Establishment of The AirheadFor more details on Dien Bien Phu order of battle, see Operation Castor.
Operations at Dien Bien Phu began at 10:35 on the morning of 20 November 1953. In Operation Castor, the French dropped or flew 9,000 troops into the area over three days. They were landed at three drop zones: "Natasha" (northwest), "Octavie" (southwest), and "Simone" (southeast) of Dien Bien Phu. The Viet Minh elite 148th Independent Infantry Regiment, headquartered at Dien Bien Phu, reacted "instantly and effectively"; three of their four battalions, however, were absent that day. Initial operations proceeded well for the French. By the end of November, six parachute battalions had been landed and the French were consolidating their positions.
It was at this time that Giap began his counter-moves. He had expected an attack, but could not foresee when or where it would occur. Giap realized that, if pressed, the French would abandon Lai Chau Province and fight a pitched battle at Dien Bien Phu. On 24 November, Giap ordered the 148th Infantry Regiment and the 316th division to attack Lai Chau, while the 308th, 312th, and 351st divisions assault Dien Bien Phu from Việt Bắc.
Starting in December, the French, under the command of Colonel Christian de Castries, began transforming their anchoring point into a fortress by setting up seven positions, each allegedly named after a former mistress of de Castries, although the allegation is probably unfounded, as the names simply begin with the first eight letters of the alphabet. The fortified headquarters was centrally located, with positions "Huguette" to the west, "Claudine" to the south, and "Dominique" to the northeast.
Other positions were "Anne-Marie" to the northwest, "Beatrice" to the northeast, "Gabrielle" to the north and "Isabelle" four miles (6 km) to the south, covering the reserve airstrip. The choice of de Castries as the on-scene commander at Dien Bien Phu was, in retrospect, a bad one. Navarre had picked de Castries, a cavalryman in the 18th century tradition, because Navarre envisioned Dien Bien Phu as a mobile battle. In reality, Dien Bien Phu required someone adept at World War I-style trench warfare, something for which de Castries was not suited.
The arrival of the 316th Viet Minh division prompted Cogny to order the evacuation of the Lai Chau garrison to Dien Bien Phu, exactly as Giap had anticipated. En route, they were virtually annihilated by the Viet Minh. "Of the 2,100 men who left Lai Chau on 9 December, only 185 made it to Dien Bien Phu on 22 December. The rest had been killed, captured or deserted". The Viet Minh troops now converged on Dien Bien Phu.
The French had committed 10,800 troops, with more reinforcements totaling nearly 16,000 men, to the defense of a monsoon-affected valley surrounded by heavily wooded hills that had not been secured. Artillery as well as ten M24 Chaffee light tanks and numerous aircraft were committed to the garrison. The garrison comprised French regular troops (notably elite paratroop units plus artillery), Foreign Legionnaires, Algerian and Moroccan tirailleurs, and locally recruited Indochinese infantry. All told, the Viet Minh had moved 50,000 regular troops into the hills surrounding the valley, totaling five divisions including the 351st Heavy Division, which was made up entirely of heavy artillery. Artillery and AA (anti-aircraft) guns, which outnumbered the French artillery by about four to one, were moved into camouflaged positions overlooking the valley. The French came under sporadic Viet Minh artillery fire for the first time on 31 January 1954, and French patrols encountered the Viet Minh in all directions. The battle had been joined, and the French were now surrounded.
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