The army history forgot

Tomorrow, a new BBC Radio 4 series will focus on the Indian soldiers who fought in the British Army. Despite being hampered by antiquated equipment and Winston Churchill's prejudice, they helped inflict a crushing defeat on the Japanese. Mark Tully looks at their crucial role
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The Independent Online

When Germany surrendered on 8 May 1945, Philip Malins, an officer in the Indian army, was still fighting the Japanese. "We were still getting killed and prisoners of war were still dying," he told me in a voice choking with anger. "So when people, including the Government, want more or less to suggest the war was finished before 15 August, we will not have that. We will not have that."

When Germany surrendered on 8 May 1945, Philip Malins, an officer in the Indian army, was still fighting the Japanese. "We were still getting killed and prisoners of war were still dying," he told me in a voice choking with anger. "So when people, including the Government, want more or less to suggest the war was finished before 15 August, we will not have that. We will not have that."

But then Field Marshal Viscount Slim's 14th Army, which turned the tide against the Japanese army in Burma, called themselves the Forgotten Army, so perhaps it's not surprising that most of us appear to have forgotten them and the war in the East they fought.

Britons, Africans, Americans, and Caribbeans all fought in that war but the Indian army provided most of the soldiers. Britain's hold over India was crumbling. Mahatma Gandhi was calling on us to "quit India". The British administration, the steel frame that held the country together, collapsed in Bengal where some three million people died of famine. The humiliating surrender of Singapore undermined the myth of white supremacy that allowed so few to rule so many. Yet two and a half million soldiers from British India and Nepal remained loyal to the King Emperor, George VI. Those soldiers fought in the largest volunteer army the world has ever seen. Not one was a conscript.

The British officers who served in that army between the wars admitted, with great good humour, that their laid-back lifestyle wasn't exactly a preparation for fighting an enemy as well-trained, tough, and brutal as the Japanese. Bill Adams, an officer in the Engineers, said: "People went to my regiment because of the marvellous field sports. It was quite unbelievable. You could fish, shoot, play polo, play games to an extent I have never met anywhere else."

One senior officer did get rid of Bill Adams' regimental elephants, kept for shooting parties. But he got his comeuppance - he was sent back to Britain.

Bobbie Kennard joined the Deccan Horse in 1934. He played polo three afternoons a week and on the others schooled polo ponies. Most weekends he would go out shooting or pig-sticking - hunting wild boar on horseback.

But the First World War had already shown that the Indian army was not just a playground for British officers who couldn't afford hunting, fishing and shooting at home. At one stage the Indian army held one third of the British sector of the line facing the German army in France. They also fought in Mesopotamia and at Gallipoli.

In the Second World War they prevented the collapse of the Empire in the east, fought against Rommel in the western desert, served in Iraq and Persia, and helped invade Italy.

In Abyssinia, Duggie Gray, an Indian army cavalry officer whose regiment had only just been mechanised, used his new-found fire power against an Italian cavalry charge. Looking back on what was perhaps the only cavalry charge of the Second World War he said: "It was really a rather awful thing for cavalrymen to shoot down cavalrymen but that's what happened."

When the Second World War broke out, the Indian army was not trained or equipped to face these challenges. It was only trained for duties within India - maintaining some semblance of order among the rebellious tribesmen of the North West Frontier and intervening when riots broke out elsewhere in India.

Their equipment was antiquated. Troops who were ambushed by the tribesmen still used pigeons to call for help from regimental headquarters. Aeroplanes sent to relieve them could be shot down by tribal marksmen because their fuselages were fabric rather than metal. When Duggie Gray lost his horses, his colonel had to buy a lorry from the bazaar to give the men their first lessons in driving.

The only change that had occurred after the First World War was the introduction of some Indian officers for the first time. But those veterans told me they were not entirely happy about being asked to conform to the rules of British Indian society and British army messes. Mohindra Batra, who had a successful career in the post-independence army, was amazed to be ordered to feign calling on senior British officers' wives by leaving his card at their bungalows. On his second night in a mess he had to buy a round of drinks after mentioning a lady's name. It's perhaps not surprising that the viceroy's offer at the outbreak of war to expand this old-fashioned army was not taken up. But with the fall of France the British government realised it couldn't afford to ignore India as a source of manpower.

The expansion which followed required radical changes. Recruitment had been a very gentlemanly affair. The tradition of encouraging soldiers to regard their regiment as "their mother and their father", and the unique bond between British officers and their Indian men maintained a flow of recruits from families with a long tradition of service. Now recruiting became a mercenary affair. "Bringing money" was paid to agents who produced recruits, and money was paid to those who signed on. At least one Maharaja emptied his jail to provide recruits.

In the Indian army there had been no restriction on creeds. Most infantry regiments had companies of Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus. But recruitment was restricted to castes the Indian army described as martial. Before the war there had been no soldiers from any caste which was regarded as untouchable, but during the war nearly 13,000 were recruited. Most Indian officers had come from the landed gentry, beneficiaries of the Raj, but now recruitment had to be opened for the educated middle classes whose loyalty might be suspect because they provided the leadership for Mahatma Gandhi's independence movement. Existing regiments were milked of experienced men to provide the nucleus of new formations.

So the compact Indian army with its recruits steeped from childhood in regimental tradition became what could easily have been a heterogeneous mob. Yet it was to bear up under the humiliation of a series of defeats, fight two of the toughest battles of the war, and go on to inflict that crushing defeat on the Japanese. Many officers, Indian and British, told me the regimental traditions of the old army were the glue which held the new army together.

The first defeat the Indian army suffered was the retreat through Malaya and the surrender of Singapore. This fed Churchill's suspicion of the Indian army's willingness to fight and indeed their loyalty. But then he must bear the blame for sending newly recruited, badly trained and under-equipped Indian soldiers to Malaya, and for giving the war in the East such low priority.

Churchill's attitude to India didn't improve when many of the soldiers and some of the Indian officers who had surrendered in Singapore joined the Indian National Army, or INA, formed originally by the Japanese to fight on their side. Some Indians were persuaded by patriotism, believing the Japanese promises to liberate India, some by dire threats, and some by those threats being carried out. Two Indian officers were imprisoned for weeks in an iron cage too small for them to stretch out or stand up in but they still refused to join the INA.

The INA did eventually take to the field under the command of a charismatic leader of the nationalist movement, Subhas Chandra Bose. He had escaped from house arrest in Calcutta, made his way to Germany and from there Hitler had sent him to Singapore in a submarine. But his army had little or no impact on the fighting in Burma and he did not undermine the morale of the Indian army itself.

The Indian army's morale was severely strained by the defeats in Burma that followed the fall of Singapore. The retreat over the Sittang river followed when two brigades were stranded on the wrong side because orders to blow up the bridge were given prematurely. Then Rangoon was abandoned. After that Indian and British soldiers retreated for nearly a thousand miles, fighting all the way through thick jungle and crossing high mountain passes. Yet when they reached India they were treated as though they were in disgrace. Even now, in his new book on Churchill, the military historian Richard Holmes describes the defeat in Burma and the retreat as "an ignominious collapse".

But that wasn't the view of Slim. As he watched the rearguard march into India, he said: "All of them - British, Indian and Gurkha - were gaunt and ragged as scarecrows, yet they still carried their arms and kept their ranks. They were still recognisable as fighting units. They might look like scarecrows, but they looked like soldiers too."

When the first attempt to get back into Burma through Arakan province failed, Churchill gave up on the Indian army. He described that operation as "disgraceful" and called for it to be cut back. But within months the Indian army was back in Arakan, this time successfully.

Gurkhas took part in the Chindits penetration behind the Japanese lines in Burma, which was among the most original, courageous, and hard-fought of all operations in the war. They flew into Burma in gliders and disrupted Japanese communications. Yet, when they had to withdraw, exhausted and starving, the American general "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell implied they were malingerers.

Eventually the Japanese launched an attack they hoped would destroy British defences on the Indo-Burma border. They laid siege to the towns of Imphal and Kohima and closed the road supplying them. At one stage the Japanese were in the heart of Kohima. The tennis court of the deputy commissioner's bungalow became no man's land.

And the Japanese were forced back from Imphal and Kohima. Five of their divisions were destroyed as effective fighting forces. It was the turning point in the Burma campaign.

Plenty of fighting followed before the Japanese suffered their largest defeat on land - and the Indian army played a major role in that too. In the war cemetery on a hillside in Kohima is the oft-quoted inscription: "When you go home, tell them of us and say: for your tomorrow, we gave our today."

Today, the regimental traditions which underpinned the Indian army through all its disasters and ultimate victory are remembered by its successors, the armies of India and Pakistan. At the Indian Military Academy, founded as the Sandhurst of India, and at the regimental centre of the Rajputana Rifles, I watched officer cadets and soldiers marching off the parade ground to "Auld Lang Syne".

Yet, when the war was over, the regular officers - who had established that unique bond with Indian soldiers and founded the traditions of the Indian army - were told they were not good enough to join British infantry regiments. During the parade celebrating the 50th anniversary of VJ Day, Bill Adams, a veteran of the Bengal Sappers and Miners, found himself shunted into a side alley where he couldn't see anything until he joined the procession almost at the back.

Since then, gates commemorating the soldiers of British India, Nepal, Africa and the Caribbean, who all fought for the Allies, have been erected on Constitution Hill in London. And so it is to be hoped that their British officers will get a better deal on the 60th anniversary of VJ day in August.

"Stand At East", presented by Sir Mark Tully, begins on BBC Radio 4 tomorrow at 10.30am.