Battle of Dien Bien Phu
Overview
 
The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was the climactic confrontation of the First Indochina War
First Indochina War
The First Indochina War was fought in French Indochina from December 19, 1946, until August 1, 1954, between the French Union's French Far East...

 between the French Union
French Union
The French Union was a political entity created by the French Fourth Republic to replace the old French colonial system, the "French Empire" and to abolish its "indigenous" status.-History:...

's French Far East Expeditionary Corps
French Far East Expeditionary Corps
The French Far East Expeditionary Corps was a colonial expeditionary force of the French Union Army sent in French Indochina in 1945 during the Pacific War.-Pacific War :...

 and Viet Minh
Viet Minh
Việt Minh was a national independence coalition formed at Pac Bo on May 19, 1941. The Việt Minh initially formed to seek independence for Vietnam from the French Empire. When the Japanese occupation began, the Việt Minh opposed Japan with support from the United States and the Republic of China...

 communist
Communism
Communism is a social, political and economic ideology that aims at the establishment of a classless, moneyless, revolutionary and stateless socialist society structured upon common ownership of the means of production...

 revolutionaries
Revolutionary
A revolutionary is a person who either actively participates in, or advocates revolution. Also, when used as an adjective, the term revolutionary refers to something that has a major, sudden impact on society or on some aspect of human endeavor.-Definition:...

. The battle occurred between March and May 1954 and culminated in a comprehensive French defeat that influenced negotiations over the future of Indochina
Indochina
The Indochinese peninsula, is a region in Southeast Asia. It lies roughly southwest of China, and east of India. The name has its origins in the French, Indochine, as a combination of the names of "China" and "India", and was adopted when French colonizers in Vietnam began expanding their territory...

 at Geneva. Military historian Martin Windrow
Martin Windrow
Martin C. Windrow is a British historian, editor and author of several hundred books, articles and monographs, particularly those on organizational or physical details of military history, and the history of the post-war French Foreign Legion...

 wrote that Dien Bien Phu was "the first time that a non-European colonial independence movement
Independence
Independence is a condition of a nation, country, or state in which its residents and population, or some portion thereof, exercise self-government, and usually sovereignty, over its territory....

 had evolved through all the stages from guerrilla bands
Guerrilla warfare
Guerrilla warfare is a form of irregular warfare and refers to conflicts in which a small group of combatants including, but not limited to, armed civilians use military tactics, such as ambushes, sabotage, raids, the element of surprise, and extraordinary mobility to harass a larger and...

 to a conventionally organized and equipped army able to defeat a modern Western occupier in pitched battle
Pitched battle
A pitched battle is a battle where both sides choose to fight at a chosen location and time and where either side has the option to disengage either before the battle starts, or shortly after the first armed exchanges....

".

As a result of blunders in French decision-making, the French began an operation to support the soldiers at Dien Bien Phu
Dien Bien Phu
Điện Biên Phủ is a city in northwestern Vietnam. It is the capital of Dien Bien province, and is known for the events there during the First Indochina War, the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, during which the region was a breadbasket for the Việt Minh.-Population:...

, deep in the hills of northwestern Vietnam
Vietnam
Vietnam – sometimes spelled Viet Nam , officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam – is the easternmost country on the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia. It is bordered by China to the north, Laos to the northwest, Cambodia to the southwest, and the South China Sea –...

.
Encyclopedia
The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was the climactic confrontation of the First Indochina War
First Indochina War
The First Indochina War was fought in French Indochina from December 19, 1946, until August 1, 1954, between the French Union's French Far East...

 between the French Union
French Union
The French Union was a political entity created by the French Fourth Republic to replace the old French colonial system, the "French Empire" and to abolish its "indigenous" status.-History:...

's French Far East Expeditionary Corps
French Far East Expeditionary Corps
The French Far East Expeditionary Corps was a colonial expeditionary force of the French Union Army sent in French Indochina in 1945 during the Pacific War.-Pacific War :...

 and Viet Minh
Viet Minh
Việt Minh was a national independence coalition formed at Pac Bo on May 19, 1941. The Việt Minh initially formed to seek independence for Vietnam from the French Empire. When the Japanese occupation began, the Việt Minh opposed Japan with support from the United States and the Republic of China...

 communist
Communism
Communism is a social, political and economic ideology that aims at the establishment of a classless, moneyless, revolutionary and stateless socialist society structured upon common ownership of the means of production...

 revolutionaries
Revolutionary
A revolutionary is a person who either actively participates in, or advocates revolution. Also, when used as an adjective, the term revolutionary refers to something that has a major, sudden impact on society or on some aspect of human endeavor.-Definition:...

. The battle occurred between March and May 1954 and culminated in a comprehensive French defeat that influenced negotiations over the future of Indochina
Indochina
The Indochinese peninsula, is a region in Southeast Asia. It lies roughly southwest of China, and east of India. The name has its origins in the French, Indochine, as a combination of the names of "China" and "India", and was adopted when French colonizers in Vietnam began expanding their territory...

 at Geneva. Military historian Martin Windrow
Martin Windrow
Martin C. Windrow is a British historian, editor and author of several hundred books, articles and monographs, particularly those on organizational or physical details of military history, and the history of the post-war French Foreign Legion...

 wrote that Dien Bien Phu was "the first time that a non-European colonial independence movement
Independence
Independence is a condition of a nation, country, or state in which its residents and population, or some portion thereof, exercise self-government, and usually sovereignty, over its territory....

 had evolved through all the stages from guerrilla bands
Guerrilla warfare
Guerrilla warfare is a form of irregular warfare and refers to conflicts in which a small group of combatants including, but not limited to, armed civilians use military tactics, such as ambushes, sabotage, raids, the element of surprise, and extraordinary mobility to harass a larger and...

 to a conventionally organized and equipped army able to defeat a modern Western occupier in pitched battle
Pitched battle
A pitched battle is a battle where both sides choose to fight at a chosen location and time and where either side has the option to disengage either before the battle starts, or shortly after the first armed exchanges....

".

As a result of blunders in French decision-making, the French began an operation to support the soldiers at Dien Bien Phu
Dien Bien Phu
Điện Biên Phủ is a city in northwestern Vietnam. It is the capital of Dien Bien province, and is known for the events there during the First Indochina War, the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, during which the region was a breadbasket for the Việt Minh.-Population:...

, deep in the hills of northwestern Vietnam
Vietnam
Vietnam – sometimes spelled Viet Nam , officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam – is the easternmost country on the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia. It is bordered by China to the north, Laos to the northwest, Cambodia to the southwest, and the South China Sea –...

. Its purpose was to cut off Viet Minh supply lines into the neighboring Kingdom of Laos
Kingdom of Laos
The Kingdom of Laos was a sovereign state from 1953 until December 1975, when Pathet Lao overthrew the government and created the Lao People's Democratic Republic. Given self-rule in 1949 as part of a federation with the rest of French Indochina, the 1953 Franco-Lao Treaty finally established a...

, a French ally, and tactically draw the Viet Minh into a major confrontation that would cripple them. The Viet Minh, however, under Senior General
General
A general officer is an officer of high military rank, usually in the army, and in some nations, the air force. The term is widely used by many nations of the world, and when a country uses a different term, there is an equivalent title given....

 Vo Nguyen Giap
Vo Nguyen Giap
Võ Nguyên Giáp is a retired Vietnamese officer in the Vietnam People’s Army and a politician. He was a principal commander in two wars: the First Indochina War and the Vietnam War...

, surrounded and besieged
Siege
A siege is a military blockade of a city or fortress with the intent of conquering by attrition or assault. The term derives from sedere, Latin for "to sit". Generally speaking, siege warfare is a form of constant, low intensity conflict characterized by one party holding a strong, static...

 the French, who were unaware of the Viet Minh's possession of heavy artillery (including anti-aircraft guns
Anti-aircraft warfare
NATO defines air defence as "all measures designed to nullify or reduce the effectiveness of hostile air action." They include ground and air based weapon systems, associated sensor systems, command and control arrangements and passive measures. It may be to protect naval, ground and air forces...

) and their ability to move these weapons through difficult terrain to the mountain crests overlooking the French encampment. The Viet Minh occupied the highlands around Dien Bien Phu and bombarded French positions at will. Tenacious fighting on the ground ensued, reminiscent of the trench warfare
Trench warfare
Trench warfare is a form of occupied fighting lines, consisting largely of trenches, in which troops are largely immune to the enemy's small arms fire and are substantially sheltered from artillery...

 of World War I. The French repeatedly repulsed Viet Minh assaults on their positions. Supplies and reinforcements were delivered by air, though as the French positions were overrun and the anti-aircraft fire took its toll, fewer and fewer of those supplies reached them. The garrison was overrun after a two-month siege and most French forces surrendered. A few escaped to Laos. The French government resigned and the new President, the left of centre Pierre Mendès France, supported French withdrawal from Indochina.

The war ended shortly after the battle with the 1954 Geneva Accords
Geneva Conference (1954)
The Geneva Conference was a conference which took place in Geneva, Switzerland, whose purpose was to attempt to find a way to unify Korea and discuss the possibility of restoring peace in Indochina...

, under which France agreed to withdraw from its former Indochinese
French Indochina
French Indochina was part of the French colonial empire in southeast Asia. A federation of the three Vietnamese regions, Tonkin , Annam , and Cochinchina , as well as Cambodia, was formed in 1887....

 colonies. For the north, the French recognised the authority of Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh
Hồ Chí Minh , born Nguyễn Sinh Cung and also known as Nguyễn Ái Quốc, was a Vietnamese Marxist-Leninist revolutionary leader who was prime minister and president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam...

; for the south, elections would be held to determine its future. Those elections never took place - the Americans cancelled them. The accords partitioned Vietnam in two; fighting later broke out between opposing Vietnamese factions in 1959, resulting in the Vietnam (Second Indochina) War
Vietnam War
The Vietnam War was a Cold War-era military conflict that occurred in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1 November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. This war followed the First Indochina War and was fought between North Vietnam, supported by its communist allies, and the government of...

.

Background and preparations

By 1953, the First Indochina War
First Indochina War
The First Indochina War was fought in French Indochina from December 19, 1946, until August 1, 1954, between the French Union's French Far East...

 was not going well for France. A succession of commanders—Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque
Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque
Philippe François Marie, comte de Hauteclocque, then Leclerc de Hauteclocque, by a 1945 decree that incorporated his French Resistance alias Jacques-Philippe Leclerc to his name, , was a French general during World War II...

, Jean-Étienne Valluy
Jean-Étienne Valluy
Jean Etienne Valluy was a French general .He was born in Rive-de-Gier, Loire, on 15 May 1899 to Claude Valluy and Jeanne, Adrienne Cossanges. In 1917 he entered the military academy of Saint-Cyr...

, Roger Blaizot
Roger Blaizot
Roger Charles André Henri Blaizot was a French military leader, who commanded French forces during the World War II and the First Indochina War. Blaizot served in Indochina through the last two years of the World War II, having been sent to command the Far East French Expeditionary Forces by...

, Marcel Carpentier, Jean de Lattre de Tassigny
Jean de Lattre de Tassigny
Jean Joseph Marie Gabriel de Lattre de Tassigny, GCB, MC was a French military hero of World War II and commander in the First Indochina War.-Early life:...

, and Raoul Salan
Raoul Salan
Raoul Albin Louis Salan was a French Army general and the fourth French commanding general during the First Indochina War. Salan was one of four generals who organized the 1961 Algiers Putsch operation and then founded the Organisation de l'armée secrète....

—had proven incapable of suppressing the Viet Minh insurrection. During their 1952–53 campaign, the Viet Minh had overrun vast swathes of Laos, a French ally and Vietnam's western neighbor, advancing as far as Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang, or Louangphrabang , is a city located in north central Laos, where the Nam Khan river meets the Mekong River about north of Vientiane. It is the capital of Luang Prabang Province...

 and the Plain of Jars
Plain of Jars
The Plain of Jars is a megalithic archaeological landscape in Laos. Scattered in the landscape of the Xieng Khouang plateau Xieng Khouang, Lao PDR, are thousands of megalithic jars...

. The French were unable to slow the Viet Minh advance, and the Viet Minh fell back only after outrunning their always-tenuous supply lines. In 1953, the French had begun to strengthen their defenses in the Hanoi
Hanoi
Hanoi , is the capital of Vietnam and the country's second largest city. Its population in 2009 was estimated at 2.6 million for urban districts, 6.5 million for the metropolitan jurisdiction. From 1010 until 1802, it was the most important political centre of Vietnam...

 delta region to prepare for a series of offensives against Viet Minh staging area
Staging area
A staging area is a location where organisms, people, vehicles, equipment or material are assembled before use.- In construction :...

s in northwest Vietnam. They had set up fortified towns and outposts in the area, including Lai Chau
Lai Chau
Lai Châu is the capital town of Lai Chau province in the Northwest region of Vietnam....

 near the Chinese border to the north, Na San to the west of Hanoi, and the Plain of Jars
Plain of Jars
The Plain of Jars is a megalithic archaeological landscape in Laos. Scattered in the landscape of the Xieng Khouang plateau Xieng Khouang, Lao PDR, are thousands of megalithic jars...

 in northern Laos.

In May 1953, French Premier René Mayer
René Mayer
René Mayer was a French Radical politician of the Fourth Republic who served briefly as Prime Minister during 1953. He led the Mayer Authority from 1955 to 1958.-Mayer's Ministry, 8 January – 28 June 1953:*René Mayer – President of the Council...

 appointed Henri Navarre
Henri Navarre
Henri Eugène Navarre was a French Army general. He fought during World War I, World War II and was the seventh commander of French Far East Expeditionary Corps during the First Indochina War...

, a trusted colleague, to take command of French Union Forces in Indochina. Mayer had given Navarre a single order—to create military conditions that would lead to an "honorable political solution".According to military scholar Phillip Davidson
Phillip Davidson
Phillip Buford Davidson, Jr. was an American Lieutenant general, who served in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War....

,

On arrival, Navarre was shocked by what he found. There had been no long-range plan since de Lattre's departure. Everything was conducted on a day-to-day, reactive basis. Combat operations were undertaken only in response to enemy moves or threats. There was no comprehensive plan to develop the organization and build up the equipment of the Expeditionary force. Finally, Navarre, the intellectual, the cold and professional soldier, was shocked by the "school's out" attitude of Salan and his senior commanders and staff officers. They were going home, not as victors or heroes, but then, not as clear losers either. To them the important thing was that they were getting out of Indochina with their reputations frayed, but intact. They gave little thought to, or concern for, the problems of their successors.

Na San and the hedgehog concept

Simultaneously, Navarre had been searching for a way to stop the Viet Minh threat to Laos. Colonel Louis Berteil, commander of Mobile Group 7 and Navarre's main planner, formulated the hérisson ("hedgehog") concept. The French army would establish a fortified airhead
Airhead
An airhead is a designated area in a hostile or threatened territory which, when seized and held, allows the air landing of further troops and material via an airbridge, and provides the maneuver and preparation space necessary for projected operations. Normally it is the area seized in the assault...

 by air-lifting soldiers adjacent to a key Viet Minh supply line to Laos. This would effectively cut off Viet Minh soldiers fighting in Laos and force them to withdraw. "It was an attempt to interdict the enemy's rear area, to stop the flow of supplies and reinforcements, to establish a redoubt in the enemy's rear and disrupt his lines".

The hedgehog concept was based on French experiences at the Battle of Na San
Battle of Na San
The Battle of Nà Sản was fought between French Union forces and the communist forces of the Việt Minh at Nà Sản, Sơn La Province, during the First Indochina War for control of the T’ai region ....

. In late November and early December 1952, Giap attacked the French outpost at Na San, which was essentially an "air-land base", a fortified camp supplied only by air. Giap's forces were beaten back repeatedly with very heavy losses. The French hoped that by repeating the strategy on a much larger scale, they would be able to lure Giap into committing the bulk of his forces in a massed assault. This would enable superior French artillery, armor, and air support to decimate the exposed Viet Minh forces. The experience at Na San convinced Navarre of the viability of the fortified airhead concept.

French staff officers disastrously failed to treat seriously several crucial differences between Dien Bien Phu and Na San. At Na San, the French commanded most of the high ground with overwhelming artillery support. At Dien Bien Phu, however, the Viet Minh controlled much of the high ground around the valley, their artillery far exceeded French expectations and they outnumbered the French four-to-one. Giap compared Dien Bien Phu to a "rice bowl", where his troops occupied the edge and the French the bottom. Second, Giap made a mistake in Na San by committing his forces into reckless frontal attacks before being fully prepared. At Dien Bien Phu, Giap would spend months meticulously stockpiling ammunition and emplacing heavy artillery and anti-aircraft guns before making his move. Teams of Viet Minh volunteers were sent into the French camp to scout the disposition of the French artillery. Wooden artillery pieces were built as decoys and the real guns were rotated every few salvos to confuse French counterbattery fire. As a result, when the battle finally began, the Viet Minh knew exactly where the French artillery were, while the French were not even aware of how many guns Giap possessed. Third, the aerial resupply lines at Na San were never severed, despite Viet Minh anti-aircraft fire. At Dien Bien Phu, Giap amassed anti-aircraft batteries that quickly shut down the runway and made it extremely difficult and costly for the French to bring in reinforcements.

Lead up to Castor

In June, Major General
Major General
Major general or major-general is a military rank used in many countries. It is derived from the older rank of sergeant major general. A major general is a high-ranking officer, normally subordinate to the rank of lieutenant general and senior to the ranks of brigadier and brigadier general...

 René Cogny
René Cogny
René Cogny was a French Général de division, World War II and French Resistance veteran and survivor of Buchenwald and Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camps. He was a commander of the French forces in Tonkin during the First Indochina War, and notably during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu...

, commander of the Tonkin
Tonkin
Tonkin , also spelled Tongkin, Tonquin or Tongking, is the northernmost part of Vietnam, south of China's Yunnan and Guangxi Provinces, east of northern Laos, and west of the Gulf of Tonkin. Locally, it is known as Bắc Kỳ, meaning "Northern Region"...

 Delta, proposed Dien Bien Phu, which had an old airstrip built by the Japanese during World War II, as a "mooring point". In another misunderstanding, Cogny had envisioned a lightly defended point from which to launch raids; however, to Navarre, this meant a heavily fortified base capable of withstanding a siege. Navarre selected Dien Bien Phu for the location of Berteil's "hedgehog" operation. When presented with the plan, every major subordinate officer protested; Colonel Jean-Louis Nicot
Jean-Louis Nicot
Jean-Louis Nicot was the commander of the French Air transport fleet during the First Indochina War. He was later sent to prison for his involvement in the Algiers putsch.-Biography:...

, (commander of the French Air transport fleet), Cogny, and generals Jean Gilles and Jean Dechaux (the ground and air commanders for Operation Castor, the initial airborne assault on Dien Bien Phu). Cogny pointed out, presciently, that "we are running the risk of a new Na San
Battle of Na San
The Battle of Nà Sản was fought between French Union forces and the communist forces of the Việt Minh at Nà Sản, Sơn La Province, during the First Indochina War for control of the T’ai region ....

 under worse conditions". Navarre rejected the criticisms of his proposal and concluded a November 17 conference by declaring that the operation would commence three days later, on November 20, 1953.

Navarre decided to go ahead with the operation, despite operational difficulties which would later become painfully obvious (but at the time may have been less apparent) because he had been repeatedly assured by his intelligence officers that the operation had very little risk of involvement by a strong enemy force. Navarre had previously considered three other ways to defend Laos: mobile warfare
Maneuver warfare
Maneuver warfare, or manoeuvre warfare , is the term used by military theorists for a concept of warfare that advocates attempting to defeat an adversary by incapacitating their decision-making through shock and disruption brought about by movement...

, which was impossible given the terrain in Vietnam; a static defense line stretching to Laos, which was not executable given the number of troops at Navarres disposal; or placing troops in the Laotian provincial capitals and supplying them by air, which was unworkable due to the distance from Hanoi
Hanoi
Hanoi , is the capital of Vietnam and the country's second largest city. Its population in 2009 was estimated at 2.6 million for urban districts, 6.5 million for the metropolitan jurisdiction. From 1010 until 1802, it was the most important political centre of Vietnam...

 to Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang, or Louangphrabang , is a city located in north central Laos, where the Nam Khan river meets the Mekong River about north of Vientiane. It is the capital of Luang Prabang Province...

 and Vientiane
Vientiane
-Geography:Vientiane is situated on a bend of the Mekong river, which forms the border with Thailand at this point.-Climate:Vientiane features a tropical wet and dry climate with a distinct monsoon season and a dry season. Vientiane’s dry season spans from November through March. April marks the...

. Thus, the only option left to Navarre was the hedgehog, which he characterized as "a mediocre solution."

In a twist of fate, the French National Defense Committee ultimately agreed that Navarre's responsibility did not include defending Laos. However, their decision (which was drawn up on November 13) was not delivered to him until December 4, two weeks after the Dien Bien Phu operation began.

Establishment of the airhead

Operations at Dien Bien Phu began at 10:35 on the morning of November 20, 1953. In Operation Castor, the French dropped or flew 9,000 troops into the area over three days. They were landed at three drop zones: Natasha, northwest of ; Octavie, southwest of Dien Bien Phu; and Simone, southeast of Dien Bien Phu.

The Viet Minh elite 148th Independent Infantry Regiment, headquartered at Dien Bien Phu, reacted "instantly and effectively"; three of their four battalions, however, were absent that day. Initial operations proceeded well for the French. By the end of November, six parachute battalions had been landed and the French were consolidating their positions.

It was at this time that Giap began his counter-moves. Giap had expected an attack, but could not foresee when or where it would occur. Giap realized that, if pressed, the French would abandon Lai Chau Province and fight a pitched battle
Pitched battle
A pitched battle is a battle where both sides choose to fight at a chosen location and time and where either side has the option to disengage either before the battle starts, or shortly after the first armed exchanges....

 at Dien Bien Phu. On November 24, Giap ordered the 148th Infantry Regiment and the 316th division to attack Lai Chau, while the 308th
308 Division (Vietnam)
The 308th Division is an infantry division of the People's Army of Vietnam, first formed in 1948-49.As early as January 1947, the first regiment of the PAVN, the 308 'Capital' Regiment, was created for operations around Hanoi...

, 312th, and 351st divisions assault Dien Bien Phu from Việt Bắc
Viet Bac
Việt Bắc is a region of Vietnam north of Hanoi that served as the Viet Minh's base of support during the First Indochina War ....

.

Starting in December, the French, under the command of Colonel Christian de Castries
Christian de Castries
Christian Marie Ferdinand de la Croix de Castries was the French commander at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Castries was born into a distinguished military family and enlisted in the army at the age of 19. He was sent to the Saumur Cavalry School and in 1926 was commissioned an officer but...

, began transforming their anchoring point into a fortress by setting up seven positions, each allegedly named after a former mistress of de Castries, although the allegation is probably unfounded, as the names simply begin with the first eight letters of the alphabet. The fortified headquarters was centrally located, with positions "Huguette" to the west, "Claudine" to the south, and "Dominique" to the northeast. Other positions were "Anne-Marie" to the northwest, "Beatrice" to the northeast, "Gabrielle" to the north and "Isabelle" four miles (6 km) to the south, covering the reserve airstrip. The choice of de Castries as the on-scene commander at Dien Bien Phu was, in retrospect, a bad one. Navarre had picked de Castries, a cavalry
Cavalry
Cavalry or horsemen were soldiers or warriors who fought mounted on horseback. Cavalry were historically the third oldest and the most mobile of the combat arms...

man in the 18th century tradition, because Navarre envisioned Dien Bien Phu as a mobile battle. In reality, Dien Bien Phu required someone adept at World War I-style trench warfare
Trench warfare
Trench warfare is a form of occupied fighting lines, consisting largely of trenches, in which troops are largely immune to the enemy's small arms fire and are substantially sheltered from artillery...

, something for which de Castries was not suited.

The arrival of the 316th Viet Minh division prompted Cogny to order the evacuation of the Lai Chau garrison to Dien Bien Phu, exactly as Giap had anticipated. En route, they were virtually annihilated by the Viet Minh. "Of the 2,100 men who left Lai Chau on December 9, only 185 made it to Dien Bien Phu on December 22. The rest had been killed, captured or deserted
Desertion
In military terminology, desertion is the abandonment of a "duty" or post without permission and is done with the intention of not returning...

". The Viet Minh troops now converged on Dien Bien Phu.
The French had committed 10,800 troops, with more reinforcements totaling nearly 16,000 men, to the defense of a monsoon-affected valley surrounded by heavily wooded hills that had not been secured. Artillery as well as ten M24 Chaffee
M24 Chaffee
The Light Tank M24 was an American light tank used during World War II and in postwar conflicts including the Korean War and with the French in the War in Algeria and First Indochina War. In British service it was given the service name Chaffee, after the United States Army General Adna R...

 light tanks and numerous aircraft were committed to the garrison. The garrison comprised French regular troops (notably elite paratroop units plus artillery), Foreign Legionnaires
French Foreign Legion
The French Foreign Legion is a unique military service wing of the French Army established in 1831. The foreign legion was exclusively created for foreign nationals willing to serve in the French Armed Forces...

, Algerian and Moroccan tirailleur
Tirailleur
Tirailleur literally means a shooting skirmisher in French from tir—shot. The term dates back to the Napoleonic period where it was used to designate light infantry trained to skirmish ahead of the main columns...

s, and locally recruited Indochinese infantry.

All told, the Viet Minh had moved 50,000 regular troops into the hills surrounding the valley, totaling five divisions including the 351st Heavy Division, which was made up entirely of heavy artillery. Artillery and AA (anti-aircraft) guns, which outnumbered the French artillery by about four to one, were moved into camouflaged positions overlooking the valley. The French came under sporadic Viet Minh artillery fire for the first time on January 31, 1954, and French patrols encountered the Viet Minh in all directions. The battle had been joined, and the French were now surrounded.

Combat operations

Beatrice

The Viet Minh assault began in earnest on 13 March 1954 with an attack on outpost Beatrice. Viet Minh artillery opened a fierce bombardment of the fortification and French command was disrupted at 6:15 PM when a shell hit the French command post, killing Legionnaire commander Major Paul Pegot and his entire staff. A few minutes later, Colonel Jules Gaucher
Jules Gaucher
Jules Gaucher was a French Army officer noted for his command of Foreign Legion troops in Indochina. Described as a "burly, hard-drinking veteran of years of jungle fighting, with a nose like an axe-blade and a mouth like its cut", Gaucher was a popular commander among the Legion, known as 'the...

, commander of the entire northern sector, was also killed by Viet Minh artillery.

The Viet Minh 312th division then launched a massive infantry assault, using sapper
Sapper
A sapper, pioneer or combat engineer is a combatant soldier who performs a wide variety of combat engineering duties, typically including, but not limited to, bridge-building, laying or clearing minefields, demolitions, field defences, general construction and building, as well as road and airfield...

s to defeat French obstacles. French resistance at Beatrice collapsed shortly after midnight following a fierce battle. Roughly 500 French legionnaires were killed. Viet Minh losses totalled 600 dead and 1,200 wounded. The French launched a counter-attack against Beatrice the following morning, but it was quickly beaten back by Viet Minh artillery. Despite their losses, the victory at Beatrice "galvanized the morale" of the Viet Minh troops.

Much to French disbelief, the Viet Minh had employed direct artillery fire, in which each gun crew does its own artillery spotting (as opposed to indirect fire, in which guns are massed farther away from the target, out of direct line of sight, and rely on a forward artillery spotter). Indirect artillery, generally held as being far superior to direct fire, requires experienced, well-trained crews and good communications, which the Viet Minh lacked. Navarre wrote that "Under the influence of Chinese advisers, the Viet Minh commanders had used processes quite different from the classic methods. The artillery had been dug in by single pieces … They were installed in shell-proof dugouts, and fire point-blank from portholes … This way of using artillery and AA guns was possible only with the expansive ant holes at the disposal of the Vietminh and was to make shambles of all the estimates of our own artillerymen". The French artillery commander, Colonel Charles Piroth
Charles Piroth
Charles Piroth was a French Lieutenant Colonel and veteran of the Italian Campaign during the Second World War and more notably serving three tours in Vietnam during the First Indochina War. Piroth commanded the artillery of the French Dien Bien Phu garrison during the siege of the valley by the...

, distraught at his inability to bring counterfire on the well-camouflaged Viet Minh batteries, went into his dugout and committed suicide with a hand grenade
Hand grenade
A hand grenade is any small bomb that can be thrown by hand. Hand grenades are classified into three categories, explosive grenades, chemical and gas grenades. Explosive grenades are the most commonly used in modern warfare, and are designed to detonate after impact or after a set amount of time...

. He was buried there in secret to prevent loss of morale among the French troops.

Gabrielle

Following a four-hour cease fire on the morning of March 14, Viet Minh artillery resumed pounding French positions. The air strip, already closed since 4:00 pm the day before due to a light bombardment, was now put permanently out of commission. Any further French supplies would have to be delivered by parachute. That night, the Viet Minh launched an attack on Gabrielle, held by an elite Algeria
Algeria
Algeria , officially the People's Democratic Republic of Algeria , also formally referred to as the Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria, is a country in the Maghreb region of Northwest Africa with Algiers as its capital.In terms of land area, it is the largest country in Africa and the Arab...

n battalion. The attack began with a concentrated artillery barrage at 5:00 PM. Two regiments from the crack 308th division attacked starting at 8:00 PM. At 4:00 AM the following morning, an artillery shell hit the battalion headquarters, severely wounding the battalion commander and most of his staff.

De Castries ordered a counterattack to relieve Gabrielle. However, Colonel Pierre Langlais
Pierre Langlais
Pierre Charles Albert Marie Langlais was a French military officer who fought in World War II and Indochina. He is best known as the ad-hoc commander of the French garrison during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.-Early life:...

, in forming the counterattack, chose to rely on the 5th Vietnamese Parachute battalion, which had jumped in the day before and was exhausted. Although some elements of the counterattack reached Gabrielle, most were paralyzed by Viet Minh artillery and took heavy losses. At 8:00 AM the next day, the Algerian battalion fell back, abandoning Gabrielle to the Viet Minh. The French lost around 1,000 men defending Gabrielle, and the Viet Minh between 1,000 and 2,000 attacking the strongpoint.

Anne-Marie

Anne-Marie was defended by T'ai troops, members of a Vietnamese ethnic minority loyal to the French. For weeks, Giap had distributed subversive propaganda
Propaganda
Propaganda is a form of communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position so as to benefit oneself or one's group....

 leaflets, telling the T'ais that this was not their fight. The fall of Beatrice and Gabrielle had severely demoralized them. On the morning of March 17, under the cover of fog, the bulk of the T'ais left or defected. The French and the few remaining T'ais on Anne-Marie were then forced to withdraw.

Lull

March 17 through March 30 saw a lull in fighting. The Viet Minh further tightened the noose around the French central area (formed by the strongpoints Huguette, Dominique, Claudine, and Eliane), effectively cutting off Isabelle and its 1,809 personnel. During this lull, the French suffered from a serious crisis of command. "It had become painfully evident to the senior officers within the encircled garrison—and even to Cogny at Hanoi—that de Castries was incompetent to conduct the defense of Dien Bien Phu. Even more critical, after the fall of the northern outposts, he isolated himself in his bunker so that he had, in effect, relinquished his command authority". On March 17, Cogny attempted to fly into Dien Bien Phu and take command, but his plane was driven off by anti-aircraft fire. Cogny considered parachuting into the encircled garrison, but his staff talked him out of it.

De Castries' seclusion in his bunker, combined with his superiors' inability to replace him, created a leadership vacuum within the French command. On March 24, an event took place which would later become a matter of historical debate. Historian Bernard Fall records, based on Langlais' memoirs, that Colonel Langlais and his fellow paratroop commanders, all fully armed, confronted de Castries in his bunker on March 24. They told him that he would retain the appearance of command, but that Langlais would exercise it. De Castries is said by Fall to have accepted the arrangement without protest, although he did exercise some command functions thereafter. Phillip B. Davidson states that "The truth would seem to be that Langlais did take over effective command of Dien Bien Phu, and that Castries became "commander emeritus" who transmitted messages to Hanoi and offered advise about matters in Dien Bien Phu".
The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was the climactic confrontation of the First Indochina War
First Indochina War
The First Indochina War was fought in French Indochina from December 19, 1946, until August 1, 1954, between the French Union's French Far East...

 between the French Union
French Union
The French Union was a political entity created by the French Fourth Republic to replace the old French colonial system, the "French Empire" and to abolish its "indigenous" status.-History:...

's French Far East Expeditionary Corps
French Far East Expeditionary Corps
The French Far East Expeditionary Corps was a colonial expeditionary force of the French Union Army sent in French Indochina in 1945 during the Pacific War.-Pacific War :...

 and Viet Minh
Viet Minh
Việt Minh was a national independence coalition formed at Pac Bo on May 19, 1941. The Việt Minh initially formed to seek independence for Vietnam from the French Empire. When the Japanese occupation began, the Việt Minh opposed Japan with support from the United States and the Republic of China...

 communist
Communism
Communism is a social, political and economic ideology that aims at the establishment of a classless, moneyless, revolutionary and stateless socialist society structured upon common ownership of the means of production...

 revolutionaries
Revolutionary
A revolutionary is a person who either actively participates in, or advocates revolution. Also, when used as an adjective, the term revolutionary refers to something that has a major, sudden impact on society or on some aspect of human endeavor.-Definition:...

. The battle occurred between March and May 1954 and culminated in a comprehensive French defeat that influenced negotiations over the future of Indochina
Indochina
The Indochinese peninsula, is a region in Southeast Asia. It lies roughly southwest of China, and east of India. The name has its origins in the French, Indochine, as a combination of the names of "China" and "India", and was adopted when French colonizers in Vietnam began expanding their territory...

 at Geneva. Military historian Martin Windrow
Martin Windrow
Martin C. Windrow is a British historian, editor and author of several hundred books, articles and monographs, particularly those on organizational or physical details of military history, and the history of the post-war French Foreign Legion...

 wrote that Dien Bien Phu was "the first time that a non-European colonial independence movement
Independence
Independence is a condition of a nation, country, or state in which its residents and population, or some portion thereof, exercise self-government, and usually sovereignty, over its territory....

 had evolved through all the stages from guerrilla bands
Guerrilla warfare
Guerrilla warfare is a form of irregular warfare and refers to conflicts in which a small group of combatants including, but not limited to, armed civilians use military tactics, such as ambushes, sabotage, raids, the element of surprise, and extraordinary mobility to harass a larger and...

 to a conventionally organized and equipped army able to defeat a modern Western occupier in pitched battle
Pitched battle
A pitched battle is a battle where both sides choose to fight at a chosen location and time and where either side has the option to disengage either before the battle starts, or shortly after the first armed exchanges....

".Quotation from Martin Windrow. Kenney, Michael. "British Historian Takes a Brilliant Look at French Fall in Vietnam". Boston Globe, January 4, 2005.

As a result of blunders in French decision-making, the French began an operation to support the soldiers at Dien Bien Phu
Dien Bien Phu
Điện Biên Phủ is a city in northwestern Vietnam. It is the capital of Dien Bien province, and is known for the events there during the First Indochina War, the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, during which the region was a breadbasket for the Việt Minh.-Population:...

, deep in the hills of northwestern Vietnam
Vietnam
Vietnam – sometimes spelled Viet Nam , officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam – is the easternmost country on the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia. It is bordered by China to the north, Laos to the northwest, Cambodia to the southwest, and the South China Sea –...

. Its purpose was to cut off Viet Minh supply lines into the neighboring Kingdom of Laos
Kingdom of Laos
The Kingdom of Laos was a sovereign state from 1953 until December 1975, when Pathet Lao overthrew the government and created the Lao People's Democratic Republic. Given self-rule in 1949 as part of a federation with the rest of French Indochina, the 1953 Franco-Lao Treaty finally established a...

, a French ally, and tactically draw the Viet Minh into a major confrontation that would cripple them. The Viet Minh, however, under Senior General
General
A general officer is an officer of high military rank, usually in the army, and in some nations, the air force. The term is widely used by many nations of the world, and when a country uses a different term, there is an equivalent title given....

 Vo Nguyen Giap
Vo Nguyen Giap
Võ Nguyên Giáp is a retired Vietnamese officer in the Vietnam People’s Army and a politician. He was a principal commander in two wars: the First Indochina War and the Vietnam War...

, surrounded and besieged
Siege
A siege is a military blockade of a city or fortress with the intent of conquering by attrition or assault. The term derives from sedere, Latin for "to sit". Generally speaking, siege warfare is a form of constant, low intensity conflict characterized by one party holding a strong, static...

 the French, who were unaware of the Viet Minh's possession of heavy artillery (including anti-aircraft guns
Anti-aircraft warfare
NATO defines air defence as "all measures designed to nullify or reduce the effectiveness of hostile air action." They include ground and air based weapon systems, associated sensor systems, command and control arrangements and passive measures. It may be to protect naval, ground and air forces...

) and their ability to move these weapons through difficult terrain to the mountain crests overlooking the French encampment. The Viet Minh occupied the highlands around Dien Bien Phu and bombarded French positions at will. Tenacious fighting on the ground ensued, reminiscent of the trench warfare
Trench warfare
Trench warfare is a form of occupied fighting lines, consisting largely of trenches, in which troops are largely immune to the enemy's small arms fire and are substantially sheltered from artillery...

 of World War I. The French repeatedly repulsed Viet Minh assaults on their positions. Supplies and reinforcements were delivered by air, though as the French positions were overrun and the anti-aircraft fire took its toll, fewer and fewer of those supplies reached them. The garrison was overrun after a two-month siege and most French forces surrendered. A few escaped to Laos. The French government resigned and the new President, the left of centre Pierre Mendès France, supported French withdrawal from Indochina.

The war ended shortly after the battle with the 1954 Geneva Accords
Geneva Conference (1954)
The Geneva Conference was a conference which took place in Geneva, Switzerland, whose purpose was to attempt to find a way to unify Korea and discuss the possibility of restoring peace in Indochina...

, under which France agreed to withdraw from its former Indochinese
French Indochina
French Indochina was part of the French colonial empire in southeast Asia. A federation of the three Vietnamese regions, Tonkin , Annam , and Cochinchina , as well as Cambodia, was formed in 1887....

 colonies. For the north, the French recognised the authority of Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh
Hồ Chí Minh , born Nguyễn Sinh Cung and also known as Nguyễn Ái Quốc, was a Vietnamese Marxist-Leninist revolutionary leader who was prime minister and president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam...

; for the south, elections would be held to determine its future. Those elections never took place - the Americans cancelled them. Julian Jackson
Julian T. Jackson
Julian T. Jackson is a prominent British historian. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Historical Society. Professor of History at Queen Mary, University of London Julian Jackson is one of the leading authorities on twentieth-century France.He was educated at the University of...

, The Other Empire, episode 4/5, BBC Radio Three, first broadcast, 15 September 2011
The accords partitioned Vietnam in two; fighting later broke out between opposing Vietnamese factions in 1959, resulting in the Vietnam (Second Indochina) War
Vietnam War
The Vietnam War was a Cold War-era military conflict that occurred in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1 November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. This war followed the First Indochina War and was fought between North Vietnam, supported by its communist allies, and the government of...

.

Background and preparations

By 1953, the First Indochina War
First Indochina War
The First Indochina War was fought in French Indochina from December 19, 1946, until August 1, 1954, between the French Union's French Far East...

 was not going well for France. A succession of commanders—Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque
Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque
Philippe François Marie, comte de Hauteclocque, then Leclerc de Hauteclocque, by a 1945 decree that incorporated his French Resistance alias Jacques-Philippe Leclerc to his name, , was a French general during World War II...

, Jean-Étienne Valluy
Jean-Étienne Valluy
Jean Etienne Valluy was a French general .He was born in Rive-de-Gier, Loire, on 15 May 1899 to Claude Valluy and Jeanne, Adrienne Cossanges. In 1917 he entered the military academy of Saint-Cyr...

, Roger Blaizot
Roger Blaizot
Roger Charles André Henri Blaizot was a French military leader, who commanded French forces during the World War II and the First Indochina War. Blaizot served in Indochina through the last two years of the World War II, having been sent to command the Far East French Expeditionary Forces by...

, Marcel Carpentier, Jean de Lattre de Tassigny
Jean de Lattre de Tassigny
Jean Joseph Marie Gabriel de Lattre de Tassigny, GCB, MC was a French military hero of World War II and commander in the First Indochina War.-Early life:...

, and Raoul Salan
Raoul Salan
Raoul Albin Louis Salan was a French Army general and the fourth French commanding general during the First Indochina War. Salan was one of four generals who organized the 1961 Algiers Putsch operation and then founded the Organisation de l'armée secrète....

—had proven incapable of suppressing the Viet Minh insurrection. During their 1952–53 campaign, the Viet Minh had overrun vast swathes of Laos, a French ally and Vietnam's western neighbor, advancing as far as Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang, or Louangphrabang , is a city located in north central Laos, where the Nam Khan river meets the Mekong River about north of Vientiane. It is the capital of Luang Prabang Province...

 and the Plain of Jars
Plain of Jars
The Plain of Jars is a megalithic archaeological landscape in Laos. Scattered in the landscape of the Xieng Khouang plateau Xieng Khouang, Lao PDR, are thousands of megalithic jars...

. The French were unable to slow the Viet Minh advance, and the Viet Minh fell back only after outrunning their always-tenuous supply lines. In 1953, the French had begun to strengthen their defenses in the Hanoi
Hanoi
Hanoi , is the capital of Vietnam and the country's second largest city. Its population in 2009 was estimated at 2.6 million for urban districts, 6.5 million for the metropolitan jurisdiction. From 1010 until 1802, it was the most important political centre of Vietnam...

 delta region to prepare for a series of offensives against Viet Minh staging area
Staging area
A staging area is a location where organisms, people, vehicles, equipment or material are assembled before use.- In construction :...

s in northwest Vietnam. They had set up fortified towns and outposts in the area, including Lai Chau
Lai Chau
Lai Châu is the capital town of Lai Chau province in the Northwest region of Vietnam....

 near the Chinese border to the north,Fall, 23 Na San to the west of Hanoi,Fall, 9 and the Plain of Jars
Plain of Jars
The Plain of Jars is a megalithic archaeological landscape in Laos. Scattered in the landscape of the Xieng Khouang plateau Xieng Khouang, Lao PDR, are thousands of megalithic jars...

 in northern Laos.Fall, 48

In May 1953, French Premier René Mayer
René Mayer
René Mayer was a French Radical politician of the Fourth Republic who served briefly as Prime Minister during 1953. He led the Mayer Authority from 1955 to 1958.-Mayer's Ministry, 8 January – 28 June 1953:*René Mayer – President of the Council...

 appointed Henri Navarre
Henri Navarre
Henri Eugène Navarre was a French Army general. He fought during World War I, World War II and was the seventh commander of French Far East Expeditionary Corps during the First Indochina War...

, a trusted colleague, to take command of French Union Forces in Indochina. Mayer had given Navarre a single order—to create military conditions that would lead to an "honorable political solution".According to military scholar Phillip Davidson
Phillip Davidson
Phillip Buford Davidson, Jr. was an American Lieutenant general, who served in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War....

,

On arrival, Navarre was shocked by what he found. There had been no long-range plan since de Lattre's departure. Everything was conducted on a day-to-day, reactive basis. Combat operations were undertaken only in response to enemy moves or threats. There was no comprehensive plan to develop the organization and build up the equipment of the Expeditionary force. Finally, Navarre, the intellectual, the cold and professional soldier, was shocked by the "school's out" attitude of Salan and his senior commanders and staff officers. They were going home, not as victors or heroes, but then, not as clear losers either. To them the important thing was that they were getting out of Indochina with their reputations frayed, but intact. They gave little thought to, or concern for, the problems of their successors.

Na San and the hedgehog concept

Simultaneously, Navarre had been searching for a way to stop the Viet Minh threat to Laos. Colonel Louis Berteil, commander of Mobile Group 7 and Navarre's main planner,Fall, 44 formulated the hérisson ("hedgehog") concept. The French army would establish a fortified airhead
Airhead
An airhead is a designated area in a hostile or threatened territory which, when seized and held, allows the air landing of further troops and material via an airbridge, and provides the maneuver and preparation space necessary for projected operations. Normally it is the area seized in the assault...

 by air-lifting soldiers adjacent to a key Viet Minh supply line to Laos.Davidson, 173 This would effectively cut off Viet Minh soldiers fighting in Laos and force them to withdraw. "It was an attempt to interdict the enemy's rear area, to stop the flow of supplies and reinforcements, to establish a redoubt in the enemy's rear and disrupt his lines".Bruce Kennedy. CNN Cold War Special: 1954 battle changed Vietnam's history

The hedgehog concept was based on French experiences at the Battle of Na San
Battle of Na San
The Battle of Nà Sản was fought between French Union forces and the communist forces of the Việt Minh at Nà Sản, Sơn La Province, during the First Indochina War for control of the T’ai region ....

. In late November and early December 1952, Giap attacked the French outpost at Na San, which was essentially an "air-land base", a fortified camp supplied only by air.Fall, 24 Giap's forces were beaten back repeatedly with very heavy losses. The French hoped that by repeating the strategy on a much larger scale, they would be able to lure Giap into committing the bulk of his forces in a massed assault. This would enable superior French artillery, armor, and air support to decimate the exposed Viet Minh forces. The experience at Na San convinced Navarre of the viability of the fortified airhead concept.

French staff officers disastrously failed to treat seriously several crucial differences between Dien Bien Phu and Na San. At Na San, the French commanded most of the high ground with overwhelming artillery support.Davidson, 147 At Dien Bien Phu, however, the Viet Minh controlled much of the high ground around the valley, their artillery far exceeded French expectations and they outnumbered the French four-to-one. Giap compared Dien Bien Phu to a "rice bowl", where his troops occupied the edge and the French the bottom. Second, Giap made a mistake in Na San by committing his forces into reckless frontal attacks before being fully prepared. At Dien Bien Phu, Giap would spend months meticulously stockpiling ammunition and emplacing heavy artillery and anti-aircraft guns before making his move. Teams of Viet Minh volunteers were sent into the French camp to scout the disposition of the French artillery. Wooden artillery pieces were built as decoys and the real guns were rotated every few salvos to confuse French counterbattery fire. As a result, when the battle finally began, the Viet Minh knew exactly where the French artillery were, while the French were not even aware of how many guns Giap possessed. Third, the aerial resupply lines at Na San were never severed, despite Viet Minh anti-aircraft fire. At Dien Bien Phu, Giap amassed anti-aircraft batteries that quickly shut down the runway and made it extremely difficult and costly for the French to bring in reinforcements.

Lead up to Castor

In June, Major General
Major General
Major general or major-general is a military rank used in many countries. It is derived from the older rank of sergeant major general. A major general is a high-ranking officer, normally subordinate to the rank of lieutenant general and senior to the ranks of brigadier and brigadier general...

 René Cogny
René Cogny
René Cogny was a French Général de division, World War II and French Resistance veteran and survivor of Buchenwald and Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camps. He was a commander of the French forces in Tonkin during the First Indochina War, and notably during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu...

, commander of the Tonkin
Tonkin
Tonkin , also spelled Tongkin, Tonquin or Tongking, is the northernmost part of Vietnam, south of China's Yunnan and Guangxi Provinces, east of northern Laos, and west of the Gulf of Tonkin. Locally, it is known as Bắc Kỳ, meaning "Northern Region"...

 Delta, proposed Dien Bien Phu, which had an old airstrip built by the Japanese during World War II, as a "mooring point".Davidson, 182 In another misunderstanding, Cogny had envisioned a lightly defended point from which to launch raids; however, to Navarre, this meant a heavily fortified base capable of withstanding a siege. Navarre selected Dien Bien Phu for the location of Berteil's "hedgehog" operation. When presented with the plan, every major subordinate officer protested; Colonel Jean-Louis Nicot
Jean-Louis Nicot
Jean-Louis Nicot was the commander of the French Air transport fleet during the First Indochina War. He was later sent to prison for his involvement in the Algiers putsch.-Biography:...

, (commander of the French Air transport fleet), Cogny, and generals Jean Gilles and Jean Dechaux (the ground and air commanders for Operation Castor, the initial airborne assault on Dien Bien Phu). Cogny pointed out, presciently, that "we are running the risk of a new Na San
Battle of Na San
The Battle of Nà Sản was fought between French Union forces and the communist forces of the Việt Minh at Nà Sản, Sơn La Province, during the First Indochina War for control of the T’ai region ....

 under worse conditions".Roy, 21 Navarre rejected the criticisms of his proposal and concluded a November 17 conference by declaring that the operation would commence three days later, on November 20, 1953.Roy, 33Davidson, 184

Navarre decided to go ahead with the operation, despite operational difficulties which would later become painfully obvious (but at the time may have been less apparent)Windrow, p211, 212, 228, 275 because he had been repeatedly assured by his intelligence officers that the operation had very little risk of involvement by a strong enemy force.Davidson, 189 Navarre had previously considered three other ways to defend Laos: mobile warfare
Maneuver warfare
Maneuver warfare, or manoeuvre warfare , is the term used by military theorists for a concept of warfare that advocates attempting to defeat an adversary by incapacitating their decision-making through shock and disruption brought about by movement...

, which was impossible given the terrain in Vietnam; a static defense line stretching to Laos, which was not executable given the number of troops at Navarres disposal; or placing troops in the Laotian provincial capitals and supplying them by air, which was unworkable due to the distance from Hanoi
Hanoi
Hanoi , is the capital of Vietnam and the country's second largest city. Its population in 2009 was estimated at 2.6 million for urban districts, 6.5 million for the metropolitan jurisdiction. From 1010 until 1802, it was the most important political centre of Vietnam...

 to Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang, or Louangphrabang , is a city located in north central Laos, where the Nam Khan river meets the Mekong River about north of Vientiane. It is the capital of Luang Prabang Province...

 and Vientiane
Vientiane
-Geography:Vientiane is situated on a bend of the Mekong river, which forms the border with Thailand at this point.-Climate:Vientiane features a tropical wet and dry climate with a distinct monsoon season and a dry season. Vientiane’s dry season spans from November through March. April marks the...

.Davidson, 186 Thus, the only option left to Navarre was the hedgehog, which he characterized as "a mediocre solution."Davidson, 187

In a twist of fate, the French National Defense Committee ultimately agreed that Navarre's responsibility did not include defending Laos. However, their decision (which was drawn up on November 13) was not delivered to him until December 4, two weeks after the Dien Bien Phu operation began.

Establishment of the airhead

Operations at Dien Bien Phu began at 10:35 on the morning of November 20, 1953. In Operation Castor, the French dropped or flew 9,000 troops into the area over three days. They were landed at three drop zones: Natasha, northwest of ; Octavie, southwest of Dien Bien Phu; and Simone, southeast of Dien Bien Phu.Davidson, 194

The Viet Minh elite 148th Independent Infantry Regiment, headquartered at Dien Bien Phu, reacted "instantly and effectively"; three of their four battalions, however, were absent that day.Davidson, 193 Initial operations proceeded well for the French. By the end of November, six parachute battalions had been landed and the French were consolidating their positions.

It was at this time that Giap began his counter-moves. Giap had expected an attack, but could not foresee when or where it would occur. Giap realized that, if pressed, the French would abandon Lai Chau Province and fight a pitched battle
Pitched battle
A pitched battle is a battle where both sides choose to fight at a chosen location and time and where either side has the option to disengage either before the battle starts, or shortly after the first armed exchanges....

 at Dien Bien Phu. On November 24, Giap ordered the 148th Infantry Regiment and the 316th division to attack Lai Chau, while the 308th
308 Division (Vietnam)
The 308th Division is an infantry division of the People's Army of Vietnam, first formed in 1948-49.As early as January 1947, the first regiment of the PAVN, the 308 'Capital' Regiment, was created for operations around Hanoi...

, 312th, and 351st divisions assault Dien Bien Phu from Việt Bắc
Viet Bac
Việt Bắc is a region of Vietnam north of Hanoi that served as the Viet Minh's base of support during the First Indochina War ....

.

Starting in December, the French, under the command of Colonel Christian de Castries
Christian de Castries
Christian Marie Ferdinand de la Croix de Castries was the French commander at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Castries was born into a distinguished military family and enlisted in the army at the age of 19. He was sent to the Saumur Cavalry School and in 1926 was commissioned an officer but...

, began transforming their anchoring point into a fortress by setting up seven positions, each allegedly named after a former mistress of de Castries, although the allegation is probably unfounded, as the names simply begin with the first eight letters of the alphabet. The fortified headquarters was centrally located, with positions "Huguette" to the west, "Claudine" to the south, and "Dominique" to the northeast. Other positions were "Anne-Marie" to the northwest, "Beatrice" to the northeast, "Gabrielle" to the north and "Isabelle" four miles (6 km) to the south, covering the reserve airstrip. The choice of de Castries as the on-scene commander at Dien Bien Phu was, in retrospect, a bad one. Navarre had picked de Castries, a cavalry
Cavalry
Cavalry or horsemen were soldiers or warriors who fought mounted on horseback. Cavalry were historically the third oldest and the most mobile of the combat arms...

man in the 18th century tradition, because Navarre envisioned Dien Bien Phu as a mobile battle. In reality, Dien Bien Phu required someone adept at World War I-style trench warfare
Trench warfare
Trench warfare is a form of occupied fighting lines, consisting largely of trenches, in which troops are largely immune to the enemy's small arms fire and are substantially sheltered from artillery...

, something for which de Castries was not suited.Davidson, 199

The arrival of the 316th Viet Minh division prompted Cogny to order the evacuation of the Lai Chau garrison to Dien Bien Phu, exactly as Giap had anticipated. En route, they were virtually annihilated by the Viet Minh. "Of the 2,100 men who left Lai Chau on December 9, only 185 made it to Dien Bien Phu on December 22. The rest had been killed, captured or deserted
Desertion
In military terminology, desertion is the abandonment of a "duty" or post without permission and is done with the intention of not returning...

".Davidson, 203 The Viet Minh troops now converged on Dien Bien Phu.
The French had committed 10,800 troops, with more reinforcements totaling nearly 16,000 men, to the defense of a monsoon-affected valley surrounded by heavily wooded hills that had not been secured. Artillery as well as ten M24 Chaffee
M24 Chaffee
The Light Tank M24 was an American light tank used during World War II and in postwar conflicts including the Korean War and with the French in the War in Algeria and First Indochina War. In British service it was given the service name Chaffee, after the United States Army General Adna R...

 light tanks and numerous aircraft were committed to the garrison. The garrison comprised French regular troops (notably elite paratroop units plus artillery), Foreign Legionnaires
French Foreign Legion
The French Foreign Legion is a unique military service wing of the French Army established in 1831. The foreign legion was exclusively created for foreign nationals willing to serve in the French Armed Forces...

, Algerian and Moroccan tirailleur
Tirailleur
Tirailleur literally means a shooting skirmisher in French from tir—shot. The term dates back to the Napoleonic period where it was used to designate light infantry trained to skirmish ahead of the main columns...

s, and locally recruited Indochinese infantry.

All told, the Viet Minh had moved 50,000 regular troops into the hills surrounding the valley, totaling five divisions including the 351st Heavy Division, which was made up entirely of heavy artillery. Artillery and AA (anti-aircraft) guns, which outnumbered the French artillery by about four to one, were moved into camouflaged positions overlooking the valley. The French came under sporadic Viet Minh artillery fire for the first time on January 31, 1954, and French patrols encountered the Viet Minh in all directions. The battle had been joined, and the French were now surrounded.

Combat operations

Beatrice

The Viet Minh assault began in earnest on 13 March 1954 with an attack on outpost Beatrice. Viet Minh artillery opened a fierce bombardment of the fortification and French command was disrupted at 6:15 PM when a shell hit the French command post, killing Legionnaire commander Major Paul Pegot and his entire staff. A few minutes later, Colonel Jules Gaucher
Jules Gaucher
Jules Gaucher was a French Army officer noted for his command of Foreign Legion troops in Indochina. Described as a "burly, hard-drinking veteran of years of jungle fighting, with a nose like an axe-blade and a mouth like its cut", Gaucher was a popular commander among the Legion, known as 'the...

, commander of the entire northern sector, was also killed by Viet Minh artillery.

The Viet Minh 312th division then launched a massive infantry assault, using sapper
Sapper
A sapper, pioneer or combat engineer is a combatant soldier who performs a wide variety of combat engineering duties, typically including, but not limited to, bridge-building, laying or clearing minefields, demolitions, field defences, general construction and building, as well as road and airfield...

s to defeat French obstacles. French resistance at Beatrice collapsed shortly after midnight following a fierce battle. Roughly 500 French legionnaires were killed. Viet Minh losses totalled 600 dead and 1,200 wounded. The French launched a counter-attack against Beatrice the following morning, but it was quickly beaten back by Viet Minh artillery. Despite their losses, the victory at Beatrice "galvanized the morale" of the Viet Minh troops.

Much to French disbelief, the Viet Minh had employed direct artillery fire, in which each gun crew does its own artillery spotting (as opposed to indirect fire, in which guns are massed farther away from the target, out of direct line of sight, and rely on a forward artillery spotter). Indirect artillery, generally held as being far superior to direct fire, requires experienced, well-trained crews and good communications, which the Viet Minh lacked.Davidson, 227 Navarre wrote that "Under the influence of Chinese advisers, the Viet Minh commanders had used processes quite different from the classic methods. The artillery had been dug in by single pieces … They were installed in shell-proof dugouts, and fire point-blank from portholes … This way of using artillery and AA guns was possible only with the expansive ant holes at the disposal of the Vietminh and was to make shambles of all the estimates of our own artillerymen".Navarre, 225 The French artillery commander, Colonel Charles Piroth
Charles Piroth
Charles Piroth was a French Lieutenant Colonel and veteran of the Italian Campaign during the Second World War and more notably serving three tours in Vietnam during the First Indochina War. Piroth commanded the artillery of the French Dien Bien Phu garrison during the siege of the valley by the...

, distraught at his inability to bring counterfire on the well-camouflaged Viet Minh batteries, went into his dugout and committed suicide with a hand grenade
Hand grenade
A hand grenade is any small bomb that can be thrown by hand. Hand grenades are classified into three categories, explosive grenades, chemical and gas grenades. Explosive grenades are the most commonly used in modern warfare, and are designed to detonate after impact or after a set amount of time...

.
He was buried there in secret to prevent loss of morale among the French troops.

Gabrielle

Following a four-hour cease fire on the morning of March 14, Viet Minh artillery resumed pounding French positions. The air strip, already closed since 4:00 pm the day before due to a light bombardment, was now put permanently out of commission.Dien Bien Phu: the epic battle America forgot By Howard R. Simpson Any further French supplies would have to be delivered by parachute. That night, the Viet Minh launched an attack on Gabrielle, held by an elite Algeria
Algeria
Algeria , officially the People's Democratic Republic of Algeria , also formally referred to as the Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria, is a country in the Maghreb region of Northwest Africa with Algiers as its capital.In terms of land area, it is the largest country in Africa and the Arab...

n battalion. The attack began with a concentrated artillery barrage at 5:00 PM. Two regiments from the crack 308th division attacked starting at 8:00 PM. At 4:00 AM the following morning, an artillery shell hit the battalion headquarters, severely wounding the battalion commander and most of his staff.

De Castries ordered a counterattack to relieve Gabrielle. However, Colonel Pierre Langlais
Pierre Langlais
Pierre Charles Albert Marie Langlais was a French military officer who fought in World War II and Indochina. He is best known as the ad-hoc commander of the French garrison during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.-Early life:...

, in forming the counterattack, chose to rely on the 5th Vietnamese Parachute battalion, which had jumped in the day before and was exhausted. Although some elements of the counterattack reached Gabrielle, most were paralyzed by Viet Minh artillery and took heavy losses. At 8:00 AM the next day, the Algerian battalion fell back, abandoning Gabrielle to the Viet Minh. The French lost around 1,000 men defending Gabrielle, and the Viet Minh between 1,000 and 2,000 attacking the strongpoint.

Anne-Marie

Anne-Marie was defended by T'ai troops, members of a Vietnamese ethnic minority loyal to the French. For weeks, Giap had distributed subversive propaganda
Propaganda
Propaganda is a form of communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position so as to benefit oneself or one's group....

 leaflets, telling the T'ais that this was not their fight. The fall of Beatrice and Gabrielle had severely demoralized them. On the morning of March 17, under the cover of fog, the bulk of the T'ais left or defected. The French and the few remaining T'ais on Anne-Marie were then forced to withdraw.Davidson, 239

Lull

March 17 through March 30 saw a lull in fighting. The Viet Minh further tightened the noose around the French central area (formed by the strongpoints Huguette, Dominique, Claudine, and Eliane), effectively cutting off Isabelle and its 1,809 personnel.Fall, 279 During this lull, the French suffered from a serious crisis of command. "It had become painfully evident to the senior officers within the encircled garrison—and even to Cogny at Hanoi—that de Castries was incompetent to conduct the defense of Dien Bien Phu. Even more critical, after the fall of the northern outposts, he isolated himself in his bunker so that he had, in effect, relinquished his command authority". On March 17, Cogny attempted to fly into Dien Bien Phu and take command, but his plane was driven off by anti-aircraft fire. Cogny considered parachuting into the encircled garrison, but his staff talked him out of it.

De Castries' seclusion in his bunker, combined with his superiors' inability to replace him, created a leadership vacuum within the French command. On March 24, an event took place which would later become a matter of historical debate. Historian Bernard Fall records, based on Langlais' memoirs, that Colonel Langlais and his fellow paratroop commanders, all fully armed, confronted de Castries in his bunker on March 24. They told him that he would retain the appearance of command, but that Langlais would exercise it.Fall, 177 De Castries is said by Fall to have accepted the arrangement without protest, although he did exercise some command functions thereafter. Phillip B. Davidson states that "The truth would seem to be that Langlais did take over effective command of Dien Bien Phu, and that Castries became "commander emeritus" who transmitted messages to Hanoi and offered advise about matters in Dien Bien Phu".
The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was the climactic confrontation of the First Indochina War
First Indochina War
The First Indochina War was fought in French Indochina from December 19, 1946, until August 1, 1954, between the French Union's French Far East...

 between the French Union
French Union
The French Union was a political entity created by the French Fourth Republic to replace the old French colonial system, the "French Empire" and to abolish its "indigenous" status.-History:...

's French Far East Expeditionary Corps
French Far East Expeditionary Corps
The French Far East Expeditionary Corps was a colonial expeditionary force of the French Union Army sent in French Indochina in 1945 during the Pacific War.-Pacific War :...

 and Viet Minh
Viet Minh
Việt Minh was a national independence coalition formed at Pac Bo on May 19, 1941. The Việt Minh initially formed to seek independence for Vietnam from the French Empire. When the Japanese occupation began, the Việt Minh opposed Japan with support from the United States and the Republic of China...

 communist
Communism
Communism is a social, political and economic ideology that aims at the establishment of a classless, moneyless, revolutionary and stateless socialist society structured upon common ownership of the means of production...

 revolutionaries
Revolutionary
A revolutionary is a person who either actively participates in, or advocates revolution. Also, when used as an adjective, the term revolutionary refers to something that has a major, sudden impact on society or on some aspect of human endeavor.-Definition:...

. The battle occurred between March and May 1954 and culminated in a comprehensive French defeat that influenced negotiations over the future of Indochina
Indochina
The Indochinese peninsula, is a region in Southeast Asia. It lies roughly southwest of China, and east of India. The name has its origins in the French, Indochine, as a combination of the names of "China" and "India", and was adopted when French colonizers in Vietnam began expanding their territory...

 at Geneva. Military historian Martin Windrow
Martin Windrow
Martin C. Windrow is a British historian, editor and author of several hundred books, articles and monographs, particularly those on organizational or physical details of military history, and the history of the post-war French Foreign Legion...

 wrote that Dien Bien Phu was "the first time that a non-European colonial independence movement
Independence
Independence is a condition of a nation, country, or state in which its residents and population, or some portion thereof, exercise self-government, and usually sovereignty, over its territory....

 had evolved through all the stages from guerrilla bands
Guerrilla warfare
Guerrilla warfare is a form of irregular warfare and refers to conflicts in which a small group of combatants including, but not limited to, armed civilians use military tactics, such as ambushes, sabotage, raids, the element of surprise, and extraordinary mobility to harass a larger and...

 to a conventionally organized and equipped army able to defeat a modern Western occupier in pitched battle
Pitched battle
A pitched battle is a battle where both sides choose to fight at a chosen location and time and where either side has the option to disengage either before the battle starts, or shortly after the first armed exchanges....

".Quotation from Martin Windrow. Kenney, Michael. "British Historian Takes a Brilliant Look at French Fall in Vietnam". Boston Globe, January 4, 2005.

As a result of blunders in French decision-making, the French began an operation to support the soldiers at Dien Bien Phu
Dien Bien Phu
Điện Biên Phủ is a city in northwestern Vietnam. It is the capital of Dien Bien province, and is known for the events there during the First Indochina War, the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, during which the region was a breadbasket for the Việt Minh.-Population:...

, deep in the hills of northwestern Vietnam
Vietnam
Vietnam – sometimes spelled Viet Nam , officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam – is the easternmost country on the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia. It is bordered by China to the north, Laos to the northwest, Cambodia to the southwest, and the South China Sea –...

. Its purpose was to cut off Viet Minh supply lines into the neighboring Kingdom of Laos
Kingdom of Laos
The Kingdom of Laos was a sovereign state from 1953 until December 1975, when Pathet Lao overthrew the government and created the Lao People's Democratic Republic. Given self-rule in 1949 as part of a federation with the rest of French Indochina, the 1953 Franco-Lao Treaty finally established a...

, a French ally, and tactically draw the Viet Minh into a major confrontation that would cripple them. The Viet Minh, however, under Senior General
General
A general officer is an officer of high military rank, usually in the army, and in some nations, the air force. The term is widely used by many nations of the world, and when a country uses a different term, there is an equivalent title given....

 Vo Nguyen Giap
Vo Nguyen Giap
Võ Nguyên Giáp is a retired Vietnamese officer in the Vietnam People’s Army and a politician. He was a principal commander in two wars: the First Indochina War and the Vietnam War...

, surrounded and besieged
Siege
A siege is a military blockade of a city or fortress with the intent of conquering by attrition or assault. The term derives from sedere, Latin for "to sit". Generally speaking, siege warfare is a form of constant, low intensity conflict characterized by one party holding a strong, static...

 the French, who were unaware of the Viet Minh's possession of heavy artillery (including anti-aircraft guns
Anti-aircraft warfare
NATO defines air defence as "all measures designed to nullify or reduce the effectiveness of hostile air action." They include ground and air based weapon systems, associated sensor systems, command and control arrangements and passive measures. It may be to protect naval, ground and air forces...

) and their ability to move these weapons through difficult terrain to the mountain crests overlooking the French encampment. The Viet Minh occupied the highlands around Dien Bien Phu and bombarded French positions at will. Tenacious fighting on the ground ensued, reminiscent of the trench warfare
Trench warfare
Trench warfare is a form of occupied fighting lines, consisting largely of trenches, in which troops are largely immune to the enemy's small arms fire and are substantially sheltered from artillery...

 of World War I. The French repeatedly repulsed Viet Minh assaults on their positions. Supplies and reinforcements were delivered by air, though as the French positions were overrun and the anti-aircraft fire took its toll, fewer and fewer of those supplies reached them. The garrison was overrun after a two-month siege and most French forces surrendered. A few escaped to Laos. The French government resigned and the new President, the left of centre Pierre Mendès France, supported French withdrawal from Indochina.

The war ended shortly after the battle with the 1954 Geneva Accords
Geneva Conference (1954)
The Geneva Conference was a conference which took place in Geneva, Switzerland, whose purpose was to attempt to find a way to unify Korea and discuss the possibility of restoring peace in Indochina...

, under which France agreed to withdraw from its former Indochinese
French Indochina
French Indochina was part of the French colonial empire in southeast Asia. A federation of the three Vietnamese regions, Tonkin , Annam , and Cochinchina , as well as Cambodia, was formed in 1887....

 colonies. For the north, the French recognised the authority of Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh
Hồ Chí Minh , born Nguyễn Sinh Cung and also known as Nguyễn Ái Quốc, was a Vietnamese Marxist-Leninist revolutionary leader who was prime minister and president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam...

; for the south, elections would be held to determine its future. Those elections never took place - the Americans cancelled them. Julian Jackson
Julian T. Jackson
Julian T. Jackson is a prominent British historian. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Historical Society. Professor of History at Queen Mary, University of London Julian Jackson is one of the leading authorities on twentieth-century France.He was educated at the University of...

, The Other Empire, episode 4/5, BBC Radio Three, first broadcast, 15 September 2011
The accords partitioned Vietnam in two; fighting later broke out between opposing Vietnamese factions in 1959, resulting in the Vietnam (Second Indochina) War
Vietnam War
The Vietnam War was a Cold War-era military conflict that occurred in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1 November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. This war followed the First Indochina War and was fought between North Vietnam, supported by its communist allies, and the government of...

.

Background and preparations

By 1953, the First Indochina War
First Indochina War
The First Indochina War was fought in French Indochina from December 19, 1946, until August 1, 1954, between the French Union's French Far East...

 was not going well for France. A succession of commanders—Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque
Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque
Philippe François Marie, comte de Hauteclocque, then Leclerc de Hauteclocque, by a 1945 decree that incorporated his French Resistance alias Jacques-Philippe Leclerc to his name, , was a French general during World War II...

, Jean-Étienne Valluy
Jean-Étienne Valluy
Jean Etienne Valluy was a French general .He was born in Rive-de-Gier, Loire, on 15 May 1899 to Claude Valluy and Jeanne, Adrienne Cossanges. In 1917 he entered the military academy of Saint-Cyr...

, Roger Blaizot
Roger Blaizot
Roger Charles André Henri Blaizot was a French military leader, who commanded French forces during the World War II and the First Indochina War. Blaizot served in Indochina through the last two years of the World War II, having been sent to command the Far East French Expeditionary Forces by...

, Marcel Carpentier, Jean de Lattre de Tassigny
Jean de Lattre de Tassigny
Jean Joseph Marie Gabriel de Lattre de Tassigny, GCB, MC was a French military hero of World War II and commander in the First Indochina War.-Early life:...

, and Raoul Salan
Raoul Salan
Raoul Albin Louis Salan was a French Army general and the fourth French commanding general during the First Indochina War. Salan was one of four generals who organized the 1961 Algiers Putsch operation and then founded the Organisation de l'armée secrète....

—had proven incapable of suppressing the Viet Minh insurrection. During their 1952–53 campaign, the Viet Minh had overrun vast swathes of Laos, a French ally and Vietnam's western neighbor, advancing as far as Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang, or Louangphrabang , is a city located in north central Laos, where the Nam Khan river meets the Mekong River about north of Vientiane. It is the capital of Luang Prabang Province...

 and the Plain of Jars
Plain of Jars
The Plain of Jars is a megalithic archaeological landscape in Laos. Scattered in the landscape of the Xieng Khouang plateau Xieng Khouang, Lao PDR, are thousands of megalithic jars...

. The French were unable to slow the Viet Minh advance, and the Viet Minh fell back only after outrunning their always-tenuous supply lines. In 1953, the French had begun to strengthen their defenses in the Hanoi
Hanoi
Hanoi , is the capital of Vietnam and the country's second largest city. Its population in 2009 was estimated at 2.6 million for urban districts, 6.5 million for the metropolitan jurisdiction. From 1010 until 1802, it was the most important political centre of Vietnam...

 delta region to prepare for a series of offensives against Viet Minh staging area
Staging area
A staging area is a location where organisms, people, vehicles, equipment or material are assembled before use.- In construction :...

s in northwest Vietnam. They had set up fortified towns and outposts in the area, including Lai Chau
Lai Chau
Lai Châu is the capital town of Lai Chau province in the Northwest region of Vietnam....

 near the Chinese border to the north,Fall, 23 Na San to the west of Hanoi,Fall, 9 and the Plain of Jars
Plain of Jars
The Plain of Jars is a megalithic archaeological landscape in Laos. Scattered in the landscape of the Xieng Khouang plateau Xieng Khouang, Lao PDR, are thousands of megalithic jars...

 in northern Laos.Fall, 48

In May 1953, French Premier René Mayer
René Mayer
René Mayer was a French Radical politician of the Fourth Republic who served briefly as Prime Minister during 1953. He led the Mayer Authority from 1955 to 1958.-Mayer's Ministry, 8 January – 28 June 1953:*René Mayer – President of the Council...

 appointed Henri Navarre
Henri Navarre
Henri Eugène Navarre was a French Army general. He fought during World War I, World War II and was the seventh commander of French Far East Expeditionary Corps during the First Indochina War...

, a trusted colleague, to take command of French Union Forces in Indochina. Mayer had given Navarre a single order—to create military conditions that would lead to an "honorable political solution".According to military scholar Phillip Davidson
Phillip Davidson
Phillip Buford Davidson, Jr. was an American Lieutenant general, who served in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War....

,

On arrival, Navarre was shocked by what he found. There had been no long-range plan since de Lattre's departure. Everything was conducted on a day-to-day, reactive basis. Combat operations were undertaken only in response to enemy moves or threats. There was no comprehensive plan to develop the organization and build up the equipment of the Expeditionary force. Finally, Navarre, the intellectual, the cold and professional soldier, was shocked by the "school's out" attitude of Salan and his senior commanders and staff officers. They were going home, not as victors or heroes, but then, not as clear losers either. To them the important thing was that they were getting out of Indochina with their reputations frayed, but intact. They gave little thought to, or concern for, the problems of their successors.

Na San and the hedgehog concept

Simultaneously, Navarre had been searching for a way to stop the Viet Minh threat to Laos. Colonel Louis Berteil, commander of Mobile Group 7 and Navarre's main planner,Fall, 44 formulated the hérisson ("hedgehog") concept. The French army would establish a fortified airhead
Airhead
An airhead is a designated area in a hostile or threatened territory which, when seized and held, allows the air landing of further troops and material via an airbridge, and provides the maneuver and preparation space necessary for projected operations. Normally it is the area seized in the assault...

 by air-lifting soldiers adjacent to a key Viet Minh supply line to Laos.Davidson, 173 This would effectively cut off Viet Minh soldiers fighting in Laos and force them to withdraw. "It was an attempt to interdict the enemy's rear area, to stop the flow of supplies and reinforcements, to establish a redoubt in the enemy's rear and disrupt his lines".Bruce Kennedy. CNN Cold War Special: 1954 battle changed Vietnam's history

The hedgehog concept was based on French experiences at the Battle of Na San
Battle of Na San
The Battle of Nà Sản was fought between French Union forces and the communist forces of the Việt Minh at Nà Sản, Sơn La Province, during the First Indochina War for control of the T’ai region ....

. In late November and early December 1952, Giap attacked the French outpost at Na San, which was essentially an "air-land base", a fortified camp supplied only by air.Fall, 24 Giap's forces were beaten back repeatedly with very heavy losses. The French hoped that by repeating the strategy on a much larger scale, they would be able to lure Giap into committing the bulk of his forces in a massed assault. This would enable superior French artillery, armor, and air support to decimate the exposed Viet Minh forces. The experience at Na San convinced Navarre of the viability of the fortified airhead concept.

French staff officers disastrously failed to treat seriously several crucial differences between Dien Bien Phu and Na San. At Na San, the French commanded most of the high ground with overwhelming artillery support.Davidson, 147 At Dien Bien Phu, however, the Viet Minh controlled much of the high ground around the valley, their artillery far exceeded French expectations and they outnumbered the French four-to-one. Giap compared Dien Bien Phu to a "rice bowl", where his troops occupied the edge and the French the bottom. Second, Giap made a mistake in Na San by committing his forces into reckless frontal attacks before being fully prepared. At Dien Bien Phu, Giap would spend months meticulously stockpiling ammunition and emplacing heavy artillery and anti-aircraft guns before making his move. Teams of Viet Minh volunteers were sent into the French camp to scout the disposition of the French artillery. Wooden artillery pieces were built as decoys and the real guns were rotated every few salvos to confuse French counterbattery fire. As a result, when the battle finally began, the Viet Minh knew exactly where the French artillery were, while the French were not even aware of how many guns Giap possessed. Third, the aerial resupply lines at Na San were never severed, despite Viet Minh anti-aircraft fire. At Dien Bien Phu, Giap amassed anti-aircraft batteries that quickly shut down the runway and made it extremely difficult and costly for the French to bring in reinforcements.

Lead up to Castor

In June, Major General
Major General
Major general or major-general is a military rank used in many countries. It is derived from the older rank of sergeant major general. A major general is a high-ranking officer, normally subordinate to the rank of lieutenant general and senior to the ranks of brigadier and brigadier general...

 René Cogny
René Cogny
René Cogny was a French Général de division, World War II and French Resistance veteran and survivor of Buchenwald and Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camps. He was a commander of the French forces in Tonkin during the First Indochina War, and notably during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu...

, commander of the Tonkin
Tonkin
Tonkin , also spelled Tongkin, Tonquin or Tongking, is the northernmost part of Vietnam, south of China's Yunnan and Guangxi Provinces, east of northern Laos, and west of the Gulf of Tonkin. Locally, it is known as Bắc Kỳ, meaning "Northern Region"...

 Delta, proposed Dien Bien Phu, which had an old airstrip built by the Japanese during World War II, as a "mooring point".Davidson, 182 In another misunderstanding, Cogny had envisioned a lightly defended point from which to launch raids; however, to Navarre, this meant a heavily fortified base capable of withstanding a siege. Navarre selected Dien Bien Phu for the location of Berteil's "hedgehog" operation. When presented with the plan, every major subordinate officer protested; Colonel Jean-Louis Nicot
Jean-Louis Nicot
Jean-Louis Nicot was the commander of the French Air transport fleet during the First Indochina War. He was later sent to prison for his involvement in the Algiers putsch.-Biography:...

, (commander of the French Air transport fleet), Cogny, and generals Jean Gilles and Jean Dechaux (the ground and air commanders for Operation Castor, the initial airborne assault on Dien Bien Phu). Cogny pointed out, presciently, that "we are running the risk of a new Na San
Battle of Na San
The Battle of Nà Sản was fought between French Union forces and the communist forces of the Việt Minh at Nà Sản, Sơn La Province, during the First Indochina War for control of the T’ai region ....

 under worse conditions".Roy, 21 Navarre rejected the criticisms of his proposal and concluded a November 17 conference by declaring that the operation would commence three days later, on November 20, 1953.Roy, 33Davidson, 184

Navarre decided to go ahead with the operation, despite operational difficulties which would later become painfully obvious (but at the time may have been less apparent)Windrow, p211, 212, 228, 275 because he had been repeatedly assured by his intelligence officers that the operation had very little risk of involvement by a strong enemy force.Davidson, 189 Navarre had previously considered three other ways to defend Laos: mobile warfare
Maneuver warfare
Maneuver warfare, or manoeuvre warfare , is the term used by military theorists for a concept of warfare that advocates attempting to defeat an adversary by incapacitating their decision-making through shock and disruption brought about by movement...

, which was impossible given the terrain in Vietnam; a static defense line stretching to Laos, which was not executable given the number of troops at Navarres disposal; or placing troops in the Laotian provincial capitals and supplying them by air, which was unworkable due to the distance from Hanoi
Hanoi
Hanoi , is the capital of Vietnam and the country's second largest city. Its population in 2009 was estimated at 2.6 million for urban districts, 6.5 million for the metropolitan jurisdiction. From 1010 until 1802, it was the most important political centre of Vietnam...

 to Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang, or Louangphrabang , is a city located in north central Laos, where the Nam Khan river meets the Mekong River about north of Vientiane. It is the capital of Luang Prabang Province...

 and Vientiane
Vientiane
-Geography:Vientiane is situated on a bend of the Mekong river, which forms the border with Thailand at this point.-Climate:Vientiane features a tropical wet and dry climate with a distinct monsoon season and a dry season. Vientiane’s dry season spans from November through March. April marks the...

.Davidson, 186 Thus, the only option left to Navarre was the hedgehog, which he characterized as "a mediocre solution."Davidson, 187

In a twist of fate, the French National Defense Committee ultimately agreed that Navarre's responsibility did not include defending Laos. However, their decision (which was drawn up on November 13) was not delivered to him until December 4, two weeks after the Dien Bien Phu operation began.

Establishment of the airhead

Operations at Dien Bien Phu began at 10:35 on the morning of November 20, 1953. In Operation Castor, the French dropped or flew 9,000 troops into the area over three days. They were landed at three drop zones: Natasha, northwest of ; Octavie, southwest of Dien Bien Phu; and Simone, southeast of Dien Bien Phu.Davidson, 194

The Viet Minh elite 148th Independent Infantry Regiment, headquartered at Dien Bien Phu, reacted "instantly and effectively"; three of their four battalions, however, were absent that day.Davidson, 193 Initial operations proceeded well for the French. By the end of November, six parachute battalions had been landed and the French were consolidating their positions.

It was at this time that Giap began his counter-moves. Giap had expected an attack, but could not foresee when or where it would occur. Giap realized that, if pressed, the French would abandon Lai Chau Province and fight a pitched battle
Pitched battle
A pitched battle is a battle where both sides choose to fight at a chosen location and time and where either side has the option to disengage either before the battle starts, or shortly after the first armed exchanges....

 at Dien Bien Phu. On November 24, Giap ordered the 148th Infantry Regiment and the 316th division to attack Lai Chau, while the 308th
308 Division (Vietnam)
The 308th Division is an infantry division of the People's Army of Vietnam, first formed in 1948-49.As early as January 1947, the first regiment of the PAVN, the 308 'Capital' Regiment, was created for operations around Hanoi...

, 312th, and 351st divisions assault Dien Bien Phu from Việt Bắc
Viet Bac
Việt Bắc is a region of Vietnam north of Hanoi that served as the Viet Minh's base of support during the First Indochina War ....

.

Starting in December, the French, under the command of Colonel Christian de Castries
Christian de Castries
Christian Marie Ferdinand de la Croix de Castries was the French commander at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Castries was born into a distinguished military family and enlisted in the army at the age of 19. He was sent to the Saumur Cavalry School and in 1926 was commissioned an officer but...

, began transforming their anchoring point into a fortress by setting up seven positions, each allegedly named after a former mistress of de Castries, although the allegation is probably unfounded, as the names simply begin with the first eight letters of the alphabet. The fortified headquarters was centrally located, with positions "Huguette" to the west, "Claudine" to the south, and "Dominique" to the northeast. Other positions were "Anne-Marie" to the northwest, "Beatrice" to the northeast, "Gabrielle" to the north and "Isabelle" four miles (6 km) to the south, covering the reserve airstrip. The choice of de Castries as the on-scene commander at Dien Bien Phu was, in retrospect, a bad one. Navarre had picked de Castries, a cavalry
Cavalry
Cavalry or horsemen were soldiers or warriors who fought mounted on horseback. Cavalry were historically the third oldest and the most mobile of the combat arms...

man in the 18th century tradition, because Navarre envisioned Dien Bien Phu as a mobile battle. In reality, Dien Bien Phu required someone adept at World War I-style trench warfare
Trench warfare
Trench warfare is a form of occupied fighting lines, consisting largely of trenches, in which troops are largely immune to the enemy's small arms fire and are substantially sheltered from artillery...

, something for which de Castries was not suited.Davidson, 199

The arrival of the 316th Viet Minh division prompted Cogny to order the evacuation of the Lai Chau garrison to Dien Bien Phu, exactly as Giap had anticipated. En route, they were virtually annihilated by the Viet Minh. "Of the 2,100 men who left Lai Chau on December 9, only 185 made it to Dien Bien Phu on December 22. The rest had been killed, captured or deserted
Desertion
In military terminology, desertion is the abandonment of a "duty" or post without permission and is done with the intention of not returning...

".Davidson, 203 The Viet Minh troops now converged on Dien Bien Phu.
The French had committed 10,800 troops, with more reinforcements totaling nearly 16,000 men, to the defense of a monsoon-affected valley surrounded by heavily wooded hills that had not been secured. Artillery as well as ten M24 Chaffee
M24 Chaffee
The Light Tank M24 was an American light tank used during World War II and in postwar conflicts including the Korean War and with the French in the War in Algeria and First Indochina War. In British service it was given the service name Chaffee, after the United States Army General Adna R...

 light tanks and numerous aircraft were committed to the garrison. The garrison comprised French regular troops (notably elite paratroop units plus artillery), Foreign Legionnaires
French Foreign Legion
The French Foreign Legion is a unique military service wing of the French Army established in 1831. The foreign legion was exclusively created for foreign nationals willing to serve in the French Armed Forces...

, Algerian and Moroccan tirailleur
Tirailleur
Tirailleur literally means a shooting skirmisher in French from tir—shot. The term dates back to the Napoleonic period where it was used to designate light infantry trained to skirmish ahead of the main columns...

s, and locally recruited Indochinese infantry.

All told, the Viet Minh had moved 50,000 regular troops into the hills surrounding the valley, totaling five divisions including the 351st Heavy Division, which was made up entirely of heavy artillery. Artillery and AA (anti-aircraft) guns, which outnumbered the French artillery by about four to one, were moved into camouflaged positions overlooking the valley. The French came under sporadic Viet Minh artillery fire for the first time on January 31, 1954, and French patrols encountered the Viet Minh in all directions. The battle had been joined, and the French were now surrounded.

Combat operations

Beatrice

The Viet Minh assault began in earnest on 13 March 1954 with an attack on outpost Beatrice. Viet Minh artillery opened a fierce bombardment of the fortification and French command was disrupted at 6:15 PM when a shell hit the French command post, killing Legionnaire commander Major Paul Pegot and his entire staff. A few minutes later, Colonel Jules Gaucher
Jules Gaucher
Jules Gaucher was a French Army officer noted for his command of Foreign Legion troops in Indochina. Described as a "burly, hard-drinking veteran of years of jungle fighting, with a nose like an axe-blade and a mouth like its cut", Gaucher was a popular commander among the Legion, known as 'the...

, commander of the entire northern sector, was also killed by Viet Minh artillery.

The Viet Minh 312th division then launched a massive infantry assault, using sapper
Sapper
A sapper, pioneer or combat engineer is a combatant soldier who performs a wide variety of combat engineering duties, typically including, but not limited to, bridge-building, laying or clearing minefields, demolitions, field defences, general construction and building, as well as road and airfield...

s to defeat French obstacles. French resistance at Beatrice collapsed shortly after midnight following a fierce battle. Roughly 500 French legionnaires were killed. Viet Minh losses totalled 600 dead and 1,200 wounded. The French launched a counter-attack against Beatrice the following morning, but it was quickly beaten back by Viet Minh artillery. Despite their losses, the victory at Beatrice "galvanized the morale" of the Viet Minh troops.

Much to French disbelief, the Viet Minh had employed direct artillery fire, in which each gun crew does its own artillery spotting (as opposed to indirect fire, in which guns are massed farther away from the target, out of direct line of sight, and rely on a forward artillery spotter). Indirect artillery, generally held as being far superior to direct fire, requires experienced, well-trained crews and good communications, which the Viet Minh lacked.Davidson, 227 Navarre wrote that "Under the influence of Chinese advisers, the Viet Minh commanders had used processes quite different from the classic methods. The artillery had been dug in by single pieces … They were installed in shell-proof dugouts, and fire point-blank from portholes … This way of using artillery and AA guns was possible only with the expansive ant holes at the disposal of the Vietminh and was to make shambles of all the estimates of our own artillerymen".Navarre, 225 The French artillery commander, Colonel Charles Piroth
Charles Piroth
Charles Piroth was a French Lieutenant Colonel and veteran of the Italian Campaign during the Second World War and more notably serving three tours in Vietnam during the First Indochina War. Piroth commanded the artillery of the French Dien Bien Phu garrison during the siege of the valley by the...

, distraught at his inability to bring counterfire on the well-camouflaged Viet Minh batteries, went into his dugout and committed suicide with a hand grenade
Hand grenade
A hand grenade is any small bomb that can be thrown by hand. Hand grenades are classified into three categories, explosive grenades, chemical and gas grenades. Explosive grenades are the most commonly used in modern warfare, and are designed to detonate after impact or after a set amount of time...

.
He was buried there in secret to prevent loss of morale among the French troops.

Gabrielle

Following a four-hour cease fire on the morning of March 14, Viet Minh artillery resumed pounding French positions. The air strip, already closed since 4:00 pm the day before due to a light bombardment, was now put permanently out of commission.Dien Bien Phu: the epic battle America forgot By Howard R. Simpson Any further French supplies would have to be delivered by parachute. That night, the Viet Minh launched an attack on Gabrielle, held by an elite Algeria
Algeria
Algeria , officially the People's Democratic Republic of Algeria , also formally referred to as the Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria, is a country in the Maghreb region of Northwest Africa with Algiers as its capital.In terms of land area, it is the largest country in Africa and the Arab...

n battalion. The attack began with a concentrated artillery barrage at 5:00 PM. Two regiments from the crack 308th division attacked starting at 8:00 PM. At 4:00 AM the following morning, an artillery shell hit the battalion headquarters, severely wounding the battalion commander and most of his staff.

De Castries ordered a counterattack to relieve Gabrielle. However, Colonel Pierre Langlais
Pierre Langlais
Pierre Charles Albert Marie Langlais was a French military officer who fought in World War II and Indochina. He is best known as the ad-hoc commander of the French garrison during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.-Early life:...

, in forming the counterattack, chose to rely on the 5th Vietnamese Parachute battalion, which had jumped in the day before and was exhausted. Although some elements of the counterattack reached Gabrielle, most were paralyzed by Viet Minh artillery and took heavy losses. At 8:00 AM the next day, the Algerian battalion fell back, abandoning Gabrielle to the Viet Minh. The French lost around 1,000 men defending Gabrielle, and the Viet Minh between 1,000 and 2,000 attacking the strongpoint.

Anne-Marie

Anne-Marie was defended by T'ai troops, members of a Vietnamese ethnic minority loyal to the French. For weeks, Giap had distributed subversive propaganda
Propaganda
Propaganda is a form of communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position so as to benefit oneself or one's group....

 leaflets, telling the T'ais that this was not their fight. The fall of Beatrice and Gabrielle had severely demoralized them. On the morning of March 17, under the cover of fog, the bulk of the T'ais left or defected. The French and the few remaining T'ais on Anne-Marie were then forced to withdraw.Davidson, 239

Lull

March 17 through March 30 saw a lull in fighting. The Viet Minh further tightened the noose around the French central area (formed by the strongpoints Huguette, Dominique, Claudine, and Eliane), effectively cutting off Isabelle and its 1,809 personnel.Fall, 279 During this lull, the French suffered from a serious crisis of command. "It had become painfully evident to the senior officers within the encircled garrison—and even to Cogny at Hanoi—that de Castries was incompetent to conduct the defense of Dien Bien Phu. Even more critical, after the fall of the northern outposts, he isolated himself in his bunker so that he had, in effect, relinquished his command authority". On March 17, Cogny attempted to fly into Dien Bien Phu and take command, but his plane was driven off by anti-aircraft fire. Cogny considered parachuting into the encircled garrison, but his staff talked him out of it.

De Castries' seclusion in his bunker, combined with his superiors' inability to replace him, created a leadership vacuum within the French command. On March 24, an event took place which would later become a matter of historical debate. Historian Bernard Fall records, based on Langlais' memoirs, that Colonel Langlais and his fellow paratroop commanders, all fully armed, confronted de Castries in his bunker on March 24. They told him that he would retain the appearance of command, but that Langlais would exercise it.Fall, 177 De Castries is said by Fall to have accepted the arrangement without protest, although he did exercise some command functions thereafter. Phillip B. Davidson states that "The truth would seem to be that Langlais did take over effective command of Dien Bien Phu, and that Castries became "commander emeritus" who transmitted messages to Hanoi and offered advise about matters in Dien Bien Phu".Davidson, 243 Jules Roy
Jules Roy
Jules Roy was a French writer. "Prolific and polemical" Roy, born an Algerian pied noir and sent to a Roman Catholic seminary, used his experiences as the French colony and during his service in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War to inspire a number of his words...

, however, makes no mention of this event, and Martin Windrow
Martin Windrow
Martin C. Windrow is a British historian, editor and author of several hundred books, articles and monographs, particularly those on organizational or physical details of military history, and the history of the post-war French Foreign Legion...

 argues that the "paratrooper putsch" is unlikely to have happened. Both historians record that Langlais and Marcel Bigeard
Marcel Bigeard
Marcel "Bruno" Bigeard was a French military officer who fought in World War II, Indochina and Algeria. He was one of the commanders in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and is thought by many to have been a dominating influence on French 'unconventional' warfare thinking from that time onwards...

 were known to be on good relations with their commanding officer.Windrow, p. 441-444.

The French aerial resupply took heavy losses from Viet Minh machine guns near the landing strip. On March 27, Hanoi air transport commander Nicot ordered that all supply deliveries be made from 6500 feet (1,981.2 m) or higher; losses were expected to remain heavy.Davidson, 244 De Castries ordered an attack against the Viet Minh machine guns two miles (3 km) west of Dien Bien Phu. Remarkably, the attack was a complete success, with 350 Viet Minh soldiers killed and seventeen AA machine guns destroyed, while the French lost 20.Davidson, 244–245

March 30 – April 5 assaults

The next phase of the battle saw more massed Viet Minh assaults against French positions in the central Dien Bien Phu area – at Eliane and Dominique in particular. Those two areas were held by five understrength battalions, composed of a mixture of Frenchmen, Legionnaires, Vietnamese, Africans, and T'ais.Davidson, 245 Giap planned to use the tactics from the Beatrice and Gabrielle skirmishes.

At 7:00 PM on March 30, the Viet Minh 312th division captured Dominique 1 and 2, making Dominique 3 the final outpost between the Viet Minh and the French general headquarters, as well as outflanking all positions east of the river. At this point, the French 4th colonial artillery regiment entered the fight, setting its 105 mm howitzers to zero elevation and firing directly on the Viet Minh attackers, blasting huge holes in their ranks. Another group of French, near the airfield, opened fire on the Viet Minh with anti-aircraft machine guns, forcing the Viet Minh to retreat.

The Viet Minh were more successful in their simultaneous attacks elsewhere. The 316th division captured Eliane 1 from its Moroccan defenders, and half of Eliane 2 by midnight. On the other side of Dien Bien Phu, the 308th attacked Huguette 7, and nearly succeeded in breaking through, but a French sergeant took charge of the defenders and sealed the breach.

Just after midnight on the 31st, the French launched a fierce counterattack against Eliane 2, and recaptured half of it. Langlais ordered another counterattack the following afternoon against Dominique 2 and Eliane 1, using virtually "everybody left in the garrison who could be trusted to fight". The counterattacks allowed the French to retake Dominique 2 and Eliane 1, but the Viet Minh launched their own renewed assault. The French, who were exhausted and without reserves, fell back from both positions late in the afternoon.Davidson, 248 Reinforcements were sent north from Isabelle, but were attacked en route and fell back to Isabelle.
Shortly after dark on the 31st, Langlais told Major Marcel Bigeard
Marcel Bigeard
Marcel "Bruno" Bigeard was a French military officer who fought in World War II, Indochina and Algeria. He was one of the commanders in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and is thought by many to have been a dominating influence on French 'unconventional' warfare thinking from that time onwards...

, who was leading the defense at Eliane, to fall back across the river. Bigeard refused, saying "As long as I have one man alive I won't let go of Eliane 4. Otherwise, Dien Bien Phu is done for". The night of the 31st, the 316th division attacked Eliane 2. Just as it appeared, the French were about to be overrun, a few French tanks arrived, and helped push the Viet Minh back. Smaller attacks on Eliane 4 were also pushed back. The Viet Minh briefly captured Huguette 7, only to be pushed back by a French counterattack at dawn on the 1st.

Fighting continued in this manner over the next several nights. The Viet Minh repeatedly attacked Eliane 2, only to be beaten back. Repeated attempts to reinforce the French garrison by parachute drops were made, but had to be carried out by lone planes at irregular times to avoid excessive casualties from Viet Minh anti-aircraft fire. Some reinforcements did arrive, but not nearly enough to replace French casualties.

Trench warfare

On April 5, after a long night of battle, French fighter-bombers and artillery inflicted particularly devastating losses on one Viet Minh regiment which was caught on open ground. At that point, Giap decided to change tactics. Although Giap still had the same objective – to overrun French defenses east of the river – he decided to employ entrenchment and sapping
Trench warfare
Trench warfare is a form of occupied fighting lines, consisting largely of trenches, in which troops are largely immune to the enemy's small arms fire and are substantially sheltered from artillery...

 to try to achieve it.Davidson, 254–255

April 10 saw the French attempt to retake Eliane 1. The loss of Eliane 1 eleven days earlier had posed a significant threat to Eliane 4, and the French wanted to eliminate that threat. The dawn attack, which Bigeard devised, was preceded by a short, massive artillery barrage, followed by small unit infiltration attacks, followed by mopping-up operations. Eliane 1 changed hands several times that day, but by the next morning the French had control of the strongpoint. The Viet Minh attempted to retake it on the evening of April 12, but were pushed back.Davidson, 265

At this point, the morale of the Viet Minh soldiers was greatly lowered. During the stalemate, the French intercepted enemy radio messages which told of whole units refusing orders to attack, and Communist prisoners said that they were told to advance or be shot by the officers and noncommissioned officers behind them.Davidson, 256 Worse still, the Viet Minh lacked advanced medical care, with one stating that "Nothing strikes at combat morale like the knowledge that if wounded, the soldier will go uncared for".Davidson, 257 To avert the crisis, Giap called in fresh reinforcements from Laos.

During the fighting at Eliane 1, on the other side of camp, the Viet Minh entrenchments had almost entirely surrounded Huguette 1 and 6. On April 11, the garrison of Huguette 1 attacked, and was joined by artillery from the garrison of Claudine. The goal was to resupply Huguette 6 with water and ammunition. The attacks were repeated on the nights of the 14–15th and 16–17th. While they did succeed in getting some supplies through, the French suffered heavy casualties, which convinced Langlais to abandon Huguette 6. Following a failed attempt to link up, on April 18, the defenders at Huguette 6 made a daring break out, but only a few managed to make it to French lines.Davidson, 258Fall, 260 The Viet Minh repeated the isolation and probing attacks against Huguette 1, and overran the fort on the morning of April 22. With the fall of Huguette 1, the Viet Minh took control of more than 90% of the airfield, making accurate parachute drops impossible.Fall, 270 This caused the landing zone to become perilously small, and effectively choked off much needed supplies.Davidson, 259 A French attack against Huguette 1 later that day was repulsed.

Isabelle

Isabelle saw only desultory action until March 30, when the Viet Minh succeeded in isolating it and beating back the attempt to send reinforcements north. Following a massive artillery barrage against Isabelle on March 30, the Viet Minh began employing the same trench warfare tactics against Isabelle that they were using against the central camp. By the end of April, Isabelle had exhausted its water supply and was nearly out of ammunition.Davidson, 260

Final attacks

The Viet Minh launched a massed assault against the exhausted defenders on the night of May 1, overrunning Eliane 1, Dominique 3, and Huguette 5, although the French managed to beat back attacks on Eliane 2. On May 6, the Viet Minh launched another massed attack against Eliane 2. The attack included, for the first time, Katyusha rockets. The French also used an innovation. The French artillery fired with a "TOT" (Time On Target
Time On Target
Time On Target is the military co-ordination of artillery fire by many weapons so that all the munitions arrive at the target at precisely the same time. The military standard is plus or minus three seconds from the prescribed time of impact. In terms of place, the historical standard was for the...

) attack, so that artillery rounds fired from different positions would strike on target at the same time.Davidson, 261 This barrage defeated the first assault wave. A few hours later that night, the Viet Minh detonated a mine shaft, blowing Eliane 2 up. The Viet Minh attacked again, and within a few hours had overrun the defenders.Davidson, 262

On May 7, Giap ordered an all out attack against the remaining French units with over 25,000 Viet Minh against fewer than 3,000 garrison troops. At 5:00 PM, de Castries radioed French headquarters in Hanoi and talked with Cogny.
By nightfall, all French central positions had been captured. The last radio transmission from the French headquarters reported that enemy troops were directly outside the headquarters bunker and that all the positions have been overrun. The radio operator in his last words stated: "The enemy has overrun us. We are blowing up everything. Vive la France!" That night the garrison made a breakout attempt, in the Camerone tradition. While some of the main body managed to break out, none succeeded in escaping the valley. However at Isabelle, a similar attempt later the same night saw about 70 troops, of 1,700 men in the garrison, escape to Laos.Davidson, 269

Prisoners

On May 8, the Viet Minh counted 11,721 prisoners, of whom 4,436 were wounded. This was the greatest number the Viet Minh had ever captured: one-third of the total captured during the entire war. The prisoners were divided into groups. Able-bodied soldiers were force-marched over 250 miles (402.3 km) to prison camps to the north and east, where they were intermingled with Viet Minh soldiers to discourage French bombing runs.Fall, 429 Hundreds died of disease on the way. The wounded were given basic first aid until the Red Cross arrived, removed 858, and provided better aid to the remainder. Those wounded who were not evacuated by the Red Cross were sent into detention.The Long March. Dienbienphu.org, Retrieved on January 12, 2009

The prisoners, French survivors of the battle at Dien Bien Phu, were starved, beaten, and heaped with abuse, and many died. Of 10,863 survivors held as prisoners, only 3,290 were officially repatriated four months later.
However, the losses figure may include the 3,013 prisoners of Vietnamese origin whose eventual fate is unknown.Jean-Jacques Arzalier, Les Pertes Humaines, 1954–2004: La Bataille de Dien Bien Phu, entre Histoire et Mémoire, Société française d'histoire d'outre-mer, 2004

Political ramifications

The garrison constituted roughly a tenth of the total French Union manpower in Indochina."The French Far East Expeditionary Corps
French Far East Expeditionary Corps
The French Far East Expeditionary Corps was a colonial expeditionary force of the French Union Army sent in French Indochina in 1945 during the Pacific War.-Pacific War :...

 numbered 175,000 soldiers" – Davidson, 163
The defeat seriously weakened the position and prestige of the French as previously planned negotiations over the future of Indochina began.

The Geneva Conference (1954)
Geneva Conference (1954)
The Geneva Conference was a conference which took place in Geneva, Switzerland, whose purpose was to attempt to find a way to unify Korea and discuss the possibility of restoring peace in Indochina...

 opened on May 8, [The conference opened n 26 April, discussed Korea, and reached the second agenda item, Indo-China, on 8 May] the day after the surrender of the garrison. Ho Chi Minh entered the conference on the opening day with the news of his troops' victory in the headlines. The resulting agreement temporarily partitioned Vietnam into two zones: the North was administered by the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam
North Vietnam
The Democratic Republic of Vietnam , was a communist state that ruled the northern half of Vietnam from 1954 until 1976 following the Geneva Conference and laid claim to all of Vietnam from 1945 to 1954 during the First Indochina War, during which they controlled pockets of territory throughout...

 while the South was administered by the French-supported State of Vietnam
State of Vietnam
The State of Vietnam was a state that claimed authority over all of Vietnam during the First Indochina War, and replaced the Provisional Central Government of Vietnam . The provisional government was a brief transitional administration between colonial Cochinchina and an independent state...

. The last units of the French Union forces withdrew from Indochina in 1956. This partition was supposed to be temporary, and the two zones were meant to be reunited through national elections in 1956. After the French withdrawal, the United States supported the southern government, under Emperor Bao Dai
Bao Dai
Bảo Đại , born Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh Thụy , was the 13th and last ruler of the Nguyễn dynasty. From 1926 to 1945, he was king of Annam under French ‘protection’. During this period, Annam was a protectorate within French Indochina, covering the central two-thirds of the present-day Vietnam...

 and Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem
Ngo Dinh Diem
Ngô Đình Diệm was the first president of South Vietnam . In the wake of the French withdrawal from Indochina as a result of the 1954 Geneva Accords, Diệm led the effort to create the Republic of Vietnam. Accruing considerable U.S. support due to his staunch anti-Communism, he achieved victory in a...

, which opposed the Geneva agreement, and which claimed that Ho Chi Minh's forces from the North had been killing Northern patriots and terrorizing people both in the North and the South. The North was supported by both communist China and the Soviet Union
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....

. This arrangement proved tenuous and would escalate into the Vietnam War (Second Indochina War), eventually bringing 500,000 American troops into South Vietnam.

France's defeat in Indochina, coupled with the German destruction of her armies just 14 years earlier, seriously damaged its prestige elsewhere in its colonial empire, as well as with its NATO allies, most importantly, the United States. Within her empire, the defeat in Indochina served to spur independence movements in other colonies, notably the North African territories from which many of the troops who fought at Dien Bien Phu had been recruited. In 1954, six months after the battle at Dien Bien Phu ended, the Algerian War started, and by 1956 both Moroccan and Tunisian protectorates had gained independence. A French board of inquiry, the Catroux Commission
Catroux Commission
The Catroux Commission was an inquiry by the French government into the French defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Georges Catroux presided over the commission...

, would later investigate the defeat.

The battle was depicted in Dien Bien Phu
Dien Bien Phu (film)
Diên Biên Phu is a 1992 film written and directed by French veteran Pierre Schoendoerffer. With its huge budget, all-star cast, and realistic war scenes produced with the cooperation of the French and Vietnamese armies, Dîen Bîen Phu is regarded by many as one of the more important war movies...

, a 1992 docudrama film—with several autobiographical parts—in conjunction with the Vietnamese army by Dien Bien Phu veteran French director Pierre Schoendoerffer
Pierre Schoendoerffer
Pierre Schoendoerffer is a French film director, a screenwriter, a writer, a war reporter, a war cameraman, a renowned First Indochina War veteran, a cinema academician and since 2001 the President of the Académie des Beaux-Arts.-Family:...

.

American participation

According to the Mutual Defense Assistance Act
Mutual Defense Assistance Act
The Mutual Defense Assistance Act was a United States Act of Congress signed by President Harry S. Truman on 6 October 1949. For US Foreign policy, it was the first U.S. military foreign aid legislation of the Cold War era, and initially to Europe...

, the United States provided the French with material aid during the battle – aircraft (supplied by the ), weapons, mechanics, 24 CIA
Central Intelligence Agency
The Central Intelligence Agency is a civilian intelligence agency of the United States government. It is an executive agency and reports directly to the Director of National Intelligence, responsible for providing national security intelligence assessment to senior United States policymakers...

/CAT
Civil Air Transport
Civil Air Transport was a Chinese airline, later owned by the CIA, that supported United States covert operations throughout East and Southeast Asia...

 pilots, and U.S. Air Force maintenance crews. The United States, however, intentionally avoided overt direct intervention. In February 1954, following the French occupation of Dien Bien Phu but prior to the battle, Democratic senator Mike Mansfield
Mike Mansfield
Michael Joseph Mansfield was an American Democratic politician and the longest-serving Majority Leader of the United States Senate, serving from 1961 to 1977. He also served as United States Ambassador to Japan for over ten years...

 asked United States Defense Secretary Charles Erwin Wilson
Charles Erwin Wilson
Charles Erwin Wilson , American businessman and politician, was United States Secretary of Defense from 1953 to 1957 under President Eisenhower. Known as "Engine Charlie", he previously worked as CEO for General Motors. In the wake of the Korean War, he cut the defense budget significantly.-Early...

 whether the United States would send naval or air units if the French were subjected to greater pressure there, but Wilson replied that "for the moment there is no justification for raising United States aid above its present level". President Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dwight David "Ike" Eisenhower was the 34th President of the United States, from 1953 until 1961. He was a five-star general in the United States Army...

 also stated, "Nobody is more opposed to intervention than I am". On March 31, following the fall of Beatrice, Gabrielle, and Anne-Marie, a panel of U.S. Senators and House Representatives questioned the American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is by law the highest ranking military officer in the United States Armed Forces, and is the principal military adviser to the President of the United States, the National Security Council, the Homeland Security Council and the Secretary of Defense...

, Admiral Arthur W. Radford
Arthur W. Radford
Arthur William Radford was a United States Navy Admiral, Commander-in-Chief of the United States Pacific Command and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.Arthur Radford was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1896...

, about the possibility of American involvement. Radford concluded that it was too late for the U.S. Air Force to save the French garrison. A proposal for direct intervention was unanimously voted down by the panel, which "concluded that intervention was a positive act of war
Casus belli
is a Latin expression meaning the justification for acts of war. means "incident", "rupture" or indeed "case", while means bellic...

".Roy, 211

The United States did covertly participate in the battle. Following a request for help from Henri Navarre, Radford provided two squadrons of B-26 Invader
A-26 Invader
The Douglas A-26 Invader was a United States twin-engined light attack bomber built by the Douglas Aircraft Co. during World War II that also saw service during several of the Cold War's major conflicts...

 bomber aircraft to support the French. Subsequently, 37 American transport pilots flew 682 sorties over the course of the battle. Earlier, in order to succeed the pre-Dien Bien Phu Operation Castor
Operation Castor
Opération Castor was a French airborne operation in the First Indochina War. The operation established a fortified airhead in Dien Bien Province, in the north-west corner of Vietnam. Commanded by Brigadier General Jean Gilles, Castor was the largest airborne operation since World War II...

 of November 1953, General Chester McCarty made available 12 additional C-119 Flying Boxcar
C-119 Flying Boxcar
The Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar was an American military transport aircraft developed from the World War II-era Fairchild C-82 Packet, designed to carry cargo, personnel, litter patients, and mechanized equipment, and to drop cargo and troops by parachute...

s flown by French crews. Two of the American pilots, Wallace Buford and James McGovern, Jr., were killed in action during the siege of Dien Bien Phu.Check-Six.com - The Shootdown of "Earthquake McGoon" On February 25, 2005, the seven still living American pilots were awarded the French Legion of Honor by Jean-David Levitte
Jean-David Levitte
Jean-David Levitte is a French diplomat, formerly the French ambassador to the United States, and currently diplomatic advisor and sherpa to President Nicolas Sarkozy. He has also been named head of the future National Security Council....

, the French ambassador to the United States. The role that the American pilots played in this battle had remained little known until 2004. The "American historian Erik Kirsinger researched the case for more than a year to establish the facts.""France honors U.S. pilots for Dien Bien Phu role". Agence France Presse. February 25, 2005.Burns, Robert. "Covert U.S. aviators will get French award for heroism in epic Asian battle". Associated Press Worldstream. February 16, 2005 The French author Jules Roy
Jules Roy
Jules Roy was a French writer. "Prolific and polemical" Roy, born an Algerian pied noir and sent to a Roman Catholic seminary, used his experiences as the French colony and during his service in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War to inspire a number of his words...

 also suggests that Admiral Radford discussed with the French the possibility of using nuclear weapons in support of the French garrison.Roy, 198 Moreover, John Foster Dulles
John Foster Dulles
John Foster Dulles served as U.S. Secretary of State under President Dwight D. Eisenhower from 1953 to 1959. He was a significant figure in the early Cold War era, advocating an aggressive stance against communism throughout the world...

 was reported to have mentioned the possibility of lending atomic bombs to the French for use at Dien Bien Phu,Fall, 306 and a similar source claims that British Foreign Secretary Sir Anthony Eden
Anthony Eden
Robert Anthony Eden, 1st Earl of Avon, KG, MC, PC was a British Conservative politician, who was Prime Minister from 1955 to 1957...

 was aware of the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons in that region.Fall, 307

Khe Sanh

In January 1968, during the Vietnam War
Vietnam War
The Vietnam War was a Cold War-era military conflict that occurred in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1 November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. This war followed the First Indochina War and was fought between North Vietnam, supported by its communist allies, and the government of...

, the North Vietnamese Army (still under Giap's command) made an apparent attempt to repeat their success at Dien Bien Phu, by a siege
Siege
A siege is a military blockade of a city or fortress with the intent of conquering by attrition or assault. The term derives from sedere, Latin for "to sit". Generally speaking, siege warfare is a form of constant, low intensity conflict characterized by one party holding a strong, static...

 and artillery bombardment
Bombardment
A bombardment is an attack by artillery fire directed against fortifications, troops or towns and buildings.Prior to World War I the term term was only applied to the bombardment of defenceless or undefended objects, houses, public buildings, it was only loosely employed to describe artillery...

 on the U.S. Marine Corps infantry and artillery base at Khe Sanh
Khe Sanh
Khe Sanh is the district capital of Hướng Hoá District, Quảng Trị Province, Vietnam, located 63 km west of Đông Hà.Khe Sanh Combat Base was a United States Marine Corps outpost in South Vietnam used during the Vietnam War. The airstrip was built in September 1962...

, South Vietnam
South Vietnam
South Vietnam was a state which governed southern Vietnam until 1975. It received international recognition in 1950 as the "State of Vietnam" and later as the "Republic of Vietnam" . Its capital was Saigon...

. Historians are divided on whether this was a genuine attempt to force the surrender of that Marine base, or else a diversion from the rest of the Tết Offensive, or an example of the North Vietnamese Army keeping its options open.

At Khe Sanh, a number of factors were significantly different from the siege of Dien Bien Phu. Khe Sanh was much closer to an American supply base (45 km (28 mi)) compared to a French one at Dien Bien Phu (200 km (124.3 mi)).Rottman, 8

At Khe Sanh, the U.S. Marines held the high ground, and their artillery forced the North Vietnamese to use their own artillery from a much greater distance. By contrast, at Dien Bien Phu, the French artillery (six 105 mm batteries and one battery of four 155 mm howitzers and mortarsFall, 480) were only sporadically effective; Khe Sanh received 18,000 tons in aerial resupplies during the 30-day battle, whereas during 167 days that the French forces at Dien Bien Phu held out, they received only 4,000 tons. By the end of the battle of Khe Sanh, U.S. Air Force planes had flown 9,691 tactical sorties and dropped 14,223 tons of munitions on targets within the Khe Sanh area. U.S. Marine Corps planes had flown 7,098 missions and dropped 17,015 tons of munitions. U.S. Navy planes, many of which had been redirected from the Operation Rolling Thunder
Operation Rolling Thunder
Operation Rolling Thunder was the title of a gradual and sustained US 2nd Air Division , US Navy, and Republic of Vietnam Air Force aerial bombardment campaign conducted against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam from 2 March 1965 until 1 November 1968, during the Vietnam War.The four objectives...

 bombing campaign against North Vietnam
North Vietnam
The Democratic Republic of Vietnam , was a communist state that ruled the northern half of Vietnam from 1954 until 1976 following the Geneva Conference and laid claim to all of Vietnam from 1945 to 1954 during the First Indochina War, during which they controlled pockets of territory throughout...

, flew 5,337 sorties and dropped 7,941 tons of ordnance on the enemy.

French women at Dien Bien Phu

Many of the flights operated by the French Air force to evacuate casualties had female flight nurses on board. A total of 15 women served on flights to Dien Bien Phu. One of them, Geneviève de Galard
Geneviève de Galard
Geneviève de Galard is a French nurse who was dubbed l'ange de Dien Bien Phu during the French war in Indochina by the press in Hanoi, although in the camp she was known simply as Geneviève....

, was stranded at Dien Bien Phu when her plane was destroyed by shellfire while being repaired on the airfield. She remained on the ground providing medical services in the field hospital until the surrender. She was later referred to as the "Angel of Dien Bien Phu". However historians disagree regarding this moniker, with Martin Windrow
Martin Windrow
Martin C. Windrow is a British historian, editor and author of several hundred books, articles and monographs, particularly those on organizational or physical details of military history, and the history of the post-war French Foreign Legion...

 maintaining that Galard was referred to by this name by the garrison itself, but Michael Kenney and Bernard Fall maintaining that it was added by outside press agencies.Fall, 190

The French forces came to Dien Bien Phu accompanied by two bordels mobiles de campagne, ("mobile field brothels"), served by Algerian and Vietnamese women.Windrow P673, Note 53 When the siege ended, the Viet Minh sent the surviving Vietnamese women for "re-education".

See also

  • Siege of Bangkok
    Siege of Bangkok
    The Siege of Bangkok was a key event of the Siamese revolution of 1688, in which the Siamese people ousted the French from Siam. Following a coup d'état, in which the pro-Western king Narai was replaced by Phetracha, Siamese troops besieged the French fortress in Bangkok for four months...

    , 1688 – battle marking the end of the French military presence in Siam (present-day Thailand)

External links


Media links

Newsreels (video) The News Magazine of the Screen (May 1954) U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles on the fall of Dien Bien Phu (May 7th, 1954) Dien Bien Phu Episode From Ten Thousand Day War Documentary

Retrospectives (video) English subtitled (Closed Captions) scene from the "Dien Bien Phu" docudrama by Schoendoerffer (1992) Archive footages of Colonel Sassi and his 2,000 strong Hmong partisans en route to Dien Bien Phu for a rescue mission in April 1954 (2000) Archive radio calls between General Cogny & Colonel de Castries (1954) + 2 commented scenes from Schoendoerffer's docudrama (1992) Testimonial of General Giap, 50 years after the battle (May 7th, 2004) Testimonial of General Bigeard, 50 years after the battle (May 3rd, 2004) Testimonial of Corporal Schoendoerffer, 50 years after the battle (May 5th, 2004)

War reports (Picture galleries and captions) The battle of Dien Bien Phu
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