Bombay Sappers: A saga of 200 yrs

Mubarak Ansari
Sunday, 9 February 2020

The Bombay Engineer Group and Centre (BeG & C), Khadki, the Bombay Sappers as they are popularly known, a regiment of the Corps of Engineers of the Indian Army, is celebrating its bicentenary anniversary.

The Bombay Engineer Group and Centre (BeG & C), Khadki, the Bombay Sappers as they are popularly known, a regiment of the Corps of Engineers of the Indian Army, is celebrating its bicentenary anniversary.

The Sapper is often the first person at the area of conflict preparing the way for the unhindered movement of infantry, artillery and mechanised divisions in times of war and to come to the assistance of civil administration in times of natural disasters, whenever called upon.

The Bombay Sappers draw their origin from the erstwhile Bombay Presidency army of the British Raj. Their Khadki campus is spread over 4,000 acres along the Mula river between Holkar Bridge and Deccan College. Another campus is located 4 km away on Alandi Road near Dighi.
In these 200 years, the Bombay Sappers have participated in almost all major wars as well as humanitarian work like rescuing flood-affected people and constructing bridges and building railway tracks.
Colonel Christopher Rego (now retd.) has written the book ‘Cradle of Valour’ in 2014, which traces the evolution, development and contribution of the Bombay Sappers since its arrival at Khadki in 1866.
“The history of the Bombay Sappers was lost in the 19th century when an ‘economical subaltern’ used precious old documents from the archives at the Centre as target paper believing them to be waste papers. Very little was known about the early history of Bombay Sappers. The dusty shelves of Maharashtra State Archives in Mumbai provided rich pickings revealing the reasons for the establishment of the Bombay Sappers here. The biggest source of information was the book ‘The Indian Sappers and Miners’ written by Lt Col EWC Sandes. The brittle annual records in the Corps archives also provide valuable information,” Col Rego told Sakal Times.

In 1820, a number of Engineer Lascars were raised and formed into a company designated as Sappers and Miners under an Engineer Officer. It is this year that came to be recognised officially as the date of raising of the Bombay Sappers despite the fact that the Bombay Sappers could trace their ancestry to 1777 when the first Company of Pioneer Lascars was raised. Historically, the Pioneers assisted other Arms in tasks such as the construction of field fortifications, military camps, bridges and roads.

Lt Col Sandeep Saini, who has a keen interest in history and who took several officers and veterans on heritage walk on the BEG&C Campus, told Sakal Times, “The Bombay Sappers owe their origins to a baffling story of youthful daring and unbridled enthusiasm. It was around 1774, the East India company’s Bombay Army was engaged with Marathas over the island of Salsette, which sits in the present-day Mumbai and Thane. Disgusted with the poor state of engineering resources available with their army, a young ensign, Charles Witman, who was the junior-most officer in the Bombay Army, wrote a letter to the Council of East India Company in London. This far-seeing young man suggested recruiting an army of German artificers as was customary in Europe those days and importing them wholesale into the Bombay Army. Almost like a eugenicist, he added with a charm that this army, when allowed to bring their wives later, will produce a race of trained engineers for the army in India and also help us when the Indians turn against us! Bizarre as it sounds but his idea was bought by the council and he was called to London to give a presentation! Armed with money, he was sent to Germany to recruit this army of which fortunately for Bombay Sappers and Indians, he could only muster 25 Germans who also ran away on hearing the name of their destination to be India! Disappointed, the council then ordered Major Lawrence Nilson, chief engineer of Bombay, to make some local arrangements for the Bombay Army to have engineer soldiers and that is how he started ‘Pioneer Lascars’, a kind of forerunners of Bombay Sappers.”

Historical location of Bombay Sappers
After the Third Anglo-Maratha War (1817-18), the British had started developing Khadki as a military base. The first buildings were erected in the 1820s. Large numbers of European troops moved in and in the next few decades, Khadki (then called as Kirkee), evolved rapidly as an artillery base and arsenal. 

In the aftermath of the First War of Independence (1857), the Government of Bombay proposed to erect, in 1860, a fortified post at the Sangam point of Mula-Mutha rivers. This post was to serve as a refuge for the inhabitants of Poona (now Pune) Cantonment in the event of another uprising. However, this plan was shelved as Sangam was close to the town and hence, Khadki was preferred. The troops then lived in huts. 

The current location of Bombay Sappers at the high ground lying between the Holkar Bridge and the Deccan College was selected in 1867.
Group Museum
A grand ‘Group Museum’ has been built at the Bombay Sappers, where various artefacts, medals, instruments, equipment, maps, etc, depicting the 200-year history of the Sappers are kept.

Brig MJ Kumar, the current Commandant of Bombay Sappers, said, “We found that the previous museum was not able to depict the achievements of the Bombay Sappers in the last 200 years. Accordingly, we renovated and added more sections to make it more inclusive to include details of all officers, junior commissioned officers (JCOs), and jawans.”

He added, “Now there is a Shahid Gallery to honour the martyrs. There are many handwritten rolls of honour, which are very delicate, so we have depicted their photos (like Buddhist Thangka). It is the sanctum sanctorum for us.” The museum now houses 11 complexes having pre- and post-Independence chronological history, lakh of names of proud Bombay Sappers recruits mentioned year-wise, uniforms, accoutrements and band gallery.

Battle Honours
The Bombay Sappers have earned 31 Theatre Honours and 37 Battle Honours in addition to the three highest awards for gallantry pre-independence and post-independence i.e. Victoria Cross, Param Vir Chakra and Ashok Chakra.

Sports Achievements
The Bombay Sappers have extended their motto ‘Sarvatra’ well beyond the battlefield, with a resplendent performance in sports and adventure and have won seven Arjuna Awards, two Dhyanchand Awards and Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award. 

Soldiers who left a mark

Satoor – From Recruit Boyhood to Highest Rank

Subedar Major Sardar Bahadur Savee Erappa 
Satoor joined the Bombay Sappers as an eight-year-old ‘boy’ before being recruited as a soldier. He participated in the Battles of Bushfire in Persia, Abyssinia and Central India. 
His bravery and leadership earned him respect and he rose through the ranks before finally becoming the second Group Subedar Major of Bombay Sappers, a position he held between 1876 and 1880. He died on December 9, 1883 in Khadki, at the age of 60 after 52 years of distinguished service. His samadhi (memorial) was made on the campus in 1883. His descendants still visit their illustrious ancestor’s grave every year to pay homage.

Maruti Jadhav, French Legion of Honour
In the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, during the First World War, Havildar Maruti Jadhav was awarded the Medaille Militaire (French Legion of Honour) for displaying courage and initiative of the highest order. He had taken charge of a section of Sappers when all the officers had become casualties and successfully assaulted the enemy position. As Subedar Major, he was Group Subedar Major during 1932-36, when he retired from service with the rank of Honorary Captain.  

Lt Gen Bhagat, Victoria Cross
Lieutenant General Premindra Singh Bhagat was an Indian recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. The Victoria Cross was conferred on him for his actions in the Sudan theatre during World War II. Gen Bhagat’s Victoria Cross is kept in a bank locker and a replica is kept at the museum. The international price of the Victoria Cross medal is estimated to be about Rs 4.5 crore. 

Maj Rane, Param Vir Chakra
Major Rama Raghoba Rane was the first living recipient of the Param Vir Chakra, India’s highest military decoration. He had joined as a jawan and rose through the ranks to become an officer. In April 1948, during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1947-48, Rane (then 2nd Lt) played a key role in the capture of Rajauri by Indian forces by being instrumental in clearing several roadblocks and minefields. His actions helped clear the way for advancing Indian tanks. H-e was awarded the Param Vir Chakra on April 8, 1948, for his gallantry. He retired as a Major from the Indian Army in 1968. During his 28 years of service in the Army, he was mentioned in despatches five times. He died in 1994 at the age of 76 in Pune. He was cremated on the premises of the Bombay Sappers as per his wish.

Naib Subedar Gurnam Singh
On September 23, 1973, during a demonstration at College of Military Engineering (CME), Pune, while Nb Sub Gurnam Singh, who was the instructor, was in the process of setting up and preparing the Charge Line Mine Clearing for firing, the tail initiator of the charge got prematurely actuated. Realising the danger to the lives of the men under his command, he immediately ordered them to run to a safe distance and he himself set upon the hazardous task of uncoupling the actuated initiator to ensure the safety of the men and equipment. 

But unfortunately, he was not able to prevent the explosion within the few seconds at his disposal. There was an explosion and Nb Sub Gurnam Singh was blown to pieces. Thus, for saving the lives of the men under his command, Nb Sub Gurnam Singh was given the nation’s highest gallantry award during peacetime ‘Ashok Chakra’.

Some other facts

  • The man who developed the Ganesh Anar, Dr GS Cheema, used to live in the campus of Bombay Sappers on Westmacott Road and also died there. The 160-year-old campus of Bombay Sappers is also home to almost 50 varieties of birds and Sylvan, lush vegetation including two Baobab trees, which are known to grow only in Africa Savannahs.
  • The famous Matheran railway was constructed by the regiment of 121 pioneers, who were earlier called the marine battalion in the year 1904 in only 12 months! They were hired by Jeejebhoy, a Parsi contractor of Mumbai and this difficult task cost the regiment a few lives as well as it involved cutting over 2,000 ft of rock and precipices!
  • The other prominent railway lines constructed by the Sappers include Bor Ghat railway line, laying foundations for the then called Lloyd dam near Pune, which was the biggest dam then and is now called the Bhatgar dam. The Bombay Mint, the Bombay High Court, the Fountain and many other important buildings of Bombay. In fact, the famous battys bomb was invented by a Bombay Sapper, a British officer during the Neuve Chapelle campaign in the Great War.
  • The Bombay Sappers Brass Band goes back more than 175 years. The oldest musical instruments, the xylophone and the tubular bells, are more than 163 years old and are still played and played well.
  • The soldiers from the Pioneer Lascars were among the first to start Indian restaurants in the UK and developed the dish of Chicken tikka masala, which is now among Britain’s favourite dish. These lascars married local British women, a development which was disliked and abhorred by large sections of British high society.
  • Bombay Sappers has been participating in Humanitarian Assistance And Disaster Relief (HADR) operations and rescued thousands of flood-affected people besides constructing several bridges including the Elphinstone Foot Over Bridge in Mumbai.

Era of bombay sappers

  • 1777      Pioneers
  • 1817      Sappers and Miners
  • 1820      No. 1 Company, Sappers & Miners, Bombay                        Pioneer Corps (Official year of recognition)
  • 1826      No. 2 Company,Sappers & Miners
  • 1829      Engineer Corps
  • 1830      Amalgamation of Sappers & Pioneers
  • 1840      Bombay Sappers & Miners
  • 1903      3rd Sappers and Miners
  • 1921      3rd Royal Bombay Sappers and Miners
  • 1923      Royal Bombay Sappers and Miners
  • 1932      Amalgamation of 2nd Bombay Pioneers and 3rd                  Sikh Pioneers (disbanded)
  • 1941      Royal Bombay Sappers and Miners Group
  • 1947      Royal Bombay Group, Royal Indian Engineers
  • 1960      Bombay Engineer Group & Centre, Corps of                        Engineers

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