| Indische Freiwilligen-Legion 950|
(Indian Volunteer Legion Regiment 950)
The Legion Freies Indien (German: "Free India Legion") or Indische Freiwilligen-Legion Regiment 950 ("Indian Volunteer Legion Regiment 950"), referred to colloquially as the Indische Legion ("Indian Legion"), variously known also as the Tiger Legion and the Azad Hind Fauj (Hindi: "Free India Army"), was an Indian military unit raised during World War II in Germany. It was initially raised in 1941 and attached to the German Army (Wehrmacht Heer) and later from August 1944 attached to the Waffen-SS. Ostensibly, the legion was to serve as an Indian liberation force, as conceived by Subhas Chandra Bose, chairman of the Indian National Congress and a prominent leader of the Indian independence movement, who co-founded the legion when he came to Berlin in 1941, having just escaped British house arrest in India. The initial recruits were Indian student volunteers resident in Germany at the time, and a handful from the Indian prisoners of war (POWs) captured by Erwin Rommel during his North Africa Campaign. It would later draw a larger number of Indian POWs as volunteers.
Though it was initially raised as an assault group that would form a pathfinder to a German-Indian joint invasion of the western frontiers of British India, only a small contingent was ever put to its original intended purpose. A hundred of the legionnaires were parachuted into eastern Iran in 'Operation Bajadere' to infiltrate into India through Baluchistan and commence sabotage operations against the British in preparation for an anticipated national revolt. The majority of the troops of the Indian Legion were only ever stationed in Europe – mostly in non-combat duties – from the Netherlands, to Atlantic Wall duties in France until the Allied invasion of France. A small contingent, including the leadership and the officer corps, was transferred to Azad Hind ("Free India") after its formation and saw action in the INA's Burma Campaign. In Italy, the unit saw action against British and Polish troops and also undertook anti-partisan operations in 1944.
At the time of the surrender of the Third Reich in 1945, the remaining troops of the Indian Legion made efforts to march to neutral Switzerland over the Alps, but these efforts proved futile as they were captured by American and French troops and eventually shipped back to India to face charges of treason. Because of the uproar the trials of Indians who served with the Axis caused among civilians and the military of British India, the Indian Legion members' trials were not completed.
- 1 Background
- 2 Origin
- 3 Freies Indien in operation
- 4 End of the Legion Freies Indien
- 5 Legacy
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
The origins of the idea of raising an armed force that would fight its way into India to bring down the Raj goes back to World War I, when the Ghadar Party and the nascent embryo of the Indian Independence League formulated plans to initiate rebellion in the British Indian Army from Punjab to Hong Kong with German support. This plan failed after the information was leaked to British intelligence, but only after the Hong Kong garrison had rebelled.
During World War II, all the three major Axis Powers, at some stage of their campaign against Britain, sought to support the armed revolutionary activities within India and aided the recruitment of a military force from disaffected Indian POWs captured while serving with the British Commonwealth forces, and from Indian expatriates. The most famous and successful force was the Indian National Army (INA) that came into being with the support of the Japanese Empire in the Far East. By 1942, Fascist Italy had created the Battaglione Azad Hindoustan ("Azad Hindustan Battalion"). This unit was formed from ex-Indian Army personnel and Italians previously resident in India and Persia, and ultimately served under the Military Regrouping Center (Ragruppamento Centri Militari). However, these efforts proved unsuccessful, given the overtly propagandist nature of their efforts that ultimately found little acceptance among the constituent soldiers, and the lack of a leadership that was deemed legitimate by the troops. By November 1942, following the defeats in El Alamein, Italian efforts had failed.
Although the Indian National Congress, the organisation leading the struggle for Indian independence, had passed resolutions conditionally supporting the fight against fascism, some Indian public opinion was more hostile at Britain's unilateral decision to declare India a belligerent on the side of the Allies. Among the more rebellious amongst Indian political leaders of the time was Subhas Chandra Bose, who was viewed as a sufficiently potent threat that when the war started, the Raj put him under arrest, and later under house arrest. Bose escaped from his house arrest in Calcutta on 19 January 1941 and made his way through Afghanistan to the Soviet Union, with the help of family members, members of his Forward Bloc part, and later the Abwehr. Once in Russia the NKVD transported Bose to Moscow where he hoped that Russia's traditional enmity to British rule in India would result in support for his plans for a popular rising in India. However, Bose found the Soviets' response disappointing and rapidly passed over to the German Ambassador in Moscow, Count von der Schulenberg, who arranged for Bose to be sent to Berlin.
Bose reached Berlin at the beginning of April 1941 where he met Ribbentrop and, later, Hitler. In Berlin, Bose set up the Azad Hind Radio and the Free India Centre which commenced broadcasting to Indians on short wave frequencies. The Azad Hind Radio broadcasts were estimated to have been regularly received by 30,000 Indians who possessed the requisite receiver. Soon Bose's aim became to raise an army, which he imagined would march to India's North-West Frontier Province with German forces through the Caucasus and trigger the downfall of the Raj.
The first troops of the Indian Legion were recruited from Rommel's Indian POWs captured at El Mekili, Libya during the battles for Tobruk. The Italians established three POW camps to accommodate and indoctrinate these captured POWs – Centro A established for Arabs, Centro I for Indians and Centro T for Tunisians. At Centro I the Italians established a Battaglione Hazad Hindouston (Free Indian Battalion) but the Indians refused to serve under Italian officers and the experiment was disbanded. The German forces in the Western Desert then selected a core group of 27 POWs as potential officers and they were flown to Berlin in May 1941, to be followed, after the Centro I experiment, by POWs being transferred to Germany. The number of POWs grew to about 10,000 who were eventually housed at a camp known as Annaburg, where Subhash Bose first met with these prisoners. From these, a group of approximately 6,000 men were transferred to the Frankenburg camp, from which a further core of 300 soldiers were sent to Königsbrück for training and induction. It was at Königsbrück that uniforms were issued, in German feldgrau with the badge of the leaping tiger of Azad Hind. The formation of the Indian National Army was announced by the German Propaganda Ministry in January 1942. It did not, however, take oath until 26 August 1942, as the Legion Freies Indien of the German Army. By May 1943, the numbers had swelled, aided by the enlistment as volunteers of Indian expatriates in Germany.
The British Indian Army organized regiments and units on the basis of religion and regional identity. Bose, from very early on, sought to end this practice and build up one unified Indian identity. Consequently, the Indian Legion was organized as mixed units so that Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jats, Rajputs, Marathas, Kumaonis and Garhwalis all served side-by-side. Approximately 59% were Hindu, 25% Muslim and 14% Sikh (rising to 20% later) and 14% other groups such as the Gurkhas, although some sources claim that they were majority Sikh. That Bose's idea of developing a unified racial-nationalist identity was successful was evident when Himmler proposed in late 1943 (after Bose's departure to the Far East) that the Muslim soldiers of the I.R. 950 be recruited into the SS Handschar Division that was formed at the time. The commander of the SS Head Office, Gottlob Berger, was obliged to point out that while the Bosnians perceived themselves as people of a European identity, the Indian Muslims perceived themselves as Indians. Hitler, however, showed little enthusiasm for the I.R. 950, at one stage insisting that their weapons be handed over to the newly created 18th SS Horst Wessel Division, exclaiming that "…the Indian Legion is a joke!"
Uniform and standard
The uniform issued to the Indian Legion were the standard German Army uniform of feldgrau in winter and khaki in summer. Additionally, the troops wore on their right upper arm a specially designed arm badge in the shape of the shield with three horizontal stripes of the saffron, white and green – the colours of the flag of Azad Hind – and featuring a leaping tiger on the white middle band. The legend Freies Indien inscribed in black featured on a white background above the tricolor. A saffron, white and green transfer was also worn on the left side of their helmets. Sikhs in the legion were permitted to wear a turban, of a color appropriate to their uniform as dictated by their religion instead of the usual peaked field cap.
The standard of the Indian Legion – presented as regimental colours in 1942 – featured the same design as the arm badge of the IR 950 consisting of saffron, white and green horizontal bands in the stated order from top to bottom. The white middle band was approximately three times the width of the two colored bands. The words "Azad" and "Hind" in white were inscribed over the saffron and green bands respectively. Also over the white middle band featured a leaping tiger. This is essentially the same design that the Azad Hind Government later adopted as their flag, although photographic evidence shows that the later Indian National Army, at least during the Burma Campaign, may not have carried it as their battle standard, opting for the flag of the Congress instead.
In 1942 Bose instituted several medals and orders for service to Azad Hind. As was typical for German decorations, crossed swords were added when they were issued for action in combat. How many, if any, actual medals were issued remains uncertain.
Structure and units
The Indian Legion was organized as a standard German army infantry regiment of three battalions of four companies each, at least initially with exclusively German commissioned officers. It has been later referred to as Panzergrenadier Regiment 950 (indische), indicating the unit was partially motorized. It was equipped with 81 motor vehicles and 700 horses. In this structure, the legion came to consist of:
- I. Bataillon – infantry companies 1 to 4
- II. Bataillon – infantry companies 5 to 8
- III. Bataillon – infantry companies 9 to 12
- 13th Infanteriegeschütz Kompanie (infantry-gun company – consisting of six 7.5 cm leichtes Infanteriegeschütz 18)
- 14th Panzerjäger Kompanie (anti-tank company – consisting of six panzerabwehrkanone)
- 15th Pionier Kompanie (engineer company)
- Ehrenwachkompanie (honour guard company)
It also included hospital staff, and training and maintenance staff.
Freies Indien in operation
It is doubtful that Subhas Chandra Bose envisaged the Free India Legion (or Azad Hind Legion as it came to be more popularly known by the time he left Germany for the far east) as an army sufficient or strong enough to conduct a campaign across Persia into India on its own. Instead, most historians accept that the IR 950 was to become the pathfinder, and would precede a much larger Indo-German force in a Caucasian campaign into the western frontiers of British India, that would encourage public resentment of the Raj and incite the British Indian Army into revolt.
To this end, Operation Bajadere was launched in January 1942 when a detachment of the Freies Indien, numbering about one hundred and having trained with the German Special Forces, were paradropped into Eastern Persia tasked to infiltrate into India through Baluchistan. They were also tasked to commence sabotage operations in preparation for the anticipated national revolt. Information passed on to Abwehr headquarters in Berlin from their office in Kabul indicate that they were successful.
Following German defeat in Europe at Stalingrad and in North Africa at El Alamein it became clear that an Axis assault through Persia or even the Soviet Union was unlikely. Bose had in the mean time travelled to the Far East where the Japanese troops were threatening India. Bose's army in South Asia, the Indian National Army successfully engaged the allies along with the Japanese 15th Army in Burma and ultimately entered India through Moirang to lay siege on Imphal. The German Naval High Command at this time made the decision to transfer the leadership and a segment of the Freies Indien to the Azad Hind Government in South Asia and on 21 January, it was formally made a part of the Indian National Army. A majority of the troops of the Indian Legion, however, were to remain in Europe through the war and were never utilized in their original perceived role over Persia and Central Asia.
Netherlands and France
The legion was transferred to Zeeland in the Netherlands in April 1943 as part of the Atlantic Wall duties and later to France in September 1943, attached to 344 Infanterie-Division, and later the 159 Infanterie-Division of the Wehrmacht.
From Beverloo in Belgium, I. Battalion was reassigned to Zandvoort in May 1943 where they stayed until relieved by Georgian troops in August. In September 1943, the battalion was deployed on the Atlantic coast of Bordeaux on the Bay of Biscay. II Battalion moved from Beverloo to the island of Texel in May 1943 and stayed there until relieved in September of that year. From here, it was deployed to Les Sables-d'Olonne in France. III Battalion remained at Oldebroek as Corps Reserve until the end of September 1943, where they gained a "wild and loathsome" reputation amongst the locals.
Transfer to the Waffen-SS
The legion was stationed in the Lacanau region of Bordeaux at the time of the Normandy landings and remained there for up to two months after D-Day. On 8 August 1944 Himmler authorized its control was to be transferred to the Waffen-SS (as was that of every other volunteer unit of the German Army). The unit as renamed the Indische Freiwilligen Legion der Waffen-SS. Command of the legion was very shortly transferred from Kurt Krapp to Heinz Bertling. The Indian personnel noticed a change of command was at hand and started to complain. Noting he wasn't "wanted" Bertling kindly refused the assignment and headed back to Berlin. On 15 August, the unit pulled out of Lacanau to make its way back to Germany. It was in the second leg of this journey, from Poitier to Chatrou that it suffered its first combat casualty (Lieutenant Ali Khan) while engaging French Regular forces in the town of Dun. The unit also engaged with allied armour at Nuits St. Georges while retreating across the Loire to Dijon. It was regularly harassed by the French Resistance, suffering two more casualties (Lieutenant Kalu Ram and Captain Mela Ram). The unit moved from Remiremont, through Alsace, to Oberhofen near the town of Heuberg in Germany in the winter of 1944, where it stayed until March 1945.
II Battalion, 9th Company, of the legion also saw action in Italy. Having been deployed in the spring of 1944, it faced the British 5th Corps and the Polish 2nd Corps before it was withdrawn from the front to be used in anti-partisan operations. It surrendered to the Allied forces in April 1945, still in Italy.
End of the Legion Freies Indien
With the defeat of the Third Reich imminent in May 1945, the Indian Legion sought sanctuary in neutral Switzerland. The remainder of the unit undertook a desperate 2.6-kilometer (1.6 mi) march along the shores of Lake Constance, attempting to enter Switzerland via the alpine passes. This was, however, unsuccessful and the legion was captured by US and French forces and delivered to British and Indian forces in Europe. There is some evidence that some of these Indian troops were shot by French Moroccan troops in the town of Immenstadt after their capture. The captured troops would later be shipped back to India where a number of the troops would stand trial for treason. It is alleged that a number of the Indian soldiers were shot by French troops before their delivery to British forces.
The integral associations of the Free India Legion with Nazi Germany and (later) Japan means its legacy is judged from two distinct view points – one of a collaborationist army of the Third Reich, and the other as the realization of a 'liberation' army against the British Raj in India. Comparisons have been made to the Vlasov movement in Russia.
The Free India Legion was conceived with the same doctrine as the Indian National Army and the entire Azad Hind movement, it has found little exposure since the end of the war even in Independent India, possibly due to a perception that their fight was far removed from the Battlefields of Burma, a land much closer to India where the troops of the INA fought and died and caught the public imagination. To consider the legacy of Free India Legion, however, one has to consider both the Azad Hind movement (of which the legion was possibly a birth mother, and certainly an integral plan of Bose's initial plans) and the events that happened at the time, both in and away from the public eye.
Finding itself desperately in the need of a leader after the disappearance of Subhas Chandra Bose, the legion surrendered to the British and the Americans soon after.
Perceptions as collaborators
In considering the history of the Free India Legion and the ramifications of its creation, the most controversial aspect comes to be its integral link to the Nazi Germany, with a prevailing perception among some historians that they were mere mercenaries and collaborators of the Third Reich by the virtue of their uniform, oath and field of operation. To properly assess this, one has to first assess what actions it is that may be termed collaborationist. Throughout Europe, during and after the war, collaboration came to be defined broadly as; being party to the Nazi philosophy of Aryan- and even more so, German- supremacy as a race; actively supporting and participating in the Nazi atrocities against inferior races and occupied people in support of furthering the Nazi ideology, and; actively supporting the Nazi war effort.
As a prologue to the main debate on these issues, it is necessary to consider the views of the founder and leader of the Free India Legion, Subhas Chandra Bose (for Bose was the life blood of the entire Free India Movement in Germany, and later in South Asia). Bose, in 1931, had organized and led protest marches against the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and of China itself in 1938 when he was Congress president. In 1937 he published an article attacking Japanese Imperialism in the Far East, although he betrayed some admiration for other aspects of the Japanese regime. Bose's earlier correspondence (prior to 1939) also reflects his deep disapproval of the racist practices of, and annulment of democratic institutions in Nazi Germany. He also, however, expressed admiration for the authoritarian methods (though not the racial ideologies) which he saw in Italy and Germany during the 1930s, and thought they could be used in building an independent India.
However, this does not address whether the men of the Freies Indien were party to or in collaboration with the Nazi machinery. Although, the Nazis regarded Indians as members of the Aryan race, the small number of Indians and their particular usefulness in Germany's situation resulted in Indians not receiving the best treatment. It is also fallacious to say that the soldiers of the Free India Legion were mere mercenaries who fought with the Reich, for money or power. Indeed, when the first POWs were brought to Annaburg camp and met by Subhas Chandra Bose, there was marked open hostility towards him as a Nazi propaganda puppet. Subsequent to this, at a time when Bose's efforts and views had gained more sympathy, a persistent query among the (then) POWs had been "How would the legionary stand in relation to the German soldier?". Neither were they prepared to fight Germany's war for Germany's people for Germany's interests. Italy had in 1942 created the Battaglione Azad Hindoustan, with Indian POWs captured by Italy, and Italians previously resident in India and Persia and led by an Indian resident in Rome for a long-time, Iqbal Shedai, whose rallying cry was to raise an Indian Unit to fight for India. In November 1942 the unit was three hundred and fifty strong, having been trained by Italian officers. Much has been said of the "dubious loyalty" of this unit. On 9 November, after the Allied landing in North Africa, the Italian high command made the decision to send the men to Libya to fight the allies instead of to India to fight for India's independence, contrary to Shedai's promises. The men refused to go and mutinied, insisting that they were only willing to fight for the Indian cause Shedai refused to intervene. Consequently, the Centro Militare India was disbanded. The men of the Battaglione Azad Hindoustan are later said to have been either integrated into the Free India Legion or sent back to POW camps. In another instance, immediately prior to the first deployment of the Free India Legion in the Netherlands in April 1943, after departure of I Battalion from Koenigsbrueck, two Companies within the II Battalion refused to move. The Free India Centre- in charge of the legion after the departure of Bose in January 1943 for South Asia- came to face a number of grievances, prime of which stood out two in particular; some were influenced by a rumour that Netaji had abandoned them and had gone off leaving them entirely in German hands; a second grievance was a perception that the Wehrmacht was now going to use them in the Western Front, instead of sending them to the East to fight for India's liberation. Even in the east, where the Indian National Army took its colossal shape, the first efforts under Captain Mohan Singh came to nought essentially because Rash Behari Bose, who led the Indian Independence League (of which the first INA in the east was integrally linked) lost credence among the troops, appearing as a Japanese pawn. These goes to show that the men never possessed loyalty either to the Fascist or the Nazi cause or ideology and that their motivation was to fight for India' liberation, their loyalty lay to India. They were unwilling to fight for an alien nation and for a cause that was distant to the one for which they had abandoned their oath to the King Emperor.
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-defence 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.
As for having participated in the Nazi war effort, in Europe the unit's deployments in the Netherlands and France appear to be solely for training purposes, according to Bose's plans for the unit to be trained in some aspects of coastal defence. Bose had also had the German High Command committed to not deploying the unit for purposes of German military interests and strategy. Indeed after the invasion of France by the Allies, the unit was ordered back to Germany. Even though the unit participated in atrocities, especially in the Medoc region in July 1944, and in the region of Ruffec and the department of Indre during their retreat, the allegations that the Free India Legion was nothing more than a collaborationist Heer unit is a very simplistic view of a formation of men who possibly imagined themselves as patriots and pioneers and not as Nazis or collaborators. However, the effects of the limited actions the unit undertook in anti-partisan role in Italy also ought to be considered while making a definitive conclusion. Briefly, the Free India Legion fought for a Nazi and Japanese victory, in the hope of gaining an independent India. Whether this would have also achieved a free India in a Nazi German and Imperial Japanese ruled world, or whether Chandra Bose's plan to establish a centralized state in India would have made it a free state, are both open to question.
Role in Indian independence
The Free India Legion did not engage in its original conceived role in the western front of British India, so it is not possible to hold any arguments as to whether they did – or could have (although meant to be) – fulfilled the destiny that the men of the legion had dreamt of. Moreover, the legion was, and still remains, far removed from public perception in India because it did not engage its enemy, the British Raj as did the Indian National Army in Burma, which was much closer to the home of the common Indian. Even the 9th Company's engagements in Italy with British forces are hardly known outside those circles with an interest in World War II history.
Were, then, Bose's plans for the Azad Hind Legion too grandiose for its own capability? In terms of military capability, that answer is a definitive yes, for the fate of the Free India Legion was tied like a corpse to that of the Axis. But in political terms, to consider the Azad Hind Legion a paper tiger can be debated, for it ignores a number of events that occurred within India and more specifically the British Indian Armed Forces in the post-war demobilisation scenario. To consider the effects that the legion had, it is necessary, however, to consider the effects that the entire Azad Hind movement (for they were a part of the same strategy and movement) had on the culmination of the British Raj in India.
After the war ended, the stories of the INA and the Free India Legion were seen as so inflammatory that, fearing mass revolts and uprisings — not just in India, but across its empire — the British Government forbade the BBC from broadcasting their story. The Raj also brought to trial soldiers and officers of the INA (as well as the Free India Legion, of which not much is known). However, the stories of the trials at the Red Fort filtered through. The Raj observed with alarm the turnaround in the perception of Azad Hind and its army as traitors and collaborators to the greatest among the patriots.
During the trial, inspired to a large extent by the stories of the INA soldiers that were going around the country at the time mutiny broke out in the Royal Indian Navy (the mutiny had other underlying social and political causes as well; see article), incorporating ships and shore establishments of the RIN throughout India, from Karachi to Bombay and from Vizag to Calcutta. The most significant, if disconcerting factor for the Raj, was the significant militant public support that it received. A wave of nationalist sentiments swept through the Indian troops who had fought with the Allies and were in the process of being de-mobilised. The Navy mutiny was followed up by another among the ground crew in the Royal Indian Air Force. Another Army mutiny took place at Jabalpur during the last week of February 1946, soon after the Navy mutiny at Bombay. This was suppressed by force, including the use of the bayonet by British troops. It lasted about two weeks. After the mutiny, about 45 persons were tried by court martial. Forty-one were sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment or dismissal. In addition, a large number were discharged on administrative grounds.
In the aftermath of the mutiny, the weekly intelligence summary issued on 25 March 1946 admitted that the Indian army, navy and air force units were no longer trustworthy, and, for the army, "only day to day estimates of steadiness could be made". It was decided that: if wide-scale public unrest took shape, the armed forces (including the air force – for Quit India had shown how it could turn violent) could not be relied upon to support counter-insurgency operations as they had been during the Quit India movement of 1942, and drawing from experiences of the Tiger Legion and the INA, their actions could not be predicted from their oath to the King Emperor.
Reflecting on the factors that guided the British decision to relinquish the Raj in India, Clement Attlee, the then British prime minister, cited several reasons, the most important of which were the INA activities of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, which weakened the Indian Army – the foundation of the British Empire in India – and the RIN Mutiny that made the British realise that the Indian armed forces could no longer be trusted to prop up the Raj.
Although Britain had made, at the time of the Cripps' mission in 1942, a commitment to grant dominion status to India after the war; these events and views held in 1946 by the administrations of the Raj would suggest to the reader that, contrary to the usual narrative of India's independence struggle (which generally focuses on Congress and Mahatma Gandhi), the INA and the revolts, mutinies, and public resentment it germinated were one factor in the complete withdrawal of the Raj from India.
In the same breath, whether awarded any credit for India's independence or not, the events at the time show that the strategy of Azad Hind (derived from the embryo of the Free India Legion) of achieving independence from Britain by fomenting revolts and public unrest – although militarily a failure – remains, politically, a significant and historic success. Ironically, the military failure, worked just as well for the cause, as the Axis victory could have led to bondage for India by the foreign dictatorships it was aiding. It should also be noted that officers of the INA & Bose were ready to fight the Japanese in case of exploitation of the Indian nation by them.
- Wilmott, Cross, Messenger "World War II", page 249
|Commons has media related to Legion "Freies Indien".|
- Hitler's secret Indian army – BBC News
- Indian Volunteers in the German Wehrmacht on Feldgrau.com
- Legion Freies Indien on Axis History Fact Books