Prisoners of Aversa

Major General Syed Ali Hamid on the officers imprisoned together by Axis forces, who went on to achieve senior positions in two independent countries

Prisoners of Aversa
What do these officers of the Pakistan and Indian Army have in common: Lieutenant General Sahibzada Yaqub, General A.M. Yahya Khan, General Tikka Khan, Brigadier Hissam el Effendi, General P.P. Kumaramangalam and Lt. Abhey Singh?

All of them were captured in North Africa during the Battle of Ghazala in 1942 and were initially interned in an Italian PoW Camp No PG 63 at Aversa, 15 kilometres north of Naples. There were a number of Axis prisoner-of-war camps in Italy and the initials PG denoted Prigione di Guerra (Prison of War). PG 63 held Indian officers and soldiers. Except for General Yahya, all the above officers were serving in the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade which was overrun by the German Afrika Korps on the very first day of the battle. Inserted into the defences at the last moment and unprepared and ill-equipped to take on the brunt of the attack of Rommel’s three armoured divisions, it fought tenaciously and within the space of two hours destroyed 50 German and Italian Tanks (one estimate records 80 tanks). Most of the tanks were destroyed by the 25-Pounder Guns of the 2nd Indian Field Regiment, which was in combat for the first time and firing over open sights. The 2-pdr anti-tank guns (mounted on trucks and called ‘Portees’) of the motor cavalry regiments also inflicted substantial casualties.

Foreign Minister of Pakistan Sahabzada Yaqub, in Italy - with the daughter of the lady who gave him refuge as an escaped PoW

Some 17 officers and 670 VCOs and Indian other ranks were taken prisoner and while the soldiers were released (because there was not enough water), the officers were taken to PoW cages in the rear and subsequently shipped to Italy. Among them were Lieutenant Sahabzada Yaqub (Jacob to his friends), signal officer of 18th Cavalry (later Lieutenant General as well as Foreign Minister of Pakistan); Lieutenant Hissam el Effendi with 11th Cavalry PAVO (famous polo player who retired as a brigadier from the Pakistan Army); and two from the 2nd Field Regiment Lieutenant A.S. Naravane (later a major general in the Indian Army), and Lieutenant Tikka Khan (later the Chief of Army Staff, Pakistan Army, from 1972-76). Tikka Khan’s battery commander Major P.P. Kumaramangalam (later the Chief of Army Staff, Indian Army, from 1967-70), managed to avoid capture on this occasion and returned to retrieve three of his guns. However, a month later, he was taken prisoner during a deep penetration mission. Lieutenant Yahya Khan (later General and President of Paksitan) was also captured around 05 June 1942 when the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade of which his battalion the 4/10th Baloch was a part, was overrun by the Axis troops during the Battle of the Cauldron.
In the Italian PoW camp, P.P. Kumaramangalam, the senior most Indian officer, was appointed as the Camp Senior Officer and his Camp Adjutant was Yahya Khan. Tikka Khan was the Camp Quartermaster

Major General A.S. Naravane in his memoirs A Soldier’s Life in War and Peace, narrating his experiences in the PG 63 camp recollects that Kumaramangalam (Kay to his family and friends), as the senior most Indian officer, was appointed as the Camp Senior Officer and his Camp Adjutant was Yahya Khan. Tikka Khan was the Camp Quartermaster. There were a number of young doctors from the Indian Medical Service in PG 63. One of them was Dr.Satyen Basu from Calcutta, who in 1960 wrote an unpublished account of his wartime experiences titled A Doctor in the Army. During his stay in the PG 63, he befriended Lieutenant ‘Y’ and his impressions of Lieutenant ‘Y’ (and it takes little guesswork to decipher that he is referring to Sahabzada Yaqub) were:

“Lt. Y was one of the most intelligent young lads I had ever met. Born of a royal family in one of the Indian states his early education was in the R.I.M.C. He was thus earmarked for an army career. He had proved himself an able officer in the cavalry regiment that he was serving in. But I am sure his intellectual equipment was misplaced. At 22 he was a good portrait painter, and a connoisseur of music and the dance. In two months he had brushed up his knowledge of French which he could now speak fluently, and was well up in the German language. It seemed he normally agreed with Aristotle that intellectual attainment is the greatest pleasure of life, for he kept most of his time within his room reading some book or other. And yet he had a keen sense of humour. I got friendly with him in studying together a few lectures on psychology delivered by a professor in his former camp. But it was his amiable nature that made me his friend.[   ]When I spoke my mind to Lt. Y the Cavalry officer and asked him how he felt, he replied that it was in this prison that he had spent some of the best moments of his life. Never before, he declared, was he so free from worries and allowed to follow his own pursuits – books.”

Lt. Abhey Singh and Lt. Sahabzada Yaqub as PoWs (Front row) in Germany, 1944

Apart from other books, Sahabzada read Faust in German and Tolstoy’s War and Peace in Russian while keeping the English versions handy to help him along in his understanding.

Another officer of the 18th Cavalry who was captured along with Sahabzada Yaqub was Lieutenant Abhey Singh, the youngest son of Major General Sir Onkar Singh, KCIE, a minister in the Princely State of Kotah. He was initially interned in PG 71, also in Aversa, but in May 1943, transferred to PG 91 in Avezzano, 70 kilometres east of Rome. Ultimately he joined the others in a camp near Rimini on the north eastern coast of Italy. In the confusion that briefly followed the Italian capitulation in September 1943, like hundreds of others, Effendi, Yahya, Abhey, Kay and Yaqub escaped. They moved between the coast and the spurs of the Apennines, avoiding German patrols and frequently hiding in forests. Since Sahabzada spoke Italian, it enabled them to find shelter with friendly Italian peasants. At some point Yahya and Effendi separated from the others and after marching over 400 kilometres, contacted an advancing Indian battalion. Yahya walked into the Indian lines with only one shoe. Hissam ultimately rejoined his regiment which had been shipped back to India and fought with it in Burma. Yahya was posted at Army Headquarters in Delhi.

PoW camps in central and southern Italy during WW2

Kay slipped and fell on a dark night and fractured an ankle. He pleaded with Sahabzada and Abhey Singh to leave him there, but they were not willing to abandon their friend – and all were recaptured by the Germans

The other three were sheltered by an obliging Italian peasant family for a few months till their hosts felt that they were being watched and warned their guests of thelurking danger. Before they sneaked away, the lady of the house removed her gold necklace and gifted it to Kay as a good luck charm. A few days later, Kay slipped and fell on a dark night and fractured an ankle. He pleaded with Sahabzada and Abhey Singh to leave him there, but they were not willing to abandon their friend – and all were recaptured by the Germans in January 1944. They were all transferred to PoW camps in Germany and Kay was interned in Stalag Luft III, run by the Luftwaffe (German Air Force): 160 kilometres southeast of Berlin. The camp is best known for two famous escapes depicted in the films The Wooden Horse (1950) and The Great Escape (1963). The latter featured the famous actor Steve McQueen. After three years in captivity the three officers returned back to India on the termination of the war.

Top row: Gen P.P. Kumaramangalam, Gen Tikka Khan, Lt. Abhey Singh - Bottom row: Gen Yahya Khan, Brig Hissam el Effendi, Sahabzada Yaqub

There are two postscripts to this story. In 1966, the Camp Senior Officer and the Camp Adjutant of PG 63 met again. Lieutenant General Yahya Khan, who was the C-in-C Designate, visited Delhi and was received by P.P. Kumaramanglam who was the COAS of the Indian Army after the 1965 war. When Sahabzada Yaqub was Foreign Minister, he made it a point to visit the family in Italy which had given him and the others refuge during the war. It was an emotional but happy reunion.