Inside India #33: India’s Tiger Legion – when Indian soldiers fought in the German army

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

3 April 1941. Indian revolutionary leader, Subhas Chandra Bose, arrives in Berlin.

Bose, a native of Bengal and former President of the Indian National Congress (the party of Gandhi and Nehru), is already high on the list of those causing heartburn for the martinets of the British Raj.

Arrested numerous times for ‘anti-Imperialist’ activities, Bose had fled the subcontinent to Germany in order to enlist the German army’s help in ousting the British from India. Operating by the old adage ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’, Bose, managed to convince the German foreign ministry to recognise his provisional ‘Free India Government’ in exile, and to help him raise a force to fight his cause. That army was to be called the ‘Free India Legion’ – later known simply as the Indian Legion or, more colourfully, the Tiger Legion.

Picture attribution: Aschenbroich CC 3.0

Bose’s plan was to lead an invasion of British India, once his legion had been suitably armed by his hosts.

But where did the Bengali leader find fighting men willing to serve under a German flag?

Bose began by recruiting Indian students living in Germany at the time. Next, he toured POW camps in the country, home to thousands of Indian soldiers captured by Rommel in North Africa. The charismatic Bose found little difficulty in convincing these men to join him. The Indians, mistreated as they had been by centuries of colonial rule, had very little loyalty for their former British commanders.

Ultimately, Bose managed to recruit between three and four thousand men, but only a small contingent of these soldiers ever saw action.

By 1943, a disillusioned Bose had given up on German promises. The German Army’s retreat from Russia had left their leadership with little stomach for an assault on India.

Cutting his losses, Bose left his Tiger Legion behind, and travelled, in secret, to Japan, where he would raise a second, larger, force to march on India through Burma.

Left rudderless, the Tiger Legion remained largely stationed in Europe pursuing non-combat duties, with a few posted to Holland and, later, south-west France, where they helped fortify the coast for an expected Allied landing.

Following D-Day, the legion’s by-now disillusioned soldiers found themselves in a desperate retreat through France, alongside regular German units.

With the fall of Germany, the remaining men of the Tiger Legion were captured by American and French troops and shipped back to India to face charges of treason. However, these trials – considered by many in India to be the trials of men fighting for the patriotic cause of freeing India from the British – caused such uproar that, ultimately, they foundered.

Bose himself died in August 1945, in an air crash, his Japanese bomber crashing in what is, today, Taiwanese territory. His body was engulfed in flames and he died from third-degree burns. Immediately cremated by the Japanese, his death was announced five days later to a shocked India. The suddenness of the death, and subsequent cremation, has fuelled conspiracy theorists ever since, many of whom claim that Bose survived the crash.

Today, Bose is revered as a patriotic hero of the Indian revolution, with numerous institutions named after him, his face appearing on Indian stamps, and his uncompromising ideology finding new meaning as modern India bestrides the global stage.

My latest novel, The Dying Day, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the disappearance of one of the world’s great treasures, a 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy stored at Bombay’s Asiatic Society. Soon bodies begin to pile up… Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here.  

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

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