Franco-Thai War

Last updated
Franco-Thai War
Part of World War II
Indochine francaise (1913).jpg
French Indochina
DateOctober 1940 – 9 May 1941

Indecisive [1]

  • Japanese-mediated ceasefire [2]
On Japanese decision, disputed territories in French Indochina ceded by France to Thailand [3] :22 [4] :78

Flag of France (1794-1958).svg  Vichy France

Flag of Thailand.svg  Thailand
Commanders and leaders
Flag of France (1794-1958).svg Jean Decoux Flag of Thailand.svg Plaek Phibunsongkhram
50,000 men
(38,000 colonials)
20 light tanks
100 aircraft
1 light cruiser
4 avisos
60,000 men
134 tanks
140 aircraft [5]
2 coastal defence ships
12 torpedo boats
4 submarines
Casualties and losses
321 killed or wounded
178 missing
222 captured
22 aircraft destroyed
11 killed
1 light cruiser damaged
Total: 732+ casualties
54 killed [6]
307 wounded
21 captured
8–13 aircraft destroyed
36 killed
2 torpedo boats sunk
1 coastal defence ship grounded
418+ casualties

The Franco-Thai War (Thai : กรณีพิพาทอินโดจีน; French : Guerre franco-thaïlandaise) (1940–1941) was fought between Thailand and Vichy France over certain areas of French Indochina.

Thai language language spoken in Thailand

Thai, Central Thai, is the sole official and national language of Thailand and the first language of the Central Thai people and vast majority of Thai Chinese. It is a member of the Tai group of the Kra–Dai language family. Over half of Thai vocabulary is derived from or borrowed from Pali, Sanskrit, Mon and Old Khmer. It is a tonal and analytic language, similar to Chinese and Vietnamese.

French language Romance language

French is a Romance language of the Indo-European family. It descended from the Vulgar Latin of the Roman Empire, as did all Romance languages. French evolved from Gallo-Romance, the spoken Latin in Gaul, and more specifically in Northern Gaul. Its closest relatives are the other langues d'oïl—languages historically spoken in northern France and in southern Belgium, which French (Francien) has largely supplanted. French was also influenced by native Celtic languages of Northern Roman Gaul like Gallia Belgica and by the (Germanic) Frankish language of the post-Roman Frankish invaders. Today, owing to France's past overseas expansion, there are numerous French-based creole languages, most notably Haitian Creole. A French-speaking person or nation may be referred to as Francophone in both English and French.

Thailand Constitutional monarchy in Southeast Asia

Thailand, officially the Kingdom of Thailand and formerly known as Siam, is a country at the centre of the Southeast Asian Indochinese peninsula composed of 76 provinces. At 513,120 km2 (198,120 sq mi) and over 68 million people, Thailand is the world's 50th largest country by total area and the 21st-most-populous country. The capital and largest city is Bangkok, a special administrative area. Thailand is bordered to the north by Myanmar and Laos, to the east by Laos and Cambodia, to the south by the Gulf of Thailand and Malaysia, and to the west by the Andaman Sea and the southern extremity of Myanmar. Its maritime boundaries include Vietnam in the Gulf of Thailand to the southeast, and Indonesia and India on the Andaman Sea to the southwest. Although nominally a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, the most recent coup in 2014 established a de facto military dictatorship.


Negotiations with France shortly before World War II had shown that the French government was willing to make appropriate changes in the boundaries between Thailand and French Indochina, but only slightly. Following the Fall of France in 1940, Major-General Plaek Pibulsonggram (popularly known as "Phibun"), the prime minister of Thailand, decided that France's defeat gave the Thais an even better chance to regain the vassal state territories that were ceded to France during King Chulalongkorn's reign.

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 50 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.

Chulalongkorn King of Siam

Chulalongkorn, also known as King Rama V, reigning title Phra Chula Chom Klao Chao Yu Hua, was the fifth monarch of Siam under the House of Chakri. He was known to the Siamese of his time as Phra Phuttha Chao Luang. His reign was characterized by the modernization of Siam, governmental and social reforms, and territorial concessions to the British and French. As Siam was threatened by Western expansionism, Chulalongkorn, through his policies and acts, managed to save Siam from colonization. All his reforms were dedicated to ensuring Siam's survival in the face of Western colonialism, so that Chulalongkorn earned the epithet Phra Piya Maharat.

The German military occupation of a large part of France made France's hold on its overseas possessions, including Indochina, difficult. The colonial administration was now cut off from outside help and outside supplies. After the Japanese invasion of French Indochina in September 1940, the French were forced to allow Japan to set up military bases. This seemingly subservient behaviour convinced the Phibun regime that France would not seriously resist a confrontation with Thailand.

Opposing forces


French colonial troops poster Troupes coloniales Scott.JPG
French colonial troops poster

The French military forces in Indochina consisted of an army of approximately 50,000 men, 12,000 of whom were French, organised into forty-one infantry battalions, two artillery regiments, and a battalion of engineers. [7] The French army had a shortage of armour, and it could field only 20 Renault FT tanks against the nearly one hundred armoured vehicles of the Royal Thai Army. The bulk of the French forces stationed near the Thai border consisted of the Indochinese troops of the 3rd and 4th Regiments of Tirailleurs Tonkinois (Tonkinese Rifles), together with a battalion of Montagnards, French regulars of the Colonial Infantry, and French Foreign Legion units. [8]

Renault FT light tank, in-service 1917–1949

The Renault FT was a French light tank that was among the most revolutionary and influential tank designs in history. The FT was the first production tank to have its armament within a fully rotating turret. The Renault FT's configuration – crew compartment at the front, engine compartment at the back, and main armament in a revolving turret – became and remains the standard tank layout. Consequently, some historians of armoured warfare have called the Renault FT the world's first modern tank.

Royal Thai Army army of Thailand

The Royal Thai Army or RTA is the army of Thailand responsible for protecting its sovereignty and national interests. It is the oldest and largest branch of the Royal Thai Armed Forces.

The Tonkinese Rifles were a corps of Tonkinese light infantrymen raised in 1884 to support the operations of the Tonkin Expeditionary Corps. Led by French officers seconded from the marine infantry, Tonkinese riflemen fought in several engagements against the Chinese during the Sino-French War and took part in expeditions against Vietnamese insurgents during the subsequent French Pacification of Tonkin. The French also organized similar units of indigenous riflemen from Annam and Cambodia. All three categories of indigenous soldiers were known in Vietnam as Lính tập,

The French navy in Indochina had one light cruiser and four Avisos.

A light cruiser is a type of small- or medium-sized warship. The term is a shortening of the phrase "light armored cruiser", describing a small ship that carried armor in the same way as an armored cruiser: a protective belt and deck. Prior to this smaller cruisers had been of the protected cruiser model, possessing armored decks only. While lighter and smaller than other contemporary ships they were still true cruisers, retaining the extended radius of action and self-sufficiency to act independently across the world. Through their history they served in a variety of roles, primarily as convoy escorts and destroyer command ships, but also as scouts and fleet support vessels for battle fleets.

The Armée de l'Air had approximately 100 aircraft, of which about 60 could be considered front line. These included thirty Potez 25 TOE reconnaissance/fighters-bombers, four Farman 221 heavy bombers, six Potez 542 bombers, nine Morane-Saulnier M.S.406 fighters, and eight Loire 130 reconnaissance/bombers flying boats. [9]

Potez 25 French aircraft

Potez 25 was a French twin-seat, single-engine biplane designed during the 1920s. A multi-purpose fighter-bomber, it was designed as a line aircraft and used in a variety of roles, including fighter and escort missions, tactical bombing and reconnaissance missions. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Potez 25 was the standard multi-purpose aircraft of over 20 air forces, including French, Polish and American. It was also popular among private operators, notably mail transport companies.

Farman F.220

The Farman F.220 and its derivatives were thick-sectioned, high-winged, four engined monoplanes from Farman Aviation Works. Based on the push-pull configuration proven by the F.211, design started in August 1925 and the first flight of the prototype was on 26 May 1932. The definitive F.222 variant was the biggest bomber to serve in France between the world wars. One variant was designed as an airliner.

Potez 540

The Potez 540 was a French multi-role aircraft of the 1930s. Designed and built by Potez, it served with the French Air Force as a reconnaissance bomber, also serving with the Spanish Republican Air Force during the Spanish Civil War. Although obsolete as a bomber, it remained in service in support roles and in France's overseas colonies at the start of World War II.


Plaek Phibunsongkhram inspecting troops during the war cch`mphlp. phibuulsngkhraam ainpii 2484.jpg
Plaek Phibunsongkhram inspecting troops during the war

The slightly larger Thai Army was a relatively well-equipped force. [10] Consisting of 60,000 men, it was made up of four armies. The largest were the Burapha Army with five divisions and the Isan Army with three divisions. Independent formations under direct control of the army high command included two motorised cavalry battalions, one artillery battalion, one signals battalion, one engineer battalion, and one armoured regiment. The artillery was a mixture of Krupp guns and modern Bofors guns and Howitzers, while 60 Carden Loyd tankettes and 30 Vickers 6-ton tanks made up the bulk of the army's tank force.

The Royal Thai Navy included two Thonburi coastal defence ships, 12 torpedo boats, and four Japanese-made submarines. [11] The Thai navy was inferior to the French naval forces, but the Royal Thai Air Force held both a quantitative and qualitative edge over the local Armée de l'Air units. [11] Among the 140 aircraft that composed the air force's first-line strength were 24 Mitsubishi Ki-30 light bombers, nine Mitsubishi Ki-21 medium bombers, 25 Curtiss Hawk 75N pursuit fighter planes, six Martin B-10 medium bombers, and 70 Vought O2U Corsair observation/attacker aircraft. [5]


While nationalist demonstrations and anti-French rallies were being held in Bangkok, several border skirmishes erupted along the Mekong frontier. The superior Royal Thai Air Force then conducted daytime bombing runs over military targets in Vientiane, Phnom Penh, Sisophon, and Battambang with impunity. The French retaliated with their own air attacks, but the damage they caused was less than equal. The activities of the Thai air force, particularly in the field of dive-bombing, [11] was such that Admiral Jean Decoux, the governor of French Indochina, grudgingly remarked that the Thai planes seemed to have been flown by men with plenty of war experience. [12]

French troops used a handful of World War I-era Renault FT tanks during the conflict. Renault FT17 IMG 8414.jpg
French troops used a handful of World War I-era Renault FT tanks during the conflict.
The French Armee de l'Air flew Morane-Saulnier M.S.406 fighters (a preserved specimen is shown). MauraneSaulnier406.jpg
The French Armée de l'Air flew Morane-Saulnier M.S.406 fighters (a preserved specimen is shown).
The Vickers light amphibious tank saw service in the Thai (Siamese) army. Vickers Light Amphibious Tank.jpg
The Vickers light amphibious tank saw service in the Thaï (Siamese) army.

On 5 January 1941, following the report of a French attack on the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet, the Thai Burapha and Isan Armies launched an offensive on Laos and Cambodia. French response was instantaneous, but many units were simply swept aside by the better-equipped Thai forces. The Thai army swiftly overran Laos, but the French forces in Cambodia managed to rally and offer more resistance. [13]

The naval Battle of Ko Chang, 17 January 1941 Battle of Koh Chang 17 january 1941 (English version).svg
The naval Battle of Ko Chang, 17 January 1941

At dawn on 16 January 1941, the French launched a large counterattack on the Thai-held villages of Yang Dang Khum and Phum Preav, initiating the fiercest battle of the war. Due to poor co-ordination and non-existent intelligence against the entrenched and prepared Thai forces, the French operation was stopped and fighting ended with a French retreat from the area. However, the Thais were unable to pursue the retreating French, as their forward tanks were kept in check by the gunnery of French Foreign Legion artillery.

With the situation on land rapidly deteriorating for the French, Admiral Decoux ordered all available French naval forces into action in the Gulf of Thailand. In the early morning of 17 January, a French naval squadron caught a Thai naval detachment by surprise at anchor off Ko Chang island. The subsequent Battle of Ko Chang was a tactical victory for the French and resulted in the sinking of two Thai torpedo boats and the disabling of a coastal defence ship, with the French suffering only minor casualties. Fearing the war would turn in France's favour, the Japanese intervened, proposing an armistice be signed.

On 24 January, the final air battle took place when Thai bombers raided the French airfield at Angkor, near Siem Reap. The last Thai mission bombing Phnom Penh commenced at 07:10 on 28 January, when the Martins of the 50th Bomber Squadron set out on a raid on Sisophon, escorted by thirteen Hawk 75Ns of the 60th Fighter Squadron. [5] [9]


The provinces ceded from Cambodia by France to Thailand were regrouped into new Thai provinces, Phra Tabong, Phibunsongram, and Nakhon Champassak. Provinces of Cambodia loss to Thailand during Franco-Thai War.png
The provinces ceded from Cambodia by France to Thailand were regrouped into new Thai provinces, Phra Tabong, Phibunsongram, and Nakhon Champassak.

Japan stepped in to mediate the conflict. A Japanese-sponsored "Conference for the Cessation of Hostilities" was held at Saigon, and preliminary documents for a ceasefire between the governments of Marshal Philippe Pétain's French State and the Kingdom of Thailand were signed aboard the cruiser Natori on 31 January 1941. A general armistice had been arranged to go into effect at 10:00 on 28 January. On 9 May, a peace treaty was signed in Tokyo, [10] [11] with the French being coerced by the Japanese to relinquish their hold on the disputed border territories. France ceded the following provinces to Thailand from Cambodia and Laos:


The resolution of the conflict was widely acclaimed by the Thai people and was seen as a personal triumph for Phibun. For the first time, Thailand had been able to extract concessions from a European power, albeit a weakened one. For the French in French Indochina, the conflict was a bitter reminder of their isolation after the Fall of France and felt that an ambitious neighbour had taken advantage of a distant colony cut off from her weakened parent. Without hope of reinforcements, the French had little chance of offering a sustained resistance.

To commemorate the victory, Phibun had the Victory Monument built. Thailand invited Japan and Germany to join the celebration.

The Japanese wanted to maintain both their working relationship with Vichy and the status quo; therefore, the Thais were forced to accept only a quarter of the territory that they gained from the French, in addition to having to pay six million piastres as a concession to the French.

However, the real beneficiaries of the conflict were the Japanese, who were able to expand their influence in both Thailand and Indochina. The Japanese wanted to use Thailand and Indochina as their military bases to invade British Burma and British Malaya later. The Japanese won from Phibun a secret verbal promise to support them in an attack on Malaya and Burma. Phibun did not keep his word. [14]

Relations between Japan and Thailand were subsequently stressed, as a disappointed Phibun switched to courting the British and Americans to ward off what he saw as an imminent Japanese invasion. [15] However, on 8 December 1941, the Japanese invaded Thailand at the same time as the Japanese invasion of Malaya. It was immediately before the attack on Pearl Harbor because of the International Date Line. Pearl Harbor was attacked one-and-a-half hours after Malaya and Thailand were.

After the war, in October 1946, northwestern Cambodia and the two Lao enclaves on the Thai side of the Mekong River were returned to French sovereignty when the French provisional government threatened to veto Thailand's membership in the United Nations. [16]


The French army suffered a total of 321 casualties, of whom 15 were officers. The total number of missing after 28 January was 178 (six officers, 14 non-commissioned officers and 158 enlisted men). [10] The Thais had captured 222 men (17 North Africans, 80 Frenchmen, and 125 Indochinese). [5]

The Thai army suffered 54 men killed in action and 307 wounded. [6] 41 sailors and marines of the Thai navy were killed, and 67 wounded. At the Battle of Ko Chang, 36 men were killed, of whom 20 belonged to HTMS Thonburi, 14 to HTMS Songkhla, and two to HTMS Chonburi. The Thai air force lost 13 men. The number of Thai military personnel captured by the French was just 21.

About 30 percent of the French aircraft were rendered unserviceable by the end of the war, some as a result of minor damage sustained in air raids that remained unrepaired. [11] The Armée de l'Air admitted the loss of one Farman F221 and two Morane M.S.406s destroyed on the ground, but its losses were really greater. [9]

In its first experience of combat, the Royal Thai Air Force claimed to have shot down five French aircraft and destroyed 17 on the ground, against the loss of three of its own in the air and another five to 10 destroyed in French air raids on Thai airfields.

See also

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  1. Tucker, World War II: The Definitive Encyclopedia and Document Collection p. 649
  2. Fall, p. 22. "On the seas, one old French cruiser sank one-third of the whole Thai fleet ... Japan, seeing that the war was turning against its pupil and ally, imposed its 'mediation' between the two parties."
  3. Fall, Bernard B. (1994). Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina. Stackpole Books. ISBN   0-8117-1700-3.
  4. Windrow, Martin (2004). The Last Valley. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. ISBN   0-306-81386-6.
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  7. Stone, Bill. "Vichy Indo-China vs Siam, 1940-41".
  8. Rives, Maurice. Les Linh Tap. ISBN   2-7025-0436-1 page 90
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  11. 1 2 3 4 5 Young, Edward M. (1995) Aerial Nationalism: A History of Aviation in Thailand. Smithsonian Institution Press.
  12. Elphick, Peter. (1995) Singapore: the Pregnable Fortress: A Study in Deception, Discord and Desertion. Coronet Books.
  13. Vichy versus Asia: The Franco-Siamese War of 1941
  14. Charivat Santaputra (1985) Thai Foreign Policy 1932-1946. Thammasat University Press.
  15. Judith A. Stowe. (1991) Siam becomes Thailand: A Story of Intrigue. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN   0-8248-1393-6
  16. Terwiel, B.J. (2005) Thailand's Political History: From the Fall of Ayutthaya to Recent Times. River Books.

Further reading