The bravest of the brave

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This week, author and journalist Eugene Byrne takes a look at the respect and awe that Gurkha troops have been held in by generations of Brits serving alongside them in various conflicts. The story is set in the Second World War and is one that has been around in various forms for many years

The story

Late on in the Second World War, as the Allies were fighting their way across northern Europe, a battalion of Gurkhas was asked to provide some volunteers for a mission behind enemy lines.

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The unit was paraded, and a staff officer explained the mission: “It is absolutely vital that you need to go in and secure the position. We only expect light resistance from the Germans. You’ll be dropped from an aircraft at 1200 feet.”

The Gurkhas’ own commanding officer then asked for volunteers to take one step forward. About half of the men stepped forward.

The British officer was surprised. “I thought the Gurkhas were supposed to be the bravest men of all,” he said to the Gurkha c/o. “And it’s not as though we expect this to be a particularly dangerous job.”

“True,” said the Gurkha officer. “But half of them have just volunteered to jump from 1200 feet. Perhaps you should tell them they’ll have parachutes.”

The truth

The story is apocryphal, but it neatly captures the awe in which the Gurkhas have been held in the British army for generations. It’s not just the British who admire the Gurkhas; Indian Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw (1914-2008) famously said: “If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or is a Gurkha.”

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The parachute gag has been doing the rounds in slightly varying versions for decades, but a bit of research suggests it may well have originated with Field Marshal William Slim (1891-1970), who between the wars was himself a Gurkha officer. He loved telling stories about their bravery. In his version, the Gurkhas are told they’re to jump out at 300 feet, and the Havildar (sergeant) asks if they can jump closer to the ground, but it’s explained to him that any lower than 300ft won’t give their parachutes time to open. “Oh,” replies the Havildar, “so we get parachutes, eh?”