The original Gurkhas are believed to be descendants of warlike Rajput tribes of Chittaur in Rajasthan who claim they were driven out of northern India during the Muslim invasions there. The Gurkha military tradition dates the 16th century when the kingdom of Gorkha was conquered by the Shah Thakuri dynasty. Members of this dynasty called themselves Gurkhas after their newly adopted home. [Source: Alfred Pach III, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 ]
By the end of the 18th century the Gurkha kingdom had conquered much of what is now Nepal and was pushing into Tibet and India. In 1815 they were defeated by the British who were expanding northward. According to historians, the British decided they wanted the Gurkhas on their side after the Gurkhas nearly beat them in a critical mountain battle. The British were impressed with the Gurkhas fighting skills and began recruiting them and organized them into one of Britain’s ethnic regiments.
The British have recruited Gurkhas since the early 19th century. They distinguished themselves by fighting courageously during the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857, the Second Afghan War (1878-1880), the Boxer rebellion in 1900, Ypres in World War I and El Alamein in World War II. Over the years thousands Gurkhas have died in battle, either from wounds, disease or missing in action. More than 15,000 are believed to have died in World War I and World War II alone. Over 200,000 participated in the those wars. Tens of thousands more were wounded and many were left disabled. Some describe their history as one of being used as pawns by the Nepalese monarchy and the British.
Gurkhas get their name from the Nepalese region Gorkha, where the first Nepali dynasty took root in the 18th century. They're blessed, according to legend, by the 8th century Hindu warrior-saint Guru Gorakhnath, who gave them their famous kukri curved knives. It is said Guru Gorakhnath named his disciple Bappa Rawal’s people “Gurkhas” in the 8th century and ordered them to liberate Afghanistan, then a Hindu-Buddhist nation, from the advancing Muslims. The Royal Gurka Rifles continue to be part of the British military. They have won 26 Victoria crosses, the highest British military honor. Retired Gurkhas enjoy high status in Nepal and often serve as community leaders.
See Separate Article GURKHAS: RECRUITING, KNIVES, TRAINING AND FOREIGN SERVICE
Gurkhas Heroics and Terror
A number of heroic acts have been attributed to Gurkhas. In September 2010, 35-year-old retired Gurkha Bishnu Shrestha was riding a train in India, alone and armed only with a khukri, when 40 bandits stopped the train and began robbing passengerss. defeated thirty bandits who attacked a passenger train he was on in India. It is said Shrestha took on 30 robbers, who were with knives, swords and pistols. He reportedly killed three of the bandits with his knife, wounded eight more and forced the rest of the band to flee. The retired soldier also is said to have saved another passenger from being rape. A report in the Times of India, that includes an interview with Shrestha, the story was exaggerated. [Source: Wikipedia, Jonathan Schifman, Popular Mechanics, September 18, 2015]
Gurkha fighting skills, loyalty and determination to fight on no matter how impossible odds seem are legendary. It has been said that they can take down tanks and fight entire battalions single-handedly. One British commander in World War wrote. “The soldier from Nepal has a big heart in small body. He will return if he can to a trench from which he has been driven, and it will not be easy to turn him out a second time. Taciturn by nature, brave and loyal, the Gurkhas ended, as I knew they would, second to none.” Former Indian Army Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw once famously said: "If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or he is a Gurkha."
William Borders wrote in the New York Times: “Over the years, legends have followed the Gurkhas through the world's battlefields, such as the story of a patrol that came upon four German soldiers sleeping in a foxhole in Italy during World War II. Drawing their kukris, the traditional curved daggers that they still wear as standard equipment, the Gurkhas beheaded two of the Germans but left the other two unharmed, to spread terror.” [Source: William Borders, New York Times, April 21, 1976]
“There is also uneasiness in some circles about the view of the Gurkhas as mercenary soldiers. Nepalese and British here are still indignant about a remark made a few months ago by Daniel P. Moynihan, then the chief United States delegate to the United Nations, who referred to the Cuban troops fighting in Angola as the Soviet Union's “Gurkha soldiers.”
Origin of the Gurkhas
The term Gurkha (or, in Nepali, Gorkha) usually referred to soldiers of Nepalese origin who, over many generations, served in the legendary British Brigade of Gurkhas. Soldiers who served in the Royal Nepal Army usually were not called Gurkhas, although they also claimed to be the rightful heirs of many of the same martial traditions as their countrymen recruited to serve in foreign armies. The designation had no distinct ethnic connotation but derived from the name of the old kingdom of Gorkha (Gurkha), the territory that roughly encompassed the present-day district of Gorkha, in the mountains some fifty-six kilometers west of Kathmandu. Soldiers from the kingdom of Gorkha established an international reputation for their martial qualities during the eighteenth century by their successful invasions of Tibet. As the Gorkha kingdom expanded eastward across the Himalayas to Sikkim, the king's warriors, taken from all groups in the area, came to be known as Gurkha soldiers. Legend had it that Gurkhas never drew their service-issued kukri (curved Nepalese knives) without drawing blood, even if it were their own. Although probably a tradition of a bygone era, the legend added immeasurably to the Gurkhas' reputation for toughness. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
The exploits and legends surrounding the Gurkhas are among the more memorable of modern military history.The old Gorkha kingdom was established in the mid-sixteenth century by Dravya Shah, the founder of the dynasty of Shah Thakuri kings that have reigned in Nepal ever since (See Expansion of Gorkha Under History). Two centuries later, the Gorkha kingdom began a major expansion under the energetic, young King Prithvi Narayan Shah (reigned 1743-75), who conquered the Kathmandu Valley and unified numerous petty kingdoms while consolidating his control over an area substantially the same as that of modern Nepal. The first two regular Gurkha regiments, designated Sri Nath and Purano Gorakh, were raised in 1763. As Gorkha rule expanded, control over the conquered territories was left mainly to district governors (bada hakim), who were responsible for establishing military strong points and for maintaining a local militia.*
The military prowess of the Nepalese soldier first became known in the eighteenth century, when forces from what was then known as Gorkha invaded Tibet. Within Nepal itself, certain ethnic groups, such as the Magar, Gurung, Limbu, Rai, Chhetri, and Thakuri, had much earlier won reputations as "warrior tribes." The Magar, Gurung, and Limbu furnished the bulk of the kingdom's soldiers up to the rank of captain. Higher ranks tended to be filled from the Thakuri, Chhetri, and Rai groups. These officers came almost exclusively from families of the ruling elite.*
Until the middle of the nineteenth century, armies were raised when needed and disbanded when the need expired. This practice created a sizable reserve of trained veterans but resulted in a recurring unemployment problem. In general, only members of the higher castes were retained in military service between wars. The first steps toward the creation of a sizable permanent military establishment were taken by Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa, who governed from 1804-37 and who raised the army's strength from 10,000 to 15,000 persons. He also built arsenals, ordnance workshops, and cantonments. The large parade ground constructed at Tundhikhel in Kathmandu during that period still was in use as of 1991.*
British Begin Recruiting Gurkhas
Before the end of the eighteenth century, Gorkha rulers had sent successful military missions into Tibet and China. Pressure to the south and west, however, met resistance from the military forces of the British East India Company, which were expanding north of the Gangetic Plain into the Terai and the foothills of the Himalayas. Increasingly frequent clashes of the opposing forces culminated in the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-16, in which the victorious British forces were impressed by the fighting qualities of their Gorkha opponents. When Nepal's General Amar Singh Thapa was forced to capitulate west of the Kali River in 1815, the remnants of his troops were accepted into the service of the British East India Company. By the 1816 Treaty of Sagauli, the British recognized the sovereignty of Nepal and received permission to recruit Nepalese soldiers (Relations with Britain Under History). [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
British recruiting efforts, which actually began in 1815, were carried on semiclandestinely even after the treaty came into force because all foreign military representatives were forbidden by Nepalese law to enter the country. The three battalions formed from General Thapa's conquered forces were expanded into regiments, and each regiment sent its own Gurkha recruiters into the interior. Applicants for service came almost entirely from the mountain areas. The ethnic groups represented included the Limbu and Rai from the Kiranti area in the east, the Magar, Gurung, and Tamang from the center, and the Chhetri and Thakuri castes from the west. These groups, eventually lumped together under the term Gurkha, became the backbone of British Indian forces along with other supposed "martial races" such as Sikhs, Dogras, Punjabis, and Pathans. Throughout the colonial era, the British raised the bulk of their military recruits from Nepal, Punjab, and the North-West Frontier.*
Until 1914 the British recruited about 1,500 men per year to keep the twenty Gurkha battalions up to strength. As a rule, men from the same ethnic group were assigned to the same units. About seven regiments were composed of Magar, Tamang, and Gurung; two regiments were recruited from the Rai and Limbu; and one from the Chhetri and Thakuri. In many instances, several generations of one family served in the same regiment — a practice that continued in the early 1990s. The Magar, Gurung, and Rai, who over the years have supplied most of the recruits, are most closely associated with the fabled Gurkhas, but the Limbu, Chhetri, Tamang, Sunwar, and Thakuri also were included in the category. On a percentage basis, the Gurung group provided a higher proportion of its total population for military service than any other group.*
Under the British system, Gurkha regimental representatives examined and enlisted recruits within Nepal. From there recruits were sent to collection centers in northern India, primarily at Gorakhpur and at Ghum near Darjeeling, for final processing and assignment to units. The Nepalese government encouraged recruitment through assurances that service with British forces would be regarded as service in the Nepalese army and that special efforts would be made to provide employment for returning veterans. This policy was based on the view that returning veterans would add to the military strength of Nepal during emergencies (see Gurkhas Serving Abroad ). Relatively high pay and pensions as well as the opportunities for advancement in noncommissioned ranks also helped recruitment efforts.*
Gurkhas Fighting for the British
The Gurkha reputation for martial prowess and obedience to authority was firmly established during the 1857-58 Sepoy Rebellion, which seriously threatened British ascendancy in South Asia. Some 9,000 Nepalese troops under Prime Minister Jang Bahadur Rana, in power from 1846-77, rendered valuable service to the British (Dictatorship of Jang Bahadur Under History). Nepalese exploits in relieving the British resident in Lucknow made a lasting impression on British officials and strategists. Nepalese troops were awarded battle honors, and two additional regiments were raised. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
Recruiting continued, and the adaptability of the Gurkha troops to various types and conditions of combat was demonstrated by their performance in the Second Afghan War (1878-80) and in the Boxer Uprising (1900). By 1908 the fabled Gurkha brigade had been formed. A flexible unit, the brigade numbered about 12,000 troops in peacetime and was organized in ten regiments, each consisting of two rifle battalions. Other Gurkha units included the Assam Rifles, Burma Rifles, Indian Armed Police, and Burma Military Police. Regiments and battalions were designated numerically. For example, the Second Battalion of the Seventh Gurkha Rifles was commonly referred to with pride by its members as the 2/7/GR.*
In 1919 at the height of a civil disobedience campaign called by the Indian National Congress, Gurkha troops serving under British brigadier R.E.H. Dyer brutally suppressed a pro- independence political gathering in a walled courtyard outside the Sikh holy temple in Amritsar. Acting under Dyer's orders, the Gurkhas killed some 300 persons and wounded approximately 1,200 others. The episode generally was considered a watershed in the Indian independence movement. The Indian public, however, held Dyer and the British government responsible for the massacre and did not blame the soldiers who carried out the order to fire on unarmed civilians.*
During World War I (1914-18), the army was expanded and six new regiments, totaling more than 20,000 troops — all volunteers — were sent to India, most of them to the North-West Frontier Province, to release British and Indian troops for service overseas. Simultaneously, the Nepalese government agreed to maintain recruitment at a level that both would sustain the existing British Gurkha units and allow the establishment of additional ones. The battalions were increased to thirty-three with the addition of 55,000 new recruits, and Gurkha units were placed at the disposal of the British high command for service on all fronts. Many volunteers were assigned to noncombat units, such as the Army Bearer Corps and the labor battalions, but they also were in combat in France, Turkey, Palestine, and Mesopotamia. The Rana prime ministers urged Nepalese males to fight in the war. Of the more than 200,000 Nepalese who served in the British Army, there were some 20,000 Gurkha casualties.*
Following the war, the Nepalese government requested that Britain cede portions of the Terai in recognition of Kathmandu's contribution to the Allied war effort. London refused, but the Treaty of Perpetual Peace and Friendship, signed in December 1923, granted "unequivocal" recognition of Nepal's independence. This treaty formed the basis for Nepal's continued independence following the British withdrawal from India in 1947 (see Rana Oligarchy Under History). *
Gurkhas in World War II
The British call to arms during World War II (1939-45) met with an enthusiastic response from the Rana prime ministers who again coerced Nepalese citizens into joining the British Army. At the outset of the war, ten Nepalese battalions arrived in India, where they served until the hostilities ended. By the close of 1946, various specialized units, such as paratroops, signal corps, engineers, and military police, had been established. Other elements served in Southeast Asia, particularly in Burma. The total number of Gurkha battalions in the British service increased to forty-five. In all, over 200,000 men passed through ten Gurkha training centers to serve in line units that fought on almost every front, although primarily in the Burmese, Middle Eastern, and North African theaters. Casualties in all theaters amounted to over 25,000 persons. Gurkha unit histories are replete with accounts of courageous stands in the face of heavy odds. In the two world wars, twelve Victoria Crosses (comparable to the United States Medal of Honor) were awarded to Gurkha soldiers. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991]
Among the Gurkha heroes of World War II was rifleman Lachhiman Gurung. In 1945 he was pinned down in a trench with only two other men when over 200 Japanese soldiers opened fire. Gurung's comrades were severely wounded. Grenades were thrown into the trench, one after another, Gurung managed to throw each one back, except for the last one, which exploded in his right hand, blowing off his fingers and badly wounding his face, body, and right arm and leg. As the Japanese stormed the trench, Gurung used his left hand to gun down 31 Japanese with his rifle, preventing the enemy from advancing. Gurung survived, and was awarded a Victoria Cross. [Source: Jonathan Schifman, Popular Mechanics, September 18, 2015]
Bhanubhakta Gurung fought against the Japanese in Burma and was awarded with a Victoria Cross for single-handedly capturing a critical bunker. A member of a platoon with only 10 troops, Gurung came under heavy fire from machine guns, grenades, mortars, and sniper fire. He shot the sniper out of a tree, and then charged uphill by himself. He threw grenades into a foxhole where enemies were shooting from and took another three foxholes with his bayonet. With his comrades far behind, Gurung then charged the bunker with two smoke grenades and his kukri knife. He killed two Japanese soldiers with the knife, and another one with a rock. Using a rifle Gurung then held off a counterattack with three other men from his platoon at the bunker.
Jonathan Schifman wrote in Popular Mechanics: In 1944, Agansing Rai led a platoon of Gurkhas up a Burmese ridge in an open field against machine guns and two anti-tank 37 mm guns. Despite suffering heavy casualties, Rai and his men eliminated all the men at each 37 mm gun emplacement, one of which was hidden in a nearby jungle. Rai was later awarded the Victoria Cross.
Also in Burma, “as gunfire flew above his head , Rifleman Ganju Lama withstood a broken left wrist and wounds to his right hand and leg to take on three Japanese tanks in World War II. He crawled in the middle of the battlefield, destroyed each tank one-by-one with anti-tank guns, and defeated the men fleeing from the tanks, allowing none of them to escape. Lama was then taken to a hospital on a stretcher and would earn a Victoria Cross.
“In another battle against the Japanese on the Burmese front in 1943, Sergeant Gaje Ghale was assigned to take a position that the Gurkhas had twice failed to capture. He led his platoon through heavy fire and suffered injuries in his leg, arm, and torso. But disregarding the injuries, Ghale engaged in hand-to-hand combat with his adversaries, taking the position. He then held off a counterattack with his men before letting his wounds get cared for. Ghale was later awarded the Victoria Cross.
“Some of the British men who commanded the Gurkhas showed tremendous bravery as well. In 1943, Colonel Peter Jones led a battalion of Gurkhas against the Germans at the Battle of Enfidaville in Tunisia. As the Gurkhas charged the Germans with their kukri knives under fire from machine gun posts, Jones shot down the emplacements with a Bren gun. Jones was wounded in the neck but still joined the hand-to-hand fighting afterward, where he sustained additional injuries to his eye and thighs. He only accepted treatment after the battle was won. His effort was rewarded with a Distinguished Service Order decoration.
Gurkhas After World War II
Under a tripartite agreement signed in 1947 by Nepal, India, and Britain, the Gurkha brigade was divided between British and Indian forces. Four regiments remained in the British service, and six passed to the new Indian Army, which recruited an additional regiment for a total of seven. Gurkha units fought in the 1982 British campaign against Argentine forces in the Falkland Islands (called Islas Malvinas by Argentina). Throughout this period, Gurkha units were the mainstay of the British garrison in Hong Kong, which was scheduled to revert to China in 1997. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
Gurkhas in the service of India have also played an important and colorful role in national defense, despite the early complaints of Indian nationalists that Nepalese soldiers were acting as British mercenaries or tools of the Ranas. According to Leo E. Rose, a noted historian of the period, "However critical the [Indian] Congress party may have been about the use of the Gurkhas by the British, their value was quickly recognized." The Rana regime sought to counter Indian criticism by specifying that Gurkhas in the Indian Army could not be used against Nepal, other Gurkha units, Hindus, or "unarmed mobs." No restrictions were imposed, however, on their use against Muslim mobs or against external enemies, including Pakistan and China.*
Gurkhas, some of whom came from Nepalese families resident in the Indian Terai, served with distinction in India's three wars with Pakistan (1947-48, 1965, and 1971). Many Indian Gurkhas also were stationed in the former North-East Frontier Agency (Arunachal Pradesh) when Chinese forces overran beleaguered Indian outposts along the disputed Sino-Indian frontier in 1962. A battalion served with distinction in the Congo (now Zaire) in the 1960s as part of the Indian Army contingent in the United Nations Operations in the Congo. Several battalions served with the Indian Peacekeeping Force in Sri Lanka from 1987 to 1990. They also fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s.*
Gurkhas faced the Argentines in the 1982 Falklands War and Gurkhas were among the troops who retook the islands. Deo Man Limbu, a Gurkha was there. Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The day before the final battle, loudspeakers warned the Argentines that the Gurkhas were coming. "We fired one or two shots and they all flew away," said Limbu, whose enduring memory of the Falklands Wars is of lots of sheep. "It was very effective." [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, May 7, 2012]
Gurkhas in Action in Malaysia and Borneo in the 1960s
Gurkhas formed the backbone of the British counterinsurgency effort in Malaya that, by 1960, had crushed the communist offensive on the peninsula. Other Gurkha units fought in the defense of North Borneo against Indonesian-sponsored guerrillas in the early 1960s. In the 1960s, Indonesia supported an attempted revolution in Brunei and railed against British imperialism there. In 1962, an armed rebellion linked to Indonesia was put down in Brunei. President Sukarno of Indonesia supported a left wing inspired rural insurrection against the Brunei government. Although flying in police units from British North Borneo and Gurkhas from Malaya swiftly put this down, a hidden jungle campaign continued throughout Borneo for several subsequent years. British troops led by a Gurkha contingent together with the Brunei police and the new Royal Brunei Malay Regiment, saw-off these erstwhile "liberators".
Describing Gurkha forces in action against Indonesian troops in present-day Malaysia in 1964, the New York Times reported: “Striking through the smoke of Royal Air Force rocket raids, Gurkha troops of the British Army attacked Indonesian paratroop invaders today in the jungles of Malaya, the Malaysian heartland. The Government said four Indonesians had been killed and several others captured. The Gurkhas sprang their attack, set up by rocket poundings from British jets Friday and yesterday, in the Labis area of the state of Johore, where the Indonesians, 50 strong, landed Sept. 2. Labis is 105 miles southeast of Kuala Lumpur, the capital. “The Government announcement of the Indonesians killed brought to 12 the number of dead in the enemy force. Thirty are believed to have been captured. [Source: New York Times September 14, 1964]
“The Gurkha ground attack was described by the Government as the biggest “elimination” in a single day of the Indonesian troops. In answer to a Malaysian request, eight British Hunter jets attacked with rockets Friday and six jets followed up yesterday with an attack. The aim was to dislodge the Indonesian paratroopers from their positions for the waiting Gurkhas, who had ringed the strike zone. At the Royal Air Force base in Singapore, a British spokesman said no further air attacks were planned unless the situation changed.
“Britain, which is bound by treaty to defend Malaysia, is assembling a potential striking force in Malaysia for any possible showdown with Indonesia, which has vowed to crush Malaysia, contending it is a device to perpetuate British colonialism in this part of the world.
“Malaysia, which was formed a year ago from the former British colonies of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah (formerly North Borneo), maintains that Indonesia's contention masks an Indonesian desire to dominate the area. Britain's Far East Fleet is believed to be concentrated in Malaysian waters. Royal Air Force jets patrol beaches. A 500 man antiaircraft regiment was airlifted in a week ago.
Jonathan Schifman wrote in Popular Mechanics: “During the Borneo confrontation in 1965, Captain Rambahadur Limbu made three trips into enemy territory. On the first trip, facing heavy gunfire, two of Limbu's men were shot — one killed and another severely wounded. Before the enemy could advance, Limbu pushed them back with grenades. He then crawled 100 yards across the battlefield back into Gurkha territory to alert his comrades of what had happened. Limbu then went back to the wounded soldier, still under fire, and carried the man back across the same 100 yards to safety. With the battle still raging, Limbu returned to the field a third time to retrieve his dead comrade. Limbu's heroics earned him a Victoria Cross. Of all the Gurkhas that have been awarded the Victoria Cross (and there were many), Limbu is the only one still surviving. [Source: Jonathan Schifman, Popular Mechanics, September 18, 2015]
Gurkas in Action in Afghanistan in 2007
Reporting from the Upper Gereshk Valley in Helmad Province. Catherine Philp wrote in The Times, “Lit by the fireworks of an artillery barrage, the Gurkhas crouched in the desert chill, waiting for the command to move. In silence they crept across a bridge slung over the canal into enemy territory. Dawn came and went without a sighting. And then the Taliban attacked. Barely 12 hours into Operation Palk Wahel, or Sledgehammer Hit, the biggest British military offensive in Afghanistan since the spring, the Gurkhas had met their enemy. Rifle cracks filled the air, bullets pinging in the dust as rocket-propelled grenades skimmed overhead. “Get down,” a commander screamed, and the men scurried to a ditch beside the poppy field, firing towards the trees where the Taliban were hiding. Overhead the eerie grunting of fighter jet cannon could be heard strafing the enemy. [Source: Catherine Philp, The Times, September 27, 2007]
“It was the resistance that the Gurkhas had been expecting since they crept out from the desert under a fingernail moon and into the notorious “green zone”, the dense sliver of fertile land alongside the Helmand river that the Taliban have made their domain. Pushed out by British troops from the towns of Gereshk and Sangin at either end of the valley, it was here that the Taliban retreated, taking refuge in the fortress-like mud compounds set in a maze of towering corn criss-crossed with streams and irrigation ditches. “It is nothing like the rest of Helmand, it is more like the Normandy bocage,” Lieutenant-Colonel Jonny Bourne, the commanding officer of the Gurkhas, said, evoking the beautiful but treacherous terrain that Allied forces had to fight through after the 1944 Normandy landings. “The Taliban know that in the desert we can beat them every time. But in the green zone they have the upper hand.”
“This time it is meant be different. Military commanders and civilians have planned the offensive together. The idea is to hold territory so that reconstruction can begin, wooing locals away from the Taliban. So, on their first day on the Helmand front line, the Gurkhas crept across a metal footbridge into the Taliban stronghold. To the south soldiers from the Mercian Regiment, nearing the end of their tour, would move northwards to join them. The Gurkhas were chosen for this role. No other regiment could be better suited, their commanding officer said, for this combination of ferocious fighting and winning of local hearts and minds. “The Gurkhas have a natural advantage here,” Colonel Bourne said. “They have an affinity with the people here. It’s in that interaction with the people where we want to make a real difference.”
“Before that, however, would come the fighting. “They are the loveliest people in the world,” Colonel Bourne added. “But when the switch is flicked, it gets very nasty.” Pinned down in the poppy field, the switch flicked. “Excuse me,” a Gurkha machinegunner whispered politely before squeezing past to take his position and blast towards the enemy. Before battle Sergeant Tarjan Gurung, a smiling veteran of ten years with “Do or Die” stencilled on the back of his helmet, had explained the mood. “Everybody finds it quite exciting,” he said. “You’re going to face a real enemy who will stand and fight.” As the battle raged, Captain Jit Bahadur appeared panting in the ditch. “Nobody here injured?” he asked. “That’s good luck. It is a very heavy ambush from the enemy.” Minutes before the ambush, C Company had stopped to rest from an all-night trek, ripping open rations for a quick lunch. “If they had attacked when we were resting, it would have been a disaster,” Captain Bahadur said.
“The company commander was considering withdrawing. “The resistance is very heavy,” Captain Bahadur said, shaking his head. Everyone knew, though, that retreat was not an option. In the village of Hyderabad the summer fighting had driven out the entire civilian population, leaving their homes to the Taliban, who used them for their defences. The Gurkhas found empty compound after empty compound, walls smashed from heavy bombing and littered with the old rations wrappers of troops that had gone before them. Captain David Stanhope looked anxious. He had come with the Gurkhas to assess what reconstruction could be done as soon as the fighting was over. In his rucksack he carried bundles of dollars ready to be doled out for quick-fix projects. “But there’s no one here,” he said. “I don’t know what we can do with no civilians.”
“A second dawn came and the company was moving through another bombed-out compound when it came under fire again. Gunfire erupted for several minutes until a cry came of “Stop, stop!” Their attackers, it turned out, were from the Afghan National Army, which, after one of its sentries was hit by gunfire, began firing immediately on a known Taliban position – the one the Gurkhas were now clearing. A similar confusion a day earlier had thrown the second Gurkha company into a battle with the brigade reconnaissance force for ten minutes before both sides realised their mistake. That same night A Company had become lost for four hours on its way to a resupply point.
“This time, however, the Taliban had already fled. When the company arrived through the marijuana field at the Witch’s Hat, they found it deserted. The artillery barrage that lit their passage into the Helmand bocage three nights before had pounded the building almost to dust. The Gurkhas looked around, wondering at the desertion. If they were disappointed, they did not show it. “Seems they knew we were coming,” Major Crowe remarked. Over the radio the commanders assessed the enemy withdrawal. The Taliban had either fled south to consolidate or retreated north towards their stronghold of Musa Qala. The next days would begin to tell.”
Gurkas in Action in Afghanistan in 2010
Describing Gurkha forces fighting Taliban fighters in Helmand, Tom Coghlan wrote in The Times: “Dawn had broken over the maize fields outside the village of Mohammad Rahim Kalay when the boy stole into the apparently deserted compound. He radioed the all-clear to a five-man Taliban assault team — unaware of the British soldiers hiding in the shadows and the Gurkha snipers crouching on a nearby roof. Watching the insurgents’ every move, the British commander, Major Sean Chandler, ordered another squad of Gurkhas to patrol out of the village, offering themselves as bait so that the insurgents could be positively identified as carrying arms — a requirement of Nato’s rules of engagement. [Source: Tom Coghlan, The Times, September 1 2010]
“The Taliban were preparing their weapons excitedly when the first bullet fired by the Gurkha snipers lifted one man off his feet. A second went down in a hail of bullets as Major Chandler led the charge forward. A third Taliban died of his wounds the next day. It was a moment of satisfaction for A Company of the 1st Battalion Royal Gurkha Rifles, who suffered the loss of their commander, Major Josh Bowman, and two comrades, killed by a rogue Afghan army soldier in July.
“The village of several hundred inhabitants sits in a fertile belt of land in Babaji district close to Route Trident, the projected new road cutting into Taliban-held territory that is the centerpiece of the British development effort in central Helmand. Gunfire is, indeed, a daily feature of life in Babaji but in instances witnessed by The Times, Taliban attacks usually amounted to just a few bursts from long range.
“The Gurkhas established two bases in the village at the end of July, but they did so under persistent fire. The two sides then set about studying each other. Major Chandler ordered relentless “patrols, lurks and ambushes”. As the Gurkhas pushed south of the village, establishing two further outposts, they were routinely shot at. In early August there was a larger confrontation in which rocket-propelled grenades injured two Gurkhas and three Afghan soldiers.
“The loyalty of the population — the ultimate prize for both sides — remains uncertain. Villagers applauded when British troops tore down a Taliban flag on the edge of Rahim Kalay — but local men still choose their words very carefully. The Times contacted two tribal elders in the area by phone.“The situation isn’t good,” said the first. “During the night most of the area is under the Taliban and they are taxing the people. We don’t like the foreign forces. If they are here to help us why don’t they give us some food?” As The Times prepared to leave Rahim Kalay, villagers reported that a new, 15-man squad of Taliban fighters had been drafted into the area. Major Chandler was unperturbed. His Gurkhas appeared delighted.
Gurkha Heroes in Afghanistan
Jonathan Schifman, Popular Mechanics“The Gurkhas leave no man behind. When a squad of troops was ambushed out in the open in Afghanistan in 2008, one soldier, Yubraj Rai, was hit and fatally wounded. But Captain Gajendera Angdembe and Riflemen Dhan Gurung and Manju Gurung carried Rai across 325 feet of open ground under heavy fire. At one point, one of the soldiers resorted to using both his own rifle and Rai's rifle at the same time to return fire on the enemy. [Source: Jonathan Schifman, Popular Mechanics, September 18, 2015]
Rifleman Tuljung Gurung of the Royal Gurkha Rifles awarded the Military Cross for his gallantry and courage when he took on an insurgent who mounted an attack on the patrol base where he was on guard. The Evening Standard reported: Gurung “was on duty when the Afghan, along with another insurgent, mounted the attack on the patrol base near Lashkar Gah in the early hours of the morning in March. When they were challenged, they opened fire, and Gurung was hit by a bullet on his helmet, knocking him to the ground. Still dazed from the blast, he then saw a grenade bounce off the ceiling of the guard tower he was in and picked it up and threw it out just before it detonated, knocking the 28-year-old over again. Gurung alter said: " I realised that if I ran away it would explode. I realised that I needed to do something, so I rolled it away. “ I fell down on the floor, there was dust everywhere, it was like a storm." [Source: Evening Standard, October 4, 2013]
“But as he got to his feet after the explosion, he saw one of the attackers climbing into the tower and drew his kukri — the traditional Nepalese knife used by Gurkhas — to take him on in hand-to-hand combat. “He was quite a bit bigger than me and was wearing quite thick clothes," he said. " I just hit him in the hand, body, I just started to hit him. “ He tried to push me inside. During the fight I was screaming so my next colleague could hear me and send somebody." During the fight, the men fell three meters from the tower, landing on the ground outside the base, and Gurung continued to fight with his kukri, forcing the man to turn and flee. “ I just thought, ' I don't want to die. If I am alive I can save my colleagues'," he said today. “ I thought, 'Before he does something I have to do something'. I was like a madman."
Gurkha Single-Handedly Kills 30 Taliban
In September 2010, Sergeant Dipprasad Pun of the 1st Battalion the Royal Gurkha Rifles single-handedly fought off 30 Taliban soldiers in Helmand Province. Pun was keeping guard on the roof of a checkpoint when the Taliban approached from all sides with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s. It took less than an hour for Pun to kill them all. He used all of his ammunition — 400 rounds and 17 grenades and a mine — to defeat them. After his ammo ran out, a Taliban fighter climbed up to the roof Pun was able to stop him a machine-gun tripod that Pun threw at him. Pun was given a Conspicuous Gallantry Cross, the second highest British military decoration awarded for bravery. [Source: Jonathan Schifman, Popular Mechanics, September 18, 2015]
Blake Stilwell wrote: Pun “was on duty at a two-story outpost. He heard some noises and found two insurgents attempting to lay an IED in a nearby road. He realized he was surrounded. The night sky filled up with bullets and RPG fire. Taliban fighters sprang into a well-planned assault on Pun’s outpost. Pun responded by pulling his machine gun off its tripod and handholding it as he returned fire toward the oncoming fighters. He went through every round he had available before tossing 17 grenades at the attackers. When he was out of grenades, he picked up his SA80 service rifle and started using that. He even threw a land mine at the enemy. [Source: Blake Stilwell, We Are The Mighty, Business Insider, May 19, 2016]
“As Pun defended his position, one Taliban fighter climbed the side of the tower adjacent to the guard house, hopped on to the roof and rushed him. Pun turned to take the fighter out, but his weapon misfired. Pun grabbed the tripod of his machine gun and tossed it at the Taliban’s face, which knocked the enemy fighter off of the roof of the building. Pun continued to fight off the assault until reinforcements arrived. When it was all said and done, 30 Taliban lay dead.
“He was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. “At that time I wasn’t worried, there wasn’t any choice but to fight. The Taliban were all around the checkpoint, I was alone,” he told the crowd gathered at the ceremony. “I had so many of them around me that I thought I was definitely going to die so I thought I’d kill as many of them as I could before they killed me.” In all, he fired off 250 machine gun rounds, 180 SA80 rounds, threw six phosphorous grenades and six normal grenades, and one claymore mine. Pun comes from a long line of Gurkhas. His father served in the Gurkha Rifles, as did his grandfather, who received the Victoria Cross for an action in the World War II Burma theater.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Nepal Tourism Board (ntb.gov.np), Nepal Government National Portal (nepal.gov.np), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022