World War II started in September 1939. One weekend, I, along with a dozen cadets from my batch at the military academy, had cycled into Dehradun town to watch an English movie, to be followed by DK (desi khana). During the interval, someone brought the news that Britain had declared war on Germany. There was a great deal of excitement, mixed with uncertainty about our future. Bets were taken on whether our training at the military academy would be cut short and we would be sent to fight for fame and glory, just like in the movie we were watching.
As it happened, all of us were later sent to various war fronts. Some of my colleagues never came back, some were taken prisoners and others were sent back due to injuries. But perhaps one of the most remarkable fronts for sheer guts and defiance was the civilian front of Britain. It stood up to the full might of German aerial bombardment followed by rocket attacks.
But what cheered the English, especially the women, was the ‘invasion’ of the country by the Yanks. “They are overpaid and oversexed, but thank God, they are over here,” exclaimed many a British lass who had given up any hope of male attention.
My own first warfront was near the Afghan border, at Waziristan in the North-West Frontier Province. Our brigade was involved in full-scale operations against the tough and wily Wazir tribesmen. Their leader was a religious icon by the name of Faqir of Ipi who resented the British ‘occupation’ of his homeland.
After a year, I was in a troopship bound for Egypt. I was taking my unit to Tobruk in the western desert of North Africa. Field Marshal Rommel, with his Panzer division, broke through our defence line and we had to retreat hundreds of miles to EI Alamain, which was fairly close to the capital city, Cairo.
Cairo, in those days, had all the ingredients of a bestselling Frederick Forsyth spy thriller. The British counter-intelligence staff had their hands full tracking down informers, moles and agents of every description. All types of rumours were spread as part of the enemy’s psychological warfare.
I recall with amusement a German radio broadcast — it mentioned a ‘comfort’ establishment called Marys in Alexandria (and it did exist). A Stuka fighter bomber had apparently made a direct hit on this establishment at night. As a result, the broadcast said, a large number of officers had been ‘killed in action!’