The constant shrieking take Offs & touch downs Of fighter planes certainly stubbed the cantonment ambiance and was an ever present source of irritation for us. It is better to have well trained fighter pilots I thought, than have semi skilled ones who may drop missiles at our own advancing troops in the frenzy of a war! Ahead of me was the parade ground of our regiment – First Field Regiment, flanked by twin rows of Soak trees, which were now gently swaying in the breeze. Beyond the ground were the barracks – the living quarters of Swans, behind which were the M T vehicle park.
To my left were the regimental office buildings, all single story lines of rooms with a quarter guard and its segmental flag, Sentry & Cote where the regimental weapons were safely kept. Far away to my right stood the air field tower like a Quota Minor under the winter sun. Had just joined the oldest Artillery Regiment of Indian Army soon after passing out of Officers Training School. All officers were to undergo a course called Young Officers course soon after commissioning and I was preparing for that grueling six months course.
A newly commissioned officer would be really useful only after the Y. O course and it was that one does well in that course, I was told. From the corner of my eyes I Could see the quarter guard sentry hurrying awards us. He gave a smart salute & barked: C O Saab wants to see you sir. Taking permission from my instructor, I took my beret cap, checked my dress in the gunnery store mirror & hurried towards the Commanding Officer’s Office. Let. Cool. Dharma Veer Sings, an aging Lion was my commanding officer. Well respected by fellow officers & loved by Swans, D V was a true soldier.
I had heard stories from older swans of how as a young Captain in the 1965 war; D V Sings had rallied his troops despite serious injury. What would the Commanding Officer want of me, I wondered? A young Officer Eldon saw his CO before his Yes. Giving my smartest salute, I walked into his office. Cool. D. V. Sings lifted his head from the file he was studying and motioned me in. Not a very serious issue then thought, watching his face. He stood up, stretched his long frame & walked around his table towards me. Motioning towards the side table he asked “some tea for you Mono”.
I volunteered; let me make it for you sir. He then asked me how my pre Y O training was going on. We were standing next to the full length map of the western sector covering the whole wall. “You know in Y O s they train you on a 25 pounded gun? What we have here is an 105 mm and that too SP guns (self propelled guns mounted on Abbott tank chassis). You will find it difficult there at the school, Mono. So have suggested to the brigade commander that you be trained on a 25 pounded gun & he has agreed. So you will be attached to 98 Field Regiment in Fairport – the nearest 25 pounded regiment – for next 8 weeks.
Be ready to go tomorrow & report to Cap Freddie – Adjutant 98 Field Regiment. I know Freddie – he was my adjutant in the light battery in Tang a very fine officer, the best in fact. He is a silver gunner’ mind you. (Silver Gun is given to the Officer standing first in Young Officers course and is a dream of every young officer). I have spoken to him just now. He will train you well. Collect your movement papers from Cap Jukes right now, take a good driver & one ton truck early morning tomorrow. Any questions? ” ” No Is’ I responded. “O. K. Get moving” saluted & turned back to exit. And Mono,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes “use your time well there, no running after girls! Expect nothing less than a Silver Gun from you. O. K”? “Yes Is’ I replied. As I walked back from his office thought to my self where would you get to even see girls in a desert outpost like Fairport’? Fairport was right at the border, short of Pakistan & I know it was a desert town. The next day, I found that 98 Field Regiment was stationed not at Fairport but even beyond that at a desert outpost called Facile which was at the cross road of Punjab/Restaurants & Pakistan border. It was well & truly desert country.
After driving more than 800 SMS during the day, right through the heart Of Harlan & Punjab, I wearily stepped into Cap Fireside’s office by evening. Covered from head to foot with yellow dust, I must have presented a pathetic sight. Cap Frederick De Gamma Rose appeared as if he has just stepped out of a Hindi movie set. Tall, fair, broad shouldered with clean features, he looked striking in his games dress. Immediately a wave of inferiority complex swelled up within me. Cap Freddie was giving evening roll call instructions to the Subdued Major when I walked into his office & handed over my papers.
He glanced at me ? just a matter of fact glance, no welcome smile, no friendly gesture. He asked the SMS ‘Who is the duty officer today? Subdued Major replied ” Nazi Subdued Raja pal Sings. Sir” Cap Freddie said, “Take him off; 2nd LET Mono will do the duty today. He has just joined us & we have to make use of him”. Duty Officer’s job is a thankless job in Army. You have to be awake through out the night & do regular rounds of all sentry posts to check whether all are awake, doing their duties well, make sure none sleeps while on duty.
I field areas more so. And next day, no special concession is usually given because you were on duty the previous night. So your night gets roger & next day is an even bigger pain. ‘Thanks buddy’ I thought to my self There goes my night. Some day I will get a chance to return the compliment’. Keeping my face blank, as I knew that Cap Freddie was keenly watching my reaction, I listened to him again. “SMS Saab, ask some one to show 2/LET Mono the Officer’s Mess”. “And Mono, Meet me at the bar at 2000 hrs for a drink. We will catch up then. I saluted & trudged back to my vehicle along with the Subdued Major. SMS told me that he would depute Havilland Madhya Sings to take me around that night for the duty officer’s rounds. Me being new, he did not want any mix-ups. Before leaving, he told me that days password as well. Normally the duty Officer is expected to make minimum two rounds of hacking at night. It could be more, depending on Adjutant’s orders for the day. Expected at least 3 rounds that night. Asking Havilland Madhya Sings to wake me up when it was time to go, I hit the bed wearily after dinner & was instantly asleep.
When I woke up with a start, it was well past 3 AM & found Madhya Sings holding a cup of Tea for me! To my query, why he did not wake me up before, he said with a smile that Adjutant had told him that let the new Saab sleep for some time & to do the rounds only once that night! Over the next one & half hours we completed the checking of all sentry positions save one. And that was on top of a nearby hill called point 501 over looking the no man’s land in the border. I said to Havilland Madhya Sings “O. K. Let us finish the last one & get back to mess” He said, “Sir it is over, no need to go there! I asked: “Why, is there no guard there tonight? ” Madhya Sings explained, “No sir. Guard is there always. Tonight Nazi Rendered & his team are there on the top. But no need to check”. Was even more surprised. If there is a guard, must go & check. But clearly Madhya Sings was reluctant to take me there. I was fast losing my temper with him. Told him come what may, need to go up the hillock & check the award there. Tomorrow what will I tell Cap Freddie if he asks me whether did check Apt 501. To which Madhya Sings replied, “Sir, Cap Freddie also knows! I asked, “What does Cap Freddie know? What is there to know? ” By then we had parked our vehicle on the road side & Madhya Sings was making tea. Over a hot cup of tea he explained in his Resistant accented Hindi & broken English. Back in 1 965, 98 Field Regiment was in this very same location when the war broke out. Point 501 was a strategic look out point & was well guarded. That night, Nazi Ram Bernhard Sings & his section were on top of Apt 501. In the early morning hours due to exhaustion, they dozed off and the inevitable happened.
Pakistani commando’s sneaked in & killed every one of guard On apt 501 with bayonets. Soon Pakistani tanks rolled in & almost half the Indian regiment was butchered. Following a bitter man to man fight, 98 Field Regiment had to withdraw to regroup. We won back the territory as the war progressed but the loss was massive. The legend has it that thereafter any guard who dozes off at Apt 501 would get a slap on his face! Time & again it has happened was told! Madhya Sings he himself had received a stinging slap one night!! Madhya Sings was emphatic that no Indian soldier has ever slept on apt 501 since then!
Legend has it that Nazi Ram Buddha Sings was guarding Apt 501 ever since! “So sir. No need to go up there & check the guard” said Have. Madhya Sings. Hearing that, I was even more determined to go up there and see for myself where the massacre took place. Had to push Madhya Sings really hard before he finally relented to take me up there. We drove half a way up & then walked rest of the steep climb upwards. We had announced out arrival ahead over walked Talkie. So Nazi Rendered & his team were there ready to receive us. Surprise was writ large on their faces.
Point 501 looked like any other hillock over looking the no mans land & Pakistan beyond. The bunker there built with reinforced concrete, looked. Well equipped to meet any contingency. Unconsciously I found myself looking for some tell tale signs of that night’s bitter slaughter years back. Couldn’t see any thing. Came out of the bunker & stood watching the no man’s land ahead. Only then did realize how cold it was outside. Rendered & Madhya was inside the bunker, busy making tea. Wind blew with enough force to make the canvas behind me flap & roar.