Fighting to the Muzzle: A Tradition of Valour and Professionalism
There can be no doubt that the lion’s share of the credit for the military victory during the Kargil conflict in the summer of 1999, goes to the infantry battalions of the army for their unparalleled grit and determination and indomitable courage under withering fire, while fighting to re-capture strong defensive positions from Pakistan’s regular soldiers in perhaps the most difficult and easily defensible terrain anywhere in the world. However, it was the concentrated firepower of the guns, mortars and rocket launchers of the Indian artillery that enabled India’s valiant infantry battalions to close in and grapple with the enemy. In short, with 100 guns pulverizing each target, the Gunners paved the way for victory.
In every war that India has fought, the officers, JCOs and other ranks of the Regiment of Artillery have distinguished themselves with their valour and professionalism under trying circumstances and dedication to the national cause well beyond the call of duty. The ethos of the Gunners – reflected so evocatively in the Regiment’s motto “Sarvatra – Izzat-O-Iqbal (Everywhere – with Honour and Glory) – has been very effectively captured in Themes of Glory: Indian Artillery in War ((New Delhi: Vij Books India Pvt Ltd, 2017) by Brig Darshan Khullar, AVSM (Retd).
The author begins with short bio-sketches of six Gunner Generals who were specially selected to be transferred to the ‘General Cadre’, which makes them eligible for commanding infantry brigades, divisions and corps and, if capable as well as lucky, go on to become Commanders-in Chief of army commands and even COAS. Among the six are General PP Kumaramangalam and Lt Gen JFR Jacob, both well known for their achievements during war. He then describes the circumstances under which eight famous Gunners were awarded gallantry awards, including Havildar (later Honorary Captain) Umrao Singh, the lone recipient of the Victoria Cross in the artillery. Umrao Singh was awarded the Victoria Cross for fighting to the muzzle to beat back a ferocious Japanese attack on his gun position in the Kaladan Valley in Burma (Myanmar) during the Second World War. All eight are stirring tales of valour that motivated successive generations of soldiers.
The course of four of the most intensive battles in which the artillery participated and made a decisive contribution to the proceedings, has been recounted in detail by the author. These include the battles of Asal Uttar (1965), Poonch and Basantar River (1971) and the recapture of Tiger Hill and Point 4875 – Gun Hill during the conflict in Kargil (1999). The circumstances under which 24 Honour Titles (the equivalent of Battle Honours that are awarded to infantry battalions and armoured regiments) were awarded to individual units of the Regiment of Artillery, have also been feelingly covered. These Honour Titles range from Ad Teclesan (Eritrea, 1941) to Op Vijay (Kargil, 1999).
In the final section of the book Brig Khullar relates a few vignettes of individual Gunner valour from each of the post-independence conflicts that the Indian army has been engaged in. Some of these delightful stories have perhaps been published for the first time. One recounts the incident when an enterprising gun position officer (GPO) commandeered local bicycles and cycle-rickshaws to move essential stores and ammunition as his battery’s vehicle fleet had not fetched up when orders were given to move to another gun position. Another tells the story of a GPO who got wind of enemy movement on the road ahead while his battery was itself moving. He quickly deployed the guns and engaged the enemy over open sights, causing several casualties before the bewildered enemy column ran away. Yet another relates how a field artillery regiment captured some enemy guns, repaired them and turned them on the enemy as additional firepower.
The primary goal of all artillery firing is to cause damage and destruction of such a high order that the enemy cannot pursue his operations effectively. The ultimate aim of all artillery fire is to break the enemy’s will to fight. The author lucidly brings out an incontrovertible fact: in all the battles in which artillery units have participated over the years, their guns, mortars and rocket launchers played a magnificent role in overcoming the enemy’s resistance. He vividly captures the essence of the deep bonds between the infantry battalions – also armoured regiments – and artillery batteries deployed to provide firepower to them and how they are ever willing to lay down their lives for each other. On many occasions in India’s wars, artillery observation post (OP) officers had taken over the command of infantry companies when the company commander had been martyred or wounded in battle.
Himself a Gunner, accomplished author and a mountaineer of repute – he led the successful expedition to Mount Everest in 1984 – Brig Khullar’s account of the Indian artillery in war is eminently readable and absorbing. A labour of love, it is an excellent addition to the woefully inadequate stock of Indian writing on the subject of war-fighting. Perhaps this book will spur other efforts in this regard.