by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 2nd Nov 14
As Major Lalit Mohan Joshi and his team of seven jawans from 8th Battalion, The Garhwal Rifles (called 8 Garhwal) lined up on October 23, in the biting cold of the Cambrian Mountains in Wales, UK, they were prepared for a gruelling test of their endurance and battlefield skills.
Over the next 50 hours, British Army evaluators would judge how the team navigated non-stop across the marshy terrain, and dealt with battlefield situations thrown at them, including enemy minefields, giving first aid to their casualties, bringing down artillery fire, and attacking an enemy bunker. They would swim across an icy river in their 30-kilo backpacks, keeping their rifles dry. Finally, they would reconnoitre an enemy position and bring back information just like a patrol in battle.
This was the Cambrian Patrol, the world’s toughest test of infantry skills, which is described as “the Olympics of patrolling”. This year 119 teams participated, including soldiers from Australia, Canada, France, Italy and Norway. The Pakistan Army sent a specially selected team.
At a ceremony on October 25, five teams were awarded Gold Medals for meeting cruel time lines and displaying tactical skills of an exceptional order. Four were British Army units; 8 Garhwal was the only overseas winner.
“It was cold and foggy, which made map reading difficult. The marshes, which were everywhere, sucked you in. Even so, we retained our focus. Initially, all the other competitors appeared 8 feet tall. But when we finished with the gold, we were feeling 8 feet tall ourselves,” says Lance Naik Gajpal Singh, whose lean frame only hints at the steel inside.
Lance Naik Dimple Gusain describes a deciding factor in the team’s gold medal: when the patrol sneaked up on their recce objective --- an anti-aircraft gun position manned by British soldiers --- they found a British identity card lying on the ground. “When we returned it at the finish point, the organisers realised how close our patrol had reached”, laughs Gusain.
Over years of formidable Indian performances in the Cambrian Patrol, an expectation has grown that an Indian team would do well. Last year, a team from 3/9 Gurkha Rifles won silver; in 2010, the 4/9 Gurkha Rifles team won gold.
Major Joshi warmly recounts the encouragement of 1 Grenadier Guards, the British Army “host battalion”, which accommodated his team in Aldershot and familiarised them with the British radios and weapons they would use during competition. “They were so pleased at our gold,” says Joshi.
The Indian Army carefully selects the team it enters for the Cambrian Patrol, holding competitions at unit and formation levels to identify the best battalion team. Joshi and his men then trained at the Infantry School, Mhow and spent a month in the mountains at Lansdowne, acclimatising for the Welsh highlands.
“We are incredibly fit, but they pushed us to the limit. At one point, they stopped us at the base of a hill and said, ‘your men are fighting on top, and you need to take them ammunition.’ They loaded 20 kilos of ammunition onto the 30-kilo backpacks we were already carrying. Then they made us run up the hill”, recounts Havaldar Dilwar Singh.
“On one occasion, I slipped and fell face-down into the marsh. My face was in the water, but I was so exhausted that I just lay there. It was an effort to lift myself up and continue”, says Lance Naik Mahipal Singh.
“But this was the most enjoyable thing that any of us have ever done”, chips in Joshi. Every man in the team nods assent.
Says chief organiser of the Cambrian Patrol, Brigadier Martyn Gamble: “About a third of teams failed to finish and is again a testament to how much of a challenge this is. I’m entirely comfortable that only about four per cent of all teams achieved gold. Those people who have achieved a finish or a medal should be applauded.”
Joshi and his men had flown out of India on Diwali, and returned on October 27 --- commemorated as Infantry Day after Indian infantrymen were airlifted to Srinagar that day in 1948, as Pakistani tribal militias closed in on the J&K capital.
“We may not yet have a technological edge, which will be built up over time. But in grit, guts and endurance, the Indian infantryman is second to nobody in the world,” says Lt Gen Ata Hasnain, who is from the Garhwal Rifles.