Dien Bien Phu was an important battle, in 1954, during the Indochina War (1946-1954) between the French colonial army and the Việt Minh, a Communist people’s army dedicated to the liberation of Vietnam. After a 57-day siege, Dien Bien Phu fell to the Việt Minh. The defenders (the French forces) lost a third of their 15,000 force, and many more died in captivity. It effectively ended France’s empire in the East.
Howard Simpson points out that American advisers and observers who were involved in the Dien Bien Phu siege learned little from their experience, and this did not bode well for when the US became more directly involved in Vietnam. As with Americans later on in the Vietnam War, by 1954 the French had started to question why their soldiers were fighting in Vietnam. North African and West African troops in the French army also questioned why they were fighting for a colonial power. On the other hand, the Việt Minh had the support of many of their people and also backing from Chinese communists.
Howard Simpson’s book, Dien Bien Phu: The Epic Battle America Forgot, deals with military operations and the personalities involved. For him, the lessons that the US did not learn from the defeat of the French are mostly military ones, i.e. do not underestimate nonconventional units or a guerilla enemy; do not become overdependent on air support; do not underestimate the hostile jungle environment; and the effectiveness of a military force is directly linked to government support and backing of the people of the nation involved. I would like to know more about the opposing forces of the Việt Minh and their motivation. For example, how could they keep up morale when so many were killed and when such immense effort was needed to effect attacks on the colonial forces? I had not known that a fair proportion of the local ethnic groups helped the French. T’ai people acted as guides and the T’ai Tribal Federation remained loyal to France. Why was this? The Meo, Man, Yao and Lolo were also generally hostile to the Việt Minh. Why was this, and could more have been made of anti-Việt Minh sentiment?
Simpson writes of the culinary requirements of the French forces: lamb for the North African riflemen, yams for troops from West Africa, pork and noodles for the Vietnamese of the National Army, and blood sausage for the Legionnaires.
The French were hoping that the Việt Minh would attack their forces at Dien Bien Phu, be defeated by superior French fire power, and this would rally support from the French public. General Giap, the Việt Minh commander, decided not to attack in January but instead waited for more ammunition and firepower.
The attack began on March 13th, and very gradually several of the French fortified positions were overcome. Việt Minh artillery made the landing of French aircraft impossible, as several planes were destroyed, losses on both sides were very heavy and there was considerable close-quarter fighting. It all went horribly wrong for the French.
My pre-owned copy of Dien Bien Phu: The Epic Battle America Forgot, came with several inserts, including a copy of an article mentioning the battle in the Sunday Việt Nam News, December 15, 2002, and an obituary for Howard Simpson. My copy was once owned by someone called Lawrence Jones (according to a sticker inside the front cover) from San Francisco. Inserted in the book was a copy of his Funeral Mass in 2016. From the picture on its front page, it looks as if he was in the military.