India in World War II

Indian infantrymen of the 7th Rajput Regiment about to go on patrol on the Arakan front in Burma, 1944.

During the Second World War (19391945), India was controlled by the United Kingdom, with the British holding territories in India including over five hundred autonomous Princely States; British India officially declared war on Nazi Germany in September 1939.[1] The British Raj, as part of the Allied Nations, sent over two and a half million soldiers to fight under British command against the Axis powers. Additionally, several Indian Princely States provided large donations to support the Allied campaign during the War.[2] India also provided the base for American operations in support of China in the China Burma India Theater.

Indians fought with distinction throughout the world, including in the European theatre against Germany, in North Africa against Germany and Italy, in the South Asian region defending India against the Japanese and fighting the Japanese in Burma. Indians also aided in liberating British colonies such as Singapore and Hong Kong after the Japanese surrender in August 1945. Over 87,000 Indian soldiers (including those from modern day Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh) died in World War II.[3] Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck, Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army from 1942 asserted that the British "couldn't have come through both wars [World War I and II] if they hadn't had the Indian Army."[4][5]

The Muslim League supported the British war effort while the largest and most influential political party existing in India at the time, the Indian National Congress, demanded independence before it would help Britain. London refused, and when Congress announced a "Quit India" campaign in August 1942, its leaders were imprisoned by the British for the duration. Meanwhile, under the leadership of Indian leader Subhas Chandra Bose and several other Indian revolutionaries who were seeking independence from the British, Japan set up an army of Indian POWs known as the Indian National Army .

Apart from this, Indian participation in the Allied campaign remained strong. The financial, industrial and military assistance of India formed a crucial component of the British campaign against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.[6] India's strategic location at the tip of the Indian Ocean, its massive production of armaments, and its huge armed forces played a decisive role in halting the progress of Imperial Japan in the South-East Asian theatre.[7] The Indian Army during World War II was one of the largest Allied forces contingents which took part in the North and East African Campaign, Western Desert Campaign. At the height of the World War, more than 2.5 million Indian troops were fighting Axis forces around the globe.[8] After the end of the World War, India emerged as the world's fourth largest industrial power and its increased political, economic and military influence paved the way for its independence from the United Kingdom in 1947.[9]

Quit India

Prominent Indian leaders, including Gandhi, Patel and Maulana Azad, denounced Nazism as well as British imperialism.

The Indian National Congress, led by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Maulana Azad, denounced Nazi Germany but would not fight it or anyone else until India was independent.[10] Congress launched the Quit India Movement in August 1942, refusing to co-operate in any way with the government until independence was granted. The government was ready for this move. It immediately arrested over 60,000 national and local Congress leaders, and then moved to suppress the violent reaction of Congress supporters. Key leaders were kept in prison until June 1945, although Gandhi was released in May 1944 because of his health. Congress, with its leaders incommunicado, played little role on the home front. The Muslim League rejected the Quit India movement and worked closely with the Raj authorities.[11]

Supporters of the British Raj argued that decolonisation was impossible in the middle of a great war. So, in 1939, the British Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow declared India's entry into the War without consulting prominent Indian Congress leaders who were just elected in previous elections.[1]

Subhas Chandra Bose (also called Netaji) had been a top Congress leader. He broke with Congress and tried to form a military alliance with Germany or Japan to gain independence. Japan helped him set up the Indian National Army (INA) which fought under Japanese direction, mostly in Burma. Bose also headed the Provisional Government of Free India, a government-in-exile based in Singapore. It controlled no Indian territory and was used only to raise troops for Japan.[12]

British Indian Army

In 1939 the British Indian Army numbered 205,000 men. It took in volunteers and by 1945 was the largest all-volunteer force in history, rising to over 2.5 million men.[13] These forces included tank, artillery and airborne forces. British Indian Army earned 17 Victoria Crosses during World War II.

The Middle East and African theatre

The British government meanwhile sent Indian troops to fight in West Asia and northern Africa against the Axis. India also geared up to produce essential goods such as food and uniforms. Pre-Independence India provided the largest volunteer force (2.5 million) of any nation during World War II.

The 4th, 5th and 10th Indian Divisions took part in the North African theatre against Rommel's Afrika Korps.In addition, the 18th Brigade of the 8th Indian Division fought at Alamein. Earlier, the 4th and 5th Indian Divisions took part in the East African campaign against the Italians in Somaliland, Eritrea and Abyssinia capturing the mountain fortress of Keren.

In the Battle of Bir Hacheim, Indian gunners played an important role by using guns in the anti tank role and destroying tanks of Rommel's panzer divisions. Maj PPK Kumaramangalam was the battery commander of 41 Field Regiment which was deployed in the anti tank role. He was awarded the DSO for his act of bravery. Later he became the Chief of Army Staff of independent India in 1967.

South-East Asian theatre

An Indian prisoner of war from Hong Kong after liberation in 1945

The British Indian Army was the key British Empire fighting presence in the Burma Campaign. The Royal Indian Air force's first assault mission was carried out against Japanese troops stationed in Burma. The British Indian Army was key to breaking the siege of Imphal when the westward advance of Imperial Japan came to a halt.

The formations included the Indian III Corps, IV Corps, the Indian XXXIII Corps and the Fourteenth Army. As part of the new concept of Long Range Penetration (LRP), Gurkha troops of the Indian Army were trained in the present state of Madhya Pradesh under their commander then krishnasamy (later Major General) Orde Charles Wingate.

These troops, popularly known as Chindits, played a crucial role in halting the Japanese advance into South Asia.[14]

Capture of Indian territory

By 1942, neighbouring Burma was invaded by Japan, which by then had already captured the Indian territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Japan gave nominal control of the islands to the Provisional Government of Free India on 21 October 1943, and in the following March, the Indian National Army with the help of Japan crossed into India and advanced as far as Kohima in Nagaland. This advance on the mainland of South Asia reached its farthest point on India territory, retreating from the Battle of Kohima in June and from that of Imphal on 3 July 1944.

Recapture of Axis-occupied territory

In 1944-45 Japan was under heavy air bombardment at home and suffered massive naval defeats in the Pacific. As its Imphal offensive failed, harsh weather and disease and withdrawal of air cover (due to more pressing needs in the Pacific) also took its toll on the Japanese and remnants of the INA and the Burma National Army. In spring 1945, a resurgent British army recaptured the occupied lands.[15]

The invasion of Italy

A Sikh soldier (of the 4th Division (the Red Eagles) of the Indian Army, attached to the British Fifth Army in Italy) holding a captured swastika flag after the surrender of Nazi German forces in Italy. Behind him, fascist inscriptions on the mural says VIVA IL DUCE, "Long live the Duce" (Benito Mussolini). Photo circa May 1945

Indian forces played a role in liberating Italy from Nazi control. India contributed the 3rd largest Allied contingent in the Italian campaign after US and British forces. The 4th, 8th and 10th Divisions and 43rd Gurkha Infantry Brigade led the advance, notably at the gruelling Battle of Monte Cassino. The fought on the Gothic Line in 1944 and 1945.

Collaboration with the Axis powers

Several leaders of the radical revolutionary Indian independence movement broke away from the main Congress and went to war against Britain. Subhas Chandra Bose, once a prominent leader of Congress, volunteered to help Germany and Japan; he said Britain's opposition to Nazism and Fascism as "hypocrisy" since it was itself violating human rights and denying individual liberties in India.[16] Moreover, he argued that it was not Germany and Japan but the British Raj which was the enemy, since the British were over-exploiting Indian resources for War purposes.[16] Bose suggested that there was little possibility of India being attacked by any of the Axis powers provided it did not fight the War on Britain's side.[16]

Captured soldiers of the British Indian Army who refused to join the INA were executed by the Japanese.[17]

Berlin was encouraging but gave little help. Bose then approached Tokyo which gave him control of Indian forces it had organised.[18]

The Indian National Army (INA), formed first by Mohan Singh Deb, consisted initially of prisoners taken by the Japanese in Malaya and at Singapore who were offered the choice of serving the INA by Japan or remaining in very negative conditions in POW camps. Later, after it was reorganised under Subhas Chandra Bose, it drew civilian volunteers from Malaya and Burma. Ultimately, a force of under 40,000 was formed, although only two divisions ever participated in battle. Intelligence and special services groups from the INA were instrumental in destabilising the British Indian Army in the early stages of the Arakan offensive. It was during this time that the British Military Intelligence began propaganda work to shield the true numbers who joined the INA, and also described stories of Japanese brutalities that indicated INA involvement. Further, the Indian press was prohibited from publishing any accounts whatsoever of the INA.

As the Japanese offensive opened, the INA was sent into battle. Bose hoped to avoid set-piece battles for which it lacked arms, armament as well as man-power.[19] Initially, he sought to obtain arms as well as increase its ranks from British Indian soldiers he hoped would defect to his cause. Once the Japanese forces were able to break the British defences at Imphal, he planned for the INA to cross the hills of North-East India into the Gangetic plain, where it was to work as a guerrilla army and expected to live off the land, garner support, supplies, and ranks from amongst the local populace to ultimately touch off a revolution.

Prem Kumar Sahgal, an officer of the INA once Military secretary to Subhas Bose and later tried in the first Red Fort trials, explained that although the war itself hung in balance and nobody was sure if the Japanese would win, initiating a popular revolution with grass-root support within India would ensure that even if Japan lost the war ultimately, Britain would not be in a position to re-assert its colonial authority, which was ultimately the aim of the INA and Azad Hind.

Troops of the Indische Legion guarding the Atlantic Wall in France in March 1944.

As Japan opened its offensive towards India The INA's first division, consisting of four Guerrilla regiments, participated in Arakan offensive in 1944, with one battalion reaching as far as Mowdok in Chittagong. Other units were directed to Imphal and Kohima, as well as to protect Japanese Flanks to the south of Arakan, a task it successfully carried out. However, the first division suffered the same fate as did Mutaguchi's Army when the siege of Imphal was broken. With little or no supplies and supply lines deluged by the Monsoon, harassed by Allied air dominance, the INA began withdrawing when the 15th Army and Burma Area Army began withdrawing, and suffer the same terrible fate as wounded, starved and diseased men succumbed during the hasty withdrawal into Burma. Later in the war however, the INA's second division, tasked with the defence of Irrawaddy and the adjoining areas around Nangyu, was instrumental in opposing Messervy's 7th Indian Infantry Division when it attempted to cross the river at Pagan and Nyangyu during the successful Burma Campaign by the Allies the following year. The 2nd division was instrumental in denying the 17th Indian Infantry Division the area around Mount Popa that would have exposed the Flank of Kimura's forces attempting to retake Meiktila and Nyangyu. Ultimately however, the division was obliterated. Some of the surviving units of the Army surrendered as Rangoon fell, and helped keep order till the allied forces entered the city. The other remnants began a long march over land and on foot towards Singapore, along with Subhas Chandra Bose. As the Japanese situation became precarious, Bose left for Manchuria to attempt to contact the Russians, and was reported to have died in an air crash near Taiwan.

The only Indian territory that the Azad Hind government controlled was nominally the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. However, they were bases for the Japanese Navy, and the navy never relinquished control. Enraged with the lack of administrative control, the Azad Hind Governor, Lt. Col. Loganathan, later relinquished his authority. After the War, a number of officers of the INA were tried for treason. However, faced with the possibility of a massive civil unrest and a mutiny in the Indian Army, the British officials decided to release the prisoners-of-war, in addition the event became a turning point to expedite the process of transformation of power & India's independence.[20]

The luke-warm support for Indian Independence shown by Germany and Japan masked their real ultimate goal - if they had won World War II they would have divided Asia in two along the 70° E Longitude.

Bengal famine

Main article: Bengal Famine of 1943

The region of Bengal in India suffered a devastating famine during 1940-43. Some of the key reasons for this famine are:

a) ever increasing financial and resource needs due to the war;

b) the Japanese invasion of Burma which cut off food and other essential supplies to the region;

c) mismanagement by Indian regional governments; and

d) an increase in demand partially as a result of refugees from Burma and Bengal.

Indian Economist Amartya Sen (1976) challenged this orthodoxy, reviving the claim that there was no shortage of food in Bengal and that the famine was caused by inflation.[21]

The British government denied an urgent request from Leopold Amery, the Indian secretary of state, and Archibald Wavell, the Viceroy of India, to stop exports of food from Bengal in order that it might be used for famine relief. Winston Churchill, then prime minister, dismissed these requests in a fashion that Amery regarded as "Hitler-like," by asking why, if the famine was so horrible, Gandhi had not yet died of starvation.[22] Indeed, he refused to allow free relief shipments of food from the United States and Canada into Bengal on the grounds that the food was needed more elsewhere and because the Japanese Navy was patrolling the Bay of Bengal.

Funding from princely states

During World War II, in 1941, the British presented a captured German Bf109 single-engined fighter to the Nizam of Hyderabad, in return for the funding of 2 RAF fighter squadrons.[23]

See also


  1. 1 2 Kux, Dennis. India and the United States: estranged democracies, 1941-1991. DIANE Publishing, 1992. ISBN 9781428981898.
  2. "Karnataka / Gulbarga News : Police yet to make headway in missing plane case". The Hindu. 5 May 2006. Retrieved 1 June 2013.
  3. Commonwealth War Graves Commission Annual Report 2013-2014, page 44. Figures include identified burials and those commemorated by name on memorials.
  6. Churchill, Roosevelt, and India - By Auriol Weigold
  7. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of International Relations: F-L - By Cathal J. Nolan
  8. Encyclopedia of the developing world - By Thomas M. Leonard
  9. The idea of Pakistan - By Stephen P. Cohen
  10. Frank Moraes (2007). Jawaharlal Nehru. Jaico Publishing House. p. 266.
  11. Sankar Ghose (1993). Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography. Allied Publishers. pp. 114–18.
  12. Leonard A. Gordon, Brothers Against the Raj: A Biography of Indian Nationalists Sarat & Subhas Chandra Bose (2000)
  13. Compton McKenzie (1951). Eastern Epic. Chatto & Windus, London. ISBN?., p.1
  14. Peter Liddle; J. M. Bourne; Ian R. Whitehead. The Great World War, 1914-45: Lightning strikes twice. HarperCollins, 2000. ISBN 9780004724546.
  15. Edward M. Young and Howard Gerrard, Meiktila 1945: The Battle To Liberate Burma (2004)
  16. 1 2 3 Bose, Subash Chandra. Azad Hind: writings and speeches, 1941-43. Anthem Press, 2004. ISBN 978-1-84331-083-9.
  17. Aldrich, Richard J. (2000), Intelligence and the War Against Japan: Britain, America and the Politics of Secret Service, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, p. 371, ISBN 978-0-521-64186-9, retrieved 6 November 2013
  18. Horn, Steve. The second attack on Pearl Harbor: Operation K and other Japanese attempts to bomb America in World War II. Naval Institute Press, 2005. ISBN 9781591143888.
  19. Fay 1993, p. 292,298
  20. Fay 1993
  21. Khan, Yasmin (2008). The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan. United States of America: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-14333-1.
  22. The New Yorker
  23. Manu Pubby (4 November 2006). "A mystery behind the history plane". Indian Express.

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