The evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk in World War Two has captured the imagination of generations of Brits. It is a source of national pride that repeatedly plays itself in popular culture. The depictions are, however, often mono-racial where the presence of non-white soldiers is ignored.

Speaking on ITV television in the 1990s, comedian Bernard Manning once said, “There’s no Pakis at Dunkirk right up.” For the racist Manning, it was only “our troops” who died at prominent World War Two theatres of war such as Dunkirk, Anzio, Arnhem and Monte Cassino.

Did Manning not know that soldiers from the Commonwealth, specifically from the Indo-Pak Subcontinent, played a significant role in both world wars or did he simply choose to ignore this? 

A total of 338,000 troops were evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940. While the majority were white, 300 of the evacuees were different – dressed in khaki kurtas, some with pugris (or turbans), all of them were Muslims (or Pakis as Manning preferred) except for four. They were all from the side of Punjab in what is present day Pakistan and had arrived in Europe some six months earlier. 

They were men of Force K6, also known as the Indian contingent, and had come to man mules to carry supplies to the frontline. The vast majority had never seen the sea let alone travel to Europe. As they trudged along the beach, they carried their imam who was disabled. For some, it was their second time in Europe, having fought in the trenches of World War One.

Men from the Subcontinent – Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs from present day Pakistan, India and Bangladesh – fought, died and were captured in a war that essentially was not theirs. Often described as the largest volunteer army in history, 2.6 million Indians took part in the war. It is the story of some of these men, Force K6, that Ghee Bowman tells in this wonderful book, The Indian Contingent – The Forgotten Muslim Soldiers of Dunkirk. 

This book is a labour of love and the outcome of several years of painstaking research. Bowman has travelled continents, gathering information and putting names to Force K6 soldiers who were not just at Dunkirk, but also in other parts of Europe and Britain during the war. These were not just soldiers, but actual people. It is their stories, their human encounters and the friendships that they forged with British people that Bowman does well in telling.

While in France, before Dunkirk, the troops gathered hundreds of people who would come to see their weekly gymkhanas, tricks on mules and bhangra dances. Once in Britain, they became celebrities, attending some 62 parades where their uniforms, moustaches and pugris wrapped around kullahs (pointed hats) caught the attention of locals. (Like Sikhs, Indian Muslim soldiers also wore turbans but wrapped them around pointed hats.) 

“Wherever they went … they were usually the first Indians that the villagers had seen, and thus acted in a small way as pioneers or ambassadors for post-war migration,” writes Bowman. I would go one step further by saying they played a role in establishing Islam in the UK. They prayed, observed Ramadan and fasted. There is also evidence of at least one of them being a hafiz of the Quran who led the tarawih prayers at Woking Mosque during the Ramadan of 1942.

When King George VI visited Force K6 in 1940, the soldiers presented him with two chapattis, one for the then Princess Elizabeth and another for Princess Margaret. And as the King and Queen went on their way, the sepoys waved them on with shouts of Allahu Akbar. As strict Muslims, halal food was provided. The troops would also slaughter animals themselves, cook curries and bake rotis. At one point, Heinz canned 37.5 tonnes of halal mutton for them. Eat your hearts out at that, Tommy Robinson and Katie Hopkins.

Bowman also sheds light on the experience of Indian POWs, how the Germans tried to seduce them on to their side, and how they observed Ramadan and ate halal even in captivity – a massive contrast to the 1963 movie, The Great Epic, a mono-racial film full of idle Allied POWs trying to evade dim German guards. Interestingly, Bowman mentions the stories of a few Indian POWs who escaped captivity, including two who were coincidentally both named Buland Khan – while reading this my mind immediately went to the Urdu idiom buland hausla (high-spirited and courageous).

The Indian Contingent is an intriguing and moving account of a part of our shared history that really turns on its head the notion that “there were no Pakis at Dunkirk.” This is an important piece of history that should be recognised “lest we forget.”
Book details
The Indian Contingent - The Forgotten Muslim Soldiers of Dunkirk
Author: Ghee Bowman
Publisher: The History Press

For details click here