3rd Indian Motor Brigade

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3rd Indian Motor Brigade
IWM-E-10355-ACV-IP-19420410.jpg
An Indian Pattern Carrier Mk IIA named 'Dhar IV', North Africa of the type used by 3rd Indian Motor Brigade.
Active 1940–1943
Country  British India
Allegiance British Crown
Branch  British India Army
Type Motorised
Size Brigade
Engagements

World War II

The 3rd Indian Motor Brigade was a unit of the Indian Army during World War II, formed in 1940. In its short history one of its regiments would be involved in the siege of Tobruk and the brigade was twice overrun during the Western Desert Campaign by units of the Afrika Korps and the Italian forces.

Early history[edit]

The 2nd Lancers (Gardner's Horse), together with the 11th Prince Albert Victor's Own Cavalry (Frontier Force) and 18th King Edward's Own Cavalry formed Sialkot Area, called from July 1940 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, under the command of Brigadier E. W. D. Vaughan, late C. O. 2nd Royal Lancers. From August 1940 it was under the command of 1st Indian Armoured Division. The three cavalry regiments mechanised slowly during 1940 but they were not armoured – they were on Motor regiment establishment. This meant they were mounted in soft skinned trucks with eventually some 2-pounder guns. They were chronically short-equipped, especially of radio, even when they went into action in April 1941.

Western Desert Campaign[edit]

The brigade only were mobilised for active service on 7 January 1941. They sailed from Bombay on 23 January, arriving at Suez on 6 February 1941. From there they entrained and travelled to El Qassassin, where they were ferried by lorry to El Tahag camp, where the regiments settled down to training.

The brigade moved to Mersa Matruh on 8 March 1941 and started desert warfare training and orientation. This was followed by a move to El Adem, which took place from 27–28 March. On 2 April, Brigadier Vaughan, commanding 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, and his three C.O.s were summoned to Cyrenaica Command H.Q. at Barce and were ordered to reconnoitre positions on the Barce escarpment. However, on returning on the evening of 3 April plans had changed – Rommel's fast-moving offensive was the cause.

The 3rd Indian Motor Brigade (minus the 18th King Edward's Own Cavalry, who were split up to protect El Adem airfield and Gadd-al-Ahmar and later were to garrison Tobruk as the divisional cavalry of the 9th Australian Division) were the only mobile unit available and were ordered to occupy El Mechili to provide a base for the 2nd Armoured Division to fall back on and re-organise. A dump of stores being created at El Mechili for the 2nd Armoured Division. It was now a race to see who would get their first – 2nd Armoured Division or Rommel.

An Australian anti-tank regiment and a wireless link to Cyrenaica Command H.Q. for air support demands were added to Brigadier Vaughan's command. The bulk of the 2nd Lancers and the 11th P.A.V.O. Cavalry moved from El Adem via El Timmi (where Brigadier Vaughan, the three C.O.'s and the anti-tank regiment joined up) to El Mechili over the evening of 3 April and afternoon of 4 April.

By 3:30 a.m. on 4 April, El Mechili was reached and an all-round defensive position, forming a tight box with roughly 2.5 miles (4.0 km) long perimeter and a diameter of 1,500 yards (1,400 m) was formed. The 2nd Royal Lancers were assigned the west face, the PAVO Cavalry the east. By lunchtime on 5 April, the force under Vaughan’s command consisted of the

  • 2nd Royal Lancers (Gardner's Horse).
  • 11th Prince Albert Victor's Own Cavalry (Frontier Force).
  • 35th field squadron Bengal Sappers & Miners.
  • 3rd Light Field Ambulance.
  • 3rd Motor Brigade M. T. Company, RIASC.
  • 3rd Motor Brigade signals troop.
  • 2/3rd Australian Anti-Tank regiment.

"A" squadron of the 18th Cavalry which had been stationed at Gadd-al-Ahmar some 30 miles (48 km) to the south-east, was ordered to reinforce the defences on 6 April, after encountering superior enemy forces occupying Gadd-al-Ahmar. They arrived on the afternoon of 7 April. Axis activity was reported to the south and at 11:00 a.m. a small lorried infantry attack was repulsed by the PAVO Cavalry and prisoners taken. Axis artillery had taken up position to the south and east and would be responsible for some harassing fire.

A column set out from El Mechili that afternoon to find the 2nd Armoured Division which they almost did. What they encountered coming towards El Mechili, was the divisional commander (General Gambier Perry) and his advanced HQ with one surviving cruiser tank. They joined up and arrived at El Mechili about 21:30 p.m. on 6 April. The 3rd Indian Motor Brigade were on their own. General Gambier Perry left Brigadier Vaughan in command of the defence, though now under the overall command of 2nd Armoured Division. At around 6:00 p.m. a German officer appeared in front of the PAVO positions and passed on a demand to surrender, which was rejected.

Soon after dawn on the 7 April the rear divisional HQ of the 2nd Armoured Division appeared and now Gambier Perry's command consisted of 180 soft skinned vehicles. Patrols now reported enemy columns on all sides. The Brigadier's requests for air-strikes met with no response. The morning and early afternoon of 7 April passed quietly enough, with a second German request to surrender again being rejected, however the brigadier expected the third request would be backed by more definite action.

Without the armoured support expected of the 2nd Armoured Division, the offensive and defensive capability of the brigade was minimal, soft skinned vehicles, small arms and 2-pounders did not amount to much. Mid-afternoon an Italian column tried to approach the position and were taken prisoner.

At 5:30 p.m. the third demand came in, signed by Rommel himself. The request rejected, a brisk bombardment was opened up which lasted an hour and a half, which registered on all the defensive positions but did little actual damage. At sunset sixty enemy tanks appeared to be mustering to the south of the position, suggesting that tomorrow the assault would finally come. However at 9:30 p.m. Brigadier Vaughan was summoned to 2nd Armoured Division HQ and told that orders had been received from Cyrenaica Command H.Q. to withdraw to El Adem to the east.

The Brigade was to escort the 2nd Armoured Division HQ at first light in a rolling box formation, with the PAVO Cavalry providing the right and left flank guards and 2nd Royal Lancers bringing up the rear. Start time was 6:15 a.m.. The surviving cruiser tank and the 18th Cavalry squadron were to rush the guns to the east, firing as they went. The success depended on getting amongst the guns before it was light enough for the gunners to se.

The cruiser tank was late so with half light gone it was 6:30 a.m. when the squadron of the 18th Cavalry went in mounted on trucks and after dismounting and carrying out a bayonet charge on the artillery position on Gun Ridge, taking some prisoners in the process, broke clear. The cruiser tank arrived after the squadron had advanced but gave some assistance before it was destroyed and the crew killed. 3rd Indian Motor Brigade HQ came next at 6:45 a.m. but was met by heavy shell fire from three sides. A number of the lead trucks got away but the rest turned back. On their return it was found that the reason for this break out, the 2nd Armoured Division HQ, never got even to its starting point.

The PAVO cavalry had moved out as flank guard to the Brigade HQ and under heavy fire, dust, smoke and confusion broke out, without the rest of the main body. They continued on to El Adem. For those left behind the main German assault hit at 7:45 a.m. from the south and south-east. The brigadier had been right – this was the more definite action planned, irrespective of the breakout. When the artillery fire died down German Mark III and IV tanks rolled into the position in three waves, after neutralising the Australian anti-tank guns. They did not, however, overrun the position, fearing mines but were content to dominate it until Italian infantry could move up.

What the Germans did not know was that there were no mines as there had been no time to lay them but the defenders did not know that this was what was stopping the tanks overrunning the position. A high volume of small arms fire was kept up on the vision slits and hatches of the tanks, so much so that defenders had nothing left when the Italian infantry finally arrived. The defenders did all they could to inflict casualties on the tanks but were hampered not having not the right equipment. The brigade was well dug in which prevented greater loss of life.

A second attempt for the 2nd Armoured Division HQ to break out was organised for 8:00 a.m. to go east, however the column came under heavy machine gun and artillery fire and so turned back and surrendered. Three small parties of the 2nd Royal Lancers broke out but the bulk of the remaining forces were taken prisoner. Though the original objective of saving the 2nd Armoured Division failed, the stand by the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade delayed Rommel's advance, buying valuable time for the 9th Australian Division to get into Tobruk and prepare its defences.

The action at El Mechili, 6–8 April 1941, led to the PAVO Cavalry losing over half its strength during the breakout and could barely muster two squadrons. The 2nd Royal Lancers had been reduced to barely one squadron and so they were temporarily merged into the PAVO.

Reformation[edit]

The 2nd Lancers and PAVO were very depleted in men and equipment and were used in the rear areas, guarding HQs and being split up for duties. The 3rd Indian Motor Brigade was reassembled at Mena Camp in Egypt, and new officers posted in. In September the brigade, under Brigadier A. A. E. Filose, moved to Syria, on internal security duties under the command of 31st Indian Armoured Division. In December 1941 the Brigade also supplied men for the Indian Long Range Squadron. At the end of January 1942 the brigade was ordered back to Egypt. All this time the brigade was re-equipping and training. The organization of the cavalry regiments now was two squadrons consisting of lorried infantry, carriers and an anti-tank squadron. The brigade now consisted of the following units:

  • 2nd Royal Lancers.
  • 11th PAVO Cavalry.
  • 18th KEO VII’s Cavalry.
  • 31st Field squadron Bengal Sappers & Miners.
  • 3rd Light Field Ambulance.
  • 3rd Motor Brigade M. T. Company, RIASC.
  • 3rd Motor Brigade signals troop.
  • 2 Field Regiment, Indian Artillery.

The action at Point 171[edit]

They moved back into the operational area on 10 May 1942, attached to the 7th Armoured Division. They were moved up to just south west of Bir Hakeim on the evening of 25 May, arriving around Point 171. Among the featureless terrain Point 171 was a hump with the usual desert scrub covering it.

On the morning of 26 May the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade took a box position in the flat open landscape. On 26 May 1942 Rommel launched his offensive. There had been no time to lay a mine field, and the brigades anti-tank battery arrived late on the 26th and did not have time to dig in properly. The cavalry units of the brigade were still not fully equipped for field service. The brigade was supposed to have two squadrons of Valentines to cover the eastern flank but they never turned up.

The 3rd Indian Motor Brigade were facing the best part of two axis armoured divisions. At 8:45 p.m. on 26 April, brigade headquarters reported that the enemy had been seen advancing to the west. At 6:30 a.m. the brigadier signalled: The whole bloody Afrika Korps is drawn up in front of us like a bloody review. By 8:00 a.m. on 27 April, the German and Italian forces had surrounded the position and by 9:00 a.m. the position was overrun and resistance ceased. Some 17 officers and 670 Viceroy's Commissioned Officers and Indian other ranks were taken prisoner.

Even so it was estimated that the brigade accounted for over fifty Axis tanks, most of which fell to the guns of the 2nd Field Regiment, Indian Artillery. What is known is that all the VCO's and men were released after two days and sent to Bir Hakeim, from where they were evacuated from in a convoy on 31 May. Why this happened is unclear, there were apparently practical considerations, that because of a shortage of water (the Italians were short supplied), with Bir Hakeim still holding out no transport or supplies could be brought up.[a]

Aftermath[edit]

After this action the shattered remains the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade were reformed at Buq Buq but after a short while were formed into two strong columns, Shercol and Billicol; neither lasted long, in the early hours of 24 June 1942, Shercol was smashed after running into an Italian harbour in the dark.

The 3rd Indian Motor Brigade part of the desert war was over. On 30 June the Brigade was ordered to hand over 50 per cent of its vehicles to the 8th Army. The brigade was dispersed in July, initially allotted to the defence of the Delta then ordered to perform guard duties. The brigade was reformed in August, minus the 2nd Field Regiment, Indian Artillery. It travelled overland to Sahneh in Persia via Baghdad, again under the command of 31st Indian Armoured Division where it remained until late November, when it moved to Shaibah, 7 miles (11 km) from Basra. From here the cavalry regiments of the brigade returned to India in January 1943 and the brigade was reconstituted as the 43rd Indian Infantry Brigade (Lorried) at Shaibah at the end of January 1943.

The cavalry regiments of the brigade were replaced by the 2nd Battalion, 6th Gurkha Rifles, 2nd Battalion, 8th Gurkha Rifles and the 2nd Battalion, 10th Gurkha Rifles.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Author Ken Ford in his book Gazala 1942: Rommel's greatest victory published by Osprey Publishing gives a different version of 27 May events; he states that the brigade was attacked only by the Ariete division, without German support, which managed to overrun the brigade's positions in half an hour and capture some 450 prisoners, despite not having previously known of its presence there.

References[edit]

  • Efendi, M.Y. (2007). Punjab Cavalry. Evolution, Role, Organisation and Tactical Doctrine 11 Cavalry [Frontier Force] 1849–1971. Oxford University Press.
  • Ford, Ken (2005). Gazala 1942: Rommel's greatest victory. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84603-264-6.
  • Kempton, Chris (2003). Loyalty & Honour' - The Indian Army September 1939 – August 1947 Military Press.
  • Sandhu, (PVSM) (Retd), Major General Gurcharn Singh. (1991). I Serve. Saga of the Eighteenth Cavalry. Lancer International.
  • Vaughan, (C.B., D.S.O., M.C.) Brigadier E.W.D. (1951). A history of the 2nd Royal Lancers (Gardner's Horse) (1922–1947). Sifton Praed.