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Civilian Casualties from British Military: Vietnam

This section provides a detailed account of recorded civilian casualties that resulted from the British military’s involvement in Vietnam.

When did this conflict occur?

6th September, 1945^ – 26th March, 1946*

^ –  The initial British military presence in Vietnam consisted of a small advance party which landed on Saigon’s Tan Sot Nhut Airfield on the 6th of September, with the bulk of the British ground force comprising 1/1 Gurkha Rifles and 1/19 Hyderabad Regiment, only arriving five days later. [1]

* – While the 26th of March, 1946 marked the large-scale withdrawal of the British component of Operation Masterdom, limited elements of the 20th Indian Division remained in Vietnam until May of 1946 to ensure the repatriation of remaining Japanese forces. [2]

What is the background to this conflict?

The Potsdam Conference was held between July and August of 1945 and sought to outline the post-war peacebuilding process between the ‘Big Three’ heads of state – Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and American President Harry Truman. Among the topics debated was the fate of the French territories in Indochina, previously captured by the Imperial Japanese Army in September of 1940. The Allies elected to divide responsibility for Indochina between two geographic combatant commands; the Chinese Nationalist Army would be tasked with disarming and demobilising Japanese forces North of the 16th Parallel while the South East Asia Command, led by Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, would fulfil similar duties in territory to the South. [3] The British government, however, possessed an unclear intelligence picture of post-war Indochina, a reality exacerbated by a tenuous relationship with the American Office of Strategic Services, who had deployed a seven-man element tasked with intelligence collection and prisoner of war recovery. [4] British forces arriving in-country were, thus, unexpectedly confronted by a burgeoning local resistance, the Viet Minh under Ho Chi Minh, who had declared independence from the returning French government on September 2nd, 1945. Attempts by the French to reimpose control soon resorted to repression, and, as Vietnamese resentment grew, fighting quickly began between British forces, aided by the French military and hurriedly-rearmed Japanese troops, and the Viet Minh.  

What role did British military forces play?

The British mission in French Indochina was referred to as Operation Masterdom, with the primary ground force composed of elements from the 20th Indian Brigade, an infantry division renowned for its experience in jungle warfare during the Burma Campaign. Arriving as a small advance party on the 6th of September, 1945, the 20th Indian Brigade presence swelled as elements of 1/1 Gurkha Rifles and 1/19 Hyderabad Regiment alongside attached signals and combat engineering support arrived in Saigon two days later. [5] British military goals initially consisted of five principle objectives: securing the capital of Saigon, disarming Japanese forces, rescuing and repatriating Allied prisoners of war, ensuring internal security, and liberating Allied territory “in so far as […] resources permit”. [6] In an effort to preempt Viet Minh resistance to the return of Allied control, 20th Indian Brigade Major General Sir Douglas Gracey issued a proclamation tantamount to martial law, banning public demonstrations, prohibiting the carrying of arms by non-military personnel, and imposing a strict night curfew while simultaneously rearming French soldiers previously captured by the Japanese. The Viet Minh mobilised to counter this, but French forces, seizing the opportunity to firmly reestablish colonial rule, moved quickly to occupy key positions around Saigon and effectively oust Viet Minh leaders. [7] Violence soon erupted as Viet Minh forces clashed with French, British-Indian, and Japanese troops, who had been placed under the command of Major General Gracey to assist in internal security operations. Between the commencement of combat operations in October of 1945 and the start of the British withdrawal from Saigon in February, the 20th Indian Division lost 40 soldiers while Viet Minh losses were estimated at nearly 2,000. [8] As British ground forces completed their withdrawal by March, having remained to guard the diplomatic mission in Saigon, Japanese forces remained in place until repatriated in May of 1946.

Can a figure of civilian deaths due to British military action be determined?

No, a total number of civilian deaths due to British military action cannot be determined. In contrast, a confirmed total of 40 British military personnel died in the conflict. [9]

Are there any trends or incidents of note?

Information regarding civilian deaths as a result of British military involvement in Vietnam remains incredibly limited. Despite this, evidence indicates the possibility of up to 61 civilian fatalities caused by British forces during Operation Masterdom:

  • 26th September, 1945: Faced with increasing violence in the capital city of Saigon, the 20th Indian Division was forced to adopt an increasingly assertive stance against Viet Minh supporters. Rules of engagement permitted the use of lethal force to disperse crowds, and, in two instances, elements of the division’s 80th Indian Infantry Brigade opened fire and killed 60 individuals in the crowd. [10, 11]
    • Of these 60 deaths, no evidence, however, exists which outlines how many fatalities posed justifiable threats under the rules of engagement adopted by 80 Brigade.
  • 1st January, 1946: A reconnaissance patrol under the command of Havildar Bagh Bahar, a British-Indian non-commissioned officer of equivalent rank to a Sergeant in European militaries, encountered a Viet Minh column of approximately 20 fighters and two Japanese officers. In the ensuing engagement, the Viet Minh column was largely destroyed, but a prisoner attempting to flee was struck and fatally injured in the crossfire. [12]
    • No evidence, however, exists to indicate that the detainee killed was a Vietnamese civilian.


[1] Prenderghast, Gerald. Britain and the Wars in Vietnam: The Supply of Troops, Arms, and Intelligence, 1945-1975 (Jefferson: McFarland Publishing, 2015): 15.

[2] Marston, Daniel. “The 20th Indian Division in French Indo-China” in The Indian Army, 1939-47: Experience and Development, edited by Alan Jeffreys and Patrick Rose, 157-178. Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2012.

[3] Springhall, John, “‘Kicking out the Vietminh’: How Britain Allowed France to Reoccupy South Indochina, 1945-46”, Journal of Contemporary History 40, no. 1 (2005): 115-130.

[4] Bartholomew-Feis, Dixee, “The OSS in Vietnam, 1945: A War of Missed Opportunities”, The National WWII Museum, 2020,

[5] Marston, Daniel. “The 20th Indian Division in French Indo-China, 1945-46: Combined/joint Operations and the ‘fog of war’”, The National Institute for Defense Studies, 2014,

[6]  W0203/5444; ALFSEA Operational Directive No. 12 ‘Masterdom’, 28 August 1945, cited in Springhall, John. “‘Kicking out the Vietminh’: How Britain Allowed France to Reoccupy South Indochina, 1945-46”, Journal of Contemporary History 40, no. 1 (2005): 119.

[7] Hastings, Max. Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 (New York: HarperCollins, 2018): 63-65.

[8] Marston, Daniel. “The 20th Indian Division in French Indo-China” in The Indian Army, 175-176. 

[9] Tickner, Mike, “Wars Do Not Come to a Clean End,” The British Army Review 171 (2018): 126.

[10] Dunn, Peter M. The First Vietnam War (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985): 211.

[11] See primary source

[12] Dunn, The First Vietnam War, 333.