The British Indian Army during World War II began the war, in 1939, numbering just under 200,000 men. By the end of the war, it had become the largest volunteer army in history, rising to over 2.5 million men in August 1945. Serving in divisions of infantry, armour and a fledgling airborne force, they fought on three continents in Africa, Europe and Asia.
The British Indian Army fought in Ethiopia against the Italian Army, in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Algeria against both the Italian and German Army, and, after the Italian surrender, against the German Army in Italy. However, the bulk of the Indian Army was committed to fighting the Japanese Army, first during the British defeats in Malaya and the retreat from Burma to the Indian border; later, after resting and refitting for the victorious advance back into Burma, as part of the largest British Empire army ever formed. These campaigns cost the lives of over 87,000 Indian servicemen, while another 34,354 were wounded, and 67,340 became prisoners of war. Their valour was recognised with the award of some 4,000 decorations, and 18 members of the Indian Army were awarded the Victoria Cross or the George Cross. Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck, Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army from 1942, asserted that the British "couldn't have come through both wars (World War I and II) if they hadn't had the Indian Army." British Prime Minister Winston Churchill also paid tribute to "The unsurpassed bravery of Indian soldiers and officers."
In 1939, the Indian Army was an experienced force, having fought in the Third Afghan War, two major campaigns in Waziristan, during 1919–1920 and 1936–1939, and in several smaller disputes on the North West Frontier since the First World War. There was no shortage of manpower to call upon, but the army did suffer from a shortage of skilled technical personnel. The conversion of the cavalry force into a mechanised tank force had only just begun and was hampered by the inability to supply adequate numbers of tanks and armoured vehicles.
In 1939, British officials had no plan for expansion and training of Indian forces, which comprised about 130,000 men (in addition, there were 44,000 men in British units in India in 1939). Their mission was internal security and defence against a possible Russian threat through Afghanistan. As the war progressed, the size and role of the Indian Army expanded dramatically, and troops were sent to battle fronts as soon as possible. The most serious problem was lack of equipment.
The Indian Army of 1939 was different from the Indian Army during World War I, it had been reformed in 1922, moving away from single battalion regiments to multi-battalion regiments. Overall, the army was reduced to 21 cavalry regiments and 107 infantry battalions. The field army now consisted of four infantry divisions and five cavalry brigades. There was a covering force of 12 infantry brigades to protect the North West Frontier from incursions and one third of the infantry, 43 battalions, were allocated to internal security and to aid the civil power. In the 1930s, the Indian Army began a programme of modernisation—they now had their own artillery—the Indian Artillery Regiment—and the cavalry had started to mechanise. By 1936, the Indian Army had committed to supplying in wartime a brigade each for Singapore, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, Burma and two for Egypt. But, by 1939, further reductions had reduced the Indian Army to 18 cavalry regiments and 96 infantry battalions, in total 194,373 men including 34,155 non-combatants. They could also call upon 15,000 men from the Frontier Irregular Force, 22,000 men from the Auxiliary Force (India), consisting of European and Anglo-Indian volunteers, 19,000 from the Indian Territorial Force, and 53,000 from the Indian State forces.
There were twenty two regular regiments of cavalry, which supplied armoured and armoured car units. (Seven more were raised during the war.) There were twenty regular Indian regiments of infantry (including the Burma Rifles) and ten Gurkha regiments. Before the war, all the Indian regiments had at least two battalions, and most had more. The Gurkha regiments had two battalions each. During the war, the Gurkha regiments raised a further two battalions each, while the Indian regiments raised up to fifteen each. Two further regiments (the Assam Regiment and the Burma Regiment) were created during the war.
The Indian Army started World War II underprepared and short of modern weapons and equipment. It had not expected to be involved in any hostilities and had been advised after the outbreak of war in Europe, by the British government, that it was unlikely to be required at all. So, it was with some surprise when the 4th Infantry and 5th Infantry divisions were requested to serve in the North African and East African Campaigns and four mule companies to join the British Expeditionary Force in France.
In May 1940, agreement was reached between the British and Indian governments over the formation of another five infantry and one armoured divisions, which became the 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th infantry and the 31st Indian Armoured Divisions. These new divisions were primarily intended to be used in the defence of Malaya (9th Division) and Iraq (6th, 8th and 10th Infantry divisions). The 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, from the armoured division, was to go to Egypt; the formation of the rest of the armoured division was put on hold, because of the shortage of armoured vehicles.
In March 1941, the Indian government revised the defence plan for India. Concerned with what the Japanese were planning and the requirement to replace the divisions sent overseas, seven new armoured regiments and 50 new infantry battalions were needed for five new infantry divisions that were formed: the 14th, 17th, 19th, 20th, 34th and the two armoured formations 32nd Indian Armoured Division and 50th Indian Tank Brigade.
With the fall of Singapore in 1942, about 40,000 Indian soldiers were captured. They were given a choice; 30,000 joined the Indian National Army. Those who refused became POWs and were mostly shipped to New Guinea.
With the previously formed divisions mostly committed overseas in 1942, the army formed another four infantry divisions (23rd, 25th, 28th, 36th) and the 43rd Indian Armoured Division. However, events during 1942 and the Japanese conquests meant that the 28th Division was not formed and the units earmarked for it were used elsewhere. The 36th Division uniquely, was created as a British Indian Army formation, but was formed from British brigades that had reached India from the Madagascar campaign and from Britain. The final division formed in 1942 was the 26th Indian Infantry Division, which was hastily formed from the various units in training or stationed near Calcutta.
After the perceived poor performance in battles in Malaya and Burma in 1942, it was decided that the existing infantry divisions were over–mechanised. To counter this, the 17th and 39th divisions were selected to become light divisions, of only two brigades which would rely more on animal and four-wheel-drive transport.
By December 1942, agreement was reached that India should become the base for offensive operations. Support should be in place for 34 divisions, which would include two British, one West African, one East African and eleven Indian divisions, and what was left of the Burma Army.
The plans for 1943 included the formation of another infantry division, an airborne division and a heavy armoured brigade. Only the 44th Indian Armoured Division was formed, by amalgamating the 32nd and 43rd Armoured divisions. There was a change to the establishment of infantry divisions, which received two extra infantry battalions as divisional troops.
A committee was set up in 1943 to report on the readiness of the army and suggest improvements. Its recommendations were:
To assist in the jungle training of the infantry from July 1943, the 14th and 39th divisions were converted to training divisions. The 116th Indian Infantry Brigade, part of 39th Division, provided the specialised jungle conversion training. An infantry battalion would spend from four to six months with the brigade, before being sent to the front to replace a tired battalion in one of the fighting divisions. The brigades and units of the 14th Division provided jungle training for drafts of reinforcements for the Indian battalions already serving on the Burma front.
The planned 44th Indian Airborne Division was finally formed from the 44th Armoured Division, leaving the 31st Armoured as the only armoured division in the army. The infantry division formation was changed again; it was now standardised as three infantry brigades plus three infantry battalions assigned as divisional troops.
The success of the 116th Brigade in training for jungle warfare was recognised. From May 1944, 116th Brigade trained units destined for the Fourteenth Army and 150th Brigade, which was converted from the Risalpur Training Brigade, trained units destined for the Southern Army. The 155th Indian Infantry Brigade was formed to provide training for units destined for the western theatres of war.
Infantry divisions consisted of three infantry brigades, of three infantry battalions. Usually, one battalion in each brigade was British and two were Indian or Gurkha. Four brigades were raised consisting entirely of Gurkha battalions. Later in the war, as British infantry reinforcements became more scarce, particularly in the South East Asian Theatre, British battalions in brigades fighting in Burma were replaced by Indian units.
In a division with a standard MT (Mechanical Transport) establishment, the divisional units were a reconnaissance unit provided by a mechanised cavalry regiment, and a heavy machine gun battalion armed with thirty-six Vickers machine guns. (Each regiment of the Indian Army raised a machine gun battalion in addition to its infantry battalions.) The divisional artillery consisted of three field artillery regiments with twenty-four 25-pounder guns each, one anti-tank regiment with forty-eight anti-tank guns and one light anti-aircraft regiment with up to fifty-four light anti-aircraft guns. There were three engineer field companies and one engineer field park company, plus signals, medical and transport units.
There were variations on the infantry formation, depending on role. The light divisions (14th, 17th and 39th) as formed in 1942 had only two brigades and lacked much heavy equipment. Transport was provided by six mule and four Jeep companies. This type of division was later dropped. The Animal and Mechanised transport divisions (A & MT) (7th, 20th and 23rd and later the 5th) had a mixture of animal and vehicle transport, as the name suggests. In particular, one of the vehicle-drawn field artillery regiments was replaced by a mountain artillery regiment with twelve 3.7-inch howitzers, carried on mules. The anti-tank and light anti-aircraft regiments were replaced by a single regiment, with two batteries each of anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns. The divisional reconnaissance unit was replaced by a lightly equipped infantry battalion. Another standard infantry battalion provided the HQ Defence unit.
On 27 May 1944, General George Giffard (the commander of 11th Army Group) ordered that all Indian divisions fighting in Burma should adopt the A & MT establishment. Late that year, however, Lieutenant General William Slim (commanding Fourteenth Army) converted two divisions (the 5th and 17th) to a mixed establishment of two motorised brigades and one airportable brigade, in anticipation of mechanised operations in the comparatively open terrain of central Burma. In April 1945, the 20th Division was also converted to a partially motorised establishment by acquiring the vehicles from a British division whose personnel were being withdrawn from Burma.
It was intended to form an armoured division in the plans for 1940, 1941 and 1942. However, the Indian armoured formations suffered from a lack of equipment. The shortage of tanks in 1940 was reflected in the organisation of 31st Armoured Division, which first had one armoured and two motor brigades. At the end of 1940, this was changed to two armoured and one motor brigade. When the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade was sent to Egypt, the British armoured division organisation of two armoured brigades and a Support group was adopted.
In June 1942, the division's establishment was fixed as one armoured and one infantry brigade. The surplus armoured brigades (50th, 254th, 255th and the 267th) became independent brigades and served in the Burma campaign. In March 1943, the shortage of technical staff forced another review of the armoured force and the 32nd and 43rd armoured divisions were amalgamated to become the 44th Indian Armoured Division. In March 1944, a further review reduced the armoured force to one division (the 31st Armoured Division serving in the Middle East) and three tank brigades (the 50th, 254th and 255th) serving in Burma.
The 50th Independent Indian Parachute Brigade was formed on 29 October 1941, with the British 151st Parachute Battalion, 152nd Indian Parachute Battalion and 153rd Gurkha Parachute Battalion, a medium machine gun company and a medium mortar detachment. The 151st Battalion was later renumbered as the 156th Battalion and returned to Britain and another Gurkha battalion (154th) was formed, but had not joined the brigade when it was heavily involved in the Battle of Sangshak in March 1944.
The headquarters of the 44th Indian Armoured Division was converted in April 1944, to 9th Indian Airborne Division, which was renamed the 44th Airborne Division a few weeks later. After a delay caused by the Japanese invasion of India, the division resumed forming in July. It absorbed the 50th Parachute Brigade, and later two brigades from the disbanding Chindit force The division now consisted of the 50th, 77th Parachute Brigades and 14th Airlanding Brigade, two field artillery regiments, two anti-aircraft regiments and a joint anti-aircraft and anti-tank regiment.
The Royal Artillery still provided some of the artillery required for Indian Army formations, but the Indian Regiment of Artillery had been formed in 1935, initially consisting of four horse–drawn batteries. The regiment was expanded during the war and, by 1945, had formed 10 field artillery regiments, 13 mountain artillery regiments, 10 anti–tank artillery regiments. Three anti–aircraft brigades were formed from the four heavy anti–aircraft artillery regiments and five light anti–aircraft artillery regiments created. For the regiments service during the war, it was granted the title Royal Indian Artillery in 1945.
The Indian Engineers were a part of every division in the army. The engineers corps started the war with two army troops companies, 11 Field Companies and one field park company. Expansion during the war took the totals of engineers to; five army troops companies, 67 Field companies, six independent field squadrons, 20 field park companies and two independent field park squadrons.
The Women's Auxiliary Corps was formed in May 1942; recruits had to be a minimum age of 18 years and their duties were clerical or domestic. In December 1942, the minimum age was reduced to 17 years and 11,500 women had enlisted by the end of the war. Volunteers could enlist on Local service or General service terms. Those on General service could be sent to serve anywhere in India. Compared to over two million men, a corps of 11,500 women does not seem many, but recruitment was always hampered by caste and communal inhibitions. Indian women at the time did not mix socially or at work with men and a large part of the corps was formed from the Anglo–Asian community.
The Indian States or Princely states provided 250,000 men during the war. They contributed five cavalry regiments and 36 infantry battalions, and between them had 16 infantry battalions plus signal, transport and pioneers companies on active service. One of their men, Captain Mahmood Khan Durrani, was awarded the George Cross while in Japanese captivity.
The Chindits (named after a mythical beast, statues of which guarded Burmese temples) were the brainchild of Brigadier Orde Wingate, who intended that long-range penetration raids behind enemy lines would become the main effort against the Japanese in Burma. In 1943, he mounted Operation Longcloth by the 77th Indian Infantry Brigade. In 1944, they staged a much larger operation which involved disbanding the 70th British Infantry Division, Its three brigades together with three more brigades were grouped as Special Force and referred to for cover purposes as 3rd Indian Infantry Division. Chindits were in fact ordinary infantry units arbitrarily selected for the mission on the basis of their availability. There was no commando, airborne or other selection procedure, although there was some "weeding out" of less fit personnel during training for operations.
The Chindits were disbanded in February 1945. Several of the brigade headquarters and many of the veterans of the Chindit operations were reformed and merged into 44th Airborne Division, while the force headquarters and signals units formed the core of XXXIV Indian Corps.
The Indian Army supplied formations for the following Allied armies:
The Eighth Army was formed from the Western Desert Force in September 1941, under the command of Lieutenant General Sir Alan Cunningham. Over time, the Eighth Army would be commanded by Generals Neil Ritchie, Claude Auchinleck and Bernard Montgomery. In the early years of the war, the Eighth Army suffered from poor leadership and repeated reversals of fortune until the Second Battle of El Alamein when it advanced across Libya into Tunisia.
The Ninth Army was formed on 1 November 1941 with the re designation of the Headquarters of the British Troops in Mandate Palestine and Transjordan. It controlled British and Commonwealth land forces stationed in the eastern Mediterranean. Its commanders were General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson and Lieutenant-General Sir William George Holmes.
The Tenth Army was formed in Iraq and from the major part of Paiforce after the Anglo-Iraqi War. It was active in 1942–1943, under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Edward Quinan, and consisted of the III Corps and the XXI Indian Corps. Its main task was the maintenance of the lines of communication to the Soviet Union from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian and the protection of the South Persian and Iraqi oilfields that supplied Britain with all its non American sourced oil.
The Twelfth Army was reformed in May 1945, to take control of operations in Burma from the Fourteenth Army. The army Headquarters was created by re designating the Headquarters of the XXXIII Indian Corps, under Lieutenant-General Sir Montagu Stopford.
The Fourteenth Army was a multinational force comprising units from Commonwealth countries, many of its units were from the Indian Army as well as British units and there were also significant contributions from 81st, 82nd and 11th African divisions. It was often referred to as the "Forgotten Army" because its operations in the Burma Campaign were overlooked by the contemporary press, and remained more obscure than those of the corresponding formations in Europe for long after the war. It was formed in 1943, under the command of Lieutenant General William Slim. The Fourteenth Army was the largest Commonwealth Army during the war, with nearly a million men by late 1944. At various times, four corps were assigned to the army: IV Corps, XV Indian Corps, XXXIII Indian Corps and the XXXIV Indian Corps.
The Southern Army was formed from Southern Command in 1942, and disbanded in August 1945. Mostly a British formation used on internal security and for units out of the front line. The 19th Indian Infantry Division was one of its units from 1942 to 1944.
The North Western Army was formed from North Western Command in April 1942, formed to guard the North West Frontier it controlled the Kohat, Peshawar, Rawalpindi, Baluchistan and Waziristan Districts.
Just before the declaration of war, one Indian infantry brigade was sent to reinforce the British garrison in Egypt. In October 1939, a second brigade was sent; they were grouped together as the 4th Indian Infantry Division. By March 1940, two additional brigades and a divisional headquarters had been sent to Egypt; these became the 5th Indian Infantry Division.
Operation Compass (4th Indian and 7th Armoured Division) was the first major Allied military operation of the Western Desert Campaign during the Second World War. It resulted in British and Commonwealth forces pushing across a great stretch of Libya and capturing almost all of Cyrenaica, 115,000 Italian soldiers, hundreds of tanks and artillery pieces and more than 1,100 aircraft with very few casualties of their own.
The Allies' success against the Italians forced the Germans to reinforce North Africa. The Afrika Corps commanded by Erwin Rommel attacked in March 1941. The 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, fought a delaying battle at Meikili on 6 April, which allowed the 9th Australian Division to safely withdraw to Tobruk.
Operation Battleaxe (4th Indian and 7th Armoured) in June 1941 had the goal of clearing eastern Cyrenaica of German and Italian forces; one of the main benefits of this would be the lifting of the Siege of Tobruk. The operation did not succeed losing over half of their tanks on the first day and only achieved victory at one out of three thrusts. On the second day, they achieved mixed results, being pushed back on their western flank but repelled a significant German counter-attack in their centre. On the third day, the British narrowly avoided outright disaster by successfully withdrawing just prior to a German encircling movement which would have cut them off from retreat.
Operation Crusader (4th Indian, 7th Armoured, 1st South African, 2nd New Zealand and 70th British divisions) between 18 November–30 December 1941. The initial plan was to destroy the Axis armoured force before advancing its infantry. 7th Armoured were heavily defeated by the Afrika Korps at Sidi Rezegh. Rommel's subsequent advance of his armoured divisions to the Axis fortress positions on the Egyptian border failed to find the main body of the Allied infantry, which had bypassed the fortresses and headed for Tobruk, so Rommel had to withdraw his armoured units to support the fighting at Tobruk. Despite achieving some tactical successes at Tobruk, the need to preserve his remaining forces prompted Rommel to withdraw his army to the defensive line at Gazala, west of Tobruk, and then all the way back to El Agheila.
4th Division left the desert for Cyprus and Syria in April 1942. By May 1942, their 11th Brigade had returned attached to the 5th Indian fighting south of Tobruk. Their 5th Brigade returned in June 1942, and fought at Mersa Matruh. The 10th Indian Infantry Division arrived from Syria, in time to take part in the Battle of Gazala May–June 1942, then held the Axis forces for 72 hours, in the First Battle of El Alamein permitting Eighth Army to safely withdraw. HQ 4th Division returned for the Second Battle of El Alamein, holding Ruweisat Ridge at the centre of the Eighth Army's line, made a mock attack and two small raids intended to deflect attention to the centre of the front.
Operation Pugilist (4th Indian, 2nd New Zealand and 50th Northumbrian divisions) was an operation in the Tunisian Campaign The object of was to destroy the Axis forces in the Mareth Line, and to capture Sfax. Pugilist itself was indecisive and failed to make a decisive breakthrough. It did, however, establish an alternative route of attack and thus laid the ground for Supercharge II, an outflanking manoeuvre via the Tebaga Gap.
The Italian conquest of British Somaliland started on 3 August 1940, the 3/15th Punjab Regiment were amongst the forces on hand and they were quickly reinforced from Aden by the 1/2nd Punjab Regiment on 7 August. After the Battle of Tug Argan, the British force was forced to withdraw, the 3/15th Punjab forming part of the rearguard. By 19 August, the British and Indian battalions were evacuated to Aden. British ground losses were 38 killed, 102 wounded, and 120 missing, compared to Italian casualties of 465 killed, 1,530 wounded, and 34 missing.
In December 1940, the 4th Indian Infantry Division was rushed from Egypt to join the 5th Indian Infantry Division in the Sudan. From February to April 1941, the Indian 4th and 5th Infantry Divisions took part in the Battle of Keren, By the end of the campaign, the Italian forces had been cleared from Eritrea and Abyssinia 220,000 of them becoming prisoners of war.
In 1941, forces were required to participate in the Anglo-Iraqi War, to safeguard the overland supply route to the Soviet Union. In April, the 8th Indian Infantry Division landed at Basra and marched on Baghdad securing Iraq for the Allied cause from the pro German Rashid Ali Operation Barbarossa the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, placed the Persian oil fields in danger from the advancing German Army. In August 1941, the Indian 8th and 10th Infantry Divisions invaded southern Persia to secure the oil installations.
The 8th and 10th Indian Infantry Divisions, 2nd Indian Armoured Brigade and the British 4th Cavalry Brigade were all involved in the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran (August–September 1941), which was rapid and conducted with ease. From the south, two battalions from 8th Divisions 24th Indian Brigade making an amphibious crossing of the Shatt al-Arab, captured the petroleum installations at Abadan. The 8th Division then advanced from Basra towards Qasr Shiekh and by 28 August had reached Ahvaz when the Shah ordered hostilities to cease. Further north, eight battalions of British and Indian troops under Major-General William Slim advanced from Khanaqin into the Naft-i-Shah oilfield and on towards the Pai Tak Pass, leading towards Kermanshah and Hamadan. The Pai Tak position was taken on 27 August after the defenders had withdrawn in the night; the planned assault on Kermanshah on 29 August was aborted when the defenders called a truce to negotiate surrender terms.
The Indian Army supplied the 5th brigade, 4th Indian Infantry Division which attacked from the south with the Australian I Corps and the 10th Indian Infantry Division which also had the 17th Indian Infantry Brigade, 8th Indian Infantry Division under command was part of Iraqforce attack northern and central Syria from the east. 5th Brigade took part in the Battle of Kissoué and the Battle of Damascus, June 1941, and 10th Division the Battle of Deir ez-Zor in July.
The Japanese Army attacked Hong Kong on 8 December 1941, less than eight hours after their attack on Pearl Harbor, among the defenders were the 5/7th Rajput Regiment and the 2/14th Punjab Regiment. The garrison held out for 18 days before being forced to surrender.
As in Egypt, the Indian Army dispatched one infantry brigade to Malaya just before the start of the war. By 1941, all training and equipment was geared to fight in North Africa and the Middle East and the forces in Burma and Malaya had been depleted to supply reinforcements to the forces in the west. So in the spring of 1941, the 9th Indian Infantry Division was sent to Malaya,
On 8 December, the Japanese Army attacked the Malayan peninsula, the defenders now included the Indian 9th and the 11th Indian Infantry Divisions, the 12th Indian Infantry Brigade and a number of independent battalions and units of Imperial Service Troops, in the III Indian Corps. The 11th Indian division fought the Battle of Jitra 11–13 December, the Battle of Kampar 30 December – 2 January, the Battle of Slim River 6–8 January 1942. The 44th Indian Infantry Brigade and the 45th Indian Infantry Brigade had arrived as reinforcement in January 1942. The 45th Brigade fought the Battle of Muar 14–22 January, of the 4,000 men in the brigade only 800 survived the battle.
The Battle of Singapore 31 January – 15 February ended with the capture of 9th and 11th Indian Divisions and the 12th, 44th and 45th brigades and 55,000 Indian servicemen were made prisoners of war.
In late 1940, Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham ordered the 2nd Battalion, 15th Punjab Regiment and a heavy 6 in (150 mm) gun battery from the Hong Kong-Singapore Royal Artillery, to be positioned at Kuching, the capital of Sarawak. The battalion, which numbered about 1,050 men, was commanded by British Lieutenant Colonel C.M. Lane and was a part of "SARFOR" (Sarawak Force). Some 230 men of the battalion were killed or captured in the defence of the airfield before the fall of the city to the Japanese on 24 December 1941. Two days later, SARFOR was disbanded; on the 27th, the remainder of the Punjabi force crossed into Dutch Borneo, where Lane placed them under Dutch command. The men continued to resist the Japanese in the dense jungle of southern Borneo until 1 April, when they finally surrendered. Arthur Percival, GOC Malaya, later called their resistance "a feat of endurance which assuredly will rank high in the annals of warfare. It says much for the morale of this fine battalion that it remained a formed and disciplined body to the end."
At the same time, the 9th Division was sent to reinforce Malaya, in the spring of 1941, an infantry brigade was sent to reinforce Burma followed by a second brigade later in the year. On 8 December, the Japanese Army invaded Burma from Siam. Withdrawing to India, the last British and Indian escaped from Burma in July 1942.
The Battle of Bilin River was fought in February 1942, by the 17th Indian Infantry Division. The 17th Division held the Japanese at the Bilin River for two days of close-quarters jungle fighting. The Japanese tactics were to outflank, and eventually with encirclement imminent, they were given permission to fall back. The division disengaged under cover of darkness and began a 30 miles (48 km) retreat along the dusty track to the Sittang bridge. The Battle of Sittang Bridge followed after which 17th Division lost most of its artillery, vehicles and other heavy equipment. Its infantry manpower was 3,484 just over 40% of its establishment, though it was already well under-strength before the battle started. The Battle of Pegu in March was carried out by the surviving elements of the 17th Division and the 7th British Armoured Brigade, which had just arrived from the Middle East. In April, the Battle of Yenangyaung was fought between the 7th Armoured Brigade, 48th Indian Infantry Brigade and 1st Burma Division for control of the Yenangyaung oil fields. The Japanese suffered heavy casualties during the battle, but the Allied forces were too weak to hold the oil fields and had to retreat to the north. The fighting retreat to India, was successfully completed in May just before the monsoons would have cut them off. Approximately 12,000 of the 40,000 Indian prisoners of war who were captured either during the Malayan campaign or surrendered at Singapore were led by Mohan Singh as the First Indian National Army which was dissolved in December 1942.
The Arakan Campaign, which began in December 1942, conducted by what at the time was an improvised formation 14th Indian Infantry Division was a failure. The average British and Indian soldier was not properly trained for fighting in jungle, which together with repeated defeats adversely affected morale. This was exacerbated by poor administration in the rear areas. Drafts of reinforcements sent to replace casualties were found in some cases to have not even completed basic training. There were also questions asked about the ability of the Indian Army's high command, which led to the creation of the position of Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia Command, leaving the army high command to concentrate on internal security and administration. There was continual patrol activity and low-key fighting south of Imphal, but neither army possessed the resources to mount decisive operations. 17th Division held positions around the town of Tiddim 100 miles (160 km) south of Imphal, and skirmished with units of the 33rd Japanese Division. The Japanese had a shorter and easier supply line from the port of Kalewa on the Chindwin River and had the upper hand for most of 1942 and 1943.
The Battle of the Admin Box (5th, 7th and 26th Indian, 81st (West Africa) Division, 36th British Infantry Division) in February, came after a limited allied offensive. The Japanese had infiltrated the widely dispersed lines of the 7th Division, and moved north undetected crossed the Kalapanzin River and swung west and south, and attacked the HQ of the 7th Division. The forward divisions were ordered to dig in and hold their positions rather than retreat, while the reserve divisions advanced to their relief. On the ground, the fighting for the Admin Box was severe and Japanese fire caused heavy casualties in the crowded defences and twice set ammunition dumps on fire. However, all attempts to overrun the defenders were thwarted by the tanks of the 25th Dragoons. Although Allied casualties were higher than the Japanese, the Japanese had been forced to abandon many of their wounded to die. For the first time in the Burma Campaign, the Japanese tactics had been countered and turned against them and British and Indian soldiers had held and defeated a major Japanese attack.
The Battle of Imphal and the Battle of Sangshak (17th, 20th, 23rd Indian Divisions, 50th Indian Parachute Brigade and 254th Indian Tank Brigade) took place in the region around the city of Imphal, the capital of the state of Manipur in North-East India from March until July 1944. Japanese armies attempted to destroy the Allied forces at Imphal and invade India, but were driven back into Burma with heavy losses.
The Battle of Kohima (50th Indian Parachute Brigade 5th, 7th Indian and 2nd British Division) was the turning point of the Japanese U Go offensive. The Japanese attempted to capture Kohima ridge, a feature which dominated the road by which the major British and Indian troops at Imphal were supplied. British and Indian reinforcements counter-attacked to drive the Japanese from the positions they had captured. The Japanese abandoned the ridge, but continued to block the Kohima-Imphal road. From 16 May to 22 June, the British and Indian troops pursued the retreating Japanese and reopened the road. The battle ended on 22 June when British and Indian troops from Kohima and Imphal met at Milestone 109.
The Battle of Meiktila and Mandalay (5th 7th, 17th, 19th, 20th Indian, 2nd British Divisions and 254th and 255th Indian Tank Brigades) between January and March 1945, were decisive battles near the end of the Burma Campaign. Despite logistical difficulties, the Allies were able to deploy large armoured and mechanised forces in Central Burma, and also possessed air supremacy. Most of the Japanese forces in Burma were destroyed during the battles, allowing the Allies to later recapture the capital, Rangoon, and reoccupy most of the country with little organised opposition.
The Battle of Ramree Island (26th Indian Infantry Division) was fought for six weeks during January and February 1945, as part of the XV Indian Corps 1944–45 offensive on the Southern Front of the Burma Campaign. Ramree Island lies off the Burma coast and was captured along with the rest of Southern Burma, during the early stages of the Campaign, by the rapidly advancing Imperial Japanese Army in 1942. In January 1945 the Allies were able to launch attacks to retake Ramree and its neighbour Cheduba, with the intention of building sea-supplied airbases on them.
Operation Dracula and the Battle of Elephant Point (5th, 17th Infantry, and 44th Indian Airborne Division 2nd, 36th British Division and 255th Tank Brigade) was the name given to an airborne and amphibious attack on Rangoon by British and Indian forces. When it was launched, the Imperial Japanese Army had already abandoned the city.
25th Indian Infantry Division with 3 Commando Brigade, in January 1945 the Division took part in the first large scale Amphibious Operations in South East Asia, They were ferried across the Four Mile wide Mayu Estuary to land on the Northern beaches of Akyab Island, in the course of the following weeks they occupied Myrbaw and Ruywa. In April 1945. the division was withdrawn to South India to prepare for Operation Zipper the invasion of Malaya, having been chosen for the assault landing role. Although hostilities then ceased, the operation proceeded as planned, 23rd and 25th Divisions was the first formations to land in Malaya 9 September, and then accepting the surrender of the Japanese Army.
Operation Tiderace (5th Indian Infantry Division) commenced when troops set sail from Trincomalee and Rangoon on 21 August for Singapore. The fleet arrived in Singapore on 4 September 1945, and Japanese forces in Singapore officially surrendered to Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia Command on 12 September 1945.
After the Japanese surrender, some divisions were sent to disarm the Japanese and assist the local governments. The 7th Division moved to Thailand, where it disarmed the Japanese occupying army, and liberated and repatriated Allied prisoners of war. The 20th Division was sent to Indo China, occupying the southern part of the country. There were several battles with the Viet Minh, who were intent on achieving independence. The 23rd Division was sent to Java, where the end of the war had brought widespread disorder and conflict between the Dutch colonial regime and pro-independence movements.
Probably the most unusual posting of any unit of the Indian Army during World War II was in 1940, when four mule companies of the Indian Army Service Corps joined the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France. They were evacuated from Dunkirk with the rest of the BEF in May 1940, and were still stationed in England in July 1942.
The Allies landed in Italy on 9 September 1943. The 4th, 8th and 10th Indian Divisions and the 43rd Independent Gurkha Infantry Brigade were all involved during the campaign In October 1943, the 8th Indian Division fighting on the Adriatic front reached the Barbara Line which was breached in early November. The 8th Division led the assault on the German defensive Bernhardt Line, crossed the Sangro River and advanced to just short of Pescara where Eighth Army halted to wait for better weather in the spring.
The 4th Indian Division took part in the second battle of Monte Cassino, In the final fourth battle of Monte Cassino on 11 May, on the Eighth Army front, XIII Corps had made two strongly opposed night crossings of the Rapido by the British 4th Division and 8th Indian Infantry Division. By 18 May, the Germans had withdrawn to their next line.
The Gothic Line formed the last major line of defence in the final stages of the war along the summits of the Apennines The Gothic Line was breached on both the Adriatic and the central Apennine fronts during the Battle of Gemmano in August (4th Indian Divisions last battle before moving to Greece). On the United States Fifth Army's far right wing, on the right of the XIII Corps front, 8th Indian Division fighting across trackless ground had captured the heights of Femina Morta, and 6th British Armoured Division had taken the San Godenzo Pass on Route 67 to Forlì, both on 18 September. On 5 October, the 10th Indian Division, switched from British X Corps to British V Corps, had crossed the Fiumicino river high in the hills and turned the German defensive line on the river forcing the German Tenth Army units downstream to pull back towards Bologna.
In the 1945 spring offensive, the critical role of getting across the Senio, honeycombed with defensive tunnels and bunkers front and rear, was given to the 8th Indian Division, reprising the role they played crossing the Rapido in the final Battle of Monte Cassino. On 29 April 1945, the Germans signed an instrument of surrender; hostilities in Italy formally ceased on 2 May.
On 24 October 1944, the 4th Indian Infantry Division were shipped to Greece, to help stabilise the country after the German withdrawal. The plan called for the division to be dispersed in three widely scattered areas. The 7th Indian Brigade and Divisional troops were allocated Greek Macedonia, Thrace and Thessaly, with instructions to keep watch on the borders of Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. The 11th Indian Brigade would garrison the towns of Western Greece and the Ionian islands. The 5th Indian Brigade would take over the Aegean area and the Cyclades, and would move into Crete when the enemy garrisons in that island capitulated.
On 3 December, the ELAS members of the Greek Government resigned. A general strike was declared, and police opened fire on demonstrators. In Italy, the 4th and 46th British Infantry Divisions were ordered to leave for Greece. On 15 January, a truce had been concluded in Athens, by the terms of which ELAS undertook to withdraw from the capital and Salonika and to occupy rural concentration areas. Except for isolated incidents, this truce ended operations in Greece.
The 14th Indian Infantry Division and the 39th Indian Infantry Division were converted to training formations in 1943, and remained in India till the end of the war. Other units that only served in India include the 32nd Indian Armoured Division and the 43rd Indian Armoured Division which never completed forming before being converted to the 44th Indian Airborne Division in 1943. The Assam-based 21st Indian Infantry Division was also broken up to form 44th Airborne in 1944. The 34th Indian Infantry Division provided the garrison for Ceylon, and remained there during the war, it was disbanded in 1945, never having seen active service.
Indian personnel received 4,000 awards for gallantry, and 31 Victoria Crosses. The Victoria Cross (VC) is the highest military decoration, which is, or has been, awarded for valour "in the face of the enemy" to members of the armed forces of the Commonwealth countries, and previous British Empire territories. The Victoria Cross is awarded for
... most conspicuous bravery, or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice, or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.
The following members of the Indian Army were recipients of the Victoria Cross in World War II;
The George Cross (GC) is the counterpart of the Victoria Cross and the highest gallantry award for civilians as well as for military personnel in actions which are not in the face of the enemy, or for which purely military honours would not normally be granted. The following members of the Indian Army were recipients of the George Cross in World War II;
World War II cost the lives of over 87,000 soldiers, air crews and mariners from the Indian Empire, This included 24,338 killed and 11,754 missing in action. the overwhelming majority being members of the Indian Army. Another 34,354 more were wounded,
Of the 79,489 Indian personnel who become prisoners of war, German and/or Italian forces held 15,000–17,000. Between 2,500 and 4,000 of these POWs subsequently enlisted in the Italian Battaglione Azad Hindoustan and/or German Indische Legion, with the intention of fighting the Allies. More than 40,000 Indian POWs captured by Japanese forces volunteered for the pro-Japanese Indian National Army (INA), which fought the Allies in Burma and north-east India. Out of 60,000 Indian POWs taken at the Fall of Singapore, 11,000 died in Japanese camps from disease, malnutrition, physical abuse, or overwork; many of these had been transported to New Guinea or the Solomon Islands, where they were used as forced labour by Japanese forces.
In late 1943, when Italy capitulated to the Allies, Indians were among tens of thousands of Allied POWs who escaped from, or were liberated from POW camps. During 1943 and 1944, 128 Indian POWs were repatriated from Germany in prisoner exchanges. More than 200 Indian POWs died in captivity in Europe. By 30 April 1945, only 8,950 Indian prisoners of war remained in German camps. The German Indische Legion saw little front-line action, suffered few casualties and many of its recruits were returned to POW camps. In July 1945, the British government reported that at least 1,045 members of the Legion had already been repatriated to India, or were being held for questioning in the UK, while about 700 remained at large in Europe.) Conversely, 2,615 of the POWs recruited by the INA were killed in action against the Allies or missing.
World War II was the last time the Indian Army fought as part of the British military apparatus, as independence and partition followed in 1947. On 3 June 1947, the British Government announced the plan for the partition of the sub–continent between India and Pakistan. On 30 June 1947, the procedure for the division of the armed forces was agreed upon. After partition the British Indian Army was divided between the new Indian Army and the Pakistan Army. Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck, then Commander-in-Chief, India, was appointed Supreme Commander to ensure smooth division of units, stores and so on. It was announced on 1 July 1947, that both countries would have operational control of their respective armed forces by 15 August 1947.