Reminiscence Of An Old Soldier— I

H Bhuban Singh

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I passed my Matriculation (now HSLC) examination in June 1947 and joined Presidency College, Calcutta (now Kolkata). College Street where the University of Calcutta and also Presidency College were located, was drenched with blood, tears and agony, on account of “Direct Action” (killing of Hindus) called by Md Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan known as Quaid-I-Azam, though Bengal riots were executed by HS Shurawardy, the then Chief Minister of undivided Bengal Presidency.

2. Major General Lakhinder Singh was General Officer Commanding Bengal, Bihar and Orissa Area, housed inside Fort Williams, Calcutta. Brigadier LP (Bogey) Sen was Commander of 181 Independent Brigade at Shillong. Gen Lakhinder Singh was a good player of hockey and I saw Army team playing hockey with civilian teams at CFC (Calcutta Football Club) ground, which was maintained by British Army officers of Fort Williams and had almost the same quality like the modern astroturf ones.

3. General Lakhinder Singh’s Army team had Major Dhyan Chand, the hockey wizard of 1936 Berlin World Olympics and the civilian team had K D Singh (Kanwar Digvijay Singh Babu) of Lucknow, Leslie Claudius, Dubey, G Singh Nandy, Leslie Pinto etc.

4. Presidency College hockey team took part in Beighton Cup tournament and had four Manipuri players, namely the Late Ng Mohendra Singh ex-MP, Shri N Binoy Singh, the muscleman and ever-green senior citizen of Imphal, Shri Irungbam Gopal Singh (ex-Brahmapur, now settled in Lamsang Bazar) and myself. We normally got beaten by around half a dozen goals, when we faced renowned teams.

5. During the Second World War, Imphal was encircled by Lt General Yanagida’s 33rd Japanese Division after crossing Chindwin River on night of 6/7 March 1944 and went straight for Kohima and Dimapur to cut-off Imphal Garrison. A very fierce Battle of Kohima was fought on the spur of Deputy Commissioner, Mr. Charles Pawsay (later Knighted) for the control of Tennis Court of DC on National Highway 39. Very many soldiers died at the Battle of Tennis Court that the Commonwealth War Graves Committee erected an epitaph which became world famous for the wordings, which say:-

When you go home

Tell them of us

That for your tomorrow

We gave our today

The Japanese fought valiantly, very valiantly indeed, but had to withdraw due to lack of logistic support.

6. From the south, 15th Japanese Division, commanded by Lt Gen Yamauchi also crossed the Chindwin river (Ningthee turrel to Meiteis), on the same night of 6/7 March 1944, and attacked Kumbi, Moirang and came up to Bishnupur, where a very severe battle was fought. This Division had several fighting units of Indian National Army and Lt Col Saukat Ali Mallik of INA hoisted the Indian tri-color flag on

Indian soil at Moirang in the Imphal Valley at 6 pm of 14 April 1944. There is an INA War Memorial at Moirang.

7. During the seize of Imphal, my eldest and only brother Captain Baruni Singh was to join his unit. He got an RIAF flight-permit from the Admin Comdt of Imphal valley and I went to see him off. At the Tulihal Airfield, I saw Squadron Leader Arjan Singh from a distance. Now, Arjan Singh is Marshal of the Indian Air Force with five-star ranking. I presume, he is still alive because the death of such a renowned person will be broadcasted in the TV and also published in all daily newspapers—national as well as local. I met Air Chief Marshal (four star ranking then) Arjan Singh, when came to Imphal to bid-farewell to his beloved Imphalites.

8. I also saw Captain Ayub Khan at Chingmeirong, Imphal. Ayub Khan ultimately became Chief of Pakistan Army also Dictator of Pakistan. He was killed in a pre-arranged air-crash plotted by his detractors. Mr. TA Sharp ICS who was President, Manipur State Durbar of 1939 Nupilal fame got killed by the Japanese Army while he was travelling on foot from Imphal to Silchar via Bishnupur-Silchar road, known as Tongjei Maril, when the Japanese occupied the hills and encircled Imphal Valley.

9. HQ 114 CRE (Commander Royal Engineers) had Major Harkirat Singh, as a Garrison Engineer. Major Harkirat Singh used to bully his junior British/Anglo-Indian Asst. GE (Capt) with filthy languages.

10. After doing my engineering degree in May 1953 from Birla Engineering College, Pilani (now BITS—Birla Institute of Technology and Science—enjoying the status of an academic university), I joined IMA (Indian Military Academy), Dehradun in June 1953. The Commandant of the Academy was Major General Habi-bullah, who normally functioned from Clementown near Dehradun where the Joint Services Wing was located.

11. Therefore, IMA was looked after by Brigadier Naranjan Prasad, the Deputy Commandant. When JSW became NDA (National Defense Academy) and got shifted to Khadakvasla, General Habibullah went to be the first Commandant of NDA.

12. While we were in IMA, our drill instructor was RSM (Regimental Sergeant Major) Lynch of the Scottish Guards, who was a six-footer hunk of a bully. From a distance of fifty meters, RSM Lynch would shout “You fifth GC (Gentleman Cadet) in the rear row on my left, don’t you bloody well roll you checks with your tongue to drive out flies.” Whether a fly was troubling the fifth cadet in the rear row or not, we did not know, but RSM Lynch impressed us.

13. After the piping ceremony of one solitary, five-pointed star each, on the shoulder flaps of our shirts, RSM Lynch congratulated each one of us, saying “Congratulations, Sir” and smiled happily. Instantaneously, our anger on RSM Lynch evaporated and we also smiled, till our lips almost touched our ears.

14. Commissioned on 7th June 1954, we YOs (Young Officers) were granted leave for seven days to meet our parents, brothers, sisters and other relatives. Since air-connectivity between Dehradun and Imphal was almost non-existent during those days of Dakota-passenger service, I decided to go to Kumaon hills with my friend Nirmal Kumar Punetha who joined EME (Electrical & Mechanical Engineers), just to have a ‘dekho’ of Jim Corbett’s “man-eaters of Kumaon hills”. We did plenty of ‘shikars’.

15 ‘Chutthi’ over, I reported to Bombay Engineers Group and Centre. The previous Commandant Colonel P S Bhagat, VC (Victoria Cross) of North Africa campaign, had just left and Colonel Manmohan Singh had taken over. Captains Rajaram, Kasturi Raj etc were our seniors and they used to oppress us for any act of our misdemeanor. Now, after almost seven decades, I do not know whether the huge cloth-screen-fan pulled by bearers during our times or by electric motors later on, had given way to modern ceiling fans.

16. After about one month of familiarization training at BEG, Kirkee, we were sent to College of Military Engineering for undergoing Field Engineering Course. I suspect if CME is given a new name now, like the old Infantry School earned the sobriquet of “College of Combat Studies”. Now, I do not as yet know what CME is called and therefore I will continue to refer to CME, as CME only.

17. At CME, we had Royal Nepalese Army and Burmese Army subaltern doing FE Course with us. We also had a Royal Engineers Major, who taught us Field Sanitary Engineering. The RE Major, whose name I forget now, rode on a bicycle like we YOs do, to attend College, to come to Officers’ Mess and then finally to our flats/hostels.

18. The Commandant of CME was Brigadier Harkirat Singh (refer to para 7, please) and he had British Officer’s culture in his vein. Once every month, there would be Regimental Dinner Nights, wherein we were to wear white monkey jackets with red cummerbund during summer.

19. During winter, we were to wear woolen tunics and trousers, whose sims had red-pipings from waist to ankle and black ridding shoes with iron stirrups for digging into the chest-rib-bones of horses to gallop fast, because Corps of Engineers were recognized as a Mounted Regiment. BEG, Kirkee had horses and trainers who used to teach us riding. The horses were tall and big and the saddle, on which we were to sit, came upto shoulder level.

20. While awaiting the completion of tailoring these dresses, YOs were permitted to wear olive green (OG) trousers and bush shirts. The grant of Rs.400/= as uniform allowance on commissioning was too meager a sum and we, YOs were always in debt borrowing money from money-lenders of Main Street Bazar of Poona at exorbitant rates of interest with post dated cheques.

21. During Regimental Dinner nights, all of us were served with a lavish three-course-dinner. As appetizer, we would have soup and bread. Then, came the first course of fried fish, which were always a full pomfret, filling up the entire dinner plate. Bread would be replenished whenever empty. Then, we would have roasted chicken of one complete thigh and leg (for two officers) or one full chest. So, a chicken would serve the dinner plates of three officers only. Tits and bits of flesh from neck, wings etc would be used for soup making. The third course would be fruit salad or cake with sweet cream poured lavishly on big slices of cake.

22. Then, the ritual of post-dinner happenings would follow Officers’ Mess bearers would bring small wine-mugs, and the wine-mug chap would be followed by two Mess bearers, each holding a decanter. They would ask us “Port or Sherry, Sir”. Then, officers would respond, “Port, please” or “Sherry, please” as per their individual tastes.

23. Then, Brigadier Harkirat Singh would stand-up and announce, “Gentlemen, please rise”. We all, would stand-up. Commandant Harkirat Singh would raise his wine glass, which would be followed by everyone of us and pronounce “Gentlemen, to the health of our Rashtrapati”. We will repeat “To the health of our Rashtrapati”. We all would sip a bit of wine and the short form of “Jana Gana Mana” would be played. Then, after the end of our National song, Brigadier Harkirat Singh would sit down and all of us also would sit down. A Military Pipe Band Party, perhaps from Bombay Sappers would play light music, inside the dining hall walking gracefully.

24. While sipping wines, Jamaican cigars would be distributed and Brigadier Harkirat Singh with his Sikh pugree and trimmed beard would announce “Gentlemen you may please smoke” and light up his cigar. Young officers like us would also try the cigar but most of us found it obnoxious. The non-secretive and non-hiding smoker of a Sikh Brigadier Harkirat Singh became the first Indian Engineer-in-Chief at Kashmir House, New Delhi as a Major General.

25. During the Commandantship of CME by Brigadier Harkirat Singh, we saw Field Marshal Viscount (Bill) Slim, the retiring CIGS (Chief of Imperial General Staff) of the British Army, from close range now. Earlier, we never saw Lt Gen Slim, the Army Commander, because of tight security. Lt Gen Slim was Commander of the 14th British Indian Army, Headquartered in Arakan (now, in Myanmar) and Slim drove the invading Japanese Army out of Burma, Malay Peninsula in as much a time as the Japanese Army captured Malaya Peninsula, Singapore and Burma (now Myanmar). Bill Slim had Lt Gen Montagu Stopford as Commander of 33 Corps in Upper Assam, Lt Gen Scoones, as Commander of 4th Corps in Manipur (Imphal) and Lt Gen Christison, as Commander of 15th Corps in Arakan. In the Kangla Fort area of Imphal, there is still a cottage known as “Slim Cottage”, where Bill Slim used to stay whenever he came to Imphal. Some side stories concerning Field Marshal Viscount Slim may be interesting.

26. Field Marshal Viscount Alanbrooke was the CIGS (Chief of Imperial General Staff) of the United Kingdom during the Second World War. Though his term had expired, he continued to be CIGS, so as to ensure continuity of war policy. After the end of the war, he was replaced by FM Viscount Montgomery who defeated German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel at the Battle of Tunisia, May 1943. When Monty was to retire, Prime Minister Aneurin Bevan suggested Bill Slim’s name as successor CIGS. Sir Winston Churchill (the retired or ousted PM after defeat in elections) objected on the ground that Bill Slim commanded only British Indian Army formations and never commanded true British Army formations. Thereupon, PM Bevan suggested to Churchill that he might please convey to Bill Slim that he was being superseded for not commanding real British Army formations. Churchill responded “Why should I?” With no one having the courage to talk to Bill Slim, he became CIGS.

27. Bill Slim, as Commander of 14th British Indian Army used to attend discussions of war plans with Admiral Lord Mountbatten, the Supreme Commander of Pacific and Asian Theatre of the Second World War. Always, Bill used to take his 1/3 Gorkha orderly in the military aircraft while going to Delhi. The Supreme Commander suggested innocently that Bill need not bring his Gorkha orderly, since the Supreme Commander could provide another Gorkha orderly at New Delhi. Bill Slim replied that his Gorkha orderly war part of himself, the Army Commander, because while packing his luggage, his Gorkha Johnny never forgot what to carry like his uniforms, handkerchiefs, operational orders, war maps, top-secret documents etc. and he would be a useless Army Commander without his Gorkha orderly.

28. The great grandson of Her Majesty Queen Victoria and her Royal Consort, the Duke of Battenburg opened his royal blue eyes wide and muttered “Bill, do you mean that your Gorkha Johnny knows everything about op-orders, war maps and top secret documents etc?.” Bill Slim clarified “My Lord, my Gorkha Johnny is a harmless, illiterate fellow and he manages to draw his signature on pay-bills. There is nothing to make us doubt about his loyalty and faith on the British Royalty, you and me.” The Supreme Commander, Lord Mountbatten shrugged his shoulders and muttered “Bill, do as you please. But, win battles and win this war.” Indeed, Field Marshal Bill Slim won battles for his nation, and helped in winning the war. The saying goes “In war, winning is the thing”. In fact, “In war, winning is the ONLY thing”.

29. While in CME doing YO course, I was alone enjoying a glass of chilled beer in the Officers’ Mess in one afternoon of a hot summer day. Unfortunately, I was close to the eastern entrance door, where the Officers’ Mess telephone was kept. The bloody stupid machine rang. I ignored it, since I had never used a wretched telephone in my life. It stopped ringing. After a few seconds, it rang again. No one was nearby. I continued to ignore it as I was afraid. The machine stopped again. A few seconds later, the dreaded machine rang again. Then, I decided to have a fling at it. I picked up the receiver and said “Hello” into the mouthpiece. The caller asked for Lt. so-and-so. I told the caller “There are hundreds of Lts. in CME”. By this time, my hands trembled and my voice quivered. Curtly, I said “He is not available” and put the receiver down. I was perspiring. That was a mighty event in my life.

30. After YO course, I was posted to 759 Engineer Plant Platoon located at Kimin on the foothills of Himalayan Ranges of North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) now Arunachal Pradesh. We were part of HQ 640 Northern Troop Engineers commanded by Lt. Col. Sundaram, located at an unused airfield at Missamari, Assam like our Koirengei Airfield, Imphal.

*The essay is written by H Bhuban Singh.

(Courtesy: The Sangai Express)

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One Comment

  1. L Thoitak says:

    Great journey Col. I enjoy reading your articles. I wish we have more educated people like you. I do feel that sometimes with your experiences in life and having met many distinguished people, maybe that gap put you out of place with your political peers. But that is democracy. Else only educated or distinguished people would have been our reps. In all fairness, it will be nice to catch up with you and discuss about life and your views in general (over whisky).
    God Bless!!