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Vichy Indo-China vs Japan, 1940
The September 1940 accords signed by Japan and Vichy Indo-China which granted various basing and transit rights also limited to 6000 the number of Japanese troops which could be stationed in Indo-China, and set an overall cap of 25,000 on the total number of troops that, including basings and transit, could be in the colony at any given time. In addition, the final article of the agreement barred all Japanese land, air, and naval forces from Indo-Chinese territory except as explicitly authorized in the preceding articles. Exceptions to these agreements would require Vichy approval.
Within hours of the accords being signed, the Japanese 5th Infantry Division of the Army of Canton, withdrawing from China, crossed the border at three points in the vicinity of the rail junction at Lang Son which lies some 16 kilometers inside Indo-China. This movement contravened the new accords so that Vichy authorities in Hanoi faced an immediate crisis.
The Japanese division under General Nakamura consisted of three regiments with a full complement of artillery as well as light and medium tanks. In all, Nakamura's force amounted to roughly 30,000 men.
On the Vichy side, the Lang Son sector, under the command of General Mennerat of the 2nd Brigade, included five battalions of infantry, a group of tanks, a group of 75's and a battery of 155's; all told, about 5000 troops representing elements of 3rd Regiment Tirailleurs Tonkinois, 9th Regiment d'Infanterie Coloniale, and 5th Regiment Etrangere d'Infanterie.
The Attack at Lang Son
The Japanese attack began at 2200 on 22 September 1940. The northern column took Bi Nhi on the border and advanced up the road to the north toward That Khe (defended by one company), away from the main battle. The main effort came from the central column which crossed the border at Nam Quam, pushed aside two companies of II/3rd RTT, and then turned south at Dong Dang along the road and railway. The southern column rolled through the platoon holding Chima and attacked Loc Binh; there the bulk of a company of II/3rd RTT withdrew southward to cover Na Dzuong (reinforced there by elements of 9th RIC) while the Japanese pushed northward to support the central column's drive on Lang Son and cut the railroad to Hanoi. Thus Lang Son was threatened by the southern column and by the central column moving down from the north.
As the Japanese columns advanced on 23 September, Vichy commanders desperately attempted to impose control on the confused situation. Reserves were dispatched to the sector, but by afternoon enemy spearheads were already approaching Lang Son from the north. The airstrip there was bombed out in the afternoon.
The next day, IV/3rd RTT, brought up from its frontier posts in the night, attempted to counterattack in the direction of Dong Dang but was forestalled by a Japanese thrust from that town toward Khanh Khe conducted by part of the central column. Most of the native troops of the Vichy battalion melted away, leaving only the French elements.
Meanwhile, the central and southern Japanese columns continued to tighten their hold on Lang Son. The local Vichy commander contemplated withdrawal while a route remained open, but was ordered by General Martin in Hanoi to hold the town. South of the Song Ky Kong, the Japanese column took advantage of confusion among the defenders to push to the edge of town. North of the river in Ky Lua, the Japanese opened their 25 September assault against I/3rd RTT with heavy artillery preparation at 0530. Three hours later General Mennerat notified Hanoi that Lang Son, isolated and untenable without air and artillery support, must surrender. At 1040 General Martin granted permission and, following local negotiations, the bulk of I/3rd RTT and II/5th REI, remnants of I/9th RIC, and brigade HQ fell into Japanese hands.
The capture of Lang Son on the 25th released the bulk of 5th Division and opened the way south to Hanoi. Still in position, though, were Vichy defenders at That Khe in the north, Na Dzuong in the south, and -- in the critical sector -- fresh battalions barring the route from Lang Son at Lang Giai and Lang Nac.
Landings at Haiphong
During the action on the Chinese border, Japanese warships and transports lay off the coast in the Gulf of Tonkin. The garrison they carried, allowed under the accords, was denied permission to disembark. General Nishihara, having just signed those accords, departed Haiphong aboard DD Nenohi on the night of 23-24 September and joined the task force. In the morning Japanese aircraft began flights for reconnaissance and intimidation.
A Vichy envoy boarded CL Sendai to negotiate, but in the meantime shore defenses remained under orders to open fire against any attempt to force a landing. A tense standoff ensued.
At 0330 on 26 September Japanese forces came ashore across the beaches at Dong Tac, south of Haiphong, and immediately set out for the port city. A second landing put tanks ashore and at 0630 Haiphong was bombed, killing 37 civilians. By 1300, led by a dozen tanks, the Japanese force of some 4500 troops stood at the entrance to Haiphong.
These skirmishes came as a result of the aggressive attitude taken by the Japanese Army of Canton which appears to have been somewhat unconcerned about such diplomatic niceties as accords, agreements, and protocols. On 23 September Vichy had hurriedly approached the government in Tokyo to protest this breach of the agreements so recently concluded. Two days later Emperor Hirohito ordered an end to hostilities, and by the evening of 26 September fighting had died down.
General Nishihara returned to Haiphong on the 29th but was soon replaced as head of the Japanese mission by General Sumita who seems to have been more able to satisfy Vichy amour-propre. By the middle of October all POWs had been exchanged except 200 German legionnaires of 5th REI who remained in Japanese custody. Japan took possession of airfields at Gia Lam, Lao Kay, and Phu Lang Thuong and stationed 900 troops in the port of Haiphong and a further 600 in Hanoi. Vichy forces reoccupied Lang Son, and in the course of October and November the 30,000 troops of Japanese 5th Division completed their evacuation from China and embarked at Haiphong.
That same 5th Division, victors of Lang Son, went on to participate in the conquest of Malaya and Singapore in 1941-42.
Auphan, Paul and Jacques Mordal. THE FRENCH NAVY IN WORLD WAR II. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1959.
Hesse d'Alzon, Claude. LA PRESENCE MILITAIRE FRANCAISE EN INDOCHINE (1940-1945). Chateau de Vincennes: Publications du Service Historique de l'Armee de Terre, 1985.
Kirby, S. Woodburn. THE WAR AGAINST JAPAN, volume 1: THE LOSS OF SINGAPORE. London: HMSO, 1957.
Copyright © 1998 by Bill Stone
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16:16 on 22 January 2017