The Indochina Syndrome

Imperial Meltdown at Dien Bien Phu

How French bungling of a forgotten battle in a far-away war shaped international politics for half a century and destabilised south-east Asia.

A cluttered village, peopled by Hmong and Black Thai families, it lies in the Muong Thanh valley of northwest Vietnam. Shaped like a heart, the valley, 20 km long and 6km wide, is cupped by steep, jungly mountains. In the centre, on the banks of the Nam Yum River, is Dien Bien Phu (Ðiên Biên Phú). Fifty years ago, it was the scene of a military fiasco catastrophic even by French standards.

France’s empire has long ebbed away, leaving not much trace. Always smaller than the British, its administrators invested only haphazardly in its infrastructures, institutions or peoples. While English remains the official language of 1.2 billion Indians, fewer than 1% of the population of Vietnam, the jewel of France’s Asian empire, now retain any French at all. Perhaps this was because France rarely considered its overseas possessions as more than a playground for its freebooting army, historically too unreliable to keep at home.

It is now largely forgotten that there were two Vietnam Wars, except by the Vietnamese who suffered in both. In the 1950s, the first was being lost by the French. At talks being held in Geneva, French negotiators had already acknowledged the inevitable withdrawal. All that remained was haggling over the small print over the country’s transition to independence.

In Indochina itself, General Henri Navarre’s strategy of launching search and destroy raids from a network of armoured bases had managed to stalemate the Viet Minh which itself had suffered 280,000 dead in he eight years of war. Except, for the French army and its hardcore paratroop and Foreign Legion (Légion Etrangère) officers, this was not enough.

Navarre’s staff wanted a victory. Operation Castor was to provide it. The plan, so top secret that even the government in Paris was kept out of the loop, was to create a massive base aéroterrestre in the north behind enemy lines, fill it with tough, leathery paras and legionnaires, and when General Vo Nguyen Giap’s Viet Minh were drawn to the bait, smash it once and for all in a set piece battle. The base was 500 kilometres distant from the French-held capital of northern Vietnam, Hanoi but this was irrelevant since the troops could be supplied by air. The place chosen was Dien Bien Phu.

The French government did not want a battle. Peace with “Uncle” Ho had nearly been agreed at Geneva and a unified, federated state was on the cards. When it finally heard of the operation, it rushed its representative, Admiral Cabanies to Saigon to stop it. But when he arrived on 20 November 1953, 5000 paratroopers had already seized the village, lead by three generals who insisted on jumping first. 

The completed camp consisted of a central position, with airstrip and dispersals for Bearcat fighters, guarded by an uneven circle of ten outlying firebases. The garrison was made of up twelve paratroop and legion battalions supplemented by Algerian and Moroccan tirailleurs and Thai troops. In total, around 14,000 men, backed by twelve Chaffee tanks and twenty-eight heavy guns.

Castor was a dazzling success right up until the moment the French made first contact with the enemy on the afternoon of 13 March 1954.

What the high command had not realised was that Giap had infiltrated four divisions, around 45,000 regular troops, right under its képi. Along with two hundred artillery pieces carried by hand through the jungle by 75,000 porters, this army was now sitting in well-camouflaged positions in the ring of mountains directly overlooking into the camp. They were delighted to see that in the interests of smartness, the French had cut down almost every tree in the valley, removing the only available cover.

Their first real inkling that the Vietnamese were attacking in strength came when two regiments popped screaming out of trenches just two hundred yards from the Béatrice firebase and stormed it. Meanwhile, Viet Minh guns knocked out the airfields, blowing up planes, munitions and fuel. “The shells rained down on us without stopping like a hailstorm on a fall evening”, recorded Legionnaire Sergeant Stefan Kubiak. “Bunker after bunker, trench after trench, collapsed, burying men and weapons.”

As the Vietnamese attacked in “human waves”, it became clear the French had failed to take basic precautions. The officers considered the construction of deep defences as an admission of fear. Most positions were vulnerable not only to Viet Minh artillery but also the monsoon about which the French seemed to have forgotten. The valley of Dien Bien Phu always received more rain, almost five feet, more than any other valley in northern Indochina. Giap had counted on the heavy rains and low cloud cover to hamper French air support and aerial resupply. The French found themselves hammered down in a drowning swamp.

Fifty-seven days of losing battle followed. The historian Bernard Fall described it as “hell in a very small place”. Base commander, lanky, aristocratic Colonel Christian Marie Ferdinand de la Croix de Castries, was not the man to turn back the tide. He isolated himself in his central bunker to dine off the family silver laid out on a spotless white tablecloth. 

Infuriated at his passivity, his paratroop colonels took effective command. This made things worse since their dashing frontal assaults to retake the firebases lost one by one were decimated by entrenched Viet Minh machine gun fire. 

All sense of competence seemed to lose the besieged. On 22 April, De Castries (bizarrely promoted to Brigadier-General over the radio by an insensible Paris) was pushed by the colonels to order a night attack on the captured Huguette base. The 2e BEP (Bataillon étranger parachutiste) marched into a wall of fire thrown up by the Vietnamese guns. They could not call for support since their battalion commander, deep in his bunker, had his radio tuned to the wrong frequency. They suffered 150 casualties.

Despite the spiralling situation, the French were still pouring men and supplies into this long-lost battle, including untrained reserves who, with oblivious courage, were volunteering to jump into the hellhole. As the base perimeter shrank, many dropped straight down the gun barrels of the Viet Minh. 

With the landing strip wrecked, Dien Bien Phu could only be supplied by airdrop, and only when the driving monsoon rains allowed. Even then, incoming C-47s had to risk the fire of Giap’s AA batteries which the French intelligence services helpfully informed the base “could not be operated, being too advanced for the Vietnamese”. Of the 420 aircraft available in all of Indochina then, 62 were lost in connection with Dien Bien Phu and 167 sustained hits.

Just to survive, the garrison required 200 tonnes of supplies a day to maintain combat effectiveness. The tired and hungry French were never able to drop more than 120 tonnes. Because of the murderously accurate flak, parachute drops could only be made over 8,500 feet so most of the supplies landed on the Viet Minh, including the de Castries’s new general stars and a celebratory bottle of champagne. In the last phases of the battle, Vietnamese artillery used 105mm shells captured from French parachute drops and dressed their shock troops in French para camouflage and steel helmets.

On May 4th, the Legion paras in Huguette were submerged by the 308th “Iron Division” and three days later the rest of the French positions were overrun. De Castries, in faultless dress uniform with white gloves, was captured in his command bunker, proving that in today’s wars, victory goes to the general with the least impressive costume.

The starving and exhausted garrison was rounded up. Nearly two thousand had been killed during the siege. Another seven thousand were to die on the fifty-six day, six-hundred kilometre march to the prison camps in the north and in captivity that was to last until 1958. Eight thousand miles away, in Geneva, the Vietnamese and Red Chinese delegations attending the nine-power conference intended to settle the Indochinese conflict, toasted the event with pink Chinese champagne.

Bungling Dien Bien Phu meant the final and immediate end for the French in Asia. Now there would be no gradual, consensual transition. After its smashing victory, Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh dug its heels in, refusing to dissipate its political control, the territory held in the north by joining the nominally democratic, south. Vietnam was formally divided into two warring camps.

Defeat had not been a foregone conclusion in Asia. The United Nations had stopped – just –Mao’s million-strong armies in Korea while, in Malaysia, the British won a jungle war against 500,000 Chinese communists and then gave the country its independence.

The loss of Dien Bien Phu destabilised all of south-east Asia, creating a horrific future of chaos for all its peoples. Into the gap left wide open in Vietnam by the French, stepped the only power believed capable of checking the refreshed, motivated forces of the North Vietnamese and their Soviet and Chinese sponsors – the United States.


Always Tip The Waiter

During the Versailles Peace Conference after the First World War, the French delegation complained of being “annoyed” by an informal group of Vietnamese waiters then working in Paris. Their petition for Vietnamese self-government within the French Union of Nations was dismissed out of hand. The leader of the delegation, Nguyn Sinh Cung, was a pastry chef who had trained under the famous Escoffier. Humiliated, he threw himself into Communist organisation and changed his name to Ho Chi Minh. The American actress Mae West recounted that she met "Ho... Ho... Ho something" while she was staying in the hotel where he worked. "There was this waiter, cook, I don't know what he was. I know he had the slinkiest eyes though. We met in the corridor. We - well..."


December 1953: French Artillery Colonel Charles Piroth, deputy commander of the forces at Dien Bien Phu, stated: "Firstly, the Viet-Minh won't succeed in getting their artillery through to here. Secondly, if they do get here, we'll smash them. Thirdly, even if they manage to keep on shooting, they will be unable to supply their pieces with enough ammunition to do us any real harm."

...And Overblown

In the first 48 hours of the attack, Colonel Piroth’s crews in open, undefended gun emplacements took terrible losses. He had fired over 25 percent of his total 105-mm ammunition without effect. He toured the command posts under heavy fire to apologise for his failure. With tears in his eyes, he said: "I am completely dishonoured. I have guaranteed ... that the enemy artillery couldn't touch us, but now we are going to lose the battle. I'm leaving." He went into his dugout and laid down on his cot. Since he had lost an arm in an earlier battle, he could not load his pistol so he pulled the pin from a hand grenade with his teeth and held the explosive charge to his chest.

Round 2?

In 1963, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev remarked to a US official. "If you want to, go ahead and fight in the jungles of Vietnam," Khrushchev said. "The French fought there for seven years and still had to quit in the end. Perhaps the Americans will be able to stick it out for a little longer, but eventually they will have to quit, too." 


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