BOOK REVIEW: Camouflaged: Forgotten Stories From Battlefields

Probal Dasgupta (Wikipedia)


Probal DasGupta’s first book, ‘Watershed 1967: India’s Forgotten Victory Over China,’ gave rare granularity to the clashes that were central to India regaining control of strategically significant border areas in Sikkim. His latest offering, ‘Camouflaged’, is another masterpiece in which he has now brought to the fore ten forgotten stories from the battlefield.

The expanse of the book is vast, as the stories span over a century, from World War I to the 26/11 terrorist strike in Mumbai. From the ground to the air, battlefields far and near, from dense jungles to desolate mountains and densely populated urban areas, the settings of each tale vary, but what stands out is the character of these ordinary men who delivered extraordinary results when confronted with extreme challenges.

The book also gives a rare insight into the unique camaraderie and ethos of units, the family traditions of military service, and, more importantly, covers an aspect that is not written about often—the trauma faced by their families.

Arthur Conan Doyle bowling off spin in Eastbourne to a stylish turbaned Indian batsman is an unusual way to start a story about war and glory. From the grassy fields of England to the skies above France and air combat, ‘Sultans of the Skies’, is an incredible story in many ways.

Hardit Malik, studying in Oxford when the First World War broke out, was rejected by the British Air Force. He went on to be an ambulance driver in France and applied for the French Air Force who accepted him. His tutor in Oxford then shot off a letter to General Henderson the head of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and soon he joined the RFC and was even given a ‘special helmet to fit over his turban’.

He went on to join 28 Squadron and ‘determined to stamp his country’s presence in the war despite officially representing Britain’ had India painted on the side of his aircraft. He became an ace pilot but ended the war with a bullet lodged in his thigh while engaging in an air duel with Paul Strahle, a legendary German pilot. He later went on to become India’s Ambassador to Canada and France.

Laddie Roy the other pilot covered in this story also came from a privileged background and did his schooling in England, lying about his age he joined the RFC, he was told he had to ‘survive and fight and then survive again’. He did survive his first crash and after he recuperated he ‘persuaded the medics to pass him fit for flying duties’.

He became a ‘war veteran and teen sensation’ and took down nine German planes between 09 and 19 July 1918, unfortunately on 22 July 1918 the prodigy was shot down in a skirmish but this was after taking down two German aircraft. He was a trailblazer in combat flying in India and in 1998 a stamp was released in his honour.

‘Message In A Battle’ is the story of Gobind Singh of 2nd Lancers, a renowned Cavalry Regiment, who was awarded the Victoria Cross in the Battle of Cambrai in 1917. Belonging to Damoi in Nagaur District of Rajasthan, he was fearless.

This was the battle where tanks were introduced on the battlefield for the first time but after they had achieved the breakthrough, additional troops in the form of Infantry and Cavalry were required to follow on and capture the ground.

Indian soldiers of the Regiment with lances had charged ferociously at German Machine Guns; ‘raw courage against steel’. Though they had been successful they were soon surrounded by Germans and an urgent message needed to be sent to the Brigade Headquarters.

Sowar Jot Ram and Lance Daffadar Gobind Singh volunteered. Losing his horse, dodging bullets and feigning death he displayed unshakeable composure and resilience, he repeated this feat thrice and this act of ‘conspicuous bravery’ thwarted a major enemy breakthrough and was awarded the Victoria Cross. His son and grandson went on to serve in Second Lancers.

The story of Chanan Singh Dhillon; ‘Three Lives in War’; can be summed up in the words; ‘believe it or not’. A farmer’s son from Punjab, who was keen to join the Army, fell short of English proficiency to join as an officer. Nevertheless, he joined as a soldier and set off to fight World War II with his Engineer Regiment initially in Basra, Iraq and later in North Africa where he became a Prisoner of War (PoW).

This was in June 1942 a week before he was to return to India as he had been selected as an officer. Facing an Italian execution squad for complaining against the inhuman work conditions, he was saved by the Germans. While being transported to a PoW Camp in Italy their ship was hit by a British submarine ironically killing many British prisoners, he survived the boiling waters as SS Loretto went down in the Tyrrhenian Sea by clinging to a plank of wood.

Later, while in, Stlag 12 A, a PoW Camp in Limburg Germany he was nearly killed by an Allied air attack. He returned and became an officer and his children then helped put together the story of his remarkable ordeal based on his diary and letters which were written in Punjabi. Ironically, it all started the day he received the letter offering him the opportunity of his dreams.

The legendary tale of Colonel Chhewang Rinchen has been recounted in great detail bringing the enormity of his valour, the strength of his character and the adversity of the terrain and weather conditions where he fought.

He has participated in all of India’s Wars and been recognised for his extraordinary bravery and leadership having been awarded the Maha Vir Chakra twice. In 1971 he was instrumental in capturing a portion of Baltistan which resulted in the shifting of the line of Control. The villagers in this area, though Muslims, ‘ had reminisced about life before Pakistani occupation in 1948 and felt a greater kinship with their Ladakhi brethren’. ‘Today the legend of Stak lives on undefeated.’

‘The Rise and Fall of 1962’ is the story of Haripal Kaushik who fought the Chinese in Tongpen La leading his subunit of 1 SIKH in resolute defence applying his tactical acumen on the battlefield in October 1962.

He was fortunate to breakthrough the Chinese onslaught and returned weeks later absolutely bedraggled. He was shattered both physically and psychologically but fought back due to the faith of his Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Karnail Singh Sidhu and amazingly went on to play in the Olympics again winning his second Gold Medal in Hockey. A Vir Chakra for his ‘remarkable bravery’ and Arjuna Awardee Colonel Haripal Kaushik, known for his speed and stickwork, was indeed an extraordinary human being.

‘Top Guns of Boyra’ is an extraordinary narration which brings out the character of young men, the spirit of a unit and a sense of achievement as well as ethical soldiers’ conduct on the battlefield. Flying Officers Don Lazurus, Ganapathy, Soares and Massey of 22 Squadron flying Gnats were successful in destroying two Pakistani Sabres over Garibpur in November 1971. They displayed extraordinary flying skills and became legends ‘before they touched down’.

One of the Pakistani pilots was Parvaiz Mehdi Qureshi who was captured by 4 SIKH and saved from being beaten up by their Adjutant Captain (later Lieutenant General) HS Panag. Qureshi, a contemporary of General Musharraf went on to become the Pakistani Air Chief, had advised Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif against using air power during the Kargil war as it would have led to retaliatory escalatory measures. Many years later Don Lazurus, then settled in Coonoor, received a reply to his congratulatory letter to Qureshi in which he complimented him for the fight in Boyra.

Part III of the book covers the ‘Modern Era’- the Kargil War, insurgency and terrorism. Complex modern-day issues. Some stories are still classified in the sense that the names of the people can’t be revealed but their actions and reactions are fact and not fiction. How do you deal with a militant who admits he has been led astray, wants to make amends and is willing to help you? How do families support each other in times of crisis knowing fully well that their husbands could be the next victims?

‘The Warriors Code of Courage’ brings out the spirit, training and ethos of 21 Special forces (SF) and the manner in which they operate. There are two actions of one of their Teams which have been covered, one in Assam and the other in J&K. The manner in which an encounter takes place and the interpersonal relations within the Team, which is one of the closest relationships with a buddy willingly sacrificing his life for his colleague, brings out the character of these men, where in spite of being seriously wounded their thoughts lie only on successfully completing their mission.

The undaunted courage of Major Deepinder Singh Sengar who suffered serious bullet injuries in both operations and his colleague Saurabh Singh Shekawat who evacuated him both times and is one of the most highly decorated officers reflects rare bonding and loyalty and fills one with pride.

The dilemmas men face in battling these insurgencies, the effect of intense operations on soldiers, society and people living in insurgency prone areas as well as on the families of those combating it are vividly covered. There is no doubt that we need to preserve the perspectives of the protagonists so that they don’t get obliterated by the passage of time.

Books like this need to be read as they not only serve as an inspiration for the future generations but also build a sense of patriotism and pride in our Armed Forces.

Tales of soldiers, their courage and commitment are inspiring to say the least. Military heroism displayed in the face of extreme adversity wherein individuals take life threatening actions to uphold the honour of their units and the nation totally disregarding their own safety are rare acts of bravery, dedication and commitment whose tale needs to be told to a wider audience.

While the legacy of these brave men is well recorded in their units and by their families, the candid and intuitive manner in which Probal has weaved these tales by infusing life into them needs to be admired. It’s truly a book that is difficult to put down. Probal’s gripping narrative brilliantly matched by his eloquent prose while revealing what was hidden under ‘camouflage’ needs to be admired.