The Holocaust Historiography Project

Subhas Chandra Bose, The Indian National Army, and The War of India’s Liberation


India’s Army of Liberation in the West

The arrival of Subhas Chandra Bose in Germany in 1941 (during the turbulent period of World War II) and his anti-British activities in that country in co-operation with the German government, culminated in the formation of an Indian legion. This marks perhaps the most significant event in the annals of India’s fight for independence. This event not only can be regarded as a historical link-up with what Bose himself chose to describe as “The Great Revolution of 1857,” and which (in his words) “has been incorrectly called by English historians 'the Sepoy Mutiny,' but which is regarded by the Indian people as the First War of Independence."[1] It also represents the historical fact that, by that time persuasive methods conducted through a non-violent struggle under the leadership of Gandhi, had failed. An armed assault on the citadel of the British Empire in India was the only alternative left to deliver the country from bondage. While other leaders of the Indian National Congress fell short of realizing this fact and thus betrayed a lack of pragmatic approach to the turn of world events that provided India with a golden opportunity to strike at the British by a force of arms, Bose rose to the needs of the hour and was quick to seize that opportunity.

While Bose’s compatriots in India remained totally wedded to an ideological creed (non-violence), which at that time could only serve the British and postpone the advent of independence, and while their ideological interpretations of the new revolutionary regimes in Europe-again largely influenced by British propaganda-prevented them from even harboring any thought of seeking their alliance and co-operation in the struggle against a common enemy, Sublias Chandra Bose alone had the courage to take the great plunge, thus risking his own life and reputation, solely in the interest and cause of his country. In January 1941, while under both house arrest, and strict British surveillance, he escaped. After an arduous trek through the rugged terrains of several countries, with an Italian passport under the assumed name of Orlando Mazzota — (in which he was aided by underground revolutionaries and foreign diplomatic agents) — Bose appeared in Berlin, via Moscow, on 28 March 1941.

Bose was welcome in Germany, although the news of his arrival there was kept a secret for some time for political reasons. The German Foreign Office, which was assigned the primary responsibility of dealing with Bose and taking care of him, had been well informed of the background and political status of the Indian leader through its pre-war Consulate-General at Calcutta and also by its representative in Kabul. Bose himself, naturally some what impatient for getting into action soon after his arrival in Berlin, submitted a memorandum to the German government on 9 April 1941 which outlined a plan for co-operation between the Axis powers and India. Among other things, it called for the setting up of a “Free India Government” in Europe, preferably in Berlin; establishment of a Free India broadcasting station calling upon the Indian people to assert their independence and rise up in revolt against the British authorities; underground work in Afghanistan (Kabul) involving independent tribal territories lying between Afghanistan and India and within India itself for fostering and aiding the revolution; provision of finances by Germany in the form of a loan to the Free India government-in-exile; and deployment of German military contingents to smash the British army in India. In a supplementary memorandum bearing the same date, Bose requested that an early pronouncement be made regarding the freedom of India and the Arab countries.[2] It is significant to note that the memorandum did not mention the need for formation of an Indian legion. Evidently the idea of recruiting the Indian prisoners of war for the purpose of establishing a nucleus of an Indian national army did not occur to him during his early days in Berlin.

At that time the German government was in the process of formulating its own plan for dealing with Sublias Chandra Bose in the best possible manner. The Foreign Office felt itself inadequate to discharge this awesome responsibility without referring the whole matter to Hitler. While this issue was being considered at the highest level of the government, Bose’s own requests as set forth in the submitted memorandum, made it far too complicated and involved to be resolved at an early date. There was a long wait for Bose, during which period he often tended to become frustrated. Nevertheless, through several sympathetic officers of the Foreign Office, he continued to press his requests and put forth new ideas.

Finally, after months of waiting and many moments of disappointment often bordering on despair for Bose, Germany agreed to give him unconditional and all-out help. The two immediate results of this decision were the establishment of a Free India Center and inauguration of a Free India Radio, both beginning their operations in November 1941. These two organizations played vital and significant roles in projecting Bose’s increasing activities in Germany, but a detailed account of their operation lies outside the purview of this paper. It should suffice to say that the German government put at Bose’s disposal adequate funds to run these two organizations, and he was allowed complete freedom to run them the way he liked at his own discretion.

In its first official meeting on 2 November 1941, the Free India Center adopted four historical resolutions that would serve as guidelines for the entire movement in subsequent months and years in Europe and Asia. First, Jai Hind or Victory to India, would be the official form of salutation; secondly, Nobel laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore’s famous patriotic song Jana Gana Mona was to be the national anthem for the free India Bose was fighting for; thirdly, in a multi-lingual state like India, the most widely-spoken language, Hindustani, was to be the national language; and fourthly, Sublias Chandra Bose would hereafter be known and addressed as Netaji, the Indian equivalent of the “leader” or the “Führer.” In November 1941, Azad Hind Radio (or the Free India Radio) opened its program with an announcing speech by Netaji himself, which, in fact, was a disclosure of his identity that had been kept officially secret for so long. The radio programs were broadcast in several Indian languages on a regular basis.

During this long period of “hibernation,” the period between Netaji’s arrival in Berlin and the beginning of operations of the two organizations, it can be reasonably assumed that the idea of forming an Indian legion that could be developed into an Indian Army of Liberation in the West, crossed Bose’s mind. He might even have discussed this matter with his colleagues-the Indian compatriots in Germany who had joined him-as to how best to implement the idea. However, as mentioned earlier, his first memorandum submitted to the German Government did not include any such plan. According to N.G. Ganpuley, who was his associate in Berlin,

Netaji himself, when he left India, could not have, by any stretch of imagination, thought of forming a national army unit outside the country, and therefore he had no definite plans chalked out for its realization. Even while in Berlin, he could not think of it during the first few months of his stay there.[3]

When and how, therefore, did he come to conceive such a plan? Mr. Ganpuley relates an interesting episode in this regard. To quote again from his book:

It was all due to a brain wave of Netaji which started working by a simple incident. He read one day about some half a dozen Indian prisoners-of-war who were brought to Berlin by the Radio Department to listen to the BBC and other stations which sent out their programmes in Hindustani. He saw them there going about, not as free Indians, but as prisoners-of-war. They were brought to the Radio Office every day to listen to and translate the Hindustani programmes, and were sent back to their quarters escorted by a sentry … After he had a talk with them about war, about their captivity and their present life, his active mind started working… He pondered over it for some time and decided to form a small national military unit … No sooner was this decision taken by him … he started negotiating with that section of the German Foreign Office with which he was in constant touch. He put before them his plans for training Indian youths from the prisoners' camps for a national militia.[4]

Although somewhat skeptical and hesitant at the beginning, the German response to the plans was encouraging. It was a time psychologically well-chosen by Netaji. The allied forces had been defeated on the Continent, and the Wehrmacht was marching ahead successfully in the Soviet Union. It was also a historical coincidence that a large number of British Indian prisoners-ofwar, captured during Rommel’s blitzkrieg in North Africa, lay in German hands. Netaji’s first idea was to form small parachute parties to spread propaganda in, and transmit intelligence from, the North-West Frontier in India. The reaction of some selected prisoners who were brought to Berlin from the camp of Lamsdorf in Germany and Cyrenaica was so encouraging that he asked for all Indian prisoners held in North Africa to be brought over to Germany at once. The Germans complied with this request, and the prisoners began to be concentrated at Annaburg camp near Dresden. The recruitment efforts, however, at the onset met with some opposition from the prisoners, who evidently had misgivings about Netaji’s intentions and motivations. In this regard Hugh Toye writes:

When Bose himself visited the camp in December there was still marked hostility. His speech was interrupted, and much of what he had to say went unheard. But private interviews were more encouraging; the men’s questions showed interest-what rank would they receive? What credit would be given for Indian Army seniority? How would the Legionary stand in relation to the German soldier? Bose refused to bargain, and some who might have been influential recruits were turned away. On the other hand, many of the men paid him homage as a distinguished Indian, several professed themselves ready to join the Legion unconditionally.[5]

Netaji sought and got agreement from the Germans that the Wehrmacht would train the Indians in the strictest military discipline, and they were to be trained in all branches of infantry in using weapons and motorized units the same way a German formation is trained; the Indian legionaries were not to be mixed up with any of the German formations; that they were not to be sent to any front other than in India for fighting against the British, but would be allowed to fight in self defense at any other place if surprised by any enemy formation; that in all other respects the Legion members would enjoy the same facilities and amenities regarding pay, clothing, food, leave, etc., as a German unit. By December 1941 all arrangements were complete and the next important task was to persuade men to come forward and form the nucleus. It appeared that the POWs needed to be convinced that there were civilian Indian youth as well, studying, well placed in life and responsible to their families at home, who were ready to give up everything to join the Legion. Ten of the forty young Indians then residing in Berlin, came forward. They were quickly joined by five POWs who were already in Berlin in connection with the German radio propaganda, and the first group of fifteen people was thus formed.

On 25 December 1941 a meeting of Indian residents in Berlin was called in the office of the Free India Center, to give a send-off to the first fifteen who were to leave the following day for Frankenburg, the first training camp and headquarters for the Legion. The brief ceremony was simple and solemn. Netaji blessed the Legion, the first of its kind in the history of the struggle for Indian independence. He christened it Azad Hind Fauj (Indian National Army). The Indian Army of Liberation in the West thus had a humble and modest birth.

The strength of the Legion grew steadily, as the task of recruitment continued unabated. Once trained to a certain level and discipline, the members of the first batch were assigned the additional responsibility of visiting the Annaberg camp and aiding in the recruitment process. While the Legion was sent to Frankenburg in Saxony, another group was taken to Meseritz in Brandenburg to be trained in tactical warfare. Abid Hasan and N.G. Swamy, the two original recruiters whom Netaji had sent to the Annaberg camp in 1941, had become de-facto foundermembers of the Legion at Frankenburg and the irregular Company at Meseritz respectively. At Meseritz, the Indians were placed under the command of Hauptmarm Harbig, whose first object was to make them forget that they had been prisoners.

There were Tajiks, Uzbeks and Persians as well under training for operational roles similar to that envisaged for the Indians. In due course the trainees went on to tactical operational training, such as wireless operating, demolitions and riding, and also undertook special mountain and parachute courses. According to Toye, “Morale, discipline and Indo-German relations were excellent, the German officers first-rate."[6]

Netaji visited the camps from time to time and watched progress of the trainees. Since he himself was inclined toward military training and discipline, he followed the German training methods with great interest. It is understood that while in Germany Netaji himself underwent the rigors of such training, although authoritative documents on this subject are yet to be located by this writer. While in India, he was a member of the University Training Corps at school and commanded the volunteers at an annual session of the Indian National Congress, but he never had a formal military education prior to his arrival in Germany in 1941. As Joyce Lebra writes: “Though Bose was without any previous military experience, he got his training and discipline German-style, along with the soldiers of the Indian Legion.” 7 To him, formation of a legion was more positive, more nationalistic and more gratifying than mere radio propaganda. Unlike his ex-compatriots in the Indian National Congress, including Gandhi, Nehru and Patel, he would rather seek confrontation with the British-with an army-than to work out a compromise with them on a conference table, on the issue of India’s freedom. A firm believer in discipline and organization, nothing perhaps could be more satisfying to him than to see his men being trained by the German Command, with officers of the highest calibre. In four months, the number of trainees rose to three hundred. In another six months a further three hundred were added. By December 1942, exactly a year after the recruitment of the Legion was inaugurated, it attained the strength of four battalions. At the beginning of 1943 the Legion would be 2000 strong, well on its way up to the culminating point of 3500 men. But let us step back to early 1942, almost a year after Netaji’s arrival in Berlin.

After the inauguration of the Free India Center, Free India Radio, and the sending of the first fifteen legionaries to the Frankenburg training camp, Netaji’s activities in Germany began in full swing. His presence in Germany was not yet officially admitted-he was still being referred to as Signor Orlando Mazzota or His Excellency Mazzota-but he began to be known to more and more people in Berlin. Josef Goebbels wrote in his diary on 1 March:

We have succeeded in prevailing upon the Indian nationalist leader, Bose, to issue an imposing declaration of war against England. It will be published most prominently in the German press and commented upon. In that way we shall now begin our official fight on behalf of India, even though we don’t as yet admit it openly.[8]

On 14 March, he remarked of Bose, “He is an excellent worker."[9] The fall of Singapore was a signal for Netaji to broadcast his first official speech over the Free India Radio, repeating his vow to fight British imperialism until the end. This he followed with a declaration of war against England, although at that stage such a pronouncement could only be symbolic. Netaji had not yet obtained an Axis declaration in support of the freedom of India that he pressed for in the supplement of his first memorandum to the German government. That government was of the opinion that the time was not ripe yet for such a declaration and unless a pronouncement of this nature could be supported by military action, it would not be of much value.

Meanwhile, Japan proposed a tripartite declaration on India. Encouraged by this, Bose met Mussolini in Rome on 5 May, and persuaded him to obtain such a declaration in favor of Indian independence. Mussolini telegraphed the Germans, proposing proceeding at once with the declaration. To back his new proposal Mussolini told the Germans that he had urged Bose to set up a “counter-government” and to appear more conspicuously. The German reaction, which still remained guarded, is recorded by Dr. Goebbels in his diary on 11 May:

We don’t like this idea very much, since we do not think the time has yet come for such a political manoeuvre. It does appear though that the Japanese are very eager for some such step. However, emigre governments must not live too long in a vacuum. Unless they have some actuality to support them, they only exist in the realm of theory.[10]

Netaji apparently was of the opinion that a tripartite declaration on Indian independence, followed up by a government-in-exile, would give some credibility to his declaration of war on England, push over the brink the imminent revolution in India, and legitimize the Indian legion. However, Hitler held a different view. During an interview at the Führer’s field headquarters on 29 May, he told Netaii that a well-equipped army of a few thousand could control millions of unarmed revolutionaries, and there could be no political change in India until an external power knocked at her door. Germany could not yet do this. To convince Netaji, he took him to a wall map, pointed to the German positions in Russia and to India. The immense distances were yet to be bridged before such a declaration could be made. The world would consider it premature, even coming from him, at this stage. Hitler was perhaps being realistic, but nevertheless it must have come as some sort of disappointment for Netaji.

In July 1942, the Germans suggested that a contingent of the Irregular Company be sent for front-line propaganda against Indian troops at El Alamein; but Rommel, who did not like battlefields turned into proving grounds for Foreign Office ideas, opposed the move. However, at the Lehrregiment manoeuvers in September, and on field exercises in October, the Indian performance won high praise. By January 1943, it was realized that maintenance of the irregulars as a separate entity was not of much practical use, and the ninety Indian men, (excepting four under N.G. Swamy who were being trained for work within Indiaj were absorbed into the Legion. Since the supply of recruits from the Annaburg camp was fast being depleted, it was decided to hasten the shipment of prisoners of war from Italy.

According to an agreement between Italy and Germany, all Indian POWs were to be sent directly to Germany without being held in Italian camps. But, in the meanwhile, an unforseen impediment stood in the way. A long-time Indian resident in Rome, Iqbal Shedai, formed an Indian unit under the Italians, and began broadcasting from Rome with the aid of a few Indian prisoners. It is understood that he had conferred with Netaji a few times, but obviously had no intention of co-operating with him. From radio broadcasting, he advanced into forming an Indian military unit, although it was in clear violation of the Italo-German agreement. The unit was named the Centro Militare India, but existed only from April to November 1942. During its bried period of existence, however, Shedai succeeded in diverting several hundred volunteers to Italian camps, who would normally have gone to Germany. In November the unit was three hundred and fifty strong, having been trained by Italian officers. On 9 November, after the Allied landing in North Africa, it was learnt that the men were being sent to fight in Libya, contrary to Shedai’s promises. When they refused to go and mutinied, Shedai refused to intervene. Consequently, the Centro Militare India was disbanded. It was never revived, and thus a barrier that stood in Netaji’s way toward recruitment was removed.

In August 1942, the Legion was moved to Koenigsbrueck, a large military training center in Saxony. This had been a regular training ground for the German infantry and motorized units for decades. Here the first contingents paraded before Netaji’s eyes in October, and the growth was rapid. However, the rapid expansion of the Legion also posed the problem of finances. Hitherto, payment to soldiers was being made from the monthly grants to the Free India Center and its office. As the number of Legionaries grew, that source became insufficient. For this problem there could be but one solution: direct payment to the Legion b~ the Germans. This would mean hereafter that the Legionaries would receive promotions and precedence as soldiers of national socialist Germany, and would become, in fact, a regiment of the German army, while retaining its separate name and distinction. This was agreed upon between Netaji and the German government, necessitating the taking of a formal oath of loyalty to Adolph Hitler on the part of the Legionaries. Describing the ceremony, Hugh Toye writes:

Five hundred Legionaries were assembled. Their German commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Krappe, addressed them, and the oath was administered by German officers to six men at a time. All was done with solemnity, the soldiers touching their officer’s sword as they spoke the German words: 'I swear by God this holy oath, that I will obey the leader of the German State and people, Adolph Hitler, as commander of the German Armed Forces, in the fight for freedom of India, in which fight the leader is Subhas Chandra Bose, and that as a brave soldier, I am willing to lay down my life for this oath.' Bose presented to the Legion its standard, a tricolor in the green, white and saffron of the Indian National Congress, superimposed with the figure of a springing tiger in place of the Congress spinning wheel. “Our names,” he said, “will be written in gold letters in the history of free India; every martyr in this holy war will have a monument there.” It was a brave, colorful show, and for Bose, a moment of pride and emotion. “I shall lead the army,” he said, “when we march to India together.” The Legionaries looked well in their new uniforms, the silken banner gleaming in their midst; their drill did them credit.[11]

What was Netaji’s plan for leading this army to India? When the Germans launched out beyond Stalingrad into Central Asia, the Indian irregulars, trained at Messeritz, would accompany their Tajik and Uzbek counterparts along with the German Troops. After Uzbekistan and Afghanistan were reached the Indian Company would leap ahead of the German advance to disrupt the British-Indian defenses in northwestern India. Netaji spoke of dropping parachute brigades, calling on the Indian peasantry to assist them. Through radio he issued warnings to British Indian soldiers and police to the effect that unless they assisted the liberation forces they would one day have to answer to the free Indian government for their criminal support of the British. The effect of the Indian army of liberation marching into India along with the German forces would be such that the entire British Indian Army morale would collapse, coinciding with a revolutionary uprising against the British. The Legion would then be the nucleus of an expanding army of free India. Netaji’s plan, largely dependent on German Military successes in the Soviet Union, undoubtedly had a setback when the Wehrmacht was halted at Stalingrad. After the German retreat from that city, the plan for marching into India from the West had to be abandoned. The tide of war was turning swiftly, calling for devising new strategies on the part of Netaji.

While the German army’s second thrust into Russia encountered an unexpected counter-offensive at Stalingrad and thus was forced to turn back, in another part of the world the forces of another Axis partner were forging ahead, nearer and nearer to India. Japan was achieving spectacular successes in the Far East and was ready to welcome Netaji as the leader of millions of Indians who lived in the countries of East and Southeast Asia. To Netaji, the Japanese attitude was extremely encouraging. Tolo, the Prime Minister, had issued statements in the Diet about Indian freedom early in 1942, and by March there was a Japanese proposal for a tripartite declaration on India. A small band of Indian National Army legionaires had already been in existence in the Southeast under Japanese patronage, although a few of its leaders, including Mohan Singh, had fallen out with the Japanese. Netaji would have no difficulty in reorganizing and expanding this organization. He would get the active support of millions of overseas Indians, and the many thousands of British Indian prisoners-of-war would provide him a greater opportunity for recruitment, and for thus organizing a formidable army of liberation that could immediately be deployed in forward positions as the Imperial Japanese Army kept on advancing through the steaming jungles of the Malayan peninsula and Burma. During his meeting with Hitler on 29 May, the Führer had also suggested that in view of the prevalent world situation, Netaji should shift the center of his activities from Germany to the Far East.

Netaji could look back at his two years work in Germany with a sense of pride and accomplishment. Broadcasting, publications and propaganda were all extended. Azad Hind Radio had extended programs in several languages, and reports indicated that they were being listened to with interest in target areas; Azad Hind, a bilingual journal, was being published regularly. There were other papers for the Legion besides; the Free India Center had attained an acknowledged status in Germany. It was treated as a foreign mission, entitling its members to a higher scale of rations, and exemption from some of the Aliens' regulations. Netaji himself was given a good villa, a car and special rations for entertainment purposes. His personal allowance amounted to about eight hundred pounds a month. The monthly grant for the Free India Center rose from 1,200 pounds in 1941 to 3,200 pounds in 1944. All these Netaji stipulated as a loan from the German government, to be returned after India gained independence with the Axis assistance. However, the turn of events now demanded his presence in a different theater-of-war.

What would happen to the Legion in Netaji’s absence? It was now 3,500 strong, well trained and equipped, ready for action. Netaii consulted with his aides in Berlin. A.C.N. Nambiar, an Indian journalist who had been in Europe for some eighteen years prior to Netaji’s arrival in Germany, was his right-hand man. While preparing for his journey to the Asian theater-of-war, Netaji passed on to Nambiar his policy and instructions. As Hugh Toye writes:

There were plans for new branches of the Free India Center, for broadcasting, for Indians to study German police methods, and for the training of Indian seamen and airmen. As for the legion, it must be used actively as soon as possible, the German officers and NCOs must be quickly replaced by Indians, there must be no communalism. Legionaries were to be trained on all the most modern German equipment, including heavy artillery and tanks; Bose would send further instructions as opportunity offered.[12]

A few words must be added regarding the Indo-German cooperation and comradeship during the critical days of World War II when the Legion was formed. None could describe it better than Adalbert Seifriz, who was a German Officer in the training camp of the Legionaries. He writes,

Agreeing to the proposal of Bose was a magnificient concession and consideration shown to the great personality of Bose by the German Government in those critical times when all German efforts were concentrated on the war … The mutual understanding and respect between Indians and Germans and the increasing contact between them in the interest of the common task made it possible for the Indian Legion to sustain and keep up discipline right up to the German capitulation in 1945. During the period of training and even afterwards the comradeship between Indians and Germans could not be destroyed … A meeting with Subhas Bose was a special event for the German training staff.-We spent many evenings with him, discussing the future of India. He lives in the minds of the training staff members as an idealistic and fighting personality, never sparing himself in the service of his people and his country … The most rewarding fact was the real comradeship which grew between Indians and Germans, which proved true in dangerous hours, and exists still today in numerous cases. The Indian Legion was a precious instrument in strengthening and consolidating Indo-German friendship.[13]

A report of Hitler’s visit to the Indian Legion headquarters in Dresden was given by Shantaram Vishnu Samanta (one of the Legionaries) during a press interview in India, after his release from an internment camp. According to his statement, Hitler addressed the soldiers of the Legion after Netaji had left for East Asia. He spoke in German and his speech was translated into Hindustani by an interpreter. He said:

You are fortunate having been born in a country of glorious cultural traditions and a colossal manpower. I am impressed by the burning passion with which you and your Netaji seek to liberate your country from foreign domination. Your Netaji’s status is even greater than mine. While I am the leader of eighty million Germans, he is the leader of 400 million Indians. In all respects he is a greater leader and a greater general than myself. I salute him, and Germany salutes him. It is the duty of all Indians to accept him as their führer and obey him implicitly. I have no doubt that if you do this, his guidance will lead India very soon to freedom.

A statement by another soldier of the Indian Legion, who remains anonymous, has a somewhat different version. It stated that both Netaji and Hitler took a joint salute of the Indian Legion and a German infantry. In addition to comments cited earlier, Hitler was reported to have made these remarks as well:

German civilians, soldiers and free Indians! I take this opportunity to welcome your acting Führer, Herr Subhas Chandra Bose. He has come here to guide all those free Indians who love their country and are determined to free it from foreign yoke. It is too much for me to dare to give you any instructions or advice because you are sons of a free country, and you would naturally like to obey implicitly the accredited leader of your own land. [14]

However, reports of Hitler’s visit and address to the Indian Legionaries are not confirmed from any other source.

Netaji would be leaving Germany on 8 February 1943. On 26 January, “Independence Day for India,” there was a great party in Berlin where hundreds of guests drank his health. On 28 January, which was set aside for observance as the “Legion Day” in honor of the Indian Legion, he addressed the Legion for the last time. It is believed that his departure was kept secret from his army. So, there were no visible emotions among the men; no gesture of a farewell. The impression Netaji was leaving at the Free India Center, was that he was going on a prolonged tour. So there were no signs of any anxiety. Except for a few top-ranking German officers and his closest aides, hardly anybody was aware that within a week-and-a-half he would be embarking on the most perilous journey ever undertaken by man; a submarine voyage through mine-infested waters to the other side of the world. In his absence, Nambiar settled down in his job as his successor and soon gained respect of the Legionaries.

Two months after Netaii’s departure, as a result of discussion between the German Army Command and the Free India Center, it was decided to transfer the Legion from Koenigsbrueck to a coastal region in Holland, to involve it in a practical coastal defense training. It was also in accordance with Netaji’s Wishes. He had often expressed a desire to give his troops, whenever possible, some training in coastal defense. After the first battal ion was given a hearty send-off, an untoward incident happened within the legion; two companies of the second battalion refused to move. It was soon found out that there were three main reasons for staging this minor rebellion. Some Legionaries were unhappy that they were not promoted, but their names had to be put on the waiting list; some simply did not want to leave Koenigsbrueck; some were influenced by a rumor that Netaji had abandoned them and had gone off leaving them entirely in German hands, who were now going to use them in the Western Front, instead of sending them to the East to fight for India’s liberation. However, the rebellion was soon quelled after a team of NCOs visited the officials of the Free India Center in Berlin and obtained clarification regarding the rebel Legionaries' grievances. The team went back to the camp and assured the men that they were not being sent to fight a war but were there purely for practical training purposes according to Netaji’s wishes; that the promotions were not being passed up, they would follow in due course; and that Netaji had not abandoned them, and they would be informed about his whereabouts and plans as soon as possible. In pursuance of military discipline, the ringleaders of this act of insubordination were sent to prison camps for a specified period.

The Legion was stationed in the coastal areas of Holland for five months. Afterwards, there was a decision to move it to the coastal area of Bordeaux in France from the mouth of the Girond, opposite the fortification of Foyan to the Bay of Arcachon. The Legion was taking charge here. The stay in France was utilized to give the Legionaries a thorough training in the weaponry required for the defense of the Atlantic Wall. In the spring of 1944, the first batch of twelve Indians were promoted to officers. Field Marshal Rommel, who took charge of the Atlantic Wall, once visited the area where the Indian contingent was located. Ganpulay writes:

… after having seen the work carried out by the Indians,, he exclaimed: “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 said to the Indian soldiers: “I am glad to see you have done good work; I wish you and your leader all the good luck!"[15]

In the spring of 1944, one company of the Legion was sent to North Italy at the request of some officers who were seeking an opportunity to confront the British forces. After the Normandy invasion by the Allied forces in June 1944, the military situation in Europe began to deteriorate. It eventually became so critical that the German High Command decided to order the Indian Legion to return to Germany. So after about ten months of stay in the coastal region of Lacanau in France, the Indian Legion started its road back. It is to be understood at this point that with the landing of the Allied troops in France and their gradual advance through the French countryside, the French Maquis (underground) guerillas had become very active, and along with the German troops they made the Legionaries as well the target of their attacks. After travelling a certain distance, the first battalion of the Legion was temporarily located in the area of Mansle near Poitiers, while the second and the third battalion were stationed in Angouleme and Poitiers respectively. After a rest for ten days in this region, during which period they had to ward off sporadic attacks by the French underground, the Legionaries took to the road once again. In this long march back to Germany, the Legion demonstrated exemplary courage and fortitude, and underwent rigors and hardships of battlefield with equanimity. At this time, British propaganda was directed to these men which was full of empty promises; some material was dropped from the air, while agents infiltrated into the ranks to persuade the men to desert. The propaganda promised the would-be deserters reinstatement in the British Indian army with full retroactive pay and pension, but the British hypocrisy was once again manifest in the fact that a few of the soldiers who had fallen victim to this bait were shot later by the French publicly in a market place in Poitiers without any trial, along with some German prisoners-of-war.

In following the saga of the Indian Army of Liberation in the West, one has to remember that its fate was indissolubly linked with that of the Axis powers in Europe, especially Germany. The overpowering of the new revolutionary regimes of Europe by forces representing an alliance of capitalism and Marxism was an international tragedy which engulfed the Indian Legion in Europe as well. During its retreat into Germany, it encountered the enemy forces on several occasions and fought rearguard action with British and French forces, displaying exemplary bravery. The German military training had converted the regiment not only into a highly disciplined body, but a hard-core fighting unit as well. It is indeed a historical irony that this superb force could not be utilized for the purpose and way its creator and leader, Sublias Chandra Bose, had dreamt of. Nevertheless, the 950th Indian Regiment, as the Legion was officially designated, left its footprints in the battlefields of France and Germany, as their many other gallant comrades of the German Army.

In the fall of 1944 until Christmas, the Indian Legion spent its time in the quiet villages of southern Germany. Between Christmas and the New Year 1945, the unit was ordered to move into the military camp at the garrison town of Heuberg. In the spring of 1945 the Allied forces crossed the Rhine. The Russians entered the East German provinces murdering and plundering cities, townships and villages. Heavy bomber formations began destroying German cities. Transport systems became completely disorganized and paralyzed. The end was near, and there was no point in remaining in the barracks. The Legion, therefore, left its winter quarters at Heuberg in March 1945, and headed for the Alpine passes. By that time all communications with the Free India Center in Berlin had been cut off. The Legion commanders took decisions independently. The Legion had already reached the Alpine regions east of Bodensee. However, with the surrender of the German forces on 7 May, all hopes also ended for the Free India Army. While attempting to cross over to Switzerland, the legionaries were overwhelmed by American and French units and were made prisoners. Those who fell into the hands of the French had to suffer very cruel treatment. Several were shot, while others died in prison camps in miserable conditions. The rest were eventually handed over to the British.

Although thus swept into the maelstrom of the Axis disintegration in Europe, Netaji’s army of liberation in the west had carved for itself a niche in history; for, indeed, it was a nucleus which would eventually precipitate a much larger fighting force elsewhere. Inspired by its leader, that force would march into India to set in motion a process that would eventually deliver the country from an alien bondage. One, therefore, must not regard the saga of the Indian National Army in Europe as an isolated event that ended tragically. While its dream of crossing the Caucasus along with its allies, the German Armed Forces, and entering India from the Northwest, did not materialize in reality, its extension and successor, India’s army of liberation in the east, did enter the country from the opposite direction, thus fulfilling the cherished dream of Netaji and his soldiers. Not only that, as we shall see subsequently, but that army made the mightiest contribution toward finally ending an imperialist rule in India.

During his interview with Netaji, Hitler had suggested to him that since it would take at least another one or two years before Germany could gain direct influence in India, and while Japan’s influence, in view of its spectacular successes in Southeast Asia, could come in a few months, Bose should negotiate with the Japanese. The Führer warned Bose against an air journey which could compel him to a forced landing in British territory. He thought Bose was too important a personality to let his life be endangered by such an experiment. Hitler suggested that he could place a German submarine at his disposal which would take him to Bangkok on a journey around the Cape of Good Hope.[16] However, despite Hitler’s suggestions, it is believed that the German Foreign Office showed some reluctance in the matter of Netaji’s leaving Germany and going to Japan. Col. Yamamoto Bin, Japanese military attache in Berlin (and a good personal friend of Netaji) along with the Japanese ambassador Lieutenant-General Oshima Hiroshi, had met Netaji as early as October 1941 when the latter expressed hopes for enlisting Japanese aid in his plan for wresting Indian independence. This was the beginning of a series of such meetings.

After the entry of Japan in World War II in December, Netaji was more eager to go as soon as possible to East Asia and fight beside Japan for India’s liberation. He reportedly urged Oshima to use his good offices to secure his passage to Asia. It was about at this point that both Oshima and Yamamoto encountered a feeling of reluctance in the matter on the part of the German Foreign Office. They had the feeling that Germany was not to willing to let Japan lead India to independence. Bose was already a useful ally as an Indian patriot, and his propaganda broadcasts were effective in both India and Britain. The Indian Legion was already having a psychological impact in India and worrying the Allies. For these reasons, “they were guarding Bose like a tiger cub."[17]

In the meantime, Ambassador Oshima had also met with Hitler and explained Bose’s plan to him. According to Japanese records,

The Führer readily agreed with Oshima that it was better for Bose to shift his activities to Southeast Asia now that his country’s (Japan's) armies had overrun the area. The second problem was whether Bose would get enough support in Tokyo for his activities. On this, Oshima had contacted Tokyo many times but had not received any firm answer. Finally, Tokyo replied to Oshima that in principle it had no objection to Bose’s visit to Japan. The third problem was to provide Bose with a safe means of transport to Japan. Communication between Germany and Japan was impossible during those days. Passage by boat was ruled out; and it was decided to use a plane belonging to the Lufthansa Company to airlift Bose from Germany to Japan via the Soviet Union. Tojo (Japanese Prime Minister) objected to this on the grounds that this would amount to a breach of trust with the Soviet Union. An attempt was made by both Yamamoto and Bose to get an Italian plane, but this also did not work. Finally the choice fell on a submarine. Germany agreed to carry Bose up to a certain unknown point in the east and asked that a Japanese submarine be pressed into service thence forward. After a series of exchanges with his government, Oshima finally obtained Tokyo’s approval of the plan and communicated it to Bose.[18]

Alexander Werth writes:

An interesting anecdote related to this historic journey may perhaps be mentioned here. Shortly before Bose’s departure the Japanese Naval Command raised objections because of an internal Japanese regulation not permitting civilians to travel on a warship in wartime. When Adam von Trott (of the German Foreign Office) received this message by cable from the German Ambassador in Tokyo, he sent the following reply: “Subhas Chandra Bose is by no means a private person, but Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Liberation Army.” Thus the bureaucratic interference was overcome.[19]

On 8 February 1943, accompanied by Keppler, Nambiar and Werth, Netaji arrived at the port of Kiel where a German submarine under the command of Werner Musenberg was waiting for him. His would-be sole companion on this perilous voyage, Abid Hasan had travelled separately to Kiel in a special compartment without knowing his destination. Only after commencement of the journey was he to be informed of the itinerary. Netaji was leaving behind his chosen 3,500 soldiers of the Indian Legion, the 950th regiment of the German Army, specially trained and equipped for the task of liberating an India held in bondage by the British. We have already followed the history and fate of the Legion. Now let us turn to the East.

Indian National Army of Liberation in the East

On 15 February 1942, Singapore fell to the Japanese army advancing southward from the Malayan peninsula. Two days later, in an impressive ceremony held at Farrar Park in the heart of the town, Indian troops were handed over to the Japanese as prisoners-of-war by their commanding officer, Colonel Hunt.

Major Fujiwara took them over on behalf of the victorious Japanese, and then announced that he was handing them over to Captain Mohan Singh of the Indian contingents, who should be obeyed by them as their Supreme Commander. Mohan Singh then spoke to the Indian POWs, expressing his intention of raising an Indian national army out of them to fight for India’s freedom. He held a preliminary discussion with some prominent Indians in Malay and Burma in a meeting in Singapore on 9 and 10 March, which was attended by Rashbehari Bose, a veteran Indian revolutionary exile living in Japan for the last quarter of a century. Bose then called a conference in Tokyo, which was held 28-30 March. The delegates representing several East and Southeast Asian countries present at the conference, decided to form the Indian Independence League to organize an Indian independence movement in East Asia. Bose was recognized as head of the organization. The conference further resolved that “militay action against the British in India will be taken only by the INA and under Indian command, together with such military, naval and air cooperation and assistance as may be requested from the Japanese by the Council of Action” and further, “after the liberation of India, the framing of the future constitution of India will be left entirely to the representatives of the people of India."[20] On 15 June 1942, a conference opened in Bangkok with over a hundred delegates of the IIL attending from all over Asia. By the close of the nine-day conference a resolution was unanimously adopted setting forth the policies of the independence movement in East Asia. The III, was proclaimed the organization to work for India’s freedom; the Indian National Army was declared the military arm of the movement with Mohan Singh as the Commander-in-chief and Rashbehari Bose was elected president of the Council of Action. It was further decided that Singapore would be the headquarters of the IIL. Netaji had stated in a message to the conference that his personal experience had convinced him that Japan, Italy and Germany were sworn enemies of British imperialism; yet, independence could come only through the efforts of Indians themselves. India’s freedom would mean the rout of British imperialism. The Indian National Army was officially inaugurated in September 1942.

Unfortunately, at this point a distrust began to grow within the Indian group against Rashbehari Bose’s leadership. Some thought that having been long associated with Japan, he gave precedence to the Japanese interests over Indian interests. According to Japanese records:

Some even thought that he was just the protege of the Japanese, and that the latter was exploiting Indians for their own ends. Such resentment finally resulted in a revolt of a group of leaders headed by Captain Mohan Singh within the INA in November 1942. As a consequence, Mohan Singh and his associate, Colonel Gill were both arrested by the Japanese and the Indian Army was disbanded. However, in 1943 a new Indian Army was organized, put under the command of Lt. Col. Bhonsle, who held this post until the final dissolution of the army. [21]

Describing the revived INA. Joyce Lebra writes:

On 15 February 1943, the INA was reorganized and former ranks and badges revived. The Director of the Military Bureau, Lieutenant-Colonel Bhonsle, was clearly placed under the authority of the III. to avoid any repetition of IIIANA rivalry. Under Bhonsle was Lt. Col. Shah Nawaz Khan as Chief of General Staff-, Major P.K. Sahgal as Military Secretary; Major Habibur Rahman as commandant of the Officers' Training School; and Lt. Col. A.C. Chatterji, and later Major A.D. Jahangir, as head of enlightenment and culture. Apart from this policy-forming body was the Army itself, under the command of Lt. Col. M.Z. Kiani. This was the organization which held the INA together until the arrival of Subhas Chandra Bose from Berlin, six months later.[22]

In February, the Japanese military officer Iwakuro had called a meeting of about three hundred officers of the INA at Bidadri camp in Singapore and spoke to them about the advisability of joining the army, but with no effect. According to Ghosh, “Later on, in a 'Heart to heart talk' with some officers, it emerged that a large number of officers and men would be willing to continue in the INA on the express condition that Netaji would be coming to Singapore."[23]

The story of Netaji’s exploits in Germany and the history of the Indian Legion was known to Indian revolutionaries of the IIL in East Asia for some time now, and they awaited his arrival eagerly. As the first INA wavered, faltered and was finally disbanded, and as its successor merely continued to exist, the need for Netaji’s leadership began to be felt more keenly. Mohan Singh had mentioned his name to General Fujiwara as early as 1941. In all conferences the need of his guidance had been emphasized by the delegates.

While Netaji and Abid Hasan continued to push toward the East making a wide sweep out into the Atlantic, by pre-arrangement, a Japanese submarine left Penang Island on 20 April for the tip of Africa, under strict orders not to attack or risk detection. The two submarines had a rendevous four hundred miles south-southwest of Madagascar on 26 April. After sighting each other and confirming their identity, the submarines waited for a day for the sea to become calm. Then on 28 April, in what was known to be the only known submarine-to-submarine transfer of passengers (in the annals of World War II) in an area dominated by the enemy’s air and naval strength, Netaji and Abid Hasan were transhipped into the Japanese submarine via a rubber raft. Travelling across the ocean, the Japanese 1-29 reached Sabang on 6 May, 1943. It was an isolated offshore islet north of Sumatra. There, Netaji was welcomed by Colonel Yamamoto, who was the head of the Hikari Kikan, the Japanese-Indian liaison group. From Sabang, Netaji and Yamamoto left for Tokyo by plane, stopping en route at Penang, Manila, Saigon and Taiwan. The plane landed in Tokyo on 16 May. All throughout his submarine voyage from Germany and for about a month after his arrival in Tokyo, Netaji’s identity and presence was kept a secret. He was supposed to be a Japanese VIP named Matsuda. Although he remained incognito during the first few weeks in Japan, Netaji did not waste any time by just waiting. From 17 May onwards, he met Japanese Army and Navy Chiefs-of-Staff, Navy Minister and Foreign Minister in rapid succession. However, he had to wait for nearly three weeks before Japanese PrimeMinister Tojo granted him an interview. But Tojo was so impressed with Netaji’s personality that he offered to meet him again after four days. Two days later, on 16 June, Netaji was invited to visit the Diet (the Japanese Parliament) where Tojo surprised him with his historic declaration on India:

We are indignant about the fact that India is still under the ruthless suppression of Britain and are in full sympathy with her desperate struggle for independence. We are determined to extend every possible assistance to the cause of India’s independence. It is our belief that the day is not far off when India will enjoy freedom and prosperity after winning independence.[24]

It was not until 18 June that Tokyo Radio announced Netaji’s arrival. The news was reported in the Tokyo press the following day. At this announcement, the atmosphere was electrified overnight. The Axis press and radio stressed the significance of the event. The INA and the Indian independence movement suddenly assumed far greater importance in the eyes of all. On 19 June, Netaji held a press conference. This was followed by two broadcasts to publicize further his presence in East Asia, and during the course of these he unfolded his plan of action. As Ghosh describes, Bose’s plan stood for the co-ordination of the nationalist forces within India and abroad to make it a gigantic movement powerful enough to overthrow the British rulers of India. The assumption on which Bose seemed to have based his grand scheme was that the internal conditions in India were ripe for a revolt. The no-cooperation movement must turn into an active revolt.[25]

And to quote Netaji’s own words during the press conference: “Civil disobedience must develop into armed struggle. And only when the Indian people have received the baptism of fire on a large scale would they be qualified to achieve freedom."[26] Netaji then embarked upon a series of meetings, press conferences. radio broadcasts and lectures in order to explain his immediate task to the people concerned, and the world.

Accompanied by Rashbehari Bose, Netaji arrived at Singapore from Tokyo on 27 June. He was given a tumultuous welcome by the resident Indians and was profusely 'garlanded' wherever he went. His speeches kept the listeners spellbound. By now, a legend had grown around him, and its magic infected his audiences. Addressing representatives of the Indian communities in East Asia on 4 July he said:

Not content with a civil disobedience campaign, Indian people are now morally prepared to employ other means for achieving their liberation. The time has therefore come to pass on to the next stage of our campaign. All organizations whether inside India or outside, must now transform themselves into a disciplined fighting organization under one leadership. The aim and purpose of this organization should be to take up arms against British imperialism when the time is ripe and signal is given.[27]

At a public meeting where Netaji spoke these words, Rashbehari Bose formally handed over to Subhas Chandra Bose the leadership of the III, and command of the INA. The hall was packed to capacity. In his last speech as leader of the movement Rashbehari Bose said:

Friends! This is one of the happiest moments in my life. I have brought you one of the most outstanding personalities of our great Motherland to participate in our campaign. In your presence today, I resign my office as president of the Indian Independence League in East Asia. From now on, Subhas Chandra Bose is your president, your leader in the fight for India’s independence, and I am confident that under his leadership, you will march on to battle and to victory.[28]

In that meeting Netaji announced his plan to organize a Provisional Government of Free India.

It will be the task of this provisional government to lead the Indian Revolution to its successful conclusion … The Provisional Government will have to prepare the Indian people, inside and outside India, for an armed struggle which will be the culmination of all our national efforts since 1883. We have a grim fight ahead of us. In this final march to freedom, you will have to face danger, thirst, privation, forced marches-and death. Only when you pass this test will freedom be yours.[29]

The next day, on 5 July, Netaji took over the command of the Indian National Army, now christened Azad Hind Fauj (Free India Army). Tojo arrived from Manila in time to review the parade of troops standing alongside with Bose. Addressing the soldiers, Netaji said:

Throughout my pubic career, I have always felt that, though India is otherwise ripe for independence in every way, she has lacked one thing, namely, an army of liberation. George Washington of America could fight and win freedom, because he had his army. Garibaldi could liberate Italy because he had his armed volunteers behind him. It is your privilege and honor to be the first to come forward and organize India’s national army. By doing so you have removed the last obstacle in our path to freedom… When France declared war on Germany in 1939 and the campaign began, there was but one cry which rose from the lips of German soldiers- “To Paris! To Paris!” When the brave soldiers of Nippon set out on their march in December 1941, there was but one cry which rose from their lips-"To Singapore! To Singapore!” Comrades! My soldiers! Let your battle-cry be-"To Delhi! To Delhil” How many of us will individually survive this war of freedom, I do not know. But I do know this, that we shall ultimately win and our task will not end until our surviving heroes hold the victory parade on another graveyard of the British Empire-Lal Kila or the Red Fortress of ancient Delhi.[30]

On 27 July, Netaji left Singapore for a 17-day,tour of the East Asian and Southeast Asian countries. The prime objective of this tour was to enlist moral and monetary support for his movement from other countries, as well as the resident Indian communities. He was given a rousing reception in Rangoon, where he attended the Burmese independence on 1 August; from Rangoon Netaji went to Bangkok and met Thai Prime Minister Pilbulsongram. He won the moral support of Thailand and tumultuous ovation from the Indian community. He then flew to Saigon and addressed Indians there. Returning to Singapore for a brief rest, he flew to Penang to address a rally of 15,000 Indians. Everywhere, he held his audience spellbound for hours with his superb oratory, and at the conclusion of his speech the people raced to reach the platform and pile up all they had before him-a total of two million dollars. This scene was repeated over and over in towns and cities all over Southeast Asia, when Netaji stood before thousands of people like a prophet, addressing them for the cause of India’s freedom. Merchants, traders, businessmen and women came forward everywhere and donated their wealth and ornaments in abundance, to enable their leader to fulfill his mission. In his plan for total mobilization, Netaji had outlined a grandiose scheme for an army of three million men. However, the immediate target was set at 50,000. The Major part of this number would be from the Indian POWs and the rest from civilian volunteers. According to Bose’s plan there would be three divisions from thirty thousand regulars and another unit of twenty thousand mainly from civilian volunteers. The Japanese authorities informea Netaji at that time that it could provide arms for thirty thousand men only. However, by 1945, it was authoritatively known that the actual strength of the INA rose to not less than 45,000 men. After completing the task of reorganizing the Indian Independence League and launching preparations for revolutionizing the army, and after conducting a successful campaign to mobilize the support of the Indian communities throughout Southeast Asia-a phase which lasted from July to OctoberNetaji turned toward formation of the Provisional Government of Azad Hind (Free India). This had to be done before the army could be sent for action in the battlefield. This government was officially proclaimed in Singapore at a mass rally on 21 October 1943 where Netaji was unanimously elected as the Head of the State and The Supreme Commander of the Indian National Army. While taking the oath he said:

In the name of God, I take this sacred oath that to liberate India and the three hundred eighty million of my countrymen, L Subhas Chandra Bose, will continue the sacred war of freedom till the last breath of my life. I shall remain always a servant of India, and to look after the welfare of three hundred eighty million of Indian brothers and sisters shall be for me my highest duty. Even after winning freedom, I will always be prepared to shed even the last drop of my blood for the preservation of India’s freedom.[31]

The Provisional Government of Free India had five Ministers with Netaji as the Head of the State, Prime Minister and Minister for War and advisers representing the Indian communities in East Asia. The first momentous decision which the new government took was its declaration of war on Britain and the United States, which was decided on the night of 22-23 October. Toye writes: “The Cabinet had not been unanimous about the inclusion of the U.S.A. Bose had shown impatience and displeasure- there was never any question then or later of his absolute authority: the Cabinet had no responsibility and could only tender advice.,,32 Recognition of the Provisional Government came quickly from nine countries-the Axis powers and their allies. They were: Japan, Burma, Croatia, Germany, the Philippines, Nanking China, Manchuto, Italy and Siam (Thailand), but for some unknown reasons, Vichy France withheld its recognition. The Japanese Army promised all-out support for the provisional government.

Toward the end of October, Netaji flew to Tokyo again to meet Tojo and to attend the greater East Asia Conference. Since India technically did not fall within this sphere, he attended as an observer. He made an impressive speech at the conference, stressing the creation of a new Asia where all vestiges of colonialism and imperialism would be eliminated. The Japanese navy had captured the Andaman and Nicober islands in the Bay of Bengal during the early months of war. As a result of Netaji’s requests, Prime Minister Tojo announced at the conference that Japan had decided to place the two islands under the jurisdiction of the Provisional Government of Free India, thereby giving it its first sovereignty over a territory. The ceremonial transfer took place in December, and Netaji named Lieutenant-Colonel Loganathan, an officer in the Medical Services, as the chief commissioner in charge of the civil administration of the islands. Soon thereafter, preparations began for sending the army to the front and moving the provisional government headquarters to Rangoon, in Burma. In the meantime, Netaji announced the formation of a women’s brigade within the INA, and named it “Rani of Jhansi Regiment,” after the celebrated queen of Jhansi, Laxmibai, who had led her soldiers against the British in an uprising during the First War of Independence in 1857. Coincidentially, another Laxmi, Lieutenant-Col. Laxmi, was placed in charge of this regiment by Netaji. In November it was agreed between Netaji and the Japanese militay headquarters, that the INA first division and the civil and military headquarters would move to Burma in January 1944.

The Imphal Campaign

The Imphal Campaign, including the battle of Kohima — the first major town to be captured by the INA inside India — will perhaps go down as one of the most daring and disastrous campaigns in the annals of world military history. General Mutaguchi, commander of the Japanese forces in North Burma since 1943, had been convinced that Imphal should be attacked. The objects of such an offensive were to forestall any invasion of Burma in 1944 and to establish the Japanese defenses on the frontier mountains. The idea would be first to overwhelm the British in Arakan, involving all their reserves in battle for Chittagong and the gateway to eastern Bengal. Then, by April, Kohima and Imphal could be conquered at leisure, without danger of their being reinforced. The monsoon, beginning in May, would postpone operations, and after the rains were over, in the absence of a new British defense posture east of the river Brahmaputra, the entire Assam and East Bengal would lie open to the Indian National Army and the Japanese.

Imphal, the capital of the state of Manipur, lay on a flat, nearly treeless plateau just inside the Indian border. Its elevation was about 3,000 feet, surrounded on all sides by impassable mountains. The mountain range in the east with 2,000-4,000 foot peaks above the plateau stretches some five hundred miles. To the West and South are the Chin hills of the Arakan range, a formidable stretch of inhospitable terrain. The jungle surrounding this basin is hostile to human habitation. The northern access to the plain from India and Assam lay through Dimapur and the steep Kohima Road. From Dimapur, a single track railway swept through Assam and Bengal and was an important military objective to both armies. For the INA the importance of the Imphal campaign was that it was the only major battle in which it would participate with the object of achieving freedom for India. As Salto and Hayashida writes:

The Imphal Operation was the final offensive of the East Asia War, mounted by three Burma-based Japanese divisions, and one INA division. The campaign lasted from 15 March to 9 July 1944. The operation has often been compared to the operation Wacht am Rhein or the Battle of the Bulge, which was the final all-out drive launched by Germany towards Ardennes on the Western Front, from December 1944 to January 1945. Both operations al most succeeded and both are termed “gambles” by historians today. If the German push towards Ardennes was Wacht am Rhein, the Japanese-Indian thrust against Imphal might be called “Wacht am Chindwin” although the official Japanese code-name for the action was most prosaic: Operation “U".[33]

River Chindwin lay across the Indo-Burmese border, and its crossing from the east by an army would signal an invasion of India.

Execution orders for Operation U became operative on 7 January 1944, coinciding with completion of the shifting of the Provisional Government headquarters in Rangoon. In the evening of the same day, Lt. General Masakazy Kawabe, commanding the overall Burma headquarters, held a welcome party in honor of Netaji and his staff officers. Netaji spoke, and concluded his speech with these words. “My only prayer to the Almighty at this moment is that we may be given the earliest opportunity to pay for our freedom with our own blood.',34 One INA Division, named after Netaji as Sublias Regiment, was readied for action at the front with the Japanese. Toye writes.

… He spent the whole days… with the Subhas Regiment, reviewing, watching it at exercises and on parade, talking to its officers, exerting his magic on it in a way that he had not attempted before. These were his comrades, the men by whose means he would uphold the rights and honour of India. Everything depended on their achievement in battle; they must absorb all his feelings of confidence, feel the whole of his personal force. On 3 February he bade them farewell: “Blood is calling for blood. Arise! We have no time to lose. Take up your arms. There in front of you is the road. our pioneers have built. We shall march along that road. We shall carve our way through enemy’s ranks, or, if God wills, we shall die a martyr’s death. And in our last sleep we shall kiss the road which will bring our Army to Delhi. The road to Delhi is the road to Freedom. On to Delhi!"[35]

Mutaguchi set 15 March as the D-day for the beginning of the Imphal campaign. The deployment of well over 120,000 troops along the Chindwin river, a front of some 200 kilometers, went on smoothly and undetected by British spies planted in the area. In the meantime, Netaji received some good news. The Arakan offensive, launched on 4 February, had cut off the 7th Indian Division of the British Army in Mayu valley. Contributing to this success was the reconnaissance and subversion of an Indian outpost position by Major Misra, the INA Commander in Arakan. At the same time, he received messages from the underground network working inside India under his direction, whose selected trained spies had been sent by submarine. On D-day, Mutaguchi assembled the war correspondents at his headquarters in central Burma and declared: “I am firmly convinced that my three divisions will reduce Imphal in one month. In order that they can march fast, they carry the lightest possible equipment and food enough for three weeks. Ali, they will get everything from the British supplies and dumps. Boys! See you again in Imphal at the celebration of the Emperor’s birthday on 29 April."[36]

The Japanese-Indian offensive took the British by complete surprise. The Japanese and INA troops literally galloped through mountains and jungles routing the enemy on the way. Prior to the Imphal offensive, an INA detachment under Colonel Saligal had created a breach through the British lines in the Arakan sector. Now the INA’s deployment was extended to the Imphal sector. As the INA under Netaji’s command set foot on the Indian soil, the main Japanese force also defeated the obstinate resistance of the enemy on 22 March, broke through the India-Burma border, and advanced from the north and west to encircle Imphal. The initial success of the INA at the Arakan front generated much enthusiasm. In a Special Order of the Day, Netaji referred to the “Glorious and brilliant actions of the brave forces of the Azad Hind Fauj."[37]

On 8 April, Japanese Imperial Headquarters issued a communique which said: “Japanese troops, fighting side by side with the Indian National Army, captured Kohima early on 6 April.[38] A jubilant Netaji at this time started talking with the Japanese about the administration of the liberated and soon-to-be-liberated territories in India. In response to a call by Netaji, Prime Minister Tojo made an announcement clarifying that all areas of India occupied as a result of Japanese advance would be placed under the jurisdiction of the Provisional Government. This was followed by Netaji’s announcement that he was appointing the Finance Minister of his cabinet, Major-General A.C. Chatterjee, as the governor of the newly liberated areas. Netaji described the march of the INA into India as the event of the century. He had also just declared the Legion in Europe to be part of the INA and had appointed Nambiar to be a Minister in the Provisional Government; his Chief Commissioner had been installed in the Andamans, his first heroes from the Arakan front had been decorated, and the, INA troops had raised the national standard of free India in Kohima; and now, the fall of Imphal seemed very near.

Did the Imphal Campaign come almost two years too late? What would have happened if Netaji had arrived in East Asia a year earlier? by the end of 1942, the Axis had scored successes everywhere.

Rommel was in Egypt, the German invasion of Russia had gone smoothly, Nationalist China was on her knees, and India and Australia were expecting a Japanese invasion. Prospects for the Allies were dark in the Pacific and the Rising Sun was at its zenith from Japan to the Bay of Bengal … Britain was unable to dispute with the Japanese Navy, and there were not enough British and Indian troops in India to assure its defense. Even air protection was inadequte … Japanese forces had not pursued retreating British troops beyond the Chindwin river in Burma in May 1942, allegedly because “an invasion was likely to arouse ill-feelings amongst the Indian masses.” … So the Japanese remained east of the Chindwin river, leaving British Indian forces to build up their strength in the Imphal plain.[39]

But above all, in that moment of a golden opportunity, the towering leadership of Netaji, a provisional government, and an Indian national army worthy of its name — all these were non-existent in East Asia. Japan by itself simply lacked the motivation for extending war into India, let alone think of its independence. The fact remains, however, that the Imphal campaign was indeed first conceived in 1942, right after the conquest of Burma. According to the official history of the British Armed Forces in the Second World War,

Soon after the completion of the Japanese conquest of Burma in June 1942, a certain Lt. Col. Hayashi had advocated an attack on Imphal. He considered that the Japanese should strike against India without giving time to the defenders to recuperate from their disastrous retreat, and Imphal’s capture would rob them of the best base for launching a counter-offensive against Burma … 18th division argued that the jungles of Burma were impassable for large bodies of operational troops and that any attack on Indian territory would provoke anti-Japanese feelings in India. About December 1942, therefore, the plan was abandoned.[40]

Lieutenant-General Kuroda Shigetoku, Southern Army Chief of Staff, stated later that if the operation had been carried out in 1942 when first conceived, rather than in 1944, it would have succeeded. According to Lebra, “General Tojo stated in the spring of 1945 that he regretted Japan had missed the opportunity in 1942."[41]

As the INA and the Japanese forces continued to lay siege on Imphal, the Allied air superiority gained strength and the enemy was preparing for counterattack. Shah Nawaz, commanding two battalions of the Subhas Regiment in the Chin Hills, told of the hardships his men were suffering as a result of disease and of supply and transport difficulties. However, owing to communication problems, the news of difficulties his men were undergoing at the front did not reach Netaji in detail. While there was a stalemate in the front and the offensive came to a halt, there were meetings and jubilations at Rangoon where Netaji collected money and donations in other forms for the conduct of his campaign. He offered to send additional INA regiments to the Front and more troops were despatched. For about a month Operation U went according to plan. Enemy forces were successfully encircled in the Imphal area. Suddenly, in the middle of April, the military balance began to shift against Japan and the INA. Wingate’s airborne unit had already been attacking from air over Burma supply routes. British forces were being supplied by airlift into the besieged Imphal, and reinforcements began to flow in. British forces were being sent to Kohima to the north by both rail and air. Japan had no matching air power to strike back at enemy air operations. By the end of April the battle strength of Japanese and INA divisions was decreased forty percent. Time for success by surprise attack had already passed and gradually the offensive turned into a defensive battle. The monsoon that followed, brought the ultimate disaster. As roads became impassable, all supply routes were cut off. Muddy streams flooded roads and valleys, and rivers swelled to sweep away tanks and ammunition. In the wake of the monsoon, disease became rampant. Cholera, malaria, dysentery, beriberi and jungle sores began to take their toll. The INA and the Japanese started living on rations consisting of rice mixed with jungle grass. The 33rd Division had fought desperately for forty days without being able to penetrate the British lines at Imphal. And now that vast amounts of military supplies were reaching the beleaguered garrison at Imphal, there was virtually no hope for a renewed offensive. On 8 July, on the recommendation of top-ranking Generals including Kawabe and Mutaguchi, Prime Minister Tajo issued the order to halt the operation.

The story of retreat from Imphal is one of the greatest tragedies of World War II. It is a story of misery, hunger and death. Japanese and INA troops, bottled up in the Kawab valley between the Chin Hills in the west and the Chindwin river in the west, began their long trek back through jungles and mountains, headed by division commanders and guards in jeeps and horses. Officers, supply, communication and medical units followed. Behind them marched thousands of stragglers: rain-soaked, emaciated with fever and malnutrition. Soon, corpses began accumulating along the trek, and they had to be left unburied. Of the 220,000 Japanese troops who began the Imphal Campaign, only 130,000 survived, and of these only 70,000 remained at the front to retreat. INA casualties were over fifty percent. It was a disaster equal in magnitude to Dunkirk and Stalingrad. Lebra writes:

When Bose heard the order to retreat he was stunned. He drew himself up and said to Kawabe in ringing tones: “Though the Japanese Army has given up the operation, we will continue it. We will not repent even if the advance of our revolutionary army to attain independence of our homeland is completely defeated. Increase in casualties, cessation of supplies, and famine are not reasons enough to stop marching. Even if the whole army becomes only spirit we will not stop advancing toward our homeland. This is the spirit of our revolutionary army.” In an article in Azad Hind on 6 November 1944, after the retreat from Imphal, Bose was reported to have “reiterated his firm conviction that final victory in this war would belong to Japan and Germany … that a new phase of war was approaching in which the initiative would again lie in the hands of the Japanese.-"[42]

Each Japanese commander gave his own analysis of the causes of the failure of Operation U, like the problem of the chain of command, lack of air power, on dispersal rather than concentration of forces. However, Netaji thought it was timing, with respect to the monsoon. He felt that the only chance to take Imphal was before the rains came, and most strategists agreed on this point. From the historic perspective, however, Fujiwara perhaps was the most correct. According to him, the Imphal disaster could have been avoided had the operation been undertaken a year earlier, at a time when the British power in the region was weak. The delay in launching the Imphal offensive was no doubt due to Netaji’s late arrival from Europe to East Asia. The Imphal campaign should have been undertaken at a time when the Axis victories had reached their zenith and the Allied forces were on retreat everywhere.

During the last three months of 1944, Japanese forces had withdrawn to the banks of the Irrawaddy in Burma, where they intended to make a stand. Netaji enthusiastically offered the reorganized INA First Division, when the Japanese 15th division was ordered to oppose the British. Subsquently, the 2nd Division was also readied for action. In February 1945, the INA held some positions in the region of Mandalay in Burma, giving battle to the advancing enemy. This was the second campaign of Netaji’s army, and it held out tenaciously at Nyaungu for some time. However, allied troops later crossed the Irrawaddy at several points and the Japanese and INA units were surrounded. There were some desertions. Despite unique examples of heroism and Netaji’s presence in the battlefields, risking his own life in the face of enemy attacks, the second campaign of the INA (which was purely a defensive one) finally had to give way to the gradual reconquest of Burma by the British.

The end of this campaign was followed by a chain of events that included the final Japanese defeat, an alleged plane crash in Formosa in which Netaji reportedly perished, the surrender of the INA to the allied forces and the trial of their leaders at the Red Fort in Delhi, staged by the British. However, all these fateful events, occuring during the final phase of World War II and its aftermath, should be considered parts of an altogether different episode relating to Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army. In the present episode we have examined the historical tasks fulfilled by Netaji and his army in Europe and Asia during World War II, and their significance. In recognition of Netaji’s historically significant role as a war leader, Guy Wint pays him a rare tribute with these words: “He played … an extraordinarily decisive part. By accident, and by seizing an exceptional opportunity, he was able to cut a figure which made him outstanding among the comparatively small number of men who influenced the course of the war by their individual qualities."[43]

The Myth of “Freedom through Non-violence under Gandhi’s Leadership”

Modern historians in India are taking a second look at the way the country’s freedom was achieved, and in that process are demolishing a number of theories, assumptions and myths preached by the “court historians.” However, in order to grasp the magnitude of the issue, with its many ramifications, it is essential to understand first the concept of freedom as envisaged by Netaji — the ideal which motivated him to wrest it from the hands of the British by the force of arms. In his entire political career, Subhas Chandra Bose was guided by two cardinal principles in his quest for his country’s emancipation: that there could be no compromise with alien colonialists on the issue, and that on no account would the country be partitioned. The Indian geographical unity was to be maintained at all costs.

As we have already seen, the unfortunate turn of events during World War II prevented Netaji’s dream of his victorious march to Delhi at the head of his Indian National Army from becoming a reality. In his and his army’s absence in a post-war India, politicians under the leadership of Gandhi and Nehru did exactly what Netaji never wanted: they negotiated and compromised with the British on the issue of freedom, and in their haste to get into power, agreed to a formula of partitioning India presented to them by the British. The transfer of power was followed by two more developments that were alien to Netaji’s philosophy and his blueprint for a free India: introduction of a parliamentary democratic system by Nehru and his decision to keep India in the British Commonwealth of Nations. It was a truncated freedom, achieved over the bloodbath of millions who had perished in fratricidal religious rioting during the process of partition, as the erstwhile India emerged on the world map as the two nations of India and Pakistan. Even so, the fragmented freedom that fen as India’s share after the British had skillfully played their age-old game of divide and rule came not as a result of Gandhi’s civil disobedience and non-violent movement as the court historians would have us believe; nor was it due to persistent negotiations by Nehru and other Indian National Congress leaders on the conference table, which the British found so easy to keep stalling. The British finally quit when they began to feel the foundations of loyalty being shaken among the British Indian soldiers-the mainstay of the colonial power-as a result of the INA exploits that became known to the world after the cessation of hostilities in East Asia.

Ramesh Chandra Majumdar, the eminent Indian historian who passed away recently, and who by virtue of his challenges to several historical myths can rightly be called the Dean of new historians in India, observed in his book Three Phases of India’s Struggle for Freedom:

There is, however, no basis for the claim that the Civil Disobedience Movement directly led to independence. The campaigns of Gandhi … came to an ignoble end about fourteen years before India achieved independence … During the First World War the Indian revolutionaries sought to take advantage of German help in the shape of war materials to free the country by armed revolt. But the attempt did not succeed. During the Second World War Subhas Bose followed the same method and created the INA. In spite of brilliant planning and initial success, the violent campaigns of Subhas Bose failed … The Battles for India’s freedom were also being fought against Britain, though indirectly, by Hitler in Europe and Japan in Asia. None of these scored direct success, but few would deny that it was the cumulative effect of all the three that brought freedom to India. In particular, the revelations made by the INA trial, and the reaction it produced in India, made it quite plain to the British, already exhausted by the war, that they could no longer depend upon the loyalty of the sepoys for maintaining their authority in India. This had probably the greatest influence upon their final decision to quit India.[44]

Despite Japan’s defeat and the consequent withering away of the Indian National Army on the India-Burma front, both Subhas Chandra Bose and his INA became household names throughout the country as the returning soldiers were sought to be prosecuted by the British. By then, the Congress leadership under Gandhi and Nehru had pre-empted itself, and the year 1945 seemed relatively calm and uneventful. However, Netaji and his legend worked up a movement all over the country which even a Gandhi could never produce. Echoing this mass upsurge Michael Edwardes wrote in his Last Years of British India:

The Government of India had hoped, by prosecuting members of the INA, to reinforce the morale of the Indian army. It succeeded only in creating unease, in making the soldiers feel slightly ashamed that they themselves had supported the British. If Bose and his men had been on the right side-and all India now confirmed that they were-then Indians in the Indian army must have been on the wrong side. It slowly dawned upon the Government of India that the backbone of the British rule, the Indian army, might now no longer be trustworthy. The ghost of Subhas Bose, like Hamlet’s father, walked the battlements of the Red Fort (where the INA soldiers were being tried), and his suddenly amplified figure overawed the conference that was to lead to independence.[45]

Apart from revisionist historians, it was none other than Lord Clement Atlee himself, the British Prime Minster responsible for conceding independence to India, who gave a shattering blow to the myth sought to be perpetuated by court historians, that Gandhi and his movement had led the country to freedom. Chief justice P.B. Chakrabarty of Calcutta High Court, who had also served as the acting Governor of West Bengal in India, disclosed the following in a letter addressed to the publisher of Dr. R.C. Majumdar’s book A History of Bengal. The Chief Justice wrote:

You have fulfilled a noble task by persuading Dr. Majumdar to write this history of Bengal and publishing it … In the preface of the book Dr. Majumdar has written that he could not accept the thesis that Indian independence was brought about solely, or predominantly by the non-violent civil disobedience movement of Gandhi. When I was the acting Governor, Lord Atlee, who had given us independence by withdrawing the British rule from India, spent two days in the Governor’s palace at Calcutta during his tour of India. At that time I had a prolonged discussion with him regarding the real factors that had led the British to quit India. My direct question to him was that since Gandhi’s “Quit India” movement had tapered off quite some time ago and in 1947 no such new compelling situation had arisen that would necessitate a hasty British departure, why did they have to leave? In his reply Atlee cited several reasons, the principal among them being the erosion of loyalty to the British Crown among the Indian army and navy personnel as a result of the military activities of Netaji. Toward the end of our discussion I asked Atlee what was the extent of Gandhi’s influence upon the British decision to quit India. Hearing this question, Atlee’s lips became twisted in a sarcastic smile as he slowly chewed out the word, “m-i-n-i-m-a-l!"[46]

When the new version of the history of the Twentieth Century India, and especially the episode of the country’s unique struggle for independence comes to be written, it will no doubt single out but one person who made the most significant and outstanding contribution among all his compatriots toward the emancipation of his motherland from the shackles of an alien bondage. During World War II this man strode across two continents like a colossus, and the footsteps of his army of liberation reverberated through the forests and plains of Europe and the jungles and mountians of Asia. His armed assaults shook the very foundations of the British Empire. His name was Subhas Chandra Bose.


  1. Bose, Subhas Chandra, The Indian Struggle 1920-1942, New York: Asia Publishing House, 1964, p. 318.
  2. Ibid., pp. 419-422, 431-432.
  3. Ganpuley, N.G., Netaji in Germany: A Little-known Chapter, Bombay, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1959, p. 63
  4. Ibid., pp. 63-64.
  5. Toye, Hugh, The Springing Tiger, London, Cassell, 1959, p. 63.
  6. Ibid., p. 70.
  7. Lebra, Joyce C., Jungle Alliance: Japan and the Indian National Army. Singapore, Asia Pacific Library, p. 110.
  8. The Goebbles Diaries, 1942-1943, Edited, translated and with an introd. by Louis P. Lochner, Westport, Conn., Greenwood Press, 1970, p. 107.
  9. Ibid., P. 123.
  10. Ibid., p. 211.
  11. Toys, Hugh, op. cit., pp. 72-73.
  12. Ibid., p. 75.
  13. Seifriz, Adalbert, In Preface to Ganpuley’s Netaji in Germany.
  14. Sopan, pseud., Ed., Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. His Life and Work. Bombay, Azad Bhandar, 1946, pp. 281-282, 284.
  15. Ganpuley, N.G., op. cit., p. 153.
  16. Staatsmaenner und Diplomaten bei Hitler, Part Two, Edited by Andreas Hillgrueber, Frankfurt am Main, Bernard & Graefe fuer Wehrwesen, 1970.
  17. Maryama Shizuo, Nakano Gakko, Tokyo, 1948, p. 120
  18. Subhas Chandra Bose and Japan, 4th section, Asian Bureau, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Govt. of Japan, 1956.
  19. A Beacon Across Asia: A Biography of Subhas Chandra Bose. Sisir K. Bose, New Delhi, Orient Longman, 1973, p. 143.
  20. Lebra, Joyce C., op. cit., p. 51.
  21. Subhas Chandra Bose and Japan, op. cit.
  22. [??? Not included in original, the webmaster]
  23. Ghosh, K. K., The Indian National Army: Second Front of the Indian Independence Movement, Meerut, Meenakshi Prakashan, 1969, pp. 127-128.
  24. A Beacon Across Asia, op. cit., p. 167.
  25. Ghosh, K. K., op. Cit., p. 135.
  26. Press Statement, 19 June 1943.
  27. Sopan, op. cit., p. 313.
  28. Sivaram, M., The Road to Delhi, Rutland, Vt., C.E. Tuttle Co., 1967, pp. 122-123.
  29. Ibid., pp. 123-124.
  30. A Beacon Across Asia, op. cit., p. 178.
  31. Toyle, Hugh, op. cit., p. go.
  32. Ibid., p. 91.
  33. A Beacon Across Asia, op. cit., p. 196.
  34. Ibid., p. 200.
  35. Toye, Hugh, op. cit., p. 103.
  36. A Beacon Across Asia, op. cit., p. 203.
  37. Arun, pseud., Ed., Testament of Subhas Bose, Delhi, Rajkamal Pub., 1946, p. 170.
  38. A Beacon Across Asia, op. cit., p. 205.
  39. Lebra, Joyce C., op. cit., p. 150.
  40. British Armed Forces in the Second World War, Combined Interservices Historical Section, 1958.
  41. Lebra, Joyce C., op. cit., p. 158.
  42. Ibid., pp. 190-191.
  43. Calvocoressi, Peter, and Guy Wint, The Total War: the Story of World War II, New York, Pantheon Books, 1972, pp. 801-802.
  44. Majumdar, R.C., Three Phases of India’s Struggle for Freedom, Bombay, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1967, pp. 58-59.
  45. Edwardes, Michael, The Last Years of British India, Cleveland, World Pub. Co., 1964, p. 93.
  46. Majumdar, R. C., Jibanera Smritideepe, Calcutta, General Printers and Publishers, 1978, pp. 229-230, (quotation translated from original Bengali).