This year marked the 80th anniversary of the dramatic evacuation of 338,000 Allied troops from Dunkirk in May 1940, as the German army closed in. This wartime legend is the subject of the award-winning 2017 film Dunkirk but, as is only too evident from the film and other accounts of the Second World War, the presence of Indian soldiers is neither known nor remembered.

Ghee Bowman’s pioneering and riveting book, The Indian Contingent: The Forgotten Indian Muslim Soldiers at Dunkirk, brings to life this absent narrative. He rectifies myths surrounding Dunkirk, including the belief that “most of the men were taken from the beaches by small craft manned by civilians.” They were, in fact, rescued “via two jetees or moles that stick out” to protect the harbour’s entrance.

Bowman points out that “among the men evacuated from the beaches were 300” Indians who wore a “long shirt-like kurta” as part of their khaki uniforms and “some wore a pagri [turban]”, too. Of these, “all but four ... were Muslim.” They belonged to the 25th Animal Transport Company of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps.

There was, however, an even larger number of Indian soldiers — 1000 altogether — who remained in France. All, including the 25th Company, belonged to the “so-called Force K6 or the Indian Contingent”, which had travelled with mules from India to France to support the British army. The mules — “hybrid offspring of the male donkey and female horse” — were “a crucial element in delivering supplies.” These Indian animal transport companies were duly reorganised and restructured before they set sail secretly for foreign shores from Bombay [Mumbai] via Karachi.

Bowman traces India’s political climate, where the Muslim League supported and Congress opposed the war effort. Consequently — together with the “martial people” theory — the British focused their recruitment drive on Muslim soldiers from Punjab and NWFP, though Hindus, Sikhs and Christians joined, too. Bowman’s narrative of individual soldiers’ lives in rural and urban Punjab, interwoven with his descriptions of the war, draw on his painstaking research that includes rare archives, diaries, photographs and, indeed, memories passed on to descendants.

A pioneering and riveting account, of the mostly Muslim Indian soldiers who fought in the Second World War, is a labour of love

The K6, commanded by Lt Col James Hill, included 24 officers, of which only two were Indian: the World War I veteran Maj Mohammed Akbar Khan, also known as the Pakistani writer ‘Rangroot’; and Sandhurst-trained Capt Anis Ahmed Khan. Then there were Indians known as the Viceroy’s Commissioned Officers with ranks such as Jemadar and Risaldar.

The K6 soldiers arrived in Marseille on a freezing Dec 26, 1939, during the lull known as the Phoney War. Two of the four K6 companies, the 28th and 32nd, stationed near the Belgian border, became the famous subject of British newsreels after visits by the Duke of Gloucester and broadcasters Richard Dimbleby and Z.A. Bokhari.

Bowman provides a detailed account of the German advance in May 1940, which took the Allies by surprise and led to the chaotic Allied retreat and the Battle of Dunkirk. However, he points out that, contrary to popular belief, the Battle for France did not end there. Some 140,000 troops remained in France, in the hope of “making a stand” against the German advance. Alas, the French surrendered, Paris fell and this led to the desperate march by the British, the 28th and the 32nd Companies to the French ports, from where they were evacuated to Britain by huge liners — erstwhile passenger ships.

The 22nd Company, including Capt Anis, suffered a different fate amid much confusion on roads packed by refugees and traffic, and its British commanding officer’s indecision over which route to take. They were captured as prisoners of war. Or most of them were, for this episode introduces another aspect of the Second World War: Germany’s desire to win over India and Indians by playing on nationalistic, anti-imperial sentiments against the British and recruiting Indians into the German army. To this end, the PoWs were addressed by Subhas Chandra Bose no less, and Capt Anis received a personal visit, though he did not comply.

Bowman provides many insights into Bose and the Indian National Army, as well as a thought-provoking discussion on the issues involved. He points out that some 30 Indians from the 22nd joined the Germans, including the maulvi, Saeed Ahmed Shah, who led them in prayers, and the highly regarded Dafadar Abuzar, who eventually put on a German uniform and rose rapidly through the ranks.

Certainly, Indian PoWs were treated better than Russians and others — some black Africans were simply killed — because “Indians were seen as fellow Aryans within the Nazi hierarchy. Hitler believed that the origin of the German ‘master race’ was in north India and Punjabis were distant cousins.” Added to which, Bowman says Muslims were believed to share a common bond with the Germans because of Muslim Turkey’s alliance in World War I.

Bowman’s details of PoW life challenge the rather cosy, school-boy type, portrayal in films such as 1963’s The Great Escape. Prisoners were subjected to hard labour. British officers and “white troops” were separated from their Indian colleagues — though Sub-Conductor Tom Hexley used wile and guile to slip away from his countrymen, pass himself off as an Indian and remain with his men. He was among the few who finally escaped.

Continuing to 1945, Bowman’s narrative juxtaposes the lives of Indian PoWs with the K6 in Britain, where the 25th, 28th and 35th Companies remained for the next four years and were stationed around the country to fight in the People’s War. Sepoys were trained to carry rifles; they had not been allowed before, their focus being the mules. Wherever their duties took them, the soldiers were, more often than not, welcomed by the local population and enjoyed British hospitality, social events, sports, friendships and romantic interludes. The narrative also provides space for non-Muslim Indian soldiers, such as Gian Kapur, who forged a lifelong association with Herbert and Betty Forster, the couple he stayed with; or the Oxford-educated Ruttan Singh who was selected for a very specialised course at the University of London.

Other information enriches Bowman’s book: details of Indian food prepared specially for the Indian troops, trips to Woking Mosque, meetings with Noor Inayat Khan and Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah, the visit of King George VI and the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, parades and other formal events in which the K6 participated. Interestingly, Bowman also records that when Capt Shaukat Hayat of the Skinner’s Horse regiment visited the K6, he submitted a report complaining of the unequal treatment meted out to Indian soldiers — but the report has not survived.

The book leads up to the aftermath of the war and the new realities. As historian Yasmin Khan says, this book is a labour of love and “deserves a wide readership and to be in the vanguard of shaping new histories of the Second World War.”

The reviewer is the author of Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English

The Indian Contingent: The Forgotten Muslim Soldiers of Dunkirk
By Ghee Bowman
The History Press, UK
ISBN: 978-0750993791
304pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 20th, 2020