Dien Bien Phu receives accurate 105mm barrage

 

Mar 1954 Mar 15: Colonel Piroth, chief of artillery, commits

Suicide

Strongpoint Beatrice overrun

Strongpoint GABRIELLE evacuated

Mar 18: Strongpoint Anne Marie evacuate

Mar 24: Lieutenant Colonel Langlais assumes command

Admiral Radford (Chairman, JCS) offers B-29's

Mar 30: Battle for the Five Hills

Loss of Strongpoints ELAINE and DOMINIQUE (part)

 

Apr 1954 Apr 5: Giap reverts to siege/trench warfare

Apr 8: B-29's become a dead issue

Apr 23: Strongpoint HUGUETTE overrun

 

May 1954 May 2: Navarre directs planning for ALBATROSS (breakout)

May 6: Giap launches final attack

May 7: Dien Bien Phu falls

May 8: Strongpoint ISABELLE surrenders

 

Mar 1965 U.S. Marines land at Danang, Republic of South Vietnam

 

 

ENDNOTES

 

 

Chapter I

 

An "Asphyxiating Atmosphere"

 

 

1Vo Nguyen Giap, People's War People's Army (New York: Frederick

A. Praeger, Publishers, 1962), p. xxxi.

 

2Vo Nguyen Giap, The Military Art of People's War: Selected

Writings of General Vo Nguyen Giap (New York: Monthly Review

Press, 1970), p. 16.

 

3Sir Robert Thompson, War in Peace: Conventional and Guerrilla

Warfare Since 1945 (New York: Harmony Books, 1982), p. 61.

 

4Giap, People's War, p. xxiv.

 

5Giap, Military Art, p. 15.

 

6Giap, People's War, p. xxxv.

 

7 George A. Kelly, Lost Soldiers; The Army and Empire

in Crisis, 1947-1962 (Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press, 1965),

p. 39.

 

8Philippe Devillers and Jean Lacouture, End of a War: Indochina,

1954 (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers, 1969), p. 35

 

9Kelly, p. 35.

 

10Giap, People's War, p. 19.

 

11M. Rajai, ed., Mao Tse-tung on Revolution and War (Gloucester,

Mass.: Peter Smith, 1976), p. 274.

 

12Giap, People's War, p. 100-101.

 

13Kelly, p. 35.

 

14Gareth Porter, ed., Vietnam: The Definitive Documentation of

Human Decisions, Vol. I (Stanfordville, N.Y.: Earl M. Coleman

Enterprises, Inc., Publishers, 1979), p. 64.

 

15Ibid., p. 65.

 

16Kelly, p. 39.

 

17Devillers and Lacouture, pp. 8-9.

 

18Porter, pp. 116-117.

 

19Joseph Buttinger, Vietnam: A Dragon Embattled, Vol.. I: From

Colonialism to the Viet Minh (New York: Frederick A. Praeger,

Publishers, 1967), p. 48.

 

20Porter, p. 126.

 

21Ibid.

 

22Ibid., p. 133.

 

23lbid., p. 132-134.

 

24Ibid.

 

Chapter II

 

A Tale of Two Armies

 

 

 

1Thompson, p. 64.

2Giap, People's War, p. 173.

 

3Thompson, p. 65.

 

4Glap, People's War, p. 177.

 

5Ibid., p. 51.

 

6Thompson, pp. 66-67.

 

7Huge McLeave, The Damned Die Hard (New York: Saturday Review

Press, 1973), p. 246.

 

8Thompson, p. 67.

 

9Ibid., pp. 66-67.

 

10Department of Military Art and Engineering, French Counter-

revolutionary Struggles: Indochina and Algeria (West Point,

1968), p. 15.

 

 

Chapter III

 

A Long and Cruel War

 

 

1Porter, p. 197.

 

2Bernard B. Fall, Street Withoug Joy (Harrisburg, Pa.: The

Stackpole Company, 1961), pp. 32-33.

 

3Ibid.

 

4Giap, Military Art, p. 118.

 

5Kelly, p. 48.

 

6Guy Salisbury-Jones, So Full a Glory (London: Weidenfeld &

Nicholson, 1954), p. 248.

 

7Archatimes L.A. Patti, Why Viet Nam? Prelude to America's

Albatross (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980),

pp. 409-410.

 

8West Point, French Counterrevolutionary Struggle, p. 44.

 

9Patti, pp. 410-411.

 

10Thompeon, p. 71.

 

11Fall, Street Without Joy, p. 49.

 

12Giap, Military Art, p. 90.

 

13Fall, Street Without Joy, p. 49.

 

14Ibid., p. 51.

 

15Patti, p. 413.

 

16Fall, Street Without Joy, p. 49.

 

17Thompson, p. 73.

 

 

 

Chapter IV

 

Operation CASTOR

 

 

1Devillers and Lacouture, pp. 18-19.

 

2Ibid., pp. 24-25.

 

3Ibid., pp. 27-28.

 

4Ibid., pp. 27-33.

 

5Patti, p. 390.

 

6Henri Navarre, Agonie de l'Indochine (1953-1954) (Paris:

Librairie Plon, 1956),p. 3.

 

7Jules Roy, The Battle of Dien Bien Phu, trans. Robert Baldick

(New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1965), pp. 5-6.

 

8Navarre, p. 2.

 

9Porter, p. 429.

 

10Navarre, p. 81.

 

11Patti, p. 420.

 

12Porter, p. 452.

 

13Ibid., p. 455.

 

14Giap, Military Art, pp. 118-119.

 

15lbid.

 

16Ronald H. Spector, Advice and Support: The Early Years. 1941-

1960 (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 1983),

pp. 159-161.

 

17Porter, p. 419.

 

18Spector, p. 159.

 

19Navarre, p. 28.

 

20Ibid., p. 189.

 

21Ibid., p. 193.

 

22Spector, p. 182.

 

23Bernard B. Fall, Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien

Bien Phu (Philadelphia: J.B.Lippincott Company, 1957), pp.18-l94

 

24Roy, p. 16.

 

25Navarre, p. 195.

 

26Roy, pp. 17-18.

 

27Ibid.

 

28West Point, French Counterrevolutionary Struggles, p. 77.

 

29Roy, p. 26.

 

30Ibid., p. 27.

 

31Fall, Street Without Joy, p. 315.

 

32Roy, p. 58.

 

33Fall, Small Place, pp. 9-15.

 

34Roy, p. 58.

 

35Giap, Military Art, pp. 147-148.

 

36Fall, Small Place, pp. 51-52.

 

37Roy, p. 64.

 

38Ibid., p. 78.

 

39Ibid., pp. 71-72.

 

40Fall, Small Place, pp. 76-77.

 

41Roy, p. 95.

 

42Ibid., p. 96.

 

43Ibid., p. 127.

 

44Fall, Small Place, p. 78.

 

45Giap, Military Art, pp. 148-149.

 

46Ibid., p. 152.

 

47Fall, Small Place, p. 156.

 

48Ibid., p. 155.

 

49Giap, Military Art, pp. 151-152.

 

50Pierre Langlais, Dien Bien Phu (Paris: Editions France-Empire,

1963), pp. 28-30.

 

51william M. Leary, "CAT at Dien Bien Phu." Aerospace Historian

31 (Fall/September 1984), p. 179

 

52Paul Grauwin, Doctor at Dien Bien Phu, trans. James Oliver

(New York: J. Day Company, 1955).

 

53Fall, Small Place, p. 169. By this time, ISABELLE was virtuall

cut off from the main garrison.

 

54Langlais, p. 252.

 

55Devillers and Lacouture, pp. 77-89. Excellent analysis of the

machinations in Paris and Washington regarding Operation VULTURE

 

56Fall, Small Place, pp. 193-208.

 

57Thompson, p. ?6.

 

58Leary, p. 182.

 

59Roy, p. 220.

 

60Ibid.

 

61Ibid., p. 223.

 

62Ibid., p. 225.

 

63Langlais, pp. 56-58.

 

64Fall, Small Place, p. 248.

 

65Leary, p. 182.

 

66Fall, Small Place, p. 271.

 

67Giap, Military Art, p. 137-138.

 

68Fall, Small Place, p. 278.

 

69Roy, p. 261.

 

70Ibid.

 

71Fall, Small Place, p. 372. A quote attributed to President

Eisenhower.

 

72Ibid., pp. 374-375.

 

73Roy, pp. 273-277; Fall. Small Place, pp. 394-396. Texts of

message essentially the same.

 

74Fall, Small Place, p. 411.

 

 

 

CONCLUSION

 

 

1Mike Gravel, U.S. Senator, ed., The Pentagon Papers: The Defense

Department History of United States Decisonmaking in Vietnam,

Vol. III (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), p. 286.

 

2Department State, Foreign Relations of the United States:

1950, Vol. VI (Washington, D.C.: United States Government

Printing Office, 1976), p. 715.

 

3Bernard B. Fall, The Two Viet-Nams: A Political and Military

Analysis (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers, 1967),

p. 124.

 

4Spector, pp. 185-186.

 

5Melvin Gurtov, The First Vietnam Crisis: Chinese Communist

Strategy and United States Involvement, 1953-1954 (New York:

Columbia University Press, 1967), pp. 156-165.

 

6Spector, pp. 186-190.

 

7Giap, People's War, p. 193.

 

 

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

Books

 

Buttinger, Joseph. Vietnam: A Dragon Embattled. Vol. I: From

Colonialism to the Viet Minh. New York: Frederick A.

Praeger, Publishers, 1967.

A good, although general work useful primarily for

background reading into the return of France to Indochina

after World War II and the Vietnamese reaction.

 

Devillers, Philippe and Lacouture, Jean. End of a War: Indochina

1954. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers, 1969.

Although this work outlines the entire postwar episode

of France in Indochina, it concentrates on all the events

(political and military) which took place in 1954. It is

especially useful for deriving the genesis of America's

role in Southeast Asia.

 

Fall, Bernard B. Street Without Joy. Harrisburg, Pa.: The

Stackpole Company, 1961.

A valuable insight into a number of campaigns which

took place in the years before Dien Bien Phu. Helps the

student understand the French war in Indochina in its to-

tality. The author makes the events leading to Dien Bien

Phu easily comprehensible.

 

Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu.

Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1967.

One volume treatment of the campaign dealing with

basically every aspect. Easily read, although a slightly

romanticized account.

 

The Two Viet-Nams: A Political and Military Analysis.

New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers, 1967.

As the title suggests, more an analysis than purely

historical account of the French and Viet Minh at war.

Treats both sides even-handedly.

 

Giap, Vo Nguyen. People's War. People's Army: The Viet Cona

Insurrection Manual for Underdeveloped Countries. New

York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers, 1962

A collection of papers and essays which is short on

organization and long on propaganda.. With the use of

hindsight, Giap recounts the struggle with the French

and in so doing provides another view of French strate-

gies as well as an enumeration of his own.

 

The Military Art of People's War: Selected Writings of

General Vo Nguyen Gia . New York: Monthly Review Press,

1970.

More valuable than People's War (though partly re-

dundant) because it is better organized, more military

oriented and carries the war into-the 1960's.

 

Grauwin, Paul. Doctor at Dien Bien Phu. Translated by James

Oliver. New York: J. Day Company, 1955.

Tremendously interesting account by The French chief

surgeon at Dien Bien Phu. Provides superb insight not

only into his work there, but into the conditions endured

by all.

 

Gavel, Mike, U.S. Senator, ed. The Pentagon Papers: The Defense

Department History of United States Decisionmaking on

Vietnam.. Vol. III. Boston: Beacon Press, 1972.

 

Gurtov, Melvin. The First Vietnam Crisis: Chinese Communist

Strategy and United States Involvement, 1953-1954.

New York: Columbia University Press, 1967.

Very insightful analysis of the events taking place

behind the scenes as Dien Bien Phu teetered. Especially

useful for examination or U.S. decision making.

 

Harrison, James P. The Endless War: Firty Years of Struggle in

Vietnam. New York: The Free Press, 1982.

Good general work on the subject. Useful for initial

background reading.

 

Kelly, George A. Lost Soldiers: The French Army and Empire in

Crisis 1947-1962. Cambridge, Mass.: The M.I.T. Press,

1965.

Interesting account of how the French government

"betrayed" its Army in both Indochina and Algeria. Espec-

ially userul as it recounts the guidance provided to

General Navarre in particular.

 

Lacouture, Jean. Ho Chi Minh: A Political Biography. Translated

by Peter Wiles. New York: Random House, 1968.

Typical biography, and as useful as can be expected

for background material, but slightly lacking in adequate

notations. Portrays Ho as very conciliatory to French

prior to, and even immediately after, the opening of hos-

tilities.

 

Langlais, Pierre. Dien Bien Phu. Paris: Editions France-Empire,

1963.

The account of the head of the "paratroop maria" at

Dien Bien Phu, and thus valuable as a purely soldier's-

eye account of the battle. The author is candid but also

personally involved.

 

McLeave, Hugh. The Damned Die Hard. New York: Saturday Review

Press, 1973.

Not especially valuable in a study of Dien Bien Phu,

but worthwhile for its (biased) view of the Foreign Legion.

 

Navarre, Henri, Agonie de l'Indochine: 1953-1954. Paris: Li-

brairie Plon, 1956.

An interesting account of the last year of the war,

especially Operation CASTOR, by the man who planned and

assumed the blame for it. Although certainly not devoid

of self-protection, the work recounts what France's last

commander in chief (Indochina) thought at the time and

then, a decade later. Makes for interesting reading.

 

Patti, Arthimedes L.S. Why Viet Nam? Prelude to America's Alba-

tross. Berkely, Calif.: University of California Press,

1980.

Principally an account of American involvement in

Vietnam, but also quite useful for studying the Japanese

occupation, French reentry, and the military and political

events leading up to France's collapse and America's sub-

sequent involvement. Succinct and well written.

 

Porter, Gareth, Th.D., ed. Vietnam: The Definitive Documentation

of Human Decisions. Vol. I Stanfordville, N.Y.: Earl

M. Coleman Enterprises, Inc., Publishers, 1979.

A collection of messages, speech texts, and other

items which provide valuable insight and chronological

placement for the events taking place in Indochina from

1941-1955. Short editorial comments which are provided

give a concise picture of each document and provide a

useful sense of continuity.

 

Rejai, M., ed. Mao Tse-tung on Revolution and War. Gloucester,

Mass.: Peter Smith, 1976.

Collection of Mao's writings and speeches on political

and military topics.

 

Roy, Jules. The Battle of Dien Bien Phu. Translated by Robert

Baldick. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1965.

Excellent, objective and definitive account of the

campaign for Dien Bien Phu.

 

Salisbury-Jones, Guy. So Full a Glory. London: Weidenfeld &

Nicholson, 1954.

Although less than forty pages of this biography of

General de Lattre de Tassigny deal with Indochina, they

provide an interesting insight into the man and help to

explain the tactics he chose to use.

 

Spector, Rondald H. Advice and Support The Early Years, 1941-

1960. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 1983.

Provides excellent back ground to the campaigns of

1953-1954. Especially useful for its maps and military

analysis. Although it continues beyond the area covered

by this paper, it deals with the French experience in

sufficient detail to make it quite worthwhile.

 

Thompson, Sir Robert, ed. War in Peace: Conventional and Guer-

rilla Warrare Since 1945. New York: Harmony Books, 1982.

Brief and clearly explained descriptions of combat

since the end of World War II. Rather short on analysis

but excellent on providing a sense of campaign sequence

with convenient and well-illustrated maps. Supberb back-

ground material.

 

Tuchman, Barbara W. The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam.

New York: Alfred A. Knoph, 1968.

An unabashedly critical look at a wide assortment of

policies which have backfired on the states which initia-

ted them. The chapter on America in Vietnam is excellent

although hardly charitable.

 

Wright, Gordon. The Ordeal of Total War: 1939-1945. New York:

Harper & Row, Publishers, 1968.

For the purposes of this paper, a useful look at

the impact of the Vichy era and Japanese occupation on

Indochina. Good background material.

 

 

 

Government Publications (U.S.)

 

 

Department of State. Foreign Relations of the United States:

1950. Vol. VI. Washington, D.C.: United States Govern-

ment Pringing Office, 1976.

 

Department of Military Art and Engineering, United States Mili-

tary Academy. Revolutionary Warfare: French Counter-

revolutionary Struggles. Indochina and Algeria. West

Point, N.Y., 1968.

Contains excerpts from Fall's Street Without Joy

and Giap's People's War. People's Army; thus useful only

because of its condensed form.

 

 

 

Papers

 

 

Keavenly, Michael W. "Unravelling the Giap Myth." Paper Writter

for U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Pa., April

1984.

 

 

Articles

 

 

Leary, William M. "CAT at Dien Bien Phu." Aerospace Historian

31 (Fall/September 1984): 177-183.

 

O'Ballance, E.O. "Dien Bien Phu." The Journal of the United

Service Institution of India 86 (April-June 1956): 157-178.

 

Simcock, William. "Dien Bien Phu: Yesterday's Battlefield."

Canadian Army Journal (July 1958): 35-46.

 

 

 

Newspapers

 

 

New York Times

During this entire period, the NYT provided an

interesting account of the episode, especially in ref-

erence to U.S. policy statemants, French propaganda,

and ultimately, a very terse piece on the garrison's

surrender.

 



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