The valley of Dien Bien Phu was the site of a historic siege by the Viet Minh on a French garrison from March 13th to May 7th 1953. The result was the first time an Asian guerrilla force defeated a standing Western army in sustained battle.
The French hoped to again draw out their Viet Minh enemy and defeat them with superior artillery fire as they did at Na San in November 1952. However a year later a series of French military blunders would doom the garrison.
To more fully understand the French defeat the six titles below are well written and serve as the entrance to a deeper American involvement that would lead to our own nightmare.
Each author addresses key failure points long after the battle that invalidate immediate reactions to the siege. Each author conveys the inhumanity suffered by both sides before, during and after the siege.
Why Vietnam?: Prelude to America’s Albatross
Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina
The books all provide powerful experiences from both the Vietnamese and French perspectives:
This garrison was not an all-French unit. Quite the opposite. A majority of soldiers were African, Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian and of course Vietnamese serving the French Far East Expeditionary Corps. This unit included European volunteers from Spain, Poland and Germany. The garrison’s officer corps were French. Make no mistake Paris was no longer interested in sending their sons to die in the jungles of Vietnam.
French Union troops moved a brothel into the garrison. Yes in 1953.
Generals Christian de Castries, Henri Navarre and René Cogny ignored their own very accurate military intelligence reports. The movement of heavy artillery from China into the surrounding hills was discovered by radio intercepts. Yet the Generals never considered the Viet Minh able to position heavy artillery around the surrounding hills.
The planes used by the French Air Force planes were a collection of old German Junkers Ju 52 series from World War II. Shockingly their airbase in Hanoi was forced to obtain spare parts from Germany.
American B-26 bombers were capable of carrying 8,000 pounds of bombs. Still a short runway (1,420 yards) at Cat Bi restricted all sorties to only 4,000 pounds to clear takeoff.
American supplied bombs included new advanced ‘variable time’ fuses that could be programmed to detonate several feet above the ground making a more deadly impact upon infantry and open gun positions. Yet French air crews did not read any instruction manuals and left default settings in place at 53 seconds. Their bombing missions dropped at 10,000 feet impacting the ground in less than 10 seconds.
Generals Navarre and Cogny stopped communicating with one another due to a clash of egos. Bernard Fall indicated rather sensationally that de Castries became an isolated leader in his bunker and ceased in his role as senior commander.
Viewing the siege as similar to their trench warfare experience of Verdun French commanders requested telescopes used in World War I be sent to Dien Bien Phu. They never carried telescopes into Vietnam.
The garrison’s sole runway was damaged early in the siege forcing the French to airlift all supplies and stop medical evacuations. The lack of accuracy in their supply drops was made clear on the night of May 3rd: over 40% of supplies fell into enemy positions. On May 8th over 800 tons of supplies fell directly toward Viet Minh held positions.
A majority of senior French officers were killed within the opening minutes of the siege. By 1953 officers were killed in battle throughout Indochina faster than the French Special Military School of Saint-Cyr could graduate new officers and ship them to Hanoi.
Realizing the garrison would fall the French government requested two atomic bombs from President Eisenhower. The US State Department denied the request only after objections by Britain’s Foreign Minister. Paris fully understood their own men would become victims of the bombing.
Similar to my reading experience of the declassified Pentagon Papers in which the overwhelming loss of life and miscalculations found in war leading to the inhuman slaughter of life forced me to push this book aside for a few days.
The Last Valley provides the reader an excellent experience of France’s imperial view: sacrificing men for noble aims lost long ago during the horrors of the first world war.