Battle of Dien Bien Phu

From Academic Kids

The Battle of Dien Bien Phu occurred in 1954 between Viet Minh forces under Vo Nguyen Giap and French airborne and Foreign Legion forces. The battle was fought near the village of Dien Bien Phu in northern Vietnam and became the last battle between the French and the Vietnamese in the First Indochina War which had begun in 1946.



In 1953, the French had begun to strengthen their defenses in the Hanoi delta region and to prepare for a series of offenses against Viet Minh staging areas in northwest Vietnam. They had set up a number of fortified towns and outposts in the area, including Lai-Chau near the Chinese border to the north, Na San to the west of Hanoi, and Luang-Prabang and Plaine des Jarres in northern Laos.

That spring, General Giap launched a major offensive against Na San. After several days of fierce fighting, the Viet Minh were broken, leaving 1,544 casualties at the base and another 1,932 walking wounded. Giap withdrew most of his forces. Despite Vietnamese attempts to hamper a French withdrawal, French General Henri Navarre pulled his forces from Nan Sanh soon after his arrival in May.

It was at this point that the French started thinking about Dien Bien Phu. In pitched battles the superior firepower of the French forces invariably won, so the Viet Minh had generally avoided such battles. It appeared that the war would be entering a new phase, however, as the ranks of the Viet Minh were growing, and there was a general need for them to be involved in some action. The French reasoned that if a smaller, hastily prepared base like Na San could do so much damage in a pitched battle, a well-planned one could bring the enemy to task.

Several sites were studied, but Dien Bien Phu rose to the top. The village lay in a bowl-shaped valley with a bottom that was flat enough for a major airbase, was near or on several major roads, and was surrounded by easily defendable hills. If the hills could be taken, the valley would be secure and could be used as a major air-supply route.

All of the advantages for the French were equal disadvantages for the Viet Minh. A number of their troop concentrations were on the far side of the valley, supplied via the roads that would be cut. These forces would be forced to move east over considerably rougher terrain or to open the roads with an attack on the base itself; the French hoped for the latter. In addition, the same terrain should prevent the movement of the Viet Minh's Chinese-supplied artillery into the area.

On the downside, Dien Bien Phu was far enough from Saigon that, if a major fight did break out, the French air transport units would be hard-pressed to keep up with demands. Although they believed they were barely able to make it work, no steps were taken to improve this vital part of the operation.

In late 1953, as both sides prepared for peace talks, the French decided to strengthen their hand at the table with one major victory, and started the process of taking Dien Bien Phu.

Operation Castor

Operations at Dien Bien Phu began on the morning of November 20, 1953, when Operation Castor dropped or flew 9,000 troops into the area over three days. Starting in December, the French, under the command of Colonel Christian de Castries, started transforming their anchoring point into a fortress by setting up various strongpoints each one named after one of the former girlfriends of Castries. The center of the fortress had the headquarters with strongpoints "Huguette" to the west, "Claudine" to the south, and "Dominique" to the northeast. Other strongpoints were "Anne-Marie" to the northwest, "Beatrice" to the northeast, "Gabrielle" to the north and "Isabella" four miles to the south, covering the reserve airstrip. Artillery, as well as ten M-24 light tanks and numerous aircraft were committed to the garrison as well. The French had committed 10,800 troops, with more reinforcements totaling nearly 16,000 men, to the defense of a monsoon-affected valley surrounded by heavly wooded hills that had not been secured.

The Viet Minh were too spread out to interfere with these preparations, and there was some concern on the part of the French that they were going to ignore the base and move east. But Giap responded by moving 50,000 regular troops along with 55,000 supply troops, porters and militia into the hills surrounding the valley, totaling five divisions including the 351st Heavy Division making up of enterly of heavy artillery. Artillery and AA guns, which outnumbered the French artillery by four to one, were moved into camouflaged positions overlooking the valley. The French came under sporadic Viet Minh fire artillery fire for the first time on January 31, 1954 and patrols encountered the Viet Minh in all directions. The valley was under siege.

The battle

Things changed in early March, 1954, when it became clear that an increasing number of Viet Minh (Vietnamese Allied) troops were moving into the area. The battle proper opened on March 13 when, much to the surprise of the French, the Viet Minh unleashed a massive artillery barrage. By the end of the first night 9,000 shells had fallen on the area, and the Beatrice and Gabrielle positions had both fallen, albeit at huge cost to the attackers of over 2,500 men. In a major logistical feat, the Viet Minh had dragged scores of artillery pieces up steeply forested hillsides that the French had written off as impassable. The French artillery commander, distraught at his inability to bring counterfire on the well-camouflaged Viet Minh batteries, went into his dugout and killed himself with a hand grenade. He was buried there in great secrecy to prevent loss of morale among the French troops.

The French responded by parachuting in reinforcements, but they were fired on by anti-aircraft guns, another surprise on the part of the Viet Minh. Considering the vital need for air supply, this was a troubling development for the defenders of the base. The French also started using their ground attack aircraft against the artillery, but there were not enough to have any real effect, considering how well the guns were hidden.

Realizing the importance of the air supply, Giap switched from the costly massed attacks, which were starting to bring his men to a point of mutiny, to a steady encroachment, conducting a web of trenches and artillery bombardments. In addition, the Viet Minh started the process of digging long trenches towards the middle of the camp, covering their movements from direct fire, and allowing for a buildup and assault under cover. The first runway fell after a five-day advance from the 18th to the 23rd. The last aircraft landed on the 28th on the second runway, but was destroyed in the process. The French responded with an offensive of their own on the 28th, attacking anti-aircraft positions. On the 31st the French recaptured two of the hilltop fortifications, Dominique and Eliane, but later had to evacuate them due to lack of reinforcements.

With resupply now entirely by parachute, supply flow started to dwindle. A good portion of the airdropped supplies landed in Viet Minh-controlled areas, giving them much needed material. The Vietnamese had essentially won the battle at this point, and they referred to the remainder of the battle as "slowly bleeding the dying elephant". During the last week of April the yearly monsoon arrived, further reducing the effectiveness of any air support that could be given. Trenches became hazards, and bunkers collapsed. The last replacements—4,306 soldiers under General Marcel Bigeard, parachuted in between March 14 and May 6—did not even make up for the losses suffered between those dates, 5,500. The French launched "Operation Condor" in April to relieve the garrison by sending a relief force from the Laotian capital to the valley. But the force became stalled in the featureless Laotian jungle and the garrison was isolated.

The French saw that defeat was imminent, but they sought to hold on till the Geneva peace meeting, which took place on April 26. The last French offensive took place on May 4, but it was ineffective. The Viet Minh then began to hammer the fort with newly acquired Russian rocket artillery. Giap mounted his final assault on May 1. From all sides the Viet Minh troops attacked the French positions and despite fierce resistance from French and Foreign Legion troops, Dominique, Eliane and Huguette were overrun over the next three days. By then, the French food rations were down to only five days and many of the troops were low on ammunition. Their hospital, short on medical supplies, was overcrowding with dead and wounded and the French morale was beginning to crack.

The final fall took two days, May 6th and 7th, during which the French fought on but were eventually overrun by a huge frontal assault. The final assault was on May 7, where after another massive Viet Minh artillery barrage, 25,000 of Giap's remaining men attacked the fewer than 3,000 French troops in the shrinking perimeter. The Viet Minh poured into the remaining French defenses and despite determined resistance from the French, the equally determined Viet Minh reached the French headquarters by 5:30 p.m. and De Castries surrendered. Although strongpoint Isabelle was to survive for another 24 hours, the siege of Dien Bien Phu was technically over.

At least 2,200 members of the 16,000-strong French forces died during the battle. Of the 50,000-100,000 or so Viet Minh involved, there were an estimate of nearly 8,000 killed and another 15,000 wounded, almost a quarter of the attacking force, a price Ho Chi Minh was willing to pay for independence.

After the battle

The 11,000 or more prisoners taken at Dien Bien Phu were the greatest number the Viet Minh had ever captured: one-third of the total captured during the entire war. The prisoners were divided into groups. The fit and walking wounded were force-marched over 250 miles to prison camps to the north and east. Hundreds died of disease on the way. The wounded, counted at 4,436, were given basic triage until the Red Cross arrived, removing 838 and giving better aid to the remainder. The remainder was then also sent into detention.

Prison camp was even worse. The French troops, many of them not even French, were constantly starved, beaten, and heaped with abuse. Many died. The Viet Minh used the presence of veteran World War II Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS soldiers serving under the Foreign Legion as propaganda against the French cause. About 3,300 malnourished, defeated prisoners were released in 1958.


The victory by the Viet Minh led to the 1954 Geneva accords, which partitioned Vietnam into communist North Vietnamese and French South Vietnamese administered zones. This partition was supposed to be temporary, and the two zones were supposed to be reunited by national elections in 1956. After the French withdrawal, the U.S. supported the southern government under Ngo Dinh Diem, which opposed the agreement, arguing that Ho Chi Minh from the North had been killing Northern patriots and terrorising people both in the North and the South. This dispute would eventually escalate into the Second Indochina War.

Many believe General Giap attempted to recreate the victory at Dien Bien Phu in 1967 at Khe Sanh, but in this case, he and his troops were simply taking attention away from the numerous other attacks taking place throughout South Vietnam during the Tet Offensive.

Further reading

  • Bernard B. Fall. 1966. Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press. ISBN 030681157X
  • Martin Windrow. 2005. The Last Valley" Dien Bien Phu and the French in Vietnam. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press. ISBN 0306813866.
  • Neil Sheehan, Hedrick Smith, E.W. Kenworthy, and Fox Butterworth. 1971. The Pentagon Papers. New York: Bantam Books.
    • #3 "Eisenhower Committee on French Requests for Aid" pp. 32-35.
    • #5 "Dillon Cable to Dulles on Appeal for Air Support at Dienbienphu" pp. 38-39
    • #6 "Dulles Cable Barring Intervention" pp. 39-40
    • #7 "Memo of Eisenhower-Dulles Talk on the French Cease-Fire Plan" pp. 40-42.

External links

es:Batalla de Dien Bien Phu fr:Bataille de Diên Biên Phu he:קרב דיין ביין פו it:Battaglia di Dien Bien Phu ja:ディエンビエンフーの戦い pl:Bitwa pod Dien Bien Phu sl:Bitka za Dien Bien Phu zh:奠邊府戰役


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