1965 War: Battle of Assal Uttar
Background to the Battle
With the failure of OPERATION GIBRALTAR and faced with Indian counter offensive across the Cease Fire Line in the Hajipir Bulge and Tithwal Sector, Pakistan launched OPERATION GRAND SLAM on September 1, 1965. It was a major attack with one infantry division and an armoured brigade at Chhamb with the aim of capturing Akhnoor and cutting off the Jammu – Srinagar Highway. While fighting a defensive battle at Chhamb, the Indian Army decided to launch offensives on a broad front in Punjab on September 6. The main offensives launched were as under:–
- 1 Corps consisting of 1 Armoured Division, 6 Mountain Division, 26 infantry Division and 14 Infantry Division launched an offensive in the Jammu – Sialkot Sector on the southern bank of Chenab.
- 15 Infantry Division of 11 Corps attacked along GT Road Axis (Amritsar to Lahore).
- 7 Infantry Division of 11 Corps attacked along Axis Bhikkiwind – Khalra – Barki.
- 4 Mountain Division less 33 Mountain Brigade of 11 Corps attacked along Axis Khem Karan – Kasur
The aim of the offensives in 11 Corps Sector were to cross the Ichhogil Canal and hold areas across the canal. They were also to destroy or hold important bridges on the Ichhogil Canal and prevent any major Pakistani offensive in the area. Our story deals with operations in 4 Mountain Division Sector. All the other offensives listed above made some gains.
It is also not out of place to make a mention here of the comparative capabilities of the tanks used on both sides. The Pakistani armoured regiments were equipped with M 47 and M 48 Patton medium tanks. Its Reece Regiments were equipped with the Chaffee light tanks. All these tanks were brand new and the latest of the period. Some of them had done less than 300 kms before the battle. The Patton tanks had a stabilised gun platform and special sights. They were capable of destroying Indian tanks at ranges upto 2000 mts. They had infra red sights and were capable of operating at night. They had been provided by United States to Pakistan as military aid. The Indian armoured regiments were mostly equipped with Sherman tanks. These were of Second World War vintage and had seen many battles. Their guns could destroy enemy tanks only at a range of about 800 mts. India had one regiment of Centurion tanks which could match the Pattons in range. Indian Reece Regiments were equipped with AMX light tanks. All Indian tanks were Second World War vintage and had no night operation capability. It will be seen that, equipment wise, Pakistani armour was capable of out gunning the Indian armour by day or night.
4 Mountain Division, being a mountain division was the weakest in anti tank weapons. The infantry battalions of the Division were equipped with 57 mm recoilless guns which were quite useless against Pakistani armour except at very close ranges. On being warned for these operations, each battalion was issued with four 106mm recoilless guns against six authorised. The Division was however strong in artillery having four mountain regiments, one medium regiment, one field regiment Self Propelled, one light regiment (heavy mortars) and two composite regiments. Deccan Horse, the armoured regiment allotted to the Division, was equipped with Sherman tanks which, as we have seen earlier, were hardly a match for the Pakistani Pattons.
Kasur, six kilometers from the border West of Khem Karan, was an important Pakistani town well connected with Lahore. The Pakistani defence works in this sector were particularly strong. The Rohi Nala in Pakistani territory had been deepened and its bunds raised and defences built on them. The area on both sides were dotted with villages. Crops like bajra, sugarcane, cotton and maize stood in the fields I with occasional bare patches.
A Pakistani offensive operation was expected in the area. The aim of the operations of 4 Mountain Division was to capture some of the forward Pakistani defences and base its defences on the formidable Ichhogil Canal. 4 Mountain Division planned to carry out its task in two Phases as under:–
- Phase 1. 62 Mountain Brigade was to cross the international border and capture Pakistani territory upto East Bank of Ichhogil Canal as shown on the map and destroy the bridge on Ichhogil Canal. For this assignment one additional infantry battalion 1/9 GORKHA RIFLES ex 7 Mountain Brigade and Deccan Horse less two squadrons were placed under command of the Brigade.
- Phase 2. 7 Mountain Brigade less one battalion was to secure all enemy territory east of the Ichhogil Canal from Canal Junction near Bedian to Ballanwala. They were allotted one squadron of Deccan Horse.
62 Mountain Brigade left their barracks at Ambala at 0200 hours on September 5 and reached Valtoha at 2200 hours after nonstop driving. They were straight away launched into operations. Most of the junior leaders and troops had not even seen the terrain or their objectives.
4 Mountain Division commenced its operations at 0500 hours on September 6. 62 Mountain Brigade captured its initial objectives. 13 DOGRA captured its objective against moderate opposition by 1100 hours. 9 JAMMU AND KASHMIR RIFLES also succeeded in taking the bundh on Rohi Nala. A company of 18 RAJPUTANA RIFLES occupied the Shejra Bulge to ensure security of Khem Karan. As per the Divisional plan, Phase 2 was launched at 0800 hours on September 6. 4 GRENADIERS was given the task of capturing the Theh Pannu Bridge on the Ichhogil Canal. The objective was about 11 kms from the concentration area near Dibbipura. The troops marched the distance with all stores at a fast pace and reached the forming up place in time. But the H Hour was postponed to 0830 hours. The enemy detected their presence and brought down heavy artillery fire. Two tanks of Deccan Horse joined the battalion at the forming up place. The third tank of the troop had got bogged down while crossing the Kasur Nala. The battalion attack commenced at 0830 hours. The troops had to wade through knee deep water, slush and paddy fields. It captured its objective against light opposition by 1000 hours September 6. But they were unable to destroy the bridge as engineers of 1 Field Company failed to turn up at the .assembly area in time. Attempts to blow up the bridge with recoilless guns failed. 1/9 GORKHA RIFLES failed to capture Balanwala. The enemy was surprised by the Indian offensive but regained balance and counter attacked the positions captured by the Indians. At about 1430 hours 13 DOGRA in area 45r was attacked by some enemy mechanised infantry and armour after heavy artillery shelling. The position was overrun by the enemy. The remnants of 13 DOGRA were rounded up in the rear and asked to occupy a new defensive position at Nainwala. When the Brigade Commander visited the new defensive area, he found only the commanding officer and the Subedar Major. The rest of the Battalion had again broken line without orders. Towards evening, the Pakistanis increased the intensity of their shelling and started launching infantry and armour attacks on the Indian position. 4 GRENADIERS had been unable to dig in properly on the objective due to high water table in the area. Pakistanis mounted attacks on them and attempted to out flank them during the night of September 6/7 but the battalion held firm. At first light on September 7 it was found that the following troops had abandoned their positions without orders:–
- 7 GRENADIERS
- Two companies of 1/9 GORKHA RIFLES
- Commanding Officer and one company of 9 JAMMU & KASHMIR RIFLES
By the morning of September 7, the situation in 4 Mountain Division Sector was desperate. Of the six battalions available to the Division, two and a half had bolted. The remaining three and a half were under intense enemy pressure and thinly spread out over a large area, fighting individual actions. The General Officer Commanding 4 Mountain Division asked permission of the General Officer Commanding 11 Corps to readjust his dispositions and establish a new defensive position astride axis Khem Karan – Bhikkiwind in Area Assal Uttar. The permission was given. The three and half battalions still intact were asked to withdraw and establish the new defensive position. The withdrawals started at 0930 hours September 7 and took place in an orderly manner and were covered by Deccan Horse and heavy artillery fire, particularly on the road and rail bridges over Rohi Nala. This slowed down the enemy advance. The Pakistanis made no significant move on the 7th and this gave the Indians time to pull back and prepare new defences. By 1500 hours on September 7, the Engineers began to lay anti tank mines around the new defences. 1 Field Company laid mines at the Gun Area of 1 Artillery Brigade and by September 10 had laid 6000 anti tank and 4000 anti personnel mines. 77 and 100 Field Companies were rushed to the 62 Mountain Brigade sector to lay mines. Another anti tank measure taken was flooding of areas to the south and west of the Division’s defences. The scene was now Ret for the Battle of Assal Uttar.
Pakistanis had planned a major offensive in the area with the aim of capturing Beas on the Grand Trunk Road on the banks of river Beas and cutting off Punjab from rest of India within 3 days and then march on to Delhi along the Grand Trunk Road (Map). The assault force for the offensive consisted of the following:–
- 1 Armoured Division under Major General Nasir Ahmed Khan. This Division had three brigades with an armour component of four armoured regiments of Pattons and one armoured regiment of Chaffees.
- 11 Infantry Division under Major General Abdul Hamid. This division had two infantry brigades and one armoured regiment of Pattons.
The Pakistani, plan was to be executed in two phases as under:–
- Phase 1. 11 Infantry Division was to establish a bridge head across the Indian obstacles in the area of Khem Karan by first light D plus 1.
- Phase 2. 1 Armoured Division was to break out from the bridge head in three columns. One combat group was to advance along Road Valtoha – Patti and then astride Sobraon Branch Canal and capture Raya and Beas. The second combat group was to advance along Road Khemkaran – Bhikkiwind and the astride Kasur Branch Canal and capture Jhandiala Guru and cut off the Grand Trunk Road. The third combat group was to advance on Road Khem Karan – Bhikkiwind and protect the flank of the first two combat groups and isolate 7 Infantry Division.
The D Day for the Pakistani operations had been fixed as September 7. However this was postponed to September 8. The Indians claim that the delay was due to the Indian offensive and effectiveness of their artillery fire. The Pakistanis on the other hand maintain that the delay was due to an accident. A Pakistani tank while crossing a bridge on the Rohi Nala had damaged the bridge. The induction of armour was thus delayed till a new bridge could be constructed. Whatever be the reason, the delay proved to be extremely beneficial to the Indian Army. It enabled troops of 4 Mountain Division to prepare their defences, lay mines and carry out some flooding. It also enabled the Corps reserve, 2 Independent Armoured Brigade to be deployed in the sector.
4 Mountain Division had the following troops available for the Battle of Assal Uttar:–
- 7 Mountain Brigade. This Brigade had three battalions namely 4 GRENADIERS, 7 GRENADIERS and 1/9 GORKHA RIFLES. However, after the unsuccessful attacks and Pakistani counter attacks and the large-scale desertions which followed, only 4 GRENADIERS and 1/9 GORKHA RIFLES less two companies and two companies of 7 GRENADIERS were fully battle worthy.
- 62 Mountain Brigade. This Brigade had three battalions namely 18 RAJPUTANA RIFLES, 9 JAMMU AND KASHMIR RIFLES and 13 DOGRA. The 13 DOGRA had deserted en mass. The commanding officer and one company of 9 JAMMU AND KASHMIR RIFLES had bolted. Even 12 RAJPUTANA RIFLES had over 10 percent desertions. Thus this Brigade had only one and a half effective battalions.
- Deccan Horse (Shermans).
- 1 Artillery Brigade
- 1, 77 and 100 Field Companies and 41 Field Park Company of the Corps of Engineers.
The forces were deployed for the battle of Assal Uttar as given below (Map):–
18 RAJPUTANA RIFLES in area south of Assal Uttar covering Axis Khem Karan – Patti.
1/9 GORKHA RIFLES less two companies in area road track junction covering Axis Khemkaran – Bhikkiwind.
4 GRENADIERS in area south of China covering Axis Khemkaran – Bhikkiwind in depth to 1/9 GORKHA RIFLES.
9 JAMMU AND KASHMIR RIFLES in area north of Assal Uttar in depth to 18 RAJPUTANA RIFLES.
Deccan Horse was deployed forward of the defences to the south east of the divisional defences to be redeployed as the battle progressed.
Remnants from 7 GRENADIERS and 13 DOGRA were used to strengthen the battalion defended areas. The Corps reserve, 2 Independent Armoured Brigade was also moved to the area. The Brigade consisted of two armoured regiments, namely, 3 Cavalry (Centurions) and 8 Cavalry (AMX). The headquarters of this brigade was placed at Dlbbipura astride Khemkaran – Bhikkiwind axis. 3 Cavalry was deployed south of Dibbipura and west of the divisional gun area. One squadron of 8 Cavalry was located at Valtoha. The rest of the Regiment was located a few kilometers to the north east of Valtoha.
The Pakistanis commenced their offensive at about 0830 hours on September 8. It came in the form of reconnaissance in force with two squadrons of Chaffees and one squadron of Pattons. The armour moved forward on a broad front under cover of artillery fire. When they reached within 900 meters of the Indian defences, they were engaged by the tanks of Deccan Horse. The enemy armour now broke up into smaller groups and tried to infiltrate into the Indian defences by carrying out flanking manoeuvre. At one stage 1/9 GORKHA RIFLES, 9 JAMMU AND KASHMIR RIFLES and 62 Mountain Brigade headquarters were surrounded. The tanks were engaged by tank hunting parties, medium guns and tanks of Deccan Horse. Deccan Horse, taking advantage of the standing crops, managed to destroy 11 enemy tanks for the loss of 4 of their own. Three other tanks were destroyed or damaged by the tank hunting parties and shelling by medium guns. The enemy force lost its appetite for battle and retreated.
The next attack came at about 1130 hours on September 8. Another armour cum infantry group consisting of a regiment of Pattons, a squadron of Chaffees and a motor battalion of 4 Pakistani armoured brigade overran a portion of the 1/9 GORKHA RIFLES defended area. Another armour assault on 4 GRENADIERS was also beaten back. At about 1200 hours some enemy tanks had entered the battalion defended area of 4 GRENADIERS. Though some of the trenches were overrun, the battalion managed to knock out four tanks with their recoilless rifles. Subedar Mool Chand, the anti tank platoon commander, though wounded and CQMH Abdul Hamid played a gallant role in the battle. The enemy attacked the 4 GRENADIERS position again at 1400 hours. This attack was also beaten back and two enemy tanks were destroyed. The combat group now made an attempt to make a dash for the rear of the divisional defended sector via the northern flank. A squadron of 3 Cavalry deployed for such a contingency managed to stall the attempt. At 2100 hours on September 8 enemy attacked the positions of 18 RAJPUTANARIFLES with infantry and armour. But some of the tanks were disabled on the minefield. They were successfully engaged by the artillery. With infantry separated from the armour, the enemy failed to press home the attack. September 8 ended with Pakistanis in possession of areas vacated by 4 Mountain Division on September 7 including Khem Karan. But the enemy had failed to make a decisive break through in the Indian defences. The enemy made no further attempts on the night of September 8/9. But heavy shelling of the defended areas carried on throughout the night. The engineer field companies laid additional mines during the night to strengthen the defences. Enemy air force carried out a number of sorties throughout the day but caused little damage.
The dawn of September 9 say the enemy put in fresh attacks along both the Bhikkiwind and Patti Axis. Two enemy tanks on the Bikkiwind axis were blown up on mines. Another was destroyed by the recoilless guns of 4 GRENADIERS. Pakistani Air Force launched air attacks but caused little damage. On the afternoon of September 9, enemy armour made an attempt to out flank the Indian defences from the south east. This failed as the tanks got bogged down in the flooded area near Valtoha and were destroyed at leisure. Another attack followed in the afternoon. This was preceded by a fierce artillery bombardment which lasted an hour and more air attacks. Pakistani armour attacked 18 RAJPUTANA RIFLES positions from three sides. The Battalion, artillery and tanks of Deccan Horse held them at bay for some time but the enemy tanks reached within striking range of the infantry. As the tanks overran the trenches, they were engaged with all types of anti tank weapons of the battalion. In the melee some tank commanders who had their heads outside the cupola were killed. Gradually the fury of the attack subsided. Unable to make any headway, the Pakistanis finally broke off engagement at around 2200 hours. The battlefield was strewn with burning tanks, the dead and the wounded.
It was on September 10 that the Pakistanis made their final attempt to break through. On the night of September 9, Brigadier Theograj, Commander 2 Independent Armoured Brigade had redeployed his armour in the light of his experience of enemy tactics. He pushed out the light AMX tanks of 8 Cavalry to lure the enemy armour into the killing ground of the 3 Cavalry’s Centurions. He expected the enemy to try to out flank the defences from the west as the Pakistanis had failed to make any headway along the main axis. The enemy fell into the trap.
Pakistan launched a formidable combat group of two armoured regiments of Pattons, one squadron of Chaffees and a motor battalion with the aim of out flanking the Indian defences from the west. Soon after day break, enemy tanks were reported east of Rohi Nala about 7 km south west of the main defences. The area had been flooded and the Centurions lay in wait for the Pattons, well concealed in the tall crops in two arcs stretching from Chima to Lakhana (Map No 13). The enemy began the day with an attack on 4 GRENADIERS with a battalion of infantry and some Patton tanks. The tanks managed to overrun the forward trenches. But because of high crops and excellent camouflage by the battalion, they could not locate the main defences. Some Centurions were rushed to help the GRENADIERS. A melee ensued giving a heaven sent opportunity to the battalion’s recoilless gun teams headed by Company Quartermaster Havildar, Abdul Hamid. The non commissioned officer had been in charge of the Battalion’s Recoilless gun platoon for five years. Known for his accuracy with the gun, he had been sent back to the anti tank platoon. During the melee, he stumbled upon four Patton tanks in a sugarcane field. His RCL jeep immediately took cover behind a mound and shot and destroyed three tanks before the fourth spotted him and a shell from the tank killed Hamid and his crew. For his dauntless courage, he was posthumously awarded the Param Vir Chakra. At about 1100 hours three Pakistani recoilless jeeps drove into the 4 GRENADIERS position. They were engaged at close range. Two were captured and the third managed to flee. At about 1300 hours, three Pakistani jeeps escorted by Patton tanks approached the GRENADIERS position. Due to good camouflage and concealment, the group did not see the Indian defences. Once in close range, the jeeps were engaged by a light machine gun located close to the road killing and wounding the Pakistanis in the jeep. It was later learnt that the group was the reconnaissance group of Major General Nasir Khan, General Officer Commanding the Pakistan Armoured Division, who had come with his reconnaissance group to Milestone 36 on the Khemkaran – Bhikkiwind road to try and push his armour through personal effort. The General was wounded. His artillery brigade commander, Brigadier AR Shammi was killed.
The attack on the GRENADIERS having failed, the Pakistani armour now attempted to force their way from the western flank. At 1530 hours this force advanced towards Mahmudpura, right into the killing ground. The Pattons came charging recklessly. The Centurions lying in wait allowed them to come well within effective range and then opened up with murderous fury. The wall of fire stopped the enemy. In the growing dark, the battlefield was lit up with burning Pattons. In an effort to extricate themselves, some of the tanks entered the flooded area and got bogged down. These tanks were destroyed by Indian tanks and recoilless guns. This crushing defeat broke the back of Pakistan’s 1 Armoured Division and the “Pride of Pakistan” had to give up its dream of reaching Beas and was forced to pull out in complete disorder.
Despite the failure of their attack along the Bhikkiwind Axis, Pakistanis made another attempt along the Patti Axis on the evening of September 10. The enemy armour penetrated close to the headquarters of 62 Mountain Brigade. But 7 GRENADIERS stood their ground. By 2200 hours the enemy broke off. 7 GRENADIERS lost four officers in this battle.
Morning of September 11 exposed the plight of Pakistani armour. Soon after dawn, a squadron of 8 Cavalry spotted some Pattons near Mahmudpura. When engaged the crew abandoned their tanks and fled. Later in the day, a patrol of 1 DOGRA, attached to 2 Independent Armoured Brigade captured a party of the enemy hiding in the sugarcane fields. They included the commanding officer of Pakistan’s 4 Cavalry, his intelligence officer, two squadron commanders and 16 other ranks.
Assal Uttar was a remarkable victory. The defeated and demoralised battalions of 4 Mountain Division recovered their morale and put up determined resistance in the face of repeated attacks by Pakistani Forces far superior in number and armour. The obsolescent, out gunned Indian tanks handed the worst defeat to Pakistan’s 1 Armoured Division, “The Pride of Pakistan” who had boasted of capturing Beas in three days and proceeding to Delhi. Pakistan lost 97 tanks including 72 Pattons. 32 of the captured tanks were found to be in running condition. Some of the tanks had done just 300 kilometers. India lost only five tanks in the battle.
The victory at Assal Uttar deserves to be studied. How did the defeated and demoralised battalions of 4 Mountain Division recover their morale and fighting spirit within two days and fight a valiant defensive battle? How did the obsolescent Indian armour defeat the technologically superior Pattons? They had a bit of luck and a lot of pluck. The major reasons are given in the succeeding paragraphs.
The luck came in the inability of Pakistan to launch its offensive on September 7. Had they been able to do so, the story might have been different. The delay enabled the Indian troops to regroup, reorganise, prepare their defences, develop obstacles by laying nines and flooding and put up a valiant fight.
On September 6 and 7, 4 Mountain Division was a defeated, demoralised formation. 13 DOGRA had ceased to be a fighting unit. 1/9 GORKHA RIFLES had lost two companies in the battle. Commanding Officer of 9 JAMMU AND KASHMIR RIFLES had fled the battle with one company of, the Battalion. Two companies of 7 GRENADIERS had deserted. 18 RAJPUTANA RIFLES had 10 percent deserters. The General Officer Commanding 11 Corps, who visited 4 Mountain Division on September 7, was so alarmed by the state of confusion and low morale that he recommended to the Army Commander that the formation needed to be replaced and four of the battalions should be immediately disbanded. How did the same battalions successfully fight the Battle of Assal Uttar? Good leadership and a small pause in the battle enabled the troops of 4 Mountain Division to overcome the shock of the debacles of September 6 and fight as cohesive units. The visit of the Army Commander Lt General Harbakhsh Singh to 4 Mountain Division and his coolness and confidence in the outcome of battle restored the confidence of the senior commanders of the Division and the panic passed. The senior leadership of the Division was now able to restore the confidence of the other officers and men. The impending arrival of 2 Independent Armoured Brigade, which improved the Indian armour presence in the area also had a morale boosting effect.
The Battle of Assal Uttar proved once again that technology by itself cannot win wars. The man behind the gun is more important. The Pattons, as tanks, were far superior in fire power, protection and night fighting capabilities than any of the Indian tanks on the battlefield. But the Pakistani tank crew were inadequately trained and unable to adapt to the terrain obtaining in the region. Their motivation and leadership was questionable. This is borne out by the fact that 32 enemy tanks were abandoned by their crew in serviceable condition. They blindly drove into the killing ground. The Indian armour commanders and tank crews were much better trained. They were able to make full use of the cover offered by the standing crops and ambush the enemy tanks. Their shooting was fast and accurate. ,\heir confidence, fire and radio discipline were excellent. They allowed the enemy tanks to come well within effective engagement range before opening fire. They did not prematurely give away their positions and invite destruction at longer ranges.
The obstacle systems developed by the Engineers in the form of mine fields and floodings also played their role by chanellising the enemy attacks and causing tank casualties. Laying mines in the face of enemy attack is an extremely difficult task. This can be gauged from the fact that the Engineer mine laying parties suffered 9 killed and 40 wounded while carrying out mine laying. The tasks were admirably performed.
The reasons for the initial debacles of 4 Mountain Division on September 6 are not difficult to find. It was a mountain division, trained to fight in the mountains. The conditions found at Khemkaran were entirely different. They got no time to orient themselves to their new environment. Though the 0 Groups of the brigades and battalions had arrived at Dibbipura and Valtoha on September 5, they had very little time to brief the troops. 62 Mountain Brigade arrived at Valtoha tired after 18 hours of continuous move at 2200 hours on September 6 and were launched into attack at 0500 hours on September 7. They had no time to even see the terrain let alone be familiar with it and the objectives. They had no time to many up with their supporting armour and engineers. When counter attacked by enemy tanks under heavy shelling, without effective artillery support due to breakdown of radio communication between the Forward Observation Officer and his guns, many of them panicked and fled the battle. It is necessary to launch troops into battle with adequate physical and mental preparation. Otherwise, the result can be disastrous. The same mistake was to be committed many years later in the Battle for Jaffna in Sri Lanka.