Musings of a REAL tank commander – Part 13 Adventuring in Swat with the 13th Lancers

Musings of a REAL tank commander – Part 13 Adventuring in Swat with the 13th Lancers

by Stuart Crawford
article from Tuesday 7, July, 2020

ONE OF THE MAJOR events I took part in whilst 2ic of C Squadron in Tidworth involved taking a number of soldiers adventure training to Pakistan. I was never quite sure whether it was meant to be a jolly for me, or because I had got the whole squadron lost in the middle of the night on Salisbury Plain a few weeks before. There was no GPS in them days, mind, and map reading with minimal light on that moonscape was no picnic. I had ended up having to walk ahead of my tank with a compass to get us back, but the one consolation was that nobody else knew where we were either. 

Anyhoo, our CO at the time had decided that all squadrons under his command should carry out adventure training, and that C Squadron should visit our long lost cousins the 13th Lancers in Pakistan. My Squadron Leader, Andrew Hill, told me to crack on and that was about as much direction as I got. And so Exercise Tartan Trek was born from humble beginnings.  

Now, back in 1983 there was no internet nor mobile phones and communications by telephone to the Indian subcontinent were tenuous at best, so we corresponded with our Pakistan army colleagues by signal, a sort of modernised telegraph system. It seemed to work fine initially and we were told we were welcome to visit.

Our knowledge of Pakistan was limited, but we knew the 13th Lancers were based in Lahore, and I think we used a school atlas to find out exactly where that was.  However, to justify the “adventure” bit of adventure training we had to find something mildly challenging and strenuous to do. Someone, and I have no idea who, suggested we go trekking up the Swat Valley in the north-east of the country, so we found it on the map and agreed that would be the plan. I think we expected it to be a bit like Glencoe but maybe a bit warmer – but we didn’t really have a clue. This was to soon become abundantly clear.

Having got the go-ahead to proceed, the first problem was getting there. Clearly we would have to fly, but in those pre-internet days you couldn’t just book online. However, there were these things called bucket shops where airlines dumped their surplus tickets at a discounted price. My 2ic, for the trip, Niall Macnaughton, took upon himself the task of purchasing the cheapest tickets he could find, and eventually returned from London with the tickets in hand. We were to fly from London to Karachi and then on to Lahore.

Eventually approximately fifteen C Squadron personnel left Tidworth for Heathrow and then on to Karachi. I remember nothing of the journey at all except that when we disembarked to change ‘planes the heat hit us like a wall. I was also mildly surprised that there was no-one to meet us, but thought we would be received by our hosts at Lahore. However, when we got to our destination there was nobody to meet us there either, and I began to suspect that something was amiss. We had arrived in Pakistan and nobody seemed to know, or to care. Classic young officer challenge.

So Niall and I left the boys at the airport, hailed a cab, and went to search out our hosts. It being the middle of the day and very warm, Lahore was deserted and we soon enough got to the relevant barracks. All was still as we walked into the RHQ of the 13th Lancers was their Adjutant, sitting in civvies at his desk and catching up on his paperwork. As we knocked at his door and entered he looked up and said something like; “Oh no, I do hope you are not our visitors from the UK!” We told him that indeed we were, and it transpired he knew we were coming but just not when. Our last couple of signals had gone adrift.

Chinese-built T-59 Pakistani tank of 36th Lancers in Lahore

Anyway, a few swift phone calls and all was sorted. We went back for the boys with transport and found them already being looked after by our hosts. After this unplanned beginning things went smoothly, and we were looked after very well and with great kindness. Aside from some local sightseeing and a tour of some other military units in the Lahore cantonment, Niall and I did a couple of journeys by internal PIA flights for more official visits. For example, we went up to Peshawar to visit General Lhodi, who commanded their 4 Corps and who gave us a detailed briefing on the operational situation in his command. Remember, at this time the Soviets were just across the border in Afghanistan.

General Lhodi, the author and Niall Macnaughton​

Eventually we made our way up to the Swat Valley, via the Khyber Pass, where we intended to do a bit of trekking. The Pakistan Armoured Corps had a hut – more of a bungalow – at Kalam, where we stayed three nights. Our hosts couldn’t understand why we wanted to walk up the Valley as they were perfectly happy to drive us instead. What we probably didn’t fully understand that we were literally in bandit country, which explained why they insisted we had a full platoon of fully armed infantry accompanying us all the time we were up there! 

Well, everyone knows about the Swat Valley these days (above). It’s where all the bad guys are – Mujahadeen, Taliban, Al-Quaeda, you name them, that’s where they all hang out. It’s a bit like the fabled Badlands of Wild West fame but infinitely more dangerous. Jesse James and his gang would have taken one look and thought “nah, bit dodgy mate”.  Ignorance is bliss, as they say, and we were ignorant of the dangers, but we thought it would be safe as houses and thought no more about it.

We also visited the Chitral Scouts regiment at their HQ at Drosh Fort at the top of the Valley close to the border with Afghanistan. They entertained us most generously in that remote location, and we played them, and lost heavily, at football, partly because we were at considerable altitude and the boys were quickly gasping for breath. Their soldiers were fully acclimatised and as fit as fiddles and I think they graciously took their foot off the gas when they saw us floundering and kept the score line fairly respectable. They also put on a polo match for us (below), as spectators not participants thank goodness, which was pretty spectacular given the setting.

In retrospect our trip to Swat wasn’t at all physically demanding as I think we’d hoped it might be, mainly because our hosts insisted on driving us most of the way, but in terms of being “adventurous” it most certainly was. Historically, though, we weren’t the first westerners to go there, not by a long chalk. Alexander the Great and his armies had swung past centuries before, and it was remarkable to meet blue-eyed, blond-haired Kalash people, quite unlike neighbouring tribes in appearance, who are often claimed to be the descendants of that incursion so long ago (and mentioned by Rudyard Kipling in his The Man who would be King).

I can’t remember too much of our journey back to the UK, except when exiting Pakistan we were temporarily halted by a particularly evil looking customs official who suspected we were carrying drugs (we travelled in civvies). The minute I said we were there as guests of the Pakistan Army he scuttled away with profuse apologies and we proceeded without further ado.  The rest of the homeward journey was unremarkable. 

Back in Tidworth we got back into the swing of things and were surprised to find that, despite having been away for only three weeks or so, we were quite unfit and had trouble keeping up with the regular Regimental runs. But we eventually got over that. One of the boys, LCpl Alex McKnight I think it was, had also picked a particularly nasty bacterial disease called Shigella, which made him quite ill for some time after our return until the tropical medicine boys at the RAF Wroughton hospital worked out exactly what was wrong with him, whereupon he recovered. 

Did the trip qualify as adventure training? Undoubtedly so, for we had not only visited our long lost sister regiment the 13th Lancers and represented the British Army, but had also been exposed to sights, sounds, smells and challenges which most of us had not experienced before, and I dare say many of us will not have experienced again.  One of the other RTRs repeated the visit a few years later and it was a much more official and well organised operation than our pioneering effort in 1983. They were met by official hosts on arrival with much saluting and uniforms in evidence, and no bad thing. But I still have a fondness for the way we did it, warts and all. 

 To come in Part 14; Exercise Lionheart, I promise!

© Stuart Crawford 2020

Illustration of the 13th (Duke of Connaught's Own) Bengal Lancers in 1900 by Hobday

 

 

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