Vo Nguyen Giap, the celebrated general who masterminded the defeat of the French military at Dien Bien Phu and led North Vietnam‘s forces against the US, has died aged 102 at a military hospital in Hanoi.
Giap, whose victory at Dien Bien Phu triggered France’s departure from Indo-China, was a self-taught leader regarded as one of the great military geniuses of the post-second world war era.
He remained as the commander of the North’s forces supporting the Viet Cong throughout the subsequent Vietnam war, being credited with the 1968 Tet offensive.
Giap, known as the Red Napoleon, was a national hero whose reputation was second only to that of Ho Chi Minh.
While some, such as the American journalist Stanley Karnow, regarded him as a strategist in the mould of Wellington, others, including the US general William Westmorland, believed his success was down to his ruthlessness.
Indeed, Westmorland complained to Karnow: “Any American commander who took the same vast losses as General Giap would have been sacked overnight.”
Giap was born in the village of An Xa on 25 August 1911 and attended the University of Hanoi, gaining degrees in politics and law, before working as a journalist.
He was jailed briefly in 1930 for leading anti-French protests and later earned a law degree from Hanoi University.
He fled French police in 1940 and met Ho Chi Minh in southwestern China before returning to rural northern Vietnam to recruit guerrillas for the Viet Minh, a forerunner to the southern insurgency later known as the Viet Cong.
During his time abroad, his wife was arrested by the French and died in prison. He later remarried and had five children.
In 1944, Ho Chi Minh called on Giap to organize and lead guerrilla forces against Japanese invaders during World War II. After Japan surrendered to Allied forces the following year, the Viet Minh continued their fight for independence from France.
Giap was known for his fiery temper and as a merciless strategist, but also for being a bit of a dandy: Old photos show him reviewing his troops in a white suit and snappy tie, in sharp contrast to Ho Chi Minh, clad in shorts and sandals.
Giap never received any formal military training, joking that he attended the military academy “of the bush.”
At Dien Bien Phu, his Viet Minh army surprised elite French forces by surrounding them. Digging miles (kilometers) of trenches, the Vietnamese dragged heavy artillery over steep mountains and slowly closed in during the bloody, 56-day battle that ended with French surrender on May 7, 1954.
“If a nation is determined to stand up, it is very strong,” Giap told foreign journalists in 2004 prior to the battle’s 50th anniversary. “We are very proud that Vietnam was the first colony that could stand up and gain independence on its own.”
It was the final act that led to French withdrawal and the Geneva Accords that partitioned Vietnam into north and south in 1956. It paved the way for war against Saigon and its U.S. sponsors less than a decade later.
The general drew on his Dien Bien Phu experience to create the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a clandestine jungle network that snaked through neighboring — and ostensibly neutral — Laos and Cambodia, to supply his troops fighting on southern battlefields.
Against American forces with their sophisticated weapons and B-52 bombers, Giap’s forces again prevailed. But more than a million of his troops perished in what is known in Vietnam as the “American War.”
“We had to use the small against the big; backward weapons to defeat modern weapons,” Giap said. “At the end, it was the human factor that determined the victory.”
It was his command of Viet Minh forces during the eight-week battle of Dien Bien Phu, which raged from March to May in 1954, that made his reputation.
Vietnamese forces, who wore sandals made of car tyres and lugged their artillery piece by piece over mountains, managed to encircle and crush the French troops in a bloody engagement immortalised in Bernard Fall’s Hell in a Very Small Place.
Although he was at first a renowned exponent of guerilla tactics, Giap commanded a devastating conventional assault at Dien Bien Phu, in which his forces used Chinese-supplied artillery to prevent effective resupply by air of the base deep in the hills of north-western Vietnam.
During the bitter fighting that would follow, the garrison, comprising a series of outposts in a deep valley, gradually succumbed.
On the brink of being overrun by Giap’s forces, the French commander, Christian de Castries, was forbidden to surrender in an infamous order from his superior, General René Cogny in Hanoi, who told him: “You will fight to the end. It is out of the question to run up the white flag after your heroic resistance.”
The unlikely victory, which is still studied at military schools, led not only to Vietnam’s independence but hastened the collapse of colonialism across Indochina and beyond.
Giap went on to defeat the US-backed South Vietnam government in April 1975, reuniting a country that had been split into communist and non-communist states. He regularly accepted heavy combat losses to achieve his goals.
“No other wars for national liberation were as fierce or caused as many losses as this war,” Giap told the Associated Press in 2005 in one of his last-known interviews with foreign media on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the former South Vietnamese capital.
“But we still fought because for Vietnam, nothing is more precious than independence and freedom,” he said, repeating a famous quote by Ho Chi Minh.
In later life Giap served as deputy premier and minister of defence.
He is survived by Dang Bich Ha, his wife since 1949, and four children.
Sources: AP & the guardian
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