"Long dark months of trials and tribulations lie before us, many. Not only great dangers but many more misfortunes, shortcomings, many mistakes, many disappointments will surely be our lot. Death and sorrow will be the companions of our journey; hardship, our garment; constancy, and valour our only shield. We must be united, we must be undaunted, we must be inflexible."
WINSTON S. CHURCHILL.
Speech to the House of Commons, October 8, 1940.
HIS is the story less of a military formation of tactical importance than of some thousands of British and Indian soldiers who fought against three strong and different enemies across the continents of Africa and Asia. They served both in battle and in training from the highlands of Eritrea and Abyssinia to the glaring sands of ridge and wadi in the Western Desert; from the jungle-clad mountains and valleys, with their waterways and rare villages, to the sunburnt plain of the Irrawaddy in Central Burma. They worked and played in Cyprus and Baghdad, in Singapore and beneath the shadow of the Pyramids.
The story covers six long and varied years in which these men took their part in the fight and performed the tasks and duties allotted to them. Great were the distances travelled, the mountains climbed, the wounds and discomforts endured, the dangers shared, and the comradeship enjoyed. By all these were the soldiers welded together into companions of history.
They did not constantly think of the cause for which they fought; their minds grasped more readily the simpler pattern of local circumstances. Momentarily they forgot that their small corner of the battlefront was not the centre of the world-wide struggle. Of distant events they learned from letter, newspaper, and from voices in the air. They lived in the present and reminisced of past achievements, for the road into the future wound among shadows of uncertainty. They believed in ultimate victory, but no man could tell how far ahead that lay. Passing frictions and swift prejudice might dull the harmony of their existence; discontent, apathy, and jealousy mingled with selfless effort and enthusiasm; prudence and wisdom did not go always beside daring or bravado. Yet tolerance and justice mingled with the ultimate demand for individual and corporate efficiency and endurance, under the steel laws of military conduct and discipline. No man might with impunity or pleasure falter by the wayside or fail his companions. Rather must he plod onwards in their good company, while those who led the way urged themselves to still greater exertions and sacrifice by virtue of the example that they had to set.
There were moments when doubt, anxiety, and despair had the upper hand. Impatience and exuberant triumph had their hours of influence. Sadness or exultation might hold momentary sway. But at the end of a long and perilous journey victory was attained. It is the course of this journey that we shall now follow. But first, what was the Division, and who were its members ?
The Division had three brigades, and was commanded by a major-general. Each brigade had one British and two Indian infantry battalions. Under the senior officers of Divisional Headquarters came the supporting arms, the artillery regiments of field, mountain, anti-tank, or anti-aircraft guns; the Field Companies of Indian Sappers and Miners; the companies and sections of Divisional Signals; the Field Ambulances; the Workshop Companies and Transport Companies; the Supply sections; the Divisional Provost unit of Military Police; the Animal Transport Companies; and many other units and sections that were from time to time attached to the Division to give their aid during a particular campaign.
Sometimes these companies and sections were commanded directly from Divisional Headquarters; at other times they were placed under command of one or other of the three brigades, and formed what became known as a 'brigade group,' independent and composed of all arms. During certain operations armoured regiments joined the Division and supported the infantry. So, too, did armoured car units. Local porters, guides, interpreters appeared on the scene from time to time. And medium guns, veterinary officers, salvage and laundry and bakery units, hospitals and nursing sisters, canteens and concert parties, war correspondents and photographers made their appearance in various battle areas.
It took all sorts of officers and men to make a division---professionals and war-time amateurs, some quiet, some dashing, some suave and charming, others abrupt and tactless. One man looked the regular soldier that he was, while another might resemble more closely a country squire or farmer.
Casualties from battle and disease caused vacancies, sometimes filled from outside the Division, but more often by a second-in-command, or deputy staff officer, or a battalion commander when the vacant post was that of brigadier.
There was a constant flow of men in and out. As the months passed, losses came from death in action, death from disease, wounds and illness, promotion and posting, repatriation and courses. Some were lost to the Division for the rest of the war, others returned after many months in hospital or at Staff College or on leave. And then there were losses when whole battalions and regiments were transferred from the Division, and during the summer of 1942 the flower of whole brigades was destroyed or captured in the Western Desert.
Though membership of the Division brought similar experiences to all, there were as many different viewpoints as jobs. Though in the Desert what happened to 'A' Company was much the same as what. happened to 'B' Company, in the jungles of Burma what the leading scout saw differed from what the section or company commander saw. And so the picture obtained by any one individual was smaller. A sepoy out on patrol along a chaung in Arakan or prowling in No-Man's-Land in the Desert saw quite different things from the medical orderly who helped to give blood transfusions, and the orderly room clerk who spent his days before a typewriter, filling in reports and returns. Different, again, were the viewpoints of the mechanic lying on his back in oily dungarees under a lorry, seeking a fault or using a grease-gun; the mule-driver combing and brushing his mule and fitting the saddle so that it rubbed no sores; or a telephone switchboard operator, whose English was indifferent, plugging in when the little bulbs lit up, and linking one caller with another, all day and all night.
A farrier, a stretcher-bearer, an officer's orderly and driver, a dispatch rider whose life might depend upon how well he kept his motor-cycle in good repair, the driver of a lorry laden with rations or ammunition, a lance-bombardier man-handling a gun---all these played their part. But their role was not the same as that of a postal orderly who sorted the precious letters and airgraphs; or the sapper prodding and searching for mines hidden in sand or below the muddy surface of some mountain track; or again, the battalion chaplain taking a Communion Service beside a truck in the open desert, burying the dead on the edge of a paddy-field, or tending the wounded; a surgeon performing an amputation in some tent or dugout; a staff officer writing out an operation order, preparing documents for a court-martial, or marking up his map with the locations of our own and the enemy's troops; the field cashier paying out rupees, dinars, Egyptian pounds, and Cyprus piastres; or the Signals adjutant keeping a clear head to work out the wireless three-letter call-signs for every major unit in the Division.
And it was towards the defeat of three enemies and to the building and maintenance of the Division's high reputation and izzat that these manifold activities were directed. In the Division, and all that it stood for, did these diverse efforts find their unity. A common pride in achievement, spirit, and tradition was given an outward symbol in the shoulder flash of the red ball of fire. And at the head of the Division worked the Commander. His viewpoint was different again, and his shoulders were more weighted with responsibility, and his breast with ribbons.
There are times when the Divisional Commander has a sense of loneliness and isolation.
The new commander in his first contact with his subordinate commanders becomes aware that they are summing him up. Whether they accept him or whether they do not may be a slow process or a quick one. Equally, the commander is very quickly aware of whether or not he has gained their confidence and become accepted. Their genuine friendliness is also quickly discernible.
"It is an intangible affair, but one that to look back on has much humour in it. Memorable are the steady, sometimes very cool and appraising eyes gradually giving way to friendliness, kindliness and, much more important, understanding.
"It is quite remarkable how you find yourself suddenly completely alone. Some impending battle, or an obviously impending decision to be taken will bring this loneliness about. There seems to be a withdrawal of your subordinates into themselves. They will have nothing to do with these decisions. These are yours to make---in some cases, no doubt, they murmur 'Thank Heavens!' and it is entirely up to you. The decision once made, all goes well again. The spiritual withdrawal of comradeship, if for a moment only, has briefly occurred, and you are back again with them and knit once more in one wonderful spirit and camaraderie of confidence. Remarkable it all is, and most difficult to explain, but intriguing and rather exhilarating."(1)
Everyone on his staff, except perhaps the C.R.A. (Commander, Royal Artillery), is younger, and somewhat diffident to be too much with him. And they are not always natural in his presence. It is important that the senior officers, at least, should be good companions. And the main thing about a staff, in General Briggs' words, is to find "a real happy and loyal team, and then to trust them to do the job. I found that they always did, and was never let down. Had I been, I should have had to dismiss the officer."
"If troops are to have good morale, they must have confidence in their weapons, in their commanders, and in their cause. Commanders, however, need one more confidence---in themselves."(2) "If one has the knowledge and can truthfully say to oneself, 'I have done everything possible to achieve success,' then self-confidence comes automatically. You must have it, or you will be vacillating, and inclined to change things with insufficient cause; a number of plausible people will always ask you to make changes to suit them."(3)
"People will frequently ask you to change something soon after the battle starts. I used to resist this with determination. The fellow who asked probably had a local view surrounded by the smoke and fog of war. A change might affect others, communication of such a change might be difficult, and a plan made carefully and deliberately m cold blood should not be lightly changed in the heat of battle. I usually told the man that he was doing fine, and that I would consider his suggestion after I had let things go on a little longer as they were. I usually found that no change was necessary.
"As soon as I knew that my command was destined to play an important part in an operation, I always tried to get in on it at the highest level during the planning stage.
"Then came the personal planning stage. During his working hours the commander is usually turning over in his mind the best way to do it. I used to go for long walks in the beautiful Italian(4) country thinking things out. He will probably discuss the matter freely with the more important subordinates. I always used to think out as a Divisional Commander how I would carry out the Brigade tasks and as a Brigadier the Battalion tasks, and frequently made notes. This helped in discussion of the subordinates' outline plan. I always reached agreement personally with the more important subordinates before a vital conference.
"When I had given it all the thought I could and felt I had the best plan possible, I would sleep at night like a child, quite regardless of battle noises. Until then, however, I used to lie awake and think a bit, unless I was very tired. Having put the plan 'to bed,' the Staff got on with the operation order, and I had a chance to go around and see the chaps who were to do the job. I tried never to interfere with what subordinates were doing, but let it be understood that I was always available to sort something out."
An intermediate commander is often faced with the problem of acting as a buffer between those above and those below. Sometimes a commander might be ordered to carry out a task which he did not think worth while in relation to the casualties which would more or less have written the Brigade off. Shall he say so, refuse to do the job, and suggest a more reasonable alternative? Shall he ignore pressure from above, messages from Corps and Army Headquarters asking why the objective has not yet been captured, and displaying extreme impatience? Shall he, like Russell, in Italy, keep all these impatient messages in his pocket, because he knew that his brigadier was doing his best and realized just as well as did his divisional commander that the village must be taken from the Germans?
He should not display disappointment to his subordinate commanders, nor harass them with repeated order surging greater speed.
How far does peace-time training fit a man for command in war? No doubt the requisite knowledge can be acquired, but no one really knows how he is going to react to modern warfare until he has tried it. "Once he is sure that he can think clearly in spite of all that is going on around him in battle---losing key men; essential equipment being blown up; unforeseen delays; a temporary breakdown in communications; being surrounded; noise and near misses---then a commander can apply his peace-time training and will find it adequate, though he will continue to learn every day. But if he reacts unfavourably to the battle background. then no amount of peace-time training will put him right.
"He must be a good 'mixer' with officers, men, allies, regardless of caste, creed, colour, or status. This can be acquired in peace time to a certain extent, but is sometimes overlooked. And it is probably easier to acquire in war if the germ is somewhere in a man's make-up. A nice balance is required in this matter; not a familiar but a comrade commander, who is obviously the best man for the job, knows his profession, is fully qualified as captain of the team. but uses his position to help all those under his command. He must be approachable and sympathetic to those in trouble, and do something about it himself rather than 'pass the baby.' A cheerful word readily on the tongue, a smile, an amusing story in the sergeants' mess over a glass of beer with the R. S. M.; the correct attitude when visiting hospitals and field ambulances and talking to the wounded and dying; a letter to the deceased's relatives about how the chap went out doing his duty gallantly---all these things help. "(5)
A commander's predominant thoughts might well be: Is there anything more that I could do to help before the start, without cramping my subordinates' initiative? Where are my headquarters to be, so that I can be right in the picture, with good communications, able to move my reserves or arrange for additional support as required?
"A good commander requires to be intelligent, but if he is sensitive this will be a strain added to the strains which he shares with his fellow commanders in battle.
"To command in battle when things are going wrong combines the horror of a nightmare with the added consciousness of reality; that is, if you stop to think about it. In point of fact, however, the heat of action, the urgency of remedies, prevent one from thinking, and the mind is absorbed in the problem of warning so-and-so, and of saving such and such a unit from what they have not realized may happen. Anxiety is greatest when nothing is happening, but when a great deal may happen."(6)
Having to launch troops against difficult objectives is a question of confidence and of putting confidence across. "Where half the failures in battle have occurred is in not appreciating or knowing what terrific tasks you can ask of troops. Another thing is to have experienced personally one or two what might be termed almost impossible assignments. If these have been successful it has been due mainly to the fact that the stark facts were clear, that the chance of success was simply and clearly indicated, and that the task would obviously not go through unless it was carried out with punch, drive and confidence.
"The feeling of gratitude humbleness, and abasement that you get when your troops have achieved such a task is quite impossible to describe. Humbleness, and why you should have been permitted such devotion and selflessness leaves you wondering and---yes---worshipping"(7).
To the British officers and men who came to the Division without ever having set foot in India, the Indian other ranks---I.O.Rs. as they were called---provided the deepest source of interest and fresh experience. The bonds of respect and affection that were forged during the campaigning years were strong and vital. The loyalty and trust displayed by the Indian sepoy spurred on his British officers and senior N.C.O.s. to their finest efforts. The Indians were friendly and proud, sensitive, and bright with smiles.
And what variety in the types of Indian soldiers who served with the Division! Mahrattas, Jats, Dogras, Madrassis, Sikhs, Garhwalis, Punjabi Mussulmen, Rajputs, Pathans, and many others.
They fought side by side in the same army, but how utterly different was the background they had left when they joined the armed forces of the King Emperor. How immense was the continent of India, hot, turbulent, swarming with its hundreds of millions, a Babel of different tongues, a home for varied religions and gods, beliefs and customs, tribes and castes. And yet most of these sepoys had seen but little of their vast country. Their horizon was so often bounded by a score of miles, a village in the hills of Jammu or beside one of the five rivers of the Punjab or along the coast of Malabar.
In their mind's eye flitted scenes from an Indian village, their village with its thatched mud huts half concealed among palm or banyan trees. There passed scenes of the village pond to which the women carried brass jars on their heads, washed their laundry, and gossiped while they filled these jars with water, the same water in which the cattle bathed or drank. And the women, moving barefooted, their arms and right shoulder bare, wearing gay saris of crimson. green, purple or pink, and jangling with brass anklets, glass bangles and cheap jewellery. Or the naked children running about the dusty tracks of the village, or men clad only in loincloth and turban guiding the plough drawn by a bullock.
These soldiers thought back to the evenings spent in the little room of their home, smoking the hubble-bubble hookah, talking of how they might save up money with which to pay a dowry for their daughter, or eating with their fingers the boiled rice, the crisp flat chapathis, the curried vegetables, or chewing the betel-leaf that made them spit out scarlet saliva. They would recall the mingled smell of sandal-wood and sun-baked mud walls, the smoke-blackened thatched roof, and the greasy aroma of ghi. To the ears came the hum of the spinning wheel, the beating of drums at one of the Hindu festivals, the sight of an open cooking fire that burnt cakes of dried cow dung as fuel.
Self-contained and restricted had been the existence they had led in their villages, both in north and south India. Contacts with the outside world had been rare. Threatened by famine and poverty, burdened by arrears of taxation or by the interest to be paid on old debts, they were constantly obliged to contract new debts with the powerful money-lender. Most of these soldiers were small farmers, who tended their plot of land with buffalo and ox, and struggled to eke out a living in the face of drought and flood, storms of hail and sand, and damage to crops from locusts and other pests.
Some of them believed in Mahomet and turned daily towards the east to pray and prostrate themselves on little mats. Others, believing in horoscopes and evil spirits, made sacrifices to their many gods: Brahma, creator of all things, and Vishnu, the preserver of life, and Siva, the destroyer of life. They worshipped the monkey god, Hanuman, and Ganesh, with his elephant's head, Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, and Krishna, the flute-player and god of joy. Others, though a minority, and mostly from Madras, were Christians.
Great was the variety in the names of these Indians: Sikhs like Rattan Singh, Sardara Singh, and Balwant Singh; Punjabi Mussulmen called Mohd Sharif, Rab Niwaz, or Fateh Mohd; Madrassis with names like Balakrishna Pillai, Muthuswamy, Krishna Nair; Mahrattas named Ganpat Chawan, Balu. Powar, Shrirang Lawand, Vishnu Mane; Dogras called Tulsi Ram and Gian Chand; Garhwalis like Alam Sing Bisht, Bahadur Sing Rawat; and a thousand other names and combinations of such names.
The ranks of the Indian troops had different names: lance-naik (lance-corporal); naik (corporal); havildar (sergeant); and havildar-major (sergeant-major). Higher up the scale, though lower than the officers who received their commissions from the King, were the Viceroy's Commissioned Officers---known as V.C.O.s.: jemadar, subadar, and subadar-major. And at the other end of the scale were the non-combatants or 'followers': the mochi who repaired your boots and shoes; the dhobi who did the laundry; the dherzi who made bush-jackets and pairs of shorts, who would sew on medal ribbons and stripes of rank; the nai (barber); the bhistj (water-carrier); the babaji (cook); and the sweeper, who cleaned up the camp and latrines.
In their homes they spoke Punjabi, Pushtu, Mahratti, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, but in the Army their common language became Urdu. And some of them. learned more than a smattering of English. All officers who served in Indian units had to learn to speak Urdu with fluency; they studied with munshis or from books on their own, and they passed their examinations. But there was scarcely a single British officer or other rank in the British units, or among the few N.C.O.s. and men in Indian Signal and Sapper companies, who did not pick up a score of Urdu words and phrases that passed into his own current vocabulary. Consciously they used these words when talking with their Indian companions; and unconsciously they spoke the same words among themselves, so inextricably had the Urdu vocabulary become interwoven with their English language.
The English spoken by the Indians varied widely from one unit to another. In an Indian infantry battalion very few would speak any, apart from the Viceroy's Commissioned Officers and the clerks. But in the Signal sections formed of Madrassis, these operators and dispatch riders and linemen spoke a most fluent and picturesque version of the English language, learned in part from the Mission schools, in part from contact with British officers and men.
They slept in their little tambu, the adjutant and his babus worked in the daftar, they all drank char out of a piyala, and slept on a charpai, wrapped in their bistra. They would eat their khana in the langar. They eagerly read their dak when it came from the post office, and they wrote more letters in reply. They wore one or other form of topi on their heads, earned and spent their paisa in rupees and annas, or in piastres and fils. They said kitne baje when they wanted to know the time, their every vehicle became a ghari; when they were hot and thirsty and there was no tea to refresh them they would ask for tanda pani, their bread was referred to as roti, and when darkness fell they lit the batti in the tent. British soldiers riding beside an Indian driver might shout out roco! when they wanted to stop, ahista (pronounced arsti) jao or jaldi jao when the driver was to slow down or to hurry along the road. An order was a hukm, any swap became a badali, and in the long larai that was being waged, the various Italian, German and Japanese opponents were termed the dushman. The words of understanding or approval alternated between the ubiquitous 'O.K.' and the enchanting Tikh hai, while praise was given so easily by a shout of shahbash!
Some there were who stayed with the Division for years on end, others departed after a few weeks, or even days. There were those who shared in the first scenes of the Division's story, those who served through the central episodes. and others who came out to join in the final campaigns. A very few veterans, mostly Indians, travelled right through with the Division from India in 1940 to India in 1943, and then back again to India in 1946.
And as the war progressed, scattered with the Eighth Army, in the War Office, on staff posts and commands in Tunisia and in Italy, in Cairo and Delhi, in senior appointments from the Middle East to Normandy, worked former members of the Division who had gained their early war experience, their opportunity for distinguished leadership, with one of the units. Though these officers and men never followed the Division on its travels to Burma and beyond, they were proud to hear of its achievements, and would turn to a companion and say with pride that they had once served with the Fifth Indian Division.
EARLY in July, 1940, a month after Italy entered the war, the Italian forces in Eritrea were under the command of General Tessitore, and he was responsible to his superior officer, General di Corpo D'Armante Luigi Frusci, the Governor of Eritrea and Commander-in-Chief of the Italian Northern Army. These forces attacked Kassala. They crossed the frontier from Metemma and drove us from Gallabat. But then they went no farther. From Kassala they might have crossed a hundred and fifty miles of flat desert that was almost waterless in the dry weather, but where the tracks---no proper roads existed---were becoming impassable to motor traffic with the rains that fall from June to October. Had the Italians made this crossing they would have threatened Khartoum, a capital that was all but defenceless. They made no move towards Khartoum. Their communications would, they feared, be too long and too vulnerable.
Nor was any move made by the Italians against our strategic base at Port Sudan, held by a very small force. They might have advanced from Um Hagar to cut the railway forty miles southwest of Kassala, at the vital Butana Bridge that carries both road and railway across the River Atbara. They did no such thing. And Gallabat might have been the starting-point for an offensive over some ninety miles to the market town of Gedaref, though, with the winding dust track liable to become like a quagmire any day with the rains, such a drive would have been fraught with problems. In no instance did the Italians venture forth.
Their lack of initiative was astounding. For they possessed great superiority in numbers, weapons, aircraft, and war materials, disposing as they did of a quarter of a million troops, white and colonial, in their East African Empire. By contrast, the Kaid (Commander-in-Chief) in the Sudan, Major-General William Platt, C. B., D. S. O., had at his command during that fateful summer of 1940 no more than three British battalions of infantry---the 2nd West Yorkshires, the 1st Essex, the 1st Worcestershires---and the Sudan Defence Force, with its highly mobile machine-gun companies and its Camel Corps. After the loss of British Somaliland in August, General Platt was reinforced by an Indian battalion, the 2/5th Mahrattas from Aden, and by one British artillery unit, the 4th Field Regiment.
For all this welcome addition to his strength, General Platt was still heavily outnumbered, and committed to the defence of a territory that was a thousand miles in width, cut in two from north to south by the Nile Valley, and of still greater extent from the bare, rocky desert in the north to the forests and mountains of the southern tracts. The Kaid's meagre forces, disposed in groups along his 1,200 miles of front, watched the Red Sea coast between Port Sudan and Suakin, guarded the all-important Butana Bridge, the Atbara and Gash rivers, the approaches to Gedaref and Khartoum, the enemy's activities in his newly won positions at Kassala and Gallabat.
And this was no ordinary task. It imposed a tremendous strain. But for all this, as the months of that memorable summer went by one by one, when Britain looked to her defence after the grim losses of Dunkirk, and the people of the island girded their loins to face the promised "blood, sweat, toil and tears," our troops in the Sudan broke the threat of an Italian invasion.
If the Kaid lacked the resources for an offensive, he did not hesitate to defend offensively, provided only that we did not incur losses that we could not afford. Information was required about the enemy. The initiative must be wrested from the supine Italians. An impression must be given of a strength greater than we actually possessed. To this end our small detachments hurried from point to point, raided and nibbled, showed themselves up and down the long frontier, harassed the opponent, stabbed him across the border, shelled Kassala in the first days of September, disguised our weakness by unprecedented activity---all to such good effect that the Italians came to fear a major British offensive.
For all their strength, they yielded to Platt's soldiers the moral ascendancy, the spirit of attack, the energy that should have been their own. The enemy contented himself with strengthening his frontier garrisons and outposts, and turning still more fatally to the defensive. And our strength was, as we intended, overestimated by the Italian commanders, who were soon bluffed into the conviction that any further advance they might make against Port Sudan, Atbara or Khartoum would encounter very considerable opposition. The Kaid's policy had succeeded. And in September came powerful reinforcements from India in the form of the Fifth Indian Division.
This Division had been formed from the Deccan District, composed at the beginning of the war of the 7th Poona Brigade, later to be commanded by Brigadier H. R. Briggs, the 9th Secunderabad Brigade, under Brigadier A. G. O. M. Mayne, D.S.O., and the 10th Jhansi Brigade, led by Brigadier W. J. Slim, M.C.
The first member of the new Divisional Headquarters to arrive in Secunderabad was the G.S.O.1, Colonel F. W. Messervy, who hurried there from command of the 13th Lancers. When he found that his posting was to Deccan District, he was indignant and wrote a letter of complaint to the Commander-in- Chief. He was told to be patient; his new appointment would not remain so dull and unexciting as he imagined. And within a few days the Fifth Indian Division emerged out of Deccan District, and Secunderabad took on a new spirit of anticipation. But the training was difficult through lack of the most recent equipment and the latest types of guns. When complaints were lodged on this score, the Division was informed that the Cabinet had decided that the Indian Army would not take part in first-class war at all. In consequence, all the new equipment was being sent to the British Army in France. It was later alleged that the Division was only sent to fight in the Sudan and Eritrea because the Italians were considered as second-class enemies. The Fifth Indian Division was one of the few formations to fight all three enemies during the war, and whatever might have been said against the Italians, the Germans and Japanese were never accused of being anything but first-class soldiers.
The first Divisional Commander was Major-General L. M. Heath, C.B., C.I.E., D.S.O., M.C. Before the First World War he raised the Indian contingent in Nyasaland. He fought with the Scinde Rifles in operations for the relief of Kut el Amara, was severely wounded in the left arm during the action of the Dujailah Redoubt in March, 1916, and spent eighteen months in hospital. Then, having deliberately surrendered a nomination to the Staff College---the passport of advancement to posts beyond that of battalion commander---Heath accepted command of the Seistan Levy Corps, in the south-west corner of Afghanistan.
The Levy Corps was disbanded in 1921 . Heath served with his regiment, the 14th Punjab, in Palestine, returned to India to command the Indian Army school of Education, and in 1929 assumed command of the 11th Sikh Regiment. For three years he served on the North-West Frontier, then found himself an Instructor at the Senior Officers' School, with the rank of full Colonel. Another three years elapsed before Heath was promoted to command the Wana Brigade, once again on the Frontier, where he remained until 1939. Then he was raised to Major-General, only to find that there was little hope of a vacancy; so he went home, but was recalled soon afterwards on the outbreak of war. The Fourth Indian Division had just moved to the Middle East, and there was a vacant appointment in Deccan District.
It was to the personality, ability and energy of General Heath that the Division owed the solid foundation upon which were achieved its battles during the long years to be lived through between the Sudan and Java. Having thrust and dash, cheerfulness, and a calm mastery of the situation, he inspired his troops, who had complete confidence in his leadership. As a commander he looked and was the part. Badly scarred from previous battles, he could not but inspire trust in all who were near him during the many unpleasant days that lay ahead. His almost fatherly manner in the mess, his sense of humour and gay charm, and his ready accessibility to anyone who wished to talk things over, endeared him to the Division.
He always wanted to see his battles, and the observation points and tactical headquarters he chose were sometimes unduly advanced. He was present at the battle whenever the fighting was at its fiercest. General Heath was a keen flyer---he could pilot an aircraft himself, though his damaged arm prevented his being given a licence---and whenever possible he made an aerial reconnaissance of the ground before the battle was engaged. He made one such expedition in a Hardy, and leaned so far out that the pilot was afraid of losing him overboard.
When he had a decision to make he thought the matter out from every angle. Then, at a conference, he appeared to throw up his withered arm to a comfortable position, before issuing his orders briefly and without possible ambiguity. And he kept to his custom of sleeping for an hour every afternoon, because he said that he was then fit to direct operations late into the night. He refused to be hurried, never seemed depressed, and timed his attacks and manoeuvres with skill.
It was under his wise and trustful leadership, and with the team of commanders and staff officers that was selected so admirably, that the spirit of the Division grew and flowered at the outset of a long and arduous journey.
His Christian names were Lewis Macclesfield, but he was called either "Mac" or by his nickname "Piggy," the origin of which the General has himself recorded. "This name was given to me when I was a very small boy at Wellington: I was then a rather rotund and well-covered lad rising twelve years of age. Going up the stairs after Chapel one evening a boy named Richardson slapped me on the bottom and said 'You fat little piggy.' That name was used in the dormitory first, and later became common throughout the school. It followed me to Sandhurst and stuck to me all through my service and even into retirement, over half a century later."
In common with all other major formations during the war, the Fifth Indian Division possessed a sign of its own, that was worn on the sleeves of shirts or battle-dress blouses, and painted on trucks and lorries, jeeps and staff cars. Its origin is less certain than that of General Heath's nickname, though the two are connected. The G.S.O.1 of the Division, Colonel Frank Messervy, submitted to units for their approval the suggestion that the design of the flash should be a boar's head; in this way it would be linked with the nickname of its first commander. But vehement objections to this idea were raised on the grounds that such an insignia would arouse resentment among the Muslim troops in the Division, whose religion forbade them to eat the flesh of the pig. This objection was recognized, and the boar's head cancelled. Messervy then tried the heads of other animals, but each one he devised had already been selected by some other formation. So a plain red circle was chosen. It was simple and distinctive; General Heath approved. The red circle, standing as it did on a black background, gradually came to symbolize a Ball of Fire.
When the Division and its two brigades arrived in the Sudan various changes were made. The 29th Brigade, composed of the three British battalions already in the country, was split up. The 1st Worcestershires remained, the 2nd West Yorkshires went to Mayne's Nine Brigade, while the 1st Essex joined Ten Brigade. Each of the three brigades now had one British and two Indian battalions. Brigadier J. C. O. Marriott, C.V.O., D.S.O., M.C., a Scots Guardsman commanding the newly constituted 29 Brigade, had the 3/2nd Punjab and 6/13th Frontier Force Rifles. Mayne's two Indian battalions were the 3/5th Mahratta Light Infantry and 3/12th Frontier Force Regiment; Brigadier Slim had the 4/10th Baluch and 3 3/18th Royal Garhwal Rifles.
By October the rains had almost ceased. The Division was distributed along the northern part of the immense frontier that the Kaid's scanty force had so skilfully dominated throughout the summer. While Marriott's battalions were split between Port Sudan and the Sennar Dam, and while Nine Brigade guarded a central area from Butana Bridge to Showak, Slim's Ten Brigade held Gedaref and Doka and watched the enemy at Gallabat and Metemma. Later, the Kassala area was taken care of by Gazelle Force.
The nucleus of this force was one of the two groups of Sudan Defence Force machine-gun companies, based on Butana Bridge. It was now strengthened by Skinner's Horse and a battery of field guns, the whole being placed under command of Colonel Frank Messervy, who handed over his work as G.S.O.1 of the Division to Colonel Dudley Russell of the 6/13th Frontier Force Rifles.
Messervy, a man brimming over with energy, ideas, and cheerfulness, tempered the thrust and impetus of a cavalry officer with the sound planning of a former instructor at the Staff College. His figure was tall, his head very bald, his face eager and alert of expression. To the cautious and ponderous he may, at times, have appeared to be rash and even foolhardy, but those who offered such criticisms failed to realize just how astute and quick-witted was Frank Messervy. Perhaps there were moments when he realized that the demands he was making on his men were excessive, but those who served with him responded to his every call for endeavour. To say that he had no fear might be false. But on one occasion, during a nasty bout of enemy shelling, he was heard to say cheerily to a fellow-commander who had himself earned a triple D.S.O. and was shouting to Messervy to take cover: "Oh, it's all right. They're not aiming at me!"
Some have said, and no doubt many others have thought, that Messervy was blessed with uncommon luck in battle. But this he attributed to his reliance upon the shielding arm of Providence (he is a staunch Roman Catholic) and to his inherent belief in the ancient motto that "Fortune favours the brave." His military life illustrates those beliefs.
'Gazelle' was, as General Heath later noted, a misnomer for that fleet-footed animal of the desert which is essentially a timid creature, whereas the 'Gazelle' as welded and wielded by Messervy had the cunning and ferocity of a man-eating leopard. Messervy was charged with the task of dominating the Gash Delta and deceiving the enemy. In both respects he succeeded admirably. By great mobility, daring, and an enterprise that often amounted to impudence, Gazelle Force led the Italians to believe that at least two divisions faced them---there were scarcely more than a thousand men. Messervy's columns harassed and ambushed enemy maintenance convoys, and raided behind Italian outposts---the Sudan Defence Force officers' mess supplied itself with fresh fruit and vegetables from Italian gardens in Kassala itself. Characteristic of their day-to-day achievements was the rounding up of a party that was repairing the telephone line from Kassala to Tessenei; when a small enemy force came out to search for the missing line party, it, too, was destroyed.
An interesting example of our deception policy during this period of preparation was the suggestion that the phrase "Fifth Indian Division" should be converted, in the course of purposely indiscreet talk, into "five Indian Divisions. Within ten days this new 'fact' was inserted in Italian Intelligence reports!
As the weeks passed the men of the Division grew familiar with the rocks and sand and dust of the Sudan; with the local villages and the tukls (mud huts with thatched roofs), the little tin railway stations. They learned to camouflage their vehicles at every halt and to dig slit trenches---the enemy held sway in the air. Slowly our troops gained experience in the difficulties of navigation through the bush. All this time the heat was fierce, and the few eggs and chickens purchased from Sudanese villagers could well have been cooked on the railway lines. Those officers who on reconnaissance travelled across country by railway scooter saw numbers of giraffe and ostrich moving against the monotonous landscape of hard sand, that rolled away to a horizon broken only by an occasional jebel (mountain) of solid rock.
The mirage whose outline faded and then vanished as you drew near, the heat shimmer from which tree-ringed lakes and the likeness of still water might be stared at, were a frequent and memorable feature of many a drive over the desert. Wells became important and recognizable by the swarms of flies as well as by the camels, cows, goats and donkeys that watered there in daylight. To pick out the one camel track to be followed among many such tracks was often perplexing, and a glance at the sun or a compass would be necessary to avoid taking the wrong route. Patches of long tubbas grass grew on the sand now that the rains were falling, and camel-thorn bushes studded the ground. Where these bushes flourished, particularly round Gedaref, men found, it difficult to walk any distance without getting caught up in thorns like fishhooks. The scratches festered into septic sores, and in certain units there was hardly a man without bandages on one or both arms and knees.
Farther south, towards Gedaref and Butana Bridge, and in the Gash Delta cotton-growing district, the sand gave place to loamy, black-cotton soil, badly cracked and bumpy in the sun's glare, and, in the rainy season, holding pools of water. Trucks could be hidden beneath the quaint evergreen tebeldi trees, shaped like umbrellas, and beneath numerous gum trees. And some of the troops would defy the risk of crocodiles and bathe in the clear waters of the Atbara, sharing the shallow reaches with families of hippopotami..
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