Robert Fleming explores how a secret British involvement in the Vietnam War came about through covert operations, proxies and attachments to US, Australian, and New Zealand units.
I first became interested in this subject when I'd been doing some research into some particular elements of the Australian Army during the Cold War.
At first I came across one particular officer who was born in the UK and I thought I wonder how many more there were. And I saw that he'd had service in Vietnam and starting delving a bit deeper and found more and more, which made me think about what exactly was Britain’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
Before I go on I will say that I’ve come across a lot of myths, legends and speculations about the British Armed Forces in South East Asia during the Cold War. So I will start with the disclaimer that because there is a lot of unverifiable information, some of the things which I might talk about might not be provable, so we will see how we go.
For many people the Vietnam War is remembered as an American war against the communist regime of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), or North Vietnam as it is better known. It was a war of foreign policy assertion with the aim of limiting the expansion of communist influence in South East Asia and in the greater geopolitical context of the Cold War, and an attempt to blunt Soviet influence in Asia.
The main element of the American war was about eight years, but US forces actually spent closer to 25 years attempting to destroy communism’s hold in the region, fighting communist forces in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and against both the conventional forces of the North Vietnamese Army and the communist and nationalist guerrilla allies that were known at the Viet Cong (VC), or National Liberation Front (NLF).
The era in which the Vietnam War was fought is also often associated with the counter culture movements that arose around it - civil rights and mass anti-war movements and the associated music and cultural revolutions that occurred around these times, such as free love and more liberal attitudes to drug use.
There is a very broad misconception that the Vietnam War was an all-American effort. It was actually fought by an alliance of anti-communist forces including troops from Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, the Philippines, the Khmer Republic, Laos and Thailand. But whether people recall the Vietnam War as an American war or a war of an international anti-communist alliance, most people believe that the Vietnam War was one of the major Cold War conflicts in which Britain was not directly involved.
In 1944 British members of the Special Operations Executive's Force 136 had begun conducting raids and sabotage operations throughout Japanese-occupied French Indochina and were increasingly joined by French Vichy defectors and members of the 'Maquis' or French Resistance.
When the Japanese eventually surrendered on 15 August 1945, British troops from the 20th Indian Division and the Republic of China rushed into Indochina to disarm the Japanese, to restore order and to assist the French reassert control over their former colonies. From 1948 to 1960 Britain was also leading a Commonwealth alliance in a 12-year struggle against Malayan communists known as the Malayan Emergency.
Indochina had come to become dominated by the French between the 1850s and 1890s. Despite various opposition movements France maintained colonial rule over what’s now considered Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia until France itself had fallen to Nazi Germany in 1940. Rule of French Indochina passed to the Vichy French, puppet rulers under control of Nazi Germany, who passed their local rule onto their Japanese allies for more practical reasons.
In September 1940, 36,000 Japanese troops had occupied French Indochina leaving the Vichy only nominally in charge for administrative purposes. When the Vichy France regime collapsed in Europe their administration in Indochina remained, but by then no longer any connection with the Axis command.
Fearing capitulation in the face of any Allied invasion, the Japanese brutally overthrew their former collaborators on the 9 March 1945 murdering many French officers and officials and taking direct command of Indochina.
The Japanese and Vichy occupations of Indochina had been disastrous for the region. On top of violent suppression of any form of dissidence, the occupation coincided with a brutal famine which claimed more than a million lives. A local resistance movement of nationalists called the Viet Minh began to spring up under the leadership of a man called Ho Chi Minh.
The American intelligence and espionage branch known as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) had been providing the Viet Minh with specialist jungle and guerrilla warfare training to aid them in their resistance and sabotage activities against the Japanese. But the Viet Minh began to call for an independent Vietnam and began to fight both the Vichy French and the Japanese.
Because of their successful disruption of the Japanese war efforts, the Viet Minh had received finance from both pre-communist Republic of China and from the Soviet Union, as well as the United States. The United States had also begun to supply arms and supplies. On 30 April 1945 US support for the Viet Minh was shown when Major Archimedes Patti of the OSS met Ho Chi Minh personally to offer his direct support.
The Viet Minh recruited skilled Japanese jungle fighters to join their ranks and teach their men in guerrilla and jungle warfare and some even took up leadership roles within the Viet Minh. The Japanese even also voluntarily handed over their arms and armaments to assist the Viet Minh. Ho Chi Minh arranged for famine relief to the isolated villages that were struggling with the famine and it reached even the remotest parts of Vietnam winning him widespread popular support amongst the population.
On 2 September, the same day as the Japanese surrender ceremony was taking place on the USS Missouri, Ho Chi Minh, the newly appointed supreme adviser of Vietnam, declared the Republic of Vietnam to be independent. In his proclamation he evoked the rights of men that were declared in the US Declaration of Independence.
France, though, had no intention of permitting independence for French Indochina and with British backing they intended to reassert their authority. France had few troops in South East Asia as most of the free French forces had been involved in the liberation of France itself.
As the Japanese surrender took effect there were over 70,000 Japanese troops still remaining within Indochina. 200,000 Chinese Kuomintang nationalist soldiers began pouring south into Vietnam to oversee the Japanese defeat and withdraw from the northern sector. The Chinese were surprised to discover that the Viet Minh had launched their August revolution and seized control of French public buildings refusing to release former French administrators from prison.
Meanwhile, Britain had begun to assist the French in reasserting its Asian power base with British forces located already in the region in accordance with the Potsdam agreements. The Allied South East Asia Command was expanded to include Indochina.
As the Chinese were consolidating control of the north of Indochina, Major General Douglas Gracey led the 20th Indian Division in Operation MASTERDOM entering Indochina through Burma and taking control of the south below the 16th parallel with the objective of maintaining law and order, releasing Allied prisoners of war and disarming and repatriating former Japanese occupiers. When they arrived they came across a bizarre mix of Viet Minh and Japanese troops still armed together keeping order.
A British Anglo-French task force was established called the Allied Land Forces of French Indochina with the primary responsibility of securing French Indochina against the independence movement. But on the 13 September the troops were also landed in Java to suppress Sukarno’s assertion of independence for the Dutch East Indies and help re-establish Dutch rule there. Divided between the responsibilities of Indochina and Indonesia they were ineffective.
The Kuomintang were occupying territories as far south as the 16th parallel in accordance with the Potsdam Conference and began linking up with local Vietnamese Quoc Dan Dang anti-colonialist fighters. The Chinese began supplying them with more weapons. But France eventually convinced the Chinese to withdraw completely by the following February in exchange for renouncing all pre-war French claims to extra territorial privileges in China itself.
Ho Chi Minh had spent four months in France in 1946 trying to negotiate peaceful terms for Vietnamese independence, but France had refused to agree, instead seeking to reassert its own control. By late 1946 France and the Viet Minh were in direct war. The bloody and brutal conflict became known as the First Indochina War.
The almost total destruction at Dien Bien Phu of the French Groupement Mobile 100, the major component of the French Far East Expeditionary Corps, effectively ended France’s ability to reassert any authority in Indochina and saw the dissolution of the French colonies in 1955. As a result, South Vietnam turned to the United States for military support and protection from the north.
Britain’s supposed non-involvement in the Vietnam War is something of a foreign policy oddity. Despite a less than harmonious beginning, since the great rapprochement of the beginning of the 20th century Britain and the US have shared many ideals. Culture and policy have mostly been aligned and the two nations have generally been supportive of each other’s foreign policy.
Similar cultural and linguistic backgrounds have helped shape the Anglo-America relationship. The US began as a union of former British colonies after all. The similar political and foreign policy direction, co-operation in trade and commerce, military activities and nuclear weapons, and intelligence sharing is truly unparallelled in world power and it has led to this co-operation being referred to as the 'special relationship'.
The 'special relationship', of course, has been most recently epitomised by pally scenes between presidents and prime ministers, such as Obama and Cameron watching college basketball together with hot dogs, or playing one-sided table tennis.
America was still living in fear of the evils of communism that had grown out of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s 'reds under the bed' scaremongering campaigns of the 1950s. Harold Macmillan, and the very brief administration of Alec Douglas-Home, had enjoyed very strong 'special relationships' with their US counterparts.
Macmillan and Kennedy got on famously and even managed to overcome secretary of state Dean Acheson's attempts to marginalise Britain with a vehement attack of rhetoric in 1962 when he labelled Britain as being 'past it' and no longer having a role in world affairs. Macmillan retorted that the list of those that had previously underestimated Britain’s will and influence included Philip of Spain, Louis XIV, Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler. Macmillan quipped that Britain had a duty to guide growing US global power in the same way that the Greek philosophers had curbed Rome’s excesses.
Kennedy trusted Macmillan and they epitomised the purpose of the post-war 'special relationship', but frustrations were felt on both side. Eisenhower and the lingering McCarthy-ists in Washington went to the trouble of trying to completely undermine Macmillan’s efforts at détente with the Soviet Union in the 1960 peace summit. And Macmillan’s frustrations probably contributed greatly to his decision to pursue British membership of the European Economic Community.
Harold Wilson first won office in 1964. The Labour government of Harold Wilson had significant differences of opinion to the Democratic administration of President Lyndon Johnson. Although often accused of being a communist or a socialist, in reality he was not that much of a hardline socialist. Wilson was more of a soft left leaning man. He was a founder of the Bevanite Group which was orientated toward democratic socialism. He was a strong proponent of social ideals such as anti-classism and advocacy of increased opportunity through access to education, social service and welfare.
When Wilson took over from his Conservative predecessors though, he began as he intended to go on by recasting the Anglo-American relationship as a 'close' relationship rather than a 'special' one. Kennedy’s successor, Johnson, took an instant dislike to the Labour prime minster, even once referring to him as a 'creep'.
He resented Britain’s past attempts at mediation and the role that they had played in shaping the 1954 Geneva Conferences on Indochina. During those conferences Wilson attempted to create a peaceful union of the divided Vietnam and argued, 'We must not join with nor in any way encourage an anti-communist crusade in Asia,' and that 'a settlement in Asia is imperilled by the lunatic fringe in the American Senate who want some holy crusade against communism'.
Johnson called Wilson in the middle of the night to launch into a tirade in which he stated, 'I won’t tell you how to run Malaysia; you don’t tell me how to run Vietnam.'
Despite the strains in these quarters there was a general recognition by most in Washington that Wilson was actually having to balance domestic demands. Wilson was overly concerned about the growing anti-war movement in Britain and the extreme left of his own party whose sympathies probably lay more with the communists than in maintaining the 'special relationship'. Despite this he still managed to act both in the protection of British interests in South East Asia and also to surreptitiously support the US-South Vietnamese military operation whilst focusing international attention on their diplomatic efforts.
A 1965 Foreign Office report stated that 'Britain’s interests as a non-communist power would be impaired if the United State’s government were defeated in the field or defaulted on its commitments. Britain should therefore give moral support to our major ally.' Unlike the Foreign Office mandarins that had drafted that report, Wilson though had to also deal with both public opinion and the extreme left of his own party.
In March 1965 US ambassador to Britain, David Bruce, explained in Washington that the British leader was hotly accused by many in Britain, including a formidable number of moderate Labour parliamentarians, of being a mere satellite to US policy and subscribing blindly and completely to policies about which he has not been consulted in advance. Wilson also came under attack from extreme leftists in the Labour party for having not directly condemned the Vietnam War as a war of aggression against democratic socialism.
At the same time the US defence secretary, Robert McNamara, had attacked his lack of commitment of British troops in Vietnam stating that Britain should pay the blood price by sending troops in as part of the unwritten terms of the 'special relationship'.
Although Wilson refused to send combat troops, he did commit Special Forces instructors. No matter how much he may have wished to do so, there was never a possibility that Wilson could have committed direct combat troops without risking an increasing public backlash or potentially a party leadership challenge from within.
McNamara, though, accused Wilson of hypocrisy, pointing out the burden sharing commitment that Macmillan had demanded of Australia and New Zealand under the terms of the SEATO [South-East Asia Treaty Organisation] treaty in Britain’s ongoing struggle with communist insurgence in Malaya and their undeclared confrontation with Indonesia, where at that time there was more than 30,000 Commonwealth troops still in the field in 1964.
Wilson’s finger was acutely on the public pulse, however. Between 1963 and 1964 the peace, nuclear disarmament and anti-war movements began to merge in the UK. And for one Trafalgar Square march the new group adopting the ND [Nuclear Disarmament] symbol as what has become the international symbol of peace.
Anti-war sentiment had been growing and when an international day of protests was called on the 15 October 1965, London joined Rome, Brussels, Copenhagen and Stockholm in staging anti-Vietnam War protests. A second international day of protests was held in 1966 and even larger crowds began to gather in London. Regular protests outside the American embassy soon turned violent with over 300 arrests, but from cities across America and increasingly across the world the cry was becoming, 'Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids have you killed today?'
Britain’s involvement in the conflicts in Malaysia and Indonesia had also become increasingly unpopular. In 1966 defence minster, Dennis Healy, produced an updated defence white paper for the Labour government of Wilson known as the 'East of Suez Review' which suggested scaling back global commitments to the withdrawal of British forces deployed east of the Suez by 1971, including from their major bases in Malaysia, Singapore and Aden. This was seen as a watershed in withdrawal from empire in terms of defensive policy.
When Australian prime minister, Harold Holt, gave a speech in Washington in front of Johnson in June 1966 announcing an increased troop commitment to Vietnam he rounded off with his most famous catch phrase, 'All the way with LBJ,' prompting some in the US military to quip that Australia was now the US’s closest ally due to their unwavering support - a subtle rebuke that was felt stingingly by many here in London.
Many in the Conservative opposition saw the withdrawal to Europe as a huge loss of international prestige, particularly in the eyes of the Americans. There was a change of government in 1970 that saw the Conservatives back in power under Heath who immediately set about overturning the withdrawal, opting to retain bases in Hong Kong, Diego Garcia, and a British military garrison in Brunei.
In 1971 Heath’s government fully recommitted to South East Asia by signing a bilateral defensive pact known as the Five Powers Defence Agreement (FPDA) with traditional regional allies, Australia and New Zealand, and newly independent former colonial interests, Malaysia and Singapore. This alliance remains active today.
In 1960 the Viet Cong (VC), or the National Liberation Front (NLF), began intensifying their activities and began operating in the south. Group 559 had been formed the year before to upgrade the Ho Chi Minh trail and allow the increased arms smuggling into the south to continue. They were particularly focused on encouraging non-communists to join the struggle against foreign intervention.
Although the VC denied they were directly taking orders from Hanoi there they certainly working to a similar purpose and statements that were released later in the 1980s showed they were under direct authority from Hanoi. In 1960 and 1961 the number of guerrilla attacks in the south rose sharply.
In the two-year period from his election in 1961 to immediately prior to his assassination, Kennedy had increased aid, finance, weapons and other supplies into South Vietnam seemingly with little effect. The attacks continued to increase. The Kennedy administration also began sending helicopters, light aircraft, intelligence equipment and additional advisers.
Washington’s policy makers began to doubt South Vietnamese leader [Ngo Dinh] Diem's ability to defeat the north. The CIA therefore decided to assist an Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) plot to overthrow him, resulting in his assassination in November 1963.
To deal with the chaos that followed in the south with regime change, Kennedy deployed a further 16,000 advisers. Australia also began to increase its deployment and the elite Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) began arriving. The AATTV was a training team in name only. In fact they were a highly trained Special Forces unit.
The major US combat phase of the Vietnam War began with the Gulf of Tonkin Incident - a maritime confrontation on 2 August 1964 in which a US Navy vessel, the USS Maddox, was conducting North Vietnamese signal interceptions when it came under direct attack from North Vietnamese torpedo boats.
From December 1964 the north intensified conventional attacks into the south to capitalise on the internal unrest and government inefficiency following Diem’s overthrow. As the north began to make gains, such as the Viet Cong victory in the Battle of Dong Xoai, the US government called for a greater commitment from their allies as part of the newly labelled Free World Forces. Citing the risk of the domino theory, they encouraged SEATO alliance members to provide combat troops and Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines all agreed to increase their commitment.
The first request for British combat troops had been made in December 1964 and pressure to provide battalions of combat troops was continually applied thereafter. The US government even made a specific request for the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment), presumably because of their recent experience in counter-insurgency both in the Malayan Emergency and against the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya.
Wilson used the excuse that as co-chair alongside the USSR of the Geneva Peace Conference Britain was unable to become a direct belligerent without threatening the validity of the accords under international law. 'As co-chairman, Her Majesty’s government are prepared to turn a blind eye to American activities,' the Foreign Office secretly stated.
Douglas-Home suggested to secretary of state, Dean Rusk, it was being done to avoid any publicity for what the US was doing there. Wilson also privately added that Britain was embroiled in fighting the communist insurgency in Malaya which was occupying most of their attention. Johnson responded that even a symbolic token commitment would be appreciated, as it would add international legitimacy to their actions. 'Not even a bagpipe band?' Johnson is supposed to have sarcastically replied at Wilson’s final refusal.
It soon became publicly clear that the outward British refusal to directly commit troops personally annoyed Johnson greatly. Upon learning of the VC bombing of a Saigon nightclub frequented by US servicemen in February 1965 Wilson offered to fly to Washington to discuss the matter personally with Johnson. When Wilson phoned to discuss such a meeting he was met by a hostile Johnson who stated, 'It would be a very serious mistake for the Prime Minister to come over’. There was nothing to be gained by 'flapping around the Atlantic with our coat tails out'. He reiterated the US didn’t have the company of many allies in Vietnam, but if the prime minster had any men to spare he would appreciate them more than him.
The Americans then began to resort to outright bribery to try and coerce Wilson. A massive bailout was offered designed to alleviate Britain of the problems it was suffering after years of uncompetitive industry and an over-valued pound, and a postwar failure to reconnect with foreign markets. The bailout offer was directly linked to Britain both maintaining their commitments east of Suez and in West Germany, and offering at least a brigade-sized commitment into Vietnam.
National security adviser McGeorge Bundy went further by trying to bring Vietnam directly into the deal, counselling the president on 28 July 1965 that it made 'no sense whatsoever for us to rescue the pound in a situation in which there is no British flag in Vietnam...a British brigade in Vietnam could be worth, say, a billion dollars at the moment of truth for the sterling'.
1965 represented an escalation of the US ground war to a point of no return. Three thousand five hundred Marines deployed into South Vietnam in March and, despite the modern contrary belief, the US public was overwhelmingly in favour of intervention at that time.
For much of 1965 the Marines’ assignment was defensive, protecting against incursions from the NVLA [North Vietnamese Liberation Army]. But as is often the case US commanders struggled to reconcile with defensive constraint. Their military is geared towards overwhelming opponents with superior force, then as it is now.
By December the US commitment had grown from 3,500 to over 200,000 men. When a force of ARVN with US support was overwhelmed at the Battle of Binh Gia in the Mekong Delta it represented both the growing strength and capability of the Viet Cong but also a shift from guerrilla attacks to conventional warfare. It also marked a desire by the US commanders to shift from defence to offence, and taking the fight to the enemy. General Westmoreland stated, 'I am convinced that US troops with their energy, mobility and fire power can successfully take the fight to the NLF.'
Throughout 1966 and 1967 US and SEATO forces continued offensive operations such as MASHER, ATTLEBORO, CEDAR FALLS and JUNCTION CITY under the new banner of 'search and destroy'. But VC flexibility using conventional tactics when an advantage could be taken and resorting to guerrilla warfare and ambushes and hit and run when not, meant that the VC were impossible for US forces to pin down and destroy.
Unlike the Americans, the Australian Special Forces actually deployed counter-guerrilla tactics that they’d learned from their operations in Malaya, Borneo and Indonesia and initially enjoyed greater success. But by late 1967 allied operations were already struggling to deal with the VC and NVLA strategy. Operation JUNCTION CITY was a strategic failure and 'search and destroy' was having no effect.
The strategic situation deteriorated severely when General Westmoreland’s troops were successfully lured into the battle of Khe Sanh in Quang Tri Province in January of 1968. It marked the beginning of what was to be known as the TET Offensive in which over 100 cities and towns all over South Vietnam were strategically attacked whilst the Americans were pinned down at Khe Sanh.
The Americans were losing touch with the most crucial element of 'hearts and minds' warfare, one of the elements that had seen Britain so successful in Malaya. Robert McNamara in particular had made the strategic mistake of believing that just as the Axis military had been the centre of gravity for the opposition faced by the Allies in World War Two, so too the VC and NVLA must be the centre of gravity for communist forces in South East Asia. Therefore, he believed that if they could be isolated, decapitated or contained the regime surely must collapse, just as Nazi Germany had done.
But in reality the hearts and minds of the populus were actually in support of the communist regime and even in the south this was beginning to grow in the face of the American aggression and atrocity.
On the converse, the NVLA knew that they could not possibly defeat the allies militarily, so they focused their strategy on constraining the enemy and promoting political opposition, and providing for the welfare and security of the populus as their priority. The Americans did not, and to a certain extent still do not, understand that not everyone sees US democracy as the greatest gift to the world.
In 1966 Ho Chi Minh warned that 'if the Americans want to make war for 20 years, we shall make war for 20 years. If they want to make peace we will make peace and invite them to afternoon tea'.
From 1965 to 1968 the Americans began Operation ROLLING THUNDER dropping literally millions of tons of munitions on the NLF, NVLA and VC positions but also onto civilians, and included controversially dropping munitions upon the supply line known as the Ho Chi Minh trail which ran through non-belligerent Laos and Cambodia.
US Air Force chief Curtis LeMay promised the communists he was going to bomb them back to the Stone Age, but the indiscriminate killing and suffering that it caused raised support for the opposition both locally and internationally.
The American heavy bombing of civilian areas in the North Vietnamese cities of Hanoi and Haiphong further enraged the British public and strengthened Wilson’s case for non-involvement. It also led him to begin publicly disassociating himself from the American intervention. Although stopping short of joining the International Control Commission's condemnation of the bombing of the DRV, Wilson did publicly state he was strongly opposed to such bombing.
The bombing of Haiphong was also problematic as a non-belligerent Britain was technically still able to trade with the north and was doing so. A number of British merchant vessels were damaged during near misses in Haiphong harbour and a small group of British seamen were badly injured in American bombing. But the White House was aghast at Wilson’s response, interpreting his reaction as an active betrayal by an ally.
Wilson, recognising his disassociation reduced his already diminishing standing in Washington, wrote to Johnson about the pressure he was under to denounce 'the whole of your Vietnam policy'. He tried to explain that he personally rejected the view 'not only because I distrust the motives of those who put this argument forward, but because I find their argument to be balls'. Although Johnson continued to feel frustrated, he finally accepted that Wilson’s hands were tied.
But despite Wilson’s balancing of US expectation and the British public's anger, his reluctance to openly commit ground troops actually stems from the fact that from 1965 onwards British planners were already concluding that the war could not be won militarily. A draft Foreign Office report of June 1968 stated, 'It is very much in our interests that the United States should as soon as possible find a means to escape from her present predicament in Vietnam.’ President Johnson stated that during his presidency there were over 70 peacemaking initiatives, nine of which had originated in Britain.
Wilson sought these peaceful solutions not just to end the horrendous bloodshed in Vietnam, but also because he felt a personal sentiment to enable Britain’s traditional allies - the US, Australia and New Zealand - to extricate themselves from an increasingly complicated and unlikely conflict. Nixon replaced Johnson in 1969 as US president and Wilson found him a lot easier to get along with. At the back of his mind also was that British involvement might actually realise the looming menace of a direct Chinese and Soviet involvement, and risked turning a regional conflict into a global one.
Besides, Wilson had earlier learned from a close friend and Labour backbencher, Harold Davies, that when Davies had visited Hanoi in 1957 and personally met with Ho Chi Minh, the communist leader had informed him calmly that 're-unification is inevitable, time is on our side and the ordinary people of the south are with us'. Davies was convinced Ho Chi Minh was right and told Wilson so, and so it proved.
Caroline Page mentions in her book 'US Official Propaganda During the Vietnam War' that President Kennedy and President Diem both used British advice and expertise in the form of the British Advisory Mission (BRIAM) in Saigon. This mission existed from 1962 to 1965 advising the South Vietnamese government on pacification of guerrillas.
The British Advisory Mission had begun working in Saigon in September 1961 in order to provide limited support to Diem’s government and the US efforts. The mission consisted of a small team of experts in counter-subversion, intelligence and information gathering. And whilst the British government continually proclaimed this to be a civilian team, BRIAM was taking South Vietnamese soldiers into Malaya where they received counter-insurgency training from British veterans of the anti-communist war there.
In 1961 the British officer Sir Robert Grainger Ker Thompson, a veteran of the Burma campaign in World War Two and a successful commander in the Malaya counter-insurgency campaign, published a draft document that became known as the Delta Plan aimed to dominate control and win over the population particularly in rural areas beginning with the Mekong Delta region. Interestingly the British document heavily influenced the US strategy over the following years.
He promoted establishing curfews and prohibiting areas to control movement on roads and waterways and to hamper the communist courier system, along with limited food control in some areas. These were tactics successfully used by Gerald Templer in Malaya and later introduced by US forces in Vietnam.
By 1962 there had been two jungle warfare schools operated by the British in Malaya, one at Johor and one at Kota Tinggi. A British Army training team also operated briefly in South Vietnam during 1962. However, they were soon replaced by BRIAM operatives.
In August 1962 a proposal was sent to the War Office from an unnamed counter-insurgency officer in Malaya stating that SAS [Special Air Service] units could be deployed to Vietnam. However, the British military attaché to Saigon, Colonel Lee, advised against it on the basis of it undermining Britain’s position as the co-chair of the Geneva Convention.
He did, however, suggest that other covert aid could be provided by Britain. He included the recommendation that this might be possible to implement 'if the personnel are detached and given temporary civilian status or are attached to American Special Forces in such a manner that their British military identity might be hidden within their US unit... However, the Americans are crying out for expertise in this field.'
Lee also suggested to the War Office that the civilian mission, BRIAM, could be composed of suitable individuals of both European and Malay background whose experiences in counter-insurgency work in Malaya would make them effective enablers in BRIAM’s work in Vietnam. He also suggested that by giving SAS regiment members temporary civilian status it could allow them to assist BRIAM by providing security cover for their diplomatic work.
BRIAM’s 'Noone mission', under the command of Richard Noone, began in the summer of 1962 and was still operating in 1963. Other than the British Advisory Mission, there were other units also continuing to operate directly out of the embassy. There were the usual military attaché staff, members of the Intelligence Corps, the Royal Military Police, and in addition to the defence attaché posts the Chief of Staff Committee noted the posts were another way to introduce 'extra British miliary personnel into Vietnam which stands up to critical public comment'.
The MI6 station in Hanoi and the British GCHQ monitoring station in Little Sai Wan in Hong Kong were regularly responsible for gathering and forwarding intelligence reports to their American and Australian counterparts, as they were obliged to do so under the terms of the defence sharing arrangement known as ECHELON or Five Eyes.
MI6 intercepts of North Vietnamese intelligence were used alongside US intelligence gathered by the NSA [National Security Agency] stations in Thailand and the Philippines for targeting bomb strike locations, including NVA SAM [surface-to-air missile] launchers and other logistics sites. Any questions that might be asked about this intelligence gathering were met with the standard reply that it was related to Australian operations.
Whilst continuing to publicly denounce British involvement to both the media and in the face of parliamentary questions to the Commons, a 1964 Foreign Office document stated that 'British provision of arms to the US for use in Vietnam was done in the knowledge that it would breach Geneva Conventions' and that 'Britain’s direct involvement in Vietnam is insignificant, but their interests as a non-communist power would be impaired if the United States government were defeated in the field or defaulted on commitment'.
Throughout 1966 the staff of the Intelligence Corps in the embassy in Saigon were often secondments from 3 Commando Brigade's Special Forces personnel, providing Special Forces perspective and access into South Vietnam through the embassy. Although none of these personnel were there in combatant roles, they were free to move around Saigon and Bien Hoa, and mix with US and other Commonwealth troops.
In 1968 a request from the Foreign Office for additional personnel from the Royal Military Police (RMP) was sent to the Saigon embassy. The embassy’s guard was made up mainly of RMP staff and Gurkhas and by this time the embassy had become a hive of activity.
One former Royal Engineers sapper tells of seeing a diplomatic bag full of captured VC weapons being sent back to the UK for origin and manufacture carbon analysis. He also mentioned how the embassy’s chancery had its own internal security system which was not accessible by other embassy staff and how the Signals' radio operators were always locked into an inaccessible cage when dealing with a large volume of radio traffic to and from London.
There were also a small number of mainly ammo techs [ammunition technicians] from the RAOC [Royal Army Ordnance Corps] and RE [Royal Engineers] who dismantled US ordnance from Cambodia to stop it being used by the RVN or the VC for satchel charges or roadside IEDs [improvised explosive devices].
Other British Army engineers also worked on the construction of air bases in Thailand from which both RAF [Royal Air Force] and USAF [United States Air Force] aircraft flew missions throughout South East Asia, including sorties into Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. It has been suggested that the RAF's 34 Squadron Beverleys, or possibly C130s, were flying directly into Nui Dat.
Beverleys from the Far East Air Force Transport Command were based at Seletar in Singapore and were officially deployed on humanitarian missions for the purpose of delivering food, relief aid, medical supplies, rice and other food. Flight manifests show that these flights from RAF Seletar did go directly into Vietnam such as into Can Tho, Ban Me Thuot, An Loc and Loch Ninh.
In 1966 11 Independent Field Squadron, Royal Engineers were based at Terendak Camp in Malacca in Malaysia from where they were flown north-east into Thailand alongside Royal Australian Engineers. There they began the construction of an airfield at Leong Nok Tha as part of Operation CROWN undertaken under the terms of the SEATO treaty with the stated purpose of furthering economic development in that remote part of Thailand.
The area was already home to a small cluster of USAF airbases, but the new airfield had an airstrip that was two kilometres long and paved, for the first time ever in this region, with high quality concrete. Caribou and Hercules aircraft can happily land on bitumen runways or even grass, and do not need anything like two kilometres of runway. The new airbase was clearly designed to be used by fighter jets and heavy bombers and most probably was used in covert US attacks into Laos.
Sabre fighter jets and RAAF [Royal Australian Air Force] personnel were stationed at nearby Ubon Ratchathani for long durations during the Vietnam War. The Australian government did refuse permission for bombing missions into Laos but the baby air force, also known as Air America, were known to fly missions from here as well.
One of the more intriguing pictures that I came across in researching this lecture is this. It is clearly the distinctive delta wing shape of the Avro Vulcan strategic bomber, an aircraft that was only ever operated by the RAF. This photo was taken from a collection by US Task Force 116, a task force of US Navy and Marines raised for Operation GAME WARDEN in which aggressive river patrolling into the Mekong Delta resulted in domination of South Vietnamese inland waterways. This picture was taken deep over South Vietnam and the Vulcan, as some of you may be aware, serves no other purpose than as a strategic bomber.
Other interesting accounts include former RAF airmen who told of an RAF Canberra bomber squadron despatched from Hong Kong on a routine patrol, but when airborne the RAF airmen were ordered to replace their RAF shoulder titles with RAAF ones.
Prior to 1964 and the Gulf of Tonkin, RAF air crew were operating directly in Vietnam and qualified for the South Vietnam clasp for the General Service Medal. Here we see RAF aircraft at Nui Dat as late as 1971.
British SAS personnel are known to have been operating in Thailand at this time as trainers for the Thai Special Forces but it has been suggested that from there they were also able to support covert attacks onto the Ho Chi Minh trail.
One of the men who was responsible in such an operation was Sergeant Dick Meadows of 22 SAS seen here in June 1969's edition of the SAS 'Mars and Minerva' journal in a US Army uniform receiving the Silver Star for his service in Vietnam. Interestingly within 'Mars and Minerva' the caption reads as him belonging to USSF/22 SAS. There are also six SBS [Special Boat Service] personnel located in Thailand at the same time.
The Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force were also based in the area at the time. HMS Chichester was based out of Hong Kong and provided support for the rescue of British personnel. British nationals were allowed into and out of South Vietnam during the conflict.
This painting is an interesting one from the collection of the National Army Museum. It is one of a Malay kelong, a traditional floating fishing platform. This was painted by a local Malay artist and came to us through the Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) from a member who had been serving at RAF Butterworth. I found an interesting account of the use of these kelongs by Australian SAS personnel to launch raids into Vietnam.
This is just some of the images of RAF and RAAF aircraft operating out of Butterworth, Malaysia. At the same time as the RAAF were flying combat sorties into Vietnam, the RAF were also flying aircraft into and out of the airbase at the same time.
Most of the British service personnel in Vietnam, though, weren’t serving directly in British units. According to personal recollections there is a strong suggestion that British men had been sent to Fort Dix for Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) training exercises. When they arrived there they symbolically resigned from the British Army and re-enlisted in the US Army. After completing tours of duty in Vietnam, the veteran GIs reversed this process receiving discharges from the US Army and re-enlisting into the British Army.
A very interesting extract from the book 'Soldier V SAS: Into Vietnam' by Shaun Clark states:
‘In June 1966, after completing final training for Vietnam in the jungles and swamps of New Guinea, 3 Squadron, Australian Special Air Service embarked by boat and plane from Australia to set up a forward operating base in Phuoc Tuy Province, a swampy hell of a jungle and paddy fields 45 miles east of Saigon. The VC main forces units had a series of bases in the jungle and the political cardres controlled most of the villages. The Aussies were still working there under these appalling conditions when three members of the legendary SAS arrived secretly from Bradbury Lines, Hereford to give assistance in a major assault against the VC.’
Another telling personal account given by a former British intelligence officer stated how he recalled trying to keep tabs on the large number of British passport holders in South Vietnam and that to his surprise they were often attached to US, Australian or New Zealand military units.
Under the terms of the ANZUS treaty and the 1971 Five Powers Defence Arrangements, the exchange of personnel between allied forces became much more fluid and allowed for the overlapping of operations and training exercises. One such training exercise that dates from this time is called Long Look and still continues today as a tri-nation defence training co-operation between Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
A small unattached party of British Special Forces operators were allegedly serving with the joint Australian/American Mekong Delta river reinforce as well. SAS personnel were supposedly dispatched to serve alongside 82nd and 101st Airborne and the Australian and New Zealand SASs, and Royal Marine Commandos and SBS boatmen were serving with the US Navy Marines.
There was nothing wrong with the quality of Australia’s fighting men, indeed the Americans were often praiseworthy of their jungle fighting skills and their kill ratio of nearly 500:1 was one of the highest of any conflict. Nor was there any particular need for British fighting men to support them or improve them somehow.
There was no reason for British combat troops to necessarily join Australian units. But Australia’s commitment was much greater than their ability to expand their forces to meet it. They had to introduce conscription, but it was more the technical soldiers they were mainly in need of - armour, military police, catering, ordnance and disposal. Therefore, they turned to Britain to assist in these areas.
The large number of conscript soldiers filling out the ranks of the regular battalions also meant that they sought skilled NCOs [non-commissioned officers] from British battalions to bring these men up to scratch and allow Australia’s existing professional soldiers to concentrate at the sharp edge. The highest percentage of British-born Australian soldiers with previous experience were senior NCOs.
Personnel from both the SBS and troops of the Special Air Service were also placed in attachment to the Australian SAS and Mew Zealand SAS regiment in Vietnam. In his book 'SBS: The Inside Story of the Special Boat Service', John Parker mentions that SBS personnel were training Vietnamese Navy Seals alongside US Navy Seals.
One of the interesting anomalies of sovereign forces to arrive out of the SEATO treaty at this time was the raising of 28 ANZUK Brigade in November 1971. Based out of Singapore it was an air portable immediate reaction force and, although technically a brigade of the British Army, it had a large portion of personnel from both Australia and New Zealand and served in Malaya and Vietnam at this time.
Although exchanges and training opportunities were the main method used, the most common story of British-born soldiers in the Vietnam War were those who had actually resigned from the British Army and then directly joined US, Australian or New Zealand forces.
One such account is that of Private Jim Riddell, a Royal Marine from 1958 to 1968. He left the Marines and signed on with the Royal Australian Corps of Infantry at Australia House on The Strand here in London, one of 382 so-called 'Australia House Men'. After induction at the infantry school in Ingleburn, he was assigned to 4RAR and served in Vietnam from December 1968. One of the downsides of his experience was that having taken to living in his new country he returned here to London to visit his sick father and was refused permission to return to Australia, only finally making it back 32 years later.
There’s some statistics there I’ve just put up. If anyone wants some more information, I can gladly provide it, but essentially it turns out that somewhere in the order of about 4,000 British-born soldiers served with Australian forces alone. It was much harder to try and track down statistics relating to the US forces, but we know that at least 4,000 were probably in Australian service. According to the Australian Department of Veterans Affairs, it is officially believed that six soldiers or so joined the SAS, although 88 British-born men may have done so.
And there are some more 'Australia House Men'.
There’s a couple of very interesting stories including Robin Rencher who fought with 6RAR at the Battle of Long Tan. He later went back to the British Army and served in Northern Ireland, West Germany and the Falklands.
Another was Guy Bransby who joined the British Army as an artillery officer in the '60s serving in Vietnam, Cambodia, Kashmir, Northern Ireland and then the Falklands. His Vietnam service was as attached to both New Zealand and then Australian Special Forces.
Another fascinating character is the one in the bottom right, Alan ‘Taffy’ Brice, who was a member of 22 SAS and it was alleged he was one of the SAS men to operate in Vietnam. He then went on to serve in Cambodia, Kenya and Europe, but most interestingly he spent time in Rhodesia with the Central Intelligence Organisation where he was ordered to engineer conflict between Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU and ZIPRA and Robert Mugabe’s ZANU and ZANLA alliances.
Ironically, the most decorated US solider in Vietnam was definitely British. Rick Rescorla was born in Hayle in Cornwall in 1939. During World War Two his home town had been home to the 175th Infantry Regiment of the US 29th Infantry Division. The impact of American soldiers in his town had made a big impact on him.
He joined the Parachute Regiment and served in Cyprus and then the Northern Rhodesia Police Force. He later met an American who convinced him to try and join the US Army, and he later did so. He enlisted in 1963 and after going through basic training was despatched to Vietnam with the 7th Cavalry Regiment. He fought at the Battle of Ia Drang earning the nickname ‘Hardcore’. Lieutenant General Moore described him as 'the best platoon leader I ever saw'.
An interesting end to the story is that after the Vietnam War he retired to the United States where he became a security adviser for Morgan Stanley. In 1990 he submitted a report on the unsafe evacuation procedures in the Twin Towers. And when the Twin Towers were bombed in 1993 he recommended Morgan Stanley vacate the building, although they refused to do so because they thought it was a prestigious location. So instead he made them revise their emergency evacuation drills and carry out regular practice runs.
When the towers were again attacked in 2001 he was still working for Morgan Stanley. Despite port authority warnings for the employees to stay at their desks, Rescorla took action into his own hands and began personally evacuating Morgan Stanley.
Remembering how he had successfully calmed the nerves of young American soldiers in Vietnam by singing traditional Cornish folk songs, he did so again with the Morgan Stanley staff: 'Men of Cornwall stand ye steady; It cannot be ever said ye for the battle were not ready; Stand and never yield!' After successfully evacuating 2,687 employees he went back in to look for stragglers and the towers came down on him and his remains were never found.
Foreign Office papers have also been declassified in 2008 which revealed the extent of British involvement in Indochina. One of the really interesting things has been the issuing of GSMs [General Service Medals] and the Vietnam Medal and Australian issue. The official numbers show that very few recipients received the GSM South Vietnam clasp, but it has also been suggested that there were several unofficial issues to British personnel.
Finally realising that by the mid '70s a military victory had become impossible, the US began the messy process of extraction with the main task of saving face. In what was uncannily similar to the current strategy for withdrawal in Afghanistan, the US began a process they referred to as the Vietnamisation of the war. The Americans increasingly placed emphasis on South Vietnam’s government to take responsibility for their own self defence and reverted to training ARV enforcers and conducted a full drawdown of US operations in anticipation of withdrawal.
Wilson’s government had been right to avoid direct insertion of British combat troops into what was probably an unwinnable war from the beginning. Although the motivation had probably been more to do with existing over-commitments and economic challenges, the British government did everything they could to support Britain’s allies both in theatre and extracting themselves from Vietnam. And although the British government never directly committed any combat battalions, many hundreds and possibly thousands of British-born men served in allied armies in the Vietnam War either out of a sense of adventure or duty to their close allies.
Thank you very much.