Book: A Tale of Two Victoria Crosses
Author: Lt Gen Baljit Singh
Publication: Pentagon Press
Price: Rs 415
Decorated soldiers have a pride of place in regimental histories. Their actions in the face of the enemy are extolled in the war records of the unit which took part in that particular battle and the exploits of such soldiers are used to enthuse new entrants into the regimental fold. A Tale of Two Victoria Crosses is a slim but very informative volume by Lt Gen Baljit Singh (retd), formerly of the Regiment of Artillery, primarily about a young infantry lieutenant who lost his place in the annals of the Indian Army despite having been decorated with the Victoria Cross (VC), the highest British gallantry award. Lt Karamjeet Singh Judge won the VC posthumously in Burma (now Myanmar) in World War II, while serving with the 4th Battalion of the 15th Punjab Regiment.
After Partition, this battalion was allotted to the Pakistan Army, where it was re-named — it is now the 12 Punjab. The author argues that there are strong leads to suggest that Karamjeet’s company from the erstwhile 4/15 Punjab was transferred to the Sikh Regiment of Indian Army, but this is not recorded in official history. So while the Indian battalions and regiments who took part in the World Wars keep the memories of their decorated soldiers alive, Lt Judge’s battlefield exploits seem to have been lost to history.
“Much of the recorded regimental history pertaining to Karamjeet’s Company and the deeds of its individuals got wiped out in the process of the subdivision of the erstwhile monolithic Indian Army,” writes Lt Gen Singh, “and Karamjeet’s name remains confined almost entirely to the pages of VC history.” Lt Judge’s VC has been reduced to a mere statistic, whereas it should be cherished by both the Indian Punjab Regiment and the 12 Punjab of Pakistan Army, “because battlefield valour transcends boundaries of friend and foe.”
The book is an emotional outpouring of the author, whose first commanding officer, Lt Col Ajit Singh Judge, was the elder brother of Karamjeet. He describes in detail the action in the Battle of Meiktila in which Lt Judge laid down his life and was awarded the VC, and even managed to track down the British tank commander who witnessed the action and wrote the citation for his decoration.
An interesting aspect of Lt Gen Baljit Singh’s efforts is the manner in which he links a British officer, Lt John Symth of 15 Sikhs, with Lt Karamjeet Singh Judge. Lt Smyth won his VC in the Battle of Ypres in World War I and according to the author, the young Indian officer and his brother were both inspired to join the Indian Army when they saw a poster depicting Smyth in Jalandhar. “Chalo, aapaan vi ik-ik Victoria Cross lae ke aayiae Bhraah-ji,” (Come, let’s also win a Victoria Cross each, brother) Karamjeet is quoted as saying to his brother before signing up for the Army.
Coincidentally, Smythe was a major general commanding an infantry division in Burma in the World War II, where the young lieutenant he had inspired was also serving, although in a different theatre. While Lt Judge ultimately won a VC inspired by Smythe, unfortunately, the latter’s military career ended in ignominy when he was divested of his command for an operational failure and reduced from his acting rank of major general to lieutenant colonel.
The book has some rare photographs of Symthe and Karamjeet, and though the protagonists’ character could have been sketched with more detail, it is a valiant effort to perpetuate the memory of Karamjeet Singh Judge. The epilogue sums up its raison d’etre, “This book is humbly published for the reinstatement of Lt Karamjeet Singh Judge, VC (Posthumous) among the pantheon of war heroes of both the Indian Army’s Punjab Regiment and Sikh Regiments and 12 Punjab, Pakistan Army.”