Interview French general Cogny about battle of Dien Bien Phu and Khe Sanh
On February 26, 1968, the SPIEGEL newspaper interviewed French General Cogny about Battle of Dien Bien Phu and compared it with the battle of Khe Sanh that American troops were facing in the Vietnam battlefield.
General Rene Cogny, 1953/54, commander of the French army in North Vietnam, planned for the defense of Dien Bien Phu fort in the jungle. The fort was overrun by the Viet Minh Communists after 169 days. and the commanding general of the general de Castries had surrendered.
SPIEGEL: Sir, a French commander, who lost at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, can he believe that the Americans will win the match in Khe Sanh in 1968?
COGNY: I am sure that Americans in Khe Sanh can win, they are stronger than us in Dien Bien Phu to the point where they can not be compared. We have no air force that can destroy everything, we do not even have a helicopter.
SPIEGEL: But the US Air Force destroyed all that could not stop the siege of Khe Sanh.
COGNY: You must say that generals always do the same stupid things: they always sit at the bottom of a valley and let the enemy surrounded, those who sit on the heights. But when people operate in such unfavorable terrain, people need a base that the military can retreat to. First of all one needs a runway for the plane. The runway means the bottom of the valley.
SPIEGEL: At Dien Bien Phu, the runway resembles it at the foot of the Eiffel Tower and the enemy sits above the elevations of the Trocadero, General Corniglio-Moliner said at the time.
COGNY: That’s an exaggeration. The mountain of Dien Bien Phu is far away.
SPIEGEL: In that case, Khe Sanh only occupies an area of two square kilometers.
COGNY: Less than in Dien Bien Phu much.
SPIEGEL: There, as in the battle of Khe Sanh, the military commanders are convinced that their strongholds can also withstand an enemy many times over. At the beginning of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, he also believed that it was possible to prepare a “destructive defeat” for the opponent.
COGNY: I just want to keep a base, I never want to fight a big battle against multiple divisions – 300 kilometers off the coast, with less means like that, as we did at the time. We could have saved Dien Bien Phu if we had reduced the burden on the fortress and did not limit ourselves to defending there. We should have carried out campaigns against the links behind the front lines of the enemy.
SPIEGEL: With so few means, as you say in your words?
COGNY: General Commander Gen. Navarre has the means. He should have prevented the enemy from concentrating on the force, he would have to spit it and shoot at the back of it. In other words: Dien Bien Phu battle was not extended properly.
SPIEGEL: But the most fundamental mistake of the French General Staff is: to underestimate the strategic mobility of the enemy – as well as the current US Secretary General, especially the maneuverability of enemy artillery.
COGNY: It is true that the Viet Minh succeeded in bringing artillery to, through jungle and hills, and using them in a strange way: instead of putting their cannons into guns, We have dug up the tunnels and buried their cannons in solidified tunnels, which we can not bombard.
SPIEGEL: The North Vietnamese seem to do the same in Khe Sanh – although there are American air forces.
COGNY: Certainly the Americans were amazed at that. They believed that bombing could stop things – but even that was not enough. Whoever does not travel in such a country faces an enemy like that, he will lose.
SPIEGEL: At Dien Bien Phu, he was not mobile. On January 19, 1954, Air Chief Marshal General Fay advised Gen. Navarre and his brother, “You go out of the hole. Here you will lose the battle. “Why did Gen Fay at that time not General Cogny support?
COGNY: I predict a campaign to reduce the burden on Dien Bien Phu. In addition, Dien Bien Phu seems to be a strong fortress. We have built many bunkers.
SPIEGEL: Of course, more than Americans have in Khe Sanh – it is said that there are only two.
COGNY: Yes, Americans do not dig tunnels. That is wrong. They have to dig tunnels.
SPIEGEL: Marines do not like that.
COGNY: But I beg you, as if we like it so much. In Dien Bien Phu and Khe Sanh, too little concrete is used. We have to bring everything by plane. But it is difficult to transport concrete by air.
SPIEGEL: Americans have enough planes, but they can hardly land anymore, because their runways are swept by enemy artillery.
COGNY: They are now in a state where we were in it at the end of March 1954 …
SPIEGEL: … five weeks before surrender.
COGNY: Starting from that moment, the situation in Dien Bien Phu began to become tragic. So at that time, I asked the General Command to carry out a campaign to break the siege of Dien Bien Phu and release the fort. People did not listen to me. Immobility is our enemy.
SPIEGEL: So if you were the commander in chief of the Americans, you would not order the withdrawal of Khe Sanh?
COGNY: Definitely not. Khe Sanh has become a symbol. If one leaves it, then one has been defeated.