Abdul Hafiz, The Indian Muslim Recipient of the Victoria Cross, Killed Aged 18

 
 
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In the modern era, the age of 18 is often considered the point at which one is expected to branch out from the home and explore life as an adult.  Yet for the men coming of age in the early 1940s, that was often considered the year when one is expected pick up a gun and face the threats of war.

While there are enough stories of young men acting with incredible gallantry to fill a library, Abdul Hafiz story sticks out the youngest Indian Recipient of the Commonwealth’s highest military honor. Hafiz’s story of heroism in the face of certain death is enough to make the most seasoned Veteran stand up and salute.

Facing a numerically superior force in an uphill battle, Hafiz led a charge so fierce it caused the remaining enemy to flee in panic.  Cresting the steep slope, he even grabbed the hot barrel of an enemy machine gun, redirect the fire away from his men.

His individual effort so inspired his fellow soldiers that they devastated the defending forces.

Old Enough to Fight

Born in September of 1925, Abdul Hafiz came of age just as the campaign to force the Japanese out of Burma was picking up full steam.  When old enough, he joined the 9th Jat Regiment of the British Indian Army.  Formed in 1922, the 9th Jat Regiment was an infantry regiment just slightly older than Hafiz himself but would prove to be a unit of highly decorated men who saw action in a variety of locations, including North Africa, Singapore, and Burma.

Hafiz’s most memorable action would come during the Battle of Imphal in early 1944.  In an attempt to break out of Burma, the Japanese had sought to destroy the Allied forces at Imphal.  The broader battle took place between March and July of that year, and once the Allies secured victory it proved to be a major turning point of the Burma campaign. At one point the key Indian city was nearly entirely surrounded by Japanese requiring a great deal of effort to break the siege.

Abdul_Hafiz_VC
Abdul Hafiz

In April of 1944, the 9th Jat found themselves in the hills 10 miles North of Imphal as the Japanese pressed the battle plan.  On the evening of April 5th, a large Japanese force overtook a Jat position on a hill overlooking the Hafiz’s company. With the bulk of the force now dangerously exposed, it became apparent that the hill position had to be retaken as quickly as possible. The hill was prepped with a short artillery barrage and then, on the morning of April 6th the time for the assault had come.

Assault the Hill

Gurkhas advancing with Lee tanks to clear the Japanese from Imphal-Kohima road.
Gurkhas advancing with Lee tanks to clear the Japanese from Imphal-Kohima road.

With just two sections of his platoon, Hafiz was ordered to move up a prominent hill overlooking the company position. It was initially thought to be defended by as many as 40 men but the after action assessment believed it to be substantially more. The hill which was completely barren and void of any cover for the assaulting force was capped with a steep slope near the crest making it a perfect position for defense and a nightmare for offense.  Understanding what awaited them, Hafiz rallied his men and told them they victory was possible, urging them not to give up hope.  His speech gave his men such confidence that when the assault began they dashed up the will great speed , roaring battle-cries.

The Japanese were ready and when the assaulting force neared the crest they unleashed a storm of machine-gun fire and grenades.  Hafiz was immediately hit in the leg and the force took several casualties.  However, the speed and violence with which Hafiz led his men up the hill carried them through.  Coming upon a Japanese Machine-gun near the crest fire upon his men, Hafiz grabbed the red hot barrel and lifted it into the sky while his comrade opened up fire and killed the gunner.  He then grabbed a Bren gun from one of the wounded men and continued to press the assault.

 

Fighting on a bombed out hillside during the Battle of Imphal via commons.wikimedia.org
Fighting on a bombed out hillside during the Battle of Imphal.

His men were so inspired by Hafiz’s leadership from the front of the assault that they charged with an even greater furor killing every enemy within sight.  At this point, the Japanese who still far outnumbered the assaulting force decided they have had enough.

They began to break from their entrenched defensive positions and runaway at great speed. Such was the panic and fervor of the Japanese retreat, the Indian forces aptly named the location, “Runaway Hill.”

Firing Until the End

As the Japanese were turning this battle into a sprint for life, Hafiz continued to wield his Bren gun with great effect inflicting heavy casualties on the retreating force.

It was at this point that a Japanese machine gun on a flanking hill opened up fire striking Hafiz directly in the chest. However, Hafiz was still not done despite his wounds.  He immediately shouted to his men, “Reorganize, I will give you covering fire.”

These were the last words Hafiz ever spoke.  He died on Runaway Hill, having just led his men to a seemingly impossible victory.

A Hawker Hurricane attacks a Japanese position.
A Hawker Hurricane attacks a Japanese position.

For his actions on April 6th, 1944 in Burma, Abdul Hafiz received the Victoria Cross and become the youngest recipient from the British Indian Army.

Such was the case for many young men in that war and their legacy serves as a shining example of what type of heroism and gallantry the young men of this era displayed.

At an age when many young men are branching out into college and perhaps learning how to do laundry for the first time, men like Abdul Hafiz were charging into the face of machine-gun fire with steadfast resolve.

He is today buried at Imphal Indian War Cemetery in Hatta Minuthong, Imphal.