A Dien Bien Phu diary (v. 2014)

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Rapace

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#1
In the summer and fall of 1953, Gen Henri Navarre, Commander in chief of the French expeditionary corps in the Far East, (Corps Expéditionnaire Français en Extrême-Orient — CEFEO), who had taken over from Gen Raoul Salan in May of the same year, was facing a conundrum. His mission, as defined by the French government, was to find an ‘acceptable’ way out of the Indochina war that was in its 7[SUP]th[/SUP] year and was getting increasingly unpopular in the métropole and he had two major concerns: the continuing pressure of the Việt Minh[SUP](1)[/SUP] army of Gen Võ Nguyên Giáp on the Red River delta, which was expected, like every year after the monsoon (the rainy season in South-East Asia), to resume their attacks on the French outposts scattered in the region and the necessity to protect a faithful ally of France in the region, the Kingdom of Laos, 500km away from the Red River delta, which was also under new threat by the Viet-Minh army.

To address the second issue, and based on the previous year success at Na San, it was decided to create a position behind the Viet Minh lines, to block their way to Laos, and use it as a rear base for offensive operations in the so-called Haute-Région.

On Nov 20, 1953, opération Castor was launched. Two battalions of paratroopers, commanded by Gen Jean Gilles, the 6e BPC (Bataillon de Parachutistes Coloniaux) of Major Marcel Bigeard and II/1er RCP (Régiment de Chasseurs Parachutistes) of Major Jean Bréchignac spearheaded the attack and landed in a valley near the border between Vietnam and Laos, astride the Communist lines of communication. After a one day fighting, the paras finally seized the place that was known to the local Thai populations as Muong Thanh, but would become world famous under its name, given by the colonial administration: Ä￾iện Biên Phủ.

On Mar 13, 1954, the Viet-Minh launched their attack on the camp. They progressively isolated the French force and besieged it in its jungle base. The hunters became the hunted. What followed turned into a Stalingrad in the jungle, or – as a French general put it – a “Verdun sans la voie sacréeâ€￾ (Verdun without the sacred way), a reference to the WWI battle of Verdun, the archetype of trench warfare and the supply road that the French army had managed to keep open during the 9 months of the battle.

(1) Việt Minh (abbreviated from Việt Nam Ä￾á»™c Lập Ä￾ồng Minh Há»™i, in English “League for the Independence of Vietnamâ€￾) was a communist national independence coalition formed at Pác Bó on May 19, 1941 whose emblematic leader was Hồ Chí Minh. After WWII, the Việt Minh opposed the re-occupation of its former colonies in Indochina by France, during the eight year-long Indochina war, and later – as the ruling party in North Vietnam – opposed South Vietnam and the United States in the Vietnam war.
 

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#2
“Messieurs, c’est pour demain…â€￾ (Gentlemen, it’s for tomorrow…).

By these words, Col Christian de Castries – commanding the French forces at DBP – informed his staff of the imminent attack in the evening of Mar 12. As a matter of fact, the French Military Intelligence (2e Bureau) had learnt a couple of days before, through Viet Minh radio communications eavesdropping, that the battle was to start on March 13, and would first target stronghold Béatrice, in the North-East of the camp, on RP 41 (Route Provinciale n°41). Originally planned for Jan 25, the date had been postponed by Gen Giap, who considered he still needed additional supply and troops to be in a better position and increase his chances of success, but that time there would be no further delay. Everybody on the French side was a bit tense, but after such a long wait, this news almost came as a relief. After fighting for many years a mostly elusive enemy, the officers were seeing the upcoming battle as a unique opportunity to eliminate a good part of the Viet Minh forces, in a ‘traditional’ battle: “enfin, on va pouvoir ‘casser du Viet’â€￾ (at last we’re going to be in a position to kill Viets) was the dominant feeling. The ‘match’ was about to start and there was little doubt in the French camp that it would be a victory.
 

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#3
Béatrice position was held by III/13 DBLE (3e bataillon/13e Demi-brigade de Légion étrangère), commanded by Major Paul Pégot and comprised 4 companies : 9 Coy (Lt André Carrière), 10 Coy (Capt Nicolas), 11 Coy (Lt Turpin) and 12 Coy (Lt André Lemoine). 13 DBLE had an excellent reputation among the CEFEO, however, with about 450 men, and like many other units in Indochina, the battalion was clearly understaffed. Companies were about 100-men strong and were commanded by a single officer. Platoon commanders were sergents or at best sergent-chefs. The position was actually made of 3 small hills, with 10 and 12 Coys on one, along with the battalion HQ, 9 and 11 Coys on each of the two others.
In front of them, Viet Minh division 312 had three regiments (n°141, 209 and 165) totalling about 4’500 men. 1/10 was the defenders/attackers ratio that would become the norm throughout the battle.

At 1715, after Giap decided to bring slightly forward the original 1730 schedule, the attack began with heavy artillery shelling of the position, which struck everyone by its might and precision.
This was a major shock for the French HQ at DBP, who knew the Vietminh had gathered artillery around the camp but hadn't imagined it could have been so powerful and so well supplied in ammunitions. Even in the worst case scenario, Col Charles Piroth, commanding the artillery at DBP, had firmly and repeatedly committed himself, in saying that any Viet Minh cannon would be easily suppressed by the battery of four 155 mm Howitzers M1 of IV/4 RAC (Régiment d’Artillerie Coloniale). This proved totally wrong and 30 mn after the beginning, of the attack on Béatrice, the surprise quickly turned into dismay when it became obvious that the French artillery was unable to effectively muzzle its Viet Minh opponent of the 351 Heavy Division.

In the early minutes of the bombing, Maj Pégot, his deputy, Capt Vincent Pardi and Lt Joseph Pungier were killed by a direct hit into their command post. All long-range radio sets were destroyed and it was no longer possible for the defenders to keep contact with the central position of DBP.
Capt Nicolas took command of the battalion and tried to organize the defence of the position, with units put under heavy strain by the Vietminh artillery and without any possibility to get reinforcement or accurate artillery support.

Lt Lemoine and Lt Carrière were KIA in their turn and Lt Turpin seriously wounded. After 2 hours, when the Viets stopped their bombing to launch the infantry assault, there were only 2 valid officers left, Capt Nicolas and Lt Geroges Jego, XO of 12 Coy (who would also be KIA later in the night).
It was now time for the infantry to get ‘on stage’. Preceded by ‘death volunteers’ whose role was to blow themselves up to open a breach in the barbed wire surrounding the positions, the bo-doï of Division 312 launched their assault, using the ‘human wave’ tactic, recommended by their Chinese advisors who had employed it in Korea.
Defended by less than 300 legionnaires, without any reinforcement nor evacuation possible, Béatrice resisted until the early hours of Mar 14, to more than 4,000 Viet Minh soldiers constantly reinforced. The three hills fell one after the other, after terrible and confused hand-to-hand fighting. All the officers were KIA, except Capt Nicolas, taken prisoner and Lt Turpin who was captured wounded by the Vietminh released to the French and medevaced to Hanoï the day after.

Around 80 legionnaires managed to escape and join the central position through a tunnel which had been dug below one of the 3 hills of Béatrice.

This failure became all the more bitter that, during this same night, the highly respected Lt-Col Jules Gaucher, CO of 13 DBLE (2 battalions I/13 and III/13 were present at DBP) and the most senior Legion officer of the garrison was also killed, along with Lt de Bretteville and Lt Bailly, by another direct shell hit on his command post, situated in the central position.

Gaucher was the third CO of 13 DBLE to be KIA in 12 years, after Lt-Col Amilakvari near El-Alamein in 1942 and Lt-Col Brunet de Sairigné in 1948 between Saigon and Dalat.
____
Below a picture of Béatrice nowadays (one of the 3 hills). One can see reconstructed trenches and stairs, done by the Vietnamese for the tourists, probably for the 50th anniversary of the battle and a number of steles commemorating some Vietnamese heroes who gave their lives during the assault. One became famous in Vietnam for sacrifying his life, putting his body in front of the opening of a French machine gun nest that was blocking the assault of his comrades.
What's worth noting too is the relatively small size of the position. Imagine it being pounded for 2 hours by artillery shells and then hundreds of soldiers fighting hand-to-hand on its slopes. Now you may understand better the title of the famous book by Bernard Fall : Dien Bien Phu, Hell in a very small place.


View attachment 4285
 

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#4
In the morning of Mar 14, the Viets contact the French and offer them a four-hour truce to allegedly let them recover their wounded. Col de Castries requests instructions about this offer from his superior, Gen René Cogny, commanding the ground forces in Tonkin (northern region of Vietnam). Cogny, in his turn, tries to contact Gen Navarre to get instructions (did you say CYA ..?). Navarre being unreachable, Cogny finally takes the initiative to accept the truce.
A small detachment of medics and ambulances, escorted by an unarmed platoon of I/13 DBLE, is sent to Béatrice and finds a completely devastated position. About twenty wounded legionnaires or so have been gathered at the foot of it, and the detachment is refused access to the former command post, to recover the bodies of Major Pégot and his staff. Among the wounded are Lt Turpin, with a fractured and dislocated harm who is medevaced the same day. Another is legionnaire Leblanc, whose wounds are acutally not too bad. After being medevaced and cured in Hanoi, he will volunteer to be parachuted back into the camp in April. Unfortunately, for him he will fall in the Viet lines and will be taken prisoner.
This truce later became the object of all sorts of speculations and controversies, some even denying it ever took place, others saying it was a ‘trick’ of the Viets to prevent the French from launching a counter-attack to try and take Béatrice back and blaming the French high command for accepting it. Anyway, the position will never be retaken and will remain under the Viet Minh forces control till the end of the battle.
Having lost one battalion, de Castries requests some reinforcement to Cogny and 5 BPVN (Bataillon de Parachutistes Vietnamiens) is put on alert. This battalion (along with other units) was part of the Vietnamese national army that the French were sponsoring, in particular Gen de Lattre de Tassigny. It was logical consequence of the formal independence granted to Vietnam in 1949, with Emperor Bao Dai as the head of state, and a way for the French to involve the non Communist Vietnamese in the fight against the Viet Minh. As with the Republic of South Vietnam, sponsored by the USA, later, this regime will never be recognised or accepted by the Viet Minh who will always consider Bao Dai as a ‘puppet’ in the hand of his French masters.
5 BPVN was commanded by Capt André Botella, a veteran WWII French SAS, trained by the Brits and dropped with his unit in Brittany on June 5, 1944 behind the German lines, with a mission to organize the local resistance into a more powerful guerrilla force and prevent the German forces present in Brittany to reinforce the Normandy front. Most of the cadre at battalion and company commanders level were French and all the rest were Vietnamese. Among the Vietnamese officers was Lt Pham Van Phu[SUP](1)[/SUP], a Coy commander. Justified or not, the reputation of the battalion among the CEFEO wasn't very good and upon learning the decision of the high command to send it to DBP, the impulsive Lt-Col Langlais, who had taken the command of sous-secteur Centre[SUP](2)[/SUP], after Gaucher's death during the previous night, threatens to disarm it and use the soldiers as a ‘coolies’, demanding that a more ‘solid’ unit be sent as reinforcement. In spite of Langlais' strong opposition however, 5 BPVN finally takes off from Bach Mai military airport in Hanoi and is dropped in DBP in the afternoon of Mar 14.

—
(1) Pham Van Phu (1928-1975), Commander, II Corps/Military Region 2. General Phu was born in Ha Dong, North Vietnam. He graduated the Dalat Military Academy, Class 8. In 1954, Phu was a company officer in the 5th Parachutist Battalion of the Army of the State of Vietnam, fighting beside the French in Dien Bien Phu. In the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam), Phu had been commander of the RVN Special Force, the 2nd Infantry Division, Quang Trung Training Center, before taking the command of the II Corps/Military Region II in Pleiku. His troops suffered heavy losses on the way of withdrawal to the coastal areas in April 1975. General Phu committed suicide on 30 April 1975 in Saigon.

(2) Dien Bien Phu was organised in 3 so-called sous-secteurs : sous-secteur Nord (with the northernmost Anne-Marie and Gabrielle strongpoints), commanded by Lt-Col Trancàrt, sous-secteur Centre (central position of DBP) commanded by Lt-Col Gaucher (then Lt-Col Langlais) and sous-secteur Sud with strongpoint Isabelle, located about 4 km South of the central position and commanded by Lt-Col André Lalande, a Legion officer.
 

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#5
After Béatrice, taken by the Viets in the night of March 13 to 14, it has now become obvious that the next target is stronghold Gabrielle, located about 4 km North of the central position. The position is held by V/7 RTA (5e Bataillon/7e Régiment de Tirailleurs Algériens) reinforced by a Legion platoon of 120 mm. In the Algerian or Moroccan tirailleurs units, the cadre were French, but the troops and a majority of NCOs came from North Africa. The battalion is commanded by Maj Roland de Mecquenem, a veteran of the campaign of Italy in 1943/44. Mecquenem, having reached the end of his 2-year tour, was supposed to hand over in the next few days the command of his battalion to his successor, Maj Kah, also present on the position. The Viet Minh wouldl decide otherwise…
Like at Béatrice, the attack begins around 1800 with a heavy artillery bombing, followed by an infantry assault of two Viet Minh regiments (regiment 88 of division 308 on the North flank of the position and regiment 165 of division 312 on the east flank). Contrary to what happened at Béatrice however, where the odds had played against III/13 DBLE, V/7 RTA manages to keep its organisation intact and remain in contact with the central position, to get accurate artillery support from the 105mm howitzers that formed the biggest part of the French artillery. Human losses in the Viet Minh infantry are huge, but don't seem to be of any importance to Gen Giap.
Fighting heroically the ‘Turcos’ (nickname given to the tirailleurs from North Africa) manage to push back the Viets and around 0230 on March 15, they suspend their attack. The attack resumes after about an hour break with a new artillery bombardment that last about 30 mn. On the east flank little progress are made, but on the northern flank, 4 Coy of V/7 RTA is progressively pushed back to the south of the position. Maj de Mecquenem and Major Kah are both wounded and taken prisoners. Maj de Mecquenem will survive, but Kah will die in captivity.
On March 15 at dawn, Col de Castries decides to launch a counter-attack to support Gabrielle garrison and retake the position, which isn’t yet fully in the hands of the Viets. Under Major Hubert de Seguin-Pazzis’ command, 2 Coys of 1 BEP, 3Coy (Lt Martin) and 4Coy (Lt Domigo) are designated along with 5 BPVN for this counter attack, supported by 3 of the 10 M24 Chaffee tanks present at DBP. However, it's too little, too late. The ill-conceived and insufficiently coordinated operation is a failure. Capt Gendre, who is still holding the southernmost part of Gabrielle misinterprets the objective of the operation, assuming it is an evacuation plan and not an attack aimed at retaking Gabrielle. He orders his men to leave their positions on the hill and join the counter-attacking force in the rice fields. The fight for Gabrielle is over. Capt Gendre will later die in captivity and will never be questioned on his decision to leave the position. About 150 survivors of V/7 RTA are taken to Isabelle along with a few legionnaires of the mortars platoon, with their officer, Lt Clerget wounded.
During this attack some soldiers and cadre of 5 BPVN stayed back and refused to move ahead, frightened by the Viet artillery bombing. Capt Botella decided to take the battalion apart to individual companies and disarm and demote those he considered had failed in their duty. The various companies of 5 BPVN will keep fighting individually till the end, often with extreme bravery, probably to compensate for the cowardice of some of them.
Langlais’ decision to send 5 BPVN later became another source of controversy. The unit had been dropped the day before in the afternoon and sent to a position (future Éliane 4) that lacked any type of protection. After spending most of the night digging fox holes, without time to rest, they were called upon at around 0500 for the operation on Gabrielle. Contrary to 5 BPVN, 8 BPC (Bataillon de Parachutistes de Choc) of Capt Tourret, like 1 BEP, had been present at DBP uninterruptedly since Nov 1953. The unit knew very well the camp topography and was located closer to Gabrielle than 5 BPVN. It was rumoured that Langlais wanted to keep a ‘solid’ battalion at his disposal in case of an offensice targeting sous-secteur Centre and opposed it being used for the counter-attack on Gabrielle.
After 2 days, the Viet Minh has lost an estimate of 1,500 soldiers KIA and 3 times more wounded and seriously depleted is ammunition stocks, but manage to take the two outermost positions of DBP. The runway is now the range of their adverse artillery and landings and take-offs will become increasingly risky, until they became impossible.
The morale on the French side is badly hit and some members of the HQ lose control, like Lt-Col René Keller who has to be relieved from his command and sent back to Hanoi. Col Charles Piroth, commanding the artillery at DBP, who had repeatedly affirmed that he was in a position to annihilate the Viet Minh artillery, commits suicide in his dugout with a hand grenade in the night from Mar 15 to Mar 16, distraught at his inability to bring counterfire on the well-camouflaged Viet Minh batteries. Lt-Col Pierre Langlais, commander of GAP1 (Groupement Aéroporté n°1), started from this moment to take a predominant role in the defence of DBP.
In the afternoon of Mar 15, Maj Marcel Bigeard is summoned to Gen Cogny's office in Hanoi : “tu sautes demainâ€￾ Cogny tells him (you'll be dropped tomorrow). His battalion, 6 BPC (Bataillon de Parachutistes Coloniaux), is put on alert and start the preparation for what would be their last operational drop in Indochina.
 

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#6
“Bigeard is back!â€￾ The rumour spreads across the camp when it is known that 6 BPC (Bataillon de Parachutistes Coloniaux), commanded by one of the most famous CO in Indochina is to be dropped on DBP in the afternoon. This unit, along with II/1 RCP (2e Bataillon/1er Régiment de Chasseurs Parachutistes) had participated 4 months earlier (Nov 20, 1953) in Opération Castor aimed at seizing the site of DBP, occupied by a small Vietminh force.
Apart from being a remarkable tactician, Maj Marcel Bigeard had the reputation of being very lucky. Superstitiously many defenders believed he would bring some of his luck with him and after all, if Bigeard was coming back, this might mean that there was still some hope.
Bigeard was in his third tour in Indochina. He was also a veteran of WWII, when he'd been trained by the Brits as a Jedburgh commando after managing to escape occupied France and join the Free French in London. He was dropped with his team in Ariege (Southwestern France) to help organize the local resistance. Many of his comrade officers didn't appreciate the way he was always promoting himself and pushing himself in front of the cameras. His Legion counterparts in particular (CO of 1 & 2BEP) didn't like him much. For them modesty was part an officer's ethics and Bigeard was anything but modest !
On airborne alert since the day before, 6 BPC takes off from Bach Mai military airport in Hanoi and is dropped after a 1 ½ hour flight on DZ « Simone », South of DBP, near stronghold Isabelle, commanded by Col Lalande. Along 6 BPC is dropped ACP n°6 (Antenne Chirurgicale Parachutiste, Airborne Surgical Unit) of Lt (Medic) Vidal. Upon landing, the paras are immediately bombarded while they're regrouping and 6 BPC suffers its first losses at DBP. Among them is Cpl Jean-Paul Hamel, who had made the cover of magazine Paris Match some years earlier. Hit by schrapnel, he loses his right arm and is medevaced the same day. This will be the last massive day drop on DBP. Because of the Vietminh flak, and the shrinking perimeter of the camp, future airborne reinforcements will have to be dropped by night, in small groups, company by company.
After joining the central position and a strong argument with Lt-Col Langlais who has given orders directly to one his companies, without asking him before (!), Bigeard is ordered to take position on a hill East of the camp, which will later be code-named Éliane 4.

Below a picture, available on ECPAD web site. It was taken on Mar 16, 1954 by war correspondent Daniel Camus in one of the C47 (Dakota) planes lifting 6 BPC, before their take off from Hanoi. Along with cameraman Pierre Schoendoerffer, he was dropped on DBP with 6 BPC and will participate in the whole battle. Like many others he'll be taken prisoner and will have to walk his way up to the prisoners camps 700 km away. Let's keep in mind that statistically, 70% of the men who can be seen on the picture will not come back...

Soldiers of 6 BPC before their drop on DBP (the second picture was taken by Life magazine reporter Joe Scherschel)
View attachment 4299

View attachment 4310

Cpl Jean-Paul Hamel
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#7
After the fall of Beatrice and Gabrielle, stronghold Anne-Marie, located South-West of Gabrielle, near the hamlet of Ban Keo, is now in the front line. Anne-Marie is made of four different positions, two are on top of a hill (Anne-Marie 1 & 2) and two (Anne-Marie 3 & 4) in the plain below, half-way to the northern end of the runway.
The position is held by Bataillon Thai n°3 (BT3), commanded by Capt Léopold Thimonnier and constituted essentially of local Thai auxiliaries. Very good at small-scale guerrilla warfare, in the jungle they are all familiar with, they are completely unfit in the current situation. Extremely impressed by the fire power employed at DBP, submitted to an intense propaganda by the Viets who are encouraging them to desert via messages sent through loudspeakers and propaganda leaflets (these ‘psy ops’ actions will be used all along the battle), their morale declines rapidly and many just decide to ‘vanish’ in the dark.
On Mar 18, BT3 evacuates Anne-Marie without fighting. They are replaced in Anne-Marie 3 (renamed Huguette 6) by a Coy of I/2 REI (Lt Donnadieu) and in Anne-Marie 4 (renamed Huguette 7) by a Coy of 5 BPVN (Lt Rondeau). Strongpoints Anne-Marie 1 & 2 are not occupied by the Viets who will use them only as an observation post. The remains of BT3 (those who have not deserted) are transferred to stronghold Isabelle. In April, Huguette 6 and Huguette 7 will see extremely intense fights, as they are the key to the runway.
In those days following the two big fights for Beatrice and Gabrielle, the situation is relatively ‘calm’. The Viets are occupied replacing the heavy losses suffered in the first two days and replenishing their ammunition stocks which have been significantly depleted. No big operations are undertaken, only permanent artillery harassing just to ‘keep the pressure on’, that is causing continuous losses.
The big problem quickly becomes the evacuation of the wounded. This issue will get worse and worse and is probably the greatest tragedy of DBP.
The C47 planes used for medevacs can still land by day till March 18, but they can't stay too long on the runway. They immediately become targets for the Viet Minh artillery, in spite of the big red crosses painted on them. Evacuations are terrible : under the Viet bombing, wounded are hastily ‘loaded’ into the plane with its engines still running, there are even scenes of fight between the most valid to get on board, and after 3 min, the klaxon goes off, doors are shut and the plane lifts off. They have now to escape the Viet flak and are safe only when the plane is high enough. Daylight evacuations soon become too risky and a new tactic is decided : during the night of March 19 to 20, 8 planes successively take off from Hanoi. When they arrive over DBP, another plane is doing loops over the positions, with its engines at high revs, to attract the Viets' attention. In the meantime, those designated for the medevacs, with lights and engines switched off on the final approach to stay undetectable, land as gliders on the runway which is only marked by 6 very small lights.
The pilots must definitely have had steel nerves to land ‘blind’ in those conditions on a runway partially damaged by the bombings. Some of them were WWII vets who had fought with the Free French Air Force or with the Franco/Soviet squadron “Normandie-Niemenâ€￾. The operation is a relative success and in the first night 93 WIA are evacuated. Night evacuations will continue in the next days, however the Viets will somehow realised the trick. Landings at DBP will become more and more difficult and finally impossible around the end of March.

Medevac at DBP (early days of the battle)
View attachment 4312

 

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#8
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Replacing for Rapace the files lost during the migration to another server.
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Monday Mar 22, 1954

Over the days, maintaining the link between the central position and stronghold Isabelle is getting increasingly difficult. Located, about 4/5 km to the South of the central position, Isabelle is commanded by Col André Lalande who has under his orders III/3 REI (Major Henri Grand d'Esnon) and II/1 RTA of Capt Pierre Jeancenelle.
To maintain the link between Isabelle and the central position, operations of significant scale must be organised every day to ‘open the road’ and repel the Viet Minh units infiltrated during the night.

On March 22 it's 1 BEP turn. Led by Capt Vieulès, the battalion second in command (Major Guiraud, the CO, was slightly wounded the day before), the battalion is to progress from the North and make junction halfway to Isabelle with elements coming from this position. Around 0900, the battalion is pinned down by a heavy ambush set-up by the Viets waiting at the junction point.
After a 2-hour fight, the Viets are cleared from their position, with losses close to 200.
1 BEP loses 9 KIA and around 20 wounded. Among the dead are 3 officers : Lt André Lecoq, Coy CO, Lt Rémy Raynaud and Lt André Bertrand. They are buried together the following day.

Because of the increasing losses, the ground liaisons with Isabelle are progressively cancelled and by the end of March. Isabelle will fight as a standalone stronghold, and its role will be essentially the one of a fire base, supporting the central position with the 12 105mm HM2 howitzers of III/10 RAC (Régiment d'Artillerie Coloniale) of Major Alliou.

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Tuesday Mar 23, 1954

2Lt Gambiez of III/3 REI, WIA on March 20, is killed when the Sikorsky chopper which was evacuating him from Isabelle is hit by the Viet artillery. He was the son of Gen Gambiez, a WWII veteran who was at this time CO of a commandos unit called 1er Bataillon de Choc.
Gen Gambiez will become years later the Chief Commanding General in Algeria and will be taken ‘prisoner’ by legionnaires of 1 REP during the Algiers putsch in April 1961. The same day, Lt-Col Lemeunier is transported to DBP by helicopter too. He replaces Lt-Col Gaucher, killed on March 13, as CO of 13DBLE. Until the end of the battle, Lt-Col Lemeunier will remain the most senior Legion officer on the battlefield.

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Saturday Mar 27, 1954

On March 27 at dawn, Lt Erhart manages to land his C47 and evacuate in haste 9 wounded. Nobody knows it yet, but this will be the last successful medevac till the end of the battle.
In 2 weeks, from March 13, about 300 WIA have been evacuated. From now on, they will precariously remain in the various underground ‘hospitals’ of DBP or in the battalions aid posts, for those not too seriously wounded or the convalescents, who had been treated and need not stay in one of the main hospitals.

Two surgical units were present at the beginning of the battle: ACM (Antenne Chirurgicale Mobile – Mobile Surgical Unit) n°29 of Major Paul Grauwin, who will later become famous for this book “J’étais médecin à Diên Biên Phuâ€￾ (I was a doctor at Dien Bien Phu), and ACM n°44 of Lt Jacques Gindrey.
Three more will be parachuted during the battle: ACP (Antenne Chirurgicale Parachutiste – Airborne Surgical Unit) n°3 of Lt Louis Résillot, ACP n°5 of Capt Ernest Hantz and ACP n°6 of Lt Jean Vidal.
At the end of the battle they will have treated altogether an estimated number of 4,000 wounded, executing pretty complex surgical operations in very difficult conditions.
Surprisingly, the proportion of wounded who died in one of those medical units will remain below 5%, comparable to the rate in rear echelon hospitals.

Meanwhile the French High Command has to deal with an increasing effectiveness of the Viet Minh flak, in particular the 37mm AA cannons provided by the Chinese to the heavy division 351.
Many planes are hit or shot down and after the loss of the C47 Dakota piloted by Capt Dartigues and the death of the whole crew, a decision is made the same day to stop low altitude (200m) re supply drops.

The Air Supply unit decides to install on the parachutes a makeshift timer that will allow dropping the loads at an altitude of about 3,000m, above the flak ceiling. After an initial free fall, the timer opens the canopy and the pallet normally lands safely.
In practice the system is not 100% reliable and many loads will either be destroyed during the drop or, the parachute having opened too early, will drift beyond the French lines. During the battle resupplying the besieged troops will become a more and more difficult logistical challenge for the French High Command and will eventually be the cause of the defeat.

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Sunday Mar 28, 1954

Gen Cogny in Hanoi orders de Castries to do something about the Viet Minh flak.
Maj Bigeard is tasked with organising an operation aimed at destroying as much AA artillery as possible, which is essentially positioned west of the central position, near the hamlets of Ban Ong Pet and Ban Po (at the foot of former stronghold Anne-Marie).
The operation starts on Mar 28 at dawn after a heavy artillery preparation. It's spearheaded by 6 BPC and 8 BPC of Capt. Pierre Tourret, and supported by 1 BEP. Additional support is provided by M24 Shaffee tanks platoon of Lt Henri Préaud, coming from Isabelle.
The fights are very intense, sometimes hand-to-hand, and last the whole day, proving how important to the defenders the objective was. The final result of the operation is best described by the half-full/half-empty glass image. About 400 Viet Minh soldiers are killed, many weapons destroyed or captured, including AA heavy machine guns, but the main objective, the 37mm AA cannons have suffered only little damage.
6 BPC has 17 KIA, including 2 officers (Lt Michel Le Vigouroux and Lt Jean Jacobs) and 4 NCOs. 4 Coy has no valid officer left (the CO, Lt De Wilde is severely wounded and the XO, Lt Jacobs, killed). At 8 BPC the toll is 3 KIA and 39 MIA.
At stronghold Huguette 7 (former Anne-Marie 4), nickname the star-like stronghold due to its shape, the CO, Lt Rondeau of 5 BPVN is wounded by a mortar shell splinter. He's replaced by Capt Alain Bizard who is not a qualified para but volunteered nonetheless for DBP and was dropped a few days before, after a quick para instruction.

Capt Bizard will illustrate himself in the battle for the Huguettes during the month of April and will remain as one of the most heroic characters of the battle of DBP. He'll survive the battle and the captivity and will end up, as a General, CO of the French Military Academy of Saint-Cyr.
The same day, a C47 piloted by Capt. Blanchet lands at DBP slightly before dawn, for another medevac operation. The plane is damaged in a wrong manoeuvre and needs repair before taking off again.
Not surprisingly however, the immobilized plane is destroyed during the day by the Viet Minh artillery and the crew becomes stranded at DBP.
Among them, like for any medevac plane, is a young “Convoyeuse de l'Airâ€￾, a qualified nurse, in charge of looking after the wounded during the flight.
Geneviève de Galard, her name, will work for the rest of the battle in the hospital of Maj Grauwin and will later become world famous under a high-flown nickname, given by the press, which will remain in history: “the Angel of Dien Bien Phu.â€￾

For the anecdote, she was often described as the only woman present on the battlefield. This is not exactly true, but the other, less publicized ones had a slightly less immaculate reputation: they were the ladies of the Legion BMC (military bordello) who refused to be evacuated at the beginning of the battle and will serve with a high devotion as auxiliary nurses.

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Tuesday, Mar 30, 1954

“La bataille des cinq collinesâ€￾
The French HQ has learnt in the few days before that a large scale offensive is scheduled in the evening of Mar 30. After 2 weeks spent in replacing their losses after the first offensive phase of March 13-15, getting fresh supplies and digging approach trenches, the Viets are now targeting the hills on the eastern flank of the camp, as shown by the approach trenches dug by the Viets that can be seen on aerial pictures taken every day and dropped on the camp after being processed at Hanoi.

From north to south, those positions, located on little hills have been code-named Dominique 1, Dominique 2 (the highest one), Dominique 5, Éliane 1 and Éliane 2. The Dominiques are held by III/3 RTA (3e Bataillon/3e Régiment de Tirailleurs Algériens) of Capt Jean Garandeau and the Élianes by I/4 RTM (1er Bataillon/4e Régiment de Tirailleurs Marocains) of Major Jean Nicolas.

During the day of Mar 30, taking advantage of a temporary lull, Lt-Col Langlais decides to inspect those positions and doesn’t like what he sees. Tirailleurs of III/3e RTA, mostly young recruits with little experience and suffering a critical lack of seasoned cadre don’t show a very high morale, Dominique 5 is being held by a Coy of BT2 (Bataillon Thai n°2) although Thai units have already proved completely unfit for this type of warfare, defences on Dominique 2 seem too ‘thin’. It’s unfortunately too late to make any significant improvement, but Langlais decides however to reinforce those positions : 4 Coy of 5 BPVN (Capt Martinais) is dispatched to Dominique 1, 1 Coy of 1 BEP (Lt Luciani) and one platoon of I/13 DBLE are sent to Éliane 2.

At 1830 the Viet Minh artillery opens fire. What will later be called by historians “la bataille des cinq collinesâ€￾ (the battle for the five hills) has started. After a preparation that has never been seen before, the Viet infantry enters into action, according the same scenario already seen at Béatrice and Gabrielle. Div 312 is targeting the Dominiques and Div 316 the Élianes. On Dominique 2 the Viet artillery preparation has caused big losses and partly destroyed the defence lines of barbed wire.

Less than two hours after the beginning of the offensive, the surviving defenders of the III/3 RTA Coy holding the position, abandon their positions in panic and Dominique 2 is lost. In spite of counter-attacks later in the night, where many cadre of III/3 RTA will literally sacrify themselves, the position remains in the hands of the Viets.

A similar situation happens on Éliane 1 where a Coy of I/4e RTM abandon their positions without almost any fight. Many of those soldiers, along with others, will from now on refuse to fight any more and take refuge in hand dug caves on the banks of the river Nam Youm.

They’ll be later nicknamed “Les rats de la Nam Youmâ€￾ (the Nam Youm rats). The behaviour of III/3 RTA and I/4 RTM this night will also give birth to the myth that at DBP, only the Legion and the paras did really fight.
This of course is unfair and doesn’t take into account the gallantry of V/7e RTA on Gabrielle and also the resistance of the remaining part of I/4 RTM on Éliane 2 later that night. As Capt Botella, CO of 5 BPVN, would put it after the battle “the 100% pure hero, every day, every minute doesn’t exist.
The soldier that one day stormed a machine-gun nest singing, may be the same who, the day after, will remain prostrate, shaking and sweating, incapable of getting out of his fox-holeâ€￾. This is very true, but the myth will survive anyway.

Dominique 1 is lost at its turn and the road is now open for the Viets to the central position. Mixed with fleeing tirailleurs, they arrive in front of stronghold Dominique 3, at the foot of Dominique 2, where is located a battery of four 105mm howitzers, commanded by Lt Paul Brunbrouck of II/4e RAC and a Coy of III/3e RTA (Lt Filaudeau).

Although being ordered to destroy his weapons and withdraw on the other side of the river Nam Youm, Brunbrouck refuses to execute the order as he understands that his position is the last one between the Viets assault wave and the HQ.
He orders his cannons to fire at point blank range (less than 100 meters!) with a zero elevation. The Viet Minh infantry is decimated and those who are not killed by the cannons jump for protection into a nearby ditch, that had been mined.
Many dislocated bodies will be found there the following morning. Brunbrouk’s decision anyway probably prevented the Viets to win the battle that night.
On Éliane 2, the Viet Minh assaults are repeatedly blocked on a glacis, below the summit, nicknamed “Champs-Elyséesâ€￾ by the defenders. It's an open climbing slope which the Viet Minh assault troops have to charge through, and which is quickly turned into a ‘kill zone’, thanks in particular to a constant support from the artillery at Isabelle, very well guided by a young forward observer, 2Lt Yves Cloix.

A counter-attack by a Coy of I/2 REI is organised and helps relieve the defenders. Terrible hand-to-hand fights, with all units mixed, take place all night long in the dark or under the artificial light shed by flares dropped from a C47. Capt Russeil of I/13 DBLE, not willing to be taken prisoner when the Viets arrive only a few meters from his command post, decides to leave it and withdraw to a fall-back position.

Having left the protection of the CP, built in the cellar of the Dien Bien Phu governor's former residence, he's killed by a mortar shell. At one point, the DBP HQ, having lost radio contact with Éliane 2 and assuming it has been overwhelmed by the Viets, orders the artillery to fire directly on the position.
Having heard that order, Lt Luciani somehow manages to get back in contact with the central HQ on the radio network to inform them he and his comrades are still holding the position and asks the order to be called off.
Finally, after being on the verge to collapse several times during the night Éliane 2 (A1 according the Viet Minh name coding), remains in French hands at daybreak on March 31.

The battle for the last of the “five hillsâ€￾ will last 4 more days. The Viets will lose hundreds of bo-doïs repeatedly trying to attack it head-on, until finally renouncing. This is where, after the battle they will elect to erect their commemorative monument, in memory of all their soldiers killed in that “very small placeâ€￾.

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voltigeur

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#10
Re: Tuesday, Mar 31, 1954

In the morning, 1 BEP, 2Coy of Lt Fournié (who has succeeded Lt Lecoq, KIA on Mar 23) is sent to Éliane 2 as a reinforcement. At 0800 on Mar 31, Éliane 2 is 'clear' of any Viets. Not willing to be exposed during daylight on an open terrain, they've withdraw before dawn with their wounded and some of their dead.

A decision is made by the high command, to retake Dominique 2, the highest of the five hills, and Éliane 1, both lost the night before.
2 Coy (Capt Pichelin) and 3 Coy (Lt Bailly) of 8 BPC are designated for Dominique 2. 2Coy (Lt Hervé Trapp) and 3Coy (Lt Lucien Le Boudec) of 6 BPC are designated for Éliane 1.

Éliane 1 is retaken, but the counter-attack on Dominique 2 is blocked by heaving Viet Minh shelling half-way through the summit.
In the action Capt Pichelin as well as his deputy, 2Lt Pastor are KIA. Gen Cogny in Hanoi refuses to drop any reinforcement (although II/1 RCP is on airborne alert since the day before).
The terrain that was retaken has to be abandoned again, since the two severely stricken units cannot be relieved. This action will also be a source of future controversy. Many will wonder why the DBP HQ didn't call off the counter-attacks while it knew, before they started, that no reinforcement would be dropped that day?

For the second night in a row, between Mar 31 and Apr 1 the Viets try to take over Éliane 2. It's another night of hand-to-hand fights in the dark and successive counterattacks by 4Coy of 6 BPC (Lt Héry) and 2Coy of I/13 DBLE (Capt Krumenacker) help keep the position.
Tanks of Capt Yves Hervouët provide an appreciated support. One of them, named “Bazeillesâ€￾, hit by a Viet bazooka has its engine destroyed and will be used as a machine-gun nest for the rest of the battle. 60 years later, the wreck is still on top of the hill. After 2 nights of intense fights, on Apr 1, the defenders have lost 31 KIA and 69 WIA. The position is still held by the French.

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Thursday Apr 1, 1954

In the night from Mar 31 to Apr 1, stronghold Huguette 7 (formerly Anne-Marie 4), on the north west of the camp, held by two platoons of I/2 REI (Lt Spozio, Lt Huguenin) who have replaced the Capt Bizard Coy of 5 BPVN, is targeted by a large Viet Minh attack.
After severe fights, the stronghold which is falling in ruins and is not longer tenable is evacuated. In the morning of Apr 1 losses for I/2 REI amount to 3 KIA, 15 WIA and 33 MIA (presumed killed), including Lt Huguenin.
II/1 RCP (Maj Jean Bréchignac) is on alert in Hanoi since March 30. 4Coy (Capt Minaud) takes off from Bach Mai airport at 2100. The drop is very difficult because of the shrinking size of the DZ and the Vietminh flak. Only about half of 4Coy can jump on the first night. The rest have to fly back to Hanoi.

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Friday Apr 2, 1954

While the situation on the eastern face of the camp is still attracting most of the attention, the northernmost positions (after the loss of Gabrielle and Béatrice) are also under pressure from Viet Minh division 308.
Huguette 7, evacuated the night before by elements of I/2 REI under Lt Spozio's command is reoccupied on Apr 2 by Capt Bizard and his Coy of 5 BPVN.
The position is in ruins. It cannot be held as it is and time and manpower are lacking to rebuild it. A decision is made to evacuate it definitively.

In the night of Apr 2 to 3, another Coy of II/1 RCP (3Coy, Capt Charles) is dropped, with the same difficulties as previously, due to the small size of the DZ and the Vietminh flak. Planes can drop only a maximum of 10 paras in a row, forcing them to make several loops over the camp.

Apr 2 is the third consecutive day of battle on Éliane 2. Although the situation has become less critical that in the first two days, the pressure is still high.
The Viet Minh troops, not having drawn the lessons of their past failures, keep attacking the position from the ‘Champs Elysées’ and keep being crunched by the defenders and the artillery, but regardless of the losses, Giap still wants the ‘fifth hill’.

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Sunday Apr 4, 1954
 

voltigeur

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#11
On Apr 4 at dawn, the Viets evacuate the portion of Éliane 2 they were holding, after more than 4 days and nights of uninterrupted fights and madness. The battle for the ‘fifth hill’ is over and on the position the dead are more numerous than the living...

This failure and the huge losses on the Vietminh side will have serious consequences on the morale. For the first time in the battle some bo-doïs are seen dropping their weapons and surrendering.
By eavesdropping on Viet Minh radio network, the French Military Intelligence (so-called “2e Bureauâ€￾) will learn that the CO leading the attack on ￾Éliane 2 has been relieved from his command and the units participating in the assault temporarily withdrawn from the battlefield.
This will allow the cadre to undertake their self-criticism and the troops to receive further indoctrination from their political commissioners, in the most classic Marxist tradition.

Between Apr 3 and 4, for the third night, detachments of 2/1 RCP are being dropped on DBP, taking off from Bach Maï airfield from 1900. 304 men manage to parachute into the entrenched camp, including the CO, Major Jean Bréchignac, 3 Coy of Capt Charles hand half of 2 Coy of Capt Marcel Clédic.
Lt-Col Langlais however realises that if nothing is done it will take ages to drop the whole battalion. He finally orders to install a drum full of petrol on a sandbank of the river Nam Youm, set it on fire and use it as a beacon for the C47 pilots.
After a few hesitations, feeling that this is not exactly in line with the regulations in force for a para drop, the pilots finally obey and from now on, all future reinforcements will be dropped directly on the central position, in the middle of the trenches and barbed wires.

Quite surprisingly, the losses will not be significantly higher, compared to a drop on a ‘regulatory’ DZ. This initiative however will not help mend the already very tense relationship between Lt-Col Langlais and Col Sauvagnac, the CO of all airborne troops in Indochina and a stickler for the rules.
On the northwest side of the camp, stronghold Huguette 6, situated at the northern end of the runway and held by Capt Jacques Donnadieu of I/2 REI is in front line. His company has been under heavy strain for several days, following the loss of « Huguette 7 ». Maj Clémençon (CO of I/2 REI) informs him he'll be relieved on Aprl 5 but orders him to stay on the position until then.

On Apr 4 in the evening, the Vietminh attack starts, preceded - as always - by a heavy artillery and mortar preparation. Lt-Col Langlais decides to launch a counterattack spearheaded by a Coy of 8 BPC (Lt Bailly), supported by tanks commanded by 2nd Lt Mengelle. The operation doesn't succeed, and 8 BPC is pinned down along the runway by an intense small arms fire. Lt Defline, deputy of Lt Bailly, is severely wounded and evacuated.
Lt-Col Langlais orders another offensive to help keep Huguette 6, this time with 2 Coy of II/1 RCP (Capt Clédic), dropped the night before (!). Clédic orders his men to charge in open terrain through the runway and succeeds in breaking through the Viets lines.

When they finally enter the position perimeter, they find only a few valid legionnaires left, who had resigned themselves to doing another Camerone.

Capt Donnadieu, severely wounded during the night dies on April 5. Vietminh losses are estimated around 500, on the French side, the official toll is 23 KIA, 112 WIA and 86 missing (presumed dead).
The picture below is a quite rare document. Taken during the night of Apr 3 to 4, 1954, it shows two paras of II/1 RCP, before take-off, in the C47 (Dakota) plane taking them to DBP.
Left is Caporal Lucien Gauthier, right is 2e classe Richard Sauret. Cpl Gauthier will survive the battle, with a citation for his gallantry, be captured and released by the Viets in late August 1954. Pvt Sauret will be KIA on Apr 22, aged 19.

For the former paras on the forum who have one day lost a helmet when the parachute opened, note the trick of attaching it with a small cord to the parachute harness. Not sure if they are showing off for the photographer or what, but they don't look like people on their way to Hell...
View attachment 4344 View attachment 4345




Something that may also ring a bell for the former repmen on the forum of deCervens. Below is the so-called “Carnet de sautsâ€￾ (official name being Carnet Individuel des Services Aériens) of Cpl Gauthier, that was kept in rear echelon. The last line give the details of his drop on DBP.
From left to right : Date (4/4/54) - his role on board : Para - Name of the pilot : Capt Desnoyers, etc. The altitude stated (300m) is probably not right (must have been dropped from a lower altitude). Flight time (2h50) seems a bit long since DBP was about only 300km from Hanoi. It might mean that the plane had to circle a certain time over DBP before being able to drop the guys.



P.S : thanks to Bruno Gauthier, son of Lucien, who authorised me to use those pictures and gave me the details.

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voltigeur

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#12
Re: Sunday Apr 4, 1954

On Apr 5, 2 Coy of II/1 RCP (Capt Clédic) which successfully counterattacked in the previous night to help keep the position is relieved on Huguette 6 by 4Coy of Capt Émilien Minaud. During the night of Apr 5 to 6, the rest of II/1 RCP (177 men) is dropped on the camp. It took five nights to drop the entire battalion, while 5 BPVN and 6 BPC could be dropped in one go, in early days of the battle.

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Friday April 9, 1954

On Huguette 6, 4Coy of II/1 RCP (Capt Minaud), is relieved by a Coy of I/2 REI (Lt François).
Minaud was holding the position since Apr 5, when a successful counter attack managed to keep the position in French possession. His company is transferred to stronghold Éliane 2. In the night of Apr 8 to 9 begins the drop of 2 BEP. They are relieved from their mission of planes protection at the Gia Lam airport in Hanoi and sent to join their brothers in arms of 1 BEP, who have been present at DBP since the beginning of the battle.

A decision is made by Lt-Col Langlais and Maj Bigeard to retake position Éliane 1. It was lost on March 30, during the large Viet offensive on the “five hillsâ€￾, retaken by 6 BPC on March 31, but abandoned the same day due to lack of reinforcement.
From a tactical standpoint the decision is justified by the fact that the Viets, from above Éliane 1, have direct views over Éliane 4, making this position extremely difficult to keep. Any mistake is immediately punished by a Viet sniper or a recoilless gun.

Now that a ‘fresh’ unit (II/1 RCP) is available to relieve the assault units, the operation appears more feasible.
It is scheduled for the following day (Apr 10). 2 Coys of 6 BPC are designated, commanded by Lt Trapp and Lt Le Boudec. During the night, Bigeard orders to dig an approach trench from Éliane 4 to Éliane 1, which will help the assault troops to get to their starting base, as closely as possible to their objective, under some protection.

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. Saturday April 10, 1954

On Apr 10 at 0630, after a 30mn artillery shelling, the offensive to retake position Éliane 1 is launched by 2 Coys of 6 BPC, supported by two teams of flame throwers, operated by legionnaires of 1 BEP. In total, around 200 men are attacking a position held by a whole Viet-Minh battalion of about 800 men.
The operation is coordinated by Maj Bigeard, from his CP dug on Éliane 4. Given the numeric disadvantage, Bigeard of course cannot attack Éliane 1 in a frontal assault and decides to use infiltration tactics, to isolate and reduce one by one all Viet positions on the hill.

Around 1200, the hill top is taken by the French after severe hand-to-hand fights. The Viets are pushed back beyond the crest of the hill, but are still holding part of the opposite slope..
2 Coys of II/1 RCP (3Coy, Capt Charles and 4Coy, Capt Minaud) are ordered to move to Éliane 1 and relieve the assault units at the beginning of the afternoon.
4 Coy is coming from the nearby Éliane 2 where it was positioned since the day before. 3Coy is coming from Dominique 3, where it's been relieved by 7Coy of 2 BEP (Capt Charles Delafond), parachuted the previous night.
In the movement, Capt Delafond is killed by a mortar shell, less than 24h after his arrival at DBP. The two II/1 RCP Coys take their positions on Éliane 1, severely damaged by the combats in the morning and only a few dozens meters away from the Viet trenches.

The same day, on Huguette 6 at the northern end of the runway, Coy of Lt François (I/2 REI) is reinforced by Capt Bizard, with a Coy of 5 BPVN, who takes command of the position. In the night from Apr 10 to 11, the Viets launch an offensive to retake Éliane 1. The action rapidly turns into a series of local hand-to-hand fights, the adversaries struggling for a piece of collapsed trench or an individual foxhole.

In the night, Capt Charles is severely wounded by a hand grenade and is evacuated from the position, leaving the command to Capt Minaud alone. Lt Guilhon is killed, along with several NCOs but at dawn, the paras of II/1 RCP have managed to keep the position. This is the first day of what will be an uninterrupted 3 week close combats period on Éliane 1, where all Coys of II/1 RCP will alternatively hold the position, until its final loss on May 1.

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voltigeur

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#13
Sunday Apr 11, 1954

This is Palm Sunday. In the morning of Apr 11, Lt-Col Langlais and Maj Bréchignac (CO of II/1 RCP) decide to go on inspection to Éliane 1 which was, the night before, the theatre of intense hand-to-hand fights.
The objective is more to boost the morale of the defenders than anything else, as there's little they can do to reinforce the position. Lt Minaud is worried that they may be killed or wounded by a sniper or a shrapnel, and pushes them to cut their inspection short and leave the position.

The position has become extremely difficult to organise. The trenches and fire bases are collapsing as the dirt has become extremely friable.
When soldiers try to dug new foxholes, they find several layers of decomposing bodies French and Viet Minh all mixed.
In the evening of Apr 11, for the second night in a row, the Viets launch an attack to retake Éliane 1. It's another night of madness, with terrible close combats, on a position where the soldiers risk getting killed or buried alive at any moment by a shell impact.

In the middle of the night, feeling the position might be lost, Maj Bigeard, decides to send a platoon of 6 BPC, commanded by Lt Gilles de Fromont, as a reinforcement and ask Maj Guiraud to send 3Coy of 1 BEP (Lt Louis Martin), soon followed by a Coy of 5 BPVN.

Then, suddenly, as recounted by Bernard Fall in his book (Hell in a very small place), « something very strange happened. Something which, in the recollection of the thousands of men who heard it that night, had rarely happened before in Indochina . As the hundred legionnaires and French paratroopers stormed across the low saddle between Éliane 4 and Éliane 1, they began to sing »

The French and the legionnaires had marching songs going back to their founding. The legionnaires of 1 BEP started to sing their regimental song “Contre les Vietsâ€￾ but the Vietnamese paratroopers of 5 BPVN had « [no such]… rousing marching song that could be shouted at the top of one’s lungs if only to drive out one’s fright.
But there was one song which was then still in the cultural inventory of every Vietnamese schoolboy, and that was the French national anthem, La Marseillaise.
As the Vietnamese paratroopers in turn emerged on the fire-beaten saddle between the hills there suddenly arose, for the first and last time in the Indochina War, the Marseillaise. It was sung in the way it had been written to be sung in the days of the French Revolution, as a battle hymn of the French Republic.

It was sung that night on the blood stained slopes of hill Éliane 1 by Vietnamese fighting other Vietnamese in the last battle France fought as an Asian Power ».
Lt de Fromont is killed at 0110 on Apr 12, but in the morning, the position is still held by the French. In 2 nights, II/1 RCP, dropped one week before, has lost 19 KIA, 25 missing (presumed killed) and 65 WIA.

vedio clip DBP

[video]www.youtube.com/embed/-lkePbXEAAk[/video]


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Monday Apr 12, 1954

Stronghold Huguette 6, commanded by Capt Bizard, with a Coy of 5 BPVN and a Coy of II/2 REI (Lt François) is getting more and more isolated by the trenches the Viets are digging around.
After the big frontal offensive phase of end March/early April and in order to limit as much as possible the losses, Gen Giap has inaugurated a new tactic, consisting of progressively ‘nibbling’ the French positions, and maintaining the ‘pressure‘ with permanent artillery shellings. On Apr 12, 2 officers are killed on the position, 2nd Lt Thien (5 BPVN) and Lt Jacques Rastouil (I/2 REI).

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Tuesday Apr 13, 1954

Lt Paul Brunbrouck of II/4 RAC, is very severely wounded in the back by a shell that penetrates into his CP. He was the one who had probably saved the camp when - during the Viet offensive in the night of Mar 30 to 31 - he had refused to evacuate his position on Dominique 3 and stopped their infantry hurtling down from Dominique 2 by ordering his men to fire their 4 105mm howitzers horizontally, at point blank range.
Before being evacuated to the hospital Lt Brunbrouck exhorts his men to keep fighting as they've done so far and hands over the command of his battery to his deputy, 2Lt Baysset. Upon arrival to the DBP hospital, the medics realise that his wound is too serious to be operated with any serious chance of success.
Like always for all the morituri (those who are going to die), he's given morphin to alleviate the pain and after a few minutes Lt Brunbrouck dies. He's buried next to the hospital.

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Thursday Apr 15, 1954

Resupplying strongholds Huguette 1 (on the west side of the former runway, about half-way between the beginning and the end of it) and Huguette 6, on the northern end, is getting increasingly difficult. On Apr 15 it takes 5h to bring them all they need, including drinking water.
A real operation has to be set up, with companies tasked with neutralising the trenches dug by the Viet Minh around the two positions and across the runway and others protecting the prisoners of war, called PIMs (Prisonniers Internés Militaires), used as coolies to carry the payload.
The troops involved suffer 28 losses in the operation. Huguette 6 is now almost completely isolated, since the Viet trenches are crossing the former runway, between Huguette 1 and Huguette 6.

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voltigeur

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#14
Saturday 17 - Sunday 18 April, 1954

In the evening of April 17, a decision is made by Col de Castries, in agreement with Langlais and Bigeard, to evacuate Huguette 6, held by 1Coy of 5 BPVN, under Capt Alain Bizard and a Marching company of I/2 REI (former 1 and 3 Coy amalgamated), under Lt Jean François.
The position is completely surrounded by Viet Minh trenches. Since it has now become like an ‘island in a Viet Minh sea’, it has no longer any tactical interest and resupplying it has become virtually impossible.
Maj Clémençon (CO of I/2 REI) is entrusted with coordinating the operation. 1 BEP, reduced by the losses to 2 Coys commanded by Lt Martin and Lt Bienvault, moves to Huguette 1 with a mission to make a liaison with Huguette 6 and support the garrison while they are evacuation their position.

Fights are intense and during the night a Coy of 6 BPC (Lt Le Page) is sent as a reinforcement. However, the French elements are unable to reach Huguette 6 and Capt Bizard is given all latitude to try and escape the position or surrender.
At dawn, on April 18, Bizard decides to evacuate Huguette 6, without any external support. He knows that losses will be high, since between Huguette 6 and Huguette 1 (the closest position hold by the French) they will have to cross several Viet defense lines.

Before leaving, Bizard orders his men to put sand bags on their back and chest as kind of makeshift bullet-proof vests. The wounded who can't walk by themselves are left behind in the position, then, like in 1942 at Bir Hakeim, the big rush is launched to break through the Viet lines, counting on a surprise effect.

The operation is a success, but the detachment (about 150 men) has suffered 50% losses, among which Lt François of I/2 REI, who was KIA soon after leaving the position. For 1 BEP, who spent the whole night fighting around Huguette 1, the toll is 17 KIA and 78 WIA. Following the evacuation of Huguette 6, Huguette 1 is now on the front line and will be the next ‘hot spot’ at DBP. The Viets have progressed 800m towards the central position.

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Monday April 19, 1954

On Apr 19, Major Coutant, CO of I/13 DBLE is ordered to send a Coy on Huguette 1, to relieve the company of Capt Bourges (I/2 REI). 4 Coy of Capt Jacques Chevallier is designated. At 2100, Chevallier and his men leave Huguette 3 and are soon pinned down by the Viet Minh artillery and light weapons fire.
They have to fight all night long, with artillery support, to be able to make their way through to Huguette 1 that they manage to reach at dawn. The distance was only 300m.

Capt Chevallier's company has lost 1/3 of its manpower and is now reduced to 80 able-bodied men. Lt Galopin (I/4 RTM) who was protecting the resupply column, going with I/13 DBLE element is killed in the operation.
Capt Bourges and his company leave Huguette 1. It will take two hours for them to get back to Huguette 3 the ‘second line’ of defense, only 200m away. Behind them, the curtain has fallen around Huguette 1. Like Huguette 6, a couple of days before, the position is almost entirely surrounded by approach trenches dug by the Viet ‘coolies’ and this is definitely their next objective.

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Thursday April 22, 1954

During three days, Huguette 1 is attacked every night by battalions of regiment n°36 of Division 308. The legionnaires of Capt Chevallier 4 Coy I/13 DBLE are fighting alone, without any possible reinforcement or even resupply.
The Viets have dug numerous approach trenches, including some that are going under the various lines of barbed wire and in the evening of Apr 22, they launch the final assault. This is the coup de grâce. At 2300, the radio contact with Huguette 1 is lost. Nobody knows exactly what happened, but all realise that the position has changed hands.

Only one man, on the 60 or so left on the last day, manages to escape the position and join the French lines at dawn. Interrogated by Gen de Castries (he's been promoted from Col a few days before), legionnaire Josef Unterleschner recounts the last fights on the position and tells that it was like if the Viets were just surging from below the ground, just in front, or even behind the first trenches.
It quickly turned into a totally confused hand-to-hand fight. Capt Chevallier is last seen fighting on the roof of his CP and quickly disappears in the middle of the mass of Viets soldiers. Nobody will ever see him again.

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Friday April 23, 1954

Gen de Castries decides to retake Huguette 1, against Langlais' and Bigeard's opinions. 2 BEP, which is the most recently dropped unit and, with about 400 men left, the one with less losses, is designated for the operation. The ground elements will be commanded by Maj Hubert Liesenfeldt, CO of 2 BEP.
Scheduled to start at 1400, it will be preceded by an artillery preparation and bombing by 4 B26 of the Air Force and close air support by the Hellcats of the Navy aircraft carrier Arromanches (squadron 12F). Supported by 2 tanks, 5Coy (Lt de Biré) will attack northwards, from Huguette 2 while 7Coy (Lt Jacques Lecour-Grandmaison, who replaced Capt Delafond, KIA on Apr 10) and 8Coy (Lt Pétré) will attack westwards, across the runway, from stronghold Opéra, built by 8 BPC. 6 Coy (Capt Émilien Boulinguiez) will be held in reserve at Opéra.

Very soon it appears that the operation is improperly coordinated. Artillery preparation and aerial bombing start while 2 BEP has not yet reached its starting positions.
When it finally launches the assault, the Viets have had enough time to recover from the heavy and accurate bombing, send reinforcements and brace themselves for the hand-to-hand fight.
When they launch their assault, across the flat terrain of the runway, with little or no shelter, the legionnaires are almost immediately pinned down by a very accurate and intense fire of automatic weapons. Some elements manage to reach the first lines of Huguette 1 but the attack makes little progress.

Castries realises around 1530 that something is going wrong and orders Bigeard, who is having a rest after a sleepless night, to go see what's going on. When he arrives at Liesenfeldt's CP on Huguette 3, he quickly realises that the 2 BEP CO has a limited and inaccurate view of the actual situation.
Worse, it appears that the radio frequencies are not properly set, or have been scrambled by a ‘fading’ effect due to the metallic mass of the Perforated Steel Plates used to build the runway.

Without contact with his companies fighting 300m north, Liesenfeldt assumes that everything is going right, while actually the operation is being derailed. Realising the situation is hopeless, Bigeard finally decides to abort the attack and orders 2 BEP to withdraw. The retreat is as costly as the assault, as the legionnaires have to cross again the runway in the opposite direction, under heavy fire.

In total 2 BEP loses over 80 men, wounded or killed. Among the KIA are 2 officers, Lt Jean Garin, who – badly wounded on the runway during the retreat – decides to commit suicide when he sees his men taking huge risks to recover him and Capt Léonce Picatto who had arrived during the fight to replace Lt de Biré, WIA. 4 officers are wounded, including two Coy CO, Lt de Biré and Pétré.
During the fight, F6F-Hellcat of Enseigne de Vaisseau (equivalent of Captain in the Navy) Bernard Klotz is shot down by the Viet flak. He manages to eject and lands very near the Viet lines. He's saved by elements of I/13 DBLE of SCH Gniewek.
Since he's the highest ranking Navy Officer in the camp, Klotz will be humorously nominated COMAR (Commandant de la Marine) Dien Bien Phu, Navy Commander at Dien Bien Phu.

Due to the losses, 1 BEP and 2 BEP are merged two days after into one single unit (so-called Bataillon de Marche). Major Liesenfelt, CO of 2BEP, is held responsible for the failure (some say a scapegoated) and will be side-lined for the rest of the battle.
Following the loss of Huguette 1, DBP is approximately reduced to a square of about 1.5 km each side. The Viets are 600m from Castries CP and the camp has got 2 more weeks to live.

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voltigeur

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#15
Saturday April 24 – Thursday April 29, 1954

This short period of time sees no large scale operations. Only the usual harassment from the Viet artillery and limited coups de mains, to regain 10m here or plug a new Viet approach trench there, which is getting too close.
Both adversaries are exhausted and Giap has to replace the severe losses suffered during the bataille des cinq collines on the east flank and the battle for the Huguette's on the west side. Young recruits, often with less than a month of instruction are called in from all over the places controlled by the Viet Minh and the Chinese supplies keep flowing from the northern border.

On the French side, resupplying the camp has got increasingly difficult during the month of April, despite all the efforts by the Aviation, some pilots flying two or three missions a day. Volunteers, para-qualified or not, keep arriving every night, from all parts of Indochina.
Finally Lt-Col Langlais has won his argument with Col Sauvagnac who wanted to have the non para-qualified volunteers to receive a formal training before being dropped. The bureaucracy however will take its revenge after the battle, by denying those volunteers the right to wear the paras wings.
They will only receive a document, certifying that they have volunteered to jump on DBP and it will take months of squabble to finally allow those ‘one-jump paras’ to wear the wings.
In total around 700 individual volunteers will be dropped on the camp. Among them is Lt Maurice Schmitt, an artillery forward observer, who will hold, at the end of is career, between 1987 and 1991, the position of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the French army. He wrote his memoirs under the title De Dien Bien Phu à Koweït City.

One unit even volunteers ‘en bloc’, II/3 REI of Maj Raymond Cabaribère. Captured by the Viets in Laos, in Feb 1954, after his battalion was caught in an ambush, Cabaribère manages to escape the PoW camp just a few days after his capture. Two months after joining back his unit in April, he sends a telegram to Gen Cogny, requesting his battalion to be dropped on the camp.
Unfortunately, he is KIA near Haiphong, before that could happen and the request is finally turned down.
The current Legion base of the DLEM in Mayotte is named after Maj Cabaribère.

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voltigeur

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Friday April 30, 1954

Camerone at DBP. The most senior Legion officer present in the camp, Lt-Col Maurice Lemeunier, who volunteered to replace Lt-Col Gaucher after he was KIA on Mar 13, pays a visit to the CP of Gen de Castries, in impeccable uniform and polished shoes.
Col Langlais and Lt-Col Bigeard are made honorary corporals of the Legion, Castries and nurse Geneviève de Galard are made honorary legionnaires first class and everybody drinks Cognac, pulled from the secret reserves of the Legion, to celebrate those ‘promotions’...

Lt-Col Lemeunier reads the account of the Camerone fight over the radio network, for the legionnaires on the front line. Since mid-April the heavy spring monsoon rains have transformed DBP into a gigantic and filthy mud pool and the front line soldiers are staying in their trenches with mud up to their knees.

The day is relatively quiet, only one skirmish is mentioned in the daily report, with legionnaires setting up an ‘operation’ to recover a parachuted parcel that has fallen near the Viet Minh lines and contains Vinogel.
This ‘substance’ is partially dehydrated wine and comes in metal cans. It has to be mixed with a certain amount of water to, in theory, become regular 12% alcohol red wine again. But, since potable water is getting scarce, many don't bother and just drink it pure...
All legionnaires celebrate Camerone the best they can, thinking with some nostalgia of the traditional festivities that must take place elsewhere.
The last 4 or 5 days have seen no major operations, except the usual harassment from the Viet Minh artillery that causes new losses every day.
Recoiless rifles in particular installed on Dominique 2 (the highest hill taken on Mar 30) are taking on anybody that is seen out of their trenches or bunkers and force the besieged garrison to live underground (the trench network linking the remaining strongholds is nicknamed “Le métroâ€￾, the Tube). Volunteers are still coming in every night.

After many discussions, twist and turns, Operation Vulture (Vautour in French), a massive bombardment by USAF B29 on the Viet Minh supply lines and rear bases around DBP is cancelled. Opération Condor (aka Opération “Dâ€￾), is launched in the last days of April.
A rescue column is sent from Laos, through the jungle. It's commanded by Jedburgh veteran Captain Jean Sassi with GCMA Malo. They have to make their junction with two other GCMAs (Servan and Rodeur) consisting of Mèo partisans.
In total they form a force of about 1'500 men, whose mission is to launch attacks on the Viet Minh communication and supply lines and create confusion, to release the pressure on the DBP garrison. The Viets have taken advantage of those same days to get fresh supplies and reinforcements. They are now ready for the final act...

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Saturday May 1 – Sunday May 2, 1954

On May 1, at 1700, starts the most intense artillery preparation ever seen since the beginning of the battle. It will last 3 hours. For the Viet Minh, this is the final effort to take DBP.
On the eastern side, Éliane 1, Éliane 2 and Dominique 3 are attacked from 2030. Dominique 3 is held by 8Coy of BT 2 (Thaï Battalion #2) commanded by Lt Pagès and the last company of III/3 RTA under Capt Filaudeau. Major Thomas, who has taken over command of 6 BPC, now that Bigeard is part of Gen de Castries' staff, sends 3Coy, under Capt Perret, as a reinforcement.

After a first assault, repelled by the defenders, the position sees hand-to-hand fighting inside the perimeter. In spite of counter-attacks, reinforced by 5 Coy of BT 2 (Lt de la Malène), the position is lost around 0400 on May 2. Capt Perret and Lt Pagès are wounded and captured by the Viets. Lt de la Malène is wounded also but manages to join the French lines with his unit.

Above Dominique 3, Éliane 1 and Éliane 2 are also under Viet infantry attack from 2030. Eliane 1 is held by remains of 3 and 4Coy of II/1 RCP, under Lt René Leguéré (after both 3 and 4Coy company commanders, Capt Charles and Minaud were wounded 3 weeks before).
For them, this is also the final act. After 3 weeks of uniterrupted fights, the position is littered with dozens of dead bodies and the ground has become as friable as sand.

The Viet Minh have delimited with little flags the axis of the main assault and hundreds of soldiers are advancing towards the French positions. The artillery could transform this into a slaughter, but they are desperately low on ammunition and too many positions are requesting support.

After 30min. of close quarter fight, 3Coy of II/1 RCP has virtually ceased to exist as an organised unit. It is reduced to soldiers fighting individually or by groups of 2 or 3 for a piece of collapsed trench or a foxhole.
Lt Leguéré wounded early in the fight is lying in his CP and calls for reinforcement. Maj Bréchignac sends in 1 Coy, under Lt Yves Périou, which arrives on the position around 2100.
Then starts a night of total madness, crazy counter-attacks at 10 against 100 or 200. Paras of II/1 RCP fight tooth and nail to keep their positions, but there's no miracle. Lost on Mar 30, retaken on Mar 31 and lost again the same day, retaken on Apr 10, the position is definitely lost on May 2.
At dawn, on out of the 180 men that participated in the defense of Éliane 1, 18 manage to make it back to Éliane 4, the ‘second line’, including Lt Leguéré. Lt Périou will never be seen again and is probably still buried where he was killed, on top of the doomed hill.

On the Western flank, Viet Minh division 308 has launched two diversionary attacks, on Lily, a stronghold that has been hastily built at the end of April, to protect the central area of the camp after the fall of Huguette 1 and then on Huguette 4, held by the remains of the two BEPs, merged into a single unit, BMEP (Bataillon de Marche Étranger Parachutiste).

Everything becomes quiet again, until suddenly a massive assault is launched against Huguette 5 at 0200. The position is held by another Coy of the BMEP, under Capt Luciani. The Viet Minh have brought in the plain at the foot of former stronghold Anne-Marie, a battery of eight 105mm howitzers and two companies of 120mm mortars. When the artillery preparation stops, Viet Minh regiments 88 and 102 launch their assault. 3'000 soldiers against less than 100 : a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

After 1½ h of hand-to-hand fight, the position is lost. Capt Luciani is wounded and taken prisoner, 2Lt Boibouvier is MIA. Lt de Stabenrath is also wounded but manages to crawl out of the position after staying unconscious for several hours.
Too weak to progress any further, he lies in the no man's land until he is recovered by legionnaire Grana – who volunteered to rescue him – and taken to the hospital.
Lt de Stabenrath will survive the battle, but he eventually dies on May 13, for lack of proper medical care and because his case had not been considered serious enough by the Viets to allow his medevac to a French rear base.
Around 0400 a counter-attack of 50 I/2 REI legionnaires, starting from Huguette 2, is launched to retake Huguette 5, but is quickly blocked by the Viet Minh artillery. The position is definitively lost.

On May 2 in the evening, in the daily situation assessment, Langlais and Bigeard realise that it has gone from bad to worse. Three more positons (Éliane 1, Dominique 3 and Huguette 5) have been lost.
After many vacillations and ‘bickering’ with Gen Cogny and Col Langlais, Gen Henri Navarre – Commander in Chief in Indochina – finally accepts to send the last para battalion to DBP. In Hanoi, 1 BPC commanded by Capt de Bazin de Bezons is put on alert.

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voltigeur

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Monday May 3, 1954

The first company of 1 BPC designated to jump on DBP during the night of May 2 to 3 is 2Coy of Capt Marcel Edme, a Free French SAS WWII veteran, who participated among others in Operation Armhest, with his British counterparts.
When the company is gathered for the jump, quite surprisingly, nobody is missing, although by now the fate of the besieged camp is obvious. Even the sick and the convalescent have ‘escaped’ from the hospital and show up, or those whose tour is over and are repatriable.
They do it for no sensible reason, other than to be “with their buddiesâ€￾.
Due to the bad conditions (rainstorms and Viet Minh flak), only 107 men can be dropped, out of 122 in total. Upon arrival Capt Edme's company is sent to ￾￾Éliane 2, to reinforce the legionnaires of I/13 DBLE.
The Viets have started digging a tunnel below Éliane 2, that will be later filled with 1 ton of explosives... The men on top of the hill can hear the sappers digging.
The day is relatively quiet, like often after heavy fights. An opportunity for each side to recover their dead and wounded and get some rest.

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Tuesday May 4, 1954

Huguette 4 (renamed Lily 3), held by 1Coy of I/4 RTM (Lt Perrin) is lost on May 4 around 0400. A counter-attack by 3Coy of I/13 DBLE, and a mix of Thaïs and Moroccans from I/4 RTM is blocked soon after leaving their assault starting position.
During the night of May 3 to May 4, another company of 1 BPC, 3Coy under Capt Jean Pouget is dropped on the camp, 3Coy. An aide-de-camp to Gen Navarre, Pouget voluntarily left his riskless position to jump on DBP. He'll later become famous during the Algeria war, in particular for his role during the uprising in Algiers on May 13, 1958 that will bring Gen De Gaulle back to power.

When the morning comes, the sky is grey and it keeps raining. Gen de Castries decides to visit the wounded who are in the various underground hospitals. He presents many of of them with decorations, but all he can give are pieces of paper as certificates of decorations, the only exception being nurse Geneviève de Galard, who is made chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur and receives the cross given to her by a wounded officer.

Bigeard and Langlais visit the last positions on the Eastern side : Éliane 4, held by the remains of II/1 RCP 2Coy commanded by Capt Marcel Clédic and the battalion mortars commanded by Lt Césarini, one Coy of 5 BPVN commanded by Capt Phu, with survivors of another Coy and the battalion mortars commanded by 2nd Lt Pierre Latanne. Éliane 2 is held by 2 Coys of 1 BPC and for several days now the Viets have been digging a tunnel below the hill.

At the foot of Éliane 2 and Éliane 4, Éliane 10 is held by the remains of 6 BPC, commanded by Capt Thomas, and Éliane 3 by one Coy of I/4 RTM (Capt Nicod). On boths positions are more that 300 wounded who didn't want to be evacuated or have left one of the main hospitals after being operated.
In the last days of the battle many wounded or are not forced to stay lying in the hospital will join back the front line. One will see on all positions amputees, wounded having lost an eye, others with plasters, joining their comrades and taking part in the fights, holding any possible role, compatible with their state. In the afternoon a B26 bomber is taken down by the Viet Minh flak.

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Wednesday May 5, 1954

In spite of bad weather, hampering aerial activity 86 men of 4Coy of 1 BPC, under Capt Jean Tréhiou, a former member of the French resistance during WWII, are dropped in the night from May 4 to 5.
Tréhiou insisted to be with his company, although he was wounded some days before and still has one of his ankles in plaster. Nobody knows it yet, but these will be the last unit to be dropped on the camp.

3Coy of 1 BPC (Capt Pouget) relieves the I/13 DBLE Coy of Capt Coutant on Éliane 2, joining 2Coy of Capt Edme who has taken position the day before. The Viet Minh artillery harassment gets stronger and stronger and C119 keep dropping supplies at high altitude. Because of the lack of precision and the reduced size of the French perimeter most of the tonnage however is lost and recovered by the Viets.
On the west bank of river Nam Youm, two strongholds are still covering the central CP: Épervier (aka Dominique 4), held by Capt Bizard and his men of 5 BPVN reinforced by elements of 8 BPC and Huguette 2, which nobody can really say which unit is holding it. Probably a mix of legionnaires paratroopers from BMEP and Moroccans of I/4 RTM. Less than 50 men in total.

Feeling that the camp will not be able to resist much longer, Gen de Castries and his staff start preparing so-called “Opération Albatrosâ€￾. The idea is to leave behind the wounded and all the heavy equipment and regroup all the able bodied men to break southwards, through the Viet Minh lines, to join the forces of Isabelle and then escape the valley towards Laos. That's the last resort option to avoid total defeat.

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voltigeur

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#18
Thursday May 6, 1954

91 men of 1 BPC, the remaining parts of 2, 3 and 4Coy, are dropped in the night from May 4 to 5. Nobody knows it yet, but they will be the last reinforcements dropped on the camp. In the afternoon, C119 “Flying boxcarâ€￾ #149, flying a resupply mission over Isabelle, from its base in Cat Bi, near Haiphong, is hit twice by the Viet Minh flak.
The crew is made of two American ‘civilian’ CAT (Civil Air Transport) pilots, James “Earthquake McGoonâ€￾ McGovern and Wallace Bufford, and three French bailers in the cargo compartment, commanded by a young officer.
McGovern manages fly his crippled plane for about 120 km before decide to try a crash landing on a jungle airstrip in Laos. “Looks like this is it, sonâ€￾ are his last words transmitted on the radio.
The left wing hits a tree in its attempt to reach the airstrip a mere half-mile away and crashes on the ground. Both pilots are killed on the spot. Two bailers are also killed in the crash but the other two crew members are captured alive by pro-communist Laotian partisans.
Pvt Moussa, severy injured, passes away a few days later and only 2Lt Jean Arlaux, 24, will survive. He had arrived in Indochina less than 2 weeks before.

McGovern's skeletal remains were discovered in an unmarked grave in northern Laos in 2002. They were identified in September 2006 by laboratory experts at the U.S. military's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.
He was interred in Arlington National Cemetery on May 24, 2007.
McGovern and Buford are probably the first American KIA in Indochina, the first of a long list. On February 24, 2005 both were posthumously awarded (along with six other surviving pilots) the Légion d'Honneur with the rank of knight (Chevalier) by the French President Jacques Chirac for their actions in supplying Dien Bien Phu during the 57-day siege.

The day before, a new weapon has appeared in DBP, similar to the Russian katyouchas, or German Nebelwerfer of WWII. Those rockets, fired by group of 6, have a devastating effect adding to the already heavy strain put on the camp.
On the eastern side, 4Coy of 1 BPC (Capt Tréhiou) is sent to Éliane 4 to reinforce the remaining elements of II/1 RCP and 5 BPVN.

The manoeuvre takes place under a heavy monsoon rain and the paras are immediately shelled after taking their positions. The military intelligence has learnt that Giap is going to launch another offensive in the evening. As a matter of fact, an artillery preparation starts at 1700 targeting Éliane 2 and Éliane 4, the last 2 uphill positions on the eastern bank of river Nam Youm.
Then, like so many times before, the Viet infantry launch the assault on Éliane 4, Éliane 2 and Éliane 10 (in the plain), held by 6 BPC. On Éliane 2, the position that has already cost Gen Giap so many losses, the infantry assault is launched around 2000 first against the south-west flank.
The first waves are blocked and decimated in the barbed wire, but they are renewed every 30min.
At 2300, the Viets blow up the mine planted in the tunnel they've been digging for several days, creating a huge crater and causing many losses to 1 BPC Coy of Capt Edme. However,it doesn't have the decisive effect the Viets were expecting because the length of the tunnel has been miscalculated and its end is not right underneath Éliane 2 CP.

The last Coy of 1 BPC (1Coy, Lt Faussurier) arrives over DBP in their Dakotas, but after some moments of hesitation Col Langlais decides to give priority to the plane dropping flares to light the attacked positions. The drop is cancelled and the planes fly back to Hanoi. There will be no more reinforcements sent to DBP.
Very confused hand-to-hand fights last all night long, in which many men are killed or go missing.

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Friday May 7, 1954

At 0300, a counter-attack on Éliane 2 by 3Coy of 1 BPC manages to reoccupy the portion of the position that has been blown away by the Viet Minh mine. Most of it is occupied by a vast crater of 50m diameter, that is still visible nowadays (the Vietnamese have reinforced it with concrete, to avoid erosion). The position however can hardly be defended and finally ￾Éliane 2 is overwhelmed on May 7 at 0500, more than 39 days after Giap launched the first attack against it, in the night of Mar 30 to 31. Capt Pouget is wounded and taken prisoner. He'll recount his experience in the Viet Minh PoW camps in a book titled “Le Manifeste du Camp n°1â€￾.

At dawn, contrary to what happened in the previous large scale Viet Minh offensives, Giap doesn't stop his efforts. He has realised that the defenders have reached their limits and wants to grab this opportunity to finish them off.
The last hilltop position on the eastern bank of river Nam Youm, Éliane 4, after suffering heavy bombings all night long is attacked around 0600. A brand new Viet Minh battalion is seen going down the slopes of nearby Éliane 1 and nothing can stop them.
After the same hand-to-hand fights as in other places, Éliane 4, held by remains of II/1 RCP and 5 BPVN is taken around 1000. The last message from CO of II/1 RCP, Maj Bréchignac to the HQ : “Don't shell the position, there are too many woundedâ€￾, then a few minutes later, Capt Botella “The Viets are here, it's over. I'm destroying the radio.â€￾
Éliane 10, the last position on the eastern bank of river Nam Youm, in the plain below Éliane 2 and Éliane 4, held by the ‘remains of the remains’ of 6 BPC under Lt Trapp, is now in first line. It's lost early in the afternoon, as well as Claudine 5, on the western flank, held by 2Coy of 1/2 REI (Capt Schmitz).

After a meeting held around noon by Castries and his battalion commanders, opération “Albatrosâ€￾ is called off. After the losses of the last night fights and with soldiers having fought continuously for 56 days and as many nights, it has become obvious that it would be impossible to gather a force with sufficient strength to break through the Viet Minh encirclement.
Opération “Dâ€￾, led by GCMA Capt Jean Sassi and opération “Condorâ€￾ led by Lt-Col Yves Godard, both launched from Laos, respectively to create disruption behind the Viet Minh lines and rescue the DBP defenders by breaking through them will also be called off a few days later.
Column called “Crèvecoeurâ€￾, led by Col Godard, was only about 20km from DBP when they received the order to stop their progression. Gen de Castries holds two last radio converstations with his superior, Gen Cogny in Hanoi, in the morning and in the afternoonb. A decision is finally taken to cease fire at 17:30.
All units receive the order to destroy their arms and ammunition and let the Viets come in, without raising white flags.
Realising that the French defenders are no longer firing, the Viets suddenly start ‘flooding’ the whole camp. Silence suddenly falls on the camp.
All soldiers are forced out of their bunkers and taken prisoner. Those who can still walk (even if slightly wounded) are immediately regrouped in columns and forced marched to the PoW camps near the Chinese border. Stronghold Isabelle, commanded by Col André Lalande will hold till May 8 before ceasing fire.

Losses on the French side amount to around 1'500 KIA, with approximately the same number of MIA (presumed dead) and three times more wounded. Only around 850 will be medevaced by air to Luang Prabang in Laos and then to military hospital Lanessan in Hanoi. On the Vietminh side, estimates are around 30'000 losses, of which between 8'000 and 10'000 KIA.
The Viet Minh forces captured around 10'000 soldiers in DBP. Four months later, in Aug and Sep 1954, only around 3'500 were released and handed back. The rest died of starvation, diseases, bad treatment, psychological effects of the Communist brain washing, either on their way to the PoW camp – during an excruciating 700 km ‘death march’ – or in the camps themselves.

Some prisoners tried to escape, but many were taken back (and in most cases summarily executed) or disappeared, lost in the middle of the jungle of the so-called Haute Région.
This is what happened to photograph Jean Péraud, a companion of cameraman Pierre Schoendoerffer. A few succeeded, including a group of four NCOs of 6 BPC. They wandered for days in the jungle before being rescued by a group of Thai partisans. Among them C/Ch René Sentenac who will later become famous in Algeria and will be KIA in Nov 1957.

Nobody among the French authorities seriously questioned the Viet Minh about the 65% PoW missing. The war was over and nobody wanted to raise sensitive questions... After 56 days and 56 nights of fight, France had lost its last battle in Indochina.
In Jul 1954 the Geneva agreements will lead to the partition of Vietnam in two states, along the 17th parallel. Hanoi will be handed over to the Viet Minh in Oct 54, the last French units will leave North Vietnam in April 1955 and South Vietnam one year later.
The USA became the new ‘sponsors’ of the South Vietnamese regime and few years after DBP another war would start in Indochina.

Today, May 7, 2014 marks the 60th anniversary of the fall of Dien Bien Phu. A special remembrance day for all those who fought in this battle and made the ultimate sacrifice.
 

voltigeur

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#19
sacrifice.



Front page of newspaper Le Parisien libéré dated May 8, 1954
View attachment 4346



Jean Luciani, aged 88, photographed nowadays. A veteran of 1 BEP and the ‘hero’ of Éliane 2 in the night of Mar 30 to 31.
View attachment 4347



A French prisoner upon his liberation from the Viet Minh PoW camps.
View attachment 4348

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* 5/7 RTA (Régiment de Tirailleurs Algériens) * 2/1 RTA * 3/3 RTA * 1/4 RTM (Régiment de Tirailleurs Marocains) * 2 BT (Bataillon Thaï) * 3 BT * 1/13 DBLE (Demi-Brigade de Légion Etrangère) * 3/13 DBLE * 1/2 REI (Régiment Etranger d'Infanterie) * 3/3 REI * 1 BEP (Bataillon Etranger de Parachutistes) * 2 BEP * 1 CEPML (Compagnie Etrangère Parachutiste de Mortiers Lourds) * 2/1 RCP (Régiment de Chasseurs Parachutistes) * 1 BPC (Bataillon de Parachutistes Coloniaux) * 6 BPC * 8 BPC * 5 BPVN (Bataillon de Parachutistes Vietnamiens) * 3/10 RAC (Régiment d'Artillerie Coloniale) * 2/4 RAC * 4/4 RAC * 1 RCC (Régiment de Chasseurs à Cheval) * 31 BG (Bataillon du Génie)

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