Second World War (1939-1945)

Victoria Cross Holders. "[Reg Speller]/[Hulton Archive]/Getty Images"
Date: 
01 Sep 1939
End date: 
15 Aug 1945 (All day)
Event location: 

Italy, Greece, Sicily, France, Britain, Germany, Middle East, North Africa, Burma, Malaya, India, Far East, Pacific

About: 

As in the First World War, Indian soldiers were called upon by Britain to help in the war effort. Despite the constitutional fall-out from Britain’s declaration of war on behalf of India, without prior consultation of Indian representatives, Britain could nevertheless rely on India’s support. The massive involvement of men and women from India in Britain's war effort and her allies has remained a marginalized story of the Second World War. Indian soldiers provided manpower, equipment and auxiliary support in theatres of war throughout the world. Their contribution was vital to keep the supply lines to Britain open and to defend her borders at home and in the empire.

An Indian contingent provided vital backup to the British Expeditionary Force in France in 1940 and these mule transport companies were evacuated at Dunkirk and received praise from British officers for their discipline and exemplary conduct in the midst of chaos. They were stationed in Britain until 1943 to provide vital back-up on the home front. South Asians in Britain such as Cedric Dover and Sudhindra Nath Ghose worked as ARP Wardens in Civil Defence. Indian pilots such as Mahinder Singh Pujji, one of seven fighter pilots chosen to join the RAF, flew Hurricanes, engaging German aircraft in dogfights over the English Channel. He was one of 24 Indian Air Force pilots sent to Britain in September 1940 to fly with the RAF (including four other Sikh pilots: Shivdev Singh, Gurbachan Singh, Tirlochan Singh and Manmohan Singh). Tirlochan Singh and Air Marshal Shivdev Singh flew bombers, the latter making twenty-two operational flights over Germany and later commanding an Indian Air Force squadron in Burma. The Royal Air Force needed to make up a shortage in pilots by actively recruiting personnel from across the Commonwealth. It dispensed with the colour bar of the armed forces that stipulated that only ‘British subjects of pure European descent’ could join. After October 1939 people from across the Commonwealth, regardless of nationality or race became eligible to join the RAF. By the end of the Second World War, over 17,500 such men and women had been recruited, serving in a variety of roles. A further 25,000 served in the Royal Indian Air Force.

In addition to meeting her own requirements, India’s new factories maintained a regular supply of vital war materials to her Allies. Textiles were sent to 15 countries. India would supply 37,000 of the 50,000 different textile articles required by the United Nations in the war. India was the third largest consignor of supplies to Australia for the Pacific war. Russia and China also received much war material from India.

South Asian merchant seamen living around the ports of London, Cardiff, Liverpool and South Shields also played a significant role. These sailors helped to ensure that the supply lines to Britain remained open and provided vital manpower often working under atrocious conditions for less pay than their white counterparts.

The Indian Army played a major part in the operations in Italy, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, East Africa and the Far East. The Fourteenth Army in Burma was the largest single army in the world. Its battle front of 700 miles was approximately as long as the Russian front against Germany. Of the total force of 1,000,000 men employed in Burma ( S.E.A.C.), 700,000 were Indians. By the end of the war, the Indian Army won 31 Victoria Crosses. In all, 4,028 awards for gallantry were made. In WWII the Indian Army suffered 24,338 killed, 64,354 wounded and 11,754 missing.

Secondary works: 

Bance, Peter, The Sikhs in Britain: 150 Years of Photographs (Stroud: Sutton, 2007)

 

Menezes, S. L., Fidelity and Honour: The Indian Army from the Seventeenth to the Twenty-first Century, rev. ed. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999)

Prasad, Bisheshwar (general ed.), Official History of the Indian Armed Forces in the Second World War (Combined Inter-Services Historical Section (India & Pakistan))

Somerville, Christopher, Our War: How the British Commonwealth Fought the Second World War (London: Cassell Military, 2005)

Visram, Rozina, Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History (London: Pluto, 2002)

Example: 

Oral Archives No. 2/6, British Library, St Pancras

Content: 

This recording from the British Library oral archive contains an interview with General Auchinleck, who was Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, 1943-5. He also commanded Indian troops during the campaign in North Africa.

Extract: 

I think the English never cared; the English who lived in England, the politicians especially, I think they never took any interest in India at all. I think they used it…They couldn’t have come through both wars if the hadn’t had the Indian Army...I think they never really understood it.

Relevance: 

Auchinleck's remarks sum up the British attitude towards the Indian contributions during the war. While there was much propaganda material available during the war, explaining and highlighting the Indian contributions to the allied war effort, their contributions were soon forgotten after the war and the myth that 'England stood alone' was perpetuated in historical accounts of the Second World War.

Archive source: 

L/PJ/8 series, India Office Records, Asian and African Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras:

L/PJ/8/503-536 India and the War, constitutional crisis arising from Governor General’s declaration, 17 October 1939

L/PJ/8/639 Subhas Chandra Bose disappearance and Death

L/PJ/12 series, India Office Records, Asian and African Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras:

L/PJ/12/630 Indian seamen, reports of unrest, welfare and union activities, November 1939 - January 1945

L/PJ/12/643 Indian industrial trainees under the Bevin scheme at Letchworth, Herefordshire, political influence by activists in UK, May 1941 - August 1943

L/PJ/12/659 Indian civilians and prisoners of war suspected of collaboration with Nazis; treatment and welfare, January 1944-1945

L/PJ/12/762 Indian prisoners of war in Europe, 1942-1943

L/PJ/12/763 Indian prisoners of war in Europe, January - December 1945

L/PJ/12/764 Treatment of Indian collaborators, October 1945 - April 1947

L/PJ/12/765 Collaborators in Germany: arrangements for repatriation and passport facilities, August - December 1946

L/PJ/12/766 Collaborators in Germany: arrangements for repatriation and passport facilities, January 1947 - January 1949

L/PJ/12/ 768 Indian collaborators: passport facilities for the UK, March 1947 - January 1948

L/PJ/12/769 Reports of interrogations of Indian prisoners of war and civilians captured in Europe and Far East, August 1945 - April 1946

L/PJ/12/770 Formation and activities of Indian National Army Defence Committee in the UK, October - November 1945

L/PJ/12/771 DIB report and proposal on treatment of members of Indian National Army, November - December 1945

L/I/1 series, India Office Records, Asian and African Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras:

L/I/1/1142 War history prepared by Bureau of Public Information

L/I/1/1122 Treatment of Indian news by the BBC 1942

L/I/1/1075 India’s representatives at the imperial war cabinet and pacific war council

L/I/1/1047 Prime Minister’s message to the Viceroy on the 4th Indian division and visit of a contingent to the UK, 1943-44

L/I/1/1048 Imperial War Graves Commission; publication of important announcements

L/I/1/1039 Broadcasting by Indian Army Officers: arrangements for liaison with War Office, 1944

L/I/1/1034 Honours, 1941-44

L/I/1/1035 Indian Army 1939-47

L/I/1/1036 Formation of Indian Army medical corps, 1943

L/I/1/1005 Suggestion that Mrs K. Bhatia visit UK to speak to women’s organizations

L/I/1/990 Question of bringing an Indian officer from Tunis to UK to lecture, 1943

L/I/1/1000 Proposal to bring Indian speakers to the UK, 1942-44

L/I/1/1001 Press cuttings on Indian speakers in UK, 1943-44

L/I/1/978 Bevin Trainee Scheme

L/I/1/48 Indian societies in the UK, 1933-46

L/I/1/50 India League, 1932-39

L/I/1/122Teaching of Indian history in British schools, 1941-45

L/I/1/124 Education about India in England

L/I/1/198 military (general and misc), 1938-41

L/I/1/540 Royal Indian Navy, 1934-39

L/I/1/542 Bibliography relating to India, 1942-48

L/I/1/836 India’s War Effort, 1941-42

L/I/1/837 India’s War effort, 1943-46

L/I/1/840 Indian Seamen, 1941-45

L/I/1/842 national war front 1943-46

L/I/1/843 Pamphlets, 1940-43

L/I/1/854 India and the war, 1945-47

L/I/1/857 MOI illustrated pamphlet on India’s war effort, 1943-48

L/I/1/858 Military pamphlets,1944-45

L/I/1/877 Muslim attitude to the war, 1940-41

L/I/1/903 Illustrated booklet ‘India at War’, 1941-42

L/I/1/904 France and the war, 1940-48

L/I/1/905 photographs (general), 1939-48

L/I/1/907-911 War Publicity in India by Photography 

L/Mil series, India Office Records, Asian and African Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras:

L/Mil/17/5/4247-4285 India and WWII

L/Mil/17/5/4263 (Microfilm Misc 742) Pamphlet: India and the War 1939-1945, The Facts

L/Mil/17/5/4267 info on demobilisation of the Indian Army after WWII

L/Mil/17/5/4272 Pamphlet: Defence head quarters