Operation Castor – The Battle of Dien Bien Phu, Part One

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

The End of French Colonial Influence in Indo-China 1954

The French involvement in Indo-China dates back to the 17th Century when a Jesuit missionary  crusade arrived in the region to save souls, but more importantly to open a trading hub for  France.  French influence spread throughout the region by the French army backing local  warlords, much as did the British in India. The Nguyễn dynasty increasingly saw French rule as a  threat and attempted to unify the country, but France tightened its grip with a successful  attack on Da Nang by French Admiral Charles Rigault de Genouilly, under the orders of Napoleon  III.  Expansion caused continual rebellion and conflict, which the French ruthlessly crushed.   The culmination was the Franco-Siamese War of 1893. In 1893 the French authorities in Indochina  used border disputes, followed by the Paknam naval incident, to provoke a crisis. French  gunboats appeared at Bangkok, and demanded the cession of Lao territories east of the Mekong  River.

Following the fall of France in WW2, the French colonies remained under Vichy control, however,  Thailand realising that the French were weakened, initiated the Thai/French war of 1940/41 to  recapture lost territory.  The war ended with the intervention of Japan, who went on to demand  access to Tonkin.  Eventually the Japanese brought Indo-China under the Greater East Asia Co- Prosperity Sphere.  After WW2 the French attempted to reinstate authority of Indo-China, but the  situation was extremely complex.  The Americans made it clear that they would not support the  French in their attempt to regain former colonies.  During WW2 the Americans supported the Viet  Minh, a coalition of Communist and Vietnamese nationalists led by Hồ Chí Minh, founder of the  Indochinese Communist Party in their fight against the Japanese.  In 1945 Hồ Chí Minh declared  independence for the democratic republic of Vietnam.  A force of British and Free French  soldiers, along with captured Japanese troops, restored French control. Bitter fighting ensued  in the First Indochina War. In 1950 Ho again declared an independent Democratic Republic of  Vietnam, which was recognised by the fellow Communist governments of China and the Soviet Union.

While the British under an Attlee socialist government were almost relieved to abandon the  trappings of a colonial power, the French seemed to take a form of solace from their colonies  and still recognised them as a way of defining their country.  The British turned away from  their colonial past.  The French were desperate to hang onto theirs.  While Britain disbanded  her finest military units, the French released their conscript army and recruited from the  finest displaced soldiers floating throughout a fragmented and displaced Europe.  The Légion  Étrangère recruited Poles, former SS men and disparate, ex-serving British military personnel,  disillusioned by the promised socialist utopia that turned out to be as grey, depressing and  uninspiring as the Blitz.

By 1953 the French forces were embroiled in a gruelling war.  The French premier René Mayer  appointed Henri Navarre to take command of French Union forces in Indochina.  Navarre was  shocked at the state of military preparedness.  Operations were merely conducted in reaction to  enemy moves or actions.  A lassiez faire attitude permeated the command structure and staff  officers were more concerned with getting out of Vietnam with their reputations tarnished, but  intact.  Navarre turned to his main planning officer, Colonel Louis Berteil who outlined a  scheme of manoeuvre that became known as the “Hedgehog” concept.  The French army would  establish a fortified airhead using airborne troops to interdict the enemy’s rear areas and cut  the flow of supplies in Laos.  The hedgehog concept had been proven in the Battle of Nà Sản  where a fortified camp supplied solely by air had repeatedly beaten back General Giáp’s forces.   The plan was to lure Giáp into committing the bulk of his forces, where French armour and air  power could destroy them.

In June, Major General René Cogny, the commander of the Tonkin Delta, proposed Điện Biên Phủ,  which had an old airstrip built by the Japanese during World War II, as a “mooring point”.  In a  misunderstanding, Cogny envisaged a lightly defended point from which to launch raids; however,  Navarre believed that he intended a heavily fortified base capable of withstanding a siege.   Navarre selected Điện Biên Phủ for the location of Berteil’s “hedgehog” operation.  When  presented with the plan, every major subordinate officer protested: Colonel Jean-Louis Nicot who  commanded the French Air transport fleet, was concerned about the vulnerability of the  airstrips.  Cogny, and generals Jean Gilles and Jean Dechaux, the ground and air commanders for  the initial airborne assault on Điện Biên Phủ, also voiced their concerns.  Cogny pointed out,  that “we are running the risk of a new Nà Sản under worse conditions”.  While the positions at  Nà Sản were on fortified hills, Điện Biên Phủ was in a river valley surrounded by hills.  Navarre  rejected the criticisms of his proposal and concluded a November 17 conference by declaring that  the operation would begin three days later, on 20 November 1953.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
The air and Viet Minh ground corridors to Dien Bien Phu

At 1035L on 20th November 1953, the French began to drop by parachute and swiftly destroyed the  Viet Minh defenders based around Điện Biên Phủ.  The French flew in 9,000 troops over three  days, including combat engineers and bulldozers.  By the end of November six parachute  battalions were in position and the French dug in to consolidate their gains.  Giáp had expected  a French attack, but was unsure where it would occur.  On 24 November, Giáp ordered the 148th  Infantry Regiment and the 316th Division to attack Lai Chau, while the 308th, 312th, and 351st  divisions would assault Điện Biên Phủ.  Giáp was hoping that the French would abandon Lai Chau  Province and fight a pitched battle at Điện Biên Phủ.  In December the French under the command  of Christian de Castries turned their anchorage point into a fortress.  Seven satellite  positions were set up, allegedly named after the colonel’s mistresses with the headquarters  centrally located.  Huguette was to the west, Claudine to the south, and Dominique to the  northeast.  The other positions were Anne-Marie to the northwest, Beatrice to the northeast,  Gabrielle to the north, and Isabelle 3.7 miles to the south, covering the reserve airstrip.

With the manoeuvre of Vietnamese 316th Division into Lai Chau Province, Major General René Cogny  ordered the evacuation of the garrison and its redeployment to Điện Biên Phủ, just as Giáp had  hoped.  En-route the garrison was annihilated by Giáp’s forces and of the 2,100 men who left Lai  Chau, 185 made it to Điện Biên Phủ, arriving on 2nd December.  Far from fighting a mobile battle  of Manoeuvre which would have suited de Castries as a cavalryman, the battle would be one of  static defence more akin to Verdun.  The French weren’t fighting the last war, they were  fighting the one prior to that.

The French had inserted 16,000 troops into a monsoon affected valley that was surrounded by  unsecured hills.  The garrison included most of France’s elite troops, artillery, Chaffee light  tanks and locally recruited Vietnamese infantry.  The Viet Minh had moved 50,000 regular troops  into the hills surrounding the valley, totalling five divisions including the 351st Heavy  Division, which was made up entirely of heavy artillery.  The artillery and antiaircraft guns,  which outnumbered the French batteries by about four to one, were moved into positions  overlooking the valley. The French came under direct and sporadic Viet Minh artillery fire for  the first time on 31 January 1954, and patrols encountered the Viet Minh in all directions. The  French were surrounded and now the only way in or out was by air.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
The Strongpoints and the airstrips

The French airborne troops sent out fighting patrols to try and ascertain the numbers of the  Viet Minh forces, but they were masters of quick engagement before disappearing into the jungle.  These often futile patrols were a diversion from the tedium of digging the defences, but it  proved to the French that Giáp’s soldiers were the masters of the terrain.  It must have been  profoundly depressing to look at the jungle clad hills around the garrison and wonder what they  hid.

© Blown Periphery