Night Jump into Dien Bien Phu: An Eyewitness Account From A French Paratrooper Captured by the Viet Minh

Pierre Fauroux was born in 1921. He graduated from the French Navy Academy at St. Cyr in 1942, when France’s Vichy authorities was dominated by Germany. In 1943 he escaped from France through Spain and joined the Free French motion based mostly in Britain. Skilled by the British in particular operations, he parachuted into France in June 1944 through the D-Day invasion. On the finish of 1944 the restored French authorities despatched Fauroux to Indochina to organize for the return of French forces on the finish of the conflict. He participated in lots of clandestine reconnaissance missions till he returned to France in late 1946. Fauroux returned to Indochina in 1952 as the manager officer of a parachute battalion and fought at Dien Bien Phu, a French defeat that set in movement a sequence of political and army choices in america that will ship U.S. floor fight troops to Vietnam in March 1965. Fauroux was captured by the Viet Minh, a Communist-controlled group preventing for independence from colonial rule. He was repatriated in September 1954 and later served in Algeria. Throughout his army profession Fauroux was awarded the French Legion of Honor and the American Silver Star. Fauroux died in 2010. His memoir written six years earlier consists of the next account of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, translated by retired U.S. Military Colonel Stephen Smith.

Pierre Fauroux receives the Silver Star in 1993 for his service to the U.S. Military in World Warfare II. (Courtesy off Stephen Smith)

In 1952 I acquired orders to report back to Quim­per, in France’s Brittany area, the place paratroop battalions had been skilled, on Could 2 earlier than heading again to Indochina. Main Marcel Bigeard was at Saint-Brieuc [a town in Brittany] accountable for the sixth Battalion of Colonial Paratroops. My battalion was the tenth Colonial Paratroops, commanded by Main Jean Bréchignac. In November 1952 we went to Marseilles to embark for Saigon. Whereas in Marseilles we acquired orders reflagging us because the 2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment of Paratroop Chasseurs.

Shortly after our arrival in Hanoi round Christmas 1952, we had been transported to Na San in Tai territory [a section of northern Vietnam inhabited by people of the Tai culture], the place an vital strongpoint had been organized over the earlier a number of months. Two Viet Minh divisions had knocked themselves out making an attempt to assault it. The French International Legion paratroops distinguished themselves there. Na San was with out query a French victory that price the Viet Minh very dearly. By the point we arrived, the worst of the preventing was over. We assumed accountability for conducting all of the patrols inside a 30-kilometer radius round Na San. The target was to make contact with the Viets there, who at the moment refused to combat us.

That, nonetheless, didn’t forestall us from having our first main engagement on April 1,1953. We fell upon a big enemy battalion and the preventing was violent. We suffered 10 killed, together with one officer, 70 wounded and 5 or 6 lacking. The Viet Minh battalion was virtually annihilated, first from our hearth after which from fighter plane that machine-gunned all the space.

We remained in Tai territory till Easter, April 5, 1953, after which went again to Hanoi to relaxation and reorganize for one week. For the following a number of months we took half in varied operations within the Purple River delta and different locations in Tonkin. I nonetheless have bitter reminiscences of two affairs we had been concerned in. There was a class of promotable colonels who commanded giant Cellular Reconnaissance Teams, composed of assorted kinds of battalions. Earlier than ending their excursions of responsibility in Indochina and returning to France, they’d mount an operation to burnish their marketing campaign credentials. Command of a paratroop battalion lent a sure sparkle to their tenures. Twice, every time for a dozen days, we had been the paratroop battalion concerned, and it price us two firm commanders, amongst others. We paid dearly for this type of foolishness, which contributed nothing to the wartime mission.

We additionally executed an operational soar to the north of Tourane [Da Nang] within the coastal area nicknamed the “Avenue With out Pleasure.” [French soldiers were continually ambushed by Viet Minh fighters on a stretch of Highway 1 that ran through the area.] The Viets refused to combat, however we took numerous prisoners, whom we introduced again to Tourane and turned over to the navy for evacuation.

Within the spring of 1953 the French authorities determined to search for an honorable approach out of the conflict that was bogging down. Unable to attain victory over the Viet Minh, who had been supported by Soviet Russia and Communist China, the federal government designated a brand new commander in chief and gave him the duty of reinforcing the Franco-Vietnamese troops. It additionally undertook a sequence of diplomatic initiatives geared toward reaching a negotiated answer to the conflict.

The brand new commanding common, Common Henri Navarre, was given a mission that included countering the menace whereas holding the Viet Minh divisions within the Purple River delta, mounting precision operations within the coronary heart of their provide zone and towards Communist-infested areas within the heart of Annam [a region in the central portion of what is now Vietnam] and organizing a big offensive supported by landings alongside the coast.

Navarre changed Common Raoul Salan, who had been in Indochina since 1948. The senior commander in northern Vietnam was Lt. Gen. François de Linarès, scheduled to rotate again to France. His designated alternative was Maj. Gen. René Cogny, already in Indochina and one of many only a few senior officers within the job. Earlier than departing, Linarès, a Navarre classmate at St. Cyr and on the École Militaire, warned the brand new commander in chief that Cogny was not a very good match for the job and never prepared for senior command. It was Cogny who suggested Navarre on the selection of Dien Bien Phu, although he later disavowed having executed so and resisted sending reinforcements from the Purple River delta.

As quickly as Navarre assumed command, his most fast downside was northern Laos. If the Viet Minh infiltrated that space from the Mekong Valley and from center Laos, they’d threaten all of southern Indochina. Not defending northern Laos would quantity to accepting a common disaster inside just a few months. Thus, the choice was made to reoccupy Dien Bien Phu, a jungle crossroads and a strategic level that the French had occupied periodically because the starting of the century. Dien Bien Phu could be occupied this time by the use of an airborne insertion.

The 2nd Battalion, 1st Paratroop Chasseurs, was working on the Tonkin plain close to “Seven Pagodas” [near Chi Linh, halfway between Hanoi and Haiphong] once we had been informed to return instantly to Hanoi. We understood that one thing vital was happening. Known as to a headquarters assembly on the very highest stage, Main Bréchignac took me alongside. We realized that an airborne operation named Castor would plant us in the midst of Dien Bien Phu. The officers current, from varied models, felt a way of reduction. Ultimately we might be nose to nose with all the Viet Minh military, and we had been assured we might ship a knockout blow.

The drop zone terrain fashioned an elongated basin whose lengthy axis was roughly north-south, with a mean altitude of 500 to 700 meters. It was surrounded by wooded hills that ignored the valley to the north and to the east, the place a touchdown strip was situated. The basin’s size from north to south was about 14 kilometers, and its width was 3 to five kilometers.

The preliminary operation consisted of three components. The Airborne command put up was below Brig. Gen. Jean Giles, the commander of airborne troops in Indochina. The put up immediately managed an airborne artillery group consisting of two batteries of 75mm weapons, an airborne engineer firm and an airborne surgical staff. The first Airborne Process Pressure, below Lt. Col. Louis Fourcade, consisted of the first and sixth battalions of Colonial Paratroops and the 2nd Battalion, 1st Paratroop Chasseurs. The 2nd Airborne Process Pressure, below Lt. Col. Pierre Langlais, consisted of the first Battalion, International Legion Paratroops; the fifth Battalion, Vietnamese Paratroops; and the eighth Battalion, Colonial Paratroops.

The variety of males dropped could be 4,825. It was an important airborne mission ever executed by the French military. The operation concerned 65 Douglas C-47 Dakota transports, 33 flying from Bac Mai, the rest from Gia Lam [both Hanoi airports]. The drops could be executed in two waves at an altitude of 200 meters. The launch time was scheduled for 7:30 a.m. on Nov. 20, 1953. Intelligence estimated the enemy energy on the bottom at eight corporations and one heavy-weapons firm with 4 120mm mortars.

The 2nd Battalion, 1st Paratroop, was a part of the primary wave, carried in 27 C-47s. I didn’t participate in that preliminary soar of Operation Castor. All forward-deployed parachute models require a strong rear detachment, prepared to right away resolve any resupply and alternative issues. Main Bréchignac requested me to take cost of that detachment.

The battalion encountered no resistance when it arrived on the bottom and took two prisoners. Six troopers had been evenly injured within the soar. On the finish of the primary day’s operations, whole French losses got here to fifteen killed (one through the soar) and 47 wounded. The Viet Minh suffered 147 lifeless, however most of their fighters fled into the mountains. Inside three days the touchdown strip was improved sufficient to accommodate C-47s. After November 26,air-landed infantry models got here to strengthen and relieve the paratroops. Because the arrival of reinforcements permitted, the paratroop models had been transported by air again to Hanoi December 8-17. The 2nd Battalion was withdrawn on December 10.

From Nov. 26, 1953, to March 13, 1954, the bottom at Dien Bien Phu was frequently improved and strengthened [primarily by setting up eight defensive positions, or strongpoints, each with a female name]. By December the garrison totaled some 12,000. A common sense of optimism reigned on the headquarters in Hanoi and Saigon. The intention was to complete off the Viet Minh. Drawing the Viets into the valley was the dream of all the workers. We might lastly have what we wished—a concentrated goal that we may hammer.

The entrenched camp appeared impregnable, and not one of the civil and army dignitaries who visited it raised any considerations. And but towards the tip of December Common Navarre realized the dangers we had been working at Dien Bien Phu. Very dependable army intelligence studies indicated the enemy was bringing in heavy artillery. All too late he understood that the approaching battle required help from a way more highly effective air pressure. Even worse, the entrenched camp may solely obtain aerial help from distant bases within the Purple River delta, which might imply delays in getting help.

Whereas we waited for the Viet Minh to assault Dien Bien Phu, an occasion of nice significance modified every little thing. We realized on February 18 that our nationwide leaders had determined to fulfill to debate the Indochina difficulty in Geneva on the finish of April. Common Navarre had not been forewarned. He later positioned a lot of the blame for the failure at Dien Bien Phu on that convention: The information inspired the Viet Minh to tug out all of the stops so they may go to the convention carrying a giant army victory to bolster their place within the negotiations.

By the start of March the Viet Minh had encircled Dien Bien Phu with 60,000 to 80,000 troops from 28 infantry battalions, three artillery regiments, an anti-aircraft regiment and an engineer regiment. They’d monumental stockpiles that had been being augmented on the charge of fifty tons a day by an interminable provide chain that included coolies, closely loaded bicycles and 700 Molotova vehicles supplied by Soviet Russia.

Along with our infantry forces, we had two battalions of 105mm artillery and one battery of 155mm artillery, two 120mm mortar corporations, 10 M24 gentle tanks and two engineer corporations. We had 9 days of rations, eight of gas and 5 of artillery ammunition. Colonel Christian de Castries commanded the garrison, and Langlais, the 2nd Airborne commander, led the paratroops. Because the battle unfolded, nonetheless, it turned primarily a combat carried out by lieutenants and captains.

On March 11 the Viet Minh artillery started harassing hearth and succeeded in destroying six Grumman F8F Bearcat fighters on the bottom. We had been actually shocked to see that the Viet Minh had such artillery, which had been sheltered in virtually invulnerable tunnels hollowed out of the encompassing mountains. Each time they fired, they managed to hit one thing, and the French artillery at Dien Bien Phu was neutralized rapidly. Confronted with this failure, the French artillery commander, Colonel Charles Piroth, dedicated suicide in his bunker.

The primary assault, on the night of March 13, was directed towards the strongpoint designated Béatrice, defended by 450 troops of the thirteenth International Legion Demi-Brigade. The place fell simply after midnight. On March 14 the fifth Battalion, Vietnamese Paratroops, dropped again in as reinforcements. Two days later Main Bigeard and the sixth Battalion, Colonial Paratroops, dropped again in. However strongpoint after strongpoint fell because the preventing continued with out interruption by means of the remainder of March.

When the battle began on March 13, the 2nd Battalion, 1st Paratroop Chasseurs, was in southern Laos at Savannakhet, the place we had taken half in clean-up operations in that area. We rapidly headed again to Hanoi and instantly ready to leap into Dien Bien Phu. In Hanoi we discovered folks’s attitudes detestable. The information correspondents acted just like the paparazzi do right now, making an attempt to interview each man on the street. Colonel de Castries’ spouse was particularly harassed. Editions of the information journal L’Specific with anti-military editorials appeared on the stands. We felt betrayed. We didn’t perceive why the French authorities wasn’t doing extra to help us. In that environment we took off for Dien Bien Phu.

We knew that the battle was already misplaced. Colonel Henri Sauvagnac, one of many founders of the French Airborne, got here to see us off. He despaired to see these whose coaching had been his complete life deploy below such situations. I do not forget that as we had been heading towards the plane, we handed below a big {photograph} of the American movie star Ava Gardner hanging on the wall of the embarkation corridor. Bréchignac mentioned to me, “She actually is an exquisite lady!” as if to say, “That is the world we’re about to desert!” And there we had been, like others earlier than us and others after us, a parachute on our again, one other on our stomach, a soar bag on a sling containing some poor little private objects, leaving for a misplaced battle, trying like so many penguins.

After surviving an evening of intense preventing on April 3, a French patrol tries to find out the enemy’s place. (Bettmann/Corbis)

Our drop began on the evening of April 1-2. All the operation was scheduled for 3 waves on three successive nights. I jumped with the primary wave near midnight. No sooner did my parachute open than I discovered myself in the midst of a unprecedented spectacle—anti-aircraft hearth, illumination flares, tracer rounds—it was an actual Bastille Day fireworks present. I proceeded to an meeting level as rapidly as doable, and it quickly turned evident that Bréchignac had not jumped. The airplane he was in had overshot the drop zone due to the heavy anti-aircraft hearth, and there was no place past the perimeter the place it was secure to leap.

We had solely two corporations on the bottom. I linked up with the command put up, and Colonel Langlais despatched us to take positions on the Eliane 4 strongpoint. Bréchignac arrived the next evening. Touchdown in barbed wire, he needed to depart his trousers hanging on it with a purpose to extricate himself. The battalion regrouped on Eliane 4. Like the lads in different models, we might not see a relaxed day once more till Could 7.

After the battles for the Huguette strongpoints through the first days of April, the preventing principally focused on the Eliane strongpoints. We repulsed the assaults, usually inflicting appreciable losses, however enemy artillery hearth was incessant and got here in from all sides. As we misplaced troopers, these nonetheless in preventing situation would reassemble. Beginning on the evening of April 9-10 extra reinforcements jumped in, together with the 2nd Battalion, International Legion Paratroops, and about 700 volunteers who had by no means seen a parachute of their lives.

Because the month wore on, the provision scenario turned determined. Due to the extraordinary anti-aircraft hearth, airlifted rations and provides needed to be dropped from greater and better altitudes. Massive quantities fell on enemy positions. In the course of the later days of the battle, we benefited from the intervention of huge American cargo planes flown by the pilots of Maj. Gen. Claire Chennault’s Civil Air Transport airline [later the CIA’s Air America], working from Nationalist Chinese language territory on Taiwan. Chennault had been the commander of the American Volunteer Group [Flying Tigers] in World Warfare II. At Dien Bien Phu his planes took nice dangers by dropping provides at low altitudes. Two of them had been shot down.

In the course of the evening of Could 1-3, the Viets fired the longest artillery focus of the battle. It lasted three hours and was principally directed on the Eliane positions. Our battalion suffered nice losses, together with one firm commander and one lieutenant killed, two firm commanders severely wounded and a few 30 troopers killed. Solely three days earlier than the tip of the preventing, the first Battalion, Colonial Paratroops, started to drop in.

On Could 4 and 5 the assaults on Eliane 2 and 4 multiplied. Rain interfered with the airdrops. Solely half an organization from the Colonial Paratroops’ 1st Battalion arrived on Could 5. On the afternoon of Could 6 Bréchignac requested me to go together with a radio operator towards the middle of the preventing to search for a much less pulverized place the place we may reassemble the surviving components of the battalion. I superior by means of the trenches in mud as much as my chest. The shells by no means ceased to fall. At a bend in a trench I overlooked the radio operator. He should have been killed by a shell and swallowed up by the mud. I spotted then that the tip was at hand.

I made it again to the command put up. I can nonetheless see the dugout 2 meters below the earth the place huddled collectively had been Bigeard, Langlais, Main Pierre Tourret of the Colonial Paratroops’ eighth Battalion, Main Maurice Guiraud of the International Legion Paratroops’ 1st Battalion, Main Hubert de Séguin-Pazzis from de Castries’ headquarters and my St. Cyr classmate Captain Robert Caillaud of the 2nd International Parachute  Regiment. We by no means noticed de Castries, who just lately had been promoted to brigadier common.

In the course of the evening of Could 6 Bréchignac despatched his ultimate message: “They’re right here. I’m destroying the radio. Adieu to all.” Bigeard, Langlais and all of us believed that we must always not give up or hoist the white flag. De Castries despatched us a message indicating his approval of a cease-fire with out a white flag. All of the models had been contacted; all of the arms and the radios weredestroyed. The overall cease-fire took impact at 5:30 p.m. on Could 7. Then the silence.

We waited. Then we heard them coming, like a wave, a screaming crowd. We had been reassembled outdoors, with none brutality. Our adversaries appeared very shocked and somewhat respectful. Then we had been handed over to the political commissars, and that was the start of one other story. The losses we suffered within the battle for Dien Bien Phu totaled 2,379 lifeless, 5,234 wounded (708 of whom later died of their wounds) and 11,579 taken prisoner. Solely 3,290 of the captured males returned residence. The enemy losses included 8,000 lifeless and 15,000 wounded, in line with official estimates.

The French military was crushed but it surely was not routed, because the newspaper Le Monde wrote in 2004. We younger officers requested for less than two issues: First, to be properly led; and second, to be helped, supported and equipped by those that despatched us to conflict. It occurs infrequently that the primary situation isn’t fulfilled; the second by no means is. When the tip of the battle was introduced in Paris, the Chamber of Deputies was in plenary session. The emotion was appreciable. Many deputies wept and all of them stood for an extended interval of silence—besides the Communist deputies, who remained seated. 

Stephen Smith, a retired Military officer within the Decide Advocate Common’s Corps, is a civilian legal professional for the Military’s twenty first Theater Sustainment Command in Kaiserslautern, Germany. Captain Pierre Fauroux was his father-in-law. For extra studying see Bernard B. Fall’s Hell in a Very Small Place and Martin Windrow’s The Final Valley.

First revealed in Vietnam Journal’s April 2016 difficulty.


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