A Brave Khattak Soldier: Honorary Capt Zari Marjan Khan, IDSM

A Brave Khattak Soldier: Honorary Capt Zari Marjan Khan, IDSM
I have some valuable friends who never tire of answering my queries about the history of the Pakistan Army: its officers, dress regulations, regiments and battalions, war records, class compositions and so much else that goes into the articles I write. Some time back, I was talking to Brig Dogar of the Frontier Force Regiment about Indian POWs during the Second World War, and he told me that when he joined the Guides Paltan (battalion) in 1965, the Subedar Major, Zari Marjan Khan (ZM Khan) had been a captive. He also told me that ZM Khan had been awarded an Indian Distinguished Service Medal (IDSM) for gallantry. These two interesting facts merited an article on the subedar major.

The action by the 10th Indian infantry brigade in Sudan, where it launched the first attack by British forces in East Africa. The site of the ambush by a company of 4/10 Baluch is indicated, in which Naik Zari Marjan was awarded an IDSM

Zari Marjan Khan belonged to the village Noor Sart Khan in Karak District, NWFP. His name has an interesting rhythm. Zari means ‘gold’ and Marjan is the precious stone mentioned in a Surah of the Holy Quran. In short, it means something precious, and he lived up to it. He was not originally from the Guides and initially enrolled in 4/10 Baluch in 1935 at the age of 18. He must have been a handsome lad – fair, and with reddish-brown hair covering his neck – a style called patta that every self-respecting Pathan had and was accepted by the military. He was a Khattak whom the British considered an exceedingly fine race: brave and faithful. They were thought to be amenable to discipline, trustworthy and intelligent. In short, the British felt that as a soldier, the Pathan was seen at his best in the Khattak, and Zari Marjan lived up to expectations.

The citation for the award of the IDSM to Naik Zari Marjan was signed by two officers who would rise to the rank of Field Marshal: Brig William Slim and Gen Archibald Wavell

4/10th Baluch was a proud battalion. During the First World War, it was numbered as the 129th Baluchis and was the first Indian unit to attack the Germans at Ypres in France. One of its sepoys, Khudadad Khan, became the first Indian recipient of the Victoria Cross. At the outbreak of the Second World War, 4/10th Baluch moved from Fort Sandeman to Jhansi to train with the newly raised 10th Brigade of the 5th Indian Division. The brigade commander was Bill Slim MC, who would earn his laurels in Burma and rise to be a field marshal. The battalion departed for Africa a year later and after a voyage of two weeks, it arrived at Port Sudan. The Italian forces in Eritrea and Ethiopia had plans to invade Sudan and had captured a number of border posts including the small fort of Gallabat. It lay opposite the Italian Fort at Metemma. from which it was separated by a deep ravine nearly a kilometre wide.
In his words, “I saw in the moonlight a party of the enemy advancing, so I hurriedly found out how much ammunition remained with the section. I found that there was enough to deal with the enemy, so we threw our last bombs and fired till all the rifle ammunition was exhausted

Number 15649, Hav Zari Marjan, 10 Baluch, appears in the list provided by the Italian authorities to the Red Cross. He was interned in PG 91 in Avezzano

10th Brigade was tasked to retake Gallabat Fort. Like its predecessor in the Great War, the battalion would be part of the first attack launched by the British Indian Army in North Africa. The attack was to be made by the 3/18th Garhwal Rifles supported by a squadron of tanks in the first phase with a British battalion tasked to capture the Italian fort across the ravine in the second phase. In a preliminary operation, two companies of the 4/10th occupied a series of knolls astride the main road, and A Company commanded by Maj Sherwood attacked and secured a hill between the fort and a landing ground. Naik ZM Khan was commanding one of the sections in this company. The main attack was a success, though the majority of tanks either broke down or were damaged by mines. Though the fort was captured, the superior Italian Air Force bombed it and the surrounding area relentlessly. As casualties multiplied, Brig Slim decided to withdraw the Garhwalis and for the next month, the Baluchis harassed the enemy up to Metemma with fighting patrols and ambushes.

The enemy was also patrolling the area and on the night of 10 November, Maj Sherwood’s company laid an ambush near the fort. The company had barely occupied its positions when three Italian companies emerged from the deep ravine, seemingly on an important mission. Maj Sherwood allowed them to close up, and when their scouts bumped into the ambush, the company opened fire. There was a brisk exchange of shots while the Italians tried to envelop the ambushers. On the extreme left, ZM Khan was commanding a section of six sepoys with a Bren gun, which held their fire till one of the enemy pincers of unexpected strength tried to encircle them.

ZM Khan’s moment of glory had arrived. The section opened fire at point-blank range, but while the firefight was at its height, the company HQ signaled a withdrawal. However, since his section was under pressure, the NCO devised a plan to extricate it safely. In his words, “I saw in the moonlight a party of the enemy advancing, so I hurriedly found out how much ammunition remained with the section. I found that there was enough to deal with the enemy, so we threw our last bombs and fired till all the rifle ammunition was exhausted. I then sent them back 200 yards while Sepoy Ghazi Marjan and I stayed with the gun [Bren] firing our last rounds to deceive the enemy. When the gun was empty, we quietly withdrew.”

50- and 100-Lira camp currency notes issued at PG 91, Avezzano, Italy - where Hav Zari Marjan was held captive in 1943

It was later learned that the Italian 77th Colonial Battalion which had attempted the envelopment suffered over a hundred casualties. ZM Khan’s citation for an IDSM records that “by example and steadiness, [he] maintained his section in action and even after being permitted to retire, remained in position ‘as good targets were presenting themselves.” One of the unique aspects of his citation is that it carries the signatures of two future Field Marshals of the British Army: William Slim the brigade commander and Archibald Wavell who was commanding the Middle East Command.

While the recommendation for a gallantry award to Naik ZM Khan was accepted, not so was a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his company commander Maj Sherwood. His turn would come within a couple of months, when the 10th Brigade was shifted northwards to drive the Italians out from the incursions they had made from Eritrea. During these operations, Maj Sherwood again performed brilliantly, and his second citation for a DSO was accepted. 4/10th Baluch participated in the hard-fought third and final battle of Keren that led to the capture of Massawa in April 1941. During the following year, the battalion sailed to Egypt, then drove 1,100 kilometers to Baghdad, and onto Kirkuk to protect the oilfields before driving back to Egypt. It then spent five months in Cyprus before returning to North Africa in time for the Battle of Ghazala.

The factory in the town of Torgau, where ZM Khan was interned as a POW in Germany from circa December 1943 till he was liberated in April 1945

On returning from Cyprus, the battalion had been brought back into the folds of the 10th Brigade and after being re-equipped, it had moved forward and dispersed on protection duties. However, when Rommel attacked, it was reformed in time for launching a counterattack during the Battle of the Cauldron. During this operation, ZM Khan, who by now had been promoted to havildar, was captured while leading a patrol. The Axis forces were unprepared to provide food and water to an unexpectedly large number of POWs, and in several cases, they kept the officers and VCOs, and let the Indian soldiers go after confiscating their weapons. However, with his reddish-brown hair and fair complexion ZM Khan looked like a European, and by the time the Germans learned he was an Indian, his name was on the POW roster. Unfortunately, the Afrika Korps broke the cauldron and 4/10th Baluch was one of the many units that were overrun. Nearly the entire battalion was captured – 9 officers, 15 VCOs, and 516 other ranks. Amongst them was IC 290 Capt AM Yahya Khan and also 20225 Sep Abdul Khanan, the brother of ZM Khan.

The page from the paybook of Honorary Captain Zari marjan shows the award of the IDSM at serial 2, as well as the Africa Star for service in that continent

There was an agreement between the Axis powers that the Italians would keep all the prisoners of the British Indian Army, while the rest would be interned in Nazi-held territories. In the list of POWs provided by the Italians to the International Red Cross, Indian Army Number 15649 Havildar Zari Marjan Khan as well as his brother were held in PG 91 at Avezzano. It had been a POW camp during the First World War and was reopened for POWs from enlisted ranks. The accommodation was very run-down: the POWs slept on straw mattresses on the floor and the sanitary conditions were abysmal. All the buildings were constructed on stilts a meter high so that tunnels could not be concealed. There were separate cooking arrangements for the Indians of different religions, and though the rations provided by the Italians were insufficient, the deficiency was made up to some extent by the Red Cross parcels. Those from India contained items for the Indian palate but were in short supply. When the POW camp at Aversa, which mostly housed Indian officers and VCOs, was vacated in anticipation of an Allied landing, most of its inmates were shifted to Avezzano. They included officers like PP Kumaramanglam, Sahabzada Yaqub and Tikka Khan.
Axis forces kept the officers and VCOs, and let the Indian soldiers go after confiscating their weapons. However, with his reddish-brown hair and fair complexion ZM Khan looked like a European, and by the time the Germans learned he was an Indian, his name was on the POW roster

The Italians capitulated in September 1943, and like with many other camps in Italy, there was a mass escape from Avezzano. However, Zari Margan was not as fortunate as some of the others in making it to the Allied lines. He was recaptured and deported to Germany along with thousands of other Allied POWs. His name appears in a list provided by the Red Cross to the British Government in 1944, indicating that he was held captive at Stalag IV-D/Z Annaburg. It was a camp for enlisted troops located in the town of Torgau, about 50 km northeast of Leipzig and on the banks of the River Elbe. It was established in a disused factory and housed only 800 POWs. ZM Khan remained a prisoner here till 25 April 1945, when it was liberated by American troops. In fact, Torgau is famous as the place where the Allied (American) troops finally met up with the Soviet Red Army forces on the road bridge over the River Elbe.

ZM Khan was repatriated to India via the UK and after availing six months of POW leave, he reported to the battalion. It had returned to India in December 1945 after fighting through the Italian Campaign and by the time ZM Khan rejoined it in 1946, the battalion was based in Nowshera. Anticipating rioting in Punjab, 4/10th along with two other Baluch battalions were shifted to Lahore and Kasur as part of the Boundary Force and immediately went into action when trouble erupted. In December 1947 came the orders from HQs of the Pakistan Army that all Pathans from the Baluch battalions were to be transferred to 15th Punjab, the Frontier Force Rifles, and Pathan regiments. Consequently, ZM Khan was posted to the Guides Infantry.

The Guides Infantry made up for its lack of action during the Second World War by giving an excellent account of itself in Kashmir in 1948. The battalion was instrumental in checking the Indian offensive in the Kishenganga (Neelum) Valley, where it fought with great gallantry at Tithwal and foiled all enemy efforts to advance. ZM Khan served with the battalion throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, proving his worth and steadily rising in rank. He retired two years after the 1965 War as an honorary captain.

ZM Khan was a God-fearing man, and on returning to his village, he buried himself in social work. His son Noor Madad Khan, who retired as a Petty Officer from the Pakistan Navy, recollects that his mother often complained that her husband ignored the house duties and departed every morning on some work. He was forever assisting his village folks by accompanying them to the court and solving other issues. He was instrumental in getting electricity to his village by requesting Gen Zia-ul-Haq during the general’s visit to Kohat. He also had a pipeline laid from a spring to channel fresh water to his village and a neighbouring one. Unfortunately, in his last years, he became paralysed and passed away in 2008. He was fortunate to have spent a life well lived.