Forgotten heroes win a battle

A memorial has been built for the soldiers of the subcontinent who fought for the British in the two world wars. The memorial is the result of a single-handed campaign by Chanan Singh Dhillon. A report by Naveen S. Garewal

Sepoy Jaswant Singh (Sikh Regiment), Hav. Rajinder Dhad (ASC), Hav Mangal Singh (Signals) and Lt. Col. Chanan Singh Dhillon at the second anniversary re-union of the Memorial Gates Trust in London.
Sepoy Jaswant Singh (Sikh Regiment), Hav. Rajinder Dhad (ASC), Hav Mangal Singh (Signals) and Lt. Col. Chanan Singh Dhillon at the second anniversary re-union of the Memorial Gates Trust in London.

It's a night that still haunts him. He and Mohammad Sadiq are clinging to a wooden plank to stay afloat in the icy waters off the Sicilian coast. After hours, when the cold has frozen every muscle, thoughts of their loved ones and death keep the mind afloat. A seven-feet high wave finally loosens Sadiq's grip and carries him away. He braces himself for the next wave, but it's a blinding light which hits him. The voice of men speaking a foreign tongue... German... They are Germans and now he is pulled out of the water... Saved but a prisoner of war...

Chanan Singh Dhillon's two-year stay at the PoW camps in Italy, France and Germany reads like a thriller, from escapades to be recaptured by Germans. After being rescued by the Americans and brought to London, his objective was to work towards securing recognition for comrades in uniform, alive or dead. Those who staked their youth, nay lives, as volunteers for the Royal Armed Forces fighting for the British in the two world wars. Aptly described by The Guardian as "Soldiers of the Empire: The heroes Britain forgot".

Fifty-Seven years later, Lt. Col Dhillon (who rose from being a Havildar during the war) and a group of likeminded people successfully persuaded the British Government to erect a war memorial for all those who had perished in the world wars. A search is now on to hunt out names of the unsung heroes and engrave them on the pillars of the 'Memorial Gates Trust,' located on Constitution Hill in London. Soon, British history text books up to tenth grade would incorporate heroic deeds of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Jamaican and Ugandan soldiers.

Baroness Flather (extreme right) with the social workers of Indian origin and Lt. Col. C.S. Dhillon at the Memorial Gates site in London.
Baroness Flather (extreme right) with the social workers of Indian origin and Lt. Col. C.S. Dhillon at the Memorial Gates site in London.

Lady Baroness Flather, a member of the British House of Lords, has been instrumental. Of Indian origin, her paternal grandfather had served the British during the two wars. Soldiers like Lt. Col Dhillon and Lady Baroness Flather, through a series of communications, prevailed upon Queen Elizabeth to give a nod to a memorial for unsung heroes. On November 6, 2002, she inaugurated the Memorial Gates. An effort is underway to secure grants for soldiers whom the British Government acknowledges as bona fide POWs.

The common sentiment of all those involved in the Memorial Gates Trust is reflected in the inscription at the venue that reads, "When you go home, tell them of us, and say: For your tomorrow we gave our today". Gates at the memorial have been erected as a lasting memorial to honour the five million men and women from the Indian subcontinent, Africa and the Caribbean who volunteered to serve with the Armed Forces during the world wars. Dhillon says "British government hid the fact that such a large number of soldiers from colonial countries had contributed towards the war till we started to uncover the truth".

"The memorial is important to the soldiers from India, but it is equally important for the modern British society, which looks to the future as much as to the past", says Dhillon. He was invited to attend the Victory Parade in August, 1995. As part of marking 50 years of the war he attended Liberation Day at Bethune in France, 29 km north of Arras where two memorials have been erected for Indian soldiers who died in the two wars. He also visited the Menin Gate Memorial in Belgium, also in the memory of Indian soldiers. At both the places, locals took his hand and kissed him calling him their saviour and thanked him for fighting for them. To his surprise during the Victory Parade in London, there was no mention of the Indian forces. This forced him to write to Queen Elizabeth. He also meet the then Prime Minister John Major. He even went on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and appealed to the people to come together for getting recognition for those who sided with the British during the wars. Lady Baroness Flather joined him in his crusade and by 1999 the Trust was formed.

Memorial Gates: An apt tribute to subcontinent’s soldiers.
Memorial Gates: An apt tribute to subcontinent’s soldiers.

The British Government initially wanted to allot a place for the memorial in some rural area, but insistence by members of the Trust got the government to allot a spot at the present location. The Queen laid the foundation of the memorial on August 1, 2001 and inaugurated the same on November 6, 2002. The memorial has now been handed over to the London Municipal Corporation for maintenance. The memorial has four stone piers in Portland Stone each topped by a bronze urn, with the names India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Africa, Caribbean and Kingdom of Nepal engraved on the sides.

Lt. Col Dhillon, an NCO when he was taken a POW in 1943 remained confided to POW Camp XII in Limburg near Frankfurt in Germany. In December 1944 he was rescued by the Americans and taken to Paris from where he was brought to London and sent back to India. In the camp he was the Chief Man of confidence appointed by the International Red Cross, Geneva who was responsible for the welfare of POWs.

He along with some Canadian, British and Australian soldiers managed to dig a tunnel while at the Odine POW camp, near Naples in Italy. When the Germans arrested Marshal Missolini, the Italian soldiers got disheartened and in this laxity Lt. Col Dhillon and others managed to escape. But soon he was caught along with some others and brought back to Germany. Now 84, he recalls how the Russian soldiers were maltreated because Russia did not recognize the International Red Cross.

He says "the UK must contribute to bring the pension of Colonial troops on a par with the British veterans. The POWs under Germany and Japan must be compensated and the veterans' destitute families should be granted ex-gratia. Veterans in the UK should be considered members of the British legion and facilities provided to them. World War veterans desirous of visiting the UK should be exempted from visa fee".

Having just returned after attending the second anniversary of the memorial in UK, Dhillon recollects that 1,440,500 Indian fought for the British during World War I, out of which 47,000 died in battle while 65,000 were injured. In World War II, 2.5 million Indians fought for allies in Asia, North Africa and Europe. As many as 24,338 died, 11,754 went missing in action, 64,354 were wounded and 80,000 including him were taken POWs. He himself saw action in Mesopotamia, Middle East, North Africa and Italy. Contribution of the Indian soldiers was instrumental in the victory of the Allied forces in which Indians received 13,000 decorations and 12 Victoria Crosses.