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Marston, Daniel P. Phoenix from the Ashes: The Indian Army in the Burma Campaign. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003
Although the sub-title of Daniel Marston's new book might make it sound like an Indian-centric view of the war in Burma, that turns out not to be entirely the case. Instead, the author has written an analysis of the reforms in the Indian Armytactics, organization, recruiting, "Indianization" of the officer corpsduring the period 1942 through 1945. The campaign in Burma serves mostly as the stage on which Marston displays the results of those reforms.
To begin with, Marston makes some general remarks about the Indian Army as it existed between the world wars.
The character of the Indian Army of the 1920s and 1930s can be considered in the light of three of the central goals of this period: first, to begin the slow process of Indianizing the officer corps; second, to limit recruitment of troops to certain native peoples; and finally, to make the main duties of the army the control of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and internal security.
Marston then proceeds to review those three topics. His background information makes it clear that the fragmented nature of Indian society was reflected in the regiments of the Army. Not only were regiments organized and recruited to contain troops from a specific region, but within each individual company the troops typically comprised a specific tribe, caste, or race. (Generally referred to as a "class.") For example: "The 5th Probyn's Horse was designated to have only three squadrons: one of Hindustani Musalmans and Musalman Rajputs, one of Rajputs, and one of Jats. The 7th Light Cavalry, again a former Madras-based regiment, was restructured to comprise one squadron of Punjabi Musalmans, one of Sikhs, and one of Dogras." This kind of segregation greatly increased the difficulties of recruiting and replacing troops, especially as the war dragged on.
The Indian Army was officered for over 100 years by a system of British officers and Native (later viceroy) commissioned officers. Indians were not allowed to receive commissions from Addiscombe, the East India Company officer training academy, or, later, from Royal Military College Sandhurst. Only white British officers were put in charge of battalions or regiments. The reason given for this was that Indians were not considered capable of leading battalions or regiments in the field, a myth that was perpetuated for many years. Only British officers were considered able to command many different classes of Indians without getting caught up in the men's religious or class issues; Indian commissioned officers were considered incapable of rising above these controversies. The system had been designed to ensure that British officers would not be commanded by Indian officers, no matter how junior in age or experience they might be.
After the initiation of hostilities in Europe, it took more than six months before serious expansion of the Indian Army commenced. Expansion faced obstacles in lack of equipment, low priority for modern weapons, lack of trained leaders, andto a certain extentlack of Indian support for the war effort. Also as a result of expansion and the need for more officers, training tended to suffer.
The training time given to Emergency Commissioned Officers (ECOs), both British and Indian, was drastically shortened from the normal schedule as a result of wartime expansion. Regular prewar British commissioned officers received 18 months of training at Sandhurst, and prewar Indian commissioned officers, 30 months at Dehra Dun. Both then received a year's further training in a battalion before being posted to take up their own commissions. In wartime circumstances, emergency commissioned officers (ECOs), both British and Indian, received only four to six months of tactical training at the various officer training schools set up in India. Then, when an officer was posted to a battalion or regiment, his instruction continued, at least in theory.
Marston goes on in the second chapter to discuss how the units adjusted to changing equipment and roles during 1939-1941. The needs of the drastic wartime expansion brought about many other changes. For example, while pre-war Indianization meant that only a few chosen units would be (eventually) fully officered by Indians (with most British officers transferred so they would not be under the orders of Indian officers), during 1940 the policy was changed so that Indian officers could serve in command positions throughout the Indian Army, even over British officers. Also, because of difficulty in recruiting some of the specific "classes" required to fill individual companies and their battalions, there was renewed recruitment among the "non-martial races" such as the Madrassis.
"...the defense of the town took a conventional-style perimeter layout...."
Although the descriptions of movement, deployment, and combat tend to be a little weak in this chapter, the analysis remains strong. British generals in India were also carefully analyzing the results of the campaign.
Defeats in the Malaya and Burma campaigns convinced the Indian Army that new tactics and training were required. Over the course of 1942 and 1943, the army set out to develop and implement the necessary reforms, with varying levels of success.
In particular it proved necessary to train units to operate effectively in jungles, but all training was complicated by the constant shuffling of units in India and the need for as many as sixty infantry battalions to serve on internal security duties due to local disturbances and fear of disruptions caused by the Quit India movement.
The attack by the 2/1st was ordered for 0400 hours on February I8, 1943. D Company was to move out on the right, with B Company on the left, followed up by A Company. C Company was to be held in reserve. The companies were to move out from a jungle tree line and attack across an open field. There appear to have been no patrolling activities undertaken beforehand to identify the Japanese positions. The whole attack was launched against well-entrenched enemy positions in a frontal movement; there were no attempts to undertake any kind of flanking maneuver. As B Company moved out, it was immediately hit by medium machine gun fire on the flank, as was A Company moving up behind. Both companies were caught in the open and being hit from all directions, and men began to pull back to the jungle edge. D Company had progressed at a faster pace; it was able to take its objective but in doing so had exposed both its flanks to possible counterattacks. The Japanese saw this opening and attacked. Captain Budh Singh decided to withdraw but had to fall back across open ground, and as he withdrew his company, it was raked by the Japanese positions. By 0630 hours, all three companies had fallen back to their original start lines. The battalion had suffered heavily, losing 3 British officers, 2 VCOs, and 7 Indian other ranks (IORs) killed; 2 VCOs and 99 IORs wounded; and 17 missing, including a British officer.
In large measure due to the Arakan failure, India Command decided to centralize its jungle warfare training programs. Both the tactics and the methods of teaching them were gradually refined, and eventually all unitsand all individual replacementswould pass through the jungle training schools before being deployed for combat in Burma. One of the important tools for producing the training program was the Infantry Committee convened by Field Marshal Archibald Wavell in June 1943. The recommendations of the Infantry Committee in large measure stand as the point at which the doctrine and training of forces in India began to match what would be needed to re-conquer Burma. Strongly supported by Claude Auchinleck when he returned to become Commander-in-Chief India (and Wavell was promoted to Viceroy) as well as 14th Army commander William Slim, these reforms in many ways signalled a new beginning for the Indian Army in World War II.
The Indian and British units that arrived along the Arakan and Assam fronts in late 1943 and early 1944 were a different force than the Japanese had encountered previously. The infantry units were trained to fight in the dense jungles of Burma, equipped with mules and jeeps to operate over difficult terrain. They no longer had to rely entirely on land communications but could be supplied by air if necessary. They would not engage in retreats motivated by panic but would hold their ground if attacked. Units were trained to operate at all times with all-round defense to offset Japanese infiltration tactics. They were trained to take the war to the enemy using patrolling to gather information and deny control of no-man's-land to the Japanese. All of the infantry and cavalry regiments had been retrained and benefited additionally from the establishment of Allied air superiority in the form of resupply and ground support.
The bulk of the chapter follows the "Phoenix" units in the second Arakan campaign and at Imphal. Although there were failures, in general Marston demonstrates that the period of centralized training in standardized, appropriate jungle tactics paid off handsomely. In most cases, higher levels of training translated directly into improved performances. Most units proved adept in aggressive patrolling, individual replacements arrived with a high degree of preparedness, the so-called "non-martial races" units performed well, and the new Indian officers led units as competently as British officers. In short, the Japanese belatedly discovered they were facing an entirely different opponent, and one which was prepared to fight and win in the jungle.
The 7th and 20th Indian Divisions advanced down the Irrawaddy River basin to destroy any remaining or retreating Japanese forces and seize the town of Prome, strategically located on the Irrawaddy River. The 4/8th Gurkhas were part of this force; from February to early April, they had been involved in the defense of the 7th Indian bridgehead. The battalion performed well in defending the area with a mobile defense around Milaungbya and Singu from Japanese attacks, setting up box formations and sending out reconnaissance and fighting patrols in the area, both on foot and with tank support. The open terrain forced the battalion to adapt their plans of defense to cover more ground. During early April, the battalion was pulled out of the line for rest and refitting, and during this period it carried out more training in accordance with the lessons already learned.
The final chapter assesses the changes in recruiting so-called "non-martial" classes in the last years of the war and examines the great increase in the number of Indian officers in the Army. According to Marston, in January 1941 the ratio of British officers to Indian officers was 12:1. By the end of the war, the ratio had changed to about 2.5:1. To achieve this increased proportion of Indian officers, OCS training was done almost entirely in joint British-Indian groups, pay scales were equalized, and by mid-1943 Indian officers had finally been granted the power to punish British soldiers and sit on British courts-martial. Interestingly, Wavell, Auchinleck, and most of the British establishment in India supported these moves, but officials in London tended to resist. By the end of the war, the officer corps was fully integrated and Indian officers were regularly commanding British officers. "The numbers of Indian COs of regiments and battalions had risen by 1945, and three Indian Brigadiers had been rewarded for their service with the DSO. This was not good enough for some supporters of independence, but it demonstrates how hard Auchinleck had pushed to get that many officers promoted."
The victory in Burma was the high-water mark of the British Indian Army. It demonstrated the success of an innovative, wide-ranging program of reform, and it made a significant contribution to the Allied victories that ultimately decided the outcome of the Second World War. In doing so, it achieved several crucial short-term goals. It also was eventually to have an important long-term political impact, of which some of the highest level commanders were probably aware in formulating their plans for reform. Personnel and organizational reforms ultimately provided a corps of experienced officers and men who were to form the foundations of the independent armies of India and Pakistan, following partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. The experience gained in the victories won on the battlefields of Burma by South Asian troops would supply a much-needed level of confidence in the armed forces of the subcontinent during the rapid transition from British rule to independent government.
More than that, although Marston doesn't say it, his book leads inescapably to another conclusion. In a sense, the British were the victims of their own progressive policies with regard to the Indian Army. They recruited and trained a huge number of Indians from all over the sub-continent, created experienced, self-confident units, and gave them a large number of thoroughly competent leaders, all of which in the long run almost certainly helped to ensureif not hastenthe British departure from India.
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Reviewed 11 January 2004
Reviewed 11 January 2004
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