Applying the Logistic Lessons of the French Defeat at Dien Bien Phu
Note: The author attended the Australian Army Research Centre’s (AARC) 2017 Vietnam Staff Ride focussed on the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. Participants on the staff ride were Captains and Majors identified through their performance on the Combat Officers’ Advanced Course (COAC) and Logistics Officers’ Advanced Course (LOAC).
The failure of logistics and combat service support during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu contributed to the devastating defeat of the expeditionary French military in May 1954. Whilst the force structures, technologies and geo-political circumstances surrounding this deployment vary substantially to those faced by a modern Australian Army, the lessons learnt from this historical campaign can contribute to enhancing the effectiveness and efficiency of logistics in the Army today.
The French parachuted into the heart of Vietminh held territory in late 1953 and established a defensive position which was intended to act as a base from which they could launch attacks against command nodes, supply routes, and isolated enemy regiments. The French had picked the ground of their choosing and hoped to draw the Vietnminh away from the Delta Region and defeat them before they had the opportunity to increase further in size and strength.[i]
Despite a very successful airdrop, the French lost the initiative almost immediately. Their offensive strategy quickly turned to determined defence and after an incredible two-month siege, they were overrun and surrendered their final positions on 7 May 1954. The French had underestimated the Vietnminh and overestimated their own capability in terms of combat power, technology, air superiority and intelligence. However, arguably the most decisive factor leading to the defeat of the French was the failure of logistics, in particular; a failure to maximise the efficiency of the supply chain and understand the needs of the dependency.
Maximise the efficiency of the supply chain
The problem with the word chain in the supply chain concept is that it implies that each link and each join is the same size and has the same capability. This is obviously not the case and at each of the various nodes and modes, there are different assets (vehicles, storage facilities, materiel handling equipment, packaging equipment, personnel, etc) available to support the distribution function. To assist in avoiding chokepoints and to increase the effectiveness of the supply system, the aim of each link should be to maximise their own throughput without overwhelming or overburdening the next part of the supply pipeline. This will often mean that one node has to conduct its business in a way which may not be the most expeditious or efficient for them, in order to make it easier for the next link in the chain.
At Dien Bien Phu, there were many chokepoints that inhibited the effectiveness of the supply chain. One of the most significant issues in the last two months of the battle was the collection of scattered airdrops from within the defensive position. One-ton airdrop loads were easy to emplane at the airbases, helped maximise aircraft space and were more accurate on delivery. However, the French progressively lost their vehicles to enemy action within the camp so they were required to gather packages by hand.[ii] These loads were large and attracted enemy fire, and because they were too heavy to move intact they had to be broken down on the spot, often leading to significant porter casualties.[iii] Initially, once the loads were collected, they were taken to a central collection point and distributed evenly amongst the defensive position, however as the siege drew on, each strongpoint retained the supplies that were dropped in their area because it was too risky to return them to the central position and they didn’t know when they would receive their next resupply. This obviously resulted in ‘great waste and imbalances’[iv] across the position.
For the Australian Army, resupply issues such as those at Dien Bien Phu have been replicated on exercises many times. As a staff officer on Hamel 12, I made many decisions that reduced the effectiveness of the overall supply chain, because I was trying to ensure our unit was as efficient as possible. With a better understanding of the supply chain, I would have opted to have the CSST break down that ammunition pallet and load it by hand even though they had a forklift available, because I knew the echelon had no MHE at the other end. Or rather than sending the water truck to the BG positions to fill their empty water jerries, I would have sent a cargo truck to ‘one for one’ the jerries because the BG was about to move and didn’t have time to fill the jerries themselves. Or if the choke point was a lack of drivers at the BSG, I could have requested the BG come and collect directly from the second or third line positions rather than wait up to 48 hours for their urgent resupply. These examples demonstrate that although something may be inefficient for one node, it may be more effective for the supply chain as a whole.
Understanding the dependency
Combat service support force elements need to know the core business of their dependencies and have close and honest relationships with both the logistics and operations staff from the combat units they support. At Dien Bien Phu, there was no opportunity to build these relationships or have this understanding because all logistic resupply was conducted from an airbase over 320 km away. The personnel satisfying the demands, packing the equipment, flying the aircraft, and dropping the payloads did not know the conditions under which the forces were operating, had limited information and poor ground maps of the terrain, could not communicate directly with personnel on the ground and made gross misassumptions about daily rates of use. These misunderstandings led to crucial and decisive mistakes, such as dispatching high altitude payloads which were inaccurate and fell into enemy hands[v], dropping ice and blood in separate payloads meaning that the blood lasted only 24 hours[vi], or filling gasoline canisters to capacity, such that they exploded on impact[vii].
There are no aerial resupply capability bricks held within the Australian Army’s Combat Brigades, and since 2011 when 3 RAR became a light infantry unit, very few of the ADF’s aerial delivery or air transport specialists have Combat Brigade experience. The Army’s only aerial delivery unit; 176 Air Dispatch Squadron rarely interacts with the regular units, largely because of its huge workload supporting Special Operations Command and RAAF. As Exercise Northern Shield 2016 demonstrated, there is a requirement to conduct more integration training between combat units and force level logistic assets, particularly in the realm of air transport and packaging for aerial resupply. Without building the relationships and developing a deeper understanding between logistic units and the dependencies they are likely to support, mistakes similar to those of the French in 1954 are likely to be replicated by the Australian Army in future conventional warfare settings.
The French failed to understand the needs of their dependencies and how to maximise their supply chain, which contributed to their defeat in 1954. And as this post has shown, some of the weaknesses and deficiencies in the French logistics systems during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu are replicated in the modern Australian Army. However, the Army can overcome these weaknesses by creating an open and honest dialogue between supporting and supported commands, training the integration of combat and logistic units (including RAAF) and developing an understanding that inefficiency at one link of the supply chain can actually increase the effectiveness of the overall logistics system.
Written By: Captain Sally Williamson
About the Author:
CAPT Sally Williamson is an RACT Officer currently deployed on Operation Paladin as a United Nations Military Observer. Her recent experience is as both a Plans and Operations Captain in Army’s general and close combat service support units and onboard HMAS Adelaide. She holds a Masters in Defence Studies from the University of New South Wales and a Postgraduate Certificate in Sustainability from Murdoch University.
[i][i] Windrow, M. (2004). The Last Valley. London: Cassell Military Paperbacks, pp 55-56.
[ii] Schrader, C.R. (2015). A War of Logistics; Parachutes and Porters in Indochina, 1945-1954. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky. p. 324.
[iv] Ibid, p. 325.
[v] Ibid, p. 321.
[vi] Ibid, p. 316.
[vii] Ibid, p. 300.