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Captain Courage

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Congo, a colony of Belgium, became independent on 30 June 1960. The people of the colony remained extremely backward. Foreign commercial elements continued to exploit them even after independence. In addition to it, Congo had many other teething problems on attaining independence. It's army mutinied, which prompted Belgium to intervene without the concurrence of the Congolese government. Later, the mineral-rich province of Katanga seceded. It was followed by another province, Kasai. Congo appealed to the United Nations for help, which was promptly agreed to on 14 July 1960. Belgium was called to withdraw its troops and UN forces were dispatched to restore order and normalcy. About the same time, Brigadier (later Major General) I.J. Rikhye was detached from the UNEF in Gaza and was appointed Chief Military Adviser to the UN Secretary General. Incidentally, the UN operation in Congo, termed as Organisation de Nations Unies au Congo (ONUC) 1960-63, stands out as the mission in which the largest number of Indian troops participated.

The initial Indian contribution to the ONUC included personnel from the 152 General Hospital, a signal company, military police and postal services. Brigadier Harmander Singh was appointed as the Commander of the Indian contingent. Subsequently, at the behest of the UN, India enlarged its contingent to a Brigade group. The formation selected was 99 Infantry Brigade Group commanded by Brigadier KAS Raja. Based at Albertville, it consisted of 1 Dogra, 2 Jat, 3/1 Gorkha Rifles, a squadron of 63 Cavalry, 120 Heavy Mortar Battery, 13 Field Company, a Company from 4 Mahar (Machine Gun) and 95 Field Ambulance. The infantry units along with the personnel of supporting arms and services were turned over after a year. Moise Tshombe, the leader of the breakaway Katanga province, had a gendarmarie (French term for soldiers performing police duties) comprising thousands of troops under Belgian army officers. The UN Command initially tried to effect reconciliation between the breakaway province and the Congolese central government, but it did not succeed. It was, therefore, decided to use force to bring the province back into the folds of the country. The 99th Infantry Brigade, less a battalion, was sent to Katanga province for this purpose. The brigade succeeded in clearing parts of Katanga province but, in the meantime, Tshombe escaped to Northern Rhodesia. Subsequently, in September 1961, a ceasefire was brought about. But within a month the situation once again seemed to be getting out of hand. The Indian troops were directed to deal with the situation firmly.

The portrait of Shaheed Captain Gurbachan Singh Salaria, PVC being unveiled at the National Defence Academy by his brother, Professor Salaria.

During the second half of November, while elements of 3/1 Gorkha Rifles were moving out for deployment within and around Elizabethville, there were violent attacks on UN personnel. On 28 November 1961, two senior UN officers were taken captive, beaten and later released. Major Ajit Singh of 3/1 Gorkha Rifles was also taken captive and his driver was brutally murdered, when they went to the rescue of some UN officials. Some days later, a company of 3/1 Gorkha Rifles was fired upon and many UN personnel were abducted from various parts of Elizabethville. The Gorkhas soon re-consolidated. On 05 December 1961, one of the 3/1 Gorkha Rifles companies, supported by two Swedish armoured cars, attacked a road-block that the gendarmarie had put up between the headquarters of Katanga Command and the airfield and isolated 38 people belonging to faction groups. As a part of the attack plan, a detachment, consisting of two sections of this battalion, had advanced from the airfield in two Swedish armoured personnel carriers so as to cut off the enemy's retreat from the road-block.

This small body, under Captain Gurbachan Singh Salaria, came under heavy fire from an enemy position when they reached about a mile from the road-block. Captain Salaria at once decided to attack the enemy position which, it was later discovered, had about 90 men defending it together with two armoured cars. Supported by a rocket-launcher, he led his bands, comprising 16 Gorkhas, into a tactical position using grenades and unsheathed khukris. Fully realizing the disproportionate ratio of force of his small platoon of 16 men, against more than 90 opponents, he soon rallied his men behind him and charged the enemy position in a fierce khukri assault. More than 40 rebels were killed in the course of action. Captain Salaria was also wounded in the fight. Two bullets pierced his neck and he collapsed on the last line of trenches. The ferocity of the attack, the blood curdling war cry of the Gorkhas - Ayo Gorkhali (The Gorkhas Have Arrived) and the flashing khukris was too much for the gendarmarie, which fled in confusion leaving its dead and wounded behind. Though Captain Salaria was wounded by a burst of automatic fire during the action, he continued to fight till he collapsed. By January 1962, the ONUC with the help of the Indian Brigade (particularly the 3/1 Gorkha Rifles), had creditably regained full control over Katanga, but not without the supreme sacrifice made by many Indian soldiers in 'blue berets' of the likes of Captain Gurbachan Singh Salaria.

© Sainik Samachar - Vol.51, No.8, 15-30 April 2004


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