In 1954, the French military made a fatal error in the conduct of their war in Vietnam. On November 20th, 1953, the latest in a string of French commanders, General Navarre, proposed a “hedgehog” operation centered on a small World War II Japanese landing strip at Điện Biên Phủ. The intention was to force a showdown with the forces of the Viet Minh in such a way where the French had the advantage. In this case, Điện Biên Phủ was to be a fortified outpost supported by the superiority which the French boasted in air and artillery.
General Giáp, seeing his own opportunity, assembled 4 infantry divisions totaling nearly 50,000 troops. He also assembled a massive army of laborers and did what General Navarre had considered impossible. He disassembled and transported across nearly-impassible terrain over 250 artillery and anti-aircraft guns. He not only nullified the French advantage in artillery and air-support, but outnumbered them almost 5 to 1.
The French fought for nearly two months, re-enforcing their positions with additional para-drops. Ultimately their isolation was complete and the entire French force surrendered. The next day, the Geneva Conference peace talks opened discussions on French Indochina and, in the face of this defeat, a ceasefire was arranged that split Vietnam in two, a communist North and a republican South. The instability of this arrangement ultimately lead to the huge commitment of U.S. troops to Vietnam.
The battle is modeled in the TOAW:3 scenario, Dien Bien Phu. It is one of the scenarios from the first version of the game.
Like my previous foray into French Indochina, the scenario leans towards the smaller end of the game’s scale. Like before, counters represent companies, but the time scale is half-week turns, which is an improvement.
Given the situation, one has to wonder whether any realistic play-through of the scenario could result in anything but a French surrender. One might argue that the French lost the battle the moment they decided to make a stand in that particular valley.
Fire from the Sky
In a second scenario, I look at the CMANO scenario Operation Vulture. This is a hypothetical based on plans discussed among the Americans to save the French at Điện Biên Phủ using massive air power.
One version of the plan would have authorized the use of up to three nuclear weapons. Other versions proposed conventional weapons, but still delivered by Strategic bombers. Ultimately, Eisenhower nixed backing the French in Vietnam both out of a lack of support from strategic allies and from a fear of entering into a quagmire so soon after the end of the Korean War.
However, with CMANO we can image what American support might have looked like. The parameters of the game are a single, 24 hour operation. The U.S. is limited to conventional bombing only – no nukes. The French air support is present in the game, but controlled by a friendly AI and not the player.
This scenario, perhaps, has another purpose. The scenario designer (it is a user-made scenario) has chosen to use the B-36 “Peacemaker” to deliver the attack. This was definitely within the U.S. arsenal at the time, and one choice for delivering the attack. More likely, the B-29 Superfortress would have been chosen, perhaps with support from naval ground attack aircraft.
The B-36, in the words of the scenario designer, “was already obsolete when the first one rolled off the production line.” It became the focus of a political battle over its cost (it was sometimes called a “billion dollar blunder”) between the Air Force and the Navy, who wanted to see the money spent on supercarriers. This fight over military focus represents an extension of the argument over Strategic Bombing in the Second World War. That experience should have discredited the concept, and yet it continued to drive U.S. Air Force thinking into the Cold war.
Play-wise, it isn’t a bad scenario. The feeling of the “game playing itself” is alleviated in that the player has to plan everything from scratch. The load-outs, the launch times, the routes, the targets. The B36s fly high enough that it isn’t a game of rolling dice against the anti-aircraft fire until they’re all shot down.