Relief map of

In 1941, Britain’s empire in southern Asia included present-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, all collectively known to the British as India. This was a vast and ethnically diverse region with a huge population, about 300 million persons. Britain had gained control of this region from the 17th century on through a policy of divide-and-conquer. Some of India was under direct British control, while other regions were under the control of native princes who owed allegiance to the British crown. Because of the huge area and population, the British relied heavily on native civil servants in their administration. The British also relied on the tacit acceptance by most Indians of the British Raj (rule). Indian civil servants were later employed throughout Britain's Asian empire, as were Sikh police.

Britain was a relatively enlightened imperial power, and did much that improved the quality of life of many Indians. British policy in India during the 19th century had been shaped by the idealism of the Evangelical movement, which sought to elevate the Indian people (and not incidentally convert them to Christianity.) The British built some 40,000 miles of railroads and a system of irrigation canals and founded numerous colleges. Many of the most promising Indian students rounded out their educations at the great British universities of Oxford and Cambridge. However, the concept of empire is fundamentally at odds with liberal democracy, and British rule was not completely free of atrocities. The worst of these was the brutal suppression of rioters in Amritsar in April 1919, which left some 379 dead and another 1500 wounded. Educated Indians were increasingly dissatisfied by the curious mixture of British racism and paternalism, and most Indian peasants remained untouched by the British attempt at enlightened rule: The average life expectancy was less than 20 years as late as 1900, and infant mortality remained around 50%.

By the 1920s the Indian nationalist movement had crystallized around the Indian National Congress, which was dominated by Mohandas Gandhi. Ghandi pioneered the use of nonviolent protest and succeeded in transforming the Indian independence movement into a mass movement. However, his rejection of violence and pleas for the equal status of women and lower castes contrasted with his devotion to a form of Hindu religious mysticism that rejected smallpox vaccinations and other modern innovations and distanced him from the large Muslim minority. Ghandi's movement succeeded in creating considerable sympathy for Indian independence among the British public.

On the outbreak of the war in Europe in 1939, the British Viceroy, Linlithgow, declared war on the Axis without consulting any Indian leaders. Indian nationalist leaders responded by resigning en masse from the government.  On 8 August 1942, Congress called for the British to "Quit India" and prepared to launch a massive campaign of civil disobedience. However, Congress was thoroughly infiltrated by government agents, who gave ample warning of Congress' plans. Ghandi and other INC leaders were interned and the protests which followed, while widespread and damaging, were successfully suppressed. Thereafter India was, in the words of one British general, "an occupied and hostile country."

The Axis, and particularly the Japanese, carefully fanned the flames of Indian nationalism with their propaganda, but few of the leaders of the Indian National Congress were willing to embrace Japan. Instead, the Congress sought immediate independence as the price for supporting the war against Japan. Gandhi himself took the position that the British must leave India immediately, after which the Indians should employ the same methods of nonviolent resistance against the Japanese that had been employed against the British. This frankly ludicrous proposal diminished his standing with foreign sympathizers, particularly in the United States, and even among his own people. Gandhi once stated that he could never have achieved what he achieved against the British if the British had not been so civilized. While the statement was probably intended to be ironic, it was valid at face value, and points to the flaw in his approach to the prospect of Japanese invasion.

The United States, itself the political heir of British colonies that broke away from the mother country, had a strong traditional distaste for imperialism, and there was significant friction between the United States and Britain over the future of India.  Americans were largely ignorant of the simmering feud between Hindus and Moslems and tended to see the issue of Indian independence in rather simplistic terms. The United States send a diplomatic mission to India in October 1941 and put enough pressure on the British that Sir Stafford Cripps was sent on a special mission to India in March 1942 with an offer "for the earliest possible realisation of self-government" after the war was over and subject to certain conditions meant to protect minorities. The Indian National Congress took the position that these conditions were meant to create discord between Hindu and Moslem to justify withholding independence indefinitely. Roosevelt sent his own representative, career diplomat William Phillips, in late 1942. Phillips returned in May 1943 deeply committed to prying the British out of India, but the relationship between Britain and the United States proved too important to Roosevelt to him to risk a confrontation over Indian independence.

One Indian nationalist who did embrace the Axis was Chandra Subhas Bose, who adopted the title Netaji ("Leader") and a Fascist-style uniform. Bose attempted to organize an Indian National Army to assist the Japanese in expelling the British from India, but the INA consisted of former prisoners of war, many of whom had joined only to escape the appalling conditions in Japanese POW camps. It never became an effective fighting force, and many of its members deserted back to the British at the first opportunity. A few others were summarily executed when they attempted to surrender — by loyal Indian troops who were inflamed by reports of Japanese atrocities in Burma.

Japanese intelligence badly overestimated how successful the British had been in suppressing the Indian nationalist movement. One consequence of this mistaken assessment was that the Japanese turned away from attempting to destabilize India and attempted an invasion instead in March 1944. The Imphal campaign proved disastrous for the Japanese.

India's economic contribution to the war included a million wool blankets, 41 million military uniforms, 2 million parachutes, and 16 million pairs of boots. However, the subcontinent remained impoverished, and a combination of wartime economic disruption and administrative incompetence led to the disastrous Bengal famine of 1943.

Indian Armed Forces

The Indian Army was thoroughly professional and quite modern, but also very small. Many of the best British generals of World War II had served with the Indian Army: Since the low proportion of British officers in the Indian Army provided opportunities for faster advancement, and since Army pay went much further on the subcontinent than back home, assignment to India was much sought after and only the top graduates of Sandhurst were accepted for service in India. At the outbreak of the European war, the Army consisted of some 200,000 men in six divisions. By the end of 1941, it had grown to five fully trained divisions deployed in the Middle East and North Africa and nine partially trained divisions scattered across India, Burma, and Malaya.

The Indian Army used the regimental system, and most battalions were composed of men from the same region of India, usually under white officers. There was typically one white battalion and two native battalions in each brigade. A native infantry company typically had a British company commander and subaltern, while the second-in-command (subadar) and platoon commanders (jemadars) were usually native Indians chosen from the enlisted men who received a commission from the British Viceroy. However, as the war progressed and the Army ballooned in size (it would reach two million men, all volunteers) an increasing number of native Indians received the King's Commission, and the proportion of white battalions went down. The number of native Indian officers increased from 400 in 1939 to 8,000 by the end of the war. Such fantastic growth was possible because India remained quite poor, with high unemployment, and the army was perceived as the best prospect by many Indian men. This incidentally allowed the Army to be quite selective in who was inducted.

Indian troops fought well when properly trained and equipped. At the start of the Pacific War, however, the massive expansion meant that many divisions had large numbers of as-yet-untrained troops and lacked equipment. This helps explain the poor performance of Indian divisions in Malaya and Burma. Poor British leadership in Malaya was probably even more important: The loyalty of Indian troops was based on the willingness of their British officers to lead from the front and set a splendid example of courage. Officer casualties in Malaya were in fact high. But some officers had had only six months' training (the standard was thirty months) and were not yet fluent in the language of their troops. By 1944 the problems were largely resolved and Indian divisions fought very well in the return to Burma. At the end of the war, the Indian Army had 18 divisions on active duty.

One consequence of the poor state of British leadership in Malaya was the questionable loyalty of some of the Indian troops. Sihk troops, in particular, became notorious among Allied prisoners of war and civilian internees for switching their loyalty to the Japanese and serving as policemen and prison camp guards, sometimes acting with considerably brutality (Thompson 2005). On the other hand, Sikhs had long served as policemen under British rule and may have simply seen this as a continuation of their previous role. The Japanese also are known to have executed Sikhs who failed to change sides, suggesting that many served under duress. The Japanese appear to have been almost as contemptuous of those Sikhs who changed sides as the Allies.

Churchill considered the Indian Army wasteful of its manpower because of its inability to field more divisions: "It is indeed a disgrace, that so feeble an army is the most that can be produced from the enormous expense entailed" (Hastings 2007). Eighteen divisions out of an army of two million corresponded to a division slice of over 100,000 men, higher even than that of the technology-heavy U.S. Army. Furthermore, much of the Indian Army was committed to internal security. In March 1942, there were 54 Indian battalions on the Northwest Frontier and another 41 battalions, plus 17 British battalions, on internal security duty, over twice the number in northeast India and Burma. Some 52 battalions were still on security duty in 1944. This was the equivalent of about five more divisions. Even with security requirements taken into account, the Indian Army ought to have been able to field at least 25 divisions.

The Royal Indian Air Force had a single general-purpose squadron at the start of the war. By its end there were ten squadrons including fighters and light bombers. The Royal Indian Navy became a professional force, albeit of light forces and landing craft.

Order of battle, 7 December 1941

India Command (Wavell; at New Delhi)

 Chief of Staff was LGEN Morris.

Eastern Command (Broad)

IV Indian Corps (Nosworthy)

14 Indian Division (Lloyd; in northern India)      
Consisted of recruits from Punjab. Fought well once committed. Included 47, 55, and 123 Indian Brigades

17 Indian Division (Smyth)
Trained for desert warfare but on the way to Burma. Composed of 44, 45, and 46 Indian Brigades

70 Indian Division (Smyth)
Army reserve. Composition included 14, 16, and 23 Brigades. Used largely for internal security throughout eastern India. Later broken up to become the cadre for the Chindits. One brigade was on Ceylon.

Southern Army (Haig)

19 Indian Division
Still training. Included a brigade of Ghurkas (48 Indian Brigade)

Ceylon Command (Inskip)

222 Group (at Colombo)

Colombo Fighter Squadron 42 Hurricane

Trincomalee Fighter Squadron 22 Hurricane

11 Squadron (at Trincomalee) 9 Blenheim

7 Indian Division (Wakely) Composed of 14 and 33 Indian Brigades.

34 Indian Division (Tuker; at Jhansi)
Transferred to Ceylon as its garrison early in 1942. Disbanded mid-1943.

1 Indian Brigade

98 Indian Brigade (at Bareli)

99 Indian Brigade (at Lucknow)


Corrigan (2010)

Costello (1981)

Drea (2009)

Hastings (2011)

James (1997)

Slim (1956)

Smith (1985)

Thompson (2005)

Willmott (1983)

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