Author Lieutenant Colonel Paul Macro, a serving officer with the British Army's Royal Tank Regiment, here tells the story of his grandfather's involvement in the rescue and recovery of downed airmen in Afghanistan during the Third Afghan War.
(To read Paul's other article on the conflict, click here).
Article by Paul Macro
My grandfather, Ernest William (“Bill”) Macro, was a soldier of the Great War.
Or, rather, he thought he was going to be.
He enlisted in the Army in 1915, aged 19, having been an engineering student at the University of London.
Upon completing his training in England, probably at Bisley, he was posted to 22 Motor Machine Gun Battery (22 MMG.)
Men in this unit - like the pre-war regiments, ‘Kitchener’s Army’, and later Commandos and Paras in World War 2 - were all volunteers. And like Paras and Commandos, they’d also been through an intense and very competitive selection process.
Training for the MMGS (Motor Machine Gun Service) units as a whole appears to have taken place at Bisley in the summer of 1915.
Just as early aviators had often sought and paid for their own flying lessons, many of those in the Motor Machine Gun Service had also expended considerable sums just to attend selection interviews.
They’d all joined up with the expectation, and hope, of serving in France.
So the announcement that 22 MMG was destined instead for service in India caught them all by surprise.
And Bill was destined to be with them for much of the time they were there, from 1916 to 1919.
Though even without the immense drama of the Western Front, he and his comrades would soon get sucked into another adventure.
Unbeknownst to Bill and the others, Amanullah Khan would soon assume the throne of neighbouring Afghanistan amidst great political turmoil.
To help shore up his precarious position, he took advantage of the fact that Britain was largely preoccupied with matters in Europe in the wake of World War 1, and he struck out at British India.
Very soon, the British Army in India, the 22 MMG, two unlucky airmen, and Bill himself, would all be dragged into a ‘vicious little campaign’ along the North-West Frontier.
When it arrived in India, 22 MMG was attached to 4 (Rawalpindi) Brigade in 2 (Rawalpindi) Division.
The Battery CO was Major Molony, a man my grandfather held in very high regard, and I believe that after the war Molony contacted and tried to meet him; though, as far as I know, Bill never responded. He was teaching by then, and I think too shy or thought it somehow improper.
Alexander Weldon Molony was born in Ireland in 1885, the eldest of three brothers who all went into the Army, and his younger sister Eileen also married an Army officer. He was commissioned into 4 Leinsters in 1901 and then went onto 1 Royal Dublin Fusiliers, serving in Malta, Egypt and India. He was with 1 Royal Dublins when they were destroyed at V Beach at the Gallipoli landings on April 25, 1915.
By this time Alexander had been a Captain - the ‘coy 2ic’ (company second-in-command), of ‘W Coy’ (W Company) onboard the SS River Clyde.
This may be how he survived, since the other companies of the Dublins went ashore from boats and were more exposed as they approached the fire-swept beach.
For his part, (Captain) Alexander Malony was wounded, medically evacuated back to the UK and subsequently attached to the MGC (Motor Machinegun Corps) and sent to command 22 Battery at Bisley.
One of the reasons I am aware of 22 MMG Battery’s movements leading up to the Third Afghan War is thanks to another character in the story, the driver to CO Major Malony - Battery Sergeant Mechanic, Sergeant Alfred Fielder of the ASC (Army Service Corps.)
Sergeant Fielder was well known on the pre-war motorcycle circuit and he sent a letter back to The Motorcycle magazine, a period publication, describing how the battery went on a familiarisation and training tour of the North-West Frontier, covering over a thousand miles, through April and May of 1916.
(22 MMG had arrived in India at Bombay on March 20 that year, and were then transported by train north to Rawalpindi in the North-West Frontier).
The letter comments that the battery left Rawalpindi on April 5 for Nowshera. Places visited included Mardan, Peshawar, Landi Khotal, Thal, Parachinar and Kohat before the Battery returned to Rawalpindi on May 1.
Fielder records how it was very cold in Parachinar, with snow on the hills, that the roads were awful and that several runs, including the final return to Rawalpindi, were in the "pouring rain".
He also notes that the Triumph motorcycles gave "every satisfaction" but also that being "the sergeant mechanic in charge, I had a fairly busy time of it".
Thereafter, life for the Battery settled into a routine of training and showing the flag.
The hot summer season was generally spent in the cooler hill stations of the Murree Hills, near to Kuldanna; and winter was spent in camp, Cambridge Barracks at Rawalpindi (see the photograph above.)
Life certainly wasn't unpleasant and there was time to take leave and travel to Calcutta, or to see the Taj Mahal.
Very shortly, this relaxed atmosphere would be swept away.
When the Afghans initiated the Third Afghan War by invading British India through the Khyber Pass in early May, 1919, British forces were mobilised.
Bill’s outfit, 22 MMG, were sent forward to Parachinar as reinforcement to the Kurram Force.
This unit was a local militia, and a typical one at that, formed from the loyal tribes on the North-West Frontier.
Recruited from the Turis and Bangash tribes of the Kurram, it numbered about 1,350 largely Shia Mohammedans. They were bitterly opposed to the orthodox Sunni tribes of the Wazirs, Chamkanni, Jajis and Mangals who surrounded the valley.
The Kurram Force left Rawalpindi by train at 0200 hours on May 14, 1919, arriving at Kohat at 1300 hours.
Over the following three days, 22 MMG convoyed its machines and petrol forward to Parachinar in support, completing the process by 2000 hours on May 17.
Bill and his British and local comrades were in for a challenge.
Facing them in the central Kurram and Waziristan theatre was the most compact and formidable of the three Afghan forces.
It consisted of 16 battalions of regular infantry, two of pioneers, four regiments of cavalry and 60 guns.
It should be borne in mind that the Afghan regulars could not be considered to be first-class troops. They had limited power of manoeuvre, their artillery was ancient, and they had conducted very limited weapons training or exercising.
However, this was a sizable force, and what the Afghans lacked in professionalism they made up for in courage and toughness. Armed with rifles, bayonets and swords, they could also expect considerable support from many of the tribes of the North-West Frontier.
Their main base was at Ghazni (where the British had launched an audacious siege in 1839), but aside from a detachment on the Peiwar Kotal (kotal means ‘pass’), the force had been moved forward to Matun, near the border of British India.
First to react to initial reports of Nadir Khan’s concentration of forces at Matun was Major Percy Charles Russell Dodd.
Dodd, of 31 Lancers, was in command of the Kurram militia, and he ordered forward picquets (an advanced guard that provided warning of enemy movements) to the border in the vicinity of Peiwar Kotal, Kharlarchi and Lakka Tiga. Here, these men were to observe Afghan movements and try and identify the direction of Nadir Khan’s main attack.
Through early and mid-May, as various rumours reached him of movements by Nadir Khan, Percy also pushed forward reinforcements of troops and guns. They were sent to the same locations, recovering the guns in particular, where they were held as a central reserve at Parachinar.
As it happened, the rumours Dodd had received were false, but they helped set things up for Bill’s involvement in the campaign.
That’s because Major Dodd’s militia was soon reinforced by 22 MMG, on May 17, and by 3 Guides Infantry Battalion, on May 22, 1919.
Nadir Khan moved on May 23, heading south-east, down the Kaitu, threatening both Bannu and Thal.
In the face of this threat, the Waziristan Militia evacuated Spinwam border post on May 24, and other garrisons along the Upper Tochi River in North Waziristan. (All these locations can be seen in the map below).
A number of the militia deserted and the Wazirs rose up and joined the Afghans; Nadir Kahn occupied Spinwam on May 25 with a force of 3,000 Afghan infantry, two 10cm Krupp field howitzers, seven 7.5cm Krupp pack guns and a large force of tribesmen from Khost and Waziristan.
He was now equidistant from Thal and Bannu.
The British commander of this central theatre (the Kohat Area and Lines of Communication, which included the Kurram) was Major General Eustace.
General Eustace reinforced Thal from Kohat, and took command in Thal, improving both the inner and outer lines of defence.
On the morning of May 27, Nadir Khan then appeared to the north west of Thal, invested it and opened fire with his artillery, cutting off the forces in Parachinar and the Upper Kurram.
The British had prepared for such an eventuality by improving the defence lines.
The inner line covered the fort, railway station and Civil Rest House while the outer lines made a perimeter about 1200 yards out from the post. However, the water supply was a potential weakness, rising in a spring towards the outer perimeter and having to be pumped over 300 yards into the post.
Despite bombing by the RAF, Khan's artillery considerably outranged that of the British, and was causing significant damage, and he started to push the defences in towards the water supply.
To the South, at Kohat and around Togh, in late May, Brigadier General Reginald Dyer assembled a column of infantry, guns, machine guns and a few lorries (the vast majority of the troops marched on foot) for the relief of Thal in late May.
Dyer marched on 31 May to successfully relieve Thal the following day. He would go on to drive drive Khan back into Afghanistan in early June.
General Dyer, unfortunately, is noteworthy as the officer who ordered his men to fire into a crowd in India in April of 1919, an incident that came to be known as the Amritsar massacre. (For more on this, read Paul Macro’s other article on the Third Afghan War).
At the same time, further north, the skirmishes on the frontiers increased in intensity, particularly around Peiwar Kotal, Kharlarchi and Lakka Tiga.
The Kurram Militia had their picquets (advanced guards) out at these border locations, and as various Aghan forces gathered, machine guns, cavalry, armoured cars (if available), guns and infantry would be rushed forward from Parachinar to push them back and relieve the picquets.
Once the Afghans had been driven back, the reinforcements would be withdrawn to their reserve location in Parachniar.
22 MMG were heavily involved at this stage; the mobility provided by the motorcycle sidecar combinations being highly prized.
This is because the Army in India had relatively few motorised lorries at this point, and the mobility of those they did have was seriously limited by the difficult terrain.
In fact, it was this better mobility that would cause, and enable, 22 MMG to be involved in a unique and daring incident in July of 1919 – the action at Badama Post.
The Official History of the war records a gathering of tribes in the Khurmana, men the British believed to be intending to attack either Sadda or Badama posts (two British outposts along the frontier), or one of the British convoys travelling between Thal and Parachinar.
My grandfather reports that:
“On July 30th 1919 [sic] a report was received in Parachinar by Major Malony, [sic] OC 22nd Battery, MMG, that large numbers of tribesmen were collecting in the Khurmana Valley for the purpose of attacking a convoy expected to pass along the Thal-Parachinar Rd.”
Then Bill got his orders:
“On receipt of this message Major Malony detailed Sgt Macro to take No 3 Section, 22 Battery MMG and patrol the road from Parachinar to Sadda, and there to rendezvous with Major Dodd to exchange information.”
The report also gives an overview of what happened:
“The rendezvous was effected in the late afternoon, and Major Dodd reported that the tribesmen appeared to be dispersing owing to the arrival of the MMG section.”
The 22 MMG war diary actually records that the report was received on July 29 and that No 3 Section were sent out that afternoon to spend the night at Sadda Post, nearby.
At the same time, the Official History and 20 Squadron operational record note that aeroplanes were being flown both to reconnoitre the area and to help protect the convoys going back and forth between Thal and Parachinar.
It was one of these aircraft which was brought down, and although the Official History records it as being …
" … shot down at short range by a party concealed on the hill side … "
… we will probably never know whether this was by a group of tribesmen firing a volley or by a single marksman.
It is worth recording that for all their success in the war, aircraft found single tribesmen, adept at remaining motionless for long periods and with khaki coloured clothing, very difficult to spot from the air.
Whichever it was, we do know that the pilot, George Eastwood, was shot through the chest and this was sufficient to bring down the Bristol Fighter BF4626 that he was flying.
The Official History then records that the aircrew roughly dismantled the aircraft.
This seems unlikely, however. Recall that pilot George Eastwood had been shot through the chest and the plane’s other occupant, 2 Lieutenant D M Lapraik, has been bashed in the face during the crash landing.
The war diaries of both 22 MMG and the Kurram Militia likewise record that the aircrew were seriously injured.
It is also clear that the Kurram Militia were the first to reach and assist the aircrew, which, given they were already stationed at nearby Badama Post, seems reasonable.
For his part, Bill Macro recorded the following:
“An aeroplane was seen to zoom down into a valley beyond Badama Post. As the plane did not reappear it was assumed it had been shot down and Major Dodd set off on horseback, accompanied by a few militiamen.”
Eastwood and Laipraik must have been elated to see the militiamen, but backup was needed. The horrors of this war were dwarfed by the enormous scale of World War 1, but for those who experienced them, they must have been every bit as bad. Those who fell into enemy hands faced torture and mutilation, then death – atrocities that would have been every bit as bad as those committed today by ISIS.
Fortunately, Bill and his comrades were on the way:
“No 3 Sect. MMG prepared for action and also set off for the post, but as there was no road, had to pick their way along the hilltop, and so did not arrive at the post until some minutes after Major Dodd. He reported that some of his militia were bringing in the two wounded airmen, and Sgt Macro ordered one of his Ford vans to be cleared ready to take the airmen to hospital. The airmen, who were too badly injured even to help themselves, were given first aid, and dispatched to Kohut.”
Bill's report then continues, describing what happened next:
“Sgt Macro, who had had RAF experience, realising that the wrecked plane would contain probably more than 1000 rounds of ammunition, possibly bombs and machine guns which would be of great value to the tribesmen, volunteered to go down to the wrecked plane, which was lying at the bottom of a dry river bed, to see what could be salvaged.”
Again, torture, mutilation and death would have been his fate if captured – this was a brave act:
“Major Dodd said he would accompany him, and, although he hadn’t sufficient men to picket the hillside, would bring a few men with him to carry back anything salvaged.”
Fortunately, training seems to have prepared them well:
“Sgt Macro positioned his two machine guns so that they could give covering fire if necessary, placed the section under the command of Cpl Warburton, and climbed down the hillside to the wrecked plane.”
“The tribesmen, encouraged by their success, commenced to reassemble and the party was subjected to an increasing volume of sniping, but most of the party were able to lie under cover of the rocks and no one was hit.”
Having escaped enemy fire, and evaded capture, the work of denying the enemy any useful weaponry or technology began:
“The plane had crashed on its nose leaving the tail up in the air. Sgt Macro climbed into the cockpit, released the bombs from the rack, and having examined them to see if they were safe to handle, sent them up to the post. He then handed out the boxes and drums of ammunition, dismounted the Lewis (machine) gun, dismantled the (heavier) Vickers (machine gun), and passed them out to the militia to carry away. The only part of the Vickers not salvaged was the barrel casing, which couldn’t be got at because of the crashed engine.”
This was excellent work, but it was time to leave:
“It was now beginning to get dark, and the tribesmen, getting bolder, were closing in along the hillsides, so the party withdrew to Badama Post. This was too small to hold the MMG Section, so this withdrew to Sadda, where Major Dodd also spent the night.”
But the British didn’t get away completely unscathed. The War Diary of the Kurram Militia for this day also records that during the initial recovery of the aircrew a Lance Duffadhar went missing.
Meanwhile a party of 3rd Guides Battalion (one of the Infantry battalions reinforcing Parachinar) had been force marching with guns from Parachinar to Sadda throughout 30th July. This column arrived at Sadda and Badama in the morning of 31st July and went straight into action to try and recover the remainder of the aircraft, with covering fire from the artillery and machine guns from 22 MMG. War diaries and the Official History are all in agreement that only the aircraft's engine was recovered.
According to my Grandfather:
“The following morning the section returned to Badama and found that, despite flares having been fired over the wreck at intervals during the night, the tribesmen had managed to carry away all but the plane’s engine. The MMG Section gave covering fire, and a party of militiamen got to the plane, and managed to carry the engine to Badama Post. The MMG Section returned to Sadda to await the return of scouts regarding the movements of the tribesmen. That evening the scouts reported that the tribesmen were dispersing and returning to their villages, so the next day No 3 section MMG returned to Parachinar.”
The War Diary of the militia also records that the body of the missing soldier, Lance Duffadhar was recovered. The CWGC (Commonwealth War Graves Commission) records him as being the son of Mir Abdullah, and he is remembered on the Delhi Memorial (India Gate.)
So far as I am aware, Miru Mian was the only fatality on the British/Indian side during the action at Badama Post.
My grandfather never knew the names of the aircrew he assisted at Badama Post - I suspect he probably never even knew the squadron.
This, however, has been one of my research focuses, as I believed the loss of an aircraft, particularly from enemy action on the North-West Frontier, would trigger some record keeping. Such events were relatively rare, and aircraft were expensive assets, after all.
Initially, I assumed the aircraft would have come from 31 Squadron - the first, and for a long time, the only, British squadron in India.
But I could find no record of 31 Squadron losing an aircraft in late July, 1919.
However, I eventually found the operational level reports for the period back to RAF HQ in the Middle East, which record that 20 Squadron lost a single aircraft on July 30, 1919, with both crew wounded.
20 Squadron were one of the most famous 2-seater squadrons of the First World War. They were the highest-scoring British squadron and the only RFC squadron to have an NCO VC, Sgt Thomas Mottershead.
They had shipped from Marseilles to India in February 1919, and by July were in the process of establishing a forward airbase at Parachinar.
They flew the 2-seater Bristol Fighter aircraft, actually a fighter-bomber, as pictured above shown in the 1920s.
Having established the aircraft came from 20 Squadron, I was able to find this squadron's operational records in The National Archives, which revealed that the aircraft concerned was BF4626.
It recorded that the pilot was A/Capt G Eastwood and that his observer was 2 Lt DM Lapraik.
George Eastwood was commissioned into the Army as a probationary Flying Officer in December 1916. He doesn't appear to have gone overseas until he went to India with 20 Squadron, so he may have been creamed off as an instructor.
His casualty card records that in the incident at Badama he was shot through the chest and evacuated to Simla, and then to the UK on September 22, 1919, aboard the SS Bremen.
As far as I can tell, George was discharged in December 1919, married, had a son - Michael John Eastwood - and died in Truro, Cornwall.
I believe Michael also married but both he and his wife have now passed away, also dying in Truro. I have been unable thus far to trace their children (George's grandchildren) but as George had both a younger sister and brother it seems reasonable to assume he probably has some descendants out there somewhere.
Observer David McGeachie Lapraik was born on December 6, 1899, in Scotland.
He joined the RFC (Royal Flying Corps) on December 8, 1917, as a mechanic and was commissioned in September 1918, as a reconnaissance observer.
He joined 20 Squadron in France and then shipped to India with them in 1919.
His casualty card records that he was not as seriously wounded as his pilot, but suffered facial lacerations and lost 3 teeth - I imagine he was certainly suffering from shock and possibly a concussion.
Like Acting Captain Eastwood, David too was evacuated to Simla, but subsequently returned to the squadron and by late September was flying bombing missions again.
He was discharged on May 18, 1920, and died in 1966, his occupation being recorded as "Newsagent - retired".
His wife Elizabeth survived until 1995, and it was her niece who had David’s photograph.
After the war, Major Alexander Malony left the Army but he returned to India from 1921 to 1928 as a trainer of racehorses and managed a large racing stables.
He also spent some time in South Africa.
He was recalled to service in August 1940, in India, but did not see active service and was released again in January 1943.
He returned to UK after the war and died of cancer in 1953, childless, having never married.
Major Percy Dodd was awarded the DSO in 1920 for his time in command of the Kurram Militia.
He remained a professional soldier after the war and married Norah Marguerite Wilson in Poonah on October 20, 1929. Norah was about 20 years younger than Percy and the couple had two daughters, both surviving to this day.
Percy, however, died in 1967.
As Bill records in his diary, he returned to Parachinar with his Section of 22 MMG, and the Official History records that activity in the Kurram Valley ceased with the signing of the peace treaty at Rawalpindi on August 8, 1919 – a little over a century ago.
The 22 MMG War Diary continues to the end of August, but activity is confined to routine patrolling and escorting a visit by the C-in-C throughout the month. The Battery must have returned to their lines in Rawalpindi shortly after, and from then on their disbandment and demobilisation proceeded swiftly.
My grandfather returned to the UK and was demobilised on December 8, 1919.
For his part in the action at Badama Post, Bill was mentioned in the despatches of General Sir G C Monro, dated November 1, 1919.
His official notification is dated August 3, 1920, and bears the signature of the Secretary of State for War … Winston S Churchill.
For more on the Afghan War and his grandfather’s role in it, read Paul Macro’s book ‘Action at Badama Post’. (Use the code BADAMA on checkout to get a £4 discount).
And listen to Paul’s recent interview with BFBS Radio’s Richard Hatch at the bottom of Paul’s other article on the conflict.