Honorary Captain Umrao Singh, who died yesterday aged 85, won the Victoria Cross in Burma during the Second World War; and 50 years later he complained to John Major about the poor pensions enjoyed by holders of the VC. As a havildar on December 15/16 1944, Singh was in charge of one gun in the Kaladan Valley when it came under heavy fire from Japanese 74mm guns. After an hour and a half of pounding, his section, consisting of two guns, was attacked by two Japanese companies. Under his inspired leadership it beat off the attack. Though twice wounded by grenades in the first attack, Singh held off the second by skilful control of the section’s small-arms’ fire. At one point, with the attackers no more than five yards away, he manned a Bren gun himself and fired over the shield of his fieldpiece. Once again the Japanese were driven back, and the third and fourth attacks were beaten off, with the enemy suffering heavy casualties. When the final attack came, with his ammunition gone, the other gun overrun and all but two of his section badly wounded or dead, Singh closed with the enemy in furious hand-to-hand fighting. He struck down three Japanese in a desperate attempt to save his gun, but was finally overwhelmed and knocked senseless. Six hours later, when a counter-attack regained the position, Singh was found exhausted beside the gun, almost unrecognisable because of his seven wounds, with 10 dead Japanese lying around him. But the gun was still in working order.
The citation declared: ‘By his personal example and magnificent bravery Havildar Umrao Singh set a supreme example of gallantry and devotion to duty.’ Singh was invested with the Victoria Cross by King George VI at Buckingham Palace on October 15 1945. John Major mentioned Singh when he told an otherwise glum Conservative Party conference that the VC holders’ pension was to be significantly increased. The news came as a surprise in the Punjabi village of Palra, where Singh stood to attention before his fellow villagers, slapping his bare feet to attention and announcing with a salute: “For John Major, Prime Minister of Britain.” The increase from £100 to £1,300 a year (the equivalent to the pension’s value in 1960 made him one of the richest men around, and he was glad that he and his wife Vilma could now “live in style”, which had not been possible on a VC’s £100 a year and army pension. He had met John Major at the VE-Day celebrations at Hyde Park earlier in 1995 when plans for an increase were already under discussion. “I don’t think the Prime Minister speaks Hindi, but when I talked to him he just said yes to everything,” Singh recalled. Grinning broadly as he drank Indian rum he explained: “All the Indian VCs are uneducated, and we didn’t know how to complain. I felt it was my duty to tell this to the Prime Minister.” But while grateful for the service rendered, he pointed out that there was another task which needed attention: “Why does the bank in India convert my pension at 34 rupees to the pound when I should get 50? Why are VCs in India being cheated? I want John Major to sort it out.”
Umrao Singh was a Hindu Jat born on November 21 1920 at Palra, near Rhotak in the Punjab. He went to the local primary school and joined the Royal Indian Artillery two months after the outbreak of war. Singh was promoted to havildar in 1942, retired in 1946, and then joined the independent India’s army in 1948. He became subedar major in 1965 and retired as an honorary captain in 1970. Returning to his village, where he was known as ‘VC Singh’, he ran a two-acre smallholding which he inherited from his father. He owned a cart and a single buffalo while living on his Indian Army pension and living in a small mud-brick-built house. When a friend told him he could sell his VC for thousands of pounds he refused to part with it, saying that such an act would dishonour his comrades who fell in battle when he won his medal. When the VE-Day celebrations were held in Hyde Park in 1995 he was brought to Britain by the Indian Army, to find himself turned away from the Royal Enclosure because he did not have an invitation. But a brigadier, who was helping to organise the event, recognised his medal and obtained entrance for him. The last of the Sub-Continent’s VC holders from the Second World War, apart from four who served in Gurkha regiments, Singh kept himself fit by walking six miles a day. He retained such an upstanding figure that when he was presented to the centenarian Queen Mother in 1999, she drew herself up straight, saying: “What an example.” After the death 18 months ago of his wife, with whom he had two sons and a daughter, Umrao Singh was severely affected. But he said that he would be kept busy with his family and grandchildren
The Daily Telegraph – 22 November 2005
Umrao Singh, who has died in India aged 85, was the last survivor of the Asian subcontinent's non-Gurkha VCs from the Second World War. He won the decoration for an extraordinary feat of personal bravery during fighting with the Japanese in Burma at the end of 1944.
On December 15-16 that year, Singh was a havildar (or sergeant) with the 33rd battery, 30th Mountain Regiment of the Indian Artillery, part of the 81st West African Division in the Arakan, in Burma. The XV Corps had started its final victorious advance on the Arakan on December 10. Singh and the 30th Mountain Regiment had spent the monsoon period with the 25th Division around the Maungdaw-Buthidaung region. At the end of October, the 32nd and 33rd batteries were detached and put under the command of the 81st West Africans.
After three weeks’ marching, they joined their new formation in the Kaladan valley on November 21, Singh’s 24th birthday. On December 15, his section of the 33rd Battery was located in a forward position of the 8th Gold Coast Regiment; their objective was to counter the nightly Japanese shelling of the area. Singh was in charge of a gun in an advanced section of his battery when the Japanese launched a fierce assault.
Following more than an hour of heavy fire, two Japanese companies attacked. Although twice wounded by grenade fragments, Singh fought off the assault by skilfully marshalling his section's small arms fire; at one point, he fired a Bren gun over the shield of his field gun with the enemy troops barely five yards away. The Japanese were beaten off with heavy losses.
Two further attacks were beaten off in the same manner by Singh’s resolute and courageous action. In the final assault, he seized a gun bearer and, calling again on all who remained, closed with the enemy in furious hand-to-hand fighting. He was seen to strike down three Japanese in a desperate effort to save his gun, until he was overwhelmed and knocked senseless. Six hours later, when a counter-attack restored the position, he was found in an exhausted state beside his gun, almost unrecognisable with seven severe wounds, and 10 dead Japanese around him.
The cost in terms of casualties was heavy. Apart from Singh and two others, the entire gun section had been killed or wounded. Amazingly, when his gun was recovered, it was found fit to fire, and was in action again later the same day. For his “personal example and magnificent bravery” and his “devotion to duty”, Singh was awarded the Victoria Cross, which he received from King George VI at Buckingham Palace on October 15 1945.
A Hindu Jat, and the son of a farmer, Singh was born at Palra, near Rhotak, in the Punjab. After attending the local government school, he enlisted in the Indian army in November 1939, joining the artillery. Demobilised in 1946, he rejoined the army in 1948, serving until 1970, when he retired as a subadar major and honorary captain.
By 1983, aged 63, he was farming a two-acre smallholding inherited from his father. He owned a buffalo and a cart, and lived in a small, mud-brick house. His Indian army pension was about £14 per month. Despite several suggestions from well-meaning friends that he should sell his VC, he would not countenance such a move. For him, the decoration represented more than simply his own wartime service – as far as he was concerned, to sell it would be to dishonour those of his comrades killed in the same battle.
In 1995, he visited London as a member of the Indian contingent for the 50th anniversary of the end of the second world war, and was presented to the Queen Mother and John Major. Although an increase in the annual £100 pension paid to VC holders was already under discussion, Singh took his chance to raise the subject with the Prime Minister. Shortly afterwards, it was announced that the pension would be increased to its present level of £1,300. With this additional help, Singh was able to retire from farming and give his wife, Vilma, to whom he was devoted, a more comfortable life.
Singh’s body was taken by the Indian army to his home village, where a crowd of more than a thousand, including representatives of the military, the Indian government and the British High Commission, had gathered for his funeral. After the laying of wreaths, artillery buglers sounded the Last Post and his elder son lit the funeral pyre to the accompaniment of rifle fire from the guard of honour.
Singh, whose wife predeceased him, is survived by two sons and a daughter, and several grandchildren.
The Guardian – 1 December 2005
Supplement to The London Gazette of Tuesday, the 29th of May, 1945
War Office, 31st May, 194
The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the award of the VICTORIA CROSS to:
No. 44928 Havildar Umrao Singh, Indian Artillery.
In the Kaladan Valley, in Burma, on 15th/16th December, 1944, Havildar Umrao Singh was in charge of one gun in an advanced section of his battery when it was subjected to heavy fire from 75 mm. guns and mortars for 1½ hours prior to being attacked by two Companies of Japanese.
When the attack came he so inspired his gun detachment by his personal example and encouragement to fight and defend their gun, that they were able to beat off the attack with losses to the enemy.
Though twice wounded by grenades in the first attack, he again held off the second enemy attack by skilful control of his detachment’s small arms fire, and by manning a Bren gun himself which he fired over the shield of his gun at the Japanese who had got to within five yards range. Again the enemy were beaten off with heavy losses. Third and fourth attacks were also beaten off in the same manner by the resolute action and great courage of Havildar Umrao Singh.
By this time all his gun detachment had been killed or wounded with the exception of himself and two others.
When the final attack came, the other gun having been over-run and all his ammunition expended, he seized a gun bearer and calling once again on all who remained, he closed with the enemy in furious hand-to-hand fighting and was seen to strike down three Japanese in a desperate effort to save his gun, until he was overwhelmed and knocked senseless.
Six hours later, when a counter-attack restored the position, he was found in an exhausted state beside his gun and almost unrecognisable with seven severe wounds, and ten dead Japanese round him.
By his personal example and magnificent bravery Havildar Umrao Singh set a supreme example of gallantry and devotion to duty. When recovered, his gun was fit to fire and was in fact in action again and firing later that same day.