• Wednesday, October 05, 2022

HEADLINE STORY

British Indian officer’s bravery during World War II retold

By: Chandrashekar Bhat

The story of a brave British Indian officer who escaped from the Nazis and made his way to Britain during World War II, despite all odds is being retold in Ben Macintyre’s forthcoming book.

Birendranath Mazumdar was an Indian-born doctor whose appearance not only made him stand out in wartime France but led him to be ostracised by his fellow British officers at the high-security German prison camp at Colditz, an account of the story published by The Times said.

It narrates how he leapt from a moving train, crawled through barbed wire fences, and made a 560-mile journey through enemy territory before eventually reaching the UK where he died in 1996.

Mazumdar joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and was posted to the French base of Etaples. He was told to lead a convoy of ambulances out of Etaples to Boulogne in 1940, according to a Rediff article. German troops surrounded them on the way and Mazumdar, who surrendered, was held prisoner.

The Times story says Mazumdar was the only Indian at Colditz, the imposing castle used by the Nazis to house prisoners considered troublesome or an escape risk.

Nicknamed “Jumbo”, by British officers, he was offered no help in his wish to escape. They thought he couldn’t escape because of his foreign appearance and treated his request with derision. They told him, “You? Escaping from here? With your brown skin?”

He resisted repeated Nazi attempts to persuade him to switch to their side and fight against the British in Burma.

He began a hunger strike seeking to be transferred to an all-Indian prison camp, where he knew security would be laxer. The Germans finally agreed.

As a train took him and other Indian prisoners to western France in February 1943, he forced the carriage window open and leapt out. He hiked for more than 150 miles towards the Pyrenees but was arrested near Toulouse, according to the account in The Times.

By June 1943, he reached a central French camp at Chartres, where he and another prisoner named Dariao Singh planned a further escape. Singh bored through a two-foot thick wall and then forced open a window which was sealed shut with tin sheets.

They crawled across 500 yards of open ground in the next three hours and cut through three barbed wire fences before scaling an 18-foot tall gate.

The duo then reached the Swiss border, travelling at night and crossing three rivers with help from French civilians.

After Mazumdar’s return to Britain in 1944, the intelligence agency MI5 questioned him as he had been introduced to Indian freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose who sought German help to liberate India from the British.

Joan Williams, who married Mazumdar in 1950, told The Times, “Biren never thought of himself as British, but he never felt like an outsider here, as he did inside Colditz.”

“Biren was my life, in a sense”, Williams, 96, said of her late husband as she was thankful that his story was being told in the forthcoming book Colditz: Prisoners of the Castle.

It is based on Mazumdar’s account in a tape recording held by the Imperial War Museum and in declassified files of MI5.

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