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.


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.


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”.


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

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Book: “Fleeing Hitler – France 1940” — why people run away in war

3 12 2010

In June 1940, when the German armed forces were approaching Paris, the Parisians began to move out of the city, towards the south, where they believed they would be safe from the war. This exodus lasted for some people a few days or weeks, for others a few months, and some would never return to the city where they had lived. In Hanna Diamond’s book, we are told what this exodus meant for the persons involved, what their thoughts and feelings were, and about the military-political background.

"Fleeing Hitler" -- front

"Fleeing Hitler" -- front


The second world war (WWII) started in September 1939, when Germany and the Soviet Union attacked Poland. Britain and France declared war some days later, and these two countries were then at war with Germany. But on the western front, everything was quiet. It was called the “phoney war”, as no shots were fired, and everybody just waited. In May 1940, the German army advanced into Holland, Belgium and the Netherlands, and a real war had arrived in Western Europe.

The German forced advanced rapidly — the “Blitzkrieg” — and suddenly the people of Paris started to become worried. The French and British forces could not stop the Germans, and irresistibly the Germans moved toward the west — the Channel coast — and towards the south — threatening Paris.

The inhabitants of Paris had for some weeks seen refugees passing by, refugees from Holland and Belgium, fleeing towards the south. The Parisians were worried about what would happen. Then a few day into June 1940, the inhabitants started to flee toward the south. They made a hasty leave, and mostly had to resort to their own ideas about how to flee. Some made it by train, but an enormous number of persons started to leave by road, using cars, or bikes or on foot.

On June 22, armistice was made between Germany and the Vichy regime of France, and hostilities came to an end. The two weeks of fleeing came to an end, but for the refugees, the ordeal was not over. Some — the ones who were late to leave — managed to get back to Paris quickly. Others were stranded in the Unoccupied zone of France, and it took weeks or months to get back. And still other never returned. Either because they knew that returning to the Occupied part of France would place them in danger from persecution (Jews, refugees originally from Germany and other Central-European countries, foreigners that were just visiting France) or they decided that they had nothing to return to and preferred to stay in the south of France.

"Fleeing Hitler": Leaving Paris by train

"Fleeing Hitler": Leaving Paris by train

The stories of the refugees have not been much explored. Diamond here gives us a good representation of what was on the minds of the refugees; before the exodus, during the exodus, and after. The sources used are written texts, like books published later and contemporary and later newspaper articles.

Main insights

The first insight gained is that the chaotic nature of this exodus was, to a large extent, the effect of lack of organised evacuation plans. There are several reasons for this lack, the main ones are

  • no need for detailed plans — “our impregnable wall, the Maginot line, will stop the Germans, and they will never even see Paris at a distance”.
  • no need for detailed plans, as even if the Germans entered the north of France, they would be stopped outside the gates of Paris — “we will stop them just like in WWI” (the battle of the Marne)
  • planning for this eventuality sends the wrong message to the enemy — “we might not be able to defend Paris”.
  • planning for this eventuality sends the wrong message to our citizens — “is our glorious Army incapable of defending the heart of France?”

The practical effect was that the citizens of Paris did not get a clear message about who should evacuate, and when. Certain categories were addressed specifically, like children, but for the grown-ups no clear directives were available. And the officials at the municipal, city and regional level did not provide any enlightening information.

"Fleeing Hitler": Leaving Paris by roads

"Fleeing Hitler": Leaving Paris by roads

This is why the evacuation was largely seen as an anarchic endeavour.  People had to fend for themselves.

There was also the conflict — sometimes potential and sometimes real — of interference between the streams of refugees clogging the roads, and the army  that needed to relocate in order to create some kind of meaningful opposition to the Germans. Sharing the same roads did cause logistical problems for all.

When the tide slowed to a stop, at the armistice, people could often be put up in local families or in hastily organized refugee centres. Some monetary contributions were handed out to the refugees, that they could use to acquire foods and other stuff necessary for life.

Some time after the armistice, repatriation started. Not all could be returned home. But many Parisians did return, and thanks to Paris being declared an “open city” before the Germans had come close to the suburbs, there had been no damage to the city in itself. So people could try to restore the kind of life they had had before evacuation. But life was not as good as before. Now they were exposed to food rationing, and not all workplaces could re-hire personnel.

Some numbers

In the beginning of  July 1940, official estimates said that there were eight million refugees in France — 6.2 million internal French refugees; 1.8 million Belgians; 150,000 from Holland and Luxembourg.  Of the 6+ million French, Parisians were about two million, and 800,000 were from Alsace-Lorraine


When people experience troubled times, they do not want to take on any responsibility for that. There must be somebody else that is the cause of these troubles. This is also what was noticed among the refugees.

Leon Werth was struck by the number of people he came across who needed to find someone to blame. ‘They shouted and cried expressions along the lines of “We have been sold out! We have been betrayed!” This popular accusation, that I have heard several times on the road, seemed to suffice in itself. I was never able to get a reply to the question “By whom?”‘ Those passing by in their expensive cars were assumed to be Jews. ‘The Jews sold us out!’ people cried. As refugees struggled, their anti-semitism grew. Such feelings laid the way for people to  be sympathetic to Vichy’s later anti-Jewish statutes.

(Diamond, p 78)

That anti-Semitism could be noticed should not surprise us. In Germany anti-Semitism had been legally sanctioned for more than five years. In France there was a tradition of animosity towards the French Jews — cf. the Dreyfus affair. Having a lot of persons feeling desperate and on the run from their home, this provided an environment where latent anti-Semitism could become open anti-Semitism.

Did you notice the exodus?

Many persons have actually seen a glimpse of the exodus, or should we say a glimpse of a recreation of the evacuation of Paris. At the end of the well-known movie Casablanca (1942, directed by Michael Curtis; starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid), we hear:



Bogart/Rick: If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.

Bergman/Ilsa:  But what about us?

Bogart/Rick:  We’ll always have Paris.

Then we remember an earlier flashback scene, when these two have met in Paris and fallen in love. The Germans are approaching Paris. Bogart and Bergman were to escape together. Bogart waited vainly for Bergman at the railway station. Those scenes are from a timing point of view located at the peak of the exodus, when people were desperately trying to get out of the city, and succeeded, failed, or lost each other.

Even though the power of the movie Casablanca rests on what happens in the city of Casablanca, it can be enlightening to realize that the exodus from Paris was the setting for a critical part of the history preceding the main action in Morocco.

Peoples’ thoughts about Pétain

Maréchal Pétain was at the critical point in time entrusted with the governing of France. He, the hero of WWI, was now quickly taking steps to terminate hostilities between the French and the Germans. A cease-fire was agreed, and the French-German armistice was signed in Compiègne. Despite the fact that Pétain now was Head of State of a defeated France, he tried to recreate a national feeling of nationalism and “back to the roots” — in effect trying to eradicate modernism and return to a mindset of nationalism coupled with a devotion of the French soil.

In my family there is tremendous fervour for Marshal Pétain and I share these sentiments. His past, his prestige, and his age are all guarantees of his courage and the rectitude of his behaviour at the head of the French state which, without being aware of it, has just been substituted for the Republic- ‘Pétain’, my mother says,’is a father for France’ and this is just how he appears to us.

(Diamond, p 190)

Perhaps it was because the modern France had been defeated, and there were no other persons of the same stature as Pétain, that the Marshal had a surprisingly large and devoted following among the French.

Jean Monnet appears

In the history of the European Union, Jean Monnet has a special position as the originator of the idea of a European Union. He architected the first “trial version” of it,  in the form of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC).

Monnet is also mentioned here, as a strong supporter for the proposed Anglo-French Union of 1940 — an initiative that would prevent France from renouncing their promises to keep fighting alongside Britain. This union proposal was raised in the midst of the period that we are talking about here, but this proposal was quickly dropped, and France did ask for a separate armistice agreement with Germany.

But still, it is an intriguing thought that this Anglo-French union acted as a seed that would later grow up to be the ECSC, and a couple of decades later would result in the European Union.

Hanna Diamond

Hanna Diamond

The author

Hanna Diamond is Senior Lecturer in French History at the University of Bath. She lived and taught in Paris for many years and has spent her career researching the lives of the French people during the twentieth century.

(from publisher author presentation)


This was an interesting book, mainly because its topic has not been treated to this extent before. The reader gets a fair amount of political background, and of the main military actions taken. But the emphasis is on the people concerned — either as direct refugees themselves, or as French citizens in the south of France, citizens that did their best to host the refugees from Paris.

For obvious reasons, the main sources have been existing documentation in text, either printed or as manuscripts in the national archives. We would have preferred that this story had been treated forty years earlier, when lots of people were still alive, and had vivid memories of those weeks and months in 1940. Presumably we would have gotten a more diversified tapestry of experiences and opinions. Nevertheless, we have to acknowledge the the picture painted in this book seems like a solid account of those events and of the mindset of those times.

What is the relevance of this book? On the one hand it is another component in the story-telling of what happened during WWII, and in that respect a component with clear added value.

But we can also read this kind of book as a background when we try to understand what we see happening in our times. Even in Europe we have during the last thirty years seen refugees fleeing from their homes, and sometimes never to return. The kinds of thoughts that were in the minds of the Parisians in 1940 should to some extent correspond to thoughts in the heads of people fleeing from Srebrenica. There are lessons to learn from history, and we had better make good use of that kind of history, if we are to take some kind of control of our future.


Hanna Diamond: “Fleeing Hitler — France 1940” (Oxford University Press, 2008) 255 pages, ISBN 13: 9780199532599 (book at

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