The U.K., in short, did not officially involve in the Vietnam War. In other words, they did not officially send any combat troops to Vietnam, which saw its traditional ally New Zealand fighting without them in a war for the first time. However, the U.K. did quietly participate in some early training of American and South Vietnamese forces as well as advising them on pacification later on.
The United Kingdom’s support for Diem
During 1950s and 1960s, British “power by proxy” policy placed Anglo-American relationships at the center of its foreign policy. Its government, therefore, was fully supportive of American containment policy in general and its intervention in Vietnam in early 1960s in particular, stating Viet Cong domination in rural areas of South Vietnam was unacceptable. This resulted in the establishment of a British advisory group in South Vietnam known as Bristish Advisory Mission to South Vietnam (BRIAM) in September 1961 upon a request of South Vietnamese President Diem. Robert Thompson who had gained tremendous experience in 12-year-long anti-guerrilla-warfare in Malaya led the group and soon became one of Diem’s leading foreign advisors.
Although British government continually claimed BRIAM was purely a civilian team, it involved in training of American and around 300 South Vietnamese troops in guerilla tactics and counter-insurgency at their two jungle warfare schools in Malaya, one at Johor and one at Kota Tinggi during 1962-1963.
One of BRIAM and the U.K.’s main contribution to the war, however, was Thompson’s counter-insurgency programs, based on the counter-insurgency technique successfully used in Malaya Emergency in the 1950s. In fact, Thompson’s Delta Plan drafted in late 1961 was at the heart of the U.S. Strategic Hamlets Program.
British Covert Assistance
In August 1962, in a letter written the War Office in London, the British military attaché to Saigon, Colonel Le included a proposal of Richard Noone – an advisor to Malayan government stating that Special Air Service (SAS) units could be deployed to Vietnam. Although rejecting this proposal as it would undermine Britain’s position as the co-chair of the Geneva Convention, he suggested to detach SAS regiment members and give them temporary civilian status or attach them to American Special Forces so that Britain could assist America in dealing with the Montagnard tribes (nguoi Thuong) against the Viet Cong while British military identity was hidden.
This plan was approved. A Special Forces team led by Richard Noone, comprising ethnic Malayo-Polynesian tribesmen, was sent to Vietnam under the cover of BRIAM’s “Noone mission”. The mission began to operate in the summer of 1962 until at least late 1963.
Other British convert assistance to American struggle in Vietnam included their secret flights from Hong Kong to deliver arms, especially bombs and napalm as well as intelligence support provided by MI6 station in Hanoi and British monitoring station in Hong Kong until the fall of Saigon in 1975. Those interception of North Vietnamese intelligence would be used together with U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) stations in the Philippines and Thailand to target bombing strikes over North Vietnam. This was acted under Australian operations.
In addition, Royal Navy had training exercises with the South Vietnamese navy while Royal Engineers helped construct American air bases in Thailand from which both Royal Air Force (RAF) and United States Air Force (USAF) aircraft flew missions throughout South East Asia, including raids into Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
British Troops in Vietnam
Although the U.K. did not officially send any British troops to Vietnam, there are reportedly many British servicemen served in Vietnam not in British units but through the resignation – re-enlistment process from British to U.S., Australian or New Zealand military forces as mentioned above. This was similar to the Canadians – although Canada like Britain had no official military involvement in the Vietnam War, many Canadians enlisted in the U.S. forces and subsequently served in Vietnam. That process would be reversed upon their completion of tour of duty in Vietnam. They were discharged from the allies’ forces and re-enlisted into British Army again
Apart from the BRIAM, there were other units operating directly out of the British Embassy in Saigon such as the usual military attaché staff, the Royal Military Police, the Intelligence Corps. When the BRIAM was disbanded in March 1965, they continued to help train South Vietnamese police.
To conclude, there was a tangible British commitment and direct involvement in Vietnam in the first half of the 1960s albeit deemed “insignificant” by Foreign Office. This commitment continued in a small way after the war was escalated in 1965.
Stay tuned for our upcoming articles: Why did the U.K. not involve directly in Vietnam? & Did the U.K. support the U.S. in the Vietnam War?
P.S. If you know any stories of British servicemen served in Vietnam, please let us know in the comment below or drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.