Friday, February 12, 2016

WW2: Eye of the Beholder

This has been the most interesting book I've read in 2016.

Raghu Karnad's "Farthest Field - Indian Story of the Second World War" skillfully weaves history around lives of a bunch of cousins and friends in South India, who venture out into Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, Eritrea, and then across the sub-continent to Burma and North East India.

As a boy growing up in India of the 1970s and 80s, the WWs were already dim, distant memories that nobody talked about. We had a great-grandfather who served the British Indian Army in Mesopotamia, and his son served the RIAF on the Arakan Peninsula. Neither of them left any notes or records. So my own view of the wars were built on "commando comics" where the British were invariably the intrepid heroes, Germans were always screaming "Mein Gott!", the Russians wandered in the periphery, and the Indians, of course,  were nowhere to be seen.

It is only now that I realise the sheer scale of India's involvement. Once the British realised that the allies just did not have the numbers to face the the Germans, Japanese and Italians, the Indian Army was expanded from 450 Indian officers to 12,000 between 1939-1945. Similarly, the personnel below officer rank had increased from 1.5 lakh to 2.2 million!

Another great revelation has been on the role of the Japanese. Unlike most western authors, Karnad takes care to give credit where it is due. The book gives you a glimpse of the astounding levels of training and preparation that went into the Japanese offensive that swept scross the Asia-Pacific in the early 1940s.

If it were not for a few errors of judgement history would have most certainly been written by a different set of victors. The Japanese, for instance, only crippled Pearl Harbor because they forgot to destroy the fuel and repair depots. Had it been completely knocked out, the Pacific War and t he Battle of Midway, would not have taken place at all. They also failed to realise that their codes had been cracked.

The Japanese also made a big gamble by sending across an army of 65,000 soldiers across the forests of Burma, hoping to grab the storage depots set up by the British in Dimapur. In the end barely 10,000 managed to retreat back home.

WW2, it turns out, was a much closer fight that we are willing to admit.



The INA and Independence -

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