Remembering Britain’s other war veterans

Millions of Poles, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and others fought against fascism in British army uniforms.

305 Squadron RAF
Polish airmen of the RAF's 305 squadron [Courtesy: Adam Bienkov]

Jan Bienkov’s journey to becoming a navigator in the British Royal Air Force’s 305 Squadron during World War II reads like a Hollywood screenplay.

The young Pole began the war fleeing one of Stalin’s gulags in Siberia and then trekking thousands of miles to an Indian Ocean port, surviving wolves, robbers, and sub-zero temperatures.

Bienkov later took a boat halfway around the world and ended up in Britain where he signed up for the air force, taking part in bombing raids on Nazi-occupied Europe.

But when his grandson, British journalist Adam Bienkov, tweeted his grandfather’s war photos last month , it wasn’t just as a proud descendant of a war hero.

It came during a climate of increasing xenophobic hatred and violence against Poles and other foreigners in the UK after the country voted to leave the EU.

During the period, Poles and other recent immigrants have been physically attacked on public transport, verbally abused and even killed .

Brexit: The view from England’s ‘Little Poland’

The younger Bienkov’s tweet was a reminder of how great a contribution those considered foreign had made to Britain’s war effort.

“It’s quite shocking,” Bienkov told Al Jazeera.

“There’s always been a sense of gratitude among the British people towards the Poles for their involvement in the war … What’s happened since the referendum is a turnaround in that we’re seeing attacks against Poles in the UK,” he added.

“Those historical ties between Poles and the UK have been forgotten.”

Jan Bienkov escaped a Soviet gulag before joining the British RAF [Courtesy: Adam Bienkov]
Jan Bienkov escaped a Soviet gulag before joining the British RAF [Courtesy: Adam Bienkov]

More than half-a-million Poles served in the British armed forces. The vast majority were men who had fled Poland after it fell to Nazi and Soviet forces in the initial stages of the second world war.

Polish fighter pilots served with distinction during the Battle of Britain and played a pivotal role in the allied victory at Monte Cassino in Italy, among other battles.

Indian contribution

However, the Polish contribution to the British armed forces during the second world war represents just one segment of an effort as diverse as the UK is today.

In both the first and second world wars, Britain found itself fighting on a number of geographically separated fronts. Help came in the way of its colonies, chief among which was India.

Around 1.75 million soldiers from the subcontinent fought for the British during the first world war and 2.5 million during the second, forming the largest volunteer army in history.

Of those who signed up, 74,000 died in the first conflict and almost 90,000 in the latter.

The units that fought were religiously mixed and included Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus, reflecting India’s ethnic milieu at the time.

Notable individual contributions included that of Noor Inayat Khan , the Muslim daughter of an Indian nobleman, who served deep in German-occupied France as a radio operator for the French resistance.

After betrayal to the Gestapo by a French woman, Khan was imprisoned, tortured, sent to the Dachau concentration camp, and later shot dead, refusing to provide the Nazis with information throughout the ordeal.

Noor Inayat Khan, Muslim daughter of an Indian nobleman, refused to give information to the Nazis. She was tortured and eventually killed [Public domain]
Noor Inayat Khan, Muslim daughter of an Indian nobleman, refused to give information to the Nazis. She was tortured and eventually killed [Public domain]

Other contributions included that of the Sikh soldier Naik Gian Singh , who single-handedly neutralised a Japanese anti-tank emplacement in Myanmar, earning a Victoria Cross for his efforts.

Like their Polish comrades, the efforts of Indian soldiers proved crucial in several campaigns, according to Oxford University’s Yasmin Khan.

“There are [Indian] war graves from both wars in 50 countries,” Khan told Al Jazeera.

“Certainly, in some key battles – recapturing Italy and Burma – and in the holding of North and East Africa at the Battle of Keren and the Battle of El Alamein – South Asian soldiers played decisive parts.”

Khan further noted that while most soldiers joined up for the chance of stable employment and to visit new places, others were driven by a desire to defeat fascism.

Discrimination after war

The will to fight and die in the war against fascism did not spare ethnic minority soldiers from discrimination in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Jan Bienkov and other Polish soldiers were not allowed to attend victory parades because the British were averse to offending the Soviets.

For visible minorities, experiences were far more unappreciative. An essay on the website Black Presence  described some of the racism soldiers of colour faced in the aftermath of the war.

One West Indian soldier was asked, “When are you going home?” immediately after he was demobilised.

Another wrote: “It was as if it was OK to be over here while there was an emergency, but in 1945, we weren’t wanted anymore.”

“Such recruitment exposed the contradictions at the heart of the European empires,” said Leeds University’s Salman Sayyid.

“Men were good enough to die for the ‘mother country’, but not good enough to enjoy full political and civil rights.”

British Indian army soldiers in Myanmar [Public domain]
British Indian army soldiers in Myanmar [Public domain]

Grenades and napalm

In the years since the end of World War II, huge numbers of immigrants from India and the West Indies moved to set up new lives in the UK, many of them veterans.

In recent years, there has been an upsurge in interest in the contribution made by ethnic minority soldiers, with several documentaries on the topic on the BBC, and schools teaching the subject in history classes.

However, the idea that ethnic minorities fought for Britain in the two wars does not appear to have reached far-right groups in the country.

Related: Myanmar’s forgotten WWII heroes

In March 2015, the anti-immigration Britain First group was criticised for posting a picture of a large Muslim gathering with the caption ‘”meanwhile in Birmingham”.

Comments underneath the picture suggested throwing grenades and napalm at the people in the picture. One user asked: “Where’s a sinkhole when you need one?”

The picture was taken from a Birmingham Mail report on the funeral of Sufi Muhammed Abdullah Khan, a 92-year-old, who fought for Britain in World War II and later migrated to the country.

A positive image

Further publicising the role ethnic minority soldiers played in the two world wars could help community cohesion and tackle the far-right narrative, according to Birmingham City University’s Imran Awan.

“The government can do much more in promoting positive messages and the role of Muslim, Hindu and Sikh soldiers who fought in the war,” Awan said.

“I think it can have a positive role in some respects in relation to community cohesion as it sends out a very strong message for those on the periphery of joining groups such as Britain First.”

Adam Bienkov echoed the sentiment.

“When people talk about the second world war, I think there’s an airbrushing out of the involvement of other nations and races,” Bienkov said.

“It’s something that isn’t taught a great deal at schools, and it’s something a lot of people don’t know about,” he added.

“It can be quite a powerful message that there is that unity across nationality and racial grounds.”

Source: Al Jazeera