World War II was nearing an end, and the Indian Volunteer Legion of the Waffen-SS began a long and gruelling march through Switzerland, to get away from a war they didn’t sign up for.
They had no such luck and were captured by the American and French troops. Their crime was treason. Of the 2.5 million Indian troops who fought for the Allies, up to 3,000 served on the German side during the war, as part of Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian Legion (Indische Legion) in Europe.
Theirs is a largely untold history, and the reason they joined the Nazis had nothing to do with Hitler’s rhetoric and ideology. They were prisoners of war, captured from the North African front, and set to be put to work in hard labour camps in Germany. Bose managed to convince the Axis that they could become a valuable force of propaganda. After years of negotiations, he had turned both Mussolini and Adolf Hitler towards the cause of Indian independence from the British.
Bose was no stranger to the crimes of the Nazis. From his perspective, he was making a strategic alliance against a common enemy. Their initial goal – to mount an invasion of India and liberate it from British rule, with Nazi help. In both Italy and Germany, regiments of captured Indian soldiers were turned into forces for the Axis.
However, Bose and Hitler both knew that this was an unlikely vision, and had their differences in a painful meeting. Hitler explained that India was just too far away from the German lines to be accessible by land routes and suggested that Bose focuses his efforts on East Asia. Bose told his translator to tell the Fuhrer, “Tell his Excellency that I have been in politics all my life and that I do not need advice from any side.” The details of this meeting were kept hidden from the soldiers, for the sake of morale.
From 1941, the Azad Hind Radio jostled for space amidst Europe’s airwaves. Broadcast in English, Hindustani, Bengali, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Persian and other languages, it was meant to reach the diverse collection of Indian forces who fought alongside the Allies in Europe and Asia. To keep the troops entertained, India music was taken from the BBC’s own broadcasts and re-broadcast on AHR.
Attempt to turn the British Indian forces against their commanders were largely unsuccessfully. 2.5 million men strong, it was the largest all-volunteer force in history and many soldiers viewed it as the real Indian Army.
For captured PoWs, it was a different story. They had a direct view of Bose, who saw to it that they were treated as formal soldiers by the Germans, with pay. The pay came with a condition – together, they had to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler:
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.
The Indian Legion was a completely different experience for the men, accustomed to the martial tradition of the British – keeping with the theory of martial races, soldiers of different castes and religions never mixed. Now they were in the same group, and Bose noticed that they lacked a common greeting. So he gave them one – ‘Jai Hind’.
His years in Germany ultimately yielded little. The legion he had raised were unlikely to fight in India anytime soon, and he strongly opposed Germany’s plan to use them on the Greek front. In 1943, two days after the Indian independence day of January 26, he delivered his last speech to his men in Europe. Nobody from the Indian side knew he was leaving besides his deputy, A.C.N. Nambiar. Bose boarded a type-IX U-boat and set off on the long journey to Tokyo – the next phase in his life.
The soldiers he left behind were demoralised. They trained on but took to idleness after a while. They were still considered prisoners of war and received packages from the Red Cross in Britain – comprising cigarettes, chocolates, milk, biscuits and even copies of the Mahabharata. The parcels were luxurious at the time, and the historian Milan Hauner says the legion used them to ‘attract the favours of local women.’ Eventually, he adds, a brothel was set up for them in Holland.
Bose’s mandate was that the men could not be used to further Nazi interests alone – they had to be kept alive for the greater Indian cause. With frontline combat duty out of the question, the legion was stationed in the north of the Siegfried line, near the Atlantic Wall. They set to work on constructions, under the supervision of the man who had captured them in the first place – Field Marshall Rommell.
As the war turned against the Axis, the Indische Legion stationed in France retreated to Germany. Along the way, reports of rape and pillage gave them a poor name in the area. This would come back to haunt those who tried to desert the Legion.
A group of 25 men along with a few Germans fled their lines in August 1944. They were captured by the French Resistance, and according to one account, left behind in a town that they had earlier attacked. Members of a French guerilla outfit arrived, gunned them down in cold blood – and disappeared.
Most of the Indians captured by the Allies were sent back to India, to await their sentence at the Red Fort trials. The penalty for treason would have been death, but of the tens of thousands who stood trial for supporting the INA, none were ultimately sentenced. The trials accompanied the mutiny of the Royal Indian Navy – amongst others – and left the British unsure of their grip on the country.
The Indian soldiers in Europe were fighting a war that, mostly, wasn’t theirs. For those in the Legion, serving under the Germans without Bose by their side, life was a battle without direction. Ultimately, in raising the Legion, Bose managed to spare the PoWs from death in a Nazi labour camp. Their re-capture by the Allies saw them return to India and the sight of an independent nation.
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