THE GREAT ESCAPE
You couldn’t escape Exercise Great Escape if you had been through anyone of the Indian Army’s officer training institutions, be it NDA, IMA or OTA. This is one unique exercise when the cadets get absolute freedom to use their initiative and device their own means to achieve the goal. In that sense, it is indeed a great escape from the routine drudgery of the training. Probably for this reason this exercise forms part of most training courses for young officers after their commissioning too, like the YOs’, the Young Officers’ Courses of various arms, and the Commando Course at the Infantry School (now the College of Combat). Invariably, these exercises weave interesting and often exciting episodes, punctuated abundantly with wit and humour.
The exercise is set in a scenario where the participants are to imagine themselves as POWs (Prisoners of War), who have broken free from enemy captivity and trying to find their way back home through hostile territory. I can only relate these exercises from my own experience of participation more than half a century ago, with the possibility of the format being different nowadays. I cannot narrate the exercise when I was a cadet, because I missed it, having been hospitalized after a minor accident, while it was on. However, I vividly remember my two ‘great escapes’, one during my YOs’ course at the Armoured Corps Centre and School, Ahmednagar, and another one during my Commando Course at the Infantry School, Mhow. This was how the one during my YOs’ went: We were transported out of the Training Centre after nightfall, seated within the closed body of trucks with little scope of recognizing where we were heading. After covering a route that took more than an hour to traverse, we were disembarked at a place in the midst of nowhere, where we were served dinner and ‘set free’, in that, we were told that we were POWs out of enemy captivity but in hostile territory now and were to find our way back to the Centre by our own means. Before boarding the trucks at the Centre, we had been subjected to a thorough inspection of our persons, so that we were bereft of anything that could help us find our way back like a map, or any item that could sustain us like food or water. Once our parting instructions were spelt out, with the Commandant of the Centre himself present to see us off, the empty trucks drove back on the country track along which we were driven in, leaving us in the wilderness. The game was on.
It was a moonless dark night, as these exercises were invariably scheduled, and we were supposed to navigate by the position of stars, which was easier said than done because few of us had mastered the craft. We were organized into syndicates of five but there was no hard and fast rule that a syndicate should stay together. We were in enemy country and groups could always get separated. If they didn’t, ambush parties of trained soldiers strewn all over as ‘enemy’ made sure they did. Our first task was to break through the cordon of jawans waiting in ambush to ‘capture’ us. Those of us who were captured were brought back to the drop-off point and would have to start all over again.
Mechanized warfare being the raison detre of Armoured Corps School, our exercise saw several syndicates attempting mechanized options of escape. The most daring bid took place within seconds of our being set free. The convoy of vehicles that had brought us was yet to move off, when one syndicate hopped into the jeep of the Commandant, which was parked a bit farther from the trucks and sped off, while its driver stood flabbergasted nearby. It wasn’t a planned operation at all, but a spur-of-the-moment thing. The syndicate had noticed the jeep, with key on the ignition and driver standing outside, waiting for the Commandant to come and board the vehicle. It was too good a chance to miss and they went for it. Daring though, the attempt fizzled out within a couple kilometres. The jeep was intercepted at a roadblock that had been set up to ambush the escapees. Alerted on radio, the JCO in charge of the road block acted cleverly, keeping his ambush ready while the jeep approached the barricade and had the entire syndicate taken prisoner. Footing it back to the drop-off point, they had to start all over again.
Even as the jeep drama went on, my syndicate was making yet another mechanized attempt, this one planned in advance. We planned to hijack one of the trucks. We chose a one-tonner, parked at one end of the lined-up trucks, at a convenient spot for a getaway. It was a Dodge Power Wagon, we were all familiar with, and handier to manoeuvre than a three-tonner. On the word go, when we were set free, two of us swiftly sneaked into the driver’s cabin of the vehicle, while it was still unmanned and ripping off the wires behind the ignition switch, started the engine, while the rest of the syndicate, jumped in and occupied the passenger segment at the rear. Before anyone knew what was happening, we roared out of the drop-off point heading forward on the same track the convoy had followed bringing us up. That appeared clever, because we were not intercepted for quite a while. Then our luck ran out; the engine of the Power Wagon died, coughing like an old man with chest trouble. I had, at the wheel, accelerated more than necessary in my excitement, flooding the carburettor. It was a common enough trouble with the Power Wagon and we all jumped out as one and went into trouble-shooting drill, opening the bonnet and trying to pump out the excess petrol from the carburettor. Hardly had we made any progress, we heard shouts of “Hands Up” and saw some jawans rushing towards us out of the shrubbery that lined the track, with rifles levelled at us. Apparently, it was one of the many ‘enemy’ patrols roaming the area to catch us, escapees. The rules of the game dictated that we were to surrender if surrounded by such patrols; but we were not exactly surrounded but only challenged and we bolted out into the dark, running helter-skelter, with the jawans in hot pursuit. Two jawans almost caught up with me and I found myself playing hide-and-seek with them round a huge haystack I had run into. Finding a break, I bolted away and kept running, until I heard no more footsteps following me. I had broken free, but was all alone, which I was sure would be the case with the rest of my buddies in the syndicate. The only consolation was that we had not been caught and taken back.
I kept walking in a direction I judged was away from our drop-off point, making as less noise as possible. We were set free around 11 o’ clock in the night and it was probably midnight when the syndicate got broken up. The presence of the haystack gave me the confidence that there must be some village nearby. The training team had chosen one hell of an area for the exercise, where no light was visible in any direction, which, even if distant, would have guided me to a human habitation. When I had walked for over an hour finding no village, I took a break. Sitting under a tree, leaning on it, I surmised that it would be wiser to wait out the night, rather than walk, with the possibility of being caught in an ambush. Knowing what the exercise would be in advance, all of us had made our own preparations, using innovative means to smuggle out money or items of clothing to disguise ourselves. The common trick was to carry currency notes hidden, often by sewing those into some part of the uniform. The standard kit we all wore were overalls, boots and canvas field caps. The inspection before our boarding the trucks were so thorough, only few succeeded in whatever deception they tried. It was an intense shake-down, with frisking of the overalls, inspection of the socks with boots removed and squeezing of the field caps to detect any currency notes in its folds. I was one of the lucky ones to have got away with my piece of deception. I had had a tailor sew in an unfolded 100-ruppee note on the backside of the waist band of my overall, which could be retrieved by slicing open the band with my finger nail. Now, one hundred rupees might sound a paltry sum today for an outdoor trip, but not so those days when, as a second lieutenant, I drew a ‘princely’ monthly salary of 400 rupees. Even more innovatively, I wore a white cotton kurta and pyjama under my overall and a white cotton cap, of the kind commonly worn by the Maharashtrian country folk, was tucked inside my briefs, along with a Gandhi-style specs of metallic frame. A coarse towel wrapped around my waist completed my disguise kit. I had only had to strip off my overall and wrap it up along with the field cap, boots and belt inside the towel to make it resemble a ‘jhola’ that the country folk carried, and put on the white cap to pass for a villager. The specs were an insurance for an exigency, when I might have to make myself look older. Walking barefoot would be a challenge I would have to endure.
There was no call for any disguise until day break, after which I would need to remain inconspicuous to avoid being picked up by jawans’ patrols prowling the area. Mainly concerned with not getting caught, the solitude and wilderness hardly bothered me, as I spent a fitful night of dozing off and waking up at the slightest noise. As the first streaks of sunlight began lighting up the surroundings, I got up and began walking. With the sunrise, I knew where east was and headed that way. Our convoy had headed west out of the Centre, so my destination had to be to my east was my guess. I had barely walked a kilometre when I spotted a cottage, with a strand of smoke emerging from its thatched roof. There were no jawans in the vicinity and I walked on to the cottage confidently. An old man, sitting on the veranda, didn’t seem surprised by my appearance. Fortunately, he could understand Hindi and stopped me from explaining the situation, telling me that he was familiar with these exercises. He pointed me in the direction of a village he said, was about five miles further, which enjoyed twice-a-day bus service of the Maharashtra State Transport. The morning bus left at 10 o’clock and I could easily get there in time for it, if I moved on now. He offered me hot tea in a tumbler and some kind of a coarse roti, which I happily consumed. The old man and his wife seemed to be the sole occupants of the cottage, which had a pasture alongside with a couple of cows tied up there. Freshening up with water from a well behind the cottage, I assumed my disguise, except for the boots which I kept on. I would remove them when I reached the village, which was likely to be under surveillance. I asked the old man whether he would have change for a hundred rupees, so that I can pay him. He dismissed it with a smile and shaking hands with me, saw me off.
Walking briskly along the countryside dotted with cottages like the old man’s here and there, I arrived at the village uneventfully, to find it larger than I had expected with a small bazar that was fairly crowded. I had removed my boots and put it in the jhola before entering the village, and was having a tough time walking barefooted. As luck would have it, one of the first things I noticed was a cobbler at his craft by the roadside. He had a collection of locally made chappals, with tyre soles and straps of some kind of fibre. I promptly bought one that fitted me for ten rupees. It was only half past eight and I had a cup of tea from a kiosk and spent time exploring the place, feeling relieved there were no soldiers in sight. I bought a jute bag from a scrap shop and transferred all my stuff into it, which made it easier to carry. Stepping out of the shop, I ran smack into Oberoi, one of my course-mates from another syndicate, identically clad like me in villager’s costume. He laughed out, but before he could get into a rapturous greeting, I pulled him aside and told him to shut up. If we were overheard speaking in English, it would be a total giveaway, and someone was bound to point us out to any army search party. And the army used local police to help them find strangers. Oberoi and me struck a deal not to be seen together and went our separate ways, but not before he had added another innovation that we chew a pan each and redden our mouths. Loitering around, chewing the pan, I noticed a shop with Marathi newspapers hung out in front and picked up one. For a cherry on the cake of my disguise, I could pretend reading it, should any search party come around while I was seated in the bus.
The bus arrived about 9.30 and I was one of the early boarders, and so was Oberoi, who found himself a window seat towards the front in the left row, while I settled for an aisle seat on right side towards the middle. We had agreed to each other that if one of us was caught, he would not look at the other at all. The old man had told me that the bus from the village was not destined to Ahmednagar, but another town, where I could switch over to an Ahmednagar-bound bus. I had conveyed that to Oberoi too, and we both bought our tickets without fuss and were waiting for the bus to depart, when a search party arrived, headed by a JCO. The bus was not crowded and the authoritative voice of the JCO, as he conversed with the conductor at the rear, left me with no doubt, that the party was on board. I had put my jute bag under the seat and pushed it towards the middle of the seat, keeping the newspaper in my hand. Now I opened the newspaper, wore the specs that I was carrying in the pocket of my kurta, and sat looking down at it like a keen reader. As the JCO moved up the aisle with two jawans with him snooping under the seats, I cursed my luck that I didn’t get a window seat like Oberoi, to hide my bag farther from the aisle. I could not believe my luck when an old man sitting next to me in the middle seat suddenly started speaking to me in Marathi, pointing something in the newspaper, just as the JCO was passing my seat. I began vigorously shaking my head as if I followed every word he said and burst into a laughter when he did. The JCO moved on, without even glancing at me and the jawans also seemed to have been distracted, moving on giving only a cursory glance under my seat. The old man, inadvertently, had saved my bacon. The JCO moved on past Oberoi’s row and he seemed to have escaped as well. Then, as the JCO had gone all the way up to the driver’s cabin in front and began walking back, Oberoi did the cardinal sin of looking at him straight in his eyes. The reaction of the JCO was swift. “Udho Saab, aap ka jhola dikhao”, and before Oberoi could gather his wits, one of the jawans had pulled out his jhola and was sifting through the items one by one, giving no room for him say anything to save himself. Meekly, he accompanied the JCO and the two jawans, but he was as good as his word, looking straight, not even throwing a glance at me. During the debriefing, it turned out that he had given himself away, not just by locking eyes with the JCO, but being a specky, the expensive, shell-framed glasses he wore had already drawn the attention of the JCO.
Arriving at the transit bus station past 11 o’clock, I caught a connecting bus to Ahmednagar within fifteen minutes and was, by half past noon, riding a hired tonga to the Centre. Sitting in the tonga itself, I put on my overall, boots and field cap. Throwing away my chappals and white cap on the way, and disposing of the tonga outside the Centre, I strode in to report my arrival, with time enough to rush to my room, tidy myself up, change and be at the officers’ mess for a glass of beer and lunch. I was the fourth officer from the course of about 25 to arrive. Two officers had found their way to a highway, and hitchhiking on a civilian truck made their way back by early morning to be the second and third, before me. Sethi, probably the shortest officer in the whole course, had beaten us all by cleverly sneaking in behind the pantry truck, the last vehicle to leave the drop-off point in the night. Hiding among the kitchenware, he had arrived at the Centre past midnight to throw a surprise to the umpire at the finishing point. Most of the course had made it back before nightfall the next day, a few stragglers dropping in ones and twos later into the night, among them Oberoi, after a day-long trek. The debriefing next day, produced hilarious moments, as each officer had to narrate his experience, with the training officers and the Commandant himself, enjoying the session. In typical cavalry spirit, the Commandant gave a thumbs-up to the syndicate that had tried to steal his jeep.
The exercise during the Commando Course at the Infantry School, Mhow, was equally interesting, but tougher physically, as everything in commando training was meant to be. Distances were longer and the terrain was not open country of the Deccan Plateau we had at Ahmednagar, but hilly and forested area where the going was hard. However, the syndicates, by and large, held together, as was encouraged in all exercises of the course and individual exploits were rare. Traversing hilly tracts in the darkness, we often ended up bruising our butts, as we slid down thorny, steep slopes like children on playground slides. And syndicates or individuals caught were not taken back to the drop-off point, but there were ‘POW camps’ set up in between, where they were held and ‘tortured’. My whole syndicate was caught during predawn hours, and we had to endure the torture, which mainly involved walking barefooted on a stretch of sharp-edged stones. Early morning in the middle of winter, it indeed was torture.
Let off after the torture, we trekked until noon, when we hit a highway, and were able to get some nourishment in the form of tea and namkeen from a wayside vendor. We flagged down an open lorry carrying labourers and boarded it. Stripping off our overalls, we mingled with the labourers and felt jubilant, speeding on towards our finishing point, enjoying the wind that streamed past us. The jubilation, however, was short-lived as we ran into a roadblock cleverly set-up after a curve, leaving us little time to jump off and run. Nevertheless, we all remained nonchalant as the JCO in charge came around to look up at the passengers in the body of the lorry. His tone was almost mocking, when he coolly spoke, “Commandoes, niche aayiye”. We did not respond and avoided looking at him, convinced he was bluffing, but he was not. “Kam se kam shoulders cover karna tha aap log (You should have at least covered your shoulders),” He spoke confidently. “Dekhiye, in labourers ke beech men aap log kaisa alag dikhayi pad raha hai (You see, how you all look different among these labourers).” One glance around, and we all realized the truth of what he was saying and felt utterly foolish. Our shoulders, paler in appearance than those of the labourers around, because of the lack of exposure to sunlight, stood out far too distinctly. In our excitement of finding wheels to move on, we had totally overlooked such a simple factor. In the event, the JCO, after having us dismounted, let us walk on, continuing with our trek, which was a relief. Hungry and exhausted, we made it to the finishing point by nightfall.
I do not know whether Exercise Great Escape still forms part of the young officers’ training. It certainly was an outstanding event, which added plenty of excitement, and even entertainment, to the training process.