The Last Valley
The battle of Dien Bien Phu irretrievably changed the future of three countries: Vietnam, France and the United States of America.
It was the watershed that would lead to France leaving Vietnam, the partitioning of the country into the Communist North and the unlovely and deeply corrupt South and the slow, sad fall of the US into a war that would lead it to almost tear itself apart.
This isn’t merely the story of the battle. Windrow skilfully weaves together the histories of both the French and the Viet Mihn forces and places them into their correct historical, political and military contexts.
The French forces are provided with a full profile that outlines their history from WW1 onwards and includes the great schism of WW2 where the mainland French forces remained loyal to the Vichy occupation government while the Free French rallied to the banner of De Gaulle exiled in Britain. This rift was very real and very deeply felt with officers refusing to serve under senior generals who had been in the Vichy regime. And this was overlaid on the pre-existing prejudices between the Metropolitan forces of mainland France and their African, and Far Eastern ‘Colonial’ counterparts – think of the relationship between the British and Indian Armies of WW1 and WW2 but writ much, much larger.
Windrow deals adroitly with those mythical aspects of the French forces and counters the lazy folklore of the war: Only 20% of the army were French: The majority were Vietnamese, Thais and of course the legendary Foreign Legion. Windrow also kills the legend that the Legion were full of German SS who were fugitives from war crimes prosecutions. There was a solid NCO presence of Wehrmacht veterans in the Legion but given that Legion recruiters were aware of the SS practise of tattooing the blood type under the left armpit, stories abound of SS absconders never leaving their Legion medical examinations alive.
The real problems that the French forces had to deal with were quite basic. They were a small, highly professional force – especially The Parachute Brigades and the Legion – (no conscripts served overseas) but they were underpaid, under-equipped, underfunded and lacked the full backing of the French Government who paid only lip service to Vietnam. Basically, this meant that the best regiments, whilst ferociously effective, were fire fighters who endured levels/duration of active service that even then, were considered debilitating. France didn’t have the numbers, the logistical or air support they needed or the political will to win but the quality of the men they had in the field meant that they were never going to be defeated without inflicting a terrible cost on their enemy.
On the other side of the coin the Communists, led by Ho Chi Minh and school teacher turned General, Võ Nguyên Giáp were faithfully following the ‘evolutionary’ path of revolutionary warfare as defined by Mao. This process which began at insurgent level (three revolutionaries kill a policeman and steal his weapon then using the captured firearm they kill two other policemen and steal their weapons and so on) and they never moved into the next phase of evolutionary warfare before they were ready. So, whilst your forces were in a ‘guerrilla phase’ you didn’t take on your enemy as though you were a ‘conventional’ force: You continued to hit and run, to retreat when attacked and only attack when totally confident of victory or when your enemy as retreating and at their weakest.
A year before the battle in a moment of hubris Giap had broken those rules and engaged in a ‘conventional’ attack on French forces at Na San. It had been a bloody disaster: Giap had not understood the problems of moving large numbers of men across long distances (maintaining cohesion of the columns for instance), the logistical issues of making sure the men had the food and ammunition they needed in the locations that they were required and the scale of the complexity of organising synchronised attacks against a well dug in opponent. It had been a costly lesson and very nearly cost Giap his rank and position in the Party.
It also gave the French confidence in the effectiveness of their air/ground strategy. This confidence would lead to Dien Bien Phu.
However, just as the French were getting increasing amounts of logistical support from the Americans who were dipping their toes into the conflict, the Viet Minh were receiving major logistical support from both the Soviet Union and China. This support would allow Giap to learn his lessons from his errors and provide him the material support to fill in the gaps in weapons, tactics and logistical weight that those mistakes had highlighted. In other words, Giap had learned from his mistakes but also now had the support to avoid making them again. If he needed to commit his forces to a conventional battle, then this time he could do so with confidence.
The concept behind Dien Bien Phu was one that had been pioneered by Chindit expeditions in Burma in WW2: Forces dropped behind the lines and supplied and supported by an ‘Air Bridge’. Given that they original Chindit operations had been little more than miserable disasters that had been spun by Churchill – and the worryingly unstable leader of the Chindits Orde Wingate – as ‘proof of concept’ that the British Army could survive in the jungle (just as Dunkirk was a ‘proof of concept’ that you could evacuate a defeated army by sea) it must be assumed that the French based their operation on the much larger, better organised Chindit operations of 1945 where Wingate was more of a figurehead that operational commander.
Essentially the plan was to insert a major force behind the enemy lines, build an airstrip, supply the force with artillery and air support in situ and create a fortification that can withstand major attacks. Add additional air support and the ability to insert reinforcements at will via parachute or air transport and you have created a threat to the enemy logistical supply routes and its rear areas. It also may draw in a response from the enemy and lure them into a major assault on the fortification and bring their army out ‘into the open’ where artillery and air support can engage them in a conventional manner. This was the dream of the French High Command in Vietnam: get the enemy into the open and kill them with air power and artillery. (It was the same dream that the US high command would have over the Marine base Khe Sahn some 20 years later)
To be fair the French plan worked perfectly.
Windrow carefully and meticulously lays out the paths that lead both sets of protagonists to Dien Bien Phu. He is fair, balanced and thorough. He builds on the considerable body of literature that already exists: Bernard Fall’s ‘Hell in a Very Small Place’ and Jules Roy’s ‘The Battle of Dienbienphu’ to name just the two most famous volumes. But he also has access to communist records and the release of French and American records, and he has a judicious touch in illustrating the two sides of the conflict with telling details. He perfectly paints a picture of the French who, buoyed by the validation of their air/ground strategy at Na San moved confidently forwards whilst at the same time showing us that Giap had already successfully advanced far beyond the mistakes of Na San and would not be playing the game that the French thought he would.
Windrow highlights the major differences between Can Lo and Dien Bien Phu with a simple metaphor. Can Lo was, geographically speaking, a Bowler Hat, with the French positions high on the crown and the Viet Minh massed on the brim of the hat below them. In Dien Bien Phu, the hat was upside down and the French languished in the bowl of the hat while Giap commanded the height of the brim looking down on them.
To be fair this didn’t bother the French. They believed that their air support and artillery could find and ‘kill’ any artillery that Giap would bring to the battle. But Giap knew that too.
The French built up a huge presence at the new base. It boasted an airfield for resupply as well as a squadron of fighter bombers, Artillery and mortar support, crack regiments of hardened veterans and a range of fortified positions on high ground that gave the camp a ‘hard edge’ as well as the ability to provide mutually supporting fir should any art of the camp come under attack. Confidence was high. The French wanted Giap to attack.
Giap wanted to attack too.
In fact, he had to attack.
Giap was a political soldier. He and his superiors always viewed any military action in revolutionary and political terms which the French (and later the American) military did not. There were peace talks taking place in Geneva and Giap’s main reason to win at Dien Bien Phu was to provide the negotiators at the conference with the best position possible. Senior French Commanders were aware of the politics too, but they did not lay at the heart of their strategies whereas Giap was a communist revolutionary first and a General second. Therefore, it can be fairly argued that Giap was not a ‘great’ General but a limited one, but he was also utterly ruthless, and his men were a means to and end; a resource to be used and expended in the revolutionary cause.
Giap now engaged the full resources available to him in order to engage the French at Dien Bien Phu entirely on his own terms. In a strategy perhaps only available to revolutionary armies he moved massive armies of both soldiers and labourers hundreds of miles through horrifically difficult pristine jungles. Cutting roads as they went, they moved food, ammunition and weapons in quantities previously unheard of in their army. Massive numbers of men and women moved vast quantities of supplies by hand and by bicycle supported by only a few hundred trucks. Moving mostly by night to avoid the French air force – by day the supply columns were heavily camouflaged and were very cautious – everything the army would need was physically dragged to where it needed to be.
Unfortunately for the defenders of Dien Bien Phu this gargantuan effort included the movement of huge numbers of newly supplied heavy and medium artillery, heavy mortars and a large number of anti-aircraft weapons.
These weapons, their quality and numbers were to be a massive shock to the French. Equally shocking was the way Giap deployed them. Traditionally artillery is placed on the reverse slope of a hill overlooking the target. This hides them from direct observation and allows the attackers to fire ‘indirectly’ onto their target. Equally though, any defender knows that they artillery is on the reverse slope and so can counter attack those positions. Giap chose to take advantage of the cover the jungle provided him, and he placed his artillery on the forward slopes of the hill overlooking the French positions. Not content with this placement, Giap ordered his guns to be dug into the hillsides. Basically, gun positions were dug into the hills and mountains and then guns then lowered down the front slopes and dragging back into their firing positions which were then heavily camouflaged. In some cases, tunnels were dug through the hills and the guns were dragged through the hills into position. The gunners now had ‘direct fire’ at the French positions – in other words they could fire at what they could see and given the range of the artillery in their possession and the fact they had a clear view of the camp they could hit everything in Dien Bien Phu.
Windrow describes this long, arduous and sometimes deadly preparation. He shows just how patient and deliberate Giap was. Even with everything in place Giap slowly and carefully studies the camp, identifies targets and then allows his artillery to very slowly and stealthily use ranging shots – one shot every other day in some case – to collate a firing solution for every gun in his possession for every target on the camp.
The number and quality of the artillery they were facing was completely unknown to the French and will some as a horrible shock to them. But equally importantly the anti-aircraft guns which Giap has also carefully placed will quickly limit the French air/ground concept of attack and supply. Bombers and fighters searching for targets become targets themselves while cargo aircraft become sitting ducks who are forced to fly so high that their payloads will land in enemy territory as often as friendly.
Windrow has taken us on the two paths that led the Viet Minh and French forces to their positions at Dien Bien Phu. He has done so with care and an understanding of both sides that helps us appreciate the political, historical and military decisions that put them there. He also provides us with vivid portraits of the characters of both sides and shows how these men and women helped formulate what would happen.
What follows is an epic of endurance by defenders and attackers alike. Windrow tells the story with great humanity. He also offers informed asides on weapons and their effects, on battlefield medicine, morale and various other facets of combat that are as enthralling as the main story. These ‘diversions’ help us understand the overall picture.
Giap’s initial massive bombardments utterly shocked the French (the Chief of Staff had a nervous breakdown and hid in a bunker and the genial commander of the French artillery committed suicide out of shame at being unable to counter his opposition) it’s duration, density and accuracy – it hit everything at the same time – simply stunned the defenders. This shock was quickly compounded by the ease with which Giap took the major defensive outposts that protected the camp. Equally worrying were the manner in which the attackers accepted the casualties their massive human wave attacks incurred.
All that remained was the long slow death of the camp: endless day after day of shelling, attacks and counter-attacks, aircraft being shot down and destroyed on the runways, hospitals shelled, deaths and injuries, valour beyond description on both sides, the slow strangulation of the defence, the terrible cost to the attackers, the finals days and the horrors of captivity that awaited the survivors of the defence.
The book is a grim mirror – in microcosm – to the later American experience in Vietnam and all the lessons that they failed to learn from the failure of the French.
Perhaps the saddest part of the postscript to the battle is the stupidity of the French politicians who had failed to support their troops but expected the best from them. The politicians sowed seeds of distrust within the military that would fester. The same politicians would send the same defeated military men to try and rescue yet another French Colonial entity in Algeria. Once again, the military would be directed to ‘save the day’ no matter the cost and once again they would end up – as they saw it – being betrayed by politicians and this time there would be consequences. This time some of the army would mutiny and France would veer perilously close to a civil war during a period of time when previously well respected, army officers and their men would start a ferocious terrorist war against their own government.
I can only hope that Windrow continues his military history of post war France and leads us into the darkness that was Algeria in the 1950’s and 60’s.