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The Viet Minh assault began in earnest on 13 March 1954 with an attack on the northeastern outpost, Béatrice, which was held by the 3rd Battalion, 13th Foreign Legion Demi-Brigade. Viet Minh artillery opened a fierce bombardment with two batteries each of 105 mm howitzers, 120 mm mortars, and 75 mm mountain guns (plus seventeen 57 mm recoilless rifles and numerous 60 mm and 81/82 mm mortars). French command was disrupted at 18:30 when a shell hit the French command post, killing the battalion commander, Major Paul Pégot, and most of his staff. A few minutes later, Lieutenant colonel Jules Gaucher, commander of the entire central subsector, was also killed by artillery fire. The Viet Minh 312th Division then launched an assault with its 141st and 209th Infantry Regiments, using sappers to breach the French obstacles.
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Much to French disbelief, the Viet Minh had employed direct artillery fire, in which each gun crew does its own artillery spotting (as opposed to indirect fire, in which guns are massed further away from the target, out of direct line of sight, and rely on a forward artillery spotter). Indirect artillery, generally held as being far superior to direct fire, requires experienced, well-trained crews and good communications, which the Viet Minh lacked. Navarre wrote that, "Under the influence of Chinese advisers, the Viet Minh commanders had used processes quite different from the classic methods. The artillery had been dug in by single pieces...They were installed in shellproof dugouts, and fire point-blank from portholes... This way of using artillery and AA guns was possible only with the expansive ant holes at the disposal of the Vietminh and was to make shambles of all the estimates of our own artillerymen." Two days later, the French artillery commander, Colonel Charles Piroth, distraught at his inability to silence the well-camouflaged Viet Minh batteries, went into his dugout and committed suicide with a hand grenade. He was buried there in secret to prevent loss of morale among the French troops.
Following a five-hour ceasefire on the morning of 14 March, Viet Minh artillery resumed pounding French positions. The airstrip, already closed since 16:00 the day before due to a light bombardment, was now put permanently out of commission. Any further French supplies would have to be delivered by parachute. That night, the Viet Minh launched an attack on the northern outpost Gabrielle, held by an elite Algerian battalion. The attack began with a concentrated artillery barrage at 17:00. This was very effective and stunned the defenders. Two regiments from the crack 308th Division attacked starting at 20:00. At 04:00 the following morning, an artillery shell hit the battalion headquarters, severely wounding the battalion commander and most of his staff.
Many of the flights operated by the French Air force to evacuate casualties had female flight nurses on board. A total of 15 women served on flights to Điện Biên Phủ. One, Geneviève de Galard, was stranded there when her plane was destroyed by shellfire while it was being repaired on the airfield. She remained on the ground providing medical services in the field hospital until the surrender. She was referred to as the "Angel of Điện Biên Phủ". Historians disagree regarding the moniker with Martin Windrow maintaining that de Galard was referred to by name only by the garrison; Michael Kenney and Bernard Fall also maintained that the nickname was added by outside press agencies.