Born To Be Brave - Col Siddiq Raja's Journey From African Battlefields To The Rawalpindi Conspiracy

Born To Be Brave - Col Siddiq Raja's Journey From African Battlefields To The Rawalpindi Conspiracy
Lt Col Mohammad Mohyuddin Siddique Raja MC (Bar) belonged to the village of Dhok Qazian, which lies within the Salt Range on the road running from Sohawa to Chakwal. Some notable officers of the Pakistan Army who belonged to this village and its surroundings include Gen Akhtar Abdur Rehman, Maj Gen Majid, Raja Nadir Pervez SJ (Bar), Lt Gen Tariq Pervez and Lt Gen Iftikhar.

Col Raja was born in 1915 in Faisalabad District, where his parents had settled on their lands. In 1933, he enrolled into the Sikh Regiment under the name of Muhammad Siddiq, and, since he was an outstanding NCO, he was selected for the Indian Military Academy.

IC225 2/Lt Siddiq was commissioned in February 1940 and posted to the 4/13th Sikh Regiment, one of the finest battalions of the British India Army. It was raised post-1857 as the 36 Sikhs and in 1897 it rose to fame because of the stand unto death of 21 of its soldiers defending the Saragarhi post against a large number of Pashtun tribesmen. In the 1922 army reforms, it was renumbered as the 4th Battalion, 11th Sikhs Regiment. The battalion was with the 5th Indian Brigade of the famous 4th Indian Division which had been moved to Eritrea after the Italians’ defeat in North Africa. The culmination of the campaign in East Africa was the famous battle at Keren, and it was one of the toughest engagements fought by the division. This was one of the few occasions where the Italians fought with tenacity, particularly the regular troops such as the Savoia Grenadiers, Alpini, and Bersaglieri, who were proud of their resistance.

The final battle at Keren. Mt Samanna, Eritrea - where Lt Siddiq was awarded his first MC, is encircled in green. The shaded area is the Left Bump that his company secured in the first phase

Keren is located on a plateau 4,300 feet above sea level and astride the only route that led to Asmara. A formidable barrier of bleak and jagged peaks guarded the approach through the narrow Dongolas Gorge, which took the road and railway up to the plateau. Two attacks in February and early March 1941 by the 4th and 5th Indian Divisions met very limited success. The Italians were too well entrenched and from their excellent observation posts, they could detect and engage every movement. Moreover, the physical effort of climbing through the prickly bush, spear grass and rocks with no foothold, so exhausted the attackers burdened with equipment, weapons, ammunition, food and water, that on reaching the crests they were momentarily too exhausted to make a further effort. That is when the Italians counterattacked.
He led his company into the attack against the fire of heavy machine guns, mortars, and rifles and captured the objective under showers of hand grenades. Owing to the speed and resolution in the attack, his company suffered comparatively light casualties

Ultimately the British commanders decided to force a passage astride the gorge. The task assigned to the 5th Indian Division operating on the right of the gorge was to initially capture Dologolodoc Fort. To the left, the 4th Indian Division was to capture Sanchil, Brig's Peak, Hog's Back and the three peaks of Mount Sammana that had been named after a mountain ridge of the same name in the Hangu District of Pakistan. Many of the battalions had served in the North West Frontier of India and found the terrain in Eritrea very similar, with steep mountains covered with scrub. Samanna was the extreme left feature defended by the Italians and was occupied by the 1st Alpini Battalion, 10th Savoy Grenadier Regiment. The Alpini are the Italian Army's specialist mountain infantry who had distinguished themselves in combat during the First World War and were well trained and equipped for this particular role.

4th Battalion 11th Sikh Regiment entering Derna, Libya in 1942

The 5th Indian Infantry Brigade assigned the 4/11th Sikh to capture the three peaks on Mt Samana, named the Left, Centre/Middle and Right bumps. The leading company commanded by Lt Siddiq was to capture the Left Bump. He led his company into the attack against the fire of heavy machine guns, mortars, and rifles and captured the objective under showers of hand grenades. Owing to the speed and resolution in the attack, his company suffered comparatively light casualties. While still under heavy fire, Siddiq consolidated the defense and provided fire support to the companies attacking Middle and Right Bumps. Both these attacks were held up short of the objective by the determined defense of the Alpini battalion. When one of the company commanders was injured, he was replaced by Siddiq, who launched a night attack on the Middle Bump, during which he was twice wounded. His citation states that: “Throughout the action, this officer displayed the highest courage and powers of organisation and leadership. His example and coolness under fire undoubtedly had a great effect on the men under his command.” For this act of bravery, Siddiq was recommended for an immediate award of a Military Cross.
At independence in 1947, he was distraught at the idea of the breakup of the British India Army and heartbroken at the thought of leaving the Sikhs

At the end of the East African Campaign, the 4th Indian Division was rushed back to the western desert to take part in Operation Battleaxe, launched in June 1941 to relieve Tobruk. For the next five months, the division’s brigades were distributed to various formations and involved in the fighting, which ebbed and flowed past Tobruk. On 18 November, Auchinleck launched Operation Crusader and Tobruk was relieved after a hard fight. Rommel’s troops were steadily pushed back. The 4/11th was now under command of 7th Indian Brigade. Siddiq had been promoted captain and repeatedly demonstrated guts and determination. During an attack on Point-204 (Haqfet El Qineiqina) in November 1941, when his Company was held up by very heavy artillery, machinegun and rifle fire in front of an unsuspected minefield, Siddiq led his Company to the assault without hesitation. His leadership and personal example were mainly responsible for the capture of the objective in a very short time and with comparatively few casualties.

He again displayed the same during the attack on 15 December 1941 to capture the airfield at Derna, which is a coastal town in the Libyan region of Cyrenaica. Siddiq’s company was not only confronted by the enemy occupying trenches to cover the landing ground, but also a convoy of two tanks, 20 lorries full of troops and three guns. However, he did not hesitate for a moment, but deployed his company to take on both tasks and the inspiring skill and determination he displayed were largely responsible for their successful achievement and led to the subsequent capture of the landing ground. His citation for a Bar to his MC, which was initiated in December, states: “Throughout the period of operations this officer has played an outstanding part in command of a Company and his bravery, determination to close with the enemy and his inspired leadership and his handling of his Company with complete disregard for his personal safety have been worthy of the highest praise.”

Lt Col Siddiq, CO 4/13th Frontier Force, supervising the distribution of winter clothing to refugees in the Naushera Sector in 1948

Siddiq was with the Sikhs throughout the hard-fought Italian campaign and within seven years of being commissioned, he was in command of the 7/13th Sikhs in Iraq in 1947.

At independence in 1947, he was distraught at the idea of the breakup of the British India Army and heartbroken at the thought of leaving the Sikhs. In a letter to the Adjutant General, Lt Gen Savory who had been his GOC in Iraq, he admits that he was most disappointed and further states that. “The Indian Army is systematically being destroyed, a fine machine being disintegrated to satisfy some of the so-called politicians who till now called us mercenaries. We are watching a tragedy being performed in front of us.” He expressed similar sentiments when writing to the commanding officers of the other Sikh battalions. “Today I am commanding this battalion of the fine Sikh Regiment. Tomorrow when I give up the command, I will be a foreigner to most of those who are my own men today.” He goes on to say that the division of the army was an incredible, impractical notion of those who had no idea of the strength and worth of the Indian Army. Obviously, it wasn’t just the British officers who were upset with the division of the army.

By the time he arrived in Pakistan, the conflict in Kashmir had erupted and he was given command of the 4/13th FF Rifles. At the end of April 1948, the battalion comprising of only two companies moved from Mirpur to the Jhangar Sector for an attack on a position occupied by an Indian Brigade. The battalion was reinforced with two regular companies, Azad Forces and Mahsud Lashkars, but with no artillery. Their concentration area was under frequent artillery fire and air attack, and Colonel Siddique decided that there was no option but to attack. It was launched on the night of 9 May with great determination but the Indian defenses were too strong and the battalion disengaged after suffering heavy casualties of 36 killed and 51 wounded. Though unsuccessful, this action forced the Indians to reinforce this sector and delayed their linkup with the Naushera and Poonch Sectors by six months.

The award of Fakhr-e-Kashmir was conferred on Lt Col Siddiq Raja on 13 July 1949. It was the equivalent of the Hilal-e-Jurat, the second-highest gallantry award of Pakistan

The battalion moved back to Rawalpindi for a respite, but as soon as it arrived, it was rushed to Rehsangali in the Uri Sector and carried out heavy patrolling to stop infiltration by the Indians in an attempt to link Pandu with Titwal. A month later, they were pulled again back to Rawalpindi to rest and retrain, but were soon on the move and back under fire in the trenches in the Naushera Sector. It was a busy and demanding year, best described by the Indian DMO during the Border Talks who said that “4/13th was elusive. They were on the Jhangar front, on Uri front, in Rawalpindi and in Mirpur at about the same time.” The battalion had performed under the able leadership of Col Siddiq ‘Raja’ and the Digest of Service of the 4/13th credited him with a dominating personality and being a born leader of men.

Here was a fighting commander who was in his element during the operations - and the officers and men had deep-rooted respect and confidence in him. Though he was a young CO, the battalion started calling him ‘Baba’ and the 4/13th was referred to as the Baba battalion. In a ceremonial parade held in March 1949 and attended by the commander of 7 Division, he was awarded a certificate for “Devotion to duty of a high order.” The Pakistan government had not yet created gallantry awards. The Government of Azad Kashmir conferred on him the award of Fakhr-e-Kashmir, which was later recognised as being equivalent to a Hilal-e-Jurat.

Siddiq Raja was posted from the battalion in January 1950, but within a year a catastrophe befell when he got involved in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case. It is unfortunate that an officer who within nine years of commissioned service had the rare distinction of being thrice awarded for gallantry, had to leave the army under such a dark cloud.

Note: The author would like to thank the sons of Col Saddiq Raja – Dr. Naseer Raja and Col Saeed Raja for providing him material for this article.