From records to reality: Indian soldiers in WW2

Shreya Sharma, an oral historian and curator who works at the Devi Art Foundation in India, uses Gazette archives and first-hand testimony to look at the story of Indian soldiers during World War 2.

Indian Army Memorial Statue in Shimla

Indian soldiers in World War 2

The story of Indian soldiers during World War 2 is one of immense bravery, sacrifice, and significant contribution to the Allied war effort. As the world plunged into conflict, the Indian Army rapidly expanded, with its soldiers deployed across multiple theatres of war, from the deserts of North Africa to the dense jungles of Burma.

The Gazette's records provide a detailed and official account of their mobilisation, battles, and the profound impact they had on the war's outcome. However, while these documents cover historical data, they often lack personal narratives that capture the individual experiences and emotions of the soldiers. This gap can be bridged by incorporating oral history, offering firsthand accounts and personal stories that bring a human dimension to the historical record.

‘The Indian units of which the bulk of Four teenth Army was composed, came from many famous regiments, recruited from races whose names have been household words since first we went to India: Rajputs, Dogras, Sikhs, Jats, Mahommedans from the Punjab, Gurkhas, Garhwalis and Madrassis to mention but a few of those who volunteered to fight for the King Emperor.’ (Gazette issue 39187)

While the above throws light on the diversity of the Indian soldiers, it often overlooks the forced mass requirement in the force and its after-effects. During an oral history interview, a partition survivor mentioned how his father who came from a small village in Punjab was forcibly recruited in the army:

The officials came in late in the night and started banging the doors. They took all the men of the families in our area including my father. Me and my mother spent the night in anxiety thinking what would happen next. My father returned home the next day with a few other men who were deemed “unfit” by the officials. These were the men who suffered from various diseases and physical disabilities. I guess we were lucky that my father had a limp in his leg.”

Many supplements of The Gazette also record the challenging living conditions and hardships the soldiers faced while fighting the war miles away from their families: ‘In those early days, deficiencies in equipment; shortage of trained reinforcements; lack of welfare arrangements; long service overseas; inadequate leave due to lack of accommodation and transport; indifferent rations; much sickness; slow mails; an apparent lack of interest at home in what was being done and endured on the Burma Front.’ (Gazette issue 39187)

While discussing and commemorating World War 2, we often ignore millions of families who suffered while their loved one’s fought. The family of a soldier shared with me how their great grandmother did not hear about her husband’s death for months: “Aaji – my great grandmother – was pregnant with my grandfather at that time. Her husband unfortunately passed away during the war. Aaji wasn’t informed about his demise for months. Imagine a pregnant woman waiting for her husband to come back. My grandfather fondly talked about how her mother never made them feel the absence of a father and how she single-handedly worked to sustain since the pension offered was not enough to sustain a family of 8 and the education of her children.

Occupation of the Andaman Islands

The Japanese invasion of the Andaman Islands during World War 2 represents a significant, yet often overlooked, episode that intertwines the global conflict with the colonial history of the British Empire. When World War 2 expanded into the Asia-Pacific region, Japan sought to cripple British influence and secure key maritime routes. The Andamans, being a British-controlled archipelago, became a crucial objective for the Japanese military.

Their invasion in March 1942 was not just a manoeuvre to disrupt Allied supply lines but also a bid to dismantle British colonial strongholds in Southeast Asia: ‘When Rangoon fell, in March 1942, it was obvious that the whole of Burma might be occupied by the Japanese and that India itself and Ceylon lay under imminent threat of invasion’ (Gazette issue 37728); ‘Following upon the Allied victory in Burma, and the capture of Rangoon in May, the Japanese expected attacks by the Allies on the Andamans, Nicobars.’ (Gazette issue 39202)

While this part of history is not well documented, we do have families on the islands who remember the stories told to them by their grandparents and parents. A local resident who remembers the story his grandfather told him:

“Our neighbours were government officials and therefore we felt safe even after the Japanese Invasion. One night we heard a loud scream from their house. It turns out the Japanese army raided their home on the pretext of the official being a British Spy. His wife was sexually assaulted and killed in front of him while he was taken away to jail.”


Indian soldiers during World War 2 found themselves fighting a conflict that was not inherently theirs. The war effort demanded immense sacrifices from these soldiers, many of whom fought bravely and earned commendations for their valour.

While The Gazette remains a fundamental source of credible, authoritative information, oral history tries to humanize these records to get a more holistic understanding of the role of Indians and their experiences during World War 2.

About the author

Shreya Sharma is an oral historian and a curator from New Delhi, India who currently works at Devi Art Foundation. Being an oral historian who focuses her research on lived experiences of partition survivors of 1947, she aims to promote an alternative narrative in curatorial space. She has been invited by various international educational institutions like university of Glasgow, University of York and University of Edinburgh to share her research on how institutions can incorporate oral history as a tool to make their collection and narrative more diverse and inclusive. She has also worked with various international institutions as a curator and decolonization consultant and has been part of various international curatorial forums.

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Publication date

3 June 2024

Any opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and the author alone, and does not necessarily represent that of The Gazette.