At first sight it seems as if the two military historians are describing different men.
According to Oliver Lindsay, Captain Mateen Ahmed Ansari of the 5/7 Rajputs was a tall, good-looking and ‘extremely popular’ officer,1 but according to Tim Carew ‘from his first day with the battalion Ansari had been remote, touchy, surly and morose. He did not like the army and he lost little time in letting everybody know it’. Far from ‘extremely popular’ he was ‘unsociable’ and ‘shunned his comrades in mess’2 I think Carew, who’s fond of stereotypes, is overdoing the one in which ‘the bad boy comes out good when put to the test’. Policeman George Wright-Nooth, who knew Ansari before the war, says he was proud he held the King’s commission, rather than the Viceroy’s, which was more usual for Indian officers.3 I think that it was because he had attended Sandhurst4 that he had the royal commission, but, in any case, it doesn’t sound like he was as disillusioned with the army as Tim Carew makes out.
Carew, who doesn’t bother with source attribution, goes on to claim that Ansari had been told by his Commanding Officer Lieutenant-Colonel Roger Cadogan-Rawlinson to stop ‘dabbling’ in the politics of Indian nationalism or get out of the army. His commitment to freedom for his country is not in doubt,5 and he had, it seemed, got involved with ‘a set of undesirable Indian civilians’.6 When Cadogan-Rawlinson shares his view of Ansari with his number two, Major ‘Bruno’ Browning, the latter makes the usual prediction in such cases – ‘he’ll probably do well in action, sir’. Oliver Lindsay, in a different work to the one previously cited, attributes the same prediction to Brigadier Wallis, who was confident ‘he’d give a good account of himself’ if real fighting ever came to Hong Kong.7 Lindsay’s source here is Wallis himself. Wallis was the overall commander of the Brigade in which Cadogan-Rawlinson’s Rajputs fought8 and it’s perfectly possible that both stories are true – as I’ve said, the idea of the firebrand who’s a ‘constant headache’9 to his seniors but proves a hero in action is a cliché, albeit in this case a largely justified one.
Captain Ansari also had a reputation for getting into brawls with officers of the Royal Scots in the Hong Kong Hotel10 – he was nicknamed ‘the Brown Bomber’ by his fellow officers,11 an allusion to the great American heavyweight Joe Louis. The fight with a British officer (‘a hard-living ex-tea-planter’) described by Carew is probably typical in that it stemmed from a disagreement over imperial politics.12 Carew goes on to claim that after Ansari’s victory, his opponent ‘black of eye and broken of teeth’ insisted on shaking hands with him – at that moment Ansari, who’d previously held himself aloof from the puerilities of his fellow officers’ after-dinner games, realised he’d been accepted by the regiment- so perhaps it was after this that he became ‘popular’ and both Lindsay and Carew are right after all.
This will not be the last uncertainty we’ll find in the sources that tell us Captain Ansari, but happily the general picture is clear: he fought with distinction during the hostilities and acted with almost unbelievable courage and endurance during the occupation, until he was executed for his resistance activities on October 29, 1943.
If the sources as to his pre-war character seem contradictory, those that cover the preceding years are scanty, but thanks to the kindness of members of his family (see comments below) I am able to add a little to what’s in the historical record. He was born in 1915 or 1916, the son of Begum H. A. Ansari, of Hyderabad; his father was the Registrar of Usmania University, and the Captain was his second son.13 The family was settled in Hyderabad, but owned large tracts of land in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Most accounts (including my own in a previous version of this post) claim that the family was related to the ruler of an Indian state, sometimes specifically to the Nizam of Hyderabad, but this is not the case (see the comments below).
The future Captain Ansari was a student of Hyderabad Grammar School, from where he joined the British Army and got his commission from Dehradun Military Academy. Finally, it should be mentioned that Captain Ansari was a Muslim.14
Ansari’s Rajputs, the Royal Scots and the Punjabis, faced the task of holding the mainland when the attack came on December 8. They were facing an enemy with total control of the air and an important superiority in field artillery; on Thursday, December 11, the evacuation of the mainland began. According to one source, Captain Ansari was given the important job of leading a rear-guard action on the Devil’s Peak Peninsula to defend the evacuation.15 However, Ansari led the ‘A’ Company,16 and Carew states that the ‘C’ and ‘D’ companies were the last to leave Kowloon; he does, whoever, seem to place Ansari amongst these final defenders.17 Whatever, the truth of this the general picture as to the mainland fighting is clear:
Every night was rendered livid by bursting shells and mortar bombs; the glint of tracer bullet; the frenzied yells of the attackers who hoped to wear down these stubborn Indians by sheer weight of numbers. But somehow the Rajput companies, most gallantly led by Captains Ansari and Newton18, held their ground.19
Carew calls him a ‘calm and unruffled warrior’, and according to another source, the Captain had been recommended for the Victoria Cross for Valour in battle before he was taken prisoner on Hong Kong Island.20
This is not the place for any detailed account of the Japanese capture of Hong Kong Island.. Suffice it to say that the Rajputs, in the front line on the mainland, found themselves facing the first thrust of the Japanese assault here too, as they were ordered to defend a 3,500 metre front at North Point.21 This brief summary by Lindsay gives the general picture:
The Rajput forward platoons had fought very bravely, refusing to withdraw and inflicting considerable casualties on the enemy, but by dawn the battalion had ceased to exist.22
After the Christmas Day surrender Captain Ansari and his men were held in the military section of the internment camp at North Point, where he was seen on December 30.23 At some point in the days after the surrender he was also in Shamshuipo, as the medical officer Martin Banfill reports that his insistence persuaded him to put aside his exhaustion and provide treatment for some of the Rajput wounded.24
As a holder of the King’s Commission we might have expected him to be imprisoned with his fellow officers, but it seems that he opted to stay with his men in Kowloon’s Ma Tau-chung Camp, one of only two Indian officers to be interned there.25 It seems he volunteered to go there to stiffen resistance to Japanese propaganda26 but I’ve not yet been able to put together a clear picture of his movements in early 1942 from sometimes contradictory sources.
The Japanese treated him reasonably well at first,27 but it seems that when they discovered the prominence of his family, they wanted him to declare his support for their version of Indian independence and foment anti-British feeling amongst other Indian POWs. According to Martin Banfill, he was actually offered the command of the Indian National Army, although this might mean only of the Hong Kong section.29 But, in spite of his support for Indian independence, he loathed the pro-Japanese Indian organisations, so refused to have anything to do with them and instead proclaimed a fierce loyalty to the British that undoubtedly influenced many of his fellow POWs. Consequently in April 1942 his mistreatment began.30 Repeated beatings had no effect, so in May 1942 he was sent to Stanley Prison where he remained until September of that year.31 Here he was badly treated, and due to starvation, brutal treatment (allegedly including mutilation) he became unable to walk;32 he was sent back, almost at the point of death according to one account, to Ma Tau-chung for hospital treatment.33
The British Commander-in-Chief in India, Claude Auchinleck, heard of his ordeal and smuggled in a message through the British Army Aid Group:
I have just heard of your brave refusal to do anything in the way of cooperating with the Japanese. By your behaviour you have been an example to all of the highest standards of devotion to duty which we have learnt to expect of officers of the Indian Army. I hope you haven’t suffered too severely in body – your spirit is certainly unimpaired. We look forward to your safe return to India.34
Auchinleck was right: the ordeal affected his spirit not one whit; he continued to proclaim his allegiance and as soon as the chance arise became heavily involved in resistance activities.35
In October the BAAG made contact with the POW Camp at Shamshuipo, and the agents there passed a message to Colonel Newnham in Argyle Street Camp telling him of this. Newnham in turn, alerted the Indian POWs at Ma Tau-chung and recruited Captain Ansari as the main agent. A plan for a mass escape began to emerge.36 But that was far from all.
When George Kotwall (agent 60) contacted Ansari he was already in touch not just with the officers at Argyle Street Camp but with two other BAAG operatives: Agent 19 (probably Joseph Tsang Yiu-sang – see Lawrence Tsui’s comment below ) and Agent 97 (probably the banker Charles Hyde). Mr. Kotwall was working with two other agents (61 and 63) to bring about Ansari’s escape; numbers 19 and 97 were trying to do the same. Sadly Kotwall’s attempt was to lead to general disaster. The head of Japanese intelligence, Colonel E. Endo (alias Yamada) in conjunction with pro-Japanese Indian nationals, had hatched a plot to flush out the BAAG agents in contact with Ma Tau-chung.37
In furtherance of his escape plan, Mr. Kotwall attended a meeting of the pro-Japanese Indian Independence League on April 12, 1943 and walked into a trap. He asked several of his acquaintance there who was Ansari – Indians agreeing to attend League meetings were given a pass out of camp. He was directed to a fake Ansari who eventually got him to reveal how he’d been contacting the Captain. The route was through Mrs (Morgie) Master, the uninterned wife of another Indian POW, Rustam Master, who carried messages to her husband.38 This was also the route used independently by Charles Hyde.
Endo bided his time, perhaps waiting to see if he could catch even more agents – at least two of those working with Mr. Kotwall managed to get out of Hong Kong during this period. For the moment, at least one of the message networks seems to have been working. On April 16, 1943 the BAAG received a message from Ma Tau-chung; Ansari, using a sporting metaphor of a type not unique in BAAG encoding, identified himself as the ‘inky custodian’ – the goalkeeper of a hockey team, the position he’d occupied for the Rajputs, and said he was always ready to rush out’ – eager to escape. He also stated he been ‘overhauled’ – his health was recovering after his 1942 ordeals.39 It’s just possible this message was sent out before April 12, but messages could in principle get the BAAG field HQ at Waichow in one day, so I incline to think it was sent after that fateful date.
On April 21 Mr. Kotwall, Mrs Master40 and Hyde and a number of others were arrested. I don’t know exactly when Ansari himself was passed into the hands of the Kempeitai; a BAAG report stated it was in May,41 but another document – a summary of arrests – gives the date as April 23 at 11.30 a.m. I think the latter is almost certainly correct – the Kempeitai had most of the other conspirators in custody by April 22, so why wait to question the man at the centre?
In any case, it’s certain that Captain Ansari endured more torture, without according to the BAAG, revealing anything.42
He was tried on the afternoon of October 21, 1943 in a group of 15; alongside were some of those who’d sought to free him. He was sentenced to death, as were Charles Hyde, George Kotwall and three other Indians who may or may not have been involved in the plot. Captain Ansari was sentenced to death and sent back to Stanley Prison to await the day of execution.
At about 2 pm on October 29 the 32 condemned men and one woman were taken out of solitary confinement and assembled inside Stanley Prison. They were refused a visit from a priest, but were allowed five minutes together to compose themselves. Captain Ansari gave an impromptu talk:
Everybody has to die sometime. Many die daily from disease, some suffer painful, lingering deaths. We will die strong and healthy for an ideal; not as traitors but nobly in our country’s cause. We cannot now escape the enemy’s sword, but no one should give in to tears or regrets, but instead face the enemy with a smile and die bravely.43
At about 2 p.m. they were driven in the prison van the short distance to Stanley Beach:
The prisoners marched in single file to a small clearing. Ringing the hills around them were scores of Chinese gravestones. Before them in the center of the clearing the prisoners saw two trenches dug by Indian warders and knew how they were to die.44
They were all blindfolded. Captain Ansari, Assistant Police Commissioner Walter Scott and Defence Secretary John Fraser were led forward first – it looks like the Japanese were allowing precedence to rank even in death. The others followed after, also in groups of three. Captain Ansari died first, and true to his own urgings: calmly and with dignity, showing not the slightest sign of fear or reluctance.45
He was awarded the George Cross ‘for most conspicuous gallantry in carrying out hazardous work in a very brave manner’.46
1Oliver Lindsay, The Lasting Honour, 1980 (1978), 177.
2Tim Carew, The Fall of Hong Kong, 1960, 98.
3Wright-Nooth, 1994, 171.
4Charles G. Roland, Long Night’s Journey Into Day, 2001, 88.
5Tony Banham, We Shall Suffer There, 2009, Kindle Edition, Location 4836.
6Carew, 1960, 98.
7 Lindsay and Harris, 2005, 205.
9Carew, 1960, 98.
10Oliver Lindsay and John Harris, The Battle for Hong Kong, 2005, 205.
11 Lindsay, 1980 (1978), 177.
12Carew, 1960, 98.
14Roland, 2001, 88.
15Lindsay, 1980 (1978), 177.
17Carew, 1960, 99.
18Harold Robert Newton, killed December 19.
19Carew, 1960, 99.
20Roland, 2001, 89.
21Wright-Nooth, 1994, 2001, 61.
22 Lindsay, 1980 (1978), 90.
24Roland, 2001, 88.
25 Banham, 2009, Location 4437.
26Roland, 2001, 89.
28Roland, 2001, 88.
29Roland, 2001, 88.
30Wright-Nooth, 1994, 170.
33Wright-Nooth, 1994, 170.
34 Edwin Ride, BAAAG: Hong Kong Resistance, 1982, 161.
36Banham, 2009 Location 1456.
37Ride, 1982, 173-174.
38Ride Papers, 11/32/131. The Ride Papers are held at the Hong Kong Heritage Project and these extracts were kindly sent to me by Elizabeth Ride.
39 Banham, 2009, Location 5614.
41Ride Papers, KWIZ 41, Sheet 4.
42Ride Papers, KWIZ 41, Sheet 4.
43Wright-Nooth, 1994, 186. The speech was reconstructed by the research of William Anderson, a fellow prisoner who was not under sentence of death.
44American war reporter Hal Boyle: https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2011/11/16/part-4-of-hal-boyles-series-on-chester-bennett/
46Gazette issue 37536 (April 16, 1946).