The concept of a ‘World’ war demands that studies acknowledge the battlegrounds outside Europe and the range of nationalities that contributed to, and fought in, the Second World War.
Under the Allied umbrella were people from Africa, Asia, America, Australasia and the Pacific Islands. Not all of these troops are, however, overtly included in remembrances or in dramatic depictions of the war.
In Britain, for example, the official line is to remember the sacrifices of the Armed Forces from Britain and the Commonwealth. It’s important to remember however, that those soldiers from the Indian Empire were not actually part of the Commonwealth until 1947 after independence from British rule when the British Raj was partitioned into India and Pakistan (and later Bangladesh).
Not only did they fight, these troops made a considerable difference to the war and between 30,000 and 40,000 were killed. And because the world wars were fought while India was still part of the British Empire, they have tended to be mostly ignored in India, dismissed as part of its colonial past.
The experiences of the Indian Armed Forces during the Second World War are as vast and varied as those of other nations, this is just a brief overview of troops from present day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (as well as Nepal, whose soldiers also fought in British Gurkha units).
1. The Indian Armed Forces received over 15% of the Victoria Crosses awarded in the Second World War
By 1945, 31 Victoria Crosses had been awarded to members of the Indian Armed Forces.
This does include 4 medals given to British members of the Indian Armed Forces, as each brigade of the Fifth Indian Infantry Division, for instance, comprised of one British and two Indian battalions. Each of the 4 Victoria Crosses awarded to the Fifth, however, went to soldiers recruited from British India.
2. They were (nominally) voluntary
The Indian Armed Forces had under 200,000 men in 1939, yet 2.5 million people from the British Raj fought against the Axis powers. Whilst some Indians were loyal to Britain, the majority of these sign-ups were encouraged by offerings of payment through food, land, money and sometimes technical or engineering training among a population desperate for work.
In the British desperation for men, they relaxed the requirements for sign-ups in India, and even underweight or anaemic applicants were granted positions in the forces. A report published by the Indian Council of Medical Research found that, for troops from north-west India, each gained 5 to 10 lb within 4 months on a basic army ration. This not only served to allow the British to enrol underweight men, but demonstrates the draw of the Armed Forces for malnourished recruits.
The huge expansion of the Indian Armed Forces resulted in an end to the tradition of a majority Punjabi army, filled with the sons of former soldiers. Instead, only a minority of the army now owned land, and it was felt by military intelligence that this engendered a lack of loyalty and thus reliability.
3. The British also engaged India in production
The Allies sought to utilise resources and land in India for the war effort. India supplied, for instance, 25 million pairs of shoes, 37,000 silk parachutes and 4 million cotton supply-dropping parachutes during the war.
A large number of people were therefore employed in war production. Although this was more of an opportunity to earn enough money to eat than a patriotic duty, the business classes were however significantly bolstered by this.
Whilst India’s output of war materials was extensive, the production of necessary commodities which could also be used after the war was largely unchanged. Coal production decreased during the war, despite the dependence of railways and industry on it.
Food production also remained the same, and the refusal of the British Government to stop the exportation of food from Bengal was a factor in the 1943 Bengal famine, during which 3 million people died.
4. The Indian Armed Forces served in all theatres of the Second World War
The Victoria Crosses alone demonstrate the reach of the impact of the Indian forces. Medals were awarded for service in East Africa 1941, Malaya 1941-42, North Africa 1943, Burma 1943-45 and Italy 1944-45.
The Fifth Division, mentioned above, fought in Sudan and Libya against the Italians and the Germans respectively. They were then tasked with protecting the oilfields of Iraq, and fighting in Burma and Malaya.
Indian forces not only fought abroad, but were instrumental in the victories at Imphal and Kohima, when the Japanese tide was stemmed and the invasion of India was prevented. The 17th, 20th, 23rd and 5th Indian Divisions were present.
5. The war prompted the end of the British Empire in India
In 1941, Roosevelt and Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter, which set out their joint ideals for the world after the war. Despite reluctance on the British part, the charter proclaimed:
‘Second, they desire to see no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned; Third, they respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.’
The Allied fight for freedom directly contradicted their colonial power and, even though Churchill clarified that the charter was only meant for countries under Axis occupation, Gandhi’s Quit India movement began just one year later.
The Quit India movement sought to end British rule. Gandhi compelled his countrymen to halt cooperation with the British. He was arrested alongside other leaders of the Indian National Congress and, following demonstrations against this, 100,000 were imprisoned. The Quit India movement is often seen as the unification of an Indian majority against Britain.
Simultaneously, though, feeling that India had a better chance of independence under the Axis Powers, a fellow member of the Indian National Congress, Subhas Chandra Bose, sought sympathy in Germany.
The Free India Centre was set up in Berlin and Bose begain to recruit Indians for his cause amongst prisoners of war in Axis detention camps. By 1943, Bose had established a provisional government of India in Singapore, built up a 40,000 strong army and declared war on the Allies.
Bose’s forces fought with the Japanese at Imphal and Kohima, meaning that there were Indian soldiers on both sides.
The strength of the forces from the British Raj on the 70% colonial Allied side in this battle, however, encouraged nationalist movements in India and its neighbouring countries, resulting with the eventual grant of independence in 1947.