A VICTORY AGAINST ALL ODDS: A PILGRIMAGE OF DISCOVERY
“This was the Battalion’s finest effort and a glorious hour of trial”.
It was a triumph over all odds and a major action which led to the German surrender in Italy.
The Chambers Dictionary describes pilgrimage as a “journey to a shrine or other holy place or place venerated for its association”. There is also an element of the paranormal. There are periods in life when it is decreed for events to fall into place and produce the surreal. Military men are conditioned to place great faith in fate and my experiences of last year, are testimony to this.
Not only because it took me 72 years to discover a glorious chapter in family history; but also because in doing so, I realised that lessons of this Battle are relevant even today.
A background is necessary.
I am a fourth-generation Army Officer with a military lineage that dates back to 1859 when my Great Grandfather joined XI RAJPUTS.
He saw active service in China, Bhutan, Afghanistan and Burma till his retirement in 1893. My Grandfather joined the same Battalion and was its Subedar Major for the entire period in France during World War 1. My Father, Maj Gen Thakur Mahadeo Singh was commissioned into 1st Battalion, the 2nd Punjab Regiment or, 1/2 PUNJAB India’s senior-most Battalion in 1928.
He initially saw active service in Waziristan. With the onset of World War 2, he was deployed in Iraq and thereafter served with the 8th Army in North Africa. After the battle of El Alamein, he was deputed for the Staff Course at the Staff College, Quetta and on its completion, retained there itself as an instructor.
After his tenure as Instructor Staff College, he re-joined 1/2 PUNJAB in Italy as the Second in Command in August 1944. He took over command on 20th November 1944 as its first Indian Commanding Officer (CO). He was thus one of the first Indians to command an active unit in the European theatre. While in command, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), the second-highest award for military gallantry.
I joined the Army in 1967 and have always proudly displayed our family medals. A retired friend from the British Army on seeing the DSO obtained a copy of the Citation for this award from Whitehall in 1993. For me, it was a special document as it listed major operations during his War command.
Last year, a close friend of mine and I, along with our wives, planned an Adriatic cruise. Something made me ask my elder Sister, Brother and his wife to come along. They agreed. Five of us than planned to undertake a tour of Italy after the cruise.
I remembered my Father’s Citation and when working out the itinerary, decided to set aside one day to visit the battlefields mentioned in. With all the planning for the trip, there was very little time to obtain other details. Whilst in Italy, I contacted our Military Adviser in the Indian Embassy, Col Rohit Teotia to seek his advice.
He put me in touch with Dr Daniel Cesaretti, a dentist in the Principality of San Marino within Italy. I could not have asked for better godsend. Dr Cesaretti’s hobby is the study of the operations of the Indian Army in Italy during World War 2. On seeing the Citation, he was most forthcoming and immediately provided all the maps and write-ups.
I was amazed and queried him as to their source. He replied it was from the ‘Official History of the Indian Army in World War II’, a Ministry of Defence publication. It put me to shame. Here was I, a senior retired officer from India desirous of visiting World War 2 battle sites and not aware of this reference. Trust destiny to intervene and make up the shortfall.
We planned for this trip to Rome. The places mentioned in the Citation were South and South-East of Bologna some 430km away. We had one day of 1st Jul 2019 to visit these. The excellent Italian rail system could get us there in two hours, the minor deterrent being the high last-minute fares, which, for each of us were €125.
The next challenge was to hire a van for the 250km, all day, drive with an English-speaking driver. With the tourist season on, this was insurmountable. Dr Cesaretti once again came to the rescue. He suggested I hire a car from Bologna Railway Station. I did so online, the night before. It was a bold decision because, I had last driven in Europe as a 24-year-old in 1971, i.e, 48 years ago. Pilgrim’s progress was thus, on.
Five of us took the train from Rome. The salesman at the car rental counter had never seen a Gurgaon driving licence and was sceptical. Here too, luck intervened as my Sister-in-Law who is a US citizen, was carrying her driving licence and agreed to register as a co-driver. We were thus able to set off on our adventure by early afternoon, which, driving in Italy, always is.
War Situation and Battle Account
The Allies had landed in Italy in late 1943 and Rome was captured by the summer of 1944. Mussolini was overthrown and the Germans took charge of the theatre. The mountain ranges running East to West across Italy provided ideal defence lines for the Germans. By the winter of 1944, the Germans were holding positions in the hilly region about 70 km South of Bologna. To the North West lay the Po River plains.
In 1944 1/2 PUNJAB was a part of 10th Indian Division with 8th Army in this theatre and constantly engaged in operations. These continued after my Father took command in November 1944, with brief periods of respite. The Battalion fought notable actions at Pideura, Faenza and Albereto all listed in the Official History.
We studied maps of these Battles and visited the site of the actions. The breakthrough at Pideura particularly noted worthy as it allowed the Allies access to the Po River plains. We also paid homage at the Faenza War Cemetery where five Indians have been interred.
It was in early spring of 1945 that the final thrust was undertaken North Westwards from River Lamone to secure the German-held line of River Idice what was christened by them as the ‘Chengis Khan Line’.
The major battle was from 17th to 21st April 1945 as depicted on Map 1. The objective was to break through the Chengis Khan Line and secure the plains of River Po and then advance towards Padua and Venice.
The River Idice was a part of this defensive line and strongly held by the Germans. The 10th Indian Division was tasked to secure crossings across the River. This attack commenced at 22:00 hours on 19th April 1945 with 1/2 PUNJAB in the vanguard.
The start line was Florentine and the Battalion was first tasked to advance and capture the Village of ll Casino. Thereafter it was to go North and secure a crossing over the River Idice at Lupara. 1/2 PUNJAB fought through the night and captured Il Casino by 06:00 hours on 20th April 1945.
While consolidating after the battle at II Casino, orders were received at 09:20 hours that the objective was changed and the Battalion was now to capture the Rail and Road Bridges South of Mezzolara
“at the earliest and at any cost”.‘No plan survives the first shot ’
is an old military adage, but to suddenly be told that the objective has been shifted from a relatively obscure site, to two very strongly held Bridges, must have come as a shocker.
The River Idice is 100 meters(m) wide. It comprises of a 10m deep River which is about 30m across. On either side are 15m wide floodplains protected by 8m high and 20m wide embankments. A cross-section of this obstacle is depicted below: Anyone of the Indian Army will find it familiar as the classic ‘Ditch-cum-Bund’ or, DCB’s which were constructed as formidable defence lines in Punjab in the late 1960s and form part for the obstacle network on both sides of the Border, even today. To the physical obstacle, gradients, thick foliage, water, slush, would be added mines and wire.
The high embankments provide for ideal defensive positions with vast fields of fire. It is something that only an actual site visit can reveal. Even a satellite image of the crossing site today does not really bring out what 1/2 PUNJAB was confronted with.
Photograph taken on a peaceful summer day cannot reveal the defence potential and difficulty anyone would have in securing the strongly held River and both Bridges. Nevertheless, some images are necessary to imagine what it must have been.
While standing on the Near Bank Bund with a vista of the open Italian countryside on a glorious summer day, I tried to visualise what must have been churning in my Father’s mind on receipt of the changed orders at the Village of Il Casino, some 1800m from the River Idice, 75 years ago.
The order ‘earliest and at all costs’
The order from higher HQ implied that the objectives were vital for furtherance of operations in the theatre. Against this, were factors that:-
- The Battalion was confronted with a formidable obstacle, details of which were not known.
- The two Bridges were likely to be strongly held with strength and dispositions unknown.
- There was no time for preparation or, reconnaissance.
- Orders directed that the attack was to be earliest, ie, from the line of March.
- This implied a frontal, daylight assault in open country.
- All this, when the Battalion had been advancing and fighting for the past 12 hours.
For a military mind, each factor mentioned above, individually constitutes an element for failure. All combined, it was a recipe for disaster.
It is here that aspects of leadership, battle experience, boldness, determination to confront the unexpected, faith and fate come into play. As CO and being fully aware of the importance of the crossings and urgency in their capture, he would have spoken to his officers and men and motivated them for the task ahead. In such cases, it is a personal example and commitment which inspires men to go beyond the call of duty.
For the task 1/2 PUNJAB was allotted one Machine Gun Platoon, one Heavy Mortar Platoon and C Squadron 6th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment (RTR) less two troops. The Battalion was to attack with A and D Companies up, with B and C Companies in reserve. The attack commenced in the evening of 20th April 1945 supported and covered by artillery, tank and machine gunfire. It was daylight and open country.
The operation involved the capture of the Near Bank Bund, crossing a deep river with steep banks, clambering up and securing the Far Bank Bund. In addition, there would have been mines and wire entanglements, all effectively covered by machine gunfire. The two Bridges would have been strongly defended and possibly, wired for demolition. All in all, it was a very complex undertaking.
The Germans held their fire till the Companies were within 400m and then opened up from all sides. The two leading Companies continued to advance and fought their way to Near Bank where they were pinned down.
Some men of D Company made it to the Far Bank. A withdrawal was out of the question and the reserve Companies were sent to break the stalemate. It was a grim struggle with hand to hand fighting and severe casualties for the next three and a half hours before both Banks of the River and the Bridges were secured. Two out of the four Company Commanders were killed and the other two severely wounded. It was a remarkable action and an example of gallantry, spirit, leadership and true grit. The Companies of 1/2 PUNJAB were Sikh, Punjabi Mussalman and Dogra. All fought together for the Izzatand Glory of the Battalion.
The Official History has a detailed record of the Battle and the last paragraph is indicative of the mayhem it must have been:
The two platoons of D Company on the far bank had fought to the last man and the last round. They had stuck to their posts and died fighting bravely against heavy odds. Bodies collected later showed many bayonet wounds, their own bayonets were covered with blood. Thus ended the heroic struggle to establish a bridgehead over the River Idice. It was the Battalion’s finest effort and a glorious hour of trial.
The River was secured by 06:15 hours on 21st April 1945 and advance carried on to Mezzolara which was captured by 09:15 hours. Prisoners of War captured, revealed that the position had been held by about 150 to 180 Germans of the elite Parachute Division. Significance of this attack and breakthrough of the Chengis Khan Line elsewhere is that it shattered German resistance in Italy and they surrendered on 2nd May 1945. The Battle through costly thus achieved its objective
To read the account, register and relive this Battle at the site, was awe-inspiring and filled me with pride. I am convinced that this attack in which victory was obtained against severe odds, holds lessons for military men and is proof that leadership and determination can overcome the impossible. We may live in a changed world, but the conflict remains a part of human nature.
We saw such situations in Kargil. Our officers and soldiers, therefore, have to be prepared for such contingencies as a large portion of the obstacle system across our Western Borders is similar to that of the Chengis Khan Line. Study and relevance of this action in the current scenario are thus necessary and justified.
For me personally, the Crossing Site and Railway Bridge was a shrine and fulfilment my pilgrimage in every way and I paid homage to the fallen heroes and I saluted in their memory. All in all, it was one of the finest days of my life.
On my return to India, I was determined to gather more details. I visited the Historical Section of the Ministry of Defence and met its Director, Dr Narender Yadav. He was most forthcoming and readily produced an eight-inch high pile of files of the World War 2 records of 1/2 PUNJAB. Every page of the War Diary, patrol reports, strength returns, messages, notes were available.
It was a pleasure to see details of operations recorded in my Father’s hand and in particular, a three page cyclostyled account of the River Idice Battle with names of those involved. Two extracts wherein he has written about the Artillery Observation Post Officer are interesting
“The Arty O.P, Offr Lt SPIRO describing the action said that he had read of similar accounts in books but had never seen them. When one man fell, others came fwd to take his place and the advance continued under most withering fire.
Lt. SPIRO. R.A. FOO of A Coy, on Sub Sainchi Khan being wounded, though handicapped by language difficulty coordinated the Coy’s efforts most ably and admirably directed the arty fire which later in the night broke up another counter-attack and knocked out two en S.Ps and one armoured veh within 350 yards of the far bank. The efforts of this offr will always be cherished with great memory in the Bn.”
Dr Narender Yadav kindly permitted copies to be made of some documents for my record. One which I think is relevant to this write-up is a photograph of the page of the War Diary of the Battle. The War in Italy ended on 2nd May 1945. The award of the DSO was announced in the London Gazette on 13th December 1945 and the investiture took place at a parade on the Battalion’s return to Meerut in 1946.
After command of his Battalion, my Father moved as Chief Instructor to the Indian Military Academy and took over as its first Indian Commandant in 1947. He was also the first Commandant of the Joint Services Wing, the forerunner to National Defence Academy (NDA).
He retired as the Adjutant General in 1956 at the age of 49 and passed away in 1963, the day I left to join the NDA. I was very young and never had a chance to speak about his experiences. This pilgrimage, therefore, has allowed me to fill this important void. More importantly, transcribe a record of his deeds. A unit command is the ultimate for any soldier. To do so successfully in War would have been the acme of his military service.
In 2019 his Alma Mater, the Rashtriya Indian Military College (RIMC) honoured him in a calendar of World War 2 heroes. The month of April coincidentally was in his memory.
1/2 PUNJAB in recognition of its senior-most status became 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment or 1 PARA. It was later converted to a Special Forces Battalion and continues to earn laurels.
As I mentioned at the start, everything fell into place and in hindsight, I for one am convinced that my pilgrimage was a ‘Pukar’ or call, guided by destiny. This cover even extended to a 250km safe drive in Italy. Not only that, with COVID-19 having come about, but there also could not have been any visit to Italy in 2020!
Another reason why this is special is that I am not aware of anyone else in India who has visited battlefields where his Father fought in Europe during World War 2. Much less, the site of a spectacular Indian victory. The Pilgrimage was thus, destined, worth recall and a formal record.