Friday, September 11, 2009

CAPTAIN COURAGE


INSPIRATION

Neither is his name mentioned in any of our war stories nor did he find a place in our history lessons. Neither is he a hero for any child nor do most of us think about him in particular while paying tributes to our National Heroes. Neither did he lay down his life guarding our borders nor did he die saving his fellow countrymen. This is a small story of a warrior who laid down his life for a cause his Company and his Army believed in. And this is a small tribute to remember all those Indian soldiers without whose supreme sacrifice various peace keeping missions across the world would have been futile. Captain Gurbachan Singh Salaria, we do remember you....


EARLY LIFE

Captain Gurbachan Singh Salaria, was born on 29 November 1935, in Gurdaspur, Punjab into a Rajput family. He was commissioned in the 1 Gorkha Rifles on 9 June 1957 and later went on to be part of a peace keeping mission which brought about his date with destiny.

THE BEGINNING

After the Belgians quit
Congo, a civil war situation developed in that country. When the United Nations decided upon military intervention to retrieve the situation, India contributed a brigade of around 3000 men to the U.N. Force. In November 1961, the U.N. Security Council had decided to put a stop to the hostile activities of the Katangese troops in Congo. This greatly angered Tshombe, Katanga's secessionist leader, and he intensified his 'hate the UN' campaign. The result was more violence against UN personnel.

During the second half of November, while elements of 3/1 Gorkha Rifles were moving out for deployment within and around Elizabethville, there were violent attacks on UN personnel. On 28 November 1961, two senior UN officers were taken captive, beaten and later released. Major Ajit Singh of 3/1 Gorkha Rifles was also taken captive and his driver was brutally murdered, when they went to the rescue of some UN officials. Some days later, a company of 3/1 Gorkha Rifles was fired upon and many UN personnel were abducted from various parts of Elizabethville.The Gorkhas soon re-consolidated.

HIS HEROICS

On 5 December 1961, 3/1 Gorkha Rifles was ordered to clear a roadblock established by the enemy at a strategic roundabout at Elizabethville , Katanga . The plan was that Captian Gurbachan Singh Salaria with two sections of Gorkhas and two Swedish armoured personnel carriers would advance towards this roadblock from the airfield to act as a cutting-off force.

This small body, under Captain Gurbachan Singh Salaria, came under heavy fire from an enemy position when they reached about a mile from the road-block. Captain Salaria appreciating that he had run into a subsidiary roadblock and ambush and that this enemy force might reinforce the strategic post and thus jeopardize the main operation, decided to remove this opposition.

Captain Salaria was not deterred by the superior enemy strength and fire power. He decided to take the enemy, head-on, to achieve the objective. He once decided to attack the position which, it was later discovered, had about 90 men defending it together with two armoured cars. Supported by a rocket-launcher and bayonets, he led a charge with his bands, comprising just 16 Gorkhas, into a tactical position. They also used grenades and unsheathed khukris. Fully realizing the disproportionate ratio of force of his small platoon of 16 men, against more than 90 opponents, he soon rallied his men behind him and charged the enemy position in a fierce khukri assault.

In this gallant engagement, Captain Salaria killed 40 of the enemy and knocked out the two armoured cars. This unexpected bold action completely demoralised the enemy who fled despite their numerical superiority and protected positions. Captain’s bold action, ferocity of the attack and the blood curdling war cry of the Gorkhas - Ayo Gorkhali (The Gorkhas Have Arrived) and the flashing khukris was too much for the enemy, which fled in confusion leaving its dead and wounded behind.


By January 1962, the ONUC with the help of the Indian Brigade (particularly the 3/1 Gorkha Rifles), had creditably regained full control over Katanga, but not without the supreme sacrifice made by many Indian soldiers in 'blue berets' of the likes of Captain Gurbachan Singh Salaria. Captain Salaria was wounded in his neck by a burst of automatic fire but continued to fight till he collapsed due to profuse bleeding. His gallant action prevented any enemy movement towards the main battle scene and thus contributed very largely to the success of the main battalion’s action at the roundabout and prevented the encirclement of UN Headquarters in Elizabethville. Subsequently, he died of his grave wounds.

THE HONOUR

Captain Salaira’s personal example, utter disregard for personal safety and dauntless leadership inspired his small but gallant force of sixteen Gorkhas to hold on to their position, dominate the enemy and to inflict heavy casualties despite the enemy’s superiority in numbers and tactical position.

His courage and unflinching devotion to duty were in the best traditions of the Indian Army. For his extraordinary leadership and devotion to duty, Captain Gurbachan Singh Salaria was awarded the highest wartime medal, Param Vir Chakra, posthumously.


Captain Gurbachan Singh Salaria's brother unveiling his potrait at National Defence Acaddemy

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

"I shall not withdraw an inch but will fight to the last man and the last round"

Inspiration – The New Age Heroes

That was the last message of Major Somnath Sharma to the Brigade Headquarters a few moments before he was killed. Who is this Somnath Sharma afterall???
Ok, for most of us who are not aware....He was the first Indian soldier to receive our country’s highest wartime gallantry medal, Param Vir Chakra posthumously. He was an example of courage and qualities, seldom equaled in the history of the Indian Army. He was the man whose resilience scripted the history of Jammu and Kashmir. Major General Amarnath Sharma received the medal on behalf of his brave son.

Post 1947, we as a nation faced new challenges in the form of social and economical imbalances though we were politically independent. For almost two centuries we knew who our enemy was and shaped our struggle accordingly. But then came the time when the enemy could be one among our country men and any city could be a battleground. And we are extremely lucky to have the best men in the world fighting all the possible odds. Fighting the enemy. Facing the bullets. Dying alone in the snow. Falling to death from the high ridges. No one hears their scream. It's such a lonely death. A tiny piece of metal is all what it takes to die. They are our infantrymen. The finest in the world.


Their sagas may be short, but these are the people who not only fight their enemy, but the high terrains, steep valleys & hostile weather. In places like Batalik, Kargil there are no tracks. Climb. Clamber. Crawl. A soldier carries a week's ration, ammunition, a 5.56mm assault rifle or a mortar or a rocket launcher. He carries over 20 kgs on his back as he pulls himself up on this rugged, cruel terrain. No other soldier has ever fought at these heights. And Kargil was neither the beginning or the end of the wars for us. Our soldiers fight each and every day not just with Terrorists, Naxals, Ulfa covering the lenght and breadth of our country but in many other nations as part of UN Peace keeping mission. And on top of that, they are the people to come to the rescue of a child who is trapped in an open borewell or to the rescue of states hit by climatic calamities. I wish we could give them a break!!
So, my journey of revisiting their heroics begins today!!!

Early Life

Major Somnath Sharma, son of Major General Amarnath Sharma, was born on 31 January 1923, in Himachal Pradesh. Valou
r and courage were in his genes as he was born into a family where shedding blood for their dear motherland was not something new. His brother, General V.N. Sharma, served as the Chief of Army Staff during 1988 to 1990. In May 1941, he was selected to join the IMA, Dehra Dun from where he was commissioned as Second-Lieutenant in the 8/19 Hyderabad Regiment- now the 4 Kumaon. He saw action in Burma with the 51 Infantry Brigade and at the early age of 21, he was appointed D.A. & Q.M.G. at his Brigade Headquarters. He was mentioned in despatches for his gallantry and for outstanding efficiency. From Burma he was posted to Malaya to assist in the process of rehabilitation of the population.

The Incredible Story

Immediately after Independence, on 22 October 1947, Pakistan launched the tribal invasion of Jammu & Kashmir. The intention was to grab the Kashmir valley by force. As the State became a part of the Union on October 26th, her protection became the responsibility of India. To save the State from a tribal invasion, which was approaching the valley at a very fast pace, India dispatched troops to Srinagar. The first batch of Indian troops reached just in time on October 27th morning to stop the enemy on the outskirts of Srinagar.

The D Company of 4 Kumanon (IC-521), led by Major Somnath Sharma, was airlifted to Srinagar on October 31st. When his company was asked to move to Srinagar, Major Sharma's arm was in plaster. He had suffered a fracture on the hockey ground and was advised rest till the plaster was removed. But he insisted on being with his company at this crucial hour and was allowed to go. Meanwhile, the 1 Sikh at Patan had blunted the main thrust of the tribal invasion of Srinagar. The enemy now resorted to guerilla tactics to sneak into the valley. But the induction of more troops into Srinagar enabled the Army to take care of the surrounding areas better. On November 3rd, a strong fighting patrol compromising 3 companies was dispatched to reconnoiter the Badgam area to look for raiders approaching Srinagar from the northern direction. By 0930 hrs the troops had established a firm base at Badgam.

As no enemy was seen during patrolling, two companies moved back to Srinagar by 1400 hrs. D Coy led by Major Sharma, which had taken up position south of Badgam, was, however, asked to stay on in the area till 1500 hours. At 1435 hours, D Coy was subjected to firing from some houses of Badgam village. The Coy did not return fire for fear of killing innocent people of the village. While Major Sharma was discussing this threat with the Brigade Commander, a large force of the enemy, about 700 strong, appeared from a depression to the west of his position. It attacked the coy with small arms, mortars and heavy automatics. The accurate and devastating fire of the enemy inflicted heavy casualties on D Coy.

Fully realizing the gravity of the situation and the direct threat that would result to both the aerodrome and Srinagar via Hum Hom, Major Somnath Sharma urged his company to fight the enemy tenaciously. With extreme bravery, he rushed across the open ground to his sections, exposing himself to enemy fire. Keeping his nerve, he skillfully directed the fire of his sections into the ever-advancing enemy. He repeatedly exposed himself to the full fury of enemy fire and laid out cloth strips to guide our IAF aircrafts onto their targets in full view of the enemy.

Realising that casualties had affected the effectiveness of his light automatics, this officer whose left hand was in plaster, personally commenced filling magazines and issuing them to the light machine gunners. A mortar shell landed right in the middle of the ammunition resulting in an explosion that killed him. He was all of 24 years old. Major Sharma’s company held on for another six hours against heavy odds. and the remnants withdrew only when almost completely surrounded. His inspiring example resulted in the enemy being delayed, thus gaining time for our reinforcements to get into position.


In the battle of Badgam, Major Sharma, one JCO and 20 other ranks were killed. But their sacrifices did not go in vain. He and his men stemmed the tide of the enemy advance on Srinagar and the airfield for some very crucial hours. His leadership, gallantry and tenacious defense were such that his men were inspired to fight the enemy by seven to one; six hours after this gallant officer had been killed. His last message to Brigade HQ, received a few moments before he was killed was, "The enemy are only 50 yards from us. We are heavily outnumbered. We are under devastating fire. I shall not withdraw an inch but will fight to our last man and our last round." His answer is now part of the Army lore.


It has been my privilege to talk about all those pre Independence era heroes till date. But lest we forget the men who guard our borders every single day as we safely lead our own lives.

JAI JAWAN!!


A closer look at them

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