Book Review – The Indian Army 1939-47: Experience and Development

Alan Jeffreys and Patrick Rose (eds.), The Indian Army 1939-47: Experience and Development. Farnham: Ashgate, 2012. Map. Notes. Hbk. 244pp. £58.50

Reviewed by Matthew Ford, University of Hull

Indian Army

How might a small island nation off the coast of mainland Europe go about maintaining an Empire that stretched across the globe and which contained, at its height, a quarter of the world’s population? According Frank Ferudi, although implemented in a whole range of particular ways, the strategy Britain adopted was reasonably straightforward: isolate troublesome colonies and their difficult nationalist leaders and look for ways to promote forms of indigenous politics that were broadly sympathetic to British interests.[1] In this edited volume by Jeffrey’s and Rose these themes find themselves repeated over a number of chapters with specific reference to the role played by the Indian Army in Imperial defence and internal security.

Starting with a chapter by Ashley Jackson, the Indian Army is placed within its broader Imperial context: generating military forces quickly for the purposes of maintaining internal security in colonies around the world. Exploring how these forces might be used on non-Indian populations demonstrates how Britain could maintain itself overseas without having to draw on the British Army itself. Putting arms in the hands of those who might turn against British authority was, however, a potentially dangerous undertaking and care had to be taken to ensure the reliability of these forces.

One approach for managing these risks was to use the Indian Army on the North West Frontier away from large indigenous populations while the British Army was retained for use within India itself. Despite the prejudices that certain commanders might have held for the Indian Army, what Patrick Rose observes, in the second chapter, is how fighting in the tribal areas helped to generate within the Indian Army a culture of mission command. Usually commanded by British officers who were given considerable responsibility when compared to their British Army equivalents, what subsequent chapters show, is how this command culture helped to create some highly effective combat units during the Second World War.

On the eve of the Second World War, the Army in India totalled around 40,000 troops. By 1942, this Army had expanded considerably to 1.3 million troops. From the perspective of defeating the Axis powers, it was essential that this force was militarily effective. However, considering the problems that such expansion caused it can come as no surprise that there was a great appetite for written doctrine and training pamphlets. As Alan Jeffreys’ notes in the fourth chapter, this was particularly important given the need to fight in a number of different terrains whether in Burma, policing the North West Frontier or fighting in North Africa or Europe.

Framing the pieces by Jeffreys and Rose are a number of chapters that explore the underlying prejudices of Churchill and various British officers towards the Indian Army. Despite (or maybe because of) his experiences on the North West Frontier during the Tirah expedition, Churchill notoriously downplays the importance of – harsher critics might say that he ignores – the Indian Army in his history of the Second World War. As Raymond Callahan observes, however, Churchill made a number of important decisions about the Indian Army, decisions that played a crucial part in the defence of India and in the fight against the Axis powers. When stacked up against these decisions, what clearly comes through from Callahan’s chapter is how Indian nationalism manifested itself in ways that would not only undermine the imperial system but also challenged Churchill’s conception of a global beneficent British Empire.

Similar chauvinisms came to the fore as British Army commanders sought ways to make use of the growing Indian Army. Christopher Mann, for example, describes this in a chapter on the performance and treatment of the 4th Indian Division by Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery as part of the Eighth Army’s campaign to breach the Mareth Line in southern Tunisia. Ignored by Monty, whose apparent prejudices precluded him from thinking fondly of the Indian Army, Mann goes on to show how the 4th Indian Division fought extremely well in difficult terrain. Not only did the Division break the Mareth line quickly they showed how inflexible the Eighth Army was at exploiting opportunities.

Along the same vein, Tim Moreman describes the learning curve of the Indian Army in the Arakan campaigns of 1943-44. Insufficiently trained and poorly led the Indian Army undertook a number of attacks in the initial campaign and met stiff resistance from well-entrenched Japanese defenders. Lacking tactical and operational finesse and with casualties mounting, the British and Indian Armies had initially sought to blast their way through the defensive lines only to find that the Japanese had organised in depth and could mount rapid counter-attacks from mutually supporting positions. Faced with a battlefield that increasingly resembled the denuded lines of the Western Front, the decision was finally taken to suspend operations while commanders tried to find ways to break the Japanese positions and give troops the opportunity to undergo intensive training. In the second Arakan campaign, the Indian Army demonstrated it could be an extremely effective military instrument. Applying Japanese style infiltration tactics to bypass and cut off central Japanese fortifications, the Army forced the defenders to strike out and attack on unfavourable terrain or surrender. In a subsequent chapter, Graham Dunlop illustrates how the British Indian Army continued to evolve in its successful campaign to recapture Rangoon in 1945.

Broadly speaking the final four chapters of the book considers the relationship between the Indian Army, Indian nationalism and impending independence from Britain.  Daniel Marston shows how the use of Indian Army troops against the Viet Minh – in an effort to ensure the security of Indochina until the colony could be handed back to the French – produced friction with the nationalist movement in India. Ashok Nath shows how the process of partitioning the Indian Armoured Corps could be achieved in an efficient manner once British officers understood that India itself would split along sectarian lines. David Omissi explores the problem of independence through the lens of the Gurkha regiments and Britain’s on-going requirement for troops to maintain internal security in what was left of the Empire. Finally, Robert Johnson explores the problems faced by the British as they increasingly found themselves reliant on the Indian Army in the face of the Quit India Campaign and the increased demands for independence from Britain.

Despite defeats at Singapore and Malaya and the emergence of the Indian National Army, what this volume shows is just how capable and reliable the Indian Army was for its British masters.  Contrary to the doubters, the Indian Army proved itself in battle and in the face of nationalist movements. Over a number of important and extremely interesting chapters, this book offers a snapshot on how the Indian Army worked within and then emerged from an Imperial system of security. While the book is no substitute for a wider engagement on the subject of the Indian Army, Imperial defence, nationalist movements and de-colonisation, it does offer the reader an opportunity to dip into the issues in one go and sometimes engage with some highly original scholarship. Unfortunately, the £60 price tag will put off the average reader. However scholars and specialist researchers will certainly find themselves making use of this volume in the future.

Citation: Matthew Ford, ‘Review of Alan Jeffreys and Patrick Rose (eds.), The Indian Army 1939-47: Experience and Development’, The Second World War Military Operations Research Group, 9 June 2013

You can download a copy of the review here.


[1] Frank Ferudi, Colonial Wars and the Politics of Third World Nationalism (London: I.B. Tauris, 1994)

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