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A Study of Siege Warfare

Eric Dahlquist

The forward French Base at Dien Bien Phu was a bold venture by the French forces to infiltrate Northern Vietnam in 1954, however they underestimated their enemy and were decidedly defeated and forced out of Vietnam forever. Fourteen years later in an effort to turn the tide in the Vietnam Conflict, the US Marines were ordered to take up a position just outside the city of Khe Sanh, along the DMZ. They too were attacked fiercely, but unlike the French, the Marines held their ground, and the base withstood. These two bases were both in the forward area of their respective conflicts, both of which were fiercely attacked and laid siege to, but with two entirely different outcomes. Why did the US decide to go ahead with the base at Khe Sanh, knowing full well what happened to the French 14 years earlier, and what were the deciding factors which helped them succeed?

The primary correlation between the forces at Dien Bien Phu and Khe Sanh was the use of the siege as the method of attack. When studying these battles, it is first important to understand what a siege is. There are two perspectives in siege warfare, the attacker and the besieged. For the attacker, their goal is to displace the opposition who is usually protected in a fortified position. For the besieged, the only goal is to prevent the opposition from obtaining their fortified position.

Now according to the dictionary, the definition of siege reads as follows:

Webster?s Definition

1 obsolete: a seat of distinction: THRONE

2 a: a military blockade of a city or fortified place to compel it to surrender

b: a persistent or serious attack (as of illness)

This definition seems too basic for understanding the complexity of a siege. For this reason I have developed my own definition which I find more explanatory of the actual event.

Dahlquist?s Definition

1. To commit an enemy to fighting from a defensive position by means of cutting off all avenues of escape and forcing the enemy to hold their position under constant and direct fire in an attempt to win a war of attrition

2. For the besieged opponent to expend all its resources and surrender

The tactics used in siege warfare has been compared by some analysts to a chess game. For the besieged, they must focus on defensive measures while maintaining enough of an offense to keep the attacker from committing all of it reserves to the offensive. If the besieged can pose an offensive threat, then the attacker must maintain some troops for defense of their artillery and command post .

In the modern theater of warfare, there are many considerations that must be accounted for. Moreover, advancements in weapons and technology have made the battlefield an ever-expanding arena of destruction. Artillery can now reach targets 20 miles away and aircraft can drop bombs with precision accuracy; these advancements have made the art of siege warfare become less common. Whichever opponent can control and effectively utilize the skies over the battlefield during a siege has a greater probability of success. Aircraft can deliver massive amounts of explosives on the enemy, as well as re-supply friendly forces that are cut off from the ground. Ever better advancements in aircraft allow them to fly high above the range of anti-aircraft guns, and often times the only signal of their presence to those on the ground is their cargo that falls from the sky.

While studying a siege, geography does play a role in the battles, but is negated as a primary factor because both sides can use the surrounding terrain to their advantage, no matter what the terrain features are. Both sides in a siege meet on the same ground, and it is up to the commanders to utilize it.

The factors that must be utilized advantageously in order to either attack or defend a siege are infantry, artillery, and air power. Such factors determine who will win, and in the cases of Dien Bien Phu and Khe Sanh, special attention must be paid to their effectiveness.

General Giap

When discussing siege tactics, one name continually arises as the foremost master of the art, that is General Giap. General Vo Nguyen Giap, the Commander in Chief of the People?s Army of Vietnam, was born on September 1, 1910 in central Annam at An Xa, in the province of Quang Binh. Before taking a position in the People?s Army, Giap studied history and law at the University of Hanoi . He then became a history teacher until his country was ravaged by war with the Japanese. Giap was a patriot, much like Paul Revere or Winston Churchill; he spoke with a soothing resonance that captivated his audience, much like his efforts in teaching. He spoke of freedom and independence, and soon his influence was far reaching.

Married in 1939 to his first wife, Dang Thi Quang Thai, he wasted no time starting to raise a family, having his daughter a little less than a year later. He soon left his family to study and train under Communist leader Mao Zedong in China. In 1941, Giap?s wife was arrested and convicted of conspiracy against the French and imprisoned. Reports suggested that: ?…the French killed Giap’s daughter, two sisters, and his father. The source of Giap’s passionate hatred for the French is now clear.?

Giap?s tactics were adopted from his war college, the jungle. He was a veteran of fighting battles strongly outnumbered and lacking firepower. An expert at guerrilla tactics, Giap was a master of cover and concealment of both troops and supplies. The philosophy that guided him was never fight a battle you can?t win. Giap never brought his forces out long enough for the enemy to concentrate its firepower, and when the enemy began to close in, Giap disappeared as quickly as he attacked, leaving the enemy in a state of shock, and often times bleeding.

Giap believed that nothing was impossible if you put your mind to it, and he lived this attitude time and again. The foundation of his strategy and tactics revolved around a simple principle: when you could not fight the enemy with weapons stronger than his, you had to render his weapons ineffective pending the day that you possessed the same, which would be more effective for being unexpected. Often times out-manned and outgunned, with inadequate supplies, and lacking food and water, Giap became a master of harsh conditions. Like a snake, he would lay in hiding until the perfect moment to strike, and he would do so swiftly with murderous firepower, and then quickly withdrawal, and live to fight another day.

President Ho Chi Minh described Giap to American journalist David Schoenbruim, at Fontainebleau, on September 11, 1946: ?It will be a war between a tiger and an elephant. If the tiger ever stops, the elephant will pierce him with his tusks. Only the tiger doesn?t stop. He lurks in the jungle by day and emerges only at night. He will leap onto the elephant and rip his back to shreds before disappearing again into the shadows, and the elephant will die from exhaustion and loss of blood.?

With the experience Giap forged in the jungles of Vietnam against the Japanese, he posed a threat to the French forces that lacked the experience of guerrilla warfare. Knowing this, the French tried to block the Viet Minh from Laos. It was widely rumored that Laos was a safe-haven for the Viet Minh as well as a training ground, so they would return to Vietnam as seasoned veterans. General Giap?s forces were forced to attack the French strong point at the town on Na San.

At Na San, the French airdropped three battalions and all the necessary supplies to support a fortified camp. The French troops defended the garrison from over fifty thousand Viet Minh forces. For this attack, Giap lacked the necessary supply train to attack the fortification. Consequently, he briefly laid siege to the garrison and penetrated the outer defenses of the base but couldn?t penetrate the base itself. So the French forces held, and sent the Viet Minh away with a bloody nose. The brief attack had a great impact on the conclusion of the war.

Giap realized that the human wave tactics that he used against the forces at Na San were very costly in terms of human lives as well as ineffective against a well-fortified position. He knew that he would have to form a tactic that utilized a punishing artillery barrage to weaken the defenses in coordination with overwhelming infantry assaults to crush the target.

Dien Bien Phu

In a little known valley in Northern Vietnam, there was a small village named Dien Bien Phu. It was located 8 miles from the Laotian border and only 60 miles from the Chinese border. To give perspective on where exactly it was located, it was approximately 250 miles northwest of Hanoi. The terrain surrounding this area was mountainous. In fact, there where hills completely surrounding the town, with only one road in and one road out. These mountains were plagued with thick underbrush accompanied by densely wooded areas.

On July 24th, 1953 General Henri Navarre, Commander of French Forces in Indochina, issued Directive No. 563 which laid the plans for the occupation of a valley to the northwest Dien Bien Phu . The theory behind the base at Dien Bien Phu was a bold move to draw the enemy into the open, without its heavy guns and completely destroy the Viet Minh. Although it was located in the center of a valley, surround by hills on all sides, the French felt they could use the terrain to their advantage. To most military strategists, this would not be considered a good place to have a base, but the French rested their fate on the fact that the Viet Minh would not be able to get their heavy guns over the mountains. The French were confident that if the Viet Minh forces tried to move heavy artillery, that French observation planes would spot them and patrols would be sent out to destroy the artillery before they could be brought up the mountains. This assumption would prove to be the most costly assumption in the military history. General Giap was more than prepared to out-smart the French.

Operation Castor was the code name for the French occupation of the valley at Dien Bien Phu. This was an airborne operation designed from the outset to draw the Viet Minh into the open and destroy them. At 0500 on the November 20, 1953, an American-made, C-47 transport plane circled the skies over Dien Bien Phu. The decision to go ahead with the air assault was made by Lieutenant General Pierre Bodet, French Air Force, the French Deputy Commander-in-Chief in Indochina. By 0820, the French cargo planes carrying two light infantry battalions of the elite French paratroopers were headed for Dien Bien Phu. These initial troops were supposed to land and quickly secure the landing zone. Due to the massive troop movement, the French lacked the planes to carry all the troops in one wave, so the planes would drop off the first wave and turn around to pick up the second wave of troops.

By 1020, the first wave was being dropped into the valley and was under murderous enemy fire. The Communist troops who amassed in the area were firing at the paratroopers while they were still in the air. As the troops landed, they quickly began to form into small groups, and these groups formed into platoons. As the platoons began to form, they immediately went on the offensive to clear the area of enemy for the second wave. The French swiftly gained the upper hand against the heavily outnumbered Communist troops. The town and surrounding area fell in less than six hours. The cost in human lives appeared surprisingly low to the high command who were very pleased with the operation. Airborne Battle Group 1 dropped 1827 paratroopers and of them, only 11 were killed and 52 wounded in less than six hours of fighting.

By November of that year, fortifications were already being put into place. This was an arduous process because initially, the only forces for the French were the paratroopers, who lacked the heavy equipment to build proper fortifications. Finally the equipment arrived after the airstrip was erected. Mass amounts of men and material arrived in the valley. The fortifications were in place and the French started going on patrols of the nearby hills. Initially these patrols met with little resistance, but soon came reports of major Viet Minh movements.

Operations around Dien Bien Phu soon became the center of operations in northwest Vietnam, and the most important front in the war for both sides. Viet Minh activity rapidly increased, but Dien Bien Phu was not bothered. Navarre believed that these many-sided attacks were due to Vietminh hesitancy to directly attack Dien Bien Phu because of supply difficulties. In reality, these attacks served to scatter the French forces in many directions while pinning down the forces at Dien Bien Phu.

The Viet Minh saw Dien Bien Phu as a good opportunity to destroy the French. Their commanding general, General Vo Nguyen Giap, organized what would prove to be one of most influential military campaigns in history. Giap, after realizing that Dien Bien Phu was going to be the French main base in the North, went to Ho Chi Minh and asked for permission to attack the French. Ho?s response was ?don?t attack until victory is certain.? With those directives, Giap?s first mission was supplies. Since the Korean War just ended, the Chinese and Soviets had a surplus of supplies as well as captured American weapons to give the Viet Minh. These supplies crossed the Vietnamese-Chinese border some 600 miles from Dien Bien Phu. The next problem was that there were no roads leading there, so Giap conscripted an army of workers who, in less than three months, had an operational road system for the entire 600 miles constructed.

With supplies en route, Giap then focused on massing his troops. Before long, Giap marched to Dien Bien Phu with more than 70,000 motivated troops ready to fight. These troops mostly traveled on foot, and carried their supplies on French-made bicycles, which were purchased before the war. As stated earlier, Giap was a master of cover and concealment of troops and supplies; the French had no idea what was headed their way. Artillery pieces that were donated by China quickly made their way to the mountains just outside the valley. Giap has his men haul 200 Chinese and Russian siege guns up the hills surrounding the base.

What the French assumed could not be accomplished would soon become their downfall. At 5pm on Saturday, March 12, 1954, the Viet Minh opened up with a completely unexpected and punishing artillery barrage.

French planes began flying into the valley with supplies for the beleaguered troops. These planes were met with heavy anti-aircraft fire, as well as pinpoint shelling of the airstrip. Many of the planes were destroyed on the ground or during their slow approach to the airstrip, so the French turned to air dropping the supplies. The French dropped about 120 tons of supplies to the besieged defenders of Dien Bien Phu between March 13 and May 7, of which the army recovered about 100 tons. This included American supplied delayed-fuse rounds that the Communists captured. These rounds were designed to penetrate whatever they struck before exploding, causing much greater damage. The Viet Minh could use these rounds because the guns they had been supplied by China were American guns captured in Korea. The delayed fuse rounds tore the base to shreds.

Giap repeatedly ordered suicide attacks, which yielded mixed results. The French used up ammunition, Giap’s army was thinned considerably, and the garrison held. The suicide attacks decimated the French, but ultimately Giap gave them up for traditional trench warfare. The Viet Minh surrounded Dien Bien Phu and moved them closer and closer to French lines, until they were able to move almost directly from the protection of the trenches to the French entrenchments.

Finally, at 1030 Paris time on the morning of 7 May, the Battle of Dien Bien Phu ended in French defeat. The French had lost the ability and the will to fight. The French?s defeat marked the end of the French reign in Vietnam. This defeat also had another significance. It was the first battle in the history of warfare that a siege ended a war.

Khe Sanh

The Khe Sanh Combat Base, established by the Green Berets in August 1962, was located in the province of Quang Tri. The base sat atop a plateau in the shadow of the Dong Tri Mountain and overlooked a tributary of the Quang Tri River.

By November 1967, US intelligence began receiving reports of several North Vietnamese Army (NVA) divisions moving south. General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, felt maintaining a presence at Khe Sanh was critically important. It served as a patrol base for interdiction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, as the western terminus for the defensive line along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), and as a barrier to Communist efforts to carry the fighting into the populated coastal regions of South Vietnam.

In late December, in became clear to General Westmoreland that two of these divisions were moving toward Khe Sanh. With American skepticism resting on the result at Dien Bien Phu, Westmoreland, though nervous, saw an opportunity to bring optimum firepower to bear against the NVA in an isolated area. Westmoreland believed that the location lacked any populated civilian sectors to defend, so all military efforts in the area could be concentrated at Khe Sanh.

The base was garrisoned by 6,000 Marines, mostly comprised of the 1st Division, 26 Regiment. The garrison had a vast array of weaponry including Armored Self-Propelled Guns, which resembled tanks and can provide massive firepower. The garrison also housed the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, which offered ground intelligence for the bombing campaigns. The Khe Sanh Combat Base was prepared for the worst and air support and re-supply was ready to go on a moments? notice.

On 20 January 1968, a Marine patrol made contact with NVA troops to the northeast of the base. In his engagement, an NVA officer surrendered to an outpost of marines and told his interrogators that the NVA would attack the Marine outposts on Hills 881N and 861, and the Khe Sanh base that night.

The NVA struck Khe Sanh and its outposts with rocket, artillery, mortar, and small arms fire at 0530 on 21 January. The ammunition depot and the fuel supplies were blown up and heavy fighting occurred on hill 861, but the Marines held their posts. Operation Niagara was quickly activated by General Westmoreland. This operation, in the planning stage since early January, called for Khe Sanh to be defended not only by the Marine garrison, but by awesome firepower supplied by B-52?s, tactical air, artillery, and mortars.

The hills surrounding the base were of great importance to the defense of Khe Sanh. Fearing the similar result as Dien Bien Phu, the Marines refused to allow the NVA control of the hills, which would give their artillery a good vantage point. Another reason the hills were so important was to keep anti-aircraft guns from shredding American planes in the area. Had the NVA been able to knock he Marines off those summits, they would have been able to fire down the throats of the base defenders and make their position vulnerable, as well as make air resupply virtually impossible.

The air support given to the Marines at Khe Sanh was phenomenal. The Air Force dropped over 100,000 tons of bombs into the area. They, along with Army and Marine aircraft, kept the necessary supplies flowing to the base. The runway was damaged heavily when the ammunition dumps were destroyed, so the situation called for innovation, and the Air Force supplied it. They came up with a new delivery system called the Low Altitude Parachute Extraction System(LAPES) and the Ground Proximity Extraction System(GPES). LAPES was a self-contained system that used a reefed cargo parachute to extract a roller mounted cargo pallet from the rear of the aircraft from approximately five feet off the deck. GPES extracted cargo by means of snagging an arresting cable, similar to those used on aircraft carriers, with a hook extended from the boom at the rear of the aircraft.

The last sizeable NVA attack on Khe Sanh occurred on the night of February 29th-March 1st. This was a suicide attack made by General Giap, mostly out of frustration. Throughout the battle, his forces were distracted from attacking Khe Sanh heavily because of the hill battles and American air power. The only significant effect the NVA had on the base itself was the artillery barrage and he menacing sporadic attacks by small groups of NVA.

The siege ended on March 6th, when NVA forces began to withdrawal, although fighting didn?t cease until March 30th. Operation PEGASUS, a combined relief force of Marines and Soldiers of the 1st U.S. Air Cavalry Division reached Khe Sanh on April 8th. The 77-day siege was over, and the relief effort had begun. This effort proved to be very costly for the Americans. Thus, General Westmoreland decided to abandon the base. So from the end of Operation PEGASUS to the end of the evacuation of Khe Sanh, the losses suffered by the US forces were disastrous: 7,000 American troops put out of action, 122 planes shot down, 69 military vehicles, and many munitions depots destroyed.


As was stated previously, the primary factors of both the sieges, at Dien Bien Phu and at Khe Sanh, were the use of artillery, infantry, and airpower as the primary components of the siege. When comparing these three items with regard to the battles, we can find out what went wrong, and what went right.

The French artillery at Dien Bien Phu was rendered useless by the Viet Minh because the French did not know where to fire. The Viet Minh kept positions well concealed from air observation as well and defended from ground observation. Another reason why the artillery was rendered useless was, as they would fire their artillery, the Viet Minh would target them and destroy the French guns. This had no real impact on French because for most of the siege, they didn?t have artillery shells to fire.

The Americans a Khe Sanh employed their artillery effectively by using ground and air reconnaissance to locate targets. The ammunition supplied to the artillery batteries provided them the means to fire whenever needed. The NVA employed effective artillery fire as well; by destroying the runway and ammunition dump, the NVA proved their artillery was formidable. But US ground reconnaissance located the artillery and provided grid coordinates to the B-52?s who would carpet-bomb the area. In this case, the infantry helped the artillery as well as the air power.

The US Marines, who defended the base, were a cohesive unit, dedicated to survival and teamwork. They kept the NVA forces at bay until the battle was over, and didn?t allow penetration of the base. There are no publicized reports of Marine desertion. The NVA troops were not a fortunate. They were plagued with desertion and lack of motivation. General Giap had hastily prepared these men, women, and boys, so they were ill trained. Many of the troops, who deserted, did so after the US began the B-52 bombing of the area. General Giap was helpless to stop his deserters, and was helpless to send to send his fellow countrymen to get slaughtered in the wire around Khe Sanh.

That was not the case for General Giap 14 years earlier. At Dien Bien Phu, Giap?s troops were highly motivated. With the arrival of the artillery batteries and anti-aircraft weapons, he Viet Minh seemed control the battle. The French troops, on the other hand, were made up of French Army, Legionnaires, and a wide variety of other nationalities. This mixture of troops did not work in favor of the French. Many of the Legionnaires were not French, nor did they speak French, so communication was a problem. But an even bigger problem, was the moral of the troops. Many deserted, while others stole and hoarded supplies in their trenches. Overall, the forces lacked unity.

The greatest difference between the two battles was air power. For both Dien Bien Phu and Khe Sanh, the Viet Minh and NVA respectively, had no air power. So with the lack of airpower, French and American forces controlled the skies. The French could not take advantage of this. Although they did not face an enemy air force, they did not have enough aircraft to suppress enemy anti-aircraft fire. This resulted in heavy losses of transport aircraft. Navarre understood that he could not expect the delivery of additional air assent, but he continued with the operation, and as a result, the French no longer live in Vietnam.

The Americans were quite different from the French in regards to air power. At Khe Sanh, aircraft were readily available for a multitude of missions. Ground attack aircraft were utilized to suppress enemy anti-aircraft guns, covering the transports while in the area. Fixed wing aircraft delivered supplies, ammunition, and even troops to help relieve the garrison. With complete control of the skies, the US forces dominated the siege at Khe Sanh.

Siege warfare has been around since the early medieval times. Since then, there have been many advancements in weapons and technology, but the siege tactics remain the same. There is an opponent in a fortified position, and an opponent trying to overtake that position.

In the battles of Dien Bien Phu and Khe Sanh, the siege was the method of attack by the Vietnamese forces. The French at Dien Bien Phu were disorganized and lacked unit cohesiveness. That coupled with their lack of supplies and no air power, they were thoroughly defeated by the Viet Minh.

At Khe Sanh, the Marines worked together as a unit to prevent the NVA for taking the base. In a combined arms operation, the Air Force, Army and Navy all helped the Marines keep the NVA at bay by supplying air superiority. The US forces completely dominated the air, ground and artillery and that was the means of their success.

The battles at Dien Bien Phu and Khe Sanh proved that siege warfare in the modern theater is very costly in terms of money, lives and strategic considerations. If a siege is unsuccessfully prepared, and defeat is imminent, then you have won nothing by attempting the siege in the first place.


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