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Remembering India's First Field Marshal

Born into a Parsi family in Amritsar, the community had migrated from Persia to India to avoid religious persecution and first landed as refugees in Gujarat. Sam's grandfather, Framji, was a teacher in Valsad, with Morarji Desai, a freedom fighter who later would go on to become the Prime Minister of India, being one of his students. Sam's father, Hormusji, born and raised in Valsad, went on to study medicine at Grant Medical College in Bombay, where he met and fell in love with Hilla Mehta. After a long courtship, the young Hormusji dashed off his savings to propose to Hilla, and they got married in 1899. His medical practice did not fare well, and the couple strived to make ends meet.

His friends suggested he move to Lahore, as there was a shortage of medical practitioners. With their firstborn, they boarded the Frontier Mail at Bombay Central Railway Station and, after 2 days, arrived in Amritsar. Sam describes his mother, who lived all her life in Bombay, as distressed at the sight of tall, well-built Sikhs standing on the platform. Watching his panicking wife, Hormusji decided to return to Bombay, but once they entered the beautiful city, they changed their mind and settled in Amritsar. He set up a clinic and pharmacy at Katra Ahluwalia, and his practice flourished since he was the only doctor, and the medicines he prescribed were affordable. In a short time, they purchased a plot on the Mall and built their home. All of their six children grew up in this home. General Manekshaw visited the clinic while on an official tour to Amritsar; the Manekshaw Home on the Mall, Amritsar.

During World War I, Hormusji signed up for the Indian Medical Service. He served in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and Egypt as a Captain. After the war, he returned to Amritsar and resumed his practice. He was a founder member of the Rotary Club of Amritsar, and the couple led an active social life. Since there were no English medium schools in Amritsar, the couple sent their children outside the city for education. Fali, the firstborn, was sent to Bombay; Jan, Sam, and Jemi to Sherwood College, Nainital; Cilla and Sheroo attended the Convent of Jesus and Mary at Murree. Fifth of the six children, Sam was the most mischievous. As a child, he was extremely fond of his father and used to accompany him on visits to patients and his pharmacy. Hence, he desired to study medicine. Aware of his mischievous son, Hormusji put a condition of sending him to England for higher studies only if he did well in high school. Undeterred, Sam took up the challenge and passed his examinations in 1931 with distinction. But Hormusji had second thoughts about leaving a young boy unsupervised. Besides having financial constraints with two sons already studying in the UK, he suggested Sam wait for a year and had him admitted to Hindu Sabha College in Amritsar. This left Sam heartbroken and resentful, such that he didn’t speak much to his father for 18 months!

Sam borrowed money from his mother, went to Delhi, and took the entrance examination for the IMA in 1932. The British established the Indian Military Academy (IMA) at Dehradun, the same year, for young men aspiring to join the army as Commissioned officers.

Sam stood sixth in the order of merit and was admitted as a Gentleman Cadet (GC) in October 1932. The academy combined strenuous physical and small arms training with lectures on junior-level leadership and military tactics. The young men were transformed into officers and gentlemen; disciplined; courteous; well-mannered, and immaculately turned out. Having good scores in English and Mathematics, Sam was initially assigned to ‘B’ Company, Woolwich Wing, which trained officers for technical arms like Engineering and Signals. But his grades slipped, and he was transferred to Sandhurst Wing, where officers were trained for fighting arms. His company commander was Maj D.T. ‘Punch’ Cowan (6th Gorkha Rifles) under whom he would serve and later in Burma during World War II, earn his Military Cross. His first report from Maj Cowan read, ‘…he can maintain a stiff upper lip in adversity, does not lose heart and possesses the power of command, drive, and a cheerful personality. He is popular with his fellow cadets.’

As a GC, Sam displayed all the hallmarks of leadership; he excelled in sports, mainly Tennis and boxing, although he was often in trouble because of his rumbustious nature. On liberty one weekend, along with his two course-mates (Maharaja Kumar Jit Singh of Kapurthala and Haji Iftikhar Ahmed), he decided to visit Mussoorie. The young men went to a floor show on Sunday evening, lost track of time, and missed the last bus to Dehradun and had to spend the night in Mussoorie. When they arrived at the Academy on Monday morning, they were promptly ‘put on charge’. As punishment, all three were gated and confined to barracks for 15 days. Sam, who was a corporal, lost his stripes, which were ceremoniously peeled off his sleeve by the Adjutant, Capt J.F.S. McLaren of the Black Watch Regiment. 22 cadets from Sam’s batch were able to complete the course and passed out from the Indian Military Academy on 22 Dec 1934. However, they were commissioned on 1 February 1935, with the date of seniority fixed as 4 February 1934. (The British Commission). On February 1, 1935, 2nd Lt Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw, IC-14, was commissioned into the army with the first batch of Indian Commissioned Officers (ICOs). The illustrious first course, called ‘The Pioneers’, produced three army chiefs for the Indian subcontinent: General Sam Manekshaw of India, General Muhammad Musa of Pakistan, and General Smith Dun of Burma. (Another eminent Indian from the first course was 2nd Lt Melville de Mellow of the 5/2 Punjab Regiment who quit the Army to join the All India Radio.)

For the first year of service, Sam was attached to the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Scots based in Lahore. In the good old days, subalterns were addressed as ‘Mister’ and not by their ranks. Since his name was a tongue twister, British officers decided to nickname him Mr. Macintosh! After a year’s attachment with the Royal Scots was over, Sam was posted to the 4th Battalion of the 12th Frontier Force Regiment (4/12 FFR). This battalion had been raised after the First Sikh War in 1846 as the 4th Sikh Local Infantry. In 1903 it became 54 Sikh (Frontier Force), and another reorganisation in 1922 saw its name changed once again to 4/12 FFR. Since the battalion's operational role was along the frontier of the newly acquired territories of the Punjab, it was called the Punjab Irregular Frontier Force (PIFF) and officers and men who belonged to the Frontier Force were known as PIFFERs. The class composition of 4/12 FFR was a mix of Sikhs and Pashtuns. Sam was fluent in Punjabi and, in a short time, mastered Pashto. It was because of his sharp features and complexion that he was often mistaken for one. In 1939, Sam married Silloo Bode, and in 1940, their daughter, Sherry, was born. 4/12 FFR was mostly stationed in the NWFP to contain tribal insurgency. This was a field posting, and the young family had to stay back in Amritsar with his parents.

In 1942, with the outbreak of World War II and the Japanese invasion of Burma, 4/12 FFR was deployed along the Sittang river.

On February 22, being a company commander, he was tasked to launch a counter-attack on Pagoda Hill, which had been captured by the Japanese. The company recaptured the position but suffered heavy casualties. Sam was hit by a burst of SMG fire that lodged nine bullets in his abdomen. His batman carried him on his back to the Medical Aid Post, where the doctor attended to Sam, albeit reluctantly, for he merely removed the bullets and some length of perforated intestines and sutured him in a slipshod manner, leaving a slight but permanent bulge in his abdomen. He had fought valiantly, and his chances of survival seemed slim. From the battlefield, his CO and his brigade commander dispatched a signal to higher headquarters, recommending that he be awarded the Military Cross (MC). Maj Gen Cowan, Sam's company commander at the IMA, was GOC 17 Infantry Division. He promptly endorsed the recommendation since a Military Cross cannot be awarded posthumously.

It is a myth that Maj Gen Cowan took off his own medal on the battlefield and pinned it on Sam’s chest. Medals are not worn during combat operations. The citation was approved, and Sam became a decorated officer. He owed his life to his batman and never allowed himself to forget that. (Recommendation for immediate award). From 1943-1946, Sam moved every few months. He attended the 8th Staff College Course at Quetta (now in Pakistan) from August to December of 1943. Then, in January 1944, he was posted as the Brigade Major Razmak Brigade, North Waziristan (now in Pakistan). World War II was still raging, and in October 1944, he was ordered to report to 9/12 FFR in Burma under General W.J. Slim’s 14th Army. Then, in 1945, he was back at the Staff College in Quetta as Directing Staff, thus becoming the first ICO (Indian Commissioned Officer) to hold this appointment. Later in November 1945, he was posted as a staff officer to General Daisy in Indo-China (now Vietnam) to assist with the rehabilitation of over 10,000 Japanese POWs.

His organisational skills and leadership qualities caught the attention of the C-in-C, Field Marshal Lord Auchinleck, and in March 1946, he was selected to join an Indian military delegation on a six-month lecture tour of Australia.

When Sam returned from Australia, he was promoted to Lt-Col and posted to the General Headquarters (now Army Headquarters) as GSO1 (General Staff Officer (Grade 1)) in the Military Operations Directorate-3 (MO-3), responsible for perspective planning. Three Indians were posted in a directorate, which until then had been a British bastion. Maj A.M. Yahya Khan was posted as GSO2 in MO-1 Directorate, responsible for the NWFP and Waziristan, and Capt S.K. Sinha was appointed GSO3 in MO-2 Directorate, dealing with internal security. (After partition, Maj Yahya Khan opted for Pakistan. Sam and Yahya would rise to become chiefs of their respective armies at the time of the 1971 Indo-Pak war. Whereas Capt S.K. Sinha would rise to become the Vice Chief of the Army Staff and would later seek premature retirement.)


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