A few weeks into this sedentary state of my motorcycle, Marina, very nonchalantly asked me whether she could ride it. She until then was riding her moped and I never took her question very seriously. I casually explained to her the gears, clutch, brake, accelerator etc and also the methodology to start and ride the motorcycle.
Little did I realise that she will take off immediately, but she did. She was the champion athlete in her school days and had represented her district at Kerala State level – no mean achievement. I did not appreciate that she was still enthralled by speed, now of a different variety. That was it – like fish to water, she took on to driving the motorcycle and I, on to the pillion with my hand in a cast, fearing the worst for my hand that wasn’t in a cast!
Everyone must have seen military vehicles plying in most Commonwealth Countries with a number beginning with a vertically upright Broad Arrow↑. This number is called a Broad Arrow Number in military parlance or BA Number. It is used by the Army, Navy and Air Force and also some civilian establishments that work under the Ministry of Defence.
Many, including those in military service have humorously referred to this ↑‘Up Arrow’ to indicate ‘This Side Up’ as seen in many packing cartons. Is it there so that no one erroneously parks it upside down?? Is it to indicate ‘Right Side Up’ in case the vehicle topples???
The ‘Broad Arrow’ was used by the British to depict an item to be a military property. It was also referred to as the ‘Crows Foot’, or the ‘Pheon.’ The Broad Arrow number with other symbols, numbers and/or letters convey various details of the equipment – manufacturer, year of entry into service, ownership, inspection, alteration, repair, etc.
The origin of the Broad Arrow is unclear. It could have originated from the actual arrow to depict anything military. It is believed that Broad Arrow was used as a symbol to identify British government property by Henry Sidney, Earl of Romney who was Master of Ordnance to William and Mary (1689-1694 AD). In order to reduce theft of British property, Henry was asked imprint a mark on all government property. He is said to have chosen his family emblem – The Broad Arrow. In those days the prisoner’s uniforms were also stenciled with a Broad Arrow ↑, but later this practice was discarded.
In the book ‘A Complete Guide to Heraldry’ by AC Fox-Davies, he states that “Perhaps the case which is most familiar is the broad arrow which is used to mark Government stores. It is a curious commentary upon heraldic officialdom and its ways, that though this is the only badge which has really any extensive use, it is not a Crown badge in any degree. Although this origin has been disputed it is said to have originated in the fact that one of the Sydney family, when Master of the Ordnance, to prevent disputes as to the stores for which he was responsible, marked everything with his private badge of the broad arrow, and this private badge has since remained in constant use. One wonders at what date the officers of His Majesty will observe that this has become one of His Majesty’s recognised badges, and will include it with the other Royal badges in the warrants in which they are recited. Already more than two centuries have passed since it first came into use, and either they should represent to the Government that the pheon is not a Crown mark, and that some recognised Royal badge should be used in its place, or else they should place its status upon a definite footing.”
Most British Military equipment in the earlier days was marked ‘B↑O’ as all these equipment came under the Board of Ordnance. Then ‘W↑D’ was used to denote War Department. During World War II, a standalone ↑ depicted British military equipment.
That was the history of the Broad Arrow ↑. Now let us decipher the Broad Arrow Number on an Indian military vehicle which begins with symbol ↑.
The Broad Arrow is followed by two digits depicting the year of entry. Up to 1971, a letter depicted the year of entry. It was ‘Z’ in 1971 and from 1972 onward, the last two digits of the year of entry into service was used (as English language has only 26 letters of the alphabet) and the practice outlived the number of letters in the alphabet.
This Jeep is displayed at Grenadiers Regimental Centre, said to be the Jeep with which Late Company Quartermaster Havildar Abdul Hamid, Param Vir Chakra (Posthumous) of 4 Grenadiers hunted down eight Pakistani Patton Tanks during the 1965 Indo-Pak War. Look at the BA Number of this Jeep. Letter ‘Y‘ indicates its year of entry into service as 1970.
All vehicles Indian military used during 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak war would not bear the last two digits of year, but a letter. Can you make out the repainting error in the BA number of the Jeep in the image above? If the year of manufacture 1968 is correct, then it should have been letter ‘W‘ instead of ‘68’, as per the then prevalent policy.
The two digits depicting the year of entry is followed by an alphabet indicating the class of the vehicle. Some of the letters I came across during my military service are A-motorcycle; B-car or a jeep; C-light truck; D-heavy truck; E-towing vehicle; K-ambulance; P-water bowser, and there are many more.
It is then followed by the serial number of the vehicle, given by the Ministry of Defence. The last alphabet is the check-alphabet for the serial number using the ‘Modulus 11’ formula. A check digit is a form of redundancy check used for error detection on identification numbers.
Now readers must be able to decipher the Broad Arrow number on an Indian Military vehicle. It is not surely to indicate ‘This Side Up.’
During the event, I was fairly reticent and kept to myself as I thought that I had hung up my boots some sixteen years ago and living in Canada ever since, what would I share with these youngsters? Some of the GCs prodded me for some advice.
The advice I gave was that everyday ensure that you read five pages and write a page. To this a GC enquired “What should we read?” “Anything and everything – newspaper, magazine, military pamphlet, user manual – or even porn, but ensure you read every day.”
The GCs it seemed were a bit bewildered by my rather unexpected advice. One of them asked me “What about saving money? Many have been advising us about it.” It must have been advised to them by many senior veterans who are currently employed by banks as ‘Defence Accounts Specialist‘ and why not catch them young!
When they persisted, I went on to add “On joining your regiments, learn to be part of it and be a soldier first. Learn about your soldiers, equipment and so on. Remember to enjoy your life. Pursue your passions/ hobbies/ interests. Participate in adventure activities and use your vacations to travel around the country and around the world,” I suggested.
“What about savings?” perhaps, some of the guys who joined the service for a few dollars more, persisted. The financial genius in me said “You do not have to worry much about it for the first three years of your service. Contribute to your Provident Fund to save you some taxes!“
Analysing the conversation that evening, I will state confidently that each and every officer of the Indian Armed Forces can be classified as ‘Gifted.’ Most of us are through Sainik/ Military Schools where for admission we went through a test in grade 4/5 similar to the one in Canada to identify gifted children. If I recall correctly, it was a bit tougher than the test administered in Canada.
After graduating from School, we all went through a very tough entrance exam for the Academy where the qualifying result was a fraction of a percent. Then we qualified a much more rigorous Services Selection Board (SSB) interview stretching five days. If anyone qualified through it, that person is real Super-Gifted. Training at the Academies is not an easy one, especially the need to qualify in academic subjects along with the strenuous physical activities and tests.
On commissioning, the problem of diminishing creativity begins. Officers tend not to learn but to study. Here let me define both – What you study, you forget soon after the exam; but what you learn, you retain for life. The study tendency can well be attributed to the grading system in most courses.
While I was in command of our unit, we were tasked to write a paper on tactical employment of modern surveillance devices. I tasked the junior officers to come up with a draft and one of them said “Sir, you write well. This paper is for Army Headquarters and why don’t you write it. Our efforts may not be that good and creative.”
I pointed out to them how they had closed their minds to creativity. “You all have gone through the SSB where in you were shown nine caricature images of which you could not make out head or tail, but you all managed to write nine good and creative stories. The tenth one was a blank one, but still you wrote a credible story. One hundred words were flashed to you with an interval of 30 seconds and you all wrote one hundred sensible sentences. Now you say that you are incapable of writing a creative paper?” I explained sternly.
The death of creativity begins when a young officer given any particular task is asked to go through an older file/paper/ Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) to understand how it was done previously and then accomplish the task in a similar manner. Many military units have SOPs even for the most mundane activities like organising an Officers’ mess function. These SOPs, while they serve to accomplish a task quickly and without confusion, also serve as creativity killers.
One of the first documentation tasks for a young officer is usually a Court of Inquiry (C of I) and in most cases it would pertain to a severe injury suffered by a soldier. The Adjutant invariably asked the young officer to refer to a previous one and carryout a C of I in a similar manner. If you want the young officer to be creative, you need to make him understand the need for the C of I, and from where he should read up on what evidence is, how to adduce evidence and reach a finding on the investigation based on evidence. The manner in which the proceedings of the C of I are recorded on paper is perhaps the only thing that an old court of inquiry would reveal.
The trend of ‘ஈ அடிச்சான் கோபி (ee adichan copy)’ or blind copying or ‘Cut & Paste’ begins from here and it continues through service, culling all the creativity one had at the time of the SSB.
Reading five pages and writing a page everyday are the very first baby steps to professional creativity and competence. As the youngsters anxiously awaited their entry into the mysterious Olive Green world, what better piece of advice could I give them?
The story of my romance is never complete without the story of the military special. Indian Railways and the military have a close and intimate bonding. The military refer to the special coaches as ‘rolling stock’ and the engine simply as ‘power’. The Military has its own ‘Movement Control Organisation’ (MCO) with its personnel closely integrated with the railways and located at important railway stations/ headquarters.
This special relationship goes back to the very formation of Indian Railways. One of the main reasons for establishing the railway network was to provide an effective and trustworthy method of transporting large amount of troops from one part of the country to another. The colonial masters found this as an imperative requirement, which enabled the government of the day to maintain control over the vast lands it governed.
Indian Railways run these Military Special trains all the time. These trains move both in peace and in times war. Some of these trains are freighters only, while others have accommodation for personnel as well. Some military specials carry armed forces personnel for aid to civil authorities, such as earthquake or flood-relief work. Some Military Special trains have rakes formed totally by special ‘Military’ coaches in their own distinctive greens while others have rakes formed by ‘normal’ Indian Railway coaches. Some movements get decided suddenly (such as due to natural or man-made disasters), while other movements are planned well in advance – as per the strategic relocations of operational units of Indian armed forces. The mobilisation plan of military units and formations are made in close coordination with Indian Railways.
I had my first experience of travelling with our Regiment by a military special in 1983, a move from Delhi by a meter gauge military special for firing practice of 130mm medium guns at Pokhran Ranges in Rajasthan. We had to move to Pokharan as that was the only Field Firing Range with the Indian Army that offered 30 square km of uninhabited area to fire the guns over 27 km. Railway lines in Rajasthan then were all meter gauge. Indian Railways today operate mostly on broad gauge. The gauge of the railway track is the distance between the inner sides of two tracks. For broad gauge it is 1676 mm (5 ft 6 in) and for meter gauge it is one meter.
A 24 wagon rake for loading of the medium guns – MBFU – (M – Meter Gauge, B – Bogie Wagon, FU – Well Wagon) was placed at the military siding ramp at Delhi Cantonment Railway Station -12 for loading guns and 12 for Russian Kraz towing vehicle. The gun weighs over 8 tonnes and the wheelbase just about narrowly fits on to the meter gauge rake. Today with broad gauge rakes, the wagons offer sufficient width to maneuver the guns.
The most crucial part of loading is to mount these guns and Krazes on to the MBFU. I watched in fascination how the most experienced driver, Havildar Kuriakose, drove the leading Kraz towing the gun. He drove on to the ramp and then straight through, over the wagons to the last-but-one wagon and halted in such a way that the gun was exactly adjusted in the well of the MBFU. The gun was unhooked and he drove his Kraz in to the well of the last MBFU. A slight wavering or error in judgement would have caused the unthinkable. It was a critical operation which only best of the specialist drivers can accomplish.
Tank drivers of armoured regiments too face similar predicaments driving onto the MBFU and sometimes end up in mishaps.
By nightfall, the train was formed with 24 MBFU, one first class coach, four sleeper coaches, a military kitchen car and seven wagons for carriage of ammunition and stores. Now it was an eternal wait at the station for ‘power’- a diesel engine – to tow the train. They had the crew – loco pilot, his assistant and guard ready, but no ‘power’. By midnight, an engine was made available after it had towed a passenger train. There were three halts enroute, each over six hours, all waiting for ‘power’ and after 36 hours, we were at Pokharan railway station.
The last military special train I travelled was while commanding the Regiment in 2002. Our Regiment was mobilised from its peace location in Devlali (Maharashtra, near Mumbai) on that year’s New Year Eve. The entire Indian Army had moved into their operational locations after the attack on the Indian Parliament building by terrorists believed to have come in from Pakistan. The Indian Railways ensured that our Regiment, like all the other units of the Indian Army, were mobilised to their operational locations at super-high priority in two days. The Military Special trains moved at speeds greater than that of many express trains and were accorded the highest priority.
After ten months, the move back to Devlali from Rajasthan was the opposite. An Army which did not even fire a single bullet, an army which did not fight a war surely had no priorities in anyone’s mind. Our Divisional Headquarters had entrusted me with an important and critical task two days prior to the move back of our Regiment. I was given a week to complete the task and fly back to Devlali on completion. I did not want to miss travelling in the Military Special, that too as the Commanding Officer. I burnt the midnight oil for the next two days, completed the task, handed it over to the Divisional Headquarters.
On the day of our train’s move from Jodhpur (Rajasthan), our soldiers loaded all the vehicles and equipment on the train. A diesel engine was connected but now the Railways had the ‘power’, but no crew. As many Military Special trains were run from Jodhpur taking the army back home, adequately rested crew was at premium. We waited for 24 hours for the train to commence its journey. Our train stopped at every possible station, even to give way to freight trains. Now we were the lowest priority in the eyes of the Indian Railways. The onward move executed in less than two days now took five days on the return leg.
After my premature retirement and move to Canada, I very much miss my passionate association with the Indian Railways. Now, even when I travel in India, it is mostly by air, due to time pressures. Gone are the days of those never ending train journeys. I can only recollect those days with a sense of loss and nostalgia.