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 at Dien Bien Phu, a large heart-shaped valley located in northwestern part of Vietnam, near the border with Laos. The valley had to serve as a French forward operating base to conduct operations in the region. 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 enemy. Nevertheless, the French garrison attracted the Viet Minh.

Despite their plans, the French were attacked and suffered a defeat. The leadership of the garrison absolutely failed, as well as the French leadership in Vietnam and France. 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 55,000 Viet Minh soldiers. 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. 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 refers 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, the Viet Minh attacked Hanoi, Vietnam
– the war officially started

 
November 12, 1953:
Decision to seize Dien Bien Phu
– a French decision to seize Dien Bien Phu
– a large valley in northwestern Vietnam
– named after a small town situated there
– today, the place is called Muong Thanh Valley
– 12,5 miles (20 km) long and 3,5 miles (6 km) wide
– located close to the border with Laos
– Laos – a former member of French Indochina
– independent from October 1953, a French ally
– right after its independence, attacked by the Viet Minh

– northwestern Vietnam is a wild, mountainous region
– then most important and strategic place for the Viet Minh
– the remote region served as the rear base for the movement
– used for attacking Laos
– also bordering with China, the sponsor of the Viet Minh
– numerous Viet Minh transit & supply roads crossed the region
– many Viet Minh training camps were based in the region too

– the French considered the valley as the best strategic place
– to conduct mobile operations along the border with Laos
– carried out by so-called Mobile Groups
– regiment-seized composite task forces
– the valley had to serve as their forward operating base
– the main task was to cut off the China-Laos supply lines
– thereafter, to defeat the Viet Minh

Dien Bien Phu - Vietnam
Dien Bien Phu lies in northwestern Vietnam, Southeast Asia. A remote region bordering with Laos and China.
Dien Bien Phu - Vietnam - Muong Thanh Valley - Dien Bien Phu Valley
The valley of Dien Bien Phu lies in a wild, mountainous region of northwestern Vietnam, alongside the border with Laos. As we can see, the valley is an exceptionally strategic place. Being surrounded by tens of miles of wild jungle-covered mountains, it is the only place in that far remote area where one can build and use an airstrip.
Dien Bien Phu - Vietnam - Muong Thanh Valley - Dien Bien Phu Valley - Aerial view
The valley of Dien Bien Phu from air. It is perfectly parallel to the North-South axis. The valley is 12,5 miles (20 km) long and 3,5 miles (6 km) wide. The town of Dien Bien Phu lies on the northeastern edge of the valley.

 

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
– an artillery battery
– a heavy mortar company
– an engineer company

– 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

– after the landing, clearing the sector
– clashes with the Viet Minh
– over 100 Viet Minh rebels were killed

 
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

Dien Bien Phu - Operation Castor - 1953 - First Indochina War
Operation Castor. French paratroopers jumping over the valley of Dien Bien Phu, November 20-22, 1953. Between them, the Foreign Legion’s 1er BEP and 1re CEPML.
Dien Bien Phu - Legion - CEPML - Operation Castor - 1953 - First Indochina War
Operation Castor. A 120 mm mortar operating by paratroopers identified as the 1re CEPML.
Dien Bien Phu - Legion - CEPML - Operation Castor - 1953 - First Indochina War
A very rare image of the same crew. In the center, their Lieutenant.
Dien Bien Phu - Legion - 1 BEP - Operation Pollux - 1953 - First Indochina War
Operation Pollux. 1er BEP legionnaires patrolling around the valley, late 1953.

 

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 13e DBLE (Lieutenant Colonel Gaucher)
– 3rd Battalion, 13e DBLE, led by Major Pégot

– a platoon of the 2e CREBLE, led by Lieutenant Bugeat
– Foreign Legion Armored Vehicle Repair Company
– the platoon would assemble ten M24 Chaffee light tanks
– tanks of a squadron of the 1er RCC (French cavalry regiment)
– the 2e CREBLE platoon would leave Dien Bien Phu in mid-January 1954

– a 3e RTA battalion (Algerian infantrymen)
– a Tai battalion (BT2)
– two Tai auxiliary companies

  • Tai units were formed by local volunteers-partisans
  • mainly White Tai (Tai Don) and Black Tai (Tai Dam) people
  • members of the Tai Federation
  • an autonomous confederation of Tai people in northwestern Vietnam
  • one of the 54 (fifty-four) ethnic groups living in Vietnam
  • as anticommunist elements, a number of them emigrated to Laos in late 1954
  • they were resettled to Iowa, USA in 1975
Dien Bien Phu - Legion - 13 DBLE - Lt Colonel - Jules Gaucher - First Indochina War
Lieutenant Colonel Jules Gaucher. Then commanding officer of the 13e DBLE. He would take command of the Central Sector of Dien Bien Phu. Lt Col Gaucher had served in the Legion as an officer since 1934. With the Legion, he spent more than 10 years in French Indochina (1938-47, 1949-50, 1952-54), most likely a record. In 1945-47, he led the survivors of the original 5e REI on their difficult way from Vietnam to China, and then back to Africa.
Dien Bien Phu - Legion - 2 CREBLE - 1954 - First Indochina War
A legionnaire of the 2e CREBLE at Dien Bien Phu, during M24 Chaffee tank assembly.
Dien Bien Phu - Tai - Auxiliaries - 1953 - First Indochina War
Tai auxiliaries/partisans in the valley of Dien Bien Phu, late 1953. Note the flag of the Tai Federation. Dien Bien Phu was one of the 12 cantons of the federation and the capital of Black Tai (Tai Dam) people. Even though in strong opposition to the Viet Minh, the majority of them would eventually prefer desertion to fighting.

 

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

 
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 3e REI (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
– some 45,000 men
– also thousands of logistics personnel
– the divisions were placed on the hills surrounding the valley
– led by General Vo Nguyen Giap

Dien Bien Phu - Viet Minh - Artillery - 1954 - First Indochina War
Viet Minh artillery ready for the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

 
January – February 1954:
Construction of defensive positions
– 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 defensive positions were set up in these sectors
– they obtained French female names in alphabetical order
– the defensive positions were composed of 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
– French positions at Dien Bien Phu were shelled at regular intervals

 
February 11-15, 1954:
Clashes with the Viet Minh near Isabelle
– heavy clashes with the Viet Minh near Isabelle
– the southernmost French defensive position in the valley
– 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

Dien Bien Phu - Legion - 1 BEP - 1954 - First Indochina War
The fanion of 1er BEP awarded with the Fourragere by then French Minister of Defence René Pleven, Dien Bien Phu, February 19, 1954.

 

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

 
March 12, 1954:
Dien Bien Phu organization
– France had roughly 6,500 infantry troops at Dien Bien Phu
– 2x airborne infantry + 10x infantry battalions
– between them, about 2,750 legionnaires (5 btns)

– in fact, then French battalions had some 450-650 men
– often, not more than 550 men (lack of volunteers)
– sometimes, attempts to use theoretical numbers (ca. 850 men)

– in addition to that, several hundreds of artillery personnel
– between them, about 350 Legion artillerymen (3 coys)
– also several hundreds of logistics personnel
– moreover, tens of armored cavalry elements (10 tanks)

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 would be seen as very poor

– GONO was devided into three sectors:

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

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

Southern Sector
– composed of one defensive position
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 the 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)

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 - Colonel - De Castries - 1954 - First Indochina War
Colonel Christian de Castries. The commander of GONO (all French units placed at Dien Bien Phu). A cavalry officer, he wasn’t habituated in defending a besieged stronghold. Once the Viet Minh started its offensive, he locked himself up in his command bunker and didn’t come out until the end of the battle. In reality, the organization and command of the camp would be conducted by French and Legion paratroopers, headed by Lt Col Langlais.
Dien Bien Phu - Colonel - De Castries - Lalande - 1954 - First Indochina War
Colonel De Castries and Lt Colonel André Lalande, then commander of the 3e REI and the Southern Sector of Dien Bien Phu.
Dien Bien Phu - Indochina - First Indochina War - defensive positions - Anne-Marie - Beatrice - Huguette - Isabelle - map - 1954
French defensive positions (red lines) of Dien Bien Phu, composed of several fortified strongpoints (black points). A rough idea.
Dien Bien Phu - French Garrison - Camp - March 1954 - First Indochina War
French camp of Dien Bien Phu, March 13, 1954. Much more accurate situation. We can see all strongpoints existing to that date. The green areas signifies French fortified hills, the blue line marks the Nam Youm river. Later, the garrison would be reorganized a little bit and other strongpoints would be built too.
Dien Bien Phu - French hills - March 1954 - First Indochina War
French fortified hills at Dien Bien Phu, March 13, 1954. Beatrice and Gabrielle would be overrun within the first two days of the battle. Their loss is seen as the main reason of the fall of Dien Bien Phu. Anne-Marie and Dominiques would be lost due to mass desertion of their defenders (local auxiliaries and North African troops). Both Elianes would be held until early May by only a few companies of French & Legion paratroopers + rotating elements, facing bloody assaults of several Viet Minh regiments, together with massive shelling.
Dien Bien Phu - Paratroopers - Commanders - March 1954 - First Indochina War
Paratrooper Commanders. The most occupied men at Dien Bien Phu. On the extreme right (with a cigarette), Lieutenant Colonel Pierre Langlais, the de facto commander of the French garrison during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. Behind him, Captain Pierre Tourret (8e BPC). Next to Langlais, also with a cigarette, Major Marcel Bigeard (6e BPC). He would command all paratrooper units in the field. Next to Bigeard, Captain André Botella, the commander of Vietnamese paratroopers (5e BPVN). The only auxiliary unit distinguished as a whole during the battle. Next to Botella (partially hidden), Major Maurice Guiraud, the commander of the Foreign Legion’s 1er BEP.

 

Battle of Dien Bien Phu: First Offensive

March 13, 1954:
Battle of Dien Bien Phu started
– in the afternoon, the Viet Minh launched its first offensive
– conducted from north-east and north
– in the north-east, an attack on Beatrice
– in the north, shelling aimed at Gabrielle (a false attack)
– the battle of Dien Bien Phu would begin at 05.30 PM (17:30)

– Viet Minh troops were led by General Vo Nguyen Giap
– at least 45,000 men on the hills around the valley
– also, thousands of logistics personnel

Attack on Beatrice
– the Viet Minh’s offensive started by an attack on Beatrice
– the easternmost French defensive position, built on two hills
– composed of three smaller strongpoints (1, 2, 3)
– held by legionnaires from 3rd Battalion, 13e DBLE
– the attack started with heavy shelling of Beatrice
– the shelling took two hours
– then the Viet Minh launched a massive infantry assault

– 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

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

  • Jules Gaucher had served in the Legion since 1934
  • he commanded a 3e REI platoon in Marocco
  • in 1938, then Captain Gaucher was sent to Indochina
  • in Indochina, he joined the 5e REI, based there since 1930
  • in early 1941, his battalion participated in the Franco-Thai War
  • in March-May 1945, during their retreat from Vietnam to China, Major Gaucher and his 5e REI legionnaires fought against the Japanese
  • they had to march about 800 miles (1,250 km) in 93 days
  • in 1945-47, Major Gaucher led the BM5 (Provisional Battalion)
  • consisting of the 5e REI survivors
  • he and his men returned back to North Africa in January 1947
  • two years later, Major Jules Gaucher redeployed to Indochina
  • he was serving with the 13e DBLE (1949-50)
  • in 1952, he returned to Indochina for the last time
  • Lieutenant Colonel Gaucher became the commanding officer of 13e DBLE
  • at Dien Bien Phu, he took command of the central sector

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

– the place of his death is mentioned as Gabrielle
– that evening, the northernmost defensive position was also shelled

Fall of Beatrice
– in the early morning, Beatrice was lost
– its HQ and strongpoints were destroyed
Beatrice was seized by the Viet Minh

– 3rd Battalion, 13e DBLE suffered heavy casualties
– Major Pégot was killed (battalion commander)
– 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 defensive position was held by the 1st Battalion, 13e DBLE
– legionnaires from 1st Battalion, 2e REI were also stationed there

Dien Bien Phu - Beatrice - Location - 1954 - First Indochina War
Beatrice. The easternmost French defensive position, composed of three smaller strongpoints (1, 2, 3). Built on two hills, it became the very first defensive position attacked and overrun during the initial Viet Minh offensive. It lies 1,5 miles (2,5 km) away from the French HQ.
Dien Bien Phu - Beatrice - Legionnaires - 1953 - First Indochina War
Beatrice. The defensive position of the 3rd Battalion, 13e DBLE in late December 1953. Below a “Christmas tree”, a banner with “Merry Christmas” in French, German and Vietnamese.
Dien Bien Phu - Beatrice - Legionnaires - 1953 - First Indochina War
Legionnaires at Beatrice. Legionnaires of the 3rd Battalion, 13e DBLE during Christmas, late December 1953. They are wearing khaki berets, a traditional head gear of the 13e DBLE taken from the 1940 Norwegian Campaign of WWII.
Dien Bien Phu - Beatrice - HQ - 1954 - First Indochina War
HQ of Beatrice. French officials visiting Beatrice and its HQ bunker, a home to Major Pégot, then commander of the 3rd Battalion, 13e DBLE. He was killed during the attack.
Dien Bien Phu - Legion - 13 DBLE - Lt Colonel - Jules Gaucher - First Indochina War
Jules Gaucher, an interesting figure of the Foreign Legion, killed the first day of the battle. Serving as the commander of the 13e DBLE and the Central Sector of the French camp (including Beatrice), his unexpected death would affect the destiny of the defensive position and, probably, the destiny of the entire battle at Dien Bien Phu.
Dien Bien Phu - Legion - 13 DBLE - Major - Paul Pégot - First Indochina War
Paul Pégot. The commander of the 3rd Battalion, 13e DBLE at Beatrice. Killed the same evening as Lt Col Gaucher, during the first Viet Minh offensive.

 

March 14, 1954:
new reinforcements
– a pro-French Vietnamese parachute battalion dropped over Dien Bien Phu
– 5e BPVN, composed of local anti-communist auxiliaries
– led by Captain Botella
– it would reinforce French troops

Attack on Gabrielle
– in the afternoon, Gabrielle was attacked by the Viet Minh
– the northernmost defensive position of Dien Bien Phu
– 2,5 miles (4 km) distant from the French HQ
– held by an Algerian battalion
– also a platoon of the 2e CMMLE (Ltn Clerget)
– the fighting took all the night

– 1st Platoon, 1re CEPML supported Gabrielle
– led by Lieutenant Paul Turcy
– placed at Claudine (a defensive position near the French HQ)
– the platoon was under Viet Minh shelling
– Lieutenant Turcy would be killed

 
March 15, 1954:
Fall of Gabrielle
– in the early morning, a counter-attack
– 5e BPVN was sent to help to defend Gabrielle
– accompanied by two companies of the 1er BEP
– they would launch a counter-attack, supported by M24 tanks
– however, the counter-attack wasn’t successful
– the northernmost defensive position was lost
Gabrielle was seized 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 would join their company at Anne-Marie
– 1er BEP withdrew with 9 men killed + 46 men wounded

– during the attacks on Beatrice and Gabrielle, the Viet Minh lost many men
– at least 2,500 of them have been estimated to be killed
– around 7,000 Viet Minh men have been estimated to be wounded
– in other words, two French battalions were attacked by two Viet Minh divisions

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

March 15 is seen as the day the French lost the battle

Dien Bien Phu - Gabrielle - Map - 1954 - First Indochina War
Gabrielle. The northernmost French defensive position, located 2,5 miles (4 km) north of the French HQ. A large fortified strongpoint, built on a long hill (some 500 yards, 450 m). Gabrielle was attacked and overrun as the second defensive position during the initial Viet Minh offensive. The loss of Beatrice and Gabrielle is seen as a crucial moment, resulting in the French loss of Dien Bien Phu.
Dien Bien Phu - Gabrielle - 1953 - First Indochina War
Gabrielle. The defensive position built by French airborne engineers. Held by a battalion of Algerians with support of a platoon of 2e CMMLE artillery legionnaires.

 

March 16, 1954:
Loss of Anne-Marie
– after the fall of Beatrice and Gabrielle, the most threatened defensive position
– composed of four strongpoints
– occupied by a Tai battalion (BT3) + 2e CMMLE legionnaires
– during the night, the Tai auxiliaries deserted from their positions
– 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 (near the French HQ)
– the Anne-Marie defensive position was abolished
– its two less outlying former strongpoints (3 + 4) were renamed
– they became Huguette 6 + Huguette 7

new reinforcements
– in the afternoon, a new reinforcement
– the same day as the fall of Gabrielle
– a French colonial parachute battalion jumped over Dien Bien Phu
– 6e BCP, led by Major Bigeard

Dien Bien Phu - Anne-Marie - Map - 1954 - First Indochina War
Anne-Marie. After the fall of Gabrielle, the northernmost French defensive position. Composed of four strongpoints, two of them built on a hill. The defensive position saw a mass desertion and had to be reorganized.
Dien Bien Phu - Legion - 2 CMMLE - First Indochina War
The men identified as legionnaires of the 2e CMMLE. The mortar company lost a platoon at Gabrielle, and had to withdraw from Anne-Marie, after a desertion of Tai partisans. 2e CMMLE men would support French troops until the end of the battle.

 

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

Lieutenant Colonel Maurice Lemeunier
– a new commanding officer of the 13e DBLE
– a French officer, in the Legion since 1934
– he voluntarily jumped over Dien Bien Phu on March 19
– he would take command of the Central Sector

Dien Bien Phu - Legion - 13 DBLE - Lemeunier - First Indochina War
Lt Colonel Maurice Lemeunier. The new commanding officer of the 13e DBLE and a new commander of the Central Sector of Dien Bien Phu. The image is taken during a Change of command ceremony at the regiment’s rear base, March 17, 1954. He would jump over Dien Bien Phu two days later. Maurice Lemeunier served with the Legion as a French officer between 1934-59. He would command the 4e REI in 1957-59.

 

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 Isabelle
– they had to keep an open way between the camp and the defensive position
– supported by M24 Chaffee tanks
– on the road to Isabelle, a fierce battle with the Viet Minh
– 1er BEP suffered losses
– 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 defensive position
– ex-Anne-Marie 3, placed at the end of the airstrip
– 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
– French aircrafts were repeatedly coming under fire
– the main airstrip was targeted by the Viet Minh artillery
– because of that, the aircrafts stopped to use it
– wounded men would have to suffer at the camp

Dien Bien Phu - 1954 - Helicopter - Evacuation - First Indochina War
Evacuation from Dien Bien Phu. A rare example of an evacuation carried out by a helicopter.

 

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 tank 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 of the Eliane defensive position
Eliane 4, located between Eliane 1 and Eliane 2
– built by French paratroopers to reinforce Eliane 1
– the course of events would confirm it as a good decision

Dien Bien Phu - Eliane 4 - Map - 1954 - First Indochina War
Eliane 4. A new strongpoint built behind Eliane 1. The course of events would confirm it as a good decision. Nevertheless, three important hills had already been lost.

 

Battle of Dien Bien Phu: Second Offensive

March 30, 1954:
Viet Minh’s Second Offensive
– in the evening, the Viet Minh launched its second offensive
– conducted from two directions
– east + north-west
– in the east, an attack on five hills
– in the north-west, an attack on two Huguettes
– each attack was carried out by a Viet Minh division

Battle of Five Hills
– a large attack on the eastern part of the camp
– aimed at five important hills with strongpoints
Dominique 1 + Dominique 2 + Eliane 1 + Eliane 2 + Mont Fictif
Mont Fictif (Phoney Hill) was bordering Eliane 2

– 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 1re CMMLE mortar platoon fought to the last man
– Lieutenant Colcy was killed, his platoon was annihilated
Dominique 2 was quickly seized by the Viet Minh
Dominique 1 was seized a few hours later

– the attacked Eliane strongpoints were occupied by a Moroccan battalion
Eliane 1 + Eliane 2 (Eliane 4 wasn’t affected eventually)
Eliane 1 was quickly abandoned by Moroccans
Eliane 1 was seized by the Viet Minh

Eliane 2 was heavily attacked
– also held by Moroccans
– 1st Company, 1er BEP (Lieutenant Luciani) supported them
– the 1er BEP legionnaires fought fiercely
– having faced an entire regiment, they managed to defend the strongpoint
– nevertheless, they suffered heavy casualties
– at midnight, a counter-attack by two 6e BPC companies
– supported by another 1er BEP company, led by Lieutenant Fournier
– the strongpoint was cleared of any enemy
Eliane 2 managed to fight off the attack

– that night, 16 men from the 1er BEP were killed or missed
– tens of 1er BEP legionnaires were wounded

– on Eliane (defensive position), also a platoon of the 1re CEPML
– led by Lieutenant Bergot and placed between Eliane 2 and Eliane 4
– the platoon’s artillery fire supported the defenders

Attack on Huguette
– a severe assault carried out by a Viet Minh division
– launched at the same time as the Battle of Five Hills
– conducted from the north-west direction
– aimed at the outlying strongpoints of Huguette
Huguette 6 + Huguette 7
– both were ex-Anne-Marie strongpoints (3 + 4)
Huguette 6 was held by 2e REI legionnaires
Huguette 7 was held by a 5e BPVN (Vietnamese paratroopers) company
– the fierce battle took all the night
– in the morning, the enemy was fought off
Huguette managed to fight off the attack

– however, the Viet Minh would continue in attacking them

Dien Bien Phu - 1954 - Five Hills - First Indochina War
Battle of Five Hills. The five hills attacked by the Viet Minh on March 30, 1954, during its second offensive. The fifth attacked hill was Mont Fictif (Phoney Hill), bordering Eliane 2.
Dien Bien Phu - Huguette - Map - 1954 - First Indochina War
Huguette. The defensive position attacked at the same time as the five hills. Viet Minh assaults were aimed at Huguette 6 + Huguette 7 (former Anne-Marie 3 + Anne-Marie 4).

 

March 31 – April 4, 1954:
Battle of Eliane 2
– another phase of the Viet Minh’s second offensive
– for the French, a 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 two Viet Minh regiments
– however, they were successful
Eliane 2 managed to fight off the attacks

– during the battle, some 1,200 Viet Minh men were killed
– thousands of Viet Minh troops were wounded or missed
– these heavy losses significantly demoralized the Viet Minh
– the division attacking in the east of the camp became paralyzed
– it had to stop its assaults for the next four weeks

– 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 an open way with the French HQ
– 3,5 miles (6 km) north of their defensive position
– however, the Viet Minh had already cut off 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 isolated defensive position

 
April 1, 1954:
a new reinforcement
– a French parachute battalion jumped over Dien Bien Phu
– 2nd Battalion, 1er RCP
– led by Major Bréchignac

Loss of Francoise
– the smallest defensive position at Dien Bien Phu
– occupied by Tai partisans
– 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 defensive position was abolished

Dien Bien Phu - Francoise - Map - 1954 - First Indochina War
Francoise. Another defensive position lost due to a desertion. Abandoned on April 1, 1954.

 

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 would 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 3 strongpoint
– after the loss of Huguette 7, the most outlying position
– an important strongpoint, protecting 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 Viet Minh 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 managed to fight off the attack

– in two days, some 800 Viet Minh attackers were killed
– the French lost around 200 soldiers, including many legionnaires
– a 1er RCP company reinforced the legionnaires on Huguette 6
– two days later, the company would be replaced by a 5e BPVN company

Dien Bien Phu - Huguette 6 - Map - 1954 - First Indochina War
Huguette 6. Ex-Anne-Marie 3, the defensive position had been attacked since late March, defended by legionnaires and paratroopers.
Dien Bien Phu - Anne-Marie 4 - Huguette 7 - Map - 1954 - First Indochina War
Huguette 7. At the bottom, right, a triangular, star-shaped strongpoint, Huguette 7 (a former Anne-Marie 4). It was overrun by the Viet Minh on April 2.

 

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:
Liliane (Lily)
– a new defensive position created, Liliane (also Lily)
– a small, auxiliary position, consisting of two strongpoints
Liliane 1 (ex-Claudine 1) + Liliane 2
– they would be occupied by a 4e RTM Moroccan company
– later, also a small Liliane 3

Dien Bien Phu - Liliane - Lily - Map - 1954 - First Indochina War
Liliane/Lily. A small, auxiliary defensive position composed of two strongpoints. Liliane 1 (ex-Claudine 1) + Liliane 2.

 

April 9-10, 1954:
2e BEP jumped over Dien Bien Phu
– another Legion battalion would reinforce the besieged camp
– 2nd Foreign Parachute Battalion (2e BEP, future 2e REP)
– led by Major Liesenfelt
– 2e BEP legionnaires jumped over the valley in two waves
– during the nights of April 9-10 and April 10-11
– at the camp, they would reinforce 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
– another French successful action in the east
– a French offensive to recapture 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 retake the strongpoint
– his men had been occupying the Eliane defensive position

– 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 already demoralized Viet Minh couldn’t defend it
– its combat-ready battalions launched several unsuccessful counter-attacks
– some 100 1er BEP legionnaires supported the two French companies
– finally, the Viet Minh had to withdraw
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

– this action confirmed then low morale of the eastern Viet Minh division
– it also confirms that even the Viet Minh had its limits
– third, it confirmed the high level of combat readiness of French paratroopers

Dien Bien Phu - Eliane 1 - Map - 1954 - First Indochina War
Eliane 1. One of the hills lost on March 30. It was successfully recaptured by French paratroopers on April 10. The small hillock north of Eliane 1 is Dominique 5, abandoned after the Battle of Five Hills.
Dien Bien Phu - Eliane 1 - 1954 - First Indochina War
Eliane 1, viewed from Eliane 4. Major Bigeard (6e BPC) decided to retake the hill after one of his officers was fatally shot by a Viet Minh sniper from there.

 

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

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

Dien Bien Phu - Opera - Map - 1954 - First Indochina War
Opéra. An auxiliary strongpoint to protect the airstrip.
Dien Bien Phu - Guy Bourges - 2 REI - 1954 - First Indochina War
Lieutenant Guy Bourges. The commander of the 4th Company, 2e REI at Dien Bien Phu. His legionnaires saw many actions on different strongpoints. On April 11, they got involved in heavy fighting near Huguette 1. In Vietnam a year earlier, Lieutenant Bourges and his company took part in a battle, in which 170 Viet Minh rebels were killed.

 

April 18, 1954:
Evacuation of Huguette 6
– an order to evacuate the strongpoint
– occupied by 2e REI legionnaires, led by Lieutenant Francois
– reinforced by a 5e BPVN company
– since early April, the Viet Minh had cut off the strongpoint
– to supply the besieged French troops, it’s necessary to fight fiercely
– it resulted in a serious lack of drinking water
– also, not enough troops to reinforce it sufficiently
– because of that, a decision to abandon Huguette 6
Huguette 6 was seized by the Viet Minh

– during the evacuation, Lieutenant Francois was killed
– over 100 men had been killed at Huguette 6 since early April
– the survivors would be stationed at Opéra

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

Dien Bien Phu - Huguette 6 - Map - 1954 - First Indochina War
Huguette 6. Ex-Anne-Marie 3. The strongpoint had been besieged by the Viet Minh since early April. It should be abandoned because of the supply roads being cut off.

 

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 13e DBLE company saw big troubles to reach the strogpoint
– its men spent all the night to make 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
– a strongpoint on the other side of the airstrip, close to the HQ
– during their return, many of them were killed or wounded too

Huguette 1 was attacked by a Viet Minh regiment
– Captain Chevallier and his 80 legionnaires fought bravely
– 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
– April 21, only 50 legionnaires remained to defend Huguette 1
– the Viet Minh was everywhere
– Captain Chevallier asked artillery to shell directly his strongpoint
– April 22, his radio went silent
– Captain Chevallier and his men were killed
Huguette 1 was seized by the Viet Minh

Dien Bien Phu - Huguette 1 - Map - 1954 - First Indochina War
Huguette 1. At the time, the northernmost strongpoint. Between April 19-22, the strongpoint saw fierce fighting and a “Camerone” of its defenders, some 80 men of the 1st Battalion, 13e DBLE, led by Captain Chevallier.
Dien Bien Phu - 13 DBLE - Jacques Chevallier - 1954 - First Indochina War
Captain Jacques Chevallier. Killed at Dien Bien Phu, when he led the 4th Company, 13e DBLE. Besieged at Huguette 1, he and his men decided to “make Camerone” – to fight to the last man. None of them would be captured.

 

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, a French airborne attack + heavy sheeling
– second, the ground assault should follow
– nevertheless, Major Liesenfelt delayed the attack
– the Viet Minh got a chance to recover and to be prepared

– then, 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
– they were stopped by an intense machine-gun fire
– just promoted Lt Colonel Bigeard (6e BPC) called off the assault
– this action ended the battles of the three Huguettes
Huguette 7 + Huguette 6 + Huguette 1 were lost

2e BEP would be dissolved because of heavy losses
– Major Liesenfelt would be removed from command

– Lieutenant Jean Garin, wounded at the airstrip, killed himself
– a platoon leader with the 8th Company, 2e BEP
– he got his legs seriously injured during the counter-attack
– two legionnaires had already died when trying to save their leader
– he didn’t want to see other legionnaires to risk their lives for him

 
April 24, 1954:
Provisional Foreign Parachute Battalion
Bataillon de Marche Étranger de Parachutistes (BMEP)
– that day, BMEP was established
– consisting 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 Huguette 4 and Huguette 5

Evacuation of Opéra
– an order to evacuate Opéra
– a small strongpoint, freshly created
– 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

– many volunteers jumped over Dien Bien Phu between March-May
– a number of them landed behind the enemy lines
– they would be killed or imprisoned without firing a shot

 
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:
Viet Minh’s Third Offensive
– in the evening, the Viet Minh launched its final offensive
– conducted from two directions, again
– east + north-west
– in the east, an attack on Elianes
– in the north-west, an attack on Huguette 5
– the attacks were carried out by three Viet Minh divisions

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 managed to fight off the attack, 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 managed to fight off the attacks
– however, the BMEP company lost 88 legionnaires
– 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
– the last strongpoint of Dominique
– it was composed of two small outposts
– held by Algerian companies
– supported by 6e BPC elements and BT2 elements
– in the evening, a direct Viet Minh assault
– the defenders faced two Viet Minh battalions
– they resisted the attackers for some time
– nevertheless, the strongpoint was 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

Dien Bien Phu - Huguette 5 - Map - 1954 - First Indochina War
Huguette 5. The strongpoint, held by a BMEP company, saw severe battles between May 1-3. The heavily outnumbered legionnaires fought bravely. Only 3 men left.
Dien Bien Phu - Dominique 3 - Map - 1954 - First Indochina War
Dominique 3. An important strongpoint, held by Algerians, placed between the already lost Dominique 2 and the Nam Youm river. Within two hours, it was overrun. South-west of Dominique 3, the strongpoint Eliane 1. For the very first time overrun during the Battle of Five Hills in late March, thereafter successfully recaptured on April 10, Eliane 1 was definitively lost on May 2, the same day as Dominique 3. Huguette 5 would be overrun a few hours later.

 

May 3-4, 1954:
a new reinforcement
– during the night of May 2-3, a new reinforcement
– a French parachute company jumped over Dien Bien Phu
– 2nd Company, 1er BPC, 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
– another French parachute company jumped over Dien Bien Phu
– 3rd Company, 1er BPC, led by Captain Pouget
– the company reinforced Eliane 2, to replace the 13e DBLE legionnaires
– Major Coutant and his 13e DBLE legionnaires withdrew
– they moved to Eliane 3
– used as a rear base of the Eliane defensive position

 
May 4, 1954:
Loss of Huguette 4
Huguette 4, held by BMEP legionnaires (Captain Luciani)
– also Moroccans (most likely from 4e RTM)
– no more than 220 men together
– they were facing an entire Viet Minh regiment
– at 12.30 PM (00:30), an intense 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

Dien Bien Phu - Huguette 4 - Map - 1954 - First Indochina War
Huguette 4. The strongpoint, held by a BMEP company and an Algerian company, saw one of the heaviest assault of the battle of Dien Bien Phu. 220 men were facing an entire Viet Minh regiment. After three hours of severe fighting, Huguette 4 was lost.

 

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
– they were the last reinforcement for the French garrison

 
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 destroying the strongpoints

Attack on Eliane 2
– probably the most important strongpoint
– the attackers had been trying to seize it for over a month
– resisting since the Battle of Five Hills in late March
– 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, led by Captain Pouget
– they were the last reinforcement dropped into the valley
– the French paratroopers repulsed the attack
– over 200 attackers were immediately killed
– the Viet Minh stopped its assaults
– the strongpoint would be shelled again

– at around 10.00 PM (22:00), Eliane 2 was blown up
– the Viet Minh dug out a tunnel through the hill
– then, it filled up with 2,100 pounds of explosives
– after that, the French command bunker was blown up
– less than 40 paratroopers survived the massive explosion
– between the survivors, Captain Pouget
– he and his men would fight yet another five hours
– at around 03.00 AM (03:00), May 7, the strongpoint was overrun
Eliane 2 was seized by the Viet Minh

Attack on Claudine 5
– a strongpoint in the west of the French camp
– held by legionnaires from the 2nd Company, 2e REI (Captain Schmitz)
– in the evening, Claudine 5 came under attack
– an intense Viet Minh assault would take three hours
– the legionnaires were able to fight off the attackers, however
– supported by the survivors from the 3rd Battalion, 13e DBLE
– nevertheless, the defenders wouldn’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

Dien Bien Phu - Claudine 5 - Map - 1954 - First Indochina War
Claudine 5. Held by 2e REI legionnaires and the survivors of the 3rd Battalion, 13e DBLE. Lost after fierce fighting.
Dien Bien Phu - Eliane 1 - Eliane 2 - Eliane 4 - 1954 - First Indochina War
Eliane. Most likely the most important defensive position at Dien Bien Phu, after the loss of Beatrice and Gabrielle. For both sides of the conflict, it had a psychologically-strategic importance. An entire Viet Minh division was paralyzed and demoralized after its failed bloody attempts to overrun it in late March. Thousands of attackers were killed, wounded or missed. Many Viet Minh officers had to be replaced and the division got four weeks to recover. To support the success of the final offensive, the Viet Minh decided to blast Eliane 2 into the air. Look at it and note its long slope. It was nicknamed “Champs-Élysées” by French paratroopers, after the famous avenue in Paris. In the middle, there was a French command bunker. It was blown up by the Viet Minh and a large crater has remained since then. It buried many French defenders and resulted in the loss of this famous strongpoint. The crater would become a symbol for the Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu.
Dien Bien Phu - Eliane 2 - 2017 - First Indochina War
Eliane 2 in 2017. The crater in the middle of “Champs-Élysées” (the French nickname for the long slope of the hill), made by the Viet Minh with 2,100 pounds of explosives. It blasted a French command bunker into the air and killed or buried many French paratroopers. Today, the crater is the best-known attraction for tourists at Dien Bien Phu.

 

Attack on Eliane 4 + Eliane 10
– at 10.00 PM (22:00), the Viet Minh launched an assault
– aimed at Eliane 4, the last French hill
– 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
– the defenders faced a Viet Minh regiment

– at the same time, an assault aimed at Eliane 10
– located between Eliane 4 and the Nam Youm river
– held by Moroccans + Tai auxiliaries from BT2 (Major Chenel)
– Major Chenel, a former Legion officer
– as Lt Col Gaucher, one of those 5e REI survivors from 1945
– nicknamed Zatopek, he would command the 2e REP in 1961-63

Eliane 10 was 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 suspended its actions
– an hour later, it launched new assaults
– the Viet Minh 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
– strongpoints located alongside the Nam Youm river
Eliane 3 was an original strongpoint
– held by legionnaires from 1st Battalion, 13e DBLE + Moroccans (4e RTM)
– it protected a road to the French HQ, crossing the river
– it also protected the access to the two newer strongpoints
– also served as a rear base for the entire Eliane
Eliane 11 and Eliane 12
– held by several French troops
– 6e BPC + Algerians + Tai auxiliaries from BT2 of Major Chenel

Eliane 3 saw aproaching Viet Minh troops
– in the afternoon, the 13e DBLE legionnaires were called off
– they left the strongpoint to protect the HQ
– shortly afterwards, at 03.00 PM (15:00) of May 7, the Moroccans surrendered
Eliane 11 and Eliane 12 were exposed
– the two strongpoints would resist only an hour
– at 04.00 PM (16:00), they were overrun
Eliane 3 + Eliane 11 + Eliane 12 were seized by the Viet Minh

the loss of the defensive position Eliane ended the battle

Dien Bien Phu - Eliane 2 - Eliane 3 - Eliane 4 - Eliane 10 - Eliane 11 - Eliane 12 - 1954 - First Indochina War
Eliane. The defensive position resisting since the Battle of Five Hills in late March. New strongpoints (11, 12) were set up to defend the French HQ in case of the loss of the important hills Eliane 1 + Eliane 2 + Eliane 4. The defensive position Eliane would be definitively lost on May 7, 1954. Its loss resulted in the end of the battle.

 

Battle of Dien Bien Phu: Ceasefire

Ceasefire
– May 7, a French decision to hold talks with General Giap
– a ceasefire was arranged
– at 04.30 PM (16:30), the strongpoints were informed about the 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 defensive positions were still being held:

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

Huguette
– held by BMEP legionnaires

Liliane
– held by 1st Battalion, 2e REI legionnaires

Junon
– one of the defensive positions based near the camp’s HQ
– set up to protect the HQ from the south
– 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

Dien Bien Phu - Eliane 2 - Eliane 3 - Eliane 4 - Eliane 10 - Eliane 11 - Eliane 12 - 1954 - First Indochina War
French strongpoints at the end of the battle. The strongpoints still held at the time of the ceasefire (or those not mentioned to be lost). The defensive position Claudine had almost all of its strongpoints (2, 3, 4) in French hands. Liliane/Lily wasn’t overrun (according to the Viet Minh). Two Huguettes should be still held by the French. Epervier (ex-Dominique 4), placed between the airstrip and the river. Junon, located between Claudine and the river. A few smaller strongpoints set up close to the HQ are not mentioned, since they didn’t participate in the battle.

 

Battle of Dien Bien Phu: End of Isabelle

End of Isabelle
– an isolated defensive position located 3,5 miles (6 km) from the HQ
– also the Southern Sector (led by Lt Colonel Lalande, 3e REI)
– composed of five fortified posts, close to Hong Cum
– four of them placed inside a natural meandr of the Nam Youm river
– the fifth was located across the river, near an airstrip
Isabelle was held by 3rd Battalion, 3e REI
– led by Major Grand d’Esnon
– also a Moroccan battalion + a French artillery battery + a tank platoon
– about 1,500 men + local auxiliaries (logistics personnel)

– on May 1, a fierce battle at the fifth outpost, near the airstrip
– occupied by a company of White Tai (Tai Don) auxiliaries
– they fought fircely, supported by mortar fire from Isabelle
– about 30 of them would be killed
– however, the Viet Minh had to withdraw

– on May 7, Isabelle didn’t surrendered
– Lt Col Lalande would try to withdraw to the south
– their goal was to reach French troops in Laos
– he ordered the garrison to form two marching groups
– they would march several miles 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
– it informed the French officials that the strongpoint was attacked
Isabelle was seized by the Viet Minh

– in the meantime, the two groups were marching to the south
– the vast majority of them wouldn’t pass, however
– on their way to the edge of the valley, they met enemy units
– clashes between the legionnaires and the Viet Minh took place
– within May 8-9, two thirds of the groups would be killed or imprisoned
– also the 10th Company (covering the withdrawal) had only 30 survivors
– only a few of small groups or individuals would survive in the jungle

Dien Bien Phu - 1954 - Isabelle - Map - First Indochina War
Isabelle. The southernmost French defensive position. It was 3,5 miles (6 km) distant from the camp’s HQ. The dotted line shows the original location of a small airstrip. Even today, we can see its borders. The small airstrip was used to supply Isabelle. Until March 22, 1954, it also served as an auxiliary airstrip for the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu.
Dien Bien Phu - 1954 - Isabelle - First Indochina War
Isabelle, burying the dead. The 3e REI legionnaires are managing burying their dead comrades, carried out by so-called PIMs (working Viet Minh prisoners).

 

Battle of Dien Bien Phu: Aftermath

French troops
– up to 14,000 French troops participated in the battle
– 3,200-3,800 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 the imprisoned, 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 punitive march
– the prisoners spent several months in the Viet Minh POW camps
only 3,290 men (including legionnaires) would survive the imprisonment

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

 
Viet Minh troops
– at least 55,000 Viet Minh troops participated in the battle
– according to both, French and Viet Minh sources
– over 20,000 Viet Minh troops are estimated to be lost
– according to the Viet Minh, 14,000 Viet Minh troops were lost

 
1954 Geneva Conference
– April 26 – July 20, 1954 in Geneva, Switzerland
– a conference to settle the conflict in Indochina
– France, Viet Minh, USSR, China, USA, United Kingdom
– the Viet Minh and its supporters capitalized on 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 officially took control of North Vietnam
– 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

 

Battle of Dien Bien Phu: Photos

– some additional photos to document the battle

Dien Bien Phu - 1 BEP - Guiraud - 1953 - First Indochina War
1er BEP at Dien Bien Phu. Officers of the 1er BEP during a celebration at the camp, several weeks before the battle started. In the center, Major Maurice Guiraud, then battalion commander. He would become the last commander (1960-61) of the 1er REP, dissolved due to its participation in the 1961 Putsch of Algiers. In the top-left corner, bearing a beret, bearded Lieutenant André Lecocq, killed on March 22, 1954. In front of him, partially hidden, Lieutenant Louis “Loulou” Martin, a well-known 1er BEP/1er REP officer, distinguished during the battles at Eliane, several times wounded. As Captain, he would be honored to lead a 1er REP detachment during 1958 Bastille Day in Paris.
Dien Bien Phu - Claudine - 1954 - First Indochina War
Claudine. Members of the 1st Battalion, 13e DBLE taking a break at the southeastern defensive position of Dien Bien Phu, several weeks before the battle started.
Dien Bien Phu - Camp - 1954 - First Indochina War
An airplane is leaving the airstrip, seen from a French position located near the HQ.
Dien Bien Phu - Supply - Airdrop - 1954 - First Indochina War
The French garrison of Dien Bien Phu had to be resupllied with almost 200 tons of food and ammunition per day. After the airstrip became useless, the camp was supplied by airdropping. By the end of the battle, hundreds of parachutes were covering the valley.
Dien Bien Phu - Trenches - 1954 - First Indochina War
PIMs (working prisoners) building the trenches near the airstrip of Dien Bien Phu.
Dien Bien Phu - Indochina - First Indochina War - 1954
French paratroopers (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 in March 1954.
Dien Bien Phu - Patrice de Carfort - 8 BPC - 1954 - First Indochina War
Patrice de Carfort (left, kneeling). One of the combat medics operating in the field. Although the excelent British writer Martin Windrow rates him among the 1er BEP legionnaires in his Foreign Legion Paratroops, in fact, he belonged to the 8e BPC.
Dien Bien Phu - Field hospital - First Indochina War - 1954
Field hospital at Dien Bien Phu. An underground French field hospital at Dien Bien Phu. No TV show, no comedy, only hard work in real conditions… 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 - 1954 - First Indochina War
Viet Minh logistics personnel during works around Dien Bien Phu. Tens of thousands of them had to build roads, bunkers, trenches or to carry heavy artillery guns up on the hills.
Dien Bien Phu - Viet Minh - Attack - 1954 - First Indochina War
Viet Minh attacking a French strongpoint at Dien Bien Phu, April or May 1954.
Dien Bien Phu - Viet Minh - Indochina - First Indochina War - 1954
A young Viet Minh soldier, captured at Dien Bien Phu.
Dien Bien Phu - French Prisoners - 1954 - First Indochina War
French troops imprisoned at Dien Bien Phu, including those wounded, were forced to march 380 miles (over 600 km) during 40 days, to reach Viet Minh POW camps on the border with China. Many soldiers wouldn’t survive the punitive march.
Dien Bien Phu - French Prisoners - 1954 - First Indochina War
French prisoners of the Viet Minh, captured at Dien Bien Phu, during their release in late 1954. Hundreds of French soldiers and legionnaires didn’t survive the harsh conditions of the Viet Minh POW camps.

 

Battle of Dien Bien Phu: Documentaries

 

 

———

Main image sources:
ECPAD (Defense audiovisual communication and production unit)
French Ministry of Defense

 

Main information sources:
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
1908 Forthassa Disaster
1932 Turenne Rail Accident
1976 Loyada Hostage Rescue Mission
1978 Battle of Kolwezi
1982 Mont Garbi Accident

 

 

The page was updated on: March 13, 2018

 

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