By Neera Kuckreja Sohoni
On June 6 as we soberly remember the unprecedented scale and historic significance of Allied Forces’ landing in Normandy, France, it is appropriate to recall as well the significant contribution of India’s brave to World War II.
When England declared war on Germany in September 1939, India was a British colony. Starting with a much smaller number in 1939 of 205,000 men, in response to the requirements of war, the British Indian Army soon grew to 2.5 million making it the largest all-volunteer force in history. This massive Indian army consisted of tank, artillery and airborne forces that were actively engaged in fighting the Axis forces around the globe in the European, Mediterranean, Middle East and African theatres of war. They fought under British command as part of the Allied Nations’ unified front against the Axis powers consisting of Germany, Italy and Japan.
Indian leaders were not consulted by the British rulers on whether Indian army should join the war. Several Congress leaders wanted to make participation in the war conditional to India getting its freedom from British rule. But Mahatma Gandhi persuaded them to support the war effort with his usual call to place duty and ethical conduct above India’s urgency for independence.
Other sections of Indian society led by Subhash Chandra Bose took the opposite path by actually seeking to form a military alliance with Germany and Japan in order to gain independence for India. Japan’s help subsequently enabled Bose to set up the Indian National Army which fought under Japanese direction, mostly in the Burma Campaign. Bose also headed the Provisional Government of Free India, a government-in-exile based in Singapore, which eventually failed to get any credible support or acceptance of Indian people.
Indians fought with extraordinary courage and distinction in various war theaters located in Europe, North Africa, and South Asia. The Indian Army was one of the largest contingents to join the Allied forces in the North and East African and Western Desert Campaigns. Various Indian Divisions fought against the Italians in Somaliland, Eritrea and Abyssinia, and against Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Destroying tanks of Rommel’s panzer division, they ensured victory for the British commander turned hero Montgomery at the famous battle of El Alamein. Interestingly, an Indian battery commander named PPK Kumaramangalam who ably led his unit in the anti-tank battle and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for bravery, went on to become the Chief of Army Staff of an independent India in 1967!
When war came close to India’s doorsteps, Indian army carried out an aggressive military campaign to fight the Japanese in Burma, preventing them from invading India. As a resource rich colony, India also provided a critical base for American operations in support of China’s offensive in the Burma India Theater. After the Japanese surrender in August 1945, Indians also aided in liberating British colonies including Singapore and Hong Kong.
The financial, industrial and military assistance rendered by India formed a crucial component of the British campaign against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. India’s strategic location at the tip of the Indian Ocean, its large 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.
With larger numbers of Indians fighting, casualties were sizable. Over 87,000 Indian soldiers including those from modern day Pakistan and Bangladesh, along with 3 million civilians died. Among them, as many as 4,000 received awards for gallantry, including 31 Victoria Crosses – the highest most coveted award in the British armies.
Recognizing Indian soldiers’ solid contribution cumulatively in the two World Wars, Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck, Commander-in-Chief, India, asserted the British “couldn’t have come through both wars [World War I and II] if they hadn’t had the Indian Army.”
In New Delhi, the famous India Gate (built in 1931) commemorates the Indian soldiers who lost their lives fighting in World War I. Since then, it has become a monument to recall and appreciate the nation’s gratitude to all the martyred Indian warriors. There, like in Arlington near Washington D.C., an eternal flame burns in their memory.