The Free Indian Legion was established by Subhas Chandra Bose, one of the rivals to Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership of the Indian independence movement. In contrast to Gandhi, Bose advocated a more aggressive confrontation with the British authorities.
With the outbreak of war in Europe, Bose saw an opportunity to capitalise on Britain’s weakness. In January 1941, Bose left Calcutta and travelled to Russia via Afghanistan. He tried to secure Soviet support for an armed insurrection in India. Instead of listening to Bose, the Russians sent him to Berlin. After arriving in Berlin, Bose started having discussions with the Foreign and Propaganda Ministries.
For the next six months, Bose and his assistants conducted an intensive recruiting campaign amongst Indian POWs.
Consequently in January 1942, the Propaganda Ministry announced the formation of the “Indian National Army” (Jai Hind) in Berlin. At the end of July 1942, three hundred volunteers were issued with German Army uniforms bearing a badge on the right arm which showed a leaping tiger superimposed on an Indian tricolour, surrounded by the legend “Freies Indien”. The men were then officially designated the “Free Indian Legion”. In the moths following August, several hundred more prisoners were recruited by various means – including outright force – and by the middle of 1943 the unit consisted of about 2000 men organised into three battalions.
In May 1943, the Indian Legion was moved to garrison duties on the Dutch North Sea coast where they were mainly used for the construction of coastal defences. Following this, they were moved to France. Here they carried out various occupation activities, including occasional conflicts with the French Resistance forces.
Following the Allied Landings at Normandy, and the rapid advance, the Indian Legion was moved back to Germany in August 1944. During this retreat, three of their number were killed in ambushes. The Indian Legion was initially based in the Alsace region. Following further advances by US forces, the Indian Legion was sent further south to Heuberg. When the war finished, the Indian Legion found itself in US custody in the Lake Constance area.
The Indian Legion never fought as a unit and did nothing materially to aid the German war effort during its short existence. As many of its membership were tricked, or forced into joining, made maintaining any discipline very difficult. This was also compounded by the Germans lack of understanding of Indian military customs and caste structure. As a result, the British authorities took a lenient view of the Indian renegades, and only very few were actually tried by courts-martial.
Subhas Chandra Bose travelled to Japan in March 1943 to organise the “Provisional Government of India”. He died in an air crash in the last days of World War Two.