Chapter 17: Quetta - Kagan, 1944

Quetta is located in Baluchistan; the largest State in what is now Pakistan. Although its area is the size of the British Isles the population is only around one million, its daunting geography of jagged mountains, deserts and salt marshes only providing sustenance for hardy nomadic peoples. No monsoon rains reach this area and it is the snowmelt from the mountains that provides much of the drinking water. Any towns that exist are a British contribution starting in the middle of the nineteenth century. Rain is a rare occurrence.

Summer temperatures may reach 30ºC but in the dry air this is never oppressive. Winter was a different matter, temperatures of 30º below being quoted. My bathwater, left overnight in one of those two-handled galvanised baths of India, was carried out on more than one occasion as a block of ice. The worst wind was named the Khojak after a pass of that name leading to Afghanistan. Kandahar is probably the nearest city of any size to Quetta. Dress was adjusted to the harsh winters on outdoor exercises. The Poshteen, a goat leather coat with the substantial hair inside for insulation, was a good investment. The exterior was of yellow hue with needlework decoration and fur collar. The scent of the original skin owner was never entirely eliminated but the result was decorative and comforting.

Quetta had substantial military presence and was a family station with a good Officers’ Club. Members of staff and some of the students had their wives with them. There was also a group of good friends whose husbands had departed to operational areas. After two years living effectively in a male society this was a place more like the military stations I had known in earlier years. The Staff College was a good Club in its own right. At this stage of the war there were talented people of similar age from different professional backgrounds being trained together for Staff appointments. There were bankers, solicitors, actors, teachers, engineers and no doubt many other professions represented. In this war with many movements and different associations we were privileged for the rest of our lives in the number and variety of firm friends.


In his opening address the Commandant of the College stressed the importance of keeping fit so that we would be ready to take on arduous duties at the end of our training. This suited adventurous spirits well. Within a week five of us came together with a mutual interest in mountain pursuits. Transport could be provided on Sundays and we set about keeping fit by climbing and skiing in the neighbourhood. No doubt other instructions were given too, but that is the one that I remember.

After four months the course ended with grading and appointment to appropriate staff jobs, or that is the intention. There were five Signals officers on the course, but not one was released from Signals duties to take up a general staff appointment, not even Arthur McVittie who passed out top and received the first ‘A’ Grade that had been given for some time. Three of us went back to Regimental duty with Signals units and the other two to Signals Staff.

My posting for operational duty in an active service unit in Assam suited me well, as it was now two years since my part in the Burma operations had ended. During our time at Quetta the Battle of Kohima, the decisive operation of the Burma war, had taken place. In late March the Japanese had cut the vital road between the Imphal Plain and the supply line to the north. It was only later that I was to learn of the astonishing valour of a Territorial Battalion of the Royal West Kents in holding the enemy at Kohima for a protracted period until substantial reinforcements were to arrive. The Commanding Officer, John Laverty, had served in my father’s battalion in my school days and had joined us in St Cergue on one skiing holiday. He must have done a secondment in Africa, as his attempts to speak French to the Swiss tended to break into Swahili. Lance Corporal John Harman, who won the Victoria Cross in the battle, was the elder brother of a friend of mine at Oundle. No soldier wishes to leave all the dangerous jobs to others. It was time for me to be told to tread the battlefield once again.

Leave has to be taken when opportunity offers and there was a standard arrangement for leave after each course. We were able to plan ahead this time. Charles Bagot my skiing friend had been in touch with me when I was in Mhow suggesting that a spring trek up the Kagan Valley would be an excellent enterprise. Tom Rolt, one of our course skiers knew Bagot, had served in the general area suggested and liked the idea, so planning started. Bagot had been instrumental in making me Editor of the Ski Club of India Annual and this trip should provide a good article. It undoubtedly sounds odd to be talking about skiing in India in July. Perhaps it would be better to say that we would be assessing the skiing potential of an area and hopefully getting a little skiing in the process on the glaciers. It would also involve trekking, a popular activity in its own right.

With high mountains and rugged scenery there are many beautiful river valleys to be seen. Some are inhabited and developed with terracing to produce crops of rice or grain; even the lesser ones have small populations with rushing rivers, fine views and tracks suitable for use with transport animals and ever-improving views of fine mountains as one climbs - the Kagan comes into this category. It was used in its time for the assault on the towering Nanga Parbat, difficult as well as of immense height. Our arrangements were rushed, with considerable help from Charles Bagot, who in the end could not come with us. The major success was that correspondence in easily misunderstood languages did result in 13 mules with four leaders and four coolies being ready for us when we arrived at Balakot. In keeping with Indian tradition Tom and I, the two sahibs, each had our own bearer with us.

The valley of the Kunhar is steep-sided and tortuous for the first 50 miles. The track takes a different line from the river, sometimes at the same level and at others more than a thousand feet above it. As is usual the second day was testing, after which legs and lungs soon accommodated themselves to what was being asked of them. We passed a trout farm that fed this good fishing river with substantial two-pound fish at appropriate intervals. A distinctive snow-covered cone of a mountaintop came into distant view, recognisably in the area we were going to and which we eventually climbed. Sometimes we camped overnight and on others made use of the Dak Bungalows that are provided even in outback areas. On the third day we crossed the foot of a major avalanche, probably two months old and on the fourth turned up a side valley away from the river at milestone sixty, setting up camp at a height of 10,000ft.

The mule handling over rudimentary bridges and foaming streams was very impressive. The views of peaks and snowfields were magnificent. An advance camp was needed for our first survey of the area. Tom and I climbed through flowery alps to a glacial pool at the foot of a glacier. There was a display of fine seracs, the ice pinnacles thrown up by the great pressures in the glacial ice. We set up our simple camp at 13,000 feet.

From there we were ready next day to climb a further 3000 feet through open snowfields and to enjoy the warm sunshine and ever-extending vistas. Skiing, we learned the expected lesson that the July sun transforms snow all too quickly from a hard frozen morning crust, to the delightful granular ‘spring snow’ of the European Alps. This does not last and all too soon we are left with a dull uninteresting slush. For a short part of the day reasonable skiing could be enjoyed. Good timing, the gradient of the slope and its angle to the sun all had to be taken into account. We lost one day after overnight rain and continuing showers which no doubt helped the great spread of flowers in grassy areas. As time moved on we felt ready to attempt the beautiful peak we had seen from afar.

Awake at 4am we started the long climb up the Siran glacier towards the West Siran Sir, the name we gave the peak by association with its glacier. Where mountain and glacier meet there is often a gap for which mountaineers use the name Bergschrund, the mountain crevice. Particularly where the sun is hot the rock absorbs heat which in turn melts the ice leaving a gap which may be considerable. Searching along it we found a place where crossing was not difficult. The sun was loosening small stones that rattled down the mountain though nothing substantial disturbed us. The rock we scrambled up for an hour and more eventually gave way to the snowy cone we were expecting. Kicking steps in the hard snow was strenuous and time-consuming, but eight hours from the start we were at the 16,500 foot high summit, a moment to remember. We descended with reasonable care as many accidents happen with relaxation of concentration after a successful climb. We were still roped when at one point Tom saw the possibility of easier descent out to the right of our line. I belayed for safety as he explored and soon he was swinging, pendulum-wise, below me. He regained his footing and we continued. Many years later this is a scene I can imagine running a different scenario. Supposing we had both lost our hold and had disappeared into the gaping Bergschrund far below? Had we been foolish to make a challenging climb with the limited experience we had? My conclusion is that we did behave responsibly and that judgement is developed by practice in drawing the line between folly and sensible risk.

The following morning at base camp some of the local sick had climbed to us seeking medical aid. Some of the cases were pitiful. We did what we could with the few materials available in our first aid pack. About this time my bearer set off with letters confirming our transport requirements on our return to Balakot.

For our final exploit we decided to position ourselves for ascent to a high ridge in a new direction. We selected an overnight resting place on a moraine at the foot of a glacier, or so we thought. On closer inspection we discovered that the stones of our floor were resting directly on the ice itself. However we stayed. At an earlier site a marmot had disputed our choice, but allowed us to stay. On this occasion an eagle was much interested in our activities. We did not have a comfortable night. The climb to a ridge at some 16,000 feet gave us new views including the great Nanga Parbat. With ice axes for control of speed we made a rapid descent by glissading down a long and steep sun-warmed slope.

It was now time to start our return journey to India and new appointments. We cursed the increasing heat as we descended to lower altitude. Tom had been in good climbing form, but the descent stiffened a new set of muscles causing considerable pain. He had to take it slowly. At the Dak Bungalow at milestone 36 we found distinguished company. Major General Toovey from Rawalpindi was there, a competent artist from the work we saw. I learned from him that a cousin of mine, Guy Horsfield, was now his Artillery adviser.

By foot I pressed on for Balakot as I was not inclined to trust our request for transport by letter from the snows. Tom with his leg trouble could follow on in his own time. Although the night was moonlit for a start it clouded over and at three in the morning monsoon rains poured down. I sheltered for a while in a wood and hay store being bitten by some bug that produced roundels I described as red centred and purple ringed. Dervla Murphy in one of her cycling epics mentions the same problem in the same area.

When I moved on, side streams were rolling boulders down the slope and crossings were treated with care. I reached Balakot by 6.30am, had breakfast and confirmed the lack of appropriate transport. By an odd mixture of means I reached Charles Bagot in Abbottabad and arranged for someone to pick up Tom and all our belongings when he reached Balakot.

There is great satisfaction in carrying out an expedition of this kind through planning, organisation and execution to writing up the story for publication.

Tom Rolt had been posted to Assam to take up the appointment of Brigade Major of the Lushai Brigade, a formation of which very little has been heard. In later life he always maintained that without the hard training of our expedition he would have had the greatest difficulty in reaching his Headquarters, let alone carrying out such travelling on foot as was needed when he got there. The Lushai Hills are some hundred miles to the south west of Imphal. The country is roadless and the considerable Manipur River, a raging torrent at this time of year, runs close to the Tiddim road on its eastern bank, which was much used by the Japanese.

The Brigade consisted of local levies with knowledge of the country, who were keen to embarrass the Japanese, and four of our Indian infantry battalions. The Brigade had improvised Signals, and no Sappers or Gunners. Equipment was scarce and was reminiscent of the Burma as indicated by remarks such as ‘May I please have the map for a moment’. Transport was restricted to mules and porters.

General Slim records his instructions in this way:

Dislocate Japanese traffic on the Tiddim-Imphal road from Tiddim northwards. Render it useless to the enemy as a Line of Communication.

You can not rely on Air Support.

If you get into trouble no one can help you.

He goes on to say that they had reached their positions by the end of July after difficult marches of 80-120 miles over 5000ft mountains and flooded rivers.

The Brigade Commander’s contribution coupled with RAF strikes achieved what their Army Commander had ordered.

As to my own future, on arrival in ’Pindi I found out that I was to join the 14th Army in Assam. I also had a chance to meet Guy and exchange family news. He had been in Egypt so had seen something of his sister Phyllis whilst there. He had little to tell of his military exploits and I only learned of them later.

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