Han Phu is one of many riparian islands in the Mekong Delta, on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam. Alternately covered by mangroves and suburban industrial districts, these inland isles rest in tropical stillness, as a great train of commerce wends its way into the South China Sea, at the nearby port of Vung Tau. Here, a red-headed Sarus crane casually preens its off-white feathers in aristocratic grace; and there, Starbucks Coffee opens yet another outlet, offering a local specialty – a single-origin Arabica brew from the Da Lat estates of Lam Dong province.
But all was not so well in 1945, when Indian troops arrived in Saigon (as Ho Chi Minh City was then known) at the conclusion of the Second World War. Then, Han Phu was a remote-yet-restive place, teeming with disparate bands of drug runners, extortionists, freedom fighters, royalists and communists, all vying desperately for their place in the sun, when Japanese military suzerainty vanished abruptly.
And before they knew it, our men were embroiled in a violent, bitterly confusing affair for five torrid months, in which it became hard to distinguish ally from threat, and right from wrong.
This then, is the story of the 20th Indian Infantry Division (20 Div), and their unfortunate involvement in Vietnam from September 1945 to February 1946, during which, a series of events lit the spark of the Vietnamese freedom struggle, and three long decades of horrible conflict.
The political situation in French Indochina (made up of Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos) was a messy one when the war ended. While military control of this French colony had been with the Japanese from 1942, the civil administration was run by a Vichy France government – an independent ally and puppet of the occupying Axis powers, notionally led by French Marshall Philippe Petain, in areas including the south of France, and colonial territories like Syria, North Africa, and Indochina.
It was a shameful, treasonable collaboration of immoral convenience by those who chose supplication over resistance, and remains, till date, a black mark on the French war effort. In many places, Vichy France troops engaged the Allies in battle until they were put down. In Indochina, the Vichy government there continued to collaborate with the Japanese even after Paris was liberated in August 1944.
Simmering furiously beneath this, in Vietnam, was a multi-faceted anti-colonial freedom struggle, which the Japanese made use of in the summer of 1945, once they saw which way the war winds were blowing. Although the most prominent group was the Viet Minh led by the communist Ho Chi Minh, the Japanese initially ignored them and opted for the royalist route.
Abrogating whatever fiction remained of titular French control, the Japanese formally appointed Bao Dai as their puppet Emperor of Vietnam. Then, when Japan finally fell to the twin American nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, they dumped Bao Dai for the Viet Minh, whose authority the Japanese formally recognized in Mid-August of 1945.
This was a calculated move, since the Japanese rightly felt that their withdrawal from Indochina would be more smoothly managed by a friendly local government, rather than the Free French who were preparing to take over Vichy holdings, and whom they had technically been at war with for four years.
But the plan failed for two reasons. In a reflection of Roosevelt’s institutional dislike for the perpetuation of colonialism, the Americans decreed at the Potsdam Conference that Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh would be in power in North Vietnam, north of the 16th parallel. And, in the south, the deposed Bao Dai-ists declared open war on both the Viet Minh, and the hundred-thousand-odd French settlers in the Saigon region. Killings wracked the city’s streets.
The French were furious, both at the slaughter of their citizens, and at the prospects of losing a prized colony; for which, Charles de Gaulle dispatched a new civilian command to Indochina under Admiral D'Argenlieu, along with a sizeable military force under the famous General Leclerc. No one was going to slice the French colonial melon, least of all the puny, heathen, Asiatic man, and morals be damned.
20 Div in Saigon
This was the prickly situation on 11 September 1945, when lead elements of 20 Div flew into Saigon under the command of General Douglas Gracey. Raised in Bangalore in 1942 by Gracey, this Indian division was a crack formation whose name was written in letters of gold during the Burma Campaign. Consisting largely of Dogras, Kumaonis, Punjabis, Sikhs, Jats and Gurkhas, they proved their worth at the Battle of Imphal, and had been on the frontlines for three long years. They were masters of war, who had comprehensively beaten the redoubtable Japanese at their own game.
But Saigon was a very different cup of tea. Gracey’s orders from Mountbatten, then head of South East Asia Command, were clear: disarm the surrendered Japanese forces south of the 16th parallel, collect them around Saigon for shipment to Japan, free allied prisoners, and keep the peace.
Unfortunately, 20 Div’s problems began as soon as they arrived. French reprisals to killings, and counter-reprisals by a host of Vietnamese groups, turned the Saigon region into a war zone. With over 50,000 Japanese troops yet to be disarmed, and reports that some of them were joining hands with the Viet Minh, Gracey decided to declare martial law on 21 September.
The French used this lull to stage a coup on 23 September and take over Saigon. That led to a heightened cycle of violence, with Indian troops getting caught bang in the middle of the crossfire. There were a few casualties, and 20 Div was forced to bare its fangs. This was the turning point in the Vietnam crisis.
Gracey was privately castigated by his superiors in Delhi for precipitating a fresh round of street wars, and rumours abounded locally that he had sided with the French.
According to the George Rosie, a radical journalist, the whole Vietnamese mess was sparked by the Indian Army, and Gracey’s dangerously cavalier attitude. It was an argument made in 1970, at the height of a hopelessly inchoate American prosecution of the Vietnam conflict, which the general public happily lapped up without inquiry.
Blaming everything on the ‘Brits’ normally works, but in Rosie’s case, it was nothing more than a baseless, self-delusional contention, which sought to expediently whitewash a substantial part of France and America’s responsibility in the creation of an immoral mess.
It is also not the truth. While Mountbatten is on record bemoaning Gracey’s declaration of martial law, the former equally appreciated, in writing, the precarious position 20 Div was in. On the one hand, the French were falling over themselves to recover control of Indochina. At the same time, tens of thousands of heavily armed Japanese troops were wandering aimlessly around the countryside, itching to get in on the action. There was Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, stridently exhorting his southern Viet Minh comrades to rise up against colonial oppression. The Bao Dai-ists, who had briefly sniffed power, wanted it back. And to top it all, there were large, well-organized hordes of opium clans, who felt that they could scramble to the top of the power heap with a little bit of luck.
Indeed, the two standout facts of this period are the American intelligence agencies’ efforts to woo Ho Chi Minh to their side with personal offers of medical assistance (he declined), and a massive seizure of opium by the 4/10 Gurkha Rifles (which, few still realize, was actually the local currency at the time).
And here was the policy contradiction at the root of 20 Div’s woes: Army HQ assumed that the Viet Minh had a legitimate claim to power, since Ho Chi Minh had been formally recognized by the Allies as a quasi-sovereign authority in Hanoi; but, that such claims would have to wait until the Japanese had been shipped home. At the same time, there was an inevitability to the re-establishment of French control over Indo-China, as seen by the aggressively obdurate manner in which Leclerc and D'Argenlieu went about trying to stamp out insurrections, which too, the same policy makers accepted without question. Hopefully, 20 Div would traverse this quagmire without too much trouble, while they gathered the surrendered Japanese for dispatch to Japan.
To that end, they even got Lady Edwina Mountbatten to fly into Saigon, as part of a Red Cross programme covering the repatriation of Allied prisoners of war. The prevailing expectation was that her charms, and the cheery publicity her visit generated, would aid in calming tempers.
It didn’t. On the contrary, ten Gurkhas were killed by unidentified locals at a soccer match in Saigon. A leaflet fluttering on the bloodied playing ground read: ‘Indian soldiers …your country is under British imperialism… why are we struggling against each other?’
Obviously, Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh read the ground situation better than anyone else: the French would stay, and the Indian Army would leave.
And that is precisely what happened. Through Christmas of 1945 and the New Year, 20 Div were repeatedly forced to exhibit their fighting qualities in scores of small actions – mainly against the Viet Minh. It is to their credit that casualties were negligible.
One of these actions involved an amphibious landing by 4/2 Gurkha Rifles, along with 9/14 Punjab, on the Annamite stronghold of Han Phu island. Another was a proper mini-battle, when 100 Infantry Brigade beat back a concerted push by the Viet Minh on Saigon, from the adjoining town of Bien Hoa across the Dong Nai River (The latter is now a suburb of Ho Chi Minh City).
Behind the scenes, the French worked their political levers furiously in Paris, London, Washington DC and elsewhere, to restitute their preeminence in Indochina post haste. The results of those machinations bore fruit on 15 January 1946, when Gracey handed over two Japanese ceremonial swords to General Leclerc at a function in Saigon.
The symbolism was inescapable: Japanese suzerainty over Indochina, established by right of conquest, was being formally transferred to the French, as the withdrawal of 20 Div began. It was a final act before the last elements of the Indian division, 9 Jat and 4/10 Gurkha Rifles, left Saigon on 12 February 1946.
On 4 March 1946, Allied military command formally excluded Indochina from their sphere of operations, and on 7 March, just three days later, French Admiral Jubelin landed his forces at Haiphong in North Vietnam. Ten days later, the French Army entered Hanoi and hoisted their tricolor. So much for Allied recognition of Ho Chi Minh’s authority; the re-colonization of Vietnam was afoot, in strength.
In hindsight, it is good that 20 Div left when they did, because the eagerness with which the French regained control of their colony, and the stunning superciliousness they demonstrated towards Vietnamese aspirations of independence, as if it was business as usual now that the piffling nuisance of Nazi hegemony had been removed by their allies, betrays a callousness of the worst degree. It was as if the Allies won the war just so the French could go back to being the colonialists they had been.
Not that the Viet Minh were any friendlier; 20 Div were played like a violin by both local and colonialist virtuosos, for which, our troops must have been relieved to leave this confusing land without having been mauled too badly. They’d done their duty, and that was that.
But we shouldn’t be surprised. French attitudes of those days were fairly revelatory. They viewed the Indian troops as ‘unwelcome birds of passage’, and openly turned up their noses, at the respect British Indian Army officers accorded to their sepoys. That was similar to how they viewed ‘the natives’ – as a heathen race, whose upliftment was a divine duty, ordained by some unique moral right of unknown, sacred provenance.
One product of that attitude was the haste displayed in getting rid of 20 Div. For, standing in the shadows of that cathedral in Saigon, where Gracey handed over the ceremonial swords to Leclerc, was also the civil administrator, Admiral D'Argenlieu – a former monk, who believed that his life mission was to convert Indochina to Christianity. Indeed, he believed this so firmly, that his staff used to secretly remark to one another, about how their Admiral possessed the most brilliant mind… of the Twelfth Century.
This is the melancholic tune of human despair which had been played for a century, and would continue to be played for decades, even after the French abandoned Indochina, following their humiliating defeat at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Somehow, the song always remains the same; in 1963, the violent overthrow and assassination of South Vietnamese dictator, Ngo Dinh Diem, which brought the Americans fully into the Vietnam War, was a result of the flagrant, discriminatory practices followed by a French-speaking, openly-evangelical, minority Catholic regime, who actively sought to ruthlessly subjugate a predominantly Buddhist populace.
And it all came together into a violent knot, when the Indian Army was dispatched to the Mekong Delta in 1945, to conduct the closing formalities of a global conflict.
During pre-war days, the currency of exchange in Indochina had been opium; now, with the departure of 20 Div from Saigon, it would be blood.
-Vol XIII Official History of the Indian Armed Forces in WWII, Govt. of India
-Forgotten Wars by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper
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