The failure of French air forces in Dien Bien Phu

Posted at: MONday - 14/04/2014 12:21 - post name: Nguyễn Thị Thùy

The failure of French air forces in Dien Bien Phu

Henri Navarre, Commander-in-Chief of the French forces in Indochina, took advantage of the air force to control Vietnam’s North-western air zones at the early stage of the Dien Bien Phu Campaign.

Navarre was very confident that the French army would be able to crush the Vietnamese with attacks by their “flying fortresses”. However, the number of aircraft shot by Vietnamese forces increased sharply day after day.

While building the Dien Bien Phu fortifications, Navarre entrusted huge amount of work to the air forces, including transportation of weapon and troops. At that time, France had 580 warplanes and 25 others of their local lackeys. Prior and during the campaign, they mobilised 116 transport planes, 56 fighter bombers, and 227 ground-attack aircraft.

In the “Dien Bien Porcupine” fortification alone, there were two airports, Muong Thanh and Hong Cum, with an air crew of 14 aircraft, including 7 ground-attack fighters, 6 reconnaissance planes, and a helicopter. On November 24 1953, only four days after all French troops were mobilised, the Muong Thanh airport could meet the requirements. An airlift was also established connecting Dien Bien Phu with Gia Lam airport (Ha Noi) and Cat Bi airport (Hai Phong)

Prior to the first attack by the Vietnamese forces, the French air force took control of all air zone in the North-western region. They dropped up to 70 tonnes of bombs a day in important transportation routes in Son La, Hoa Binh, and Lai Chau such as the Ta Khoa Ferry Port, Co Noi T-junction, the Lung Lo and Pha Din Mountain Pass.

As the only route to Dien Bien Phu, the Co Noi T-junction was the most seriously bombed. The French side used up to 50 fighters to drop napalm bombs in the T-junction.

The bomb attacks by the French air forces, which destroyed paths, damage trucks, and injured Vietnamese volunteers and soldiers, caused serious challenges to the Vietnamese side on their way to the front. In addition, time bombs, jump mines and steel spikes also hindered Vietnamese forces from moving.

In the meantime, Vietnam had only one anti-aircraft regiment (Regiment 367 established under decision 06 signed by General Vo Nguyen Giap) with six battalions, each of which had four companies.

However, with their ingenuity and courage, the Vietnamese soldiers put the fear of God into French troops during the campaign.

In order to effectively fight against the French air forces, the regiment had to set up various surface-to-surface battle fields in rice fields not very far from French military bases.

In his book recalling the Dien Bien Phu Campaign, military researcher, Colonel Tran Trong Tung said theoretically, Dien Bien could meet only one out of eight necessary conditions for setting up an Anti-Aircraft battlefield. However, with creativity of soldiers and officials, a battlefield was set up in the Na Hi rice field.

Colonel Tung said the regiment placed top priority to secrecy while setting up a battlefield close to the enemy’s fortifications. All works were done at night. Unfinished battlefields were carefully disguised in straw in the day time.

Such simple gun emplacements, which were built in hardship, were not be detected by state-of-the-art reconnaissance planes. They helped shoot down giant “flying fortresses” in the air.

To ensure the effectiveness, the commanders of Regiment 367 assigned Battalions 381, 383, 394, and 396 to attack the enemy’s fighters in the battlefield and battalions 385 and 392 to defend its forces in the rear.

In his book “Dien Bien Phu – Historic Rendezvous”, legendary General Vo Nguyen Giap said after Vietnam’s victory in mid March 1954, the French had a new attacking strategy. Their fighters flew at a higher altitude than the Vietnamese cannon could reach. So the headquarters of the campaign decided to develop a new plan, in which most of the forces withdrew. Only some companies continued fighting to snare the enemy’s aircraft. When the fighters lowered their altitude, other companies would resume their attacks so the number of aircraft shot down increased sharply.

René Cogny, commander of the French forces in Tonkin, senior to Genera De Castries, witnessed the enormous fire power of the Vietnamese side, which prevented his plane from landing when he made a visit to the battle fields on March 17 1954. Fearing to be shot down, Cogny contacted De Catries and flew back to Hanoi.

In a book entitled “Winning the French in Dien Bien air zone”, Author Luu Trong Lan said all arrogant French pilots were frightened to death when they were attacked for the first time in Dien Bien on March 13 1954. When one of the 24 fighter bombers was fired, the others lost control and failed to drop bombs on target.

On the morning of March 14, Company 815 shot down a Morane 500 fighter, Lan said in his book, added that in the coming five days, 14 aircraft were shot down and 25 other were damaged. When the 49th was shot, General Giap called on the entire forces to kill the 50th. In response to his call, Company 828 successfully shot down a huge bomber in Keo village.

“Dozens of bombers were heading towards the battlefields. Suddenly a giant one was fired and looked like a torch in the sky, the pilot hurriedly jumped out of his plane and parachuted. He was soon arrested while other pilots got into a panic.”

In the book “Hell In A Very Small Place: The Siege Of Dien Bien Phu”, Bernard B Fall recalled that two interceptors were mobilised in support of the air forces in Doc Lap Hill. Right after taking off, they were attacked by enormous fire power and the two pilots hurriedly drop bombs though it was 6 or 7 kilometers from the target. The first one was soon fired and the pilot, Ali Sahraoui, was killed. The second interceptor managed to escape but the pilot was killed on the same day when he was flying another plane.

Bernard B Fall said, “At seven o’clock, March 17 1954, Captain Dartigues landed his Dakota in Hanoi. But when he came back for the second time his planes was shot at 10.00 and none of the seven crew members survived. At 17.50 the same day, a Dakota headed the ground and soon became a torch. All crew members were killed. On the afternoon of March 26 1954, another Dakota controlled by Captain Boeglin was fired but luckily none of the crew members were killed.” Bernard B Fall called this a “massacre of aircraft”

The survival of the French army in Dien Bien Phu is mainly dependent on the power of the air forces, the neutralisation of which led the French forces in Dien Bien Phu to failure.

Shooting down 62 French aircraft and damaging 186 others, the Vietnamese Anti-Aircraft force proved that the “underdog” could gain a final victory in an “unequal struggle”

Henri Navarre attributed the failure of the French in Dien Bien Phu to rough terrain, fog, clouds, and the French authorities’ inability to satisfy his requirements. But he “intentionally” didn’t know that his opponent was in a much more challenging situation.

Translated by Dic


Author: Bui Quy – Infonet
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