81st (West Africa) Division

81st (West Africa) Division
Active 1943–1945
Allegiance United Kingdom
Branch British Army
Type Infantry
Size 15,000 personnel
Part of Fourteenth Army (United Kingdom)

Second World War

Christopher Woolner
Frederick Joseph Loftus-Tottenham
Tarantula Spider, in black on a yellow circular background

The 81st (West Africa) Division was formed under British control during World War II. It took part in the Burma Campaign.


The inspiration for the division's formation came from General George Giffard, commander of the British Army's West Africa Command, who subsequently commanded India Command's Eastern Army, facing the Japanese army on the frontier between India and Burma. Giffard had wide experience with African troops, and was eager for them to participate in the war.

The framework around which the division was formed was the Royal West African Frontier Force. One of the brigades (the 3rd West African) and several of the supporting units which formed the division had already seen action with the 11th (African) Division, against the Italians in East Africa.

The division was established as the 1st (West Africa) Division on 1 March 1943. Three days later it was renamed the 81st (West Africa) Division, taking the next vacant number in the list of British infantry divisions. The division's badge was a spider, in black on a yellow circular background. This spider was a reference to Ananse, a cunning character in Ashanti mythology, and drawn so that when a soldier raised his weapon to fire, the spider would appear to be going forwards.

Doctors operating on some of the 81st Division's casualties in Burma, August 1944

The division arrived in India on 14 August 1943. The movement of the 5th (West Africa) Brigade was delayed, however, after the troopship which was to carry it was lost in the German attack on Convoy Faith off Portugal on the night of 11/12 July 1943. The 3rd (West Africa) Brigade was detached to the Chindits, and was intended to garrison jungle bases for the raiding columns. The remainder of the division took part in the second Arakan campaign from February to May, 1944, operating in the Kaladan Valley on the flank of Indian XV Corps.

In late March, substantial Japanese reinforcements (with some troops from the Indian National Army outflanked the division and forced it to retreat over a range of hills out of the Kaladan valley into that of the Kalapanzin.

In August, the division re-entered the Kaladan valley, forcing the Japanese and Indian National Army to abandon Mowdok, a few miles east of the Indian / Burmese frontier. The division then advanced down the valley once again, reaching Myohaung near the mouth of the river on 28 January 1945.

The division was withdrawn to India to rest on 22 April 1945. On 31 August, it was returned to West Africa and disbanded.

Character and organisation

The division was originally intended to operate on a pack basis, with porters carrying all equipment and supplies. Lieutenant General William Slim, then commanding XV Corps, commented on first inspecting units of the division in late 1943:

Their discipline and smartness were impressive, and they were more obviously at home in the jungle than any troops I had yet seen... I was at once struck by two things. First, by the horde of unarmed porters who were needed to carry supplies, ammunition, baggage and the heavier weapons, and secondly by the large number of white men in a unit, fifty or sixty to a battalion. Accustomed as I was to Indian battalions in the field with usually only seven or eight Europeans, it struck me as an unnecessarily generous supply.[1]

Order of Battle (as of February 1, 1944)

General Officer Commanding : Major General Frederick Joseph Loftus-Tottenham

5 (West Africa) Infantry Brigade
5th Bn. The Gold Coast Regiment
7th Bn. The Gold Coast Regiment
8th Bn. The Gold Coast Regiment
5th Light Battery, West African Artillery
3rd Field Company, West African Engineers
6 (West Africa) Infantry Brigade
1st Bn. The Gambia Regiment
1st Bn. The Sierra Leone Regiment
4th Bn. The Nigeria Regiment
3rd Light Battery WAA
6th Field Company WAE
Divisional Units
11th (East Africa) Division Scouts
81st (West Africa) Infantry Division Regiment
1st Light Anti-Aircraft/Anti-Tank Regiment WAA
8th Field Park Company WAE

3 (West Africa) Infantry Brigade (detached to Special Force)

6th Bn. The Nigeria Regiment
7th Bn. The Nigeria Regiment
12th Bn. The Nigeria Regiment

See also


  1. Defeat into Victory, William Slim, Cassell, 1956


External links

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