Kodendara Subbayya Thimayya, nicknamed as Timmy, served as Chief of Army Staff from 1957-61 in the years leading up to the war with China. The only Indian to command an infantry brigade during World War II, and dealt with the repatriation of POWs as head of an UN after the Korean War.Known for his quick wit, fiery temper, a no nonsense attitude, and an independent stance, Thimayya became a legend within military circles. He was also the first to point out the threat from China to Nehru, that was predictably ignored.
Belonging to the same Kodendera clan of Cariappa, he was born in Madikeri, into a well to do family of coffee planters on March 30, 1906. His mother Sitamma,was well educated and a social worker, while his father Subbayya was another of the well known coffee plantation owners.His maternal uncle Ponappa, was among the first batch of Indian commissioned officers who fought during the War. He did his schooling from Bishop Cottons in Bangalore, later he was sent to Royal Indian Military College in Dehradun.
His elder brother Ponappa, joined the INA, while his younger brother Somaiah, joined the Army and was killed in Kashmir.He was one of the 6 Indian cadets who was selected for training at Sandhurst, and joined the Indian Army in 1926. In 1928, Thimayya joined the 19th Hyderabad Regiment, now the Kumaon Regiment, where he became Lieutnant.He honed his combat skills in the North West frontier battling the fiercely independent Pathan tribes. During his stint at Sandhurst, Thimayya, personally experienced British snobbery and racism, but typically stood his ground. Even when he was in the Army, he sympathized with the nationalist leaders, he himself was a victim of British high handedness. At one stage, he wanted to resign from the Army, and join the Freedom movement, however Moti Lal Nehru dissuaded him from doing so.
Moti Lal Nehru, felt that once India became independent, people like Thimayya wud be needed to guide and develop the Army. He also had to fight for the rights of Indian soldiers and officers getting admitted into the exclusively British clubs. Like most Coorgis was a good sportsman himself, trained his battalion in hockey and football too.In spite of his best efforts, Indians were not allowed into most of the exclusive Army clubs meant for British till 1947. During the Quit India movement in 1942, Thimayya ordered his battalion men never to fire on the protesters,he would rather talk them down. At many places during the Quit India movement, he would personally talk with the demonstrators, making them disperse, but never fired on them.
When World War II, broke out, Thimayya was at the Hyderabad Regimental Center in Agra, as the Second-in-command. He later attended the Quetta staff college, where along with his wife Nina Cariappa, he gained fame for his services during a devastating earthquake that struck there in 1935. Later he became the first Indian to lead a brigade during WWII. Thimayya served with distinction in Burma, counter attacking the Japanese units. His brigade was the first to enter Rangoon, after the Japanese evacuated the city, and the INA surrendered. His own brother was one of those INA officers taken prisoner in Rangoon, he also oversaw surrender of Japanese in Singapore.After the end of the War, he was sent to Japan to restore order, and was shocked to see the devastation at Hiroshima.
After India became indepenendent in 1947, Thimayya was member of the comittee that saw division of military assets between India and Pak. During Partition, as Major General, he handled the responsibility of keeping law and order, as well as relief measures well. When Pakistani raiders attacked India in 1947, Thimayya commanded the 19th Infantry Division in Kashmir, and played a sterling role. One of his greatest achievements wud be at Zozi La pass where he personally led a tank battatlion to capture it from Pakistan.
Under Thimayya’s leadership,the 7th ligh Cavalry captured Zozi La pass, beat back the Pakistani raiders, and took Dras,Kargil,Leh.However his pleading to give him just 3 more months to drive out the raiders fully, fell on deaf ears, as Nehru took it to UN. Timmy Sahib as he was called, was by now a hero, regarded as the savior of Kashmir and Ladakh.After the way he led from the front at Zozi La Pass in a tank and recaptured it from Pakistanis, he became a legend of sorts in the Army. Normally divisional commaders are not in the front, but at Zoji La, Thimayya was in the first tank, leading assault, mounting a furious assault on the Pakistani raiders at Zoji La, catching them unawares, in blinding snow,stuff legends are made of. Such was Thimayya’s reputation in the Army, that his visit to any unit, would automatically boost their morale, lift their spirits.After the Korean War was over Thimayya played a major role in repatriation of the prisoners, which won him plaudits all over the world.
On 8 May, 1957, Thimayya became the Chief of Army Staff, he had a good rapport personally with Nehru then.However he never got along with the then Defense Minister Krishna Menon, know for his sharp tongue and arrogance. He had a running battle with V.K.Menon, over issues related to the Army, and he refused to surrender to Menon’s whims.Furious over what he felt as Menon’s constant interference, he resigned as COAS, he was however persuaded by Nehru to take it back.
Nehru though defended Krishna Menon for his actions, and many felt it was a deliberate attempt to humiliate Thimayya.That incident had an impact on Thimayya, as he spent his last years in the Army, broken in spirit, thanks to Nehru and Menon. Pran Nath Thapar who was Thimayya’s batchmate at Sandhurst, was not as independent and forthright, and meekly surrendered to Menon’s whims.
“I hope I am not leaving you as cannon fodder for the Chinese…. God bless you all.”-
He had great love for the Kumoan Regiment, and initiated many welfare measures for the ex-servicemen and war widows. He persuaded then CM of Uttar Pradesh, G.B.Pant to allot land near Nainital for members of Kumaon Regiment. After his retirement, Thimayya also served with great distinction in Cyprus as part of UN Peacekeeping Force during Civil War there. His conduct in Cyprus won him the respect of both Archbishop Makarios as well as the Turks. He however passed away in Cyprus on December 17, 1965, when he was 59 to a heart attack.
A General Thimayya is not born in every generation. The likes of him there will seldom be a soldier. The General is a man’s man, the Army his soul and his soul the Army
Richmond Road in Bangalore, the main road in Lamaca, Cyprus and the road parallel to MG Road in Pune, have all been renamed in his honor. The alumni of Bishop Cotton Boys School hold an annual lecture series in his memory.
Article also available at Thimayya