Winning a Victoria Cross — the highest gallantry award an Indian soldier could get before Independence, like the Param Vir Chakra today — is a rarest of rare events. It is born out of a conjugation of stars when audacity, temerity and daredevilry combine with luck to make ordinary mortals perform feats of battle-madness in the face of extreme risk, and the enemy. Gorkhas have a flair for risk taking as many are not familiar with danger. Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw once famously said: “Anyone who says he does not know fear is either lying or a Gorkha”.
However, the following stories about valour and courage are bewilderingly true. One battalion of the Indian Army — the Second Battalion, Fifth Gorkha Rifles, Frontier Force — achieved the unthinkable. It got three Victoria Crosses in the second Burma campaign during World War II, all within 14 months and two within the same action. The Second Battalion Fifth Gorkha Rifles (Second-Five) had got a drubbing from the Japanese on both sides of the Sittang River crossing in February 1942. It was reduced to half its strength of 880, mostly due to non-swimming Gorkhas being caught on the wrong side of the river when the bridge on it was blown up. Many were taken as prisoners, or went missing. Another battalion — First Battalion, Third Gorkha Rifles — faced worst depletion. It was amalgamated with Second-Five to constitute the Fifth Battalion, Third Gorkha Rifles (Five-Three GR) with a commanding officer from Second-Five.
The three actions that got the Second-Five the VC took place along one axis — Tiddim to Imphal — to prevent the Japanese from taking Imphal. All three were classic infantry battles entailing the use of silencing machine guns, lobbing grenades into bunkers and assaulting gun emplacements, culminating in hand to hand combat using bayonets, khukuris and stones and the ultimate weapon of faith, the cry, “Aayo Gorkhali”. In defence or in attack, battles were fought to the last man, last round, the wounded refusing evacuation and the leaders at the front. Compare this with today’s stand-off combat with missiles and drones where the assault is mounted from another continent by remote control.
Fifth VC winning actions were of a different kind. The first action on May 26, 1943, was on Basha Hill to stem Japanese advance. Havaldar Gaje Ghale leading his platoon was asked to evict the Japanese. Ghale and the raw recruits he led had not been baptised under fear. Even then, he shepherded them, while being under fire from a dozen machine guns, across the killing zone into the lion’s den. Ghale would take one lot and return to guide the second along the narrow ledge criss-crossed by all manner of small arms and indirect fire. On his third sortie, Ghale received multiple wounds but refused to be evacuated, fighting doggedly till the Japanese yielded.
The second VC battle on June 26 1944 was in Bishenpur when Subedar Netra Bahadur Thapa was ordered to take Mortar Bluff under Japanese assault. With a reinforced platoon, Thapa sneaked into Mortar Bluff and held it. The perimeter defence withstood several deadly Japanese assaults. Luck deserted the platoon as two machine guns became unusable and stock of ammunition sunk. With several wounded, Thapa rallied his men to hold fast. The ammunition re-supply team was wounded as Japanese entered the post. He called for artillery fire on his own post and fell, fighting a memorable action with khukuri in one hand and the head of a Japanese in the other.
The third VC action on June 26, followed immediately to recapture Mortar Bluff and Water Picquet. Leading his section, Naik Agan Singh Rai’s heroic action not only regained Mortar Bluff but also led to the capture of Water Picquet. At both places, Rai single-handedly covered by his section and artillery, charged gun emplacement killing their crew. Rai’s battle heroics became stuff of legends. In his village in Nepal after his retirement, Rai re-enacted for me, both the battles in a spellbinding one-man sound and light show.
On November 9 in Dehradun, the next of kin of the three Victoria Cross winners will be honoured on the 133rd Raising Day of Second Five. Hundreds of veterans from Nepal and India will meet to remember not just the VC winners but other brave soldiers of the battalion who were recognised in battle, and many who went unsung. The whiff of Five-Three GR will return after 77 years as the present commanding officer is from One-Three GR which is co-located with Second Five in Dehradun. The toast to the President will be drunk with Old Monk rum, though some diehards will prefer Nepal’s traditional jhol, kodo.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 9, 2019 under the title ‘A rare courage’. The writer is a former Commanding Officer of the Second Battalion, Fifth Gorkha Rifles