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The Garhwal Rifles – Saga of Valour

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By Sudhir Arora
In 1887 a new chapter was added to the martial tradition of Garhwal – land of ‘garhs’ (forts). On 05 May 1887, a ‘Garhwali’ regiment was born with the raising of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd (Kumaon) Gorkha Regiment at Almora, comprising of Garhwalis and Gorkhas. (Hitherto also, Garhwalis had been recruited in large numbers but into British Gurkha regiments.) The battalion moved to Kalundanda in the Garhwal Hills (subsequently renamed Lansdowne) the same year. In 1891 the Gurkha companies were transferred and the 39th (The Garhwal) Regiment of Bengal Infantry came into being, titled ‘Rifles’ in 1892. In 1901, another battalion of Garhwalis was raised and the two
eventually became the 1st and 2nd battalions, 39th Garhwal Rifles.
Early History
The young regiment was soon in action – in the Chin Hills, Burma (1890-93); Nawagai (1897-98) and Chitral (1898-99). The regiment fought with valour in the First World War in France, winning two Victoria Crosses – Naik Darwan Singh Negi at Festubert and Rifleman Gabar Singh Negi (posthumously) at Neuve Chapelle; the former had the distinction of being the first Indian to be presented the Victoria Cross personally by King George V. The two battalions lost 14 officers, 15 VCOs and 405 ORs killed in France alone. The Commander of the Indian Corps in France wrote: “…the Garhwalis suddenly sprang to the very front rank of our best fighting men… nothing could have been better than their elan and discipline”. The two battalions then went on to fight in Mesopotamia. The newly raised 3rd Battalion won the regiment’s third Victoria Cross – Lt WD Kenny, who died fighting great odds in Afghanistan. In 1921, the regiment was re-designated the 18th ‘Royal’ Garhwal Rifles and began wearing the Scarlet Lanyard (“Royal Rassi”) on the right shoulder.
World War II saw the 2nd and 5th Battalions in Malaya and the desperate rearguard action ending with the fall of Singapore in 1942, suffering immense casualties. The 1st Battalion was in Burma both in the Retreat and the Reconquest, ending the war with the liberation of Rangoon as was the 4th Battalion which saw intense fighting before proceeding to Kuala Lumpur to disarm the Japanese who had surrendered. The 3rd Battalion greatly distinguished itself in Abyssinia, and then Egypt, Cyprus, Iraq, Syria, Palestine and finally in the Campaign in Italy.
Post-Independence
Post-World War II demobilisation left the regiment with just three battalions, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd. With the nation becoming a Republic, the prefix “Royal” was dropped, and it became ‘The Garhwal Rifles Regiment’.
The 3rd Battalion distinguished itself in the J&K Operations (1947-48), winning a Maha Vir Chakra (MVC), 18 Vir Chakras (VrC), one Shaurya Chakra (then referred to as the Ashoka Chakra Class III) and 19 Mentions-in-Despatches in a single action – Tithwal! The CO Lt Col Kaman Singh was awarded the MVC and his name lives on at the ‘Kaman Aman Setu’ –a crossing point between J&K and PoK.
The 4th Battalion saw heavy fighting in NEFA in the 1962 Sino-Indian Conflict. For its brave stand in the face of overwhelming odds, the battalion was awarded Battle Honour “Nuranang” – the only unit to win a battle honour in NEFA. (This came at immense cost: 162 all ranks killed and 262 taken prisoner).  Nuranang has since been renamed Jaswantgarh, in honour of Rfn Jaswant Singh, MVC (Posthumous). The inspiring CO Lt Col (later Maj Gen) BM Bhattacharjea was also awarded a well-deserved MVC. In the PoW camp, the survivors of the battalion were singled out for extra punishment as retaliation for heavy casualties the Chinese had suffered at the hands of the Garhwalis.
In the 1965 Indo-Pak War, the 1st Battalion distinguished itself in operations to take Gadra City; the 2nd Battalion gave an excellent account of itself in the assaults on ‘OP Hill’. (Capt Chandra Narain Singh of this battalion, in a gallant night action against raiders in the Galuthi area, led the charge that killed six of the enemy before laying down his life. He was awarded the MVC posthumously.) The 3rd Battalion was in the Lahore sector, the 6th was in Sialkot where some of the heaviest fighting of the war took place – Charwa, Phillaura. The 8th was also in the Sialkot sector, and fought the fierce battle of Buttur Dograndi, paying a heavy price – it lost the both the CO and the 2IC within a span of two days of heavy fighting.
Eleven Garhwali battalions saw action the Indo-Pak War 1971. The 5th Battalion blazed a glorious trail in the Liberation of Bangladesh in operations in Hilli sector. The 12th took Hatibandha and participated in operations east of Dinajpur. In the West Pakistan front, the 3rd took Dhandar and Mukhwal (Shakargarh sector) and then penetrated up to Ramri in enemy territory while the 4th fought holding actions in Jhangar and the 6th in Sialkot re-took Nawanpind, carrying the defensive battle into enemy territory. The 7th was in Chhamb; the 8th in Punjab where it captured enemy post Ghurki; the 10th fought a notable action at Raipur Crossing in Akhnur-Jaurian. Its CO Lt Col Onkar Singh personally led one of the attacks, being critically wounded and later succumbing to his injuries.
Siachen, the highest battlefield in the world, has seen the Regiment’s units serving with distinction. Six battalions saw action during the IPKF operations in Sri Lanka. Garhwal Rifles battalions have seen extensive deployment in the North-East and J&K for Counter-Insurgency Operations. Two battalions took part in Operation Blue Star, where the Nk Bhawani Datt Joshi (9th Battalion) displaying gallantry of the highest order, laid down his life. He was awarded the Ashoka Chakra posthumously.
Three battalions – the 10th, 17th and 18th brought more laurels to the Regiment in ‘Op Vijay’ (Kargil, 1999). The 17th greatly distinguished itself in the Batalik sub-sector. The 18th took Point 4700 and a number of other features in daredevil attacks.
The Regiment has distinguished itself both in war and peace. Its exploits in mountaineering, the sports arena, UN peacekeeping operations, and in rendering aid to civil populace in times of calamity have ensured its continuing pride of place in the hearts and minds of the people of Garhwal, Uttarakhand and the Nation.
Today, The Garhwal Rifles is one of the biggest and most decorated infantry regiments of the Indian Army, proudly bearing 40 Theatre and Battle Honours, marching on to the tune of “Bade Chalon Garhwaliyo, Bade Chalo”, its battle cry: Badri Vishal Lal Ki Jai! resounding whenever the nation calls it to action.
(The author, publisher and editor, specialising in Indian military history. Apart from editing/publishing books on matters military, he has collaborated in bringing out several histories of Indian Army Regiments, among them The Garhwal Rifles. Views expressed here are his personal).