How legends of T. E. Lawrence’s guerrilla forces in Arabia and Orde Wingate’s Chindit special ops in Burma fatally beguiled the French at Dien Bien Phu.
Historians interpret the May 1954 fall of the French fortress at Dien Bien Phu to, in the words of French writer Jules Roy, “the search for a classic, set-piece battle in which the French hoped to bring the destructive power of modern technology to bear on the elusive communist enemy and smash him with an iron fist.” The logic of the French gamble is explained by two factors, one tactical, the other strategic. The tactical piece evolved from a faith in the defensive capabilities of the base aéroterrestre, or “hedgehog”—a system of mutually supporting strongpoints tied together by barbed wire and trenches arranged around a heavily defended airstrip. The strategic piece was the offspring of acute war fatigue in Paris that, in May 1953, had Prime Minister René May admonishing his new commander in Indochina, General Henri Navarre, to create the conditions for “une solution politique honorable.” Navarre’s plan was to seek “a major battle” to wound the Viet Minh so devastatingly that Paris could trade a thumping tactical triumph for a settlement more favorable than its military performance heretofore would merit.
Dien Bien Phu failed, according to the accepted version of history, because Navarre elected to defend low ground too distant from his Red River Delta base, chose the wrong commanders, and underestimated the offensive power of the Viet Minh. In this version of the narrative, he also ignored the fact that the Geneva Conference, which had begun the month before in an effort to resolve outstanding issues in Korea and Indochina, gave the communists an incentive to turn the tables on the French. This historical verdict is correct as far as it goes. But there are several problems with it, beginning with the fact that it interprets history backward, from effect to cause. For Viet Minh commander Vo Nguyen Giap the search for victory in a decisive, conventional battle could be plausibly portrayed as a validation of Mao Zedong’s vision of revolutionary forces evolving in stages from, in the words of Vietnam War historian Martin Windrow, “a clandestine guerrilla movement into a powerful conventional army.” The French, though, appeared to be moving in the opposite direction—from a conventional army to a guerrilla movement.
In fact, the French decision to occupy Dien Bien Phu in 1953 was not a search for a climactic conventional “Austerlitz in the jungle” but rather a desperate grasp at the straw of survival for their Indochina enterprise by means of irregular warfare. The creation of a base at Dien Bien Phu married irregular warfare methods of British provenance with a historic French commitment to the militias of montagnards—tribal highlanders—in the upper Tonkin. It was a combination designed to shift the strategic dynamic of the Indochina War.
The British contribution to Dien Bien Phu can be traced to two men who could claim justifiably to be the founders of modern irregular warfare—Thomas Edward Lawrence and Orde Wingate. Lawrence was an Oxford-educated archeologist of Crusader castles who turned intelligence officer in the British Army’s Cairo bureau following the outbreak of the Great War. At that time, the failed intervention at Gallipoli in 1915 had left the British war secretary, Lord Herbert Horatio Kitchener, in no mood to manufacture further strategic distractions in the Middle East. But Kitchener’s death in June 1916 opened an opportunity for Lawrence and he took it. He made contact with the Hashemite sharif of Mecca and would-be insurgent leader against the Ottomans, Husayn bin Ali al-Hashemi. Reconnoitering the situation in the Hejaz—the western Arabian Peninsula—Lawrence reported back to his superiors that the “Bedouin of the Hejaz” had many problems, but he believed that an infusion of modern weapons, British advisers, some aerial reconnaissance, and the substitution of the sharif’s son Faisal bin al-Husayn for his aging father could swell the nascent insurgency into a full-blown Arab revolt.
Historians now tend to agree that there was no “Arab Revolt,” least of all in the Hejaz, which together with Yemen formed one of the most backward, non-nationalistic provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Historian David Fromkin believes the revolt, such as it was, “had no material effect on the conduct or outcome” of the First World War. “The Arab Revolt was supposed to rescue Britain, but instead Britain had to rescue it.”
Given the poor opinion of the military value of the Arab Revolt among professional soldiers of the era and its inability to achieve significant military and political objectives, the insurgency’s inflated postwar reputation can be explained by several factors rooted in propaganda, military particularism, and imperialist statecraft in the further evolution of the Eastern Question and Arab nationalism. First, it was compatible with the West’s narrative of smashing the backward and tyrannical Ottoman Empire as the first step in the creation of a modern Middle East under the sway of the victorious Entente powers. Second, the argument that the Arabs had simply seized the initiative and taken Damascus allowed Prime Minister David Lloyd George to renege on the British commitment, laid out in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, to divide with Paris the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. Third, the myth of an Arabled liberation leveraged Hashemite ambitions. King Faisal deliberately adopted the language of Arab nationalism in his negotiations with the British after 1915 because it was an idiom comprehensible to Cairo. It also allowed him to validate his rebellion against the world’s major Muslim power and lent legitimacy to postwar Hashemite rule in the Transjordan and Iraq. Faisal’s Arab nationalists, concentrated mainly in Damascus and loath to acknowledge that the British Army had broken their Ottoman shackles, embraced the fanciful narrative of self-liberation. It was a narrative bolstered by mock media events featuring bouncing Hejazis whipping their camels down Damascus boulevards, anonymous and imaginative dispatches to The Times, and self-aggrandizing books written by Lawrence. In truth, the fairly limited actions of Faisal’s Arab irregulars in 1918 on the flanks of Field Marshal Edmund “Bull” Allenby’s army had no more than “nuisance value,” in the words of one British cavalryman.
Yet the Faisal-Lawrence myth persisted. One of Lawrence’s admirers, the eminent military theorist Sir Basil Liddell Hart, puffed him as a strategic genius in a 1934 biography, explaining that Lawrence’s exploits validated the indirect approach: Avoid the enemy’s strength and win through intelligence, guile, cultural knowledge, and sowing psychological confusion. That Liddell Hart’s theories of strategy and operations were anchored in fictionalized history, guerrilla mania, and a cowboys-and-Indians imagination mattered not a jot to a shaken island nation that, after 1918, had acquired a collective aversion to continental warfare. Liddell Hart’s marketing of Lawrence’s approach as a means of “victory without battles” obviated the requirement for military professionalism and the high-casualty sacrifice of conventional warfare. Such marketing discouraged the preparation for conventional warfare in the interwar British Army, and for that Britain would pay a huge price in World War II. The Lawrentian myth of arming local insurgents would exact a further price on the French at Dien Bien Phu.
Irregular warfare in World War II flourished in inverse proportion to the fortunes of conventional forces. By then Lawrence was gone, though not his influence, much to Orde Wingate’s consternation. Wingate had served in the interwar years with the British military in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Palestine, developing his own approach to irregular warfare— highly trained special operations forces and a reliance on the kind of easily constructed hedgehog box later adapted at Dien Bien Phu. Wingate’s approach was more deliberate, less fortuitous than that of Lawrence’s levée en masse, which he rejected as inefficient “hugaboo”—“the rush of tribesmen, the peasants with billhooks.” But hugaboo became a guiding principle of British strategy following the withdrawal of the British Expeditionary Forces from Dunkirk in May and June 1940. The truth is that both Lawrence’s and Wingate’s approaches were adopted out of strategic weakness, even despair, in the wake of the industrialized slaughter of the Great War and the impotence of British conventional arms following the 1940 Fall of France. The incompetence of Britain’s conventional army was in part the fruit of a persistent small-wars mentality that failed to embrace a unified operational and tactical doctrine, to impose a common template on the conduct of war at the strategic and operational level, to prepare for continental conflict in interwar grand maneuvers, and even to enforce common training standards on regimental and battalion commanders. In 1940, British generals whose command experience topped out at quelling uprisings of colonial miscreants cut an amateurish figure against the German army.
Winston Churchill’s order in July 1940 to his newly created Special Operations Executive (SOE) to “set Europe ablaze” by sparking and sustaining resistance movements in the Axis-occupied countries was inspired by the imperatives of propaganda, Lawrentian romanticism, and Liddell Hart’s championing of the indirect approach. Then there was the sheer desperation born of another conventional war near – defeat, as well as the limitations of British sea and air power. Given the weakness of Britain’s strategic position, Churchill turned to special operations to create an illusion of offensive momentum. SOE was to carry out espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance behind enemy lines, mainly by making contact with local resistance forces in Europe. SOE agents were first dropped into France in May 1941, Yugoslavia in September, and Greece in November 1942. In June 1942 the United States established the Office of Strategic Services to replicate the SOE and British secret intelligence. Thus, the Gallic beret of the SOE superseded the symbolic Lawrentian kaffiyeh to perpetuate the romanticism of revolt among decisionmakers.
The myth of the resistance as a militarily effective phenomenon was also propagated by SOE and OSS propagandists, who exaggerated the effects of resistance sabotage on German defenses and morale. The truth was that resistance movements in Adolf Hitler’s Europe remained small, factious, poorly armed, easily contained, and fixated on seizing power at war’s end. When British economic historian Alan Milward questioned Albert Speer, reich-minister for armaments and war production, on the impact of the French Resistance on German war production, Speer famously replied, “What French Resistance?” Still, in the postwar era, the myth of la Résistance became Lawrence’s Arab Revolt on steroids. The belief that through resistance, occupied populations played a part in their own liberation legitimized partisan leaders and exile governments like Charles de Gaulle’s Free French.
The evolution of quasi-conventional, hybrid warfare experiments had underpinned the improvised British approach to fighting in the Western Desert in 1941–1942, under Generals (later Field Marshals) Archibald Wavell and Claude Auchinleck. Service on Allenby’s staff in World War I had left Wavell with a fascination for special operations forces, which he encouraged in Ethiopia with Wingate’s Sudanese and Ethiopian Gideon Force. Before Bernard Montgomery arrived in the Western Desert in August 1942, commanders like Wavell “maneuvered” with ad hoc tactical concoctions like long-range patrols, Special Air Service formations, Jock columns, and other Lawrence-style Bedouin mobile units. This strategy instilled a “tip and run” mentality in the officer corps. Their raids, which were hyped into doctrine, delivered mere mosquito bites to the desperately overextended but nevertheless operationally competent Afrika Korps. “Strongholds” or “boxes”—the air supply feature had yet to be developed—were used with a singular lack of success. Yet when Bernard Montgomery imposed a centralized battle concept on the Eighth Army in August 1942, it was denounced as an unimaginative, stultifying reversion to Great War continental warfare. His critics were wrong: Allied infantry advancing behind profligate artillery fire—instead of light cavalry razzle-dazzle—was the only method that succeeded against Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps.
But like the resistance myth and the Arab Revolt, the legend of Wingate’s special operations forces acquired a life of its own. Wingate cashed in on Churchill’s invitation to attend the 1943 Quebec Conference “initially for cosmetic purposes.” His attendance reinforced the propaganda illusion of special operations success and helped mask the systemic shortcomings of British conventional forces—which were on gaudy display in France in 1940, Greece and Crete in 1941, and Tobruk and Singapore in 1942. Wingate had become the T. E. Lawrence of the tropics, his diminutive frame, signature solar topee, full beard, and evangelical fervor broadcasting British determination and combat skill to a U.S. ally skeptical that His Majesty’s soldiers were willing or even able to put up a fight.
For his part, Wingate used the Quebec Conference as an opportunity to sell the Combined Chiefs of Staff on his plan for an offensive in northern Burma that would use special forces operating out of fortified air bases in the Japanese rear. Once implemented, Wingate’s 3rd Indian Infantry Division, better known as the Chindits (from a Burmese word meaning “mythical creature”), did divert Japanese troops in northern Burma up to a point, but as his biographer Simon Anglim argues, by February 1944, when the Allies launched Operation Thursday, the British-Indian army in Burma had become largely an air-supplied, light infantry force. Nor was there any indigenous resistance in Burma for the Chindit long-range patrol groups to support. Wingate was also fortunate that Japanese forces were divided, operationally spent, and too malaria-ridden at war’s end to concentrate against his vulnerable “boxes.” Post-Thursday analysis concluded that long-range penetration formations were too light to achieve anything more than a diversionary effect, and that “medium range penetration operations, in conjunction with main forces for limited periods,” was preferable to creating “boxes” distant from the main bases that could not be reliably supported by air.
Yet special operations enthusiasts count Orde Wingate’s Chindits among the most effective irregular units of World War II. Supporters of Wingate, mainly those who served under him, claim that the Chindits disrupted Japanese offensives against India by diverting troops and attacking lines of supply. While Wingate’s superior, William Slim, British Fourteenth Army Commander, commended the spirit and courage of the Chindits, he found the investment in special operations wasteful in men, resources, and time. In Slim’s view, the Chindits assumed tasks that could be carried out just as well by better-equipped conventional units with a more balanced force structure. The Chindits lacked punch because they were basically light infantry unsupported by heavier elements such as artillery; they were deficient in logistics, which limited their operational stamina; they suffered heavy losses from tropical diseases; and their casualties were difficult to evacuate from remote jungle sites. They also proved difficult to support, competed with other special operations formations in the region, and depleted line units of the best men, which “lower[ed] the quality of the rest of the Army,” according to Slim. In short and with great insight, Slim concluded that British special operations had become a cult whose doctrinal proponents in mass persuasion evangelized their tactics as the path to strategic salvation, when in fact their modest achievements were bought at great cost to the rest of the army. Yet the myths of the military effectiveness of Wingate-inspired special ops and Lawrentian people’s war continued into the postwar decades, despite the minimal, even morally ambiguous, role they had played in the Axis defeat.
The French army returned to Indochina in 1945 only to discover Ho Chi Minh and his forces encamped in the north of the country. Against U.S. advice at the time, the French appeared determined to carry on in the colony as if the Vietnamese resistance, along with their earlier defeat to the Japanese and the subsequent Japanese occupation, had never occurred. Nor did the French government lay a political foundation to underpin a counterinsurgency campaign, in part because a series of weak and divided coalition governments in Paris essentially ceded control of colonial policy to the military and its imperialist supporters. As a consequence, the French army increasingly faced complex tactical, operational, strategic, and political challenges, especially following Mao’s 1949 victory in the Chinese Civil War and his subsequent decision to aid the Viet Minh.
The more the Viet Minh main-force units outmanned, outgunned, and outmaneuvered the French, forcing them back to the tenuous security of the Red River Delta, the more French military leaders clutched at the hope that indigenous resistance forces offered a way to redress the deteriorating military situation. That hope was encouraged by the myth that the World War II French Resistance had created a “climate of insecurity” in German-occupied France that diverted German troops and allowed the Allied landings in Normandy. The supposed transferability of this resistance strategy to Indochina lay in the calculation that French-organized resistance behind Viet Minh lines could divert the enemy from their siege of the strategically vital Red River Delta, site of Hanoi and Tonkin’s port city of Haiphong. That the montagnards of the Tonkin highlands could form that resistance was further reinforced by the romanticized Lawrentian myth of the white “special operator” assisting bands of simple natives to a victory they could not otherwise achieve on their own. French general Raoul Salan, Navarre’s predecessor in command, wrote that the montagnards “deserve our nurturance and protection. They love us, place their confidence in us. We do not have the right to abandon them.”
The French faith in the military efficacy of the Resistance, projected onto the montagnards and combined with Wingate’s fortified air bases strategy, created a seductive but ultimately toxic operational mélange. The Resistance myth also boomeranged on Paris when the Viet Minh cast themselves as patriotic maquisards—guerrillas of the French Resistance—pitted against a French army assuming a role akin to Nazi oppressors. The French proved willing to mortgage their entire future in Vietnam to a faith in the strategic potential of special operations combined with 19th-century racist sentimentality.
In 1951 French army major Roger Trinquier inspired the creation of the Groupement de Commandos Mixtes Aéroportés, whose goal was to establish an anti–Viet Minh maquis. Trinquier flew into the Tonkin highlands and convinced village headmen there to volunteer recruits, who were then flown to the special forces camp at Cap Saint-Jacques, about 80 miles from Saigon, for training in counterinsurgency tactics. Once trained, they were equipped with arms, radios, cash, and a special operations cadre of French officers and NCOs and reinserted into the mountains. Each French commando was to lead about a hundred montagnards, who would attack Viet Minh forces from behind, collect intelligence, and interdict their supply routes, forcing Commander Giap to divert significant numbers of troops from the Red River Delta.
The experiment proved DoA. Although initially taken by surprise, the Viet Minh quickly regrouped and moved against the dispersed pockets of French-led montagnards in the latter half of 1952, putting them to flight. Hoping to rescue them, Salan chose Na San in central Tonkin in october 1952 as the site of what he called a base aéroterrestre. Hastily constructed, it consisted of barbed wire and trenches surrounding an airstrip defended by interlocking fields of artillery fire backed by air support. In November and December 1952, 15,000 French troops and their artillery were successfully airlifted into this fabricated “hedgehog.” While they were able to repel ferocious human wave attacks launched by Giap’s Viet Minh, Na San came too late to rescue most of Trinquier’s maquis and their French cadres, who perished outside the protective wire of the base.
The Na San hedgehog had been a tactical success in resisting Giap’s attacks. But as a “mooring point” for a French-led maquis it had proved a strategic bust. Shorn of strategic value, Na San was abandoned by the French in 1953. yet in early 1954 the French were claiming they were on their way to creating “an immense guerrilla zone” in northern Tonkin that would become a second front. Henri Navarre boasted that the maquis was his “artillery” and laid plans to train 40,000 montagnards. The obsession with special operations and its attendant myths had come to dominate strategy. The French risked the base aéroterrestre gambit again the following year at Dien Bien Phu.
By then, the Viet Minh had been invigorated by the end of the Korean War, which gave them arms, energy, and focus. Giap, however, was not distracted by French maquis fantasies. In the early fall of 1953 he began to mass his divisions around the Red River Delta, which he saw as the center of gravity for control of the Tonkin. His Chinese advisers had other ideas; they viewed the montagnard maquis as bait to draw the French out of their Red River Delta base. The French, they surmised, would want to protect a maquis base at Lai Chau in northwest Tonkin, a major opium-producing area whose profits financed French special operations.
When, in early November 1953, French military intelligence detected “the imminence of a rebel action against our maquis” near Lai Chau, Navarre bit, launching an airborne operation to convert the broadest valley in the Tonkin highlands into the Dien Bien Phu base aéroterrestre, where the maquis could be shifted. But Dien Bien Phu would be no Na San—the Chinese made certain that Giap had the resources to inflict serious harm on the isolated French garrison. No Allenby or Montgomery arrived to rescue Dien Bien Phu, and the defeat there resonated at the ongoing Geneva Conference and in Paris.
Special operations romantic fantasies proved to be the French Achilles’ heel. A strategy driven by the World War II myth of the maquis, a sentimental attachment to the montagnards in the fashion of Lawrentian romanticism, a faith in the defensive capacities of Wingatian “boxes,” an overreliance on special operations, and the need to retain control of opium-trade profits set the stage for a disaster from which French fortunes in Indochina never recovered.
Douglas Porch chairs the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. His latest book, Counterinsurgency: The Origins, Development, and Myths of the New Way of War (2013), is on the Army Chief of Staff’s reading list for all officers.
Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.