Royal Indian Army Service Corps
The following text has been taken from an article which appeared in the Hindustan Times of 19 May 2013, written by Mandeep Singh Bajwa. A request has been made to use the article but at the time of writing no reply had yet been received. If the use of this material proves to be a problem, it will, of course, be removed.
Force K6 - Indian Troops in France
Contingency plans in the mid-1930's for an expected European War precluded the deployment of Indian troops in Europe for political and other reasons.
However, on the outbreak of War, animal transport having been phased out in the British Army, it was decided to position some elements from the Royal Indian Army Service Corps to support the British Expeditionary Force in France. Force K6 under Lieutenant Colonel R W W Hills M.C consisting of 22, 25, 29 and 32 Mule Companies and a Supply Depot, a Reinforcement Unit, part of an Indian General Hospital and a Remount Section was sent to France, which reached there in December 1939.
For political reasons and reasons of cohesion and ease of supply, only Muslims were sent, most being Punjabis, with a few Pathans.
The animal transport units were soon in great demand for moving stores, ammunition and supplies and were stationed at Le Havre, Dieppe, Le Mans and ARRAS. But, as the Dunkirk evacuation in June 1940, all animals had to be abandoned, together with supplies and equipment. The men were very distressed at having to leave their mules and horses behind, since they were attached to the animals in their care.
They gave them away to local people in Northern France. The 22nd Mule Company was captured by the Germans. A British Officer stated "During the chaos (of the withdrawal) they maintained the discipline, turn-out and self-respect which may around them had lost, enhancing the reputation of the Indian Army".
Back in Britain, Force K6 was equipped initially with French Army horses and later re-equipped with mules imported from the USA. Originally stationed in Cornwall, later they moved to various places in Wales and finally the North of Scotland where they trained for a possible invasion of Norway. The unit returned to India in April 1944 and deployed to Burma....
Force K6 was the first Indian Army unit to see action in World War II.
We have often heard about British Officers' attachment to their Indian troops. The particular case of Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Paddy Ashdown's father, Lieutenant Colonel J W R D Ashdown, illustrates this well. Then a Captain, commanding 32 Mule Company with Force K6, he was ordered by a senior commander, during the retreat to Dunkirk, to abandon his Indian soldiers and mules to their fate in the face of the advancing Germans.
The British Officers were to be evacuated. Abandoning the animals he could understand, they required special arrangements which the British, desperately short of transport, could just not make. However, he flatly refused any thought of leaving behind his beloved men. He repudiated the blatantly racist order, brought all his jawans back by securing berths for them on a ship bringing them back to Britain.
Back in the UK he had to face a Court-Martial for his insubordination. Ashdown's defence was simple "I simply thought that these were my men, I was responsible for them, and must bring them back. That was the beginning and the end of it". Later, sense dawned upon the authorities and the Court-Martial was thrown out. Ashdown's dedication to his men was not an isolated case, there being many such examples among British Officers.
The files at The National Archives covering the unit over this period are contained within reference WO 167 - Force K6 Indian Troops, as follows:-
WO 167/1433 - HQ Force K6
WO 167/1434 - Indian Remount Depot.
WO 167/1435 - Reinforcement Unit.
WO 167/1436 - Indian Supply Depot Section.
WO 167/1437 - 22 Mule Company.
WO 167/1438 - 25 Mule Company.
WO 167/1439 - 29 Mule Company.
WO 167/1440 - 32 Mule Company.
As with other support units, only the period during which those units were in contact with 70th Infantry Brigade have been fully documented and these are accessible from the links below.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission have set up a specific history page on Force K6 - including rare film clips and images showing the Mule Companies. The article can be found here.
A Corner of Pakistan in Scotland
Articles on the Mule Companies of Force K6, and in particular their time spent in Scotland, appear in a local history publication by the Highland Family History Society, which we have kindly been given permission to upload to the Website. Formal attribution is hereby given to to Historylinks Museum Catalogue DHNNL 2003_031_004 together with our grateful thanks.
The pdf of the article content, including invaluable links to images and film clips of these unique troops can be accessed below.
To contact the author by e-mail with any queries, or to send information - click here.