Studying Modern Warfare As World War II Raged: A Muslim Instructor's Life At Staff College Quetta

Studying Modern Warfare As World War II Raged: A Muslim Instructor's Life At Staff College Quetta
My father Maj Gen Syed Shahid Hamid was one of the first Muslim officers on the faculty of the Staff College, Quetta. He was not from a combat arm, but from the Royal Indian Army Service Corps that was despairingly known as the Rice Corps after its acronym of RIASC.

Shahid’s path to the hallowed corridors of the College was not without glitches. He was from the last batch of Indian officers commissioned in 1932 from Sandhurst and accepted by the 3rd Cavalry. To his dismay, he found that it was an unhappy regiment. Its British officers had not come to terms with the Indian cavalry unit amalgamations and resented being an Indianised regiment. They disliked the presence of ‘native’ officers in their mess and except for a few, the rest were snobs. His squadron commander was disliked by all, but Shahid persevered and enjoyed serving with a horse mounted Kaimkhani squadron till he fractured his army in 1936.

He was operated on in Vienna where he spent a year convalescing. When he returned, his squadron commander was commanding the regiment and the atmosphere had further deteriorated. Since there were no vacancies for additional ‘native’ officers in the other two Indianised cavalry regiments, Shahid Hamid first applied for the Indian Political Service but was denied an entry. He then applied for a secondment to the RIASC. The fact that officers in the RIASC received an additional allowance probably eased the ignominy of transferring from the prestigious cavalry to a mule-based organisation. It was providence that he left the 3rd Cavalry. The regiment was part of the reinforcements sent to stem the Japanese invasion of Malaya and became POWs for the rest of the war.

Shahid first commanded a mule company in Fort Sandaman and then a transport company in the newly raised Indian Armoured Division at Risalpur. When the division was disbanded due to a shortage of equipment, Shahid was posted on the Staff of the Burma Corps at Rangoon. These were trying times, as the Japanese were overrunning Southeast Asia and the British India Army was driven out of Burma under appalling conditions. Shahid was injured when the Japanese bombed Mandalay, and then he was evacuated.

While serving in Burma, he had been recommended for the Staff Course as “his advancement would be of interest to the service” and arrived in Quetta in 1943. Till the Second World War, the college conducted a two-year course featuring a year’s tuition on divisional staff and command duties and a further year’s study devoted to corps and army operations, as well as the political and strategic issues faced by imperial defence planners. During the war, the ‘imperial’ subjects were jettisoned and the syllabus was redesigned as a 17-week course dedicated to the essentials of divisional staff work. However, much to the chagrin of the students, English prose and composition was retained in the syllabus.

Syed Shahid Hamid (1) attending the Staff College, Quetta, 1942. The Indian DS, Kalwant Singh, is at (2)

Because of the mass induction of British and Indian emergency commissioned officers during the war, there was an amazing assortment of students from all walks of life: ex-actors, bookies, writers, professional Bridge players and all from various theaters of operations with a variety of experiences. The only Indian instructor at the college at that time was Kalwant Singh, who later commanded a corps in the Indian Army. He expected all the Indian officers to call on him and was annoyed at Shahid for not coming. When he threatened to harm Shahid’s career, there was a heated argument and the two nearly came to blows. Shahid did very well on the course, partly because of his field experience in the headquarters of an active formation in Burma, and was told that he would be returning as an instructor. From Quetta he travelled 4,500 km by rail/road to command a Transport Company on the Imphal Road.
During the war, the ‘imperial’ subjects were jettisoned and the syllabus was redesigned as a 17-week course dedicated to the essentials of divisional staff work. However, much to the chagrin of the students, English prose and composition was retained in the syllabus

Shahid returned as an instructor with only 11 years of service and was promoted to lieutenant colonel on arriving. By now there were three Indian instructors – Jayanto Nath (Mochu) Chaudhuri, who was the Indian COAS during the 1965 War, Mahadev Singh whose nickname was ‘crow’ and Iftikhar Khan who had also served in 3rd Cavalry. Iftikhar would have been the first Pakistani C-in-C if he had not died in an air crash in 1948.

The college building was like a chateau, beautifully constructed in 1905 with heavy wooden paneling. Shahid recollects that it had a magnificent library with some rare books, pictures and paintings. Apart from large lecture and demonstration halls, there were several common rooms for the Directing Staff with large desks to work on. Their walls were adorned with wooden boards with the name of previous instructors. Each instructor had a syndicate of ten students and was also responsible for sponsoring subjects and exercises. Some things haven’t changed.

With his background of logistics, Shahid prepared basic précises, lectures and exercises related to maintenance of troops in the field and on lines of communication. The most time-consuming task on which he burnt the midnight oil was correcting assignments. Shahid recollects that instructors were quite candid in their remarks and did not mince words, but the students accepted it in good spirit. Since his wife had written his English assignments when he was attending the course, she now corrected those of the students and was surprised to see how badly some of the British officers wrote in their own mother tongue.

There were many Indian students at the college and Shahid remembers the two Pathanias, Rajinder Singh Paintal, Kashmir Singh Katoch, Virender Singh, Harnarain Singh and Abdul Hameed Khan. The two Pathanias were Anand Singh (6/13th RFFR) and his uncle Mohinder Singh (5/10th Baloch ‘Cherry Bottom’). Anand Singh had earned a well-deserved MC at the Battle of Karen and later commanded 1/5th Ghurkha in the First Kashmir War, and was awarded a MVC. He retired as a major general. Paintal commanded the Indian 190 Infantry Brigade in Korea and retired as a lieutenant general. Katoch was GOC of XV Corps in Kashmir during the 1965 War. Virendra Singh was a RIMCOLLIAN who retired as a major general in 1966. Harnarain Singh retired as a major general and was military secretary to the first President of India. Gen Hameed was COS Pakistan Army during the tenure of Gen Yahya Khan.

Sam Manekshaw (who was the Indian Chief of Army Staff during the 1971 War), also attended the staff course while Shahid Hamid was there – and being a friend, he and his wife stayed at their residence for a couple of months. Sher Singh, (Sam's orderly who had saved his life in Burma) was with him and could do nothing wrong. Before his marriage, the orderly used to wear Sam's shirt and Sam never objected. However, this continued after he was married and every time the orderly wore his shirt, Siloo his wife used to call out loudly: "Saaaaaaaam! He is wearing your shirt again". Sam just ignored Siloo.

Instructors were expected to make their lectures interesting by injecting amusing stories. Sometimes the humour backfired. Shahid was conducting a short course for the Women’s Auxiliary Corps. He and his students developed a mutual dislike and they complained that their instructor had narrated (what they perceived to be) a dirty joke. Much to his relief, Shahid was replaced. There were a number of students from the Indian State Forces. Referring to the officers from the Hyderabad State forces, Mochu Chaudhry in bad taste commented that they came from “The realm of His Exhausted Highness, the Nizam of Hyderabad.” There was uproar by the students from Hyderabad who were relatively large in number and Mochu had to apologise.

In between courses, instructors visited the HQs of formations and units in combat for first-hand information on the lessons learnt. Shahid got an opportunity to return to Burma for a month in the winter of 1944 when the Fourteenth Army commanded by General Bill Slim had launched its counteroffensive and was assaulting across the River Chindwin. The whole complexion of the war had changed for the better after what he had been through during the retreat: it was heartening to see troops confidently advancing against the Japanese.

One of the highlights of the year was a two-month Senior Officer’s Course (also called the ‘Old Boys’ Course) to prepare them for commanding brigades and higher formations. The discussions were set on actual operations and made even more interesting because most of the officers had served in combat theatres, and some had been awarded for valour. The final exercise was attended by no less than the army chief.

Shahid’s two-year tenure at the college had an unpleasant ending. His father passed away in Lucknow and he was posted to a division close to home. A few months later, after a number of interviews at the Army Headquarters at Delhi (the purpose of which were not revealed to him), he was selected as the Private Secretary to General Claude Auchinleck, C-in-C India.

It was the pinnacle of his career in the British India Army.

General Auchinleck, C-in-C India, with the Senior Officers Course at Staff College Quetta, 1946
1. Brig Sher Khan MC 6 FF - 2. Lt Gen Haji Iftikhar, 3rd Cav - 3. Gen Cariappa, C-in-C Indian Army - 3. Maj Gen Syed Shahid Hamid, 3rd Cav. - 5. Maj Gen Nazir - 8. Lt Col Govind Singh, 61st Cav - 9. Lt Gen Frank Messervy, 13 Lancers & C-in-C Pakistan Army - 10. Lt Gen Dudley Russel (Pasha), 6/13 FF