Thursday, December 02, 2004

A Little Air Cover

Some readers have argued that French intriguing against the US in Iraq is payback for the "abandonment" of the French Army at Dien Bien Phu by the US in 1954 when all they expected was "some air cover". Air Force Magazine has an interesting article describing what the French expected in the way of "some air cover" which makes interesting reading. At first French believed they didn't needed any help at all: they were confident they would whip the Viet Minh.

The French strategy was to make the 15,000-man garrison a strong point and draw Giap’s forces into battle in the valley. Navarre ringed Dien Bien Phu with artillery outposts bearing names such as Beatrice, Isabelle, and Huguette. These positions were deeply buried and buttressed to withstand artillery fire. French officers believed that, by creating interlocking fields of fire, they could defeat an attack in much the same way that they had successfully repelled the enemy at Na San. The Europeans were confident that, even should Giap get a few artillery pieces into play, French counterbattery fires would silence them.

But the French were wrong. Instead of the handful of artillery pieces they had prepared against, General Giap moved more than 200 major caliber weapons onto the battlefield, which he used on the first day to close the French airfield. After that, the French garrison was doomed.

Giap soon had 50,000 combat troops at Dien Bien Phu and 300,000 soldiers and peasants moving artillery, anti-aircraft guns, and other materiel along the 500-mile supply lines almost with impunity. Those forces outgunned the Dien Bien Phu garrison. The French had flown in about 60 artillery pieces of heavy caliber (57 mm and bigger). However, Giap had in place in January 1954 more than 200 heavy artillery pieces, including the fearsome “Stalin Organs,” Soviet-built Katyusha rocket launchers. Dien Bien Phu would never be the stronghold the French wanted. Instead, it had become a trap.

Giap’s forces unleashed fire from 105 mm guns and other artillery on three key northern strong points and on the main airstrip. The artillery shells cratered the runway and destroyed aircraft on the strip. French mechanics hastened to repair what they could and got three F8F Bearcat fighter-bombers airborne to escape. Viet Minh gunners turned six others into scorched hulks. The artillery outposts fell within hours. Then began a dismal trickle of wounded survivors into Dien Bien Phu’s garrison hospital. The French plan to create intricate fields of fire was falling apart. One who knew it was the French artillery chief, Col. Charles Piroth, who had assured his leaders that his guns would silence the enemy’s. On March 15, he killed himself in the fortress, using a hand grenade.

To stave off defeat "some air support" was supplied by America from the first -- even covertly when necessary -- but it was a losing battle.

The French tried to hit back with artillery and airpower. Already in action were some 30 US C-119 Flying Boxcars modified to drop napalm on the Viet Minh artillery. According to Ambrose, Eisenhower believed that napalm would “burn out a considerable area and help to reveal enemy artillery positions.”  Most of the aircrews flying these C-119s were American employees of Civil Air Transport (CAT), the contract airline founded by Maj. Gen. Claire Lee Chennault, the head of the World War II “Flying Tigers.” More than a few aircrew members included US pilots from the Military Assistance Advisory Group, stated Simpson.

Still the French perimeter shrank. With the fortress only a mile across, French Chief of Staff General Paul Ely flew to Washington to plead for massive air support. The extraordinary aerial effort required to save the French garrison was spelled out in Operation Vulture. It called for B-29 strikes covered with a fighter CAP to protect them from Chinese Migs based just a short way north. But French need still more -- as described in the following paragraph -- and the US military approved it.

One version of the plan, detailed in Simpson’s book, envisioned sending 60 B-29s from US bases in the region to bomb Giap’s positions. Supporting the bombers would be as many as 150 fighters launched from US Seventh Fleet carriers. The fighters were needed because of the proximity of Chinese airfields to the border with Vietnam. With the experience of Korea fresh in their minds, senior officials thought China would not hesitate to open a new “MiG Alley” over northern Vietnam and Laos. That was not the most disquieting aspect of Operation Vulture, however. The plan included an option to use up to three atomic weapons on the Viet Minh positions. Radford, the top American military officer, gave this nuclear option his backing.

What happened next is a matter of contention. The Air Force Magazine believes that President Eisenhower overruled Radford's recommendation.

In his book Eisenhower: Soldier and President, Ambrose recounted the situation this way: “On the morning of April 5, Dulles called Eisenhower to inform him that the French had told [the US ambassador to Paris] that their impression was that Operation Vulture had been agreed to and hinted that they expected two or three atomic bombs to be used against the Viet Minh. Eisenhower told Dulles to tell the French ... that they must have misunderstood Radford.”

Martin Windrow argues that Eisenhower was willing to approve the use of atomic bombs to save Dien Bien Phu, but Winston Churchill objected.

In December 1953 the French army challenged its elusive Vietnamese enemies to a stand-up battle. French paras landed on the border between Vietnam and Laos, astride the Communist lines of communication. The Vietnamese not only attacked, they isolated the French force and besieged it in its jungle base. The hunters became the hunted. As defeat loomed, the French appealed to the USA where Vice-President Nixon and Air Force General Le May planned to drop atomic bombs on the Vietnamese supply dumps. It fell to Winston Churchill to block the use of atomic weapons in Vietnam: President Eisenhower would not employ them without his consent.

Indian sources have maintained that the French, ever the gentlemen, refused the American offer.

The French watched helplessly as the mightiest points of the base fell in the face of assaults by bare-footed Vietnamese shock units. "Our system of trenches ran from the high mountains down to the plains, further sealing the fate of the base with each passing day," writes Giap. On May 7, 1954, the flag of victory was raised over the bunker of the French commander. About 10,000 enemy troops surrendered to the triumphant Vietnamese Army. At least 2,200 French soldiers were killed during the 55 days of siege. About 11,000 French soldiers were taken prisoner by the Vietnamese. There was an eleventh-hour appeal from the French for U.S. intervention. The plea was rejected by the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration. John Foster Dulles, the hawkish U.S. Secretary of State, is said to have offered two atomic bombs to the French government to stave of a military defeat. The French government politely refused that offer.

The Franco-American alliance is quite robust and likely to last a long time. The French have always been there when they needed us.