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chapter 8 The Indian Army during the Second World War On 3 September 1939 the viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, informed India over the radio of the circumstances in which ‘‘we find ourselves at war with Germany today.’’1 The war itself came as no surprise to the Indian government. Feverish planning (if not action) had been under way for some time to transform the Indian army into a capable modern intervention force. Indeed, by the end of the war India had become the single largest manpower contributor to the Commonwealth war effort, managing to raise a professional military of 2.5 million soldiers, sailors, and airmen, the largest force of its kind in the world.2 The first real test for the Indian army came in the desert in North Africa, where the British Commonwealth and the German armies pitted their imperfect warfare doctrines against each other. At the end of an immense struggle the British Commonwealth forces all but wiped out the Afrika Korps and through this process emerged with a radically different appreciation of how to wage ‘‘modern’’ war. In the East, in Burma and Malaya, this scenario repeated itself between the British Commonwealth forces and the imperial Japanese armies with the same results. The Western Front Much of the historical research done on the war in North Africa generally ignores the early campaigns against the Italians. Most research dwells upon Gen. Richard O’Connor’s highly mobile campaigns against the Italians with his ‘‘Jock’’ columns. These small motorized infantry, artillery, and armor units wreaked havoc on the disorganized and retreating Italian forces. Many researchers, however, have ignored the British military’s excellent use of Indian artillery during these campaigns in both the infantry and tank support roles. In December 1940, during battles against the fortified Italian camps at Nibeiwa and East Tumar, the Fourth Indian Division’s chief of Royal Artillery, the famous ‘‘Red Eagles,’’ used his entire artillery – fifty-six eighteen- and 145 The Indian Army during the Second World War twenty-five-pounders, eight six-inch howitzers, and eight sixty-pounders – as a single grand battery to support each brigade’s (three brigades per division ) attack.3 The same coordination with the artillery was evident in the East African campaign, when the Fourth and Fifth Indian Divisions took on the Italians at their best, defending well-prepared defensive positions with elite troops.4 Throughout the campaign the artillery worked in close conjunction with the Indian infantry. At the fall of Keren the British commander, Gen. William Platt, praised ‘‘the continuous support given to the infantry by the Royal Artillery .’’5 The performance of the artillery was all the more commendable because the Commonwealth forces had a limited artillery park of only 124 guns.6 Indeed, during the entire Eritrean campaign the Indian armydisplayed its traditional flair for effectively using limited resources. The arrival of General Rommel and his Afrika Korps changed the complexion of the desert wars in more ways than one. Not only were the Germans a superior opponent compared to the Italians, but the Indian army no longer constituted the majority within the Eighth Army. The ‘‘new’’ Britishdominated Eighth Army immediately revealed serious deficiencies in functioning as a cohesive combined-arms force, something at which the Germans were more successful. Furthermore, mobility – that long-sought-after goal and the core of many a Staff College war game at Quetta and Camberley – proved elusive. Successive Eighth Army commanders from Gen. Arthur Cunningham to Gen. Neil Ritchie failed to concentrate their forces at the decisive point. Even when they achieved such a rare concentration, British armor proved unable to work in concert with the artillery and the infantry, which led to German antitank defenses repeatedly mauling it.7 In his authoritative three-part study of British field artillery tactics in the Journal of Royal Artillery Brig. R. G. S. Bidwell comments extensively on the British army’s misuse of artillery early in the North African campaign against the Germans. Yet he notes with some puzzlement: ‘‘This, however, does not explain why it was from India, the most starved and backward of commands, that two divisions [the Fourth and the Fifth] came who at Keren and in the early desert operations showed how artillery should be handled. It was later that the decline began.’’8 The obsession with mobility deflected the Eighth Army from appreciating the need for ‘‘true’’ combined-arms operations with infantry and artillery. Under the influence of...


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