Thimayya of India :The Forgotten General
Vol 11 Issue 5 Nov - Dec 2017
The honour shown towards the late Gen by all three warring sides upon his sudden passing away while Commander UNFICYP
Monday, December 4, 2017
Gen Kodandera Subayya Thimayya, DSO, ADC, Chief of the Indian Army from May 7, 1957 to May 7, 1961 is hardly remembered or talked of today. According to many who knew him from that era he was a towering military figure comparable to any of the Field Marshals who were later honoured by the Government of India. This article briefly touches on his distinguished military career as well as his service beyond India’s shores. His differences with Prime Minister Mr. Nehru and Defence Minister Krishna Menon that led to his resignation and later his agreeing to stay on when the Prime Minister persuaded him to withdraw the resignation and requested him to continue are not being elaborated upon. However, people of today need to know that because of that episode the finest of generals that India has produced was ignored and made to disappear from public mind throughout Congress rule because the 1962 debacle with China vindicated Gen Thimayya’s misgivings that were swept aside summarily by Mr. Nehru and Krishna Menon.
Gen Thimayya’s outstanding war record resulted in his becoming the first Indian Brigade Commander. He took over 36 British Brigade on the Ramree Islands in June 1944 later moving to Matsui, Japan where it remained till India’s Independence. Post-independence, Gen Thimayya’s role in rescuing refugees along with the Punjab Boundary Force is well acclaimed. His efforts included forays into Pakistan to save people at the risk of being shot. Gen Thimayya represented the country during the surrender of the Japanese in Singapore, followed by the surrender of the Japanese in the Philippines. At the ceremony of Japanese surrender in Singapore, he was a signatory on behalf of India. He was awarded the ‘Keys to Manila’ when he was sent to the Philippines. A month after the end of the war, Thimayya was promoted Brigadier on 1 October 1945, with the war-substantive rank of Lieutenant-Colonel from the same date. His innate talents of professional soldiering and leadership were soon recognized by Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck, the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army. He was specially selected to lead the 268th Indian Infantry Brigade as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan after World War II. He got this assignment due to his outstanding battle experience as a Brigadier and being the only Indian to command a battle formation in the field. As a matter of policy, the British avoided giving operational command to Indians. Thimayya was the only exception. As India’s Independence approached, he was recalled to India by the then Commander-in-Chief,
A spectacular chapter in the life of the General was his role in the first Kargil War in 1948. It is widely believed that it was Gen Thimayya’s tactical manoeuvres that helped save Kargil. His deployment of Stuart light tanks at Zojila Pass at twelve thousand feet above sea-level to the utter surprise of the Pakistani invaders is still unprecedented. Zojila, which means “Path of blizzards” is over one hundred kilometres east of Srinagar at an elevation of three thousand five hundred twenty nine meters and is the main pass on the road connecting Leh to Srinagar. When the Indian army landed at the Srinagar Airport in October 1947, the Pakistani invaders (a redoubtable force of over five hundred Pathans, Gilgit Scouts, Chitralis and renegades from the Jammu and Kashmir forces) were just a few kilometres away. As a result of the Pakistani offensive, India lost Kargil and Dras and the Srinagar—Leh Road was blocked. The enemy also seized control of Zojila and was headed toward Gilgit and Leh. It is in these precarious circumstances that Maj Gen K. S. Thimayya spearheaded a great victory for the Indian Army. After a record—breaking landing at an airfield along with Air Cdre Meher Singh, the Indian contingent had to necessarily reopen the old Srinagar-Leh trade route after retaking Dras and Kargil. In an ambitious plan, at high altitude and in bitterly cold conditions, Gen Thimayya realized the necessity for firepower to blast the enemy at the Zojila heights failing which the operation would be unsuccessful. Later Gen Thimayya was a member of the Indian delegation that concluded the ensuing Treaty with Pakistan with respect to the Line of Control (LoC) under the auspices of the United Nations Commission for India and Pakistan, along with Gen Shrinagesh, COAS and Brigadier S. H. F. J. “Sam” Manekshaw, later COAS and Field Marshal.
Gen Thimayya received a unique honour when he was selected to be the Chairman of the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission (NNRC) in Korea in May 1953. His task involved the repatriation of 359 UN and 120,000 Chinese and North Korean POWs about a third of whom were adamant to stay on in Korea. The challenging task was a combined effort of five nations - Sweden, Switzerland, Poland, Czechoslovakia and India. Gen Thimayya had to maintain a neutral and objective position. His deft handling of the situation earned Gen Thimayya admiration from most quarters including US President, General Eisenhower, who described the mission as “One of the most difficult and delicate jobs well done”. The Government of India decorated Gen Thimayya with a Padma Bhushan in 1954 for his role as Chairman, NNRC. His experiences as Chairman, NNRC were published posthumously by his wife Mrs. Nina Thimayya as Gen K.S. Thimayya’s Korean Diary - Experiment in Neutrality. The book is a fascinating account of the trials and triumphs of the NNRC in dealing with highly polarised prisoners of war and the diplomatic experience of restoring peace through the sensitive exchange of prisoners between the embittered North and South Korea.
On his return from Korea, Gen Thimayya was appointed General Officer Commanding-In-Chief Western Command for a short while after which he was moved to Southern Command to cope with an infiltration by Pakistan into Chad-Bet Area in 1956, which he swiftly dealt with. His next assignment was dealing with the Nagas secession problem. Gen Thimayya then moved to Eastern Command to tackle the impending crisis.
At the age of fifty-one, Gen Thimayya achieved the pinnacle of military success by being appointed the Chief of the Army Staff. Gen His sagacity and experience was counted on and appreciated by everyone, not least by the Prime Minister, Pandit Nehru. With a complete grip on the threat posed by India’s neighbours, Gen Thimayya strongly advised the Government on a policy that mandated maintaining an offensive posture against Pakistan, and a policy of containment coupled with strong diplomatic and political exchange vis-á-vis China. Evidently, Gen Thimayya foresaw the Chinese threat and ignoring his seasoned advice condemned India to suffer a crushing defeat eighteen months later after Gen Thimayya’s retirement in 1961.
After retirement from the Indian Army, the United Nations sought his services yet once again when he was appointed as the Commander of UN Forces in Cyprus (UNFICYP) in July 1964. He died during his tenure at UNFICYP in December 1965 and his mortal remains were flown to Bangalore for the last rites.
The street perpendicular to East Street (a road parallel to MG road in Pune), Richmond Road in Bangalore, and the main road through Larnaca/Cyprus (East to West) were renamed as Gen Thimmayya Road in his memory. The Republic of Cyprus also honored him by issuing a commemorative stamp in his memory in 1966.
Of all the eulogies for him, the late Lieutenant General Premindra Singh Bhagat, VC (Retd.) summed it up best, “A General Thimayya is not born in every generation. There will seldom be a soldier the likes of him. The General is a man’s man, the Army his soul and his soul the Army”.
The remainder part of the article is anecdotal based on material held by the author who was at the time Staff Officer in the Headquarters of the Indian Contingent headed by Brigadier A.N Jatar MVC. The Indian contingent was the largest component of UNEF (United Nations Emergency Force) Gaza. News was received In December 1965 that Gen Thimayya who was Commander of UNFICYP had suddenly expired in Nicosia, the headquarters of UNFICYP (where the Author was then posted as Staff Officer). Realising that it was a great loss, United Nations Secretary-General U Thant nominated the Indian Contingent Commander UNEF to represent the UN at the farewell rites in Nicosia. The Government of India had also nominated the Indian Contingent Commander to represent it at Nicosia.
When the Author arrived at Nicosia with the 3 PUNJAB escort that was to stand guard over Gen Thimayya’s body, they were greeted by no less a person than the Deputy Force Commander UNFICYP. As I shook hands with the Brigadier who had come to receive contingent of UN troops he asked me to call forward any UN soldier present at the airport and look at his UN identity card. I did so and saw the photograph of an Austrian soldier with his photograph and other details.
As I was about to return the card the Brigadier asked me to see the reverse of the card; it had the photograph of Gen Thimayya. By way of explanation he told me that such was the respect they had for their departed force commander that they preferred to call themselves the Thimayya Force. This was reminiscent of the charisma of the General in display when he was heading the NNRC in Korea. An exceedingly delicate task that he performed with distinction winning the admiration of nations around the world that had taken part in the Korean War.
We proceeded straight to the Wellesley Barracks, where the late Generals’ body lay in State, to lay wreaths on behalf of the UN Secretary General and the Government of India. While doing so I witnessed amazing scenes of mourning by the people of the city, both Greeks and Turks waiting peacefully in long lines to pay their respects. Among the dignitaries who visited were Archbishop Makarios the head of the Greek Cypriots and Dr. Kuchuk the head of the Turkish Cypriots who were hardly on speaking terms at that time. I met the Scottish Highland Infantry men and officers standing ceremonial guard. They had been doing so day and night from the time the body of the General had been placed there prior to evacuation to India. When I mentioned to the senior officer that I would like to relieve them with 3 PUNJAB detachment for the next 24 hours they refused, saying that General Thimayya had been commissioned into their battalion and that they would continue to stand guard till the departure of the body.
The following day at the designated time the body was placed in a carriage for the move to the airport. On receiving the body by the 3 PUNJAB escort, it was carried to the airport for transportation to Beirut from where it would be transferred to an Air India plane to Delhi.
At the airport there were three planes placed at our disposal. In addition to the UN plane on which we had come, the Greek and Cyprus governments had also positioned a plane each. I thanked the captains of those planes mentioning that we would be returning with the body in the UN aircraft on which we had arrived. Several dignitaries, representatives of the government and personnel from UNFICYP were again present to pay their last respects to the body. As the body was being loaded an extraordinary sight was witnessed by all those present - in sheer amazement - as if paralysed with fear: although it was the unexpectedness and suddenness that left them open-mouthed. A few hundred guerrillas under General Grivas much hunted by the British had descended from the surrounding hills and as the body was being loaded they raised their rifles, fired a shot, and as suddenly melted away as they had come. It was a tribute without parallel.
The esteem in which a general from another country was held by the people of Cyprus as well as the UN Force is difficult to imagine by those who were not present. The General was accorded what amounted to a state funeral as if he were a head of state. There were scenes of crying around the body and the lines of mourners were unending. When I showed my surprise, I was told that such was the feeling for Gen Thimayya that while there was constant sniping on the Green Line that separated the Turks and the Greeks it would cease whenever the General who never came with an escort visited. Many people expressed the view that had Gen Thimayya continued for another year or two the Cyprus problem would have been peacefully resolved. Round the clock encomiums were broadcast on Cyprus Radio. An avenue in Famagusta was named after him and a postage stamp with his photograph was also brought out. The hotel where we were staying refused to accept money for our stay.
It is time to honour the memory of a great Indian soldier who brought renown to the country and the profession of arms. He stands tall, perhaps tallest among the pantheon of generals.