A PAGE FROM HISTORY
THE PRISONERS OF AVERSA
BY MAJ GEN (RETD) SYED ALI HAMID
What do these senior officers have in common?
Lt Gen Sahibzada Yaqub Gen Yahya Khan Gen Tikka Khan
Brig Hissam el Effendi Gen P. P. Kumaramangalam Maj Gen A.S. Naravane
During the Second World War, all these officers were POWs in an Italian POW Camp No P.G. 63 located at Aversa which is a town in the Province of Caserta in Campania southern Italy, about 15 kilometers north of Naples. There were a number of Axis prisoner-of-war camps in Italy during the War and the initials "P.G." denote Prigione di Guerra (Prison of War). P.G. 63 held mostly Indian officers and soldiers.
Except for Gen Yahya, all these officers were serving in the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade during the Battle of Ghazala 1942 and were captured when their brigade was overrun by the Afrika Korps on the very first day of the battle. Inserted into the defences at the last moment and ill equipped to take on the brunt of the attack of Rommel's three armoured divisions, it fought tenaciously and within the space of two hours destroyed 50 German and Italian Tanks (one estimate records 80 tanks destroyed). Most of the tanks were destroyed by the 25 Pounder Guns of 2 Field Regiment, Indian Artillery firing over open sights but the 2 Pounder anti-tank guns (mounted on trucks and called 'Portees') of the armoured motor regiments also inflicted substantial casualties.
Some 17 officers and 670 Viceroy's Commissioned Officers and Indian other ranks were taken prisoner and while the soldiers were released (because there was not enough water), the officers were taken to the rear and subsequently flown to Italy. Amongst the officers were Lt Sahibzada Yaqub, signal officer of 18th Cavalry (later Lt Gen and Foreign Minister of Pakistan) and Lt Hissam el Effendi with 11th Cavalry (famous polo player who retired as a Brig from the Pakistan Army). The officer serving with the 2 Field Regiment who were captured included Maj P. P. Kumaramangalam (later Chief of Staff of the Indian Army from 1967-1970), Lt A.S. Naravane (retired as Maj Gen from the Indian Army) and Lt Tikka Khan (later Chief of Army Staff of the Pakistan Army from 1972-76).
Maj Gen A.S. Naravane in his memoirs "A Soldier's Life in War and Peace" narrates his experiences in the POW Camp P.G. 63 and states that Maj P. P. Kumaramangalam was the senior most Indian officer and was appointed as the Camp Senior Officer and Capt Yahya Khan was the Camp Adjutant.
They meet again in 1966: Gen P. P. Kumaramangalam and Lt Gen Yahya Khan - POW Camp Senior Officer and his Adjutant.
There were a number of Indian medical officers in the P.G. 63 and one of them, Dr Satyen Basu, a doctor from Calcutta, wrote an account of his wartime experiences entitled 'A Doctor in the Army' which were privately published in Calcutta in 1960. During his stay in the POW Camp he befriended Lt 'Y' and his impressions of Lt 'Y' (and it takes little guesswork to decipher that he is referring to Lt Sahibzada Yaqub), were:-
"Lt. Y was one of the most intelligent young lads I had ever met. Born of a royal family in one of the Indian states his early education was in the R.I.M.C. He was thus earmarked for an army career. He had proved himself an able officer in the cavalry regiment that he was serving in. But I am sure his intellectual equipment was misplaced. At 22 he was a good portrait painter, and a connoisseur of music and the dance. In two months he had brushed up his knowledge of French which he could now speak fluently, and was well up in the German language. It seemed he normally agreed with Aristotle that intellectual attainment is the greatest pleasure of life, for he kept most of his time within his room reading some book or other. And yet he had a keen sense of humour. I got friendly with him in studying together a few lectures on psychology delivered by a professor in his former camp. But it was his amiable nature that made me his friend. When I spoke my mind to Lt. Y the Cavalry officer and asked him how he felt, he replied that it was in this prison that he had spent some of the best moments of his life. Never before, he declared, was he so free from worries and allowed to follow his own pursuits - books."
Another officer of 18th Cavalry who was also captured was 2/Lt Abhey Singh the youngest son of Major-General Sir Onkar Singh, KCIE, a minister for the Princely State of Kotah.
According to the information on him contained in Wikipedia, 2/Lt Abhey Singh was sent to P. G. 71 also in Aversa for internment. In May 1943, he was sent to P. G. 91 in Avezzano and it seems that both Maj. P. P. Kumaramangalam and Lt. Sahabzada Yaqub Khan were also transferred to this camp. In the confusion that followed the Italian surrender in September 1943, the three escaped from Avezzano. Since Lt. Yaqub Khan spoke Italian, it enabled them to solicit assistance from rural Italians who were sympathetic to the Allies. They spent four to five months attempting to move south to Allied lines, but were subsequently re-captured by German forces.
All three officers were transferred to POW camps in Germany and Maj. P. P. Kumaramangalam was interned in Stalag Luft III, 100 miles (160 km) southeast of Berlin. The camp is best known for two famous prisoner escapes that took place there by tunneling, which were depicted in the films The Wooden Horse (1950) and The Great Escape (1963) featuring the famous actor Steve McQueen.
Ultimately all the officers returned back to India on the termination of the war after three years in captivity.
"And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music."
― Friedrich Nietzsche
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