Tag Archives: history

To Hell & Back – The Arctic Convoys of the Second World War

My article on the Arctic Convoys of WWII was published by Eurasia Review at To Hell And Back on 5 January 2013:

Winston Churchill called it the “worst journey in the world”. To the sailors who served aboard the Arctic Convoys in the Second World War, Churchill’s remarks certainly wouldn’t have seemed to be an understatement. As war raged across the Pacific, Africa, and Europe, the frozen expanses of the Arctic Sea did not remain untouched. Here, the battle between Nazi Germany and the Allied powers continued as a cat-and-mouse game – the Germans fighting to prevent supplies getting through to the Soviet Union, and the Allies desperately sending equipment in the hope this could help the Russians keep the Nazis at bay long enough for a second front to be launched.

The stage for this battle was set in the summer of 1941, when Hitler tore up the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that had forged an uneasy peace between the two European powers. As war began, a surprised Soviet Union found itself on the backfoot trying to stem the Nazi advance. The Wehrmacht forged on ahead towards capturing large swathes of territory, setting alarm bells ringing in the Allied nations.

Russia was what lay between Germany and Britain. The Russians had long demonstrated courage and resilience in the face of adversity. But even the toughest needed guns to fight against the implacable German advance. If the Soviet Union were to fall, German forces, with the added advantage of unfettered access to Soviet mineral reserves and territorial depth, would be free to defend against any Allied excursion from the west.

In July 1941, the Allies, mindful of the consequences that would ensue should German forces be freed from the Eastern Front, gave the go-ahead to the convoys – a decision was taken at the highest levels that the Soviet Union could not be allowed to fall. The first, codenamed Dervish, set off from Iceland on 21 August 1941, arriving in Archangel 10 days later. This precursor to the later series of convoys comprised six merchant ships and a fleet oiler escorted by three destroyers, three minesweepers, and three anti-submarine warfare vessels. At the same time, a superannuated carrier, the HMS Argus – re-commissioned just prior to the war, delivered a cargo of Hurricane fighters to Murmansk. Continue reading To Hell & Back – The Arctic Convoys of the Second World War

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These Colours Don’t Run – India’s Gamble at Monte Cassino

Indian Graves, Commonwealth Cemetery, Monte CassinoMy article on the Italian town of Monte Cassino – the site of a famous WWII battle – was published in the Times of India Crest Edition in November 2012.

In a little corner of Italy, far away from the tourist trail, lies a small town with an Indian connection. It’s a place I first heard of a decade ago, and finding myself sick of Rome’s crowds, a visit to Monte Cassino is something I just can’t pass up. As the train sets off from Roma Termini, my thoughts keep coming back to all I’ve heard. Barely a two-hour train ride from the capital, this town is where scores of Indian troops gave their lives pushing back the Germans in one of the fiercest battles of the Second World War.

I’ve always been fascinated by history, and of all the times when human endurance and spirit has been tested, it’s the Second World War that stands out. Not just for the hopelessness and despair that seemed to enshroud our race like a dense fog, but also for remarkable tales of courage and selflessness. And nothing exemplifies this triumph of human spirit over seemingly insurmountable odds more than the Indian troops who fought for freedom thousands of miles away from home. In an alien land, alongside men who, it hurts to say, would have regarded them as less than their equals. Alongside men who professed to defend freedom, as long as the freedom wasn’t for Indians. However, our countrymen came through this dark period with distinction – their showing cementing the Indian soldier’s reputation for gallantry, toughness, and sheer effectiveness.

The train seems empty. There don’t seem to be many people heading in this direction, and watching the Italian countryside flash by, my thoughts turn to what it must have been like 60 years ago. It’s hard to believe that the gorgeous Italian scenery that surrounds us could have been the setting for the deaths of thousands of young men.

At the Cassino station, I’m the only one who gets off. It’s a quiet place indeed. Peaceful. Sleepy. Walking into a café by the station, I ask for what’s become my staple breakfast in Italy: Cappuccino and a croissant. The café owner, who doesn’t speak English all that well, guesses I’m Indian. A grin and a handshake later, he directs me to the museum. There seems to be a unique warmth in his manner – perhaps a certain nod towards the sacrifices my compatriots made helping this beautiful land regain its freedom.

Yes, the world may have forgotten the battles of Cassino, but the town hasn’t. That’s because in the early months of 1944, Cassino was the epicentre of perhaps the hardest-fought battle of the Second World War. Over a nearly five-month period, as the Germans tried to stem the Allied advance to the north, fierce fighting saw most of the town turned into rubble. It was perhaps the town’s misfortune to be placed smack bang on the Gustav Line. The battle for Rome was, in fact, fought here, and by the time peace came, there was so much damage that the few surviving buildings had to be torn down and a new town built. That explains the grid-like layout of post-War Cassino – the American influence is striking, and admittedly, surreal. One doesn’t expect a small Italian town to look this way – the Fiats and Alfa Romeos amidst the grid-like streets and art-deco architecture just add to the cognitive dissonance.

Continue reading These Colours Don’t Run – India’s Gamble at Monte Cassino