How Nolan forgot the desis at Dunkirk
“There were no Pakis at Dunkirk,” the late Bernard Manning had once remarked on the Mrs Merton Show, a BBC TV show during the 1990s. The British comedian had continued with his verbal assault by claiming that there were “no Pakis” (read Indians) at Anzio, Arnhem or Monte Cassino — all famous World War II battles.
While many Britons wouldn’t subscribe to Manning’s view of the Indian role in WWII, it did reflect a general lack of awareness about their contribution. But that was 20 years ago. Today, a great amount of literature is available on the role of Britain’s colonies in the Allied war effort. Oxford historian Yasmin Khan says succinctly in her book, The Raj At War: “Britain did not fight the Second World War, the British Empire did.”
The British public is more well-informed today about the Indian role in the world wars. The Indians were there at Monte Cassino. They were there at Bir Hachiem, Tobruk, El Alamein, Singapore, Hong Kong. And they were there from where it all began — Dunkirk.
At the start of the war in 1939, the British Army was said to have been the only fully mechanised army in the world (Soviet Union’s Red Army was said to be the most technologically advanced). But when the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) went to France, the need for animal transport was felt.
Unlike the British, the Indian Army was still not mechanised. It had 96 infantry battalions and 18 cavalry regiments with only two being ordered to give up horses for tanks a little before the war. So the pack animals and their handlers had to come from India.
Four Indian Animal Transport companies of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps were sent to aid the BEF from Bombay. This group was designated as Force K-6 and reached France in December 1939. Most of the men were Punjabi Muslims with some Pathans, and primarily came from areas that today form part of Pakistan.
As history tells us, the Germans broke through the Ardennes and sprang a nasty surprise on the Allies. And the BEF had to retreat to Dunkirk from Belgium, with the sea at their back.The retreat was chaotic involving many losses. But amid the chaos, the Indian troops showed grit, determination and order. This is attested by the citation of Indian Distinguished Service Medal awarded to Jemadar Maula Dad Khan, a VCO (Viceroy’s Commissioned Officer).
It read: “On 24 May 1940 when approaching Dunkerque, Jemadar Maula Dad Khan showed magnificent courage, coolness and decision. When his troop was shelled from the ground and bombed from the air by the enemy he promptly reorganised his men and animals, got them off the road and under cover under extremely difficult conditions. It was due to this initiative and the confidence he inspired that it was possible to extricate his troop without loss in men or animals.”
Three companies of Force K-6 were evacuated to safety during Operation Dynamo — the British naval operation to extricate the BEF from Dunkirk — minus their pack animals, but one company was taken captive by the Germans. Most of these men died in German POW camps.
Force K-6 spent time on the British Isles until 1944 when they were sent back to India to join the Burma theatre of the war. By then, the Indian Army that had started the war with a little over 1,94,000 men had expanded to nearly 2.5 million men, becoming the largest volunteer army in history.
Yet this significant contribution is missing from Christopher Nolan‘s recent Hollywood film, Dunkirk. Lt Cdr Manish Tayal of the Royal Navy expressed regret at the “missed opportunity to also tell the story of the lascars”, Indian sailors who operated the merchant ships and other non-military vessels that came to rescue the stranded warriors. Is that comedian Manning’s spirit haunting Nolan’s otherwise brilliant work?