My (brief) career as a race-caller

One of the ways a racetrack fosters the atmosphere and excitement of racing is by having course broadcasters who describe each race as it takes place over the public address system.

Australia is world-renowned for producing the very best race-callers with many of the ilk travelling overseas to ply their trade and bring their skills to tracks as diverse as Happy Valley in Hong Kong, Kranji in Singapore and racecourses in the United States and Britain.

Way back in 1977 I began what turned out to be an intermittent two-year ‘career’ as a race-caller. As with a number of things I have done in my life, this was achieved by unconventional means.

I began- and finished- my brief career behind the microphone calling, of all things, quarter-horse races.

Quarter-horses are so called because they are designed to run faster than any thoroughbred over a distance of up to around 440 yards (400 metres), or a quarter of a mile in Imperial measurement terms. After about 400 metres they start to decelerate but are still quite capable of competing up to around half a mile, or 800 metres, or so.

Most races are held down a straight track where possible or, at worst, there will be a single bend.

I was nineteen years old and my school friend Warren Andersen, who was heavily into horse racing, decided to become a racehorse trainer. He was acquainted with a few people involved around the Australian Quarter-Horse Association (AQHA) and figured he might be able to get his foot on the training ladder by getting some old racehorses capable of still running a fast 400 or more metres and competing with them at the few tracks where quarter-horse racing was in its infancy.

While the American quarter-horse was a feature at Australian shows, festivals and rodeos engaging in all the features usually associated with horses at these events, it hadn’t progressed into full-scale racing, unlike in parts of the United States where quarter-horse racing was a major spectator and gambling sport.

The AQHA was in the throes of trying to bring quarter-horse racing in Australia to compete alongside the thoroughbreds, standardbreds (trotting as we called it back then; harness racing as it is now) and greyhound racing.

Yet there was a problem. The people Warren had come to know were not happy with the lack of progress being achieved by the AQHA, and they had split from the main organisation and formed the New South Wales Sprint Racing Association.

This breakaway group was beginning to conduct a show and race meeting at Bossley Park, out in the west of Sydney. The track itself was hardly Royal Randwick or Flemington. A long, straight grass run with railings on either side. The barrier stalls were about the only indication the Bossley Park racetrack was an operational entity.

I used to accompany Warren to the race meetings and show, held on a Sunday afternoon. The ‘races’, such as they were, usually consisted of a single race only, and rarely more than about three or four starters.

After a couple of visits Warren suggested I should bring my binoculars -which I’d had since I was about fourteen years old to watch greyhound racing at Harold Park and Wentworth Park- and see if they would let me do a call of the race.

Given that someone making a bit of ‘noise’ by calling a race through the on-course broadcast system would at least add a little bit of ‘colour’ to the day, it was agreed I could take up the duty as official race-caller. There was no remuneration involved.

It was a pretty easy introduction to the art. My first race call took place on 26 June 1977 and consisted of Warren’s entrant Balgownie Boy and one other horse, whose name I don’t recall. Warren was not only the trainer, he was also light enough in those days to be the jockey as well since he probably only weighed about 60 kilograms ringing wet.

A two-horse race over 400 metres or so should not be a cause for butterflies and trepidation, but I remember being extremely nervous. I was a very shy person compared to my gregarious mate Warren and kept thinking, ‘I hope don’t make a complete balls-up of this.’ Thankfully, no recording of the event is available; indeed I am not aware of any recording of any race which I called in my ‘career’, which at least prevents any chance of me being blackmailed to keep such a thing suppressed.

That first race took all of about twelve seconds to run and in that time I probably mentioned Balgownie Boy’s name twenty times and the other horse maybe six times. My excuse for this is that Warren pretty much led all the way on Balgownie Boy and won fairly easily. Being my first race call I thought I needed to rattle off names as fast as possible, whereas it would really have been better to relax and call the race as if it was going to last forever and I had all the time in the world. This was especially the case with a two-horse race.

Nonetheless, I wasn’t sacked from the task and came back two weeks later for the next meeting and called two races, both of which consisted of small fields of two or three horses only. I still wasn’t very good and after that meeting did not come back again for just over nine months.

I’m not sure why there was a long hiatus, although it may have been because there were ructions within the quarter-horse community and no racing was held, but I’m not sure. It may have been that Warren’s horses weren’t available to race and so we simply didn’t go to the meetings. I was starting to spend more evenings in the local pubs as well, especially on a Saturday night and so getting up early to drive out to western Sydney wasn’t especially enticing.

I do know Balgownie Boy won the CCQHA Racehorse Award for 1977. I think the CCQHA then stood for the County of Cumberland Quarter-Horse Association. Checking the ubiquitous Google in 2017 I note the CCQHA still exists, but it’s now the Central Coast Quarter-Horse Association and therefore not the same grouping.

My latent ‘career’ resumed on Sunday 30 April 1978 when I called the only race held at Bossley Park that afternoon. There was another single race held at the course on 28 May and I called that and then, on June 18, I called the only two races run that day.

By this time Warren had established the Duffy’s Forest Sprint Racing Stables, where he trained Balgownie Boy and a very fast but very temperamental black horse named Flying High who had set a 400-metres track record of 23.3 seconds at the Denman racetrack.

Warren, along with Max Andersen, his father, and myself attended a meeting on 7 July to select a committee to run a breakaway organisation to be called the Sydney Sprint Racing Association, which was to be affiliated with the wider NSW Sprint Racing Association. As it happened, Max, Warren and myself became the ‘committee’. The first meeting of this ‘committee’ took place just four days later, at a house in Fairfield.

Basically, the NSW Sprint Racing Association (NSWSRA) was a breakaway group from the Australian Quarter-Horse Association. It was all a bit Monty Python-esque.

The Sydney Sprint Racing Association could be likened to the Monty Python Life of Brian movie equivalent of the People’s Front of Judaea and not to be confused with the Australian Quarter-Horse Association which represented the despised Judaean People’s Front. No wonder quarter-horse racing never got out of the basement, let alone made it to the ground floor.

I imagine there were people who thought quarter-horse racing could be the next big thing and wanted to position themselves to be in the front ranks because of the earning potential and power which could be wielded. So, instead of quarter-horse racing participants uniting behind a single entity, the edifice they were trying to create essentially fell apart because of factionalised infighting.

A truce was called and on 22 July Warren and myself travelled to Dubbo as the delegates from the Sydney Region Sprint Racing Committee for a Sprint Race Club meeting. That meeting agreed to form the Union of NSW Sprint Race Clubs and would include both NSWSRA and AQHA tracks.

I resembled a piece of furniture at that Dubbo meeting. I sat alongside Warren and uttered not a single word during the entire conference. I’m not sure Warren said too much either. I think we both felt well and truly out of our depth. It certainly cured me of ever wanting to be a member of any kind of committee for anything at all.

On 25 July, Warren and I reported on our trip to a meeting of the Sydney Sprint Association and helped in organising what would be a major race meeting to showcase quarter-horse racing, to be held on Saturday 12 August. I was appointed Race Secretary for this meeting, which sounds pretty impressive but really was probably a kick upstairs while a ‘proper’ race-caller was roped in for the historic occasion.

I called my last race at Bossley Park on Sunday 30 July. When the big meeting took place on 12 August it came complete with a printed race-guide which highlighted the runners in each of the first four races, with a fifth event, to be run over 800 metres, to be run as a consolation and managed to misspell my surname, rendering it ‘Stern’ instead of ‘Stearn’. I’m not sure if that was meant to be a subtle hint of some kind.

The meeting was quite successful with Brian Jack, a ‘professional’ race-caller who, I think, used to call greyhounds and harness racing around the Newcastle region, being the race-caller for the day. He was certainly a far better choice than me to be calling a series of races which had more than two or three horses engaged.

After that ‘peak’ I never returned to Bossley Park or was involved in any kind of committee or administration of the sport. This was not because of any problem but simply because I was spending a lot of time getting inebriated in bars with a group of like-minded individuals. I was also busy playing cricket (badly) with a bunch of friends on Sunday afternoons during summer.

Nonetheless, I ended my race-calling career on a high, or low, depending on who was listening, at a place called Black Creek, near Cessnock, on 26 May 1979. By that time I was approaching my twenty-second birthday and it was pretty obvious I wasn’t going to be ‘discovered’ as the next big thing behind the microphone.

That meeting at Black Creek consisted of an originally-planned eight races which quickly blew out to become ten when a surfeit of nominations was received. The races were run over distances from 380 to 780 metres on a neat grass track complete with a finishing post which just happened to be sited right next to where I was seated to call the races.

The problem for me as a race-caller was the ‘post’ consisted of the finish line, which I could not see, and propped up with two rather large pieces of timber either side which meant as the field crossed the line there was no way I could see which horse was actually in front unless it had been a clear leader about two strides before it ‘disappeared’ behind the timber frame.

Adding to my woes, I was sitting in such a way the only time I could really see who was leading was as the field left the barriers and raced side-on to me until they came around the bend into the home straight. After that the horses were thundering in a line like the Charge of the Light Brigade and in many of the races that afternoon I had to gauge as best I could which ones were actually in front.

Further complicating matters was that each field was only finalised about twenty minutes before each race was due to start. I was then handed a sheet with the names and numbers of the horses and then I had to try and memorise the colours of the silks worn by the respective jockeys. The only set of silks with which I was familiar belonged to Warren. The rest I had to try and learn as each field got ready in the mounting yard, which was in front of my broadcast position, before they headed off to the barriers.

This was billed as a ‘picnic’ race meeting and so a couple of bookmakers were on hand to take bets from the public.

There was no photo-finish and so the winner and placegetters for each race were decided by the judges who were, naturally enough, on the opposite side of the track to the winning post and had an uninterrupted view as each horse reached the line.

Most fields, as I recall, consisted of at least six runners with a couple of races boasting nine or ten starters. I remember hoping for a few clean breaks where the finishes would be obvious and not so close. The gods of the racetrack rarely granted that wish. Of the ten races, about seven were extremely close finishes with the winner scoring by about a head or a neck.

Given I couldn’t actually see the finish, I had to try and guess which of a clutch of two or three horses which I knew had finished virtually together had won the race. Had I been a little smarter, I should have being saying something like, ‘oh, it’s too close to call, maybe Guano has nudged out Hit The Fan (to make up a couple of names), but we’ll have to leave it to the judges to decide.’ That would have been sensible, but I didn’t do it. Instead, I made an attempt to announce the winning horse at every race, and this caused me some grief at the conclusion of the meeting.

I had just called the last of the ten races when I became the target of abuse by one gambler. This bloke looked up at me and said words to the effect of, ‘I hope you’re bloody right with that last winner ya bastard, you’ve been calling the wrong ones all day!’

I looked down at him, smiled, and replied, ‘No, I’ve got this one right.’ How did I know? Truth is, I didn’t; I was bluffing, exuding a confidence in my prediction, which I had no right to exhibit. Thankfully, the result came up as I had called it, much to my relief and, I imagine, that of the abusive gambler who wandered in the direction of the bookies to collect his winnings and thence, no doubt, to the bar for a few drinks.

And so ended my ‘career’. What really put the nail in the calling coffin was a young lady, of course.

A couple of months after the Black Creek meeting I met a young lady in a bar in Manly, as one does, and started a courtship which excluded much in the way of racing, and certainly put an end to any ideas I had about continuing to pursue the life of a race-caller, which is a tough gig at the best of times.

As for quarter-horse racing in Australia, four decades later it remains an elusive pipedream, although there is talk of it kicking off in parts of Queensland some time in 2017 or beyond.

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The day Siam recognized the Republic of Slovakia…six decades too early

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King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) on a state visit to Europe in 1934.

When a letter written on parchment-like paper and bearing a large cerise seal arrived at the Foreign Ministry in Bangkok in early 1929, Thai officials naturally handled the missive with great care. Once the contents had been translated, officials noted that it requested the Royal Siamese Government formally recognize the new Republic of Slovakia.

The letter was signed by a Professor Mihalusz, who claimed to be the new President of the Republic of Slovakia, with its capital at Trencsen (modern day Trencin). Naturally, King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) and his senior advisers, led by 46-year-old Foreign Minister Prince Traidos Prabandh (a former Siamese ambassador to the United States), deliberated on the request. Clearly Slovakia had successfully seceded from Czechoslovakia, which had been created just a decade earlier at the conclusion of the First World War from the charred remains of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Since the President of Czechoslovakia was Professor Masaryk, the Thai ministers came to the conclusion the Slovakian secessionists had also chosen a professor as their first elected leader.

A few weeks later the postmaster in Trencsen received a letter emblazoned with the Royal Coat of Arms of Siam and addressed to His Excellency the President of Slovakia, Professor Mihalusz. The postmaster went post haste to see the mayor. He opened the letter and read with mounting concern the contents in which His Majesty King Prajadhipok declared himself graciously and inexpressibly pleased to accord full recognition de facto and de jure to the Sovereign Republic of Slovakia.

The mayor of Trencsen quickly drafted a letter to be sent as quickly as possible to Bangkok. He explained Slovakia had not seceded from Czechoslovakia, the capital city remained as Prague and not Trencsen, and the President was still Professor Masaryk and not Professor Mihalusz.

The mayor went on to explain that some time in the early part of 1928 a group of Slovakians held a mass meeting led by Professor Mihalusz, an old botanist of minor renown, at which they issued a ‘Declaration of Slovak Independence’. The mayor wrote that the whole exercise was more academic than revolutionary and was easily suppressed by the local police. Professor Mihalusz, obviously frightened by the police interest in him, later fled Trencsen and had not been seen for some time. He was believed to be hiding out in Vienna from where he had probably written the letter that won Slovakia recognition from Siam.

Slovakia eventually achieved independence from Czechoslovakia, in 1993.

The Franco-Thai Border War 1940-41

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A protest march in Bangkok demanding the return of territory from France.

If it is correct that one of the first casualties of war is truth, then certain previously accepted ‘facts’ about the Franco-Thai War of 1940-1941 need to be re-examined with greater scrutiny.

The Thai accounts of that brief war and the French versions tend to differ, sometimes by degrees and occasionally quite markedly. This is particularly so with regard to the causes of the war and especially the naval battle of Koh Chang.

France and Siam had been on the verge of war on a number of occasions from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, as the French sought (successfully) to extend their empire in Indochina and the Thais struggled in vain to hold on to the vestiges of control they exerted over their ostensible vassals of Laos and Cambodia.

Following the First World War, Siam hired German advisers to help build and train a Thai army. By 1935, Siam had a modern army of some 50,000 troops and it was in this year that yet another border incident took place between the Thais and the French.

A Thai-run logging company, owned by Khun Inta Bangcongcit, would purchase logs in French-controlled Laos and float them down the Mekong River to Siam. However, the French allegedly broke the logging agreement, causing Khun Inta to lodge a complaint with the French authorities. They responded by arresting and beating Khun Inta and allegedly raping his wife. This prompted Siam to make an official complaint to the League of Nations. France was ordered to pay compensation to Khun Inta and his wife, but the French ignored the order.

This complaint was the catalyst that led to Siam re-negotiating a series of treaties regarding navigation, commerce and extraterritoriality with 13 nations, including Britain, France, the United States, and Japan.

In 1938, Siam approached France and asked to renegotiate their common boundaries to prevent incidents similar to those of Khun Inta occurring in the future. The French refused to enter into any form of negotiation.

Following the fall of France to the Germans in June 1940, the Thais approached the new Vichy-aligned government in Indochina with regard to settling their border difficulties, believing they would be more amenable than their predecessors. The Thais were sadly mistaken, but the British, concerned about the very real possibility Indochina would fall to the Japanese, put pressure on the French to enter negotiations.

In August 1940, Japan, aiming to improve their strategic position against China, demanded the Vichy government in Indochina give them unfettered use of three northern Vietnamese airfields as well as allowing 5,000 Japanese troops to be stationed in the Red River Valley.

The French colonial administration agreed in principle to the demands, but haggled over the details. However, by September 1940, the Japanese were effectively in control of northern Vietnam.

Prime Minister Pibul Songgram offered to sign a Non-Aggression Pact with France, similar to the one then in force with Japan and Britain. Talks, led on the French side by Admiral Decoux, the Governor-General of Indochina, commenced early in September 1940 with six major points to be addressed between Thailand and France. These involved clear demarcation of certain border areas as well as the return of some territory to Thailand. The negotiations lasted just two weeks before they broke down through the intransigence of both sides.

In retaliation, the colonial French authorities began making life difficult for Thais doing cross-border business. A number were arrested and in October, matters were exacerbated when Khun Canta Sintharako, after crossing into Cambodia to visit his business partner, was beaten to death by police in front of his family.

The Thai government demanded an investigation, a formal apology and a renewal of border negotiations. The French reply, according to the Thai version of events, came in the form of provocation with military aircraft over-flying Thai territory and artillery shelling border posts. French patrols started making incursions into Thailand.

Thailand responded by sending aircraft to patrol the border with orders to attack any foreign troops they encountered on Thai soil. The army also moved artillery units up to the border and returned French fire.

The French claimed the provocation came from the Thai side, with units being sent across the Cambodian border in probing actions.

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Painting of a 1941 bombing mission undertaken by Thai military aircraft against the Vichy French. (from a painting in the Royal Thai Air Force Museum)

Whichever nation was at fault, by November, border incidents were becoming more common and serious. The French, with around 100 military aircraft available, sent their bombers in at night to attack military positions and border towns, avoiding Thai aircraft. The Thai air force, according to League of Nations documents of the time, numbered around 207 planes (of which only 128 were in tactical units and considered modern) and some of these allegedly attacked places such as Battambang and Vientiane. The French claimed to have shot down four Thai aircraft in dogfights, though the claims are disputed.

On 1 December 1940, the undeclared war escalated when the French navy sent three sloops to shell the coastal town of Trat. Three Thai planes attacked the sloops, hitting one. The French then shelled the border town of Aranyaprathet, killing six civilians. A French assault against Nakhon Thanom the following night resulted in the deaths of two more civilians.

The Thais lost four planes to French action from 9-13 December, three were shot down and the fourth destroyed on the ground when French aircraft bombed Ubon. The tale of woe for the Thais continued when two aircraft collided on take-off from Ubon on 14 December.

In an attempt to stop French aerial attacks, six Thai bombers struck Ban Sin airbase on 16 December, damaging the field and wrecking a few French airplanes.

During the Christmas-New Year period there was a lull in the fighting. However, on the night of 4 January 1941, French bombers struck Udon Thani and Nong Khai. Five days later, Thai aircraft conducted a series of daylight raids against Battambang, Sisophon, Vientiane, and Pakse among others.

On 10 January, French reconnaissance planes were sighted over Bangkok. The Thai capital was also subjected to an innocuous bombing raid that same day. At the same time, three Thai battalions crossed into Laos, met negligible opposition and in succeeding days occupied the entire western bank of the Mekong north and south of Paklay.

Also on 10 January, the largest of the Thai assault forces, consisting of nine battalions, two artillery regiments and tanks, struck Poipet before moving in the direction of Sisophon.

In a somewhat daring action, while French planes were targeting Bangkok, six Thai bombers and four fighters attacked Hanoi. Four French fighters attacked them, but the Thais claimed to have shot down two French planes, a claim refuted by the defenders. It is known that two French planes were out of action at the end of the war, possibly damaged by the Thai attack and it is almost certain one of them was shot down.

On 11 January, Thai planes attempted to knock out the main French air base near Siem Reap. The French claimed to have shot down at least five Thai aircraft (a claim disputed by the Thais) while the Thais believed they destroyed two French fighters in dogfights as well as another on the ground. The French did not confirm these claims. The Thais admitted to losing one fighter, the last of seven planes they lost during the war.

Thai forces attacked towards Pakse on 12 January and within a week had gained control of the region as far south as the Cambodian border.

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Royal Thai Air Force fighters engaged in an aerial battle with the French. (from a painting in the Royal Thai Air Force Museum)

In northern Cambodia, three Thai battalions pushed past Samrong, which they burned, before being halted by determined French defence around the end of January. Among the combatants was Prem Tinsulanonda, a future Thai prime minister.

The French were hampered in their defence of both Cambodia and Laos by a revolt in the Mekong Delta region of southern Vietnam that tied up forces they could have used against the Thais.

Two prongs of the Thai offensive moved towards a junction at the Tonle Sap while the third section struck towards Battambang. The French, thinking the strike towards Battambang was the main Thai thrust, moved the bulk of their forces to counteract the drive.

The folly of this thinking was soon exposed when the other two Thai prongs swept aside resistance, surrounding the main French army. The Thais planned to wipe out the French, drive on and occupy Saigon and compel France to restore the territories it had taken in the previous 55 years.

Admiral Decoux had, in early December 1940, put together a small naval squadron called the Groupe Occasionnel in Cam Ranh Bay, placing Captain de Vaisseau Berenger in command.

In an effort to relieve the pressure on the army, the ramshackle squadron sailed into the Gulf of Thailand on 13 January 1941 to seek out their Thai counterparts. It appeared a David and Goliath contest as the Thai navy had been upgraded with ships purchased from Italy and Japan and the French had no real air cover apart from eight seaplanes based at Ream to provide reconnaissance.

On 14 January 1941, the naval battle of Koh Chang took place. The details of the battle, an undisputed victory for the French, are controversial, with both sides offering almost diametrically opposed versions. The French claimed to have sunk or destroyed no less than five Thai warships; the Thais allege they lost only two.

The French squadron consisted of the light cruiser Lamotte-Picquet (the flagship commanded by Captain Berenger) and four sloops, two of them quite ancient.

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The French flagship, Lamotte-Picquet.

The battle began when a French seaplane found a section of the Thai fleet, consisting of two coast defence ships (HTMS Ayutthaya and HTMS Thonburi, both commissioned between 1937 and 1938), two sloops, four torpedo boats, two minesweepers and a patrol boat, anchored off Koh Chang and attacked them.

Berenger then led his ships against the Thai vessels in an action that commenced near dawn and lasted around an hour before the French withdrew- according to them- unscathed.

The French alleged their flagship struck the Ayutthaya with a torpedo and, heavily damaged by gunfire, she was beached by her crew on the mainland. The Lamotte-Picquet severely damaged a Thai torpedo boat, which later sank, before sinking two other torpedo boats.

Berenger’s squadron then turned all their guns against the Thonburi and claimed to sink the vessel.

The squadron, its mission accomplished, began sailing back to the relative safety of French-controlled southern Vietnam but came under aerial attack, which they managed to beat off with anti-aircraft fire.

The Thai version of events is somewhat different. The action opened with the French concentrating their initial salvoes on the two Thai torpedo boats anchored near the approach to Koh Chang. These two vessels were overwhelmed by gunfire and sank.

The Thonburi began returning fire some 15 minutes after the attack commenced while the remainder of the fleet, caught by surprise, started raising steam with the aim of sailing out to battle.

The Thonburi, struck by French shells, began to burn and, suffering from serious flooding, was beached. However, the remainder of the Thai squadron started engaging the French.

The Ayutthaya fired on the French cruiser Lamotte-Picquet while two Thai torpedo boats engaged two of the French sloops. The Ayutthaya claimed to have scored a direct hit on the French flagship, penetrating the engine room. An American reporter who saw th ship back in Saigon later said he could see no evidence of damage.

Faced with a Thai force now ready to fight at closer quarters and with his flagship hit, the French commander broke off the action and withdrew. The Thais lost 36 men killed in the action. French losses are unknown.

Following the battle, the crew of the Thonburi put out the fires on their ship and re-floated her. She was towed back to Bangkok where she entered dry dock for repairs. The ship eventually became an accommodation hulk in Bangkok before being scrapped in 1956.

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HTMS Songhkla on fire during the Battle of Koh Chang.

In reality, the Ayutthaya received only superficial damage and was eventually sunk during the abortive coup of 1951. Two of the torpedo boats allegedly sunk by the French in fact remained in service until 1976.

Nevertheless, the French victory was their first against an opponent of equal strength since 1781, when they defeated the British in the second Battle of the Virginia Capes during the American War of Independence.

The final major action of the war took place either on 16 or 22 January (depending on whose account you read) when Thai units, supported by tanks, encountered a French defensive line at Yang Dang Khum, northwest of Sisophon. The French claimed to have held their line and forced the Thais to retreat, while the Thais stated they were waiting to move sufficient forces into the area to complete the destruction of the French.

The French also claimed to be preparing for a major counter-attack against the advancing Thai army and stated the Thai army had suffered around 800 casualties against 120 of their own. These claims seem exaggerated, although the Thai advance did stall.

On the other hand, the Thais state they had almost surrounded the remainder of the French forces defending Cambodia and were within three to four days of forcing the French to surrender.

While the fighting was raging, behind the scenes Japan offered to act as a mediator, encouraged by Prime Minister Pibul Songgram. With both sides accepting Japanese mediation, a ceasefire was arranged for 28 January. An armistice was signed three days later, on board the Japanese cruiser Natori in Saigon harbour, bringing military action to an end while a peace agreement could be hammered out.

The casualty figures for the war vary enormously; depending on which source is being referred to. Overall, deaths on both sides were at least 700 each on both sides, while one estimate goes as high as 2,000 military and 2,000 civilian casualties. Of the latter, two Catholic nuns and five catechists (one man and four women) were killed during what the Catholic Church deemed as persecution of Christians, Catholics in particular. The Thai government made it known they considered Catholic Thais to be traitors to their country for sharing a faith practised by so many French. The Catholic Church beatified the seven ‘martyrs’ as they termed them in 2000.

A large number of French Foreign Legion troops, taken prisoner during the invasion of Laos by the Thais, refused to be repatriated at the end of the war and decided to settle down in Thailand.

On 7 February 1941, a peace conference between the Vichy French government of Indochina and Thailand began under the auspices of the Japanese Foreign Minister Matsuoka Yosuke in Tokyo.

The Thai delegation, led by respected career diplomat Prince Wan, commenced negotiations with a series of ambit claims that the French, headed by Rene Robin and the ambassador to Japan, Paul Arsene Henry, could not possibly accept.

The two sides were deadlocked until the Japanese Foreign Minister presented a set of proposals some 10 days after negotiations had started. Rene Robin countered with a set of alternative proposals and, despite the fact that Prince Wan felt the Japanese were biased towards the French, he was authorised to accept the terms after speaking with Prime Minister Pibul Songgram.

On 11 March, a mediation agreement was signed in Tokyo while on 9 May the Treaty of Tokyo officially ended the war.

By the terms of the treaty, the French were forced to cede the Cambodian provinces of Siem Reap (although not the temples at Angkor Wat) and Battambang to Thailand as well as Sayaboury in Laos. Thailand agreed that the ceded areas would be turned into demilitarised zones. In return, Thailand agreed to pay the Vichy French government the equivalent of 10 million baht in compensation.

In turn, the French signed a treaty with Luang Prabang in August 1941 ceding Vientiane, Xieng-Khouang and Luang Nam Tha to the French protectorate to compensate it for the loss of Sayaboury.

Japan exchanged letters with Thailand and France stating the agreement was irrevocable as long as neither country entered into any pact with a third power which could be deemed hostile to the Japanese.

To celebrate their success in the war, Pibul Songgram erected the Victory Monument in central Bangkok in late 1941.

Prajadhipok’s visit to the United States

In 1931 King Prajadhipok (Rama VII), accompanied by Queen Bharni, met President Herbert Hoover, becoming the first reigning monarch of an Asian state to enter the White House.

As a TIME reporter noted, Rama VII was, ‘the only monarch absolute both in theory and in fact…’ Just over 14 months later the ‘absolute’ part of monarchical power would be swept away in a coup and within four years Prajadhipok would become the only one of the ruling Chakri dynasty to have abdicated.

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Prajadhipok, King Rama VII, and Queen Bharni.

In April 1931 though, he was treated with a measure of respect and diplomatic protocol from President Hoover and his cabinet, and with some bemusement and not a little patronising from the American press.

In fairness, TIME did make a number of positive statements regarding the military preparedness and economic position of Siam at the time: ‘Today the Siamese Army is modern, mechanized. Siamese build all their own airplanes, importing only the motors. The Royal Siamese Air Mail bi-weekly service has been maintained for seven years, 44,000,000 pounds of mail and merchandise have been carried, with two accidents, no deaths. Siamese are proud that 91% of their paper money is covered by securities readily convertible into gold, almost a world record. They are proud that their budget has balanced for years, grateful that King Prajadhipok has cut the royal civil list 30%, pepped up princely officials by discharging dullards no matter how royal they may be.’

Prajadhipok had come to the United States by steamer, first paying a visit to Emperor Hirohito in Japan. While the emperor conversed with his fellow ruler in Japanese, Prajadhipok replied in English. Naturally, an interpreter filled in the blanks.

After leaving Tokyo, the royal steamer sailed across the Pacific, eventually landing for the first time in North America at Vancouver in Canada. Here they boarded the Canadian-Pacific’s private railway car Van Home, to which was attached another series of Pullman cars to accommodate the remainder of the royal entourage as well as security personnel.

In theory, King Prajadhipok was travelling incognito, passing himself off as the Prince of Sukhothai. According to the newspaper reports he would only officially become the King for a 48-hour period while in Washington.

The private train crossed into the United States at around midnight on 19 April 1931 at a place called Portal in North Dakota.

The chief reason for the trip, and hence one of the reasons for travelling incognito, was the monarch needed delicate cataract surgery on one eye. After fulfilling his official duties and being treated to a State dinner by President Hoover, Prajadhipok underwent surgery. It proved successful and he and Queen Bharni remained in the United States recuperating at the New York home of a wealthy widowed American lady.

1934-king-prajadihipok-queen-rambaibarm-in-new-york-city-1934

Queen Bharni (left) and King Prajadhipok (second left) during their visit to the United States.

The royal entourage returned to Bangkok in late October 1931. The TIME correspondent claimed the morning after his return King Prajadhipok was up early with plans to enact a new law to allow the citizens of Bangkok to elect their own municipal officers.

Siam’s First Foreign-Produced Feature Film

In the early years of the 1920s the adventurous and innovative Canadian-born, American-based film producer, director and screenwriter Henry MacRae came to Siam. After obtaining the consent and assistance of local authorities, MacRae made the first feature-length film by a Hollywood studio in Siam and starring an all-Siamese cast. Titled Miss Suwanna of Siam it premiered in June 1923, but not without attracting local controversy. Sadly, the two copies of the 35mm silent film left in Siam have been lost, or possibly intentionally destroyed, and no copy of it exists among the American archives.

Born in Toronto in Canada in 1876, Henry MacRae began making movies and serials during the silent era in Hollywood from 1912 onwards. He is credited with a number of innovations from using artificial light for interiors, to shooting at night, the wind machine and double exposure. His output eventually exceeded 130 films and included Tarzan the Tiger, the first Tarzan movie with sound, made in 1929, the Flash Gordon serial (1936) and his final movie Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, made in 1940, the year MacRae died.

In 1922 he travelled to Southeast Asia. After making a film in the southern Philippines he came to Bangkok to do the same for Universal Studios. His first task was to obtain government permission to make the film, which would star local actors.

In an article entitled ‘Picturesque and Unusual Siam’ that appeared in the 1924 edition of the Film Yearbook, MacRae wrote,

 

‘His Majesty The King, is a graduate of Oxford, England, and believes he is a second Shakespeare, that is the Shakespeare of Siam. He spends a great amount of his time translating Shakespeare into Siamese and producing these dramas and comedies with his own people- actors from what they call The Royal Entertainment Company. These actors, both men and women, are adopted into the Royal Entertainment Company when they are children and have a life-long job. They receive a satisfactory salary and their expenses for living, and are all given titles, after they reach a certain age. I felt that His Majesty would be interested in moving pictures, and after considerable maneuvering I finally secured an audience which resulted in securing the entire company’s assistance together with the free use of the King’s 52 automobiles. His Majesty’s 600 race horses, the free use of the navy, the Royal Palaces, the railways, the rice mills, thousands of miles of rice fields, cocoanut (sic) groves, klongs and Elephants, and white elephants at that. The white elephant of which we have heard so much, is on close inspection not even light colored; the only distinction being a number of white spots on their ears and having white eyes. But they are a very sacred proposition with the King and the natives, and every white elephant discovered is the property of the King, and is given a special palace to live in with a number of attendants, and always has the association of a pure white monkey.’

 

A prince of the Royal Court noted in his diary, ‘Today Mr Henry A. MacRae came to see me. I assured him of two things: first, travelling; second, finding a place for film processing and screening. Above these, he has to take care of himself. For our benefit, he has to give a copy of the film to the State Railway in return…’ At that time it fell to the Royal State Railways to oversee such diversities as films and the promotion of tourism. When the film was completed, MacRae did indeed give a copy to the State Railways, as well as one to King Vajiravudh.

The film itself was a romance, written and directed by MacRae, with Robert Kerr as assistant director. Kerr would return to Siam in 1928 to direct The White Rose, a film shown in Bangkok in September that year.

The two lead actors in Miss Suwanna of Siam were Sa-ngaim Naveesatien as the heroine Suwanna, and Ram Projtasart as her love interest. As MacRae later noted, ‘The women of Siam are rather a fine looking lot some of them very attractive and always very clean in dress and manner.’ Suwanna suffers her father’s disapproval but eventually finds true love as well as filial reconciliation. Although it was basically a standard romance MacRae and his film crew apparently used every opportunity to include as much exotic footage as possible, most of it in Bangkok.

‘We managed to secure some very excellent scenes of the King in action and also his Prime Minister. The most interesting features of Bangkok…are its wonderful temples or watts (sic) as they are called. The temples cover about 30 acres of ground and are built of stone and brick, and decorated with gold leaf and inlaid with mother of pearl. A form of Siamese worship is to paste a piece of gold leaf on some part of the temple, even the outside of the wall that surrounds the watt. The native priests are peculiar looking fellows with shaved heads and dressed in long yellow cloaks. They are called priests of the Yellow Robe and are not allowed to keep any money that they may receive, longer than 24 hours.’

Of the filming in Siam MacRae wrote, ‘One of the interesting features of making a picture with the Royal actors was that they would become very serious in the work but if any counter attraction occurred they would all disappear. On one occasion I had a long scene all rehearsed and started to shoot. When the principal character actor was supposed to come into the scene he was nowhere in sight. I finally discovered that he was taking a bath.’

The film title, in Thai, has been variously written as Nangsao Suwan, Nang Sao Suwan or Nong Sao Suwan. In spite of the existence of the Thai General System of Transcription for transliteration of Thai into English, the eponymous lead character in the film has been written variously as Suwan, Suwann, Suwarn, Suwarna, Suvarn, and Suvarna. Two alternate titles of the film include The Gold of Siam and Kingdom of Heaven.

‘When our picture was finished the King had it presented in his palace with his entire court in attendance. He was delighted with it, and as the titles were in English he showed his extreme cleverness in translating the titles into Siamese as the picture was being shown. The whole court greatly admired the picture and we were given a decoration,’ MacRae stated in his Film Review piece.

MacRae’s movie had its premiere on Friday night 22 June 1923 at the Nakhon Sri Thammarat theatre. The Monday 25 June edition of the Bangkok Daily Mail newspaper carried the following report on the second night screening:

 

‘On Saturday night last, there were record attendances to witness the film ‘Suvarna of Siam’ and incidentally to aid in support of the Siam Red Cross, the management having most generously undertaken to give all the takings to that most excellent institution.

H.R.H. Admiral the Prince of Nakhon Ratchasima was present at the Phathanakorn, where a most excellent programme was provided.

Naturally an immense amount of interest centered upon ‘Suvarna of Siam’ the local drama-film upon which Mr. Henry Macrae, Mr. Robert Kerr and Mr. Dal Clawson have been at work for some time past. The film is of special interest as it is the first big thing of the kind ever made in this country and it has been so constructed as to afford the greatest collection possible of scenic backgrounds, thus affording a sort of panorama of the country with the story of Suvarna running through it all, like the leit motif of an opera. The story itself has all the necessary features of melodrama, love, hate, revenge, injured innocence, false accusation, man-slaughter, etc., etc., and it all ends up nicely and pleasantly with the long-lost heir coming to his own and the lovers wandering off hand in hand into the bright future.

And all this wanders through a lot of real life scenes, from Their Royal Highnesses the Princes Damrong and Purachatra sitting “at the receipt of custom” to “elephants a pilin’ teak,” golf at Hua Hin, the Raek Na ceremony, a Bangkok fire, and views upon views of palaces and wats, incidentally proving a really first-class advertisement to the State Railways and various other of Siam’s modernities.

The film is certainly well worth seeing, from the scenic standpoint alone and all concerned in its production merit all credit for good work well done. It will be shown tonight again at the Phathanakorn and Hong Kong cinemas and we certainly advise all who have not seen it to do so.’

 

Prior to its release, it has been suggested a censorship committee ordered the cutting of scenes in which a real prisoner was executed. If this is true it appears very strange that a journalist writing in the Sambhand Thai newspaper is quoted, ‘I would like to blame the local officer who did not save the honour of the country by forbidding them to do so. The execution will represent the barbarism of Siam.’ Surely this suggests the finished product retained the execution scenes.

It may well be this controversy concerning the execution scenes led to the copies of the film disappearing: perhaps simply discarded or intentionally let deteriorate.

Although it was apparently intended for show outside Siam, there is no evidence of any overseas screening, either in the United States or anywhere else. Given the expenses involved, the film must have proved a financial flop. Three screenings over just three days could not possibly have recovered costs.

All that exists of the film today is some promotional material held at the Thailand National Film Archive.

Siam in the First World War

When Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States, declared war on Germany in April 1917, it was clear American entry would eventually turn the tide against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria).

Watching on the sidelines, King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) considered his options. Siam had remained neutral since the outbreak of war in August 1914, and his nation enjoyed friendly relations with Germany, but Vajiravudh recognised the political value of throwing in his lot with the Allied Powers (Britain, France, Italy, and Japan).

He was convinced participation would be ‘…an excellent opportunity for us to gain equality with other nations.’ Siam had suffered from the imperial designs of the British and French, losing great swathes of territory in the 20 years or so prior to the outbreak of war in Europe.

Additionally, Siam had been coerced into signing agreements accepting the imposition of extraterritorial rights for the citizens of nations such as France, Britain, and the United States, and Vajiravudh hoped Siamese involvement in the war would lead to a revision of these unequal treaties.

rama-vi-in-wild-tiger-uniform

Vajiravudh, King Rama VI, looking martial in the uniform of the Wild Tigers Corps.

Therefore, on 22 July 1917, despite the misgivings of some members of the government, King Vajiravudh instructed Interior Minister Chao Phraya Surasi to declare war on Germany and Austria-Hungary. Among the reasons cited was a claim the Central Powers were ‘ignoring the norms of warfare and fighting in an immoral way.’ One of Siam’s first acts was to intern, and later seize as war reparations, 12 ocean-going ships of the North German Line (NGL) as well as the Bangkok docks and warehouses of the firms Windsor Rose and Markwald.

There was a certain irony in Siam allying itself with France, a nation that had bullied her way into annexing large chunks of Siamese territory over the previous 50 years. Such are the vagaries of geo-politics.

Then again, Vajiravudh had been the first monarch educated abroad, being sent to Britain. He spoke fluent English, had been at Sandhurst Military College, and commissioned an officer in the Durham Light Infantry. The Anglophile monarch was contrasted by a number of royal relatives who had spent time being educated in Germany. A coup in March 1912 by 92 low-ranking royals, many pro-German, who hoped to replace Vajiravudh, did not pre-dispose the ruler towards Germany or her allies.

Not much happened until 21 September when the king gave the order for Chao Phraya Bodin, the Minister of War, to call for volunteers to make up an expeditionary force to fight in Europe. A limit was placed on overall numbers and an expeditionary force totalling 1,284 men was raised, under the overall command of Major General Phraya Pijaijarnrit (later promoted to Lieutenant-General and known as Phraya Devahastin). Volunteers were divided into three units: motor transport, medical, and aviation.

Thai records suggest the force left Siam on 19 June 1918 and landed at Marseilles on 30 July where the three sections were separated and sent for training in different parts of France. Yet a report sent to the American Consul in Melbourne, Australia on 4 June stated, ‘A contingent of Siamese troops has also joined the Allies.’ This is a strange discrepancy of almost two months between the Siamese chronicles and a contemporary account.

The motor transport section finally moved up to the Western Front in October 1918. For five days, from 26 October, the Siamese supplied French forces in an area subjected to German artillery fire and later received the Croix de Guerre from the French government as a unit citation.

About 95 air personnel, training at French Army Flying Schools, qualified as pilots, but had not completed their courses when the war ended on 11 November. The motor transport unit went into the occupied part of the Rhineland with French forces following the signing of the armistice.

There is a suggestion the medical unit included nurses, although no concrete evidence of this has come to light, at least in English or French. It is claimed these were the only women to serve in the trenches on the Western Front, but this seems extremely unlikely.

The aviation contingent returned to Siam, arriving in Bangkok on 1 May 1919 while the remainder of the volunteer force landed on 21 September.

A now almost-forgotten war memorial was erected in honour of the troops and stands on the edge of the Sanam Luang (Pramane) ground in Bangkok. Called the Volunteer Soldiers’ Monument it has inscribed the names of the 19 soldiers claimed as casualties of the conflict, none in battle. The remains of the casualties were interred in the monument on 24 September 1919 but the memorial itself was not officially unveiled until 22 July 1921, a strange and unexplained delay.

Of the 19 names inscribed on the monument, two men in Bangkok before the force left for Europe, presumably during training. Nine died in France and the other eight in Germany. Of these, 10 expired in hospitals or medical stations. Britain, Europe, and much of the rest of the world was gripped by Spanish influenza from the latter months of 1918 until 1920, one of the most virulent epidemics ever known. It is highly probable some of the hospital casualties were caused by Spanish flu. The remaining deaths appear to be the result of vehicular accidents.

1917-first-world-war-memorial-sanam-luang-bangkok

The First World War memorial in Bangkok.

Siam also participated in the Versailles Peace Conference with Articles 135, 136, and 137 devoted to her in the final Treaty of Versailles. In January 1920, Siam became a founding member of the League of Nations.

1919-siamese-first-world-war-victory-medal

SIamese Victory Medal.

On 1 September 1920, King Vajiravudh’s decision to go to war was vindicated when the United States ceded her extraterritorial rights. France, after five years of extensive negotiations, relinquished her rights in February 1925 while Britain signed a treaty to the same effect in July the same year.

A Brief History of the Royal Thai Air Force

In the early years of the twentieth century Prince Chakrabongse Bhuvanart, Siam’s Army Chief of Staff, identified the need to acquire aircraft as part of the national defence program.

Of course, before any purchased aircraft could be used, pilots needed to be trained to handle the new machinery, so in January 1911 the Ministry of War sent three Army officers, Major Luang Saksalyavudh, Captain Luang Arvudhsikikom, and Lieutenant Thip Ketudat, to France to train with the Nieuport Company at Mourmelon-le-Grand.

The men were taught to fly and maintain their aircraft, returning to Siam in November 1913 where they gave a flying demonstration for King Vajiravudh from Sra Prathoom racecourse. Now the site of the Royal Bangkok Club, the racecourse served as the first base for the fledgling air wing.

The War Ministry formed the Army Aviation Unit, purchasing eight French-built aircraft: four monoplanes and four biplanes. The unit, supervised by the Army Engineering Inspector, relocated to a newly-constructed base at Don Muang, at that time well outside the Bangkok city limits, in early March 1914.

On 27 March, the Aviation Unit became the Army Air Corps. This date was recognised as the official birthday of the Royal Thai Air Force until 1997 when senior air force officials proclaimed 9 April as Royal Thai Air Force Day, relegating 27 March to Commemoration Day.

The most pressing difficulty in the early years was aircraft maintenance. Naturally, spare parts were not available locally and had to be imported, costly in terms of both time and money.

1919-1937-breguet-2-seater-bomber

A Breguet two-seater bomber, among the first made in Siam.

To reduce this reliance on foreign materiel, the air wing developed locally made products and even began building aeroplanes designed by locals. Thus, in May 1915, a Breguet biplane made from local products but with an imported engine, became the first aircraft built in Siam to take to the sky.

A contingent of the Army Air Corps was included in the Siamese expeditionary force that travelled to fight in France in the First World War, arriving in 1918 and training at French Army Flying Schools. Over 95 personnel qualified as pilots, but the war ended before they were able to utilise their newfound knowledge.

It was in 1918 that the air corps was again upgraded, becoming known as the Army Aviation Division. The unit remained under the control of the Army until December 1921 when it passed to the War Ministry and was renamed the Air Division.

In 1927, the Boripatra, the first aeroplane completely designed and constructed by the Air Division, took to the skies. Two Boripatra biplanes flew on a round trip to the Indian city of New Delhi, and later flew to Hanoi in Vietnam. That same year, the Air Division purchased two British-made fighters.

Local aircraft construction continued apace with a fighter, named the Prajadhipok, rolling off the lines in 1929 followed by a training plane in 1930.

1927-1930-boripatra

A Boripatra, the first aircraft completely constructed in Siam.

In 1935, the Air Division was renamed the Air Force Division and finally, in 1937, it became the Royal Thai Air Force and separated from the Army.

According to documents lodged with the League of Nations, in 1939 the air force consisted of 207 aircraft, divided into five air wings. Of these, only 128 were in commission in tactical units, the remaining 79 in training establishments. The latter were all First World War vintage.

Under Prime Minister Field Marshal Pibul Songgram, Siam forged closer ties with Japan, eventually purchasing around 93 modern aircraft from the Japanese.

The first real test of the capabilities of the Royal Thai Air Force came in 1940 with the outbreak of the Franco-Thai War. Thai airplanes attacked places such as Battambang in Cambodia and Vientiane in Laos, the Thais officially admitting the loss of seven planes during the brief border war.

In December 1940, three planes attacked three French warships that were shelling Trat, claiming a hit on one of the vessels. The daring 10 January 1941 raid by six bombers escorted by four fighters against Hanoi proved the immense value of the air wing, the fighters shooting down one French plane in a dogfight. The success of the attack is considered one of the major reasons for Japanese mediation that led to a resolution of the conflict.

1941-28-jan-painting

A painting depicting a Royal Thai Air Force plane in action against the French.

When the Japanese invaded Thailand in December 1941, the Thai air force went into action against far superior numbers, losing six fighters shot down before a ceasefire was arranged. Thailand then joined forces with Japan and declared war on the United States, Britain and her allies.

Between March 1942 and the end of the war the Thai air force lost a total of 24 aircraft. One crashed in bad weather, 16 were destroyed on the ground by Allied attacks and another seven were shot down. Thai fighter pilots shot down one U.S. B-29 bomber and one U.S. fighter, the former on 27 November 1944 in an air raid over Bang Sue Junction in Bangkok.

After the Second World War, the air force became reliant on purchasing hardware and equipment from overseas. A number of surrendered Japanese fighters bolstered air force numbers.

Hoping to modernize the air force, the Thai Purchasing Commission acquired trainers and transports in 1948, visiting the United States, Britain and Canada.

In 1950, the Joint United States Military Advisory Group (JUSMAG) arrived in Thailand, tasked with providing equipment, training and support for the air force.

During the Korean War in 1950 the first contingent of air force personnel, a logistical support corps, left for Korea in June 1951. That same year, the U.S. sent a quantity of aircraft to bolster the ranks of the Thai air wing. After the war ended in 1953, Thailand continued sending air force teams to South Korea until 1976.

In 1957, Thailand began receiving its first jet trainers, courtesy of the United States Military Assistance Program. A year later, the first jet combat aircraft arrived.

Thailand, as an ally of the United States, sent forces to support South Vietnam. Between 1965 and 1966, air force personnel helped train South Vietnamese pilots. Airmen also flew combat airlift missions and acted as forward air controllers. They were withdrawn from Vietnam in February 1972. This was the last occasion in which Thai air forces were called on to participate in a conflict away from home soil.

1960-1973-f-86

An F-86 supplied by the United States and which saw service from 1960 to 1973.

During the Vietnam War, Thailand had its own communist insurgency and on 11 April 1970, an air force jet was shot down in the mountainous region in Petchabun province. An air force helicopter sent to rescue the pilot was itself shot down, losing three men killed and five seriously injured.

Since then, the air force has seen action in the brief 1984 and 1987-1988 Thai-Lao border wars as well as against the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, losing a Thai reconnaissance aircraft shot down by Khmer Rouge forces just over the Cambodian border in April 1984.