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“Malice in Blunderland” - J. P. Cross and the Royal Lao Army - 1972-75
Matthew R. Doherty
There are many reasons (political/diplomatic/financial) why Laos was taken over by the Pathet Lao (PL) in 1975. Perhaps the overriding reason was the state of its military. The Royal Lao Army (RLA) was one of the most ineffective forces of modern times. Despite being funded by a near inexhaustible American bankroll, it was a very poor shadow of its model, the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam).
The early history of the RLA was an inauspicious one. The 1er Bataillon de Chasseurs Laotiens (1st Laotian Rifle Batallion) had been formed by the Vichy French Government in 1941, to fight in support of the Axis powers. This single battalion became the initial core of the RLA. On the other hand, the RLA’s communist enemy, the PL, could trace their lineage back to the anti-Japanese forces in the form of the Lao Issara (Free Laos) movement of the 1940’s. Aware of their history through a near constant barrage of political lectures[i], the PL soldiers felt, quite rightly, that they had the moral high ground in this regard.
In February 1950, as the French colonial Empire crumbled in Indochina, Laos was formally declared an independent state. It was not long before the PL, with their Vietnamese communist allies, became a serious threat to the Royal Government. Large parts of the eastern half of the country were already operating under a communist counter-government during the 1950’s. As American intervention in Vietnam grew more explicit during the 1960’s, Laos became a key battleground. By 1972, the war was approaching its nadir for the Americans. It became obvious they were beginning to wind down operations. The Royal Lao Government and its armed forces were preparing to fight the communists on their own.
Into this deteriorating situation would step Colonel John Cross, assigned as the British Defence Attaché to Laos. Cross was, at that time, one of the most experienced officers in the British Army. He had seen service with the Gurkha’s in Burma during WW2. After the war he was posted first to fight the Vietnamese Communists during the short British occupation of Vietnam, then to fight the Malayan Communists. He was also a commander of the highly regarded British Army Jungle Warfare School. He took part in the Indonesian Confrontation during the 1960’s, commanding The Independent Gurkha Parachute Company. In 1972, he was offered the posting in Laos.
His brief from London was, “to keep my ears and eyes open about a number of diverse matters: numbers and types of equipment, vehicles, weapons, the state of bridges, roads and runways. The state of alertness, morale and training of the officers and soldiers – if I could tell them apart…”[ii]
Historically, British military presence in Laos was confined to one incident in 1962 when an RAF Hunter Squadron had been flown to the Thai border for observation purposes.[iii] This was in stark contrast to the French, who were seen as colonialists, and the Americans, who were actively supporting the RLA. Cross (being British and perceived as neutral) was allowed to travel almost anywhere in the country and interact with both communist and anti-communist forces. The PL troops, upon realising he was neither French nor American, were always friendly and willing to talk with him.[iv] He was also happily welcomed by the Royal Lao Government and had carte blanche to go anywhere in Laos in a personal aeroplane.[v] He was therefore in a unique position to view all sides in the conflict.
Cross was by any standards a languages expert. During the Indonesian Confrontation he learnt the dialects of numerous hill tribes along the border and became friends with many of these groups.[vi] He had a good command of Lao even before leaving for the country. He was also a tee-totaller, choosing to drink Pepsi Cola at the mandatory diplomatic parties that came with his new position.[vii]
Cross, by nature of his background and abilities, was therefore perfectly placed to assess the RLA and their effectiveness. He identified the RLA commanders as subjects of particular scorn. Their corruption and lack of professionalism had a “trickle-down” effect which permeated through all levels of the Army. That is not to say that every single officer of high rank was ineffective, but the environment which was cultivated tainted all aspects of the Army - from Generals in the Lao capital Vientiane, to the individual soldiers facing PL/NVA forces at the sharp end.
The Rot at the Top
Cross was particularly disgusted by the activities (or inactivity’s) of RLA commanders, or as he called them, “the lard-covered robber-barons of General rank.”[viii] RLA Generals were paid the equivalent of £80 a month (a colossal sum compared to their private soldiers) and held many lucrative side-jobs. Dangerously for Laotian “democracy”, they also acted as “powerful, political animals.”[ix] This situation was exacerbated by the fact that the King of Laos, King Savang Vatthana, attempted to legitimise the RLA by dressing as a seven star General.[x]
Whist talking candidly with a Lao General, it was admitted to Cross that, “nobody wanted to give up the chance of making money…”[xi] Corruption was a problem that would plague the RLA throughout this time and directly contribute to the Communist take-over. It was widely recognised even by RLA Generals themselves that the Pathet Lao were equipped with large quantities of US materiel - equipment first given to the Royal Lao Government, then sold on by corrupt officers and officials. In the end, the NVA had merely to supply instructors to their Laotian Communist counterparts on how to use it.[xii] In 1973 Cross wrote home: “The heart has utterly left those who have been representing the non-Communist world and the Communists have won… 28 years of war have not been enough for the non-Communists to win, and the past 15 years of US $315 million annually have resulted only in B-52 bomb craters and massive corruption.”[xiii]
The RLA Generals were underprepared for the task facing them. Their military pedigree came from the French, who were intensely disparaging towards and mistrustful of their “native” levies. This was exemplified when in Vietnam during the French reoccupation; Cross was addressing some of his Indian Army soldiers in Urdu. A French officer appeared and asked him, “Why not make them speak English?”[xiv]
Prior to Indian partition in 1947, the highest ranked native-Indian officer in the British Indian Army was a General. In contrast, the senior native-born Lao officer in the army in Laos under the French was a mere Lieutenant, and he was the exception.[xv] This lack of trust is clearly evident when RLA Generals were asked “why there were always so many details left unplanned, the answer was always, ‘Oh, we learnt it that way from the French’.”[xvi]
If planning was limited, then combat performance was hopeless. Cross gives an example of what one General did during an unusually fierce engagement:
“I asked General Kouprasithe Abhay what he did when the firing opened… He had done nothing at all, as being asleep he had heard nothing. His wife had told him about it later. ‘She knows better than to wake me up just because firing is heard,’ he said, moving off to meet somebody else. The French [Defence Attaché] who overheard that sniffed disparagingly. ‘I was a Lieutenant in 1946 when we came back to Indo-China after the war. Then the brave General was an idle sergeant. Still should be just that,’ he added disdainfully.”[xvii]
Cross recounts an unusual incident that further highlights the lack of professionalism at top Army levels: “[B]y the time I was close to one unit I had asked to visit, it was in a battle but the commanding General flew from his HQ in the field, dressed in a flak jacket, just to give me a briefing. He gave me five minutes of his time and hurried off back to his battle.”[xviii]
Alcohol dependency was present many commanders. Cross decided to call out one General with a particularly severe problem: “I told him that I had noticed at various functions recently, and in his office, that he had been drinking heavily. It was doing him no good. He was afraid of being assassinated. He had had reports he was on a hit list. The only way he could combat this was to get drunk.”[xix]
And yet alcoholism was a factor long before the deteriorating situation of the early 1970’s. Paddock Jr., an American advisory officer attached to the RLA in 1961, gave his assessment of the unit he was posted to: “Its commander, a colonel, drank too much and, while inebriated, often displayed irrational behaviour - like throwing grenades and firing a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) down a slope from his bunker, with no enemy in sight.”[xx]
Defeatism, especially during the winding down of American efforts, became a serious issue. The Senior Lao Defence Minister, Sisouk, invited Cross to his office to ask for advice and revealed he was contemplating leaving the country. Cross “told him that the morale of his army was so low it was hard to imagine it falling any lower, yet if he were to leave the country at that juncture and the PL and the NVA decided to push their forces all the way to the Lao-Thai border, nothing would stop them.”[xxi] Sisouk’s response to a foreigner was astonishingly candid: “You know even if I stay here it may be too late. I’ve got such bad Generals.”[xxii]
RLA commanders were generally ineffective, corrupt, and committed to a pattern of behaviour which was defeatist in nature, especially after the American pull-out of Vietnam. Their lack of ability and negative attitude contributed to the poor performance of the soldiers under their command. Their corruption deprived their own men of much needed equipment and bolstered the fighting power of the PL.
The Rot Trickles Down
As early as 1969, Henry Kissinger sent a letter to the President detailing the inadequacy of the RLA. He described their kill-ratios as the lowest of all US backed forces in Indochina and estimated that at least a doubling of their effectiveness was needed if they were to be of any use in stopping the PL/NVA.[xxiii]
On the ground, Cross gave his assessment of the average RLA combat unit: “The soldiers… some in their early teens and others well into their forties, were apathetic, lacklustre and bored, with ancient equipment, poor pay – by then the equivalent of £3.50 a month – and uninterested officers…”[xxiv]
Paddock Jr. also criticised the effectiveness of his assigned unit, who “had poor sectors of fire and inadequate communication. Too many individual weapons were dirty, missing parts, and inoperable.”[xxv]
Unsurprisingly, due to command’s lack of impetus in the prosecution of the war, a “live and let live” attitude reared itself in quieter sectors of the country. At one point during his travels, Cross found a piece of RLA medium artillery (“the Queen of the battlefield”) on a hilltop overlooking a valley in which the PL were observable. Cross asked the artillerymen why they did not open fire. Their reply was straightforward. They would not use the gun, “as the enemy might then know we had it, be angry with us and punish us by attacking the position, which we would then lose, and then headquarters would also be angry with us. It is much better and easier to leave things as they are.”[xxvi]
Lack of action against the PL would often translate into outright fraternisation. One astonishing incident occurred when an RLA unit attempted to negotiate for the pay that was owed them (something no soldier should ever have to do in the first place). But to do this would mean abandoning their camp in the face of the enemy. However:
“A compromise was reached. All the RLA soldiers would go to Ban Houei Sai and demand their pay. During that time the PL would occupy the RLA camp. If successful, the PL would accept pay for as many days as the RLA soldiers were away - then go back to their own camp. If however the RLA delegation was unsuccessful, the whole lot would join the PL on their return. Pay was allowed, and the PL did move back, five days’ pay the richer. It was only later that [Cross] learnt that the two opposing commanders were cousins.”[xxvii]
This lack of élan in RLA units was understandable. After all, why should they go out of their way to fight the communists when they were so badly led? However, the result of such a laissez faire attitude was to diminish the effectiveness of the army as a whole and contribute to the eventual communist takeover.
The RLAF (Royal Lao Air Force), which could have been so effective in supporting the Army, was inadequate in the extreme. According to a damning US government report, the RLAF was deficient in administration, management, logistics, heavy maintenance, command and control, and pilot training. The USAF attempted to rectify this by providing training courses in these areas but progress was “agonizingly slow.”[xxviii] Despite huge American subsidies, due to corruption at top levels there was an acute fuel shortage in the country, which meant that at one stage the Prime Minister had to forbid all flying. Cross was seen as so important that he was given three hours fuel to visit and make an assessment of a Military Region. His Lao pilot was so unused to the situation that he took full advantage of the opportunity by getting some flying practise in during the trip.[xxix]
Taken as a whole, the RLA was sub-standard, yet some units showed a degree of capability. For example, certain irregular sections of the army, used to hard jungle living and backed up by American advisors, were of a different calibre. Cross commented that, “instead of the sad, hapless, lacklustre creatures of the conventional army, here were soldiers who had a purposeful robustness and who emanated a dedication of a high standard.” As if to further illustrate the point, he was presented with a blood-stained Pathet Lao flag which he had no cause to believe was anything other than genuine.[xxx] This illustrated what might have been, had the main body of RLA forces followed such a model.
The true inadequacy of the RLA is demonstrated when comparing them to their PL counterparts. Cross, who as previously stated was able to mingle with the Communists freely, said his impression, “was that they were nothing more than second-class infantrymen at best, ‘advised’ by NVA cadres both political and military, without any resources of their own.”[xxxi]
The PL, while supplied by the Soviets, Chinese and North Vietnamese, were usually on shaky diplomatic ground with all three. The RLA were by no means facing an entirely united front. The Soviets especially were exasperated by “all those silly Laotian names [and] the individuals to whom those names belonged.”[xxxii] This attitude was shown when, after the PL occupied Vientiane in 1975, the Russian Defence Attaché, Tsakarov, “became so abusive to them, saying that they were so useless they were bound to make a nonsense of their victory ‘which you never won by yourselves’, that pressure was applied to have him removed.”[xxxiii]
Throughout his writings, Cross was always amazed at how the PL did not overwhelm the RLA sooner, but it should be recognised that the PL were badly trained and badly organised. They were up against similarly badly trained/organised forces in the form of the RLA. In the end the communist victory was a case of a sub-standard army overcoming an even worse one.
The RLA performed so badly during the 1970’s due to four key reasons. First was French colonial influence. Lao’s could never achieve high rank under the French system. Once the French abandoned the country, it followed that there was no experienced native-born officer corps to take command. This led to over-promotion and political appointments, rather than ones based on merit.
Commanders out to make money led to immense nation-wide corruption which drained the RLA of much needed American equipment and actively placed this equipment in the hands of the PL.
A serious lack of coordination between the air force and army, and army and irregular units meant that, yet again, American equipment and expertise could not be fully exploited.
Finally, defeatism, especially after American withdrawal from Vietnam, contributed to the perceived hopelessness of the situation and ensured that when the communist offensive in Laos began, the RLA were already locked into a pattern of defeat. This led to political elites and generals abandoning the country, which further reduced the effectiveness of the Army.
After the PL took Vientiane and secured the country for communism, Cross returned to the UK and received an MBE for his service, later becoming a recruiting officer for the British Army in Nepal. He went on to sum up his personal feelings on the defeat of the RLA:
“It was a bitter irony that, having spent most of my military life fighting against and training others to fight against Communist Revolutionary Warfare, I should serve in a country where the communists were the winners and the royal forces the losers. I lent my [Jungle Warfare School] précis to the best general in the Royal Lao Army, but we both decided it was, by now, thirty years too late!”[xxxiv]
Anthony, V. Sexton, R. (1993) The War in Northern Laos. Washington D.C.: Center for Air Force History.
Burleigh, M. (2014) Small Wars, Far Away Places: The Genesis of the Modern World. London: Pan Macmillan.
Cross, J.P. (1989) Jungle Warfare: Experiences and Encounters. London: Guild Publishing.
Cross, J.P. (1996) A Face like a Chicken’s Backside: An Unconventional Soldier in South East Asia 1948-1971. London: Greenhill Books.
Cross, J.P. (2017) First In Last Out: An Unconventional British Officer in Indo-China. London: Greenhill Books.
Hack, K. (2001) Defence and decolonisation in Southeast Asia: Britain, Malaya and Singapore 1941-1968. Surrey: Curzon Press.
Kissinger, H. A. (1969) Memorandum for the President: Background on U.S. Military Operations in Laos. Washington D.C.: Secretary of Defence.
Paddock, Jr. A.H. (2013) Personal Memories of Operation White Star in Laos, 1961. Small Wars Journal.
Pocock, T. (1973) Fighting General: The Public and Private Campaigns of General Sir Walter Walker. London: Collins.
[i] Cross, First In Last Out, p201
[ii] Ibid, p157
[iii] Hack, Defence, p272-273
[iv] Cross, First In Last Out, p200
[v] Ibid, p138
[vi] Pocock, Fighting General, p187
[vii] Cross, First In Last Out, p81
[viii] Ibid, p161
[ix] Ibid, p65
[xi] Cross, Jungle, p153
[xii] Cross, First In Last Out, p206
[xiii] Ibid, p105
[xiv] Ibid, p48
[xv] Ibid, p242
[xvi] Cross, Jungle, p185
[xvii] Cross, First In Last Out, p124
[xviii] Ibid, p110-111
[xix] Ibid, p183
[xx] Paddock, Jr., White Star
[xxi] Cross, First In Last Out, p185
[xxiii] Kissinger, Memorandum, p3
[xxiv] Cross, First In Last Out, p110
[xxv] Paddock, Jr., White Star
[xxvi] Cross, Jungle, p152
[xxvii] Cross, First In Last Out, p166
[xxviii] Anthony and Sexton, Northern Laos, p365
[xxix] Cross, First In Last, p160-161
[xxx] Ibid, p164
[xxxi] Ibid, p195
[xxxii] Burleigh, Small Wars, p482
[xxxiii]Cross, First In Last Out, p199
[xxxiv] Cross, Chicken’s Backside, p228