Indian Army Effectiveness in WWII

Discussion in 'Military History and Militaria' started by Yank_Lurker, Feb 22, 2009.

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  1. A few years ago, a friend and I were playing the wargame War in the Pacific. The Indian Army formations in the game were on average rated significantly lower in proficiency than their British Army counterparts. My friend complained that this was an artefact of racist patronization on the part of the game developers. This topic of conversation came up again recently, and I thought I'd ask the knowledgeable people around here about it.

    Recently, I came across what may serve as at least a partial explanation for lesser Indian Army capability at the start of the war: language. Apparently, while during peacetime, British officers assigned to the Indian Army were required to learn Urdu, officers sent during wartime usually hadn't learned the language, making communications with subordinates night impossible. Compounding this problem, many new Indian inductees didn't speak Urdu themselves, so they couldn't even talk with their NCO's. Apparently the Indian Army also was only at 50% officer strength.

    Can anyone confirm the above, and perhaps elaborate on the issue?
  2. You'll have Bill Slim and other Officers of the Old Indian Army turning in their graves.
    Too many examples of the High quality of Indian troops, many with backgrounds going back to the early days of The Brit in India.
    The Martial Races of India, Shikhs, Pathans, Jats and Rajput where of extremely high quality.
  3. I don't think there's any dispute that the average Indian soldier (whether from a "martial race" or not) is and was quite capable of being just as good at his trade as a Brit. If they are inadequately officered however, or their officers are unable to communicate with them, every single Indian soldier might be an Audie Murphy, but their units aren't going to fight terribly effectively.
  4. Have a read about WW1. English is the "lingua Franca" of India as there are many diffrent languages. If you think about it, simple battle orders without confusing language are a matter requiring good officers. During contact, language tends to become simpler, "Machine gun left" "2nd squad covering fire, 1st squad advance" or "Get fckinn down" are hardly phrases that cannot be taught.

    Not a 3000 word lecture delivered in 5 different languages as you are recieving suppressing fire, but simple commands that are easily taught and carried out by men with courage.

    Remember - we were able to hold and empire by not being able to communicate with our native soldiers...... that is what you post suggested.
  5. Actually, what I was given to understand is that by Dec 1941, the Indian Army had been the victim of several years of understaffing due to the pressing needs of the Empire in the West. Too few officers, and those sent were inadequately trained for the job, to include not being taught Urdu, which had been a requirement prior to WWII. And yes, you did hold together an empire...and up until WWII as I understand it, part of holding that Empire together was a requirement that your officers speak the language. In 1941 was it reasonable to expect that your draftee Indian squaddy would have a good grasp of English? I'm given to understand not. I do know that performance of the Indian troops in Malaya was sub-par (though Percival's generalship wasn't stellar and the Australians who mutinied didn't cover themselves in glory either).
  6. No draftees, surely. The Indian Army of WW2 is said to have been the largest all-volunteer force in history.
  7. I was wondering if it had been volunteer. Which I suppose would contradict my friend's suggestion that there may have been resentments toward the British "colonial masters" and a less-than-enthusiastic feeling about fighting for the Empire.
  8. Andy_S

    Andy_S LE Book Reviewer

    Well, they certainly were no match for the Japanese in the first years of the war....though that is equally true of British, American and Aussie troops. Also, after the fall of Singapore, a significant number - the actual number is still disputed, but IIRC, there were three divisions - turned coat and joined Bhose's Indian National Army - a Japanese-sponsored anti-British force. There was even a small force of Indian troops in the Waffen SS. (When Adolf heard about the existance of said unit, he spluttered; he was a great fan of the British Empire and his favorite film was reportedly "Lives of a Bengal Lancer." There again, Adolf often had connuptions about Himmler's Waffen SS empire building. But I digress.)

    OTOH, there is a good quote in Max Hastings' "Nemesis" on a British officer looking on in awe at a Sikh unit in Burma: They were professional fighting men who actually had a vast appetite for war and seemed to be enjoying it. This was a concept completely alien to said British officer.

    And the reputation of the Ghurkas speaks for itself...I think one could certainly make the point that in jungle, they WERE better than the average British squaddie.

    Finally, according to George MacDonald Fraser ("Quartered Safe Out Here") those Indian troops who remained loyal to the colours gave very short thrift (ie the point of the bayonet) to INA troops they captured.

    Make of the above what thou wilt.
  9. A small number turned coat a significant number realised being INA was better than rotting in a POW cage and a fair number absented themselves first oportunity.

    The Indian army fought magnificantly during the war in the desert and in South East Asia, admittedly poor tactics let them down in the early war but after that the front line combat soldier was brilliant, and the myth of the martial races was destroyed as soldiers from non martial backgrounds proved themselves the equal of their so called martial cousins.

    Officering the Indian army did not suffer because of mobilisation in the west in so much as it was stripped of officers, the Indian army was a different service and transferring between the two armies was not easy. The war saw a large expansion of VCO or viceroys commissioned officers, to make up for a short fall in British officer availability.

    The language barrier was a pain but not unsurmountable as the formation of regional units i.e. the Rajputs kept men of a common language together.
  10. Were all of the other formations in the game rated equally i.e. the Japs the same as the Brits the same as the US the same as the ANZACS etc?
  11. If you can get hold of a copy read the WW2 history of the Fourth Indian Division by Lt Col GR Stevens. It is an amazing account of how people from different religions, languages and background can come together for a mutual cause.

    When asked to provide two divisions to support 1st Army in Tunisia Montgomery said " I sent them the best I had, 4th Indian and 7th Armoured".

    Largely forgotten now, 4th Indian Division under General Tuker was probably one of the most effective Allied infantry divisions of the war. Certainly in the Mediterranean theatre.
  12. RP578

    RP578 LE Book Reviewer

    English was not the lingua franca of the Indian Army during Empire. Urdu was. Urdu is a part part Persian, part Arabicised version of Hindi that was used by the Moghul rulers as their 'court languange' and carried on by the East India Coy and Govt armies.

    There was never a need to resort to conscription, even during WW2. Soldiering was (and still is) considered to be a highly prized job throughout the sub-continent mostly because of the financial security

    Emergency Commissioned Officers (ECO) did indeed have to learn Urdu and those that were posted to Gurkha regiments had to then learn Gurkali just as their regular colleagues.

    The 'Martial Race' was a British concept that had its roots in the Mutiny and was regularly debunked and pretty much abandoned in WW2 when everyone including 'Untouchables' were recruited. The only regiment that remained single-class was the 17th Dogras. Indeed if there is one enduring legacy of the British Empire it is the proven fact that you can make a competent soldier from any ethnicity.

    Yank_lurker, in answer to your original question, I would say that it is unfair to label an Indian unit as below a British on averages. When Indian troops performed badly the case was often (as with other armies) one of inadequate training especially early in the war. I highly recommend Byron Farwell's Armies of the Raj. An immensely enjoyable read with several chapters on WW2 including one about the INA.
  13. 'Phoenix from the Ashes' by Daniel Marston is a book which deals specifically with the issue of the expansion of the Indian Army and resultant effect on its combat effectiveness.
    The book highlights that the Indian Army of 1939 was principally an internal security organisation that was poorly trained and equipped for high intensity combined arms operations. Expanding rapidly it was forced to recruit from castes and tribes previously regarded as non-martial into its ranks as well as a massive expansion of the already ongoing Indianisation process by which Indian were commissioned as King's Commissioned Indian Officer (akin to our DE) as opposed to the more usual Viceroy Commissioned Officer (VCO) which is a bit like our current Ghurka Commission. The end result was a large army which however did not yet properly know its trade and was inadequately administered and supplied. It took until late 1943 for these issues to be sorted out, note in particular Slim's training regime and Auchinleck and Wavell's administrative reforms.

    The long and short of it is that from late 1943 Indian Army divisions were every bit as combat effective as their European equivalents, and I suspect that in many ways prior to 1943 there was not all that much difference between AUS/UK/NZ units and Indian units in that Theatre of Operations as most of the deficiencies of equipment, training and doctrine were common to all. In many ways the Indian units became better then their UK equivalents as they were notably more physically resilient and logistically robust then AUS/UK/NZ units (compare sickness rates and ration requirements between the units).

    Another good book to read on the issue is: 'Memories of the British Raj: A Soldier in India' by Brigadier Bristow.

    I particularly like the account of a British (Infantry) Officer handing over to his Indian (Armoured) counterpart as part of a forward passage of lines which highlights the great strides made by the Indian army, I will see if I can dig out the relevant passage and reference.
  14. Yank_Lurker - "If they are inadequately officered however, or their officers are unable to communicate with them, every single Indian soldier might be an Audie Murphy, but their units aren't going to fight terribly effectively."

    You don't think orders could be barked down the line by senior NCOs, and equally you don't think senior NCOs probably spoke English?

    20 VCs issued for the Italian Campaign, 4 went to Indians. :salut:

  15. Would Urdu have been understood by Hindu populations?

    I have, at my Mum's house along with assorted other crap, a 1942 'Hindustani' phrase book for Army officers, including such gems as 'burn the village'...

    Would Hindustani/Hindi not have been a more logical 'base' language to learn, which could be 'customised' with Urdu as & when..?

    Edit: I should have just Wiki'd it: