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DUNKIRK AND BEYOND

Risaldar-Major and Hon. Major Muhammad Ashraf Khan, Bahadur, OBI, IOM, IDSM.

In the popular Hollywood movie Dunkirk (2017), there are masses of white soldiers shown, escaping from Dunkirk (Dunquerque, France) after the German onslaught during World War 2 (May-June 1940) and wending their way to England, to fight another day and ultimately defeat Hitler and the Nazi scourge. However a serious omission, that garnered considerable criticism from historians and enthusiasts, was that the movie did not at all depict the role of many non-white soldiers who also participated in the war, and some of whom were very much present at Dunkirk too - especially soldiers from the Imperial British colonies, in particular British India.

According to one BBC review, “… many are glowering over Nolan [the director] turning a blind eye to the role of the Indian soldiers [there]…” [1]  and, further, that “few can deny the role of the [Indian] subjects. …Indian soldiers played a key role in major battles [of WW2]…’’ [2]

It is known that at least some companies of the RIASC (Royal Indian Army Service Corps) were present at Dunkirk, along with their pack mules, and though the unfortunate mules had to be left to their fate, a sizeable number of the RIASC personnel were also evacuated, although one contingent was captured by the Germans. According to one historian, the Indian troops showed great coolness under fire and retreated with calm and discipline.[3]

One particularly notable figure at this time was that of the senior native officer commandingthe RIASC troops (Force K6 as it is known), who exhibited special calm and dignity and was instrumental in helping the men under his command to be evacuated efficiently from Dunkirk. This was late Risaldar-Major (and later Hon. Major) Muhammad Ashraf Khan, Bahadur, OBI, IOM, IDSM, etc. He was awarded the IOM (Indian Order of Merit) for this strategic and well-managed retreat.[4] It was presented by the King-Emperor H.M, King George VI himself, no less; and it would be good to take some brief notice of his life and career.

Muhammad Ashraf Khan was born into the Karlal[5] hill tribe of Hazara district, North-West Frontier Province, about thirty miles southeast of Abbottabad town,[6]


[1] ‘’Does Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk ignore the role of the Indian Army?’’ BBC report/review by S Biswas, 27 July 2017.  May be read in full at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-40724861

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] London Gazette, 29 November 1940

[5] Not a Pashtun tribe, but a Hindko/North Punjabi tribe speaking Hazarewal . See The Hazara Gazetteers of 1884 and 1907 for further details of their history and antecedents. Khan is erroneously entered as a ‘Pathan/Pashtun’ in old Indian Army records.


in his ancestral village Dubraan in either 1894 or 1895. He was the grandson of Sardar Ali Bahadur Khan, a chieftain of the Karlal tribe resident at Dubraan, and this grandee had served Major James Abbott as a native aide during the Anglo-Sikh War of 1849,[1] and for this service was rewarded with a grant of land and a jagir (allowance) of Rupees 350 per annum back then, making the family highly respectable landed gentry.[2]

Ali Bahadur Khan had two sons. One of them, Sardar Saeed Muhammad Khan (1847-1939), lived a long and active life and he also served the British Government loyally.  He was an active war recruitment officer (honorary) and helped to raise/recruit many troops from his native area for World War 1.[3] Due to this service his jagir (allowance) was raised to Rs 900 per annum and extra lands were allocated to him. In addition, he received a war recruitment sanad (special certificate) and a medal and also a rank as 'District Durbari' (one of the top 30-40 notables of his home district). He died in 1939.  He was married a number of times and fathered around 10 or 11 children. Two of his sons were taken on as soldiers in WW1 and later rose in rank: Subedar Lal Akbar Khan of the 76th Punjabis and our Risaldar-Major Muhammad Ashraf Khan of the RIASC.[4]

Muhammad Ashraf Khan (MAK) was very young when his father volunteered him for war service in 1914.[5] He proved to be an intelligent young man, who did well as a soldier, rising in rank gradually due to his merit and skills: promoted to Naik in 1918 and Dafadar in 1924. He was commissioned Jemadar in 1930 and advanced to Risaldar in 1936 and Risaldar-Major in 1939.[6] He was earlier awarded the Indian Distinguished Service Medal[7] for services in 1935 on the North-West Frontier.[8]

In December 1939 or January 1940, the mule transport contingent under his command was sent out to France[9] where they were given local duties until the May 1940 Dunkirk debacle, during which MAK distinguished himself with his solid and efficient handling of his men’s safe retreat to England.  Thereafter, MAK and his men spent around three years in Britain, in various places from Devon to the Scottish Highlands, and some of those who died during this time are


[6] Founded by Major James Abbott in 1853. See the article in 2 parts by the same authors: ‘Five Military Graves at the Old Christian Cemetery in Abbottabad’ in Durbar: Journal of the Indian Military Historical Society , 2009 Vol. 26/3 autumn and Vol. 26/4 winter.

[7] The Tareekh I Hazara; (Urdu: History of Hazara) by Dr S.B. Panni, pub. Peshwar 1969, p 185

[8] Ibid

[9] Who is Who in Hazara District, pub. by Govt of NWFP, Peshawar, 1934. Entry No: 267

[01] Ibid

[11] Ibid, Entry No: 199

[12] Interview with MAK’s son, Mr Abdul Jalil Khan, 2018 at Abbottabad. The gentleman also holds his father’s full complement of medals and awards; also files full of records and photographs, etc.

[13] Army Department Notification No. 857 of 1936.

[14] Op cit, Interview with MAK’s son

[15] Op cit, Interview with MAK’s son


still buried on British soil.[1] It was during this time that MAK attended the parade  at the Buckingham Palace, London during which his IOM decoration was bestowed. After many interesting adventures, MAK and the K6 contingent in Britain finally returned home to India. After a brief spell of leave, MAK went on to serve for the remainder of World War 2 on the Burma Front, circa 1944-1945.[2]  In 1944 MAK was also awarded the Order of British India for long and faithful service[3] and he retired with the honorary rank of Major in 1946.

He lived the rest of his life at his home in his village, a respected figure, and died in 1980. He is survived by his son Mr. Abdul Jalil Khan and several grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Two interesting recent works of research about Force K6, in which MAK figures prominently, and which are highly recommended for further reading, are Force K6: The Indian Contingent by Chris Kempton (2019) [4] and Dr Ghee Bowman’s newly published The Indian Contingent: The Forgotten Indian Soldiers of Dunkirk (2020).

It is fitting to pay tribute to Risaldar-Major Muhammad Ashraf Khan and many other soldiers like him from the former British India and other imperial colonies, for their sterling and honourable services.


[16] See detailed article by Dr Ghee Bowman entitled “What Christopher Nolan left out: Dunkirk’s Indian Soldiers” published in December 2018 by the Imperial and Global Forum, online blog of the Centre for Imperial and Global History, History Department, University of Exeter, UK.

[17] Where he is reputed to have also hosted then Colonel Ayub Khan (later General/Field-Marshal and President of Pakistan) as a guest in his tent, for some time. See note by Hamid Hussain at https://www.brownpundits.com/2016/10/25/film-royal-indian-army-service-corps-in/  

[18] Ibid

[19] Based on his earlier articles in Durbar, Vol. 28/4 Winter 2011 and Vol. 29/1 Spring 2012.

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