India to help British soldier’s relative pay tribute to WWII hero

Updated on Mar 22, 2022 02:36 PM IST

Naik Ghadge was posthumously awarded Victoria Cross (VC), the UK’s highest military decoration, for his uncommon courage in one of the fiercest battles of the Italian campaign during the World War II.

Victoria Cross was awarded to 20 soldiers for their heroism in the Italian campaign. Eight of them, including Yeshwant Ghadge, are buried near battlefields where they fought. (Commonwealth War Graves Commission)
Victoria Cross was awarded to 20 soldiers for their heroism in the Italian campaign. Eight of them, including Yeshwant Ghadge, are buried near battlefields where they fought. (Commonwealth War Graves Commission)
By, New Delhi

An email with an unusual request from a 78-year-old civilian in Australia landed in the inbox of India’s defence attaché to Italy, Colonel VS Salaria, last month.

“Would you know how and where the ashes of Yeshwant Ghadge would have been scattered at the Arezzo cemetery as I would like to place flowers at the location,” wrote Roger H Freeman.

Naik Ghadge was posthumously awarded Victoria Cross (VC), the UK’s highest military decoration, for his uncommon courage in one of the fiercest battles of the Italian campaign during the World War II. The Indian soldier from 5th Mahratta Light Infantry was just 23.

Freeman’s uncle and British army soldier, HW Goodwin, was part of the 10th Indian Infantry Division and was attached to Ghadge’s unit during the Italian campaign. Freeman wrote to Salaria that the two soldiers were close friends.

“Later this year, in June, I hope to visit Italy and would like to pay my respects to Yeshwant Ghadge at Arezzo,” he wrote on February 7.

In a hand-written letter to Freeman the same day, Salaria, a decorated commando of the Indian Army’s 10 Para Special Forces, said, “It will be my honour to assist you in your solemn endeavour.”

“I am so happy to hear from you and admire your dedication and enthusiasm to fulfil the legacy of your late uncle. Naik Ghadge, VC, exemplified courage, selflessness and sacrifice in the highest traditions of soldiering and continues to inspire younger generations of warriors,” the Colonel, a Shaurya Chakra awardee, wrote back.

Ghadge was one of the two and a half million Indian men, who fought alongside the British during World War II. VC was awarded to 20 soldiers for their heroism in the Italian campaign. Eight of them, including Ghadge, are buried near battlefields where they fought.

On July 10, 1944, Ghadge’s unit attacked a position strongly defended by the enemy. A rifle section led by him came under heavy fire, which killed or wounded all except him. He rushed to the machine gun post and killed three men before being shot by an enemy sniper. He died in the post that he had single-handedly captured.

The subsequent series of exchanges between Freeman, a retired petroleum engineer, and Salaria revealed the back story of an undying friendship forged almost 80 years ago in the thick of a brutal fighting during the war.

Freeman travelled to England in 2017 to attend Goodwin’s funeral. He was 94. It was during this trip that the nephew chanced upon a hand-written diary kept by his uncle and the Goodwin-Ghadge became known to the family.

It also emerged how Goodwin provided financial support to Ghadge’s widow, Laxmibai, who lived in a Maharashtra village, till his last days even though the two never met.

“It was unusual for a British soldier to make a close friendship with an Indian soldier that was any more than a casual acquaintance. Even when I was a young boy my uncle spoke very highly of Indian soldiers and he was very disappointed, if not bitter, with how they had not been recognised adequately by the British government,” Freeman wrote in another email.

Goodwin’s private papers contained copies of detailed correspondence he had over the years with the British authorities and the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association about Laxmibai’s pension issues.

Salaria again responded with a hand-written letter in which he said the heartening story of the special bond between the two soldiers “underscores the unique camaraderie men in combat share and has an even powerful message that goes beyond the militaries.”

“Peace and liberty have a price that is paid by men like Naik Ghadge and their families. Above all, humanity transcends all borders,” the defence attaché wrote to Freeman.

By some quirk of fate, it was during the course of these exchanges between Freeman and Salaria that Laxmibai passed away at Raigad in Maharashtra on February 11. She was 97.

Salaria broke the news to Freeman in a third communication.

“It is with deepest sorrow I inform you of the demise of Mrs Laxmibai…May God bless the departed soul who shouldered the burden of sacrifice with dignity and honour. I spoke with her relatives and conveyed that the legacy of Naik Ghadge lives on in many countries. I also narrated the special bond your uncle shared with him.”

In June, Freeman will not just place a bouquet on a war hero’s grave to honour his memory. It will also be a tribute to an enduring friendship.

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