Mohammed Ilahi of Punjab was amongst the hundreds who died in the Burma campaign but what sets him apart from others was that he was one of the handful of Anti-Aircraft (AA) gunners who laid down their life during the campaign. He was a Lance Naik in an AA Battery when he was killed in action in March 1945, just before the battle of Sittang Bend.
At this stage, Fourteenth Army was on the offensive and the Allied Air Forces were dominating the skies over Burma. Though no details are available, it is likely that Ilahi died during one of the air raids against Japanese forces for he was one of the Indian AA gunners serving with the Imperial Japanese Army as part of Subash Bose’ Indian National Army (INA). Forgotten today, Ilahi is the only AA gunner of INA to find mention in the list of India’s Martyrs.
Indian National Army was first formed in 1942 under Mohan Singh and was made up of Prisoners of War of the Indian Army captured by Japan in the Malayan campaign and at Singapore. Ilahi was amongst the AA gunners of Hong Kong-Singapore Royal Artillery (HKSRA) who joined the INA in Malaya in 1942 and was lucky to have been selected for transfer to an AA unit as the majority of jawans were sent to the Guerilla units.
The reasons for transferring the ex- HKSRA gunners to Guerilla units and on garrison duties in China were twofold – only a few artillery units existed in the INA and secondly, Japanese mistrust of the more educated and trained soldiers. The distrust was not confined to the Japanese alone as the majority of AA gunners who joined the INA were from the Hong Kong Singapore Royal Artillery, a British Regiment though composed of Sikhs and Punjabi Muslims. The personnel from Indian and State Forces Regiments considered these gunners as ‘others’ and treated them with mistrust. But this was soon to change as the Japanese, having rolled up the Allied defences in Far East, set about setting up the defences in their occupied territories and one thing they were short of was AA defences especially trained gunners.
The INA, (first INA under Mohan Singh) was asked by the Japanese to provide 900 trained AA gunners to man the AA defences in the Pacific Islands. Earlier, the AA Battery of the INA had been deployed as part of the defence of Singapore. The four AA and Coastal defence batteries were part of the Heavy Gun Battalion of 1st Hind Field Force. These batteries were directly under the Japanese and were not at the disposal of Mohan Singh.
The demand for the new AA gunners was met from the personnel of Hong Kong Singapore Royal Artillery and they were trained afresh under Japanese supervision. The normal methods employed to recruit volunteers for the Indian National Army were persuasion and appeal to their patriotic sentiments.
There seemed to be no shortage of volunteers as approximately 40,000 Indians had been captured and imprisoned by the Japanese, most of them at the Fall of Singapore in February 1942 of which 30,000 or so appear to have joined the INA.
There are not many details available about the deployment of the INA AA gunners though the most well-known of these are the batteries deployed at oilfields and refineries in Sumatra that had become the main source of crude oil for the Japanese war machinery. The AA defences were subjected to repeated air raids by the Allies in the latter part of the war, especially in late 1944 and 1945 when the Allied Navies and Fleet Air Arms carried out raids against Japanese targets with impunity.
One such raid was Operation Lentil that was carried out by British carrier-based aircraft on oil installations at Pangkalan Brandan, an important centre for Indonesian oil production on Sumatra on 4 January 1945. Aimed to disrupt the oil supply to the Japanese forces in the Pacific, Operation Lentil was part of the larger Operation Outflank.
Lentil, with 88 aircraft from three carriers tasked for the raid, was the heaviest assault on the Japanese to date. The raiding aircraft did not face much opposition – neither the AA guns nor the Japanese fighters put up much of a fight with only two British aircraft lost as against nine aircraft lost by the Japanese.
The other areas where the INA AA batteries were deployed was in Burma ( now Myanmar) and it is here that some details are available. One account mentions that Netaji Subash Chandra Bose visited an AA Battery at Nompradok at the end of Burma-Siam railway while on a tour of Burma.
The other account, more detailed, is of an AA battery deployed at Anaquin, Burma which shot down a B-24 bomber on 3 January 1945 and damaged one more. The crew of the downed bomber was buried near the site. The incident is thus narrated:
“On 3 January 1945, four planes (B24) flew in from the sea over Anarkwin. Ronsi (sixty km) and Apparon (eighty km) were bombed, and back came the planes to Anarkwin. They were flying fairly low and circled the area once. An Ack Ack unit of the Indian National Army (recruited by the Japanese) opened up with their Bofors (captured British Ack Ack guns). Two planes were hit and one crashed on the left hand side of the line coming from Thanbyuzayat. It fell some 100 yards from the Army Post Office building near the bazaar area’. The plane was burnt out, and Captain Sakai collected the bones of ten, evidently all the crew, and had them buried in a nearby bomb crater.”
The next day, ‘twelve planes came over the Anarkwin for revenge’ as the sole Japanese survivor recounts and plastered the area with over fifty bombs, killing all the Japanese soldiers and two of the Indian AA crew, destroying their Bofors gun. The grave was found, years later by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and it was then that the incident about the INA AA gunners came to light.
While these incidents relate to the AA gunners who joined the INA, there were many more who did not join the cause were kept as prisoners during the war, the majority kept in Papua New Guinea. The Lae and Rabaul War Memorials commemorate over a thousand Indians who died while in custody – a large majority of them belonging to Hong Kong Singapore Royal Artillery. Over 700 are ‘unknown’ with details of only about 300 known and marked. They include Abdul Majid, Wasawa Singh and Wall Muhammad but we do not know of the hundreds other who remain unsung and unknown.
There are many more such incidents of the forgotten AA gunners who fought for the ‘other side’ or were imprisoned under inhumane conditions. Whatever their affiliation or cause, they were undoubtedly Indians and it is only fitting that their stories be told to give us a better understanding of the Indian anti-aircraft artillery and how its’ history unfolded during the formative years.