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The art of setting up battle array in Dien Bien Phu Campaign

Dien Bien Phu Campaign was the zenith of the 1953-1954 Winter Spring Offensive; it marked the advancement of Vietnamese Military art at its finest in our resistance war against French Colonialism. And the art of setting up battle array in this campaign was one of the most significant military feats in this period.

Dien Bien Phu Campaign was a major offensive against enemy in fortified positions. In this campaign, our units effectively destroyed opposing forces at tactical level and inflicted heavy casualties to them at operational and strategic levels. In total, we eliminated and captured over 16,200 enemy troops (21 battalions, including 17 strategic mobile infantry battalions), and destroyed and seized many weapons and military equipment, dealing a decisive blow to the French invaders’ fighting spirit. Our glorious victory in this campaign left us invaluable practical and theoretical lessons, demonstrating the development of our military art in the resistance war against French Colonialism; in which setting up battle array was one of the most significant characteristics.

First, proactively set up battle array for Dien Bien Phu Campaign based on widespread people’s warfare operations. In our resistance war against French Colonialism in general, in the 1953-1954 Winter Spring Offensive in particular, the most notable feature in our Party’s combat leadership was that it adopted and creatively developed Vietnamese people’s warfare, conducting an “all-out, all-people resistance war” to defeat a economically and militarily superior enemy. The adept combination of guerilla warfare and conventional tactics enabled us to set up extensive battle arrays and launch attacks at various manners and scales: from minor skirmishes by local militia in temporarily occupied zones, to major offensives by main forces in selected strategic locations. In fact, before Dien Bien Phu Campaign, we launched several offensives with “small” and “elite” regular contingents against the enemy’s critical but poorly-defended areas to destroy its onsite forces and liberated a number of strategic locations, forcing the French to split up their mobile units to respond. At the same time, we closely combined nation-wide guerilla operations with theater-wide combat activities of regular divisions and regiments to hold a large portion of the enemy’s main force at certain areas. As a result, we effectively forced the enemy command under Navarre to play by our rule. The enemy strategic mobilize force was stretched thin and dispatched to many areas throughout the entire Indochina Theatre, thus unable to properly reinforce Dien Bien Phu; consequently, the balance of power in this battlefield completely turned into our favor. Besides, we managed to win the people’s “hearts and minds” and were able to fully mobilize resources from the people for the Campaign, especially in terms of logistics and technical support. This brought complete surprise to the enemy, because they assumed that, due to the rough terrain and the geographical proximity from the battlefield to our liberated areas, we would not be able to transport enough supply for the upcoming campaign.

Our troops in the Dien Bien Phu Campaign (file photo)

Second, proactively prepare the field of battle, forcing the enemy to suffer complete disadvantages. In any war, if one side wants to come out victorious, especially when facing a superior opponent, they must have a well-prepared battle array and a cunning plan. That said, a flexible and complex battle array will cause confusion to the enemy forces, divide and isolate them, and enable friendly units to attack from upfront, from flanks and from behind, greatly reducing the strength of the adversary. Accordingly, based on the Central Party Committee’s strategy, the General Command developed 1953-1954 Winter Spring combat plan, which determined that a number of regular contingents would launch an offensive to the Northwest to destroy enemy forces in Lai Chau and completely liberate this region. At the same time, we would continue to enhance and expand our three-category armed force in every theatre, focusing on reforming organizational structure, equipment and training in regular divisions in preparation for modern combat operations. Since 1953, we had proactively prepared for the upcoming campaign, repairing and expanding routes to the Northwest to connect this area to liberated zones such as Viet Bac, 3rd Region and 4th Region. Notably, with correct strategic instructions, we were able to win major victories in many selected theatres with relatively minor forces, forcing the enemy to continue to split up their strategic mobile units to set up a new fortified entrenched camp in Dien Bien Phu, accepting battle against our regular units on an unfavorable ground. Originally, the occupation of Dien Bien Phu was not in “Navarre Plan”, the enemy fortification had to be built in a valley surrounded by high mountains and thick jungles which were difficult for its troop movements and combat activities. Therefore, although Dien Bien Phu Campaign was also not in our initial plan, it quickly became a major focus of our military in Northwest region.

Third, continue to adjust and transform battle array to “surround and lock down” each stronghold and the entire fortified camp, breaking up the enemy cohesion. Although we planned to initiate the Campaign on January 1, 1954, but after detecting the enemy’s withdrawal from Lai Chau to Dien Bien Phu on December 5, 1953, our Command ordered 316th Division to maintain their offensive in Lai Chau; at the same time, instructed 308th Division (currently in Son La) to dispatch 1 regiment to take shortcut to hold Pom Lot to prevent the enemy from withdrawing from Dien Bien Phu to Upper Laos. In addition, after pursuing the enemy along Lai Chau - Dien Bien route, 316th Division were tasked with establishing defensive positions from Muong Muon, Muong Pon to Pu San and approach Him Lam, Ban Tau. Therefore, at the same time the very first enemy strongholds were built, we managed to completely block Lai Chau - Dien Bien, Tuan Giao - Dien Bien, Dien Bien - Sop Nao, Upper Laos routes and the only North - South pathway cut across Muong Thanh field, connecting Ban Tau and Pom Lot, forming an encirclement at operational level right from the beginning. In preparation for a quick conclusion of the Campaign, we surrounded the enemy even more tightly and extensively in Muong Thanh field. Especially, when our Command decided to take a slower approach, we had managed to dig hundreds of kilometers of trench to gradually tighten our grip on each stronghold, stronghold group and sub-section. Every plan of the enemy, including both relieving and withdrawing plans by the French and American, became impossible to materialize. At the same time, our adept force deployments, especially in artillery, created favorable conditions for us to gain victories in consecutive engagements. We decided to attack the enemy strongholds one by one, Northern strongholds first, then Eastern ones, subsequently opened approaches to Muong Thanh Field, gradually advanced deep into the enemy defense, and finally launched the decisive attack to the Central Sub-section of the fortified entrenched camp, gaining total victory. In these engagements, our units adopted close quarter tactic to tightly surround and lock down the enemy, minimize their advantages in number, firepower and entrenched fortification, and exploit their critical weaknesses like troop reinforcement or logistics.

Invaluable lessons from Dien Bien Phu Victory, including experience in setting up battle array, were later fully utilized and developed in our resistance war against American Imperialism. Nowadays, we must continue to study and make appropriate adjustments to these lessons to adopt them in the new situation and enrich Vietnamese military doctrines. To be able to safeguard the Motherland in the new situation, we must combine economic development with national defense and security enhancement. In addition, we must constantly build our defense capability, strengthen defense zones; improve the overall strength and combat capability of our three-category armed force. Besides, we must closely combine regular troop deployment with on-site defense contingents of provinces, cities and operational and strategic defense posts in critical areas. Additionally, we must proactively monitor and make correct predictions on strategic and tactical contingencies to avoid any unexpected situation. Furthermore, we must continue to build the all-people security and the all-people national defense in peace time to crush adversary forces’ sabotaging strategies; at the same time, maintain readiness to initiate people’s war to defeat any foreign invasion and firmly protect the Motherland of socialist Vietnam.

Major General Dang Quang Minh, PhD

Defense Strategy Institute

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