Col Shamsher Singh’s Life Less Ordinary

A good soldier is never caught with his pants down, even if he has been caught with his pants down. Confused? Read on.

ByLt Gen H S Panag
Col Shamsher Singh’s Life Less Ordinary
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The story of Colonel Shamsher Singh would not be complete if I do not narrate some anecdotes that will give you a sense of why he commanded the kind of respect and admiration that he did.

From the period May 19 to July 31, 1948, when a battle of wits raged between the 1 Patiala Garrison (under Major Shamsher Singh) and the Gilgit Scouts on the heights around Zozila-Gumri-Machoi-Island. Readers will recall that the Garrison was occupying posts held by small teams and the Gilgit Scouts were infiltrating to attack the same in order to reach Zozila.

One such post in the Gumri area was held by a platoon under a Jemadar (now the rank that is known as Naib Subedar). Sometimes in June, the Gilgit Scouts closed up to this isolated post and surrounded it. The Jemadar lost his nerve and panicked. “Major Sahib hamari akhiri Sat Siri Akal, dushman bahut tadad mein hai aur hum sab marne wale hain (Sir, this is our last salutation, the enemy is in large strength and we are all about to die).” Shamsher told him not to panic and quickly organised his reserve to move for the counter attack.

The post was two hours’ march. As Shamsher with the reserve closed up to the post, he found the Jemadar with 10 men running down in panic. The Jemadar was deliriously blabbering on about heavy casualties. A tight slap from Shamsher brought him to his senses and he explained the situation. Shamsher knew from experience that in battle, the situation is never as bad as a panicked soldier describes it. He decided to counter-attack to recapture the post. The remnants were reorganised and merged with the mobile reserve. After an hour’s climb, the troops started closing up to the post by fire and movement. The post was out of range for mortars and there was no artillery support. This meant they had to rely on only Light Machine Guns to cover the movement.

As the troops closed up to 75 yards, choicest Punjabi abuses were heard from the post. Shamsher wondered if Punjabi Musalman troops have been inducted to assist the Gilgit Scouts. However, on a hunch he shouted, the Patiala battle cry, “Jo bole so nihal ” and the response came from the post, “Sat Siri Akal.”  It turned out that the post was still being held by six young jawans who had recently joined the unit from Patiala. The youngsters had been unaware that their Jemadar had bolted. They’d held their ground and defeated the enemy. All six had bullet wounds or shrapnel injuries. When the enemy had attacked, everyone had been struck with fear and virtually given up. Then the youngest of them unleashed a barrage of abuse on the enemy. His aggressive verbal profanity inspired everyone to rally and save the post!

The Jemadar was taken to task. A Veer Chakra was awarded for this operation. Yes, it went to the young leader who used “abuse” as a weapon to rally his colleagues and thwart the enemy.

Major Shamsher Sigh controlled the battle from his Command Post at Gumri. Due to enemy sniping, morning ablutions had to be finished well before dawn. There was no time and the battle situation did not allow creation of proper toilets.  One day, well before dawn, Shamsher, with his pistol in the canvas holster, took his shovel to dig a shallow pit for the morning routine and ventured a little distance away from the Command Post. As he sat behind a bush on his haunches, he saw a Gilgit Scouts sniper crawling to get into position to fire at the Command Post. The sniper was oblivious to Shamsher’s presence as his back was to him, but Shamsher also had been literally caught with his pants down. The distance was three to five yards. Any movement to take the pistol out of the holster would have alerted the sniper. Reflexively, Shamsher got up and leapt on the back of the prone sniper and pinned him down. The Sniper fought back and a wrestling match ensued.

In the struggle the Sniper’s rifle got discharged. The shot alerted the protection section from the Command Post, who rushed to the scene. The Sniper was overpowered and made a prisoner of war. The jawans had a big laugh on noticing Shamsher’s pants and drawers around his ankles. Shamsher retained the .303 No 4 Mark 1 Rifle with the telescope as a souvenir, along with the Sniper’s poshteen (sheepskin) jacket of the Sniper. I learnt my firing with this rifle and had many successful shikar kills over the next four decades.

Another interesting tale from Zozila is about a local villager from Gumri, who was assisting the Patiala Garrison as a porter. It is pertinent to record that the success of the Indian Army to a great extent was due the hardy porters of this area who carried the ammunition and supplies, and evacuated the casualties. A number of them lost their lives. The heroic action of one particular porter stands out.

During the first week of July 1948, the Gilgit Scouts, now supported by a battery of artillery composed of 3.7 Inch Howitzer / 4.2 Inch Mortars and 3 Inch Mortars, attacked a post called Picquet No 1, which was the key to the Gumri defenses. The intention of the enemy was to sever the link to Machoi. The post was held by a platoon less one sec, which meant 20-25 soldiers. An intense battle raged over four days. Many heroic actions were fought. In one particular action, a soldier was badly wounded and fell over a cliff into an area under enemy domination. He was given up for dead.

After 24 hours, Major Shamsher saw some movement in the area where the soldier had fallen. One of the porters volunteered to investigate. He crawled up to the area. His movement immediately drew enemy fire. Disregarding the risk to his life, the porter brought back the wounded soldier. The intestines of the young soldier were falling out of the stomach and he pleaded to be shot to end the agony. He was given a shot of rum. The intestines were thrust back into the stomach and the gaping wound was sealed with an anklet (a canvass contraption worn over the trouser bottom and ankle). The same porter carried him down to the road from where he was taken to Sonamarg. The soldier survived. I had a chance to meet him 30 years later when he came to meet Colonel Shamsher Singh. For his heroic act, the porter was awarded a Vir Chakra, the first to be awarded to a civilian. In 1988, when 15 Punjab (1 Patiala) was located at Drass and Zozila Day was celebrated there, the celebration included a trip to Gumri. Colonel Shamsher Singh described the battle to all officers of 28 Infantry Division, which had then been responsible for the area. The old porter was also called to meet the veterans. Shamsher hugged him and took him aside for a private chat. Once out of earshot, Shamsher told the old porter that he was an imposter and not the same braveheart. The “imposter” fell on Shamsher’s feet and confessed that the hero had died a year ago and the family did not want to lose the monthly award money. Hence, as a lookalike, the younger brother he had been claiming the award money. Shamsher understood the family’s situation and kept their secret.

On promotion to the rank of Lt Col , Shamsher was transferred to the Sikh Regiment. He commanded 17 Sikh from December 1952 to December 1954 at Agra. A notable incident from this tenure was recounted by me in an earlier column. In December 1954, the Army Headquarters decided that all state forces’ officers who were transferred to the Indian Army will forego one and a half years of seniority and those promoted will revert back to their substantive rank. Shamsher was brought down to his substantive rank of Major despite having successfully commanded his battalion for two years. This was a major disappointment, but he took it in his stride. He served in 4 Sikh for next one and a half years as the Second in Command. In 1956, he took over the Command of 18 Sikh in 1956, which was a notorious battalion. Shamsher took over the unit after a Jawan had been tortured to death for petty theft. The Commanding Officer, Subedar Major and a few soldiers had been court-martialled and punished.

In six months, Shamsher made 18 Sikh into an efficient unit and was in the process of restoring its lost glory when the newly-appointed Army Chief General Thimayya visited Mathura, where the unit was located in July 1957.

Shamsher’s association with General Thimayya went back to Zozila. The General had marched with 77 Para Brigade Headquarters behind the tanks from Zozila to Drass. Supplies were short and apart from the enemy action, the extreme cold made the going very tough. The administration of the Brigade Headquarters was rather poor, but the General was tough man and roughed it out with the troops. After a week, one early morning, the General visited 1 Patiala, which was leading the advance. When the General asked about the administration, Shamsher replied, “Sir, it could not be better!” Taking it as a subordinate’s exaggerated claim, the General quipped, “Then I suppose, 1 Patiala can give me a hot breakfast.” Shamsher kept quiet, but on his signal, a few soldiers raced forward. At the next halt, General Thimayya was served fried eggs, paranthas and chicken with the Jawans apologising for lack of bread. Shamsher explained that 1 Patiala had mastered the art of self-containment after six years in Second World War and one year’s continuous battle in Jammu and Kashmir. Anticipating the administrative problems beyond Zozila, each soldier was carrying 10 eggs, one live chicken, 10 pinnis (sweetmeat balls made from reduced milk, wheat flour and desi ghee) and a bottle of desi ghee in addition to three days’ worth of standard rations. This stock was replaced as and when the mule column fetched supplies. General Thimayya was so impressed that he implemented 1 Patiala model in all of J&K.

The Chief was not aware that Lt Col Shamsher Singh was commanding this unit of 18Sikh. In his address to the garrison, based on the notorious reputation of 18 Sikh, the Chief mentioned that the unit deserved to be disbanded. Later, in the officer’s mess General Thimayya warmly met Shamsher and asked about his wellbeing. Shamsher replied, “Sir, still surviving after your announcement about the disbandment of my unit, without assessing the present state of the unit. I challenge any unit of our army to compete with 18 Sikh in any field.” The Chief gave a patient hearing when Shamsher explained the measures taken by him to rejuvenate the unit. General Thimayya, then in presence of all officers of the brigade, apologised to Shamsher. However, the Divisional and Brigade Commander were not amused by Shamsher’s impertinence and decided to put him in place during the test exercise that was due shortly.

The 43 Lorried Brigade was part of 1 Armoured Division and consisted of three Infantry Battalions equipped with 60 Dodge Power Wagon four-wheel drive vehicles. These vehicles had very good cross-country mobility and each vehicle could carry a fully-equipped, infantry section. The units also tracked carriers for carriage of mortars and machine guns. The 43 Lorried Brigade operated in conjunction with 1 Armoured Brigade, which consisted of three armoured regiments equipped with Sherman tanks. The concept of Battle Groups was being introduced wherein each battle group consisted one armoured and one infantry battalion. The Battle Group was generally commanded by the Commanding Officer (CO) of the Armoured Regiment as the infantry battalion was in a supporting role. During the test exercise, the CO of the Armoured Regiment was declared a casualty and CO 18 Sikh was ordered to assume command of the Battle Group. The ulterior motive was based on the assumption that Shamsher being an infantry officer was not well versed in armour tactics and would be put in his place. The Divisional and Brigade Commander were unaware of Shamsher’s cavalry and armoured car background.

Shamsher, always ready to seize an opportunity, took radio control of the Battle Group and gave crisp radio orders, much to the surprise of both subordinates and superiors. In the exercise, he manoeuvred the Battle Group with finesse to grudging appreciation of the superiors. The objective to be invested was 15 kilometres away when the umpires painted a picture that due an unfordable river, the tanks and wheeled vehicles could only cross after the bridge was constructed, imposing a delay of four hours. Shamsher directed 18 Sikh to dismount, cross the river with improvised expedients and race for the objective. The unit moving tactically on foot covered the distance in 2.5 hours, surprised the enemy and captured the objective. The reputation of Shamsher as a man of action was confirmed once again and 18 Sikh was declared the best all round unit of the Armoured Division.

Within one year, 18 Sikh moved to Punch in J&K. The General Officer Commanding (GOC) of 25 Division, Major General K C Katoch, was not aware that the unit had redeemed its reputation and based on the happenings of the past, decided to admonish and warn the unit. A Sainik Sammelan was organised. During his address, the GOC launched into a tirade, rebuking the unit. Shamsher was sitting on the dais next to the GOC. He got up from his chair and moved a short distance and stood with his back to the GOC. The GOC abruptly ended the Sainik Sammelan and asked Shamsher to see him in his office. Shamsher entered the office and before the GOC could say anything, he took off his belt (symbolic of being placed under arrest) and placed it on the table. “Sir, I am the CO of 18 Sikh,” he said. “You cannot rebuke my men as long as I am in Command.  I am ready to face a court-martial for my misdemeanour!” The GOC apologised and left the office!

Shamsher went on to command the Sikh Regimental Centre for five years in two spells, from 1959 to 1963 and 1965 to 1966. This was the period of expansion of the Indian Army. During his tenure, approximately 25,000 recruits graduated after training. He retired on July 8, 1966 at the age of 50. After a five-year spell in Border Security Force, he immersed himself in social work. Our village and surrounding five villages were made model villages with toilets, street lights, proper schools and paved streets. He also used his administrative skills to set up a modern, public school and college at Fatehgarh Sahib.

When he died on August 6, 2012, hundreds of his former army comrades as well as common people turned up to pay their last respects. All were unanimous in their view that he was certainly ‘the man’ in war and peace, and a role model to cherish.

You can read part one and part two of this series here.

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