NAVARRE’S LINE OF ACTION
General Navarre found himself, at the beginning of the planning, with two clearly-defined situations. The political situation in France did not allow him to define at any time the objectives to be achieved by the military component, where the only thing that was clear was the need for a quick exit from the conflict. Added to this was an alliance with different objectives. France wanted the control of the colonies disguised in an alliance, but allied colonies wanted their independence, and the U.S. wanted containment of communist expansion.
At this point, and considering the political / diplomatic situation, General Navarre self-imposes his mission: to have the Viet Minh sit down to negotiate with France. For this, he needed to achieve military might strong enough to make the Viet Minh believe it was impossible to defeat the French forces. The military situation in Indochina was not supported by any plan. Decisions were made daily according to the current situation. But General Salan had drawn up a Campaign Plan to be implemented in Indochina which, in view of the new Commander, was totally viable.
The plan basically resumed the initiative to control of the region. For this, the locals would be kept at the bases, two French divisions should be added, and more air or naval support would be needed. This needed to be implemented in no more than four months to be able to operate until the Viet Minh resumed its operations after the rainy season.
The plan was to be implemented in two phases: a defense phase while the new device is adopted; and an offensive phase to go to meet the enemy. The defense situation, in turn, had three possible situations: first, that the Viet Minh begin its operations to the south where it could be rejected; second, an attack in the north, which from a military point of view would be a high risk; and third, an attack creating a new line of operation through Laos that, although it did not seriously affect the military element, in the long term it would affect the entire defensive system, since Laos was the country closest to France, the first in contributing troops and become part of the allied colonies.. Therefore, letting it fall would result in the dissolution of the defensive system and the loss of support from the United States, which sought to protect the advance of communism, and the fall of Laos meant access to other countries in the region. This became public, because the communist political lines within the French government leaked the information and it was scheduled by the Viet Minh.
This plan was presented in France, both at the political and military level. On the part of the government there were opposing positions and it did not receive any directive, only the suggestion to protect Laos and, in this same line, less than twenty percent of the required air support and all the necessary naval means were agreed, which obviously they were not enough to protect Laos.
The two army divisions that were required were part of the ground forces assigned to NATO and, in view of the Commander of Indochina, given the Soviet capability did not change the current inferiority. But for French politicians it meant to abandon or disrespect the plan to stop the Soviets proposed by France. It its worth mentioning that the requested budget was totally rejected. This situation generated the need to sharpen the ingenuity on the part of the commander and his staff to carry out the plan without major means available despite the serious deficiencies that would result.
Unnecessary units were eliminated, staffs were reduced, isolated defensive strengths - called hedgehogs - were created, but with the maximum possible air support available in the theater of operations and the necessary mobile forces were created, demanding the maximum support of the Associated (Allied) countries in terms of personnel (recruitment and training of complementary military forces) and to the United States the necessary credit and material (although inadequate), since it was aware of and endorsed the Campaign Plan.
OPERATIONS UNTIL THE BATTLE OF DIEN BIEN PHU
Since June 1953, offensive operations began throughout the Indochinese territory, as mobile forces were generated, regaining control of part of the territory in the hands of the Viet Minh and destroying some smaller bases. These results did not go forward beyond the end of September of the same year.
Beginning in October, the Viet Minh forces were established into two large groups. The information that the French possessed indicated to them that a very important offensive was being prepared, probably to isolate Hanoi, so they initiated deeper operations and managed to disrupt the 320 Division of the Viet Minh. The Viet Minh troops, despite having retreated with serious losses, demonstrated a change in the capability of their men to fight.
From this operation, the French intelligence detected two possible maneuvers by the Viet Minh: one, on the north of Laos and another, on the center of Indochina. This purely political decision sought, on the one hand, to achieve a military advantage before the forces of the Associated (Allied) States and France managed to consolidate their Campaign Plan and, on the other, a triumph if not decisive, spectacular enough to get France to negotiate, clutching the center and unleashing the main attack on Laos.
The French did not have enough forces to directly confront the two attacks, leaning to analyze the possibility of threatening the rear of the two attacks to prevent them from happening. From the result of the analysis such operations were not possible, since the available forces - even subtracting those destined for defense - did not allow an indirect operation.
On October 28, Laos signed a treaty in Paris becoming part of the French Union and therefore, henceforth, the defense of Laos was beyond question. The final decision was the direct confrontation over the forces that threatened Laos and that were the main forces that the Viet Minh were mobilizing.
For this, the Castor airborne operation was planned to take Dien Bien Phu as the main base and other secondary ones. Dien Bien Phu would be reinforced from other bases once occupied by January but had to bring forward the date to November 20 due to reports indicating the Viet Minh's mobilization towards Laos. This proved a success, despite the opposing enemy units, positioning 9,000 paratroopers in three days. A Unified Command of the Center of Indochina was created by General Cogny, Commander-in-Chief of the North Vietnamese Ground Forces, with the support of General Dechaux, Commander of the Northern Tactical Air Group.
Although General Gilles carried out the assault and subsequent construction of the entrenched camp, on December 8 he was replaced by Colonel De Castries, since it was decided that it was better to allow General Gilles to resume his responsibilities, which were to organize and train the new units, according to what General Navarre had planned.
The French mobile forces attacked in principle the Viet Minh’s mobile units, focusing on their campaign bases with support from the air units. This was only a deception maneuver by the Viet Minh, since they intended to latch the French forces along the line defending Laos to concentrate their efforts on Dien Bien Phu by February 23, 1954, calculating a French intelligence attack for March 15.
The French calculated that the enemy could not endure more than three days of combat, because they lacked ammunition and heavy weapons. Therefore, they could defeat him after making a defense that would wear down the Viet Minh forces. On the other hand, the escalation of hostilities showed the fragility of the units of the associated (allied) countries, whose soldiers refused to fight, practically dissolving infantry units.
The Viet Minh mobilized its army with full knowledge of the future peace talks to be held in Geneva at the end of April, an element which the French forces were unaware of and which would have served to interpret the Viet Minh maneuver. In a hundred days, the Viet Minh, with the help of China, had recruited some 75,000 coolies and repaired 200 kilometers of road, which, even though it was attacked by French aircraft, could not avoid sending supplies to the Viet Minh. This drastically changed the situation for the French forces who requested reinforcements, but it was ignored by their government.
The strategic value of Dien Bien Phu was known by both rivals, it was the junction among Burma, China, Laos and Thailand and, since ancient times, the mandated access for invasions from the North, since it is practically impossible to surround it because of the mountains. The airfield could be extended, allowing it to reach most of Southeast Asia, although it was far from the French bases (approximately 350 km). On the other hand, the routes that unite it with China were in very bad conditions limiting the capability to send supplies to the Viet Minh.
The position to be occupied was a plain of 16 by 9 kilometers, surrounded by ridges that are 10 to 12 kilometers from the airfield, which could not be affected by light weapons and that was easily to defend in those circumstances.
By the end of January, the Viet Minh troops dominated the surroundings of Dien Bien Phu. Despite the efforts of the French artillery and aviation, the Viet Minh deployed their artillery and positioned their infantry, but they did not attack waiting to have all the necessary means to unleash the attack on the French positions.
Faced with that situation, the French began to conduct offensive patrols with severe losses and the Viet Minh suffered a serious setback when trying to attack Luang Prabang, returning to Dien Bien Phu. By March 13, the French had 12 battalions, 1 squadron of 12 M24 tanks, 6 and a half groups of 105 mm, 7 batteries of 155 mm, 8 companies of 120 mm mortars, 9 companies of 75 mm mortars, 6 combat aircraft, several observation aircraft, with provisions for 9 days and fuel for 8 days. In addition, they had placed tons of barbed wire and obtained special weapons (flamethrowers, hollow charges, mines, napalm bombs, etc.). The supply had been calculated in case of an attack at 70 tons per day for medium combat and 96 tons for intensive combat, which was a normal effort for the available aviation.
By the same date, the Viet Minh had 33 battalions, 1 regiment of 75mm, 1 of 105mm, heavy mortars, 4 light air defense battalions, 5 medium air defense battalions, 1 Chinese regiment with rockets, multi-tube projectile launchers and 25,000 men for reinforcement. Their positions were camouflaged, dispersed and with solid defenses. The supply is difficult to calculate but, to have an estimate, only projectiles and heavy mortars launched by the end of the battle were 200,000.
The battle began during the night of March 13 to 14, 1954 and lasted until May 7. From the 13th to the 15th the enemy reduced the isolated centers of resistance Beatrice to the north and Gabrielle to the northeast. From the 16th, the Viet Minh adds reinforcements and ammunition despite aerial attacks on their logistics. For their part, the French reorganized to rebuild their line of defense and reinforced themselves by committing reserves and, through resupply by air after the setbacks suffered, producing an operational pause on both sides.
Until the end of March, the French forces maintained the air liaison and the Viet Minh reinforced their artillery on the ridges around the field. As of March 31, the Viet Minh attacked the eastern side of the French defensive device, producing violent counterattacks, where the Viet Minh seized the northeast side by positioning its artillery 1,500 meters from the airfield, drowning the French logistics who, to make up for their losses, between 3 and 4 April reinforced it with a battalion of airborne troops.
As of April 5, and despite the serious human losses, Viet Minh forces drowned and reduced the French device despite the two battalions of reinforcements received between 11 and 12 April, and the violent counterattacks carried out by them with logistical support of 100 tons per day. Towards the end of April, the rains turned the few standing defenses into a swamp and on May 1 the Viet Minh unleashed a general offensive, with the French maintaining, with the sending of half a battalion, a small part of the initial device.
After a break from the Viet Minh, they resumed their offensive during the night of May 6 to 7 without interruption. There was no capitulation, only a progressive ceasefire. The last position, Isabelle, lost radio contact at 2 a.m. on May 8. France's intention to resist the enemy to the end - awaiting the imposition of a ceasefire by third countries in peace talks or pending the rainy season - only resulted in the total defeat of the French army, despite the incredible loss in human lives suffered by the Viet Minh. Due to the wear suffered, the Viet Minh could not invade Laos. General Navarre left his command on June 8.
General Navarre, who had no experience or knowledge about Indochina, was appointed to obtain an honorable exit from the conflict. Thus, he generated an action plan, just as he had been ordered, although it was dismissed. In these circumstances, General Navarre self-imposed the mission: to get the Viet-Minh to sit down to negotiate with France. To do this, it should achieve through the military component that the Viet Minh believe that it was impossible to defeat the French forces.
He concentrated on carrying out offensive operations throughout the Indochinese territory, and on the creation of mobile forces, achieving partial victories and the knowledge that a very important offensive was being prepared. The entrance of Laos into the French Union determined the direct confrontation against the main forces that the Viet Minh were mobilizing, attracting them through the capture of Dien Bien Phu by the French troops, mistakenly estimating an extension of the operations of no more than three days due to the Viet Minh’s lack of logistics.
By the end of January, despite French efforts, the Viet Minh positioned themselves around Dien Bien Phu, and did not attack until the completion of its forces. The battle began on the night of March 13, 1954 and lasted until May 7. Despite the French effort, the defeat could not be avoided, although the Viet Minh could not invade Laos.
Military success allowed the Viet Minh to achieve political victory, dragging France into a favorable peaceful settlement. After the talks that began immediately after the French defeat, on July 21, 1954 the French agreed to withdraw from Indochina, recognizing the independence of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The latter would be divided along the 17th parallel, governed to the north by the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh) and the south by a pro-Western regime, the Republic of South Vietnam (Dao Bai).
Throughout the article we can see the evolution of the Indochina conflict, ending it in the battle of Dien Bien Phu, to frame the situation in which General Navarre found himself when confronting the Viet Minh.
It was obvious that Vietnam was clear about its objectives: to achieve at all costs the total withdrawal of France and the independence of its country. At the end of World War II, the French had to resolve - within the political level – the government’s constitution, which during the Indochina campaign changed more than seven times, while Vietnam maintained a single ruler and a commander throughout the campaign.
The reconstruction of the armed forces was a crucial element for France, but it was aimed at consolidating the defense against Russia within NATO, and where they had created the concept of maneuver against the new enemy. As for the recovery of the colonies, Morocco had priority and, although it tried to regain control of Indochina, there was no definite policy, ranging from associating with them, recovering the colonies or granting them independence until they searched for an honorable way out of a conflict that could not be solved.
This indecision prevented the allocation of the means to achieve any military objective, as well as control over the press, which played a negative role in France by lowering the morale of the population and reporting in detail the situation of the French forces in Indochina. Only after Dien Bien Phu did the French government give concrete guidelines. The attempt to reach a peace agreement in Geneva precipitated the actions of the Viet Minh and the support of China to the latter.
THE INTERNATIONAL ENVIRONMENT
At the end of 1949, the triumph of Mao Tse-tung allowed the Viet Minh to have access to heavy weapons and ammunition. With the withdrawal of French troops from the northern boundary of Indochina, the Chinese border joined to the Vietnamese border through roads and trains that allowed them to maintain the logistics of a true regular army, while the French forces were dispersed in static positions to the detriment of the mobiles ones, with the subsequent consequent loss of control of the delta.
The peace meetings in Geneva were the turning point for the entry of the Chinese armed forces into the conflict. Five years after the conflict started, the US began to consider the Viet Minh as a communist movement and decided to support France economically and with military supplies, influencing the allied states. During the battle of Dien Bien Phu, the US and Great Britain evaluated the possibility of providing air support, which France never requested. This was a constant, since France did not want to lose control of the allied countries by internationalizing the conflict. The advance on Laos and Thailand by Vietnam, alerted Siam, which wanted to ask the UN for help, but did not at the request of the French.
THE OROGRAPHY OF THE THEATER OF OPERATIONS
The geography, made up mostly of inaccessible jungles, deltas and mountains and surrounded by a climate of intense heat and rain, made it difficult for French operations to develop, not only in terms of their equipment, but also in the adaptation of the combatant and the conduct of operations.
The control of Indochina allows the passage to South Asia from Western countries, towards the possessions of Great Britain. The strategic value of Dien Bien Phu was the connection it offered among Burma, China, Laos and Thailand.
Geopolitically, the control of the borders of the continent island or Rimland proposed by Spykman, would allow control of the region by the communist countries. This was known to China and the US who initiated the policy of containment and therefore became increasingly involved in the conflict.
THE DOCTRINE OF THE MILITARY AND OF THE ADVERSARY
General Lattre initially adopted a defensive position, creating a true Maginot line in the delta to withstand massive attacks and control the entrance and exit to the Delta. This took a lot of resources, the immobilization of 20 battalions and did not achieve any objective. He encouraged the incorporation of natives, focusing on the creation of allied armies and Vietnam, increasing the number of troops against quality. This did not prevent the expansion of the Viet Minh, despite its capability for strategic mobility and the support of the US.
The Viet Minh army had tactical mobility, a strong will, precise objectives, dynamics, the active participation of the population and an absolute unity of command against indecision, the lack of coordination among political, economic and military levels, the lack of popularity with regards to the war in a coalition with different interests from the French side.
THE COMMANDER (MISSION, PREJUDICES, LIMITATIONS)
General Navarre only glimpsed a military objective when the defensive agreement was signed with Laos, despite not having received a specific mission at the political level. This implied not allocating resources. The political decision to ally with Laos limited – with regards to conducting operations - the possibilities of undertaking the most appropriate actions against the Viet Minh. US support was for conventional warfare and was useless in confronting an enemy with high mobility, that did not offer high-value targets.
The Chinese presence, and its subsequent intervention, changed the situation drastically. The potential intervention of a bordering country was never evaluated. The determination of the Viet Minh to engage in combat was never foreseen, and its adaptability to overcome the French army was underestimated. Thus, the policy of the country, the international environment, the geography of the theater of operations, the military doctrine and that of the adversary, the assigned mission and the prejudices of the Commander himself put into play a series of variables that significantly influenced military operations, in this case leading to a defeat.
- Ian Beckett, (1989). Southeast Asia from 1945 (Conflict in the 20th Century). Publisher
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- Manual of Military History, Part III (1975). Air War College “Lt General Luis María Campos”. Buenos Aires.