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The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was fought from March 13th to May 8th 1954 near the Laotian Border. The battle was the culmination of Operation Castor, a larger plan by the French commander, General Navarre, to lure General Giap and his Peoples Army of Vietnam into a conventional battle to finally destroy their combat power and break the military resistance against French colonial rule. Navarre’s plan would prove disastrous for the French and have the same effect on the French that he had hoped to have on the Viets. “What had happened at Dien Bien Phu was simply that a momentous gamble had been attempted by the French high command and had backfired badly.” (Fall, 1964) On 20 November 1953 Operation Castor began with the French parachuting five battalions onto Dien Bien Phu and the area around it to establish a base to strongpoint the border with Laos and to conduct patrols against the Viet Minh in the area. In response General Giap moved two 10,000 man divisions into the area to prepare for his assault on the recently arrived French troops. When the battle began on the 13th of March Giap had four divisions and had amassed over 200 pieces of artillery against the French, camouflaged in the mountains surrounding them. The French in contrast had only 24 pieces of light and medium artillery and a squadron of 10 tanks spread out over the valley floor in strong points around the town and its airstrips. (Dien Bien Phu: The Official and History of the Battle)
General Navarre was planning on relying on his airpower to be able to support the fortress by fire and to keep his forces resupplied. This proved to be a poor plan because of the weather in the target area and the Viet’s use of anti-aircraft artillery situated in the hills around Dien Bien Phu.
The battle began with a massive artillery barrage by the Viets on the night of March 13th, specifically targeting the northernmost strong points, and then followed by a successful ground attack, seizing them. The following night was a repeat of the previous one that isolated another of the strong points, Gabrielle, with similar results. On the 16th the first of a series of French reinforcements parachuted into the battle but it was only a battalion and had little effect. Over the subsequent days the Viets continued to bombard and attack the French positions wearing them away, on the 22nd part of a French airborne artillery regiment parachuted in.
The airstrips were continuously targeted by Giap’s artillery, and his anti-aircraft guns in the hills made life difficult for the French transport planes attempting to reinforce, resupply and evacuate the wounded. Daytime landings became too dangerous and shortly after that the French Air Force was not even able to get in at night, the only option for resupply becoming airdrops. Interestingly two American transport pilots were among those shot down and killed attempting to resupply the beleaguered French forces. (Karnow, 1983, 182) Giap knew Navarre had made a mistake in choosing Dien Bien Phu, because of its isolated location; it could only be supported by air transport. Ground access to Dien Bien Phu from the secure areas on the coast was difficult at best because of the poor Vietnamese road networks and it was easily cut off because of the terrain surrounding the valley it was located in.
Giap’s forces took advantage of the artillery barrages keeping the French in their positions. They dug trenches that encroached on the French strong points using classic trench warfare techniques much like the ones Washington and the Continentals, along with their French allies, employed at Yorktown against the British. They would either mine the French positions by digging underneath them or get their trenches close enough to the French trenches to give them a covered assault position to overrun the defenders.
Giap’s forces also employed psychological operations against the French defenders.
“At the height of the battle for Dien Bien Phu, between assaults and in the fracas of exploding shell, the Viet minh, used loud speakers to exhort the French to desertâ€¦Leaflets were also thrown into the strong points. These activities had little effect.” (Dien Bien Phu: The Official and History of the Battle) This example shows just how organized and sophisticated Giap’s forces were, contrary to French opinion. Additionally Bloomer points out that the Viet Minh practiced better operational security than the French â€¦ (they) never publicized their operations (especially while they were ongoing). (Bloomer, 1991). French reporters in Hanoi were writing stories about Operation Castor for the newspapers back home.
As March closed the attacks continued and the Viet Minh continued to wear away at the French and take the strong points one by one. Navarre continued to parachute reinforcements in to aid the defense but to this effort continued to prove futile as the French position kept shrinking. Giap discontinued the frontal attacks on the 6th of April and but kept up small scale attacks, along with the artillery fire, to keep the French on the defensive throughout April. By the beginning of May Giap was ready to deliver his final blow on the French fortress, he intensified the artillery assault and prepared his troops for the ground attack to seize the last two French strong points. On the 6th of May the French finally have some good luck, the weather clears and allows for the airdrop of supplies and airstrikes but much of the supplies land outside of the French lines and the airstrikes have little effect against the Viet Minh’s camouflaged positions. On the 7th Giap begins the final assault on Elaine were the French command post is. The French commander of the defense, General de Castries, is told by his commander in Hanoi that he can not think of surrender, at 1700 hours the command post sends a message back to Hanoi, “We’re blowing everything up. Adieu.” (Dien Bien Phu: The Official and History of the Battle) In the early morning hours of the 8th Isabelle, the last remaining strongpoint falls and the battle is over.
By defeating a modern French force at Dien Bien Phu the Viet Minh proved their legitimacy to the world, this would prove to be an even greater victory than the battle itself in a strategic sense. The French people would no longer support its government waging a war thousands of miles from home to preserve colonial rule, it also undermined the legitimacy of the French government’s goal to keep its colonies; first Vietnam then Algeria. While victory at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu may not have solved the Viet Minh’s ultimate goal of a unified Vietnam without French rule it did get the snowball rolling downhill toward that goal with the final victory of the Communist forces over the Republic of Vietnam in 1975.
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