The Second World War saw most of the planet plunged into a 6 year conflict that cost the lives of a staggering 75 million people, including as many as 40 million civilians!
World War II, which lasted from 1939 to 1945, was hugely destructive with the modern weapons of the time demolishing more property and buildings than any previous war in history. The war was fast paced and constantly on the move; very unlike World War I which was based on slow moving trench warfare.
Nations from all over the world rallied to the support of Europe when the alliance of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy threatened to overthrow the liberal democracies of the other nations of Europe (I am aware that this is a simplistic overview of WW II). We have to keep in mind that the liberal democracies were not so liberal. Britain and France were colonial powers, sucking their colonies dry for centuries. America was still a segregated society and had colonies of our own. The Soviet Union was a communist nation.
As one of the major nations in the Alliance against the Nazis, Britain was able to call on troops from all over the Commonwealth; including Australians, New Zealanders and Indians. These troops from across the world helped to turn the tides against the fascists who eventually capitulated with the fall of Berlin in May of 1945.
Most Italians and some Americans know about what happened in Italy during World War II (I say some Americans, because most of the younger Americans that I know, only have a very high level idea of World War II. This is really sad but a fact of life). But very few Italians and even fewer Indians know about India’s involvement in Italy during World War II. Some Indians tend to discount the significant achievements of the Indian Armed Forces all over the world prior to India’s independence from Britain. The Indian Army fought in every nook and corner of this Earth and made great sacrifices in the process. In World War I, over 75,000 Indian troops died. In World War II, India had the largest all-volunteer army in the world. There is no doubt that India played a large role in building the foundation of the modern world.
One of my goals as an expat is to visit these important battlefields and learn more about the people who came to Italy and sacrificed their youth and in many cases their lives, for the future of others.
Why Did World War II Happen And Who Fought It?
World War II officially began on the 1st September after Adolph Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland. This led to Britain, France and their allies declaring war on the German army. The primary nations involved in the War in Europe were the German Nazis and the Italian fascists who fought against the British, French, Russians and Americans.
Japan also joined the war by invading Manchuria and began a brutal war in the Pacific which was eventually won by the United States. Other major theatres of the war included Northern Africa and parts of the Middle East.
Top Left: Indian Army 10th Division in Italy (July 22nd, 1944). Top Right: Maratha Light Infantry Division advancing at the Aquino Aerodrome on 25th May, 1944. Aquino is halfway between Naples and Rome.
Indian troops fought for the British army and played a major role in the defeat of the Fascists in Italy. The Indian contingent was one of the largest in the war, with the nation providing more than 2.5 million soldiers under the British Indian Army to fight the Axis of Germany, Italy and Japan.
The British Indian Army fought in multiple theaters of the war including North Africa, East African and Italy. They played an extremely important role in the collective effort to defeat the Axis; and following the war India emerged as a prominent political and economic nation that had the 4th largest industrial capacity in the world. Following the war India’s independence from the British Empire became inevitable and was achieved on 15th August, 1947, heralding a new era for the country and the region.
The British Indian Army In The Italian Campaign.
Three Divisions of the The British Indian Army fought in Italy in the Italian Campaign (also known as the Liberation of Italy). The 4th, 8th and 10th divisions of the Indian Army fought often alongside the brave 43rd Gurkha Infantry Brigade. One of the most difficult conflicts of this period was the Battle of Monte Cassino and later the victory on the Gothic Line.
The main defenses on the path to Rome for the invading allies was known as the Gustav Line. This cut across Italy from Sangro River on the Adriatic coast to the Tyrrhenian Sea, north of Garigliano. One of the main defensive positions on the Gustav Line was Monte Cassino, a mountain fortress that was based in an ancient Benedictine Abbey.
The mountain position was almost impenetrable with the Abbey providing cover for the German troops against Allied bombardments and attack. Italy surrendered in 1943 but the Germans took over Northern and Central Italy and continued the war in their lands. Their defensive position at Monte Cassino protected the routes to Rome and was therefore essential to take in order to win back Italy from the Nazi forces.
Monte Cassino is about 145 Kilometers south of Rome. An ongoing battle at Monte Cassino went on for months and eventually became one of the bloodiest battles of the entire war. The British Indian Army fought alongside the Gurkhas and New Zealanders to help take this impenetrable position, earning them widespread acclaim and respect with the military leadership on both sides of the conflict.
The Four Battles Of Monte Cassino.
The conflict at Monte Cassino was broken up into 4 main battles that took place between January and June of 1944.
First Battle Of Monte Cassino – 17th January, 1944.
The United States 5th Army began the attack against Monte Cassino in an attempt to break through the Gustav Line so that they could reach Rome. However, they faced determined and brave opposition from the German soldiers who were holed up in the Abbey. The fighting was extremely intense and was even reminiscent of the nightmare trench warfare that defined the First World War.
Top Left: Indian Armored Corps chatting with locals at San Felice Top Right: Indian troops with captured Italian gun with German markings near Forli on 30th January, 1945. Forli is between Ravenna and Florence.
The American troops were joined by the French Expeditionary Corps who attempted to outflank the German’s main defenses to little avail. Death tolls were high and many thousands of men were wounded with the US division losing more than 2000 troops in the space of just 48 hours!
Eventually, after a month of brutal conflict, the US Corps called off the assault and withdrew to recover from their losses. The US Corps was replaced with the 4th Indian Infantry Division as well as the 2nd New Zealand Division.
Second Battle Of Monte Cassino – 15th February, 1944.
After the US Corps had been withdrawn a new plan of attack was conceived. The two divisions would perform a pincer movement from their secure base in the nearby mountains; with the 4th Indian Infantry Division attacking the mountain fortress while the New Zealand troops attempted to capture the nearby town and railway station.
Before the attack began the Allies destroyed the beautiful 6th Century Abbey in a huge bombing and artillery attack. Unfortunately for the allies, after the bombardment German paratroopers took up positions in amongst the rubble that made attacking the position even more dangerous for the 4th Indian Infantry Division.
When the two divisions attacked the New Zealand unit lost 226 soldiers while the 4th Indian Infantry Division lost 590 of their men to injury and death. Unbeknownst to the Allies, the Germans had already lost 4470 men to injury and death and their position was in a perilous state. This meant that another attack would have won the battle! However, the fog of war was thick and confusing and so this opportunity was sadly missed.
Third Battle Of Monte Cassino – 15th March, 1944.
The next phase in the attack on Monte Cassino was marked by extreme cold and heavy rains. In fact, the weather was so brutal that even the Nepali Gurkhas who were used to Himalayan conditions struggled in the cold wet conditions!
The recently captured town was destroyed in heavy bombing while the New Zealand division attacked it as the Indian division attacked up the hill towards the Abbey. Meanwhile a heavy barrage of more than 1000 guns decimated the defenses of the Axis troops in their mountain hideout but it also made conditions difficult for the attackers as they made their way up the slopes.
Brutal house-to-house fighting in the Cassino town and around the ruins of the Abbey took their toll on both sides; with exceptional bravery being shown by the Indian Division, the Gurkhas and the German troops. The attack did a huge amount of damage to the German defenses but was unable to finally break through and seize a decisive victory.
Fourth Battle Of Monte Cassino – 11th May, 1944.
The fourth and final attempt to seize the mountain fortress of Monte Cassino was named ‘Operation Diadem’ and brought in the help of US and Polish Corps. Following a massive artillery bombardment the attack began at 11 am on 11th May, 1944 with 8 divisions attacking simultaneously.
Top Left: Captured German soldiers escorted by Indian troops after the Battle of Sangro in December 1943. Sangro is to the east of Rome. Top Right: Indian soldiers near Villa Grande on 15th January, 1944.
The attacks continued for the next few weeks until the stubborn defenses of the Germans finally failed and the mountain fortress was captured on 5th June. The Gustav Line had been breached and marked a major turning point in the Italian Campaign. Operation Diadem almost happened at the same time as the the invasion of Normandy. One of the goals was to make sure that the German troops in Italy are tied down in Italy, preventing them from going to France to fight the American troops in Normandy, France.
On 4th June, 1944, Allies captured Rome, the capital of Italy. In total, over the course of the 4 Battles of Monte Cassino more than 55,000 Allies were killed or injured with the Germans losing around 20,000 of their own troops. The Indian Divisions were held in high esteem and the Indian Army Memorial at Cassino stands as a permanent reminder of the vital role that they played in achieving victory at one of bloodiest battles of the war.
The British Indian Army’s Legacy In Italy.
Following the incredible exploits of the British Indian Army at Monte Cassino and elsewhere in Italy the troops were hugely popular and well respected amongst the locals. Italians everywhere were grateful for their bravery and valor in the field of battle having travelled from their homes in India to help to defend the ideals of democracy and freedom in Europe.