Fight or Die
A Novel about the French disaster at Dien Bien Phu (13 March – 8 May 1954)
Saturday, 13th March 1954
Dien Bien Phu
‘I thought the commie bastards were meant to be starting the war today, Chief?’ the Polish Legionnaire Borys ‘Coleslaw’ Bogucki said passing him a steaming mug of coffee.
Sergeant Chief Henry Smith had drunk so much of the dark treacle-like sludge since arriving by C-47 in December of last year that of the sixty-percent water in his body, he estimated fifty-nine-percent was now coffee. ‘Lt Plantevin heard it from Major Pegot,’ he said taking the proffered mug. ‘Major Pegot heard it from Lt Col Gaucher, who heard it from General De Castries, who went to a cocktail party at General Giap’s shed on Thursday night with that whore who gave you the clap, and she whispered in his ear that today would be the day.’
Coleslaw, as the rest of the squad had promptly nicknamed Bogucki on learning that he could trace his lineage back two hundred years to Boleslaw III, licked the index finger of his left hand and ran it over his dark bushy eyebrows. ‘It must be true then,’ he said looking bemused. The Pole had transferred from the 1st Battalion three months ago, and although he was a bit simple-minded due to aristocratic in-breeding, Smith liked him enough to keep him.
‘Of course it’s true,’ the tall muscular Corporal Hans ‘Butcher’ Fleischer confirmed slapping Coleslaw on the back with a bear paw of a hand and nearly knocking him into the next trench. ‘Everyone knows that if you want to know what the fuck’s going on in this God-forsaken place you’d better go and pay one of Madame Ho’s girls for the privilege.’
Since Lt Plantevin had informed them of the expected attack by the Vietminh, Fleischer had begun wearing his Waffen SS Death’s Head insignia in his beret next to the Foreign Legion badge. He was of the opinion that as soon as General Giap saw who his opponents were, he’d order his men to surrender. Smith’s view was that the Vietnamese had no idea who the Waffen SS were, or what a Death Squad was, and from what he’d seen during his time here they probably didn’t give a shit either.
He took stock of his position. His squad – eight men including himself – had been allocated to Beatrice 1 as part of 9th Company. Unfortunately, Beatrice was not one of the Algerian or Vietnamese girls from the mobile brothels that had arrived on the same plane as him in December. Rumour had it that General De Castries had used the names of his mistresses as codenames for the airfield perimeter centres of resistance. There had been heated speculation in the battalion concerning Beatrice’s looks, figure, and sexual appetite. On the ground, however, Beatrice comprised a complex network of trenches connecting four strongpoints with interlocking fields of fire on three hills. The other three companies of his unit – the 3rd Battalion of the 13th Foreign Legion Demi Brigade – occupied strongpoints 2, 3 and 4. Beatrice was approximately three kilometres north east of General De Castries’ command post, and Beatrice 1 was the northernmost hill. In other words, Smith’s squad was in a heap of shit as usual, and it was his job to make sure they came out of it in one piece and smelling of roses.
He checked his watch, it was sixteen forty hours. If the commies were planning to attack today, it shouldn’t be too long now. His rifle rested on his thighs. Between the eight of them they possessed a mishmash of weapons left over from the Second World War, which caused a logistics headache for the Quartermaster, Major Renard. Smith sat on a box of .303 ammunition for his British Lee-Enfield Number 5 Mk 1, which he had used in France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany during his time in the 2nd Parachute Regiment. Fleicher had a French MAS Modèle 36 rifle using 7.5mm rounds, and a German Mauser HSc pistol that he’d stolen from a dead German officer, which used the 7.65mm round. There were also British submachine guns and pistols that used 9mm cartridges, American Springfield rifles using .30mm rounds, and numerous others.
During the early part of the day, sporadic shells and mortar bombs had fallen on their positions. Five men had been wounded, but only two were taken to the hospital. Smith had heard that Major Pegot had told all of the battalion officers that Colonel Piroth – the laughing one-armed artillery commander – had guaranteed that his twenty-four 105mm light howitzers could match anything the Vietminh had.
It wasn’t the first time Smith had fought the Vietminh, and he recalled the Battle of Hoa Binh in 1951/52. After stopping a shell fragment with his left leg, he had been able to obtain French citizenship because he’d shed blood for France. He had also developed the strange ability to predict when it was going to rain. Hoa Binh hadn’t ended well, and he wasn’t feeling optimistic about Dien Bien Phu either.
In between sorties into the jungle, they had spent months on preparation. Preparation for what though was anybody’s guess. They were in a valley surrounded on all sides by hills full to bursting with the People’s Army. The general consensus among the legionnaires was that they had been digging their own graves.
Beatrice was wedged between Route 41 to the south and the Nam Yum River to the north. He glanced over the lip of the trench. Through the sparse coils of barbed wire he could see the thick scrub, which contained a few buried anti-personnel mines, some electrically triggered charges, and a couple of drums of napalm. Across the river, General Giap’s 312th Division squatted in the dense forest eating rice and watching them. Smith knew damned well that if he didn’t stop the communists here they would run amok through his position like an army of cockroaches on their way to the brothel.
He heard the Canadian Legionnaire Brad ‘Lemming’ Lemmer answer the field telephone. Smith swivelled his head and looked along the trench.
‘For you, Chief,’ Lemming called peering over his wire spectacles and thrusting the handset in his direction. ‘Lt Plantevin,’ he added unnecessarily.
‘It’s hardly going to be Madame Ho, is it you moron?’ he said reaching Lemming’s position. ‘The telephone line only goes to the Command Post.’
‘We can correct that, Chief. I could run a cable back to the brothel if you want?’
Smith smiled at the thought. They would certainly get more information from the brothel than they got from the CP that’s for sure.
‘Yes, Sir?’ he said into the mouthpiece.
‘Are you ready, Sergeant Chief Smith?’
Lt Plantevin was nineteen and brand new. He was probably sat in the CP drinking wine with Major Pegot and the other officers. If he had anything about him he’d have walked down here to talk to his men before the battle instead of using the bloody telephone.
‘Ready, able and willing, Sir. Have you been told when they’re going to attack yet?’
'Eh no, Sergeant Chief. Keep the men on their toes though, won’t you? I’m sure it won’t be long now.’
The bastard knew, but he wasn’t saying. ‘Will do, Sir.’
Smith tossed the handset back to Lemming. After he’d lit a cigarette, he gazed through his binoculars at the hillside beyond the river. He could see the enemy infantry – like worker ants – moving down the slopes through the trees with machine guns and mortars. He also saw the glint of bayonets fixed to rifles.
Twenty minutes later, all hell broke loose. It was seventeen twenty hours, when the Vietminh began their artillery bombardment.
‘I thought they didn’t have any artillery worth pissing on?’ the Algerian Legionnaire Mustafa ‘Mushroom’ al Jabbar shouted in between explosions.
As the shelling became one continuous symphony, no one had the chance to provide Mushroom with an appropriate response. They burrowed deeper into the bottom of the trench like moles going into hibernation. Fleischer glanced at Smith. They’d both had the experience of surviving artillery bombardments during the Second World War, and knew that the trenches and bunkers the 3rd Battalion now occupied were not built to withstand this type of heavy artillery fire. Of necessity, short cuts had been taken. Time had been limited due to the jungle sorties. There had been no sheet metal, no concrete, no quarry stone, and not enough local timber to go round. Of the limited amount of building materials that were airlifted in, priority was given to the HQ, the communications centre, the hospital, and the airfield. Protecting the fighting men came way down the list. They had needed to improvise, scrounge and re-allocate certain materials that were clearly in the wrong place. Smith had sent his men out at night in pairs until eventually they had the best trench system in the battalion, and probably throughout the whole of Vietnam. Major Sudrat, the Chief Engineer, had offered a cash prize for the best trench, but Smith kept quiet. He knew all too well that re-allocation was a privilege of rank. He’d rather be a poor survivor than a rich corpse.
Day finally ran out and night took its place. The sky was clear with a full moon, which would aid the Vietminh infantry attack when it came.
At eighteen fifteen hours a runner arrived from the CP with a message. ‘You’d better come, Chief.’
‘Shit!’ Smith said. Lt Plantevin was trying to get him killed. The battalion command bunker was behind him in Beatrice 4 held by 12th Company under the command of Lt Madelain. It meant travelling a good three hundred yards through the B1 trenches, across the one hundred yards of gulley between the strongpoints, which was under heavy fire, and then into the B4 trench system. He nodded at Fleischer. They both knew that in Smith’s absence, Butcher was in charge. With dirt, stones and slivers of metal sizzling overhead, he hunched down and followed the runner back to the CP. What the hell was going on? Why hadn’t Lt Plantevin used the field telephone to transmit any orders?
His question was answered when he reached the crater where the CP had been. He also realised that the command-detonated mines and the napalm drums were useless, the switches were underneath the rubble of the CP.
‘Sergeant Chief Smith, good.’ It was Captain Nicolas with calm assurance on his face. ‘As you can see, the CP has had a direct hit. Major Pegot, God rest his soul, is no more. Neither are any of the other officers that were in there with him. Lt Col Gaucher was also here. He lost both his arms, and his chest was open like the gateway to hell. He was still alive though, so I sent him to the hospital, but it doesn’t look good.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that, Sir?’
‘Thank you, Sergeant Chief. It seems as though I’m now in command of the Battalion, and from what I can ascertain there are very few officers remaining. I’m putting you in charge of Beatrice 1. The enemy is shelling the whole damned valley. Communications to the HQ no longer exist and unfortunately, all the radios were in the CP. I’ve got someone reconnecting the field telephones, but don’t ring me and ask for reinforcements, you’re on your own now, Sergeant Chief.’
Smith’s lip curled into a wry smile. So what the hell was new?
‘When the Vietminh attack,’ Captain Nicolas continued, ‘hold out as long as you can. If you can push them back into the jungle so much the better, but I’m not holding my breath. I think I can safely say, without any fear of contradiction, that we seriously underestimated the artillery resources of the People’s Army.’
‘What’s happened to our artillery, Sir? Can’t we knock the bastards out? They’re crucifying us?’
‘I’m unable to ask anyone now, but my guess is that the forward observers can’t locate them. When they are able to, and radio the location back to the fire control HQ, the Vietminh are too well dug in for our artillery to make any difference. It seems that General Giap has learned a few things since Hoa Binh, Sergeant Chief.’
‘Yes, Sir.’ He began scrambling back toward Beatrice 1, numbed by the all-consuming screech of incoming shells, the body parts cartwheeling through the air, and the stench of faeces exiting from gaping stomach wounds. Thing’s weren’t going well, the immediate future was looking decidedly bleak. He heard the drone of Bearcats above, but knew it was too dark now for them to make a difference. An orange-yellow flash preceded a fountain of smoke and earth, which leapt up before him. Dirt and stones pinged and clinked on his helmet as he crawled over a soldier who had pissed himself. Further along the trench he put his hand in a boot, which still had the bleeding mangled foot of its owner inside.
‘I thought the commies didn’t have any artillery, Chief,’ the Afrikaner Legionnaire Griftin ‘Griff’ van den Meersche shouted as Smith reached him. A 105mm Howitzer shell thudded into the rear wall, and dropped onto the dirt floor between them. They looked at one another, automatically picked up an end each and together hefted it as far out of the trench as they could manage. It rolled down the slope and wedged against the barbed wire.
‘I guess it wasn’t our turn, Griff,’ Smith said and carried on past the others to reach his .303 ammo box.
‘They’ve promoted you to General?’ Butcher enquired.
‘Almost.’ He told the German what had transpired.
‘Yeah, so what’s new?’
‘At least we know where we stand, Butcher.’
‘On our own as usual.’
Smith shrugged. ‘It sounds like the whole valley is being hit. They should have known the Vietminh had this amount of artillery. We’re cannon fodder.’
‘Those bastards in Military Intelligence should be put in front of a firing squad, or better still, brought up here to take our place.’
‘Check on your men,’ he said to Butcher, ‘make sure they’re holding up okay. Let them know what’s happened to the CP.’
Butcher nodded. In his fire team he had half the squad: Griff the Afrikaner, the American Scott ‘Tequila’ Conrad, and Coleslaw the Pole.
Smith moved to his left along the trench to check on the three men that made up his fire team. Lemming sat guarding the field telephone.
‘They’ll be here soon, Lemming.’
‘So everybody keeps telling me, Chief. Yet here I am with no one to shoot at.’
As well as the telephone, Lemming was also in possession of a 0.30in Browning M1919 machine gun. Unfortunately, he’d only been able to scrounge 10,000 rounds in 250-round belts. With a rate of fire of 500 rounds/minute, the weapon would be useless within twenty minutes.
Smith told him what had transpired at the CP.
‘We’re better off on our own anyway, Chief. You’ll look after us as you always have done.’
As he moved up the trench, he hoped Lemming’s confidence in him wasn’t misplaced. He reached Mushroom’s position. The moustached Algerian was a thin dark-skinned man of twenty-four. In his previous life, he’d been an assassin for a crime boss in Algeria, but was forced to flee when, instead of killing a woman he’d fallen in love with, he made her disappear.
They’d all had previous lives. Smith could have written a book about those he knew of. His own had been as Paul Travers, which had ended in August of 1945. After demobilisation, he returned home to find his wife and her lover dead in his bed. He hadn’t done it, of course, but he was the only suspect, and they weren’t looking for anyone else. The police had constructed a cast-iron circumstantial case against him. He was almost certain to be convicted. Paul Travers, late of the 2nd Parachute Regiment, ran into the welcoming arms of the Foreign Legion as Henry Smith.
‘You okay, Mushroom?’
‘I am good, Chief,’ the Algerian said flashing white teeth. ‘It is at times like this that you appreciate how important it is to have a beautiful woman to fill your thoughts.’ Mushroom thrust the black and white photograph of Imane at him, which Smith had seen a number of times. The dark-haired woman was certainly beautiful.
‘Get ready, it won’t be long before we have company.’
His eyes turned to cold slits. ‘Insha Allah. God willing, I will send them speedily to the bosom of whichever heathen God they worship.’
He carried on along the trench, ignoring the din and the flying debris, until he came to the French Legionnaire Rene ‘Merlin’ Merlot. Before joining the Legion, Merlin had been a thief. Sadly, the thin twenty-six year-old Frenchman was not a very good thief. In 1946 he was caught attempting to steal the Faberge egg collection from the Palace of Versailles, which contained six of the missing eight eggs. The French Government tried to ensure his silence by sentencing him to twenty years hard labour at Devil’s Island in French Guyana. When the penal colony closed in 1952, Rene was transferred to a mainland prison. Shortly afterwards, he was given the option of joining the Legion, or finishing his sentence.
‘Did I ever tell you about Papillon, Chief?’
‘Yes, but one tattooed on the chest of Henri Charrière. He was the only person ever to escape from Devil’s Island, you know?’
‘We could do with an escape artist here,’ Smith said and told him what had happened at the CP. ‘Make sure you’re ready, they’ll be here soon.’
‘You know already that the fingers of death are wrapped around my ankles pulling me down to hell, Chief, but tonight the black angel has whispered she will not take me.’ Since his time on Devil’s Island, Merlin thought he was already half way to hell. Smith had never before seen a man fight without fear, but Merlin was such a man.
‘Well, just in case she’s lying,’ he said, ‘keep your bloody head down, and your eyes and ears open.’
He continued on through the trenches briefing the Sergeants and Corporals of 9th Company, so that they could brief their own squads. Their faces were grim as he told them what had happened to the CP, and what Captain Nicolas had said. They were effectively cut off from the main camp with no hope of reinforcements, and little chance of artillery or mortar support.
No sooner had he parked his arse on the ammunition box and lit a cigarette than a wave of Vietminh soldiers appeared like ghosts out of the thick haze of smoke and dust, and threw themselves at the coils of barbed wire trying to force a breach. These ‘death volunteers’ carried bangalore torpedoes – long lengths of bamboo packed with explosives – others had explosive charges to place against the gun positions.
Lemming at last had something to shoot at and wasted no time spraying the oncoming Vietminh with metal death from his Browning machine gun.
The Vietminh sappers were trying to place the torpedoes against the barbed wire, which would clear four square meters of ground and open a breach for the infantry to pour through.
Smith paced along the trench, talking to the men, directing fire.
The 57mm recoilless gun positioned at right angles to the trench sprayed enfilading fire along the face of the strongpoint, and prevented the Vietminh gaining a foothold.
Wave after wave of Vietminh soldiers died trying to force a breech in the wire. Bodies lay one on top of the other...