Marathas in world war 2 – Between 1939 and 1946, six battalions of the Mahratta Regiment served on the Western Front, with the 2/5th and 3/5th reaching the frontline within a year of the outbreak of war. They harassed the Italians on borders of Sudan and Abyssinia and then moved to pierce through the Eritrean Mountain fortress of Keren. It was during the raid of 3/5th on Gallabat Fort to capture an Italian General on 11 January 1941, that the battle cry “Bol Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj ki Jai” was used for the first time and gradually replaced the old war cry “Har Har Mahadev”. Till then mention of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj was a tabboo and always invited punishment. The 2nd and 3rd units gained immortality due to their cold courage and grim determination on the heights of Keren.
The campaign in Italy put Indian troops to severest test as they were pitted against the Germans. Citta De Castello and banks of Senio River, till date remain glittering hallmarks where Marathas were conferred with highest gallantry award of Victoria Cross. Naik Yashwant Ghadge of 3rd was conferred the award posthumously during the battle at Citta de Castello and Sepoy Namdeo Jadhav of 1st was awarded during Senio crossing operation. The Marathas also exhibited their prowess and versatility in handling various types of weapon systems like machine guns, 6 pounder cannon and mortar batteries, which was very useful in a time when technological advancements were altering the course of wars.
In July 1940, Italian Army in Eritrea crossed Sudanese border and drove away elements of British forces at Gallabat. 2/5th (2 MARATHA LI) and 3/5th (3 MARATHA LI) were the first two Maratha units to be inducted in the theatre. 3/5th commanded by Lt Col Dennis Reid was tasked to prevent reinforcement of Gallabat by Italians. Subsequently, on 11 January 1940, the unit was tasked to capture an Italian General, commanding Gallabat garrison. After having secured Kassala, Keru, Biscia and Agordat, the British force was ready to attack the Italian stronghold at Keren. Keren is located at height of 4300 feet above MSL. A formidable barrier of hills guarded the town of Keren. The only easy approach was from East through a gorge known as Dongolas gorge. The remainder area was seemingly impregnable. It looked like a bleak & jagged screen as it loomed up in the sky 2500 feet above the green valley. It was steep, high, immense and forbidding. The troops had to negotiate enormous granite domes and through prickly bushes which were more effective than a barbed wire. The soil crumbled under the feet thus a foothold was also very difficult. After having negotiated these nature’s obstacles the men had to be in fit state to fight with the enemy. The first attack carried out by the 4th Indian Division proved futile. Consequently, the 5th Indian Division was instructed to attack the objective along with 4th Division. After 12 hours of ceaseless fighting and many casualties,the men captured the first line of objective.
Iraq and Persia
1/5th and 5/5th, ‘The Royals’ also moved westwards in 1941. After 14 years, both the units were again deployed in the old battlefields of Basra, Shaiba and Baghdad. The 5/5th (5 MARATHA LI) Royals were converted to Machine Gun Battalion for the 8th Indian Infantry Division. The Persia-Iraq region- which later went under the name HQ PAIFORCE – eventually became the largest British base for military operations launched in North Africa: Western Desert and Italy.
There were only two British divisions deployed between Benghazi and Tobruk in January 1942: the 1st British Armoured Division and 4th Indian Division. Rommel surprised the British
by commencing his advance a month before the assessed time. British forces were woefully inadequate to stop the advance. The Marathas fought all along the 600 miles between Banghazi and Tobruk. During the withdrawal, the Marathas also carried out a successful raid on German airfield at Martuba, where they waited patiently for over 24 hours, sixty miles inside enemy territory. By June 1941, whole of 11th Indian Brigade had reached Tobruk and was holding the eastern perimeter of Tobruk defences. The defences were inadequate and the repair work which went on till mid-June was enough incitement for the Germans to attack Tobruk with their 21st
Panzer Division equipped with the latest Mark III and Mark IV tanks. Heavy artillery concentration of Germans cut the communications between Maratha advance companies and battalion headquarters. Finally, about 40 Mark III and Mark IV German tanks assaulted the defences of 2/5th and overran them. Entire 11 Indian Brigade was overrun. The Tobruk garrison finally surrendered. The 1/5th unit reached North Africa in April 1942 and held defences at various locations and reached famous Gazala fierce attacks by German divisions. After being surrounded by the enemy, they extricated themselves successfully in small parties along with a neighbouring unit. While covering the withdrawal of XIII Corps, the unit suffered heavy casualties at Fuka.
After Eritrea and North Africa, the Marathas entered yet another theatre in a long and arduous campaign. General Alexander’s 15th Army Group launched its operations in the first week of September 1943. 8th and 10th Indian Divisions entered Italy as part of V Corps under 8th Army. 1/5th (Jangi Paltan), 5th Royals (Machine Gun Battalion), 4th Maratha Anti-Tank Regiment converted from 8/5th Maratha Light Infantry were part of 8th Indian Division. Under 10th Indian Division 3/5th was also launched. The Italian Campaign had a special significance since for the first time an Indian Officer (then Lt Col later Major General DS Brar) rose to command a Maratha unit (5th Royals). Similarly all three Maratha units, 1/5th, 3/5th and 5/5th Royals had a fair number of Indian Officers who commanded companies and some of them like Maj SN Mahant and Maj Anandrao Kadam became heroes by their magnificent exploits.
Battle of Sangro
In mid-November 1943, after crossing Biferno and Trigno rivers, the 8th Army was closing on Sangro River. The Germans had built the strongest defences on this river known as Winter Line which ran across the waist of Italy starting from Adriatic coast. 1/5th was first tasked to protect sappers who were launching a bridge over Sangro. The British division successfully established
a bridgehead on Sangro River. 1/5th crossed the river in boats and were tasked to launch an assault on a feature called Redicoppe with tanks. The Germans launched a counter-attack which the Marathas repulsed using German weapons and ammunition.
Citta de Castello
By the end of June1944, the 8th Army had turned their attention to capture of Arezzo and Florence, as they were essential administrative and operational bases for attack on Gothic Line. 10th Indian Division was tasked with advancing up the Tiber River valley. The 3/5th went through the firm base held by King’s Own Royal Regiment. Initial objectives were captured on 8th July. At Citta de Castello, Naik Yashwant Ghadge was the only survivor of his section and
single handedly killed all members of the German machine gun crew before getting shot in the chest. He was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously, the first ever awarded to the Maratha Light Infantry.
The Italian campaign had kept four Maratha units, 1/5th, 3/5th, 5/5th Royals and 4th Maratha Anti-Tank Regiment committed to nonstop fighting for 20 months. It was one battle after another, over mountains and rivers which had turned into most powerful bastions of defence by German forces who knew that these offered their last chance of survival. In the 200 years history of the Maratha Light Infantry, this was by far the longest campaign that Maratha soldiers fought against a modern and well organised enemy.
Crossing of Senio
The spring offensive of 15th Army Group commenced in April 1945. The 8th Army was instructed to go on an offensive by breaking through Senio defences. One sepoy, the sole survivor, was able to recross the river to give information: a soldier named Namdeo Jadhav. Namdeo after reaching far bank of the river and being the sole survivor, assumed personal command of the battle and in the midst of crashing of mortar bombs and the sweeping fire of machine guns, he nonchalantly carried two of his wounded comrades to safety through deep waters in the minefield. He dashed back to nearest German post and silenced the crew with bursts of Tommy Gun and used all the grenades he had. He charged and wiped out two more German posts. Namdeo Jadhav was deservingly awarded the Victoria Cross for his outstanding bravery.
The Eastern front saw three Maratha units, 4th, 6th and 17th serving on Indo- Burma border, in Arakan and in Java from 1942 to 1946. 4th and 6th, as part of 23rd Indian Division reached Imphal front during middle of 1942 and were engaged in deadly actions against overwhelmingly superior Japanese forces on Imphal-Ukhrul road. The 4th held defence box at Shangshak for four days against repeated assaults by a division of Japanese to ensure safety of
Imphal. The unit paid a heavy price of 260 casualties. The 6th attained glory during the determined attacks on Battle Hill in July 1944,albeit at the cost of 130 casualties. 4th was awarded Battle Honour, “Shangshak” andthe 6th was awarded the battle honour “Tengnoupal” for the their bravery. The 17th, as part of 51st Indian Brigade along with other units of the brigade moved to Arakan sector in March 1944. In October 1945 both 4th and 6th landed at Batavia in Java. They carried out a fine job in establishing law and order in the strifetorn area for one year.
In September 1939, when WW-II broke out, the unit was asked to be ready to move to Iraq to prepare against a possible German breakthrough from Iran. In Feb 1941, the unit was placed under command of 23 Indian Division/123 Infantry Brigade and later was ordered to move to Manipur in June 1941. Subsequently, they moved to Moreh on Burmese border to provide protection to road building parties. The brigade was tasked to operate between Chindwin river and Kabaw valley. They were dispersed over 88 miles. In order to divert attention of Japanese from insertion of famous Chindit Brigade of Brigadier Wingate, 4 Marathas was tasked to simulate an attack on Okkan and Kontha and draw Japanese forces. The Marathas caused many casualties on the Japanese and earned the honour of being the first unit to inflict casualties on so called ‘Invincible’ Japanese. The unit was presented with a cheque of Rs 100/- by the Divisional Commander for the achievement.
In May 1944 a company of 4th battalion was tasked to move to Shenam on Palel-Tamu Road. It was here that they clashed with elements of INA (Indian National Army) raised by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. Gandhi Brigade of INA (possibly a battalion) was deployed around Mitlong Khonoue, south east of Palel. 4 Marathas attacked the INA positions supported by artillery and captured parts of the area over the next two days. In June 1944, the unit was placed under command of 20 Infantry ivision and tasked to proceed to Imp hal. The unit was asked to clear the area and 7 Cavalry was to support the attack.
The unit was raised on 20 June 1940 at Mardan, North West Frontier. It received its first enemy fire test when it was involved in an action with hostile tribesmen near Mir Ali on 14 February 1941. An IDSM was awarded to a sepoy for his gallant action. In September 1942, the unit received orders for mobilisation. They proceeded to Imphal in last week of October 1941 after going through Assam and Dimapur. Along with 4 Marathas and 5 Rajputana Rifles, the unit was placed under command 49 Infantry Brigade. They also operated in the area between Kabaw valley and Chindwin river. The unit attacked Dathwekyauk in first week of October 1943 and forced the Japanese to disperse. However, the unit lost one officer and one other rank and two other ranks were wounded.
17/5th MARATHA LIGHT INFANTRY
was raised In October 1941 at Belgaum. In December, the unit was deployed at Wah, North West Frontier. Later, in 1943 the unit was brought to Madras Presidency to train for jungle warfare. As part of 25 Indian Division, the unit was moved to Arakan front. The battalion was part of 51st Infantry Brigade. The unit reached Razabil, Burma in March 1944. The task allocated to the brigade was to carry out intensive patrolling on Razabil-Tunnel road to eliminate Japanese infiltration and deny them access to any part of the road. The enemy attacked the unit which led to 22 deaths and countless wounded.
The clearance of Mayu peninsula was prerequisite to capture of Akyab. An elaborate plan for capture of Akyab was formulated. In January the unit moved in unit sampans and concentrated at Akyab in heavy rains. Wherever the Japanese tried to delay the advance, the unit pushed them back.
Next phase of the operation was capture of Ruywa, a village 23 miles west of An for which an assault landing was planned by 53rd Indian Brigade. The first phase had an unopposed landing and the troops of 17 Marathas, in the second phase, passed through the first phase troops and typical of their race, dashed ahead and captured various commanding hills. For their fortitude against the odds and daring action despite the casualties suffered, the unitwas awarded Battle Honour “Ruywa”. WW-II, both on Western as well as Eastern fronts, brought up countless examples of personal courage and gallantry of officers, VCOs (Viceroy’s Commissioned Officers-present day JCOs) and the men – an eloquent testimony of their hard training, discipline and sturdiness of the stock. It also threw up leadership at every level from section commander who commanded ten men to unit commanders who commanded almost 900 men. The strong regimental loyalty pushed the men to achieve the impossible and also uncovered the
latent qualities of the Marathas. Their boundless magnanimity was demonstrated repeatedly on the battlefield. The 10th Battalion adequately met the needs of all active units throughout the long war years. The unprecedented demands on manpower required for all units were met with speed and rigorous training that earned compliments from all quarters.
HONOURS AND AWARDS EARNED BY MARATHAS IN WORLD WAR 2
Battle Honours – WORLD WAR 2: The battle honours conferred on Maratha units for their outstanding operations during World war 2 were as follows:
- Keren, Tobruk (1941and 1942)
- Gubi II
- The Sangro
- Advance to Florence
- Gothic Line
- The Senio
- Tengnoupal and Ruywa.
Awards conferred on Maratha units during World War 2
- The1/5th won – 1 VC, 2 SOs, 11 MCs, 2 IOMs, 8 IDSMs, 12 MMs, 1 MBE, 1 American Silver Star, and 1 American Bronze Star.
- The2/5th was bestowed with -2 DSOs, 1 MC, 3 IOMs, 14 IDSMs, 3 MMs and 1 OBE.
- The 3/5th has a long list of laurels including – 1 VC, 1 CB, 1 CBE, 2 DSOs, 12 MCs, 1 OBE, 6 MBEs, 1 OBI, 8 IOMs, 8 IDSMs and 14 MMs.
- The 4/5th Maratha earned themselves – 2 OBEs, 2 MBEs, 1 DSO, 14 MCs, 8 IDSMs and 7 Mms.
- The 5/5th ROYALS won – 2 MBE, 1 OBE, 6 MCs, 3 IDSMs and 4 MMs.
- The 6/5th was awarded 4 MCs, 10 IDSMs and 12 MMs.
- The 17/5TH won -1 DSO, 4 MCs and 5 MMs
Maj Gen C D Sawant commanded 6 Maratha LI, was GoC of an infantry division.