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4th Battalion: The Sikh Regiment (XXXVI Sikh)

by nishaan@magazine

The first decade

Known for posterity as the Saragarhi Battalion, the 36th Regiment of Sikhs was raised at Jullundur on 23 March 1887— then styled as the XXXVI (Sikh) Regiment of Bengal Infantry — by Lt.Colonel J.Cook, and within ten years, had carved out a place of immortal glory.

Its composition was to be (Jat) Sikhs from Majha, Malwa and the Doaba, a core of 225 all ranks being received from twenty regiments of the Bengal Army and Punjab Frontier Force. The rest of the battalion was recruited locally from the districts of Amritsar, Ferozepore, Gurdaspur, Hoshiarpur, Jullundur, Lahore, Ludhiana, Nabha and Patiala.

The recruitment was carried out with such vigour that by 1 January 1888, the Regiment had been brought to a strength of 912 other ranks, commanded by Colonel J. Cook (formerly of the XIV Sikh), with Major T.G.Thomas (ex 25th Punjab Infantry) as second-in-command and Captain H.R.L.Holmes (ex-XXXXV Rattery’s Sikhs) as Wing Commander. There were seven other British officers, including Surgeon G.H.Fink as the Medical Officer. The first Subedar Major was Sucha Singh.

After training in the vicinity of Jullunder till 1891, it marched to Delhi and after six months garrison duties, moved to Manipur in Eastern India to quell disturbances there. Back to Delhi after earning its first battle honours, the XXXVI Sikh remained there for 3 years till their move to Peshawar in November 1894, and thereafter to Kohat in December 1896. Shortly after, the Regiment was marched to occupy posts on the Samana Ridge in Tirah, the Regimental Headquarters and Right Wing under Lt.Col.J.Haunghton occupying Fort Lockhart and the Left Wing under Captain W.D. Gordon at Parachinar, with detachments at Thal and Sadda.

The gallant defence of Fort Gulistan on the Samana Range and the detached post of Saragarhi, a small mud-brick blockhouse set on the knive-edge of the Samana for the purpose of visual communication between Forts Lockhart and Gulistan, by ninteen men and two cookboys against thousands of Orkazis excited the admiration of the world, an awesome display of bravery in defence of their post against a cruel, fanatical and unrelenting foe.

The Next Century

For the next 17 years, the Regiment was involved in normal barrack routine, then escort duties as part of the Malakand Force and took part in the review held in Rawalpindi by the Prince of Wales. In 1911, they were part of the Coronation Ceremonies of King George V and the Queen Emperor in Delhi.

In May 1914, the XXXVI Sikhs sailed from Bombay to China, to be part of the British Expeditionary Force in the Tsing—Tao operations, earning a unique battle honour together with the South Wales Borderers. A Company also took over guard duties at the British Legation in Peking till April 1915. In February 1916, the Regiment embarked for Basra to take part in the Mesopotamia campaign against the Turkish Army, with severe fighting along the right bank of the Tigris, resulting in heavy casualties but earning great praise and the battle honour “Mesopotamia”. Desperately heavy casualties were incurred during the battle of River Hai in January 1917 (620 in 5 days, or 83 per cent of the total strength, including 8 British officers) and the Regiment was led out of battle by the Subedar Major. Afrer re-organisation, the Regiment joined the North Persian Force with which it remained till the end of the War, ultimately returning to Indian in October 1919.

Between the Wars (1919-1939), the XXXVI Sikh were stationed at various locations, and involved in various operations on the Frontier. Reorganisation of the Indian Army took place in 1922 and the XXXVI became the 4th battalion of the 11th Sikh Regiment, the 14th, 15th, 45th and 47th Sikh becoming the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 5th battalions respectively of the now formalised Sikh Regiment. At the same time, composition of the troops was also changed, with a Punjabi Mussalman (PM) Comp-any incorporated, such class composition remaining so till October 1947 with the partition of India.

On 11 March 1922, new colours were presented by the Prince of Wales at Rawalpindi. The 4/11 went to the Aden Independent Brigade in 1926-28 and in 1930, were part of the Peshawar Brigade, in aid to civil power during the disturbances and subsequent operations in the Kajuri Plain. The PM detachment effectively repulsed attacks by the Afridi tribesman and earned high decorations. The years 1932-39 saw the 4th Sikh at Waziristan, Aurangabad, Nowshera and Landi Kotal before they mounted guard at the Viceroy’s Palace at New Delhi in 1939. On the eve of World War II, the battalion received its first motor transport in the form of trucks and motor cycles which were cheerfully inducted without much instruction.

The 4th Sikh were then moved to Poona to form part of the 7th Infantry Brigade of the 4th Indian Division.

The Second World War provided the Saragarhi battalion a vast ampitheatre for action: the XXXVI Sikh embarked for Egypt in late September1940 where, in the vicinity of the Pyramids, they trained with new Bren-gun carriers and anti-tank guns. They went into action in December, deployed south of Mersa Matrah but were shortly re-deployed by ship to Port Sudan where they became part of the “Gazelle Force” with Skinner’s Horse and Field Regiment (R.A.). Operations against the Italians were launched in January 1941, fighting stiff actions against the well-entrenched and highly defended forts.

The 4th Sikh took part in the decisive battles for Keran which was finally captured after severe fighting which followed massive artillery bombardments. A curious affair was the capture of the “Samana Ridge”, held by Italian Alpine troops, reminding the troops of the same-named feature in the Tirah where the XXXVI Sikh had earned imperishable fame nearly 40 years earlier.

Back to North Africa in May, the battalion went into a defensive role, preparing against the expected German-Italian attack but some months later, took part in an offensive to capture the Sidi and Libyan Omar, the 4th Sikh earning multiple gallantry awards including a Military Cross and Bar to Capt.Mohd. Saddiq and IDSM to Havildar Kishan Singh amongst others.

With furious tank battles raging around Sidi Rezagh and the violent counter attacks of the German 15th and 21’s Panzar Divisions, the 4th Sikh moved up to El Adem, south of Tobruk and then set westwards, covering very rough country towards the key objective of Dema, and its vital airfield. In one of the most incredible and sensational actions of the war, 4th Sikh captured the airfield even as Junker Ju-52 aircraft were landing, “A” Company actually charged against the aircraft with the bayonet and eventually got over 2000 German and Italians in the bag, with a total of 183 aircraft captured or destroyed in the operation. The C.O. got a DSO, the 4th Sikh being honoured for multiple reasons, “providing defence to 1st Field Regiment (R.A.), the capture of Derna aerodrome and

then Derna itself”. Many MCs and IDSMs were awarded ® including those to Sepoys Dalip Singh and Ghazni Khan of the 4th Sikhs.

On Christmas Day, the battalion moved on and reached Benghazi where they occupied the aerodrome at Berca and Benina and the nearby port even before the rest of 7th Indian Infantry Brigade came up. In early January 1942, the Brigade laid out a defensive line south of Benghazi as the Germans although roughly handled, were still a formidable force, their armour reinforced.

In late January 1942, the 4th Sikhs, as part of 7th Indian Brigade, concentrated near Benghazi but with the enemy taking the offensive, were directed to withdraw cross- country fashion through Bir Hascim to El Adem. They were cheered by the anti-aircraft troop shooting down 3 of the 14 Italian aircraft returning south-westwards from a raid.

The battalion was back at Cairo after withdrawal from Benghazi, and an interesting interlude was their establishing relationship with the Royal Navy’s destroyer HMS Sikh at Alexandria harbour.

The 4th Sikh carried out a short training stint in Iraq, returning to Egypt and the desert towards Mersa Matruk as GHQ reserve, and then to El Alamein, preparing defences even as the German Panzer forces began their major advance.

The Battle of El Alamein broke out in full fury and though they were not to know it then, this was one of the key battles of World War Two. Advancing under cover, preceded by heavy artillery bombardment, the Panzers smashed the Allied defence of the South Africans, British, Indians, Greeks, New Zealanders and Free French. The 4th Sikh, too, sustained heavy losses, many were made captive and the scattered battalion ordered back to Cairo for reinforcement before moving to Jaifa for general duties, mountain warfare and training against Parachute troops, seeing 1943 within Lebanon. They went to Northern Syria in April 1944 and in July were moved to Taronto in Italy as part of the 5th Infantry Brigade of the 4th Indian Division, moving forward to the Gothic Line through lofty, mountainous country. Moving very fast, the 4th Sikh fought for and captured the fortified village of Monte Caloro. The battalion were then successful in forcing the German defences about San Marino state, the fighting described as the bitterest since El Alamein and Cassino. The Sikhs got tumultous reception as they moved through Rome and Florence. However, the Germans were still active and fierce fighting continued through the mud, cold and minefields.

In January 1945, the 4th Sikh took over defensive positions on the river Senio carrying out aggressive patrolling with offensive spirit against the crack German 1st Parachute Division, their old adversaries. In April, the overwhelming assault of the Eighth Army broke through the Senio and Santerno defences and the Indian Divisions played a leading part in the pursuit. The German’s surrendered but the 4th Sikh were retained to keep the peace between the Italians and Yugoslavs, staying on in Italy till November 1945, finally returning by ship to Karachi in December 1945 and thence to Nowshera for well-earned leave.

Partition While India gained independence on 15 August 1947, the Punjab was brutually divided, with masses wrenched from their ancestral lands and homes, faced with danger, and a future of uncertainty. The 4th Sikhs were deployed for internal security duties at Sargodha, with detachments at Mianwali and Jhang. Considering the mixed composition of the battalion, and in spite of the tense situation, the regimental spirit and comradeship remained firm through the crisis. The Punjabi Mussalman companies finally parted company and in September, the battalion moved to Eastern Punjab, escorting refugee trains, then deploying at Ferozepur. The last British CO. Lt.Colonel R.A. de Ashe handed over command to Lt.Colonel Kushalpal Singh in December and in lieu of the PM companies, the battalion got Sikh personnel from the 1 / 15, 2/15, 2/16 and 4/16 Punjab Regiments, thence moving to Ambala Cantt. for internal security duties.

In November 1948, the 4th Sikh moved to J&K, first to protect Akhnoor and then to the valley, deploying at Uri as part of 165 Infantry Brigade. In the summer of 1949, they became part of 161 Infantry Brigade till they moved to Alwar in December 1950. Back to the Valley in July 1951, the 4th Sikh vigorously patrolled different parts to prevent infiltration, while a self-contained Company flag-marched to Kargil and Leh then over the Changla Pass to Chushal in Ladakh to establish defences against intruding Kazakhs and Chinese, a remarkable feat of physical endurance.

And so through the fifties, the battalion moving to various locations in the Punjab, J&K, Ranchi and Ramgarh Cantt where they were located when the tension with China exploded into the frontier war of 1962.

Battle of Walong, 1962: Ironically it was on Saragarhi Day, 12 September 1962, that the 4th Sikh were ordered to move to the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), detraining at Jorhat and then being flown in small parties by Otter aircraft to Walong, concentrating by 21 October at Kibithoo on the Chinese border and in depth at Walong and Teju. They occupied positions on the east and west slopes overlooking the Lohit River, even as the Chinese Army launched their offensive across the MacMahon line.

The first encounter between a full battalion of the Chinese and a platoon of B Company 4th Sikhs took place on 24th October, with heavy casualties inflicted on the surprised Chinese, who left over 200 dead left on ground. Repeated Chinese attacks in strength over the next few days were repulsed and in one encounter, young Kewal Singh, charged at the enemy, killed eight with his bayonet before being fatally wounded, (posthumously awarded the MVC).

The Chinese could not effect a breakthrough along the main track, the tenacious and stubborn defences of the 4th Sikh being described by the Chinese as akin to a “Tiger’s Mouth”. After another unsuccessful week, the Chinese shifted to the flanks and the 4th Sikh too adjusted their defences even as both armies brought in major reinforcements. The defences held firm for the next two weeks, with aggressive patrolling and grim firefights in the jungle hills over the Lohit. On the late evening of 15 November, after intense artillery and mortar shelling, the Chinese launched massive attacks. Desperate fighting held the Chinese, “eat the enemy raw, do not give up” with many a “Saragarhi” repeated, but entire platoons were decimated while defending their positions. Cream of the 4th Sikh athletes and sportsman laid down their lives in distant NEFA, but inflicted terrible casualties on the Chinese. By the morning of 16 November, the situation all along the front had became very grave: a full Chinese Division had finally broken the defences of 11th Infantry Brigade and remnents of each company and platoon had to fight their way out even as Walong airstrip came under enemy shelling.

The 4th Sikh had fought tenaciously and continuously for 25 days, inflicting heavy punishment on the Chinese and capturing the only weapons by the Indian Army during the 1962 War. The ratio of casualties can be summed up with Kewal Singh’s feat: “Eight for one, dead”.

The spirit was alive.

December 1962 — September 1965 After the Battle of Walong, the 4th Sikh moved to Lekhapani in Assam. Conducting various long range patrol exercises before moving back to NEFA this time Rupa in the Kameng Division, with numerous long-range patrols upto the MacMahon Line: the emphasis always being to thrash the Chinese the next round around.

The 1965 War: The battalion returned to the Punjab in August 1965, but these was no time to relax, as they got zeroed in with new weapons, training with fervour to meet the new challenges. The 4th Sikh were to be in the thick of battle again, moving to their concentration area on 5 September, going to war the very next day. The battalion captured two Sutlej Ranger posts, moved to Hudiara drain, then made preparations for the assault to capture the key defences on the vital Ichogil canal.

On 10 September, the battalion was given the task of capturing Barki, a stronghold of the enemy. Supported by tanks of the Central India House, the 4th Sikh launched attack against intense enemy fire. Battalion mortars then engaged Barki, furious machine-gun firefights ensued and the Sikhs went into the final assault with the bayonet. The village of Barki was captured, and so ferocious was the attack that the eastern bank of the Icchogil canal was also secured. Thus, 4th Sikh led the Indian Army operations in the Lahore sector, incurring casualties but notching an important tactical victory, in the face of heavy enemy shelling and strafing by fighters.

A day later, a further special task was given to the battalion which was pulled out of Barki and concentrated at Khalra at night. They moved to Valtoha in the early hours of 12 September, advancing on Khem Karan, then under enemy occupation, and took up all-round defence short of the village as it became known that there were Pak, tanks plus infantry in strength in the area. The supporting elements of 4th Mountain Division had not fetched up and with daylight upon them, the battalion were ordered to move into Khem Karan in platoons or even sections. Unfortunately, an enemy brigade, plus an entire armoured regiment were now closing in and a number of officers and men were captured, the rest of the battalion breaking out and becoming mobile reserve for the brigade, re-occupying Barki before the cease fire.

1965-1971: With “Barki” as a battle honour and numerous gallantry awards, the 4th Sikh were back to the fore, this time on the sports field, five men playing for the Regiment which won the All India Hockey Cup, with one player representing India at the Asian Games in 1966. In early 1968, the 4th Sikh moved to Poonch and continued to excel in all sports, winning the Divisional and Command Championship in hockey, boxing, basketball, wrestling, the marathon, even football and swimming not to mention the professional tests including battle physical efficiency, winning the commando, mortar and MMG trophies.

After over 3 years at Poonch, where aggressive patrolling dominated the no-mans land, the 4th Sikh were moved to Ramgarh in June 1971 and shortly to West Bengal for internal security duties. The border with East Pakistan (soon Bangladesh) was getting “live” and the battalion were concentrated in the Boyra area in October 1971.

The War of 1971 : As the year 1971 wore on, the security situation along the West Bengal-East Pakistan border got graver and by September, it was clear that war between India and Pakistan was imminent. Some of the villages along the boundary actually straddled the border and Pak troops and artillery sought to offensively defend the nebulous boundary. In support of the Mukti Bahini, the Indian Army lent its muscle and inevitably, ground reconnaissance began, with teams infiltrating behind enemy lines across rivers and streams. Enemy border posts were isolated and eliminated and on November, 4th Sikhs were given the task of securing Mahapur village. This was done after heavy exchange of small arms and mortar fire and, shortly, PAF Sabres came over and strafed ‘A’ and ‘D’ Company locations. No damage as the troops were well dispersed, camouflaged and dug in. As a result of the deep wedge the battalion had made, the enemy vacated a number of fortified posts and the 4th Sikh, joined by T-55 tanks of 65th Cavalry moved ahead, securing more areas to be greeted joyously by the villagers.

The enemy stronghold of Chaugarcha, on the river Kabadak was highly fortified and held by a Frontier Force battalion, with artillery and air support. Tough fighting continued for a few days and on the 22 November, four PAF Sabres strafed the battalion’s position for about 15 minutes. Sepoy Nirmal Singh of ‘D’ Company continued firing on the aircraft with his LMG and finally scored on one Sabre whose pilot, Fit. Lt. Parvaiz Mehdi Qureshi ejected and was captured by the battalion before being handed over to “higher authority”: (the pilot remained POW and was later repatriated after the Accord. He is presently the Chief of Air Staff, Pakistan Air Force).

IAF Gnats claimed another two Sabres.

Chaugarcha was secured by 4th Sikh in the afternoon of 23 November, its capture being the deepest penetration into East Pakistan till then, and according to observers, led to rapid escalation of war in the East. The GOC remarked that the 4th Sikh were always ahead of everybody else by 24 hours”: the capture of Chaugarcha was the “master stroke”.

After another battalion had failed the task, 4th Sikh were assigned to capture Muhammadpur and Burinda, which was heavily defended by FF and (Pak) Punjab units. By now, full-scale war was on, both in the East and West. With great gallantry and sacrifice, the 4th Sikh captured Burinda which broke the enemy’s back and led to their surrender in Jessore on 7 December 1971. The last battle was now to be fought at Khulna, which had river, marshland and the sea on three sides, and was defended by (Pak) Punjab and FF battalions. All four Companies of the 4th Sikh were launched for accomplishing the tasks in phases, with the entire Divisional artillery in support. All counterattacks were beaten back and an enemy tank destroyed by rockets. With road blocks set up, the Pak. defences soon up, crumbled. The war was shortly over with Pakistan’s Eastern Command surrendering in Dacca.

4th Sikh were given the signal honour of entering Khulna as victors, along with a squadron of tanks: the welcome was tumultous “Joy Bangla”. Three days later the battalion started the move back to Ramgarh, having fought many key battles, capturing vital objectives, earning gallantry awards and showing their mettle as brilliantly in offence as they had in defence.

Since then : After some time guarding POWs and routine activity, the 4th Sikh spent 1974-75 in Misamari and Mizoram for counter-insurgency work, then back to Ranchi during 1976-80, the longest of its peace tenures. To Jaurian in 1980-1983, Ferozepore till 1986 and then Pathankot in preparations for the forthcoming Centenary of the XXXVI Sikh. In the event, preparations came to a sudden halt in January 1987 because of the sudden near-war situation following Exercise Brasstacks and preparations for Operation Trident.

The decade of the nineties has seen the XXXVI Sikhs strenuously involved in various activities and actions with the elan and professionalism that is so characteristic in every officer and jawan of the paltan.

The Centenary Celebrations did take place — in April 1987 — and so the 4th battalion of the Sikh Regiment entered the second century of its existence.

The Spirit of Saragarhi is strong — and forever.

Pushpindar Singh

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