Dien Bien Phu Battle Field
The most famous battle of the Indo-China war was, of course, the siege of Dien Bien Phu. The reasons why the French command decided to plant this entrenched camp and airstrip in the bottom of a bowl of hills, far behind enemy lines, are still being argued. The strategy is confused, and whatever it was it was based on a fatal underestimate of the progress made by Giap in training and equipping his divisions for conventional warfare. It was intended that the camp, held by 12 battalions of legionnaires, paras, North Africans and local troops, would be quite invulnerable to enemy attack. Its position would block all Viet moves on the Laotian border, and from its safe base paratroopers and tanks would strike outwards into the hills, extending its influence and control over a wide area. It would be supplied by air and its isolation 200 kilometres from Hanoi was thus unimportant. In November 1953 it was seized by an air-drop of six para battalions, and building began.
The camp consisted of a central position, with airstrip and dispersals for Bearcat fighters, emplacements for 28 heavy guns, and 12 Chaffee tanks, guarded by outlying and self-sufficient strongpoints arranged for all-round defense and placed as far as possible to cover one another. The lie of the land did not allow this at all points of the perimeter, however. At ’12 o’clock’ and ‘2 o’clock’ from the centre were strongpoints Gabrielle and Beatrice, the latter held by the 3rd Battalion/13th DBLE. Closer in at ‘3 o’clock’ was Dominique, then Eliane at ‘5 o’clock,; then far away, five kilometres due south, was Isabelle at ‘6 o’clock’ with the 3rd Battalion/3rd REI. At 7’o’clock’ in the main perimeter was Claudine, with the 1st Battalion/13th DBLE, then Francoise at ‘8 o’clock’, then Huguette at ‘9 o’clock’ with the 1st Battalion/2nd REI. Anne-Marie at ’10 o’clock’ completed the perimeter; and 1st(and later the 2nd) BEP formed part of the mobile reserve in the centre.
The mortar companies of the 3rd and 5th REI, and a company of para-mortars, supplemented the artillery of Colonel Piroth the artillery he was so confident could silence all opposition, and which he did not bother to dig in any more thoroughly than would protect his crews from mortar fire… The rest of the garrison of 14,000 men consisted of French and Vietnamese paratroopers, Algerian and Moroccan tirailleurs, and Thai troops.
What the high command did not realize was that (a) Giap would accept the challenge with four divisions, regular troops trained and equipped by the Chinese; (b) they would be supported by some 200 artillery pieces, carried in sections on the backs of 75,000 coolies up the jungle trails and installed in well-camouflaged positions; (c) the attackers and their guns would be defended by massive anti-aircraft artillery zones installed in the same way; and (d) that the battle would not be one of movement around a secure base, but a siege.
On March 13 1954 a tremendous artillery barrage opened, quickly exposing the inadequacy of the trenches, dug-outs and sandbag bastions to withstand heavy 105mm shells. Piroth’s guns proved hopelessly unable to silence the enemy batteries, and he committed suicide next day. Within two days Beatrice had been overrun and the 3rd Battalion /13th DBLE destroyed – 326 dead, missing or seriously wounded. Gabrielle, isolated, was abandoned. A few days later Anne-Marie was abandoned. The North African units were displaying poor morale, and in attempts to recapture some abandoned bastions the para reserves lost heavily. Many aircraft were destroyed, the remainder left for safety, and the garrison was penned in the perimeter; soon the airstrip was unusable and all supplies had to be air-dropped. French air force strikes on the artillery positions in the hills were unsuccessful, and tactical and supply aircraft began to fall in great numbers to the Communist anti-aircraft batteries.
The 2nd BEP and untrained volunteers from the 3rd and 5th REI jumped into the camp at night early in April. Artillery fire and massive infantry attacks slowly chipped away the bastions, and in furious counter-attacks the paratroopers and tanks were whittled down until their strength was inadequate to achieve any lasting success at any point. The courage of the men and their officers was extraordinary, and their suffering appalling. Air-drops soon proved inadequate; food, ammunition and medical supplies all ran critically low, adding to the miseries of the garrison in a camp now feet deep in mud from the spring rains.
The final assault came on may 6, and by daybreak on the 7th only a small area in the centre of the camp and the isolated Isabelle were still in French hands. By the early hours of the 8th the camp had fallen. At Isabelle the 3rd Battalion/3rd REI tried to break out; less than 100 reached French lines. Dien Bien Phu cost the Legion 1,500 dead and 4,000 wounded; it cost France Indo-China.
Nowadays, Dien Bien Phu is a peaceful town, home to many hill tribe groups such as the Thai, the Hmong. The town is alive with colour, as the Vietnamese, Thai and Hmong residents go about their daily affairs like carrying their wares into town, shopping in the crowded market, and holding xoe dancing parties in their stilt houses.
Following are a list of recommended places to visit in Dien Bien
The Museum of Dien Bien Phu victorious battle
The museum houses a great deal of documents and objects relating to the 55-day arduous battle of Vietnamese soldiers and people to make the glorious victory of the whole nation in spring 1954. The museum exhibits its objects both indoors and outdoors.
The cemeteries in Hill A1 (644 tombs) and Doc Lap Hill (2432 tombs)
This is the resting place of Vietnamese soldiers who sacrificed heroically in the Dien Bien Phu Campaign. In Hill A1 lie the tombs of heroic martyrs such as To Vinh Dien, Be Van Dan, Phan Dinh Giot and Tran Can.
This height stands block the way to the northeast sub-section. It has a significant role, controlling the whole battle of Dien Bien Phu. During 36 nights and days, the fierce battle claimed the lives of 2516 Vietnamese soldiers. Only until the night of May 6th, 1954 did Vietnamese soldiers win this decisive battle.
Muong Thanh Airfield
This was the stronghold 206 and the central airport of the entrenched camp of Dien Bien Phu. Currently this airport is renamed Dien Bien Phu and becomes one of the destinations in the flight system of the Vietnam Civil Aviation.
Command bunker of the Dien Bien Phu entrenched camp
De Castries worked inside the bunker. The original shape and size, structure and arrangement of the bunker are kept intact.
Him Lam Hill
On March 13th, 1954, Vietnamese troops fought the first battle in Him Lam Hill, which is situated to the northwest of the valley.
Doc Lap Hill
Vietnamese troops liberated the hill on March 15th, 1954.
Hills C, D and E
They are well preserved. From afar, one can easily recognize the name of these hills. Atop D1 Hill stands the newly-erected Statue of Dien Bien Phu Victory.
Command Post of the Vietnamese Solders
This site is situated in a primitive forest in Muong Phang Commune. Here one will find the hut where General Vo Nguyen Giap worked and other huts for information and military operation discussion.