The untold story of India’s WW2 prisoners of war

Some 75,000 Indian soldiers were captured by Axis powers during the Second World War. Diya Gupta explores how their experiences change their view of the Raj, and why have their stories been overlooked?

An Indian soldier, emaciated after internment by the Japanese, aboard the British hospital ship 'Oxfordshire' in 1945 (Keystone/Getty Images)

Life in New Britain, off the north-east coast of New Guinea, during the Second World War was gruelling – and agonisingly so for Allied prisoners of war (PoWs) interned by the Japanese. “There on the ground I lay, shivering, helpless,” recalled one soldier of his captivity after he had caught malaria in July 1943, describing in visceral detail the torrential rain, wet clothes and mosquitoes. “The thin cotton blanket given to me being inadequate to protect me from the cold, I waited for the sun to warm me. I would shiver like a leaf. Then, seized by fever, my body would turn as hot as fire – I would become unconscious, then awake only to find myself perspiring. There was not a soul who could give [me] a sip of even cold water.”

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On the other side of the world, a doctor – also a captured Allied soldier, brought to Colditz Castle at the heart of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich in 1943 – experienced a similar sense of acute loneliness. After hearing the sound of the key turning as the door was closed behind him, the doctor asked the sentry in German where he was; putting fingers to his ears, the sentry remained silent, leaving the prisoner in complete darkness in his cell. Confined within the forbidding walls of the castle, this was as much a psychological incarceration as a physical imprisonment.

When the war reached the subcontinent, the British Raj was fissured, threatened abroad by imperialist Axis ambitions and within India by nationalist forces

Sickness, hunger, cold, solitude: these would have been sensations familiar to many of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers held as PoWs during the Second World War. What makes the stories of these two men – John Baptist Crasta in south-east Asia, and Captain Birendranath Mazumdar in Germany – special is that both were Indian soldiers with the British army, and that both left accounts providing rare insights into the testing experiences of Indian PoWs.

Some 2.5 million men from pre-independent India served the British empire during the Second World War. Yet this was the period during which India’s struggle for freedom from British rule was at its most incendiary – so what was it like fighting for the British? When the conflict reached the subcontinent, the British Raj was fissured, threatened abroad by imperialist ambitions of the Axis powers and within India by rising nationalist forces.

Soldiers of the 4th Indian Infantry Division of the British Eighth Army share a meal of beans , curry and chapattis in 1943 (Eliot Elisofon/Getty Images)
Soldiers of the 4th Indian Infantry Division of the British Eighth Army share a meal of beans , curry and chapattis in 1943 (Eliot Elisofon/Getty Images)

The external war brought in its wake internal foment. India was declared a belligerent in September 1939 by the viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, who failed to consult the burgeoning Indian political leadership, represented by the Indian National Congress, on this decision. The 1942 Quit India movement, beginning as protests against this undemocratic involvement in the war, evolved into mass agitations against nearly two centuries of British colonial rule, suppressed in turn by an occupation-style use of force. The British empire needed men and resources for the war; it would not be quitting India just yet. In fact, 57 infantry battalions of the British Indian Army were diverted from international theatres of war and moved inward, within India, to restrain the August Kranti (revolution) of 1942.

Notions of freedom

India’s participation in the Second World War – the so-called ‘good war’ – complicated its moral righteousness. The notion of fighting for freedom could not be limited to the idea of combating fascism alone; it became implicated in the struggle against colonialism. Indeed, Jawaharlal Nehru – who in 1947 became the first prime minister of independent India – highlighted how India’s liberation from colonial rule occupied a central role in the consideration of world freedom, where fascism and imperialism were conjoined. In the Quit India Resolution of August 1942, he stated: “By the freedom of India will Britain and the United Nations be judged, and the peoples of Asia and Africa be filled with hope and enthusiasm… A free India will assure this success by throwing all her great resources in the struggle for freedom and against the aggression of Nazism, Fascism and Imperialism.”

These views were seen as seditious by colonial authorities. Gandhi, Nehru and other members of the Indian National Congress leadership were sent to prison, where most remained for the duration of the war. Meanwhile, the British Indian Army rapidly expanded. The Indian home front, becoming a wartime industrial production house and suffering acute shortages in grain, kerosene, cloth and other essential items, changed in drastic and sometimes horrific ways. In 1943, the Bengal famine (which also affected other parts of India), exacerbated by the colonial government’s agricultural, economic and export decisions informed by war priorities, resulted in the deaths of over three million people.

From the start of hostilities, Indian soldiers were posted in nearly every theatre of war: in Persia, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt, east Africa (including Abyssinia), Syria, Aden, Greece, Italy, Burma and the Malay peninsula. The Middle Eastern and north African battlefronts proved particularly significant: Indian troops played a vital role in the battles of Tobruk in Libya in 1941 and El Alamein in Egypt in 1942, before contributing to the liberation of Italy between 1943 and 1945. They were also crucial to the Burma campaign: of one million men sent to Burma under the British-controlled South East Asia Command to fight Japanese forces, 700,000 were Indians.

What happened to these men when captured by Axis forces varied widely, depending on where each was taken captive and who the captor was. By the end of the war, about 200,000 British and imperial troops were imprisoned in PoW camps in Germany, while Japan’s rapid occupation of British-governed territory in south-east Asia between December 1941 and March 1942 resulted in more than 180,000 Allied troops, including colonial forces, being taken captive. Of these, about 15,000 Indian PoWs were in German and Italian custody, and more than 60,000 Indian troops were captured in Singapore by the Japanese.

Despite the large numbers involved, hardly any accounts from Indian PoWs are known. So the memoir of John Baptist Crasta, who shivered with malaria in New Britain in 1943, is precious, not least because it includes one of the few first-person Indian accounts of the Allied forces’ surrender to Japan in Singapore. He spent three and a half of his four years in southeast Asia and Oceania as a PoW under the Japanese, finally returning to India on Christmas Eve 1945, aged 35 years. Though he was overjoyed at being home, his physical health had greatly deteriorated. Incredibly weak and ill, he needed six months’ sick leave to recuperate, nursed by his mother.

It was during this convalescence that he wrote an account of his imprisonment, scribbling in pencil on the yellowing stationery of his brother’s shoe store in Kinnigoli, near the city of Mangalore in Karnataka, south-west India. His manuscript, which had no title nor chapters, lay forgotten for 51 years until it was recovered and published as a surprise for him by his son in 1997; Crasta died two years later. His son titled the printed memoir Eaten by the Japanese – an allusion to alleged cannibalistic practices by sections of the Japanese army during the war, but used in this case as a metaphor for his father’s intense suffering as a PoW. A large portion of the memoir is a clear and unsentimental account of slow bodily attrition caused by tremendous hard labour and starvation. Describing the heat, suffocation and darkness he endured aboard a troop ship carrying him and fellow prisoners to New Britain, he asked: “Could Inferno be worse?”

The doctor whose account of PoW life in Colditz is cited at the start of this article was Captain Birendranath Mazumdar from Calcutta, who was stationed in France in late 1939. While travelling from Étaples to Boulogne with a convoy of ambulances in 1940, he was stopped and commanded to turn back by a German lieutenant, who informed Mazumdar that he would never reach Boulogne, because France had capitulated to German forces. That was the start of Mazumdar’s long PoW journey. By the end of the war, he had been transferred between no fewer than 17 PoW camps.

Deprivation and disillusionment

An Indian imprisoned in Germany recalled that white European PoWs would not share their food from Red Cross parcels

Recounting the hardship of surviving on paltry rations – soup, black coffee and bread – Mazumdar recalled that white European PoWs would not share with him their food from Red Cross parcels. It marked the beginning of his disillusionment with the absence of the progressive values he had expected of the west.

Stubborn and strong-willed, Mazumdar often did not comply with orders, and declared openly to German officers that he did not have enough supplies with which to treat patients. Speaking to an interviewer from the Imperial War Museums in 1996, more than 50 years after his war experiences and shortly before his own death, he vividly remembered the PoW camp in the German town of Marienberg, where Russian prisoners with gunshot wounds and amputated legs repeatedly asked him for assistance. He could not help them.

In the interview, Mazumdar also analysed his uneasy relationship with British officers in Colditz, where he was the only prisoner of colour. Military and colonial hierarchies were firmly entrenched here, even among those who had been fighting on the same side. Mazumdar was made to salute a senior British officer every time they spoke, and was instructed not to fraternise with the Germans who, as the British officers suspected, kept trying to lure him into defecting.

A sleeve badge for the Indian Legion, affiliated with the Indian National Army, formed in 1941. Prisoners of war in Germany were recruited to this organisation (INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo)
A sleeve badge for the Indian Legion, affiliated with the Indian National Army, formed in 1941. Prisoners of war in Germany were recruited to this organisation. (Image by INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo)

By then, India was waging its own war against the British Raj. From 1943, the Indian National Army, led by the charismatic political radical Subhas Chandra Bose, fought Allied forces in south-east Asia, and Indian PoWs were targeted for recruitment. About 4,000 PoWs imprisoned in north Africa and Europe joined the Indian Legion (the name of the Indian National Army in Europe), but many others – including Mazumdar – did not.

Many Indian PoWs related their experiences to friends and family members through letters, anonymised extracts of which remain archived at the British Library in London. The top priorities for one incarcerated Jemadar (a junior rank of officer) were practical items – toothpaste and shoes. Writing to a friend in August 1942, he described being imprisoned in Libya and Germany, where he had “a comfortable time”. However, “we need some other things of daily use such as toothpaste and stockings. If it is no trouble to you please send me a pair of shoes of No. 9 size.”

In July 1943, an Indian sepoy (soldier) imprisoned in Germany wrote rather accusingly to another sepoy in Cairo: “I don’t know whether you are getting my mail, but I’ve sent you a lot of letters and had no reply. As prisoners of war we have nothing to take up our minds and we look forward to getting letters, so you must write to me once a month, or better still, once a week.” This prescriptiveness about writing regularly reveals, once again, an acute sense of boredom and loneliness on the sepoy’s part. How was one to pass the time in prison?

Writing between December 1942 and January 1943, another soldier told his mother about the terrible conditions of his imprisonment: “Dear mother… I cannot describe how atrociously we prisoners were treated by the Germans. We were given half a pint of water and one 8oz biscuit. This was all our daily meal. We were employed on odd jobs, fatigues from early morning till it was dark. We were beaten and kicked by the Germans… We have suffered such a lot which, if I write down, will pierce your heart.”

There are rich seams of forgotten stories beyond Eurocentric views: this was a world war, and colonial experiences are woven through its fabric

If the rigours and complexity of Indian PoW lives would indeed “pierce our hearts”, how is it that they have remained forgotten for some 80 years? “Memory itself is a battlefield, in which there are high stakes involved,” observed historian Joanna Bourke. British remembrance of the Second World War has been framed by the persistent parochialism of Britain ‘standing alone’ in combating fascism. But there are rich seams of forgotten stories beyond this Eurocentric point of reference: this was a world war, and colonial experiences are intricately woven through its fabric.

Hijacked by events

In modern south Asia, recollections of imperial military service rubbed uncomfortably against post-war decolonisation processes, which highlighted narratives of resistance to the British empire. Rather than shaping national identity, as it did in the UK, in India the Second World War was hijacked by momentous events immediately following the war years – independence in 1947, followed by communal violence and the trauma of partition creating the separate nation of Pakistan. The history of Indian participation in the Second World War has left behind a difficult legacy in both the UK and the Indian subcontinent, as nationalisms of different hues glossed over colonial involvement in this war.

Children celebrate 60 years of India's independence in 2007
Children celebrate 60 years of India’s independence in 2007. Participation in the Second World War left a very different legacy in India from that of the UK (Dinodia Photos / Alamy Stock Photo)

Absorbing these forgotten Indian PoW narratives on the 80th anniversary of the start of the Second World War highlights how little we know of the past – even one that might seem familiar to us. Crasta’s memoir, Mazumdar’s interview and letters by unknown Indians reveal that there was no homogenous Indian PoW experience. Instead, we are left with evocative fragments of these men’s immediate and intimate encounters of conflict. More than wreaths and monuments, these narratives teach us to think critically about what we remember about war, and deepen our understanding of a global history of terrible violence.

Diya Gupta is a postdoctoral visiting research fellow at the Institute of English Studies, University of London

Read next: Famine and freedom: how the Second World War ignited India

Millions of Indian soldiers served during the Second World War, with almost 90,000 losing their lives. Yet as Yasmin Khan explains, the huge efforts of Indians toiling on the home front, and the extreme hardships they suffered, had an even more empire-shaking impact 

 

Young women working in a textile mill in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1943
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This article first appeared in issue 19 of BBC World Histories magazine