Nepali Times
"We were not fighting for our own country"

Victoria Cross winner Ram Bahadur Limbu talks about fighting in Malaysia, Queen Elizabeth and the options of retired Gurkha soldiers in this condensed account. His story is included with those of other Gurkha soldiers in Lahurey ka Katha, translated by Dev Bahadur Thapa for Nepali Times.

My father had been in the army and fought in World War I, but after that he came home on leave and never went back. I remember him showing us a bullet scar on his throat. Since I was very young, I don't remember anything else he told us. I enlisted in the British Army at Paklihawa in 1956 and, after a week in Kolkatta, went to Penang in Malaysia by ship. I underwent 10 months' training and then was posted to second battalion, and stayed for two years in the Malaysian city of Johore.

In 1958, we went to Hong Kong and in 1965, I was posted to Singapore. There was a conflict between Indonesia and Malaysia and we fought on the Malaysian side in Sarawak, where the Indonesians had a strong defence. The C Company and some reinforcements from the artillery reached the site, approximately 150 people. When we attacked, I was in the middle with a small group. Bullets felled my companions on the left and right. The enemy had taken position in the bunker. I aimed at that and fired. When the enemy firing stopped, I assumed everyone inside the bunker must have died. One of my companions, Bijuli Prasad Limbu, had been hit in the head and died instantly. Khark Bahadur Limbu had been wounded in the stomach, and I dragged him to a safer place, but he died a day later. The battle continued, with heavy artillery bombardments. When the fighting was over, eyewitnesses claimed 24 on the enemy side had died compared to the three dead and three wounded on ours.

I could operate all kinds of weapons-machine guns, automatic rifles, grenades, rocket launcher and a gun that could destroy bunkers and trenches. We fought for two months in Malaysia. Although the full-scale war between Malaysia and Indonesia ended in 1965 or 1966, skirmishes continued inside thick forests until 1968, when the armistice was signed. Mosquitoes and wild animals caused us a lot of trouble in the Malaysian jungles. One serviceman was dragged by an elephant and had his ribs damaged, but he survived. Rumour had it that there were two brothers in another unit, and the younger one was being devoured by a python when the elder one cut the python into pieces and took his brother out alive.

I was given the Victoria Cross for valour in battle. However, I didn't even know about this till two years later. That morning, high-ranking officers congratulated me and said I got a very high-class award, but I still didn't know which award it was. Later, the commanding general made an announcement about the award during a ceremonial parade. Although I'd never met any of them, I'd read about several Gurkha soldiers who had received the Victoria Cross during the first and second world wars. One was Ganju Lama, and when people passed by his house in Sikkim, they used to point it out and talk about his award. There were quite a few others who fought with courage and deserved an award, so it would be unfair to say that only I had been heroic. Yet I did my little bit, and I was proud and happy. I was 29 years old at the time, and since then, no other Gurkha soldier has been awarded the Victoria Cross.

I travelled to London, where Queen Elizabeth presented the medal to me at Buckingham Palace. A citation is made prior to the pinning on of the medal, stating that so and so did such and such a deed. The queen congratulated me and said well done, and then shook hands with me. I thought about how I'd seen a large number of dead Indonesian soldiers as I carried my two wounded comrades away. It is impossible to say how many I killed, and how many my comrades killed, but in all, 24 enemy soldiers were dead and it was certain our group was responsible. We brought back our wounded and dead companions, and all of our weapons, so I suppose that's why I was awarded the medal. At the time, I was a lance corporal, and had risen to the rank of captain when I retired after 28 years of service. Sometimes we old timers would meet each other and recall the days gone by.

While fighting we were aware that we were not fighting for our own country. In a sense, we fought for our living. For over 200 years, our forefathers had been involved as soldiers and warriors, so in a way, it was like carrying on a family profession. Today, two of my sons are in the army. One has earned a pension, but the other is still serving. In some families, four or five generations have been serving in the army.

Recently, we had an audience with His Majesty the King. We often talk about the lack of opportunities for ex-servicemen in Nepal. We have a number of important skills, and a few have even had training in engineering or communications. It is a shame these talents go to waste, when they could be used to help Nepal.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)