Colonel Cyril J Stracey - I.N.A – A remarkable man
Sept 6th 1945, Singapore – A small crowd is gathered in front of an Azad Hind monument at Connaught Drive. As Indian Engineers position guncotton charges, Major Donald Brunt (Royal Engineers) is seen checking the fuses. The fuse is lit and the charges explode. Troops of the 17th Dogra Regiment push over the monument (marked ‘Itmad’ on its larger face) with poles; a civilian crowd claps and cheers enthusiastically; while a Malay policeman observes. The clock of the nearby tower, shows 6pm. A burly Indian Naik (corporal) of the 5th Indian Division, with an Mk 5 Sten gun with a bayonet fitted, is standing together with two other soldiers, looking on. A guard of honor of the 17th Dogra Regiment is dressing back a few paces as a brigadier in a kilt (Is it Brigadier Patrick McKerron?) approaches and takes the salute. The brigadier spoke later, perhaps with enthusiasm after this important symbol in the memory of INA soldiers, built by one Col C J Stracey, had been finally demolished.
But Pat McKerron or Mountbatten, who ordered the demolition, could not have predicted their own flight out of India, just two years later. Now, who could this Stracey be? To get to his story, we have to traverse a long road back in time, to the last stages of the 2nd World War and the years preceding Indian Independence.
Sometimes you just stumble on the beginnings of a story while researching another and that is how I came across the tale of a fascinating character, an Anglo Indian named Cyril John Stracey, who served as a senior officer in the INA. That itself should evoke some curiosity, an Anglo Indian in a nationalist Indian outfit? It was not easy to unearth details of his life, but as it emerged gradually, bit by bit, it turned out to be a heartwarming tale, sandwiched and hidden between better known stalwarts in the INA and those of his other illustrious brothers, the two who served in the British bureaucracy - the ICS, the Forest Service and the third who rose to occupy the apex position in the Madras Police.
I have always admired the Anglo Indian community, a community which just happened. Some in British India reviled them for their leanings to things and thoughts West, many pitied or ridiculed their dual existence but others watched enviously from afar at their trysts with music and dance, their connections with the railways and their lighter outlook on life. Many said ‘but naturally’, when they moved off to Britain and Australia, seeking easier acceptance from the paternal races that created them, moving off after feeling a certain animosity in Independent India. There were a few though, who made India their home fighting through and shining as brilliant diamonds.
Eric Stracey did just that as he rose through the ranks to become the first DGP of Police in erstwhile Madras. His books on his Anglo Indian upbringing in Bangalore and his life in the police forces are interesting, but this is not his story, it is the story of his lesser known elder brother Cyril John Stracey. The Stracey progeny were in all 11 (four died as infants), four boys and three girls who lived their lives mostly in India and each of them were examples of how one could serve on public services. The eldest Patrick started the wildlife preservation society of India, Ralph became an ICS officer, Eric joined the police, Doreen became a doctor, Margaret a nurse and Winnifred, a teacher.
The Stracey’s affair with India actually started from the early days of the EIC when John and Edward from Cork came to India. Interestingly John worked at the offices of Hyder Ali as the British commercial agent representing the Bombay factory while Edward worked for the EIC at Madras, a bunch who were fighting Hyder. Both married Portuguese Indian girls, perhaps from Cochin and later worked for the Nizam of Hyderabad while their children continued working for the British who had by then started to govern India.
Their father Daniel a Catholic a district forest officer (mother Ethel a protestant), had a connection to Malabar, for he was born in Chittoor Palghat. Many other family connections can be seen with Malabar, Eric spent a couple of terms with the MSP at Malappuram, post the Moplah revolts. Ralph’s daughter married a Malayali, Pat married Peace Mammen a Syrian catholic from Kerala, Pat’s best friend was Ramabhadran, related to the Kollengode Raja’s.
The Stracey children moved from Andhra and grew up in Richmond town Bangalore, then a quiet and cool town with a cantonment and an Anglo Indian minority. Cyril who was born in 1915 at Kurnool, turned out to be quite different, one who chased adventure and traversed the world. He did his schooling in St Joseph’s Bangalore, but did not complete his intermediate and went on to join the Indian Military Academy in 1935 as a gentleman cadet. Eric records the difficulties the family had to endure in meeting Cyril’s 2 ½ year course expenses at Dehradun (Pat deferred his marriage to help pay for his younger brother and their mother had to give up their home in Bangalore and move to Rangoon as a house guest with her brother in law) after their father passed away in 1932. Other family friends also chipped in with support as Cyril was not granted a scholarship which he deserved, for that was awarded instead to the son of a well-placed ICS officer. Eric recalls that Cyril as a youngster was actually more artistically inclined than soldierly, could draw and paint well, and could play the piano with some proficiency.
The IMA’s newly graduated officers were not considered on par with the Sandhurst graduated ones for they were Indian commissioned officers, not the king’s commissioned officers, who were treated highly. ICO’s had a lower pay and were only supposed to replace the VCO’s such as Risaldars, Jamedars and Subedars. The first two terms made them physically fit, adept in English, accounting and in the next three terms, they were provided strategic and tactical training. Camps in the plains and mountains provided them exposure to difficult terrains and tactics. After graduation (Gen Bewoor, Army Chief was his batch mate), Cyril was attached to the West Kent’s at Lucknow (This posting, according to Eric Stracey, with a British battalion was a compulsory part of his initiation to regimental life before he joined his regular Indian battalion). His formal posting was with the 1st battalion of the 14th Punjab regiment at Bannu at the North West frontier.
In Feb 1941 the battalion was deputed to Burma. This battalion later became part of the 11th Indian division’s 15th brigade and was in Sept 1941 tasked with preparing the defenses at Jitra on the Malay-Thai border anticipating a potential Japanese invasion.
On Dec 7th, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, dragging America into the 2nd World War. The Japanese attack was intended to destroy the pacific fleet, thereby preventing it from interfering with an intended Japanese conquest of key SE Asian countries such as Malaya, Thailand and Burma, the latter for oil and food resources. On Dec 8th, the Japanese invasion forces landed at Kota Baru (actually 70 minutes before Pearl Harbor was hit, so that was the place where the first attack occurred). Despite their heavy initial resistance, British forces were eventually forced to retreat to their defenses in front of the airfield. On 11th December 1941, the Japanese started bombing Penang. Jitra and then Alor Star fell into Japanese hands on 12th December 1941. The British had to retreat to the south. On 16th December 1941, the British left Penang to the Japanese, who occupied it on 19th December. By 31st January 1942, the whole of Malaya had fallen into Japanese hands.
In the meantime the conquest of Burma was underway. On Dec 14th the Japanese bombed Victoria point airbase, the southernmost British airfield in Burma and commenced the land based operations. Another Japanese aim was to destroy of the new Lashio Burma Road link to China. An attack or foray into India was never intended, originally.
As we saw parts of the 1st division of the 14th Punjab regiment were at Jitra. Mohan Singh and Cyril Stracey were part of separate but incomplete defensive positions laid around Jitra. When the Japanese arrived on the 8th, they had solid air support and tanks. Barbed wire lines had been partially erected and some anti-tank mines laid but heavy rains had flooded the shallow trenches and gun pits. Many of the field telephone cables laid across the waterlogged ground failed to work, resulting in a lack of communication during the battle. In the Jitra attack, the Japanese decimated the under equipped British Indians who had little answer for the Japanese tanks supported from the air. The remaining British forces fled into the rubber plantations and hid. Both Mohan Singh’s and Stracey’s teams were hiding and while the former was contemplating his future, the latter was forced to assume leadership of a motely group of officers, soldiers, Gurkhas and so on, in the jungle.
According to Stracey the ferocity of the Japanese attack forced the men to take refuge in the rubber plantations and as the lone road was taken by the Japanese, they could not venture back. The locals gave no shelter or support and eventually when the Japanese reached the location on 16th where these men were hiding, the hungry and battered men had no choice but to surrender. They were taken to the police HQ at Alor Setar where the Japanese started to separate the Indians from the English. Stracey was initially left with the British, but when his orderly piped in that Stracey was Indian, he was moved with the Indians. It was here that Stracey met his old pal Mohan Singh and Mohan Singh updated him of the INA activities and his newfound involvement together with Pritam Singh and Fujiwara. He explained that Rash Behari Bose had arrived there from Japan and agreed on a potential tie up with the captured Indian soldiers to fight the British. Stracey was asked by Singh to explain all this to the new crowd after a cleanup operation of the town and exhort them to join the IIL as it was called.
Stracey was confused and torn, wondering what to do, for his heart was not set on cooperating with the enemy. He also noticed that some junior officers were now being awarded senior positions in the INA organization, and was a bit miffed about it. Anyway as matters took their course, Stracey did not join Mohan Singh and so was confined with other British officers in the Alor Setar jail. As the number of prisoners increased, they were moved to Taiping, then to Kuala Lumpur and finally to Singapore, which had fallen to the Japanese, in Nov 1942.
During this year of confinement, Stracey was getting disillusioned. He caught up with Mohan Singh who had by then become a general, who had after the Farrer park meeting created the first INA and recruited a great many soldiers, totaling to 16,000 or so. Stracey decided to volunteer to the INA, sick of the discriminatory attitude shown by his fellow British officers and noting that they had anyway washed their hands off the Indian soldiers and thrown them to the mercy of the Japanese. Another reason was that he saw a number of his old colleagues already serving in the INA. Stracey was tasked with leading the 10,000 odd new volunteers which included Jawans, JCO’s, Subedar majors, Subedars and Jamadars. He had to start a new army career as a 2nd lieutenant once again!
Stracey in fact had a unique position, he in his own words ‘was the only officer who saw the INA as a germ, a mere idea and who eventually participated in its obsequies’. Not only was he with Mohan Singh at the start of the INA conceptual discussions, but was also a witness to its disbanding and the first officer to be formally picked up and arrested after the retaking of Singapore, by the Allies.
But things were not going well for Mohan Singh. The Fujiwara Kikan which was behind him had given way to the Iwakuro and Hikari Kikan’s which did not think much of Indians (or rate Indians as equals) and had other ideas. Mohan Singh had by then many other festering issues (INA recognition, use of Indians for manual labor, managing of Japanese misappropriation of Indian assets in Burma) with the Japanese over the INA recognition and issues about the tasks of the IIL. Mohan Singh’s relationship with the I Kikan as well as Rash Behari Bose turned sour resulting in him getting sidelined, dismissed and arrested and transported to Pulau Ubin, an island off Changi point.
A terminally ill Rash Behari Bose had by now decided on appointing fresh blood to lead the large INA organization, which was somewhat rudderless. It was into this vacuum that Subhas Chandra Bose stepped in, coming in from Germany. SC Bose thus took over as the new Supreme commander and recreated the so called ‘Second INA’. Stracey remained in Singapore as INA’s adjutant general (Singapore was the rear HQ while Rangoon where Bose lived, was the front HQ) and was the person responsible for the ‘A’ branch.
Accounts of his life in the INA hierarchy during the Bose days is very scarce (his family considered him lost or dead!) and Eric agrees - It was at this stage that Cyril played a prominent part as its Adjutant-General. We never questioned him about his motives, for as a family we respected each other’s personal privacy, and what notes he left behind about his INA days were only brief and purely descriptive. He rose through the ranks to become a colonel. Dr RM Kasliwal, who was Netaji’s physician states – Stracey was a smart Anglo Indian officer, a staunch nationalist, who joined the INA and became the adjutant general and Quarter master General with a rank as Colonel. He was a great organizer and a good friend and he and I shared a bungalow in Singapore. Stracey met Bose a few times and interacted with him personally. On a lighter side, he once arranged a football match where Bose kicked the ball off to start the match. He was also involved with the design of some air raid shelters.
Two incidents relate to him, one indirectly and one directly. The first is the case of the MK Durrani, an Indian POW who later turned out to be a British agent. Durrani was implicated in manipulating the newly trained spies from the Penang spy schools (they were trained and inserted in India by submarines, but as it turned out, they gave themselves up to the British, influenced by Durrani’s covert actions) and were eventually caught. Bose who was furious with this, sentenced Durrani to death. Dr Kasliwal and a few other Indians asked Bose to show some mercy and finally Bose agreed that Durrani’s life would be spared if he confessed and provided details of his mission. Durrani was thus arrested in 1944 and tortured (finger press and water boarding are mentioned), and some British investigators felt that Stracey and Kasliwal knew about this and perhaps condoned it (the case at the Red Fort involving them was dropped due to political reasons) as it was under Stracey’s watch. Incidentally, the Bidadari camp where Durrani was interred in was administered by others.
|Original INA Monument Singapore|
The second was in the construction of the Shaheed Smarak or INA martyr’s monument in Singapore where INA officers and contractors led by Stracey built a marble memorial on the Connaught drive, an obelisk 25 feet high, honoring the INA personnel who died. As is quoted often, C.J. Stracey, Quarter-Master General of INA produced a number of models for the memorial. Bose approved one of the models and asked Col. Stracey if he would be able to complete a sea facing structure before the British forces landed in Singapore. He built it in a record 3 weeks, racing against time to finish it before the allied forces retook Singapore from the Japanese, in 1945. The words inscribed were the motto of the INA: Unity (Etihaad), Faith (Itmad) and Sacrifice (Kurbani). The monument was built at the Esplanade just before the Japanese surrender. On 8th July 1945, Bose laid its foundation stone. Perhaps it was an act too late, for the morale of the INA had gone down, what with the Japanese reverses, general lack of food and resources, Japanese utilization of Indians for other purposes (to fight MPAJA and at the death railway) and the INA and Jap failures at the Indian front. But as soon as British troops re-occupied Singapore in early September 1945, they blew it up upon instructions from Mountbatten.
Stracey has this to say about the Japanese and the INA. The Japanese found in the Indian army POW’s a very useful weapon to help them achieve what they were setting out to do: the greater co-prosperity sphere of Asia. They were of course very tactful and they always quoted Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian freedom movement under the great and recognized leaders. He implies that on the ground, where it mattered the Japanese never really treated the INA as equals and that Mohan Singh was perhaps right in breaking up the first INA.
As adjutant and quarter master general, Stracey then reporting to Gen Kiani in the INA, was also responsible to coordinate the INA surrender to the British. By this time, Col CJ Stracey was, in British parlance, a JIFF (Japanese Indian or Japanese inspired fifth column). After the British had routed the INA and the Japanese, their task was to round up the JIFF’s and prosecute them to the extent possible.
Interestingly, Cyril’s brother Eric was at that time partly responsible for interrogation of JIFF suspects! He explains - By a twist of fate, I myself was engaged towards the end of the war with security intelligence at our Main Forward Interrogation Centre in East Bengal, where there was a large camp for INA prisoners captured during the fighting in Burma. Though Cyril was flown direct to Delhi from Singapore, and so did not pass through my hands as a prisoner as did some of the other INA officers after Japan surrendered, I had access to his file and classification before that, followed his latter INA career up to the time he was retaken, and was personally the subject of considerable interest to my Intelligence colleagues..
Stracey was taken to Delhi in Jan 1946 and together with a number of others were put on trial. It is a long and convoluted story with all kinds of people involved, Congress, Nehru, Patel, Bulabhai Desai, Gandhiji and so on. Proof was hard to come by, much of the documentation had been destroyed or lost and large communities including the Anglo-Indian applied pressure on the administration to disband the INA trials. Most of the INA officers were dismissed from service or de-mobbed. Colonel Prem Sahgal, Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon, and Major General Shah Nawaz Khan were court-martialed. Many others were charged for torture and murder or abetment of murder. These trials attracted huge publicity, and public sympathy for the defendants who were considered patriots of India and fought for the freedom of India from the British Empire, ran high. Outcry over the grounds of the trial, as well as a general emerging unease and unrest within the British, ultimately forced the then Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck to commute the sentences of the three defendants in the first trial.
Cyril, was dismissed from the army and upon release from the Red Fort, worked for a year as Secretary of the INA Relief and Rehabilitation Committee in New Delhi, which proved of help to many refugees during the large-scale carnage at the time of partition. It was during the trials and this work that Cyril caught the eye of Nehru who impressed with the officer and his bearing, stated that he could provide him a job in the Indian Foreign Service IFS.
Perusing the Nehru papers, I came across substantial correspondence between Stracey and Nehru during the 1946-48 period. Nehru mentions about him to Patel, about Stracey’s request to archive all collected INA material, of Stracey’s request to induct all INA officers for training in the IMA ( Nehru replied that that would not be advisable as they were over age, but that he would recommend to Patel and Baldev Singh that they be appointed into state forces). He was involved with the refugee relief operations connected with the disasters of the Indian partition. Stracey was also the secretary of the goodwill mission to Ethiopia under Ammu Swaminathan (Lakshmi Menon’s mother).
Stracey repaid his debts to his family and friends from the back-pay he received after the war for his army services and POW period, and he even had a little extra which he lent to Eric so he could buy his first second hand car (a 1937 model Chevrolet released by the Air Raids Precautions service after the danger to Madras city ceased!).
Interestingly, in a fitting end, Nehru gifted Stracey a marble fragment, a part of the demolished INA monument which read ‘Subhas Ch’ after the dust had settled and India was free. This had been retrieved by a local Indian in Singapore. What happened to it later, is not known.
As promised, Nehru gave him a position in the IFS where Cyril did very well. His diplomatic career spanned through postings in Karachi, Bonn, Jakarta, as Consul-General at San Francisco, First Secretary at Washington and Chancellor in Paris, finishing with spells as ambassador to Finland and Madagascar. Reports mention him as being considered a ‘most eligible bachelor’ while in San Francisco and also of his amusing complaints about his lodgings and landlady while in Washington DC.
Eric and Cyril had purchased a small retirement home ‘Charleston” in Coonoor, where Cyril moved to after retirement from the IFS. He continued with philanthropic work and was an active member of the Coonoor branch of the AIS. His 78 rpm records, his piano and his garden gave him the solace he sought.
Eric’s retelling of his brothers last days is sad and poignant. Cyril lived on at “Charleston” until his death in November 1988, enjoying his music and his books, but keeping much to himself. Apart from a bachelor friend or two, his only company was a Marwari family, the Simrathmulls, who lived near-by. They were generous and open-hearted friends - husband, wife and five bright sons, who had him over for dinner every Sunday night and ran errands for him. (He did not keep a car in his later years and did not like going down to the bazaar in person). As a humorous sidelight, when their business ran into trouble, Cyril helped them with a loan which they duly repaid - a strange case of an Anglo-Indian, a member of a notoriously prodigal community not known for its wealth, lending money to one whose people constituted the traditional bankers and money-lenders of the north! When Cyril had a sudden and fatal heart attack, it was they who rushed him to hospital and later helped carry his coffin in a last gesture of friendship.
Eric had by then retired from his IPS position in Madras and moved off to Australia. In 1989, he returned to India to sell off their house, ‘Charleston’ in Coonoor and with that the last link the Stracey’s had to India was broken. A few educational scholarships and the Stracey Memorial School in Bangalore, provide trace memories of that family.
That my friends is the story of a very interesting man, one who stood at a very difficult crossroad and decided his direction only after much soul searching. One path would perhaps have led him to England or Australia to live there as a second class citizen, the other, the path he chose, led him to remain an Indian, in the country he lived for, and died in!
- 1 While Cyril states – I decided that I will join the INA, this thing has become a reality and why should not an Anglo Indian be part of it as well? Eric explains it differently - In Cyril’s case, predilection would have been reinforced by the pressure of his regimental peers. He was not the sort of person mindlessly to follow the natural course expected of Anglo-Indians and side automatically with the British, nor would he have wanted to incur the sneers and contempt of his other Indian colleagues for a member of a community they already regarded as lackeys of the Raj. It was these factors rather than any special feeling of nationalism that would have moved him to join the INA along with most of the other Indian officers of his battalion.
- 2. Stracey was interrogated after he was picked up in Singapore. Kevin Noles who studied the files states - His interrogator considered that he joined in August 1942 ‘from motives of greed, ambition and pleasure-seeking’ although he conceded his ‘thorough ideological conversion’. The comments reveal more about the attitude of the interrogator attempting to comprehend the actions of an Anglo-Indian than they do about Captain Stracey himself, who seems to have been genuinely enthused by Indian nationalism and became a senior staff officer in the INA.
- 3. The first battalion, 14th regiment had a number of other well-known Indian origin officers. Ayub Khan, SPP Thorat, MH Kiani, Shah Nawaz Khan, Habib Ur Rahman, AIS Dara, GS Dhillon, Inayat Hassan, Mohan Singh etc.
- 4. A number of Mohan Singh’s first INA followers who did not join the Second INA were transported by the Japanese to New Guinea and Solomon island labor camps. That is another story, for another day!
- 5. One could ask if the Congress and Gandhiji won independence for India or was the decision by the British to leave a result of the INA movement? There are certainly many arguments supporting the latter, for the INA movement, the Red Fort trials and so on had a substantial influence on the Indian soldier in the Raj’s army and the general public. The British Empire, which was fully based on the unquestioning loyalty of the Indian armed forces, had finally been undermined by the INA trials. Once Auchinleck and the administration felt that they had lost their complete grip on and loyalty of the Indian army, they knew their cause was lost.
The late Cyril Stracey – A remarkable soldier and diplomat (The Review Vol 88, Feb 1989)
How I came to join the INA (Oracle Volume 4, Jan 1982) CJ Stracey
Odd man in: my years in the Indian police - Eric Stracey
Growing up in Anglo India: Eric Stracey
Interviews with Ralph, Eric and Cyril Stracey– The Centre of South Asian Studies
Netaji, Azad Hind Fauz, and After – RM Kasliwal
A remarkable family – S Muthiah Hindu April 16, 2012
Anglo Indians – S Muthiah, Harry Mcalure
Shades of white, brown and black - CVG The Hindu
The Indian national Army & Japan – JC Lebra
The Forgotten Army: India's Armed Struggle for Independence, 1942-1945 -Peter Ward Fay
Waging War against the King’: Recruitment and Motivation of the Indian National Army, 1942-1945 – Kevin Noles
Pics – Azad Hind Monument courtesy EM Kasliwal, Cyril Stracey picture Courtesy S Muthiah, Harry Maclure