Tuesday, May 08, 2018, 06:39 (GMT+7)
The art of using forces in Dien Bien Phu Campaign

In the 1953-1954 Winter Spring, implementing the Navarre Plan, the French Colonialists launched a series of operations in a bid to annihilate our main forces and take the initiative in the battlefield. Notably, thanks to the  Operation Mouette in Southwest Ninh Binh, the French won “the first-round victory” over the Viet Minh. The French Army’s High Command in the Indochina optimistically believed that they basically destroyed the Division 320, “detained” the Division 304 in Thanh Hoa, and delayed the Viet Minh’s Autumn Winter Offensive in the Red River Delta. However, after discovering our main forces moving up to the Northwest and Upper Laos, Navarre knew that the main direction of the 1953-1954 battle launched by the Viet Minh was the Northwest, not the Red River Delta as he had guessed. Frightened of being overwhelmed and losing control of this important region, Navarre hurriedly deployed paratroopers to Dien Bien Phu in an effort to make it an indestructible fortress and a hub to attract, detain and annihilate the Viet Minh’s main forces. To that end, the French mobilized a large number of forces, including 12 battalions, 7 infantry companies, two 105mm howitzer battalions, two 120mm mortar battalions, one 155mm heavy gun company, 1 engineer battalion, 1 tank company, 1 transportation company, 1 air force squadron, deployed in 3 subregions and 8 resistance centres, equipped with modern weapons and equipment, with about 11,800 troops.

Our artillery in the battle of Dien Bien Phu (file photo)

Concerning our force, grasping the situation of the enemy and our force, the terrain and the weather, the Politburo and the General Military Commission decided to launch a campaign against the enemy’s group of fortresses in Dien Bien Phu and mobilize a large number of our main forces in the Campaign. Perceiving the “fighting for certain victory” principle by the Party Central Committee and Uncle Ho and basing on reality of the battlefield and the two sides’ real strength, the Campaign Command followed the motto of “fighting firmly, advancing firmly”. That was a hard but extremely right, scientific choice by the Campaign Command and its Party Committee, and General Vo Nguyen Giap personally. To implement the plan, the Campaign Command flexibly organized and used forces in accordance with each period and phase of the Campaign as well as the developments of the battlefield. After 55 days and nights of fighting resiliently, bravely, creatively, we annihilated, captured and seized all the enemy’s troops and materiel in Dien Bien Phu. That victory is the fruit of various elements with the art of organizing and using forces as major one.

1. Concentrating strength and firepower to completely destroy each group of targets in the outer circle. After deploying troops to Dien Bien Phu, the enemy attempted to consolidate the system of fortifications and battleground and make Dien Bien Phu a strong fortress with a high density of subregions and resistance centres from the outside to the inside. To ensure victory in each phase and battle, the Campaign Command concentrated our absolute advantage in force over the enemy in all their resistance centres. In the Phase 1 (from March 13th to March 17th, 1954), we deployed 5 regiments to attack and destroy the enemy’s 3 attacking battalions and restrain their 2 mobile battalions. In the first battle against Him Lam resistance centre, fully aware that Him Lam was a strong group of fortifications, and that victory of the first battle would facilitate the development of the Campaign, the Campaign Command mobilized a much larger force more than the enemy. More specifically, our infantry troops were 6 times as many as the enemy’s while our artillery and mortar were 10 times as many as the enemy’s. To support the infantry units, in this phase, the Campaign mobilized 234 guns and mortars of all types and disposed them in mountain ranges around Dien Bien basin. In the first assault called “Thunder”, we used 11 artillery and mortar companies (accounting for 70% of our firepower in the Campaign) to attack the targets, namely Him Lam, Central Subregion, airport, artillery battlefields and depots of the enemy. It is worth noting that our artillery forces were secretly deployed on mountain slopes in order to surprisingly, strongly attack the stated targets and suppress the enemy’s artillery and mortars. Thanks to timely, effective support of artillery forces, our 2 infantry regiments attacked and destroyed the enemy’s resistance centre of Doc Lap, 1 Foreign Legion battalion and 483 enemy troops, captured 200 enemy troops, defeated their counterattack and tool control of this position.

It should be noted that we not only correctly evaluated the enemy’s situation to focus our force with a view to rapidly destroying and completely surprising the enemy, but closely, cleverly, effectively combined the infantry with the artillery, impulse with fire, and attack to occupy the battlefield with operations to defeat the enemy’s counterattacks. Consequently, we destroyed outer fortifications to pave the way for our forces to attack the heart of the enemy’s group of fortresses. However, in the Phase 2 (from March 30th to April 30th, 1954), the principle of focusing force were not employed strictly by our units.

2. Using forces for key positions and encirclement properly. After realizing limitations in the early Phase 2, the Campaign determined to organize small-scale forces to encircle, besiege, divide and isolate each fortress and group of fortresses, gradually laying siege to the central area. To do so, the Campaign Command directed units in each direction to reorganize their force; to actively build the battlefield for encirclement and that for offensive, and closely combine encirclement with attack to break through the enemy’s defensive line, thereby creating favourable conditions for other forces to lay siege to and prevent the enemy, and defeat their counterattacks, gradually attacking to occupy each fortress of the enemy and narrow their defensive battlefield. At the same time, it directed units to dig hundreds of kilometres of trenches for combat, movement and daily activities, and thousands of fortifications and gun emplacement. Overcoming all difficulties and hardships, only in a short time, the system of trenches increasingly reached deep into the enemy’s fortifications and groups of fortifications as a noose around the enemy’s “neck”. Basing on that posture, the Campaign Command organized forces to attack the enemy widespread, and completely lay siege to, encircle, attack and annihilate the enemy, both prevent their fire and destroy each resistance position, thereby destroying the enemy’s strength and morale.

Due to flexible, creative method to organize and use forces, until mid-April, our troops step by step changed the complexion of the battlefield. Muong Thanh airport was broken off by our trenches. Our artillery from the E hill repeatedly fired on the enemy’s gun batteries in the centre of Muong Thanh while our anti-aircraft guns were moved to Muong Thanh paddy field to control the sky, thereby forcing the enemy to parachute at great height and more than half of the enemy’s ammo and food supply fall into our battlefield. Until late April 1954, although there remained over 10,000 French troops in Dien Bien Phu, only 42% of them were capable enough to continue to fight.

3. Concentrating forces on general offensive to win decisive victory. Realizing the rapid developments of the battlefield and the opportunity to completely destroy the enemy’s group of fortresses in Dien Bien Phu, the Campaign Command decided to mobilize all available forces in the general offensive for the final victory. Since 14.00 hours, May 7th, 1954, in all directions and flanks, our entire forces were order to shift from encirclement to general offensive. Our forces closely cooperated with one another, created the combined strength, rapidly attacked to occupy the targets, and rendezvoused at the centre of Muong Thanh. It is noted that when the time came, the Campaign Command daringly commanded the Regiment 209 under the Division 312 to cross Muong Thanh bridge, penetrate deep into the enemy’s headquarters. General De Castries and the entire command of the enemy’s group of fortresses were taken alive, thereby forcing all enemy troops to surrender unconditionally. That was also a sound decision to prevent 2,000 enemy troops from fleeing to Laos in the enemy’s “seabird” plan. Together with the Campaign’s forces, other forces, such as infantry, artillery, air defence, logistics in the rear, even the forces in the area occupied by the enemy closely cooperated with one another, actively attacking the enemy, contain and isolating the enemy and preventing them from support their forces stationed in Dien Bien Phu.

By organizing and using forces properly, the Command of Dien Bien Phu Campaign promoted the capability of units engaged in the Campaign, contributing to the victory of the strategic battle, leading the resistance war against the French Colonialists to the final victory. And the art of using forces in this Campaign should be continuously studied and applied to the cause of defending the Homeland.

Sr. Col. Le Thanh Bai, PhD

Military History Institute of Vietnam

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