Editorial Note: On 22-23 June 2017, the Second World War Research Group held its annual conference on the theme of ‘When East meets West: The Second World War in Global Perspective‘. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting blog articles written by some of the conference’s presenters.
This post examines the recruitment, organisation and use of Indian volunteers by the Imperial Japanese Army during the Malayan campaign, and proposes that the aid provided by them was greater than previously thought. The photograph shows the arrival of Indian troops in Singapore in November 1941, just before the outbreak of hostilities.
The British defeat in the Malayan campaign between December 1941 and February 1942 has generated an extensive secondary literature, although the co-operation between Indian personnel and the Japanese has still been a neglected aspect of the campaign. The Japanese contacts with Indian personnel were managed through a Military Intelligence organisation called the F. Kikan, commanded by an officer named Major Fujiwara. The best translation of the Japanese word Kikan is agency, and establishing one was a standard way in which Japanese Military Intelligence organised its operations. However, the F. Kikan was small with Fujiwara having only six Japanese officers, although they were joined by about a dozen Japanese civilians who had previously been living in Malaya, and therefore provided local knowledge, contacts, and language skills. Before the campaign, Fujiwara had also contacted Indian nationalists in Bangkok led by a Sikh called Pritam Singh, and had reached an agreement whereby he and some of his followers would join the F. Kikan when it entered Malaya to help subvert British Indian Army troops, whom the Japanese knew were present in large numbers.
The F. Kikan provided three teams to support the Japanese invasion that began on 8 December 1941. One of the teams achieved little as its commander was killed early in the campaign, but the others began to operate in the wake of early Japanese victories, for example following the defeat of British forces at Jitra in Northern Malaya. Some of the early F. Kikan tactics used by junior Japanese officers included beating Indian prisoners until they agreed to co-operate, although such tactics appear to have achieved little. The approach of Major Fujiwara, however, would rely solely on persuasion. Soon after he and Pritam Singh had arrived in Malaya, they heard about a group of sixty troops willing to surrender. The troops were from the 1/14th Punjab Battalion, one of the infantry units over-run by the Japanese during the fighting at Jitra, and included Captain Mohan Singh, an Indian Commissioned Officer who would come to have a pivotal role in the history of the F. Kikan. The surrender of the troops was facilitated by Pritam Singh, who arrived in a car flying the flag of the Indian National Congress, assured them that ‘everything would be well’, and then introduced them to Major Fujiwara. It was not long before Captain Mohan Singh gave the first signs of being willing to co-operate when he organised a detachment of Indian troops to suppress looting in a local town. Over the following days, Fujiwara held a series of discussions with Mohan Singh, trying to persuade him to switch allegiance in the name of Indian nationalism. Mohan Singh would later remember Fujiwara as ‘an extremely clever man’, one who ‘with a whisky bottle in front of him could talk all night and be fresh to start again at breakfast time’. Fujiwara’s persuasion tactics worked, and Mohan Singh was soon giving propaganda lectures to other Indian prisoners, on themes such as the decline of the British Empire. Mohan Singh also began offering a promotion to Lieutenant or Captain to any Indian Viceroy Commissioned Officer (VCO) who was willing to join him, a tactic that was to prove very effective. In early January 1942, the F. Kikan assisted with the Japanese assault on the major British defensive position at Slim River, whose fall led to the capture of Kuala Lumpur.
The F. Kikan established a new camp at a barracks in Kuala Lumpur to concentrate the thousands of new Indian prisoners, and it was at that camp that Mohan Singh helped organise two large teams of Indian troops that were incorporated into the F. Kikan to support its future operations. The first of these was some 200 strong and was commanded by a Muslim VCO called Allah Ditta. They were organised by community including sections for Sikhs, Jats, Dogras and Gurkhas. The estimated total of 45 Gurkhas is surprisingly high given the reputation they would gain for being resistant to recruitment into the Indian National Army later in 1942. This group would follow the Japanese advance towards Singapore, and in the aftermath of one battle, were able to collect around 1,000 Indian prisoners. The second group was formed to support the Japanese invasion of Burma, had around 60 members from a range of communities, and was again commanded by a VCO. Both groups were F. Kikan operatives, wore F. Kikan armbands, and worked under the direction of Japanese officers. Because of incorporating these men, the F. Kikan was now almost 300 strong.
It was during the final Japanese assault on Singapore itself that there were several incidents where Indian Army units surrendered prematurely, and where there is unmistakable evidence of F. Kikan involvement. British Military Intelligence would later rate their impact ‘among the demoralized and dispirited Indian troops’ as ‘considerable’. For example, Major Fujiwara in his memoirs describes an incident where Allah Ditta persuaded an Indian unit to surrender, although the identity of the unit is unclear. The most well-known example of premature surrender is that of the 2/10th Baluch Battalion on 14 February 1942. Of the three forward Companies of the Battalion, two were commanded by Indian officers and one by a British officer. During the incident, one of the Indian officers was subverted by a ‘Sikh in British uniform’ wearing an F. Kikan armband, while the other Indian officer would later claim he was tricked into moving forward and was then captured, although a separate British account contradicts his version of events. What is clear is that his second in command, an Australian Lieutenant, was at once executed by the Japanese. The British commander of the third Company that disappeared was found dead in his position. The same pattern of Indian troops being able to surrender but any British officers with them being killed was repeated in at least one other incident during the last battle for Singapore.
The success achieved by Major Fujiwara and his F. Kikan in their contact mission with the Indian troops in Malaya took the Japanese military authorities by surprise. The early capture of Captain Mohan Singh was an important factor in that success, as he acted as a catalyst for the involvement of other Indian military personnel. During the campaign, the impact of these volunteers was greater than has previously been recognised, in that they freed the Japanese from having to marshal the large numbers of Indian prisoners, while also being involved in facilitating the premature surrender of several Indian Army units. The legacy of cooperation with the Japanese would lay the foundations for the creation of the Indian National Army later in 1942, under the command of Mohan Singh.
Image: Newly-arrived Indian troops parade on the quayside at Singapore, November 1941, via the Imperial War Museum.