Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a New Zealand-based journalist and writes on foreign affairs and defence for Russia & India Report and Russia Beyond the Headlines. He is on the advisory board of Europe-based Modern Diplomacy.
Seventy years ago, this month, Germany surrendered to the Allies to end World War II in Europe. It is time India’s game-changing contribution to the victory is acknowledged in the actual context of Britain’s limitations. Also, what India got in return.
One of the little known facts about World War II is that it was India’s contribution of men and material that bailed out the West.
Over 2.6 million Indian troops played a decisive role in the greatest conflict of the 20th century and helped Britain stay in the fight. Indian forces were dispatcher to major war zones across the globe. They terrorized German tank divisions in Africa, fought the Japanese in Burma, took part in the invasion of Italy, and played a significant part in battles in the Middle East.
Equally critical was Indian material help. Weapons, ammunition, timber, steel and especially food, were transported—you could argue, siphoned off—in vast quantities to Europe.
Britain’s dependence on India was near total. In fact, even during World War I (1914-18), India’s contribution was massive. The New York Times wrote in 1918: “The world must pay India in whatever India wants, for without Indian products, there would be greater difficulty in winning the war.” Bear in mind that in World War II, the quantity of Indian supplies was greater by several orders of magnitude.
Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck, Commander-in-Chief of the British Indian Army from 1942, asserted that the British “Couldn’t have come through both wars if they hadn’t had the Indian Army”.
Even the racist and genocidal (he was directly responsible for death by starvation of at least thee million people in Bengal during World War II, in history’s most horrific man-made famine) British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had a pathological hatred of Indians (“They are a beastly race with a beastly religion,” he once said), acknowledged the “unsurpassed bravery of Indian soldiers and officers”.
To be sure, eight out of 10 German soldiers who died in battle, died on the Russian front and it was Russian military might that steamrolled the once invincible German Army. But on the western front, without India’s mobilization, the Allies would not have reached Berlin. Minus Indian soldiers, the British Army would have been stretched too thin.
Fear Stalked The British
First up, let’s place the country’s war mobilisation in context. How was Britain placed in terms of fighting capability?
In 1940, the Germans routed the British Expeditionary Force stationed in Boulogne and Calais in France. Over 380,000 British soldiers were trapped between the English Channel and the advancing German Army and were facing wholesale slaughter when Adolf Hitler inexplicably allowed most of them to escape.
That hasty retreat under German bombing was the first sign that all was not well in the empire’s HQ. The German blitzkrieg revealed the sloth and corruption that flourished in the British Army. Theft of stores, fuel and even trucks by soldiers was common, writes military historian Max Hastings in Winston’s War.
In 1941, following defeats in Greece, Crete and North Africa, Alexander Cadogan of the Foreign Office wrote: “Our soldiers are the most pathetic amateurs, pitted against professionals.” And he added, “Our army is the mockery of the world!”
The British performed even worse against Asians. In 1942, a Japanese army numbering just 25,000, overran Malaya (modern Malaysia) and Singapore, despite being outnumbered four to one. Vice Admiral Geoffrey Layton, acting Commander-in-Chief of Britain’s Eastern Fleet, wrote in his war diary: “Man for man, our men were inferior to the Japanese in training and in the moral qualities of audacity, tenacity, discipline and devotion.”
N.S. Rajaram, a NASA mathematician and Indologist, remembers talking to Indian soldiers of the British Imperial Army. In an article for Folks magazine, he quotes one of them, now settled in Penang, Malaysia:
“When the Japanese attacked, the British ran away. They were very clever. They had a wonderful life with bungalows and butlers and cooks and all that, but as soon as the Japanese came, they ran away. And once they got back to India, they sent Gurkhas, Sikhs, Marathas and other Indians to fight the Japanese. They knew it was too dangerous for them. That is how we got independence in Malaya.”
Rajaram says not one of these World War II veterans remembers the British fighting the Japanese—only running away.
Lee Kuan Yew, the late prime minister of Singapore, corroborates that statement. In his memoirs, The Singapore Story, Lee describes the Japanese invasion of Malaya and Singapore, which he had experienced as a youngster: “In 70 days of surprises, upsets and stupidities, British colonial society was shattered, and with it all the assumptions of the Englishman’s superiority. The Asiatics were supposed to panic when the firing started, yet they were the stoical ones who took the casualties and died without hysteria.”
According to British War Office records, members of Australia’s 8th Division posted in Malaya were guilty of looting, rape, drunkenness, insubordination and even murder. One document says that an entire battalion of Australian troops assigned to guard the coast had simply fled, allowing the Japanese to walk through the gap. “The Australians are known as daffodils: beautiful to look at, but yellow all through,” it reads.
You get the picture. Had the United States not entered the war, the British would have sat out the war holed up in their little island. And without India, they probably would have starved. As it turned out, they forced starvation upon Indians.
Life Was For Dying
In 1939, at the start of the war, the Indian Army had just over 200,000 troops—enough to keep India in chains and the British safe from Indian revolutionaries. In 1940, the army’s size was increased to 1,000,000. Overall, India supplied a total of 2,581,726 army, navy and air force combatants. On top of this, 14 million Indian labourers worked round the clock to keep the war factories and farms running.
But how did so many Indians sign up to fight for the British? Was the British Indian Army really the largest volunteer force in modern history as some historians describe it?
The truth is that over a period of 200 years, Britain had reduced India to such abject poverty that Indians were ready to grab at any opportunity to gain a living—even if it was in the business of death. As soldiers, they could at least send home some money instead of living a life of semi-subsistence.
Plus, if the recruitment tactics of World War I are any indication, then not everyone signed up willingly. There are reports that in Haryana, for instance, the British blocked the irrigation water supplies of those who did not readily come forward to join the army. Brutal methods such as “stripping people naked and making them stand before their womenfolk” were also used. People were pushed into thorny bushes and made to stand there for hours, and until they said “Yes, I’m ready for enlistment” were not let out.
Kaushik Roy writes in Expansion and Deployment of the Indian Army During World War II that the demand for Indian personnel had significantly altered traditional patterns of recruitment. Here is a War Cabinet dispatch dated 1 March 1943: “Recruitment from the ‘martial classes’ recruited in the pre-war Indian Army is now gradually drying up, and the monthly intake of these classes is only just sufficient to maintain existing units. All further expansion has now to be carried out with Madrassis (southern Indians) who were only recruited to a very small extent before the war.”
Even India’s peripheral military formations were performing important roles. Four Axis merchant ships interned in the neutral Portuguese harbour of Goa were attacked by retired members of the Indian Auxiliary Force (Territorial Army) based in Calcutta, writes Roy.
India’s toll was heavy. As many as 24,338 Indian soldiers were killed in fighting. Plus 64,354 were wounded and 11,754 went missing. It is likely that without the presence of Indian troops, at least as many British Commonwealth troops would have died. Therefore, hundreds of thousands of people of British origin living in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada owe their existence to the ultimate sacrifice of Indians.
Author and researcher Madhusree Mukerjee, who has served on the board of editors of Scientific American, writes in Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II, that the “colony’s entire output of timber, woollen textiles and leather goods, as well as three quarters of its steel and cement, were diverted to the defence of the British Empire. India was, next to Britain, the largest contributor to the Empire’s war”.
During the war, India provided 196.7 million tonnes of coal, 6 million tonnes of iron ore and 1.12 million tonnes of steel. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History, Volume 2, says: “35 per cent of India’s annual cotton textile production, amounting to about 5,000,000,000 yards, went into creating war material.”
Timber was a major war input and its export led to large-scale destruction of India’s extensive forests. The Energy and Resources Institute says, “During World War I, forest resources were severely depleted as large quantities of timber were removed to build ships and railway sleepers and to pay for Britain’s war efforts…World War II made even greater demand on the forest than World War I had done.”
The United Nations’ Food & Agricultural Organisation concurs: “The first era in deforestation was shortly after absorption into the British Empire. The second major deforestation was in the 1940s with demands of World War II.” As for armaments, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History, Volume 2, says: “During World War II, India produced more than 50 kinds of arms and ammunition and supplied 75 per cent of its own wartime requirements.”
That’s not all. Indian royal families donated large amounts of cash to the British. For instance, in 1941, the Nizam of Hyderabad funded two Royal Air Force squadrons.
How The British Repaid India
“Repaid” is the wrong word here. Utter ingratitude or perfidy would be more appropriate. First up, Britain had no intention of paying India for its goods and services. With London deciding to pay its debts to India only after the war was over, the British-controlled Indian government resorted to reckless printing of more paper currency, leading to high inflation.
The war also distorted the colony’s already broken economic system. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History says: “Wartime shortages and supply problems held industry back and caused severe disruptions to the internal market for consumer goods, which culminated in the Bengal Famine of 1943 that claimed more than three million lives.” (Some place the real death toll at over seven million.)
Bengal had a bountiful harvest in 1942, but the British started diverting vast quantities of foodgrain from India to Britain, contributing to a massive food shortage in the areas comprising present-day West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar and Bangladesh.
In the backdrop of recent British overtures towards India, Britain’s racist and unbelievably callous attitude towards Indians needs to be studied and understood.
During the war, as the threat of a Japanese-Indian National Army (led by Subhas Chandra Bose) invasion of India increased, the British employed a scorched earth policy in eastern India, especially Bengal. The British disabled and impounded all transport in Bengal, including boats, bullock carts, even elephants, to prevent their use by the Japanese.
With foodgrain being diverted to the war effort in Europe and Bengal’s transportation system grinding to a halt, people had neither access to food close by nor the means to go about their livelihood to earn or purchase whatever little food they could. In July 1943, the Board of Economic Warfare, a US government body, published a document, Indian Agriculture and Food Problems, which predicted famine and “hundreds of thousands of deaths from starvation”. On August 25, The New York Times printed a cabled message from Calcutta’s mayor to New York City’s mayor and US President Franklin Roosevelt: “Acute distress prevails in the city of Calcutta and the province of Bengal due to shortage of foodstuffs. Entire population is being devitalised and hundreds dying of starvation. Appeal to you and Mr Churchill in the name of starving humanity to arrange immediate shipment of food grains from America, Australia and other countries.”
Churchill apologists argue the war crisis forced Britain to act the way it did. In fact, when Mukerjee started researching her book a couple of American historians told her it “was not a useful venue to explore because there couldn’t have been a possibility at that point in the war, when the situation was so desperate, of sending relief to India”.
But, in fact, the policy was quite deliberate. “It was not just a tactic forced out of Britain’s war needs,” says British author and academician James Woudhuysen. “Churchill valued India so much, and hated Indian nationalists so much, that he fully wanted to starve them to death. Word was put about that Bengalis would sooner starve to death than eat wheat—despite the fact that wheat was one of the ancient crops of Bengal.
Australia had wheat for India nearly loaded on boats, and other dominions offered to help, too. But even though perhaps just a dozen ships would have made all the difference, London turned all offers down. Among other reasons, it did not want the embarrassment of admitting to famine, and so letting America interfere with India.”
Indeed, Churchill had managed to convince Roosevelt that there was no crisis in India. Worse, not only was nothing done for India, but India was forced to contribute $24 million to the UN Relief & Rehabilitation Administration. To give you an idea of the value of that amount, in those days a brand new aircraft carrier cost around $6 million, whereas today such a ship would cost at least $3 billion.
And just to rub it in, while retreating from India, the British destroyed vast numbers of aircraft and defence supplies that legally belonged to India. Leading defence analyst Bharat Karnad informs that the Walchandnagar Aircraft Company (the precursor to Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd) was contracted to build the B-24 Liberator bombers in Bangalore. Most of these aircraft were shipped back to Britain after the war.
But a significant number, which could have constituted an embryonic bomber component of the IAF, was deemed “surplus to the need” and deliberately destroyed by the departing British at the Maintenance Command in Kanpur by hoisting these aircraft, one by one, up by their tails to a considerable height and dropping them nose down on the hard ground.
Whitewashing India’s Role
India’s role in the war stands completely blanked out, and there are only fleeting references in official histories of the war. This is because of two reasons.
One, Indians themselves feel these soldiers were fighting as mercenaries for the British. So where’s the glory in fighting for one tyrant against another? From India’s point of view, Britain was a bigger tyrant than Nazi Germany. Indeed, as news trickled in from Europe’s battlefields, Indians celebrated every defeat and disaster suffered by the British.
Secondly, the British do not want to share the glory. Despite their poor fighting qualities against the Germans, the British have convinced themselves that they—and not the Russians—defeated the Nazis. For the same reason, the Russian contribution was long belittled. This year, Indian ex-servicemen were prevented from marching in an Anzac Day parade in Australia. Over 76,000 Indian soldiers died in World War I, whereas the Aussies and Kiwis lost just a few thousand. So here again, they do not want to highlight the Indian losses because then theirs would seem puny by comparison.
Still, the sacrifices of these incredibly brave Indians—who won numerous gallantry awards—did not go in vain. The returning soldiers had witnessed firsthand that the British were not eight feet tall but in fact men of small heart and smaller stature. Inspired by Bose’s feats—that had driven a stake of fear through British hearts, these Indian soldiers were in no mood to be governed by foreigners, especially those who were racists to boot.
The Naval Mutiny, a series of army mutinies and the likelihood of an air force mutiny convinced the British that their game was up. In their accounts of the end of the British Empire—Forgotten Armies and Forgotten Wars— Cambridge University historians Tim Harper and Christopher Bayly say: “It was Indian soldiers, civilian labourers and businessmen who made possible the victory of 1945. Their price was the rapid independence of India.”