Hell in a very small place, subtitled The Siege of Dien Bien Phu is the classic account of a French defeat in a rain-soaked valley in the northeast Vietnam. It is neatly complimented, but in no way surpassed by Martin Windrow’s The Last Valley, subtitled Dien Bien Phu and the French defeat in Vietnam.
The two books make for interesting comparison. Fall published his in 1966, as the US involvement in South Vietnam was building to a crescendo; and he frequently cautions the Americans to heed the lessons the French had learned at such cost.
The book was a sensation at the time and even more so the next year when the US placed a Marine division in a similar valley for a similar reason – Khe Sanh.
Windrow`s is a work of the 21st Century, published in 2004, fifty years after the events it describes. It corrects some mistakes Fall made and provides a great deal of context, describing the start of the conflict and its end, thereby placing the epic at Dien Bien Phu in perspective. It does gravely disappoint in one respect: It is still very much a one-sided, Franco-focussed account of the battle.
The Viet Minh bo doi (soldier) is faceless but for a very few descriptions. Even their units and formations are not yet clearly identified – 50 years on! Woodrow makes the point that the Vietnamese national character thrives on secrecy, but still, half a century later there should be sufficient accounts, first hand and otherwise to bring the Vietnamese side of this “Stalingrad in the jungle” to life. Fall had an alibi – the Cold War was very hot in Indochina when he wrote, but this is not the case for Windrow. It is a pity Windrow in his otherwise excellent foreword does not explain why the bo doi is still a caricature.
Back to the books… The plan was bold, simple and nearly worked: After years of fruitless attempts to defeat the Viet Minh – they had been battling with ever-growing ferocity since 1946, the French would set and bait them a trap. They would establish an air-land base at a location where the insurgents would have to give battle, then destroy them.
Fall and Windrow both recount that the French had established such bases in remote areas before, most notably Na San in 1952. There they had defeated a Viet Minh force brought to bear on them. Dien Bien Phu would be Na San writ large.
The base was duly established at a strategic crossroads in a wild mountain wilderness where the local population were neither ethnic Vietnamese nor friendly to the Viet Minh. Pro-French guerrillas were already operating in the area and it was hoped to sandwich the Viet Minh`s regulars between the rock of the guerrillas and the hard place of Dien Bien Phu. (Other than being “bait”, the base would also be an anchor and resupply point for these forces).
French planning assumptions included air supremacy, a maximum of two (out of four) Viet Minh divisions responding (they presumed their enemy could not logically support a larger force at such a distance from its depots), and victory by Monsoon 1954 (as they supposed the Viet Minh would have to withdraw by April 1954 in the face of an inability to supply their troops during the rainy season. They also banked on artillery superiority.
The assumptions were fair. The Viet Minh had no air force and China had not escalated its support to that level. School-teacher turned-general Vo Nguyen Giap indeed faced appalling logistics difficulties – similar yet smaller in scale to some he could not master in previous years; and the Vietnamese had in previous years returned to their base areas to weather the rainy season. Regarding firepower, the Viet Minh had to date used largely small calibre weapons (37 and 75mm) artillery, usually in a direct fire role.
A point Windrow makes is that Dien Bien Phu would be a graduation ceremony for the Viet Minh, their matriculation from insurgents to soldiers. It was by a margin Giap`s biggest operation, the first involving more than one division at the same time in the same location and only the second at such as distance from their base areas in the Viet Bac and South Delta. The previous, a push by elements of three divisions into Laos – inter alia through Dien Bien Phu – in separate columns, narrowly avoided disaster when at least one came close to starving when logistics collapsed. Multi-divisional operations around the French-fortified Red River Delta were similarly separate in space although not in time.
It was thus with some confidence that General Henri Navarre, namesake of a popular medieval king, parachuted and air-landed the equivalent of two divisions around the “seat of the border county prefecture” – the meaning of the name Dien Bien Phu – at Muong Thanh village in the Nam Yum river valley.
After committing to battle, Giap set about overturning the French assumptions, deploying first three, then all four his main force divisions. Reinforcements were also readied to replace battle losses. In support came a massive logistics operation and the 351 “Heavy” Division that grouped the Viet Minh`s medium artillery (105mm), engineers and anti-aircraft artillery. The latter soon disputed the French use of the air, while the engineers built the artillery nearly indestructible Japanese/Iwo Jima-style dugouts from where they soon overawed the French, who had not paid much attention to positioning or fortifying their base.
When the Monsoon broke in late April, Giap did not withdraw and the squalid French positions – located in paddy and marsh became a nightmarish charnel house in which the finest units of their multinational Empire – French, Algerian, Moroccan, Vietnamese and Foreign Legion attained martyrdom. Windrow probably correctly points out that few of today`s generation would be able to endure that Golgotha where their predecessors suffered for 56 days.
When it was all over, that seventh of May of 1954 – nine years after the defeat of Nazi Germany, the French Empire itself was also no more. Windrow notes that was the case simply because France chose it so. They could have fought on. Only a fraction of the French force in Vietnam was at Dien Bien Phu and they had destroyed between a third and half of Giap`s infantry. Giap`s tactical victory had strategic consequences. The French abandoned the north of Vietnam within months and with it their faithful guerrillas and Delta population.
Dien Bien Phu was then the first test of the Vietnamese People`s Army. But the next was not long in coming: Eleven years later they faced the US Army in a division-level battle in the wilds of the Ia Drang on the Cambodian-South Vietnamese border.
Some observations on the French forces:
· The percentage of Vietnamese in all French units – including the Foreign Legion battalions was remarkably high – and they fought remarkably well. The puppet Army of Vietnam, which was poorly led and trained, fought badly, both as allies of the French, and as the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) as allies of the Americans. The Viet Minh initially fought well, but massive casualties and consequent damage to morale eventually impacted on their fighting ability. The inability or unwillingness of the ARVN to fight always makes for interesting study.
· French officers at Dien Bien Phu were quite junior in rank. The overall-French commander (of a two-division force) was a colonel and his principal deputy and combatant commander a lieutenant colonel. Battalions were commanded by majors – their youth probably giving them the stamina they needed
· Battles were short, sharp but utterly violent. The Beatrice and Gabrielle positions fell in a single evening.
· The French lost the battle three times over: firstly by preventing the Viet Minh build-up (and then its supply), secondly maintaining air superiority and the air bridge in the face of heavy antiaircraft fire and lastly the tactical battle in the Nam Yum valley itself: the first led to the second, the second inexorably to the last.
Hell in a very small place – The siege of Dien Bien Phu
JB Lippincott Company
The Last Valley – Dien Bien Phu and the French defeat in Vietnam.