Sahabzada Yaqub and Gul Hassan: A Study in Contrast

Major General Syed Ali Hamid compares the personality and approach of two early and influential figures from Pakistan’s Armoured Corps

Sahabzada Yaqub and Gul Hassan: A Study in Contrast
The first two officers of the Pakistan Armoured Corps who were promoted to the rank of major general were Sahabzada Yaqub (PA-136) and Gul Hassan (PA-437). The course of the careers of these two officers shared some parallels. Both had served in active theatres during the Second World War but for limited periods. Both remained ADCs to senior British commanders – Gul Hassan with Bill Slim in Burma and Yaqub with Lieutenant General Sir Reginald Savory, C-in-C Iraq-Iran Force in 1945. Both were subsequently on the staff of the Quaid-e-Azam: Yaqub as the Commandant of the Governor General’s Body Guard and Gul Hassan as the his ADC. Both were bachelors when they were appointed as divisional commanders and consequently both bordered on the verge of being eccentric. And finally, during the 1971 crisis, both had important appointments: Gul Hassan as Chief of General Staff and Yaqub as Governor of East Pakistan. However, both possessed very different personalities, which make an interesting study in contrasts.

Sahabzada Yaqub replaced Major General Sarfraz Khan as commander of the 1st Armoured Division in 1961. He was the first – and for some years after – the only armour officer to be entrusted with the command of an armoured division. He was also the first in the line of bachelors who commanded armoured divisions, and the corps had more than its share including Gul Hassan, Eftikhar Khan and Shamsur Rehman Kallu. Sahabzada wed during his command and there may have been an element of regret having been a very self-contained bachelor now marrying at a comparatively late age. A subject he selected for a debate for the officers of the division had an interesting theme: “Blessed are the officers who are NOT married.”

Maj Sahibzada Yaqub, as Comdt Governor-General's Bodyguard, receives the Chinese representative to Pakistan at Karachi, 12 August 1947

Yaqub was a perfectionist and propelled his staff and command to go into the smallest details

Sahabzada Yaqub took command of the division shortly after it returned from Exercise TEZGAM. It was a large exercise in which most of the Army’s resources were involved and its primary purpose was to evaluated the organisation and operational reach of the armoured division that had been equipped with Patton tanks. Lessons from the exercise were under intense debate and the columnist Muhammed Zafar, who was serving in Kharian at that time, recollects that Sahabzada did not show his preference towards any one school of thought. However, “[…] he did embark on a plan to educate the debaters on mechanics of armoured warfare that in essence consists of movement and administrative maintenance. He would refer to a photograph of Field Marshal Rommel poring over a map with a compass in hand and a ruler lying nearby. ‘This is how you plan a tank battle; cold calculations’, he would say.”

Yaqub was a perfectionist and propelled his staff and command to go into the smallest details. Brigadier Asmat Beg who was commissioned into the Armoured Corps in the early 1960s recollects that during his frequent spot checks of units, Sahabzada Yaqub would keep asking questions till the officer ran out of answers and was embarrassed to admit that he didn’t know. Yaqub “would […] ask unit officers questions like the TPP (Time Past a Point) of the unit’s F echelon, tonnage of second-line ammunition and length of an armoured division’s column. The ignorant were ticked off as a matter of course.” Beg also recollects that the GOC had a very dry sense of humour and the “ […] general’s bite was often deep and hurtful”. The GOC’s “[…] apparent disregard for the sensitivities of normal run of mill officers has to be understood in relation to the professional and cultural excellence that he desired to see around him.”

Gul Hassan's simple and direct style appealed to the soldiers under his command

Sahibzada Yaqub when he was General Officer Commanding, 1st Armoured Division, 1960-62

Every activity big or small had to be followed by a critique. Units would hold critiques after field training, field firing, training drives, sub-calibre fire and –  what may sound ludicrous – even after regimental guest nights. His detractors argue that he was strong on theory but weak in execution. They state that it held true even on the polo ground. During practice sessions his back- and near-handers, as well as other strokes, were near perfect. But in matches he could not come close to the same level of perfection.

From the armoured division Sahabzada Yaqub went to Quetta as commandant of the Command and Staff College. As a lieutenant colonel, he had attended the Ecole de Guerre, the War School at Paris, where he was tutored on the fundaments of the operational level of warfare. That is a grade higher than battlefield tactics and GHQ accepted his recommendation for conducting a course on this discipline for lieutenant colonels. The first Army War Course of 12 participants (including one each from the Navy and Air Force) commenced in May 1963 with Sahabzada Yaqub’s intimate involvement.

“Plans were discussed in all dimensions: time-space being the favourite of the general. Concepts like schwerpunkt, balance, time-space dimension, centre of gravity, friction de guerre, hypotheses and variants gained currency in the army. The graduates of Army War Course started a movement that was equivalent of a renaissance.”

Professionally his capabilities were eloquently summed up in one sentence: “He could be compared to the finest of the German General Staff”. Intellectually, he was an artist, a connoisseur of music and dance, and a student of philosophy amongst many other disciplines. He was also a linguist who had taught himself a number of European languages – some when he was a prisoner of war in Italy and Germany during the Second World War. With all these intellectual pursuits he was also a voracious reader. In the prisoner of war camp at Versa in Italy, a doctor who had befriended Yaqub asked him how he felt about being in captivity: “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.”

After the 1965 War, Sahabzada was posted back to 1st Armoured Division to reinvigorate it after the battering it had received. But six months later was replaced by Major General Gul Hassan. As against Sahabzada’s height and aristocratic bearing, Gul Hassan (known as ‘George’ behind his back), had a short and compact physique. He did not have the same social and cultural graces as Sahabzada, who was born into Indian nobility, and was not as eloquent. During conversations, he sometimes left the later part of his speech barely audible and a listener had to guess what George was actually trying to say. Both the officers were educated at the Royal Indian Military College at Dehradun and commissioned from regular courses at the Indian Military Academy. However, while Sahabzada, who was a few years senior to Gul Hassan, played polo, the game of nobility, Gul Hassan gained fame as boxer at the academy and excelled in hockey.

Sahabzada was commissioned at the early stages of the Second World War but served for only a short period in a combat theatre before he became a PoW in 1942 during the Battle of Ghazala in North Africa. On the other hand, Gul Hassan who was commissioned in 1942 into the Frontier Force Rifle, ended up serving with a Rajput battalion that for six months, and was in the thick of combat against the Japanese at the famous Garrison Hill at Kohima. Six months later, he was selected by General Bill Slim, Commander Fourteenth Army, as his ADC. He stayed with him until after the war.

Maj Gen Gul Hassan with the staff of HQs, 1st Armoured Division, in 1967. Standing on his right is then Lt. Col. Zia-ul-HaqMaj Gen Gul Hassan with the staff of HQs, 1st Armoured Division, in 1967. Standing on his right is then Lt. Col. Zia-ul-Haq

In the one-and-a-half years that he spent with Slim, he must have drawn a lot from the personality of this great commander. Slim was a born leader with a strong and attractive personality who inspired trust and related to his soldier as men and not as subordinates. He spent much of his time communicating with his soldiers directly through casual conversation without any attempts at showmanship or exhortation. He was also able to communicate in a simple language that the rank and file could easily understand, thus bonding with his men on a personal level.

Gul Hassan had similar traits and this accounted for him being able to create an esprit de corps within the division. Sahabzada (‘Jacob’ to only those he was very close to), had an inborn shyness and a fierce desire to remain correct and guard his privacy. On the other hand, Gul Hassan was more flamboyant, unconventional and much more relaxed. He has been described as, “ […] an honest man without a trace of cant, blunt of speech and an inimitable sense of humour. He once wrote a one-line ACR on one of his lazy and not-so-competent subordinates: ‘This bloody chap needs a kick up his ar*e-hole!’”

He had a strong charisma that particularly appealed to and inspired young officers. Akram Syed, Rafi Alam and Kallu who served under Gul Hassan when he was commanding Probyn’s Horse, developed strong leadership traits and a number of others like them were identified as “Gul Hassan’s Boys”.

Some accuse Gul Hassan of developing a personality cult and while ‘off parade’ he preferred the company of young officers. As a division commander, he even permitted them to sign for drinks on his account at the club. He had very strong likes and dislikes. The people he liked he collected around him, the others he ignored. He expressed this in fairly profane language. Slim was aware of his ADC’s desire to serve in the armoured corps and at the end of the war, had him posted to 3rd Cavalry. Thus Gul made a relatively late entry into the corps. However, during his five years of command of Probyn’s Horse, in the process of training the regiment, he also trained himself. He also left an indelible stamp on the regiment which acquired the unofficial title of Gul Hassan’s Own.
Gul Hassan (known as ‘George’ behind his back), had a short and compact physique. He did not have the same social and cultural graces as Sahabzada, who was born into Indian nobility

While he was in command, the army conducted some major exercises spread over three years and in the word of the general, “I was indeed fortunate to be with my Regiment all the while because such opportunities were to be few and far between as the years went by.”

It is said that he commanded 1st Armoured Division like he commanded his regiment. Unlike Sahabzada Yaqub Khan, Gul Hasan was short on strategic vision but, “He was the field commander, division and below, hell bent on tactics and the training of his men ‘on the grounds’, troop to unit level.” Gul Hassan “[...]led the division at the grassroots levels during the collective training period. I saw him leading troops and squadrons in their leading tanks in the Muzaffargarh Ranges during the collective training, and in fire and movement exercises he led from the front tank.”

He was also prepared to take personal risks. He sat in a bunker at the target end during the artillery field firing and “[…] though Gen Gul was shaken in the bunker and came out of it with a lot of dust and fear of God in him - but he was quite safe.”

Gul Hassan’s close, hands-on approach to the training of tank commanders and troop leaders was probably influenced by a sand-table exercise he attended in the early stages of his career that was conducted by his brigade commander, K. M. Idris: “It involved study of troop (basic armour sub-unit) and squadron drills in various situations. It was one of the most instructive exercises I have ever attended. I was at the same time horrified that those who could, in theory, handle panzer army groups with greater efficiency than Colonel-General Guderian, were totally at sea when asked to move three tanks from A to B, in practice.”

While there were many who admired Gul Hassan for his method of training in the 1st Armoured Division, not everyone agreed with it. Commenting on the training following the 1965 War, Brigadier Manto makes an oblique reference:

“In the armoured corps the lessons of 1965 War were confined to improving tank troop and squadron training and that too under the direct supervision of the GOCs. The manner of training destroyed the initiative of troop leaders and squadron commanders and commanding officers. The job of squadron commanders and commanding officers was being done by brigade commanders and GOCs. Unfortunately, no one realised that this was not possible in case of war since a brigade commander and GOC had other responsibilities.”

Brigadier ZA Khan, who had spent his early days with 13th Lancers training his tank troop and squadron on his own, also had the same opinion. “This independence and trust disappeared later. Even when troops were commanded by officers they were not left alone, so much so that in armoured divisions and brigades, generals and brigadiers supervised troop training: shattering the confidence and the initiative of the junior officers.”

While ZA’s comments may be too harsh, the fact is that the major focus was on troop training even within 1st Armored Division’s sister formation, the 6th Armoured Division. Before taking over command of 6th Armoured Division, as part of his familiarization with armour, Eftikhar Khan who was from the Baloch Regiment spent time with 1st Armoured Division in Multan and was briefed by Gul Hassan. In the early stages of his command of the armoured division he referred to Gul Hassan as his ‘Guru’ (Teacher). Mitha, also from the Baloch Regiment, who replaced Gul Hassan, had no such admiration for his predecessor. He spent a few days with Gul Hassan as part of his familiarization with the division and was not pleased with what he saw:

As this was the collective training period, I was really surprised that the first ten days or so were spent watching firing by individual tanks from static positions on the range, followed by a small set exercise which involved firing on the move by every troop. The whole thing was run like a festive sports event, with all ranks including the Div Commander cheering when a ‘bull’ was scored. Each day elaborate ‘elevense’ and lunch were served by the regiment which was firing.”

However much Mitha may not have approved of all this, it was Gul Hassan’s style and he left an endearing mark at every level that he commanded.

This article is based on the research the author carried out while writing ‘At the Forward Edge of Battle – History of the Pakistan Armoured Corps’. How these two officers preformed in the politico-military dimensions of the 1971 tragedy was outside the scope of the book