French Paratroopers Deploy to Dien Bien Phu
During the Pacific Campaign in World War II, the Viet Minh were led by Ho Chi Minh into a deadly grinding guerrilla campaign against the Japanese occupiers. Vo Ngyuen Giap was a young man organizing rebel insurgents to harass the Japanese which bought him favor with Ho Chi Mihn. After the Japanese surrendered, Minh declared himself President and Giap became a minister in Ho Chi Minh’s government.
The French, however were determined to regain their French Indo Chinese empire and immediately set up military outposts from Cambodia and Thailand to Vietnam and Laos. Giap did manage to assemble an army of roughly 10,000 soldiers and secret operatives. Many of his operatives worked as bar tenders during the day, but at night they took up arms and fought to mundify their country of the French. In the early 1950s Giap had staged a few victories by overrunning French garrisons in the countryside. It made great headlines and bothered the French of course, but it was a far cry from defeating the French.
Between May and June of 1951, along the Day River Delta, Vo Nguyen Giap took on a force of three NVA divisions against a force three French battalions under Jean de Lattre de Tassigny. In the ensuing week, the daylight army of the French crushed the Viet Minh and left them with over 10,000 casualties and over 1000 prisoners.
Giap drew the right conclusion, and decided that his only way to winning was to fight as guerrillas who refuse to quit. His strategy never was to beat the French outright on the battlefield. He simply wanted to make it not worth the stay. This is the most common way that locals defeat occupiers.
That said, Giap did enjoy one spectacular ground campaign against the French. The Battle was an attempt by the French to draw out the Viet Minh in a parade ground battle and defeat them with force of might and superior firepower. It took the French a few months to build up a chain of fire bases in a bowl shaped valley below heavily wooded, almost impenetrable forests, a few hours west of Hanoi almost to the Laotian border. The battle ran from March 13th 1954 to May 7th 1954 in a place called Dien Bien Phu. There, 20,000 French troops were deployed in and around seven satellite firebases, each names after a mistress of the French commander Colonel Christian de Castries. ( Isabelle, Dominique, Claudine, Elaine, Ann Marie, Gabrielle and Beatrice). The Nam Yum River split the encampments and on the west of that river the French built an airstrip. The French forces consisted of regular army, plus elite paratroopers, Foreign Legionnaires out of Algeria and Morocco, and local auxiliaries. In the three months before the fighting began, Giap had quietly moved 50,000 Vietminh troops surrounding the French position. Not only did he move troops into place, he had heavy artillery, much of it dismantled and take part by part on bicycle and foot through the tortuous trails surrounding the valley. All of the ammunition was brought up the same way.
They tip-toed in. And waited.
French Survivors Marched Off To POW Camps
The French had no idea, and wouldn’t dare believe that twice the number of troops had slipped in without notice. The Vietminh had built revetments in secret redoubts and placed artillery in well camouflaged emplacements in the surrounding hills.
The battle began on March 13th when the Vietminh poured artillery fire into compound Beatrice. The size and accuracy of the Viet Minh artillery stunned the French defenders. Before the day was out the French defenders collapsed and the garrison was taken with 500 French forces killed and hundreds more casualties. The next day the French began counter attack to retake Beatrice, but withering artillery fire stopped the elite Algerian French Foreign Legion troopers and they withdrew permanently from the outpost. On March 14th the airstrip was permanently taken out of the fight with heavy Vietminh artillery. In only a few days, Gabrielle and Ann Marie were overrun on March 17th. French auxiliaries in Ann Maire in fact defected. The French were suffering a crisis in command as they realized that Castries could not competently defend against the Viet Minh. Their one armed artillery commander, Charles Piroth went into a dugout and killed himself with a hand grenade.
M-24 Chafee Tank
On March 30th, fierce fighting began for Elaine and Dominique. On May 6th, Vietminh sappers detonated a massive mine under Elaine, and French forces began withdrawing. On May 7th, the Vietminh overrun Isabelle and force French troops, not out of supplies, escaped under fire.
Negotiations for peace began in earnest. Resupply was now happening by air, and much of the drops missed their targets and were captured by the Vietminh. Monsoons soaked the beleaguered French as well. Sickness, starvation, and infections weakened the already exhausted soldiers. Also, France pleaded with the US to bomb the Vietminh with their huge air force. But Eisenhower demurred.
On May 7th, with no hope for a victory or relief the French surrendered. France was left still a player in Southeast Asia, but no longer the occupiers.
Sources:Vietnam Day By Day, Leo Daugherty Chartwell Book, 2012; Wiki, Commanders, R.G. Grant, DK Publishing 2010.