More than 2.5 million Indian soldiers fought in the 2nd World War. While the overwhelming majority of them fought for the British in the name of ‘King and the Empire’; but a significant number of Indians heeded the call of Subhas Chandra Bose and fought against the British Empire and her allies for the liberation of India. The soldiers under the leadership of Subhas Chandra Bose not only fought in the Burma and South East Asian Campaigns but were also involved in the European Theatre of war in the 2nd World War.
At least 3000 Indian soldiers were organized into an armed brigade under the German Wehrmacht in 1942 and they were known as the Free Indian Legion (Legion Freies Indien).While, the sacrifices of the soldiers of INA in Burma are widely recognized in India, the story of these soldiers of Free Indian legion in Europe is not as widely known.
The Idea Behind The Free Indian Legion
In 1941 Subhas Chandra Bose reached Germany after making a daring escape from India. In Germany he sought the support of the Third Reich (Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler) and other Axis forces in the liberation of India from British rule. He was able to win support of the Germans and formed the Free Indian centre and a free India radio (Azad Hind Radio).
The rising numbers of Indian prisoners of war, who were captured in the North African Campaign by Rommel’s Afrika korp, in German and Italian camps presented an opportunity for forming a free Indian Army. The idea was to form an Indian brigade which will spearhead a German supported Invasion of British India through Afghanistan or Persia. This depended on a German Victory over the Soviet Union in the East or a German breakthrough in the Suez area in the Middle East.
Formation Of The Legion
The first few efforts of convincing the Indian POWs (Prisoners of war) to join the Free India Legion were not satisfactory. The Indian soldiers had given an oath to the British King and had a strong sense of loyalty towards the English. It was only after the personal intervention of Subhas Chandra Bose that soldiers started coming over to the Azad Hind’s cause.
Unlike the British Indian Army where the soldiers were segregated on religious and linguistic lines, the Free Indian Legion mingled soldiers of different religious and communities together. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and soldiers belonging to different linguistic backgrounds were amalgamated to form one cohesive Legion.
This was the first time a modern professional Indian Army was created where Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims all served together in close-knit units and this set a precedent for Indian Army of the post-Independent era. After the end of the war, when the British Investigators interrogated the soldiers and commanders of the Free Indian Legion they found “the morale, discipline and indo German relations were excellent”.
This speaks a lot about the discipline, morale and camaraderie that existed in the multi religious and multi ethnic Free Indian Legion.
Of National Anthem, Greeting and Name
The soldiers of the Free Indian Legion were the first to observe and witness some of the national traditions and practices, which have now become a part of our national legacy. Bose, after founding the Indian National Provisional Government in Berlin, chose the ‘Jana Gana Mana’ song written by Rabindra Nath Tagore as the Nation Anthem.
This decision of Bose would later be ratified by the Indian Government after Independence. Jana Gana Mana was first performed as the official National Anthem of Free India on September 11, 1942 on the occasion of the foundation of Indo-German society (Deutsch-Indische Gesellschaft).
Bose wanted a common national greeting that can be used by people of any religion or communities. Abid Hasan, the secretary of Bose, heard two Rajput soldiers greeting each other as “Jai Ram Ji Ki”. He really liked the sound of it and proposed the greeting ‘Jai Hindustan Ki’ to Bose. A shorter version of it, as simply ‘Jai Hind’ sounded better and would be used by Bose as the national Greeting of Azad Hind. This is how the greeting ‘Jai Hind’ originated.
Similarly the name ‘Netaji’, by which we know Subhas Chandra Bose, was first used by the Indians in Europe during the 2nd world war. A soldier of free Indian Legion had once called his beloved Subhas Chandra Bose as ‘humara neta’ and from this the name ’Netaji’ evolved.
It is very interesting to note that The free Indian Legion was perhaps the first Indian army that sang Jana Gana Mana as their national Anthem, greeted each other by saying ‘Jai Hind’ and called Subhas Chandra Bose as ‘Netaji’ well before the whole nation started addressing Bose by that name.
Bose had successfully sought an agreement from the Germans that the Indian Legion will not be used in any offensive operations in any theatre of war except on the Indian front. The understanding was that the soldiers of Free Indian Legion will only fight for India’s liberation and nothing else. Thus the Soldiers of the Indian Legion could fight only in India or in their own self-defence.
A contingent of the Free Indian Legion was trained by the highly efficient special forces of the Brandenburgers. A group of 100 soldiers from the Indian Legion were paradropped into Persian Baluchistan and were tasked to infiltrate into British India. The goals of the operation were to cause sabotage, to fuel dissent among the Indians and to create a foundation for a strong rebellion against the British Rule.
Due to the defeat of the Nazi Germany and the large-scale destruction of its records it is very difficult to know the real result of this covert operation, but findings from the report of a Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) attaché in Kabul embassy suggested that the Mission was a success.
The Soldiers of Infantry regiment 950 (IND) , the other name of the Free Indian Legion , were posted in Holland for a five month stint and then they were moved to South Western French coast, where they were tasked with carrying out the coastal defence drills and augmenting the coastal defenses of the ‘Atlantic Wall’.
The celebrated German General Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, was the overall commander of the Atlantic Wall coastal defense installations. It was Rommel’s Afrika Korps that had captured the majority of the Indians in the North African Campaign in 1941. He visited the Indian Soldiers and inspected them.
This is what he had said to them before leaving, “I am pleasantly surprised to find that in spite of very little training in coastal defense, the work done here is fairly satisfactory.” While departing, he further added “I am glad to see you have done good work; I wish you and your leader all the good luck!”
The D- Day and The End Of The War in Europe
After the Allied landings on D-day, the position of the German Army severely deteriorated on the western front. The Indian soldiers were ordered to retreat back to Germany. It was during their long way back to the Rhine that the French Underground Resistance fighters started harassing them. Both the retreating Germans and Indian soldiers were attacked by the French Maquis (another name for rural French resistance fighters).The French resistance fighters were notorious for their brutal executions of surrendered prisoners.
With the routing of German Armed forces in France the Soldiers of the Indian legion found themselves in a grave situation and tried to move into neutral Switzerland to avoid capture by the advancing British-American and French forces.
They fought their way to the Switzerland border but were refused entry and were captured by American and French forces. Those Indians, who were captured by the French forces, had to go through torture and many were shot dead. The fate of Free Indian Legion was very much linked to the fate of the Nazi Germany and with the collapse of Hitler’s third Reich the legion also came to a fighting end.
Victory and Independence
The Free Indian Legion was the first Indian Army that was formed in a foreign land by Indians. It was the precursor of the more widely known Indian National Army or Azad Hind Fauj that was created by Bose in Singapore with the help of the Japanese. Though the Free Indian Legion and the INA, facing overwhelming odds, ultimately failed in their military objectives; they have tremendous significance in our Independence Movement.
The trials of the soldiers of Free India Legion and the INA in the Red fort brought the exploits and the sacrifices of these Soldiers out in the open. The story of these brave soldiers created large scale protests in the country and emboldened the Sailors, Airmen and Soldiers of the British Indian armed forces to mutiny. It was this mutiny of the British Indian sailors and soldiers in 1946 that shook the very foundation of the British Rule in India.
When asked on the factors that forced the English to grant Independence to the Indians, Clement Atlee, the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, cited the activities of the Free Indian Legions and the INA and the mutiny of the Royal Indian Navy as the most important factors. Thus the soldiers of Free Indian Legion, who were defeated in war, emerged as the actual Victors in peace.
Despite all their sacrifices and contribution towards our independence movement they remain largely forgotten by the people of India. It is said History is written by the Victors but these Soldiers could not write their own history and contribution, it is time we do it for them.
By: Avinandan Choudhury
Book – His Majesty’s Opponent By Sugata Bose