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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 21, May 20, 2023

A comprehensive document on strides of the Indian army during the Second World War | Joydip Ghosal

Saturday 20 May 2023



by Joydip Ghosal

Saving the World from Hitler
by R. Prasannan

Manorama Books

• ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 8189004395
• ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-8189004392

Saving the World from Hitler, India’s battle in world war II a recent contribution to the literature of the second world war is a valuable account that sheds light on the unknown aspect i.e. the gallantry and display of valour on the battlefield by Indian soldiers. Written in a racy style and interspersed with curious anecdotes this book documents the strides of the Indian army that ensured the triumph of Allied forces against the fascist onslaught in the second world war. Subsequently this victory against the sinister fascist force led to the country’s freedom. The author with expertise and superb deft using the information of recent research delineates the picture in gripping narrative. Matt Blake wrote that “To call the Second World War merely a war is almost a misnomer; it was never just one war, but so many wars in one.” After reading this book we vouch for that.

According to Winston Churchill Indian army fought everywhere. When they were not engaged in fighting they served the combatants. Military historian Rana Chinna said that they “fought against two finest armies of the world.” R Prasannan rightly said that much of the battles in the eastern hemisphere were waged to conquer or defend India. Not only Indians fought everywhere, in the global strategic picture India also played a central role. Japanese wanted to conquer the ‘sparkling jewel’ and Britain wanted to retain the ‘crown jewel’. In the global war effort also India played a pivotal role. Philip Mason rightly commented “ For the middle east and still more for South -East Asia , India was a base, a storehouse, a springboard and a recruiting – ground.”

The book ‘begins at the beginning’. In 1939 Lord Halifax sent a telegram to Neville Henderson, Britain’s Ambassador in Berlin. It was meant for Germany’s foreign minister Joachim von Ribentrop asking him to withdraw the occupation army from Poland. Incumbent Viceroy of India Lord Linlithgow pledged wholesome support to the war effort without consulting Indian leaders. As the war progressed, the strength of the Indian army also increased. According to Harry Fecitt it was the ‘largest all-volunteer army in the history of human conflict.’

Mussolini ‘drew first blood’ with Indians. He attacked North Africa where he confronted 4th and 5th Indian divisions under the command of Sir Claude Auchinleck. The 4th Indian Division under the command of Major-general Noel Beresford – Peirse launched their attack in December 1940. The 5th Indian division under the leadership of Major-General Lewis Heath vanquished the Italians at Agorbat and drove them out of Keren. Subedar Richpal Ram played a crucial role in the victory of Al Telesan. He was honored with Victoria Cross posthumously. R Prasannan informed us that because of Indian forces’ valour Addis Ababa got liberated. It paved the way for the return of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. During the setting up of National Defence Academy near Pune Sudan and Ethiopia contributed money. The main building of the academy is still now referred as Sudan block. Churchill observed ‘ The whole empire has been stirred by the achievement of Indian forces in Eritrea.’

In Iraq, a pro-German junta led by Rashid Ali captured political power. Britain sought Indian help. In mid-1941 the 8th and 10th Indian division reached Basra in Iraq. After the occupation of Baghdad they captured the oil- fields. In a daring nocturnal attack, Indian Brigade along with Free French and Australians gripped Damascus resulting in the consolidation of the position of Syria and Lebanon. 4th division helped in the famous victory of Bernard Montgomery in the second battle of Alamein where Rommel was defeated. Churchill was so jubilant that he proclaimed ’This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’

Indian Command opened the supply line from Middle East to Russia. A Persia and Iraq Force (PAI Force), consisting mainly of Indian forces built river and canal routes along with ports and roads. In 1944, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR awarded the Order of Red Star to Suvedar Narayan Rao Nikkam and to Havildar Gajendra Singh Chand belonging to Indian Army Service Corps.

Later the whole nation witnessed painful combat where Indian troops and INA were entangled in a battle. Displaying supreme valor in the Battle of the Admin Box the 5th, 6th, and 26th Indian divisions trumped the Japanese forces. Arjan Singh, one of the officers of the Indian Air Force’s first squadron thwarted the Japanese attack on Imphal. In Operation Tiderace the 5th Indian Division recaptured Singapore. Whether in Operation Battleaxe or in Operation Crusader, Indian troops displayed exemplary courage. In the jungles of Southern Borneo they resisted the Japanese. Arthur Percival, the Malaya Commander aptly described that ‘a feat of endurance which assuredly will rank high in the annals of warfare.’Indian army won 31 Victoria Crosses. This book chronicles the awardees and their achievements.

This book also contains an article by Adil Rana Chhina where he delves deeper into several aspects of psychological warfare conducted by the British and Japanese. During the time of broadcast by the British in forward areas, Japanese gramophone records were played to transmit a feeling of homesickness. Japanese propaganda leaflet portrayed the emergence of Asia. While the British published Hamara Hindustan in Urdu in order to address the INA troops. In order to spread propaganda, falsehood, and canards Japan created JIF or Japanese Inspired Fifth-Column. To counter JIF British formed its own propaganda organization called ‘Josh’. Soldiers who waged war in Burma Front were known as ‘Forgotten Army’. In the swamps and jungles of Northeast India, they were entangled in fierce battle.

Apart from that this book also contains another article by Squadron leader Rana Chhina. Here he graphically portrayed the effort to build Stilwell Road.

This book also contained interesting anecdotes like Lord Irwin was born without a left hand. On the battlefield, Wavell wrote poetry.

So this splendidly written book expands our horizon regarding the details of the second world war and the role of the Indian army. This book also contains invaluable photographs that transport us into that time. This book gives us an opportunity to revisit both the war launched by Indian troops and the historical role played by INA. Without the help of the Indian army, the tide of war would not have turned.

(Reviewer: Joydip Ghosal is a rights activist)

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