Henri Navarre was a French Army general. He had fought in the First World War and the Second World War but is mostly remembered for his role in the First Indochina War. He served as the seventh and the final commander of the French Far East Expeditionary Corps during the First Indochina War.
Earlier in his career, while working in the German section of the Intelligence Service of the General Staff in the late 1930s, Navarre had submitted a plan to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The plan was code-named “Desperado”. This plan was ultimately rejected by the then French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier.
First Indochina War
In May 1953, Henri Navarre was appointed the Commander of French forces in Indochina. At the time of his appointment, the First Indochina War was going badly for the French. They had been fighting a losing battle against the Viet Minh. The moral of the French forces was quite low.
By 1953, the French government was quite sure that a military victory was not possible against the Viet Minh. Instead, the French government was looking for a political solution. The French were in a dilemma and were unable to decide what the future course of action should be. They could not come to a decision, whether to stand and fight or to quite Indochina altogether.
There was also a lack of synergy between the French politicians and the armed forces. For instance, the French government did not want Navarre to try to attempt anything ambitious in Indochina. They just wanted Navarre to hold onto whatever control the French had and use it to drive peace negotiations. However, by the time this message was conveyed to Navarre, the decision to create a fortified land-air base at Dien Bien Phu had been made and was already in motion. In fact, the French government did not learn about this plan until six hours after it started.
Dien Bien Phu
Navarra wanted to lure the Viet Minh out into a set-piece battle. Navarra knew that the Viet Minh would not be able to counter the superior French firepower combined with air support.
The French had hoped to conduct sorties on the enemy position from their base at Dien Bien Phu. However, whenever the French tried to venture out of their fortified base, they would get mauled by the Viet Minh hidden in the mountain jungles. Navarre had grossly miscalculated Dien Bien Phu’s potential to serve as a fortified base.
Dien Bien Phu was located around 200 kilometers (130 miles) away from Hanoi. The garrison could only be resupplied through the air and had to remain constantly in contact with Hanoi for material support and reinforcements.
The base at Dien Bien Phu was located on the valley floor surrounded by mountains and jungles. If the enemy were to take control of the surrounding mountains, the French on the valley floor would become sitting ducks, and this is what exactly happened.
A day before the peace talks were to commence at Geneva on 08 May 1954, the Viet Minh overran the garrison at Dien Bien Phu. The psychological weight of this defeat was quite enormous. The sheer will of a peasant army had defeated the once-mighty French. Navarre had committed nearly 1/10th of his troops in Indochina to the defense of Dien Bien Phu. The defeat at Dien Bien Phu proved to be the last nail in the coffin.
Responsibility for the Defeat
The general consensus is that Henri Navarre was responsible for the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. However, he wasn’t the sole reason. Had the French military and the government worked with greater synergy, the debacle at Dien Bien Phu could have been averted.
Though deciding to create a fortified base to lure the Viet Minh into attacking it was a great military tactic, choosing Dien Bien Phu for it was a strategic mistake. Even after choosing the site and understanding the folly of this decision, things could have been done to timely evacuate the base with minimal losses. This wasn’t done and was only thought about seriously enough not until it was too late. The political elite also didn’t do much to salvage the situation. Nonetheless, Navarre was held responsible for the defeat and replaced on 03 June 1954. He remained in the French army for another two years before retiring in 1956.
In 1956, Navarre published Agonie de l’Indochine. In this work, he blamed the French politics of the time, intellectuals, journalists, and communists for the French defeat. Interestingly, he called for an army coup against the French Fourth Republic. He died in Paris in 1983.