As in the First World War, the Gurkha Brigade was massively expanded during World War II, particularly after the fall of France in the summer of 1940. Over 250,000 Gurkhas served in all theatres of war, most memorably in Burma, North Africa, the Middle East and Italy. An estimated 23,000 Gurkhas lost their lives and they earned over 2,000 awards for bravery.
In North Africa and Italy, the 4th Indian Division, with a strong Gurkha element, fought heroically, supporting and supported by British and commonwealth troops. Similarly in Burma, where four of the seven Victoria Crosses awarded to men of the 17th Indian Division went to Gurkhas.
An Elite Force
The Gurkha Brigade had become an elite force within the Indian Army, with a fighting record second to none: Gurkhas won almost half of the 26 Victoria Crosses awarded to other ranks of the Indian Army, even though Gurkha battalions comprised only about a fifth of the total number of Indian Army units.
In Burma, Gurkhas also served as 'Chindits', special forces parachuted deep into the jungle behind enemy lines in order to create mayhem and sabotage Japanese lines of communication. The Chindits were the brainchild of the maverick Brigadier Orde Wingate, who was killed in an air crash before his mission was complete.
Major James Lumley, the father of the actress Joanna Lumley who campaigned for the Gurkha Justice Campaign for the UK settlement rights of ex-Gurkhas, and Lt. Tulbahadur Pun VC both served together as Chindits.
The gruelling nature of the Chindit guerrilla-type warfare is described by Major (later Brigadier) John Masters of the 4th Gurkhas, who became a famous writer after the war. He recalled:
A havildar [sergeant] passed me at the head of his platoon. I recognised him – Mohbat Sing. He had been a young signaller in the 2nd battalion in the [North-West] Frontier campaigns of 1936-37 when I was a lieutenant and signal officer. More than once I had sworn at him for his unkempt ways and skill at avoiding work. Now his eyes were dull and he exhorted his platoon in a gasped-out monologue of Gurkhali oaths and endearments – ‘Come on, you porcupine’s ****s. It’s all right. Move, move, kids! We’re nearly there. O **** hairs, keep at it. You, you…’ – his head turned as he saw me – ‘Salaam, sahib! Of course we can do it!... The Gurkhas are coming! Third-Fourth, Third-Fourth!’ He broke into a shambling run, followed by all his platoon. How they did it, I do not know. They passed from my view up the path. The firing increased suddenly, grew to a mad clatter… at first nearly all Japanese; then even; then nearly all ours, the heavy roar of our grenades and the powerful grunting stammer of the Bren guns. Wounded men came down the path, a corpse sprawled in it right at the limit of my vision as I lay behind a tree peering forward…’
Major John Masters, 4th Gurkha Rifles
Gurkhas were awarded literally thousands of medals for bravery during World War II, including 12 Victoria Crosses. Once again the loss of almost an entire generation of young men meant that the Second World War cost the people of Nepal dearly. Please see the Valour: Gurkha VCs page in the Gurkhas section of the site to read some of the stories of the Gurkha Victoria Cross holders.
After the Second World War, great changes would affect the British both at home and abroad as the 'Raj' (empire) entered its final days.