Exhibition pays tribute to sons of Empire who died for Britain

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The Independent Online

Rajinder Dhatt came to Britain in 1963 to seek a new life for himself and his family. After knocking on countless doors to get a job, he was asked at one interview about his previous experience. When he said it was in the imperial Indian army, including the Burma campaign, the foreman patted him on the shoulder, and said: "We haven't forgotten what you chaps did, we'll give you a chance."

Rajinder Dhatt came to Britain in 1963 to seek a new life for himself and his family. After knocking on countless doors to get a job, he was asked at one interview about his previous experience. When he said it was in the imperial Indian army, including the Burma campaign, the foreman patted him on the shoulder, and said: "We haven't forgotten what you chaps did, we'll give you a chance."

But people in Britain largely did forget those from the ethnic minorities who fought and died in Britain's wars. Tomorrow an exhibition organised by the Ministry of Defence will open as an acknowledgement and apology for that neglect. Mr Dhatt, now 78, and the treasurer of the Indian Ex-Servicemen's Association, is among those who helped to put it together.

General Sir Charles Guthrie, Chief of Defence Staff, said: "We have made great deal of progress to change attitudes, but there is still some way to go. The stories in the exhibition remind us of a proud tradition which deserves greater awareness, greater respect."

To judge by most of the literature and films, Britain's wars were won solely by stiff upper lipped British officers leading chirpy, salt-of-the-earth type British men. There are passing nods towards the Australian and New Zealand forces, and an occasional pat on the back for "Johnny Gurkha", but hardly any recognition of others from the ethnic minorities.

The exhibition, "We Were There", points out that, in reality, vast numbers of black and brown-skinned soldiers have come to the aid of the "mother country". The link goes back at least 200 years. At the Battle of Trafalgar, for instance, Nelson's flagship, HMS Victory, carried 71 men from overseas.

In the First World War, more than a million men from all parts of the empire volunteered to serve. India alone sent many more to the front than Scotland, Wales and Ireland combined. Others came to fight and die in the mud of Flanders from the West Indies, the African colonies and the Pacific islands.

During the Second World War, that figure rose to almost 3 million, 2.5 million of them in the Indian army, the rest mainly from the Caribbean and Africa. Necessity led to the abandonment of some racist barriers. The Royal Air Force had Indian air aces in the First World War, but subsequently had a policy of recruiting only from white parts of the empire. Facing the Luftwaffe, it had to take others. By the end of the war 17,500 non-white volunteers had served in the RAF.

Not only the men of the Empire were prepared to serve. Women too were recruited, especially during the Second World War. Some of the most extraordinary tales unearthed for the exhibition involve the role played by them in the savage secret war in occupied Europe.

One of these women was Noor Inayat Khan, an Indian princess and a direct descendant of Tipu Sultan, who served with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and was sent to France as a radio operator. In June 1943 she was betrayed to the Gestapo and tortured but refused to divulge any information. She was sent to the concentration camp in Dachau, where she helped to look after children of Jewish inmates murdered by the Nazis. She was executed in September 1944 and posthumously awarded the George Cross.

The exhibition also notes the financial contribution made to Britain's war efforts by the colonies. During the Second World War £6.5m was donated in India (£100m at today's prices), West Africa gave £1.3m in gifts and interest-free loans, and the West Indies contributed £2m in donations and £3m in loans.

However, despite all the sacrifices made by the ethnic minority soldiers, the British Army continued to operate a quota system for them until as late as 1968. The armed forces say they have left all that far behind, and are now totally committed to welcoming recruits from the ethnic minorities. Tomorrow's exhibition should go a long way towards proving that. Mr Dhatt said: "I have a nine-year-old grandson who is determined to join the Army, our Army, the British Army, when he grows up. I will be taking him to the exhibition to show what a proud heritage he has."

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