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Wednesday, June 9, 1999 Published at 16:23 GMT 17:23 UK


Gurkhas: A force to be reckoned with

Gurkha soldiers: Looking forward to Balkan mission

"Better to die than be a coward" - the motto of the world famous Gurkha soldiers.

The BBC's Bob Platt talks to Gurkhas on their way to Macedonia
It can surely be no coincidence that the British Army chose these fearsome warriors from Nepal to spearhead a multinational force for Kosovo.

About 280 men from the 1st Battalion of Royal Gurkha Rifles have already arrived in Macedonia, while the full compliment of 660 is due by the weekend.

Brits in Balkans
Together with the 1st Battalion the Parachute Regiment, the Gurkhas form the 5 Airborne Brigade, which numbers around 2,000 men.

Their role in Operation Joint Guardian - Nato's plan for establishing a ground force in Kosovo - will be to secure a path into the province for the heavy armour of the King's Royal Hussars and the Irish Guards.

In the vanguard

[ image: Lethal weapon: The traditional
Lethal weapon: The traditional "kukri"
"The Gurkhas will be in the vanguard of any move into Kosovo," a MoD spokesman told BBC News Online.

"They will probably be flown into Kosovo by Chinook and Puma helicopters where they will establish a route into Pristina by securing the main road."

While they await their orders, the Gurkhas have been training with the Paras at Petrovac in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

They may be equipped with modern SA80 rifles and are reknowned as natural marksmen. But they still carry into battle their traditional weapon - an 18-inch long curved knife known as the kukri.

Kosovo: Special Report
In times past, it was said that once a kukri had been drawn in battle, it must "taste blood" - if not, its owner has to cut himself before returning it to its sheath.

Now it is used mainly for cooking, but one Gurkha in Macedonia told reporters: "When the ammunition runs out we still use them."

"We don't expect to use them, but we would not be Gurkhas without them," said 25-year-old Tirtha Ghale.

Single-handed hero

[ image: Awating orders]
Awating orders
In the 185 years they have served in the British Army, the Ghurkas have won 26 Victoria Crosses, more than any other single group in the army.

Havildar Lachhiman Gurung won his VC by preventing the escape of Japanese forces in Burma in 1945, literally single-handedly.

He threw back three hand-grenades thrown into his trench - the third of which blew off his right hand.

In spite of his wounds, he carried on fighting, firing and loading his rifle with his left hand for four long hours.

Loyal fighters

The British first realised the potential of these fearsome warriors at the height of their empire-building in the last century.

After suffering heavy casualties in the invasion of Nepal, the British East India Company signed a hasty peace deal in 1815, which also allowed it to recruit from the ranks of the former enemy.

Since then, the Gurkhas have loyally fought for the British all over the globe, and their British officers are taught the Gurkhali language.

More than 200,000 fought in the two world wars and 14,000 were killed in engagements in France, the Middle East, Gallipoli, Italy, Greece and South East Asia.

In the last 50 years, they have served in Hong Kong, Malaya, Borneo, Cyprus and the Falklands.

With deep defence cuts, their numbers have been reduced to 3,600 from a World War II peak of 40 Gurkha Battalions, or 112,000 men.

After being stationed in Malaya as it was then known and Hong Kong, the Gurkhas are now based at Church Crookham in Hampshire.

Only the toughest

The selection process has been described as one of the toughest in the world and it is fiercely contested.

Kosovo - Military hardware
Young hopefuls have to run uphill for 40 minutes carrying a wicker basket on their back filled with rocks weighing 70lbs.

This year, 36,000 young would-be Gurkhas competed for just 230 places.

Hardly surprising then that Gurkha soldiers on their way to the Balkans relish the chance to show off their prowess.

"We are looking forward to this new challenge," said one infantryman.

Another said: "Wherever the Gurkhas go there will be peace. We are the fighting force, but wherever we go there will be peace. It is our history."

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