India’s Armour
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
December 2016

Mechanization came slowly to the British Indian Army, as it did to many of the world’s armed forces in the late 1930s. British units had priority for tanks and motor vehicles, though some units fielded “India Pattern” light tanks by 1938. These machine-gun armed tanks were already obsolete by most standards, but British units were also still using similar models and would take them into battle in 1939 and 1940.

The “India Pattern” light tank, Mark I.

Indian infantry brigades served with distinction in the Middle East, and a number of them appear in our Gazala game, as does the Indian 3rd Motor Brigade. Initially intended as part of an Indian armoured division, this former cavalry brigade was sent to the Western Desert in the spring of 1941, where it was overrun and destroyed by German tanks. Withdrawn and reformed, it returned to the desert just in time to be overrun and destroyed by the Italian 132nd “Ariete” Armored Division in the opening stages of the Gazala battles.

Its intended parent division, the Indian 31st Armoured Division, had been raised in July 1940 as the 1st Indian Armoured Division, but no staff was assigned to its headquarters until September. Initially it had two tank brigades, designated 1st and 2nd Armoured, and 3rd Motor Brigade. The division trained extensively but with very few tanks — the four tank battalions assigned to 1st Indian Armoured Brigade had three M3 Stuart tanks each, though a number of the obsolete India Pattern light tanks were used for crew training.

Though lacking tanks, 2nd Armoured Brigade was detached and sent to Iraq in January 1942 and re-designated 252nd Armoured Brigade. Division headquarters moved to Iraq in June 1942, where it took command of the shattered remnants of 3rd Indian Motor Brigade and the 252nd Indian Armoured Brigade, which still had no tanks. 1st Armoured Brigade remained in India.

Armor finally arrived in November, when one battalion received M3 Stuart light tanks and the other two received M3 Grant medium tanks. Two of its battalions were Indian (the Stuart-equipped 4th Duke of Cambridge’s Own Lancers, known as Hodson’s Horse and Grant-equipped 14th Prince of Wales’ Own Cavalry, the Scinde Horse) and the third British (the 14/20th Hussars, equipped with Grants). Soon afterward, 3rd Motor Brigade received three new Gurkha battalions in place of its old dismounted cavalry units, and was re-designated 43rd Gurkha Lorried Infantry Brigade.

The British command appears reluctant to allow colonials of any color to function as a modern, independent formation — the Australian 1st Armoured Division was also kept on a short allotment of tanks. India’s tankers spent the war at home or on garrison duty, with only a few small units seeing action in Burma.

An M3 Grant tanks rolls through the desert.

Thirty-First Armoured never saw action as a unit, its closest brush with combat coming in April 1944 when it was rushed to Egypt to crush a mutiny among the Greek 1st Infantry Brigade. The Indian tankers received Shermans in November 1943, apparently in preparation for transfer to combat in Italy, but only drove them in Iraq, Syria and Egypt. Their older tanks appear to have been shipped back to India to equip the still-tankless 251st Armoured Brigade (the original 1st Armoured Brigade).

The Gurkha brigade was detached in October 1944 and went to Italy, where it saw action as an independent unit. Returning to India at war’s end, 31st Armoured Division was redesignated 1st Armoured in September 1945 and was allotted to India during the partition of the British Indian Army two years later. Soon afterward, it conducted the Indian army’s first military operation, crushing the small army of the princely state of Hyderabad, which had resisted incorporation into India. The division saw action in wars against Pakistan in 1948, 1965 and 1971, and is again known as 31st Armoured Division.

Though the Indian regiments were greatly understrength in tanks, enough vehicles existed in British depots in Egypt to flesh them out to full strength. The division could easily have been brought forward to participate in the Gazala battles. Both sides planned to attack, and the Axis only managed to beat the Commonwealth to the punch by a matter of days.

British armoured divisions at Gazala had one armoured brigade, one infantry brigade and one motor rifle battalion, the same paper organization of 31st Armoured. The formation consists of six units: division headquarters, Bombay Grenadiers motorized infantry battalion, 3rd Motor Brigade, and three tank battalions: Hodson’s Horse, Scinde Horse, and 14/20th Lancers. In all scenarios, all of them set up at or within one hex of hex 0814. 3rd Motor Brigade is no longer assigned to 7th Armoured Division, and 7/7 Infantry Brigade (4-1-9 strength) is placed in hex 1020. The British begin with no Stuart or Grant replacements.

Click here to download the pieces.

Victory conditions remain unchanged, but this new formation placed in the path of the Axis advance will change play of the game substantially. We don’t recommend using this variant unless the Littorio variant is also in play for the Axis side.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.