The Forgotten Wargames Army: XIVth Army in Burma (Part 1 – A Sikh Infantry Battalion)

Lieutenant General (later Field Marshal) Bill Slim, GOC XIVth Army

It’s been gloriously sunny here this week while on lock-down from the ‘Flu Manchu’, so I decided a photograph a stack of models.  At the top of the stack were some boxes of XIVth Army British and Indian troops for Burma, so let’s start with those…

I’ll start with an Indian Army battalion of Sikhs.  These were originally painted to represent the 4th (Sikh) Battalion of the 12th Frontier Force Regiment, for our 1st Battle of Bishenpur game at Battlegroup South 2011, in The Tank Museum, Bovington.  However, they could represent any all-Sikh battalion in the Indian Army.  The beards and turbans mark them out as Sikh, as they are a requirement of their faith.  Other races/religions would wear turbans of a different style in full dress uniform, but these were not worn in the field (except in the case of a few garrison units caught up in the Japanese invasion early in the war and by Military Policemen).  Instead they would wear standard British headgear of helmets, bush-hats, cap-comforters (cloth tubes – similar to a balaclava) or GS Caps (large floppy beret-type-things).


Indian Infantry (non-Sikh) of XIVth Army

After the Indian Mutiny of 1857-59 all Indian Army units were segregated by race/religion.  In the case of infantry battalions, these would either be 100% from one race/religion or they would be segregated by company.  For example, the 1st to 4th Battalions of the 12th Frontier Force Regiment were 100% Sikh, as were all battalions of the 11th Sikh Regiment.  Battalions of some other regiments (particularly the 1st, 2nd, 8th, 14th, 15th & 16th Punjab Regiments and 13th Frontier Force Rifles Regiment) would also often have one or two, maybe more Sikh companies.  For example, the 7th Battalion 16th Punjab Regiment had A (Dogra) Company, B (Sikh) Company, C (‘Punjabi Mussulmen’ or ‘PM’ – i.e. Muslim) Company and D (Mahratta – i.e. Hindu) Company.

Sikh signallers with scrim-covered turbans

These are painted for the latter half of the Burma Campaign (late 1943 to 1945), so are all painted in Jungle Green, often known as ‘JG’.  Earlier in the war the standard tropical uniform was Khaki Drill, known as ‘KD’ and these Sikhs still have their turbans in KD.  They would often cover their turbans with helmet scrim-net and later in the war they were often supplied with JG turbans.  From late 1942 onwards units started dying their own uniforms in various shades of green, leading to a very patchwork appearance until factory-produced JG items started being delivered.  Units newly-arrived in Burma often had to wait a while for JG uniforms to be delivered.  for example, the 81st (West African) Division didn’t get its first JG uniform until they were delivered by air-drop halfway through their first campaign in Dec 1943/Jan 1944.

Sikh Infantry of 7th Division in the Arakan 1944

For JG I use Humbrol 116 (US Dark Green), highlighted with quite a lot of white mixed in.  Factory-supplied JG usually faced to a light blueish-greyish-green, but would look very dark when wet.  For the KD turbans I use Humbrol 72 (Khaki Drill).

Webbing was a light ochre-khaki colour in its natural state that tended to fade to a very pale shade when exposed to sun for long periods.  It was meant to be covered with Blanco (a boot-polish-type substance that came in various colours) to provide camouflage and waterproofing, but supplies were often not available at the front line and it and in any case, Blancoing was a detested activity that was normally abandoned immediately upon contact with the enemy!  Later in the war, webbing was dyed JG at the factory.  According to my mate Skippy’s father (a veteran of 7th Indian Division and the ‘Admin Box’), they would often paint their webbing with green or black vehicle paint.  However, photos of Indian infantry often show very pale webbing (see above), suggesting scrubbed and sun-bleached bare canvas.  For ‘scrubbed’ webbing I use Humbrol 83 (Ochre), again highlighted with quite a lot of white mixed in.  This unit has mostly ‘scrubbed’ webbing, with occasional soldiers wearing JG webbing.

In terms of organisation, Infantry Battalions by this stage of the war in Burma typically had four rifle companies, each of three rifle platoons.  There was no Support Company organisation, but there was always a Mortar Platoon of six 3-inch Mortars and a Carrier Platoon of four sections.  In many cases, the Carrier Platoon lost its Carriers and either got Jeeps or went on foot as a very strong infantry platoon with 12x Bren Guns, used as recce and/or fire support.  There was also usually a Sniper Section and an Assault Pioneer Platoon.  Anti-Tank Platoons were universally disbanded and turned into other uses such as additional Jeep or Mule Transport Platoons.  Battalions might also get a Vickers MG Platoon of four guns if the division had no MG Battalion.

Some uniquely Burma oddities were ‘Commando Platoons’ and ‘Assault Platoons’.  Details are scant, but these seem to have often been re-purposed Carrier or Assault Pioneer Platoons, plus Sniper Section and these terms could either mean a long-range patrol unit or a unit equipped for assaulting bunkers and other fortifications.

Above:  Here’s the battalion ‘on parade’ and organised for Battlefront: WWII rules: At the back are four Rifle Companies, each consisting of a Company Commander stand, a 2-inch Mortar stand and 9x Infantry stands (one of them equipped with PIAT).  At the front is the Battalion HQ, Mortar Platoon of three sections and Bren-heavy Carrier Platoon of four sections.  The sharp-eyed will spot that there are a couple of British officers in there.  It was typical for Battalion COs and Company OCs to be British King’s Commissioned Officers (KCOs), backed up by Indian Viceroy’s Commissioned Officers (VCOs – a sort of Indian liaison officer between the British KCOs and Indian NCOs).  Platoons were typically commanded by VCOs (as were companies on occasion, where the KCO had become a casualty).  However, the process of ‘Indianisation’ had begun before the start of the war, with many company commanders being Indian KCOs and a handful of battalions having 100% Indian KCOs.  This process accelerated as the war went on.

I’ve not added any transport to these, as I’ve already got quite a lot of generic Carrier, motor and mule transport and the scenario didn’t require any.

The figures are all by Flames of War.  These were originally produced for their North Africa/Italy range, but are perfect for Burma.  However, I don’t think they’re in production any more.  I’ve also got another (unpainted) battalion that I intend to paint in KD uniforms.  This will do double-duty as an Early War (1941-1943) unit, with the option to use it as a Late-War Indian National Army (INA) unit, fighting alongside the Japanese (known to the Allies as ‘JIFs’ – Japanese-Indian Forces).

More later…

This entry was posted in 15mm Figures, Battlefront: WW2, Painted Units, World War 2, World War 2 - British Commonwealth Armies, World War 2 - Burma Campaign. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to The Forgotten Wargames Army: XIVth Army in Burma (Part 1 – A Sikh Infantry Battalion)

  1. Doug says:

    Thanks for sharing those. I’m tempted to add a Sikh platoon to my early war Chain of Command forces, but as the organisation is essentially the same as my other Commonwealth platoons, I might do something more exotic instead.

    • jemima_fawr says:

      Note that things are somewhat more complicated during the early part of the war, with Vickers-Berthier LMGs in lieu of Brens, some platoons not having LMGs at all, 2-inch mortars being pretty scarce, some battalions having a whole company of Vickers MGs and differing numbers of sections to a platoon and platoons to a company, depending on the role and location of the battalion. However, battalions assigned to field formations tended to conform to the standard Commonwealth norms of organisation and equipment. It’s only when you have garrison battalions in the front line during 1941/42 that things get complicated.

  2. Baron von Wreckedoften says:

    Hi Mark, Photographic evidence suggests that all Commonwealth troops in Malaya in ’42 wore shorts – does your research confirm that, or are long trousers still being worn (I’ve noticed that a lot of photos around Op Compass in N Africa show Sikhs particularly wearing full BD, rather than KD – the webbing looks almost white against the dark cloth, so it’s obviously the “full khaki”). Apologies if I’ve asked this before, but did early war Indian battalions have the 2-pdr, or did they rely on Australian and RA units to provide them?

    • jemima_fawr says:

      I’m not sure that ‘all’ troops in Malaya wore shorts, but large numbers of them certainly did. They tended to look much the same as troops in North Africa, except for the helmets being painted green. I’ve got a load of 8th Army figures (and more Sikhs) awaiting painting for Malaya/Early Burma/Hong Kong.

      All troops in North Africa had standard BD as part of their kit and it came out for cold/wet weather. Same goes for Italy. So it’s simply a case of the photographer catching them on a cold day (or when they were stuck in one uniform, while their other uniform was 50 miles away in their Large Pack with battalion echelon). Yes, the webbing in such photos always looks startlingly white due to sun-bleaching of the canvas – same goes for Afrika Korps caps and for the same reason.

      I’m working from memory here, but I’m pretty certain that in Malaya, Hong Kong and Burma, all the towed AT guns were operated by the Artillery AT Regts.

    • TIM FORSTER says:

      I am in the middle of a 1/35 project which recreates the action at Bakri on 18th January 1942 when a spearhead of Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks of the 3rd company of 14th Tank Regiment were knocked out along the Muar-Parit Sulong Road by two well-sited 2-pounder anti-tank guns from the 2/4th Australian Anti-Tank Regiment under the command of Lieutenant Russell (Bill) McCure.

      There are several well-known images in the Australian War Memorial archives showing this scene and one of the gun crews in particular, e.g.:

      As you will see, there are many styles of trouser on show including shorts, long trousers and the infamous ‘Bombay Bloomers’!

  3. Marvin says:

    Very interesting post. My grandfather fought in Burma and India. He always sang the praised of Gen. Slim!

    • jemima_fawr says:

      Oh really?! Do you know which unit?

      I discovered a couple of years ago that I had a great uncle who fought at Kohima with 1st Royal Welch Fusiliers, but went missing in the jungle during the pursuit into Burma.

      • Marvin says:

        I’d need to do some research but I believe he was originally with the Leicestershire Regiment but then transferred to the South Staffs. I have a number of photos of him in his uniform and posing in regimental hockey and football teams, etc. He was a runner carrying messages through the jungle and I remember him telling me that he once ran straight into a tiger coming in the other direction. He thought it was maybe a juvenile. Thankfully, they both turned and ran in the opposite directions!

        That’s remarkable to have a relative at Kohima. I was reading about Kohima and Imphal a few years ago – a critical and desperate battle to be in. Shame that he went missing. My great uncle was in the Chindits and was left by his unit propped up against a tree with his rifle and some water after becoming ill. Amazingly, he survived and made it back.

        • jemima_fawr says:

          That’s interesting. The 1st South Staffords (77 Bde) and the 2nd Leicesters (111 Bde) were both Chindits, with the 2nd Leicesters eventually being transferred out to 36th Division.

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  5. Gunnar says:

    I’ve just started a similar project! This is most excellent! Also the infantry and mortars and machine gun blisters are still available.

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  10. Christopher Brown says:

    Always good to see far East armies! Trousers/Malaya…..Bombay Bloomers and non-ridiculous shorts were the norm overall AFAIK, but there’s lot of photos of a mix of dress and a couple of shots of Argylls with most men wearing long trousers. Personally I would n’t want traipse around Malaysian fields and forests/jungle/rubber plantations in shorts. Pineapple fields make an interesting scenery item – pretty much a no-no to move though if you’re not wearing leather trousers made for the purpose. I inadvertently ran into the edge of a plot once when I was about 10 or so……my legs were torn to shreds in the space of maybe 5 yards at most.

    • jemima_fawr says:

      Yeah, I must get around to doing my early war British & Sikhs someday. Yes, Slim ordered that shorts were to be discontinued as part of his anti-malaria regulations, though the 81st (West African) Division adopted shorts immediately after their first campaign in the Kaladan Valley and even went barefoot! Bugger that for a game of soldiers…

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