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ĐIỆN BIÊN PHỦ, BATTLE PREPARATION AND CONTEXT

One cannot understand the full significance of the battle of Dien Bien Phu without situating it in its Franco-Vietnamese, international, and military dimensions. First the French side. French Prime Minister René Mayer was a strong believer in strengthening France’s role in Europe and the Atlantic community. Fighting a major war in Indochina prevented him from doing this effectively; meanwhile the Allies were pushing to rearm West Germany in order to better contain the Soviet Union in Europe. Financially, France could not afford to undertake a war in Indochina and contribute to European defense at the same time. An “honorable end” (une sortie honorable) to the conflict had to be found.

In this context, on 8 May 1953, Mayer named General Henri Navarre commander-in-chief of the armed forces in Indochina. The government instructed Navarre to create the necessary military conditions on the battlefield so that French diplomats could reach a favorable solution at the negotiating table. Navarre came up with a two-pronged plan. For 1953–1954, the army would avoid large-scale battles with the enemy in order to rebuild French Union forces and then, in 1954–55, deliver a decisive military blow to the army of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) in order to force the adversary to the negotiating table on terms favorable to the French. Upon his arrival in Indochina in mid-1953, Navarre focused his attention less on the northern delta than on areas in central Vietnam controlled by the DRV since the start of the war. One of Navarre’s main offensives, operation Atlante, was designed to retake southern central Vietnam from the DRV, known as Inter-Zone V (Lien Khu V). While Navarre was eager to break his adversary, he had no intention at the outset of fighting a major battle in the valley of Dien Bien Phu. Nor did his adversary, General Vo Nguyen Giap.

To understand how this battle occurred, one must of course factor in the DRV side. First, the Vietnamese Worker’s Party adopted key decisions in early 1953 that would affect the direction of the road leading to the battle of Dien Bien Phu. In January 1953, the party accelerated preparations to implement land reform. The timing was not an accident. Besides its social, economic, and ideological significance, land reform was also designed to mobilize tens of thousands of Vietnamese peasants in favor of the war effort. By providing them with a piece of land, they would participate more enthusiastically and actively in the resistance and above all in the logistics that the DRV’s army would need to take the battle to the French. Vietnamese porters would be crucial to bringing artillery, medicines, and above all rice to tens of thousands of troops fighting French Union forces. Second, the party leadership also decided in early 1953 that not only did the army have to develop its own artillery and anti-air defense forces in order to take out the entrenched French positions in any future battle, but the army simultaneously had to devise a strategy to disperse the Expeditionary Corp’s troops across Indochina. These two things went hand in hand in the DRV strategic mind. Moreover, no one in the DRV’s General Staff had forgotten the terrible defeat suffered at Na San in 1952. Indeed, Vo Nguyen Giap’s General Staff and military intelligence closely studied the lessons of Na San in developing their strategy for 1953–54. Throughout 1953, the DRV reorganized its Artillery Regiment (75mm), created a new artillery regiment of 105mm guns, and constituted its first 37mm anti-air battalion. Lastly, the Vietnamese needed to score a major battle victory: the death of Joseph Stalin and the armistice in Korea by mid-1953 had opened up the possibility that things would change at the international level for Korea as well as for Indochina, the two hotspots in the international system.

All of this was underway on the Vietnamese side, when the French adopted the Navarre Plan in July 1953. Vietnamese sources now reveal that their intelligence services were initially in the dark as to what Navarre planned to do. By mid-September 1953, however, the DRV’s services “acquired a good understanding of the basic elements of the Navarre Plan”. The Vietnamese army has recently revealed that communist Chinese intelligence services helped them obtain important details of the plan in early September. This allowed the Vietnamese Politburo to better devise its own strategy, what would become the 1953–1954 Winter Spring Campaign. Vietnamese leaders decided that because Navarre was “massing his forces to occupy and hold the Tonkin lowlands, we will force him to disperse his forces out to other sectors so that we can annihilate them”. Rather than trying to attack the Delta, where the French would easily concentrate their artillery and air power on any attacking force, the Politburo decided to try to draw the French away from the delta by attacking towards Lai Chau in northwestern Vietnam and Phongsaly in Laos, then towards central and southern Laos and even as far as northeast Cambodia. In mid-November 1953, the Vietnamese Politburo approved its Winter Spring Plan and issued mission orders to its divisions. On 19 November, Vo Nguyen Giap informed his military intelligence officers of the politburo Plan.

Thinking that the Vietnamese were out to take Luang Prabang if not all of Laos, General Navarre decided to commit troops to Dien Bien Phu in order to protect Luang Prabang. This was never the DRV’s main strategic intention. On 20 November, the French began parachuting six battalions into Dien Bien Phu. The commander of this airborne force was none other than General Jean Gilles, the same man who had handed the DRV the stinging defeat at Na San and who had commanded its elaborate defensive complex. Surprised, the DRV General Staff immediately instructed its intelligence service to explain what the French were up to. Vo Nguyen Giap’s two main questions to his intelligence people were: “Is the enemy going to withdraw?” and “How are they deployed?”

Navarre’s decision to send French Union troops towards southern central Vietnam (operation Atlante), Laos, and Lai Chau and then to take a simultaneous stand at Dien Bien Phu unexpectedly presented the Vietnamese high command and politburo with exactly the type of battle that they wanted to fight in order to create favorable military conditions for their own diplomatic negotiations.

The changing international context was now of great importance for all those concerned. The disappearance of Stalin in April 1953 and the signing of a cease-fire in Korea in July convinced Soviet and Chinese leaders that the other hot spot in Asia, Indochina, could be solved diplomatically, too. British and French leaders tended to agree. Soviet and Chinese leaders wanted to end tensions at the international level in order to focus on pressing domestic matters. The Soviets also hoped that by taking a conciliatory line on Indochina, they would be able to woo the French away from the creation a European Defense Community and the rearmament of West Germany. On 28 September 1953, Moscow sent a note to France, Great Britain, and the United States proposing to hold an international conference to ease international tensions. This conference, the Soviets argued, should include the People’s Republic of China, which was involved in both Asian wars. On 8 October, Zhou Enlai expressed his support for the Soviet proposal. In early 1954, during the four-power conference in Berlin, the Soviet plan was endorsed and preparations began for holding a major international conference in Geneva on the two Asian hotspots in the international system.

The Soviets and Chinese had informed the Vietnamese of their desire to reach a negotiated settlement to the Indochina War and this directly influenced the way the Vietnamese Politburo conceived its strategy for winning a decisive battle at Dien Bien Phu within the context of the Fall-Winter campaign. DRV military intelligence immediately returned to the abandoned Na San camp to study the French complex there, knowing that they would be up against a “super Na San” at Dien Bien Phu. The question remained, however: would Navarre stay put in Dien Bien Phu or would he pull his troops out at the last minute, thereby denying the Vietnamese the showdown they now so badly wanted? The answer came on 3 December when DRV military intelligence informed Giap that Navarre had committed his side to battle.

With the international context firmly in mind, the Politburo issued orders instructing the army to surround the camp and wipe it out entirely, all the while continuing the three other campaigns designed to disperse the French forces as far across Indochina as possible. On 6 December, the Politburo and high command decided to commit all 35,000 men to Dien Bien Phu for a battle lasting some 45 days. Massive mobilization began as tens of thousands of peasants began to transport rice, weapons, and artillery to the hills surrounding the camp. Land reform was officially approved in December 1953 and implemented in upper central and northern Vietnam. Meanwhile, on 17 December 1953, the Politburo approved a resolution approving the policy of negotiating and fighting. For the Vietnamese, the local and international conditions had combined to create conditions to win at Dien Bien Phu and to open negotiations favorable to them at the negotiating table. However, all of this meant that losing the battle of Dien Bien Phu was simply not an option. Victory had to be achieved at “one-hundred-percent”, as the Politburo put it. This is why the DRV cancelled its initial attack against Dien Bien Phu, planned for 25 January 1954.

However, Navarre refused to cancel operation Atlante. On 29 January, he launched the operation against lower central Vietnam all the while digging in at Dien Bien Phu in the far northwest. Relieved by Navarre’s actions, the Vietnamese continued to concentrate their best divisions on wiping out Dien Bien Phu and focused on solving their final logistic problems. For Navarre the battle would be a short one; the Vietnamese would be unable to bring in sufficient artillery to bear on the fortified camp. Besides the French Union soldiers waiting to mow down enemy attackers with machine guns, the camp was also protected by heavy artillery and airpower. So sure of his ability to knock out enemy guns, the French artillery commander for the battle, Colonel Piroth, refused to protect his own guns from possible attack. All of this despite the fact that French intelligence services had informed the high command that the Vietnamese were bringing in artillery and massing their forces around Dien Bien Phu. Based on this, even Navarre conceded in early January that if the Vietnamese succeeded in delivering their artillery to the battlefield, he would not be able to guarantee victory. The problem was that preparations, operations, and morale were so advanced that it was too late to pull out of Dien Bien Phu in mid-January by air or via Laos without repeating the Cao Bang debacle or handing the adversary a de facto victory at a key point in international negotiations related to Indochina (the Berlin conference met between 25 January and 18 February). Thus, while Giap cancelled his January attack on the grounds that it was premature, Navarre kept his men in the valley, convinced that it was too late to annul the showdown.

On 13 March 1954, with their logistics and artillery now in place, the Vietnamese launched their first attack in a fury. French confidence cracked in the first days of the battle when the camp began taking direct hits from well-coordinated Vietnamese artillery fire, and French cannons and planes failed to knock out enemy positions hidden in the surrounding hills. Only a few days after the battle had begun, Piroth committed suicide for having underestimated the enemy. And yet no one in early or mid-1953 knew that a showdown would occur at Dien Bien Phu. As a former ranking military intelligence officer working for Vo Nguyen Giap at the time later recalled: “Dien Bien Phu became a battle that neither the enemy nor our side had originally anticipated in our plans. We were concerned that the enemy would retreat and abandon the area, while the enemy was afraid that we would not dare to attack”. Both sides got what they wanted; but the DRV Vietnamese won the epic showdown. See also DIEN BIEN PHU, BATTLE OF; DIEN BIEN PHU, CANCELLATION OF FIRST ATTACK; DIEN BIEN PHU, EXPERIENCE OF BATTLE; DIEN BIEN PHU, FILM; DIEN BIEN PHU, SIGNIFICANCE OF; EUROPEAN DEFENSE COMMUNITY; FINANCIAL COST OF WAR; LAOS, FIRST BATTLE OF; LAOS, SECOND BATTLE OF; NORTH ATLANTIC TREATY ORGANIZATION.