Operation Maelstrom

This was the Allied first step, sometimes rendered ‘Mailstorm’, in the reoccupation of French Indo-China from the Japanese in ‘Masterdom’ (13 September 1945).

In September 1940 the newly established regime of Vichy France had granted Japan’s demands for military access to Tonkin with the invasion of French Indo-China (‘Fu’ or the Vietnam Expedition). This allowed Japan better access southern part of China in the 2nd Sino-Japanese War (1937/45) against the nationalist Chinese forces of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, but was also part of Japan’s strategy for dominion over the ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’. At much the same time Thailand took this opportunity of weakness to reclaim previously lost territories, resulting in the French-Thai War (October 1940/May 1941).

Saigon became the headquarters of General (from June 1943 Field Marshal) Count Hisaichi Terauchi’s Southern Expeditionary Army Group, which was the general army controlling Japanese military operations and administrations in the ‘Southern Resources Area’. On 9 March 1945, with France liberated, Germany in final retreat, and the USA ascendant in the Pacific, Japan decided to take complete control of Indo-China and launched the 2nd French Indo-China Campaign, which established the nominal Empire of Vietnam in place of the French administration. Early in March Japanese forces were redeployed around many of the main French garrison towns, and on 9 March, without warning, the Japanese delivered an ultimatum demanding the disarmament of all French troops. Those who refused were immediately attacked and in most cases killed, and in Saigon the two senior Vichy French officials, Général Emile René Lemonnier and Political Resident Camille Auphalle, were beheaded. The French up-country garrisons fared better, however, and under Général de Division Marcel Jean Marie Alessandri a 5,700-man French troops fought its way through to nationalist China.

The Japanese kept power in Indo-China until the news of the Japanese surrender in August. The area of responsibility of Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten’s South-East Asia Command had already been expanded to embrace several countries including French Indo-China, and at the end of hostilities its primary tasks were fixed as the clearance of the last Japanese troops from Burma, the reoccupation of Malaya, and the establishment of Allied control in Saigon and then the rest of Indo-China, Bangkok in Thailand, Batavia and Soerabaja in the Netherlands East Indies, and Hong Kong.

Following the Japanese surrender, in the area to the north of the 16th parallel in Indo-China the responsibility for disarming the Japanese and maintaining order until the arrival of the French rested with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese nationalist forces, which had already sent a substantial number of men toward Tonkin and Laos. There had for some time been disagreement between Lieutenant General Albert C. Wedemeyer, Chiang Kai-shek’s adviser and commander of the US forces in China, and the headquarters of the South-East Asia Command about clandestine operations in the northern part of Indo-China, and Wedemeyer had told the South-East Asia Command at the end of August that its clandestine forces should not operate to the north of the 16th parallel. In the northern part of Indo-China the Chinese disarmed the French who had escaped destruction by the Japanese when they seized the whole country in March.

In the southern part of Indo-China the only French force available consisted of about 1,200 armed police, who had been raised mostly from prisoners of war and internees released since the Japanese surrender, and were therefore inadequately trained and somewhat lacking in self control in undertakings of the type with which they were not familiar. The first French reinforcement was a company of the 5th Régiment d’Infanterie Coloniale, which was flown in from Ceylon with the leading elements of Brigadier G. L. Roberts’s Indian 80th Brigade of Major General D. D. Gracey’s Indian 20th Division, but the combined French and British/Indian force was still inadequate to complete its primary tasks of liberating and rehabilitating Allied prisoners of war, maintaining order, and disarming the Japanese, particularly as serious trouble with armed Annamite groups broke out within a few days of the arrival of the Allied Control Commission.

Rather than being disarmed, therefore, the Japanese in the southern part of Indo-China were required to maintain order until the arrival of an adequate French or South-East Asia Command force.

The first move into the southern part of Indo-China took place on 8 September when a small advanced party consisting of engineer and medical reconnaissance detachments and No. 3 Recovery of Allied Prisoners of War Control Staff (complete with a pay office) was delivered by air to Tan Son Nhut airfield near Saigon. On the following day this advance party reported that water, lighting and sanitation in Saigon were in working order, that the airfield had two serviceable landing strips, and that there were standing for up to 70 Douglas Dakota transport aircraft.

At the start of ‘Maelstrom’ proper, on 13 September, Gracey arrived by air with the 533 men of the Allied Control Commission, and after this the delivery of the Indian 80th Brigade began. However, the weather was so changeable that it was 26 September before the whole brigade and the RAF’s No. 273 Squadron (Supermarine Spitfire fighters) had been assembled.

The situation in the country was explained to Gracey by Colonel J. Cedile, representing Général Philippe François Marie de Hauteclocque, the commander-in-chief designate of the French Expeditionary Forces in the Far East, who told him of the abdication of the emperor of Annam in favour of a provisional Vietnamese republican government on 10 August, and said that there had been a moderate to serious anti-French riot on 2 September, since when order had effectively come to an end as the Japanese had done little to maintain it and the Annamite government turned a blind eye to the pillaging of French property.

By 17 September Annamite attacks on the French and other Europeans had broken out on a considerable scale, and Gracey decided he must intervene. Early in September he had already sent sent a strongly-worded order to Terauchi reminding him of his responsibilities and requiring him to take immediate action to ensure the restoration and maintenance of order in Saigon, and to arrest and hand over to the Allied Control Commission any local inhabitants concerned in outrages. There had since been little improvement, however. On 19 September Gracey had little option but to resort to drastic measures. He stopped the publication of the Saigon papers, all of which had been stirring up trouble, and sent an officer deputation to the puppet president ordering him to stop requisitioning buildings, return some of those already requisitioned, furnish a list of Annamite Armed Police and other forces of the Viet Minh with their present locations, and order them to remain where they were until further orders. With the order he sent a copy of a proclamation which he proposed to issue on 21 September. This forbade demonstrations, processions and public meetings, prohibited the carrying of arms, including sticks and staffs, except by Allied troops and forces specially authorised to do so by himself, gave warning that wrongdoers would be summarily shot, and extended the curfew already imposed on his instructions by the Japanese.

The immediate result of this action was a general strike of the Annamite labour force, but it also brought a conciliatory acknowledgement of his order and proclamation from the so-called Executive Committee of the Southern Viet Minh which said that it would try to persuade the people to accept them, but asked that the Saigon press should be allowed to renew publication subject to its censorship so that its instructions could be promulgated and order restored. Gracey sent the text of his order and proclamation to Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, heading the South-East Asia Command, on 21 September, adding that, although it might appear that he had interfered in the politics of the country, his action had been taken in the interests maintaing order and in close collaboration with the French authorities. To have ordered the Japanese to round up and disarm Annamite forces would, as Gracey expressed it, have resulted in the disappearance of wanted persons. The French had insufficient troops to do it and, had he allowed them to try, bitter fighting would have been the result.

Gracey’s boldness in issuing an ultimatum with so few troops to back it and his firmness in dealing with the Viet Minh leaders achieved considerable success and kept the situation under control. Gracey ensured that his orders would be obeyed by occupying vital installations in the city with the few troops of Indian 80th Brigade then available, and by ordering Cedile on 23 September to assume responsibility for the administration of Saigon.

The Viet Minh forces retaliated by attacking the power, radio and water stations but were driven off with some losses. Gracey could, however, do nothing to break the roadblocks the Viet Minh had set up in the Saigon area.

Mountbatten was quick to realise that the action taken was not only courageous but sound and, after discussion with General Sir William Slim, heading the Allied Land Forces South-East Asia command, assured Gracey of his support but also informed him that he was not to use his own troops outside the Saigon area.

On 24 September Mountbatten told the Chiefs-of-Staff that he considered Gracey’s action should be supported, but either that the South-East Asia Command should be authorised to retain responsibility for civil and military administration throughout the southern part of Indo-China, using a whole British/Indian division to enforce it, or that the French government should authorise Leclerc to reaffirm the proclamation in the name of France and assume the exercise of civil and military authority except in key areas. Leclerc was unwilling to do this until he had adequate forces, however. The nearest French reinforcements at this time was the 5th Régiment d’Infanterie Coloniale (some 1,000 men) in Ceylon, and the Brigade d’Extrême-Orient, currently in Madagascar. The former was about to move to Indo-China, but Leclerc did not wish to bring in the latter until after the arrival of one of the two divisions (3rd and 9th Divisions d’Infanterie Coloniale) earmarked for Indo-Chinese service but still in Europe. It was plain, therefore, that it would be some time before the French were in any position to take decisive action.

By 26 September the Annamites, perhaps encouraged by the failure of the Japanese to impose order, had become more aggressive. Abduction of French persons, terrorism and murder became common and, on occasion, took place within view of Japanese troops. Nothing was being done to prevent the establishment of roadblocks or to deal with mobs attempting to sabotage the power, water and radio stations. In consequence, armed gangs of saboteurs and rioting mobs had clashed at vital points with troops of the Indian 80th Brigade, who had dispersed them and inflicted severe losses.

That day Gracey sent for Terauchi and at a plenary session of the Allied Control Commission reminded him of his obligation to maintain order, instructed him to restore it immediately, and to clear all roadblocks on the roads leading north from Saigon. Terauchi was also told to live in his headquarters at Saigon and establish a 24-hour officer liaison service at the headquarters of the Allied Control Commission. Matters improved after this and, in reporting the situation to Mountbatten, Gracey said that he proposed to deal with it by keeping the northern approaches to Saigon clear with Japanese troops, and the roads to Cholon and the south with his own as they became available. Meanwhile he was reopening the Saigon market and urging the French to broadcast the liberal policy which they had drawn up. Gracey asked Mountbatten to accelerate the delivery of the rest of his Indian 20th Division and of well-led French forces since the situation was beyond Cedile’s control.

On 29 September Mountbatten told the Chiefs-of-Staff that the early arrival of the 9th Division d’Infanterie Coloniale was more important than ever. Two days later Mountbatten authorised Gracey to use warplanes against roadblocks hampering the maintenance and movement of the Indian 20th Division, whose headquarters departed Rangoon by sea for Saigon on this day, in key areas, but said that he must drop warning leaflets at least two hours beforehand on any position that was to be attacked.

Gracey had meanwhile been trying unsuccessfully to arrange an armistice for discussions between the French and the Viet Minh, and with Cedile was called to a conference with Mountbatten in Singapore on 28 September. Here it was impressed on Cedile that negotiations with the Viet Minh must take place soon. Later on the same day Mountbatten, Slim and Gracey discussed the situation with J. J. Lawson, the British secretary of war, who was visiting British troops in India and the South-East Asia Command, and as Gracey said he would need a whole division to carry out his tasks in the vast Saigon area, Mountbatten gave orders for the build-up of the Indian 20th Division to continue.

On 1 October the Chiefs-of-Staff told Mountbatten that there was little prospect of accelerating the move of French forces and that they expected 9th Division d’Infanterie Coloniale to arrive no sooner than the end of December, by which time the French would have sufficient forces of their own in the country to be able to take over responsibility for it. The Chiefs-of-Staff therefore agreed that Mountbatten should increase the British strength in the southern part of Indo-China to a full division and prepare to keep it in this area until the end of the year. Since they considered that firm British control of the Saigon area might be sufficient to make it possible for small French forces to establish and maintain order in other parts of the country, the primary responsibility of the British force should be to maintain that control, although assistance could be given to the French in the interior as far as was practicable without prejudicing its responsibility.

On the next day, with his hand strengthened by this and the fact that the whole of his Indian 80th Brigade was now in Saigon, Gracey was able to get a four-day armistice declared while discussions took place between the French and the Viet Minh under his auspices. In spite of an extension until 8 October, the discussions were fruitless as a result of the extremist demands of the Viet Minh leadership which, in any case, seemed to have no control over its own forces as they continued to break the armistice whenever it suited them to do so.

The build-up of Allied forces had, however, at last begun. On the 5 October Leclerc arrived in Saigon by air, and on the same day the 5th Régiment d’Infanterie Coloniale completed its disembarkation. Two days later the main headquarters of the Indian 20th Division and Brigadier E. C. J. Woodford’s Indian 32nd Brigade began to arrive, and these were followed between 14 and 17 October by Brigadier C. H. B. Rodham’s Indian 100th Brigade, thus completing the Indian 20th Division, which also had the armoured cars of the 16th Light Cavalry under command. Between 13 and 16 October 1,328 personnel of one combat command of the French 2nd Division Blindé arrived by sea, while 500 reinforcements for 5th Régiment d’Infanterie Coloniale and another 1,000 men of the armoured division sailed from Marseille. The 9th Division d’Infanterie Coloniale (14,000 men) was scheduled to depart Marseille in eight ships on 23 October, followed by the Brigade d’Extrême-Orient, which had been reinforced from France and now mustered some 2,000 men. There was as yet no indication as to when the 3rd Division d’Infanterie Coloniale and a French army headquarters could be expected.

The Viet Minh strength was estimated in October as 5,200 moderately well armed regulars and 12,000 guerrillas, with all but 300 of the regulars and slightly less than half the guerrillas in or near Saigon. Their fighting value was said to be low in spite of the fanatics among them, but even so in the period between 10 and 21 October the British, French and Japanese forces suffered the loss of 23 men killed and 46 wounded, many as a result of well-laid ambushes.

The arrival of British/Indian and French reinforcements made it possible to begin relieving Japanese troops so that they could be disarmed and concentrated for repatriation. It was also decided to send a small force to take charge in Cambodia, and Lieutenant Colonel E. D. Murray with a small personal escort left Saigon for Phnom Penh on 9 October to take command of Allied and Japanese troops in the country, maintain order, ensure the stability of the Cambodian government in accordance with a directive issued by Leclerc, and disarm all Annamite troops and police in the Phnom Penh area. Two companies of French troops followed and two more were kept in readiness in Saigon to be flown in if necessary. There was no trouble since the Cambodian government was co-operative, and Lieutenant General Ryozo Sakuma, commanding the 55th Division, and Lieutenant General Bushi Hattori, commanding the 5th Air Division, both reported to Headquarters Allied Land Forces, Phnom Penh to receive orders.

It was not long, however, before agitation began, and since it was suspected that the prime minister was involved. Leclerc travelled to Phnom Penh on 15 October and took him to Saigon under arrest. Next day the king returned from a pilgrimage, and a new cabinet was formed. The Annamite troops and police resisted disarmament, and it was necessary to use Japanese troops to assist in completing the disarmament. Apart from this there were a few minor strikes and disturbances, but relations with the Cambodian government remained generally good, and the assumption of control by the French and the disarming of Japanese troops and their despatch to Saigon continued with only minor setbacks. On 4 December the Headquarters Allied Land Forces, Phnom Penh closed and became a liaison mission to the French.

In the Saigon area by the end of October the Indian 20th Division was disposed with the Indian 100th Brigade to the north of Saigon, the Indian 32nd Brigade in Saigon and the Indian 80th Brigade in Cholon. Operations were in progress, against Annamite opposition, to clear the roads to the east and south from Saigon. French troops began to take over from Japanese and British/Indian forces early in November, and the disarmament and concentration of Japanese surrendered personnel and the internment of Japanese civilians began. On 23 December the French started to take over control of Saigon from the Indian 32nd Brigade, which was under orders to relieve Australian troops in Borneo, and two days later in Cholon to relieve the Indian 80th Brigade, which was scheduled to follow the Indian 32nd Brigade to Borneo.

From that day all operations in and south of Saigon became a French responsibility. To the north of Saigon the Indian 100th Brigade remained responsible for clearing roadblocks and mopping up Viet Minh forces. Opposition was sporadic but at times sharp, with casualties on both sides: those of the Indian 20th Division totalled 26, and those of the Viet Minh to 58 killed and wounded, while 400 suspected guerrillas were taken prisoner. Casualties among the rebels in the French sector were reported to be very much higher.

On 29 November Mountbatten flew to Saigon, where he held discussions with Gracey and the French. On 2 December Mountbatten informed the Chiefs-of-Staff that after the departure of the Indian 32nd Brigade the French would issue a statement about assuming responsibility for order, and that he proposed to close the Headquarters Allied Land Forces, French Indo-China and the Control Commission as Gracey and the headquarters of the Indian 20th Division left in January, and also recommended that the southern part of Indo-China should cease to lie within the South-East Asia Command’s area of responsibility.

On 19 December the French take-over in the Saigon area was completed, and on 25 December the headquarters of the Indian 32nd Brigade and the 3/8th Gurkha Rifles embarked for Borneo, followed by the 4/2nd Gurkha Rifles and 9/14th Punjab Regiment during the next two days.

With the departure of the brigade, Mountbatten and Contre-amiral Georges Thierry d’Argenlieu, who had become the French high commissioner in October, issued a joint statement on 1 January 1946 that the French would henceforth assume the task of maintaining order in the south of Indo-China, except for the control and repatriation of Japanese troops. The Indian 80th Brigade began to move to Celebes on 22 January and, with the exception of two battalions which were to remain to guard the Japanese, Gracey and the rest of the Indian 20th Division left for India between 28 January and 7 February. The withdrawal of the last British/Indian troops began on 18 March and had been completed by mid-April.