Col. John Harold Henry Coombes (28 December, 1906 — 1978) was the first principal of Cadet College Petaro, one of the earliest of public schools built in Pakistan back in 1957. During his military career, he served in the British Army and fought the Second World War on the Malayan front.
Coombes was born on 28th December 1906. His father was a fisherman in Guernsey, the second largest of the Channel Islands. His mother died when he was 3 years old. As a teenager, he secured a scholarship to Elizabeth College, Guernsey as a day scholar. At college, 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.
Coombes then 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 was a member of the British Army of the Rhine (when Britain occupied Germany after World War I until 1931).
In 1928, he contracted double pneumonia and was therefore unable to sit for the Degree Examination. 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. Meanwhile he also remained a Volunteer Officer in the Sudan Defence Force.
In 1935, while teaching part-time, obtained his B.A. degree from Oxford, and then got married to Alice. While working as Senior Geography Master with French as second subject at a Public School, he also completed his M.A. in 1939.
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.
Coombes recorder his memoirs as a prisoner of war in his 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. In the concluding paragraph of his book Banpong Express, 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".
Coombes 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. His contribution in the fields of Education, Language training and Broadcasting is phenomenal. He recalls all this work as a “Wonderfully satisfying job”. Based on his work, he was awarded C.B.E..
While driving a car, Coombes ran into an Indian who died. The stepped off the pavement and Coombes did not see him as the sun was in his eyes. There was no witness, so Coombes pleaded guilty. The Malay authorities wanted a European whipping boy, and Coombes was returned to Changi jail (the same prisoner of war camp where he was kept on 15th February 1942) with six months imprisonment. This ended his army career. He was about to be promoted as Major General. Instead he lost everything.
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.”
When asked 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”. Col. Coombes thus became the first full time Principal of Cadet College Mirpurkhas on March 20, 1958. The college was renamed as Cadet College Petaro in 1959 when it moved to its new campus at Petaro. He remained in this position until his retirement in the summer of 1965.
Coombes is regarded as the real father of this institution. It was his sheer work that built the traditions and institutions at this college. These have been carried along by all subsequent principals of the college.
During his early days at Petaro, Coombes lost his life long partner Alice. She died in the UK. He remained a widower for the rest of his days at Petaro.
After his retirement, Coombes returned to the UK and settled down in Sellindge, Kent. His love for Cadet College Petaro was so great that he named his home in UK as Petaro. His romanticism with Cadet College Petaro and Petarians (graduates of the college) was so great that he would jump at every opportunity to invite his ex-cadets to his home in the UK.
After his return to the UK, Coombes married again. His second wife was Elsie.
Coombes returned to Pakistan in 1971 to visit Cadet College Petaro along with his wife Elsie. He was given a grand reception and he spent several days there. He left Pakistan for the last time with tears in his eyes.
His last few years were spent at his home in Sellindge, Kent which he had named as “Petaro”. He died there in 1978.
Coombes is eulogized at virtually every major occasion held at Cadet College Petaro. He is considered to be a legend and a great hero for the sake of education in Pakistan.