Battle of Dien Bien Phu

The Battle of Dien Bien Phu is seen as the decisive battle of the First Indochina War between French troops and the Viet Minh (League for the Independence of Vietnam), a nationalist, pro-Soviet Union movement of Ho Chi Minh. This major confrontation occurred in the valley of Dien Bien Phu, a large heart-shaped basin located in northwestern part of Vietnam, near the border with Laos. The main purposes were to cut off Viet Minh supply lines into Laos, a former member of French Indochina and an ally of France, and to successfully defeat the Viet Minh. The battle started on March 13, 1954 and was over 56 days later, on May 7. One of the Legion units had to fight until May 8.

Despite their plans, the French suffered a defeat. The leadership of the garrison absolutely failed, as well as the French leadership at Hanoi (North Vietnam Operational HQ). The units stationed in the valley had to fight on its own. Some 6,000 reliable French troops (many African troops or Vietnamese auxiliaries preferred desertion to fighting) against more than 45,000 Viet Minh soldiers. The result of the battle culminated in the French withdrawal from Southeast Asia, after almost 100 years.

Battle of Dien Bien Phu - Indochina - History - First Indochina War - 1953 - 1954

 

Dien Bien Phu: November 1953 – March 1954

1945 – 1946:
First Indochina War started
– French Indochina reffers to French colonial territories in Southeast Asia
– today’s Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos
– in Indochina in the 1940’s, a conflict started between France and Ho Chi Minh
– Ho Chi Minh led the Viet Minh (League for the Independence of Vietnam)
– Viet Minh was an independence movement
– in September 1945, Ho Chi Minh declared independence from France for Vietnam
– clashes between French forces and the Viet Minh started
– in 1946, first Foreign Legion units landed in Indochina
– in December 1946, a battle in Hanoi, Vietnam
– the war officially started

 
November 12, 1953:
– a French decision to seize Dien Bien Phu
– Dien Bien Phu is a large valley in northwestern Vietnam
– 12,5 miles (20 km) long and 3,5 miles (6 km) wide
– it is located near the border with Laos
– a French ally having been attacked by the Viet Minh
– the French planned to conduct mobile operations along the border
– carried out by so-called Mobile Groups (regiment-seized composite task forces)
– the valley had to serve as an operational base for these Mobil Groups
– also seen as an advantageous location for a successful and decisive battle
– the region was one of the most important and strategic places for the Viet Minh
– numerous Viet Minh transit & supply roads crossed the region

 
November 20 – 22, 1953:
Operation Castor
– the largest airborne operation of the First Indochina War
– also the largest airborne operation since WWII
– conducted to seize and secure the valley
– also to repair an old Japanese airstrip to make it usable
– two French Airborne Group (GAP) jumped over Dien Bien Phu
– six French airborne battalions

– between them, paratroopers from the Foreign Legion
1er BEP (Foreign Parachute Battalion, later 1er REP)
– led by Major Guiraud
1re CEPML (Heavy Mortar Foreign Parachute Company)
– led by Lieutenant Molinier
– both units jumped over Dien Bien Phu on November 21

 
November 23 – December 15, 1953:
Operation Pollux
– an operation to re-group French units
– also to clear the sector of the Viet Minh elements
– 28 legionnaires were killed or missed

 
December 8 – 20, 1953:
new reinforcements
– other French units landed at Dien Bien Phu

– between them, units from the Foreign Legion
– 1st Battalion, 13e DBLE (Foreign Legion Half-Brigade), led by Major Brinon + HQ of the regiment (Lieutenant Colonel Gaucher)
– 3rd Battalion, 13e DBLE, led by Major Pégot

– a platoon of the 2e CREBLE (Foreign Legion Armored Vehicle Repair Company)
– the platoon was sent to Dien Bien Phu to assemble ten M24 Chaffee light tanks
– a squadron of the 1er RCC (French cavalry regiment) was furnished with them
– the 2e CREBLE platoon left Dien Bien Phu in mid-January 1954

– a 3e RTA battalion (Algerian infantrymen)
– a Thai battalion (BT2, formed by local volunteers, in the majority by Hmong people from the Tai Federation, an autonomous and pro-French part of northwestern Vietnam)
– two Tai auxiliary companies (partisans)

 
December 21 – 28, 1953:
Operation Regates
– reconnaissance between Dien Bien Phu and Laos
– 1er BEP legionnaires + a French airborne battalion were involved in

 
December 29, 1953 – January 10, 1954:
new reinforcements
– other French troops and auxiliaries landed at Dien Bien Phu

– between them, units from the Foreign Legion
– 1st Battalion, 2e REI (Foreign Infantry), led by Major Clémencon
– 3rd Battalion, 3e REI, led by Major Grand d’Esnon + HQ of the regiment (Lieutenant Colonel Lalande)
2e CMMLE (Legion Mortar Mixed Company), led by Lieutenant Fetter

 
December 31, 1953:
Dien Bien Phu encircled by the Viet Minh
– 3 infantry divisions of the Viet Minh + an artillery division
– they were placed on the hills surrounding the valley

 
January – February 1954:
Construction of strongholds
– the sector of Dien Bien Phu was transformed into a fortress
– it was devided into three parts
– northern sector + central sector + southern sector

– several independent strongholds were set up in these sectors
– they obtained French female names in alphabetical order
– every stronghold was composed of several smaller, fortified strongpoints

– the majority of the original French paratroopers had left the valley
– only three units remained at Dien Bien Phu in January 1954
1er BEP, 1re CEPML and 8e BPC

 
January 12, 1954:
– heavy clashes with the Viet Minh
– legionnaires from 1er BEP got involved in
– that day, 5 legionnaires were killed + 33 wounded

 
February 1954:
– Viet Minh artillery began with shelling
– the French positions at Dien Bien Phu were shelled in regular intervals

 
February 11-15, 1954:
– heavy clashes with the Viet Minh near Isabelle
– legionnaires from 3e REI + 13e DBLE got involved in
– Lieutenant Michel + 12 legionnaires were killed
– over 70 legionnaires were wounded

 
February 19, 1954:
French Minister of Defence at Dien Bien Phu
– Minister of Defence Pleven visited the French troops in the valley
– he decorated several men and units
– betwen them, the 1er BEP

French Minister of Defence awarded the 1er BEP
– for its actions in French Indochina, the 1er BEP was awarded
– the unit obtained the Fourragère of Military Medal in yellow-green colors

 
March 9, 1954:
– another Foreign Legion unit landed at Dien Bien Phu
1re CMMLE was placed at Dien Bien Phu
– a mortar mixed company of the Legion
– led by Lieutenant Poirier

 
March 12, 1954:
Dien Bien Phu organization
– France had roughly 11,000 troops at Dien Bien Phu
– between them, some 3,000 legionnaires (5 btns + 3 coys)
– the Viet Minh had approximately 35,000 troops on the hills around the valley

North-Western Operational Group (GONO)
– a title for the French units based at Dien Bien Phu
Colonel Christian de Castries took command of GONO
– a French cavalry officer
– his leadership was seen as very poor

– GONO was devided into three sectors:

Northern Sector
– composed of two strongholds
Anne-Marie + Gabrielle
– the sector was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Trancart

Central Sector
– composed of five strongholds
Béatrice + Claudine + Dominique + Eliane + Huguette
– commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Gaucher (13e DBLE)

Southern Sector
– composed of one stronghold
Isabelle
– an isolated outpost, completely independent a few weeks later
– commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Lalande (3e REI)

Airborne Group
– composed of all airborne units (excl. artillery)
– commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Langlais
– paratroopers became the leading element of the French garrison
– Langlais became an unofficial commander of Dien Bien Phu
– in the field, it was Major Bigeard (6e BPC) who led the paratroopers

Artillery
– composed of all artillery units (including 1re CEPML)
– commanded by Colonel Piroth (later Lieutenant Colonel Robin)

– the French strogholds at Dien Bien Phu in March 1954:

  • Anne-Marie (held by auxiliaries from a Tai battalion BT3 + a platoon of legionnaires from 2e CMMLE)
  • Beatrice (held by legionnaires from 3rd Battalion, 13e DBLE)
  • Claudine + Epervier (HQ + 1er BEP + 1st Battalion, 13e DBLE + 1re CMMLE + 8e BPC + artillery + a field hospital)
  • Dominique (held by an Algerian battalion from 3e RTA + Tai battalion BT2 + legionnaires from 1re CEPML)
  • Eliane (held by a Moroccan battalion from 4e RTM)
  • Francoise (held by a platoon of Tai auxiliaries from BT2)
  • Gabrielle (held by an Algerian battalion from 7e RTA + a platoon of legionnaires from 2e CMMLE)
  • Huguette (held by legionnaires from 1st Battalion, 2e REI)
  • Isabelle (held by legionnaires from 3rd Battalion, 3e REI + an Algerian battalion from 1er RTA + two artillery batteries + a light tank platoon)

 

Dien Bien Phu - Indochina - First Indochina War - 1953 - 1954
Dien Bien Phu (1954)
Dien Bien Phu - Indochina - First Indochina War - stronghold - Anne-Marie - Beatrice - Huguette - Isabelle - map - 1954
The French strongholds (red lines) of Dien Bien Phu, composed of several fortified strongpoints (black points). The HQ command was located within Epervier (1954)
Dien Bien Phu - Operation Castor - CEPML - Indochina - First Indochina War - 1953 - 1954
Operation Castor. The French paratroopers, including legionnaires from 1er BEP and 1re CEPML, jumping over Dien Bien Phu (November 1953)
Dien Bien Phu - Operation Castor - CEPML - Indochina - First Indochina War - 1953 - 1954
The legionnaires of 1re CEPML, a heavy mortar parachute company, while shelling Viet Minh positions at Dien Bien Phu during Operation Castor (November 1953)
Dien Bien Phu - CREBLE - Chaffee tank - Indochina - First Indochina War - 1953
A legionnaire from 2e CREBLE at Dien Bien Phu, during M24 Chaffee tank assembly (December 1953)
Dien Bien Phu - 1 BEP - 1er BEP - Indochina - First Indochina War - 1954
The fanion of 1er BEP is awarded with the Fourragere by then French Minister of Defence René Pleven (February 19, 1954)
Dien Bien Phu - 13 DBLE - Gaucher - Indochina - First Indochina War - 1954
Lieutenant Colonel Jules Gaucher, the commanding officer of 13e DBLE, is awarded by René Pleven at Dien Bien Phu (February 19, 1954). In three weeks, Jules Gaucher (aged 48) would be killed during a Viet Minh attack. Lt Colonel Gaucher had served in the Legion as an officer since 1931. With the Legion, he spent more than 10 years in French Indochina (1938-46, 1949-50, 1951-54), which could be seen as a record. In 1945-46, he led the survivors of the original 5e REI.

 

Battle of Dien Bien Phu: First Offensive

March 13, 1954:
Battle of Dien Bien Phu started
– Viet Minh’s General Vo Nguyen Giap ordered the attack
– the attack on Dien Bien Phu would begin at 17:30 (05.30 PM)
– the first offensive was directed at Beatrice

Attack on Beatrice
– the battle started with heavy shelling of Beatrice
– a stronghold being composed of three smaller strongpoints (1, 2, 3)
– held by legionnaires from 3rd Battalion, 13e DBLE
– the shelling took two hours
– then the Viet Minh launched a massive infantry attack

– a platoon of 2e CMMLE supported the 13e DBLE by mortar fire

– also a platoon of 1re CEPML supported the 3rd Battalion, 13e DBLE
– the platoon (Ltn Bergot) suffered 12 men killed

– that evening, Lieutenant Colonel Jules Gaucher was killed
– the 13e DBLE’s commander and the northern sector’s commander
– when commanding his men by radio, a Viet Minh mortar shell penetrated into his bunker
– Lieutenant Colonel Jules Gaucher was badly wounded and died of his injuries

  • Jules Gaucher had served in the Legion since 1931
  • most likely the longest-serving Legion officer in Indochina (over 10 years)
  • he commanded a 3e REI’s platoon in Marocco
  • in 1938, then Captain Gaucher was sent to Indochina
  • in Indochina, he joined the 5e REI, based there since 1931
  • in early 1941, Captain Gaucher and his battalion participated in the Franco-Thai War
  • in March-May 1945, he and his 5e REI legionnaires fought against the Japanese
  • in 1945-46, Major Gaucher led the survivors of 5e REI (who merged into the BM5, Provisional Battalion) during their 3,000 km (1,900 miles) long foot march through the jungle to China
  • he and his men returned back to North Africa in January 1947
  • Jules Gaucher deployed to Indochina to serve in the 13e DBLE (1949-50)
  • in 1953, he was back in Indochina
  • there, Lieutenant Colonel Gaucher became the commanding officer of 13e DBLE
  • at Dien Bien Phu, he became the commander of the northern sector

– he was the second commanding officer of the 13e DBLE killed in Indochina
– after Lt Col Gabriel Brunet de Sairigné, killed in March 1948

 
March 14, 1954:
Fall of Beatrice
– in the early morning, Beatrice was lost
– its HQ and outposts were destroyed
– the stronghold was completely taken over by the Viet Minh

– 3rd Battalion, 13e DBLE suffered heavy casualties
– its commander, Major Pégot, was killed
– his deputy, Captain Pardi, was also killed
– about 300 officers and legionnaires of the battalion were killed or imprisoned
– less than 200 officers and legionnaires survived the attack
– they were evacuated from the sector to the HQ of Dien Bien Phu
– later, these men would reinforce Huguette
– this stronghold was held by their comrades from 1st Battalion, 13e DBLE
– legionnaires from 1st Battalion, 2e REI had been also stationed there

– a pro-French Vietnamese parachute battalion dropped over Dien Bien Phu
– 5e BPVN, composed of local anti-communist auxiliaries
– it would reinforce French troops

Attack on Gabrielle
– in the afternoon, Gabrielle was attacked by the Viet Minh
– a stronghold held by an Algerian battalion + a platoon from 2e CMMLE (Ltn Clerget)
– the fighting took all the night

 
March 15, 1954:
Fall of Gabrielle
– in the early morning, a counter-attack
– 5e BPVN was sent to Gabrielle
– accompanied by two companies from the 1er BEP
– they would launch a counter-attack, supported by M24 tanks
– however, the counter-attack wasn’t successful and Gabrielle was lost
– the strogpoint was taken over by the Viet Minh
– only a few Algerians and legionnaires from 2e CMMLE survived
– the rest of them were killed or imprisoned (just as Ltn Clerget)
– the 2e CMMLE survivors from Gabrielle would join their company at Anne-Marie
– 1er BEP withdrew with 9 men killed + 46 men wounded

– 1st Platoon of 1re CEPML supported the stronghold of Gabrielle
– based at Claudine, the platoon was under Viet Minh shelling
– Lieutenant Paul Turcy (1re CEPML commander) was killed

– during the attacks on Beatrice and Gabrielle, the Viet Minh lost many men
– at least 2,500 of them are estimated to be killed
– around 7,000 Viet Minh men are estimated to be wounded

Lt Colonel Charles Piroth committed suicide
– also that day, Lt Colonel Piroth killed himself
– the commander of French artillery at Dien Bien Phu
– as Major, badly wounded near Saigon in 1946
– back then, he ordered his arm to be amputated without anesthesia
– at Dien Bien Phu, he saw the fall of strongholds as a fault of his artillery
– he assumed personal responsibility and committed suicide

– this day is seen as the day the French lost this battle

 
March 16, 1954:
Loss of Anne-Marie
– after the fall of Beatrice and Gabrielle, the most threatened stronghold
– composed of four strongpoints
– occupied by a Tai battalion (BT3) + 2e CMMLE legionnaires
– during the night, the Tai auxiliaries deserted from their strongpoints
– scared by a possible Viet Minh attack, they disappeared in the jungle
– 2e CMMLE left alone on Anne-Marie
– the legionnaires were sent to Claudine
– the Anne-Marie stronghold was abolished
– its two less outlying former strongpoints were renamed
– they became Huguette 6 + Huguette 7

– in the afternoon, a new reinforcement
– a French colonial parachute battalion (6e BCP) jumped over Dien Bien Phu
– led by Major Bigeard

 
March 19-20, 1954:
– evacuation of wounded soldiers from Dien Bien Phu by air

Lieutenant Colonel Maurice Lemeunier took the leadership of 13e DBLE
– in the Legion since 1934, he would command the 4e REI between 1957-59
– he voluntarily jumped over Dien Bien Phu on March 19

 
March 20-22, 1954:
Clashes near Isabelle
– during two days of patrolling near Isabelle, clashes with the Viet Minh
– legionnaires from 12th Company, 3e REI got involved in
– 7 legionnaires were killed
– 13 legionnaires were wounded or missed

– at the same time, 1er BEP legionnaires were sent to support Isabelle
– supported by M24 Chaffee tanks
– on the road to Isabelle, a fierce battle with the Viet Minh
– 1er BEP suffered casualties
– Lieutenant Lecocq + Lieutenant Bertrand + Lieutenant Raynaud were killed
– 6 legionnaires were also killed + 20 legionnaires wounded

 
March 26, 1954:
– an attack on Viet Minh positions near Huguette 6
– a strongpoint of the Huguette stronghold
– the attack was conducted by 1er BEP legionnaires
– Viet Minh suffered 20 men killed
– 2 legionnaires were also killed
– Lieutenant Desmaizières + 20 legionnaires were wounded

 
March 27, 1954:
the last evacuation of wounded soldiers from Dien Bien Phu
– the French aircrafts were under fire repeatedly
– the main airstrip was targeted by the Viet Minh artillery

 
March 28, 1954:
Battle on the West
– one of the few French victories at Dien Bien Phu
– an operation aimed at Viet Minh anti-aircraft artillery
– conducted by a French composite task force
– consisting of four battalions + artillery + M24 tanks platoon
– legionnaires from 1er BEP + 1st Battalion, 2e REI participated in
– a Viet Minh battalion was annihilated
– about 350 Viet Minh men were killed
– the French suffered 20 men killed + 72 men wounded

 
March 29, 1954:
Eliane 4
– a new strongpoint, was built by French paratroopers
Eliane 4, between Eliane 1 and Eliane 2

 

Battle of Dien Bien Phu: Second Offensive

March 30, 1954:
Battle of Five Hills
– in the evening, the Viet Minh conducted a large attack
– aimed at five hills with important strongpoints
Dominique 1 + Dominique 2 + Eliane 1 + Eliane 2 + Eliane 4
– the battle continued until April 4

– the strongpoints of Dominique were occupied by an Algerian battalion
– a company of 5e BPVN (Vietnamese paratroopers) supported them
– a platoon of the 1re CMMLE was stationed at Dominique 1
– led by Lieutenant Colcy, the platoon was placed there two weeks ago
Dominique 2 was quickly seized by the Viet Minh
Dominique 1 was seized a few hours later
– the 1re CMMLE mortar platoon fought to the last man
– Lieutenant Colcy was killed, his platoon was annihilated

– the attacked strongpoints of Eliane were occupied by a Moroccan battalion
Eliane 1 + Eliane 2 (Eliane 4 wasn’t affected eventually)
– 1st Company, 1er BEP (Lieutenant Luciani) supported them
– the company was defending Eliane 2
– on Eliane (stronghold), also a platoon of the 1re CEPML (Lieutenant Bergot)
– placed between Eliane 2 and Eliane 4, the platoon supported the 1er BEP company
Eliane 1 was quickly seized by the Viet Minh

– on Eliane 2, the 1er BEP legionnaires fought fiercely
– having faced an entire regiment, they managed to defend the strongpoint
– at midnight, two companies of 6e BPC arrived to reinforce the brave legionnaires
– 16 men from the 1er BEP were killed or missed
– tens of legionnaires were wounded
Eliane 2 was managed to defend, however

Attack on Huguette
– launched at the same time as the Battle of Five Hills
Huguette 6 + Huguette 7 were attacked
– both were ex-Anne-Marie strongpoints
Huguette strongpoints were held by 2e REI legionnaires
– reinforced by a 5e BPVN (Vietnamese paratroopers) company
– after a severe battle, the enemy was fought off
Huguette was managed to defend
– however, the Viet Minh would continue in attacking it

 
March 31 – April 4, 1954:
Battle of Eliane 2
– a French successful defensive action
– a series of severe Viet Minh attacks on Eliane 2
– accompanied by persistent heavy shelling
– the battle lasted 107 hours without interruption
– 1er BEP legionnaires and 6e BPC paratroopers got involved it
– volunteers from other units were supporting them
– no more than 300 men together against a reinforced Viet Minh regiment
Eliane 2 was managed to defend by French troops, however
– some 1,200 Viet Minh men were killed
– many French soldiers were also killed
– between them, at least 29 men from the 1er BEP
– about 50 legionnaires were wounded

 
March 31, 1954:
Isolation of Isabelle
– that day near Isabelle, clashes with the Viet Minh
– part of a French offensive against the Viet Minh
– legionnaires from 3rd Battalion, 3e REI got involved in
– supported by M24 tanks
– they wanted to maintain the connection with Dien Bien Phu
– 4 miles (6 km) north of their stronghold
– however, the Viet Minh had already cut the road
– also, large trenches were built by the Viet Minh
– a fierce battle between legionnaires and the Viet Minh took place
– in the battle, 3e REI suffered heavy casualties
– 15 men were killed or missed
– about 50 men were wounded, including Captain Picard
– since that day, Isabelle became an independent, isolated stronghold

 
April 1, 1954:
a new reinforcement
– a French parachute battalion (1er RCP) jumped over Dien Bien Phu
– led by Major Bréchignac

Loss of Francoise
– the smallest stronghold at Dien Bien Phu
– occupied by a Tai platoon from BT2
– that day, Tai auxiliaries left their strongpoint
– scared by a possible Viet Minh attack, they refused to fight
– they were disarmed and imprisoned as deserters inside the camp
– the Francoise stronghold was abolished

 
April 1-2, 1954:
Battle of Huguette 7
– a series of severe Viet Minh attacks on Huguette 7
– a strongpoint occupied by a Legion company
– 2e REI legionnaires (about 100 men) led by Lieutenant Spozio
– they faced an entire Viet Minh regiment
– the severe battle took 36 hours without interruption
– at the end of the battle, only 12 combat-ready legionnaires
– ran out of ammunition, the last survivors were called off
– these legionnaires were sent to reinforce Huguette 2
Huguette 7 was seized by the Viet Minh

 
April 4-5, 1954:
Attack on Huguette 6
– in the evening, a severe Viet Minh attack
– conducted by two regiments, aimed at Huguette 6
– ex-Anne-Marie strongpoint
– after the loss of Huguette 7, the second most isolated strongpoint
– 1,2 miles (2 km) distant from the French HQ
– an important position, located close to the airstrip
– occupied by Legion units
– less than 250 men, led by Lieutenant Rastouil

  • volunteers from 1st Battalion, 2e REI (Ltn Francois)
  • NCO-Candidate corporals from 13e DBLE (Ltn Philippe)
  • legionnaires-survivors from 3rd Battalion, 13e DBLE

– at midnight, a 8e BPC company was sent to support the legionnaires
– also, three M24 Chaffee tanks
– the Viet Minh was surprised and withdrew

– April 5, in the early morning, a new attack
– two French companies were sent to support the strongpoint
– French paratroopers from 8e BPC and 1er RCP
– both companies forced the Viet Minh to withdraw
Huguette 6 was managed to defend
– some 800 Viet Minh attackers were killed
– about 200 French soldiers, including legionnaires, were also killed
– a 1er RCP company reinforced the legionnaires on Huguette 6
– two days later, the company would be replaced by a 5e BPVN company

 
April 6-18, 1954:
Siege of Huguette 6
– occupied by legionnaires from 2e REI
– around 100 men, led by Lieutenant Rastouil
– reinforced by a 5e BPVN company (80 men, Captain Bizard)
– the Viet Minh would isolate the strongpoint from support
– to supply the strogpoint, it’s necessary to fight fiercely
– it was surrounded by a web of Viet Minh trenches
– April 14, Lieutenant Rastouil was killed
– April 17, a decision to evacuate the strongpoint

 
April 6, 1954:
Stronghold Liliane
– a new, small strongpoint constituted, Liliane (also Lily)
– consisting of two strongpoints
Liliane 1 (ex-Claudine 1) + Liliane 2
– would be occupied by a 4e RTM Moroccan company

 
April 9-10, 1954:
2e BEP jumped over Dien Bien Phu
– a new reinforcement
– 2nd Foreign Parachute Battalion (2e BEP, future 2e REP)
– led by Major Liesenfelt
– 2e BEP legionnaires jumped over in two waves
– during the nights of April 9-10 and April 10-11
– they reinforced several strongpoints
– April 9-11, 2e BEP suffered 12 men killed (including Captain Delafond)
– another 14 of his men were wounded

 
April 10, 1954:
Recapture of Eliane 1
– a French successful action
– an offensive aimed at Eliane 1
– the strongpoint located right opposite Eliane 4
– it was lost on March 30, during the Battle of Five Hills
– the Viet Minh set up a sniper outpost there to threat the French
– Major Bigeard (6e BPC) decided to recapture it
– his men had been occupying the Eliane stronghold

– first, the hill was shelled by French artillery
– also by dropping bombs from an aircraft
– thereafter, two 6e BPC companies launched an assault
– although suffering heavy casualties, they seized Eliane 1
– the Viet Minh launched several unsuccessful counter-attacks
Eliane 1 was successfully recaptured by the French

– to maintain the strongpoint, other units were replacing their comrades
– a 1er RCP company + a 1er BEP company (Lieutenant Martin)
– thereafter, a 2e BEP company (Captain Delafond, killed)
– in next days, a company from 1st Battalion, 13e DBLE or a 5e BPVN company
– the strongpoint would remain under French control until May 6

 
April 11, 1954:
– close to Huguette 1, an operation to push the approaching Viet Minh
– Lieutenant Bourges and 4th Company, 2e REI
– supported by M24 tanks
– a fierce battle occurred and the Viet Minh withdrew
– however, a platoon was lost, including Lieutenant Bourges

 
April 12-17, 1954:
Strongpoint Opéra
– a new, small strongpoint constituted, Opéra
– west of the airstrip, between Huguette and Dominique
– occupied by a 5e BPVN company
– also 13e DBLE elements (led by Captain Philippe)

 
April 18, 1954:
Evacuation of Huguette 6
– an order to evacuate the strongpoint
– occupied by legionnaires from 2e REI, led by Lieutenant Francois
– reinforced by a 5e BPVN company
– the Viet Minh isolated the strongpoint from support
– the French were besieged there from early April
– to supply the strogpoint, it’s necessary to fight fiercely
– its survivors rejoined the strongpoint Opéra
Huguette 6 was seized by the Viet Minh
– during the evacuation, Lieutenant Francois was killed
– over 100 men were killed at Huguette 6 since early April

– a day earlier, a failed attempt to evacuate Huguette 6
– two 1er BEP companies + two 8e BPC companies took part in
– they would support their comrades during the evacuation
– however, they were stopped by the Viet Minh
– 17 men were killed + 78 men wounded
– between the wounded, Lieutenant Martin from 1er BEP

 
April 19-22, 1954:
Battle of Huguette 1
– at the time, the most outlying strongpoint (excl. Isabelle)
– located north of the center, near the airstrip
– occupied by a 2e REI company (Lieutenant Spozio)
– veterans of the Battle of Huguette 7 (early April)
– they held Huguette 1 for several days
– repulsing the repeated Viet Minh attacks
– April 19, replaced by a 13e DBLE company (Captain Chevallier)
– the company spent all the night to reach the strogpoint (some 330 yards/300 m)
– from original 120 men, only 80 combat-ready men reached Huguette 1
– the rest were killed or wounded during the night and the morning
– the 2e REI legionnaires left Huguette 1 to join Huguette 3
– during their return, many of them were killed or wounded too

– Captain Chevallier and his 13e DBLE men were heavily attacked
– they faced an entire Viet Minh regiment
– the Viet Minh isolated the strongpoint from support
– it was surrounded by a web of Viet Minh trenches
– Captain Chevallier was informed about his situation
– he and his men decided to “make Camerone
– they would fight to the last man, until the finish
– April 20, about 3,000 hand grenades were used to stop the Viet Minh
– next day, only 50 legionnaires remained to defended Huguette 1
– the Viet Minh was everywhere
– Captain Chevallier asked artillery to shell directly the strongpoint
– April 22, his radio went silent
– Captain Chevallier and his men were killed
Huguette 1 was seized by the Viet Minh

 
April 22, 1954:
Airstrip cut in two
– that day, the main airstrip (runway) was cut in two
– the Viet Minh made a trench there

 
April 23, 1954:
Counter-attack on Huguette 1
– an attempt to recapture Huguette 1
– 2e BEP was assigned to carry out the assault
– 380 men led by Major Liesenfelt
– a fresh, reserve unit
– first, an airborne attack + heavy sheeling
– second, the ground assault would follow
– nevertheless, Major Liesenfelt delayed the attack
– the Viet Minh got a chance to recover and to be prepared
– two 2e BEP companies attacked Huguette 1 from Opéra
– they suffered heavy casualties (80% of their strength)
– when they asked for help, nobody would respond
– the radio of their Major was blocked and he didn’t check it out
– another two companies tried to attack from Huguette 3
– they were stopped by an intense machine-gun fire
– just promoted Lt Colonel Bigeard (6e BPC) called off the assault
2e BEP would be dissolved because of heavy losses
– Major Liesenfelt was removed from command

– this action ended the battles of the three Huguettes
Huguette 7 + Huguette 6 + Huguette 1 were lost

– Lieutenant Garin (2e BEP), wounded at the airstrip, killed himself
– two legionnaires had already died when trying to save their platoon leader
– he didn’t want to see other men to risk their lives for him
– Lieutenant Garin got his legs seriously injured during the counter-attack

 
April 24, 1954:
Provisional Foreign Parachute Battalion
Bataillon de Marche Étranger de Parachutistes (BMEP)
– that day, BMEP was established
– consisted of 1er BEP and 2e BEP survivors
– both units, significantly devastated, merged together
– the new unit was composed of four companies
– Lieutenant De Stabenrath + Captain Brandon (ex-1er BEP)
– Lieutenant Le Cour Grandmaison + Lieutenant Pétré (ex-2e BEP)
Major Maurice Giraud took command
– BMEP would be placed at the strongpoints Liliane 3 and Huguette 5

Evacuation of Opéra
– an order to evacuate Opéra
– a small strongpoint, freshly constituted
– occupied by a 5e BPVN company
– the evacuation was caused by the loss of Huguette 1
Opéra was seized by the Viet Minh the following day

 
April 24-30, 1954:
Relative Calm
– the Viet Minh stopped its assaults
– it suffered heavy casualties to seize the three Huguettes
– the Viet Minh lost over 6,000 men there
– the French lost some 700 men there

new reinforcements
– during that week, tens of volunteers jumped over Dien Bien Phu
– many of them were legionnaires from different units
– the majority of them just received a parachute to jump
– they didn’t pass any training
– they were true volunteers to support their comrades

– more than 1,500 volunteers jumped over Dien Bien Phu between March-May
– many of them were killed or imprisoned right after their landing

 
April 28, 1954:
Clashes near Huguette 4
– clashes with the Viet Minh near Huguette 4
– BMEP legionnaires (led by Captain Luciani) got involved in
– his men surprised approaching Viet Minh groups
– 20 Viet Minh men would be killed

 
April 30, 1954:
Camerone Day
– a day marking the 1863 Battle of Camerone
– a holiday for legionnaires
– in the valley, most of them would celebrate their last Camerone Day

 

Battle of Dien Bien Phu: Third (Final) Offensive

May 1, 1954:
Attack on Eliane 1 + Eliane 2
– a large attack conducted by two Viet Minh divisions
– aimed at the strongpoints Eliane 1 + Eliane 2
– the attack began at 05.00 PM (17:00) with artillery shelling
– the intense Viet Minh shelling took several hours
– then a ground assault would follow
– Eliane 1, held by two 1er RCP companies
– Eliane 2, held by two (or three) 13e DBLE companies (Major Coutant)
– the heavy fighting took all the night
Eliane 1 + Eliane 2 were managed to defend, however

Battle of Huguette 5
– a large offensive conducted by a Viet Minh division
– aimed at the western strongpoint Huguette 5
– Huguette 5, held by BMEP legionnaires (Lieutenant De Stabenrath)
– a single company, about 120 men
– the battle began at 05.00 PM (17:00) with artillery shelling
– then a Viet Minh ground assault would follow
– the severe battle took all the night
– attacks followed by counter-attacks
– the battle finished at 10.00 AM (10:00) in the morning
Huguette 5 was managed to defend
– the BMEP company lost 88 legionnaires, however
– including 12 men killed + 68 wounded

May 2, 1954:
Loss of Eliane 1
– Eliane 1, held by two 1er RCP companies
– in the evening, the Viet Minh launched an assault
– the position was reinforced by a third company from 1er RCP
– all of the three companies were annihilated
– at 11.00 PM (23:00), the radio went silent
Eliane 1 was seized by the Viet Minh

Loss of Dominique 3
– in the evening, a direct assault launched by the Viet Minh
– the strongpoint was quickly overrun
Dominique 3 was seized by the Viet Minh

Loss of Huguette 5
Huguette 5, held by a BMEP company (Lieutenant De Stabenrath)
– considerably reduced by the previous battle
– three platoons of 10 men each
– Lieutenant Boisbouvier + Master Sergeant Zurell + Sergeant Novak
– they were facing hundreds of Viet Minhs
– in the evening, the severe battle started
– at 03.30 AM (03:30) in the morning of May 3, only 3 men left
– Sergeant Novak + 2 legionnaires
– the only combat-ready survivors, they were called off
Huguette 5 was seized by the Viet Minh

– Lieutenant Boisbouvier was killed
– Lieutenant De Stabenrath was badly wounded and died a week later
– Novak will be killed in Algeria in 1958
– at the time, he was a platoon leader with the 2nd Company, 2e REP

 
May 3-4, 1954:
a new reinforcement
– during the night of May 2-3, a new reinforcement
– a French parachute company (1er BPC) jumped over Dien Bien Phu
– led by Captain Edme
– the company was placed at Eliane 2
– there, they reinforced the 13e DBLE legionnaires

– during the night of May 3-4, a new reinforcement
– a French parachute company (1er BPC) jumped over Dien Bien Phu
– led by Captain Pouget
– the company reinforced Eliane 2, to replace the 13e DBLE legionnaires
– Major Coutant and his 13e DBLE legionnaires withdrew
– they stayed on the hill, however, at Eliane 3

 
May 4, 1954:
Loss of Huguette 4
Huguette 4, held by BMEP legionnaires (Captain Luciani) + Moroccans (likely 4e RTM)
– no more than 220 men
– they were facing an entire Viet Minh regiment
– at 12.30 PM (00:30), a severe battle started
– the Viet Minh launched one of the heaviest assault
– waves of the Viet Minh were attacking the strongpoint
– three hours later, the defenders were overrun
Huguette 4 was seized by the Viet Minh

 
May 5-6, 1954:
last reinforcements
– during the night of May 4-5, a new reinforcement
– another 1er BPC company jumped over Dien Bien Phu
– led by Captain Tréhiou

– during the night of May 5-6, the last reinforcement
– some 90 paratroopers from 1er BPC jumped over Dien Bien Phu
– the last reinforcement for the French in the valley

 
May 6-7, 1954:
Final Assault
– May 6, the entire camp was shelled
– at noon, the Viet Minh started to use Katyusha
– a Soviet Union multiple rocket launcher
– the new weapon was ruining the strongpoints

Attack on Eliane 2
– the attackers had been trying to seize it for over a month
– at 06.45 PM (18:45), the Viet Minh launched an assault
– an entire regiment attacked the strongpoint Eliane 2
– held by the two 1er BPC companies, recently dropped into the valley
– the French paratroopers stopped the assault
– over 200 Viet Minh men were immediately killed
– the strongpoint would be shelled again
– however, the Viet Minh didn’t continue in its assaults
– at 11.00 PM (23:00), Eliane 2 was blown up by
– the Viet Minh dig out a tunnel through the hill
– then, it filled up with 6,000 pounds of explosive
– less than 40 paratroopers survived the explosion
– Captain Pouget and these men fought yet next five hours
– at 04.00 AM (04:00), May 7, the strongpoint was overrun
Eliane 2 was seized by the Viet Minh

Attack on Claudine 5
– held by legionnaires from the 2nd Company, 2e REI (Captain Schmitz)
– in the evening, the strongpoint Claudine 5 was attacked
– by an intense Viet Minh assault which took three hours
– the legionnaires were able to fight off the attackers, however
– with support of the survivors from the 3rd Battalion, 13e DBLE
– the battalion annihilated at Beatrice the first day of the battle
– nevertheless, the defenders didn’t survive the second assault
– at 02.00 AM (02:00), May 7, the strongpoint was overrun
Claudine 5 was seized by the Viet Minh

Attack on Eliane 4 + Eliane 10
– at 10.00 PM (22:00), the Viet Minh launched an assault
– two regiments attacked the strongpoint
– Eliane 4, held by the 5e BPVN Vietnamese + paratroopers from 1er RCP
– later that night, it would be reinforced by 8e BPC paratroopers
– also two BMEP companies (some 150 men together)
– led by Lieutenant Brandon + Lieutenant Le Cour Grandmaison
– Eliane 10, held by Moroccans + Tai auxiliaries from BT2 (Major Chenel)
– Major Chenel was one of those 5e REI survivors from 1945
– nicknamed Zatopek, he would command a 5e REI battalion in Algeria
– reinforced by 6e BPC paratroopers
– the heavy fighting took many hours
– Eliane 4 + Eliane 10 were repulsing all attacks
– at 05.30 AM (05:30) in the morning, the Viet Minh withdrew
– an hour later, the enemy launched a new assault
– the attacks would continue next three hours
– at 09.00-09.30 AM (09:00-09:30), both strongpoints were overrun
Eliane 4 + Eliane 10 were seized by the Viet Minh

Loss of Eliane 3 + Eliane 11 + Eliane 12
– held by several French troops
– 6e BPC + Algerians + Tai auxiliaries from BT2 of Major Chenel
– the two strongpoints were held thanks to Eliane 3
– held by legionnaires from 1st Battalion, 13e DBLE + Moroccans (4e RTM)
– then, the combat-ready legionnaires were called off
– afterwards, at 03.00 PM (15:00) of May 7, the Moroccans surrendered
– the next two strongpoints would survive only an hour
Eliane 3 + Eliane 11 + Eliane 12 were seized by the Viet Minh

 

Battle of Dien Bien Phu: Ceasefire

– May 7, a decision to hold talks with General Giap
– at 04.30 PM (16:30), the strongpoints were informed about a ceasefire
– at 05.00 PM (17:00), an order to destroy heavy weapons
– at 05.40 PM (17:40), a Viet Minh red flag was raised over the camp
– the white flag wasn’t raised, however
– officially, the French didn’t surrendered

– at the time of ceasefire, several strongholds were still being held:

Claudine stronghold was managed to defend
– held by 1st Battalion, 2e REI legionnaires
– supported by a platoon from 3rd Battalion, 13e DBLE

Huguette stronghold was managed to defend
– held by BMEP legionnaires

Liliane stronghold was managed to defend
– held by 1st Battalion, 2e REI legionnaires

Junon stronghold was managed to defend
– one of the strongholds based near the camp’s HQ
– held by 1st Battalion, 13e DBLE legionnaires

– at 06.30 PM (18:30), last legionnaires would lay down their rifles
– the 56-day battle was over

End of Isabelle
Isabelle was managed to defend
– an isolated stronghold located 4 miles (6 km) from the HQ
– held by 3rd Battalion, 3e REI legionnaires (led by Major Lalande)
– also a Moroccan battalion + a French artillery battery + a tank platoon
– the position didn’t surrendered
– Major Lalande ordered to his companies to try to withdraw
– two marching groups were formed
– they would march several miles to the south, along the river
– 10th Company, 3e REI (Captain Marzeau) would cover them by fire
– at 01.30 AM (01:30) in the morning, the last message from Isabelle
Isabelle was seized by the Viet Minh
– the vast majority of the two groups didn’t pass, however
– on their way through the jungle, they met Viet Minh units
– two thirds of them were killed or imprisoned within May 8-9
– also the 10th Company had only 30 survivors in the morning
– only a few of small groups or individuals would survive in the jungle

 

Dien Bien Phu - Indochina - First Indochina War - 1954
Past the river, the French military headquarters of Dien Bien Phu (March 1954)
Beatrice - Dien Bien Phu - Indochina - First Indochina War - 1954
Beatrice. The strong point held by legionnaires from the 3rd Battalion of 13e DBLE. It was the first strong point attacked by Viet Minh during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. The majority of legionnaires based at Beatrice, including their commanders, were killed or imprisoned during the attack (March 1954)
Dien Bien Phu - Indochina - First Indochina War - 1954
Local pro-French volunteers (Vietnamese or Tai/Hmong) working on the protection of Dien Bien Phu (March 1954)
Dien Bien Phu - Indochina - First Indochina War - 1954
French troops (even the French officials do not know who exactly is on the image) during a counter-attack against the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu (March 1954)
Dien Bien Phu - M.A.S.H. - Indochina - First Indochina War - 1954
M.A.S.H. (March 1954). An underground French field hospital at Dien Bien Phu. No TV show, no comedy, only hard work in the reality… Despite facing a number of difficulties, the French surgeons proved their perfect skills, having less than 5 percent of mortality rate.
Dien Bien Phu - Viet Minh - Indochina - First Indochina War - 1954
A young Viet Minh soldier, captured by French troops at Dien Bien Phu (1954)

 

Battle of Dien Bien Phu: Aftermath

– up to 14,000 French troops participated in the battle
– 3,300-3,800 of them belonged to the Foreign Legion

– up to 2,300 French troops are known to be killed
– between them, many legionnaires

– more than 11,700 French troops were missed or imprisoned
– between them, 5,200 men wounded
– almost 860 of badly wounded men would be evacuated by the Red Cross
– the prisoners had to march some 380 miles (over 600 km) during 40 days
– including the not-evacuated wounded men
– many of them wouldn’t survive
– the prisoners spent several months in the Viet Minh POW camps
only 3,290 men survived the imprisonment (including legionnaires)

The Foreign Legion units lost during the battle:

  • 1st Foreign Parachute Battalion (1er BEP)
  • 2nd Foreign Parachute Battalion (2e BEP)
  • 1st Battalion, 13e DBLE
  • 3rd Battalion, 13e DBLE
  • 1st Battalion, 2e REI
  • 3rd Battalion, 3e REI
  • 1st Foreign Heavy Mortar Parachute Company (1re CEPML)
  • 1st Foreign Legion Mortar Mixed Company (1re CMMLE)
  • 2nd Foreign Legion Mortar Mixed Company (2e CMMLE)

– 1re CEPML + 1re CMMLE + 2e CMMLE would never be recreated

 
1954 Geneva Conference
– April 26 – July 20, 1954 in Geneva, Switzerland
– the Viet Minh and its supporters utilized the battle
– it was useful as a strong argument during the conference
– the negotiations resulted in the end of the Indochina war
– the end of the war came into force in July-August 1954
– Vietnam would be cut in two at the 17th parallel
– the French would have to leave North Vietnam
– the Viet Minh would remain officially there
– French Union forces would regroup to the south of the line
– in 1955-56, the French had to leave the rest of Vietnam
– they left Indochina after almost 100 years of their presence

 
 

 

———

Images source:
ECPAD (Defence audiovisual communication and production unit)
French Ministry of Defence

 

Information source:
Erwan Bergot: Dien Bien Phu (Presses de la Cité, 1989)
More Majorum (German legionnaires in Indochina)
The Battle of Dien Bien Phu (in English)
FSALE (in French)
ECPAD
wikipedia.org

 
More from the history of the Foreign Legion:
1863 Battle of Camerone
1978 Battle of Kolwezi
1932 Turenne Rail Accident
1908 Forthassa Disaster
1976 Loyada Hostage Rescue Mission
1982 Mont Garbi Accident

 

 

The page was updated on: February 20, 2018

 

↑ Back to Top