The latest article from “Beyond the World War II We Know,” a series from The Times that documents lesser-known stories from the war, recounts the sacrifices of colonial forces, particularly British-backed Indian troops who fought not only the Axis powers, but also their compatriots.
They fought in every theater of World War II, from North Africa to Europe and as far east as Hong Kong. They died and went missing in the tens of thousands. And they formed the largest volunteer force in history. But their contributions are often an afterthought in history books.
The colonial forces that dotted the battle maps of World War II were crucial for the Allies to fill out their ranks and keep up their momentum. While India contributed the largest number of volunteers, at some 2.5 million troops, Africans, Arabs and others fought and died for the freedom of the Allied powers, although they were under the yoke of colonial rule. “I always say, Britain didn’t fight the Second World War, the British Empire did,” said Yasmin Khan, a historian at Oxford University and author of “The Raj at War.”
About 15 percent of all the Victoria Crosses — Britain’s highest decoration for valor — awarded during the Second World War went to Indian and Nepalese troops. The honor was bestowed upon service members from other colonies as well. “If you look at Commonwealth graves, you can find burial spots of Indians everywhere,” Khan said. “There’s a scattered memory of their sacrifice all over Europe.”
While these colonial forces are often forgotten or overshadowed, they not only helped the Allied powers win their war, they also set in motion events that would eventually lead to some of the colonies’ independence.
Despite their sacrifices, these troops were never treated as equals. They were largely under the command of European or American officers, although they were skilled fighters and even helped patrol the streets of London. It was difficult for them to rise up the ranks and become officers. Their compensation was far less than that of their white peers, and it worsened the darker their skin was. As poorly as Indian soldiers were treated, their African peers fared far worse.
Their skill on the battlefield helped stoke nationalism at home; however, the colonial forces were in many ways helping Britain maintain its crumbling empire, as it came under onslaught by Japanese, Italian and German forces.
Although the battlefronts of Europe were romanticized in novels, history books and films, much of the war was fought in and over British (and to a lesser extent, French) colonies, with front lines springing up from North Africa to East Asia as both sides vied for control of the regions’ vast resources and wealth to sustain their militaries. In June 1940, the Axis powers launched the North Africa campaign and fighting broke out across Algeria, Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia as they tried to wrest those colonies from British and French rule. Japan snatched up British colonies like Singapore and Burma (now Myanmar) and tried to invade India.
It would be the entry of the world’s most vocal supporter of liberty and self-determination, the United States, that would help the Allies restore their momentum and shift the tide against the Axis.
But the alliance between the United States and Britain was forged in tension over their clashing stances on colonialism. While the United States remained on the sidelines for nearly half of the war, its calls to end colonialism irked Britain, which needed its colonies more than ever, as its financial reserves were nearly exhausted.
Indians were angry when Britain, which ruled them, declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939 and exploited their resources to support the conflict. Some Indians, such as upper-caste urbanites, were loyal to the raj — British rule over India — and fought enthusiastically for the Allies, but the vast majority volunteered because they were offered land, a stable salary and steady meals. Others joined to refine their technical or engineering skills as the military modernized over the course of the war, allowing them to gain experience with more complicated machinery as it was introduced.
In August 1941, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed what became known as the Atlantic Charter, a new vision for the postwar world, highlighting the right of all people to self-determination. Though the United States had not yet entered the war as a combatant, it was supplying military hardware to Britain and created the document as a justification for its support to the Allies, laying out its anti-fascist hopes for the world. Britain was desperate to bind itself to the United States and persuade it the join the war, and Churchill begrudgingly signed the statement, although it challenged the very foundation of the empire.
The Atlantic Charter spurred hopes of independence among the British colonies. But a month after the charter was signed, Churchill clarified that the right to self-determination outlined in the document applied only to countries under German occupation. The damage, however, was already done.
In 1942, Mohandas K. Gandhi began his Quit India movement, demanding the end of British rule, galvanizing Indians against British colonial forces and threatening the economic and natural resources London needed to continue fighting.
A star of the Indian independence movement, Subhas Chandra Bose, split with Gandhi’s nonviolent campaign and aligned himself with the Axis powers, who he believed would empower him to raise an army and win India’s autonomy. Bose toured the prison camps of Europe and Asia, building a force by recruiting Indian expatriates and Indian prisoners of war.
Bose’s military, the Indian National Army, was a roughly 40,000-strong force. By 1943, he established the Azad Hind, or the provisional government of India in exile, in Japanese-occupied Singapore and declared war on the Allied powers. Bose’s ultimate goal was to invade India and liberate it from the British. Once the I.N.A. and the Axis invaded, Bose bet, Indians would rise up en masse. The British forbade their media from reporting on the rogue force, worried it would spur Indian troop defections.
In March 1944, Bose had his chance to shatter British rule. The Japanese military, with the support of the I.N.A., launched Operation U-Go, a campaign to invade northeast India from Burma and smash a buildup of Allied forces in the area. If the Japanese and the I.N.A. prevailed, they could extract India’s resources to revitalize their war effort, perhaps prolonging the war, and use India’s strategic ports to cut off Allied supply lines spanning from East to West.
But they faced stiff resistance from Allied forces, which were overwhelmingly nonwhite — about 70 percent of the fighting force was from India and to a lesser extent, African colonies. (British forces were reluctant to serve in India, preferring the glamour of the European front lines.) The fight, known as the Battle of Kohima and Imphal, produced some of the worst bloodshed of the war in Asia.
As Britain-backed Indian troops killed their own compatriots, those under Bose’s command, they also killed thousands of Japanese, considered some of the best fighters in World War II. The Japanese 15th Army, 85,000 strong at the start of the invasion, saw 53,000 troops dead or missing by the battle’s end.
The defeat, one of the most devastating of the war for Japanese ground forces, helped the Indian military come into its own, historians believe, and helped spur nationalist movements in India and parts of Africa.
“They demanded their liberation,” said the historian Kaushik Roy, a professor at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, India. “There was this feeling, ‘why should we fight to preserve colonialism?’”
It took a few years after the war ended, but the nationalists prevailed. Britain dismantled its empire, and the colonial troops it used to prop up its rule across the world were rolled into the national armies of the independent states that formed out of the wreckage. India was granted independence in 1947.
“Once that lifeblood of colonialism was broken,” Roy added, “they gained confidence in their demands to rule themselves.”