60th anniversary of Dien Bien Phu Victory: “To control the airway, blocking the enemy's supply lines to Dien Bien Phu entrenched fortification group”

10:09 | 03/31/2014

(Bqp.vn) - Dien Bien Phu Campaign was the first combined army campaign of Vietnam People's Army after nearly 9 years dealing with the French invaders. In this campaign, there was a significant contribution of Artillery Regiment 367- the first Air Defense Regiment of the Army and also the first unit of the Air Defense - Air Force Service. Our air defense forces to join the campaign consisted of a 37 mm artillery regiment, 5 battalions and a number of companies of 12.7 mm machine gun included in the infantry brigades. Meanwhile, French troops mobilized up to 80% of nearly 400 aircrafts in Indochina including the types: reconnaissance, bombers, ground attack… and were assisted by the United States a large number of modern transport aircrafts to establish an airlift from Hanoi, Hai Phong to support for Dien Bien Phu entrenched fortification group. Thus, in terms of ground-to-air battle arrangement, with the advantage of weapons, technical equipment and means of warfare, French - U.S Air Force would completely able to control Dien Bien Phu sky.


Light Artillery Troops reviewing formation prior to surrounding Dien Bien Phu (11/1953). (Photo: Documentation)

However, actual developments on the battlefield of Dien Bien Phu did not merely reflect comparative power relationships by the statistics. Due to our strong attack and closely surrounding battle arrangement from four sides, the French troops in Dien Bien Phu entrenched fortification group fell into passive, isolated position facing distressed situation: forces, weapons, equipment, ammunition were consumed without being made up; food was not provided, wounded soldiers were not cured in time... The only supply route for Bien Bien Phu was the airway, if being cut off by our troops, the enemy would have been totally isolated.

Being aware of such crucial weakness of the enemy, to quickly destroy the entrenched fortification of Dien Bien Phu, the Campaign Command directed forces, mainly air defense forces, to combine operations with the troops and the people on all the fronts to advance resolutely, control the airway, cut off the airlift and block the enemy line of supply by the following measures:

Using the Special Forces to raid the enemy airport - air starting point

To set up an airlift must always have two basic elements namely the basis of departure and landing, also known as the start and end points. So, to cut the enemy's air bridge, we would need to hit the enemy at both points of the bridge and on the airway.

Attacking the enemy in the start base was often highly effective for the raiding targets were fixed on the ground, so it would be easy to be hit and achieve high efficiency. But the enemy airfields were located in the enemy territory and very carefully guarded, difficult to organize raiding. While there were no means for air strike to perform aerial raid on the airfields, we used the special force to break into and attack the airfields. With determination and willpower, being close and sharing difficulty with the fighters in the battle of Dien Bien Phu, with the undaunted bravery and ingenious creativity, the Special Forces in Hanoi and Hai Phong painstakingly researched to find out the rule of guarding the airports by the enemy and suitable methods of raiding the enemy airport.

While the preparation for Dien Bien Phu battle was in a hurry, the victory news from the battlefields repeatedly came, timely mobilizing our forces to fight in key battlegrounds. The ambushes of the special force in the airports of Gia Lam, Cat Bi and Do Son caused huge losses to the enemy (over 80 aircrafts destroyed, many oil depots and bomb warehouses burnt), seriously impaired the aid performance of the airlift points, causing the enemy generals and soldiers confused and frightened.

Using the artillery and bombard forces to control the airports not to let the enemy land, forcing them to airdrop for aerial supply

When the opening campaign (on March 13, 1954), along with the covering fire over the enemy artillery battlefields, bunkers and firing posts, the campaign artillery force set fire on a large scale into the airports of Muong Thanh and Hong Cum, destroying the aircrafts parking on the airfields, setting on fire the fuel depots. On the next phases, our artillery continued firing to control the airports so that the enemy pilots would not take risk landing at the airports but had to switch to airdropping for supply.

By airdropping for supply, the enemy could only reinforce the parachute units and the means of weapons, ammunition, food and medicine, not to reinforce infantry units alone while the French parachute units were less; goods dropped from the air were easily scattered, difficult to collect, even crashing into our battlefield. On the other hand, the planes would not dare to take risk landing at the airports, so could not take the wounded soldiers out of the outpost. This caused huge psychological impact to the fighting morale of the enemy soldiers as the number of killed or wounded ones were increasing. The artillery and bombard forces controlled the airports, not let the enemy aircrafts land, forcing them to airdrop supplies from the air so significantly limiting the effective use of enemy air bridge.

Using infantry, engineering forces, tightening trench system, surrounding and narrowing range of enemy activity

With the fighting method of “surrounding, encroaching, attacking, occupying”, our forces gradually removed and mastered the outer outposts, forcing the enemy to clump into the central sub-division. Our trench blockade was increasingly tightened; the enemy’s occupied areas were increasingly narrowed. The infantry and artillery units actively attacked, persecuted the enemy, assisted fire for antiaircraft troops during combat maneuver, and deployed the anti-aircraft fire battle surrounding the enemy airspace. When the enemy's combat space was increasingly narrow, our combat space was increasingly wide, the enemy would be more difficult than in airdropping supplies; majority of the enemy supplies were obtained by us. Book “War Diary” by Jean Purge noted on April 1, more than half of the goods were dropped out of the place. On April 6, more than ten 75mm recoilless cannons were dropped in Dien Bien, the French soldiers only got two, and the rest were as a gift for Viet Minh. On April 9, of 195 tons of supplies dropped, only 6 tons collected. And so, the more closely our trenches got to the enemy, the less effective the enemy’s supply airdrop was.

Using the air defense force to control, surround the air, block and cut off airlift

Along with the infantry force, the engineering force gradually surrounded and tightened the blockade on the ground, the air defense units maneuvered quickly to get close to the infantry and deployed the battle right on the field of Muong Thanh, setting up the overarching anti-aircraft fire, controlling the entire enemy airspace. In parallel with using enemy bombing and contour fighter aircrafts to protect the combat combined arms formation, air defense units concentrated firepower to destroy the cargo aircrafts dropping supplies.

Before that, all air operations were the absolute superiority of the enemy, but now when encountering dense air defense network gradually closing the airspace, the pilots had to raise the altitude to perform raiding and airdropping goods, even not dare to airdrop in daytime but at night. Because the planes both had to avoid anti-aircraft fire and airdrop from high attitude, supply goods were more scattered, dropping into our battle.

Not believing in the French pilots’ flying qualifications, the United States established airlift consisting of 29 heavy transport aircrafts C-119 flied by the U.S. pilots and commanded American general personally. This was the help, but also the trick of the U.S. to gradually oust France and eventually intervene in the Indochina War.

When our air defense network closed the air blockade, the level of U.S. pilots was proved no better than the French pilots. On April 19, 1954, transport aircraft C-119 named the “Flying Tiger” flied by American pilots on the Dien Bien Phu airspace to drop supplies to the French troops was shot down on the spot by our antiaircraft fire. This was the first U.S aircraft and crew killed on the Indochina battlefield. Since then, the American pilots did not dare to parachute at lower levels. On April 27, “Flying Tiger” flied by American pilots performed airdropping goods at a high altitude falling into our battle 65 tons of cargo, Dacotado transport aircrafts flied by French pilots to airdrop falling into our battle 20 tons.

On the last days of the campaign, before our dense air defense network, will and bravery of the French pilots and the American pilots were thwarted, not dare to risk their lives to perform the task; transport aircrafts flied by the French and American pilots did not dare to fly into Dien Bien Phu airspace to drop supplies for their accomplices but had to fly back to the base for fear of our antiaircraft fire. No weapons, ammunition, food and supplies, increasing casualties not taken to emergency promptly made the morale of the enemy soldiers disordered, not enough willpower to resistance.

Thus, controlling the airway, cutting off the only source of supply by airlift for the enemy garrison at Dien Bien Phu were a dangerous way of fighting, hitting the “Stomach” of the enemy. The activities of controlling airway, surrounding the air, cutting off air bridge, blocking enemy supply lines for the entrenched fortification group of Dien Bien Phu were tight and rhythmic combat combined operations tight of many forces, fighting the enemy both on the ground and in the air: Special Forces raided the airlift airports; the infantry forces surrounded encroached, attacked, occupied for narrowing occupation scale; the Artillery force destroyed the aircrafts, persecuted the airports; the air defense forces narrowed airspace, proceeding to encircle overhead, cut off the enemy air bridge.

During 56 days and nights of fighting, Artillery Regiment 367 shot down 52 out of 62 aircrafts of all types of the enemy, completing the missions: protecting shipping traffic; protecting combined arms formation and coordinating with the forces to control the airway, cut off the enemy airlift in Dien Bien Phu, making an important contribution to the common victory of Dien Bien Phu campaign.

Practices in air defense operations in the campaign shows, air defense forces, the core as Artillery Regiment 367, although newly built quickly grew in all aspects and mastered the complicated technical equipment and weapons, created more tactical forms, good fighting ways to complete all assigned tasks and laid the foundation for the birth and development of the air defense operations art in the liberation war.

The traits of using air defense forces in Dien Bien Phu campaign include:

Firstly, keep absolute secret to surprise; take the initiative to attack the enemy

During the organization of marching, stationing, preparing campaign, especially during the process of pulling the artillery and deploying the battles to reach the enemy, the air defense units adopted many flexible measures to ensure absolute confidentiality for the emergence of a new arm in the campaign.

With the sudden appearance of artillery, we upset all campaign calculation of the enemy, making the enemy pilots be very subjective at first then turn to panic and forced to solve many new emerging tactical and technical problems which were not always dealt with.

Secondly, organizing and using air defense forces in accordance with requirements and tasks of campaign warfare.

Upon entering the campaign, we used all the air defense machine gun battalions and two artillery battalions to protect the combined arms soldiers for the advance; to stage 2, we further enhanced an antiaircraft gun battalion. Thus, we used 50% of the antiaircraft gun battalion fighting directly in the campaign team; the rest was assigned to protect transport traffic and campaign rear. Due to force reinforcement and suitable arrangement, we built up a reasonable air defense battle arrangement, which included forces fighting against contour fighter aircrafts and bombers, and forces fighting against transport planes dropping supplies, therefore, substantially limited the enemy aviation activity.

Thirdly, focusing air defense forces on main assault direction for the pivotal battles and the significant opportunities.

The campaign used three antiaircraft gun battalions to directly fight to protect the combined arms forces formation for advancing, but Dien Bien Phu entrenched fortification group had a large space, while our air defense forces were still very thin. So, based on equipment and each time of the campaign, we focused forces for the main direction, the pivotal battles and the significant opportunities in order to generate power to defeat the enemy air force in every battle and promptly maneuver to transform the battles under the advancing development of the combined arms troops.

In phase 1 of the campaign, in the attack of Him Lam entrenched fortification, the campaign used two antiaircraft gun battalions and air defense machine gun battalions to protect the combined arms formation advancing. Both the battalions were arranged concentrated in the area where they could hit the enemy aircraft, directly support for the infantry to advance, so when 24 Hen-cat and Hen-di-ve aircrafts flied into and prepared to dive for the advance of our infantry and artillery, both artillery battalions could fire against the enemy, protecting safely the infantry, artillery, and supporting each other.

After the victory campaign opening match, we moved quickly to follow the infantry, supported Brigade 312, 308 to attack Doc Lap outpost, surround and capture Ban Keo outpost. To phase 2, when enhanced Artillery Battalion 381, the air defense forces got more closely with the formation of the combined arms troops and created combat forms of moving, ambushing, catching early, night combating... In both phase 1 and phase 2, the enemy was taken by surprise on the chance, area of appearance as well as firepower density of our air defense forces.

Stepping into phase 3, the 37mm artillery battalions continued to maneuver and get close to Muong Thanh, Hong Cum. Firepower area of the artillery companies with air defense machine-gun firepower wrapped and covered the rest occupied area of the enemy, effectively protecting the troops advancing, and winning full victory at the decisive moment of the campaign.

Fourthly, promptly reinforcing the force, adjusting air defense battle arrangement, meeting the requirements of protecting campaign transportation.

During the campaign, not only the enemy meeting difficulty in supplying, reinforcements, but we also faced many difficulties to ensure the campaign work. Dien Bien Phu was at the far post and the bases, transport roads were less and bad, logistics capabilities in place were very thin, the needs of human and material resources for the large-scale combat operations needed to mobilize and transport from a far point.

Knowing clearly our difficulties, the enemy used the air force to attack fiercely both day and night to undermine and block our transport lines to the front. In particular, in the key transport and bombs points, the enemy created many dead points to clog the entire transport system, causing great difficulty for us to ensure campaign logistics.

In phase 2 of the campaign, both France and the U.S. focused air forces to raid fiercely carriage roads, the campaign promptly reinforced 37mm Artillery Battalion 396 to form traffic protection battle arrangement from the rear to the median line and fire line; at the same time incorporating between mobilized fighting and holding out, concentrating forces to protect key points, so the campaign transport roads were always smooth.

Fifthly, creating and developing tactical forms.

In the mountainous conditions with many obscure corners, the air defense units based on a combat mission, characteristics of the enemy, terrain and combat experience to research, find out rational and creative fighting methods, flexibly apply forms of tactics to hit the enemy effectively; find all the measures to maneuver getting close to the infantry formation, carry out hitting the enemy in the air, and ready for hitting the enemy on the ground to support and assist the infantry to advance.

To protect the mountainous roads, the air defense units brought guns to the high mountain ridges to keep close to the targets needing to be protected; and put the key battlegrounds in the directions that the enemy planes normally flied past and maneuver to ambush at the two sides of the hill, shooting down several enemy aircrafts, protecting critical road sections.

During the battles, the air defense force combined flexibly between using concentrated firepower with distributed firepower in accordance with the enemy situation in the air; applied flexible methods of firing in the case of identifying all the elements and not identifying the elements due to foggy clouds; mastered features of weapons, prepared the elements, implemented measures to obtain standard marker, being willing to fight against airdrop aircrafts.

Sixthly, combining hitting the enemy and avoiding the enemy’s raids, fighting and building forces to meet operational requirements.

To accomplish the task of air defense operations during the campaign, the air defense units often reinforced and sustained combat power repeatedly with many different measures, such as taking advantage of mountainous terrain to camouflage the battlegrounds and command headquarters to avoid the enemy reconnaissance and raiding to preserve the forces. Developing a system of complete trenches to limit casualties before the firepower of the enemy artillery and air force, ensuring that the troops had conditions for fighting for days, both day and night continuously. Overcoming all difficulties, rapidly moving with the infantry to approach the enemy to limit the possibility of raiding by the enemy air force and artillery. Regularly proactively moving the formation to be suitable with combat requirements, creating advantage to unexpectedly hit the enemy where the enemy did not hit my battle. Knowing how to combine combating and training recruits right in the battle fields, promptly adding troops and having reserve forces by the end of the campaign to continue fighting.

Experience of controlling the airway, blocking the enemy's supply lines by actively advancing the enemy right at the starting base of the enemy in Dien Bien Phu campaign was creatively applied in historic Ho Chi Minh campaign.


Lt. Gen. Phuong Minh Hoa, Member of the Party Central Committee, Commander of the Air Defense - Air Force Service

Ministry of National Defence - Socialist Republic of VietNam
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