Thousands of soldiers from Britain’s “Jewel in the Crown” colony fought for the Japanese against British forces.
Perhaps more than any other conflict, World War II produced some unusual military formations that defied easy categorization. One such unit was the Indian National Army (INA) that fought for Japan in the Burma Theater 1942-45. It consisted of soldiers from Britain’s then-colony India who had been captured by the Japanese and convinced to fight against British and Commonwealth forces. Later, its ranks also included Indian civilian volunteers living in Japanese-occupied Malaya and Burma. The INA’s combat record was undistinguished, and the army arguably achieved its greatest success after the war.
The INA resulted from an informal alliance between exiled political leaders of the Indian Independence League (IIL), which sought India’s freedom from British colonial rule, and the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA). The INA existed in two distinct incarnations. In the first, it was raised and initially led by a disillusioned British Indian army officer, Captain Mohan Singh, who had been captured in the opening stages of the Japanese invasion of Malaya. After the British surrender at Singapore in February 1942, Singh recruited Indian troops of the British Indian army from Japanese prisoner of war (POW) camps with the aim of eventually fighting the British in India.
For many Indian soldiers, their experiences in the Malaya campaign – whether it was enduring British racism or seeing the previously undefeated British vanquished by the Japanese in such a convincing fashion – proved the vital catalyst in their willingness to join the INA. Few on the Allied side – British, Indian or Australian – covered themselves with glory in Malaya and Singapore, and disillusionment and recrimination was widespread following the humiliating surrender.
The British Indian army traditionally drew its recruits from the “martial races” of India that were considered indifferent to political matters and it took great efforts to insulate the troops from political ideas. However, with the ongoing agitation for India’s independence from Britain, many Indian officers had given considerable thought to India’s future. For these men, the INA was merely the logical extension of previously held political feelings.
Indeed, the loyalty of Indian officers was under suspicion well before the outbreak of war and well before the IIL or the disasters in Malaya and Singapore had a chance to politicize them further. The ongoing program of “Indianization” of the Indian army officer corps played a role in this. In 1942, a secret British report stated: “We have … bred a new class of officer who may be loyal to India and perhaps to [India’s] Congress [Party], but is not necessarily loyal to us.” And as early as 1939, British intelligence was raising concerns about the activities of Japanese nationals in Malaya: “There are indications that the local Japanese are anxious to affect rapprochement with the newly arrived Indian troops. Indian officers have been entertained by Japanese and more prominence to Indian matters is evident in the Singapore Herald, a Japanese newspaper printed in English.”
The strength of the Indian army resided in the high degree of regimental pride and a tradition of service that often existed through several generations of the same families. British officers frequently stayed with their units from subaltern up to lieutenant colonel. The outbreak of World War II in Europe, however, necessitated the expansion of the Indian army and consequently diluted many of its strengths. Existing Indian army battalions were stripped of their more seasoned noncommissioned officers and officers and received replacements with little or no experience – many of whom often could not even speak the soldiers’ language. The IIL and the Japanese skillfully exploited these weaknesses.
Disagreements between Singh and the Japanese, over both the intended size and the specific role of the INA, led to Singh’s dismissal in December 1942. His eventual replacement was a well-known political figure in the Indian independence movement, Subhas Chandra Bose. This second incarnation of the INA proved far more robust and substantial than the one under Singh.
Prewar, Bose had established an international reputation as a nationalist politician, although his belief in the best way to achieve independence increasingly brought him into conflict with other leaders of the Congress Party. Following periods in various British prisons, and after serving as president of Congress for a year in 1938, Bose fled India. He spent time in exile in Nazi Germany and there raised a small force from among Indian POWs captured by the Germans in North Africa. However, this force had little hope of actually fighting in India.
With the British defeat at Singapore, Bose saw that the best chance of winning Indian independence lay with the Japanese and the fledgling INA. But before he could make his journey to Singapore, the first INA under Singh fell apart. When Bose eventually arrived in June 1943, he was required to rebuild the INA as well as lead it.
Bose expanded the scale of the INA and overcame many of the problems that had defeated Mohan Singh. He recruited extensively among Indian civilians in Malaya as well as the POW constituency established by his predecessor. More significantly, Bose was instrumental in providing a wider, political context in which the INA could operate. He created a Japanese-sponsored Indian “provisional government” and the INA became, in effect, the military arm of what Bose considered a legitimate government-in-exile.
When Bose met with Mohan Singh in December 1943, Singh warned Bose that his hope for the collapse of Britain’s Indian army was seriously misplaced. Singh pointed out that many thousands of Indian POWs had refused to join the INA in the aftermath of the 1942 British defeat, and that the likelihood of whole units changing sides now that Japan’s fortunes were starting to wane was slim indeed. Bose reluctantly agreed that there was some truth in what Singh had said, but despite this he pressed on with his demands to see the INA join battle with the British.
At Bose’s insistence, the INA accompanied the IJA in the assault on Burma, and the so-called “Bose Brigade,” consisting of three battalions of five companies each, drew the INA’s best men and participated in the January-February 1944 Japanese attack in the Arakan and the March-July 1944 Battle of Imphal. (See You Command, November 2012 ACG.) The INA, however, fought with mixed results and its level of military effectiveness was generally low. Moreover, only a few British Indian army troops could be persuaded to cross over and join the INA.
Initial efforts by small groups of INA soldiers in a reconnaissance and intelligence gathering role did little to change the negative impressions the Japanese had of the Indians. Many were captured without performing any useful task and others surrendered to British forces as soon as the opportunity presented itself. British intelligence concluded that “the INA was not to be feared as a fighting force” but purely because of the psychological effect it might have “on a portion of the army as well as the civil population of [India].” Yet despite such fears, Bose’s frequent claim that the mere presence of the INA would prompt mass desertions proved false.
Although Bose had ensured the INA’s participation in the fighting, he was frustrated by the reluctance of the Japanese to employ the INA in anything more than secondary roles. The Japanese, at all levels of IJA command, did not think highly of the Indian soldiers, and this attitude contributed to the INA’s poor combat performance. Japanese commanders limited the size of the INA, provided it with inadequate logistical support, and gave it substandard arms and equipment. Initially, the Indian soldiers received captured Allied weapons, much of them in a poor state of repair (including “old and rusty” rifles) with a general paucity of ammunition. However, even these severe restrictions might have been overcome had the Japanese possessed the confidence to deploy the INA in tactical operations as a cohesive unit rather than in a dispersed “penny packet” fashion.
Nonetheless, some INA units, such as 1st Battalion, 2d INA Division, performed well. The Japanese felt that the Tamil troops, recruited exclusively from Malaya, had generally done far better than their ex-Indian army/ex-POW comrades. But despite Bose’s assertions that the INA should be above all else a secular organization, there is evidence that conflict between the INA’s Muslim and Sikh troops undermined both the effectiveness and the willingness of Muslim troops to fight.
As the war progressed and the Japanese position worsened, so too did that of the INA. With its soldiers dispirited and suffering low morale, the INA joined in the general retreat of Japanese 15th Army as British and Commonwealth forces recaptured Burma in 1944-45. Desertions increased considerably and Bose was obliged to introduce capital punishment in March 1945 to try to address the problem. Yet it was noted, “From April 1945 … the INA’s retreat, which had hitherto been orderly, became a rout and mass surrenders became frequent.”
With the Japanese defeat in Burma in mid-1945, the INA crumbled without ever securing the mass defections from the British Indian army that Bose had confidently predicted. Bose died in an air crash while en route to the USSR, where he had hoped to elicit Soviet aid to continue his struggle against the British to achieve India’s independence.
Arguably, the INA achieved far more after Bose’s death. With thousands of INA soldiers becoming British prisoners at the end of World War II, British authorities made a series of misjudgments regarding the prisoners’ fate that only served to fuel India’s desire for independence from Britain. The first mistake was to publicly try some former INA soldiers in November 1945 – thereby alerting the entire Indian population to the INA’s existence and pro-independence mission. British censors had carefully kept this information from the public during the war, but it was now suddenly thrust upon an increasingly restive Indian population that was more than ever ready for independence.
Britain’s next egregious misjudgment was in the selection of which INA soldiers to put on trial. The British opted to try Major General Shah Nawaz, Lieutenant Colonel P.K. Sahgal and Lieutenant Colonel G.S. Dhillon – respectively, a Muslim, a Sikh and a Hindu. Yet in their determination to demonstrate their even-handedness by selecting a representative defendant from each of India’s major religions, British authorities unwittingly united these disparate population elements in sympathy for the accused.
Compounding these issues was another misjudgment regarding the choice of location for the trial proceedings – Delhi’s Red Fort. Dating back to the 17th century, Red Fort not only was a famous symbol of India’s once-mighty independent Mughal empire, it also stirred memories of previous armed resistance to British rule, the bloody 1857 Indian Mutiny. Known as the “Red Fort Trials,” the INA proceedings ended in farce. The main accused were released after being found guilty, their sentences suspended.
Britain had hoped that the show of British resolve represented by the INA trials would cow India’s restive population, calm the growing mood of militancy among Indian nationalists, and result in widespread vilification of the INA “traitors.” That plan, however, backfired. The trials and associated publicity not only helped ensure that the INA’s anti-British, pro-independence activities became widely known, they also resulted in the INA receiving extensive popular support from the Indian population.
India’s independence, assured as soon as the July 1945 elections in Britain swept Prime Minister Clement Attlee and the Labor Party into power, was finally achieved in 1947.
Rob Havers is currently the director of the National Churchill Museum. Prior to that he was senior lecturer in War Studies at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. He is the author of several books and articles concerning World War II, with a special focus on the war in Southeast Asia.
Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Armchair General.