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A Forgotten Army: Legion Freies Indien (The Free India Legion)

by Col Joe Purakel (Retd)

(From the December 2018 edition)

The Legion Freies Indien (Free India Legion) was conceived with the same doctrine as the Indian National Army (INA) and this facet of the Azad Hind movement barely finds mention in the annals of Independent India’s history. This is possibly that their battles were far removed from the battlefields of the East; closer to home, where the troops of the INA had fought and died and ignited  public imagination as also the post-Independence apathy shown by the government towards Netaji and the INA. To consider the legacy of the Free India Legion, one has to consider both the Azad Hind movement and the events in Europe during those years of strife.

The Genesis 

At the onset of World War II, all the three major Axis powers, at some stage of their campaigns, sought to exploit the armed revolutionary activities within India and aided the recruitment of a military force from anti-British Indian Prisoners of War (POW) as also from nationalist expatriates. Of this the most famous was the INA that came into being with the support of the Japanese Empire in the Far East.

However at this time in India, although the Congress Party had passed resolutions conditionally supporting the British war effort, Indian public opinion was hostile at Britain’s unilateral decision to declare India as a belligerent on the Allied side. Subhas Chandra Bose was a vociferous opponent to this perfidy by Britain. The British thus perceived him as a threat and promptly placed him under arrest. Bose would escape and made his way to the Soviet Union via Afghanistan (a spell binding escape narrated vividly in the book ‘The Indian Spy’ by Mihir Bose). Netaji hoped that the Communist anti-imperialist stance to Capitalism would garner Soviet support but was disappointed; hence he then made his way to Berlin, where he reached on 3 April 1941.

In the meeting with Hitler, he outlined his plan of raising an Indian force who would then march through the Caucasus and into India and herald the demise of the British Empire in India. By the end of 1941, Hitler’s regime officially recognized his provisional ‘Free India Government’ in exile, and agreed to help Netaji to raise an army to fight for his cause. It was to be called ‘The Free India Legion’.

The Legion Freies Indien, also called the Indische Legion, popularly called the Tiger Legion (after the ‘leaping tiger’ symbol on the flag), the Azad Hind Fauj, the Indische Freiwilligen Legion Regiment 950 (IR 950) was an Indian armed unit raised in 1941 at Berlin. It was attached to the Wehrmacht and its first inductees were from the Indian POWs captured in the North African battlefields of El Mekili and Tobruk in Libya. The Italians established three POW camps to accommodate and indoctrinate them. The Indians however refused to serve under the Italian officers and the experiment was shelved.

The German forces under Rommel then selected a core group of 27 Indian POWs as potential officers and they were flown to Berlin in May 1941. Gradually the numbers rose to 10,000, and they were housed in the barracks at Annaburg where Subhas Bose interacted with them in due course. From these, a group of about 6,000 men were transferred to the Frankenburg Camp, from where a further of 33 soldiers was sent to Konisbruck for further training and induction. The formal proclamation of the formation of this force was announced by the German Propaganda Ministry in January 1942. By August 1942, Bose’s recruitment drive got fully into swing. Mass ceremonies were held in which dozens of Indian POWs joined in mass oaths of allegiance. By May 1943 their numbers had swelled, aided by the enlistment of Indian expatriate students in Germany.

Organization of the Legion Freies Indien

The British Indian Army, possibly as an extension of their ‘divide and rule’ policy, had organized Indian Army units on the basis of regional identities. Bose from the inception of the Legion, sought to eradicate any semblance of divisive factors and built a force on an unified Indian identity. Consequently the Legion Freies Indien was organized as mixed units comprising of all religions, states and class. Approximately two third of the Legion’s members were Muslims and one third Hindu and other religions, including a large number of Sikhs. This was the first time a modern professional Indian Army was created where Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims all served together in close-knit units and this set a precedent for Indian Army of the post-Independent era.

After the end of the war, when the British investigators interrogated the soldiers and commanders of the Free Indian Legion they found “the morale, discipline and indo German relations were excellent”. The soldiers of the Free Indian Legion were the first to observe and witness some of the national traditions and practices, which have now become a part of our national legacy. Bose, after founding the Indian National Provisional Government in Berlin, chose the ‘Jana Gana Mana’ song written by Rabindra Nath Tagore as the Nation Anthem. This decision of Bose would later be ratified by the Indian government after Independence. Jana Gana Mana was first performed as the official National Anthem of Free India on September 11, 1942 on the occasion of the foundation of Indo-German society (Deutsch-Indische Gesellschaft).

Bose also wanted a common national greeting that can be used by people of any religion or communities. Abid Hasan, the secretary of Bose, heard two Rajput soldiers greeting each other as ‘Jai Ram Ji Ki’. He really liked the sound of it and proposed the greeting ‘Jai Hindustan Ki’ to Bose. The shorter version of it, simply ‘Jai Hind’ sounded better and would be used by Bose as the national greeting of Azad Hind. This is how the greeting ‘Jai Hind’ originated. The uniform issued to the Legion was the standard German Army feldgrau (field grey).The troops wore on their right upper arm a specially designed arm badge in the shape of a shield with three horizontal stripes of saffron, white and green, the colors of the flag of Azad Hind. The badge featured a leaping tiger on the white middle band. The legend Legion Freies Indien was inscribed in black on a white background above the tri color.

Sikhs in the Legion were permitted to wear turbans as dictated by their faith, of a color appropriate to the uniform in the place of the standard peaked cap. Legion Freies Indien was organized as a standard German Motorized Infantry unit with three Battalions of four Companies each. Initially all its commissioned officers were German. Azad Hind stamps in six different designs were produced in 1943 in Nazi Germany for the Azad Hind. A concept of Subhas Chandra Bose, the stamps were designed by Werner and Maria von Axster-Heudtlass who created many German issues between 1925 and 1949. The Indian Postal Department includes these six unused Azad Hind Stamps in its commemorative book India’s Freedom Struggle through India Postage Stamps.

Legion Freies Indien in Battle 

Netaji sought and obtained an agreement from the Germans that the Wehrmacht would train the Legion in the strictest and highest standards of training and discipline, and they were to be trained in all disciplines at par with a German Infantry unit. Also he insisted that the Indians would not be mixed with German units or Formations and were not to be sent to any other front than in India solely for fighting the British. He also agreed that they may fight in self-defense in any other Sector if attacked by Allied forces. The Germans granted similar status in rank, pay and perks to the soldiers of the Legion. In 1942, Bose instituted several medals and orders for service to Azad Hind. As was typical for German decorations, Crossed Swords were added when they were issued for action in combat.

Nearly half of the soldiers of the legion received one of these decorations. It is debatable whether Netaji envisaged that the Legion Freies Indien (or the Azad Hind Legion as it came to be popularly called by the time Netaji left for Japan in February 1943), as an army sufficient or strong enough to conduct a campaign across Persia and into India on its own. Most historians now acknowledge that the IR 950 was to become the path finder force that would precede a larger German force in the Caucasian campaign into the western frontiers of British India. This Germans hoped would ignite public unrest against the Raj and force the British Indian Army to switch sides.

Operation Bajadere, was launched on January 1942, and a detachment of the Legion numbering around 100 were para dropped in eastern Persia with tasks to infiltrate into India through Balochistan. This detachment had received special training from the German Special Forces. They would commence sabotage operations in preparation for the anticipated national revolt. Documents retrieved post war from the German Embassy in Kabul that were transmitted to the Abwehr HQ in Berlin, indicates that the unit was successful in its tasks of subversion. Following the German reverses at Stalingrad and in North Africa, it was clear that an Axis assault through Iran or USSR was unlikely. Netaji had in the meantime travelled to the Far East where the Japanese were almost at the gates of British India. 

The INA was successfully engaging the Allies and along with the Japanese had entered India and laid siege to Imphal. At this time the German High Command took the decision to transfer the leadership and a segment of the Legion Freies Indien to the Azad Hind Government in South Asia. It was formally made part of the INA. A majority of the Legion was however only to be stationed in Europe, deployed from the Netherlands to the Atlantic Wall in France till two months after D-Day. The soldiers protected the beaches from the extremely unlikely possibility of an Allied attack, digging trenches and manning guns that faced the sea. As they waited, they occupied the town’s villas and resorts, many of which still exist. The Waffen SS thereafter assumed command of the Legion.

On 15 August 1944, the unit was ordered to make its way back to Germany. It was during this journey that the unit encountered French forces and Allied armor columns and saw first combat. It also harassed the French Resistance fighters. In Germany, the Legion was based in the Alsace and in the winter of 1944 moved to Heuberg. Battalions of the Legion also fought in Italy in the spring of 1944 and also faced the British 5 Corps and the Polish 2 Corps before they were withdrawn from the front to be used as anti-partisan forces until their surrender.

With the defeat of the Third Reich looming in May 1945, the Legion decided to seek sanctuary in neutral Switzerland. The remainder of the Legion undertook a desperate march along the shores of Lake Konstanz, attempting to enter Switzerland through the Alpine passes. This however was intercepted by French and US forces. At Immenstadt, close to the Swiss border, part of the Legion was caught and massacred by the French Army. The captured soldiers were handed over to the British Army in Europe. The Legion was later transported back to India to appear at the famous INA trials on charges of treason.

Public outrage manifested in an uproar that broke out among the Indian people and the Legion members’ trials were not completed. The Navy mutiny that followed was to ignite smaller mutinies in the Royal Indian Air Force and in the Indian Army that was suppressed by force. In the aftermath of the mutinies, the British Weekly Intelligence Summary (ISUM) issued on 25 March 1946 admitted that the Indian military was no longer trustworthy to prop up the Empire any further.

Post Script

In considering the memory of the Legion Freies Indien and the ramifications of its creation the most controversial aspect is the integral link to Nazi Germany. This has prompted many historians to view the Legion as a mercenary force allied with Nazism by virtue of their oath, uniform and field of operations. The tides of war did not permit the Legion to engage in its original conceived role hence it is not correct to hold any argument as to whether they did or could have fulfilled the destiny that the brave hearts of the Legion believed in. As a condition of Independence, readily agreed to by the INC, members of the Free India Legion and INA were not allowed to serve in the post-independence Indian Army, and were all released before Independence.

Were then, Netaji’s plans for the Legion too grandiose for its own capability? In military terms, that is a definitive yes, for the fate of the Legion Freies Indien was tied to that of the Axis. However in political terms, to consider the Legion a ‘paper tiger’ is incorrect. We must not ignore the events that were occurring in India since 1945 and mores specifically in the British Indian Army post war. To consider what the impact of the Legion had, it is necessary to consider the impact of the entire Azad Hind movement towards the demise of the Raj. It is without doubt that the Indians who fought alongside the Axis powers accelerated Indian independence.

The India Legion fought bravely, but the Indian government after 1947, decided to keep this information under wraps as it was not thought proper to propagate the fact that Indian troops had fought on behalf of Hitler and Germany. Thus, these valiant soldiers never got their due and faded into history. In addition, Nehru considered Bose his rival and he feared that any importance to Bose and his army would affect his standing in India. It is more moot to consider here why the sacrifices of these brave Indians are dusted away from the pages of our history and text books and acknowledge their sacrifices towards our freedom.

Popular Culture

The only Indian film to mention the Legion is the 2011 Bollywood production Dear Friend Hitler, which portrays the Legion’s attempted escape to Switzerland and its aftermath. Director Tigmanshu Dhulia’s well documented movie Raag Desh, based on the infamous Indian National Army (INA) trials in Second World War era, has hit the theatres this May.

Colonel Joe Purakel is a veteran of the Regiment of Artillery. An alumni of OTA and DSSC, he is also a former Instructor at the Black Cat Commando Training Center. He is presently leading a retired life, devoted to writing and gardening. He can be reached on Email: joepurakel2008@gmail.com