The French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 signalled the end of French influence in Indochina. The battle fought around Dien Bien Phu was the last major campaign by a European state in the region; by the end of the decade the United States was to become the prominent foreign power in Vietnam and the influence of France dwindled to barely nothing – such was the impact of their defeat at the hands of General Giap’s forces.
Dien Bien Phu was a town in northwest Vietnam with an isolated air base built and used by the Japanese in World War Two. It was near the Vietnam/Laos border. The government of Laos was very much under the influence of the French though the Viet Minh had successfully infiltrated much of Laos, thus undermining the authority of both the Laotian government and, therefore, the French. By establishing a major force at Dien Bien Phu, the French hoped to cut the supply lines used by Giap’s men into Laos. It also placed a large and well-trained force in the heartland of the Viet Minh. This alone, the French hoped, would be enough to deter Viet Minh activity.
In May 1953, the French premier, Rene Mayer, appointed Henri Navarre commander of the French Union Forces in Indochina. Navarre believed that one of his orders had been to defend North Laos – though members of Mayer’s government denied that this had been the case in later years.
Navarre decided to establish a major force at Dien Bien Phu. In 1952, the French had done the same at Na San to great effect. Here they had established a fortified camp that was supplied from the air. Giap had ordered frontal assaults on the base at Na San. He lost many men and had to withdraw. Navarre wanted to repeat this at Dien Bien Phu. His primary desire was to tempt Giap into another frontal assault with similar results.
However, Navarre made a number of serious errors. At Na San, the French had the advantage of height over Giap and their artillery could pinpoint Giap’s forces with devastating results. Dien Bien Phu was effectively at the bottom of a valley and Giap’s men controlled all the surrounding area. Giap had time to dig in and camouflage where his artillery was. When the battle at Dien Bien Phu began, the French artillery commander committed suicide as a result of his inability to hit Giap’s artillery. Another mistake made by Navarre was to put a base at Dien Bien Phu as it was at the very limit of aerial supply. With Giap placing a large number of anti-aircraft guns around the area, the French faced the real prospect of not being able to supply their men – as proved to be the case.
When Navarre announced his plan to senior commanders in the French Union Forces, many protested that the plan was simply too dangerous and probably doomed to defeat. Navarre did not listen. While it would be easy to criticise Navarre for his approach, it has to be remembered that he had received intelligence reports that the operation would involve little risk and that the French probably would not encounter a “strong enemy force”.
On November 20th 1953, the first French troops arrived at Dien Bien Phu. Within three days, there were 9,000 French and allied troops there. By the end of the month, there were six parachute battalions in Dien Bien Phu and their initial firefights against the Viet Minh were successful enough to give the French commander there, Colonel Christian de Castries, a great deal of confidence. He set up seven strong points around Dien Bien Phu with his headquarters in the centre of these.
Regardless of these initial successes, the French were in a very difficult position. They were many miles from any friendly land base and the planes that were meant to supply them were open to attack. Dien Bien Phu was surrounded by jungle that had not been secured by the French. Five Viet Minh divisions (50,000 men) surrounded the French. Viet Minh artillery, based in the jungle, was virtually invisible and fired on the French for the first time on January 31st 1954.
A massive artillery onslaught started on March 13th against one of the French strongholds. By the following day the Viet Minh had taken it. Also on March 14th, the airstrip was so badly damaged by Viet Minh artillery that no plane could land. Therefore, after this date all supplies to the French at Dien Bien Phu had to be dropped by parachute. Another of the French strongholds fell when T’ai troops, previously loyal to the French, deserted.
In the last two weeks of March, the Viet Minh completed their encirclement of Dien Bien Phu. It was also during this time that senior French officers there told de Castries that they no longer had confidence in his leadership and that Colonel Langlais, a paratrooper, would assume command. The French launched a number of counter-attacks in late March but these were invariably met with strong Viet Minh counter-attacks.
On April 5th, a combined French fighter-bomber and artillery attack on Viet Minh soldiers caught in the open caused heavy casualties. This led to Giap changing his tactics. It is thought that this decision by Giap led to a drop in confidence among the Viet Minh. French radio operators claimed to have intercepted Viet Minh radio messages, which clearly stated that they were refusing to obey orders. How much of this was true is difficult to know as it may have been done simply to boost the confidence of the French defenders.
The battle became one of attrition. The Viet Minh advanced slowly and usually countered any French attack. By April 22nd, the Viet Minh controlled most of the airfield, making parachute drops impossible.
A huge conventional attack was made on the French on May 1st. Several of the strong points were overrun. Another huge attack was made on May 6th with similar success. On May 7th Giap ordered an all-out attack on the French positions at Dien Ben Phu. At 17.00, de Castries radioed Hanoi that “the Viets are everywhere. The situation is very grave. I feel the end is approaching but we will fight to the finish.” The last French position was captured at nightfall.
The Viet Minh captured 11,721 men. The Red Cross looked after the badly wounded but 10,863 were held as prisoners. Only 3,290 were ever repatriated. There is no record as to what happened to the Indochinese who helped the French at Dien Bien Phu. The Viet Minh lost 8,000 killed with 12,000 wounded.