17th Indian Division
Second World War
It was first formed in 1941, in Ahmednagar in India. It consisted then of the 44th, 45th and 46th Indian Infantry Brigades, and was intended to garrison Iraq. At the end of the year, war with Imperial Japan broke out and the division was split; 44th and 45th Brigades were despatched to Malaya where 45th Brigade fought in the Battle of Muar before both brigades were lost in the Battle of Singapore; 46th Brigade and the division HQ went to Burma, where the Division was reinforced by 16th Indian Infantry Brigade and took 2nd Burma Infantry Brigade under command.
The Japanese attacked Burma on January 22, 1942. It was soon apparent that the British and Indian troops in Burma were too few in number, wrongly equipped and inadequately trained for the terrain and conditions. After failing to hold the Kawkareik Pass and Moulmein, the division fell back to the Bilin River, where it was joined by 48th Indian Infantry Brigade.
The Bilin was not a proper defensive position, and the division tried to retreat over the Sittang River. Air attacks, poor organization and vehicle breakdowns delayed the division, and Japanese parties infiltrated around them to threaten the vital bridge over the Sittang. The division's commander, Major General "Jackie" Smyth VC, was forced to order the bridge to be destroyed, with most of the division cut off on the far side of the river. Only a few thousand men without equipment succeeded in crossing the river. Smyth was dismissed and replaced by Major General Cowan.
The division was reinforced with 63rd Indian Infantry Brigade, and narrowly escaped being trapped in Rangoon. After trying to hold a front in the Irrawaddy River valley, it subsequently retreated north into Assam just before the monsoon broke, fighting off a Japanese attempt to trap it at Kalewa.
For the campaigning season of 1943, the division was reorganised as a "Light" formation, with two brigades only (48th and 63rd), supported by mountain artillery, and with mules and jeeps only for transport. It disputed the mountainous and jungle-covered region around Tiddim, with mixed success. The division was at the end of a long and precarious supply line, and the "light" establishment was found to be inadequate in some respects. Some heavier equipment and transport was restored.
In 1944, the Japanese launched a major invasion of India. During the long Battle of Imphal, 17th Division first successfully fought its way out of encirclement at Tiddim, and then disputed the vital Bishenpur sector south of Imphal (with 32nd Indian Infantry Brigade temporarily under command). In July, the Japanese were broken by heavy casualties and starvation, and retreated. Some units of 17th Division had suffered nearly 100% casualties.
During the late monsoon season, the division was temporarily withdrawn to India and reorganised once again. 48th and 63rd Brigades were fully equipped with vehicles to become Motorized infantry. 99th Indian Infantry Brigade was added to the division, equipped to be transported by Douglas DC-3 aircraft.
In late February. 1945, the motor elements of the division, with the bulk of 255th Indian Tank Brigade under command, crossed the Irrawaddy River and advanced on the vital Japanese communications centre of Meiktila. Joined by 99th Indian Infantry Brigade which was flown into the captured airfield at Thabutkon, they captured Meiktila in only four days. Reinforced by 9th Indian Infantry Brigade which was flown into the airfields around Meiktila, they subsequently withstood a Japanese siege. This Battle of Meiktila largely destroyed the Japanese armies in Central Burma.
The division now broke the last Japanese defensive position at Pyawbwe, and advanced south on Rangoon. At Pegu, it pushed Japanese rearguards aside, but was still short of its objective when the monsoon broke. Rangoon fell to an assault from the sea, Operation Dracula.
In the last months of the campaign, the division participated in the mopping up of Japanese stragglers in Burma. After the war ended, elements of it formed part of the Commonwealth Occupation force in Japan (under Cowan). The division was disbanded in India in 1946