b. 14/10/1918 Gorakhpur, India. d. 23/05/1975 Kolkata, India.
Premindra Singh Bhagat (1918-1975) was born on 14th October 1918 in Gorakhpur, British India, and his father was an executive engineer in the United Provinces. Although they were Sikhs from the Punjab, Prem and his two older brothers were launched into a school career at the Royal Indian Military College (RIMC) whose ethos and structure had its origins in the British public school system. The RIMC was essentially a feeder for the Indian Military Academy (IMA) to which all three brothers duly went.
At school, Prem was above average academically and showed signs of leadership but with a restless temperament. He was following in the footsteps of two elder brothers, the oldest of whom, NS Bhagat (Tony), had been outstanding in almost every field. It was much the same story at the IMA from which Prem followed Tony into the Royal Bombay Sappers and Miners, forerunner of the present Bombay Engineer Group, gaining his commission two months before the outbreak of war. His base for the next 14 months was Poona, headquarters of the Bombay Sappers and destined to become Prem’s spiritual home: he would spend some 15 years of his life there and it would become his final resting place. He joined 21 Field Company and, in September 1940, embarked for East Africa. He was the only Indian officer in the company.
5th Indian Division landed in Port Sudan in late October, two brigades strong (9th and 10th), a third (7th) being sent on to reinforce the meagre British force in Egypt, which the Italians had now invaded. It was not until December that, following the first stage of Major-General Richard O’Connor’s brilliant desert campaign, Wavell was able to spare any troops to make offensive action into Abyssinia a feasible proposition. Meanwhile, General Peat turned his attention to the possibility of recapturing Galabad using Brigadier Bill Slim’s 10th Brigade with 21 Field Company (OC, Major GEH Philbrick) under command.
Prem’s first test came on November 5th, 1940, when 3/18 Royal Garhwali Rifles under Lieutenant-Colonel SE Tayler advanced on Galabad. Lieutenant Patterson, the section commander, was mortally wounded when his carrier hit a mine. Second Lieutenant Bhagat, his section officer, took over command of the section. The enemy was well dug in and the final assault was held up by intense defensive fire and some troops started to retreat, but one Garhwali company and the Sapper section hung on. Lieutenant Colonel Tayler, standing firm where he could be seen by his men, although vulnerable to enemy fire, stopped the rot. He was joined by Second Lieutenant Bhagat who saw that Tayler’s arm had been wounded by shrapnel and reached out to help him, but the Colonel ordered him to stay put and not let the men know that he (Tayler) had been wounded. He kept standing until order was restored and only then did he seek first aid. Bhagat, in his own words, was “… stunned with such cool bravery and total dedication.” It, undoubtedly, influenced Bhagat’s subsequent actions.
A withdrawal to the fort’s outpost line took place on the evening of November 07, after the Sappers had destroyed as many of the usable buildings and stores as they could. Next day, the enemy, closely following up, had to be delayed at a culvert bottleneck. Two derelict tanks packed with explosives were fired but only one detonated, leaving the culvert partly intact. Under small arms fire and air strafing, Second Lieutenant Bhagat broke cover to reignite the failed charge and completed the destruction of the culvert. Major Philbrick witnessed this incident and recommended him for a Military Cross (MC), but it seems that it was subsequently revised to a Mention-in-Despatches which was notified after Second Lieutenant Bhagat’s immediate Victoria Cross (VC) award two months later.
During the pursuit of the enemy following the capture of Metemma on the night 31st January – 1st February 1941, Second-Lieutenant Bhagat was in command of a section of a Field Company, Sappers and Miners, detailed to accompany the leading mobile troops (Bren Carriers) to clear the road and adjacent areas of mines. For a period of four days and over 55 miles this officer in the leading carrier led the Column. During this period, he himself detected and personally supervised the clearing of no less than 15 minefields of varying dimensions. Speed being essential, he worked at high pressure from dawn to dusk each day. On two occasions when his carrier was blown up with casualties to others, and on a third occasion when ambushed and under close enemy fire he himself carried straight on with his task. He refused relief when worn out with strain and fatigue and with one eardrum punctured by an explosion, claiming he was now better qualified to continue his task to the end.
His great achievement was not gazetted until June 1941. In the same month, he was presented with the ribbon of his VC by General Wavell at a victory parade in Asmara. His company embarked at Masada to continue their war in the Mediterranean area, not returning to India until well after the end of the war. Prem himself returned to India to a hero’s welcome. He was lionised and feted by everybody. He was invited to speak to the nation over All India Radio and the talk was billed “Our Hero”. To the government in power, an alien government, he was useful as a means of living propaganda in the recruitment drive for more troops for the war effort in the new critical theatre of war: Southeast Asia.
Two months after Prem had been presented with his VC, he married Mohini Bhandari, daughter of a Colonel in the Indian Medical Service. He remained in India almost to the end of the war, where he raised a new company, 484 Field Company, at Dighi near Kirkee. Prem was selected to attend the last war-time Staff College course at Camberley. He stayed nearly two years in England and while still there, wrote the first of his books, My Land Divided, reflecting his hope for a reconciliation between the religious groupings: “What greatness and power there is in store for us, the four hundred million people of India, if only we unite, yet we keep apart.”
Prem returned to India in time for Independence and its terrible immediate aftermath. He was appointed Commander Royal Indian Engineers in 4th Infantry Division, East Punjab Area, where they were in the thick of controlling the vast movements of population, later estimated at some 8.5 million, across the new border. The division was soon involved in the operations in Jammu and Kashmir to evict incursions of Pakistanis and stabilise the border area. In July 1948, Prem had a brief eight-month tour as GSOI at the headquarters of the Armed Forces Academy at Dehra Dun and was then posted as commandant of what was eventually to be, after India became a republic in November 1949, the Bombay Engineer Group and Centre, dropping its former Royal title.
However, his future lay in the wider Army and in March 1957, he was appointed to command 165 Infantry Brigade at Ramgarh. The steps in the rest of his career can be summarised: 1959, Director of Military Intelligence (DMI); 1961, National Defence College Course; 1962, Commandant, Indian Military Academy; 1963, Chief of Staff to Army Commander Eastern Command; 1964, GOC 9th Mountain Division; 1966, Commander XI Corps, Western Command; 1970, Army Commander, Central Command; 1972, Army Commander Northern Command; 1974, retirement from the Army, appointed Chairman, Damodar Valley Corporation.
During his time in Central Command in the 1970s, Prem was presented with a major Sapper challenge when the river Gomti flooded near Lucknow. His personal involvement in this affair and the energy with which he marshalled all available resources substantially contributed to the prevention of total disaster. For this work, he was awarded the Param Vashist Seva Medal, the highest military decoration for distinguished service outside the battlefield. When Prem left Central Command to take over the newly created Northern Command, many people thought that would be only a short tour, and that he would be appointed to the ultimate prize, Army Chief. It was not to be. For whatever reason, following an inevitably political shuffling of the top appointments, he was offered nothing after Northern Command. Instead, he was appointed to head the Damodar Valley Corporation.
Tragically, after barely a year in the job, he contracted some virulent fever and died in the Calcutta Military Hospital on May 23, 1975, at the age of 56. The funeral was held in Calcutta and among the rituals that took place after his death was, extraordinarily, a Requiem Mass held by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. The ashes were taken to Poona and ceremonially consigned to the river Moola. Prem’s impressive medal group are held by the Bombay Engineers Museum, Poona, India.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: BOMBAY ENGINEERS MUSEUM, POONA, INDIA.
BURIAL PLACE: CREMATED IN POONA, INDIA. (ASHES IN RIVER MOOLA).
Bombay Engineers Museum – Image of the Premindra Singh Bhagat VC Medal Group.