Both in India and Britain, the war in the Far East has for a long time been considered part of a colonial conflict between the competing armies of the Japanese and British Empires. In a new book on the subject, Robert Lyman has made a compelling case that the war was for the defence of India, by Indians. Here he outlines that view.
What do you think of when someone mentions the war in Burma? Is it that ‘wild man of the jungle’ Orde Wingate? Is it the Burma Star Association? The Chindits? Bill Slim? Jungle? Monsoon? Vinegar Joe Stilwell? Perhaps you might have heard of Kohima, or Imphal, and the haunting lines of the 2nd Division epitaph on Garrison Hill:
When You Go Home,
Tell Them of Us and Say
For your Tomorrow,
We Gave Our Today
I wonder whether you’ve ever considered the strategic role of China or of the role of the Indian Army in the great battles that made up the war in the Far East between December 1941 and August 1945. I have been studying this subject in detail now for 30 years (I first designed and taught a course on the campaign in 1991) and every time I come back to it, I discover something new. Lots more work needs to be done, for instance, on the Chinese war against Japan and the role it played in the Far Eastern theatre as a whole. So, when I embarked on A War of Empires a few years ago, I was determined to look at the period through a fresh pair of eyes. I was genuinely surprised at what I found. One of the most profound relates to the nature and role of the Indian Army in securing victory in 1945.
First, it seems extraordinary that, given what we are told about the fragile state of British colonialism in India, and the seething rage of nationalist sentiment across the country, that the Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia in 1941 didn’t lead to the collapse of the Raj. After all, some 60,000 Indian POWs did join the Japanese-led Indian National Army in Singapore in 1942 (these numbers were eventually whittled down to 15,000 men in 1944). Japan believed that the loss of their Asian colonies would send the Europeans scurrying back to Europe with their tails between their legs. Instead, the attempt by Japan to expand its own empire by means of war in 1942 seemed to do the opposite, at least temporarily, as young Indians flocked in large numbers to the service of the Raj, even at a time of growing nationalist clamour at home. Between 1939 and 1945 India’s armed forces recruited 2,581,726 (of whom 2,065,554 were serving at the point the war ended). The Indian Air Force, which had begun the war with 285 officers and men, was now the Royal Indian Air Force, with nine squadrons of aircraft and 29,201 officers and men. It appears that rather than destroying it, the crisis of 1942 strengthened the empire temporarily at its point of greatest peril, and allowed it to strike back decisively in 1944 and 1945. Thereafter, Britain relinquished its control of India not because it had been defeated, but precisely because it had been victorious.
In the decades since, a strange consensus has seemed to settle on this period in the West and in India, both of which treats the history of India during the war as an aberration, because of India’s status as a colony of the British Empire. Indeed, the assumption by many over the decades since independence is that what happened before 1947 – including the Second World War – happened to another, far distant, country. This is because, so it is argued, pre-1947 India was undivided (and for Indian nationalists, tainted by an Islam that has since been exported to Pakistan and Bangladesh), and second that it was part of the Raj, and thus tainted by Britain. It is politically unbecoming to equate a sense of Indian-hood with what Marxist historians in the West and nationalists in India tells us was India’s slave status under colonialism.
But it’s hardly logical. In fact, it gives us particular problems when we look at the Second World War and India’s contribution to the vast human experience that reset the structure of the modern world. The problem is that the post-colonial interpretation makes slaves of Indians. It argues that they had no personal control of their destiny because the government was in the hands of others. When the British declared war, India became an unwilling participant. This argument, simply stated, is that the top-down forces of colonial government, together with its systems, structures, cultures and attitudes, were deeply and inherently exploitative, such that it cannot properly be argued that colonial intentions were anything other than unfair and abusive. In this view, Indian men fought and strived against their will, even though they weren’t fully aware of it, as cultural coercion blinded them to the reality that they were fighting a British war against Britain’s enemies. The absurdity of this argument suggests, to give but one example, that Auchinleck’s otherwise culture-challenging efforts in 1943 and 1944 to raise the pay of Indian Commissioned Officers to the levels of their British colleagues, was for the purpose of buying their loyalty rather than of giving them equality with their peers. Equally, it is seriously suggested in some quarters that the offer of money likewise persuaded millions of otherwise impoverished Indians to sign up for war work during the industrial expansion of India. Illiterate peasants knew no better than to take the financial bribes offered in exchange for their labour. It is argued that others were forced by convention and the belief that family and personal honour depended on a military career. Millions of men thus became mercenaries of the British, subject to intense and relentless propaganda which bound their minds and wills in an unprecedented and highly successful, coercive, manipulation.
I suggest that we recognise these assertions to be exaggerations and political point-scoring, to prove that the Raj was bad and that the Indians who willingly stood up against fascism and totalitarianism in the Second World War weren’t doing it for India, but because they were forced against their conscious will to do so. But I can find no evidence that 2.5 million men joined the Indian Army between 1939-45 as the result of, as one author puts it, a ‘propaganda offensive’ by the British government which ‘secured the partial allegiance or at least acquiescence of part of the population’? The argument does not explain why the men thus recruited were prepared to die for this compulsion, and why Indian soldiers were to win 22 of the 34 Victoria and George Crosses awarded, for example, during the Burma Campaign. It is rational to conclude that, instead, most Indians who joined the armed forces in such extraordinary numbers did so because they had weighed up the options and assessed the nature of the sacrifice they were willing to make for the sake of the government of India, regardless of its political colour. In this sense, their decision was made on the basis of a conception of India much larger than the framework of politics as it existed within Indian polity at the time. The threat to their conception of what India was and could be therefore far outweighed the rights and wrongs in their minds of colonialism, if the issue or argument ever surfaced at all for the majority of young men making the choice to join up.
The truth is that reality trumped ideology in the face of the imminent and existential danger to the Indian state by the Japanese. Most Indians accepted that the Raj was, rightly or wrongly, or for the time being, the legally constituted Government of India. Like all governments everywhere, it had supporters and opponents. Few who opposed the government on nationalistic or self-governance grounds questioned its legitimacy, as that would have invalidated their own claim to be its successor in due course. Likewise, the Indian Army was India’s army, not Britain’s.
Second, the period between defeat in 1942 and victory in 1944 and 1945 saw the transformation of the Indian Army. It had always been a unique institution, not really British (although overwhelmingly officered by Britons) and not truly Indian either, reflective of its origins as one of three mercenary armies (Bengal, Madras and Bombay) in the pay of the East India Company. It formed almost a sub-state within the Raj, with sworn loyalty to the Queen-Empress and her successors, and trained and deployed to protect India’s borders, while British battalions on long-service rotation in India maintained ‘military aid to the civil power’. It had traditionally recruited from races the British had considered the most martial – Sikhs, Rajput, Jats from the north, north-west and western regions – whose sturdy resilience was melded with battlefield toughness and a fearsome fighting reputation allied to an unquestioning loyalty to their salt. It was these men – Dogras, Gurkhas, Garhwalis, Sikhs, Rajputs, Jats, Kumaons and Pathans among them – who had helped put down the Mutiny in 1857. Other races were recruited into the army, but in supporting roles. Few were to recognize this at the time, but the order to expand the Indian Army to meet the requirements of the new war in 1939 was a watershed moment for India as a nation. For the first time its army would reflect the primary imperative of government – the protection and security of its subjects. In 1939 it might have been true that the Indian Army fought because it was a supremely professional and disciplined army, and in the manner of all good armies, it went where it was sent, did what it was told and did it well. The extraordinary story of the period 1942 – 45 was that of India transforming itself to take responsibility for its own defence. It did so spectacularly and established itself unequivocally as the guardian of its future. This transformation, built on the basis of thorough training for war, created a new, powerful national army able to serve a new nation on the verge of independence. This new army was distinct from the old, pre-1939 Indian Army, which had existed merely to serve British – rather than Indian – interests. By 1945 it had become a truly national army, serving an emerging nation increasingly conscious of and confident in its own destiny, and fighting for its own defence and prerogatives, not for those of a rapidly declining and soon-to-be history British Empire. Nearly half of the 8,578 officers in Allied Land Forces South East Asia were now Indian, in a dramatic change since 1939. It was the recruitment of many thousands of young, educated, politically well-informed young Indians as officers in the army that enabled the rapid expansion of the Indian Army to take place. The Burma campaign, the front line of Britain’s war with Japan, thus saw the transformation of an army, from an imperial creation to one of the foundation stones of a modern, democratic state.
Third, the war in Burma has been dismissed by some commentators as a strategic sideshow, in the sense that winning or losing the campaign in Burma was not decisive in ending the war. I disagree. The war in the Far East contributed significantly to the defeat of Japan. First, Burma unexpectedly became, in 1942, the locus for the defence of India. The campaign retained China in the fight and allowed Allied (and American) strategic imperatives regarding China to be fulfilled, as well as allowing India’s vast potential of human and material resources to be used for the Allied war effort. Burma was the one place where the Allies could provide support to the Chinese government, and for that reason alone it was essential that the country was recovered from Japanese control after it was lost in 1942. Until that could be achieved, India became the launchpad for aerial operations over the airlift route between the upper reaches of Assam and Yunnan province in China – the Hump – which between 1942 and 1945 airlifted 650,000 tons to China, the equivalent of 260,000 separate C47 sorties, or nearly 240 aircraft flying every single day for three years. By 1945 the airlift comprised 640 aircraft and 34,000 military personnel, the largest such endeavour in human history.
It was in Burma where British and American offensive intentions could be demonstrated to a sceptical China, which was holding down a very substantial part of the entire Imperial Japanese Army and wanted a tangible commitment of Allied effort in Burma in exchange for its continuing sacrifice. By 1944 Burma had, in Japanese planning, taken on the role of the defensive left flank for the rich rice, rubber and oil resources of Malaya, Indochina and the Dutch East Indies. If Burma were lost, the entirety of the Japanese left flank would be opened up, ripe for Allied counterstrike into the heart of Japan’s ill-named Co Prosperity Sphere.
Between 1942 and 1945 Burma was home to the Japanese Burma Area Army – at least 308,582 strong at its height – which was a demonstrable threat to India, as indeed it proved in the ‘March on Delhi’, Operations Ha-Go and U-Go in 1944. Second, a predominantly Indian Army stopped and turned back the Japanese invasion of India in 1944 and recovered Burma from the hands of the invader in 1945. It is true that Tokyo did not seriously plan a full-scale invasion of India, designed to topple the Raj. It was, nevertheless, a glint in Mutaguchi’s eye, and if Operation U-Go had been more than competently managed, a very serious threat existed to the security and stability of the whole of Bengal, Assam and Manipur.
India was a very significant element in the Allied war effort as a whole. India was the empire’s greatest reservoir of military manpower, providing 2.5 million men across several theatres of the war eff ort. It also became a significant supplier of war materiel, in the process of which the Indian economy was fundamentally changed, ending the war as a large creditor of the British Exchequer. A successful Japanese invasion, even if only into the Brahmaputra Valley, would have had far reaching consequences both militarily and politically.
Fourth, the Burma campaign contributed significantly to the destruction of Japanese military power across the whole of Asia and the Pacific. It was in Assam and Burma in 1944 and 1945 that the Japanese suffered their greatest losses in the Second World War, together with a succession of humiliating defeats, losing by their own admission a total of 185,149 killed, nearly 13 times British/Indian losses, in the period between March 1944 and May 1945. This destruction subsequently allowed the Allies to manage the narrative of defeat among the Japanese. Demonstrating that their armies had been militarily defeated in the field removed any post hoc arguments that Japan had fallen merely as a result of the A-bomb. Defeating the Imperial Japanese Army so decisively was important for removing any residual sense in Japanese minds of the power of militarism.
Finally, the Burma campaign provided the opportunity for the Indian Army to play a decisive role in defeating the forces of militarism, building a strong historic narrative in the corporate memory of the new nations that would emerge from Partition in 1947. That India and Pakistan seem to have forgotten these 1944 and 1945 victories does not invalidate or deny this historical reality. It is one that, perhaps, a new generation, less encumbered by the commitment of their parents and grandparents to the founding myths of the post-colonial enterprise, can embrace.
In terms of statistics, the Burma campaign was the longest campaign fought by Allied armies in the Second World War, and in 1945 provided the largest army group ever assembled by the British Commonwealth and its friends. In April 1945 the number of Allied service personnel in South East Asia Command (i.e., excluding India Command) totalled 1,304,126, including nearly 300,000 Americans. Of this number the British Commonwealth provided 954,985, of whom 606,149 were in ‘Operational Land Forces’ – soldiers in the fighting brigades, divisions and corps (4, 15, 33 and the Northern Combat Area Command). Of this total (606,149) 87 per cent were Indian, 3 per cent African and 10 per cent British.
India, therefore, has every right to recover the history of the pre-1947 period, for it was then that the foundations of modern India were established. The Japanese in Assam and Manipur in 1944 and in Burma in 1945 were defeated by an Army that was overwhelmingly Indian. Victory in Asia could never have taken place without Indians coming forward in large numbers, and of their own volition, to serve their country. It is this, which India – and yes, Pakistan and Bangladesh as well – can legitimately take great pride. Britain, the imperial power at the time and for two short years after the end of the war, can do so too.
Robert Lyman is a historian and writer, and author of A War of Empires: Japan, India, Burma & Britain 1941-45.