Military Digest: Sudan evacuation a reminder of India’s World War II ties

Naik Pandharinath Pawar
5th Mahratta Light Infantry
3rd Bn.
Died: 19 March 1941
Age: 24 years old
Son of Dyanoba and Dhondabai, of Ranmodwadi, Poona, India; husband of Saraswatibai, of Ranmodwadi.

Sepoy Gurdayal Singh
11th Sikh Regiment
4th Bn.
Died: 15 March 1941
Age: 19 years old
Son of Partap Singh and Ind Kaur, of Sawaddi, Ludhiana, India.

Rifleman Kalam Singh Bisht
18th Royal Garhwal Rifles
3rd Bn.
Died: 06 November 1940
Age: 21 years old
Son of Mangal Singh, of Simar, Garhwal, India.

These are the epitaphs of some young men among the 514 Indian Army soldiers commemorated at Khartoum War Cemetery in Sudan. Many of them have no known graves and there are only plaques to commemorate their deaths in line of duty in the Second World War.

The Indian Army has a deep connection with Sudan, which has been in the news lately over the civil war and from where the Indian Army Force (IAF) and Indian Navy have evacuated hundreds of stranded Indian citizens after sending in ships and transport aircraft to get them to safety.

The rescue operation mounted by the IAF and Navy in Sudan is an apt occasion to remember the military operations undertaken by the Indian Army in East Africa and Sudan in the Second World War. These military operations are more or less forgotten compared to the more glamorous North African encounters.

However, two Indian Divisions, the 4th and tie 5th, fought hard and well in this lesser known theatre of war. Soldiers of the Maratha Light Infantry, Sikh Regiment, Garhwal Regiment, Frontier Force Regiment, Skinner’s Horse and divisional troops of Signals, Engineers, Army Medical Corps and many others took part in the war in Eritrea and Sudan.

Historically speaking, Sudan was ruled jointly by Britain and Egypt after the British victory over the Mahdists at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898. After the First World War and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, there was increased tension in Egypt and Sudan. The assassination of the Governor-General of the Sudan in 1924 led to the British government imposing demands on the Egyptian government which resulted in the dissolution of the joint rule.

The British archives say that in 1925, the country was made a protectorate of the United Kingdom. As per British records, in 1930, ‘British Troops in the Sudan’ was a subsidiary command of ‘British Troops in Egypt’ for the purposes of administration, although it remained separate operationally. The commandant of the Sudan Defence Force was a temporary Brigadier, who held the rank of local Major General. He also held the dual responsibility as General Officer Commanding ‘British Troops in the Sudan’.

Usually, two British infantry battalions were posted to Sudan between the two world wars. By the Second World War outbreak, this had been increased to three. The entry of Italy into the war potentially made Sudan vulnerable to attack from Eritrea and Abyssinia. The Commander-in-Chief, Middle East General Archibald Wavell (later Viceroy of India), decided to attack Eritrea and Abyssinia, which also removed the potential threat to the sea routes to the Far East.

The build-up of troops began in September 1940 with the arrival of the 5 Indian Infantry Division from India. This division had the 9th Indian Brigade which had the 3rd Battalion of 5th Mahratta (now Maratha) Light Infantry and 3rd (Royal) (Sikhs) Battalion of 12th Frontier Force Regiment.

Another Brigade, the 10th Indian Brigade, had a Baluch battalion along with 3rd Battalion of 18th Royal Garhwal Rifles. A third brigade joined later and this had the 3rd Battalion of 2nd Punjab Regiment and 6th (Royal Scinde) Battalion of 13th Frontier Force Regiment. All brigades had one British infantry battalion too as was the norm then.

This Division also had the Skinner’s Horse (1st Duke of York’s Own Cavalry) regiment. This regiment formed the basis of ‘Gazelle Force’, formed in October 1940 under the command of Colonel F. W. Messervy. He went on to become GOC-in-C Northern Command in India, and after partition in 1947, he became the first Commander-in-Chief of Pakistan Army.

It was while serving in 5th Indian Division in Sudan that Second Lieutenant (later Lt Gen) PS Bhagat of Royal Bombay Sapper and Miners was awarded a Victoria Cross for action near Metemma, on the Sudan-Ethiopia border.

The 4th Indian Division arrived from Egypt in early January 1941. Among the Indian Infantry battalions which formed part of this Division were 3rd Battalion (Bn.) 1st Punjab Regiment, 4th (Outram’s) Bn. 6th Rajputana Rifles, 4th Bn. 11th Sikh Regiment, 4th (Bhopal) Bn. 16th Punjab Regiment, 1st (Wellesley’s) Bn. 6th Rajputana Rifles, 3rd Bn. 14th Punjab Regiment and 2nd Bn. 5th Mahratta Light Infantry.

With the increase in troops deployed in ‘The Sudan’, and the presence of two divisional formations, the General Officer Commanding ‘The Sudan’ was raised in status to that of Commander-in-Chief and the incumbent, Major General Willian Platt was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General.

The military archives state that the advance into Eritrea commenced in January 1941, and rapid progress was made initially. “In February 1941, Gazelle Force reached the Keren heights, where the Italians formed a strong defensive position guarding the route through the pass. The battle for Karen opened on February 4, 1941, but the Indian and British troops met fierce and determined resistance. The Karen position was not captured until March 21, 1941, when the pass through the mountains was forced and the Italians withdrew,” the archives state.

Subedar Richhpal Ral of 4/6th Rajputana Rifles was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously for the action in Karen.

After the withdrawal of Italians from Eritrea, the 4th Indian Infantry Division was sent back to Egypt in mid-April 1941, but the 5th Indian Infantry Division remained and subsequently forced the main elements of the Italian Army to surrender in May 1941.

“The Sudan then returned to a quiet backwater, with a military presence to police the country and garrison Eritrea,” the records say.

The Indian connection with Sudan was made permanent when in 1941, the Government of Sudan gave gift of One Hundred Thousand Pounds to Lord Linlithgow, the then Viceroy of India, to build a war memorial to commemorate the sacrifices of the Indian troops in the Second World War for the liberation of Sudan.

This huge sum of money was later utilised to build the Sudan Block, the grand edifice of the National Defence Academy (NDA), Khadakwasla.


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