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A heroic soldier

Print edition : Jun 02, 2006 T+T-

A book on one of the ablest and most popular Army Chiefs of the country, and another on 12 distinguished soldiers.

GENERAL Thimayya was the ablest of India's generals and easily the best-loved - a rare combination. He was popularly known as `Timmy'. He was the most outstanding field Commander in the Indian Army and was the first and only Indian to command a fighting brigade in battle, in the Arakan, in World War II. He won the British Distinguished Service Order on the battlefield." Passage of time has not diminished the truth and the warmth of the late Brigadier John Dalvi's warm tribute to General Thimayya in his classic Himalayan Blunder (1969). To this day, he is spoken of only in the superlatives; even by one of the most flamboyant successors addicted notoriously to self-praise.

Thimayya commanded the Punjab Boundary Force at the time of Partition; he bravely led his men in the summer offensive in Kashmir (1948). His opening of the Zoji La Pass through a blitzkrieg, using tanks, has passed into legend. Thimayya led from the front. He was in the lead tank. He was chairman of the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission in Korea.

As a daily remarked when Thimayya was appointed Army Chief in March 1957, "A thrill has just passed through the Army; a signal has gone out that Timmy is on." By September 1959, his morale and that of his men was broken by Jawaharlal Nehru.

Thimayya fell out with Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon and resigned. The resignation would have greatly undermined Krishna Menon's prestige and to an extent, Nehru's as well. Nehru persuaded Thimayya to withdraw his resignation - only to censure him severely in Parliament the next day. Someone put it very well - Nehru was vastly over-rated as a statesman; greatly underestimated as a politician. Nehru also persuaded the Chiefs of Navy and Air Force to break ranks with the Army Chief and not resign. Thimayya retired as the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) in March 1961. A terrible two years were in store for the Army and the country. Thimayya died in Nicosia in December 1965 as Commander of the United Nations Forces in Cyprus.

In Brigadier Chandra B. Khanduri the great soldier has a devoted biographer. He has had access to official records, thanks to the COAS, General S. Padmanabhan, and to the Thimayya Papers.

The book has been published under the auspices of the Centre for Armed Historical Research, United Service Institution of India. Its only flaw - apart from silly comments such as that Mountbatten wanted Junagadh to accede to Pakistan - is its perfervid style. Hagiography is not biography.

That said, it is a substantial contribution to the history of our Army. The resignation episode is well covered. The text of the letter of resignation is published in full.

Major-General V.K. Singh writes succinct and fair profiles of 12 distinguished soldiers; namely, Field Marshal K.M. Cariappa, Lt.-Gen. Thakur Nathu Singh, General K.S. Thimayya, Lt.-Gen. S.P.P. Thorat, Brigadier Mohammed Usman, Field Marshal SHFJ Manekshaw, and Lieutenant-Generals R.N. Batra, P.S. Bhagat, Sagat Singh, Z.C. Bakshi, S.K. Sinha and Hanut Singh. It is severely factual, laced with humorous anecdotes and is, altogether, a very useful book.