Second World War - Context

Gravestones and Flowers
Afghan Soldiers at Jamrud Fort near Khyber Pass

Between the two world wars

The First World War took its toll on India in many ways over and above the high number of casualties sustained.

Increasing inflation was compounded by heavy taxation; there was a widespread 'flu epidemic and the disruption of trade during the war only served to worsen human suffering in India.

There were ongoing hostilities with Afghanistan on the North West Frontier, including the Third Anglo-Afghan war of 1919 as well as a perceived threat from Russia. There were also two major campaigns in Waziristan, from 1919-1920 and 1936-1939

Some Muslims were unsettled by Turkey's defeat in the First World War, considering it to be a vicious assault on Islam so there were various uprisings intended to subvert Muslim troops in the Indian Army.

The Rowlatt Act of 1919 indefinitely extended "emergency measures" enacted during the First World War in order to control public unrest and root out alleged conspiracy. This was unpopular in many quarters and there were protests.

At a gathering on April 13th, 1919 in Amritsar, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered a group of sixty-five Gurkha and twenty-five Baluchi soldiers to fire on the crowd to disperse them. Many died and countless were injured - the exact figure is in dispute. This event was said to be the final catalyst for Gandhi's Non-Cooperation Movement.

Throughout the nation, as the Second World War drew nearer, there was an undercurrent of civil disobedience, mirrored in parts of the army. The people of India, a country long the "jewel in the crown" of the British Empire, were restless for independence.

Indian Officers

The "Indianization" of the army

Following the courageous contribution of so many Indian troops in the First World War and their understandable desire for equality with their British counterparts, a gradual movement towards 'the Indianization' of the Indian Army took place. Yet, the replacement of British officers with Indians remained controversial.

In 1917, Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India, said "It is not merely enough to observe a principle, we must act on it. The services of the Indian Army in the war and the great increase in its numbers make it necessary that a considerable number of commissions should be given. Race should no more debar the Indian for promotion in the Indian Army than it does in the Civil Service."

On the other hand, many subscribed to an earlier view held by Lord Frederick Roberts who, while considering Indian soldiers' courage in battle to be unsurpassed, still concluded that none possessed "the qualities that go to make leaders of men."

The complex debate ebbed and flowed throughout the interwar years, alongside endeavours to modernize the fighting force and its equipment and to decide on its long term function and location.

Mahatma Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi
Jawaharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru

The Second World War looms

As an imperial colony, Undivided India would, by default, find itself at war with Germany as soon as Britain declared it. Reaction to this prospect was mixed.

Some Indian princes at once offered both financial and military support. Gandhi said he viewed the impending war 'with an English heart.'

Jawaharlal Nehru announced that he was fervently anti-Nazi yet pointed out the inherent contradiction of engaging in a war for the sake of freedom when Britain was denying democratic rights and individual liberty to many Indians.

Congress, after much debate, declined cooperation until such time as India was 'declared an independent nation.' Others felt that, while independence from Britain was the ultimate goal, decolonization would be too difficult for everyone in time of war and should be postponed.

The stand by Congress was largely ignored. In September 1939, the British Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow declared India's entry into the war without consulting prominent Indian leaders.

Subhas Chandra Bose
Subhas Chandra Bose

Indian opposition to the war against Germany

Several leaders of the radical revolutionary Indian independence movement refused to support the cause of Britain in the Second World War. The most prominent of these was Subash Chandra Bose.

A movement to overthrow the British Raj culminated in the formation of the Indian National Army (INA) in 1942, after the fall of Singapore. An Indian Army captain, Mohan Singh, along with 40,000 volunteers, was encouraged to unite with the Japanese against Britain. He later became disenchanted at the lack of recognition the INA received as an independent liberation army in its own right.

In 1943, Bose revived the INA and they fought alongside Japan against the British and Commonwealth forces in the campaigns in Burma, Imphal and Kohima.

The complex history and legacy of the INA is a matter of controversy. For a detailed and objective description, please refer to Fidelity and Honour - The Indian Army from the Seventeenth to the Twenty-First Century, by Lt. Gen. S.L. Menezes, PVSM, SC.

The Indian Army in the Second World War

In 1939, the army numbered 194,373 including 34,515 non-combatants.

There were:

  • 96 infantry battalions
  • 18 cavalry regiments - a few had been mechanized, though hampered by lack of tanks and armoured vehicles. The rest retained their horses

One eighth of the army regiments had been 'Indianized' at this time. This process was not completed until 1967. British and Indian officers served side by side.

In addition:

  • The India State Forces, personal armies of the Princely States (both cavalry and infantry) comprised 53,000 men
  • The Indian Territorial Force and the Auxiliary Force (India), part-time, paid volunteer organisations within the Indian Army, were 19,000 and 22,000 strong respectively.
  • There were 15,000 men in the Frontier Force, some of whom could be released to fight elsewhere

There was no shortage of manpower and the men were experienced in battle but lacking weapons and modern equipment, as at the beginning of the First World War.

By 1945 the Indian Army had become the largest volunteer force in history - over 2.5 million men. Infantry, armoured divisions and a fledgling airborne force fought on three continents in Africa, Europe and Asia.

Indian navy seaman

By the end of the war:

  • 24, 338 were killed
  • 64, 354 were wounded
  • 11,754 were missing

Not just men and not just soldiers!

It is important to remember that when nations go to war, though the army provides most of the troops, they are supported by sea and from the air too.

In the Second World War, the ships of the Royal Indian Navy (RNI) saw action in the Red Sea, the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, the Bay of Bengal and the Mediterranean, as well as in combined operations off the coasts of Sicily and Burma.

HMIS Sutlej
HMIS Sutlej (U95) was involved in many operations including the Allied invasion of Sicily and the amphibious assault on Rangoon.

In 1939 the RNI had only eight warships. By 1945 it had 117 combat vessels and 30,000 personnel.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) was formed as late as 1933. Initially a small tactical air force, it grew in size throughout the war, joining forces with the army in the Burma campaign. Many of its officers also served with the Royal Air Force in Burma and other theatres. In recognition of the crucial role played by the IAF, King George VI conferred it the prefix "Royal" in 1945.

In 1939, only one squadron was operational and all training was undertaken by units in the UK. By the end of the war, the number of personnel trained or under training was in excess of 22,000 officers and men.

Indian women served too, many of them nurses in civil and military hospitals or WACs (members of the Women's Auxiliary Corps) performing vital tasks for the war effort just behind the front lines.

Indian military sari

They drove army vehicles, operated switchboards and worked as mechanics. During the evacuation of Burma, as the Japanese soldiers advanced, Indian women often stayed at their posts and continued to send vital messages over the telegraph lines to help ensure the escape of as many civilians as possible. Some died overtaken by the advance guards of the Japanese army. In the Far East, the fall of Hong Kong and Singapore led to many army nurses (including Indian) being captured by the Japanese and enduring the terrible hardships and deprivations of the Far East prisoner-of-war camps.

WACs were trained to use weapons and integrated into the regular army. They could choose to wear uniforms with skirts or special military saris. They were given the chance to undertake difficult technical and manual jobs that had been the exclusive preserve of men before the war and often reverted to being so after hostilities ceased in 1945.

The Women's Royal Indian Naval Service (WRINS) contributed significantly to the running of RIN shore establishments.

Noor Inyat Khan
Noor Inyat Khan

One Indian woman of special note was Noor Inayat Khan.

She became a special agent for Britain, working with the French resistance. She was finally captured by the Gestapo and executed at Dachau Concentration Camp. Her full story can be found here

The country of India served as an assault and training base when the war raged in the Far East.

Indian people at home played a crucial role too, providing huge quantities of supplies including food to Commonwealth forces and to civilians in Britain too. In this way, millions of men and women were indirectly involved in war work.

The role of the Indian merchant services in the transportation of these supplies was no less essential than that of their comrades in arms

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 if they hadn't had the Indian Army." Churchill paid tribute to "The unsurpassed bravery of Indian soldiers and officers."

Undivided India's contribution, it is clear, spread far beyond its army.

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