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.