World War II: India


Figure 1.--The Japanese and Indian nationslists joining the Axis cause expected the Indian people to rise up agaiunst the British. They did not. Over 2 million Indians fought with the British. The CBI Theater was primarily a British, Indian, and Chinese front, but the Americans participated in a variety of ways, including supplies and air operations. This photograph was taken by a U.S. Army nurse stationed in India. This was the first exposure to India for most Americans.

The independence movement led by Mahatma Ghandi and the Congress Party gained considerable strength during the 1920s and 30s. The British were having increasing difficulties governing India. The Congress Party while refusing to support the War efort, decided not to actively oppose it or to take advantage of British defeats in the early stages of the War. Some Indian POWs taken by the Japanese were recruited by anti-British nationalists and formed the Free Indian Army. Under Subhashchandra Bose, they fought alongside the Japanese in Burma. Overall, India played an important part in the Allied war effort. Indian units fought with other British Empire forces in both the Pacific and European theaters. About 2.5 million Indians (including modern Pakistan) were mobilized. Some Indian units played important roles in the early stages of the War before Britain had fully mobilized and American joined the War. The Fifth Indian Division ngaged the Italians in the Sudan ans subsequently the Germans in the western Desert. The Indians played a major role in quelling a pro-NAZI revolt in Iraq. A successful revolt would have cut the British off from the Iraqi oil fields whigh would have undermined the naval and land defenses of Egypt and the Suez Canal. the Division along with eight other Indian Divisions fought in Burma. India provided important bases for the reconquest of Burma and delivering supplied to the Chinese. India also was a source of food and other supplies for British and Commonwealth forces as well as the British homefront. After the Japanese surrender, the Indian forces then disarmed the Japanese forces in Malayia and Java.

Declaration of War (September 1939)

When Britain declared war on Germany in World War I, the entire British Empire automatically was at war with Germany (1914). There was little discussiion of this at the time. As a result, of the terrible casualties, considerable discussion occurred in the Dominions safter the War. After Ger,any invaded Poland, Britain decclared war once again (September 3, 1939). The Dominions now had had the right to decide in their respecive legislatures whether to enter the conflict. Ireland in the process of becoming independent decided to declsare neutrality. The Dominions joined Britain. Canada waited a few days, perhapsto show their independence. Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa all joined the fight. India was mnot a dominion, but rather a colony and had no choice in enteringb the War. British Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow declared India's entry into the War without consulting prominent Indian Congress leaders who had been elected in were just elected[

Congress Party

The independence movement led by Mohandas K. Gandhi and Jawarhal Nehru through the Congress Party gained considerable strength during the 1920s and 30s. The British were as a result, having increasing difficulties governing India. Congress controlled the provincial legislatures. The Congress Party while refusing to support the War efort, decided not to actively oppose it or to take advantage of British defeats in the early stages of the War. The majority of Congress was opposed to Nazism and Fascism even gthough they were not fully aware of the NAZI race obsession. This an animosity toward the British causded a small part of Congress to make common cause with the Axis. This faction was led by Subhash Chandra Bose. While not willing to join the Axis, Congress was not prepared to join the British in the war. They saw Britain's attempt to make the war an effort to 'save democracy' as hypcritical as it was denying democracy and full individual liberties to Indians. Congress did not give the impression that they supported the British War effort and ordered its deputies to boycott the colonial legislatures.

Mobilization

Overall, India played an important part in the Allied war effort. At the outbreak of World War II, the Indian army numbered 205,000 men. And as Congress did not vmose against the Raj, this was aubstantial force available to the British. It proved crucial when Italy declared war on Britain (June 1940) and moved against Suez and East Africa. At the time Britain bracing for a German invasion could not spare any sizeable number of troops to deploy in the Moiddle East. Indian units fought with other British Empire forces in both the Southeastern Asian and Middle Eastern theaters. About 2.5 million Indians (including modern Pakistan) were mobilized. Some Indian units played important roles in the early stages of the War before Britain had fully mobilized and American joined the War. The Indian people, however, reflecting Conress' stance did not take a strong stance of the War.

Contribution to British War Effort

While Congress did not support the British war effort, India proved a major support to Britain. Indiawas not a heavily industrialize colony, but it provided financial and military assistance as well as large quantitie of supplies and raw material as well as light-industrial production which proved crucial, especially at the beginning of the War before America joined Britain. India's strategic location between the Niddlke East and Southeast Asia put it in a psition to first sypport Britain in the Middle East against Germny and Italy and then against Japan after the Japnese seized Malsya, Singaporte and Burma. While not heavily indudtrilized, therecwas a substantial industrial sdector and a huge light-industrial sector. India as a result produced armamanents in large quantities. India also was a source of awidec range of supplies for British and Commonwealth forces as well as the British homefront. several Indian Princely States made substantial donations to support the British war effort. India eventually cobntrubuted over two million troops to the war effort. Indian divisions were particularly importyant in the first 2-years of the War when Britain was embattled and expecting a German invasion. Thus substantial troop deployment to the Middle East and East Africa were not possible. Indian troops werecused to defend Suez, drive the Italiand out of East Africa and topple he NAZI-lening Iraqi Government. Very few British troops were available at the time. The Indian Army would prove to be one of the largest Allied forces contingents which took part in the North and East African Campaign, Western Desert Campaign and the Italian Campaign. And most importantly it was a force in bing rather than a force thst had to bec recruited and trained.

The Middle East (1940-41)

The Italian declaration of war and the fall of France (June 1940) changed the ballance of power in the Mediterranean and left the Brtish terribly exposed. The British thankfully had Indiuan Army units thry could callk upon. Indian units helped blunt the Italian invasion of Egypt (September 1940). The Fifth Indian Division engaged the Italians in the Sudan and subsequently the Germans in the Western Desert. The Indians played a major role in quelling a pro-NAZI revolt in Iraq. A successful revolt would have cut the British off from the Iraqi oil fields which would have undermined the naval and land defenses of Egypt and the Suez Canal. The Indians thus played a critical role at a time when British units were not yet available and the British were hard pressed to even defend the British Isles themselves. Without the Indians at this critical stage, the pro-NAZI Iraqi revolt would probably have suceeded and the Italians may well have broken through to Suez. The cosequences would have been disasterous.

Singapore (February 1942)

The seemingly impregnable British bastion in Asia was Singapore. Singapore was the keystone of Britain's military position in the Pacific. Japan took the large well supplied British garison at Singapore with surprising ease. British General Percival has been sharplycriticized. The defense of Singaport was bady planned. The Japanese offensive down the Malay Peninsula briliantly executed. The key factors were that the Japanese were able to achieve aerial and naval mastery that was never anticipated in defense plans. Pearl Harbor left the American fleet unable to respond. Two of Britain's most powerful battleships Prince of Wales anf Repulse were sent without air cover and sunk by Japanese bombers. [Gilbert] Churchill was outraged and Percival's surender. It was Percival's seming willingness to so quickly surrender that enraged Churchill. The British Division 8th Division had been rushed to Singapore after it was already too late. The fall of Singapore was a military catastrophy of emense proportions. Japanese forced within 6 months moved through Burma to the border of India in the West and New Guinea in the South. Australian trrops had garisoned Singapore, after previosly sending forces to North Africa, left the country virtually undefended. The Japanese conquest of Malay also presented the Allies with a critical problem. The world's rubber production was centered on the Malay Peninsula. And rubber was a vital war material. Singapore's fall even had consequences after the War. The prestige of the British Empire has been irreperably damaged. Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita mastermined a brilliant campaign to attack Singapore by moving south through Malaya, a contigency the British had not anticipated. Percival's surrender was the greatest mass surrender in British military history. [Bayly and Harper] Large numbers of Indian troops as part of the British garison were taken as POWs.

Japanese Conquest of Burma (1942)

The Japanese forced a sympsathetic Thai military regime to join the Axis. This allowed them to launch an attack from Indichina into Burma. The British in Burma were unprepared and poorly equipped. They and Chinese troops were unable to stop the Japanese. The small American Flying Tiger force offered some suppport, but were unable to blunt the much larger Japanese air forces. A relatively small Japanese invasion force defeated Brutish forces defending Eangoon. Then reinforced by units available after the British surrebndered Singapore, the Japanese drove on Mandalay. The British along with the Chinese units commanded by the Americans had to execute a very difficult retreat to keep from being captured by the Japanese. India thus went from colonial combatant in distant war to a potential battlefield when Japanese armies reached the borders of eastern India Assam and modern Bangladesh. .

Allies Regroup in Eastern India (1942-43)

The British and Chinese troops under American command after a harrowing retreat reached Assam and along with British-Indian forces braced for an attack. The British, Indian, Chinese, and a small American contingent finally managed to stop the Japanese who because of the teraine, rains, and lack of logistical support was unable to mount a major offensive into India. When the Japanese did not come, they began a major buildup wihin the limits of the low priority placed on the command which became known as the China, Burma, India (CBI) Theater. With the loss of the Dutch East Indies, the American-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDA) Command (ABDACOM) was reorganized (February 1942). The American (Nimitz and MacArthur) took resomsibility for the Pacific. The British assumed responsibility for southern Asia from Singapore to Suez, although Singapore and Burma quickly fell. The Nationalist Chinese (Chiang Kai-shek) continued to command the China Theater. Gen. Wavell fresh from the Middleast commanded forces in Burma and India from his headquartered in India, Gen. Stilwell after the retreat from Burma set up a new headquarters, the American Armed Forces: China, Burma, and India. His comand was primarily Chinese troops which hecturned into the finest units in the Nationalist Army. He also oversaw U.S. military advisory group and Major General Claire Chennaultís American Volunteer Group (AVG), better known as the Flying Tigers which eventually became part of Tenth Army Air Force. India suddenly went from a colonial combatant in a distant war to a front-line state. The Allies launched major infrastructure projects (ports and rail lines) to support both the Indian Army and the Allied Armies. The CBI proved to be the theater with the lowest priority for both the British and Americans. Even so very lrge quantities of supplies were delivered to support the Allied troops staging in eastern India. The primary American interest was to support the Nationalist Chinese. With the loss of the Burma Road this was primarily aviation fuel and other supplies for the American air operations in China. Eventually the Americans hoped to repon the Burma Road by driving the Japanese oit of northern Burma. For the British, the goal was to defend India and then retake Burma. Both thevBritish and Americans mounted commando operations in Burma. Major changes occurred in the Royal Indian Army. At the onset of the War, many officers were British, especially the top commanders. By thec end of the War, most of the officers were Indian.

Indian Ocean Islands

Japan after seizing Burma did not launch a major offensive into India (1942). to potential battlefield when the Japanese attacked the Western powers. It did seize the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean. Japan for propaganda purposes gave nominal control of the islands to the Provisional Government of Free India (October 21, 1943). This was a purely fictional trasfer of power as part of its Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, another fiction of Japanese propaganda.

Quit India Movement (August 1942)

The British attempted to convince Congress to support the war effort. Gandhi and Nehru demanded independence in exchange for Indian participation. Churchill refused. India thus disolved into political upheaval, including rioting and strikes. Mahatma Gandhi delivered a ground breaking sppech (August 8, 1942). Ir would launch the Quit India Movement. Ghndi called for determined, but still passive resistance to the British. Ghandi spoke saw this as a ground-breaking step and was not sure about the British rection. He called for a Do or Die effort. He did not proposee attacking the British or joining the Axis. He did propose not cooperating with British rule. He spoke at the Gowalia Tank Maidan in Mumbai, now known as August Kranti Maidan (August Revolution Ground). At the time the Japanese after seizing Singapore and Malaysia had driven the British out of Burma and were at the gates of India. The event is now a major national celebrtion in India. Mostly it is seen as the beginning of Indian independence. Virtully never considered in India is what would have happened to India under Japanese rule. The British reacted decisely by banning Congress. Virtually the entire Congress leadership, including provincil leaders, were arrested and interned within 24 hours of Gandhi's speech. Most were to spend the rest of the war in internment camps. Martin Luther King, Jr., would draw from Gandhi's speech in his "I Have A Dream" speech that promoted nonviolence and racial justoice in America. NAZI propaganda tried to portray Gandhi as an Axis supporter. Gandhi made no effort to reach Germany or Japan or any effort to support Britain's enemies. Nor did he lend any creditability to Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army (INA).

Bengal Famine (1943-44)

Severe food shortages developed in Bengal after the fall of Burma (1942). Historians debate the cause of the famine. Several factors have been identified. Burma was a major exporter of rice before the War. After the Japamese occupied Burma, this supply of rice was no longer available to India. Estimates suggest that about 15 percent of the Indian food supply was supplied by Burma. As Burma bordered on Bengal, that proportion was even higher in Bengal. The war boom in Calcutta drove up food prices (1942). The poor increasingly found it difficult to buy even their minimal requirements. Then the harvests failed, various historians disagree on the extent of the failure. British military authorities, braceing for a Japanese invasion, seized control of food supplies. And there were exports from India to supply British forces in the Middle East. The relative importance of these various factors is argued by historians. What is nore clear is that the response of authorities was inadequate. Local officials appealed to colonial administrators in London for aid. Some food was sent, but the British Government was primarily focused on first the war in Europe and than the Japanese threat from Burma. Some sources claim that some 3 million Indians died in the Bengal famine (1943-44). [Bayly and Haeper] Estimates of the victims vary, but even lower estimates are as high as 1.5 million. The British as part of their justification for colonisl rule claimed that they had eliminated the plague of famine in India. The failure of the Raj to respond effectively futher strengthened the call for independence. The Bengal Famine was the largest single disaster within the British Empire during World War II. Since independence there have been no famines of such dimensions. Some argue that this is due to India's democratic government. This may well have been important. The Green Revolution resulting from American research which substantially increased crop yields has been another factor.

Kohima-Imphal (1944)

The defeat of the Japanese carrier foirce at Midway (June 1942) and subsequentnaval engagements shifted the naval balance. This meant that the Japanese army advancing on India could not be supplied by sea. Burma's trandportation infrastructure was primitive. Thus suppying troops on the Indian border was a serious challenge. This was why the Japanese built a rail line through Burma using Allied POWs and locals who were forced to work under horrendous conditions. The Japanese did eventually come, but they did so wiyj lmost no logistical support. At Kohima-Imphal, the British and Indian units waged a series of fierce battles with the Japanese and Indian Nationalists. The Allies repelled a new Japanese offensive (August 1944). The inability of the Japanese to supply their troops was a major factor in the Allied victory. In contrast. with American Lend Lease aupport, major infrastructure pojects were built to support both the Indian Army and the Allied Armies.

Infrastructure

Transportation infrstructure from the beginning was a key factor in the CBI theater. The primary reason the Japanese invaded Burma was to close the Burma Road so they could complrte their conquest of China. India had some of the best infrastructure in Asia with the exception of Japan. India's transport system was base on the rail system the British built. That system did not, however, adequstely support the war effort once the Japanese launched the Pacific War and invaded Burma. Suddently the war that had begun in Europe and seemed so far away was on India's eastern border, although few Indians were awar of the German and Japanese racial and imperial doctrines and what it would mean for their countrt. . This was, hiwever, an area notc well served by thr transportation network, The rail system in the northeast was weak and the roads virtually non existent. Huge quantities of supplies were needed to defend India. And India became the conduit for getting supplies to China as well base areas to drive the Japanese out of Burma. Moving these supplies meant improving India's infrastructure, especially the infrastructure in the northeast. At first supplies had to flown in over the Hump, but par of te reason for retaking Burma was to reopen the Burma Road. And thee mikitary forces needed to retake Burma demanded imporoved rail and road improvements. The initial American plan for the strategic bombing campaign foresaw using bases in China. The conquest of the Marianasa, howeverm opened up even better bases and an easier logistics chain. Still there were air operations in China and against Japanese forces in Burma that neded to be suported. And the British after repelling the Japanese invasion of India gradually built up Empire forces to retake Burma. The effort required delivering large quanities of supplies to formerly remote areas of northeast India. The fighting in the CBI areas was mostly done by Empire forces. American efforts focused largely on air oprtations and logistics. Airfields had to built in India. The major American inteest was reopening the Burma Road to supply China. The major projct with Rangoon in Japanese hands was the Ledo Road, but this also involved improving Indian rail line and roads. The Japanese faced the same problem which is whu they built the infamous Thai-Burma railway. This was, however, a minor effort (a single track ral line) compred to the infratrure projects lunched by the Allies and would doom bothe Japnese invasion of India as well as their ability to hold Burma.

Free India Army/Indian National Army (1944)

Gandhi's major political rival was Chandra Bose who advocated a more violent opposdition to the British. He escaped India and managed to reach Berlin. He made propaganda broadcasts from Berlin. He married a German woman while in Berlin, which because of the racila implications, the German press ignored. He managed to create an "Indian Legion" with about 4,500 Indian soldiers who had been fighting for the British and were in POW Camps in Germany. They were attached to the Wehrmacht and later to the Waffen SS. After the British and Soviets stopped the Germans, he has no way of affecting Indian developments. Japan's entry in the War changed this. After taking Sinaportand driving the British out of Burma, the Japanese were on the border of India. And he Japanese had large numbers of Indian POWs that had been serving weith the British. Bose was trandprted east to Tokyo and with Japsanese assistance raised the Indian National Army from exiles and POWs captured in Singapore. Many POWs after the War claimed that they were coerced into joining. Bose raised 7,000 and joined the Japanese when they mountred a renewed invasion of India (March 1944). Bose and the Japanese assumed that there was widespread opposition to the British and that the Indian people would treat them as liberators. This did not occur. The British with Indian and Chinese units and American logistical support invaded Burma. Bose attempted to escspe to Japan. He was killed when his plane crashed. Bose is a figure that is undergoing reevaluation in India. With the rise of the BJP, some Indians now seem to want a founding father with a more martial ethic than Ganhdi. Bose's escape from under the British nose in India and his training by the Germans makes for an interesting story. What is difficult to understand about Bose is his ability and that of his modern admirers to dismiss NAZI racism or their inability to understand what a Japanese-controlled India would have meant for the Indian people. His dislike of The British seems to have blined him to what an Axis victory would have meant for India. Neither Germany or Japan were commiited to Asian independence. And both not only treated civilians in occupied countries ruthlessly, but launched genocidal campaigns. The British colonial authorities put the surviving members of the INA on trial after the War (1945). They received a great deal of publicity as it became increasingly obvious that India was moving toward importance. Bose continues to fascinate Indians and many Indians today admire his effort to abando Gandhi's and Congress' passive resistance policies. One Indian writes, "I contest your assertion that Subhas Chandra Bose was 'wrong'. There is a strong and credible branch of historians in India, who have surmised that the military setbacks inflicted upon the British by the INA played a dominant role in the decision of the British to leave India. The primary goal for all Indians at that point of time was securing independence from an increasingly oppressive British regime and not sorting out world issues. I think it is very unfair to expect freedom fighters to be governed by the compass of morality and world view as set by imperialist countries." By 'world issues', the Indian commentor is referring to the millionsof people killed by the NAZIs and Japanese Militarists with whom Bose allied himself. Like many Indians with whom we have discussed Bose, he does not think that NAZI and Japanese racial and colonial policies threatened India. For many all was importance wa indepedence from Britain. India's future in a world dominated by the Axis is of little concern.

Asian Nationalism

The Japanese in only a few stunning months after Pearl Harbor carved out a huge empire in the Pacufic and Southeast Asia. And it looked for a time that it might not only be a permanent situation, but perhaps be expanded to include Australia and India. In fact, the Japanest conquests lasted only 2-3 years. While the Japanese East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere lasted only a few years, the impact for Asia was nothing short of monentous. The Japanese conquests has a stunning impct on Asian nationalism. Asia at the time of World War II was largely colonized or strongly influenced by European countries (Britain, France, the etherlands, and Portugal). Nationalist movements within the European empires were, except for India, weak anf poorly organized. There were no Europeam plans to grant independence. Only in the Phillipines was the United States moving toward independence. Britain was moving Ceylon and India toward domestic self rule, but not indepencence. Thus the Japanese conquests were seen in Asia in a very different light than the NAZI conquests in Europe. It also explains why resistance movements (except in Indochina and the Philippines) were weak and of little impact on the War. And the Japanese were able to orgnize local military formations (Burma, India, and Indonesia) to fight the Allies. The outcome was a notable impetus to nationalist movements throughout Asia. The realtively easy Japabese defeat of the colonial powers undoubtedly inspired local nationalists. The Japabnese establish compliant puppet states which however powerless and subservient created a precendent for independence. And within a few years after the War, the European colonial powers had granted independence to their former colonies.

Supplying China

The Pacific War was largely a consequence of the Japanese invasion of China (1937). What the Japanese thought would be a relatively quick campaign proved to be a quagmire. The Japanese won every major battle, but the Chinese refused to surrender. They withdrew inland into remote areas that ther Japanese could bomb, but not reach wih ground campigns. Gradually the Unted Sates, Bitain, and France began to increased aid to China. And the United States began to escalate diplmatic sanctions. Finally the American oil enbargo forced Japan's hand (1941). Japan was left with a choice, end the war with China and withdraw or make war with the United States and Britain. Incredibly, Japan cjose war. The Japanese sought to stop American aid from reaching China. First they moved into French Indochina and cut the rail lines. The United States deoloyed the Flying Tigers to China and Burma to stop Japanese bombing of China. Japan after launching the Pacific War, invaded Burma and cut the Burma Road (1942). This left a tenous air link from India over the Himalayas--the Hump. This was devoted primarily for aviation fuel and other supplies for the American air forces operating in China. The Alloed CBI campaign was designed to both drive the Japanese out of Burma and reopen the Burma Road (1944). This was finally accomplished when the British advance into Burma enabled the Americans to build Ledo Road hook up with the old Burma Road (1944).

Comfort Women

The Japanese forced thousands of women into slavery, serving as "comfort women".

Indian Army

The 5th Indian Division along with eight other Indian Divisions fought in the CBI theater, Indian troops played a major role in the last important Japanese offensive of the War. They helped repulse the Japanese invasion of India (1944). Indian troops fought at both Imphal and Kohima. India provided important bases for the reconquest of Burma and delivering supplied tor the Chinese. An estmated 2 million Indians served in the Army during the War. When the War began, most of the officers in the Indian Army were British. Bythe end of the War, the officer corps was largely Indian.

Japanese Surrender

After the Japanese surrender, the Indian forces then disarmed the Japanese forces in Malayia and Java.

American-British Disagreement


Independence

The War stirred nationalist sentiment throughout Europe. [Bayly and Harper] The Japanese victories showed the weakness of the European colonial regimes. India had the most avanced independence movement. Churchill's defeat in the in the British election brought the Labour Party to power, vurtually guaranteeing Indian independence. Lord Mountbatten who directed the CBI Theater became India's last Viceroy.

Sources

Bayly, Christopher and Tim Harper. Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941-1945 (Belknap/Harvard, 2005).

Basu, Sayak. Internest post (August 23, 2014),






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Created: 3:15 AM 6/6/2005
Last updated: 5:39 AM 8/24/2014