A Sideshow of a Large War
 by Aleksandr V. Kotlobovskii
Aviatsiia i Vremya 6’99
translated by George M. Mellinger, Twin Cities Aero Historians
(While 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 centuries.
                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 Japanese reaction.
                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 remained.
                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 later history.