Document Source: Gurkhas, Re-assessing the performance of Imperial Soldiers in WW-2.
Sanju Gurung, Supervisor: Dr. Timothy Bowman (War Study Dissertation)


It is my pleasure to thank those who made this research possible, including my tutor Dr. Timothy Bowman who gave me immense support in my time of need. A special thanks to Maj Rick Beven who was the Officer Commanding in Gurkha Recruiting Camp in Pokhara, Nepal, in 2011. He provided me with an extensive range of Gurkha veterans’ interviews that he had conducted over years. Not last but least, my sincere thanks to Senior Welfare Officer in Nepal, Maj Krishna Bahadur Gurung (Ret). Without his cooperation, I could not have been able to set my journey to the foothills of Nepal, to interview Gurkha veterans.


During World War One, the Maharaja of Nepal declared that the whole military resources of Nepal were at His Majesty’s disposal, we shall be proud to be of any service, however little it may be. (1) Almost two million Gurkhas’ have fought for Britain. Twenty years later another serious crisis occurred, which saw Gurkhas fight in greater numbers than in any other previous campaign in their history. However, the question remained; how can the once renowned imperial soldiers of the empire, successfully maintain the Gurkha reputation of a brave, loyal, and formidable fighting force of the British Raj, during World War Two?

The post-WW-1 legislation primarily assigned the Indian Army, only for ‘the defense of India against external aggression and the maintenance of internal peace and tranquility. (2) As suggested by this legislation, Gurkhas’ remained extremely active in two primary tasks of the Indian Army; firstly, as an imperial defense, and secondly as an internal security force. Many historians claim that fighting in the Northwest Frontier during the inter-war period proved to be a training ground for Gurkhas. However, one must investigate, to what extent, fighting irregular warfare helped in dealing with the ever-evolving methods of war.

Despite the nations’ immense contribution in WW-1, India was viewed as less of a priority at the start of WW-2; The external role of the Indian Army during the ‘phony war’ was limited to providing a few brigades of reinforcements in Egypt and Malaya,(3) as an imperial reserve. Instead, London ordered the GHQ India (General Headquarters India) to continue its inter-war role, as a primary task. Research has shown that many GHQ senior commanders had traditionalist views regarding the modernization of the Indian army. The old unenthusiastic behavior of London coupled with a traditionalist practice resulted in the Indian Army being ill-prepared for war.

Despite many years of soldiering on harsh frontiers, the Gurkhas’ mobilization for war came later than the rest of the Indian Army. The war and mobilization offered, an opportunity to end the old system of Indianisation. However, it barely affected the Gurkha brigade, as it continued to be a unique organization, within the imperial Indian Army. The adoption of separate policies caused many problems, to satisfy the demand of Target 41 and Target 43 expansion. Initially, Gurkhas enjoyed relative success against an inferior enemy in the Middle East; however, a series of defeats had to be faced in North Africa. Historians argue that Gurkhas were not trained for this kind of desert warfare. Additionally, senior British officers grossly underestimated the performance of the Indian Army.

However, the victory of the 4th Division in Tunisia was a turning point that forced us to re-assess the previous claim of senior commanders. As a result, the Gurkhas fought other significant battles as a specialist unit, in the re-conquest and liberation of Europe. Nevertheless, the successes in the Middle East and North Africa were overshadowed, by the series of humiliating defeats in the Far East. The creation of the Japanese imposed Indian National Army (INA), after the fall of Singapore supported the Quit India movement that produced considerable strains on the Gurkhas Brigade at a time of reformation for the Indian Army. The renewed loyalty of Gurkhas was tested critically at this juncture. Significantly, it was against the Japanese in Burma that Gurkhas showed their supreme superiority against the enemy, than in any other theaters of war.

(1) Smith. E.D, Britain’s Brigade of Gurkhas, (Leo Cooper Ltd, 1973, London), p 84. (2) Elliott, Maj Gen J.G, A roll of Honor, The story of the Indian Army 1939-1945, (Cassell and Company Ltd, 1965, London), p 13. (3) Gould. T, Imperial Warriors: Britain and the Gurkhas, (Granta Books, 1999, London), p 236

The Japs defeat in the second Arakan and the successes of the Chindits’ operations were confirmed, and it soon became clear that the Japs are not gods of the jungle. The previous criticism towards the Gurkhas’ performance in the First Chindits was overshadowed by their superb performance in the second Arakan operation. Also, the desperate Jap offensive in 1944 had been halted, by superior fighting qualities performed by the imperial soldiers (Gurkhas), which finally led to the fall of Burma to British hands.

This dissertation offers the re-assessment of the Gurkhas’ performance during WW-2, as an imperial soldier of British Raj. This research critically seeks to answer the fundamental question imposed by the research problem, set in the first paragraph of this paper’s introduction. For this task; the first chapter investigates the role of Gurkhas during the inter-war period. The second chapter seeks to examine the late, but rapid transformation of the Gurkhas Brigade during the war. The third and fourth chapters critically evaluate the performance of the Gurkhas in two theaters of war; North Africa, Italy, and Burma.

The Gurkhas – Inter-War Period

As stated earlier, the Legislative Assembly of India established after WW-1, passed a resolution, defining the role of the Indian army in the defense of India against external aggression and the maintenance of internal peace and tranquility. (Elliott, A roll of Honor, p 13) To meet its peacetime strength, in providing the practicality of this policy, the reorganization of the army occurred on an enormous scale. The Gurkha Brigade faced considerable redundancies to its wartime-raised battalions; however, the original ten regiments, each equipped with two battalions were saved. As demanded by legislation, these original regiments were involved extensively in frontier warfare and, civil duties during the inter-war period.

Despite this reorganization, the composition at the Brigade level followed the same old Kitchener’s Army formation, based on 2:1 theory. In this case, within the Indian Brigade, two of the battalions were either Gurkhas or Indians, with an additional British regiment. This system remained intact, until the end of WW-2. The reason for this composition dates back to the Indian Mutiny of 1857, as a matter of distrust created by native units. Elliott argues the single British battalion normally included would set a standard and provide an example to the Indian battalions. (5)

Previous research has not made clear that, to what extent, it set a standard for the Gurkha regiments, as the Gurkhas’ remained loyal to the British during the Mutiny. However, it promptly set a benchmark of unity that helped to generate an Esprit de Corps, later in the war. Johnson claims the British approach in the inter-war years tended to start from the assumption that the grievances of the Indian people were a security problem, and political concessions were offered to maintain colonial rule. (6)

The primary task of the Indian Army during the inter-war period was based on the approach presented by Johnson. A year of skirmishes in 1919 saw the end of the Afghan War but the tribesmen in the Waziristan area were still up in arms. (7) In this case, pressure against the British Raj came from both sides; the tribal mullahs on the frontiers and the political independence movements in the urban cities of India.

Swinson argues that the situation was more complex, more unpredictable, and in some ways more dangerous than ever. (8) Preparing to face a struggle ahead, the regular Gurkha battalions bade farewell to their wartime friends, and now formed a part of the absolute imperial security force of the Indian Army.

(5) ibid, p 10. (6) Johnson R, The Indian Army, and Internal security: 1919-1946, in The Indian Army in the Two World Wars, ed. by Roy K, (Brill, 2012, Boston), p 359. (7) Parker J, The Gurkhas, p 87. (8) Swinson A, North-West Frontier, (Hutchinson & Co, 1967, London), p 333

The potential of the Gurkhas in this emerging warfare offered the continuation of employability under the British Raj. Streets claim that the requirement of the Indian Army for recruitment was more northern men – men who were racially or environmentally closer to Europeans (9) and, people from the South contingent of India was considered coward, and not capable of fighting in such harsh geographical conditions of Northern India. Gould’s rationale of the recruitment of the Gurkhas supports the argument made by Streets, as a cheaper version of Europeans, whole equal they were in courage and fidelity; and the Gurkhas as a third force in India. (10) As a result of this proposed justification, the flow of Gurkhas recruitment followed without further reductions, while strictly adhering to the Gurkha’s traditional values.
The number of Gurkhas neither increased nor faced any redundancy further. For various reasons; chief among them is the desire to meet the wishes of the Nepalese Durbar by limiting the recruitment. (11) Importantly, as Streets previously claimed, the Gurkhas’ perfectly suited the recruitment obligation required by the British, for the defense of India. The questions of further redundancy were not raised. No doubt that the authorities of India preferred Gurkhas’ who were prepared and suited to deploy to the Northwest Frontier, as the threat from Russia was always predicted. Thus, the Gurkha regiments were among the first the British selected when there was a crisis on the Northwest Frontier or elsewhere in their Indian Empire. (12)

In this case, the primary roles of the Gurkhas’ shifted between the deployment to the frontiers and peacetime duties at regimental stations, in India. The official history of the Northwest Frontier claims, that Regular troops either in or arriving in Waziristan were never allowed to gain the impression that they were in a peace station. (13) Parker argues it was one of the worst postings in British India as troops posted faced actual war conditions. (14) Leaving the Non-Involvement-Policy; then, what Swinson termed as Modified-Forward Policy, was adopted on completion of two bases in troubled areas of Waziristan. With a total of ten regiments, the 5th Gurkhas’ was permanently based in the Northwest Frontier as a frontier force. The extensive involvement of the Gurkhas’ ensured that the frontiers remained a fierce battleground between Gurkhas and local tribes for many decades. Dhan Bahadur Gurung claims that Pathans were murderous mountainous fighters. (15) If an individual fell into their captivity; one could expect a dreadful death. The fact that troops were fighting with one hand tied behind their backs not only introduced a new bitterness but also introduced a new ruthlessness into the Frontier campaigns. (16) In retrospect; among the many tactics garrisoning units used, the ambush was the most effective tactic. The art of ambush efficiently disrupted and destroyed the intention of saboteur gangs of tribes, who never hesitated when inflicting damages to garrison units. One successful ambush, in particular, was thanks to 1/2nd Gurkhas’ in 1937, against the gangs of two-hundred strong in Razmak. The gangs were levies, supported by local mullahs or politicians. Two platoons, commanded by a Gurkha officer sprung a night ambush, which harassed the enemy and maintained complete surprise.
The official history of the Northwest Frontier claims particularly that this event had inflicted considerable moral effect, though small material damage was done, was produced on the inhabitants of this area. (17)

(9) Streets H, Martial races, (Manchester University Press, 2004, New York), p 95. (10) Gould, Imperial, p 110. (11) History of the 5th Royal Gurkha Rifles (Frontier Force), Vol I, 1858-1928, (Gale and Polden Ltd, 1956, Aldershot), p 409. (12) The Gurkhas (National Army Museum). (13) Official History of Operations on the Northwest Frontier of India: 1936-37, (Government of India Press, 1943, New Delhi), p 3. (14) Parker J, The Gurkhas; The inside story of the world’s most feared soldiers, (Bounty Books, 2005, London), p 59. (15) Interview with Dhan Bahadur Gurung, 2/5th Gurkhas. (16) Swinson, Northwest Frontier, p 378. (17) Official History of the Northwest, p 198

In another case, attacks on Piquet, positioned outside of a garrison were always imminent and vulnerable. A Piquet (N°11) manned by six men of 2/5th Gurkhas’ was attacked by a gang of tribes, numbering between thirty to forty men. Killing two Gurkha sentries instantly by fire, afterward, a most desperate hand to hand struggle then took place, bayonets, kukris, daggers, and stones being used in such a confined place. (18) Despite the overwhelming attack, the position was intact and continuously manned by gravely wounded Gurkhas, under the command of Naik Nandalal Ghale.
For their unquestionable bravery that prevented further danger to the garrison unit, the Indian Order of Merit was awarded to two Gurkhas. In this case, the Gurkha battalions posted to the Northwest Frontier faced operational involvement for two years per tour.

(18) History of the 5th Royal Gurkha Rifles, p 31. (19) Marston D.P, Phoenix from the Ashes: The Indian Army in the Burma Campaign, (Praeger Publishers, 2003, Westport), p 28. (20) Streets, Martial, p 96. (21) Bullocks C, Britain’s Gurkhas, (Third Millennium Information Ltd, 2009, London), p 85

Regarding this practice, Marston claims that the aspects of the fighting in the Northwest Frontier that later proved useful for the army in Burma, and arguably, in North Africa. (19) Nevertheless, the frontiers were not only conflict zones. Streets argue that; external dangers to the stability of British rule in India now outweighed the dangers of internal rebellion. (20) As Gould claimed previously this was the task the Gurkhas’ suitability was seen more than ever. The Rowlett Act (1919) was originally intended as a response to anarchists and terrorists. (21) Amritsar was placed under martial law, banning all meetings and gathering in the city. To this effect, under the order of Gen Reginald Dyer, British and Gurkha troops massacred at least 379 unarmed demonstrators meeting at the Jallianwala Bagh, a city park. This single act provoked controversies and fueled to escalate the tension.

Despite the massacre, he was alternately hailed as a savior by the authorities. (23) Since the Amritsar massacre, the Gurkhas were called upon ever more frequently to aid the civil power. (24) Nevertheless, it was certain; this event predominantly damaged the reputation of the Gurkhas among the Indians. From an Indian perspective, the Gurkhas were widely viewed as tools being used by the British Empire to suppress Indian freedom and opposed their presence, arguably as much as they did to British Raj. (25) However, in the 1930s, Trench claims, urban riots were less likely to be anti-government than communal, Moslems against Hindus and Sikhs. (26)

Native Indian troops favored their religion and exercised reliable power indiscriminately against the hostile group. To avoid the emotionally detached condition, between the native officers and men, mostly the Gurkhas and the British were preferred by authorities. For a reason; their loyalty was intact, and importantly, the Gurkhas were not Indian by nationality and, their adherence to religion was not as strict as Indians. This provided the Gurkhas as an alternative force to the British, particularly against civil disorders and unrest. The ever-existing turbulent conditions of the empire kept the GHQ India occupied with its own matters and paid less attention to the growing international conflicts. Smith claims, the imminence of war was not predicted until about 1938-9 however; more discerning senior officers had stepped up the tempo of training because of their assessment of the political situation. (27)

Among the equipment changes, metallic oil-burning cookers replaced wood, Vickers-Berthier replaced the Lewis gun in 1935, and each battalion now had an additional Machine Gun Company. Training became tougher than in the previous decade. Mainly inter-Brigade exercises were carried out, to test the capacity of newly introduced firepower. The 1/5th Gurkhas joined the Jhelum Brigade for a Chenab maneuver exercise, which involved a great scale of maneuver. The 5th Gurkhas regimental history claims; this joint training was mainly based on infiltration and other methods of restoring the mobility of the attack in the face of the ever-increasing firepower of the defense. (28) However, the intention of this training was still concentrated on the demands of frontier warfare, not against the emerging threat.
Upon joining his regiment in 1935, Balkrishna underwent a Vickers Machine Gun training course in Pune. Vickers was an outdated infantry support machine gun, drastically unreliable, and needed a massive workforce to operate. The training itself was conducted statically; predominantly involved in a trench system of warfare with limited maneuvers, similar to Western Front warfare. (29) This proves that training simulated by regiments was not realistic, and the GHQ India put no effort into effectively dealing with the rising threat.

In this case, we could argue that the real flaw of the Indian Army, in general, was unbalanced. Collective training as an army as a whole had not happened; instead, individual regiments had to focus independently and use their initiative. The weapon system and training manuals were outdated, and no process of significant reformation had taken place. Parker claims, their weapons were often from WW-1, and they were very short on personnel. (30) Due to the scarce availability of weapons, soldiers had to train with a wooden rifle.(31)

(22) This day in History. (23) Bullocks, Britain’s, p 86. (24) Gould.T, Imperial, p 208. (25) 1919; The Amritsar Massacre in 1919 – Amritsar Massacre. (26) Trench C., The Indian Army and the Kings enemies, 1900-1947, (Thames and Hudson, 1988, London), p 120. (27) Smith E.D, Brigade of Gurkhas, p 88. (28) History of the 5th Royal Gurkha Rifles, p 6. (29) Interview with Balkrishna, 1/6th Gurkhas. (30) Parker J, Gurkhas, p 122. (31) Interview with Subedar (Retd.) Dhan Bahadur Gurung, 2/5th Gurkhas.

With many reasons behind such drawbacks, one of which was that the Indian Congress always hesitated to contribute enough money to the Indian Army. Additionally, Britain faced a recession in the 1930s whereby drastic cuts were duly implemented, and the Army was hard hit. (32)

Affected by these underlying factors, Marston claims, by 1939, the composition of the Indian Army was similar to its 1914 counterpart. (33) Despite the revolutionary ideas presented by a few modernists, who foresaw the need for transformation, the Indian Army was still regarded as a Sepoy Army dominated by traditionalist views. To every suggestion for modernization the conservative-minded could reply; Oh, but the Frontier…. (34) Trench argues that it was a reasonable excuse for the traditionalists, as tanks and heavy artillery were not seen realistic to use, either in frontiers or against civil riots. Also, these traditional views perfectly supported the overall psychological mindset of GHQ India’s policy of insulation against the forces of nationalism. (35) All ranks were forbidden to take an active part in political meetings or attend them in uniform. (36) No doubt, the opinions of traditionalists successfully contained the developing idea of modernization also, which much troubled the Indian Army later in the war. Ironically, at the height of the war, the Chatfield Committee reported the role of the Indian Army in 1939, as Apart from its availability as a reinforcement of the Frontier Defense Troops, it represents valuable insurance against any risk of the grave disaffection of a widespread nature within India. (37)

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