Dien Bien Phu victory in 1954 

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Dien Bien Phu victory in 1954

The fifth provincial popular arts festival was held in northwestern Dien Bien Province on May 6 to mark the 54th anniversary of the Dien Bien Phu victory (May 7).


The battle.
March 13-May 8, 1954

The attack was expected because in the past few days, the Viets had evacuated the inhabitants from the valley, both those who were still living there  and those who came down to attend to their chores.

On that day, legend has it that Ho Chi Minh, surrounded by his staff in his command post at Muong Phan, half-way between Dien Bien Phu and Tuan Ciao, took off his tropical helmet, turned it over and putting his fist in it said,"  The French are here."  And slowly running his finger around the edge he quietly said in a sly manner " and we are here."

The fight between the tiger and the elephant was about to begin:  the tiger, hiding in the jungle, would worry the immobile elephant who would slowly bleed to death.

The attack took place on the evening of Saturday, March 13, 1954 after an intense artillery preparation targeting in particular Beatrice (the north-eastern bolt) and Gabrielle (the northern bolt).

The artillery fire was extremely heavy, almost 9,000 shells, and lasted all night.  In spite of bitter and bloody fighting, redoubt Beatrice fell within several hours (with heavy losses on both sides).  The quick Viet minh victory was aided by an unfortunate combination of circumstances:  the four officers, including Lt. Col. Gaucher, who were in charge of the defense of Beatrice were killed in the first minutes of battle by two shells which exploded in their bunker.  In addition, the 3/13 Foreign Legion Half Brigade was understrength that evening (450 men instead of 517) having detached to the central redoubt personnel who were then unable to rejoin their units.

March 14:  The 5th Vietnamese Parachute Battalion (commanded by Capt., later Major, Botella)  held in reserve in the delta, were parachuted in as reinforcements during the battle and suffered losses  soon after their arrival.

March 14, evening:   The scenario of the previous day was repeated with redoubt Gabrielle the target.  Defended by the 5/7 Algerian Rifles, this strong point came under attack at 2000 hours after heavy and murderous artillery bombardment.  Fighting was extremely violent. At 0230, March 15,the enemy gained a foothold on the north-eastern slope.  At 0500 the Viet minh overran the position having killed or wounded most of the defenders.  The French counter-attack on the morning of the 15th was unsuccessful.  The survivors of the two strongpoints rejoined the main force but the covering positions north and north-east of Dien Bien Phu had disappeared.

March 16:  The 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion (commanded by Major Bigeard) was dropped into the valley. Colonel Piroth, the artillery commander, aware that he had vastly under estimated his adversary, committed suicide.

March 18:  The 3rd T’ai battalion abandoned their positions on Anne-Marie which defended the approaches to the camp from the north west.  The position was immediately reorganized:  part of it was abandoned and the rest was attached to Huguette, which defended the airstrip from the north and north-west. Living conditions in Dien Bien Phu, under constant artillery fire, became difficult.  The Viet minh attempted to cut the road to Isabelle in order to isolate it.  Medical evacuations became more and more problematic.

The airstrip was under constant  artillery fire. Elements of the 35th Airborne Light Artillery Regiment jumped in as reinforcements  on March 22nd. Soon daytime landings became impossible and only landings at night with all the risks that that entailed were made.  But after a few days no further landings of any type could be made.  The risks were too great and too many planes had been damaged.  The last helicopter was shot down on take-off on March 23. 

The last  medical evacuation took place on March 26th. A medevac plane  landed in March 28th but was damaged and could not take off. A Women’s Air Force nurse, Genevieve de Galard was on board. She remained at Dien Bien Phu and her devotion to duty and courage were admired by all.

General Giap set about accomplishing a methodical asphyxiation of the camp by digging a network of trenches which surrounded the strongpoints like tentacles.  In this way the enemy was able to infiltrate the camp.  The trenches were intended to isolate the centers of resistance and to serve as a safe jumping off point for assaulting  the strongpoints.  He did not relax his efforts, harassing and bombarding the French positions daily.

March 28:  An offensive operation was effectively conducted against the Viet minh anti-aircraft emplacements west of Dien Bien Phu. Losses were heavy on both sides;  20 killed including 2 officers and 76 wounded including 5 officers for the French, while the Viet minh suffered 350 killed and probably 1000 wounded. A large number of weapons were captured (17 machine guns, 2 bazookas, 14 automatic rifles, 100 rifles) and 40 prisoners were taken.

At the height of the battle for Dien Bien Phu, between assaults and in the fracas of exploding shells, the Viet minh, used loud speakers to exhort the French to desert.  They addressed mainly the Legionnaires who were known for their spirit of adventure and the African and North-African troops who they felt would be more susceptible to their anti-colonial arguments.  They promised to spare the lives of any deserters and promised them material benefits and a rapid liberation. They also encouraged mutiny and claimed they would give a particularly warm reception to any one who would turn their weapons on their colonial masters before deserting.  Leaflets were thrown into the strongpoints (an example is shown in the annex).  These activities had little effect.

March 31:  Dominique 2 and Eliane 1 are reoccupied but for lack of reinforcements had to be evacuated that night after the engaged units suffered heavy losses. At the same time the positions protecting the northern end of the airstrip were attacked.  The battle for the Huguettes had begun.

April2:  The 2/1 Colonial Parachute Regiment as well as elements of the Airborne Light Artillery Regiment arrive  by parachute.  Frontal attacks stopped only on April 6, but the area of the camp, which Dominique overlooked, had been noticeably reduced and liaison with Isabelle became impossible.  Replacements parachuting in are exposed more and more to enemy fire.  Losses are heavy and the wounded pile up in the hospitals where the surgeons operate under incredible conditions.  Their unflagging devotion to duty and tireless efforts were exemplary;  and the same may be said for Major Grauwin, who was in charge of triage. After some difficulty with his troops, some of whom refused to attack (displaying rightist tendencies according to General Giap), the Viet minh command, having suffered heavy losses, slowed down the tempo of massive attacks after April 6.  But the work of trench digging and encirclement went on unabated.  On May 1st, it is estimated they totaled 400 km. in length.  The strategy of asphyxiation combined with selective attacks and constant harassing actions nibbled away at the defenses. The French command was forced to gradually draw their defenses in closer ad closer.  Viet minh artillery fire was continuous and concentrated on the garrison’s shrunken perimeter. From April 9 to the 11th  a fourth parachute battalion, the 2nd Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion was dropped and made possible a counter attack on the eastern face of the camp. In the last days of April the monsoon arrived.  Trenches became quagmires and bunkers collapsed.  Viet shelling caused devastating mud slides. Several factors operated to prevent French air power from playing the deciding role planned for it:  excessive distance between Hanoi and Dien Bien Phu (350 kms.), the unexpected turn the land battle took, unfavorable weather conditions, chaotic and mountainous terrain in the area of Dien Bien Phu making overflights dangerous, density of the vegetation which provided an invisible natural shelter to the Viet minh, intensity of the enemy anti-aircraft defenses tucked away under thick shelters on inaccessible caves in steep limestone cliffs.

On the French side the 4306 replacements parachuted in between March 14 and May 6 did not make up for the losses suffered between those dates (1,500 killed and more than 4,000 wounded).  Among the replacements were 709 non jump-qualified men who volunteered to fight in Dien Bien Phu after April 20, often jumping at night.  Many were Vietnamese who volunteered to join their comrades in the besieged garrison.

Units were decimated.  The 2nd Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion suffered particularly high losses in the abortive attack on April 23 (to retake Huguette 1) and the survivors who were fit for combat were merged with the remnants of the 1st Foreign Legion Battalion. The resulting unit was commanded by Major Guiraud.  The virtual disappearance of this Foreign Legion unit in effect ceded the camp’s western face to the Viets.

End of April, 1954:  The underground hospitals of the fortified camp were full and the strongpoints were overflowing with wounded who lay in the mud of the uncertain shelter of command posts.  They numbered in the hundreds and the less severely wounded continued to serve automatic weapons from firing positions in the trenches.  Dozens of wounded Viet minh prisoners commingled with the French wounded were given the same care by the French doctors who did their utmost. At the end of April, while parachute drops had become less and less effective and were often dropped behind the Viet minh lines because of the restricted French perimeter and the intensity of the anti-aircraft fire, the enemy was preparing to launch the final offensive  after having made good his losses in manpower and replenished his supply of ammunition.

May 2-5:  388 men from the last reserve parachute battalion, the 1st Colonial Parachute Battalion, were parachuted into Dien Bien Phu at the request of Col. De Castries.  The heavy, constant rain was drowning the besieged camp and hampering aerial  intervention.  But an old saying attributed to Marshall Joffre remained valid:  "When it rains on you it also rains on your enemy." Pilots had more and more difficulty in finding and recognizing the shrunken drop zone and in locating the beacons.  Moreover, they would come under automatic weapons fire which opened up from all directions as soon as a plane appeared.  They were also hampered by illumination rounds and searchlights while their open doors could be distinguished by the faint light from inside the plane. The French always hoped to be able to hold out as long as possible and to prolong the battle until the Geneva Conference, which opened on April 26, could come to an agreement on a cease fire in Indo-china.

May4:  The garrison fired approximately 4,000 rounds on Viet minh positions.  In the final days the Viet minh intensified the artillery barrage just as the general offensive had been stepped up.  Stalin’s organs appeared on the scene.  Their shattering explosions occurring in series caused enormous damage to bunkers already undermined by the monsoon. The effect on morale was devastating.  The six tube rocket launchers had been  tried and tested in WWII by the Russians and had been devastating in their effect on the Germans.  Stalin’s organs would arrive with a monstrous howl.  Dien Bien Phu disappeared in a cloud of mud thrown up by the shelling. At the same time, at redoubt Isabelle six kms. to the south, the situation was just as tragic. The disastrous effects of the monsoon which flooded trenches and collapsed bunkers, in addition to the devastating disruption caused by the Viet minh artillery fire, which was increasing in crescendo, had transformed the strongpoint into a muddy jumble.  Blown up fortifications became entanglements of barbed wire, bits and pieces of bunkers and wrecked equipment.

May 6:  The largest supply drop in eight days:  196 tons were dropped by 50 C-119’s and C-47’s.  But it came too late to be of any use. A large part of the drop landed outside the small area the French still controlled and the Viet Minh gathered it in.  Clear skies on May 6 allowed massive air attacks.  47 B-26 bombers, 18 Corsairs, 26 Bearcats, 16 Helldivers and 5 Privateers took part.  Faced with such a large air armada the Viet minh AA batteries  discretely remained silent to keep from being located. Late in the afternoon, with the suddenness  of an earthquake, a rumbling filled the air and the entire garrison was shaken by a series of explosions  of a heretofore unheard of intensity.  The Viet minh were firing with all their weapons.  The camp was in flames;  bunkers collapsed and trenches were flattened in clouds of dirt.

2100 hours:   The general attack begins.  The camp replies with fire from all remaining mortars and artillery guns.  Then after a short respite the enemy fire begins again at 2200 hours.  Redoubt Isabelle loses all but one of its mortars. It still has 2,000 105 mm. rounds but only one 105 piece to fire them.

2300 hours:  The apocalypse.  The Viet minh attempt to blow  up the strongpoint on Eliane 2 with a charge of 1 ton of TNT placed in a mine shaft which extended 50 yards under the French defenses.  The mine does not completely explode.  Resistance on Eliane 2 is fierce and acts of heroism abound. But the Viets  infiltrate into the muddy trenches and encircle the position.  The defenders fall back to Eliane 4. Fighting continues throughout the night.

Dawn, May 7:  Meteorologically speaking... glorious.  A breathing space.  The French and Viet minh positions  are intermingled. Dominique and Eliane have fallen. Trenches are filled with the dead and wounded of both sides.  At 0700 hours the Viet minh openly regroup on Eliane 1 for a new and probably final assault. In the command post of Colonel de Castries, who had just been promoted to general, there is resignation  but not despair.  By  1000 hours the Viet minh completely occupy the Elianes.  The French have neither the ammunition nor the reserves to make a counter attack.  All the bunkers are packed with wounded.  Those who are not wounded are prisoners.  Practically the entire sector east of the Nam Yum is in the hands of the Viets. General Cogny sends a final message to General de Castries expressing the desire that there be no surrender, no white flag.  " The firing has to die of its own.  You mustn’t mess up what you have done," he says.

The cease fire order takes effect at 1700 hours.  After destroying all material and supplies the command post at Dien Bien Phu sends a final message to Hanoi:  "We’re blowing up everything. Adieu." A few minutes later the Viet minh burst into the central command post and occupy the nearby trenches.  A gold starred red flag is hoisted over the bunker.  Dien Bien Phu has fallen but has not surrendered. Meanwhile, at Isabelle 6 km. to the south, the fighting goes on.  The roar of the Viet minh artillery can be heard pounding Isabelle for several more hours.  Lt. Col. Lalande hesitates to attempt operation Albatross, an attempt to break out to the south with the remaining troops fit for combat and join up with friendly forces.  The sortie is attempted during the night of May7-8.  It almost succeeds.  Most of the units involved in the attempt are intercepted.  Only a few individuals succeed in breaking through the Viet minh lines and reaching French outposts after an exhausting weeks long march through a hostile Viet minh infested jungle.

May 8:  At 0100 hours, Isabelle ceases firing.  Dien Bien Phu no longer exists. It is a political disaster since the Viet minh victory marks the beginning of the end of the French colonial empire.  The day after the fall of Dien Bien Phu, at the Conference in Geneva, the French ask for an armistice. During the battle, a certain number of actions had been planned to either evacuate or relieve Dien Bien Phu.  Several columns tried unsuccessfully to reach the fortified camp. But only the partisans remained to carry out sustained guerilla warfare in the mountains.


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