Color photographs, never before published,
taken at Dien Bien Phu,
during Operation Castor under the command of General Jean Gilles.

In November, 1953, it was very quiet in the valley of Dien Bien Phu. In the centrally located village, the inhabitants led their ordinary, impoverished lives in spite of the presnece of two Viet Battalions occupying the position...
An the undulating valley floor, two Viet companies were engaged in field exercises in the dry rice paddies when the alarm sounded. Numerous bombers had just arrived in the gray skies and bombs began to fall, sparing the village.  Soon, white parachutes dotted the sky. The Viets immediately dug in and started firing on their attackers.

It’s D-Day for Operation Castor

General Gilles on the drop zone

At the head of his parachute battalions is General Gilles, a tough man of about fifty years of age who earned his parachute badge at the age of 44.  He commands all the paratroops in Indo-china, is a senior officer in the Legion of Honor and has been cited eleven times.

He jumps with his men after having prepared a combined operation involving the Army and the Air Force.

Here is the tale of the exploit he and his men accomplished, told from a soldier’s point of view, modest and to the point. (1)

0815. - take off

1000 - Units in the first wave jump on two drop zones with B-26 support and strafing immediately before and during the jump.  It was important to avoid hitting the villages so as not to kill civilians, especially since the local T’ai and Meos were sympathetic to the French.

North slope of Dominique

On the northern drop zone, D.Z. Natasha, the 6th battalion is immediately involved in combat, clearing the drop zone of two companies of enemy troops who had been carrying out field exercises on it. Air support is provided at once but regrouping on the ground is difficult.  Finally, the 6th Battalion attacks and takes the village in street fighting, often hand to hand. Accurate air support is extremely difficult.

On the second drop zone, Simone, which coincided approximately with what would later become the fortified camp’s secondary air strip, the drop was made too far to the south so that reorganization was hindered by the difficult terrain. It took two hours to straighten out command and control problems on the ground.  During that time, command and control was provided by the air-borne command post.

The artillery pathfinders set to work without losing a minute and the artillery pieces and munitions were dropped on the future battery positions themselves so that the men would not have to manhandle 75 mm. recoilless cannons, 120 mm. mortars and especially the munitions.

The day’s balance sheet showed 17 dead and about 30 wounded. These were evacuated by helicopter to Lai Chau. 200 enemy bodies were left on the battlefield.

Successful drop of a bulldozer

The bulldozer arrives undamaged

In the following days came an avalanche of paratroops and materiel.

Parachutes on drop zone Natasha?

T’ai’s helping to recover parachutes

Digging in!

Senior master sergeant Alibert (standing),
corporal Durrafour (sitting) The battalion mortars will be set
up on this site which has already been cleared of brush.

A fording site on the Nam Yum

Automatic weapon  emplacement

On  the summit of Dominique
from left to right:  Corporal Andreucci, ?, Corporal Missy

On the ground the work goes on without any let up.  Defensive positions had to be prepared but more importantly, the landing strip had to be repaired.

This is what we used to repair the landing strip before
the arrival of the bulldozer;  General Gilles is meditating!

There were some 1,200 holes to fill in.  Everybody bent to the task and the work went on day and right without interruption.

The  general in front of the Morane 500 observation plane

The first Morane observation plane lands on November 22, the first Beaver on the 23rd.  It brought in bicycles and evacuated wounded.

The first Dakota touches down on November 25 at 1130 instead of on December 2 as was originally planned for.

The first aircraft land.

The isolated phase is over.  The air-borne operation has been completed.

Partisans returning to camp;  on the right, Sergeant Boutin.

On the trail; is this woman Brigitte Friand?

The order is given to evacuate Lai Chau. The garrison, some leaving by the Pavie trail, some by airplane, pulled back to try to link up with paratroop commandos who were probing to the north and north-west of Dien Bien Phu. Finally, the parachute units are gradually relieved by airborne battalions and are available for other airborne operations.

(1) Extract from an article which appeared in Le Figaro, May 6, 1954.

* * *

Photographs taken at  Dien Bien Phu
during Operation Castor under the command of General Jean Gilles,

given to the Dien Bien Phu site webmaster, Maximilien,  by Corporal Henri Mauchamps to complete the site dedicated to the memory of the combattants of this tragic battle.

"There is a story behind these photos" he  writes,  "They come from a series of 20 slides because at the time I took a lot of pictures but only slides because color photos were too expensive.  So for me, slides were the only choice and even then I had to watch my other expenses.  But, it was my passion.  So, these photos were taken as slides  originally but since I worked as a professional in civilian life, I made negatives so that I could transfer the color photos to paper.  You have to realize that the quality from that time period is not up to today’s standards and you mustn’t forget that the originals were taken in 1953 and the climate in Indo-china did not do that type of documentation any good."

Here is the story...

- On November 20, 1953 the 1st Colonial Commando Parachute Battalion (CCPB) commanded by Souquet jumped into Dien Bien Phu around 1430 with no problem.

After regrouping it crossed the Nam Yum and occupied a hillock which was later to be called Dominique 2.

In the days that followed, everybody was involved in the fortification of the site.

The first contact with Viet Minh troops took place on December 4 at Ban Him Lan.  That is where corporal Mauchamps was wounded.  He was evacuated to Hanoi that very evening.

The 1st CCPB remained at Dien Bien Phu until the 14th or 15th of December.

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