Sunday, March 04, 2012

Book Review: Dien Bien Phu: Hell in a Very Small Place

DIEN BIEN PHU, about 1700, 13 March 1954. The the 141st and 219th Regiments of the 312th Viet Minh Division attack the 3d Battalion, 13th Foreign Legion Demi-Brigade at isolated strong point Beatrice. By 0200 it is over. Only a hundred of the 500 legionaries escape, the Viet Minh lose 600 dead and two to three times that wounded. A sign of events to come.

Hell In A Very Small Place The Siege of Dien Bien Phu
Author:  Barnard B Fall
Original edition publishes by Harper and Row, 1967
This Edition by Da Capo Press.

"Hell In a Very Small Place is the classic telling of the siege of Dien Bien Phu and will probably remain the definitive telling. Bernard Fall follows the siege with a "Date Line: Dien Bien Phu" coverage, but also describes the larger strategic and political questions, ties them together, in smooth narrative that very few authors successfully accomplish.

The Viet Minh held the northern stretch of Viet Nam since 1950. Stalemated for years, the French did not have the strength to drive them back to the Chinese border, and the Viet Minh could only slowly increase their strength to take the Red River valley. (Hanoi and Haiphong).

The French had recently granted independence to Laos.  General Navarre, the French Theater commander ordered a "blocking position" at Dien Bien Phu on Route 41 to keep the Viet Minh from moving into Laos. General Cogney, the commander of the Northern comand decided the way to implement that directive was to use Dien Bien Phu as a "mooring point" to launch attacks  against Viet Minh activities in the area. It was never the plan, as often assumed, to set up a strong point to draw the Viet Minh into a trap. General Giap, the Viet Minh commander saw this as an opportunity to inflict a major defeat on the French. His units were moving even before the French occupied Dien Bien Phu.

The French parachuted and captured Dien Bien Phu on November 20 1953. By January the "blocking position" mission was shown to be unrealistic, a full Viet Minh division easily bypassed it and went into Laos. The "mooring point" mission was shut down by increasing Viet Minh pressure.  It was obvious by mid-January that if the French stayed there they would be defending against a major siege. Since the plan had been for a "mooring point" the base had not been constructed to withstand a siege and by January it was physically impossible to import enough material to properly fortify it. The French could have evacuated at that point but do not appear to have considered the possibility. At some point the operation slipped from a side show to the central action defining success or failure for the French in Indochina.

The siege started on March 13. After a month and half of intense combat it was obvious Dien Bien Phu would soon fall. The government in Paris issued orders that it would not surrender, the Americans surrendered at Corregidor, the British at Singapore and the Germans at Stalingrad but the French would not surrender at Dien Bien Phu.   On May 7 the garrison commander, to save his wounded, announced that a unilateral cease fire would take place at 1730, the French destroyed their weapons, the Viet Minh walked in without opposition. There was no formal surrender or white flags.

The heart of the book is the story of an inadequately staffed garrison, in incomplete fortifications, with constant shortages of food, ammunition, medical supplies, and most everything, fighting desparate odds with bravery and skill. Almost every day these worn out soldiers would fight off a an attack then get up and counter attack.  Of the 15,000 in the garrison only 3000 returned to French authority.  Fall treats the soldiers of the Vietminh with equal respect and sympathy.

Some interesting items.

While the larger war was a guerrilla war in the tradition of Mao Tse Tung, in the Viet Minh dominated areas where the battle took place the only guerilla activity was French sympathizing tribes fighting the Viet Minh. The battle was a conventional war siege resembling the trench warfare of WWI or the formal sieges of the 17th and 18th centuries. The massive influx of Viet Minh regulars destroyed the French guerilla forces in this area.

To defend the airfield, key to the position, the French should have defended an area twice as large, with a correspondingly larger garrison, to large to be supplied by the means available. Parachuting supplies kept the the garrison going at a subsistence level. New units were parachuted in to replace losses. 

How to build defenses to withstand modern artillery was published in everyones manuals since WWI. The French only tried to ship in one tenth of the needed engineering materials, the rest of the available cargo capacity was required  for food, ammunition and other essentials; even if all the flights were dedicated to engineering materials there still should not have been enough to complete proper fortifications.

The French force was a multinational and multicultural; French mainland, Foreign Legion, Moroccans, Algerians, other Africans and Vietnamese. The French mainland units were 25 to 50 % Vietnamese. Vietnamese were the largest single group. The Foreign Legion at that time was mainly, eastern European Spanish German and French. This crated a number of problems, rations had to be parachuted in there were several different menus then distibuted to the correct units.. Any thing that looked like favoritism or not recognizing unit characteristics could have ripped moral to pieces.

The Viet Minh were taking a considerable risk. They committed over half of their regular force. They barely had the capacity to supply these five divisions. Their rations were no more generous than the garrisons. Casualties were heavy, but they had virtually no medical infrastructure beyond unit the level. Veteran units at the beginning of the battle filled with barely trained conscripts for the last phases. Morale was often poor. At the end of March Giap realized that the casualties from direct assults were so heavy they would destroy his army. He called a halt to direct assaults and adopted the 18th century tactic of sapping and mining (dig trenches successively closer to the fort.) If things went wrong their war effort would be put back years if not lost. Fortunately for the Viet Minh the French never fully realized the opportunity and did not have ability to take advantage of it.

This books reputation as a classic in it's genre is well deserved.   A superb presentation of a story that will be told for centuries, long after the issues of the war are forgotten.   Fall is both fair and critical at the same time of people and decisions and makes a balanced analysis's of plans and events. There are excellent maps, and appendixes. It is clearly written, and leaves the reader with a good understanding of what happened and why. Readers without much interest or background in the subject might find the very detailed approach challenging. Other than that it is an excellent book and is STRONGLY RECOMMENDED.

Maothought or Who is Winning
TET 1968: A personal Narrative

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