Army Today

Madras Sappers

© Sainik Samachar - Vol.52, No.19, 01-15 October 2005
The Madras Sappers celebrated their 225th Anniversary at the Madras Engineer Group & Centre, Bangalore from October 6 - 8, 2005. To mark the occasion, Sainik Samachar went down memory lane and recalls their immense contribution to the security of the nation.

Madras Sappers trace their roots in the first two companies of the Madras Pioneers which were raised in September 1780. Initially, they were used to develop tracks for movement of gun carriages, for digging trenches and saps and clearing hedges. Over the next few years their number rose to eight companies. When the British annexed Sind, the highlight of the campaign was the Battle of Meanee, where 50 Madras Sappers, though equipped only with fusils and bayonets, spontaneously joined the charge of the Cheshire Regiment. Acknowledging their courage and comradeship, the Cheshires exchanged their Shako caps, a cylindrical peaked cap with a plume, with the Sappers. Called Doopta, it remains in its modified form the trademark head-dress of Madras Sappers even till today.


Lieutenant Rajwade, the first Indian Sapper to receive the Military Cross

When the Japanese attacked the 36th Division during World War II on 01 February 1945, the Sappers swung into action and proved their mettle. For display of exemplary courage and commitment, Lieutenant Rajwade received Military Cross. He was the first Indian sapper officer to receive this coveted award. After Independence, the Sappers were given a challenging task during the 1948 Operations. They were asked to build a road between Baltal and Zojilla in Jammu & Kashmir within a month. Undeterred by the frequent snowfall and using up to 25 tons of explosive per mile, the Madras Sappers, working under direct mortar fire, completed the task. General Thimayya commended the Sappers on achieving the impossible and called it a record in any operation. Zojila is the first battle honour earned by Madras Sappers after Independence.


Sappers in action in the Zojila sector, Jammu & Kashmir

During 1962 and 1971 wars, the Sappers were again there at the forefront providing engineering support to the armed forces. In 1962 Naik Raghavan displayed exemplary courage and determination in the rescue of an infantry post across the Pangong Lake in Ladakh using engineer storm boats despite continuous enemy fire. He was awarded the Vir Chakra for this act of courage. During the Battle of Basantar in 1971, Major V R Chowdhary was Officer-in-Charge of minefield clearance of Chakra across River Basantar, which had been captured and was under imminent threat of an armoured counter attack by the enemy. While supervising the breaching operation, he was hit by enemy artillery fire and made the supreme sacrifice. For his gallant act, he was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra (Posthumous).

The Madras Sappers' association with the world's highest battlefield started in 1984, when the 8th Engineer Regiment provided engineering support to the 3rd Infantry Division. They constructed the world's highest helipad and operated a snow vehicle for the first time. 17 engineer regiments gave close support to capture Bana Post at a height of 21,000 feet. The sappers improvised the Dexion Bridge, laid 67-km-long kerosene pipelines upward from the base camp and constructed a 400-ft bailey suspension bridge (the longest possible in bailey bridges) in the glacier.



Bailey Bridge on the Brahmanbaria

During Operation Vijay, the enemy had placed mines on the approaches leading to their positions on hilltops. The Sappers were required to remove these mines before the infantry could advance. While carrying out this risky task in Batalik Sector, Captain Rupesh Pradhan of the 2nd Engineer Regiment was severely injured. He was awarded the Vir Chakra. Lance Naik Jayavelu was awarded the Sena Medal (Posthumous) for destroying enemy bunkers in the Kaksar Sector. Two engineer regiments were decorated with one Vir Chakra, three Sena Medals and five Chief of Army Staff commendation cards and a GOC-in-C, Northern Command unit citation during the Kargil conflict.


Pangong Lake crossing

By virtue of their innovative skills, the Madras Sappers have, time and again, been employed in times of natural calamities. Floods, earthquakes, and the most recent Tsunami saw them provide succour to the affected civilians not just in India but also in Sri Lanka and Maldives. The 12th and 13th Engineer Regiments of the Madras Sappers were rushed to carry out rescue, relief and rehabilitation operations in the wake of the earthquake that hit Gujarat on January 26, 2001. Along with the relief operations, the Madras Sappers undertook for the first time, demolition of unsafe buildings. The Madras Engineer Group & Centre Task Force constructed a 125-mtr-long Kruppman floating bridge in 26 hours in December 1994 across River Vennar connecting Thanjavur, for the Eighth World Tamil Conference. The Sappers have also contributed significantly to UN Missions. In 1954, Major R Lokarajan was the first Sapper selected for a peacekeeping mission. Thereafter, the Sappers joined UN missions in Congo, Cambodia, Mozambique, Somalia, Rwanda, Angola, Lebanon, Sierra Leone and Ethiopia.