The siege of the French airhead at Dien Bien Phu from November 1953 until May 1954 was the decisive battle of the First Indochina War. The French defeat by the Vietminh radically shifted the balance of power at the Geneva Conference of 1954 toward Ho Chi Minh and forced France to withdraw from Southeast Asia as a defeated colonial power. Fall argues that France’s failures at Dien Bien Phu and the Geneva Conference were not inevitable, but the result of tactical and strategic mistakes. The Vietminh, led by General Vo Nguyen Giap, surprised French military planners by locating large amounts of artillery in the rugged hills surrounding Dien Bien Phu, and obtain adequate stocks of ammunition from China after the end of the Korean War. At the same time, France overestimated both its ability to airdrop supplies to the garrison, and the willingness of the United States to come to its aid. The result was that by the end of the siege, survivors described the muddy outpost as “hell in a very small place.”
Located in a river valley in northwest Vietnam, Dien Bien Phu occupied a strategic location in the Vietminh’s rear area. In addition to blocking an important route into Laos and depriving the Vietminh of rice supplies, French Generals Navarre and Cogny expected the garrison to conduct mobile operations against the Vietminh. They hoped that the fortress would divert a large number of Vietminh troops from their operations in the Red River Valley, enhancing security in the critical areas of Hanoi and Haiphong. Like the earlier airheads at Nau San and Chai Lau, Dien Bien Phu relied solely on aerial resupply.
The French plan went awry almost immediately when the paratroops met stiff resistance on landing at Dien Phu. Instead of a lightly defended remote valley, French troops found a large number of Vietminh conducting exercises as they recuperated from combat. The Vietminh 316th Division was also operating nearby, with its infantry and artillery battalions laying siege to the fortress almost as soon as French troops arrived. The close proximity of the enemy forced a change in the nature of the garrison, which had to construct permanent fortifications. The Vietminh’s unexpected ability to transport and supply artillery in the rugged terrain surrounding Dien Bien Phu increased the need for extensive fortifications. Unfortunately for the French, the valley did not contain sufficient lumber to construct bunkers capable of withstanding heavy artillery, and the available air transports did not have the capacity to quickly deliver the 30,000 tons of construction materials required.
As the siege continued, French miscalculations took a deadly toll. France was unable properly supply the garrison due to the accuracy of Vietminh anti-aircraft fire, reducing the amount of munitions and spare parts available. Accurate and heavy artillery fire closed Dien Bien Phu’s runway to incoming aircraft eliminating evacuation of wounded and reducing the replenishment of troops. France’s miscalculation was on the willingness of the United States to provide direct air support to relieve the siege. Senate Minority Leader Lyndon Johnson halted American plans to relieve the siege using heavy B-29 by insisting that Great Britain also join the effort. Not have heavy bombers or airlift capability of its own doomed the garrison at Dien Bien Phu and France’s reoccupation of Vietnam.
Killed in 1967 while covering the war in South Vietnam, Fall writes from the perspective of his era. From his perspective, the war appears only as a conflict between Communist ideologues and the democratic West. Writing during the 1960’s also forced Fall to rely exclusively on sources outside of North Vietnam, although he did contact North African survivors of the siege after Algerian independence from France. This prevents Hell in a Very Small Place from examining the entire siege, although Fall attempts to provide balance by including comments of captured Vietminh troops on the low morale, high casualties, and poor supply position of Giap’s forces.