Britain’s War in Vietnam

The modern nations of Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos occupy the former imperial realm of Indochine. The French had first taken an interest in the bulbous peninsula that lies wrapped around the Siamese border east of India and southeast of China when the British had begun squeezing them out of India at the end of the eighteenth century. French Catholic missionaries were the vanguard of conquest and from the mid-nineteenth century Gallic colonisers chipped away at the local kingdoms under the pretext of protecting its missionary expeditions. Saigon, the main city of Cochin China (Southern Vietnam), was captured early in 1859 and, with British connivance, the French carved out an eastern empire. Following war with China in the 1880s French Indochina was formally established in October 1887 from Annam, Tonkin, Cochin China, which occupied the territory of modern Vietnam, and the Kingdom of Cambodia. Laos was added after a war with Siam. The building of ‘Indochine’ was a very nasty business. According to Governor-General Albert Sarraut, ‘Indochina is from all points of view, the most important, the most developed and the most prosperous of our colonies…’ Although the French maintained a façade of Annamite sovereignty by coercing Bao Dại, the last emperor of the old Nguyen dynasty, to serve as a puppet ruler from the old royal city of Hue, colonial rule impoverished its very diverse Asian peoples, who were treated as a pool of cheap labour for the rubber and coffee estates. The French, unlike the British, did not recruit Coolie labour in China. At the beginning of the 1930s the global depressions had a ruinous impact on the economy of Indochina and deepened the immiseration of its peoples. French colonial armies clamped down hard on any expression of revolt. But they could not prevent the emergence of a determined anti-colonial movement.  We have already encountered the most important and sophisticated Vietnamese rebel leader, who was born Nguyen Sinh Cung in 1890. Later he would call himself Nguyen Ai Quoc –Nguyen the patriot. After a long and arduous odyssey, which took him from his homeland to the United States, France – where he helped found the French Communist Party – to West Ealing in Great Britain and the kitchens of a London hotel, and finally to the Comintern University in Moscow, the man who would become known to the world as Ho Chi Minh (he who instructs) returned secretly to Vietnam on the eve of the Japanese invasion.
By then France had fallen to the Germans. Hitler inflicted on its demoralised people a puppet government led by the feeble Marshal Philippe Pétain and headquartered in Vichy. The Vichy regime controlled most French overseas possessions, including Indochina. For the Japanese French Indochina was a strategic headache. Every month 10,000 tonnes of American military aid destined for Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang armies rumbled along the French-built railway that linked the port of Haiphong to Kunming on the Chinese border. To begin with the French resisted Japanese demands to cut off this military lifeline. But at the beginning of September Major-General Takuma Nishimura crossed the Indochinese border with an amphibious expeditionary force, backed in the Gulf of Tonkin by a naval flotilla and aircraft carriers. Faced with such determined intimidation the French backed down. On 22 September the colonial government signed a military accord with the Japanese. By December 1941 the Japanese had taken over airfields, ports and railways, turning the southern regions of French Indochina into a huge military base. The French expatriate population of Saigon and Hanoi offered minimal resistance. As a reward colonial officials were permitted to carry on colonial business as usual. For the duration of the Pacific war the tricolour fluttered unmolested over Saigon, Hanoi and Hue.  The Japanese left the Vietnamese nationalist movements to their own devices. Even after the liberation of Paris in the summer of 1944 French colonial administrators found the collaboration habit hard to give up. It was only when the British 14th Army routed the Japanese in Burma that French attitudes began to change. But they had chosen the worst possible moment. The Japanese fell hard on the French and on 16 April imposed what they hoped would be a tame nationalist government led by Tran Trong Kim, an elderly and rather frail scholar who had been recalled from exile in Bangkok on behalf of the Japanese by emperor Bao Dại. With great reluctance Kim submitted to forming a nationalist government. In Saigon native troops in the French army staged huge rallies, proclaiming their thanks to the Japanese for liberating them from the French.
The first independent Vietnamese government lasted just five months. Outside the big cities, in rural areas, Kim had no authority. Communists and bandit gangs roamed at will and, as in Malaya and Indonesia, the scourge of famine blighted the countryside. In the wings powerful new nationalist forces waited patiently.  For some time the Soviets, the Americans and the Chinese had been sending funds and military supplies to the communist Viet Minh – the League for the Independence of Vietnam – which, like the MPAJA in Malaya, had been waging a guerrilla war against the Japanese. The Viet Minh was led by Ho and a gifted soldier called Vo Nguyen Giap. As Chinese Kuomintang forces mustered on the Vietnamese border the sick and ailing Japanese commander of Southeast Asia, Count Terauchi, handed over power to the Vietminh, and Ho stood on the balcony of the baroque Hanoi Opera House to proclaim the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and denounced the French: ‘They have built more prisons than schools. They have mercilessly slain our patriots; they have drowned our uprisings in rivers of blood…’ Tran Trong Kim was happy to go back to his quiet library.
The new government was acrimoniously split between moderates and radicals, and Ho would need to find the will and the means to rule a fractured new nation. Colonel Jean Cédile arrived to muster resistance to the Viet Minh usurpers. Outside Hanoi Buddhist religious fanatics and vicious gangsters held sway. It was rumoured that the Emperor was readying an attack. The Japanese frankly acknowledged to Mountbatten that they could not hope to control this fast unravelling situation. On 2 September Ho proclaimed Independence Day. In Saigon huge crowds marched down ‘Paris Commune Street’. Without warning, shots rang out. Some of the marchers fell, bleeding. A wave of fury roared through the crowds. Mobs formed and French men and women were caught and beaten. Crowds smashed the windows of elegant French stores. Blind fury replaced the joy of independence… There was an atmosphere of smouldering hatred. Vietnam would be the first test of SEAC resolve.
The soldier Mountbatten despatched to Saigon, Major General Douglas Gracey, had one vital qualification. He commanded the complete loyalty of the 20th Indian Division. This counted for a great deal. In the long shadow of Subhas Chandra Bose few British officers could confidently rely on their Indian troops as Gracey could. During the Burma campaign ‘Chacha’ (uncle) Gracey and his Indian soldiers had fought with reckless bravery at Mandalay and Meiktila earning the approbation of the grumpy General Bill Slim: ‘a magnificent division, magnificently led.’ But the loyalty of the 20th Indian was about all Gracey could offer SEAC. He despised politics as ‘ideas and waffle’ and knew very little about Indochina. This would endear him neither to the French nor the Vietnamese people – and he probably could not have cared less.  The famous French war correspondent and photographer Germaine Krull watched Gracey’s men fly into Saigon.
‘The transport planes carrying British troops arrived in Saigon at one o’clock… We had left Rangoon at three o’clock that morning. I was the only woman and one of the three correspondents to accompany these handsome, impeccable Gurkhas – like over-grown children – and their Scotch commanding officer…’

The airport, Krull observed, was still ‘serviced entirely by the Japanese’, who followed British orders punctiliously. As the party of journalists followed Gracey’s troops into Saigon they noticed ‘sullen, stormy-eyed Annamites [Vietnamese] and Chinese…’ As they entered the city banners and slogans festooned walls and official buildings: ‘Down with French imperialism!’, ‘Vive les Allies!’, ‘Down with the colonials!’, ‘The era of colonization is over!’. Flags were everywhere – British, American, Chinese, Russian – and the Vietminh’s big red one with a yellow star. In the city Krull walked along the Rue Catinat, ‘the heart of it’ – the elegant street was teeming with French families, a few Chinese – but not a single Annamite, ‘not even a rickshaw’. A British captain contemptuously described a ‘feeble WOG [i.e. Viet Minh]’ party that was expecting the British to ‘confirm their independence from the wicked French’. The latter were ‘all rather futile and vaguely Vichy…’ As Gracey tried to take stock of a baffling and evidently explosive situation Chinese troops commanded by General Lu Han, ‘the dragon cloud’, and backed by American advisors, poured across the Indochinese border into Hanoi, where they were just as joyfully welcomed as the Gurkhas were in Saigon. In stark contrast to Gracey’s well fed Indian troops these Chinese soldiers were shockingly emaciated and shod in straw boots. General Lu Han and his American advisor General Philip E. Gallagher brushed off the French, who had made the grievous mistake of assuming that the Americans would oust the new national government. Instead Lu Han and Gallagher backed the Viet Minh – for now. According to Gallagher Ho had not forgotten President Wilson’s famous ‘Fourteen Points’ and admired the United States as the ‘saviour of all small nations…’ In the south Gracey would, of course, take a very different line. He was ‘an old fashioned product of the British Empire’ and bewildered by the swirling hatreds that he was encountering in Saigon. He was hopelessly out of his depth. He had no political officer and refused to listen to the advice of the well informed American OSS agent stationed in Saigon, Colonel A. Peter Dewey. The scion of a Republican dynasty, Dewey was articulate, well informed, passionate – and, in Gracey’s view, thoroughly annoying. Dewey hated the French and enjoyed close friendships with Viet Minh leaders like Dr. Pham Ngoc Thach – fervent nationalists, whom he thoroughly admired as champions of liberty and democracy: he told Gracey that the Viet Minh all enjoyed tuning into the ‘Voice of America’.
The no-nonsense Gracey took a contrary view: the local ‘Annamite’ government was both incompetent and a ‘direct threat to law and order’. It was imperative to get the French back into the driving seat. This was his task as imperial policeman – to restore order. General Charles de Gaulle had entrusted General Jacques-Philippe Leclerc, the hero of the Libération, with the restitution of the French Asian empire: but Leclerc was a general sans army. Everything depended on the British. On 17 September the Viet Minh called for a national strike in Saigon and Cholon. In the city strikers vented their fury on French official buildings. These events handed Gracey a casus belli to strike at the ‘Annamite government’.  On 19 September he issued a proclamation banning processions and political demonstrations, proscribing the carrying of arms by any unauthorised forces, and warning that wrongdoers would be shot. Krull noted in her journal: ‘It was like being on top of a volcano about to erupt…’ That night Krull was awoken by the sound of machine guns and exploding hand grenades. At 5 a.m. the following morning the shooting was still going on. The street was jammed with  car and military trucks. It was at this very tense moment that de Gaulle’s representative, Jean Cédile, persuaded General Gracey to re-arm French soldiers, who had been recently released from the Japanese camps, and deploy them across the city. This seemed to Gracey to be an eminently sensible idea.
On the morning of 23 September the people of Saigon woke up to find their city was French once more. Cédile had forbidden ‘arrogant attitudes or triumphalist gestures’ – but neither he nor the British had taken into account the state of mind of many of the former French prisoners. Many of them had been humiliated and starved by the Japanese and now turned their pent up anger on the hapless Vietnamese. Mobs of out of control ununiformed French soldiers and citizens rampaged through the Vietnamese quarters of Saigon, kicking, beating and raping any non-European they could lay their hands on. They behaved, Krull reported, ‘as if they were celebrating the 14 July, their guns slung over their shoulders…’ She witnessed soldiers driving Vietnamese captives down the Rue Catinat ‘bound slave fashion to a long rope.’ By arming the French, Gracey had made a mistake. He had unleashed a war that would last more then twenty-five years.
Mountbatten had only reluctantly supported Gracey’s onslaught on the Vietminh government in Saigon. He preferred the Vietminh to the French. Ever conscious of face and reputation Mountbatten was mortified by the torrent of critical reports in American and Australian newspapers. But his sympathy for nationalists had limits. He wrote to Gracey: ‘since you have taken this line and you are the man on the spot, it is my intention to support you.’ He proposed that Gracey ‘redefine’ his mission and give any unsavoury jobs, such as burning down villages, to the French. Saigon was, he realised, a costly mistake.  Krull’s last journal entry reads:
‘I left by plane on the next day, the 25th of September. Saigon was in flames as we flew away. The last ten days in Saigon proved to me that the French population understood nothing of the situation and knew nothing of the outside world; that it consisted of people who would not tolerate the least infringement upon their comfort and who also were incredibly cowardly. Never have cause and effect been so closely linked. The events of the 22nd of September determined the issue of the conflict. Everything which happened thereafter can be directly traced to that date — women captured and mistreated, men and children assassinated, Dutch, English and American officers killed, shooting, burning factories, mysterious disappearances, all these and more happened. The French, terrorized by the lack of foresight and motivated by avarice… are responsible for what happened.’

A few weeks later French troops of the ‘Far East Expeditionary Corps’ began pouring into Saigon. Much of their equipment, weapons, trucks and so on, had been supplied by the United States. The French would now take the fight back to the Vietminh. The patrons of Saigon’s teeming bars and brothels would soon become familiar with the rousing strains of German drinking songs – for many veterans of Erwin Rommel’s ‘Afrika Korps’ had re-enlisted in the French Foreign Legion – and they would now help crush the Viet Minh. Frequently ragged and manacled Anammite prisoners would be hauled ignominiously through town. To the French they already looked like defeated men: ‘We’ll kill them off… It is really nothing.’ By the middle of November the OSS was reporting to Washington that Vietminh resistance had been ‘dispersed’. This sense of imminent victory was illusory. Ho Chi Minh had sent one of his most ruthless deputies, Nguyen Binh, to resuscitate the military campaign in the south. He did so with fearless determination – laying the foundation of a very long war.
The resurgence of French resistance to the Viet Minh, supported by the Americans, meant that the British could exit the maelstrom. By then the leaders of the Indian National Congress, Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, were insisting that the British withdraw all Indian troops from active service Indochina. At the end of November Mountbatten flew into Saigon to accept the Japanese surrender. News film of the ceremony shows Terauchi stepping forward very unsteadily, walking with a stick. He had suffered a very bad stroke. An aide carries endraped wooden cases containing the two ceremonial swords that Mountbatten had insisted the Japanese hand over. He wanted to present one to King George VI. Terauchi shakily surrenders the swords, salutes and totters away. Soon afterwards Mountbatten and the new French high commissioner for Indochina, Admiral Thierry d’Argenlieu (a former ‘barefoot’ Carmelite monk), signed an agreement that French forces would henceforth take over all military operations. On 14 January General Gracey and French General Leclerc took the salute standing on the steps of Saigon’s City Hall. Indian soldiers, soon to become citizens of an independent India, marched past to the sound of the Dogra Pipe and Drum Band playing ‘Scotland the Brave’. At Government House Gracey handed over to Leclerc two Japanese swords to underline the fact that political sovereignty was his gift to France.  General Leclerc remarked that ‘The 20th Indian Division under General Gracey was friendly towards us and we much appreciated their aid.’ He did not trouble to disguise deep reserves of bitterness.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.