Operating Dien Bien Phu campaign – A historic decision

Posted at: FRIday - 18/04/2014 13:16 - post name: Nguyễn Thị Thùy

Soldiers and Northwest ethnic minorities sawn mountain, built road to battlefield (Image: VNA)

Soldiers and Northwest ethnic minorities sawn mountain, built road to battlefield (Image: VNA)

Historic decision to open the Dien Bien Phu campaign is the result of many factors as the sound, creative, assertive, and timerly leading of the Party President Ho Chi Minh, Military Commission and Commander-in-chief; the consensus, united as one, spending all of strength to the victory at the war’s last stage.

Associate Professor Dr Nguyen Manh Ha, Head of the Institute of Party History (Ho Chi Minh National Political Academy) has analyzed to clarify this issue in the article “Open the Dien Bien Phu campaign – a historic decision of our the Party in the Resistance War against France”.


VNA would like to introduce the article:

The road to Dien Bien Phu


In 1953 Autumn-Winter, the The Resistance War against French invasion and American intervention had been 8 years. Our army and people had overcome all of difficulties and hardship to turn the war from defending to tension and then develop it to be counter-attacking under the leadership by the Party, headed by President Ho Chi Minh.

The Autumn-Winter Operation Border Zone had achieved great victory to assert our strategic initiation on the Northern battlefield. This meant that our main force could operate attacking campaign to French army and minions in chosen battlefield, determine size force involved, and be active in the opening and ending time of the campaign. This was the considerable development of the war in battle formation while we were inferior to the enemy in terms of military forces, weapons and equipment…

Our strategic initiation had been expanded throughout Northern Indochina by the victory of Winter-Spring Hoa Binh campaign in 1951-1952, Autumn-Winter Northwest in 1952, and especially in mobilizing attacking and pursuing the enemy in Upper Laos (in collaboration with Laos’ patriotic armed forces) in April/ 1953.


Meanwhile, the French had been sank deeper and deeper in defensive position, inactive to coping with our main army’s attacks. The war’s situation had been more and more lamentable and impasse which made French government had to find way to escape from Indochina war without being lose face. General Henri Navarre had been delegated to be supreme commander of the French expeditionary army in Indochina to assume that heavy “mission” by French government. (to replace the General Salan recalled)

He had researched the situation and proposed an overall plan in both of politics and military in order to regain the initiative right in battle, make a decisive attack to be higher position before negotiating with us to make an end for the war.

Navarre’s plan in term of military was divided into two steps. The first was from Autumn-Winter 1953 to Spring-Summer 1954 they would avoid fighting with our main force, concentrate to build up strategic mobile mass in the North, quell the South and free provinces in the 5th union. The 2nd, after quelling the Southern, the Central and constructing strategic mobilization force from the Autumn, 1954, they would operate a big battle with our main force in the Northern in order to create a favorable military situation for France to promote a political solution to make an end for the war.

After getting the basic content of Navarre’s plan, the Military Commission had proposed draft plan of “Our- Our enemy’s situation in the Northwest after the enemy withdraw from Na San and our operational advocate in Autumn-Winter 1953” at the end of the August, 1953.

The draft showed that, the French commander decided to withdraw from Na San (from 9th to 12th 1953) to gather force to the East of the Northern Plain and regain the initiation on this essential battlefield. Our force in the North, being evaluated by the Military Commission, was not able to exceed the enemy’s one so that we were not able to show off the absolutely superiority military force in a plain campaign’s main direction. So if we wanted to operate  a big attack on the plain, our main force would need to solve the tactics and ideology because they would have to fight with French mobile army with supporting planes and mortars in both of days and nights while the enemy stayed in fortifications…    

These were the main force’s difficulties so the Military Commission had required they to use appropriate ways to eliminate small parts of the enemy and support for developing guerrilla warfare.


In addition, enhance activities at the upper of Laos and the other battles to disperse the enemy’s strategic mobile arm stayed in the Northern Plain. The main force brigade as 308, 320 received orders to prepare ready to prevent the enemy’s attach up to the North, to Chi Ne, Nho Quan, and train soldiers attacking fortified positions and active fighting, daytime fighting while the enemy had been supported by planes, artillery.

To implement Navarre’s plan, the French command in Indochina had proposed French government to send two division (withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – NATO). The U.S government had spent special grant, $385 million for the French expeditionary army in Indochina. At the middle of September, 1953, the French mobile army in the Northern Plain had reached 8 battalions of infantry and parachute; 7 armored battalions, 2 army amphibious vehicle battalions. The French commander had carried out a series of operation in the Northern Plain such as Clot, Ca Mang, and intended to attack the Southwest of Ninh Binh, the free zone 5th Unions …

The commander Navarre requested subordinates to act faster than the enemy, to control the battle… take the initiation by launching lightening operation in right time until Viet Minh felt that they were being hunted.

Under the enemy’s plan and action, the Political Bureau of the Party Central Committee and President Ho Chi Minh had instructed the Military Commission, Commander-in-Chief to analyze, identify the new and suitable fighting solution, focus on dispersing the enemy’s mobile army.

The General Staff had develop operational plan with the main content was speed up guerrilla war on battlefield to keep and reduce enemy power; operate some attacking campaign on important strategic fields to force them to send mobile army coming. If the enemy attacked the free zone, concentrated the main force to eliminate.


On the basis of new strategic solution, the Political Bureau of the Party Central Committee had hold an extended meeting to discuss the Winter-Spring battle plan at Hong mountain, Dinh Hoa, Thai Nguyen at the end of September and the beginning of October, 1953.


The General Vo Nguyen Giap, on behalf of the Military Commission and the Commander-in-Chief had presented policy of sending some of main army units to the Northwest, cooperate with Laos’ Pathet army to operate attacking to some weak place to force them to disperse their force. Promoting guerrilla warfare on battlefield, at the same time, especially in the Northern Plain.

The Political Bureau’s motto was “Positive, proactive, mobility, and flexibility”. The policy in Winter-Spring 1953-1954 was using a part of the main force to operate fighting to weak place, and take advantage of eliminating the enemy in attacking at place where the enemy can reach further in our free zone; in the meantime, speed up guerrilla in temporally controlled by the enemy.


In particular, a part of main force would be used to operate the offensive fighting to the Northwest, eliminate the enemy occupied in Lai Chau, and liberate completely the Northwest on the Northern battlefield. Suggesting coordinating with Laos Pathet to operate to Central Lao, eliminate enemy, and widen the free zone. Because of the enemy’s unclear moving, the important main force would be concealable and ready for action in a mobile location.

President Ho Chi Minh hosted the conference, concluded the acting direction, chosen the Northwest as the main direction and the others would be oriented collaboration. The current main direction would not be changed but the operation could. Using soldiers must be multiform.

On the basis of determined combat plan, the General Staff had planned to use the main force units and to coordinate on the battlefield.

The operational plan in Winter-Spring 1953-1954 had been passed and deployed in the mid of October -1953. The 316 brigade had been ordered to eliminate French army in Lai Chau and liberate all of the Northwest region. after liberating Lai Chau, the 148 regime would cooperate with Laos Pather army to free Phongxaly.


The 316 brigade operated to the Northwest, in the middle of November, 1953. French intelligence had discovered this moving and reported to the commander-in-chief Navarre immediately. The French immediate response, in particular Navarre, sent parachute army to block at Dien Bien Phu, and kept our main force from operating to Lai Chau, especially Laos. This decision had created a turning point for us and bad consequences for the French invasion war. From now, Dien Bien Phu – unmentionable location in Navarre plan and our Winter-Spring 1953-1954 operation had become main point in both of parties’ plans.

Choosing Dien Bien Phu – a historic decision

On the 20th, November, 1953, the Commander-in-Chief had summoned all officers from the regimental level and above to spread Winter-Spring 1953-1954 operation while Navarre had launch 6 battalions to occupied Dien Bien Phu. This showed the French passive response.


Although the French had just finish the Hai Au campaign operated to Ria, Nho Quan and the north of Thanh Hoa with 32 infantry, artillery, and armored combat battalions with the support of naval force and air force. They had expressed the so-called “initiation” on battle but just one of our combat activity deployed normally could make their plan turn upside down and force them turn to face with us.

This moving of French army and the passive accepting the final battle in Dien Bien Phu had proved for the perspicacious and sensitive policy of the Party and President Ho Chi Minh to plan the Winter-Spring 1953-1954 operation. This showed the correctness and in-time assertive decision to operate Dien Bien Phu campaign and put all force for this final battle.


The Party and the President Ho Chi Minh chose Dien Bien Phu through reports and the preparation, construction of Military Commission’s, Commander-in-Chief, General Staff’s campaign plan be based on:


Firstly, the resistant had developed at the level of continuously operate initiative campaign to the French army. The war’s position and strength at that moment had allowed us to operate a strategic final battle to triumph and give an end to the resistance.

Secondly, although our force were inferior in compare with the enemy in terms of number (290,000/ 449,000), weapons, equipment, means of war but the soldiers’ ability and experience had increased tremendously. Our army could not attack directly to the defense in a group of fortresses form which was not new and able to be defeated, if we had a suitable attacking way with heavy artillery and concentrated advantage of overwhelm combat troop within the campaign.

Thirdly, the French commander had showed their inactive strategies and campaigns in operating a big number of elite troops to distant Dien Bien Phu which only could be supplied by air and organize defense waited for our attacks. This was a mistake of the Commander Navarre based on the mistaken and personal evaluation of our army ability and we could take this advantage to triumph over the  enemy by the determinate will, brave spirit of military and people.

Fourthly, the Party’s policies bas on the reality of the battle, which could not be able to eliminate all of French army so we had to spend all of strength into a determined attack to destroy enemy’s continuous war intense and force the French commander to admit the fact that they could not win Vietnam by military force. The fact is, after the great defeat at Dien Bien Phu, more than 16,000 enemy troops in the group of fortresses were eliminated, injured, captured alive. This was only 4% of total French army troops and military of associate nations (support to France or commanded by French) in Indochina but their invasion will was destroyed because the highest defensive form of French army had been defeated.


Fifthly, the Political Bureau of Party Central Committee, the President Ho Chi Minh, military and people had showed their highly determination in fighting and belief in the victory. The Party Central, Military Commission, Commander-in-Chief had predicted all situations, limitations, difficulties which could be happened and reality request to solve the way to attack group of fortresses, mobilize and concentrate forces, ensure the logistic techniques, roads as well as pulling canons into battlefield… for long-term combat. This was result of efforts beyond the  imagination of the French Commander but in the ability of our soldiers and people.

Sixth is the decision to change the tactical campaign motto from “fast fighting, fast triumph” to “steady fighting, steady triumph”. When the battle situation had changed, the enemy had reinforced and took stringent defense measures without the ensure of group of fortresses’ defeated ability. This was a historic decision contributed to the final triumph.


Seventh, the decision of choosing Dien Bien Phu as the final strategic battle had been historic decision also because this were the harmonious, in-time and effective combination between military and diplomatic fighting. The President Ho Chi Minh suggested a capability of diplomatic negotiations on Swedish Expressen newspaper in November, 1953. In January, 1954, the four-big-countries meeting held in Berlin decided to convene an international conference in Geneva on the 26th, April, 1954 to discuss the Korean issue and Indochina war.

There was an interesting coincidence, the Geneva conference took place on the 8th, May, 1954, and our military and people had destroyed completely groups of fortresses in Dien Bien Phu in the afternoon of the 7th May. This triumph had created favorable conditions for the negotiations.

The decision to operate Dien Bien Phu campaign and taken thunderous victory after 56 days and nights of hard, tough, and sacrificed fighting, were a decisive attack on the intension of using a military victory to take strength in the negotiation of  the French government in Paris and French Commander in Indochina in order to withdraw from the costly war “in honor”

The historic decision to operate Dien Bien Phu campaign was the result of many factors such as the sound, creative, decisive and timely direction of the Party, the President Ho Chi Minh, Military Commission and the Commander-in-Chief; the consensus, united as one, spend all of strength for the victory at the last stage of the resistance. The Party’s policy to be whole population, all-sided, leaned on own strength and long-term had been shown its most obvious and convincing by this historic decision.

Translated by Nga Nguyen


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