Book: “Dien Bien Phu 1954” — the tragic effects of misjudgements

31 12 2010

In May 1954, the first Indochina war ended with the surrender of the French military garrison at Dien Bien Phu. This was a decisive blow to France as a colonial power. From here and onwards, there was a continuous retreat from the French colonies  (even though the Algerian French thought they could turn history around).

Stone: "Dien Bien Phu" -- front

Stone: "Dien Bien Phu" -- front

But how could it go so wrong? What happened there in the mountains of Vietnam? What could have happened? This book gives some answers, but more or less constrains itself to the military perspective of the events leading up to the defeat in May 1954.

It is always good to be reminded about what happened way back in history. It can even now, nearly 60 years later, give us some hints to why plans have floundered as they have in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

Background

The French colonial empire was created during the 19th century. Africa and Asia were the targets of colonial expansion. And the south-east corner of the Asian mainland was regarded as an important building block in the great French Empire. What is now the countries of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were then dominated by the French, and Vietnam was seen as the jewel of that crown.

In 1941, the Japanese invaded South-East Asia, and quickly took control of the territory. When the Japanese capitulation occurred in 1945, the French regained control of their old colonies.

Soon it became obvious that to everybody — the people of Indochina as well as other of people in other colonized parts of the world — the French would not leave Indochina. A nationalistically based liberation movement was now organized, originally populated by persons that had experience from fighting the Japanese.

After failed attempts to negotiate about some kind of  independence of the different regions of Indochina, the liberation front started armed uprisings. The French fought back, but could not really pursue a successful campaign against the Viet Minh, as the liberation army was called. The French could very well dominate in the urban regions, but the countryside was increasingly abandoned by the French.

Finally the French high command decided that a show-down was needed. By concentrating their forces in a special type of environment, they could attract the main parts of the Viet Minh forces, and decisively defeat them once an for all. And that special place was Dien Bien Phu.

The battle of Dien Bien Phu

The area selected was close to the Laotian border, in a broad valley surrounded by higher mountains. The idea was to force the Viet Minh to attack on the floor of the valley, and that is where the superior technical strike potential of the French would make the difference.

The main assumptions were that (1) the artillery of the French would be stronger that the enemy’s; (2) that French air power would be unstoppable, and could strike lethal blows on the Viet Minh; (3) that the French air transport forces would be able to deliver all necessary resources by air from Hanoi or the coast; (4) that the Viet Minh would not be able to establish themselves in the mountains above the valley, as French artillery would keep them down; and (5) that it would be impossible for the Viet Minh to provide artillery fire from the upper mountains.

The French at the floor of the valley, and Viet Minh on the mountains in the background

The French at the floor of the valley, and Viet Minh on the mountains in the background

As it happened, all these assumptions were invalid. The French seriously underestimated the size and energy of the Viet Minh forces, and they also overestimated the possibility of a high-tech armed force to be supplied through air during battle.

What happened was that the Viet Minh laboriously carried artillery pieces up the mountains, dug them in and camouflaged them, and was ultimately able to offer heavy bombardment of the French on the bottom of the valley, from the mountains above. The French were in a sense sitting ducks. Nowhere to run, and not strong enough to attack up the mountain sides.

In parallel, there were infantry attacks on the perimeter of the French fortifications. French outposts far away from the French HQ were overrun. The French were step by step forced to retreat into an area that was week by week becoming smaller.

The end

Finally the French high command understood that this was a losing battle. Not even French air power could be deployed with any success.

Now there happened one of those strange political episodes that we seldom hear about. The French military command proposed that the French government approach the Americans, and ask for their help. Two main options were identified. The first was about the Americans providing massive conventional military resources to get the French out of their troubles. This could be by dispatching large infantry divisions to the Dien Bien Phu area,  providing massive air strike support there, or similar measures. The second idea was that the Americans would drop nuclear bombs on the Viet Minh forces!

That the military situation for the French was desperate is obvious, as the French requests for  American assistance ranged from massive conventional support to support by preposterous means.

Informal contacts with the Americans clarified that the Americans did not want to get involved by taking over the fighting in Vietnam. A main reason was that they were fully occupied in Korea at the time (the Korean war!) and did not want to take on military actions in yet another area of Asia. Also, they were unwilling to be too much associated with the French colonial power. They foresaw that the French would have to leave, and it would be better if the next regime in Vietnam would be willing to have a positive attitude towards the US.

We should probably be grateful that nuclear bomb technology was, at this point in time, not in the hands of the French forces. Their first nuclear test was not performed until 1960.

As it became clear that no military support would come, the French had only three options. Firstly they could simply surrender , with the rationale that the military situation was hopeless. Secondly, they could stay and fight until the end, which would not be very far into the future. Or, thirdly, they could break out of the encirclement, and retire across the Laotian border to safety.

The third alternative was attempted, but it did not succeed. A handful of persons managed to sneak away into the jungle and pass the border into safety on the Laotian side. But the main parts of the troops that attempted this escape were decisively beaten and forced to retire to their old fortifications.

This left only option and and two. And surrender was not contemplated. The French honour required that one fight until definitely beaten in the field. So the military order was: “Fight until the end.”

At 17.30 on May 7, 1954, Viet Minh has conquered the French HQ bunker

At 17.30 on May 7, 1954, Viet Minh has conquered the French HQ bunker

And the end came on May 7, when the Viet Minh forces finally occupied the French HQ in Dien Bien Phu. At that point, the French could  capitulate according to honorable military traditions. 11,000 French military personnel were taken into captivity on that day. Of these, 3,000 would ultimately return to France. The majority of the rest succumbed to the hardship of imprisonment.

Consequences

On the political level, the fall of Dien Bien Phu was a key event that caused the Geneva Accords in 1954, an agreement by which France would leave Indochina. Not only was this the political starting point of the now emerging countries of Indochina. It was also a significant signal to other colonialised countries. Firstly, the independence movements in French North Africa got fuelled by the defeat of the French by native forces. Secondly, this also put pressure on the British in some of their colonies to initiate a process whereby national independence could be achieved.

Conclusions about the book

This book is rather short, but it is well organised as a description of the military adventure of Dien Bien Phu. Its objective is to describe this as a military plan and the way it was executed. So there is quite a lot of discussion of whether this or that was a good military decision.

What is not so strong in this book is the role of  this episode in a global political landscape. What was the political history of the French in Indochina? What were they hoping to achieve by retaining the these as traditional colonies? What political options were contemplated? How did national “home politics” influence the government’s decisions about Indochina? Questions like these are not answered in this book.

Anyway, taking its constraints into account, it is an easily readable and informative book about an episode in history, where a Western power engages in fighting an enemy that is difficult to detect in the landscape. As we currently see some such military adventures going on in our days, it can be wise to see what happened when formally superior forces were defeated by a “barefoot army”.

Data

David Stone: “Dien Bien Phu” (Brassey’s, London, 2004) 128 pgs; ISBN-10: 1857533720; (book at openlibrary.org)

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