Skip to main content

The Fall of French Indochina: The Battle of Dien Bien Phu

Mark Caruthers holds a Bachelor's degree in Geography and History from the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville).

French POWs at Dien Bien Phu. Over 10,000 captured French soldiers from Dien Bien Phu, escorted by Vietnamese troops, walk to a prisoner-of-war camp only one out of three would find their way back home to France.

French POWs at Dien Bien Phu. Over 10,000 captured French soldiers from Dien Bien Phu, escorted by Vietnamese troops, walk to a prisoner-of-war camp only one out of three would find their way back home to France.

The Rise and Fall of French Indo-China

In the mid to late 1800s, the French nation would wage a thirty-year campaign to claim all of Indochina as their colony. French leaders put little value on Laos or Cambodia, the two other kingdoms that made up the Indochina peninsula.

It was Vietnam, with its fine seaports, large indigenous population, and rich land, that would become the center of French rule. Vietnam would officially become a French protectorate in 1883.

They would govern their new colony from the city of Hue. It had been the center of Vietnamese culture since 300 A.D. "Viet" was the Chinese word for a tribe of barbarians who had moved to the south side of the Yangtze River before recorded time. Vietnam's territory was first annexed by Chinese invaders about a century before the birth of Christ.

China ruled Vietnam as its southernmost province for more than a thousand years, Vietnam's culture, language, religion, and government all originated from Chinese influences. In 939 A.D., a Vietnamese army defeated the Chinese, and Vietnam became a separate kingdom. During the Chinese occupation of Vietnam, they introduced the plow and other farming techniques to the Red River Delta, where the city of Hanoi would one day rise.

Under French rule, a caste system similar to the antebellum south in the southern United States during the 1800s, and the Junkers of East Prussia would emerge. Built around a plantation society, principally rice production, the French elite would rule the country using the Vietnamese as free labor. During that period Vietnam would become one of the world's leading exporters of rice.

French occupation sowed the seeds for a large nationalist movement that would shape Vietnamese politics into the twentieth century. The most influential Vietnamese nationalist leader to come forth would become Ho Chi Minh. He appealed to a broad range of Vietnamese. His supporters would affectionately call him "Uncle Ho."

At the turn of the twentieth century, a series of world wars would weaken the French grip on Vietnam. During both the wars France would become a principal battleground, leaving the country's infrastructure in a state of ruins.

During World War I alone over 1,300,000 Frenchmen would die on the Western Front. In World War II, France would be overwhelmed by the German army leaving the country under Nazi occupation for over four years.

In 1945, at the end of the Second World War, France would again attempt to take back control of Vietnam. But Ho Chi Minh and his Vietminh would take control of the countryside soon after Japanese troops left the country, leaving French troops besieged in and around Hanoi.

After the Second World War, a Cold War would materialize with global politics polarized between Communism and Western-style Democracy. Vietnam would become a Cold War battleground as these two political philosophies battled for control of Vietnam and other emerging nations after the Second World War.

End of the First Indochinese War

Soon after the end of the Second World War, Ho Chi Minh issued regular communiques from his hut deep in the jungle of Vietnam urging support against his French occupiers.

Mao Zedong, now the leader of Communist China, would answer Ho's call for support and began funneling massive amounts of military aid to Ho's Viet Minh in Vietnam. Gradually, with Mao's assistance, the balance of power in Indochina began to tilt in favor of Ho's Communist forces.

In 1949, a Communist victory in China fueled the fear of Communist expansion into southeast Asia. As military and international pressure mounted against the French, they grew more desperate to settle the matter militarily in Vietnam before Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh grew much stronger.

While Vo Nguyen Giap fought the Japanese troops who occupied Vietnam during the Second World War, Ho named him commander and chief of his army. Though Giap, just thirty-two, was young enough to be Ho's son, he was almost certainly becoming his heir.

During Ho's fruitless talks with the French, he had become his unofficial head of state. During the early 1950s, Giap pursued his four-step theory of war against the French troops in Vietnam.

His theory consisted of maneuver, large movement, positioning, and victory. In 1953, Giap launched his second stage theory of war by marching his army through the impenetrable jungle across Laos, to the royal capital of Luong Prabang, soon afterward he installed a puppet government loyal to Ho Chi Minh, creating the Government of the Free Laotian, the Pathet Lao.

Giap's success in Laos provoked a French response which resulted in a full-scale battle in the valley of Dien Bien Phu near the Laotian border. Three hundred miles west of Hanoi in the mountains along the Laotian border, Dien Bien Phu seemed the right place to mass enough French soldiers to disrupt the Viet Minh's supply routes from China and Laos.

Viet Minh flag over Dein Bien Phue

Viet Minh flag over Dein Bien Phue

A Ring of Death

The overly ambitious French commander of the French Expeditionary Force in Vietnam, Henri Navarre, promised Paris a victory over Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh by the end of 1955.

The French strategy at Dien Bien Phu was flawed from the very beginning. They counted on supplying their troops by land even though many roads were not secure from guerrilla attacks. The only other option was to provide reinforcements and supplies by air, which would require skirting a mountain rim that dominated the plain.

Also, Giap planned to launch his attack on the base during monsoon season to further complicate the re-supply of Dien Bien Phu. An American general would inspect the French defenses and agreed with Navarre the Dien Bien Phu was impregnable adding to French overconfidence.

For years Chinese strategists had been traveling to Vietnam to offer military advice to Ho and Giap. The Chinese also sent hundreds of 75-millimeter Russian and Chinese cannons, along with tons of ammunition and hand grenades, along with thousands of Skoda rifles.

Ho would even request even more help from China to blunt the French offensive, Mao sent six hundred trucks, many driven by Chinese soldiers. To add to these reinforcements, Giap added tens of thousands of Vietnamese porters.

For five months Giap's troops transported equipment on the backs of ponies or the Viet Minh themselves, to forge an impenetrable ring surrounding the French base at Dien Bien Phu. Seeing his chance to encircle and crush the French and achieve a decisive victory, General Giap moved as much artillery as he could muster into the surrounding hills.

Giap also set up masses of anti-aircraft guns on the hills, knowing that if he could prevent French helicopters and supply planes from getting close, he could effectively cut off French supplies. Heavy guns, rocket launchers, machine gun nests, and tens of thousands of Viet Minh soldiers would make it impossible for French troops to escape from Dien Bien Phu.

Any attempt at resupplying the base from the air would become a suicide mission. To put it simply, the French soldiers at Dien Bien Phu were already prisoners of the Viet Minh before the actual battle began.

When the Viet Minh began artillery bombardment of the French positions in the valley in late January 1954, the French were taken by surprise at the number of artillery pieces the Viet Minh had managed to amass.

Vietminh artillery positions hidden inside caves and on the hills surrounding the base would spell doom for the troops inside Dien Bien Phu.

Giap's Vietminh would tunnel underneath, and up to French strong points, reminiscent of First World War tactics on the Western Front in France from 1914-18. One French strong point at the base was destroyed by an unground mine which was the result of a Vietminh tunnel.

General Giap also used 200 U.S. trucks built by General Motors captured by the Chinese during the Korean War (1950-53) to help build up his defenses around the base. By the time of the battle, Giap's troops surrounding Dien Bien Phu would total more than 50,000, compared to France's 16,000 troops.

The French inside Dien Bien Phu were now surrounded by a ring of artillery and anti-aircraft guns that would bring about the total destruction of the base. In a desperate bid to avoid defeat, French leaders reached out for American assistance.

A plan (Operation Vulture) was considered by American generals which included an attack on Viet Minh positions by a fleet of sixty B-29 bombers. The use of four small atomic bombs was even contemplated around the base to break up Viet Minh attacks. However, American President Dwight D. Eisenhower decided against intervention leaving the French base at Dien Bien Phu to its fate.

For eight weeks, two hundred Vietminh heavy artillery positions hammered the French defenses from the hills surrounding the base. Slowly all of the French artillery positions were silenced, morale at the garrison plunged.

On May 7, 1954, Giap ordered an all-out attack, and masses of French troops began to surrender rather than die. At 5:30 p.m., Giap's troops overran the headquarters building and captured its officers. Later that night after another attack the last 2,000 French soldiers at the base surrendered.

Over 10,000 French soldiers were taken prisoner after the battle by the Vietminh, only one out of three would survive captivity. For the first time in the history of Western colonialism, Asian troops in a fixed battle defeated a European army.

Soon after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the United States would deepen its involvement in Vietnam. After the United States was drawn into Vietnam, American marines would come under a similar siege at Khe Sanh in 1968 during the Tet offensive. Fearing another Dein Bien Phu, the United States would carpet bomb North Vietnamese positions surrounding the base with B-52 bombers breaking the siege on the base.

Sources

Jorgensen, Christer. Great Battles: Decisive Conflicts That Have Shaped History. Paragon, Queen Street House 4 Queen Street, Bath BAI 1HE UK. 2010

Langguth, A. J. Our Vietnam: The War 1954-1975. Simon & Schuster, Rockefeller Center 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York NY 10020 United States. 2000

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Mark Caruthers