Victoria Cross

Ali Haidar: bravery saved a perilous situation for his battalion


alihaiderJemadar Ali Haidar, VC, died at his home in the Kohat District of Pakistan on July 15 aged 85. He was born on August 21, 1913. ALI HAIDAR was the only Pathan to receive the Victoria Cross in the Second World War. His death reduces the number of living Second World War VCs to 25. The action which brought him his award typifies the sense of duty to comrades of the men of the North-West frontier region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where warfare between tribes or against an invader is a way of life. He was serving as a sepoy (private soldier) in what would be regarded as his local regiment – the 13th Frontier Force Rifles. By the early spring of 1945 the 8th Army’s long slog up Italy appeared almost over, yet one final offensive was required to clear the German 10th Army out of the north-eastern corner of the peninsula. The enemy had plenty of fight left in him. General von Vietinghoff had replaced Field-Marshal Kesselring in March but inherited his instructions to hold northern Italy for as long as possible.

Unusually dry weather in January had allowed the 8th Army to close up to the River Senio on the northern Adriatic coast. From there it was planned to break into the plain of the Po and trap the opposing German forces before they could escape across the river. But first it was essential to cross and establish bridgeheads over the Senio. The offensive was opened on April 9 by General Sir Charles Keightley’s 5th Corps with the 8th Indian and 2nd New Zealand Divisions leading on the right and left respectively. The 6/13th Frontier Force Rifles, to which Ali Haidar belonged, were with 19th Indian Brigade of the 8th Division.

The crossing of the Senio began in daylight after a prolonged artillery bombardment and close support bombing by the United States Army Air Force. Ali Haidar was with the extreme left-hand section of his battalion. The assault boats came under accurate machinegun fire as soon as they left the river bank and, of his section, only he and two comrades reached the far side. The remainder of the company were held up by sustained fire from two enemy posts thirty and sixty yards away. Without waiting for orders, Ali Haidar told his comrades to cover him and charged the nearer post and threw in a grenade. Almost simultaneously the enemy threw one at him, wounding him severely in the back. Undeterred, he continued his lone attack and charged into the post and forced the occupants to surrender.

Leaving the prisoners with his two comrades, he began to stalk the second post but was again wounded in the right arm and leg. Although weakened by loss of blood he crawled closer, raised himself from the ground, threw a grenade and charged into the second post. Two enemy were wounded and the other two surrendered. Immediately the second enemy post was silenced, his company launched its assault boats, crossed the river and established its bridgehead.

Ali Haidar was picked up and carried to the river bank. His citation for the award of the Victoria Cross concluded: “The conspicuous gallantry, initiative and determination, combined with a complete disregard for his own life, shown by this very brave sepoy in the face of heavy odds were an example to the whole company. His heroism saved an ugly situation which would – but for his personal bravery – have caused the battalion serious casualties at a critical time and delayed the crossing of the river.” Once over the Senio, the 6/13th Frontier Force Rifles made a rapid advance and gained all their objectives. In the process they took 220 prisoners. Ali Haidar’s wounds were indeed serious and he was unable to return to active duty with his regiment until after the war. He did eventually return and served until he had achieved the rank of Jemadar (platoon officer). He then retired to his home district in the North-West Frontier province of Pakistan to run a small scrub farm with his wife.

Finally, age and poor health obliged him to sell his farm, as he had no children to help with the work or to support him and his wife. The fact that they were finding life extremely hard was highlighted when he visited London for a reunion of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association in 1993. His wife had been ill and the couple depended entirely on a modest Indian Army pension and the £100 per year paid to all VC holders by the British Government.

The Pakistan High Commission in London was able to give him some financial support in 1993. Two years later, he and his wife’s circumstances were much improved when the VC pension paid by the British Government was increased to £1,300 per annum.

Ali Haidar visited England again for the 1995 celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. He took part in the parade of the surviving Second World War holders of the Victoria Cross who were able to attend. Although he was little more than five feet tall and he spoke little English, his soldierly bearing, decorative Pathan pugri and brilliant smile made him an instantly popular figure.

He married, in 1947, Meena Jan, daughter of Hussain Ghulam and Mehtab Jain. His wife, invariably known simply as “Begum Ali Haidar, VC”, predeceased him.