Magazine article The Spectator

Different Races, Same Glory

Magazine article The Spectator

Different Races, Same Glory

Article excerpt

AS it is Christmas, I have decided not to write about the press. This is a tale about Britain, India and the Empire. For the past ten years or so my father-in-law, Peter Montague, has asked me to the annual luncheon of the 2nd Indian Field Regiment in which he served during the war. You might not think such a reunion exceptional, even over 50 years after the end of hostilities. Yet these are remarkable occasions by any yardstick. The 2nd Indian Field Regiment passed from British control at the time of Indian Independence in 1947. It has no premises of its own in this country nor any regimental memorabilia. Its few surviving officers used to meet in a modest Indian restaurant off the Tottenham Court Road. Since last year they have gathered in the slightly more salubrious Neel Kamal in New Cavendish Street.

Here 11 of them recently came together again, sitting around a table which occupies a corner of the restaurant. The few other people having lunch were oblivious of the significance of what was taking place; at one table three young white men and a young Asian chatted away happily. The Indian waiters, polite and bemused, bustled around with curries. Most of the soldiers are over 80 now, though some of them do not seem so. Their numbers dwindle year by year, but not their good humour. They generously welcome me at their reunions. As usual, this year my father-in-law had also invited his son and an old friend. There are rarely any other guests.

The 2nd Indian Field Regiment's most important day was 27 May 1942. The regiment was part of the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade which was in turn part of the 8th Army. The previous day the Brigade had arrived at a place called Bir Hacheim in the Libyan desert. It was expected that Rommel might try to outflank what was called the Gazala Line and retake Tobruk. That evening, the 26th, a young officer called R.C. Frisbee was sent out on a reconnaissance in an armoured car. He came across a German column which he briefly joined. On his return, he described what he had seen, and was disbelieved. It was suggested that he had encountered some South Africans.

On the morning of the 27th, Captain A.S. Naravane, a young Indian officer in the 2nd Indian Field Regiment, was looking through his binoculars when he saw what looked like huts at a distance of some 3,000 yards. They were German tanks. According to a written eye-witness account by Roger Lloyd Thomas, present at the lunch, Captain Naravane shouted over the radio that he `could see the whole German army'. He was told not to exaggerate by the battery commander, who then saw the approaching tanks himself.

The battle that ensued was very fierce. The 3rd Indian Motor Brigade was virtually destroyed, but it knocked out some 56 German tanks, of which at least 46 were attributed to the 2nd Indian Field Regiment. For most of the young men in the regiment this was their first time in action. At least six officers were killed and 12 were taken prisoner, my father-in-law, quite badly burned, among them. About 400 other ranks - all of them Indians were killed or captured.

But if the regiment suffered, so did Rommel's dreams. The German commander later wrote in his diary, `Our plan to overrun the British forces behind the Gazala Line had not succeeded. …

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