October 10th 1945 we docked in Saigon. So began another important period in my life.
A small detachment of Indian troops had arrived at Tan Son Nhut Airport on the 6th September as a token escort for the advance party of the 20th Indian Division. Included in that party of troops was an intelligence unit, Engineers, and a medical team. My unit, RAF Servicing Commando Unit 3209, disembarked on 10th October and drove up to Tan Son Nhut Airfield where we established our forward base. Our job ostensibly was to service any aircraft arriving at Tan Son Nhut.
So much happened whilst I was in Saigon that it is difficult to know where to begin but I suppose the best thing to do is start at the beginning.
As the time I spent in Saigon was during a very important period of British history which has not been given the publicity it should have had, I intend to deal with it here so as to ensure that to some small extent I can make amends for the part I played in the traumatic events that were to follow.
If those who read this come to realise that the tragedy of the war in Vietnam and the destruction of that beautiful country is to a significant degree the responsibility of the Labour Government of 1945, then my efforts will not be in vain.
A most important point must be made here before recalling the events I witnessed. British troops arrived in Saigon on September 9th 1945. A General Election had been held at home in Britain on 25th July 1945 and a Labour Government was elected with an overwhelming majority. Therefore, for the whole of the period during which British troops were in Vietnam, they were acting under the orders of a Government that was supposedly Socialist and so anti-imperialist. Yet those troops were used to overthrow a popular, anti-imperialist movement and helped to re-instate French colonial rule.
The British troops entered Vietnam under the Command of Major General Douglas D. Gracey, whose orders were to disarm the Japanese troops and ensure their repatriation, free all Allied Prisoners of War and send them home and maintain law and order. Major General Gracey arrived in Saigon on September 13th landing at Tan Son Nhut airfield which was surrounded by Japanese troops with Jap officers waiting to greet him. On the drive into the city with Japanese soldiers acting as body-guards they found the route decked out in British, American and Vietminh flags and slogans, one of these said, "Welcome to the Allies, to the British and the Americans, but we have no room for the French." So from his first experience of the people of Saigon, Gracey should have been under no illusions as to their attitude.
He had been instructed to have no dealings with local politics but it was taken for granted, especially by General Gracey, that Vietnam would once again become a French colony. Although President Roosevelt had for some time expressed the view that the old colonial empires should become Trust territories under the United Nations, "I suggested ...that Indo-China be set up under a trusteeship...Stalin liked the idea...The British did not like it. It might bust up their Empire, because if the Indo-Chinese were to work together and eventually get their independence the Burmese might do the same thing..." President Roosevelt at Yalta, The British in Vietnam, George Rosie, p.35.
Roosevelt's death in April 1945 led to tremendous changes in American policy in Asia. President Truman soon began to put into operation a policy towards the former colonies that was the very opposite of the ideas put by Roosevelt.
The Vietnamese National Liberation movement, which was made up of about ten different political groups, represented a large percentage of the Vietnamese population. The following policy paper that was prepared for the American State Department in June 1945 gives a graphic description of the situation as seen from American eyes.
"At the end of the war, political conditions in Indo-China, and especially in the North, will probably be particularly unstable. The Indo-Chinese independence groups, which may have been working against the Japanese, will possibly oppose the restoration of French control... French policy toward Indo-China will be dominated by the desire to re-establish control in order to reassert her prestige in the world as a great power".
On the 19th August 1945, the Vietnamese National Liberation Committee took power in Hanoi; Emperor Bao Dai abdicated and a Provisional Executive Committee took power in Saigon. Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Vietnamese liberation movement and known as Nguyen the Patriot, spoke at a rally in Hanoi on 2nd September announcing the formation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. In his statement to the massed crowd he read the "Declaration of Independence of the Republic of Vietnam" which began with the opening statement of the American Declaration of Independence of 1776;
"All men are created equal. They are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among these rights are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness..."
"The Declaration of the French Revolution made in 1791 on the Rights of Man and the Citizen also states; "All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights."
"Nevertheless, for more than 80 years, the French imperialists, abusing the standard of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, have violated our Fatherland and oppressed our fellow citizens....They have built more prisons than schools, they have drowned our uprisings in rivers of blood."
"For these reasons, we, members of the Provisional Government of the Democratic republic of Vietnam, solemnly declare to the world that Vietnam has the right to be a free and independent country - and in fact is so already. The entire Vietnamese people are determined to mobilise all their physical and mental strength, to sacrifice their lives and property in order to safeguard their independence and liberty."
So, although the British forces were supposedly neutral they did in fact support the French in their effort to retake Vietnam as a French Colony. This meant of course a refusal by the British, and in particular, General Gracey, to recognise the Vietnamese Government. "By openly endorsing the French and by declining to have any dealings with the nationalists, General Gracey began a series of events which became increasingly tragic and led to a short but very brutal war.... to quash the nationalists". The British in Vietnam by George Rosie, p.11.
There have been many attempts to excuse General Gracey for what happened in Vietmam but there is no doubt that his actions led to the overthrow of the Vietminh Government in Saigon and the restoration of French colonialism in South Vietnam.
As I was on the ground at the time I saw what happened first hand and have always said that I lay the blame for the subsequent horrendous war that followed on the British administration. If the emerging, Vietnamese, nationalist movement had been supported, as we should have expected, the Vietnamese people would, in my humble opinion, have been spared the horrific war that ensued. First the French imperialists attempted to overthrow the Vietnamese government in Hanoi and suffered the humiliating defeat at Dien Bien Phu, then the American intervention which led to the most devastating war which lasted until 1975.
To my mind the most distressing aspect of this period was the fact that it was a LABOUR government that was responsible for the action taken against the Vietnamese people in 1945.
It has to be remembered that on the 25th July 1945 the people of Britain elected the Labour Party to government with a massive majority of 146. This gave the Labour Party enough support that would allow it to introduce policies of a radical nature both at home and abroad. Unfortunately, this was not to be.
As I have pointed out at the beginning of this chapter, British troops landed in Saigon on the 9th September 1945, some six weeks after the election and with Clement Attlee as Prime Minister and Ernest Bevin Foreign Secretary. On October 1st 1945, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Commander, South East Asia Command, received instructions from the Chiefs of Staff in London, who must have been acting with the authority of the Labour Government, that British Indian troops were to be used in the whole of the area of South Indo-China in support of the French. Mountbatten was fully aware of the dangerous situation he was in.
In a despatch to the Chiefs of Staff dated 2nd October '45 he said,
"The only way in which I can avoid involving British/Indian forces is to continue using the Japanese for maintaining law and order and this means I cannot begin to disarm them for another three months. By that time prisoners of war and internees will all have been removed and since it will be obvious that we could physically have disarmed the Japanese long before the end of December we shall have a less and less good excuse for retaining British/Indian forces there. In fact we shall find it hard to counter the accusations that our forces are remaining in the country solely in order to hold the Viet Nam Independence movement in check." The Politics of Continuity by John Saville, p.196. .
The official history of the Indian armed forces noted that "All the dirty work, to fight and disarm the Annamites, was assigned to the Japanese troops." The Politics of Continuity, p.199.
What should be pointed out here is the fact that the British public were not made aware of what was being done in their name. A Labour Government was involved in the use of Japanese troops as front line forces against the Vietnamese people.
The use of Japanese troops against the Liberation forces, was, as far as General Gracey was concerned, a necessity because he did not have enough British troops to do the job that he saw was his priority. As he said on leaving Vietnam "We have done our best for the French, they are our Allies and we have discharged our obligation to them. Now its up to them to carry on." Marvin E Gettleman.
Newspaper correspondents had great difficulty in getting any information on the subject of Japanese involvement and in fact the Japanese were not allowed to talk to the journalists.
Officially the Japanese aid was recognised as is shown by the official communiqués issued by British Headquarters. October 22nd; "Japanese troops supported by armoured cars manned by troops of the 16th (Indian) Cavalry extended the perimeter west of Cholon against slight opposition." On October 18th the British spokesman had thanked the Japanese Commander, Terauchi, "with highest praise" for his co-operation.
General MacArthur, Supreme Commander Allied Powers in South East Asia, said in Tokyo, "If there is anything that makes my blood boil it is to see our allies in Indo-China ...deploying Japanese troops to conquer the little people we promised to liberate. It is the most ignoble kind of betrayal." Red China To-Day: The Other Side of the River, Edgar Snow. Mountbatten's military organisation that was to take over in Saigon was formed in Rangoon in the latter part of August '45 with Major General Gracey at its head. Acting as Mountbatten's representative, Gracey was not to assume "any measure of administrative authority outside key areas, nor was it made his responsibility to re-establish French sovereignty or to maintain order generally in southern Indo-China." British Military Administration in the Far East, 1943/46, HMSO, p.406.
On our arrival at the airport the first thing to do was sort out where we would set up camp, living quarters, cooking facilities etc. The first night we spent sleeping on the concrete floor of an aircraft hangar. Next day was spent organising the building of huts for our use, these were of the same type we had used in India, a bamboo structure that was big enough to sleep about ten men. Local labour was employed to do the cooking and any of the other menial jobs around the camp as this was normal in the then colonies. The white man must not be seen to do any of the "dirty" work. The "natives" must be shown that they are below the Europeans.
The reasons given for the presence of British troops in Vietnam at that time were various. President Truman had issued an order which directed the Japanese to "maintain law and order...until Allied forces could take over." Force Plan 1, titled "The Occupation of French Indo-China," reflected agreed Allied policy as follows: "The eventual reoccupation of FIC is a matter for the French". Orders were issued that the following tasks be undertaken when sufficient forces are available;
(a) disarming and concentration of all Japanese surrendered personnel.
(b) Collection and evacuation of Allied POW's.
(c) maintenance of law and order and protection of vital installations.
(d) apprehension of war criminals.
As to the first of these tasks, (disarming the Japanese troops), this was not carried out as long as I was in Saigon. In fact the Japanese were used in action against the Vietnamese National Liberation Forces, (Viet Minh).
Tan Son Nuht Airport was guarded by armed Japanese troops who lived on the airfield and there were many skirmishes around the airfield.
Our Commanding Officer, Flight Lieutenant Powell, in his report for September and October 1945, page 4, said, "There was no aircraft work for the Squadron at the time of arrival, and the Squadron was placed under the orders of the Station Defence Officer, forming a defence wing with two squadrons of the RAF Regiment. A sector of the airfield defence was taken over from a platoon of Gurkhas, and this position was manned during the hours of darkness by the two flights working alternate nights. Although fighting occurred almost every night in various sectors of the airfield this Squadron, to the disappointment of most, was never involved. The Squadron also took part in security sweeps of the surrounding countryside, searching villages for hidden terrorists and weapons and ammunition. This employment of the Squadron in defence work was still in operation at the end of October." On page seven of his report he says, "In SAIGON there are a cinema and several swimming pools. Entertainment and sport are less easy to arrange here on account of the hostile activities of Nationalist extremists."
This gives the reader some idea of the situation I found myself in. The majority of the Squadron saw nothing wrong in what they were being asked to do. I, of course was involved in the sweeps mentioned in Flight Lieutenant Powell's report and as I sit here writing this my mind takes me back to another of those moments in my life that will haunt me till the day I die. I find it impossible to put into words my feelings then and now about what those poor people suffered.
The situation in Vietnam when we arrived was that a National Liberation Committee, which eventually became the Provisional Government under President Ho Chi Minh, had been formed in Hanoi on the 17th August 1945. On the 27th August a revolutionary government proclaimed the Government of the Republic of Southern Vietnam. So when we arrived in Saigon the Vietnamese were in control of the city, they had arrested many of the French colonialists who had collaborated with the Japanese during the war, and imprisoned them.
The French colonialists were more concerned about a possible Vietnamese uprising than they were about the Japanese occupiers and took strong action against the Vietnamese liberation movement. On the few occasions during the war when uprisings did take place they were brutally suppressed by the French. In fact French resistance to the Japanese was non-existent. It is interesting to note that in 1943 the emerging Vietnamese liberation movement, (Viet Minh), that was organising the people for an eventual uprising against the Japanese, contacted the French with an offer to set up a common anti-Japanese underground, it was spurned.
It was therefore natural that when the Viet Minh established themselves as the Government in Saigon, they took action against the French collaborators. It was obvious to anyone that the people of Vietnam, under the leadership of the Viet Minh, were intent on achieving their independence and had taken control of the country.
This of course was not to the liking of the British and French whose aim was the re-establishment of French rule in "French Indo-China". As stated earlier, under Force Plan 1, "the eventual reoccupation of FIC is a matter for the French".
The Allied Commander in Saigon, General Douglas Gracey saw it as his most important task to re-establish French rule as soon as possible, despite the fact that the Vietnamese people had made it obvious that they were determined to end French Colonial rule over Vietnam.
On the 17th September 1945, four days after Gracey arrived in Saigon, the Viet Minh called a series of strikes in Saigon, closing the market and boycotting trade with the French. Gracey saw this as a threat to his authority and two days later he closed down the Vietnamese press. The Vietnamese protested that this was a violation of their civil rights but Gracey ignored their pleas.
Gracey implemented his plan to disarm the Viet Minh police. On 20th September, as part of the process, British troops occupied the Central Jail and took control of the two main banks in Saigon. On the 21st, Proclamation No.1 was posted up all over the city. This move has been described since as a declaration of martial law. Printed in English, French and Vietnamese, this extremely important proclamation should be quoted in order for the reader to understand the situation that then existed.
Paragraph 1 ensured that the people should know that Gracey was in command of "all the British, French and Japanese forces and of all police forces and other armed bodies in French Indo-China south of 16° latitude, with orders to ensure law and order in this area."
Paragraph 2 said; "Let it be known to all that it is my firm intention to ensure with strict impartiality that this period of transition from war to peace conditions is carried out..."
Paragraph 3 warned "...all wrongdoers, especially looters and saboteurs of public and private property, and those also carrying out similar criminal activities, that they will be summarily shot."
Paragraph 4 laid down the following orders to take effect immediately;
"(a) No demonstrations or processions will be permitted.
(b) No public meetings will take place.
(c) No arms of any description including sticks, staves, bamboo spears, etc. will be carried except by British and Allied troops, and such other forces and police which have been specially authorised by me.
(d) The curfew already imposed by the Japanese authorities between 21.30 and 05.30 in Saigon and Cholon will be continued and strictly enforced."
What is interesting in the above is item (c) where it says, "...such other forces and police...specially authorised by me." In other words, Gracey was saying that the former common enemy, the Japanese had now suddenly become "authorised" to enforce martial law.
During the night of 21/22 September two police stations were taken over and the civil jail and at the same time the Viet Minh police were disarmed, continuing the process of replacing Viet Minh officials by the French. The treasury was taken and the Post and Telegraph Office. As was reported by Brigadier Taunton of 80 Indian Infantry Brigade, "The stage was now set for the coup d'etat by the French to take over the civil administration in Saigon from the Annamites".
According to my dictionary, a coup d'etat is "The sudden violent or illegal seizure of Government."
Lord Mountbatten in "Section E" of the report to the Combined Chiefs of Staff, made it quite clear that, "...on the 23rd September Major General Gracey had agreed with the French that they should carry out a coup d'etat; and with his permission, they seized control of the administration of Saigon and the French Government was installed." p.288 para 30.
On the morning of September 23rd 1945, the French, with the agreement of General Gracey, freed over one thousand men from prison, armed them and proceeded to take over the city.
French troops, led by Colonel Cedile, attacked and took the Town Hall which had been the seat of the Viet Minh government. The Post Office and the Surete were taken and Vietnamese sentries shot. "Scores of Annamites were trussed up and marched off. Foreign eyewitnesses that morning saw blood flow, saw bound men beaten. They saw French colonial culture being restored to Saigon." VIETNAM History, Documents and Opinions on a Major Worlds Crisis", Marvin E. Gettleman.
Fighting broke out all over the city as the Vietnamese people fought back against the French attack. Major General Gracey then called on the Viet Minh leaders to sit round the table with the French to negotiate. Gracey's chief political spokesman was asked, ""Why would you not talk with the Viet Minh before the shooting started?" "Because you cannot negotiate when a pistol is held at your head," the British official replied. "You mean you can negotiate only when you hold a pistol at the other party's head?" He shrugged." VIETNAM, History, Documents, and Opinions on a Major World Crisis, Marvin E. Gettleman
This seizure of power by French forces and the release and arming of the French internees was to lead in my opinion, to the catastrophe of the Vietnam War.
The foreign minister in the Vietnamese Government in Hanoi made the following protest to British Prime Minister Clement Atlee in a telegram received on 26th September;
"The release of French prisoners of war with arms and ammunition leading to the French attack on Saigon and the arrests of members of the People's Committee constitutes a great violation of our national rights...a non-fulfilment of the mission placed on the commander British forces in South Indo-China by the United Nations ...and non-observation of neutrality by the British disarmament forces. We therefore lodge a most emphatic protest against such smoke-screening of French aggression..." The Times, 3rd October 1945.
With the help of the Japanese troops and the French colons the area within the city of Saigon was slowly made more secure but the war for independence waged by the Vietnamese took on the character of a classic guerrilla war. The methods used by the British forces to combat the Viet Minh can be measured by some of the orders issued to the troops on how to engage the "enemy". The Operational Instructions show how they operated.
"There is no front in these operations. We may find it difficult to distinguish friend from foe...beware of "nibbling" at opposition. Always use the maximum force available to ensure wiping out any hostiles we may meet. If one uses too much, no harm is done. If one uses too small a force, and it has to be extricated, we will suffer casualties and encourage the enemy..." Operational Instruction No 220 of 100 Indian Infantry Brigade, 27th October 1945.
The Official History of the Indian Armed Forces p.211 reports as follows, "The difficulty is to select him [the enemy] as immediately he has had his shot or thrown his grenade he pretends to be friendly...it is therefore perfectly legitimate to look upon all locals anywhere near where a shot has been fired as enemies and treacherous ones at that, and treat them accordingly."
"Colonel Kitson and his men arrived to be confronted with a paradoxical situation in which former friends and associates were enemies, in which former enemies were auxiliaries, and in which a new war was in the making." History of the 2nd King Edward's Own Gurkhas.
It is therefore not surprising that the Vietnamese viewed the British troops with hostility. As the War Diary of 32 Indian Infantry Brigade for 22 November 1945 puts it, "Although disturbances have decreased, there is, however, still an atmosphere of animosity towards us amongst the indigenous population, and there has been no improvement of our relations with them..." One final quote on this subject makes it absolutely clear, "If when following up a report, no enemy is met with, suspects must be brought in from the area concerned. They are probably the hostiles reported, who have for the moment become friendly villagers ...it is therefore perfectly legitimate to look upon all locals...as enemies." Instruction No 63 to 100 Brigade.
I can vouch personally that as the Monthly Summary of Intelligence for 20th January 1946 put it "There is no contact as yet between the troops and civilian population either Annamite or Chinese..." The only social intercourse the troops had was with those sections of the population who had collaborated with either the French or the Japanese.
Lord Mountbatten in "Section E" of the Report to the Combined Chiefs of Staff made it absolutely clear that, "The spectacle of France's betrayal had greatly undermined French prestige in her colony: particularly in view of the fact that the Vichy administration in F.I.C. [French Indo-China] had at all times collaborated openly with the enemy."
My personal experiences in Saigon were such that they need to be recorded. I had seen what life was like for the Indian people under British Colonial rule. I was now to find out how the French colonialists treated the people of French Indo-China.
France got her first foothold in Saigon in 1859; 30 years later she was able to create what was to be known as French Indo-China, made up of the territories of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
As in most colonial territories, nationalist forces protested, and the struggle for national liberation grew until in 1930 Ho Chi Minh, who was known at that time as Nguyen the Patriot, formed the Indochina Communist Party.
When I was in India I thought I had seen the worst excesses of colonialism, but Vietnam was worse.
Soon after we arrived in Saigon I fell victim to an ear infection and was admitted to hospital for treatment. The hospital was situated in the centre of Saigon, next to the jail. I became friendly with a young soldier who was also a patient and had been in the hospital when I was admitted. As we got to know each other he felt that he could trust me and said that he wanted to show me something that he had witnessed.
He took me up to the next floor and pointed out that by looking through the window we could see into the jail situated next door. The scene I saw was of a large square surrounded by a high wall. In front of us making up the wall nearest to the hospital was a long single storey building with barred windows. This proved to be the interrogation block. In the square there were about 100 Vietnamese peasants squatting on the ground. They had no shelter from the sun and the temperature must have been around 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
One by one they were taken into one of the rooms with barred windows. From our vantage point we could see into the first of these rooms and the scene that met my eyes was one which I will remember to my dying day. What I saw was a human being hanging from a hook in the ceiling. His arms were tied behind his back and then hooked over so that he hung suspended by his arms. There were three or four men in the room all armed with clubs similar to baseball bats. We could not hear what was being said and as it would be either French or Vietnamese, we would not understand what was said, but it was not necessary for us to understand what was happening. Torture was being used to obtain information. I don't know how long we stood there witnessing this obscenity, all I can say is that if we had been armed we would have used our guns against those monsters.
Another example of the treatment meted out to the Vietnamese peasant happened on Tan Son Nhut airfield. The French had started an air service from Paris to Saigon using American Skymaster aircraft. On landing they were serviced by French engineers and Vietnamese labourers were used to refuel the aircraft and do all the other menial tasks like cleaning, etc. On one occasion an aircraft was being refuelled and the Vietnamese labourer was on the wing of the aircraft with the hose putting fuel into the wing tanks. He slipped and fell to the ground, about 15 feet, he lay on the concrete, obviously hurt by the fall. A Frenchman who had been working nearby and saw him fall, went over, said something, getting no reply, kicked him, still no reply, so he walked away and left the poor guy lying on the floor. No attempt whatsoever was made to see how badly hurt the man was and it was left to his friends to pick him up and carry him away.
I was so incensed by what I had witnessed that I wrote a letter to my father detailing the horrendous treatment of the population by the French and asked him to forward the letter to the Communist MP Willie Gallacher. Unfortunately Dad, worried about the possibility of me getting into trouble, destroyed the letter.
The policy of the Allies on the colonial question was that colonies that had been occupied by the Japanese should be handed back to the former rulers, in the case of Vietnam this was the French. General Gracey had made it clear that once enough French troops had arrived in Vietnam the British troops would be withdrawn.
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