France's May 1954 defeat in this battle in north Vietnam marked the beginning of the end of centuries of Western colonialism. A visit to the battle scene that should have been a warning to others.
After 57 days of fierce fighting, on May 7, 1954, the French soldiers were defeated by General Giap’s troops. Sixty years later, former Viet Minh fighters want to turn the basin into a site of remembrance.
DIEN BIEN PHU — They are three syllables that, in France, strike like three blows of a highly symbolic defeat: Dien Bien Phu.
On May 7, 1954, after 57 days and 57 nights of extremely violent combats between soldiers of the French expeditionary corps and the Viet Minh troops, the defensive camp fell into the hand of General Vo Nguyen Giap’s forces. It was 5.30 p.m in Dien Bien Phu, a nice name for a collapse.
This confrontation, which, as the French historian Jean-Pierre Rioux notes, was “the only pitched battle lost by a European army in the entire history of decolonization,” marked the beginning of the end for the French empire.
The victory of Ho Chi Minh’s soldiers later weighed on the negotiations in Geneva, on July 21, 1954, where the French President of the Council of Ministers Pierre Mendès France signed the agreements that put an end to the Indochina War.
It had lasted for eight years and resulted in 3,420 deaths or missing and 5,300 wounded on the French side; a lot more, according to sources, on the Viet Minh side.
According to the expression used by soldiers of that time, Dien Bien Phu was a “basin.” But landing on the runway, which was built by the French and is now permanent, gives a different impression. The place is more like a big bathtub, admittedly surrounded by mountains and hills, but which form the contours of a large valley.
Second impression: Dien Bien Phu, a town of more than 100,000 people, is quite graceless, with colorful houses made out of scrap, more or less kitsch architecture, all aligned along a few large streets crossing the town.
The main city of a province that, at first sight, is not reminiscent of the 1950s valley, when it was scarcely populated by the Tai ethnic minority. When walking down these streets, one can no longer see those famous hillocks that used to stick out in the plains and formed a corolla of “standpoints” aiming to “cover” the camp, and that the French soldiers had reinforced and given women’s names: Eliane, Béatrice, Gabrielle, Huguette.
Hill A1, the venue where the most intense fight occured between Vietnamese and French military forces during the Dien Bien Phu Battle, in May 2014. Zhang Jianhua/Xinhua/ZUMA
The view has now been masked by urbanization. In Hanoi, veterans of the battle told us they were unhappy with this evolution. They would have wanted Dien Bien Phu to remain in the same state, a site of remembrance and the living museum of one of the biggest victories of their modern nation's history.
Mother of all...
It all started on the hills of this valley, these strongholds that surrounded the headquarters of General de Castries, the head of the defensive camp. When, on March 13, the Viet Minh decided to attack, the French were eager to fight. “Let them come,” they shouted, convinced that their firepower, their aviation, their fortifications would allow them to push back the Viet Minh army in a trap set by the expeditionary corps.
But, on both sides, Dien Bien Phu was considered as the “mother of all battles.” The French thought it would be a strategic block that would allow them to push back the “Viet” progress towards Laos. General Giap, who mobilized a large part of his forces for the battle, also saw a way to trap the French troops in the “basin.”
In Hanoi, Nguyen Phuong Nam, an 84-year-old Dien Bien Phu veteran who was both the commander of a regiment of 800 men and a political commissioner, remembers: “In order to transport the cannons, the men had to pull them on the mountains around the valley after having dismantled them and carried on rafts. All that in the heat, walking through waterfalls and the jungle. But we did it, because we wanted independence. Before anything else, we were a force of peasant soldiers who knew that victory would change our lives. Such a moral strength was unimaginable for the French…”
At 5 p.m., on March 13, 1954, the Viet Minh cannons shelled the “Béatrice” peak, made up of three distinct heavily fortified and defended parts. The officers were killed and, little by little, the bunkers fell into the hands of the enemy. At midnight, “Béatrice” was no longer responding.
The French were stunned: they could not have imagined that the “Viets” had such a strike force, which was thanks to the Chinese and, to a lesser extent, the Soviets: 105mm cannons, 75mm mountain cannons, heavy mortars, flak… Giap could also bring in 30 regular battalions — around 40,000 soldiers, without taking into account the “volunteers.” Opposite them, the French had infantry units, backed by the soldiers of the 1st colonial parachute battalion and the legionaries of the 1st Foreign Parachute Regiment. Altogether, 15,700 men, among which many African and Moroccan infantrymen.
A surprise break
Walking around today in the recreated trenches of “Béatrice,” one can imagine the chaos of this tropical Verdun: the French soldiers trapped in their trenches under a rain of shells, their relentless defense behind the machine guns.
Mid-March, things arrived to a point where General Cogny, who was at the head of the French troops in Tonkin, told General Navarre, the head of the expeditionary corps, that “the fall of Dien Bien Phu might happen the next night.”
But General Giap, whose forces suffered heavy losses in the assault against the French, decided to take a break. Dien Bien Phu was temporarily saved. But not for long: on March 30, what would be remembered as “the battle of the five hills” began: the “Huguette”, “Dominique”, “Claudine” standpoints fell one after the other. It was in “Eliane”, a series of strongholds located near de Castries’ HQ, starting May 1, that it all played out: the final battle on “Eliane 2”, the place of the last, heroic, almost suicidal, French resistance.
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The cover of the French newspaper Le Parisien libéré, the day French troops lost the Dien Bien Phu battle. Credit: Manhhai.
The area is a major location of the Vietnamese museography on the battle. Because, apart from a new museum that opened on May 7, the official representation is generally limited to commemorative plaques, barely ever in French or English. At “Eliane 2”, it is possible to visit the fortified headquarters, see the wreck of a US-designed M24 Chaffee tank, now placed on a platform and protected by a window pane.
And, most importantly, there are those trenches that give an idea of how close the opposing combatants were to each other. The final battle showed how the Viet Minh strategy evolved: the attack of the Bodoi (soldier) was no longer a simple frontal assault; he now relentlessly dug his own trenches until he faced the enemy position. It was one of the reasons for their success.
Hand to hand
In Hanoi, another veteran, the battalion commander Nguyen Dung Chi, 28 years old at the time, says in perfect French: “I was in the trench that was closest to the French. I was always on the front line. On March 30, we failed in taking the "Elianes." We made tactical errors. On May 6 and 7, we decided to take hold of the positions on the flanks and behind. The fights became hand-to-hand combat.”
His memories are precise and terrible: “We couldn’t see anything anymore, we stopped aiming, we moved forward, we jumped from one trench to another. We were walking on corpses. When the French position fell, I saw the lifeless bodies of a White man and an African. In our ranks, there was naturally some who were demoralized, but very few.” It was nearly over. The “Viets” exploded dynamite in front of the most forward French positions, giving the signal for the final attack. The gigantic hole can still be seen.
Nguyen Dung Chi, a mischievous and lively old man, remembers the first hours that followed victory. He was not the first man to enter the HQ of the commander, but he did so soon after the defeat. “Silence fell upon Dien Bien Phu,” he remembers. “It stinks. The smell of the dead, but also of the rotting wounds of all the French soldiers lying here and there.”
Parachutists capture Dien Bien Phu in November 1953. Credit: Keystone Pictures USA/ZUMA.
He walked by Geneviève de Galard, nicknamed “the angel of Dien Bien Phu,” the nurse who stayed until the end to care for the wounded and the dying. “I walked up to her, she put her hands up and said: ‘Don’t shoot!’ I asked her: ‘Where is the headquarters?’ She waved her hand and said: ‘Over there!’ I went to the HQ. It was empty. On the table of the general, I saw an atlas that was open at the page of a USSR map, a Parker pen and a paratrooper knife.” He smiles: “I took the pen and the knife as a souvenir…”
There are still grey areas, uncertainties: the famous photograph of Vietnamese soldiers planting the red flag with the yellow star on the HQ was staged, as wrote Dao Thanh Huyen, a French-speaking journalist who co-wrote the book Dien Bien Phu, vu d’en face: paroles de bo doï (“Dien Bien Phu, seen from the other side,” non-translated). There also never was a Viet Minh flag on de Castries’s HQ, even though it was a symbolic scene of the victory of Vietnam against a large nation and its fading empire.
Another legend reconsidered: the French high command had famously asked its officers not to give in to a humiliating surrender. The Vietnamese version is different: “After the shots stopped, Nguyen Dung Chi says, I saw lots of white-colored material, parachutes, shirts or other, waved by the French soldiers.”
Sixty years after the battle, the war of history is still being written.