Bhanbhagta Gurung VC: Soldier who saved fellow Gurkhas

For his exceptional courage while under intense enemy fire Bhanbhagta Gurung was awarded a Victoria Cross. His attack on five Japanese positions in the Burma jungle drove off the enemy and saved the lives of many of his company of Gurkhas.

In February 1945 General Sir William Slim's 14th Army was fighting its way towards Mandalay in central Burma. Slim had ordered the experienced 25th Indian Division (of which Bhanbhagta's 2nd Gurkha Rifles was part) to engage the enemy with diversionary actions thus deflecting the attention away from the main thrust of the 14th Army. The 25th Division's advance towards the Irrawaddy river was held up by the seasoned Japanese of the 54th Division who commanded a number of high positions on a vital pass. Initially the Gurkha held two objectives named Snowden and East Snowden. That night the Japanese attacked Snowden in strength, killing a number of the Gurkhas, the rest of whom withdrew. The following day the 2nd battalion, the Gurkha Rifles, was ordered to retake this by now well-fortified position.

Immediately they came under fire and one section was forced to the ground by fierce machine-gun, grenade and mortar fire. In this vulnerable position the Gurkhas became sitting ducks for one well-concealed sniper. Seeing this, but lying prone, Bhanbhagta was unable to get his rifle into an elevated position so stood up under heavy fire and took out the sniper. Bhanbhagta shouted for his section to follow him but they drew heavy fire. Without waiting for orders Bhanbhagta dashed forward alone and attacked the first enemy foxhole and, hurling grenades, he killed the two occupants. He then ran at the next foxhole, killing two of the enemy with his bayonet. Nearby, two other enemy foxholes were inflicting casualties on his section. Showing raw courage he attacked both positions, clearing them with grenades and finishing off the enemy with his bayonet.

Throughout these attacks Bhanbhagta was fired on continuously from a machine-gun situated on the tip of the objective. Realising this was holding up the advance of two of the battalion's platoons, Bhanbhagta again edged forward and – keeping low – he made the top of the bunker only to find he had run out of hand grenades, so he flung two No 72 smoke grenades into the bunker slit. Two of the Japanese ran out, blinded, with their clothes aflame. Bhanbhagta killed them with his kukri. One foolishly brave Japanese remained inside, still firing the machine gun. Bhanbhagta crawled inside the bunker and, prevented by the cramped space from using his bayonet or kukri, beat the gunner to death with a rock.

With most objectives now taken and the enemy driven off, Bhanbhagta ordered a Bren gunner and two riflemen to hold the captured bunker with him. Under Bhanbhagta's command, the small party in the bunker repelled with heavy losses the enemy counter-attack. Bhanbhagta's extraordinary courage was contagious and inspired his fellow Gurkhas to fight like tigers. Snowden was held.

Bhanbhagta was born in the tiny hill village of Phalbu in western Nepal and was recruited into the Indian Army shortly after the outbreak of war. His first action was not until March 1943, when he was serving with the charismatic Brigadier Orde Wingate and his Chindits in upper Burma.

After the war, many tried to persuade Bhanbhagta to stay on in the regiment. But with a new wife and a frail mother, he returned to his village to look after his sheep. He retired with the rank of Naik (Corporal) but his regiment honoured him with the rank of Havildar (Sergeant). His three sons followed their father into the 2nd Gurkha Rifles.

Max Arthur

Bhanbhagta Gurung, soldier: born Phalbu, Nepal September 1921; VC 1945; married (three sons); died Dharapani, Nepal 1 March 2008.

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