In November 1953 General Navarre, Commander-in-Chief in Indochina, ordered the French Expeditionary Force’s parachute battalions to establish a base in Dien Bien Phu. Taunted by Viet Minh incursions into Laos, with which France had a mutual defence treaty, Navarre asserted that this would block enemy lines through the mountains, force the Viet Minh into open battle and end the war in Indochina within eighteen months – which it did, but not quite as Navarre intended. His deputy in Dien Bien Phu was Colonel de Castries, an aristocratic cavalry officer and dashing hero of World War II, supposedly irresistible to women, although Graham Greene, visiting the base in January 1954, described him as having the “nervy histrionic features of an old-time actor”.
Using bulldozers dropped in beneath seven parachutes apiece, the French cleared two airstrips and then set up nine heavily fortified positions on low hills in the valley floor, reputedly named after de Castries’ mistresses – Gabrielle, Eliane, Béatrice and so on. Less than a quarter of the garrison in Dien Bien Phu were mainland French: the rest were either from France’s African colonies or the Foreign Legion (a mix of European nationalities), plus local Vietnamese troops including three battalions drawn from the Thai minority. There were also nineteen women in the thick of things (a stranded French nurse, plus eighteen Vietnamese and Algerian women from the Expeditionary Force’s mobile brothel).
Meanwhile, General Giap, Commander of the People’s Army, quietly moved his own forces into the steep hills around the valley, mobilizing an estimated three hundred thousand porters, road gangs and auxiliary soldiers in support of up to fifty thousand battle troops. Not only did they carry in all food and equipment, often on foot or bicycle over vast distances, but they then hauled even the heaviest guns up the slopes, hacking paths through the dense steamy forest as they went. Ho Chi Minh described the scene to journalist Wilfred Burchett by turning his helmet upside down: “Down here is the valley of Dien Bien Phu. There are the French. They can’t get out. It may take a long time, but they can’t get out.” In early 1954 Giap was ready to edge his troops even closer, using a network of tunnels dug under cover of darkness. By this time the international stakes had been raised: the war in Indochina would be discussed at the Geneva Conference in May, so now both sides needed a major victory to take to the negotiating table.
French commanders continued to believe their position was impregnable until the first shells rained down on March 10. Within five days Béatrice and Gabrielle had fallen, both airstrips were out of action and the siege had begun in earnest; the French artillery commander, declaring himself “completely dishonoured”, lay down and took the pin out of a grenade. All French supplies and reinforcements now had to be parachuted in, frequently dropping behind enemy lines, and when de Castries was promoted to general even his stars were delivered by parachute; at the end of the battle, 83,000 parachutes were strewn across the valley floor. The final assault began on May 1, by which time the rains had arrived, hindering air support, filling the trenches and spreading disease. Waves of Viet Minh fought for every inch of ground, until their flag flew above de Castries’ command bunker on the afternoon of May 7. The following morning, the day talks started in Geneva, the last position surrendered and the valley at last fell silent after 59 days. A ceasefire was signed in Geneva on July 21, and ten months later the last French troops left Indochina.
The Vietnamese paid a high price for their victory, with an estimated twenty thousand dead and many thousands more wounded. On the French side, out of a total force of 16,500, some ten thousand were captured and marched hundreds of kilometres to camps in Vietnam’s northeastern mountains; less than half survived the rigours of the journey, diseases and horrendous prison conditions.
More than fifty years on, the Battle of Dien Bien Phu remains one of the most significant military conflicts of the twentieth century, with its importance in Vietnam’s struggle for independence commemorated in nearly every town by a street named in honour of that famous victory.