1940-1949 | Battlefield butchery | Burning towns and cities | VIetnam



Surrendered weapons – but many Japanese soldiers were not disarmed – © IWM (SE 6916) .

[ 6 December 1945 ]

On 6 December 1945, a letter sent to Britain’s Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin from a group of British soldiers stationed in Vietnam was published at the bottom of page six of the Manchester Guardian, under the prosaic headline ‘British in Indo-China.’ It disclosed that the British army was collaborating with the very Japanese forces they had until recently been fighting against, in order to crush a Vietnamese nationalist army, the Viet Minh, fighting for its country’s independence. ‘For what purpose is this collaboration ?’ the soldiers asked, ‘Why are we not disarming the Japanese ? We desire the definition of Government policy regarding the presence of British troops in Indo-China.’ It was signed by the ‘British other ranks’ of a Saigon based infantry brigade.  A few days after the letter was published, the soldiers who sent it were visited by a brigadier who rebuked them, declaring they should be grateful that army regulations no longer permitted him to have them all shot.

In August 1945, following the Japanese surrender at the end of the Second World War, the British had sent 26,000 troops to Vietnam along with artillery, 2,500 vehicles and several RAF squadrons of Spitfires and Mosquito fighter-bombers.  Their mission was unambiguous in its intent – to restore French colonial rule and crush any nationalist Vietnamese opposition. It was a policy which required rearming Japanese troops, many of whom had carried out appalling war crimes, who were then compelled to fight under British command against the Vietnamese. The orders issued to British soldiers in Saigon made it clear that little or no regard was to be paid to the possibility of civilian casualties.  ‘We may find it difficult to distinguish friend from foe,’ the order explained but it nevertheless insisted that troops should ‘always use the maximum force available to ensure wiping out any hostilities we may meet. If one uses too much force no harm is done.’1

Frustrated by the strength and resilience of local opposition to the restoration of French colonial rule, the British methodically destroyed large residential areas of Saigon, where they considered the population to be dangerously sympathetic to the insurgents.  Edmund Taylor, an OSS officer, was shocked to find that ‘the British had deliberately burned down great sections of the native quarter….’ and that the overall situation might be comparable to ‘that of a town newly occupied by Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War.’2 ( see also 23 September 1945 ) The fighting was intense and by the end of January 1946, the British army estimated that it had killed approximately 3,026 Vietnamese, against the loss of 110 Japanese soldiers, 106 French militia and 40 Indian and British troops.  A kill ratio greater than 11 to 1.3


  1. Ian Cobain, The History Thieves: Secrets, Lies and the Shaping of A Modern Nation, Portobello Books, 2017, pp. 64-66.
  2. Edmund Taylor, Richer By Asia, Boston, 1947, p. 386.
  3. Ian Cobain, op. cit., p. 69.

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