Voyage Dien Bien Phu - Nord Vietnam

Voyage Dien Bien Phu - Nord Vietnam

DIEN BIEN PHU - NORTHERN VIETNAM

THE REMAINS OF A HISTORIC BATTLE

Dien Bien Phu is a district in Dien Bien province in northern Vietnam, whose capital is a city of the same name.

The name Dien Bien Phu means in French "chief town of border prefectoral administration", while the original name, Muong Tènh, means "the city of heaven" in the language of the Thai minority.

 

History of Dien Bien Phu

 

Dien Bien Phu is best known for his role in the Indochina War and for the famous Battle of Dien Biên Phu.

Indeed, Dien Bien Phu is a plain covered with fields and rice fields. The average altitude of Dien Bien Phu is 400 m. There is the small village of Dien Bien Phu and a river (Nam Youn). In addition, an old airfield built by the Japanese during the Second World War is also present on site.

The valley is 17 km long and 5 to 7 km wide. Hills are also found in the region, up to 1,300 m high. Dien Bien Phu is thus the only flat spot that can be found within a perimeter of several hundred kilometres, making it an extremely favourable area for the establishment of a military base in northern Vietnam, and this is exactly the goal of the French.

Thus, on the morning of November 20, 1953, in the middle of the Indochina War, Operation Castor was launched. This was an operation in which two battalions of French paratroopers were to seize the Dien Bien Phu valley, which was poorly defended by the Viet Minh army (the communists fighting for independence, led by Ho Chi Minh). The operation was a success and more battalions were sent the same day and the next ones. The airstrip established by the Japanese during the Second World War was renovated, and a first plane landed in Dien Bien Phu on November 25.

From there, the French would build a military base on the spot for four months, transporting equipment, weapons, ammunition and men. Heavy artillery equipment and armoured tanks are dismantled in Hanoi and sent on site as spare parts to be reassembled on site. A network of trenches, accompanied by mines and barbed wire will also be set up around the base.

The military base is designed to effectively protect the one-km airfield through which reinforcements and supplies arrive. Different support points around the runway form the main centre of resistance. The French command on the spot thus considered itself safe from any ground attack thanks to the nature of the terrain over many kilometres and the presence of trees and mountains.

However, thanks to tracks carved out of the jungle and mountains, the Viet Minh will start transporting heavy equipment and cannons as spare parts. These operations are invisible to French aircraft but the French secret services are very quickly aware of what is happening. However, the French command believes that in the event of an attack, Viet Minh artillery and ammunition would be immediately destroyed by counter-artillery fire. So they don't take the threat seriously.

However, the Viet Minh plan is very effective: the guns are hidden in caves, which makes them undetectable to the French base. Gradually, more and more guns are being transported by the Viet Minh, transported in parts on bicycles or on the back of men. These guns were placed all around the French military base, still thanks to the tracks carved in the mountains.

At the same time, Viet Minh is testing French defences with patrols. The French defend themselves by doing the same, but cannot quickly advance any further because the enemy pressure is too much. Feeling surrounded, the French command then expected a very large assault, without suspecting the impressive number of guns that the enemy had.

It was on March 13 that Viet Minh took action to retake Dien Bien Phu. The attack is targeted against the "Beatrice" support point, one of the furthest from the base. The French expected this attack and its location and date thanks to the secret services, but they did not expect such firepower. In just two or three hours, thousands of heavy mortar and gun shells were sent to the position. The shelters on the spot were very quickly destroyed because they were not designed to withstand such an attack. The battalion commander and his direct deputies perished in the attack and radio communications with the base were cut off. The French artillery in charge of defending Beatrice could not accurately adjust her fire.

A Vietnamese division then advanced towards the camp, and the French soldiers on the spot, deprived of leaders and artillery support, were defeated after several hours of fighting. The centre of resistance falls in turn.

Following this day, the French realized their mistake and understood that the Viet Minh had a much higher firepower than they had expected. Colonel Charles Piroth, who had told the command that he would be able to neutralize enemy artillery, committed suicide on March 15 because of this failure.

On March 14 at around 8pm, it was the turn of the "Gabrielle" support point to be attacked. The Viet Minh used the same strategy by sending successive waves of soldiers while bombarding the position with great firepower. The French soldiers still managed to push the enemy to withdraw at 2:30 in the morning. However, the attack resumed one hour later with reinforcements and the position was abandoned by the French on the morning of 15 March.

Both sides suffered many casualties at that time. The French brought reinforcements while the Viet Minh changed strategy and sent artillerymen to bombard the main elements of the enemy base. The French landing strip was targeted, and it became unusable as of March 27. As a result, the camp can no longer receive assistance from Hanoi and the evacuation of the wounded and the receipt of supplies becomes almost impossible.

In parallel, the French are attempting several operations to establish a land link with the "Isabelle" support point to the south of the base. However, many losses are incurred during these operations. The links with Isabelle were then abandoned and this support point would fight autonomously until the end of the conflict.

From March 30 to April 4, Viet Minh targeted the hills northeast and east of the military base and seized all French support points except "Eliane 2" and "Eliane 4".  The French will manage to regain 2 support points afterwards but will be forced to abandon them again. The attacks on Eliane 2 continued but were abandoned on April 4 after suffering many casualties.

Subsequently, similar attacks were carried out on other support points, particularly west of the main camp. The French will be helped by bomb-dropping planes from Hanoi, but due to lack of information and inappropriate weather conditions, in the middle of the monsoon season, the shots are not very accurate.

On the evening of May 1, the final assault was launched, the size of the main French camp having decreased significantly during the month of April. The lack of supplies and sanitary conditions in the camp are also of great concern.

On 7 May, in the face of a hopeless situation, the French command was ordered to cease firing. The remaining support points are conquered and the French base falls.

The battle of Dien Bien Phu thus represents the longest (57 days) and deadliest battle of the post-World War II era. This French defeat will also result in the acceleration of negotiations in Geneva aimed at resolving conflicts in Asia.

What to do in Dien Bien Phu?

 

Visiting Dien Bien Phu today is mainly an opportunity to discover the remains of this battle on site.

 

The museum of the historical victory of Dien Bien Phu

 

This museum has different exhibition halls with different themes. It contains objects, photos, reconstructions and documents recounting the history and progress of this battle. This museum is a must during your visit to Dien Bien Phu as well as for history lovers who are embarking on a trip to Vietnam.

 

Colonel de Castries' Bunker

 

It was from this bunker that Colonel de Castries commanded his men. There are still some objects from the battle as well as trenches and rooms.

 

Diên Biên Phu Military Cemetery

 

This is the place where the Vietnamese victims of this battle are buried. Many Vietnamese families come to visit.

 

The memorial of the French soldiers

 

This memorial is located 200 m from Colonel de Castries' Bunker. This is where the French soldiers who died during the battle are buried.