AS A havildar (sergeant), Umrao Singh was the only non-commissioned officer of either the Royal Artillery or the Indian Artillery to be awarded the Victoria Cross in the SecondWorld War. Forward observation officers are frequently at great personal risk when in exposed positions so as to direct artillery fire in support of armoured or infantry units. But Singh won his award for valour in what all gunners regard as their near-sacred duty —defence of the guns.
By the end of 1944, General Sir William Slim’s 14th Army was poised for a right-flankoffensive against Lieutenant-General Sakurai Seizo’s 28th Japanese Army in the coastalstrip between the Irrawaddy and the Bay of Bengal. General Sir Philip Christison’s XV Corps of four divisions was given the job. The offensive was launched on December 12 but fierce resistance was met by the 81st West African Division advancing down the Kaladan valley, move forward being challenged by Japanese counter-attack.
The 33 Mountain Battery, Indian Artillery, in which Havildar Umrao Singh was a field-guncommander, was subjected to a sustained bombardment from Japanese 75mm guns and heavy mortars for one and a half hours on December 16, immediately before his gun position was attacked by two companies of Japanese infantry. Twice wounded by grenades during the first, Singh fought off the enemy with the detachment’s Bren light-machinegun while directing therifle fire of the gun crew.
The second Japanese attack killed all the crew other than two members and himself, but wasnevertheless beaten off. When the third assault came only a few rounds of small-arms ammunition remained and this was quickly used. With his last shot gone Singh seized a “gun bearer” —a heavy crowbar-like rod used for turning the gun trail — and closed with the attacking Japanese.
He led the two surviving gun-crew members in hand-to-hand fighting until they were overwhelmed. He was seen to strike down three enemy infantrymen before falling under a rain of blows to the head. Six hours later, after a counter-attack recovered the battery position, Singh was found unconscious beside his field-gun and almost unrecognisable from head wounds. Ten Japanese dead lay around him.The citation for the award of the Victoria Cross read: “Havildar Umrao Singh set a supreme example of gallantry and devotion to duty.” His gun was still fit for firing and was in action again that day He received his VC from King George VI at Buckingham Palace on October 15, 1945.
Umrao Singh was born in the village of Paka in the Rohtak district of the Punjab, an area now part of the Indian state of Haryana. He continued his military service after recovery from his injuries and was subsequently promoted subadar-major. He eventually retired from the Indian Army with the honorary rank of captain.
In 1983 he was farming a two-acre smallholding inherited from his father in his home village. He owneda single buffalo and a cart, lived in a small mud-brick house and was finding life hard on a basic Indian Army pension of £14 a month. A friend who knew of his award suggested that he should sell his decoration, as he had heard that a VC had recently been sold for £20,000 in London. In spite of his straitened circumstances, Captain Singh refused to sell his VC for an offered sum of £32,000, saying to do so “would stain the honour of those who fell in battle beside me”. Subsequently he received a Haryana state pension of £50 per month. Singh accompanied the Indian Army contingent to London for the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Although his name was on the list of those attending, it was not included with otherholders of the VC or George Cross, who were invited to join the VIP party for the march past of veterans.
It was while he was being delayed from entering the VIP stand by a security official that he was seen by the officer responsible for staging the event (Brigadier Tom Longland) who recognised Singh’s VC and ordered his immediate admission. After the march past of veterans, Singh was presented to the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and to the Prime Minister, John Major.
While in conversation with the Prime Minister, the matter of pensions for holders of the VC and GC was raised. Major was amazed to discover that the pension had been set at £100 per year shortly after the Second World War and never increased. He took steps to secure Parliamentary approval for an increase to £1,300 per annum, no mean sum in rural India. After the interview, Singh reported: “
I don’t think the Prime Minister speaks Hindi but when I talked to him, he just said ‘yes’ to everything.” Shortly afterwards, Singh retired from farming, but continued his close interest in the welfare ofIndian Army pensioners, particularly in the correct receipt of their pension money.
On May 14, 2003, he attended the Service of Dedication of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Memorial in Westminster Abbey in the presence of the Queen, patron of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association, and the Duke of Edinburgh.
His wife, Vimla, predeceased him; he is survived by two sons and a daughter. His death leaves only 12 surviving holders of the VC, eight of whom won their awards during the Second World War and four in subsequent campaigns, including Private Johnson Beharry, who won his VC in Iraq in 2004.
Captain Umrao Singh, holder of the Victoria Cross, was born on July 11, 1920. He died onNovember 21, 2005, aged 85.