Farewell, Isabelle

August 10, 2012

Prologue.

General Henri Eugene Navarre, the new commander in chief of the French Far East Expeditionary Corps, boards the aircraft direct to  Indochina. There, the war has taken a turn for the worse for France and for the French army. Navarre — who has fought two world wars and has  held senior positions — has got the difficult task of saving the honour-and the face- of both. In other words, he has the task of creating , on the battlefield, the conditions for arriving to an honourable political solution of the conflict.

Even the plane flying over Dien Bien Phu immersed in fog is bringing on board some very special observers : Generals Pierre Bodet, Jean Dechaux and Jean  Gilles. Their task is to assess whether there are weather conditions to begin an important military operation. If there are the conditions, the operation can start; if they there are not, the operation is postponed indefinitely. In practice it is cancelled.

Some time after those events, Colonel Marcel “Bruno” Bigeard will sadly wonder: “Why did not rain that day at Dien Bien Phu”?

A Country called Vietnam.

The French had settled permanently in Indochina in the last years of the late Nineteenth Century. In those times “Vietnam” did not still exist: there were Annam, Cochin China, Tonkin. And some formally independent kingdoms (Laos, for instance, or  Cambodia) , in fact controlled  by Paris. In those places there were opium, salt, minerals . The French, offhandedly, seized that part of Indochina and became rich. Unlike the French Mediterranean Africa — Algeria, or Tunisia, for instance — in the Indochinese Union the presence of European settlers was always scarce. The motherland was too far ,  the climate was atrocious, the hardships were many. The exploitation, however, was fierce.

In 1945 Cochin China, Annam and Tonkin declared themselves independent and took the name of Popular Republic of Vietnam. Ho Chi Min — “Uncle Ho”, as he will be  named by his people — a communist intellectual  trained in Europe and soul of the anti-Japanese resistance during the Second World War, became the new leader of the formally independent state inside the Indochinese Federation and French Union. Things went out of hand  when, in November 1946, Haiphong was bombed by the French: Uncle Ho tore up the treaty which bound him to France and the war began. It will last seven years, seven months and twelve days. Considering the next American intervention, almost thirty years.

Arrived in Saigon,  General Navarre has to begin all over again. Things are going wrong, military  plans are lacking, it is taking one day at a time. Perhaps worried to save his face and his own reputation, who was in command before him  has adopted a defensive  attitude. Navarre turns over a new leaf turning from defence to attack, both in the south of the Country, where the Vietminh military  activity is still scarce, but doomed to intensify,  and in the north, where Laos is under threat of invasion. In the South and in the Annam, Navarre puts in action the ” Operation Atlante” to prevent  Vietminh for settling in those places; in the North his intention is building a fortified camp at Dien Bien  Phu. If his plans will have success , France could negotiate the peace starting from a stronger position.

“The seat of border prefecture”

Dien Bien Phu is located 400 Kilometres  far from Hanoi, in a wide monsoon valley crossed by Nam Yum river, dotted by some low hills and surrounded by high mountains decked by thick vegetation. Its name has got nothing of noble or mysterious, it does not evoke tigers or elephants, simply it means ” seat of border prefecture”. Situated in a strategic point, equipped with a small airport and with a couple of roads( the road number 41 and the so called ” Pavie road”) Dien Bien Phu can control, in theory,  the communications roads between Vietnam and Laos.

The French choose it for this reason. The Vietnamese armed forces — the Vietminh– are holding Dien Bien Phu since 1952. From here, they have infiltrated in Laos and they now are using it as a logistic base. Once returned in French hands, Dien Bien Phu would have turned a kind of thorn in the flesh of the Vietminh , able to make irregular its supplies , precarious its communications, less easy its infiltration of troops. But, above all, it would become a stronghold able to make safe Laos, with which had been signed an alliance  treaty and  towards which, while the decision is taken by the French,  the 316th Vietminh Division is heading.

A logical choice? Yes and no. The first who suggests it —  Major General Reneè Cogny, three degrees, prestigious military schools, a long detention at Mauthausen and Buchenwald, critic and often polemic spirit — sees Dien Bien Phu like a ” starting point”, like a kind of “mooring”  to conduct more demanding  operations towards the surroundings, with the intent  to force the Viet armed forces to straggle.
Navarre sees the issue in other way. His reasoning is the following: let us build a stronghold able to cut off the Vietminh forces from their Laotian “sanctuaries” and to lead them to attack us in open field. The enemy, far from his supply bases, cut off from those ones of Laos, will have some supplies problems and he will have to choose : or he attacks us or he withdraws. If he withdraws, we follow him closely; if he attacks, seen our fire power, he is a goner. Has  anything  similar not happened at Na San [1]?

Yes, at Na  San had happened something similar, but with this difference: at Na San the French had held the high grounds, at Dien Bien Phu they will leave them to the Vietnamese. With tragic consequences.

The compromise solution.

When Navarre states his idea, Cogny is critic. If we do not make Dien Bien Phu a ” mooring base”, we risk a second Na San in worse conditions, he bursts out. With Atlante in progress, how could we supply Dien Bien Phu or send to it the needed reinforcements? Many others  share the same opinion. Colonel Jean-Louis Nicot, commander of the transport air force, reports the excessive distance of the base from the starting airports. We risk to have our aircrafts in flight short of fuel, he says. And then — an other one affirms — we are enough in troubles for defending even Laos: would not it be better let Laos go and concentrate about Atlante? And again: do we go to Dien Bien Phu to block the road to Luang Prabang and to deprive the Vietminh of the rice of that region? It makes no sense. The Vietminh can infiltrate anywhere, from thousand roads. And finally: the base, in full enemy territory, far from our lines, could be supplied only by air. And if does the enemy put out of order its airport?

Navarre listens to the objections without flinching and he does change a thing about his own plan.  What should I do? he wonders. Defending Laos by a static defence? And who gives me the necessary troops? Bringing the war into Laos? Same as above. Fortifying the most important Laotian cities and supplying them by air? Have you seen the distance among  Hanoi an the other Laotian cities? How to hope that our planes can make it? No, nothing to do. The sole solution is Dien Bien Phu. I am aware that it is as a second best solution ( mediocre, in French) , based more upon guessworks than upon facts, but , at this time, I can  not act in another way.

Defending Laos, then. And defending it by adopting the tactic used by colonel Gilles at Na San: building a fortified base, supported by air force and by artillery , surrounded by some footholds armed to the teeth, with the intent to provoke an enemy’s attack and force it back. A hedgehog with hundred quills, in other words. The Claudines, the Anne-Maries, the Beatrices — the quills of Dien Bien Phu — will be born from this idea . In the meanwhile, for keeping the enemy under pressure, for preventing  him for moving undisturbed in Laos and to deprive him of  the access to the opium plantations ,  selling which he buys arms, will be conducted some extensive military operations . In short, under a tactical point of view,  the base is a half -” mooring point” for guerrilla operations and a half -” centre of gravity” of a more demanding plan. A grey area, in other words. The defeat at Dien Bien Phu is born also from this compromise situation.

But who  ordered Navarre to defend Laos? The Prime Minister René Mayer, according to him. Not certainly The National Defence Committee [2] — in the meanwhile the government in France has changed–  which on November 13th writes to him : ” Your principal task  is to preserve the French Expeditionary Corps”. Navarre receives that letter on December 4h.

On December 4th, the French are at Dien Bien Phu since two weeks.

Les fleurs du ciel (The flowers of the sky.)

At 5,30 a.m on November 20th, when the plane which is bringing onboard the  three French generals is flying over  Dien Bien Phu, the future French base  is mist-shrouded. A couple of hours later, the mist has dissolved and the operation can begin. Around at 10,30 a.m, the paratroopers commanded by the Majors Marcel Bigeard and Jan Bréchignac — the best troops which the French have — come down by parachute from the Dakotas and the C47 and take land on the assigned positions: Natasha in the southwest and Simone in the southeast. Food,  ammunitions, equipments are parachuted on Octavie, in the southwest. It is the beginning of the Operation Castor, one of the two twins- the latter is Pollux- of the Greek mythology, who are known also as Dioscures (Διόσκουροι).

The 148th Vietminh Regiment is nearby and it immediately reacts. But it is, at the time, understaffed and it does not check all the French jump points. For her part, the civilian population receives the French paratroopers with a mixture of resignation and fatalism, as she had made at the previous Vietminh’s arrival.  Someone leave the village and take refuge in the close mountains.
On the one hand and on the other fall the first soldiers,  the fights are heavy, but at 2 p.m. the area around the village is firmly in the hands of Bigeard’s paratroopers.

On the following days and months a complex chess game begins, made by moves and countermoves,  by ambushes and withdrawals, by victories and defeats.  After the paratroopers, in the camp arrive the sappers , after the guns,  spades and bulldozers. Two landing strips are built, the first in the north and the latter ( smaller) in the south of the camp; the strongholds are fortified, bunkers are dug, blockhouses are erected, hangars and artillery posts are built. The building material, however, is scarce and it is very difficult to make arrive  stones and  wood. The engineers have to put  under the enemy’s fire the precious steel sheets on the landing strips; the camp turns in a barren glade, where the guns, without camouflage, stand out unmistakable under eyes of the enemy’s observers.

The incursions nearby to establish a link with the anti-Vietnamese guerrilla fail and in more than one case, the French have the worst. Lai Chau — the provincial capital — is evacuated with heavy casualties. At this point, the French commanders – Navarre at the head- would have to wonder if  keeping in life Dien Bien Phu  be still worth. Perhaps they wonder it, certainly they prepare a plan ( Xenophon plan) to evacuate the camp at Dien Bien Phu, but nobody does anything.  Pride? Excessive faith on themselves? Fear to lose their face changing their mind? Only one talks clearly. Required of an advice by the War Minister , René Pleven, who is visiting the camp, General Pierre Fay, Chief of Staff of Air Force, answers: ” What is my opinion? If I were Navarre, I would retreat all our troops and I would go away from here as soon as possible. If we stay here, we are lost.”
No one gives ear to him.

And in the meanwhile the Vietminh Divisions draw up around Dien Bien Phu.

The tiger and the elephant.

They are commanded by a history teacher who has left the books for the weapons:  Vo Nguyen  Giap. He has not attended military Academies, he rises through the ranks and he has learned —  often at his own expenses–  on the battlefield. He is scrupulous, meticulous, fussy. He knows as to take care of his soldiers and he tries, for what is in his possibility, to contain the casualties; he is able to take advantage from the terrain. Also for him e not only for Navarre Dien Bien Phu is an opportunity. And also a dangerous gamble. But, if he succeeds, he can break the bank.

His “philosophy” is the following: attack only when you are sure of the victory, otherwise forget it. He likes to resort to a metaphor: that one of the tiger and the elephant. He says: if the tiger attacks the elephant by day  the tiger risks to be crushed. But if , by night , at first  the tiger  wounds it, then , the following night, he tiger attacks it again and escapes; then, another night, it takes it by surprise and wounds it by its claws, the elephant , in the long run, will bleed to death.

The Chinese has sent to him a lot of guns. How is he going to use them? According to Colonel Jean Piroth, the French artillery commander, Giap is going to place his cannons on the hidden side of the mountains for giving life to an indirect fire. At least this is what  the manuals state. But could he develop a hard-hitting fire if he has got only few 75mm cannons? Piroth continues. So, in presence of Navarre, Piroth affirms that no enemy cannon will be able to make fire three times, without being destroyed by the French batteries.

Piroth is a good officer, he has lost an arm during the Italy Campaign in the World War II, he is experienced of artillery, but, as many other French officers — included Navarre — he does not know that Giap has not only 75mm guns, but a lot of howitzers, 105mm guns, 81mm and 120mm mortars. And, above all, that he has got a lot of antiaircraft guns.  About what concerns the manuals, then, it is better to forget it: Giap does not care about the rules and he is accustomed to do always on his own way.

“A” like Anne –Marie.

In the French camp, the strongholds – the quills of the herisson, of the “hedgehog”- take form and have women’s names. So, after Natasha and Simone ( the landing zones of Castor) make their entrance Anne-Marie in the northwest side of the perimeter, Gabrielle in the north side and Beatrice in  northeast: they mount guard to the central core( Claudine, Dominique, Huguette, Eliane, Françoise). Isabelle is the last one: located in the southern part of the camp, she lodges the tactical reserves and defends a small airstrip [3].

At Dien Bien Phu there are also flesh and blood women: some Vietnamese and North African women animate the camp brothel; the journalist Brigitte Friang, assault pen and  paratrooper liver, wants to be in the first line when the fleurs du ciel( the flowers of the sky) will bloom again. And from the sky has arrived also Genevieve de Galard, nurse, doomed to become “The Angel of Dien Bien Phu”.

The trench camp has got a new commander. General Jean Gilles has been alternated for health reasons and replaced by Colonel Christian Ferdinand Marie de la Croix De Castries. He is a cavalry officer, descendant of an ancient family which is laden with history and glory. He has been chosen because Navarre is convinced that at Dien Bien Phu will take place a movement battle. And who is better than a cavalry officer to lead it?
De Castries has a way with the horses ( he has set a couple of world  records) both with the tanks;  with women, then, he is a real tombeur de femmes. Do the outposts’ names celebrate some of his lovers? The malicious are certain of this; more probably the reason is different. It needs to adopt a criterion to name the strongholds. The easiest, the most immediate criterion is  resorting to the alphabetical order. But would it  be “French” indicating  those positions using the simple alphabetical letters? Certainly not. And so  “A” becomes Anne-Marie, ” B” Beatrice and so on. From now on, one can breath French air at Dien Bien Phu!

Politicians and ministers arrive in visit. One of them, pointing the high grounds, asks if they were secured. Obtained a negative answer, he asks again: ” But might the enemy occupy them and place there his artillery?”. Impossible is the peremptory answer of the militaries. De Castries, ubiquitous, flaunts his red beret( that one of the paratroopers, not the black one of the tank-drivers) like a flag, he seems sure of the victory, almost he seems to wish the Vietminh’s attack to finish with the enemy once and for all. Dien Bien Phu like The Fortezza Bastiani? The Vietminh like the Tartars? de Castries like lieutenant Giovanni  Drogo?[4]

While the French are fortifying, Giap is not sitting on his hands. He moves three infantry Divisions(308th, 312th, 316th) a couple of infantry regiments(148th, 57th) and  draws them up near the fortified camp. And he moves, above all, the artillery of  351rst.  At first by the trucks, then, when the roads become tracks, by the beasts of burden and, finally, by manpower. Thousands of coolies load the dismantled guns on their carts, then they load them on their shoulders and after having walked trenches and accurately camouflaged paths, they reassemble them inside the decked by vegetation bunkers. Little by little, dozens of “ant holes”  are dotting the high grounds that the French have guiltily overlooked. And not on the hidden side , as Piroth foresees, but on the side which looks directly at the camp.

On the battlefield, the disproportion is evident: where the French have got one gun, the Vietminh have got four ; where the French have got one soldier, the Vietminh have got five ( 12,000 /50,000). The Vietminh have not aircraft, the French have got them. And this could do the difference. Fragmentation bombs and napalm could neutralize the enemy batteries,  provided that the airport of the camp can be used in safety and that the enemy has not anti aircraft guns. Also the tanks M24 Chaffee( a dozen) could give the enemy infantry a hard time . But might the terrain and the weather  conditions enable their use?

The Ides of March

From the end of January, almost daily, the Vietminh artillery had shot at random here and there and only by 75mm guns perhaps to adjust its shooting, perhaps to mislead an always more tense Piroth. But on March 13, at dawn, at Beatrice hell breaks loose. The Vietnamese guns, perfectly camouflaged, open a continuous  and devastating fire on the French artillery positions, on the blockhouses, on the command posts. Under that deadly fire , Major Paul Pegot, Beatrice’s commander, falls and, few minutes later, also falls Colonel Jules Ducher, whole north sector’s commander. Then the infantrymen of 312th  Division, preceded by the engineers, go out from the trenches dug close to the French lines. The obstacles are levelled and the fire points reduced to silence after heavy combats. At midnight all is over : 500 French soldiers and 600 Vietminh lie on the battlefield.

And on the battlefield lies also Colonel Piroth. His corpse is found inside a bunker. Desperate for not having been able to individuate and counter the enemy guns, did he commit suicide by a hand bomb? Or did he fall under the enemy fire? It is difficult knowing exactly what happened, even if one thinks that he committed suicide. One thing is certain: the Colonel’s corpse is buried on the sly to not depress the troops’ morale.

On March 14th , in the morning, the northern airport at Dien Bien Phu is incessantly bombed . The hangars blow up; a lot of chasms are opened on the landing strip; a lot of aircraft take fire; almost all the planes are hit. Being the strip out of order, the camp can be supplied only by parachute. A French attempt to recapture Beatrice fails: again dead, again wounded.
Giap, now, aims at Gabrielle. It is, perhaps, the most defended outpost, because it is drawn on two defence lines. But it is too far from the rest of the camp and it can not receive reinforcements in a hurry: the Vietnamese conquer it, resist to a counterattack and, despite they suffer many casualties ( 2,000 men),  strengthen their positions.

The fall of Gabrielle sweeps with itself also Anne- Marie, where the most part of the Thai troops deserts. The few remained at Anne-Marie are forced to retreat at Huguette. For the French,  things are turned for the worse: the Vietminh hold the high grounds; they have, against all expectations, a lot of artillery; they have conquered the whole northern sector  of the camp. As General Fay  had foreseen, Dien Bien Phu has  turned in a deadly trap. It is a nail in Navarre’s plan coffin. The battle able to return honour to the French army, the battle to show proudly to a war-weary public opinion , the battle which had to be won at any cost to allow  France to negotiate peace from a strength position , has come into a cul de sac, into a dead end.

Before the storm.

The situation gets worse. While Giap is reorganizing his troops in sight of the final attack, De Castries, shaken by the events, isolates himself inside his bunker; General  Cogny thinks to reach the base and to take its command; the Bigeard’s paratroopers come down from the sky for the second time; Lt Colonel Pierre Charles Langlais, backed by other officers, makes, arms in hand, a “white military coup” and, in fact, divests De Castries of authority ( but some  scholars deny it); the launches of equipments, ammunitions, supplies, before carried out  from eight hundred  meters of  altitude,  are now carried out from two thousand meters, but the aircraft continue to be hit by Vietminh AA; more than an enemy battery is neutralized by Bigeard’s paratroopers, but many loads continue to finish in the  areas controlled by Vietminh.
The diplomacy begins to work and knocks at the door of the White House. Nothing to do, is the answer: equipment and assistance yes, troops not. Nuclear weapons, then, are beyond argument[6]. A direct intervention? Only if there is the Great Britain’s assent. Asked for an advice, Sir Winston Churchill answers: let us wait and see which turn is going to take the Geneva negotiations. Navarre, at this point, thinks about a rescue intervention and alerts the colonel Crevecouer’s battalions that are located in Laos .

The five hills.

The centre of the fortified perimeter at Dien Bien Phu. Source: Wikipedia.

On March 30th , the hostilities resumes. And they are heavier than before. Now  the centre of the perimeter is under fire. Dominique and Eliane are  bombed and then attacked by the infantry; Isabelle is isolated. Fight becomes heavy. The positions 1 and 2 of Dominique fall, but the Vietminh are unable to reach the other points of the stronghold and to complete the encirclement of the camp’s eastern sector.
Sometimes the French counterattack successfully.  On April 1,  they recapture  Eliane 2 fallen in Vietminh’s hands on the day before, and, in the evening, throwing into the fray all their available forces, they recapture also Eliane 1. Elsewhere, the armoured tanks M24 — the so called “bisons” ( buffalos)– break the enemy infantry’s  forward momentum . But these are episodes. Glorious per se , but without any outlook. Like the elephant attacked by the tiger, the French are slowly bleeding. The camp hospitals  can not accommodate all the wounded; the heroic doctor Paul- Henry Grauwin, the extraordinary nurse Genévieve de Galard  and the others doctors are forced to choose whom to treat and whom to leave at his own destiny. The fallen remain unburied, the substitutes arrive in the night, little by little and with irregular launches. Sometimes the bureaucracy does not help: Langlais ask for reinforcements and Hanoi answers that the reinforcements will be sent only when they will have ended their military training.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, President of the USA, pins on the uniform of Lieutenant Genevieve De Galard, the Angel of Dien Bien Phu, the Medal of Liberty( 6/29/1954).Source: http://www.badassoftheweek.com/galard.html

From Paris arrive the career advancements. De Castries is appointed General, Bigeard Lt Colonel, Langlais Colonel. From Manila, however, no American aircraft;  from Laos, no soldier of  Colonel Crevcoeur’s battalions arrive. Also Geneviéve de Galard is decorated: General De Castries pins on the uniform of the heroic nurse the Legion d’honneur cross that a young lieutenant has lent him for the occasion. Some day later, with Colonel Bigeard, Genevieve de Galard is appointed legionary ad honorem( i.e honorary legionary). “If a day I will see you again” says De Galard to the legionary who is her godfather during the ceremony” I am going to offer you a bottle of Champagne.”
It will happen in Paris, ten years after.

Inside that “wet hell”, the legionaries and the paratroopers fight desperately, among memorable phrases( “Withdrawing from Eliane 4? If I withdraw, all we  are fucked!” , Bigeard), attacks and counterattacks, mud and blood, little victories and big defeats, temporary reconquests and definitive withdrawals. When the possibility is given them, the French beat hard: Vietminh elite troops, sent forward recklessly, are broken up by the air force and by artillery.

At this point, Giap turns his attitude: from elephant he becomes tiger. Or, better, mole. His soldiers have a low morale; some unit has refused to carry out the orders; some others have been sent forward under the threat of the politician commissioners. It needs changing tactic.
First, he asks fresh troops to alternate his soldiers for a long time under pressure, then he abandons  the frontal “waves” attacks and makes to dig trenches to bring the infantry near the enemy emplacements.

The first to be isolated is Huguette. The French attacks, launched to forestall Giap, fail. The positions 1 and 6 are conquered, the French counterattacks are forced back and the 90 % of airport is controlled by Vietminh . Parachuting supplies, from this time on, becomes almost impossible. Also because the weather conditions are become worse and the monsoon has brought poor visibility on the sky and streams of red mud on the terrain.

By now, the base is condemned. One after the other, the “quills” of the herisson are conquered. Nobody has sensed the danger, nobody has thought to evacuate the perimeter when evacuating it was still possible  . Or, if someone have thought to do it, now it is too late. Navarre has not stopped Atlante for risking everything at Dien Bien Phu. The misunderstandings between him and Cogny have caused confusion, taken away lucidity from the choices, made impossible the countermoves, concurred to underestimate the enemy. A trenched camp, then, makes sense only if its garrison uses it to counterattack.
De Castries did not use to counterattack: he has only filled some holes. But, perhaps, in those conditions, he could not make in a different way. The last words of De Castries to Cogny are: ” The situation is messy and very serious, but we do not surrender!” Cogny’s answer: “Raising a white flag after a so heroic resistance? It’s quite out of the question!”.

“Heroic” resistance, it is true, but paid with almost three thousand between dead and missing in action ( the Vietminh casualties were about 8.000) and more than 10.000 prisoners: almost two-thirds of them will die during the marches towards the prison camps or in the prison camps. And what about the political aftermaths?  France out from Indochina, the American intervention, an endless war.

Epilogue

On April 30th , Isabelle, isolated for quite a while, is short of food and water. The Viet Minh  loop knot is tightening more and more. When at 5.30 p.m.  on May 7th  De Castries orders the ceasing fire, the Isabelle’s heart will continue to pulse. It will pulse till the first hours of the following day, then it will stop.
Under command of Colonel Lalande there were 1,700 men at Isabelle: only 70 of them will reach Laos.

 Why did not rain that day at Dien Bien Phu?

Suggested reading:
Marcel Bigeard, Ma guerre d’Indochine, Rocher, 2004
Geneviève De Galard, The Angel of Dien Bien Phu, Naval Istitute Press, 2010
Pierre Langlais, Dien Bien Phu, Edition France-Empire, 1963
Bernard B. Fall,  Hell in a very small place: the Siege of Dien Bien Phu, NY Da Capo, Press 2002
Ted Morgan, Valley of death, Random House, 2010
Jules Roy, The battle of Dien Bien Phu, Harper & Row, 1965
Howard Simpson, Dien Bien Phu, Potomac books, 2005
Vo Nguien Giap, Dien Bien Phu, gioi Publishers, 1999
Martin Widrow, The last valley. Dien Bien Phu and the French defeat in Vietnam, New York, Da Capo Press, 2004

[1] From November 23rd to Dicember 2nd 1952, at Na San, a fortified base supplied from the air, the French had repeatedly rejected the attacks “in waves” of Viet Minh troops, forcing them to give up after having inflicted to them heavy losses. On August 12th 1953, the base was evacuated by air. The evacuation was made ​​possible because of a curious hitch: the radio of the Viet Minh observation broke down and when it returned to work a few hours later, the operator transmitted the messages as they were accumulated, ie backwards, from the last one to the first one, increasing the confusion, thereby preventing the Viet Minh to intervene in time and leaving them dumbfounded.
The French garrison of Na San was commanded by Colonel (later General) Jean Gilles. His experience could have come in handy at Dien Bien Phu, but Gilles, after having taken part, as we have seen, at the first phase of the Castor Operation, sought and obtained, for health reasons, to be relieved in command. The Viet Minh troops were under General Vo Nguien Giap’s command . In Na San, Giap learned the lesson: frontal attacks are useless (and bloody) if they are brought against fortified duly supplied centres . At Dien Bien Phu he will remember this.

[2]The National Committee of Defense was a high-level organism chaired by the President of the Republic and composed of several ministers (Foreign Affairs, Finance, Interior, Defence, Colonies, Indochinese Affairs etc..). In respect of Navarre’s plan,  the Committee held a long tortuous behavior: it said and not said, it affirmed and denied. It  decided, in short, to take a clear position only on November 13, when the damage had already been done.

[3] During the battle, under pressure of the events, some strongholds were abandoned by the French ( François, for instance) and others were fitted out ( Junon, Eparvier, etc.)

[4]“The Desert of the Tartars”  is the title of a famous Italian  novel written by Dino Buzzati and appeared in the late spring of 1940. In this novel is told the story of the soldiers and the officers of the Fortezza Bastiani ( Fortress Bastiani) an outpost near the desert, beyond which the mysterious Tartars live . The garrison lives waiting for the enemy ( the Tartars), wishing the battle, but the enemy does not come and the desired  battle is not fought. Sometimes it seems that the battle be imminent, but every time nothing happens. The protagonist ( lieutenant Giovanni Drogo) grows old  in the Fortress,  waiting in vain for the enemy. And when he, now elder, is leaving the Fortress, it seems that the Tartars are  arriving… But are they going to arrive really?

Someone have seen in the garrison of Fortezza Bastiani  a metaphor of editorial staff of Corriere della Sera, one of the most important newspapers in Italy, whose Buzzati was correspondent. And the battle desired by everyone but never fought, seems foreshadow the journalist “scoop”, always pursued by every journalist, but difficult to reach. Others see in this novel a criticism to military life; others a bitter thinking about uselessness of life… and so on.
An English edition of this novel is available, with the title “The Tartar Steppe”  on Amazon at the following address:

[5] At Dien Bien Phu, The French used on the frontline some units of Foreign Legion , units of professional soldiers, units  of troops of “Friend Countries”( Thai, Vietnamese, etc), but not French conscripts. Aware of the negative impact that the use of French conscripts would have had on the public opinion which  was hostile to war, the French government had expressly forbidden it. In Indochina, in the ranks of French “marines” paratroopers, fought also Alain Delon, not yet a famous actor. He had enlisted when he was seventeen year old.
At Dien Bien Phu, Lt Colonel ( later General) Marcel “Bruno” Bigeard  became a legendary figure. For better or for worse. The Viet Minh were afraid of him, the French soldiers admired him, the senior officers listened to him. He inspired to director Gillo Pontecorvo the figure of Colonel Mathieu in the famous film “The Battle of Algiers” ( La battaglia d’Algeri”)(1962). Bigeard has dead recently, in 2010. He is not buried in France: he rests with his soldiers on the battlefield of Dien Bien Phu, where his ashes has been dispersed as he had wished.

[6] Using nuclear weapons was seriously taken into account in Washington, where the French Chief of Staff, General Paul Ely, had confidential talks with Admiral Arthur W.Radford , who was in favour of using “A” bombs. A specific plan – called Operation Vulture – was prepared. That plan was not put in action, before because of Navarre’s doubts about the Chinese reaction, then because of the President Eisenhower’s   perplexities.

This is an automatic translation from Italian. Excuse the mistakes.

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