| Dien Bien Phu: A
by David Pennington
Jules Roy described Dien Bien Phu as the "setting in which the West had
suffered one of the greatest disasters in its history." An assessment of the
Battle of Dien Bien Phu reveals that the French had no clear objective, ignored
conventional theories of warfare, over relied on air power, and underestimated
the abilities of their adversary. An objective investigation of the events at
Dien Bien Phu from November 1953 to May 1954 reveals that for as much as the
French did wrong, the Vietminh did right.
When French Premier Rene Mayer selected General Henri Navarre to become the
commander in chief of French forces in Indochina, he instructed him to create a
military scenario in Indochina that would bring about a satisfactory political
conclusion to hostilities there. Navarre surveyed the situation in Indochina
and concluded the greatest threat to achieving his given objective was in
Tonkin; the Navarre Plan was the result. Navarre wanted to bring the "life and
vigor" back to the French Expeditionary Corps while at the same time assuming
an offensive posture to disrupt Vietminh forces and prevent their consolidation
for a collective offensive. For his center of operations in the north,
Navarre chose Dien Bien Phu. Navarre designed Dien Bien Phu as a "mooring
point" for French offensive operations to engage Vietminh units and "bar the
road to Laos". Logistics became the focus of Navarre's ambitions for Dien
Bien Phu against the Vietminh. The French wanted to deny guerilla fighters
necessary supplies, particularly rice. Also, Navarre believed a garrison
stationed at Dien Bien Phu would disrupt the flow of supplies by Vietminh
General Vo Nguyen Giap south through the neighboring country of Laos. Opium
production and trafficking, centered at Dien Bien Phu, provided the Vietminh
with revenue to purchase weapons. Navarre planned to disrupt the opium trade to
diminish the Vietminh's ability to sustain military action in the region. By
design, this strategy was constructed in order to draw the Vietminh out of
hiding, forcing them to engage the French in a traditional confrontation.
Geographically, it was believed that Dien Bien Phu was a key point in linking
the offensive capabilities of the French base Sam Neua in Laos and the garrison
at Lai Chau in Northern Vietnam. Neglecting traditional conventions
regarding the tactical benefits of high ground, the French chose the low ground
of Dien Bien Phu for its convenience to resupply vehicles and believed it would
provide ample security against human wave attacks. The valley itself runs
roughly 17 kilometers long from north to south and between 5 and 7 kilometers
from east to west. Bordering the valley to the east and northeast is a series
of small hills that transition into forested, mountainous peaks. From
November to April the winter season brought drizzling rain and cooler
temperatures and from April to November the weather was hot and torrential rain
was not uncommon. The valley, which French troops were to later identify as
"wet hell", suffered from slow drainage, and the resultant mud inhibited the
mobility ambitions of Navarre while trench and bunker flooding turned the
garrison into a "quagmire". The roads entering the valley, which included
state road Route 41, were constricted and vulnerable to enemy fire rendering
them unfavorable as resupply routes. Because of the unreliability of the
roads and the relative distance from the French military in Hanoi, Dien Bien
Phu became a land-air base. But this strategy was not without it complications.
When French troops parachuted into Dien Bien Phu as part of Operation Condor on
the twentieth and twenty-first of November, 1953 and engaged the 149th Vietminh
Regiment, it was under moderate weather conditions. They would quickly
learn how inhospitable the weather and terrain was for air, armor, and
logistical operations as well as the tactical disadvantages of basing the
French garrison in the valley, where Vietminh artillery rained down fire from
the protection of concealed, naturally fortified positions in the mountains.
Unfavorable weather conditions kept aircraft from landing, hindered accurate
supply drops by parachute, and damaged the integrity of the landing strip.
Navarre, the old cavalry officer, chose the terrain of Dien Bien Phu because he
believed it to be suitable to armor. When ten M24 Chaffee tanks were flown
in by transport planes in late December 1953 and early January 1954, it became
apparent the terrain was quite inhospitable to tanks. The thick brush of
the valley immobilized the tanks and when the monsoon weather hit the base in
April the tanks quickly became bogged down.
The role of armor in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu was minimal. Immobility
credited to poor weather transformed tanks into stationary artillery pieces.
Garrison barbed wire defenses prevented tanks from providing support to two
parachute regiments on March 14, 1954. By the night of April 4, not halfway
through the 55 day siege, only two tanks were in working order, making their
impact on the final weeks of the siege negligible.
It can be argued the most important factor in the outcome of the war was the
role of artillery, most importantly, the Vietminh's numeric advantage of
artillery and ammunition, which nullified French air power and hindered French
logistical operations. According to one estimate, the French artillery assets
at Dien Bien Phu included 24 150mm and 4 155mm howitzers and 30 heavy
mortars. Giap's Vietnamese porters defied French logic and situated 140
field howitzers, 50 heavy mortars, 70-80 recoilless guns, 36 anti-aircraft
guns, and 12 Soviet made Katyusha rocket launchers and successfully concealed
them from French reconnaissance and artillery spotters. The superior number
of Vietminh artillery allowed Giap's plan of attack to come to fruition. A
crucial point to Giap's plan was the obstruction of French "reinforcement and
resupply" to the base by air. On March 12, 1954, 105mm shells began coming
down in the vicinity of the airstrip. By March 15, Vietminh artillery accuracy
prevented the use of the airstrip for resupply. Vietminh artillery
continued to harass the French resupply vein. Vietminh anti-aircraft fire shot
down and drove away French artillery spotter planes and pushed air drops from
the preferred altitude of 2500 feet to as high as 8500 feet. The combined
Vietminh artillery effort cost the French air forces 56 planes destroyed (20 on
the ground and 28 in the air), 2 helicopters destroyed, and 186 damaged.
This placed a strain on an already chaotic French logistical system.
French artillery never had much of a chance to counter the onslaught of
Vietminh artillery. The artillery base at Beatrice was shattered in the initial
moments of the Vietminh attack on March 13. Two days later the artillery at
Gabrielle was all but lost and the artillery stationed at Isabelle was too far
isolated to adequately fill any gaps.
If Giap's artillery was excellent, his logistical planning was superb. Giap's
experience at the Battle of Nan Sanh revealed to him that he could not
successfully engage the French in traditional warfare without a sustainable
supply route. Porters transported hundreds of pounds of supplies on reinforced
bicycle frames and GMC and molotova trucks. When French planes attacked roads
and supply lines, Giap's repair crews made them operational in a matter of
hours. Concealed by lush tropical cover, Giap's supply routes allowed five
Vietminh divisions, the 316th, 308th, 351st, 312th, and 304th to converge on
Dien Bien Phu from December 6, 1953 to January 24, 1954. The exploitation
of old roads and the development of new ones provided sustainable logistical
support, which included Chinese aid. At one point the Vietminh had 100,000
artillery shells in reserve with more available from China. Giap could
sustain his five divisions and 50,000 support troops, defying the French
contention that any such endeavor by the Vietminh was not practical. The
Vietminh could lay siege to Dien Bien Phu, forcing the French to rely on the
already overstretched air force for logistical support.
Patrick Jennings called the struggle at Dien Bien Phu "not a battle of men and
maneuver, but logistics." Even prior to the siege of the garrison, it was
apparent that French airpower was an inadequate source for logistical support.
French engineers estimated that 36,000 tons of supplies were necessary for the
adequate defense of the base. In total, the builders of the garrison only
received 4,000 tons. When French airpower was reduced to parachuting
supplies into the post, high altitude drops meant the inefficient dispersion of
supplies. A considerable amount of French supplies found their way into the
opposition's hands. The number of French and borrowed American planes was also
insufficient. During their encirclement the French never received more than 100
tons of supplies. The minimum suggested number for daily drops was 200
The majority of tactical miscues credited to French military planners belong to
Gen. Navarre. The number of battalions used at Dien Bien Phu, 13, was too few
to defend the vast spaces of the valley. Bernard F. Fall suggests that 50
battalions were necessary for a proper defense. Part of the blame goes to
Operation Atlante, which used up all of Navarre's reserves. Navarre's
selection of Col. Castries was also a tactical miscue. Navarre selected
Castries because of his background in armored cavalry, but Castries, who was
initially reluctant to accept the post, was not suited to the static, World War
I trench-style warfare that played out during the siege. Navarre ignored French
intelligence estimates. Without knowledge of several Vietminh divisions coming
to bear on the garrison, the sense of urgency regarding the construction of
adequate defensive measures was minimal. Among the cadre of Dien Bien Phu, the
failure to entrench the artillery as well as secure more heavy guns dismantled
the designed dual air artillery strategy for the base. Underestimating Giap and
his military was perhaps the Achilles heel of Navarre and his command officers.
While some concern was raised regarding intelligence and the capability of
Giap's forces, the conventional assessment of the Vietminh was that their
leadership was untrained in the art of war and their tactics were predictable.
Navarre and his colleagues assumed the events of the Battle of Nan Sanh, with
its human wave attacks, would repeat itself at Dien Bien Phu and Vietminh
artillery would be negligible . Giap instead used tunnels and trenches, in
conjunction with wave attacks, to sustain his superiority of numbers.
Political factors, as well as tactical blunders, were important to the outcome
at Dien Bien Phu. The announcement of the meeting in Geneva to discuss the
turmoil in Indochina was a motivator to Ho Chi Minh. He quickly surmised that
the party with the greater military leverage in the region would in all
likelihood receive the greater diplomatic concessions. French strategy was
less precise. Socialists and Communists in France were calling for an end to
the war. The French government merely wanted a ceasefire. In late 1953 it
was already concluded that an incorporation of Vietnam into the French Union,
if only symbolic, was acceptable. By the end of April, with Giap's forces
closing the circle around the garrison, the French were hoping to merely hold
out until the convention at Geneva began to utilize whatever leverage they had
left in order to secure a ceasefire. In the end, however, it would be the
military power of the United States, the Soviet Union, and China along with the
diplomatic influence of Great Britain that would convince the Vietminh to
accept the accords that provided for free elections in 1956 and the
reunification of a divided Vietnam at the seventeenth parallel.
Even though the Vietminh suffered 22,900 casualties compared to the French
7,693, the French lost the battle at Diem Bien Phu and subsequently lost the
war. Ho Chi Minh correctly predicted that the war in Indochina was a
political fight. The war in France was unpopular. After the resolution of the
Korean conflict in 1953, the popular notion was that a peaceful solution to the
war in Indochina was equally attainable. For the soldiers defending the
garrison, the long siege created dissention among the multi-ethnic fighting
force and hurt morale. The superior resources of the French, and the fact that
90 percent of French troops were experienced soldiers from World War II and
guerilla warfare could not deter the resolve of Vietminh soldiers and
supporters of the nationalist movement.
Dien Bien Phu became a model for the West. It showed that conventional wisdom
should be respected and unconventional tactics should be acknowledged. It was
left up to the West, whether or not to alter its approach in Indochina based on
the example established in northern Vietnam.
Show Footnotes and
. Jules Roy, The Battle of Dienbienphu. (New York: Carroll &
Graf Publishers), 297.
. Phillip Davidson, Vietnam at War: The History: 1946-1975. (New
York: Oxford University Press), 165.
. Roy, 15-16.
. James S. Olson, Randy Roberts, Where the Domino Fell: America and Vietnam
1945-2004. 4th ed. (New York: Brandywine Press), 37. Roy, 82.
. Olson, Roberts, 29, 37.
. Ibid., 38.
. Ibid., 29.
. Patrick Jennings, Battles of the Vietnam War. (New York, Exeter Books),
. David K. Vaughn, James H. Donoho, Major. "From Stalingrad to Khe Sanh:
Factors in the Successful use of Tactical Airlift to Support Isolated Land
Battle Areas." Air and Space Power Journal (Oct., 2000)
. "Dien Bien Phu Environment" Dien Bien Phu. 2000.
. Jennings, 20.
. Olson, Roberts, 30, 40.
. Ibid., 40.
. Ibid., 23.
. Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History. (New York: The Viking
. William Allen, Ray L. Bowers, Col., et al. The Vietnam War. Ed.
Ray Bonds. (New York: Crown Publishers), 55
. Olson, Roberts, 47. The website Dien Bien Phu makes reference to
torrential rains in April.
. Roy, 170.
. Ibid., 220.
. Jennings, 27.
. Ibid., 27.
. Davidson, 225.
. Olson, Roberts, 41, 42.
. Vaughn, Donoho,
. A combined total of Air Force and Navy aircraft. Dien Bien Phu. http://www.dienbienphu.org/english/index.htm.
. Olson, Roberts, 42.
. Ibid., 41.
. Dien Bien Phu. http://www.dienbienphu.org/english/index.htm.
. Roy, 61.
. Jennings, 26.
. Ibid., 27, 29.
. Vaughn, Donoho,
. Bernard F. Fall, Hell in a Very Small Place. 1st ed. (New York:
DaCapo Press Inc.), 39.
. Roy, 306.
. Olson, Roberts, 47.
. Ibid., 30, 48.
. George C. Herring, America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam,
1950-1975. (New York: McGraw Hill), 36.
. Dien Bien Phu. http://www.dienbienphu.org/english/index.htm.
. Olson, Roberts, 49.
. Ibid., 49.
. Karnow, 191.
. Jennings, 23.
Allen, William, Bowers, Ray L., Colonel, et al. The Vietnam War. Bonds, Ray,
ed. New York: Crown Publishers, 1979.
Davidson, Phillip. Vietnam at War: The History: 1946-1975. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1991.
"Dien Bien Phu." Dien Bien Phu. 2000.
http://www.dienbienphu.org/english/index.htm. Accessed: September 8, 2006.
Fall, Bernard B. Hell in a Very Small Place. 1st ed. (New York: DaCapo Press
Herring, George C. America's Longest War: The Unites States and Vietnam,
1950-1975. New York: McGraw Hill, 2002.
Jennings, Patrick. Battles of the Vietnam War. New York: Exeter Books, 1985.
Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: The Viking Press, 1983.
Olson, James S., and Roberts, Randy. Where the Domino Fell: America and Vietnam
1945-2004. 4th ed. New York: Brandywine Press, 2004.
Roy, Jules. The Battle of Dienbienphu. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers,
Vaughn, David K., Donoho, James H., Major. "From Stalingrad to Khe Sanh:
Factors in the Successful Use of Tactical Airlift to Support Isolated Land
Battle Areas" Air and Space Power Journal-Chronicles Online Journal. (Oct.,
Accessed: Sept. 9, 2006.
Copyright © 2006 David Pennington
Written by David Pennington. If you have questions or comments on this article,
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Published online: 12/03/2006.
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