Gurkhas in the North African and Italian Campaigns

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March 4, 2020
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Gurkhas in the North African and Italian Campaigns

Gurkhas fought in North Africa and Italy continuously between Mid-1941 and the end of the war in 1945, as part of the British Indian Army, and in the four main Indian Divisions to fight in those areas, the 4th, 5th, 8th and 10th Indian Infantry Divisions, (and the 43rd Gurkha Lorried Brigade) within the 8th Army.

 

North Africa:

The 4th Indian Infantry Division, containing amongst many others, began operations in June 1941 and advanced west, defensively patrolling against attack by German forces. In May 1942 Gurkha units were involved in the battle and Siege of Tobruk by German forces in a counterattack by Erwin Rommel, which fell in June, and resulted in many being captured (4th Gurkha Rifles took heavy losses at this point, and the 2nd battalion of the 7th Gurkha Rifles was captured). After a series of retreats the front line stabilised around El Alamein to the east, and Gurkha troops alongside other Indian Army troops kept up a strong defence and launched raiding parties to acquire prisoners, though in actions such as Deir El Shein Gurkha troops (in that instance of the 3rd Gurkha Rifles) became surrounded and suffered fairly heavy casualties when escaping. By July 3rd the allied line had hardened considerably and Gurkha troops continued to patrol and harass until the Beginning of the Battle of El-Alamein in October. Gurkhas of the 2nd Gurkha Rifles helped clear the German lines immediately before the attack and then in mopping up troops afterwards. The Allied force then began pushing the German troops back west, with Gurkha troops excelling in smaller operations requiring silence and hand-to-hand combat, taking German positions and machine gun nests. Eventually Rommel’s fallback positions at Mareth were overrun and he fell back further. To gain the high ground on the new German positions, Gurkhas from the 4th Indian Division were sent to take a feature known as Wadi Akarit, thus removing any threat of German Artillery. Troops of the 2nd Gurkha Rifles led this assault on April 5th 1943 and in one instance, Subedar (Captain) Lalbahadur Thapa led two sections of Gurkhas up a steep ravine to take three machine gun nests under fire. This successful assault allowed the rest of the attack to proceed and for this Lalbahadur would be awarded the Victoria Cross. This final break of the German lines sent their troops streaming back to Tunis, which would finally fall in early May 1943, ending the North African Campaign.

Italy:

The Italian Campaign followed directly on from the close of the North African Campaign, with Gurkha troops from the 4th, 8th and 10th Indian Divisions all taking part. The 8TH Division landed at Taranto in September 1943 and began pushing north. The campaign becomes characterised by fierce village and town fighting, with troops from the 5th Gurkha Rifles taking their first village of Atessa in early November 1943, as the division marched to the Sangro River. Marching into the German defences Gurkha and other Indian army troops cleared the way. As winter set in the eastern Adriatic front of the Italian campaign paused, but the 4th Indian Division soon arrived, bringing more Indian and Gurkha troops, shortly to be joined by the 10th Indian Division in March. By June 13th the Indian Divisions were moved to Central Italy for assaults on Monte Cassino. The assaults on Cassino dragged on until 1944 with two failed assaults (the second assault involving companies of the 1st/9th Gurkha Rifles, who reached and held a position at a summit of Monte Cassino named Hangman’s Hill in March, until they were forced back off the hill due to lack of ammunition 9 days later. A third assault led by the 8th Indian Division on the 27th/28th of March, involving amongst others the 1/5th Gurkha Rifles, broke through however, and the end of May the campaign had shifted to a drive towards Rome, with the 8th Indian Division in hot pursuit until replaced by the 10th in July, who in turn took up the march through the Tiber Valley, reaching the outskirts of the famed Gothic Line in August. At the same time the 4th Division was also marching north up the Arno valley and the 8th Indian Division moving towards and eventually taking Florence, with Gurkha advance patrols into the city met by cheering local crowds as the Germans withdrew. The Indian army’s assaults on the Gothic Line were opened by the 4th Indian Division, with troops of the 2nd/7th Gurkha Rifles marching to the mountain position of Tavoleto, eventually storming it at Kukri-point on September 3rd. it was in this portion of the campaign on the Gothic Line that Rifleman Sherbahadur Thapa of 1/9 Gurkha Rifles was awarded posthumously the Victoria Cross, for actions on September 18th 1944. At this point in the campaign the 43rd Gurkha Lorried Brigade also joined the fight. 10th Division later joined in the assault, whilst 8th Division remained between the two in the high Apennines, where Rifleman Thaman Gurung of 1/5th Gurkha Rifles was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, for actions on November 11th 1944. By early November the fighting had moved north beyond the Apennines into lower ground once again, and 43rd Gurkha Lorried Brigade marched north. All three other Indian Divisions continued to be involved in the final march north, with 8th Division again punching a hole in the German lines on February 23rd 1945, ready for the final Allied spring offensive in April.

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