The Indian Army expanded manifold in World War II to meet the ever-increasing demands of the British contribution to the overall Allied strategy, particularly in West Asia and Southeast Asia.
Drawing on our reservoir of manpower, newly raised units and formations were hurled into battle after short, but nonetheless concentrated, training. The Indian Army of that period was essentially British-led and manpower-oriented. The mechanisation that crept into it was only incidental. Its growth was unbalanced, especially in terms of supporting arms and air complement. On the credit side, Indian troops got an opportunity to fight first-class armies in different theatres of war from the Western Desert to Italy and from the mountains of Eritrea to the jungles of Burma, shoulder to shoulder with European and US troops. And battle is the best schooling for war.
Basically, the underlying idea was to trade space for time initially to allow for equipping and training the formations, and to achieve the requisite buildup so as to turn the tide after completing preparations. It was easy for them as the traded space was in alien lands.
The tactical concepts of the Indian Army of World War II conformed to the British requirements of the time. Basically, the underlying idea was to trade space for time initially to allow for equipping and training the formations, and to achieve the requisite buildup so as to turn the tide after completing preparations. It was easy for them as the traded space was in alien lands. In battle, the British believed in a step-by-step deliberate approach with local superiority of at least three to one.
The chief protagonist of this concept was Field Marshal Montgomery, but he represented the dictates of the military potential of the wartime armies. The citizen armies were not trained in war manoeuvres and after a series of defeats were hungry for success to tone up national morale. Defeat in battle was unthinkable at that juncture and Montgomery ensured success by creating deliberate and complete superiority over the adversary at a chosen point, and this involved protracted preparations. Surprise and audacity in battle were ignored both in planning and execution, and success solely relied upon the superiority of the blow dealt to the enemy. This was made possible by the free flow of US military aid and the British war industries catching up with defence production. At the end of the war, the bloated Indian Army came home for demobilisation and reduction to suit peacetime colonial requirements in the region.
Demobilisation had not been completed when the transfer of power was effected. Nehru’s interim government took office, but before it could take stock of future requirements it got entangled in internal dissensions which eventually led to the partition of the country. The government, wedded to the Gandhian philosophy of non-violence, did not take long to spell out the trend of its foreign policy. Nehru made it known that India intended to live in peace with its neighbours and firmly believed that political issues should not be settled by military means. He advocated mutual understanding and cooperation, and preferred negotiations as the main instrument of settlement. This resulted in some misgivings among the rank and file that the army would be drastically cut and that its role would be mainly ceremonial.
Surprise and audacity in battle were ignored both in planning and execution, and success solely relied upon the superiority of the blow dealt to the enemy.
While the partitioned armies of India and Pakistan were still busy in dividing assets and escorting refugee caravans, tribal raiders made their way into the Kashmir Valley, blazing a trail of loot, rape and ruthless killings. The outnumbered Jammu and Kashmir forces holding the state border could not beat back the tribal torrent, and they were further weakened by defections in some units. Unable to stem the tide of the invasion, the Maharaja of Kashmir acceded to India, and as a result the responsibility for checking the invaders fell on the Indian Army, then still under a British Commander-in-Chief.
1 Sikh, the nearest unit available, was flown to Srinagar on 26 October 1947 with the aim of throwing back the raiders. Adequate information about the magnitude of the threat in terms of numbers, weapons and the direction of the thrust was not forthcoming, nor was there time to evaluate in detail the size and composition of the force required to meet it. There were no cohesive units and formations readily available for immediate induction, and as a result units formed by collecting returning elements from Pakistan were dispatched to the Jammu and Kashmir theatre piecemeal.
The late Lt Gen Kalwant Singh, then a major general and one of the few among the 90 or so King’s Commissioned Indian Officers (KCIOs) in service at that time who had held assignments of some consequence, was appointed theatre commander. The initial reaction was to send troops wherever raiders were reported. Operations conformed to the prevalent British mountain warfare tactics, which basically meant picqueting the heights dominating the axes to enable movement of administrative columns along them. The units and formations were led by young Indian officers who as the operations developed grew up with responsibility. Luckily, most of the troops were war veterans and knew the business of war.
Unable to stem the tide of the invasion, the Maharaja of Kashmir acceded to India, and as a result the responsibility for checking the invaders fell on the Indian Army, then still under a British Commander-in-Chief.
A study of the Jammu and Kashmir operations does not reveal any overall strategy either for trapping and destroying the intruders or to block the routes of entry and exit along the state border or even to restore the integrity of these borders. These moves appear to have been expedients to cope with situations as they arose rather than designed to fit into a well-thought-out overall strategy. Two thrusts were developed in the Kashmir Valley, one towards Domel under Brig (later Lt Gen) L.P. Sen and the other towards Tithwal under Col (later Lt Gen) Harbakhsh Singh. As an offshoot of Sen’s offensive, a battalion under Lt Col (later Brig) Pritam Singh was inducted in Poonch along the Uri-Haji Pir Pass road. This unit was isolated immediately after induction with the routes leading to Poonch cut off by the raiders on all sides.
In other sectors of this little war, operations continued to be directed to link up with the beleaguered Poonch garrison. Poonch was saved because of the indomitable spirit and rare boldness Pritam Singh displayed. He carried out a series of forays deep into enemy–held territory to keep the raiders at bay. Such stunning blows of attrition were inflicted on them that they got scared of the garrison and its commander. But these actions depleted his regular strength to the extent that he had-to fall back on the local militia to meet his ever–growing needs of manpower.
Pritam Singh prepared a landing strip for aircraft near the town where Wing Commander Baba Mehar Singh and his men landed to supply the garrison with arms and ammunition and evacuate casualties. As the strip was under enemy artillery fire, landings were mostly at night without proper navigational aids. To feed the garrison and the loyal civil population, Pritam Singh organised harvesting of grain in the surrounding agricultural belts under hostile occupation.
The thrust from Jammu to effect a linkup with Poonch met stiff opposition near Jhangar and Kotli and took more time and many more troops than originally estimated. As the war dragged on, the troop buildup increased both north and south of the Pir Panjal range, and this command and control became unmanageable by force headquarters. Accordingly, the force was divided into two divisions, one north of Pir Panjal under Maj Gen (later Gen) Thimayya and the other in the south under the late Maj Gen Atma Singh. Kalwant Singh moved out to Army Headquarters as Chief of General Staff and Lt Gen Srinagesh took overall command of the theatre.
The entire Indian Army field force, excluding the minimal holding force, was by now committed in Jammu and Kashmir. Jhangar and Rajauri were secured in the south and a link with Poonch established. Zojila was secured in the north and linked with Leh. Induction of regular Pakistani troops all along the front stiffened resistance, and operations generally stabilised. At that time, international pressures forced a ceasefire on 31 December 1948, and as a result both armies settled down in penny packets to man the ceasefire line in an uneasy eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation under the supervision of the United Nations Military Observer Group for India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP).
Throughout the operations, Baba Mehar Singh and his men provided excellent support, flying day and night in rickety leftover machines of World War II in very hazardous weather and terrain. He had many firsts to his credit. He was the first pilot to land at Leh on a hastily prepared strip at that altitude, to use Dakotas on a bombing raid, and to land at Poonch at night under hostile fire. In fact, wherever there was an air fight Mehar Singh was in the lead, and he became a legend.
A study of the Jammu and Kashmir operations does not reveal any overall strategy either for trapping and destroying the intruders or to block the routes of entry and exit along the state border or even to restore the integrity of these borders.
It goes to Kalwant Singh’s credit that he built up the administrative infrastructure from scratch, ensured smooth induction and husbanded his force well. He welded the hastily assembled units and formations into a fighting machine, and with his characteristic gruff, no nonsense mannerisms drove it hard. He was at the same time egoistic, positively rude in speech and intolerant of inefficiency, and as a result he made a lot of enemies both within and outside the Army. By no means a military genius, but certainly a man of iron will, he kept the force on the continuous offensive against odds and saved two-thirds of Jammu and Kashmir for India.
The Indian Army emerged from these operations as a cohesive fighting force. But it was still infantry-oriented, lacking the balance of supporting arms and administrative services, and equipped with World War II weaponry. It had fought for the first time under Indian commanders and acquitted itself reasonably well, and for this the credit must largely go to the war-tried rank and file and their British training as well as the all-pervading fervour for a national cause.
On the military plane, the operations were confined to the frontier warfare pattern against irregulars and were not of much use in the context of a modern war. The Air Force had no opposition, and as a result learnt to take more risks than would have been possible under normal circumstances. On the whole an air of confidence prevailed. But the worst was to follow, for policing the ceasefire line tied down two-thirds of the Indian field force to holding the dominating heights in penny packets, and this commitment continues till today. This defensive hibernation sapped the offensive spirit of the Indian Army as the years passed.
This defensive hibernation sapped the offensive spirit of the Indian Army as the years passed.
The end of the little war brought up another phenomenon character assassination. Petty jealousies surfaced among the general officers and intrigues flourished, leading to the trial by court martial of Pritam Singh, the hero of Poonch, for alleged connivance in the theft of two carpets from the local palace. Although Pritam Singh was ostensibly on trial, the conspirators were bent on implicating Kalwant Singh and Mehar Singh.
It is said that Thimayya, a defence witness, stated “without Pritam there would have been no Poonch, and with Poonch would have gone these carpets. Why are you crucifying this good soldier for nothing?” Pritam Singh was unceremoniously dismissed from service. Kalwant Singh was subsequently superseded by some of the generals involved in the plot who had not even heard a shot fired in anger. Baba Mehar Singh, by then a legendary figure in the services, resigned in disgust to become the personal pilot of a dethroned maharaja and this was to have serious repercussions later.
Meanwhile, Gen Cariappa replaced the British chief and the Indian Army settled down to peacetime soldiering. Kipper was a stickler for dress, spit and polish and soldierly deportment. He lived by rules and regulations and thrust this life on the Army to the extent that every officer was made to carry in his pocket the US Army cadets’ prayer and his personal letter to all officers. He believed in stability and insisted that the sole criterion for promotion was seniority. It was a joke prevalent among officers those days that even if you were a donkey asleep underneath a blanket, when your turn came your ears would be pulled and you would be given an extra pip.
Cariappa submitted to the dictates of the then Defence Secretary H.M. Patel. He accepted a new pay code whereby an Indian commissioned officer’s salary was reduced in relation to that of the civil services, while king’s commissioned officers continued to draw the old rates of pay according to the British conditions of service, including overseas leave. Such disparities affected officers’ morale to such an extent that some of our best talents like Col Leslie Sawhney left the Army for better prospects elsewhere. When questioned about the disparity of pay between KCIOs and ICOs, Cariappa replied: “After all, KCIOs are only a handful. Why do you grudge their privileges?” Good old Kipper belonged to the medieval period and refused to sense the winds of change.