The Indian Army, at the start of World War-II (1939-45), had a strength of 1,94,373 personnel; just a little more than at the start of World War-I. This figure included State Force troops. With increasing demands placed on the latter, their organisation and training were brought on the same lines as the regular Indian Army. Termed as Imperial Service Troops, in order to ensure a uniform standard, the Commander-in-Chief exercised a general supervision and control of these forces. For this purpose nucleus staffs was provided at Army Headquarters, under a Military Adviser-in-Chief. He, in turn, was assisted by an Assistant Military Adviser Incidentally, many famous and battle scarred State Force infantry battalion were retained in the Indian Army even after Independence, and after being grouped with different Regiments they were allotted new numbers although they were permitted to reflect their old titles as a suffix within brackets, i.e. 15 Kumaon (Indore).
The modernisation planned in 1938 had yet to start. Not a single unit of the Indian Army was mechanised. Motorisation was selective, and scales of weaponry extremely sparse. The cavalry had no tanks and was mounted on trucks; the infantry had no mortars and anti tank weapons. Wireless sets were available only at brigade headquarters and above. Yet the number of men that India finally gave to the Allied cause, i.e. 2,644,323 all ranks at peak strength by the middle of 1945 has never been equaled since.
In the Western Desert, in Eritrea and Italy, Indian Divisions engaged the Germans and Italians. The 4th, 5th and 8th Indian Divisions distinguished themselves in a series of hard-fought campaigns. A time came when the British 8th Army depended on the 4th Division to crack up Axis formations in their long and final retreat.
Even before war was declared, elements of the Indian Army were deployed overseas. During August 1939, one Indian brigade had moved to Egypt and one to Malaya. In May 1940, the end of the phoney war in France followed by the declaration of war on Britain by Italy on 8 June 1940 stirred up the situation in North Africa.
Right from the outbreak of war, 4 Indian Division was the first to be deployed in the deserts of North Africa. The British Middle East Command, at the start of World War II, stretched from the Persian Gulf to Egypt and thence along the coast of North Africa.
Italian East Africa was important as it abutted onto the Red Sea and Italian ships and submarines based at Massawa could interfere with shipping through it. Initially, General Platt, Commander-in-Chief Sudan, had very few forces but by September 1940 5 Indian Infantry Division reinforcement him. At the end of December, 11 Infantry Brigade of 4 Indian Division arrived while the rest of the Division built up in Sudan by the end of January.
Seeing additional troops, the Italians withdraw from the forward position mid January 1941 and on 19 January the British crossed the border in pursuit. They had actually mounted a two-pronged offensive from Sudan and Kenya against Abyssinia - Eritrea and Somaliland, held by Italy, In January 1941. The enemy had laid extensive minefield on the roads, and it was in cleaning these that 2/ Lieutenant P.S. Bhagat won a Victoria Cross for continuous mine cleaning operations under enemy fire from 1 to 4 February 1941. This officer was the first Indian Officer to be awarded the coveted Victoria Cross.
While 4 and 5 Indian Divisions had been busy in East Africa, the situation in North Africa had changed. The destruction of Italian army had compelled the German to reinforce this front. General Erwin Rommel with a German armoured formation was sent into North Africa.
On 31 March 1941 Rommel launched his attack and by 11 April he had invested Tobruk. The 3rd Indian motor Brigade that had held on to Mechili till 8 April 1941 had delayed the German advance. Among the successful few to break out of Mechili was ‘B’ squadron, 2 Lancers led by Major Rajendera Sinhji, later to be the Indian Army’s second Chief of Army Staff.
It was into this situation that 4 Indian Division arrived back from East Africa. Wavell launched a counter attack on 15 June1941, in the face of superior German tanks. The attack failed and General Auchinleck now replaced Wavell.
Auchinleck assumed command of the now reinforced 8th Army and launched an offensive in November 1941. The British offensive was stalled and Rommel struck over the frontier into the British rear positions, causing near panic. Rommel’s advance was, however, met with stiff resistance and after continues pressure was pushed back to the original position at El-Agheila. General Auchinleck’s 8th Army and Rommel’s Italio-German Army now faced each other at El Agheila. Rommel took the second offensive and forced the British to withdraw. The 8th Army fought fiercely at Gazala and brought the battle to a stalemate. In May 1942 Rommel attacked again, and after the battle of Gazala, Bir Hachiem and Knightsbridge, the British gained an upper hand.
Incidentally it was at Gazala – Bir Hachiem that the Indian 1st Field Regiment (later 1 Field (SP)) took on German Panzer tanks with open sights of their 25 Pounder guns, and in the process destroyed 7 enemy tanks.
The Western Desert Force, of which 4 Indian Division was a part, resumed offensive and captured Bardia and Tobruk. The force pressed on long the coastal road, and the armour closed the trap at Beda Fomm. In two months, the force advanced 800 kilometres, destroyed nine Italian divisions and took a staggering 1, 30,000 Italian men as prisoners, captured 400 tanks and 1,290 guns. Most of the prisoners were sent to India and kept in various prisoners of War (POW) camps. Auchinleck’s offensive neutralized the most serious threats to Suez Canal and British Empire itself. After a methodical preparation, General (later Field Marshal) Bernard Montgomery beat the Germans in the battle of El-Alamein in October –November 1942, and then the entire Axis front crumbled. Rommel’s losses were enormous. It was a decisive battle of the war and marked the beginning of Axis decline. In the battle of Mareth (March 1943) and Tunisia (May1943,) the British forces again defeated the Axis troops.
While battles were being fought in North Africa, North East Africa and Italy, South East Asia was another theatre of war. During December 1941 the Japanese invaded northern Malaya and quickly moved southward on both side of the Peninsula, sweeping aside relatively light Allied troops. The bulk of British forces, which numbered above 100,000 were deployed further south in the fortress of Singapore to meet an anticipated Japanese invasion.
The Allied troops, unaccustomed to jungle fighting and without air support, were soon pushed back southwards to Singapore by the well-trained and suitably equipped Japanese troops. The Singapore garrison capitulated to Japanese forces.
With the launching of various simultaneous offensive operations on 8 December 1941, the Japanese occupied Thailand and, with the help of Burmese revolutionary forces, captured Moulmein and compelled the Allied forces of 4 Corps comprising British, Burmese and Indian troops to withdraw to Sittang river in a continuous running battle. The British forces were pushed further back, with a sizeable portion pouring into Rangoon, which also fell into Japanese hands.
The Japanese renewed their offensive, and soon a northwards retreat of the bulk of 4 Corps in Burma started. During withdrawal 1 Burma Division was cut off, but with the combined efforts of British and Chinese forces it was reunited with the main Allied forces. With the fall of Mandalay, and being pursued vigorously by the Japanese, the Allied forces quickly fell back towards Tiddim, crossed the Chindwin River, the hilly Indian frontier and stopped just short of Imphal. With monsoon rains, depleted logistic support and tropical diseases taking a heavy toll of enemy forces, the Japanese pursuit stopped along the Chindwin River. Incidentally, 17 Indian Division's agonizing withdrawal in 1942, over vast stretches in Burma, was the longest in British military history.
The newly raised 33 Corps assembled at Dimapore, on the foothills west of Kohima, and after pushing back various stray Japanese patrols it went ahead to relieve the besieged garrison of Kohima. Bitter fighting continued around Kohima throughout March and April 1944. Finally 33 Corps broke through and relived entire Kohima and its surrounding hills by end April. Further progress southwards towards Imphal was slow, as the Japanese put up a stiff resistance. Additional Allied troops were flown into Imphal from Arakan. The Japanese, however, held back all assaults by the two British Corps against their lines of communication.
Once again, owing to lack of supplies and following the onset of monsoon rains and diseases, the fighting strength of Japanese forces began to crumble. The two Corps were able to break through the last remaining road blocks on 22 June 1944, after an 88 days’ siege of Imphal.
The Japanese Army than began to retreat and fell back on the Chindwin valley. Close Allied air support and well trained, cohesive pursuing troops of 4 and 33 Corps of 14 Army Group soon brought the Indian formations to the heels of withdrawing enemy troops. In the Arakan front, renewed advanced of 15 Corps commenced on 12 December 1944. Akyab fell on 4 January 1945.
General Slim’s 14 Army now advanced on a broad front through the dense jungles between Chindwin and Irrawady rivers. When 19 Indian Division crossed the Irrawady it encountered violent enemy counter-attack. With renewed determination and resolve it held its bridge head and, breaking out of it on 26 February 1945, captured enemy positions in a built up area after a fierce house-to house battle.Meanwhile plans were drawn by Lord Mountbatten, the Commander-in- Chief South East Asia Command, for a major amphibious operation against Singapore later that year. However, when US aircraft dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August and another on Nagasaki on the 9th, Japan surrendered on 10 August. Japanese forces throughout Asia laid down their arms on 15 August. Their surrender was, however, officially declared on 2 September 1945, thus bringing the war to an end.
Out of one million men of the Allied forces in South-East Asia, nearly 700,000 were Indian soldiers. The Indian Army by the end of the war was thus rated as among the best in the world whose officers and men displayed the highest levels of motivation and gallantry on the field of battle.
Although not part of British Indian Army, fighting the latter alongside the Japanese in this theatre were troops of the Indian National Army (INA) under its charismatic leader Subhas Chander Bose. Carved out of the Indian prisoners of war held captive in Singapore, the main agenda of the INA was to liberate India from British yoke and strive for India’s independence. As they fought on bravely under extreme weather conditions and frugal logistic support, a parallel struggle for independence was gaining momentum in India, where various political parties were resorting to both active and passive measures towards self rule and independence.