Battle of Dien Bien Phu

The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was the final battle of the First Indochina War between French troops and Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh (League for the Independence of Vietnam), a nationalist and communist movement, created in 1941 to fight the Japanese forces during the WWII. This major confrontation occurred in the valley of Dien Bien Phu (20 km / 12,5 miles long and 6 km / 3,5 miles wide), a heart-shaped basin located in Tonkin, then northern part of Vietnam, near the border with Laos. The main purposes were to cut off Viet Minh supply lines into the neighboring Laos, a French ally, and to defeat the Viet Minh in a successful and decisive struggle. The battle started on May 13 of 1954 and ended on May 7, while a unit of legionnaires fought until May 8.

Despite their plans, the French suffered a crushing defeat. The result of the battle culminated later in the withdrawal of France from southeastern 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
– in Indochina, a conflict started between the French and Ho Chi Minh
– Ho Chi Minh led the Viet-Minh (League for the Independence of Vietnam)
– Viet Minh was a nationalist and (later) pro-Soviet Union 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

November 12, 1953:
– the French made a decision to seize the sector around the village of Dien Bien Phu

– Dien Bien Phu is a large valley in the northwestern Vietnam, near the border with Laos
– the main tasks of the decision was to protect Laos, which was a French territory and had been attacked by the Vietminh
– another task was to use Dien Bien Phu as an advantageous location for a successful and decisive battle against the Viet-Minh

November 20 – 22, 1953:
Operation Castor
– the largest airborne operation of the 1946-1954 First Indochina War
– the main tasks were to seize and fortified the sector and to block Viet Minh transport routes
– French forces jumped over Dien Bien Phu
1er BEP + 1re CEPML jumped over Dien Bien Phu on November 21

November 23 – December 15, 1953:
Operation Pollux
– French troops, including legionnaires, cleaned the sector from the Viet-Minh elements

December 8 – 20, 1953:
– reinforcement – new supplies of men and materiel to strengthen the military forces of Dien Bien Phu

– two battalions (1st + 3rd) of 13e DBLE + a battalion of Algerian infantrymen (3e RTA)
– a Tai battalion formed by local volunteers (in the majority by Hmong people) from the Tai Federation, an autonomous and pro-French part of northwestern Tonkin (northern part of Vietnam)
– two Tai auxiliary companies

– Colonel Christian de Castries, a French cavalry officer, became the commander of Dien Bien Phu

December 23 – 28, 1953:
Operation Regates
– 1er BEP legionnaires + French troops from 8e BPC did reconnaissance between Dien Bien Phu and Laos

December 29, 1953 – January 10, 1954:
– new reinforcement

– new French forces, including 3rd Battalion of 3e REI + 1st Battalion of 2e REI + 2e CMMLE , landed at Dien Bien Phu

– on December 17, a platoon of legionnaires from 2e CREBLE landed at Dien Bien Phu
– the 2nd Foreign Legion Armored Vehicle Repair Company (2e Compagnie de Réparation d’Engins Blindés de la Légion Étrangère, 2e CREBLE) was sent to Dien Bien Phu to assemble ten M24 Chaffee light tanks of 1er RCC, a French cavalry regiment
– the platoon of 2e CREBLE left Dien Bien Phu on January 18, 1954

December 31, 1953:
– Dien Bien Phu was encircled by the Viet-Minh
– 4 divisions of the Viet-Minh, including an artillery division, 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 – a northern sector, a central sector and a southern sector

– strongholds were set up to become the strong points of the sectors held by French troops:

  • Anne-Marie (held by volunteers from a Tai battalion BT3 + a platoon of legionnaires from 2e CMMLE)
  • Beatrice (held by legionnaires from 3rd Battalion, 13e DBLE)
  • Claudine + EpervierHQ + 1er BEP + 1re CMMLE + 8e BPC + artillery + field hospital
  • Dominique (held by the Algerian battalion from 3e RTA + legionnaires from 1re CEPML)
  • Eliane (held by a Moroccan infantry battalion)
  • Francoise (held by volunteers from another Tai battalion BT2)
  • Gabrielle (held by another Algerian battalion + a platoon of legionnaires from 2e CMMLE)
  • Huguette (held by legionnaires from 1st Battalion, 13e DBLE + legionnaires from 1st Battalion, 2e REI)
  • Isabelle – (held by legionnaires from 3rd Battalion, 3e REI) + an artillery battalion + a light tank platoon

– every stronghold was composed of several outposts

February 1954:
– Viet-Minh artillery started shelling French positions at Dien Bien Phu at regular intervals

February 15, 1954:
– during a patrol close to Beatrice, legionnaires from 13e DBLE were attacked by the Viet-Minh
– 1 officer + 8 legionnaires killed, more than 70 legionnaires wounded

March 9, 1954:
1re CMMLE was placed at Dien Bien Phu

March 12, 1954:
– France has roughly 11,000 troops at Dien Bien Phu, including some 5,000 legionnaires
– the Viet-Minh has approximately 51,000 troops on the hills around the valley

 

Dien Bien Phu - Indochina - First Indochina War - 1953 - 1954
Dien Bien Phu (1954)
Dien Bien Phu - Indochina - First Indochina War - strong point - Anne-Marie - Beatrice - Huguette - Isabelle - map - 1954
The French strong points of Dien Bien Phu, composed of several outposts. The command HQ is 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, shelling Viet-Minh positions during Operation Castor at Dien Bien Phu (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 banner of 1er BEP is awarded by René Pleven, a French Minister of Defence, at Dien Bien Phu (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, the colonel Gaucher, aged 48, will be killed during a Viet-Minh attack. Colonel Gaucher 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).

 

Battle of Dien Bien Phu: March 13 – May 7, 1954

March 13, 1954:
Battle of Dien Bien Phu started
– Viet-Minh’s General Giap ordered the attack on Dien Bien Phu at 17:30 (5.30PM)
– the attack was directed at the Beatrice strong point (composed of 3 outposts)
– Beatrice was held by legionnaires from 3rd Battalion, 13e DBLE
– two hours of shelling was followed by an infantry attack

– 13e DBLE lost its commanding officer
– Lieutenant Colonel Jules Gaucher died of his injuries during first hours of the attack

    – he had served in the Legion since 1931, taking command of 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 1940, he and the 5e REI fought against the Japanese
    – in 1941, he and his unit participated in the Franco-Thai War
    – in March-May 1945, Captain Gaucher and his legionnaires from 5e REI fought against the Japanese again
    – in 1945-46, Captain Gaucher led surviving legionnaires of 5e REI (BM5 at that time) during their 3,000 km (1,900 miles) long foot march over the jungle
    – he joined the Indochina War in 1949 to serve in the 13e DBLE
    – in 1953, Lieutenant Colonel Gaucher became the commanding officer of 13e DBLE
    – at Dien Bien Phu, he was also the commander of central sector

– Lieutenant Colonel Maurice Lemeunier (in the Legion since 1934) took the leadership of 13e DBLE
– he voluntarily jumped over Dien Bien Phu on March 19

March 14, 1954:
– in the early morning, Beatrice was completely taken by the Viet-Minh

– around 300 officers and legionnaires from III/13e DBLE were killed or imprisoned
– less than 200 of them survived and were evacuated from the area to the HQ of Dien Bien Phu
– later, they reinforced Huguette held by legionnaires from I/13e DBLE + I/2e REI

– a Vietnamese parachute battalion (5e BPVN) composed of local anti-communist volunteers dropped over Dien Bien Phu to reinforce French troops

– Gabrielle, held by an Algerian battalion + legionnaires from 2e CMMLE, was attacked
– legionnaires from 1er BEP and the Vietnamese from 5e BPVN were sent to Gabrielle to launch a counter-attack

March 15, 1954:
– Gabrielle was taken by the Viet-Minh
– only a few Algerians and legionnaires from 2e CMMLE survived
– 1er BEP withdrew with tens of its wounded legionnaires
– the surviving legionnaires from 2e CMMLE joined the rest of the company at Anne-Marie

– Lieutenant Paul Turcy, the 1re CEPML commander, was killed

March 16, 1954:
– a French parachute battalion (6e BCP) jumped over Dien Bien Phu to reinforce French troops

– Tai battalion deserted from two outposts of Anne-Marie
– because of the incident, being left alone, 2e CMMLE was sent to Claudine
– a few days later, the rest of Anne-Marie outposts were renamed as Huguette 6 + Huguette 7

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

March 22, 1954:
– heavy fights with the Viet-Minh for 1er BEP

– 1er BEP + M24 Chaffee tanks were sent to keep the road to Isabelle free of the Viet-Minh
– the operation took place 5 km / 3 miles to the south of the central HQ
– while marching to Isabelle, 1er BEP legionnaires fell in an ambush by Viet-Minh
– 1er BEP received support from Algerians from 1er RTA placed at Isabelle
– hundreds of the Viet-Minh were killed, 1er BEP + 1er RTA suffered around 150 deaths
– the road was safe

March 27, 1954:
– the last evacuation of wounded soldiers from Dien Bien Phu

March 28, 1954:
– an operation against anti-aircraft artillery of Viet-Minh
– legionnaires from 1er BEP and 2e REI, alongside French troops, participated in
– the operation was successful, one of the Viet-Minh’s regiments was destroyed
– it was one of the few French victories in the battle of Dien Bien Phu

March 29, 1954:
– a new outpost, Eliane 4, was built by French paratroopers

March 30, 1954:
– new attacks launched by the Viet-Minh
– the attacks were directed at Eliane, Dominique and Huguette strong points

– Eliane 1 + Eliane 2 + Dominique 1 + Dominique 2 + Huguette 7 outposts were attacked
– Eliane 1 + Dominique 2 were quickly seized by Viet-Minh, Dominique 1 fell a few hours later
– Eliane 2 was fiercely defended by legionnaires from I/2e REI + 1er BEP (a company) + I/13e DBLE (a platoon)
– Huguette 7 was defended by the Vietnamese from 5e BPVN

– during the attacks, a platoon of 1re CMMLE defending Dominique 1, was completely destroyed

March 31, 1954:
– failed attempts to re-take Eliane 1 + Dominique 2 by French troops

– Eliane 2, still defended by legionnaires, was attacked again

April 1, 1954:
– legionnaires from 2e REI were sent at Huguette 7, to relieve 5e BPVN

April 2 – 3, 1954:
– Eliane 2, still attacked by the Viet-Minh, was defended by legionnaires

– Huguette 7 was seized by Viet-Minh troops
– remaining 16 combat-ready legionnaires from Huguette 7 were sent to Huguette 2

– French paratroopers from 1er RCP jumped over Dien Bien Phu

– the second Tai battalion BT2 deserted from Francoise

April 4, 1954:
– after 107 hours of fierce fighting, legionnaires managed to defend Eliane 2
– Viet-Minh withdrew from the Eliane strong point

– Huguette 6, held by 2e REI legionnaires, was attacked by five battalions of Viet-Minh

April 5, 1954:
– 2e REI legionnaires at Huguette 6 suffered heavy casualties
– they were replaced by French paratroopers

– the rest of the 1er RCP battalion jumped over Dien Bien Phu

April 6 – 10, 1954:
– legionnaires from I/13e DBLE replaced elements at Eliane 2 and Huguette 2

– legionnaires from I/2e REI, together with 5e BPVN, replaced elements at Huguette 6

April 9-12, 1954:
2e BEP jumped over Dien Bien Phu
– 2e BEP legionnaires were devided into several outposts within Dien Bien Phu

– failed attempts to seize Eliane 1 by the Viet-Minh

April 14, 1954:
– the Viet-Minh destroyed the runway of Dien Bien Phu

April 15, 1954:
– III/13e DBLE was decimated by the battle
– on April 15, the battalion at Dien Bien Phu consisted of only 80 men
– they fought alongside their comrades from I/13e DBLE

– Opera strong point was built to be held by French paratroopers from 8e BPC

April 17, 1954:
– a decision to evacuate Huguette 6
– Huguette 6 outpost was held by legionnaires from I/2e REI and the Vietnamese from 5e BPVN
– the outpost was fully surrounded by the Viet-Minh

– 1er BEP (reduced by heavy losses to 2 companies) moved to Huguette 1
– it will support evacuation of Huguette 6

– Huguette 6 was evacuated
– however, 2e REI legionnaires and 5e BPVN suffered 50-70% of losses

April 19, 1954:
– after fierce fighting, legionnaires from I/13e DBLE reached Huguette 1

– they replaced 2e REI legionnaires (4th Company) there
– while leaving the outpost, 2e REI legionnaires suffered heavy casualties (around 50%)
– I/2e REI (consisted of only 300 men now) was placed at Claudine stronghold, to occupy its outposts

April 20, 1954:
– a hundred of volunteers (mostly legionnaires) dropped over Dien Bien Phu

April 22, 1954:
– after fierce fighting lasting three days, Huguette 1 was lost
– 4th Company of I/13e DBLE was completely destroyed

April 23, 1954:
– 2e BEP was sent to re-seize Huguette 1
– the attempt failed, 2e BEP suffered heavy losses because of Viet-Minh artillery

April 25, 1954:
– 1er BEP and 2e BEP, both significantly decimated, merged together
Provisional Foreign Parachute Battalion (Bataillon de Marche Étranger de Parachutistes, BMEP) was established
– BMEP consisted of 4 combat companies, formed by the remaining para-legionnaires
– Major Guiraud took the command of BMEP

– Opera, held by French paratroopers, was evacuated

April 26 – 30, 1954:
– hundreds of volunteers (mostly legionnaires) dropped over Dien Bien Phu
– on April 30, many of them celebrated their last Camerone Day

– Lily stronghold was built in the central sector

May 1 – 2, 1954:
– new attacks launched by Viet-Minh

– the sector and outposts of Dien Bien Phu were constantly shelled by Viet-Minh artillery

– the heavy attacks were directed at Eliane, Dominique and Huguette strong points
– Eliane 1 (II/1er RCP) + Dominique 3 (BT2) outposts were lost

– Eliane 2, held by 13e DBLE legionnaires, was managed to defend
– Huguette 4 was also managed to defend
– its 80 para-legionnaires from BMEP fought off 3,000 Viet-Minh troops

– Huguette 5 (defended by 30 legionnaires from BMEP) was attacked
– the attack was launched by 1,200 Viet-Minh troops on the night of May 2
– after two hours of fighting, Huguette 5 was lost
– 4 men survived, the rest were massacred, no legionnaire was imprisoned

May 2 – 3, 1954:
– two companies of 1er BPC jumped over Dien Bien Phu

May 4, 1954:
– at Eliane 2, legionnaires from 13e DBLE were replaced by French paratroopers
– 13e DBLE legionnaires fought three days there

May 5, 1954:
– Huguette 4 was lost

– BMEP para-legionnaires were sent to Eliane

May 6, 1954:
– ground assault launched by Viet-Minh in the evening

– Claudine strong point was held by 2e REI legionnaires + a platoon of legionnaires from III/13e DBLE
– Eliane strong point was held by BMEP para-legionnaires
– Isabelle, an isolated strong point located 5 km (3 miles) from the HQ, was held by III/3e REI legionnaires
– Eliane 3 outpost was held by I/13e DBLE legionnaires
– the surviving legionnaires from 1re CMMLE, 2e CMMLE and 1re CEPML mortar companies, having no mortars nor munitions, supported several outposts only with their rifles

– 90 French para dropped over Dien Bien Phu

– two American pilots died in an aircraft shelled by Viet-Minh
– they supported the 3e REI defending Isabelle

May 7, 1954:
final battle

– Eliane 2 + Eliane 4 + Eliane 10 were seized by Viet-Minh
– the rest of BMEP legionnaires were decimated there

– Eliane 3 outpost was held by I/13e DBLE legionnaires until the end of the battle

– 2e REI lost Claudine 5, the rest of Claudine outposts were defended

– Battle of Dien Bien Phu was officially ended at 17.30 (5:30PM)

– the French forces were defeated

– Isabelle, held by III/3e REI legionnaires, as the only strong point continued fighting

– Viet-Minh launched a massive artillery attack against Isabelle

– within a few hours, the battalion was destroyed
– a few surviving legionnaires were imprisoned
– some 3e REI legionnaires disappeared in the jungle
– they wanted to cross the border with Laos and join French troops there

May 8, 1954:
– for the Isabelle, the battle ended at 01h30 (1:30 AM)

 

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)

 

The result of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu

– up to 14,000 French troops, including legionnaires, participated in the battle

– 4,000 – 5,000 of them were legionnaires

– up to 2,300 French troops, including legionnaires, are known to be killed

– more than 11,700 French troops, including legionnaires, were missed or imprisoned by the Viet-Minh in the POW camps

– only 3,290 of French troops, including legionnaires, survived the POW camps

– at the end of Geneva Conference (April 26 – July 20, 1954), France agreed to withdraw its forces from North Vietnam

 
 

The Foreign Legion units completely destroyed during the battle:

  • 1st Foreign Parachute Battalion (1er BEP)
  • 2nd Foreign Parachute Battalion (2e BEP)
  • 1st Battalion of the 13th Foreign Legion Demi-Brigade (I/13e DBLE)
  • 3rd Battalion of the 13th Foreign Legion Demi-Brigade (III/13e DBLE)
  • 1st Battalion of the 2nd Foreign Infantry Regiment (I/2e REI)
  • 3rd Battalion of the 3rd Foreign Infantry Regiment (III/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 were officially disbanded in May 1954 and never re-created

    – 1er BEP + 2e BEP were officially disbanded in May 1954 and re-created a few weeks later

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J0WJCql7_W8

 

———

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

 

Information source:
Dien Bien Phu (the official website dedicated to the Battle, in French)
More Majorum (German legionnaires in Indochina)
The Battle of Dien Bien Phu (in English)
FSALE (in French)
ECPAD
wikipedia.org

 
Foreign Legion’s disbanded motorized units:
1st Legion Saharan Motorized Company
2nd Legion Saharan Motorized Company
3rd Legion Saharan Motorized Company
4th Legion Saharan Motorized Company
Foreign Legion Moroccan Motorized Group
Foreign Legion Algerian Motorized Group

 
Foreign Legion’s disbanded regiments:
1st Foreign Parachute Regiment
3rd Foreign Parachute Regiment
2nd Foreign Cavalry Regiment
4th Foreign Infantry Regiment
5th Foreign Regiment
6th Foreign Infantry Regiment

 

 

 

The page was updated on: May 14, 2015

 

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