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The battle of Dien Bien Phu opposed in 1954 the French army and the Vietnamese communist forces of Viêt-minh in the deep plain of Diên Biên Phu, located in the north-west of Vietnam, near the border with Laos. This battle, of which the Viet-minh was victorious, marked the end of the Indochina War (1946-1954), but also that of French hegemony in this region. It resulted, during the Geneva agreements, in the partition of Vietnam into two distinct states.
Operation "Castor", prelude to the battle of Diên Biên Phu
After more than eight years of fierce fighting and despite Vinh Yen's victory, the French expeditionary force is in difficulty in Indochina. The Vietminh army, commanded by General Giap, continues to advance. In the fall of 1953, the French government asked General Nenri Navarre, commander of the expeditionary force, to launch a new large-scale operation intended to stop the seasonal offensives led by the Vietminh. The idea is that the enemy will never be able to overcome an entrenched camp made up of points of support supporting each other. Thus on November 20 begins the operation "Castor", prelude to thebattle of Diên Bien Phu.
Entrusted to General Gilles, this consists of settling in Diên Biên Phu, a basin six to nine kilometers wide located in upper Tonkin (north of present-day Vietnam), not far from the Laotian border. Thousands of colonial paratroopers jump on Dien Bien Phu to capture the valley, which is defended by a modest detachment of the North Vietnamese army. Once this mission is accomplished, the French paratroopers repair the airfield installed by the Japanese during the Second World War and a first plane can land there on 25 November.
From then on, the rotations between Hanoi and Diên Biên Phu will no longer cease to bring supplies, artillery and ammunition. The parachute units were practically all relieved and replaced by infantry units, which established an entrenched camp protected by small forts named after women ("Béatrice", "Gabrielle" Huguette ", etc.), a network of trenches as well. as mines and barbed wire.
Surrounded by the Vietminh
On December 31, several divisions of the Vietminh approached the entrenched camp of Dien Biên Phu and began to surround it. General Giap is determined to achieve a decisive victory there in order to end the war. On March 13, 1954, North Vietnamese troops launched an assault on French positions after intense artillery preparation. The fighting, very hard, continued for two days and we came to melee. Having suffered heavy losses, General Giap had to reorganize and resupply.
But after two weeks of calm, the French troops, commanded by General de Castries, suffered a new wave of very violent attacks. Stuck in the bowl of Diên Bien Phu, they soon had no possibility of evacuation, no more planes having managed to take off after March 26. They also cannot count on air support because the weather conditions, the relief and the intensity of the anti-aircraft defense of the Vietminh prevent any intervention by the air force.
Bitter battles and the fall of Dien Biên Phu
The French legionaries and paratroopers, as well as their Vietnamese allies, come under fire from enemy artillery, which constantly pounded them from the nearby hills. Their resistance will be heroic, but in the weeks that follow, the points of support will fall one after the other. On May 7, after 57 days and 57 nights of fierce fighting, Diên Bien Phu finally fell. The French no longer have ammunition and hardly any able-bodied men. They will deplore 3,420 killed or missing and 11,721 of them will be taken prisoner, including nearly 5,000 wounded.
These will then endure a long captivity during which they will have to travel nearly 700 kilometers on foot through the jungle and the mountains to reach the camps. On the Vietnamese side, out of nearly 100,000 men engaged, losses are estimated at over 10,000 killed and 20,000 wounded. Following this defeat, France signed the Geneva Agreements (July 21, 1954), which put an end to the Indochina war and divide Vietnam into two parts separated by a demilitarized zone.
In 1965, the film The 317th Section will return to this tragic episode in the Indochina War. Directed by Pierre Schcendœrffer, who had been a filmmaker in the armies during the conflict in Indochina, this film tells the hard fight of the French soldiers during the battle of Dien Bien Phu while exalting the fraternity reigning between them. He will receive the prize for best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival the same year.
- Diên Biên Phu: November 20, 1953 - May 7, 1954, by Pierre Pellissier. Tempus, 2014.
- Diên Biên Phu: March 13 - May 7, 1954, by Ivan Cadeau. Tallandier, 2013.
- Jacques Valette, The Indochina War, 1945-1954, Armand Colin, 1994.