Friday, 8 April 2011

Dien Bien Phu

DIEN BIEN PHU           -  how well I recall the name of this French Garrison in Vietnam.  remember reading of the defeat of the French by the Viet Minh.  It happened in May 1954 when I was just ten years old.   

I amaze myself when I recall that I was reading the newspaper at that young age, and that I remember the fall of Dien Bien Phu.

A BIT OF BACKGROUND.  What we now know as the nation states of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were once French colonies, part of a federation known as “French Indo-China”. 

Hanoi was the capital city for the colonial French administration in Vietnam.  Within Vietnam there was an independence movement known as the Viet Minh.  Its leader was H Chí Minh.  His fighters had resisted the Japanese during occupation, and thus had at one time been favoured by the western powers.

The French established a base at an airstrip they built at Dien Bien Phu.  From November 1953 until May 1954 the base came under slow, steady and relentless attack by the Viet Minh, under General Giap.  The “fortress” finally fell in May 1954.  That signalled the end of French rule in Vietnam.

I’ve just read a history of the battle: “Dien Bien Phu – The Epic Battle America Forgot”.  (Howards R Simpson, published by Brassey’s Inc  in 1994).   Simpson was with the U.S. Information Agency ( i.e. he was a “spook”!) and served in Vietnam during both the French Viet Minh war and the American war in Vietnam.  He was at Dien Bien Phu during the battle.

After reading the book I have come to again realise that there is little glory in war.  His descriptions of such things as hand to hand battle, or being in calf-deep mud whilst surrounded by the wounded, the dying, the dead – and the rotting maggot-infested bodies is harrowing.

His accounts of the in-fighting between French military officers, and the failure of the French “High Command” in Hanoi to understand that this was a new kind of war helped me to understand why the Viet Minh succeed (and why America in its turn made bad and stupid decisions in its conflict in Vietnam).  “When will they ever learn?”

Simpson makes the following points:  

(1) do not under estimate a guerrilla foe, 
(2) beware an over dependence on air power, (
3) consider the debilitating factors of a hostile environment, 
(4) avoid the pitfalls of a latter-day colonial attitude, and (
5) ensure that any overseas military involvement will have government and public support.

With that in mind I have come to believe that the best U.S. Presidents regarding military engagement since World War II have been two who served in the military in WWII – Dwight D Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush.

Eisenhower was sceptical in response to calls for American involvement alongside the French.  Bush understood the need for a limited and clear objective in the first Gulf War (i.e. the liberation of Kuwait).  He has been roundly criticised for not pursuing the fight to Baghdad, but in the light of the messes his son George W Bush and our current President Barak Obama have gotten us into (Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya)  I suspect that he was correct.

You know of course that I am a well known military and foreign policy analyst (tongue in cheek!).

Not so of course, but how the heck did I know about Dien Bien Phu when I was but 10 years old?


Here are some references:


(2)  (2)  From the “official” Dien Bien Phu Battle web page

Breakdown of losses suffered
at Dien Bien Phu

Between November 20, 1953 and May 7, 1954 the fortified camp absorbed the equivalent of 17 battalions, i.e. 15,709 men.

On May 7, 1954, the last day of the battle, the garrison numbered 10,133 men at Dien Bien Phu and 1,588 at Isabelle for a total of 11,721, of whom 4,436 were wounded.  The Viet Minh agreed to allow the Red Cross to evacuate 858 of the most seriously wounded.  Between March 13 and March 27, 326 wounded had been evacuated.


A.  Army (all services)
1,726 KIA (from Nov. 20, 1953 to May 7, 1954)
1,694 MIA (for the most part, taken prisoner between Nov. 20, 1953 and May 7, 1954)
1,161 Deserters 5,234 WIA (beginning on Nov. 20, 1953)


The number of able-bodied men at the end of the battle has been estimated at 5,864. On May,8 1954 the Viet Minh counted 11,721 prisoners, amongst whom were 4,436 wounded.  858 of the most seriously wounded were evacuated under the control of the Red Cross between May 14 and May 26, 1954. 


Of the remaining 10,863 prisoners, including 3,578 wounded, the Viet Minh returned only 3,290 four months later.  The number of men who died in the camps, 7,573, represents a percentage on the order of 70%.


But there is reason to believe that this figure includes a number of Vietnamese who were never returned, not to say that they necessarily died in captivity.  For the most part, they were sent to  work camps or re-education camps and were, perhaps, released many years later without the French authorities knowing about it.  The percentage of deaths in the camps can reasonably be estimated at around 60%.


B.  Aviation


a) Air Force
48 aircraft destroyed (28 in flight, 20 on the ground)
167 aircraft damaged by Flak
15 men KIA and 33 MIA
6 WIA
43 prisoners (the entire air force section at Dien Bien Phu and several pilots and crew members captured after bailing out)
2 helicopters destroyed (March, 1954)


b)   Naval Aviation
6 fighter pilots KIA (8 aircraft lost, 19 damaged)
2 PB4Y2 Privateer crews MIA
c)   American Pilots (C-119’s)
2 pilots killed
1 pilot seriously wounded


It should be noted that the total number of aircraft operating in support of Dien Bien Phu consisted of 120 transport planes (100 C-47’s) and 227 fighters and bombers.  Also participating were planes of Air Viet Nam and American civilian pilots flying C-119’s




C.  Viet Minh losses


In order to take Dien Bien Phu the Viet Minh committed the 304th, 308th, 312th, 316th and 351st divisions, representing the 33 battalions engaged as of March 13, 1954.  Counting reinforcements and coolies (porters, bicycle transport personnel and trench digging personnel) it can be assumed that Gen. Giap used far more than 100,000 men in the battle.


The French General Staff never learned the exact
 number of Viet Minh losses at Dien Bien Phu.  They can reasonably be estimated to number: 8,000 KIA (some works estimate 12,000 KIA and 20 to 30,000 WIA) 15,000 to 20,000 WIA of whom a great  number certainly must have died from the results of poor medical care. 


These are not official figures but rather estimates by the French General Staff.



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