Colours-Free Indian Legion
It is well-known that the Indian National Army (INA) was first proclaimed in April 1942 after the fall of Malaya and Singapore with Indian Prisoners of War (POW) and the Indian diaspora. This volunteer force known as INA 1 was disbanded in December 1942 due to differences with the Japanese, but later merged with INA 2 raised under Subhas Chandra Bose in July 1943. What is less known is that similar forces at a smaller scale were also raised by Italy and Germany.
At the outbreak of World War II, the struggle for freedom in India had been on for over five decades. Hence, it was logical for the Axis powers to capitalise on the anti-British sentiments by attempting to recruit a military force from disaffected Indian POW captured while serving with the British Indian Army.
Italy created the smallest of these forces. On May 10, 1942, the Italian Army established a Ragruppamento Centri Militari (Special Group), a special unit composed of foreign military personnel, POW, foreign nationals living in Italy and Italians who had lived in colonised/captured countries with the intention of using them for intelligence gathering and sabotage operations behind enemy lines. Italy also created a token ‘Azad Hind Government’ headed by Iqbal Shedai, a freedom fighter from Sialkot living in exile.
Ragruppamento Centri Militari, raised under Lt Col Massimo Invrea, it consisted of Comando (headquarters); Centro ‘T’ consisting of Italians from Tunisia; Centro ‘A’ consisting of Italians from Egypt, Palestine, Syria, other Arab states and Arab/Sudanese POW; and lastly, Centro ‘I’ consisting of Italians from India, Iran and Indian POW. In all, the Ragruppamento Centri Militari collected together approximately 1,200 Italians, 400 Indians, and 200 Arabs. In August 1942, the unit was renamed Ragruppamento Frecce Rosse (Red Arrows Group). The three Centri Militari received new designations at – Battaglione d’Assalto Tunisia (Tunisia Assault Battalion), Gruppo Italo-Arabo (Italian-Arab Group), and Battaglione Azad Hindoustan (Free Indian Battalion).
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. Airborne task led to a Platone Paracadutisti (Parachute Platoon) to be established 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 desert tunics were worn with collar patches with three vertical stripes in saffron, white and green colours of the freedom struggle/ Indian National Congress. 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 in rayon thread on the left upper arm.
The order of battle of the Battaglione Azad Hindoustan in August 1942 was as follows: Compagnie Fucilieri (a motorised 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.
Little is known of the operations of this force. This was probably due to the fact that, despite investing in this force, Italians considered the Indian troops 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 POW camps. Thus ended the disappointing Italian efforts to recruit Indians for service in the Axis armed forces.
The German effort to raise a force based on the Indian POW was much more serious and had the benefit of the leadership of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, who, after his escape from Calcutta in January 1941, had arrived in Germany in April 1941. As per the German version, the escape and passage of Netaji had been facilitated by the Abwehr (German intelligence organisation). Netaji had a meeting with Ribbentrop, the German foreign minister, and subsequently also met Adolf Hitler.
Bose with Hitler.
He was named as the head of the Free India Centre or the Indian Government-in-exile.
Netaji began broadcasting from Azad Hind Radio at Nauen. He was keen to play a more active role to fight the British government rather than merely a political propaganda role. An opportunity presented itself when 3,000 soldiers of the 3 Indian Motorised Brigade were captured at El Mekili by Rommel’s Afrika Corps on April 10, 1941. Immediately the Abwehr began efforts to subvert the Indian POWs. On May 15, a Luftwaffe Major was sent to interview the English POWs with a view to recruiting men for a proposed German Army (Heer) unit of Indian troops.
This initial approach led to a core group of 27 being flown to Berlin on May 19. A special POW camp catering for 10,000 Indian POWs was established at Annaburg as more POWs were being captured. After coordination with the Italians, the POWs were shifted to Germany from Libya and Italy. The POW camp was visited by Netaji and the soldiers motivated for enlistment into the proposed unit, variously referred to as the Indian Legion, Free India Legion, Azad Hind Legion or the more exotically sounding, Tiger Legion. Initial efforts were rather disappointing. While the motivation was being pursued, the first group of eight highly motivated volunteers, recruited from POW and Indian civilian residents in Germany left Berlin on Christmas Day 1941 for a camp at Frankenburg near Chemnitz in order to receive future groups of motivated Indian POWs. Despite the initial disappointing effort, the German Propaganda Ministry in January 1942 announced the establishment of the rather grandly titled, “Indian National Army”.
Subsequently, 6,000 of the Indian POWs, who were considered most receptive to Netaji’s motivation, 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 to be used as a labour unit and to lend credence to this, the camp was designated Arbeitskommando (labour camp) Frankenburg. Of the 6,000 men at Frankenburg, 300 better-motivated volunteers were transferred to Künigsbrück near Dresden where German Army 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 and featuring a leaping tiger superimposed over the white band of the tricolour and with the legend “Freies Indien (Free India)” in black characters on an integral white background above the tricolour.
A saffron, white and green patch was also used on the left side of their German steel helmets. Uniforms were of the usual army field grey in winter and German or Italian tropical khaki in the summer. Sikhs in the Legion were permitted to wear a turban of a colour appropriate to their uniform as dictated by their religion.
Uniforms and arm badge of the Free Indian Legion.
These men now constituted the Legion Freies Indien (Free Indian Legion) of the German Army and took their oath of allegiance in a ceremony on August 26, 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 (Indian Infantry) Regiment 950.
The Legion Freies Indien (Free Indian Legion)/ Indisches Infanterie Regiment (Indian Infantry Regiment ) 950 was organised as a standard German Army infantry regiment of three battalions each of four companies. Initially, all the commissioned officers of Indian Regiment 950 were German, but after a brief course, some senior NCOs were commissioned as officers 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 (India) 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 Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jats, Rajputs, Marathas, and Garhwalis all served side by side. Approximately two-thirds of the Legion’s members were Muslim and one-third Hindus, Sikhs and others. The official salutation/greeting as selected by Netaji was “Jai Hind”.
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 inability to provide personnel who could speak any of the languages of the Indian subcontinent bedevilled 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.
Difficulty with communication and German insensitivity in dealing with people of 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 (Sergeant/Havaldar) Mohammed Ibrahim.
The Indian Legion was presented with regimental colour, most probably in the autumn of 1942 at the completion of the Legion’s military training at Königsbrück during the oath-taking ceremony. 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 tricolour in the Indian national colours of saffron, white and green arranged in horizontal bands with the colours 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 coloured bands. The words “AZAD” and “HIND” were superimposed in white over the saffron and green bands respectively and a full colour leaping tiger was superimposed diagonally over the white band. The ultimate fate of the legionary colour 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 the German fashion. Both Indian and German members of the Legion were eligible to receive the decoration.
Netaji and Abwehr had grandiose plans for the Indian Legion and envisaged this new military force as accompanying an Axis campaign via the Caucasus through Iran into India to end British rule. As early as the end of August 1941, they had formulated a plan to fly the Indian Legion to India using parachute landings to start an anti-British revolt in the North West Frontier Province. To this end, some Indians appear to have been recruited by 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 100 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. As per German sources, this operation achieved some success but there is nothing on record.
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, Netaji was named the leader of a Japanese-sponsored Indian Government-in-exile and on February 9, 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 Captain Musenberg. They transferred in rough seas to the Japanese submarine I-29 at a rendezvous near Madagascar and arrived at Sabang harbour on We Island off the northernmost tip of Japanese-occupied Sumatra on May 6, 1943. Netaji travelled via Singapore to Tokyo for talks with the Japanese Government and established the Provisional Government of Free India and the Indian National Army.
Following Netaji’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. The Abwehr organised the operation in conjunction with the operations staff of the Division Brandenburg (Special Forces) 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 the 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 (Special Forces) with 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. The Brand III then proceeded from Germany to Malmö in Sweden where it refuelled 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 Cape Town, 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. The Brand III carried on through the Suez Canal into the Indian Ocean and survived another inspection, this time by US 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 took 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.
The Legion Freies Indien, under the command of Legionskommandeur Oberstleutnant (Lt Col) Kurt Krappe, 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. In end September, it was moved to St. André de Cubzac in south-west France as it was feared that the Indian troops will not fare well in the harsh winter.
Rommel inspects the Free India Legion.
The Legion Freies Indien was deployed in France on coastal defence duties for the Bay of Biscay in the area of Lacanau near Bordeaux. Here, they were inspected by Field Marshal Rommel (who was, of course, responsible for their original capture!) in April 1944.
This area saw no fighting during the allied invasion June 6, 1944, onwards. On August 8, 1944, the Free Indian Legion (now comprising about 2,300 men), like all other foreign national legions of the German Army, was transferred to the control of the Waffen SS (a wing of the Nazi Party paramilitary force – Schutzstaffel – that operated in conjunction with the German army). Its new designation was Indische Freiwilligen Legion (India Volunteer Legion), Waffen SS. Despite the change in authority from Army to Waffen SS, the Indian Legion continued to use Army ranks and uniforms.
Legion remained at Lacenau until over two months after the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. 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 August 15, 1944 (the same day that the feared Allied landings actually took place on the French Riviera) it left Lacanau to move back to Germany. The first part of their journey was by rail to Poitiers where they were attacked by the French Resistance forces and a number of men were wounded (the first battle casualties). In end-August when the Legion moved by road to Allier, it was again harassed by the French Resistance. 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 street fighting, the Indische Freiwilligen Legion der Waffen SS suffered its first death in combat – Leutnant (Lieutenant) Ali Khan, later to be buried with full military honours at Sancoin cemetery. The Legion continued its withdrawal through Luzy marching at night but took more casualties in ambushes including Unteroffizier (Sergeant/Havaldar) Kalu Ram and Gefreiter (Corporal/Naik) Mela Ram. The Loire was crossed and the Indians headed for Dijon. A short engagement was fought against Allied armour 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 Indische Freiwilligen Legion der Waffen SS remained at Tr.Üb.Platz Heuberg until the end of March 1945. 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. Most were discharged from service and received pensions as per rules with the service of Free India Legion counted towards pensionable service.
Battaglione Azad Hindoustan and the Indian Legion were not used for active combat duties as both the Italians and the Germans did not trust the Indians and had a very low opinion of their fighting qualities. Hitler is reputed to have once commented: “The Indian Legion is a joke.” Language was a major problem. The fact that no officer had chosen to join these forces created a major command and control problem as the soldiers did not respect the newly appointed officers and NCOs from amongst themselves. Motivation was a problem due to a higher influence of military discipline and limited influence of nationalism. A large number of the soldiers merely volunteered for these forces to avoid the harsh conditions of the POW camps. The most important factor was that by the time these forces were organised the tide was turning against the Axis powers and the soldiers were aware of it. However, the Germans must be given the credit to raise and maintain a brigade-size force at par with their own army.
I have two connections with the Free Indian Legion. I commanded 43 Armoured Brigade, the present-day avatar of 3 Indian Motorised Brigade which provided the core of the legion. The second connection was that as Member of the Armed Forces Tribunal wrote a judgement granting a pension to a 90-year-old soldier of the Free Indian Legion 62 years after he took voluntary discharge in 1949. The time he spent in the Legion was not being counted towards his pensionable service which is required to be 15 years. While the government policy allowed for the same, the Ministry of Defence said that they did not have any ‘records’ of the Free Indian Legion or the Indian National Army in Germany ever having existed. We put the old soldier in the witness box and heard him. To his good luck, I was well read about the Free Indian Legion. He recounted his story from being taken POW at Mekili and his service in the Legion in the minutest details and lo and behold of having shaken hands with the great Field Marshal Rommel in April 1944. He got his pension after 62 years with full arrears.