Dien Bien Phu – The first decisively strategic battlein Ho Chi Minh era

Posted at: MONday - 05/05/2014 15:56 - post name: Nguyễn Thị Thùy


Following the Frontier Campaign (in late1950), the Vietnamese People’s Army won many battles, gained and kept the initiative in the Northern theatre of war while the French was under the miserable situation and on the defensive. In hope of remedying the situation, the French strengthened the forces, changed the campaign plan, and injected more commanders into the battlefield. In May 1953, the French government appointed General Henry Navarre, commander of French Far East Expeditionary Corps as the Commander-in-Chief of French forces in Indochina. After spending one month on studying the battlefield, in early July 1953, Navarre brought out a comprehensive and systematic military strategy, which was approved by the French Cabinet Council and the French National Defense Council as well.

 Navarre divided his combat strategy into two phases. The first one from the fall and winter 1953 to spring 1954 revolved around the retention of the strategic defensive operation from the 18th parallel north northwards, the pacification of the South and Central of Indochina, and the abolishment of the Interzone V. The second one envisaged the shift to the strategic offensive against the Vietnamese in the north, the significant victory achievement, and the creation of a military condition which would allow the French to gain advantages in the negotiation later.

To implement that strategy, General Navarre and the General Staff of the French Expeditionary Corps mustered 44 battalions in the Northern Delta, conducted fierce raid on the French-occupied areas, attacked Ninh Binh and Quan Hoa, threatened Thanh Hoa, parachuted into Lang Son, threatened Phu Tho, and sent bandits to harass the northwest at the same time. Next, the French troops parachuted into Dien Bien Phu with the intention of regaining Na San, reinforcing the forces in Lai Chau, and expanding the occupied territory in northwest.

As for Vietnam, the Politburo of the Party Central Committee and the Central Military Commission met under the President Ho Chi Minh’s chairmanship in late September 1953 to discuss about the military missions during the Winter Spring 1953-1954. In light of General Vo Nguyen Giap’s presentation about the combat plan of the General Staff and the intention of the Central Military Commission, the Politburo agreed on the fighting policy which envisioned the use of a division of main forces to attack on the strategically critical directions where the enemy’s forces were relatively weak. The purpose of doing so was to grind down the enemy’s strength and simultaneously force them to passively scatter their troops to cope with us in the important areas that couldn’t be renounced. The strategic guidelines said: active, proactive, mobile, and flexible [1].

Adhered to the plan of the Politburo and the Central Military Commission, Vietnamese regular forces began marching to northwest region while another division moved to Central Lao and cooperated with the Lao People’s Armed Force in the struggle. Having leant about the Viet Minh’s movements to TayBac, Navarre decided to take action ahead by conducting the Castor operation towards Dien Bien Phu on 20 November 1953 for the purpose of gradually making this place a complex of strong fortresses.

In order to build up Dien Bien Phu the fortress complex, the French strengthened their defensive operation and supported the place with more combat troops, firepower, and state-of-the-art weapons and vehicles, i.e17 battalions of infantry, 3 battalions of artillery, together with divisions of the most elite sappers, engineers, airman, and carriers of the French Far East Expeditionary Corps [2]. At its peak, the number of French infantry people in Dien Bien Phu reached 16,000. They were structured into 49 fortresses in 8 interlinked groups. Each group of fortresses served as a defensive area or “resistance centre” with its own firepower, mobile and defensive forces, as well as barbwire fences with mines around. Such resistance centers associated with others to form 3 subdivisions, including the Northern one with 2 centers, the Southern one with 1 centre, and the Central one with 5 centers. All of them located in a vast space which allowed the possibility of independent defensive operations and firm fortification system supported by strong firepower such as mortars and flame-throwers. Additionally, the French constructed 2 airports, namelyMuong Thanh and Hong Cum inDien Bien Phu for the airway supply and support.

With its numerous troops, strong firepower, stable and comprehensive system of barricades and fortifications, Dien Bien Phu embodied “the most powerful strongholdever in Indochina”, which was named “the impregnablestronghold”. In the enemy’s opinion, the Vietnamese army’s attack on the Dien Bien Phu meant committingsuicide and unavoidable loss [3].

Regarding the Vietnam’s side, the formation of different arms including ground artillery, antiaircraft artillery, sappers, and signal based on two divisions of regular mobile forces under the General Headquarter and Interzones was recognized. Although we gained advantage of having more troops than the enemy (40,000 Vietnamese versus 16,000 French), the French firepower and war vehicles such as cannons, airplanes, and tanks surpassed ours. Not only that, the French troops benefited from the muscular system of fortifications and resistance centers, which weakened our possibility of winning the battle without proper combat plan and approach. Meanwhile, only by winning in Dien Bien Phu battlefield could we destroy the most intensive defensive operation of the enemy and crush the Navarre plan as well as the enemy’s scheme of war extension thereupon.

Being aware of President Ho Chi Minh’s intention to “steady fighting”, under the steering of the Politburo and the Central Military Commission, the General Staff designed a combat strategy based on the motto “Steady attack, steady advance”, appointed several units to provide the troops with the training in occupying the fortress, led our people and army to defeat the French’s highest military effort in Indochina war, won the Dien Bien Phu Campaign – the strategically climactic battle in Ho Chi Minh era, and honorably fulfilled our country’s 9-year revolution against the French Colonialism.

Dien Bien Phu Victory vindicated the strategic vision of the Vietnamese Politburo and President Ho Chi Minh, the creative and proactive brain of the Central Military Commission and General Staff; and the bravery, ingenuity, together with resilience of Vietnamese army and people. It perfectly exemplified a climactic and decisive battle of wits and wills between Vietnam and France. The strategic nature of this battle is reflected through following points.

First, we strengthened the attacks, compelled the enemy to passively scatter the forcesstationed in important areas as well as created the favorable situations andsurprise for the decisive confrontation.

When the war entered the Winter Spring 1953-1954, with regard to the situation of the battlefield and the goal of producing a clever combat plan under the guidance of the Central Military Commission, the General Staff conducted researches, developed the plan together with identified the strategic attacks. To thwart the Navarre plan, we had to disperse the enemy’s strategic mobile forces for the purpose of making it defensive and unable to muster the forces needed in the fighting against our regular forces in the chosen battlefield. Next, we lured the French regular forces to different directions and chose the advantageous one therewith. By doing so, we could ravage the enemy’s scheme of focusing all forces in one direction and one battlefield.

According to the combat plan and following the preparation for the decisive engagement in Dien Bien Phu, the General Staff ordered the regular troops to cooperate with each other on all battlefields within the country and Indochina area. At the same time, our army and peopleacrossthe North,the Central, and the Southdealt five coup de graces to the northwest, Upper Laos, North West,Central Laos, Lower Laos, and Central Highlands, the strategic areas where the enemy weakforces were noticed.

Concerning Laos battlefield, in late December 1953, along with committing the assault on the Northwest, the Laos-Vietnam coalition forces worked together to open an offensive in central Laos and free the Thakhek town. Then, the coalition forces expanded towards Xeno – a significant airbase of the enemy in Savannakhet, which compelled the enemy to urgently support the place with its forces from Vietnam northern delta and other battlefields. Hoping to divert the enemy's judge and facilitate our preparation for Dien Bien Phu battle, in late January 1954, our troops in coordination with the Lao liberation army carried out an assault on the enemy’s defense line in Namhu river, forced the enemy to inject more troops to LuangPrabang. Following victories in the Central and Upper Laos, Laos– Vietnam soldiers kept moving to Lower Laos for the liberation ofAtopo town and the entire Bolaven Plateau, dispersed the French forces, and smashed Navarre’s plan to muster all forces in the delta.

Along with the aforementionedfive strategic offensive attacks, the General Staff directed the armed forces and local people to boost the people's war in the rear, ranging from the South, South Central, Binh - Tri - Thien to the Northern Delta, defeating the French land and population-occupied sweeps. Mostly all critical areas of the enemy were attacked; the Day river defense line was broken; a large number of airports were ambushed; and Road No. 5 was cut off into several sections, which led tothe traffic paralysis for weeks. People everywhere revolt against the tyrants and brigands as well as besieged the enemy military posts to the extent that enemy had to retreat or surrender. In the strike by five strategic offensive operations against enemy sweeps, our army and people had weakened the enemy forces, liberatedlarge areas of land, compelled the enemy to disperse to cope with us and therewith foiled the enemy plan of focusing the most powerful mobile troops in the Northern Delta. Thenceforth, Navarre’s initiative of mustering all troops turned to passive plan with the force dispersion. Accordingly, the Navarre’s “Maneuver block” in the Delta shrunk from 44 to 20 battalions. Here marked the commencement of Navarre’s plan bankruptcy.

Second,weorganizedpowerful forces, createda healthy situation, graspedthe rightopportunities, gained the initiative, andclung to the "steady attack, steady advance" guideline onthe battlefield.

Forces, complexion,opportunities, and stratagemare factors that play greatly significant role. The forceshere reflect ourphysical and spiritual strength of the armyand peopleunder the leadershipofthe Party. The strength of therevolutionary forceswas multipliedbythe people's warstrategy which involved thepromotion of the might of the whole nationandthe times. There was the largescalecollaboration on the battlefield and in the rear where ourarmed forcesandpeoplefought against the enemy in many facets.

About the complexion, before the opening gunfire of the campaign (on 13 March), the situation was going badly for the French at Dien Bien Phu. At that time, the enemy's forces were stretched out across Indochina, and France failed to support Dien Bien Phu.  In such context, we formed the blockade and besiegedDien Bien Phu concave. Our firepower was scattered at high points along a curve that encircled the complex, which allowed us to directly take aim at the targetsbeneath; while our guns and ammunition were placed and discreetly camouflaged in tunnels carved into the mountainside. On the other hand, as Dien Bien Phu was a mountainous battlefield which was completely isolated and far away from the rear bases of the enemy, all the transportation and supplies had to be made viaaircraft. However, in March when Dien Bien Phu was covered by dense fog, the enemy airplanes found it strenuous to take off, land, drop the parachutes, and supply the battlefield. All of these had put the French at Dien Bien Phu in a passive defense in which their strengths became weaknesses.

In terms of opportunities, we realized through the analysis and evaluation of our and enemy’s pros and cons that the “fast strike, fast victory” strategy exerted difficulties for us in gaining the initiative on the battlefield, and the problem lied in the fact that we had not had much experience in assaulting the fortress complex.  It meant we could not make sure of the victory if following the “swift attack, swift advance” tactic. Therefore, we determined to employ the “steady attack, steady advance” motto to take advantages of the forces transition time whereas the French, in light of its well-equipped forces, chose “swift attack, swift advance” as their strategy. We laid down the “protracted resistance war” as our policy to develop our forces and crack the enemy conspiracy. Thenceforth, the idea of fighting on the basis of secured victory and avoid fruitless attack had become a fundamental principle of the Vietnam Revolutionary War [4] .

With regard to the stratagem, we born in mind that “Willows are weak yet they bind other wood". Given the enemy’s powerful artillery, engineering, and air forcefirepower, we had to find out ways to undermine the enemy’s strengths while promote our firepower. Specifically, we constructed the system of trenches and tunnel for the purpose of facilitating our soldier’s operation in the enemy’s fires as well as our artillery’s ability to get close to the airports and respond effectively to the French Air force. With such tactics, we achieved success in preventing and exterminating the enemy’s supply sources and impairing the French’s advantages of well-equipped and skillful army. We made the French army’s hackles rise by keeping prolonging the war whereas the French wanted to finish it quickly, and certainly we would win [5].

After all, our stratagem turned around the promotion ofour people’s and Party’s power and creativity. The clue here lied in the fact that weknew how to employ the Ho Chi Minh’s military doctrineof the people’s war to use “weakness to fight against strength", “minority to fight against majority"," and “primitiveness to fight against modernity”. Harking back to the winter spring 1953-1954 war complexion and Dien Bien Phu situation, it could be seen clearly that we had grasped thoroughly the guideline, say “avoid the enemy’s strengths and attack its weaknesses” and by that reversed the correlation of forcersbetween two sidesas well as stayed ready to conduct the decisive assault and snatch the outright victory when the favorable opportunities got ripened.

Third, we adopted the operational synergyin combination with the of three types of troops warfare.

There had been a large number of campaigns happening during the time after the outbreak of the national insurrection (on 19 December 1946) and before the Dien Bien Phu, but most of them were at small and medium scale. Have been supported with 4 infantry brigades (coded 304, 308, 312, and 316), infantry-artillery brigade 351, 1 regiment of sappers, about 40,000 regular soldiers, 50 thousands of vanguard young people, more than 4,000 conscripted laborers, and hundreds of vehicles such as pack bikes and trucks, Dien Bien Phu became the greatest campaign which recorded the biggest number of participants in the Resistance war against French Colonialism. Also, it vindicated the close cooperation of wide-ranging arms like infantry, artillery, antiaircraft gun, and sappers for the defeat of our enemy in the mountainous terrain.

In the early stages of the campaign in the main front, our regular soldiers laid siege to the enemy’s garrisons inDien Bien Phu with intention to facilitate the enemy elimination in other fronts while the country and the battlefields everywhere witnessed the large scale combination of the rear and the front. Dien Bien Phu became the main front battlefield. As the French troops in Dien Bien Phu were pinned down for a long time, the guerilla war in other areas could be able to develop and thrive.

During the operational synergy across the North, the Central, and the South, and the whole Indochina, the armed forces and the local people still kept connection and cooperation with Dien Bien Phu. They ground down the enemy’s strength, pinned the enemy troops down, and hindered them from sending in reinforcements to Dien Bien Phu. It was the coordination among the regular army, local armed forces, as well as militia and guerillas on various fronts which built up the might of Vietnamese regular army in the operational synergyon Dien Bien Phu battlefield.

Since 13 March 1954, in the first stage of the campaign, we commenced the attack on Dien Bien Phu Complex of strong fortresses. At the same time, our regular troops were tasked to not only but also continuously fight and the kill the enemy. Upon the muster of forces and closely synergy, our army broke through the fortress, groups of fortresses, and sub-divisions in turn. Concurrently they constructed the system of terrains and trenches, gradually tightened the stranglehold, employed the “peel off” form of combat in which we drilled through the outer resistance centers and demolished the enemy’s intensive defensive, thenceforth created a favorable situation for us to knife deeply to the core of the enemy’s command center.

In parallel with the infantry’s surrounding and sweeping, antiaircraft guns and antiaircraft machine guns of brigades furthered into the valley and formed a ring of antiaircraft fire which hampered the French air force from using the airplanes to send in reinforcements to the bottom of Dien Bien Phu hollow where the French forces were being besieged. It was the synergy among the infantry, artillery, and antiaircraft force; between the attack and counter-attack forces who correspondingly assaulted on each fortress and protected the occupied targets as well as the attack terrain; and between annihilating combats and attrition one who assaulted, sniped, and penetrated into the enemy’s Command Post.

After 56 days, passing through 3 waves of attack, we finally annihilated the entire complex of fortress in Dien Bien Phu, brought the cause of resurrection against French Colonialism and American interference to the close, vanquished the French greatest military effort in the Indochina war, compelled the French to sign the Geneva Accords in July 1954, and put an end to the French invasion of Vietnam.

Dien Bien Phu victory had bequeathed our army forces and people in general and the General Staff in particular invaluable experiences, especially those regarding the enforcement of the political-military strategy of the Party and President Ho Chi Minh in the realistic context of Vietnam war, detailed as follows:

First, in regard to the strategic warfare, to thoroughly absorb the ideology of attack and properly assess the correlation of forces between us and the enemy in the development process of the war.

Secondly, to proactively select the direction of strategic assault, wisely choose the main battlefield and targets, creatively apply and flexibly combine different forms of attack in modern warfare conditions.

Thirdly, to gain and keep the initiative on the battlefield, save the secrets and unexpected factors, create and seize opportunities, and continually strike.

Fourthly, to constantly improve the level and scale of operational synergy, commit large scale annihilating attack within the framework of campaigns and decisively strategic battles.

Inheriting and promoting the leadership experiences of  the Winter Sring1953-1954 battle with Dien Bien Phu Campaign as the pinnacle, the General Staff under the leadership and direction of the Central Military Commission and Ministry of Defense, continue to grasp thoroughly the directives and resolutions of the Party and State on the task of local military defense, perform the construction of Vietnam people's Revolutionary Army, gradually make it regular, elite and modern enough to take on the key role of the national defense and people's war for national defense[6].

In the face of current context, the General Staff always proactively carry out researches, counsel, recommend together with draft the schedules and contents of strategies and tactics concerning issues such as the training and structuring of forces; planning and organizing the national defense in line with the economic and social development; establishing the people’s national defense and people’s security across the country and within every locality; building up a solid line of defense in preparation for the move from the peacetime to wartime. It is crucial to know how to promote the multifaceted power as well as be fully aware of the “using the minority to fight against majority” strategy in the expansion of forces, the training of soldiers, and the improvement of level and scale of operational synergy. Also, the resistance war requires the combination of the People’s war and the regular corps, of immobile and mobile forces; the promotion of strengths born by three types of troops; the development of powerful conscripted soldiers on probation and militia, who should remain ready for the national defense in every circumstance.

In these days, the complicated national, regional, and global happenings emerge. The hostile forces have unceasingly plotted to abolish our socialism through their scheme of “Peaceful Evolution”, riot and subversion. Therefore, it is required that the army clings to the policies and guidelines of the Party and State, particularly the Central Military Commission, and Ministry of Defense; creatively and effectively employs the principles and viewpoints of the Party regarding the leadership and implementation of national defense missions specified in the creeds and resolutions, especially the Resolution of the 8th Conference of Party Central Committee (term XI) on the Country Protection Strategy in new context. Another important requirement is to improve the skills and capacity of leadership and policy enforcement. Also, it is needed to strengthen the solidarity within the Party as well as enhance the exemplification and disciplines of Party members and officers, especially the executive ones and the top [7]. In parallel with that, we must promote the power of the whole country and the whole political system; carefully protect the country independence, sovereignty, inviolability of borders, the interests of our people, the Party and the State, the people, and the socialism; step-by-step develop the national defense and security potential; as well as prevent and foil the schemes and activities that threaten the country social and political stability and the country protection and development.

[1] Vo Nguyen Giap, Dien Bien Phu, Su That Publisher, 1958, pp.12,22

[2] Vo Nguyen Giap, Dien Bien Phu. Su That Publisher, 1958, pp.12,22.

[3] Vo Nguyen Giap, Dien Bien Phu. Su That Publisher, 1958, pp.12,22.

[4] Ibid, p. 20

[5] Complete works of Ho Chi Minh, Volume 5.Chinh Tri Quoc Gia Publisher, 2002, p.56

[6] Central Committee of Vietnamese Communist Party, Resolution No.28-NQ/TƯ on the Country Protection Strategy in new context, 2013

[7] [6] Central Committee of Vietnamese Communist Party, Resolution No.28-NQ/TƯ on the Country Protection Strategy in new context, 2013

Author: Translated by Nga Nguyen
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