Obituary: Lachhiman Gurung, VC, Gurkha rifleman

Share this article

Lachhiman Gurung, VC, Gurkha rifleman. Born: 30 December, 1917, in Dakhani, Nepal. Died: 12 December, 2010, in London, aged 92.

GURKHA rifleman Lachhiman Gurung won the Victoria Cross, our highest award for gallantry in battle, for his bravery on behalf of Allied troops against the Japanese in Burma in 1945. But it was more than 60 years later, after actress Joanna Lumley took up his and the other Gurkhas' cause, that he was allowed to live - and die - in the nation he had largely fought for, Great Britain.

Havildar (roughly equivalent to Sergeant) Gurung was at the forefront of Lumley's campaign of the past few years to ensure that Gurkhas who had served Britain and the Commonwealth should have the right of residence here. Despite his age, the diminutive, multi-medalled figure - missing one eye and most of his right arm from a Japanese grenade - was often by her side during her campaign.

Commenting on his death, Lumley said: "Although he was small in stature, we shall all walk in his shadow."

The British Labour government had refused entry to some 2,000 Gurkhas who had retired before 1997, the year Britain ceded Hong Kong, where the Gurkhas were based, to Chinese control.

Gurung and his comrades were told they had failed to "demonstrate strong ties" to the UK, despite the fact that the Gurkhas have long laid down their lives for king or queen.

In 2008, however, a High Court judge ruled in their favour, leading Lumley and those Gurkhas present to yell their traditional battle cry "Ayo Gorkhali!" - "the Gurkhas are coming!" - a cry that has sent chills down the spine of many an enemy soldier in many a foreign field. Last year Gordon Brown's government finally announced that any Gurkha with at least four years' service who retired before 1997 could stay in the UK.

Gurung settled in 2008 in Hounslow, west London, where he was made a freeman of the borough, later moving to a memorial hospital in Chiswick.

Lachhiman Gurung was born in 1917, near Dakhani, 22 miles from the Nepalese municipality of Bharatpur.

His family tell the story that, just before Christmas in 1941, his father sent him from the family farming plot, trekking over the hills to the village, to get cigarettes. When he returned, it was five years later, he'd forgotten the cigarettes, was blind in one eye, missing his right hand but wearing a medal called the Victoria Cross.

A friend in the village had told him the Japanese had attacked the US military base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and landed on the Malay peninsula.

His friend was on his way to enlist in the 8th Gurkha Rifles so Gurung decided to join him.At only 4ft 11, he would have been rejected in peacetime but found himself as a rifleman in the 4th Battalion, 8th Gurkha Rifles, part of the Indian Army, eventually fighting the Japanese in Burma.

At 1.20 am on 13 May, 1945, Gurung's company found itself surrounded by hundreds of Japanese soldiers.

He himself was in the most forward trench with two comrades when the Japanese threw grenades at them. He tossed back two before they exploded but a third blew up in his hand, shattering his lower arm and blinding his right eye.

His two comrades were seriously wounded but Gurung, firing and reloading with only his left arm, and screaming: "Come and fight a Gurkha!" held the Japanese off for four hours, killing 31 of them, according to official reports.

As a result, his company was able to hold on for another two days until relief arrived and the Japanese were defeated.

Gurung was invested with the Victoria Cross in Delhi on 19 December, 1945, by Field Marshal Lord Wavell, viceroy of India at the time, and Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia.

Friends carried Gurung's frail and aged father Partiman Gurung for 11 days from Nepal to witness the ceremony and hear the citation: "This rifleman's outstanding gallantry and extreme devotion to duty, in the face of overwhelming odds, were the main factors in the defeat of the enemy."

The father assured the son he forgave him from not bringing home the cigarettes.

Despite his handicap, Gurung continued to serve with the 8th Gurkha Rifles until Indian independence in 1947, when he retired to farm a two-acre plot and tend buffalo, oxen, goats and cows in the foothills where he grew up.

It was only in 1995 that his story became known and he was received at 10 Downing Street by Prime Minister John Major, and various charities helped him buy a new house in his home district. And, of course, in 2008, he was invited back to London by Lumley as an icon for her pro-Gurkha campaign.

Gurung last appeared in public during last month's Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the Cenotaph in Whitehall.

Lachhiman Gurung, who died after suffering from pneumonia, is survived by four sons and a daughter.