In 1966 I was a sapper serving with 34 Field Squadron, Royal Engineers, based at Tidworth Barracks, when we were told that we had to fly out to the Far East to help deal with problems in Borneo and Brunei. In early October, we arrived in Singapore to acclimatize for a week, but after a few days there we were all called to a meeting and told we would now be going to north-east Thailand instead. We were to take part in Operation Crown and complete the building of a military airfield. A few days later we flew out to the partially built airstrip, next to the Thai village of Loeng Nok Tha, which was about 25 miles from the border with Laos.

The stamp in my passport said that I was: ‘permitted to stay in Thailand until the completion of his assignment for SEATO.’ It was the height of the Vietnam War and about 60 miles south of Loeng Nok Tha lay the town of Ubon with its Royal Thai Air Force Base, from which the US 8th Tactical Fighter Wing were flying combat missions to attack targets, or provide protection from North Vietnamese MiG-17s and 21s. Often we would see the F-4 Phantom fighter bombers roar over us on their way to North Vietnam or the Ho Chi Minh Trail – which came through Laos from North Vietnam and then down to the South. Sometimes, on their way back, we could see holes and other bits of damage on some Phantoms, when they had been hit by anti-aircraft fire.

One day a rumour swept our base camp that Julian Pettifer, a BBC news correspondent then known for his reports from Vietnam, was in the vicinity and we were all ordered not to speak to him. Officially, Britain was playing no part in the Vietnam War. Harold Wilson, the British Labour PM, had come under strong pressure from the US to send British troops directly into this war. While he stood firm against this – and he deserves credit for that – it was thought that Britain could be helping the US in other, undeclared, ways. Our close approximation to the conflict had disturbed one or two of us and the question began to be asked: ‘To what use would the military airfield we were building be put?’ No one, however, got any logical answers, but we suspected that it must be something to do with the Vietnam War.

After nearly seven months, the runways had been built to a standard that jet aircraft could use and we were pulled out at the end of April 1967, leaving a completed, but seemingly deserted airfield. There the matter rested till 1993, when Willy Bach, another ex-sapper from 11 Independent Field Squadron, who had worked on the building of the airstrip in early 1966, decided to travel back to Loeng Nok Tha. Willy had been, like me, disturbed by our construction of this airfield and its unknown usage. Having moved to Australia, Willy decided to re-visit the now unused airstrip and ask the locals: ‘Who had used the airfield?’ The answer he got was: ‘Baby Airforce, people many countries.’

Baby Airforce was a colloquial name for Air America – the CIA’s clandestine airline – which carried out covert missions into Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. Their motto was: ‘Anything, Anytime, Anywhere’ and they usually used mercenaries – most were former military pilots and aircrew. In 1965, the area of Laos adjacent to the northernmost provinces of South Vietnam was claimed as part of the ‘extended battlefield’ by the US High Command. Loeng Nok Tha and the airfield we had constructed was less than 25 miles from this part of Laos. From 1965 to 1973 nearly 3 million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos and it became the ‘most bombed country in the history of the world.’ Ordnance that did not explode when dropped, still kills children and adults there.

After leaving the army, Willy Bach became a dedicated campaigner for peace. As for me, after we returned to Tidworth, I started to travel to London to take part in the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. Eventually, this brought me to the attention of the Special Investigations Branch (SIB) of the Military Police and my CO told me that the SIB’s secret reports said there was a possibility that I would try to make contact with enemy forces in conflict situations – and, therefore, this suggested that I could no longer be trusted. Shortly afterwards, in late 1968, I bought myself out of the army, just after I had spent two months serving in a then passive Northern Ireland. I have been a peace campaigner ever since and I started collecting information about the often hidden history of my country’s involvement in conflicts, including the following about Britain’s role in Vietnam since 1945.

Protecting the pre-War Status Quo

Even as the Second World War was ending British troops were being used to reassert the pre-war status quo in places as wide apart as Greece and Vietnam. In Greece, after the Germans were forced out, there occurred civil strife between right-wing royalist forces and the left-wing National Popular Liberation Army (ELAS) which had borne the brunt of the fight against the Germans. British troops were ordered to intervene on the royalist side, prolonging the conflict and sparking an all-out civil war. With the odds now stacked against them, the ELAS forces were eventually defeated.

While the victorious Allies moved to build a new world order open to their manipulation and control, tensions often surfaced between them. In SE Asia, Britain was suspicious of US intentions towards the old areas of European dominance. These issues were discussed among the Allies at Yalta in early 1945. Afterwards the US President, Roosevelt, stated:

‘I suggested … that Indo-China be set up under a trusteeship … Stalin liked the idea, China liked the idea. The British didn’t like it. It might bust up their Empire, because if the Indo-Chinese were to work together and eventually get their independence the Burmese might do the same thing.’

[The Bitter Heritage: Vietnam and American Democracy 1941-1946, by Arthur M Schlesinger Jr, Houghton, Mifflin, New York 1967].

Other European countries, like France and Holland, faced the loss of parts of their empires, because of the time it would take them to get their military forces back to the area. Britain, to stabilize its own colonial interests in the region, was determined to ensure Holland could return to dominate Indonesia and France to control Vietnam (Indo-China):

Throughout the war Churchill did his best to ensure the restoration of the pre-war Imperial status quo in Asia, American ideas of political emancipation for former French colonies were not to his liking. He knew well that independence is a contagious force, and that if allowed in Vietnam it might well spread to Burma and to India itself. Using every weapon in his formidable armoury, Churchill worked to scupper Roosevelt’s liberal policies, particularly over French Indo-China.

[The British In Vietnam – How the twenty-five year war began, by George Rosie, Panther Books 1970].

In both Vietnam and Indonesia nationalist movements, who in conjunction with the Allies had fought the Japanese, were preparing to come to power. In early September 1945, the Vietnamese made their Declaration of Independence:

‘We are convinced that the Allied nations, which at Teheran and San Francisco have acknowledged the principles of self-determination and equality of nations, will not refuse to acknowledge the independence of Vietnam.’

The Vietnamese went on to explain that they were ‘a people who have fought side by side with the Allies against the Fascists during these last years, such a people must be free and independent … We, members of the Provisional government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, solemnly declare to the world that Vietnam has the right to be a free and independent country…’

[The British In Vietnam – How the twenty-five year war began, by George Rosie, Panther Books 1970].

Ho Chi Minh was one of the leaders of the Vietnamese independence struggle. Twenty-five years earlier he had stayed in London for a short period:

On October 25 [1920], the Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney – a teacher, poet, dramatist and scholar – died on the seventy-fourth day of a hunger strike while in Brixton Prison, London. A young Vietnamese dishwasher in the Carlton Hotel, London, broke down and cried when he heard the news. “A nation which has such citizens will never surrender.” His name was Nguyen Ai Quoc who, in 1941, adopted the name of Ho Chi Minh and took the lessons of the Irish anti-imperialist fight to his own country.

[A History of the Irish Working Class, by Peter Berresford Ellis, Pluto Press 1985].

In 1945, as British troops first entered Saigon, they were welcomed by the people. They had arrived at a time when Ho Chi Minh and the League for the Independence of Vietnam (Viet-Minh) had widespread support throughout the country. The British commander, General Gracey, later wrote: ‘I was welcomed on arrival by the Viet-Minh … I promptly kicked them out.’ [Journal of the Royal Asian Society, July-Oct. 1953].


The Japanese Rearmed

Twenty years later, one of Gracey’s officers, Robert Denton-Williams, told how he had arrived with the advance party of British troops: ‘As an officer of the Indian Army, I was part of the first allied unit to reach Indo-China in 1945. The 20th Indian Division was stationed in Burma. The greater part of it embarked by sea, but an advance battalion of Gurkhas (900 men with British officers) flew to Saigon via Bangkok. I was with the advance groups as ammunition and transport officer …’ Denton-Williams then gave his account of what happened:

‘The British troops were made most welcome … and posters from the airport to the rue Catinat (the centre of Saigon) bore the legend “Welcome to the allies, to the British and to the Americans – but we have no room for the French”. Everything seemed to be going well. The government of the country was in the hands of the Committee of the South, a united front organisation of the Viet Minh and various Buddhist and other groups. Ho’s picture was all over Saigon.

… Then an appalling thing happened. Some eighty Free French (not the discredited Vichy French) resolved to restore French power in Indo-China … they occupied a number of key public buildings in Saigon, hoisted the tricoleur, and declared the return of Indo-China to French sovereignty. Then they called upon the British to arm them and join them against “les jaunes” (the yellow people).’

[Statement by Robert Denton-Williams, in Ho Chi Minh and the Struggle for an Independent Vietnam, by William Warbey, Merlin Press 1972].

Back home people were deliberately misled as to what was happening. As Robert Denton-Williams explained: ‘In a command paper (R 2817; 25 March 1954), and also in other papers before and since, the Central Office of Information has given it out that because of “unrest and terrorism”, General Gracey had given orders to arm the French. Both parts of the statement were wholly untrue. There was at this time no unrest and no terrorism, and General Gracey did not give the order to arm the French. The order came from the Foreign Office through an F.O. official in Saigon, and it was delivered to the local British Commander, Brigadier-General Taunton.’ [Statement by Robert Denton-Williams, in Ho Chi Minh and the Struggle for an Independent Vietnam, by William Warbey, Merlin Press 1972].

To stem the increasing tide of nationalist hostility, the British sought help from their defeated enemy. Ironically, as the Allies tried and executed some Japanese soldiers as war criminals, others were rearmed and prepared for front line duty. George Rosie, in his book The British in Vietnam, said:

‘A further element of irony was contained in the unenviable role of the Japanese, who, defeated and humiliated, were obliged to pick up their arms for their former enemy and to bear the brunt of the “Allied” casualties.’
[The British In Vietnam – How the twenty-five year war began, by George Rosie, Panther Books 1970].

Robert Denton-Williams, who took part in this process, later recalled: ‘As there were less than a thousand allied troops and some 79,000 Japanese concentrated round Saigon, the Japanese units (previously under the command of Field Marshal Count Terauchi) were now taken under British command to defend Saigon.’ Denton-Williams also helped rearm the Japanese: ‘They were even issued with 3-inch mortars and bombs which they had themselves captured from the British at Singapore in 1942. I myself was responsible for issuing arms and deploying transport with the help of Colonel Endo and Lieut.-Colonel Murata of the Japanese army.’ [Statement by Robert Denton-Williams, in Ho Chi Minh and the Struggle for an Independent Vietnam, by William Warbey, Merlin Press 1972].

Alongside British soldiers, these Japanese troops were used to police Vietnam until French forces could return and take over. Military force was used to quell dissent, as Vietnam became a colonial battleground for British, then French and finally US troops:

We are used to the idea that wars in Vietnam have been exclusively the concern of first the French, and later the Americans. But, in late 1945, it was British bullets which were whining across the paddy-fields around Saigon, British mortars which were pounding the frail villages of the Mekong Delta (and British soldiers who were being brutally ambushed by the forerunners of the Vietcong). The history of the British occupation of South Vietnam does not form a happy narrative. Like most post-war colonial interludes, it is a tale fraught with political complexity and intrigue, with internecine struggle, with terrorism and repressive counter-measures…

[The British In Vietnam – How the twenty-five year war began, by George Rosie, Panther Books 1970].

Indonesia and Vietnam

In Indonesia, British forces were also used to occupy the country, allowing the Dutch to return and take control. Here the fighting was just as fierce as British and Indian troops suffered nearly a thousand dead and many more injured. The Japanese troops, who fought alongside them, also had some 1,000 soldiers killed. The 23rd Indian Division, which took heavier casualties in just over a year in Indonesia than in four years fighting the Japanese in Burma, recorded in its official history their feelings about fighting with their former enemy:

‘As remarkable as it was unwelcome … we had for a time to order the Japs to fight with us, an event hushed up at home.’
[A forgotten war: British intervention in Indonesia 1945-46, by John Newsinger, in Race and Class, vol.30, no.4, Apr./Jun. 1989].

Tens of thousands of Indonesians died as towns and villages were bombed by aircraft and shelled by artillery and Navy ships. With the population overwhelmingly on their side, the nationalists would not give in. The British Commander, Mountbatten, despairingly informed London that Indonesia threatened to become a ‘situation analogous to Ireland after the last war, but on a much larger scale.’ [Troubled Days of Peace, by Peter Dennis, Manchester 1969].

Many British soldiers, who had expected a quick return home as the Second World War ended, became resentful about having to stay on to ‘save’ Indonesia for the Dutch:

When the Seaforth Highlanders set off for Jakarta docks in November, 1946, after months of coping with the Indonesian liberation movement on behalf of the absent Dutch, they passed contingents of troops just in from Holland. With one accord, the British soldiers raised clenched fists and shouted ‘Merdeka!’ (‘Freedom!’). Liberation salute and slogan were more than just a joke at Dutch expense. They were a recognition by men of what was still an imperial army that empire was not going to long survive in the Indies – something which the young Dutchmen in the lorries going the other way did not yet understand.
[Guardian, 10th Sept. 1999. Article by Martin Woollacott about Indonesia and East Timor].

In Vietnam, after the Japanese had surrendered in 1945, British troops had taken control of Vietnam, south of the 16th parallel and forced on the people the return of French rule. British troops, with the Japanese now fighting alongside them, were as harsh and inflexible in suppressing Vietnamese independence as the French and Americans who followed them. George Rosie stated: ‘It is quite clear the war was no trifling affair, and that some of the operational instructions issued to the British division were implicitly ruthless. There was an alarming directness about the way in which the British troops operated, a directness which cost the lives of thousands of Vietnamese.’ Rosie went on to give as examples ‘two operational orders [which] stand out as indicative of the way in which the war was waged. Both are disturbing in their implications. They were issued to 100 Indian Infantry Brigade, operating to the north of Saigon (the worst area) under the command of Brigadier Rodham.’ Rosie continued:

The first is Operational Instruction No. 220, dated 27 October, 1945, which states that, ‘We may find it difficult to distinguish friend from foe … always use maximum force available to ensure wiping out any hostiles we may meet. If one uses too much no harm is done.’ Thus, while admitting that it was often impossible to tell combatants from civilians, the British units are exhorted to use ‘maximum force’, which means that in this thickly peopled territory any hostile act could have brought down fire from mortars, 25-pounders and the guns of the 16th Light Cavalry’s armoured cars. With such firepower, in these conditions, how could civilians (who were ‘difficult to distinguish’) have avoided high casualties? Similarly, the second order, Instruction No. 63, dated 31 December 1945, states quite categorically that it was ‘perfectly legitimate to look upon all locals anywhere near where a shot has been fired as enemies – and treacherous ones at that – and treat them accordingly…’

[The British In Vietnam – How the twenty-five year war began, by George Rosie, Panther Books 1970].

Critical Voices

By October 1945 British forces in Vietnam numbered nearly 26,000 men, backed by RAF Spitfire and Mosquito warplanes. Many of the troops were from India, where critical voices were raised. This dissent was given expression by Indian independence leaders like Pandit Nehru:

‘We have watched British intervention there [Vietnam] with growing anger, shame and helplessness, that Indian troops should be used for doing Britain’s dirty work against our friends who are fighting the same fight as we.’ [New York Times, 1st Jan. 1946].

Back home in Britain the wartime coalition government, led by Churchill, had resigned and, at the end of July, Labour won a ‘landslide’ victory in the 1945 general election. With its programme of ‘radical reforms’, many expected changes in overseas affairs from Attlee’s new government. Instead, it gradually became clear that Labour was continuing Churchill’s colonial policy. On 11th December in the House of Commons, Labour MP Tom Driberg questioned the use of British troops in Vietnam:
Claiming that the British people had ‘learned with dismay that four months after the end of the war in the Far East, British and Indian troops were engaged and were suffering heavy casualties in a war in … French Indo-China … the object of which appeared to be the restoration of the … French Empire.’ He made use of the fact that Terauchi’s soldiers were being used against the Vietnamese: ‘… their [the British people’s] dismay was not lessened when they learned that we were also employing Japanese troops…’

[The British In Vietnam – How the twenty-five year war began, by George Rosie, Panther Books 1970].

As late as the end of January, Driberg was still pressing for information on the activities of the British forces of occupation. On 28 January he demanded a statement on British withdrawal, details of casualties, and an assurance that guarantees of future independence would be given by the French. He was told that: ‘Allied casualties during the period from mid-October up to 13 January were 126 killed and 424 wounded. Of the killed, three were British and thirty-seven were Indian.’ The government also estimated that the Vietnamese dead numbered 2,700. No figure was given for Vietnamese wounded. [The British In Vietnam – How the twenty-five year war began, by George Rosie, Panther Books 1970].

In the end, military might won the day and the Vietnamese were forced back. As Robert Denton-Williams explained: ‘October and November 1945 saw some fierce fighting, and the Viet-Minh suffered severe casualties. Finally the Saigon bridgehead was made secure, pending the arrival of General Leclerc and his Foreign Legion troops from Madagascar.’ Britain’s actions in denying Vietnamese self-determination and restoring French rule led to three decades of bloody colonial warfare, before the Vietnamese finally achieved their independence. Many of the British forces fighting in Indo-China believed their government’s policy was the result of a ‘secret deal’ between the French and the Labour government:

As many British and Indian officers in Saigon understood it, a deal had been done between Ernest Bevin, British Foreign Secretary, and Massigli of France. Under this secret agreement, the French were to be allowed to re-establish themselves in Indo-China on the understanding that they would not attempt to return to Syria and the Lebanon. The Committee of the South, in the face of Western perfidy, resolved to fight; and nightly attacks on Saigon began. [Statement by Robert Denton-Williams, in Ho Chi Minh and the Struggle for an Independent Vietnam, by William Warbey, Merlin Press 1972].


Propaganda and Tragedy

Whatever the differences between Britain, France and the US, the West, as part of the Cold War, were united in depicting SE Asia as an area ripe for ‘communist subversion.’ They started a propaganda offensive based on the ‘domino theory,’ that outlined how if one country in that area should succumb – then the rest were sure to follow. The main believers of this theory, however, were its propagators and it came to dominate their strategy and objectives. After the end of the Second World War, from 1948 Britain had successfully fought a ‘communist insurgency’ in Malaya. In 1952, General Templer, the British High Commissioner of Malaya, stated that: ‘the hard core of communists in this country are fanatics and must be, and will be, exterminated.’ Templer worked closely with Robert Thompson, who many regarded as the architect of the British victory. In 1961 Harold Macmillan, the Tory PM, appointed Thompson as head of a British Advisory Mission to South Vietnam. Some of the counter-insurgency tactics used in Malaya, were adopted for use in Vietnam and in 1969 Thompson was appointed as a special ‘pacification’ advisor to Nixon, the US President.

After the Japanese had surrendered in 1945, British governments had used their armed forces to fight the Vietnamese independence movement, then supported the French politically and with military equipment, until their defeat. Afterwards, successive British governments did the same for the US. In 1954, as French troops were under siege at Dienbienphu, Harold Wilson had spoken against British complicity in Vietnam:

‘… not a man, not a gun, must be sent from this country to defend … colonisation in Indochina … we must not join or in any way encourage an anti-communist crusade in Asia under the leadership of the Americans or anyone else.’ [Daily Worker, 5th May 1954]


Eleven years later, Wilson, now the Labour Party leader and PM, described his present British policy: ‘We have repeatedly said … that we support the US in their policy in Vietnam.’ [House of Commons 14/12/65]. The next year I ended up at Loeng Nok Tha in north-east Thailand. Was the military airfield we helped to build there a covert part of Britain’s support? Was it instrumental to the bombings and killings in Laos and Vietnam? In 1975, nearly a decade later and now a civvy, I watched the scenes on TV as the last US helicopters fled from Vietnam. Ironically, almost forty years since that panic stricken exit, the US is now increasingly engaged in trade and investment with a united and independent Vietnam. Britain’s holding-role in 1945 had led directly to large scale colonial wars, which saw the Dutch forced from Indonesia and the French from Vietnam. Over 3,000,000 US troops were ultimately involved in Vietnam after the French withdrawal. While the US lost over 58,000 soldiers killed in the conflict, some estimates of the Vietnamese dead are above 3 million.

Aly Renwick served with the British Army in SE Asia and is a member of Veteran For Peace UK.




  1. George Hill says:

    Tried to post earlier but never worked for me. Thanks for this Aly, a really interesting read. The war machine never really stops and even in the so called times of Peace which have been few and far between the war machine rages on in the background.


    There is no way to Peace. Peace is the way.

  2. Willy Bach says:

    Thanks Aly for packing so much into this article and for featuring the air field near Leong Nok Tha (Loeng Nok Tha).

    I welcome more people putting their hand up to say they were suspicious at the time, as I was. I served in NE Thailand with 11 Independent Field Squadron RE from March to May 1966. Not many of us discussed why we were there, but the internet has helped to bring some of us together. Sadly, there is still confusion among some.

    Indeed, the CIA’s privately-owned contract airline, Air America did land at Leong Nok Tha. There are photos of one of the unmarked planes on the runway. There were also anxious telegrams (National Archives, Kew) asking for instructions of what to do with Americans in civilian clothes and no badges of rank. They were instructed to welcome them into the Officers’ Mess. Air America also expressed concern at the unreadiness of the air field.

    The huge US base at Ubon Ratchathani, with all the F-4’s used for bombing North Vietnam and Laos, also supplied lots of materials and consumable items to keep Leong Nok Tha functioning. There were Australian Sabres from 79 Sqn RAAF there to guard the air-space and RAAF ground forces to guard the perimeter. As well as this, and very little known, was the US secret satellite tracking station, Phu Mu, 35 km North of the airfield, which issued final flight plans and target coordinates. The US also maintained a small communications hut at Leong Nok Tha, which was out of bounds to British troops, but supplied the football results from Britain. There are photos of US Army trucks at Leong Nok Tha as well.

    The real purpose of the airfield was as a stepping-stone to a former French airfield in Laos, at Seno, 35 km North of Savannakhet. 28 Commonwealth Brigade was to seize Savannakhet and the Seno airfield and Highway 9 all the way to the Vietnam border. This was to be an invasion of Laos, partition of that country along the 17th parallel, a military occupation and counterinsurgency war aimed at cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I personally participated in some major exercises near Terendak in Malaysia, where we rehearsed interoperability with Ghurkas as well as Australian and New Zealand members of 28 Commonwealth Brigade. There were Americans there – somewhere. There are documents on this in Kew, in Canberra and in Wellington. Some of these I have seen and digitally recorded. Had this invasion gone ahead, we would all have been sucked into this disastrous US war of aggression. The history of this period would look very different.

    Robert Fleming at the Army Museum in Chelsea has a video on the British collaboration in the Vietnam War. He too comments on Robert Thompson, but also interviewed some of the British SAS who fought in Vietnam. So, he covered some areas that I only touched upon:

    Britain also built Rolls Royce Spey engines of US war planes with huge subsidies to the company and help with marketing. British scientists at Porton Down helped to develop white phosphorus, Sarin, VX, nerve gases, riot control gases CR and CS, defoliants including Agent Orange, cluster bombs, thermobaric bombs… and so on. These were all the most egregious weapons that should be banned by the UN. Cluster bombs are still a huge problem for the people of Laos, especially as children are the main victims.

    Britain also arranged secret shipments from Sweden of the Carl Gustav anti-tank recoilless rifle for Australians to use in Vietnam. Sweden also supplied the US with explosives, ammunition and 60 mm Bofors cannons (so deadly as nose cannon on US planes and also used on helicopters. Britain was also engaged with the Swiss, supplying the Pilatus Porter directly for the CIA’s use in Laos and offered the Shortland Skyvan, a boxy little utility plane, ideal for heroin shipments from Lima Site 20A , Long Tieng, where Hmong General Vang Pao held the busiest airport in Asia, commanded by the CIA. Let us not forget too, that British Hovercraft were sold to the US military for use in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. The US Army made some Youtube videos:

    There is much more, but the important thing is to throw out the myth that Harold Wilson refused to send a pipe band to Vietnam and therefore Britain was in no way blameworthy for that pointless extravaganza of carnage. Sir Robert Thompson’s BRIAM in Saigon was also a model of couterinsurgency warfare that led to massacres like the one at My Lai. Thompson’s Malaya Emergency experience was a template for the use of Agents Orange, Blue, Pink and White used to destroy crops and cause starvation of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Lao peasants. All of this and the secrecy and lies that accompany it have made me determined to raise my voice each time the British and Australian forces are called upon to fight US wars – and it is still happening today.

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