Anyone standing outside 10 Downing Street one day in August, 1995, might have witnessed an unusual sight: six-foot-tall Prime Minister John Major presenting an award to four-foot-eleven-inch Gurkha Lachhiman Gurung.
Along with this award, Gurung had also been provided with a house in Chitwan, Nepal, though he later chose to settle in the UK.
Many will no doubt remember Joanna Lumley campaigning on behalf of the Gurkhas in 2008 and 2009 so that they could be allowed to settle in Britain. It was this change in the law that enabled Gurung to do so.
And, as it happens, Lumley’s own Gurkha backstory and that of Lachhiman Gurung, who died in 2010, have some other overlaps.
Lumley’s father, Major James Lumley, served in 6 Gurkha Rifles and fought against the Japanese in Burma during the Second World War. So too did Gurung, who fought in that campaign as a member of 8 Gurkha Rifles.
While Major Lumley fought at the Battle of Mogaung in 1944 alongside Victoria Cross winner Tul Bahadur Pun, Gurung likewise won the VC in May, 1945, at the village of Taungdaw.
By virtue of the award itself, the backstory to any VC features great bravery, but Lachhiman Gurung’s story is unique even by the standards of the Victoria Cross.
To begin with, at 4’11”, he was short even by the standards of a Gurkha, and was slightly older (aged 24) than the normal age at which Gurkha recruits were taken in. Thus, under peacetime conditions, he would not ordinarily have been allowed into the British Indian Army*, though the exigencies of wartime meant he was accepted in December, 1940.
(*The Gurkhas formed part of Britain’s larger military and imperial presence in the region which was centred on India).
He then served as part of 4 Battalion, 8 Gurkha Rifles, through 1945 and beyond, which is itself surprising given the injuries he sustained during the Second World War.
During the night of May 12/13, 1945, Gurung’s unit had been part of an effort to cross the Irrawaddy River and to take the fight to the enemy. He was at the tip of the spear, manning a post with two other Gurkhas at his unit’s furthest point when a Japanese assault of 200-troops came on.
Hearing the enemy and just trying to pick them out and shoot them down amongst the dark jungle conditions would no doubt have been frightening. On top of this, Gurung noticed the enemy flinging grenades at his position.
He reached out, picked up the first grenade and flung it back.
It exploded right after he had done so.
A lucky escape.
Then a second grenade came in and Gurung courageously did the same, grabbing and throwing it back with seconds to spare before it too went off.
When a third grenade was flung at Gurung’s position, he again reached out and grabbed it.
This time, though, it exploded before he could chuck it away.
His injuries, of course, were catastrophic - the grenade blew the fingers off his right hand and wounded him in several other places, including blinding him in one eye.
Once again, in a war full of heroic acts, many of which were performed by Gurkhas, Gurung’s willingness to risk his life multiple times in this way to help protect his comrades is particularly impressive. Though martial prowess and bravery was something the British saw in the Gurkhas more generally from the beginning.
These Nepalese troops had been welcomed into Britain’s imperial armed forces following the 1814 – 1816 Anglo-Nepalese War. Expansionism led by the British East India Company in fact led to the incorporation of India and Burma into the British Empire as well, and the war with the Nepalese came out of these wider imperial activities.
What was perhaps unique about the conflict is that both sides came away liking each other, and it was soon arranged for young Nepalese men to be recruited into Britain’s imperial forces. They were known as Gurkhas after the Gorkha Kingdom. This was established by the Shah dynasty, which laid the foundations for modern Nepal and, as John Parker explains in the ‘The Gurkhas’, the modern Gurkha tradition.
Parker further likens the creation of Britain’s Gurkha units to that of the French Foreign Legion. While the latter was pulled together from across Europe into a mercenary force under French control, the former were seen by the British as useful allies against resistance to the East India Company’s continued expansion in the region.
And at first, the region around Nepal was where they served. It wasn’t until the outbreak of the First World War that Gurkha units joined British ones further afield.
Adjusted for the scale of Nepal, the Gurkha contribution to World War I was immense. Parker points out that their population base in 1914 was less than five million people, as compared to 45 million for Great Britain and Ireland.
From those five million, 200,000 Nepalese men joined Gurkha units. This amounted to almost the whole of the demographic that the British would normally have recruited from (i.e. very young men.)
They served on the Western Front, in Mesopotamia (Iraq), Salonika (Greece), Palestine and in Gallipoli, where their propensity for being deft fighters on inclined terrain came in great use. Over the course of the war, they sustained 10 percent casualties overall (20,000 men.)
There had been a height requirement for British officers joining the Gurkhas – a requirement that there be a limit on an officer’s height, that is.
The rationale for this was that, being much shorter than regular troops, and having a tradition of being led from the front, the Gurkha’s officers were bound to get noticed and picked off easily by an enemy during combat. Furthermore, the experience of trench warfare had shown that being too tall could be a serious danger (i.e. it could lead to being shot more easily by a sniper while walking along a trench.) This danger was increased for an officer if their troops were much shorter than they were and required shallower trenches.
However, this height standard was abandoned before the Second World War and one of those who went on to join the Gurkhas during the interwar years was Lieutenant William (‘Bill’) Slim.
He had served alongside them in Gallipoli and had been impressed by the bravery, prowess and ferocity they showed against the Turks. (The Gurkhas had used their iconic kukris, the machetes with curved blades they carry, to terrifying effect against the enemy).
In the Second World War, over 40 Gurkha battalions and other elements of the British and Indian armies were filled by close to 250,000 men. This time they sustained over 30,000 casualties, close to 9,000 of which were fatalities. They served in India, North Africa, the Middle East, Italy and Greece, Singapore and Burma.
This was where many of them were led by Bill Slim. He rose to the rank of general and became commander of Fourteenth Army, which would engage the Japanese in Burma.
As part of this effort, so too would the Chindits, Brigadier Orde Wingate’s jungle raiding group that pulled in some of the best British, African and Gurka units involved in the Burma campaign, much to Slim’s annoyance. (Wikipedia explains that Slim came to have some control over the Chindits, as well as American and Chinese troops in Burma, in early 1944).
Wingate’s plan for his Chindits, Parker says, was to use Gurkhas as the lead elements in his raiding force. Unfortunately, and presumably unlike Slim who had served with and knew them, Wingate broke up and recombined the various Ghurkha units, placing them with inexperienced commanders with no knowledge of their customs or their language (Gurkhali.) “The result”, Parker says, was that “many Gurkhas ended up being used as just muleteers”.
In the tough conditions presented by the Burmese environment, this was obviously a complete waste of troops who might otherwise fight remarkably well there.
Now modern-day Myanmar, Burma was invaded by the Japanese after they had expanded around the Pacific region. Its proximity to Thailand, which had become absorbed into the Japanese orbit**, made Burma the target of further Japanese expansion.
(**The Japanese had invaded Thailand in 1941 and thereafter the two governments formed a military alliance – Japan was to help Thailand take back territory formerly lost to Britain and France; Thailand also declared war on the US and UK. Japan would later place troops inside the country and build the Burma railway through it to keep the Burma campaign supplied).
Burma had previously been under British control and served as a buffer between British India and the new Japanese empire. Taking it would have allowed the Japanese to close this gap and to have a buffer of their own. Additionally, doing so would simultaneously interdict Allied supply routes to China (the Chinese were allied with the British and Americans) and lead to the acquisition of important resources, namely oil and rice.
Fighting there was intense, not least because of the conditions. One veteran quoted in the 1973 Thames Television series ‘The World at War’ described the Monsoon weather this way:
“If you can imagine the heaviest rain you’d ever get in (the UK) going on for six to eight weeks without a break – this was (the) monsoon period.”
The entire monsoon season in fact went on for five months of the year.
There were also the leeches, snakes, the heat, disease, tough, inclined terrain and thick, steaming jungles.
But then, of course, the Gurkhas were in many ways well suited to some of these challenges. As previously noted, they excelled at running up and down mountainsides, having done it their whole lives.
Furthermore, John Parker reveals that the Gurkhas probably thought of snakes as a bit of fun:
“One of the favourite pastimes of the Gurkha soldier when they find evidence of snake holes in the ground is to close up the holes, leaving one open. They push burning rags down one of the closed holes and wait for the snakes to come out of the remaining open hole. They then chase them with their kukris making much noise and thoroughly enjoy themselves in cutting them up.”
Soldiers who did this presumably went on to cook and eat the snakes they had cut up. The Japanese certainly did. And, in fact, in ‘Wingate’s Lost Brigade: The First Chindit Operations, 1943’ by Phillip Chinnery, Burma campaign veteran Arthur Willshaw relates that troops under British command learned during training to forage for not just snakes but also lizards, frogs, roots, fish, leaves and pigeons.
Leaving aside these adaptable attitudes and practices, though, the fighting was still hard going.
In 1943, when Wingate’s first expedition got broken up and lost on the way back, many soldiers starved and got lost amongst the claustrophobia of surrounding jungle – some were ambushed or got ill, and morale plummeted. Parker relates that 12 young Gurkha soldiers broke down, with one howling like a dog.
There were also the successes – battles won against the Japanese (eventually), and numerous acts of heroism. The tip of this very large ice-berg is the 13 Victoria Crosses won by Gurkhas during the two World Wars (and 13 more by their officers.)
As noted, one of these from the Burma campaign was Rifleman Tulbahadur Pun – the soldier mentioned earlier who served alongside Joanna Lumley’s father.
Crossing a railway bridge at Mogaung, his unit had come under heavy fire from a strongpoint called the Red House.
With his section virtually wiped out, Pun grabbed the Bren Gun and fired it from his hip as he ran at the position. His citation notes that he was perfectly silhouetted by the sun coming up behind him, but this didn’t deter him - nor did the Japanese manage to hit what should have been an easy target.
In fact, he not only reached the enemy position, but killed three of its occupants and drove off the remaining five before covering his comrades so that they too could continue their advance.
Finally, Lachhiman Gurung’s story too is a prominent example of Gurkha bravery in the campaign against the Japanese in Burma.
After the fingers on his right hand were blown off by that enemy grenade, Gurung’s two comrades in the trench along with him were also wounded.
This left Gurung as the only one in the trench to resist the imminent oncoming Japanese onslaught.
Despite having the use of only his left hand, Gurung somehow managed to repeatedly fire, recycle the bolt on the right side of his Lee Enfield rifle and to continuously reload it. This went on for four hours as wave after wave of suicidal, fanatical Japanese attacks bore down on his position.
Yet, Gurung just kept shooting down one Japanese soldier after another as they approached him.
By the time the battle had ended, 87 Japanese soldiers lay dead, 31 one of whom appear to have been killed by Gurung himself, since they lay right in front of his trench.
The citation explains that, had his trench fallen, the entire reverse slope position behind him that was held by his unit would have been taken too. As it was, Gurung’s example inspired his comrades to resist for three days, despite having been cut off by the enemy.
Even by the standards of heroism commonly displayed during the Second World War, Gurung’s actions are remarkable.
The Wikipedia page on the Burma Campaign notes that some historians deem it to have not been that significant in the grand scheme of things. The Japanese, after all, were primarily defeated through events in the larger war in the Pacific.
The page does not list specific sources for these arguments, though Max Hastings says much the same in an interview on WW2History.com. He likewise points out that victory in the campaign merely helped restore British imperial boundaries and pride, even while failing in its primary, American-driven objective of forcing an overland route to China. The goal, always fruitless he says, was to turn the Chinese into a major player against the Japanese.
Furthermore, Frank McLynn points out in ‘The Burma Campaign: Disaster into Triumph 1942-45’, that the Americans also lost post-war influence in China when the Nationalist side they backed was beaten by the Communists in the Chinese Civil War.
Though the campaign in Burma was not necessarily all for naught. There is another way to view it, and the role played within it by the Gurkhas.
Hastings, McLynn and David Rooney (in ‘Burma Victory’) all note that Bill Slim’s command of Fourteenth Army was superb.
McLynn notes that of the 606,000 Commonwealth soldiers in the British and Indian Armies serving under Slim between 1942 and 1945, only 27,000 died, compared to almost 74,000 Japanese*, though they were fighting the Chinese and Americans as well as the British.
(*Tragically, up to one million Burmese civilians may have also died, not only from warfare but also from famine, disease and forced labour by the Japanese).
Furthermore, Fourteenth Army inflicted the greatest single defeat of the war on the Japanese Army when they successfully defended the Indian cities of Inphal and Kohima against them. Orde Wingate was a more controversial figure, and there was in fact much antipathy between him and the Gurkhas, as there was between Wingate a lot of people. (Bill Slim, by contrast, had been a Gurkha officer and got on very well with them.)
Though Rooney concludes that, personality issues aside, Wingate performed very effectively in the campaign and that his Chindits did manage to strike effectively at the Japanese. Indeed, Japanese Lieutenant General Renya Mutaguchi’s point that the Chindits played an important role in frustrating the Japanese attempt to take Kohima and Imphal is now widely acknowledged. By raiding Burma and drawing Japanese forces away, the Chindits helped facilitate the British victory in India.
Finally, there were large numbers of Gurkhas in both the Chindits and Fourteenth Army at this time. 3/6, 3/9, 4/9 and 3/4 Gurkhas, for example, all played a role in Operation THURSDAY, the 1944 Chindit raid meant to hamper Japanese forces advancing on Imphal and Kohima. The Battle of Mogaung, which involved Tul Bahadur Pun and Major Lumley, was a part of this operation. And Gurkhas helped in the defence of India too, as well as being widely involved throughout the Burma Campaign.
Thus, they in turn can be said to have contributed greatly to the Japanese defeats and the overall British and Allied victory in Burma. And stories like those of Gurung and Pun serve as prominent reminders of the heroism and the important role played by the Gurkhas in the fight against the Empire of Japan.
For more on the Gurkhas, click here, or here for an overview of the war in the Pacific and VJ Day. Read John Parker’s ‘The Gurkhas: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Feared Soldiers’ for more on the history, culture and training of the Gurkhas.
Thanks to the Gurkha Welfare Trust for assistance with fact checking this article.
Cover image Courtesy of Airfix. Airfix is a registered trademark of Hornby Hobbies Ltd and use of the illustrations in this article has been kindly permitted by Hornby Hobbies Ltd © 2018.