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Britain’s Pakistani communities and their contribution to

the Italian Campaign during World War II1

Britain ‘couldn’t have come through both wars if it hadn’t the Indian army’2

Jahan Mahmood, Visiting Lecturer,


University of Birmingham

Paper given at All Souls College, University of Oxford, 3 April 2009


(re-edited 30th April 2009)

This paper explains the historical and political reasons behind Muslim recruitment
during the Second World War. It provides a breakdown of Muslim casualties in the
Italian Campaign according to recruitment areas within British India and it highlights
the contributions made by communities from these regions. Most significantly,
because of the pressing need to restore a sense of identity and self-esteem for young
British Muslims today, an attempt is made to establish a link between contemporary
British Pakistani communities and these very same regions of recruitment.

The statistics presented here are based on the casualty records of more than 5,000
soldiers who fell liberating Italy. These records were provided by the Commonwealth
War Graves Commission (CWGC).3 Unfortunately, so far, it has not been possible to
locate the files of British Indian servicemen serving in Europe. However, it is hoped
that this work will allow British Muslims and other British communities to celebrate a
shared past, which would increase mutual understanding and provide a platform for
dialogue and the development of a post-colonial British Muslim identity. Therefore
this work is part of the story of the sacrifices of Muslim soldiers from territories that
are now part of modern-day Pakistan.

In September 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe, Lord
Linlithgow, the Viceroy of India, declared that India would join the war effort
alongside Britain. Mahatma Gandhi opposed any military support from Indians by

1
This paper would not have been possible without the advice and support of Dr Malcolm Dick, Acting
Director, Centre for Birmingham and Midlands History, University of Birmingham. The author would
also like to thank the following for their help in preparing this paper: Dr Tahir Abbas, Director, Centre
for Ethnicity and Culture, University of Birmingham; Major John Cotterill, Mercian Regiment,
Birmingham; Birmingham; Dr Ashley Jackson, Senior Lecturer in War Studies, Kings College, London;
Dr Laura Zahra Mcdonald, research fellow, University of Birmingham; Dr Steffen Prauser, Director,
Centre for Second World War Studies, University of Birmingham; Patrick Wing, Neighbourhood
Manager, Balsall Heath Forum, Birmingham; Waleed Bagadi, Tim Hicks, Zubeda Limbada, Parminder
Jutla, Mike Taylor,
2
Field Marshall Sir Claude Auchinleck quoted in R.Visram, Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History
(London: Pluto Press, 2002), p. 345.
3
I am grateful to the CWGC for providing this information to the author on CD.

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advocating a non-violent approach to Hitler’s aggressive expansion. Mohammed Ali
Jinnah4, on the other hand, supported involvement. He was fully aware that Britain’s
defeat could threaten the position of the minority Muslims by removing the constraint
of British rule in a society where the majority voice was Hindu. Britain’s position was
further strengthened with the addition of another Muslim politician, Sikander Hayat
Khan, head of the Punjab Unionist Party.5 The Muslim community in South Asia was
important to Britain not just because of their political backing, since they also
provided the bulk of the manpower for the Indian Army. In short, Britain could not
afford to lose the support of the Muslim population.

During the Second World War the Indian Army expanded from a force of 200,000 in
1939 to 2,500,000 in 1945. The army was an entirely volunteer force and
conscription was never imposed.6 According to Marston, the Indian Army ‘ended the
war as the largest all-volunteer force the world had ever seen….’.7 Over a period of
five years, 617,353 Muslims volunteered. 8 The vast majority were recruited from
modern day Pakistan, particularly the Punjab and the North West Frontier, home to
some of the world’s most formidable martial traditions: the Pashtun, Rajput, Awan
and Jat.9 Ian Sumner suggests that ‘Muslim regiments provided 65 per cent of Indian
troops fighting in North Africa, Italy and Burma’. 10 Although it has been fashionable
for some scholars to dismiss the idea of martial races, the key point here is that, for
peoples of the sub-continent, these military values were not only real but deeply held.
Indeed they went to the very heart of certain communities; for Pashtuns and Rajputs
in particular, the martial tradition has been an intrinsic aspect of their life and sense of
identity.

After the great successes of British Indian units in North Africa in 1940-42, three
battle hardened Indian divisions were deployed to Italy where they fought some of the
most determined and experienced German troops. Paratroopers and Panzer Grenadiers,
themselves bloodied by campaigns in the Mediterranean and northwest Europe, were
just some of the specialist formations the Indians had to encounter. 11 The first Indian
units arrived in Italy in the summer of 1943, but it was clear from the outset that this
campaign would be the scene of some of the most intense fighting of World War II.
Casualties were high and the terrain provided almost as great an obstacle to the allies
as the Germans. High peaks, hill-top positions and river crossings were fraught with
danger; waters rose in a matter of minutes, soldiers drowned and others became sitting
ducks for incessant spandau machine gun fire. During the Italian campaign, the
4
Jinnah was the leader of the Muslim League, India’s largest Muslim political organisation.
5
This party was a multi-ethnic political organisation in one of India’s largest and richest provinces.
6
Daniel P. Marston, ‘A Force Transformed: The Indian Army and the Second World War’ in Marston
and Chandar S. Sundaram (eds.), A Military History of India and South Asia: From the East India
Company to the Nuclear Era (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Security International, 2007), p. 102, 120.
7
Ibid., p. 120.
8
Figures are calculated by the author from Bisheshwar Prasad (ed.), Official History of the Indian
Armed Forces and Defence Organisations 1939-45: Expansion of the Armed Forces and Defence
Organisation (Combined Inter-Services Historical Section India & Pakistan, 1956), Appendix 13, p.
460.
9
Brigadier Noor Husain, ‘The Role of Muslims Martial Races of Today’s Pakistan in British-Indian
Army in World War II’, on http://www.defencejournal.com/sept99/martial-races.htm (accessed on 4th
April 2009).
10
Ian Sumner, The Indian Army 1914-1947 (Botley, Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2001), p. 25.
11
Inter-Services Public Relations Directorate, G.H.Q., The Tiger Triumphs: The Story of Three Great
Divisions in Italy (His Majesty’s Stationery Office for the Government of India, 1946), p. 4.

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Eighth Indian division, confronted by the toughest conditions, became legendary as
‘the river crossing division’. On 9 April 1945, a Pashtun soldier by the name of Ali
Haidar, alongside his battalion, the 6/13 Frontier Force Rifles, attempted to cross the
Senio River.

On their left 6/13 Frontier Force Rifles likewise carried the near slope in the
first surge. But as they topped the bank, the trough of the river was lashed by a
score of machine-guns, firing from portholes in both inner banks, and from
enfilade positions on the left. The Frontiersmen dashed into the stream, where
many fell dead and wounded...Sepoy Ali Haidar and two others were all of
one platoon to reach the far bank. From thirty yards away a machine-gun nest
spat death. Bidding his comrades give him covering fire, Ali Haidar lopped a
grenade and followed in under it. Although wounded by a stick bomb he
closed and destroyed the post. Without pause he charged the next weapon pit,
from whence four machine-guns played on his comrades. He was struck twice
and fell, but he crawled forward, pulled the pin of a Mills' bomb with his teeth,
and hurled it into the spandau nest. Weak with loss of blood he pulled himself
to his feet, staggered forward and threw himself upon the gunners. The two
surviving Germans surrendered. 12

After recovering from his wounds, Ali Haidar was awarded the highest military
honour; the Victoria Cross.

There were three ‘great’ Indian divisions in Italy; the Fourth, Eighth and Tenth, all of
which were able to refer proudly to similar acts of courage. However, these battles
came with a dreadful cost. In total there were approximately 60,000 Indians present in
Italy. Over a period of 22 months, there were more than 15,000 injured and 7,000
died. The CWGC holds the details of 5,500 personnel, but curiously some 1,500
remain unaccounted for. 13 What follows is a systematic attempt to analyse the
statistics on the ethnic and regional composition of British Indian casualties in Italy.
This is followed by a breakdown of the Muslim youth contribution.

Table 1 shows the ethnic composition of the 5,500 Indian casualties provided by the
CWGC.

Table 1 Indian casualties from 1943 to 1945

Ethnicity Casualties
British – Eng, Scots, Irish, Welsh 100
Hindus other Indian religions14 1650
Muslims 1413
Nepalese 1500
Sikh15 850

12
The Tiger Triumphs…, op. cit. p 188
13
Based on information supplied by CWGC and as a result of conversations with staff at the CWGC.
The author has attempted to make sure the information presented is accurate, but it should be noted that
the raw data are dependent on the accuracy of those responsible for recording details of the soldiers
when they first signed up.
14
Since it is difficult to differentiate between names of Hindus, Jains and some other Indian religions.
Christian and Parsi names are also categorised under ‘Hindu and other religions’

3
Muslims recruited from what was to become Pakistan territory (namely Punjab,
Azad Kashmir, North West Province, Baluchistan): 1187; Muslims recruited
from what became India 192; Muslims belonging to modern day regions of
Bangladesh: 5; Muslims belonging to unknown territories: 29.

The ratio of recruitment from India compared to those drawn from what was to
become Pakistan is approximately 1: 6. This indicates that Britain relied on the
Muslim population from a particular region even though a larger number of Muslims
resided within the boundaries of modern day India.
Table 2 shows top six Pakistani territories responsible for the largest number of
Muslim casualties.

Table 2 Muslim causalities from the Punjab and the N.W.F.P

Regions Casualties
Attock (Punjab) 155
Hazara (NWFP) 98
Jhelum (Punjab) 153
Kohat (NWFP) 145
Peshawar (NWFP) 46
Rawalpindi (Punjab) 200

The cities of Attock, Hazara, Jhelum, Kohat, Peshawar and Rawalpindi16 provided the
bulk of volunteers. These cities are located at strategic crossroads, constantly pressured
by invasions these communities were forced to develop a martial culture. Attock, Kohat,
Peshawar and Hazara are locations in north Pakistan with a large population of tribal
and non-tribal Pashtuns. Jhelum and Rawalpindi17 on the other hand was an ideal region
to recruit ‘Punjabi Mussalmans’; mainly Rajputs and Jats.

Table 3 shows the ethnicity/religion of the youngest casualties of the Italian campaign

Table 3 Ethnicity/religion of casualties under the age of 18

Ethnicity 15yr olds 16yr olds 17yr old Total


Indian (religion unsure) 1 3 4 7
Muslims 3 9 78 90
Nepalese 3 16 19
Sikhs 1 4 5
Total 4 16 102 122

15
The Sikh population was smaller than the Hindus, Muslims and Nepalese; yet they were
proportionally the largest contributors to the British Indian Army.
16
Rawalpindi housed the largest garrison in British India.
17
In the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny British recruitment shifted to the Punjab region especially
Rawalpindi and Jhelum

4
NB. Ninety out of 122 youth casualties were of Muslim origin. All of these
with the exception of one (unrecorded) were from the territories of modern
day Pakistan; Punjab, Kashmir and the North West Frontier Province.

Table 4, shows the exact regions of recruitment for these ninety young
volunteers

Table 4. Youth casualties from cities (province) situated in modern day Pakistan

Regions 15 year olds 16 year olds 17 year olds Total


Attock (Punjab) 1 1 13 15
Gujrat (Punjab) 2 2
Hazara (NWFP) 1 1
Jhelum (Punjab) 2 5 7
Kohat (NWFP) 1 1 19 21
Khurram Agency 1 1
Llyalpur (Punjab) 1 1
Mianwali (Punjab) 6 6
Mardan (NWFP) 1 1
Mirpur (Kashmir)18 1 1 2
Peshawar (NWFP) 2 2
Poonch (Kashmir) 1 1
Rawalpindi (Punjab) 1 4 18 23
Sargodha (Punjab) 2 2
Shahpur (Punjab) 2 2
Sheikhupura (Punjab) 1 1
Sialkot (Punjab) 1 1
Unknown 1 1
Total 3 9 78 90

The proportion of youth casualties compared to the general population of Kohat and
Attock are singularly greater than Rawalpindi; both are Pashtun regions of Pakistan.
One explanation would be the martial traditions of the Pashtun. More, than the other
Muslim Martial cultures, Pashtuns have a very strong sense of identity, this is partly
due to many years of internecine conflict amongst tribes or neighbouring tribes which
has only served to create a stronger sense of ‘us and them’. This sense of identity and
the codes of Pashtunwali19 are strongly ingrained in the Pashtun psyche from a very
young age.

18
Pre-1947 Mirpur included the regions of Bhimber and Kotli which have more recently become
independent districts.
19
Pashtunwali translates to ‘way of the Pashtun’, it plays a dominant role in the lives of most tribal
Pashtuns and stresses three major themes: revenge, honour, hospitality.

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In addition to the Italian campaign, Muslim soldiers played a role in France and
Greece. Four mule companies 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 worthy role in the battle around Dunkirk, one Indian company
was captured but the other three were evacuated back to Britain when the Germans
unleashed a ferocious offensive in May 1940. 20 The majority of the men serving in
mule companies buried in Britain and France are Muslim. A small community
claiming to be the descendents of Muslim servicemen belonging to these mule
companies can also be found in Inverness, Scotland. 21 Besides serving in France,
Muslim soldiers belonging to the Fourth Indian division were engaged in Greece. In
the aftermath of the German withdrawal, Greece descended into anarchy and the
Fourth Indian were despatched from Italy to deal with the civil crisis. The Indians
suffered almost two hundred fatalities during peace-keeping duties in Greece22.

Although this paper is based upon records of Muslim casualties rather than soldier’s
service records and thus appears to some extent anecdotal, the thesis is supported by
other historical research. As Brigadier Noor Husain states:

Almost 70 per cent of the wartime recruitment was from what became
Pakistan had been from the undivided Punjab23, 19.5 per cent from NWFP, 2.2
per cent from Sindh, and 0.06 per cent from Baluchistan. The three semi-arid
districts of Punjab-Rawalpindi, Jhelum, Attock (Campbellpur) and two
districts of NWFP-Kohat and Mardan pre-dominated in supplying recruit
volunteers in World War II.24

It is therefore reasonable to conclude that Rawalpindi, Jhelum, Attock and Kohat


provided the bulk of Muslim recruitment. The only point of contention would be the
Brigadier’s choice of Mardan over the author’s Peshawar; however both are located in
the NWFP.

Today, Britain contains large communities from Kohat, Attock, Peshawar, Jhelum and
Rawalpindi. Large proportions of these communities are located in larger towns and
cities across England. Migrant communities from Attock are resident in Birmingham,
Bradford and Cardiff; Kohat and Peshawar in Birmingham, London, Manchester and
Reading and those from Jhelum and Rawalpindi live in Birmingham, London,
Manchester and other Lancashire towns. 25 In comparison to large migrant
communities from the Punjab and Frontier there is only a small presence of people

20
Visram, op. cit., p. 343.
21
Author’s visit to Inverness. The graves of nine Muslim soldiers who died in 1942 and 1943 are
located in Kingussie Cemetery, Inverness-shire. Information supplied by CWGC.
22
Information provided by CWGC.
23
Volunteers from Kashmir are categorised under Punjab
24
Brigadier Noor Husain, ‘The Role of Muslims Martial Races of Today’s Pakistan in British-Indian
Army in World War II’, on http://www.defencejournal.com/sept99/martial-races.htm (accessed on 4th
April 2009).
25
Information based on the personal research by the author.

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from Sindh26 and Baluchistan27. This research suggests that, besides a call for post-
war economic labour, there could be another explanation behind the migration of
some of the Pakistani communities in Britain. If the links between Pakistanis from
certain regions and their migration to Britain can be established, it will throw
considerable light on the development of the Pakistani communities in the UK after
World War II.

With the surrender of Nazi Germany in the spring of 1945, the war came to an end
and Indian soldiers were shipped back to British India. There was little mention of
these distant heroes after their departure from Europe. Many were shunned in India
for serving the colonial power and many others were refused pensions by the
Pakistani and Indian governments. Some died due to their injuries and some
continued to proceed through life never forgetting the traumatic events they had
witnessed in the battles for North Africa and Europe. 28 The Indian Army Muslims
had contributed to the Allied war effort and suffered heavy casualties just like soldiers
from the UK and USA, but they have been largely neglected in Britain’s popular
Second World War narrative. Almost sixty years ago Muslims had stood shoulder to
shoulder with UK and US troops. From the Far East to Europe they were part of a
huge British effort to rid the world of the Axis power. Today the same regions of
Pakistan are on the edge of civil war, pushed on by US foreign policy and radical
voices.

The great tragedy is that the history of the shared hardships and achievements of
British and Muslim soldiers in the Second World War, and the many other conflicts
before 1939 has been overlooked, paradoxically by young British Muslims as well as
the majority of the population. Perhaps, if more was known about the contribution of
so many Muslim soldiers of the British Indian Army, it would help to restore a sense
of pride, cement the social bonds of different communities in British society, and turn
the idea of a shared heritage into a meaningful weapon against prejudice.

The appendix below gives the details of three fifteen year old boys. They fought for
Britain, thousands of miles away from their native home, never to return to their
families. Amir, Mian and Gulab gave up their lives at an age when life begins to take
shape. They made the ultimate sacrifice so that future generations in Britain, Europe
and elsewhere could live in peace and security. Their story can now be told but there
will be no way of ever knowing how many other young boys and men could have
perished from among those who remain unaccounted for, so many decades ago.
Clearly the action of men from the Punjab and North West Frontier Province of
Pakistan illustrates the shared histories and sacrifices of all those forgotten heroes
who fought to demolish fascism!

26
Migrant communities from Sindh can be found in London, few scattered in Manchester and
Birmingham but on the whole they are much smaller in number than those from Kashmir, Punjab and
the Frontier region.
27
The province of Baluchistan provided the least number of volunteers during WWII.
28
Author’s initial conversations with ex-servicemen in Pakistan.

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Appendix: Three young casualties of the Italian Campaign29

AMIR KHAN, Naik (Corporal), 13289, 4th Bn., 13th Frontier Force Rifles. 14
October 1944. Age 15. Son of Sher Khan and Unisa, of Manja Ghundi, Injra, Attock,
Pakistan; husband of Nur Bibi, of Manja Ghundi. Grave Ref. XV. C. 10.

GULAB KHAN, Naik (Corporal), 11087, 6th Royal Bn., 13th Frontier Force Rifles.
17 December 1943. Age 15. Son of Piari, of Lohsar, Saghri, Rawalpindi, Pakistan.
Grave Ref. XVIII. B. 13.

MIAN KHAN, Sepoy, 16388, 1st Bn., 12th Frontier Force Regiment. 10 December
1943. Age 15. Son of Amin Khan and Gulzira, of Warasta, Hangu, Kohat, Pakistan.
Grave Ref. XVIII. C. 7.

29
Based on information supplied by the CWGC.

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Bibliography

Anonymous: The Tiger Triumphs: The Story of Three Great Divisions in Italy, His
Majesty’s Stationery Office for the Government of India, 1946.
Cole, Lt. Col. Howard N. Formation Badges of World War 2: Britain, Commonwealth
and Empire”, , TD, FRHistS, London :Arms & Armour Press, 1973
Marston, D. P.: ‘A Force Transformed: The Indian Army and the Second World War’
in Marston and Chandar S. Sundaram (eds.): A Military History of India and South
Asia: From the East India Company to the Nuclear Era, Westport, Connecticut:
Praeger Security International, 2007.
Prasad, B. (ed.): Official History of the Indian Armed Forces and Defence
Organisations 1939-45: Expansion of the Armed Forces and Defence Organisation,
Combined Inter-Services Historical Section India & Pakistan, 1956.
Sumner, I: The Indian Army 1914-1947, Botley, Oxford: Osprey, 2001.
Visram, R.: Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History, London: Pluto Press, 2002.
Yeats Brown, F.: Martial India, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1945

Website:

Brigadier Noor Husain, ‘The Role of Muslims Martial Races of Today’s Pakistan in
British-Indian Army in World War II’, on
http://www.defencejournal.com/sept99/martial-races.htm (accessed on 4th April
2009).

Adnkronos, Italy: Homage to Indian Soldiers killed in WWII


http://www.punjabheritage.org/content/view/756/28/ (accessed on 6th April 2009).

'Copyright © Jahan Mahmood. All rights reserved'