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World War II: Hitler's Indian Regiment

MG is a senior air warrior who has seen combat and is an alumnus of the Staff College and a writer on military matters.



In the closing stages of WWII, as Allied forces were driving Hitler's now demoralized forces from France, three senior officers defected.

The information they gave British intelligence was considered so sensitive that in 1945 it was locked away, not due to be released until the year 2021.

Now the BBC's Document program has been given special access to this secret file. It reveals how thousands of Indian soldiers who had joined Britain in the fight against fascism swapped their oaths to the British king for others to Adolf Hitler - an astonishing tale of loyalty, despair, and betrayal that threatened to rock British rule in India, known as the Raj.

The story the officers told their interrogators began in Berlin on 3 April 1941. This was the date that the left-wing Indian revolutionary leader, Subhas Chandra Bose, arrived in the Berlin.


The Indian Legion

We got to remember that we are talking about times India was trying to gain independence from the British rule. Generally, people are of the view that World War II was a European war. The fact is it was a true world war and all countries in the world from every continent except Antarctica took part. India sent more than 2.5 million men in this war. The Indian leadership at that time was led by the Indian National Congress whose leaders were Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. There was a third leader Subash Chandra Bose who fell out with Gandhi and plotted a separate path for the independence of India.

The factor of Bose

The British realized that Bose was a danger and arrested him and put him under house arrest. He had been arrested 11 times by the British in India, but he fled the country with one mission in mind. He planned to seek Hitler's help in freeing India. In January 1941, Bose escaped from his residence on Elgin Road in Calcutta and through a tortuous route reached Afghanistan and then went on to Moscow and Berlin. At that time the Russians were the friends of the Germans and they facilitated the movement of Bose from Moscow to Berlin. Six months later, with the help of the foreign ministry, he had set up "The Free India Centre", to fight for independence for India.

By the end of 1941, Hitler's regime officially recognized his provisional "Free India Government" in exile. He also agreed to help Chandra Bose raise an army to be called "The Free India Legion".

Bose hoped to raise a force of about 100,000 men which, when armed and kitted out by the Germans, could be used to invade India

At Berlin, he was welcomed by the foreign minister Von Ribbentrop and also had a meeting with Hitler who approved his plans. Hitler at that time imagined himself as a conqueror greater than Changez Khan and accordingly, he allowed Bose to set up the free Indian radio as well as the India Legion which would be used to spearhead the offensive against India.

Von Ribbentrop spearheaded the recognition of the free Indian government in exile with Bose as a leader. At that time thousands of Indian troops were fighting under field marshal Wavell in North Africa. After the initial defeats of the Italians, Hitler deputed Field Marshal Rommel as commander North Africa and in a series of counter-attacks, thousands of Indians soldiers were taken POW.

Bose was persuaded by Dr. Gobbles to meet the POWs and persuade them to change sides. Bose was looking for such an opportunity and his propaganda bore fruit and out of the initial lot nearly 10,000 Indians, soldiers who had been taken as POW agreed to join the Germans. In January 1941 Dr. Gobbles proudly announced the formation of the India Legion. This news was however suppressed in the British press because the British realized that in case this news spread it might well mean the end of the British Raj. The India League came into existence.


Tasks for the Legion

The British were unaware that an India Legion had been created. It was only during the 1944 battles in France when three senior officers defected to the Allies that the British came to know about the existence of the India Legion. The news was suppressed and it is on record that only in 2020 the archives were opened and the facts of the India Legion came out, followed by a program by the BBC. Now we know that there were many who refused to break their oath and join the Germans but those that joined were given Wehrmacht uniforms with helmets. The only distinguishing mark was a badge on the shoulder with the name Indien Legion. They were also expected to take an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler and Subhas Chandra Bose.

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The Germans took great care to respect the religious susceptibility of the Indian troops. Sikhs were allowed to wear turbans and have a beard and the Hindus did not have beef while the Muslims were not served pork. The British had been recruiting the Indian Army on a caste basis but Bose changed the rules of recruitment. To present a uniform India the soldiers were not recruited on any specific caste or religion but were mixed together and consisted of 59% Hindus 24% Muslims and 16% Sikhs. The India Legion was designated as the second SS panzer division. It was very well equipped and had over 100 transports and 700 horses. The legion had three infantry regiments and one artillery regiment with an anti-tank brigade.

As promised to Bose by Hitler the Indian legion was not expected to fight on any front in Europe and was primarily to be used as and when the attack on India commenced. After 1943 all plans for a thrust towards India through Central Asia and the Suez canal were put in cold storage as the army came under pressure with counter-attacks.

In 1943, Bose left for Japan but Adolf Hitler carried out his promise of not using the India Legion either in Russia or on the Western front. In the absence of Bose, the groups were attached to the SS and sent to Zealand in the Netherlands to man the Atlantic wall. They were utilized for a security role and attached to the Waffen was at Bordeaux that it fought with some members of the resistance. One battalion of the division was sent to North Italy under Field Marshal Kesselring and used for anti-partisan duties.

With the surrender of Germany looming the India Legion was pulled back to Germany. They were in a bit of a dilemma as they were well aware as to what would happen to them in case they fell into the hands of the British. They would be tried as traitors and either executed or sent for life imprisonment.

The troops of the India Legion operating in Italy surrendered to the British and American troops in April 1945. The rest of the legion which had been pulled back to Germany in May 1945 was wondering what to do. They decided to march along Lake Constance towards the Swiss border and take refuge there. On the way, they were apprehended by Moroccan troops. The Americans also closed in and immediately intervened after a few of the Legion had been shot dead by the troops. The Americans treated the legion soldiers as prisoners of war and later handed them over to the British.


The end

The most worried were the British who were wonderstruck that the army on which they had relied so much had broken their oath to the king. Winston Churchill in particular was aghast at what had happened and he wanted the strictest punishment to be given to the members of the India Legion as an example to other soldiers of the Indian Army and the Indian people. One cannot say whether it was an act of God because Churchill was defeated in the elections and Lord Attlee who came to power had been promising independence for India in his election manifesto much earlier.

Attlee realized that Britain could not hold on to the Empire any longer because it did not have the means to control it. Later he was to admit that the factor of Subash Chandra Bose made him change his mind and leave India because staying in India would have meant tremendous bloodshed. Churchill even in the opposition had been insisting for the United States troops to be sent to India but it is on record that President Harry Truman refused.

The writing was now on the wall and the trial in the Red Fort of the officers of the Indian Legion along with officers of the Indian National Army which fought along with Japan turned out to be a damp squib. The British were hoping that it would be a similar trial to the Tokyo tribunal but the atmosphere in the country had changed.

Field Marshal Auchinleck who had spent three decades with the Indian Army and had the pulse of the subcontinent along with Field Marshal Lord Wavell who was the Viceroy concurred and after due discussion Lord Attlee decided to pass the Indian Independence act 1946. That was the end of the British Raj and all those persons who were tried in Red Fort had their sentences commuted or set free.

The Indian government now does not want to talk much about the India Legion and the Indian National Army because it is not politically expedient to talk of people who had collaborated with Hitler and Tojo. All the same, the role of the INA and the India Legion is now being recognized in 2020 as one of the decisive factors that brought independence to India. Subhas Bose died in 1945 in an air crash in Formosa. Most of the generals of the INA and India Legion were given appointments by the Indian government under Nehru as India acknowledged the contribution of the men who fought for India's independence.


MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 19, 2020:

RoadMonkey, thank you so much for your comment.

RoadMonkey on October 19, 2020:

Very interesting piece of history. I had no idea about this. I must send the link to my sons who are both interested in history.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 09, 2020:

Pamela, it is such a pleasure to read your comment always.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on October 09, 2020:

I didn't realize that a large group of Indian soldiers were captured and then became a regimine that fought for Hitler. This is such an interesting article, MG.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 09, 2020:

You are right Alan. I have already written an article that when the Japanese supposedly freed the Andaman Islands from british rule and handed over to the Indian national Army they brought in great persecution and butchered 3000 Indians. If the nazi had won the war I don't think they would really bother about Bose. It would have been back door colonised world again

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on October 09, 2020:

You got me wrong there, emge. I'm with Attlee on that one. All I did was reiterate 'received knowledge'. What I can't figure, though, is why we're sending funds to not only India and China but many other countries when they're well off enough to use it to develop weaponry and for space exploration.

Question: for argument's sake, once the Germans had won WWII and helped India to independence, what then, sly back-door colonisation (in the same way we saw off the French)?

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 09, 2020:

Alan, nice that you have commented. I hate to think that anybody can be wrong because I would like to give as much leeway as possible to all commentators. Somehow I sensed in your comments regret at the loss of the British Empire which basically was built on ruling India. I have already written that there were fringe benefits of the British Raj which came down to independent India.

I would recommend reading Dr. Shashi Tharoor's book "Inglorious Empire". He writes how the whole enterprise of the Raj was a vast British-run exercise in loot and plunder that reduced a previously great and wealthy nation to beggary and despair.

There is another book by David Gilmour and within 20 years of the end of the Raj almost all major indices of human development – lifespan, sanitation, literacy and child mortality, access to clean water and education – had all immeasurably improved; indeed average lifespans had increased by as much as a decade. So much for the Raj where 3 million died of famine in Bengal in 1942-43.

Hindus and Muslims have lived in the subcontinent for 1500 years but it was only during the days of the Raj that the policy of divide and rule came to the fore because that was the only way they could control India. There is enough evidence available that the seeds of enmity between the two were a British creation and they wanted to leave an emaciated India more out of pique and regret at losing their empire within two years of the end of the war.

When Lutyens designed the vice regal Lodge in Delhi he mentioned that british viceroys would live here for the next 200 years but within 15 years the Raj collapsed. The British would not have such negative feelings in case they had not divided India. But the march of history cannot be stopped. I think I will write an article on this because this is too small a place to write all that I have to. I thank you for your comments which I appreciate a lot.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 09, 2020:

Anupam, `yes, these are some misconceptions being spread by hard-boiled men and they conveniently overlook remarks by Churchill when informed about the Bengal famine where 3 million died. he said, "Famine or no famine, they will breed like rabbits" He also wrote on the file about Gandhi, "why didn't he die in the famine." Britain was great only so long as they ruled India and after that, they collapsed in a heap. Whatever they made in India was only to further their rule and in 1930-39 they thought they would rule for 200 years. The words of Lutyens who designed the Viceroy residence in Delhi are testimony to it but Subhas Chandra NBose upset all British calculations and they left by giving a parting kick by dividing India.

Anupam Mitu from MUMBAI on October 09, 2020:

Manohar thank you so much for this. As you are telling it as a secret but we knew about this for a long time from our teachers. Aur ye dekh ke ajeeb lagta hai ki ab bhi kuchh log ye samjhte hain ki British ne India ko unite kar ke rakha tha aur unke jane ke baad ye toota. It's a good comedy. Bilkul waisi hi jaise hamare wartaman ke neta desh ko jodke rakhe hain.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on October 08, 2020:

Clement Attlee wasn't ennobled as Lord Attlee, emge, until after he lost the Premiership in 1953 and Churchill was returned to No. 10. Being a pragmatist as you say, Attlee saw no way of punishing those who had defected to the Germans.

India was granted independence in 1947 as you know and the former SS men came under New Delhi's jurisdiction. Obviously, just as there would be no 'gongs' forthcoming there were no recriminations. Their oath had been given to the king-emperor George VI and he was no longer their 'master' (not that he would have ever considered himself thus). As Commonwealth citizens their fate was decided by their own government.

Naturally their former comrades-in-arms might have shunned their company but that was by 1947 a personal matter.

The last Viceroy of India was Prince Philip's uncle, Earl Mountbatten of Burma, by the way, who would've signed any documents in relation to India's independence. It's maybe tragic that soon after independence the country fell apart (in 1948, was it?) to become two states, Pakistan (East and West) and India, later to become Bangladesh, India and Pakistan with enmity between the latter two. It's agreed generally that British presence in India was the 'cement' that kept them unified - generally in collective dislike for the Raj - and once we left them to themselves they couldn't stand each other.

Still, they inherited a national railway network, a steel and motor industry and a system of government roughly akin to that of Westminster in that the government would be subject to election. That was one condition of membership of the Commonwealth, I think. Only South Africa ever broke ranks, so I suppose that bears witness to the success of a truly international 'club' even the USA has never been able to replicate...

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

Thanks Tom

tom on October 08, 2020:

legion was never designated ss panzer div

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

Liz, I 'm honored by your comment.

Liz Westwood from UK on October 08, 2020:

This is an interesting article, which has highlighted an unknown factor of World War 2. Until recently I had assumed that the Indian army was against Germany, but your articles are putting history in a fresh perspective.

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