Indian Army in World War II

The First World War was fought because countries did not trust each other and wanted to establish their power over others. Something similar happened during the Second World War. Adolf Hitler wanted to establish the German might and power over entire Europe and Russia. Mussolini of Italy joined Hitler and later the Japanese also accepted this idea to form an Axis of power in Asia.

That is why we had two fronts where the war was fought. One was in Europe and Russia and the other in SE Asia. This war lasted from 1939 to 1945 and was called a Global War. This was the war, which witnessed the dropping of the first atomic bomb at Hiroshima and then at Nagasaki by the Americans. At the start of the war in Europe, Japan had already invaded China and captured most major cities of China including Shanghai, Nanking and Wuhan.

The Second World War is said to have broken out with German aggression on Poland on 1 September 1939. The war was fought between the Allies (Britain, France, Soviet Union, USA and their friends) on the one side and Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) on the other. World War II was a titanic conflict that dwarfed even WW-I in scale and magnitude. Over 30 countries fought in this war and the damage and destruction including deaths was colossal.

This war can be divided into battles on two Fronts - Western Front (Europe and Africa) and the Eastern Front (SE Asia). Accordingly the countries formed alliances with the Axis Powers consisting of Germany, Italy and Japan and the Allies with balance of Europe, Russia and USA.

As in WW I, Great Britain became an automatic ally and got involved in the war. Therefore, Indian troops, which had contributed tremendous to success in the previous war, became a natural choice because of their courage, loyalty and discipline. Indian army by then had earned the privilege of being a very reliable and much needed force for any war.

What is a Theatre of Operation? In the context of military it signifies an area where war is fought. In ancient times there was a chosen battleground to fight. As forces became large and countries got involved, the capture of large areas required separate planning and coordination. The term Theatre of Operation was coined to signify specific areas where battles will be fought in order to achieve the desired aims.

Indian army was deployed for war in Europe, Africa, Middle East and SE Asia. The war happened in three continents. In SE Asia they fought against the Japanese, In Ethiopia against the Italians, in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt against both the Italians and the Germans, and in Italy against the Germans.

Eastern Theatre

Having planned the operations in detail and mustered adequate forces, the Japanese offensive commenced on 8 December 1941, by a simultaneous air and naval bombardment of Hong Kong (from mainland China) and Malaya peninsula (from Thailand), along with the attack on Pearl Harbor a day prior. The Allies were deceived into believing the direction of attack and were surprised when the attacks took place.

The Japanese quickly captured parts of Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Burma. They had reached Manipur, Mizoram and Imphal. It is here that Indian troops halted the advance of Japanese by theirs sheer grit and determination and turned the course of the war.

In Malaya, the Allied troops fought to stop the offensive by occupying successive delaying positions based on rivers, road communications, towns and villages, but were by-passed by the Japanese Forces, who adopted the tactics of infiltration (moving inside enemy territory quietly in small groups of men), encirclement (surrounding enemy from attacking from unexpected directions), establishing road blocks for cutting routes of withdrawal and launched multi-directional attacks, often through thick jungles, swamps and rubber plantations.

Fighting was severe from both sides, casualties heavy, but Japanese troops pressed their attacks fiercely, especially at night. The British under Field Marshal Slim started an offensive to drive the Japanese back. Five Divisions of Indian Army took part in the operations in the Arakans (Burma).

The US Air Force provided air support as well as Special Forces. The attacks were very fierce and there were numerous casualties on both sides. Indians won 18 Victoria Cross and many other awards for their bravery. The Indian army was well trained now to fight in the jungles and used the same tactics of the Japanese to infiltrate and hit the enemy from the rear. The well-planned and brave actions made the Japanese to surrender, thus ending the war in this part of the globe.

Among the battles fought against the Japanese, the Battle of Kohima (present day Nagaland) and Imphal (Manipur) are considered the fiercest battles in modern history.

"The Japanese regard the battle of Imphal to be their greatest defeat ever," said Robert Lyman, author of "Japan's Last Bid for Victory: The Invasion of India 1944." "And it gave Indian soldiers a belief in their own martial ability and showed that they could fight as well or better than anyone else."

Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck, Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army from 1942, asserted that the British "couldn't have come through both wars (World War I and II) if they hadn't had the Indian Army."

Western Theatre

Indian troops were shifted from Asia to Africa where some of the most remarkable battles were fought.

1. In Africa, the Italians and Germans had established bases in East Africa (Somalia, Eritrea, Abyssinia) and North Africa (Libya, Tunisia etc). These bases threatened the sea routes of merchant ships and would seriously affect trade and commerce of European nations. Hence, capture of these countries became a necessity. As part of Allied forces, three Infantry Divisions were deployed to fight and defeat the Axis powers of Germany and Italy. Battles were fought in the Saharan deserts, Egypt, Sudan and Somaliland.

2. Iraq and Persia were the next areas of battle where the oil fields were to be protected against Germans. The Germans at that time were advancing into Russia. Indian army captured oil fields at Basra, Abadan. After the surrender of Iraq and Iran, the Indian forces were deployed in Iraq for internal security duties.

The Allies did not want the Germans to control Syria and Lebanon. These two countries would also control the vital sea link of Suez Canal. Therefore, they launched an offensive to take control of these two countries. This attack was very successful and Syria and Lebanon were quickly captured.

3. In Europe, the Germans had taken control of France, Poland, Hungary and were in the process to capture, Greece and Cyprus. By this action they would create a link between Africa-Europe and Iraq. Indian army took part in the capture of Italy in October 1943, and later of Greece in 1944.