Battle of Shalateng
When the British left in 1947 after creating Pakistan and India, the Princely States were given the option of acceding to India or Pakistan or to remain independent. All the Princely States except two had soon aligned with either India or Pakistan. One of the two was Maharaja Hart Singh, of Kashmir. He could not make up his mind and continued to dillydally. Most probably he wanted to remain independent. On the other hand, his Prime Minister, Mr Sheikh Abdullah wanted Kashmir to join India.
Pakistan on the other hand was totally insistent on Kashmir acceding to Pakistan. This is because the majority of the population of Kashmir were Muslims. The main road communications to Srinagar were through Pakistan along the Jhelum Valley. Even Jammu and other towns in west Kashmir were well connected to Pakistan. Right from the start, Pakistan tried to pressurise the Maharaja to join Pakistan. Pakistan warned Kashmir that it. would be annexed by force if necessary. Pakistan also imposed economic sanctions on Kashmir by stopping flow of essential commodities to Kashmir and cutting off electric supply.
Pakistan on the other hand was totally insistent on Kashmir acceding to Pakistan. This is because the majority of the population of Kashmir were Muslims.
When it became apparent that Maharaja Hari Singh would not join Pakistan on his own, Pakistan prepared to annex it by force. It got together about 10,000 tribesmen from the North-West Frontier Province and an equal number of Muslim locals from the border areas, armed them with rifles, light machine guns and heavy weapons like machine guns and mortars. Civilian transport was mustered for the Raiders to carry the troops, equipment and ammunition. Pakistan also provided some officers and men from the regular army to form the hard core of the Raiders and assist in planning, co-ordination and control of operations. Fire support from artillery guns was also promised.
The Raiders were given the license to loot, rape and kill. When these forces were ready, a full-scale tribal invasion backed by the Pakistani regular army was launched. The operations in the Jammu Sector and Poonch started on October, 15 1947 and in the Kashmir Valley on October, 20 1947 with the aim of capturing Srinagar by October 26, 1947. The operation for capture of Srinagar was given the code name OPERATION GULMARG. The Pakistani attacks in West Kashmir in October 1947 are shown on Map No 1.
To understand the operations that followed, it is necessary to understand the geography of the Srinagar Valley. The Valley consists of the valley of the Jhelum and its tributaries, the Mawar and Pohru Rivers. The main metalled road ran from Muree in Pakistan via Muzaffarabad, Dommel, Uri, Baramula, and Patan to Srinagar. There were two other subsidiary routes to Srinagar. The northern route was a track from Muzaffarabad to Tithwal to Nastachun Pass and then on to Kupwara, Sopore on to Srinagar. The portion from Nastachun Pass to Srinagar was motorable and some length of it was metalled. The southern route left the Muree – Srinagar Road midway between Uri and Baramula and ran south east to Gulmarg and via Magam on to Srinagar. Gulmarg to Srinagar was a metalled road.The State of Kashmir had a small State Force of about eight to ten battalions. Two battalions were deployed in each of the four regions and the rest were possibly located at Srinagar. The State Forces mainly consisted of Sikhs. Dogras and Muslims. Some of the Muslim troops remained loyal to the Maharaja and fought to the last. Many others deserted and joined the raiders. Some. like those at Gilgit, mutinied and joined the Pakistan Army.
The OPERATION GULMARG started with attacks along two routes along the main road and the northern axis on October 20, 1947 (Refer Map No 2). The main column of the raiders consisting of 4000 to 5000 raiders started from the small border town of Garhi Habibullah astride the Muree – Dommel Muzaffarabad – Uri – Baramula – Patan – Srinagar Road. Dommel was captured without a fight on the first day. The battalion of State Forces located at Muzaffarabad put up some resistance but was overpowered. Muzaffarabad fell on October 23. The Raiders moved forward and contacted Uri. Muzaffarabad was to become the capital of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir or Azad Kashmir, as the Pakistanis like to call it. The State Forces at Uri under the personal leadership of Brigadier Rajinder Singh though hampered by the desertion of Muslim troops, fought gallantly to the last man and last round. Uri fell after two days of bitter combat on October 25.
The retreating State Forces blew up the Dri Bridge. Brigadier Rajinder Singh was killed in battle and awarded the Maha Vir Chakra. The destruction of Dri Bridge held up the enemy for another day and the Raiders contacted Baramula on the morning of October 27. Baramula was poorly defended and fell to the enemy the same day. At Baramula, the Raiders went berserk killing, looting, raping and burning. The orgy of violence went on for three days during which at least 3000 people were slain and half the town was burnt. It is reported that the loot was so much that some of the raiders went back to leave the loot before coming for more. Hundreds of young women were forcibly taken away to be sold as slaves in Pakistan.
On October 24, Pakistan organised the formation of the Azad Kashmir Government with its capital at Muzaffarabad and the Raiders were called Azad Kashmir Forces. The Azad Kashmir government immediately declared its independence from the Kashmir State. The Maharaja of Kashmir, seeing the gravity of the situation, approached the Indian Government for assistance on October 24. He agreed to accede to India and sent his Prime Minister, Mr. Sheikh Abdullah to Delhi to sign the treaty of accession. The Indian Government agreed to the Maharaja’s request. The Instrument of Accession was signed on October 26. The road communication from Jammu to Srinagar over the Banihal Pass was an indifferent track 300 kms long. It was not fit for induction of Indian troops into the Valley. The first Indian troops had to be air lifted and landed at Srinagar airfield on October 27.The Raiders were to pay heavily for the time spent in the orgy of violence at Baramula. The metalled road to Srinagar and the city itself lay almost defenceless. They forgot that they were to capture Srinagar by October 26 and concentrated on the looting and raping. Some even went back to Pakistan to leave their spoils of battle before returning for more. It gave the Indian Army time to secure the Srinagar airfield and induct its forces. But the fate of Srinagar was to hang in balance for a few more days. It was learnt “that Mr Jinnah, the President of Pakistan had planned to celebrate Id in Srinagar Mosque on October 26. It was a dream that was to remain unfulfilled.
The first batch of troops to arrive was the battalion headquarters and three companies of 1 SIKH under Lt Col Ranjit Rat. The Battalion had been deployed in Gurgaon – Rewari area in aid lo civil authorities trying to control the Hindu Muslim riots. The Battalion headquarters located at Gurgaon received the warning order for move at 1000 hours October 26. Lt Col Ranjit Rat, the commanding officer immediately asked the Battalion to concentrate and prepare for the impending move. There was considerable uncertainty about the situation in Srinagar and the number of aircraft available. However, maximum number of aircraft were made available by cancelling all domestic flights and making these civilian aircraft available. The first wave containing the Battalion Headquarters and the C Company took off from Delhi at 0600 hours October 27. The first aircraft reached Srinagar airfield at 0930 hours. Here the Battalion was received by senior civil and State Forces’ officers and given their first briefing. They were told that Baramula was st111 in the hands of State Forces and there was no enemy movement east of Baramula. The information proved to be incorrect.
Col Rai ordered C Company along with a section of 3-inch mortars to proceed immediately to Baramula. The company led by Capt Kamaljit Singh started moving at 1130 hours in civilian vehicles commandeered by the local authorities. It reached Mile 30 on the Srinagar – Uri Road after crossing terror stricken refugees from Baramula on October 27 and saw that Baramula was already in enemy hands and burning. After carrying out reconnaissance and meeting remnants of a State Cavalry troop. Capt Kamaljit decided to take up defences at Mile 32-33. He also sent back information about the situation to the Commanding Officer. The next troops to arrive the same day were the D Company of the Battalion under Major Harwant Singh. Col Rai ordered the company to carry out a flag ‘march through the Srinagar city before moving for Baramula to join the C Company. The flag march could be completed only by 1900 hours. D Company less two platoons (one platoon was left at the airfield for its protection and the other at Sopore) moved out for Baramula at 2030 hours. October 27 and. joined C Company at 0400 hours October 28. This flag march did much to restore the morale of the people of Srinagar and subdue pro Pakistan elements.C and D Companies (less two platoons) along with the troop of State Cavalry started preparing their defences. There were no defence stores and digging tools. The troops did their best. At about 0900 hours enemy movement was noticed on both flanks of the Position. Fire was also exchanged. Col Rai reached the forward defences at 1030 hours on the morning of October 28. He carried out a quick reconnaissance and planned to launch an attack on the enemy. However the raiders launched an attack on the Sikh position at about 1130 hours. The attack was beaten back with heavy casualties. The Raiders took up positions on both sides of the road. A stalemate now developed. Col Rai realised the need for immediate reinforcements. But A and B Companies had not reached up by 1300 hours. There was no radio communications with the airfield.
Giving instructions to Major Harwant and Capt Kamaljit to hold the position at all cost, Col Rai returned to the airfield to find out what was happening. A and B Companies had landed at 1400 hours. A mobile patrol was sent by the Battalion towards Magma on Srinagar Gulmarg Road as enemy was reported to be moving from Baramula towards Gulmarg. Col Rai instructed his companies to follow him and headed back for Mile 32 position. In the mean time, the raiders had intensified their fire on the Sikh positions and started an out flanking movement. At 1530 they launched another attack but were beaten back. They now attempted to get behind the Sikh positions. At 1700 hours, Col Rai decided that the situation was critical and if his C and D Companies were to be kept intact, a withdrawal was essential. He issued orders accordingly.
The Raiders regrouped and launched an out flanking move. There was no option for the company but to withdraw. Lt Col Ranjit Rai died in this action while supervising the withdrawal which took place during the night of October 28 / 29. He did not succeed in evicting the intruders but had made them wary and slowed down their advance. 1 SIKH fell back and took up defences at Shalateng. However, either on orders of Major General Hiralal Atal or on the revised decisions of the officiating Commanding officer, Major Harwant, the battalion moved forward again to take up a defensive position near Patan astride Mile Stone 17. The Battalion reached Mile Stone 17 at 0400 hours October 29. A convoy of the Raiders reached the position at about 0700 hours. A firefight followed. The Raiders quickly dismounted and the battle of Patan was joined. The main attack came at 093.0 hours. The attack was beaten back. The next attack was launched at 1400 hours. This was also beaten back. Night October 29 / 30 and 30 / 31 were quiet with no further attacks. The Battalion used the time to improve their defences.
In the mean time 161 Brigade under Brigadier J C Katoch had begun to arrive on October 29. It established its headquarters at the airfield. Some elements of 1 Kumaon Regiment arrived under Lt Col Pritam Singh and took over the duties of protection of the airfield. One company of MAHARs (machine guns) and some mountain guns also arrived. Between October 30 and November 1 more reinforcements in the form of 4 KUMAON under Lt Col M M Khanna and 1 PUNJAB under Lt Col GIS Khuller and other supporting troops had arrived. Some elements of 4 KUMAON under Major Somnath Sharma were moved to Badgam. 1 PUNJAB moved to Magam and took up defences. Brig Katoch was wounded on October 31 while visiting 1 SIKH at Patan. He was evacuated and the Brigade was taken over by Brigadier L P Sen on November 2. On November 3, 1 SIKH put in an attack on the Raiders at Patan. The enemy were taken by surprise and fled.
Headquarters Jammu and Kashmir Force was also created and located at Jammu to co-ordinate the battle. Major General Kalwant Singh, its commander, was made overall in charge of the operations. He arrived in Srinagar on November 5.
The situation around Srinagar was extremely fluid when Brigadier Sen took over. About 1500 hundred Raiders were reported to be moving on to Srinagar from the north via Sopore. About 5000 Raiders were attempting to surround 1 SIKH Battalion position. at Patan. A smaller force of about 1000 Raiders was approaching Srinagar from the south via Gulmarg. He divided the resources available to him into two groups. He formed a Srinagar Defence Force of two battalions, 6 RAJPUTANA RIFLES and 4 KUMAON under Colonel Harbakhsh Singh for defence of Srinagar and the airfield. With the rest of the Brigade group, he planned to deal with the enemy approaching Srinagar.
The enemy consisted of about 8000 raiders led by Pakistan Army Regulars. They were divided in three columns. The main force of about 5000 was approaching Srinagar along the main Uri – Baramula – Patan – Srinagar Road. A northern column of about 2000 were approaching from the north via Sopore and a southern column of about 1000 was approaching the airfield from the south via Gulmarg/Badgam. The enemy was supported by machine guns and mortars. The enemy morale was high. They had decimated the State Forces en route and captured and looted one town after another with ease. Within 10 days they had reached the gates of Srinagar and the city, its wealth and its women seemed within their grasp.
The enemy were sending infiltrators and snipers behind the defences and causing casualties. But the troops were led by dedicated officers and determined to fight.
161 Infantry Brigade with operational responsibility of defending Srinagar had the following troops under its command:
- 1 ( Para) KUMAON
- 1 ( Para) PUNJAB
- 1 SIKH
- 6 RAJPUTANA RIFLES. This battalion was deployed exclusively for the defence of Srinagar.
- 4 KUMAON. This battalion was deployed for close defence of the airfield.
- 80 machine gunners from 1 MAHAR. . Four 3.7 -inch howitzers without dial sights of Patiala Mountain Battery.
- One troop (three guns) of 11 Field Regiment
- One troop of armoured cars and a rifle troop of 7 Light Cavalry which arrived on Nov 5.
The troops had been flown into the area. The first battalion landed on October 27 and the last only on November 2. They had been immediately launched into battle. 1 SIKH had suffered casualties including their commanding officer, Lt Col Raghunath Rai who was killed near Baramula. The brigade commander had been wounded and relieved by a new commander. The defences had been hastily prepared and were without any over head protection or obstacle systems like mines. The enemy were sending infiltrators and snipers behind the defences and causing casualties. But the troops were led by dedicated officers and determined to fight.
The Battle (November 2 to 7)
Badgam was a small village south west of Srinagar and a few kilometres from the airfield. On hearing reports of enemy concentration in Badgam area, the Brigade Commander, on November 3, sent a patrol of two companies of 4 KUMAON under Major Som Nath Sharma to check the area. Another patrol of one company of 1 KUMAON was to pass through the companies of 4 KUMAON, contact 1 PUNJAB at Mangan and return to the airfield. This patrol did not meet any enemy till 1300 hours and was sent back. Major Sharma and his companies established a firm base on a hillock near Badgam. He was asked to withdraw and sent back one of the companies to the airfield at 1400 hours. The company was engaged by the enemy with mortar and machine-gun fire at about 1500 hours. Though surprised and without properly dug in defences, the company fought a determined battle. The first attack was beaten back but further attacks followed with relentless fury. Major Sharma, who had accompanied the battalion in spite of having a hand in plaster, died fighting when a 2 inch mortar shell landed close to him and was awarded the Param Vir Chakra.
The defences had been hastily prepared and were without any over head protection or obstacle systems like mines.
Another soldier, Sepoy Dewan Singh, who was in charge of a light machine gun, seeing the enemy encircling his platoon, stood up and blazed away with his machine gun at the on-rushing enemy. Several enemy fell. This stopped the enemy long enough for his platoon to withdraw. Dewan Singh was hit in the shoulder but continued to hold his position to cover the withdrawal of his platoon till he fell to a burst of machine-gun fire. For his outstanding gallantry he was posthumously awarded the Maha Vir Chakra. The company suffered 20 killed and 26 wounded. The enemy captured Badgam by November 4. The Srinagar airfield was now in danger. Alarm bells rang in Delhi and Sardar Vallabhai Patel flew into Srinagar to impress upon the military commanders that the airfield had to be defended at all cost. Brigadier Sen was told that by November 7, he would receive sizeable reinforcements.
Brigadier Sen now decided, to redeploy and reorganised his troops for the defence of Srinagar and a decisive battle. 1 PUNJAB, initially placed at Magam was withdrawn to Humhom between Badgam and the airfield after Badgam fell. 1 SIKH was withdrawn from Patan to Shalateng. just 7 kms outside Srinagar on the Baramula Road. 1 KUMAON was deployed at the Rifle Range. Two armoured cars and a rifle troop of 7 Light Cavalry were dispatched to protect the approach from Sopore. The withdrawal of 1 SIKH from Patan was not liked by General Kalwant Singh and he berated Brigadier Sen when he visited his headquarters on November 5. It was later learnt that the Kashmiris got so alarmed by the pull out that they sent a request to Pandit Nehru to remove Brigadier Sen from command. The deployment of troops for the battle of Shalateng is shown on Map No 3.
The enemy closely followed the withdrawing Sikhs and a sizeable force attacked their new position at Shalateng on the night of November 5. The attack was repulsed. On the morning of November 6. the disposition of the Indian Forces and the enemy is shown on Map No 3. An aerial reconnaissance on the morning of November 6 showed a heavy concentration of the enemy Raiders between Shalateng and Zainakut villages west of the Sikh positions. A fleet of lorries, which had brought the Raiders from Baramula, was seen parked near the road. The enemy were digging in and preparing to attack Srinagar. Brigadier Sen had two options. He could hold the enemy tin the promised reinforcements arrived or he could attack the enemy with what he had and try to put him off balance. He decided to attack.
Brigadier Sen’s plan was simple. 1 SIKH was to hold firm in their defensive position and keep engaging the enemy from their position at Shalateng. 1 KUMAON was to move from Rifle Range and be prepared to attack the enemy from a canal bank south west of the Sikhs. One company of 4 KUMAON, deployed at the airfield, was ordered to secure the forming up place for 1 KUMAON. The armoured cars and rifle troop of 7 Light Cavalry was ordered to move along the road from Gandarbal via Sumbal and Shadipur to the junction of Baramula-Srinagar Road to the rear of the enemy and be prepared to attack the enemy from the rear. The assault was to be launched by 1 KUMAON as soon as the armoured cars reached their positions. Once the Kumaonis had attacked, the Sikhs were also to attack the enemy from the east. Every available artillery gun and mortar was ordered to support the attack.
The battle commenced around noon, November 7 and was over by 1700 hours in the evening. Not expecting the Indian Army to attack, the Raiders were taken completely by surprise. The machine gun fire from the armoured cars from the rear was especially unnerving for the enemy. Shot up from all sides and Subjected to heavy shelling, they ran helter skelter and fled the battlefield. The air force also did their bit by strafing the enemy. By evening the Raiders were handed a decisive defeat and were in full retreat towards Baramula. The Sikhs pursued the retreating enemy and Patan was recaptured by 2000 hours November 7. The Indian casualties were light. Enemy left 472 dead on the battlefield and 146 more bodies were counted on the road to Baramula. So demoralised were the Raiders after this defeat that they did not stop retreating till they reached Pakistan.
A decisive battle was thus fought and won at Shalateng on Nov 7. For the first time armoured cars were used. The enemy was attacked from three sides under heavy covering fire from Indian guns. Thus as far as Pakistan was concerned, OP GULMARG was over.
Analysis of the Battle
The battle of Shalateng was one of the most decisive battles ever fought by the Indian Army. It totally changed the tide of battle in the Kashmir Valley. It completely removed the threat to Srinagar and led to recapture of most of the territories lost to the Raiders in the initial days of the conflict.
The Indian casualties were light. Enemy left 472 dead on the battlefield and 146 more bodies were counted on the road to Baramula. So demoralised were the Raiders after this defeat that they did not stop retreating till they reached Pakistan.
161 Infantry Brigade under Brigadier L P Sen did not enjoy any numerical superiority over the enemy. The battalions had been inducted only, a few days earlier. 1 SIKH and 4 KUMAON had suffered reverses and casualties. The enemy was preparing to assault Srinagar and the airfield. How did Brigadier Sen turn such a desperate situation into a total victory?
Firstly, he was able to concentrate his forces at the point of decision, Shalateng. He withdrew 1 SIKH from Patan to Shalateng and 1 PUNJAB from Mangan to Humhom. In the process he was able to concentrate his meagre artillery resources and bring it to bear on the enemy at the time of his choosing. In this manoeuvre he was a trifle lucky that his boss, General Kalwant Singh arrived at Srinagar only after the withdrawals had taken place. The General could only berate him for what he had done but could not change the deployment. If the General had arrived at Srinagar three days earlier, in the face of political pressure, the withdrawals and concentration might have never taken place and the enemy would have been in a position to deal with one battalion at a time and possibly defeated them.
Secondly, he adopted offensive defence. Instead of waiting for the enemy to attack, he took the initiative and attacked the enemy while he was preparing to attack Srinagar. It was a classical example of a spoiling attack that turned possible defeat or stalemate into victory. The strategy brings to mind General O’Conner’s attack on the Italian Forces at the beginning of the First Ubyan Campaign during the Second World War with similarly devastating results.
Thirdly, he was able to draw the enemy into a pre-selected killing ground. This is a manoeuvre taught in mobile warfare. But Brigadier Sen was able to adopt this into the mountains. His tactical withdrawal of 1 SIKH from Patan to Shalateng and 1 PUNJAB from Mangan to Humhom drew the enemy into the Zainakut bowl where they were surrounded on three sides and . destroyed.
Lastly but most importantly he was able to completely surprise the .enemy. The enemy was not expecting the Indian forces to attack. Hence the attack by 1 KUMAON took them completely unprepared. The use of the meagre force of two armoured cars boldly to get behind the enemy and assault by fire from the rear was a master stroke and contributed in no small measure to the rout of the enemy forces.
Shalateng was the first decisive victory of the Indian Army after independence. But the principles of war namely concentration, offensive action and surprise that were employed successfully in this battle by Brigadier Sen have contributed to the success of many battles. Years will go by. New weapon systems will be introduced. Firepower on the battlefield will grow. New battle drills and tactics may be evolved. But these fundamental principles of war remain relevant today and will continue to do so in the future. It is a battle that deserves to be studied by all aspiring generals.