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The Forgotten Heroes of Dunkirk: British India’s Role in the Epic Evacuation

by Mohammed Ahmed
The Forgotten Heroes of Dunkirk: British India's Role in the Epic Evacuation

The Battle of Dunkirk stands as one of the most dramatic and pivotal moments of World War II, remembered for the remarkable evacuation of Allied forces under dire circumstances. While much has been written about the heroism and perseverance of the British and French troops, the significant contributions of nearly 300 Indian soldiers from British India, including present-day Pakistan, remain largely unrecognized. These troops played vital roles in various capacities, from logistics and engineering to direct combat, ensuring the success of the evacuation and demonstrating immense bravery and dedication.

Background of the Battle of Dunkirk:

In May 1940, the German Blitzkrieg had overrun much of Western Europe, pushing the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and French troops to the beaches of Dunkirk. Surrounded by the German army, the situation for the Allied forces seemed desperate. Operation Dynamo, the code name for the Dunkirk evacuation, was launched to rescue as many soldiers as possible from the encircled beaches.

Battle of Dunkirk

British India’s Involvement:

British India’s involvement in World War II was extensive, with over 2.5 million volunteers serving in various theaters of the conflict. The troops from British India, including those from present-day Pakistan, were integral to the Allied war effort, providing essential support and engaging in key battles.

Roles Played by Indian Soldiers at Dunkirk:

  • Logistical Support:
    • Indian troops were instrumental in ensuring the smooth operation of logistical networks. Their efforts in transporting supplies, managing equipment, and maintaining communication lines were critical in the chaos of the Dunkirk evacuation.
  • Engineering Units:
    • Indian engineers played a crucial role in constructing defenses and fortifications, as well as repairing and maintaining infrastructure essential for the evacuation. Their expertise helped create makeshift docks and repair damaged facilities, enabling the evacuation of troops.
  • Combat Support:
    • While the primary combatants at Dunkirk were British and French soldiers, Indian troops provided valuable support in various capacities. They were involved in guarding positions, manning anti-aircraft guns, and providing medical assistance to the wounded.
British India Troops in France

The Role of Major Mohammad Akbar Khan:

Among the Indian soldiers at Dunkirk was Major Mohammad Akbar Khan, who commanded the first Indian unit sent to France from British India, known as K6. This unit was composed almost entirely of Punjabi Muslims from the Pothwar Plateau, an area Major Akbar Khan called “the sword arm of India.” The unit’s primary role was to supply animal transport using mules, which were crucial in transporting supplies to the front lines where mechanized transport failed.

Major Mohammad Akbar Khan, Pictured Centre, Wearing no Headgear and in Uniform

Indian Soldiers’ Experience:

The Indian unit landed in Marseilles in December 1939. Despite the blistery cold weather and inadequate accommodations, Major Akbar Khan managed to keep his men in high spirits. They initially stayed in the poorly conditioned Chateau Reynard and later traveled in unheated troop trains to Dunkirk. By May 24, Major Akbar Khan reached Dunkirk and witnessed the chaotic retreat. Displaying remarkable leadership, he organized the retreat of his men and even aided in the evacuation logistics at Malo-les-Bains beach, setting up an armed guard to manage the embarkation process.

British Indian Soldiers

Additional Units and Contributions:

Four companies of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps, including a unit of the Bikaner State forces, served in France during the campaign on the Western Front. Some were evacuated from Dunkirk, while one contingent was taken prisoner by German forces. The Indian soldiers provided more than 2,500 mules shipped from Bombay (now Mumbai) to Marseilles to aid the British army, which had phased out its animal transport companies. The mules had their voice boxes surgically removed to prevent them from braying and attracting enemy attention.

Challenges Faced:

The Indian soldiers at Dunkirk faced numerous challenges, including harsh environmental conditions, constant threat of enemy attacks, and the logistical nightmare of coordinating a mass evacuation under fire. Despite these obstacles, their resilience and commitment remained unwavering. Many of the men had to leave their mules behind, giving them away to local French people during the retreat. Despite orders to abandon the Indian troops, military leaders like Colonel Ashdown, father of the late Liberal Democrats leader Sir Paddy Ashdown, defied these orders and brought his troop to Dunkirk for evacuation, although he faced a Court Martial for his actions.

Personal Accounts and Heroism:

Personal accounts from Indian soldiers and their descendants highlight the bravery and determination of these troops. For instance, Chaudry Wali Mohammad recounted the terror of German planes overhead and the chaos of Dunkirk. Jemadar Maula Dad Khan was celebrated for his courage and decision-making in protecting his men and animals under enemy fire, earning an honorary medal for his actions.

Broader Contributions and Impact:

Indian soldiers not only fought in France but also served in Persia, Iraq, Hong Kong, Greece, Italy, and Eritrea. Their contributions were crucial in preventing the Japanese from overrunning India and linking up with the Germans in Iran, which could have dramatically altered the course of the war.

Recognition and Legacy:

The contributions of Indian soldiers during the Dunkirk evacuation have often been overshadowed by the broader narrative of World War II. However, their efforts were crucial in the successful withdrawal of over 338,000 Allied soldiers, preventing a catastrophic loss and allowing the Allies to regroup and continue the fight against Axis forces. Over 36,000 Indian soldiers died during the Second World War, a testament to their significant sacrifices.

Historian Perspectives:

Historian John Broich notes that the Indian soldiers at Dunkirk were “particularly cool under fire and well organized during the retreat,” showcasing their exceptional discipline and bravery. British historian Ghee Bowman, author of “The Indian Contingent: The Forgotten Muslim Soldiers of the Battle of Dunkirk,” highlights how the stories of these soldiers are among the great untold narratives of the war.

Commemorative Efforts:

It is essential to honor the memory of British Indian soldiers and their contributions. Various commemorative efforts, including memorials, exhibitions, and educational programs, aim to shed light on their pivotal role in the war. These initiatives help ensure that the sacrifices and bravery of these soldiers are not forgotten.

Conclusion:

The Battle of Dunkirk is remembered as a testament to the resilience and bravery of Allied forces during one of World War II’s darkest hours. The significant contributions of soldiers from British India, including present-day Pakistan, were instrumental in the success of the evacuation. Their roles in logistics, engineering, and combat support showcased their dedication and courage in the face of adversity. It is crucial to recognize and honor the invaluable contributions of these forgotten heroes, ensuring their legacy is remembered and celebrated for generations to come.

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