Christopher Nolan’s latest film Dunkirk has been receiving glowing reviews from critics and audiences.
Set during the Second World War, Dunkirk tells the story of one of history’s largest and most consequential escapades. The Allies, fleeing the Germans, were stuck at Dunkirk beach in France, awaiting rescue to the shores of Britain even as the Nazi Army marched closer to Dunkirk.
The movie was lauded for its accuracy, acting, cinematography, acting, soundtrack and direction.
At the same time, the movie has received a lot of flak for ignoring the contribution of Europe’s colonial armies, in particular the Indian Army, during the Dunkirk evacuation.
Mihir Sharma wrote that the film “adds to the falsehood that plucky Britons stood alone against Nazi Germany once France fell, when, in fact, hundreds of millions of imperial subjects stood, perforce, with them.” And The Times of India wrote that India’s “significant contribution” was missing from Nolan’s “otherwise brilliant” work.
Additionally, as Lt Cdr Manish Tayal of the Royal Navy expressed regretfully, Dunkirk “missed opportunity to also tell the story of the lascars”, the Indian sailors who operated merchant ships and other non-military vessels that came to rescue the stranded Allies.
Britain’s colonial empire was central to ensuring Allied victory in the Second World War. India, in particular, was instrumental in the war effort due to its strategic location and massive manpower. At Dunkirk, there were several Indians – most of them Punjabi Muslims – with the British and French Armies. Though not many records exist about this company, we know for sure that four mule companies sailed from India to Europe to aid the Allies and they fought bravely, accumulating several honours in the process.
Background – the significance of the Dunkirk evacuation
In 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, thereby sparking the Second World War. Following this, Britain and France declared war on Germany and imposed an economic blockade. Britain sent the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), which was the British Army in Western Europe, to help France secure its borders.
The Battle of France was a colossal disaster for the Allies; Churchill described it as “a colossal military disaster”. They were forced to flee from the German onslaught even as they lost precious lives, ammunition, tanks, jets etc. The BEF, along with French and Belgian squadrons, fled to Dunkirk, the nearest port, to organise an evacuation across the English Channel to Britain.
350,000 soldiers. In front of them the sea, behind them the swiftly approaching German army, above them German fighter jets of the infamous and deadly Luftwaffe.
The Dunkirk evacuation began at a slow pace. Around 8,000 soldiers left for Britain on Day One, 26 May. But by Day Eight, over 300,000 had left the shores of France on an assembly of over 800 boats. These boats were not only from the British or French Navy: they were a motley of luxury yachts, civilian boats, lifeboats and merchant vessels.
Because of its unexpected and unprecedented success, Dunkirk was a crucial point during the War and an event of great significance in Western history. The “whole root and core and brain of the British Army” was stranded on France in 1940. Had the Dunkirk evacuation failed, the Allies would have lost most of their powers and the War would have basically been handed to the Nazis, enabling Hitler to conquer Britain and then possibly even Russia.
India’s contributions during the Second World War
It must be remembered that the British Empire, not Britain, fought in the Second World War. Forces from around the world, from North America to Australia to South Asia to Africa, aided the Allied war effort. As such, any portrayal of the War as a wholly Western effort would be historically inaccurate.
British India was the crowning conquest of British colonialism. Comprised of modern-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the British Raj was monumental in seeing Britain through the War. In the words of Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck, the British “couldn’t have come through both wars [World War I and II] if they hadn’t had the Indian Army”.
Indians fought with distinction throughout the world, including in the European theatre against Germany, in North Africa against Germany and Italy, in the South Asian region defending India against the Japanese and fighting the Japanese in Burma. Indians also aided in liberating British colonies such as Singapore and Hong Kong after the Japanese surrender in August 1945.
At the height of the conflict, more than 2.5 million India troops were battling Axis forces around the globe. Over 87,000 Indian soldiers died in the Second World War. The financial, industrial and military assistance of India formed a crucial component of the British campaign against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. India’s strategic location at the tip of the Indian Ocean, its large production of armaments and its huge armed forces were driving forces in the Allied war effort.
India’s contribution at Dunkirk
When the Allies fled across Belgium to the northern French port of Dunkirk, they were accompanied by several Indian soldiers. Not many factual sources exist to give a definite number to the number of Indians who fled to Dunkirk in 1940.
What is surely known is that four mule companies of the Indian Army Service Corps were stationed with the BEF. These four companies – 22, 25, 29 and 32 – came from India as part of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps (RIASC). This group, which reached France in December 1939, was designated as Force K-6.
According to one account:
“2700 mules were shipped from Bombay to Marseilles without a single loss and operated successfully in France throughout the severest winter in 125 years, despite the fact that the mules were not properly shod for such conditions and no field forges were provided.
Only a few weeks later, the Indian transport companies, along with the rest of the Allied forces, were ordered towards the coast. Boulogne and Calais, despite heroic resistance, were captured by German forces. The only way to save the BEF and their support, including the Mule Companies, was to evacuate them from Dunkirk.
The men could not take their animals on the retreat and were very distressed at having to leave them behind, since they were much attached to them. They gave the mules away to local people in northern France.
Many men of the 22nd Mule Company were captured just short of Dunkirk and became prisoners of war. Some of them died in captivity.”
K-6’s contributions are exemplified by the three military awards given to the soldiers for their grit, determination and courage. One of these was the Indian Distinguished Service Medal, which was the third-highest medal awarded to Indian forces after the Victoria Cross and the Indian Order of Merit. It was awarded to junior officer Jemadar Maula Dad Khan, a VCO (Viceroy’s Commissioned Officer). The citation on this honour 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.”
After members of K-6 were evacuated from Dunkirk with the rest of the BEF, they were stationed in Cornwall before being moved on to various places in Wales. A number of the men died in flu epidemics and are buried in Brecon Cemetery. The men of K-6 were stationed in Britain till 1942, after which they were deployed to various theatres of the Second World War.
World War Two was a world war, not merely a European war
Many of the soldiers of K-6 would never see home again. Many of their names have already been forgotten, adding to the mountainous pile of men and women who have died fighting other people’s battles. However, while they fought, they fought with strength and tenacity, never wavering and always moving forward.
Should Dunkirk have depicted soldiers from the rest of the British Empire as well? What is the relevance of ethnic detail in a survival tale?
It would certainly have contributed to the authenticity of the war epic. The Second World War was not a Western European War; it involved numerous front across the world. Western awareness about the – for lack of a better word – multicultural nature of the War has increased in recent years. There is a multitude of films that ignore the colonies’ contributions to the war effort. This is well-documented. At the same time, in a welcome move, this is a dying trend as more filmmakers are becoming conscious of the importance of inclusivity and adapting the same in their works, to great praise from audiences the world over.
The lack of depiction of Indian soldiers in Dunkirk, while not unusual, is still a disappointment.