Decolonisation in South East and South Asia, 1945-1948

The defeat of the British, Indian and Australian armies in Malaya (Malaysia) and Singapore by the Imperial Japanese Army in February 1942 foreshadowed the eventual end of the British Empire in the region. The subsequent loss of prestige for the empire permeated across Asia, as the defeat’s ramifications perceivably included the eventual end of the Indian Army as the protector of British rule in South East and South Asia.

The Battle of Singapore, February 1942
© IWM HU 2781
The Battle of Singapore, February 1942

By 1945, however, the territory of the British Empire was at its apogee through the reconquering of colonies and the acquiring of new territories as a result of the Axis defeat. Unexpectedly, the incoming Labour government of July 1945 turned out to be quite traditional in its foreign and imperial policy. The new Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, was determined Britain would remain a great power and maintain its colonial empire despite the economic constraints of post-war Britain.

At the Potsdam conference in July 1945, the Allied powers decided that South East Asia Command, under the command of Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, would be responsible for occupation duties across the region. Indian Army formations also helped restore colonial empires in Saigon in French Indo-China (Vietnam) and on the islands of Java and Sumatra in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), as well as contributing to the occupation forces in Japan and the British colonies such as Burma (Myanmar) and Malaya.


The British area of occupation was the area south of the 16th parallel – Southern Vietnam, Cambodia and some of Laos. The Chinese Nationalist Army was responsible for northern Vietnam. Major General Douglas Gracey and 20th Indian Division arrived in Saigon in early September 1945. The division’s new role in Saigon, Operation Masterdom, was to establish control, provide support for the French authorities and disarm the Imperial Japanese Army. However, the division had minimal intelligence about the Japanese Army in the area, let alone the Viet Minh – the resistance movement known as the League for the Independence of Vietnam. Until March 1945, the Vichy French had worked alongside the Japanese authorities but Ho Chi Minh had declared independence from the returning French on 2 September 1945.

Gracey was much criticised at the time for imposing martial law, but it was seen as an impossible situation that the division had been sent to sort out, with the French viewing them as peace enforcers and the Viet Minh seeing them as aiding the French colonial oppressors. There was serious fighting between the division and the Viet Minh. The division established control in Saigon as well as providing support for the French. By November, the soldiers were able to return to their original objective of disarming the Japanese as the French army largely took over internal security roles. Indeed the French officers and men were criticised by Gracey for their colonial and racist attitude towards Indian soldiers. Between October 1945 and January 1946, the division suffered more than a hundred casualties, forty soldiers had died in the period, and 54,000 Japanese troops had been disarmed with an estimated 2,000 Viet Minh deaths. The division began to leave Saigon in early February, with effectively the last remaining units gone by the end of March 1946.

Major General Douglas Gracey in Saigon as Chief of the Allied Control Commission and Commander-in-Chief the Allied Land Forces French Indo-China in 1945-46. He had commanded 20th Indian Division since its establishment in 1942 and went on to become Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan Army in 1948.

Major General Douglas Gracey in Saigon as Chief of the Allied Control Commission and Commander-in-Chief the Allied Land Forces French Indo-China in 1945-46. He had commanded 20th Indian Division since its establishment in 1942 and went on to become Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan Army in 1948.


There were similarities with the situation in the Netherlands East Indies (NEI), with a lack of clear direction from both South East Asia Command under Lord Louis Mountbatten and the British government. The role included maintaining control of the main cities until the return of the Dutch even though Dr Sukarno had declared independence on Java on 17 August 1945. Ultimately three Indian divisions were deployed under the command of General Sir Philip Christison as Commander-in-Chief, NEI.  He met Jack Lawson, the Secretary of State for War before taking up his post, who told him:

‘Mr Bevin [Foreign Secretary] has asked me to make it quite clear to you that HM Government are determined that nothing should be done to suggest your troops are going to re-impose Dutch Colonial rule. You must not take sides. Carry out your role; it may take up to six months before Dutch troops can be trained and sent out from Holland.’ (Private Papers of General Sir Philip Christison, Documents.4370)

However the operations included some violent fighting, particularly at Sourabaya (Surabaya) on 28 October 1945 where 49th Indian Infantry Brigade (c. 4,000 largely Indian troops) faced about 20,000 Tentara Keamana Rakyat (Indonesian Republican Army – trained and equipped by the Japanese) and 100,000 armed civilians, resulting in the capture, torture and killing of several British and Indian officers. Sixteen officers and 217 other ranks died, including the brigade commander Brigadier Mallaby. According to the ensuing report:

‘Brigadier Mallaby was murdered by a mob after being deserted by Indonesian officials when endeavouring to stop trouble where a large mob were insisting that the English had surrendered and must lay down their arms. He realised the risk he was taking and acted in an endeavour to save the company of infantry in this area but without the support of at least a section of the mob his task was impossible.’ (Private Papers of Major General Robert Mansergh, Documents.6697)

The 5th Indian Division, commanded by Major General Robert Mansergh, was drafted in to quell the situation, an assignment he achieved by the end of November. The three Indian divisions had to deal with a multitude of issues ranging from repatriating prisoners of war and civilian internees, disarming Japanese soldiers and counterinsurgency operations against nationalist guerrillas. By the withdrawal of the Indian divisions from NEI at the end of November 1946, over 600 men and officers had been killed on the islands of Java and Sumatra.  

The British Occupation of Java
© IWM SE 5724

The British Occupation of Java - the burnt out car of Brigadier Mallaby on the spot where he was killed on 30 October 1946.


At the end of the war, all forces – including those who had co-operated with the British Empire, those who chose non-co-operation (such as Mohandas K. Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and other Congress Party leaders) and those who openly opposed the regime (such as the Indian National Army (INA)) – all combined in ending the British rule (Raj) in India. Thus India’s war effort also helped pave the way for independence, which was almost inevitable after the 1935 Government of India Act that effectively instituted self-government at provincial level and majority representation in central government. Furthermore, a process of ‘Indianization’ in the civil service and the military meant that by 1945, in the army for example, there were over 15,000 Indian officers.

British Cabinet Mission to India 1946 – M. K. Gandhi.
© IWM IND 5083

British Cabinet Mission to India 1946 – M. K. Gandhi.

The trials of three leading INA officers, Captain Shah Nawaz, Captain P. K. Saghal and Lieutenant G. S. Dhillon, held in November 1945, attracted huge negative publicity for the Indian Army and the British Raj. The INA was increasingly supported and feted by the Congress Party. The three officers were found guilty of waging war against the king and sentenced to transportation for life, which General Auchinleck, Commander-in-Chief India, commuted, to prevent further unrest.  There were also problems in the other services: both the Royal Air Force and Royal Indian Air Force went on strike in India and the Royal Indian Navy mutinied in 1946. India was also facing civil unrest with the outbreak of the Calcutta Riots of August 1946 between the Muslim and Hindu communities. The riots resulted in 3,000 dead and 17,000 wounded. They spread to East Bengal, Bihar and the United Provinces. The British government decreed in 1946 that British Army units could only be deployed in India in ‘aid to civil power’ if British lives were at risk. At the same time, the Indian Army was undergoing demobilisation and nationalisation as well as the colossal task of dividing the army between the new states of Pakistan and India, whilst simultaneously trying to curtail the spreading violence.

Prime Minister Clement Attlee announced on 20 February 1947 that the British would transfer power no later than June 1948. Lord Mountbatten was made the last Viceroy of India to oversee the process. The Indian leaders accepted the 3 June Partition plan that included a Partition Council and Boundary Commission. The date for Independence was brought forward to 15 August 1947. Sir Cyril Radcliffe, chairman of the Punjab and Bengal Boundary Commission, rushed to draw up the boundary awards, leading to the mass displacement, migration and massacres in the Punjab. Partition was a consequence of both the need to divide the British Empire in South Asia and the divisions between the Congress Party and the Muslim League. The bringing forward of the decolonisation timetable rushed the process further in the vain hope of curtailing growing communal violence. The numbers of deaths during Partition are unknown, ranging from 200,000 to a million; the violence was bloody with a legacy lasting for decades.

Independence in India, August 1947 – Jawaharlal Nehru sworn in as Prime Minister.
© IWM GOV 1929

Independence in India, August 1947 – Jawaharlal Nehru sworn in as Prime Minister.


India declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. It had been the sole decision of the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, without consultation with his Executive Council and more importantly without the Central Legislative Assembly, a decision that was even criticised in the House of Commons. The leaders of public opinion were divided with Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League, supporting the decision that ultimately helped increase the support base of his political party by the end of the war and a separate Muslim sense of political identity. From 1940 onwards, the Muslim League was intent on a separate Muslim state. The League, although not the separate state, was encouraged by the British in return for support of the war effort, particularly in the Muslim majority provinces of Bengal and Punjab.

Admiral of the Fleet Earl Mountbatten of Burma with the Countess and M. A. Jinnah.
© IWM IND 5302

Admiral of the Fleet Earl Mountbatten of Burma with the Countess and M. A. Jinnah.

Independence for Pakistan, divided into West and East Pakistan (which became Bangladesh in 1971), was achieved on 14 August 1947. Defence became the main priority for the new state. As there was a shortfall of officers in the new Pakistan Army, it was made up with about 500 British officers. Indeed, the army was initially commanded by British generals, with General Sir Douglas Gracey becoming Commander-in-Chief in February 1948. The military was also involved in humanitarian work with the Military Evacuation Organisations (MEO) in both India and Pakistan, which organised the movements of populations resulting in the population exchanges of East Punjab by Muslims and of West Punjab by Hindus and Sikhs. For example, from August 1947 until May 1948, 2,341,040 were evacuated by the MEO Pakistan from East to West Punjab by foot, 218,405 by military transport, and 1,156,474 by rail. By contrast, in East and West Bengal, migration continued for decades after Partition. Many urban refugees travelled for years before being able to settle. The trauma of separation was reflected in the ‘Refugees Forum’ in the newspapers of the Punjab.

Burma (Myanmar)

The Second World War campaign in Burma had been fought largely by African, British and Indian troops against the invading Imperial Japanese Army. The Burma Rifles was the colonial regiment officered by the British. However, the Burma National Army, commanded by General Aung San Suu Kyi, originally allied with the invading Japanese forces, and then joined the Allied powers in 1945. However its real significance was not in its military capability but its political impact on the end of the British rule and the impending independence of Burma (making it in this respect very similar to the Indian National Army).

In September 1946 following numerous strikes, Aung San, now head of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), was appointed a member of the Executive Council along with five other members of the AFPFL. This gave them the majority in the Executive Council, although incoming governor, Major General Sir Hubert Rance, retained chairmanship with a governor’s veto. Most of the strikes ended within a week. The British authorities quickly realised they did not have the capacity to resist the demand for rapid independence. It was initially thought that Aung San might be persuaded to remain in the Commonwealth, but the collapse of British rule in 1942 destroyed the pre-war economic and political system. Aung San visited Britain in January 1947 which resulted in the London Agreement with Britain promising independence, but there was no mention of when this would be granted. Elections for the Constituent Assembly were held in April, with the AFPFL winning a landslide victory. The Assembly established a committee to draft the constitution. However, on 19 July, Aung San was assassinated amongst other AFPFL leaders: a tragedy that changed the history of Burma. Steps towards independence rapidly increased with the draft constitution being approved unanimously on 24 September and the Anglo-Burmese treaty being signed on 18 October 1947. Independence for Burma was declared on 4 January 1948, and renamed Myanmar in 1989.

The British reoccupation of Burma.
© IWM SE 6953

The British reoccupation of Burma.

Ceylon (Sri Lanka)

Ceylon acquired strategic significance during the Second World War, especially after the surrender of Singapore. The naval base proved vital. South East Asia Command made Kandy its base in April 1944, with a staff of over 5,000 people, and the island was a vital source of natural resources. Notwithstanding, Ceylon was not as affected by the war as much as India and Burma. It had one of the most advanced constitutions throughout the British Empire with universal suffrage in place since 1931 – only two years after its introduction in Britain. Furthermore, the Ceylon National Congress, aware of the promises being made in India, demanded dominion status in 1942. Given the cooperation of the Ceylonese politicians towards the war effort, in 1943 the British government agreed to self-government for internal affairs with British control for external affairs and defence.

The Labour government promised full dominion status in October 1945. Elections took place August-September 1947 with the future prime minister Don Senanayake and the United National Party emerging as the strongest party although with no overall majority. Independence was agreed by November and Ceylon became a dominion on 4 February 1948. The transfer of power was amicable as the Ceylonese leaders not only accepted membership of the Commonwealth but the deal also included a defence agreement with Britain. In 1972 Ceylon became a republic and was renamed Sri Lanka.

Schoolgirls in Ceylon help in food production, c. 1945.
© IWM K 9621

Schoolgirls in Ceylon help in food production, c. 1945.


Although Victory over Japan Day was celebrated internationally on 15 August 1945, it is clear that the conflict of the Second World War did not come to end on this day, particularly across Asia. There was a sense of inevitability of decolonisation at the end of the war; Britain was exhausted by it and the empire had lost much of its remaining legitimacy in South and South East Asia. Furthermore and crucially, the nationalist support had increased dramatically across the region throughout this period.

Even with the impending independence of India and Pakistan, the Indian Army was still considered by the British government and Mountbatten as the strategic reserve in South East Asia. Only four of the thirty battalions were British. Indian Army troops were also deployed as occupation forces in Japan, Burma, Hong Kong, Siam (Thailand), Borneo and Malaya. Nevertheless, in the three years after the end of the Second World War, India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon all achieved independence from the British Empire, with Malaya and Singapore (as an independent republic) to follow later in 1957 and 1965 respectively.

Alan Jeffreys

Senior Curator


The 20th Deccan Horse, Indian Army, in Carnoy Valley, 7th Divisional Area, 14th July 1916.
© IWM (Q 825)
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