Basically this is a tale of pride French going before a fall - the fall being Dien Bien Phu. The stubborn obstinacy of the French high command who were determined to preserve this jewel in the French empire almost defies belief. A series of defeats had already showed that fighting in the jungle was not the same as in a European setting. The French notion was to build a huge strongpoint out in the jungle north of Hanoi. There, they would draw their Vietminh opponents into a set piece battle of which the French would emerge victorious.
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To preserve these articles as they originally appeared, The Times does not alter, edit or update them. Occasionally the digitization process introduces transcription errors or other problems; we are continuing to work to improve these archived versions. ON May 7, , the end of the battle for the jungle fortress of Dienbienphu marked the end of French military influence in Asia, just as the sieges of Port Arthur, Corregidor and Singapore had, to a certain extent, broken the spell of Russian, American and British hegemony in Asia.
The Asians, after centuries of subjugation, had beaten the white man at his own game. On that day in May, , it had become apparent by 10 A. French artillery and mortars had been progressively silenced by murderously accurate Communist Vietminh artillery fire; and the monsoon rains had slowed down supply drops to a trickle and transformed the French trenches and dugouts into bottomless quagmires.
The surviving officers and men, many of whom had lived for 54 days on a steady diet of instant coffee and cigarettes, were in a catatonic state of exhaustion. As their commander, Brig. All he could hope for was to hold out until nightfall in order to give the surviving members of his command a chance to break out into the jungle under the cover of darkness, while he himself would stay with the more than 5, severely wounded out of a total of 15, men inside the valley and face the enemy. De Castries polled the surviving unit commanders within reach, and the consensus was that a breakout would only lead to a senseless piecemeal massacre in the jungle.
The decision was made then to fight on to the end, as long as the ammunition lasted, and let individual units be overrun after destruction of their heavy weapons. That course of action was approved by the senior commander in Hanoi at about 5 P. There had been suggestions that an orderly surrender should be arranged in order to save the wounded the added anguish of falling into enemy hands as isolated individuals. But what you have done until now surely is magnificent.
Don t spoil it by hoisting the white flag. You are going to be submerged [by the enemy], but no surrender, no white flag. Well, do as best you can, leaving it to your [static: subordinate units?
What you have done is too magnificent to do such a thing. You understand, mon vieux. Au revoir. While the main defenses of Dienbienphu were being mopped up, strong Vietminh forces already had tightened their grip around the thousand Legionnaires, Algerians and Frenchmen preparing their breakout. At P. The breakout had been detected. At A. Close to 10, captured troops were to begin the grim death march to the Vietminh prison camps miles to the east. Few would survive. About 2, lay dead all over the battlefield in graves left unmarked to this day.
Eight thousand miles away, in Geneva, the North Vietnamese and Red Chinese delegations attending the ninepower conference which was supposed to settle both the Korean and the Indochinese conflicts toasted the event in pink Chinese champagne. WHAT had happened at Dienbienphu was simply that a momentous gamble had been attempted by the French High Command and had backfired badly.
By October, , 23 regular Vietminh battalions, equipped with excellent American artillery coming from Chinese Nationalist stocks left on the mainland, smashed the French defense lines along the Chinese border and inflicted on France its biggest colonial defeat since Montcalm died before Quebec. For all practical purposes the Indochina War was lost then and there. What changed the aspect of the war for a time was the influx of American aid, which began with the onset of the Korean War.
Independence, given too grudgingly to the Vietnamese nationalist regime, remained the catchword of the adversary. But, militarily at least, disaster had temporarily been averted.
In Laos, the situation was just as grim then as it is now: the Laotian and French forces held the Mekong valley and the airfields of the Plain of Jars, and the enemy held the rest. Only Cambodia, then as now, was almost at peace: Prince Sihanouk then King had received independence from France in and galvanized his people into fighting against the guerrillas.
That was the rationale for the creation of Dienbienphu and for the battle that took place there. Laos had signed a treaty with France in which the latter promised to defend it.
Dienbienphu was to be the lock on the backdoor leading into Laos. The offensive stabs for which Dienbienphu had been specifically planned became little else but desperate sorties against an invisible enemy.
By the time the battle started for good on March 13 , the garrison already had suffered 1, casualties without any tangible result. INSIDE the fortress, the charming tribal village by the Nam Yum had soon disappeared along with all the bushes and trees in the valley, to be used either as firewood or as construction materials for the bunkers.
He estimated that to protect the 12 battalions there initially five others were parachuted in during the battle he would need 36, tons of engineering materials—which would mean using all available transport aircraft for a period of five months. When he was told that he was allocated a total of about 3, tons of airlifted materials, Sudrat simply shrugged his shoulders. Essentially, the battle of Dienbienphu degenerated into a brutal artillery duel, which the enemy would have won sooner or later.
THE artillery duel became the great tragedy of the battle. When, on March 13, , at P. And as deputy to General de Castries, he felt that he had contributed to the air of overconfidence and even cockiness —had not de Castries, in the manner of his ducal forebears, sent a written challenge to enemy commander Giap — which had prevailed in the valley prior to the attack. There never was, as press maps of the time erroneously showed.
Four of the eight strongpoints were from one to three miles away from the center of the position. The interlocking fire of their artillery and mortars, supplemented by a squadron of 10 tanks flown in piecemeal and reassembled on the spot , was to prevent them from being picked off one by one. This also proved to be an illusion. FROM then onward the struggle for Dienbienphu became a battle of attrition: The only hope of the garrison lay in the breakthrough of a relief column from Laos or Hanoi a hopeless concept in view of the terrain and distances involved or in the destruction of the siege force through aerial bombardment of the most massive kind.
For a time a U. Air Force strike was under consideration but the idea was dropped for about the same reasons that make a similar attack against North Vietnam today a rather risky affair.
Like Stalingrad, Dienbienphu slowly starved on its airlift tonnage. The sheer magnitude of preparing that mass of supplies for parachuting was solved only by superhuman feats of the airborne supply units on the outside — efforts more than matched by the heroism of the soldiers inside the valley, who had to crawl into the open, under fire, to collect the containers.
But as the position shrunk every day it finally was the size of a ball park , the bulk of the supplies fell into Communist hands. THE airdrops were a harrowing experience in that narrow valley which permitted only straight approaches. A few figures tell how murderous the air war around Dienbienphu was: of a total of aircraft available in all of Indochina then, 62 were lost in connection with Dienbienphu and sustained hits. Some of the American civilian pilots who flew the run said that Vietminh flak was as dense as anything encountered during World War II over the Ruhr.
When the battle ended, the 82, parachutes expended in supplying the fortress covered the battlefield like freshly fallen snow. Or like a burial shroud. It was to little avail to say that France had lost only 5 per cent of its battle force; that the equipment losses had already been more than made good by American supplies funneled in while the battle was raging; and that even the manpower losses had been made up by reinforcements from France and new drafts of Vietnamese.
They can be lost just as conclusively through a series of very small engagements, such as those now fought in South Vietnam, if the local government and its population loses confidence in the eventual outcome of the contest—and that was the case of both the French and of their Vietnamese allies after Dienbienphu.
But as the French themselves demonstrated in Algeria, where they never again allowed themselves to be maneuvered into such desperate military straits, revolutionary wars are fought for political objectives and big showdown battles are necessary neither for victory nor for defeat in that case.
This now seems finally to have been understood in the South Vietnam war, as well, and Secretary of Defense McNamara may well have thought of Dienbienphu when he stated in his major Vietnam policy speech. And all around them, as on some gruesome Judgment Day, soldiers, French and enemy alike, began to crawl out of their trenches and stand erect for the first time in 54 days, as firing ceased everywhere. The sudden silence was deafening.
Dien Bien Phu : the epic battle America forgot
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