General Kodandera Subayya Thimayya
Padma Bhushan, DSO, ADC
Chief of Army Staff, 07 May, 1957 – 07 May, 1961
Cottonian 1918 – 1922
Gen. Kodandera Subbayya Thimayya remains India’s most illustrious General. He was the Chief of the Army Staff between May 7, 1957 and May 7, 1961. Born on March 31, 1906 to Kodandera and Sitavva Thimayya in an affluent Coorg family, Gen. Thimayya (known as Timmy to his friends) had his early education in Coorg, after which, he moved to Cottons in 1918. After passing out from Cottons in 1922, he entered the Prince of Wales Royal Indian Military College (RIMC) Dehradun and was among the first batch of Indian boys in the college. RIMC was a preparatory school for Indians to join Sandhurst, the prestigious Royal Military Academy in UK. As his biographer— Humphrey Evans states, from his earliest childhood Gen. Thimayya was incapable of feeling inferior to the British and was one of the tiny group of Indian boys to attend RIMC, Dehradun. Though the instructors there were British, Gen. Thimayya had a good rapport with his instructors because of his success in his courses (being head of the class) and his sporting abilities in cricket, football, hockey and squash. Two years later, Gen. Thimayya was one of only six Indian cadets selected for further training at Sandhurst where he faced the ugly spectre of racism. However, his strong personality coupled with his wit and social manners made Gen. Thimayya popular in Britain. After Sandhurst, Timmy’s return to Coorg was celebrated by a large clan though his mother struggled to forget his days of mischief at School!
After his successful training at Sandhurst, Gen. Thimayya was commissioned in 1926. Known as a graceful and charming young soldier, Gen. Thimayya had a one-year attachment with 2 High Land Infantry, a Scottish unit, after which he joined 4/19 Hyderabad (later 4 Kumaon) at Baghdad. It is with the 4/19 Hyderabad battalion that Gen. Thimayya’s regimental life began in true earnest and included his daring foray into the Royal Palace of King Feisel I to rescue a group of victimised women, at the risk of his life. Right from his early days, Gen. Thimayya exhibited tactical brilliance in combat, particularly when he was given the command of 8 Kumaon in Burma during World War II with the Japanese threat looming large. Displaying innovative tactics in approach, dimension and technique, Gen. Thimayya captured the army’s objective — Hill 109 (nicknamed “Poland”) vide an assault at dawn preceded by climbing the hillside under cover of back up fire. Gen. Thimayya’s Battalion captured the entire objective much to the dismay and shock of the Japanese forces. In fact, Gen. Thimayya was a signatory to the Japanese surrender document at Singapore, and was conferred with the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). Gen. Thimayya displayed similar tactical ingenuity during Kangaw Beaches operation.
Gen. Thimayya’s outstanding war record resulted in his becoming the first Indian Brigade Commander and took over as Brigadier of 36 British Brigade on the Ramree Islands in June 1944 later moving to Matsui, Japan where it remained till India’s Independence. Post-independence, Gen. Thimayya’s role in rescuing refugees along with the Punjab Boundary Force is now acclaimed in history. His efforts included forays into Pakistan to save people at the risk of being shot.
Perhaps the most spectacular chapter in the life of the great General was his role in what is considered to be the first Kargil War in 1948. It is widely believed that it was Gen. Thimayya’s tactical manoeuvres that helped save Kargil. His deployment of Stuart light tanks at Zojila Pass at twelve thousand feet above sea level to the utter surprise of the Pakistani invaders is still unprecedented. Zojila, which means “Path of blizzards” is over one hundred kilometres east of Srinagar at an elevation of three thousand five hundred twenty nine meters and is the main pass on the road connecting Leh to Srinagar. When the Indian army landed at the Srinagar Airport in October 1947, it is reported that the Pakistani invaders (a redoubtable force of over five hundred Pathans, Gilgit Scouts, Chitralis and renegades from the Jammu and Kashmir force) were just a few kilometres away. As a result of the Pakistani offensive, India lost Kargil and Dras and the Srinagar—Leh Road was blocked. The Enemy also seized control of Zojila and was headed to Gilgit and Leh. It is in these precarious circumstances that Maj. Gen. K. S. Thimayya (as he then was) spearheaded one of the greatest victories for the Indian Army. After a record—breaking landing at an airfield along with Air Cdre Meher Singh, the Indian contingent had to necessarily reopen the old Srinagar—Leh trade route after retaking Dras and Kargil. In an ambitious plan, at a high altitude and in bitterly cold conditions, Gen. Thimayya realized the necessity for firepower to blast the Enemy at the Zojila heights failing which the operation would be unsuccessful. Astonishingly he ordered the deployment of a squadron of Stuart MK—VI tanks of the 7 Light Cavalry compelling the engineers to cut a path into the rocky terrain in less than three weeks to build an eight kilometre long track that could take the width and weight of the tanks. Owing to the precipitous climb, the tanks had to be dismantled and physically pushed up by the Jawans— to an altitude where tanks had never been used before. Having successfully commissioned the tanks at this height, the assault began on November 1, 1948. The very appearance of the tanks utterly dampened the morale of the bewildered Pakistanis who either fled or were vanquished. Once Zojila was taken, the road to Kargil was reopened and Ladakh was safe. Ultimately, on November 24 Kargil was re—taken. Thus the unofficial 1st Indo-Pak War (and perhaps the longest and toughest of them all) ended in success owing to the bold, shrewd and relentless pursuit led by Gen. Thimayya. In the process, Gen. Thimayya emerged as the finest tactician among his contemporaries. Gen. Thimayya was a member of the Indian delegation that concluded the ensuing Treaty with Pakistan with respect to the Line of Control (LoC) under the auspices of the United Nations Commission for India and Pakistan, along with Gen. Shrinagesh, COAS and Brigadier S. H. F. J. “Sam” Manekshaw, later COAS and Field Marshal.
Gen. Thimayya received a unique honour when he was selected to be the Chairman of the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission (NNRC) in Korea in May 1953. His task involved the repatriation of 359 UN and 1,20,000 Chinese and North Korean POWs about a third of whom were adamant to stay on in Korea. The challenging task was a combined effort of five nations— Sweden, Switzerland, Poland, Czechoslovakia and India, and Gen. Thimayya was required to maintain a neutral and objective position. His deft handling of the situation earned Gen. Thimayya admiration from most quarters including US President, General Eisenhower, who described the mission as “One of the most difficult and delicate jobs well done”. The Government of India decorated Gen. Thimayya with a Padma Bhushan in 1954 for his role as Chairman, NNRC. His experiences as Chairman, NNRC were published posthumously by his wife Mrs. Nina Thimayya as Gen. K.S. Thimayya’s Korean Diary— Experiment in Neutrality . The book is a fascinating account of the trials and triumphs of the NNRC in dealing with highly polarised Prisoners of War and brings to bare the diplomatic experience of restoring peace through the sensitive exchange of prisoners between the embittered North and South Korea.
On his return from Korea, Gen. Thimayya was appointed as the General Officer Commanding In Chief (GOC-In-C) of the Western Army Command for a short while after which he was moved to the Southern Command to cope with an infiltration by Pakistan into Chad-Bet Area in 1956, which he swiftly dealt with. His next assignment was dealing with the secessionist Nagas who had revolted. Gen. Thimayya then moved to the Eastern Command to tackle the impending crisis.
At the age of fifty-one, Gen. Thimayya achieved the pinnacle of military success by being appointed the Chief of the Army Staff. Gen. Thimayya’s sagacity and experience was counted on and appreciated by all and sundry, not least by the then Prime Minister, Pandit Nehru. With a complete grip on the threat posed by India’s neighbours, Gen. Thimayya strongly advised the Government on a policy that mandated maintaining an offensive posture against Pakistan, and a policy of containment coupled with strong diplomatic and political exchange vis-á-vis China. Evidently, Gen. Thimayya foresaw the Chinese threat and ignoring his seasoned advice condemned India to suffer a crushing defeat eighteen months later after Gen. Thimayya’s retirement in 1961.
Gen. Thimayya had succeeded Gen. S. M. Shrinagesh as COAS and after an illustrious career as a soldier and general, retired in 1961. Just prior to his retirement Gen. Thimayya paid the School an official visit. Interestingly, it is learnt that ten years prior to his elevation as COAS, Admiral Lord Mountbatten, the then Governor General, as well as Pandit Nehru strongly recommended that Gen. Thimayya take over as Chief of the Army Staff immediately after independence. However, this move was opposed reportedly by the then Defence Minister— Gopal Swamy Iyengar, to preempt Gen. Thimayya’s premature retirement that would have denied the Indian military of his tactical genius.
After retirement, Gen. Thimayya spent some time as Deputy President of the Planters Association of South India during which time he was elected President (and later Patron) of the Old Cottonians’ Association. However, in July 1964 he was asked by the UN Secretary General to head the UN forces in Cyprus. Cyprus at that point in time had been torn by the bitter conflict between the Greeks and Turkish Cypriots, which could easily have spun off into another crusade. With six thousand multi-national UN forces under his command, Gen. Thimayya tactfully handled the delicate situation that was ridden with ideological differences as well as bad faith and mutual distrust. His courageous diplomacy became an example for forces all over the world, and provoked the Turkish Foreign Minister to describe Gen. Thimayya’s role as “A superhuman effort to keep peace going”. The Greeks adored his grit, pragmatism and sense of justice as well as his intellect. The Cyprus Government has paid homage to the great General by issuing postal stamps and naming a road after Gen. Thimayya. In fact, on the eve of his departure for Cyprus, Gen. Thimayya went out of his way to spend time at Cottons, and though he was unable to attend the Centenary Celebrations in 1965, Gen. Thimayya sent a taped message of his greetings that was used as the toast to the School at the banquet.
It was a travesty that Gen. Thimayya suddenly expired on December 18, 1965 resulting in a body blow to the UN as, indeed to India. At his funeral, the Captain of School placed a wreath on the cortege as it was drawn along Residency Road past the School gate. Legend has it that Gen. Thimayya saluted the School every time he passed by in his jeep. Thirty-two years after his death, on December 18, 1997 the body of Gen. Thimayya was exhumed from his grave in Wilson Garden and shifted to Army Services Corps (ASC) Centre, Bangalore where he was reburied with full military honours.
Gen. Thimayya was truly a remarkable life and has been documented in various books including his biography Thimayya of India , which is a touching profile that reflects Gen. Thimayya’s grit in standing up against the British bias as well as his success in consistently lifting the morale of his troops. That apart, Brigadier C. B. Khanduri (who retired as Maj. Gen. and is currently Minister of State for Roads and Highways) in Generals and Strategists— from Kautilya to Thimayya, his stirring anthology of eleven of the greatest Generals of Asia gives a holistic perspective of the life of Gen. K. S. Thimayya, aptly titled Portrait of a Hero. I. M. Muttanna has also authored a book entitled General Thimayya . It is learnt that another biography of the great General is under preparation and is likely to be soon be released.
It is a task impossible to summarise the achievements and character of a personality such as Gen. Thimayya. Not only was Gen. Thimayya a dedicated and professional soldier, but he was also a true leader with charm and modesty. Apart from his critical contribution to the security of the Nation, Gen. Thimayya’s demand to be treated with dignity has helped many an Indian hold his head high. Uncompromising and fearless in his operations, Gen. Thimayya believed in technological development as a companion of morality in war. Generous, magnanimous and friendly (even with his rivals, after crushing them in war, though!) Gen. Thimayya was a visionary with statesman-like perspectives. His judiciousness is illustrated by his assessment of complex issues such as the Cold War and the cryptic Indo-Pak relationship. For instance, Maj. Gen. Khanduri in his book points out that Gen. Thimayya had predicted that the only end to the Cold War would be the co-existence of both systems in a spirit and friendly rivalry with the exchange of people and ideas. It is a compliment to Gen. Thimayya’s foresight that this prediction actually took form. To aptly eulogise this awesome personality, one can only borrow from Gen. Bhagat (as cited in C. B. Khanduri’s Generals and Strategists), who describes Gen. Thimayya in these words-
“A General Thimayya is not born in every generation. The like of him there will seldom be
– a soldier, a general, a man’s man; the Army his soul, his soul, the Army”.
Courtesy: Unfinished Symphony (2003)