The disastrous collapse of western military institutions in Southeast Asia before the onslaught of Japanese military forces in late 1941 and early 1942 put paid to the idea that the white man and his regimes were inherently superior to the colonial subjects they ruled. In quick order, Hong Kong, Malaya, Borneo, the Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines fell to the Imperial Japanese Army. However, it was a different story with the French colony of Cochin China, consisting of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Shortly after the collapse of France in June 1940, the Japanese government demanded that the new French government in Vichy allow its military forces to occupy jointly with the French the northern half of Cochin China in order to shut off the transportation of military goods to China, against whom the Japanese were waging a ruthless, merciless war. Initially the French governor refused, but his appeals for aid from Washington met stony silence. Meanwhile, the Japanese bombarded French positions along the Red River Delta. With no possibility of aid on the horizon, the French caved in. One year later, the Japanese demanded that their forces occupy the naval and air bases in southern Vietnam, and again the French agreed. This time, however, the Americans reacted, considering that the Japanese now had bases from which they could threaten all of Southeast Asia. Along with the British and the Dutch, the Roosevelt administration not only froze Japanese assets, but embargoed the export to Japan of commodities, including oil. Thus, the Americans had set the road to Pearl Harbor.
While the other colonial regimes went down to stunningly swift defeat, the French regime in Cochin China remained on the sideline. Its time came in February 1945, when the Japanese in a sudden coup overthrew the French colonial regime and destroyed French forces throughout Vietnam. Desperate calls from the French for help went unanswered by the Americans, who were guided in their policies by Franklin Roosevelt’s deep contempt for French colonialism. But Japan soon collapsed with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With the Japanese defeat, the question then arose as to what would be the fate of the European colonial regimes in Southeast Asia. For the most part, the British withdrew gracefully by granting independence to their colonies; the Dutch were less inclined in that direction, but they lacked the military and economic power to regain the Dutch East Indies, so they too withdrew in December 1949. With Cochin China, it was another matter. The government in Paris proved incapable of restraining its military, which was staffed by many officers resolved to wash away the double stain of the defeat of 1940 and the 1945 collapse in Cochin China. They arrived in Southeast Asia determined to reestablish French control over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
However, in fall 1945, as the French arrived to take over occupation duty from the British (in the southern half of Vietnam) and the Chinese nationalists (in the northern half), they found themselves confronting Ho Chi Minh and an indigenous group of Vietnamese nationalists who called themselves the Viet Minh and had no intention of allowing the French to reestablish their rule. The Viet Minh were deeply committed revolutionaries, while by any standard, Ho’s record as a revolutionary was extraordinary. He was a founding member of the French Communist Party in 1920, a senior official in the Comintern in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, an adviser to the Chinese Communists, and the founder of the Vietnamese Communist Party. Like a number of his senior advisers, including the great general Vo Nguyen Giap, Ho had attended the French lycée Quoc Hoc. There, he became imbued with the ideological fervor of the French Revolution. One of the great miscalculations of the French lay in their failure to understand that they were opposed by leaders who were not simply nationalists and Communists, but full-fledged revolutionaries along the lines of Robespierre and Saint-Just, both of whom had been spawned by France’s own revolution. Ho’s command and love of French was such that in 1922, while in Paris, he had written an article in a French sports magazine complaining about the adoption by French sportswriters of English words such as le manager, le round, and le knockout. Ho provided the extraordinary political leadership that kept the insurgency alive, but the former history teacher Giap provided the military savvy. Giap learned war by waging it. Without a day spent at a staff college or a war college, he was to prove a master of both guerrilla tactics and the use of conventional forces. In the end, he would humiliate not only the French on the battlefield, but the Americans.
Negotiations between the French and Ho broke down at the end of 1946, and conflict began throughout Vietnam, especially in the north. From the first, this was a war waged by the professional French military, with governments in Paris refusing to send draftees to Vietnam. As a result, units manned by long-term volunteers, members of the French Foreign Legion, and colonial regiments of Moroccans, Algerians, Africans, and eventually Vietnamese, bore the brunt of the fighting. Moreover, in the war’s first year, the Americans with their hostility to colonial regimes refused to provide the French significant military help. It was a war France could not afford, and it was a war that quickly became unpopular, but as with the tar baby, the French discovered that once they were in, there appeared to be no exit.
At the outset of hostilities, French armored and infantry units pushed the Viet Minh insurgents out of the port of Haiphong and then out of Hanoi. In straight-up, conventional fights, the Viet Minh had no chance, but Giap, already proving that he possessed a first-class military mind, waged a hit-and-run war. His first target was control over the countryside, which the Viet Minh increasingly dominated, while the French held the cities and locations beyond the urban areas where they could deploy their troops. In 1949, the correlation of forces began to shift against the French. The collapse of Chiang Kai-shek’s regime and the arrival of Mao Zedong’s soldiers along the border allowed the Viet Minh to receive extensive military aid from the Chinese Communists. By late summer 1950, the Viet Minh’s first well-trained and -equipped regiments handed the French a series of defeats along the border areas in capturing the forts of Cao Bang and Lang Son.
It appeared that France’s days in Vietnam were numbered, but two important events intervened. Well to the north in East Asia, the Korean War exploded with Kim Il-sung’s invasion of South Korea. The outbreak of that war changed American attitudes toward the war in Vietnam. Many in Washington quickly concluded the French were waging a war against the spread of Communism and that if the Viet Minh won, the rest of Southeast Asia would fall like a row of dominoes. The collapse of the North Korean invasion then forced the Chinese to intervene, which limited their ability to aid Ho and Giap. Nevertheless, Giap made the mistake of overestimating Viet Minh capabilities. At the beginning of 1951, believing his troops could take on the French in a straight-up, conventional battle, he launched three major attacks against French positions along the Red River Delta. But while Chinese aid to the Viet Minh had decreased, American aid to the beleaguered French forces had increased significantly.
Perhaps most important, General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, one of the most competent French generals since the great Napoleon, had arrived in Vietnam as the commander of French forces. De Lattre had commented to his aides on arrival, “My presence is worth a division.” To a considerable extent, he was right. In a short period of time, he rebuilt French morale. Using aircraft and other equipment provided by the Americans, de Lattre’s forces savaged the attacking Viet Minh in three major battles, first in January, then in March, and finally in May 1951. But de Lattre’s time in Vietnam was short. He died in January 1952, and the French generals who followed had little of his drive and none of his competence.
Meanwhile, the war continued. Giap recognized the fact that his forces were not yet capable of taking on the French in a stand-up, conventional fight. Thus, he focused on husbanding his forces, striking at isolated French garrisons, undermining French control of the countryside politically and militarily, especially in the Red River Delta, and responding to French offensive strikes that moved out from the defensive positions around the delta. These French attacks resembled efforts to punch a pillow, because the Viet Minh simply pulled back deeper into the jungle. Moreover, while the French found it relatively easy to reach their objectives in the heavily forested areas held by the Viet Minh, pulling back proved a more difficult matter, as Giap concentrated his reserves and forced the French to fight their way back to the delta. By 1953, the balance of forces in Vietnam had created a stalemate, but one that was sliding slowly in favor of the Viet Minh. Although the French continued to dominate the conventional arena, Giap’s forces were gaining an increasing hold over the countryside. Admittedly the Americans were providing substantial aid, but that aid came at a price—namely, increasing pressure to create an independent Vietnam, precisely the political result against which the French were fighting. On the other hand, and perhaps most dangerous for French prospects, was the unpopularity of the war in France. Time was the ally of the Viet Minh.
THE DECISION TO FIGHT AT DIEN BIEN PHU
In May 1953, the French government appointed a new commander in chief for the war, General Henri Navarre. Navarre had considerable combat experience; he had fought on the western front in the First World War from 1917 through 1918, had two years fighting guerrillas in Morocco in the early 1920s, and had commanded a regiment in the advance into Germany in 1945. But during the interwar years and after the Second World War, he had served in intelligence and staff positions. Moreover, he had never served in Asia and knew almost nothing about the war in Vietnam. Astonishingly, that was why he was picked. Upon his arrival in the theater, Navarre did streamline the organization and coordination of the three French services, but he made relatively few personnel changes. The most important of these was to appoint Brigadier General (soon Major General) René Cogny to command the key northern region of Vietnam, in particular the Red River Delta. The general was six feet four, handsome, definitely a ladies’ man, possessed of impressive credentials—but also, as Navarre discovered, an intriguer who made considerable efforts to ensure that others would take the blame if things went wrong.
The basic strategic problem the French faced was that they were attempting to do too much with too little. Their opponents, however, had almost complete freedom of action to attack when it was in their interests. In June 1953, Cogny suggested that French forces launch a deep airborne attack on the provincial town of Dien Bien Phu in the northwestern hill country of Vietnam. He would later claim that his aim was to create a base from which the French could mount guerrilla operations using the indigenous population to attack the Viet Minh’s rear areas and logistical system. Navarre liked the idea, but he viewed Dien Bien Phu as a blocking position to prevent further Viet Minh incursions into Laos and capable of withstanding a siege.
The two concepts addressed similar problems—namely, how to deprive the Viet Minh of their relative freedom of maneuver by threatening their base areas—but French decision making rested on two fatal assumptions: (1) Given the appalling terrain that surrounded Dien Bien Phu, Giap and the Viet Minh would lack the expertise and logistical capabilities to mount a prolonged siege; and (2) Such would be the superiority of French firepower, artillery, and airpower in Dien Bien Phu that, as had happened in the 1951 winter and spring battles, the French would slaughter attacking Viet Minh infantry and suppress whatever artillery Giap’s troops dragged across the mountainous jungles of northwestern Vietnam. French leaders also hoped they could attract the Viet Minh into a meat grinder battle, in which they could inflict such heavy losses on their opponents that Ho would have to come to the peace table on their terms. The French picked Dien Bien Phu because they believed the valley in which it lay was sufficiently large, unlike the other valleys in the northeast of Vietnam, to allow the garrison to strike Viet Minh rear areas. The fact that major hills surrounded it on all sides, and thus provided excellent observation for Viet Minh artillery positions, failed to bother the French because they believed they would dominate the artillery battle.
What the French missed in their assessment was that Dien Bien Phu’s location would make it an attractive target for Giap, because its defenders would consist largely of light infantry with limited artillery and armor support, all of which an air bridge from Hanoi would have to support over a considerable distance. That distance would also affect the ability of bombers and fighters to provide close air support for the defenders. The French also failed to recognize that the Viet Minh, heirs of the French Revolution, would willingly pay an extraordinary price to move their forces and the required artillery to the hills surrounding the valley.
Navarre selected a dashing cavalryman, Colonel Christian Marie Ferdinand de Castries, to command the garrison at Dien Bien Phu once French paratroopers had seized the area. Castries had an outstanding combat record but lacked both the rank and the experience for the assignment. In fact, it was a paratrooper, Lieutenant Colonel Pierre Charles Langlais, who would assume combat command of defending Dien Bien Phu once the Viet Minh offensive began. The real weakness in Castries’s assignment lay in the fact that as a mere colonel, he ran into considerable difficulty in getting Cogny and his staff in Hanoi to recognize the difficulties the garrison was confronting as well as its desperate need for resupply and particularly for more troops.
THE BUILDING OF THE FORTRESS
So the die was cast. On November 20, 1953, the first waves of C-47s took off from Hanoi’s Bach Mai Airfield. The first paratroopers to drop were from the 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion (Bataillon de Parachutistes Coloniaux, BPC), under one of the legendary French soldiers to fight at Dien Bien Phu, Major Marcel Bigeard. Initially, the 6th BPC ran into significant opposition from the local Viet Minh, but by midday succeeding waves of paratroopers had gained control of the valley. By nightfall, three battalions of paratroopers had seized the area around the town and had solid control of the three drop zones. Overwhelmed by French numbers and firepower, Viet Minh Regiment 148 withdrew into the hills, leaving behind more than one hundred dead. Now the process of the buildup began. On the day after the first drops, the commander of French airborne forces in Vietnam, Brigadier General Jean Gilles, after carefully stowing his glass eye in the pocket of his parachute, jumped into the valley along with additional reinforcements. By November 22, the last of the paratroopers had arrived along with the airborne combat engineers to build the airfield on which the steadily increasing garrison would depend for survival. Yet there was a considerable gap between what it was possible for the engineers to accomplish and what would be required to make Dien Bien Phu defensible against a major Viet Minh attack. Simply put, they had too much to do in laying out not one but two landing fields and constructing roads and bridges with minimal troops and resources, so they devoted little or no effort to constructing fortified bunkers, trenches, and barbed-wire emplacements. The engineers were short approximately 30,000 tons of the minimal requirements to make Dien Bien Phu defensible. Through December and into January, with other heavy commitments throughout Vietnam, the airlift into Dien Bien Phu barely totaled 150 tons per day.
Thus, the effort to create defensive positions throughout the valley fell to the soldiers themselves. Here, there were other difficulties. Given that Navarre intended Dien Bien Phu to serve as a base from which French commandos and native guerrillas would strike at the Viet Minh, why expend major efforts at building strong defenses? The elite troops who formed much of the garrison were by their nature and training little disposed to spend time digging bunkers and trenches or emplacing barbed-wire entanglements. Only on strongpoint Gabrielle did the defenders, tough Algerians, fortify two complete defensive lines. All the other positions possessed only a single defensive line. To add to Dien Bien Phu’s vulnerabilities, the garrison’s soldiers quickly stripped most of the vegetation off their positions, partially to create fields of fire, but also for firewood. They also failed to camouflage their positions. The result was that when the Viet Minh struck in March, they could observe virtually everything that was happening in the valley, while the fortified zones that were supposed to protect the main positions were hardly imposing.
Exacerbating the whole problem of defending the valley was the fact that the French began serious work on constructing defensible positions only at the end of January, when it appeared the Viet Minh were about to attack. Although Giap’s troops would not attack for another month and a half, it was already too late. Nevertheless, as early as mid-December, French patrols and raiding parties had run into significant Viet Minh forces, and by the end of the month, it was clear the garrison would not be able to conduct deep-penetration raids in the jungles north of Dien Bien Phu. In fact, by early January the Viet Minh ring was drawing ever closer around the garrison. By the end of the month, French intelligence had picked up the presence of three main Viet Minh divisions, the 308th, 316th, and 304th, north and northeast of the valley. It should have been clear to Cogny and his staff that they should either immediately pull out as much of the garrison as possible or heavily reinforce the defenders. They did neither, instead resembling a group of freshman psychology students watching the rats run around their cages. Navarre refused to consider a pullout, while Cogny committed much of his mobile reserves to other operations.
By mid-March, the correlation of forces was already strongly weighted against the French. By that point, Viet Minh logistics had managed to build up in the hills overlooking Dien Bien Phu a reserve supply of shells—3,000 120 mm, 15,000 105 mm, 21,000 81 mm, 5,000 75 mm, and 44,000 37 mm—for their howitzers, flak, and mortars. Altogether, Giap’s soldiers transported and dragged through the jungle approximately 45 105 mm howitzers, 48 75 mm pack howitzers, 48 120 mm heavy mortars, and a bit more than 48 75 mm re-coilless rifles of the 351st Heavy Division. They then dug these into caves on the forward slopes of the hills surrounding Dien Bien Phu, from which they could easily trundle their weapons out, fire, and quickly drag them back under cover before French counterbattery fire could reply. In addition, the Viet Minh brought twenty-eight infantry battalions, numbering some 37,000 soldiers; to that total, Giap would throw another 10,000 reserves into the battle, many half-trained.
Against these numbers, the French counted some 10,814 infantry, tankers, and artillery soldiers. Of these, 1,412 were from mainland France; 2,969 were soldiers of the Foreign Legion, including 2,607 North Africans and 247 Africans (nearly all gunners); and 3,579 were Vietnamese and mountain tribesmen. Nearly all the officers and the majority of the NCOs were French. The French and legionnaires were outstanding soldiers; the North Africans were as well, but the morale of many of them deteriorated toward the battle’s end. The Vietnamese paratroopers were at times outstanding, but at other times their morale proved shaky; the hill tribesmen, trained to fight as guerrillas, were hopeless. The paratroopers, including the Vietnamese, the legionnaires, and the specialist tankers and gunners, formed the heart of the garrison, and they would fight to the last. During the battle, 4,291 soldiers jumped into Dien Bien Phu as reinforcements; 680 of these were not jump qualified.