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Why civilians bank on men in uniform

Why do deputy commissioners and district superintendents of police prefer requisitioning the armed forces in matters of maintenance of law and order or relief when faced with natural calamities? Manpreet Singh Bajwa writes.

chandigarh Updated: Jul 10, 2012 10:35 IST
Mandeep Singh Bajwa
Mandeep Singh Bajwa
Hindustan Times

Why do deputy commissioners and district superintendents of police prefer requisitioning the armed forces in matters of maintenance of law and order or relief when faced with natural calamities?

The answer is simple and obvious to anyone who's studied the subject. The men in uniform are efficient, quick to respond and do their job cheerfully and without fuss. Why do communal riots subside the moment the army is called in? For two reasons: troublemakers know that when the army is deployed for quelling disturbances it means business and secondly, it's always neutral and impartial in its dealings, particularly in communally sensitive situations.

It's a different matter that no sooner the armed forces' services are dispensed with than the civil administrators go back to their usual ways of ignoring requests made by the former's officers to redress grievances of their men!

Field Marshal Manekshaw
History records that Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, on demitting the office of army chief in January 1973, was never given his due as the successful commander of victorious armed forces in a historic and strategic victory by the powers that be. However, unfazed, he set out to carve out a second career in the corporate sector, becoming the chairman of half a dozen companies and sitting on the boards of over a score of blue-chip corporate bodies. The political elite thought they'd seen the last of him on the national stage.

It was the continuation of such thought that saw them virtually ignoring his passing away in 2008 with a very low-level representation from the government and none from the Opposition at his funeral. Imagine their surprise at the great send-off to the hero by the nation at large and the media in particular. The Hindustan Times took the lead by bringing out a full-page tribute to India's first Field Marshal. Others followed, with the electronic media paying fulsome accolades to the nation's hero. The collective conscience of the nation was stirred and there was outrage over the disrespect paid to the memory of the Field Marshal by an uncaring polity.

Battle of Bir Hakeim
In May 1942, the British Eighth Army occupied defences along the Gazala Line in Libya, stretching from the Mediterranean coast to the deep desert to the south, a distance of 65 miles. The defences consisted of a series of brigade defensive positions called boxes sited for all-round defence.

Gaps between the boxes were mined. Any enemy attempting to infiltrate between the boxes was to be heavily counter-attacked by the forces within and the armoured reserves positioned behind the Gazala Line. The Gazala Line was supposed to prevent any enemy misadventure as well as provide a firm base for the proposed British offensive, for which pressure was being put by the War Cabinet.

However Rommel, commanding the Italo-German Panzer Armee Afrika as usual, had different ideas and struck first, wresting the initiative. His plan was for the Italian XXI Corps to demonstrate against the northern and central sectors of the British line, simulate an offensive and tie down the enemy. Meanwhile, his armoured strike force would head south, attack at the weakest point of the British defences, outflank the enemy, and then swing northwards. The British armoured divisions, taken by surprise, would then be destroyed in detail in battles of manoeuvre and firepower, where the Germans held the advantage.

The rest of the British Eighth Army would then be bottled up and could be mopped up at leisure, leaving the road to Egypt and the Suez Canal open for Rommel to grab the ultimate prize. As always, Rommel's plan was bold, audacious, brilliant and based on the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two adversaries.

The 3 Indian Motor Brigade, consisting of three motorised cavalry regiments, 2nd Lancers, 11th PAVO Cavalry, 18th Cavalry, supported by 2 Field Regiment, was holding the southernmost extreme of the line at a place called Point 171. The cavalry regiments had no tanks but were instead equipped with light machine-gun carriers, trucks and anti-tank guns, 2 Field Regiment had 24x25-pounder guns (the mainstay of the Indian artillery in 1940-92). Each held a section of the defences supported by a battery from 2 Field Regiment. There were no mines, wire obstacles and the formation was woefully short of anti-tank guns and personnel.

On the morning of the 27th of May, the Indians saw an awesome sight: the entire Deutsch Afrika Korps and the Italian XX Mobile Corps headed towards them, bent upon overrunning them. It was decided to fight to the last man, last bullet so as to give Eighth Army time to react appropriately to the unexpected attack. While the 90th Light Division bypassed Point 171to the south and headed east, the 15th Panzer Division attempted to outflank the Indians from the east and came into contact with the defences of 2nd Lancers and PAVO. The 18th Cavalry and the rest of the 2nd Lancers' sectors met the full weight of 21st Panzer Division and the Italian Ariete Armoured Division.
The gunners from 3 Field Battery (South Indian classes), 4 Field Battery (Marathas) and 7 Field Battery (Sikhs, commanded by Major PP Kumaramanglam, later army chief from 1966-69. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his courageous command of his men. His Command Post Officer was Lieutenant Tikka Khan, who became Pakistan's Army Chief in 1972) stood their ground alongside the cavalry regiments each of them was supporting.

There was no panic in any of the Indian units. Where gunners manning guns firing at point-blank range at the enemy's tanks were killed, others took their place till entire crews were annihilated. The grossly unequal struggle could however end only one way. The Battle of Point 171 was swift and fast-moving. By 0900 hours, the whole of 3 Indian Motor Brigade was overrun by sheer weight of metal, except for a portion of 2nd Lancers defences and the brigade headquarters. Some 80 knocked-out German and Italian tanks littered the battlefield, of which 2 Field Regiment accounted for 56. The Italians collected some 700 prisoners of war, of which the officers were retained, the men being set free after a few days because of difficulties in providing them with food and water and transporting them to the rear. The remnants of the brigade withdrew to the British lines.

Rommel's brilliant plan to outflank the British line and destroy their forces was ultimately foiled mainly because of attrition caused to his tank fleet. By destroying 80 of these, the Indians certainly contributed much more to Rommel's defeat than their numbers or equipment suggested. Churchill rose in the House of Commons to pay rich tribute to the men of 3 Indian Motor Brigade and especially the gunners of 2 Field Regiment for their decisive role in inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy and seriously impeding his advance.
2 Field Regiment was to go on to greater glories, but the sacrifices, devotion to duty and sheer raw courage displayed at Point 171 will forever motivate them on to higher achievements. Har Maidan Fateh! (Victory in Every Field!)
Dates to remember

June 15: Bishenpur Day, 2 Engineer Regiment
June 26: Raising Day, 661 Reconnaissance and Observation Squadron, Army Aviation
June 28: Ledigali Day, 17 Rajputana Rifles (Sawai Man Guards)
June 29: Gurais Day, 2 Guards (1 Grenadiers)

First Published: Jul 10, 2012 01:03 IST

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