Richpal Ram was from a village in Patiala, a princely state and traditional hunting ground for the recruitment officer. The 40-year-old was tall and thin with a prominent chin.
Married with a young family, he was a lifelong soldier who had worked his way up from the ranks and hailed from a region with a long history of service. Men from his village came and went into the army. And he would have known men who had seen action in the First World War. He himself had only just missed participating in that war—joining the Indian Army in 1920.
By 1941 he had only been abroad for four months, but as a subedar in the 4th battalion of the Rajputana Rifles, he was part of a battle-hardened infantry team. The 4th battalion had sailed for the Middle East just as war broke out and had arrived in October 1939.
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The men struggled to sleep the night before the new assault on Feb. 12.
The mood was not good and there was low cloud in the sky. “We had a miserable night because there were a few sharp showers of rain and a few mortar bombs which kept us awake,” their senior officer reported, and just after midnight they heard that there was going to be a delay. The attack was postponed for another 24 hours and the tension mounted.
The enemy was estimated at two battalions, but there were rumours that more were collecting up on the hills above them. Any earlier optimism about Italian desertions and fragility had dissolved after the first attempt. In the 4th battalion of the Rajputana Rifles, B and C companies had been fused into one new company—a reflection of the extent of casualties. Sepoys waited, joked and smoked while British and Indian officers shared a tin of beer in the officers’ mess with the colonel, Frank Messervy, who had come to rally them.
Ram was in the advance platoon of his company as they started their second assault just after five the next morning as the sun began to rise. Once again his eyes were fixed on Sangar, transfixed by trying to capture the small scrap of rock, so narrow that it could barely hold more than a platoon of men.
He had already held this place once for several hours, but as expected, almost immediately the company came under fire.
The mortar fire exploding around the men was intense as Ram urged them on alongside him in the midst of the blasts: his company was taking the bulk of the shelling, clearly in the sightline of the Italian troops above who directed many of their mortars against them. The company “became the target for every mortar attack in the area from the moment it set out.” The British artillery would fire 5,000 shells against the Italian troops that day but, in the words of their senior officer, “It never seemed quite enough.”
From the headquarters, a short distance away, nothing could be seen apart from the blast and smoke of explosions for over an hour. Occasionally, Italian troops could be glimpsed through the smoke, rushing up the crest and hurling bombs at troops below them. While mortars exploded, men also came under machine-gun fire.
Carriers and stretcher-bearers scrambled up and down the rocks, carrying up water and ammunition and carrying down messages and bringing in the injured. “All runners who reached Bn. HQ (battalion headquarters) were without exception wounded and all men sent forward for any reason with ammunition or with messages went cheerfully and confidently.” One Subedar-Major Tota Ram “was indefatigable in his efforts” going up and down the ridge organising ammunition and water to try to supply the exhausted men struggling above.
There were few trees for cover and the men were stepping forward almost in the certainty of being killed. They had repeatedly been told to hold their objectives and that the eventual capture of Keren could unlock the whole struggle over North Africa.
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Naik Maula Baksh, just 18 years old, from Jhelum in Punjab, advanced on his own with a machine gun, took two enemy posts then held ground and fired until he was killed himself.
Ram also charged ahead, “leading the forward platoon through intense fire with grim determination and complete disregard for his own safety.”
The firing against them was heavy and accurate. Ram’s battalion sent a terse message: “Being bombed to hell” and requesting, once again, more artillery cover. He was still pushing his men onwards, coming under fire and suffering further wounds as he died on the mountainside, telling his men as he lay bleeding and dying that they would capture the objective.
The tattered company pressed on for the rest of the morning without Ram. They inched forward towards Sangar but were driven back again. Their lines were cut and they found themselves marooned again for the second time in a week. Around half past ten in the morning, the men received the order to retreat. The shell-shocked men clambered back towards their starting point and began to realise their losses. In the words of one commanding officer, they had “failed gallantly.”
In five hours of fighting that morning, the 4th battalion of the Rajputana Rifles lost a further 36 men. One hundred and thirty seven were injured and seven were missing. The men who were killed alongside Ram that day ranged from 17 years of age to late thirties. Both Muslims and Hindus, they were drawn from a sweep of India stretching from the northern districts of Punjab down to southern Rajasthan.
Ghulum Haider was 17, unmarried and from Attock in present-day Pakistan. Gheba Khan was 19 and from Rawalpindi. Bhuja Ram was 25 and from Jaipur.
Excerpted with permission from The Raj At War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War, Yasmin Khan, Random House India. This post first appeared on Scroll.in. We welcome your comments at email@example.com.