Indian Volunteers in the Wehrmacht in WWII
Agitation for the end of British rule in India had existed for decades prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. Therefore it was logical for the Axis powers during WWII to attempt to capitalize on anti-British sentiments by attempting to recruit a military force from disaffected Indian prisoners-of-war captured while serving with the British Commonwealth forces in the North African campaign.
Italy was not the first in this field, but their efforts were comparatively short-lived and therefore will be considered first. On 10th May 1942, the Italian Army established a Ragruppamento Centri Militari, a special unit composed of foreign military personnel, ex-prisoners-of-war, foreign nationals living in Italy, and Italians who had been resident abroad, with the intention of using them for intelligence gathering and sabotage operations behind enemy lines.
According to the order of Battle of the Italian Ragruppamento CentriMilitari, May 1942, the unit had the following under its control: a Comando (Headquarters) with CO Tenente Colonello di Stato (StaffLieutenant Colonel) Massimo Invrea, Centro T consisting of Italians from Tunisia, Centro A consisting of Italians from Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Arabia; plus Arabs and Sudanese ex-prisoners-of-war and lastly, Centro I consisting of Italians from India and Persia (Iran) and Indian ex-prisoners-of-war. In all, the Ragruppamento Centri Militari collected together approximately 1,200 Italians, 400 Indians, and 200 Arabs. In August 1942 the Ragruppamento was renamed as Ragruppamento Frecce Rosse (Red Arrows Group) a name chosen by the commanding officer in memory of his service with the Italian Divisione Frecce Nere (Black Arrows Division) of the Italian Corpo Truppo Volontarie in the Spanish Civil War. The three Centri Militari received new designations at the same time.
According to the order of battle of the Italian Ragruppamento Frecce Rossein August 1942, the following units were in command: A Comando(Headquarters), Battaglione d’Assalto Tunisia (Tunisia Assault Battalion)which was Ex-Centro T, Gruppo Italo-Arabo (Italo-Arab Group) from ex-CentroA, and Battaglione Azad Hindoustan (Free Indian Battalion) from Ex-Centro I.
The Battaglione Azad Hindoustan was created out of Centro I using both the ex-Indian Army personnel (The Indian Army was under British operational command)and Italians previously resident in India and Persia (Iran). The units of the Ragruppamento Frecce Rosse were intended to be delivered behind enemy lines by various means including infiltration on the ground, via submarine, and by parachute; this last means of transport leading to the establishment of a Platone Paracadutisti (Parachute Platoon) within the Battaglione Azad Hindoustan, its members receiving their parachute training at the Parachute School at Tarquinia. The soldiers of the Battaglione Azad Hindoustan were attired in standard Italian military uniform with the addition of a turban. Their Italian sahariana tunics were worn with collar patches with three vertical stripes in the saffron (orange), white and green colors of the Indian National Congress (the main focus of Indian opposition to British rule) the saffron stripe is closest to the wearer’s neck. Italians serving in the Battaglione Azad Hindoustan were distinguished by stars on their collar patches while Indian troops had none. Those members of the battalion sent to Tarquinia for parachute training wore their own collar patches above paratroop pattern patches (again with and without stars for Italians and Indians respectively), as well as the paratroop badge depicting an open yellow parachute embroidered with rayon thread on the left upper arm.
The order of battle of the Battaglione Azad Hindoustan in August 1942was as follows: Compagnie Fucilieri (a motorized rifle company consisting of Indians), Compagnie Mitraglieri (a motorized machine gun company consisting of Indians), Platone Paracadutisti (a parachute platoon consisting of Indians), and an Overseas Italian Platoon
However, despite their investment in the Indian’s training the Italians considered the Indian troops of Battaglione Azad Hindoustan to be of doubtful loyalty and this view was confirmed when the Indians mutinied on learning of the Axis defeat at El Alamein in November 1942. Following this, the battalion was disbanded and the Indians returned to their prisoner-of-war camps.
Thus ended the disappointing Italian efforts to recruit Indians for service in the Axis armed forces. But their German partners, who began to recruit Indians earlier, were not put off by the negative Italian experience as they possessed a trump card not available to their Mediterranean allies.
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was a lawyer from Calcutta and an ex-president of the Indian National Congress who was a major rival to Mahatma Gandhi for the popular leadership of the movement to end British rule in India. Unlike Gandhi, however, Bose was not averse to the use of violence in the achievement of Indian independence. Using the old adage that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, Bose saw war between Britain and Germany as an opportunity to advance the cause of India’s independence from the British Empire.
Thus on 17th January 1941, Bose escaped from under British surveillance at his house in Calcutta, and with the assistance of the Abwehr (Wehrmacht Military Intelligence), he made his way to Peshawar on India’s northwest frontier with Afghanistan. Their supporters of the Aga Khan helped him across the border into Afghanistan where he was met by an Abwehr unit posing as a party of road construction engineers from the Organization Todt who then aided his passage across Afghanistan via Kabul to the border with Soviet Russia. 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 was rapidly passed over to the German Ambassador in Moscow, Count von der Schulenberg. He had Bose flown on to Berlin in a special courier aircraft at the beginning of April where he was to receive a more favorable hearing from von Rippentrop and the Foreign Ministry officials at the Wilhelmstrasse.
Almost immediately Bose commenced broadcasting for the Germans from the Azad Hind transmitter at Nauen and later used the good favor he had established with Hitler to have himself named as the leader of the Indian “Government-in-exile” or “Indian National Congress”. But Bose was intent on more direct opposition to the British than merely radio propaganda and was handed an opportunity almost immediately when in April 1941 most of the members of the British 3rd (Indian) Motorised Brigade was taken prisoner by Generalleutnant Rommel’s Deutsche Afrika Korps at El Mekili in Cyrenaica (Libya). On 15th May a Luftwaffe Major was sent to interview English speaking members of the prisoners with a view to recruiting men for a proposed German Army (Heer) unit of Indian troops.
This initial approach led to 27 officers being flown to Berlin four days later, together with the establishment of a special camp for about 10,000 Indian POW sat Annaburg. There, the Indian prisoners were visited by Bose and exposed to intensive propaganda with a view to their enlistment into the proposed unit, variously referred to as the Indian Legion, Azad Hind Legion, or the more exotically sounding, Tiger Legion. The first group of volunteers, recruited from ex-prisoners-of-war and Indian civilians resident in Germany left Berlin’s Anhalter railway station on Christmas Day 1941 for a camp at Frankenburg near Chemnitz in order to receive future groups of released Indian POWs. Despite the recruitment of only eight resolute volunteers at this stage, in January 1942 the German Propaganda Ministry felt able to announce the establishment of the, in the circumstances, rather grandly titled “Indian National Army” or “JaiHind”.
Subsequently, 6,000 of the Indian prisoners who were considered most receptive to Bose’s ideas were transferred to the camp at Frankenburg where military training was initiated by German officers and NCOs. Officially a cover story was maintained that the Indians were merely used as a labor unit and to lend credence to this, the camp was designated Arbeitskommando Frankenburg. Of the 6,000 men at Frankenburg, 300 volunteers were transferred yet again to Künigsbrück near Dresden in Saxony where GermanArmy uniforms were issued with the addition of a specially designed national arm badge in the shape of the shield (worn in German Army style on the right upper arm) with three horizontal stripes in the saffron, white and green Indian national colors(as used previously by the Italians for the collar patches of the BattaglioneAzad Hindoustan) and featuring a leaping tiger superimposed over the white band of the tricolor and with the legend “Freies Indien” in black characters on an integral white background above the tricolor. A saffron, white and green transfer may also have been used on the left side of their German steel helmets. Uniforms were of the usual army feldgrau (field gray) in winter and German or Italian tropical khaki in the summer. Those 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 (einheitsfeldmütze).
These men now constituted the Legion Freies Indien of the German Army and took their oath of allegiance in a ceremony on 26th August 1942. The ranks of the new Legion were swelled by hundreds of new members some of whose participation was far from voluntary until by mid-1943 it boasted approximately 2,000 members and was also referred to as Indisches Infanterie Regiment 950.
Order of Battle
I.R. 950 (ind) / Freies Indien Legion 1943-44
Legionskommandeur: Oberstleutnant Kurt Krappe (until 25/6/43)
Ausbildungs und Betreutungsstab (Training & Maintenance Staff) formed 27/4/43 then renamed on 7/7/43 as: Regiments-Stab (ind.) Infanterie Regiment 950
The Legion Freies Indien / Indisches Infanterie Regiment 950 was organized as a standard German army infantry regiment of three battalions each of four companies. Initially, all the commissioned officers of I.R. 950 (ind) were German, but after a brief course, some senior NCOs were commissioned in October 1943. The unit was partially Motorised, being equipped with 81 motor vehicles and 700 horses and was later referred to as Panzergrenadier Regiment 950 (indische) presumably to reflect its semi-Motorised status.
Unlike British practice in the Indian Army, the constituent units of the Legions were all of the mixed religion and regional nationality so that Moslems, Hindus, Sikhs, Jats, Rajputs, Marathas, and Garhwalis all served side-by-side. Approximately two-thirds of the Legion’s members were Moslem and one-third Hindu.
In late 1943 Indians of the Moslem faith were also considered for recruitment into the 13. SS-Freiwilligen-b.h. Gebirgs-Division (Kroatien) (13th SS Volunteer Bosnian-Herzegovinian Mountain Division (Croatia) – later known as the “Handschar” Division) which was then in the process of formation from Bosnians of overwhelmingly Moslem origin. Himmler was very enthusiastic about the formation of a Moslem SS division, however, Obergruppenführer Gottlob Berger Chef der SS Hauptamt (Head of the SS Head Office) pointed out to Himmler in November 1943 that the Indian Moslems “perceive themselves primarily as Indians, the Bosnians as Europeans” and the idea was dropped.
Officially the language of command was Hindi, but since many of the members of the Legion came from regions of India where Hindi was not widely spoken this was not always practical. In addition, the German’s almost total inability to provide personnel who could speak any of the languages of the Indian subcontinent bedeviled their relationship with the Indian troops throughout its existence and resulted in the Germans using English for most of their communications with the Indians. English (together with some broken German learned over the years) was also often used between Indians of different linguistic backgrounds within the Legion. In this connection, it is interesting to note that one of the interpreters employed by the Germans was Sonderführer Frank Chetwynd Becker, an Englishman born in England to an English mother and a British-naturalized but German-born father who was posted to the Indian Legion in July 1942. Difficulty with communication and German insensitivity in dealing with people whose culture and customs they were largely ignorant led to the Legion suffering from poor discipline throughout its existence and indeed led to the shooting by his own men of one of the Indian Legion’s most enthusiastic members, Unteroffizier Mohammed Ibrahim.
The Indian Legion was presented with a regimental color, most probably in the autumn of 1942 at the completion of the Legion’s military training at Königsbrück during the oath-taking ceremony. However, it may have been presented prior to the Legion’s departure for the Netherlands in the spring of 1943 (see below). Certainly, there is photographic evidence of its use in 1943. The flag was roughly rectangular in shape being slightly taller than it was long and with the same design on obverse and reverse. In a similar manner to the arm badges worn on the Legion’s uniforms, it featured a tricolor in the Indian national colors of saffron, white and green arranged in horizontal bands with the colors in the stated order from top to bottom but on the flag, the white middle band was approximately three times the width of the two colored bands. The words “AZAD” and “HIND” were superimposed in white over the saffron and green bands respectively and a full-color leaping tiger was superimposed diagonally over the white band. The ultimate fate of the legionary color is not known.
An “Azad Hind” (Free India) decoration was also instituted by Bose in 1942 in four grades each of which could be awarded with or without swords in German fashion. Both Indian and German members of the Legion were eligible to receive the decoration. Almost half of the Indian Legion’s members received one or more of these awards.
The Abwehr had envisaged this new military force as accompanying an Axis campaign via the Caucasus through Iran into India to end British rule there. As early as the end of August 1941 they had formulated a scheme to fly the Indian Legion to India and using parachute landings start an anti-British revolt and this plan was shown to Bose. To this end, some Indians appear to have been recruited by Rittmeister Habicht of the Abwehr and incorporated as a part of 4.Regiment, 800.Bau Lehrdivision zur besonderen Verwendung Brandenburg (Special Purpose Construction Training Division Brandenburg), which despite its innocuous-sounding title constituted the special forces of the Wehrmacht. They were quartered at a training camp near Meseritz. In January 1942 Operation”Bajadere” was launched and one hundred Indians were parachuted into eastern Persia in order to infiltrate into India through Baluchistan and commence sabotage operations against the British in preparation for the anticipated national revolt. Oberleutnant Witzel in Afghanistan reported to the Abwehr station in Kabul that the Indians had been effective and this information was passed on to Abwehr headquarters in Berlin.
Axis reverses at Stalingrad and El Alamein at the end of 1942 made an attack on India by the European Axis powers appear an increasingly unlikely scenario. however, in the Far East, the Japanese Army in Burma stood at the gates of India. Through their ambassador in Berlin, General Oshima, Bose was named as leader of a Japanese sponsored Indian Government-in-exile and on 9th February 1943 Bose, his adjutant Dr. Habib Hassan and two officers of the Indian Legion left Kiel on the long-range (Type IX D1) submarine U-180 under the command of Fregattenkapitän Musenberg (which also contained blueprints of jet engines and various other German secret projects to help the Japanese war effort). They transferred in rough seas to the Japanese submarine I-29 at a rendezvous near Madagascar and arrived at Sabang harbor on We Island off the northernmost tip of Japanese occupied Sumatra on 6th May 1943. Subsequently, Bose traveled via Singapore to Tokyo for talks with the Japanese Government. In the wake of these successful negotiations, he returned to his Japanese provided residence in Singapore where his aides had assembled other like-minded Indians to form the”Provisional Government of Free India”. Ultimately Bose came to lead a much larger Japanese sponsored “Indian National Army” (eventually of three divisions)which fought alongside the Japanese against the British 14th Army in Burma and in the extreme north-east of India.
Following Bose’s departure for Singapore, discussions between the German Foreign Ministry and the Abwehr resulted in a plan to transfer the leadership of the Legion Fries Indien to the Far East. Department II of the Abwehr organized the operation in conjunction with the operations staff of the DivisionBrandenburg and the Oberkommando der Marine (German Naval High Command). The plan called for the use of four blockade runners to take the officer corps and best men of the Indian Legion to Singapore.
Given the war situation and Allied domination of the Atlantic and Indian oceans the proposed operation was extremely audacious and called for careful planning. One blockade runner was converted to resemble an iron ore carrier from neutral Sweden. Named the Brand III, it was crewed by Brandenburgers with a knowledge of Swedish and some Indians with experience as seamen. The majority of the Indians were, however, concealed in specially constructed space at the bottom of the hold which was covered over with Iron ore so that inspection from above would give the impression of a normal hold full of ore. Brand III then proceeded from Germany to Malmö in Sweden where it refueled, in the knowledge that British agents there would report its departure to London. The “neutral” vessel was allowed to make passage through the English channel but was stopped in Gibraltar where its cargo manifest was examined but its cover story held good. A German agent in Capetown, South Africa had sent the order for the iron ore which was ostensibly for a real iron foundry in South Africa to Sweden so that verification checks by the British authorities showed everything to be in order. Brand III carried on through the Suez Canal into the Indian ocean and survived another inspection, this time by U.S. warships in the Bay of Bengal. finally just west of the Sunda Strait the Brand III rendezvoused with a Japanese cruiser which escorted it to Singapore.
A second blockade runner was less lucky; It elected to take the long sea route around the Cape of Good Hope but was intercepted at dusk by British warships just west of the Cape. In the fading light, the captain decided to make a run for it and while making smoke headed off at top speed into the gathering darkness. In order to avoid the inevitable search, the blockade runner was forced to aim into the far southern latitudes and was not heard of again.
Back in Europe, the Legion Freies Indien was transferred to the Zeeland area of the Netherlands in April/May 1943, remaining there as part of the Atlantic Wall garrison until September of the same year.
Legionskommandeur Oberstleutnant Kurt Krappe arrived in the Netherlands on 13th April 1943 in order to prepare for the transfer of the Indian Legion from Königsbrück. I./I.R. 950 (ind.) arrived at Truppenübungsplatz (Military TrainingGround) Beverloo in Belgium on 30th April and was followed by II./I.R. 950(ind.) on 1st-3rd May, III./I.R. 950 (ind.) left Germany somewhat later and arrived at Truppenübungsplatz Oldebroek on the night of 13th-14th July. Together with the regimental support companies Nos. 13, 14 & 15; but without its 12th Infantry Co. which was left behind in Germany as a replacement unit. On 5th May the 1st and 2nd Battalions were inspected at Beverloo by General der InfanterieHans Reinhard, Kommandierender General LXXXVIII. Armeekorps und Befehlshaber der Truppen des Heeres in den Niederlanden (General Officer Commanding 88th Army Corps and Commander of the Army Troops in the Netherlands) who later observed to the Wehrmachtsbefehlshaber in den Niederlanden (Higher Military Commander in the Netherlands) that the Indian troops should not be stationed in the Netherlands beyond the end of October as he thought that the cold climate on the North Sea coast would be detrimental to their health. Indeed on 17th September 1943Regiment-Stab (ind.) I.R. 950 left Haarlem and redeployed to St. André de Cubzac in south-west France.
The I./I.R. 950 (ind.) was assigned to the Zandvoort region with an advance party arriving on 6th May and the main body on 17th, 19th & 21st May. 2 companies were stationed on the seaward front, 2 companies on the landward front and one in Zandvoort as Unterabschnittreserve (sub-sector reserve) [presumablyone of these companies was one of the regimental support companies]. Gen.d.Inf.Reinhard, Reichsminister Dr. Artur Seyss-Inquart (Reichskommissar in the Netherlands), envoy Otto Bene and Oberst Otto von Lachemair (CO 16. LuftwaffenFeld-Division) inspected I./I.R. 950 (ind.) on 15th June. On 24th August I./I.R.950 (ind.) was ordered relieved by Georgian Infanterie Bataillon 822 and their last troop transport left on 31st August for their new base on the Atlantic coast of France south of Bordeaux on the Bay of Biscay.
Advance parties from II./I.R. 950 (ind.) arrived in Den Helder from Beverloo on 21st May and were ordered to the northern part of the Frisian Island of Texel (6. Komp. at De koog, 7. Komp. at De Cocksdorp and 8. Komp. atSlufter). Following movement orders on 9th September, II./I.R. 950 (ind.) was relieved by Nordkaukasien Infanterie Bataillon 803 on 16th September. On 17th September 1943 II./I.R. 950 (ind.) passed through Den Helder en route to LesSalles d’Ollonne in France.
III./I.R. 950 (ind.) remained at Tr.Üb.Platz Oldebroek as Corps Reserve.Its officers were visited by Gen.d.Inf. Reinhard and Generalfeldmarschall vonRundstedt on 14th July, with Gen.d.Inf. Reinhard and his Chief-of-Staff,Generalleutnant Erich Höcker (CO 719. I.D.) and Obstlt. Kurt Krappe returning on19th July to inspect the troops themselves. III./I.R. 950 (ind.) leftTr.Üb.Platz Oldebroek for France on 9th September 1943.
The Legion Freies Indien was deployed in France on coastal defense duties in the area of Lacanau near Bordeaux where they were inspected by Generalfeldmarschall Rommel (who was, of course, responsible for their original capture!) in April 1944. On 8th August 1944 the Free Indian Legion (now comprising about 2,300 men), like all the national legions of the German Army, was transferred to the control of the Waffen-SS now being known as the Indische Freiwilligen Legion der Waffen SS and receiving a new commanding officer: SSOberführer Heinz Bertling. Despite the change in authority from Army to Waffen SS, the Indian Legion continued to use Army ranks and uniforms. The notorious SS map of February 1945 does show an SS collar patch featuring a tiger’s head for the Free Indian Legion but it is unlikely that it was even manufactured and almost certainly it was never actually worn.
The Legion remained at Lacenau until over two months after the Allied Invasion of Normandy. However, following the Allied breakout from the Normandy bridgehead and with the growing threat of Allied landings on the Mediterranean coast of France, the Indian Legion was at risk of being cut off and so on 15th August 1944 (the same day that the feared Allied landings actually took place on the French Riviera) the Legion left Lacanau to move back to Germany. The first part of their journey was by rail to Poitiers where they were attacked by French FFI(Forces Françaises de l’Interieur) “Maquis” forces and a number of men were wounded. The French Resistance continued to harass the Legion when at the end of August it moved again to Allier via Chatrou, this time moving by road. The town of Dun on the Berry Canal was reached by the beginning of September and here the Indian Legion was opposed by French regular forces. In the resulting streetfighting, the Indische Freiwilligen Legion der Waffen SS suffered its first death in combat: Leutnant Ali Khan, later to be interred with full military honors at Sanchin cemetery. The Legion continued its withdrawal through Luzy marching at night but took more casualties in ambushes including Unteroffizier Kalu Ram and Gefreiter Mela Ram. The Loire was crossed and the Indians headed for Dijon. A short engagement was fought against Allied armor at Nuits St. Georges.
After several days halt for rest the Indians continued on to Remisemont, then, marching via Colmar in Alsace, they arrived at Oberhofen near the garrison town of Hagenau in Germany. During Christmas 1944 the Legion was billeted in the private houses of German civilians then moved in bitterly cold weather to the vacant Truppenübungsplatz at Heuberg. One company is said to have been transferred to Italy, if this is so, its fate is unknown.
The Germans always had a very low opinion of the fighting qualities of the Indian Legion (not that they had been given many opportunities to prove themselves in combat). Hitler is reputed to have commented: “The Indian Legion is a joke.” and is said to have given a personal order that its arms be handed over to the 18.SS Freiwilligen Panzergrenadier Division “Horst Wessel”.
The Indische Freiwilligen Legion der Waffen SS remained at Tr.Üb.Platz Heuberg until the end of March 1945, then, with the defeat of the Third Reich imminent the Indians sought sanctuary in neutral Switzerland and undertook a desperate march along the shores of the Bodensee (Lake Constance) in an attempt to enter Switzerland via one of the alpine passes. However, this was unsuccessful and eventually, the Legion was captured by the United States and French forces. Before their delivery into the custody of British and Indian forces, it is alleged that a number of Indian soldiers were shot by French troops.
Ultimately the members of the Free Indian Legion were transported back to India by sea. There, a number of senior personnel were imprisoned in the Red Fort in Delhi. In view of the pressures used to recruit Indian prisoners-of-war during their captivity (and political expediency in an India in turmoil as independence approached), the members of the Free Indian Legion were dealt with leniently. But by then, the political leader of the Legion was already dead. Subhas Chandra Bose died from severe burns sustained when the Japanese Mitsubishi Ki-21 Army Type 97 “Sally” bomber he was flying in crashed on take-off from Taipei in Formosa (Taiwan) on 18th August 1945 while attempting to make his way to Manchuria in the wake of the Japanese surrender. However, rumors that he was still alive and working for the Chinese communists persisted for several years.
The German Brandenburgers and agents of Abwehr II who had remained with the “Indian National Army” in the Far East were rumored to have joined the French Foreign Legion in Saigon, French Indo-China.
References and Notes:
1. Lundari, I Paracadutisti Italiani 1937/45, p. 90.