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On 6 August 1945, a US plane dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima; three days later, a second bomb was released over Nagasaki. With Soviet tanks rolling across the border of Japanese-controlled Manchuria (in northern China), it was clear to Japan’s emperor, Hirohito, that his country now faced the prospect of total annihilation. Japan surrendered on 15 August; the Second World War, the most destructive conflict in human history, was over.

For the British and Commonwealth troops strung out across the Asian subcontinent, the sudden end of hostilities evoked a mix of complex emotions. With Burma having been reconquered in May, some were preparing for new campaigns to retake Britain’s lost colonies to the south and east. Some were involved in reconstruction and repair operations, while others awaited leave, or even repatriation.

The west African troops in Allied Land Forces South East Asia (whose main subordinate formation was the famous 14th Army) greeted the news with joy. According to the quarterly morale reports compiled in theatre, they were so enthused that spirits continued to be “very high” well into September. And Indian troops, who had been at the forefront of the final great campaign in Burma against the Japanese, responded to the news “enthusiastically”. But positive sentiments about the prospects of a return to civilian life soon turned to anxiety, as soldiers reflected on the possibility of unemployment.

For British soldiers, who by the fall of Rangoon (the Burmese capital) made up only 13 per cent of the 14th Army, the announcement was met “first with reserve and then with great satisfaction”. This was a more positive response than that elicited by the news of victory in Europe in May, which had been “received without enthusiasm”. But “news of strikes and shortages at home” soon began to “provoke bitter and impatient comment”. The sudden cessation of the American Lend Lease programme, the materiel lifeline that had sustained Britain during the long and arduous conflict, caused some “ill-feeling towards America”. Britain was now faced with a new “Dunkirk”, one of a financial character; its only option would be to ask the Americans for an immediate loan.

Disenchantment in the ranks

Among the Askari of the 11th East African Division, “the news of Japan’s defeat produced a general feeling of relief but also an impatience with the rigours of military life and discipline”. VE Day had been celebrated in a “hearty manner”, on the understanding that it meant more troops for Asia and a speedier return to Africa. By August, however, the soldiers’ letters betrayed “war weariness” and a general “disinclination to engage in another campaign”. As the British morale report put it, in a comment that could easily apply to the whole of the 14th Army, “relief at the news of victory soon gave way to an almost overwhelming desire to go home”.

It is a little disconcerting, perhaps, given the foundational status of the Second World War in British culture, to read of disenchantment at the end of the conflict. But, in many ways, these comments point to one of the key characteristics of the British and Commonwealth war effort: the war was fought by citizen armies, citizen navies and citizen air forces. The war was won by individuals for whom the conflict had always been more centred on personal and local issues than strategic concerns. Home would always trump geopolitics.

In this sense, the story of the British and Commonwealth forces in south-east Asia was about more than just battles. It was also about hearts and minds, hopes and fears. Generals and politicians had to make the grand ideological and geo-strategic underpinnings of the war make sense for the ‘poor bloody infantry’. When they managed to do so, the British and Commonwealth Armies fought with determination. When they failed, defeat and disaster often ensued.

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In Britain, the war had begun with political disunity – with the same being true of many countries in the British empire. It was only with Winston Churchill’s accession to power in May 1940 and the formation of a new, broader coalition government, which included Labour, that a semblance of political accord was achieved in the United Kingdom.

In India, the commencement of international hostilities sparked nothing short of a major political crisis. The Indian National Congress insisted that support for the war could only be given if the London government renounced imperialism and promised independence. When the viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, offered no more than a meagre postwar review of the 1935 constitution, which had offered political reforms to India but crucially did not award it dominion status, the Congress ministries followed the Congress High Command’s instructions and resigned as a body.

The difficulty of uniting people, so evident among political elites (especially in India), was matched also by citizens’ attitudes to mobilisation. The weight of available evidence points to a far less fervent and less deferential population than that which mythically went ‘willingly’ to war in 1914. Conscription was introduced in the United Kingdom, except Northern Ireland, from the outset of the war. But, in the highly charged political climate of the subcontinent, conscription was simply out of the question. The Indian Army would have to be expanded by volunteerism alone.

The poor, destitute and needy joined the Indian army; it was a force of economic conscripts

At face value, the Raj was extremely successful in this endeavour: the Indian army of 2.25 million was to become the largest volunteer army in history. However, it represented only about 3 per cent of the entire adult male population of the region in this period; by comparison, 45 per cent of the eligible male population in Britain served in the armed forces. In the main, it was the poor, the destitute and the needy (those who had little other option) who joined up. The Indian army was a force of economic conscripts; it was a volunteer army in name only.

Slumping morale

All this mattered, because soldiers’ morale was dependent, to an extent far greater than expected, on social factors and a desire for change. The war, at this stage, was not viewed as a crusade, but as a bad business that would have to be endured while it lasted. In the absence of concrete promises for socio-political change in Britain and India, many men wondered what they were fighting for. A struggle fought to maintain the status quo aroused little enthusiasm among the troops.

As a consequence, morale and fighting effectiveness suffered. Defeat followed defeat, from the first Japanese attack on Malaya, on 8 December 1941, to the final desperate retreat from Burma, in May 1942. Commanders and politicians despaired at the performance of the troops. This sentiment was reflected in Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival’s warning, issued on 11 February 1942, before the climactic – and catastrophic – conclusion of the battle for Singapore: “In some units the troops have not shown the fighting spirit which is to be expected of men of the British empire. It will be a lasting disgrace if we are defeated by an army of clever gangsters, many times inferior in numbers to our own. The spirit of aggression and determination to stick it out must be inculcated in all ranks. There must be no further thought of withdrawal without orders.”

Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Stewart, the Commanding Officer of the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, despaired that one of the key factors limiting the performance of the British and Commonwealth armies was ideology. “The cultivation of ideals for which we fight so as to make them real and alive to individuals” had, in his view, simply not been “practised” by politicians and commanders in Malaya. This, he said, should have been one of the “first duties” of military and national leaders in a time of emergency. The consequences of these oversights were immense. Losing only 5,500 men, outnumbered Japanese forces had seized the greater part of Britain’s empire in the far east.

It is of lasting credit to those who fought that this dire situation was turned around, and, as General Sir William Slim, the Commander of 14th Army, put it, defeat turned into victory. The dynamics of morale, training and doctrine were central to this story.

An uncertain future

First up, the issue of morale had to be addressed. The failure of the Cripps mission, in March 1942, to find a new constitutional settlement for India, and the violence sparked by a new revolutionary movement, ‘Quit India’, that August, demonstrated the extent to which the British government in India had failed to fully mobilise the people for total war. It was clear from morale reports that “one of the chief anxieties” among soldiers was the “feeling of uncertainty as to what will happen when the war is over”. The situation was little better for British soldiers. After a visit to the far east in April 1943, Sir Ronald Adam, the Adjutant General of the British Army, reported that the average British soldier felt that he “was fighting for a country that did not want us”.

Firstly the issue of morale had to be addressed, as events in India showed, the nation was not prepared for total war

The solution Adam proposed was Army Education. Every unit of the Indian Army was ordered to create groups to discuss current affairs and the rationale for the war. Any antipathy soldiers had towards the war, or the empire, was supposed to pale in comparison to the hatred that would be fanned for the Japanese. An image of the Japanese soldier as ruthless, fanatical and cruel – but beatable – was deliberately cultivated. By the end of 1943, it was clear that Army Education was “having a good effect – in some cases considerable – in promoting knowledge of the purpose and implications of the war against the Japanese”. The Indian Army, in the absence of the mass mobilisation of the subcontinent, had to make the most of the resources and powers directly at its disposal; Army Education was one of the many vehicles it successfully employed to achieve this end.

Another was the provision of more enlightened welfare amenities for the citizen soldier. The authorities in India gradually realised that morale could be nurtured by ensuring that day-to-day interactions between the army, the citizen soldier and his family were carried out in the most positive manner possible. Morale reports pointed out that a sizeable number of troops in the Indian Army had not enlisted out of any desire to serve the military, “but in order to provide for [their] families”. Naturally, therefore, there was “great concern” among soldiers about conditions in the villages, and the importance of village welfare markedly increased as the war wore on, especially with regards to “high prices and [the] scarcity of essentials”. It was perhaps fortunate for the army that, as the morale reports put it, “very few soldiers” were “recruited from famine areas” (up to 4 million people had died in a famine that struck Bengal in 1943).

District Soldiers Boards were set up on an all-India basis to look after the domestic interests of fighting men, and the Directorate of Welfare and Amenities (India) introduced women’s welfare centres at training depots across the subcontinent.

Racial reforms

The last piece of the morale puzzle related to the racialised policies that had for so long discriminated against Asian members of the British and Commonwealth forces in India. Indian officers were second-class citizens in their own army. At the beginning of the war, there had been only 577 Indian officers in an army nearly 200,000 strong; by the end of the war, there were more than 15,000, with 220 lieutenant colonels and four temporary or acting brigadiers. Whereas in 1939 there had been 10 British officers to every Indian officer in the army, by 1945, the ratio had fallen to four to one. By early 1942, equal pay had been introduced. In June 1943, it was announced that Indian officers were to have powers of punishment over British army personnel.

By the second half of 1943, it was clear that a spirit of reform had begun to take root in the Indian Army. But improvements in morale meant little if the army could not master the technical challenges of confronting the Japanese in the jungle. Central to this process of tactical transformation was the work of the Infantry Committee, India, which convened in May 1943. It was apparent to the committee that the close character of the fighting in the jungle required soldiers to make rapid decisions when they came into contact with the enemy; acting without delay could be the difference between success and failure, life and death. Accordingly, vast, centrally controlled, tactical training programmes were set up to better prepare soldiers for the challenge of jungle warfare. New recruits and veterans alike were taught how to live, move and fight in the jungle.

The Infantry Committee also pointed to the need for a simple, consistent and recognised jungle warfare technique. There were, it noted, numerous jungle warfare doctrines in circulation, some of them fundamentally different from others. The committee now recommended that trained soldiers should follow one, and only one, approach. This new operational method was set out in the fourth edition of ‘Military Training Pamphlet No. 9 (India): Jungle Warfare’, more commonly known as the ‘Jungle Book’. Published in September 1943, the ‘Jungle Book’ effectively became the tactical bible of the Indian Army in Burma.

To improve matters further, reinforcements started to pour in from other parts of the empire. The presence of all these new troops, and increasingly well-prepared formations in Burma, offered an opportunity to decisively retake the initiative in south-east Asia. At Imphal and Kohima, between March and June 1944, the 14th Army inflicted a crushing defeat on Japanese forces. Then, in November 1944, it launched its famous ‘Capital’ offensive. By May 1945, it had captured Rangoon, in the process outmanoeuvring and outfighting a much larger Japanese force than was ever encountered by the Americans in the Pacific.

An army without ideological conviction had been superseded by a confident, highly motivated and well-trained force

A disparate army without ideological conviction had been superseded by a flexible, confident, highly motivated, innovative, increasingly culturally representative and highly trained force. The transformation of the British and Commonwealth armies in the far east was complete.

The winds of change

There was much to be proud of, therefore, on 15 August 1945. But there was a caveat: victory had taken far longer than anyone might have anticipated in 1941. As a consequence, the war let loose powerful agents of change. In Britain, it resulted in the political earthquake of Labour’s landslide victory in the July 1945 general election, an outcome that evoked “mainly favourable comments” among British soldiers who were anxious for social change back home.

Indian soldiers also “welcomed… the advent of a Labour government”, as they believed it augured “hope for India’s future”. Accordingly, there was much interest in the forthcoming Indian elections and “in the future of Congress”.

Reports on west African troops noted the creation of “associations and brotherhoods” of a “semi-political nature” in 82nd (West African) Division and indications of a more general politicisation across the division, as illustrated by sympathies with strikers in Nigeria and “annoyance at the suppression of certain Nigerian newspapers”. Meanwhile, the censors worried about anti-Indian feelings among east African troops, amid concerns that veterans might provoke trouble for the Indian community in east Africa on their return.

But, more generally, the letters of east African troops captured the hopes of all the soldiers in the far east: there was a “marked interest in postwar affairs”, as writers sought to make personal sense of the seismic changes that had accompanied the war. These would lead eventually to the reorientation of the political economy of Britain and the dissolution of empire.

Victory was great, but more than anything else, citizens and subjects of the empire wanted to “see more and better schools and hospitals”; they wanted payback for their many years of sacrifice. To succeed, ‘big ideas’ had, from start to finish, to take account of the ‘little stories’ of ordinary people. The war had not been an end in itself for the soldiers of the British Commonwealth. It was a step on the road towards a greater aspiration, political and social reform and, above all, a better life.

Jonathan Fennell is a reader in modern history at King’s College London. His multi-award winning book Fighting the People’s War: The British and Commonwealth Armies and the Second World War was published by Cambridge in 2019


This article was first published in the September 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine