Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Indian Army

A sepoy of the 1st Afridi Bn receives some friendly words of advice from the subedar-major at Port Tewfik, Egypt. The regiment moved to Syria for training as a Commando unit, but resumed its role as conventional infantry in 1943. Reborn as the Khyber Rifles, the regiment is now part of the Pakistan Army. (IWM E14177)

The Indian Army entered the Second World War woefully underprepared. The amount of money devoted to the army by the Government of India had slowly declined after the end of the First World War. Despite a subsidy from Great Britain it was left desperately short of modern weapons and equipment and it did not possess sufficient men able to handle mechanical transport - not a single member of the Royal Deccan Horse, for example, knew how to drive. Only with the recruitment of a large number of Madrassis and Mahrattas did this situation begin to change. Neither the Japanese depredations in China nor the outbreak of war in Europe disturbed the sanguine outlook of the British and Indian Governments - indeed, the advice coming from London was that it was unlikely that Indian troops would be required at all.

The extent of the government's miscalculation was apparent when, at the outbreak of war, the Indian Army quickly found itself in the field again, immediately contributing two divisions (the 4th and 5th Infantry Divisions) to the operations in the Western Desert and Abyssinia (and, curiously, four mule companies of the RIASC to the British Expeditionary Force in France). Three Indian divisions (the 4th, 8th and 10th) went on to make a significant contribution to the campaigns in North Africa and Italy, from Mersa Matruh to the Gothic Line and the final crossing of the River Po. Another force intervened in Iraq and Persia to safeguard the overland route to the Soviet Union and also provided the trucks used to deliver aid. At this stage of the war training in India was directed entirely towards preparing for campaigns in North Africa and the Middle East. Nothing at all was done to strengthen the defences of Burma and Malaya, since the Japanese were discounted as a real threat, and the garrisons of both countries consisted only of Indian States battalions and Indian Army battalions weakened by the departure of drafts sent to reinforce the units in Africa.

By the end of 1940 all the cavalry regiments had given up their horses, but were not yet fully armoured. A shortage of AFVs meant that a number of regiments, such as the Central India Horse (the reconnaissance regiment of 4th Infantry Division) or Skinner's Horse (its counterpart in 5th Infantry Division), were equipped only with 15-cwt. trucks - in effect making them understrength motor battalions. Indeed, some regiments served in precisely that role: the 2nd Royal Lancers, 11th Cavalry and 18th Lancers were formed into 3rd Motor Brigade (31st Indian Armoured Division) and sent to North Africa in 1941. There they were thrown into the Tobruk fighting 40 per cent below establishment in machine guns and with only one anti-tank rifle per regiment instead of 42.

Volunteers from the regiments in this brigade went on to form the nucleus of the Indian Long Range Squadron, an LRDG-type unit destined to be employed in Persia and Iraq if the Germans ever reached that far into Asia. The ILRS consisted of a headquarters and four 'patrols', lettered 'J', 'P', 'R', and 'S', containing]at, Punjabi, Rajput and Sikh personnel respectively. Although the Squadron never saw action against the Germans as a unit both J and R Patrols were attached to the Long Range Desert Group in the Western Desert.

During the Second World War the Artillery expanded rapidly, raising 66 regiments between 1939 and 1945; at the peak of its strength in 1943-44 it contained 64 regiments. All the field regiments were equipped with 25-pdrs from 1941 onwards, the first to be raised abandoning their horses in favour of the internal combustion engine at the same time. This increase in strength was helped by the transfer of 12 infantry battalions into the artillery to form newly created anti-tank and anti-aircraft regiments. Growth was particularly noticeable in the anti-aircraft branch. In 1939, only one British Heavy AA regiment was serving in India and not a single Light Regiment. In 1940, the first Indian HAA regiment was raised; by the end of 1945, 19 Heavy regiments and eight Light regiments had been created.

At the beginning of the Second World War, as at the outbreak of the First, the infantry arm was obliged to expand to meet the manpower needs of the conflict. The 3rd Madras Regiment, disbanded in 1928 as an economy measure, was re-raised; the Territorial battalions were incorporated into their respective regiments, and a number of regiments raised garrison battalions to free fit men for the front line. These measures were still insufficient. Rather than repeat the mistakes of the First World War, when a reluctance to look beyond the traditional 'martial races' led to over-recruitment in their home areas, the army now broadened its recruiting base and created new regiments from non-traditional sources. This resulted in the formation of the Bihar, the Assam, the Mahar, the Ajmer and the Chamar Regiments and of the Lingayat and Coorg Battalions. Some of these units were ineffective as infantry, but once they had been transferred to other arms-of-service many of the men were a success as soldiers - the experience of war again demonstrating the flawed nature of the whole 'martial race' theory.

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