Major Peter SANDERS
(From the Daily Telegraph, 21.10.2003, P.27)


Lt Col Peter Sanders, who has died aged 91, won the DSI at Imphal in 1944 while commanding Gurkha infantry in several hard-fought battles.


The breaking of the Japanese offensive against Imphal – an offensive which might have led to a full-scale invasion of India – was the turning point of the Burma campaign. In February 1944 Sanders, then a Major in the 3rd/5th Gurkhas, had been appointed to command the 1st/7th Gurkhas and had had little time to get to know his men. The battalion was under orders to assault a Japanese position known as “Bare Patch”. This position (also known to the Gurkhas as “Nango”) was a strongly-held network of trenches and bunkers on high-ground east of the Tiddim-Fort White Road.


On the night of February 6/7, Sanders led his men down a difficult, winding path for 1,500 ft, before beginning a 1,200 ft climb up to the objective. There was no path, and it was so steep that both hands had to be used – a considerable challenge for Sanders, who had lost an arm in action on the North-West Frontier five years earlier; all stores had to be carried by the men.


When the assault began at 8.30 pm, there was fierce resistance. Repeated efforts to find a way into or around the enemy’s elaborate defences were unsuccessful, and Sanders decided to dig in on the rocky ground just 20 yards from the Japanese trenches and to hold on till dawn. A thick morning mist gave his men the chance to consolidate their positions and do some wiring but, as the day progressed, casualties mounted form enemy light machine gun and mortar fire, and from sniping and grenade attacks.


Under Sander’s leadership the Gurkhas held their ground throughout the day and night, while aggressive patrolling around the Japanese flanks succeeded in locating their water point. By February 9, the 1/7th’s position was completely wired; Japanese grenade dischargers during that day had no effect, and the Gurkhas were replying with 2 in mortars.


The battalion had begun moving around the enemy’s flank, and by 2.20 pm on February 10 the Japanese – now denied water and almost completely surrounded – began pulling out. Just over an hour later, the position was clear of the enemy. “Throughout this hazardous operation,” his brigade commander reported, “Major Sanders set such a magnificent personal example of courage and grim tenacity of purpose that he inspired the whole force.”


A month later, now back with his own battalion as second-in-command, Sanders led a counter-attack at mile 100, on the Tiddim Road. Taking charge of a company whose commander had been wounded, he drove the enemy off ground they had only just captured, close to the battalion’s main position. In the course of this action Sanders was severely wounded. For this and numerous other actions over the previous two years, he was awarded the DSO, which was presented in person by Mountbatten.


Geoffrey Peter Sanders was born on October 23 1911 at Abbotabad in North-West Frontier Province. The son and grandson of Gurkha officers he was educated at Blundell’s and RMC Sandhurst, and was commissioned in January 1932 into the 1st Battalion 5th Royal Gurkha Rifles (Frontier Force), the regiment in which his father, who had won a DSO in the First World War, and grandfather had served. Sanders remained with his battalion until 1937, when he was seconded to the Tochi scouts – a corps of Pathan irregulars commanded by British officers, and assigned to patrol and police the troubled Indian-Afghan frontier.


The young officers who commanded such units assumed much greater responsibility than they would have with their parent units, and Sanders first saw action here against Waziri tribesmen. In 1939, while clearing a booby-trap, he lost his right arm. Some time later he was invited to a tikala (lunch) by the Pathan who had laid the trap; an apology was offered and accepted, in the tradition of border warfare.


After a period as a instructor at the Frontier Warfare School, in 1942 Sanders became involved in the formation of a third battalion of his regiment, with which – apart from his period in command of the 1st/7th Gurkhas – he remained for the rest of his military service.


Moving with the 3rd/5th to Imphal in 1942, he was almost continually in action against the Japanese until the end of the war. After the action at “Bare Patch” he went on to command the 3rd/5th notably at  the capture of “Rajput” or “Lone Tree” Hill in the Shenam area.


After the Japanese surrender in August 1945, Sanders took his battalion to Malaya to oversee the surrender of several thousand Japanese troops. From there he went to Java, where he met and married, in November 1946, Cornelia “Corrie” Ronteltap, who had been a prisoner in various Japanese camps.


The situation in the Dutch East Indies was very unstable, with armed bodies of Indonesian nationalists determined to prevent a return to Dutch rule. In some places the disarming of the Japanese was postponed as they assisted the Indian Army in maintaining law and order, and Sanders had to carry out air reconnaissance in a Japanese plane with a Japanese pilot.


In 1947 he left the army and sailed to England with his wife and their first daughter. After a brief experiment with fruit farming, he joined the Suffolk-based Greene King brewery, and in 1953 became brewery manager at Cambridge.


In later years Sanders moved to Biggleswade, and later Bury St. Edmunds, where he was in charge of the fast-growing brewery. He retired in 1976.


Endowed with a mischievous sense of humour, Sanders had a gift for inspiring friendship and loyalty from those with whom he worked. He was President of the 5th Royal Gurkha Rifles Association from 1992 to 1995, and of the Cambridge branch of BLESMA (the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen’s Association) from 1964 to 1999.


His first marriage having been dissolved in 1969, Sanders married, in 1979, Julia Moore (née Luchsinger); she survives him, with the two daughters of the his first marriage, a step-son and a step-daughter.

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Visconti-Prasca had spent a considerable time as military attache in Paris in the interwar period, and later commanded a corps on the French border in 1939, before being appointed to command 11th Army in Albania (and then made head of all Italian forces in that country). Ironically, Visconti-Prasca had been regarded as one of Soddu's political proteges (but Visconti-Prasca got short shrift, and little sympathy, from Soddu once the latter relieved him in Albania).

Soddu, short, fat, balding, and rather fond of good food and wine, was another walking caricature of an Italian general. Having no real previous command experience, the stress of managing (or attempting to manage) an entire theatre of war in extremely trying circumstances soon proved too much for him, and he increasingly retreated into the consolation of his hobby, which was composing music for film scores, sometimes spending hours a day in this "relaxation" while the Italian front crumbled. When a new Greek offensive caught the Italians unaware and threatened their vital forward ports including Valona (Vlore), Soddu in a telephone conversation back to Italy (which was being tapped by Mussolini's spies) advocated making peace as soon as possible as the only way to avoid a catastrophe.

This moment of panic essentially destroyed his career. Ugo Cavallero was sent to Albania to decide if Soddu was up to the task of running the war there. Cavallero basically decided he wasn't, and effectively assumed command there (in addition to his duties of Chief of the General Staff, a job which he was also given at the start of December). Soddu was allowed to remain in his post, pretty much an empty uniform, until formally recalled in mid-January, at which point he joined his former protege on the list of the involuntarily retired.


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