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Order of Red Star for Indian Soldiers – L.V.Mitrokhin (1975)

Indian soldiers awarded by Soviet Government in 1944

Documents connected with the Second World War in the National Archives of India as well as Indian newspaper files of the period provide a wealth of material on contacts between Indian and Soviet armed forces personnel during those years.

India sent the largest volunteer army in the world to the battle fronts of the West and East and due to this fact according to the opinion of many Indians could sit as equals with representatives of other nations which were fighting against fascism.

Over two and a half million Indians were recruited into the Army during the war years. On the battle fronts, in the rear or in fascist concentration camps Indian and Soviet army men met. There were touching incidents, showing Soviet appreciation of the goodwill and assistance of the Indian armymen to the Red Army's gallant struggle against the Nazis.

A Bulletin of the Information Service of the Government of India, Indian Information dated September 1, 1944, says: “At an impressive ceremony at the Soviet Embassy at Teheran, the Soviet Ambassador M. Maximov on behalf of the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the USSR, presented Russian decorations to officers and men of the British and Indian Armies for distinguished services in the transportation of arms, material and food to Russia.” Congratulating the recipients of the honours, the Soviet Ambassador acknowledged the help rendered by them to the Red Army. “It again emphasises the military cooperation of our peoples not only in the field of battle, but also in those areas which influence the success of operations in the field against our common enemy, Hitlerite Germany”, he said.

According to the Bulletin, the Order of the Red Star was presented to Subedar Narayan Rao Nikkam, village Nerala Hathi, Tehsil Kankanhalli, District Bangalore; and Havildar Gajendra Singh, of village Baraloo, Tehsil Shor, District Alrnora, who were serving in “General Purpose Transport Companies of the Royal Indian Army Supply Corps”.

It was an exciting and a rewarding experience tracing these two Indian soldiers years after that memorable day. Exchange of letters confirmed that retired Naik Subedar Gajendra Singh had received the Order of the Red Star in July, 1944, and that he now lived in Pithoragarh.

The road from Delhi to Pithoragarh, a distance of more than 500 kilometres, is not only bad in patches but positively dangerous. But motoring along it to meet Gajendra Singh, one was not aware of the discomfort. One remembered that the road traversed by Havildar Gajendra Singh and his comrades in-arms in 1942 44 for supplying war materials to Soviet forces at the Caucasus front must have been a thousand times more arduous and more dangerous. The 3,000 mile long road to the Caucasus, across burning desert and barren land, through 7,000 feet high mountain passes and low river beds passed through places where the temperatures varied from 130°F to 40° below Freezing point. It formed the vital supply link between India and the Soviet Union. From Peshwar to Tabriz, on the Iran Soviet border, this road was “India’s outstretched hand to Russia, bringing it vast resources to within a week’s road journey of Russia’s outlier frontier” (The Bombay Chronicle Weekly of August 13, 1944 published photographs of the two heroes and an article Soviet Honours for First Indian Soldiers).

One of the first reports in the Indian press on the British intention to lay the road for the supply of war material to Russia appeared in 77te Tribune of Lahore, of September 13, 1941. The report quoted Benter’s special correspondent in Teheran, who wired: “With Iran’s oil wells now safely under British control and with British and Russian forces occupying strategic points on its communications lines as well as blocking the path eastward through the Caucasus, the British and Russian Governments are now intensely studying the problems of sending war material to Russia through Iran. With only one railway and very few roads traversing the country which is three times the size of France, great difficulties have to be overcome”.

The Indian Information (December 15, 1941) confirmed that the construction of the road was in full swing. It said, “One more link with Russia is being established with the organisation of a regular supply route from India via Baluchistan and East Iran. More than 5,000 labourers are now employed in improving the road surface and it is expected that their number will shortly be increased to 8,000. Linked to the overland transportation arrangements put into commission by British experts, the Russian organisation called Iran-Sov-Trans now Lakes delivery at a series of points in Northern Iran.”

A stretch of this road, known as the East Persia Route, was completed in eight months, an average of three miles a day, by a pick- and shovel army of 30,000 men, women, and children supervised by a staff representing 15 different nationalities. The road was complementary to the West Persia routes for British and American supplies. “The quantity of supplies of jute, rubber, hessian, copper, tin and mercury that India can send to Russia is limited only by the transport facilities available”, said an Indian representative of one of the supply organisations according to the Indian Information (January 1944). “Already 1,000 lorries, mostly provided by India, are employed to full capacity. We expect a substantial increase in this number shortly", it said.

River beds were paved, drains were laid and hundreds of bridges built. Water and food for men and beasts was taken hundreds of miles by camel as the road was pushed forward. “We recruited people for the work from the towns and villages,” said one of the half a dozen British officers who supervised the work and who now live in New Delhi. “In spite of all the old nationalities and the widely differing engineering practices of the four foreign contracting firms everyone got along fine. We had Greeks, Yugoslavs, Belgians, Russians, Turks, Italians, Bulgars, and Rumanians, not to mention the Persians who provided most of the labour. The contractors’ representatives were a Dane, a Norwegian, Czech and an Austrian.”

The British authorities sent a special train of cameramen to prepare a film about the road from India to Russia. According to the Indian Information (May 1, 1944), “A graphic picture of the work of Indian troops in carrying war material for Russia through Persia and Iraq will shortly be available in a film which is now being prepared by a special team of cameramen. The film will tell the complete story of a gigantic undertaking from start to finish: from the time goods are landed at a port in Iraq to West Persia. The whole journey of some thousand miles by river, rail and road — through varied landscape and weather — show's Indian soldiers at work as engineers, labourers, drivers and sentries, all performing their allotted task with skill and patience, often in the most trying conditions”.

On this difficult road Subedar Narayan Rao Nikkam and Havildar Gajendra Singh travelled day and night to reach war supplies to the Red Army. Thoughts of these and other Indian soldiers who risked their lives to go to the rescue of the embattled soldiers of the Red Army on the Caucasian Front crowded the mind as one motored to Pithoragarh to meet one of the heroes.

Retired Naik Subedar Gajendra Singh was expecting us at his village situated in the picturesque Shor Valley of district Pithoragarh. It was May 2, 1975. Thirty years ago on this day the Soviet Red Army was already in Berlin. Before us was a man who had actively helped the Red Army in crushing the fascist hordes of Hitler, a man who was given one of the highest military awards by the Soviet Government. 

At first sight, Thakur Gajendra Singh looks like any one of the thousands of retired military personnel scattered all over the border district of Pithoragarh. But when you begin to talk to him you realise that here is a man of iron will and dauntless courage. His devotion to duty is unmistakable. A modest man, this is his story as he told it:

“I was born in 1916, during the First World War, in my village Badalu. I studied in Pithoragarh and Dehradun. In 1933 I enlisted as a sepoy in the Royal Indian Army Supply Corps. In 1942, our unit was posted in Basra and subsequently we set up our headquarters in Khanikin. I was assigned breakdown duty by my Company Commander and was responsible for looking after the disabled vehicles of our supply convoy.

“Our main task at Khanikin was to reach supplies to the Russian soldiers fighting the German invaders in the south of Russia. From Khanikin to Tabriz via Hamadan was three days of arduous journey on six-ton trucks. Our officers told us how important it was that the supplies reach our Allies, the Russians, who were keeping the enemy from marching towards India. We worked day and night, not bothering about the dangers lurking behind every hillock, every tree, every corner and kept up the supplies of military hardwarb, ammunition, rations and other material. In our heart of hearts we knew that this ammunition and these rations were as vital for the defence of India, as it was for the defence of the Soviet Union. We knew that the enemy we were fighting was ruthless. He was the enemy of mankind. This realisation gave us additional strength.

“In 1943, during one of these trips, I was wounded. While we were unloading war supplies in the dark, someone thrust a bayonet in my left thigh. I was taken to a military hospital in Basra where the doctors suggested that I should be sent to India for treatment and rest. I flatly refused to leave my unit and told my C.O. that I did not want to go to India but would like to go back to my duty as soon as I was fit to travel again. My C.O. was pleased by my devotion to duty and agreed to keep me at Basra till I recovered. I stayed in the hospital for twenty- four days, after which I resumed duty.

“Everyone in my unit, including my C.O., was surprised at my refusal to avail myself of the opportunity to go back to my country, for everyone loves his life and it is normal to want to go back to one’s own country after such a long time. I knew that at that stage of the war each soldier was valuable for defeating the fascist enemy and at that critical stage I did not want to leave my comrades in the unit. Our unit continued supplying these war materials to our Russian counterparts for almost a year and a half, i.e., till the middle of 1943. Then our unit was transferred to Italy.”

(The scope of the supplies was vast. As Indian Information said. “Over 5,000 tons of vital war materials per month have been sent from India to Russia during the past six months along the East Persia route, which follows the age-old caravan track now converted into a modern motor highway. Russia has received quantities of gunny bags, tossa canvas, jute ropes, tea, pepper, tin, wolfram and silk. Two special consignments consisted of 1,000 tons of nickel and 1,000 tons of harvest yarn, both of which reached Russia in record time. The harvest yarn was made to a very exacting specification by the Calcutta Jute Mills. It had to reach before the Russian harvest began and the average timing from Calcutta to the handing-over point was 28 days. Tin, mercury, wolfram and silk were flown from China to Assam in American aircraft, and railed to Zahidan for transport by truck. Hundreds of lorries have been used to reach the consignments to our Allies in the north, and the road surface from Zahidan right up to the Russian border has been kept in excellent repair”.

"What is your impression of the Soviet Red Army soldiers with whom you came into contact in the one and half years your unit was supplying war materials to them?” we asked Thakur Gajendra Singh.

“We came in contact with soldiers and officers of the Red Army only during the unloading operations. We found them kind, courteous and brave. Of course, we could not speak Russian nor could they speak English or Hindi, but we conversed through Iranian interpreters. The Red Army soldiers exuded warmth and great self confidence. They seemed to be prepared to go to any extent to defend their motherland and to rid it of the Nazi marauders.

“The first time I reached Tabriz 1 was greatly surprised to find women soldiers manning the gates and working shoulder to shoulder with men. These were not ordinary women. They were Durgas whose wrath the god-forsaken Nazis had incurred. This was the first time I have seen women soldiers on combat duty. I was deeply impressed. I knew then that a nation for whose defence even the women have come forward can never be vanquished.

“As a soldier, who actively participated in the Second World War, what have you to say about peace? Do you think peace is essential for mankind?”

“Yes indeed. There shouldn't be any more wars. Wars arc the greatest calamity that can happen to mankind but if some usurper like Hitler again dares to wage a war we should fight him and crush him. On this auspicious occasion, when the 30th anniversary of victory over fascism is being celebrated, I send my heartiest greetings to the Red Army veterans who fought with us to defeat our common enemy, fascism.”

“What were your feelings when you were informed that the Soviet Government had awarded you the Order of the Red Star for your bravery and your help to the Red Army?”

“I received the news when our unit was posted in Italy. It was in July 1944 that my C.O. informed me of this. Though I received six decorations and medals during my career in the army I never felt so thrilled as when I heard that the Soviet Government had awarded me and Subedar N. R. Nikkam, the Order of the Red Star... I was thrilled again when I received your letter saying you wished to meet me. I am grateful to you personally and to H. E. the Ambassador of the USSR. V. F. Maltsev, for remembering me on this occasion and inviting me to attend the reception to be held on 9 May, 1975, at the Embassy of the USSR. I consider it an honour and I will be there.”

Like a true soldier he kept his promise and was the star attraction at the reception.

Some time later, came a letter from an old friend. Com. D. S. Sriramulu of Bangalore conveying the information that the other Indian soldier awarded the Order of the Red Star, Subedar Narayan Rao Nikkam, was living in Connoor in Tamilnadu. Another friend A. S. Moorthy travelled there to meet him. An account of the meeting was published recently in the Soviet Land magazine.

“On February 2, 1976” wrote Moorthy, “I found myself sitting with Narayan Rao Nikkam, now a grand old man, in his cosy home in Connoor, listening closely as he reminisced about his past, about events of more than three decades ago. It was difficult for him to recapture all the details of those long and hazardous treks in far away Persia. But he vividly remembered the glittering ceremony in Teheran, at which Soviet decorations were presented to the officers and men of the RIASC. He treasured every detail of it. He showed me an old faded photograph of the presentation ceremony in which he is seen shaking hands with the Soviet Ambassador M. Maximov: and also a clipping from the Mail of Madras, yellowed with age, carrying the news of the Teheran function under the heading. Russia Honours Indian Soldiers — Gallant Sendees in Carrying Supplies . 

“Nikkam was conscious that in reaching those supplies to the beleaguered Red Army on the Caucasian Front, he was not only carrying out his duty as a soldier but also serving the cause of the defence of his motherland, for that army was the only effective barrier between it and the rapacious Hitlerite hordes who had their greedy eyes on the vast natural resources of India. Nikkam’s wrinkled face was suffused with light — a glow from the past — as he recalled his association with the Soviet armymen whom he used to meet in Tabriz. He spoke about them with warmth as one speaks about one’s comrades-in-arms. His eyes lit up when he recalled the role of Soviet women in the war. ‘They did not lag behind the men in serving the country even at the front. Women, donning military uniforms, were at work at the transit point in Tabriz. Very few Russians spoke English; despite the language barrier, however, close bonds of mutual understanding, of sympathy and solidarity in the common cause of struggle against the most brutal enemy of mankind, did develop between the Red Army men and men of the RIASC. From the limited association I had with the Soviet army men and women at the transit points I can say that they were very hospitable and generous people, with an implacable hatred for the invaders,' he said.

"As a soldier hero, Mr. Nikkam, what do you think of war? I asked him. Won't you like a man to prove his worth in the thick of a battle just as you did?”

“Throwing up his hands in a gesture of horror, he exclaimed: ‘Oh my God! Let there be no war. There must not be any!’ He spoke holding his two grandchildren in a tight embrace, and words came from the depth of his heart: ‘Why should there be any war? Can’t men and women prove their mettle in peaceful construction? War is barbarious. I don’t want our young men to experience the horrors of war’.”

Six months earlier the issue of Janashakti dated April 19, 1944, frontpaged a report about other Soviet honours to Indian war heroes. Quoting Moscow newspapers, it reported the USSR Supreme Soviet’s awards to “distinguished soldiers of the Indian, American and British armies who fought in North Africa and Italy”. It gave details of “three Indian Army officers who fought courageously against the Hitlerite army” and who were awarded Soviet honours. They were Captain Ram Singh {Order of Kutuzov, III class); Subedar Pritha Singh Kurung {Order of the Patriotic War, I class); and Lt. Col. W. R. B. Williams {Order of Nevsky). 

Not ail memories are associated with the glitter of awards and connected ceremonies. There are some full of pathos. But not only pathos. With pride and humility, one learns that the seeds of the ever blossoming Soviet-Indian friendship are also scattered over such an improbable soil as a Nazi concentration camp. One Indian, who eagerly grasped the hand of friendship proffered by men of the Red Army in a Nazi concentration camp, was P. Chandragason. Now an ISCUS activist in Madras, he relives those days with a great deal of passion when asked to tell us about them (at a recent chance encounter in Madras at the home of a friend Dr. Krishnan).

Chandragason was part of the eager crowd that greeted Marshal Zhukov when he visited Madras recently. And he had a special reason to be there. He had seen Marshal Zhukov in Germany during the war. Still moved by the memory of those days, he recalled with emotion that it was the courageous action of the Soviet troops under the command of Marshal Zhukov that saved his life and the lives of other Indian POWs in Nazi concentration camps.

We listened in a hush as he gave flesh and blood to those distant memories: “I joined the army in 1938 and was serving in the Royal Artillery Field Regiment. I was hardly 16 then and. to be. frank, did not know much about what was happening in the world. We were stationed in Bangalore in 1930, when the war started. Soon, we were sent for special training in fighting the Germans and Italians in Africa. The training was ,very intensive, because we were told the enemy was very well-equipped, modernised and trained. After a very strenuous battle innoculation, we were sent for embarkation to Bombay. In 1941, we landed in Africa and soon we found ourselves in Alexandria. At that time, we were in the 4th Indian Infantry Division, along with the fifth. From Alexandria we went to Cairo (Reinforcement Camp Mina), where we underwent special train¬ing in desert warfare. Our first battle with the Italians was very successful. In spite of the propaganda about the invincibility of the Black Shirts, we Indians, with very old equipment, managed to overrun them and captured almost 20,000 Italians as prisoners, pushing them up to Bengazi (Tripolitania). Then the German Panzers moved near Bengazi and Tobruk. And we were forced to retreat. During the battle, many of our troops were killed, specially in aerial attacks by Stuka dive bombers. We lost lot of our equipment, but managed to reach Tobruk for reinforcements.

“The Germans cut us off. The order was to retreat to Alamaine, except for the Levant Indian Infantry Brigade in which such prominent names as Capt. Kumaramangalam (in later years the Army Chief of Staff of India) and Ayub Khan (who later became the President of Pakistan) were fighting. We were ordered to fight to the last.”

The conditions in Tobruk at that time were hellish. “All other troops — the New Zealanders, Australians, South Africans had retreated earlier. At last we Indians, after very severe fighting without proper equipment, food and water, had to surrender to the Germans.

“The Germans immediately moved us — Punjabis, Gurkhas, Sikhs, Mussalmans — to Italy, and put us in concentration camps. I was in prison camp No. 91 — Avizano, from where under instructions from Capt. Kumaramangalam, we attempted to escape. The Germans opened fire and about a hundred Indians were killed. This was in 1943. Those who were caught were loaded into cattle-trains and sent to Germany.

“Along with three other Indians (I think it was in September October 1943), I managed to escape. We were in hiding for quite a long time, moving only in the night, sleeping only in deserted Italian houses. During that period, I learnt Italian, and posed as an African. At last we reached Monte Casino. At Attino, I fell seriously ill but some Italian anti-fascists found me and saved my life.

The Italians were very strongly anti-German then. I was in hiding and living with Italians up to 1944. The frontline was approaching Monte Casino where one of the biggest fights between the British and the Germans was taking place. I could see the aerial combats. I decided to somehow get through the frontlines and join the army. I was almost successful. But I was caught at the very last moment by some young German soldiers, and after severe beating, I was taken to Germany.

"First, I was put in the concentration camp near Munich called Aistadt and from there I was sent to the camp called Stallag 7A somewhere near Auschwitz where Russian prisoners were kept along with Indian, British and American prisoners. We lived comparatively well under the protection of the International Red Cross. We received food, warm clothes, etc., but the Russian prisoners did not get anything at all. They were treated as worse than beasts. Their barracks were next to ours, about 20 yards away, separated by barbed electric wire. Among the Russian prisoners were many high ranking 

officers. But they were in rags. And sometimes as many as 20 Russians would die on a single day.

“Once we gathered and decided that we should do something to help our Russian fellow-prisoners. First, we established some code signals with them. Hello, one finger meant a cigarette. We gradually established contacts and started communicating with them. Some of them knew English. We bribed some German sentries with certain things we got from the Red Cross — chocolates, soaps, cigarettes. And we succeeded, perhaps because the more discerning of the Germans felt that the fall of Hitler was imminent. Food, cloth, soaps and cigarettes were thus passed to the Russian prisoners. Then it was decided to dig a tunnel under the wire and share our food rations with them. They sent us messages thanking us.

“In April 1945, the memorable day of our liberation came. Marshal Zhukov’s soldiers liberated us from the concentration camps, saved our lives, and that is how after more than 35 years I am here with you. The Russian soldiers were very friendly to us. They stored out the strong and healthy from the wounded and ailing, and those who were able to fight, including Indians, were sent to different areas for occupation of Germany. After the German surrender, we were sent to Rhymes and from there to England. The British were very suspicious and only after very tough checking did they release us.

“The Russians, who were all along very friendly, gave us medical treatment and even invited us to settle in Russia. Remarkably, they were absolutely free of any racial prejudice. They were always friendly and cheerful. Even in the prison camps, one had to admire their heroic behaviour and their sense of collectivism. They were always together in a group. We know that they were sabotaging any work they were forced to do. Their slogan was ’No assistance to the enemy'. There were several occasions when we were sent together on road construction work. They went without shoes in rags. The work gave us the opportunity to give them shirts, shoes, socks, etc. The Germans forced them to work, but they did it in such a way as would make matters worse.

“Now some people wonder about the roots of Indo-Soviet friendship. For myself the origin of the friendly feeling for Russia was begun on the concentration camps of Germany”.