Few Indians today would be aware that India contributed 2.5 million volunteer soldiers to fight for the Allies during World War II (WWII), and 1.5 million soldiers during World War I (WWI). These extremely brave soldiers came from very humble and poor backgrounds but they fought ferociously on land, at sea, and in the air.
In both the wars, the British Indian Army raised the world’s largest volunteer force, a feat not known by the current generation in the country and even lesser recognised in the daily discourse of modern India.
They were heroes, some recognised but mostly unsung, who played vital roles during the war and the list is long. But one name that does stand out is of Noor Inayat Khan, the daughter of Ustad Inayat Khan, a well-known musician of Indian classical music. In 1942, she joined the Special Operation Executive (SOE), a secret British organisation, mandated to work behind enemy lines.
She was trained as a wireless operator and was dropped into France to work alongside French resistance and inform the British forces on German military activity. On arrival, she discovered that her unit had been exposed but still she continued to work alone, transmitting coded messages over wireless to the British military command.
She was captured by the Germans in 1943, tortured and finally executed. Her invaluable contribution to the war effort won her the Croix de Guerre with Gold Star from the French government, and the George Cross from the British government in 1949. Both were awarded posthumously.
The Indian soldiers, on the ground, fought courageously in every battle and built an envious reputation which the Indian Army has carried forward to this day. Their exploits were seen in East and North Africa, Italy, Burma, and as far out as Singapore, Malay Peninsula, Guam, and Indo China. The role played by Air Force pilots from India are legendary and well documented. Pilots like MS Pujji and Prithpal Singh’s feats are among many who left their mark. The list of names and achievements is indeed long.
In the East, the Indian soldiers, as part of the British Indian Army, fought against the Japanese and were responsible for ultimately securing South East Asia that included Singapore, the Malay Peninsula and Burma. Were it not for the Indian soldiers, history could have been very different for the countries of this region.
Over 36,000 Indian soldiers lost their lives, 34,000 were wounded and 67,000 were taken prisoners of war. Indian soldiers of the British Army earned 17 Victoria Crosses, the highest military honour under the British.
Indian contribution went beyond soldiers
Indian men and women from all walks supported the war effort in the fight against fascism. Indian contribution could be seen in all aspects of the war effort and included serving in merchant supply ships taking material and food for soldiers in Europe.
Indian doctors and nurses were deeply involved on the British soil and other countries. In 1939, the Indian Comforts Fund (ICF) was established at India House in Aldwych that was run by Indian and British women. Between 1939 and 1945, the ICF supplied over 1.7 million food packets to soldiers and asian prisoners of war, besides putting together warm clothes and other supplies.
Back home, the nation contributed by collecting food and other material to support the war. Few will remember that Kolkata was the Allies’ Rest and Recreation point, where American and British soldiers stopped to rest and recuperate before heading back to war or heading home. In fact, many are not aware that India was also home to Italian POWs. As early as 1941, a batch of Italian POWs, which included four Generals, arrived by ship at Mumbai. Ranchi, capital of Jharkhand today, had a camp where POWs were housed.
The impact of war on Indian Independence
Even before the World War II began, the British had realised the futility of holding on to their reign in India. By the time the war ended, Great Britain was bankrupt, unable and unwilling to continue to maintain colonies of the British Empire.
WWII acted as a catalyst to India’s fight for independence but not before the British almost lost India to Netaji’s Indian National Army. INA was raised by Subhash Chandra Bose as a deeply committed military force comprising Indian volunteers and POWs of the Japanese in South East Asia, with the aim of launching a military campaign to throw the British out of India.
And they almost succeeded. The INA and Japanese forces were finally stopped by the British Army, with help of Indian soldiers, in Imphal and Kohima in the North East.
The impact of Bengal Famine
The Bengal Famine in 1943 was devastating for the Indian people but with the British refusing to stop supplies from India in favour of those suffering in the country, only strengthened the resolve of the nationalists in their call for freedom.
Calcutta Light Horse and Operation Creek
In March 1943, the SOE, which trained Noor Inayat Khan, undertook a secret mission in India. Goa, at the time, was under Portuguese rule and was a neutral territory during WWII. The Germans had a merchant ship ‘Ehrenfels’ which, along with two other merchant ships, was docked in Mormugao and transmitting information to Axis forces on Allied naval activity.
Officers of the Calcutta Light Horse, which was a reserve unit comprising of officers with little or no combat experience, sailed from Calcutta all the way around the southern tip to Goa. They sank the three German ships which resulted in reduced Allied naval losses in the Arabian Sea. The mission was later made into a film titled, ‘The Sea Wolves’.
A strong legacy
As the war came to an end, the British government in India began to initiate steps for withdrawal. The violent partition of the country left deep scars but the British also left behind a professional and well trained defence force in India. The other strong legacy of the British came in the form of institutions – the civil services, the judiciary, the Railways and other services, all of which contributed deeply in serving as a stable foundation on which modern India stands today.
India’s contribution to WWII had a positive outcomes in the shaping of South Asia and South East Asia, as we know today. Through WWII and in the post war period, India’s influence extended from erstwhile Burma (now Myanmar) in the East, to Afghanistan in the North West. India was never part of the cause for World War II but its contribution had a significant impact on the outcome, something that the current generation must know and be proud of.