Obituary: Gian Singh VC

Max Arthur
Wednesday 30 October 1996 00:02
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In battle fear is infectious, but so too is courage. Frightened, numbed and bewildered soldiers under incessant fire can lose heart. It is in these circumstances that they look for inspiration and intelligent, courageous leadership.

At the protracted and vital Battle of Kohima in Assam (now Nagaland) in May 1944, Gian Singh had experienced the resolute and sometimes suicidal methods of attack by the Japanese who were prepared to strap grenades to their bodies and hurl themselves at advancing units. Prior to the battle, the adjutant, Major Tony "Raj" Fowler, of the 4th Battalion, 15th Punjab Regiment, sent a message in Urdu to all his companies and spoke to his forward-placed troops, quoting from Shakespeare's King John:

Come the three corners of the world

in arms

And we shall shock them.

Nought shall make us rue . . .

Had the Japanese overrun Kohima they would have gained access to the plains of India and could have attacked west towards Calcutta. But this attack was resisted and the Japanese were forced to retreat. Singh and the rest of his regiment knew that after the success at Kohima that they could never be defeated by the Japanese.

With the Japanese retreating, in February 1945, combined British and Indian forces made the widest river-crossing of the Second World War when they crossed the Irrawaddy and advanced on the port of Myingyan which was being defended by the Japanese. Niak (which is the equivalent of a Corporal) Gian Singh was leading his platoon ahead of the rest of his battalion which was advancing down the road between Kamye and Myingyan when the enemy opened fire with both artillery and intense machine-gun fire from behind well- camouflaged positions and a number of foxholes.

Singh immediately recognised the severity of the situation as his casualties increased; somehow the attack had to be repulsed. Pulling on his tactical intelligence and a deep reservoir of courage, he decided to attack the enemy single- handed. Ordering his light machine gunner to cover him, he assaulted foxhole after foxhole, hurling grenades and mopping up with his sub-machine. Although badly wounded in the arm, he refused medical attention and gained permission to attack again, this time a cleverly concealed anti-tank gun which was inflicting heavy casualties among his men. He ran forward at an oblique angle to the gun and killed the enemy with both grenades and sub-machine gun.

Both his actions, by any standards of gallantry in battle, were extraordinary. His men, previously held up, now inspired by his example, found again the quality of courage within and followed him down the road, destroying the ene- my along both sides as they advanced.

Gian Singh's action was certainly in the finest traditions of the 15th Punjab Regiment and particularly the 4th Battalion. His hero (from the same battalion) was Ishar Singh VC, who in 1921, in fighting on the North West Frontier, with casualties all around him and severely wounded himself, had attacked the marauding hill tribes single-handedly with his Lewis gun, and later with his rifle, and kept down enemy fire while a medical officer was attending the wounded.

Sixteen days after Gian Singh's action, Lieutenant Karameet Singh Judge, again of the 4th Battalion, eliminated 10 bunkers and was mortally wounded while attacking a nest of three more. He was to become the third member of the 4th Battalion to be awarded the Victoria Cross. Courage, it would appear, is contagious.

Myingyan was to fall later that month. The success of the battle proved to be a vital component in the campaign against the railway junction at Meiktila. Once this had been captured, the Japanese 33rd Army lost its hold on central Burma.

Singh refused to be invalided out of the Army and was prominent in the drive on Rangoon, for which he received a mention in dispatches.

When India was partitioned in 1947, the Indian Army was divided and individual regiments split up according to religious affiliation. Gian Singh was posted to the 11th Sikh Regiment, and saw action against the Chinese when they launched an offensive on the Indian border in 1962. He was decorated with the Indian MC and again after the fighting in Kashmir.

After retirement, this proud and outstanding warrior worked on the family farm near Nawabshah.Gian Singh, soldier: born Shapur, Jullundur, Punjab 5 October 1920; VC 1945; married Hardail Kaur (died 1995; three sons, two daughters); died Jullundur 6 October 1996.

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