Fighting in India

After Britain unilaterally declared Britain and India at war with Germany in World War II, the Indian National Congress passed a "Quit India" resolution in 1942 that demanded the British government give all political power to the Indian people in return for India's cooperation in the war effort. Instrumental in negotiations for independence, the Congress became independent India's first ruling party. During this period, however, millions of Indians served with honor and distinction in the British armed forces, including service in both World Wars and countless other overseas actions in service of the Empire. [Source: Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook 2009, Gale, 2008]

The British government demanded Indian participation in its World War II effort. Gandhi’s and Nehru’s Congress party said that it would only cooperate if India was granted independence. Negotiations were dragged out over the terms and timing of self rule. In the meantime, some two million Indians fought abroad during World War II, mostly in East and North Africa, Italy and Burma under British command. Also, Bombay was the supply harbor for supplies used in the war against Japan in World War II.

There was relatively little fighting in India in World War II. The Japanese invaded from Burma with small force in 1944 but were quickly driven out. See World War II. One of the more interesting figures in the World War II period was Subhas Chandra Bose, a freedom fighter from Calcutta who slipped out of India disguised as a deaf-and-dumb Pathan tribesman in the early 1940s and made his way to Europe to seek help from his "enemy's enemy"—Hitler and Mussolini. With Japan's help he built an army with 45,000 men and women and entered eastern India from Burma. On August 18, 1945, Bose disappeared, reportedly in a plane, crash, but exactly what happened to him remains a mystery.

In an authoritative two-volume account of the end of the British Empire in Asia — “Forgotten Armies” and “Forgotten Wars” — Cambridge University historians Tim Harper and Christopher Bayly describe how quickly the Japanese had humiliated the British in Malaya and Burma, threatening their hold over India. With their mystique of power gone, Asia’s British masters depended on what Bayly and Harper term the “temporary sufferance of Asians.” [Source: Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, August 13, 2007]

Political Activity in India Around the Time of World War II

Electoral gains by the Congress in 1937 were rendered ephemeral as its leaders ordered provincial ministries to resign in November 1939, when the viceroy (Victor Alexander John Hope, Marquis of Linlithgow--1936-43) declared India's entrance into World War II without consulting Indian leaders. Jinnah and the Muslim League welcomed the Congress withdrawal from government as a timely opportunity and observed a day of thanksgiving on December 22, 1939. Jinnah persuaded the participants at the annual Muslim League session in Lahore in 1940 to adopt what later came to be known as the Pakistan Resolution, demanding the division of India into two separate sovereign states, one Muslim, the other Hindu. Although the idea of Pakistan had been introduced as early as 1930 at Allahabad, very few had responded to it. However, the volatile political climate, the personal hostilities between the leaders, and the opportunism of Jinnah transformed the idea of Pakistan into a popular demand. [Source: Library of Congress *]

When World War II broke out the Congress declared that it would oppose Indian participation in the war without complete, immediate independence. The Congress planned an antiwar campaign of civil disobedience, but the British arrested its leaders before the campaign started. Between 1940 and 1942, the Congress launched two abortive agitations against the British, and 60,000 Congress members were arrested, including Gandhi and Nehru. In 1942, the Congress party passed a resolution calling for the British to leave India. Gandhi supported 1942 Quit India Campaign. He supported the British in World War II, but advocated passive resistance against Hitler and Japan. Gandhi once argued that his passive resistance tactics could used in any situation, even against the Nazis. After World War II he revised his opinion, saying that his methods were effective against the British but might not work so well against crueler oppressors.

Unlike the uncooperative and belligerent Congress, the Muslim League supported the British during World War II. Belated but perhaps sincere British attempts to accommodate the demands of the two rival parties, while preserving the unitary state in India, seemed unacceptable to both as they alternately rejected whatever proposal was put forward during the war years. As a result, a three-way impasse settled in: the Congress and the Muslim League doubted British motives in handing over power to Indians, while the British struggled to retain some hold on India while offering to give greater autonomy. *

Book: “Freedom at Midnight” by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre is a bestselling 1976 historical novel about the independence and partition of India and Pakistan.

Health Hazards in India

leftAbout 3.5 million died in India through war-related famine. Describing the health hazards in a transit camp at a place called Worli, just outside Bombay, Harold P. Lees wrote in the BBC’s People’s War: “Bert had an uncle that had served in the Indian army during the early part of the century”..He lost no time in telling us what his uncle had said. “It’s a filthy country. It’s alive with bugs and germs and things that creep and crawl and they all do their damnedest to get their teeth into you. Some part of your anatomy is always available. There are thousands of them of all shapes and sizes that can bite or sting or burrow into your flesh, all with painful and dire consequences and very often fatal”.We’d be bloody lucky if we didn’t get a serious dose of malaria before we left India. Uncle still suffered from bouts of uncontrollable shivering 20 years later. And if we got repeated doses of the disease we might end up with elephantiasis. [Source: BBC’s People’s War]

“Of course Bert said, “If we didn’t get a dose of Malaria it was a dead cert we’d end up with dysentery. There were millions of bugs lying around that infested all food and fruit and started you running like the clappers of hell for the loo. There was smallpox.Uncle knew somebody who got smallpox and recovered but his face was so disfigured that his fiancee wouldn’t have anything to do with him when he got back home.” Then of course we might get blackwater fever. “You’ll know you’ve got that if you start pissing blood, Bert’s uncle said it was nearly always fatal. There was heat exhaustion. If you ever stop sweating you’re in trouble. They try to get you to a hill station and a cooler climate before it kills you but it’s touch and go.”

“We could get bitten by a rabid dog which was always fatal or bitten by a small snake called a silver krait which was nearly always fatal. Or we could get a dose of cholera that was usually fatal or we could be attacked by a cobra which could be fatal if not treated in time. “And if you’re bitten by one of those buggers, said uncle “you’re never near a medical centre.”

“We could get stung by a scorpion and the affected limb would swell up like a balloon and be bloody painful, and if it went wrong, fatal. We were sure to get prickly heat which wasn’t dangerous...unless it turned septic and then we were in trouble. We would get dhobi itch, no doubt about that and probably athletes foot because it was caused by the same fungus as dhobi itch.”

“Came the inevitable day when when somebody got fed up with Bert’s repeated stories of uncle’s warnings...He went up to Bert and said “If you don’t keep you’re bleeding mouth shut I’ll string you up from the rafters. He’d made his point because Bert never felt it was necessary to warn us of the health perils that faced us after that.”

Battle of Imphal

British tank near Imphal

Perhaps the biggest waste of human life was ill-fated Imphal operation in March 1944 to capture the east Indian city of Imphal. More than 72,500 soldiers out of 100,000, died or were wounded, A commander wrote, “Our men on the front line have lost their ability to fight due to illness and starvation, without ammunition in torrential rain and a sea of mud, all due to incompetency.”

The Battle of Imphal took place in the region around the city of Imphal, the capital of the state of Manipur in North-East India from March until July 1944. Japanese armies attempted to destroy the Allied forces at Imphal and invade India, but were driven back into Burma with heavy losses. Together with the simultaneous Battle of Kohima on the road by which the encircled Allied forces at Imphal were relieved, the battle was the turning point of the Burma Campaign, part of the South-East Asian Theatre of the Second World War. The defeat at Kohima and Imphal was the largest defeat to that date in Japanese history. [Source: Wikipedia]

At the start of 1944, the war was going against the Japanese on several fronts. They were being driven back in the central and south west Pacific, and their merchant ships were under attack by Allied submarines and aircraft. In south east Asia, they had held their lines over the preceding year, but the Allies were preparing several offensives from India and the Chinese province of Yunnan into Burma. In particular, the town of Imphal in Manipur on the frontier with Burma was built up to be a substantial Allied logistic base, with airfields, encampments and supply dumps. Imphal was linked to an even larger base at Dimapur in the Brahmaputra River valley by a road which wound for 100 miles (160 km) through the steep and forested Naga Hills.

In March 1943, the Japanese command in Burma had been reorganised. A new headquarters, Burma Area Army, was created under Lieutenant-General Masakazu Kawabe. One of its subordinate formations, responsible for the central part of the front facing Imphal and Assam, was Fifteenth Army. Lieutenant-General Renya Mutaguchi was appointed to command this army in July 1943. From the moment he took command, Mutaguchi forcefully advocated an invasion of India. Mutaguchi planned to exploit the capture of Imphal by advancing to the Brahmaputra valley. This would cut the Allied lines of communication to the front in northern Burma, where the American-led Northern Combat Area Command was attempting to construct the Ledo Road to link India and China by land.

When the Allies received intelligence that a major Japanese offensive was impending, they withdrew their forward divisions into the Imphal plain and forced the Japanese to fight at the end of impossibly long and difficult lines of communication. The Japanese launched several attacks and but the best they could achieve was a stalemate. By May, all Japanese attacks had come to a halt and the Allies began a counter-offensive. By this time, the Japanese were at the end of their endurance. Many units had not received adequate supplies since the offensive began, and their troops were starving. Many Japanese troops were forced to abandon their defensive positions to scavenge for supplies in local villages or on the Japanese lines of communication. After driving rearguards from a Japanese division two large leading groups of Allied troops met at Milestone 109, 10 miles (16 km) north of Imphal, in late June, and the siege of Imphal was raised.

Bombing of Calcutta by the Japanese

Describing the bombing of Calcutta, Katyun Randhawa wrote in the BBC’s People’s War: “I was a young Indian (Parsi) girl living in Calcutta during World War II...My neighbours consisted of a Chinese family who had trekked from Burma...Calcutta was full of soldiers and army trucks went up and down all day long. Dum Dum airport in 1942-46 was one of the busiest airports in the world. In those days we did not go shopping in bazaars for the daily necessities. Instead, hawkers would bring their ware to your door. If you lived on the top floor as we did, you lowered an empty basket attached to a strong rope from the railings of your veranda to the hawker below. [Source: BBC’s People’s War website]

“I remember the bombing of Calcutta by the Japanese, the target being Howrah Bridge. That morning had been a lovely clear and breezy day and we were flying kites. Some of the neighbourhood boys would coat the string of their kites with broken glass powders, get involved in kite fights and would break the thread of their rival kite flyers. Across the road a family who had a dove-cote were flying their pigeons.

“We all had duties to perform when the siren would sound, such as putting a small bag with a piece of black rubber, Vaseline and bandages around our shoulders. We had no fridge in those days and drinking water was stored in earthen jars on the veranda. When the siren sounded that day, my parents brought in the water jars and my sisters and I ran downstairs to the ground floor and hid in the air raid shelter. Our ARP warden was a dear old Englishman, Mr Nicholson who used to wear a helmet and an ARP band round his arm. I can still remember his huge moustache and his buckets of sand.

“During the air raids, Mr Nicholson would entertain us children with toy whistles, little paper hats — he was good at "Origami" and would fold brown paper into lovely decorative shapes. When the “all clear” siren sounded we would leave the shelters and look at the damage. Not far from our house was an Ismaili Religious Centre — called “Jamaat Khana” — it had been bombed — 2 cows had been killed. There was broken glass and shrapnel everywhere. The bombing of Calcutta led to an exodus of residents — Howrah and Sealdah Stations being packed with people trying to get out. Some of our street hawkers also disappeared — we never saw our bread delivery man again.

Hump Fliers,Kunming, Lashio and Ledo

left Kunming in the Yunnan province of southwest China was the main distribution point for supplies arriving from the Burma and Ledo Roads. It was controlled by the Nationalists forces of Chiang kai-shek even after the Japanese claimed Burma in May 1942. In the early stages of the war entire factories were moved to Kunming to keep them out of the hands of the Japanese.

Lashio in Burma was a critical entrepot for the Allies in Southeast Asia. Food, fuel, medicines, and other supplies reached Lashio by railroad from Rangoon and were then carried by truck to Kunming.

Ledo in India was connected to the port of Calcutta by rail. It was the main source of material to China after Lashio and the Burma Road were captured by the Japanese. Ledo was important to the British mainly as a coal source. In the 1870s, a 2.4 billion metric ton coal supply was discovered here and the railroad was built primarily to bring this coal to Calcutta.

After the Burma Road was cut off military cargo was brought into China by "Hump Fliers" who flew through 15,000-foot-high passes in the Himalayas. About 1,000 planes went down over China during World War II. A total of 607 of them were hump fliers. Others were Flying Tigers who fought for the Nationalists.

Burma and Ledos Road

What is called the Burma Road was actually two roads: 1) the roughly 600-mile-long Burma Road, built in 1937 and 1938 between Lashio, Burma and Kunming, China under Chiang kai-shek to bring supplies through a backdoor of China after the Japanese invaded China; 2) and the roughly 500-mile-long Ledo Road (See Below). The roads cost 1,133 American lives, roughly a man a mile.[Source: Donovan Webster, National Geographic, November 2003]

20080218-ChineseTroopsMarch omn ledo road.jpg
Chinese troops march on Ledo Road
The straight line distance from Ledo to Kunming is about 460 miles. The Burma and Ledo Roads, built through some of the world’s most difficult terrain in India, Burma and China, covered more than twice that distance and hooked southward to avoid the Himalayas. The idea was ultimately to use the roads for an invasion of China and from China an invasion of Japan. Churchill called the entire project “an immense, laborious task, unlikely to be finished, until the need for it had passed.” The project was not completed until just six months before the war ended.

The Burma Road was the major overland supply route to China after the Japanese took over much of coastal China in 1937 and 1938 and blockaded its seaports. It was built at a break-neck pace, often by Chinese laborers forced to work for the Nationalists for two years without pay. When it was finished it was little more than a supply track that could only be used by trucks in the dry season.

The Ledo Road was built between 1942 and 1945 between Ledo in India and the Burma Road. U.S. Gen. Joseph "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell, the abrasive commander of Allied troops in the region, insisted the project would work.. Gen. Lewis Pick was the chief engineer of the Ledo Road. Known to some as “Pick’s Pike,” he told his engineers in 1943: “The road is going to be built — mud, rain, and malaria be damned!” It is sometimes called the Stilwell Road.[Source: Los Angeles Times, December 30, 2008]

The U.S. spent almost $149 million to build the Ledo Road at the request of Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek. It took a little over two years to build. It was roughly 500 miles long and opened up a new supply route, as well as an oil pipeline, from India to China. Military strategist felt the road was necessary to supply China in the war. More than 28,000 Americans and 35,000 Asian workers participated in the project. Not long after the thankless job was done, two atomic blasts finished the war with Japan, and a hard-won passage that soldiers called "the Big Snake" was abandoned to the rain forest.

Construction of the Ledo Road began in 1942. The first true bridge was built over the Khtang Nall in northeastern India In October 1943, American-trained Chinese divisions entered Burma from Assam, India and drove down the Japanese road from the Hukawag Valley in northern Burma. In February 1945, Gen. Pick led a convoy into Kunming.

Book: The Burma Road by Donovan Webster (Macmillan, 2004)

Famine in 1943

Catastrophic famines occurred in India when the British ruled it. There was a terrible famine in Bengal in 1943 that for the most part was man-made and could have been avoided if boats impounded to keep them out of the hands of the Japanese could have been used to deliver rice. Three million people perished in Bengal at a rate of about 30,000 a week. The streets of Calcutta were filled with the dead and the dying. The harvest had been plentiful but food had been stockpiled for the Allied troops, who were expecting a Japanese invasion. At the time people were starving in Calcutta rice was being exported from Bombay. Some historians believe the famine was allowed by the British to happen to cripple the Indian independence movement.

The artificial famine in 1943 was caused by a combination of war and mismanagement. Bengal was under British rule at that time. In response to requests by the Indian viceroy to release food stocks, Britain's leader Winston Churchill responded with a telegram asking why Gandhi hadn’t died yet. “It is strange,” George Orwell wrote in his diary in August, 1942, “but quite truly the way the British government is now behaving in India upsets me more than a military defeat.”

An estimated 2.1 to 3 million people, out of a population of 60.3 million, died of starvation, malaria, and other diseases aggravated by malnutrition, population displacement, unsanitary conditions and lack of health care. Millions were impoverished as the crisis overwhelmed the economy and catastrophically disrupted normal life: families disintegrated; men sold their small farms and left home to look for work or to join the British Indian Army, and women and children became homeless migrants, many of whom traveled to Calcutta or other large cities in search of organised relief. Most historians characterise the famine as anthropogenic (man-made), arguing that wartime colonial policies created and then exacerbated the crisis. A minority view the famine as the result of natural causes. [Source: Wikipedia]

Throughout 1942 and early 1943, military and political events combined with natural disasters and plant disease to create the crisis. While Bengal's food needs rose from increased military needs and an influx of refugees from Burma, its ability to obtain rice and other grains was restricted by inter-provincial trade barriers. The Japanese invasion of Burma set off a migration of more than half of the one million Indians in Burma to India. The exodus began after the bombing of Rangoon (1941–1942). For months desperate people poured across the borders, escaping into India through Bengal and Assam. Around the same Bengal was affected by a series of natural disasters. The winter rice crop in late 1942 was afflicted by a severe outbreak of fungal brown spot disease. In mid October 1942 a cyclone and three storm surges killed 14,500 people and 190,000 cattle, destroyed agricultural lands and houses and helped spread fungal brown spot disease. The fungus reduced the crop even more than the cyclone. After witnessing conditions first hand, mycologist S.Y. Padmanabhan compared the outbreak to the Irish Great Famine: "Though administrative failures were immediately responsible for this human suffering, the principal cause of the short crop production of 1942 was the [plant] epidemic ... nothing as devastating ... has been recorded in plant pathological literature".


Bengal's economy had been predominantly agricultural, with between half and three-quarters of the rural poor subsisting in a "semi-starved condition". Stagnant agricultural productivity and a stable land base were unable to cope with a rapidly increasing population, resulting in both long-term decline in per capita availability of rice and growing numbers of the land-poor and landless labourers. The financing of military escalation led to war-time inflation, as land was appropriated from thousands of peasants. Many workers received monetary wages rather than payment in kind with a portion of the harvest. When prices rose sharply, their wages failed to follow suit; this drop in real wages left them less able to purchase food.

During the Japanese occupation of Burma, many rice imports were lost as the region's market supplies and transport systems were disrupted by British "denial policies" for rice and boats (a "scorched earth" response to the occupation). The Bengal Chamber of Commerce (composed mainly of British-owned firms), with the approval of the Government of Bengal, devised a Foodstuffs Scheme to provide preferential distribution of goods and services to workers in high-priority roles such as armed forces, war industries, civil servants and other "priority classes", to prevent them from leaving their positions.

These factors were compounded by restricted access to grain: domestic sources were constrained by emergency inter-provincial trade barriers, while aid from Churchill's War Cabinet was limited, ostensibly due to a wartime shortage of shipping. More proximate causes included large-scale natural disasters in south-western Bengal (a cyclone, tidal waves and flooding, and rice crop disease). The relative impact of each of these factors on the death toll is a matter of controversy.

Wikipedia article

Battle of Kohima

Battle of Kohima — fought from April 4 to June 22 in 1944 — was one of the fiercest battles against the Japanese fought in India and was the turning point of the Japanese U-Go offensive into India in 1944 during World War II. The battle was fought in three stages around the town of Kohima, the capital of Nagaland in northeast India. From 3 to 16 April, the Japanese attempted to capture Kohima ridge, a feature which dominated the road by which the besieged British and Indian troops of IV Corps at Imphal were supplied. By mid-April, the small British and Indian force at Kohima was relieved. [Source: Wikipedia]

From 18 April to 13 May, British and Indian reinforcements counter-attacked to drive the Japanese from the positions they had captured. The Japanese abandoned the ridge at this point but continued to block the Kohima–Imphal road. From 16 May to 22 June, the British and Indian troops pursued the retreating Japanese and reopened the road. The battle ended on 22 June when British and Indian troops from Kohima and Imphal met at Milestone 109, ending the Siege of Imphal.

The battle is often referred to as the "Stalingrad of the East". In 2013, the British National Army Museum voted the Battle of Imphal and Kohima to be "Britain's Greatest Battle". During the Battle of Kohima, the British and Indian forces suffered 4,064 casualties (men dead, missing and wounded). The Japanese suffered 5,764 battle casualties in the Kohima area and many of the 31st Division that participated in the battle subsequently died of disease or starvation, or took their own lives

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated August 2020

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.