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

The war in Europe began in September 1939 which resulted in the recall of British military assets from across the globe. In SEA, Japanese expansionism had been known throughout the 1930s and came to a head in 1937 with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. British Overseas Territories became increasingly garrisoned by Indian soldiers as the British professional forces were re-deployed in France. British, Indian, and Australian forces were scattered across South East Asia in an attempt to check Japanese aggression in the region. The bulk of these forces were stationed in Malaya and Singapore, token garrisons being located in Hong Kong and Borneo. Hopes were placed on the deterrence of the Japanese in the face of European colonial might. European Military thinkers dismissed Japanese militarism, due to both a history of military inefficiencies but also due to ideas of racial inferiority to that of the Europeans. BCF tactics relied heavily on motorised transport to move lightly equipped professional soldiers across Malaya, Singapore, and Burma. British planners concluded that the jungles for Malaya and French Indochina were impenetrable. Such beliefs were later proven devastatingly naïve. British -Indian Strategy looked to avoid a war with Japan at all costs. U.S. isolationism had prevented their entry into the ‘European War’ and its citizens did not believe that Imperial Japan would be brave enough to instigate a war with the U.S.

War eventually came to European and American Colonies as Japan invaded through the Jungles of French Indochina and by amphibious landings to the North East of Malaya. British, Indian, African and Australian Forces failed to halt their advance across the peninsula. Lightly equipped and very mobile infantry of the IJA outfought and outmanoeuvred their BCF counterparts, destroying previous British defensive doctrine. BCF were not trained in jungle fighting and were trounced in close quarter fire fights. British doctrine centred on motorised transport supported by heavy artillery to check enemy advances; in the jungle such doctrine restricted BCF’s ability to engage the enemy. Britain believed they could hold of the Japanese long enough to send Naval support; this did not come into fruition. The IJA took Singapore in 8 weeks. The Japanese Navy and Navy Airforce had total control of the seas and sky, sinking the British destroyers HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse. Some 90,000 British and Commonwealth Forces surrendered at Singapore to a numerically inferior Japanese force.

To this day it is known to be the greatest military defeat in British history.

Fall of Singapore, Japanese photograph, General Percival and his entourage surrender to the Japanese, IWM


Basra or Singapore?

SEA was not the only theatre in which the Indian Army was called upon to provide support. Indian soldiers were sent to the Middle East to garrison Iraq and Palestine; later committing men for the invasion of Iran. Until the end of 1941, 35% of Indian soldiers serving abroad were stationed in Iraq; this compared to 26% being stationed in Malaya, Burma and Singapore. Further to this, the campaign in North Africa called for increased numbers of Indian servicemen including the 4th and 5th Indian Divisions, some of the most experienced units in the Indian Army. British strategic planning emphasised the significance of the Middle East and North Africa campaign to ensure the Suez Canal was firmly in British hands. Inadvertently, this leakage of manpower and resources came at the expense of the Indian soldiers based in SEA. The invasion of Malaya, Borneo, and the Philippines by the IJA highlighted the inadequate preparation of allied defence planning in the region. Already under pressure, having lost the support of the Royal Navy and R.A.F. the BCF in SEA were left largely to the mercy of the confident and tactically sound IJA. As highlighted by Wavell, Europe came first, North Africa second, the Middle East third and finally SEA. Geography, demographics, and logistics all played a contributing factor into the Britain’s decision to only send token British units to support the defence of India after the fall of Singapore on the 15th February 1942. With the long retreat to India and the loss of Burma, the Indian military establishment and the Indian people were called upon to defend British and Indian interests in the region. By the end of 1943, there were just as many African soldiers as British soldiers, half of them Kenyans, serving alongside the Indian Army.


Into the Jungle: Reform in South East Asia

A breath of fresh air was injected into the Indian Army with the appointment of Auchinleck as C-in-C of the Indian Army, Wavell placed as viceroy and Sir William Slim as C-in-C of the 14th Army. Throughout 1943 the Indian Army saw drastic institutional reform, centralising training, learning from past tactical mistakes and took advantage of material superiority. Under the new command system, Wavell and Auchinleck were tasked with the development of Indian industry, logistics and training facilities within India and the Raj. Notably, increased industrial output provided the Indian Army with small arms, munitions, and food stuffs. Most importantly, from a military standpoint, the training of Indian units was expanded and centralised. Previously, it was left to NCOs to train soldiers under the guidance of Officers. Within the new framework, each operational division provided a training battalion to provide a steady stream of trained soldiers. This ensured new recruits were trained to a basic standard and would then move onto jungle warfare training. In addition, specialist training schools were set up in India to provide men for the technical arms, such as artillery and engineers; previously jobs reserved for white British soldiers. The 39th and 14th Indian divisions became the training units for the 14th Army; being stationed not too far from the front to provide specialist training. This became beneficial as soldiers could be deployed immediately after their 8-11 month training period. Training and its maintenance are not the more glamorous or exciting aspects of military history; in the case of the Indian Army it became the most crucial. These institutional changes, which were a faraway dream in 1941, provided a platform for Indian soldiers to prove their worth and thrive within an environment which championed guidance for Officers, NCOs and the rank and file. The lessons of 1941- mid 1943 were evaluated and then taught in training schools.

General Slim ensured that as new recruits entered frontline service, they would not be expected to achieve momentous victories. Moreman discusses this extensively in his work, The Jungle, the Japanese and the British and Commonwealth Armies at War 1941-45: Fighting Methods, Doctrine and Training for Jungle Warfare , which highlights the significance of ensuring soldiers were tasked with completing realistic objectives. Largely this was achieved by exploiting material and manpower advantages and use sheer weight of numbers against an opponent. Once accustom to engagement with the enemy, more ambitious targets were set. During the campaign to re-capture Burma and Malaya, Slim’s 14th army achieved tactical and strategic victories over the IJA. Confidence had been instilled within his men due to superior training, material, and leadership.

17th Indian Division during the advance on Rangoon, 1945, National Army Museum, NAM. 1990-12-109-2

British defence strategy in SEA proved to be inadequate in its attempts to halt Japanese expansionism. Other theatres were regarded as more significant within the wider British and Commonwealth war effort. Deliberate and costly decisions were made during the inter-war period which prevented India from taking a more decisive role with the onset of hostilities in 1941. It would eventually be that same army which re-conquered British possessions in SEA and it would be Indian not American soldiers who fought a sustained land campaign against greater numbers of Japanese soldiers. The British Raj throughout its political instability and war time economic development helped contribute to an allied victory and aided the development of jungle warfare tactics which were used by the U.S. and Australian forces in the South West Pacific. This article looks to raise awareness to India’s extensive contribution to the allied war effort, on par with their American and European allies.


Further Reading:


  • Daniel P. Marston, Phoenix from the Ashes: the Indian Army in the Burma Campaign

  • Timothy R. Moreman, The Jungle, the Japanese and the British and Commonwealth Armies at War 1941-45: Fighting Methods, Doctrine and Training for Jungle Warfare

  • Alan Jeffreys, Approach to Battle: Training the Indian Army during the Second World War

British governance

  • Gyanesh Kudaisya, “In Aid of Civil Power”: the Colonial Amry in North India, c. 1919-1942’

  • Srinath Raghaven, ‘Building the Sinews of Power: India in the Second World War’


Written by Cameron Kemp.

About the Author:

Cameron Kemp is a recent History graduate from the University of Kent, specialising in 20th century conflict and weapons of mass destruction. In his free time Cameron enjoys reading, watching rugby, and travelling. He has recently begun a role as a Research Analyst at Synergy Sport.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the InFocus History website or its editors.

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