Assam Regiment

Ross Cosens Howman 11/07/1899 (Kirkwall, Orkney, Scotland).  Passed away 1976.

Joined Indian Army in July 1917 to attend Wellington College in Southern India (Tamil Nadu) July 1917 - Jan 1918.  Posted to 2nd Gurkha Rifles and in April seconded to the Depot of the 85th Burma Rifles in Mandalay.  Sent on a rifle course to the School of Musketry at Satara.  Becomes a Musketry Officer in Mandalay (June 1918)  Learned Chingpaw (Kachin).  By October was at Maymyo.  In 9 months travelled between Burma and India 5 times and been in Satara, Poona, Delhi, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Rangoon.  WW1 ended in Nov and he was sent to Satara again to do an instructors course, also do Urdu and Kachin exam.

In July 1919 he has to leave Burma and was posted to the 3/7 Gurkha Rifles based in Quetta so came in for the tail end of the 3rd Afghan War.  In September/Oct he does another musketry course in Rawalpindi and is posted to Chaman (Baluchistan) until May 1920.

In Dec 1920 he was posted to the 1/70 Burma Rifles (then stationed at Taiping, Malaya).  Lots of exams (Higher Hindustani, Lower Burmese, Captaincy promotion and Indian Army retention exams).

In August 1922 he returns to Burma and gets his Captaincy in 1923.  Time spent in Wellington and Maymyo, also Pwekauk north of Maymyo doing annual field training.  Passed Higher Standard Burmese.

In April 1925 he got 8 months leave and in 1926 rejoined his regiment in Maymyo and was posted to be Assistant Commandant of the Bhamo Battalion of the Burma Military Police - later in July transferred to the Western Battalion stationed at Myitkyina.  The area north of Myitkyina lies the Hukawng Valley, (notorious as one of the most difficult of the escape routes for refugees escaping from the Japanese in 1942).  The maze of foothills surrounding this have the Naga Tribes.  In Dec 1926 a second expedition into this area was charged with suppression of head hunting and human sacrifice.  The political officer in charge was Mr T P Dewar and Ross was chosen to command the escort of 75 drawn from the Myitkyina Bn of the B.M.P.   The expedition returned in May 1927.

Ross left Burma in Jan 1928 and rejoined in Jan 1929 in Taiping in Malaya.

Staff College at Camberly 1931 - 1933.  Returned to Burma in January 1934 (with wife and son) - Ross now a Company Commander.  In May he was involved in trouble on the Chinese border and moved up to the trailhead at Lahio (capital of the Norther Shan States) - by August he was back in Maymyo but still on reconnaissance as the trouble on the Chinese border rumbled on.

In March 1935 posted to Dera Ismail Khan in the Indus Valley and family accompanied (now with 2 sons Alastair and Keith).   In Feb 1936 given job of D.A.A.G?  2nd grade staff appointment.  In 1936/37 there was trouble with the Faquir of Ipi and skirmishes in Waziristan District.

In 1939 selected appointment G.S.O.II Army Head Quarters.   Received OBE at Viceroy’s House in Delhi.  His regiment the 3/8 Punjabs was now stationed in Delhi. (Wife Cecil working as interpreter as Italian POW’s being kept in prison camps in India).

Raising of the Assam Regiment  1941**

G I Intelligence Delhi 1942 working under D.M I (Director Military Intelligence) Bill (Sir Walter) Cawthorn.  (Cecil worked with the Italian POW’s  - When they split G.H,Q between Simla and Delhi she didn’t want to be separated from Ross, so was moved to Topographical Information and Intelligence about Burma.  One of her jobs was interviewing anyone who had come out of Burma in an unusual way and revising the rather scanty existing route books accordingly - when it came to the Hukawng Valley area the only report they had of any sort was Ross’s original report of the 1926 Expedition). 

In 1943 Ross was promoted to Brigadier and made Director of Security for the whole of India and later when the S.E.A.C (South East Asia Command) was formed this became an Inter-Service job. (Cecil still extremely busy as the survivors of the Wingate Expedition were reporting back to G.H.Q)

1944 Ross back in UK involved in the final planning of D Day and his presence was due to the fact that it was planned to stage a similar landing in Singapore and/or Rangoon later - he would have been responsible for the security of this. 

1945 the whole family moved to Scotland.


**About March 1st 1941 Ross was sent for by Auchinleck and told he had been selected to raise a new Regiment - The Assam Regiment.  His wife Cecil records - "Many of the hill tribes of this province had served in the Assam Rifles and with the Gurkha regiments and had proved their worth.  Hence the decision that Assam should have the honour of having its own regiment.  Ross was of course, thrilled and delighted.  He would be dealing with hillmen similar to Gurkhas and to many of the Burma tribes.  The regiment was to be raised in Shillong, the capital of Assam then, situated in the Khassi Hills about 5000 ft up with an excellent climate.  We were due there on May 1st”  Writing to Cecil’s father Ross said "Cecil will have told you that we are off to Shillong where I get down to raising the 1st Bn The Assam Regiment.  The Assam Rifles are the parents and are passing over a trained nucleus of 354 and are enlisting the balance and starting their training.  Everyone from H.E downwards is flat out to make Assam’s first Regiment a success, which should make my task a pleasant one.  The men are good stuff.  Assamese hillmen were enlisted and fought overseas with the 8th Gurkhas in the last war and did very well"

Ross and Cecil arrived in Shillong and moved into a bungalow (No 4 Cantonments).  Cecil set up home and Ross went on a 10 day tour of Assam Rifle Centres.  There were permanent cantonments being built for the Regiment out at Elephant Falls, but the bungalow was initially a focal point.  'As soon as Ross was back from his tour officers began to arrive and the bungalow became a hotel!  First was Macfarlane, who had been an engineer on a tea garden in Assam.  Collinson came next and he had been in the Burma Rifles.  Other early arrivals were Davis, Askew, Calistan, Cleland, Cooksey and a charming Assamese called Bar and of course Bruno' (Major Brown who came from the NWFP as soon as he heard arriving on the 24th May described by Cecil writing home  - 'as tough as he can be (he thinks nothing of walking 30 miles a day over the hills of Chitral.  He has served with the Assam Rifles, so knows this country, but has spent most of his service in Waziristan - he is bursting with energy and always cheerful and staying with us now’

In Cecil’s records she says ‘Ross was in his element - working flat out and loving every minute of it.  I realised how admirably suited he was for the job.  Not only his knowledge of hillmen and his intricate study of jungle warfare, but his remarkable administrative ability, and as a special bonus his recent two years at G.H.Q had given him a knowledge of exactly who to apply to for all the complex requirements of a new Battalion.  In many cases he knew the chap personally and this cut out a lot of red tape and saved a lot of time and frustration.  Every sort of equipment was in short supply and Ross and Bruno became past masters at improvisation’.

She records ‘ The plan was, that if the Powers that Be in Delhi gave sanction, the Regiment should be raised on June 15th with the nucleus of men from the Assam Rifles.  There was no prospect of the new lines at Elephant Falls being ready till October so the men were to go into camp in Kench’s Trace and the officers with them.  A few days before the Raising Ceremony Ross came to me and said ‘We must have a flag.  Can you make one?’  The spirit of improvisation was abroad so I went to the bazar and brought some gold coloured silk and some black material.  I cut out a black Rhino and appliquéd him on to the middle of the gold silk.  On raising Day this covered the front of the table where Sir Robert stood.  Post script:  After we knew that the Regimental Centre in Shillong had a museum, we sent it out there as of possible interest.  It has now been framed and hangs in the Officers Mess of the Regimental Centre.  In 1991 the Regiment celebrated its Golden Jubilee.  I was asked to contribute a 10min talk on early memories of the Regiment on a tape, the other contributors being Col Hugh Parsons, Jonah Lloyd Jones and Peter Stein.  This was sent out to the Regiment before the Ceremony and was used in the ’Son et Lumiere’ History of the Regiment, which formed part of the Celebrations.  My bit about the making of the Flag was also made as an audio, so that now visitors to the Museum where the Flag now is can press a button and hear about it!

Ross was desperately anxious not to postpone the Raising Date.  The monsoon was due to break in earnest towards the end of June and it was imperative to get the men to Shillong before the rivers had become uncrossable.  But Official Sanction for the Raising had not come.  Ross asked Bruno ruefully if he knew with the penalty was if an officer in time of war raised a Regiment without sanction?  Sanction came just in time, the men got to Shillong and the Raising Ceremony took place on the lawn in front of Government House.  Sir Robert Reid performed the Raising Ceremony and made an inspiring speech.

Cecil also recalls - 'Many of the men came from very remote tribes, especially the Nagas - and some had never seen a motor car before.  On the whole they adapted amazingly - there were however some nervous moments when they started learning to drive vehicles especially on the narrow tortuous roads of Shillong.  But then there were nervous moments also when Ross decreed that all the officers should ride motor bikes!'

When it came to weapon training there were no machine guns.  To show the men what one looked like, he persuaded the 8th Gurkhas to lend him two, which had been captured by them from the Turks in WW1 and had stood proudly outside their Mess ever since, receiving an annual coat of paint!

By mid October the Elephant Falls Lines (6 miles out of Shillong) had progressed enough for the men to move out there.  Cecil joined them Dec 1st and on the 7th the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour.  Orders came to the Bn to move to Digboi in Upper Assam to take up the role of guarding the Assam Oilfields there from possible parachute landings from the Japanese.  The Regiment was now on an active service basis within 6 months of Raising!

Ross went ahead to Digboi to organise at that end and Bruno arranged the move and the first contingent left Shillong on Dec 11th.  Cecil went with Ross and was allowed to, having applied for a job in the Area Office dealing with cyphers, for which her jobs in Delhi qualified her.  She returned to Shillong to collect and pack up recording that it was sad going back to Elephant Falls bungalow as they had only had one week there.  Arrangements made she travelled by train to Digboi recording what an awful journey it was.  There had been a scare of Japanese raids on Calcutta.  Many Indians, mostly Bengalis were trying to get away and it was chaos.  Ross told her the Area Office was short staffed and rather chaotic so she was at work early and immediately got down to organising the filing system, working hard for about 3 hours.  She recalls: ‘Ross came into the office.  I could tell at once that something was wrong.  He had just had a wire recalling him to G.H.Q. Delhi as GI (Intelligence).  I don’t think anything in his whole Army career was such a bitter blow to Ross as this.  He had put every ounce of himself into the Regiment and to have to leave it just as it had got an active role, was almost more than he could bear.  However, there was nothing for it and this sort of thing has to be expected in the army.  Ross had been made Area commander and had a few other units under his command, such as anti -aircraft guns.  These had arrived under the command of Major George Sheriff.  Ross went down to meet them.  He looked at the guns in amazement.  They were 18 pounders!  The only anti-aircraft guns in India were the few in Karachi, on which these men had been trained.  Sadly next day we bade farewell to Bruno (who had taken over command from Ross).