It was on 5 March 1945, when the men of the 7th Battalion, 16th Punjab Regiment, suddenly found themselves surrounded by the Japanese while moving through the remote Kaladan Valley area of the Burmese coastline known as Arakan. Trapped in a narrow pass, Lance Corporal Samundar Khan’s platoon was ordered to attack up a hill to give the leading platoon time to pull back from the ambush. Carrying a Bren gun, the 18-year-old Khan (he had lied about his age to join up) led his men up the steep slope towards the enemy forces in the face of heavy fire and with Japanese grenades raining down.
Amid heavy casualties, his second in command was badly wounded. Khan, though seriously wounded in the chest, led the charge, firing his Bren gun from the hip and driving the Japanese from the top. Due mainly to his bravery, the hill was secured and the first platoon successfully extricated.
Khan had been wounded three times within two months, yet, according to his subsequent citation for the Indian Distinguished Service Medal for conspicuous bravery in the face of the enemy, continued to show “dauntless courage and self-sacrifice, total disregard to personal danger and devotion to duty far in excess of anything expected of his rank”.
Khan stayed in the Army at war’s end, then transferred to the Pakistan Army at Partition in 1947. In 1962 he emigrated to Britain, living in Bradford until his death in 2011.
Lance Corporal Samundar Khan (Courtesy of Abda Khan, Samundar Khan’s daughter).
In Arakan in 1945, the units of 15th Corps, who were predominantly Indian and African, pushed down through some of the toughest country in the world to smash the Japanese armies and force their withdrawal into Burma, where they were soundly defeated by General Bill Slim’s famous 14th Army. Yet, as amazing as Khan’s story is, he wasn’t alone.
A quick search online of the National Archives in Kew throws up a host of other, equally remarkable stories of gallantry from Indian soldiers in the Second World War.
One of my favourites concerns the three citations – for an MBE and two military crosses –recommended for Captain Ralengnao Khathing, a Naga from the remote village of Ukhrul in Manipur. The British could never pronounce his first name, so they called him “Bob”. I’ve recently been in Imphal, where I had the great privilege of meeting his son and family.
Khathing eventually rose to become the First Minister of Nagaland in an independent India. In 1943 he was at the heart of a thriving and ingenious intelligence organisation called ‘V Force’, which operated against the Japanese in Burma.
The citation for his MBE records: “This officer, the only NAGA Emergency Commissioned Officer, has for over a year without leave or rest, continued to do most excellent and valued work… The whole of last monsoon he remained forward, in most trying conditions, organising his guerrillas, and gaining much valuable information at a time when no regular troops were operating permanently. He also gave invaluable help to the withdrawing Chinese Army. The information he gained has been confirmed.”
Khathing was eventually to be awarded the MBE, a Mention in Despatches and, finally, in 1945, a very well-deserved Military Cross.
There were many such men in Bill Slim’s 14th Army. Indeed, the vast bulk of fighting men in this army were Indian. A full 87% of the soldiers in the fighting forces of Allied Land Forces South East Asia, which totalled 606,000 men in 1945, were Indian. Yet, to our shame, we in Britain and India, have largely forgotten their story.
When we hear the haunting lines of the 2nd Division epitaph on Garrison Hill in Kohima (“When You Go Home, Tell Them of Us and Say, For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today”), we more often than not think of British soldiers. How many of us consider the Indian, Chinese or African soldiers who bore the brunt of the fighting, and suffered the greatest casualties in this terrible war in the South-East Asian Theatre?
One of the conclusions I come to in my book – A War of Empires – the paperback of which is being published in May 2023, is that the Indian Army, resurrected in 1943 from the ashes of defeat in Malaya, Singapore and Burma in 1942, was largely responsible for the astounding victories against the Japanese in India and Burma in 1944 and 1945.
The Indian Army expanded dramatically after 1939 – and especially after 1941. One might have imagined there to be considerable reluctance to fight for a declining imperial power yet, during the war, India’s armed forces recruited 2,581,726 personnel (of whom 2,065,554 were serving at the point the war ended). All of these, unlike those who entered service in Britain, were volunteers. It was the largest volunteer army in history.
So why did they join? In the main, they joined to defend their country from the terrible threat posed by the Japanese. The country knew about Nanking, and what the Imperial Japanese Army had done and was doing in China. It is not true to claim that Indians only fought because they were coerced to do so by the imperial power. These men fought for India first, and for the great global war against fascism, not for the Raj. I can find no evidence that 2.5 million men joined the Indian Army following the outbreak of war as the result of imperial propaganda or coercion. Nor would coercion explain why these men were prepared to die for this cause, nor why Indian soldiers were to win 22 of the 34 Victoria and George Crosses awarded during the Burma Campaign. Just like those young men in Britain and the United States, most Indians who joined the armed forces did so because they had weighed up the options and assessed the nature of the sacrifice they were willing to make for the sake of India, regardless of its current political situation.
The Indian Army was India’s army, not Britain’s. Men joined the army to fight not for the Raj, but for India, and to secure India’s future. By 1945, nearly half of the 8,578 officers in Allied Land Forces South East Asia were Indian, marking a dramatic change since 1939. It was the recruitment of many thousands of young, educated, politically well-informed Indians as officers in the army that enabled the rapid expansion of the Indian Army to take place.
The Burma campaign provided the opportunity for a new, truly national Indian Army to play a decisive role in defeating the forces of Japanese militarism. This was important in creating national stories for the nations that would emerge from Independence and Partition in 1947. It is not true that a strong Indian Army helped militarise the sub-continent. It did the reverse, giving real strength and stability to the new nations that emerged out of Partition. While Partition was arguably rushed, and bloodily chaotic, the discipline and professionalism of the Armed Forces, grown on the battlefields of eastern India and Burma in 1944 and 1945, played a significant role in stabilising the political and civil situation.
It is to the many hundreds of thousands of men like Lance Corporal Samundar Khan and Captain Bob Khathing that we in Britain owe a considerable debt of thanks. I wonder how many people in Bradford, and in the wider UK, knew of Khan’s remarkable bravery? His family didn’t know, as he didn’t talk about it. He remained, as did so many others, a silent hero.
We need to remember Khan, Khathing and the millions like them, and to say their names with pride. So too should India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It was these men’s service, and their sacrifice, which gave us, and today’s nations of the sub-continent, as the Kohima epitaph so poignantly says, our tomorrow.
If you enjoyed today's blog post you can find out more in A War of Empires, now available in paperback.
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