4 June 2024

D-Day 80 call to remember service of Commonwealth forces

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The service of commonwealth personnel in the Second World War must not be overlooked as we mark D-Day 80 this week, prominent voices have said in a joint letter, as new research highlights the need to raise awareness.

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Steve Ballinger
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The service of commonwealth personnel in the Second World War, in crucial but often less famous battles, must not be overlooked as we mark D-Day 80 this week, voices from the military, politics, history, culture, faith and civil society have said in a joint letter today.

This week sees the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings, a key moment in the Second World War. But 1944 also “saw service personnel from across the commonwealth fight important battles all over the world, from Monte Cassino in Italy to Burma and Northern India,” says the letter, published today in The Times. Signatories a former Chief of the General Staff and Chief of the Defence Staff; the Director-General of the Royal British Legion; and leading historians and faith and charity leaders.

New Focaldata polling for British Future finds that:

“We should ensure that all who served are honoured,” the letter says, because “The service of Commonwealth forces as part of the British Empire in WW2… has shaped the multi-ethnic and multi-faith society we share today.”

Sunder Katwala, Director of British Future, said:

“Britain’s diversity today owes much to the legacy of Empire, and troops from across that Empire fought alongside British forces in the Second World War. This is shared history, across people from different backgrounds, which we should remember together.

“Most people now know that Indian soldiers fought in the world wars – but fewer know that a third were Muslim or about the contributions of other minority faiths. Raising public awareness, by the time we mark the VE Day anniversary next year, can help build a shared sense of identity today.”

The 1944 Victoria Cross roll of honour includes Sikh, Muslim and Hindu soldiers from India, as well as Nepalis from the Gurkha regiments,” the letter says. One of those awarded the VC for bravery was Sepoy Kamal Ram of the Indian Army’s Punjab Regiment, fighting at the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy. Aged just 19, Ram single-handedly took out two enemy machine-gun emplacements that were firing on his Company.

Sepoy Kamal Ram awarded his VC by the King. Picture credit: IWM

Another was Rao Abdul Hafiz Khan, an Indian Muslim soldier also from the Punjab. He was just 18 years old – the youngest Indian VC – when he was killed leading a daring uphill assault on an enemy machine gunner in the Battle of Imphal in India.

 Dr Irfan Malik, a Nottingham GP whose grandfathers were Burma Star veterans in the Second World War (and whose great-grandfathers served in WW1) underlined the importance of recognising Commonwealth soldiers, saying:

“Researching about my ancestors’ involvement in the World Wars has transformed my thoughts about remembrance, making me feel more British. I do think that educating the public about the service of Black and Asian soldiers could help make moments like D-Day 80 and Armistice Day feel more relevant to people from all backgrounds in Britain today.”

 Dr Ghee Bowman, whose new book ‘The Great Épinal escape’ tells the story of 500 Indian POWs who escaped just weeks before D-Day, said:

“Millions of Indian soldiers served in WW2 yet their stories, like those of troops from Africa and the Caribbean, are little known. Indians were evacuated at Dunkirk alongside British troops. The Épinal escape was much bigger scale than Stalag Luft III and happened around the same time, yet never made it into the movies. It’s important these stories are shared and heard more widely.”

Full text of the joint letter and signatories:

Sir –

D-Day in 1944 was a crucial moment on the path to victory in the Second World War. While attention rightly focuses on its 80th anniversary, that year saw service personnel from across the commonwealth fight important battles all over the world, from Monte Cassino in Italy to Burma and Northern India. The 1944 Victoria Cross roll of honour includes Sikh, Muslim and Hindu soldiers from India, as well as Nepalis from the Gurkha regiments.

The service of Commonwealth forces as part of the British Empire in WW2, from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and beyond, has shaped the multi-ethnic and multi-faith society we share today. We should ensure that all who served are honoured – and use the 80th anniversary of VE Day in 2025 to increase public awareness and understanding of every contribution to our shared history.

Remembrance brings us together in recognition of all who fought and sacrificed for our country. They served together then, so we can and should remember together today.

Signed by: General Richard Dannatt, Chairman of the Normandy Memorial Trust and former Chief of the General Staff; General The Lord Richards, Grand President of the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League and former Chief of Defence Staff; Mark Atkinson, Director General, Royal British Legion; David Thompson, Secretary General, Royal Commonwealth ex-services League; Virendra Sharma, former MP for Ealing, Southall; Albie Amankona, Co-Founder, Conservatives Against Racism for Equality; Professor David Olusoga, historian; Professor Sir Hew Strachan, University of St Andrews; Professor Daniel Todman, Queen Mary University of London; Robert Tombs, Professor Emeritus, University of Cambridge; Sunder Katwala, Director, British Future; Patrick Vernon, Windrush 100 Network; Dilwar Hussain, Chair, New Horizons in British Islam; Dr Irfan Malik; Professor John Denham, University of Southampton; Samuel Kasumu, Former No10 advisor; Zehra Zaidi OBE, We Too Built Britain; Shailesh Solanki, Executive Editor, Asian Media Group; Imam Qari Asim MBE, Chair, Mosques & Imams National Advisory Board; Rt Revd Nick Baines, Bishop of Leeds; Jasvir Singh CBE, City Sikhs; Jon Knight, Chief Executive, Together Coalition; Gurvinder Sandher, CEO, Kent Equality Cohesion Council; Professor Uzo Iwobi OBE , Founder, Race Council Cymru; Dr Ghee Bowman, author, ‘The Great Epinal escape’; Mohammed Amin, Chair, The National Muslim War Memorial Trust; Sir William Blackburne, Chair, World Wars Muslim Memorial Trust.

 

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