Umballa to Ambala, Wapitis to Rafales
The field of Panipat witnessed three epic battles which decided the fate of Hindustan.
On the route from the mountain passes in the North-West, through which the invaders came to Panipat and Delhi, lay ‘Umballa’ – a natural staging post along the traditional invasion route. When British conquests took them North-Westwards, its strategic location become the sine qua non of its military importance.
By the late 18th century, as British influence and domination marched inland from Calcutta, a new military strategy was evolved based on the need for rapid response and deployment of troops and artillery. The concentration of troops in city centres was replaced by separate camps – or cantonments – on the periphery of the main cities. Barrackpore and Danapur in 1765, Bareilly and Kanpur in 1811.
Ambala was established in 1825 and developed as a cantonment from 1843. Captain Robert Napier, a sapper officer who had helped in planning Darjeeling Cantonment, was moved to Ambala in 1842 to plan the cantonment.
Central to the chain of these military stations and extending all the way from Barrackpore to the North-West Frontier (in fact from Chittagong to Kabul) was the Grand Trunk Road, laid out by Sher Shah Suri much before the arrival of the British, but renovated and maintained by them after 1839 under James Thomason. The original alignment passed through the present-day airfield where an old Mughal arched bridge still survives.
The growing Sikh empire under Ranjit Singh, with its military capability and predatory forays up to the Yamuna, fuelled British apprehensions and brought about the Treaty of Amritsar on April 25 1809, mutually restricting the eastern limit of the Sikh State to the Satluj River. From Karnal, the British military presence was stepped-up to Ambala and Sirhind.
Sirhind was abandoned in the closing years of the nineteenth century due to extreme paucity of water making it impossible to maintain a large contingent of cavalry. The Sirhind garrison was relocated to Ambala expanding it into one of the biggest cantonments in North India. The Sirhind Club, which also moved to Ambala, was registered as such with the Registrar of Companies in Britain and was obliged to retain the name.
The annual move of the Government from Calcutta to Shimla resulted in Ambala becoming the rail-head base, 1077 miles from Calcutta, till the branch line was extended to Kalka in 1891, and the unique mountain-rail driven up to Shimla on 09 November 1903.
A garrison church was inevitably that of the Church of England. Architecturally, English Gothic imported straight from ‘home’ prevailed. Amongst the most imposing churches was St John’s Church at Ambala, designed by Captain Atkinson and consecrated in 1857. It was Hereford Cathedral transplanted at Ambala. The all-brick structure was bombed out, along with a part of the Sirhind Club, by the Pak Air Force on September 18 1965 while attacking Ambala airfield.
Troops from the Ambala garrison were to ‘march to the sound of guns’ whenever the trumpets called. The ill-fated ‘Army of the Indus’, mustered at Ferozepur in 1838 for intervention in Afghanistan, drew contingents from Ambala. The increasing tensions with the Sikhs saw Ambala garrison of 4,133 soldiers and 24 guns in January 1845 increased to 12,972 men and 32 guns by December 1845.
The artillery train and cavalry from Ambala and Meerut, along with the British troops from the hills, set out for the ‘Sutlej Campaign’ on December 12 1845 for their first encounter at Mudki on December 18. Kitchener, who was C-in-C Indian Army from 1902 to 1909, initiated wide-ranging reforms which indirectly propped Ambala to its heydays in the 1920s and 1930s. Ambala lay on the Northern axis astride the rail and road artery leading to the Khyber.
Post India's partition, Ambala became the home of the famous 4 Infantry Division. In the prevailing ambiguity about the Army’s role and place in the decade following Independence, 4 Infantry Division under Major General BM Kaul undertook construction of accommodation as part of Operation Amar. While the troops mixed cement with sand the Chinese were moving towards the frontiers. Ironically, 4 Infantry Division was moved in November-December 1959 to the North-East as the Chinese threat manifested itself, and was to meet its tryst with infamy at Sela in 1962.
With the advent of powered flight and the coming of military aviation, Umballa Camp, as it was known then, pioneered its introduction in India in 1919. The first military aviation flight took place from the polo ground – later turned into the airfield. No 1 (Army Cooperation) Squadron of the RIAF formed in 1935 at Drigh Road, Karachi and equipped with Wapiti fighters (nicknamed ‘Wat-a-pity’) was moved to its permanent location at Ambala in 1938, making Ambala the cradle of the fledgling RIAF.
During the war, the Service Flying Training School were established on October 23 1940 imparting both elementary flying training and advanced training for flying instructors. The bulk of the senior pilots of the IAF earned their ‘wings’ at Ambala.
The Air Force Station was to have more ‘firsts’ to its credit. The first Distinguished Flying Cross awardees of the IAF – Engineer and Majumdar – were decorated here at an investiture in 1942. Group Captain Arjan Singh assumed command of the station on August 15 1947 and on the same day aircraft from Ambala, after a fly-past over Ambala, flew on to Delhi for a similar fly-past.
On November 4 1948, three Vampire jet fighters arrived at Ambala to equip No 7 Squadron making the IAF the first Asian Air Arm to operate jets. No 7 Squadron had been raised at Ambala in February 1943. When the Gnat was introduced into service, No 2 Squadron was re-equipped with Gnats at Ambala in early 1962. No 14 Squadron was the first to be equipped with Jaguars in UK and arrived at Ambala in July 1979.
Appropriately, the IAF first went into action from Ambala when Spitfires from the Advanced Flying School were flown to Srinagar on October 30 1947. The crowning glory came in 1971. Gnats from No 18 Squadron at Ambala flying detachments at Srinagar earned the IAFs first and only PVC in Flying Officer NS Sekhon. Entering the gate of the Air Force Station, a pillar proclaims ’Ambala – Pioneers of Military Aviation’, a sobriquet richly deserved. And now the Rafales.
Lt General N.S.Brar is former Deputy Chief Integrated Defence Staff and Member Armed Forces Tribunal.