Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I Remember Dien Bien Phu

I would like to take a moment to remember the fallen from one of the most disastrous military decisions of modern history. After WWII France set out to ambitiously reassert control of its former colonies, among them Vietnam. Their leadership determined that it would be tactically advantageous to disrupt enemy supply lines into French friendly Laos, by landing thousands of French troops into a remote airfield deep in the Vietnamese jungle surrounded by mountains. The objective was to seize the airfield base, and secure it indefinitely. What could possibly go wrong?

The French commanders were not aware that the Vietcong had both artillery and anti-aircraft guns and could drag them through difficult terrain. The French seized the airfield and set up a base and defensive perimeter with approximately 16,000 troops. General Vo Nguyen Giap began his counter offensive almost immediately after the French landed, and re-directed all Vietcong military force at his disposal to engulf the French position. The French dug trenches in the Valley, with the Vietcong bearing down from the mountains.

Once the artillery reached Dien Bien Phu, this combat operation quickly descended into catastrophe. It became impossible to even land a plane on the airfield, let alone engage in an orderly retreat should that order come. By the time it was apparent that the force would be completely overrun, retreat was impossible. Virtually the entire force of 16,000 French were either killed or taken to a Vietnamese POW camp (like the one in Rambo II). Vietnamese prison camps could be considered a fate worse than death. Gitmo is like a tropical paradise compared to Vietnamese prison camps. 11,000 Frenchmen were taken prisoner when the position was overrun. Only 3,000 of those men would survive the next four months.

This tragedy soured French foreign policy for the next 50 years.

To my countrymen who had relatives massacred at Dien Bien Phu, I remember.


  1. In my poll for worst tactical military offensive of the last 200 years, I am thus far the only person who voted for Dien Bien Phu, and I only switched from 1967 because Dien Bien had zero votes. I'm sure if you talked to one of the 3,000 survivors of the seige and incarceration, you might change your vote.

  2. Of the hundreds of paratroopers photographed above, how many were relatives of French Canadians?

  3. TangoJuliette sez:

    I was in High School in Montreal at the time. Radio stations had correspondents broadcasting "live" from the war zone. The French Foreign Legion Troopers [mercenary Army - Not all Francophones] stationed at D.B.P. took one hellacious pasting, taking high casualty/fatality rates.

    This defeat established the cornerstone for the "domino theory" which followed. This called for a "strong US military presence in SE.Asia, to prevent the piecemeal erosion of the free world by the Communist aggressors."

    Yeah - methinks you're right. The long range impact of that one particular siege had tremendous, negative ramifications, for the longest period of time.



  4. DBP only received your vote because it's actually a little-known battle(relatively speaking),in which the outcome didn't affect Canadians.

    I voted Operation Barbarossa,as I believe Germany would have won the War if they hadn't invaded Russia,and this would have affected me and all Canadians a hell of a lot more than DBP.

  5. I remember reading about DBP and how they needed help. Wasn't there a woman leader. And didn't they ask the US for help, and wasn't that help denied by one vote, cast by LBJ.
    And didn't that battle lead to the eventual VietNam war. I always thought it prophetic that LBJ was the President that lost that war. If he had voted yes, as a senator, the US would have sent help and how many thousands of troops would be alive today. And, yes, that battle did affect Canadain lives in many ways.

  6. Many of the troops airlifted or parachuted into Dien Bien Phu were from the French "Empire", including the "Indochinese Union", Algeria and West Africa, as well as European mercenary troops serving in the Foreign Legion. There were a lot of soldiers from Metropolitan France as well.

    At least in the eyes of the French high command, the vast majority of the soldiers in the valley were indeed "French" regardless of their origin.

    The best account of the battle can be found in Bernard Fall's book "Hell in a very small place", and a larger overview of the French misadventure in Indochina is also by Bernard Fall; "Street Without Joy".