MilitaryHistoryOnline.com Home   Genealogy   Forums   Search   Contact
Search
Amazon:
Keywords:
MHO Home
MHO Home
 Ancient
 Medieval
 17th Century
 18th Century
 19th Century
 American Civil War
 World War I
 World War II
 Korea
 Vietnam
 20th - 21st Century


 Write for MHO
 Search MHO
 Civil War Genealogy Database
 Privacy Policy
 MilitaryGaming.com

Vietnam War
MHO Home
 Vietnam War Home

Vietnam War Articles
The Green Beret Affair: A Factual Review
The "Green Beret Affair"
America's Paradoxical Trinity
The Cambodian Incursion
Dien Bien Phu: A Battle Assessment
The Effects of Vietnamization
The Battle for Hue
Dien Bien Phu 50 Years Later
The Wild Weasels
Role of Airpower in Vietnam

Bob Seals Articles
Into the Special Forces: Rudi Horvath
Polo and the US Army Officer Corps
Ed Ramsey, 26th Cav Reg (Philippine Scouts)
Lodge Act Soldier
Book Review: Lions of Kandahar
Chinese Support for Vietnam
MacArthur and the Cavalry
The "Green Beret Affair"
"Peace" in a Very Small Place
Bob Seals Book Reviews
Alvin York
The Last Valley

Recommended Reading


Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu


The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu And the French Defeat in Vietnam


Dien Bien Phu: The Epic Battle America Forgot
 

Ads by Google



"Peace" in a Very Small Place: Dien Bien Phu 50 Years Later
"Peace" in a Very Small Place: Dien Bien Phu 50 Years Later
by Bob Seals

"Great battles change the entire course of events, create new standards of values, new moods, in armies and in nations."
Sir Winston S. Churchill

Stepping out of the small Vietnam Airlines aircraft on a June day in 1999, we found ourselves on the sweltering airfield tarmac. We were in an enormous valley, completely surrounded by towering, wooded hills hundreds of meters in height to the north, south, east and west. The lazy Nam Yum River wound like a snake, making turns through the low ground.  Laos was eight kilometers due west. We were, of course, in the small North Vietnamese village of Dien Bien Phu, site of one of the most decisive battles of the 20th century, perhaps of all time.[1] 

Dien Bien Phu was the greatest Airborne battle ever fought, a decisive event of the Cold War with international communism, a disaster that inevitably led to the demise of a colonial empire and to subsequent United States involvement in Southeast Asia. It is a battle relatively unknown to most Americans, including many professional Army Officers. The siege of the French Union garrison of Dien Bien Phu during the First Indochina War was an epic 56-day blood-letting that became one of the great turning points in history, a battle that as one French Foreign Legionnaire remarked "was an occasion for military heroism on a grand scale."[2] One might add that it was also an opportunity for military miscalculation on a grand scale, a potent mixture of unquestionable heroism and stupidity that has fascinated me for years.

Fifty years have passed since the fighting ceased, between the forces of France and the Vietnam Doc-Lap Dong Minh, or Viet Minh, on May 7, 1954. Several years ago, in the month of June, three of us had the unique opportunity to visit North Vietnam and walk the battlefield of Dien Bien Phu on an informal staff ride. (The US Army defines a staff ride as consisting of a systematic preliminary study of a selected campaign, an extensive visit to the actual sites associated with that campaign, and an opportunity to integrate the lessons derived from each. It envisions maximum student involvement before arrival at the site to guarantee thought, analysis, and discussion).  What follows are my observations and recollections of that extraordinary week. I write not as a dispassionate, disinterested historian but rather as an unrepentant, unabashed anti-communist who has admired the courage and gallantry of the French Army in the post-World War II era, believing that all too often our NATO comrades in arms of that nation have been poorly served by their politicians.[3] Dien Bien Phu was the staff ride of a lifetime, since we visited a battlefield singularly important but relatively untouched by either tourists or military professionals. Like the Alamo, Verdun, or Bataan, Dien Bien Phu was a great battle, an event which altered history forever, sending out "ripples," to borrow a phrase, that remains with us today.[4]

Background

My interest in Dien Bien Phu began decades ago as a young man leading to my borrowing, buying and reading all materials in English I could get my hands on. These included the excellent two dollar 1974 Ballatine War Paperback Dien Bien Phu by John Keegan and the definitive work - then, as now -  Hell in a Very Small Place by Benard B. Fall. For years, the thought of visiting the valley in North Vietnam had been a dream of mine, but it was not until May of 1999 that the Dien Bien Phu staff ride began in earnest. Colonel Tim Hope, LTC Brian O'Connor and I agreed to rendezvous in Southeast Asia. All of us had served in the mid-90's under Colonel "Skip" Booth in SOC-Korea, and his numerous trips back to Indochina and Dien Bien Phu began firing our respective imaginations for a visit to the valley. In 1999, Col. Booth, then serving as the JUSMAG-Thailand Commander in Bangkok, was instrumental in acting as the "pilot team" for our necessary visas and reservations into Hanoi and subsequent movement to the valley. Col. Booth had traveled to Dien Bien Phu several months before and his recommendations and guidance were priceless. For additional preliminary study we read and used the excellent Lonely Planet Southeast Asia Travel Guide and Fall's Hell in a Very Small Place before movement into North Vietnam.

Arriving in Hanoi on the 31st of May we caught the weekly Air Vietnam Flight 492 twin prop "puddle jumper" into the valley, a superb 50-minute orientation on the terrain of the North. We flew due west from Hanoi over lowlands, the Red and Black Rivers, and increasingly mountainous terrain, experiencing the 183 mile movement that all French troops and equipment had to undergo in order to reach the valley of Dien Bien Phu. Landing on the current airfield, we found it to be a modern, concrete, state of the art airstrip built on the foundations of the old French airfield. It was interesting to see the old World War II era steel PSP "jigsaw" used in the old strip (concrete runway) around town now used as fencing for small gardens or lawns, a rather nice historical touch.

Orientation

After movement to our hotel, the appropriately titled Dien Bien Phu Airport Guest House, we moved to the roof of the building armed with our photocopied UTM 1966 1:50,000 scale maps and compasses for a quick orientation to our surroundings.[5] I could not help but think of the famous quote from Ho Chi Minh to the hack communist journalist Wilfred Burchett in the spring of 1954 that "Dien Bien Phu is a valley, and it's completely surrounded by mountains. The cream of the French Expeditionary Corps is down there, and we (feeling the brim of his sun helmet) are around the mountains. And they'll never get out."[6] I hate to agree with that architect of mass murder on anything but that's pretty much it in a nutshell.[7]

Towering mountains still surround the valley, but the small village has grown and changed significantly over the years. Houses have gone from bamboo and thatch to concrete and brick, dirt roads to limited pavement, and complete isolation to a small town with such comforts as limited telephone and internet service. The Nam Yum River still runs through the valley, but Colonial Road 41 has been paved, at least within town limits. With the airfield in the center of the French lines, defensive dispositions of the battle were as follows: Anne-Marie, Gabrielle and Beatrice to the north and northeast; Eliane and Dominique to the east; Claudine, Francoise and Huguette to the south and southwest with Isabelle about 4500 meters due south.[8] Although most French positions are within a kilometer or two of the town, with the entire battlefield measuring a robust 50-60 kilometer rectangle we decided to hire a vehicle and driver for 200,000 dong a day in order to facilitate movement, a move highly recommended to all. Note: the dong to dollar exchange rate was roughly 14,000 to one during our visit, it goes without saying that the dong is worthless outside of Vietnam and I carried a large roll of one dollar bills that was most useful.

A visit to the Dien Bien Phu museum is recommended as an initial orientation to the battlefield for the price of 5,000 dong. As can be imagined, the museum has an impressive collection of photos, equipment, weapons, uniforms, and artillery used in the battle, all celebrating the Vietnamese victory. Heavy weapons and artillery are proudly displayed on the grounds with Rock Island Arsenal data plates clearly visible on the US manufactured equipment, including 105 mm howitzers captured from either the Chinese Civil or Korean Wars.[9] Inside the museum a large diorama and the numerous maps displayed are also very useful. A captured company guidon from the 2nd Foreign Legion Infantry Regiment, destroyed in the battles for the Huguettes, is one of the more poignant items in the display cases. One rapidly tires, however, of the photos labeled in Vietnamese, French and English that read "French colonialists cowering in their dugouts" or, the most outrageous, "Human flesh containing basket: French colonialists had forced our folks to buy cut up flesh of their own cadres."[10] Such captions are a constant reminder that one is in a communist country, with history still firmly in the grip of the party.

After our initial orientation and museum visit, we followed a somewhat chronological approach to examining the battle over the next several days. We began with the northern-most French outposts; Beatrice, Gabrielle and Ann-Marie, all three falling to the Viet Minh within the first 48 hours of serious fighting in March of 1954, with the destruction of four battalions. The position of Beatrice, held by the 3rd Battalion, 13th Demi-Brigade of the Foreign Legion, is, in my opinion, the best preserved position of the battlefield. One can walk completely around the hill through knee - to chest-high trench lines, identifying various fighting positions and gun pits. We additionally found barbed wire, shell fragments, and 9mm rounds in the northern positions, vivid evidence of the fierce fighting that had occurred. Morale of the garrison plummeted with the loss of these northern battle positions, and it was only the parachuting of the 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion (6th BPC) - their second drop into the valley, led by the unflappable Major Bigeard - that spirits began to lift.[11] "Each time a battalion was dropped, enthusiasm and confidence mounted throughout the camp: France and the higher command aren't going to let us fall; they're sending us the best fellows of the lot."[12]

The next strongholds we walked were Dominique and Elaine, to the east of the main camp and airfield, at the beginning held by Moroccan, Algerian and T'ai Battalions.[13] In many respects these were the key battle positions for the French: when both fell, it was the end. Elaine is the more interesting of the two: one can walk into the wine cellar ruins of the Colonial Governor's House, see numerous unit monuments, one of the ten French M-24 Chaffee Light Tanks, walk trench lines, and see the crater left by the 06 May Viet explosion that began the final assault. The high ground of Elaine was decisive. From its 509 meter tall hill the French Command Bunker was only 700 meters away over the Nam Yum River, across the still-standing Bailey bridge. Many of the elite French and Vietnamese Parachute Battalions were destroyed in the see-saw fighting for Elaine in April and May of 1954, including Bigeard's own 6th BPC, arguably the best French unit in Indochina.

From Elaine we explored the positions of Isabelle to the south and Huguette and Francoise to the west of the airfield. Isabelle is relatively easy to locate to the south, with markers indicating its position alongside RC 41; the flat, western most positions of Huguette and Francoise, on the other hand, have been reclaimed by the local rice paddies.

All main Dien Bien Phu battle positions are marked by Vietnamese Redstone Monuments, with hills and trench lines maintained in their semi-barren state by periodic maintenance and cutting of trees. The only off-limits area we encountered during our visit was atop of Dominique, where local authorities prevented us from scaling to the top of the ridge, perhaps due to the presence of a microwave communications tower. Finally, the preserved French Command Bunker and cemetery located in the heart of the valley - that is, south of the airstrip - are a must-see. It was atop this bunker that the famous photo of victorious Viet Minh soldiers waving the Red Flag was taken after Colonel de Castries' surrender.[14] This area near the command post is also where the French logistical area was located, with the majority of artillery, mortars, medical, supply and maintenance facilities and troops: however, little to no traces remains today. Several wrecked US 105 and 155mm artillery pieces are nearby; manned by African gunners of the 4th Colonial Artillery, these pieces were never removed from their gun pits.

Impressions

By 1954, time was clearly running out for the French Army in Indochina. With fighting-on going since 1946, the Viet Minh under General Giap and Ho Chi Minh were now in the classic third stage of an insurgency, a full blown war of movement as Communist regiments and divisions moved rather freely around the countryside.[15] With the signing of the Korean Armistice in July of 1953, the full weight of Chinese and Soviet assistance was now readily available to these regiments and divisions in the north.

So, why Dien Bien Phu? In one word; initiative. The Geneva Conference had been scheduled by the Great Powers to meet in May of 1954 to solve Cold War problems in Asia, and both Generals Giap and Navarre wanted to give their respective governments a stronger hand at the diplomatic table. Both had an incentive to deal the other a crippling blow heading into negotiations. My thoughts after visiting the valley include:

Objective : There was no agreement on the French side on a "decisive, obtainable result." Sources give three reasons for occupation of the valley: as a mooring point for lightly-armed guerrillas, to block the Viet Minh thrust into Laos: or to engage the Communists in a decisive, set piece battle. The only one that makes sense to me is the last: the destruction of large-scale Communist forces in a conventional battle.

Mass: There was insufficient combat power on the French side. This is somewhat of an oversimplification but French Battalions were fighting Viet Minh Divisions. Giap threw the majority of his forces against the camp while Cogny and Navarre did not provide even the supporting artillery or armor doctrinally required for the French forces; i.e., three times the amount of French artillery should have been present in the valley, etc. Most sources give the Viet Minh an at least 5:1 advantage in manpower, and a 3:1 advantage in artillery.[16]

Battle positions were not mutually supporting: The best example is Isabelle, some 4500 meters from the Main Camp, with two battalions, two batteries of 105 mm howitzers and a platoon of light tanks isolated from the main camp. It is easy to get the impression from maps of the battlefield in various books that positions were supporting; however, distances, lines of sight, folds of the ground and ravines offer numerous avenues of approach into each French position. Many positions, particularly in the north, were extremely isolated and could be destroyed in detail.

Insufficient logistics: The French needed at least 200 tons of supplies a day,  Normally only half that amount could be provided. Additionally, after the first 24 hours of battle, artillery fire closed the airfield to landings, so all supplies had to come in via parachute. The Viets, on the other hand, had the advantage of 1,000 Soviet and captured American 2 ½ ton trucks on a robust 450 kilometer supply line from China that effectively provided all the logistics needed for 5+ divisions.

French General Officer leadership: Dien Bien Phu was a battle where the equivalent of a French division was initially commanded by a Colonel and, after the first week, by a Paratroop Lieutenant Colonel with a Major in charge of counterattacks. General Cogny, the French CO for North Vietnam directly responsible for the battle, could have flown or jumped in to rally the troops but he did not. Additionally, Cogny (in Hanoi) and Navarre, the Theater Commander (in Saigon), were barely on speaking terms during the conduct of the battle and did not work together at all effectively.

Terrain and Weather advantage: One is always taught to "take the high ground": an adage remembered to enormous advantage by the Viet Minh, for they held the high ground hundreds of meters above the French and could observe and fire upon positions with near impunity. Additionally the crachin , or fog and heavy rainfall that characterize the weather in this area of North Vietnam severely complicated French air support.

Conclusion

Clearly, Dien Bien Phu was a disaster. Most military professionals may never get the opportunity to visit the battlefield of Dien Bien Phu, due to the remoteness and transportation difficulties, but this battlefield is illustrative of the unchanging value of staff rides for a military officer. Until I had walked the hills of Eliane or the trench lines of Beatrice I simply could not comprehend the incredible gamble that Generals Navarre and Cogny were accepting that spring of 1954.

Our visit to the valley caused me to alter my thinking about the battle. I do not believe that Dien Bien Phu was won by the willing or unwilling Vietnamese peasant pushing his bicycle loaded with 90 pounds of rice to support the Viet Minh divisions, as per popular belief.  Rather, it seems to me that a powerful combination of Russian and American trucks, Chinese technical advice and assistance, captured American artillery, Soviet anti-aircraft guns and - perhaps most importantly - sheer numbers overwhelmed the French Union forces 50 years ago. With no clear objective, an unrealistic concept, an over reliance upon airpower and an underestimation of the enemy, it was only a matter of time before the French battalions fighting Viet divisions were utterly destroyed. The fundamental law of military strategy - to be stronger than your enemy at the decisive time and place - was violated. The aftermath of the battle was truly horrific, with an estimated 70% of the 10,000 captured French forces dying on the march into Viet Minh POW camps or of subsequent mistreatment in only three months time.[17]

Just like Agincourt, Waterloo or Verdun, Dien Bien Phu became a symbol for France, a doomed, heroic effort that captured the world's imagination, but not the Western Powers sympathy, unfortunately. The real tragedy is that the West stood by as the battle played out from March to May of 1954, ignoring the struggle, not seeing it as a vital part of the Cold War.[18] Thus, as Benard B. Fall observed, Dien Bien Phu became not only a French, but an American defeat as well, as one hundred B-29 air strikes could not be found to save 15,000 French troops at Dien Bien Phu.[19] American airpower would not have ultimately maintained the French presence in Indochina, but it might have saved the garrison at Dien Bien Phu and provided the stalemate needed for a better settlement at Geneva. As with all "what if's" of history, we shall never know.

* * *

Recommended Reading

Bernard B. Fall, Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu , New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1967.

John Keegan, Dien Bien Phu , New York: Ballantine Books, 1974.

Jules Roy, The Battle of Dien Bien Phu , New York: Harper & Row, 1965.

General Vo Nguyen Giap, Dien Bien Phu , Hanoi: The Gioi Publishers, 1994.

Paul Grauwin, Doctor at Dien Bien Phu , New York: The John Day Company, 1955.

Martin Windrow, The Last Valley , Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2004.

Website, http://www.dienbienphu.org, 2004.

Notes

[1]. John MacDonald, Great Battlefields of the World (New York: Collier Books, 1984), p. 194-97. MacDonald lists Dien Bien Phu as one of the 30 most important battles of history, a ranking that seems correct to me. The map graphics in this book are excellent; however, a photo of French General Navarre is incorrectly labeled as Colonel de Castries.

[2]. John Keegan, Dien Bien Phu (New York: Ballantine Books, 1974), p.6. Keegan's superb work on the battle is relatively ignored; he offers a plausible account on p.154-5 of how the French might have had a stalemate with additional tanks and better tactics.

[3]. Stephane Courtois, The Black Book of Communism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), p.2. I prefer the Black Book's definition of communism as mass crime turned into a full blown system of government.

[4]. Victor Davis Hanson, Ripples of Battle (New York: Doubleday Books, 2003), p. 16-17.

[5]. For those interested we used copies of US Army Topographic Command 1968 era Map Sheets: Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam, stock # L701456514, sheet 5651 IV, and Ban Thin Toc, Laos, Vietnam, stock # L701555511, sheet 5551 I.

[6]. Michael MacLear, The Ten Thousand Day War (New York: Avon Books, 1981), p.37.

[7]. Courtois, p. 569-70, gives a figure of 50,000 executed in North Vietnam after the French withdrawal in 1954.

[8]. Benard B. Fall, Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu (New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1967), p. 117. French positions were all given female names obviously, with the rumor being that said names were past mistresses of the commanding officer, Colonel Christian Marie Ferdinand de la Croix de Castries, a dashing cavalryman and reported womanizer.

[9]. Personal photo, authors collection, Dien Bien Phu Museum, data plate reads "Mechanism, Recoil, 105mm How, M2, Rock Island Arsenal, 1942." Serial number is damaged.

[10]. Personal photos, author's collection.

[11]. Fall, p. 159-60. It is interesting to note that of Bigeard's 613 man battalion, some 332 were ethnic Vietnamese. The Vietnamese fighting for the French are the true forgotten troops of the battle.

[12]. Paul Grauwin, Doctor at Dien Bien Phu (New York: The John Day Company, 1954), p. 202.

[13]. Fall, p.479-82, French order of battle. The majority of French Union troops were not ethnic French or European but Vietnamese, African and North African Arabs.

[14]. This is an image that the North Vietnamese are understandably proud of; in fact, a local beer made in the valley, Dien Bien Beer, has this scene on the label.

[15]. Author's notes, USAJFKSWCS Detachment Officer Committee, Fundamentals of Unconventional Warfare, dated Aug 86.

[16]. French and Viet Minh ratios are from author's comparison of standard works on the battle. COL Skip Booth, in an email dated 04 Mar 04, believes that Giap, if he had as many men and artillery as commonly thought, deliberately prolonged the battle until talks started in Geneva, vice a huge assault into the main camp, for political gain. This is a thesis that is unique and worthy of consideration. I believe COL Booth to be one of the foremost authorities of the battle having visited the valley on at least three occasions.

[17]. Fall, p. 438. This is a death rate comparable to the World War II Bataan Death March and Japanese POW camps. Giap, in his book on page 134, indicates that French POWs were kindly treated.

[18]. In fairness to the Far Eastern US Air Force and Chennault's Civil Air Transport of 1954, the French forces at Dien Bien Phu could not have held out for 56 days without the support of the C-119's, C-124's and 82,926 parachutes provided. One can still buy, as I did, sections of those camouflage parachutes used by the French in town from souvenir stands.

[19]. Fall, p. 461-62. Eisenhower, the US President, and Sir Winston S. Churchill, the British Prime Minister, refused French requests for assistance in the spring of 1954.

* * *

Copyright © 2006 Bob Seals.

Written by Bob Seals. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Bob Seals at:
robert.d.seals.ctr@mail.mil.

About the author:
Bob Seals is a retired Special Forces officer employed by General Dynamics Information Technology in the Mission Command Exercise Division of the U.S. Army Special Operations Mission Command Training Center on Fort Bragg, the center of the special operations universe. He lives in North Carolina on a small horse farm with his wife, a retired Army Veterinary Corps officer, and son, who both ride polocrosse and hunt. His duties on the farm include Stable Sergeant, groom and horse holder. He is a graduate of the Norwich U Masters of Military History program.

Published online: 05/17/2006.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
© 2014 MilitaryHistoryOnline.com, LLC Contact Brian Williams at: militaryhistoryonline@hotmail.com