Facing the Empire of the Rising Sun

Major General Syed Ali Hamid tells the tale of the baptism by fire of 2nd Lt. Zarif Khan, MC, and his subsequent experiences fighting the Japanese

Facing the Empire of the Rising Sun
Fifty minutes before the Empire of Japan bombed Pearl Harbour, it invaded Malaya. This is the account of the bravery of a young officer of the Punjab Regiment who had only one year’s service, resolutely facing the first onslaught of the Imperial Japanese Army which subsequently swept through Malaya and Burma during the Second World War.

On the night of the 8th of December 1941, the Japanese landed two infantry divisions; one on the northeast coast of the Malayan peninsula, and a second 130 km further up to secure the Thai ports of Singora and Patani. It then rapidly pushed southwest into Malaya before the British could react effectively. The sector along the western coast of Malaya was defended by the 11th Indian Infantry Division which had planned to launch a preemptive strike to deny the Thai ports to the Japanese. However to mount the operation it required a warning of 24 hours. And so, it was instead preempted by the Japanese.

Muhammad Zarif Khan, MC, wearing the ranks of the Colonel Commandant
of 19th Punjab

Three ad hoc columns were hastily formed to harass and delay the Japanese advance. KROHCOL was the most important of the three and was originally composed as a brigade-sized force but at the last moment all it could muster was the 3/16th Punjab and some engineers. Its objective was across the Thai-Malaya border; a 10 km stretch of road known as The Ledge” which was bounded on one side by a steep hill and on the other by a sheer drop into the River Patani. If KROHCOL could blow the hillside on to the road they could delay the Japanese and enable their division to carry out an orderly withdrawal.

IC-395, 2/Lt Muhammad Zarif Khan, was commanding ‘D’ Company with only a year’s service. He was the son of an Honourary Captain – Subedar Major Tikka Khan Bahadur, 3/2nd Punjab, who was the recipient of the Indian Order of Merit. He was of Rajput descent and belonged to Karor, a village near modern-day Islamabad. He was one of the four Viceroy Commissioned Officers who were selected as Indian Orderly Officers in 1926 to attend to the King in Court in London. Zarif had been educated at RIMC Dehradun where he was a contemporary of Sahibzada Yaqub, Nur Khan, Asghar Khan and Gul Hassan. In fact, Zarif, Sahibzada Yaqub and Tikka Khan (who commanded the Pakistan Army) were commissioned from the same IMA course in December 1940. Little did they know then that all three would spend most of the war in captivity; Sahibzada and Tikka in a PoW camp in Italy, and Zarif in Malaya.
The Indian Army had no doctrine for jungle warfare, though some formations and units that had arrived earlier in Malaya had been trained in what was termed as “forest warfare”

The battalion had been raised in 1857 and fought in the First World War and the Third Afghan War as the 33rd Punjabis. In the Indian Army Reforms of 1921-22, it was renumbered as the 3rd Battalion of the 16th Punjab Regiment Group (After Independence it was renumbered as 15th Punjab Battalion). When Zarif joined the battalion in December 1940, it had moved to Secunderabad under the newly created 15th Indian Infantry Brigade. The brigade left Bombay for Malaya in March 1941 to join the 11th Indian Infantry Division and on its arrival at Penang, the battalion moved to Kroh at the start of April 1941.

With the rapid expansion of the Indian Army, all the old battalions were heavily milked of officers and soldiers which seriously affected their fighting capability. The process continued even after they arrived in Malaya, and in some battalions there were no more than a couple of men with over two years of service – in a section of ten men. The recruits that filled the void had little basic training and most of it was related to the desert. The Indian Army had no doctrine for jungle warfare, though some formations and units that had arrived earlier in Malaya had been trained in what was termed as “forest warfare”. Some pamphlets had been hastily compiled and issued but many of the battalions were too busy in preparing defenses to devote time to training. In short, most of the British, Indian and Australian battalions in Malaya were in no way fit to meet the Japanese on equal terms. The topping on the cake was that in Malaya the capabilities of the Imperial Japanese Army were considered “as lying somewhere between that of the Italian and the Afghan Armies”. They were in for a terrible shock.

The King's Indian Officers, 1926 - Honourary Captain, Subedar Major Tikka Khan Bahadur, IOM, 3/2nd Punjab,
the father of Col Zarif Khan is standing on the left

KROHCOL crossed the frontier into Thailand on the 8th of December, some 14 hours after the Japanese landed. 3/16th Punjab was harassed by units of the Thai police and took over a day to cover the 5 km to Betong. This delay proved fatal. The Ledge was still 42 km away and though it made better speed on the morning of 10 December, just two kilometers short of it, the leading company commanded by a VCO ran into Japanese tanks and infantry. In a fierce battle that lasted half an hour, the company was wiped out. At the sound of battle, Zarif’s ‘D’ Company was sent forward while the other two companies deployed to protect the flanks.

The battle account of KROHCOL does not provide details of ‘D’ Company’s subsequent action but Zarif’s citation states “This young officer with great gallantry led his company in a bayonet charge which dislodged the Japanese from a hill overlooking the Ledge position.” It says a great deal for a young officer to have the guts and presence of mind to successfully lead a charge in his first encounter with the Japanese. However there was another important reason that could account for the gallantry displayed by this officer. In the regimental system cultivated in the British India Army, squadrons/companies were composed of a single class/clan recruited from the same Zail (administrative unit) or village. Zarif was fortunate in commanding a company of Punjabi Muslims, many of whom were from the Zail of Karor – from where traditionally men had been recruited by his battalion i.e. 3/16th Punjab.
During the defense of Singapore, Zarif was badly injured in the face and believed killed. “However he actually stayed in the jungle for over a fortnight assisting a wounded soldier who was unable to move more than a few yards a day”

KROHCOL was pitted against the Japanese 5th Infantry Division which was considered the best division of the Imperial Japanese Army. Formed in 1871, it had fought in numerous campaigns including the two Sino-Japanese Wars, the Boxer Rebellion and the Russo-Japanese War. Prior to the invasion of Malaya, the 15,200 troops of the division had been intensively trained and reequipped for Jungle Warfare. In spite of great pressure from the leading elements of this battle-hardened division, Zarif’s company hung onto its position till nightfall. This gave the battalion time to consolidate its defense with its remaining two companies and subsequently check the Japanese. At nightfall, Zarif led his company back in a long detour through the jungle and rejoined the battalion much to the relief of the CO, who had no idea of its fate. Under the dynamic leadership of its young company commander, ‘D’ Company had lost only 15 men in the fierce encounter. During the afternoon the Japanese made repeated assaults but were repulsed with heavy losses. However, 3/16th Punjab lost over 200 men and was forced back across the frontier, which was now defended by a brigade that had been rushed from Singapore.

Despite these early losses, along with the division, the battalion conducted a fighting withdrawal and never broke throughout the long weeks of the campaign. However, casualties continued to mount and when it arrived at Klaung on the 14th of January, it was merged with its sister battalion, the 2/16th Punjab, to form a composite 16th Punjab Battalion. After three days for resting and reforming, it was back in action and Zarif continued to command a company “with determination and skill”. One of the toughest battles was at Kampar, 30 km south of Ipoh, astride the main axis leading to Kuala Lumpur, in which the composite battalion covered the rear of the Kampar position. It was a ferocious battle in which the Japanese could not break through the defenders and finally outflanked the position with a landing on the west coast south of Kampar.

Troops of the Japanese 5th Infantry Division in Malaya

The composite battalion fought a rearguard as the troops fell back to the Slim River and was then moved towards the coast to defend the western flank of the division. Following a final battle on the coastal road at Benut, supported by the armoured cars of the 3rd Cavalry, it covered the withdrawal towards Singapore. During the defense of Singapore, Zarif was badly injured in the face and believed killed. “However he actually stayed in the jungle for over a fortnight assisting a wounded soldier who was unable to move more than a few yards a day.”

Singapore capitulated and along with 85,000 allied soldiers. Zarif was a PoW for the next three-and-a-half years.

There is a great deal on record as to how badly and inhumanly the Japanese treated their prisoners and Zarif must have suffered it all. When the tide of the war turned against the Empire of Japan and the captors became the vanquished, Zarif was repatriated to India in September 1945.

It is very creditable that his act of valour (and of many others) remained on record right through the period of captivity. After the war, Lt. Gen. Sir Lewis Heath, who had commanded the Indian Corps during the Malayan Campaign, initiated his citation. Zarif was presented the Military Cross by General Auchinleck, C-in-C India, aka “the Auk”. This probably happened during the Auk’s visit to the centre of the 16th Punjab Group at Sialkot in December 1945. The untreated injury to Zarif’s face had left him disfigured and he spent two years in the UK undergoing facial surgery. Following Independence, Zarif was promoted lieutenant colonel in 1948 and re-raised 7/16th Punjab (19th Punjab) at Sialkot. Following his command, he was again sent to the UK for treatment for two years. Through the 1950s and early 1960s, Zarif did a number of assignments with the Frontier Corps in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.

In January 1963, he was fortunate to be appointed as the commandant of the Punjab Regimental Centre at Mardan – because a month later he was privileged to host a visit from the very same officer who 18 years earlier had presented him with the Military Cross. Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck was in Pakistan to attend the joint centenary celebration of 1st Punjab (his old battalion) and 5th Punjab (Sherdills), after which he visited the centre.

It must have been very moving for Zarif to be once again meeting his Chief of an era past. A year later, Zarif organized the first reunion of the Punjab Regiment. Not since the four famous Punjab Regiments amalgamated in 1956 had a reunion been held. Among the distinguished guests who attended the celebrations were the President of Pakistan and the Colonel-in-Chief of the Punjab Regiment, Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan, Major General Akhtar Hussain Malik and many other serving and retired officers of the Regiment.

Zarif retired as a full colonel in 1967 and passed away in 2002.

The author is grateful to Brigadier Zahid Zaman, Frontier Force, for providing the pictures, bio-data and citation of Colonel Zarif, who was his father-in-law. He would also like to thank Sushil Talwar for sharing information related to the officer’s early career