Dien Bien Phu - the first strategic battle in Ho Chi Minh Era

15:55 | 05/06/2014

(Bqp.vn) - Since the Border Campaign (late 1950), the Vietnam People's Army won many campaigns, gained and kept the initiative in the northern battlefield. Meanwhile, French troops increasingly became distressed and passive. To save the situation, France had to strengthen their forces, change their operation plan, and send many generals into the combat. In May, 1953, by agreement with the U.S, the French government sent Army Chief of the General Staff of NATO, General Henri Navarre, as the supreme commander of the French expeditionary force in Indochina. After a month of field survey and investigation, in early July, 1953 Navarre worked out a systematic and comprehensive military plan which was later approved by the French Government and its Defense Council.

Navarre divided the operation plan into two stages. The first stage was from Autumn 1953 to Spring 1954. The French General set criteria such as: maintaining the status of strategic defense at the latitude of 18 degrees northward; attacking and occupying the south of Vietnam and the central Indochina; and suppressing the free area of Interzone V. The second stage, assuming completion of the first stage was to make strategic attacks to the North of Vietnam, and to force us to negotiate on terms favorable to French.

To implement the plan, General Navarre and the General established a strong mobile force of 44 battalions to the Red River Delta. They carried out the violent raids in Viet Minh territory; attacking Ninh Binh and Nho Quan; menacing Thanh Hoa and Phu Tho;   parachuting into Lang Son; and directing thugs to harass the Northwest. Then, they ordered their troops to parachute into Dien Bien Phu. Their plan was to get back Na San, strengten Lai Chau and expand the scope of occupying the Northwest.

The flag of “determined to fight and determined to win” in the Dien Bien Phu Battle, May 1954.

As for us, in late September, 1953, under the chairmanship of President Ho Chi Minh, the Politburo Central Committee and the Central Military Commission held a meeting to discuss military mission in the forthcoming spring and winter of 1953-1954. After General Vo Nguyen Giap’s presentation of combat plans, the Central Military Commision and the Politiburo determined warfare guidelines in Winter-Spring 1953-1954. These were as follows; using a part of our regular troops to open the offensives in the opposition weakest area. This was done to destroy their strength partially, and force them to passively scatter their forces to deal with our forces in more important areas. The strategic guidelines were to act positively, proactively, with mobility and flexibility.

To implement the intentions of the Politburo and Military General Commission, one part of our regular troops began marching up to the Northwest, the others to Central Laos to coordinate with the revolutionary armed forces of Laos.

Knowing that the Vietnamese army units moved Northwest, Navarre decided to “strike first”. On November 20th, 1953, France opened Castor’s operation to occupy Dien Bien Phu, gradually turning the place into a group of fortresses.

    To build Dien Bien Phu group of fortresses, France mainly strengthened their defensive capability, sent more troops, fires, new weapons, and other equipment for war to Dien Bien Phu. This included 17 infantry battalions, 3 artillery battalions; in addition, there were units of Engineers, vehicles, air force, and transportation. Most of them were elite units in the French expeditionary force in Indochina. The total troops in Dien Bien Phu reached over 16,000 men, sited into 49 entrenched fortifications in 8 outposts connected to each other. Each outpost was a defensive position - a “pocket of resistance”, including maneuver forces and defensive forces. Each was surrounded with many barbed wire fences and wire fences with concealed alternate mines. The “pockets of resistance” were to be linked into the subregion. The entire Dien Bien Phu group of fortresses was divided into three zones: North subzone (2 pockets of resistance), South subzone (1 pocket of resistance) and finally the center subzone (5 pockets of resistance). The pockets of resistance were located in relatively large spaces had both independent defense capability, and both solid fortifications and firepower such as mortars, flamethrowers etc. Furthermore, French troops also built two airports, Muong Thanh and Hong Cum in Dien Bien Phu to meet needs in supply and support by air.

With a large number of personel, firepower, fortifications and obstacles solidly and fully built, Dien Bien Phu base complex was “the strongest ever have never had in Indochina” and was dubbed the “giant fortress that could not be destroyed”. They said that if we opened a military offensive in Dien Bien Phu, that it would be the road suicide, and that failure could not be avoided.

As for Viet Minh, based on two main standing regular forces of the General Headquarters commander and the Interzones, the armed forces have formed the army units. This included ground artillery, air defense artillery, and military information. Our troops at Dien Bien Phu battlefield outnumber the enemy by 40,000 men to 16,000 men. But the French had the advantage of firing power and equipment, especially artillery, aircrafts and tanks. On the other hand, they were protected with a lot of pockets of resistance. Without proper combat plans and appropriate fighting tactics, it was impossible for us to defeat the enemy. Because only by destroying Dien Bien Phu group of fortresses, we would break the enemy defense, and break Nava’s plan, defeating their plot of stretching out and expanding the war.

Grasping the strategy of “swift win” of President Ho Chi Minh, under the leadership of the Party Central Politburo, Central Military Committee, General Staff made battle plan under the motto “swift attack, swift win”. He directed a number of units to train on how to fight a group of fortresses, and commanded our troops and people to beat the French military in Indochina war, and won the war entirely from the Dien Bien Phu campaign. This was the final strategically decisive battle in Ho Chi Minh era, finishing the nine-year marathon of our people against the French invaders. .

Dien Bien Phu’s victory demonstrated the strategic vision of the Political bureau of the Central Party and President Ho Chi Minh. The initiative and creativity of the Central Military Commission and the General Headquaters, and the ingenious brave tenacious fighting spirit of officers, soldiers and people of Vietnam. The final strategically decisive Battle of Dien Bien Phu was actually an intellectual duel between the two sides:

Firstly, we actively promoted the process of attacks, forcing the enemy forces to passively disperse at critical points, creating favorable conditions and expected opportunities to conduct the final strategic battle.

When the Winter-Spring 1953-1954 war situation went on, on the basis of proactive comprehension on the enemy and our situations in the fields and investigation on the operational plans under the directional ideology of the Central Military Committee, General Staff conducted the research and made the combat plans, and determined the direction of strategic offensive. To break Nava’s plan, we must first disperse major blocks of strategic maneuvers to force the enemies to react in a passive manner. This would disable them from concentrating their forces to cope up with our regular forces in battle. Later we gradually drove regular units of the French army in different directions, breaking the enemy’s combat on the battlefield.

    Based on combat plans defined and prepared for the final battle of Dien Bien Phu, the General Staff used the regular troops coordinating on the battlefields in the whole country and all over Indochina. Our military and people across the North, Central, and South opened five operations in different directions including: the North West, Upper Laos, Central Laos, Lower Laos and the Central Highlands. These were where there were small and weak enemy forces, but also the strategic areas that they could not abandon. In particularly the battlefield of Laos, along with the advance to contact the Northwest, at the end of December 1953, Lao-Vietnamese coalition troops together opened an offensive in the direction to central Laos, freeing Thakhet town. Then, the coalition troops advanced to Xeno, an important enemy air base in Xavanakhet, forcing the enemy to maneuver troops in a rush from the northern delta and from the other battlefields in support there. To divert the enemy's judgement, and create favourable conditions for our troops we stepped up all the preparations in Dien Bien Phu in late January, 1954. Also our troops in coordination with the Lao liberation army opened a campaign to enemy defence lines in the area of Nam Ou River, forcing the enemy to send more troops to Luang prabang. After the victory in Central Laos, North Laos, Lao and Vietnamese soldiers continued to advance down to South Laos freeing Attapeu town and the entire Boloven plateau. This crushed Nava’s scheme of concentrating maneuver forces in the delta, forcing them to disperse their forces all over to help cope with us.

Along with five strategic offensives, the General Staff directed the armed forces and local people to intensify guerilla war to drive enemy back from the South, South Central Part, and Binh - Tri - Thien to North Delta, foiling land-occupied and civilian-gained raids of the French troops. The most critical areas of the enemy were attacked, Day river defensive lines were broken, many airports were ambushed, and Highway N0 5 was separated into several sections of which the traffic was paralyzed for weeks. Everywhere, people revolted to fight against betrayers, many enemies’ posts were at siege, and therefore the enemy had to retreat or surrender. Owning to the five strategic offensives against enemy’s raids, our troops and people destroyed many enemy forces, liberating many areas of vast land, crushing the enemy’s plot of using strong maneuver troops in a front-Northern Delta, forcing them to disperse troops to cope with us. Thus, the Navarre’s specific plans of mustering troops turned into passive attacks, and the troops dispersed. Nava’s “Maneuver troops” in the plain was cut down from 44 battalions to 20. Navarre’s plans since then began to fail.

Secondly, we built up forces, formed firm battlefield, chose the right opportunities, and gained the initiative “steady fighting, make progress” on the battlefield.

Strength, condition, time and strategic schemes were very important factors. Strength is the spiritual, physical power of the whole army and people under the leadership of the Party. The power of the revolutionary forces was raised by the people's war strategy, and by bringing into play the strength of the whole nation at the time. On the battlefield, a large scale attack took place, our armed forces and people fought in all directions.

Before opening fire for the start of the campaign (March 13), the French troops at Dien Bien Phu were in disadvantageous situation, the enemy's forces were stretched out all over Indochina, therefore they had no conditions to support Dien Bien Phu. We laid siege to the enemy, getting close to Dien Bien Phu’s hollow, laying down scattered fire on the features of the hollow to form a round to the group of fortresses. This was aimed directly at the targets underground; artillary guns and ammunition were placed and concealed in tunnels dug deeply in the mountainside. On the other hand, Dien Bien Phu was a battlefield of mountain and forest, completely isolated and far away from the rear base of the enemy; therefore, all supplies relied on aircrafts. However, the weather in March in Dien Bien Phu was densely foggy, and thus it wasn’t favorable for aircrafts to take off, land, airdrop, and supply. For that disadvantage, the French troops at Dien Bien Phu were put into passive defense, their strengths became weaknesses, and therefore, they could not promote efficiency. There were opportunities to gain the initiative on the battlefield, through analysing, evaluating our strengths and weaknesses and those of our enemy’s, we would cope with a huge obstacle when carrying out the guideline “fast advance and fast settle”. Our military had no experience in fighting against the group of fortresses. As a result, “fast advance, fast settle” would probabaly result in losing. Therefore, we resolutely turned the guideline into “swift attack, swift win” to take advantage of the time to reorganise our forces. Owning to their strength, The French advocated “fast fighting fast winning”. We advocated “permanent resistance” to build our force, and to break the enemy's plot. With thought and determination to fight for a definite victory, and only a definite victory, was a fundamental principle in the direction of the Vietnamese revolutionary war.

The art of war: we implemented “flexibility against rigidity”. The group of fortresses of Dien Bien Phu had artillery firepower, a strong mechanized force air force. To reduce the enemy's fire and promote our own, we had to build a net of trenches, and determine a battlefield system for advancing and surrounding the enemy. That enabled our troops to deploy and maneuver under the enemy's fire, our artillery guns were transported nearby to dominate the airport and the use of anti-aircraft guns coped effectively with the French’s air force. By this tactics, we prevented and stopped the enemy’s supplies and backups, and stopped the French troops from using their superiorities. France wanted to fight fast but we wanted to prolong it. Thus, we were sure to win.

Our military stratagem was to promote strength and creativity of the whole Party and the people. We knew how to inherit and promote Ho Chi Minh’s military ideology in the people’s war to “make the small win the big”, “make the less cope with the more”, “make the primitive win the modern”. The overview of the whole war situation of Spring-Winter 1953-1954 and Dien Bien Phu field pointed out that, we had implemented thoroughly the battle guideline “avoid strong places, attack weak places" of the enemy, making a change in the balance of power and position between the two sides, and when favorable, we attacked, surrounded to win thoroughly.

Thirdly, we effectively deployed coordination between joint forces and three services.

From the nationwide resistance war (started on December 19th, 1946) to the Dien Bien Phu campaign, we launched many campaigns on a smaller scale. Dien Bien Phu was the biggest campaign in which we mobilized 4 infantry divisions (304, 308, 312, and 316), engineers- artillery division 351 and an engineer regiment. The total number of regular troops was more than 40,000 strong. We also mobilized more than 50,000 youth volunteers, and over 4,000 conscripted labourers and hundreds of vehicles such as packed bicycles, different kinds of trucks etc. This was the offensive campaign with the largest force involved in the resistance against the French, and the coordination between some services such as infantry, artillery, antiaircraft artillery, and engineers to destroy the enemy on mountainous terrain.

During the first stage of the campaign, on the front direction, we pinned the enemy down at Dien Bien Phu, enabling our troops to destroy the enemy in other areas. On the national battlefield, we held a large-scale collaboration between the front battlefield and behind the enemy. On every battlefield, there was coordination among the main front and the enemy’s rear area. Basically, Dien Bien Phu became the main front. As we pinned the French down at Dien Bien Phu over a long time, guerrilla warfare in other places had favorable conditions to thrive and gain victory.

For the battlefields of the North, Central, and the South of Vietnam and Indochina, the armed forces and local people continuously operated to coordinate with the battlefield of Dien Bien Phu, to destroy the enemy and prevented them from reinforcing Dien Bien Phu. The coordination between the regular army, the local armed forces and guerilla militias everywhere contributed to the strength of our army in Dien Bien Phu.

From March 13th, 1954, the first stage of the campaign. We began attacking Dien Bien Phu’s fortress. At the same time, the main force on the fore fronts surrounded the enemy fighting constantly and in concentrated positions to destroy them. By focusing forces tightly coordinating them step by step, we occupied each outpost and each zone. As well as building systems and sub regions, gradually tightening the siege, according to the tactics “peel” the outer center of resistance and break the inner in-depth defense of the enemy. This created favorable conditions for us to proceed to strike at the most critical areas in the enemy defense.

Along with the activities of the siege of infantry, artillery and anti-aircraft machine guns were deployed in the valley that created a net of air defense to prevent French aircrafts from resupplying their besieged forces in Dien Bien Phu. It was the close and efficient coordination between infantry, artillery and air defense, and between offensive forces with the task of killing each entrenched fortification. These forces were also tasked to prevent the enemy’s counter-attacks, protect our occupied targets and defend our offensive and enclosed position. This was carried out by occupying the area between the large battle to kill a large number of French troops and for encroachment, using snipers and hitting deeply into the group of outposts.

After three stages of attacking in 56 days and nights, we finally destroyed the entire group of outposts of Dien Bien Phu, and won a glorious victory against the French colonialists and the intervention of America. We completely defeated the the highest military attempt of the French in the aggressive war in Indo-China, forcing them to sign the Geneva Agreement in Geneva (July 1954), ending the aggressive war in Vietnam.

The victory of the Dien Bien Phu campaign has left our army and people in general and especially the General Staff with valuable experience. Particularly in the victory, we translated the political ideology and the guidelines of the Party and the President Ho Chi Minh into the specific conditions of the Vietnam War, as exemplified by the following:

Firstly, always be thoroughly aware of offensive thought; correctly assess the balance of power between our force and enemy’s one in the development of the war.

Secondly, proactively select the directions of strategic operations, accurately choose the main battlefields and targets, and creatively and flexibly combine types of warfare.

Thirdly, keep secrets and surprise, create and seize opportunities with continuous offensives.

Fourthly, constantly improve the level and scale of joint combat troops, making an effort to destroy enemy’s troops and equipment as much as possible in campaigns and decisive battles.

Inheriting and promoting the experience learnt from the Winter-Spring 1953-1954 war in general, and the Dien Bien Phu campaign in particular, The General Staff under the leadership and direction of the Central Military Commission and Ministry of Defense continues to thoroughly increase the awareness of the directives and resolutions of the Party and State on the task of local military defense, make the Vietnam People's Army in the revolutionary, regular, seasoned, and gradually modernized.

To meet the requirements of the current situation, the General Staff has always actively: researched; advised; proposed; drafted plans, strategies and tactics such as training, building and organising forces; planning, arranging and combining defense with economic and social development; building the people defense and the people’s military security in the nation and in each locality; constructing region and solid lines of defense; being prepared to shift from peacetime to wartime. During the resistance war to defend the country, we need to promote potentials in all areas; be thoroughly aware the strategic motto “make the small win the big”, “make the less cope with the more”,  in: constructing armed forces; training soldiers; constantly improving ability and scale of joint-service troops; combining the power of local people's war and power of the regular army corps; combining the local forces and maneuver forces; enhancing the strength of the forces in three services; paying attention to building a strong reserve force; spreading militia who are ready to fight for national defense in all situations.

Currently, the context in our country, region and in the world contains complicated and unpredictable events. The hostile forces with their strategy of “peaceful evolution”, violent overthrow are always inventing opportunities to intervene and sabotage the revolutionary cause of the Party and our people. For the military, they must be often fully aware of all policies and guidelines of the Party and State, and directly, the Central Military Commission, Ministry of Defense. These are to: properly and creatively realize principles and viewpoints of the Party on leading and implementing the national defense tasks; protecting the country according to credos, resolutions, and particularly Resolution 8 session XI on the national defense strategy in the new situation. It is particularly important to: raise the intellectual abilities of the army, leadership skills, and implementation; strengthen the unity of the Party and enhance the exemplary vanguard of cadres and party members, especially executive committees and the heads; promote synergy of the whole nation and the whole political system; firmly safeguard independence, sovereignty, unity, territorial integrity, national interest, and protect the Party, State, the people and the socialist regime; gradually build national defense potential and security of the country; improve the quality of the armed forces; strengthen State management of defense - security; prevent and frustrate any plots and activities destabilizing political, social situations and harming the national construction and defense .


Senior Lieutenant General Do Ba Ty, member of the Party Central Committee, member of the Standing Military Central Committee, Chief of the General Staff of the VPA cum Deputy Defence Minister

Ministry of National Defence - Socialist Republic of VietNam
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