13 March – 7 May 1954


The first Vietnam War, between the communist Viet Minh and French colonial forces, was waged for almost ten years following Japanese defeat in 1945, and has been overshadowed by the subsequent conflict with the American-sponsored south. Yet it was a long and savage war that ended in a catastrophic defeat for the French in the valley of Dien Bien Phu in the far north of Vietnam. For the communist Viet Minh timing was everything. As the battle raged, so the major powers were trying to broker a peace conference. Victory for the Viet Minh would make independence difficult to deny.

Under the guard of communist Viet Minh troops, French and Vietnamese prisoners of war march from the battlefields of Dien Bien Phu in May 1954. The battle accelerated the French decision to abandon Indo-China.

The French at Dien Bien Phu surrendered on 7 May, the day before the French foreign minister, Georges Bidault, stood up at Geneva to begin discussions about the future of Vietnam. The timing was not accidental. The Viet Minh knew that they had to end the battle in time if their victory was to weigh anything in the scales of the negotiations. Military success and political hopes rose or fell together.


The communist insurgency led by Ho Chi Minh dominated much of northern Vietnam by 1953, confining the French colonial forces to the defence of the Red River delta around Hanoi. In the summer of that year a new French commander, General Henri Navarre, took control of operations. Navarre was determined to hold the line in Vietnam and, if possible, impose a crushing defeat on Ho’s growing army, which was being reinforced with Chinese advisers and equipment.

The Navarre Plan (Operation Castor) was to establish a heavily defended encampment in the valley of Dien Bien Phu in northern Tonkin that would cut off Viet Minh infiltration into Laos and inflict heavy punishment on an enemy force thought to be only 10-15,000 strong. The base was set up from late November 1953 under command of Colonel Christian de la Croix de Castries and was manned by 10,800 French and colonial troops, including newly trained Vietnamese, and supported by a corps of non-combatant workers.

The main defensive zone was established around the airstrip, with smaller redoubts a mile or so away. Each was given a female name: ‘Isabelle’, ‘Ann Marie’, ‘Gabrielle’ and ‘Beatrice’; the main camp had five more, named, it was rumoured, after de Castries’ mistresses.

The Viet Minh observed the French move and were determined to respond. The overall commander, General Vo Nguyen Giap, gathered four divisions of more than 50,000 soldiers and extensive supplies. By the time the French camp was besieged he had 100 artillery pieces, including 75-milimetre and 105-milimetre howitzers. The plan, encouraged by Chinese advisers, was to attack in a fierce wave assault on 25 January 1954, but Giap hesitated until all the preparations were complete. The valley was barren and the Viet Minh needed proper trenches and dugouts, while the artillery needed to be dug into the stony ground and protected from attack.

Giap preferred the strategy of ‘steady attack, steady advance’ to the Chinese preference for an overwhelming storming operation. Just before the final offensive, commando groups of Viet Minh destroyed French aircraft at their bases in the delta, slowing down the airborne supply programme.

By 13 March, Giap was ready and an artillery barrage began that wrecked the airstrip and churned up the French trenches and bunkers, smothering soldiers under earth and rubble. ‘Beatrice’ was overrun on the first day, Ann Marie’ and ‘Gabrielle’ two days later. French artillery could do so little that the artillery commander, Colonel Charles Piroth, committed suicide using a grenade clutched to his chest.

Conditions for both sides were appalling. The Viet Minh took high casualties, losing 4,000 dead by early April, while suffering from chronic shortages of food and ammunition. For the French and colonial defenders, conditions were even worse. Trenches filled with up to a metre of water and food rations had to be halved. For alcohol they relied on vinogel, a jelly-like wine concentrate to which water – a rapidly shrinking resource – had to be added. Hospital conditions were primitive and the number of wounded very high under the constant bombardment and sniper fire. By mid-April, there were only 2,400 fit combat troops left, although 4,300 had been parachuted in during the siege. Some soldiers and workers hid early in the battle in abandoned trenches, living off supply drops that fell outside the embattled centre. In the end, the Rats of Nam Youm, as they were called, numbered 4,000.

Bit by bit, the garrison was worn down and metre by metre the Viet Minh tunnels and trenches drew closer. Giap called for a strategy of ‘nibbling away’ at the enemy instead of any further frontal assaults, but the onset of talks in Geneva in late April made a more concerted drive necessary. De Castries sent out urgent messages to the headquarters in Hanoi for reinforcement or American aircraft, but there was little to be done for such a remote area.

The US government of Dwight D. Eisenhower considered the possibility of direct military help but did nothing before the end, which came in a sudden, fierce final battle launched on 1 May. One after another the defensive zones fell. De Castries toyed with the idea of breaking out – an operation unfortunately codenamed Albatross’ – but in the end decided to stay with his men and fight to a standstill.

On 7 May, his command bunker was captured and he was taken prisoner together with a further 10,000 French, Vietnamese and colonial personnel, most of them non-combatants or those who had opted not to fight. Some 3,500 French and colonial soldiers died in the siege; thousands more were wounded and died on the forced march to Viet Minh holding camps.

The defence of Dien Bien Phu was a gamble, whose odds were not understood by the French. The Viet Minh were not old-style anti-colonial rebels, but a nationalist army equipped with modern weaponry.

This was the first time that an Asian force had defeated a European force in pitched battle. After the Geneva talks, a northern Democratic Republic of Vietnam was set up under Ho Chi Minh and a southern Vietnam under Ngo Dinh Diem. Giap’s last offensive against the remnants of De Castries’ garrison tipped the balance at Geneva against any solution short of partition and French withdrawal. The Second Vietnam War was still in the future.