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LAOS, SECOND BATTLE OF (15 December 1953–May 1954)

In mid-September 1953, the intelligence services of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) “acquired a good understanding of the basic elements of the Navarre Plan” and used this in their preparations for the 1953–1954 Winter Spring Campaign. The Vietnamese Politburo and High Command concluded that General Henri Navarre was massing his forces to occupy and hold the Tonkin lowlands. Vietnamese strategists concluded that it was imperative to force Navarre “to disperse his forces out to other sectors so that we can annihilate them”. Rather than trying to attack the delta, where the French could concentrate their artillery and air power easily on the attacking forces, the Politburo decided to try to disperse the French, taking advantage of the rougher terrain in northwest Vietnam and Laos. This was the context in which the second battle of Laos was conceived and launched weeks after the Politburo approved the winter 1953–spring 1954 military plan in November 1953.

On 20 December, the DRV sent elements of three divisions into central Laos and briefly occupied the Lao town of Thakhek and threatened briefly the French military base at Séno. When Navarre decided to dig in at Dien Bien Phu, the Vietnamese maintained the pressure on central Laos and pushed troops even further into northeastern Cambodia and the highlands of Inter-Zone V (Lien Khu V). It was now vital to draw as many French forces as possible away from the main battlefield at Dien Bien Phu. Meanwhile, following the cancellation of the first attack on Dien Bien Phu in January 1954, General Vo Nguyen Giap pulled his famous 308th division away from the battlefield and sent it into northern Laos in a bid to further divert the French from Dien Bien Phu so that final preparations for the March attack could be made (when Giap then recalled the 308th to let it loose on Dien Bien Phu). Both attacks on Laos (in the center and the north) revealed yet again the capacity of the DRV to operate militarily on an Indochinese level and this explains to a large extent why the DRV and its Lao allies were in a stronger position in Laos when negotiations opened in Geneva the day Dien Bien Phu fell to the DRV. See also DIEN BIEN PHU, CANCELLATION OF FIRST ATTACK; GENEVA CONFERENCE; PATHET LAO.