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Nations at war
Hughes, David, David A. Ryan and Steve Rothwell. The British Armies in World War Two: An Organisational History, vol 8: The Indian Army, part one: The Indian Army in the West. West Chester, OH: Nafziger Collection, 2005
iii + 128 pages
Preface; Guide to Tables; Trivia; maps; tables; TOEs; OBs
Appendices: Unit History and Service tables; Organizations; OB and Formation Histories
David Hughes and colleagues have been since 1999 presenting an audience of OB/TOE/unit history enthusiasts with a series of "hobbyist" publications that outshine just about everything else in the field, hobbyist, professional, or otherwise. The relatively slim softcover booklets of The British Armies in World War Two have gradually moved away from readily available information about the British Army itself and toward more esoteric aspects of the armed forces of the Commonwealth and colonies. While we've been impressed with the series since its inception, as the authors have waded into murkier waters we've only grown more and more pleased with the depth and clarity of information they're able to provide about forces which took part in the war.
Part One of volume eight covers "...formations of the Indian Army in the West that were in action against the Germans and Italians and, at times, against the Vichy French, the Communist Greeks, the Iraqis, and the Persians." It begins with an overview of the Indian Army as a whole, explaining its roots, its evolution, and its basic structure. One interesting table in the opening section reviews the various "classes" of soldiers and the regiments with which they served. These classes included Punjabis, Jats, Sikhs, Mahrattas, Rajputs, Dogras, Brahman, Garhwal, Kumaonis, Gurkhas, Pathans, Baluchs, Ahir, Gujeratis, and Madrassi.
The Gujeratis, for example, are described as follows:
Gujeratis: Mainly served in 8th Punjab Regiment. Name identifies another Muslim farmer sub-caste, in this case graziers. Mainly from Rajasthan and the United Provinces, and in many ways similar to the Ahirs.
Following fifteen pages of introductory material on the Indian Army, its overall organization, and its soldiers, the authors begin detailing the service of each major Indian formation in the west:
2nd Indian Infantry (Deception) Division
4th Indian Infantry Division
5th Indian Infantry Division
6th Indian Infantry Division
8th Indian Infantry Division
10th Indian Infantry Division
12th Indian Infantry (Deception) Division
34th Indian State Forces Brigade
38th Indian Infantry Brigade
161st Indian Infantry Brigade
1st/31st Indian Armoured Division
3rd Indian Motor/43rd Gurkha Lorried Brigade
10th Indian Motor/60th Indian Infantry Brigade
The text for each formation varies considerably in length but always amounts to a condensed unit history. For example, the entry for 2nd Indian Infantry (Deception) Division runs a little over a page, while the entry for 4th Indian Infantry Division covers about seventeen pages. Each entry also deals with the division's subordinate brigades and other components. Furthermore, each entry contains a number of tables of organization and equipment representing the formation at various periods. The 4th, for example, has TOEs for October 1939, December 1940, February 1941, March 1941, two for June 1941, November 1941, October 1942, February 1944, and February 1945.
Here's a short excerpt from the history of 4th Indian Infantry Division:
The first major battle of the campaign for the division took place at Agordat on January 29th, 1941. The
11th Brigade, now back up to three battalions attacked in the south, the 5th Brigade in the centre. The 5th
was still missing the 4th Rajputs so were given the 4th Sikhs from Gazelle Force. It was immediately
obvious that this battle against Italians would be no walkover. The men from four battalions of the 2nd and
42nd Colonial Brigades resisted fiercely, their mountain guns, if ancient, were far better at hitting reverse
slopes than the modern 25pdr guns of the 25th and 31st Field Regiments, and, above all they had mules.
The motorised 4th Division was at a major disadvantage in this situation, and the available troops,
including all the sappers, were converted into porters. In the end the battle was decided, once again, by
the Matilda tank. Six tanks turned up, and they were able to force a break-through and demolish the Italian
armoured counter-attack. The Italians, who had inflicted substantial casualties, especially on the
Rajputana Rifles, were forced to retreat 100 kilometres to their natural fortress at Keren.
A quick pursuit of demoralised troops might have 'bounced' the way through the fortress, but delays and
demolitions prevented this. By the time the lead troops of the 4th Indian Division reached Keren, It had
been reinforced by the best troops in Italian East Africa, the 11th Savoia Grenadiers and the 3rd
Berseglieri Battalion. This would prove to be a long and costly battle, not least due to the initial
underestimation of the Italian strength and steadiness. Keren presented a long, high and steep face, with
the narrow Dongolaas Gorge overlooked by seemingly inaccessible and heavily fortified heights.
Nevertheless, on February 2nd, all three battalions of the 11th Brigade attacked a portion of the heights
known thereafter as 'Cameron Ridge'. Despite heavy and effective enemy fire the ridge was taken.
However, a violent Italian counter-attack drove off the Punjabi's and left the remnants of the other two
battalions in no condition to advance any further. On February 7th it was the turn of the 5th Brigade.
Attacking in broad daylight, this futile attempt brought little but heavy losses to the Rajputana Rifles. On
February 10th yet another attack was made, preceded by a barrage that included both batteries of the
68th Medium Regiment, RA. The idea was to seize an artillery observation point on the crest, nicknamed
'Brig's Peak'. This was taken and once again lost. On this occasion the 3rd Battalion 1st Punjabis took
heavy casualties. The next night the attack continued, but now with the 5th Brigade in action. Once again
initial objectives were seized, but then lost under constant attacks, incessant mortar and artillery fire and
inadequate supplies. During these last attacks, the division did win its first Victoria Cross, awarded to
Subedar Richpal Ram of the 4th Battalion 6th Rajputana Rifles. By now, it had become apparent, even to
the most stubborn senior officer, and Beresford-Pierce, with all his other good qualities, was certainly
stubborn, that the game was over. The attacks were suspended, pending a full two division assault.
Meanwhile, the third brigade of the division had been exerting its own threat on the Italian defenders of
Keren. The 7th Brigade, now named 'Brigg's Force' had hibernated at Port Sudan, but soon swung into
action. On February 17th the small port of Mersa Taklai was taken by an overland march, allowing the
whole brigade, by now swelled by the appearance of Le Brigade d'Orient, a Free French group of
battalions, to land and move south. The 51st (Palestine) Commando was placed under command and
used to link the brigade with the main force. On February 22nd the brigade attacked the village of Cub-
Cub, garrisoned by the 112th Colonial Battalion, which was taken with the aid of the recently arrived field
battery. The advance continued, through the Mescalit Pass until checked at Mount Engiahat, only seven
miles north of Keren itself. Eight Italian battalions had massed to stop Briggs Force, men that would be
missed on the main front.
In the same manner as the previous volumes in the series, the unit histories also contain brief paragraphs of "Regimental Trivia." Here's a sample:
Regimental Trivia: General Reginald Savory: Many Indian Army senior officers were totally unlike the fat,
pompous, incompetent, ignorant blimps they were usually portrayed as in Hollywood movies. Savory was
a case in point. Commanding the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade, he organised his advance to Keren by
leading with the cooks complete with the rations, allocated the available transport, dumped ahead of the
marching troops, and preparing hot meals for the tired men when they reached the end of a long day's
march. After leaving the 11th Brigade, he commanded the 23rd Indian Division and then assumed
responsibility for infantry training in India. With retirement he turned his active mind to other fields and
produced "His Britannic Majesties Army in Germany during the Seven Year's War", a book of immense
scholarship and authority, and considered the definitive work on the subject.
While the relatively famous 4th and 5th Divisions receive most of the ink in the unit histories, the other formations aren't forgotten or ignored, and the authors especially highlight the obscure 34th and 38th Brigades.
Following the unit histories, the appendices take a different approach to presenting material. The first appendix is a three-page table listing every brigade in the Indian Army from 1st through 303rd and including named garrison brigades on the Northwest Frontier. The table contains a column for each year of the war plus a "Notes" column and shows at a glance to what division (or other headquarters) each brigade was assigned.
The next set of tables is even more complete, totaling more than twenty-five pages and showing similar data on a battalion-by-battalion basis. Each regiment (such as 1st Punjab, 4th Mahratta Light Infantry, etc) has its own table with a row for each battalion in the regiment and columns dividing the war years into twelve chronological periods. Reading across the columns for a battalion shows when it was formed (unless it was a pre-war regular battalion), where it was during each time period, to what brigade (or other HQ) it was assigned, etc. This makes it very easy to trace the history of each individual battalion.
For example, the 1/1st Punjab was a regular battalion that served on the Northwest Frontier under the Landi Kotal Brigade until early 1941 when it moved to Delhi under 19th Brigade. By late 1941 the battalion served in Iraq under the same brigade, then transferred to Libya and Egypt under 38th, 5th, and 161st Brigades. In early 1943 the unit was back in Iraq with 161st Brigade, and it spent the remainder of the war in the Arakan and Burma under the 161st.
Following the battalion-by-battalion tables, another appendix provides three pages of basic TOE data for standard Indian unit organizations. The authors then add five pages on the Indian Army in World War I, a three and a half page OB for "The Indian Army in Ceylon and the West, June 1942," and a half page synopsis of "India in the 1930s" with notes about geography, religion, population, life expectancy, and so on.
While all this information amounts to only about half the story of the Indian Army in the Second World War (the balance to come in the next volume in the series), a few years ago this book would have easily proved to be the single most important source on Indian formations during the war. However, in 2003 The Military Press published Chris Kempton's three-volume opus on Indian Army units. Keeping in mind that another volume in the Hughes-Ryan-Rothwell series remains to be published, how does the Kempton series compare with this H-R-R book?
Structurally, both series are organized in much the same manner, and Kempton also begins with divisional histories. He writes, for example, less than a page on 2nd Indian Infantry Division while H-R-R provides just over a page, with the latter giving considerably more information about the nature of the deception unit. For 4th Indian, Kempton writes a total of twelve pages in comparison to seventeen about that division by H-R-R. However, Kempton always offers considerably more in the way of lists of division commanders, RA commanders, Engineer commanders, divisional troops, units attached, etc. Kempton's second volume covers brigades in depth. While the H-R-R volume includes much information about brigades within the divisional entries, it really only deals individually with five brigades in comparison to Kempton's dozens. Both include oddities such as the 34th and 38th, with Kempton giving details of commanders and components but H-R-R offering more narrative text for the five it covers. Finally, Kempton's third volume turns to battalion-by-battalion information, and here it must be said that he tends to outshine H-R-R's tabular listings because for each battalion he gives precise dates of subordinations and movements as opposed to simply dividing the war into twelve chronological periods. On the other hand, he doesn't always include as much data about locations as H-R-R.
Here's the Hughes-Ryan-Rothwell information for 1/1st Punjab:
Landi Ktl X
Landi Ktl X
Landi Ktl X
38 X / 5 X
Here's Kempton's information for 1/1st Punjab:
Pre September 1939 - December 1940. LANDIKOTAL BRIGADE.
December 1940 - 21st November 1941. 19th BRIGADE. Then in transit to Mersa Matruh
8th December 1941 - 7th January 1942. 38th BRIGADE
7th January - end February 1942. 5th BRIGADE
March - April 1942. Detached at Girabub
April 1942 - 3rd October 1944. 161st BRIGADE
3rd October -24th November 1944. Independent in Kennedy Peak, Tiddim, Kalemyo area.
24th November 1944 -6th March 1945. Imphal, then to Jorhat, Assam for rest & training at the end of December.
6th March 1945 - October 1946 161st BRIGADE.
October 1946 - on. Detached for I.S. duties in Bengal then re-joined 161st Bde. from January 1947
In sum, the treatment of the Indian Army by Hughes, Ryan, and Rothwell in The British Armies in World War Two is quite similar to that in Kempton's Loyalty & Honour. The former tends to offer more text for the divisional entries, while the latter provides more material on brigades and more detail on battalion entries (especially when cross-referenced to parent brigades), plus information about unit commanders for divisions and brigades. With the appearance of the second of the pair of Indian books from H-R-R, those authors will have packed into their set nearly as much information as Kempton in his three volumes, largely because of the tabular nature of the H-R-R battalion listings.
If you're just learning about the Indian Army, this volume and its forthcoming companion by Hughes, Ryan, and Rothwell should satisfy all your needs. If you want more detail, especially about commanders and individual battalions, then go with the Kempton series. For anyone truly fascinated by the Indian Armyor OB/TOE/unit history material in generalgrab all the volumes of both sets as soon as you can. Together, they make a comprehensive survey of the topic with a complementary mix of text, tabular data, and supporting information. Both sets come from relatively small, home-based hobbyist publishing businesses, so the print runs aren't huge, the books aren't always easy to find, and in a few years, when they're impossible to locate, you'll probably be kicking yourself if you don't acquire them right now while you have the chance, because these are going to be considered classic resources for the Indian Army in the Second World War.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from the Nafziger Collection.
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Reviewed 5 March 2006
Copyright © 2006 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone