By Sunder Katwala
British Future thinktank
IT HAS been called the “forgotten war” won by a “forgotten army” – so the 75th anniversary of VJ Day this weekend is an important moment to fully recognise the service of veterans of the war in Japan from Britain and across the Commonwealth.
The Second World War did not end with Hitler’s suicide in his Berlin bunker. It took three months after crowds celebrated victory in Europe before the unconditional surrender of Germany was matched by that of Japan.
Seventy-five years later, after the VE Day anniversary was scaled back during lockdown, VJ Day 75 will engage people in virtual commemorations, including a televised national two minute’s silence at 11am on Saturday (15).
The idea that the world wars played a foundational role in shaping the identity of modern Britain retains a strong resonance. Almost everyone knows that Winston Churchill led a national effort which saw Britain and her allies defeat fascism – but few could confidently explain the complex jigsaw of the different theatres of a global conflict. The war in the east has often been overshadowed by that in the west, so key anniversaries – like the 75th anniversary of VJ Day on August 15 – are also seen by many people as a chance to learn more about a history that many people wish they knew better.
The shadow of the mushroom cloud contributes to the solemnity with which VJ Day is commemorated. The atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6 killed 70,000 people instantly, and as many again over time. It became the most fiercely contested ethical question of the 20th century. Was this targeting of civilians a terrible crossing of the rubicon, or was there a utilitarian defence of the use of the bomb to end the war and avoid a land invasion of Japan? The US dropping a second bomb on Nagasaki on August 9, which killed 50,000 more, is harder still to rationalise.
As with the centenary of the First World War, VJ Day will demonstrate that those who differ over political and military choices can commemorate those who served and mourn the lives lost on all sides.
The Commonwealth contribution is a key theme of VJ Day 75. General Slim’s 14th Army – the ‘forgotten army’ which fought in Burma [now Myanmar] – was an enormous multinational force. One-10th of its soldiers were from Britain, with nine-10ths from India or Africa.
That VJ Day on August 15 falls on Indian independence day illuminates crucial links in the contribution to the war made by pre-partition India. The Indian armies that fought in the First and Second World Wars were the largest volunteer armies in history. Gandhi had sought to mobilise recruits for the First World War. He saw an opportunity for India to earn a similar dominion status to Australia or Canada, being disappointed after the war. In the Second World War, Gandhi was jailed, having launched the Quit India movement.
India’s all-volunteer army increased from 195,000 men in the autumn of 1939 to 2.5 million by 1945. A fledgling Indian air force went from 285 men to 29,000 in eight squadrons. Indian soldiers won 22 of the 34 Victoria and George Crosses awarded in the Burma campaign. Commonwealth service and sacrifice was honoured alongside the Empire’s entrenched hierarchies of racism. That is why many who volunteered to fight for ‘king and country’ pushed for decolonisation too.
General Sir Claude Auchinleck, commander-in-chief of the Indian Army, was to remark in 1945 that ‘every Indian officer worth his salt today is a nationalist.’ The Indian Army outnumbered – by a 50:1 ratio – the 43,000 rebels who heeded Subhas Chandra Bose’s call to secure independence by fighting alongside Japan and Germany. Their crucial role in defeating Japan was, for many Indian Army officers, the final proof of India’s readiness for self-government.
That just two years elapsed between Japanese emperor Hirohito’s surrender and India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech at midnight on August 15, 1947, shows how the British finally left India in great haste after 1945. Veterans now in the new armies of India and Pakistan were left to try and mitigate the tragedy of Partition.
The Commonwealth contribution to defeating Japan forms a crucial part of both British and Indian history, though it has taken some decades to become fully part of either narrative. The armies that fought and won two world wars resemble the Britain of 2020 much more than that of 1945 or 1918 in their ethnic and faith demographics.
As more people become aware of this, it broadens understanding of why traditions of Remembrance resonate across today’s multi-ethnic and multi-faith Britain. We should not duck the many controversies of this complex history. But we must first know that history to interrogate it – if we are to deepen understanding of the shared history that has shaped the country we have become today.