Three Victoria Crosses for Second Fifth Gorkhas are a reminder of unparalleled action that prevented the Japanese army from reaching India
Three Victoria Cross-winning actions of a single unit along the Tiddim-Bishenpur-Imphal road and one unknown British Sergeant and seven soldiers in a trench along with others at Garrison Hill in Kohima during World War II prevented the Japanese from reaching India. The twin thrusts of an overstretched Japanese Army, one aiming for Dimapur and the other Imphal, were thwarted in the spring of 1944. This remarkable recovery of the British Indian Army, decimated in the first Burma War, across the Sittang river and in full retreat chased by the Japanese is encapsulated in Field Marshal Slim’s book Defeat Into Victory. The casualties were crippling. The leftovers of 2/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force), which had taken 400 casualties, their strength down to half at 400 all ranks, and 1/3 Gorkha Rifles reduced to 200 all ranks were amalgamated into 5/3 GR with the Commanding Officer from 2/5 GR.
The debacle astride the Sittang river occurred on February 23, 1942 when in a maze of confusion, the Sittang Bridge was blown off, leaving many non-swimming Gorkha battalions on the wrong side as they were forced to conduct a fighting withdrawal. It was along this axis that Second Fifth fought three VC actions preventing the Japanese from outflanking Bishenpur and reaching Imphal. Kohima stemmed the northern Japanese sweep at Garrison Hill where the unknown British Sergeant, the last to die in his trench, etched on a stone in his blood, the epic epitaph: When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today.
The rejuvenated Burma Army was back advancing to Tiddim to keep Japanese forces at bay. The first VC action fought by Second Fifth on May 26, 1943 was at Basha Hill East under the untested leadership of the never been under fire, Havildar Gaje Ghale, and his platoon of raw recruits. Ghale was tasked with capturing Basha Hill, which was heavily defended by the Japanese with a network of machine guns. Undaunted, Ghale led a series of attacks and despite suffering multiple wounds, pressed on the attacks unrelentingly. He was awarded a Victoria Cross for unsurpassed bravery, courage and leadership. It is reported that two Japanese officers of Major General rank were killed in the week-long battle to stop Japanese advance.
Fast forward to June 25, 1944 for the second VC action. The Japanese advance to Imphal had to be checked. Second Fifth was deployed around Bishenpur gateway to Imphal. Three outlying posts — Water Piquet, Mortar Bluff and BP Piquet — covering the road and Silchar Track came under attack. These had to be held at all cost. Mortar Bluff was reinforced by Subedar Netra Bahadur Thapa with 41 bravehearts who withstood intermittent Japanese attacks. Hopelessly outnumbered and running out of ammunition, Thapa rallied the survivors calling for red on red artillery fire on his own post. Six men sent with ammunition were brought down but Thapa fetched the ammunition and continued fighting by counter-attacking the Japanese who had entered his post. The Japanese swarmed the post but not before Thapa held the post, virtually last man last round. Thapa was found khukuri in hand and dead Japanese by his side with a cleft skull. For his valour, tenacity and leadership, he was awarded the VC posthumously.
The recapturing of Mortar Bluff and Water Picquet next morning, June 26, by Naik Agan Singh Rai and his company bagged the third VC. In an epic infantry action, Rai rushed up with his section towards Mortar Bluff and found his men pinned down by a 37 mm gun in the jungle. Displaying daredevilry, Rai charged at the gun and silenced it but fire from Water Picquet had to be silenced also. In another fit of battle madness, Rai assaulted the machine gun bunker, holding up their advance. His company broke the Japanese defences and swiftly recaptured Water Picquet. Wresting Mortar Bluff by Rai followed so quickly on the epic defence by Thapa as to make it “one battle.” Rai won the Victoria Cross. Never before have two VCs been won in a single action in less than 24 hours. Precisely 70 years after the Bishenpur action, the battalion returned to these very hills, chasing Naga and Kuki insurgents instead of Japanese, who have built a war monument to their dead in Bishenpur. No Infantry battalion has ever won three VCs in a single campaign, earning the title “VC Battalion.” In the battle of Imjin in Korea, 1 Gloucester Regiment won two VCs in April 1951, both by British officers. The biggest collective award of VCs was 28 in the Second Relief of Lucknow Siege during the 1857 War of Independence. At Rorke’s Drift, 2/24 Foot won seven VCs in 1879 during the Zulu War.
Another epic small unit battle was fought by Second Fifth in Waziristan in March 1937 near Damdil at Number 11 Picquet. Naik Nandlal Ghale with six men and a signaller were manning this post. The picquet was connected by telephone and could signal SOS with a very light pistol and signalling lamp. The warlord, Faqir of Ipi, who ruled the frontier badlands, was opposed to foreign troops. Ipi’s thugs swarmed the post, killing two sentries and wounding all six of the defenders who engaged in hand-to-hand fight with bayonets and khukuris despite injuries. The tribals fled as Second Fifth prevented the loss of Number 11 Picquet. The six defenders won two Indian Orders of Merit and four Indian Distinguished Service Medals.
In the post-independence wars, the Second Fifth won several Mahavir and Vir Chakras, one Shaurya Chakra and hundreds of other awards. In Congo with UN in 1962, it fought the first Chapter 7 military operation against Katangese gendarmerie winning gallantry awards. The two VCs, Gaje Ghale and Agan Singh Rai, accompanied the unit though VC awardees were forbidden entering operational areas. In Dehradun tomorrow, the battalion will commemorate belatedly the platinum jubilee of the VCs and 133rd Raising Day, tracing its origins to Abbottabad on November 10, 1886. Busloads of veterans with their families have arrived from Nepal to rejoice their battle feats and remember the many Bahadurs, no longer among them. Over the next 48 hours, the zest, spirit, tenacity and even revelry shown in Dehradun will be no less than the raw courage and guile displayed by the venerated elders at Bishenpur and Basha Hills.
The battalion motto Kafarhunubhandamarno jati (better to die than be a coward) is fired by battle cry Ayo Gorkhali.
(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army and founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the revamped Integrated Defence Staff)
Saturday, 09 November 2019 | Ashok K Mehta | in Opinion
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