Iran, formerly called Persia, has been in the news recently because of its nuclear programme. It brought back pleasant memories of my posting to that country during World War II. At that time, the country was divided into two zones – Britain was responsible for the major part of the country while the Russians administered the areas north of Teheran. Our 12th Indian Division was located at Ahwaz in the South but later moved to Teheran. Our main task was to protect oil-fields and refineries, besides securing the South / North railway from the Persian Gulf to Teheran.
There were only two Indian Officers on the Divisional Staff – Maj Ajit Singh Sodhi (father of Billy and Pickles Sodhi, the famous polo players ) and myself. It was in the first week of November 1943 that our British Commander called both of us and, in hushed tones, told us that the Big Three war leaders – Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin – were coming to Teheran for a strategy conference to end the war. Ajit was given the task of coordinating a birthday reception for Churchill (it was his 69th Birthday) while I was detailed to join the security team at the British Legation where Churchill would be staying. Security was a big headache. The news of their impending arrival had leaked out and our counter- intelligence staff had a tough time tracking down enemy agents who had
infiltrated into the capital. There was also the threat of paradrops by German suicide squads. The British Legation and the Russian Embassy were adjacent to each other but the Americans were some distance away. Fortunately all the major events took place at the Russian Embassy which was literally turned into a security fortress. The birthday party for
Churchill went off well. Knowing his views about India, we were all pleasantly surprised to hear him praise Indian troops for their bravery on many battlefronts. I was delighted to hear from his speech that, out of all the Commonwealth countries, India had made the maximum contribution of providing two million men – all volunteers – for the war
On the final day of the conference, there was a hastily arranged photo-op session for a limited number of war correspondents of the three nations. Churchill insisted that a famous British correspondent be present though his arrival had been delayed. As I was the only officer in the British Legation who had a security pass for the Russian Embassy, I was detailed to act as escort to this correspondent. We made it to the function just in time.
The British correspondent’s seat had been reserved and was closest to the three leaders (I was standing just behind him) My first impressions– Churchill who had been portrayed as a ferocious bulldog by cartoonists, looked like a person with rosy cheeks and boyish enthusiasm. Roosevelt, sitting in a wheel chair, looked pale and gaunt and I felt he would not last long. Stalin, in a Marshal’s uniform and wearing his cap bearing the Red Star, kept silent, intently surveying the audience. His steely cold eyes caught mine for a few seconds.
Believe me, that look sent shivers down my spine!
Lt Gen MN Batra (Retd)
The Big Three by Lt. Gen. MN Batra
In The Middle by Lt Gen MN Batra