THE WEEK|August 02 2020
Indians fought on every front in World War II —the deserts of North Africa, the plains of Europe, the isles in the Pacific, the plantations of Malaya, the jungles of Burma, and finally the hills of Imphal and Kohima. Their valour and resilience helped the Allies win some of the fiercest battles of the war. THE WEEK looks at India’s world war—a story that is now all but forgotten

It was a former ruler of India who sent the ultimatum that started the war. It was a future ruler of India who received the final document of surrender that officially ended the war. From the beginning to the end, World War II was India’s war as much as it was of any other people.

Let us begin at the beginning. At 4am on September 3, 1939, Lord Halifax sent a telegram from London to Neville Henderson, Britain’s ambassador in Berlin. The cable contained a message for Germany’s foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop: Withdraw Germany’s occupation army from Poland. “I have accordingly the honour to inform you,” continued the Halifax cable, “that unless not later than 11am, British summer time, today September 3, satisfactory assurances to the above effect have been given by the German government and have reached His Majesty’s government in London, a state of war will exist between the two countries as from that hour.”

That was perhaps the harshest step that Halifax, a man of peace whom his old friend Mahatma Gandhi had described as “the most Christian and the most gentlemanly” personage, had taken in his eminently successful public life. Born without a left hand, Lord Irwin, as he had been known before he was made the Earl of Halifax, had finally landed the most prestigious job in the world at that time, the secretary of state of Great Britain.

Indeed, as viceroy of India, he had put Gandhi in jail for breaking the salt law, but had soon made amends by receiving the “half-naked fakir” as an equal at the magnificent palace that he had inaugurated in the new imperial capital of New Delhi. The two men had also signed a pact that had led to Gandhi sailing to London for the second Round Table Conference and having an audience with the king-emperor. Though the conference had failed, the Gandhi-Irwin pact had opened the way for political dialogue between Indian leaders and British rulers.

Later, as foreign secretary in the embattled Tory government of Neville Chamberlain, Halifax had fathered the appeasement policy by which Britain watched helplessly while a militarised Germany, under the Austria-born artist Adolf Hitler, was gobbling up country after country in Europe. All along, Halifax had been avoiding a war that he was convinced would not only destroy Britain and her empire, but also wreck the whole of Europe and the free world. His admirers say the appeasement helped Britain gain time to rearm.

Halifax’s assessment was not wrong. The same afternoon after his ultimatum expired, British ocean liner Athenia was torpedoed, killing 112 passengers. Only then did the harsh reality hit the great sea lords of England—that they might still be ruling the world’s waters, but German U-boats were ruling the underwaters. The Battle of the Atlantic opened the same day, and within a month the Royal Navy would lose half a dozen ships.

The dry ground, too, was shaking under Britain’s feet. Most of her land forces were dispersed across Africa and Asia. There was an expeditionary force of about 1,50,000 men in France, but the generals knew that they stood no chance before the German panzers. Finally, the entire expeditionary force, along with an Indian animal transport contingent, would be ferried to safety in May 1940 across the English Channel from Dunkirk, on every little boat that could float, making it the largest military evacuation in world history.

As the hour set by Halifax elapsed, his office sent cables to hundreds of offices across the world. One landed on the desk of the viceroy of India, Lord Linlithgow, in Simla. At 8.30 the same evening (3pm London time, just four hours after Halifax’s deadline expired), Linlithgow went on air pledging India’s wholehearted support to the war effort. The proclamation, done without even a modicum of consultation with Indian leaders, would later prove politically the unwisest step taken by any viceroy (see story on page 48).

No one—not even the viceroy— had any idea how India would fight the war.

At the hour when Linlithgow was going on air, the Indian Army had just 1,60,000 troops, including about 16,000 British officers and men, and 72,000 with the princely states. The Royal Indian Navy had just 1,700 officers and men, and the Indian Air Force had just one squadron with 200 officers and men who were busy quelling a tribal uprising in Waziristan. The squadron was commanded by its first Indian commander Subroto Mukherjee, who would later become the first Indian chief of the IAF; among the officers was Arjan Singh, who would also later head the IAF and become India’s only marshal of the air force. By the time the war ended in 1945, the Indian Army had swelled to “more than two and a half million”, writes Harry Fecitt in Distant Battlefields. “It was the largest all-volunteer army in the history of human conflict.” Close to 25,000 of them perished in the war, 64,000 were wounded and 12,000 went missing.

But at this moment, it was nothing but a small border army. Most of the land and air forces were deployed to guard the northwest from the Russians, who, the British feared, had been coveting India, first under the imperial Tsars and now under the godless communist Joseph Stalin. When the war opened, the Soviet Union was an ally of Germany. Only months earlier had Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler, and occupied most of eastern Europe. The two dictators, it had appeared, were dividing Europe among themselves, and Stalin would soon be reaching out to Asia, particularly India.

Britain’s position was precarious— alone and friendless with a huge empire to defend. The United States, with its enormous grain granaries and industrial might, offered some hope; but its isolationist politics made it stay neutral in what was perceived to be another European war. The US offered arms, but on cash basis.

Cash was what Britain did not have. Britain’s strength lay in her colonies, the crown jewel being India, where the Linlithgow regime launched a massive recruitment campaign. Indian leaders, despite their non-cooperation, did not try to block it. By late November, the first Indian troops joined the expeditionary force in France, allowing part of the main British force to move north. By then, Stalin had conquered Finland.

Early in 1940, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini met Hitler on the Austrian border and promised to enter the war “at an opportune moment”. In April, Norway and Denmark fell to Germany. On May 10, Hitler shocked the world by invading Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands and attacking Britain’s staunchest ally, France. Chamberlain resigned the same day, giving way to an all-party government under the India-hating Winston Churchill.

It was Mussolini who drew first blood with Indians. He chose his “opportune moment” in June 1940 to strike in North Africa, held by Sir Claude Auchinleck’s Eighth Army with the 4th and 5th Indian divisions under it. The overall command of the region was vested in the one-eyed Archibald Wavell, a general who wrote poems when he was not planning strategies. (He had lost his left eye in the Battle of Ypres in World War I.)

Both men took an instant liking to the Indians. Before the war would end, the two would come to India, both to command the army here and Wavell to also rule India as the viceroy who would pave the way for a constitutional transfer of power through an interim government.

We will leave the two Indian divisions under these two men for the time being, and see what was happening in Europe.

THE PICTURE WAS getting dismal in Europe. As regime after regime fled to London, Churchill ordered Operation Dynamo by which 3,40,000 Allied troops, including four Indian mule transport companies, were ferried to England from Dunkirk on warships, sloops and country boats. On June 25, France surrendered. Hitler was now the overlord of the entire western Europe, leaving the east, the Baltics and Finland to Stalin.

In July 1940, Hitler asked his general staff to plan an invasion of Britain, a venture that several European kings and dukes, including Napoleon, had planned but never succeeded since 1066. In what came to be known as the Battle of Britain, history’s greatest air war, German bombers pounded the cities of Britain day and night.

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