Umrao Singh VC

b. 21/11/1920 Palra, India. d. 21/11/2005 New Delhi, India.

Umrao Singh (1920-2005) was a Hindu Jat born on November 21st 1920 at Palra, near Rhotak in the Punjab. He went to the local primary school and joined the Royal Indian Artillery two months after the outbreak of war.

Umrao Singh VC

As a havildar on December 15th/16th 1944, Singh was in charge of one gun in the Kaladan Valley when it came under heavy fire from Japanese 74 mm guns. After an hour and a half of pounding, his section, consisting of two guns, was attacked by two Japanese companies.

Under his inspired leadership it beat off the attack. Though twice wounded by grenades in the first attack, Singh held off the second by skilful control of the section’s small arms’ fire. At one point, with the attackers no more than five yards away, he manned a Bren gun himself and fired over the shield of his fieldpiece. Once again the Japanese were driven back, and the third and fourth attacks were beaten off, with the enemy suffering heavy casualties.

When the final attack came, with his ammunition gone, the other gun over-run and all but two of his section badly wounded or dead, Singh closed with the enemy in furious hand-to-hand fighting. He struck down three Japanese in a desperate effort to save his gun, but was finally overwhelmed and knocked senseless. Six hours later, when a counter-attack regained the position, Singh was found exhausted beside the gun, almost unrecognisable because of his seven wounds, with 10 dead Japanese lying around him. But the gun was still in working order.

The citation declared: “By his personal example and magnificent bravery Havildar Umrao Singh set a supreme example of gallantry and devotion to duty.” Singh was invested with the Victoria Cross by King George VI at Buckingham Palace on October 15th 1945. John Major mentioned Singh when he told an otherwise glum Conservative Party conference that the VC holders’ pension was to be significantly increased.

The news came as a surprise in the Punjabi village of Palra, where Singh stood to attention before his fellow villagers, slapping his bare feet to attention and announcing with a salute: “For John Major, Prime Minister of Britain.” The increase from £100 to £1,300 a year (the equivalent to the pension’s value in 1960) made him one of the richest men around, and he was glad that he and his wife Vilma could now “live in style”, which had not been possible on a VC’s £100 a year and amry pension. He had met John Major at the VE Day celebrations at Hyde Park earlier in 1995 when plans for an increase were already under discussion. “I don’t think the prime minister speaks Hindi, but when I talked to him he just said yes to everything,” Singh recalled. Grinning broadly as he drank Indian rum he explained: “All the Indian VCs are uneducated, and we didn’t know how to complain. I felt it was my duty to tell this to the prime minister.”

Singh was promoted to havildar in 1942, retired in late 1946, and then joined the independent India’s Army in 1948. He became subadar major in 1965 and retired as an honorary captain in 1970. Returning to his village, where he was known as “VC Singh”, he ran a two-acre smallholding which he inherited from his father. He owned a cart and a single buffalo while living on his Indian Army pension and living in a small mud brick-built house. When a friend told him he could sell his VC for thousands of pounds he refused to part with it, saying that such an act would dishonour his comrades who fell in battle when he won his medal.

When the VE Day celebrations were held in Hyde Park in 1995 he was brought to Britain by the Indian Army, to find himself turned away from the royal enclosure because he did not have an invitation. But a brigadier, who was helping to organise the event, recognised his medal and obtained entrance for him. The last of the Subcontinent’s VC holders from the Second World War, apart from four who served in Gurkha regiments, Singh kept himself fit by walking six miles a day. He retained such an upstanding figure that when he was presented to the centenarian Queen Mother in 1999, she drew herself up straight saying; “What an example.” He married and had three children. His wife pre-deceased him by 18 months, and her death greatly affected him. Umrao Singh VC passed away on 21st November 2005 in New Delhi (his 85th birthday), and was cremated. His medal group are not publicly held.