Authors: Nicolas Freeling
Soldiers are lovely boys
References in this book to real persons are completely incidental. All the characters in the story itself are fictitious and are not intended to represent any actual persons living or dead.
In January 1968, sharing the news with earthquakes, fires, avalanches, and missing submarines, the Vietnamese People's Army had encircled and was besieging a fortified camp of five thousand-odd American Marines. On Sunday the 28th, press reports were that the defence was being built up hurriedly to ten thousand men or more, that the fortress was being supplied by helicopter under great difficulty with considerable losses, and that a general assault was believed to be imminent. The report concluded with the words: âDien Bien Phu is still a magic word in Vietnam.'
General Giap was believed to be commanding in person. Back in 1953, press reports used to print the âGeneral' between inverted commas.
American air superiority and firepower is, of course, so overwhelming that we are all quite confident in the American authorities who are quoted as saying, âA new Dien Bien Phu is utterly impossible.' It is with no more than faint unease that we recall General Navarre's omniscience and omnipotence in January 1954.
Since all but the name is now as good as forgotten, a short aide-mÃ©moire is of some use. Dien Bien Phu is a wide shallow valley, possessing an airstrip, appearing to possess opportunity for manoeuvre, and supposed fifteen years ago to be of great strategic value. It is in the high plateau land of North-West Vietnam, near the Laos border.
French troops occupied the valley. The Vietminh were allowed to invest all the surrounding hills. This had no importance, given the French power in artillery and aircraft. Indeed it was encouraged. The general idea was to attract
large numbers of Vietminh troops to a point where they could be destroyed by superior firepower.
Some fourteen thousand French Union troops passed through the valley. Vietminh troops were estimated at roughly thirty thousand.
These French troops, unprepared and largely unprotected, were bombarded with artillery fire of extraordinary intensity. Few among them retained sufficient morale for counter-attack, and the defence of the camp, lasting from March 13th till May 8th 1954, was undertaken by roughly 2,500 Ã©lite troops, mostly paratroop units. Legend ran that these were mostly Germans of the Legion: in fact they were a very mixed lot, but largely Vietnamese with French officers, together with elements of Legion, Moroccan and Algerian units of the regular colonial army. The commanders of these bits and pieces came to be called the âparatroop mafia'.
This group of relatively junior officers, headed by Lt Colonel Langlais with Commandant Bigeard as his second-in-command, conducted their defence with the utmost resolution. They were overrun only when they had no more ammunition to fire.
The main source book, for anyone interested, remains
The Battle of Dien Bien Phu
by Jules Roy. The aptly-named
Hell in a Very Small Place
by Bernard Fall contains the statistics much useful detail. Colonel Langlais, Dr Paul Grauwin and Captain Jean Pouget have written well on the subject. General Navarre, commander-in-chief in Saigon, General Cogny, theatre commander in Hanoi, and many other persons, have published long volumes of explanation and accusation.
Even the shortest account of the battle would be too long and out of place here. But the following remarks which I have collected show buoyant confidence on the French side changing to total abandon. These quotations, printed in chronological order, are taken from press reports and eye-witness accounts.
2nd January 1954:
âThe French Command is certain of inflicting a severe defeat upon the Vietminh at Dien Bien Phu.' (General Cogny to the assembled Press.)
5th January 1954:
âDien Bien Phu is not a fortified camp. It is a base for offensive operations.' (Colonel Castries, the camp commander, to Mr Graham Greene.)
11th March 1954:
âThe hour has come to pass to the attack â¦ Dominate your fear and your suffering.' (Vietnam People's Army Order of the Day, signed: Vo nguyen Giap.)
14th March 1954:
âWe go to disaster, and it is my fault.' (Colonel Piroth, the one-armed camp artillery commander, to Langlais. Next day Piroth committed suicide.)
8th May 1954:
, no white flag. You are submerged: you do not surrender.' (General Cogny, by radiotelephone from Hanoi, to Castries.)
Van der Valk was not best pleased: why did they have to go discovering crimes at dinnertime? That other people, too, had had their dinner interrupted â that someone, he had just heard, had got his life interrupted as well as his dinner â¦ niggly old bastard, niggly old bastard, he repeated.
Aubergines too, done in the oven with a delicious cheesy chewy top layer. He still had his fork in his hand when he put the phone down; his wife had sniggered, so that he banged the fork down crossly and did not see anything funny in his own behaviour until he was outside the street door buttoning his raincoat. Raw grey day with a cold wind and constant heavy showers. Not really astonishing since it was late in the autumn, but since this was Holland, and since one was in a bad mood because of the aubergines, he said âTypical August' in a loud cross voice: nobody heard because nobody was there.
He had to wait a good minute on his doorstep, getting himself into a more professional state of mind. Somebody was dead â who had not had dinner. The medical examiner would be putting his fork down too with deep regret (bet you he wasn't eating aubergines, though). And what about the carpatrol police? He was commissaire in charge of the criminal brigade, and there could not be too many buffers between him and a violent death.
He looked at his watch â two minutes to one and what was holding up the car? Where there is no vision the people perish, thought Van der Valk sententiously, taking his hat off and wedging it more firmly against gusts. A sodden cardboard box with gay liquorice allsorts printed all over it skittered along the pavement and came to rest at his feet. A Peugeot station wagon with its little lighthouse winking on the roof did the same thing and he got in just as it began to rain again.
âWhereabouts?' The telephone message had said it already but it had not stayed in his mind: getting a silly old bastard as well as bad-tempered.
âVan Lennepweg.' Of course. A dusty, wide, dreary boulevard on the outskirts of the town. New quarter, endless blocks of municipal flats, palaces of the people. A municipal murder.
No use asking the driver for any details; he was simply another man who had had to put down his knife and fork to answer the phone while his mouth was still full. The Peugeot turned into the Van Lennepweg; detestably dead: a ramshackle, cheap, unfinished look. Draughty bus-stops on pavements that were far too wide, an excuse to block them with carelessly parked cars, metal bicycle stands, tinny publicity hoardings. Hero lemonade, Caballero cigarettes, Wolf lawnmowers and Pressing â One Hour filed before his eye as the auto slowed.
âThere it is.' In front of Aspro stood an ambulance. A group of some fifty ghouls of all sexes and age groups were enjoying life, held in check by a uniformed policeman. Muttering and elbow-joggling broke out as Van der Valk arrived; he gave the front row a look of deep distaste. When younger he had often got irritated enough to hustle them off: quite useless â back they seeped like water next moment. The people, getting a real sensual pleasure. Not â do them justice â from the sufferings of others, not even from their sudden skill at hindering the professionals. Just from being there, near enough to catch a word â good as appearing on television. The people â he had known them stand there watching a man bleed to death, apparently incapable of movement or emotion. They perished so easily and there was so little he could do about it.
It made Arlette, his wife, so angry and wretched that he recalled her shaking one of the boys, about ten years old, shaking the child till his head was ready to come off, white with disgusted fury, hissing, âLet me catch you once again staring at people in trouble and I'll kill you, you hear me.' The child had been watching a fire â¦
He banged straight through and they shuffled back a step. âFourth floor,' said the policeman. There was no lift; it was one of the low blocks and the fourth floor was the top. On the
landings were more people standing in open doorways, with the television ranting unheeded behind them. Chewing still, some of them. Van der Valk's leg hurt, as it always did on stairs. He ploughed on through a smell of frying margarine and tinned peas. Dutch beehive â no smell of dust; all the housewives kept their bit of passage clean, and any backsliders would be dealt with by the Good Neighbours' Association.
On the fourth floor the doors were shut, dull little doors of plywood and pale grey paint. A policeman stood in the passage. âIn here.' The technical squad was already there, three or four of them with their bits of string and chalk and plastic bags, the cameraman flitting busily away. Ordinary municipal flat: tiny hallway with kitchen and lavatory, a fair-sized living-room on the Dutch pattern, half for sitting and half for eating. Passage to what would be either two or three bedrooms and a bathroom. There was plenty of light, for the big window ran the whole length, and in the kitchen a glass door led to a tiny balcony with a few clothes pinned to a washing line. The floor was woven fibre matting and everybody was looking at a scatter of bright metal shells. The sergeant straightened up as he came in.
âNo footprints â wiped his feet very carefully before coming in. Cool you'd say. But he fired seven shots. Seven! What d'you think of that, chief?'
Van der Valk got the point. Even one gunshot is a rarity in Holland. Seven is exaggerating.
âWhere's the husband?'
âDon't know, sir; haven't had time. She's there behind the armchair.'
The young woman lay raggedly, blood coming out of her mouth. Pretty young woman but one couldn't tell; dead faces told one so little.
There was a strong smell of burning.
âWhat caught fire?'
âThe potatoes boiled dry,' said the sergeant, almost apologetically.
Van der Valk touched the huddled face.
âHappened about half an hour ago â why all the delay? Did nobody hear? Seven shots!'
âTelevision going â and it's a noisy building at lunchtime. People coming home, doors opening and shutting. There's a child â neighbours are looking after it. The neighbour that gave the alarm.'
âHave those shells sent to Ballistics in Amsterdam. Seven shots â must be some kind of automatic weapon. Looks like sheer hysteria â and the fellow just walked out calmly, huh? Nobody saw anything either?'