The Taranto Incident

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For most of us the history of Indian Army begins at the Indo-Pak War of 1948 over Kashmir, but the history of Indian Army as a unified, single fighting force begins much earlier. The history of Indian Army in both Great wars is often overlooked, even by Indians, mostly due to the fact India wasn’t an independent nation then but one must realise the troops on ground were indeed Indians, our own brethren and we mustn’t do them the dishonour of neglecting their sacrifices.

 

During WW2, three major theatres of War where Indian Army participated was in Allied invasion of Italy, North African Campaign and Burma, which initially was disastrous but under Slim’s Command of XIV Army saved the Empire’s face against Japanese in SE Asia. In Italian Campaign, 3 Divisions of Indian Army under the command of 8th Army, The 4th, 8th & 10th divisions performed splendidly, fighting alongside US troops of 7th Army as part of expeditionary force to capture Italy. Indian troops, not only won 5 Victoria Crosses in Italy but also the respect of American Commander of 15th Army Group, Lieutenant General Mark W Clark, who commented in the foreword of a book The Tiger Triumphs :

“I have had the distinction of having under my command a trio of great Indian Divisions- the Fourth, Eighth and Tenth – whose fighting record in Italy has been a splendid one. No obstacle has succeeded in delaying these Indian troops for long or in lowering their high morale or fighting spirit.”

 

The Eighth Division of Indian Army achieved a kind of iconic image during the campaign, more than other two, although mind you, all three succeeded in their objectives and other tow did almost the same work as the legendary 8th.

 

The impact of Indian Army wasn’t just on the enemy present but on the civilians too. I came across this story quite by accident, but the gravity of the incident forbids me from refraining to share it with you. The incident to follow should demonstrate the professionalism of the Indian Army, in foreign Lands with an enemy they didn’t fully understand, fighting without a true motive, yet maintaining a high level of morality even under stress of combat, discrimination etc.

 

One must understand before reading on, War crimes such as Rape and plundering are quite common for Armies at war, sometimes not even in war, although such incidents are highly repulsive and condemnable, one must accept this as an inevitability for any Army they shall think of as an ideal one. Such horrific incidents were, and still are, quite common for all Armies be it Soviet, German, British, American etc. Wars don’t only include stories of sacrifice, honor and duty but also brings dark side of humanity. For it is best described in an old Roman Proverb, “ Homo Homini Lupus Est” which translates to, Man is a wolf to other Man.

 

The story begins on 24 September 1943, when, after a British Para Division captured the town of Taranto, a port on the southern coast of Italy, the 8th Indian Division under the command of Major General Dudley Russell landed.

 

The following incident was narrated by a distinguished retired Captain of Indian Navy, in an email to one of history Yahoo groups following the killing of two Indian Fishermen by Italian Marines.

 

Cut to 1967.

 

“ The expression of regret by Mayor of Taranto (Italy) some time ago for the killing of two Indian fishermen by Italian Marines from the Enrica Lexie and his offer to take up the responsibility of educating the bereaved children gains significance from the city’s historical association with India. I discovered that association quite by chance in 1967 when I was an officer on board INS Brahmaputra. My ship was diverted to Taranto owing to a coup against the King Constantine Of Greece, our original destination. The ship berthed in Taranto in the early hours of a Sunday. There was no one there apart from the shore berthing party of a few men. As time went by, a large number of Taranto’s residents, including several senior citizens, started congregating near the Ship. They carried placards welcoming the Indians to Taranto. It was a mystery to us as to why such a crowd had swelled. Several residents held placards inviting us to dinners, lunches and picnics.

 

I was invited to dinner by the family of the late Ms Ines Ghosh, Italian wife of late Surgeon Rear Admiral J N Ghosh, Indian Navy. Ghosh met Ines in Taranto when he was a POW.

 

There I heard heart rending stories of WW2. They narrated how when the British 8th Army comprising of British, Australian, Canadian, Indian and troops of other nationalities invaded southern Italy in July 1943, soldiers from all armies except the Indian Army indulged in rape, molestation and plunder. One of the elderly ladies present told us how she was being chased by two Allied soldiers when an Indian soldier intervened and protected her. He told the chasing soldiers not to harm her because she was his sister! In another instance a posse of Indian Troops voluntarily guarded an apartment building and prevented soldiers of Other Allied Armies from entering it. There were numerous stories of heroism like this. These marvellous episodes bear testimony to the ethical standards and professionalism of Indian Army.

 

The following day there was a special reception in the honor of the personnel of our Warship INS Brahmaputra at the town hall. When the ship finally left port after four days, virtually the entire town was on jetty with several bands in attendance to bid adieu. It was a very moving and emotional experience. The ethics of the magnificent Indian Army and its gentlemanly officers and men is still etched in the memory of citizens of Taranto.”

 

The source of the incident as a whole, in this form, is available in Arjun Subramaniam’s book India’ War: A Military History 1947-1971 Part 2 Chapter 5 p51-52.

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