During the early hours of May 27, 1942, Lieutenant Abhay Singh was probably filled with anticipation. His unit, the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, had been constructing defences throughout the night 9.6 km south-east of Bir Hachiem (now in modern-day Libya) after having spotted the Italian Arete Division and German 21st Panzer Division advancing towards their position the previous evening. Having been caught unawares by the sudden outflanking manoeuvre, the Indian brigade stood little chance. It now waited for the enemy. Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel, the commander of the Axis forces, nicknamed the “Desert Fox”, had just held a masterclass in mobile warfare.

The German and Italian armoured units finally attacked at around 6.30 am, and the Indian Anti-Tank guns returned fire at once. Despite being outmanoeuvred, outgunned, and heavily outnumbered, Lt. Abhay Singh and his fellow officers and soldiers put up a stiff resistance. They held the Axis forces at bay for about three hours of unequal battle before finally capitulating. Singh was taken prisoner and would spend the rest of the war in Italian and German internment camps, escaping once – before being captured again in Northern Italy.

Three months before and 9,000 km away, Abhay Singh’s elder brother, Major Kanwar Bahadur Singh, had suffered a similar fate at the hands of the Japanese. After having fought a valiant rear-guard action across the Malay peninsula as a part of the 12th Indian Infantry Brigade, Bahadur Singh surrendered along with the rest of the British and Indian forces after the fall of Singapore on February 15, 1942. Bahadur Singh would also spend the remainder of the war in a Japanese internment camp, which were infamous for the manner in which they maltreated their prisoners.

A third brother, Major Raj Singh, managed to stay out of the clutches of the enemy. He commanded the Sawai Man Guards Brigade and fought in the more successful East Africa Campaign against the Italians in Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1940-’41.

These three men, my great-grand uncles, were just a small part of a much larger tapestry of courage and bravery that was India’s contribution the Second World War. In addition to being India’s 74th Independence Day, August 15 also marks the 75th Anniversary of Victory over Japan Day – the day the last Axis power formally surrendered, bringing the war to an end. It’s an apt occasion to pay tribute to the often-forgotten role India played in defeating the Axis powers.

Kanwar Bahadur Singh and Abhay Singh.

More than 2.5 million Indians fought in the Second World War, the largest volunteer force in history. They played a critical role in crucial regions: in the North African theatre of war against the Germans and Italians, the East African campaign against the Italians, and most significantly, in the South East Asian theatre against the Japanese.

Indian forces chased Rommel’s Africa Korps all the way across North Africa till the Germans finally capitulated in Tunisia. They participated in the invasion of Italy, and played pivotal roles in some the defining battles of the Italian campaign. During the bloody Battle of Monte Cassino, the fiercest conflict of the Italian Campaign, it was the Gurkhas, Rajputs, and Punjabis of the 8th and 4th Indian Divisions who made crucial advances that eventually led to the capture of the target.

Most vital, though, was the role of the Indian forces fighting against the Japanese in South East-Asia. After suffering a series of defeats early on in the war, Indian units in the 14th Army, under the e general-ship of Lieutenant General William Slim, drove the Japanese out of Burma. The advance of the 14th Army, from Kohima all the way to Rangoon, is still considered to be one of the great campaigns in military history.

The Second World War cost the lives of around 87,000 Indian soldiers, wounded nearly 35,000 of them, while nearly 68,000 were taken prisoner. In recognition of their service, nearly 4,000 gallantry decorations were awarded to Indian soldiers, including 33 Victoria Crosses.

Yet for all this illustrious combat history, many have an ambivalent attitude towards these soldiers. While the gears of war churned for six years on the international stage, at home in India the Independence Movement was reaching its apotheosis. This was a time when the anti-British sentiment in India had reached fever pitch, with the Quit India movement being declared in August, 1942. The Indian soldiers and officers who served in the British Indian Army, and consequently the colonial establishment, were often contrasted to the millions of Indians who protested against British rule.

Raj Singh.

With the end of the war and Independence, many considered India’s role in the Second World War a colonial relic to be forgotten. Concurrently, the historical narratives formed in the West after the war focused very little on the contribution of the erstwhile colonies. With Indians apprehensive of the colonial legacy these forces represented, and the West constructing a narrative centred around its own role, the legacy of these forces receded.

This historical amnesia is still widespread. Even today, while history textbooks in India focus on the Indian National Army and its campaign against the British during the War, the British Indian Army campaigns – of equal repute, bravery, and importance – are more or less omitted. The commemoration of many historical battles and campaigns of the Indian forces from the Second World War is still mostly restricted to the armed forces. The names of battles such as Monte Cassino, Tobruk, or Meiktila, where much Indian blood was spilt, have been forgotten.

To view the service of the British Indian Army during the Second World War as some colonial humiliation is highly myopic. We must remember that this army played a vital role in the crucial conflict against the powers of fascism and authoritarianism. Much like the Indian National Army, which fought for the freedom of India, the British India Army too fought for freedom from dictatorial and genocidal regimes. In many ways, it helped ensure that the world order India would enter after Independence would be dominated by democratic and liberal forces. After 75 years, it is about time we acknowledge this.

Currently at SOAS, Ranvijay Singh is a keen, albeit amateur, aficionado of military and South Asian history as well as mountaineering literature. His Twitter handle is @ranvijayhada.