SITE DEDICATED TO THE TEENAGE SOLDIERS WHO FOUGHT
MAJOR CAMPAIGNS OF THE BRITISH INDIAN ARMY
North Africa – (opposition is Italian and German)
Italy – (opposition is German)
Burma – (opposition is Japanese Army)
65% of all regiments serving in North Africa, Italy and Burma were Muslim.
(Ian Sumner, Indian Army 1914 - 1947. Osprey Publishing 2001)
Second World War begins
On 1 September 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, two days later Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany. The Second World War had begun.
At the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe, Lord Linlithgow, the Viceroy of India addressed the people of Hindustan,‘…we find ourselves at war with Germany today’. His unilateral decision raised a storm of protest, particularly from members of the Indian Congress party.
The Indian political response was as follows:
The Hindu leader of the Indian National Congress Party (India’s largest political organisation), expressed his sympathies, but was unimpressed by Britain's request for military support especially as India was still under colonial rule. It is also worth noting he
was a pacifist. Irrespective of Gandhi’s stance, approx 900,000 Hindus volunteered for military service.
Sir Sikander Hayat Khan (The family of Hayat Khan originated from Attock, Pakistan)
The Muslim Chief Minister of the Punjab Unionist Party was unanimous in his support for Britain. On 25 August 1939, Sikander announced, ‘The manpower and resources of the Punjab will be unhesitatingly placed at the disposal of Great Britain and her allies for the sacred cause of justice and freedom.’ Sikander is described as a moderate politician with ultra British tendencies, many of his contemporaries viewed him as a British subordinate.
The founder of Pakistan and leader of the Muslim League was not convinced by Gandhi’s acts of civil disobedience and believed that the only way to secure an independent state for India’s Muslim minority was to support Britain.
In a letter addressed to US President Franklin Roosevelt, dated 4 March 1942, Winston Churchill wrote, ‘We must not on any account break with the Moslems, who represent a hundred million people, and the main army elements on which we must rely for the immediate fighting’.
Over a period of 5 years the British Indian Army expanded its intake from 189,000 to 2,500,000. By the end of hostilities it was the largest volunteer army ever recorded.
Approximate numbers by ethnicity, 1939 – 1945
Major Muslim recruitment areas in descending order:
Rawalpindi, Pakistan – largest British garrison in British India
Main Muslim martial traditions
Awans – Native to Punjab and Frontier Province (Pakistan)
Jats – Native to Punjab and Kashmir (India and Pakistan)
Rajputs – Native to Punjab (Pakistani)
Pashtuns – Native to Frontier Province (Pakistan)
The Battle for France
Four mule companies (approx 1400 men) from the Royal Indian Army Service Corps, known as Force K6, joined the British Expeditionary Force in France in December 1939. These men played a commendable role in the battle around Dunkirk, one Indian company was captured while the other three were evacuated back to Britain when the Germans unleashed a ferocious offensive in May 1940. The majority of the men serving in mule companies were of Muslim orientation and natives of north-west Punjab, Pakistan.
One British officer states:
‘... during the chaos...’ they ‘.... maintained the discipline, turn-out and self respect which many around them lost, greatly enhancing the reputation of the Indian Army.’
The North & East African Campaign 1940 - 1943
In Aug 1939, a month before the outbreak of war, the 5th and 11th Indian brigades were dispatched to Egypt to safeguard the strategically important Suez Canal from an Italian attack. The 7th Indian infantry brigade arrived in 1940. The three brigades would form the nucleus of the 4th Indian Division. On 8 June Mussolini declared war on Britain and the Italians advanced cautiously on British and Indian positions in Egypt. Between Aug 1939 and May 1943, five Indian divisions (approx 100,000 men) were involved in the fighting. The Italians sustained heavy casualties and Hitler, mindful of the rich oilfields, sent an expeditionary force to aid the beleaguered Italians. This force would be eventually known as the Afrika Korps, its astute commander Erwin Rommel alias the ‘Desert Fox’.
Essentially the North African Campaign was a series of see saw battles which dragged both armies back and forth across an inhospitable terrain covering hundreds of miles of barren desert. There was a special code of behaviour in place between both sides, strangely it is a war without hate. An Indian Officer exclaims, “there is time to be helpful to those who share your adventure”. The initiative passes from one side to the other, then back again. Reinforcements, ammunition, fuel, food and, water, determine the outcome of the war; the Allies control both land and air supply lines.
Accounts of Muslim heroism
‘Hardly had the first wave of panzers gone when another and much heavier attack was launched by over two hundred German and Italian tanks. They came rumbling up towards the south face of the position, held by the Royal Lancers. They were greeted by a hail of fire from all remaining
anti-tank guns and the forward guns of the second field regiment. The first to meet the enemy was an anti-tank gun manned by the 2nd Lancers. One by one the men became casualties under the hell of shells and bullets, until only Lance Daffadar Ali Mehboob Khan remained. He continued to fire the gun alone. How well he fought was proved by his success. Around his battered and broken gun a week later was found the wreckage of 6 heavy tanks, so damaged that the Germans had not considered them worth salving.’
‘In the meantime the 16th Punjab regiment had waited impatiently in the valley below the main ridges. This great battalion thought little of a plan of battle which left them in reserve. When fighting broke out after midnight, Lieutenant-Colonel H.A. Hughes dispatched one company..., to seize low ridges on the left of the main battle position. As these companies moved off, a heavy shoot came down on the crests ahead of them. Then through the night burst the yell that has rung over so many hills. The Punjabi Muslims were charging with their age-old war cry of ‘Allah Ho Akbar’. They swept over the ridges and cut down or captured every defender.’
Final Battle for North Africa
The final battle for North Africa, culminates on 11 May 1943 in Tunisia, 275,000 Italian and German soldiers surrender to the Allies. Montgomery, the British commander declares that the 4th Indian is Britain’s ‘best’ infantry division in North Africa.
In a letter to Churchill, General Alexander writes; ‘Sir, It is my duty to report that the Tunisian Campaign is over. All enemy resistance has ceased. We are masters of the North African shores’.
The Italian Campaign 1943 – 1945
The Allies are ready to assault mainland Europe through the toe of Italy. Thousands of battle hardened Germans pour into the Italian peninsula, among them, the legendary Fallschirmjaegers and paratroopers. On 3 Sept, the Italians surrender, and the Germans are forced to fight alone. Italy’s mountainous terrain, fortified villages and numerous rivers are perfect for military defence. The Italian topography, combined with the skill of elite German units, makes the conquest of Italy an arduous and bloody affair. The Allies will be forced to fight for Italy metre by metre.
Among the first to arrive on the Italian mainland are the 8th Indian Division who sailed into Taranto harbour on 19 September 1943. The 4th Indian Division follow on 8 December 1943. The last Indian Infantry Division to arrive on mainland Italy are the 10th in March 1944.
Muslim Award winners
Ali Haidar of the Frontier Force Rifles, on the Senio River in Apr 1945, attempted the hazardous river crossing. Single-handedly he charged and destroyed a German machine gun post, taking four prisoners. Though wounded, he illustrated a complete disregard for his own life and charged a second, once again hit, he crawled forward and forced the occupants to surrender. His selfless action enabled his company to establish a bridgehead. Haidar was awarded the coveted Victoria Cross – Britain’s most prestigious military decoration for valour in the face of the enemy. It was presented to him by King George VI in Buckingham Palace in Oct 1945.
Jemadar Abdul Hamid, a Punjabi Muslim, was recommended an award for his daring actions near the Sant Angelo area. Though his platoon had been reduced to thirteen men he pushed forth, in a subsequent skirmish he killed two and captured twelve Germans in the first positions and captured thirteen in the second.
Overall, the Italian campaign came with a dreadful cost to the Indians, in total they had approximately 60,000 men on the ground. Over a period of 22 months, there were more than 15,000 injured and 7,000 dead. The heaviest Indian losses, 4,000 casualties, were sustained in the battles for the strategically important Monte Cassino. It was one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War.
Unbeknown to many, Italy is home to the graves of some 122 Indian soldiers aged between 15 and 17. Ninety out of the 122 are Muslim and 89 of them belong to areas within pre-partition Pakistan. Because of the dip in Hindu and Sikh enlistment between 1940 – 1942, Britain came to rely heavily upon the Muslim population. Since the majority of the Muslim martial traditions resided in north-west Pakistan this is where Britain filled its ranks from. Most of the adult population were already fighting in Britain's wars which meant that an increasing number of teenagers were accepted into the military.