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1965 India-Pakistan War: How the Armed Forces fought in the plains

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain

Updated: September 21, 2015, 11:31 AM IST
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By now readers all over India must be having the 1965 Indo-Pak war coming out of their ears, so much has been the splurge by the media and the efforts of the armed forces themselves have been appreciable. The Forgotten War has just about become the most Remembered War and we have made good much of the neglect, the reasons for which were never very clear. However, I do subscribe the prime reason as the lack of a strategic culture in India. It seems to be making a dent somewhere now and that is a very positive sign. Common people are discussing and evincing interest and the generation born in the 1970s and thereafter in particular appears to be realizing the value of military heritage and sacrifice.

Last week I promised to continue the analysis of the War by addressing the events which took place from 06 Sep 65 onwards. Gen Harbaksh Singh wrote of his dilemma in deciding the date of the launch across the IB in Punjab. The plans were broadly in place in Apr 65 itself and deliberations about the contingency of having to open the Punjab front had taken place well before; it was not a spur of the moment decision as has been made out in some analyses but a well-planned and thought out military action.

The dilemma was the need for simultaneity in launch of 11 Corps with its three formations – 15, 7 and 4 Infantry Divisions, through what is broadly called the Amritsar sector and of the newly raised 1 Corps (the HQ was effective on 3 Apr 65) hastily orbatted with 26 Inf Div (holding formation), 6 Mountain Division (raised for the Central Sector on the Sino Indian border and equipped for mountain warfare), the recently raised 14 Infantry Division and finally the pride of India’s Armoured Corps, the 1st Armoured Division (Black Elephant). To today’s observers this would seem a perfectly formed order of battle for a Strike Corps; a holding/pivot formation deployed at the firm base, two division sized forces for two thrust lines and a sizeable armored component.

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Yet, the situation wasn’t what meets the eye and appears on paper. 6 Mountain Division had never trained with armor or even exercised in the plains. 14 Infantry Division had just about completed its raising and had not fetched up into the battle zone even by the launch date, 6 Sep 65. 1 Armored Division had just the 1st Armored Brigade and 43rd Lorried Brigade with just four armored regiments; it had to borrow an armored regiment to have matching capability with Pakistan’s known armored formation.

Today’s Strike Corps are well oiled war machines, the pride of the Army, trained and fully aware of their tasks. They go into battle as they arrive, completely confident that the pivot formations are there to assist even before they launch. In 1965, 1 Corps was just a loosely hinged strike force not even aware of the opposition it would face. The possibility of meeting Pakistan’s 1st Armored Division in battle was live but the delay in launch occurred due to the inability of 14 Infantry Division fetching up to its concentration area.

Pakistan’s key formation had already shown its hand at Khem Karan on 6/7 Sep 65. The task of 1 Corps (Sialkot sector – through Samba-Vijaypur) was supposedly made easy but little was known about the existence of a second armor formation in the form of Pakistan’s 6th Armored Division in the Sialkot sector. Whether the staggered launch of 11 and 1 Corps on 6 Sep and 9 Sep respectively was beneficial or would a simultaneous launch have achieved more is difficult to say but there can be no doubt that the dilemma for the man in charge of it all, Lt Gen Harbaksh Singh, was real.

With his typical offensive spirit and facing two crumbling fronts in Akhnur (North) and Khem Karan (South) one would not have liked to be in his shoes. He chose the ideal solution copy book style, borrowing from the age old saying – attack is the best form of defence. He chose to open Western Command’s third front, in the Sialkot sector. I admit that if I was in command I may have chickened at this stage of the war and may have employed elements of 1 Corps to reinforce the emerging failure in 11 Corps southern flank; those kinds of decisions give temporary solace to senior commanders.

Two things stand out from 11 Corps operations in the Amritsar sector. The inability to exploit the initial success which brought it to the doorstep of Lahore with the Bata shoe factory in its lap, may be rationally explained by saying that there was never an intent to get into Lahore’s labyrinth lanes and roads. However, the maintenance of a credible threat across the obstacle would have caused more caution in the Pakistan Army and perhaps prevented the launch of full weight operations in the south against Khem Karan. In after thought this is easy to surmise but the grave danger of keeping an unprotected bridgehead on the west of the Ichogil canal may have worked against prudence. There was a general shortage of armor and the quality of tanks left few options to play with.

Many have criticized the Indian Army’s reluctance to go for Lahore. Besides the reasons already brought out, it is forgotten that by the evening of 6 Sep 65, the very day that the Punjab front was activated, Gen Harbaksh had a crisis situation on his hands in the south. 4 Mountain Division’s advance had been halted by the unrevealed Pakistan 11 Infantry Division and the Pakistan 1st Armored Division was raring to get into Indian territory. The latter had been well camouflaged in the Changa Banga forest further south and its exact position was not known when the Punjab front was activated. That was a blunder of sorts. In my discussion with Pakistani Army officers I learnt that Pakistan 1st Armored Division’s emphasis on camouflage and concealment has always been intense and the same is treated as a mantra even today. The reason why the Indian Army could not pick its location in Sep 65 was also because no air recce was permitted and the IAF remained restricted to the Chamb-Akhnur sector to defeat Op Grand Slam launched by Pakistan.

Quite obviously if your southern thrust has crumbled a senior commander will look at restoration before strengthening the northern arm heading into a built up area. But the question is why the southern thrust should have crumbled so quickly. When you have long stand offs between India and Pakistan, of the Op Parakaram kind in 2002, there is enough time to lay mines and reinforce obstacles. Here the offensive went in without commensurate defensive preparations. When Pakistan 1st Armored Division revealed its hand and launched the offensive it sliced through Indian defences; infantry units were revealed naked and unprotected without obstacles, without mines and with very little armor in support.

Lesser men than General Harbaksh would have wilted. And this is where we await Captain Amrinder’s forthcoming book. I am convinced that senior leadership at Delhi would have been worried sick when news of the Pakistani breakthrough at Khem Karan was revealed. Another disaster in the making so soon after 1962; it would have been the end of a nation. Harike and Beas Bridge lay open although our 2 (I) Armored Brigade and 3 Cavalry would have contested in the rolling plain of Valtoha to Taran Taran, the Pakistani armor’s push towards the River Beas would have meant the forced retraction of both 7 and 15 Infantry Division. Not to forget that 1 Corps had yet to be launched. The dilemma for Gen Harbaksh was real and intense. If it was the desert with no built up areas the obvious thing would have been to push 15 and 7 Infantry Division further west to reach Pakistan’s innards, into its centre of gravity, the food belt of the Chenab-Ravi corridor.

But this was no desert and further advance of these divisions would have only embroiled them into the built up areas. General Harbaksh did what really was the only option to execute – create a pivot at Asal Uttar and contest. Although credit has been given to the rear guard action of 4 Mountain Division at Asal Uttar, details of the decision to lay thousands of mines and blast the canal bunds to create a quagmire of boggy ground in such a quick time frame have been less spoken of. In the melee of tank versus tank battles and the virtually merging fronts at Asal Uttar the integrated effort of Indian armor, infantry, artillery and engineers, not to forget the stupendous staff work involved with logistics of movement was nothing short of a miracle. It was truly professionalism of the highest order.

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Just a word on terrain which we must not forgot. Punjab’s battles are restricted by the river corridors. Pakistan had the option to swing south from Khem Karan or go east into uncontested territory but the presence of the River Sutlej forced it to advance along the grain towards the Beas Bridge.

As far as 1 Corps operations are concerned, some of the big landmarks with battles attached to them emerged on the Sialkot front. Chawinda, Philora, Buttur Dograndi etc require reams to write about. While armored formations as entities may not have achieved the desired degree of domination or achieved the larger aim of cutting off Sialkot, the performance of armored units was outstanding. The spirit and professionalism of units such as Poona Horse (Lt Col Tarapore, PVC), Hodson’s Horse, 7 Cavalry and 16 Cavalry was admirable. Just as almost six Pakistani armored regiments contested India’s 3 Cavalry, 8 Cavalry and Deccan Horse at Asal Uttar and failed to make a breakthrough a larger Indian armored component fought in the Sialkot sector but against a progressively enhancing strength of Pakistan’s 6 Armored Division. The details of armored battles make interesting stories of individual valor but what is more important is that by launching 1 Corps even in its weaker form a potential desperate attempt by Pakistan to try and address the Pathankot-Jammu highway was offset and real estate captured for the eventual tradeoff. It is in this sector that the potential for a deeper thrust existed even after 22 Sep 65. The ceasefire based on erroneous data of ammunition holding if avoided for another three or four days, may have resulted in the isolation of Sialkot and forced withdrawal of Pakistan from Akhnur. That was not to be.

This piece cannot be complete without the mention of two units of my own Regiment. 8 Garhwal Rifles under the command of Late Lt Col Jerry Jirad fought alongside Poona Horse at Buttur Dograndi, winning a battle honor of the same name. It is one of the rare units of the Indian Army in which both the CO and the Second in Command (2IC) were killed in a single battle. Late Maj Abdul Rafey Khan, VrC (P) of the Rampur family was the 2IC. Ist Garhwal Rifles fought in an unsung theatre in the desert but achieved tremendous results at Gadra Road near Barmer, capturing the redoubtable Pakistani defences, under the leadership of Late Lt Col (later Brig) Krish Lahiri, VrC. The unit received the battle honor – Gadra Road. Brig Lahiri passed away a few weeks before the golden jubilee of the battle.

It has been a pleasure recounting and analyzing the events of the 1965 Indo Pak Conflict. It has left me richer in my faculties. I hope you, the reader can say the same.
First Published: September 21, 2015, 11:31 AM IST

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