A Brief History
On January 17, 1941, French colonial naval forces engaged the naval forces of Siam (Thailand after 1948) during the Franco-Thai War, a smaller war within the larger conflagration that was World War II. The French soundly defeated the Thai force, leading to negotiations and an end to the War via a Japanese brokered ceasefire on January 31, 1941.
Prior to World War II, the French colony of French Indochina (mainly what is now Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) included land claimed by Thailand. (The Thai people always called their country the English equivalent of “Thailand,” while outsiders called the country Siam until 1948-1949.) Once the French were invaded by the Germans and defeated in 1940, the government of France was split between Occupied France and an autonomous puppet state of Germany called Vichy France. The government of Vichy France had nominal control of French colonies, but had little practical ability to administer or defend the overseas territories such as French Indochina.
The Thai government, sensing an opportunity, believed France and their colonial government would be unable to defend Indochina, especially once the Japanese had invaded French Indochina in September of 1940 and by force were granted permission to create Japanese bases there. The Thais reclaimed some territory that was previously Thai, and surprisingly French colonial authorities sought to solve the problem by military action.
The Thai military was not strong by World War II standards, but could boast 60,000 regular troops, 134 armored vehicles, 4 submarines, 2 coastal defense ships (similar to Coast Guard cutters or destroyer escorts) and 12 torpedo boats. Additionally, they had an air force of 140 planes. The French had on hand only 12,000 regular French troops, with another 30,000 or so local colonial troops (mostly Vietnamese), supported by a paltry 20 small obsolete tanks and 100 airplanes, half of which were obsolete. The French naval forces included a light cruiser and 4 smaller ships, variously called “sloops” or “avisos.” (These latter vessels were roughly similar to a US Coast Guard Cutter or Destroyer Escort, or a Royal Navy Corvette.)
The match up of forces seemed to favor the Thais, especially so far as light tanks and airplanes. The Thai airplanes were mainly Japanese built aircraft and included 25 Curtiss Hawk fighter planes (US P-36), clearly superior to the 6 M.S. 406 and 25 bi-plane fighters of the French air forces. The naval match up is hard to compare, with such a different make up of ships each side fielded. Either side seems capable of inflicting a crushing defeat on the other, depending on circumstances. Ground forces seemed to give the Thais a slight edge, with their superiority in tanks, guns and supplies.
The War started in October of 1940, with the Thai air forces bombing French targets with virtual immunity from defenses. Thai ground forces occupied most of Laos by early January, although French defenses in Cambodia were holding on. Defeat loomed for the French forces by mid-January.
Desperate to strike a telling blow, the French dispatched their naval force to attack the Thai ships at Ko Chang Island on January 17, 1941. The French surprised the Thais, and managed to sink 2 Thai torpedo boats and damage one of the coastal defense vessels. The French had won their telling victory, losing in the process only 11 men killed and 1 aircraft lost, with some damage to their light cruiser. The Thais had lost 2 torpedo boats and their coastal defense ship was totally disabled. They had also lost some shore facilities damaged or destroyed, and 36 Thai sailors were killed.
In the larger picture of massive battles of World War II, the Battle of Ko Chang Island may seem tiny and insignificant, but the lost naval battle alarmed the Thai government and spurred a willingness to negotiate with the French, with the Japanese acting as mediators. A ceasefire was arranged on January 31, 1941, and a treaty was signed by both sides in Tokyo on May 9, 1941, returning most of the disputed territory to Thailand.
We often think of World War II in terms of the epic battles fought that involved hundreds of thousands or even millions of men, with thousand plane bomb raids and hundreds of ships supporting invasions by scores of thousands of men, but to the people involved, even relatively small combat was monumental. Smaller theaters and smaller battles were fought all around the world, many of which resulted in terrible privation and suffering, sometimes terrible cruelty, and at times incredible acts of heroism. We encourage our readers interested in World War II to explore some of these “minor” battles and theaters, and we think you find some mighty interesting stories. Question for students (and subscribers): If you have any interesting tales to share, please tell us about them in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Stone, Bill. Vichy Indo-China vs. Siam, 1940-1941. Stone & Stone, 1998.
The featured image in this article, a locator map for France and Thailand by Marmelad, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.
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