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Scouting On The Afghan Frontier

by Leonard Richards

Christmas Day, 1944. A mud-block fort in the Tochi Valley of North Waziristan, a few miles from Afghanistan’s southern border, on the northwest frontier of India. Snow covered the ground and white topped mountains formed a background. I sat in my quarters, drinking a morning cup of tea. There was silence in and around the post, but this was soon broken by an approaching aircraft.

I went outside and saw a Hurricane circle and then fly across the fort. As it did so, something fell. Parachutes opened and packages drifted to the ground. These were soon retrieved and opened. Headquarters had not forgotten us and had sent Christmas treats to supplement our rations.

Some months earlier I had been in a very different setting. I was on reconnaissance duties in the coastal part of southern Burma (now Myanmar) when I came down with an attack of blackwater fever, a type of malaria. I was sent back to India–to a hospital in Calcutta–and after recovery was posted to the 7th battalion of my regiment, the 12th Frontier Force Regiment, Indian Army.

I was sorry to leave the 14th Army, the force of British and Indian troops responsible for the fight against the Japanese in the Burmese jungle. However, it would only be a matter of time before we would move into Burma.

When I arrived at the battalion it was in a hilly, heavily forested part of northern India. I was given command of the battalion’s animal transport company, and I was happy with this job because I was fond of working with horses and mules and became aware of the importance of animal transport during the Burma campaign.

I had been with the battalion for about two months when the adjutant told me I had “been asked for” by Frontier Corps. I found myself in a dilemma. I was happy with my present duties and looked forward to a return to active service in Burma. However, it was considered “bad form” to refuse when asked for. And so I decided that I had better accept. As the number of officers seconded was small, the system worked well.

Frontier Corps consisted of a number of scout units stationed in the tribal territories. Today, these regions are part of Pakistan which was formed in 1947. The scout units were spread out from the Pir Punjal and Karakoram ranges in the north, through the Kurrum Valley, Waziristan, Baluchistan, and to Iran in the southwest.

The men of the scout units were recruited from various frontier tribes and officers were seconded from the Indian Army. Units of Frontier Corps would, when there were vacancies, look for officers to fill these positions. They would choose who they wanted seconded to their unit, and having decided on someone, would “ask for them” and army command would arrange the secondment.

Frontier Corps was not under regular army command. It was under the command of the Governor of the North West Frontier Province and beyond him, the external affairs department of the Indian government.

The terrain where Frontier Corps operated varied from high, narrow river gorges to open stony plains flanked by bare hills. Other parts were desert like. There were only four well-marked routes running from west to east and these generally followed the courses of the rivers Kabul, Kurram, Tochi and Gomal. There were some rough tracks usable by horses and camels and others usable only with mules. Rivers and streams were dry most of the year, but could become full and dangerous with sudden rainstorms or melting snow.

Below 5,000 feet, trees were scarce but above that there were many wooded areas. Higher still, above the treeline, there was rock, snow and ice. Summers were hot in the valleys and foothills with temperatures often up around 120 degrees Fahrenheit. At night temperatures could quickly fall and get cold if you were above 3,000 feet. Winter could be intensely cold, and blizzards, frozen streams, icy roads and tracks made travel difficult.

It was a harsh country, and villages were sited with a view to defence. Houses were built of sun-dried mud blocks or rough stone set in mud, and they were usually bulletproof. A tower, useful as a lookout, was an indispensable part of the homestead together with a walled courtyard. These fortified homes were necessary because bitter inter-tribal and family feuds were common on both sides of the border. Men and boys usually carried a rifle and a knife.

There were a number of different tribes of Pathans–also known as Pushtuns–living on both sides of the border. All had the same culture and spoke the same language, Pushtu or Pukhtu. All were Muslim and despite their rivalries, they often looked to each other for support when necessary.

The Tochi Scouts, to which I was posted, operated in North Waziristan. There was one operational wing and a headquarters wing at Miranshah. The other two operational wings had their bases some distance away.

Scouts were lightly armed. They carried a rifle and bayonet and a .45 Webley pistol. All ranks dressed the same in baggy shalwar–trousers–and a kamizlong shirt. The shirt was worn outside the trousers and hung down almost to the knees. A kula or soft cap with a pagri or turban was also worn, and the tail of the turban hung loosely down the back of the neck and could be used in hot weather to wind around the face for protection. Footwear consisted of nailed chapplis or sandals. Scouts also carried a water bottle and a haversack. The latter often contained some hard rations such as flat bread, dates or other non-perishable foods.

The grey mazri material of the clothing blended in with the hillsides, and the style of dress was similar to that worn by local tribesmen. Signallers with gushts–patrols–carried flags, lamps, heliographs and a radio. The high ridges often interfered with radio transmission and so the heliograph was especially useful; messages could be flashed from hilltop to hilltop quickly and efficiently as the mirror of the heliograph reflected the sun’s rays. One signaller also carried pigeons in a basket on his shoulders. The birds were used to carry messages from a gusht back to a post.

Dosalli Post was my first posting in the area. It was only a few miles from the Afghan border, on a barren and rocky landscape that supported a few thorn trees. Like other scout forts, Dosalli was built of sun-dried mud blocks, rectangular in shape with a tower at each corner, placed so as to provide a clear line of fire along the lengths of the fort walls. On the inside, about five feet from the top of the walls was a platform about 10 feet wide. This ran around the perimeter of the fort, and formed the roof of the living quarters below. The walls had loopholes and the towers had slits for firing.

Gushts were pretty well a daily occurrence at Dosalli, and the objective of each patrol varied from reconnaissance to familiarization tours. The latter trips were absolutely essential because as a scout you had to be thoroughly familiar with your area. Another activity was the chapao or ambush. These were used to deal with raiding parties.

Gushts and longer operations on the frontier used specialized tactics of mountain warfare. Indeed, great care had to be taken when moving over the mountainous terrain because many of the tribes were hostile to anyone other than themselves.

Army units were placed strategically so that they could be used in case of large scale trouble and also in case of invasion from outside the country. Ever since the 19th century there had been the fear that Russia would invade India through the Khyber Pass. This is not easy because the whole country is ideal for guerilla warfare, something the Russians found out when they invaded Afghanistan in recent times.

New Year’s Day, 1945, dawned cold and bright, and the ground was covered in snow. The forts had no heating system, but we kept warm by wearing sheepskin coats and leather boots with thick felt tops that reached up to our thighs. These looked something like the hip waders anglers wear.

In January I moved to Khajuri–another scout post–and while there went out on a number of gushts, sometimes to make arrests or to prevent raids or for reconnaissance. Other operations included protecting convoys going up the road, or to escort civil or army personnel through hostile territory. Often we would occupy the high ground while army units were on the move below. As scouts we could act as a screen between those in the valleys and hostile tribesmen on the hills.

One day I received a signal telling me that one tribal group was raiding another and that an army unit was involved and was in trouble. I took four platoons and after travelling for two hours over rough mountainous terrain we found ourselves on a ridge overlooking a large depression. The army unit had taken up defensive positions and both tribal raiding parties were firing on the troops. I sent two platoons to take up position on the opposite side of the tribal groups and with the remaining two platoons and my gusht headquarters section, I moved forward to another low, but adequate ridge close to the tribesmen. We had the element of surprise on our side as we opened fire on the two groups. After returning some fire, both tribes retreated into the nearby hills.

There was plenty of shooting during that exchange, but fortunately the army unit and ourselves suffered very few casualties. While the army troops left to return to base we remained on the ridges to prevent any further interference.

At the end of February 1945 I was transferred to the Zhob Militia in Baluchistan. This was another scout unit of Frontier Corps and I was to be second in command of Zhob’s left wing. The headquarters of the Zhob Militia was at Fort Sandeman which was situated on a small plateau at 4,300 feet, and was almost completely surrounded by mountains of around 11,000 feet. However, there was a plateau on one side that sloped down to the Zhob River approximately seven miles away. In addition to being the Zhob Militia headquarters, Fort Sandeman was home to an army brigade.

The Zhob Militia was comprised of a headquarters wing based at Fort Sandeman as well as the right and left wings which were some distance away. Each wing had a major as wing commander and a captain as wing second in command. In the case of the left wing both the wing commander and myself as second in command, were seconded from the 12th Frontier Force Regt. All other ranks were Pathans or Baluchis.

One of the differences between the Tochi Scouts and the Zhob Militia was that in Zhob more use was made of mounted gushts. I can also remember how hot it got that summer, so hot that we could literally fry eggs on the rocks.

Left wing’s headquarters was at a place called Sambaza, and during my first two days there I went out on patrols. On the third day I joined a chigha party. A chigha was a very quick emergency response to a call for help or for some other emergency action. A chigha party had to be out of the post and on its way to the scene in a matter of minutes.

On that particular day a troop of scouts had been engaged with a raiding party from Afghanistan and had ended up at Sambaza. At 11 p.m. the scouts went out after a larger Afghan party, and at midnight the Sambaza post duty sentry reported signals requesting more help. I left immediately with a chigha and was able to assist in dispersing the raiding party and taking some prisoners.

On another occasion a party of Afghan tribesmen had crossed the border and were raiding a village. I went out with a mounted gusht, and we attacked the raiding party and sent them back over the border. Our task was done when the raiders left the territory, but there were times when we did pursue individuals or groups across the border even if this wasn’t politically correct.

In May our wing commander went on leave and with his departure I was appointed commander with the acting rank of major. By this time I had come to realize that being a scout meant being constantly on the move.

Later in 1946 I was ordered to report to my regimental centre at Sialkote in the Punjab province which was then part of India. I left Fort Sandeman by lorry for Quetta which is approximately 110 miles south of Kandahar, Afghanistan. On the way mounted scouts galloped out of the various posts and rode alongside us, firing over the lorry in farewell. It was an emotional experience, and I was sorry to leave the frontier and the men I had come to respect and like.

On arrival at the regimental centre, I learned that home leave had been approved. At that point I reverted to my substantive rank of captain. I had left Britain on the troopship Ormond on New Year’s Day, 1941, and now I was to go home on leave. My time in India, Burma and finally on the northwestern frontier was filled with unforgettable experiences.

It is interesting to reflect that in 1936 a force of Wazir tribesmen ambushed British troops, inflicting casualties and capturing arms and ammunition. This was followed by a large scale attack by the Fakir of Ipi and tribesmen from Afghanistan. The Fakir was a local tribesman who was highly respected as the leader among the Wazir people. Their intent was to establish an independent Pukhtunistan which would straddle the Indo-Afghan border and bring together all the Pathans who were then separated by the international boundary.

In 1947, at the time of India’s independence from Britain and the partition of the country into India and Pakistan, the Pathans again requested their own Pakhtunistan, but were denied.

Today’s news of fighting and other troubles in Afghanistan stir up memories of the border areas and the people who live there. It is with sadness that I think of the poverty and hardships which the ordinary people of Afghanistan are suffering and I hope wise minds will devise approaches to solving the problems of this troubled country.


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