The Last Valley
It was lost before it started. And yet it was not, strictly speaking, a military defeat. As Martin Windrow pointed out in his wonderful history of Dien Bien Phu, The Last Valley, of the three Chinese Communist challenges to the West in the immediate postwar period, the other two being the Malayan Emergency and North Korea's invasion of the South, only the French were unambiguously driven from the field. And yet
If France herself had not been overwhelmed by a sense of hopeless catastrophe, Dien Bien Phu could easily have proved a Pyrrhic victory for General Vo Nguyen Giap ... who lost something between a third and a half of his infantry on its ghastly slopes.
The instrument of the French garrison's destruction in the valley of the Noum Yam was the unprecedented creation by Vo Nguyen Giap of a powerful conventional army of 111 regular infantry battalions (in 1954) from his earlier guerilla force of which 50 would be ranged against the fortress commanded Colonel Christian de Castries. It was made possible by two things: the victory of Mao Tse Tung in China across the border from Vietnam and the opening of a direct supply route between Mao's forces and Ho Chi Minh's Free Zones of the Viet Bac. The French had interposed a semi-mobile force of a few battalions along the China-Vietnam border along Route Coloniale 4 or RC4 (which though grandly named was really a logging road built along a river) to keep the two apart. A less ambitious commander than Giap would have remained within the familiar confines of guerilla operations; but the ex-schoolteacher with a passion for military history was determined to have a regular army with which to drive the hated French into the sea. From 1949 onward he sent his new formations, trained and equipped in China, against the RC4 line until in 1950 the French were obliged to cede him an undisturbed route into China. The French withdrew their forces to the Red River Delta leaving Giap undisturbed to build up his conventional force.
By 1953, Giap's infantry units actually had a higher proportion of automatic weapons than the French. Three soldiers in ten, for example, had the Chinese Type 50 submachineguns. But not only had the People's Army achieved parity in infantry weapons, they actually deployed more mortars, recoiless rifles and antitank weapons than their equivalent French formations. The only real superiority left the French were in artillery, airpower, signals and tactical experience. But Giap had other advantages: he was free to swell his ranks with what amounted to a levee en masse from populations under his control, while French politicians had forbidden its army from using conscripts in Indochina and so starved it of money that until US military assistance provided it with modern weapons many French infantrymen were armed with bolt-action relics of the First World War. It was an army which, not to put too fine a point on it, consisted of the starvelings of Europe -- when it consisted of Europeans. A French private in Indochina then earned enough to buy a softdrink or three quarters of a bottle of the cheapest beer available per day. That he was not always French is driven home in Windrow's account and underlined by the photographs in the book. Even the most elite French parachute formations had large Vietnamese components. An ethnic breakdown of the garrison at Dien Bien Phu illustrates this.
The French high command's decision to garrison Dien Bien Phu was described by a US Army analyst as a violation of "nearly all of the principles of war at every level of war-- strategic, operational, and tactical", yet to a degree it made some sense. By choosing to build a fort in a remote mountain location near the Laotian border the French were choosing a battlefield that was as equally distant from the Viet Minh's own base of operations as it was from theirs. They were in effect inviting Giap to send forward his modern, conventional divisions -- with the logistical tail they required -- to square off in the middle of nowhere. To their amazement, Giap accepted. What the French had not understood was that Giap had imbibed the entire corpus of European military knowledge and had mastered logistics in his own way. In order to give his regular formations mobility, Giap had created a huge corps of porters trained to march standard distances with known loads. He would need them. It was with extreme reluctance that Giap's political masters approved his plan to risk the People's Army in a winner-take-all slugfest.
Even to bring his army to the battlefield would involve marching them -- and dragging their artillery -- at least 300 miles through hills from the Viet Bac and the South Delta base areas; and Giap's supply lines from the Chinese frontier would eventually extend over 500 miles, along a network of rudimentary roads which in many places still had to be excavated from the jungle ... the Viet Minh would have to assemble and carry over that distance every piece of equipment, every bullet, every bowl of rice for an army of perhaps 50,000 men; and they would have to keep these vulnerable lines of communication open to supply that army, in a mountain wilderness, during a major positional battle which might last for weeks.
Although it may be plausibly argued that the fate of Dien Bien Phu had been strategically sealed by the loss of RC4, in tactical terms it was decisively lost at the logistical race between the French, with their single airfield supplying 16 battalions and Giap, with his 100,000 porters desperately sustaining 50 battalions. Giap got there 'firstest with the mostest'. Until the storm broke on Dien Bien Phu on March 13, 1954 the French high command refused to accept the possibility that Giap had concentrated five divisions: 304 'Nam Dinh', 304 'Viet Bac', 312 'Ben Tre', 316 'Bien Hoa' and heavy division 351 with 24 x 105 mm and 18 x 75 mm field guns, numerous mortars, recoiless rifles and anti-aircraft weapons in the hills around the depression in which the French fortress sat like an inviting target. Windrow's description of Giap's initial assault is a tour de force. French commanders thought at first that a thunderstorm had broken out in the hills to east of their position. It was the first of thousands of shells that would rain down on the mud fortification that first night. The US 105 mm howitzer, with which Giap was supplied by the Chinese, ripped sandbagged strongpoints of the French to pieces and closed the camp runway, its only connection to the world. Of those it struck "the spinal column -- surprisingly resilient -- often survives, after a shell has fallen among a group of men, counting the remaining spines" was how the French knew how many had died. Then Giap sent his human waves against the loneliest and most exposed positions of the Dien Bien Phu.
In hindsight, the French could even then have turned the tide if the fortresses' commanders had kept their heads. But confusion, abetted by a lucky shell hit which killed de Castries' sector commander, prevented the garrison from launching a counterattack. The key northeastern hill positions fell in a night; the French artillery commander killed himself in despair; de Castries radioed Hanoi to say it would all be over in a couple of days. De Castries subordinate infantry commanders decided to take matters into their own hands. Realizing that unless the the eastern positions were held the main camp would be overlooked with direct fire weapons and anti-aircraft guns, senior para commander LTC Pierre Langlais told de Castries to clear his broken staff out and put him in charge. It was then that Dien Bien Phu became an epic of endurance.
I will not relate how Langlais and his Parachute and Legion mafia managed to hold off Giap's men until that stolid general was almost reduced to despair. Buy or borrow Windrow's book to read that. But Dien Bien Phu was not to fall in two or three days, as de Castries predicted, but go for 55 days and force Giap to declare a national emergency in the Viet Bac, which required sending every available replacement to the front. The key to Langlais' success was his realization that the Viet Minh, in digging in their artillery pieces to camouflage them and protect them from counterbattery, had limited their traverse and coordination. By counterattacking Langlais took the fight outside of the Viet Minhs pre-registered fields of fire onto a dynamic battlefield where French artillery had the comparative advantage. He pleaded with Hanoi to send him reinforcements for the punch to drive the enemy off the hills. There were few because Hanoi, in its infinite wisdom had scheduled Operation Atlante to improve security in the Red River delta to run concurrently with scheduled battle for Dien Bien Phu. Still, volunteers were permitted to jump into the beleaguered fortress, with or without parachute training. One of the most striking descriptive passages is when Langlais orders fuel drums lit to guide them in and dark sky above him crackles with snap of opening T-7 parachutes, some men making the first jump in their lives.
Time and again Giap sent his regiments against the eastern hills -- the Elianes -- and just as often Langlais would retake them, but without the strength to hold. Survivors, recalling these attacks and counterattacks, would relate how the French units would approach the hills singing their regimental marching songs, though the Vietnamese among them, uncomfortable with these Germanic cadences, would break into the Marsellaise. Ninety one percent of the Vietnamese soldiers of France captured at Dien Bien Phu would be killed in Viet Minh prison camps.
Perhaps those men were climbing their own hill toward some summit of personal loyalty and pride, a place beyond any power of human government to cheapen or betray. Just a few months later the French would hastily embark the remnants of their colonial empire at shipping in Haiphong. Of the men, only their song remains.
We are bright sparks
Low life of an extraordinary kind
Who are sometime somewhat regretful
Of fever and fire and of Death who we never forget
Though it may forget us for a little while.
-- verses loosely adapted from Le Boudin
It's worth the read.