Road to Dien Bien Phu

French colonial ambitions led to la sale guerre, France’s dirty war in Indochina, 1946–54. By Craig Tibbitts

The war between the French and the Vietnamese from 1946 to 1954 is relatively unknown in the English-speaking world, yet knowledge of this conflict is essential to a full understanding of the Vietnam War that followed. The war’s root causes and the key actors’ ambitions were often clouded by greater concerns and perceptions of “world order”. Many experiences, mistakes and missed opportunities would be uncannily repeated as France bowed out and the United States took over. Indeed, some view the two wars as one long war from 1945 to 1975. The initial stage is generally referred to as the First Indochina War. To the Vietnamese it was simply known as the French War.

Vietnam has battled foreign domination for much of the past 2,000 years. From the first century BC until the early tenth century, this land of great beauty and resource was invaded and annexed by successive Chinese dynasties. Independent for centuries thereafter, Vietnam once more came under foreign domination as France sought overseas colonies. Between 1858 and 1883, all of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia was seized as the French “protectorates” of Indochina. As India was to Great Britain, so Indochina became the jewel of France’s Third Republic. Rich in resources and exotic culture, the colony became prosperous as business boomed and the French administration grew. But the French were not kind overlords. Resources were exploited and the people were treated as little more than servants and a source of cheap labour. The administration was harsh too: any dissent or threat of revolt was swiftly crushed – many were imprisoned and many executed over the years of French rule.

French foreign legion soldiers

French Foreign Legion soldiers question a man suspected of aiding the Viet Minh, c.1954 Photo: US Information Agency National Archives Records Administration, 541969

The coming of the Second World War changed everything. Indochina was a relative backwater during this great upheaval and is barely mentioned in most Western histories of the war. Yet events in this part of the world were complex – as always seemed to be the case in Vietnam – and would have important consequences for decades to come.

With the fall of France in June 1940, the Vichy government took over and the nation’s overseas colonies came under its control. In September that year the Japanese invaded Tonkin (northern Vietnam) to stop supplies reaching the Chinese, with whom they had been at war since 1937. In July 1941, in preparation for an invasion of Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, Japan invaded the southern parts of Vietnam. The occupation would last until the end of the war, with the Vichy French administration kept in place to run the country.

French Marine commandos arrive on the Annam coast in central Vietnma, July 1950. Photo: Associated Press

French Marine commandos arrive on the Annam coast in central Vietnam, July 1950. Photo: Associated Press

Planning revolution

Earlier in 1941, a small band of Vietnamese had met in the remote north of the country. Sensing an opportunity for revolution amid the turmoil, Ho Chi Minh and his communist followers established the Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi, or the Revolutionary League for the Independence of Vietnam – Viet Minh for short. Fearing Allied invasion and French duplicity, in March 1945 the Japanese ousted the French administration and imprisoned their troops. With the end of the war in August 1945, Ho’s communists seized the moment, immediately launching their August Revolution and taking control of much of the country. On 2 September Ho proclaimed Vietnam’s independence and the creation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV).

But as events would prove, the situation in Vietnam would soon get much more complicated. As planned, the victorious Allies began occupying Vietnam to accept Japanese surrenders and disarm their troops. The British moved into the southern half of Vietnam, while 150,000 Nationalist Chinese troops occupied the north. The British, deferring to French desires to resume control,  imposed martial law and fighting broke out immediately. Re-armed Japanese troops, called on to help control the situation, were also caught up in the fighting. Some deserted and joined the Viet Minh, giving them weapons and military training. On 23 September, newly-arrived French commandos  and freed POWs forcibly overthrew the Viet Minh-led Southern Provisional Executive Committee in Saigon.  By October the French were back in force and moved quickly to re-establish control over their colony. Ho was in a precarious position. Too weak to fight the Chinese or the French, he made a pragmatic deal. It was agreed in early March 1946 that France would recognise Vietnam as a free state within the French Union, and 25,000 French troops would be stationed in Vietnam for the next five years. The Chinese would leave – they had a civil war to deal with back home.

French troops in silt trenches

French troops in silt trenches at Dien Bien Phu; the wounded suffered terribly. Photo Service Presse Information

The Viet Minh knew full well that France had no intention of granting them meaningful independence, and both sides knew war would follow. Fighting broke out in the north, first at the port of Haiphong in late November 1946, then on 19 December in Hanoi. With the Viet Minh’s call to arms for a general uprising, the war began in earnest.

The Viet Minh had formed a military wing in December 1944, comprising at first just 31 men, three women and a handful of light arms. From these very meagre beginnings the Vietnam National Army, as it was known in 1946, would emerge into one of the most formidable armies in the world. Renamed the People’s Army of Vietnam in 1950, it was led by the charismatic Vo Nguyen Giap. During the First Indochina War and ever since, most have referred to both the political party and their regular army simply as the Viet Minh. Supporting the regulars were numerous regional and local part-time guerrilla units.

The French Far East Expeditionary Corps was formed in Indochina in 1945, with its main purpose the re-establishment of French authority in their colony. While a sizeable portion were regulars from metropolitan France, many were from France’s African colonies: Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Senegal. Around half the French Union troops were from Indochina itself: anti-communist Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians loyal to France. These were a mix of regulars and part-time soldiers, similar to the communist forces. The quality of the troops varied greatly. Some were inexperienced and unreliable, while others, such as French armoured units, paratroopers and the Foreign Legion were elite troops.

Three-phase war

After the initial outbreak in late 1946, the French quickly overpowered the Viet Minh, and drove them into the hinterlands along the Chinese border. By April they had control of the main towns and highways, as well as the vital Red River Delta around Hanoi and Haiphong. Hunted, the Viet Minh remained elusive, declining major battles. This was in keeping with the three-phase war Ho and Giap had adopted from the Chinese model of revolutionary warfare. First there would be a protracted period of hit-and-run guerrilla fighting. Next, as the guerrillas built up strength and support, larger-scale attacks on the enemy would ensue, supported by a widespread insurgency across the country. The third and final phase would involve mobile warfare and larger conventional attacks, designed to overrun and destroy the enemy.

In 1947 the French launched Operation Léa, intended to capture Ho’s main base in the remote north and destroy the Viet Minh. Paratroopers narrowly missed capturing Ho and Giap at Bac Can, and were then surrounded and attacked. Three French columns moving by road to support the paratroopers were relentlessly ambushed. While they made it back to the safety of the delta defences, the French had failed to strike a decisive blow and soon realised they were up against a formidable enemy. The Viet Minh would only grow stronger.

As the guerrilla war continued, the French controlled the cities, towns and major roads by day, but the Viet Minh ruled the countryside and owned the night. They had the support of most of the civilian population, especially in the north. The French did nothing to win them back. Many who were farmers during the day became local guerrillas at night – digging up roads, laying mines, ambushing convoys and attacking isolated French posts. Road, rail and river networks were constantly under attack, leading to the establishment of a string of blockhouses that tied up vast numbers of French troops. They remained static while the guerrillas stayed mobile and elusive.

As the war entered its third year, France sought to create a new, nominally independent government to counter the Viet Minh. The State of Vietnam was proclaimed on 2 July 1949, and shortly after began building its own “national army” under French tutelage. But events outside Vietnam were set to have greater global repercussions that would soon flow back into Indochina. The Cold War suddenly intensified in 1949–50 with three events: the Soviet development of an atomic bomb, the communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, and the outbreak of the Korean War. Asia had become the primary battleground of the Cold War, and both blocs looked to bolster their proxies on the front lines. From this time forth the United States backed France in Indochina more seriously, with weapons, vehicles, aircraft, technicians, and especially money. The communist superpowers did the same with North Korea and the Viet Minh. With the communist victory in China, Ho had gained a major ally just across the border. The Chinese immediately began supporting them with weapons, supplies and training. This allowed Giap to expand the Viet Minh regular army to five full infantry divisions, which was a turning point in the war.  

In September 1950 Giap’s new army went on the offensive, striking French posts all along the border with China. Major positions at Dong Khe and Cao Bang fell quickly; a French paratroop battalion was surrounded and destroyed. There followed a series of battles along Route Coloniale 4 in October. French and allied troops suffered almost 7,000 casualties, including nearly 5,000 killed by the time they made it back to the Red River Delta. This was a major disaster, causing both the French military commander and the high commissioner to be immediately recalled.

While most of the fighting took place in the northern region of Tonkin, the war was also fought, albeit on a smaller scale, in the two southern regions of Annam and Cochinchina. Guerrilla operations and terrorist attacks took place there throughout the war. South-east of Saigon the Viet Minh dominated Baria Province for much of the war. In late July 1952 guerrillas attacked the town of Cap St. Jacques – later renamed Vung Tau, where Australians would be based in the next war. The Long Hai hills were also a notorious guerrilla stronghold and safe haven. It would remain so for their successors, the Viet Cong, when the Australians ventured there fourteen years later.

In central Annam the French would try to clear Route Coloniale 1, the highway between Hue and Quang Tri, in July 1953. By this stage every convoy was being ambushed with heavy losses and had become known as the ‘Street Without Joy’, later the title of Bernard Fall’s classic account of the war. After a week of difficult fighting and serious casualties, the operation was deemed a success, but it would only be temporary.

Red River

As 1951 began, the French had lost control of the entire northern half of Tonkin, above the Red River. It was now vital to protect Hanoi, the port of Haiphong and the surrounding Red River Delta. With French gaze firmly fixed there, elsewhere the Viet Minh gained the upper hand. More and more of the country fell under communist control. Then Giap became overconfident. From January to May 1951 he launched large-scale attacks on the De Lattre line – a system of fortifications protecting the delta. The French hit back hard, aided by concentrated artillery and airpower operating from nearby airfields. Napalm was used extensively to destroy Viet Minh attacks as they broke cover. Giap lost some 10,000 men in battles at Vinh Yen, Mao Khe and the Day River. By June they had withdrawn into the remote north, defeated. Giap’s move to initiate the next phase of the war had proven premature.

To draw the enemy out of their delta perimeter, in October 1952 Giap returned to mobile warfare, launching another series of attacks that captured most of the Black River valley. In response, at the end of the month the French launched Operation Lorraine, their largest to date. Some thirty thousand men supported by tanks, artillery and aircraft successfully regained the lost territory. But the French found themselves overextended and holding an untenable salient. Withdrawing in mid-November, they were ambushed at the Chan Muong Pass, losing some three hundred casualties. It was not a disaster on the scale of two years before, but the ultimate failure to hold the gains of Operation Lorraine were humiliating. The war dragged on with seemingly no solution for the French.

In the far west of Tonkin the Viet Minh extended their control over the Tai country, whose people were strong allies of the French. One remote base at Na San that remained in French hands was attacked in late November. The French employed a network of mutually supportive strongpoints  called “hedgehogs”. After ten days of hard fighting, the Viet Minh were repulsed with over 3,000 casualties. Veteran Australian reporter Denis Warner was there. “Just give us a set piece battle,” the French told him, “and we’ll beat them every time.”

Of the 11,000 French and allied troops that were taken prisoner, barely 3,000 were repatriated. Photo Agence France-Presse

Of the 11,000 French and allied troops that were taken prisoner, barely 3,000 were repatriated. Photo Agence France-Presse

By 1953 the French were disillusioned with their prospects of winning the war. By now the De Lattre Line had been thoroughly infiltrated. Not only were the part-time guerrillas still there, but three Viet Minh regiments were actually operating inside the Red River Delta defences. Those manning the posts grew increasingly afraid that tonight would be the night theirs would be overrun. Outside the delta in remote parts of the country, there was boredom and frustration. The largely road-bound French would patrol ad nauseam, hardly ever encountering the enemy. If they did, it was always the enemy who found them first, at the place and time of their choosing. Yet for all this, the new French commander, General Henri Navarre, remained optimistic, saying there was “light at the end of the tunnel”. This utterance, years later, would be a source of great irony.

As the war dragged on, public support in France plummeted. By 1953 over two-thirds of the population wanted France out of Indochina. The conflict’s apparent pointlessness and morality were called into question and it became known as the dirty war – la sale guerre. The anti-war mood also extended to their own forces, and hostility towards those who served in Indochina prevailed. It became politically impossible to send French recruits to the Far East.

France’s Fourth Republic was in turmoil. During less than eight years of war the government changed a staggering seventeen times. The turnover of French leadership in Indochina matched this – there were eight military commanders during the same period and six political governors. That meant that unlike Ho and Giap’s three-phase war plan, France never had consistent strategy or leadership. As it became all too clear that they could not win in Vietnam, the French began to expand the State of Vietnam armed forces. It was termed jaunissement (“yellowing”), of the war. All these issues would re-emerge in subsequent years.

Ho and Giap flanked by Americans from the Office of Strategic Services in 1945

Ho and Giap flanked by Americans from the Office of Strategic Services in 1945

The decisive battle

The successful tactics at Na San led the French to try them again on a bigger scale. To that end they established a fortified post in a small valley ringed by mountains close to the Laotian border – Dien Bien Phu. The French hoped Giap would attack them there, and were confident they could destroy his army. Operation Castor was launched on 20 November 1953 with an airborne drop of 2,200 paratroopers. They quickly gained control of Dien Bien Phu and began to fortify the base. Eventually the garrison would be 15,000 strong.

Giap sensed an opportunity, and gathering all available regular forces, moved to take up the challenge. Over the coming weeks some 42,000 troops supported by 15,000 civilian porters brought artillery, ammunition, food and other supplies to this remote north-western corner of Vietnam. Guns were hauled up into the mountains by hand and dug into bunkers, safe from observation and attack. It was an impressive feat of logistics. The French badly underestimated their opponent’s capabilities.

Giap bided his time, resisting the urge to launch an all-out attack at the end of January 1954. He was not ready and needed to be sure of victory. Finally, on 13 March, the artillery opened up and the attack was launched. The French were shocked when the first two strongpoints fell almost immediately, and they had to scramble to reorganise their defences. But losing too many men in massed attacks over open ground, Giap now ordered them to use their spades. Over the next weeks, they dug miles of trenches, sapping closer and closer to the French posts. Fighting soon resembled the devastated battlefields of the Western Front in 1917: a lunar landscape, with trench and bunker warfare. The French fought it out, tooth and nail, but the struggle was hopeless. Reinforcements were parachuted in, mostly volunteers who knew they were jumping to their doom. For the paratroopers and the Foreign Legion, Dien Bien Phu was a heroic, yet tragic last stand.

Then on 7 May in one final push, the Viet Minh overran the last points of resistance and the French command post. Nearly 12,000 French and allied prisoners were marched away. For the Viet Minh, it was a stunning victory. For France, Dien Bien Phu was a monumentally humiliating defeat, and led directly to an ending of the war. The very next day, peace talks began in Geneva, Switzerland. The new prime minister, Pierre Mendès France, quickly moved to end the war. By August it had been settled. France would relinquish Vietnam in a staged withdrawal over two years, but the country would be divided at the 17th Parallel. The deal also allowed up to one million northern Vietnamese, many of them Catholic, to be evacuated south of the dividing line, out of communist control. On 9 October 1954 the Viet Minh marched triumphantly into Hanoi as the French quit the city for good, retreating to Haiphong. In May the following year they departed Saigon, then on 28 April 1956 the very last French forces left Vietnam.

Ultimately the war cost somewhere in the order of half a million lives. Estimates vary, but it is thought that around 75,000 French Union troops died, along with perhaps 20,000 of their State of Vietnam allies, while the Viet Minh are thought to have lost around 200,000 dead. Civilians likely suffered the highest death toll, with estimates ranging from 100,000 to 400,000. A great many civilians were executed by the Viet Minh during purges of those opposed to their ideology, before, during and after the war.

The main reasons the war was fought remained unfulfilled; for the French, they had lost their colony. Ho had won his war, but the country would remain divided. In the south, the alternative government the French had created would rule under Ngo Dinh Diem. Thus, no political solution to unify the whole country had resulted. It was a bitter disappointment for Ho, and he would not let it stand. Communist insurrection in the south soon recommenced, and the Americans responded by steadily increasing their support for the South Vietnamese regime.

The establishment of the Military Assistance Advisory Group Vietnam in Saigon on 1 November 1955 marks the beginning of the second Vietnam War. For many Vietnamese, however, it was simply a continuation of their struggle for independence. The French War had transitioned straight into the American War. There would be no reprieve, but twenty more years of suffering. As Australian Denis Warner observed in Hanoi when the Viet Minh reclaimed their capital, “The French were bowing out, the Americans bowing in. In the ashes of one war, a discerning eye would have seen the sparks of the next.”

Memorial to 2000 french killed at Dien Bien Phu

The memorial to 2000 French killed at Dien Bien Phu  is one of only two memorials permitted in Vietnam.

About the author

Craig Tibbitts is a Senior Historian at the Memorial and research project manager of a study of the Vietnam War’s medical legacies. The Long Shadow: Australia’s Vietnam Veterans Since the War, by Peter Yule, is to be published this November.