Tag Archives: Ray Withnall

Thailand In The Second World War

By Ray Withnall, Author

My research may be summarised as a discourse that examines Thailand’s transition from the 1932 coup d’état through subsequent turbulent years leading up to the Japanese accessing its territory at the start of the south-east Asia War. It follows Thailand’s role during the war and culminates with the outcome of end-of-war peace treaties. It is divided into five parts.

The first part briefly considers the years before the 1932 coup to show how the aspirations of successive monarchs established relationships with the West, particularly Great Britain and France. This takes into account the conclusions of gifted and talented Thai students who were studying in Europe and wanted to change Thailand’s monarchy from ruling with absolute power to one in which the monarch was governed by a constitution. The events prior to the coup d’état are studied.

The second part examines the period from the coup up to December 1941 when Japanese military forces entered Thailand. Difficulties between the civilian and military factions of government arose as army officer Pibul Songkhram became prime minister at the end of 1938. Nationalistic policies dominated his domestic agenda, and the international landscape evolved as diplomatic relations with Great Britain and the United States were tested against a background of increasing influence from the Japanese. The atmosphere intensified following a brief military conflict with France over a border dispute between Thailand and French Indochina.

The third part looks at the events leading to the Thai government permitting Japanese military access into its territory as it advanced towards Malaya and Burma at the start of the south-east Asia war. This was a crucial period during which Thailand abandoned its policy of neutrality and became a Japanese ally. The military and diplomatic response from the Western allies to Japan’s advance is closely examined with emphasis on Great Britain’s response to Thailand’s predicament and its corresponding attempt to defend Malaya.

Image of a Thai World War 2 propaganda poster from the Royal Thai Air force museum in Bangkok, the Thai wording on the poster translates as follows:

“We are at war with the English. England is not a friend of Asia. Together with the Japanese army we are fighting against the English. England has put pressure on Thailand for a long time. Japan wants Thailand to prosper more and more and more.”

Image & translation courtesy of Ray Withnall.

The fourth part studies Thailand’s role throughout the War. Attention is given to the broadening rift between the military and civilian factions of the government as Japan’s idealistic promises caused frustration and economic chaos. Thailand declared war on Great Britain and the United States. The Seri Thai resistance movement was organised by Pridi Banomyong. He made contact with Great Britain and the United States and convinced them that the Seri Thai could become a credible fighting force in the defeating Japan in Thailand. Prime minister Pibul lost domestic popularity through eccentric attempts to westernise Thai society. He realised Japan was losing the war and disassociated himself from them but lost his position to a new government that supported the allies. During this period thousands of Japanese Prisoners of War and civilian Romusha were sent to Thailand to construct the Thai-Bura railway. The response from the Thai government and the attitude of its people to the treatment and cruelty dispensed by the Japanese towards these men is examined.

The final section considers Thailand’s post-war agreements with the British, American and French and concludes with a summary of Thailand’s achievements as it looks towards its future.

The research draws on published books by respected historians, documented personal accounts and theses that are available in the public domain and records from the National Archives Kew.

A Prisoner’s Diary

By Ray Withnall

February 1945. We arrive in Ubon north-east Thailand and ordered to build an airstrip for the Japanese. We’ve been prisoners for 3 long barbaric years.

June. Work on the airstrip is going well. Not too demanding. Local Thais tell us the war in Europe is over.

July. A plane flew over the camp and dropped leaflets with news the allies invaded Japan. Is that really true? The guards are on edge. Next day when we’re ordered to dig trenches across the airstrip. Is it to stop our planes from landing, or have we dug our graves? We’re anxious.

Early August. The Japanese tell us we don’t need to work but they’re as confused as us. Some are friendly, all of them less demanding. Something is in the air.

15 August. Today we saw the guards in a panic burning papers. Rumours that the war is over spread through the camp.

18 August. We’ve been uneasy for the last 2 days. RSM McTavish ordered everyone onto the parade ground.  We were called to attention and Major Chida Sotomatsu, the camp commandant, made an announcement. It was translated:

‘The Greater East Asia war has ended. You must carry on as you have been for some time until your own people come and take you over. I, as camp commandant, wish to thank you all for the good work you have done for me in the group. Higher officials have given out certain orders and it is my wish that you all adhere to these orders in a soldierly manner. I am still responsible for you all until I can hand you over to your own people. Outside work will cease as from tomorrow. Inside work as far as the I.J.A. are concerned is also finished, but work will have to carry on as before for your own benefit. Do your work as exercise. Those of you who are fit must keep fit. Those who are sick must do their utmost to get fit as soon as possible.’

We are free!

24 August. We were stunned at first. We are free but stay in the camp. Local Thais generously bring us food and drink. They’re organising entertainment for us; cinema, dancing, sports, even horse racing. The Thai army spoke to RSM McTavish, but they couldn’t tell him when we will be leaving.

25 August. Colonel Toosey arrived this evening. We gave him a tremendous reception. He said he had been worried about us, but relaxed when he saw us in good shape.

27 August. British officer Major Smiley arrived early this morning. He tells us he’s been in Thailand since May training the Seri Thai resistance. When the Japanese surrendered, he came straight to Ubon. He stayed undercover in case of Japanese revenge attacks. His radio operator contacted HQ to requisition supplies. We need decent clothes. The Thais send in more food.

28 August. Colonel Toosey sent the 20 sick men back to Bangkok with the 4 Americans. No news of our departure. We are organising football with the local Ubon team. We now have a radio and listen to the BBC. We go into Ubon but back before curfew.

22 September. It’s been five frustrating weeks waiting to go home. But we are now on the move. The Australians and 250 of the British have gone. The rest of us go in 2 days. Feeling sorry for the hundreds of Dutch who can’t go home because of fighting in the Dutch East Indies.

(The Dutch are trained in firearms and tactics in anticipation of fighting the insurgents. They eventually leave Thailand in February 1946.)