Special to the tribune
British-born Sydney Wignall discovered the secrets of China’s expansion across Tibet to the borders of India and Nepal
Shyam Bhatia in London
India never forgets its enemies, but sometimes has difficulty remembering its friends like the recently deceased British mountaineer who risked his life to gather information about China’s military build-up in the Himalayas.
Sadly, New Delhi has ignored the death of Cheshire-born Sydney Wignall who died a few weeks ago in the UK at the age of 89. A British-born hero and unpaid spy of the Indian Army, he used both brains and brawn to discover the secrets of China’s expansion across Tibet to the borders of India and Nepal.
Wignall suffered frost bite, dysentery and regular beatings at the hands of Chinese army guards during his two-month incarceration in a rat-infested prison in Tibet. After his release, he received profuse thanks from his Indian Army contacts for the valuable data he obtained. But the only ‘reward’ he claimed and obtained was a supply of cricket bats and balls for the children of a Nepalese village school that he visited on his way to Tibet.
In 1955, seven years before the Indian Army’s disastrous rout at the hands of Chinese forces, Cheshire-born Sydney Wignall was inspired to lead a Welsh Himalayan Expedition to try and climb the 25,355-foot-high Gurla Mandhata peak in Western Tibet.
Sponsored by the Liverpool Daily Post newspaper and Life magazine, the ostensible objective of the team was to place the flags of Wales and the Chinese Republic on the Gurla Mandhata summit.
Unbeknown to his fellow climbers, however, Wignall had also agreed to gather information for the Indian Army intelligence worried about China’s secret military build up in what was then the autonomous region of Tibet.
Although he and his fellow climber John Harrop, together with their Nepalese liaison officer Damodar Narayan Suwal, were captured soon after they crossed the ill-defined Nepalese border, the information that Wignall collected was the equivalent of intelligence gold dust.
It was gratefully received and analysed by his Indian Army contact, Lieut-Col ‘Baij’ Mehta, who was later killed during the Chinese invasion of Arunachel Pradesh in 1962. It was passed on to an equally grateful Gen KS Thimayya, who later became India’s Chief of Army Staff. He tried and failed to persuade Jawaharlal Nehru of China’s aggressive intentions.
Tellingly, Wignall subsequently had little time for Indian politicians, especially Krishna Menon, who allowed their communist sympathies to blind them to Beijing’s aim of dominating South Asia.
Wignall had met Menon many years earlier in London in 1940, seven years before Independence, when India’s future defence minister and other fellow left-wing activists toed the Soviet Union’s then policy of avoiding confrontation with Adolph Hitler. Menon called 18-year-old Wignall ‘impertinent’ and Wignall formed the impression that Menon was ‘vain, arrogant and conceited.” He called him ‘A thoroughly detestable man.’
Wignall’s Indian heroes were the likes of Gen Thimayya, Col Mehta and Brig John Dalvi, who, in 1962, had only 2,700 soldiers under his command to resist a Chinese division of 12,000 that swept down on him from the Thagla Ridge in what was then known as the North East Frontier Agency or NEFA.
Brigadier Dalvi’s 7th Brigade, which ran out of ammunition, suffered 90 per cent casualties. Those who survived the immediate onslaught died overnight because they had not been supplied with adequate tents, sleeping bags or warm winter clothing. Brigadier Dalvi himself was captured and tortured. A broken man when he was released, he died a few years later much before his time.
It was while he was preparing for his Himalayan expedition in 1955 that Wignall made contact with a retired Indian Army officer, one Lieut-Col Toby Tobin, who was then the vice-president of the Himalayan Club and editor of the Himalayan Journal. Tobin told him, “You might be able to do some friends a favour” before introducing him to a contact called ‘Singh’ at the Indian High Commission in London.
What followed thereafter was like something out of a John Buchan novel. Singh briefed Wignall about the bellicose statements that some Chinese generals had been making about territorial claims to large parts of Northern India, Nepal, Sikkim and Burma. For that reason the Indian military authorities were interested in rumours of China’s intention of building a military highway in west Tibet, close to the sacred lake of Mansarowar.
“You happen to be the only one visiting what to us is the most sensitive area in the whole border region,” Singh explained. “From a vantage point on the north-west ridge of Gurla Mandhata you would be able to see, with a telescope, any sign of a military encampment in that area, and you could look for evidence of the building of that military highway to west Tibet.”
Supplied with maps provided by the British War office, Wignall and his team soon embarked on their 6,500-mile trip from London to the borders of India, Nepal and Tibet. Within days of crossing into Tibet from the Khatang Pass, however, the three lead members of the team were arrested for illegally crossing into Chinese territory.
For the next two months they were held in freezing, rat-infested rooms and interrogated by a team led by Gen Chang Kuo-hua, the military commander of Tibet. These were hard-line party supporters, very different from the likes of 21st century Chinese communist VIPS like millionaire Bo Xilai who had his son Bo Guagua educated at Harrow, Oxford and Harvard.
General Chang was made of much sterner stuff. His minions beat up and abused the British mountaineers, subjecting them to mock executions and telling them, “You intended disguising your illegal armed invasion of China so that the Tibetans would not know you are agents of a foreign power, Western Fascist Lackey Imperial Running Dogs.”
Wignall himself was told, “Sign the confession that you are a Western Fascist Lackey Imperialist Running Dog of the American CIA and we will be very good to you. Otherwise you will be severely punished.”
Although they were under close surveillance during their captivity, Wignall and his friends were able to extract vital information, both from their interrogators and from some of the more friendly guards.
In what was then the pre-satellite age, Wignall managed to accurately estimate the strength of the secret Chinese army base at Jitkot, 17 miles from Tklakot close to the Nepal border. More importantly he was able to gauge that China’s strategic highway from Lhasa would reach Tklakot within the next two years. And from General Chang he heard how Beijing laid claim to India’s Aksai Chin and NEFA regions, as well as parts of Nepal, Kashmir, all of Sikkim, all of Bhutan and parts of northern Burma.
Much of what Wignall discovered was confirmed and reconfirmed before, during and after the 1962 Chinese invasion of India. He himself neither asked for, nor was given any form of compensation by the authorities in India.
Wignall did brief members of the British Foreign Office about his adventures when he returned to London, but his main satisfaction was extracted from the belief that he had taken high risks for the right reasons. In later years he became an underwater archaeologist, uncovering wrecks in British, Portugese and Panamanian waters. A handful of Indians may still remember both his affection for the country and his perilous exploits in the Himalayas. For them he remains a much-loved friend of Mother India.