Amongst the many friends of my father who frequented our dining table was a personality who I as a young boy considered absolutely charming, warm and “all heart”. Lieutenant General Bahadur Sher was one of the outstanding general officers of the Pakistan Army who retired in 1972, just after Bhutto came to power, and passed away in 1983. He was admired by many, loved by those who really knew him and feared by officers who did not come up to his standard. He was of broad build with an equally broad face and an even bigger heart. He was generous to a fault and under his grim exterior beat a heart of pure gold. From top to toe he was a simple uncomplicated soldier and his world view was through a military prism.
Bahadur Sher had an enviable career. Within eight years of being commissioned he commanded the 7th Frontier Force Regiment (55th Coke’s Rifle) in 1950 under my father who was commanding the Kohat Brigade. He subsequently took the battalion to Azad Kashmir during the 1951 flap. He was selected to attend the Staff Course at Camberley and posted as Grade-1 Staff Officer of a division under Major General Habibullah. He subsequently commanded a brigade, the Infantry School at Quetta and the Frontier Corps at Peshawar. As a general officer he commanded an Infantry Division after the 1965 War, went back to UK to attend the Imperial Defence Course and his final appointment was as a lieutenant general in commanded of 4 Corps at Lahore during the 1971 War. In spite of holding a large frontage with only two divisions, the corps captured the Hussainiwala District in India, including the Fort of Qaisar-e-Hind. However his finest hour was at the age of 21 years leading his company against the Germans across the River Moro in the winter of 1943-44 where he earned a Military Cross.
The weather was so cold that Indian soldiers waiting to go into the attack walked around in small groups, stamping their feet to keep warm. Bahadur Sher’s company was leading the battalion’s attack to clear a village on the main approach to a crossroad east of Tollo. The position was held by German troops from their crack parachute division with four machineguns and two 75mm anti-tank guns
Bahadur Sher was born in February 1922 in the small village of Jhanda (meaning flag) near Topi in the district of Mardan. It was a one family village founded by his grandfather, an Uthman Yusufzai. His father was Subedar Major Khanezaman Khan, who had fought in France during the First World War with the 4th Battalion, 12th Frontier Force Rifles. Having seen the progress in Europe, his father was determined to send his sons abroad. Consequently, he financed Sher Khan (an elder step-brother of Bahadur Sher) to be commissioned from Sandhurst. It involved substantial expenditure. While cadets from India went through an elaborate process for selection, ultimately the family had to pay half the cost of obtaining a commission from the Royal Military College at Sandhurst.
On his return to India, Sher Khan was posted to the 6th Royal Battalion (Scinde), 13th Frontier Force Rifles, which was one of the few Indianised units where British and Indian officers served together. It was based at Poona and when his father passed away, he got Bahadur Sher who was eleven years his younger, to live with him. Educated boys from the Frontier Province mostly went to the Islamia College in Peshawar for their higher education but Sher Khan (probably motivated by what their father had done for him), decided to have Bahadur Sher educated at a public school. He was therefore admitted into Lawrence College at Ghora Gali, Murree. It is no wonder that Bahadur Sher worshipped his elder brother who also had an illustrious career. Sher Khan earned a MC during the early stages of the Second World War but was sadly killed along with Major General Iftikhar in an air crash of the Orient Airlines near Karachi in 1949.
The Lawrence College Alumni Newsletter records:
“He (Bahadur Sher) was an easy- going lad with a great sense of humour which endeared him to everyone. He was a fine athlete and sportsman and in his final year he was appointed a Prefect.”
It was at the college that he picked up the unique nickname of “One spud two gravy.”
I cannot resist diverting from my main narrative to give an example of his sense of humour which remained with him through his service. The episode is taken from the Digest of Service of the 7th Frontier Force Regiment while he was commanding it in Kohat in 1950. Major Mohiyud Din was commanding a squadron of the Guides Cavalry in an exercise with 7 FF. While driving a jeep he hit a fox, broke its leg and dropped it off at the officer’s mess of the Coke’s Rifles with a note asking the battalion to look after it and send it back when it was well enough. Sadly, the fox died the same night. The next morning the adjutant, quartermaster and a few other officers took the fox on a stretcher in a proper funeral procession to the CO, who was sitting amongst a big crowd watching a Kabbadi match. The fox was placed before him with a letter to be signed by the CO, and along with the fox, sent in a jeep to Mohiyud Din. The letter read as follows:
Herewith returned the dead fox as requested by you. It was a prince amongst Foxes. His last moments were very touching. It showed supreme agility to overpower one of our chicks, but all in vain. It breathed its last, in the early hours of the morning, when the full moon was about to decline-towards the WEST. It died like a HERO with a smile- but died contented in having “done its duty”.
Sd/ xx Lt Col.
(Bahadur Sher Khan MC)
By the time Bahadur Sher graduated from Ghora Gali, the world had been plunged into the Second World War. Bahadur Sher was one of over four hundred Gallians who answered the call to fight for King and Country. Having obtained an emergency commission (his army number was EC 5880) from the Indian Military Academy at Dera Dun in December 1941, he followed in the footsteps of his brother and joined the 6/13th. It was one of the most reputed battalions of British Indian Army, raised in 1843 as the Scinde Camel Corps and in 1856 was incorporated into the Punjab Irregular Force. It was designated as the 59th Scinde Rifles, Frontier Force in 1904 and for its gallant conduct during the First World War, it was made a “Royal” battalion in 1921. Following the reforms of the British Indian Army in 1922, it was re-designated as the 6th Royal Battalion (Scinde), 13th Frontier Force Rifles. Its motto was ‘Ready Aye Ready’ and its nickname was ‘Garbar Unath’ (the Troublesome Fifty-nine). In 1947, it was allocated to the Pakistan Army, where it continues to exist as the 1st Battalion, the Frontier Force Regiment.
During the Italian Campaign, the 8th British Army had three Indian divisions the 4th, 8th and 10th. The story of these three great Indian divisions is well recorded in a book that I first saw in my father’s library when I was eight years old. Many years later read of the early battles of the Italian Campaign – the crossing of the rivers of Sangro, Moro and Foro. These rivers flowed down from the watershed of the mountain spine running through the centre of Italy. They had deep valleys with steep banks and sharp ridges in between providing strong defensive positions for the Germans.
The assault on the Moro was launched in the beginning of a very cold month of December in 1943 by the 5th British Corps of four divisions: Canadian, New Zealand, British and the 8th Indian Division. Captain Bahadur Sher was commanding a company of 6/13th Frontier Force which was under command 19th Brigade of the 8th Indian Division. The division was commanded by the famous Major General Dudley Russell ‘Pasha’. In 1936 Dudley Russell qualified as a higher standard interpreter in Pashto which resulted in his widely-used nickname of ‘The Pasha’. Like many British officers who had earlier served in the deserts of North Africa, he dressed to please himself; only in the coldest weather was his shorts, grey shirt and chaplles (sandals from the NW Frontier Province), replaced by a battle dress. He had earned a MC in Egypt in 1919 and a DSO for his leadership of an Indian brigade in the withdrawal to El Alamein. More pertinent was the fact that Russell Pasha had been the commanding officer of 6/13th Frontier Force during the campaign in Eretria in 1940 where Bahadur Sher’s brother, Sher Khan had earned a MC. Bahadur Sher had a lot to live up to.
The Lawrence College Alumni Magazine records that: “At College he (Bahadur Sher) showed qualities of leadership and his teachers were of the opinion that he would go a long way; and he did.”
As a young company commander with just two years of service, his leadership qualities would be put to an early test in the battle across the River Moro and he would come through with flying colours. In the assault on the river, 8th Indian Division was initially in reserve to be employed in the breakout from the bridgehead but as the fighting intensified and the Germans resisted strongly with frequent counter-attacks, the division was drawn into battle.
Finally, the division managed to make headway and to exploit this advantage, Russell Pasha “brought up his reserves from 19th Brigade and threw them into the fray.6/13 Frontier Force Rifles (Bahadur Sher’s battalion), with the 50th Royal Tank Regiment and Mahratta anti-tank gunners in close support pushed across the lateral highway and commenced to work towards Tollo, two and a half miles in the north-west”.
The weather was so cold that Indian soldiers waiting to go into the attack walked around in small groups stamping their feet to keep warm. Bahadur Sher’s company was leading the battalion attack to clear a village on the main approach to a crossroad east of Tollo. The position was held by German troops from the crack parachute division with four machineguns and two 75mm anti-tanks guns.
His citation states: “On this occasion this officer’s leadership and gallantry carried his company, in spite of heavy casualties, through onto the objectives.”
The division was firmly embedded into the German defences and now consolidated its gains and built up for the next assault. During this period the Bahadur Sher’s company was heavily shelled and attacked but in spite of heavy losses held onto its position which was vital to the success of the coming assault. The citation sums up that,
“To a company somewhat shaken by days and nights of severe fighting and heavy enemy shelling and many casualties, this officers outstanding example of fearlessness and leadership were an inspiration.”
Russell Pasha would have been very proud to countersign a citation of an officer from his own battalion which was further recommended by General Oliver Leese, commanding the Eighth Army and finally awarded by General Alexander (later field marshal) who was commanding the Fifteenth Army Group. It is interesting to observe the efficiency of the process of recommendation / approval of awards by various HQs in the chain of command as indicated on top right of the citation. In this case the citation for an immediate award was received by the brigade HQ on 11th January and forwarded by the HQ Eighth Army in less than a month on 5th February 1944.
In 1899, a civil servant P.D. Bonarjee wrote A Handbook of the Fighting Races of India, in which he stated that the Yusufzais made capital soldiers. Bahadur Sher lived up to the reputation of the Yusufzais. But as the college Alumni Magazine states: “Being a Pathan for whom Palau, Chicken Tikka, Lamb roasts and Naan ‘Kawab’ were the order of the day, his nickname came from his distaste of Ghora Gali food. He would take one look at the ‘jhits’ which passed for meat and say, “I’ll have one spud and two spoons of gravy.”
Postscript: 6/13th FF continued to fight in Italy with distinction till the end of the war but I have not been able to confirm whether Bahadur Sher remained with the battalion through the campaign. While Bahadur Sher’s finest hour was east of the village of Tollo across the River Moro, the battalions finest was probably when No. 26534, Sepoy Ali Haider from the Bangash Tribe of Kohat, was awarded the Victoria Cross during a daylight crossing of the River Senio on 9 April, 1945.
Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Captain Aftab Ahmed Khan, the son of Brigadier Sher Khan and nephew of Bahadur Sher for sharing with me so much information on the general and his family background. I am also grateful to Brigadier Zahid Zaman, who is from the same family, for allowing me to reproduce pictures from his albums and providing me some excellent information. I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Brigadier Shehryar Munir, 7 FF for providing me information from the battalion’s records and of my son Ameer Hamid, for obtaining the citation of Bahadur Sher from the National Achieves in UK.