SUPREME SACRIFICE AT MONTE CASSINO
The Story of India’s First George Cross Awardee
Monte Cassino, the historic, hilltop monastery a hundred miles south of Rome, founded in AD 529 by Benedict of Nursia, dominates the nearby town of Cassino and entrances to the Liri and Rapido Valleys in southern Italy. The structure that a tourist to the ancient monastery sees today however is not that old. On 15 February 1944, at the height of the Second World War, American bombers dropped 1400 tons of high explosives on the monastery reducing it to rubble. A repentant US Government would indeed reconstruct the entire structure after the war.
The bombing of the Monte Cassino, one of the most foolish operations of the entire war, was precipitated by a perception based on flawed intelligence that German troops were occupying the monastery. That would have advantaged them with observation posts to direct artillery fire on the Allied troops advancing northward up the valleys below, after landing on the southern tip of the Italian Peninsula in late 1943. As it happened, the bombing proved counterproductive. The Germans, who had not occupied the monastery earlier to avoid offending the clergy, now found the rubble ideal for defensive positions. Bolstering the ruins with barbed wire, mines and booby traps, they created a formidable defence line-up, rendering its forward approaches into what would come to be notoriously named the ‘Death Valley’ by the assaulting troops. It would take another three months and four murderous assaults for the Allies to capture Monte Cassino and overrun the German Gustav Line of winter defence that ran to either side of the hill, which would benchmark Battle of Monte Cassino, often referred to as the Battle for Rome, as one of the fiercest encounters of the war.
The famed 4th Indian Infantry ‘Red Eagle’ Division that had been part of the VIII British Army since its North African Campaign earlier in the war, joined the Italian Campaign landing at Taranto on the Adriatic Coast to the east of the peninsula in December 1943. It was then moved to the Sangro Sector and placed under command of the 5th US Army operating along the west coast. The US formation, successfully crossing the river Rapido early in February, deployed the Indian division to attack Monte Cassino from the north. The daunting task of staging the first assault after the bombing fell on the division. While the Rajput and Gurkha infantry troops took up the assault, their main sapper cover was provided by two companies of the Madras Sappers, 11 Field Park and 12 Field.
As the battle raged, on 24 February 1944, Jemadar Jagat Singh, a VCO (present-day JCO) of the Electrical and Mechanical Engineers strayed into a minefield. Lieutenant Young, commanding the EME detachment was desperately seeking help to rescue his VCO. 32-year old Subedar K Subramaniam of the 11 Field Park Company volunteered to lead a breaching team. He moved in front with a mine detector, while an NCO, Lance Naik Sigamani, followed him closely, marking the breached path with a white tape, with the rest of the team following. There was a sudden blip that came from behind Subramaniam. A veteran of mine warfare for long, he did not fail to discern instantly that Sigamani behind had stepped over an anti-personal mine. In four seconds from the blip the canister would be thrown into the air and explode, in all probability taking the whole team with it. In a split second decision of incomparable bravery, the Subedar pushed the NCO away and hurled himself down on the device, absorbing the blast with his body. Amazingly, he lived for a couple of minutes more as his comrades, the young British officer, who had accompanied the team, among them, stood stunned around him. Then he breathed his last, evidently content that he had saved the lives of his men.
Subedar Subramaniam was awarded the George Cross, the highest British award for gallantry while not in direct combat with enemy. He was the first Indian recipient of this award (The award, which is the equivalent of the present-day Ashok Chakra of India, was originally instituted by the British to honour the gallantry of police and fire service personnel during the Battle of Britain earlier in the war, but was later extended to the armed forces as well. Mine warfare was not considered direct combat by the British at that time and therefore the acts of gallantry therein were not counted eligible for regular military awards like Victoria Cross, Military Cross, etc. Such discrimination no more exists in the Indian Army and mine warfare is very much treated as direct combat.). The young widow of Subramaniam received the George Cross from Lord Archibald Wavell, the Viceroy of India in a special ceremony.
The Sangro River Cremation Memorial in Italy erected in memory of the soldiers from India who fell fighting in Italy during the Second World War and were cremated there, and the Memorial Gates on Constitution Hill in London that commemorates the Allied dead of that war, carry Subramaniam’s name. Sadly, in his own country and State he remains largely forgotten. The sole memorial honouring this war hero in the country is a memorial built by the authorities of Kancheepuram district of Tamil Nadu in the village of Keelottivakkam where he hailed from. The Madras Engineer Group (MEG) to which Subramaniam belonged, remembers him with a day named after him, when a commemorative event is held. A new JCO’s Mess constructed in the Centre in Bangalore in 1992 is named after him. For generations of young recruits inducted into the Madras Sappers, he has remained an icon and his act of valour continues to be an eternal source of inspiration for all Indian Sappers and the soldiering fraternity of the country.
Subedar Subramaniam was a second generation soldier of his family. His father, Subedar Major (later Honorary Lieutenant) Kannayiram, also rendered illustrious service in arms with the Madras Sappers and Miners, the same combat engineer group with which his son served and died.
Colours of Glory Foundation, as part of its ongoing efforts to promote awareness of India’s proud military heritage, held a public meeting in Chennai on 27 May 2017 to honour the memory of this gallant soldier, wherein his 77-year old son, Shri O S Durailingam, a retired businessman and the sole survivor of his immediate family, was felicitated.[Image: Mr. O S Durailingam, son of Sub K Subramaniam, GC (P) addressing the commemorative meeting to honour the memory of his father. Chennai, 27 May 2017.)