Autobio 2000

A Personal View of the Twentieth Century

by Robert Brow   Kingston, Ontario, Canada, 2000

Chapter 4

The Indian Army

The Indian Army was desperate for officers at that time. It seemed certain that India would soon be invaded by the Japanese armies. We had to be trained in five months, instead of the usual two years, to take the place of those being picked off in the eastern jungles. A lone British officer with his company of Indian troops would drop dead before anyone saw the sniper in the trees. Other officers were being killed with the two Indian Divisions in the desert of North Africa.

All I remember of the Officers' Training School was a twenty-five mile march in full battle dress. I must have got stung in the bush by some insect. By the time I arrived back my face had swollen the size of a pumpkin, and I was put into the army hospital. The next morning a nurse came in, asked how I was, and vigorously cleaned six inches of shelf by the door just above her left shoulder. I couldn't figure out what this was for till the Matron came in on her rounds an hour later. She also said "How are you, Cadet Brow?" and I noticed she passed four fingers over that exact piece of shelf, looked at them carefully for dust, and moved on with her retinue. I was able to go back to my training the next morning. Those two days were the only time I have been in hospital in 74 years.

I was posted to the Mahratta Light Infantry Regimental Centre in Belgaum, south of Poona. I arrived off the train hungry and late for breakfast. In the Mess there were twenty Captains and Majors sunk in leather chairs reading their papers. They looked at me as if they were saying to each other, "Very poor material they are sending us these days." No one spoke to me, and I ate alone.  I soon discovered that no one was allowed to say a word at breakfast. If you wanted some toast or the salt, you turned to your personal servant who was lined up with others waiting for orders from their Sahib. Once a month there was a mess night, we all drank too much, and the newest officer was made to look foolish. Someone pushed a bucket full of water with a pole up against the ceiling and then handed me the pole. If I let go, the water would be all over me and ruin the carpet. They left me there for several long minutes. Then they made me put my head back and put a coin on my forehead. I was told to drop the coin into a funnel which was tucked into my mess uniform trousers. After one failed effort, the bucket of water was poured down the funnel, and I had to remain sopping wet the rest of the evening. Naturally one remembered the humiliation, and did the same to the next poor fellow who arrived.

I think it was a shy young Anglo-Indian officer named Walter Ward. I befriended him, but he belonged to the Plymouth Brethren and I objected to his trying to convert me. After he was posted away he used to send me tracts, which I hastily tore up before anyone could see them. Fifteen years later I found he was still in India, and joined him for a young people's meeting in Delhi. When he was asked to speak he introduced me and said he had given up on me as a hopeless case, and would never have believed I would come back to India as a Christian.

The Regimental Centre had constant visiting Generals from allied armies, Ministers of Defence, and the like. They came to meet the Commandant, Colonel Strong and to find out the secret of his success. One of the first orders I got was "Scheme A Tuesday at 10." I discovered I had to get a well trained platoon engaged in bayonet training between 10:20 and 10:30. By 10:45 the visiting party would arrive at the firing range, and the picked marksmen had to get bull's-eyes. The grand finale was the obstacle course in battle gear at 11:30. The visitors would always ask "I suppose you go over this every morning, Colonel?" He would answer humbly, "Oh yes, I do it most days, but I must admit I avoid that high wall."

We all knew that the obstacle course was before breakfast, and Colonel Strong never appeared till after gin and tonic at the tennis club. We also knew that our Training Centre was the best in India and "Scheme" A meant that we only lost a few minutes of recruit training for each dignitary.

I assisted Captain Larmont who was in charge of D Company. We had to work very hard to get our three platoons of mostly illiterate village Mahrattas trained and ready to go into battle a year later with the latest modern weapons. My work was to run the firing range and train the men in bayonet fighting. As each recruit advanced at me I would try to hit them in the chest with a padded bamboo, which they had to deflect with their gun. Then I would hold up the other end which had a circle of wire attached to it. The recruit had to let out a blood curdling yell, and stick his bayonet through the hole. Three of our Mahrattas got the Victoria Cross for bayonet fighting in Italy.

At the end of a two day training march in the jungle, Captain Larry Larmont made the men walk through a tank of water with their rifles above their heads. There must have been a deep hole in the middle, and I saw Havildar (sergeant) Bandu Salunke go down and disappear. Immediately, Larry and I started diving for him, but I couldn't go deep enough with all my equipment on. As Larry was still diving, I went to the shore, threw off my boots and clothes, dived deep and managed to grab Bandu by the foot. We got him out, turned him upside down to let the water out, and began artificial respiration. To my astonishment there was a gasp, and by the time the ambulance arrived he was breathing. He got pneumonia, but lived to continue his work. I can't remember praying, but it must have been pretty close.

In January 1944, I was sent to do the small arms weapons course at Sagar in central India, and was immediately appointed to teach on the staff. Our job was to train instructors who came from the front lines in the use of the latest allied and enemy weapons.

I took over from a Sikh instructor who had been badly wounded in the grenade throwing pit. A soldier had to jump into the pit with a grenade in his hand, pull out the pin, and throw the grenade which exploded five seconds later. Sometimes the man was nervous and would drop the grenade. We quickly had to pick it up, throw it, and force the man down into the pit before it went off. One poor fellow pulled the pin, dropped the grenade, and fell on it. The Sikh officer tried to drag him off, but the grenade went off, killed the man, and the instructor had pieces of metal in his turban, and in his arms and legs. On several occasions I managed to get the grenade off the floor and throw it out in time. If the grenade failed to go off I had to wait five minutes, then crawl out, lay a dynamite stick next to it, light the fuse and jump back into the pit.

I never prayed to God in those days, but I had a strange compulsion to touch wood whenever I had a narrow escape. It was a long way from the grenade throwing pit to the nearest tree, so I wonder what the men thought when I performed this ritual.

While I was in Sagar I had a girl friend who told me she was staying in an old colonial bungalow when she saw a murder taking place in the living room right in front of her. The victim and the murderer were dressed in clothes from the previous century. The next day at a dinner party she mentioned this to the District Police Officer. He called her in to his office, opened up the ancient court records and said, "Now tell me exactly what you saw." When she had finished he was trembling and white as a sheet. "I now know that the wrong man was hung for that murder."

That was bad enough, but she mentioned this to a friend who asked, "Were you born in your caul?" She didn't know, so she asked her mother. Normally, the membrane around a baby is broken before birth, but in some cases the baby comes out still inside. And sure enough, that was how she had been born. Her friend and others told her that in such cases the person is likely to be psychic.

That reminded me of a story my mother told me. At our home on Mary Road in Karachi a mangy looking pie dog came several days begging for food. She was afraid it might be rabid so she wrapped poison in some meat and the dog swallowed it gratefully. To her horror, the dog kept appearing for several days as a ghost and looked at her with reproachful eyes.

I suppose such stories could undermine one's materialist certainty. But I remained an atheist throughout my army years. Another instructor, Captain Oliver, tried to persuade me to come to the Sagar Anglican Church with him, but I refused. At Christmas 1944 I did agree to sit through a Carol Service, probably because my psychic girl friend would be there. I never imagined I would come back many years later to preach in that same building.

For relaxation, three of us would get one of the men to drive a truck to chase a herd of deer or black buck. Armed with our 303 army rifles we would shoot as the truck lurched at full speed across the rough grass plain. That was probably more dangerous than teaching grenade throwing.

After instructing for a year I was sent to be Commandant of the Jungle Warfare Training Camp thirty miles away. The British and Indian troops who were sent into the jungles of Burma were totally unable to cope with Japanese snipers in the trees. Every day I had to set up a different course with fifty paper Japanese faces and helmets hidden among the leaves. The first time through they wouldn't see a single head. By the end of the course they had to be able to spot most of them and instantly put a burst through the target from their Sten gun.

More awesome was co-ordinating the firing of mortar bombs on ranges all over the area. Targets had to be set up before each unit arrived to start shooting. In those days we had no portable radios. One day as the mortar bombs began going off I remembered the Chowkidar who had to guard the target area. I was sure that by evening I would find him dead, and I would be court-martialled. When I drove up I found him alive and well. "How did you survive?" He said that when the shells began bursting, "I just sat in this hole all day, and never got a direct hit."

Any unexploded bombs had to be found and detonated one by one. If we missed any of the them the local villagers would come and break them open for the brass and copper. I had to take several courts of inquiry for those who were blown up.

For relaxation, I went shooting. Peacocks were delicious when curried by my cook. A hyena came right at me once and I managed to shoot it a few yards away. Then the men pointed out to me the pug marks of a panther that used to come and drink from the river a few yards from my tent. "We will build a machan (platform) up in that tree, and get a goat to tie up here. When the panther comes this evening, the Sahib will easily kill it." I paid the money for the goat and perched with my gun ready. The goat was bleating its heart out, and I guessed it could smell the panther. It gradually got darker, and then suddenly in the pitch black of the night the goat went silent. Eventually I turned on my flash light and could see the goat lying dead. The panther must have killed, and would soon be back to eat its meal. How would I get back? I came down from the tree and raced into my tent. Next morning the goat was still there, and I discovered they had sold me a very sick animal, and it had died on me.

The men also got me embarrassed by bringing a group of village dancing girls that I was expected to pay for. The idea was to hide a Rupee note in one's pocket, or in one's shirt or trouser leg, and one of the girls would come ogling to feel you all over and retrieve it. As the evening went on, the men's and the girls' behaviour got more and more outrageous till I fled in embarrassment. The next morning they wanted to know how I had enjoyed it.

I was posted back to the Regimental Centre in June 1945. I arrived in the mess tired and hungry after the overnight journey from Poona, had a silent breakfast as usual, and began my new work the same day.

The war against Japan was still going on, and the Indian Army was needed for the landings being planned in Malaya. Every occupied country would need to be retaken in fierce battles till the Japanese were forced to surrender. My job as Training Adjutant was to test each platoon of recruits when they had completed a stage of their training. I annoyed the Havildars (sergeants) because I would pick out the dumbest or clumsiest-looking recruit, make him take a Bren gun apart and reassemble it in a few minutes, and if he passed I would pass all the others to go on to the next stage. "Sahib, why do you always pick our worst recruit instead of the best ones?"

One of my duties was to order the ammunition for the firing range. My office clerk made a mistake by adding a zero to the order for mortar bombs. I missed the error and got it signed by the Major above me. To our horror, the station master phoned to say there were ten wagons of high explosives on the railway siding. We hastily had to beg units all over South India to take away all they could.

On Sunday afternoons the Captains had a strange tea party. Each of us had to lay on a sumptuous array of cakes and other dainties. When it was my turn I managed to bring in two dozen chocolate eclairs. They left everything else, finished off the eclairs and then said, "This is a very poor show. You didn't order enough eclairs." From then the game was that the host tried to guess what the others would go for, and have large amounts in reserve. If he guessed wrong, and something ran out, we would pretend to complain bitterly. The waste of food was terrible, and I can't think what our Indian batmen thought of these crazy sahibs.

One of our Mahratta battalions had landed in Surabaya to help intern the remaining Japanese in Java. They didn't even have their guns loaded, and they came under withering fire which cut down seven officers and many of the men. To everyone's surprise the Indonesians didn't want the Dutch coming back to take over their richest colony. So the Indonesians took the arms the Japanese laid down when they surrendered, and used them very effectively. I volunteered to go out and take the place of the Adjutant of the Fourth Battalion of the Mahratta Light Infantry who had been killed. I travelled with Major Mackay, who was to take over as Battalion Commander. We discovered that we were in charge of 2,000 Japanese prisoners of war who had to be taken to Singapore for repatriation. Two days out into the Bay of Bengal, the Sergeant Major reported that the Japanese in the lower decks were certain that they had won the war and intended to overpower us. They would then throw us overboard sail triumphantly back to Japan. We slept with loaded guns under our pillow and radioed the Navy to come and help us. I will never forget the sight of a British Cruiser coming by about 20 feet away with the Union Jack flying and the sailors on parade ready to board us if needed. Our prisoners suddenly became quiet, and we landed them in Singapore a week later. On the docks they could see other Japanese prisoners unloading the ships.

Major Mackay managed to get a plane to Java, but I was stuck in the Singapore Neesoon transit camp. In the confusion of the end of the war against Japan, hundreds of officers were there waiting for orders. A week later I got a seat to Batavia (now called Jakarta), and then hitched a ride on top of a load of bags of flour in a Dakota flying to Bandoeng. As I came out white from head to foot, an armoured car arrived with guns bristling, and the officer asked me if I had my revolver loaded as we might have to fight through a road block.

It was a strange kind of war. We lived in slit trenches for four months, eating K rations, and being shot at by the Indonesian friends we sympathised with if we showed our faces. My job as Adjutant was to keep in touch by radio with our companies strung out along the road to Batavia. Twice a week we had to open the road for trucks to move up and down. It was very tense, but there were very few casualties. When a fire fight began, I had to get the wounded out and arrange to bury the dead.

Our commanding officer was superb. I will always remember the new officer who arrived to join us. He seemed to be a drip and totally unsuited for the job. Colonel Mackay appointed him to be our transport officer in charge of all the trucks and armoured cars. We all groaned. But within two months he turned out to be one of the finest officers in the battalion.

One day when I was about cracking from the strain, Colonel Mackay said, "Here's a week's holiday leave." Someone had arranged for five exhausted officers at a time to fly to Bali, where they were given a government bungalow, and a jeep and driver to tour the island. The first morning at breakfast, a servant came and asked how we would like our eggs. We hadn't seen a fresh egg for three months, and we all joked, "I'll have three fried, two boiled, an omelette, etc." Ten minutes later our outrageous orders arrived, and I had the best breakfast in my life. That evening we had a suckling pig roasted on a spit.

We were taken to a cock fight. The two birds had a thin sharp knife attached to their talon. When the bets had been made, half a coconut shell with a hole in it was thrown on a bowl of water. The cocks flew at each other, and tried to get the knife into the other's chest. The round went on till the shell sank. Then the birds were massaged, their wounds dressed, and they went into the next round till one was killed.

We also saw Balinese dancing. At work during the day women wore a loose dress, but for social occasions they went topless. There was a Belgian painter on the island, who had been a friend of my Uncle Jacques. He invited us to a sumptuous meal, and his Balinese wife served us. Her skirt was a very richly woven brocade, and she was the picture of gracious dignity.

Soon after I got back, Colonel Mackay told me to prepare the movement order to fly the battalion down to Batavia. We had to withdraw from occasional sniping, drive in to Bandoeng under the protection of our armoured cars, and then have the men jump out of their trucks into the planes that landed every five minutes. The plan was meticulously prepared. Unfortunately, the planes began arriving ten minutes late. As the convoy of trucks arrived the military police had to move them on, and loading began in the wrong order from the middle of the convoy.

Colonel Mackay and I were waiting for them at the airport in Batavia. "Who will be in this first plane?" With great confidence I answered, "That will be the signals to keep us in touch as we deploy under fire in our new positions." But out came everything else, and the badly needed radios did not arrive till last. It was the most humiliating two hours in my life, and if we had been in a serious battle situation it would have cost hundreds of casualties. It taught me in practice long before I learned Murphy's law: "If anything can go wrong, it will."

Step by step we handed over to units from the Netherlands, who arrived vainly hoping to keep control of their colony. The independent United States of Indonesia was recognized two years later.

While in Batavia, my girl friend was a Dutch girl who had been interned during the Japanese occupation. Having got the men on board, I waved goodbye to her on the dock. I could see her crying, and I said we would meet again in Holland. Which we did. But by then the direction of my life had changed.

Back in the Regimental Centre in Belgaum it was obvious that the British would soon be thrown out of India. I often said that if I was an Indian I would want to run my own country. But I was put in charge of a platoon for riot control. We had to take up a position to block a crowd moving down a street throwing rocks at us. I had to record the exact time and the fact that a warning was given through a megaphone. We had to have pictures of the rocks, and the leaders organizing the crowd. Then we had to fire above their heads, and if they kept advancing after a final warning, the leaders had to be mown down. Happily I never had to do this, and my demobilization order came through.

As the troop ship left Bombay, I knew it was the end of the British empire, and I never imagined I would ever go back. By the end of the summer India was independent.

A Postscript About The British In India

After Clive defeated the French, the British Raj began controlling India in 1763. On the one hand there was total apartheid, as in South Africa. Indians were never allowed to be members of the British clubs, and close social relations were disapproved of. Indian businessmen could run their own companies, but trade and commerce were run for the advantage of the cotton mills of Lancashire and the engineering companies around Birmingham and Glasgow.

But at their best the British also prepared for Indian independence. In 1935, each of the states in India, such as the Punjab, Bengal, Madras, and Kerala, had their own democratic government. By the beginning of the war there were universities in all the major cities. The law courts had Indian lawyers and, later on, there were more and more Indian judges. Four or five first class Medical schools were turning out Indian doctors for the government hospitals. The roads, railways, basic industries, banks, telephones, and postal services were all in good shape.

In the army I served under Indian Majors and Colonels who had been trained at Sandhurst, and they were the first Generals in the armies of independent India and Pakistan. When we left suddenly in 1947, they continued the traditions of the first class regiments like the Mahratta Light Infantry. Sadly, there was a blood bath as Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims separated out of the Punjab. Since then, India and Pakistan have been hopelessly handicapped by religious bigotry, and this has been focused on the need to quarrel and fight and build atom bombs to fight over Kashmir.

But things were certainly very different from what the Belgian colonists did for the Congo (which became Zaire in October 1971). Admittedly, the Congo was annexed in 1908, so that Belgians only ruled the mineral rich country for 63 years. The British ruled India for three times as long. But when the Belgians suddenly had to leave and the Congo became an independent republic on 30 June 1960, there were no African doctors, engineers, lawyers and judges, army officers, experienced civil servants or politicians. India and Pakistan have had their problems, but the essential democratic institutions have continued. The Congo has been a basket case for nearly forty years.

Chapter 5...