The First Vietnam War began in December of 1946 and by early 1947 had settled down to a deadly affair of guerrilla war as the French drove the Viet Minh out of the major cities though the communists controlled the countryside in the north. After a prolonged guerilla war, General Giap had built a tough, well-equipped, experienced, and dedicated army which proved its mettle during the battle of Dien Bien Phu ending in a resounding defeat for the French Forces and their eventual withdrawal from Indochina.
The battle was planned as set piece battle by the French to insert forces in a stronghold, support them by air, draw out the Vietnamese in to the open and destroy them with superior firepower. The French had carried out a similar operation at Na San in 1953 and hoped to repeat the same success. Only this time around, the communists had learnt their lessons and turned the tables during the battle. The success of the French forces depended on their Air Force- both for air supply and to take on the Vietnam forces but it turned out to be the weak link during battle that was fought between March and May 1954. While the French had a total of 107 combat aircraft to support the battle, the communist had mustered 80 AAA guns – 16 Vietminh and 64 Chinese and they proved to be the battle winning factor.
During the early years, the French Air Force had not faced any hostile Vietnamese AAA as the Communists fielded their first antiaircraft units only in January 1950 and it was not till November 1953 that the AAA made any effect when it shot down two French aircraft during raids on Viet Cong supply lines though it managed to hit 45 of the 51 French aircraft. With such limited impact, maybe the French were complacent about the Vietminh AAA and did not cater for it. Vietminh on the other hand had learnt their lessons and beefed up their anti aircraft defences.
The battle started on March 10, 1954 with the Communist artillery subjecting Dien Bien Phu to a direct artillery assault that closed down the airstrips within four days of battle. Simultaneously, the Communists attacked French airfields throughout Indochina with artillery and infiltrators and damaged a number of French aircraft.
At Dien Bien Phu, even as French Air Force attacked the Vietminh forces, they launched direct assaults on the French positions. The French Air Force which was critical to the conduct of the battle faced a very hostile Vietminh AAA
The battle as experienced by a Communist AAA Commanders mentions
The unit’s troops had to operate round the clock to control the battlefield. The antiaircraft guns and artillery pieces were disassembled to parts and carried by troops to regrouping places, and then re-assembled. Because the battalion’s position was on a high mountain, troops had to dig long fortifications and build more than 200 footsteps for moving weapons, ammunition and wounded soldiers. Meanwhile, the enemy frenziedly bombarded these places to push back our operations and weapons transport for the Dien Bien Phu campaign. Some days, our troops had to work on empty stomachs because the enemy’s bombs had hit the logistics team.
With the radar-directed guns hitting aircraft flying as high as 10,000 feet, the Communist AAA forced the French aircraft to fly higher which adversely effected the accuracy of both weapons and supply delivery with more than 50 percent of French air-dropped supplies missing their mark and instead falling into Communists’ hands.
During the battle, the Vietminh air defence units shot down 62 enemy aircraft and damaged another 167. More than the number of aircraft shot down, AAA cut off the garrison from the outside and neutralized the air force. An account of the battle in New York Times summed it up as follows
Like Stalingrad, Dien Bien Phu slowly starved on its airlift tonnage. When the siege began, it had about eight days’ worth of supplies on hand but required 200 tons a day to maintain minimum levels….But as the position shrank every day (it finally was the size of a ballpark), the bulk of the supplies fell into Communist hands.
The airdrops were a harrowing experience in that narrow valley, which permitted only straight approaches.
It was not always a one sided battle for the AAA. They faced fierce air attacks and even ground assaults as the French desperately tried to break the Vietminh grip on their garrison. One of the occasions when the French achieved some success was on March 28, 1954 when in an operation against the Viet-Minh, legionnaires from 1er BEP and 2e REI, alongside French troops, destroyed one of the Viet-Minh’s AAA regiments. Barring such rare successes for the French, it was Vietminh which had a firm hold over the conduct of the battle. Quoting the New York Times,
Communist anti-aircraft artillery played havoc among the lumbering transport planes as they slowly disgorged their loads. A few figures tell how murderous the air war around Dien Bien Phu was: Of the 420 aircraft available in all of Indochina then, 62 were lost in connection with Dien Bien Phu and 167 sustained hits. Some of the American civilian pilots who flew the run said that Viet Minh flak was as dense as anything encountered during World War II over the Ruhr River.
WHAT had happened at Dien Bien Phu was simply that a momentous gamble had been attempted by the French High Command and it had backfired badly. The AAA was a major contributing factor for the Vietminh’s success and one of the first of many occasions when the presence of AAA influenced the outcome of a battle.
According to Werrel (Archie to SAM) Vietminh shot down 48 French aircraft though the figure generally accepted is 62 aircraft (BERNARD B. FALL Dien bien phu: Battle to Remember MAY 3, 1964).
Phillip B. Davidson, Lieutenant General USA, Ret., Vietnam at War, The History 1946-1975. (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1988), 39-40.
Bob Seals Chinese Support for North Vietnam during the Vietnam War: The Decisive Edge
Antiaircraft artillery moved to Dien Bien Phu battle, Translated by Pham Huy
March 20, 2014
Bernard B Fall Dien bien phu: Battle to Remember MAY 3, 1964
Werrell Kenneth P Archie to SAM : A Short Operational History of Ground based Air Defence Air University Press Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, August 2005
Victor Flintham, Air Wars and Aircraft: A Detailed Record of Air Combat, 1945 to the Present (New York: Facts on File Yearbook, Inc., 1990)
Bernard Fall, Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu (Philadelphia, Pa.: J. P. Lippincott, 1966)
Robert Frank Futrell, The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia: The Advisory Years to 1965 (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1981)
- J. Croizat, trans., A Translation from the French: Lessons of the War in Indochina, vol. 2, RAND Report RM-5271-PR (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, 1967).
Rohit Singh Battle of Dien Bien Phu http://www.claws.in/images/journals_doc/Battle%20of%20Dien%20Bien%20Phu.pdf