August 18 marks the 71st anniversary of the death of Subhas Chandra Bose during the final days of World War II in 1945. Bose's short but dynamic political career (he died when he was only 48) spanned the globe, from Cambridge to Calcutta, and from the Khyber Pass to his controversial meeting with Adolf Hitler in Berlin.
These travels never took Bose as far as the sleepy town of Lacanau, a French resort near the southwestern port city of Bordeaux. Indeed, Lacanau is off the beaten path even for summer-time tourists. But for nearly a year, Lacanau was home to the Indian Legion, the armed force Bose had created as the catalyst for Indian independence.
The Indian Legion
Bose began organising an Indian force to fight alongside Germany after his arrival in Berlin in early 1941. Soon he had created a small force of volunteers drawn from Indians living in Germany and former Indian soldiers in the British Army who had been captured by the Germans. His Indian Legion gradually grew, until, by 1943, it included over 2,500 recruits.
The German government, however, did not know quite what it wanted to do with this army – or with Bose. It kept the Indian Legion stationed in out-of-the-way places, far from combat.
A similar Indian force, founded in Italy by Mohammad Iqbal Shedai, had mutinied at the decisive Battle of El Alamein (1942), allowing the British to crush an Axis invasion of Egypt. In light of that battle, and perhaps of their own racism, the Germans seem to have distrusted the Indian Legion as a combat force.
After months of frustrating wait, Bose, ready to find a new ally, departed for Southeast Asia to lead the Indian National Army fighting the British empire alongside Japan.
Bose’s departure left the Indian Legion in an awkward position. The Germans sent it off to Lacanau, in a far corner of their European empire, in September 1943. There the Legion guarded part of the Atlantic Wall, a series of fortifications all along the coast of France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Its soldiers protected the beaches from the extremely unlikely possibility of an Allied attack, digging trenches and manning guns that faced the sea. As they waited, they occupied the town's villas and resorts, many of which still exist.
Relations between Indians and the local French population seem to have been cordial, and almost without incident while the Legion occupied the town. Yet it would be the French forces that would cause the Legion its greatest losses.
A bloody retreat
In mid-August 1944, two months after the Allied forces had landed on the northern coast of France, the Legion was ordered to evacuate Lacanau and retreat to Germany. Along the way, it was attacked multiple times by the French Resistance, for whom Indian soldiers were no better than the Nazis. In the town of Poitou, Resistance forces summarily executed 18 of the Legion's officers.
As the Legion retreated first towards Germany, and then towards the German border with neutral Switzerland, French forces continued their pursuit. At Immenstadt, close to the Swiss border, part of the Legion was caught and massacred by the French army.
These soldiers had joined the Indian Legion to fight for their homeland's independence. It was a tragic irony that they had to fight French soldiers who only wanted the liberation of their own country.
Perhaps this is why the Indian Legion's time in Lacanau is rarely remembered in India or France. Few sources testify to what it was like for the soldiers and French civilians to live through the Legion's presence in Lacanau. Yet, as the last veterans of the war gradually disappear, it is becoming more and more urgent to record their experiences. If not, this chapter of Indian history will disappear before it is even written.