Historical Dictionary


ĐIỆN BIÊN PHỦ, BATTLE OF (13 March–7 May 1954)

One of the most important battles of the 20th century, during which the colonized engaged the colonizer in a violent set-piece battle and won. Drawing upon the experiences gathered from the French victory at Na San, in late 1953 General Henri Navarre ordered the creation of an even bigger and more solidly entrenched camp in the valley of Dien Bien Phu. As at Na San, work on an airstrip began immediately. Located far in the hills of northwestern Vietnam, not far from the Lao border, this airstrip would serve as the vital lifeline for supplying some 15,000 French Union troops in Dien Bien Phu. Many high-ranking French and American military officials and politicians agreed with Navarre that the camp could hold and break the back of the enemy’s main forces. French artillery, air power, and resistance positions, each of which was given a feminine name from A to H (Béatrice, for example), would mow down the attacking enemy soldiers, destroy General Vo Nguyen Giap’s core divisions, and thus hand the Vietnamese an even worse defeat than the one they had suffered at Na San in 1952. The French stationed twelve battle-hardened battalions to execute this task. As Robert Guillain reported on the eve of the battle, from the multinational grunts to the French officers, the French Union soldiers were spoiling for a fight, confident that Dien Bien Phu was the perfect place to break the adversary once and for all. Many were actually worried that the Vietnamese would not attack, mirroring paradoxically Vo Nguyen Giap’s fear that the French would pull out before he could casser du français.

Although Navarre received intelligence in early January 1954 suggesting that the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) was indeed determined and able to bring artillery into position in order to attack the French and knock out the airstrip, something which Vo Nguyen Giap had failed to do at Na San, it was too late for the French general to pull out by air or via Laos without risking a replay of the Cao Bang debacle. Nevertheless, Giap’s fixation on Dien Bien Phu did not prevent his opponent from launching his cherished operation Atlante against the enemy’s positions in central Vietnam. This operation began on 29 January.

Relieved by Navarre’s double decision to dig in at Dien Bien Phu on the one hand and to go ahead with Atlante in central Vietnam on the other, Vo Nguyen Giap concentrated his elite divisions – the 308th, 312th, 316th and 304th – around Dien Bien Phu with instructions to encircle, strike, strangulate, and annihilate the camp. Meanwhile, the 351st Heavy Artillery Division was moved into place with 12,37mm cannons, anti-aircraft guns (equipped with 12,37mm cannons), and two air defense machine battalions. Grueling though it was, the DRV ensured that its troops received arms, rice, and medicines. The logistical services mobilized hundreds of animals, 128 trucks, 11,000 boats and rafts, and more than 20,000 bicycles to deliver 27,400 tons of rice. Motivated by the land reform approved in December 1953, more than 200,000 Vietnamese porters from northern and central Vietnam set the logistics into motion in order to supply over 50,000 troops.

On 13 March, the Vietnamese let loose their artillery with deadly accuracy. They quickly knocked out a number of unprotected French artillery guns and blasted the airstrip as they moved to sever the camp’s lifeline to the outside. Giap’s intelligence officers had meticulously studied what had gone wrong at Na San. This time, they had every intention of taking out the airstrip from the outset by turning artillery shells on the French. And they were largely successful. Indeed, French artillery specialists were shocked by the enemy’s use of artillery, above all its precision, and equally frustrated by their inability to locate the DRV’s guns camouflaged in the surrounding hills.

The Vietnamese had knocked out the French airstrip by 17 March. However, that did not mean the battle was over. Like their adversaries, French Union soldiers were going to fight. The Vietnamese had launched their first massive, powerful, and costly attack on the 13th as troops moved under heavy French artillery and machine gun fire, submerging the advance posts of Béatrice and Gabrielle. While planes continued to make supply drops to French Union forces facing advancing DRV troops, inclement weather and low cloud cover rendered them vulnerable to DRV artillery and machine gun fire.

Moreover, the battle was not a simple carbon copy of Chinese wave tactics applied in Korea; Dien Bien Phu strangely resembled the trench warfare of World War I. Some spoke of Verdun. What differentiated the DRV’s use of trenches in 1954 from those at Verdun was that the Vietnamese ones were mobile, expanding slowly to surround the enemy camp instead of forming a straight line. Like the trench warfare of WWI, however, young Vietnamese boys sent over the top suffered terrible casualties when they ran into intense machine gun and artillery fire, as did French Union forces counter-attacking. For both sides, torrential rains quickly filled the trenches with mud, water, disease, and blood, as soldiers often had to make their way around rotting corpses. While American pilots flew supply missions over Dien Bien Phu, Washington refused to save the camp by launching operation Vautour. As a result, no U.S. bombers arrived from the Philippines to blast DRV positions around Dien Bien Phu. The French Union soldiers were on their own as the DRV’s army launched two more wave attacks, extending their trenches meter by meter, strangling the enemy, until the camp finally fell on 7 May 1954 at 17H00, at the cost of around 4,000 DRV lives. See also CIVIL AIR TRANSPORT; DIEN BIEN PHU, BATTLE PREPARATION AND CONTEXT; DIEN BIEN PHU, CANCELLATION OF FIRST ATTACK; DIEN BIEN PHU, EXPERIENCE OF BATTLE; DIEN BIEN PHU, FILM; DIEN BIEN PHU, SIGNIFICANCE OF.