|"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
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." 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. 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.
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.
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. 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." I hate to agree with that architect of mass murder on anything but
that's pretty much it in a nutshell.
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. 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. 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."
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. "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."
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. 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. 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.
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. 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
• 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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
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,
General Vo Nguyen Giap, Dien Bien Phu , Hanoi: The Gioi Publishers,
Paul Grauwin, Doctor at Dien Bien Phu , New York: The John Day Company,
Martin Windrow, The Last Valley , Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2004.
. 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.
. 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.
. 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.
. Victor Davis Hanson, Ripples of Battle (New York: Doubleday
Books, 2003), p. 16-17.
. 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.
. Michael MacLear, The Ten Thousand Day War (New York: Avon Books,
. Courtois, p. 569-70, gives a figure of 50,000 executed in North Vietnam
after the French withdrawal in 1954.
. 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.
. Personal photo, authors collection, Dien Bien Phu Museum, data plate reads
"Mechanism, Recoil, 105mm How, M2, Rock Island Arsenal, 1942." Serial number is
. Personal photos, author's collection.
. 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.
. Paul Grauwin, Doctor at Dien Bien Phu (New York: The John Day
Company, 1954), p. 202.
. 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
. 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
. Author's notes, USAJFKSWCS Detachment Officer Committee, Fundamentals of
Unconventional Warfare, dated Aug 86.
. 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.
. 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.
. 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.
. 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:
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.