Winston Churchill, and later Harold Wilson, may be thought of as having kept Britain out of Vietnam, but in actual fact, that was only once it had begun to escalate.
Here, retired Colonel William C Haponski, co-author of ‘Autopsy of an Unwinnable War: Vietnam’, explains that the British were in fact one of five main players in early post-World War 2 Vietnam.
The other four were the French, the Japanese, the Chinese and, of course, the Vietnamese themselves. Their rivalries helped shape the country and the war that the US would later step into.
Article by Colonel (Ret) William C Haponski
By early March 1945, the Japanese were in a precarious position.
Advancing American forces across the Pacific and British forces in Southeast Asia had placed them in a stranglehold and the possibility of the government in Indochina suddenly taking the side of the Allies was real and immediate. (As per the Vichy Regime’s arrangement with the Nazis in France after the invasion of 1940, the French had remained in power in Indochina but under the thumb of the Japanese).
In Saigon, on 9 March, 1945, the Japanese secretly gave the French Governor-General an ultimatum: Turn over administrative control of all Indochina and disarm, confining French troops to barracks, or face the consequences.
He refused, and, under arrest, wasn’t able to get an order to his forces to resist. Pre-positioned Japanese troops soon swept down upon them, rapidly overrunning them – as they had the British in Malaya and then Singapore in 1941 - 42.
Some French garrisons fiercely resisted. When General Lemonnier was ordered to surrender his entire command or face death, he refused, and was forced to dig his own grave before being beheaded.
Post-coup, the Japanese, on paper at least, gave Indochina its independence (while still controlling it, as they had the Vichy French.)
For their part, the Vietnamese made full use of total Japanese control of the French by strengthening themselves for the struggle they felt sure would follow.
But this new political order ended in a flash – literally - on August 6, 1945, when the atomic bomb debuted, first destroying Hiroshima and then Nagasaki a few days later.
When Emperor Hirohito then gave notice of unconditional surrender on August 15, Japanese forces in Indochina were stunned. They were undefeated! They still had their weapons! They could still fight!
In fact, Hirohito’s broadcast had come while the British were still locked in combat with them – the Allies getting ready to invade Japan itself should they have needed to.
Passing the baton
Following the Emperor’s shocking announcement of unconditional surrender, the Japanese in Vietnam lent support to the best organised revolutionaries – the Viet Minh – in order to impede French efforts to regain control of the country.
In several places, they opened their arms depots to the Vietnamese*.
(*This didn’t necessarily mean the Viet Minh. Some historians misuse that term. In fact, many Vietnamese belonged to non-Communist organisations but were nonetheless anti-French revolutionaries – a political persuasion widely shared by both groups and individuals).
They also continued to hold their French prisoners for another month after the surrender. Furthermore, a number of Japanese, especially members of the Kempeitai—the Japanese Gestapo—deserted and went to train and lead Viet Minh units. A few Japanese soldiers were still fighting right up until the French war with Ho Chi Minh’s government ended nine years later, soon after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.
Return of the status quo?
There were a little under 100,000 Japanese soldiers still in Indochina at war’s end and, somehow, they had to be repatriated.
The British were assigned the job of shipping back all those south of the 16th parallel, the Chinese all those north of it. (The dividing line between north and south Vietnam was eventually established as the 17th parallel during the 1954 Geneva Conference).
SEAC (South East Asia Command) Supreme Commander Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten delegated the job to General Douglas Gracey.
As it happened, Gracey’s men had been fighting the Japanese only a few weeks prior, though not in Vietnam but in Burma (now Myanmar.)
Now, he was charged with:
1) Securing the Saigon area, including the HQ of the Japanese Southern Army;
2) Disarming and concentrating all Japanese forces;
3) Maintaining law and order and ensuring internal security;
4) Protecting, succouring and subsequently evacuating Allied prisoners-of-war and internees;
5) Liberating Allied territory insofar as his resources permitted.
He was meant to do all of this with a mere 22,000 men, many of whom weren’t even initially available. He’d be dealing with 56,000 undefeated Japanese troops as well as vast numbers of armed and angry Vietnamese hellbent on independence.
Still, he wouldn’t, at least, have to disperse his men all over the south of the country.
That’s because not contained in those early orders, though well understood by Gracey, were some key provisos: to confine his efforts to Saigon only and to let the French fight the Vietnamese.
Troops, troops and more troops
Just as Gracey was dispatched by Mountbatten and the SEAC, the French were planning to put their own man on the ground.
General Philippe Leclerc was given his orders right from the top. Charles de Gaulle’s instructions to him basically read:
Enter Indochina and restore the status quo.
‘Status quo’ in this case meant pre-war colonialism, exactly the thing that made Gracey’s boss Mountbatten so concerned.
For his part, the American regional commander had no such qualms. On 2 September, while aboard the USS Missouri, watching the official Japanese surrender, General Leclerc received a key bit of advice:
Amenz des troupes, des troupes, encore des troupes.
It meant, ‘Bring troops, troops, and more troops’, and the man who’d given the advice was General Douglas MacArthur.
Back on land, Vietnamese in Hanoi had generally been in a hopeful, celebratory mood ever since the official Japanese surrender and Ho’s simultaneous declaration of an independent republic.
But elsewhere, ominously, tensions were building.
The Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) was inciting violent demonstrations all over the country. Mandarins (public officials) had been killed in Hue, and murders of Frenchmen and Vietnamese not supportive of the Viet Minh had begun in earnest.
The SEAC reported that events had taken a grave turn and that revolutionaries had proclaimed a state of siege and great confusion was reigning at Saigon:
Newspapers had been suspended.
Rioting was widespread.
The crowd in the centre of the city became frenzied and shots were fired.
A Catholic priest who was watching the demonstration was dragged from the steps of Saigon Cathedral, stabbed repeatedly then shot to death.
Five other Frenchmen were also killed, and many others were dragged off and beaten.
Finally, ‘The Communists’ had seized crossroads at strategic points and cut off electricity.
With Ho having already gained the upper hand in the North, immediate action was needed to prevent Saigon and the South more generally from going the same way.
Back in Burma, Gracey told his boss Mountbatten that absolute control of the Japanese was essential and, when contacted, Field Marshal Count Hisaichi Terauchi promised the British would get it. It was time to team up against ‘The Communists’.
But it can be seen that even at this early stage, western military and political leaders simply didn’t understand the situation on the ground. Although SEAC dispatches almost exclusively used the term ‘Communists’, the Vietnamese revolutionaries they were so worried about were, in fact, a mishmash of different units and individuals. What they had in common wasn’t Communism but a determination to achieve independence and a better life. In fact, after the Vietnam War, one communist leader agreed with an American writer that the average guerrilla wouldn't have been able to tell the difference between dialectical materialism** and a rice bowl.
(**A founding tenet of Communism, dialectical materialism refers to an intellectual outlook in which dialectics are used instead of debates. Unlike the latter, which seek to prove one side right and the other wrong, a dialectic is an exchange of opposing ideas designed to arrive at a higher truth, a better understanding of reality. Materialism refers to the notion that these dialectics should focus on material matters such as money, food, the means of production, how to organise the economy etc rather than on more abstract concepts).
British boots on the ground
The first British soldiers to arrive in Vietnam did so on September 5, 1945.
They were a medical team that parachuted into Saigon and they were followed the next day by more troops arriving at Tan Son Nhut airfield.
The first Free French detachment from the exterior arrived on 12 September and came under Gracey’s control, though he himself landed on September 13.
When he did so, he was greeted by a crowd of cheering French civilians who waved Union Jacks as he drove past them.
Happy as he must have been to get such a jubilant reception, he no doubt would have preferred more hard than soft French power. As it was, he could only muster perhaps 1,000 French troops from the 11 Colonial Infantry Regiment (11 RIC) – these were the only men left fit for service from a unit at least twice that size after six months spent in Japanese captivity.
Weapons supplies were also inadequate – the first RIC men released from confinement had only bamboo staves and a few old firearms for protection. Though at this early stage, their Vietnamese opponents weren’t much better armed themselves – one Gurkha serving under Gracey was injured by a shot from a bow and arrow.
Still, the French managed to take control of two munitions supply points in the Saigon area and Gracey sought to restore law and order more generally. The assumption was that Field Marshal Terauchi’s Japanese officers and soldiers, who also greeted Gracey upon his arrival, would help him to do that.
This assumption was wrong.
The French in the ascent
By the evening of September 23, the French government had been reinstalled in Saigon. Vietnamese control of essential services and places—such as police, jails, crossroads, bridges, electric and water plants, Radio Saigon, banks—had been swept aside by Gracey.
But the Vietnamese weren’t going quietly, and in this they were enabled by Japanese complicity.
When Vietnamese revolutionaries broke into a French residential area on September 25 and slaughtered 150 men, women and children, Japanese soldiers in command of the sector stood aside. This would be the first of multiple incidents of deliberate Japanese negligence.
Gracey was absolutely livid and gave Terauchi a vicious tongue lashing which whipped the Japanese into compliance, though only temporarily.
Gracey’s temper would soon flare again.
After France’s four-star General Leclerc had arrived in Saigon on October 5 and placed himself under Gracey’s two-star command (an arrangement that made sense, given the preponderance of British versus French troops at that point), the breach of a negotiated ceasefire by the Viet Minh resulted in two deaths. One was a British officer and the other was one of Gracey’s beloved Gurkhas.
The normally good-natured Gracey thundered:
“We’ll give them hell!”
And he did.
A French battalion-sized commando unit had arrived from Ceylon and the next day joined a British operation that killed and captured many enemy in a serious battle at the eastern edge of Saigon.
Some Japanese soldiers participated but, as per the emergent trend, on both sides.
Even more bizarrely, a Japanese deserter later led a Viet Minh unit into the attack against a Japanese unit under Gracey’s command.
Such was the political muddle of post-WW2 Vietnam.
In any case, beyond these immediate problems, Gracey and Leclerc proved to be a magnificent double act. Under this arrangement, the French Expeditionary Force gained strength, and then, with Mountbatten’s permission, combined British, French, and Japanese forces pushed well beyond Saigon.
In fact, they brought enough security to South Vietnam generally to allow Gracey to accept another assignment.
Amid cheers on 28 January, 1946, he left Saigon, having passed control to General Leclerc.
When he departed, so too did the sum total of Britain’s role in the Vietnam War: restoring order and then repatriating the Japanese back to their homeland… but so too, re-establishing and ensconcing the French – until they were dislodged at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
After that, it would be America’s turn.
To learn more about the origins and conduct of the Vietnam War, read ‘Autopsy of an Unwinnable War: Vietnam’ by Colonel (Ret) Haponski and Colonel (Ret) Jerry J Burcham.
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Article references: Dunn, Peter M. The First Vietnam War. London: C. Hurst, 1985 and Marr, David C. Vietnam 1945: The Quest for Power. Berkeley: U California Press, 1995.
Cover image: M M
Autopsy of an Unwinnable War: Vietnam, can be picked up here using the code AUTOPSY for a 20% discount.