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The Indian Legion in Europe and its Destiny

Der Indische Legion

Rudolf Hartog, in his book "The Sign of the Tiger" provides a vivid insider account of the formation, the activities and the significance of the Indian Legion that was formed by His excellency Herr Subhas Chandra Bose. He expresses his profound admiration as to how Bose, coming to Germany as a fugitive, developed a significant presence so as to establish a propaganda centre, an office and a well equipped and well trained army with all the help and support from the German Army, even without being an active Nazi sympathizer or collaborator. In fact much of the help came from the anti Nazi camp, and as Hartog recalls, many of the German staff of the Free India office had joined the service so as to escape the Nazis, as this was one office that was free of any direct Nazi influence and intervention. The story of Indian Legion is one of an incredible journey backed by determination, courage, persistence, and an inspirational leadership on one hand, and a sense of betrayal, lack of purpose, insubordination and a sad end of a vision on the other hand. In many ways, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was possibly let down by the German authorities, viz. the Nazis, which led to a less than heroic end for the Indian Legion troopers, in comparison with their more valiant brothers in arms in the Indian National Army. None in India knew about the Legion. The British historians and the Government and intelligence machinery tried their best to  behave as if the Legion did not exist, it was merely a figment of imagination or a willful distortion of facts by the Germans. They had their reasons though. Any such news of desertion from the allied forces in the theater of European war could have severe repercussions in the Indian Army ranks. Some of the historians also tried their best to undermine its purpose and activities. William Shirer in his Rise and Fall of Third Reich quotes Hitler on Indian Legion, "Indian Legion is a joke. There are Indians who wouldn't kill a louse, who would rather let themselves to be eaten up. They won't kill an Englishman either. I consider it nonsense to put them opposite the English." Shirer does not think it worthwhile to dig deeper into the Legion's role.

The Zentrale Freies Indien or the Free India Centre was established in Berlin, Lichtenstein Allee no. 10 and was inaugurated on 2nd Nov, 1941. The staff soon grew to be thirty five and the effort was focused on broadcasting propaganda to India, supported by ten German experts, through the Azad Hind Radio in various Indian local languages. In his original plan to the foreign office, Bose did not mention about setting up a contingent of Indian troops on the German soil. However few Indian prisoners of war had been brought to Berlin. Bose met the German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop at the Hotel Imperial in Vienna on 29th April 1941 where he added the possibility of setting up an Indian contingent drawn from the Indian prisoners of war, largely to undermine the loyalty of the British Indian Army. In a meeting with Walter Harbich in the Hotel Esplanade, Bose made the plan concrete. Walter Harbich was to train an Indo German commando unit for possible operations in the North West Frontier Province area, to support the Operation Tiger (German plan of advancing into India via Afghanistan). With Rommel's invincible march in the Africa and with German victory in the Europe, the plan seemed a good fit to the overall military strategy of the Axis power.

In 1941 everything was going good for the Axis powers. Japan had developed a formidable presence on the Pacific islands and was busy in liberating Asia from the European colonial powers. German blitzkrieg was unstoppable in the East Europe and in Mediterranean and Germany was planning for the Operation Barbarossa and the Operation Tiger. It had conquered Greece and against a stubborn resistance, Crete. In Iraq the pro German government of Rashid Ali el Gailani was in power and in occupied France, Vichy was at the helm. So loyal French troops had been deployed in the Middle East Asian countries like Syria. General Rommel, the desert fox, was rapidly advancing towards Egypt and the fall of Egypt seemed imminent. The whole of British position in the Asia was threatened and the oil fields were to fall in German hands. The German plan, as formulated by General Halder, was to launch a three pronged attack from Libya/Egypt, Bulgaria/Turkey and the Caucasus and set up an operational base in Afghanistan to threaten India from the North West. It would enable the British to come to the table for negotiations. However the situations did not go as per the plan as the Nazi leadership failed to understand the strategic importance of Asia. Reinforcements and support were lacking and British soon recovered their ground in the Middle East. Germany got more and more entangled in Russia, culminating in a fierce battle in Stalingrad, where the Barbarossa was decidedly lost, inflicting severe blow to the German capabilities of pushing any further.

Afghanistan was the centre stage for Operation Tiger. The mountainous terrains had many tribes who did not submit to the British. The German plan was to foment rebellion with the help of these tribes and a sizable no. of German and Italian undercover agents were operating in these areas. Italians had a long standing connection with the Fakir of Ipi, who was one such rebel leader of the tribe of the Masuds in Waziristan. Baurat Wenger, who was to accompany Bose in his journey to Berlin, was one such agent and their base was the German legation in Kabul that corresponded with the foreign office in Berlin. Large scale sabotage was planned as part of the revolutionary activities. It is to be noted that Netaji had a similar plan and hence he had traveled to Kabul and also tried to connect the Bengal Volunteers with the North West rebel leaders. Because of the treachery of Bhagat Ram Talwar, the scheme had failed. The Nazi leadership plan was to first finish off Russia and then advance from the Caucasus to the Afghanistan. The German plan did not materialize despite spending a huge amount of money, on account of the ambiguous position of the Government in Kabul whom they could not fully trust and also the lack of trust and cooperation between the Germans and the Italians operating there. The original plan was to start a series of sabotage activities, parachute dropping of the troops to carry out commando style operations starting with the Bajaur area.  With the failure of the Operation Tiger, Subhas Bose had to abandon his plan of campaign from the Afghanistan and instead set his sight on the Far East.

Subhas Chandra Bose went to the camp of Indian PoW in Meseritz, managed by Walter Harbich. Bose had advised Harbich on organizing the troops without differentiating on religious or caste grounds as was the norm with the British Indian troops who were segregated along those lines. The command was drawn from the volunteers who were mostly Indians in exile or the prisoners of war from France and North Africa. They were trained for commando operations like wireless technology, sabotage, parachute jumping, mountain warfare etc. Major Swami, who later accompanied Bose to South East Asia, was to get trained here. However the commandos in this camp never got to participate in actual warfare and they were later merged into the Indian Legion that was set up mostly with the prisoners of war camp in Koenigsbruck, set up in December, 1942.

In Italy Iqbal Shidei, who was a supporter of Jinnah and Muslim League, had set up an Indian Legion in Italy with the Indian prisoners of war. He used to broadcast daily to India on his Himalaya radio and also had a very cordial relationship with the Italian foreign Ministry. Shidei was also unfavourably disposed towards the fiercely Nationalistic and Unity advocate Bose. So initially Germans had to choose between them and ultimately Bose triumphed because of his strength of character which won him many friends on the German side and also because he had a sound plan. A joint declaration was made in Berlin in a conference in December 1941 by the Germans and the Italians in which Bose participated on the second day, and it was agreed to hand over the Indian Legion wholly to the Germans for setting up and training. Italians however did not handover all the prisoners of war and maintained a small battalion on their soil under Shidei. However after a mutiny in their ranks the whole division was transferred to Germany.

From Annaburg camp, the Indian PoW from Rommel's North Africa theater were moved to Koenigsbruck. Subhas Chandra Bose had visited the Annaburg camp in December 1941 to win over the men. Initially he did not get much response owing to the hostile attitude of the NCOs. Free India centre volunteers however continued their propaganda and by January 1942 about two hundred were identified and around sixty eight were brought to the camp in Frankenberg. The first fifteen were specially trained by Free India Centre in Berlin and Bose himself addressed them. No coercion was used to recruit volunteers. There was a plan to make the Legion a part of the Sonderstab F, the special forces that was supposed to march to Caucasus under Felmy's command. This was stationed in Greece. Originally it was supposed to go to India via West Asia. Subhas Chandra Bose was completely against the plan of including Indian Legion in the Sonderstab F and ultimately his wish prevailed. Propaganda and recruitment for the Legion from among the Indian prisoners of war was exclusively with the Free India Centre volunteers. By November 1942, the Indian Legion had grown to be 1300 strong in two battalions. Training of the troops progressed rapidly under their German commanders and officers like Kritter and Major Krappe. One of the stumbling blocks was the language as the Legionaries neither had a good grasp of German nor English. Hindustani was adopted as the common language and the German instructors had to learn the equivalent words for proper communication. The overall process of communication and understanding was very challenging at first, since the Germans and the Indians belonged to two vastly different cultures and norms. The German commanding officers had to overlook many behavior in their Indian men which would have led to court martial for German soldiers. By October 1942 the troop was well trained to hold a maneuver where Bose and Japanese military attache Col. Yamamoto were present. The men were sworn under the new flag with Tri Colour and the Springing Tiger. In their arm patch of the uniform was a Springing Tiger insignia on the right sleeve. The Legion was officially known by the name Infanterie Regiment (Ind) IR 950.

By the beginning of the February 1943, the size of the legion had grown to be about two thousand. There were Hindus, Muslims and Sikh soldiers - almost 59% was Hindu, another 25% Muslim and 20% Sikh. According to an estimate there were about 3115 Legionaries by 1944. The Legion was supposed to maintain a code of unity, in that there should be no differentiation in terms of religion and caste. All the unit were mixed in contrast with the British Indian Army which had maintained strict division according to religion, caste or creed. In that respect it was supposed to form the convention for the Army of the independent India. The Legion, according to the vision of Bose, was to fight only for Indian independence. Subhas Bose obtained an agreement with the German Government that Indian Legion could not be deployed against any forces other than the British. The Legion would be specially trained to become a core army when India became independent. It would foster a spirit of unity and harmony among the different Indian races. There were practical problems as the diets of different sections were different, as also the method of slaughter of animals, and the holidays. There were some frictions and feuds leading to killings in few cases. On an overall basis however the Legionaries came to accept this spirit and it helped them later under extremely difficult circumstances. Bose had also laid the condition that all who volunteered for the Legion were supposed to start as an ordinary soldier. This caused problem as the higher rank PoW did not want to join. In the course of time many Legionaries were promoted as officers. There were problems galore. For instance any harsh treatment of the soldiers would be misinterpreted by the soldiers as discriminatory and the Germans, who were not particularly adept in cross cultural sensitivity, had a hard time dealing with such issues. On one instance several soldiers had laid down their arms. Such discipline issues needed to be treated carefully and over a period of time better understanding developed between the officers and the men.

One more problem of the Legion was that their oath was to both Subhas Chandra Bose and to Adolf Hitler. This was unique in the history of German military. Another difficulty was Subhas's condition that the Legion was only to be deployed against the British army and not for furthering German interests elsewhere, so that the legionaries felt that they were fighting for the freedom of India. There was a proposal of deploying the troops in the battles of North Africa. That however did not materialize. It was not because of Rommel refusing to have the legionaries in his ranks as has been claimed by the British historians, but because the campaign there had already ended. The other major problem was Subhas Chandra Bose's secret departure from Germany for the Far East. Bose had not communicated to the legionaries, nor to the Free India Centre on his plan, for obvious reasons of secrecy. But this could be misconstrued in some quarters as his irresponsibility in leaving the legionaries in the lurch. But Bose had planned his succession in Free India Centre. The task of the Free India Centre was not merely broadcasting over Azad Hind radio, but also to carry out propaganda among the prisoners of war, recruiting them for the Legion and getting new volunteers. It had among its Indian staff Major Swami, Habibur Rahman, N.G Ganpuley,  N.R Vyas, Girija Mukherjee and Bose's close confidante A.C.N Nambiar. Habibur Rahman, N.G Swamy and Abid Hasan Safrani had accompanied Bose to the Far East. Nambiar therefore became Bose's deputy in the centre. It was also decided to continue with the propaganda within the Legion, by publication of newspapers, radio broadcasts, and also by bringing out a  periodical called Bhaiband. The Legion had its own broadcasting station with daily transmission to the troops, called Bhaiband transmission. Legion also had its own marching song - "Age ao, kadam badhao, milkar sare bhai". Gallantry medals were also designed for the Legion. The highest order, the Sher-i-Hind was awarded to the Legion Commander Kurt Krappe in September 1944. Azad Hind stamps were also issued in preparation for the National Government of Subhas Chandra Bose.

Image Source: The Sign of the Tiger by Rudolf Hartog

On 8 February 1943, Bose left Germany from Kiel along with Abid Hasan, in a submarine. The war was still on and the Legion was ready for action as it was equipped and fully trained on combat readiness. In absence of Bose, German High Command had the sole responsibility for it. It was decided to deploy the troops in the Netherlands for coastal defences, via Belgium, where they had greater likelihood of facing the British army and accordingly marching orders were issued for the first battalion on 27 April, 1943, and on the following day for the second battalion. This led to the first crisis as several men refused to pack. One of the reasons might be that they were promised by their recruiters of Free India Centre that they would be deployed only against the British en route to India. The other important reason was the absence of Subhas Chandra Bose of whom they had no news. This was one of the gravest wartime situation and the Germans were unprepared to deal with it. The insubordination led to the court martial of atleast forty seven Legionaries and their subsequent imprisonment. The hard sentences did not have any effect. However the officers spoke with their men, reasoned with them and this gesture helped most of the men to report for duty for the new assignment. The battalions were first deployed in Belgium and then in Netherlands. The local residents, in Germany and in Netherlands, were friendly to the Indian soldiers. The third battalion was still not cooperative. However by July 1943, an operative from Free India Centre came with a message from Subhas Chandra Bose. By this time Bose had been in Singapore and had taken handover from Rashbehari Bose on 4th July, as the president of the Indian Independence League and the leader of the Indian National Army. This helped in convincing the Legionaries of their valuable role in India's freedom movement and whatever doubts they had about Bose, had disappeared. The third battalion was subsequently transferred to the Netherlands. Field Marshall von Rundstedt visited their camp. Training for the unit continued under combat conditions. Legion was then moved to the Atlantic coast, South of France, in Bay of Biscay.

The three battalions operated independently, however they were located closely. In October 1943 the Legion was reorganized as a full Regiment and was assigned to protect the strategic coastal defence line. The regiment headquarters were at Lacanau, almost at the same level as the second battalion, north of which was the first battalion stationed at Lac de Carcans, and to the south in Lege was the third battalion. They had built fortifications and trenches along the sea coast, building machine gun positions, anti tank shelters and bunkers. Field Marshall Rommel visited the Indian units in February 1944, and was satisfied by the quality of their work. The weather during the winter was nice and warm in the southern sea coast. But Indian diets, esp. rice and spices were not easy to find. As supposed prisoners of war, members of the Legion had the right to receive food parcels from the Red Cross. These parcels sent by the British Red Cross, which grew in significance with the progress of the war as supply conditions worsened, contained, among other things, cigarettes, chocolate, condensed milk, tea, spices, meat pies, biscuits, and preserved fruit (The Last Chapter of the Indian Legion by Joachim Oesterheld). The men shared the contents of their Red Cross parcels and often visited their comrades in other companies to have a social life as the life in the coasts was lonely. The local inhabitants had racial prejudice and did not interact well with the "coloured" men. Several men of the Indian Legion got their commission as Lieutenants, among them were Jaswant Singh Bindra, Gurbachan Singh Mangat, Inder Singh, Adolf Abdullah Khan, Allah Dad Khan and medical officers like Dr. Madan, Dr. Pathankar and Dr. Bose.

On 6th June 1944, the allied forces had landed in Normandy. The Legion was now put on high alert. German reserve troops were withdrawn and the Legion was handed over a longer coastline for protection. There were now frequent moves and uncertainty among the ranks owing the impending allied victory. The order of retreat finally came and withdrawal had to be made posthaste. The battalions first moved by train. En route they were often ambushed by the French partisans, the Maquis. Also at this stage Heinrich von Trott, one of the officers, hearing the news of his brother Adam von Trott's arrest and execution for conspiracy against Hitler, had defected. About thirty Legionaries also defected with them. The Maquis treated them very badly and while the Germans were handed over to the British allied forces, the Indians were all shot dead. As per 'The Last Chapter of the Indian Legion' by Joachim Oesterheld, "A French eyewitness recollects 22 September 1994 in Poitiers as he saw it: A truck with about 20 or 25 Indians arrived […] and stopped about 50 metres from the balcony of the town hall. Everyone, and there were many people present in the square, who were returning from work, looked at the Indians. It only lasted a few seconds, and a soldier of the FFI [Forces Francaises de l’Interieur] climbed down from the driver’s cabin, machine gun in hand. He opened the rear hatch, climbed into the truck, and mowed down the Indians. It all only lasted a few seconds. The Indians fell on their faces. The truck was riddled with bullet holes, and blood flowed in rivulets. Reactions were quite varied. There were screams and exclamations, but there was also applause, and then everything was over. The truck then drove in the direction of the prefecture, and disappeared." The killing was apparently in revenge for the atrocities committed by a few Legionaries on French women and in retaliation to the killing of the resistance forces in the hands of the Legion members.

The military situation was rapidly deteriorating for the retreating troops of the Legions, as was with their counterpart in South East Asia, the INA. Paris fell to the Allies on August 25. The Americans had landed in the Southern coast. The retreat to Germany was risk prone, logistics was in short supply and it was left upto the unit commanders to plan for the movement. They had to move through territories where the Maquis lay in ambush. During the day, the Allied bombers flying overhead made it impossible to move and therefore movement was restricted to night. The Legion encountered the French troops of the Allied forces and Lt. Ali Khan was killed in the combat. The retreat continued through the valley of Burgundy, one unit had a tough battle against the advancing Americans and Lt. Mohammed Rashid proved his mettle by destroying several enemy tanks, which had to retreat. The Legion marched through Alsace and eventually reached the camp of Oberhofen by traversing almost seven hundred miles in three weeks, mostly on foot, with all their equipment, which, according to Rudolf, was not a mean feat. This feat alone is completely contradictory to the British propaganda that the Legion did not fight and most of the men deserted.

The communication from Subhas Chandra Bose, their beloved Netaji, was one of the forces that held the Legion together during these moments of extreme duress. That they were fighting for a cause, for the liberation of their motherland, for which their brothers in arms in the South East Asia were fighting a death defying battle and had recaptured some of the territories on Indian soil, was enough to motivate the Legionaries to fight. After the formation of Azad Hind Provisional Government Subhas Chandra Bose had sent a special message for the legionaries on 22 November, 1943. "The Indian Legion in Europe, which I had the honour to found, is now part of the Indian National Army, and should from now on fight the enemy, wherever he is found."

One company was directed to go to the Italian front, and it included Jaswant Singh Bindra, one of the Lieutenants. They had to battle heavy enemy fires and had to confront the British Army. They also had to engage with the partisans of Italian resistance during their retreat. They had held back until April 1945. Several legionaries fell in the enemy air attack while retreating. It had to engage in several smaller and larger encounters until it could return to its regiment in German camp of Heuberg.

The Free India Centre held a press conference to counter the BBC propaganda that the Legion was decimated and its men were captured by the Allied forces. A.C.N Nambiar, who was the Minister of State of the Provisional Government of Free India, commander Krappe, and Indian officers Gurbachan Singh Mangat and Adolf Abdullah Khan, were present. Mohammad Rashid, decorated for bravery, was also present. By 1st week of April, American and French troops had crossed Rhine and proceeded towards South. The Legion was also ordered to move from Heuberg. In Oberhofen, the Indian Legion was unexpectedly transferred to the Waffen-SS, the dreaded military arm of Heinrich Himmler. The Directive was issued in August but it was operational only in April 1945. After the failed assassination attempt on Hitler, Himmler was able to get the Fuehrer's agreement on taking all foreign legions into SS, Indian Legion being no exception. Repeated attempts by the Legion commanders to stop the transfer failed. German officers were given the option of seeking a transfer to the battle front. Krappe stayed on as his men wanted him to. The German officers had decided to seek the help of the Swiss Government to grant asylum to the Indians as Switzerland was neutral in the war. But the Legionaries, who knew that they would be treated as traitors and defectors by the Allied forces, were no longer willing to move and instead were taken prisoners at different locations. Some including Lt. Jaswant Singh Bindra, were taken prisoner by the French. The Reserve battalion in Koenigsbruck had surrendered to the Americans in Bavaria. Others had surrendered in Weiler. The German officers were put under trial by the French authorities for the alleged transgressions of their men in Bordeaux. Krappe was set free on 26 January, 1950, a day significant for India as the Republic Day, the day of the birth of her Constitution. Most of the Indian Legionaries were taken prisoners by the French, were held under the harshest conditions and were handed over to the British. They were interned in the Bahadurgarh camp near Delhi. They were also classified like INA into black, grey and whites. They were finally discharged in 1946, after the end of the Red Fort trials.

The Legacy of the Indian Legion is discussed along with the Legacy of the Indian National Army in the section impact of INA

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 For an enslaved people, there can be no greater pride, no higher honour, than to be the first soldier in the army of liberation

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