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The British Vietnam
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By Courtesy of Speed Maloney

Britain's’ “overlooked” Vietnam War....

The wars in Indochina, for about 35 years, had caught the world’s attention during the last part of the 20th century. France’s unsuccessful nine-year conflict (1945-1954), America’s equally unsuccessful involvement, ending in 1973 to the conflict in Kampuchea, sparked by the Vietnamese invasion in 1978 have been often referred to, respectively, as the First, Second and Third Indochina Wars. Historically, they are mis- numbered by one, for the first war in Indochina after World War II was a brief but important conflict that grew out of the British occupation of Saigon from 1945-46. This small conflict caused over 3,000 deaths and a large number of wounded as a direct result of fighting and it also produced a interesting spectacle of British troops fighting alongside their former enemies, the Japanese.

In July 1945 at Potsdam, East Germany, the Allied leaders made the decision to divide Indochina in half at the 16th parallel to allow Chiang Kai-shek to receive the Japanese surrender in the north, while Lord Louis Mountbatten to receive the surrender in the south. To carry out his part of the task, Lord Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander Southeast Asia, was to form an Allied Control Commission to go to Saigon and a military force consisting of an infantry division was to be designated as the Allied Land Forces French Indochina (ALFFIC). It was tasked to ensure civil order in the area surrounding Saigon, to enforce the Japanese surrender, render humanitarian assistance to Allied prisoner of war and internees.

As for the Control Commission, its concern was primarily with winding down the Supreme Headquarters of the Imperial Japanese Army Southeast Asia and also render humanitarian assistance to prisoner of war. Thus Major-General Douglas D. Gracey was appointed to head the Commission and the 80th Brigade, commanded by Brigadier D.E. Taunton, of his crack 20th Indian Division was the ALFFIC which followed him to Vietnam.

In late August 1945, British occupying forces were ready to depart for various Southeast Asian destinations, and some were already on their way, when General Douglas Macarthur caused an uproar at the Southeast Asia Command by forbidding reoccupation until he had personally received the Japanese surrender in Tokyo, which was actually set for 28 August, but a typhoon caused the ceremony to be postponed until 2 September.

Macarthur’s uproar had enormous consequences, for Allied prisoners of war in Japanese camps had to suffer living in a ghastly state for a little bit longer and also this delay, before the Allied troops arrived, enabled revolutionary groups to fill the power vacuums that had existed in Southeast Asia since the announcement of the Japanese capitulation on 15 August. The chief beneficiaries in Indochina were the Communists, who exercised complete control over the Viet Minh, the nationalist party founded by Ho Chi Minh in 1941. In Hanoi and Saigon, they rushed to seize the seats of government, by liquidating or intimidating their rivals.

While the Allies stated that the French had sovereignty over Indochina, America opposed the return of Indochina to the French; but there was no such official America animosity towards the Communist-led Viet Minh. Although the desire for independence was strong among the Vietnamese, it is doubtful whether the creed of the Communists held much universal appeal. Their power derived from their ruthless efficiency.

Macarthur finally had his ceremony on board the USS Missouri on 2 September, and three days later the first Allied medical rescue teams parachuted into the prisoner of war camps. During the following days a small advance party of support personnel and infantry escort from Gracey’s force arrived in Saigon to check on conditions and report back; on the 11th a brigade was flown in from Hmawbi Field, Burma via Bangkok. When these advance Allied units landed in Saigon they found themselves in a bizarre position of being welcomed and guarded by fully armed Japanese and Viet Minh soldiers. The reason these soldiers were armed was because six months earlier (March 9) they disarmed and interned the French, for the Japanese feared an American landing in Indochina after the fall of Manila and did not trust the French.

Gracey on arrival (13 September) immediately realized the seriousness of the situation. Anarchy, rioting and murder were widespread, Saigon’s administrative services had collapsed and a loosely-controlled Communist-led revolutionary group had seized power. In addition, being that the Japanese were still fully armed, the Allies feared the they were capable of undermining the Allied position. Furthermore, he could barely communicate with his higher headquarters in Burma, for his America signal detachment was abruptly withdrawn by the U.S. government due to political reasons; it was a loss that could not be rectified for several weeks.

Gracey wrote, that unless something was done quickly the state of anarchy would worsen. This situation was increased by the Viet Minh’s lack of strong control over some of their allied groups. Because of this the French were able to persuade Gracey (in a move which exceeded the authority of his orders from Mountbatten) to rearm local colonial infantry regiments, who were being held as prisoners of war. Gracey also allowed about 1000 French former prisoners of war to be rearmed. They, with the arrival of the newly formed 5th Colonial Infantry Regiment (RIC) commandos, would then be able to evict the Viet Minh from what hold they had on the Saigon administration. Gracey saw this as the quickest way to allow the French to reassert their authority in Indochina, while letting him get on with the job of disarming and repatriating the Japanese.

Gracey faced another problem; in relation to Mountbatten, for it was never easy. One example of this occurred on Gracey arrival in September, he drew up a proclamation that declared marital law and stated that he was responsible for law and order throughout Indochina south of the 16th parallel. Mountbatten in turn made an issue of this, claiming that Gracey was responsible for public security in key areas only. The proclamation was published on 21 September and, although the Supreme Commander Lord Mountbatten disagreed with its wording, the Chiefs of Staff and the Foreign Office supported Gracey.

During the following days Gracey gradually eased the Viet Minh grip on Saigon, replacing their guards in vital points with his own troops, which were then give to French troops. The reason why it happened this way was because the Viet Minh would have never relinquished their positions directly to the hated French. By 23 September, Saigon was back in French hands and less than half a dozen vital positions were in Viet Minh hands. The French regained control of Saigon on that day when the former French prisoners of war, which were reinstated into the army and troops from the 5th RIC ejected the Viet Minh in a noisy but relatively bloodless coup in which two French soldiers were killed and no Vietnamese casualties.

On the night of the 24/25 the Vietnamese reacted, when a howling mob(not under Viet Minh control) abducted and butchered a large number of French and French-Vietnamese men, women and children. On the 25th the Viet Minh attacked and set fire to the city’s central market area, while other group attacked Tan Son Nhut Airfield. The airfield attack was repelled by the Gurkhas, where one British soldier was killed along with half a dozen Viet Minh. The British now had a war on their hands, something which Mountbatten had sought to avoid.

For the next few day parties of armed Viet Minh clashed against British/Indian patrols, the Viet Minh suffering mounting losses with each encounter. The British soldiers were highly professional and experienced troops had had just recently finished battling against the Japanese; many officers and soldiers had also experienced internal security and guerrilla warfare in India and the North West Frontier. On the other hand, the Viet Minh, even though they were courageous they were still learning how to fight a war.

In early October, Gracey held talks with the Viet Minh and a truce was agreed upon. On the 5th, General Philippe Leclerc, the senior French commander, arrived in Saigon where he and his troops were placed under Gracey’s command. However, on 10 October the state of semi-peace with the Viet Minh was broken by an unprovoked attack on a small British engineering party which was inspecting the water lines near Tan Son Nhut Airfield. Most of the party members were killed or wounded. Gracey accepted the fact that the level of insurrection was such that he would first have to pacify key areas before he could repatriate the Japanese. It was at this time that his small force had been strengthened by the arrival of his second infantry brigade, the 32nd, under Brigadier E.C.V. Woodford. Gracey deployed the 32nd Brigade into Saigon’s troublesome northern suburbs of Go Vap and Gia Dinh. Once in this area the Viet Minh fell back before this force, which included armoured car support from the Indian 16th Light Cavalry.

Sorties of Spitfire reconnaissance revealed that the roads approaching into Saigon were blocked: the Viet Minh were attempting to strangle the city. On October 13th Tan Son Nhut came under attack again by the Viet Minh, their commandos and sappers were able this time to come within 275m of the control tower. They were also at the doors of the radio station before the attack was blunted by Indian and Japanese soldiers. As the Viet Minh fell back from the airfield, the Japanese were ordered to pursue them until nightfall, when contact was broken.

By mid-October 307 Viet Minh had been killed by British/Indian troops and 225 were killed by Japanese troops, including the new body count of 80 more Viet Minh at Dalat. On one occasion, the Japanese repulsed an attack on their headquarters at Phu Lam, killing 100 Viet Minh. British, French, and Japanese casualties were small by comparison. On the 17th the third brigade, the 100th commanded by Brigadier C.H.B. Rodham arrived in Indochina.

The Viet Minh next assaulted Saigon’s vital points. They were the power plant, docks, the airfield for the third time, and even the city’s artesian wells. Periodically, Saigon was blacked out at night, due to the racket of small arms, grenades, mines mortars, and artillery, which became familiar throughout the city. Unable to overwhelm Saigon’s defenses, the Viet Minh intensified their siege tactics. During this time, newly arrived French troops were given the task to help break the siege while aggressive British patrolling kept the Viet Minh off-balanced.

On 25 October, the only known evidence of direct Soviet involvement in the area came about, when a Japanese patrol captured a Russian adviser near Thu Dau Mot. He was handed over to Lieutenant-Colonel Cyril Jarvis, commander of the 1/1 Gurkhas Rifles at Thu Dau Mot. Jarvis tried several attempts at interrogation, but it was fruitless, so the intruder was handed over to the Surete, the French criminal investigation department (equivalent to the CID), from there he disappeared from annals of history.

On 29 October the British formed a strong task force with the objective of pushing the Viet Minh further away from Saigon. This force was called ‘Gateforce’ after its commander, Lt.-Col. Gates of 14/13 Frontier Force Rifles. Gateforce consisted of Indian infantry, artillery, and armoured cars and a Japanese infantry battalion. During their operations they killed around 190 enemy; during one operation around Xuan Loc, east of Saigon, the Japanese killed 50 Viet Minh in a when they surprised a Viet Minh group in training.

On 18 November a Gurkha unit set out for Long Kien, south of Saigon, to rescue French hostages held there. While en route, the force was forced to turn back because it was not strong enough to overcome the Viet Minh they encountered. A few days later a stronger force was dispatched. According to the Gurkhas, they had seen Japanese deserters leading some Viet Minh war parties. During this operation the only kukri (Nepalese knife) charge in the whole campaign occurred. According to a Gurkha platoon leader, at one point during the operation they were held up by determined Viet Minh defenders occupying an old French fort. The Gurkhas brought up bazooka and blew in the doors, then without hesitation drew out their kukris and charged into the fort, putting the defenders to the knife. Long Kien was finally reached on that same day, but no hostages were recovered, but about 80 Viet Minh had been killed during this operation.

By early December, Gracey was able to turn over Saigon northern suburbs to the French, when 32 Brigade relinquished responsibility to General Valluy’s 9th Colonial Infantry Division. On Christmas Day, the 32nd set out for Borneo. Many of the newly arrived French soldiers were ex-Marquis (French Resistance), not accustomed to military discipline. Many, too, held the same racist attitude towards Asians as did some Americans a generation later. These two problems caused Gracey to write a complaint letter to Gen. Leclerc. In it Gracey also lashed out at those Frenchmen who looked down upon his Indian soldiers.

On 3 January 1946 the last big battle occurred between the British and the Viet Minh. About 900 Viet Minh, attacked the 14/13 Frontier Force Rifles camp at Bien Hoa. The fighting last throughout the night, and when it was over about 100 attackers had been killed without the loss of a single British soldier. Most Viet Minh casualties were the result of a murderous British machine-gun crossfire.

In mid-January the Viet Minh began to avoid large scale attacks on the British, Frenchthey were courageous they were still learning how to fight a war.

In early October, Gracey held talks with the Viet Minh and a truce was agreed upon. On the 5th, General Philippe Leclerc, the senior French commander, arrived in Saigon where he and his troops were placed under Gracey’s command. However, on 10 October the state of semi-peace with the Viet Minh was broken by an unprovoked attack on a small British engineering party which was inspecting the water lines near Tan Son Nhut Airfield. Most of the party members were killed or wounded. Gracey accepted the fact that the level of insurrection was such that he would first have to pacify key areas before he could repatriate the Japanese. It was at this time that his small force had been strengthened by the arrival of his second infantry brigade, the 32nd, under Brigadier E.C.V. Woodford. Gracey deployed the 32nd Brigade into Saigon’s troublesome northern suburbs of Go Vap and Gia Dinh. Once in this area the Viet Minh fell back before this force, which included armoured car support from the Indian 16th Light Cavalry.

Sorties of Spitfire reconnaissance revealed that the roads approaching into Saigon were blocked: the Viet Minh were attempting to strangle the city. On October 13th Tan Son Nhut came under attack again by the Viet Minh, their commandos and sappers were able this time to come within 275m of the control tower. They were also at the doors of the radio station before the attack was blunted by Indian and Japanese soldiers. As the Viet Minh fell back from the airfield, the Japanese were ordered to pursue them until nightfall, when contact was broken.

By mid-October 307 Viet Minh had been killed by British/Indian troops and 225 were killed by Japanese troops, including the new body count of 80 more Viet Minh at Dalat. On one occasion, the Japanese repulsed an attack on their headquarters at Phu Lam, killing 100 Viet Minh. British, French, and Japanese casualties were small by comparison. On the 17th the third brigade, the 100th commanded by Brigadier C.H.B. Rodham arrived in Indochina.

The Viet Minh next assaulted Saigon’s vital points. They were the power plant, docks, the airfield for the third time, and even the city’s artesian wells. Periodically, Saigon was blacked out at night, due to the racket of small arms, grenades, mines mortars, and artillery, which became familiar throughout the city. Unable to overwhelm Saigon’s defenses, the Viet Minh intensified their siege tactics. During this time, newly arrived French troops were given the task to help break the siege while aggressive British patrolling kept the Viet Minh off-balanced.

On 25 October, the only known evidence of direct Soviet involvement in the area came about, when a Japanese patrol captured a Russian adviser near Thu Dau Mot. He was handed over to Lieutenant-Colonel Cyril Jarvis, commander of the 1/1 Gurkhas Rifles at Thu Dau Mot. Jarvis tried several attempts at interrogation, but it was fruitless, so the intruder was handed over to the Surete, the French criminal investigation department (equivalent to the CID), from there he disappeared from annals of history.

On 29 October the British formed a strong task force with the objective of pushing the Viet Minh further away from Saigon. This force was called ‘Gateforce’ after its commander, Lt.-Col. Gates of 14/13 Frontier Force Rifles. Gateforce consisted of Indian infantry, artillery, and armoured cars and a Japanese infantry battalion. During their operations they killed around 190 enemy; during one operation around Xuan Loc, east of Saigon, the Japanese killed 50 Viet Minh in a when they surprised a Viet Minh group in training.

On 18 November a Gurkha unit set out for Long Kien, south of Saigon, to rescue French hostages held there. While en route, the force was forced to turn back because it was not strong enough to overcome the Viet Minh they encountered. A few days later a stronger force was dispatched. According to the Gurkhas, they had seen Japanese deserters leading some Viet Minh war parties. During this operation the only kukri (Nepalese knife) charge in the whole campaign occurred. According to a Gurkha platoon leader, at one point during the operation they were held up by determined Viet Minh defenders occupying an old French fort. The Gurkhas brought up bazooka and blew in the doors, then without hesitation drew out their kukris and charged into the fort, putting the defenders to the knife. Long Kien was finally reached on that same day, but no hostages were recovered, but about 80 Viet Minh had been killed during this operation.

By early December, Gracey was able to turn over Saigon northern suburbs to the French, when 32 Brigade relinquished responsibility to General Valluy’s 9th Colonial Infantry Division. On Christmas Day, the 32nd set out for Borneo. Many of the newly arrived French soldiers were ex-Marquis (French Resistance), not accustomed to military discipline. Many, too, held the same racist attitude towards Asians as did some Americans a generation later. These two problems caused Gracey to write a complaint letter to Gen. Leclerc. In it Gracey also lashed out at those Frenchmen who looked down upon his Indian soldiers.

On 3 January 1946 the last big battle occurred between the British and the Viet Minh. About 900 Viet Minh, attacked the 14/13 Frontier Force Rifles camp at Bien Hoa. The fighting last throughout the night, and when it was over about 100 attackers had been killed without the loss of a single British soldier. Most Viet Minh casualties were the result of a murderous British machine-gun crossfire.

In mid-January the Viet Minh began to avoid large scale attacks on the British, French, and Japanese forces. They began to take fighting characteristics which later became too common: ambushes, hit-and-run raids, and assassinations, while the British, French and Japanese constantly patrolled, and conducted security sweeps and so on. This was the first modern unconventional war and although the Viet Minh had sufficient manpower to sustain a long campaign, they were actual beaten back by a well-led professional troops who were not alien to Asia jungle or countryside.

By the end of the month, 80 Brigade handed over its theatre of operation to the French and the 100 Brigade was withdrawn into Saigon. Gracey flew out on the 28th. Before his departure, he signed control over of French forces to Gen. Leclerc. On 30 March the Islami took aboard the last two British/Indian battalions in Vietnam. Only a single company of the 2/8 Punjab remained to guard the Allied Control Mission in Saigon, and on 15 May it left, the mission having been disbanded a day earlier as the French became responsible for getting the remaining Japanese home.

For Britain’s Vietnam War the official casualty list was 40 British/Indian soldiers killed; the French and Japanese casualties are a little higher. Enemy, 2700 Viet Minh killed, but the real total may be higher, but given the efficiency with which the Viet Minh recovered their dead and wounded the exact number may never be known; About 600 were killed by British soldiers, the rest by the French and Japanese. The long series of Indochina wars had begun with a victory for the Western forces.