Part 1 – Gallantry On the Irrawaddy
At independence, the Pakistan Armed Forces had a very small corps of officers and within five years, it suffered two setbacks that denuded its senior ranks. The first was the crash of a commercial flight near Karachi in 1949 in which a major general and brigadier were killed. The second was an event which history remembers as the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case in which two major generals, an air commodore, two brigadiers, a lieutenant colonel and some other officers as well as members of the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) were sentenced for conspiring to overthrow the civilian government.
My father Shahid Hamid knew well both the major generals involved in the case. Akbar Khan had been his contemporary in Sandhurst in the early 1930s and Nazir Ahmed had been his GOC when my father commanded 101 Brigade six months after Akbar. In my father’s archives is an Annual Confidential Report in which Nazir graded him outstanding, and a photograph autographed by Nazir with the caption, ‘With love to Tahirah and Shahid.’
Many years later, I bought a book on the case whose author Hasan Zaheer had been a civil servant. The book is very well researched and for the first time I became aware that many of those involved were no run-of-the-mill officers. More research revealed that during the Second World War their gallantry / services had been recognized with a DSO, two MBEs and three Military Crosses. The DSO was awarded to Akbar Khan and during the entire First and Second World War, only 20 or so Indians were granted this honour.
Akbar Khan, was from the Pareed Khel branch of the Momadzai tribe of Utmanzai. He was one of the few from this village who joined the army and was one of the last Indian officers to pass out from Sandhurst in 1933. He was given the Indian Army (IA) Number 280 and was commissioned into the 6/13th Frontier Force Rifles.
In 1939 he was posted to 7/13th which was a war raising and after doing the short staff course served as staff captain in the Kohat Brigade. He was then posted to 14/13th, yet another war raising that was deployed in Sri Lanka to guard against a possible Japanese landing. The unit was under command 100 Infantry Brigade commanded by Brigadier Cuthbert (Roddy) Rodham, an outstanding officer who had earned an MC during the Mahsud Campaign of 1921 and would subsequently earn a DSO during the battle of Imphal – Kohima and a Bar to the DSO during the crossing of the Irrawaddy. 14/13th would perform exceptionally well during this entire period particularly during the bridgehead operations where Jemadar Prakash Singh was awarded a posthumous VC and Major Akbar Khan commanding the B Company of Sikhs was awarded a DSO.
Akbar Khan was one of the few from this village who joined the army and was one of the last Indian officers to pass out from Sandhurst in 1933
The bridgehead of 20 Indian Division spearheaded by Rodham’s 100 Brigade aimed to draw off Japanese forces from the defence of Mandalay and from the decisive blow by 17 Division across the Irrawaddy towards the logistic base of Meiktila. The crossing on the night of 12/13 February was made tricky by high winds, shifting sand banks and strong currents that proved troublesome for the heavily laden and underpowered boats. The river was nearly a mile wide and several boats grounded on the sandbanks at night. Fortunately, there was no opposition and a well-directed airstrike the previous morning on the Japanese artillery had forced it to relocate and it was not yet able to engage. B Company was one of the first two companies of 14/13th to cross over but both were held up short of their objective. Since the remaining battalion with its HQ had not yet crossed, Akbar promptly took command of the two companies, coordinated a plan of attack on Lingadipa, arranged the artillery support and captured the objective. The two companies then harbored in the open till dawn and under his inspiring leadership, repelled a number of Japanese counterattacks.
Two nights later the battalion faced its toughest test in the crossing of the Irrawaddy. After extensive patrolling south of Kanlan Ywathit, Akbar’s company along with C Company had occupied defenses west of the village and till midnight repelled a number of attacks. The fiercest attack came at 2.30 am with an assault by a Japanese battalion which after three hours of hard fighting managed to penetrate the perimeter and engage the defenders in hand-to-hand fighting.
The statement by Akbar’s Artillery Forward Observation Officer on Akbar’s performance during this difficult night is summed up in his citation as follows, “He was always in the right place personally directing fire and the effect of his presence both on his own men and my British Signalers had to be seen to be believed. It was most heartening when things were hot to be under the immediate command of a man of his ability who was to impervious to enemy fire”. The recommendation for the DSO were endorsed by the GOC 20 Indian Division, Major General Douglas Gracey. It is ironic that six years later, when Gracey was C-in-C of the Pakistan Army, he ordered the arrest of Akbar Khan and others in the army who were involved in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy.
Back to the battle on the night of 16/17 February 1945. Alongside B Company, C Company faced the main brunt of the Japanese assault and too suffered heavy casualties. With his platoon commander killed, Jemadar Prakash Singh assumed command and fought valiantly till he was injured four times and died. He was awarded a VC. When the situation became desperate, Akbar carefully withdrew the remnants of his company and along with the other fell back to the security of the depth companies. The withdrawal was carried out so skillfully that the Japanese were caught unaware and did not follow up. It was a bad mistake because half an hour later they received the full brunt of the corps artillery – all of 200 guns. The effect was devastating and the Japanese streamed back.
14/13th had built such an outstanding reputation in Burma that General Gracey tried his best but was unable to stop its disbandment after the war. However, the battalion could seek solace in the fact that 461 of its all ranks were absorbed in the reconstruction of the 1st Battalion, the Coke’s which had become PWs in Malaya. This was quite appropriate as the battalion had modeled itself on the 1st Battalion and had unofficially dubbed themselves as the 2nd Coke’s Rifle. By now Akbar had left the battalion to first serve in the Inter-Services Selection Board and in 1947 he was an instructor at the prestigious Indian Military Academy. At Independence he was posted to the Weapons Branch in GHQ Rawalpindi and promoted to colonel. Within three years he would be a major general and in the eye of a storm.
After those who were involved in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case were tried and sentenced, the Government of Pakistan approached the British Government in 1953 for the forfeiture of their honours and decorations. Apart from the DSO awarded to Akbar Khan, there were two MBEs and nothing less than 4 Military Crosses. Since Pakistan was still a dominion, it was subject to the British regulations on the case and the approval of the Queen had to be accorded. The correspondence on this surfaced when the records of the UK government were unclassified and revealed that in 1973, a request was made to the British Embassy by Major General Akbar Khan (Retired) for his DSO medal. Akbar was one of the founder members of the Pakistan’s People Party and the Special Advisor on National Security to the Bhutto regime. According to the embassy, the general was immensely proud of the decoration and used the initials whenever he could. The British Embassy was of the opinion that Akbar was “[…] of very great influence all round in the country. Frankly, it would be very much to our advantage both politically and militarily if we could help him over the matter of the DSO badge.”
The correspondence also stated that the DSO was sent to him in 1947 but it went astray and a fresh badge sent to the Pakistan High Commission in London in October 1950 for delivery to Akbar Khan was confiscated by the Government because of his involvement in the conspiracy. For the same reason the award was canceled on the recommendations of the Pakistan Government and the relevant notice was published in the Pakistan Gazette of March 1956. The British Government decided to restore the award to Akbar Khan and it seemed in justice to also restore the awards of the six others. However, there is no evidence if a third medal was delivered to him.
A wonderful article as usual sir, makes for a good start of the year.