It is January 24, 1954, as you assume the role of General Vo Nguyen Giap, commander of the military forces of the Viet Minh, the Vietnamese communist independence movement led by Ho Chi Minh that seeks to overthrow French colonial rule. Since 1887 Vietnam has been part of France’s Indochina empire (which includes Cambodia and Laos),and in 1941 Ho founded the Viet Minh to expel the French and to establish an independent communist nation. During World War II, Japan occupied Indochina and the Viet Minh’s combat focus supported the Allied cause by opposing the Japanese occupiers. Ho had hoped that an Allied victory in World War II would lead to the creation of an independent Vietnam under his leadership. However, those hopes were dashed when France reclaimed its Indochina empire after the war.
Fighting between the Viet Minh and French forces erupted in December 1946, marking the beginning of the Indochina War. However, until Mao Zedong’s 1949 communist victory in neighboring China, the fighting you led was mainly guerrilla warfare. But since then, communist China has provided your forces with modern weapons of all types that enable them to combat the French in large-scale operations on a nearly equal footing, despite France’s airpower monopoly. These weapons include American-manufactured howitzers that Mao’s forces seized when they defeated the U.S.-backed Nationalist Chinese, plus others they captured from the Americans and South Koreans during the Korean War (1950-53). Thus, the Viet Minh now has the means to win a decisive battle – if the French create a tactical situation you can exploit to your army’s advantage.
Two months ago, on November 20, 1953, the French launched an airborne assault code named Operation Castor that you believe provides such an opportunity. Six French paratrooper battalions jumped into a remote valley in northwest Vietnam near the Laotian border. After flying in more troops, weapons and supplies over the past few weeks, the French have created a fortified zone consisting of a series of mutually supporting strong points surrounding the village of Dien Bien Phu. Clearly, the intent is to lure your forces into a costly battle of attrition in which French airpower and superior firepower will inflict a decisive defeat on your army. Thus, your challenge is to develop a battle plan that will turn the tables on the French and give the Viet Minh, not France, a decisive victory at Dien Bien Phu.
DIEN BIEN PHU
Dien Bien Phu lies in the remote Nam Yum River valley 450 kilometers northwest of Hanoi and 50 kilometers from the Laotian border. (See Northern French Indochina map.) This bowl-shaped valley region is dominated by mountains to the north, east and west and is surrounded by thick jungle.
On Dien Bien Phu’s northern end is the enemy’s main airstrip, which is constructed of perforated steel planking to make it usable in all weather. Since French plans assume your forces will surround and cut off the Dien Bien Phu garrison from ground communications, the airstrip is absolutely vital to the French for flying in supplies and reinforcements and for evacuating casualties. If it becomes unusable, the garrison will have no way to evacuate the injured and will have to rely on parachutists as reinforcements and airdrops for resupply. Therefore, neutralizing or capturing the airstrip is a tactical priority for your forces.
The French fortified area consists of eight main strong points on small hills spread over a distance of 10 kilometers running north-south. Five of the strong points – Anne-Marie, Huguette, Dominique, Eliane and Claudine – are clustered around Dien Bien Phu and the main airstrip. Two others, Gabrielle to the north and Beatrice to the northeast, are positioned to keep Viet Minh forces out of mortar range of the main airstrip. The final strong point, Isabelle, guards a small, secondary dirt airstrip six kilometers south of Dien Bien Phu.
After the initial airborne assault on Dien Bien Phu in November, the French rapidly built up the garrison to about 11,000 soldiers. The majority of them are organized into 12 infantry battalions of paratroopers, French Foreign Legionnaires, North Africans, and indigenous Indochinese troops. However, only the paratroopers and legionnaires are elite units composed of mostly combat veterans.
Fire support for the French garrison consists of one battery of four 155 mm howitzers, two artillery battalions with 24105 mm howitzers, 10 75 mm howitzers, 28120 mm mortars, 77 81 mm mortars, 14060 mm mortars, and 70 recoilless rifles (57mm and 75 mm). Additionally, a company of 10 M24 U.S. Chaffee light tanks was airlifted into the position, as were four quad.50-caliber anti-aircraft machine guns capable of delivering devastating fire against infantry attacks. Additional supporting units include a combat engineer battalion,medical teams, maintenance crews and command post personnel.
Meanwhile, stationed at the main airstrip are six fighter planes and six observation aircraft. Additional air support is available from French air bases at Hanoi and Haiphong and includes 32 fighter planes, 45 fighter-bombers, 40 medium bombers and several transport aircraft squadrons (C-47s and C-119s).
VIET MINH FORCES
When French paratroopers first landed at Dien Bien Phu, your only force there was 148th Independent Regiment stationed near the village. Heavily outnumbered, the regiment’s soldiers withdrew into the surrounding jungle. However, realizing the French buildup was a major operation, you immediately ordered strong Viet Minh forces to march to the area. By early January, your units surrounding Dien Bien Phu consisted of five infantry divisions (304th, 308th, 312th, 316th and 351st heavy divisions) and 57th Independent Regiment. Your total infantry strength is currently 33 battalions numbering about 50,000 soldiers – a nearly 5-to-1 advantage over the French defenders.
Significantly, you have gathered substantial fire support assets of artillery guns, mortars, rocket launchers and recoilless rifles.In addition to infantry units, 351st Heavy Division contains 45th Artillery Regiment,which has two dozen 105 mm U.S. howitzers provided by China that the French are currently unaware of; 675th Artillery Regiment, with 18 75 mm guns and 20 120 mm mortars; and 367th Anti-aircraft Regiment,with 36 37 mm anti-aircraft guns and 10012.7 mm machine guns. Your formidable fire support arsenal includes 12 Soviet-built Katyusha six-tube rocket launchers and about 70 recoilless rifles (57 mm and 75mm) in the infantry divisions.
Supplying your large force in this remote location requires a massive logistical effort. This involves Russian and Chinese-provided U.S. vehicles as well as bicycles and about 15,000 civilian porters.
COURSES OF ACTION As you consider possible courses of action, you recall facing a similar tactical situation at the November 23-December 2, 1952, Battle of Na San. The French, much as they have done at Dien Bien Phu, created fortified positions at Na San to draw your forces into a costly battle of attrition, and your army suffered a bloody defeat with horrendous casualties.
However, there are notable differences in the two situations, as well. For instance, at Na San the French force was larger than your army and you lacked heavy weapons fire support. Moreover, Na San’s more open terrain greatly favored the enemy’s devastating employment of firepower and air support. Finally, at Na San the French seized the initiative and controlled the flow of the battle. At Dien Bien Phu, you are determined to implement a battle plan that imposes your will on the enemy.
You gather your staff and division commanders in your command bunker in the hills north of Dien Bien Phu to brief them on three courses of action you are considering. Although you want to hear their feedback on each plan, the final decision regarding which one to implement is yours alone.
COURSE OF ACTION ONE: GENERAL ATTACK. Under the first plan, Viet Minh infantry forces will quickly defeat the enemy by immediately launching a powerful ground attack in two waves under the cover of a barrage delivered by all fire support weapons. The first wave will target the most vulnerable northern French strongpoints, Gabrielle and Beatrice. Then the general attack will rapidly continue in a powerful second wave launched from all directions at the main strongpoints clustered around Dien Bien Phu village and the isolated southernmost strongpoint, Isabelle.
COURSE OF ACTION TWO: PHASED ATTACKS.
With this option, Viet Minh infantry units, supported by fire from well-positioned mortars and artillery guns, will establish trench lines as close as possible to the French positions. From there, your soldiers will launch a series of phased attacks to capture the enemy strongpoints one by one and then end with a final attack to overwhelm the remaining French garrison. By placing your trench lines close to the enemy forces, you will prevent the French from using their heaviest firepower and thereby lower your number of casualties.
COURSE OF ACTION THREE: PROLONGED SIEGE.
The final course of action calls for mounting a prolonged siege to force the French garrison’s eventual surrender. Viet Minh infantry units will establish extensive trench lines around the enemy strongpoints while supporting mortars and artillery systematically bombard the French positions. Although this plan will take the greatest amount of time to achieve victory, it will be the least costly in Viet Minh casualties because it entails only small raids and avoids risky frontal assaults.
Since you intend to make this the war’s decisive battle, you must carefully choose the plan that promises your army the greatest chance of success.
What next, General Giap?
COURSE OF ACTION ONE: GENERAL ATTACK
You decide to launch a general attack immediately in order to overrun the French positions in the shortest possible time. Winning the battle within days instead of weeks significantly reduces the amount of supplies your army will require – a major consideration since every bullet, artillery round and pound of rice must be laboriously transported by civilian porters and trucks through the region’s thick jungle. A quick victory also limits the amount of time your soldiers are exposed to enemy firepower and especially airpower, against which you have only limited anti-aircraft defense weapons. Finally, the shock of a sudden Viet Minh victory will have the greatest impact on France’s political leadership.
You are concerned, however, that by launching the attack right away, you will not have time to construct heavily fortified, well-camouflaged firing positions for your artillery guns and mortars, thus leaving them vulnerable to French counterfire and airstrikes. Yet you are willing to take this risk since you are confident that your infantrymen can quickly overrun the garrison before the French are able to inflict serious damage on these heavy weapons.
Under the cover of darkness the night of January 25, your division commanders place their infantrymen in attack positions in the jungle surrounding the French garrison. At dawn on January 26, the first wave of your general attack rushes forward as your soldiers assault Gabrielle and Beatrice, while your artillery guns, mortars and rockets bombard all of the enemy strong points and the main airstrip. Your Chinese-provided105 mm howitzers prove to be an unpleasant surprise to the French, who, unaware that you possessed such heavy guns, had not constructed fortifications sturdy enough to withstand their shells. The barrage collapses the French bunkers and trenches, paving the way for your attacking infantrymen.
Yet the French also have 105 mm artillery guns, and their well-trained crews deliver heavy fire that tears holes in the ranks of your infantrymen swarming around Gabrielle and Beatrice. Moreover, since your bombardment reveals the unfortified firing positions of your artillery guns and mortars, counterfire from the enemy’s heavy weapons begins systematically knocking out your fire support. Nevertheless, Gabrielle, the most exposed strongpoint, falls to your infantrymen by 10 a.m.Beatrice holds out another two hours but is taken by your soldiers at noon.
Your infantry casualties are heavier than you had expected and at least one-third of your artillery guns and mortars are destroyed. Yet you are determined to press the attack, and thus you order the second wave launched immediately. However, as your infantrymen advance across the open terrain toward the main cluster of enemy strongpoints around Dien Bien Phu, you hear the sound of approaching aircraft.
Waves of French fighter planes and fighter-bombers soon appear overhead and begin strafing your attacking infantrymen and bombing your remaining artillery and mortar positions in the surrounding hills. Although your anti-aircraft guns engage the enemy planes, they succeed only in shooting down a few of them and damaging several more. Heavy fire from French artillery guns, mortars, machine guns and small arms adds to the carnage the airstrikes have wrought on your exposed infantrymen. Used in a ground defense role, the enemy’s quad .50-caliber anti-aircraft machine guns deliver particularly deadly fire against your soldiers.
Despite the horrendous casualties, you exhort your division commanders to continue pressing their attacks. Yet your soldiers, their morale shattered by the heavy losses inflicted by French firepower and airstrikes, are already retreating into the jungle.
You realize that your decision to launch a general attack has created a disaster for the Viet Minh. You have unwittingly given the French exactly what they had planned in their Dien Bien Phu operation – a stunning victory in a one-sided battle of attrition. Whether Viet Minh forces can recover from this disastrous defeat remains to be seen.
COURSE OF ACTION TWO: PHASED ATTACKS
You believe the most effective use of your infantry and firepower is to place your soldiers in trenches dug as close as possible to the French strongpoints, from which the infantrymen will launch a series of phased attacks. This tactic, which you call “hugging the belt” of the enemy, will prevent the French from using the full force of their heaviest firepower against your soldiers, lest their rounds strike their own troops. You also order your men to construct heavily fortified, well-camouflaged firing positions for the artillery guns and mortars and to create“dummy” firing positions to draw off enemy counterfire. Finally, after carefully analyzing the surrounding terrain to identify the most likely air corridors French planes will use for launching airstrikes and delivering supplies, you concentrate your anti-aircraft guns along those routes.
Since your extensive preparations require several weeks to complete, you set the date of your initial strike for March 13. On that evening, you launch your first attack, targeting the most exposed northern French strongpoints, Gabrielle and Beatrice. Under the cover of a barrage delivered by your artillery guns, mortars and rockets, your infantrymen leap out of their trenches and rush across the short distance to the enemy positions.
Your Chinese-provided U.S. 105 mm howitzers prove to be an unpleasant surprise to the French, who had not constructed fortifications sturdy enough to withstand the heavier shells. Your troops overrun Gabrielle so quickly that you order them to continue their attack and immediately strike Anne-Marie. After two days of relentless assaults, your first phase attack captures Gabrielle, Beatrice and two fortified positions within the Anne-Marie strongpoint.
You are particularly pleased that French counterfire is proving extremely ineffective against your camouflaged artillery and mortar positions. Even when the French gunners are able to locate your well-hidden guns,their counterfire cannot penetrate the fortified firing positions. Likewise, your “hugging the belt” tactic is working well – infantry casualties, while substantial, are not heavy.
On the night of March 30, you launch the second attack, targeting the French strongpoints Eliane, Dominique and Huguette. Your artillery bombardment concentrates fire on Dominique, Eliane and all the enemy artillery gun pits. The first two fortified positions within Dominique fall quickly, but Eliane holds out by launching desperate counterattacks and receiving timely reinforcements. Meanwhile, you order artillery fire and infantry attacks to target Huguette and Isabelle.
By dawn on March 31, your forces hold one of Eliane’s fortified positions and two of Dominique’s. Throughout the day, they continue to attack Eliane while simultaneously assaulting Huguette. Stiff French resistance keeps Eliane in enemy hands, but by nightfall your infantrymen have captured Huguette.
Your phase one and phase two attacks shrink the area held by the French garrison to half its original size, while your continual artillery, mortar and rocket bombardments effectively close both enemy airstrips. Thus, the garrison must now rely on airdrops for resupply. Often, however,the airdropped supplies – including thousands of rounds of 105 mm ammunition– land in areas under your control. With the French garrison starved of supplies and receiving only infrequent reinforcements by a few parachutists, you decide to delay your third and final attack until you have worn down the enemy even further.
Finally, on May 1, you launch the phase three attack, preceding the infantry assaults with a heavy, three-hour barrage against the remaining enemy strongpoints, command bunkers and artillery gun pits. After the shelling, your infantrymen leave their close-in trenches and advance on Eliane, Dominique, Huguette, Claudine and Isabelle.
Fierce, often hand-to-hand fighting rages over the next several days. However, it becomes clear to you that the French garrison, now reduced to only about 3,000 men still capable of fighting, cannot hold out much longer. On May 7, you order 25,000 Viet Minh troops to launch a final, all-out assault against the beleaguered, outnumbered defenders. By nightfall, your forces overrun all remaining enemy positions and the French commander surrenders what is left of the garrison.
Your phased attacks, spread over a period of 56 days, have resulted in a stunning, decisive victory. You and Ho are confident that this triumph means the end of France’s Indochina empire.
COURSE OF ACTION THREE: PROLONGED SIEGE
With Ho still criticizing you for your costly defeat by French firepower at the Battle of Na San, you realize you must win the Battle of Dien Bien Phu with the fewest possible casualties. You therefore decide to force the French garrison’s surrender through a prolonged siege.
During the weeks of preparing your siege lines around the garrison, you emplace your artillery guns and mortars in heavily fortified, well-camouflaged positions and create “dummy” firing positions to draw off enemy counterfire. You also emplace your anti-aircraft guns in camouflaged positions to protect your artillery guns, mortars and infantry siege lines against French airstrikes and to engage enemy transport planes attempting to deliver supplies.
Surprisingly, the French seem content to allow you to encircle the garrison – presumably because they are confident that their firepower will decimate your besieging troops and that their airpower will keep French forces resupplied. Yet you have a plan to seriously disrupt the enemy air support through a series of heavy, sustained ground attacks on all French air bases supporting Dien Bien Phu.
As your siege begins in earnest in mid-March, you order Viet Minh forces to launch simultaneous ground attacks against all French air bases at Hanoi and Haiphong. Taking the enemy by complete surprise, these attacks destroy dozens of planes on the ground and blow up aircraft maintenance and aviation fuel storage facilities.After nearly two weeks of relentless attacks,your forces cripple the enemy airpower, yet your men also suffer horrendous casualties.
On March 17, the French garrison receives another nasty surprise when your siege begins with a massive bombardment by all your artillery guns, mortars and rockets.Unaware that you possess the 105 mm howitzers, the French did not construct their fortified positions to withstand such large rounds.Furthermore, their counterfire against your heavily fortified, well-camouflaged artillery gun and mortar positions proves ineffective.
Over the next several weeks, combat reminiscent of World War I trench warfare becomes the routine – continual artillery, mortar and rocket bombardments of French strongpoints during the day,and small-scale trench raids by your infantrymen against the garrison perimeter at night. Although a few enemy warplanes conduct infrequent airstrikes and a handful of transport planes drop meager supplies,your earlier ground attacks against the airbases have deprived the French of effective air support. The Dien Bien Phu defenders are slowly starving, and their artillery and mortar fire becomes significantly weaker as they adopt strict rationing of ammunition.
Yet as the siege extends into mid-June, it seriously overburdens your supply system and you too must ration food and ammunition, particularly 105 mm artillery rounds.While the French are much worse off than your soldiers, if the garrison does not surrender by the end of the month, you will be forced to launch a general attack or else abandon your siege.
Then on June 25, you are shocked to see the sky suddenly filled with fighter-bombers and transport aircraft. At first you are astonished that the French have reconstituted their Indochina air force, but as the planes fly closer, you see from their insignia that they are American.
Your prolonged siege has given the “hawks” in Washington, D.C., enough time to convince the U.S. president and his senior advisers, who have been reluctant to support France’s imperial ambitions, that containing the spread of communism in Southeast Asia is vital to American national interests. Since China fell to Mao and the Korean War ended in stalemate, the U.S. containment policy would be seriously weakened by a French defeat that leads to a communist Vietnam. Ironically, the catalyst that tipped the scales in the hawks’ favor was your destruction of French airpower. The Americans realized that without it, France was doomed to lose Indochina.
As squadrons of U.S. transport planes begin dropping hundreds of tons of vital supplies into the garrison, swarms of American fighter-bombers attack your infantrymen and artillery positions. You quickly abandon the siege and disperse your forces in remote jungle hideout locations safe from American airstrikes.
You are afraid that not only have you lost the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, but by provoking massive American intervention, you also may have lost the war.
HISTORICAL COURSE OF ACTION AND ANALYSIS
Giap chose to launch phased infantry attacks from close-in trenches under the cover of heavy artillery and mortar bombardments (COURSE OF ACTION TWO: PHASED ATTACKS), and the battle unfolded as described in the COA Two narrative. Giap’s innovative tactics frustrated the enemy’s attempts to employ French firepower to the best effect, and the effectiveness of the Viet Minh artillery guns and mortars, particularly the 105 mm howitzers that surprised the enemy, proved overwhelming. The entire 11,000- man French garrison was either killed or captured, compared to Viet Minh losses of about 4,000 killed and 9,000 wounded.
The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was the decisive, turning-point battle in what became known as the First Indochina War. It resulted in France abandoning its Indochina empire, and the last French troops left in 1956.
However, in the aftermath of France’s defeat, Vietnam was divided into a communist-controlled north led by Ho Chi Minh and a non-communist, Vietnamese-governed south supported by the United States. Although nationwide elections were supposed to be held in 1956 to create a unified Vietnam, they never took place. This prompted Ho’s communists to launch the Second Indochina War (1955-75) against South Vietnam, American forces and the U.S.’s regional allies. Again, Giap would lead his army to final victory.
Colonel (Ret.) Richard N. Armstrong has written numerous military affairs/history articles for professional and historical journals and has authored several books, including “Red Army Tank Commanders” and “Soviet Operational Deception.”
Originally published in the May 2015 issue of Armchair General.