b. 21/08/1913 Kohat, India. d. 15/07/1999 Shahukhel, Pakistan.
Ali Haidar (1913-1999) was born in Kohat to Pashtun, Bangash parents, in what is now Khyber Pukhtunkhwa Province, Pakistan on 21st August 1913. Little is known of his early life, before he became the only Pashtun to receive the VC during World War II. The action which brought him his award typifies the sense of duty to comrades of the men of the North-West frontier region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where warfare between tribes or against invaders is a way of life. He was serving as a sepoy (private soldier) in what would be regarded as his local regiment – the 13th Frontier Force Rifles.
After a gruelling struggle by the allied armies up the Italian peninsula in the spring of 1944, the theatre commander, Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander, ordered the American General Mark Clark, leading the 15th Army Group (the 5th US and 8th British armies), to open an offensive in April 1945 on either side of Bologna, with a view to a final drive through the Po valley. The eastern thrust was to be made by the British, between Bologna and Ravenna, crossing the Senio river and pushing north towards the Po.
The banks of the Senio had been built up to three metres to counter flooding, and the northern bank was heavily defended by entrenched German troops. The offensive was opened on April 9th by Lieutenant-General Sir Charles Keightley’s V Corps, consisting of the 2nd New Zealand and 8th Indian divisions; the latter included the 19th Indian brigade, which in turn incorporated the 6th/13th Frontier Force Rifles of Pathans, in which Ali Haidar was serving as a sepoy, or private.
Haidar was on the extreme left of his battalion, which was ordered to make the crossing in small boats. Withering machine-gun fire saw to it that only three men, including Haidar, reached the enemy bank. The rest of his company was pinned down by two machine-gun nests on the southern bank.
Leaving his two colleagues to cover him as best they could, Haidar rushed one of the nests and hurled a grenade into it. The occupants threw one of theirs at him, wounding him in the back with shrapnel. Nevertheless Haidar, just over five feet tall, got to his feet, rushed the position and winkled out four Germans, who were taken prisoner by his companions.
He then crawled towards the second position, only to be hit in leg and arm. Undeterred, he managed to reach the post, tossed a grenade and charged in; two Germans were wounded and the other two surrendered. The machine guns silenced, Haidar’s company was able to cross the Senio in strength and establish a beachhead, as the wounded hero was carried to the rear for treatment, which was continued at a military hospital in Rome.
Ali Haidar did not recover until the war was over, but was fit enough to receive his medal from King George VI at Buckingham Palace on 30th October 1945. He returned to his regiment and eventually reached the rank of Jemadar (Lieutenant) in the Pakistan army before retiring to a small farm in his home area of the North-West Frontier province.
He and his wife Meena, whom he married in 1947, had no children, and they had great difficulty making a living from poor soil. None the less he managed to get to London in 1993 for a meeting of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association, where it was revealed that he was dependent on the £100 annual bounty paid to the holders of these highest of bravery awards, and a small army pension. Two years later, the increase in the bounty to a less than lavish £l,300 a year transformed his circumstances, enabling him to return to London for the 50th anniversary of VE Day. Ali Haidar VC passed away peacefully, aged 85, on 15th July 1999 in Shahukhel, Pakistan and was buried in his local Village Cemetery. His VC medal group had been purchased privately by Michael Ashcroft in 1990, and are on display in the Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: SHAHUKEL VILLAGE CEMETERY, PAKISTAN.
Daniele Cesaretti – Lugo di Romagna Memorial, Italy
Alastair Kennedy-Rose – image of Ali Haidar in later life.