There are numerous instances of the Gurkhas turning the tide of particular battles in Italy and North Africa during WW2 but they are probably best known for their role in the Burma Campaign as part of General Bill Slim’s ‘forgotten’ 14th Army, a campaign that established them as the world's most capable jungle warriors. Large numbers of Gurkhas died defending Sittang Bridge in February 1942, many drowning when the bridge was blown and 6,000 men of the 17th Division found themselves unexpectedly trapped between the fast flowing river and the advancing Japanese. Gurkhas also made a significant contribution to Brigadier (later Major General) Orde Wingate’s two Chindit operations of 1943 and 1944 and they fought with distinction during the defence of Imphal in June 1944. In June of 2015, the Second Battalion of The Royal Gurkha Rifles joined the UK’s elite 16 Air Assault Brigade, a return to the airborne role that Gurkhas first embraced in Burma when 153 and 154 (Gurkha) Parachute Battalions were formed for operations against the Japanese. Lieutenant Colonel (later Major General) F J Loftus-Tottenham, who raised the first Gurkha parachute battalion in 1941, described Gurkhas as ‘...probably the best natural parachutist in the world,’ something they would demonstrate when they parachuted in to capture key gun positions at the start of Operation Dracula, the air, sea and land operation to secure Rangoon in May 1945.
This section starts with the first meeting between the British East India Company and the Gurkhas of Bhim Sen Thapa, which occurred when the expansionist 'John Company' met the equally expansionist Nepalese in 1814, and goes on to describe the Gurkhas' service up until WW1, including their role in the Indian Mutiny of 1857.
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Naik Agansing Rai of 2/5 th Gurkhas was awarded a Victoria Cross for his bravery on the 26 June 1944 during assaults to capture the key positions of Mortar Bluff and Water Piquet. One of the nine VCs awarded to Gurkhas during the Burma Campaign.
BRITAIN'S GURKHAS IN THE WORLD WARS
Rifleman Asman Gurung of the 6th Gurkhas crossing the Irrawaddy River during the Burma Campaign.
The Gurkhas are known for their fighting knife, the kukri. The blade of a modern military Gurkha kukri is usually about 30cm in length. The scabbard contains two pockets at the back to hold a pair of small knives. One of these, the chakmak, is for sharpening the kukri and can be used with a flint to create a spark. The other, the karda, is used as a penknife for skinning animals.
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One of the questions that came up in the interview with Lukwesa Burak on 15 August 1941 is why the 14th Army was known as the 'Forgotten Army'. It's a great question! There are four main reasons:
The first reason is that following Japan's attack on the US Pacific Fleet on 7 December 1941, Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, and Theodore Roosevelt, the US President, agreed that they would aim to defeat Germany before concentrating on Japan and Italy. This policy - known as 'Germany First' - meant that General Slim's forces in Burma were not a high priority as they were fighting the Japanese, and not the Germans.
The second reason is that Burma (now Myanmar) is a very long way from the UK, in fact it's over 5,500 miles from London to Rangoon, the capital of Burma. In the 1940s, there was no social media and very little TV coverage so if you were living in the UK or USA, it was very difficult to find out what was happening in the Far East.
The third reason is that the campaign in Burma did not go well to start with. The Japanese crossed the border from Thailand into Burma in mid January 1942. By then, Hong Kong had fallen to the Japanese (on Christmas Day 1941) and Singapore fell shortly afterwards on 14 February 1942. On 9 March 1942, Rangoon also fell to the Japanese and the Allied force in Burma had little choice but to retreat 1,000 miles north to the relative safety of what was then British India. Throughout the retreat, they were hotly pursued by the Japanese. In fact it wasn't until late 1943 (in what was known as the First Arakan Campaign) that the tide started to turn in the Allies' favour. Because of this, it is no surprise that the war in the Far East was not publicised, at least in the early years, as the war in Europe was also going badly.
The fourth reason is that the majority of troops were not British. During the VJ Day 75 commemorations on 15 August 2020, the UK Ministry of Defence drew on the following figures to illustrate the international nature of the Far East Campaign:
- 365,000 British personnel.
- 1.5 million Commonwealth troops.
- 2.5 million troops from pre-Partition India (so from what is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh).
The 2.5 million troops from pre-Partition India included 35,000 Gurkhas, organised into 27 Battalions.
GURKHAS IN THE WORLD WARS: WORLD WAR ONE (WW1) AND WORLD WAR 2 (WW2)
The First World War (WW1) saw the Gurkhas transition from operations against the wily tribesmen of the North West Frontier to the ‘modern’ warfare of the trenches. On the Western Front, in Mesopotamia and on the Gallipoli Peninsula, some 90,780 Gurkhas served the Crown during WW1. Of these, over 20,000 became casualties. Their bravery earned accolades from all quarters and resulted in the award of threeVictoria Crosses (VCs). The first of these was won by Rifleman Kulbir Thapa at the Battle of Loos in September 1915, the same WW1 battle in which Rudyard Kipling’s son was killed. It was particularly significant because it was the first ever VC won by a Gurkha soldier, rather than a British Officer from a Gurkha regiment. Although officers serving with Gurkha regiments were eligible for the award from its introduction in 1856, ‘native’ soldiers only became eligible in 1911, several years before the start of WW1.
This section gives an overview of the current Brigade of Gurkhas, including recruiting and the role of His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales. It concludes with a brief look at the 25th Anniversary Celebrations of The Royal Gurkha Rifles which took place this year (2019).
35,000 Gurkhas served during the course of the Burma Campaign, with nine officers and soldiers being awarded Victoria Crosses. An extract from the citation of one of these gives an idea of the sort of fighting the Gurkhas were involved in during this key campaign of WW2:
‘In the subsequent advance heavy machine-gun fire and showers of grenades from an isolated bunker position caused further casualties. Once more, with indomitable courage, Naik Agansing Rai, covered by his Bren gunner, advanced alone with a grenade in one hand and his Thompson Sub-Machinegun in the other. Through devastating fire he reached the enemy position and with his grenade and bursts from his Thompson Sub-Machinegun killed all four occupants of the bunker.’
Gurkhas of the 4th Indian Division meet American GIs. The US forces arrived in North Africa as part of Operation Torch which saw some 650 ships put ashore four US and British Divisions on 8 November 1942. The Germans eventually surrendered in North Africa on 12 May 1943 after a three year campaign. The total German and Italian prisoners amounted to some 250,000.
On 15 August 2020, the UK commemorated the 75th anniversary of Japan's surrender at the end of the Second World War. Known as 'VJ Day 75', the commemorations included a service, led by HRH The Prince of Wales, at the National Arboretum. As part of the BBC News coverage of the event, Craig Lawrence spoke to Lukwesa Burak about the Gurkhas' role in Burma and the Gurkhas' enduring legacy. Click on the image - or this hyperlink - to watch the interview.
In 2018 to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the end of the First World War, the Families in British India Society (FIBIS) asked me to write an article on Gurkhas in WW1. If you would like to read the article and learn more about what the Gurkhas did during the Great War, then click on the journal image (to the left) or on the link (below).
Brigadier (later Major General) General Orde Wingate who commanded the Chindits. He was killed when his aircraft crashed during a visit to one of the strongholds established behind enemy lines during the second Chindit operation. Large numbers of Gurkhas took part in both Chindit operations.
A Gurkha rifleman of the 10th Gurkhas smiles as he tests the edge of his kukri. The photograph was taken in Italy in 1945.
This section describes Gurkha operational deployments from the end of WW2 up until today and includes their campaigns in Malaya, Brunei, Borneo, the Falklands, the Balkans and Afghanistan.
General 'Bill' Slim, the inspirational commander of the 14th Army, the so-called 'Forgotten Army', whose remarkable leadership led to a stunning victory against the Japanese in Burma during the Second World War.
Click on the image to find out more about this most famous of Britain's Gurkha generals, or follow this link!
Rifleman Kulbir Thapa of 2/3rd Gurkhas who earned a Victoria Cross for his actions at the Battle of Loos in September 1915 in WW1, becoming the first Gurkha soldier to receive the award. Although the Victoria Cross was brought into being by Royal Warrant on 29 January 1856, it was not until 1911, on the occasion of the visit of King George V to India, that Gurkhas became eligible for the award. To date, officers and soldiers of the Brigade of Gurkhas have been awarded a total of 26 Victoria Crosses, 10 of which were earned for acts of valour on jungle operations, a Gurkha speciality.
A painting by the artist Terence Cuneo showing 1/6th Gurkhas assaulting well prepared Turkish positions on the highest feature of the Sari Bair Massif on the Gallipoli Peninsula during WW1. The painting shows Major Cecil Allanson leading his men from the front on 9 August 1915. A remarkable officer and superb athlete, Allanson held the Army record for the 2 miles for a number of years. He was written up for a Victoria Cross for his actions on Sari Bair but this was downgraded to the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). Prior to the assault and having been briefed on the plan, Allanson wrote in his diary: "what would one have done to a subaltern at a promotion examination who made any such proposition?"
When her brother is killed in a diving accident, journalist Amélie Lagarde asks ex-Gurkha Harry Parker to help her investigate. Together they get drawn into a desperate battle between an ambitious Prime Minister, the intelligence services and the world’s most wanted terrorist, leaving them with no choice but to take matters into their own hands.
'Fast paced and action-packed from the start...well worth getting hold of.’ Soldier Magazine (the magazine of the British Army)
'Breathtaking read. Couldn't put it down! A real page turner. Had me on the edge of my seat throughout.' Amazon reader review
The number of Gurkhas serving the Crown increased during WW2 to some 138,000. Again, they distinguished themselves, earning 2,760 awards for bravery or distinguished service. These awards included 12 VCs and a remarkable 333 Military Crosses. Both medals are awarded for acts of valour in the face of the enemy and it is therefore no surprise that the casualties amongst Gurkha officers and soldiers during WW2 were high: 7,539 Gurkhas were either killed or died of wounds; 1,441 Gurkhas were posted as missing, presumed dead; and a further 14,082 Gurkhas were wounded.
The history of the Gurkha soldier: Brigadier Mike Calvert (left) who commanded one of the columns during the second Chindit operation and Major James Lumley (right), the father of Joanna Lumley and a career Gurkha officer, in the ruins of Mogaung, Burma after its capture in June 1944.
The Japanese surrender in Rangoon in May 1945. The picture shows Lieutenant General Namata surrendering to Major General W S Symes, the General Officer Commanding South Burma. It was General ‘Bill’ Slim’s remarkable leadership of the Burma Campaign that led to the Japanese defeat.