The War in Vietnam, codenamed Operation Masterdom by the British, and also known as Nam Bộ kháng chiến (English: Southern Resistance War) by the Vietnamese, was a post–World War II armed conflict involving a largely British-Indian and French task force and Japanese troops from the Southern Expeditionary Army Group, versus the Vietnamese communist movement, the Viet Minh, for control of the southern half of the country, after the unconditional Japanese surrender.
The Indochina Wars are generally numbered as three: the first being France's unsuccessful eight-year conflict with the Vietminh nationalist forces (1946–1954); the second being the war for control of South Vietnam, featuring an unsuccessful American-led intervention, ending in 1975; finally, the conflict in Cambodia, sparked by the Vietnamese invasion in 1978. This numbering overlooks the brief but significant initial conflict — from 1945 to 1946 — that grew out of the British occupation force landing at Saigon to receive the surrender of Japanese forces.
In July 1945 at Potsdam, 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 would receive the surrender in the South. The Allies agreed that France was the rightful owner of French Indochina, but because France was critically weakened as a result of the German occupation, a British-Indian force was installed in order to help the French Provisional Government in re-establishing control over their former colonial possession.
To carry out his part of the task, Lord Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander of the Southeast Asia Command, was to form an Allied Commission to go to Saigon and a military force consisting of an infantry division that 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, and to render humanitarian assistance to Allied prisoners of war and internees.
The concern of the Allies' Far Eastern Commission was primarily with winding down the Supreme Headquarters of the Imperial Japanese Army Southeast Asia and rendering humanitarian assistance to prisoners of war. Thus Major-General Douglas Gracey was appointed to head the Commission and the 80th Brigade, commanded by Brigadier D.E. Taunton, of his 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 order had enormous consequences because the delay in the arrival of Allied troops 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 alliance founded by Ho Chi Minh in 1941. In Hanoi and Saigon, they rushed to seize the seats of government, by killing 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 American animosity towards the Communist-led Viet Minh.
MacArthur finally had his ceremony on board the battleship 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.
Upon Gracey's arrival on September 13 to receive the surrender of Japanese forces, he immediately realized the seriousness of the situation in the country. Saigon's administrative services had collapsed, and a loosely controlled Viet Minh-led group had seized power. In addition, since the Japanese were still fully armed, the Allies feared that they would be capable of undermining the Allied position. Furthermore, Gracey had poor communications with his higher headquarters in Burma because his American signal detachment was abruptly withdrawn by the U.S. government for political reasons; it was a loss that could not be rectified for several weeks.
Gracey wrote that unless something were done quickly, the state of anarchy would worsen. This situation was worsened 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 allowed about 1,000 former French prisoners of war to be rearmed. They, with the arrival of the newly formed 5th Colonial Infantry Regiment (RIC) commandos, would then be capable of evicting 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 allowing him to proceed in disarming and repatriating the Japanese.
Gracey faced another problem in his relations with Mountbatten. One example of this occurred on Gracey's arrival in September. He drew up a proclamation that declared martial 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 September 21 and, although 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 turned over to French troops. This procedure was adopted because the Viet Minh would not have relinquished their positions directly to the French.
By September 23, most of Saigon was back in French hands, with less than half a dozen vital positions in Viet Minh control. The French subsequently regained total control of Saigon. On that day, former French prisoners of war who had been reinstated into the army together with troops from the 5th RIC ejected the Viet Minh in a coup in which two French soldiers were killed.
On the night of the 24/25 a Vietnamese 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 another 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 days, parties of armed Viet Minh clashed with British patrols, the Viet Minh suffering mounting losses with each encounter.:70 The British soldiers were experienced troops who had just recently finished battling the Japanese; many officers and soldiers had also experienced internal security and guerrilla warfare in India and the North West Frontier. In contrast the Viet Minh 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 October 10, a 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. Most of the engineering party 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 northern suburbs of Gò Vấp and Gia Định. Once in this area the Viet Minh fell back before this force, which included armoured car support from the Indian 16th Light Cavalry.:206
Aerial reconnaissance by Spitfires revealed that the roads approaching Saigon were blocked: the Viet Minh were attempting to strangle the city. On October 13, 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.:284
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 Da Lat. On one occasion, the Japanese repulsed an attack on their headquarters at Phú Lâm, 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, the power plant, docks, airfield, and for the third time, even the city's artesian wells. Periodically, Saigon was blacked out at night and the sound of small arms, grenades, mines, mortars, and artillery became familiar throughout the city. Unable to overwhelm Saigon's defences, the Viet Minh intensified their siege tactics. During this time, newly arrived French troops were given the task of helping to break the siege while aggressive British patrolling kept the Viet Minh off-balance.:75
On October 25, the only known evidence of direct Soviet involvement in the area came about, when a Japanese patrol captured a Russian adviser near Thủ Dầu Một. He was handed over to Lieutenant-Colonel Cyril Jarvis, commander of the 1/1 Gurkha Rifles. Jarvis tried several attempts at interrogation, but it was fruitless, so the intruder was handed over to the Sûreté, the French criminal investigation department (equivalent to the CID). From there he disappeared from the annals of history.
On October 29, 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 14/13th Frontier Force Rifles. Gateforce consisted of Indian infantry, artillery, and armoured cars, and a Japanese infantry battalion. During their operations they killed around 190 Viet Minh; during one operation around Xuân Lộc, east of Saigon, the Japanese killed 50 Viet Minh when they surprised a Viet Minh group in training.
On November 18, a Gurkha unit set out for Long Kiến, south of Saigon, to rescue French hostages held there. While en route, the force was forced to turn back as 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 a bazooka, 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; however, about 80 Viet Minh had been killed during this operation.
By early December, Gracey was able to turn over Saigon's 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-Maquis (French Resistance), not accustomed to military discipline.
During the battles of the South Central Highlands, the Viet Minh forced French troops to leave many villages and newly captured positions in the Central Highlands. The town of Buôn Ma Thuột was regained by the Vietnamese in mid-December. It was during this operation that Spitfires of No. 273 Squadron RAF executed the only acknowledged offensive action against the Viet Minh on 11 December.
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 Biên Hòa. The fighting lasted throughout the night, and when it was over about 100 attackers had been killed without the loss of a single British or Indian soldier. Most Viet Minh casualties were the result of 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 on fighting characteristics which later became common: ambushes, hit-and-run raids, and assassinations, while the British, French, and Japanese constantly patrolled and conducted security sweeps. This was the first modern unconventional war, and although the Viet Minh had sufficient manpower to sustain a long campaign, they were beaten back by well-led professional troops who were familiar with an Asian jungle and countryside.
By the end of the month, 80 Brigade handed over its theater of operations to the French, and the 100 Brigade was withdrawn into Saigon. Gracey flew out on the 28th. Before his departure, he signed control over French forces to Leclerc. The last British forces left on March 26, so ending the seven-month intervention in Vietnam; and on March 30, the SS 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 May 15 it left, the mission having been disbanded a day earlier as the French became responsible for getting the remaining Japanese home. The last British troops to die in Vietnam were six soldiers killed in an ambush in June 1946.
For Britain's involvement in the First Vietnam War, the officially stated casualty list was 40 British and Indian soldiers killed and French and Japanese casualties a little higher. An estimated 2,700 Viet Minh were killed. The unofficial total may be higher, but given the methods with which the Viet Minh recovered their dead and wounded, the exact number may never be known. About 600 of the dead Viet Minh were killed by British soldiers, the rest by the French and Japanese.
Three more bloody decades of fighting lay ahead which would end in defeat for two major world players. From March to July, 1946, the Viet Minh systematically set about, as Ho's lieutenant Lê Duẩn said, "(to) wipe out the reactionaries." Known as the "Great Purge", the goal was to eliminate everyone thought dangerous to the Communist Party of Vietnam, and tens of thousands of nationalists, Catholics and others were massacred from 1946 to 1948.
Between May and December, Ho Chi Minh spent four months in France attempting to negotiate full independence and unity for Vietnam, but failed to obtain any guarantee from the French. After a series of violent clashes with Viet Minh, French forces bombarded Haiphong harbor, captured Haiphong and attempted to expel the Viet Minh from Hanoi, a task that took two months.
December 19, 1946 is often cited as the date for the beginning of the First Indochina War, as on that day 30,000 Viet Minh under Giap initiated their first large-scale attack on the French in the Battle of Hanoi. The War in Vietnam of 1946–54, had begun.