In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Indian Army in World War II

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Autobiographies of Indian Officers
  • Recruitment
  • Tactics, Technology, Doctrine, and Training
  • Defeat in the East
  • Reconquest of Burma
  • Victory in Africa and Italy
  • Internal Security
  • North-West Frontier
  • Subhas Chandra Bose and the Axis Powers
  • Indian National Army/Azad Hind Fauj
  • India, Axis Powers, and the British Empire
  • Indianization of the Officer Corps
  • Discipline, Discontent, and Mutiny
  • Propaganda
  • Demobilization and Partition

Military History Indian Army in World War II
Kaushik Roy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0159


The Indian Army was the largest volunteer force during the Second World War. Without resorting to conscription, the British were able to recruit 2.5 million Indians in the colonial Indian Army. The Indian Army fought the three major Axis powers (Japan, Italy, and Germany) from Hong Kong in the east to Italy in the west. It displayed tactical virtuosity and organizational flexibility while fighting in varying terrains, from the swamps and jungles of Malaya and Burma to the rocky terrain of Eritrea, the sandy desert of North Africa, and the mountains of central Italy. The Indian Army deserves credit for crushing the Italian Army in East Africa and defeating the much vaunted Wehrmacht in Tunisia and Italy. The Imperial Japanese Army experienced its greatest defeat in Burma, where most of the Commonwealth soldiers were Indians. Strangely, the Indian Army experienced very few mutinies during the war. Nevertheless, both Germany and Japan were able to create pro-Axis satellite armies from captured Indian prisoners of war. However, after the Allied victory in August 1945, the Indian soldiers were demobilized and communal riots broke out. As the sword arm of the Raj disintegrated, India moved inexorably toward independence and Partition.

General Overviews

Heathcote 1995 provides a longue duree general survey of British military adventure in the subcontinent, especially highlighting the evolution of army’s command bureaucracy. The modern Indian Army was the creation of the British. Menezes 1993 and Barua 2005 trace its roots back to the mid-18th century. Johnson 2014 and McClenaghan 2014 note that the Indian Army was an amalgam of Western military tradition and traditional Indian military culture. The Indian Army was composed of regular Indian units, officered mostly by the British, and units maintained by the princely states. Together with the British contingents stationed in India, it formed the Army in India. Roy 2009 and Roy 2013 argue that strategic ambiguity on part of the British rulers and organizational elasticity on part of the Indian Army were characteristic features of the British military policy in India. The Indian Army was the principal pillar of British rule in the subcontinent. In peacetime, the army consumed 33 percent of the government’s budget. Hence, military expenditure constituted the biggest item of government expenditure. Moreover, the Indian Army, by recruiting more than 20,000 volunteers annually, was the largest provider of government jobs in colonial India. During the two world wars, military expenditure exceeded 60 percent of the colonial state’s budget, and the size of the army exceeded one million during the World War I and more than two million during World War II. During the 19th century, the Indian Army was geared for imperial policing within India, but in the first half of the 20th century, this colonial force was called upon twice to function as an imperial reserve beyond the Indian subcontinent during the two world wars. Marston 2007 argues that adaptation and adoption characterized the Indian Army’s successful organizational transformation during World War II.

  • Barua, Pradeep P. The State at War in South Asia. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

    Construction of a modern bureaucratic army along with a centralized state, writes Barua, was the product of British imperialism in South Asia.

  • Heathcote, T. A. The Military in British India: The Development of British Land Forces in South Asia, 1600–1947. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1995.

    Besides providing an interesting narrative, Heathcote traces the evolution of the staff officer system in the Indian Army during the two world wars.

  • Johnson, Rob. “Making a Virtue out of Necessity: The Indian Army, 1746–1947.” In The British Indian Army: Virtue and Necessity. Edited by Rob Johnson, 1–14. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2014.

    According to Johnson, the British successfully fused the European military format with the traditional warrior culture matrix of India. The net result was a combat-effective Indian Army.

  • Marston, Daniel. “A Force Transformed: The Indian Army and the Second World War.” In A Military History of India and South Asia: From the East India Company to the Nuclear Era. Edited by Daniel P. Marston and Chandar S. Sundaram, 102–122. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007.

    This essay lucidly shows how the Indian Army was able to adapt itself to the demands of Total War by adopting certain organizational reforms in the course of World War II.

  • McClenaghan, Tony. “The Imperial Service Troops Scheme in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.” In The British Indian Army: Virtue and Necessity. Edited by Rob Johnson, 93–105. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2014.

    The armies of the Indian princely states were not merely for decoration. McClenaghan shows that the Imperial Service Troops did sterling services in both world wars.

  • Menezes, S. L. Fidelity and Honour: The Indian Army from the Seventeenth to the Twenty-First Century. New Delhi: Viking, 1993.

    A political and military survey of the evolution of the Indian Army, by a retired senior Indian Army officer.

  • Roy, Kaushik. The Oxford Companion to Modern Warfare in India: From the Eighteenth Century to Present Times. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    Taking a longue duree approach, Roy shows that the two world wars, in terms of recruitment, casualties, and financial expenditure, were a novel experience for both the Indians and their British masters. The wars marked the successful transition of the Indian Army from being an instrument of Limited War to an organization geared for conducting Total War.

  • Roy, Kaushik. The Army in British India: From Colonial Warfare to Total War, 1857–1947. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.

    Roy asserts that it would be simplistic to argue that the Indian Army’s preparation for waging Small War before 1913 and during the interwar period obstructed its capacity to wage conventional campaigns during the two “Total Wars.” In fact, there were certain similarities between Small War and Total War. Rather, the real culprit for Indian Army’s inadequate performance during the initial periods of the two world wars was financial stringency and the army’s small size.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.