Military & Aerospace

Surrender as Prisoners of War & Birth of INA
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General Percival, Commander of Malaya in Singapore going for surrender (Feb 15, 1942)

All the Indian troops were to assemble in Ferrer Park, the Polo-ground of Singapore, to surrender as Prisoners of War. The white forces had to gather at the Changi Camp. Early on February 18, 1942, we set out for Ferrer Park leading the Battalion. As we were passing by the Cathey building, we saw Major General Keith Simmons, the General Officer Commanding of Singapore Fortress, waiting for us.

He joined up and started marching in step with me. Soon he opened his cigarette case which contained a card. Feigning to offer me a cigarette he showed me this card “rest assured, you won’t be forgotten,” ran the legend that was written on it. There was a Japanese sentry posted on our way, as we were marching. Spotting the Britisher, he spoke something in Japanese and tore him away from us.

When we reached Ferrer Park, we found it brimful. About forty-five thousand Indian Soldiers had gathered here to surrender. We also took our place and settled besides them.

Soon a loudspeaker blared out, “All commanders will report the Parade State of their units, up here.” As I moved up to report, I met Captain Mohan Singh and many others on the top of the pavilion, who were wearing white badges on their sleeves bearing the letter ‘F.’ I asked one of the officers who was wearing such a badge, what does this letter ‘F’, which you are wearing, stand for?” He replied ’F’ stands for “Free Army.” In fact the “F” had stood for Major Fujiwara who was head of the Japanese Intelligence Service. All colleagues of the Intelligence Chief carried this badge, bearing his seal, so that the Japanese sentries may not hinder their movements and allow them free passage.

In the pavilion, Lieutenant Colonel Hunt was sitting behind a table. I handed over my Parade State to him and returned. All officers, eventually, were summoned together and made to sit in front of the pavilion. At 1600 hours, Colonel Hunt made every one stand to ‘attention’ and declared, “on behalf of the British Government, I hand over each one of you to the Custody of the Japanese Government.” After he finished the declaration, he was whisked away by the sentries wearing the badge marked ‘F.’ Perhaps he was taken to the Changi Camp. Then it was the turn of Major Fujiwara to address us. His speech was interpreted by Colonel Niranjan Singh Gill.

General Percival, signing the Instrument of Surrender to the Japanese (Feb 15, 1942)

The Major said, “I welcome you on behalf of the Imperial Japanese Government. You are our Asian brethren. We will treat you as brothers. We do not recognise your officers since they are all British agents. We will install new officers to look after you.” The part resounded with cries of hallelujah. Now the British came in for severe criticism. Concluding, Major Fujiwara announced, “I hand you over to Captain Mohan Singh. From today he will be your supreme commander.” After this, Captain Mohan Singh addressed us. A call was made for two senior officers from each unit to report.

As we reached the pavilion, we were served neat whisky in small glasses and told of Major Fujiwara’s plans of freeing Indians from the British yoke. I asked Captain Mohan Singh, “What are we to do and where are we to go?” He replied, “Spend the night wherever you can or wherever you are. We will issue our instructions tomorrow morning.” Returning to my unit, I called Captain Harbakhsh Singh, who had the Sikh Regiment under his command, and Major Aziz Ahmed Khan, Commander of Kapurthala Unit, into a conference.

I was well acquainted with Singapore. I advised them that Bidadari was a small camp which may have just enough place for all our three units. We ought to occupy it. At midnight, taking different routes, we converged on this camp and shared the available accommodation. I was chosen the Camp Commander.

During the war two units had occupied this camp. Some of their mess equipment and rations fell in our hand which we buried underground overnight. We started a joint mess. The Japanese had no wherewithal of feeding the large number of troops that fell in their hands. Our buried rations, therefore, came in handy.

Within a few days of surrender two different types of camps cropped up for the Indian prisoners of war in proximity to each other. The Free Army Camp, as the INA used to be called in the beginning, accommodated all those officers and me who cooperated with the Japanese under Captain Mohan Singh. They had everything in abundance and were provided by the Japanese. The officers had bungalows to live in and Chinese girls to serve them.

The POW camps for the remaining Indians were located in the erstwhile army camps in Singapore. The inmates were treated as poor relatives, unwanted and uncared for, left to subsist on whatever they could arrange through their own effort and enterprise. But one good thing was that the Japanese did not or could not keep a strict check or control over them in the beginning. If one was daring and pushing, he could move anywhere within the island. A third camp called the Concentration Camp was opened a little later and run by the Free Army in collusion with the Japanese. The hard-nuts undesirables from amongst the POW, were segregated and harshly treated in this camp.

Eventually six to seven thousand POW were requisitioned and employed by the Japanese for clearing the city of the debris and dead bodies. They were detailed and sent under one officer in turn from POW Camps. This provided us a further facility for contact with the local civilian friends through whom we could buy or collect medicines for the sick in the camps. We had our own Medical Officer to look after our sick.

The heavy baggage of units who were garrisoning up the country and had to be involved in the battle there had been sent to Singapore before the hostilities and was dumped in military barracks. Captain Harbakhsh Singh knew this and even knew where the baggage belonging to his unit was dumped. With a view to exploring the possibility of retrieving some items of utility, Captain Harbakhsh Singh was detailed to go with the fatigue-force of POW provided by our camp.

He became friendly with the Japanese Officer with whom he had to work during the day and on one pretext or the other took him near the barrack where the baggage was stored. Bringing his folded hands to his forehead he begged the Japanese Officer, “here we had left our heavy luggage before going upcountry and I want to get my ‘Khama Sami” (Religious book) out of it, if I may.”The Japanese officer who also seemed to be a religious man readily agreed. Captain Harbakhsh Singh went inside the barrack but found that all the boxes had been broken open, and that everything worthwhile had been looted. After a great search, however, he was able to pick up a gramophone and a few records of his choice, from underneath a heap of discarded stuff. On coming out of the barrack he told the Japanese Officer that no ‘Khama Sami” could be found; he would like to try again sometimes.

This he said (pointing to the gramophone) contained ‘Khama Sami” songs. The Japanese Officer replied, “Ok-Ok” and the Captain brought his find to the camp. On our next turn we again sent Captain Harbakhsh Singh with the fatigue party to look for some warm clothing for night wear. He brought a bundle of sports shirts and shorts as ‘Khama Sami’ which we donned at night and looked like hockey players.

We took the courage to dig out at night, a one ton truck which had been buried underground before surrender. We put on it Japanese markings and flag (which was improvised by sprinkling a red ink circle in the centre of white napkin) and started stocking rations buried all over the island during operations. If ever a Japanese sentry stopped it, we uttered ‘Tamadachi’ (Friend) and pushed off. This truck was eventually snatched away from us by the INA.

Captain Mohan Singh summoned all the officers on the 25th February, 1942 and informed them of the scheme for building a National Army. “It will not be possible to take care of so many thousands of troops unless we make an alliance with the Japanese.” He advised. He further informed that Colonel Niranjan Singh (who later becomes Indian Ambassador to Ethiopia) had gone to Tokyo for exploratory talks. “All decisions will be made on his return,” we were told. Colonel Niranjan Singh returned from Tokyo on the 4th of March. As a first step, a committee was formed for looking after the POW.

I was made a member of this committee. The matter concerning the establishment of a Headquarters was discussed on the following day. The proposal for the inclusion of a ‘G’ branch, which is concerned with intelligence, training and operations of war, was vehemently criticised on the ground that there was no occasion or necessity for such a branch, as the prisoner troops were not to be prepared for and called upon to go to war.

The job of the headquarters was limited simply to looking after the welfare of the men and thus only the administrative staff was required, of which a committee had already been formed. The sponsors, however, felt that a complete Divisional Headquarters, to work in co-ordination with the Japanese and to get the best terms out of them, was required. Arguments led to a furore and the meeting had to be adjourned.

Subsequently, the headquarters came to be staffed with the officers of the National Army alone. Internal differences went on multiplying. A separate camp of the National Army was already established, where the inmates were not required to do any labour or fatigue. They led a normal soldierly life.

Seeing the difference in treatment in the parallel camps, many POW started changing their loyalties. The others who changed places were those who were hated by their own men and on account of the total absence of law and order in Singapore, were afraid of losing their lives at the hands of the men whom they had mistreated. Also, when a rival joined the National Army, his opponent in the PsOW camp became apprehensive that his adversary may not treacherously succeed in having him dispatched to a Japanese concentration camp. Therefore, for reasons of sheer self-preservation and security, he would also cross over.

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An instance of this sort of shifting loyalty took place in the Kapurthala Battalion at our camp. Captain Jiwan Singh was the bête noire of his unit. There was need for him to take shelter elsewhere. He shifted to the security of the National Army and joined their camp. When his rival Major Aziz Ahmed Khan, the Officer Commanding of Kapurthala Battalion, came to know of this volte-face, he became alarmed.

He feared that the Captain might take his revenge and efface him through the agency of the Japanese. Therefore, in order to gain precedence over the Captain, the Major moved over to the INA with his entire unit. Likewise, the troops started following their favourite officers and unexpected disaffections started in most units. Underhand pressures were exerted and veiled threats were also issued. Since not a soul left my unit, we became a bad example in the eyes of our captors. It was therefore, decided to transport me and my unit out of Singapore.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Maj Gen Gurbakhsh Singh

Major General Gurbakhsh Singh, Padma Shri, DSO, OBE, during his service with Army had many 'Firsts' to his credit - first Indian Officer to command a Battalion during World War II; first to be awarded the Distinguished Service Order; first Indian State Force Officer to be integrated as Brigadier in the Indian Army; first to be appointed as Honorary ADC to the President; first Brigadier to command the Republic Day Parade in 1952; first Indian Commissioned Officer to be promoted to Major General and first Army Officer to be awarded 'Padma Shri'.

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