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

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

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.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

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.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

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.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

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.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

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.

© Blown Periphery

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….