He took home honour, not cigarettes
Havildar Lachhiman Gurung, a Nepal-born Gorkha soldier whose exploits on the battlefield became part of the Second World War lore, died on December 12. Lachhiman Gurung, who also served in the Indian Army after Partition, was 93. An obituary recounts a bloody battle that defined the service career of Lachhiman Gurung.
There is a story told in the Himalayan foothill village of Dahakhani of how a man sent out his son to buy some cigarettes at the village shop one morning in 1941. The son returned five years later, blind in one eye, minus his right hand and wearing the Victoria Cross — but without the cigarettes.
Young Lachhiman Gurung had met a friend in the village who told him he intended to enlist in the Gurkha Rifles. Recruits were urgently needed; the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbour and landed on the Malay peninsula only a few days earlier.
In normal times, Lachhiman would not have been accepted as a Gorkha rifleman, as he was not quite five feet tall. Like many other soldiers from the hills of Nepal, Lachhiman found himself fighting in Burma (now Myanmar). The campaign had swung back and forth but by the spring of 1945, although far from beaten, General Seizo Sakurai was attempting to extract the remnants of the 28th Japanese Army across the Irrawady so as to escape eastwards into Thailand.
At the beginning of May, Lieutenant-General Sir Montagu Stopford’s 33rd Corps reached Prome in central Burma, on the east bank of the river. His orders from the commander of the 14th Army, General Sir William Slim, were to keep Sakurai bottled up west of the river while the 4th Corps under Sir Frank Messervy fought its way south to relieve Rangoon.
The 4th Battalion of the 8th Gurkha Rifles was serving with the 7th Indian Division of Stopford’s Corps. The battalion faced repeated, fanatical Japanese attempts to break out over the Irrawady and across Messervy’s lines of communication. One company, commanded by Major Peter Myers, became cut off at Taungdaw west of the river in the direct path of successive waves of enemy attacks.
Rifleman Lachhiman had joined Myers’s company just two months ago as part of a reinforcement draft.
On the night of May 12-13, Lachhiman’s section was manning the forward edge of Myers’s company position. At 0120 hours on May 13, a force of 200 Japanese launched a night attack.
The brunt was borne by Lachhiman’s section and his post in particular, as it covered a track leading to the centre of his platoon position. The attack began with a hail of grenades, one of which fell onto the lip of Lachhiman’s trench. He seized it and threw it back at the enemy. Almost at once, another landed in the trench. Lachhiman snatched that up and threw it back.
A third grenade fell in front of the trench but exploded as Lachhiman grasped it, blowing off his fingers, shattering his right arm and severely wounding him in the face, body and right leg. His two badly wounded comrades lay helpless in the bottom of the trench.
The enemy, screaming and shouting, formed up shoulder to shoulder and attempted to rush the position by sheer weight of numbers. Regardless of his wounds, Lachhiman loaded and fired his rifle with his left hand, maintaining a continuous and steady rate of fire as he had been trained.
For four hours Lachhiman remained alone at his post, waiting calmly for each attack which he met with rifle fire at point-blank range, determined not to give an inch of ground. Of the 87 enemy dead counted in front of the company position at dawn, 31 lay in front of Lachhiman’s section.
Had the enemy managed to overrun this point in the company's defence, they could have dominated and then turned the whole of the reverse slope position.
Although cut off for three days and nights, Lachhiman’s company, inspired by his example, held and smashed each attack as it came.
Lachhiman was invested with the Victoria Cross by Field Marshal Lord Wavell, the Viceroy of India, at the Red Fort in Delhi on December 19, 1945. His father, aged 74 and very frail, had been carried for 11 days from his village to see his son decorated.
Lachhiman’s injuries were so severe that he was unable to return to active service during the remainder of the war. Not only had he lost the lower part of his right arm and right eye, he was deafened in one ear. On the Partition of India in 1947, the 8th Gurkha Rifles joined the new Indian Army.
Lachhiman had reached the rank of havildar but, because of his disabilities, he decided to retire to his father’s tiny farm in Dahakhani in the Chitwan district of Nepal. He married and continued to plough his 2.5-acre plot until infirmity made it impossible for him to go on.
The isolation of his village caused grave hardship, as it was necessary for him to collect his pension money once a month from Bharatpur, 22 miles away. This could be reached partly by bus, but only after scrambling and slithering down the hillside for 12 miles to the road. Eventually, in order to collect his pension, it was necessary for one of Lachhiman’s sons, Reshamial, to carry him piggyback down to the bus stop on the road and back again up the mountain.
The former Commanding Officer of the 4/8th Gurkhas, Lieutenant-Colonel (later General Sir Walter) Walker, and Lachhiman’s company commander Peter Myers maintained what contact they could with him over the years. In addition, so did Eric Williams, of Great Yarmouth, who had served as a forward signaller with 136 Regiment Royal Artillery in support of the 4/8th Gurkha Rifles in Burma in 1945.
This experience gave Williams a lasting admiration for the Gorkhas and, after discovering the straits in which Lachhiman was living, he paid for the education of his children.
The 50th anniversary of the end of the war in Southeast Asia was celebrated in London in July-August 1995. Lachhiman was flown from Kathmandu to London to join other surviving VC holders for the celebration.
This led to a wider appreciation of the condition in which he was living and a scheme to build him a new house at Bharatpur with funds raised by public appeal initiated by the Honourable Company of Armourers and Brasiers and the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association and sponsored by the Gurkha Welfare Trust and the Sunday Express newspaper of the UK.
The two-storey house was completed in September 1995 and handed over to Lachhiman and his family, together with a sum of money to ensure that his essential needs were met.
His VC has a place of honour in the room of the Regimental Quarterguard of the 4/8th Gurkha Rifles of the Indian Army in India to inspire future generations of Gorkha riflemen.
In 2008, Lachhiman came to England to live in Hounslow, where he became a freeman of the borough. Later, after moving to Chiswick to live in the Memorial Home for Retired Gurkha Soldiers, he became the honorary vice-president of the local branch of the Royal British Legion.
In recent years, he attended the biennial celebrations of the VC and GC Association in London, most recently those held from November 8 to 11 this year, including a reception given by the Queen. His last public appearance was at the Cenotaph on November 11 this year. He died on December 12 in London.
According to army records, Lachhiman was born in Dahakhani in 1917. He was twice married. His first wife died in the late 1950s. He is survived by his second wife Manmaya, two sons and a daughter of his first marriage and two sons of his second. His eldest son Sibadatt became a major in the Indian artillery division and his youngest son Krishnabahadur is serving in the Royal Nepalese Army.