May 8, 2018
In the rest of the world, May 7 may have passed as just another day. But in Vietnam, May 7 is the anniversary of a great victory. This is the victory of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, when in 1954, the French garrison surrendered to the Vietminh, a communist-led nationalist movement headed by a former London pastry cook, Ho Chi Minh.
The book, Battles That Changed History (Regfan, Geoffrey, 2002, Carlton Books) includes the Battle of Dien Bien Phu because this was the battle that ended French colonial rule in Indo China, leading to a resurgent North Vietnam that eventually prevailed against the might of the world’s greatest fighting machine, the US military.
The USA stil likes to believe that its retreat from Vietnam was not a military defeat, and that it retreated its forces from Indo China only as the result of domestic pressure from home. But as anyone trying to escape from Saigon in 1975 as the North Vietnamese approached the outskirts of the city will testify, this retreat was a rout that not only led to the victory of the North Vietnamese, but also changed the face of South East Asia and led to far reaching changes in how war is waged and how information about war is managed.
The Vietminh general who led the communist forces at Dien Bien Phu, General Vo Nguyen Giap, was a former history teacher with a law degree. He was motivated at least in part by the death of his wife, who had died in a French prison. Giap was a self-taught soldier who learned the art of war first by fighting against the Japanese occupation of Vietnam and later, by reading Mao Zedong’s writings on guerrilla warfare.
Giap was helped by the arrogance of the French. The French rationale was to create an outpost that would act as a lure to entice the Vietminh into an open battle, where French artillery and tanks would annihilate the communists. Navarre believed erroneously that poorly trained and badly supplied Vietminh forces would not be a match for 13,000 professional French soldiers and the air power supporting them.
But because the choice of the site had been based on out-of-date French maps, the terrain ended up favoring the Vietminh instead of the French.
In preparations for the battle, Giap managed to not only outnumber the French, he outgunned them by having heavy artillery manhandled up mountains and into commanding positions dug into the surrounding heights.
The Giap supply line consisted of thousands of peasants who used Peugeot bicycles purchased from prewar French shops. Each bicycle could carry up to 500 pounds of supplies and equipment.
Eventually, the French were completely surrounded and could only be supplied by air – that is, when the monsoon weather permitted. Also, the surrounding jungle and the soft ground rendered the tanks useless and they were sometimes abandoned in the mud.
The French artillery commander, Charles Pirot, had boasted that the Vietminh artillery would be destroyed by his own after they had fired only three rounds. Navarre also believed that most of the Vietminh’s artillery rounds were defective and would fail to explode. But the Vietminh had been supplied by China, and these new artillery rounds not only exploded, but devastated the French positions.
The battle itself was a bloodbath that ended with the Vietminh finally using tunnels and tranches to breach the defenses. The artillery commander Piroth killed himself by pulling the pin on a hand grenade in his quarters. Finally, the French were forced to surrender.
The following video was produced by Russia:
According to the book Jump Up, Victorious Insurgencies: Four Rebellions that Shaped Our World (Jones, Anthony James, 2010. University Press of Kentucky), France’s defeat in Indo China seriously damaged its prestige elsewhere in its colonial empire, as well as with its NATO allies, most importantly, the United States.
Within the remaining French empire, the French defeat in Indo China served to accelerate independence movements in other colonies, notably the North African territories which had been a recruiting ground for many of the troops who fought at Dien Bien Phu (Ibid.)
Dien Bien Phu was also a springboard for a resurgent South East Asia, and the 7th May 1954 victory ended the misconception that the military might of the west was unassailable.
The lessons from Dien Bien Phu are studied today in military academies around the world.