11th hour change delivers D-Day victory

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A tactical shift at the last minute by General Vo Nguyen Giap was crucial in ending French colonialism in Indochina


Vietnamese people transport supplies for the Vietnam People's Army during the Dien Bien Phu Battle in 1954

Today [May 7] marks the 56th anniversary of the Dien Bien Phu Victory of Vietnam People's Army over the French military forces that ended French colonialism in Vietnam.

The victory highlights the genius of Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap who made key decisions as the commander of the Vietnam People's Army [Viet Minh] troops during the operation in 1954.

The operation took place in Lai Chau Province's mountainous area of Dien Bien Phu [now Dien Bien Province].

Giap is 99 years old.

Among his decisive moves was a plan to delay the Dien Bien Phu Operation for nearly two months and a shift in strategy and tactics from the initial one of sudden attack and a swift victory to one of a solid attack and certain victory.

In 1953, the Viet Minh had reclaimed Lai Chau Town in an effort to fully liberate the northwestern region from the French military forces.

Henri Navarre, who commanded French Union Forces in Indochina, later sent six parachute battalions to Dien Bien Phu to block the possibility of the Viet Minh reaching Laos and later, central Vietnam to liberate these places from the French army.

The Dien Bien Phu area, comprising the northwestern region's largest rice fields of Muong Thanh and Dien Bien Phu Valley, was considered by Navarre as the best place in northern Indochina for a military base. Located between 300-500 kilometers from Hanoi and several other northern provinces, the only connection to National Road 6 would offer Viet Minh little chance to supply their troops for a long time as they often transported these by bicycles and horses.

Initial plan

In a plan approved by the Politburo, the decision-making body of the [Vietnam] Communist Party, and President Ho Chi Minh, the battle was expected to last 45 days. Viet Minh sent a group to the frontline, including major-general Hoang Van Thai, accompanied by Mei Jiaoshing and several others in the Chinese Military Advisory Group who had been sent to Vietnam in 1950 to help fight the French.

Giap, who was appointed to be the operation's commander, arrived at the operations' headquarters later on January 12 in 1954 to learn that Vietnamese officers and Chinese advisors had agreed on a plan to attack Dien Bien Phu in two days and three nights


General Vo Nguyen Giap

In his memoirs, Giap said: "I thought we couldn't win with the sudden attack-swift win tactics but I did not have enough reasons then to reject the plan. Moreover, there was no time to report to the Politburo for instructions. I agreed to discuss the plan further."

Giap also said he told Nguyen Van Hieu, head of the Politburo office, about his reconsideration and asked Hieu to think about it before discussing it with him.

Colonel Hoang Minh Phuong, former deputy commander of Dien Bien Phu Operation and Giap's interpreter, said major-general Thai and Jiaoshing had agreed on the tactics based on Viet Minh's defeat at Na San in 1952. Jiaoshing wanted to have a short operation because he feared the French could be stronger through the days, he added.

He said Giap had met with Wei Guoqing, head of the Chinese Military Advisory Group, to remind him that the central government had planned to attack in 45 days. But according to Guoqing, Jiaoshing and Thai said they had studied the issue for a month and could miss a rare chance to win if a swift attack was not launched.

Little chance

Giap said in his memoirs that he had "been sleepless for nights but still unable to find out any winning opportunities in the plan.

"Two days before the operation, Pham Kiet, an officer in charge of ammunition transport, phoned me and said the heavy guns would be set on empty land, exposing them to aerial attacks. Some guns were still far away from the planned battlefield," he wrote.

Due to late arrivals of ammunition, the operation was delayed to January 25 in 1954. It was then delayed by one more day to keep secret details of the attack. The French had arrested a

Vietnamese soldier and could have found out about the plan.

However, Giap was still unsure about victory due to several problems, including the strengthening of the French troops and ammunition, and poor coordination among Vietnamese units due to lack of practice and lack of fighting experience in daytime on bare land.

On January 23, Le Trong Nghia, former head of the Vietnamese Army Intelligence, reported to Giap that the French knew well about the attack plan.

Giap ordered Nghia not to report the issue to anyone, especially the [Chinese] advisors who often asked him about the situation.

Crucial shift

In the early morning of January 26, the planned date of attack, Giap met Guoqing and discussed the situation. "Attacking means failure," he told Guoqing who later agreed with him that the operation should be delayed.

A meeting was held soon later and Giap announced the change to the solid attack-certain victory tactic and delayed the previously planned attack. Soldiers and ammunition were taken away from the frontline.

"I made the most difficult decision in my life on that day," the then-43-year-old general said.

On March 13 in 1954, more than a month and a half later, the Viet Minh attacked the Dien Bien Phu base of the French Union and claimed victory on May 7 after 55 days of separate attacks due to limited army ordnance supplies.

More than 260,000 people were mobilized to transport ammunition, food and medicines to the frontline and lay several dozen kilometers of roads to the place.

More than 16,000 soldiers of the French Union were detained and the victory led to the Geneva Accords to restore peace in Indochina on July 21 in 1954.

About Giap's decision, colonel Phuong said: "Many years later, people knew that Wei Guoqing had also thought that it was no good to have a swift attack. On January 24, he asked for opinions from Chinese Central Military Commission and President Mao [Zedong] but he only received responses on January 27 [after Giap decided to delay the operation]."

FRENCH UNION

- 12 battalions and 7 companies (4 battalions and 2 companies
were added during the battle)
- 28 105mm howitzers
- 4 155mm howitzers
- 20 120mm mortars
- 1 sapper battalion
- 10 tanks
- 200 trucks
- 1 air squadron with 7 fighter aircrafts, 6 scouting aircrafts and one helicopter
- 100 Dakota C47 aircrafts, 16 Packet C119 aircrafts, 168 bomber aircrafts, 112 fighter aircrafts

VIETNAM PEOPLE'S ARMY

- 4 brigades
- 1 regiment with 24 105mm howitzers
- 1 regiment with 24 75mm mountain guns
- 4 companies with 16 120mm mortars
- 1 battalion with 6 H6 rocket launchers
- 1 battalion with 54 DKZ and 82mm mortars
- 1 regiment with 36 antiaircraft 37mm guns
- 132 antiaircraft 12.7mm machine guns
- 628 trucks, 21,000 bicycles and 20,000 other means of transport

By Nguyen Manh Ha*

* Colonel Nguyen Manh Ha is the vice director of the Military History Institute of Vietnam.

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