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Battle of Dien Bien Phu Area Today

A map of the area around the battle positions

Battle of Dien Bien Phu summary

The Battle of Dien Bien Phu (French: Bataille de Diên Biên Phu; Vietnamese: Chiến dịch Điện Biên Phủ) was the climactic confrontation of the First Indochina War between the French Union's French Far East Expeditionary Corps and Viet Minh communist-nationalist revolutionaries. The battle occurred between March and May 1954 and culminated in a comprehensive French defeat that influenced negotiations over the future of Indochina at Geneva. Military historian Martin Windrow wrote that 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."

  1. 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 Legionnaires, Algerian and Moroccan tirailleurs, and locally recruited Indochinese infantry.
  2. The Viet Minh assault began in earnest on 13 March 1954 with an attack on outpost Beatrice . Viet Minh artillery opened a fierce bombardment of the fortification and French command was disrupted at 6:15 pm when a shell hit the French command post, killing Legionnaire commander Major Paul Pegot and his entire staff.
  3. French resistance at Beatrice collapsed shortly after midnight following a fierce battle.
  4. The French launched a counter-attack against Beatrice the following morning, but it was quickly beaten back by Viet Minh artillery. 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 farther away from the target, out of direct line of sight, and rely on a forward artillery spotter). 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 fired point-blank from portholes
  5. Following a four-hour cease fire on the morning of 14 March, Viet Minh artillery resumed pounding French positions. The air strip, already closed since 16:00 the day before due to a light bombardment, was now put permanently out of commission. Any further French supplies would have to be delivered by parachute.
  6. That night, the Viet Minh launched an attack on Gabrielle , held by an elite Algerian battalion.
  7. Colonel Pierre Langlais counterattacked but chose to rely on the 5th Vietnamese Parachute Battalion, which had jumped in the day before and was exhausted. Although some elements of the counterattack reached Gabrielle , most were paralyzed by Viet Minh artillery and took heavy losses.
  8. At 0800 the next day, the Algerian battalion fell back, abandoning Gabrielle to the Viet Minh.
  9. Anne-Marie was defended by Tai troops, members of a Vietnamese ethnic minority loyal to the French. For weeks, Giap had distributed subversive propaganda leaflets, telling the Tais that this was not their fight. The fall of Beatrice and Gabrielle had severely demoralized them. On the morning of 17 March, under the cover of fog, the bulk of the Tais left or defected. The French and the few remaining Tais on Anne-Marie were then forced to withdraw.
  10. 17 March through 30 March saw a lull in fighting. The Viet Minh further tightened the noose around the French central area (formed by the strongpoints Huguette , Dominique , Claudine , and Eliane ), effectively cutting off Isabelle and its 1,809 personnel.
  11. The next phase of the battle saw more massed Viet Minh assaults against French positions in the central Dien Bien Phu—at Eliane and Dominique in particular. Those two areas were held by five understrength battalions, composed of Frenchmen, Legionnaires, Vietnamese, North Africans, and Tais. Giap planned to use the tactics from the Beatrice and Gabrielle skirmishes.
  12. At 19:00 on 30 March, 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 positions east of the river.
  13. 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.
  14. The Viet Minh were more successful in their simultaneous attacks on Eliane. The 316th Division captured Eliane 1 from its Moroccan defenders, and half of Eliane 2 by midnight. 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.
  15. Just after midnight on 31 March, the French launched a fierce counterattack against Eliane 2 , and recaptured half of it.
  16. The French counterattacked the following afternoon against Dominique 2 and Eliane 1 , using virtually everybody left in the garrison who could be trusted to fight . The counterattacks allowed the French to retake Dominique 2 and Eliane 1.
  17. 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.
  18. Reinforcements were sent north from Isabelle , but were attacked en route and fell back to Isabelle .
  19. 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.
  20. The Viet Minh briefly captured Huguette 7 , only to be pushed back by a French counterattack at dawn on 1 April.
  21. Fighting continued in this manner over the next several nights. The Viet Minh repeatedly attacked Eliane 2 , only to be beaten back.
  22. 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. Some reinforcements did arrive, but not enough to replace French casualties.
  23. April 10 saw the French attempt to retake Eliane 1 , lost eleven days earlier. The loss 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. 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 12 April, but were pushed back.
  24. Following a failed attempt to link up, on 18 April, the defenders at Huguette 6 made a daring break out, but only a few managed to make it to French lines.The Viet Minh repeated the isolation and probing attacks against Huguette 1, and overran the fort on the morning of 22 April. With the fall of Huguette 1 , the Viet Minh took control of more than 90% of the airfield, making accurate parachute drops impossible. This caused the landing zone to become perilously small, and effectively choked off much needed supplies.
  25. A French attack against Huguette 1 later that day was repulsed.
  26. Isabelle saw only light action until 30 March, when the Viet Minh succeeded in isolating it and beating back the attempt to send reinforcements north. Following a massive artillery barrage on 30 March, the Viet Minh began employing the same trench warfare tactics 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.
  27. The Viet Minh launched a massed assault against the exhausted defenders on the night of 1 May, overrunning Eliane 1 , Dominique 3 , and Huguette 5 , although the French managed to beat back attacks on Eliane 2 .
  28. On 6 May, the Viet Minh launched another massed attack against Eliane 2 . The attack included, for the first time, Katyusha rockets. The French artillery used an innovation, firing with a TOT (Time On Target) attack, so artillery rounds fired from different positions would strike on target at the same time. This barrage defeated the first assault wave.
  29. A few hours later that night, the Viet Minh detonated a mine shaft, blowing Eliane 2 up. The Viet Minh attacked again, and within a few hours had overrun the defenders.
  30. On 7 May, Giap ordered an all-out attack against the remaining French units with over 25,000 Viet Minh against fewer than 3,000 garrison troops. By nightfall, all French central positions had been captured.
  31. That night the garrison made a breakout attempt. While some of the main body managed to break out, none succeeded in escaping the valley. However at Isabelle , a similar attempt later the same night saw about 70 troops, out of 1,700 men in the garrison, escape to Laos.