Thursday, September 8, 2016

Ian Cobain - Britain’s secret wars

For more than 100 years, Britain has been perpetually at war. Some conflicts, such as the Falklands, have become central to our national narrative, but others, including the brutal suppression of rebels in Oman, have been deliberately hidden

...between 1918 and 1939, British forces were fighting in Iraq, Sudan, Ireland, Palestine and Aden. In the years after the second world war, British servicemen were fighting in Eritrea, Palestine, French Indochina, Dutch East Indies, Malaya, Egypt, China and Oman. Between 1949 and 1970, the British initiated 34 foreign military interventions. Later came the Falklands, Iraq – four times – Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Libya and, of course, Operation Banner, the British army’s 38-year deployment to Northern Ireland. For more than a hundred years, not a single year has passed when Britain’s armed forces have not been engaged in military operations somewhere in the world. The British are unique in this respect: the same could not be said of the Americans, the Russians, the French or any other nation... Only the British are perpetually at war

In the months after the surrender of Japan on 14 August 1945, the British people were ready to believe that war was behind them. The newspapers were full of stories about possible home rule for India, and dockers going on strike in London, Liverpool and Hull. It is questionable how many readers of the Manchester Guardian on 6 December 1945 saw, let alone read, a short item that was tucked away at the foot of page six, nestled between a reader’s letter about the Nuremberg war crimes trials and a leading article about the foundation of the United Nations.

Under the headline “British in Indo-China” appeared a copy of a letter that had also been sent to Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary. “It appears that we are collaborating with Japanese and French forces against the nationalist forces of Viêt Minh,” the letter read. “For what purpose is this collaboration? Why are we not disarming the Japanese? We desire the definition of government policy regarding the presence of British troops in Indo-China.” The letter was signed by the “British other ranks” of the signal section of an infantry brigade based in Saigon.

It was highly unusual – notwithstanding the egalitarian spirit of those postwar days – to see a group of low-ranking British troops so publicly demanding that the foreign secretary explain his government’s policies. But what was truly extraordinary was the disclosure that British troops were fighting in the former French colony against the local population, and that they were doing so alongside their former enemies: the Japanese army and the Vichy French.

Few members of the public were aware that the British government had been so anxious to see the French recover control of their prewar colonial possession that the entire 20th Infantry Division of the British Indian Army had been airlifted into the country the previous August, with orders to suppress the Vietnamese people’s attempts to form their own government. There were almost 26,000 men with 2,500 vehicles, including armoured cars. Three British artillery regiments had also been dispatched, the RAF had flown in with 14 Spitfires and 34 Mosquito fighter-bombers, and there was a 140-strong contingent from the Royal Navy.

On landing, the British had rearmed the Vichy troops with new .303 British rifles. Shortly afterwards, surrendered Japanese troops had also been rearmed and compelled to fight the Vietnamese – some under the command of British officers. The British were operating in accordance with an order that they should show a ruthless disregard for civilians, who, consequently, were killed and maimed in large numbers. “There is no front in these operations,” the order said. “We may find it difficult to distinguish friend from foe. 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. If one uses too small a force, and it has to be extricated, we will suffer casualties and encourage the enemy.”

Many of the troops who were expected to act on such orders were appalled. One of the signatories to the letter to Bevin was Dick Hartmann, a 31-year-old soldier from Manchester. Hartmann later recalled: “We saw homes being burned and hundreds of the local population being kept in compounds. We saw many ambulances, open at the back, carrying mainly – actually, totally – women and children, who were in bandages. I remember it very vividly. All the women and children who lived there would stand outside their homes, all dressed in black, and just grimly stare at us, really with … hatred.”

Back in the UK, parliament and the public knew next to nothing about this war, the manner in which it was being waged, or Britain’s role in it. And it appears that the cabinet and the War Office wished their state of ignorance be preserved. At the Allies’ south-east Asia headquarters in Ceylon, however, and at the War Office in London, British commanders and senior defence officials were enraged by the letter. Hartmann and his comrades were warned that a brigadier was coming to see them.
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