On D-Day: Remembering the Muslim Troops who Fought the Axis

By Juan Cole

One of the frustrations for a world historian is the unyieldingly parochial vision of the North Atlantic common among journalists and even many historians, and consequently among the public. The 17 world leaders gathering for the D-Day commemoration should by all rights include Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Senegalese President Macky Sall, among others from countries whose troops fought the Axis on European soil even if they weren’t part of this landing. They in many ways made it possible by their exploits in North Africa, Italy and southern France.

The great literary and cultural critic Edward Said pointed out that although Britain, France, Italy and other European states were multicultural empires in the 19th and early 20th century, many academics and popular writers now project back onto them the narrow framework of the nation-state. Postcolonial states are sometimes touchy and embarrassed about millions of their countrymen having volunteered to serve a now-gone empire.

World War II is a case in point. The British Indian army was expanded to 2.5 million men under arms through calls for volunteers. It fought in Italy (yes), Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. Tens of thousands were killed, a similar number wounded, and more tens of thousands taken prisoner. The British decorated 4,000 of them for valor. These troops were made up of Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims (and probably some Buddhists). Punjabi and Baluch Muslims, who would now be termed Pakistanis, were prominent among them, as were Muslims from the Indian Princely states. Along with regular British units, the British Indian Army fought the Italians and Germans in Libya from Egypt and campaigned on in to Tunisia. Once North Africa fell, they fought in the invasion of Italy. When I lived in New Delhi in 1982, my landlord was a Sikh colonel who had Italy campaign stories from his youth. Among the troops decorated in that Italian campaign was Sepoy Ali Haidar, 13th Frontier Force Rifles, for his role in allowing a key river crossing.

BBC The forgotten volunteers – Indian army WWII

All this is not to mention the role of British Muslims like Noor Enayat Khan in intelligence and other work toward defeating the Nazis. Or Shapour Bakhtiar, the later Iranian nationalist who went to Europe for an education and ended up fighting both on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War and in the French Resistance to the Nazis in southern France.

While a few Muslims did support the Axis out of resentment of Western colonialism and hopes that the rise of an alternative power center would aid their quest for independence, they were tiny in their numbers compared to the Muslims who not just supported the Allies (as almost all did if you go back and read the newspapers) but actively fought on their behalf, on the battlefield. Nor was it only Muslims– Hindus in the British Indian Army captured by the Japanese sometimes were willing to join the latter’s puppet Indian forces and fight against British colonialism. But if you think about it, most Muslims would have realized that a Nazi-dominated world would not exactly be good for groups categorized as lesser and degenerate races.

Senegalese troops fought in the Free French army of Charles De Gaulle in the invasion of Italy and in the liberation of southern France. German officers, steeped in Nazi racism, were surprised and outraged to have to fight Africans on European soil. Imagine their further dismay as the African troops turned out to be in the winning side. The Senegalese were called Tirailleurs or Riflemen.

Here is footage set to a poem by Senegalese President Leopold Senghor:

( Poem and translation here)

At a time when the Network for Muslim-Hatred constantly attempts to link Islam to the Nazis (who were as far as I can tell Europeans of Christian heritage), it is worth remembering Ali Haidar, Noor Enayat Khan and all the hundreds of thousands of others who fought on the right side of history– along with all their Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist counterparts. It is called a World War for a reason.

30 Responses

  1. Don’t forget the Muslims of Soviet Central Asia, either. Or the many Nigerian Muslims who fought and died in Ethiopia and elsewhere. It wasn’t just Indians and Senegalese. Whatever we may think of their Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia also supported the Allied cause and freely lent their name to propaganda efforts.

    • I seem to remember Soviet Muslims in the Red Army were celebrated in their republics when they won decorations in battle.

  2. wolpert stanely book about Jinnah

    He mentioned that britain was in debt of subcontinent for providing for their war effort through not just “men” but also other numerous good. did they pay back?

    i guess not what they did to get rid of debt was probably to create rift between different ethnic and religious groups and divided subcontinent.

  3. One aspect of our current political situation is how often conservatives seem to have no idea of history – the American or the world variety. Take the bashing of the EPA right wingers are engaged in. They don’t seem to remember or are too lazy to do the research about how effective the EPA has been in cleaning up our lakes and rivers, reducing airborne pollution, forcing the clean up of hazardous land fills, eliminating acid rain, among a host of other beneficial effects.

    Is it any wonder that Americans today have no idea how many Muslims fought on the Allies side in WWII?

    • If you got a tribal Narrative that pushes the reactive synaptic buttons of your limbic system, link to healing-arts.org, you don’ neeeed no steeeekin’ actual HISSStory, based on stuff like verifiable facts and actions and events and all that, the ones that paint the whole picture. Life gets a lot simpler if you just go with that idiot basal limbic flow, that mediates but also shortstops empathy and comity and civility and such, delimiting it to the Tribe and excoriating all Others… Red Solo Cup! link to cmt.com

      The Narrative says “we” were the Good Guys, link to washingtonpost.com , and all by themselves in a vacuum the Axis just started that big War on Democracy’n’Freedom ™ out of the blue, blue sky. There were no “industrial” roots to the whole war thing, and nobody dares think along the lines highlighted by Barbara Tuchman, that dominion for the benefit of the Few and the increase of consumptive industry, and their miscalculations and incompetence and airy consequence-free unconcern, drove the whole thing. There are hints, here and there, in the Narrative purveyors: link to infoplease.com And yes, many of Them were “bad people,” but of course Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Dresden and were honorable and causative of Goodness, and stuff like Sinchon (Korea) and My Lai, etc, never happened, link to en.wikipedia.org .

      So yes, please remember kindly those many who killed and died in Flanders Fields and on the beaches of Normandy and the Sands of Iwo Jima and down the jungles and plains of many other places. Bit players in the Great Game, consumers of war materiel profitably manufactured and sold into the Game, played for the benefit of what we are starting to call the Elite, up there in their Elysium. Motivated (I speak from my own experience) by Boy Scout Laws (trustworthy, loyal helpful, friendly, courteous kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent, doing one’s duty to God and one’s country…) and years of juvenile Memorial Day and 4th of July parades and speeches, displaying the coffin flag my uncle “earned by, apparently, being idiotically infected with hepatitis B along with tens of thousands of others, link to gulfwarvets.com. And stuffed up by the well-fed hate and fear of Commies and other Enemies, until the actual experience and some further education turned the lights on in the neocortex, and the Narrative ran dead-stop into the hard wall of What Really Is, as opposed to What We Believe, link to google.com

      • Brilliant as always,now if I could understand it all..somehow I read that you likely are a anti war pacifist Quaker humanist Ultraliberal but anti communist..could I be right?

    • When I was a kid, WWII was nothing more than Pearl Harbor, D-Day, and Hiroshima (although it was usually the photo of the Fat Man which was used in the textbook). Not a word about the Russian effort to oust German invaders and the costs they paid doing so. Not a word about how the Japanese completely ended any chance for the restoration of European colonialism and how helping Ho Chi Minh would have avoided the Vietnam War.

      Our own fascists have staged a comeback, and many pull Obama’s strings. It can thus be said that WWII didn’t really end. It just slowed down until a new rationale for war caught up with the means to fight it.

  4. I happened to notice some graves by a church in a small town in Alsace. They were from one of the closing battles of WWII. Some graves had crosses carved on the tombstones, some had crescents, and others Stars of David. These men lay together in death as they had fought together in battle.

    • Rather sad ignorance here. You need to get your facts straight. The Irish Republic was neutral, true, but did not support the Axis. Scores of thousands of Irish from the Republic voluntarily joined the British armed forces and fought against the Nazi and Fascist powers. A very few Republican extremists tried to make contact with Germany and spied for them with little success. Scores of thousands more Irish from the south were recruited by the British to work in factories taking over jobs the English, Welsh and Scots left when they went off to war. De valera maintained Irish neutrality, but the policy was simple: Ireland produced food that was exported to the UK and none went to Germany; if allied airmen or sailors ended up in the Irish state, they were quietly sent home to Britain or the US. There was a lot of sympathy among ordinary Irish for Britain, where many Irish had relatives who endured the bombing and rationing and hardships. Something like % million Brits were of Irish descent. I don’t think there were many Germans of Irish descent!!!! If German airmen or sailors ended up on Irish soil, they were interned for the duration of the war. And of course, Northern Ireland, the six counties, was part of the UK and played a full part in helping defeat the Axis powers. Belfast was frequently bombed by the Luftwaffe, who also mototiously bombed neutral Dublin. It is true that that De Valera signed a book of condolences at the German embassy when Hitler died, and that was a serious error of judgment that was well criticised within Ireland.

  5. Not only did people from Asia and Africa help the Allies in World War Two. They did the same in WWI. It appears in both cases their sacrifices were taken for granted.

    Given the fighting history of these people, it would be to our advantage if our warmongers refrained from provoking them to fight against us instead of with us.

  6. I understand most of the free french soldiers where Muslim from the North African colonies. Sadly, apparently, when the Free French enter Paris the replaced the Muslim soldiers with European troops some of which were not even French but Spanish. Likewise the American kept their black soldiers out of sight. It is well know how badly the Algerians who fought for France were treated after the Algerian War. Those who managed to get to France were treated like second class citizens.

    On a trip to Vimy Ridge I way a memorial plaque nearby commemorating the contribution of Moroccan troops.

    In the First World war they brought Chinese peasants to Europe to do the heavy lifting and taking the risk of transporting ammunition. This must have been a great cultural shock for these peasants. Nowhere in Europe is their any mention of the Chinese contribution to the European war. So much history is written by the victors and the established order.

  7. While we are discussing race in WW2, let’s not forget the African-Americans who fought in Europe and the Pacific to oppose tyranny and bring freedom to the people conquered by the Nazis and the Japanese after which they mostly returned to the Deep South and the tyranny of racial bigotry and freedom-constricting segregation.

  8. After the war countries like Canada Austarlia New Zealand would refuse entry to educated colonial soldiers but on the other hand they were allowing Italian German to immigrate most of them did not know a single word of english

  9. This is an excellent piece and a very timely reminder of the sacrifices that were made by people of all faiths & ethnic origins to keep the world free from the tyranny of fascism. As Muslim myself, whose whose grandfather & father fought in the two great wars, I of course have a vested interest in the issue. But it is also important for all of us to learn about how much we have in common that sets us apart. Well done for highlighting that.

  10. Morocco and Algeria should also have been represented. The Berbers of the 2nd Infantry Division Free French Forces took Monte Cassino when no one else could

  11. There is a movie called “free men”. A drama, that was described as being based on true stories of Muslim, Algerian, freedom fighters in Paris.

  12. My grandpa was a Sandhurst trained Officer in the British-Indian Army, who saw action in WW-II, I remember him talking about the many Indians and now Pakistanis who served as loyal soldiers for the Raj. Thenumber of Indians and Pakistanis who joined the Nazis or the INA were very small in number, and they had little or no effect on the war effort against the Axis. I dont know about present day Pakistan, but, in modern day India, the INA and other proAxis soldiers are largely forgotten, and it is a small number of cranks and kooks who still try to glorify them.

  13. Great reminder. There’s always more to it. Don’t know about Muslims or other non-European ethnicities elsewhere, but South Asians on a whole, be it Hindu/Muslim/Sikh or other, unfortunately do not realize, or even know, the large historic role their own older relatives played in the World War, as well as how it affected and impacted them.

    I think part of it is the belief that the war’s source and origin was in Europe and hence a lack of ownership for what they saw as Colonialist wars, even though a lot of their wealth and citizens’ lives, apart from killed and captured soldiers (who also fought Eastwards against Japan, having ambitions capturing Delhi), were invested in them and while battles were nearby in Asia (Burma, China) it still felt far from the rest of British India, even though Bengal suffered famine as result of British Colonialists diverting food for their troops.

    Still, unfortunate most of us don’t know over a quarter of the Allies army were of Muslim background. I’m not immune either…I didn’t know how far Muslims’ impact in US history was, mentioned in a great previous article by Alison Kysia posted on the blog here.

    link to juancole.com

  14. I would have to question whether Nazi’s were of European Christian Heritage. I always understood Nazis had no heritage and were overcompensating…but i get your drift.

  15. Sorry..but the nazis came from all walks of German life and religions..catholic and Lutheran were well represented…

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