In spite of being wounded in battle, Lieutenant Colonel A B Tarapore fought for six days before meeting a hero’s death on the battlefield in the 1965 war.
A legend in the Indian Army, he is the highest ranking officer to be awarded the Param Vir Chakra.
His daughter Zarine M Boyce, who was 16 when her father died, remembers an extraordinary soldier and a father she lost too soon.
“I remember so well the night they got their orders to move. I was 16. The Poona Horse (Lieutenant Colonel A B Tarapore’s regiment) had won an inter regimental tournament and there was a celebratory party in the Officer’s Mess.
It was the first time I was allowed into a party. I remember dancing with my father when his adjutant, Captain Surinder Singh, tapped him on the shoulder and my father went in.
Captain Jasbir Singh came and took his place. Unfortunately he too died in the same shell attack that killed my father.
Soon after, we were told that the party was over and we should go home. This must have happened at 10 pm. Around 2, 3 in the morning, we heard the tanks moving out.
They were given orders to load and leave, but there was a wall blocking the route to the road and if they circumvented it, they could have missed their boarding time.
So my dad gave instructions to go through the wall as the objective was to get to the station in time. Of course they reached on time.
The next day we went to the train station. Earlier, my mother had gathered all the women at the mess and told them ‘Don’t you cry!’
I can never forget the scene with the officers and their tanks on the station. My father came out to one of the flats (wagons in the train carrying the tanks) and Captain Ajai Singh, who later became general and then governor of Assam, was with him, along with Captains Jasbir Singh and Surinder Singh.
Just at the whistle blew, my father gave my mother a salute. And all the chappies saluted us. That’s my last memory. I never saw him again.”
Zarine Mahir Boyce breaks down as she remembers that day 50 years ago when her father left to fight a war, never to return.
A legendary tank commander who led from the front; he died in the tank that he loved, surrounded by men that adored him.
During our conversation, Mrs Boyce’s eyes well up several times as one tries to grasp the pain of a teenager’s loss that hasn’t ebbed in half a century.
Now in her mid 60s, she lives in her mother’s family home in Pune and says not a day passes when she hasn’t thought of her father.
Next week, she has been invited by the Poona Horse for a commemorative ceremony of the 1965 war. “The respect they have given me over the years is unsurpassable,” she says. “They treat me better than the Queen of England!”
She has also been invited for tea by the President for a felicitation of the 1965 veterans at Rashtrapati Bhavan on September 22.
IMAGE: The last time Zarine Boyce saw her father was at the railway station before he left for the battlefront. Photo: Archana Masih
“My father had not told anybody but on the night we were celebrating, he had got a message from the military secretary that as soon as his tenure was over, which would have been another couple of months, he would be posted as military attache to the USA, where he would pick up his brigadier pips.
I was excited as a young girl that I would do my college in America. Of course it never happened.
When my father was at the front we got news only through letters. We received his last letter after his death.
In that he wrote ‘I could not have had finer and better men to lead.’
They say that the command that my father had on the wireless in keeping the whole regiment together was unsurpassable. They destroyed 60 enemy tanks against our 9 and not only that — they were one regiment against a brigade which comprised three regiments with Patton tanks.
We had the old Centurions tanks that were heavier and not as fast, but he did it. He did it like they did it in the old cavalry charges. It was just sure, sheer guts. His courage was such that inspired his men.
One of the boys told me that all he said on the wireless was ‘Come on gentlemen, let’s go and get them’ — and he charged at full speed, followed by his men.
The young men who came to see my mother after my dad died, told us that after the battle started, the colonel opened the cupola of his tank and stood up courageously, in spite of all the firing.
They said seeing him do that gave them courage. General Ajai Singh (who was a captain then) always says that no matter what part of the battle it was, Colonel Tarapore was always there.
With no disrespect to anybody, it was the first real battle that we went into. China was bad, we couldn’t help it. But in ’65 even if we lacked in resources what we did not lack was courage.”
In 1965, the Pakistan army’s armour strength was superior to that of the Indian Army. Pakistan had 765 tanks against India’s 720, writes Nitin Gokhale in his book 1965 — Turning the Tide.
India was in no position to wage another war in 1965, having suffered a morale-shattering defeat in 1962. The three services were in the middle of a modernisation and expansion phase and therefore not fully trained or battle-ready.
“At some stage of the battle, my father’s tank was blasted. He jumped out, helped his wireless officer Captain Amarjit Bal, who eventually became a general.
After they were injured and they came out of the tank, my father realised that Captain Bal was still inside the tank, so he jumped in, pulled him to safety, gave him his morphine injection and asked him to be evacuated.
A little later in that operation a shrapnel riddled my father’s arm. He was told to evacuate but he didn’t want to leave his men. He said he would not leave his boys and continued to fight with his hand in a sling for the next two days.
Many of the officers say that if he had not taken that stance at that time, maybe we wouldn’t have been in Pakistan. And for that, the regiment treat him like God.
One of his jawans who had come to see my mother after my father passed away told my mom: ‘Colonel Tarapore was Arjun.’
He wanted to be cremated on the battlefield, so they did it. Even the enemy respected him. They called his regiment Fakhr-e-Hind, the Pride of India. This is unprecedented.
The biggest tank battle since World War II was fought in the Sialkot sector of Pakistan in 1965. Under Colonel Tarapore’s leadership, 60 enemy tanks were destroyed in fierce tank battles that are part of military folklore.
Leading from the front and unmindful of being wounded, the colonel continued to fight for six days before he died a hero’s death on the battlefield. The fearless commanding officer and his men had gone into Pakistan and captured Phillora, Chawinda, Wazirwali, Jassoran, Buttar Dograndi.
In the battle of Chawinda, he led the tanks twice into the middle of the enemy’s killing ground. In the battle of Phillora, 23 enemy tanks lay scattered, mauled and burning.
On the evening of September 16, his tank was hit by a shell. He and his intelligence officer Captain Jasbir Singh along with two jawans died in the attack.
Colonel A B Tarapore was cremated on the battlefield in Jassoran at 0930 on September 17, 1965. His ashes were brought back to Pune.
For his valour he was decorated with the highest war-time gallantry medal, the Param Vir Chakra posthumously. Among the places where his valour is remembered is in the Golden Temple in Amritsar where his name is etched on a plaque. His presence also graces two building complexes in Andheri, suburban Mumbai, named after him: Tarapore Gardens and Tarapore Towers.
“When my mother was dying of cancer, it was her wish that his Param Vir Chakra be given to his regiment.
Today it is in the Quarter Guard and every young officer who joins the regiment has to go to the portrait of my father and of Second Lieutenant Arun Khetrapal (the 21-year-old awarded the Param Vir Chakra in the 1971 war, also from Poona Horse) and then join the regiment.
When we went to give the Param Vir Chakra in 1982, there was a tank parade and my mother went up and gave the medal to General Hanut Singh, who was commanding the regiment. (Decorated with the Mahavir Chakra in the 1971 war, General Hanut Singh was a military legend and sadly passed away in April this year.)
I will never forget what General Hanut said. He said, ‘As long as there is a Poona Horse and as long as there is a Tarapore, we will be at their service.’
You don’t get this loyalty and respect anywhere. Jawans who fought under him brought their little grandchildren to my mom and said, ‘Mataji aap iske sir par haath rakh dengi toh yeh bhi veer ho jayega. (Mother, if you put your hand on his head, he too will become as brave as your husband).’
I am going to give the last jacket he wore in action to the regiment. They will put it up in the Quarter Guard with love and respect.”
Six days after Colonel Tarapore’s death, the United Nations called for a ceasefire by India and Pakistan. The war ended on September 23, 1965. India held 518 square kilometres of Pakistan territory in the Sialkot sector, that was returned in keeping with the Tashkent Treaty.
The Poona Horse, the regiment to which Colonel Tarapore belonged, is one of the most decorated regiments in the Indian Army. It has been awarded two Param Vir Chakras and two Victoria Crosses.
In the 1965 war, it was also awarded two Vir Chakras and five Sena Medals. In respect for the regiment’s achievement on the battlefield, the Pakistani army conferred it with the title ‘Fakhr-e-Hind.’
“There is never a day that goes by when I don’t think of him. I suppose all of us who have famous fathers are daddy’s girls. There are always people who take his name with a lot of respect.
His regiment was the be all and end all of his life. It was his family. His soldiers were his children. We were also rans. He loved us, he adored us, but he had one very, very strong trait which made his men adore him.
He was commanding his regiment in Babina, near Jhansi. His jeep had got stuck in a nullah and three of them — the wireless operator, my father and driver — tried to push the jeep out.
When he came home covered in slush, a civilian guest visiting us asked him why didn’t he get the men to push the jeep since he was the commanding officer.
I will never forget what my father said. He said, ‘I am not made of sugar or salt. I am not going to melt. I can do whatever my men can do.’
Zarine Boyce’s mother, Perin Tarapore, was only 40 when her husband died. Mrs Boyce herself lost her husband when she was 32. She has two daughters, one of whom will accompany her to the regiment’s commemorative function next week.
Mrs Tarapore received Rs 10,000 and a transistor set from Indira Gandhi, then the information and broadcasting minister.
When P V Cherian, then the governor of Maharashtra, discovered this when he visited Mrs Tarapore in Pune, he intervened with the defence minister until she was given a plot of land in Koregaon Park with the stipulation that she should build a house in two years.
Since Colonel Tarapore’s last pay was Rs 3,000 and his pension hardly amounted to around Rs 1,000, the Parsi community stepped in and built a house at no profit. Mrs Tarapore rented out this house and that’s where her main income came from.
“We managed because her father was comfortably off but we always wonder about people who aren’t,” says Mrs Boyce. “But now things have improved.”
“I don’t feel bitter. Mt father had a job to do and he did it. As much as he died, somebody else may have died too.
Students at the school he went to and was head boy don’t know about him. The road outside the school is named after him, but once when I was there, I asked the students about him, and they didn’t know.
What he did was for the country. In the north of India, people appreciate sacrifice and valour because they have been at the receiving end for a long time.
In Maharashtra and South India not so much because they have never had to face threats to their homes because the enemy has never come down that far.
“I do not expect people to appreciate it (a soldier’s sacrifice) when they themselves have not been through it. But awareness is creeping in now.
(Company Quarter Master Havildar Abdul Hamid was decorated with the Param Vir Chakra for his remarkable courage in the other famous battle of 1965, the Battle of Assal Uttar (Befitting Reply) In a superhuman effort, he destroyed seven tanks before sacrificing his life on the battlefield.
(‘He had blown up a total of seven enemy tanks, even more than an armoured formation can hope for. For the first time in military history, a battalion with only recoilless guns at its disposal fought off an armoured division,’ Rachna Rawat Bisht wrote in The Brave: Param Vir Chakra Stories).
‘My mother was in this house when we got news of his passing. Those days after his passing were terrible. My mother’s younger brother became like a surrogate dad. Nothing can tidy over for your loss.
Not only was my father an astounding soldier, he was also a kind human being. He did not have any shades of grey. For him it was this or that, never a maybe. He would have been a failure in civilian life.
He was always very brave. It was in his DNA.
There is a book in Pakistan by a soldier who was fighting in the same sector and he mentions my father’s courage. His courage came for the love of his men.
He would often say to me, ‘If only god would give me the privilege of leading them into battle, I will think my life is worth it.’ And it did happen.”