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Artillery Corps in the Dien Bien Phu Campaign - lessons for today

Victory of the Dien Bien Phu Campaign marked a great leap in military art of the Vietnam People’s Army (VPA), including the Artillery Corps. Those lessons on military art remain valid and worth being applied to national defence today.

Implementing resolve of the Poliburo, High Command and Operational Plan, our artillery guns started delivering salvo fire against Him Lam entrenched fortification to signal the battle of Dien Bien Phu on 13th March 1954. After 56 days of fighting, the VPA’s fledgling Artillery Corps accomplished successfully its mission to suppress and destroy the enemy’s artillery sites, controlled the airfields, destroy its headquarters and installations, disrupt logistic lines of communication, and effectively support the infantry to surround and destroy every fortification and the whole fortified complex of Dien Bien Phu, making important contribution to a world-shaking victory.

Our artillery force in the Dien Bien Phu Campaign (file photo)

Victory of the Dien Bien Phu Campaign marked a great leap in operational art of the VPA in general and the Artillery Corps in particular. In this campaign, the art of organization and use of artillery was developed comprehensively such as creation and transformation of posture, employment of forces, distribution of fire, and so on. Many pieces of content were elevated to art to satisfy the demands of a strategic campaign.

Although 65 years progressed, the significance and lessons on the employment of artillery in the Dien Bien Phu Campaign remain valid and have been brought into play and applied creatively in the cause of safeguarding the Homeland.

First, taking initiative in building a strong artillery corps, employing this force in a concentrated way, and creating superiority in opeations. Being cognisant of the role of artillery in operations, besides establishing regular divisions, President Ho Chi Minh soon instructed the building of artillery corps, especially the towed artillery. Consequently, our artillery corps grew by leaps and bounds from employing batteries and platoons of man-portable weapons to provide fire support for small-scale battles to mobilizing many regiments and battalions of towed artillery to conduct joint operations in the war of resistance against French forces. When staging the Dien Bien Phu Campaign, our artillery corps was mobilized at maximum capacity, including the 105mm field guns, which made the French forces surprised. According to statistics, apart from artillery guns of the 308th, 312th, 316th, and 304th infantry divisions we had the 351st artillery division, which consisted of one 105mm howitzer regiment, one 75mm mountain artillery regiment, five 120mm mortar companies, one engineering regiment, and four 37mm anti-aircraft gun battalions. Right at the onset of the campaign, we mobilized 229 artillery guns and mortars of various types. This number increased from 258 to 261 from the first day to the last day of the campaign. The ratio of our artillery to the enemy’s stood at 2.1:1, but their quality was better than ours. Therefore, to generate fire superiority and solve the problem of quantity versus quality, we employed more artillery pieces than the enemy’s at each moment and in each battle. At the attack against Him Lam entrenched fortification - the key battle of the campaign, we mobilized 100 per cent of towed artillery, over 70 per cent of mountain artillery, and 80 per cent of 120mm mortars to create fire superiority of 10 times higher than the enemy’s. This ratio stood at 4.5:1 in the battle at Doc Lap Hill. In addition to force concentration, to establish our superiority, the artillery force of the campaign paid attention to cultivating and promoting its officers and soldiers’ combat will, political awareness, organization, discipline, command, tactics and techniques. Thus, officers and soldiers of the Artillery Corps used to have a strong determination; proactively overcome hardship; absolutely believe and abide by their seniors’ order to tow the artillery guns in and out to place them in accordance with the motto of “firmly fighting, firmly advancing”; and keep secret to create favourable conditions for the campaign.

Applying lessons on the building and employment of forces during the Dien Bien Phu Campaign, the Artillery has taken initiative in advising the Central Military Commission (CMC) and Ministry of National Defence (MND) to organize and build a robust three-category artillery corps, which is in line with functions and missions of each force and meets the requirements of national defence in the new situation. Accordingly, the strategic-and operational-level artillery corps focuses on developing artillery brigades, which are increasingly modernized, very powerful, highly mobile, and meet the requirements of large-scale operations. As for local forces’ artillery, it is important to build this element selectively according to operational plans of each defensive zone. Artillery of the militia and self-defence force is developed in a strong, widespread manner, which is organized and equipped in congruence with characteristics, conditions and capabilities of each locality. The Artillery Corps has stepped up implementation of the project of building this service in a modernized direction; actively expedited programs and projects to innovate, upgrade and modernize its weapons and equipment as well as the artillery forces of the whole military as instructed by the MND in recent times.

Additionally, the service has employed many synchronous solutions to improve the integrated quality and power of the artillery forces at all levels. Accordingly, the Artillery enhances the implementation of the CMC’s Resolution 765-NQ/QUTW on improving quality of training and readiness; and focuses on comprehensively renewing leadership, command and control, and training methodologies. Notably, the service instructs its units to stick to the criterion of a “good training artillery unit” to concretize it into training standards for each force, ensuring comprehensiveness, selectivity and consonance with the reality of war, adversaries, organization and staffing, equipment, and high-tech wars.

Second, establishing an artillery posture which is strong, uninterrupted, flexible, and well suited for operational plans. This is not only a lesson, but also a key success of the art of organizing and siting artillery formations in the Dien Bien Phu Campaign. Against the backdrop of complex terrain and difficult access in Dien Bien Phu theater of war, the enemy believed that we were unable to deploy large caliber artillery systems here. Executing resolve of the High Command and Campaign Command, the Artillery Corps, together with other forces, created an exploit to overcome difficulty and hardship to cover hundreds of kilometres to move their artillery guns to slopes of high mountains around this fortified complex, shaping a surrounding posture right at the onset and throughout the campaign. The artillery guns were sited according to the principle of “distributed weapon systems, concentrated firepower,” ensuring engagement of all targets from favourable ranges and formation of a thorny, robust artillery posture to make the most of each type of artillery. Apart from early establishing a strong artillery posture, the Artillery Corps used to actively maneuver and transform the posture to match the general posture, ensuring accurate, timely fire support for the infantry throughout the campaign.

The war to safeguard the Fatherland (should it occur) will be a modern one with the enemy’s use of high-tech weapons. Applying the lesson on posture establishment and transformation, the Artillery focuses on deeply perceiving situations to accurately, opportunely and effectively advise the CMC and MND on the adjustment of artillery posture in strategic areas and defensive zones, especially the artillery and missile brigades of strategic reserve. At the same time, the service instructs the improvement of operational plans according to A, A3, A4 missions. In addition, the Artillery requests artillery units in the whole military to attach importance to actively cooperate with localities in building robust, uninterrupted artillery posture in each area, direction, region in association with the building of defensive zones; prepare lines of communication (LOCs), evacuation areas, secret assembly areas, logistical-technical bases, artillery sites, etc., according to plans and missions; speed up the development and protection of fighting projects to satisfy demands of operational missions should situations occur.

Third, employing flexible, creative combat methods and bringing into play the power of each type of artillery. The Dien Bien Phu Campaign was the VPA’s largest-scale joint operations in the war of resistance against French colonialists. Grasping the motto of “firm attack, firm advance” and the assigned missions, our artillery flexibly employed independent and coordinated combat methods; combined close attack with attack from a distance, sudden attack, unterrupted attack, repeated attack, and long-lasting attack by means of various types of firepower, causing great loss for the enemy. Specifically, in this campaign, we had a creative decision when we moved the 105mm howitzers to the heights, closer to the enemy and used them to provide direct fire. This helped to improve accuracy and brought into play high firepower of artillery guns and ammunition, causing great surprise for the enemy. Additionally, the campaign’s artillery took initiative in cooperating with anti-aircraft guns in controlling airfields to sever the enemy’s only line of supply and employed artillery to create concentrated firepower in a short period of time to rapidly cause heavy casualties for the unprotected enemy when they conducted counteroffensive operations, making the French force in the fortified complex terrified.

To fulfill its role as key ground firepower in high-tech wars, the Artillery continues to develop the art of artillery operations in the war to safeguard the Fatherland in accordance with its existing weapon systems, development of Vietnam’s military art, and types of adversary, and attaches importance to perfecting new combat methods of three-category artillery. To create flexibility in combat methods, artillery commanders and organizations must organize firepower according to operational missions and key battles. When organizing firepower according operational missions or battles, it is necessary to use firepower of the attacking units as the core source of firepower while using supporting fire of the upper echelons when needed; and closely cooperate with firepower of friend units and concerning localities to generate integrated strength in combat.

Feeling proud of its glorious feats of arms and developments after the historic Dien Bien Phu Campaign as well as in the struggle for national liberation and defence, the Artillery Corps continues to bring into play its tradition of “Bronze feet, iron shoulder, good fight, accurate shooting” in the new condition, contributing to firmly defending the socialist Vietnamese Fatherland.

 Major General Do Tat Chuan, Commander of the Artillery Corps

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