Thailand's War With Vichy France
The story of an almost unknown war and its international repercussions on the eve of Pearl Harbor.
In late 1940 and early 1941 the Vichy French in Indochina and Thailand fought a short, bitter and now forgotten war. The conflict, over Thai claims to territories annexed by France, has been noteworthy to military historians solely because of a surprising French naval victory. French firmness against Thailand had also been stiffened by a tragi-comic misunderstanding with the Japanese over their agreed takeover of northern Indochina in September 1940.
Vichy success against Thailand was a severe embarrassment to the Japanese, who swiftly nullified the effect of the French triumph at the conference table, forcing France to cede substantial portions of Indochina to the aggrieved Thais. Although the war itself was a small sideshow which had no decisive bearing on the course of the wider Pacific struggle to come, the conflict and Japan's manipulation of both players was intended to improve Japan's strategic position. This it certainly did, reinforcing the ambitions of the 'Strike South' faction in the Japanese military.
Before 1941 was out, Japanese troops in Indochina and Thailand were striking further afield, to Malaya and Singapore to the south and Burma to the west, in their doomed quest for a 'Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere' under their imperial control.
The conflict between Thailand and Vichy France cannot be adequately understood without reference to the long history of enmity between the Thais on the one hand and the French and the Vietnamese on the other. Siam, as Thailand was then called, was the one country in South East Asia never to have been colonised by a Western power, although during Louis XIV's reign the French almost took over after King Narai made the mistake of inviting them in to check Dutch ambitions. They came and they stayed: French garrisons installed at Bangkok and Mergui only falling to the Siamese after heavy loss of life.
By the nineteenth century the country found itself sandwiched between two European colonial empires. To the west the British had finally overcome Burma, Siam's traditional enemy, while the French had nudged up to its eastern frontier, taking Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos under their control. Cambodia had long since come to be regarded as a territory under effective Siamese control – a 'vassal state' – by the time of King Rama I's reign (1782-1809). Both Siam and the Vietnamese Nguyen dynasty from Hue had competed for influence there, leading to Cambodia's pragmatic decision in 1802 to send tribute both to Bangkok and Hue. But Cambodia soon fell victim to its old problem of a troublesome dynastic succession and, in 1812, the new Siamese king, Rama II, sent troops into Cambodia to support one claimant, while the Vietnamese did the same to support another.
As one account artfully put it, Cambodia's nominal king had 'shown signs of disaffection', yet Rama II withdrew to avoid confrontation with the Vietnamese while continuing to occupy the Cambodian provinces of Melouprey and Stung Treng. The Vietnamese did not follow suit and in 1831 Rama III invaded Cambodia again, displacing the Vietnamese-installed monarch Ang Chan and prompting a Vietnamese counter-attack which led to Cambodia's effective annexation by the Vietnamese – complete with a puppet ruler. Cambodia's bloody resistance against the Vietnamese, led by the pro-Siamese Ang Duong (Ang Chan's brother) was especially vigorous between 1841-5. Seeking a way out of an unwinnable war, the Vietnamese eventually accepted a reversal to the 1802 status quo of Cambodia's recognition of both Siamese and Vietnamese domination.
In the process Cambodia again lost territory to its neighbours, prompting Ang Duong to send a fateful letter to Napoleon III in 1853 requesting protection. This was provided, but at a price. France's conquest of Cochin China in 1862 led to the French claim to overlord- ship of Cambodia, as the successors to the Vietnamese in the joint arrangements of 1802, reconfirmed after 1845.
The Siamese thereupon tried to counter the creeping French annexation of Cambodia, resting in particular on the secret provisions of a previous treaty with Cambodia which spelled out the actual status of Cambodia's monarchs as Siam's viceroys in Cambodia. This was used to exact the best terms from France in return for recognition of the French protectorate over most of Cambodia under the 1867 Franco-Siamese Treaty. Siam therefore kept the large western Cambodian provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap, which had been under their control since the previous century.
Although the Siamese kings could not continue to compete with the French for control in Cambodia, they remained determined at least to preserve Siam's independence in the face of colonial advances. Mongkut or Rama IV, (1851-68) and Chulalongkorn (Rama V, 1868-1910), managed both to modernise the country and keep the British and French at bay.
Mongkut was a cultured ruler who built canals and roads and displayed an apparent favour towards the British, with whom a trend-setting, unequal treaty was signed in 1855 which included a most-favoured-nation trading clause, tariff control and extra-territorial rights. Similar treaties were signed with France in 1856 and with other countries. They may have been unequal, but they served their most important function: confirming in the eyes of the world the European recognition of Siam as an independent state, albeit one which now tolerated considerable British commercial and political influence. Mongkut was careful to balance influence at the court among a number of Europeans and Americans, to avoid complete British domination.
Thus, unlike so many an Asian prince or Arab sheikh, Siam's kings never accepted the humbling status of a protectorate, with the result that by the late nineteenth century they had pulled off what was, with hindsight, the remarkable feat of the general recognition of their country's independence.
Meanwhile in 1887 the French had formed their disparate Vietnamese territories of Cochin-China, Annam and Tonkin, plus Cambodia and what is now called Laos, into a colonial federation after finally completing the conquest of Vietnam. France's takeover in Laos – the historic kingdom of Luang Prabang where a protectorate was established – also assumed French rights as the successor power to the Vietnamese, as in Cambodia, and were similarly ranged against rival Siamese claims. The French were still voracious in their appetite for influence in Siam, particularly in view of Britain's emerging pre- dominance. Like Afghanistan, Siam was the playground for, if not a 'Great Game', then certainly a medium-sized one, and one which was even counted as the possible location of future military hostilities between Britain and France. As a result Paris was keen to assert its position of influence by forcing Siam to cede disputed border regions to French Indochina.
In 1893 French claims against Siam led to the payment to France of a 3 million franc Siamese indemnity, plus the hand-over of a portion of Luang Prabang. This still did not satisfy the French hunger for influence in Siam and, in January 1902, Eugene Etienne, the influential vice-president of the French Chamber of Deputies, remarked that Siam should he counted as being in the French orbit because of its proximity to Indochina, although this should only be achieved through fair negotiations with Britain rather than war. Indeed, in 1896 the British and the French had already avoided conflict by recognising the neutral status of the Menam basin. Similar common sense did not prevent the two countries from almost going to war over Fashoda in 1898.
But, with the turn of the century and the 'Entente Cordiale' the British did not stand in France's way in Indochina, nor in the way of further French claims against Siam. All of the Cambodian provinces of Battambang and Siem Riep were handed over to the French in 1904 and in 1907 the rest of Luang Prabang was ceded, completing the takeover of Laos.
British tolerance of French ambitions had its own agenda: extending control over the Malay states. In 1897 the British had wrested from the Siamese an agreement not to cede territory south of the eleventh parallel to any power other than Britain. In 1909, in return for a railway loan and a compromise over extra-territoriality, Siam transferred the four Malay provinces of Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan and Trengganu to British suzerainty.
In 1917, Siam decided to enter the First World War on the Allied side in an effort to curry favour, and a small military force went to France, 'greatly strengthening the bonds of friendship between Siam and her neighbours', as W.A.R. Wood, British vice-consul in Chieng Mai, put it in his colourfully jaundiced history of Siam.
But such manoeuvring was of no use in domestic politics and Siam's kings remained unable to reconcile the essential contradiction between absolutism and reform which might invite the same apprehensive Western respect shown to the Japanese. The Depression and cuts in civil service and army salaries shook the support of two props vital to the absolutist monarchy's survival, leading directly to the bloodless revolution of June 24th, 1932. A period of fairly radical rule by the law professor Pridi Phanomyong followed, leading to a. royalist counter-revolution and then an army counter-coup against the royalists. Phibun Songkram (his name has also been rendered as Phibul Songgram), who had been a colonel and an influential leader immediately after the 1932 revolution, eventually took over as prime minister in December 1938.
In June 1939 Siam was renamed Thailand, which literally means 'Land of the Free'. The militant nationalism of Marshal Phibun – as he now was – was greatly influenced by the success which the Japanese had shown in standing up to the West. This sentiment was also reflected in militant Buddhism (despite the inherent contradiction), plus the deepening hostility towards Chinese immigrants who had begun arriving in large numbers in the 1920s.
Meanwhile, policy towards both Britain and France became a great deal more assertive. British timber interests were weakened by the granting of less favourable leases for teak forests, while agitation commenced for the return of Battambzng and Siem Riep from France. An arms build-up saw Thailand acquire weapons and ships from Italy and Japan, displacing the traditional supplier, Britain. It would be wrong to describe Phibun as the sole agent of nationalism, since he had widespread army support and it was under the government of his immediate predecessor, the army-backed Phraya Phrahon, that the arms build-up began.
This development dictated a more circumspect French attitude to the Thais, as did the manner in which the Thai regime was earning its nationalist spurs by supporting nationalist movements in Indochina and elsewhere. It was no accident that Vietnam's most famous revolutionary politician Ho Chi Minh spent a short time in exile in Bangkok before the war.
Thai attitudes towards the Europeans were fatefully affected by the spectacle of France's defeat in 1940, as Germany achieved in weeks what was not achieved in years during the previous world war. Thailand grabbed the opportunity to avenge past humiliations and Phibun demanded the return of Battambang and Siem Riep. On June 12th, ten days before the French armistice, a non-aggression pact was signed between Japan and Thailand.
Tokyo's signature was provided by foreign minister Yosuke Matsuoka, who supported the Japanese cabinet's 'Strike North' faction which wished to concentrate efforts on finishing China off and avenge Japanese humiliation at the hands of the Soviets in Mongolia in 1939. The offer to Thailand to 'mediate' over her claims on Indochina included the pro- posed introduction of so-called 'military observer' teams to Indochina which would lead to the colony's effective takeover by the Japanese in a 'police action'. This would be represented to the United States as a temporary intervention while the helpful attitude shown to Thailand might generate more political support for Japan among nationalists throughout South East Asia. But it is important to realise that the move into Indochina was not meant to start a general war.
Japan's priority was to stop supplies reaching the Kuomintang forces against which they had been at war since 1937. Meanwhile on July 26th the new Japanese prime minister, Prince Konoye, unveiled his plan to take full advantage of the European powers' weakness in Asia, titled the 'Main Principles for Coping with the Changing World Situation'.
With half of 'metropole' under German occupation, French colonial authorities were now unusually free to determine their own policies. They mostly sided with Vichy, especially after the British attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir on July 3rd.
With the armistice and with the Japanese making the first demand to move troops into Indochina, inter alia taking over Indochinese airfields, Indochina's governor-general, General Georges Catroux, sought American help to deter the Japanese. This was to take the form of a US Navy demonstration in the Gulf of Tonkin. This request was refused, as was the British idea of a similar show of force at Singapore, and on August 20th, Catroux was forced to concede joint Franco-Japanese control of the border with the Chinese province of Yunnan, although the agreement was not actually signed until August 30th.
There was obviously little love lost between most of the French Navy and the British and, in Indochina, the apparently unreliable Catroux was now replaced by the naval commander, Admiral Jean Decoux, who had earlier declined Admiral Sir Percy Noble's invitation to send his small flotilla of obsolete warships to Singapore. One of Decoux's first acts was to fuel unwittingly Vietnamese nationalism by showing them that they could do very well without the French. He now made up for the lack of any replacements for French administrators, caused by the interruption of communications with France, by recruiting Annamites to never-before-held bureaucratic positions.
On September 19th, the Japanese issued a new ultimatum to the French, making further demands to use and guard aerodromes in Indochina and transport troops on Indochinese railways to the front in China. Decoux tried to bargain and asked Vichy for help, but no advice came. At 3pm on September 22nd, seven hours short of the deadline for the expiry of the ultimatum, Decoux informed Matsuoka that Japanese terms would be accepted – but according to an agreed timetable.
The Vichy authorities were nothing if not realistic about their weak and exposed position. In any case, French attitudes towards Japan had long been ambiguous. On the one hand, Japan's victory over Russia in 1903 was balefully regarded by some, as a French journalist put it, as 'the victory of one world over another', while others either saw Japan as a bulwark against Communism, or as one of three players in a struggle for the Pacific – the others being America and Britain – in which Prance might somehow avoid entanglement. Few in. France saw Japan as a direct threat to Indochina until it was too late.
For their part, despite their hunger for territory, the Japanese were even appreciative of the difficulty in which Vichy found itself. In conversation with Lord Privy Seal Kido, Emperor Hirohito spoke thus of the Japanese move into Indochina;
Really, we should not exploit this time when others are weak as if we were robbers at a fire. Personally I don't like it. It doesn't fit my principles. Now, however, when we face crisis, I have no choice.
Vichy was therefore quite willing to accept Japanese demands, but only according to the previously written script. This was when best-laid Japanese plans started to unravel badly. At 11pm on September 22nd, Hirohito's general staff emissary Major-General Tominaga Kyoji persuaded Japanese units to invade northern Indochina without official orders and three days in advance of the timetable agreed with the French. The result was stiff Vichy resistance for three days, more than salvaging French honour and also enraging Decoux, who became less inclined to do any- one's bidding.
Japanese embarrassment was such that the commander of the South China Army, Lieutenant-General Ando Rikichi, was recalled and placed on the inactive list at war minister Hideki Tojo's instructions. But Kyoji returned to Tokyo to take charge of the Army Personnel Bureau to promote the interests of the 'Strike South' faction pushing for an outright takeover of the European colonies in South East Asia, especially the Dutch East Indies and their oil. Certainly according to one thesis (Bergamini), l4irohito's role in the Indochinese takeover is highly ambiguous, further supporting the view that the emperor was much more culpable of responsibility for Japan's wartime actions.
What is beyond doubt is that Japanese behaviour in September 1940 stiffened French resolve to resist the Thais. The actual outbreak of fighting between Thailand and Vichy France in October 1940 was not so much an eruption of violence as a damp squib, with repeated small border incidents. There was no declaration of war as such land operations along the common and poorly defined border were sluggish, even 'lazy' according to Bergamini, both because of poor communications and also because of atrocious jungle conditions. This was despite the assistance of 'volunteer' Japanese pilots who provided close air support to Thai troops, while the Japanese 'observer teams' at the French rear led by Colonel Cho lsamu also made life difficult for the French. This officer's notoriety was such that he was known as 'Kill-AII-Prisoners' Isamu.
The first serious incident in the war took place on November 23rd and 24th, when the Thais tried to throw a bridge across the river Cam-tung, preparatory to an attack on Poipet in Cambodia. This was resisted by local troops under French command. Three weeks later, on December 15th, three Thai aircraft bombed Cheanokhsan, which was swiftly followed by the French reprisal bombing of Ouboune. The Thais then turned north and sent aircraft to bomb Saravane in Laos prompting French aircraft to ripost with strikes on Lakhon, Monk and Koumarat.
The war was getting out of hand, but the Vichy military were still determined, after Tokyo's behaviour the previous autumn, to conserve as much as possible of their slender land forces to resist a possible outright Japanese takeover. Hence there were never enough troops to face Thailand.
Following Decoux's failed attempt to secure some meaningful Japanese brake on Thai aggression on January 8th, 1941, the governor-general resolved to take action. At the beginning of January, the French army commander General Martin suggested the idea of combining some naval action with a land offensive. Since November, French sea- planes had been checking the Gulf of Siam two or three times a week for any movement by Thai naval forces, aided by a couple of French auxiliaries which also maintained surveillance. On December 14th, eight guns were also landed by the French Navy at defensive positions at Kep and Ha-tien. Consideration was given to the idea of a mock French amphibious landing in Thailand, but French minds were concentrated by the news that the Thai fleet had left Bangkok. Besides one abortive air attack at Ream on the French gunboat Beryl on December 1st, there was no action at sea until January.
The ensuing battle at Thailand's island-strewn anchorage of Koh-Chang on January 17th, 1941, remains remarkable for several reasons. It was the only French naval victory of either world war where the action was entirely conceived and executed by French forces alone, and without the assistance of an ally. Secondly, it was extraordinary because, on paper at least, the French did not stand a chance. Their tiny flotilla of one old light cruiser, the Lamotte-Piquet under the command of Captain Berenger, plus four old gun-boats, was completely outclassed by the Thai fleet. This consisted of the new Japanese-built coast defence battleships Ayuthia and Dhonburi delivered in 1938, which each boasted four eight-inch guns, plus three small destroyers supplied during the 1930s by Mussolini's Italy.
The action was also significant for its sheer audacity. The tiny French force had sailed in secret all the way from its base in Cochin China and, on the morning of January 17th, the French ravaged the Thai ships, sinking the Dhonburi, forcing the Ayuthia to run aground, and sinking all three destroyers. The Thais then launched a fruitless air attack which lasted an hour, but in military terms, Berenger's victory was not unlike that achieved by the Dutch against the English in the Iv1edway in 1667.
The victory at Koh-Chang stands as perhaps the most eloquent testimony to France's enduring embarrassment about Vichy. It is, despite its military interest, a battle which has been largely erased from the record. Modern histories of the French now make little or no reference to it and, when they do, it is only ever in passing. You have to go back to 1971 to even. find an article on the battle, or to a history of the French navy in Indochina published in 1953 to find a proper account. These sources, and an unpublished account by a former senior officer of the Vichy fleet, have fleshed out what happened, but to look at them requires a visit to the Musee de la Marine in Paris.
The victory was short-lived, although it is interesting that Decoux reached an agreement on trade with the British in January and on the restraint of anti-British propaganda in Indochina. The Japanese were outraged by the audacity shown by the French and the serious loss of face caused by the humiliation of their ally.
The Americans had meanwhile warned the Thais not to accept Japanese offers of mediation in the conflict, rightly saying that this was tantamount to 'taking a ride upon a tiger'. The Thais ignored the warning and accepted mediation on January 24th, following which the Japanese cruiser, Vatori arrived in Saigon to host the three-party-talks.
In consequence, despite France's victory, Japan reversed the usual formula of 'to the victor, the spoils' by obliging Vichy to cease hostilities completely on January 28th, and, following the peace treaty concluded on May 9th, large areas of Cambodia and Laos claimed by Thailand were transferred to Thai control. The Japanese had meanwhile also demanded the Thai and Indochinese rice crops and, on March 11th, the French agreed to this too, at the same time accepting Japanese mediation in any future Franco-Thai dispute.
Japan completed its effective, if not actual occupation of French Indochina during the balance of 1941, entering Saigon on July 24th to sign with the French a so-called 'Treaty for the Defence of Indochina’. Japanese troops now stealthily moved into Cambodia to commence the vitally needed jungle welfare training which was put to use with such deadly effect during the Burma campaign. During 1941 some 30,000 Japanese troops established themselves in their forward bases in Indochina.
America, Britain and the Dutch East Indies responded to the Japanese takeover of Indochina in July by freezing all Japanese assets and virtually halting trade. On July 31st, America's long-feared oil embargo went into effect, by which time the 'Strike South' faction had emerged triumphant in Tokyo with the formation of-the new Konoye cabinet on July 18th.
On. December 8th, a day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the occupation of Thailand began, albeit not without some Thai resistance, notably in Bangkok. On December 11th, the Japanese made peace with the Thais, reaching agreement on the presence of their forces which were now to turn south to Malaya and west to Burma. Thai acceptance of the armed Japanese fait accompli prompted Japan's gift to Thailand of formerly Siamese territories in Laos, as well as the transfer of part of northern Malaya and Burma's Shan states.
Thus did Phibun briefly extend his 'empire' to its greatest extent, although he was far from dewy-eyed about his new friends. He could admire Japanese military prowess, but he was realistic enough to tell his chief of staff in 1942: 'Which side do you think will be defeated in this war? That side is our enemy'.
Phibun's long-time rival Pridi Phanamyong, the former radical premier, now re-entered the story as regent to the young Thai monarch, King Ananda. His secret organisation, the Free Thai movement, was helped by Allied special operations outfits like the American OSS and Britain's Force 136, and converts to the cause were not difficult to find, given Japan's repression. The Chinese community in Thailand also rose to defend the country's independence, despite their previous treatment at Thai hands.
The strength of Thai resistance to the Japanese, the ambivalence of the Thai leader- ship and the way in which Thai diplomats in America and Britain promoted resistance to Japan all combined to earn Thailand a very easy ride towards the end of the war. Phibun was intelligent enough to realise which way the wind was blowing and his resignation in 1944 led Pridi back to unofficial power, under the noses of the Japanese, as the effective controller of the government led by Khuang Aphaiwong.
President Roosevelt's outspoken hostility to the French authorities in Indochina who, he observed, had 'flagrantly downtrodden' the indigenous peoples, also ensured a forgiving attitude towards Thailand's earlier aggression. In Indochina itself, from 1941 until the outright Japanese occupation in March 1945, Admiral Decoux was left to administer while the Japanese got on with the war. Decoux's ability to govern efficiently and hold down any local resistance was the main reason why, unlike in the Philippines or Indonesia, the Japanese did not establish in Indochina a nominally independent, indigenous puppet government.
The Japanese only took direct control of the administration on March 9th, 1945, finally removing the French from any vestige of authority for a critical period during which, for the first time. Cochin China was administratively united with Annam and Tonkin to form the basis of modern Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh was now able to consolidate the foundations of the post-war Vietnamese resistance.
Remarkably, far from the last had been heard of Phibun. Arrested in Thailand and tried by the Allies as a war criminal, he yet managed to return to Thailand in 1947 to take over as prime minister with army backing following an army coup. This dictatorship was designed to end the political instability which followed the Second World War, during which no less than nine administrations came and went. Phibun was to remain in power until 1957 when he was himself overthrown in a bloodless coup.
It is indeed an irony that his successors once again played the nationalist card in their stout resistance to Cambodia's territorial claim over the border temple of Preah Vilhear (also known as Khao Phra Viham), which was only transferred to Cambodian control in 1962, after arbitration by the International Court of Justice. This little triangle of territory was left in Thailand by the French during the cartographic revisions of 1904 and 1907. Actual border clashes between Cambodia and Thailand did take place in 1976, following the victory of the Khmer Rouge, albeit against a sharply different political backdrop.
Fifty years after the Franco-Thai war, the haphazard time traveller might have been forgiven the impression that nothing much had changed, as French, Japanese and Thai troops again found themselves in Cambodia – only this crime their thankless task was the supervision of an election under United Nations auspices. It was the Japanese who left first, fearing that this, their first military foray abroad since 1945, might result in casualties deemed politically unacceptable in Tokyo. The French and the Thais saw out their tasks. Plus ca change…
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