23 September 1945
On 23 September 1945, the British army in Vietnam backed a French coup in Saigon, the former capital of French Indo-China, with the aim of restoring colonial rule. General Douglas Gracey with a force of British troops had arrived two weeks earlier on 6 September, soon after Japanese forces surrendered at the end of the Second World War. Gracey quickly introduced martial law, banning the publication of local newspapers, disarming the Viet Minh nationalists and arming former French prisoners of war released from Japanese POW camps.2
The Daily Herald‘s Saigon correspondent, Emery Pearce, described how ‘as the clock chimed three this morning, doors opened silently in half a dozen hotels and houses and a grim, silent army of 300 men, armed to the teeth, tramped silently along the deserted beach.’ He noted that they had been generously equipped with ‘tommy guns, Bren guns, grenades, bayonets, knives and pistols.’3 As the French seized key buildings, including the City Hall, in Saigon, they were given full support from the British army. Banners protesting French colonialism were ripped down from walls.4 In the subsequent days, as a general strike and unrest spread through the city, British troops attempted to crush all opposition with artillery, mortars and heavy machine guns, killing hundreds of Vietnamese, including many non-combatants.
Frustrated by the strength and resilience of the Viet Minh and suspecting that the population were dangerously sympathetic to the insurgency, Gracey’s troops set fire to extensive residential areas. Edmund Taylor, an OSS officer, was shocked to find that ‘the British had deliberately burned down great sections of the native quarter in Saigon….’ and that the overall situation might be comparable to ‘that of a town newly occupied by Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War.’5
- The original caption under the photograph (right) in Life magazine claimed that the background fire had been started by nationalists.
- Bryan Reynolds, ‘Martial Law in Saigon,’ The Western Mail, 22 September 1945, p. 1
- Emery Pearce, ‘French Capture Saigon at 3 am,’ The Daily Herald, 24 September 1945, p. 1
- Emery Pearce, ‘Saigon Again French,’ The Daily Herald, 24 September 1945, p4
- Edmund Taylor, Richer By Asia, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1947, p. 386.
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