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Hitler's India Legion in WW II

A senior air warrior, graduate from the Staff College, and a PG in military studies. He is qualified to write on war and allied matters

hitlers-india-legion-in-ww-ii
hitlers-india-legion-in-ww-ii

The beginning

There is one facet of the chequered history of the Indian Army that has not been given its due. This is the India Legion which had been formed by Adolf Hitler under the leadership of Subash Chandra Bose (1897-1945). Bose was a firebrand leader who joined the Congress party, whose leader was Mohandas Gandhi. Bose and Gandhi did not see eye to eye on the subject of Indian independence. Bose was not interested in Gandhi's philosophy of satyagraha and nonviolence and believed that if the British were to be thrown from India, force had to be used. Bose's ideas quickly spread in the Congress party and his support grew.

Gandhi was alarmed and in the 1938 election to the President of the Congress party, he made it clear that he would take the defeat of his supported candidate Dr. Pattabhi Sitaramayya as a personal defeat because Subhas Bose had announced that he will contest the election. The result was declared on January 29, 1939, and Subhash secured 1580 Votes. Sitaramaya got 1377 votes, thus Subhash winning by a narrow but clear margin. Gandhi was aghast at his defeat as he realized that Bose had a lot of support; more than him. The Congress working committee was controlled by Gandhi's supporters and they refused to cooperate with Subash Bose. Thus Bose might reign but he could not rule. Seeing the opposition of Gandhi, Bose told his followers that he would be leaving the Congress and started his own party called the Forward Bloc. As he was making fiery speeches against the British they decided to put him under house arrest in Calcutta.

On a dark night on 10 January 1941, a car drove up to the house of Bose on Elgin Road and a man wearing the dress of a Muslim left the house. The Indian special branch guarding the house failed to recognize the man. This was how Subhash Chandra Bose escaped from Calcutta. He traveled to Peshawar and from there to Kabul. The British were still looking for him in Calcutta and surrounding areas while Bose met the Italian and German Officers in their embassies. They were sympathetic to Bose and gave him a fresh identity. He was given an Italian passport with the name of Orlando Mazzota and traveled by road to Samarkand and from there by train to Moscow. It is not known whether he met Stalin there but the Russians facilitated his journey to Berlin. He left Moscow at midnight on 31st March and reached Berlin on 2 April 1941. This was the beginning of his quest to launch an army to fight the English rule and free India.

hitlers-india-legion-in-ww-ii
hitlers-india-legion-in-ww-ii
hitlers-india-legion-in-ww-ii

Formation of the Indian Legion

Bose was put up in a hotel close to Tiergarten by the Foreign Office. On 29 April 1941, he had his first meeting with Von Ribbentrop the German Foreign Minister in Vienna. During this meeting, Bose put forward his idea of raising an India Legion of 100,000 soldiers to fight the English and free India with the help of Germany. Ribbentrop was initially lukewarm to the idea but decided to use Bose as a propaganda machine. The Germans already had some Indian prisoners of war from the 22 Transport Company numbering about 200 who had been captured in the British retreat in North France.

The battle in North Africa was heating up and the British were inducting Indian troops in large numbers to bolster their force. Almost 1200 Indian soldiers were taken prisoners of war belonging to the 3rd Motor Brigade at El- Machili. The Germans saw the exciting possibility of the proposals of Subhash Bose and the green light was given for him to recruit men for an Indian Legion from the captured POWs. The Germans had set up the 'Zentralstelle Freise Indien' or Free India Center in Berlin. They subsequently recognized a free Indian government in exile with Bose as the head. Bose also had a 45-minute meeting with Adolf Hitler.

Field Marshal Rommel was extremely successful initially and thousands of Indian soldiers were taken POW and taken to Italy. The Germans and Italians treated the Indian POWs humanely and daily broadcasts were made in the Indian languages telling them of the atrocities of the British and the need to fight them. Bose began to tour the POW camps and there he interacted with the soldiers with inspiring speeches and rhetoric. He exhorted them to join him and form an India Legion and free India. It is now known that the officers and JCO's were not receptive to Bose propaganda but the common soldiers were greatly influenced.

Matters now moved much faster as Hitler himself on 16 October 1941 in an order directed the military and the Foreign Office to organize an India Legion with Bose as Head. The Germans and Italians at that time had thousands of Indians soldiers as POWs. They were fertile ground for the propaganda of Bose. The Indian leader along with a few of his supporters frequently visited the POW camps and was able to sway many to join him. All along the Germans respected the religious sentiments of the Indians and they were allowed to have food as per their religion and beef was not served to Hindus and Sikhs and pork to Muslims. A few of the soldiers who had converted to Bose's idea would meet the prisoners of war resplendent in the new German uniforms with the India legion insignia and this created a very favorable impression on the other soldiers.

Bose had all along been going with the name Mazzota but now he dropped it and with his name made his first broadcast to India in April 1942. Bose had also been approached by the Japanese military representative in Berlin and they felt that he would be a great help to them. The Japanese had also captured thousands of prisoners of the Indian Army and they were keen to use them against the British and they saw in Bose a great opportunity. They wished to transfer him to Tokyo.

In Europe, the India Legion took shape, and initially, four battalions were formed. There was some controversy over the oath to be taken. Hitler insisted on a personal oath of loyalty to him like all other German soldiers. Subhash Bose was initially reluctant but ultimately had to give in and a modified oath was administered to all soldiers in a ceremony at Konigsburg where they professed allegiance to Hitler and also to Bose as their commander. During the ceremony, six officers including a German officer with swords drawn marched to the center of the square with Indian soldiers all around and swore allegiance to Hitler as the supreme commander and Bose as the Legion commander.

India league and thus became a reality but events were taking a different direction. Rommel had been stalled at Alexandria and the Russian campaign was continuing and Hitler's dream of reaching to India was evaporating. In such a scenario it was accepted by both the Germans and Bose that it would be a good idea if he could move to Japan. In February 1943, Bose left Germany by a U-Boat in a thrilling romantic journey to Tokyo leaving the India Legion behind. He also left his German wife who was pregnant with his child with the promise that he would come back.

Manning the wall

Manning the wall

Indian officer in a function in Berlin

Indian officer in a function in Berlin

The Indian Legion after Bose

After Bose left, the India Legion became part of the German army, later from August 1944, it became part of the Waffen SS. It was also known as the 'Tiger Legion'. As part of the Waffen- SS, it was known as the Indian Volunteer Legion of the Waffen-SS. It had its garrison HQ at Konigsbruck.

The uniform issued to the Indian Legion was the standard German army uniform of Feldgrau in winter and khaki in summer. They wore a specially-designed armband with a shield and three horizontal stripes of saffron, white, and green with a leaping Tiger. The words Fries Indian was inscribed in black on a white background. Sikh soldiers wore turbans while others were given helmets.

The Germans treated the Indian Legion as part of their kin. They were organized as a standard German Army Infantry Regiment of three or four battalions with four companies each. The senior commanders were all German though there were a few Indian officers. In the German archives, these regiments have been referred to as Panzergrenadiere regiment 950 indicating the unit was partially motorized. No expense was spared by the Germans in equipping these troops and each regiment had 81 motor vehicles and 700 horses. It also had an anti-tank company, engineer company, and honor guard.

Before leaving Bose had taken a promise from the Germans not to send the India Legion to the Russian front and this was duly honored. The regiment also had hospital training and maintenance staff. In April 1943 the Legion was transferred to Zealand in the Netherlands and later to France on September 43 as part of the Atlantic wall. There are reports that many women in the Netherlands were sleeping with the Indian soldiers and this was not liked by the local people who put up posters advising their women not to give themselves to aliens. The German army tore down these posters.

After their deployment in France, they were inspected by Field Marshal Rommel. They were attached to the 159 infantry division and were deployed at Zandvoort, Bordeaux, and later at Texel. One battalion remained at Oldbroek as a corps reserve but their conduct was brutal with mass rapes and killing of Partisans.

The Legion fought well but with the Allies advance, it was pulled back and made part of the Waffen SS. Two of the soldiers were awarded the Iron Cross second class. Himmler was happy to have them but we understand Indians were not happy. While being pulled back the Legion engaged with allied armor at Nuits Saint George and suffered casualties including three Indian officers dead. The unit moved to Germany and remained there till March 1945.

The ninth Company of the Legion of the second battalion had earlier been sent to Italy under Field Marshal Kesselring. He used them to fight the Italian partisans and they're also the Italian communists were not happy with many of the woman sleeping with Indians. The Legion also faced the British V Corps and the Polish II Corps, before it was withdrawn before the surrender to Germany.

The war was now lost and the Legion and its officers were wondering what to do. The German officers vanished leaving the India Legion to fend for itself. The Legion decided to march to the Swiss border in the hope of getting asylum there. They were however stopped by the French and a few of the Indians soldiers were shot dead before the Americans intervened and put a stop.

Oath to Hitler

Oath to Hitler

Last word

In the early 80s when I was in school we were members of the National Cadet Corps which were staffed by retired soldiers of the Indian Army. One of our instructors had been a young man in Italy in 1945 and he would regale us with weird stories of his conquests of the Italian woman. This was put a stop by the OC when he came to know about it. We began to miss our storyteller.

The fact is the local population preferred the Indians to the Germans. As far as the India league is concerned the Americans handed over the soldiers to the British who shackled them and brought them to Bombay, from where they were taken to Delhi to be court-martialed. The court-martial of these men along with those of the Indian National Army assembled in Delhi. The presiding officer was Major Gen Blaxland. Under him were three British and three Indian officers. The court sentenced the officers to be cashiered and transportation for life. By now the political fever in the country had got hot. There were agitations all over the country and mutinies took place in Bombay and Karachi and many British officers were shot dead. In such a scenario the commander-in-chief Field Marshal Auchinleck decided not to go ahead with the sentences which were suspended. All other sentences were reviewed and by the end of 1946, all the soldiers of the Indian National Army and the Indian Legion were released. This was the direct effect of Subhas Chandra Bose who at that time had fired the imagination of the Indians.

The British were now sure, they could not control India without the army which had turned against them. Churchill was defeated and the new Prime Minister Clement Attlee decided to leave India gracefully. Later he was to admit that the British left India not because of Gandhi but because of the effect of Subhash Chandra Bose.

Bose is no more though his family lives in Germany. He affirmed to the British that the time had come for them to go and that is his biggest contribution to the history of India.


Comments

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 01, 2020:

Thank you Tom, I haven't seen this movie on Bose.

tom on September 29, 2020:

movie bose the forgotten hero shows indian legion

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 08, 2020:

Pamela, so sweet of you to have commented. Subas Chandra Bose is greatly revered in India and many places including the Calcutta international airport are named after him.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on August 08, 2020:

I didnot know about te role of the Indian soldiers or of Bose in WWII. I found this article to be very intereting, as usual.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 06, 2020:

Thank you Liz. Your comment is welcome. Bose was one of the towering figures for the freedom of India. Even now he is very popular and everybody respects him.

Liz Westwood from UK on August 06, 2020:

I had not come across Bose before. This is an informative and interesting historical article.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 05, 2020:

Sometimes politics take expediency over heroism

Lt Col Parduman Singh on August 05, 2020:

The Indian Legion Is an unsung chapter in Indian military history. Because of political expediency, the Indian government and army does not want to talk about these soldiers who later became part of the German SS. This is one reason that nobody talks about Indian legion.