Battle of Ko Chang

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Battle of Ko Chang
Part of the Franco-Thai War
Battle of Koh Chang 17 january 1941 (English version).svg
A map of the battle of Ko Chang
Date 17 January 1941
Location Gulf of Thailand
Result Decisive Vichy French victory
Belligerents
France Vichy France Thailand Thailand
Commanders and leaders
France Régis Bérenger Thailand Luang Phrom Viraphan 
Strength
1 light cruiser
4 avisos
9 aircraft
1 coastal defense ship
2 torpedo boats
Casualties and losses
1 light cruiser damaged ~36 killed
2 torpedo boats sunk
1 coastal defense ship grounded

The Battle of Ko Chang took place on 17 January 1941 during the Franco-Thai War and resulted in a decisive victory by the French over the Royal Thai Navy. During the battle, a flotilla of French warships attacked a smaller force of Thai vessels, including a coastal battleship.

In the end, Thailand lost two ships sunk and one heavily damaged and grounded. Within a month of the engagement, the Vichy French and the Thais negotiated a peace which ended the war.

Background[edit]

Thai Navy[edit]

The Royal Thai Navy had been modernized with the recent acquisition of vessels from Japan and Italy. The major units of the fleet included two Japanese-built armoured coast defence vessels, which displaced 2,500 long tons (2,500 t) and carried 8-inch (203-mm) guns, two older British-built armoured gunboats with 6-inch (152-mm) guns, 12 torpedo boats, and four submarines.

In addition, the Royal Thai Air Force had in its inventory over 140 aircraft, including relatively modern Mitsubishi Ki-30 (Allied reporting name "Ann") light bombers, which saw extensive service against the French. These aircraft in themselves were quite capable of causing severe damage to any French naval mission which might be mounted. Other less capable aircraft in the Thai inventory included P-36 Hawk fighters , 70 Chance-Vought O2U-2 Corsair biplanes, six Martin B-10 bombers and several Avro 504 trainers.

French Navy[edit]

Lamotte-Piquet

Despite the strengths of the Thai forces the French Governor General of Indochina and Commander-in-Chief Naval Forces, Admiral Jean Decoux, decided that the naval mission should go ahead. A small squadron, the Groupe Occasionnel, was formed on 9 December 1940 at Cam Ranh Bay, near Saigon, under the command of Capitaine de Vaisseau Régis Bérenger.

The squadron consisted of the light cruiser Lamotte-Piquet,[1] the avisos Dumont d'Urville PG 77 and Amiral Charner PG 81|2, and the older avisos Tahure and Marne. There was no air cover to speak of, apart from eight Loire 130 seaplanes based at Ream which provided reconnaissance. Additional scouting was provided by three coastal survey craft, and intelligence gleaned from the local fishermen.

Bérenger's squadron began training manoeuvres in Cam Ranh Bay shortly after coming together. Early in the new year, on 13 January 1941, Admiral Decoux formally requested Bérenger to send the squadron against the Thais to act in support of a land offensive planned for 16 January. This operation was intended to throw back Thai forces which had been advancing along the coast. Because of the disparate speeds of the French ships, Bérenger sent the slower sloops on ahead, while he remained in Saigon to complete the final elements of the plan.

Several options were currently being prepared, the Admiralty in France having recently given its formal blessing to the use of naval forces in support of the army. The final planning meeting of the 13th saw an immediate delay in the execution of the operation for 24 hours. With the plans finalised, Bérenger sailed in Lamotte-Picquet, the delay in the start of the operation allowing him to refuel at Cape St. Jacques before the rendezvous with the slower ships at 16:00 on the 15th, 20 mi (17 nmi; 32 km) North of Poulo Condore.

The orders from Admiral Decoux were simple: "attack the Siamese coastal cities from Rayong to the Cambodian frontier to force Siamese government to withdraw its forces from the Cambodian frontier". On the evening of the 15th, following a final conference on board the flagship, the squadron weighed anchor at 21:15 and closed the Thai coast at 14 kn (16 mph; 26 km/h), the best speed of the sloops. The French ships remained undetected as they entered the Gulf of Siam, but their quarry was not as fortunate. The Loire 130s from Ream had completed a sweep of the coast from Trat to Sattahip. They had located one coast defence ship and two torpedo boats at Ko Chang, and one gunboat, four torpedo boats and two submarines at Sattahip.

Their report was sent to Marine Headquarters in Saigon, who re-transmitted the report to the Lamotte-Picquet. Bérenger considered his options and decided on a dawn attack on the Thai ships at Ko Chang. He ignored Sattahip because the sloops could not reach there until later in the day, by which time the element of surprise would have been lost. Also, the contribution the harbour defences at Sattahip could make was unknown. Moreover, the force at Ko Chang was the weaker of the two and offered the best chance of victory.

Bérenger's plan of attack was as follows. The squadron would approach at dawn from the South West. Because the anchorage at Ko Chang was surrounded by islands and islets, many of which were over 200 metres (656 feet) high, the squadron would break up and use the cover of the islands to concentrate fire on portions of the Thai squadron whilst covering all the avenues of escape. The easternmost channel was regarded as the most likely route by which a breakout would be made—this was the most suitable route and was also the area in which the recce report had placed the largest Thai ships. Lamotte-Picquet would head to the eastern side of the anchorage to block this route whilst the colonial sloops blocked the centre and pounded the Thai ships there. The smaller French ships would concentrate to the West.

Battle[edit]

Amiral Charner

The French squadron closed on the anchorage at 05:30 on 17 January. At 05:45, they split into the three groups as planned, Lamotte-Picquet heading for the eastern part of the anchorage, Dumont d'Urville and Amiral Charner continuing to the central position and Tahure and Marne heading for the western side. Conditions were perfect—the weather was fine, the seas calm and almost flat. Sunrise was due at 06:30, and the scene was lit only by the first rays of light on the horizon and by the dim moonlight.

A final aerial reconnaissance of the target area had been arranged using one of the Ream-based Loire 130s. Lamotte-Picquet carried two such aircraft, but these could not be launched due to catapult problems. At 06:05, the Loire 130 overflew the anchorage and reported two torpedo ships. This came as a nasty surprise to the French—previous reports led them to believe that only one of the torpedo boats was present, but during the night, HTMS Chonburi had arrived to relieve Chantaburi, which was to return to Sattahip later that day for repairing.

Once their presence had been passed to Lamotte-Picquet the aircraft attempted an attack of its own using bombs, but was forced off by a heavy barrage of antiaircraft fire. The effect of this mission was double edged—the French were now aware that they faced both the Thai units, but the element of surprise had been wasted and there was still thirty minutes to go until sunrise. Caught napping by the oncoming French the Thais desperately began to raise steam and prepared to slip their anchors, but the torpedo boats were sunk by gunfire from Lamotte-Picquet.

At 06:38, the lookouts in Lamotte-Picquet spotted the coastal defence ship HTMS Thonburi, heading northwest, at a range of 10,000 meters (10,936 yards). A running battle ensued, with the fire of both ships frequently blocked by the towering islets. The fire from the Thai ship was heavy, but inaccurate. By 07:15, fires could be seen on Thonburi, which then found herself engaged not only by the cruiser but also by the sloops. In the beginning of the engagement, a lucky shot from Lamotte-Picquet killed the captain of Thonburi, Commander Luang Phrom Viraphan, and disrupted her operations. Believing they had a better chance of hurting the smaller French ships the Thais shifted their fire onto Admiral Charner, which soon found 8-inch (203-mm) salvoes falling around her.

Thonburi shifted fire back to Lamotte-Picquet after a salvo from the French cruiser put her after turret out of action. Soon she reached the safety of shallow water which the French ships could not enter for fear of grounding, but it all came too late for the hapless Thais as Thonburi was burning fiercely and listing heavily to starboard. Her remaining turret was jammed and could not fire unless the maneuvers of the ship put it in an appropriate position. At 07:50, Lamotte-Picquet fired a final salvo of torpedoes at 15,000 meters (16,404 yards) but lost sight of Thonburi behind an island from which she was not seen to emerge.

At 08:40, Bérenger ordered the squadron to head for home, but this coincided with the start of the expected Thai air attacks. Thai planes dropped several bombs close to Lamotte-Picquet and scored one hit, although the bomb failed to explode. Lamotte-Picquet's anti-aircraft guns put up a vigorous barrage and further attacks were not pressed home. The final raid departed at 09:40, after which the victorious French squadron returned to Saigon.

Aftermath[edit]

A plaque commemorating the battle

The French left behind them a scene of total devastation. Thonburi was heavily damaged and grounded on a sand bar in the mouth of the Chanthaburi river, with about 20 dead. She was later raised and repaired by the Japanese, survived the war and was used as a training ship until she was retired. The Thai transport HTMS Chang arrived at Ko Chang shortly after the French departed and took Thonburi in tow.

The torpedo boat Chonburi was sunk with a loss of two men and HTMS Songhkla also sank with a loss of fourteen dead. The only survivors were rescued by the torpedo boat HTMS Rayong, the minelayer HTMS Nhong Sarhai and the fishery protection vessel Thiew Uthok. These three ships, which had been sheltering to the north of Ko Chang, wisely chose not to break cover and thus were not observed by the French. The French were elated, for they had inflicted a defeat as decisive in its way as the Japanese at Tsushima. The French had not suffered losses of significance.

Their success is all the more notable when the difficulties of navigating and fighting in such confined waters are considered, and given the courage and tenacity which the Thai sailors exhibited during the action, a fact which the French were gracious to accept. In the end, though, it was all for nought—five days later the Japanese government offered to arbitrate in the search for a peaceful settlement, and soon confirmed the Thai annexations. Even this state of affairs did not last for long, as Thailand was invaded later that year during the attacks on Malaya, and was forced to return her short-lived gains to France at the end of World War II.

Thonburi was later raised by the Royal Thai Navy. She was repaired in Japan and was used as a training ship until she was decommissioned. Her gun and deck are placed as a memorial in the Royal Thai Naval Academy, Samut Prakan.

During the post-action investigations, the Thai navy claimed, based on claims by Thai sailors and the fisherman around Ko Chang, heavy damage was seen to have been caused to Lamotte-Picquet and her squadron. The report claims the crew of Lamotte-Picquet spent all of the following night repairing the damage, although it is not revealed how the French ships were observed, given their departure form the site of battle. Such claims are, at best, unsubstantiated and are not reflected in any French documentation, nor the ships logs.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Actual name in French is La Motte-Picquet
  • J. Guiglini (trans. K Macpherson) 'A résumé of the Battle of Koh Chang' Warship International 1990 No.2
  • Romé, Contre-Amiral Paul, Les oubliés du bout du monde: Journal d'un marin d'Indochine de 1939-1941 1998. Danclau, Dinard, France
  • (French) La bataille de Koh Chang, netmarine.net
  • Battle of Ko Chang

Coordinates: 12°00′04″N 102°27′04″E / 12.001°N 102.451°E / 12.001; 102.451