What it takes to become a sapper in the Indian Army - Hindustan Times
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What it takes to become a sapper in the Indian Army

Jun 23, 2022 09:53 PM IST

A sapper is promoted as Army commander after having successfully commanded a corps. He reaches that position by dint of ability.

The appointment of General Manoj Pande as the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) in April sparked a flurry of news articles about how he, as the first person to head the Army from the corps of engineers, broke a glass ceiling. But such commentary, including in hindustantimes.com, was flawed because the government followed the established principle of appointing the senior most Army commander as the COAS – a time-tested tradition to keep the force apolitical.

For decades, the corps of engineers (popularly called sappers) has been the most-sought after arm in the Army. (ANI) PREMIUM
For decades, the corps of engineers (popularly called sappers) has been the most-sought after arm in the Army. (ANI)

For decades, the corps of engineers (popularly called sappers) has been the most-sought after arm in the Army. Only cadets who placed in the first 20 in the Indian Military Academy stood a chance. Even late Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw had picked the sappers as his first choice as a cadet, but didn’t make it. There were seven Army commanders from the sappers who would have been considered for COAS, but none of them were the senior-most officer when the vacancy rose. It was only a matter of chance, and time.

The number of officers in the corps of engineers is small, compared to other arms. The number becomes even lower due to a particular feature of the force’s management.

The Army categorises the five main arms into two categories – the combat arms, which comprises infantry, armoured corps and mechanised infantry and the combat support arms, which includes artillery engineers and signal corps. Officers of the first group are in the general cadre and promoted to the highest ranks accordingly. But officers from the second group are kept outside the general cadre and transferred only by special selection at the brigadier level. Many opt out of moving to general cadre because they lose their position and standing in their original corps.

They are further disadvantaged by a policy of promotions beyond brigadier – which divides aspirants into two streams, the command stream, and staff stream. Records show that officers from combat support arms are generally slotted for promotions in the staff stream. Thereby, the number of officers from the sappers available for promotion in the general cadre command stream is low.

By virtue of the needs of their battlefield role, the training of engineer troops takes more than twice as long as that of an infantry or armour soldier, because a sapper needs to be triple skilled – have the same basic fighting skills as an infantry man, be a skilled combat engineer, and a skilled technical tradesman.

After commission, officers are subjected to a 3.5 years training in engineering. The first six months are devoted to combat engineering such as assault bridges, mine clearing and demolition. The remaining time is dedicated to a high-quality degree course in civil engineering. In service, they are exposed to the same pattern of service as other arms. Sappers are front-line troops and are required to undertake tasks for which they are being specially trained i.e. in building defences, clearing mines and crossing rivers.

The record of the sappers in battlefield bravery, proficiency and presence is second to none. There is no gallantry medal that has not been awarded to sappers. In 1942, 2nd Lieutenant PS Bhagat (Bombay Sappers) was awarded the Victoria Cross for exceptional gallantry and bravery in the battle of Keren Crescent, becoming one of only two Indian Army officers to get the honour. In 1947, Lieutenant RR Rane (Bombay Sappers) was awarded the Param Veer Chakra for gallantry in clearing mines and road blocks in the capture of Rajouri from Pakistan. In 1971, Major VR Choudhary was awarded the Maha Veer Chakra posthumously for exceptional gallantry in the mine breaching operation in the battle of Basantar.

This is true of forces worldwide. Some of the greatest commanders of the Allied Powers in World War I and II were engineers. Field Marshal Herbert Kitchener was an officer from the corps of engineers of the erstwhile British Army who rose to become commander in chief of the Indian Army. In World War I, he was appointed Secretary of State for War and oversaw the British forces. Douglas MacArthur rose to become the supreme allied commander of the US Forces in the Pacific in World War II. He was commissioned into the US Army Engineers and, for the first 10 to 14 years of service, served in US Army engineer units.

A sapper is promoted as Army commander after having successfully commanded a corps. He reaches that position by dint of ability. Taking a page from military history, one can say that with an engineer at the helm, the Army is in safe and capable hands.

Brig (retired) HK Dhawan is a veteran of the corps of engineers and fought in the 1965 and 1971 wars

The views expressed are personal

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