In Focus: The Indian Soldiers of World War II by Editorial Board
“I always say, Britain didn’t fight the Second World War, the British Empire did” – Yasmin Khan, author of The Raj at War.
2.5 million Indian soldiers enlisted in the British Indian Army during World War II. 87,000 soldiers died, 35,000 were wounded and almost 68,000 were taken as prisoners by German, Italian and Japanese forces. Against the backdrop of a growing call for independence back home in British India, the British Indian Army — the largest volunteer force in history — remained dedicated to the British cause and defeating Nazi Germany.
The involvement of Indian forces during the war was not simply confined to Europe. Indian servicemen undertook their duty wherever they were required: from Ethiopia to Egypt; Libya to Tunisia; Algeria to Iraq; Syria to Lebanon; and Hong Kong to Indonesia. At the end of the war, Indian personnel received 4,000 awards and 31 Victoria Crosses, the highest military decoration.
World War II was the final time the Indian Army fought under British rule. Unbeknown to them, the collective Indian effort would go on to mark the end of British rule in India. Independence and partition soon followed in 1947. From one horrific event to another, Indians soon found themselves fighting for their own nation state.
This article is part of Project Empire, an editorial series designed to explore the history of the British Empire. See the full collection here »
Thousands of new recruits to the Indian Army form all over India at an Indian army training center / IWM.
Subedar (Sergeant) Chawan of 3rd Battalion, 5th Mahratta Infantry, 1943. His battalion had served in North Africa between 1941-1943 before taking part in the invasion of Italy. His unit was also involved in the crossing of the Sangro, the advance to Florence, the breaking of the Gothic Line and the engagements at Alpe de Vitigliano and the River Senio / National Army Museum
Jemadar Ali Musa Khan and men of 'A' Squadron, Central India Horse, Cyrenaica, December 1941. Its position in an album compiled by Captain (later Lieutenant-Colonel) Birdwood suggests that this photograph was taken soon after Benghazi (Libya) was re-occupied by the British on 24 December 1941 after the Germans had abandoned the city. Earlier in 1941, when operating against Axis forces in the Solum area of the Western Desert, the regiment was subject to frequent attack by low-flying aircraft.
Indian troops in North Africa parade with a Boys anti-tank rifle and 'Molotov cocktail' petrol bombs, 6 October 1940.
A smiling group of Indian soldiers in Tobruk, Libya, 3 October 1941 / IWM
Indian Forces in North Africa during the Second World War Men of the 4th Indian Division with a captured German flag at Sidi Omar, North Africa, between 1939 and 1945 / IWM
Indian soldier guards a group of Italian prisoners near El Adem aerodrome, during the pursuit of Axis forces westwards after the relief of Tobruk, between 1939 and 1945 / IWM
Indian troops man a Bren gun on an anti-aircraft mounting, Western Desert, 18 April 1941
Indian troops clearing a village in Eritrea, East Africa, 1941 / IWM
Indian troops in winter clothing in Persia, circa 1944 / IWM
Two Sikh members of an Indian camouflage unit in Baghdad, with a dummy Stuart tank mounted on a car chassis, 25 March 1942 / IWM
Indian soldiers guard Anglo-Iranian Oil Company refinery at Abadan, between 1939 and 1945 / IWM
Indian soldiers stand next to supply convoy en route to Soviet Union, 1 January 1944. The British and Soviets invaded Iran in August 1941 to secure Persian oil fields and ensure supply lines for the Soviets fighting against Germany on the Eastern Front. Indian soldiers from the 8th and 10th Indian Infantry Divisions, 2nd Indian Armoured Brigade and 21st Indian Infantry Brigade took part in the invasion and subsequent occupation / IWM
Newly-arrived Indian troops parade on the quayside at Singapore, 31 October 1941 / IWM
Indian landing craft enter bay at Singapore / Between 1939 and 1945
Men of the 5th Indian Division pass through the streets of Singapore in lorries shortly after landing as part of the reoccupation force / Between 1939 and 1945
Lord Mountbatten inspects 17th Dogras after Japanese surrender in Singapore, unknown date / IWM
Indian soldier guards Japanese prisoners in Singapore, date unknown / IWM
Indian soldier uses a knocked out Indonesian nationalist tank as cover in a main street in Surabaya (Soerabaja) during the fighting, date unknown / IWM
4/7th Rajputs in position alongside the railway line at Bekassi during a reconnaissance in force to locate positions held by Indonesian nationalists, date unknown / IWM
Troops of the 2nd Battalion, Frontier Force Rifles (26th Indian Division) manning 3 inch mortars at their newly established strongpoint just outside the British held sector of the town of Medan in Sumatra, date unknown / IWM
6/5th Mahratta Light Infantry in Jakarta, Java, date unknown / IWM
An Indian infantry section of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Rajput Regiment about to go on patrol on the Arakan front, Burma, 1944 / IWM
A section of the Royal Garhwal Rifles on a reconnaissance patrol in the jungle, Burma, 1944 / IWM
Indian troops manning a trench in the forward area, Arakan, date unknown / IWM
Indian troops wade ashore at Akyab, Burma, January 1945 / IWM
Madras Sappers open gates after capture of Fort Dufferin, unknown date / IWM
Men of the 6/7th Rajputana Rifles advance behind Sherman tanks during the assault on Meiktila, 23 February 1945 / IWM
255th Indian Tank Brigade encounter elephant near Meiktila, 29 March 1945 / IWM
Indian troops take cover behind Lee tank during street fighting in Mandalay, 9-10 March 1945 / IWM
Indian troops of the 20th Division search for Japanese at the badly damaged station in Prome, 3 May 1945 / IWM
Indian muleteers and mule wearing gasmasks, 21 February 1940 / IWM
Members of a mule transport company of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps on parade in France, 10 February 1940 / IWM
Indian Armoured Corps chat with civilians in San Felice during advance towards Sangro, date unknown / IWM
Indian soldier holds captured swastika flag after surrender of German forces in Italy, May 1945. Behind him, a fascist inscriptions says "VIVA IL DUCE", "Long live the Duce" (i.e. Mussolini) / IWM
Universal carrier and mortar team of the Indian 6th Royal Frontier Force, between Lanciano and Osogna on the central sector of Eighth Army's front, 13 December 1943 / IWM
Local children in Cyprus play with Indian troops manning a Bren gun carrier, 13 November 1941,
5th Indian Infantry Brigade tour Acropolis after clearing Piraeus of Communist forces, 9-10 December 1944 / IWM
Bhopal Regiment take over German sentry position after liberation of Rhodes, between 1939 and 1945
A group of Indian troops at a Japanese Prisoner of War (POW) Camp. They reflect the ill treatment meted out by the Japanese. Some are too weak to stand. These men were liberated by Australian troops after the Japanese surrender, 16 September 1945 / IWM