The Belgian Army in World War I

75mm TR gun battery on the move.

10.5cm gun of type Krupp used by the Belgian army.

Belgian Artillery

Belgium, for centuries a major center of small arms production, also boasted the Cockerill and FRC ordnance foundries. Both firms, however, directed the majority of their sales to foreign clients, thus placing the Belgian army in the rather odd situation of obtaining cannons from outside sources. Before and during World War I, Belgium consequently fielded French and German designs either obtained from abroad or manufactured under license by Cockerill and FRC. During World War I the Belgians fielded a variety of field guns, such as the 75mm M05, the 75mm Model TR, the 105mm M13, the 75mm M18, and the 120mm field howitzer.

After the German invasion, the plan to send the army to the Meuse was abandoned and it stayed on the Gette River, as Selliers wanted, with the exceptions of the army divisions (ADs, equivalent to other countries’ “corps”) at Liege and Namur. Liege was quickly outflanked by two German cavalry divisions which had to withdraw because they could not cross the Meuse. The Germans vastly outnumbered the Belgians and expected a quick surrender. General Leman, despite knowing Liege could not hold out, refused to give in and the fortifications drove back the German waves, causing such losses that several divisions had to leave the line. The Germans brought overwhelming force, driving the Belgian forces guarding the areas between the forts into retreat. The fortresses continued to fight, the last surrendering only on August 17. Not only did the defenders of the Liege forts and their commander become national heroes and symbols of Belgium’s determination to resist, the delay they imposed on the Germans allowed the French to complete their mobilization and may have cost the Germans the war in the West.

Between August 15 and 19, there were bitter debates at Belgian headquarters over withdrawing to the national redoubt at Antwerp. Albert had good intelligence that the Germans were planning to attack in central Belgium while the French military mission insisted the Germans lacked the strength and called the Belgians cowards for planning a retreat while the Allied forces were marching to link up with them. The Belgians began their withdrawal on August 18 and Brussels fell two days later while Namur was besieged and its garrison forced on August 23 to withdraw into France and thence back to Antwerp.

The Antwerp redoubt was not as impregnable as the Belgians hoped and the war minister’s men started discussing a retreat from Antwerp on September 29. On the 7th, with the Germans threatening the line of retreat and crossing the Scheldt, Colonel Wielemans, counting on de Broqueville’s support, but without informing Albert, ordered the retreat of the army to the Ghent-Terneuzen Canal. Galet found out the next day but was unable to stop the move. Antwerp fell on October 10 and the army began a difficult retreat to the Yser River. Thirty thousand Belgian troops fled to the Netherlands where they were interned and another thirty thousand were captured. The retreat was well-prepared and the eventual resistance on the Yser would have been impossible without the munitions and supplies saved from Antwerp.

One of the big controversies regarding the Belgians in Antwerp, and one which inevitably led to comparisons with his son accepting a capitulation in 1940, is whether Albert was prepared to accept a separate peace in 1914. The story goes that Albert was ready to give up but was dissuaded by a combination of de Broqueville, the queen, and Ingenbleek. This contrasts with the behavior of his son in 1940, who was not dissuaded. Most historians, however, seem to give the story little credence.

The Belgians who arrived at the Yser position on October 15 were in a terrible state and unable to launch an attack as desired by the French. Even Galet liked the Yser position because it was good for defense, still on Belgian soil, close to the sea, and, as Henri Haag notes, had the advantage over the Antwerp redoubt of sparing Belgium’s “rich cities” from being on the front lines. The Germans wasted no time in attacking the new positions while the Belgians counterattacked and there was a dogfight for nine days until the Germans “ran out of steam,” sparing the exhausted and disheartened Belgian soldiers.

The flooding of the Yser was one of the most dramatic tactics of World War I. Armies in Flanders had used controlled flooding for centuries and the Flemish lowlands were lands regained from sea and swamp with an extensive irrigation and drainage system. The Belgians would have only to open some sluices in Nieuport and then close them again before the tide went out. This was done on October 27. The German offensive, which had resumed, was stopped and the stunned Germans pulled back.

The front would remain static for over three years, with the Belgians holding a long front with no strategic reserves and thus unable to pull any entire division out of the line for a rest. Moreover, the Belgian army of the end of 1914 was barely holding on. There were only 52,000 of the original field army of 117,500, with a deficit of 2,000 officers, a severe lack of ammunition, exhausted artillery, and tired men in ragged uniforms. The Belgians and Germans were separated by the water, with some additional flooding in March 1918. Service on that front was extremely unpleasant and unhealthy.

The Belgian army was reorganized in January 1918, abolishing the brigade headquarters within the divisions, with `army divisions’ constituted by two infantry divisions. The army as a whole now numbered 170,000 enlisted and 5,700 officers. It would become involved in the bitter fighting started by the last-ditch German offensives of spring 1918. Although the main German effort, code-named `Michael,’ was aimed further south, the Germans also planned an attack, `Georgette,’ in Flanders, scheduled for April 9 and aiming for the ports of Calais and Dunkirk, outflanking the Allies in that region. On April 14, the Belgians found themselves fighting to prevent a German encirclement of Ypres, defended by the British to the right of the Belgians. The Germans launched an attack on the Belgians on April 17 and after initial success, found themselves stalled in bitter hand-to-hand fighting. Despite the Germans breaking into the Belgian support trenches, they were hit by Belgian artillery and driven back by Belgian infantry, losing 800 prisoners. The German offensives across the Allied front ran out of steam and in September, the Allies went over to the offensive. Because the Belgian constitution barred foreigners from commanding the Belgian army, King Albert was appointed to command the Flanders Army Group, consisting as well of French and British units. Ten Belgian infantry divisions attacked on the night of September 27-28 and rapidly broke through the Ger- man lines, flowed over the German artillery batteries, and pushed the front back as far as eleven miles, with an average of four miles across the front. The Belgians captured 6,000 prisoners and 150 guns on that one day. They continued to push back the Germans until October 2, when there was a twelve-day pause. The second phase of the offensive, also involving the French, began on October 14 and ended on October 30, with another offensive on the Lys River lasting until November 3, as the Belgians advanced towards the Scheldt River and reached Ghent, where the front line would stay until the German armistice of November 11. The Belgians suffered grievously in these last offensives, losing more than 1/5 of the effectives (1/3 of all Belgian casualties of the war out of a total of 44,000) between October 4 and November 11.

The Peace

In September 1918, the Belgians delivered a note to the Allies urging modifications of the 1839 treaties in the name of guaranteeing increased security. The Belgians understood this increased security as based on territorial revisions that would boost the country militarily and economically. From Holland, Belgium tried to get the land it had lost in 1839: Flemish Zeeland and Dutch Lim- burg. Possession of the former would give Belgium the south bank of the very important Scheldt River and about half of its channel. These would solve a number of difficulties and give the Belgians complete control over the Ghent- Terneuzen canal. Possession of the latter would similarly ease Belgium’s eco- nomic and military situation. The General Staff was calling for acquiring these lands, and part of the Rhineland, as early as December 1914. In addition, Belgium hoped to create a canal to the Rhine across the prospective new territory. The Belgian military squelched anti-annexationist propaganda in the army but allowed the pro-annexationists to propagandize. An undated, but probably wartime, note to the Belgian legation in London discussed Belgium’s obtaining the above-mentioned lands and declared that “these increases wisely considered and skillfully administered would not constitute a canker in the flank of the fatherland.” Unfortunately, as historian Sally Marks notes, as reasonable as the demands were from the Belgian perspective, there was no way they were going to get them. Lead Belgian negotiator Paul Hymans observed that the Scheldt River separated Flemish Zeeland from the rest of the Netherlands which in any case ignored the region. In fact, Flemish Zeeland was much more tied in to Belgium than to its mother country although the population would prefer to stay in the Netherlands. The Belgians tried harder to get Limburg, the part of the Netherlands that dangles between Belgium and Germany. Dutch possession of this strip severely hampered Belgian defense because it pre- vented the Belgians from basing their defense on the line of the Meuse River. At the same time, it was far from clear that the Dutch would be willing or able to defend it. The Belgian military, absorbing the lessons of the recent war, and looking for better defenses and protection for Liege, particularly wanted the territory.  

Before Paul Hymans submitted Belgium’s territorial demands to the Powers in Paris, the Belgian General Staff had presented a memorandum about a new border. The General Staff saw two alternatives, the `green line’ and the `black line’ (so named for the colors drawn on the maps), both based on the idea that Belgium would succeed in getting Limburg and Luxembourg. The military desired the `black line,’ which called not only for the acquisition of most of Eupen and Malmédy, the cantons lost in 1815, but also for changes in the Ger- man-Dutch and German-Luxembourg borders. These would cement Belgian control over the railroad linking the German Rhineland cities of Cologne and Trier, keeping it under possible Belgian artillery fire in the event of a German attack. The generals were not deluded about being able to hold for long, but they thought the black line could buy time for the Meuse defenses to be readied.

The Belgian military and other `annexationists,’ including many in the Min- istry of Foreign Afairs, had supported Belgium’s territorial claims, not because of any arguments based on common (or allegedly common) ethnicities but rather in the hope of strengthening the nation and of avoiding French encircle- ment should Luxembourg and the Rhineland fall to their recent ally. The can- tons of Eupen, Malmedy, and the two parts of Moresnet would serve as useful bases for a defense of Belgium at the frontier by pushing said frontier further east. They hoped thereby to secure Belgian security and independence, while some even hoped to lift Belgium out of `small power’ status. In addition, many in the “political class” sought, through the acquisition of parts of the Nether- lands, to bolster the position of Francophones against the Flemish nationalists and those demanding social reforms and to restore the Catholic political dom- inance by annexing more “Catholic” territory.

The Belgian Socialists and Flemish nationalists, the same groups who would hold rearmament hostage in the mid-1930s, opposed any Belgian acquisitions. The Socialists feared annexation would empower reactionaries and opposed territorial demands, especially those against Holland. They recognized that the populations concerned had no interest in joining Belgium. They did want to change the regime of the Scheldt which, they believed, left Belgium at the mercy of the Dutch. It should be pointed out that the Socialists were far from unanimous on the issue. The Flemish nationalists were loathe to harm the Netherlands or strengthen the Belgian state. Rejecting the `Activists’ and their wartime collaboration, many Flemish nationalists called for making Flanders more Flemish and suspected any territorial demands on the Netherlands that would harm relations and Flemish interests. They were more concerned about economic control over the Scheldt and Meuse rivers, including a canal joining Antwerp and Liege. Other anti-annexationists feared antagonizing Belgium’s neighbors or making their nation dependent on a great power. They also wanted to preserve Belgian neutrality. It was the annexationists who held sway since 1916 and dominated the peace delegation. In fact, despite popular enthusiasm for mentions of resolving outstanding issues with the neutrals as well as the Allies, most Belgians rejected annexationist ideas and concentrated on rebuilding the nation and, to the extent they cared about politics, worried much more about domestic issues, such as the language issue, than about territorial demands.

In any case, the Belgians argued that Germany’s invasion in 1914 had destroyed the system of Western European “equilibrium” established in 1839 to keep the peace and shown how pointless the system was. It was therefore reasonable to end it and properly provide geographically for Belgium’s defense. This would not result in many annexations because most of the land would be simply “restituted.” Naturally, this argument alarmed Belgium’s erstwhile allies as well as the Dutch. The French saw it as a threat to their own expansionist aims, the British saw Belgian control over the mouth of the Scheldt as a threat to their security, and the Americans saw a violation of national self-determination. These issues circumscribed the room for maneuver of the Belgian government, which had to “act prudently, not explicitly define the object of the demands, but `pose the problem’ before the Allies,” who would recognize the justice of the Belgian claims and act on them.

The Belgians also cast covetous eyes on Luxembourg. In 1915 the government was unanimous in its desire for the Grand Duchy. This desire was shared by the Annexationists such as Pierre Nothomb, who advocated closer ties between the two countries. The arguments raised went from the historical (it was part of Belgium until 1839) to the practical/historical (Luxembourgois neutrality benefited and protected Germany). However, the French were also interested in the Grand Duchy and had their own claims. Despite Belgian aid, few Luxembourgers were really interested in joining Belgium while most wanted to remain independent and, eventually, most Belgians recognized that and reduced their hopes to an economic union. Eventually, the French promised to persuade the Luxembourgois to enter an economic union with Belgium, but only in exchange for the French keeping the most important railroad and the Belgians signing a military convention with France. The Belgians were deeply disappointed and offended that they did not get all they wanted. Bel- gium did pick up four German-speaking cantons in the east from Germany as well as some African colonies. Belgian troops also took part in the occupation of the German Rhineland, which they would leave in 1929.

Robert Devleeshouwer observes that conditions really were not favorable to Belgian territorial adjustments. He points out that in none of the desired territories did the locals really want to join Belgium while most Belgians did not care either. What is surprising is that so many Belgian politicians believed it possible to succeed. Their nationalism was inflated by the victory over Ger- many and they hoped to see the Allies force the Dutch to give in. The campaign for annexation was led by the government through straw men, especially Pierre Nothomb, who had remarkable access to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as the support of other departments. Nothomb was key in the founding of the Comité de Politique Nationale (Committee of National Policy) to support a “large, strong, and united Belgium.” This committee took a maximalist approach to territorial demands, including the creation of a Rhenish buffer state dominated by Belgium. The Committee obtained 275,000 signatures on its petitions and the support of government ministers, generals, and communal councils although the government never openly supported it.

Failing territorial acquisition, the Belgians in Paris sought to achieve conditions in the Rhineland that would prevent another German invasion, because they all believed Germany was still the greatest threat. For a time, some of the Belgians, such as the chief negotiator Paul Hymans, like the French, who felt equally threatened, supported an independent, or at least autonomous, Rhenish state, or, at least, permanent Allied occupation thereof. Other Belgian delegates Émile Vandervelde and Jules Van den Heuvel did oppose the idea for fear of increasing French power and leverage over their nation.

In his memoirs, Belgian foreign minister, and sometime prime minister, Paul-Henri Spaak, observed that the friction between the two countries came as a result of the French premier’s mistreatment of Hymans and the lack of French support for Belgian demands.


The 6th (South African) Armoured Division

General Mark Clark (15th Army Group) takes the salute from M-10 tank destroyers of the 11th Armoured Brigade of the 6th SA Armoured Division at the South African commemoration parade marking the end of hostilities in Italy. Monza Race Circuit: Taken on 14 May 1945
Troops of the 6th South African Armoured Division arriving in Taranto, Italy. April 1944.
Field Marshal JC Smuts (Prime Minister), Major-General Poole (GOC) and Lieutenant-General Sir Pierre van Ryneveld (SA Chief of Staff), in Chiusi, Italy, 24 June 1944. The visit was to discuss the implications of the surrender of A Coy, First City/Cape Town Highlanders.

On 17 August 1944 the 6th (South African) Armoured Division was transferred to the Fifth Army, the latest in a series of international formations to find themselves as part of General Mark Clark’s order of battle.

The division included soldiers from several Commonwealth countries, which gave them at least some degree of shared background and military ethos. In broad terms the command structure, training, doctrine and operational procedures were familiar to all of the division’s units, as were the weapons and matériel. To that extent the division had a degree of uniformity and cohesion, although in other respects there were concerns which could have proved difficult, particularly with regard to South African racial policies. There was also a significant anti-war faction in South Africa which was of relevance to recruiting policies and which limited the deployment of the division.

South African units had been involved with the Fifth Army since before its arrival in Italy. On 14 August 1943 46 Survey Company, South African Engineers, was assigned to Fifth Army to assist in the preparations for AVALANCHE, and 83 Engineer Base Stores Depot SAEC had been occupied in packing tons of equipment for the invasion for weeks before it happened. The Survey Company landed at Salerno on 8 September, its immediate task being to revise the available maps. On 27 November it was ordered to carry out a survey network of control points which would tie in the Fifth Army artillery units to the south Italy map grid. The main South African contribution to the Fifth Army was to arrive later, in the shape of 6th South African Armoured Division. Its pedigree was – like that of many formations – a chequered one which reflected the constraints under which the South African government operated, some of which were self-imposed for domestic reasons, others by the wider conditions faced by all of the United Nations, such as scarcity of equipment.

Service in the armed forces of the Union of South Africa was voluntary. Prevailing attitudes regarding racial equality limited the potential pool of volunteers for combat arms to whites, and those of other racial groups could only serve in non-combatant support roles, with Cape Coloured and Indian personnel as drivers and pioneers in the Cape Corps, and Africans in pioneer and labour units of the Native Military Corps. Restrictions were also placed on the ranks which could be attained by non-whites: warrant officer in the Cape Corps and sergeant in the NMC; Coloured troops were paid half the rates that whites earned, and Africans two-thirds of the Coloured rate. Apart from guard duties and self-defence, firearms were not given to these soldiers – they would not be employed to kill Europeans. This policy reduced the available numbers of men for the fighting arms aged between twenty and forty to some 320,000; at the outbreak of war the standing army was only 3,353-strong, with another 14,631 in the Active Citizen Force. With no expectation that the army would serve outside southern Africa these men were trained and equipped accordingly. With a sizeable minority of South Africans opposed to involvement in the war (it will be recalled that the initial response of Prime Minister Hertzog was to declare the country neutral, leading to his overthrow by Smuts) conscription was never a viable choice. The shortage of personnel was to hinder the nation’s attempts to maintain two effective divisions for deployment in North Africa. The numbers of men raised were sufficient for only the 1st and 2nd SA Infantry Divisions, each of 24,108 men, with a third division – based in South Africa – having a strength of only 6,000 from which to provide reinforcements for the other two. As early as April 1941 a possible solution to this manning problem had been suggested whereby one of the infantry divisions would be converted to armour. This reduced the manpower requirement, because an armoured division comprised only two (one armoured, one infantry) brigades rather than the three brigades which made up an infantry division; the establishment of an armoured division was only 14,195 officers and men. This proposal was taken a stage further in May 1942 when Field Marshal Smuts announced that both infantry divisions would convert. The following month an estimated 10,772 South Africans from two entire infantry brigades and most of the 2nd Division’s supporting units were taken prisoner at Tobruk. This blow finalized the argument, which was given further impetus by the way in which the North African campaign was developing, with an emphasis on armoured warfare.

There was another factor which played its part in constraining the numbers of men available for service in the armed forces, again caused by the hesitancy of the government to press too strongly for a wholehearted commitment to a war which many at home did not support. Until the early part of 1940 the South African Army saw little prospect of action and anticipated little more than a home defence role. In March of that year, however, the British Government requested reinforcements – initially a South African infantry brigade – to be sent to Kenya to defend the country against any Italian incursions. This deployment was not covered by the oath of service taken by the volunteers, and they were now invited to take a fresh one which committed them to service anywhere in Africa. This move provided sufficient willing personnel to meet the initial needs of operations in East Africa and took the Army to the conclusion of the North African campaign, but as the fighting there drew to a close at the beginning of 1943 the South African government found it necessary to introduce a new general service oath, voluntary acceptance of which committed their servicemen to worldwide operations. To some soldiers it appeared that the goalposts were shifting yet again: the uptake was not encouraging, and the outcome divided the forces between those who were prepared to continue the battle against the Axis to its conclusion, and those who elected to stick to the ‘Africa Service Personnel’ terms of engagement – and who became known disparagingly as ‘asps’ by those who signed the new oath and who wore an orange flash on their epaulettes to indicate their status. Nevertheless, the hope remained that two armoured divisions could be raised, even though both could not be fielded. One, the 1st SA Armoured Division, could not be established at full strength and remained in South Africa; the other, the 6th SA Armoured Division, was formed from units that had previously served with the 2nd SA Infantry Division. To raise the manpower required in the face of shortages caused by losses during the fighting thus far, by the reluctance of men to serve outside Africa, and by some veterans who were unwilling to serve again, shortfalls in the infantry were resolved by merging some regiments. These retained the titles of both of the original units which had been united, for example ‘The Imperial Light Horse/Kimberley Regiment’, which became – confusingly to the outsider – ‘ILH/KimR’ in its abbreviated form. The Divisional Commander was Major General W. H. Evered Poole.

While the British welcomed units for which they had a requirement in Italy, such as those from the South African Engineer Corps, they were initially reluctant to take the armoured division; the need was for more infantry. In March 1944 the Division was ordered to prepare to move to Palestine, an order which was countermanded nine days later. The Division’s potential could not be ignored and it was destined for Italy. Sixth SA Armoured Division disembarked in Taranto on 20 and 21 April 1944 but it was to be strengthened for the forthcoming battles. Experience had shown that the composition of armoured divisions with one armoured and one infantry brigades (in this case 11 Armoured and 12 Motorised South African Brigades) was too light in infantry, especially in the context of the Italian terrain which did not lend itself to armoured warfare as it had been fought in the desert. To rectify this weakness 24 Guards Infantry Brigade, one of the independent formations serving with the Eighth Army, was attached to the Division. The Guards Brigade was to serve with the South Africans until it was removed to bring the British 56th Infantry Division up to strength in February 1945.

The Division’s first taste of action was when 12 Motorised Brigade with artillery and support units was detached and placed under command of 2nd New Zealand Division, then part of Eighth Army’s X (British) Corps in the Cassino area. Relieving 11 Canadian Infantry Brigade the South Africans held the line there until the Gustav Line was broken, after which they rejoined the Division which was in the Eighth Army reserve, attached to I Canadian Corps. Passing through Rome on 6 June, with the GOC and his GSO 2 (Ops) taking it in turns to listen to reports from the British Broadcasting Corporation on the progress of OVERLORD on the radio in their command tank, the Division moved into the spearhead position of the Eighth Army advance. This it led up the western bank of the Tiber, fighting actions south of Celleno against elements of the 365th Infantry Division before taking the town of Orvieto. By 17 June its first attempt to enter Chiusi had been halted by the Herman Göring Division, but the town was captured six days later. During this operation A Company of First City/Cape Town Highlanders, which had led the attack, was surrounded by the enemy and its survivors forced to surrender – the event referred to earlier in this narrative, which caused Field Marshal Smuts to divert his aircraft from its flight from London to South Africa so that he might discuss the military and political implications of another surrender to follow that of 2nd SA Infantry Division in Tobruk.

As the advance continued towards Florence XIII Corps had 4th Infantry Division as its centre, with the British 6th Armoured and 6th SA Armoured Divisions on its right and left respectively. The South Africans moved forward in two columns until they ran into the Georg Line, a delaying position manned by the LXXVI Panzer Corps. It was only when the 2nd New Zealand and the British 6th Armoured Divisions succeeded in taking the high ground that the Germans were forced to withdraw, allowing the South Africans to resume their progress. By 4 August the outskirts of Florence were entered, a patrol from ILH/KimR being the first to arrive. In a Special Order of the Day Major General Poole highlighted the fact that the Division had covered 601 miles since leaving Taranto, that the artillery had fired 201,500 rounds, that its engineers had constructed sixty-five bridges, and that 3,752 miles of telephone cable had been laid. The Division was then withdrawn into Eighth Army reserve for rest. On 17 August the Division was ordered to be transferred to the US IV Corps to partially fill the gaps left by the transfer of American divisions which were bound for Operation ANVIL/DRAGOON.

Now part of the United States Fifth Army, 6th SA Armoured Division, which had a British brigade under command and which was further augmented by the addition of 4/13th Frontier Force Rifles (an Indian Army unit trained in mountain warfare manned by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs with predominantly British officers, notwithstanding the South Africans’ aversion to employing non-whites in a combat role) and 74th British Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment Royal Artillery with the attachment of the mortar platoon from ILH/KimR, organized as an infantry battalion, found itself to be the epitome of coalition warfare at the operational level. The 166th (Newfoundland) Field Regiment Royal Artillery also joined the Division, which added yet another nationality to its complement. The regiment was part of the British Army, recruited in Newfoundland, which was a Dominion directly governed from the United Kingdom and did not become a Canadian province until 1949. The international flavour went deeper than unit level, for many of the nursing sisters who served in 108th South African Mobile Hospital came from Canada, 300 having been recruited under an agreement between the two governments involved, to cover the shortfall in required numbers. The Division now comprised three armoured regiments, nine infantry battalions, and three field and one medium artillery regiments as well as supporting troops. It was not long before the ramifications of such an amalgamation of different nationalities, cultures, and of different command styles became apparent.

Having served operationally in the Eighth Army since June 1941, General Poole and his staff had now to adapt to the methods and policies of the American Army, a task which was far from straightforward, particularly when in the middle of fighting a war. Poole’s preference was for commanding well forward from a Tactical HQ which was no more than a jeep containing his G2 and two radio sets manned by an operator, the jeep being accompanied by a motorcycle driven by his Provost Corporal bodyguard armed with a tommy-gun. The GOC and the G2 shared the driving. When the situation demanded, Poole would mount the motorcycle for greater speed and mobility, and through this practice he was able to maintain frequent face-to-face discussions with his brigade commanders, making swift decisions on the spot. The presence of the GOC well forward, with his pennant flying on the ‘two-star’ jeep, also had a beneficial effect on the morale of the troops.

To continue the Allied advance northwards from Florence the River Arno had first to be crossed, a task which was achieved when patrols from the First City/Cape Town Highlanders found workable crossing points near Le Piagge for 12 Motorised Brigade. As the enemy withdrew to take up fresh defensive positions on the Gothic Line the Division crossed the river on Bailey bridges which the SAEC erected on the remnants of the demolished bridges. With only light resistance being encountered, General Poole planned a swift pursuit but this intent was countermanded by orders from above; General Clark feared that the South Africans’ advance would alert the Germans and compromise his main attack north of Florence. Poole was ordered to halt and to hold the Albano Massif.

While the Fifth Army History stated that it was particularly important that the element of surprise was not endangered by any move by the South Africans, the latter felt strongly that such an approach indicated a lack of initiative and a rigidity which permitted the Germans more time to improve their defences. With winter approaching there was even more reason to inject a sense of urgency and to take full advantage of any opportunity to put the enemy on the wrong foot. Nevertheless, the 6th SA Armoured Division was required to sit on its hands and let the opportunity pass.

A second instance of Fifth Army’s lack of understanding the modus operandi of the different nationalities under command, and of the possible implications of decisions taken with inadequate knowledge of local conditions or of the consequences which might occur from poorly thought-out plans, came a few days later. On 14 September an order arrived from IV (US) Corps for a brigade from the Division to attack and capture Femina a Morta, one of the Gothic Line’s strongest features. Following its fall, the brigade was to move on and take a second position, Monte Bersano, and then to exploit forward some 6,000 metres beyond it. The 24 Guards Brigade, with First City/Cape Town Highlanders under command, was given the task, and although the Divisional staff knew that it would carry it out to its best ability, experience told them that the Brigade would probably be lost in the attempt. While General Poole’s professionalism led him to accept the order and to prepare to carry it out, his GSO1 Colonel Maggs, was perhaps more understanding of the political consequences of writing off an elite British brigade in a South African division which was part of an American army in an impossible operation.

Fortunately Maggs was not only on good terms with the IV Corps Chief of Staff, Brigadier General Ladue, but was quickly able to contact him by telephone. Having expressed his concerns, he requested that a light aircraft be sent to fly him to Corps Headquarters. Without telling Poole, he set off to a stretch of road on which the aircraft could land, and was taken to meet Ladue and General Crittenberger, the Corps Commander. Maggs presented his case strongly: as the South African military historian, Neil Orpen, put it, what the governments of the United States, Great Britain and South Africa might make of an American corps ordering a South African division to send a British Guards Brigade to destruction would be ‘pretty colourful’. Maggs’ view of matters was accepted: Crittenberger and Ladue promised to do what they could to have the orders rescinded, and later that evening news arrived at Divisional Headquarters to the effect that the operation had been cancelled. The incident was a clear demonstration of the difficulties encountered by commanders of multinational forces; the Guards Brigade – not to mention international relations – was fortunate that Maggs exercised his initiative and acted as he did. A similar formation in an army that was composed only of troops from a single nationality would have not had the same reasons to object and nor would the objections have received such a sympathetic reaction, as was seen earlier in the campaign when the 36th (US) Division was ordered to cross the Rapido.

Major General Poole summed up five stages of 6th SA Armoured Division’s Italian operations in his Operations Report which was released in June 1945. The first phase was the pursuit of the enemy when the Germans withdrew from Cassino, and the second covered the setpiece assaults on strong natural positions held by the enemy at Monte Catarelto, Stanco, and Point 826. In November 1944 the third phase opened as the weather deteriorated. Deep snow halted movement, and Divisional Headquarters was to remain in Castiglione dei Pepoli, which it had reached on 26 September, until mid-April the next year. It was, again, a period of frustration as Bologna and open tank country lay only about twenty miles ahead. With tanks and guns dug into the snow and mule trains having to be used to supply troops in the line, operations slowed until warmer weather improved matters, but hostilities continued as the tanks were employed to give fire support from static positions, supplementing the artillery. Re-organization continued regardless of the weather: on 15 January the Division was placed under command of II (US) Corps, having previously been Fifth Army troops.

Phase four of Poole’s report opened at the beginning of April when the Division began to take up positions for an attack on the defences of Monte Sole, Monte Caprara and Monte Abelle. The newly-formed 13 SA Motorised Brigade, with 11 SA Armoured Brigade made the assault after a period of intensive planning. The attack went in following heavy air attacks, followed by an artillery barrage, at 2230 hours on 15 April; at 0100 hours the leading troops were on the summit of Monte Sole. Their platoon commander, Second Lieutenant Mollett, was awarded an immediate DSO, but the event was not one of unalloyed celebration, for his Commanding Officer was killed in the hour of victory.

The taking of the mountain stronghold opened the way for the breakthrough to Bologna, which fell on 21 April, and the pursuit of the enemy, who were becoming increasingly disorganized, across the Lombardy plains – phase five of Poole’s report. At the end of April the Division reverted to Fifth Army command and was ordered to the Milan area, 200 miles away, to support IV (US) Corps, which was facing two German divisions, 34th Infantry and 5th Mountain. On 2 May the Germans in Italy surrendered. General Poole refused to enter Milan until the bodies of Mussolini and his mistress had been removed from the service station where they had been hanging after being shot.

Battle of Landen [Neerwinden]

Harvests between 1689 and 1692 had been poor but that of 1693 failed completely throughout France and northern Italy. Faced with dwindling resources, Louis gave the army priority in funding over the navy; following a final fleet action off Lagos, when 80 of 400 Anglo-Dutch merchantmen from the Smyrna Fleet were seized (27 June 1693), the navy concentrated on commerce raiding, the guerre de course. Louis decided to launch major land offensives in Catalonia, Germany and the Netherlands as a prelude to dangling generous peace terms before the Grand Alliance. A concomitant diplomatic initiative arrested Swedish dalliance with the Grand Alliance and diverted Sweden’s good offices to opening fissures amongst the German princes; only the gift of the electoral dignity persuaded Ernst August of Hanover not to desert the Grand Alliance, whilst concessions were also required to retain the wavering John George IV of Saxony.

However, the weight of French diplomacy was directed towards Piedmont, where Victor Amadeus was determined to recapture Pinerolo. After sending detachments under the Spanish general the Marquis de Legafiez to mask Casale, he advanced westwards. Catinat left Tesse at Pinerolo and withdrew to Fenstrelle to protect Tesse’s communications with Susa. The attack on Pinerolo was half- hearted, more bombardment than siege, and ended with Victor Amadeus renewing his diplomatic overtures to Tesse through Gropello on 22 September. As Victor Amadeus dithered, Catinat counter-attacked. Reinforced with troops from Catalonia and the Rhine, he advanced from the mountains above Pinerolo and was across Victor Amadeus’s communications with Turin by 29 September.

Abandoning the bombardment of Pinerolo, the Savoyard army hastened eastwards, encumbered by its siege train. At La Marsaglia on 4 October, the outnumbered, fatigued and out-generalled Piedmontese lost 6,000 men. Although Cuneo and Turin lay open to attack, supply difficulties prevented Catinat from exploiting his victory, and, after levying contributions from as far south as Saluzzo, he retired into winter quarters.

Louis’s three land offensives began in Catalonia, where Noailles besieged Rosas (from 28 May to 9 June 1693), the chief Catalan naval base, using both his army and fifty warships. Lorge crossed the Rhine in May with 50,000 men and sacked Heidelberg for the second time in four years. He then advanced cautiously into Franconia, but Ludwig of Baden occupied a strongly fortified blocking position at Ilzfeldt (26 July – 28 August) which Lorge and the Dauphin could not penetrate. In the Netherlands, Luxembourg, commanding 68,000 men supported by 48,000 under Boufflers, manoeuvred so that William had to split his army of 120,000 into three corps to protect Flanders, Brussels and Liege. Having achieved a local superiority of 66,000 to 50,000, he trapped William in a confined and awkward position around the villages of Landen and Neerwinden, west of Maastricht, on 29 July Although the Allies lost only 12,000 compared to French casualties of 15,000, William withdrew from the field in some disorder, and Luxembourg was able to profit from victory by besieging and taking the Meuse fortress of Charleroi (on 10 October).

The Battle

A major battle of the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697), fought in Flanders. Maréchal Luxembourg brought 80,000 French to fight William III’s 50,000 Allied troops. Luxembourg lured William into battle with a series of feints with his cavalry, then surprised the Allied army in its camp. The fight began with both sides arrayed in battle line in an early morning mist made pungent by nearby marshy areas. The Allies were entrenched on high ground behind a shallow ravine at their center, with the flanks reaching two small villages. As he did at Fleurus (June 21/July 1, 1690), Luxembourg once again attacked both opposing flanks while French artillery pounded the enemy’s guns. After four hours of heavy fighting, Neerwinden village fell to a final assault by elite French and Swiss guards units. William withdrew, abandoning 84 of his 91 heavy guns along with 12,000 men left as casualties upon the field, with another 2,000 taken prisoner. The French also suffered heavy losses of about 8,000 men. Like most battles in Flanders in this era, even such high cost purchased little operational or strategic gain. An expensive and draining war of positions thus resumed.

The Armies


In the 1690s it became rare for infantry to fight hand-to-hand with their opponents, although there were of course notable exceptions such as Steenkirk(1692) where the English and Dutch battalions were divided from the French only by hedgerows. Generally speaking, however, commanders deemed their foot to be a source of more or less static firepower once they had moved ponderously up into musket range, relying on the wheeling horsemen to decide the ultimate issue.

Although it is dangerous to generalize, it can be asserted that certain nations were considered to be better than others in infantry fighting during these last days of the pike and matchlock combination.

The British played an active role in the great re- arming of the 1690s, when pikes were replaced by muskets equipped by socket bayonets, and matchlock muskets were replaced by flintlocks. Whereas with the earlier plug bayonets inserted in the barrel of the musket it had been necessary to remove the bayonet before firing the musket, the socket bayonet enabled firing with the bayonet in place. The Ordnance Office displayed flexibility in this rearming, using the capacity of the Birmingham gunsmiths and thus circumventing the monopoly of their London counterparts. All the new regiments raised from 1689 were equipped with flintlocks. The Land Pattern Musket could be fired at least twice a minute and weighed one pound less than the matchlock previously used.

However, as the French were re-equipping in a similar fashion, the British did not benefit from a capability gap. Certainly the weaponry available did not play a crucial role at Steenkirk or Neerwinden. In the former, the difficulty of mounting a successful frontal attack against a prepared defence was crucial. At Neerwinden, heavy French massed attacks eventually drove William from his poorly chosen position, but only at the cost of heavier casualties. The experience gained of campaigning on the Continent was to be important for the next conflict.

The introduction of the socket bayonet increased firepower, but it did not greatly encourage attacks because bayonet drills were for a long time based on pike drills, with the weapon held high and an emphasis on receiving advances. It was not until the 1750s that a new bayonet drill, with the weapon held waist-high, made it easier to mount attacks.

The Dutch infantry were widely considered to be amongst the best serving the Allied cause. Their showing in the War of 1672 had been far from impressive, but William III had subsequently overhauled their training and organization, and by 1688 they had few peers for stalwart bravery and coolness – qualities deemed the most important in the infantryman of that day. Their conduct at Fleurus (1690) drew a warm tribute from their opponent, Marshal Luxembourg, who wrote soon after his victory that ‘Prince Waldeck has very reason to be proud of his infantry.’ An Allied observer of the same battle, William Sawle, wrote that:

The French infantry could not so much as dare look them in the face; could the Dutch be left alone to them, they would esteem them as nothing.

Even the highly critical William in expressed himself as well satisfied with his Dutch foot’s performance on a number of occasions. Their calm rallying after the defeat at Landen (1693) evoked widespread admiration. After the steady Dutch, the comparatively amateur and immature English infantry soon earned a redoubtable reputation for valiant behaviour in action. Notwithstanding their sub-standard equipment and bad reputation for indiscipline at the outset of the Nine Years’ War, they soon earned Prince Waldeck’s commendation for their bravery at the action of Walcourt (1689): ‘I would never have believed so many of the English would show such a joie de combattre’ Their later conduct against overwhelming odds of five to one amongst the hedgerows of Steenkirk and their showing at the battle of Landen added further lustre to their reputation despite the unfortunate outcome on both occasions. Their years of fullest achievement, however, still lay ahead.

The French, on the other hand, were generally rated to be somewhat indifferent infantrymen in the early years of the Nine Years’ War. At Fleurus, for example, French victory though it ultimately turned out to be, ‘the French horse were several times forced to rally their foot and bring them up under their cover.’ So disillusioned with their performance did Louis xiv become that in 1691 he ordered Luxembourg to avoid infantry action in future, for he believed that such an engagement ‘involves heavy losses and is never decisive’. Nevertheless, the French foot substantially redeemed their reputation at Steenkirk and Landen, though in the former instance they required a massive superiority of numbers to convert their initial rout into a narrow success. On other fronts, however, the French infantry enjoyed a reputation worthy of their greatest days. Marshal Catinat reported in glowing terms their conduct at Marsaglia in North Italy (1693), where with great intrepidity they stormed the key to the Austrian position with the bayonet. ‘I believe there never was an action’, wrote their proud commander, ‘which showed better what your Majesty’s infantry is capable of.’ Such successes, however, encouraged French generals of several generations in the belief that the true metier of the French foot was cold steel – and this assumption led them to disregard the refinements of infantry fire tactics, with what proved to be near-fatal results in the following war.


William III’s Dutch and English regiments made little impression on their French opponents. Shortly after the battle of Fleurus (1690), Marshal Luxembourg, while paying compliments to the sturdy Dutch infantry, was moved to remark that ‘the Prince of Waldeck has good reason to resent his cavalry for ever.’ A year later, the same French commander rubbed home the point at the Combat of Leuze. Learning that Waldeck (who had just taken over the Allied command from William in) was passing his army over the river La Catoir without taking proper precautions prior to entering winter quarters, confident that the French were too far distant to be able to interfere, Luxembourg determined to end the campaign on a high note by bearding his opponent. He conducted a secret forced march from Espierre over 17 kilometres under cover of a convenient mist at the head of 28 squadrons of horse and dragoons (many of them belonging to the Maison du Roi and including in their number the youthful Villars) and fell upon the 75 squadrons and five battalions of the Allied rearguard on 19 September 1691. Surprise was almost complete. Leaving two regiments of dragoons to engage the Allied foot near Caparelle, Luxembourg attacked the disordered horse – who had only managed to form a single line – and proceeded to administer a sound drubbing. But for a heroic counter-charge by the English Life Guards – one of whose guardsmen fought his way through the French ranks to engage the Marshal in personal combat – the defeat might have been even more humiliating for William’s forces, but as it was the Allies lost 1,500 casualties and 40 standards before being able to extricate themselves to the further bank of the river. So pleased was Louis xiv at the outcome that he ordered a commemorative medal to be struck, and awarded a special standard to the troop of Horse Grenadiers of the Maison which had particularly distinguished itself in the action.

Throughout the War of the League of Augsburg, indeed, there seems to have been no stopping the French cavalry, and at Landen (1693) they again demonstrated their superiority by storming William III’s earthworks at the fourth attempt, a feat which enabled them to capture Neerwinden village from the rear.


The movement of iron and brass monsters weighing an average of three tons apiece clearly required the services of vast numbers of horses and drivers, as did the drawing of the large number of attendant wagons. The first problem facing every train commander at the outset of a campaign was the finding of adequate draught-animals and transport. The ability of any army to take the field at the opening of the campaigning season depended to no small degree on the success of the officers at wheedling, cajoling or stealing horses and oxen, and delays were not unknown. Jacob Richards noted in his diary on 25 April 1693 that ‘the Gunnes were fitted up and all the pontoons fixed for a march, wanting nothing now but Colonel Goor with the Contractors’ horses and waggons, as also Mr Fletcher with our recrute [sic] stores from Rotterdam.’ It was not until 18 May, however that the train commander made his somewhat belated appearance with ‘the greatest part of our horses and waggons so that now our traine will soon be fixed for the first orders that may come. William’s armies were notoriously slow off the mark compared to the French each year.

Other English and Allied armies were not so fortunately endowed or administered. The campaigns in the barren vastness of Spain and Portugal. Even when the horses were produced by the contractors, many often had to be rejected as unsuitable. In 1689, for example, General Schomberg felt compelled to turn down horses intended for use in Ireland on the grounds that ‘they appear to me too slight . . . Besides one was lame, another an old cart-horse and most of them faulty.’ Small wonder that generals were continually assessing and reassessing local resources in the areas they expected to be operating in. One such document survives from 1692 in which it is regretfully noted that the district of Liege – currently under French contribution – might prove capable of providing the foe with 2,353 waggons and as many as 14,000 local pioneers, whilst on the other hand Flanders could provide the Allies with only ‘four to five hundred waggons which would serve to transport that which is coming from Brussels’. William in in person was plagued with transport considerations: in his hand-written ‘Memorandum on Military Matters’ dated 6 December 1689 we find under the heading ‘Artillerie and what depends on it an item reading ‘contracts for wagons and horses. To send for Flanders.’ If it is true to assert that armies could operate only over such distances they could carry their bread, it is equally clear that they could only conduct effective operations against such places as their guns could reach. In both respects, one key consideration was the availability of horses, drivers, waggons and fodder.

The problems associated with the continuing reliance in many armies on civilian drivers and boys for the trains have already been alluded to. These personnel constituted a considerable martial hazard, through their well-known proclivity for flight the moment danger threatened and through their general intransigence towards those in authority over them. Even the able and long-suffering Colonel Goor was moved to request William Blathwayt, Secretary at War, ‘that a representation be made to his Lordship [the Master-General] of the want of a Comptroller upon the place to look after the civil part of the Trains in Flanders’.

Probably the most intransigent basic problem involved in moving the trains was the poor quality of European communications in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Although Louis xiv improved the four great ‘strategic’ highroads traversing France running from Picardy to Bayonne, Lower Brittany to Marseilles, Languedoc to Normandy and Santoigne to Bresse, these main arteries were of little tactical significance. Most roads in Europe were little more than earthen tracks, often deeply rutted, turning into quagmires in wet weather or miles of frozen, axle-breaking ruts in winter. Hills presented major problems – whether going up or down – and the efforts of the pioneers could do but little to ameliorate the situation. This was one major reason for the restriction of campaigning as a general rule to the period from April to September each year. Even at the height of the ‘season’, the movement of the trains could be hell on earth in the event of unusually wet weather.

By the end of the long reign of Louis xiv, generals had come to regard the symmetry of their twin battle formations to be sacred, just as admirals considered the maintenance of their ships’ line of battle at sea an inviolable principle. It was rare for an army to have a reserve – although sometimes a force of dragoons was retained in the rear – and as armies grew gradually larger so the extent of their lines developed. Extended lines stretching over three to four miles were potentially vulnerable, and the prime duties of the artillery in battle were considered to be to sustain the individual sections of the line and to form batteries for the support of key strongpoints for use in attack or defence. The first task was particularly the responsibility of the regimental artillery – the pair of 2- or 3-pdrs which English, Dutch and Austrian battalions habitually took into battle with them – but in armies like the French which possessed no real regimental pieces until the 1740s, both tasks depended upon the resources of the field park.

Armies moved up for battle in between three and ten columns, each following its own route. As we have noted the guns often came either well to the rear, or all in the centre (as at Fleurus in 1690) when Luxembourg advanced on Waldeck’s forces in five columns, the central one consisting wholly of the train). Then, whilst the horses and foot slowly took up their precisely regulated battle positions, the senior officers of the artillery would ride forward to select the best available battery positions. As a general rule they sought the highest ground available with the least impeded and longest field of fire; the size of the batteries they established varied according to circumstances between four and twenty pieces; thus at Entzheim (1674), St Hilaire drew up his 32 guns in four batteries; whilst at Malplaquet the battery destined to wreak so much havoc with the Dutch Guards numbered 20 pieces. It was comparatively rare, however, for guns to be retained ready-limbered and prepared to accompany an advance at this time, although it seems that this was done by Catinat’s artillery at Marsaglia (1693). The fact that it proved possible to deploy the lighter guns so far forward in this way should not disguise the scale of the problems generally involved in so doing. The guns were equally expected to cover any retreat by the main forces. On many occasions it proved impossible to bring the guns off at the end of an unfortunate engagement, but on others a great deal was in fact achieved. Colonel Jacob Richards writes as follows of the Allied defeat at Steenkirk in 1692:

In our retreat the enemy got 12 pieces of our Cannon, but we retook the four of them again (of wh. 4 was Dutch). The heat of this dispute held (lasted) about three howers, that is ffrom one to four, about wh. time all ffires ceased, and by the King’s command we retreated wh. was done in great order, the Enemy never attemptingto make any advantage thereby untill we were all on March, and then appeared the left of their army wh. advanced as ffar as the Grounde wh. we stood upon. But our cannon was so advantageously posted that they thought it was not discretion to come /forward and so wee parted ffor this cause, but through the ffear and neglect of the carters some ammunition waggons were overset wh. wee ourselves afterwards burned.

All in all this represented a dignified withdrawal, despite the incident of the munition-carts. It was not repeated next year at Landen however. On this occasion the Allies ‘left the field, their artillerie and what baggage they had with them’ to the tune of 84 cannon. Such loss of metal was not exceptional amidst the confusion and panic of defeat.

Luxembourg, captured so many flags at Landen that he could make a “tapestry” with them inside the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. For this reason he was nicknamed le Tapissier de Notre-Dame.

duc de Luxembourg, François Henri de Montmorency, (1628-1695). Maréchal de France.

Like his cousin the Great Condé, Luxembourg fought in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). He saw action at Lens (August 10, 1648), one of the last fights of that long and dirty conflict. Also like Condé, during the Fronde, Luxembourg turned against the monarchy and entered the service of Spain. He was captured at Rethel (October 15, 1650) but was soon released. He spent the next eight years fighting Louis XIV. He fought reluctantly at the Dunes (June 4/14, 1658). He returned to France and relative favor, along with his then more famous cousin, following promulgation of a royal amnesty that accompanied the Treaty of the Pyrenees (October 28/November 7, 1659).He led a French army that occupied Franche-Comté in 1668 during the War of Devolution (1667-1668). He fought again during the Dutch War (1672-1678), so well at the beginning in the campaign around Cologne, and so well and often thereafter, that in reward, the “Grande Monarque” raised him to the rank of “maréchal de France” in 1675. Luxembourg fought at Seneffe (August 11, 1674) alongside the Great Condé, and later commanded in the Rhineland as the successor to Turenne. He saw more action at Cassel (April 11, 1677). He opposed William III (then still Prince of Orange) at the needless battle of St. Denis (August 4/14, 1678).

Luxembourg fell from royal favor in 1679 over an odd court scandal concerning supposed use of black magic and performance of sacrilegious acts. He was confined for some months. He was back in favor at court within two years, following the intercession of Condé, and served as captain of the Gardes du Corps. One year into the Nine Years’War (1688-1697), he was restored to command of the main French army. He retained command in Flanders until his death in 1695, fighting and winning several minor and three major battles during those years. Most dramatically and daringly, he defeated Waldeck at Fleurus (June 21/July 1, 1690), after which he besieged and took Mons in March-April 1691. He commanded the French army of observation during the first siege of Namur (May 25-June 30, 1692). He beat William in the field at Steenkerke (July 24/ August 3, 1692) and again, and most bloodily, at Neerwinden (July 19/29, 1693).

Yet, Luxembourg’s field victories changed little in the larger context of the war. His main tactical and operational preoccupation remained maneuvers and positional warfare, which always dominated the Flanders theater of operations. The noted reluctance or inability of Luxembourg to pursue a beaten enemy after each of his battlefield victories is sometimes attributed to restraints placed on his freedom of action by Louis XIV. However, a greater commander would have made the case for hard pursuit and insisted upon carrying it out.

The Sri Lankan Government Forces – Sri Lankan War I

Red area shows the approximate areas of Sri Lanka controlled by the LTTE and the Government, as of December 2005.


The regular Ceylon Defence Force (CDF) was founded in 1910 although a reserve volunteer force had existed since 1881. The CDF came under the command of the British Army. It was mainly British officered and the other ranks were Ceylonese. An exception was the Ceylon Planters Rifle Corps, which was made up of Europeans. This rifle corps took part in the South African war of 1899 – 1902, as did the Ceylon Mounted Infantry. During the Great War many Ceylonese of all races volunteered to join the British Army fighting in France. Ceylonese units served in Egypt and in the Gallipoli campaign. During the Second World War the regular units came under the control of Britain’s South East Asia Command, headed by Lord Louis Mountbatten. The island was fortified extensively in anticipation of a Japanese invasion. In April 1942, for example, Japanese bombers, escorted by Zero fighters, mounted a large-scale surprise attack on Colombo and on a nearby Royal Air Force base, knocking out eight Hurricanes. Ceylon’s colonial forces deployed to occasional exotic garrison duties in the Seychelles, and also in the Cocos islands (where it had to put down a small Trotskyite mutiny among its own ranks; three soldiers were court-martialled and hanged, making them the only ‘Commonwealth’ soldiers executed by the British during the war). By 1945 the CDF numbered around 20,000.

After the war the CDF, in one case supported by British Royal Marines, countered left-wing strikes. On independence, technically the colonial force was disbanded but it was reconstituted into a new regular and reserve force structure. The formal foundation of the post-independence army dates from 9 October 1949 (now celebrated annually as army day; the navy and air force celebrate different foundation days). In contrast with the rapid mobilization of 1939 – 45, the CDF was reduced to around half its previous size. A defence agreement of 1947 offered the new colony British protection in the event it was attacked by a foreign state. British military advisers were provided and in effect a British brigadier commanded the fledgling army. Promising young Ceylonese officers were sent to the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and more senior officers were trained at the British Staff College at Camberley. Some officers were sent to accompany the British Army of the Rhine for cold weather, and Cold War, experience. The emphasis on foreign military training was to continue as a hallmark of staff-officer education into the twenty-first century, though Britain was to give way to the US, China, India and Pakistan. Likewise, insignia, rank structure and officer ethos were long influenced by the British Army, though the dictates of ethnic war transformed some of the rules and standards taught at Sandhurst and Camberley. Ironically, Sri Lanka much later offered to instruct NATO armies in jungle-warfare skills.


The Ceylonese army, now under an indigenous comma nder, led its first major operation (Operation MONTY) to stop the influx of illegal South Indian immigrants smuggled into the country. The army co-ordinated with what was then the Royal Ceylon Navy. The army was busy in support of the police throughout the 1950s during strikes and domestic riots. Trade union and left-wing parties were active in much commercial disruption, most notably the 1961 Colombo port strike which caused major food shortages. Against this background of left-wing agitation a number of officers planned the 1962 coup. It was squashed just a few hours before it was due to be enacted. Fear of military intervention undermined political confidence in the forces for decades. The immediate result was the reduction of the military. In 1972 the three main services were renamed to reflect the republican status. From 1983 the main focus of the army was COIN against the Tamil insurgencies, although the two JVP Sinhalese insurrections (1971 and the late 1980s) also demanded extensive military operations. Few armies have had to fight a series of civil wars for over three decades. The ruling politicians were forced to learn to love their armed services and pump men and money into them – just to survive.

Like many developing countries Sri Lanka contributed to UN peacekeeping operations, in the early 1960s in the Congo and then, after 2004, a series of missions in Haiti. The average Haitian deployment was around 1,000 personnel. In 2007 over 100 members of the mission, including three officers, were accused of sexual misconduct including child abuse (though the latter related to women under eighteen paid for sex). The UN investigation found all the accused Sri Lankan military personnel guilty of the charges, although in Colombo nationalist politicians talked of an international conspiracy, related to criticisms from NGOs involved in the Tamil insurgency at home. Colombo promised an official inquiry and prompt punishment while replacing the offending regiment with 750 troops from the Gemunu Hewa Regiment. In 2010 – 11, small deployments were also sent to Chad, the Central African Republic, Sudan, and Western Sahara, while maintaining its major mission in Haiti. In November 2010 a mechanized infantry company (around 150 troops) was sent to join UN forces in Lebanon.

Structure and size

The army’s organization is based on the British Army model. And, like the Indian army, it has maintained in particular the regimental system inherited at independence. The infantry battalion, the basic unit in field operations, would typically include five companies of four platoons each. Platoons usually had three squads (sections) of ten soldiers each. In 1986 a new commando regiment was formed. Support for the infantry was standard – armoured regiments, field artillery regiments, plus signals and engineering support etc. In addition to commando forces, of interest were the special forces and a rocket artillery regiment.

Official and unofficial Sri Lankan figures and ORBATs (orders of battle) tend to differ from the standard Western data provided, for example, by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). The IISS put the current strength of the army at 117,000 comprising 78,000 regulars and 39,000 recalled reservists. That is a big army for a small country (with a population of just over 20 million), but not in the context of a long war. The army was certainly much larger, however, during the intense fighting in 2006 – 09. Interviews with a range of officers at or above the rank of brigadier all confirmed that the immediate post-war strength was around 230,000. Many senior officers insisted that the army should not be reduced, despite the potential post-war peace dividend, although they accepted, grudgingly, that natural wastage would reduce their ranks. When the same officers were asked their guesstimate of the size of the British Army, they all opined that it was much larger than theirs. They were stunned to discover that it was just over 100,000 and being reduced to 80,000. They then stopped complaining about possible reductions in the Sri Lankan army. The 1983 strength was roughly 12,000 regulars. Aggressive recruitment followed the outbreak of the Tamil war.

Today’s high figure of about 200,000 includes nearly 3,000 women. In 1979 the Army Women’s Corps was formed as an unarmed, non-combatant support unit. Inspiration and early training came from the British Women’s Royal Army Corps. Women in the British Army – except medical, dental and veterinary officers and chaplains (who belonged to the same corps as the men) and nurses (who were members of the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps) – were in the WRAC from 1949 to 1992. Initially the Sri Lankan equivalent was similar to its British parent. Enlistment involved a five-year service commitment, (the same as men) and recruits were not allowed to marry in this period. They did basic training and drill, but not weapons and battle training. Females, however, were paid at the same level as the men, but were generally limited to communications, clerical and nursing duties. The long war prompted the expansion of the Women’s Corps; two women reached the rank of major general. By 2011 the Women’s Corps comprised one regular and four volunteer regiments.

Since Sri Lanka forces were all-volunteer – that is, there had been no conscription – all personnel had volunteered for regular or reserve service. Conscription had been regularly debated and since the 1985 legislation the government has had the legal power to enforce national military service. Economic pressures, patriotism, religious nationalism and local, familial or caste traditions had managed to fill the ranks, however. Recruitment was in theory nationwide, though this did not apply in the northern and eastern provinces during the war (some Tamils, however, joined pro-government militias as well as the regular forces). After the war, plans were announced to form a ‘Tamil regiment’ to promote integration in the army. (Another exception was the Rifle Corps which recruited from a specific area.)

The Sri Lanka Army Volunteer Force (SLAVF) was the main volunteer reserve of the army. It was the collective name for the reserve units as well as the National Guard. The SLAVF was made up of part-time officers and soldiers, who were paid the same as the regular forces when on active duty. This was in contrast to the Regular Army Reserve, which comprised people who had a mobilization obligation for a number of years after their former full-time service in the regular army had been completed.

Operational command varied according to the tempo of the COIN war. The Army General Staff had been based at the Army HQ. Troops were deployed to protect the capital – which suffered a series of major terrorist attacks. Troops to defend the capital were based at Panagoda cantonment, the headquarters of a number of regiments, as well as a major arsenal and military hospital. The majority of infantry troops were deployed into the northern and eastern provinces during the war; they were placed under six commands known as Security Forces Headquarters: in Jaffna (SFHQ-J); Wanni (SFHQ-W); East (SFHQ-E), Kilinochchi (SFHQ-KLN); Mullaitivu (SFHQ-MLT) and South (SFHQ-S).

For officer training Sri Lanka largely adopted the British model. The local equivalent of Sandhurst was the Sri Lanka Military Academy (SLMA) based in Diyatalawa, where the young officer cadets trained for ninety weeks, much longer than their UK equivalents. Following the British model (set up in the UK in 1997) middle-ranking officers from all three services were educated at the Defence Services Command and Staff College. Just outside Colombo, the Kotelawala Defence University was established in 1981, as a tri-service college for young cadets (aged eighteen to twenty-two) to pursue a three-year course. Foreign senior-officer training migrated from the UK to more friendly, or generous, allies in Pakistan, China, Malaysia, the US and more recently the Philippines. More covert was the COIN training received from the Israelis, who have had a close intelligence and procurement relationship with Sri Lanka since the mid-1980s. In the early period the Israelis assisted with instruction in FIBUA (Fighting In Built-Up Areas).

Army’s weapons

The army’s equipment was initially British Second World War surplus, although some post-war armoured fighting vehicles such as the Saladins, Saracens and Ferrets were also added to the inventory. By the 1970s the USSR, Yugoslavia and China had displaced Britain; Chinese support was the most consistent. Modern counter-insurgency demanded modern military hardware, including heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, 106mm recoilless rifles and 60mm and 81mm mortars as well as up-to-date sniper rifles and night-vision equipment. Armoured mobility was also needed. The old Saladins and Ferrets and the like were too vulnerable to anti-tank weapons let alone mines. China provided an array of tracked and wheeled armoured personnel carriers (APCs) including the Type 85 amphibious variant. From Moscow came forty-five of the BTR-80 APCs to replace the trusty old BTR-152s. After 1985 South Africa provided Buffels which had proved very effective in apartheid’s bush wars, especially against land mines. Sri Lanka then developed its own variants, the Unibuffel (300 were locally manufactured) and the Unicorn. The Soviet Union provided nearly 300 infantry fighting vehicles (variants of the BMP). The Czechs shipped in around eighty T-55 medium battle tanks, while China matched the supply of tanks (Type 59s). The army also used Chinese Type 63 amphibious tanks. Sri Lanka claimed it had sixty-two MTBs (Main Battle Tanks). Much of the imported kit was obsolete or obsolescent, but it was refitted and often proved useful in combat.

Artillery came largely from China, especially 122mm, 130mm and 152mm howitzers introduced from the mid-1990s. From 2000 the deadly offspring of the ‘Stalin Organs’, 122mm multi-barrel rocket launchers, were deployed. Colombo acquired around thirty RM-71s from Czechoslovakia and a handful of BM-21s from Russia. Rocket artillery may not be very accurate but it can have a devastating effect, physically and morally, at the receiving end. The army was also well equipped with the standard array of mortars, from 60mm light mortars to 120mm towed versions — all courtesy of Beijing. It also used fairly sophisticated radar counter-battery equipment, the US-designed AN/TPQ-36 Firefinder at first. But the American system was old and the Sri Lankans had problems with spare parts. Then the Chinese stepped in with better equipment. When I asked the army commander, Lieutenant General Jagath Jayasuriya, what he regarded as his most useful bit of kit, he did not hesitate: ‘Artillery locating radars. We could locate friend and foe. That was the most important. We had five of them [systems]. With interlocking systems, we had total coverage. From 2008, it was in position. ’ Most of the army casualties had been from LTTE mortars and artillery.

A senior artillery expert in the army, Brigadier A. P. C. Napagoda, summarized the 2006 – 09 campaign thus:

From the battle of Marvil Aru to the final battle at the Nandikadal lagoon the artillery brigade employed a sufficient number of light field medium guns, MBRL [multi-barrel rocket launchers] and locative radars … which facilitated the creation of high gun density over any given area.

The Sri Lankans patched together local and imported signals systems. Perhaps the most important was the provision of live feeds from unmanned drones to the army HQ and divisional HQs. The other primary means of communication were radio and CDMA (code division multiple access technology); the latter allowed commanders at all levels secure and interactive full ‘duplex’ communication. VHF and UHF jammers were deployed to disrupt enemy networks. The army also used locally manufactured manpack bomb jammers to nullify LTTE improvised explosive devices.

Sri Lanka acquired a wide range of infantry weapons. The Beretta M9s and Glock 17s were frequently used handguns. The communist-sourced AK-47 assault rifles were very common, and, from the West, Heckler and Koch G3s, FNs and American M16s. Machine guns were varied too: ranging from the classic British Sterling to German MP5s and also Israeli Uzis. The vintage FN MAG gun was a traditional and reliable workhorse. The Chinese versions of the Russian RPD (Type 56 LMG) were also in evidence. Grenade launchers arrived from South Africa and Germany as well as the M-203 from the US. Many of the RPGs (man-portable rocket launchers) came from China and anti-tank missiles were sourced from Pakistan.

Army tactics

On land and sea the government forces fought conventional war unconventionally, sometimes aping and mastering the asymmetric tactics of the insurgents. Above all they used small-group long-range tactics by special forces to destabilize the enemy rear. The Commando regiments were set up in 1980, but the most effective troops were the special forces (SF) set up in 1985.

The special forces comprised around 5,000 troops in five regiments. They trained originally with the Israelis, mainly in urban warfare, but soon the Sri Lankan SF became arguably the best jungle fighters in the world. They fought in eight-man teams, although sometimes two teams of eight would combine, especially in an emergency or for logistical purposes. For example, one surveillance team might overlap with a team establishing a forward-supply cache (usually of ammunition, water and medicine) and then join forces if they met hostile elements. The SF did not use helicopters for insertions, partly because of the jungle terrain and partly because of stealth. They would walk in and often penetrate up to forty to fifty kilometres behind the lines. The air force was used only five times in emergency casevacs, usually by Mi-24 choppers. Nor did the SBS or navy work directly with the army SF. The SF commander told me: ‘We did no landings by sea – ground penetration was safer for us.’ Paradrops were not considered, not least because of the Indian army debacle in Jaffna.

The long-range patrols (LRPs) could last up to a month. They would act as spotters for air and artillery strikes. They would also disrupt LTTE movement not least by targeting their leaders and communications. The SF were also used defensively to plug successful LTTE counter-attacks or to staunch the occasional LTTE spectacular. For example, on 29 September 2008, the LTTE elite Black Tigers hit an air force base in the rear of army operations. Two Tiger aircraft also bombed the base. SF squadrons were rushed in to halt further LTTE exploitation of the surprise attack.

Interestingly, the special forces did not utilize captured insurgents, partly because many Tigers took suicide pills rather than surrender. Even when they were captured, the SF were extremely reluctant to accept any ‘turned’ insurgents. Despite the widespread and effective use of so-called ‘turned terrorists’ in the Rhodesian Selous Scouts, itself based upon British ‘pseudo-gang’ techniques applied in Malaya and Kenya, the Sri Lankan SF deployed only a handful of Tamil-speaking former Tigers and then very reluctantly and very occasionally. According to SF sources, there was only one example of a pseudo using his insurgent knowledge and the Tamil language to enable SF troops to disengage from a position where they were vastly outnumbered.

The army’s massive recruitment drive – attracting 3,000-5,000 men per month in the last two years of the war – allowed for attack and defence in depth. Combined services provided two or three infantry lines to prevent the previous LTTE tactic of outflanking or penetrating the lines, and then attacking from the rear. This would imply an unimaginative linear type of mentality. In fact, the ethos of the SF and commando long-range patrols were applied throughout the infantry in the focus on small-unit initiative. Special Infantry Operations Training (SIOT) – the initial courses were forty-four days – allowed the small units to carry out complex operations in often difficult terrain. The insurgents knew their own territory and so the army sought infantrymen who had been born and bred in the villages and who might also possess the same familiarity with jungles and endurance as the guerrillas they encountered. The small group approach from the SF down to the ordinary infantry created flexibility and often area dominance. Ability, not least from NCOs, was rewarded; promotion of good NCOs to officers was also encouraged. Mission command was to be seen at most levels, certainly best practice in COIN.

A close observer of the war, Dr David Kilcullen, an acknowledged authority on COIN, commented on the final stages:

The Tigers chose to confront the government in a symmetrical way, in terms of open warfare. In response, the Sri Lankan army destroyed them with a combination of conventional and counter-guerrilla tactics that denied the Tigers a comparative advantage while the tempo of operations prevented the Tigers from regrouping.

The basic approach of the LTTE was to combine guerrilla warfare, positional defence and IEDs to slow down and inflict heavy casualties by indirect fire – artillery and mortars. The LTTE erected numerous ditches and bunds which were often heavily, and randomly, mined. Army sappers had to devise all sort of means of dealing with these fortifications, including the use of improvised Bangalore ‘torpedoes’. An independent bridging squadron was also formed as part of the combat engineering effort. On a smaller scale, the infantry used spring-loaded ladders to deal with bunds. Engineers modified tractors to compensate for the lack of roads, especially during heavy monsoons and flooding. Often rations had to be airdropped. The much larger army required a massive logistical back-up.

One engineering challenge was met by installing steel mesh in the Iranamadu and Udayar Kattu reservoirs to protect against underwater Tiger infiltrators. Water was also a challenge for the Army Medical Corps. Near drowning, an unexpected type of casualty, was encountered when the LTTE blasted the bund around the Kalmadukulam Tank (reservoir). Frontline medics had to deal with 60 per cent of casualties from mortar and artillery blasts and 40 per cent from gunshot wounds. They also had to treat tropical diseases, especially Hepatitis A. Post-traumatic stress disorders also took their toll.

In short, tactical flexibility plus the massive numerical superiority (as well as air supremacy) allowed the army to dominate and then overwhelm the Tigers towards the end of the campaign.

Sri Lanka Navy Fast Attack Craft
Sri Lanka Navy turns 68

The Navy

As befits an island in the middle of crucial sea lanes, naval defence has always been a major security issue. In 1937 the Ceylon Naval Volunteer Force (CNVF) was set up. The Second World War meant a rapid absorption into the Royal Navy. In 1950 a small nucleus of officers and men forged the Royal Ceylon Navy, to change its name, as with the other services, when the country became a republic. Initial naval expansion depended upon purchase of ex-British and Canadian ships. The navy suffered perhaps even more than the army from the fallout from the 1962 coup conspiracy. Ships were sold off and manpower reduced, as was training in the UK. The navy was therefore ill-prepared for the first JVP insurrection and the beginning of the Tamil revolt. The immediate stopgap was the gift of initially one of the more advanced Shershen-class torpedo boats from the USSR and purchase of the unsophisticated Chinese Shanghai-11-class fast gunboats for coastal patrols and port protection. New bases were built primarily to interdict smuggling operations from southern India. The navy also developed a land component for base defence, becoming known later as Naval Patrolmen and capable of offensive operations. The navy also replicated the British SBS – the Special Boat Service. As the LTTE war expanded – and the Tigers relied on extensive overseas procurement – Sri Lanka developed a blue-water strategy capable of sinking large ships, even just outside the territorial waters of Australia.

The naval HQ was based in Colombo; this controlled six naval command areas. After the war some of the coastal defence was transferred to a newly formed Coast Guard.

The 2012 fleet consisted of over fifty combat, support ships and inshore craft, sourced from China, India, Israel and, more recently, from indigenous build.

The IISS put the size of the navy as 9,000 personnel, both active and reserve, but this appeared to be an underestimate. Probably the more accurate figure was 48,000, of whom approximately 15,000 were dedicated to land deployment. Women served in regular and reserve roles. Initially women were limited to the medical branch but the tempo of war led to females serving in all branches. A female doctor reached the rank of commodore in 2007.

The navy’s weapons

The navy boasted about 150 vessels, but the core consisted of around fifty combat and support ships. In addition, the navy rapidly manufactured 200 small inshore patrol craft. The majority of the larger vessels came from China, India and Israel, though the Sri Lankans began building their own bigger ships. The largest warships were five offshore patrol vessels, with the SLNS Jayasagara built in Sri Lanka (and commissioned in 1983). All the blue-water vessels could operate naval helicopters (but insufficient funding and air force opposition prevented any such deployment). The offshore patrol ships played a vital role in interdicting and finally sinking the major Tiger supply and storage ships. In 2001 two Israeli Saar 4-class fast missile boats were procured. Dubbed the Nandimithra class by the Sri Lankan Navy (SLN), they carried Gabriel 11 anti-ship missiles as well as a range of guns which augmented the conventional warfighting capability.

The workhorse of the navy – involved in regular coastal combat – was the fast attack flotilla. It was formed in the early 1980s with Israeli Dvora-class boats to counter LTTE gun-running in the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka. Two Dvoras were purchased in 1984 and another four in 1986. Around twenty-five metres long, and displacing about forty-seven tons, able to reach 45 knots and bristling with rapid-fire guns, they were able to deter the ‘swarming’ wolf-pack tactics of the Sea Tigers – a major element in asymmetric naval warfare. Small fibreglass Sea Tiger suicide craft would attack naval and civilian convoys. The fast-attack flotilla also patrolled the many creeks and landing points in LTTE territory to disrupt smaller boats securing resupply from the larger blue-water Tiger ships. The flotilla was made up of a variety of fast-attack craft types: four heavier Israeli Super Dvora (Mark 11) were delivered in 1995 – 96. The navy also used the Israeli Shaldag-class design to construct its own Colombo class. Ten other fast-attack craft originated in China.

Compared with their counterparts in other navies, the SLN fast-attack craft were much more heavily armed. They started with two or three machine guns but became more heavily armed to counter the arsenals fitted on Sea Tiger craft. Eventually, the fast attack craft had Typhoon 25 – 30mm stabilized cannon as the main armament. They were connected to day-and-night, all-weather, long-range electro-optic systems. The recent Colombo class was equipped with an Elop MSIS optronic director and the Typhoon GFCS boasted its own weapons control system. They also sported fancy surface search radar systems. In addition they carried weapons such as the Oerlikon 20mm cannon, automatic grenade launchers and PKM general purpose machine guns. This sounds over-armed but heavy firepower was required to protect the crews from suicide Sea Tigers trying to ram them or explode themselves close by. The fast-attack craft typically had eighteen crew members and operated in group patrols, usually, but not always, at night. The Tigers fought very hard and would not retreat; occasionally the flotilla had to withdraw from engagements. A fast-attack captain said, ‘Flak jackets were no good, except for bits of shrapnel; the heavy calibre [Tiger] guns would tear people in half.’

Inshore patrol craft were much smaller (fourteen metres long). They were used for harbour defence and amphibious operations. In addition, the seven-metre-long Arrow class were heavily armed speedboats manufactured in Sri Lanka and used by the SBS and its variant, the Rapid Action Boat Squadron (RABS). The SBS, formed in 2005, comprised around 600 men. Those who passed the tough training for the SBS but who were not good enough for the final selection phase could join the RABS, which numbered around 400 men.

To support larger amphibious operations the SLN had a tank landing ship and other utility craft. The Yuhai-class ship could transport two tanks and 250 troops. There were also smaller Chinese-made landing craft. The SLN had several auxiliary vessels for personnel transport and replenishment.

During the war the navy had no dedicated air assets or UAVs. Afterwards, the embryonic fleet air arm based on the offshore patrol ships started experimenting with HAL Chetak (the Indian revamp of the venerable French Alouette III) and HH-65 Dolphin choppers, used extensively by the US Coast Guard in short range air-sea rescue roles.

Most of the naval assets and SBS units were based during the war at Trincomalee, one of the best and most attractive harbours in the world. It was attacked consistently during the war, from and under the sea, and from cadres who had infiltrated the nearby wooded hinterland. Any British visitor to the base would be struck by its colonial heritage: the streets and junctions are named after Oxford Street and Piccadilly Circus. Monkeys clamber over verandahs of Seymour Cottage in Drummond Hill Road. It is very orderly, very Royal Navy, including the smart waiters in the mess/wardroom serving up a perfectly chilled gin and tonic in the sticky heat.

Maritime tactics

It is very rare for an insurgency’s naval forces to reach parity and even on occasions outmatch the conventional COIN power’s force. The naval war was long, active and intense: it involved the biggest tonnage of ships sunk since the Falklands war of 1982. To defend the 679 nautical miles of coastline the navy grew to nearly 50,000 (including 15,000 Naval Patrolmen for land-based security), almost the same size as the Indian navy. But for most of the war the Sea Tigers proved more flexible and destructive especially with their swarming tactics mixing suicide and attack boats. They sank a Dvora fast attack craft in August 1995 and another in March 1996. The Tigers filmed their sea victories for their propaganda outlets. They destroyed a further six of other classes of fast attack craft. After the ceasefire ended in 2005, the Sea Tigers sent out larger and more craft, mixing suicide craft among the wolf pack. The Black Tiger suicide crews and boats were difficult to detect, with their low profiles and 35 – 40 knot speed.

Just as the army developed the small-group concept, the navy advanced its own small boat variant. They tried to ‘out guerrilla’ the guerrillas. The navy copied the Sea Tigers’ asymmetric swarm but on a much larger scale. Hundreds of small inshore patrol craft were built from fibreglass; the smallest was the twenty-three-foot Arrow. Large fourteen-metre and seventeen-metre variants were also built. The larger boats had double-barrelled 23mm guns and a 44mm automatic grenade launcher (the latter acquired from Singapore). The fast-attack craft had more endurance, reach and firepower, but they were unstable in heavy seas and often needed to be augmented by the small boats to defeat swarms. The inshore patrol craft (IPCs) were based in strategically important locations ready for rapid-reaction forays against surprise assaults by the Sea Tigers. Although much of the fighting was at night, the navy had to maintain twenty-four-hour surveillance. Several squadrons could unite to form an anti-swarm of sometimes up to fifty or sixty boats. Echoing infantry tactics on land, they used an arrowhead formation to expand the arc of fire. Or they would attack in three adjacent columns in single file to mask their numbers and increase the element of surprise.

The SBS operated in four- or eight-man teams, deploying in Arrow boats or rubber inflatable boats for covert insertions. The SBS provided vital surveillance but also took part in land-strike missions. SBS basic training was for one year, with the majority dropping out before the end. Their training was said to be augmented by Indian Marine Commandos, as well as US special forces, including SEALs. The RABS manned the large number of anti-swarming boats, a tough and dangerous role.

The navy’s lacklustre performance was much improved after 2006. It contributed immensely to the government’s war effort by coastal interdiction of arms supplies to the Tigers, then it went further by adopting an extended blue-water strategy by sinking eight ‘Pigeon’ ships, the LTTE floating warehouses. Crucially, it also provided the umbilical supply line to the garrison in Jaffna. Towards the end of the war it prevented escape by sea of the surviving Tiger leadership, as well as engaging in humanitarian missions for civilians fleeing the fighting.

The keys to LTTE logistics were the unflagged merchant ships which would loiter 1,600 kilometres from the island, and then advance to 150 or so kilometres off the coast to liaise with LTTE fishing trawlers, escorted by armed Sea Tiger boats. The navy initially attacked the logistic trawler fleet, sinking eleven in the first year of renewed fighting. With the help of Indian and, sometimes, US intelligence, the navy sought out the LTTE Pigeon ships. The navy deployed its most up-to-date offshore patrol vessels, the Sayura (ex-Indian navy, re-commissioned in 2000) and Samudura (formerly the USS Courageous, transferred from the US Coast Guard in 2004); it quickly converted old merchant ships and rust-bucket tankers as replenishment vessels. The long-range fleet sank the first floating warehouse on 17 September 2006, 1,350 nautical miles from Sri Lanka. A further three were sunk in early 2007. Then audaciously the navy extended itself 1,620 nautical miles southeast, close to the Australian territory of the Cocos Islands off the coast of Indonesia, to destroy three ships in September 2007 and a fourth in early October.

Vice Admiral D. W. A. S. Dissanaayake, the naval commander, was sitting in his splendid office in Naval HQ in Colombo, with a fine view of the sea and the lighthouse built by the British. He was a poet and songwriter in his spare time. ‘We are not a big navy – we don’t have frigates. We improvised,’ he said. ‘But we went nearly all the way to Australian waters and sank the last four vessels.’

The Pigeon ships did not possess heavy-calibre weapons but they would open up with machine guns, mortars and RPGs when challenged by the navy. The Vice Admiral explained how – after initial resistance – the LTTE seamen did not offer to surrender. They either swallowed their cyanide tablets or simply drowned. On both sides in the naval war, there were few stories of capture at sea or rescue of survivors. Little or no quarter was given in littoral or deepwater combat. Because the LTTE vessels were rogue ships, naval officers claimed the right to protect themselves when they came under attack from the Pigeons. The loss of their supplies of weapons, ammunition and medicines was a major logistical defeat for the Tigers.

The Vice Admiral was equally voluble about the navy’s logistical achievements, especially the supply to Jaffna. The city was an icon to both sides in the war. The Tigers occupied it in 1986 and the Indian forces managed to briefly and precariously occupy it in 1987; it returned to rebel control from 1989 to 1995. The army regained the city in 1995. Thereafter its long siege was as symbolic to the Colombo government as Leningrad (now St Petersburg) was to the Soviets in the Second World War. It had to be held at all costs.

The navy escorted a converted cruise ship they dubbed the Jetliner to resupply the city. It took five to six hours to pass LTTE controlled coastline on the dangerous journey from Trincomalee up the northeast coast to Jaffna. The western route is not navigable, except by very small boats or hovercraft. The Jetliner, heavily armed itself with machine guns, was typically escorted by over twenty ships and boats, to deter Sea Tiger raids. Beechcraft aircraft and UAVs tracked the convoy. It left early in the morning and, once in Jaffna, had to organize a very quick turnaround, thirty minutes, so as to traverse the LTTE coast before dark on the return journey. Over forty tons of cargo and approximately 3,000 troops were transported once or twice a week. The whole of the navy and indeed most of the top brass in defence HQ would be on alert until the convoy sneaked past the dangers of LTTE artillery and sea attack. Jaffna was also supplied by air but only the navy could provide the heavy lift of sufficient men and equipment to keep the city in government hands.

‘If the ship had gone down, we would have lost the war,’ the navy commander admitted.

The navy was also proud of its actions during the final phases of the war. The Vice Admiral insisted the navy did not use any naval gunnery to attack the LTTE remnants in the Cage, but it did take extensive risks from last-ditch suicide boats to rescue thousands of civilians from the beaches as they tried to flee Tiger punishment squads and the Sri Lankan army envelopment.

The navy endured heavy fighting — some sea battles lasted fourteen hours — and many early reverses in ships sunk. The navy leadership was also targeted by Black Tiger squads. On 16 November 1992 the head of the navy, Vice Admiral W. W. E. C. Fernando, was killed in Colombo by a suicide bomber on a motorcycle who drove into the Admiral’s staff car. In October 2007 a truck bomber killed an assembly of 107 off-duty sailors, one of the most deadly suicide attacks of the war. In all, the navy lost over a thousand of its personnel in the conflict. Nevertheless, it finally achieved sea dominance because of its small-boat concept in defeating the Sea Tiger swarms, and the major interdiction of LTTE supplies. It was a four-dimensional war – a land, air and sea and underwater fight. The navy did not develop a sophisticated anti-mine warfare capability, however. The Tigers used frogmen with mines and semi-submersibles to destroy navy ships. The Tigers were trying to develop submarine warfare; various crude prototypes were captured by the army in the last stages of the war.


So the Indian military and civil order, Kipling and Lord Curzon’s mighty machines for doing nothing, were finally creaking into action. The authorities in Delhi, Kandy and London had their eyes fixed on the winter of 1944 for the start of a major campaign in Assam. As so often in the past, the Japanese caught them on the back foot. What they thought was mere probing of the defences in Arakan and on the Manipur border developed into Japan’s last great offensive in Southeast Asia during March and April 1944. Why did Mutaguchi and the Japanese high command initiate this incredibly costly attack just at the time when they were also undertaking the Ichigo offensive against Chiang Kai Shek in South China? Why did they contemplate a major land push when they were under intolerable pressure from the US Pacific fleet?

The Japanese themselves saw this as the final throw in Southeast Asia. They hoped to knock out British India and had been told by Subhas Bose that once they penetrated the Bengal plains there would be a mass revolt on a larger scale than in 1942. They seem to have believed that Germany was about to counter-attack the Allies in Italy and frustrate a potential invasion over the Channel. If they knocked out Britain and China, they could hope for a negotiated peace with the Americans. If, instead, they waited until the autumn, their air power would have dwindled further, their food and raw material situation would have collapsed and the Allied build-up in India would have reached its peak. The Japanese plan, as in 1942, was for rapid deep penetration and they expected the British armies to fall back as they had always done previously.

There were now also strong political reasons for giving the commanders in Singapore and Rangoon the go-ahead. In Tokyo the position of Prime Minister Tojo, the super hawk, was in the balance. The Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere was running into trouble with shortages of essential commodities, soaring prices and labour problems. On the ground there were signs of restiveness on the part of the Burma Defence Army and the Indian National Army. In fact, the BDA was already plotting against the Japanese. Some of its leaders had approached the British as early as the end of 1943. The Japanese were already suspicious and a faction within the local military and intelligence services even took the view that Ba Maw was contemplating treachery, making a ham-fisted attempt to assassinate him and replace him with a more compliant character, a prince of the former Burmese royal house. Wiser counsels prevailed, however, for the last thing the Japanese high command needed during the assault on India was a political coup in the rear.

The INA remained steadfastly anti-British but officers and men bridled at being used as a kind of coolie corps by Japanese troops who had never really taken to them, finding Indian food customs and the long hair of the Sikh troops, for instance, completely incomprehensible. Subhas Bose himself knew that this was the critical moment and was putting great pressure on the Japanese high command. His men were ready. The INA had trained specialists in sabotage and infiltration in its academy in Penang. Some agents were already in place across the Indian border. It was now or never. From the moment Bose had arrived in Rangoon, a large proportion of the city’s remaining Indian residents had been glowing with pride. The previous November the anniversary of the death of the last Mughal emperor of India had been celebrated. He had died in exile in Rangoon where the British sent him in 1859. The chairman of the Burma branch of the Indian Independence League had vowed to present Netaji, the affectionate name for Bose, with earth from the emperor’s grave in a silver casket to accompany him on the march to India.29 Now Indians mobbed the trains packed with INA troops as they steamed out of the city’s stations to cries of ‘Chalo Delhi!’ and ‘Azad Hind Zindabad!’ ‘Long Live Free India!’ Preparations were made for a ‘Netaji week’ from 4 to 10 July to celebrate Subhas Bose’s assumption of leadership of the freedom movement in East Asia a year earlier.

The commanders of the three armies now facing each other in the Assam hills intensified the propaganda effort amongst their own troops. How to keep the civilian population on their side was the key issue. The Japanese commanders were particularly worried about priests, women and cows. A pamphlet was produced for Japanese soldiers entitled ‘Everyday Knowledge about India’. It cautioned them against acts of violence, especially against temples and priests. The British had been vilified for going into religious buildings with their boots on. The pamphlet also confidently reported that ‘there is probably no place in the world where women are more bother’. In other words, the procurement of ‘comfort women’ in the subcontinent was going to prove a problem. Above all, soldiers should leave cattle alone, even when hungry. British counter-propaganda had constantly harped on the way in which Japanese troops had casually slaughtered and eaten any cow they came across in their passage through Burma. The Japanese took the hint. A document captured later revealed that Japanese officers had been sent on a special course to learn about goat breeding preparatory to the advance. Huge numbers of the animals were rounded up. They were to be the staple food of the army as it advanced into Assam, ‘to avoid offending the scruples of Indian people’ by eating cattle. As it turned out, the Japanese infantrymen faced less complex issues of cuisine as they began their great assault. A captured diary reported of one feint, ‘We were ordered to withdraw – many dropped out of the ranks due to weakness from lack of food. We have to chew uncooked rice to satisfy our hunger. The enemy certainly eat well. I wish I could have a stomach full of such good food.’

Japanese morale was still high, but it was the morale of desperation. Captain Shosaku Kameyama of the Japanese 31st Division said that most of his comrades were aged between twenty and twenty-two. They came from the devoutly Buddhist Niigata prefecture. He bewailed the fact that most of these young men were unmarried. They could not become ancestors after death and were later forgotten by the younger generation. In 1944 they ‘fought for their country, to save their country. They believed that their country was in a serious situation. When they left their home town, many schoolchildren and local people cheered their departure, singing songs and waving flags. This had greatly impressed the soldiers, who had a strong obligation to their family and local folk.’ It was this unquestioning belief that, even in the distant jungles of Burma, they were literally defending their native soil that explains the almost fanatical bravery and self-sacrifice commented on by so many of their British and Indian adversaries. It was harder for the British or Indians to believe that they were doing the same thing. To the British, the enemy of their homeland was Hitler and even poorly educated Indian soldiers were now deeply ambivalent about the Raj. For the Allies, the offensive spirit was kept up by regimental loyalty and, by 1944, by a fierce and cold hatred of the merciless Japanese.

Alongside the Japanese now stood about 40,000 men of Subhas Bose’s INA. Its commanders launched a major propaganda offensive too. They told their men in numerous political talks about British atrocities in India. They spoke of the bloody suppression of the 1857 rebellion, the massacre at Amritsar in 1919 and the recent and still unrolling famine in which millions of their countrymen had starved to death as a result of British neglect. The British Indian battalions would, they were told, desert the moment they met a truly Indian army. The British, it was said, were so worried by the unreliability of their own troops that they had brought in nearly wild West Africans to keep an eye on them. The commanders knew they had their own vulnerabilities. Subhas Bose constantly invoked the Mahatma in his messages to the troops and radio broadcasts. The Congress leaders were national icons even for those who wanted to liberate India by force of arms. Yet Gandhi and Nehru had persistently rejected the tactics of the INA, even when they were immured in British jails. This was because the one opposed violence and the other opposed fascism. Even before the defeat at Imphal and Kohima, there were signs of fractiousness and worry amongst the INA commanders. A captured letter from the Officer Commanding, North India Guerrilla Regiment, to Subhas Bose in April 1944 said that the troops had set off in high hopes for the liberation of India. When they got to the front line, the Japanese assigned them to tasks such as road making, repairing bridges, driving bullocks or, worse, carrying rations for Japanese soldiers. Often they had to eat Japanese food. Malaria was tightening its grip in the absence of medicines. The Japanese commander said they would eventually fight, but he was often being asked ‘Sahib, when the Japs are advancing into the sacred soil of our motherland, what are we doing sitting in remote corners of Burma?’ In an ironic recapitulation of the relations between British and Indian troops, the Japanese refused to salute INA officers.

The British behind the lines began to be jumpy as February turned to March. There were sporadic acts of sabotage across India. In districts such as Midnapur in Bengal and the ‘badlands’ of southern Bihar revolutionary nationalists had gone underground in 1942 to escape arrest. From here they carried on a stubborn campaign of anti-British propaganda, attacks on communications and the occasional murder of Indian government officials. On both the east and west coasts parties of INA special forces had been landed from Japanese submarines. The Criminal Investigation Department lost sight of them for days at a time and they found many sympathizers among ordinary people in bazaars and villages.

Up in Simla, Dorman-Smith idled away his exile, taking his dachshunds for walks. He continued to argue with officers of South East Asia Command about the role of civilians in the reconstruction of Burma. He listened to INA propaganda broadcasts. In his letters to his wife, he ridiculed the ‘March on Delhi’: ‘Poor old Netaji [Bose], he still slaughters the 7th Indian Division nightly over the radio and is most pained that their imminent surrender never takes place.’ As S. A. Ayer, Bose’s minister of information, recorded afterwards, Netaji, who also had a stout sense of humour, listened to the British broadcasts out of Delhi with equal amusement. British morale was boosted by ‘Wingate’s stout show’. Dorman-Smith was referring to the Chindits’ second great campaign to strike behind the Japanese lines with gliders, a campaign which saw the death of Wingate himself in a plane crash on 24 March. Here and there, though, there was a note of concern; as Dorman-Smith wrote to his wife, ‘it may be that your old pal Bose’s propaganda is having a bit of an effect’. On 23 March as the Japanese push on Imphal developed, Dorman-Smith and the deskbound military became increasingly concerned. An ‘anxious time’ was coming.

The British stepped up the propaganda effort. ‘Old Burma hands’ recruited from Steel Brothers and other major firms toured the British regiments giving them pep talks. There was little need to stress the hatefulness of the Japanese enemy to these troops. But the attitude to be adopted to the Burmese when the breakthrough finally came was a more touchy question in view of the constant barrage of denunciation directed against them since 1942. In their briefings to the troops, the old hands gave little quarter. According to one, the Burmese were close to ‘primitive savagery’ and this had been demonstrated by their treatment of Indian coolies in 1942. Other morale-building talks urged that though there were very large numbers of ‘bad hats’ in the country, these were concentrated in a few particular places. Shwebo north of Mandalay was one black spot, for here the Burmese kings had sent their most troublesome subjects into exile. The Delta had always harboured ‘bad hats’ too. Here the British had encountered the fiercest opposition in 1886 and 1930 – 31, and they were likely to do so again. All the same, a pep talk opined, ‘the average Burman will be found to be a gentleman if treated as such’. Another improving talk warned British troops against constipation and consequent hypochondria. It added: ‘half our trouble with the natives is due to their remaining constipated for several days without asking for medicines’. Perhaps this was just a conceit, but the writer’s tendency to equate native political problems with bowel complaints was a bad augury for the future. Within a year these same old Burma hands were to be in action against the Japanese alongside the Burmese fighters they now denounced as ‘quislings’ and ‘fascists’. For some of them, the mental leap would be too great.

Among Indian troops, morale was rising. Indian officers were taking over the ‘josh groups’ or regimental chat sessions. This was a new breed, better educated and more independent than the old corps of native officers. They felt on a par with the British and began to convey a new confidence to the troops. The soldiers began to put memories of Arakan behind them. Increasingly, they were being taught to fight as thinking men rather than automata. Commanders of the Indian divisions, notably Frank Messervy, built on Auchinleck’s new training programmes for Indian soldiers at base camp. Units held regular post mortems on the fighting, discussing ways to counter Japanese jungle warfare tactics and teaching individual soldiers to think independently. General Slim, shrewd as ever, sensed the change and spent much more time talking to the Indian and Gurkha soldiers. He began his campaign ‘not so much like a general and more like a parliamentary candidate’ trying to get the ear of his electors, ‘except that I never made a promise’. Speaking to groups of soldiers and officers along the front and in base camps, Slim came to think that Indian troops responded even better than British troops to appeals on abstract grounds to religion and patriotism.

On 15 April 1944 Mountbatten moved his headquarters from the ‘marble palaces’ and intrigue of Delhi to the bashas (hutments) of Kandy in Ceylon, which he insisted were nearer the front. His aim was to counter the ‘forgotten army’ feeling that particularly affected British troops immobilized for months in the dust or rains of India or stuck in the mud and malaria of Assam. The army’s propaganda and entertainment wing had a good time targeting this. ‘Laugh with SEAC’ printed a little poem, ‘Sticking it out in Delhi’, which summed up the sense of boredom. It began:

Fighting the Nazis from Delhi,

Fighting the Japs from Kashmir,

Exiled from England, we feel you should know,

The way we are taking it here.

Sticking it out at the Cecil,

Doing our bit for the War,

Going through hell at Maiden’s Hotel,

Where they stop serving lunch at four.

The previous autumn, Mountbatten had recruited Frank Owen of the London Evening Standard to run South East Asia Command’s propaganda newspaper, the Phoenix. Its editor, ‘Supremo’ said, would hold ‘by far the most important job that a lieutenant has ever held in the army’. Mountbatten tried to instil into the troops, by way of Owen’s editorials, a sense that Kandy represented a new beginning. Later in 1944, the two arch-propagandists began to work on the Americans. Owen tried to cajole Frank Capra, the Hollywood film director, to put a better gloss on British and Indian troops in one of his films of jungle warfare. By the end of the year plans were afoot to produce a joint Anglo-American forces magazine for SEAC.

In a sense, the more difficult propaganda war for the British was inside India itself. Starvation continued in some parts of Bengal. Perversely, a return to relative agricultural prosperity in the Punjab discouraged enlistment there. A huge and apparently accidental explosion ripped apart the Bombay dockyards at the beginning of April. Indian labour fled into the hinterland, anticipating Japanese bombing. The enemy advance into Arakan raised memories of 1942 and their propaganda was believed even when Kohima’s capture was announced more than once in their broadcasts. To cap it all, there was a serious shortage of coal in eastern India, labour was scarce and the Indian merchant classes were rattled. Yet somehow the Allied victories in Europe meant that morale never plummeted as low as it had done two years before. Officials noted that bank deposits outweighed withdrawals by two to one. The opposite had been the case in 1942. The political situation remained deadlocked with the Congress leadership still languishing in jail. But the Muslim League was now becoming more and more positive on the issue of recruitment, hoping to cut the ground out from under the ruling Unionist Party ministry in the Punjab. The communists were also very active in promoting recruitment and countering Congress propaganda against the war. In the long run, they told would-be recruits, the real battle would soon be against imperialism and capitalism.

Where the two armies encountered each other, the propaganda war between the Indian army and the INA was as sharp as the fighting. INA commissars lectured Indian army POWs with stories of British atrocities and won some of them over. A young Gurkha of the INA Bahadur Group infiltrated British lines. On capture he wept copiously in front of the commanding officer and said he was a refugee and had lost both of his parents at the hands of the Burmese. The officer believed him, gave him a certificate of good conduct and set him free. He continued spying for the INA. Other INA men made contact with former supporters of Bose’s Forward Bloc as they moved into Assam and began to hatch plans for a general rising in the event of a Japanese breakthrough.

But these local political successes were offset by the grave situation of Axis forces even before the advance on Imphal ground to a halt. The Japanese had finally tested their logistical capabilities to destruction. Less and less food was coming up from the Burmese plains. Soldiers in both the armies were living on tiny parcels of rice supplemented with roots. INA troops were fed with Japanese food to which many were allergic. Disease was now rampant among Indian and Japanese soldiers as the supply of medicines dwindled to nothing. This was at the very time when the Allied armies were beginning to get the benefit of wartime advances in tropical medicines made in Canada and the United States. In 1942 disease rates in the British and Indian armies had been over 20 per cent during the flight from Burma. By June 1944, they had fallen to 6 per cent. Still, morale among the INA seems to have held up well. Bose remained invincible in his optimism, announcing that the march on Delhi was making slow but steady progress even as the Japanese began to withdraw from the Assam front. British intelligence itself reported that the INA was still overwhelmingly anti-British. It was also reported, though, that relations between the INA and the Japanese had begun to sour further. The Japanese commanders were dubious of the INA’s tenacity as a fighting force. This was probably unreasonable as the INA were never properly supplied and remained dependent on captured British arms and ammunition which were now harder to come by.

The first test came once again in Arakan. Japanese forces began to probe and push against the positions to which the British had been forced back during the dismal fighting of the previous spring. Their aim was to direct attention away from Mutaguchi’s forces which were now building up for their push on Imphal. The assault began on 6 February 1944, about three weeks before the great U-Go offensive to the north. Japanese forces moved north and began to encircle the British HQ of Lieutenant-General Messervy at Launggyuang. As the battle developed, something unusual happened. Rather than retreat, the British held their ground. Their Spitfires knocked the Japanese fighters out of the sky. Ammunition, medical supplies, food and even Frank Owen’s newspaper SEAC were parachuted to the British strongpoint at Sinzweya. Tanks and heavy artillery, in which the British were now overwhelmingly superior, turned the course of the battle in their favour. By 26 February the Japanese offensive had been broken. For the first time a British and Indian force had met and decisively defeated a major Japanese offensive, leaving 5,000 of the enemy dead on the field. The army, gloomy and apprehensive as it had been a mere nine months earlier during Irwin’s watch, had now massively improved morale.

There was something else. On 7 February a Japanese assault had entered one of the field hospitals. They massacred the Indian and British medical team and bayoneted the wounded in their beds. News of this and other similar atrocities spread along the whole eastern front. British, Indian and African troops began to loathe the Japanese with a hatred almost unparalleled in modern warfare. Thereafter, Allied soldiers often casually killed any Japanese they encountered without the slightest compunction. Hatred of the enemy appears to have become one of the great causes of the Allied army, a more potent force by far than loyalty to the king-emperor. Indian troops extended this hatred even to their former comrades of the INA. When they encountered them in battle, Indian troops shot INA men in large numbers, to the relief of British intelligence officers.

The next major event to unroll on the Burma front was Orde Wingate’s second Chindit expedition, Operation Thursday. Its purpose was not so much to help the British push into central Burma but to cut off the Japanese forces in the north of the country and relieve pressure on the Chinese under Stilwell to the north. Popular with Churchill and Mountbatten, Wingate had dramatically built up his forces since the previous year, even though some senior officers worried about the diversion of men from the main battle front. Thursday drew on more than 10,000 combat troops, supported by US commandos and equipment. This large force was deployed by means of glider drops far into north Burma, around Indaw. The campaign proceeded at a slower pace after Wingate himself died in an air accident early in the operation. Mountbatten paid tribute to ‘one of the most forceful and dynamic personalities this war has produced’. The results of the operation remain a matter of controversy in the military-history literature. Yet there seems no question that the sudden appearance of such a large Allied force at his rear disrupted Mutaguchi’s plans and unnerved his commanders, even though he initially dismissed the attack as a sideshow. The disruption of Japanese communications and battle plans in the north also significantly aided Stilwell’s advance on Myitkyina later in the year, though he, too, was highly sceptical of Thursday. Most important, perhaps, was the psychological effect of the expedition on British and Japanese morale. Once again, Wingate had created a morale-boosting legend precisely at the time when the British were under maximum pressure. The Japanese never entirely regained the advantage of surprise and flexibility which had served them so well early in the war. Over the next two years, they were constantly looking over their shoulders, fearing attacks by the Chindits and other Allied special forces.

The Arakan attack was the curtain raiser to the far more massive battle that unfolded a few weeks later to the north. Imphal and Kohima were, for the British, the defining land battles of the war in the East. Mutaguchi planned a typical two-pronged attack. One thrust was to the south on Imphal. The northern advance was intended to drive through Kohima and ultimately encircle the massive base being built up at Dimapur, where David Atkins and his transport corps had met its Waterloo the previous year. The Japanese attack on Kohima almost succeeded. On 17 April the garrison of 2,000 men nearly fell. This would have been another terrible blow to British morale and prestige, but the garrison was initially relieved on 19 April. According to Ba Maw, Bose had an Indian governor and even a new Free India currency ready for the captured strong-points. Ba Maw added that a joint INA-Japanese advance was delayed by wrangling between the two sides over who should take the credit. Bose wanted to raise the Indian flag while the Japanese wanted the first towns to fall in British India as a gift for the Emperor Hirohito on his forty-third sides over who should take the credit. Bose wanted to raise the Indian flag while the Japanese wanted the first towns to fall in British India as a gift for the Emperor Hirohito on his forty-third birthday.

In the end, though, it was military factors which saved the day for the British. The British had tanks in the sector and the Japanese did not. This can be attributed to the huge improvement in both land and sea communications that had occurred on the Allied side since the previous spring. An animal-based Japanese army was quite suddenly facing a mechanized British Indian one. Another key factor was the formidable fighting power of the revitalized Indian element of the army. It was Punjabis and Gurkhas, in particular, the men of the 5th, 17th and 23rd Indian divisions, who came to the rescue of the embattled garrisons. These troops were better fed, better led by the hardened elite of Viceroy’s Commissioned Officers and better directed as a result of effective unit-based propaganda work. Once the Kohima garrison had been rescued the British battled to retake the Kohima area throughout April and May. Eventually, in June, the Japanese offensive began to crumble and their troops, out of food and ammunition, began to fall back southward towards Imphal. There were, of course, many episodes of British heroism and grit, notably the battle on the Kohima tennis court in May where, for instance, Sergeant J. Waterhouse of B Squadron, 149 Tank Regiment, kept dozens of attackers at bay. After the battles of April 1944, however, the British army began to use Indian troops to stiffen the morale of the British in particular circumstances, reversing a generations-old practice of the Indian army at war. Here, on India’s jungle-clad eastern frontier as much as in Whitehall or the Congress Working Committee, the Raj really came to an end.

Imphal showed the Allies using another of their decisive advantages: air power. In the first two weeks of April the Japanese attack on the southerly strong-point was as fierce as it was anywhere during the whole war. The Japanese wanted to neutralize the local airfields and push on towards the Indian plains where they hoped to spark off a popular revolt. With Mutaguchi in personal command, massive and well-trained forces were available. Again, the garrison held its ground. This time the air drop was on an equally massive scale. Against resistance from some American officers, Mountbatten diverted US transport planes from supplying Chiang Kai Shek over the Hump to China. With the garrison consolidated by parachute drops in brigade strength, tanks again switched the battle in the Allies’ favour. Lacking food and ammunition and decimated by cholera and malaria, the Japanese attacks began to slacken by the third week of April. In late June the siege of Imphal was raised.

The Japanese had no transport aircraft and few mechanical vehicles by this time. Instead, they mobilized the animal power of north Burma and the hills on a scale unprecedented since the time of the old Burmese kings. They also brought their own horses. In Operation Imphal 12,000 horses and mules, 30,000 oxen and more than 1,000 elephants crossed the Chindwin. The scale of animal fatality was colossal. During the campaign Japanese horses survived only fifty-five days on average and mules seventy-three days. All the horses and mules had died by August and the cattle had also perished or been eaten. Only the elephants survived.

While Imphal and Kohima suddenly awakened the world to the titanic scale of the military conflict in mainland Asia, the other front in Arakan burst further into life. Here the British had even more ground to make up in terms of morale and self-esteem. SEAC, keeping up pressure on the Japanese command in Akyab, sent in a mixed division of men from Hyderabad in the south and from the North West Frontier during early 1944. It was supported by the motor launches of the Royal Indian Navy, moving up and down the Naf river with supplies. The air force, too, was much more in evidence than it had been the previous year. This allowed British troops to hold out and fight back when surrounded by the Japanese because they could be supplied from the air. The aim in this third Arakan campaign was straightforwardly to kill as many Japanese as possible.

Gaining territory in Arakan was very difficult because of the intricate nature of the waterlogged plain and its paddy fields and the low hills of the interior. The planners had already decided that the push into Burma by land had to go over the northern mountains. By contrast, the Arakan fighting was a war of attrition during the monsoon season. The British river craft and artillery were not much better than they had been in the previous year. Conditions remained appalling. One officer recorded his memories: ‘leeches in the jungle, chaungs [paddy field streams] in spate that he had to cross with ropes; socks that shrank because they were never dry; the whiskers that grew overnight on his boots and the fungus that grew on his binoculars’. Eastward in the drier, higher land a fierce battle raged along tunnelled railway lines that were the only route down into Burma. The Japanese were dug into individual foxholes and kept up a random mortar fire on the bashas or temporary hutments built by the Allied troops. These were constructed out of dripping tarpaulins and rusting sheets of corrugated iron. In this climate and terrain, wounds turned septic within hours and as many as eight men were needed to carry a single casualty over many miles.


The Indian National Army on the grounds of the old Supreme Court building in Singapore.

It began quietly. In mid May 1943, after a long journey by Japanese submarine via Madagascar and Sabang on the northern tip of Sumatra, Subhas Chandra Bose slipped unnoticed into Singapore. He crossed the causeway to stay at Sultan Ibrahim’s palace at Bukit Serene, and then, with Rash Behari Bose, flew on to Tokyo. The revelation of Subhas Bose’s presence in Japan was an epochal moment for the overseas Indians of Southeast Asia and the day of his second landing in Singapore on 2 July 1943 was a political awakening for all communities. He arrived at Kallang aerodrome in a silk suit and a grey felt hat but within three days he had abandoned this attire for the military uniform and top boots he would almost exclusively be seen in thereafter. On 4 July a press conference was called in the auditorium of the Cathay Cinema. The old revolutionary Rash Behari Bose was the first to speak: ‘You might now ask of me what I did in Tokyo for our cause, what present I have brought for you? Well, I have brought for you this present.’ With this he transferred leadership of the Indian Independence League to the younger man. From the outset Subhas Bose’s demeanour was presidential. There was an almost Churchillian cadence to his first speech: he warned his audience they would have to ‘face hunger, thirst, privation, forced marches and death. Only when you pass this test will freedom be yours’. At this meeting Bose’s supporters ruffled the sensitivities of Japanese journalists by calling him ‘Netaji’, an Indian word, meaning leader. To the Japanese present it smacked of impiety; it echoed the word ‘Führer’, and seemed to herald some sort of challenge to Japan’s leadership of Asia.

The people of Malaya had never before experienced a political presence in the mould of a giant of the Indian National Congress. Subhas Bose drew crowds to public rallies on an unprecedented scale: Chinese and Malays as well as Indians. The first, on the Padang on 5 July, was followed by an appearance at Tojo’s side the next day, and another rally on 9 July. This was the true dawn of mass politics in Malaya. As one young Indian recalled: ‘It was really the first speech, you see, I had heard in my life. Like magnetic power…’ For decades afterwards witnesses would relive the symbolism of the scenes. On 9 July it was raining heavily. Bose, it was said, was offered an umbrella. He refused it, and asked: ‘Who will offer an umbrella to all these people?’ But others would remember a more disturbing piece of imagery. In the parade, as a Japanese tank passed, draped in an Indian tricolour, the flag became tangled in some wires and fell under the tracks of the vehicle. Bose was visibly angered.

In the wake of the opprobrium that had confronted ‘General’ Mohan Singh, Subhas Bose took no military rank. But he resurrected the Indian National Army. Since the dismissal and arrest of Mohan Singh in December 1942, the Indian soldiers had returned to their internment camps. In February 1943 the intelligence chief Iwakuro told the Indian officers that the INA could not be dissolved, and anyone attempting to do so would be treated as a mutineer in the Japanese army. A second Indian National Army began recruiting. Many soldiers joined willingly, but others did so under the threat of forced labour overseas for Indian troops. The Gurkhas who refused to join were put to menial work in Singapore. One Chinese observer recalled seeing them bent under heavy loads, barefooted in the freezers of Cold Storage. This deepened their solidarity with the British and Australian prisoners of war they occasionally met as they were transported around town. By December 1942 some Indian units began to depart for the island of New Britain in the southwest Pacific. The first transport ship was torpedoed and sunk; for others who survived, it was a gruelling journey into desperate conditions.

Shahnawaz Khan was one of the Indian officers canvassed by the Japanese. A Muslim Rajput, he had been suspicious of Mohan Singh, had stayed out of the first INA and continued to resist the second. He was taken aside by Iwakuro and asked what a real INA should be. He replied that it should be a ‘holy thing’; ‘a formidable fighting force and not merely a propaganda army’. Like Mohan Singh before him, he claimed that only Subhas Bose could lead it. In trying to protect men who stayed out, he realized that his own continued abstention from the INA was not an option. ‘I had committed myself too far and could not retrace my steps.’ But when Bose arrived Shahnawaz’s position changed: ‘I was hypnotised by his personality and his speeches… I knew in his hands, India’s honour was safe, he would never barter it for anything in the world.’

The second INA involved Indian society in Southeast Asia in a way its earlier incarnation had failed to do. Most crucially, in the words of one volunteer, ‘it had a sense of independence from Japanese manipulation’. Men were recruited locally, and in an attempt to break with martial race theory special emphasis was placed on the Tamils of Malaya. Bose’s presence energized the civilian organization. He would sit up much of the night in darbar, in the traditional style of a Bengali gentleman-politician, with visitors to his house in Katong on the east coast of Singapore. He launched a furious drive for funds on the peninsula and further afield, visiting in a short space the principal cities of the Japanese Empire: Rangoon, Manila, Bangkok, Shanghai and Nanking. His speech in Kuala Lumpur was a repeat of the triumph in Singapore two months earlier. Wealthy Indians donated beds and carpets, sandalwood soap and expensive china to the bungalow that was to house Bose for his short stay. The officer responsible recalled how Subhas Bose admonished him for the display: ‘Who do you think I am? A Prince or a soldier in the INA?’ Out of such stories the legend grew. On the day of the speech, the roads to and from the padang in front of the Royal Selangor Club in Kuala Lumpur were jammed. The crowd numbered around 60,000, and again included many Chinese and Malays. Subhas Bose arrived in an open Dodge car flying the Indian flag. He spoke for an hour in English, and then in Urdu, which few present understood, for another hour. Yet the crowd stayed to listen. Then, when he asked for funds: ‘there was a great rush towards the rostrum. Men were throwing their rings, women their jewellery and those who did not have gold ornaments, whatever money they had’. Bose moved swiftly to make connections with Indian businessmen. There was an element of opportunism in the response. As one Singapore storekeeper candidly admitted: ‘I do everything and see everything and do nothing. I was that type. Just to be in the line like that, that’s all, they took me in.’ He gave $20,000 to Subhas Chandra Bose and Netaji’s good offices helped his business, not least by granting him the contract to supply paper and stationery to the INA.

The rhetoric of the INA was inclusive. It reached out to the Muslims: Bose replaced the wheel of the Indian National Congress with a symbol of a springing tiger which evoked Tipu Sultan, the Muslim ruler of Mysore who had resisted the British conquest of southern India. He retained Mohan Singh’s use of Hindustani as a language of command. Bose also argued that ‘Ceylon was the pendant in the Indian chain’, a view Nehru was to echo in 1945, and established a Lanka Unit within the Indian Independence League. The community had been prominent in the colonial administration, and was vulnerable under the Japanese, especially after SEAC moved its headquarters to Ceylon. Some members felt coerced. One propagandist on the Burma front would later describe how broadcasts would round off with a message in Sinhala: ‘all this is rubbish’. A leading figure in the Lanka movement was Gladwin Kotelawela, kinsman of Sir John Kotelawela, a future prime minister of Ceylon. He was stranded in Malaya at the outbreak of war and ran the Kangaroo Store in Tampin, Malacca. He had known Bose before the war, and co-operated with the IIL. His motives were, ostensibly, to protect the community; but he controversially embraced the active pursuit of Ceylonese independence through the INA. An opportunist to some, he possessed a bust of Winston Churchill in his home, a cause for some embarrassment when entertaining Japanese officers. On the reoccupation he was arrested, released and awarded an MBE on his return to Ceylon after the war. Many enthusiastic Ceylonese youths were genuinely inspired by Bose, and joined the Lanka Unit either through a spirit of adventure or as a way of gaining a clandestine passage back to Ceylon and their families. A mutiny of Ceylonese troops in the remote Cocos Island garrison and its surrender to the Japanese was seen in patriotic terms. The jeweller B. P. de Silva – whose employees provided several recruits to the INA – made officers’ badges in silver, with a map of India on them. Ceylon did not appear on this map.

On 21 October, within three months of his arrival in Malaya, speaking in the auditorium of the Cathay Cinema, Subhas Chandra Bose announced the formation of the provisional government of Azad Hind: ‘But with all the Indian leaders in prison and the people at home totally disarmed – it is not possible to set up a Provisional Government of Azad Hind within India, or to launch an armed struggle under the aegis of that Government. It is therefore the duty of the Indian Independence League in East Asia, supported by all patriotic Indians at home and abroad to undertake this task…’ Three days later Subhas Bose addressed another exultant crowd on the Padang: ‘The British know very well that I say what I mean and that what I mean I say. So, when I say “War” I mean WAR – War to the finish – a war that can only end in the freedom of India.’ Bose stated that he would be on the soil of India by the end of the year. Azad Hind had already acquired territory. On 6 November the Japanese ceded the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to the provisional government, and on 30 December, the tricolour was hoisted above them. They were renamed Shaheedi (Martyr) and Swaraj. This came with no formal transfer of administration, but in the eyes of the Indians overseas it added legitimacy to their war in India’s name.

The INA had to be welded into a fighting force. The officer training school at Nee Soon passed out former NCOs as second lieutenants and second lieutenants as first lieutenants, and forty-six recruits were sent to the Imperial Military Academy. New recruits streamed in. Other youth training camps were established in Kuala Lumpur, Seremban and Ipoh. Young men from well-to-do Indian families lied about their ages and signed up for these camps. But there were intrinsic difficulties in finding them equipment and in training young and middle-aged civilian volunteers who knew nothing about soldiering. The movement for India in Malaya was a massive opening of horizons for the Indian masses on the rubber estates. They were all the more isolated by the war and the collapse of the rubber industry. They lacked a leadership to voice their collective concerns. The INA offered a new opportunity for this. Yet there were other motives. As the rubber estates ran down, it was dangerous to be seen to be unemployed. Those who were became prey to Japanese forced-labour schemes. The INA was often the only alternative to the Siam–Burma railway. Many proletarian recruits were ‘rice soldiers’, not patriotic idealists. The estates were riven with tensions. The tier of clerks and kanganys that controlled the labour force for the British planters gained status in their absence, but they often sent the husbands of recently married women away and took the women under their own ‘protection’. Retribution for this would come during the labour upheavals of the post-war period.

Rani of Jhansi Regiment

The tensions and sexual predation on estates were at odds with the visionary rhetoric. In October 1943, partly to counter the charge that Indians were being coerced into rebellion against the Raj, Subhas Bose announced the formation of a women’s brigade. It was to be called the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, after the heroine of the Mutiny-rebellion of 1857. It was headed by a young doctor, Lakshmi Swaminathan, who had settled in Singapore shortly before the war and had been alienated by its affluent indifference to the cause of colonial freedom. Bose approached her with a proposal for a fighting force. The Japanese refused to issue it with weapons, but Bose insisted that the INA would provide. As one recruit put it in a radio broadcast in January 1944: ‘I am not a doll-soldier, or a soldier in mere words, but a real soldier in the true sense of the word. I am a soldier in boots and uniform, armed with modern weapons.’ There was a progress around provincial towns to enlist volunteers: speeches were made in English, Hindi and Tamil, and the platform dignitaries were drawn from all communities. Young girls, too young to serve, donated their pocket money. Of the volunteers at the Women’s Training Camp in Singapore, most were local born, and one was as young as twelve. Recruits were urged to give up all ties of love and family. A proud father from Seremban said on visiting the camp: they look ‘like seasoned soldiers’. The first contingent of 500 women and girl soldiers left Singapore, reaching Burma in late 1943. There they were given training in jungle warfare and nursing and soon took responsibility for the care of the vast numbers of wounded from the front.

Rash Behari Bose had left the field to the younger Bengali. He returned to Japan in October, but before he left had one last meeting, in private, with Subhas Bose. This time it was the old man’s turn to urge caution in the alliance with the Japanese: they had claimed right of conquest in Manchuria, they would do so in India. Quit India had shown that this would not be accepted by the Indian nation. He tried to persuade Netaji to abandon the belief that the British could be defeated militarily, and use the INA to give moral support to the struggle already going on within India. Rash Behari Bose reported the conversation to his long-standing aide, A. M. Nair. Netaji, said Nair, made no comment. But ‘he did not put up a cheerful face’. When the INA went to war in November 1943, the first troops – Shahnawaz’s ‘Subhas Brigade’ – were filled with a strange mix of fervour and fatalism. As one Singaporean recruit, P. K. Basu, who had served in the Singapore Volunteer Corps before the war, put it: ‘I did not believe that the INA would actually succeed, but I believed in the INA.’ For the Indian officers, the Imphal campaign of the following year was to be Malaya 1941 all over again.

The diary of an unsung INA trooper

French Infantry

Numerically the largest element of the army was the infantry, which (excluding the Guard) was divided into line and light regiments (infanterie de ligne and infanterie légère respectively). During the period of the French Revolutionary Wars the term ‘regiment’ had been thought redolent of aristocratic privilege, so the term ‘Demi-Brigade’ had been substituted; but after successive reorganizations the title ‘Regiment’ was restored on 24 September 1803. Originally there were ninety regiments, numbered from 1 to 111, some numbers, beginning with 31, being vacant. Each regiment consisted of a number of battalions, usually three or four, each capable of operating separately, although throughout the empire period it was usual for two or more battalions of the same regiment to take the field together, in the same brigade.

Originally each battalion consisted of nine companies, but from February 1808 a reorganization was instituted, by which each regiment was to comprise four service battalions (bataillons de guerre) and a depot battalion of four companies commanded by a senior captain, with a major in command of the depot itself. Each bataillon de guerre was composed of six companies, four of fusiliers (the ordinary line infantry, named from the fusil or musket) and two elite companies, one of grenadiers (theoretically the most stalwart veterans) and one of voltigeurs (lit. ‘vaulters’), light infantry trained in skirmish tactics. Each company had an establishment of three officers and 137 other ranks, and each battalion was led by a chef de bataillon, a rank that does not translate easily but which, as it represented a battalion commander, might equate with a British lieutenant colonel. The regimental staff comprised the chefs de bataillon, the regimental colonel, a major, administrative personnel, craftsmen, and the tête de colonne (lit. ‘head of column’, the band, Eagle-escort and the four sapeurs (pioneers) who formed part of each grenadier company, with a sapeur corporal per regiment). None of the line regiments had a territorial or other title.

During the recent campaigns, the strength of the infantry had been augmented by two methods: the creation of additional battalions – 5th, 6th and even 7th bataillons de guerre for existing regiments, and the creation of entirely new regiments. Some had been formed by changing the title of newly recruited ‘provisional’ regiments or similar, assembled for a particular campaign; this took the numbered sequence to 122 by 1808–9. Regiments 123–126 were formed in 1810 by the incorporation of the army of the Kingdom of Holland into the French army, and by 1814 the number had risen to 156 by the conversion of National Guard to line regiments.

A reorganization occurred upon the restoration of the monarchy. In May 1814 the number of line regiments was reduced again to ninety, each of three battalions of six companies each as before, but with a reduced strength of seventy-five men per company (three officers). The first thirty regiments retained their numbers, but succeeding regiments in the sequence were renumbered to fill the gaps in the original list, so that, for example, the old 32nd Regt, became the new 31st, the old 45th the 42nd, the old 111th the new 90th, and so on. In addition, the ten senior regiments were given royal titles, from 1st to 10th respectively: du Roi, de la Reine, Dauphin, Monsieur, d’Angoulême, Berri, Orléans, Condé, Bourbon and Colonel-Général.

Upon Napoleon’s return in 1815 the royal titles were discarded and the old regimental numbers reinstated, the latter to emphasize the regiment’s prior service under Napoleon, as an aid to preserving regimental esprit de corps. The infantry was very under-strength and as before Napoleon augmented their numbers by creating new battalions for existing regiments, utilizing their regimental depots, rather than forming new regiments. Initially most regiments could muster two combat battalions (albeit often under-strength) and a 3rd Battalion of recruits in training. Napoleon determined to use the latter as garrison troops while they completed their preparations, and when at a practicable strength (500 men) they were to join the other battalions in the field; regiments were ordered to form a 4th Battalion, a 5th of four companies as a depot, and a 6th in cadre. In time this would have produced a greatly augmented force of infantry, although in the Armée du Nord most regiments actually fielded only two battalions (twelve had three, the 3rd Line four, and three just one, plus the single ‘foreign’ battalion). (In the light infantry, the 2nd fielded four battalions, five had three, four had two and the 6th just one.) Average battalion strength was just less than 600.

The infantry uniform was of a style regulated in January 1812, although its issue had often been delayed until 1813 or 1814. It comprised a short-tailed jacket or habit-veste with lapels closed to the waist, in dark blue with red collar and cuffs (with usually blue flaps), white lapels piped red, white turnbacks and blue shoulder straps piped red. Grenadiers were distinguished by red epaulettes, and voltigeurs by a chamois (yellow or yellow-buff) collar and shoulder straps or epaulettes. The head-dress was a shako bearing a brass plate in the form of an eagle atop a semi-circular shape representing an Amazon’s shield, into which the regimental number was cut; some voltigeurs had the number within a horn device upon the shield. Fusilier companies within a battalion were distinguished by a padded cloth disc at the front of the shako, dark green, sky-blue, aurore (orange) and violet for the lst-4th companies respectively. Grenadiers’ shakos had red lace upper and lower bands and side chevrons, and a red pompom or plume; for voltigeurs these distinctions were yellow. Officers had long coat-tails and gold shako lace and epaulettes, but unlike those of most other armies did not wear sashes. Leg wear consisted of white breeches and black gaiters that extended to below the knee, but as with the Imperial Guard long trousers could be worn on campaign.

Upon the restoration of the monarchy the imperial tricolour cockade carried on the front of the shako was replaced by the white cockade of the Bourbons, and other imperial symbols were removed; there is some evidence, for example, that some shako plates had the eagle removed, leaving just the numbered shield. New shako plates and badges for fusiliers’ cartridge boxes, bearing royalist devices, were introduced in February 1815, but it is unlikely that many alterations could have taken effect before Napoleon’s return, when any royalist insignia would have been removed, and the tricolour cockade was restored.

Although there had been minor, unregulated distinctions in the uniforms of some regiments, the number on the shako plate was the most visible sign of regimental identity. The officer quoted before concerning the failings of the French army in the campaign included an appeal for some form of more obvious uniform distinction, such as different facing colours, which he believed was an important consideration when officers were trying to rally broken troops and needed to recognize their own men. He also advised that each battalion should have a colour as a rallying point; the prevailing system gave only one Eagle to each regiment, not each battalion, and he claimed that some regiments kept their Eagles in the regimental baggage vehicles so as not to risk their loss in action. Previously regiments had battalion marker flags or fanions for rallying purposes, but though some seem to have been used in 1815 not all regiments would have had them.

The standard infantry weapon was the 1777-pattern musket, modified in the years IX and XIII of the Revolutionary calendar; it had iron fittings, was 151.5cm long and weighed 4.375kg; voltigeurs might carry the shorter dragoon musket (141.7cm long) as being handier for skirmishing. The short sword or sabre-briquet had been carried by NCOs, musicians and elite companies, but although it was ordered to be withdrawn from voltigeurs in 1807 the practice continued. The presence of the sabre-briquet required a second shoulder belt, over the right shoulder; otherwise only a single belt was worn, over the left shoulder, supporting both the cartridge box and bayonet. All leatherwork was whitened.

There was a separate list of light infantry regiments (infanterie légère, with regimental titles often expressed as —me Légère). In theory these regiments were more adept at skirmish tactics than the ordinary infantry, though in practice the line regiments were also able to skirmish effectively. The light regiments, however, enjoyed a distinct esprit de corps and uniform features, even if their tactical role was in practice not so different.

Under the empire, the number of light infantry regiments had risen to 34 (numbered 1–37, three numbers being vacant), but at the restoration of the monarchy only the senior fifteen regiments were retained, keeping their original numbers, while the first seven regiments were granted ‘royal’ titles, du Roi, de la Reine, Dauphin, Monsieur, d’Angoulême, Berri and Colonel-Général for the 1st–7th respectively. Organization was like that of the line regiments, with the distinction that the ordinary companies were styled chasseurs, and the grenadier companies, carabiniers.

Light infantry uniforms were similar to those of the line, the habit-veste dark blue throughout (including the lapels), with pointed cuffs and red collars (chamois for voltigeurs); breeches were also dark blue. Carabiniers had red epaulettes, chasseurs and voltigeurs blue and chamois shoulder straps respectively, though some retained the epaulettes that they had worn prior to the introduction of the 1812 uniform. All ornaments were in white metal, including the shako plates which carried the regimental number within a hunting horn device upon the shield; officers’ epaulettes and lace were silver. Arms were similar to those of the line, though initially there was more extensive use of the sabre-briquet, other than the authorized use by carabiniers, NCOs and musicians, and there was probably greater use of the lighter Dragoon musket.

For manoeuvre, a French infantry battalion could be divided into ‘divisions’ (units of two companies), ‘platoons’ (a single company) and ‘sections’ (half companies). They normally fought in three ranks, though a two-rank line had been authorized for peace-time manoeuvres as early as the 1791 regulations, and in October 1813 Napoleon had himself recommended a two-rank line, stating that the third rank was largely useless for delivering fire and using the bayonet, and that as the enemy were used to opposing French infantry in three ranks, by forming two and thus extending the frontage they would imagine the French to be one-third stronger than they actually were. Marshal Marmont added that in a firefight, three ranks usually resolved themselves spontaneously into two ranks anyway. It is not certain, however, at what point the two- or three-rank line was actually used; though with the need to maintain a minimum frontage, the weaker the numbers, the more likely would be the use of a two-deep line.

Misconceptions might arise from references to French attacks being mounted in column, the standard formation for manoeuvre. It would be possible to imagine such a columnar attack resembling a column of march, with a narrow frontage and greater depth; but this was very different from the actual formation used offensively. The commonest formation adopted by a battalion was ‘a column of divisions’ (colonne par division or colonne d’attaque par division) in which the frontage would be one ‘division’, i.e. two companies side-by-side. With a six-company battalion, two further pairs of companies would follow, with manoeuvring distance between the three ‘waves’ or pair of companies. If each company comprised 120 men in three ranks, the frontage of such a column would be 80 men and the depth 9 men; even a column formed of six companies, one behind the other, would have a frontage of 40 men and a depth of 18.

One of the most characteristic features of French infantry attacks was that they were usually preceded by large numbers of skirmishers, who could harass the enemy line with sharpshooting while concealing the extent of the following troops from the enemy’s view. These skirmishers were usually the voltigeur company of each battalion, but additional companies, or even whole battalions, might be thrown out in ‘open order’ to precede an attack. Only the first two ranks of an attacking column could use their muskets effectively, whereas in a line every man could deliver simultaneously. The confrontation between line and column, however, was more subtle than merely a calculation of muskets, and it is likely that, where there was space available, in most cases the commanders of attacking columns intended to deploy into line before contact, thus maximizing their firepower while still linking it to the superior manoeuvrability and cohesion of the advance in column.


Conscription was a traumatic experience for any civilian, but nowhere was it more so than in Russia, where the 20 million serfs bore the brunt. Responsibility for choosing the recruits ultimately fell on the village elders, who, although serfs themselves, invariably selected people whom they regarded as troublemakers and misfits. Russian conscripts were fated to serve for twenty-five years without leave, which was effectively a life term: such was the waste of human life through disease and combat, that only 10 per cent survived that long. In a society where less than 5 per cent of the population was literate, a soldier did not write home. He rarely, if ever, saw his family again, since those who returned, forgotten, scarred, or maimed, were treated as outcasts. A Russian conscript was therefore dead to his family: his beard and hair were shaven off, since he was no longer considered a villager, and on the eve of the departure, his family would hold a wake. When the time came, the conscript would be accompanied to the village limits by his family and friends, singing funereal songs. They then turned their backs on the recruit, as if he were already dead. If a conscript left behind children with no one to look after them, they were sent to military orphanages, where they were trained to be NCOs: conditions here were so harsh that a third never lived to see adulthood.

Unsurprisingly, civilians made determined efforts to avoid conscription. The most obvious way was desertion. Some potential French recruits tried to evade service by simply failing to register for the draft, but for those actually conscripted the best chance of desertion was on the march to the military depots, since the local territory was familiar. Eugène de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s stepson and regent in the kingdom of Italy, estimated that a third of the deserters absconded just after being recruited. The incidence of desertion across Europe varied for many reasons: it was easier to escape the army in areas which were mountainous, densely forested, or frontier regions. In the Russian Empire, the distances were so vast and a runaway conscript so obvious that desertion was a very risky undertaking, but when the Russians invaded Europe, their soldiers had more opportunity to escape. Desertion actually increased when a Russian unit received orders to return home, since conscripts knew that their chances of flight would recede once back on Russian soil.

Language was important, too: on Napoleon’s side, troops who did not speak French were more likely to desert than francophone soldiers. The rates of desertion also varied from year to year: in the French Empire, they fluctuated according to the regime’s capacity to repress it. In France, desertion rates were higher when the state was weaker, particularly in the later 1790s, when the Directory was lurching from one crisis to the other, and again when the Napoleonic regime was under the cosh from 1813 and when demands for troops fell heavily once again on the French themselves. In between, however, desertion rates plummeted to as little as 2 per cent in some areas. French deserters sometimes formed gangs to rob isolated farms and travellers: this may have been pure banditry, but it was sometimes harnessed by royalists and directed against government officials and supporters of the revolutionary order. Everywhere in Europe, deserters had a better chance of escape and survival where they were supported by their own community, hiding them from the police and keeping them fed and sheltered.

In France, local authorities protected their own by loosely interpreting the term ‘unfit for service’, although the Napoleonic regime soon grew wise to this and thrust responsibility for conscription onto ‘recruiting commissions’ of prefects and military officers. Marriage was another way out: in the Napoleonic kingdom of Italy, young men married women old enough to be their grandmothers, since under the French system a married man was classified as ‘the last to march’. More drastic measures included self-mutilation—men hacked off their index fingers so that they could not pull a trigger, or they had their teeth pulled out so that they could not bite off the seal of the cartridges needed to fire their muskets.

The surviving correspondence of French soldiers shows that those who would not, or could not, evade conscription went through a range of tortuous emotions: loneliness after being cut off from family and home, confusion as they adjusted to an alien way of life, boredom in the barracks or camp, and anxiety as they confronted the possibility of death. Comrades were therefore essential, for they shared the same hardships, offered sociability and company around the camp fire or cooking pot, and swapped stories, sang songs, and shared jokes: these are not idealizations of army life, but were the ways in which soldiers found mutual support as they confronted an uncertain and perilous future. Similarly, training not only prepared the conscripts for battle, but it also provided routine: recruits were kept busy with drill, firing practice, and sentry duty. Commanding officers well knew that one of the forces most corrosive to morale was boredom and listlessness. Through a multitude of such ways, both consciously and incidentally, all units in every army fostered an esprit de corps.

Discipline was considered essential not only to ensure combat effectiveness, but to give a soldier’s life order and direction after the shock of conscription. It could be brutal. Russian soldiers were subjected to regular beatings, since obedience was believed by most officers to be the key to success on the battlefield. Any soldier who ducked an oncoming cannonball would be whipped, for (it was argued) such attempts to dodge a shell only encouraged the enemy. A soldier deemed guilty of ‘cowardice’ could be shot immediately. One of the severest of Prussian punishments was ‘running the gauntlet’ (forcing a soldier to pass between two lines of whip-wielding soldiers). The French, who had abolished flogging as unworthy of the citizen-soldier in 1789, nonetheless retained a draconian disciplinary code in every other sense. Military justice was prompt, inflexible, and severe: the boulet involved confinement with a ball and chain, while the death penalty was passed by courts martial for a wide array of offences, from minor acts of pillage to cowardice in battle. In the British army, punishments ranged from short spells of imprisonment, flogging, ‘running the gauntlet’, ‘riding the wooden horse’ (sitting astride the sharp apex of a triangular box), and death by shooting or hanging.

Yet in every major belligerent, there were voices which urged that a change was needed in discipline, which should emphasize, first and foremost, appeals to a soldier’s honour, esprit de corps, patriotism, leadership, and mutual respect between officers and men. In the French army, two decades of revolution and war had ingrained these values anyway. As citizen-soldiers, French conscripts enjoyed a status other than as pariahs: under the Republic, they were fêted as défenseurs de la patrie, defenders of the fatherland. Napoleon honoured bravery and merit, regardless of rank, with the Légion d’Honneur. In one incident in 1814, a French captain struck one of his men with the flat of his sabre, but the furious cavalryman spun on the officer, showed him his Légion d’Honneur and shamed his superior into an apology. The two men shook hands and later shared their rations and a bottle of brandy.

Esprit de corps and discipline were ultimately geared to ensure the army’s cohesion and effectiveness when campaigning began. Yet there were some factors that even the best-trained armies struggled with. Long marches in extreme conditions could break down discipline. In its lightning strike against Austria in 1805, the Grande Armée marched 300 miles in thirteen days, but prior to that, most of the army (which had been poised to invade Britain) had to cross France by forced marches. The footsoldier (later captain) Jean-Roch Coignet described marching day and night with less than an hour of sleep, so that the exhausted men locked arms to prevent themselves from falling over. Coignet eventually succumbed to fatigue and tumbled into a ditch. The remarkable achievement was that the French were still able to land such a fast series of devastating blows at the end of it all. The effects were very different seven years later, during the long march into Russia, when the distances were so vast, the summer heat so stifling, and opportunities for foraging so sparse that men collapsed and deserted. The commander of the Bavarian contingent in Napoleon’s invading army reported that the agonies of the march brought about ‘such a widespread spirit of depression, discouragement, discontent, disobedience, and insubordination that one cannot forecast what will happen’. What happened was that troops deserted in droves: the entire army may have lost as much as a third of its strength by the time it had reached Vitebsk, scarcely halfway to Moscow.

Macedonian Army

In forging the Macedonian military machine Phillip created the first truly professional army in the Western world and established the template upon which all current conventional armies are based. He standardized equipment within formations organized according to their intended tactical function. The rank and file (volunteers as well as conscripts) were issued their kit gratis from government-operated armories and manufactories. Pay and remuneration were standardized according to military rank and duty without excessive regard to private status. Command and administrative structures were rationalized and made permanent with reasonable opportunity for advancement and recognition based (in part) on merit and demonstrated ability. Institutionalized provision was made for the full range of support functions from commissary through medical services to disability and veterans’ pensions. Indirect command and control was exercised through a regular and consistent chain of command from army down to squad with orders relayed by an elaborate system of voice commands, visual signals, and music. In contrast to the rather xenophobic and ad hoc tendency of the Southern Greeks, Phillip adopted and institutionalized the best innovations from both Greek and barbarian military practice, recombining these elements into a singularly effective and synergistic whole.

The Macedonian tactical system was based on four fundamental elements: Heavy Infantry, Light Infantry, Light Cavalry and Heavy Cavalry, but it also made indispensible use of traditionally armed troops, artillery and engineers, naval forces and the specialized skills of local troops as they were available. Phillip modeled his Heavy Infantry after the concepts of the mercenary general, Iphicrates, who had extended the traditional hoplite seven-foot stabbing spear into an eighteen- to twenty-foot pike. In order to effectively manage this heavy and awkward weapon with two hands, individual body armor was greatly reduced or eliminated and the large hoplon shield, from which Greek infantrymen (“hoplites”) derived their name, shrunk to a light buckler that could be suspended from the neck. The members of these modified phalanxes gained protection from the standoff provided by the deep hedge of iron-tipped pikes. Groups of heavy infantrymen were organized into disciplined “syntagma” or companies composed of 256 pikemen arrayed in ranks and files of 16 men each. The heavy Macedonian phalanx had relatively little tactical flexibility and was slow moving, but it could generate enormous momentum in the attack and could establish a formidably intractable defensive base.

Also following the ideas of Iphicrates, The Macedonians fielded large formations of Light Infantry – primarily missile troops called “peltasts” – who rapidly deployed in amorphous, but regulated formations to shower enemy troops with barrages of arrows, javelins, and lead sling bullets, relying on their own agility and mobility for protection. Light Cavalry also relied primarily on missiles as their primary weapons; either short javelins or arrows launched from composite bows. They performed the same range of critical tasks – scouting, flank security, envelopment, and pursuit that modern armies rely upon mechanized cavalry to perform. Under the right tactical circumstances they could even join a general assault against disorganized or badly positioned infantry.

Heavy Cavalry, although perhaps inspired by the eccentric practice of some wealthy steppe warriors, was Phillip’s unique military innovation and was a key to the Macedonian approach to set-piece battle. These were relatively heavily armored horseman armed with a 12-foot lance and a heavy slashing saber. They were mounted on large powerful horses selected for their aggressive spirit and conditioned through patient training to be steady in the confusion of close-quarters combat. Phillip used his heavy horse in the then-non-traditional role of mounted shock troops. He is even credited with developing the remarkable mounted wedge formation designed to penetrate and disrupt enemy infantry and cavalry lines. Although these heavy horsemen were originally drawn from the sons of the aristocratic elite (hence their famous status as “Companions”), they were eventually expanded to include formations comprising the “able” from more modest backgrounds and designated “hetairoi.” The same regularity and consistent command and control Phillip had imposed on his infantry was extended to his cavalry, which were organized into squadrons of 200-300 riders each divided into troops of 50-60. These innovations gave Macedonian cavalry a high degree of flexibility in deployment. They were capable of rapid changes in direction of maneuver and attack with minimal disruption to their formation. In addition to his role as overall commander, Alexander generally led the senior squadron of heavy cavalry as “Hipparch” and placed himself at the very tip of the lead assault formation.

As well as these basic tactical elements, the Macedonian system also comprised significant formations of medium infantry equipped similarly to the traditional Greek hoplite, but under more uniform organization and training. These medium phalanxes provided greater flexibility and mobility than the heavy pikemen and provided the essential connective link to the cavalry formations. They were also indispensible for specialist tasks such as leading a breach assault or escalading a wall in a siege, serving as marines in a naval fight, or providing a rapid infantry reaction to an unexpected threat or opportunity. Phillip also created the first regularly organized corps of engineers whose technical prowess and creativity transformed the ancient practice of siege craft. Under assault from the formidable Macedonian machines directed by highly skilled specialists, Phillip and Alexander successfully concluded their sieges not in months or years, as had been the traditional norm, but often in weeks – sometimes days. The equipment and techniques they developed continued to define siege warfare for millennia until they were eclipsed by the introduction of gunpowder weapons in 13th Century AD. The engineers were also critical in sustaining mobility over difficult terrain and bridging obstacles, an essential element in Alexander’s scheme of relentless, all-season warfare.

While less frequently mentioned by historians, naval forces also represented a vitally important capability for power projection and sustainment. Although generally inferior to the largely Phoenician fleet which served the Persian Empire, the Macedonian and allied Greek fleet was nevertheless critical in securing Alexander’s supply lines and protecting the transport ships which were the most efficient and practical means of transporting the hundreds of tons of food and material required daily by the army in the field.

Under Phillip, the Macedonian nobility was, for all practical purposes, transformed into a professional officer corps. Alexander could and did rely on a large group of capable subordinate commanders and staff officers. As complement to his own remarkable skills, Alexander was well served by a group of highly competent subordinate generals many, such as Parmenion and Ptolemy, justly famous in their own right and some of whom went on to rule powerful successor empires themselves.

Together, these elements made a military machine of unprecedented agility, flexibility, and sustainability capable of adapting itself to dominate virtually any tactical situation, project power across enormous distances and maintain a high operational tempo in difficult, poorly resourced environments far from its strategic base. So sophisticated was the Macedonian system that it even had what approached an institutionalized tactical doctrine in which light forces deployed to create or to deny the enemy tactical opportunities, the heavy infantry formed a solid base of maneuver, and the heavy cavalry was used as a “hammer” to smash through the enemy line then wheel and crush the enemy force against the heavy infantry “anvil.” The medium infantry formed the flexible continuity connecting the different formations ready to provide immediate support to the cavalry and missile troops or act as a reserve. Alexander appreciated the utility of this doctrine, but never allowed himself to be rigidly bound by it. He always found his army able to adjust itself rapidly to his sudden creative insights or unconventional inspirations.

In addition to these impressive capabilities, the Macedonian Army possessed one final attribute that was equally important in explaining Alexander’s unprecedented record of achievement. The Macedonian Army was a fighting force of exceptional and terrifying ferocity. The average Macedonian soldier was, even by the standard of his time, ruthless, relentless, and remorseless. Collectively the Macedonians displayed a singular bloody-mindedness seldom exceeded by any military force in history. Terror and intimidation were primary weapons in their arsenal and they used them with unapologetic vigor. Perhaps the only fundamentally original innovation of Alexander was his technique of aggressively and relentlessly pursuing a defeated enemy. In divergence from traditional Greek warfare and in stark contrast to Asiatic practice, Alexander sought not simply to defeat his enemies, but to annihilate them lest they later discover the temerity to challenge him again. It was in pursuit operations that the inherent ferocity of the Macedonian military found its most terrifying outlet. It is not the least irony surrounding Alexander that in his campaigns – ostensibly undertaken to restore Greek honor, liberty, and fortune lost in persistent conflicts with Persia he killed more Asian and Greek soldiers than had died in the preceding 150 years combined.

For all of the Macedonian Army’s extraordinary potential, to be effective, any military force must be well-led and directed, and it was the gifts of military planning and leadership that Alexander possessed in greatest abundance. It was a legacy of traditional Greek warfare that the military commander should put himself at risk by participating personally in combat. Alexander, in this as in so much else, took the “heroic” leadership model to an extreme. He generally placed himself in the thick of the most desperate fighting and plunged into the attack with reckless disregard for his own safety in the process setting a powerful example for his men. Arrian relates that during a siege of an Indian fortress, Alexander, impatient with the progress of his men storming the enemy wall, impetuously seized a scaling ladder and clambered to the top accompanied by just two companions. In the mad rush to join their commander, the Macedonians over-crowded and broke the ladders, stranding Alexander among the enemy. His men implored him to jump back down into the many arms waiting to catch him, but, espying the enemy commander in the interior court, Alexander instead leaped inside and killed the Indian leader in personal combat. In the process, this tiny group of Macedonians became the focus of the defenders and they were showered with arrows one penetrating Alexander’s lung. Alarmed and enraged, the remaining Macedonians swarmed over the wall to secure what they assumed would be a corpse. That he survived this commonly mortal wound says much about Alexander’s physical stamina and toughness (as well as the modern tendency to underestimate the sophistication of ancient medicine). In all, the various sources record that Alexander received a total of eight major wounds in combat at least two of them very nearly fatal.


A distinction between mercenaries and allied troops certainly existed within the Macedonian order of battle; we saw this with the Thessalian cavalry for example. The distinction drawn by Alexander was not sharp, however, and could lead to some confusion. We must first therefore clarify what these terms actually mean before we consider the individual contingents themselves.

The meaning of the term ‘mercenary’ would seem at first sight obvious: a soldier who fights for pay. But of course everyone in Alexander’s army was being paid, including the Macedonian and allied contingents. I believe that we can narrow the meaning down to ‘someone who fights without a political imperative’, that is a soldier who is not compelled to fight by his city-state, but does so purely for personal reasons. The distinction therefore becomes a little clearer, but the status of the Balkan troops in the army is still problematic. They are one of the contingents whose status changed whilst on campaign; the Balkan troops came from peoples who were more or less formally subject to the king of Macedonia, so that it is difficult to make the distinction between whether they were mercenaries or allies. It is perhaps best to avoid a splitting of hairs and to call them all mercenaries, because if they were allies in the first place they certainly became mercenaries later. I will here consider them amongst the allied contingent, as they were initially of that status, and Diodorus certainly does not include them amongst the mercenaries in his troop list of 334 BC.

By the time of the accession of Alexander in Macedonia, mercenary soldiers formed an integral part, not just of the Macedonian army, but also that of Persia and a number of the Greek city-states. The mercenary soldier himself, however, had undergone considerable change. In the fifth century, mercenaries were few in number and employment opportunities were limited. Their first large scale employment in Greece was during the Peloponnesian War, and was at first confined to the Spartan side, Athens having no access to the large recruiting grounds of Arcadia. It is also the case that Pericles’ defensive strategy had little need of mercenaries. Athens’ first recorded use of hoplite mercenaries was on the Sicilian expedition, and even here there were only 250 ‘Mantineans and other mercenary troops’. Persia tended not to employ Greek mercenaries in large numbers in the fifth century, the first large scale employment being Cyrus’ force of 10,000 so brilliantly described by Xenophon. Mercenaries in the fifth century tended to be grouped into one of the following classifications:

• Archers, often from Crete – Archery, throughout all periods of history, was a specialized field and required considerable training. It was very difficult for a citizen hoplite to acquire the necessary skills and so specialists were hired. Crete is often mentioned as a source of such troops throughout the fifth and fourth centuries, and it even furnished a contingent in Alexander’s army; although Alexander also employed a native Macedonian contingent of archers.

• Cavalry – Usually few in number, primarily because of the expense involved, and because the geography of Greece also generally did not lend itself well to cavalry engagements, with a few notable topographical exceptions.

• Hoplites – Troops armed and equipped in the same manner as a citizen soldier; a heavily armed infantryman wearing a breastplate and often greaves, and carrying a spear. Their main offensive weapon was weight of numbers, hoplite battles could perhaps be thought of as a giant rugby scrum. Heavily-armed hoplites were the main fighting force on either side in the fifth and into the fourth century.

• Peltasts – Light-armed troops carrying a small shield and little or no body armour. Their effectiveness was based almost entirely on their mobility. Most mercenaries in the fourth century fell into this group after the ‘reforms of Iphicrates’ early in that century.