We’re so used to thinking of America’s war in Vietnam that we often tend to forget our own presence there. And Brits have been in action there.
Inevitably, over the centuries, Vietnam has had some attention from ships with armed Brits abroad. For instance, in the late seventeenth century, privateer William Dampier dropped in. An early experience on Vietnamese soil, though, was not a happy one for us. Côn Son Island is situated off the coast of Vietnam. It has also been known by the name Poulo Condor, a French version of its Malay name. In 1702 one Allan, or Allen, Ketchpole, or Catchpole, working for the British East India Company, is supposed to have set up a settlement here, but it wasn’t a success.
In 1945, we arrived in mainland Vietnam in force.
During the Second World War, Vietnam, as then part of French Indo-China, went through a similar process to Cambodia and Laos, with Vichy French and Japanese at first collaborating, and then in March 1945 with the Japanese taking full control. In the meantime, local pro-independence activists were trying to take advantage of the situation to end French control forever. In 1944, the RAF parachuted in Vietnamese communists who had been previously interned by the French in Madagascar, and in 1945 we started running, with French support, commando operations against the Japanese in Vietnam’s northern mountains.
In August 1945 the Japanese surrendered, and on 2 September 1945 Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnamese independence from France. The French, to put it mildly, weren’t happy. Into this highly charged situation we launched Operation Masterdom.
Major General Gracey arrived in Saigon to find the Communist Viet Minh largely in control, but his orders were to disarm the Japanese troops and restore French control. Gradually, his units took control from the Viet Minh and then handed control to incoming French troops. Realising that this was a serious attempt to reimpose French rule, the Vietnamese rioted and the Viet Minh attacked Tan Son Nhut Airfield, which was later to become well known during America’s war. A British soldier was killed driving off the attackers.
From this point the situation rapidly deteriorated as a bitter little war broke out between Britain and the Viet Minh. Gracey received reinforcements, but he also ended up in the bizarre situation of using our former enemies, still armed Japanese units, to fight alongside British and Commonwealth troops against the Viet Minh. Gateforce formed under Lieutenant Colonel Gate, consisted of Indian infantry, armoured cars and artillery, but also had an entire Japanese infantry battalion attached to it.
Eventually we pushed the Viet Minh out of Saigon and handed increasing control and responsibility to the French.
Our last big battle with the Viet Minh was at Bien Hoa on 3 January 1945 when British/Indian troops, without any loss to themselves, killed about 100 from an attacking force of roughly 900 Viet Minh, mainly through machine-gun crossfire.
By the summer of 1946 all British troops were gone from Vietnam.