- A Sideshow of a Large War
Aleksandr V. Kotlobovskii
I have seen and heard French, I do not speak or understand the language.
Consequently, my attempt to replicate from Russian transliteration,
the original spelling of French names is a hazardous business.
If you think I got one wrong, check again, more carefully, and you
probably will find errors in all the others as well.
I preemptively apologize.)
- On the
eve of the second world war, the current Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia were
one large colony - French Indochina. Here
intersected the interests of several countries.
First of all, France itself, which due to the strained situation in
Europe was able to devote only very small forces to the defense of its
overseas territories; Japan, whose armed forces were conducting military
operations in China and even more was advancing toward domination of Paris,
and Siam (from 1939 Thailand), whose actual government, the dictator Luang
Pibun Songram had a long-running ambition to recover the lands conquered by
the French at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th
After Germany handed France a
crushing defeat in May-June 1940, the new French government of Marshal
Petain practically lost the possibility of rendering assistance for the
defense to the colonial administration located in Saigon.
Japan was the first to exploit this, obtaining a signed agreement on
the admission of their armed forces into Tonkin (North Vietnam).
As is known, the appetite arrives at mealtime.
In mid-September the Mikado’s generals demanded that the French
allow their forces into the regions not falling under the active agreement.
But this time the concessions were not so fast, and the diplomatic
impasse ended in military action, in which aviation played a role.
At the disposal of Japan’s army
and fleet in this region were about 500 aircraft of various types.
The basic fighters were the the Army Ki-27 and the Navy’s A5M, and
for bombers the Ki-21, Ki-20, and G3M.
The french had a very unassuming air group including less than a
hundred aircraft of various types. Among
them the most valuable were a dozen Morane MS 406 fighters and three twin
motor Potez 631. They also had
bombers: four heavy Farman F 221 and 2-3 medium Potez 540; flying boats:
eight Loire L 130 and two each CAMS 37 and CAMS 55.
But the base of the aviation park consisted of 1920s vintage,
multipurpose biplanes Potez 25TOE, Breguet 19, and Breguet 27.
All these aircraft belonged to the Air Force and were included in two
composite air groups GMA 595 and GMA 596.
Also located in Indochina was a naval escadrille equipped with 8
hydroplanes L 130 and GL 832Hy.
The French used these forces
mainly for conducting reconnaissance and on occasion for executing strikes
on the ground forces of the enemy. Japanese
aviation too conducted reconnaissance, but also provided air cover for their
forces and carried out an air attack on the port of Haiphong, where troops
were landed on September 24. The
next day occurred the only air battle of this brief campaign.
A group of Ki-27s of the 84 Sentai attacked a French Potez 25
reconnaissance aircraft and its escorting Morane.
The outcome was a draw. The
Samurai knocked down the biplane, but the pilot of the French fighter,
Adjutant-Chef Tivolier (sp.?) noted a victory to his score.
Becoming aware of the
incommensurate balance of forces, the Saigon administration was forced to
submit to Japanese demands. However,
injured French pride found an outlet. On
October 20, during one of his patrol flights Sergeant-Chef Labussiere (sp.?)encountered
a lone Ki-21 and shot it down. True, the French did not publicize this victory, fearing the
Seeing the desperate situation of
their sometimes threatening neighbor, the Thai dictator decided that the
moment for action had arrived. From
November 1940, the army and air forces, which were subordinate to him, began
regularly to provoke incidents along the border with the French colony.
But before we proceed to a description of the subsequent events, we
make a brief excursion into the history of the Thai Air Force.
This branch of the armed forces appeared in the country in 1911.
Initially it was called the Royal Siamese Army Air Service, which
during the course of the First World War was renamed the Royal Siamese Air
Corps. It is interesting that
the Thais received great help in establishing their air force precisely from
France. However during the
1930s the Siamese government began to acquire its aircraft for the most part
from the USA. Having bought two
Boeing P-12 fighters for testing in 1931, in 1933 the Thais chose to use the
machines of the Curtiss firm. At
first they acquired twelve Hawk II fighters and later assembled themselves
under license 25 Hawk IIIs. In
1938 the Americans began delivery of a group of 25 relatively modern Hawk
75N monoplanes. They also
bought from Uncle Sam attack aircraft: 78 Vought V-100 Corsair biplanes
assembled under license and 10 twin motor Martin 193W bombers.
Finally from the USA there arrived many training machines, including
10 North American AT-6 Harvards.
But this friendship did not prove
long-lasting. Even before the
beginning of the Second World War the Thai government began to orient itself
much more toward Japan. Taking
into consideration these circumstances and the swiftly deteriorating
international situation, the Americans ceased sending their equipment from
Bangkok. However, the Thais did
not remain without a new opening. In
1940 they signed a treaty of friendship with Japan and promptly received
nine Mitsubishi Ki-21 bombers, and the same number of Tachikawa Ki-55
trainers. At the moment of the
events described, the Royal Thai Air Force (as it became known in 1939)
disposed of 150 combat and 120 training aircraft which were organized in
five air wings. There were also
about 20 machines belonging to naval aviation.
Thus, Thailand possessed
significantly greater means than the French colonial administration, and
also has the support of Japan. Making
use of these advantages, Pibun Songram decided to conduct an incursion into
Cambodia. The French could
deploy against the threatening invasion on ly very small forces, including
air. At the same time their
patrol ships and hydroplanes began patrolling the coastal waters. There it was that the first serious military clash happened.
On December 1, 1940 a group of Thai Corsairs attacked the patrol ship
Beryl, dropping on her 14 bombs.
Not one of the bombs hit the target, and return fire from the ship
shot down one of the attacking aircraft.
On December 9, a Corsair of 42
Squadron shot down an unidentified French aircraft. The next day another Corsair attacked the L130 flying boat of
Captain Michel, but the crew managed to defend their aircraft, and even
claimed the destruction of a hostile aircraft.
On December 12, this same seaplane again took part in an air battle,
but this time with a Hawk III fighter of 70 Squadron. Victory was again with Captain Michel’s crew, and this time
the Thai pilot was killed. On
December 24, with unpublicized support from Tokyo, Pibun Songram moved to
escalate the crisis and officially declared war on France.
After this, aviation activity notably escalated.
On January 9 and 10 Thailand conducted a series of daylight air
attacks on the cities of Battambang, Sisofon, Vientiane, Pakse, and others.
In response, the French bombed at night a number of settlements on
the territory of the opponent, and on January 10 their reconnaissance
aircraft appeared over Bangkok. The
same day the first bombs fell on the city.
the command of the colonial air force prepared to burn the enemy
capital, consisting mainly of wooden homes.
However, nothing came of this.
There were much hotter air battles
on January 11. On this day the
Thai Air Force attempted to knock out of service Nakorn-Bat airfield located
near Siem Reap, where the Moranes of Escadrille 2/595, and the Farmans were
based. The first attacking wave
consisted of Corsairs. The
French fighters rose to intercept them, shooting down two aircraft.
Then followed a more serious attack in which four Hawk 75s carrying
33 kt bombs, and nine Ki 21s participated.
They were met by four MS 406 fighters, and there occurred a sharp
fight. Among the French, two
pilots known to us, Labussiere and Tivoliere (sp.?) distinguished
themselves. The first shot down
two fighters, and the second a bomber (in various sources, differing data
are found). However, the Thais
were not turned from their mission. Sergeant
Sangvan, and also Warrant Officer Tongkam and his wingman Sergeant Blengkam
each shot down a Morane. Labussiere
was hit; he was wounded and the motor of his Morane began to burn, but in
spite of this, he managed to land his fighter on its belly. Later the Thais also announced that they had managed to
destroy a F 221 on the airfield and an antiaircraft battery, but the French
did not confirm these claims. During
the following days ground battles were fought over local terrain which did
not give a victory to either side. On
January16 at 14:45 hours, the crew of a French hydroplane observed the Thai
navy moving toward Koh-Kang Island, which they reported to the command of
the naval escadre which put to sea without delay.
The next day about 6:00, Lt. Pleniemaison in a Loire tracked the
movements of the enemy ships and then attempted to bomb them, but was driven
off by anti-aircraft fire and dropped his bombs in the sea. Then occurred a naval battle yielding victory to the French,
who by 8:00 had sunk and damaged 5 ships.
Problems with radio communications
did not permit the Thai sailors to summon the help of aviation from the
nearby Chanthaburi airbase. They
managed to establish connections only at 8;15 after the start of the working
day, through the local telephone exchange.
However, soon after there appeared Corsairs which bombed their own
flagship, and also - without damage the coastal defense monitor Donburi.
After twenty minutes, yet another V-100 appeared, finally with a pilot able to distinguish “ours” from “theirs”, which
dropped its bombs 5 m from the side of the French cruiser Lamotte-Pike.
Then there arrived more and more aircraft but the French
aintiaircraft held them to a respectful distance, and the bombs landed no
closer than 200 m from the French squadron. By 9:40 the attacks ended.
In spite of their success, the
campaign did not end in favor of the French.
Under pressure from the Japanese a cease-fire agreement was signed on
January 31, and on May 9 a peace treaty, according to which the Petain
government gave up territories in Laos and Cambodia totaling 69,000 sq km.
A little more than half a year
went by, and Tokyo decided that in its relations with Thailand, a
declaration of eternal friendship was necessary.
The Japanese intended to become the complete masters of the banks of
the Mekong, and on December 8, completely unexpectedly for
the officials in Bangkok, the imperial forces invaded the territory
of their ally on the pretext of defending it against the English.
Local forces offered them minimal opposition.
The pilots tried to have their say.
Thus several Hawk 75s from the Prachuab-Khiri-Khanda airbase fought
with a group of Japanese fighters, suffering losses and having no success.
three Hawk IIIs of 43 Squadron of 1 Air wing took off from the field
aerodrome at Natana-Vathon to intercept 9 Ki-30 bombers of the 31 Sentai
heading toward Bangkok under the protection of 11 Ki-27 fighters of the 77
Sentai. the Thais fought
bravely, but suffered complete defeat.
In a fast-flowing battle Major Yosio Hirose and also Lieutenants
Yosio Kuwabara and Guguo Kojimo, shot down all three Hawks, the pilots of
which were killed.
After several hours, by order of
Marshal Pibun Songram the army ceased resistance. The Japanese did not change the leadership of the country and
formally recognized their sovereignty.
In response to this courtesy, on January 25,1942 the Thai dictator
declared war on the western allies. During
the course of the next several years Bangkok received from Tokyo a quantity
of military assistance: specifically 12 each,
Nakajima Ki-27 and Ki-43 fighters; 9 Ki-30 bombers, several Mansyu
Ki-79 trainers, and the Potez aircraft confiscated from the French.
True, there is no information about the activities of the Thai Air
Force on the side of the Japanese. But
it is known for certain that far from all the Thai military, particularly
the aviators, agreed with the political course of their leaders.
many of them established contact with the Americans and took a direct
part in a series of secret operations conducted by the US 13th
Air Force along the borders of Burma, where a large portion of the Thai Air
Force was located.
And what of the French?
With only a puny air strength, they also headed straight toward a
collapse associated mainly with the expense of aviation and the absence of modern
equipment and replacements. They
suffered combat losses. Thus on
January 27, 1942 the Japanese shot down a pair of patrolling M.406s
mistaking them for P-40s of the American “Flying Tigers”.
In March 1943 the Air Force of French Indochina was disbanded in view
of the almost completely worn out state of their equipment.
After that there remained only a few Loire 130 flying boats.
In March 1945 the Japanese trampled the remnants of French
sovereignty and occupied the colony. After
a brief battle almost all the French contingent surrendered.
At this time three Loire flying boats were blown up by their crews,
and when the Japanese capitulated in September 1945 only a single Loire 130
At the conclusion of the war the
French authorities returned to Indochina.
But soon events began to unfold in the region which changed the
previous arrangement of things and significantly influenced the course of