Col.(R) J.H.H. Coombes

The first principal of Cadet College Petaro was Colonel (R) John Harold Henry Coombes, CBE, E.R.D., M.A.(Oxon), who evokes extreme nostalgic memories for those who have known him, have worked with him, or were students of Cadet College Petaro during his period. He left his mark on the college for posterity. His vision, his tireless efforts and his dedication towards this college continue to bear fruits to this day.

Col. Coombes was born on 28 December 1906 at Guernsey, UK, and died on 18 February 1978 at Sellindge, Kent, UK after suffering a heart attack. His body was cremated near his home.

The colonel married twice. His first wife was Alice, who expired while the colonel was still the principal of Cadet College Petaro. Later on, he married Elsie Annie in the first quarter of 1974 at Folkstone, Kent. She had visited Petaro along with the Colonel in 1971 in his last ever visit to the College.

J.H.H. Coombes started his miltary career in 1926, when he joined the 1st Battalion of the Royal Guernsey Light Infantry as a 2nd Lieutenant. On 9th November 1932, he was inducted into the 57th (Home Counties) Forward Brigade of the Royal Artillery as a 2nd Lieutenant. (ref: pg 7086 of The London Gazette, 1932). With the gathering of clouds of war, Lt. Coombes was called to serve as a regular on 8th May 1935 (ref: pg 2984 of The London Gazette, 1935).

Exactly three years from his date of induction into the Artillery, he was promoted to the rank of a Lieutenant as a Supplementary Reserve Officer on 9th November 1935. (ref: pg 533 of The London Gazette, 1936).

During the War, he was given the rank of a captain. He was promoted to the rank of a major during the war and retained that rank until the end of the Second World War.

In recognition of his gallantry during the war, he was promoted to the rank of a Lieutenant Colonel (Temp). And on 5th December 1946, the King approved a “Mention” of his name for gallantry and distinguished services in the field (ref: pg 5948 of The London Gazette, 1946). He was also moved to the Royal Army Educational Corps (RAEC).

On 3 June 1953, he was promoted to the rank of a full Colonel in the Royal British Army (ref: pg 625 of The London Gazette, 1954). And in November 1953, Queen Elizabeth II conferred the award of Army Emergency Reserve Decoration (E.R.D.) on him (ref: pg 5842 of The London Gazette, 1953).

He received his highest honour from the British government on 8th May 1956, when the Queen ordered his appointment to be the “Additional Commander of the Military Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire” (CBE) in recognition of distinguished services in Malaya during July to December 1955.

The next few months changed the course of Col. Coombes career. He was riding high, and was tipped to be promoted to the rank of a Major General. That is when he met with his major stumbling block.

Principal,Cadet College Petaro

The Colonel was always notorious for his dangerous car driving right up to the end of his life, a habit he never changed. On 20th October 1956 at around 5:40pm, while he was driving his car in Singapore on Changi Road in the direction of the city, his car swerved onto a grass verge on the left side of the road and struck an Indian pedestrian from behind, leading to his instantaneous death. The Colonel continued driving, and did not report the accident to the police for the next fifteen hours. Instead he went to a garage and had the head light of his car repaired. This had been broken at the time of the impact. The windscreen of his car had also shattered and disintegrated completely on collision.

The Traffic District Court Judge Ahmad Bin Ibrahim convicted him on 1st December 1956 and fined him $500 (under Court Arrest Case no. 20 of 1956, I.P.No. 1741/56″TP”. The Deputy Public Prosecutor thought that the fine imposed was too light for the death of the pedestrian, and appealed against the judgment to the High Court of Singapore. Judge J. Knight issued a revised judgment on 5 February 1957 ordering Col. Coombes to serve six months in prison for having caused the death of a pedestrian and returned the fine. The conviction was upheld.

This “lamentable affair” as described by the High Court Judge J. Knight in his judgment brought the colonel’s military career to an end. He was to have been promoted to the rank of a Major General. He was let off relatively lightly because of his otherwise impeccable record. He resigned from the Army on 5th February 1957 – the same day as the final high court judgment against him (ref: pg 2405 of The London Gazette, 1957). He returned to the UK in the summer of 1957 after serving his sentence in Changi Jail. The colonel told friends in later years that he was incarcerated in a communal cell with rapists and murderers. (Full details of this unfortunate incident are recorded in the Certificate Result of Appeal under Magistrate Appeal no. 282 of 1956 in the High Court of the Colony of Singapore).

His loss to the Royal British Army was to be Petaro’s gain, although it was unfortunate for him. Upon his return to the UK, while he was looking for a job, he saw the advertisement for Petaro and applied and was selected. He moved to Pakistan in March 1958. His move to Petaro brought out the best in him.

Cadet College Petaro got the ideal leadership one can imagine under his able management and vision, and he built it on sound principles and traditions that have had a lasting effect over the following decades. CCP and Pakistan are indebted to him forever.

Prior to Col. Coombes, the college was run by Mr. Muhammad Hasnain for a short period of less than seven months while the search for an experienced full time principal was on. Mr. Hasnain was the In Charge (Acting Principal) of the college from August 25, 1957 until Col. Coombes took over as Principal on March 20, 1958. However, Col. Coombes was in reality the first Principal of Cadet College Petaro on a permanent basis and who molded and built the college as such. He remained the Principal of the college for over 7 years when he finally left the college in 1965 and handed over charge to Cdr.(R) Firoz Shah – the second principal.

The following articles written by his staff members and cadets bring out the story of how Petaro rose under this great man’s efforts in such a short period of time. These also demonstrate the love the authors bore for this great man and his dedication, and enlighten us on his life and achievements. Details of his life history can be seen in the article by Cdre.(R) Mirza Ashfaque Beg which is reproduced below.

His last few years were spent at his home in Sellindge which he had named as “Petaro” out of his extreme love for the institution that he had built and nurtured.

After his return from Pakistan to the UK in 1965, Col. Coombes settled down in Sellindge, Kent. In 1968, the Colonel became the Deputy Director of the Southwark Diocesan Board of Education, which looked after the Church of England schools in the south part of metropolitan London and the surrounding Home Counties.

The colonel was forced to retire finally in 1974 due to ill health when he suffered a stroke. He died on 18 February 1978 due to a heart attack at a hospital in Ashford, which is close to his home in Sellindge, Kent as recorded on his death certificate. His second wife Elsie survived him.

Col. Coombes stands tall amongst all Petarians – staff and cadets. He was a visionary and a man of action and decision. He set the standards, and nurtured the college in its infancy and childhood.

He was followed by Cdr.(R) Firoz Shah, who brought the college to maturity during his tenure from 1965 to 1972 and took the college to new heights with successes in academics and sports. Cdr.(R) Firoz Shah’s successor Prof. Syed Shaida Azim was the only civilian principal in the history of the college. Having been associated with the college as the Vice Principal almost from its inception and participating alongside the first two principals in its development, he ended up being the third principal of the college between 1972 and 1975. Thus, his contributions were critical for the development and growth of this great institution. The college had matured.

Col.(R) Coombes had written his World War II memoirs, including an account as prisoner of war during the Malaya campaign. This book was first published in 1948 under the title of “Banpong Express”. It was never printed again. Copies of the first original edition are difficult to find. This book was then reprinted as a part of a memorial book on Col. Coombes by the Petarian Foundation on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee of Cadet College Petaro in February 2007.

I am indebted to Mr. Jeffrey Griffiths, ex-colleague of the colonel in the UK after he left Petaro, who made great efforts in digging out a lot of information about his last few years. He also got me a copy of the complete judgment passed against the Colonel by the High Court in Singapore.

Col. Coombes – A Legend

By Mirza Ashfaque Beg, kit no. 69/Liaquat (now retired Commodore)

[This article was written in the beginning of 1966, when Col. Coombes was alive and was 59 years old, shortly after he had retired from the position of Principal of Cadet College Petaro. It was originally printed in The Cadet magazine of 1966 and later again in The Cadet magazine of 1978, and as a part of the book on Col. Coombes in 2007]

My earliest memory of this giant of a man having a high forehead, a big Western sheriff moustache, and pink and tan face, goes back to my school days at Mirpurkhas about eight years ago.

My eternal impressions of this great man

Col. Coombes, to all appearance, is a plain, downright matter-of-fact fellow, with much less of poetry about him than rich prose. There is little of romance in his nature, but a great deal of strong natural feeling. He excels in humour more than in wit; is jolly rather than gay; melancholy rather than morose and can easily be moved to a sudden tear or a loud laugh; but he loathes sentimentality. He is a boon companion if you allow him to have his humour, and he will stand by a friend with life and purse. He is most graceful in war, particularly when he is victorious. When praised, he will blush like a school girl. He has an Eastern heart and Western mind.

Though inherently a good-hearted, good-tempered old fellow, he is singularly fond of being in the midst of contention. It is one of his peculiarities that he only relishes the beginning of an affray, going into a fight with alacrity but coming out of it grumbling even when he is victorious. Though no one fights with more obstinacy to carry a contested point, yet when the battle is over and he comes to reconciliation, he is so much taken up with the mere shaking of hands, that he is apt to let his antagonist pocket all that they have been quarrelling about. He is like a stout ship which will weather the roughest storm uninjured, but roll its mast overboard in the succeeding calm.

This, in short, is the alpha and omega of Coombes’ nature as I have learnt through years of association.

Col. Coombes at 59 looks energetically fit. His mobile decisive grin is still as practical and as wide as the English Channel, and his friendly eyes are as bright a sea-blue as ever.

Early Life:

Young John’s early life can be condensed into a single sentence which is aptly quoted in Gray’s Elegy:

“That short and simple annals of the poor”.

He was born on 28th December 1906 and named John Harold Henry Coombes. His father was a fisherman in Guernsey, the second largest of the Channel Islands. His mother died when he was 3 years old. Securing a scholarship to Elizabeth College, Guernsey as a day scholar, he walked 4 miles daily to school and then back home. He would leave his home at 7 in the morning and return at 8 in the evening after a full day of drill, lessons, games and prep. He was captain of athletics and colour-holder in football and hockey. He also played cricket and took part in shooting, besides being a prefect and sergeant in the Officers Training Corps from 1918 to 1924.

He won a scholarship to Pembroke College, Oxford in Mathematics (1924-28). Excelling in sports as usual, he was also a College colour-holder in hockey, football, and cricket, and was the Oxfordshire hockey captain from 1926 to 1928. At the same time, he was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant in 1st Battalion of Royal Guernsey Light Infantry. There was conscription in Guernsey and he did a 2-month yearly training during his vacations. He also took part in the Rhine Army of Occupation (when Britain occupied Germany after World War I until 1931). Col. Coombes recalls this period as a wonderful experience, which made him determined to be a soldier one day.

Hard work through incredible hours is the Coombes’ formula adopted perhaps early in life. He simply made sure that as sands of time passed through his hourglass, each grain meant to do something in his programme. As I try to compress into a few pages the life and lessons of this iron disciplined yet warm-hearted man, I can see the kindly twinkle that would come into his eyes at the mention of hard work. I seem to hear him say, “Boy, just remember that most of this world’s useful work is done by people who are pressed for time, or tired, or don’t feel well. There is one way to get a job done – just shove your back into it and do it”.

In 1928, he got double pneumonia at the time of Degree Examination, so he could not take it. Instead of returning for a 5th year at Oxford, he took a job as an inspector of cotton plantations in the Sudan, where he stayed from 1928 to 1932. There he learnt to read and write Arabic and decided to join the Sudan Civil Service. He remembers: “My application was turned down, since they wanted young men from Oxford and Cambridge. So I became a prep-school master at £ 90 a year”, whereas he had been earning £ 1,000 a year with free house, horses, camels and servants in the Sudan (there were no cars then). Meanwhile he remained a Volunteer Officer in the Sudan Defence Force.

But he was happy as a school master and he says, “The job of teaching was rewarding”.

In 1935, he wanted to get married so he worked hard from 4am to 8pm. He then taught and went up to Oxford and took B.A., and then married and obtained a job as Senior Geography Master with French as second subject at a Public School where he took an M.A. in 1939.


Recalling his days at Oxford, he writes, “I believe that academic excellence is a useless qualification for life. One lives with human beings an only through a knowledge of human nature and sympathy with other fellows can any one succeed in life. Of course you must know the theory of your job, but the practice consists in persuading your subordinates so that it is worthwhile being a friend to your colleagues and subordinates. At Oxford, I met people from all over the world and talked with them about every conceivable thing. So l learnt view-points and opinions and knowledge of other people. The academic side was secondary”.

World War II:

Col. Coombes was called up in August 1939 as captain in Royal Artillery Regiment to proceed to France with the advance party of the British Expeditionary Force. He was later transferred to R.A.F. He was captured at Durkirk and later escaped to England and remained with the 4th Squadron till 1941.

In late 1941, he was posted to command 330 Artillery Battery of 137 Field Regiment to join the 11th Indian Division in Malaya. His Regiment reached in time to be in the first Indian battle against the Japanese at Jitra on the Siamese (Thai) border and Capt. Coombes had his last battery position on the beach at Singapore when this “Gibraltar of the East” fell to the Japanese on 15th February 1942. He remained prisoner of war till August 1945.

Prisoner of War:

As a prisoner of war, he has written a book called “Banpong Express”, which is a vivid narrative of the Malayan campaign and of life as a prisoner of war under the “death shadow” of the Imperial Japanese Army. This book was written in the prisoner of war camp at Nangpladuk (Siam). The script was hidden in the lining of one gallon thermos container, which being in use in the cook house was never detected by the Japanese.

His regiment fought for 9 weeks and suffered in a lost cause. Out of the original 700 who came to Malaya, three Officers (including the C.O.) and 28 men were killed in action and 184 died the miserable death of prisoner of war. Col. Coombes writes, ” Those of us who remained have experienced the bitterness of defeat and the humiliation of captivity under conditions as macabre as any in the history of warfare. We were indeed lucky that the end came when it did. Now we can live again and hope that out of our experiences we may fashion a philosophy of life dynamic enough to be effective in a war-weary world. It must not happen again”.

Second Oxford:

When I asked him recently to give his impressions as a prisoner of war, he writes, “As guest of the Japanese, I worked as a coolie building railways, and met Malays, Chinese, French, Americans, Dutch and Indians who were also coolies. And I talked with them and liked some of them, and had the equivalent of a second Oxford education. That was the compensation of my three and a half years in the ‘Shadow of Death’.”

After the war, the Colonel stayed as a free man and was then a Lieut. Colonel. He recalls, “I had a wonderful time in Siam, Burma, Indo-China and Malaya, and learnt to know and like more of these people and they ways and life”.

A Wonderful Job:

He returned to the U.K. in May 1947 and wanted to become a regular soldier as gunner. It was turned down due to his age, so he took down his Lt. Colonel’s badges of rank and joined the R.A.E.C. as a Captain on short service commission.

In 1949, he went to I.S.S.B. and did the “acrobatic” course on the obstacles and “the rest”. He passed the test and at last became a regular soldier. He was immediately promoted as Lieut. Colonel. He was then promoted to the rank of Colonel in 1951 and appointed as Chief Education Officer, Anti-aircraft Command. As he had been Lieut. Colonel in Royal Artillery, he knew how a real fighting soldier lived and his education was based on his needs so he was welcome everywhere. In 1954, he went to Singapore as Chief Education Officer, Far East. His province extended from Korea to Hong Kong and Borneo, Malaya to India and Nepal, and in the South Ceylon, and on the SEATO from Australia, New Zealand and Philippines.

He was producing daily English newspapers in Korean, Malay, and Gurkhali in Malaya and Hong Kong. He had also started British, Gurkhali, and Malay Children’s School. He did a lot in the fields of Education, Language training and Broadcasting. He recalls all this work as a “Wonderfully satisfying job”. Thus, he was awarded C.B.E. for this.

The unkindest cut of all:

He writes, “Then I killed an Indian. He stepped off the pavement and the sun was in my eyes. I did not see him, and my car hit him. There was no witness, but I pleaded guilty.  “Merdeka” was in the air. The Malay authorities wanted a European whipping boy, and I returned to Changi jail (the same prisoner of war camp where he was kept on 15th February 1942) with six months imprisonment. Thus ended my army career. I was about to be promoted as Major General. Instead I lost everything”.

Not an ordinary convict

Col. Coombes returned to the U.K. and saw the Pakistan Government advertisement in the Times for the position of Principal, Cadet College Mirpurkhas. He applied and told the Interview Board the truth about why he left the army. He writes, “I was accepted and came to Pakistan to show the world that Coombes was not an ordinary convict. I decided to produce a good Cadet College and set about the task with no preconceived ideas, except to produce young men who were more concerned with the Code of Honour and being sympathetic human beings than to obtain First Divisions. I was not concerned about academic results simply but about ‘Real Men’. I could afford to be independent and do as I pleased since if they put me in prison, it would not be the first time.”

Code of Honour

His eyes brightened when I asked him about the raw stuff from which he wanted to produce such “Real Men”. He replied, “I like the young Pakistani boys. I was impressed by the charm of most boys, their affection for their families and their desire to please. I hope Pakistan will get some outstanding leaders from Petaro. I believe that the future generation of Pakistan will stand or fall by their belief in the Code of Honour”.

Referring to his struggle for having led the College through storms of hope and despair for seven long years to establish this idea and dream of Petaro into a reality, and the sands of the Indus banks into an oasis, he says, “I enjoyed fighting all the time against parents’ objections, the sands of Sindh, the Finance Department, etc to produce the impossible in the desert. Up to a point, I am satisfied. It has been exhausting and stimulating, but my successor will have to fight all the way to keep his head above water, and he will succeed in as much as he keeps the Team Spirit going through the staff – because you have to fight the desert all the time. If you relax, it will win.”

Inter Services Schools Sports Tournament

When I asked him to comment as to what inspired him with the idea of the Inter Services Schools Sports Tournament, he seemed so glad to narrate. “This was the start of an idea” he says. “Boys from the Punjab, East Pakistan, Sindh should meet and get to know each other, and fight their battles on the playing fields also. Of course by seeing other schools, one can obtain ideas from them and compare one’s own system. Petaro held no monopoly over everything that was good.”

Tremendous Help

Col. Coombes talked of his 25 years of married life with the joy that only those who have great capacity for love can understand and appreciate. He has been a lucky man and his wife was a big part of his achievements. Recalling his wife, he told me in a rather sentimental tone, “My wife was a tremendous help. I had an excellent wife who was polyandrous, for she was wedded to my job as well as to me and she was responsible for keeping me in the right direction. Moreover, she readily made friends with both seniors and juniors. This is not always the case. And believe me, a wife can make or mar her husband’s career.

A Legend

In his many-sidedness, Col. Coombes became an inspiration to a number of his pupils. To a host of people around him, he imparted not only the team spirit but how to live with themselves and with others. No man should be passive about lie. He should commit himself and should care extensively about a number of things in life. He lays himself open to the pain of loss, but it is worth it. Nothing is as empty and meaningless as a life without action. Colonel was a symbol of what he said.

Major Alam Jan Mahsud (now retired Lieut. General), who worked with him as his Adjutant has paid glittering tributes to his memory. He writes, “As for Col. Coombes, all I can say is that apart from being a good teacher and a tireless administrator, he was a noble soul indeed. It was indeed a pleasure to work with him. I have seen very few dedicated persons like him.”

Col. Coombes and Petaro are one and inseparable. Col. Coombes will live as the legend of Petaro for all times to come. His life is a lesson that one should practice. And like him, when one leaves this world as a better place than what he found, then when his turn comes, he dies happily with the feeling and belief that he has done his best.

In an ever changing world where even the skylines of cities are transformed from one generation to another, only one thing endures, and that is the “Remembrance of Love”.

The Colonel’s Final Years

By Jeffrey Griffiths

(Jeffrey Griffiths was a colleague of Colonel Coombes in London from 1972 onwards, and was associated with him until his death in 1978)

I met Colonel Coombes as my work colleague when I took up a post in London in 1972. He was then the Deputy Director of the Southwark Diocesan Board of Education which looked after Church of England schools in the south of London.

I much admired the Colonel for all that he had achieved and experienced although, in the fast changing London of the 1970s, he had become a man out of his time. He appeared to me like a living reminder of the British Raj as I listened to the stories he had to tell. The Colonel worked himself too hard for a man of his age but his spirit was still strong even if the body was becoming weakened. He lived in cheap lodgings in London during the week, arriving at the office at an early hour and working on till late. Copious cups of tea and cigarettes sustained him and his favourite cry of “God Save The Queen on a bicycle!” still rent the office air at intervals. A pint of beer was taken by him regularly at lunchtime and he would then often snooze at his desk for a while in the afternoon. Secretaries had problems in interpreting his minute handwriting, a habit which he ascribed to the time when he’d kept a secret journal during his time as a Japanese prisoner of war – or detained as ‘a guest of his Imperial Majesty the Emperor of Japan’ as he put it.

The Colonel owned a small Fiat car which he drove furiously and no one wanted to be his passenger as a result. On the weekends he drove to his home in Kent, not far from the Channel port of Folkestone, to be with his beloved second wife Elsie. She was younger than him and her playful teasing was the perfect foil for Colonel’s more traditional manner. We worked together until illness forced his retirement in 1975 – in fact, I drove him to hospital after he suffered a minor stroke at his office desk. I maintained contact with him until his death in early 1978. I was saddened by how few people were present at the funeral of this man who had lived such a rich life. He was cremated near his home in Kent.

Colonel Coombes – What a Wonderful Man He Was

By Prof. Aziz Ahmed Faruqui (One of the first five teachers who joined Cadet College Petaro in 1957)

[This article was published originally in Urdu in The Cadet magazine of 1978. Translated into English by Kazi Zulkader Siddiqui, kit no. 671/Latif, and was published in the book about Col. Coombes in Feb. 2007]

ﺣﻖ ﻣﻐﻔﺮﺕ ﻛﺮﮮ ﻋﺟﺐ ﺁﺯﺍﺩ ﻣﺮﺩ ﺗﻬﺎ

Haqq maghfirat karay, ajab azaad mard tha

(May the Lord have mercy on him; he was a unique independent man indeed)

The death of Col. Coombes was no less than tragic news for those of us who had known him closely. They knew him as a man who had passed the prime of his age when he joined Cadet College Petaro as its first Principal after having gone through a very fulfilling life. Yet they also recognized him as a man who never gets old. He had indeed become legend for Cadet College Petaro. The two are inseparable.

He was the one who laid the foundation stone of Petaro College and saw it grow and blossom stage by stage. This is why it is almost next to impossible to imagine the personality of this great man without Petaro. He even named his home in the UK as “Petaro”. He filled his home with pictures of buildings of Petaro, never wanting to keep it out of his sight. Prior to his death, he expressed an intense desire to visit Petaro again in his letters to his dear friends & students in Pakistan.

The establishment of the first Cadet College in Sindh happened in exceptional circumstances. The abrupt decision of government and preference of Primary Teachers’ Training School building at Mirpurkhas, the selection of initial teaching staff and 30 cadets, the hurried modifications to the existing building of the school was all a hurried affair. This in itself is a long story. Only those who participated in this struggle truly know how the difficulties were surmounted and the impossible was made possible. The building given for the purpose was merely a barren structure without water and electricity. And neither was there any office furniture for the staff, nor were there sleeping beds for the cadets.

On 5th August 1957 when 5 members of staff stepped onto its premises, it was nothing but a desolate and dreary place. After great efforts, a few sleeping beds were arranged which were utilized for every known purpose by the boys – for resting, sitting, lying down, dining and keeping their meager possessions. There was not a drop of water to drink, as there were no earthen pots to store the water. But the spirit and enthusiasm of the staff – teaching and others – was admirable. Not a single soul cared for his personal convenience or comfort. Every person jumped into this struggle for survival with the sole ambition to achieve the ultimate goal irrespective of his place or position. The untiring efforts of 22 days finally bore fruit. Finally, on 27th of August 1957, the college was ready to ceremoniously welcome the 30 new students.

In the beginning, the young teachers had no concept of the nature or objectives of a cadet college or what made it different from other schools. But a mission had been paving the way and their sincere untiring efforts were the guiding stars. In fact this small teaching place had become their personal enterprise. The senior-most amongst the teachers was also temporarily assigned the task of the acting Principal of the college.

Within a few months, the developments at the college were so amazing that it became a matter of utmost surprise for every visitor and parent. Likewise, officers of the British Council were so appreciative of the college that they offered their assistance for the appointment of a Principal. This led to the appointment of a full time Principal in the form of Col. Coombes who joined as head of Cadet College Mirpurkhas.

Col. Coombes was a man of moderate height, stocky and very sturdy, with bright eyes and an ever-smiling face. But probably the most impressive part of his features was his thick moustache that dominated over his personality.

I remember my very first meeting with him, which was more of a disappointment. My initial impression was that this man’s educational skills were very superficial. During this meeting, the key point that he tried to impress upon us was a display of his knowledge of Arabic language. God alone knows who had given him the impression that his Arabic language skills were superlative. Or maybe he was under this mistaken notion since he had served in Sudan for some time. Therefore he presumed that he was quite an expert in Arabic. During our first conversation, he would ask each one of us teachers about something to do with Arabic. Turning towards me, he asked “What is the plural of Coombes?” At this sudden inquiry, I was rather nonplussed. Smiling over my confusion, he exclaimed “Camabeez” and burst out laughing over his victory. This was his peculiar trait – a game of trick followed by a loud laugh.

Very soon during the initial days, we started to experience his style of management. We realized that he preferred not to interfere in our work in any way. He would observe and analyze us from a distance, would unobtrusively weigh our strengths and weaknesses; and then he would try to comprehend us and form an opinion on concerned matters. But when he would come to a firm conclusion, he would take the matter into his own hands and pass a decision accordingly. His power of comprehension was truly amazing – rather awe-inspiring. The manner in which he understood the Pakistanis and the Pakistan government bureaucracy and its ways tells us a lot about this man. Under normal circumstances, any newcomer to this country would face great difficulties. Rather, one can easily assume that it would be an almost impossibility to deal with the local ways and the local bureaucratic red-tape. The Colonel mastered it and overcame it.

To say he was hard-working would be an understatement.  Besides, he was a master at crisis management. He would stay calm regardless of the extent or gravity of a crisis situation. He could never sit idle. Therefore Prof. Shaida Azim gave him the nickname of “the restless soul”. Driving fast was his hobby. Thus, travel to Karachi, Hyderabad, and Mirpurkhas was like going next door. This racing habit of his would be a constant source of minor accidents and jokes about the Colonel.

The college was in constant need of supplies for the mess and other daily use items. These were normally out-sourced. The late Mr. Hazir was a well known contractor of supplies for the college for many years. Mr. Hazir was indeed Colonel Sahib’s find. He discovered him in Karachi. On one occasion, the Colonel was driving Hazir Sahib from Karachi to Mirpurkhas in his car. As the Colonel drove, Hazir Sahib asked him to stop the car midway. Disembarking from the car, he said, “Colonel Sahib a few days remain of my life. I cannot sacrifice it for the sake of a contract”.

Our stay in Mirpurkhas was temporary. One of the buildings had been converted into a hostel, and with great difficulty we were able to accommodate the first 30 cadets. This small place could not accommodate more boys. When 33 new boys we admitted the following year, accommodation became a serious issue. We were forced to shift. Now a new site was needed. Many places were suggested for a permanent place, such as Tandojam, Bulari, Petaro and even Mirpurkhas. When the teachers’ opinion was sought, they approved of all suggestions except for Petaro, which they had never heard of. It was our desire that the Colonel would either opt to keep us in Mirpurkhas or move to Tandojam. Riding over all opinion, Col. Coombes chose Petaro as the ultimate site for the college. None of us had ever seen the place. Colonel Sahib would visit this new place every day and narrate to us updated reports of progress and development. We were all quite satisfied that since the Colonel had chosen the place, it must have many virtues. It was beyond our imagination that a Londoner could choose a barren, desolate place.

Then one day all of us teachers and students finally got a chance to see Petaro. All the way to Jamshoro, we were all very happy. But as the bus got off the main road after Jamshoro and meandered towards Petaro on an uninhabited, quiet and deserted road, we started feeling a bit uneasy and restless. The road seemed unending – so deserted and dry – that our anxiety found no bounds. By the time we reached the Petaro railway crossing, we were utterly dismayed.

We had the shock of lives – no villages, no people, no trees, and no greenery.  There was only a railway track accompanying us next to the road. As our bus crossed the railway track, Colonel Sahib’s face was beaming with joy. Turning towards us, he declared “Only two miles more”. As we traversed those two miles, we found ourselves standing amidst buildings that were in ruin. Every where we looked, all we found were walls standing with no roof or there was debris and nothing else. We were told these were hangars constructed during the Second World War. Our hopes were dashed. For most of us this place was more desolate than what we had ever imagined it to be.  This seemed to be a day of remorse for us. Neither the disheartened looks on the faces of the boys nor the disappointment expressed by the teachers seemed to have any effect on Colonel Sahib. He was more than satisfied with his decision.

During the following summer holidays (1959) we moved to Petaro. At that point in time, the total number of constructed buildings was only three houses. As we arrived, heavy rains started, flooding the entire area. The floods caused such havoc that the roads to Hyderabad were blocked and the trains were suspended. Only one shuttle train used to be available in 24 hours.

Colonel Sahib had a marvelous quality that whatever he wanted to achieve, he would put in his best effort and make it happen. And through his untiring efforts, he would make it easy for others. Thus he would generate a passion amongst his staff members to join in the effort. He would make it a point to appreciate the work done by others in proportion to their efforts – neither more nor less. He had an uncanny method of estimating the worth of the workers and could judge their willingness in work very well. He would easily erupt into rage, but the word “sorry” would immediately mellow him and cool down his temper. Then his face would be worth seeing. Colonel Sahib would lower his gaze and would seem to be remorseful, as if the fault was his.

Those were hard times. The staff and boys were dedicated to put their best foot forward and to succeed in making Petaro a success. Regardless of whether there were dunes of sand or rock strewn roads, Col. Coombes’ car would reach that remote area. There was only one hostel completely constructed at that time, namely Jinnah House. The other hostel building, i.e. Liaquat House was under construction. The House Master used to live in one of the rooms of the hostel. There were no play grounds. It is not possible to play either football or hockey on sandy land; and cricket was out of the question. Regardless, Colonel Sahib would make it a point to participate in games regularly. He would himself play hockey as well. It is impossible to forget his bright red vest, his vintage hockey stick, a large towel on his shoulders and his stocky running style. We could never control our laughter as we cheered him on. Regardless of our light-heartedness, he would be so engrossed in the game as if it were a World Cup tournament match. He would respond to our laughter with his unforgettable guffaws. In reality, he would act like a child on the playing field.

I can well imagine those events in the back of my eye to this very day. The college team would be playing and he would be busy making the most noise. Being fidgety as he was, he would move his position constantly and his noisiness would increase in favor of the team that would be losing. He would look at us with his hawkish eyes and move his position as if he were rallying us to force us to join him in his agitation. He would sit there as long as the match would last, and would heckle and argue with the people around him. Often he would place a bet, which he lost mostly. I have never seen him win a bet. Whether the match would be at Hasan Abdal or at Petaro, his “Buck up Petaro” could be heard from afar. The Colonel was rather non-musical in his shouts – neither rhythm nor rhyme. Thus when he would utter and extend the last syllable of “oooo” of the word “Petaro”, it would be rather jarring for the ears. Our faces would turn red when teachers of other colleges would smile at this obvious aberration. But his absolute love for Petaro was such that it would cause him to do anything.

Some of his decisions were highly “Coombish” (if I may be permitted to coin this word). Only God knows whether his decisions were made in all seriousness or were in jest. When the person in charge of hockey protested that hockey could not be played on sand, he issued orders to play the game on the runway of the old airfield next to the college. He personally proceeded to the airfield stating that this is the ideal place to play hockey. But the person in charge of hockey did not take the team to the airfield the next day, he did not insist.

Likewise, he was very fond of tennis. He was able to coax the teachers to play tennis. He would himself play the game and would encourage others. The interesting part is that he did not appoint pickers on the plea that playing means exercise; and in the absence of pickers, the players take double advantage of exercise.

A similar decision was to send the cadets daily to Liaquat Medical College Jamshoro (around 10 miles away) for swimming under supervision of a Duty Master. All of us vehemently opposed this decision. He agitated against our opposition for many days; however he would always respect and accept what the majority point of view and unanimous decisions. Regardless of how upset or angry he would be, he would not change the decision unilaterally.

Once somebody suggested in jest that Thana Bula Khan is not as hot a place, and would be more suitable for preparations of annual examinations. A team was formed and sent to Thana Bula Khan for survey. I was a part of that team. When we reported back that there was no proper accommodation available there for the cadets to stay, he was disappointed.

He loved Petaro to the point of madness. He considered himself to be the ruler over Petaro; or rather he treated Petaro as if it were his own estate – a jageer. It was his utmost desire to live here and die here. Once at a feast hosted by a local landlord, he jokingly said “Sain, I would like to work as a gardener (mali) in your garden after my retirement”. The poor man was a rather perturbed at this statement taking it seriously, and remarked “we are poor people here and we live under your protection”.

Col. Coombes practiced punctuality as if it were a malady. He was always punctual and forced others to be the same. He was so particular that if a team arrived late, he would cancel the match. If a movie would start late, he would get up and leave. In case anyone arrived late, he would leave him behind and move on. Knowing his habit, we also emulated him when once he was the defaulter. We did the same to him that he would to others. He felt embarrassed but remained silent.

One such incident occurred at the commemoration of Seerat ul Nabi. He was late. We waited 5 minutes for him and started the proceedings. He arrived 10 minutes later, and sat on a back bench. After the function was over, we found his letter of apology waiting for us when we reached our homes.

The college was finally taking shape. With the passage of time, different facilities were built – houses for teachers, various buildings, playing fields, roads, etc. The residents of Petaro were facing lesser difficulties by the day. Regular daily routine, teaching programs and other activities were established. When he saw that routine is in proper, Colonel Sahib started to explore new avenues of activities. He visited Lahore, Jhelum, Hasan Abdal, Sargodha and developed relations with similar colleges in those places. This led to the establishment of ISSST (Inter Services Schools Sports Tournament). With a contingent of 25 cadets, he proceeded to Cadet College Hasan Abdal, the venue of the first tournament. Our team’s performance was not up to the mark. Our boys were quite young and inexperienced. Besides it was the month of December and the cold weather had set in – something which our boys were not used to. Our new teams could not rival the mature & trained cadets of Jhelum and Hasan Abdal, although they competed well. Despite the fact that ours was the third position, Colonel Sahib was still satisfied by the performance of our teams. He was already planning and strategizing for the future. The process had started, and the games were held in future years at Bahawalpur, Lahore, Jhelum and Hasan Abdal. The relationship that was built with these colleges benefited Petaro tremendously. We learnt a lot from these institutions and our relations with them continue to this day. Finally, we attained the standard and heights in sports with the result that Petaro remained the winner continuously for four years. The ISSST trophy remained permanently with Petaro, although Col. Coombes did not remain behind to see the day. He must be given the credit of being the pioneer and for laying the foundations for later successes. Colonel Sahib was in London, from where he would eagerly await the results of the annual tournament and would send congratulatory messages upon hearing of Petaro’s successes.

At times Colonel Sahib would display some very unique characteristics. Due to shortage of water resources, he kept a keen eye on how it was utilized. He would even impose fines on people who wasted water. In case a mali would make such a mistake, he would impose the fine on himself. Once as he stepped out of his own house, he saw water flowing from a tap on the lawn of the house in front of his own. As he marched towards that house to challenge the perpetrator, he happened to glance at his own lawn. Water was flowing from a hose pipe on his lawn. He immediately turned back and shut off the valve of the tap on his own lawn. It was now the turn of the other lawn. But as he went in that direction, the owner of that house had also shut off his valves. He was taken aback as he was unable to extract the fine.

Another great characteristic of Colonel Sahib was that whenever he delegated an assignment or authority to anybody, he would not interfere again in his work. He would only be concerned with the results. He would observe his actions minutely but would not interfere until the task would be completed. In case the result was good, he would extend his appreciation profusely. He maintained personal relations with every member of the staff. These close relations with his staff members continued even after he left for London. He would respond to every single letter he received from Pakistan. If a teacher, cadet or friend would go to London, he would invite him to his residence, arrange dinner for him and entertain him. In case he was unable to entertain him at home, he would take him out to a restaurant in London. Col. Muhammad Khan has narrated this hospitality in detail in his interesting travelogue “ba-salamat rawi”.

Col. Coombes loved to eat and drink. Whether it was consumption of water, tea or anything else, he exceeded the limits of prudence. This may have been a weakness on his part. Likewise, when anyone would invite him for dinner, he would gladly accept and would show extreme delight at this gesture. Some people would try to take advantage of this attitude of his. By temperament, he truly belonged to the Victorian Age. His value base reflected this very much – the same manners, same classical ways of life, and the same zest for work. He was convinced that the English people are best for teaching of English language. Therefore, he appointed number of teachers from England. He had considered them to be the ideal teachers and would set an example for the Pakistani teachers so that they may emulate them. What he seemed to have overlooked was that rather than being in his ideal Victorian Age, we in fact now belong to the latter part of the twentieth century. The English teachers arrived from England. However their performance was no better than the Pakistani teachers. They were as active and as lethargic as the Pakistani teachers. They were more concerned with their own demands and compensation. Although he was not quite satisfied with their performance, he still had a soft corner for them. This led to a level of resentment amongst the Pakistani teachers. Many years later when he visited Petaro after retirement, he openly acknowledged that the English staff were keener on their personal compensation and were not as efficient as they should have been.

He was an extremely keen observer of the capabilities of his subordinates and knew how to gauge people. His selection of a man for a job would yield the appropriate results. His relationship with some people was extremely warm, while others were not as close. In fact his relations with many others were rather nominal. But when it came to his evaluation of their work, relationships would be set aside, and he would always base his final judgment on merit. There was no room for personal likes and dislikes. Certain persons who had high expectations due to their relation with him, found themselves frustrated when the expected reward in proportion to their relations did not materialize. In fact it came as a rude shock and a disappointment.

Col. Sahib had a mania for learning Urdu and Sindhi words. He would repeat a word he learnt several times in order to make it a part of his permanent vocabulary. He would always use the phrase “my hukm” instead of “my order”. Perhaps “hukm” is more forceful than “order”. He would always say dhobi rather than “washer man”. One of his pet sentences in Urdu was “Petaro din dooni, raat chowgni taraqqi karayga”. He would write this sentence down on paper again and again as if it’s writing it down would ensure its happening. However, he would normally fail in his spoken utterances. On Parents’ Day he wanted to read a Persian couplet, in which the word “maa’il” was used. Despite repeated practice sessions, he could not pronounce it properly. I pointed out to him the pronunciation of this word is similar to the English word “mile” and he should speak it out as if he were saying the word “mile”. He appreciated my point. But while delivering his speech, he again failed to pronounce the word correctly. Likewise, he would make great efforts in trying to learn Sindhi pronunciation, but when he would read it out, no one would understand him. I guess he has truly proven the point that the English have little competence for learning foreign languages.

It was Colonel Sahib’s dream to make Petaro the biggest Cadet College in Pakistan. Every year he would increase the number of students as much as he possibly could.  Rightly or wrongly he felt a pride at his actions. He had hoped to stay here for 10 years more, but when the tenure of his contract ended, and against his hopes no extension was granted, he became very dejected. He would sit alone on his lawn lost in thoughts. His domestic servants saw him in tears at times in this state of depression. During one of his farewell speeches, he became very emotional. His face had turned pale, when he returned to his bungalow, he wept bitterly. He would weep like children do.

The day he was leaving, he looked so extremely depressed. His luggage was loaded into the car trunk. He smiled courageously. But behind the curtain of that smile, one could see his sadness – a man extremely depressed and broken hearted. His nerves were beyond his control. There was nothing to do but he displayed a sense of alertness and action. All of us could feel that internal pain as much as he did.

It was now time to depart. We shook hands and he took his seat in his car. He could not hold his tears back. Neither could we hold back our grief. At that moment, every person there felt like a lost man. It was impossible to control our tears as we bid him adieu. The car moved, kerchiefs were waved and gradually his car disappeared in to the distance and beyond the horizon, leaving Petaro behind.

Col. Coombes the Great

By Muhammad Kaleemullah, (who served as the first Admin Officer, Cadet College Petaro from 1957 until his retirement in 1994)

[originally printed in The Cadet magazine 1978, and then reprinted in the book on Col. Coombes in Feb. 2007]

“Mighty of heart, mighty of mind, magnanimous – to be this is truly great”, said Ruskin. Col. Coombes has undoubtedly a great heart, a great mind, and generous he indeed was – even to a fault.

It is for the great to measure his greatness or to point out those sides of his character where he was just an ordinary human being. A humble man like me can only be full of admiration for him.

Col. Coombes, CBE, ERD, MA (Oxon) arrived on the scene when the Cadet College was an infant, barely six months old. We were housed in a borrowed building at Mirpurkhas with a handful of cadets, and herded together by the heroic efforts of Mr. A.M. Nizamani, the then Director of Education of Hyderabad Region. The hope that this small school would ever grow up to be one of the premier institutions of the country seemed to be no more than an impossible dream in those difficult days.

From the first day, Col. Coombes started formulating his ambitious plans to shape this little school into a great Cadet College. The obstacles to be surmounted were enormous but the Colonel was made of no ordinary stuff. It was his great determination and extraordinary energy that allowed him to bull-doze all obstacles that lay in his way. He worked so hard and so inspiringly that the entire staff from the humblest to the highest left no stone unturned to give the new institution a rally firm and solid foundation. The result was that within a period of seven years, he succeeded in establishing a first-rate Cadet College at Petaro on a rocky plain. It was the magic of his enthusiasm and magnetism of his personality that transformed it into a veritable oasis.

When the time came for the Colonel to say goodbye to the institution to which he had given his heart and soul and which he had nursed with his life-blood, the brave soldier of the British Army – who had seen much action during the Second World War and had even been a prisoner of war with the Japanese – wept like a forlorn child. And he had so endeared himself to all his staff and cadets that there was not an eye in Petaro that did not shed tears at his departure.

Col. Coombes’ love for his foster child was so abiding and unabated that when he found himself a home in England to spend the twilight years of his life, he called his house “PETARO”. His greatest pleasure at “Petaro” in England was to entertain guests from Pakistan and his joy knew no bounds if they happened to be Petarians.

Col. Coombes visited Petaro again in 1971. He arrived with the new Mrs. Coombes – his good Old Lady having died in England while he was still Principal at Petaro. He was given a tumultuous welcome by one and all and his happiness at being once again at his beloved Petaro was unbounded indeed. Pointing towards his charming wife Elsie, he said: “She got only half my heart. The other half is here”.

I would now like to say a few words about Col. Coombes’ extraordinary and lovable character.

The Colonel was extremely fond of entertaining guests. Dinners at his bungalow were an almost every day affair. After dinner sessions at this place and the entertaining conversation interspersed with jokes and riddles used to be a real treat for those who enjoyed his lavish hospitality. Col. Coombes himself was a good trencherman and a very fast eater. He would finish the hottest soup in no time and consume fast quantities of food with great relish.

Col. Coombes was a hardworking man and a hart task master, but his jokes and good humour often relieved the vigour of long endless hours of work. He had a smattering of Arabic and once asked Mr. Faruqui to tell him the plural of Coombes. Mr. Faruqui was perplexed. The Colonel laughed at his discomfiture and said, “The plural of Coombes is Camabeez.”

One Mr. Bukhari rang up Col. Coombes and asked him to inform Sqn. Ldr. Shaikh that he was coming to see him. The Colonel promptly wrote a chit to Sqn. Ldr. Shaikh that “Mrs. Fever” was on her way to see him. *

Col. Coombes was witty. He could nonplus the most eloquent speaker by a gentle stroke of wit. Once he went to see the Registrar of the Sindh University. The Registrar, who had a weakness for rhetoric, stated a learned discourse on education in honour of the distinguished visitor. The Colonel listened in amazed and amused silence until the scholar said with great emphasis, “Poison can not be sugar just as sugar cannot be poison”. The Colonel remarked gently, “It can”.  “How?” asked the master of elocution. “For the diabetic” retorted the Colonel and left the rhetorician dumb-founded.

Col. Coombes had some Johnsonian qualities in him. He was exceedingly fond of tea and like Johnson he did not count by the teacups but by teapots. He also drank jugs full of lemon juice. The result of taking so much liquid was that he sweated profusely all day and had to carry a towel with him to keep wiping of the perspiration.

The Colonel was always in a “frantic hurry”. Letters he wrote had the subscript in “frantic hurry”. He drove his car in a “frantic hurry”, and he got off the train in a “frantic hurry”. Mr. Bhatti, the station master of Petaro in the Colonel’s days was always afraid of the Colonel going under the wheels while trying to jump on to the platform from a moving train.

One early morning, he went on a trial drive with an applicant for a motor vehicle driver’s job. He made the driver accelerate the vehicle so much around a “bund” that it overturned and both the Colonel and the driver were trapped underneath it. They were fortunate to be extricated by the occupants of a rare bus on that unfrequented road. Luckily, both escaped with minor injuries although the microbus was ruined. The Colonel was soon back in his office with a few cuts here and there. Mr. Abdullah Khadim Hussain went to express his sympathies and said, “I am very sorry to hear about that unfortunate accident”. “Well”, said the Colonel, “What is unfortunate about that?  I am still alive”.

Col. Coombes was fond of quoting from Shah Abdul Latif and Dr. Muhammad Iqbal in his speeches. He knew neither Sindhi no Urdu nor Persian, but learnt the verses by heart and his recital was quite amusing. He knew one Urdu phrase “Din duni, raat chowgni tarraqqi karega”. He used it in season and out of season, but he meant it with all his heart when he employed it for Petaro.

One of his Pakistani friends admonished him in a letter to take care of his health. The Colonel wrote back to him, “Don’t you worry. After the first heart attack, the doctor permitted me to smoke any number of cigarettes and to have one small gin for lunch and a large whiskey for dinner”. Such was his good humour even on his death bed.

One would almost lay a wager that the last words on his dying lips of that gallant lover of Petaro would have been “Petaro din duni raat chowgni taraqqi karega”.


* “bukhar” in Urdu means “fever”, and a masculine word can be turned into its feminine counterpart by adding a suffix of “i”. Thus, the Colonel jokingly translated “Bukhari” as Mrs. Fever.

Our Colonel

By Niaz Ahmed, kit no. 141/Liaquat

[originally printed in The Cadet magazine of 1961 and 1978, and reprinted in the book on Col. Coombes in Feb 2007.]


Our Colonel is a jolly man,

Come and see him if you can

He works and sings from morn till night,

No lark is happier than he.

He envies nobody, no not he,

And nobody envies him.

He loves his cadets,

He loves his friends,

He loves to air his knowledge.

To become like him is Petaro’s boast.

Oh Colonel of our College!

Apply for Admission or some other Call to Action