The Forgotten Army: India’s place in British and Commonwealth Strategy during the Second World War.

Written by Cameron Kemp.

From the fields of Normandy to the jungles of South East Asia (SEA), the Second World War touched all corners of the globe. The most violent and destructive war in human history inadvertently shaped and moulded the world which exists today, sparking long lasting change within world order. The decline of European Imperialism and the beginning of the Cold War holds testimony to the shift in the balance of power across the globe. National historical narratives have since developed and shaped in accordance with each individual state’s experience. Within British popular culture, the war in Europe holds a special place in both history and living memory. Tributes to the cooperation between Britain, its dominions, the United States and its European allies have been celebrated. It is only within recent years there has been increased awareness of the role of the British Raj in its support for the British war effort. Britain stood alongside their Polish allies and supported French efforts to deter German expansionism.

For Britain did not stand alone, its expansive empire and its vast resources and manpower also stood off against Nazi aggression. The dominions of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa all pledged their support to the British Empire, for this was a decision which was made in the parliaments of their respective governments. Positioned within a grey area of British Imperial control, the British Raj had no such luxury. India was taken to war in 1939 under the direction of the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow. Outside of China, the war in SEA was won by the fighting men of the British Raj in support of the United States and the British Empire. Influence was maintained primarily through Naval Power which was still the most expansive and modern navy in 1939. British colonial possessions were garrisoned by both British and Indian soldiers.

British Imperial Propaganda Poster, 1942, British Army Museum

The Indian forces which reconquered Burma, Malaya, French Indochina, and Singapore in 1945 were drastically different to those which had fought, and lost, at the hands of the Japanese in 1941. Having transformed from an army capable of limited colonial campaigns, to a modern force which could operate across the globe. The Indian army alone raised 18 divisions including 2 training divisions. It was the largest volunteer army ever assembled mobilising 2.5 million men. It had developed into an effective fighting force which had contributed to a stable and achievable military doctrine which was utilised by British and Commonwealth Forces (BCF) in SEA.

It was far from an outmoded, archaic fighting force that had to be dragged into the modern era, the Indian Army initiated and carried out substantial institutional and organisational reform.

The Indian Army’s primary role had been to provide forces to support the civilian administration and defend the North Western Frontier during peace-time.

The reappointment of Auchinleck as Commander in Chief (C-in-C) of the Indian Army in 1943 instigated sweeping reform, refocusing defence strategy to that of survival against the Japanese along the Indo-Burmese border. The failures of both the British and Indian military establishments were highlighted during the two year-long military defeats to the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) which saw the capitulation of Singapore, the loss of Malaya and a dogged retreat through Burma. This came as a backdrop to the failed Singapore strategy, which would have seen a naval fleet dispatched to support the defence of the region to deter Japanese aggression. Due to the decline of British Naval Power after the First World War, Britain was not capable of competing with three modern navies. Europe came first, and this was reflected in the men and material sent to support the war effort.

Hung out to dry: India’s defence strategy during the interwar period

To contextualise the drastic changes which occurred within the Indian Army during the Second World War, there is a need to discuss the impact of the Great War. It was a catalyst for social, political, and military change within India as some 1.25 million Indians served across the globe; on the Western Front, Africa and the Middle East. Decisions made within the immediate aftermath of the conflict determined the future role of India within the Empire. Two schools of thought emerged. Reactionaries such as Winston Churchill and Lord Rawlinson, C-in-C of the Indian Army in 1920, sought to limit India’s military capabilities and return the army to its original purpose, internal repression and colonial policing.

Figures such as Sir Claude Auchinleck and Lord Esher believed India could become the cornerstone of British and Commonwealth defence strategy, mobilising its vast resources and manpower. During the interwar period, the former policy was adopted with some concessions being made to the Indian educated and political classes. Indianisation became the adopted policy, this took shape in the early 1920s and designated 8 battalions. Indianisation was the process of ‘Indianising’ the Indian Army. Indian Officers would command Indian other ranks. At the time Indian soldiers served under British Officers, Indian nationals were only able to achieve the rank of Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO). This system had its roots in British racial ideologies, and a want to maintain British dominance in the military and was a response to the Indian Mutinies in 1857. Throughout the interwar period there was limited institutional reform, which hampered the army’s ability to adapt to the challenges of modern war both technologically and tactically. Leading historians such as Omissi, Jeffreys and Moreman all highlight the deliberate nature of these decision to limit India’s military capabilities. Indianisation became known as a political compromise which appeased moderates. Due to these limitations set on the Indian Army, British strategy in SEA relied too heavily Naval power. This was underpinned by the Singapore strategy which would involve a British taskforce being stationed at the Singapore Naval base. Such a strategy prepared for a war with one modern military force, which was not the case in 1941.

1939- Feb 1941