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Middle East 1930 - 1947:

Indian Formations

The Indian Army provided three infantry divisions that fought in Egypt and Libya during 1940 to 1942. These were the Fourth, Fifth and Tenth Indian Infantry Divisions. The nature of the campaign in the Western Desert, and Middle East generally, meant that these formations rarely fought as complete divisions; as they were often broken up into Brigade Groups.

In addition, two independent brigade groups saw action in the Western Desert, the Third Indian Motor Brigade, which had the distinction of being effectively destroyed as a formation twice, and the Eighteenth Indian Infantry Brigade, which was rushed forward from Iraq, and destroyed in 1942.

The Fourth Indian Infantry Division was the only infantry formation that fought from the beginning of the campaign to the end, and even included involvement in the Abyssinia Campaign, and the Syria Campaign. It was a pre-war infantry formation in the Deccan District of India. The division was designated to provide three brigades for deployment overseas at times of international crisis, under the codename of Force Heron. These were the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade that saw service with the Fifth Indian Infantry Division, the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade that remained with the division and the 12th Indian Infantry Brigade which was sent to Malaya to be captured at Singapore in February 1942.

The Fourth Indian Division was sent to Egypt in tranches from August 1939 to October 1940. It took part in Operation Compass, the first campaign in the Western Desert, when the British and Commonwealth forces defeated the Italian Army and pushed them back through Cyrenaica. The division was then moved to the Sudan, and participated in the defeat of the Italian Army in Eritrea. It returned to Egypt, where the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade was detached to take part in the invasion of Syria. The division was consolidated in Cyrenaica when the Afrika Corps attacked in May 1942. The 11th Indian Infantry Brigade was captured at Tobruk. The division played a subsiduary role in the battle of El Alamein, but came back to the fore as the Eighth Army reached Tunisia where its ability to operate in the mountains was much respected.

The Fifth Indian Infantry Division had travelled to the Sudan from India, being sent to Egypt with the end of the campaign in Abyssinia. It spent time in Iraq and on the island of Cyprus before returning the Egypt. The division suffered heavily in the battle of ‘The Cauldron’. It continued to fight in the battle of Alam Halfa and the first battle of El Alamein. It was then withdrawn to Iraq to rest and refit. The division later returned to India to fight with distinction in Burma.

The Tenth Indian Division had been raised in 1940 and sent to Iraq to secure that country in mid-1941. With the outcome of the Battle of Gazala in 1942 threatening the British base in Egypt, and the Suez Canal, the formation was rushed to Egypt, and deployed to Mersa Matruh as part of X Corps. The Axis forces surrounded the British position at Mersa Matruh, forcing X Corps to break out to reach safety. The division was then allowed a period to rest and recuperate before being deployed to Italy in 1944.

Two independent brigade formations were deployed in Egypt and Libya. The Third Indian Motor Brigade comprised three Indian Cavalry regiments, which fought as mounted infantry. The brigade was effectively destroyed twice in the Western Desert, before the units were sent back to India in 1942. The Eighteenth Indian Infantry Brigade was sent urgently from Iraq to Egypt in 1942, and deployed immediately. It was destroyed in the subsequent fighting, and was disbanded shortly afterwards.

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