The story of Captain Mateen Ansari GC, is one of extraordinary endurance and integrity. Described by his comrades as “one of the greatest heroes of the prison camps at Hong Kong”, Ansari refused to betray Britain and join Japan’s Indian National Army. This was despite torture, starvation and mutilation at the hands of the Japanese. After two years of imprisonment, he was executed for his defiance. Addressing his fellow prisoners shortly before his death, he said:
“We will die strong and healthy for an ideal; not as traitors but nobly in our country’s cause”.
Remembrance is part of modern British life and our cultural heritage. It is a time of contemplation – not only for the Armed Forces, but the country as a whole. It is when we reflect on the sacrifice made on our behalf by the men and women of our Armed Forces, both throughout history and today. And Muslim servicemen and women have been an integral part of the British Armed Forces for over 100 years. This year, we’re sharing their stories.
Born in Hyderabad in 1915, Mateen Ansari was sent for officer training after enlisting in the British Indian Army. He trained at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and was awarded the King’s Commission.
Part of the 5th Battalion, 7th Rajput Regiment, Ansari was stationed at Hong Kong. When the Japanese invaded in December 1941, he was part of the gallant rearguard action defending the evacuation of the mainland. He was captured only after his battalion was practically wiped out by the enemy onslaught.
Although he was an officer, he opted to be incarcerated alongside his men in order to stiffen their resistance to Japanese propaganda. The Japanese attempted to make Ansari betray the British and join their Indian National Army, but though a passionate nationalist, Ansari refused.
Enraged, the Japanese subjected Ansari to starvation, mutilation and torture in the notorious Stanley Jail. But the Japanese could not break his spirit nor compromise his integrity. When he returned to the prisoner-of-war camps, he continued to organise resistance and to plan escapes.
Eventually, he was betrayed by pro-Japanese Indian nationalist prisoners and sentenced to death.
On 29 October 1943, he was taken out of solitary confinement alongside 32 condemned men and one woman. They were refused a visit from a priest, but were allowed five minutes together prior to execution.
In that five minutes, undaunted by the prospect of death, Ansari gave a powerful speech to his fellow prisoners, declaring:
“Everybody has to die sometime. Many die daily from disease, some suffer painful, lingering deaths. We will die strong and healthy for an ideal; not as traitors but nobly in our country’s cause. We cannot now escape the enemy’s sword, but no one should give in to tears or regrets, but instead face the enemy with a smile and die bravely.”
Captain Ansari was beheaded at Stanley Beach, Hong Kong, leaving behind a legacy of unequalled courage and resilience. He was awarded The George Cross, “for most conspicuous gallantry”.
The Times of India reported in 1945 that some of the 330 rescued Indians on board HM Hospital Ship Oxfordshire praised Captain Ansari, calling him, “one of the greatest heroes of the prison camps at Hong Kong”.