The Brigade of Gurkhas

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Although not officialy classed as Special Forces most military minded people would agree that the Gurkhas should be.

The Brigade of Gurkhas is the collective term for units of the current British Army that are composed of Nepalese soldiers. The brigade, which is 3,640 strong, draws its heritage from Gurkha units that originally served in the British Indian Army prior to Indian independence, and prior to that of the East India Company. The brigade includes infantry, engineer, signal, logistic and training and support units. They are famous for their ever-present kukris, a distinctive heavy knife with a curved blade, and for their reputation of being fierce fighters and brave soldiers. They take their name from the hill town of Gorkha from which the Nepalese kingdom had expanded. The ranks have always been dominated by four ethnic groups: the Gurungs and Magars from central Nepal; and the Rais and Limbus from the east, who live in hill villages of hill farmers.

During the war in Nepal in 1814, the British failed to annex Nepal as part of the Empire but Army officers were impressed by the tenacity of the Gurkha soldiers and encouraged them to volunteer for the East India Company.

Gurkhas served as troops of the East India Company in the Pindaree War of 1817, in Bharatpur in 1826, and the First and Second Sikh Wars in 1846 and 1848. During the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857, the Gurkha regiments remained loyal to the British, and became part of the British Indian Army on its formation. The 2nd Gurkha Rifles (The Sirmoor Rifles) defended Hindu Rao's house for over three months, losing 327 out of 490 men. The 60th King's Royal Rifle Corps (later part of the Royal Green Jackets) fought alongside the Sirmoor Rifles and were so impressed that following the mutiny they insisted 2nd GR be awarded the honours of adopting their distinctive rifle green uniforms with scarlet edgings and rifle regiment traditions and that they should hold the title of riflemen rather than sepoys. Twelve Gurkha regiments also took part in the relief of Lucknow. Gurkha regiments in the British Indian Army served in both World Wars.

After Indian independence – and partition – in 1947 and under the Tripartite Agreement, six Gurkha regiments joined the post-independence Indian Army. Four Gurkha regiments, the 2nd, 6th, 7th, and 10th Gurkha Rifles, joined the British Army on 1 January 1948. They formed the Brigade of Gurkhas and were stationed in Malaya.

During the Malayan Emergency, Gurkhas fought as jungle soldiers as they had done in Burma. They also formed four new units – Gurkha Engineers, Signals, Transport and Military Police. They were also used for convoy escort duties, security of the new villages and ambushing guerrillas. In the year of Malayan independence, Gurkha Signals units monitored communications during the first free elections.

One Gurkha battalion – 2nd Gurkha Rifles - was stationed in Tidworth, Wiltshire in 1962. On 7 December, the unit was deployed to Brunei on a day’s notice at the outbreak of the Brunei Revolt. The forthcoming Indonesian Confrontation saw the formation of the Gurkha Independent Parachute Company on 1 April 1963. The unit was disbanded in 1972.

After that conflict ended, the Gurkhas were transferred to Hong Kong, where they had security duties during the upheavals of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

The Gurkha brigade’s size was reduced to 8,000 men when the British government changed its defence policy. Hong Kong became their headquarters, while other battalions were stationed in the UK and Brunei.
In 1971 the 7th Duke of Edinburgh's Gurkha Rifles moved to Queen Elizabeth Barracks at Church Crookham, Hampshire, from where they became the first Gurkhas to mount the Queen's Guard. In 1974 Turkey invaded Cyprus and the 10th Gurkha Rifles was sent to defend the British sovereign base area of Dhekelia. Later they remained there on peacekeeping duties.

On 1 July 1994 the four rifle regiments were merged into one, the Royal Gurkha Rifles, and the three corps regiments (the Gurkha Military Police having been disbanded in 1965) were reduced to squadron strength. On 1 July 1997, the British government handed Hong Kong back to the People's Republic of China, which led to the elimination of the local British garrison. Gurkha HQ and recruit training were moved to the UK, and the size of the Brigade of Gurkhas was reduced to 3,400.

Gurkhas have had a role in the Falklands War (1st Battalion of the 7th), Gulf War, NATO, Iraq, Afghanistan, operations in Kosovo and UN peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and East Timor. Gurkhas have also served in Sierra Leone.

Brigade HQ is based at Airfield Camp near Netheravon, Wiltshire. The two battalions of the Royal Gurkha Rifles are formed as light role infantry; they are not equipped with either armoured or wheeled vehicles. One battalion is based at Shorncliffe, near Folkestone in Kent as part of 52 Infantry Brigade, and is available for deployment to most areas in Europe and Africa. The other is based at the British garrison in Brunei as part of Britain's commitment to maintaining a military presence in SE Asia. The two battalions rotate in each role, usually for three years at a time.

Gurkha regiments traditionally have British officers, although many officers are now themselves Gurkhas. Those who wish to receive Queen's Commissions are required to become British subjects.

Hundreds of Nepalese Gurkha soldiers who fought for Britain protested 19 March 2008 outside the Parliament of the United Kingdom in London, demanding higher pensions and the right to stay in the country they served. This sparked a national petition to entitle them to British Citizenship when their service ends.

They were also seen recently protecting Prince Harry when he was serving secretly in Afghanistan.
Although Britain has been recruiting Gurkha soldiers from Nepal since the 19th century, no effort was made to develop a centralized recruit-training system in the Brigade of Gurkhas throughout the pre Second World War era. As a result, recruiting training was conducted at the various Gurkha regimental training centres in Nepal.

The need for such centralized training establishments became apparent in the late 1940s following India's national independence, and subsequently the TDBG was established on 15 August 1951 at Sungai Petani, Kedah, Malaya.

With Malaya's independence, however, the TDBG was once again relocated to Malaya Lines in the New Territories, Hong Kong in 1971. At the TDBG in Hong Kong, recruits were taught basic English alongside military subjects such as field craft, drill, weapon-handling etc. More importantly, being in a modern city like Hong Kong, these young recruits from the hills of Nepal were given the opportunity to experience life in a different culture and environment. Such experience would be crucial for their future deployments in different corners of the world.

Due to Hong Kong's handover from the UK to China, the TDBG was closed down in December 1994. However, it was reconstituted immediately as the Gurkha Training Wing (GTW) at Queen Elizabeth Barracks at Church Crookham, Hampshire in the UK. In December 1999, the GTW moved to Helles Barracks at Catterick Garrison in North Yorkshire and became Gurkha Company, 3rd Battalion, Infantry Training Centre (ITC). Organized in two wings, A(Imphal) Wing and B(Meiktila) Wing, the company currently maintains 72 permanent staff of all ranks and 230 recruits.

Selection and Basic Training

First Stage

Hill selections are held at various locations in Nepal. There are usually 30 applicants for every place available at this stage. Potential recruits must satisfy the following requirements before proceeding to the second stage:

Age between 17 and 22
Height at least 5 feet 3 inches (1.60m)
Weight at least 7 stone 12 pounds (110 pounds, or 50 kilograms)
Good health
Educational requirement
May be sports certificates

Second stage

The second stage of the selection process lasts for 3 weeks. All candidates must pass the following tests in order to proceed further:

English grammar
Fitness test, which included exercises and a doko race (carrying 75 pounds of stones and run up a 4.2 kilometre long steep course)
Initiative test
Final interview
Candidates for the Gurkha Contingent Singapore Police Force, are also selected at this stage

Third stage

This is a nine-month long training course that includes:
Language training (3 months)
Military skills
Western culture and customs
General skill at arms
Several fitness tests

Passing out

The graduation of successful recruits is marked by a passing out parade at the end of the basic training course. Based on their progress and results they are then allotted to various positions within the Brigade of Gurkhas. In general those who obtained better results in the mathematics test during the second stage of selection are offered postings to the Queen's Gurkha Signals or the Queen's Gurkha Engineers.

The Brigade of Gurkhas – or to be precise, their salaries and pensions – is a significant source of income for Nepal. Every year, Gurkha recruiters select 270 out of tens of thousands of applicants, mostly from the Rai, Limbu, Gurung, Pun and Magar tribes. The British Gurkha Welfare Society estimates that 24,000 Gurkha veterans who served before 1997 and their dependents receive only a third of what their British counterparts get in pension. "Worse still, it is estimated that about 7,000 Gurkha veterans who served for less than 15 years receive no pension at all and around 5,000 veterans and widows currently rely heavily on charity from the Gurkha Welfare Scheme to survive."

Gurkha soldiers have been awarded 13 Victoria Crosses, although all but one (Rambahadur Limbu) were awarded when all Gurkha regiments were still part of the Indian Army. A further 13 have been awarded to British officers in Gurkha regiments. They have affiliations with the Royal Scots, the King's Royal Hussars and the Royal Green Jackets.

Gurkhas are also recruited by the British Army for the over 2,000 strong Gurkha Contingent of the Singapore Police Force. Approximately 2,000 Gurkhas also serve in a similar role in the Gurkha Reserve Unit in Brunei.

In addition to the British Army, Gurkhas are also recruited by the Indian Army (approximately 100,000 in 44 battalions plus 25 battalions of Assam Rifles), as part of the tripartite agreement that was signed at the time of India's independence. This is further documented in a list of Gurkha regiments serving under the Indian Army.

Under international law, according to Protocol 1 Additions to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, Gurkhas serving as regular uniformed soldiers are not mercenaries, According to Cabinet Office official histories (Official History of the Falkland Islands, Sir Lawrence Freedman), Sir John Nott, as Secretary of State for Defence, expressed the British Government's concern that the Gurkhas could not be sent with the task force to recapture the Falkland Islands because it might upset the non-aligned members of the fragile coalition of support that the British had built in the United Nations. The then Chief of Defence Staff Sir Edwin Bramall, like Nott a former officer in the 2nd Gurkhas, said that the Gurkhas were needed for sound military reasons (as a constituent part of 5th Infantry Brigade) and if they were not deployed then there would always be a political reason not to deploy Gurkhas in future conflicts. So he requested that Nott argue the case in Government for deploying them against the advice of the Foreign Office. Nott agreed to do so commenting that the Gurkhas "would be mortified if we spoilt their chances [of going]".

In 1986 111 Gurkha soldiers from 1/7 GR (the complete Support Company, less officers) were discharged for mutiny, although none were formally charged.

In 2007 the Brigade of Gurkhas announced that women were allowed to join. Like their British counterparts, Gurkha women are eligible to join the Engineers, Logistics Corps, Signals and brigade band, although not infantry units.

In September 2008 the High Court in London ruled that the British Government must issue clear guidance on the criteria against which Gurkhas may be considered for settlement rights in the UK. On 21 May 2009, and following a lengthy campaign by Gurkha veterans, the British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith announced that all Gurkha veterans who had served four years or more in the British Army before 1997 would be allowed to settle in Britain. Gurkhas serving after 1997 had been given UK settlement rights in 2004.


Articles and web sites of interest

List of Gurkha recipients of the Victoria Cross medal
Brigade of Gurkhas
The Gurkha Museum Winchester
Gurkhas win the right to settle in the UK
Nepal Gurkhas Serving Aboroad
Better Pensions for some Gurkhas