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The tale of a gunner who would rather die than abandon his gun

“This here tank is my home”. That memorable line of Brad Pitt cast as a tank commander in Fury, the successful war movie of recent times, holding out against a horde of enemy with his lone tank, generated a lot of excitement among war-movie buffs. Why, in our own recent military history the legendary last words of Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal refusing to abandon his crippled tank when ordered to do so, “No Sir, my gun is still firing….” has become an iconic example of valour. To a soldier his weapon, whether it’s an infantryman’s rifle, a cavalryman’s tank or an artilleryman’s gun, isn’t just a piece of equipment, but a living entity, the constant companion he lives with and dies for if necessary. In the lexicon of Indian war heroes no one carried this sentiment to such unbelievable extent like Havildar Umrao Singh of 33 Indian Mountain Artillery in the Second World War.

It was December 1944. Kohima had been won and William Slim’s XIV Army was in hot pursuit of the retreating Japanese. 33 Mountain Artillery, equipped with 3.7-inch Howitzers were advancing along the Kaladan Valley in the Arakan forming part of 81 West African Division headed for Myohaung. The advancing column was under constant harassment by pockets of Japanese holding out to exact as damaging a toll as possible. They fought viciously with their hit-and-run and tactics, also bringing down artillery fire on the advancing column. To counter the enemy artillery our own guns were grouped with the leading brigade so that they could engage the enemy gun positions when they opened up. The guns did leapfrogging to keep up speed of the advance while ensuring constant cover to the advancing infantry.

On 15 December the advance was being led by 8 Gold Coast Regiment of 5 West African Brigade when its leading platoons came under enemy fire. The Gold Coast men cleared the opposition in a swift counter-attack, but later, as night fell, had to call a halt and take up defensive position. Havildar Umrao Singh’s battery less one section was deployed in the Divisional Area. The Gold Coast infantry was to protect the guns. Umrao was the detachment commander of one of the guns in the forward gun position.

Around 2100 hours the Japanese began shelling the position heavily. The shelling lasted for an hour and as soon as it ceased our guns began counter-bombardment. Soon the enemy infantry attacked and managed to penetrate the Gold Coast cordon and reach the forward gun position. Despite putting up a tenacious fight the Gold Coast men couldn’t isolate the gun position from the enemy. With the gun position under assault Umrao and his detachment took up posts in the fall-back trenches and returned the enemy fire. By the time they had fought off two assaults most of the detachment were either killed or seriously wounded with only Umrao, wounded but still on his feet, left to carry on the fight.

As the Japanese launched yet another assault Umrao picked up his section’s Bren Gun and mowed them down. Finding a breather as the Japanese pulled back he scouted around and found two of his men who could drag themselves to their feet. Between the three of them, with hardly any ammunition left, they put up a desperate fight to save the gun as the Japanese charged at them once again. His two comrades were down soon and Umrao found himself standing near the gun all alone with no ammunition left in his weapon, as the enemy came at him for the kill. Undeterred he grabbed the gun bearer, the long iron rod used for supporting the gun while it is unscrewed, and flung himself at them in a murderous rage. Incredibly, he killed three of them before collapsing beside his gun utterly exhausted. He knew it or not then, the enemy had been beaten back.

Our troops found Umrao early next morning lying near his gun, gravely wounded but breathing, with the gun bearer still clutched in his hand. A couple of badly mauled Japanese dead lay scattered around him. It was estimated that about two companies of Japs had staged the night’s attack. Umrao’s gun was found absolutely intact and was put back into action soon. He himself was of course evacuated with multiple injuries which took a long time to heal. His legendary heroism, which has no parallels among gunners the world over, was duly rewarded when he was personally decorated by King George VI at Buckingham Palace two months after the war ended. During his subsequent army career of another 20 years he was promoted Subedar Major (Honorary Captain).

Post Script:

Hon Capt Umrao Singh VC (Retd) was in London in 1995 to attend the 50th anniversary celebration of WWII victory. Coming out of Westminster Abbey after the function, he had to wait to cross the road to get to where his car was parked. The Deputy Prime Minister of UK, Michael Heseltine, who happened to be passing by, stopped his car seeing the Victoria Cross winner by the roadside, stepped out and saluted before introducing himself. When the veteran soldier returned the compliment and thanked the minister for inviting him for the event Heseltine replied, “It’s we British who must thank you and the Indian Armed Forces for the contributions they made during the two World Wars”. The minister, then reminded that his car was holding up the traffic behind, insisted that the VC holder crossed the road first.

Source of information for the blog: The story ‘Good Gunner Umrao in Kaladan’ in Short Stories from the British Indian Army by J Francis (Vij Books India Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, 2015).

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