For fifty-six days in the spring of 1954, the Viet Minh trained their artillery fire down on the French forces dug into the valley floor below. Without any airplanes or even roads for resupply, every artillery piece, every bit of ammunition, every bite of food had to be carried hundreds of miles through the mountains by hand.
Monsoon rains made the footpaths slick and treacherous; wounds quickly grew infected in the hot, humid conditions. Through sheer grit and determination, though, the Vietnamese confined the entrenched French into a smaller and smaller section of the valley, and destroyed the airfield to limit the enemy's resupply options.
Bit by bit, day by day, the Viet Minh were loosening France's grip on its colonial possessions in Indochina...
Background to Dien Bien Phu:
During World War II, Japan occupied French Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos), but allowed the collaborationist Vichy French to continue to administer the colony under Japanese supervision When Japan surrendered in 1945, the British accepted administration of the southern half of Vietnam, while Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist Chinese accepted the Japanese surrender in the north.
Meanwhile, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam's independence on September 2, 1945; his Viet Minh forces controlled most of the Vietnamese countryside, where they had been fighting against the Japanese. France, eager to redeem itself after a very poor performance in World War II, decided to reassert control over what had been French Indochina. On December 19, 1946, France attacked President Ho Chi Minh's forces, and the First Indochina War began.
Ho Chi Minh went into the mountains to lead his fight against the colonizers. He organized a guerrilla-style resistance, noting that "It is a fight between tiger [the Viet Minh] and elephant [France]. If the tiger stands his ground, the elephant will crush him with its mass. But, if he conserves his mobility, he will finally vanquish the elephant, who bleeds from a multitude of cuts."
True to this theory, the Viet Minh would pop up in one area, attack the French, then melt back in to the jungle. For years, the French longed for a set-piece battle; they felt certain they could crush the Viet Minh if only the Vietnamese communists would stand and fight.
Setting up Confrontation at Dien Bien Phu:
In order to lure the Viet Minh into an open battle, the French commander Henri Navarre decided in 1953 to establish a fortified position in the valley at Dien Bien Phu, near the border with Laos. The Viet Minh grew opium in this area, which they traded for surplus World War II armaments in the markets of Hong Kong and Thailand.
Dien Bien Phu also boasted a Japanese-built airstrip, which the French had used previously. Navarre believed that it was the perfect site from which to base his new strategy of pressing the Viet Minh, to force them into a set-piece battle - which naturally the French would win.
On November 20, 1953, the first wave of 1,800 French paratroopers dropped in to Dien Bien Phu, along with heavy artillery pieces floated down on parachutes. They came in the dry season; between March and August, monsoons drop an average of 60 inches (152 centimeters) of rain, making military maneuvers difficult.
Unbeknownst to the French, several hundred Viet Minh regulars were already stationed in the valley; with their mortars and machines guns, they managed to kill 11 of the French that first day, but suffered more than 90 casualties themselves. The surviving Viet Minh alerted Ho Chi Minh's command, which assigned General Vo Nguyen Giap to the task of clearing the French from the valley.
The following day, an additional 600 French dropped into Dien Bien Phu, and a bulldozer drifted down from the cargo plane, attached to multiple parachutes. The Viet Minh watched the French begin to clear vegetation off of the landing strip and flatten it down, rendering it operable once more. Soon French planes had delivered 15,000 French troops and French Foreign Legion members to the valley, along with 60 large artillery pieces.
General Giap responded by bringing in about 50,000 of his own troops, overland since they had no planes. In order to establish a supply line to the Chinese border depot, some 600 miles east-north-east of Dien Bien Phu, Giap conscripted local villagers and farmers to build a trail through the jungle-covered mountains. To disguise this trail from French reconnaissance flights, the Vietnamese fastened the tops of tall trees together high in the canopy, screening their activity from the view of pilots overhead.
Once the trail was finished, the Viet Minh were able to get 200 artillery pieces from the Chinese - most of them captured American guns from the Korean War, which had just drawn to a close. The Viet Minh also acquired 8,000 tons of medicine, food and ammunition from the People's Republic of China, all of which was carried on laborers' backs or by bicycle through the mountains to Dien Bien Phu.
The French commanders in Hanoi and at Dien Bien Phu refused to believe that the Viet Minh had access to heavy artillery, or that they would be able to move it and tens of thousands of men into position in the mountains that encircled the French position without being spotted. With no cargo planes, no roads, how could it be possible?
Nonetheless, beginning in late January of 1954, increasing artillery fire rained down on the French, who built trenches and bunkers to protect themselves. Anti-aircraft guns on the ridges surrounding Dien Bien Phu made it more and more risky for French resupply planes to land, as well. When French patrol teams set out to find the Viet Minh artillery, they suffered heavy losses but were unable to pin down the enemy.
A decisive victory for the Viet Minh, and a fiasco for the French, was unfolding in slow motion over the months at Dien Bien Phu. The French should have pulled out before the rains came, leaving General Giap's troops and guns concentrated in the wrong place, but they did not. They decided to stay.
The Siege at Dien Bien Phu:
On March 13, 1954, General Giap ordered all civilians cleared from the valley by noon. At 5 pm, under cover of monsoon clouds and with nightfall approaching, the Viet Minh opened their frontal attack on the French outpost called Beatrice. About 500 French Foreign Legionnaires died, as well as 600 Viet Minh, but the Vietnamese took the French position. The French gunners could not locate Giap's artillery, which was dug into individual bunkers, then camoflauged with greenery. In disgrace, the one-armed French artillery commander, Colonel Charles Piroth, went into his own bunker, pulled the pin from a hand grenade with his teeth, and committed suicide.
The next day and night, the Viet Minh targeted the airstrip, destroying the control tower, landing strip and radar installation with heavy artillery bombardment and rendering it useless for the remainder of the siege. They also seized the French outpost Gabrielle; on March 17, they were handed outpost Anne-Marie when Vietnamese troops aligned with the French defected en masse.
For the next two weeks, the Viet Minh gradually tightened their perimeter around the French without launching more frontal assaults. Conscripted farmers and Viet Minh regulars dug a series of trenches ever-closer to the French position, sometimes even tunnelling under them. The French overall commander, cavalryman Christian de Castries, fell into a depression and refused to leave his bunker; effective command fell to paratrooper commander Colonel Pierre Langlais.
When the Viet Minh began their direct assaults again in early April, they were in a much better tactical position. With French resupply lines cut off, the enemy was on half rations, and the French medics were running short on bandages and medicine. To increase psychological pressure, General Giap refused to allow the medivac of even the most seriously wounded French soldiers; he wanted their companions to witness their suffering.
Monsoon rains poured down, filling the trenches with muddy water up to the men's waists. The French could not even bury their dead, and the stench was terrible. In their misery, 1/5 of the French force deserted and refused to fight, but they were trapped in the valley and could only hang around in the trenches, begging food from their former brothers-in-arms.
Finally, on May 6, General Giap's forces launched their final assault. They destroyed the remainder of the French artillery, overran the trenches, and by 5:00 pm on May 7, Dien Bien Phu had fallen. All of the surviving French became prisoners of war.
Results and Aftermath:
The Viet Minh took 11,721 prisoners of war, 4,436 of them wounded. After seven years of war, the victorious Vietnamese were not in a merciful mood; at least half of the POWs died of their wounds, disease, or mistreatment before they could be repatriated. Between the battle deaths and the POWs who did not make it home, France lost around 13,000 men at Dien Bien Phu.
The Vietnamese government claims that the Viet Minh lost fewer than 5,000 men with around 9,000 wounded at Dien Bien Phu. France claims that it was closer to 23,000 total casualties on the Viet Minh side. In any case, it was a singularly bloody fight.
At the Geneva Conference, which was already convened to finalize the Korean War Armistice, France agreed to withdraw completely from French Indochina. Laos and Cambodia gained their independence; in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh would be president of northern Vietnam, while Emperor Bao Dai and Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem would head an anti-communist, US-backed government in the south. According to the agreement, the two halves would be reunited in 1956, following nation-wide elections.
Six months later, the French would be embroiled in an even bloodier anti-colonial war in Algeria, North Africa. The United States, concerned about the spread of communism in Asia, decided not to allow elections in Vietnam, which would very likely have ended in Ho Chi Minh's victory. Instead, the US became ever more involved in propping up Ngo Dinh Diem's repressive (but capitalist) regime in the south. This led to a new round of warfare, called the "American War" in Vietnam, and the "Vietnam War" or "Second Indochina War" in the west.