For our family, it is particularly tragic that my father was unable to complete his writings. He passed away suddenly, without pain or suffering, on January 19th, 2006, seven months short of his ninetieth birthday.
His memories stop midway in 1943, in Iraq, shortly after he had taken over command of the 52nd Base Supply Depot at Basra at the youthful age of 27. He remained in that part of the world from 1941 to April 1945 when he returned to India; a total of four years. Unfortunately, we have been unable to recover any further papers or records of his activities over those last two years in the Middle- East. What we do know is that he travelled fairly extensively, although he remained posted in Iraq throughout. He visited Egypt and enjoyed a private tour of the Grand Pyramids at Giza. He talked about the sophisticated people and culture he encountered in Lebanon and Syria, particularly Damascus and Aleppo, he dwelled on his visit to Palestine, to the holy city of Jerusalem where he felt blessed to have had the opportunity to pray at the Sacred Dome of the Rock Mosque. His deep interest in all matters spiritual led him to seek out the Padres of the various religious faiths and denominations that have long existed in West Asia. The balance and peaceful co-existence of the different religious communities and sects in Jerusalem was at that time exemplary. He told me about the two ancient Muslim families who have for centuries remained the guardians and protectors of the keys and doors of that holiest of Christian sites, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre the place where Jesus is believed to be buried. The Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Roman Catholic and other denominations all share the custody of the Sacred Church itself but the task of carrying and keeping the keys safe is entrusted to one particular family, while the task of opening and locking the doors falls to the other family. This has been the case for over five hundred years now dating back to the end of the Crusades and the rescue and liberation of Jerusalem by the Kurdish Sultan, Salahuddin Ayubi. The idea behind this being that no one Christian denomination can dominate or control the Church since the guardianship of the keys is vested in the two chosen non-Christian families. Very soon after his return to India in 1945, his much-loved father passed away on the 24th of May 1945. Of the three sons, my father had been closest to his father; their temperaments, interests and habits were similar. Realising that this son of his was the one most attached to their family history and traditions, to their lands and their home, he left the ancestral Dewa house to him. Unfortunately, the turn of events was such that he was never able to claim the house or the property that had been so designated for him to take over and run as a model farm on the family estate. In 1947 when he was given the choice to either remain with the Indian Army or transfer his services to the newly formed Pakistani Army he opted out for the latter. Logically it did not make sense; his senior officers cautioned him to rethink his choice; “Your roots are here Kermani, why do you want to go to Pakistan?” He was asked that question more than once by his British superiors. His non-Muslim peers also pressed him to stay on, “Don’t go, you have nothing to fear, you are one of us, you belong here.”. But he had made up his mind; his two older brothers-in-law’s, his sister’s husbands, both railway officers, had already made their decisions in favour of the new country. All the male family elders were gone by this time, his father, and both his maternal uncles and paternal uncle as well. Chotay Mamoon, Raja Imtiaz Ali had died much earlier, before the war at the age of forty-one, Baray Mamoon, Maharaja Sahib Jahangirabad, a patron and financier of the Muslim League passed away in 1946. Salahuddin Ahmed an energetic and enthusiastic young man was eager to serve the new country that came into being on the very day he turned thirty- one, August 14th, 1947. He felt Pakistan had a greater need for young people like him, more than the old country. That is how he always explained his selection, his decision to choose the Pakistan option. Of course, what he, and many others like him, did not realise at that time was how irrevocable and final that choice was. Even Mohammad Ali Jinnah planned on retiring to his luxurious mansion in Malbara Hills, Bombay, so my father can be forgiven for thinking that he could serve the Pakistani Army for a couple of years, hand in his commission and retire to his family home and lands in Dewa, Barabanki. But the umbilical cord had been cut, and there was no going back.
However, back in 1946 after my father returned from the war, plans were already afoot for his marriage. His mother and sisters were anxious for him to get married and settle down; he was approaching thirty, and most men (at that time) were married long before they got to that age. My parent’s families though not quite related, belonged to the same baradari; the Shurfa of Awadh tended to marry within a twenty-five to a thirty-mile geographic radius of their towns and qasbas. Matrimonial relationships between the Kidwais, the Dewa, Fathepur and Bansa families were long well- established, but in more recent years my mother’s Khala, Zehra Begum, had married my father’s first cousin, his Phupi’s son Wasiuddin of Dewa, and my father’s younger sister Murshida had married one of my Nani’s cousin Safiullah Siddiqui in Hyderabad Deccan. My eldest Phupi Shahida happened to meet my mother at Zehra Begum’s house in Lucknow and took an immediate liking to her. With Zehra Khala’s strong backing the proposal sent was readily accepted. The only condition my mother’s paternal grandfather, Masood Ali ‘Mahvi,’ the family patriarch put down was that my mother was to complete her Medical education before the marriage could take place. It was to be a long engagement, and a long-distant one too. In spite of my father’s request, my Nani would not allow him to meet or even see my mother. All he got was his sisters’ reports and a single photograph my Nani reluctantly agreed to send him.
The two years my father spent in India before the division of the country were spent in Ferozepur, at the Training Centre, where he was posted as Commander Royal Indian Army Service Corps Training Battalion, and then in Bombay where he served as Deputy Assistant Director Supply and Transport, a position he held at the time Partition was declared. Major S.A. Kermani’s first posting in the newly established country was as Commander Royal Pakistan Army Services Corps in Dacca, East Pakistan, where the Chief of Staff Eastern Command was none other than the future General, Field Marshal, Commander-in-Chief, and President of Pakistan, Ayub Khan. It was Ayub Khan who advised the young man to not delay his marriage since travel prospects (to India) for Military personnel could soon become practically impossible. This startling news was immediately relayed to Barabanki and from there on to Hyderabad Deccan. Although Hyderabad was still an independent Princely State at that time, the likelihood of its survival as a separate domain surrounded by the Democratic Republic of India was bleak. The reality of the irrevocable antagonism between the newly created countries had sunk in and so the elders of the family reluctantly acquiesced, perhaps, cognisant of the improbability of my mother completing her medical education. The marriage date was fixed for April 3rd 1948. The baraat, according to eyewitness accounts, was elegant and impressive in spite of the unsettled times, and the bridegroom strikingly handsome in his Awadhi sherwani and churidar pajama. The young couple left soon after for Barabanki where the lovely young bride was introduced to her mother-in-law and the rest of the family; in those days, it was not the norm for the women of the groom’s family, particularly the senior ladies to travel with the baraat. For my mother, this was a world far removed from her urbanised life in the Nizam’s city of Hyderabad. Although she had regularly visited the north with her mother and siblings over the years and had numerous cousins and extended family in Lucknow, Paisar, and of course Bansa Sharif, her mother’s family home and qasba where a pilgrimage to the family Dargah of Syed Shah Abdul Razzaq was an obligatory requirement, her introduction to the still vibrant and dominant taluqdari life-style with its old-fashioned etiquette and customs gave her a glimpse of a culture which was at its very last stages of existence. The young couple was feted and feasted and taken to all the family shrines to pay their respects to their ancestral Saints.
As they prepared to leave for Pakistan, my Dadi generously suggested the newly married couple take their pick of fine carpets, the ubiquitous Gardiner Russian crockery, so popular at the turn of the century or any other items they fancied from the house. My father’s response was that they would do so when they came the next time, on a more relaxed visit. Little did any of them realise that the next time he would return would be thirty-two years later in 1980 to what was a tragic shadow of what had once been. The dynamic, effervescent, legendary Ganga-Jumna culture had been shattered and on the verge of being abandoned and lost.
Life in the newly constituted Pakistan Army was on the whole agreeable. The Staff College in Quetta offered not just training for the officers but also camaraderie and social bonding. The Army Messes continued to run on the British pattern with ample wining and dining to make life enjoyable for the young officers and their wives. After Staff College, from 1949 to 1956 my father was stationed in Rawalpindi, then Lahore and back to ‘Pindi, a town he always liked and wanted to retire to. In 1956 he got his dream posting when he was entrusted with the task of setting up and establishing the Army School of Administration in Kuldana, in the beautiful Murree Hills. The location offered the perfect surroundings for a man acutely receptive and sensitive to nature, and his position as the Commandant of that institution allowed him to indulge in his life-long passion and quest to further enhance his environs. Truckloads of flowering bulbs, in particular, daffodils were planted along with strawberries and cherry trees in all the areas under his jurisdiction. His delight in gardening and planting was a deep-rooted passion, and every Army house we lived in, until 1967 when he retired from his last military post as the Director General Defence Purchase in Karachi, was enhanced and beautified by his gardening prowess. A lifelong member of the Horticultural Society of Pakistan, he served for several years as its President and throughout as an active participant. After his retirement from the Army, he served as the Chairman and Managing Director of the KESC, the Karachi Electric Supply Company, where his managerial skills turned an ailing corporation into what an International Development Bank recognised as the “Best run Public Sector Company” in South Asia. A strong believer in Cicero’s adage ” If you have a garden and a library you have everything you need”, his civilian life after KESC followed that creed. Travelling, reading and, eventually at our insistence, writing, and that too on a computer, when he was well into his eighties. A man of great personality and charm he was never at a loss for company; his innate ability to make friends and his capacity to maintain those friendships served him well up to the end of his life and even as his peers slowly passed away he continued to make new friends. After he himself left us, there was a constant stream of elderly gentlemen, whom he had befriended during his evening walks in the nearby park, who came to condole and share in our grief.
Salahuddin Ahmed Kermani left us without warning early morning on the 19th of January 2006. In December 2005 we had a large gathering of our (sadly) widely dispersed extended family in Karachi; my mother’s sibling and many of their offsprings, my father’s younger sister Murshida from Australia, altogether a wonderful assemblage of near and dear ones. Slowly over the first two weeks of January people started returning to the various countries and continents they now called home. I left Karachi for the USA on the 13th of January with a promise that we would all return in August to celebrate his ninetieth birthday. That was not to be. Five days later I was on a plane flying back, heartbroken, in total denial and disbelief. The Army and Corps Commander Karachi gave him a splendid sent off with full Military honours, the road in front of the house was blocked by KESC service trucks bearing as many workers as could be given the time off from work, people called from around the world and his friend’s widows grieved at losing a gallant and honourable support. He is buried in the dusty and barren new Military Graveyard in the Karachi Cantonment area, far from the verdant family cemetery in Dewa where his ancestors had been buried for well over six hundred.
Notes (from Salahuddin Ahmed Kermani)
MAULANA ABDUS SALAM DEWAVI
Maulana Abdus Salam was one of the most respected and illustrious personalities of the Dewa family, so much so that his descendants came to be known as the Khandan-e-Abdus Salam. Stories and legends about this distinguished ancestor abound. The Maulana was a notable scholar and author of many books. Professor Abdul Majid Memon, the Chairman of the Department of Arabic during my university days, told me that in his opinion one of the finest Tafsirs of the Quran was written by the Maulana, and that a copy of this Tafsir was at the Al-Azhar University at Cairo.
The Maulana’s exemplary knowledge and learning was widely acknowledged. An oft repeated family narrative was about an incidence that occurred during his days at the Imperial court of Shah Jahan in Delhi where he served as the Chief Mufti of the Imperial Army. The Emperor was a consummate builder responsible for the construction of the magnificent Taj Mahal, the Shalimar Gardens in Kashmir and Lahore, the Red Fort in Delhi, the Jamia Masjids in Delhi and Agra and the fabulous new city of Delhi, Shahjahanabad, besides many others. The Maulana was in attendance on one of the Emperor’s visits to a construction site of a new mosque. The older gentleman was slow in his movements and Shah Jahan called out; “Why Maulana, are you afraid of death?” The Maulana promptly responded; “Well Sire. If the Emperor dies another can immediately take his place, but if this Mufti dies it will be many, many years before another can (adequately) replace him”. This judicious reply apparently pleased the Emperor who awarded the Maulana appropriately.
According to a family lore, no jinn can ever annoy a member of the Maulana’s bloodline. The story told is that a jinn fell in love with and took possession of a beautiful, unmarried girl much to the distress of her parents. The parents appealed to the Maulana who instructed them to arrange for a large karhai filled with ghee to be placed on a large fire outside their house. As the ghee started to boil the Maulana began reciting certain duas as a result of which hundreds of crows materialised out of nowhere and began to fall headlong into the boiling ghee until one of them appeared in human form and begged for forgiveness on behalf of his tribe and a solemn promise that no jinn would ever trouble any descendent of the Maulana.
On retirement, the Maulana returned to vatan, to the qasba of Dewa, where he established a Darul-Uloom. He is credited for having popularised the rational sciences or Maqulat in Awadh and passing on that Silsila of learning, fostered and advanced in the subcontinent by Shaikh Fatha Ullah Shirazi, during the reign of the Emperor Akbar, to the Farangi Mahal scholars of Lucknow.
 “… Mullå ‘Abd al-Salåm of Dewa, east of Lucknow, who was made mufti of the imperial army by Shåhjahån… “(Islamic Philosophy from Its Origin to the Present: Philosophy in the Land of Prophecy: Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 2006. Pg. 206)
I had come home after the longest period of absence ever, and, that too after having lived and spent most of my time in desolate, arid places which were either absolute or semi-deserts; areas of oil-bearing rocky soil, oozing oil and bitumen pools, and where the air reeked constantly of these noxious precious liquids. Although suffering from acute mental stress and nostalgia and anxious to reach home to see my ailing father as soon as possible, I could not ignore the joy and thrill that the sights and scenes of Lucknow aroused in me driving through the familiar streets and then on to Awadh Trunk Road. The Lucknow-Barabanki Road lined and shaded by Pipal trees, appeared to be lovelier than ever before. The fat Brahmin taxi driver with his refined Urdu updated me with all that was happening in the country; the economics, the politics, the deteriorating state of morals and the development of a black market. He seemed to be well informed and talkative and soon we were at the gate of the house. I was instantly overcome by the overpowering impact of colour and the waft of delightful fragrance from the beautiful garden created by my father; it was no wonder that the house was known as “Phoolonwali Kothi”.
As I stepped out of the car I was greeted by a bellowing jubilant voice; a man came running towards me, shouting “Manjlay Bahia aa gaiahain”. He was the head gardener, Permeshwer Mali. While he was uttering all the joyful expressions of thanks to his galaxy of Gods, including his own namesake for my safe return, the outcry of “Manjlay Bahia aa gaiahain” was taken up by other servants outside, and by the shrill voices of maidservants from inside the zenana. My Mother and Murshida hastily come outside from the drawing room onto the veranda. I rushed into mother’s open arms and motherly embrace, where, as always, I felt a sense and a feeling of boundless inexpressible peace and absolute joy, like a current of spiritual, divine blessings flowing into me. I have been missing such blissful moments for years. Soon we were with my father, who by this time, had been helped up to a sitting position reclining against a big “GaoTakia”. I had never seen him in such a poor state of health. He embraced me and he held me in that position for quite some time. We all sat down; my father had many questions about my life. He was concerned about the Japanese endangering sea voyages such as the one I had recently made and the ever-present threat of invasion. I wanted to learn all about my father’s illness how it all came about and the treatment being given. Both Amma and Murshida gave a comprehensive account, the best part being that Dr Abdul Hamid had taken full charge of looking after father. Doctor Sahib, besides being an eminent physician of great repute and principal of Lucknow Medical College was one of my father’s closest friend from college days, almost a member of our family, so to hear this was a great relief. In addition, the civil surgeon of Barabanki, Dr—— a friend as well, lived in our neighbourhood, was on call, and visited daily. Pundit Ram Nat another family friend, known for his excellence as a Homeopath and benevolence in giving free treatment to the needy, also called daily to inquire after father’s condition. Our family had a number of friends amongst the Hakims of repute of Lucknow, experts in the traditional Unani medicine, who also visited regularly when their services were needed. Often, in the past, our family experience had been that Hakim’s treatments succeeded where allopathic failed. I felt somewhat better knowing that father was out of danger. Dr Abdul Hamid’s visit a few days after my arrival and his kindly assurance further reinforced my morale. The next day I went to pay my respect at the Shrine of Haji Sahib at our ancestral hometown Dewa. The eight miles journey itself was poignantly nostalgic, reviving countless memories made on this road by every form and means of transport. I recalled the numerous, leisurely, almost luxurious journeys in the bullock wagon with my mother, with at least two of her maidservants in attendance, and the entire paraphernalia of pandan, sigardan, sandookcha, ogaldan, in short, an entire room at home (but with a lowered roof) complete with a carpeted chandani floor, gao takia, etc. lifted and placed on a four-wheeled cart, pulled by two big, sturdy well-groomed white oxen/bullocks; to my mind almost the perfect classic specimen of the Indian breed. The wagon was invariably escorted by a mounted Lancer or two lathi-wielding Sepahis. It was a matchless mode for going on a short journey, leisurely and in complete comfort, with ample opportunity to observe every bit of land we passed through, most of which belonged to us, or to our near kith and kin. We stopped anywhere we wished as we often did at the hamlet of Quluwallahpur, in the mango grove part of our large orchard on one side of the road with the large dhak forest on the other. This spot at four miles was exactly half-way between two our homes, Barabanki and Dewa. There would immediately be a rush and scramble by the peasants to fetch the produce of the orchard or forest, depending on the season; wild sweet karwanda, the sweet-sour berries from the forest, falsa, mangos, guavas, imli,zafraniqalmi ber from the orchard, phalenda, rose apple or the large jammun from the trees planted along the road-side, green freshly picked grams or boot, fresh sweet peas, sugarcane and fresh sugarcane juice from the farm. While all this went on the bullocks, their drivers and the attendants took a break and enjoyed their refreshments. The other means of travel was by horse-buggy pulled by two fine horses, driven by a pompous coachman sitting on his seat with a long whip. Whenever Bhaijan travelled with us, he would sit next to the driver and take over the reins, despite Amma’s protest. There were always two grooms standing at the back or holding the horses when stationery. My mother disliked this mode of travel as she did not trust the horses. Sometimes we travelled in the 1911 model Wolseley Sedan, purchased and used by mother’s late uncle Raja Aba, my Raja Nana, Raja Sir Tasaduq Rasul Khan, Raja of Jahangirabad. This very interesting car, which looked like a horseless phaeton was driven by an internal-combustion engine. To start the car a handle had to be turned in front, at times was not very easily. At night-time, the headlamps were lit by carbide which threw light up to ten to twelve feet. The maximum speed it could reach was about 30 mph, but it was seldom driven at that formidable speed. Very spacious and luxuriously furnished, with curtains to provide the necessary purdah and two extra seats for the servants, Mother generally preferred this for short journeys such as those between Barabanki, Jahangirabad, Dewa and Bansa. Preoccupied with these thoughts running through my mind, I found myself at the gate of the Mazar Sharif where I found Shakir Shah, as usual, sitting on the raised terraced in front of his hujra on the left side of the gate. He was one of the very few Khirka Posh or original disciples of Haji Syed Wajid Ali Shah still alive. After his grandfatherly embrace and shower of blessings, I heard the sorrowful news that Faizu Shah the oldest, most intimate disciples and Khadim of Hajji Sahib’s was no more. I proceeded to pay my respect inside the chamber where lay the remains of our holy saint, his grave under a marble canopy perpetually covered by a multitude of Chadars. As I was about to raise my hand to recite the Fateha, memories of all my visits to the Dargah as far back as I could remember flashed through my mind. Faizu Shah had always been a part of this Holy place. When we entered the broad, wide gallery there he would be there sitting on the floor, against the wall on the right side of the chamber door, a saintly person with one knee upright the other flat. His snow-white head bent, hands lying in his lap, his body wrapped in a yellow sheet, he appeared to be unaware of his surroundings. Regular visits were generally made by all of us, sometimes all three brothers, or one, or two of us. As we approached him we would call out loudly, due to his being hard of hearing, “Dada, Adab”, he would immediately recognise us, “Mahmood Key betay, aaoowo, aaoowo”. He would raise both his hands as we sat in front of him and place them on our heads one by one while words of prayers and blessings would pour forth from his lips. This over, he would say “Challo, challo salam karain”. Two of us would help him stand and with him leaning on our shoulders we would enter the chamber where he would declare in a loud voice, “Toomray potay salam ko ai hain”. Under the canopy, we would bend down to touch our foreheads to the grave while Faizu Shah continued his conversation with the Saint, “Toomray potay …”. He would lift the chadars over our bent heads and we would stay in that position for a while as he continued to talk with his master, something conversing in words quite beyond our comprehension. All this time we had the chamber to ourselves. Faizu Shah again leaning on our shoulders would walk back to his special place. Kissing his hands while words of blessing continued to flow from him, we would take our leave. This time sadly all that was missing. I alone stood at the place as I used to stand with him and recited the Fateha, bent down at the grave as I used to and uttered respectfully, “Dada I am here, accept my Salam and Pray for Abba’s recovery”. Elated and comforted, I drove back home as fast as I could.
Other than going for my early morning walks, during which many past memories were stirred, I would visit my old favourite haunts and places, including the shrine of Wajhan Shah. Abba’s ever-faithful, ever-affectionate Fox terrier, although now getting old and feeble, refused to let me go alone; he had welcomed and greeted me with great love and joy, which only a pet dog imbued by such an affectionate nature can express. Messages came from Baji, Hasina and Bhaijan about their expected dates of arrival. This cheered father up considerably. Subsequent arrivals and the gathering of the family was like a balm to Amma’s wearied and exhausted nerves. In addition to bearing the burden of worries due to father’s illness, she had undergone an extraordinary distressing experience. When she got the news of my coming home on leave, she decided to pay a visit to Maqbool Mian at Khairabad. There she was received as usual by Mian’s wife, and taken to meet him, as soon as he saw her he burst out “Tum yahan kiakar rahi ho. Tomarey han to maut jhundla rahi hai”. Mother was stunned. She could only think about my ailing father, or me, who she thought was on the far seas. But being a courageous woman of unbounded faith, recollecting herself she turned to Mian and said, “If Allah has given you the power to know what is happening to my family, then you must have the power to prevent it. Do something, it is no use my going back to my house”. Then turning to his wife, she declared “I am not going anywhere from here”. And sat down. For a while all was quiet. Mian seemed to have gone into trance; after what appeared to be a long time he stirred and addressed his wife, “Bib labia jail, ink aram dain, khatir karain, phir bula ainge”.To mother, “Bibi Allah par bharosa, Allah par bharosa”.He continued in this vein until he was out of hearing. Mother remained with Mian’s wife through a long, anxious, disturbing wait until she was summoned by Mian who mumbled, “Allah khabi musibat tall dita hai Bibi, ghar jaw”He kept repeating this until with a gesture from his wife the women left his still mumbling presence. Her arrival home coincided with the delivery of a telegram from Haider Khan stating that Wahaj was well out of danger. Wahaj my youngest brother was studying at Aligarh; in the course of carrying out practical Chemistry experiments in the laboratory and trying to verify different chemical salts, he attempted the tongue testing method with the near-fatal result. One of the salts was an extremely potent poison. Haider Khan’s prompt and effective action saved Wahaj’s life along with the prayers of that pious saintly person Maqbool Mian, and of course not without Allah’s unbounded mercy and benevolence. This incident with its near-fatal effect took place at Aligarh after mother had left home, Haider Khan’s telegram informing father about the accident and its serious nature arrived in mother’s absence and as such, she was unaware of it thus she could not obviously connect or comprehend Maqbool Mian’s initial utterances.
A far greater tragedy that befell the family, during father’s illness, that aggravated and caused a relapse was the sad, sudden and untimely death of Munir Bhai. This was being kept a secret from Abba, but the night after it occurred, he woke up suddenly in an acute state of emotional agitation asking for Munir. He persistently demanded that Munir be sent for, and then turned around and said, “Please do not hide the truth from me, Munir is no more, I dreamt I saw some people carrying a coffin, and telling me, Yeh Munir ka janaza ha”. There was no further any need for secrecy.
My leave was about half over and mother was getting worried about being left alone after my departure. Bhai Jan was at Gorakhpur and could not reach home in a short time in case of an emergency and Wahaj was still at Aligarh. Her wish was that Bhai Jan could to be posted nearer home and planned on asking Barey Mamun to speak to the Governor to see what could be done. Since I knew the Chief Secretary who really handled such matters I proposed I give it a try first. The next day I went to Lucknow and sent my card into Mr Francis Mudie (later Sir Francis) requesting an interview. I was standing beside my car when I was greeted by an affable, kindly voice, it was Sir Francis with my card in his hand. I was surprised, in fact, rather astonished that such a senior officer, holding a post just below that of the Governor, instead of calling me upstairs to his office, on the first floor, would come down to meet me, a mere Captain. I thought it was extreme graciousness on his part and an honour for me. After all, I had only met him at a few social functions at the beginning of the war at Agra where he had been the Deputy Assistant Magistrate and me, a junior 2nd Lt in the 11th Battalion 6th Rajputana Rifles. I told him I was on a month’s war leave, as my father was ill, and explained the purpose of my visit. Without much-ado he declared, “We shall post your brother back to Gonda, that would be alright, won’t it?” I thanked him profusely. Bhai Jan was posted to Gonda before the end of my leave and departure from home. The entire family gathered before I left including Barey Mamu with his young and beautiful Junior Maharani, whom he liked addressed as Lady Sahiba, visited a number of times, the Senior Maharani, Bari Mumani Jan entrusted me to deliver a packet to her Pir, Najamuddin al-Gilani who normally resided in Bombay but was in Baghdad those days. Choti Khala Jan came to stay, she was my foster-mother and very fond of me. It was time to leave and my batman re-joined me. Although my father was now well on the way to recovery, it was in a rather depressed mood that I bade farewell to my mother and all my loved ones.
Arriving at the port of Bombay, I embarked on SS Jalap-Gang a cargo ship owned by the Scandia Steam Ship Corp, she was manned entirely by an Indian crew and officers and had limited passenger accommodation. I was the last passenger to come on-board and was cordially greeted by two ship officers, one of whom introduced himself as the chief. Soon the Captain of the ship came to greet me also most pleasantly and respectfully. He remarked that his ship was lucky to have the first and only Indian officer on board and that I would be treated as an honoured guest. He had one of his officer’s cabin vacated and prepared for me, he also offered me the option of taking my meals with him and his officers throughout the voyage which I enthusiastically and gratefully accepted. There were only about a dozen other officers on-board, all British except a RIASC officer who had done the course with me at Chaklala. I did not know him well at that time but he was obviously an Indian. I pointed this out to the ship’s officers that they had, perhaps inordinately, overlooked the fact that there was another Indian officer beside me who could be considered for similar privileges. The unanimous response was delivered with a certain degree of acrimony, they insisted, “He is not Indian, he does not talk to us like one! You do not know. Perhaps he is an Anglo”. I did pursue the matter further; Indian nationalistic sensitivity had seeped too deeply and extensively, reflecting the prevalent mood of India in turmoil.
I found the cabin though small, comfortable, and well-appointed with a shelf full of books, all fiction which I rarely read but did so during this voyage, and, actually discovered some that I rather enjoyed. There was a Radio and a gramophone with some choice popular film songs, including those of Saigol. The attached bathroom was an added boon. I had the Captain’s open and standing invitation to come up to the bridge anytime and taking advantage of this facility I would go up daily for my morning and evening exercise. The food served was excellent though purely vegetarian. I do not think that people anywhere in the world can match Indians in this style of cuisine, it is simply remarkable. I read a number of novels and found them quite interesting. The radio provided the latest war news, and of course, the gramophone proved a wonder instrument for dispelling depressive moods. So, the voyage came to an end, completed in great comfort, made possible by the extraordinary kindness and curtsey I experienced; I shall always remain grateful to that very fine Captain and his smart set of officers.
We arrived at Basra from where I was booked on the evening train and reached the Mosaib Reinforcement Transit Camp situated and spread out in a date-plantations, a few miles from Baghdad. The camp teemed with Indian Army personnel, officers, VCOS, and men of all classes belonging to various Corps and Regiments. I reported my arrival to the Adjutant at the camp HQ, an intensely busy officer who shoved a form towards me to fill out. Having filled out the required details I shoved it back. I was told that posting orders take a week to ten days, sometimes less, so I should mark my time and check daily. My next visit was to the Quarter Master and to Officers Mess Secretary for allocation of accommodation and attachment of batman. That done I headed to the Officer’s Mess for a much-needed drink. This Mess was no different to those at any other such camp, appalling atmosphere and horrid food.
I managed to visit Baghdad where my friend Ali Akhter, was still commanding the GHQ TOT(?) Company; he was a regular visitor to Hazrat Gilani’s shrine, and to the residence of Al-Syed Asim Al Gilani, the Naqib al-Ashraf, who lived across the road. The Gilani family was one of the wealthiest and most influential families in Iraq. Syed Asim had played a leading role at the highest level in the establishment of Iraqi State and he still wielded great power and respect. A dignified elderly gentleman, pleasant and soft-spoken, he welcomed us both in the usual Arab manner with lengthy greetings and servings of tea. I mentioned that I had a message and a package from my aunt for Al-Syed Najamuddin Gilani and requested his help in fulfilling my mission. His prompt answer was, “Come to lunch or dinner on any day and date that suits you, and he shall be there”. As arranged Ali obligingly picked me up one morning and by midday, we were at a very fine big modern house on the banks of Tigris. Al-Syed Asim Al Gilani had invited a number of notables of Baghdad and his own family members including Pir Najamuddin to whom I handed over the package with Maharani Sahiba’s good wishes. It was wonderful to encounter some highly educated and polished Iraqi gentlemen. I was to meet several of them again during my visits to Baghdad.
Back at the camp, I was getting impatient about my posting, I had been there a week when my posting orders finally came, I was to report to the 53rd Base Supply Depot Shaiba as second-in-command and Chief Stocks Officer. I was not very happy about it, but there was nothing I could do, the only redeeming factor was that I was to continue to retain my temporary rank. I took the evening train and arrived at Shaiba Railway Station at about sunrise. I had already bathed and changed and eaten my breakfast by the time we disembarked. It was a frightfully hot morning. A VCO with a 15-cwt truck was there to receive me. We drove through an utterly cheerless, treeless, dismal, desolate looking landscape swarming with of heavy military activity. Shaiba was one of the biggest Administrative Bases or in modern American Military Terminology, ‘Logistical Base’ of the British Imperial Army. Dotted and spread out over a vast extensive area were a number of Base Hospitals, Ammunition, POL, Engineers and Supply Depots all served by road and rail and a huge marshalling yard to serve the Basra port. We soon entered the barbed wired area of the 53rd Base Supply Depot and proceeded straight to the Headquarter to meet Major J.O. Rae the Commanding Officer, who welcomed me with a pleasant and friendly smile. He was very much a civilian gentleman on whom the Army uniform has been so thrust as to make both the wearer and the dress worn uncomfortable. Indeed, as I found out in the course of time, he was a gentleman in every sense of the word and had been inducted in the Army along with many others as a measure of war. We got on well and became good friends. I was with him for a short time and during this period I tried my best to improve the all-around standard of NCOs and men who to my mind lacked the requisite standard in performance both in technical and soldierly RIASC duties. I had not been there long when I received a posting order to immediately take over the command of the 52nd Base Supply Depot at Basra as the OC of that installation had been infected by Shingles, an incurable disease, and had been repatriated to the UK. This was for the first time I had heard about such a disease but came to know it well and proper when I myself was inflicted and suffered terribly from this dreadful malady in my old age.
My new posting meant an independent command with the rank of a Major; the appointment also entailed heavy financial and administrative responsibilities. Grant of permanent ranks except for those who were already holding substantive ranks was held in abeyance, all ranks granted were acting or temporary. If you happened to be in a Unit and an appointment befell you carrying a higher rank, you got the acting rank, and if lucky enough to hold it for twenty-one days, with the approval of the Commanding Officer, a temporary rank. In case an officer senior to you or one specifically posted on that appointment took over you reverted to your basic rank. Up to the time of my posting as CO 52nd Base Supply Depot, there were very few Indians in the Paiforce holding ranks above that of a Captain and to my recollection none in my Corps, I, therefore, had every reason for having a sense of pride for getting that specific appointment. All that elation soon evaporated as I entered the area and the premises of the Unit which I was to command. The moment I arrived at the gate a huge big black mound, almost a small hillock, a highly repulsive sight, confronted me. The further I proceeded the worse I felt. After checks and rechecks of account books, stock register and documents I decided that I could not take over the outfit in its current appalling state. Without consulting, informing or reporting to any intermediate authority, I sent a signal to the Director of Supply and Transport GHQ Paiforce. Having acted on an impulse, I realised that I had committed a serious act of impudence and audacity, but by then there was nothing that could be done to alter the deed but to await the consequence. I did not have to wait long, a few days later, mid-morning the door my office opened and I found myself confronting a red face, wearing a red peak cap and red shoulder tabs, an officer of the rank of Brigadier, a most formidable sight to behold at any time and place. But this was far more alarming as he was none other than Brigadier Hickie, the DS&T, Paiforce in person, reputed to be one of the fire-emitting General officers. An officer of great professional ability, I had a fleeting encounter with him a few years back at Mosul, when he had abruptly ordered that I go and open a Field Supply Depot at Al-Qairah. Contrary to his perceived reputation, I had not experienced any ‘emission’ of heat either on that occasion nor did I felt any now. After a mild ticking-off for which I was fully prepared, knowing well my act of omission, he pulled the chair opposite mine and ordered me to sit down. We were both quiet for a while then he asked, “How do we clear this mess? What do you suggest?” “Sir the only way I can think would be to appoint a handing, taking-over Board authorised to check hundred per cent all the ground stocks, stock registers, account books. Close and transfer the balances to new books, registers and documents at 11.59 hrs on a date fixed. A new team of officers to key appointments be posted and I take over full responsibility for all transactions thenceforth, and the command of the Unit”. To my surprise and relief, the DST not only approved but responded: “Any other requirements?” “Sir, I shall submit those in due course after taking over.’’ The Board consisting of seventy officers; Viceroy’s Commissioned Officers, Non-commissioned Officers, (not below the rank of Havildar) with a Lt Colonel as President, completed their task as required. I took over Command with effect from 12.00 hrs on the 22nd of August 1943; I had just past my 27th Birthday. The replacement of the three officers I had requested also had arrived in time a few days before my taking over. Captain Urquhart was the senior most of the three, a thin, lean, bandy-legged gentleman, with a very prominent Adam’s apple that moved up and down when talking, soft-spoken, confident and self-assured a thoroughly unmilitary personality in army uniform. Still, I liked him, as he gave me an impression of a hard-working, studious, trustworthy officer, which indeed so he was, I had, in fact, found the perfect Chief Stocks Officer and second-in-command who was also a workaholic. Captain Johnston, the other officer was to take the appointment of TLO (Train Loading Officer) an RASC term but at best a misnomer, as the duties of the officer involved supervision of all movement of stocks be it by rail, road, sea. river or air. A man with a weary, harassed look but well-mannered, who at first, I thought would be unable to handle arduous outdoor work, proved to be quite a tough, efficient individual and in course of time we became good friends and I greatly valued his mature and sound advice. The third officer who took over as my Adjutant and Account Officer had served in one of the Guards Regiment. A fine gentleman, he had been in civil life a tea-taster, a profession I heard of for the first time. As I had not asked for a change of Quarter-Master and the officer already in place continued to perform that duty. He was an old Commissary Officer, and as a Warrant officer had been an Instructor at the RIASC Officer’s School. I did not consider it necessary to make many changes in the VCOs cadre, and none in lower ranks. Of the three key VCOs appointment, Subedar Major Khawaja Mohammad Yusuf, a graduate of Gordon College Rawalpindi was one of those war-time direct Viceroy’s Commissioned Officer who had not been lucky enough to make ICO grade. I found him to be a highly efficient man, who served with me until I recommended him for ICO, which he got. Much later he served with me again as a Captain and a Major in Pakistan. I was given permission to have a VCO from the MT Branch for the appointment of a Jemadar Adjutant, whom I could entrust with additional duties as an MT Officer. As it was rather an important job, I made arrangements with the Commandant to allow me to select one from those awaiting postings. It was very accommodating of the Commandant to have about sixty VCOs paraded; as I moved along the line I noticed a very smart, neat-looking man. I drew him out of the line and after a few words selected him. Header Shier Singh was a high-class Rajput from Shahjahanpur District of Rohailkhand in the United Provinces. I could not have made a better choice, a man of the highest integrity and technical ability, a fine soldier and perhaps the best pistol shot that I have yet come across; he could write my full name from the prescribed distance firing a service pistol in one go, or any figure or name for that matter, truly an amazing feat. Always correct, almost a martinet, although not as educated as his colleague the other VCOs or even Havildars of the Supply Branch, he not only fitted in well but commanded great respect. The job of Quartermaster Jemadar was equally important. Jemadar Joginder Singh too fell in the same category of direct entry as VCO as our SM. A man of unusually short stature for a Sikh but with refined manners, dedicated, hard-working and honest. Along with Captain (Commissary) Morrison as Quartermaster, this branch was now better run. Joginder Singh too was later recommended by me for the Indian Commission.
After having taken over command, to my astonishment, on my own terms, and then being allowed to implement changes and any reasonable recommendations that I deemed necessary, there was hardly anything more an officer in my position could want. I thus started with a clean sheet, with the full realisation that I would have no excuse to offer in case my performance was found to be below expectation. As I was one of the few from the cadre of Indian officers in the Theatre to be given independent command of a Unit and Installation and the rank of Major, I considered it essential to not only maintain a high standard but to outperform others. Although there were two similar units operating with some variation in the area located at Shaiba and at Baghdad, both of those, however, were commanded by British officers.
While we were engaged in our petty issues the war had extended into wider fields, and nowhere was it going in favour of the Allies. Ever since Japan’s entry into the war as an ally of the Axis powers, the Allies, the Americans, the British and the Dutch had all been suffering unprecedented setbacks and humiliating defeats. The news of the war in the Western Deserts was also dismal. One fine morning the world was stunned to learn that Tobruk had fallen to the German General Rommel with a considerable number of Indian, British, South African troops, killed, wounded or missing, and a great loss of material destroyed or captured. Rommel had already acquired great fame and now became a ‘Legend’. With the British Imperial Army in retreat, the Italian Dictator Mussolini rejoiced; it was said that he put on a white uniform and prepared for a triumphal entry into Cairo on a white charger to symbolize the re-emergence of the Roman Empire. The medals for the triumphant entry had been struck. Although the ‘White Charger’ entry did not materialise the possibility of such an occurrence could not be ruled out. The danger of a heavy offensive drive breaking out loomed large, and to meet such a threat in its worst, planning at the highest level had to be been done. These plans were now being implemented in the form of construction of self-contained ‘Fortresses’ capable of holding and defending themselves for the approximate period prescribed for each. Some of these were to be so well armed and equipped as to be able to billet enough troops to constantly sally forth and harass the enemy. In our zone, Mosul was to be one such ‘Fortress’. An extremely formidable all-around line of anti-tank trench was ready, well provided with a variety of defensive and anti-tank weapons. The famous marble quarries of Mosul had been developed into huge, deep anti-air raid shelters, almost like underground marble palaces that housed hospitals with the provision of up-to-date facilities and included residential areas for essential staff including the nurses living quarters. The food supplies, ordinance and all other stores were well stocked, well sheltered and very effectively camouflaged. It was garrisoned to hold for about six months. The next in the chain was Al Qaira, which I called a defensive box, all well excavated, protected and stocked for three months. I had been in command of it almost from its initiation and now it was almost complete. I was ordered to open a Rail Head-Depot at Baiji known as K2 an important Pumping Station of Petroleum company, and at the same time at another place Al Fatha about ten miles or so further south by the Tigris. It was quite a formidable task setting up two FSD at the same time and entailed frequent journeying. The first journey in the sequence was not very pleasant; I received a message while I was still at Al Qaira to report to the Colonel at the Brigade HQ at Al Fatha at a given time and date which happened to be the 11.00 hrs the very next day. I started early morning in a 15-cwt truck with a driver, a rifle orderly, and Hammodi. As we drove down from the higher elevation of Al Qaira the road ended giving way to vast flat-lands called Baiji Plains, treeless and completely barren but apparently much used by MT vehicles judging by the unmistakable tracks. The temptation to drive at high speed was tempting. You could move from one track to the other at will, it was like going on a race track. My driver having obtained my permission to drive fast was cruising along at a high speed when suddenly we hit a bump, up went the nose of the truck and then down into a narrow khed. We took the shock, the vehicle, a low-nosed Ford did not, the radiator bibcock was smashed and in no time all the water drained out. Although a highway to Bagdad and grazing grounds for the Bedouins, no living human or animals were visible as far as the eye could see. With the rising sun and temperature, a few Chaguls full of water and many tales of small parties lost and perishing on this plain, the prospects could well be grim. We stretched ourselves in line at shouting intervals, two men with loaded rifle ready to fire in the air when they hear my pistol shots if and when we sighted a vehicle. About two hours later I saw a line of dust clouds arising from the direction we had come, and then, what appeared to be an MT convoy speeding in the same direction we were to go, I waited until I could clearly discern the vehicle bodies and fired a shot, this was followed by a volley of rifle fire from my men. All this was very effective as two trucks came rushing in our direction, one halted by my side and out came a Major, the OC the GPT Company RIASC, destination Al Fatha, Baghdad. He very kindly gave us a ride to Al Fatha to Colonel Muller’s and arranged for me to get a vehicle in exchange for my damaged one. I was meeting Colonel Muller again after a long time, he was as usual very kind and pleased to see me. There was an imposing gathering of representatives from all the services and Engineering Corps present. After a detailed briefing and lunch, we dispersed to our Units to await further orders. It was around the third week of February that I got my orders to move to Baji to establish the Rail Head Depot for the subsequent stocking of dumps and reserves to Al Fatha. The area allocated at Baji was adjacent to the Railway Station. The Unit moved and I was called up to report at the Headquarters at Mosul. We had a very busy day and I finally left Mosul in the evening driving under very foul weather although it cleared off as we reached the plains. I got to my tent weary and so tired that did not eat anything, I told Imam Din to take my socks and boots off and fell onto my camp-cot bed, still in uniform, into an exhausted, deep sleep.
I woke up early the next morning as was my routine, put on my socks and boots, took my swagger stick in hand saying to myself “Let’s see what its like outside”, and threw open the tent flaps to find myself at the edge of a sandy ridge looking at the astounding panorama in front of me. I thought to myself “Oh God, what a desert! A classic desert, a moving desert”. It suddenly dawned on me, this scene was familiar, I found myself thinking, “I have been here before???” It was like I was in a reverie, a replay of the dream I had at home before my departure from India. While still in a state of incredulity at this impossible phenomenon, I heard loud voices and sounds of wails and subdued crying. Subedar Shingara Singh my trusty VCO came running towards me shouting, “Sahib, Sahib, Singapore, Singapore has fallen, we have surrendered…my brother is in the … Battalion Punjab Regiment.” Many NCOs and other ranks followed him, all in distress. I collected all the men and expressed my sympathies to those who may have lost their kith and kin, and at the same time thanked God that we were here, safe and sound; but we could very well have been there. The war was still on, the Germans hovering close by striving hard to take Cairo and break through into this country and onward to India. I explained to them that, “That is the reason we are here, exhaustively making all preparations to meet the threat effectively. The RIASC has done very well on all fronts, so keep up the excellent record, so let us drown our sorrow and get down to our duties with greater zeal and devotion”. Dismissing the men, I withdrew to my tent. Despite the courageous words I had just uttered to the men, I found myself a quite shaken-up and somewhat bewildered, the entire scenario that I had experienced and seen in my dream now was displayed in truth and reality. The strange looking soldiers in their peculiar uniform, their officers with their very different style of swords beheading our men whom they had taken prisoners as a result of a lost battle. I did not know then the identity of the men, or the place, but it now dawned on me that they were the Japanese in Malaya and Singapore because their photographs now appeared regularly in the papers since their entry into the war against the allies. My belief and faith in the divine and in the effectiveness and fulfilment of prayers was not only revived but attained further strength. At the same time, the chain of constant defeats and disasters suffered by the allies at the hands of the Japanese shook one’s confidence in the superiority of Allies. The surprise attack and destruction of the American fleet at Pearl Harbour, the sinking of two mighty Royal Navy battleships, the Prince of Wales, and the Repulse with thousands of men lost, the unchecked advance down the Malayan Peninsula, and ultimately the ignoble surrender by the garrison of the ‘Impregnable Fortress’. A hitherto unbelievable event had occurred, about seventy thousand Imperial troops had laid down arms, and that too after having suffered extensive annihilation and indescribable humiliation. It was perhaps the greatest military defeat of the British Army. Such momentous and significant adversities could change the course of world history. The American Naval Fleet in the Pacific lay crippled, their prestige and power humbled in the Philippines, the Dutch thrown out of Java thereby ending their domination, the French after their fall, almost eliminated. With the epic surrender of Singapore, many myths, beliefs and assumptions such as the superiority of white man, the dynamism and ascendency of the technologically advanced elite European military forces, the invincibility of Fortress Singapore, and many others, far too many to describe lay shattered. In short, it forestalled the end of an era and the demise of Imperial and Colonial rule, the unburdening and laying down of the “The White Man’s Burden”. The immediate effect of these disastrous and far-reaching events had an extremely adverse effect on the morale of the Army. Further advance of the Japanese Forces threatening India through Burma was halted temporarily due to the Monsoons. However, despite bewailing the distressing news there was nothing that could be done at our level but to get down to our immediate duties. Work at Al-Fatha had begun, the Engineers and the Pioneer Corps moving rapidly to finish their part of operations. By the close of winter, everything was complete, all the supply stocks and POL dump well camouflaged. The ‘Fortress’ was ready as far as the Services were concerned, the Engineer stores, the Service Corps, the Medical Corps, the Ordnance Corps with all their ancillaries were spread out over a wide area.
was an interesting place, the area we had occupied began at the mouth of a gorge cut by the Tigris in between a range of hills, both side neatly vertical in shape, giving an impression of a huge man-made gateway. Rushing out of it this confine, the Tigris spread out into, initially into a narrow valley, then both the river and the valley widened out further forming the extensive Baiji plain, It was also the scene of a ferocious battle during the First World War, the site of the Turkish Imperial Army’s last stand against British Forces. The signs of that battle were still apparent, the remains of a complex of trenches of both sides, weapons such as bayonets and old coins scattered around. On a distant high ridge stood a small whitewashed building known as ‘Hindi Shaheed’, it was a shrine. A Muslim Subedar Major of an Indian Unit along with his men broke away from his Commanding Unit, changed sides and went over to the Turkish Army in the midst of the battle. He along with his men was killed fighting against his own comrade in arms and in so doing he was declared Shaheed by his Muslim brethren. Most of the Muslim Arabs had not only allied themselves to the British-French Imperial powers but under their tutelage revolted and waged an aggressive guerrilla war against the authority and armed forces of the Sultan-Caliph. The Arab uprising was one of the major factors and cause of the downfall, defeat and the ultimate end of the centuries-old powerful Ottoman Empire. With its demise, the only Muslim institution (although it had been quite ineffective) that had been a symbol of Islamic unity ceased to exist. This momentous and significant historic event hardly produced a ripple and barely a tear was shed in those regions that were populated mainly by Muslims. However, a segment of Muslims within the British Indian Empire started a Movement for the retention of Khilafat. The leaders of the move also urged the Indian Muslims not to join the Army and explicitly not to fight against the Turks. But except for a few random cases, like what occurred at the battle of Al Fatha, and caused some political embarrassment and administrative inconvenience, the movement had no serious outcome. The Indian Empire continued to play an important role in the British Imperial War effort. Though indeed, the wave of emotional sympathy for the Turks was wide-spread and extensive and could not be prevented it had no practical value.
We were quick in setting the Depot up at Al Fatha. Lt Moid was posted as my 2nd in-command and was of immense help and good company too. I still continued to reside at Baiji making daily trips to check on the progress of work. The advent of summer made these trips exceedingly unpleasant; driving on a desert track in an open 15 cwt truck with the scorching hot wind, heavily laden with equally hot sand hitting your face singeing your eyebrows and every exposed part of the body, the vehicle engine and radiator regularly boiling, sometime getting caught in a virulent afternoon sandstorm, turned the short journey into a wretched and painful experience. At last, our part of the project at Baiji was completed, and, leaving a small detachment at Baiji we moved to our dugout encampment at Al Fatha. All supply stocks were stored or dumped in dugouts along the ridges, and the POL, quite a few thousand tons of Petrol in Flimsies, i.e. four-gallon tins, were dumped in dugouts along the valley plain, so well camouflaged that they merged completely with the local natural landscape. The men’s living areas in dugouts were similarly designed, as were two luxury caves with attached bath and toilet for Moid and me. These cave-rooms were ingeniously provided with ventilation,; hot wind passing through well-watered dry Camel-thorn screens made our cave dwellings cool and fragrant. Hitherto I had little knowledge of this interesting plant except that I had noticed its dried tufts surrounded by drifting sand turning into little hillocks, spread all over the desert during the summer it made driving somewhat irksome. In spring, when the desert briefly glows with greenery, animals, mainly sheep and camel in great numbers are found grazing greedily, the camel, in particular, consumes this herb with great relish, hence the name camel thorn or grass. That it is used in the same manner and purpose as we do with Khas grass at home in India was unknown to me. There was an important difference though, Khas has a pleasant smell, and perfumes the air while the Camel-thorn had the aroma of long, dry scorched earth after the first rain. Unfortunately, our cool and comfortable dwellings attracted the original inhabitants of the area, scorpions and snakes. They began to appear from nowhere, sometimes dropping from the roof seeking to share our accommodation, and although they quietly occupied a very small space and none had done any harm to any of us, they were nonetheless repulsive and poisonous creatures and we could not muster the courage to co-exist with them. An intensive operation was undertaken to eliminate them inside and a no-go area created for them was outside where they continued to live and roam without hindrance. It is quite fascinating to watch a bunch of scorpions moving as a body of well-disciplined soldiers in a single file with their tail raised ready to strike and sting. If the line is disturbed, they scramble in panic and in obvious anger until their leader reorganises them and the line is re-formed. I wish I had had more time to study the organisation and living habits of this fascinating insect.
During my stay at Al Fatha, I had to make a number of trips to Baghdad mostly to report in detail to the S&T Directorate on the progress of the Supply and POL built-up. These trips involved driving through barren, featureless, dry almost lifeless deserts with constant dust-laden winds; a very unpleasant journey to say the least. But immediately after the winter rains, the scene changed dramatically to an endlessly green landscape with patches of a wide variety of wild herbs and flowers in a vast hue of colours and shades. The land was filled with grazing camels, sheep and occasionally herds of gazelles, animals of great grace and beauty which could be seen fleeting about or grazing along with sheep and goats. Now the landscape was studded by the black Arab tents occupied by herders and their families. Sometimes when driving through I would stop by one of these tents get down to be met, greeted and welcomed most cheerfully by the entire family. With my interpreter by my side, there were no communication problems. I also took advantage of these long drives to stop at Samara the historically famous but short-lived capital of the Abbasid Caliph Al Mutawakkil. Al Mutawakkil commissioned the construction of the Great Mosque of Samarra, the largest mosque at that time in his brand-new city, with its unique spiral minaret highest in the ninth century Muslim world. It is said that the Caliph sometimes rode to the top of the minaret on horseback. Except for the massiveness of the buildings, I did not find any architectural beauty in any of the buildings, all now in a sorry state. Samarra is also the resting place of the tenth and the eleventh Imams, Hazrat Imam Al-Hadi and Hazrat Imam Al-Askari and the Holy Shrine of twelfth Imam, Imam Al- Mahdi, also known as Imam Ghaib for per the Shia belief, the Imam disappeared but will reappear before doomsday to restore the glory of Islam. After paying my respect at the holy shrines I was met by an Indian Muslim gentleman from Awadh who looked after the interest and comfort of Indian Muslim pilgrims and was in the pay of the Raja of Mahmudabad. On one occasion I stopped over at Tikrit another ancient town more importantly known for being the birthplace of Sultan Salah Uddin Ayubi the illustrious Muslim hero who is held in great honour and esteem for his re-conquest of Jerusalem and the final expulsion of the Crusaders from Palestine. It was at the suggestion and request of my interpreter Hammodi that we made a stop outside a house almost immediately after we had entered the town. A loud and rapid conversation ensued between Hammodi and a couple of men hanging about which sent one of them shouting into the house. A man soon emerged from within, immaculately attired in the garb of a typical Arab gentleman with the prerequisite string of worry beads in his hands. As he approached at a brisk pace I wondered at his identity, then Hammond explained, “Sir, he is the head carpenter who worked for us at Al Qaira”. When I saw his face, I remembered him but not his name which I cannot recall even now. A cheerful, wrinkled, kindly faced man, who even in his working dress did not have a semblance of a carpenter. I remember he had entreated me many times to visit his home. He was delighted to see me now and after having shaken my hand warmly and enthusiastically with both of his lead me with Hammodi in attendance to a modest-size rectangular room neatly furnished with an old carpet and wooden dewans placed against the wall. After the usual Arab tea, dates, and exchange of many polite words, I bade farewell to the happy old man and was in Baghdad by the evening.
The next morning, I attended a conference at the S&T Directorate the outcome of which was that if the war in the Western Desert turned in favour of the allies the plan under which we were operating would come to stand still, and in due course close down. I took the opportunity of this short stay to visit some of the mausoleums, shrines, and holy places that Baghdad is full of having been the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate for centuries. Closest to where I was staying was the Mosque and the tomb of one of the greatest Sufi Saint of all times, Syedna Mohiuddin Abdul Qadir Al-Gilani (known in India as Barey Pir), the founder of the Qadri Sufi Order or Silsila. The Naqibul Ashraf (equivalent to Sajjada Nashin) Syed Asim Gilani lived across the road and I went there to pay my respects to him. An elderly soft-spoken gentleman, of refined and kind demeanour and polished manners and a charming personality, I could only able to spend a short time with him. I enjoyed his company and promised to call on him whenever I visited Baghdad again. I was able to make a fleeting visit to Kazimain, the Mausoleum of the 7th Imam Hazrat Musa Al- Kazim and his grandson the 9th Imam Mohammad Al-Taqi, and also the Mosque and the Tomb of Imam Abu Hanifa the great Muslim scholar cum jurist, the founder of Hanafi School of Islamic Jurisprudence (Fiqh).
I returned to Al-Fatha and to the normal routine until one fine morning an excited Subedar Shingara Singh, the senior VCO announced, “Sahib, all formations, Infantry Brigades, Engineers, everyone moved out last night, all gone to the Western Desert, only a small detachment of Medicals, some of the Engineers, Ordinance and ourselves are left behind”. There was nothing anybody could do but wait for further developments to take place. So Moid and I sat down to have a good hearty breakfast, soon the Doctor Captain Khansoo IMS joined us then an Ordinance Officer. As we ate and discussed the situation while going around to examine the state of the denuded garrison, two uniformed personals were seen coming up the ridge towards our camp. Our senior VCO went out to meet them and guide them to us. The first, an officer, introduced himself, he was Captain Kanandhia Lal Atal, commanding a Company of the 5thBatallion 13th Frontier Force Rifles left over for garrison duties to protect the Services Installation until relieved. We welcomed him, expressed our sympathies for being delegated such a difficult and unpleasant task and promised every possible help, assistance, and cooperation in carrying it out.
For a week or so all went well, and then one night the nocturnal quiet was broken by sudden, unknown noises. The sentry on duty called out a challenge and fired, he caught a glimpse of some fleeing bodies and thought he had been able to foil an intrusion. However, the next morning it was reported that one of the Ghi dumps had been tampered with and three tins were missing, obviously stolen. All the follow-up actions required were duly carried out and a report sent to the Area HQ stating the likelihood of more such incidents recurring unless proper action was taken to strengthen the existing protective force. All this while Hammodi appeared rather perturbed and confided to me that he too had been investigating; he was convinced that no outsider other than those employed as labourers could know the location and contents of dumps. He, along with some other men of the labour group strongly suspected one particular individual. After giving it some thought, I told Hammodi to assemble the entire labour force at one place, I instructed Imam din to accompany me there carrying a copy of the Koran. With Hammodi translating I announced, “If any of you committed the theft, or know someone who did, or has any information about it, step forward”. No one made a move. I told Hammodi to call out the suspected man, I asked him if he had committed the theft which he vehemently denied it, I then told Hammodi to make him swear by Allah holding the Koran, which he did. I let him off, at the same time stated, “In the name of Allah I declare that if this man has lied he shall not live long.”
Shortly after this minor incident, there was the declaration of great importance, Iraq had signed a Treaty with British thus entering the war as an ally and ending its status as an occupied country. This change resulted in a visit by the Brigadier, the Area Commander and the Military Advisor to the government of Iraq, Major General (?) As the senior-most officer present, it was my duty to receive these important visitors. The General, a grumpy rather heavy, elderly gentleman shook my hand and announced, “A good force of Iraqi Army, our friends are moving in, should be here anytime tomorrow. They shall look after everything. Alright. Well happy to have met you”. I saluted and stammered, “Thank you, Sir”. Before I could say any more he leaned forward and inquired, “Have you learned Arabic?” Very little-sir”. Well learn it well, you will rule this country as I learned in the last war.” He walked off at a fast pace with the old Brigadier trying to keep up. The General was certainly a fine gentleman and exemplifying the typical British officer of good breed and tradition.
The same evening Captain Atal came to say goodbye as he and his Company were moving out to re-join his Battalion. Early next morning as I came out of my cave I beheld the valley down below teeming with life; men, horses, tents pitched all along the bank of the river as far as the eye could see. Moid, Shingara Singh and Hammodi greeted me excitedly and almost in a chorus announced that an Iraqi Infantry Brigade and a Regiment of Horse Cavalry had arrived. I asked Moid to take Hammodi with him to their HQ and request an appointment anytime convenient to the Commander of the force so that we could pay our respects.
The HQ was within walking distance and we were there at the given time, late afternoon. A Major (Raidliva or Brigade Major) with a Lieutenant (Mulazim) received us. We were conducted to the Brigadier (Mirliva) seated in the open by the river bank, his flag flying attached to a lance behind his chair. There were a number of officers sitting in a semi-circle in front of him. We saluted the Commander, I announced my rank, name, designation finishing with a loud “Sir’ and another salute, then advanced towards the Brigadier who rising from his seat shook my hands and greeted me very cheerfully, with kind, polite words, in the manner of a true, polished Arab Gentleman. I introduced Moid and Hammodi. We were taken around by the Brigade Major to meet the other officers and then back to the Brigadier and offered chairs next to him with Hammodi squatting on the ground between our chairs, interpreting. The Brigadier a somewhat heavily-built old soldier with a benign weather-beaten face, asked my name again. I gave my full name, he then asked Hammodi in Arabic if I was a Muslim, and when this was affirmed responded with an Alhamad lilallah, and repeated that when Hammodi told him that so was my second-in-command. He assured me that everything that was under my care including all the all installations would now be secure from all intrusions. During the course of our conversation, I informed him that I had received orders that our Army Engineers would lay on water points for his force which were now ready. On hearing this he burst out laughing I asked Hammodi to find out what had I said to amuse him so. He was silent for a bit then apologised and lifted one up a hand with most of the fingers missing, saying, “I have a few more scars of wounds I received in battle at this very place as an officer in Turkish Army. We lost men not by drinking the water of this river but by the bullets, and the bayonets of your Army”. We returned back our camp quite happy, Moid holding a packet with two bottles of the highest quality Arak, a gift from the Iraqi officers. We sent gifts in exchange, Scotch Whiskey and American Beer cans. Our relationship continued on cordial but strict, formal terms. Their Cavalry Regiment had excellent Arab mounts and since I had not got a chance to ride since I left the AT Company at Abbottabad I took full advantage of the very kind offer of the Commander of the Regiment to ride their fine horses. Every afternoon, two horses with a groom reported to me. The horses were beautiful and very well trained, comfortable rides, some of them were also first-rate jumpers. Moid was not interested, but Captain Khansoo the Doctor displayed a keen interest. After a few days of simple cross-country riding, we got a bit more adventurous and decided to ride over the numerous line of trenches and mounds, remains of the First Great War scattered throughout the valley. We were riding through smoothly and comfortably and I had gone a fair distance ahead, when I saw, to my horror Khansoo’s horse without Khansoo making a beeline at a terrific speed towards the Iraqi lines. I found the Doctor comfortably lying in one of the old trench none the worse for his fall with almost no damage done, and thank God none to the horse. I was sorry that this incident ended the Doctors enthusiasm for riding.
Life went on quiet and serene, the Iraqi army was doing a good job with a mounted patrol going on rounds and an armed sentry at almost to each dump or stack. One night the peaceful silence was again broken by two rifle shots fired in succession followed by some loud voices. Our senior VCO in his booming voice called out, “Irquian ne ek admi shoot kardia”. I responded equally loudly, “hamko koi fikar ki bat nahin hai. Jao sojao.” Early next morning, as a I, with Moid, Interpreter Hammodi and some of my VCOs and NCOs reached the place where the commotion had been during the night we found a number of Iraqi officers already there dealing with the situation. It was a ghastly sight; a sentry had shot a man at point-blank range. Strangely enough, he was the same man who was suspected of having stolen from the same dump of Ghi and had denied the deed under oath by swearing on the Holy Book. I left the scene with my men and an assurance from the Iraqi officer in charge that a copy of the full report of the incident would be sent to me. As the normal day’s routine work began I noticed an unruly crowd gathering near my office tent with Hammodi and the senior VCO trying to impose some order. As soon they saw me approaching there was loud yelling and shouting with the crowd rushing towards me, “Ya-Saeedi, ya Saeedi”. The entire labour force appeared to be there with their foremen in the lead. I was about to get into a rage at their rowdiness but Hammodi calmed me down explaining “Please, please Sir, they have come to pay homage to you since your prediction about the man who took the false oath has come true. Please let them pay their homage to you”. Then one by one the men started coming up to me holding and kissing my hand and uttering many praises to Allah. For a while I had acquired a saintly stature, embarrassing to me, but highly amusing to Moid.
By now we had received strong indications that the place would be closing down, which turned out to be the case. There was not much left as most of the stocks had been back-loaded except for several thousand gallons of petrol, the entire stock in 4-gallon flimsy tins in dumps spread over an extensive area. I soon received orders to hand over the entire Installation to the Iraqi Army. A board of Iraqi officers arrived headed by a Lt Colonel with many Majors and Captains, as well as others of lower ranks. I did not have enough camp chairs to seat them so the Colonel a nice friendly gentleman decided to sit in my office tent with his two Majors to work the details of the taking over of necessary Stock, Account books etc. along with a sketch of the area, the position of each dump, the quantity of containers, and every possible detail under our rules and regulation were placed at their disposal. I explained to the Colonel my inability to match the force he had brought to check the stores but assured him of providing every assistance within our resources. After a great deal of discussion and making may rounds of the area they came and sat in the open EPIP tent left in our unit. By now arrangements had been made and we had enough chairs. They sat down, there was a longish silence, then one of them spoke, “Captain, how do we know that the tins in these dumps really contain petrol not water”. I requested I be given a little time to find the solution to this problem. I ordered the Senior VCO to fetch me a carton of matches and to distribute one box to each officer. I then addressed the Colonel “Sir, please have the tins taken out, open them one by one and apply a burning matchstick. If the tin blows up it will be petrol, if not then water”. There was a hush as they all looked at each other than at me; the silence was broken by a loud burst of laughter. The Colonel came up to me, “We have taken over”. The necessary papers were formally signed. My truck was already loaded and leaving Moid in charge of the final wind up I left for Mosul. At Mosul, I found the HQ 21 Supply Personnel Company covered a very extensive area, with many more Supply Personnel Section officers than ever before. A Lt Colonel was in command who at one time had commanded the 2nd Indian Base Supply Depot at Basra. All the officers called him “Auntie”, I cannot recall his real name. A shy, reserved, quiet, sort of elderly gentleman. He met me most amicably and warned me that my two Units and I were likely to transfer into a new area and place shortly, and I should, therefore, remain on standby for a move at short notice.
During this period Saud came to see me in his usual grand style. He insisted that I fulfil my long-standing promise to visit his home at Sharqat. So, one morning with Hammodi in tow I picked up Captain Kainander who I had managed to get an invitation for as well from Al Qaira We arrived at the Sheikh’s palace which he shared with his elder brother the powerful Sheikh Safouk al Yawar. Sheikh Saud received and welcomed us with the utmost courtesy and lead us to a spacious hall-like room. We spent quite some time enquiring after each other health, and each other’s well-being in the typical Arab manner. Coffee, tea, and a variety of snacks were offered. I had noticed, as soon as we arrived, that the grand palace had an incomplete and unfinished look to it which I found rather odd, During the course of conversation I brought this up. My friend explained that when the palace was being built by his father the late King Faisal came on a visit; looking at the palace he remarked, “I thought there was only one king in Iraq”. That remark was fully understood, the Sheikh responded, “There is one king and that is how it shall remain.” Further construction was immediately stopped and so it remained. We were now taken to another equally large room where a huge tray had been laid out on a carpeted floor, on the tray lay the golden baked carcass of a young camel nestled in a bed of Chelo Pulao. We were invited to take a seat beside our host almost but not exactly at the head but at a place from where he could easily reach out the prime meats. Captain Kainander sat on the right of the host, I sat on the left. I had told Hammodi to ensure the Captain be treated as the more honoured guest. The meal began with a “Bismillah” from the host who pushed some rice in front of each of us and himself and began to eat, he then looked around and said something to the standing attendants, there was a slight hustle and bustle as they too sat down to share the meal. I signalled Hammodi to sit next to me. Two men were apparently detailed to start digging deep into the animal; they brought out a lamb that was stuffed with chicken which in turn were stuffed with the best quality of pulao. I noticed the Sheikh coaxing Kainander to taste the choicest part of the animal, the eyes. I never found out if the Captain enjoyed that particular delicacy. The meal over, we had another round of tea and coffee, then with deep and profound thanks to our kind and most hospitable host we took our leave.
A few days later I was ordered to move to Kifri to open a Field Supply Depot for the maintenance of the 31st Corps and troops under that command. Before moving out I managed to visit Tel Kaif which I had been wanting to do for a long time, and also the shrine of Sheikh Adi a reformer of the Yazidis, locally known as Satan worshipers.
An Iraqi Christian army officer, a Major, who I had befriended at Al-Fatha, invited me to his home in the old city of Mosul to spent an evening with his family. Since I had never met an Iraqi family of this class or status I readily accepted his kind invitation. The part of the city where he lived was out of bounds for our army, I had to, therefore, obtain permission to visit the place and to take an army vehicle there. The area in which the house was situated, and the house itself bore a strong resemblance to the old streets and houses of Delhi, Lucknow, and Lahore, except that these houses were of grey stone and the courtyard was paved with grey marble. My gracious host led me to a very moderate size, spotlessly clean courtyard where I was met by the lady of the house and three children all simply and neatly turned-out. No one except the Major spoke English which somewhat limited my interaction with them. The usual Iraqi snacks were produced along with famous Red Hadba wine of Mosul. I mentioned that I had been wanting to visit one of the ancient Monasteries that the nearby town of Tel Keppe was famous for but I could not decide which one. My host promptly offered to arrange a visit to one of the oldest monasteries in Tel Keppe. I thanked him effusively for his offer and also for his family’s excellent hospitality before asking permission to leave. I was informed that a talkative young man who worked as an interpreter in one of our Army installation would take charge of the arrange details for my visit and also go with me. So, accompanied by that fine gentleman whose name I can’t recollect, I arrived late one morning at the ancient Assyrian town of Tel Keppe which I was told meant” Hill of Stones” in the ancient Aramaic tongue. The Chaldean Church and Monastery is believed to be one of the oldest in the world, a place of great antiquity. We drove for approximately 10 to 12 miles before we entered into a vale. its beautifully lush green fields dense with orchards and extensively cultivated fields spread out as far as the eye could see and beyond. The whole area teemed with life and with healthy-looking young men and women busy at work. Following the road along the foot of a ridge, we came to a stop at a large opening of a cave carved like a gate. A group of black-robed monks were standing near the gate, seeing us two of them advanced towards me with greetings, we were introduced and they shook hands courteously and politely.
We were lead into a big hall, which was actually a huge cave shaped like a hall, softly lit to highlight and draw full attention and focus on the altar with its statue of Christ glittering in midst of a mass of lighted candles. The overall impact was of a feeling of veneration, peace, and tranquillity. One of the monks explained the magnitude and the extent of the entire complex. There were many chapels, meditation rooms, residential areas including that of the Patriarch. We now were taken to another moderate size room, the Patriarch private chapel, there sitting on a throne-like chair, with a monk in attendance was His Holiness, an elderly black-robed gentleman who looked very serene and refined, with a kindly face and a long greying beard. He welcomed me with soft-spoken words of welcome and extended his hand which I took in both of mine and kissed, this gesture seemed to please him, and he asked me many questions, mainly about my family and background. After a short while, he gestured and said something to the monk in attendance, who left quickly and returned shortly with another monk carrying a glass-cased box. The box contained a much-faded parchment written in an old Arabic script, it was a decree issued by the Commander of the Arab Muslim forces, after their conquest of this region during the rule of the Caliph Omar, granting full protection and accepting the right of possession and retention in perpetuity to the Christians of all their lands, properties, churches, crosses, and the freedom to worship, and practice their religion without any interference or hindrance. It further enjoined all future Muslim rulers to do the same. The Patriarch on behalf of his community had, in return, solemnly affirmed to remain loyal and ever faithful. I was told both sides had honoured their solemn undertaking. At a gesture from His Holiness we were ushered into another large, well-lit room, this was the dining hall furnished with heavy wood furniture it. Laid on the table were a variety of eatables, cheeses of different kinds, olives green and black in various forms, breads of many types, diverse fresh vegetables, greens, and fruits all produced by the monastery monks. While we were busy with this deliciously tasty repast a young monk came in carrying a glazed earthen wine jar on his shoulder. Standing by me he declared the wine was four hundred old. A South Indian civilian gentleman, a Syrian Christian from Travancore State, whom I had met earlier, seated across the table from me declared loudly in a very Madrasi accent, “Please take some as you could not have tasted such before or perhaps ever in future”. I took a sherry glass full, it was indeed excellent with a taste like very dry sherry. The meal over, I begged leave of the monks, paid my respects and expressed my deep gratitude to His Holiness, received his pious blessings and departed. On my way, back my thoughts were full of admiration for this institution which I had the good fortune to visit and for the wonderful people who initially established it, for those who continued to maintain it and the ones still kept it meaningful. Monks voluntarily give up and abstain from the worldly life to devote themselves purely and entirely to the service of God; at the monastery, I had witnessed a practical demonstration and manifestation of that doctrine in practice in its true form. Under the guidance of the Patriarch there lived a thriving hard-working community of people in peace and harmony, self-contained and happy. Tel Kaif supplied a great number of the white collar-workers and most of the Hotel staff as well as the educated Iraq Railway staff.
Back in Mosul, heeding Hammodi’s counsel I gave up the idea of visiting the Yazidis as I was told they do not welcome stranger visitors at their shrine. Soon enough I received orders to move to Kifri. Before I left my friend, Sheikh Saud, came to see me and presented me a Shammar silver dagger, inscribed on it in Arabic was, “To my brother Kermani”. A gift which I greatly cherish and still possess, it was given in the true spirit of sincere love, and affection. The silver, with gold classic Amara work, had also inscribed on it ‘Zahroon’ in Arabic. Zahroon were the Kings Jewellers and said to be the best goldsmiths not only in Iraq but in the entire Arab region. They belonged to a small religious community of people known as Sabians or Subbi in Arabic They dress in white and believe in free immersion in water. I was told that almost all jewellers in Baghdad and Basra belong to this community I met a few both men and women, fair and pretty women and good-looking men. They are mentioned in the Quran as a People of the Book. I was sorry indeed to bid farewell to Saud, he was indeed one friend I made during my stay in Iraq whom I shall never forget.
Kifri was a small town located almost in the heart of Kurdistan not far from the Persian border town of Khanaqin. The larger Kurdish towns Arbil and Sulaymaniyah were a short distance away. Here we were to maintain the 31st Corps. Elements of Corps HQ had already started arriving and we as the Field Supply Depot were soon well established and in full swing as by this time the Units had acquired, under my command, the highest standard of proficiency in their technical work and all-around military efficiency. We had hardly any problems, stock-building was going well, the fresh supplies were of superior quality including the meat while the labour too was hardworking and of a cheerful nature. Once the agent of a fresh supplies contractor complained that he was having some problems with local civil administration, I wrote a letter to the Qaim Muqam, (Equivalent to a Deputy Commissioner in India) which Hammodi delivered asking the officer concerned to come to meet me. Promptly the Qaim Muqam, Mr Baban turned up with Hammodi, a man of impressive presence well dressed in a smart suit he could easily have been an ICS Officer. We soon became friends; the problem was not only solved but assurance given that no such problem of any nature would arise in future. It was the month of Ramazan and he very warmly invited me to spend Eid with him which I gladly accepted. When I had accepted his invitation, I had not asked about the time, but thinking that about eight in the morning appropriate I arrived at that hour to find myself in the midst of a highly festive gathering. Men, women, young and old, children and adults, all gaily attired in colourful clothes, the scene very similar to that in our homes and functions except for the somewhat thunderous sounds and noises of joyous, gleeful music, and dancing; altogether a highly entrancing atmosphere. I stood with my host still exchanging niceties and feeling sorry for having missed the Eid prayers which according to their practice were performed very early in the morning. I also felt somewhat out of place in my Battle Dress, the only one so attired in the existing company. My host indicated with a gesture that I join the dancing folk and I found myself in the grip of a number of young men and women who carried me to forward to join the line of the dancing circle with a terrific shout of joy and a resounding of the drums and trumpets (not unlike a Shanaie). Discarding my inhibition and reserve I easily fell in with the mood of the party, matching the enthusiasm with equal gusto. The place was overflowing with food and drink in such abundance, and varieties so great, that it is impossible to narrate. The people were so friendly and full of charm, there was so much in their manners, food, drinks and customs common to our own that I really felt at home. I particularly liked the men’s dress, smart and practical with all the attribute to maintain the necessary body discipline, very unlike the male garb of most of the Muslim countries where the body remains wrapped in loose and flowing robes that let the belly and the bottom grow freely with layers upon layers of fat. After spending many delightful and enjoyable hours with my new friends and my gracious host I thanked them all as profusely as possible returned to my unit.
A next few weeks passed uneventfully until one day after lunch a signal was delivered to me, addressed not as OC, but by name, to report to the Corps HQs without specifying the subject. The Corps HQ was not very far off located in an old building, I reported to the duty officer who without a word, handed me a sealed enveloped marked ‘Most Secret’ to be handed over to Brigade Commander Brigadier Rodham. The duty officer gave me a sketch showing the location of the Brigade Headquarter and a handed me motorcycle. The weather was cloudy and rain imminent, it started almost immediately making road slippery, full of slush and thick mud and causing the ride to be quite unpleasant. By the time I found the Brigadier’s tent I was drenched. The motorcycle’s din outside the tent must have alerted him to open the flap. I expected to find a red-hot verbal blast, instead of a torrent, a kindly voice inquired, “Who? You? What are you doing here in this weather? Come right in”. He shouted for his batman, who was already there and had started to take my boots off. I took out the envelope from my inner pocket and as he read it a roar emitted combined with a torrent of not very complimentary words, “I already know all about this. Have to be at their HQ in the morning. Sending an officer, quite, quite unnecessary”. This kindly Brigadier, many years my senior in both in age and service, treated and looked after me in a very fatherly manner, he made arrangements for me to stay that night and be dropped off at my Unit the next morning. Brigadier Rodham MC, was a remarkable gentleman, a senior officer of great ability, a sincere and noble friend. It was my good fortune to meet him again in Pakistan, to serve under him, receive his guidance, and get to know him well, but more about that later.
It was a fortnight after this episode that I got an Air-Card from home, that my father had had a heart attack and was seriously ill. I had been serving overseas for almost three years without a day’s break or leave. I applied and was immediately granted one month’s leave. After having made special arrangements with Field Controller of Military Accounts to have all the accounts audited I handed over my command to my successor. Travelling by road to Baghdad, by rail to Basra, and thence by ship to Bombay, I eventually arrived at Lucknow. I took a taxi, a big old Buick driven by a courteous and pleasant, fat, elderly Brahmin. Due to the acute shortage of petrol, the taxi was being driven on charcoal, a novel idea. It could not run more than about 20-25 mph. My arrival was not a complete surprise since the approximate, expected time of my arrival was already known to the family.
A despondent Colonel Taylor left my cabin, not at all happy with the contents of the ‘Most Secret’ document he had so eagerly opened, breaking the strict norms of military discipline. I too felt somewhat dejected, I had been looking forward to being in Singapore, considered by many to be the best station in the Empire; moreover, I had many friends serving there at that time as well. Any probability of its falling into the war zone was remote, after all, it had been hammered into us that Singapore was impregnable, it could not be taken by land, sea, or air, furthermore, the sphere in which it was located could not be allowed to come under an unfriendly power. The reason for our disembarkation at Basra was therefore beyond comprehension. True that there has been trouble in Iraq but the pro-axis coup led by Rushed Ali Al-Gilani, the Prime Minister had been effectively quelled. In Iran, the Shah-in-Shah, Reza Shah Pahlavi had also become far too friendly with the Germans and had deployed his forces along the frontiers. This gesture was seen as a threat by the Allied powers and could well have jeopardised valuable economic and highly strategic interests of the Empire in the Middle East. As a result, British Indian forces had undertaken a short but swift military operation and Reza Shah was not only removed but also exiled and Iran secured under British protection. Northern Iran fell under the Russians while the rest remained under the British. All these events had already taken place, and Syria, Iraq, Iran fully subdued while German-Italian forces were being appropriately dealt with in North Africa. The role of Units like ours was not quite clear, except to reinforce and strengthen the already existing Line of Control troops. However, it was, I thought quite pointless for me to dwell on such matters. I was a tired but cold and could not sleep so I decided to go out to get some fresh sea breeze and also experience the mood of the Arabian Sea at night. As I came out of my cabin I was hit by the highly salt-laden, soothing, and sighing wind, the overwhelming darkness except for the star-lit sky above and the phosphorescent sea below. There appeared to be some kind of light emanating from the breaking waves, sparks shooting out from the sea which took a short run and disappeared. These I discovered were flying fish. After a while, I began to feel drowsy and returned to my cabin to fall into a deep dreamless slumber.
Early next morning I was woken by a knock on my door. My batman Imam Din with a “Salaam Sahib. Chai”, had brought my bed-tea. After a bath and a shave, I donned my PT outfit for the morning parade. Outside the troops were already forming up for their PT drill. While waiting for the CO, whom I and the Quarter Master had to accompany on his morning inspection of the troops and their decks, I experienced my first early morning at sea. The salty breeze was still moisture-laden yet pleasant and the sea unusually calm. The horizon was all ablaze with the sun, resembling a disk of fire, emerging out of the water, it was a magnificent sight. We had been at sea and away from land for almost twenty hours and yet there was still a lot of birdlife with a considerable variety of birds, particularly gulls, hovering and encircling the ship, screeching and screaming and happily floating alongside the vessel. Sea life was plentiful as well; there were huge turtles and occasionally schools of dolphins moving fast, popping in and out of the water, not unlike humans doing the breaststroke. The shrill sounds of whistles signalled the start of the parade beginning with PT for all ranks. Under Colonel Taylor’s guidance, we had worked out an intensive training programme that included sports and several activities that ensured that there was no time left for idleness. We continued to sail in comfort although the alarm sounded twice, once for an air attack, and the other for a potential enemy submarine, fortunately, neither materialised. When we entered the Persian Gulf, the sea turned turbulent and tumultuous but as we sailed up further down it became comparatively smoother. During this period, there were many cases of seasickness, and some men suffered miserably. Thank God, I did not. Except for a little feeling of dizziness at times I was basically fine throughout.
Our voyage to the Gulf ended without any event worth mentioning. It became more interesting when the ship sailed into that mighty river, the Shatt-al-Arab, the name by which the confluence of Tigris and Euphrates is known; this vast river flows for about a 200 km before joining the sea. Sailing down this expansive river towards our destination, the inland port of Basra, was a fascinating experience. The banks, on both side of the river, were covered with thick, deep date palm plantations. There was plenty of human activity as well with country boats of various types plying up and down carrying assortments of cargo and people. Young men and women waved out and greeted us with friendly gestures and smiles.
It was evening by the time our ship docked at Margil, the port of Basra. The officers of the Army Embarkation HQ and Base Area HQ were there to assist us in every way possible. We were to all disembark early morning except for the advance party of the Quarter Master’s establishment, which had to leave earlier so that they could set-up the cook-houses and Messes and be ready to serve breakfast when the rest of the Unit turned up. The entire operation of our disembarkation and road journey by MT from Margil to our camp was carried out with the utmost efficiency and security and in complete black-out conditions. We reached the camp while it was still dark. Everything was well laid-out, signposted and marked. My batman Imam Din, had with great agility, set up my tent and arranged all my camp furniture. He now produced a cup of tea and declared that my bath was ready. By the time I was ready and came out of the tent daylight had broken and the men had already had their morning chai and parathas. Outside it was windy and chilly with a lot of dust billowing around. The camp was situated in a huge barren, treeless area with not a scrub or bush in sight, an arid and depressing place. A Gurkha Rifles battalion was encamped a short distance away.
The CO, Colonel Taylor, decided we take a round of the Unit before we sat down for breakfast. He was pleased to see the men busy settling in, and the cheerful, positive mood and high morale displayed by all ranks. Orders were issued to the men to spend the day on maintenance and rest, and to only unpack equipment considered essential for our short stay. We were in transit, our destination yet unknown. As the Officer’s Mess had started running we had an excellent breakfast of fresh river fish and eggs; our thoughtful and resourceful Mess Havildar having managed to procure all the fresh supplies. After breakfast, the CO announced that he was going to report to the HQ Base Area and that I was go with him. We went straight to the S&T building and met Colonel Guinea who was very pleased to see me again. During the conversation, he remarked on the superior performances of all the RIASC units that had come from the Ambala Centre to the 10th Army, a reflection of the hard work put in by Kermani during the training period of these Units. Colonel Guinea gave us an update on the recent operations in Iraq and Persia and the role played by the Service Corps in the existing administrative layout, deployment and future plans. Our Unit, he informed us, was to go up north to Mosul. We also got a lowdown on practically on all aspect of prevailing conditions and the likely developments. After meeting the S&T staff officers, and quick, short visits to other Staff Officers, we left the HQ. We were unable to meet the Brigadier but were told that he would be visiting us the following day. On our return to the camp, we found the Quarter Master busy with the officers and men of the Ordnance Corps who had turned up to check the Unit’s arms and equipment. All items not needed in our current theatre were to be returned or replaced, such as mosquito nets by sand-fly nets, and Chaguls were issued, these are a type of canvas bottles designed to keep drinking water cool in the desert, a simple but most useful piece of equipment. We also had to leave behind baggage that was for one reason or another redundant, for instance, officer’s peace-time Mess kits fell in this category. The Colonel and I were only two who had such items, so I undertook the task of depositing our rather large and heavy steel trunks at the 2nd Echelon. The officer commanding the 2nd Echelon happened to be an Indian, Major Idrees, a KCIO. It was still unusual to find Indians however senior, above a Captain’s rank in those days, it was also quite unusual to find a KCIO of such seniority as modest and gentle as Major Idrees. I was deeply impressed and developed an instant and profound respect for him. I was to meet him again several years later in Pakistan.
It was our third morning at the Transit Camp and the Colonel had called me to his office tent to discuss something when I noticed a lot of activity and commotion at the entry point of the camp. I could see a stationary staff-car and uniformed bodies running about trying to catch sheets of paper flying around haphazardly, carried by the wind. One of uniformed personnel appeared to be a senior officer with his swagger stick and red cap in one hand he too was trying to catch the flying papers, the others were his staff officer/ADC and car-driver, and the MPs on duty. By the time we caught up with them, the chase was over, and the staff-car was heading towards us, we could feel the blazing heat, the sparks emitting out from the back seat of the car, followed by heavy dust. The Colonel’s second-sight alerted, exclaimed, “Something is drastically wrong, God help us”. A fuming Brigadier emerged from the car, we all saluted, and the Colonel stepped forward. “You command this outfit?” He handed over the sheets of papers he had collected. “Read this! One of yours?”. “Yes Sir”, was the hapless Colonel’s only response. The sheets of papers were carbon copies of a letter written by 2nd Lt Sardul Singh to his family and friends in India. The letter showed an outrageous disregard for the strict orders on military security as it gave the names, location and movements of Units, an unforgivable offence in war. The offending officer was immediately put under close arrest and handed over to Base Area Provost for necessary action, most likely a trial by the FGCM. Our CO thought the man was either an absolute fool or a knave or both.
The Unit had to find a replacement and the CO ordered me to go to the Army Reinforcement Camp to find one. In the meantime, the Brigadier having calmed down had an 11’o’clock beer with the Colonel and delivered the orders of our move details. Since I was the Adjutant of the Unit his Staff officer handed me the papers marked ‘Most Secret’. The next day, the Colonel gave his orders to all the officers and I handed over the written details of our further deployment. Around the Colonel’s beer time I decided to visit the Reinforcement Camp. On the way, I stopped over at the 2nd Indian Base Supply Depot the largest RIASC unit located in the area. The 2nd IBSD had been raised and trained at Ambala, and I was sure to meet some officers of my acquaintance. As my vehicle drove through the entrance to the BSD I noticed that there was very little activity; it was around 11.00 am and most of the work would have already been done since Detail Issues to Units are completed early in the morning, as a rule. An NCO of the Unit guided me to OC’s tent where I discovered that the place was under command of Captain Chirag Hussain, my genial friend ‘Chacha Chirag’. I was warmly welcomed by a beaming Chacha Chirag and an impressive assembly of officers who had gathered there for pre-lunch drinks, mostly the ever-popular beer. I knew several of the officers there, amongst them Omar Khan very proudly displaying on his shoulder the rank of a Major, 2nd in command of the BSD. It was very unusual for an Indian to hold that rank and appointment in those days, unfortunately, Omar did not hold it for long. Hamid Ullah Khattak, my old school friend was there as well, happy to be under posting to a GPMT Company. Among all these younger officers was a comparatively older, balding Captain comfortably seated with a glass of soft drink and an amiable, good-natured though slightly patronising air of an older brother about him. We shook hands as I was introduced to him; a teetotaller and non-smoker, Captain Jamal Dar RIASC, a KCIO was Staff Captain ‘Q’ serving at Base Area Headquarters. He was one of those who had themselves transferred from the Infantry very early when the entry to the Service Corps was opened to Indians. He was also one of the first from Tribal Areas to obtain entry into Sandhurst and be granted the King’s Commission. I was to meet him often after the war and to serve under him when he became the first Pakistani DS&T and thereafter the first Service Corps officer to serve as the QMG. I also noticed a quiet, young, very British looking 2ndLieutenant. I remarked to Chacha Chirag, “How come you have this single Gora at your gathering?” Prompt came the rejoinder “I am Indian, damn it!”. He was Khawaja Abdul Moid, a well-regarded former Cricket Captain of Government College Lahore and Punjab University. We soon settled down to an excellent lunch, as could well be expected from Chacha Chirag, during which many stories and tales of personal experiences in Iraq and Iran war were told as well as reflections on the existing war situation in the region, including the Middle-East. I happened to mention that we had had a casualty and I am on my way to Reinforcement Camp to find a suitable officer to replace the one we had lost. In an instant, a very excited Moid jumped up and implored me to please take him. He appeared to be a very popular man since almost all present enthusiastically pleaded his case. I was somewhat taken aback, but he seemed to be an upright gentleman, and a fine officer so I responded with a “welcome Moid”. Since I no longer needed to visit the Reinforcement Camp I returned to our own and reported my find to the CO who readily gave his consent. The posting was arranged and Moid reported for duty the very next day. After the CO’s interview and final approval, he took over the duties of the officer we had lost. Thus, our Unit was once again complete in officers’ strength. From that time onwards, Moid and I developed strong bonds of a lifelong friendship. I found him a real gentleman, always correct in all matters, loyal and sincere, an able and efficient officer. I discovered that the reason he looked so British was that his mother was actually British and his father Kashmiri.
By now we had received detailed orders for our move to Mosul. The advanced party with the QM moved out, but Moid arranged that before we left we would see a bit of Basra city which was strictly ‘Out of Bounds’ for all ranks. He managed it through his friend, a Major of the Military Police, who drove the four of us through a rather unattractive town situated a few miles away from the modern port town. On our return trip, we stopped at an Arab Cabaret /Café. It was too early for the stage-show, but people were having drinks which looked like milk diluted by water, and tea without milk in small glass cups. They were also smoking the ‘hubble-bubble’, the Arab version of our hookah and playing an indoor game that looked like backgammon. Many twirled small amber-coloured rosaries and appeared to be praying. Since I had never seen such a scene before I thought they were a pious, health-conscious people. I soon discovered that the drink was a potent alcoholic drink called Arak made from dates and highly flavoured with aniseed (saunf), the addition of water turned it milky white. It was said if one drinks to the state of tipsiness at night, then goes to sleep, and drinks some water upon waking up in the morning you can achieve the earlier evening’s high again without consuming more alcohol. I tasted it, intensely disliked it and never touched it except once again as a guest of some Iraqi officers, on whose assurance of it being of the highest quality I tried it again but found it no better. Telling the beads, I learned, was the national pastime, termed Shuugal, a de-stressing activity with no piety involved whatsoever.
We entrained on a September evening and arrived at Mosul the following day, journeying mostly by train up to the railhead at Baiji and thence by MT Convey to Mosul. The first part of the journey was at night and the rest mostly through a desolate desert. We reached our camp at Mosul in the afternoon and discovered it was situated in the denser part of a large pistachio orchard. It was a well laid-out camp with tents for the officers and the Officer’s Mess. Well-sited slit trenches had been dug in consideration of possible air attack and the entire area was well marked and sign-posted for day and night. There were already troops in the area, the HQ of the 8th Indian Division was in Mosul, but its regiments and brigades were spread over the Kirkuk-Mosul area. The CRIASC 8th Division, his staff and RIASC personnel were of great help to us in our initial stages of settling down. The Royal Air Force had a strong and effective presence, which prevented the German Luftwaffe from intruding into the allied airspace. Yet within a few days of our arrival, there was an intense air-raid warning alarm and much activity in the sky. We learned that a German reconnaissance plane had sneaked in; it was successfully forced down and both plane and the crew captured. The CO and I went to call at the HQ of the local Commander RAF and found a very fine friendly set of officers there. The two of us were taken to see the German plane, an impressive aircraft, it was being systematically cannibalised and one of the Air Force officers offered me an ashtray and a periscope removed from that plane which I kept as souvenirs for a long time. It has not been long since several successful operations against the Vichy French Army had taken place, Syria occupied, and the German penetration fully eliminated. The entire region, Persia, Iraq, Syria up to Egypt, the most important link with the Indian Empire was clear and secure and the safety of the oil fields of Iraq and Persia ensured. However, danger still lurked of Germans penetrating through Turkey into Iraq, disregarding Turkish neutrality, and then into Persia through the northern borders. To be able to not only meet and prevent such eventuality but to forestall such a move forces were already being deployed. Our Unit was a part of this strategic scheme and we had already started both building up stocks to meet future needs according to these plans, as well as meeting and fulfilling our daily maintenance responsibilities, all effectively with zeal and efficiency.
The work of Service Corps generally, and Supply Branch particularly, can be rather boring and unspectacular; the saving grace is that it is highly self-satisfying and gratifying to know that the front-line troops, with all their courage and bravery, would not be able to achieve success if the men of the Service Corps had not done their job well in the first place.
It was my fate to continue to serve in Iraq for the next few years. My stay covered almost the entire country from the north-most tip to the southern-most. There was hardly a place of any consequence that I did not visit in addition to places where I happened to be on duty as a part of the Army of Occupation. Present-Day Iraq, former Mesopotamia constitutes some of the most ancient lands and it is in fact termed ‘the cradle of human civilization’. It is also the land of prophetic revelations, the great Prophet Abraham, the fountainhead of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the originator of monotheism on which the three great religions are based, was born in Ur in ancient Mesopotamia There is also a legend that the garden of Eden, the first home of Adam and Eve was also somewhere in southern Iraq. I, however, doubt the authenticity of this claim; when I visited the site some miles north of Basra, the place was in a sorry state with absolutely no sign of the existence any garden, even in remotest times. I consider the claim of such a garden being in Ceylon or in India far more sound. The other great prophets said to have dwelt in these lands were Noah (Hazrat Nuh), Jonah (Hazrat Yunus) and Seth (Shish). I visited the tomb of Hazrat Yunus, situated in Nineveh the capital of ancient Kingdom of Assyria, where the local guide pointed out at a skeleton of fish mounted at the entrance and tried to explain the story, as related in the Quran of Jonah being swallowed by a big fish and then under the order of God cast out alive on the shore.
Both the operational and administrative built-up was going at a fast pace, a composite reconnaissance party composed of officers of the Services was detailed to work out the administrative set-up in case a German incursion into Turkey necessitated Allied intervention. I with another officer, Captain Swain, as members of this party, had to visit the town of Macho, the north-most town in Iraq located on the Turk-Iraqi border in a green, mountainous region. It was a small picturesque Kurdish town with a mixed population of Assyrian Christian, Muslims and Jews. We met some of the exceptionally friendly people there and were invited by a well-dressed gentleman who spoke some English, to his home; since he was very insistent we accepted his invitation. He took us to his small, charming, circular stone house where we entered a very warm circular room with a sunken fire-hearth in the centre topped by a canopy with a chimney. Low rug-covered dewans set all around the room offered ample, comfortable seating and a homely, attractive atmosphere. The lady of the house, an attractive middle-aged woman, well-groomed and modestly dressed soon appeared, shook hands and greeted us warmly. Since she only spoke Kurdish and Arabic the husband served as the interpreter. She was followed by the charming teenage daughter of the house who also greeted us and shook our hands. The mother and daughter exchanged a few words and the daughter disappeared briefly only to return with a heap of platters. dishes full of dry fruits, a variety of snacks, green salads, dates and olives. The mother who in the meantime had been busy with her pots and pans cooking something brought out cuts of roast turkey and a type of bread which I had never seen or tasted before. At first sight, it looked like a version papadum or papaar but was soft to the touch. The closest bread that I could think was the chapatti made in our homes in Awadh, yet at the same time quite difference in that it was mildly spiced, baked and stored, kept for a long time and when needed taken out, sprinkled with water and heated, ready to be eaten, as fresh as ever. The idea of finding and introducing a type of bread that could be cooked and baked in mass and kept for a reasonably long period to replace the outmoded langar chapatti which entails a lot of time and effort became strongly embedded in my mind. After a thoroughly enjoyable meal, we thanked our kind hosts for their matchless hospitality. Since we did not have anything at hand to return for their cordiality and knowing that offering money would hurt their self-respect and dignity, we gave them all the tins of 555 cigarettes we had with us at that time and thanked them again most profusely. Before returning, we stood at the top edge of the mountain-range dividing Iraq and Turkey and enjoyed an excellent view of the deep valley down below. Another step forward and we would have dropped into Turkey. We returned to our camp late in the evening pleasantly tired and satisfied with our task completed and well executed.
It was now October and the beginning of a long bitter spell of cold rain, sleet, and snow. The dull, grey, overcast sky was just a precursor to the rains that first came slowly and intermittently and then with steady and increasing persistence and volume. Although we had taken all the possible precautions, the pistachio garden and the open area around was getting inundated with water. The rapidly flooded slit-trenches turned into death traps while the precipitously rising water endangered our valuable stocks. It had become almost impossible for men or machines to move. The Engineers had forgotten to cut a drain-line and now they moved fast to drain off the excess water, but nothing could be done with the heavy mud and slush. Even after the rains had stopped the soil was too slippery, and the mud stuck to our boots adding a good six to seven inches of extra height. We received an issue of rubber top-boots which was a great boon. Sleet and snow followed the rains with the temperature falling into the minus thirties; it was said that was that we were experiencing the same temperatures as in Moscow. Luckily, we were faring better on the war-front and the fighting remained a good distance away.
Notwithstanding the miserable conditions prevailing we stuck steadfastly to our normal standard of maintenance of stock and issue of all supplies including fresh produce. The OC Field-Bakery, an old commissary officer produced excellent bread. One cold day he invited some of us to a tasting of his Field-Bakery bread. He was himself a Master-Baker and was very proud of it. The bread he produced was really of the quality he claimed. Eaten hot and fresh off the field-oven, with spring onions, goat cheese and washed down with frothy cold beer it had the flavour and subtle aroma of the fresh earth in which it had been baked. We all agreed that it was the best bread we had ever tasted.
The OC Field Butchery instead of setting up a new butchery found a well-equipped slaughterhouse of high standard owned by the local civil authority. It was used in common by all the local communities, Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Arrangements were made for its use by the Army as well. The quality of the animals that produced both beef for British troops and mutton for Indian troops were consistently of a high standard and met our specification. Similar high standards were kept for the fresh fruits and vegetables including potatoes and onions. Some fruits particularly the pomegranates and grapes, both green and red, and the watermelons were of the highest quality. In fact, I had neither seen such large pomegranates, nor tasted ones so juicy and delicious ever before. I also learned a new way of consuming them, you hold the fruit in palms of both hands squeezing it all like we do to a prepare a sucking mango, and when soft make a hole and suck it or pour the juice into a glass. Mosul has always been famous for its fabled Red Hadba Wine from ancient time, and indeed, the wine connoisseurs amongst us pronounced it to be as good as any French Red.
The weather watchers declared that the temperature would continue in the minus degrees. It was bitterly, freezingly cold and the men from southern parts of India and Bengal felt particularly miserable. Extra rations of milk, tea, sugar was sanctioned, and Rum for those willing to consume alcohol such as the Sikhs. There were a good number of MT vehicle casualties due to cracked cylinder blocks. The use of anti-freeze was not known in the army yet, instead, all Units having MT vehicles on their establishment had to carry out an anti-freeze parade, a well worked out drill which had to be conducted under an officer on a daily basis. Just before sunset, at the sound of the whistle, the bonnets of the vehicles were raised, the lids of the radiators removed, bibcock’s opened, and water fully drained off, all the while with the engines running until it was ensured that no water was left in the system. Then the bonnets came down and were covered with tarpaulins. There were two General Purposes Transport Companies or GPT RIASC which were equipped with the newly arrived 3 tonners Chevy Trucks, highly prized and valued at this stage of the war. On one cold morning over a dozen vehicles were found with their cylinder blocks cracked. An obvious and serious dereliction of duty by someone, no less than an officer. An immediate Court of Inquiry fixed the responsibility on an officer resulting in his trial by Field General Court Martial. The officer was found guilty, deprived of his acting rank and posted on an adverse report to another unit near Baghdad. On his first night at his new Unit, while sleeping in his tent, he felt unusually cold and reached out for extra blankets to cover himself, unable to find them, he opened his eyes and found himself lying on his camp-cot under the open sky. His tent, his blankets his kit including his service pistol had all vanished, the work of some local Arab gang, a not uncommon activity amongst them and basically considered a sport. However, the loss of a pistol was a serious offence. Another court martial, further reduction in rank and a posting to a newly established Bullock-Cart Company in the wilderness of Central Provinces in India was the fate of this luckless, unfortunate officer.
Despite the ever-increasing bitter weather work continued as usual. The 10th Indian Division having very successfully, and in a short time, completed and secured British interests in Iraq, Persia, and Syria were now on the way to join the forces operating in the western desert. Two distinguished RIASC officers from HQ 10th Division came to visit us, Colonel A.H.J.Snelling and Colonel R.I.Jones. I had served under the former a couple of months back when he had been CRIASC Rawalpindi, he was now the AA & QMG. It was unusual for a Service officer to hold such an important staff appointment, but Colonel Snelling was an officer of unusual ability and in course of time, he became Major General Administration South Asia Command. Colonel Jones CRIASC was the Commandant Service Corps Officers School, Chaklala when I attended the Course there. He became Director Supply& Transport India after the War. It was a great pleasure to meet these two senior officers and for me a matter of pride and a boost to my self-esteem that they both recognised and remembered me well. During the course of the conversation, I could not help voicing my aspiration to serve in their formation. The response was, “We can take you with us if your CO agrees”. A stern, yet kindly “That’s not on”, from Colonel Taylor’s put that prospect promptly to rest. Thus, ended my chance of serving in a field formation and the remote possibility of winning, however small, some sort of distinction in the field. I always considered it a misfortune had I never again had an occasion to serve under two senior RIASC officers of such high calibre as those two.
With the ceaseless monotony of work and the dismal icy weather, life continued in a somewhat uneventful and tedious manner. Consequently, one evening a few of us decided to go and see a stage-show at the local theatre. It seemed to be a decent place and we took a box and settled in to watch the program which consisted of an all-male orchestra with Arabic/Turkish musical instruments and a female dancer. The orchestra warmed up and the dancer appeared wearing high heel shoes and a closely tight fitted, shimmering long dress; smart, slim and highly made up in the European style. The show was quite interesting, particularly the dancer’s movements and the clicking sound she produced with her thumbs and forefingers while with her hands were raised above her head. Some of the band’s members begun to sing and the audience joined in with enthusiasm clapping along in rhythm. During the interval, I went out to get some fresh air; as the bell rang and the lights went off I opened the door to find myself in the wrong box, I was about to a beat a hasty retreat apologising “sorry for my mistake”, when the dim lights of the box were switched on and a man stood up, and in Arabic welcomed me with a “Wallah, no mistake, Ahllan, welcome. You are with brothers and friends.” He advanced towards me and we shook hand. He introduced himself, Sheikh Saud Al-Yawar. Another man vacated his seat and I was invited to sit down. When I said that I must go and tell my friends, the Sheikh responded, “No worry they have been informed”. So, for the last part of the show, I sat in the company of the Sheikh, generously served with Arabic coffee and sweet tea. The show over, I could better view my kind host. A pleasant looking, handsome young man, light-skinned, of medium height, about my age, very elegantly dressed in the Arab fashion and wearing strong Oudh (Attar) perfume, the fragrance of which had hit me when I had first entered the box. This perfume, I was to discover, was most popular amongst the Arab male elite. The other men in his company were his entourage, bodyguards and servants; all armed to teeth. Sheikh Saud became my best Arab friend and addressed me as Akhu. He was a younger brother of Sheikh Safouk, the Sheik-ul-Masshiek of the powerful Iraqi Shammar tribe and reputed to be the most powerful man in Iraq after the King.
There was no break in the bad weather, nor in work. One day a visitor came to see me, very harassed and weary, in great distress and in need of urgent help. A civilian officer of Military Accounts and Audit service, he had been posted as Field Controller of Audit & Account with orders to set up a Field Office. Pending the arrival of other personnel and staff and suitable arrangements to accommodate them, he was required to live in the Transit Camp where he found life an absolute misery. He had to share a tent with several British officers, who he proclaimed, had no qualms about taking their clothes off and walking around nude and showering and bathing together, all naked. Worse still, the latrines were multi-seaters. There was no privacy. He was a middle-aged Muslim gentleman from Lahore and was greatly concerned for not being able to maintain his Tahara for his prayers or even eat food which he considered of doubtful ingredients from his orthodox point of view. After having spoken to and obtaining the CO’S permission, we extended the use of our living facilities to him and I instructed a senior Muslim VCO to look after him. For this, he remained forever thankful. When his personnel arrived, we made arrangements for them as well to stay attached to our installations, thus saving ourselves from the often unnecessary, sometimes irritating and consistently irksome audit objections for which this department is known to be notorious.
The foul weather kept getting worse. It was mid-November and the entire area including the roads was a sea of mud and slush, fortunately, we were able to get ourselves equipped with long rubber gum-boots. Our worthy Quarter Master thought that our greatcoats were not good enough to keep us warm and outfitted us with local sheepskin poshteens. However, on our very first exposure to the sleet and snow in these, we stank like rotten fish. The poshteens were promptly discarded and the faithful old British-style great coats were retrieved. We were now informed that a new Administrative Plan was in the offing which would most likely result in the relocation of the Administrative Services and Installations. While this was going on a major catastrophe befell our unit, our CO, Colonel Taylor fell seriously ill and had to be admitted to the Hospital. The Director of Supply & Transport 10th Army, Brigadier Hickie arrived around this time. The Brigadier was reputed to be one of those formidable, fire-breathing general officers much feared and dreaded by the younger officers. To me he seemed to be a very normal senior officer, except that he appeared to be in a hurry, and although trying not to show it, somewhat weary and tired. This was the condition of most senior British senior officers at that time; burdened with ceaseless work, heavy responsibilities, the stress, and strain of war, it was remarkable that most of them continued to function with zeal and efficiency. However, there were some who could not handle it and broke down. Unfortunately, our Colonel Taylor was one of those; a fine man in every sense, he had been showing signs of depression for some time which made him drink more and more. After being admitted to the hospital, he was evacuated to India where within a short time he died. It was indeed sad news for the entire Unit where he was very popular and held in great respect and esteem. I served as his Adjutant, and in absence of a formal post by virtue being the senior-most officer, performed, as his 2nd in-command. He always reposed full and complete trust in me. After he had gone, the head clerk who also handled his personal and confidential correspondence, papers, and files, opened his portfolio. It contained some very personal papers with instructions for their disposal, which we carried out immediately. It also contained, papers recommending me for the newly started war-time short Staff College course. He had never mentioned this to me, and even if had known, I fully understood that I had no chance to be selected at this given time. Anyhow, I was very deeply touched. After his departure, I received a confidential note from him written in a shaky hand, saying” goodbye” and asking me to look after his Batman.
The DS&T, Brigadier Hickie was accompanied by a rather oldish, big-boned man, burly, tall and, broad-shouldered with a pronounced stoop. He carried a thick, long and rough stick in his hand and with his wrinkly face, he looked like a farmer who has just dropped his plough. He was Major Curtis, soon to become a Lt Colonel after taking over the command vacated by Colonel Taylor. The Brigadier turned to me, “Get all your officers here”. “They are all here waiting to meet you, Sir”. “You are to move to a place called Al-Qaira to open an FSD to stock and maintain an Armed Division, an Infantry brigade. You will get all the necessary information. Take the Sub-Units and personnel needed and start functioning as soon as possible. Goodbye and good luck”. I did not meet the Brigadier again until August 1943, when I was to take command of the Base Supply Depot at Basra and he, at my request, helped me to take over that Installation smoothly. Al-Qaira about 55 miles south of Mosul on the main road to Baghdad was the base of an important British Oil and Petroleum Company. When we got there, we found that a Corps of Engineers had been working there for some time and had already laid out the barbed wire perimeter as well as demarcated the areas which would be needed for our operation. They were busy building covered store-sheds, incredibly well designed against air-raid as well as the local tribes who were prone to carrying out armed incursions and raids. This was an especially popular form of night-sport, aimed at capturing and carrying off as many supplies as possible, the most attractive items being tea and sugar, any other item falling into their hands was a bonus; obtaining arms and ammunition was considered hitting the Jackpot.
The Depot could not have been better sited; on high, hard ground with natural drainage and the type of soil that soaked in any amount of rain-water, snow and sleet. The area around our perimeter was broken ground studded with natural ponds and pools of bitumen, as a result of which the air smelled heavily and constantly of noxious crude oil and bitumen. There was no escape, we had to live with it. The VCOs, NCOs and all other ranks of the two Supply Personnel Sections, the Butchery and the Bakery knew me well. Lt Cheema, the second officer was my old friend. He was also reliable, trusty and efficient. I thus had no difficulty in getting the show going and running smoothly and effectively within a very short time. I was authorized to have an interpreter with the status equivalent to a Havildar. I chose one out of the six sent to me. Hammodi, though was not very literate, was fluent in Urdu and English in addition to Arabic, Kurdish, Assyrian and Farsi. He had previously been a First-Class cook at the British Officers establishment of the Oil Company. Moreover, he was a Shammar, a member of the dominant tribe of the region.
We were soon well settled in. The tents were outfitted with dug-in fireplaces designed by the Army Engineers and so were the cook-houses which used the everlasting supply of local crude oil as fuel. We also had a Field Post Office covering the area and a Sub-Office of the Field Controller of Military Audit and Accounts living and attached for rations to us. This was done on my personal request to the heads of the respective departments based at Mosul. I found the arrangements mutually helpful. Cheema and I shared two tents joined together covering a dugout and managed to have separate bath-tents. Imam Din and Cheema’s Batman, with the help of the Sappers still working on the buildings and sheds, rigged up a cook-house for us. Soon they were producing and serving excellent meals. With Hammodi’s help, they were also able to churn out Arab and English dishes. Soon we had gained a reputation for our hospitality and found ourselves very popular amongst our fellow officers and even those passing through found time to pay us a visit and to enjoy a good meal. We too enjoyed these visits as a break from boredom and monotony as well as a means getting the latest news, whether it was operations in the western desert or events in India since the traffic passing went both ways. Occasionally, through the courtesy of the Petroleum Company, we got to see a cinema show, usually a matinee. Once a group of us arrived at the cinema hall when the show had already started, as we quietly entered the darkened hall we were hit by a blast of heavily perfumed air. There was quite a bit of whispering as someone remarked that a convey of Nurses was passing through, everyone quietly but with great curiosity waited for lights to come on but when they did there were groans of disappointment. The hall was full of rows of Cavalry and Armour Corps Officers, most prominently well-groomed Hussars It was their day at the Cinema. In any case, we all agreed though that breathing the heavily perfumed air was far pleasanter than that saturated with crude oil vapours.
The FSD was functioning very well indeed. There were no complaints or problems, in fact, we had superb relations with all the Units and at all levels. The local labour worked diligently, and honestly under the guidance of Hammodi. The exception was a single minor incident. One morning on my return from a visit to another Unit I was met by a very miserable looking Hammodi standing alongside our senior VCO. I enquired, “Subedar Sahib Kia Bathai?” “Sahib aik cooli chori karta pakra gaia. Phir, Lt Sahib Ke hukam sey, usko Assyrian Levies kay hawala kar dia”. “Well done” I responded and was about to move on when Hammodi with tears in his eyes, interjected “May I ask your permission to say something Sir” I said go ahead, “Sir, yes the man is a thief, he stole a handful of sugar, but those Assyrians will kill him. They are very cruel, and they do not know when to stop. If only if you could see how they treat our poor people, if only you could see how very cruel they are”. I stopped, “Subedar Sahib call my truck”. I drove along with Subedar Shingara Singh and Hammodi to the HQ Assyrian Levies Company, quartered not too far off. A British Major was in command, I introduced myself and explained the purpose of my visit. He was a kindly decent looking, smart man in the Levies uniform, Gurkha felt hat, shorts and boots with short putties. The men were all smartly turned out and the lines well kept. In fact, the whole atmosphere was very similar to that of our Army Units. A Captain had by now had turned up and he was instructed to show me the treatment the Arab thief from our Unit was getting. I was led to a place where a man was standing against a bare wall with his hands and feet bound, two Levy soldiers stood about twenty to twenty-five feet away facing the man with Revolvers in their hands. As we halted they saluted smartly, the Levies Captain said something, one man saluted, took aim towards the wall and started firing all around the captive Arab. It was a cruel scene; the Captain was surprised that I was not only not amused but asked that the man be released and handed back to me. On our return, I told Hammodi to collect all the labour and tell them how the man was let off this time, but that this would not happen the next time something was stolen. The poor culprit himself was full of gratitude and shame and swore never to commit such a crime again.
We had a good number of important visitors who were apparently brought over to see the unique layout and construction of the first Field Supply Depot of its kind. Some of them were Indian civilians, none of whom showed any interest in the men, material or anything else. Even their handshake and forced smile seemed to be a mere gesture. The only names of these Indian visitors I remember, both from the Finance and Accounts, were Mr Rao and Mr Mohammad Ali. However, one important individual’s visit gave a boost to the morale of the Indian soldiers who were mostly from the Punjab. We had a letter from the Area Commander notifying us of the date and time of the arrival of the Hon. Lt Colonel Sirdar Sir Sikander Hayat Khan KBE, KBK, CSMBE, Member of the Viceroys’ Council. We were also informed that he would like to meet the Punjabi Officers, VCOs and other ranks. Since there was no such category or designation as Punjabi Officer in the Indian Army, the only one in my unit who could meet that definition was Lt Cheema, whom I instructed to make the arrangements necessary for the important occasion and to receive our VIP guest. On that day and time, after having checked to ensure that all arrangements were properly made, I went and sat in my tent, waiting for the inevitable. The Staff Captain appeared, “Your presence is required by the Area Commander, the Brigadier wants you immediately”. I had expected the call, as soon as the Brigadier saw me he demanded, sternly “Where were you?” “Sir, the letter from HQ stated the presence of Punjabi officer, there is no such category of officers in the Indian Army, there are only two officers in my unit, I am an officer but not Punjabi, the nearest to the specifications, Lt Cheema was detailed to attend”. Then turning towards Sir Sikander, I continued, “Sir, no disrespect was intended, mere obedience to orders”. All of this was said rather loudly in a somewhat Parade ground voice. There was pin-drop silence all around. The Brigadier having become redder in the face looked at me furiously. A refined voice broke the silence, “A misunderstanding no doubt. “It was Sir Sikander I saluted, “Sorry Sir, no disrespect to you Sir”. We shook hands. I saluted again, “I hope you have been well looked after, Sir”. He looked towards Cheema who was by my side, “He has been doing very well”. He then turned towards, “Are you related to Mahmud Kermani, he was with me at Aligarh”. “Yes Sir, my father”. Sir Sikander very graciously, and affectionately embraced me, I managed to mumble, “Your son Shaukat was also with me at the school”. At this point, the Brigadier came up to say that they had to move to their next engagement. Sir Sikander was indeed one of the great Indians of his times. Several years later I happened to meet many members of his fine family and some of them became my close friends.
A few days after this we had some nocturnal visitors. Despite the war and battles raging not far from our location, we hardly ever heard the sound of firing. That night my sound and peaceful sleep was rudely disturbed by a few shots followed by a burst of rapid fire, without doubt from the sentries of the Gurkha Rifles on night duty guarding the Installation. I got up at once to go out and investigate but Cheema held me back, by this time the VCO on duty came running to report that there was a tribal gang raid and that they had got away with only a few boxes of tea.
There was nothing to do but go back to sleep. In the morning, I met the officer and the VCO of the Sub-Unit that provided the guards as well as the Guard Commander, all shame-faced and downcast. There was the usual Court of Inquiry as a result of which, I as OC FSD could write off the lost stores. An occurrence such as this should not have happened. Everyone agreed that I bore no responsibility in this matter, but I was not satisfied. I asked Hammodi to convey a message, with my compliments, to Sheikh Saud requesting a meeting as soon as it would be convenient for him. Sheikh Saud has become a regular visitor and our friendship had turned into that of Ankhus or brothers. The Sheikh came promptly, attired as usual in his regal style of blue and gold flowing Arab robes, along with his entourage including the Negro bodyguards all armed to their teeth. After going through the elegant rituals of the shaking of both hands, kissing of cheeks, embracing, repeated shaking hands while reciting the appropriate words in praises of Allah, we proceeded to the protocol of who would sit first with the politest vocabulary brought into play. Even after taking our seats the formalities continued; enquires about each other’s health and well-being and on and so forth for some time, again with few words of thanksgiving and praise of Allah. While this was going on, tea and coffee was being served. I apologised for any inconvenience caused and thanked him for his visit. Apparently, he seemed to have been well briefed by Hammodi as he said he had heard about the incident and felt bad about it. But, “Why should my Brother worry about it, the safeguarding of the property and stores is not his responsibility and no blame can accrue to him”. I explained that while I got no blame, I felt bad as we are one army only different branches performing different tasks, any setback experience by one was felt equally by all. I continued, “I also feel unhappy that such an event happened in my Brother Saud’s domain”. The Sheikh got up and announced, “Wallahey, all the stores, every bit shall be recovered, but you must give me your word that no one will demand the custody of any man”. I gave him that assurance. A few days later, and again after midnight we were awakened by rifle fire some distance away, and the senior Subedar came rushing in, “Sahib, Sheikh Saud wants to see Captain Sahib”. I jumped out of the bed and started to dress as so did Cheema. There at our entrance gate stood the Sheikh and his men at some distance the Gurkha Guard Commander with his men. I was asked by the Sheikh to accompany him as his men had caught the thieves and the stolen stores. I took a seat beside him in his Buick and we drove nearly a mile or so over the broken ground into a small valley. There stood three donkeys, the tea-boxes, some already opened, the contents in process of being transferred into black woollen bags littered the ground along with a few rustic daggers. There were no human beings about the place. By this time Cheema with a few armed men had also arrived, very worried and concerned about my safety since he did not consider the Arabs reliable under any circumstances. He asked the Sheikh if any of the thieves had been caught, “All of them. And they are being looked after”. We returned after having thanked the Sheikh most profusely. The items recovered were credited to the state, the donkeys sold, and the money credited to the Unit welfare fund. The daggers were distributed amongst VCOs.
My first impression of Ambala Cantonment was not positive; it was an unattractive, ugly place. This dreary, desolate image was further heightened by the intensity of the heat and dust, this being the month of May the first and worst month of the Indian summer. Fortunately, the other three officers I was sharing my accommodations with were my friends, we had been at the RIASC School Chaklala only a few months back and we got along well. They too had been posted only a short time ago to units that only existed on paper. There were no arrangements for Officer’s Messing, in fact, there were hardly any arrangements for anything at all, therefore, we all sat down to discuss and organise our living situation. Since there was no Officer’s Mess nearby which we could join we agreed that the best thing to do was to run the place as a ‘Chummary’. Lt Syed Chiragh Hussain Shah, a sedate, sober, solemn gentleman, known to his brother officers as Chacha was to organise and run the outfit with Lt Mello Castro, whose family owned and ran a hotel in Bombay, as his assistant. My man Rehmat was designated as head cook in addition to his work as my bearer. The other servants were to work as directed by Chacha.
The next morning as I got ready to leave, to report to the HQ Mobile Training unit, I noticed all others still having their morning tea and reading the Newspapers. I called out to them “Are you all on leave, or is it some sort of holiday?” “You shall soon find out when you report to the old Major.” They laughingly responded.
The Mobile Centre was located in the former British troop’s barracks and although the area was teeming with troops and one could see a number of officers about as well, the whole place seemed to be in a state of bleak desolation and lacked the typical immaculate military atmosphere. I soon found the barrack that housed the HQ; it must previously have been the Regimental Battalion Headquarter building and had obviously seen better days. A well turned out Service Corps orderly showed me to the OC’s office, I knocked and entered the room to behold a heavily built officer, a Major I realised as I approached him, deeply engrossed in reading some paper. I saluted, he raised his head and moved his glasses down to the end of the nose and looked up rather irritated. Without acknowledging my salute, he enquired “Now who a’ you?” I handed him the GHQ’s letter of my posting order, he looked at it with a bit of disdain, looked at me again, was about to say something but instead hit the bell on his desk thrice, rapidly. In rushed a Subedar, the Major turned to him, showed him my posting order said something to him. He indicated for me to sit down and as I pulled up a chair he got busy with the papers spread out on his table. I have been unable to recall his name but remember thinking he blended in well with the prevailing, somewhat decrepit atmosphere. It was obvious that he was a recalled officer, a well-flogged old warhorse, weary, tired and sad looking. The Subedar came in with a file, the Major looked up at me, and pointed towards the Subedar, “He is the Head Clerk.” He took the file glanced over the pages and gave it to me saying, “Here it is all I have on your unit. Take it. You can sit in the next room.” As I stood, he gave me another look, which seemed to be a little kindlier and said, “What do you think of the place?” “Sir I have not seen much of it, of the little I have seen it appears to be in a state of chaos.” This time, he gave me a hard look but replied in a softer tone “You are right. Now take this file. The Headquarter of the 21st Supply Personnel Company shall be responsible for running this Centre until a permanent establishment is sanctioned. The Commanding Officer is under posting. You are now to work as my Adjutant in addition to the Headquarter of the 21st Supply Personnel Company. I will expect you to assist me to sort out things.” When I went back for lunch and related these events to others, they almost all in unison asked me to do something to get their orders fully clarified. I also learned that Captain Umar Khan has arrived, posted to the 2nd Indian Base Supply Depot a big Unit with a Lt Colonel in command. This Unit was fully mobilised awaiting orders to move overseas. This time Umar had brought his family and was staying at the only hotel in Ambala Cantonment. Within a few days’ time, the postings of all my friends were clarified. Hamidullah Khattak too was to join the 2nd IBSD as MT officer (Captain). The other two were assigned to Supply Personnel Sections to be raised soon. Before long, Lt Colonel Guinea arrived to take over as CO of the 21st Supply Personnel Company. He also took over the Command of the Centre and the old Major was gone. I found the Colonel an extremely fine gentleman as well as an able and experienced officer. I consider myself lucky to serve under him and that too as his Adjutant, he was an excellent guide and a worthy leader. Very soon, the Centre had a changed look and the atmosphere reflected the best of military efficiency and meticulousness. He also pressed hard to get a permanent establishment on the ground. By now, a sizeable number of Units had gathered at the Centre; they were of all types, of different strengths, in various stages of training and process of organising. One day Colonel Guinea decided to see how these Units would look like on the field. I organized a grand parade and the Colonel was very pleased, it had an excellent impact and helped in creating a higher sense of Esprit-de-Corps and of boosting morale. The 2nd IBSD that had already been alerted to move and received their embarkation orders. Umar Khan who had been promoted to the rank of a Major and second in command moved out to an unknown destination as was usual at that time, Colonel Guinea, to my sorrow, was also posted to an unknown station overseas. I felt sad as he was the first CO in the RIASC under whom I had served directly. As his Adjutant I had the privilege to enjoy his absolute trust and confidence, for me, it was a great opportunity to learn my profession and to get practical guidance in important matters. I was sorry that the time I served under him was so short. Before leaving he promised to try to get me a posting under him, but I knew it was not always possible during wartime, particularly at a lower level. We remained in correspondence and I had quite a few letters from him that I greatly valued but unfortunately lost over the years. Lt Colonel Taylor took over as CO and accepted me as his Adjutant without hesitation. Most of Colonel Taylor’s service had been spent with the camels and he had previously been commanding a Sillader Camel Company, a Major’s command, and had come on a promotion. An easy going man with a pleasant personality and an ever-smiling but worn countenance, not very robust either physically or mentally and a bit too fond of ‘bottle’ the full effect of which showed; yet a simple, straight forward kind gentleman with a lot of common sense and a one who hardly ever lost his temper. To start off he refused to take the command of the Centre and insisted that AHQ sends a permanent man. With a few days’ time a Major arrived, we as HQ of the 21st Supply Personnel were relieved of the extra burden and could concentrate on mobilising, and preparing the Unit and making sure it was fit and ready for performance in the field.
We were now placed on the priority list, and officers, men, and equipment started arriving rapidly to complete our war equipment table and war strength. We had an Officer Quarter Master and all the necessary personnel, an Account officer, Stocks Officer, and MT sections complete with vehicles. The CHQ had the clerical staff. The Head Clerk was a Christian, Subedar Winifred, an interesting and amusing personality the like of whom I had not yet encountered. He was from Assam and raised at the Tea Gardens. He smoked a pipe and tried to affect an accent. He looked upon and treated the other VCOs with an air of disdain but was very efficient in his work. Subedar Winifred worked directly under me and in addition to his regular duties, I entrusted him with the task of ensuring that Colonel Taylor was served his 11 o’clock beer, exactly on time and correctly, to the minutest details, of all his duties he was happiest to carrying out this task.
We had six Supply Personnel sections, each with a Lieutenant in command. Since the officers were not allowed to take their private servants into the war zone, a batman was authorized instead. I had to select a sepoy to replace the inimitable Rehmat, my ever-faithful, efficient, and loyal servant who was indeed a part of our family as his forefathers had severed ours for generations. Therefore, at the morning parade, I went around looking at the men lined up to see if I could pick the right individual. One essential requirement was that he be a first-class shot. While going through the ranks, I noticed a meek-looking man who seemed to belong to the typical north Indian peasantry, I stopped and asked if he was a first-class rifle shot, “Hain Sab” My next question, “Tum Haryana ka hai?”Hain Sab,” “Ranghar hai?”Again, he answered in the affirmative. “Tomra nam?” “Imam Din.” I had found my batman. Imam Din was placed as an apprentice under Rehmat. He learned fast, including how to cook and within a short period was producing all my favourite dishes. He remained my batman throughout the war and served as my bearer when released from the army with the rank of Naik. He continued in my service even after partition; a most devoted, loyal, selfless man.
Our Unit was almost complete and fully mobilised. To further condition the men for better performance in the field, Colonel Taylor decided that we go under canvas until we received our embarkation orders. To save our own tentage, the Centre at our request, laid out a Transit Camp. We moved into this Camp and commenced exercises based on the likely roles we could be called upon to perform in any theatre of war, including self-defence capabilities. During this period, it was discovered that although well equipped with field furniture, we were deficient in items such as cutlery, crockery, and other kitchenware. A list was prepared and I was detailed to go to Delhi to purchase the necessary articles. The Colonel thought it better that I take one of the newly arrived 15 CWT Chevrolet trucks. Apart from it being convenient, it would take care of the run-in and I could give him a report on its performance. I put in a request to take the vehicle up to Aligarh and he very kindly gave me permission. Early the next morning I left with MT Havildar Mohammad Akbar and Imam Din my batman. The latter had asked for 10 days leave and requested that he be dropped off on the way near his village. So, off we drove down the Grand Trunk Road to Delhi. The necessary shopping was soon completed, and I decided to indulge myself and purchase a folding Japanese gramophone, something I had never seen before. The shop had only one, which I promptly purchased along with a few records. It proved to be a great boon during the lonely period I had to spend later in the Iraqi desert.
I then drove on to Aligarh. Along the Delhi-Aligarh Road were many places that I was very familiar with having travelled on this road many times during my student days. Upon reaching Aligarh I drove to Colonel Haidar’s beautiful home on Marris Road since I planned on staying there for the night. Both Haidar Chacha and his wife were surprised and very happy to see me. After a short chai and a chat, I drove to the University campus to meet my brother Wahaj who was still studying there and living in one of the hostels.
I soon reached Diggi, a small lake and another very familiar place for me. During the ten years of my life that I had spent in Aligarh, I must have passed it innumerable times. I had walked, cycled, ridden in an ekka or tonga, at the back of Haider Chacha ‘s motorcycle numerous times, as well as in Sajid Mian, Nawabzada Sajid Ali Khan of Rampur’s Amil Race Car. The heavy cloud of dust raised during the drive was beyond what most car manufacturers ever imagined in those days since they would not have driven on the Aligarh roads. The military vehicle I was driving was not all that bad in terms of throwing-up dust on the passengers, but awful for pedestrians.
There must have been some event that afternoon at the University because a large number of students were walking on either side of the road and although I slowed down, my vehicle still managed to create a dust cloud. I caught sight of Wahaj with another student strolling alongside the road, however, when I got close to them (to my surprise) they looked backed but instead of stopping both of them started running away. I immediately stopped, got down, and started shouting Wahaj’s name. With the help of some other students, I managed to get them to stop. By now, Wahaj had recognized me and came racing back to embrace his brother in khaki. This episode turned out to be a minor comedy of errors; Wahaj and the other students who were out for walk considered it an act of trespass and sacrilegious for the Army to enter the sacred premises of their almost holy Alma Mater. They had begun hooting but when they saw the Army vehicle heading towards them, thinking that the soldiers had heard their jeering, they took to flight. Once the misunderstandings were cleared up we all had a good laugh. Taking Wahaj with me I drove on to the university entering through Baba Ur-Rehmat gate and stopped in front of the Strachey Hall. A meeting had apparently just ended there and many students and professors were coming out of the Hall. Of course, none of the students knew me but many came and stood around out of curiosity. I considered myself lucky to be able to meet and pay my respect to the many revered personalities gathered there, above all Professor Allama Haleem Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the university, a thorough gentleman and a great scholar, who was held in high esteem and affectionately called Papa Haleem by all. He embraced me with great love and kindness and glancing at the epaulettes on my shoulders congratulated me saying, “Kermani Sahib, we are proud of you.” That is how he always addressed me even when I was a student. He inquired about my life in the army and expressed his concerned when I told him that I was about to go overseas He examined the truck I was driving with great interest and said, “Kermani Sahib, I have never sat in an Army vehicle.” He was very happy when I offered him a ride. I drove him around the campus and then returned to Strachey Hall. He thanked me and blessed me with good wishes. Soon I had to bid farewell to all including my brother. After spending the night at Haidar Chacha’s house, I left for Ambala.
The purchases were properly displayed the morning after my arrival for the CO’s inspection. He fully approved and appreciated my choice of selection. We soon had the Officer’s Mess going and all officers including the CO moved to the Camp and a number of realistic outdoor training exercises were set for the HQ and the subordinate Units. During this period, the Supply Personnel Section was required to open a Field Supply Depot. The place selected happened to be a dense old mango grove, however two days later when the CO went to inspect the setup, the VCO in charge, a directly commissioned officer, reported to him that the grove was infested by fearsome Jinns who have threatened his Unit at night and told them to leave the place or otherwise, they all would all die. The Colonel responded by instructing the VCO to tell the Jinns that they were the ones who had to go and inform them that the Unit would continue to stay on until the place was cleared of all Jinns. Moreover, the VCO was to report on the situation on CO’s next visit. Exactly a week later, the CO returned, this time, accompanied by a newly posted officer, Second Lt Sardul Singh and was informed by the VCO that the Jinns had all gone. He was told that Unit would continue to stay until further orders and to ensure that they do not return, moreover, Second Lt Sardul Singh would take over the Unit command. Two weeks later the Unit was permitted to re-join the camp.
We soon received orders to prepare and be in readiness for overseas service. All ranks were allowed 10 days pre-embarkation leave, according to a roaster system. When my turn came I too proceeded home.
Despite all effort not to publicise my imminent overseas departure, that news could not be hidden. In addition to immediate family members, many relatives, even distant ones, came to bid me farewell and pray for my safe return home. A large number of riaya along with their families from my father’s estate, old servants with their families from my mother’s home, all came with deep expressions of love and concern for “Bahia lama par ja rahen hain kairiat say wapas ain.”
One night, while sleeping in the open courtyard of the zenana section of the house where most of the family slept during summer months, I had a peculiar dream. I found myself in an open area, lush green, surrounded by a thick equally verdant green forest the like of which I had never ever seen before. It seemed as if a bloody battle has just ended and that I belonged to the army that had suffered a severe defeat. We were being rounded up by extraordinarily ugly looking soldiers wearing shabby uniforms and armed with unusual rifles with fixed bayonets, both longer than those used by our military. Some were wielding swords, again different to ours, others were running about with pistols indiscriminately shooting men herded together. I found myself standing in line, with British officers both on my left and right, and saying to the officer on my right, on seeing officers being pulled out from the right end, taken to the centre of the open ground, to be shot, beheaded or beaten by sticks, “God how awful! Treating prisoners-of-war in such a manner is against the Geneva Conventions.” I continued, “Well, don’t worry there are many seniors left, by the time our turn comes these men may be too tired.’’ Before I could utter another word, I felt an arm around my waist that lifted me bodily and threw me up in the air. I soared in space, and then found myself wearing my normal summer uniform, khaki shorts, shirt, boot, and short putties, standing with both hand on my hips saying loudly to myself, “Oh God! What a desert!” A classic desert, an actual moving desert appeared like a fantastic clear panorama in front of me. I woke up with a start to find myself in bed. Quite shaken up and bewildered I could not sleep anymore.
Despite my every effort, I could never determine the identity of the person whose hand, gentle yet strong, had lifted me, although I think I had a momentary glimpse of a familiar personality. Next morning, with so many people in the house, and so much going on I forgot all about it, and in the course of time, it faded from my memory.
My ten days of leave were soon over and I duly reported back for duty. This time on leaving home however, I noticed my father too looked worried. Back at Camp I was soon deeply immersed in the ever-increasing preparation and readiness of the big move. We still had no clue about our destination. Colonel Taylor has been to AHQ while I was on leave and during his visit, he had tried to get some inkling of our next post, which, he now thought, would most likely be Singapore. The local Ordnance representative soon visited our Unit to change the colour and pattern of camouflage of all our tentage etc. into dark green and brown. This action further indicated that we were heading for a station in the Far East; obviously, the Singapore garrison that was being strengthened. A good number of our friends were already in Units there and sending very positive reports of life on the island, almost like the peaceful hill-stations in India with the added attraction of an excellent nightlife, wine, women, and dance. Many of the officers were undoubtedly very happy in anticipation of this. The Colonel decided that officers would carry their peacetime uniform trunks which meant mess-kit and dress-suits, in short, all our peacetime paraphernalia.
By about the second week of September 1941, we received our embarkation orders. A troops train had already been arranged and we entrained after breakfast for the port of Bombay with our CO Lt Colonel Taylor as the OC train and me as his Adjutant. Before leaving I bade farewell to Rehmat who wept profusely, he, however, got a good amount of bounty, in addition to what I gave him. from all the officers who had been living as Chummary along with the crockery, cutlery etc. bought by us before our move to the Field Mess. It was arranged that he would join the household my sister Hasina until my return from overseas.
The rail journey from Ambala to Bombay port was quite boring and uneventful. The troop’s train were given priority in all rail movement and had few stops and that too at small, out of way stations. It must have been on or about the 13th or 14th of September that we found our train standing alongside a docked troop ship. It was still quite dark but there was a lot of activity going on all around. After a short time, an officer of Embarkation Commandant arrived to give us all the necessary details and orders along with the recordings, priorities, timetable, allotment of decks, cabin accommodation and so on. Embarkation by all Units was complete before sunlight. The Captain (Skipper), a fine old veteran of the first Great War welcomed us onboard onto what had previously been an old Greek Troop Ship taken over by the Royal Navy. Colonel Taylor assumed command as OC Ship, and I as Adjutant. The Colonel and I had a cabin to ourselves facing each other, the Colonel’s more spacious with a writing table and a sofa set, mine smaller but also with a writing table, typewriter and a few chairs and more importantly two safes, one for ‘Most Secret’ and other classified documents, and the other for storing Unit Field Treasure boxes, . All the other officers had to share a cabin in threes or fours. Immediately after boarding the ship, all ranks had to change into PT shoes; then the ship’s bells rang out, a signal for boat drill and checking of lifebelts. Lifebelts had to be carried at all times by every individual throughout the voyage. The boat drill was meant for allotment of lifeboats in case the Ship had to be abandoned due to enemy action or fire or on orders of OC Ship for any other reason.
The ship carried a sufficient number of boats each numbered and named, marked with the number of passengers it could carry. Individuals were grouped, numbered, and allocated a group leader. Each launching place or point was designated as boat station and allotted a number. In the case of a call “To Boat Stations”, each and every person knew where to go and what action to take. We had to undergo this drill a number of times until the OC was satisfied that it could be done faultlessly. Before breakfast, Colonel Taylor decided that he would go around to see the VCOs and men’s decks and eating arrangements. Once this inspection was over, we were able to have a much-needed morning meal for which we joined the Skipper at his table. While we were having breakfast, the ship started to move out of the port. There was a good deal of excitement, for the reason that except for the officers of British origin, for almost all the other officers and men, including myself, this was our first experience of a sea voyage. Most of us had not been to Bombay either and felt sorry for not being able to see it. The only sight we had was the coastline and a receding outline of the Island City and of course the famous India Gate.
Outside the port, we joined a convoy of ships already anchored there and were soon joined by a few more. An hour or so later we were told that greetings were being exchanged between the Naval Commander of the Naval Escort ships, who was also the Convoy Commander, and all the other ships. Soon the convoy was on the move and we could see Naval ships going around, I think they were Sloops. We also had a visit from an officer of the Embarkation HQ who handed over a ‘Most Secret Document’ sealed with instructions that it be opened by OC ship personally and only at the time specified. Since the document was to be kept in my custody both Colonel Taylor and I had to sign for it and I immediately locked it in the Safe in my cabin. Orders were issued for ‘No smoking’ either day or night on-deck and complete blackout at night. We were now moving, as far as we were concerned, to some unknown destination. That afternoon, the Colonel realising that everyone must be getting bored ordered all ranks out and various deck games organised most of which were new to us. He also started and led a chorus, singing popular First Great War’s British troop war songs, ‘Role on the barrel’ and ‘It is a long, long way to Tipperary’. Although something new for troops the singing went down well and was a good morale booster.
After dinner, most of us retired early. At about ten, as I was reading a book there was a knock on my door; before I could open it in came the Colonel. I could see he was in his after dinner ‘booze’ mood. He plonked himself on a chair and announced: “Kermani, let’s open that damned paper, we should know where we are going!” I said, “Sir, it won’t be right, I think we should not open it before the specified time”. He got up with a “Well if you say so,” and walked away. He must have had a few more drinks as he barged in again not too long after, blurting, “Well, well, my boy nobody is going to bother us, let us open it. It is all my responsibility.” The paper was taken out, it read somewhat like this, “You shall land at Basra and come under the command of the 10th Army C-in-C, Lt General Sir Edward Quinan.” This was followed with further instructions, such as, “Basra is still likely to suffer enemy air raid, thus, disembarkation should be carried out in such and such manner. You shall receive further orders on or after disembarkation.’
The Colonel was not very happy but left my cabin muttering, Well at least now we know, we can go to sleep. Good night.”
 Bachelor living quarters.
 Indian Base Supply Depot
 Muslim caste from north India
 “Yes Sir.” “Are you from Haryana?” “Yes, Sir.” “A Ranghar?” “Your name?”
 Tenants, peasants etc serving under a landlord
 “Bahia is going on a long trip, may he come back safely.”
I was delighted with my posting to Abbottabad. In addition to the place being an extremely pleasant, small hill station the unit was an Animal Transport Company, 27th AT (Mules) and my appointment was 2nd in Command which meant I retained my rank of Temporary Captain granted to me at the SD Rawalpindi. The posting provided me with a healthy wholesome life that revolved mostly around a remarkably interesting animal, the mule, half-sibling to the horse and donkey, a unique animal that has the traits and attributes of both. Mules are intelligent animals and are really not stupidly stubborn as commonly portrayed; they will rarely put themselves in danger, actually possess a sense of humour, have great endurance and are stronger and are less excitable than horses. Unlike the horse that can be worked until it drops the mule will not be pushed beyond endurance level. That stubbornness is the mule’s way of saying “enough is enough” and things are not right, yet they work with a great amount of patience and stamina. In physical appearance, the hind-side and legs take after the donkey although they do not have the prominent arched neck. The tail is like that of a horse as are the ears which are the same shape and long like the horse and smaller than the donkey. They also come in different sizes and shades of brown and grey. The AT units of the RIASC had mules of uniform sizes and as far as possible of matching colours. We also had a number of horses for officers, VCOs, and NCOs, the ones for officers were classified as chargers.
The taxi driver, who had met me on my arrival at Rawalpindi, and remained on call throughout my stay at Chaklala, drove me to Abbottabad. He belonged to that area the Hazara Civil Division of which the Abbottabad was the HQ. The hotel I was going to stay at, Spring Field Hotel was owned by some retired British Officers although my friend the taxi driver claimed it now belonged to one of his close relatives. I found the hotel of a good standard, housed in a large bungalow, a typical British-Indian hill station building. Abbottabad, as the name implies, was founded by Major James Abbott the first Deputy Commissioner of the newly established district acquired and taken over by the British after they had defeated the Sikh rulers and dismantled the Sikh kingdom. It was very well laid town, over 4000 feet above sea level picturesquely situated amidst verdant green hills with the black Hazara Mountains in the distance and blessed with a comfortable climate throughout the year.
I arrived at the hotel about midday and found the suite of rooms allocated to me comfortable and the lunch satisfactory. I rested for a while and then went to report to the Company HQ and the OC. I was told that the OC, Major —had gone on a long training course to Kirkee near Poona. A Risaldar, a smart Punjabi Muslim (I have forgotten his name) was looking after the unit, and the OC Supply Depot next door was acting OC in addition to his own Command. The Risaldar took me to meet the OC Supply Depot, an oldish Major, one of the recalled officers he looked rather worn out and shaky and smelled strongly of alcohol. As I saluted and introduced myself he stood up and held out his shaking hand and stated, “Thank God I am rid of the mules.” He took a small bunch of keys and handed them to me. “Hope you find everything alright with your animals. Goodbye. You shall find me a good neighbour.”
On my way back, I told the Risaldar that I would like to have a quick look round of the unit starting from the men’s lines. I was quite pleased with what I saw. It appeared to be a unit with a high standard of discipline and administration, and both men and animals were in good shape. I asked the Risaldar if there were any problems that required immediate attention “None, Sahib, sab theek thakhai”. By this time the two other VCOs and the senior NCOs had turned up and were waiting in line outside the Company Office, I met them all, as well as the Head Clerk and the rest of the clerical staff. As I prepared to leave, I told the Risaldar that I would be back early morning just after the Reveille, the poor man was quite taken aback and pretended he had not heard me correctly, “Sahib. Parade time …” and before he could say anything more, I repeated “Reveille key foran bad awunga aur pura din guzarung samjha sahib?” The Risaldar could only respond with a “Han Sab”.
Returning back to my hotel I reflected on my good luck at being attached to such a fine unit and determined to keep up the standard, if not improve on it until the permanent OC returned.
It had been quite a while since Rehmat had to bring my bed-tea so early and prepare my bath. I was in the unit lines just about the time the workday was getting into full swing, the men’s kitchen (langar) fire was being lit and the cooks were busy making morning tea and paratha, the standard breakfast of troops. I liked the langar tea made with tea leaves tied up in a muslin bag, cooked continuously in a boiling mixture of water-milk-and sugar and served piping hot with parathas saturated in ghee. Then it was the animals turn to be fed, groomed, brushed and combed, and prepared for their duties after the parade and inspection. Feeding time was most interesting to observe; at the bugle call a terrific pandemonium ensued, the outcome of the neighing of the horses and the braying of mules, a peculiar sound that started like the bray of a donkey and ended like the whine of a horse. A vast variety of birds could be seen perched on the beautiful Chinar trees which were planted throughout the lines by some thoughtful and foresighted officer. These had now grown to provide shade and protection from all elements of nature, the sun, rain, and snow. There were sparrows, doves, mynahs, pigeons, crows and many others singing, chirping, cooing, and crowing, waiting impatiently to feast on the spillover of the mules and horses feed. To me, it was a most enjoyable scenario. I spent the whole day outside and remained there until the last post was sounded. I checked out the animals and men, inspected the arms, ammunition, stores, saddlery, and equipment, and examined all accounts public and regimental. Errors, omissions, mistakes were verified, wherever possible rectified or recorded to be corrected by a definite date. Similarly, all the workshops inspected in great details, no nook or corner escaped me, even the cobwebs were pointed out.
I also rang up the Veterinary officer to introduce myself. He sounded friendly and pleasant and since I felt a visit by him to the unit will be of great value to me we fixed that for the following Monday.
I left the unit after the Retreat was sounded with instructions to the Risaldar that I expected to see everything put right within three days time.
The next three days I spent on normal routine matters, except to go through the reports, returns, and correspondence in far greater details with the Head Clerk. The veterinarian, a very fine, heavily built middle-aged Major came as promised. When I told him that I wished to learn as much as possible within the time he could spare, he kindly remained until lunch and filled me in with the finer details about mules and horses. I learned more from him than I could ever from books or manuals.
By this time, I had selected two officer’s chargers for my daily rides. There were plenty of excellent places for riding, just across the road was a vast open area used for parades, in addition to that there were polo grounds, training grounds and playing fields and encircling the entire maidan was a riding track surrounded and enclosed by large shady trees. A vista of absolute beauty, a pleasure to behold.
The cross-country rides too were most pleasant and interesting. On one of my evening rides, I took a turn from Mansehra Road onto a gravel road adjoining the Kakul Road. Passing through Nowshera I noticed a handsome house with such a magnificent and exquisite flower garden that I could not restrain myself. Leaving the NCOs riding with me at the gate I rode straight in. Since I was in uniform no one dared stop me or inquire about my identity or business there. As I stopped my horse at a particularly attractive spot to admire my surroundings, I saw a well-dressed gentleman emerge from the house onto the veranda. I rode up to him and before he could say anything, I immediately dismounted and profusely apologised for trespassing. I told him frankly that I had found the beauty of the place absolutely irresistible. That apparently pleased him, he not only invited me for a cup of tea and drinks but extended an open invitation to come to the house whenever possible. Unfortunately, I could not avail of his offer in that instant since my men were waiting outside, and the extra work I had to grapple with left me little time in the weeks that followed, and soon after I was posted out. I later found out that the fine gentleman I had come across was Rai Bahadur Mehr Chand Khanna the owner of a large, at the time the only, sugar factory in NWFP situated in Mardan.
Nonetheless, this blissful period of independent command, the enjoyment of being around animals and congenial, cheerful men was not to last much longer.
The CRIASC, Lt Colonel A.H.J. Snelling came on an inspectional visit. The inspection went extremely well and the Colonel a highly professional, kindly gentleman was very pleased. The only comment he made, standing on the veranda outside company office, was that the angle of my cap was too jaunty, and smiled as I hurried to correct the angle. We walked into the office and sat down. He then informed me that he was going to give me extra and heavy responsibilities, “The Major OC Supply Depot has been admitted to the hospital and is not likely to come out soon.” I was to take command of the Depot in addition to my duties, I was also to open a Field Supply Depot in Mansehra to maintain an Indian Infantry Division that would be arriving soon. There was nothing for me to say, I was not expected to, except for “Yes Sir” and that too with gusto.
So, the very next morning, I think it was about middle March, I assumed dual command, although the only immediate change in my work schedule was losing my morning ride. In about a week’s time additional supply personnel including a new, direct commissioned VCO, a Jemadar arrived. Equipment necessary to man and operate an FSD was authorised and duly turned up including a new 15hwt American Chevy truck, the first of its type that I had seen or driven. An area off the Mansehra road about a mile from a superbly located Rest House was selected for the Field Supply Depot. The village Phegli was about a mile or so from the place and could provide daily labour. I had a room reserved for myself in the Resthouse and it was indeed a place that provided rest to the body, mind, and soul. Sitting or standing on the veranda or the lawn one had an uninterrupted view, as far as the eye could see, of many shades of lush green. If one looked down, some thousand feet below was the fertile valley, a truly exquisite display of a superb natural panorama. As I beheld the view, I could not help but praise God “Subhan Allah” and commend the man who had selected the site and built the house with a “Shahbash”.
The FSD was laid out (as far as possible) in accordance with what I had only recently been taught at the RIASC School. It was almost ready to operate and soon the Division (I think it was the 17th Indian) started moving in and the Senior Supply Officer of the Division visited to check and tie up loose ends. I left the newly posted VCO in charge of the daily working of the Depot and visited whenever possible. The AT Company presented the least problems as the SSD the senior VCO was a former civilian storekeeper, now a Subedar he was experienced and to a great extent totally reliable. I found out that the Depot was to operate a big rice contract and that the first consignment, for which a shed had already been prepared, had been received, stacked in that shed, and sealed. A packet containing an approved sample and specification of rice was delivered with instructions directing the OC SSD to draw a representative sample from the consignment, examine, check and compare it to the tendered, original sample, and accordingly accept if it matched or reject if not. In the case of a rejection, notice was to be issued to the contractor to remove the stock within a defined time. I got the three VCOs in attendance to assist me in this process. We rejected the stock and issued a notice as directed. A few days later as I was getting ready to go to work, a big car drove up and stopped alongside my hotel room veranda. Soon Rehmat came in holding a visiting card, saying “Yeh apse milna chahetay hain”. The card read “Sardar Bahadur”. I read no further and gave the card back to Rehmat to return to the gentleman and tell him. “Koi galti hia sahib ap ko nahi jante.”I put my cap on, picked my swagger stick, and was about leave when Rehmat reappeared with a Sikh gentleman wearing a Sherwani. Outwardly dignified looking, he greeted me in English. I asked him to sit down, he immediately began “Captain Sahib you have ruined me. The rice…” As he spoke these words it dawned on me who he was, “Oh! You are a contractor. You have no right to be here.” He got up, “Sahib, Ap jo chahathy mein khidmat karonga.”By now my temper was rising and as he repeated what he had said before I was in a rage. My sense of dignity and self-respect was outrageously offended; the fellow was trying to bribe me! Somehow, I managed to maintain a hold on myself although what I said to him is quite unprintable and so foul that I myself felt ashamed. It worked, however, and he left in a huff muttering something under his breath. Thus, ended my first encounter with a Service Corps contractor. It left an indescribable, inexpressible bitter taste and a detestable, highly prejudiced image in my mind, and an opinion of such contractors that I could never erase or change. A few days later I was summoned to meet the CRIASC at the Rawalpindi Club in the evening. For some inexplicable reason, I felt somewhat apprehensive about this visit. I arrived at Pindi in the afternoon planning on staying overnight at the Flashman Hotel. Since no time had been given for my meeting I walked across to the Club in the evening, sent my card in and was immediately led to Lt Colonel Snelling. As I greeted him, he got up shook hands and asked me to sit down. I found him as kind and amiable as he was when he had come on his inspectional visit. He asked and ordered drinks and enquired about my work and possible issues. While I was updating him on the ongoing work he interrupted, “What happened to recent rice contract stocks?” Now I understood the full object of this exercise. I narrated the entire episode exactly as it happened. When I reached the portion of my narrative where I dealt with the contractor, describing word by word how I had spoken to the man and repeated the very rude, crude and abusive words I had used the Colonel almost jumped off his seat. He actually stood up, “Did you really say that?” I said, “Yes Sir I did,” getting up as well. He thumped my back with a loud laugh, “Jolly good! Jolly good! Well done, I am so glad. Sit down, sit down, have another drink. Nothing to worry about”.
We sat down and continued with our drinks. He talked to me about the problems the Corps was facing due to the unprecedented rapid expansion, he also touched upon the problems of maintenance in the field and the ever-changing conditions of modern warfare. He mentioned that some method had to be found to supply fresh rations to the Indian troops, especially meat. While the British troops could happily live on Bully Beef, there was nothing to replace the supply of meat on the hoof with the added issue of Jathka and Halal. At this point, I requested if I could present an idea that may provide a solution. At Aligarh, we had students from different provinces and states, who, when they returned to their hostels after holidays at home, brought back trunks full of long-life food, specialities of their regions to supplement the rather unpalatable hostel food. The students from Hyderabad Deccan always returned with plenty of sun-dried meat that could be cooked into a variety of delicious dishes or even be eaten raw. The Colonel thought it an excellent idea, and thus within a year’s time, dried meat, appropriately certified Halal for Muslim troops and Jathka for Sikh and Hindu troops became a regular item of RIASC issue in lieu of fresh meat. Similarly, dehydrated onions, potatoes, and other vegetables were found and proved to be a great boon where and when fresh items were not available.
I suppose similar ideas must have occurred to many others as well, but that is how these items were introduced into the British Indian Army food Supplies.
I returned to my normal work but could not forget the wisdom and thoughtful manner in which Colonel Snelling had dealt with my case. Had he called me to his office it would have meant that he had taken an official view of the complaint by an unscrupulous individual, he had undeniably set an example worth emulating.
My stay at Abbottabad did not last long; I attended a short course of Ammunition Recognition at the Rawalpindi Arsenal and immediately after received my posting order to the HQ 21 Supply Company as Adjutant (Captain). This, as yet non-existent unit was to be raised and established at RIASC Mobilisation and Training Centre Ambala. I took ten days off to discard all unnecessary kit and civilian clothes which under the latest order officers were not to wear on any occasion. Though nothing was totally clear about the charter of the new unit I was being posted to, it was evidently a field unit that was to be raised, equipped, trained, and eventually moved overseas to a theatre of war.
I went home to recoup rest and as usual, enjoy a brief sojourn with my family. Up to this time, I was still corresponding regularly with most of my friends and we kept ourselves informed about each other whereabouts and postings and that is how I knew my friend Hamidullah Khattak was already at Ambala. I consequently wrote informing him of the date and time of my arrival at Ambala. Hamidullah was at Railway Station to receive me with two Tongas, one for Rehmat and the baggage and the other for the two of us since Ambala had no better form of transport available. We had not met since we had left the Service Corps Officer’s School and had much to chat about until the Tonga entered the dry, barren compound of a decrepit and ugly Indian Mutiny period bungalow that had become still uglier due to neglect and lack of maintenance. It had the usual hall in the centre used as drawing and dining rooms and four bedrooms with attached dressing and bathrooms. Three of the bedrooms were already occupied by Chiragh Husain Shah, Mello Castro, and Hamidullah Khattak. The latter had kindly reserved the fourth one for me. My friend Omar Khan had previously been living in this room but had moved to the only hotel in Ambala Cantonment since his wife had joined him recently. The bungalow was provided with barest of MES furniture, so I let Rehmat fix up the room, unpack, and get thing ready to enable me to report to HQ Mobilisation Centre early next morning.
It is an extraordinary coincidence that some of the important events in my life have occurred in the month of August, my birth-month. On an early morning, on the last day of August 1940, I arrived at Rawalpindi Cantonment Railway station by the Punjab Mail, East Indian Railways. As there was no one to receive me, I decided to stay on in the waiting room. After a bath and shave, I put on my RIASC uniform cap with the red lanyard badge and shoulder titles signifying the Royal status of the Corps. Leaving Rehmat with my baggage at the station, I took a taxi and headed for the Station Supply Depot Rawalpindi only to discover that it was actually very close by as within a few minutes we had arrived at the gate. A civilian chowkidar salaamed and let the taxi pass. This taxi did not look like the commercial taxis of latter days; it was a big American Buick sedan, driven by an equally big man, who by his demeanour and dress looked more like a Malik or Sardar of a tribe than a taxi-driver. It turned out that he was the car owner who selected his own passengers, mostly British Officers, but he occasionally condescended to pick up young Indian Officers in uniform as they paid far better than the British did. On that particular morning, I happened to be one of the lucky ones.
As we entered the large compound I beheld a substantial number of red-roofed sheds situated along straight, neat, roads as well as several railway lines. There were hardly any uniformed men around. Except for the very military layout, it could very well be a civilian installation, and so indeed it was. The Supply Branch of the RIASC was until the outbreak of the War, with the exception of the Officers, some VCOs, and the British Warrant Officers called Conductors, manned entirely by civilian non-combatants with nomenclatures such as Store Keeper, Storeman, and Laskar. Even the officer’s cadre had two categories, regular KCOS, KCIOS and Commissary Officers. These were drawn from the warrant officers rank and granted Commissions with limited powers of command and could not be promoted beyond the rank of Lt Colonel Commissary. They were designated as Captain Commissary and Major Commissary. This rank structure and establishment of the supply branches, as I found out, were the remnant of the former Commiserate Department, and had not updated as yet. Confronted by war and its requirements, efforts were being made to rapidly reorganise and modernise the entire Corps.
As my taxi approached a building with signs that read R&D and DSO (Depot Supervising Officer) I decided to step out. A uniformed individual came running towards me, a well-built, well turned out, pleasant looking Sikh, he halted and with a smart salute introduced himself as Risaldar Major Bindra Singh (RIASC was a mounted unit hence ranks were as in the Cavalry). We shook hands, the Major Sahib was on his way since there were, he informed me, a few minutes left for the Depots opening time. I called the taxi driver and asked him if he could wait. With a genial smile and joyous expression, he replied: “Sahib, I shall be happy to wait for you forever if you so wish”.
The Risaldar Major had a respectable educational background and command of the English language. Normally I would have spoken to a VCO in Urdu (Roman Urdu) but I found not only RM Bindra Singh but also all VCOS of the Service Corps, the storekeepers and storemen too were well versed in English. Under the current policy, recruitment was made on the basis of a good educational standard and direct entry as VCO. Men who could not make officer grade happily accepted the grant of Viceroy’s Commission in the RIASC. A new scheme of introducing Indian Warrant Officers had also been introduced and currently, there were two such officers under training in the Depot, I met them but did not think much of them, they did not seem to possess the composure, confidence, and competence and class of the position they were to fill. Such qualities develop in those who go through the mill and then gets built in with long experience and service. The scheme was soon dropped and the few already inducted became VCOs and some in the course of time ICOs.
While I was talking to the Risaldar Major, Major Commissary Ellis, Officer-in-Charge, Rawalpindi RIASC Supply Depot turned up. A bespectacled, dignified, older man, he showed all the signs of ruggedness, confidence, and ease peculiar to Army men of long and productive service. We shook hands, he welcomed me to the Corps and apologized for not having me meet on arrival. There was no one else except for himself and a VCO, and, as I would soon find out, they shared duties from early morning and were rarely able to get away. He had, however, arranged to have a portion of an MES bungalow reserved for me. I had the option to live there and mess in any of the Regimental messes located near my quarters or to go and live in the Corps Mess at Chaklala, a very fine place but a bit too far. Of course, I could also stay or any of the hotels or if lucky, I might find a room in the club or eat there. It was kind of him to offer me these choices and time to settle down before reporting for work the following morning. An offer of a mule cart was also made to carry my kit from the Railway Station.
I thanked him for the options and mule card offer, took the taxi back to the station where I collected Rehmat and the baggage and headed for the bungalow that I found was well situated near the Scottish Church. It had ample accommodation and was typically furnished with bare MES furniture and all the usual necessities including a sufficient number of servant quarters well stocked with the essential lower-class servants; permanent residents who provided twenty-four hour services such as the sweeper, bhisti, mashalchi, malli, and dhobi. Most of them with their large families were ready and eager to supply extra help to sahib and memsahib loag, the ever-changing occupants of the bungalows. There were also a sufficient number of empty quarters for sahib loag’s bearers, and of course for the syces and grass-cutters along with the stables and storerooms required for saddlery, harness and other paraphernalia for those Sahib loag who were rich enough to maintain a riding and polo establishment.
I was the first desi sahib to occupy the bungalow, and that too only a portion since I was a “Muflis Sahib”, a term used by the bearer-class in the Army for unmarried officers. My bags and baggage, including my cycle, were soon off-loaded. Rehmat had no difficulty in getting all the help he needed from residents of servant quarters. That taken care of, I discussed my messing with him since right across the road were a row of single officer’s quarters of a British Infantry Regiment and their Officer’s Mess. The entire area belonged to the Victoria Barracks Complex in permanent occupation by one of the British Infantry Battalion stationed at Rawalpindi. This locality was popularly referred to as Lalkurti Bazaar (Red tunic market) the redcoat being the normal uniform of British soldiers at the beginning of the Raj.
I thought the British Regiments Mess being nearest would be most convenient, but one of the residents of the servant quarters appeared to be privy to the information that the Regiment was packing up and moving out. Rehmat suggested I leave all the bandobast to him and that by the afternoon teatime he would have everything arranged. It was about lunchtime and I asked the Taxi driver to take me to the best restaurant in the town. He took me to the Flashman Hotel, a fine place with good food and service, and, as I noted for future reference, an excellent place to stay. On my return, I found everything unpacked and properly laid-out. Rehmat asked permission to take the taxi to go to the bazaar in order to purchase the necessary items required to run a full-fledged house. Rehmat was in charge of my money and accounts and continued to do so until my marriage. Having instructed him to bring me afternoon tea early and to retain the taxi for the evening, I retired for my afternoon nap. I planned on calling at as many Officer’s Messes as possible later in the day.
After a satisfying cup of tea and biscuits, all efficiently procured and served by Rehmat in a recently purchased tea-set, I decided to pay a visit to the RIASC Central Officers Mess and take a drive around Chaklala, the home of the Corps.
We drove through a well-kept, tree-lined road, the Mall, with wide riding-tracks flanked by stone-lined pavements on both sides. We turned on to another similar road and drove past the Civil Courts on the right and a pair of splendid houses, almost palaces, that the taxi driver said belonged to two important Sikh brothers who owned much of Rawalpindi. Soon we were driving down Chaklala road, passing through undulating green fields with animals grazing on either side of the road. An idyllic pastoral scene and pleasing to the eyes. This, in fact, was the farm of Military RV&F Corps that provided fresh milk and butter of superb quality to the Rawalpindi garrison. Passing over a small bridge across a stream we came to a fork in the road; a First Great War memorial of pink sandstone honouring the S&T Corps stood at the junction with a slab dated 1903, the year Chaklala became the home of the corps. On the left side of the road, was the RIASC Officers School to which I was to come in a few weeks’ time. Further, down the road, a few long barrack-like buildings housed the headquarters of the Training Centre. As we drove past a very green Golf Course I caught glimpses of a Riding Course in the distance.
Passing through a pair of rather fine wrought-iron gates, we entered a large compound with well laid-out gardens and finely pruned hedges and bushes that framed a gracious building, the Central Officers Mess. A highly polished mahogany writing table that shone like mirror stood in the exquisite classical style foyer with a silver inkpot and pens and a leather-bound visitor’s book that displayed the silver crest of the Corps. As I was about to sit down on the elegant matching chair to write my name a Sergeant entered, saluted and introduced himself as the “Mess Sergeant Sir”. I, in turn, introduced myself as a newly joined officer out to make my form calls. “Welcome to the Corps Sir, can I fetch a drink for you”. I declined since I had other places to visit but told him that 1st November onwards he would be seeing me more often.
The next place to call was Officers Mess of a Battalion of the 12th Frontier Force Regiment situated on the Mall past the Club. To my surprise, sitting there on the chabutra was Fazle Muqeem Khan a friend from my Aligarh days and the UTC. He too was surprised and welcomed me with his pet phrase “Oh zaalim tum kahan”. I sat down to have a cold drink and we soon updated each other on our recent lives. Nearby I noticed some broken glass and what appeared to be parts of some sort of electronic machine. On inquiring, I was told that these were the remains of an expensive Mess Radiogram that had been smashed by some Indian officers who had reacted angrily when certain British officers objected to Indian music being played on the machine. As Muqeem Khan explained, “We thought, na rahega bans na bajae gi bansri“. Since this event had only just taken place a Court Inquiry was on its way. I beat a hasty retreat without even entering my name in their Visitors Book.
It occurred to me that perhaps I did the right thing in choosing the Service Corps where no one dared object to my playing any music I cared for in my Mess.
I bade farewell to Muqeem Khan; he had left Aligarh to join the Army in the ranks, served in MT branch of the RIASC as an MT driver got into the IMA on the Army quota and earned his commission. I was not to meet him again until after partition.
I dismissed the taxi and walked back to my quarters. After a hot bath and an excellent dinner produced by Rehmat, I put on the radio to hear the news and some music and thus ended my first day in the RIASC.
The next morning, as per my routine, after a bath, shave, and good hearty breakfast I got dressed, as usual, with Rehmat’s help and had my bicycle readied. I soon found myself cycling on a road where there was hardly any traffic. But when I entered the Mall with its wide tracks on both sides of the road, I encountered a number of horse riders, almost all British; both men and woman smartly attired in riding habits on well-groomed horses or ponies. An equally well-groomed hedge divided the road and the tracks on both sides. Very soon, I was at the junction of the Mall and Murree Roads where, within the wide roundabout, stood a finely crafted and sculptured marble statue of Victoria, as Queen Empress of India. Wheeling right onto Murree Road, I saw a red brick church on the right and Flashman Hotel on the left. Walking along the pavement were a number of Indian families, mostly females, some older, heavy, and buxom, many young, slim, and pretty and children of different ages, healthy and cheerful, all gaily dressed. Some raised their hand to greet me; they were on their daily morning walk as I discovered over the next few days. It was a short ride of delightful scenes and sites, the excellent ‘Pindi weather making it even pleasanter.
A number of mule carts and personnel were queued up and waiting near the entrance of the Depot to collect fresh rations for the various units. It seemed that I had arrived on the dot of time since at that very moment the bell rang out and the gates opened. The Risaldar Major after a formal inquiry about my health and comfort asked if I would like to inspect the fresh supplies as they were issued and dispersed to the units. Since I was only an attached officer with no formal status in the unit I suggested we wait for the Major. He soon arrived and asked if I had settled down. We then walked to the sheds where daily issues of fresh supplies had been laid out. The sheds were marked out with BT for British Troops and IT for Indian Troops. The items and scale of rations, even the indenture forms were labelled BT or IT, there were hardly any items common to both, the few that were had different specifications, e.g. the potatoes for the BT were bigger in size to the IT. This differentiation was largely due to the entirely different culinary requirements of the British and the Native troops. We walked through the well-stocked well-stacked sheds with their assortment of rations, some bagged, some tinned, all numbered and marked with each stack having its tally sheet listing all such details as the item, the total number of packs, weight, date of receipt, issues if any, and so on. In fact, the entire Depot was organised on a group basis. While all the sheds had doors fully open there was one that was closed and locked, it was marked ‘Hospital Comfort’. The storekeeper was standing by but the Major gestured to him to leave it locked. Turning to me he remarked, “We shall see it at a later time”.
We came out into the open and walked across the road and a rail line that ran parallel to it until we came to a place marked PM for Packing Material. These were further marked ‘New’ or ‘Old’. Stacks of empty bags, tea cases, and ghee tins were piled all around. We walked through another gate again across the main road and rail-line to a gate marked POL, Petrol Oil, and Lubricants. The entire lot was dotted with stacks of oil drums in large, medium, and small, sizes. There was also a massive, lofty, and long building with very high arches that looked like elephant’s stables, and indeed, it had at one time housed elephants in the days when those animals were on the strength of the Commissariat and used as pack animals along with camels and bullocks. These stables were stacked high with two-gallon petrol containers and four-gallon tins (called flimsys), which were now permanently replacing the two-gallon containers.
We crossed the road to Major Ellis’s office, the Depot Main Office. Here with the exception of the head clerks all the personnel were civilians. I was given a comprehensive description of the working, organisation, and administration of the Depot. Major Ellis was kind enough to give me all the training manuals, contact law manuals etc, in fact, everything I would be required to study during the forthcoming course. He handed to me a copy of the Order appointing me Depot Supervising Officer and Officer In charge of R&D. I now bore heavy new responsibilities and immediately got down to the business of carrying out my duties, with the greatest possible care since every action had financial implications. I had an office, the necessary staff, and the Risaldar Major as an assistant. I fell into the normal routine which, however, was rather, boring, thoroughly uninteresting, and very unsoldierly in my opinion. A couple of days later, I asked the Risaldar Major if he could spare me about an hour after lunch, to enable me to learn the intricacies and the complex working of the supply branch from him. He readily agreed, and so, this learning hour also became a part of my daily routine. A few weeks later Major Ellis dropped by my office to take me to the storage area and explain the method of storage, checking of receipts, and issue of items for ‘Hospital Comforts’. The term ‘Hospital Comforts’ was used for special items of food and drinks that the Medical Officer prescribed for patients. These were procured and stocked by Service Corps on the recommendation of Medical Directorate at AHQ. Such items included wines, spirits, and other alcoholic drinks, and the best quality Champagne. Major Ellis showed me how these were stored since particular care had to be taken in this respect due to the hot Indian climate. He took a number of Champagne bottles out to explain the vintage and character of the wine. He explained that bottles that were suspected of having leaked were a write-off and would have to be removed since the wine that had gone off would turn into vinegar, unfit for consumption. Similarly, beer and cider too would have to be watched since they were liable to turn stale. Frequent and strict checks of all these items were necessary in order to maintain the quality of the stored alcohol and prevent unnecessary write-offs, which would, in turn, reflect on the efficiency of the officer-in-charge. Subsequently, the bottles for disposal were then loaded into the booth of Major Ellis’ car. Within the shed was a heavily locked cupboard what contained opium. Opium was also graded as an item of ration, issued to addicts; the amount released being determined by the Medical officer who wrote out a Medical Certificate for that purpose.
When I got home for lunch Rehmat handed me an envelope with a note from Mrs Ellis that read that she and her husband would be pleased if I would join them for Cocktails that evening. Later that day I put on my DJ (dinner jacket) and cycled to their hotel on the Mall where a few couples had already arrived, soon more joined in. The majority seemed to belong to the same vintage and background as my middle-aged hosts. I was cordially received with remarks about how refreshing it was to see such young officers joining the Corps, and that they hoped I would be happy in the Corps. However, I found the atmosphere at the party very subdued and totally lacking in mirth and gaiety. One could certainly notice and sense the women’s anxiety and concern; Britain was under an intense pounding from the German air attacks, the ‘Blitz’, as it was referred to, was at its worst, with the Germans doing their utmost to weaken the British spirit of resistance. The British were not faring too well on the high seas either; the German torpedoes had recently sunk SS City of Banaras, causing great loss of life including many children who were being evacuated to Canada. So, despite the ample consumption of wines and spirits, the mood did not change. A gentleman remarked to me “Oh well, at least the Corps has not done badly, of the two AT Companies one extracted itself at Dunkirk. Major Akbar the OC must get full marks, damn good luck, sorry for the other one caught in the bag, bad luck”.
By now I was getting a bit bored and sought permission to leave, I thanked my hosts and cycled back with a strong suspicion that the excellent Champagne served at the party was from the suspected leaking bottles condemned for disposal and write-off.
There was now about a month left for the Training Course to begin. I was determined to utilise this period to learn more about how things worked then I had been able to do so far. I mentioned this to the Major who very kindly and within a short time, sent me a chit with the times and days that I was to accompany him to the Bakery and Butchery for the inspection, receipt, and issuance of meat on the hoof to the Indian units. The visit to the bakery had to to be made twice, once late in the evening to check on the initial preparation, and again early morning to check on the baking process. A fresh loaf selected at random had to be submitted to the officer-in-charge who sends his remarks to master baker, invariably a British Warrant officer or a Sergeant, the rest of the establishment were Indians. The standard of the bread produced was considered of the highest quality and the best in the British Indian Empire. It was delivered to the British units and BMH in specially fitted MT vehicles of the Corps. I once took a ride with them at delivery time in the old outdated Thorny Crafts that were utilised for this purpose. The visit to the Butchery, however, was somewhat nauseating. Only beef was slaughtered here for issuance to the British units. The Master Butcher, a Sergeant, very enthusiastically tried to explain the fine points of the different parts of the animal and the names of cuts. I made some notes, thanked the sergeant and hastily left the premises.
I soon got into a normal routine. One morning, however, the OIC asked me to carry out a very stringent check of the packing material group. The storekeeper in charge was a civilian named Ragbar Dayal; I had started calling him Gaarbar Dayal, a name that described him better. Soon after I began the check he asked my permission to say something, “Sahib, you can check every item as much as you like but will find nothing wrong and yet I do make money. You are too young, to understand and can’t catch me”. I was instantly taken aback and outraged at his audacity, I cursed him roundly, to which he responded by keeping quiet. I pushed my cane into his bulging stomach saying, “Gaarbar Dayal, if both of us live and remain in service I shall indeed catch you well and proper. “I walked away and reported the incident to the OIC. Years later after the war, I fulfilled my pledge.
A number of officers started arriving. Eventually, the number reached half a dozen. They were all here to attend the Officers Course at the Corps school. However, none received the attention of the OIC as I did during my attachment. One of the first to arrive was Lt Umar Khan, an AIRO (Army in India Reserve of Officer). He also got a portion of the bungalow I was living in. A married man and rather conservative, he kept his wife in strict purdah and had not brought her with him, nor had he any intention of doing so. He was from a small hamlet Gulabad, situated on Grand Trunk Road, not far from Attock fort in Campbellpur District (now Attock District). He typified the middle-class Punjabi landowner; simple and rustic with unpolished manners and lacking in refinement, but at the same time, he was polite, honest and forthright, sincere and loyal. We became good friends, he respected my ways and my way of life and remained a valued friend until his death. Since Umar Khan was senior to me he took over the duties of DSO while I retained the R&D. A few days later my friend Dewan reported for attachment. He had decided to stay with relatives who had a very large, newly built house across the Railway Bridge where the city area began. He promptly invited me to lunch with them promising pure Punjabi-Hindu vegetarian food, which I found tasty but heavy and over-rich. Some of the dishes were new to me, and from my native Awadhi Hindu culinary standards rather crude. During lunch, I learned that Dewan was soon to be married and a package containing invitations to the many marriage ceremonies from both the bride and bridegroom’s sides was handed to me, with a very emphatic and sincere oral invitation reiterating the necessity of to my attending. I was to accompany the would-be groom to his home in Lahore and thence to Delhi as part of the baraat and then again return to Lahore with the wedding party for a few more days of festivities. I had never attended a marriage of a rich, well to do Hindu family, and to refuse an invitation so affectionately and sincerely extended was unthinkable. On our way, back Dewan insisted that I too shift to the house he was currently living in. I pointed out to him that since he himself was a guest in that house, he ought to seek permission from his host to whom I was a complete and utter stranger. In any case, it would be pointless to move at this stage for a mere few weeks. The next day a visibly upset Dewan met me, almost in tears and cursing his host, “They say that they cannot keep a Muslim in their home”. I did my best to calm him down, but such things happened sometimes, I did not mind or take offence. Soon after, I joined him in Lahore at his fine commodious home with Rehmat in attendance. I had a very well-appointed bedroom with a dressing room and an attached modern bathroom. A good number of guests had arrived and many more were constantly coming in. It appeared that most of the houses in the neighbourhood had been taken over by Dewan’s family for the duration of the wedding period. Hindu upper-class marriages are fabulous affairs, the ceremonies stretch over a long period and are full of gaiety and fun, dance and music and altogether very colourful. The Punjabi dholki songs sung by women, with lively rhythmical music combined with the beat of dholki have an instantly captivating effect. Their folk dances are full of vitality with fast free movements of the body. The men and women wearing lachas, kurtas, lungis, and pugrees displayed a natural lack of inhibition and thus all the events were full of liveliness, merriment, and pleasure. The tone, tempo, and vigour increased substantially when a number of Sikh men and women joined in after a few drinks. After spending several enjoyable days and nights, the baraat departed via a late evening train and arrived at New Delhi in the morning to be received by the bride’s people with great pomp, and ceremony. We were housed in a gracious, expansive bungalow and generously provided with excellent food and drink. Every need was warmly met and we were made comfortable in an atmosphere of unrestrained festivity with beautiful, well-attired people, particularly the lavishly adorned ladies, heavily draped in gold jewellery and precious stones. The Hindu marriage ceremony is an interesting though longish ceremony, perhaps better described as a combination of many religious recitals by Brahman priests and symbolic rituals such as the tying of the apparel of the bride and bridegroom in a knot after which both circle a well-lit fire. During the festivities and ceremonies, I met many fine and interesting people, but one who made a particular impression on me was an attractive young European lady, an Austrian-German she was married but unaccompanied by her husband. After our initial introduction, she continued to remain in my company. She spoke fairly good English and soon we found many subjects of mutual interest. Other than the British, I had not met too many European women, except for the Germans wives of some of the professors at Aligarh who had gone to Germany to study and acquired spouses in addition to their Doctorates. However, as a student, meeting them was a formal matter. Besides most of those ladies were middle-aged except for the wife of one of the younger professors, an attractive Danish girl who during a summer vacation stay as Haider Khan’s guest tried to teach me Ballroom dancing. One day Haider Sahib’s old mother, to her utter horror and shock, happened to view the highly immoral act that I at such a young age was being made to perform. There was a terrific uproar in the house! Haider Sahib was not present in the at the time; on his return, he immediately faced a highly indignant mother who blamed him for not taking due care of the boy put in his charge by his trusting parents and of hosting an immoral foreign woman as a house-guest. She demanded that the lady leave immediately. She sincerely believed that I was an utterly innocent child being seduced but I still managed to get off with a mere ticking for neglecting the far healthier outdoor life. The Danish lady soon left and my lessons in dancing ceased. She was a charming woman, but older and larger than I was. Therefore, my image of the German and Nordic female was very different from the Austrian lady I encountered at Dewan’s wedding. She was petite, delicately built with equally delicate sharp features, and although in my opinion our woman, especially those of Indo-Gangetic origin, are incomparable to any in the world in terms of feminine charm and beauty I did find in her an extraordinary appeal. The next day arrangements were made to visit the historic places of Delhi for those guests who had not seen them before. Since I did not fall into that category, I decided to forgo the excursion and stay in. After lunch, the Austrian lady knocked on my door to inform me that she was going with a group of guests to visit the Fort and she would like me to accompany her. Although I told her that I had seen the Fort several times, she insisted, saying that, that was the more reason for me to come. We had a car at our disposal, spent a very pleasant afternoon, and returned somewhat later than others did. I had a booking for the late-night train and so having thanked my hosts and bidden farewell to the assembled company I journeyed back to Rawalpindi to report for duty. The episode in Delhi however, took some effort and time to erase from my mind.
The RIASC Course began mid-November (1940) at the Corps School at Chaklala. The RIASC had developed from the 1901 pre-World War Commissariat Department to a Supply & Transport Corps in 1923, in 1935 the title ‘Royal’ was conferred by the King-Emperor, hence, it became the Royal Indian Army Service Corps. It constituted of three main branches (1) Supply (2) Animal Transport (3) Mechanical Transport. At the outbreak of the Second World War, the total strength of the Corps was 18,875 which included British officers KCO’s, KCIO’s, Commissary Officers, Civilians, and followers. The MT branch was sub-divided into Field units and Maintenance units. Most of the MT establishment was based at Chaklala. The HQ Maintenance group had seven Workshop Companies, one Motor Transport Convoy, and Four Heavy Repair Workshop with a Central MT Stores Depot, Vehicle Reserve Depot, and an Experimental Section. Chaklala thus belonged to the RIASC along with the Training Centre and the Officers School. The Central Officers Mess was said to be the finest Officers Mess in the country and the only one to possess an Octave String Band which seated in a built-in beautifully carved Corps-crested, teakwood Band Box played during dinner on Mess night and other formal occasions. The increase in the number of officers’ due to the recently enhanced enrolment meant that neither the Officer’s Mess nor the School had the capacity to house or the classroom space and facilities to cope with the additional officers. We, therefore, had to live under canvas. An improvised Officer’s Mess was established, and a number of buildings were taken over by the School. Rattan Singh, a former Cavalry officer, and my coursemate from IMA decided to share an EPIP tent with me. This had an attached 180-pound bath tent, which if slightly detached could be used as a lavatory. We had our camp kit canvas tub, basin, and a bucket placed outside, and also the zinc MES tub that was used for water storage. In spite of the freezing cold and frosty Chaklala winter mornings, we found an early cold bath, sitting in our bathtubs, with our servants pouring icy cold water over us very energising and bracing. A number of our brother officers thought us quite mad, but some soon followed our routine until it developed it into something resembling a trend. Forty minutes morning PT, a dry towel rub, bath, another towel rub, a wonderful, body tingling sensation, and hunger which could only be satiated by a hearty breakfast. On certain mornings, this would be followed by an hour of exhilarating cross-country riding through the delightful wilderness of Topi Park where one caught colourful glimpses of a variety of riders. On some other days, we’d return tired, dirty and dusty and encrusted with mud, muck, slime, with watery burning eyes, after long bumpy and noisy motorcycle training rides on thoroughly uninteresting, dusty country tracks. Then, of course, we were trained to drive the 3-ton trucks, the constant clutching, double-declutching made for long, exhaustive and weary days. However, the night training convoys were the most boring. These could have been made interesting, even enjoyable with a bit of ingenuity of thought and imagination on the part of the instructional staff, but with the war on we had to rapidly gain experience under the worst possible conditions. Great stress was put on the maintenance and repair of vehicles. A very well-equipped demo-cum workshop provided this facility. We were required to dismantle and reassemble an engine, as well as check on other parts of the vehicles such as the carburettor etc. It was essential for an officer to be able to detect faults, locate, and apply the correct remedy. In addition, we practised day and night convoy drills and disciplines; in fact, there was hardly an area relevant to MT that remained untouched. We were fortunate to have had very able and enthusiastic instructors, but one personality who stood out was Subedar Majors Atta Mohammads, I have written his name as he himself would articulate it with an ‘s’ added on and indeed that is how he spoke most of the time, for example, “I am your instructors in MTs”. He soon became a good friend, got an Indian Commission during the war and retired as a ‘Majors’ and later migrated to Pakistan.
During this period, we had a distinguished visitor, Marshal Chakmak of the Turkish Army. We were told that the Marshal did not speak English but was well-versed in Persian. Accordingly, the instructor in charge asked for an officer who would be able to explain the working of an internal combustion engine to him in that language. To our great surprise, Umar Khan stood up and launched into an explanation of the model engine “Eien piston ast benzene wa hawa mixture dakhilshuad, ek shoal dakhil shawad, piston, bambaak chu, bambaakchubaak mekardan”. The Marshal, a typical old soldier was highly amused, in crisp English he turned to Umar and laughingly patted him on his back, “Your Persian is excellent, I must remember a new word, bambaak, sounds more Turkish than Persian”.
The end of the training series concluded with a number of lectures on Mules. The anatomy and various attributes peculiar to these hardy animals were discussed at length, including the number of times the animals had to be fed and watered as well as its bowel movements, and, of course, the method of loading and unloading and other important points of care and maintenance.
At this juncture with the war mostly confined to Europe and the Middle East great stress was placed on MT, later with the Japanese invasion of Burma, and the Far East, the importance of AT’s increased considerably, and an AT training centre was established at Jullundur. However, of the two AT companies that formed a part of BEF in Europe at the beginning of the war, one was caught and became German POW, this was under the command of Major Anis Ahmed Khan, the other under the command of Major Muhammad Akbar Khan escaped at Dunkirk and managed to safely reach the UK though of course without their animals, arms, and equipment.
Now began the more arduous training series on Supplies covering Food, Forage, Fuel, POL, Ammunition, Butchery, Bakery, Contracts and Contract Law as well as specifications of various items including fresh supplies. The Senior Instructor, an oldish Major introduced the series in a manner that typified the irksome nature that the task entailed. It was indeed somewhat boring for me since I had studied the Training Manual and had participated in practical work during my attachment to the Rawalpindi SSD. However, the subjects taught were so vast and educative that one felt one could never learn enough. Of course, the working of RIASC in the field was of supreme importance and required great attention and devotion to detail. Major Muller the Chief Instructor, an officer of great ability lectured us on the long history of the problems of maintenance and administration of armies down to the existing system and the importance of flexibility so as to never fail in battle under any circumstances. During the training of Supply series, we had to do Bakery and Butchery training and while the former was of interest to many of us and we learned some very useful thing particularly about setting up and working a field bakery, the latter was not liked and in fact, was naturally revolting to officers of Hindu faith. A major issue arose when my friend Rattan Singh, unable to bear watching the beef animals being slaughtered, skinned and cut up felt sick and had to be removed. He was now determined not to attend any more Butchery classes which meant serious trouble entailing disciplinary action. He decided to resign or put in for a transfer to his former Cavalry Regiment. To provide him with solid grounds for such drastic action a council of friends was organised and after much deliberation, it decided that I who was not been very happy with service in the Corps should put in an application for transfer to my former Regiment and if accepted Rattan could follow suit citing my example. In the meantime, Rattan would, on some pretext, be admitted to the Hospital. Our Regimental Medical Officer was a good friend and solved the immediate problem by diagnosing appendicitis. Rattan was instructed to act as if he were suffering from acute pain in that region and was promptly admitted to the British Military Hospital. Accordingly, I wrote out an application to be submitted to the Commandant and handed it over to the Adjutant. The following Friday Rehmat brought an elegant envelope containing, to my great surprise, an invitation to Sunday lunch with Major and Mrs Muller at their home. I thought there will be other people invited as well but found none. The Major’s bungalow was walking distance from our camp. It was one of the very fine married officer’s houses with a large garden and well-kept lawn. I was received very amicably, and a mug of beer was promptly produced. After some formal pleasantries, the Major mentioned the names of a number senior Indian officers serving in the Corps and asked if knew them or knew about them or their families. He then went on to tell me about his brother who was a serving officer in one of the King’s Guard Regiment and that he himself belonged to the Royal Artillery but had of his own accord transferred to the RIASC. He reminded me that the officers were indeed gentlemen and service in the Corps as honourable as in any Regiment in the Army. By now, I fully understood what was going on. In the heat of the moment, and, very foolishly, I had written that I did not consider “service in the Corps fit for gentlemen”. I felt deeply ashamed but was unable to respond or indeed say anything at all. Nothing further was said for a while until Mrs Muller took it upon herself attempt to change the subject. When lunch was over I thanked the couple for their kind hospitality, then turning to the Major I said: “Sir, I get the message, I am sorry for my thoughtless action”.
I spent the following day reflecting on and admiring the nobility of the Major’s character; the understated manner in which he conveyed his response and his subtle guidance. I thought if the Corps has such wonderful senior officers it is indeed worth serving in.
The next morning being Monday, I was called in by the Adjutant to report for an interview with the Commandant (Colonel Jones). I went in prepared for a thoroughly rough time. As I entered the office and saluted, he looked up, “How dare you say that I and all other officers in the Corps are not gentlemen!” I could say nothing but stammer, “I am sorry Sir, it was a terrible mistake. I deeply regret and apologise and will accept any action you deem fit”. “Well, well and what am I to do with this?” (Showing me my application). “May I have it back and permission to tear it up, sir”. He pushed the paper towards me, I took it, tore it and put the crumbled pieces in my pocket. As I saluted with a “Thank you sir”, he got up and extended his hand, “You should consider yourself lucky to get away. But you must promise to never act in such a manner again or seek a transfer from the Corps. Serve it well”. “I promise you that Sir, and further promise that if the opportunities are opened to us I shall head the Corps one day”. “Well done, keep it up”. I saluted again and quickly withdrew from his office as fast as possible with a sigh of relief and filled with a great sense of admiration and respect. These officers had outstanding character and their exemplary behaviour was worth emulating and following.
I returned to the classes, where my anxious friends had to wait until the break to learn my fate. I cursed myself for getting embroiled in such a stupid affair. Meanwhile my friend Rattan, I was told, was entangled in a far more very serious situation from which he was finding it difficult to extradite himself. Based on the RMO’s report and the condition of the patient who had been continuously complaining of pain, the Surgeon had decided to open him up and perform the necessary surgery to ensure he was fit and able to perform his military duties. A number of us went along with our RMO friend to visit him that evening. He was being readied for the operation and in a state of utter panic. We all expressed our deep concern; some even advised him to go ahead and get rid of an organ that was useless in any case and could actually cause real trouble in future. The Jat’s courage, however, was failing and we, as friends had to do something. Our Doctor friend had good advice as usual. First, the patient had to stop complaining of pain, and, second, when he was given the consent form he had to refrain from signing on the plea that he found himself feeling a lot better and that he was currently taking an important training course and leave at this crucial time would adversely affect his career. He would, in addition, have to reassure the doctors that he would not hesitate to undergo the operation whenever it was considered necessary. The RMO promised to assist and talk to the Surgeon. Luckily, the scheme worked, and Rattan Singh was discharged from the Hospital. Happily, the Butchery training was over as well.
During the Course, my friend Naiyar Raza and I had jointly managed to purchase a second-hand car. It was quite useful for local running and for weekend journeys to Lahore and back before the morning parade. Besides Subedar Atta Mohammads was always ready to help when expert technical help was needed. We would visit the Rawalpindi Club whenever possible since it was tolerably lively in the evenings, especially at the bar. On one such evening, we noticed a group of officers dressed somewhat differently from the Indian Army Officers, their attire gaudy and altogether rather flashy. After a while, one of them approached us, his red tabs and shoulder straps displayed his rank as a full Colonel, but he appeared much too young to be one. Our curiosity was soon satisfied as he introduced himself as “Colonel Laxmi Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana of the Royal Nepal Army, second-in-command to General Babar Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana, General Officer Commanding the Royal Nepal Brigade Group Camp at Hasan Abdal, here as allies of the British Emperor of India to help him win the war against the Germans”. He gave us two visiting cards each and promptly took it upon himself to most generously order and sign for all food and drink bills that entire evening. His friendliness was irresistible, he was about the same age as we were and very eager to be friends. By the time we had a few drinks and were ready to leave, we were on thoroughly amicable terms. He asked us if we could invite him to our Officer’s Mess, for squash, and tennis. We promised to do so if he would be good enough to stay on for dinner. The next morning after obtaining permission from Mess President we sent a formal invitation. Our new friend came smartly dressed for tennis but was disappointed to learn there were no ladies and soon lost interest in the game. He informed us that he liked the game of tennis only when he could get a lady partner and play mixed doubles. He expressed his desire to go back and return for dinner and had to be told that there would be no ladies at the dinner either. He was happy to meet a few British officer dining in that night but much happier to meet the many Anglo-Indian officers who were attending the Course. He certainly enjoyed the continuous flow of our excellent quality Corps whisky and the company of the officers and generously extended invitations all of them and their families to visit him wherever he may happen to be. After dinner, we had to tell our friend Pandey to explain to the Colonel that due to our morning duties the Mess closed early, and everyone has to leave. As we parted company he made us promise to visit him at his Hasan Abdal Camp as soon as possible. He departed fairly tight but undoubtedly had a good capacity to hold his drink.
A short time later, I had a note from my friend Chatterjee informing me that he was at the Artillery School, Kakul, moreover, he was now a married man. Could I come up for a visit? Chatterjee belonged to a high-class Bengali family and his wife was a granddaughter of Baron, Lord Sinha of Raipur. I told Nayyar I needed the car for a day to go to Kakul, he asked to join me as did Pandey and Osmani. We decided that instead of going straight to Kakul we would stop over at Hasan Abdal to meet Colonel Laxmi and fulfil our promise and then continue on to Kakul. The Nepalese Army camp was a collection of about half a dozen EPIP tents enclosed by kanats with a gate and a guard. We were apparently at a Commanding General’s camp. When we enquired about Colonel Laxmi the guard commander asked us to wait, he ran in and re-emerged with an officer, a Captain, ADC to the Commanding General. We told him that we were friends Colonel Laxmi and had come to visit him. The ADC looked somewhat puzzled and again we were asked to wait for a few minutes while he dashed in. He soon returned with the information that the Commanding General wished to meet us. We followed him in and were ushered into the presence of the General, a well-built, imposing and pleasant gentleman. He shook hands in a very genial and kind manner and invited us to sit down. The tent was sumptuously furnished, and a line of well-liveried servants stood waiting to serve our drinks. Wines, spirits, beer were all offered, and indeed the choice of food and drinks was considerable. The General turned around to us, “I am told you all are Laxmi’s friends. He has been placed under arrest for disorderly behaviour”. We looked at each other, utterly stunned and confused. I whispered to Pandey to ask the General if he would permit us to meet him. The General beckoned the ADC who had met us initially and said something to him in Nepalese and then to us, “Yes you can go and see him, but you will have lunch here before you leave”. We followed the ADC and found the Colonel seated comfortably in his well-furnished tent with a glass of beer in hand He jumped up eagerly like a schoolboy on seeing us and enthusiastically welcomed us. The ADC said something in Nepalese, saluted and left. While drinks were being served we asked the reason for his being under a ‘cloud’. Laughingly he told us, “My uncle the General had gone to Bombay leaving me as officiating Commander of the contingent, I thought it to be a good idea to take things easy. So, I would get up late in the mornings, excused myself from work and also let troops relax. The General, unfortunately, cut his visit short and returned without warning. He was very angry and placed me under arrest. I may lose my rank and be sent away”. We were at a loss and did not know how to respond. Soon the ADC arrived to take us back to lunch. The General had also given permission for Laxmi to accompany us. Lunch was excellent Indian food served in the usual style in silver trays and bowls. Pandey, finding the General in an affable mood, ventured to request the General, on our behalf, to pardon Laxmi. This request was graciously granted much to our relief.
We were now ready to leave on and asked Pandey to thank the General for his kindness, the honour of not only receiving us but also extending us such excellent hospitality. Laxmi had by now come to know the object of our journey was also desirous of joining us and solicited Pandey’s assistance in procuring the General’s permission. But when we reached Abbottabad Club I realised it would be rather unfair to impose a group of strangers on the newly married couple, so Naiyar and I sneaked away to Kakul to meet Chatterjee and his very charming wife and had tea with them. We returned to the Abbottabad Club to find a crestfallen Colonel, upset at having missed the opportunity to meet a charming lady. Pandey and Osmani of course understood and took our escapade in good form. It was quite dark as we made our way back and Nayyar, who was driving, took a wrong turn that unfortunately turned out to be a very steep downhill track. He tried changing gears and out came the handle! With the car in neutral and a great deal of skill and presence of mind, he managed to keep the car under control and finally to come to a stop. It took a lot of effort to get it back on the road and continue driving slowly and carefully. We dropped off a slightly tipsy but happy Laxmi at his camp and were back to our own in good time. Our glimpse of the Nepal Army had shown us the enormous difference between the Nepalese and the British Indian military in terms of order, discipline and general turnout, particularly when one compared them to the British-trained Nepalese Gurkhas in the Indian Army. The Ghurkhas were superb soldiers, matchless both on parade as well as in battle.
Colonel Laxmi came to see us before we all dispersed and made us promise to visit him in Nepal whenever possible. Despite my great wish and desire to do so, the promise remained unfulfilled. After the war conditions in India prevented such a visit, then came the upheaval and turmoil of the pre-independence days. After Independence, Nepal too acquired the status of an international state and Laxmi was appointed as the first Nepalese Ambassador to India. Tragically, he died in New Delhi, electrocuted in his bathtub. I really felt sad and sorry at the loss of a genuine friend and a very fine gentleman.
The Training Course was coming to an end. I had enjoyed my stay at Chaklala and made, many friends. Amongst them was Ehsan Ali Malik, a native of Rawalpindi, his father a Khan Bahadur, and a member of the Muslim elite possessed large properties and had considerable influence in the area. He had established a small town for his family off Murree Road called Malikababad. Ehsan was the eldest son and had been gifted a spacious modern house by his father where we had some memorable lunch parties. Nayyar enjoyed horseracing and he and I often attended the meets at the Rawalpindi racecourse as guests of Ehsan. Here we met many of the local gentry and their families including Rais Sardar Sohan Singh whose family owned much of ‘Pindi and were highly refined and cultivated people.
By the third week of February, the Course ended, and we got our posting orders. I was very happy indeed to be posted to 27th Animal Transport Company at Abbottabad and duly reported to that unit on 18th February 1941. The officers who were posted to Singapore were much envied as Singapore was considered to be one of the safest most desirable places to be with no possibility of war anywhere near it. The war nearer home too was not going so badly despite the enormous disparity between the main Imperial British Forces and the impressive Italian army, which was vastly superior in both men and material. Under General Wavell, the British had been inflicting defeat after defeat on the enemies reducing them virtually to a state of annihilation.
The performance of the RIASC during these operations was aptly described, “The RIASC have a job which does not bring them into the limelight”. My life henceforth was to follow that pattern.
 A cord worn as a symbol of a military citation