Koh Chang has a rich history, taken back and forth between Cambodia and Thailand many times and even bombed in WW2. That is where our story takes us back to 1941…
It was 1941 and France was under the boot of the Nazis. Indo-china (as they called it) was still safely in the hands of the French and yet that was about to be tested by the Thai Forces. Knowing that the French would not have access to their vast empires resources and wanting some land back from enforced treaties’ with the French over the last 100 years the Thais poured into what is now Cambodia and Vietnam in a bid to get back some what they saw as their ancestral lands. Their main thrust was along the road that now leads into Hat Lek along the coast to the Cambodian border.
The Royal Thai Navy was anchored at the far south end of Koh Chang in around Salek Pet and the ships they had were formidable including two heavy coastal defence ships, twelve torpedo boats and two gun-boats. Not to mention the land based air force and coastal guns… Koh Chang was not an easy target in the least.
The sea was calm and the skies were clear early in the morning of January 17, 1941 when the French fleet steamed into the area around Koh Chang. The French fleet broke into three units and prepared to encircle Koh Chang as the dawn approached, it was now 5:45am and within hours there would be carnage, but for now the seas were blue, quiet and the first light of dawn was just approaching. It was; a beautiful day.
The French launched a float plane to oversee the area and although the effect was to warn the Thai forces it would gather enough intelligence for the French fleet to make a decision about where to attack and what was in dock.
The Thais were completely surprised and they tried to spring into action but to little avail. The French ships used the cover of the numerous islands to get in close and open up on the fleet. Thai anti-aircraft guns opened up and kept away the French float planes (now loaded with bombs). The French fleet sunk several of the torpedo boats and continued the advance.
The HTMS Thonburi was sighted and both the French and Thai ships exchanged fire between the numerous islands around Koh Chang.( Note- There used to 55 islands and now there are 54 due to somebody at this battle blowing one little island totally away – it’s now a “shoal”) Commander Luang Phrom Virpan was killed by a lucky shot from the French and this disrupted the Thai communication and command structure so badly that the Thais had little chance to win this battle.
The French knew that the Thai Air Force was inbound and so they could press the attack and they had to withdraw or suffer severe damage from the air. The Thai fleet withdrew to shallow water and amid the blazes and death waited for relief from the air.
Steaming away the French encountered the Thai Air Force but the Thais were hard pressed to inflict damage as the French had very powerful Anti-aircraft batteries on the ships. With Koh Chang ablaze, the Thonburi on fire and listing badly, The HTMS Chanburi sunk with 2 dead and the HTMS Songhkla also sunk with 14 dead, the French surprise attack had gone well for them. In all 36 men died and scores were wounded for life.
The saddest part that is war is that five days later the Japanese offered to arbitrate a peaceful settlement with the French and gave the annexed lands to the Thai forces. In a sense the battle had been for naught. This though did not take away from the French saying that the Thai sailors were tenacious and courageous fighters.
Today when you look at the beauty around the islands of Koh Chang take a drive way down to the south and find the battle memorial and think about just how sad war is in such a beautiful place. And perhaps pay your respects to the fallen for their ultimate sacrifice.