The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was one of the most influential battles in military history. Bien Phu marked the end of the First Indo-Chinese War and left the French decimated and embarrassed. Bien Phu was a symbol throughout the world that small guerrilla forces like the Viet Minh could turn away even the largest of imperial powers. Dien Bien Phu was a huge military victory for the Viet Minh and forced the French to relinquish all colonial control of the region.
Occupation of Dien Bien Phu began November 20, 1953 and was code-named operation Castor. Dien Bien Phu was chosen as a key military position because of its location to Laos and the Viet Minh supply lines. The French believed if they could secure a position there, they could strangle the Viet Minh supply lines. The rough forested and mountainous terrain also was desired because it was believed to prevent an attack with artillery. Troops and supplies were delivered to Dien Bien Phu by parachute. The initial buildup took three days, and by the end of it more than 9,000 French troops were present and working on fortification. The fort was fortified in to eight separate sections and two landing strips. The French took as much high ground as they could and appeared to have a very defensive position. They equipped each of the eight stations with artillery and set minimum troop requirements for each out post. The fort became a symbol of French power. After the final fortifications, more supplies and troops were dropped raising the number of troops present to 13,000.The fort was toured numerous times by French diplomats and military strategists and was believed to be impenetrable (CNN 2001).
The battle began on March 13, 1954 and would not end until
May 8, 1954.The attacks were expected, because in the week before the battle the
presence of Viet Minh became more obvious. The first day artillery fire was
extremely heavy, almost 9,000 shells were fired and it lasted throughout the
night. The first position to fall was Beatrice, the northeastern bolt, it was
overrun in a matter of hours and Gabrielle, the northern bolt, soon followed
suite. This quick Viet Minh victory was aided by the under strengthening of
these two positions and an artillery shell which killed nearly all the
commanders of the two bolts, landing in the command bunker. Reinforcements were
quickly parachuted in, but they suffered high casualties. The Viet Minh
continued their assault on the French positions and continued to hammer the
bolts with artillery. The French had not expected the Viet Minh to entrench
themselves, but they had secretly moved huge artillery and anti-aircraft guns
surrounding the fort through difficult conditions. Their positions were also
aided by the surrounding wilderness (Simpson 1996 p78).
French air strikes were ineffective at removing artillery, they had great difficulty locating their targets and came under constant fire. The Viet Minh then began to attack the airstrips realizing the only troops and supply lines Dien Bien Phu had existed from the air. They began the airstrip assault on March 18th and did not stop until it was destroyed and captured on March 23.The last plane into Dien Bien Phu landed on the second airstrip on March 28th and was destroyed. The French mounted an offensive on the 28th attacking anti-aircraft positions and won a marginal victory. On the 31st the French recaptured two bolts, but later had to evacuate them because of lack of reinforcements.
Frontal attacks then came to a halt as the Viet Minh changed their focus. They began concentrating on the supply lines. The Viet Minh commanders would later refer to this strategy as slowly bleeding the “dying elephant”. They had made the French helpless. They no longer could easily receive reinforcements or supplies from Hanoi so they were forced to subsist on the few resources left inside their crumbling fortress. Wounded and dead piled up in the French positions as shelling continued. The situation became bleaker as the anti-aircraft forced planes to fly higher and provided less accurate drops. Supplies and troops ended up behind enemy lines and under fire. The French command was forced to gradually draw their defenses closer as Viet Minh artillery continued concentrated on the sunken perimeter (Alle 2001).
During the last week of April the monsoon arrived. Trenches became hazards and bunkers collapsed; the shelling began causing mudslides. French air power continued to be inhibited by weather, artillery, and the excessive distance between Hanoi and Dien Bien Phu. The last replacements, 4306 soldiers, parachuted in between March 14 and May 6 did not even make up for the loses suffered between those dates, 5500.The French saw that defeat was eminent, but they sought to hold on till the Geneva peace meeting, which took place April 26.The last French offensive took place on May 4, but was relatively ineffective. The Viet Minh then began to hammer the fort with newly acquired Russian rocket launchers. The six-tubed launchers shattered bunkers and what was left of French moral. The fall took two days, May 6th and 7th the French fight on but are eventually overrun by a huge frontal assault (Alle 2001).
The prisoners taken at Dien Bien Phu were the greatest number
the Viet Minh had ever captured. They made up one third of all those captured in
the course of the eight-year war. The prisoners were divided into groups. Those
that were considered fit, including lightly wounded, were marched 250 to 400
miles in daily stages of 15 to 25 flanked by armed guards. The prisoners
were forced to march over mountainous muddy terrain, still exhausted from the
long conflict. The Viet Minh refused medical attention to the prisoners and
forbid fires, hoping to not attract attention. The prisoners died in hundreds
from exhaustion and wounds as they were mercilessly marched. The wounded,
4,436, were placed in tents and given triage care with eventual intervention by
the Red Cross. The Red Cross was allowed to take 838 of the wounded, but the
other 3,578 were incorporated into the march. Those that were not fit to walk
were packed in trucks 20 to 25 at a time with no consideration for the nature or
seriousness of their wounds (Alle 2001).
On May 26th the prisoners were divided into camps and trucked off. Many soldiers’ wounds coarsely bandaged came open as blood, injury induced vomiting, and hemoraging occurred. The physical and psychological agony of transport and imprisonment was in many ways far worse than the battle itself. The diseases acquired along the prisoner transport and march were dysentery, jaundice, malaria, tuberculosis, scurvy, beri-beri, malnutrition, and neuro-psychiatric problems to name only the most common illnesses. In addition, there were flies, lice, tics, fleas, rats, mosquitoes, maggots and other vermin, scabies, filth, hunger, thirst, bedsores, harassment and mental torture along the way (Alle 2001).
The POW camps were crude. They were not typical European camps characterized by barbed wire, guards, and watchtowers. Prisoners were housed in straw huts and only released for work detail. The camps had few guards, but the terrain and fatigue prevented any escape. They had to survive on very little food and water. The prisoners were also forced to denounce their actions by recalling incriminating conduct, sign manifestos, confess to crimes committed against the Vietnamese people, accuse their fellow soldiers of evil deeds and even accuse themselves of misdeeds they hadn't done in order to please their captors. Prisoners were invited to petition Ho Chi Minh for clemency to emphasize his great kindness (Alle 2001).
The prisoners were also systematically insulted and belittled. They were called imperialist soldiers, war criminals, bloody mercenaries, assistants of American imperialism, and colonial dogs. The soldiers were told they had to pay for their sins and become politically re-educated. The Vietminh took as much time as was needed. During imprisonment and re-education soldiers were forced to glorify Marxism, put up with insults and name-calling, harassment, belittlement of the French Army, constant ridicule and forced to chant anti-colonial slogans. Captivity was morally exhausting. Brain washing was a daily event and weakened minds and bodies offered less resistance. The Vietminh measured out doses of mental torture, hope, disappointment and harassment of all types breaking even the strongest men. The conditions were so bad during imprisonment that moral and health began to deteriorate, the healthy become sick, the sick become bed-ridden, and the bed-ridden died. The captivity was in many ways worse than losing the battle (Fall 1988 p230).
The battle of Dien Bien Phu was one of the most significant battles in military history. It set many precedents. Ending the Indo-Chinese War, Dien Bien Phu proved the power of a guerilla force over an imperial power. This victory gave Vietnam great confidence in its ability to throw off colonial rule and set the stage for the Second Indo Chinese War for control of South Vietnam. The buildup was great and the preparation long, but the French grossly underestimated their enemy and made the grave mistake of placing their base so far from Hanoi. The battle raged for two months as the Viet Minh executed a stunning victory. The French defeat was shocking and brutal yet pale in comparison to the treatment of prisoners after the conflict. Thousands of French soldiers died marching and riding to prison camps, and many others wish they had. The captivity of the French by the Viet Minh was completely inhumane. Dien Bien Phu was one of the greatest battles in military history and should have been examined more thoroughly before the U.S. entered Vietnam (Simpson 1996 p7).
Johann Johnson, 9/22/2001