This article is personal recall by Lt Col Balwant Singh Sahore, as told to Major Genral E D’souza (Retd.) PVSM
19 Infantry Division: 1969-1970
At the end of our stipulated 2 years tenure in Ladakh, the Battalion moved to HQ 19 Infantry Division sector in the summer of 1969, under 161 Infantry Brigade. Battalion HQ was set up at the rest house in Mahura and companies were deployed on the North Bank of the Jhelum; yet one more high altitude area for the men except of course for the Battalion HQ personnel. Coincidentally we had the rare honour of serving under two of our senior regimental officers viz Brigadier M B Wadke our brigade commander and Major General E D’Souza GOC 19 Infantry Division (our Colonel of the Regiment). Certain pickets were in eyeball to eyeball confrontation with the Pakistanis. One such picket was Jhandi Mali. The distance between own and enemy troops was just about a couple of hundred meters. The unique feature of this post was that the one and only water point was midway between our own and Pakistani troops. The UN Observer Group had laid down timings for drawing water for both parties which was strictly adhered to through sheer necessity. Maj K L Kaushal’s A Company continued to man this important post right to the end of our tenure. Maj G K Duggal’s B Company had occupied another important post which was called Khargosh (Rabbit) for convenience.
Jaipur and the Indo-Pak War of 1971
The unit moved to Jaipur in mid 1970 in the full hope of rest and an opportunity to live with families after the arduous cum continuous tenure of 3 years in high altitudes. From the climatic point of view, it indeed was quite a climb down-from the sublime to the ridiculous so to say. What a change it was from the cool bracing climate of the mountains to the harsh, soaring temperatures of the Thar Desert, our area of responsibility.
The indications of the gathering storm of the 1971 War began appearing in late 1970. Full scale training and preparations commenced in right earnest for the inevitable showdown with Pakistan. Leave for All Ranks was cancelled. Army HQ ruled that all postings right down to COs level were to be witheld. Slowly and gradually, the much awaited festival of Divali was looked forward to by everyone. But fate decreed otherwise. Just a day prior to the festival, we received orders to move to the Concentration Area. Precisely on the night of the eve of Divali, our meter gauge military special arrived at Pokharan Railway Station. It was just getting dark. We had strict orders to observe a complete black-out in the train and also at the Station. What an anti climax it was to the festival of the lights! However, the local population duly celebrated the festival with their customary fire crackers and decorative lights. After it had become fairly dark, our train steamed off to its destination Jaisalmer under cover of darkness as planned. Not even the engine was allowed to put on its head light. Jaisalmer was reached at 0300 hours. In accordance with orders received at the Station, the train was unloaded post haste and we were well on our way to the Concentration Area before first light, just a desert patch, half way between Jaisalmer and Ramgarh. And then the most eagerly awaited, yet agonizing part,i.e, the announcement of the declaration of war. The waiting period was fully utilized for rehearsals of operational plans. To keep boredom at bay, unusual sports events like baseball were introduced for all ranks. Most of the times a JCO, a World War II veteran, was detailed as the referee. He had acquired some working knowledge of English from our erstwhile British Officers. If any Officer was declared out by him and yet he would not leave the ground, he was politely but firmly told thus: “Please out!”. During the period of our impatient wait for war to break, we were visited by our COAS General Sam Manekshaw and later by the Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi.
As always, the visit of a colourful and informal personality like the Chief was indeed unforgettable and full of humour. While addressing the Battle Axe Division’s officers, he remarked: ”Gentlemen, there will be a war. (And war there was). Have no doubts about it. But I cannot tell you chaps when because you cannot keep a secret. Suffice it to say that all of you better tighten you “kachhas”. Pointing his finger towards a young officer sitting on a durrie just below the dais, he said in his inimitable style,”This applies to you too you so and so!”.Just as well. The Chief , immediately on arrival, ordered all the mikes and PA systems removed saying,” Get this bloody thing removed. I don’t know how to use it.” Indeed the impact of his forceful personality was felt by all, and there was a renewed sense of inward determination to perform the alloted task well and truly.
Finally, much to our relief, our Divisional Commander Maj Gen Khambatta selected our Battalion for a very special task about a week before the war started. Accordingly we linked up with a company of a Punjab Battalion at Longewala post commanded by Maj Kuldip Singh Khanduri, formerly held by a company of the Border Security Force (BSF). We occupied a neigbhouring sand dune just next to it. We had to leave Maj Palu Desai’s company in the concentration area to round up enemy agents and suspects. The more we dug our main defences on this massive sand dune, the more they collapsed because of the loose sand. Defence stores were non existent till then. Recce and fighting patrols were sent out by day and night to the international border in full view of the enemy to make him believe that the main thrust of the divisional advance would be along the Longewala axis. However, better not to underestimate the enemy’s plans and capabilities. Much as we had rehearsed our plans to launch an offensive in the area Rahim Yar Khan, the Pakistanis had perfected their own assault plans of which we were totally ignorant. The first inkling came when we had occupied our sand dune.
My Company Commanders had reported to me that they had found some empty cigarette packets and match boxes with Pakistani markings. And a few temporary thatch huts as well to provide shelter against the scorching sun to whoever had taken temporary residence there. But who would be living in the heat of the Thar Desert? Even grazing was out of the question since not a blade of grass was in existence. The mystery became clear a couple of days later after the war started. The first enemy prisoners revealed that some Special Services Groups were planted on the same isolated sand dune to study and report Longewala Post routine and habits. So, this was it. Apparently our physical occupation of that sand dune had an unnerving effect on the enemy divisional commander’s plan. For a few days he remained under the false illusion that his attack plans for the Longewala Post and the subsequent cutting off of our division’s L of C at Ramgarh had been betrayed and thus his element of surprise had been lost. Came the fateful evening of 3 December 1971. While on recce, I was informed on my radio set by my 2IC Maj John Gaikwad, that war had been declared against Pakistan. In keeping with urgent orders from our brigade HQ, the Battalion moved the same night to rejoin the rest of the brigade in the forward assembly area as per the well rehearsed plan. Thus that insignificant sand dune, for so it seemed at that time, was abandoned. The very same sand dune which would otherwise have witnessed a historic battle between the enemy’s armour consisting of brand new Chinese T 59 tanks and 4 Maratha.
Just when we were to commence our advance the next afternoon to area Rahim Yar Khan, came the incredible news that the enemy had launched a pre emptive assault with one of his newly equipped armoured regiments, on to our Longewala Post and that his intention appeared to be to cut off our L of C in area Ramgarh. The importance of the one and only L of C in desert warfare cannot be overemphasised. Even training pamphlets stress the point that the L of C in desert operations must be physically protected at all times; a very near suicidal mistake which would have cost us dearly in terms of loss of men and material. Undoubtedly, the enemy had snatched the initiative from us and now we had no choice but to react to his plans. In the prevailing confusion, one of our company’s ably led by Maj I K Hasija was left stranded well inside enemy territory where it had been given the task of infiltrating and disrupting /destroying any minor opposition along our projected axis of advance, later to rejoin the Battalion on the way. When reminded of this situation, the higher authorities gave us permission to abort this mission and to withdraw the company back as soon as possible.
Being the senior most battalion commander, I proceeded to the divisional tactical HQ near Tanot on orders of my own Commander to receive revised orders regarding the new task for our formation. Meanwhile, the brigade could not pull back for want of 2nd Line transport which was supposed to be on its way. However, on my way to Tanot, I found most of the vehicles stranded in the loose sand. What I saw at the Divisional Tactical HQ was utter alarm and despondency. The GOC alongwith the Brigade Commander holding the firm base, was in a state of dazed confusion. His reserve Brigade Commander was trying to console him. Be that as it may, notwithstanding the fact that I was all by myself in my lone jeep with my ‘R’ Group, he very gallantly ordered me to proceed to Ramgarh posthaste and to stop the enemy in his tracks by “all means at my disposal”. It was indeed a curious sight, the CO 4 Maratha organizing defences to stop the enemy’s determined armoured offensive. But that was how it was!! A couple of wire guided missiles of a Guards Battalion also fetched up just before midnight to ‘reinforce’ our defences. Our Brigade advanced in the early hours of the morning of 5 December. Defences for whatever they were worth, were hurriedly prepared. Yet, there was no sign of the ‘reliably reported’ enemy armour’s advance.
At first light our jet fighters took off from their forward airfields in the direction of Longewala.. By the time we reached that area, our Air Force had done a thorough job of destroying the enemy armour. Burning tanks, enemy dead and scattered enemy equipment were a sight to behold. Anyhow, we pushed back and destroyed the remnants of the enemy force right up to the border. Some enemy stragglers were only too keen to be taken prisoner, for, for them, the war was as good as over. In the process of clearing up the area around Longewala Post, my Intelligence Officer (IO) Lt H S Gill (now a Colonel) drew my attention to a peculiar situation, a built-up shack near the Engineer Water Point which looked a bit suspicious.
A single door and window existed. The door was bolted from inside and we could see someone lying on the floor, with a sheet covering his face and body., apparently dead, or so I presumed. Yet, no blood marks or telltale signs of his having been killed were discernible. If he was really dead, so be it. But what if he was an enemy soldier trying to fake death? Harshi Gill insisted that we must break open the door to check and satisfy ourselves that there was nothing fishy. But as a CO, my mind preoccupied with larger issues of fighting the battle ahead, I did not deem it worth the effort and time to launch a commando like raid to ascertain whether he was one of our own, or an enemy dead or alive. Harshi’s bold plan had to be overruled perforce. The advance continued as planned. But what of that body? To me, and perhaps to Harshi as well, it will remain an enigma.
In the middle of operations, our brigade was told to move to the Monabao-Khokhrapar axis under 11 Infantry Division where the latter had shown some promising prospects in the advance towards Sind. Before we pulled out I found time to go and meet Maj Kuldip Singh Chandpuri at his Longewala Post and to know first hand how he managed to hold out against such a massive armoured assault. According to him, first of all, right up to divisional commander level, none would believe his word that the Pakis were advancing on to his post in strength.
“But Kuldip, it is simply ridiculous. We are going to advance , not him. They have no offensive capability, just a squadron of rickety, run down Sherman tanks. You are just scared and hence are having illusions”, was the Division’s reaction to his urgent request for help to reinforce his post immediately. To his good luck a detachment of RCL guns was sent to his post the same night from his battalion at Sadewala. And fortunately, the Forward Air Fields at Jaisalmer and Jodhpur were alerted by the Division to stand by to launch an air strike against enemy armour at first light. To revert to Kuldip’s version of the overnight battle this is a transcript of the conversation:-
Self(S) Kuldip, tell me, did’nt you feel scared being surrounded by more than a squadron of enemy T 59 tanks, and that too with a company less one platoon (out on patrol at that point of time) with practically no resources worth the name?
Kuldip (K) Yes Sir, exactly. The enemy tanks surrounded my post at just after midnight. They were carrying a section of infantry on each tank. The infantry jumped down from the tanks and one of them shouted in rustic Punjabi in the stillness of the night: “Sikhon, tayyar ho jao, asin a gae han.(It was an all Sikh Punjab Battalion). To which our RCL detachment commander, a havildar, who was a perpetual disciplinary case under peacetime conditions, shouted back in equally choice rustic Punjabi: “Tuhada te bahut der ton intizar kar rahe han. Tuan do ghante late pahunche” (meaning that the Pakistanis had reached two hours too late as per the defenders estimation). Till then, believe me, if we had a chance, we would have run for our lives from the post, under cover of darkness. But since we were surrounded, we had no chance of evasion and escape. So it was decided to stay on and hope for the best.”
K: The Pakistani tanks opened fire at the post from a distance. One of the shells hit the wall of the post temple penetrating it just over the ‘Mandir Moorti’ by inches. Both the RCLs also opened fire. Luckily, one of the shells hit a tank which caught fire immediately. In the glow of the fire the RCLs managed to hit a couple of more tanks.
Strangely, the tanks did not assault the post which was an easy task as the slope was gradual. The exchange of fire continued between the enemy armour and the RCLs from an approximate distance of 200 meters. Our fighter jets flew over at first light and before opening fire asked me on the blower whether they were our tanks. On being assured that we did not have a single tank in that area, they set about destroying the enemy armour in their typical professional manner.”
S: But then why didn’t the enemy tanks launch an assault on the highly vulnerable post that night? The answer was provided by enemy prisoners later on. A single strand of barbed wire around the post was erected by personnel of the BSF Company to dry their clothes. The enemy mistook this wire for an anti tank minefield; hence the reason why not a single enemy tank could pick up sufficient courage to assault the post. Now no amount of sand model discussions or rigorous training can bring out this point. But facts are facts, howsover incredible they may seem. I shall not be surprised if old Kuldip and his ex comrades worship that rusty strand of barbed wire in their heart of hearts to this day.” .
Copyright: Frontier India Defence and Strategic News Service, June 2007