The joy of WhatsApp is that you sometimes learn things you could not even have dreamed of. That happened to me last week. It’s a story not just from another time but you could even call it another world. After double checking its accuracy I shall share it with you today. I hope it will bring forth a warm and happy smile.
In 1942 when Rommel’s Afrika Korps overran the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade at the Battle of Ghazala in North Africa, seventeen Indian army officers were taken prisoner and, eventually, interned in the Aversa prisoner of war camp in Italy. They were of different faiths and, even, different ethnicities. None knew at the time how glorious their careers would one day be.
The captured officers included Major P. P. Kumaramangalam, Captain A. M. Yahya Khan, Captain A. S. Naravane, Lieutenant Tikka Khan and Lieutenant Sahibzada Yaqub Khan. Kumaramangalam rose to be India’s army chief (1966-69), Yahya Khan became Pakistan’s army chief and then president (1966-71). Tikka Khan succeeded him as Pakistan’s army chief (1972-76), Naravane rose to be a Major General and wrote about the Aversa PoW camp in his memoirs (A Soldier’s Life in War and Peace) and Yaqub Khan became Pakistan’s foreign minister.
In his memoirs Naravane says Kumaramangalam, as the senior most, was appointed Camp Senior Officer. Yahya Khan was the Camp Adjutant. Tikka Khan was the Camp Quartermaster. I’ve pieced together the story of what thereafter happened to four of these officers both from the WhatsApp I received and from Pakistan’s Friday Times. It’s a tale with a happy ending.
In the confusion that followed Italy’s capitulation in September 1943, several of the officers, including Kumaramangalam, Yahya Khan and Yaqub Khan escaped. The Friday Times says “they moved between the coast and the spurs of the Apennines, avoiding German patrols and frequently hiding in forests”. Yaqub Khan spoke Italian and that enabled them to find shelter with friendly Italian peasant families.
At some point Yahya Khan separated from the others and, after marching 400 kms, made contact with an Indian battalion. He arrived with just one shoe! Kumaramangalam and Sahibzada continued to seek shelter and sanctuary with Italian families for a few months longer. When they made their break for freedom Kumaramangalam was gifted a necklace as a good luck charm by one of the Italian mothers who had become fond of him. Alas, it didn’t help.
A few days later, on a dark night, he slipped and fractured his ankle. The Friday Times says he pleaded with Yaqub Khan to leave him but the young Lieutenant refused. Not surprisingly, they were captured by the Germans and transferred to a camp called Stalag Luft III. Years later it became famous because it featured in ‘The Great Escape’.
The Friday Times story, written by Major General Syed Ali Hamid and published in February 2019, takes this enchanting tale of our four musketeers right to the point where they became famous, powerful and reached the top of their careers. When Yahya Khan visited Delhi in 1966, as C-in-C designate of Pakistan, he was received at the airport by Gen. Kumaramangalam, then the chief of the Indian army. When Sahibzada Yaqub Khan, as foreign minister of Pakistan, visited Italy, he made a point of meeting the family that had sheltered him and his fellow officers during the war.
Now, this is not a big story and you may well wonder why I wanted to share it with you? Because it’s a vignette of a time when Indians and Pakistanis, hindus and muslims, Pathans and Tamils were not just friends but brothers-in-arms. Partition has sundered us, politicians regularly stoke the embers to keep the fire alight and, sadly, generations have grown up, not just in ignorance of each other, but taught to dislike and hate. Yet there was a time when we were one, fought for the same army and were the closest of friends.
Sadly, that world is lost and gone forever.