Battle of Dien Bien Phu

From New World Encyclopedia

Battle of Dien Bien Phu
Part of the First Indochina War
Dien bien phu castor or siege deinterlaced.png
French Union paratroops dropping from an United States Air Force-lent "Flying Boxcar".
Date March 13 – May 7, 1954
Location Vicinity of Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam
Result Decisive Viet Minh victory
Flag of France French Union
Flag of North Vietnam.svg Viet Minh
Flag of FranceChristian de Castries #
Flag of FrancePierre Langlais #
Flag of FranceRené Cogny
Flag of North Vietnam.svg Vo Nguyen Giap
As of March 13:
As of March 13:
48,000 combat personnel,
15,000 logistical support personnel[2]
2,293 dead,
5,195 wounded,
10,998 captured
7,950 dead, 15,000 wounded

The Battle of Dien Bien Phu (French: Bataille de Diên Biên Phu; Vietnamese: Chiến dịch Điện Biên Phủ) was the climactic battle of the First Indochina War between French Union forces of the French Far East Expeditionary Corps and Vietnamese Viet Minh communist revolutionary forces. The battle occurred between March and May 1954, and culminated in a massive French defeat that effectively ended the war. According to Martin Windrow Dien Bien Phu was "the first time that a non-European colonial independence movement had evolved through all the stages from guerrilla bands to a conventionally organized and equipped army able to defeat a modern Western occupier in pitched battle."[3]

As a result of blunders in the French decision making process, the French undertook to create an air-supplied base at Dien Bien Phu, deep in the hills of Vietnam. Its purpose was to cut off Viet Minh supply lines into the neighboring French protectorate of Laos, at the same time drawing the Viet Minh into a battle that would be their doom. Instead, the Viet Minh, under General Vo Nguyen Giap, surrounded and besieged the French, who were ignorant of the Viet Minh's possession of heavy artillery (including anti-aircraft guns) and their ability to move such weapons to the mountain crests overlooking the French encampment. The Viet Minh occupied the highlands around Dien Bien Phu, and were able to fire down accurately onto French positions. Tenacious fighting on the ground ensued, reminiscent of the trench warfare of World War I. The French repeatedly repulsed Viet Minh assaults on their positions. Supplies and reinforcements were supplied by air, although as the French positions were overrun and the anti-aircraft fire took its toll, fewer and fewer of those supplies reached them. After a two month siege, the garrison was overrun and most French surrendered. Despite the loss of most of their best soldiers, the Viet Minh marshaled their remaining forces and pursued those French who did flee into the wilderness, routing them and ending the battle.

Shortly after the battle, the war ended with the 1954 Geneva accords, under which France agreed to withdraw from its former Indochinese colonies. The accords partitioned the country in two; fighting later resumed, among rival Vietnamese forces, in 1959, with the Vietnam War (Second Indochina War). The world was shocked as a group of guerrilla fighters emerged the victors from a battle that pitted them against a current world superpower.[4]

Background and preparations

The French had become fully entrenched in Vietnam in the 1890s while attempting to forge colonies to extract wealth from the country. Before this, the nation had been characterized by centuries of sporadic warfare among domestic factions within the country and against Chinese intruders. After World War II the Viet Minh attempted to govern themselves, but the French came back and reestablished control. In 1949, China turned communist and began to aid the Viet Minh.[4]

By 1953, the First Indochina War was not going well for the French. A succession of commanders – Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque, Jean-Étienne Valluy, Roger Blaizot, Marcel-Maurice Carpentier, Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, and Raoul Salan – had proven incapable of suppressing the Viet Minh insurrection after the rebels had retreated to the jungles after finding that fighting the French head-on did not prove a logical means of attaining success on the battlefield.[5] During their 1952–53 campaign, the Viet Minh had overrun vast swaths of the French colony of Laos, Vietnam's western neighbor. The French were unable to slow the Viet Minh advance, and the Viet Minh fell back only after outrunning their always-tenuous supply lines. In 1953, the French had begun to strengthen their defenses in the Hanoi delta region to prepare for a series of offensives against Viet Minh staging areas in northwest Vietnam. They had set up fortified towns and outposts in the area, including Lai Chau near the Chinese border to the north,[6] Na San to the west of Hanoi,[7] and the Plain of Jars in northern Laos.[8]

In May 1953, French Premier Rene Mayer appointed Henri Navarre, a trusted colleague, to take command of French Forces in Indochina. Mayer had given Navarre a single order—to create military conditions that would lead to an "honorable political solution."[9] On arrival, Navarre was shocked by what he found.

There had been no long-range plan since de Lattre's departure. Everything was conducted on a day-to-day, reactive basis. Combat operations were undertaken only in response to enemy moves or threats. There was no comprehensive plan to develop the organization and build up the equipment of the Expeditionary force. Finally, Navarre, the intellectual, the cold and professional soldier, was shocked by the "school's out" attitude of Salan and his senior commanders and staff officers. They were going home, not as victors or heroes, but then, not as clear losers either. To them the important thing was that they were getting out of Indochina with their reputations frayed, but intact. They gave little thought to, or concern for, the problems of their successors.[9]

Defense of Laos

Dien Bien Phu, in Dien Bien Province (shown in green) was sufficiently far from Hanoi, the seat of French military power, that French air transport could not easily keep it supplied.

The most controversial issue surrounding the battle was whether Navarre was also obligated to defend Laos, which was far from the French seat of military power in Hanoi. Although Navarre assumed it was his responsibility, defending it would require his army to operate far from its home base. During meetings with the France's National Defense Committee on July 17 and July 24, Navarre asked if he was responsible for defending northern Laos.[10] These meetings produced a misunderstanding that became the most disputed fact of the controversy surrounding the battle. For years afterward, Navarre insisted the committee had reached no consensus; French Premier Joseph Laniel insisted that, at that meeting, the Committee had instructed Navarre to abandon Laos if necessary. "On this key issue, the evidence supports Navarre's claim that on July 24, he was given no clear-cut decision regarding his responsibility for Laos. Over the years, when challenged by Navarre, Laniel has never been able to present any written evidence to support his contention that Navarre was instructed to abandon Laos if necessary."[10] The committee was reluctant to give Navarre a definitive answer because its proceedings were constantly leaked to the press, and the politicians on the committee did not want to take a politically damaging position on the issue.[10]

Na San and the hedgehog concept

Simultaneously, Navarre had been searching for a way to stop the Viet Minh threat to Laos. Colonel Louis Berteil, commander of Mobile Group 7 and Navarre's main planner,[11] formulated the "hérisson" (hedgehog) concept. The French army would establish a fortified airhead by air-lifting soldiers adjacent to a key Viet Minh supply line to Laos.[12] This would effectively cut off Viet Minh soldiers fighting in Laos and force them to withdraw. "It was an attempt to interdict the enemy's rear area, to stop the flow of supplies and reinforcements, to establish a redoubt in the enemy's rear and disrupt his lines"[13]

The hedgehog concept was based on French experiences at the Battle of Na San. In late November and early December 1952, Giap attacked the French outpost at Na San. Na San was essentially an "air-land base," a fortified camp supplied only by air.[14] Giap's forces were beaten back repeatedly with very heavy losses. The French hoped that by repeating the setup on a larger scale, they would be able to bait Giap into committing the bulk of his forces in a massed assault. This would enable superior French artillery, armor, and air support to wipe out the exposed Viet Minh forces. The experience at Na San convinced Navarre of the viability of the fortified airhead concept.

However, French staff officers failed to take into consideration several important differences between Dien Bien Phu and Na San. First, at Na San, the French commanded most of the high ground with overwhelming artillery support.[15] At Dien Bien Phu, however, the Viet Minh controlled much of the high ground around the valley and their artillery far exceeded French expectations and they outnumbered the French by a ratio of four-to-one.[1] Giap compared Dien Bien Phu to a "rice bowl," where his troops occupied the edge and the French the bottom. Second, Giap made a mistake in Na San by committing his forces into reckless frontal attacks before preparations could be made. At Dien Bien Phu, Giap would spend months stockpiling ammunition and emplacing heavy artillery and anti-aircraft guns before making his move. Teams of Viet Minh volunteers were sent into the French camp to note the disposition of the French artillery. Wooden artillery pieces were built as decoys and the real guns were rotated every few salvos to confuse French counter-battery fire. As a result, when the battle began, the Viet Minh knew exactly where the French artillery were while the French were not even aware of how many guns Giap possessed. Many felt that the rebels possessed no heavy artillery, though even if they did the French were certain that it was impossible to manuever in the dense jungles the Viet Minh occupied. Giap had ingeneously had the weapons torn apart and carried piecemeal up the mountain to be reconstructed at the top.[16]Third, the aerial resupply lines at Na San were never severed despite Viet Minh anti-aircraft fire. At Dien Bien Phu, Giap amassed anti-aircraft batteries that quickly shut down the runway and made it extremely difficult and costly for the French to bring in reinforcements.

Lead up to Castor

In June, Major General René Cogny, commander of the Tonkin Delta, proposed Dien Bien Phu, which had an old airstrip built by the Japanese during World War II, as a "mooring point".[17] In another misunderstanding, Cogny had envisioned a lightly defended point from which to launch raids; however, to Navarre, this meant a heavily fortified base capable of withstanding a siege. Navarre selected Dien Bien Phu for the location of Bertiel's "hedgehog." When presented with the plan, every major subordinate officer protested – Colonel Jean-Louis Nicot, (commander of the French Air transport fleet), Cogny, and generals Jean Gilles and Jean Dechaux (the ground and air commanders for Operation Castor, the initial airborne assault on Dien Bien Phu). Cogny pointed out, presciently, that "we are running the risk of a new Na San under worse conditions."[18] Navarre rejected the criticisms of his proposal, and concluded a November 17 conference by declaring the operation would commence three days later, on November 20, 1953.[19][20]

Navarre decided to go ahead with the operation, despite operational difficulties which would later become obvious (but at the time may have been less apparent)[21] because he had been repeatedly assured by his intelligence officers that the operation had very little risk of involvement by a strong enemy force.[22] Navarre wanted to draw the rebels out into at an isolated point, so he selected a spot that could only be supplied by airplane.[16]Navarre had previously considered three other ways to defend Laos: Mobile warfare, which was impossible given the terrain in Vietnam; a static defense line stretching to Laos, which was inexecutable given the number of troops at Navarre's disposal; or placing troops in the Laotian capitals and supplying them by air, which was unworkable due to the distance from Hanoi to Luang Prabang and Vientiane.[23] Thus, the only option left to Navarre was the hedgehog option, which he characterized as "a mediocre solution."[24]

In a twist of fate, the French National Defense Committee ultimately did agree that Navarre's responsibility did not include defending Laos. However, their decision (which was drawn up on November 13) was not delivered to him until December 4, two weeks after the Dien Bien Phu operation began.[10]

Establishment of the airhead

Operations at Dien Bien Phu began at 10:35 on the morning of November 20, 1953. In Operation Castor, the French dropped or flew 9,000 troops into the area over three days. They were landed at three drop zones: Natasha, northwest of Dien Bien Phu; Octavie, southwest of Dien Bien Phu; and Simone, southeast of Dien Bien Phu.[25]

The Viet Minh elite 148th Independent Infantry Regiment, headquartered at Dien Bien Phu, reacted "instantly and effectively;" however, three of their four battalions were absent that day.[26] Initial operations proceeded well for the French. By the end of November, six parachute battalions had been landed and the French were consolidating their positions.

It was at this time that Giap began his counter-moves. Giap had expected an attack, but could not foresee when or where it would occur. Giap realized that, if pressed, the French would abandon Lai Chau Province and fight a pitched battle at Dien Bien Phu.[27] On November 24, Giap ordered the 148th Infantry Regiment and the 316th division to attack into Lai Chau, and the 308th, 312th, and 351st divisions to attack from Viet Bac into Dien Bien Phu.[28]

Starting in December, the French, under the command of Colonel Christian de Castries, started transforming their anchoring point into a fortress by setting up seven positions, each allegedly named after a former mistress of de Castries, although the allegation is probably untrue, as the names simply begin with the first seven letters of the alphabet. The fortified headquarters was centrally located, with positions "Huguette" to the west, "Claudine" to the south, and "Dominique" to the northeast. Other positions were "Anne-Marie" to the northwest, "Beatrice" to the northeast, "Gabrielle" to the north and "Isabelle" four miles to the south, covering the reserve airstrip. The choice of de Castries as the on-scene commander at Dien Bien Phu was, in retrospect, a bad one. Navarre had picked de Castries, a cavalryman in the eighteenth century tradition,[29] because Navarre envisioned Dien Bien Phu as a mobile battle. In reality, Dien Bien Phu required someone adept at World War I-style trench warfare, something for which de Castries was not suited.[30]

The arrival of the 316th Viet Minh division prompted Cogny to order the evacuation of the Lai Chau garrison to Dien Bien Phu, exactly as Giap had anticipated. En route, they were virtually annihilated by the Viet Minh. "Of the 2,100 men who left Lai Chau on December 9, only 185 made it to Dien Bien Phu on December 22. The rest had been killed or captured or deserted."[31] The Viet Minh troops now converged on Dien Bien Phu.

The French had committed 10,800 troops, with more reinforcements totaling nearly 16,000 men, to the defense of a monsoon-affected valley surrounded by heavily wooded hills that had not been secured. Artillery as well as ten M24 Chaffee light tanks and numerous aircraft were committed to the garrison. The garrison comprised French regular troops (notably elite paratroop units plus artillery), Foreign Legionaires, Algerian and Moroccan tirailleurs, and locally recruited Indochinese infantry.

All told, the Viet Minh had moved 50,000 regular troops into the hills surrounding the valley, totaling five divisions including the 351st Heavy Division which was made up entirely of heavy artillery.[2] Artillery and AA guns, which outnumbered the French artillery by about four to one,[2] were moved into camouflaged positions overlooking the valley. The French came under sporadic Viet Minh artillery fire for the first time on January 31, 1954, and patrols encountered the Viet Minh in all directions. The battle had been joined, and the French were now surrounded.

Combat operations

The French disposition at Dien Bien Phu, as of March 1954. The French took up positions on a series of fortified hills. The southernmost, Isabelle, was dangerously isolated. The Viet Minh positioned their 5 divisions (the 304th, 308th, 312th, 316th, and 351st) in the surrounding areas to the north and east. From these areas, the Viet Minh had a clear line of sight on the French fortifications and were able to accurately rain down artillery on the French positions.


The fighting began at 5:00 p.m. on March 13, when the Viet Minh launched a massive surprise artillery barrage. The time and date were carefully chosen—the hour allowed the artillery to fire in daylight, and the date was chosen because it was a new moon, allowing a nighttime infantry attack.[32] The attack concentrated on position Beatrice, defended by the 3rd battalion of the 13th Foreign Legion Demi-Brigade.

Unknown to the French, the Viet Minh had made a very detailed study of Beatrice, and had practiced assaulting it using models. According to one Viet Minh major: "Every evening, we came up and took the opportunity to cut barbed wire and remove mines. Our jumping-off point was moved up to only two hundred yards from the peaks of Beatrice, and to our surprise [French] artillery didn't know where we were."[33]

The French command on Beatrice was decimated at 6:15 p.m. when a shell hit the French command post, killing Legionnaire commander Major Paul Pegot and his entire staff. A few minutes later, Colonel Jules Gaucher, commander of the entire northern sector, was killed by Viet Minh artillery.

French resistance on Beatrice collapsed shortly after midnight following a fierce battle. Roughly 500 legionnaires were killed, along with 600 Viet Minh killed and 1,200 wounded from the 312th division.[34] The French launched a counterattack against Beatrice the following morning, but it was quickly beaten back by Viet Minh artillery. Despite their losses, the victory at Beatrice "galvanized the morale" of the Viet Minh troops.[34]

Much to French disbelief, the Viet Minh had employed direct artillery fire, in which each gun crew does its own artillery spotting (as opposed to indirect fire, in which guns are massed further away from the target, out of direct line of sight, and rely on a forward artillery spotter). Indirect artillery, generally held as being far superior to direct fire, requires experienced, well-trained crews and good communications which the Viet Minh lacked.[35] Navarre wrote that "Under the influence of Chinese advisers, the Viet Minh commanders had used processes quite different from the classic methods. The artillery had been dug in by single pieces… They were installed in shell-proof dugouts, and fire point-blank from portholes… This way of using artillery and AA guns was possible only with the expansive ant holes at the disposal of the Vietminh and was to make shambles of all the estimates of our own artillerymen."[36] The French artillery commander, Colonel Charles Piroth, distraught at his inability to bring counterfire on the well-camouflaged Viet Minh batteries, went into his dugout and killed himself with a hand grenade.[37] He was buried there in great secrecy to prevent loss of morale among the French troops.


Following a four hour cease fire on the morning of March 14, Viet Minh artillery resumed pounding French positions. The air strip was put out of commission, forcing the French to deliver all supplies by parachute.[38] That night, the Viet Minh launched an attack on Gabrielle, held by an elite Algerian battalion. The attack began with a concentrated artillery barrage at 5:00 p.m. Two regiments from the crack 308th division attacked starting at 8:00 p.m. At 4:00 a.m. the following morning, a Viet Minh artillery shell hit the battalion headquarters, severely wounding the battalion commander and most of his staff.[38]

De Castries ordered a counterattack to relieve Gabrielle. However, Colonel Pierre Langlais, in forming the counterattack, chose to rely on the 5th Vietnamese Parachute battalion, which had jumped in the day before and was exhausted.[39] Although some elements of the counterattack reached Gabrielle, most were paralyzed by the Viet Minh artillery and took heavy losses. At 8:00 a.m. the next day, the Algerian battalion fell back, abandoning Gabrielle to the Viet Minh. The French lost around 1,000 men defending Gabrielle, and the Viet Minh between 1,000 and 2,000.[39]


Anne-Marie was defended by T'ai troops, members of a Vietnamese ethnic minority loyal to the French. For weeks, Giap had distributed subversive propaganda leaflets, telling the T'ais that this was not their fight. The fall of Beatrice and Gabrielle had severely demoralized them. On the morning of March 17, under a fog, the bulk of the T'ais left or defected. The French and the few remaining T'ais on Anne-Marie were then forced to withdraw.[40]


March 17 through March 30 saw a lull in fighting. The Viet Minh encircled the French central area (formed by the strongpoints Hugette, Dominique, Claudine, and Eliane), effectively cutting off Isabelle and its 1,809 personnel.[41] During this lull, the French suffered from a serious crisis of command. "It had become painfully evident to the senior officers within the encircled garrison—and even to Cogny at Hanoi—that de Castries was incompetent to conduct the defense of Dien Bien Phu. Even more critical, after the fall of the northern outposts, he isolated himself in his bunker so that he had, in effect, relinquished his command authority."[42] On March 17, Cogny attempted to fly into Dien Bien Phu and take command, but his plane was driven off by anti-aircraft fire. Cogny considered parachuting into the encircled garrison, but his staff talked him out of it.[42]

De Castries' seclusion in his bunker, combined with his superiors' inability to replace him, created a leadership vacuum within the French command. On March 24, Colonel Langlais and his fellow paratroop commanders, all fully armed, confronted de Castries. They told de Castries that he would retain the appearance of command, but that Langlais would exercise it.[43] De Castries accepted the arrangement without protest, although he did exercise some command functions thereafter.[44]

The French aerial resupply was taking heavy losses from Viet Minh machine guns near the landing strip. On March 27, Hanoi air transport commander Nicot ordered that all supply deliveries be made from 6,500 feet or higher; losses were expected to remain heavy.[45] De Castries ordered an attack against the Viet Minh machine guns two miles west of Dien Bien Phu. Remarkably, the attack was a complete success, with 350 Viet Minh soldiers killed and seventeen AA machine guns destroyed. French losses were only twenty soldiers.[46]

March 30–April 5 assaults

The central French positions at Dien Bien Phu as of late March 1954. The positions in Eliane saw some of the most intense combat of the entire battle.

The next phase of the battle saw more massed Viet Minh assaults against French positions in the central Dien Bien Phu area—at Eliane and Dominique in particular. Those two areas were held by five understrength battalions, composed of a mixture of Frenchmen, Legionnaires, Vietnamese, Africans, and T'ais.[47] Giap planned to use the tactics from the Beatrice and Gabrielle skirmishes.

At 7:00 p.m. on March 30, the Viet Minh 312th division captured Dominique 1 and 2, making Dominique 3 the final outpost between the Viet Minh and the French general headquarters, as well as outflanking all of the position east of the river.[48] But at this point, the French 4th colonial artillery regiment entered the fight, setting its 105 mm howitzers to zero elevation and firing directly on the Viet Minh attackers, blasting huge holes in their ranks. Another group of French, near the airfield, opened fire on the Viet Minh with anti-aircraft machine guns, forcing the Viet Minh to retreat.[48]

The Viet Minh were more successful in their simultaneous attacks elsewhere. The 316th division captured Eliane 1 from its Moroccan defenders, and half of Eliane 2 by midnight.[49] On the other side of Dien Bien Phu, the 308th attacked Huguette 7, and nearly succeeded in breaking through, but a French sergeant took charge of the defenders and sealed the breach.[49]

Just after midnight on March 31, the French launched a fierce counterattack against Eliane 2, and recaptured half of it. Langlais ordered another counterattack the following afternoon against Dominique 2 and Eliane 1, using virtually "everybody left in the garrison who could be trusted to fight."[49] The counterattacks allowed the French to retake Dominique 2 and Eliane 1, but the Viet Minh launched their own renewed assault. The French, who were exhausted and without reserves, fell back from both positions late in the afternoon.[50] Reinforcements were sent north from Isabelle, but were attacked en route and fell back to Isabelle.

Shortly after dark on March 31, Langlais told Major Marcel Bigeard, who was leading the defense at Eliane, to fall back across the river. Bigeard refused, saying "As long as I have one man alive I won't let go of Eliane 4. Otherwise, Dien Bien Phu is done for."[51] The night of the 31st, the 316th division attacked Eliane 2. Just as it appeared the French were about to be overrun, a few French tanks arrived, and helped push the Viet Minh back. Smaller attacks on Eliane 4 were also pushed back. The Viet Minh briefly captured Huguette 7, only to be pushed back by a French counterattack at dawn on April 1.[52]

Fighting continued in this manner over the next several nights. The Viet Minh repeatedly attacked Eliane 2, only to be beaten back again and again. Repeated attempts to reinforce the French garrison by parachute drops were made, but had to be carried out by lone planes at irregular times to avoid excessive casualties from Viet Minh anti-aircraft fire.[52] Some reinforcements did arrive, but not nearly enough to replace French casualties.

Trench warfare

On April 5, after a long night of battle, French fighter-bombers and artillery inflicted particularly devastating losses on one Viet Minh regiment which was caught on open ground. At that point, Giap decided to change tactics. Although Giap still had the same objective—to overrun French defenses east of the river—he decided to employ entrenchment and sapping to try to achieve it.[53]

April 10 saw the French attempt to retake Eliane 1. The loss of Eliane 1 eleven days earlier had posed a significant threat to Eliane 4, and the French wanted to eliminate that threat. The dawn attack, which Bigeard devised, was preceded by a short, massive artillery barrage, followed by small unit infiltration attacks, followed by mopping-up operations. Without realizing it, Bigeard had re-invented the Infiltration tactics used with great success by Oskar von Hutier in World War I. Eliane 1 changed hands several times that day, but by the next morning the French had control of the strongpoint. The Viet Minh attempted to retake it on the evening of April 12, but were pushed back.[54]

"At this point, the morale of the Viet Minh soldiers broke. The French intercepted radio messages which told of units refusing orders, and Communist prisoners said that they were told to advance or be shot by the officers and noncommissioned officers behind them."[55] The extreme casualties they had suffered (6,000 killed, 8,000 to 10,000 wounded, and 2,500 captured) had taken a toll; worse, the Viet Minh had a total lack of medical facilities. "Nothing strikes at combat morale like the knowledge that if wounded, the soldier will go uncared for."[56] To avert the crisis, Giap called in fresh reinforcements from Laos.

During the fighting at Eliane 1, on the other side of camp, the Viet Minh entrenchments had almost entirely surrounded Huguette 1 and 6. On April 11, the French garrison of Huguette 1 attacked, and was joined by artillery from the garrison of Claudine. The goal was to resupply Huguette 6 with water and ammunition. The attacks were repeated on the night of the 14–15th and 16–17th. While they did succeed in getting some supplies through, the heavy casualties convinced Langlais to abandon Huguette 6. Following a failed attempt to link up, on April 18, the defenders at Huguette 6 made a daring break out, but only a few made it back to French lines.[57][58] The Viet Minh repeated the isolation and probing attacks against Huguette 1, and overran the position on the morning of April 22. With the fall of Huguette 1, the Viet Minh took control of more than 90 percent of the airfield, making accurate parachute drops impossible.[59] This caused the landing zone to become perilously small, and effectively choked off much needed supplies.[60] A French attack against Huguette 1 later that day was repulsed.


Isabelle saw only desultory action until March 30, when the Viet Minh succeeded in isolating it and beating back the attempt to send reinforcements north. Following a massive artillery barrage against Isabelle on March 30, the Viet Minh began employing the same trench warfare tactics against Isabelle that they were using against the central camp. By the end of April, Isabelle had exhausted its water supply and was nearly out of ammunition.[61]

Final defeat

The Viet Minh launched a massed assault against the exhausted defenders on the night of May 1, overrunning Eliane 1, Dominique 3, and Huguette 5, although the French managed to beat back attacks on Eliane 2. On May 6, the Viet Minh launched another massed attack against Eliane 2. The attack included, for the first time, Katyusha rockets.[34] The French also used an innovation. The French artillery fired with a "TOT" (Time On Target) attack, so that artillery fired from different positions would arrive on target at the same time.[62] The barrage wiped out the assault wave. A few hours later that night, the Viet Minh detonated a mine shaft, literally blowing Eliane 2 up. The Viet Minh attacked again, and within a few hours had overrun the defenders.[63]

On May 7, Giap ordered an all out attack against the remaining French units.[64] At 5:00 p.m., de Castries radioed French headquarters in Hanoi and talked with Cogny.

De Castries: "The Viets are everywhere. The situation is very grave. The combat is confused and goes on all about. I feel the end is approaching, but we will fight to the finish."
Cogny: "Well understood. You will fight to the end. It is out of the question to run up the white flag after your heroic resistance."[29]

By nightfall, all French central positions had been captured. That night, the garrison at Isabelle made a breakout attempt. While the main body did not even escape the valley, about 70 troops out of 1,700 men in the garrison did escape to Laos.[65]



On May 8, the Viet Minh counted 11,721 prisoners, of whom 4,436 were wounded.[66] This was the greatest number the Viet Minh had ever captured: one-third of the total captured during the entire war. The prisoners were divided into groups. Able bodied soldiers were force-marched over 250 miles to prison camps to the north and east,[67] where they were intermingled with Viet Minh soldiers to discourage French bombing runs.[68] Hundreds died of disease on the way. The wounded were given basic first aid until the Red Cross arrived, removed 838, and gave better aid to the remainder. The wounded who were not evacuated by the Red Cross were sent into detention.

The prisoners, French survivors of the battle at Dien Bien Phu, were starved, beaten, and heaped with abuse, and many died.[69] Of 10,863 survivors held as prisoners, only 3,290 were repatriated four months later. The fate of 3,013 prisoners of Indochinese origin is unknown.[66]

The Viet Minh were victorious, but at a heavy cost. They counted around 8,000 dead and over 16,000 wounded.[64]

Political ramifications

The garrison constituted roughly a tenth of the total French manpower in Indochina, ("[t]he French expeditionary Force numbered 175,000 troops")[70] and its loss effectively ended the War.

Following the battle, the 1954 Geneva accords partitioned Vietnam into communist North Vietnamese and French South Vietnamese administered zones along the seventeenth parallel, and the last units of the French Union forces withdrew from Indo-China in 1956. This partition was supposed to be temporary, and the two zones were supposed to be reunited by national elections in 1956. After the French withdrawal, the United States supported the southern government, under Emperor Bao Dai and Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem, which opposed the Geneva agreement, and which claimed that Ho Chi Minh's forces from the North had been killing Northern Vietnamese loyal to the Diem regime and terrorizing people both in the North and the South. The North was supported by both communist China and the Soviet Union. This would eventually escalate into the Vietnam War (Second Indochina War).[64]

France's defeat in Indochina seriously damaged its prestige elsewhere in their colonial empire, notably the North African territories from where many of the troops who fought at Dien Bien Phu had been recruited. In 1954, six months after the battle at Dien Bien Phu ended, the Algerian War of Independence started, and by 1956 both Moroccan and Tunisian protectorates had gained independence.

The battle was depicted in Diên Biên Phu, a 1992 docudrama film—with several autobiographical parts—in conjunction with the Vietnamese army by Dien Bien Phu veteran French director Pierre Schoendoerffer.

U.S. participation

According to the Mutual Defense Assistance Act the United States provided the French with material aid during the battle—aircraft (supplied by the USS Saipan), weapons, mechanics, twenty four CIA/CAT pilots, and U.S. Air Force maintenance crews.[71] However, the United States intentionally avoided public, direct intervention. In February 1954, following French occupation of Dien Bien Phu but prior to the battle, Democratic senator Mike Mansfield asked United States Defense Secretary Charles Erwin Wilson whether the U.S. would send naval or air units if the French were subjected to greater pressure there. "For the moment there is no justification for raising United States aid above its present level." U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower also stated, "Nobody is more opposed to intervention than I am."[72] On March 31, following the fall of Beatrice, Gabrielle, and Anne-Marie, a panel of U.S. Senators and House Representatives questioned U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Arthur W. Radford about the possibility of U.S. involvement. Radford concluded it was too late for the U.S. Air Force to save the French garrison. A proposal for direct intervention was unanimously voted down by the panel, which "concluded that intervention was a positive act of war."[73]

The United States did covertly participate in the battle, however. Following a request for help from Henri Navarre, Radford provided two squadrons of B-26 Invader bomber aircraft to support the French. Subsequently, 37 U.S. pilots flew 682 sorties over the course of the battle. Earlier, in order to succeed the pre-Dien Bien Phu Operation Castor of November 1953, General McCarty made available 12 additional C-119 Flying Boxcars flown by French crew.[74] Two of the U.S. pilots, Wallace Buford and James "Earthquake McGoon" McGovern Jr., were killed in action during the siege of Dien Bien Phu. In February 25 2005, the seven still living U.S. pilots were awarded the French Legion of Honor by Jean-David Levitte ambassador of France in the United States.[75] The role the U.S. pilots played in the battle had remained little known until 2004; "U.S. historian Erik Kirsinger researched the case for more than a year to establish the facts."[76][77] French author Jules Roy also suggests that Radford discussed with the French the possibility of using nuclear weapons in support of the garrison.[78] Moreover, John Foster Dulles was reported to have mentioned the possibility of lending atomic bombs to the French for use at Dien Bien Phu,[79] and a similar source claims that British Foreign Secretary Sir Anthony Eden was aware of the possibility of nuclear weapons use in the region.[80]

Khe Sanh

Fourteen years later, during the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese Army (still under Giap's command) made an apparent attempt to repeat their success at Dien Bien Phu, by an assault on the U.S. military base at Khe Sanh. Historians are divided on whether this was a genuine assault on the base, or a diversion from the rest of the Tet Offensive, or an example of the NVA keeping its options open. At Khe Sanh, a number of factors were significantly different from Dien Bien Phu, enabling the Americans to win the battle. Khe Sanh was much closer to its supply base (45 kilometres versus 200 km at Dien Bien Phu);[81] At Khe Sanh, the Americans held the high ground, and their artillery forced the Vietnamese to use their artillery from a much greater distance, while at Dien Bien Phu the French artillery (six 105 mm batteries and one battery of four 155 mm howitzers and mortars[82]) were only sporadically effective;[83] Khe Sanh received 18,000 tons in aerial resupply during the 30 day battle, whereas during 167 days the French forces at Dien Bien Phu received only 4,000 tons.[84] By the end of the battle of Khe Sanh, U.S. Air Force assets had flown 9,691 tactical sorties and dropped 14,223 tons of bombs on targets within the Khe Sanh area. Marine Corps aviators had flown 7,098 missions and released 17,015 tons. Naval aircrews, many of whom were redirected from Rolling Thunder strikes against the DRV, flew 5,337 sorties and dropped 7,941 tons of ordnance on the enemy.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Davidson, Phillip Vietnam at War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 224.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Davidson, 223.
  3. Michael Kenney, "British Historian Takes a Brilliant Look at French Fall in Vietnam," Boston Globe, January 4, 2005.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Michael Lee Lanning, The Battle 100: The Stories Behind History's Most Influential Battles (Naperville: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2003), 216.
  5. Lanning, 217.
  6. Bernard B. Fall, Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu (New York: De Capo Press, 1966), 23.
  7. Fall, 9.
  8. Fall, 48.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Davidson, 165.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 Davidson, 176.
  11. Fall, 44.
  12. Davidson, 173.
  13. Bruce Kennedy, CNN Cold War—Spotlight: Dien Bien Phu. Retrieved August 14, 2007.
  14. Fall, 24.
  15. Davidson, 147.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Lanning, 218.
  17. Davidson, 182.
  18. Jules Roy, The Battle of Dienbienphu, trans. Robert Baldick (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 21.
  19. Roy, 33
  20. Davidson, 184.
  21. Martin Windrow, The Last Valley (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2006), 211, 212, 228, 275.
  22. Davidson, 189.
  23. Davidson, 186.
  24. Davidson, 187.
  25. Davidson, 194.
  26. Davidson, 193.
  27. Davidson, 196.
  28. Davidson, 196.
  29. 29.0 29.1 Richard Cavendish, The Fall of Dienbienphu, Time. Retrieved August 14, 2007.
  30. Davidson, 199.
  31. Davidson, 203.
  32. Davidson, 234.
  33. Roy, 167
  34. 34.0 34.1 34.2 Davidson, 236.
  35. Davidson, 227.
  36. Henri Navarre, Agonie de l'Indochine (1953-1954) (Paris: Plon, 1958), 225.
  37. Spartacus Educational, Dien Bien Phu. Retrieved August 24, 2006.
  38. 38.0 38.1 Davidson, 237.
  39. 39.0 39.1 Davidson, 238.
  40. Davidson, 239.
  41. Fall, 279.
  42. 42.0 42.1 Davidson, 240-241.
  43. Fall, 177.
  44. Davidson, 243.
  45. Davidson, 244.
  46. Davidson, 244-245.
  47. Davidson, 245.
  48. 48.0 48.1 Davidson, 246.
  49. 49.0 49.1 49.2 Davidson, 247.
  50. Davidson, 248.
  51. Roy, 210.
  52. 52.0 52.1 Davidson, 253.
  53. Davidson, 254-255.
  54. Davidson, 265.
  55. Davidson, 256.
  56. Davidson, 257.
  57. Davidson, 258.
  58. Fall, 260.
  59. Fall, 270.
  60. Davidson, 259.
  61. Davidson, 260.
  62. Davidson, 261.
  63. Davidson, 262.
  64. 64.0 64.1 64.2 Lanning, 219.
  65. Davidson, 269.
  66. 66.0 66.1, Breakdown of losses suffered at Dien Bien Phu. Retrieved August 24, 2006.
  67., The Long March. Retrieved August 24, 2006.
  68. Fall, 429.
  69., At camp #1. Retrieved August 24, 2006.
  70. Davidson, 163.
  71. Roy, 140.
  72. Roy, 140.
  73. Roy, 211.
  74. Embassy of France in the U.S., French-American Relations. Retrieved August 14, 2007.
  75. Embassy of France in the US, French-American Relations Retrieved August 14, 2007.
  76. "France honors US pilots for Dien Bien Phu role," Agence France Presse, February 25, 2005.
  77. Robert Burns, "Covert U.S. aviators will get French award for heroism in epic Asian battle," Associated Press Worldstream, February 16, 2005.
  78. Roy, 198.
  79. Fall, 306.
  80. Fall, 307.
  81. Gordon L. Rottman, Khe Sanh 1967-1968: Marines Battle for Vietnam's Vital Hilltop Base (University Park: Osprey Publishing, 2005), 8.
  82. Fall, 480.
  83. Rottman, 9.
  84. Rottman, 9.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Burns, Robert. "Covert U.S. aviators will get French award for heroism in epic Asian battle." Associated Press Worldstream. February 16, 2005.
  • Cavendish, Richard. The Fall of Dienbienphu. Time. Retrieved July 28, 2019.
  • Davidson, Phillip. Vietnam at War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. ISBN 0195067924
  • Fall, Bernard B. Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu. New York: De Capo Press, 1966. ISBN 0306802317
  • "France honors US pilots for Dien Bien Phu role." Agence France Presse. February 25, 2005.
  • Kenney, Michael. "British Historian Takes a Brilliant Look at French Fall in Vietnam." Boston Globe. January 4, 2005.
  • Lanning, Michael Lee. The Battle 100: The Stories Behind History's Most Influential Battles. Naperville: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2003.
  • Navarre, Henri. Agonie de l'Indochine (1953-1954). Paris: Plon, 1958.
  • Rottman, Gordon L. Khe Sanh 1967-1968: Marines Battle for Vietnam's Vital Hilltop Base. University Park: Osprey Publishing, 2005. ISBN 1841768634
  • Roy, Jules. The Battle of Dienbienphu. Translated by Robert Baldick. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.
  • Windrow, Martin. The Last Valley. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2006. ISBN 0306813866

External links

All links retrieved January 12, 2022.

Media links


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.