Major General Syed Ali Hamid on the life of a distinguished veteran who might have been C-in-C, were it not for tragedy

Within two years of its formation the Pakistan Army was stunned by the loss of two brilliant officers. Major General Iftikhar Khan was being groomed as the first Pakistani C-in-C and was en route to London to attend the course at the Royal College of Defence Studies. He was accompanied by Brigadier Sher Khan who had recently been approved for promotion and was heading to the United States. Both perished in an air crash near Karachi on the 12th of December 1949.

Brig Sher Khan’s father Subedar Major Khan Zaman, a Yusufzai from Swabi, Mardan, had fought in France during the First World War. Impressed by how the West had progressed, he decided to educate his son abroad and financed his entry into the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. It involved substantial expenditure since parents had to bear half the cost. Sher Khan passed out in 1932 along with Adam Khan, a Pakhtun from the Babori tribe who became a major general, and ‘Tommy’ Masaud Khan, the brother-in-law of Lieutenant General Yousaf, who commanded the 11th Cavalry during the First Kashmir War. Sher Khan was posted to the elite 6/13th FFR which, prior to 1921, was the 59th Scinde Rifles and nicknamed ‘Garbar Unath’. After Independence it became the 1st Battalion, Frontier Force Regiment of the Pakistan Army. Already serving in the unit was Nazir Ahmad - who was one of the first major generals in the Pakistan Army but got involved in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case.

Sher Khan was promoted lieutenant in 1934 and his baptism of fire came two years later during the Waziristan Campaign of 1936-39. Alongside him was Lieutenant Muhammad Musa who was commissioned from the first batch at the Indian Military Academy in 1935 and ultimately became the C-in-C of the Pakistan Army. The battalion was commanded by Dudley Russel MC, nicknamed ‘Pasha’, who performed brilliantly as a division commander in Italy during the Second World War. 6/13th marched with the Razcol Column from Razmak into the Khaisor Valley. The first three days passed without incidence, but on the fourth day while traversing a narrow valley it came under intense fire. The column fought through 16 km to link up at Bichhe Kashkai with a column from the Bannu Brigade. However since supplies ran low and casualties mounted, both the columns withdrew to Mir Ali, protected by a rearguard which was heavily engaged.

On the road from Asmara to Keren, in Eritrea, where Sher Khan distinguished himself under heavy Italian artillery fire

It took six years for Sher Khan to become a captain in 1940. The battalion was now at Secunderabad under the 5th Indian Division which was in the process of being raised. The first staff officer to arrive at the division headquarters was Colonel Messervy, who rose to be a corps commander and was nicknamed ‘The Bearded Man’ because he did not to shave in battle. Their paths would cross again after Independence when Messervy was selected as the first C-in-C of the Pakistan Army and Sher Khan was his Director Military Intelligence. The division was shipped overseas to contest the Italian occupation of Sudan and Eritrea, where it was joined by the 4th Indian Division, which had already won its laurels in Wavell’s campaign in North Africa. The culmination of the campaign in East Africa was the famous battle at Keren, a mountain feature that the Italians stubbornly defended against a series of assaults by the two Indian divisions. It was one of the few occasions on which the Italian forces fought with truly effective tenacity and fervour - and their famed units such as the Savoia Grenadiers, the Alpini and the Bersaglieri were proud of their resistance. Ultimately they were forced to withdraw to Asmara and were pursued by the 5th Indian Division along a difficult road carved out of the hillsides – a route that was mined and blocked at a number of places. Continuous harassing fire by the Italian artillery caused heavy destruction and the road was often jammed by casualties of soldiers and vehicles.

On the 30th of March 1941, when 6/13th FFR approached a defile, it came under intense artillery fire. Sher Khan was now a temporary major and adjutant of the battalion. The battalion headquarters was located near Kilometer 49 and it was here that Sher Khan earned his Military Cross (MC). His citation records:

“During this, intense shelling T/Major MOHD SHER KHAN, himself supervised the removal of wounded personnel, ammunition, and stores to a safer place. In doing this, he exposed himself with complete disregard of his own safety for several hours. This task was rendered all the more difficult by the heavy pall of smoke and dust in the area. By his action, he undoubtedly saved the lives of several persons and prevented the enemy’s artillery from destroying the Battalion reserve of ammunition.”

According to the citation, this wasn’t the first time that Sher Khan had placed his life at risk under intense shelling. The citation stated that:

“During the battle of Cheren (Keren), this officer as Adjutant of his Battalion was frequently under heavy shellfire. He invariably organized and supervised the work of Battalion Headquarters with coolness and diligence.”

The citation records that the officer was recommended for a Distinguished Service Order but awarded an MC. Three weeks earlier during the assault on Keren, two other officers of the battalion, Lieutenant Anant Singh Pathania and Lieutenant Sadiqullah Khan were also awarded for gallantry. Both would rise to senior ranks in the Indian and Pakistani armies respectively after Independence.

The Italians surrendered eight days later and Sher Khan passed on the duties of adjutant to Kashmir Singh Katoch (who would earn his MC in Italy), and proceeded to Quetta to attend the Staff Course.

While Sher Khan was at the Staff College, his younger brother, Bahadur Sher obtained an Emergency Commission from the Indian Military Academy at Dehradun in 1941. He also joined 6/13th FFR and two years later in December 1943 while commanding a company in the assault across the River Moro in Italy, was also awarded a MC.

By now Sher Khan was serving as brigade major of the Kohat Brigade. In February 1945, he was promoted and was amongst the first Indian officers entrusted to command a battalion. It was a wartime raising and was soon disbanded but Sher Khan was promoted acting brigadier and commanded an infantry brigade. At Independence, he was appointed as the first Director of Military Intelligence (DMI) by the C-in-C General Messervy with whom he had served in the 5th Indian Division.

After a stint of six months as DMI, Sher Khan was appointed Director Military Operations (DMO). In both these key posts he was closely involved in the Kashmir Operations whose main driving force was Brig Akbar Khan, DSO (codename General Tariq) who had also been commissioned into 6/13th FFR, a year after Sher Khan. A special cell under the DMO had been established for the control and conduct of the operations at Rawalpindi. It was located outside GHQ at the beginning of the Murree Road and General Gracey, Pakistan’s second C-in-C, used to visit it every evening in civilian clothes to be briefed by Sher Khan. By the end of 1948, Sher Khan was approved major general and replaced by Brigadier Gulzar. However before taking command of 7th Division, he was to accompany the foreign minister to the US - who was presenting Pakistan’s case on Kashmir at the meeting of the United Nations.

An evening before departing from Rawalpindi, Sher Khan talked Major General Iftikhar out of traveling by train to Karachi and persuaded him to accompany him on a Pak Air flight which would touch down at Lahore. Founded in 1948, Pak Air was a forerunner of the Pakistan International Airlines and its safety record was poor. Just 16 days earlier it had lost a DC-3 Dakota near Vehari in Southern Punjab in which all 21 passengers and crew had perished, which was preceded by another crash of a Dakota at Basra in Iraq. During the Second World War many aircraft of this type had flown a large number of missions and after the war were purchased by private airlines at throw-away prices. In fact their aircraft registration number AP-ADI was from the first batch that was manufactured and had first flown in 1941. It departed late on a four-hour evening flight and 30 nautical miles short of Karachi, collided with the Karo Jabal Hills near Jungshahi at an elevation of about 1,185 ft above mean sea level.

According to the crash report, the probable cause was:

“An error of navigation on the part of the pilot in that the aircraft was not as near to Karachi Airport as he reported it to be in his last “position report”, which had it been correct, would have placed the aircraft past the last range of hills.”

All 26 passengers and crew perished and two days later, under instructions from the Ministry of Defence, Pak Air suspended all their services for an indefinite period of time.

The nation gave the two officers a state funeral in Karachi and the body of Brigadier Sher Khan was flown to Peshawar where it was received by his relatives as well as Major General Ayub Khan and his friend Brigadier Habibullah Khan Khattak. Sher Khan and Habibullah had been neighbors in Rawalpindi and the families were very close to each other. In fact one of his daughters subsequently married Habibullah’s son, Reza Kuli. Another married Javed Burki, the son of Lieutenant General Wajid Burki. Sher Khan’s son Aftab followed in his father’s footsteps and was commissioned from Sandhurst but chose to leave the army. If Brigadier Sher Khan had lived, he had all the personality and credentials to be an outstanding C-in-C of the Pakistan Army.

Note: The author thanks Brig Zahid Zaman, a nephew of Major General Sher Khan, for photographs of the brigadier and details of his life, and Vasu Pathania for the photograph of the officers of 6/13th FFR in Waziristan. The author is also grateful to Lieutenant General Ali Kuli for providing personal insights.