The Bitter End
The Viet Minh attacks started on 13th March 1954 with a fierce artillery bombardment on outpost Beatrice. A shell hit the command HQ killing Major Paul Pegot and his entire staff. Also killed was Colonel Jules Gaucher who was in command of the entire northern sector. Then the 312th Infantry Division began a direct assault using combat engineers to eliminate the defences and French opposition was wiped out in Beatrice shortly after midnight. Over 500 Legionnaires were killed for 600 Viet Minh killed and 1,200 wounded. The French attempted a counter attack to recapture the strongpoint but it was beaten back by artillery. What came as a profound shock to the French was that the Viet Minh artillery used direct fire instead of indirect fire that required experienced forward observers and a complex signals network. This was asymmetric warfare at its best. The Viet Minh artillery were well dug in with overhead protection and this had been carried out right under the noses of the French. On 15th March, the French artillery commander, Colonel Charles Piroth, distraught at his inability to bring counter battery fire on the well-camouflaged Viet Minh batteries, went into his dugout and committed suicide with a hand grenade. He was buried in secret to prevent loss of morale among the French troops.
By this time, the airstrips were interdicted by artillery fire and the only method of resupply was by parachute. On the night of the 15th March, the Viet Minh attacked Gabrielle, commencing at 1700L with a heavy artillery barrage. An artillery round severely wounded the battalion commander and killed most of his staff. De Castries ordered a counter attack by the 5th Vietnamese Parachute Battalion, but these troops were exhausted as they had jumped in the previous day. Although some made it to Gabrielle, they were mauled by artillery and the strongpoint was abandoned. The French had now lost two strongpoints, the airstrips were interdicted by artillery fire and resupply was difficult if not impossible. The French forces in Điện Biên Phủ were doomed.
Anne-Marie was defended by Tai troops who came from a Vietnamese ethnic minority. They had been sent subversive propaganda leaflets, telling them that this was not their fight and why should they die for the French? On the 17th March under the cover of fog, the majority of the Tais deserted, which depleted the defence of Anne-Marie to such an extent that the strongpoint had to be abandoned.
The 17th – 29th March saw a lull in the fighting when the French tried desperately to resupply the garrison and the Viet Minh tightened the noose. By now Isabelle with its 1,809 personnel was cut off from the rest of the northern strongpoints. The French leadership was in crisis as de Castries had isolated himself in his bunker. Major General René Cogny in Hanoi was aware of the situation and attempted to land at Điện Biên Phủ but was driven off by anti-aircraft fire. He contemplated parachuting in, but his staff officers were aghast and told him little could be achieved by the foolhardy gesture. It is alleged that on 24th March, Colonel Langlais and his paratroop commanders, fully armed, confronted de Castries in his bunker and relieved him of his command. They told him that he would retain the appearance of command, but Langlais would exercise it. On 27 March, the Hanoi air transport commander, Nicot, ordered that all supply deliveries were to be made from 6,600 feet or higher, however, losses were expected to remain heavy.
The next phase of the battle saw massed Viet Minh assaults against the central strongpoints, Eliane and Dominique. At 1900L on 30th March, the 312th Viet Minh Division captured Dominique 1 and 2, making Dominique 3 the final outpost protecting the French HQ. Only 105mm direct fire from howitzers halted the Viet Minh advance and forced them to retreat. The Viet Minh were more successful in their simultaneous attacks elsewhere. The 316th Division captured Eliane 1 from its Moroccan defenders, and half of Eliane 2 by midnight. On the other side of Điện Biên Phủ, the 308th attacked Huguette 7, and nearly succeeded in breaking through, but a French sergeant took charge of the defenders and sealed the breach. The battle raged over these central strongpoints over the next few days. Fighting continued over the next several nights. The Viet Minh repeatedly attacked Eliane 2, only to be beaten back. 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 antiaircraft fire. Some reinforcements did arrive, but not enough to replace French casualties.
The Viet Minh had taken huge numbers of casualties to the French fighter bombers operating from the Hanoi airfields. These close support missions were flown in the face of murderous anti-aircraft fire, but they were sufficiently effective for Giáp to order reinforcements from Laos. He was facing his own crisis of lowered morale due to a lack of service support such as medical services. Some units refused to attack and prisoners taken by the French told them that officers would shoot men who refused to advance. The battle had by now degenerated into trench warfare fought by small units, led by NCOs.
The Viet Minh launched a massed assault on the night of the 1st May 1954. French artillery halted the first advance, but the Viet Minh detonated a mine dug under Eliane 2. On 7 May, Giáp ordered an all-out attack against the remaining French units with over 25,000 Viet Minh against fewer than 3,000 garrison troops. At 17:00L, de Castries radioed French headquarters in Hanoi and talked with Cogny.
De Castries: “The Viets are everywhere. The situation is very grave. The combat is confused and goes on all about. I feel the end is approaching, but we will fight to the finish.”
Cogny replied: “Of course you will fight to the end. It is out of the question to run up the white flag after your heroic resistance.”
By nightfall all of the central French positions had been captured. The last radio message to Hanoi stated that Viet Minh troops were outside of the command bunker. The radio operator’s last transmission was:
“The enemy has overrun us. We are blowing up everything. Vive la France!”
On 8th may, the Viet Minh took 11,721 prisoners of whom 4,436 were wounded. They were forced marched nearly 400 miles to prison camps, many of them dying of exhaustion and disease on the way. The French defeat led to the Geneva Conference which resulted in Vietnam being split into the Communist ruled north and the southern French- supported state of Vietnam. This state of affairs led to US intervention and the Vietnam War, which would involve over 500,000 US troops. It was the beginning of the end of not just French but other nations’ colonial rule. The Viet Minh success sparked other independence movements, especially in Africa.
The French had drawn the wrong conclusions from the initial success of the Hedgehog concept of operations. They squandered their advantage of swift deployment of forces by air and their potentially overwhelming advantage of air support. Instead they elected to fight a static war of attrition, in a poor defensive position, against a numerically superior enemy. Instead of drawing the Viet Minh into a battle of their choosing, the opposite happened. It was bound to end in failure.
Dedicated to Colonel V T, my Commander Med in Afghanistan, 2008. This is to thank him for his kindness and compassion, following the deaths of my parents whilst I was on Op HERRICK. I hope that I have been as objective and dispassionate to his country’s military history as he was to mine. How I miss our vibrant discussions on the Napoleonic Wars, and bow to his knowledge of the Grande Armée. But he never really understood the significance of Master and Commander….