General Henri Navarre, the French commander in chief for Indochina, was responsible for the decision to build an outpost in the Red River Delta and its ultimate loss. Dien Bien Phu had been a tranquil crossroads village in northwest Indochina before the French entered it to defeat Vietminh soldiers. The French dropped paratroopers in to build the post since the only roads in were little more than trails, and all of them were controlled by the Vietminh.
A career army officer, Henri Navarre was appointed commander of French forces in Indochina in May 1953. Major General Rene Cogny became his deputy. Together they developed the so-called Navarre Plan to end the crisis in Vietnam. The plan proposed a major strengthening of the Vietnamese National Army, the addition of nine new French battalions to the Indochinese theater, withdrawal of scattered French forces, and the launching of a major offensive in the Red River Delta against the Vietminh.
The United States agreed to support the Navarre Plan in 1953 with nearly $400 million in assistance. Eventually, Navarre committed his augmented forces to the village of Dien Bien Phu in northwestern Vietnam, hoping the Vietminh would stage a frontal attack on the French valley outpost. The rest was history. General Vo Nguyen Giap inflicted a complete defeat on the French army and destroyed the French Empire in Indochina.
Navarre concentrated seventeen battalions in the main outpost, which was located in a ten mile-long river valley surrounded by hills. Navarre hoped to draw the Vietminh out into a battle where superior French firepower would overcome them. He was not really worried about the hills, even though Dien Bien Phu’s two airstrips were within artillery range of them.
Supplies coming into the French garrison had to come by plane. Unknown to the French, the Chinese had supplied the Vietminh with artillery and it had been carried into position on the backs of guerrillas who then reassembled it.
General Vo Nguyen Giap, leader of the Vietminh, tightened his noose around the French between November 1953 and March 1954. The first artillery bombardment was a real surprise to the French, and within four days three French commands had surrendered. The monsoons then arrived and turned the valley into a mud hole, rendering French tanks useless.
With the airfield constantly under artillery bombardment, the French had to depend on air drops for supplies, and the Vietminh captured most of them. In March 1954, Vietminh also destroyed thirty-eight French aircraft at the airfield in Haiphong. Those planes were used to resupply Dien Bien Phu.
Between late March and early May 1954 Giap attacked Dien Bien Phu relentlessly in daily assaults. Inside the French outpost, latrines overflowed, water spoiled, and food supplies ran out. Too weary to bury their dead, the French soldiers resorted to wearing masks to tolerate the stench. The last French command surrendered on May 7, 1954. Of the original 12,000 defenders at Dien Bien Phu, 2,293 were killed and 5,134 wounded. Survivors were herded on a long death march to Vietminh prison camps. The defeat was a harsh psychological blow to the French and inspired their permanent withdrawal from Indochina and the Geneva Accords of 1954.