Wednesday, 22 April 2015

March 2015-Storm Over Dien Bien Phu

Storm Over Dien Bien Phu French Indochina 1954

French vs Viet Minh

Address given to the Veterans of the Valley of Heroes April 17 1974 by General M Bugeard, Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, Croix De Guerre, Companion of the Liberation, etc., etc.

"My Friends! Comrades! Kameraden! Please, a little dignity, a little quiet! I am not running for President! What is that? I am may be a better one than the current one? I am but a simple soldier: what would I do in the Elysee Palace? Better to meet my old comrades in Les Invalids, and celebrate our victory at Dien Bien Phu, and remember those who made the Ultimate sacrifice for the Greatness and Glory of Eternal France!

All would agree I have had a long career in the Military, some few would even say distinguished! That of course is for others to decide on. I have always endeavoured to do my duty to my best ability and help others to do the same. Since the Time of Shame in 1940 to the defense of Vietnam in 1969 against the Chinese Incursion, I have always done what I could. Some say my best work was done in 1958 in the Battle of Algiers, which helped bring about the Peace of the Brave with the FLN in 1959, thus saving French Algeria from certain loss! Yes, Marcel, I know some of the Pied Noir thought the terms too generous! But dare I say their Stubbornness in their defense of their privileges may have lost all! Why should those who fought for France, worked for France and loved France not have the right to be Citizens? Bah, but the argument is ancient!

I prefer to think on the Siege of Dien Bien Phu as one of the most important of all the Victories I helped bring about. Now that General De Castries has made the Last March, as the surviving Senior Commander, perhaps I may be thought worthy of making a few remarks on this memorable anniversary. I will give a brief account of the Siege, as I see some have bought their children. What is that? Grand children! My Faith! The wonders you live to see! Dare we admit it my friends? Some of us grow old!

Operation Castor began with the parachute landings on 20th of November 1953.Dien Bien Phu lies in the remote Nam Yum River valley 450 kilos from Hanoi, and 50 kilos from the Laotian border. Since fighting began between us and the Viet Minh in December 1946, neither side had great advantage over the other. Since the Fall of China to the Reds in 1949, more heavy equipment was available to the Viet Minh, and our armour was no longer the advantage that it was. But what if the Viet Minh could be tempted from their Mountain fastness, and Jungle Lair?

By the time I arrived in late February,11,00 soldiers were there .Not only the Paras, but the Legion--yes my lads, you are not forgotten!-but Moroccan, Senegalese, Algerian and Anammite local troops were here’ll the French Union was here, all volunteers of their own free will, to defend French Interests from Communism. Not to forget our Air Wing, six Fighters and six observation planes. But I must give the Silver Palm to the Artillery! 44 Cannon and over 200 mortars were to be the backbone of defense under Col. Langlais. Under heavy odds he and his Gunners never failed to support the unfortunate, or repel the Enemy. Sadly, he fell on April 10 to enemy artillery, just before our victory. May his spirit abide with us!

If you will observe the Map you will note the main positions are all female names. There was a rumour that they were all named for Lady Friends of Col. De Castries. Why would we name Military positions for those who fell so easily into the handsome arms of the Colonel? No it was purely a convention, rather than just call them Fort A, Post B and trench C. We were well dug in or so we thought, and waiting for the certain attack of an enemy we knew did lack courage, if for an ill cause.

On March 17 a major Viet assault erupted on Area 17 between Dominique and Elaine, cutting off the two positions. Our Artillery made a Time on Target response that destroyed 4 companies of the foe. But to our amazement there was heavy counter battery fire from enemy artillery, with shells from 105 least! This was totally unexpected! With a feat equalling Hannibal crossing the Alps the Viet Mihn had carried a train of Artillery through the jungle and over mountains and assembled it on the ridges looking down on us. After the battle we found that the enemy had 24 105's, 18 75's, 12 dreaded Katyusha rocket launchers as well as mortars and AA flak. We found our trenches and strong points built to deflect mortars were not strong enough! Many of our comrades died because of those well served enemy guns!

We had little time for reflection in that first week. A counter attack on Area 17 restored the situation, as Area 10 and 11 repelled heavy attacks. Gabrielle was heavily bombarded and attack was made. The situation was most serious when our Air Wing, bravely defying heavy ground fire evened the odds. Anne Marie was attacked three times in as many days, with losses we could ill afford. Hughette also suffered heavily. A sortie from Dominique cleared Area 17 from another Viet attack. We had lost the equivalent of six Companies dead or badly wounded, with nine enemy Companies lost.

Both sides reinforced, and our wounded evacuated out by air. Attacks on Area 17 continued, in one place a whole Company being lost being buried in trenches. But by the time the Viet Minh attacked there were fully manned trenches just built in the nick of time! Once again air support and artillery broke up enemy attacks, with heavy losses. On March 24th at Dawn a mine is exploded under Beatrice, followed by a Human wave attack! This explosion shook the earth and actually blasted me and others out of our bunks, though we were a kilometre away at Claudine. Beatrice fell, the survivors of the explosion rapidly being overwhelmed. Area 5 fell but a counter attack backed by B26 bombers saved the day. Ah! What we owe to our companions in the Air Force can never be repaid!

On March 27 a major attack on Dominique was made, which was so close our artillery were using open sights, just as in the days of Napoleon the Great! At the same time Gabrielle was attacked, the assault being backed up by the terrible Katyusha's! I have known men who feared no armour, nor artillery bombardment, or even flame throwers to turn pale at the sound of these rockets! Gabrielle fell after furious fighting. A dawn attack retook it, but now it was barely a collection of holes in the ground. Area 17 continued to be contested, with hundreds on both sides dying in something that more resembled Verdun than modern war. A major attack finally lead to the fall of Gabrielle and it was decided with a bitter heart that it was not worth the loss to try to retake it. Area 5 was conceded as well. By now the equivalent of 13 enemy Companies were laid low, while we had lost another 6.As ever the Legion and the Paras were hardest hit. Luckily we still had air cover and evacuation for the wounded. We were still getting replacements, as was the Viet Minh.
On April 3 a night attack on Dominique failed even though there was a major artillery duel making the dark bright! During pouring tropical rain another heavy attack was made on Area 11, the rain negating our air support! Supported by heavy artillery the attack is a success and our forces fall back! Areas 17 and 10 are still constantly being attacked, and finally area 17 falls. A counter attack is repelled with heavy losses. Things are getting rather warm, my friends! This is where I lead a counter attack which stopped a Viet Minh follow up assault. It was just a few words to brave but tired men and then leading a charge across the field and the Enemy, just as tired, give way. Any First Year Cadet from St Cyr could have done it!

Area 10 attacks are being repulsed with heavy losses due to our excellent mortars. Our brave little squadron of ten tanks make their appearance and aids our defence’s, despite drawing heavy artillery fire whenever they appear. More attacks on Area 10 and this blood soaked field changes hands twice more. The artillery on both sides ably supports valiant men. Both sides are exhausted, but like boxers in the ring bloodied and bruised each awaits the other to fall.

Then on April 17 I awake to a strange sound. "Listen!" I say. "I hear nothing, Colonel!" replies my Aide wonderingly. “Neither do I! No snipers, artillery, no machine guns! Nothing! ‘We race outside to find an eerie calm. Everyone is ready for a major attack but at the end of an hour nothing happens. Patrols ease their forward, and race back with stunning news- the Viet Minh have abandoned their gains and moved back to their original lines! We are dumbfounded; what does this mean? To our surprise there are no booby traps or mines in old positions, though the Viet Minh hygiene leaves something to be desired. When our patrols approach the Viet Minh, there are warning shots, and they fall back but there are no follow up shots. We retire to our old positions, and our enemy stays in theirs. After all we have been through that is enough for any of us!

Then it is all revealed by radio. There has been a Breakthrough in the Negotiations in Geneva. Ho Chi Minh will be the next Premier of Indo China, which will stay in the French Union! There is to be an amnesty and various concessions to be worked out, but there is a truce till the treaty is finally agreed on. We have won!
Well, you know the rest. Indo China declared independence in 1968, but as a French Ally we helped defend from Chinese aggression the next year. French Colons still own their property, and young Vietnamese flock to the Sorbonne. I would like to think all of us helped to bring about such a conclusion. And now my Friends, let us drink a toast -to absent comrades who's sacrifice helped stop the Red tide and bring about a better World Thank you, thank you! Please, I am but a simple soldier! I but did my duty! All this praise is most undeserved!

Thank you again!

General M Bugeard

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