Tag Archives: Indian POWs

Medical hero: Lieutenant Colonel Malhotra in Singapore, 1942-1945

By Kevin Noles, DPhil Student, New College, University of Oxford

Two years ago I wrote a blog post outlining my research project on Indian PoWs. Since then, I was lucky enough to complete my research in India and elsewhere before the Covid-19 pandemic closed the archives, and I have now begun writing my thesis. One of the reports I found in India detailed the work of Lieutenant Colonel Malhotra of the Indian Medical Service (IMS), who played a pivotal role in providing medical services to Indian PoWs in Singapore and the surrounding region.

Among the 67,000 Indian troops captured by the Japanese were thousands of IMS personnel, including 180 officers. Singapore became a major hub for medical provision to Indian PoWs, with the whole operation being commanded by Malhotra. At one point in 1944 he had direct command of a hospital in Singapore with 4500 patients and staff, although there was also a second hospital with another 2500. While most Indian patients only remained in hospital for a limited period, there was a core of around 500 permanent invalids, most of whom were battle casualties from the Malayan campaign.

Malhotra and his men faced three broad challenges: dealing with the Japanese; obtaining sufficient medical supplies; and providing food for the patients. In terms of the Japanese, a constant feature was the poor treatment of his staff, with Malhotra stating that they ‘suffered both mental and physical torture’. In addition, decisions made by the Japanese, for example to amalgamate three Indian hospitals into two in 1944, often caused unnecessary hardship.

Unsurprisingly, obtaining medical supplies was a major challenge, particularly given the large numbers of patients being cared for. There were however two significant deliveries of supplies: one in January 1943 consisting of fifteen lorry loads of medicines and dressings, and another smaller one in May 1945. Even so, there were acute shortages of medicine at times (for example in 1944), despite attempts to find substitute drugs locally.

Obtaining enough food for the patients was another major concern. Although the Japanese provided subsistence rations for patients, they were inadequate to assist with recovery. Malhotra oversaw the establishment of duck farms to provide eggs for the patients, although the farms were closed due to Japanese policy in late 1943, an outcome he viewed as a major setback. Rations deteriorated to the point where there was an outbreak of Beriberi among patients in 1944, although improvements in rations overcame this by the end of the year.

While the challenges were many, it is clear that Lieutenant Colonel Malhotra and his staff saved the lives of many Indian prisoners during the years of captivity. In recognition of his service he was awarded the Order of the British Empire after the war, but despite this, the story of the IMS in Singapore has been largely forgotten.

Please get in contact if you have any information of Indian PoWs of the Japanese.

Forgotten Men: Indian troops captured by the Japanese in the Second World War

Kevin Noles is starting the second year of a part-time DPhil at New College, University of Oxford, researching Indian PoWs of the Japanese. Below, he writes about his research into this little-known aspect of captivity.

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Indian prisoners from the Hyderabad State Infantry after their liberation in 1945. Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

A notable gap in the research on Prisoners-of-War of the Japanese, is the fate of the large numbers of Indian troops of the British Indian Army who were captured alongside British and Australian troops, largely at the fall of Singapore. The total number of Indian prisoners captured during the Malayan campaign was 67,000, a figure greater than the number of British and Australian prisoners combined. While the experiences of Indian prisoners were often similar to their European counterparts, a striking difference is that some switched allegiance and fought alongside the Japanese under the banner of Indian Nationalism, in a force called the Indian National Army (INA). It is this aspect that has received the bulk of the attention from historians thus far. In contrast, the scope of my research covers all Indian prisoners of the Japanese: those who served alongside the Japanese, and the majority who did not.

The research itself is still in its early stages, although it is clear that there are a number of relevant archives in Britain, India, Australia and elsewhere, some of which have only recently become available. Because of concerns regarding the INA, British Military Intelligence took a keen interest in their activities and in the process generated a considerable number of reports. These also sometimes contain information on Indian prisoners who had not joined the force. In addition, there were over one hundred post-war war-crimes trials of Japanese personnel, charged with the murder and abuse of Indian prisoners, and these also represent a rich seam of material. Although the number of memoirs is limited, not least because many of the Indian troops were illiterate, the archival sources now available provide a significant opportunity for new research.

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Lieutenant Colonel Ishaq, commander of the Hyderabad State Infantry, after his liberation. Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

One of the challenges of the project will be giving due weight to the full range of experiences of Indian prisoners. The ten thousand sent in labour gangs to the Southwest Pacific suffered some of the worst conditions and consequently suffered some of the highest death rates. Amongst them were the men of the Hyderabad State Infantry seen in the photograph at the start of this post. Under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Ishaq, the men of this unit had refused to the join the INA and were sent to the area to work as forced labour. Despite his new uniform the strain of Ishaq’s time in captivity is evident. The Japanese deployed Indian labour gangs throughout Southeast Asia, and such employment was the dominant experience for most Indian prisoners.

A category of Indian prisoner experience that has received little attention is that of those men who served with the Japanese, but were not members of the INA. This includes those who were commanded directly by Japanese officers, such as some Anti-Aircraft and Motor Transport personnel, as well as those commanded by Indian officers, such as the Changi Guard who were used to guard British and Australian prisoners. From a British perspective the Changi Guard represents one of the most notorious episodes involving Indian troops, not least because the Guard was used to execute British and Australian prisoners on at least one occasion. Understanding how such units operated is an important part of the overall picture.

Then there is the INA itself. Although it is probably the best-known aspect of Indian prisoner experience, it is over twenty years since a major work was published on the subject. The current project will not try and reproduce another general account of the INA military campaigns in Burma, but instead will focus on its propaganda and intelligence work on the front line and elsewhere.

Finally, one aspect of the research that has proved difficult relates to my wish to make contact with former Indian prisoners and their families. This is partly to learn more about the prisoners themselves, but also to explore how their captivity impacted their families, both during the war, and afterwards.

If anyone has knowledge of former Indian prisoners or their families please get in touch, as Kevin would very much like to make contact with them.