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This photo essay has its origin in a Facebook post first put online two years ago. I reposted it recently to mark the 75th anniversary of VJ Day, and a number of friends contacted me to say that it deserved a more lasting home than the brief transience of a Facebook post.
The 75th anniversary of VJ Day, which marked the surrender of Japan and the end of the Second World War, fell on August 15, 2020. In July 1995, five surviving Gurkha Victoria Cross holders from the Second World War, all of whom had taken part in the war against the Japanese in Burma, arrived in the UK as guests of the UK government, to take part in the 50th anniversary celebrations. Each was permitted to bring a family member as a minder. I was Inspector General of Army Training at the time and occupied a large defence ministry house on Salisbury Plain. As Colonel Commandant of the Brigade of Gurkhas, I had the privilege, with Anne, of hosting the party as our family guests for three nights. The photo above was taken shortly after they had arrived. Seated from the left are Lachhiman Gurung, Gaje Ghale, Ganju Lama, Bhanbhagta Gurung, and Agansingh Rai.
On the first evening, we took them to the small village pub, where they interacted with the locals as if they had been born and brought up in the village. Extracting them from the pub was a major challenge, as was getting them to bed. It was the first of three long nights – and early mornings--as they insisted, as was their custom at home, on rising with the sun. It was mid-summer! On the final evening, we hosted a reception for 100 people who had contributed generously to the Gurkha Welfare Trust for the privilege of meeting and chatting with the VC veterans after a Beating Retreat on the tennis court by the pipes and drums of the recently formed 3rd Battalion, The Royal Gurkha Rifles (formerly 10th Gurkha Rifles). Friends who attended still talk about it. On the second evening, we had a dinner for them at home, as this photo shows.
From the left, Gaje, Bhanbhagta, Lachhiman, Agansingh, and two of their helpers.
There was singing and dancing after dinner – and an opportunity for me to show off my very limited repertoire!
Getting into it! It was another long evening!
Lacchiman Gurung (on the left) was born on 30 Dec 1917 in the village of Dakhani, in Tanahun District, Nepal. He joined the army in December 1940, even though at 4ft 11in, he was below the minimum height for enlistment. As a Rifleman in the 4th Battalion, 8th Gurkha Rifles, in Burma, on 14/15 May 1945, he was manning the most forward post of his platoon which bore the brunt of an attack by at least 200 of the Japanese enemy. Twice he hurled back grenades which had fallen on his trench, but the third exploded in his right hand, blowing off his fingers, shattering his arm, and severely wounding him in the face, body, and right leg. His two comrades were also badly wounded, but he loaded and fired his rifle with his left hand for four hours, calmly waiting for each attack, which he met with fire at point-blank range. To quote from his citation: “Of the 87 enemy dead counted in the immediate vicinity of the Company locality, 31 lay in front of this Rifleman's section, the key to the whole position.” Lachhiman retired from the army in 1947 and returned to Nepal. He died on 12 Dec 2010.
Gaje Ghale was born on 1 August 1918 in Barpak Village in Gorkha District, Nepal. He enlisted in the army as a boy soldier in 1934. On 25 May 1943, he was a 22-year-old Havildar (Sergeant) and a platoon commander in the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Royal Gurkha Rifles, when his battalion attacked a strong enemy position in the Chin Hills in Burma. Gaje’s platoon was in the van. While they were preparing to attack, the van came under heavy mortar fire, but he rallied his men and led them forward. They soon faced withering defensive fire, and Gaje was wounded in the arm, chest, and leg by a Japanese grenade. Paying no heed either to his wounds or the intensity of Japanese fire, he closed with the enemy and a bitter hand-to-hand fighting ensued, which is best described in the words of the citation for his VC: “Havildar Gaji Ghale dominated the fight by his outstanding example, dauntless courage and superb leadership. Hurling hand grenades and covered in blood from his own neglected wounds, he led assault after assault encouraging his men by shouting the Gurkha battle-cry 'Ayo Gurkhali' (‘The Gurkhas are upon you'). Spurred on by the irresistible will of their leader to win, the platoon stormed and carried the hill by a magnificent effort and inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese.”
Together with his battalion, Gaje transferred to the Indian Army in 1947. After a distinguished further career, in which he reached the rank of Subedar Major, he was granted the rank of Honorary Captain on retirement. In his retirement, he lived in Almora, Uttar Pradesh. He died on 28 March 2000.
From the left, Ganju, Gaje, and Agansingh
Ganju Lama was born on 22 July 1924 in Sangmo in southern Sikkim, 6km away from the sub-district headquarters of Ravong. His name was Gyamtso Shangderpa, but a clerk in the recruiting office wrote it down as Ganju, and the name stuck. On 12 June 1944, Ganju was 19 years old, and a rifleman in the 1st Battalion, 7th Gurkha Rifles, when his battalion faced an exceptionally strong Japanese attack. After ferocious hand-to-hand fighting, and supported by three medium tanks, the enemy broke through the line in one place, pinning opposing British troops to the ground with intense fire. Ganju’s company was ordered to counter-attack and restore the situation. Shortly after passing the start line, the company came under heavy enemy medium machine-gun and tank machine-gun fire at point-blank range, which covered all lines of approach. Ganju, the No 1 of the PIAT (Projector Infantry Anti-Tank), crawled forward through thick mud, bleeding profusely, and engaged the tanks single-handedly. In spite of a broken left wrist and two other wounds--one in his right hand and one in his leg--caused by the withering cross-fire concentrated on him, he succeeded in bringing his gun into action within 30 yards of the enemy tanks. He knocked out the first one, and then another, the third tank being destroyed by an anti-tank gun. Despite his serious wounds, he then moved forward and engaged with grenades the tank crews who were now attempting to escape. Not until he had killed or wounded them all, thus enabling his company to push forward, did he allow himself to be taken back to the Regimental Aid Post to have his wounds dressed.
After India's independence in 1947, Ganju joined the 11th Gorkha Rifles, a regiment comprising men of the 7th and 10th Gurkha Rifles who had elected to continue their service with the Indian Army. Later promoted to Subedar Major, he was made an Honorary Captain in 1968, while still serving, and on his retirement to Sikkim in 1972, he was appointed ADC to the Indian president for life. He died on 1 July 2000. As this letter shows, Ganju was quickly acclaimed as a Sikkimese national hero. It is addressed to the British Political Officer in Sikkim, AJ Hopkinson, and is issued by the Chogul, Tashi Namgyal, the 14th ruler of the Namgyal dynasty of Sikkim.
Ganju was further honoured in 1966 by the 15th and last Chogul, Palden Thondup Namgyal.
We visited Sikkim in 2006. This photo shows the Main Street in Ravong, a town in southern Sikkim, not far from Ganju’s birthplace.
It was no surprise to find this street name nearby!
Sikkim became part of India in 1975, but as this screenshot from “SikkimNOW” shows, Ganju continues to be honoured in Sikkim to this day.
Ganju, Bhanbhagta, and Agansingh
I first met Bhanbhagta Gurung (centre) when trekking near his village of Phalpu, north of Gorkha, in 1992. When we met again in the UK in 1995, I saw immediately that he was a totally different man because of very severe head injuries which he suffered when he had a fall from a roof two years previously. The next photos, from 1992, better capture the strong and forceful character of the man which was amply demonstrated in the extraordinary actions for which he was awarded the VC.
Sitting beside Bhanbhagta is Captain Gambahadur Budhaja, who was my trekking companion. Our guide was a corporal from the local area who was home on leave. We camped above Bhanbhagta’s village, though I had no idea of that when we’d arrived in the place. After we finished our evening meal, obviously carefully pre-arranged, Bhanbhagta appeared out of the gloom. A long night was soon to begin!
Bhanbhagta was born in Phalpu in September 1921. On 5 March 1945, as a Rifleman in the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Gurkha Rifles, his company attacked a Japanese defensive position but were pinned down by heavy fire. Without waiting for orders, Bhanbhagta dashed out to attack the first enemy fox-hole. Throwing two grenades, he killed the two occupants and without any hesitation rushed on to the next enemy fox-hole and killed the Japanese in it, with his bayonet. He cleared two further fox-holes with his bayonet and grenades. "During his single-handed attacks on these four enemy fox-holes, Bhanbhagta was subjected to almost continuous and point-blank light machine-gun fire from a bunker on the North tip of the objective. Again, he went forward alone in the face of heavy enemy fire to knock out this position. He doubled forward and leapt onto the roof of the bunker from where, his hand grenades being finished, he flung two No. 77 smoke grenades into the bunker slit. He killed two Japanese soldiers who ran out of the bunker, with his kukri, and then advanced into the cramped bunker and killed the remaining Japanese soldier. He retired from the army in 1947 and returned to his village. He died on 1 Mar 2008.
Cheerful and happy! All waiting for the action to start. As the following photos indicate, a long evening ensued. We were on a trek which was more of a forced march, and I wanted to retire to my tent early, but the sheer force of Bhanbhagta’s personality kept me going to the end to properly and generously reward the performers!
It started quietly with some solo performers.
A young and graceful mover.
Soon it was time for everyone to get into the action, including me and my porters, but Bhanbhagta was the main man. He was unstoppable, though periodically he would stop proceedings to make short speeches, which were far too complimentary to the visitors, to repeat!
What a man!
Our campsite being packed up early the next morning. We had a long day ahead, and despite the sore heads, were anxious to get moving. Not much time to enjoy the view of the himal!
This is a view of Bhanbhagta’s village taken the morning after the night before! The path down to the village can be seen on the left. When we parted at a very late hour, the great man assured me that he would come up to the campsite to say goodbye, no matter how early we left! A few villagers did arrive to see us off, but Bhanbhagta, very sensibly, was having a much deserved lie-in.
Striding out to another camping spot, where we had even less sleep because of a prolonged attack by spirits, but that’s another story!
Hard to beat being in the hills on a fine spring morning!
Agansingh (on the right) was born on 24 April 1920 in the village of Amsara, in Okhaldhunga District, just above Rumjatar. On 26 June 1944, he was a 24-year-old Naik (Corporal) in charge of a section of 10 men in the 2nd Battalion, 5th Royal Gurkha Rifles, when he led his section in an attack on one of two posts which had been taken by the enemy and were threatening the British forces' communications near the town of Bishenpur in the state of Manipur. Under withering fire, Agansingh and his section charged a machine-gun. He himself killed three of the crew. When the first position had been taken, he then led a dash on a machine-gun firing from the jungle, where he killed three of the crew, his men accounting for the rest. He subsequently tackled an isolated bunker, single-handed, killing all four occupants. The enemy were now so demoralised that they fled, and the second post was recaptured. He transferred with his battalion to the Indian Army in 1947 and later achieved the rank of Honorary Captain before retiring to his village in Nepal. He died on 27 May 2000.
In November 1994, Anne and I trekked across a chunk of east Nepal in 11 days, from Hile to Jiri, visiting the Gurkha Welfare Centres of the Gurkha Welfare Trust at Bhojpur, Dikel, and Rumjatar, and taking the long way out via Solu. I was Chairman of the Trust at the time. On arrival at Rumjatar, we met Agansingh, who continued to live in his small village above Rumjatar and had come down to the Centre to greet us. Agansingh was a quiet, very impressive man, and an absolute delight to know. Talking to us that afternoon in Rumjatar, he explained that when he attacked the final position, he was the only man in his section still standing. The others had either been killed or were well behind him on the ground, seriously wounded. The enemy fire was so intense that early on in the attack he had given himself up for dead. He told me, “I decided that I was a dead man; there was no way I was going to come out alive so I decided just to kill as many of the enemy as I could before they killed me. No, I wasn’t afraid: dead men know no fear.”
After the evening meal, the inevitable party started and went on for some time with the staff of the Centre and our porters at the centre of it--and VC Saheb showing himself to be a very accomplished mover!
Compare and contrast with the next photo!
Entering into the spirit of the evening! It was a bit of a wild night!
Agansingh brought his medals down from his house, in a paper bag! His VC is prominent, just off centre. His Indian Army medals are worn, quite properly, to the right of it, and those earned in his earlier British service, to the left.
Pointing out which is which! On 22 July 2004, four years after his death, his Victoria Cross, WW2 campaign medals, and Indian medals were sold by Agansingh’s family at an auction in London for the sum of £115,000.
Agansingh slept in the Welfare Centre that evening and was there to bid us goodbye in the morning before we headed up the short but very sharp climb to Okhaldhunga. Little did we imagine that within a year we were destined to meet again and to spend even more time in his excellent company. It was a rare privilege and pleasure to meet and get to know these men of valour: Agansingh, Gaje, Ganju, Bhanbhagta, Lachhiman. All have now departed this world--but never to be forgotten!
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