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The Battle of Dien Bien Phu (French: Bataille de Diên Biên Phu pronounced [bataj də djɛn bjɛn fy]; Vietnamese: Chiến dịch Điện Biên Phủ, IPA: [ɗîəˀn ɓīən fû]) was the climactic confrontation of the First Indochina War between the French Union's French Far East Expeditionary Corps and Viet Minh communist revolutionaries. It was, from the French view before the event, a set piece battle to draw out the Vietnamese and destroy them with superior firepower. The battle occurred between March and May 1954 and culminated in a comprehensive French defeat that influenced negotiations underway at Geneva among several nations over the future of Indochina.
As a result of blunders in French decision-making, the French began an operation to insert, then support, the soldiers at Điện Biên Phủ, deep in the hills of northwestern Vietnam. Its purpose was to cut off Viet Minh supply lines into the neighboring Kingdom of Laos, a French ally, and tactically draw the Viet Minh into a major confrontation in order to cripple them. The plan was to resupply the French position by air, and was based on the belief that the Viet Minh had no anti-aircraft capability. The Viet Minh, however, under General Võ Nguyên Giáp, surrounded and besieged the French. The Viet Minh brought in vast amounts of heavy artillery (including anti-aircraft guns). They managed to move these bulky weapons through difficult terrain up the rear slopes of the mountains surrounding the French positions, dug tunnels through the mountain and placed the artillery pieces overlooking the French encampment. This strategic positioning of the artillery made it nearly impervious to French counter-battery fire.
The Viet Minh opened fire with a massive artillery bombardment in March. After several days the French artillery commander, Charles Piroth, unable to respond with any effective counterbattery fire, committed suicide. The Viet Minh occupied the highlands around Điện Biên Phủ and bombarded the French positions. Tenacious fighting on the ground ensued, reminiscent of the trench warfare of World War I. The French repeatedly repulsed Viet Minh assaults on their positions. Supplies and reinforcements were delivered by air, though as the key French positions were overrun, the French perimeter contracted and the air resupply on which the French had placed their hopes became impossible. As the Viet Minh antiaircraft fire took its toll, fewer and fewer of those supplies reached the French. The garrison was overrun in May after a two-month siege, and most of the French forces surrendered. A few of them escaped to Laos. The French government in Paris then resigned, and the new Prime Minister, the left-of-centre Pierre Mendès France, supported French withdrawal from Indochina.
The war ended shortly after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and the signing of the 1954 Geneva Accords. France agreed to withdraw its forces from all its colonies in French Indochina, while stipulating that Vietnam would be temporarily divided at the 17th parallel, with control of the north given to the Viet Minh as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh, and the south becoming the State of Vietnam, nominally under Emperor Bảo Đại, preventing Ho Chi Minh from gaining control of the entire country. The refusal of Ngô Đình Diệm (the US-supported president of the first Republic of Vietnam [RVN]) to allow elections in 1956, as had been stipulated by the Geneva Conference, eventually led to the Vietnam War.
By 1953, the First Indochina War was not going well for France. A succession of commanders – Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque, Jean Étienne Valluy, Roger Blaizot, Marcel Carpentier, Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, and Raoul Salan – had proven incapable of suppressing the insurrection of the Viet Minh fighting for independence. During their 1952–53 campaign, the Viet Minh had overrun vast swathes of Laos, a French ally and Vietnam's western neighbor, advancing as far as Luang Prabang and the Plain of Jars. The French were unable to slow the Viet Minh advance, who fell back only after outrunning their always-tenuous supply lines. In 1953, the French had begun to strengthen their defenses in the Hanoi delta region to prepare for a series of offensives against Viet Minh staging areas in northwest Vietnam. They set up fortified towns and outposts in the area, including Lai Châu near the Chinese border to the north, Nà Sản to the west of Hanoi, and the Plain of Jars in northern Laos.
In May 1953, French Premier René Mayer appointed Henri Navarre, a trusted colleague, to take command of French Union Forces in Indochina. Mayer had given Navarre a single order—to create military conditions that would lead to an "honorable political solution". According to military scholar Phillip Davidson,
On arrival, Navarre was shocked by what he found. There had been no long-range plan since de Lattre's departure. Everything was conducted on a day-to-day, reactive basis. Combat operations were undertaken only in response to enemy moves or threats. There was no comprehensive plan to develop the organization and build up the equipment of the Expeditionary force. Finally, Navarre, the intellectual, the cold and professional soldier, was shocked by the "school's out" attitude of Salan and his senior commanders and staff officers. They were going home, not as victors or heroes, but then, not as clear losers either. To them the important thing was that they were getting out of Indochina with their reputations frayed, but intact. They gave little thought to, or concern for, the problems of their successors.
Simultaneously, Navarre had been searching for a way to stop the Viet Minh threat to Laos. Colonel Louis Berteil, commander of Mobile Group 7 and Navarre's main planner, formulated the hérisson ("hedgehog") concept. The French army would establish a fortified airhead by airlifting soldiers adjacent to a key Viet Minh supply line to Laos. They would cut off Viet Minh soldiers fighting in Laos and force them to withdraw. "It was an attempt to interdict the enemy's rear area, to stop the flow of supplies and reinforcements, to establish a redoubt in the enemy's rear and disrupt his lines".
The hedgehog concept was based on French experiences at the Battle of Nà Sản. In late November and early December 1952, Giáp attacked the French outpost at Nà Sản, which was essentially an "air-land base", a fortified camp supplied only by air. The French beat back Giáp's forces repeatedly, causing them to suffer very heavy losses. The French hoped that by repeating the strategy on a much larger scale, they would be able to lure Giáp into committing the bulk of his forces in a massed assault. This would enable superior French artillery, armor, and air support to decimate the exposed Viet Minh forces. The experience at Nà Sản convinced Navarre of the viability of the fortified airhead concept.
French staff officers disastrously failed to treat seriously several crucial differences between Điện Biên Phủ and Nà Sản: First, at Nà Sản, the French commanded most of the high ground with overwhelming artillery support. At Điện Biên Phủ, however, the Viet Minh controlled much of the high ground around the valley, their artillery far exceeded French expectations, and they outnumbered the French troops four to one. Giáp compared Điện Biên Phủ to a "rice bowl," where his troops occupied the edge and the French the bottom. Second, Giáp made a mistake in Nà Sản by committing his forces to reckless frontal attacks before being fully prepared. He learned his lesson: at Điện Biên Phủ, Giáp spent months meticulously stockpiling ammunition and emplacing heavy artillery and antiaircraft guns before making his move. Teams of Viet Minh volunteers were sent into the French camp to scout the disposition of the French artillery. Artillery pieces were located within well constructed and camouflaged casemates. As a result, when the battle finally began, the Viet Minh knew exactly where the French artillery pieces were, while the French did not even know how many guns Giáp possessed. Third, the aerial resupply lines at Nà Sản were never severed, despite Viet Minh antiaircraft fire. At Điện Biên Phủ, Giáp amassed antiaircraft batteries that quickly shut down the runway, and made it extremely difficult and costly for the French to bring in reinforcements.
In June, Major General René Cogny, the commander of the Tonkin Delta, proposed Điện Biên Phủ, which had an old airstrip built by the Japanese during World War II, as a "mooring point". In another misunderstanding, Cogny envisioned a lightly defended point from which to launch raids; however, Navarre believed that he intended a heavily fortified base capable of withstanding a siege. Navarre selected Điện Biên Phủ for the location of Berteil's "hedgehog" operation. When presented with the plan, every major subordinate officer protested: Colonel Jean-Louis Nicot (commander of the French Air transport fleet), Cogny, and generals Jean Gilles and Jean Dechaux (the ground and air commanders for Operation Castor, the initial airborne assault on Điện Biên Phủ). Cogny pointed out, presciently, that "we are running the risk of a new Nà Sản under worse conditions". Navarre rejected the criticisms of his proposal and concluded a 17 November conference by declaring that the operation would begin three days later, on 20 November 1953.
Navarre decided to go ahead with the operation, despite operational difficulties. These later became painfully obvious (but at the time may have been less apparent). He had been repeatedly assured by his intelligence officers that the operation had very little risk of involvement by a strong enemy force. Navarre had previously considered three other ways to defend Laos: mobile warfare, which was impossible given the terrain in Vietnam; a static defense line stretching to Laos, which was not feasible given the number of troops at Navarre's disposal; or placing troops in the Laotian provincial capitals and supplying them by air, which was unworkable due to the distance from Hanoi to Luang Prabang and Vientiane. Navarre believed that he was left only with the hedgehog option, which he characterized as "a mediocre solution". The French National Defense Committee ultimately agreed that Navarre's responsibility did not include defending Laos. However, its decision (which was drawn up on 13 November) was not delivered to him until 4 December, two weeks after the Điện Biên Phủ operation began.
Operations at Điện Biên Phủ began at 10:35 on the morning of 20 November 1953. In Operation Castor, the French dropped or flew 9,000 troops into the area over three days, including a bulldozer to prepare the airstrip. They were landed at three drop zones: "Natasha" (northwest), "Octavie" (southwest), and "Simone" (southeast) of Điện Biên Phủ. The Viet Minh elite 148th Independent Infantry Regiment, headquartered at Điện Biên Phủ, reacted "instantly and effectively". Three of its four battalions, however, were absent that day. Initial operations proceeded well for the French. By the end of November, six parachute battalions had been landed, and the French Army was consolidating its positions.
It was at this time that Giáp began his countermoves. He had expected an attack, but could not foresee when or where it would occur. Giáp realized that, if pressed, the French would abandon Lai Châu Province and fight a pitched battle at Điện Biên Phủ. On 24 November, Giáp ordered the 148th Infantry Regiment and the 316th Division to attack Lai Chau, while the 308th, 312th, and 351st divisions assault Điện Biên Phủ from Việt Bắc.
Starting in December, the French, under the command of Colonel Christian de Castries, began transforming their anchoring point into a fortress by setting up seven satellite positions. (Each was said to be named after a former mistress of de Castries, although the allegation is probably unfounded, as the eight names begin with letters from the first nine of the alphabet, excluding F.) The fortified headquarters was centrally located, with positions "Huguette" to the west, "Claudine" to the south, and "Dominique" to the northeast. The other positions were "Anne-Marie" to the northwest, "Beatrice" to the northeast, "Gabrielle" to the north, and "Isabelle" 6 km (3.7 mi) to the south, covering the reserve airstrip.
The choice of de Castries as the local commander at Điện Biên Phủ was, in retrospect, a bad one. Navarre had picked de Castries, a cavalryman in the 18th-century tradition, because Navarre envisioned Điện Biên Phủ as a mobile battle. Điện Biên Phủ required someone adept at World War I-style trench warfare, something for which de Castries was not suited.
The arrival of the 316th Viet Minh Division prompted Cogny to order the evacuation of the Lai Chau garrison to Điện Biên Phủ, exactly as Giáp had anticipated. En route, they were virtually annihilated by the Viet Minh. "Of the 2,100 men who left Lai Chau on 9 December, only 185 made it to Điện Biên Phủ on 22 December. The rest had been killed, captured, or deserted". The Viet Minh troops converged on Điện Biên Phủ.
French military forces had committed 10,800 troops, together with yet more reinforcements, totalling nearly 16,000 men, to the defense of a monsoon-affected valley surrounded by heavily-wooded hills and high ground that had not been secured. Artillery as well as ten American M24 Chaffee light tanks (each broken down into 180 individual parts, flown into the base and then re-assembled) and numerous aircraft (attack and supply types) were committed to the garrison. This included France's regular troops (notably elite paratrooper units, plus those of the artillery), French Foreign Legionnaires, Algerian and Moroccan tirailleurs (colonial troops from North Africa) and locally-recruited Indochinese (Laotian, Vietnamese and Cambodian) infantry.
In comparison, all together, the Viet Minh had moved up to 50,000 regular troops into the hills surrounding the French-held valley, totalling five divisions, including the 351st Heavy Division, which was an artillery formation and was entirely equipped with medium artillery, such as the US M101 105mm howitzer, supplied by the neighbouring People's Republic of China (PRC) from captured stocks obtained from defeated Nationalist China as well as US forces in Korea, together with some heavier field-guns as well as anti-aircraft artillery. Various types of artillery and anti-aircraft guns (mainly of Soviet origin), which outnumbered their French counterparts by about four to one, were moved into strategic positions and locations overlooking the valley and the French forces based there. The French garrison came under sporadic direct artillery fire from the Viet Minh for the first time on 31 January 1954 and patrols encountered the Viet Minh troops in all directions around them. The French were completely surrounded.
The Viet Minh assault began in earnest on 13 March 1954 with an attack on the northeastern outpost "Béatrice" which was held by the 3rd Battalion, 13th Foreign Legion Demi-Brigade. Viet Minh artillery opened a fierce bombardment with two batteries each of 105mm howitzers, 120mm mortars, and 75mm mountain guns (plus seventeen 57mm recoilless rifles and numerous 60mm and 81/82mm mortars) and French command was disrupted at 18:30 when a shell hit the French command post, killing the battalion's commander, Major Paul Pégot, and most of his staff. A few minutes later, Lieutenant-colonel Jules Gaucher, commander of the entire Central Subsector, was also killed by Viet Minh artillery. The Viet Minh 312th Division then launched a massive assault with its 141st and 209th Infantry Regiments, using sappers to breach the French obstacles.
Béatrice comprised three separate strongpoints forming a triangle with the point facing north. In the southeast, strongpoint Beatrice-3, its defenses smashed by 75mm mountain guns firing at point-blank range, was quickly overrun by the 209th Regiment's 130th Battalion. In the north, most of Beatrice-1 was swiftly conquered by the 141st Regiment's 428th Battalion, but the defenders held out in corner of the position for a time because the attackers thought they had captured the entire strongpoint when they encountered an internal barbed wire barrier in the dark. In the southwest, the assault on Beatrice-2 by the 141st Regiment's 11th Battalion did not fare well because its assault trenches were too shallow and portions of them had been flattened by French artillery. Its efforts to breach Beatrice-2's barbed wire were stalled for hours by flanking fire from Beatrice-1 and several previously-undetected bunkers on Beatrice-2 that had been spared by the bombardment. The holdouts on Beatrice-1 were eliminated by 22:30 and the 141st Regiment's 11th and 16th Battalions finally broke into Beatrice-2 an hour later, though the strongpoint was not entirely taken until after 01:00 on March 14.  Roughly 350 French legionnaires were killed, wounded or captured. About 100 managed to escape and rejoin the French lines. The French estimated that Viet Minh losses totalled 600 dead and 1,200 wounded. The victory at "Beatrice" "galvanized the morale" of the Viet Minh troops. On the following morning, a truce of a few hours was agreed and the French were authorized to come to the captured position and take some wounded, given back by the Viet Minh.
Much to French disbelief, the Viet Minh had employed direct artillery fire, in which each gun crew does its own artillery spotting (as opposed to indirect fire, in which guns are massed further away from the target, out of direct line of sight, and rely on a forward artillery spotter). Indirect artillery, generally held as being far superior to direct fire, requires experienced, well-trained crews and good communications, which the Viet Minh lacked. Navarre wrote that, "Under the influence of Chinese advisers, the Viet Minh commanders had used processes quite different from the classic methods. The artillery had been dug in by single pieces...They were installed in shellproof dugouts, and fire point-blank from portholes...This way of using artillery and AA guns was possible only with the expansive ant holes at the disposal of the Vietminh and was to make shambles of all the estimates of our own artillerymen." Two days later, the French artillery commander, Colonel Charles Piroth, distraught at his inability to silence the well-camouflaged Viet Minh batteries, went into his dugout and committed suicide with a hand grenade. He was buried there in secret to prevent loss of morale among the French troops.
Following a five-hour cease fire on the morning of 14 March, Viet Minh artillery resumed pounding French positions. The airstrip, already closed since 16:00 the day before due to a light bombardment, was now put permanently out of commission. Any further French supplies would have to be delivered by parachute. That night, the Viet Minh launched an attack on the northern outpost "Gabrielle", held by an elite Algerian battalion. The attack began with a concentrated artillery barrage at 17:00. This was very effective and stunned the defenders. Two regiments from the crack 308th Division attacked starting at 20:00. At 04:00 the following morning, an artillery shell hit the battalion headquarters, severely wounding the battalion commander and most of his staff.
De Castries ordered a counterattack to relieve "Gabrielle". However, Colonel Pierre Langlais, in forming the counterattack, chose to rely on the 5th Vietnamese Parachute Battalion, which had jumped in the day before and was exhausted. Although some elements of the counterattack reached "Gabrielle", most were paralyzed by Viet Minh artillery and took heavy losses. At 08:00 the next day, the Algerian battalion fell back, abandoning "Gabrielle" to the Viet Minh. The French lost around 1,000 men defending Gabrielle, and the Viet Minh between 1,000 and 2,000 attacking the strongpoint.
The northwestern outpost "Anne-Marie" was defended by Tai troops, members of an ethnic minority loyal to the French. For weeks, Giáp had distributed subversive propaganda leaflets, telling the Tais that this was not their fight. The fall of "Beatrice" and "Gabrielle" had severely demoralized them. On the morning of 17 March, under the cover of fog, the bulk of the Tais left or defected. The French and the few remaining Tais on "Anne-Marie" were then forced to withdraw.
17 March through 30 March saw a lull in fighting. The Viet Minh further tightened the noose around the French central area (formed by the strongpoints "Huguette", "Dominique", "Claudine", and "Eliane"), effectively cutting off the Isabelle and its 1,809 personnel to the south. During this lull, the French suffered from a serious crisis of command. "It had become painfully evident to the senior officers within the encircled garrison – and even to Cogny at Hanoi – that de Castries was incompetent to conduct the defense of Dien Bien Phu. Even more critical, after the fall of the northern outposts, he isolated himself in his bunker so that he had, in effect, relinquished his command authority". On 17 March, Cogny attempted to fly into Điện Biên Phủ to take command, but his plane was driven off by antiaircraft fire. Cogny considered parachuting into the encircled garrison, but his staff talked him out of it.
De Castries' seclusion in his bunker, combined with his superiors' inability to replace him, created a leadership vacuum within the French command. On 24 March, an event took place which later became a matter of historical debate. The historian Bernard Fall records, based on Langlais' memoirs, that Colonel Langlais and his fellow paratroop commanders, all fully armed, confronted de Castries in his bunker on 24 March. They told him he would retain the appearance of command, but that Langlais would exercise it. De Castries is said by Fall to have accepted the arrangement without protest, although he did exercise some command functions thereafter. Phillip Davidson stated that the "truth would seem to be that Langlais did take over effective command of Dien Bien Phu, and that Castries became 'commander emeritus' who transmitted messages to Hanoi and offered advice about matters in Dien Bien Phu". Jules Roy, however, makes no mention of this event, and Martin Windrow argues that the "paratrooper putsch" is unlikely to have ever happened. Both historians record that Langlais and Marcel Bigeard were known to be on good terms with their commanding officer.
The French aerial resupply took heavy losses from Viet Minh machine guns near the landing strip. On 27 March, the Hanoi air transport commander, Nicot, ordered that all supply deliveries be made from 2,000 m (6,600 ft) or higher; losses were expected to remain heavy. De Castries ordered an attack against the Viet Minh machine guns 3 km (1.9 mi) west of Điện Biên Phủ. Remarkably, the attack was a complete success, with 350 Viet Minh soldiers killed and seventeen AA machine guns destroyed (French estimate), while the French lost 20 killed and 97 wounded.
The next phase of the battle saw more massed Viet Minh assaults against French positions in the central Điện Biên Phủ – particularly at "Eliane" and "Dominique", the two remaining outposts east of the Nam Yum river. Those two areas were held by five understrength battalions, composed of Frenchmen, Legionnaires, Vietnamese, North Africans, and Tais. Giáp planned to use the tactics from the "Beatrice" and "Gabrielle" skirmishes.
At 19:00 on 30 March, the Viet Minh 312th Division captured "Dominique 1 and 2", making "Dominique 3" the final outpost between the Viet Minh and the French general headquarters, as well as outflanking all positions east of the river. At this point, the French 4th Colonial Artillery Regiment entered the fight, setting its 105 mm howitzers to zero elevation and firing directly on the Viet Minh attackers, blasting huge holes in their ranks. Another group of French soldiers, near the airfield, opened fire on the Viet Minh with anti-aircraft machine guns, forcing the Viet Minh to retreat.
The Viet Minh's simultaneous attacks elsewhere were more successful. The 316th Division captured "Eliane 1" from its Moroccan defenders, and half of "Eliane 2" by midnight. On the west side of Điện Biên Phủ, the 308th attacked "Huguette 7", and nearly succeeded in breaking through, but a French sergeant took charge of the defenders and sealed the breach.
Just after midnight on 31 March, the French launched a counterattack against "Eliane 2", and recaptured half of it. Langlais ordered another counterattack the following afternoon against "Dominique 2" and "Eliane 1", using virtually "everybody left in the garrison who could be trusted to fight". The counterattacks allowed the French to retake "Dominique 2" and "Eliane 1", but the Viet Minh launched their own renewed assault. The French, who were exhausted and without reserves, fell back from both positions late in the afternoon. Reinforcements were sent north from "Isabelle", but were attacked en route and fell back to "Isabelle".
Shortly after dark on 31 March, Langlais told Major Marcel Bigeard, who was leading the defense at "Eliane", to fall back across the river. Bigeard refused, saying "As long as I have one man alive I won't let go of 'Eliane 4'. Otherwise, Dien Bien Phu is done for." The night of the 31st, the 316th Division attacked "Eliane 2". Just as it appeared the French were about to be overrun, a few French tanks arrived, and helped push the Viet Minh back. Smaller attacks on "Eliane 4" were also pushed back. The Viet Minh briefly captured "Huguette 7", only to be pushed back by a French counterattack at dawn on 1 April.
Fighting continued in this manner over the next several nights. The Viet Minh repeatedly attacked "Eliane 2", only to be beaten back. Repeated attempts to reinforce the French garrison by parachute drops were made, but had to be carried out by lone planes at irregular times to avoid excessive casualties from Viet Minh antiaircraft fire. Some reinforcements did arrive, but not enough to replace French casualties.
On 5 April, after a long night of battle, French fighter-bombers and artillery inflicted particularly devastating losses on one Viet Minh regiment, which was caught on open ground. At that point, Giáp decided to change tactics. Although Giáp still had the same objective – to overrun French defenses east of the river – he decided to employ entrenchment and sapping to try to achieve it.
On 10 April, the French attempted to retake "Eliane 1", which had been lost eleven days earlier. The loss posed a significant threat to "Eliane 4", and the French wanted to eliminate that threat. The dawn attack, which Bigeard devised, was preceded by a short, massive artillery barrage, followed by small unit infiltration attacks, followed by mopping-up operations. "Eliane 1" changed hands several times that day, but by the next morning the French had control of the strongpoint. The Viet Minh attempted to retake it on the evening of 12 April, but were pushed back.
At this point, the morale of the Viet Minh soldiers was greatly lowered due to the massive casualties they had received from heavy French gunfire. During a period of stalemate from 15 April to 1 May, the French intercepted enemy radio messages which told of whole units refusing orders to attack, and communist prisoners in French hands said that they were told to advance or be shot by the officers and non-commissioned officers behind them, much like Stalin's "Not A Step Back!" decree of WWII strictly forbidding troops to retreat and to advance on despite intense enemy fire. Worse still, the Viet Minh lacked advanced medical treatment and care, with one captured fighter stating that, "Nothing strikes at combat-morale like the knowledge that if wounded, the soldier will go uncared for,". Concerned about a potential mutiny from his troops, Giap had to whistle up fresh reinforcements from neighbouring Laos for bolstering his dwindling and dispirited forces.
During the fighting at "Eliane 1", on the other side of camp, the Viet Minh entrenchments had almost entirely surrounded "Huguette 1 and 6". On 11 April, the garrison of "Huguette 1" attacked, and was joined by artillery from the garrison of "Claudine". The goal was to resupply "Huguette 6" with water and ammunition. The attacks were repeated on the nights of the 14–15 and 16–17 April. While they did succeed in getting some supplies through, the French suffered heavy casualties, which convinced Langlais to abandon "Huguette 6". Following a failed attempt to link up, on 18 April, the defenders at "Huguette 6" made a daring break out, but only a few managed to make it to French lines. The Viet Minh repeated the isolation and probing attacks against Huguette 1, and overran the fort on the morning of 22 April. With the fall of "Huguette 1", the Viet Minh took control of more than 90 percent of the airfield, making accurate parachute drops impossible. This caused the landing zone to become perilously small, and effectively choked off much needed supplies. A French attack against "Huguette 1" later that day was repulsed.
"Isabelle" saw only light action until 30 March, when the Viet Minh isolated it and beat back the attempt to send reinforcements north. Following a massive artillery barrage on 30 March, the Viet Minh began employing the same trench warfare tactics that they were using against the central camp. By the end of April, "Isabelle" had exhausted its water supply and was nearly out of ammunition.
The Viet Minh launched a massed assault against the exhausted defenders on the night of 1 May, overrunning "Eliane 1", "Dominique 3", and "Huguette 5", although the French managed to beat back attacks on "Eliane 2". On 6 May, the Viet Minh launched another massed attack against "Eliane 2". The attack included, for the first time, Katyusha rockets. The French artillery fired a "TOT" (Time on Target) attack, so artillery rounds fired from different positions would strike on target at the same time. This barrage defeated the first assault wave. A few hours later that night, the Viet Minh detonated a mine shaft, blowing "Eliane 2" up. The Viet Minh attacked again, and within a few hours then had overrun the defenders.
On 7 May, Giáp ordered an all-out attack against the remaining French units with over 25,000 Viet Minh against fewer than 3,000 garrison troops. At 17:00, de Castries radioed French headquarters in Hanoi and talked with Cogny.
De Castries: "The Viets are everywhere. The situation is very grave. The combat is confused and goes on all about. I feel the end is approaching, but we will fight to the finish."
Cogny: "Of course you will fight to the end. It is out of the question to run up the white flag after your heroic resistance."
The last radio transmission from the French headquarters reported that enemy troops were directly outside the headquarters bunker and that all the positions had been overrun. The radio operator in his last words stated: "The enemy has overrun us. We are blowing up everything. Vive la France!" That night the garrison made a breakout attempt, in the Camarón tradition. While some of the main body managed to break out, none succeeded in escaping from the valley. However at "Isabelle", a similar attempt later the same night saw about 70 troops, out of 1,700 men in the garrison, escape to Laos. By about 6:20 pm, only one French position, strongpoint Lily, manned by Moroccan soldiers commanded by a French officer, Major Jean Nicholas, had not been overrun. The position surrendered that night when Nicholas personally waved a small white flag (probably a handkerchief) from his rifle.
On 8 May, the Viet Minh counted 11,721 prisoners, of whom 4,436 were wounded. This was the greatest number the Viet Minh had ever captured: one-third of the total captured during the entire war. The prisoners were divided into groups. Able-bodied soldiers were force-marched over 600 km (370 mi) to prison camps to the north and east, where they were intermingled with Viet Minh soldiers to discourage French bombing runs. Hundreds died of disease along the way. The wounded were given basic first aid until the Red Cross arrived, extracted 858 prisoners, and provided better aid to the remainder. Those wounded who were not evacuated by the Red Cross were sent into detention.
The Viet Minh captured 8,000 French and marched them 500 miles on foot to prison camps; less than half survived the march. Of 10,863 prisoners (including Vietnamese fighting for the French), only 3,290 were officially repatriated four months later; however, the losses figure may include the 3,013 prisoners of Vietnamese origin whose eventual fate is unknown.
The garrison constituted roughly a tenth of the total French Union manpower in Indochina. The defeat seriously weakened the position and prestige of the French as previously planned negotiations over the future of Indochina began.
The Geneva Conference opened on 8 May 1954, the day after the surrender of the garrison. The resulting agreement partitioned Vietnam into two zones: communist North Vietnam and the State of Vietnam, which opposed the agreement, to the south. The partition was supposed to be temporary, and the two zones were meant to be reunited through national elections in 1956, which were never held. The last French forces withdrew from Vietnam in 1956. General Georges Catroux presided over a commission of inquiry into the defeat. The commission's final report ("Rapport concernant la conduite des opérations en Indochine sous la direction du général Navarre") concluded:
The fall of Dien Bien Phu, in a strictly military perspective, represented a very serious failure but one that in the immediate, that is to say, spring of 1954, did not upset the balance of forces present in Indochina. It only assumed the aspect of a definitive defeat of our forces by reason of its profound psychological effects on French public opinion, which, tired of a war that was unpopular and seemingly without end, demanded in a way that it be ended.
The event itself was in fact, both in terms of public opinion and of the military conduct of the war and operations, merely the end result of a long process of degradation of a faraway enterprise which, not having the assent of the nation, could not receive from the authorities the energetic impulse, and the size and continuity of efforts required for success.
If, therefore, one wishes to establish objectively the responsibilities incurred in the final phase of the Indochina war one would have to examine its origins and evoke the acts and decisions of the various governments in power, that is to say their war policies, as well as the ways in which these policies were translated by the military commanders into operations.
According to the Mutual Defense Assistance Act, the United States provided the French with material aid during the battle – aircraft (supplied by the USS Saipan), weapons, mechanics, 24 CIA/CAT pilots, and U.S. Air Force maintenance crews. The United States, however, intentionally avoided overt direct intervention. In February 1954, following the French occupation of Điện Biên Phủ but before the battle, Democratic senator Michael Mansfield asked the United States Defense Secretary, Charles Erwin Wilson, whether the United States would send naval or air units if the French were subjected to greater pressure there, but Wilson replied that "for the moment there is no justification for raising United States aid above its present level". President Dwight D. Eisenhower also stated, "Nobody is more opposed to intervention than I am". On 31 March, following the fall of "Beatrice", "Gabrielle", and "Anne-Marie", a panel of U.S. Senators and House Representatives questioned the American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Arthur W. Radford, about the possibility of American involvement. Radford concluded it was too late for the U.S. Air Force to save the French garrison. A proposal for direct intervention was unanimously voted down by the committee, which "concluded that intervention was a positive act of war".
The United States did covertly participate in the battle. Following a request for help from Henri Navarre, Radford provided two squadrons of B-26 Invader bomber aircraft to support the French. Following this, 37 American transport pilots flew 682 sorties over the course of the battle. Earlier, in order to succeed the pre-Điện Biên Phủ Operation Castor of November 1953, General Chester McCarty made available 12 additional C-119 Flying Boxcars flown by French crews.
Two of the American pilots, James McGovern, Jr., and Wallace Buford, were killed in action during the siege of Điện Biên Phủ. On 25 February 2005, the seven still living American pilots were awarded the French Legion of Honor by Jean-David Levitte, the French ambassador to the United States. The role that the American pilots played in this battle had remained little known until 2004. The American historian Erik Kirsinger researched the case for more than a year to establish the facts.
The French author Jules Roy suggests that Admiral Radford discussed with the French the possibility of using nuclear weapons in support of the French garrison. Moreover, John Foster Dulles reportedly mentioned the possibility of lending atomic bombs to the French for use at Điện Biên Phủ, and a similar source claims that the British Foreign Secretary Sir Anthony Eden was aware of the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons in that region.
In January 1968, during the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese Army under Võ Nguyên Giáp's command initiated a siege and artillery bombardment on the U.S. Marine Corps base at Khe Sanh, South Vietnam just like what they did in Dien Bien Phu. Võ Nguyên Giáp's Sieged Khe Sanh for 77 days. Historians are divided on whether this was a genuine attempt to repeat their success at Điện Biên Phủ by forcing the surrender of the Marine base, or else a diversion from the rest of the Tết Offensive, or an example of the North Vietnamese Army keeping its options open. At Khe Sanh, a number of factors were significantly different from Điện Biên Phủ. Khe Sanh was much closer to an American supply base (45 km or 28 mi) compared to a French one at Điện Biên Phủ (200 km or 120 mi).
At Khe Sanh, the U.S. Marines held the high ground, and their artillery forced the North Vietnamese to use their own artillery from a much greater distance. By contrast, at Điện Biên Phủ, the French artillery (six 105 mm batteries and one battery of four 155 mm howitzers and mortars) was only sporadically effective. Furthermore, by 1968, the American military presence in Vietnam dwarfed that of the French, and included numerous technological advances such as effective helicopters.
Khe Sanh received 18,000 tons of aerial resupplies during the 77-day battle, whereas during the 167 days that the French forces at Điện Biên Phủ held out, they received only 4,000 tons. Also, the US Air Force dropped 114,810 tons of bombs upon the Vietnamese at Khe Sanh – roughly as many as on Japan during 1945 during World War II.
Many of the flights operated by the French Air force to evacuate casualties had female flight nurses on board. A total of 15 women served on flights to Điện Biên Phủ. One, Geneviève de Galard, was stranded there when her plane was destroyed by shellfire while being repaired on the airfield. She remained on the ground providing medical services in the field hospital until the surrender. She was referred to as the "Angel of Điện Biên Phủ". Historians disagree regarding this moniker, with Martin Windrow maintaining that de Galard was referred to by this name by the garrison itself, but Michael Kenney and Bernard Fall maintaining it was added by outside press agencies.
The French forces came to Điện Biên Phủ accompanied by two bordels mobiles de campagne, ("mobile field brothels"), served by Algerian and Vietnamese women. When the siege ended, the Viet Minh sent the surviving Vietnamese women for "re-education".
The Vietnamese Government has stated its casualties in the battle as 4,020 dead, 9,118 wounded and 792 missing. The French estimated Viet Minh casualties at 8,000 dead and 15,000 wounded. Max Hastings stated that "In 2018 Hanoi has still not credibly enumerated its Dienbienphu losses, surely a reflection of their immensity."
This battle was depicted in at least three films:
Today, the former battlefield is one large historical site. Former French fortified positions such as Beatrice, Isabelle, Elaine, Muong Thanh Bridge and De Castries's combat-headquarters bunker have been preserved, all in generally relatively-good condition. Nearly 30 kilometres away from the centre of Dien Bien Phu lays the Viet Minh army complex ranging from shelters and trenches, also preserved in Muong Phang village. A 96-meter underground tunnel connects the working-places of General Võ Nguyên Giáp and General Hoàng Văn Thái. In addition, monuments and memorials to both sides are situated across the region, as are the few remaining French Chaffee tank wrecks scattered all throughout the valley, such as in the many rice paddy-fields of the area. Also, the very same runway used by the French during the battle remains to this day and is still in active use now.
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