The Foreword to this book is by the respected historian Hew Strachan.
- JP Cross
This is a book about a British Gurkha officer who aged 20 was a platoon commander on the Burma front. He describes little of his active time there only that one night the field telephone rang, it was answered and the caller, the Adjutant said ‘Japan has surrendered’ They got out the rum issue and celebrated into the night. The next call said ‘Prepare to move to Vietnam to disarm the Japanese battalions there’ They went into the village and into a school to find a world map to find out where Vietnam actually was. And so the book starts.
It becomes interesting on arrival in Vietnam and instead of disarming the Japanese units they used them as supporting troops to fight against the up and coming Vietminh, a movement of people who didn’t want the French to come back and to once again impose their Colonial rule. The Vietnamese quite hated the French and detested their arrogance to the local people, the average Vietnamese just wanted to be left alone, to live in his village, keep a few chickens and pigs and work on his smallholding.
Lt Cross describes the working of his Gurkha soldiers alongside the Japanese and compared them as sort of equals in ability. He was impressed by the Japanese staff work which he terms as ‘Impeccable’ along with their good manners. For example during one attack on the Vietminh, Lt Cross wandered about the position, the attack was being commanded by a Japanese Company commander. He received a verbal message via a Japanese runner. “Respectful Lt Cross, Maj Nickoshito respectfully requests that for your own safety that you would kindly lie down”
The arrogance of the French was quite blatant. When working with his Gurkhas Lt Cross spoke Urdu, a French officer passing asked, “What language is that?” “It’s their native tongue’ replied Lt Cross. “Ridiculous! Said the Frenchman, get them to speak your language”
It eventually came time to disarm the Japanese this was done with open tears from the Japanese officers and some of the men. It was done quite ceremoniously and with dignity. The next day the swords were handed back to the Japanese soldiers to enable them to cut the grass along the sides of the roads to help prevent Vietminh ambushes.
By now a Captain Cross then does a tour of duty as an instructor at The Jungle Warfare School at Kota Tingy, Malaya. Training South Vietnamese army officers and NCOs, also British and Australians, but not at the same time however, the former being a somewhat secret exercise.
He commands a Gurkha Company in the Borneo campaign and earlier had been a Pl Commander in the Malaya campaign. Very regretfully he glosses over both and hardly referrers to it. I would like to have known of his experiences in both.
He then becomes a Military Attaché in Laos. Which was full of intrigue and spies. I didn’t realise that in effect a Military Attaché was in fact an authorised spy. Next door to Laos the Vietnam war was raging. He finds himself dealing with Chinese and Russian and other delegates from the world over in a round of constant cocktail parties and lavish foreign embassy spreads, all vying to outdo each other. Everyone hated the Americans, though all aid to that part of the world came from Uncle Sam. He provided ‘even Fish farms for Laotian villages, while the Russian and the Chinese piled armament’s and cash into North Vietnam. His instructions from the Harold Wilson government in the UK regarding his small financial aid package was; ‘Give nothing to right wing elements, support socialists only’. No wonder the Americans disliked and mistrusted us at the time.
The Russians had the Indian Ambassador and the Indian Military Attaché quite in their pockets; all their intelligence reports were ‘Copy to the Kremlin’ due to ‘women in the beds techniques’ a favourite of the Soviets.
On the final days of the Vietnam war the communists in Laos took over, though they let the King and Queen remain they did certain things: They removed all rank badges from the army. Cut the hair of long haired westernised youth. They Lined up the 28 Generals and instructed them to call each other ‘Comrade’ they removed their badges of rank and all insignia, and sent them deep into the jungle to live without provisions and to build their own shacks to live in. When the huts were finished they fenced them in.
The conversations between various Military attaché’s are many and varied throughout the Laos period of the book, which in fact comprises 80% of the script. I repeat one conversation here which he had with a Russian Ambassador regarding colonies. The Ambassador said: “When the British leave their colonies they leave a seat of Government, a judiciary system and working railways, schools and hospitals, a police force and an national army etc. No other nation does that; The French, the Dutch and the Belgians just leave the desert that they found. If the French had done their work in Indo China none, or little of this war would have taken place.”
On Colonel Cross arriving back home he attends an investiture by HM the Queen. She was quite interested in his story and plied him with questions, after she had pinned on him his well-earned OBE
I found the book interesting, it took me into a world that I knew very little about. I award four stars, and reiterate that I would have liked to hear more about his time in command of his Gurkhas.