The Fall of Dien Bien Phu

Richard Cavendish describes the French defeat in Indochina, on May 7th, 1954.

During the Second World War the Vietminh Communist guerrillas fought the Japanese in French Indo-China, with American assistance, under a baby-faced general in his thirties, Vo Nguyen Giap. Formerly a history master in Hanoi, he had a keen admiration for Napoleon, whose campaigns he had studied. After 1945 the Vietminh turned to expelling the French, which was a task to Giap’s liking. His young wife had died in a French prison. The struggle continued inconclusively, with little enthusiasm in France for la sale guerre, until in 1953 a new French commander, General Henri Navarre, planned to lure Giap’s irregulars into a set-piece battle in which they could be destroyed. In November the French seized an unprepossessing settlement of bamboo huts on stilts in a valley in the north. They turned Dien Bien Phu into a fortified base with a garrison some 14,000 strong, including crack paratroops and Foreign legionnaires, with two mobile brothels, commanded by the dashing Colonel Christian de Castries. It was to be a môle d’amarrage, or mooring point, from which the French could dominate the surrounding area and onto which they could draw Giap. The French built nine outlying strongpoints in the valley and gave them women’s names, allegedly after their commanding officer’s mistresses.

Giap took the bait and caught the French in a trap. He moved 50,000 men to the valley and dug in his field guns and howitzers, provided by the Chinese, on the surrounding hills. Some of the howitzers were American, recently captured in Korea. Giap’s guns commanded the two French airstrips and not only made it impossible to fly reinforcements and supplies into the base except by parachute, but also made it impossible to escape. After head-on assaults had taken the Gabrielle and Beatrice strongpoints in March 1954, Colonel Charles Piroth, the one-armed French artillery chief, felt so dishonoured that he blew himself to pieces with a grenade.

Giap’s men dug a network of trenches and tunnels which protected them against fierce air attacks. They stormed more of the strongpoints, took the main airfield and steadily tightened their grip on the French, who also took to trenches for cover from a fearsome Vietminh artillery bombardment that continued for eight weeks. Frontal asaults with heavy losses on both sides weakened the French, who fought heroically, but eventually could no longer resist one last desperate and bloody hand-to-hand attack. Almost at the end, with Vietminh soldiers pouring across the muddy ground, the Isabelle stronghold was still holding out. In his last radio message out of the base, de Castries said, ‘We can no longer do anything. We will not surrender. They’re a few yards away... now they’re everywhere.’ He ordered the heavy guns in Isabelle to be turned on his own command bunker if the enemy broke through, but he was taken prisoner when the Vietminh red flag rose above the French redoubt on May 7th. Of some 10,000 French soldiers left alive, only about 3,000 survived the conditions in the prison camps. At a conference in Geneva the French conceded independence to the two mutually antagonistic states of North and South Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh became president of North Vietnam and Giap would remain commander-in-chief against the Americans in the 1960s and 1970s. He told an Italian journalist in 1969: ‘Every minute hundreds of thousands of people die on this earth. The life or death of a hundred, a thousand, tens of thousands of human beings, even our compatriots, means little.’