Sunday, March 13, 2011

57 Years Ago Tonight - Dien Bien Phu

History is full of heroic battles no one has ever heard of. Dien Bien Phu took place in a world tired of war, and in a little country most folks had never heard of unless they had been there. That would change, but at the time those in power called it French Indochina. The locals called it Viet Nam.

Dien Bien Phu was a French Strong Hold built in the Moung Thanh Vally basin surrounded by mountains. Several of the mountains had fortifications built on their peaks as well. The purpose was to provide a base of operation against the Viet Minh who opposed French rule. No real opposition had been encountered, or expected. The French considered their fortress complex unassailable. At 5:00PM March 13, 1954 that changed with the launching of a massive artillery barrage.

For the rest of the day Viet Minh guns, the French didn't even know were there, hammered Dien Bien Phu, but when night fell they weren't finished. The 13th. of March was chosen because of a new moon which allowed for an infantry attack under the cover of darkness. The butchers bill was still being tallied.

Under the French noses the Viet Minh had made a detailed study of Beatrice, a hilltop fortification to the north of the main camp. Members of the 312th. Viet Minh division had been slipping up every night, cutting barbed wire and removing landmines in prepration for their attack. They were able to clear obstacles and defenses to within 200 yards of the camp.

The infantry assault was as compete a surprise as the the artillery barrage. French guns in other positions, unsure of the enemies location, held fire so as not to drop rounds on their own people. What followed was a vicious fire fight that ended in hand to hand. A little after midnight Beatrice fell to the Viet Minh. Some of the 500 French legionnaires may have been wounded, but most were killed outright. This action alone cost the Viet Minh 600 dead and 1,200 wounded.

The French launched a counter-attack on Beatrice at first light on March 14, 1954 but were driven back by Viet Minh artillery. These were the opening exchanges of a siege that lasted 55 days.

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