Henri Navarre

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For the King of France, see Henry IV of France.
Henri Navarre
Birth name Henri Eugène Navarre
Born 31 July 1898 (1898-07-31)
Villefranche-de-Rouergue, France
Died 26 September 1983(1983-09-26) (aged 85)
Paris, France
Allegiance  France
Service/branch French Army
Years of service 1917–1956
Rank Général de corps d'armée
Commands held French Far East Expeditionary Corps
Battles/wars World War I
World War II
First Indochina War

Henri Eugène Navarre (31 July 1898, Villefranche-de-Rouergue, Aveyron – 26 September 1983) was a French Army general. He fought during World War I, World War II and was the seventh and final commander of French Far East Expeditionary Corps during the First Indochina War. Navarre was in overall command during the decisive French defeat at the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ .

In May 1953, Navarre replaced Raoul Salan as commander of French forces in Indochina, in the midst of a war with the Viet Minh that was going badly. The French government wanted to stabilize the situation so that peace negotiations could begin on favorable terms: military victory was no longer an objective. Navarre's instructions were to insure the safety of the troops under his command. Instead, he undertook Operation Castor on 20 November 1953 with five French battalions parachuting into Điện Biên Phủ in the Mường Thanh Valley, a 20-km-long, 6-km-wide basin surrounded by mountains, hoping to draw the Viet Minh into a pitched battle where he hoped to defeat them.

Authorities in France did not learn of the operation until six hours after it started.

Things went wrong almost immediately. The French position came under heavy artillery fire from the surrounding mountains. Troops were unable to execute any missions beyond the valley floor. Actions were soon limited to air support, patrols, and local counterattacks. In his situation report of December 3, 1953, Navarre correctly forecast an impending enemy attack; by January 1954 he started exploring plans for withdrawal. He soon realized any breakout attempt would be suicidal. No significant attempt to break out was ever made.

Complicating the situation, Navarre initiated a second offensive operation on 12 December 1953, committing nearly twice as many troops to Operation Atlante in south central Vietnam, over 400 miles from Điện Biên Phủ. Navarre saw Operation Atlante as his main effort; he did not believe that Điện Biên Phủ would be a decisive operation. He even speculated that the loss of Điện Biên Phủ Dien was strategically acceptable as it was not the main effort.

Navarre failed to consider the effect of the loss on the morale of the French Army, and the resulting erosion of political support for the war at home.

By 13 March 1954 the attack on Điện Biên Phủ had begun. The French garrison numbered about 13,000; the Viet Minh massed more than 50,000 men.

After some initial success, Operation Atlante quickly bogged down into a series of Viet Minh ambushes on French convoys. The French eventually terminated Operation Atlante with no tangible gains while Điện Biên Phủ was lost on 7 May 1954, after a siege of 54 days.

Peace talks began in Geneva the next morning. Any negotiating advantage the French government had expected had been lost by Navarre's miscalculations. The First Indochina War was over.

Considered by many responsible for the loss, Navarre was replaced 3 June 1954 by General Paul-Henri-Romuald Ely. He remained in the army, retiring in 1956. In the same year he published Agonie de l'Indochine, a work which blamed the Indochina defeat on the nature of the French political system, intellectuals, politicians, journalists, and Communists. The book warned of the possible necessity for an army coup to replace the French Fourth Republic. He died in Paris in 1983.

Decorations[edit]

He received 1500 citations during his career.

References[edit]

  • Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War, ed. Spencer Tucker, s.v. "Navarre, Henri Eugene."