The Second World War was a truly global conflict, yet when talking of the British struggle against Germany we usually think predominantly of English men, but it was really the British Empire not Britain alone which fought the war. Millions of soldiers from Britain’s colonies served during World War 2, and many experts believe that soldiers from India were crucial to the winning of the conflict, yet they did not receive the same pay and conditions as the British soldiers they served beside, or recognition afterwards. There were just under 200,000 men in the British Indian Army at the outbreak of war in 1939 but over 2.5 million by August 1945, and these soldiers were all volunteers – there was no conscription of Indian soldiers because the struggle for Indian independence was at its height and to force men to fight for a government which they did not believe in could have been disastrous. It is true that many Indians signed up simply to provide for their families as there was a great deal of poverty in the country, but whatever their reasons for joining the army, this was the largest all volunteer force in the world.
The British Indian Army fought in North and East Africa, Iraq and Iran, Syria and Lebanon, Hong Kong, Malaya, Borneo, Singapore, Burma, and across Europe. They first impressed British officers with their outstanding discipline during the chaotic retreat at Dunkirk before being sent overseas where they were instrumental in the victories against the Italians and Germans in North Africa. Indian soldiers also fought in Europe after D Day, but the vast majority of them served closer to home in the Far East where they fought the Japanese in Malaya and Burma (when the Japanese first attacked two thirds of the forces in the Far East were Indian not English). Thousands of Indian soldiers loyal to the British were taken prisoner when Singapore fell, and many of them were used as target practice or executed by Japanese soldiers. Other Indians, though, saw their captivity as a way to push their own agenda, and although they had been taken prisoner by the Japanese they formed the Indian National Army (INA) to work with their captors against the British in order to win Indian independence. Churchill was afraid that this attitude might spread amongst other Indian soldiers and so he promised independence to India after the war if the country stayed loyal until Germany and Japan had been defeated. Although the INA grew rapidly in the Japanese sphere of influence, most Indian soldiers who had signed up to defend the Empire refused to break their oath and for every one Indian who fought for the Japanese sixty-two remained loyal to the British. To encourage this the British began to promote more Indians as officers whilst the troops were being trained for jungle warfare. These loyal troops were eventually instrumental in defeating the INA, preventing a Japanese invasion of northern India and pushing the enemy back through the jungles of Burma.
The British Indian Army took heavy casualties during the war with 87,000 killed, 34,354 wounded, and 67,340 taken prisoner. The Indian soldiers showed great courage and bravery, in all 4,000 decorations were made including at least 28 Indians being awarded the Victoria Cross (numbers vary depending on which source you read), relative to their numbers this was more than in any other regiment during the war.
After the war ended India gained her Independence and many Indians were embarrassed by the fact that so many of their countrymen had fought for the British so these loyal soldiers were forgotten, ignored, or persecuted. Members of the INA who had broken their oaths and fought against the British were given pensions by the Indian government, yet those who fought for the British were not. These are the ‘Forgotten Soldiers’ – forgotten both by the British for whom they fought and their own countrymen who, these loyal soldiers believed, had attained their independence in part due to the contribution which they had made to the war effort.
It was not until 2002 that Memorial Gates were erected on London’s Hyde Park Corner in memory of the men and women of the British colonies, including Indians, who volunteered to fight in both world wars. Under the dome of the small pavilion are the names of all those who received the Victoria Cross.
The story of Indian during the Second World War is fascinating and complex. It is not possible to do it full justice in a short article such as this, but there is a compelling Timewatch programme which tells it in much more detail. You can find it (five parts) on Youtube, a fitting memorial to the Forgotten Indian Soldiers of the Second World War.
TIMEWATCH VIDEO https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6TU1dQK-j-4 Timewatch part 1
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Imn5lFHdTE Timewatch part 2
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wGVCMn99JJI&t=11s Timewatch part 3
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uCYHvVFw1J0 Timewatch part 4
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_VjnK–TGU Timewatch part 5