Bernard Fall wrote a compelling yet sober book Hell In A Very Small Place: The Siege Of Dien Bien Phu. Fall was a respected journalist who predicted the failure of French efforts to re-colonize Indochina after World War II. He delivers a first hand account. He was on the ground with French troops beginning in 1953. He returned to Indochina multiple times before dying in a 1967 ambush with US troops in Operation Chinook II.
On more than one occasion in the opening chapters the French considered permanently passing on Dien Bien Phu as a location to confront the Viet Minh to stop their push into Laos. Google Satellite Map of the valley Dien Bien Phu.
At first glance this is a Greek Tragedy. Yet Fall reveals, to simply save face on the global stage France continued to send men to their deaths over the 56 day siege. In Paris and Hanoi the commitment was NOT to win the war but rather simply hold the garrison as means to strengthen negotiations at the Geneva Accords.
Cogny defined Dien Bien Phu as a guerilla camp or ‘mooring point’ defense, Navarre interpreted a ‘heghog’ or airhead defense be established which had proven successful for France against the Viet Minh at the Battle of Na San. Regardless the French defensive positions were never implemented to withstand the Viet Minh onslaught that came in waves and deadly accurate cannon fire.
Hell In A Very Small Place reveals during this early confusion French intelligence intercepted multiple radio messages revealing strong evidence of the enemy’s shift of two established divisions heading towards Dien Bien Phu. Yet this intelligence was only debated between Navarre and Cogny. They never acted on this intelligence. This led to increased disagreements between the two at the cost of their men.
No French military leader could forecast a cease fire in the Korean War. This permitted Communist China to shift much needed weapons from Soviet Russia and material into Dien Bien Phu in mid 1953.
It is discouraging to read Fall’s account of the Allied losses around Dien Bien Phu beginning in November 1953, three months before the Viet Minh would launch their initial attack at Dien Bien Phu. The cold war shifted tides from Korea to Indochina.
Fall’s other recognized book Street without Joy reveals how 400 French Union troops were confronted by nearly 1,000 Viet Minh in hand to hand combat. They “simply fixed bayonet and walked into death.” Fall’s Hell In A Very Small Place extends this horrific sacrifice.
At the same time, early in the establishment of the French defense, four months before the attack French military engineers, charged with securing the garrison found themselves 34,000 tons short of the minimum engineering requirements:
The changes for a successful defense of Dien Bien Phu under direct attack could be expressed in one frightening equation: 34,000 tons of engineering equipment represented the cargo load of 12,000 C47 transport aircraft, the standard aircraft standard available in IndoChina.
About 80 aircraft were deployed on the daily run to Dien Bien Phu. At that rate and assuming that nothing but engineering materials were flown into Dien Bien Phu, five months would have been required to make the forlorn valley into a defensive field position!
Shockingly Fall reveals the leadership refused to camouflage bunkers and trenches which revealed leadership bunkers via radio antennas. This oversight provided pinpoint locations for the enemy. The Viet Minh acted upon those command centers in the opening hours killing almost every French officer. The failure to fortify the garrison is shocking for any reader. Fall painfully reveals day by day developments in the siege after the opening hours to the surrender.
There are many events and decisions Fall reveals that frustrate every reader. On January 9th 1954 the French Air Force reconnaissance spotted enemy 105mm howitzers had departed their rear base heading towards Dien Bien Phu. Again another intelligence revelation not acted upon by Navarre or Cogny. Yet French troops also overlooked the impact of the Indochina rainy season impacting Dien Bien Phu. Digging key outposts would eventually flood further exposed French Union troops to their enemy. Some men were to actually drown in those trenches.
Fall has written a blunt historical background on the buildup to the attack. His chapters as the battle began are even more depressing. The loss of live is horrific to read. Fall breaks down the attack day by day. And yet despite the loss of men defending Dien Bien Phu we must also look at the greater loss of life suffered by the Viet Minh.
Hell In A Very Small Place proves war is pure insanity. On the third day of the siege 3,000 Tia troops deserted under a heavy fog. The remaining 15,000 French garrison were surrounded by 40,000 enemy with accurate shelling. France’s human sacrifice for an empire remains so out of focus today.
To add insult to injury French Union troops under attack (as discovered by Fall) were awaiting General Cogny’s order to counter attack their fast approaching enemy…however Cogny was attending a social event in Saigon. Of all the suffering French Union troops endured this has to be the most gut-wrenching story. It will break the hearts of any military family.
Hell In A Very Small Place: The Siege Of Dien Bien Phu does not exclude harsh criticism on French leadership. During a request to have the US Air Force bomb outlying hills encircling Dien Bien Phu the French ‘volunteered’ a unit to be sacrificed in order to communicate to US planes around the valley.
Shortly before the Viet Minh attack three US Army officers were at Dien Bien Phu advising anti-aircraft measures around the garrison. And declassified in 2005 American pilots James McGovern and Wallace Buford where killed flying equipment to the garrison just 24 hours before the French surrender.
Fredrik Logevall‘s Pulitzer prize winning Embers of War reminds us that Parisians were concerned about the welfare of the garrison. However the overwhelming majority of soldiers were not French. The French Union permitted the colonial empire to place soldiers from Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Tunisia, French Guinea and Morocco inside those Dien Bien Phu trenches. After the initial bombing revealed the true desperation facing the garrison French commanders in Hanoi began ordering native French units to the valley. But the fate of those men were predetermined by their leaders in Hanoi. The garrison and the empire were on their deathbed.