Big year for anniversaries! The Bi-Centennial in August for the occupation of Washington DC and the burning of the Capitol by the British. Again in August the Centennial for the start of WW1. The 70th in June for D-Day at Normandy. And the 60th this month for the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. BBC Radio on the 4th broadcast a documentary on that battle. It was well done, although superficial on details as it would have to be to treat a five month siege in a scant 50 minutes. Worth listening to though.
I am surmising much of it was probably based on British author Martin Windrow’s book 'TheLast Valley', which has been claimed by many readers to be the best work written on the battle. I reserve judgment on that. Windrow did a great job detailing the achievements of the Viet Minh in the use of artillery, AAA, camouflage, and combat engineering as well as their mobilization and logistical superiority. However, for a better feel of the battle itself and for the political battles and blunders leading up to it, Bernard Fall’s 'Hell in a Very Small Place' cannot be beat and his prose is a much better read than Windrow’s.
Genevieve de Galard, a nurse and the only Frenchwoman at the battle, wrote an excellent book, 'Angel of Dien Bien Phu', a must read IMHO. There were other women there also; the French troops had a mobile bordello there staffed with Algerian and Vietnamese prostitutes. But when the merde hit the fan, they stopped doing business and some helped out as nursing assistants. Reportedly they were sent to re-education camps after capture. You have to wonder what eventually happened to them and if their stories have ever been told.
The story of the French survivors of both the battle and captivity has been well told. BTW more died in Viet Minh prison camps than in the battle itself. Only 30% or the Dien Bien Phu POWs were repatriated, what happened to the others? Frenchmen were a minority within French troops at Dien Bien Phu and throughout French Forces in Indochina as a whole. What happened to the vast non-French contingent of the garrison after capture? Nobody has written of them that I have found at least not in English. So probably the huge numbers of Viets, Lao, and Hmong fighting for the French went to re-education camps and maybe ended up years later fighting the Americans in South Vietnam and Laos? The Algerian, Moroccan, and West African tirailleurs were proselytized. Perhaps many of the Algerians returned home and fought against their former comrades during the guerre d’Algerie? Or perhaps some of them remained loyal to France during that time and per Alistair Horne’s claim after the cease fire were forced by the FLN to ”…dig their own tombs, then swallow their decorations before being killed;…”? The Foreign Legionnaires, although not French by birth or citizenship, for the most part were repatriated to France. But what happened to those legionnaires from Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union, did they also return? I have yet to find any English language sources that address any of these questions.