Also known as the First Indochina War, the seven bloody years of fighting between the French and Viet Minh ended in the famous battle of Điện Biên Phủ, where French forces were unable to overcome successive human wave attacks, the use of heavy artillery and trench warfare by the Viet Minh, and a subsequent siege of the base.
I er BEP (Battalion Etranger de Parachutiste) was formed in 1948, completed jump training, and sailed for Indochina in November of that year.
From November of 1948 through November of 1953 I er BEP fought in numerous engagements and were para-dropped into a number of interventions.
On November 21, 1953 they jumped into Điện Biên Phủ as part of Operation Castor.
The French, like the Americans who followed later, had some difficulty engaging the enemy in set-piece battles. They felt Điện Biên Phủ could be used to tempt the Viet Minh into such a battle, hoping for the opportunity to inflict heavy casualties and a stunning defeat on the Viet Minh.
Smaller scale but similar operations, viewed by the French as successful, had been executed in the months leading up to Operation Castor.
The French felt Điện Biên Phủ had great strategic significance: Protecting Laos from the communists; strangling the Viet Minh's lines of communications and supply; after eight years of unsuccessful negotiations with Ho Chi Minh the French needed a substantial military victory to buttress their negotiating positions; and the new French commander in Indochina hoped to bring some conclusion to this inconclusive war.
From the start, senior French commanders miscalculated or minimized a number of serious difficulties, still believing they could succeed.
Lacking the manpower to hold two bases, the French put all of their resources into Điện Biên Phủ, permitting General Vo Nguyen Giap to focus his entire attention on one target.
The base could be supplied only by air, and was subject to the monsoon in the spring, with weather turning bad without warning.
Even with comfortable assumptions made about the Viet Minh's abilities, the 16,000 men deployed were insufficient.
Lastly, setting up a fortress inside enemy territory left all of the initiative to the Viet Minh.
As the battle went on, a sense of morbid doom suffused every account of the French defense. Once the Viet Minh reduced the perimeter the defenders could not escape or be reinforced. They knew, very early on, that they would lose and resigned themselves to the inevitable in a curiously fatalistic manner.
Metropolitan France reacted somewhat indifferently to the events transpiring in Indochina. Almost all the troops involved were from the Foreign Legion or Colonial regiments. France had emerged from one of the darkest periods of its history just nine years earlier and was in the process of getting bogged down in Algeria. In France, with a divided political leadership, there was great opposition to the war and unwillingness to invest more in the war. Everyone knew that talks were the only way to a final solution.
But the men inside Điện Biên Phủ’s perimeter fought on for no other reason than their self-image: they were professional soldiers, from storied regiments with obscure customs. If they were going to lose, they were going to fight to the last round just because that is what they believed professional soldiers did.
The battalions at Điện Biên Phủ included the cream of the French paratroops. These men had their own mystique, including disdaining cover when attacking.
Their gallantry was perhaps theatrical by the reserved standards of the British and the make-fun-of-everything Americans, but it was very low-key compared to that of the Japanese, with their rituals, ceremonies, flourishes, and poetry.
When the end came, the survivors did not charge the attackers, determined to die rather than surrender. Suicide rather than defeat was not the way of the French. Each man fought to the last. The starving defenders fought until they were overrun, many out of ammunition and forced to resort to using their bare hands. Having done everything they humanly could, the survivors calmly surrendered.
One of the more bizarre incidents in modern warfare concerns the French deserters. The French have an amazing bureaucracy, and this is shown in the meticulous detailing of deserters, mainly Algerian, Moroccan, and Vietnamese irregulars.
During the course of the battle, about 2,000 men announced to their commanders that they were deserting. Their commanders, and here is that Gallic fatalism again, let them go. But there was no place for them to go, as the base was surrounded on all sides. So the deserters deserted, to the middle of the camp, and made themselves as comfortable as possible while the fighting raged non-stop around them, draining the steadily dwindling resources of the base, and even relaxing with some prostitutes.
One account says the French did not have the resources to attend to the deserters. This event and the way the French handled it boggles the mind. One wonders what the fate of the deserters would have been in just about any other army.
Towards the end, many of the surviving officers and men, in a catonic state of exhaustion, had lived for 54 days on a steady diet of instant coffee and cigarettes.
In his last conversation with theater commander General René Cogny, 220 miles away in Hanoi, Điện Biên Phủ’s commander suggested an orderly surrender be arranged, to save the wounded the added anguish of falling into enemy hands as isolated individuals.
Cogny was adamant, "Mon vieux, of course you have to finish the whole thing now. But what you have done until now surely is magnificent. Don't spoil it by hoisting the white flag. You are going to be submerged [by the enemy], but no surrender, no white flag."
"All right, mon général, I only wanted to preserve the wounded."
"Yes, I know. Well, do as best you can, leaving it to your [static: subordinate units?] to act for themselves. What you have done is too magnificent to do such a thing. You understand, mon vieux."
There was a silence. Then de Castries said his final words: "Bien, mon général."
"Well, good-bye, mon vieux," said Cogny. "I'll see you soon."
I er BEP jumped into Điện Biên Phủ with 635 men. By the time the garrison was finally overwhelmed, 575 were posted as killed or missing.
10,863 POW’s were marched 300 miles to captivity. They were in Vietnamese hands for only three months before their release subsequent to the Geneva accords. But only 3,280 returned. Many of the POW’s were Vietnamese and many probably accepted reindoctrination. But such a high percentage of prisoners dying in captivity within so short a time would certainly be treated as a war crime today.
The French military in Indochina presented a makeshift appearance. Defeated in 1940, occupied and plundered, and violently liberated in 1944, France was an almost ruined nation. Foreign Legion parachute battalions wore at least five different main types of combat clothing, in a bewildering number of combinations.
The mixture of mainly American web gear with some British items, later combined with the first issue of French equivalents, added to the confusion.
Two-piece camouflage HBTs were provided in quantity. The whole uniform was seen in both BEPs, perhaps more frequently in the 2 e BEP than I er BEP, and the jacket was often worn in combination with trousers of another pattern.
Besides Marine Corps HBTs, American and British web gear, and a locally procured rucksack, Sergeant Harm is carrying a MAT Mle 1949 Submachine Gun.
The MAT 49, first issued in 1950, became an instant hit with French soldiers, especially those in airborne units, as the gun folds compactly and can be easily restored to action.
While the MAT’s eight pound weight was a negative, the weight served to make the gun virtually jump free. Strictly full automatic, a trooper could tap out single shots or accurate bursts to a distance of about 100 yards.
As a vestige of the life he left behind, Harm is also carrying a pair of German binoculars and a Hitler Youth dagger.