May 4, 2014–On this night sixty years ago, French commando units maintained position in Laos, in an arc to the south and southwest of Dien Bien Phu. These troops represented the leading edge of an overland relief attempt that French leaders cobbled together in a desperate effort to save their garrison at Dien Bien Phu. Captain Henri Loustau, chief of one of these commandos, kept a radio watch. At night his men could see the horizon lit by the flashes of explosions inside the mountain valley, and on the radio Loustau could hear the businesslike transmissions in which French officers in the entrenched camp reported the destruction of their strongpoints and the loss of their men.
Loustau’s commandos lacked the strength to fight their way into the fortress from the outside. And he represented the tip of a spear that was rather weak overall. You can read the full story of the desperate French rescue mission in the book Operation Vulture . In Laos the Expeditionary Corps had put together four battalions of troops for the main force. Loustau’s commandos were the equivalent of another battalion, hurriedly assembled and thrown into the fray late in April. There was also “Operation Desperado,” in which a couple of thousand Hmong partisans who were fighting for the French, pitched in to help the relief mission.
In the original French contingency plan the spearhead troops were supposed to be reinforced once they reached near to Dien Bien Phu with a fresh and battle-worthy paratroop force. But when the time came the paras had been sent into the entrenched camp itself. There were no men to join Loustau, and no planes to carry them if there had been. The Hmong partisans were bringing up the rear–they had gotten a late start because the French Expeditionary Corps had been reluctant to approve their participation. The battalions of regular troops in Laos had not been strong enough to get closer than the Nam Ou river valley, still nearly three dozen miles from the embattled entrenched camp. Villagers along the wayside told the French that a Viet Minh force three times their size was expected soon. The French decided to hold their positions and wait.
A certain number of survivors escaped the hell of Dien Bien Phu and made it far enough to join up with either the Hmong partisans or the French-Vietnamese commando groups. But these were individuals, there were no organized units, no break out, no salvation. General Giap and his Viet Minh revolutionaries were poised on the verge of complete victory.