The 56 days and nights in the Dien Bien basin are considered part of the flesh and blood of the soldiers who “cut through mountains, slept in trenches, got drenched in forests, and ate rice balls” during the 1954 campaign. Le Gia Tuat is a veteran of this battle.Tuat was a soldier of Battalion 396 under Artillery Regiment 367 (now Anti-Aircraft Division 367 under the High Command of Air Force and Anti-Aircraft Force.)Despite numerous difficulties under the rains of bombs and shells during the war, the memory of this difficult period is still vividly intact in the mind of the former soldier.Tuat said that this is an unforgettable memory and he will not allow himself to forget it.The whole nation unanimously wrote a historical epic, making a victory that resounded throughout the five continents and shook the world.Veteran Tuat and his comrades in arms devoted their youth to burn the enemy’s “inviolable fortress” on A1 Hill.All for Dien Bien battlefieldMore than six decades have passed, but the old “Dien Bien thunder” still resonates in the mind of the veteran. In his small house in Hanoi’s Thanh Xuan district, Tuat recalls the hard time.In December 1946, President Ho Chi Minh appealed for a nation-wide resistance war, in which he called on all people to assist in a long-term and comprehensive battle and pointed out that while their weapons are outdated, the Vietnamese people possess a “self-reliant” spirit and are willing to “die for the homeland”.Responding to the call, Tuat, born in 1934 in Hanoi’s outlying district of Thanh Tri, joined his family members and friends operating as a liaison boy for soldiers to keep the capital city from the French colonialist forces.
The Border Victory in 1950 created a fundamental change for the resistance war, bringing it into a phase of constant attacks and counter-attacks.To deal with the situation, in the Autumn-Winter season in 1953, the French colonialists launched the ‘Navarre plan’ with the aim of destroying a large part of Vietnam’s regular army, controlling the territory of Vietnam and pacifying the whole of “South Indochina” (now the Central Highlands) within 18 months.In face of the enemy’s scheme, the Political Bureau in September 1953 decided to launch a Winter-Spring strategic attack to maintain the initiative and resolutely stretch the enemy’s forces.Detecting Vietnam’s strategic attack direction in the northwest, Lai Chau province and Upper Laos, the High Command of the French Expeditionary Corps sent its paratroopers to occupy Dien Bien Phu, a strategic site controlling a large area in the northwest and Upper Laos.The enemy gathered around 16,200 troops here (including 17 infantry battalions, three artillery battalions, a sapper battalion, a tank company, an air force squadron, and a mechanised transport company). The French colonialists built Dien Bien Phu into one of the strongest military bases in Indochina, considering this as “an inviolable fortress” with the aim of pulling in and destroying Vietnam’s regular army.The Political Bureau decided to open the Dien Bien Phu Campaign and approved a combat plan, establishing a command for the campaign led by General Vo Nguyen Giap. Given the special significance of the campaign, the Political Bureau decided to gather four infantry divisions and one artillery division totaling more than 40,000 men.
According to the veteran, at that time, the whole nation joined the battle, concentrating its strength on the Dien Bien Phu battlefield with the motto “All for the frontline, all for the victory”. The regular army units quickly regrouped, opened roads, pulled in artillery, and built battlefields.Braving the rains of bombs and shells, over 260,000 young volunteers flocked to Dien Bien to ensure logistics for the campaign, he noted.The memory, like a slow-motion movie, appears in the old veteran’s mind. From the end of 1952, the young man was sent to a training course of 37-mm anti-aircraft artillery, a new weapon to serve new battles.“I was trained to be an artillery operator and tasked with watching the enemy’s planes, measuring the distance, altitude and speed, and identifying targets for shooting,” Tuat said.
The whole nation joined the battle, concentrating its strength on the Dien Bien Phu battlefield with the motto “All for the frontline, all for the victory”.
After nearly 70 years, he said he has never forgotten Uncle Ho’s instructions and messages to the artillery practitioners that year that air force is the enemy’s advantage, that is why Vietnam needs to build a powerful anti-aircraft force.
By the end of 1953, Tuat was assigned to Battalion 396 under Artillery Regiment 367. On the morning of December 21, 1953, at the General High Command’s headquarters, General Vo Nguyen Giap directly gave Artillery Regiment 367 the task of participating in the Dien Bien Phu campaign.
“Weaving” nets of firepower to annihilate enemy’s aircraft
This was the first major campaign many of the young soldiers had joined, Tuat explained. The force met with a series of difficulties when it had to fight in complicated mountainous terrains, facing the enemy’s well-equipped air force.
However, with high will and determination, the Vietnamese Anti-Aircraft force fought bravely and resiliently, making an important contribution to the great victory of the nation, he said.During the Dien Bien Phu campaign, Tuat’s unit was responsible for covering traffic routes, and focusing on those serving transportation.
The enemy often used aerial bombs to inflict great damage on Vietnam’s artillery men, Tuat said, adding that the severity of the war forced Vietnamese troops to both fight and transport and treat wounded soldiers.He said that, even now, when he thinks about it, he is still haunted by the feeling of hatred, seeing over those days in the battlefield, where many of his young comrades in arms lost their life by the impact of bombs.
Vietnamese artillery troops occupied high places, along mountain slopes looking towards the Muong Thanh valley, to destroy the enemy’s aircraft. As a result, the anti-aircraft artillery force limited the operation of the enemy’s air force, contributing to safeguarding the safety of transport routes, which were very important for ensuring the logistics of the campaign.
Blood, mud and sweat dried, turning into a layer of black slurry on the barrel of the artillery, and on ropes used to pull the giant guns into the battlefield.
The artillery was required to ‘weave’ fire nets to prevent the enemy’s aircraft from attacking Vietnamese forces’ battlefields, thus minimising casualties, Tuat said, adding that he had to calculate carefully to be able to destroy the enemy right from the first rounds of projectiles.The soldiers fighting on the Dien Bien battle at that time became accustomed to the image of the artillery operators who sometimes protruded from their trenches and turned their eyes to the sky to hunt the enemy’s airplanes.Thanks to the “magic eyes”, Artillery Regiment 367 downed 52 aircraft out of the 62 ones of the enemy shot down and destroyed, and wounded153 others, including B.24 bombers, killing and capturing many of the enemy’s pilots.
“Every time I saw the enemy’s planes smoke and fall, I felt a burning sensation in my heart. That memory has never faded,” Tuat said.
The resounding victory of the Dien Bien Phu campaign has been attributed, in part, to the artillery force. From positions around the Dien Bien basin, the force provided timely firepower, creating opportunities for the infantry forces to win key battles, step by step destroying the Dien Bien Phu stronghold complex.In this historic campaign, the artillery firepower is a “steel punch”, helping to destroy the enemy’s bases, pin down the enemy’s infantry troops, protect Vietnam’s infantry forces, take target bases, destroy logistics and technical facilities, and break enemy attacks.The positioning of artillery at different ranges helped concentrate firepower and improve combat efficiency.
General Henri Navarre had to admit in his memoir “Agonies D’Indochina” (Agonies of Indochina) that in the Dien Bien Phu battle, French aircraft had to pass through a dense net of firepower, similar to the one that protected important areas in the European battlefield at the end of the World War II.