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Loyal to the Flag

Millions of young men from India (and what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh) gave their lives for our freedom in the Second World War. Nick Ryan meets the survivors now living in England.

With each passing year fewer are left to remember. Those that remain clutch service papers and black and white photos that show the brave young men they once were.

Shadows of those heroes they may be now, but they remain fiercely proud of the sacrifices they made more than 60 years ago to help Great Britain stay free of Nazi tyranny.

The voices of Khadim Hussain, 82, and Ali Akbar Khan, 83, are still strong.

The Blackburn men have been in the UK for 40 years or more, demonstrating the loyalty they have shown since the sun was setting on the British empire.

"My father served in Queen Victoria’s Regiment in the First World War," says Hussain. "He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. So it was only natural that when war came again, I volunteered to serve. I was just 16."

Posted to North Africa under General Montgomery and then to the invasion of Italy in 1943, Hussain’s job was to ensure supplies and ammunition from his Royal Indian Army Service Corps (RIASC) reached the front line.

"If they didn’t get the ammunition or the food, they couldn’t fight."

Every night, he and his comrades lived under constant threat of air raids.

"Most nights we spent in the trenches and in the day we’d be working hard, getting food to the front line. It was a terrible time. We didn’t know if we’d live or die. Our lives were in the hand of God."

For Khan, joining the 49 JAT Regiment in British India as war broke out was the most natural thing in the world.

"It was 1940. There was a mass call for volunteers and I joined – straight from school."

Like so many others at the time, he experienced horrors he will never forget.

"After a couple of years, they sent us to Singapore. It was attacked by the Japanese…" he pauses, struggling with the memory, "and within two months we’d surrendered."

Khan watched as his commanding officer, a colonel, was killed right in front of his eyes.

"When they shot my Colonel, I saw where they were hiding at the top of a tree. So I killed seven of them but I was shot in the leg and then we were rounded up."

"For three years we were in prison," he says. "They took us to different islands to build roads. There wasn’t much to eat – bloody hell, it was slave labour. We had to boil leaves from trees to survive. We had no clothes, just a loincloth. People were dying all around me. When I came back I was like a statue. There was no meat on my body."

Hussain interrupts: "Many of my friends and relatives were prisoners, too. They killed many of our people… without reason."

After the war Khan was taken by Red Cross ship to recover in an Indian hospital.

"Sometimes I don’t remember what happened because those days were very, very difficult. But I’m pleased I’m alive and still bubbling!"

Five million people from the Commonwealth fought in the Second World War alongside six million British forces.

They thought of Britain as the Motherland.

African, Indian, Caribbean and other colonial troops and personnel played a crucial role in supporting the Allied cause. Two and a half million soldiers came from the Indian subcontinent alone. A total of 161,000 Indian nationals died fighting in two world wars.

India itself served as an assault and training base, and provided vast quantities of food and other materials for British and Commonwealth forces, and the British at home.

The Fifth Indian Division, for example, fought in Sudan against the Italians and then in Libya against the Germans. From North Africa the Division was moved to Iraq to protect oilfields.

Next, the Division was moved to the Burma front with eight other Indian Divisions and then to occupied Malaya. Then it was on to Java to disarm the Japanese garrison there. The men from this Division won four Victoria Crosses.

"The British were our government," Khadim Hussain reflects. "We joined to fight for them; to save our country. The Germans called us, you know, made many promises, but we didn’t care about them… we remained faithful to the British."

"And we are faithful now. Millions died, many Punjabis, many Muslims. Everyone made sacrifices."

He sets his jaw and looks me straight in the eye.

"People nowadays talk about suicide bombers. I tell you, in every region, every country, you have criminal people. Criminal people have got no faith. They are neither Jew, Muslim nor Christian – because people of religion should live peacefully."

"Tomorrow, we must be side-by-side, English. Because this is all our country."

This article originally appeared in The Mirror © 2007

Image: Khadim Hussain (centre) with Fazal Hussain and Sardar Ali

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