IADB: In 1780, when Lt. Moorehouse of the British Army raised a unit of 115 men nicknamed
“Thambis” at Chennai, little did he know that the unit of men “Black Pioneers” he raised as a support group would go on to become the foundation for the finest men and officers of the Indian army.
Over time in their 241-year history, Madras Sappers, the earliest engineering group of the Indian Army, have been in the thick of action in many battles. In between, 1780 and 1947, the Madras Sappers served the Queen’s British Army in its battles in India and abroad. Their achievements due to their engineering skills made them a crucial part of every British Army Mission. The Sappers were part of every war the British Army waged in South Asia or the African desert and even in Europe.
The Madras Sappers role In World War I and World War II besides the British Troops is acknowledged by the British and Historians as they played a crucial role in helping the British troops in crossing the Tigris river to Baghdad, protecting the Suez canal and even as far as France and Belgium in 1914 – 1916.
The heroic tales of Thambis in 167 years of service brought laurels for Madras Engineering Group. After 1947, the Thambis of MEG were called out every time India faced challenges. Be it the wars against Pakistan, China, the Kargil conflict or even internal emergencies like floods and disasters.
Even now as India eagerly looks to Zojila Tunnel completion in the coming months to link Leh Ladakh with better all-weather access, the Madras Sappers recall with pride the sacrifice made by their men in the battle of Zojila in 1948.
Historians recall how the Madras Sappers moved from Baltal to Zojila in very hostile terrain. In 1948, the Madras Sappers had to join the action in Jammu and Kashmir to protect Kashmir from infiltration by Pakistani raiders . The biggest challenge was that most of the sappers were south Indians who had never been exposed to such weather conditions. Yet they braved the weather and cleared the roadblocks for the Army to move forward, especially building the 2.5 km long stretch of inhospitable Zojila pass from Baltal when they helped move tanks to the high ranges.
Brigadier T P S Wadhwa , Commandant Madras Engineering Group recalls the heroic effort which saw Indian Army take up tanks to that height of 11,500 feet which shocked the Pakistanis, he told IADB , “ We are glad that now the tunnels are coming up where none expected the vehicles or armored units movement at that time and for many years later. The task that the Thambis took up looked unreal then but they did it in absolutely challenging circumstances ”.
In the process of building the Zojila Pass a Madras Sapper detachment was wiped out in its entirety. The Sappers after 75 years of Independence are still as excited about carrying out the duties that are expected of them. Their Motto “ Sarvatra” ( everywhere ) signifies the crucial role that the units of MEG play in the Indian Army.
With a war cry “Vetri Vetri Ethilyum Vetri Thambi ” ( Victory Victory in Everything Younger Brother ) even the recent covid outbreak did not deter the men at MEG , as they continued with the training schedules through 2020 and ensured that nearly 1500 men passed out during the challenging times. The Madras Regiment takes pride in the skills it imparts to the men who play a key role in battle grounds. Building bridges, Mining areas , de-mining fields and combat engineering support Sappers are essential to every infantry unit.
Madras Sappers have several combat engineering skills which make them unique. Technological advances in modern day warfare have brought several changes to the way the training is conducted at the MEG ,Brigadier TPS Wadhwa, Commandant MEG says, “ Sappers were a vital element earlier and still are an important part of conventional warfare. They will also continue to be crucial as they will be required to ensure mobility , clear mines , lay mines , deactivate IEDs etc ”.
The Engineering skills of MEG ensure that the Indian Army remains mobile over every kind of terrain like swampy and marshy lands , water bodies with its armament and heavy trucks. One of the biggest innovations of the Madras Sappers is the “Bangalore torpedo”. It has been one of the biggest contributions of Madras Engineering Group not just to the Indian Army, but armies across the world who have used the Torpedoes effectively in clearing mined areas . The Bangalore Torpedo was devised by Captain R. L. McClintock, of the Royal Engineers while attached to the Madras Sappers and Miners unit of the Indian Army at Bangalore, in 1912. It was invented as a means of blowing up booby traps and barricades left over from the Second Boer War and the Russo-Japanese War.The Bangalore torpedo could be exploded over a mine without a sapper having to approach closer than about 3 metres .
Imparting the engineering skills is the additional feature of the training which makes them more than being a combat rady soldier. The enhanced training in 14 disciplines is imparted at the sprawling Ulsoor campus. The workshops here impart several trade skills like carpentry , fitting , fabrication, engineering , masonry etc.
Their assigned jobs included constructing bridges, laying roads, clearing mines and digging trenches, in fact the name sapper comes from sap, meaning a kind of trench.
Brigadier Tejpal Singh , Deputy Commandant MEG Centre told this reporter “Thambis are arguably the best soldiers, a claim well supported by endless stories of valour and courage. We have treasured many of these achievements at the MEG Museum. Our challenge at MEG is to keep the entire system running so that each of our men gets the best of training in best of environment”
The skills imparted here are visible, as many vouch for the discipline and training standards. The fact that the Madras Engineering Group has won the best marching contingent every time it has participated in the Republic Day Parade showcases the focus on training. The MEG also takes pride in the quality of sportspersons it has produced. With 5 Dronacharya awardees, 10 Arjuna Awardees and nearly a dozen Olympians, the fitness levels are considerably high. Brigadier Wadhwa told IADB , “ We keep their inspiration levels high, the men motivate each other continuously and appreciate them on every achievement. As the Commandant I ensure that the recognition due to every Thambi comes his way.”
As The Madras Engineering Group celebrated its 241st raising day on 30th Septermber 2021 , the “Thambis” continue about their role which is expected “ Sarvatra” everywhere as they like to break into the popular “thambi song” taking pride in the achievements of their 241 years of existence.