French rout in Vietnam 60 years ago a watershed in colonial history
A Vietnamese soldier waves a flag atop a French post during the battle of Dien Bien Phu, May 7, 1954 - by AFP
The Battle of Dien Bien Phu, which ended on May 7, 1954 after nearly two months of relentless fighting in a valley where French soldiers were encircled and roundly defeated was also a milestone in the history of liberation movements worldwide.
Dien Bien Phu "was the first time that a non-European colonial independence movement had evolved through all the stages from guerrilla bands to a conventionally organised and equipped army able to defeat a modern Western occupier in a pitched battle", wrote British historian Martin Windrow, the author of a critically acclaimed book on the subject.
The humiliating fall of the French troops in the Dien Bien Phu valley that ended Paris's dominance in Indochina was followed by another test of will in Algeria which almost precipitated a civil war back home in France.
The French war in Indochina had already endured for seven years when in April 1953, the Viet Minh forces comprising a ragtag army of volunteers decided to take their offensive to Laos, which had recently gained independence and was an ally of Paris.
General Henri Navarre, the head of military operations in Indochina, decided to set up a base in the strategic Dien Bien Phu valley, to help defend Laos and cut off the Viet Minh's supply routes.
The garrison was established in November 1953 with the deployment of some 3,000 parachutists and an airstrip was built to receive vital supplies and troop reinforcements.
But the French reasoning that the troops of legendary Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap lacked the means to attack the camp were wide off the mark.
By January some 40,000 Viet Minh fighters had ringed the camp and in March, their numbers had swelled to 60,000.
On May 13, 1954, the Viet Minh launched a relentless offensive combing gun fire and grenade attacks. The airstrip was rendered unusable and the French found it difficult to target the perfectly camouflaged attackers.
The fall of the camp came in the evening after "56 days and 56 nights of noise and fury", said film maker Pierre Schoendoerffer, who was taken prisoner at Dien Bien Phu.
"Suddenly, there was a surprising and terrible silence," he said.
- 'They called us Dirty Chinks' -
"The sky was filled with tall columns of black smoke from burning vehicles. The fields were covered with dead soldiers and destroyed military equipment," remembers retired colonel Hoang Dang Vinh, who was only 19 at the time of the monumental victory.
After machine gun fire and grenade attacks, Vinh and other Viet Minh communist independence fighters finally entered the bunker of Christian-Marie de la Croix de Castries, the commander of the French colonial forces.
Exactly what happened next has not been recorded and Castries is now dead but historians confirm the general outline of Vinh's account.
Castries, who was promoted to the rank of general during the battle, insisted the day after his liberation in September 1954 that the white flag of surrender was not raised on his command.
But Vinh told AFP that when Castries was confronted with the Viet Minh ranks to raise his hands he replied, "Don't shoot -- I surrender".
The price of victory was dear and at least 10,000 Vietnamese perished at Dien Bien Phu.
After the war, Vietnam was split into the communist north and the French-supported south in a temporary partition that proved tenuous.
It provoked another war which brought in hundreds of thousands of American troops into South Vietnam and only ended in 1975 with the fall of Saigon. The country's long-deferred reunification followed.
After Dien Bien Phu, about 5,000 Vietnamese soldiers who fought on the side of the colonial rulers, their families as well as Vietnamese married to French nationals were brought to France.
Their arrival led to the creation of refugee camps, including one at the southern village of Sainte-Livrade-sur-Lot which was home to 1,160 people, including 740 children.
Families were given barracks-style housing of 60 square metres (60 square feet) each, irrespective of their size, in the former military camp. The new residents were installed there in 1956.
Some 100 refugees and their descendants still live there.
Life was not easy given the scars that ran deep, especially for those of mixed origin like Robert Leroy, who is now 68 and retired.
"We were very badly received," said Leroy, whose father was a colonel.
"We were insulted everywhere. They called us Dirty Chinks," he added.