IT WAS a dense forest in Singapore. The setting was as daunting as the young man was daring. The Indian and his comrades were patrolling deep inside the jungle in an Army jeep. Suddenly, they spotted a truck blocking their path. The young man smelled mischief and warned the driver. But by then the vehicle had rolled closer to the truck. And, before they could react, bullets were raining upon them.
“We will meet later,” shouted one of the officers as the group jumped out of the jeep to take up safe positions and, if possible, launch a counter-attack. This young man scampered across a nullah and hid behind a log. It took some time for the guns to fall silent. The young man, who later went on to become Lt-Col Rattan Singh, recollected himself and put his hand on the log he hid behind, felt it and tried to stand up.
“ ‘Oh, my God!’ my father used to say in horror even years after he had left the Army. What he had taken for a log was actually a decomposed dead body. He couldn’t use that hand to take food for days after the incident. The smell of gunfire and the tension left him unable to realise that he wasn’t hiding behind a log but a corpse!” recollects Captain SK Singh, former Armyman and now an officer with HAL, Lucknow.
“Mind you, that was when the Brits were fighting the Japanese in the Second World War. My father was commissioned in the British Indian Army in 1941 and it was his first active service as part of the 6th Rajputana Rifles. Though Rattan Singh and three others met after the firing was over, the young soldier who had promised to ‘meet later’ never turned up. That’s life for a soldier,” said Capt Singh, who had the rare privilege of serving the 2/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force), which was once commanded by his father.
During that battle of Singapore, Lt-Col Rattan Singh and other soldiers of the British Indian Army were taken Prisoners of War (PoW). He was kept in Singapore for four years. It was a trip down memory lane for Capt Singh and his family. As they flipped through the pages of the album, the framed images ignited a flashback.
“Whenever we used to discuss the Singapore part of his career, he used to curse the Japanese army for their cruelty. He told us several tales. He even saw the Japanese beheading people,” says Lt-Col Singh’s daughter-in-law Manjula.
After his release from Singapore, Singh was shifted to a cream group of officers to command the Gorkha Battalion. In 1947, he took over the command of the Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force), which was then known as the Royal 5 Gorkha Rifles.
Then in August, 1947, the sun finally set on the British Empire. It was India’s ‘tryst with destiny’, its hour of Independence. Rattan Singh’s story of valour continued with the Indian Army. In 1952, the first President of India, Babu Rajendra Prasad, signed a declaration formally announcing Rattan Singh’s entry into the Indian Army with retrospective effect.
“He was very upbeat to join the Army in free India. He often used to talk about Mahatma Gandhi’s Red Fort address to officers who had joined the Indian Army after serving the British,” says Manjula.
For the next decade or so it was almost peace time for the Indian force. But the Chinese Invasion of 1962 put the soldiers on active service. As a Colonel, he was commanding the 5 Assam Rifles in the North-East.
He rushed to take on the Chinese and was taken PoW after putting up a brave resistance on October 20 in the Dhola Sector of Assam.
As PoW, he had for company in Lhasa, Brigadier Michael Dalvi, also author of the famous book on the Chinese war, Himalayan Blunder. The battle left the Lt-Col badly wounded with bullet and grenade injuries.
Saluting the grit of Lt-Col Singh and his jawans, The Statesman had then written: “Crawling along under billowing smoke and a hail of bullets, Col Singh repeatedly led his men into the attack. Eventually, he was forced to yield ground… (sic) and was taken prisoner (along) with gallant fighters Jemadars Chaudhaury, Bhattacharjee, Roy and others, all of whom will be remembered in Assam Rifles for their toughness and tenacity.”
“As per Army records, the most notable battles were fought at Dhola, Walong and the Tanga Valley,” said Capt Singh, who coincidentally is well aware of the North-East terrain as he as an Army officer had fought insurgency in that region.
Before retiring from the Army in 1973, Lt-Col Singh had to his credit the raising of three battalions of the CRPF and his contribution to the organisation is still etched in golden letters.