The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam by Martin Windrow is another stunning book regarding the French defeat in Indochina. He follows the same historical accuracy as Archimedes Patti’s Why Vietnam? Prelude to America’s Albatross and Bernard Fall’s Hell In A Very Small Place: The Siege Of Dien Bien Phu.
Windrow has written an amazing history of France’s approach to defeat the Viet Minh. His work complements a select number of authors who have brought to life an important battle long overlooked in the late 1950s by America that contributed heavily to our entry into Vietnam.
Similar to my review of Ted Morgan’s book Valley of Death The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam War the siege is a stunning look by Windrow at a morally bankrupt 4th republic attempting to re-colonize Indochina beginning in 1946. World War II in Europe was over with rebuilding was underway. France attempted along with Britain to reclaim colonial territories after the surrender of Japan.
In great detail the opening chapters document French losses from 1948 to 1952. His attention to detail is amazing. These repeated failures as Windrow noted began to show weak points within the French Union. Clearly they had no ability to defeat the Viet Minh at the Laotian border.
While victories were far and few between for France their stand at Na San re-energized military leaders in Hanoi. This victory inspired them to lure Giap’s Viet Minh into the valley and deliver a strong blow to their enemy by repeating their hedgehog defense of the garrison. Col. Christian de Castries as commanding officer was a decorated Calvary officer. He was not the experienced field officer needed at Dien Bien Phu.
Windrow details well the French approach by the planning and execution Operation Castor executed four months before the siege. A rescue attempt, Operation Condor and an American Air Force rescue called Operation Vulture are also detailed. Sadly Windrow reveals French Union paratroopers were issued rifles from storage last used at The Somme.
He questions some of the sources around Vulture including the suggested use of atomic bombs around the valley. This was confirmed in the 2010 release of The Pentagon Papers. Windrow was exactly on point revealing French Air Force planes were forced to fly three hours to reach Dien Bien Phu. There were no closer air bases….
The French and the Viet Minh well understood the 1954 Geneva conference was going to influence the future of Vietnam, the Viet Minh with Chinese arms raced to victory at Dien Bien Phu while France continued to find an agreement to end hostilities. Paris was tired of war, the French people did not support the war with the French Union was caught in the middle.
As noted in Embers of War, Windrow illustrates how French officers ignored the warnings of their excellent military intelligence. Intercepted radio transmissions detected movement of heavy cannons from China through Laos. The Korean War recently ended in truce. The communists simply shifted those arms to Vietnam. And they were well hidden in the valley’s lush foliage.
Yet French military leaders ignored those intelligence reports. Windrow writes so well of the futile efforts of the French Union. I found it depressing to read page after page of failed efforts to defeat the Viet Minh resulting in the tragic loss of life.
Admittedly Windrow was very descriptive …. a bit too descriptive in the death of men from cannon fire. He writes how the body is impacted by cannon fire. It was remarkable that so many troops were killed by cannon fire. The French Union found how accurate targeting came from around the valley.
War is truly horrific. I had to put this book down for a couple of days, focus past the descriptive carnage. It is overpowering to see how poorly the French approached fighting in Vietnam. Yet this effort in funding brought America into a nightmare just two years after the French surrender.
I am now interested to read Dien Bien Phu: The Epic Battle America Forgot and Tiger in the Barbed Wire: An American in Vietnam, 1952-1991 written by American US Foreign Service intelligence officer Howard Simpson. Amazingly Simpson was assigned to Dien Bien Phu, went on patrols and somehow survived the siege. He continued serving the US in Vietnam into 1970 including an advisory role to Ngo Dinh Diem.