19 Infantry Division under Maj Gen ED ’Souza was responsible for denying ingress to Kashmir Valley and protecting vulnerable areas against sabotage by infiltration. Because of snowfall and the severe winter conditions, the operating environment, especially for the attacker, was climatically disadvantageous and no major offensive along the high passes towards the valley was considered possible.
But the exploitation of pro-Pakistani elements in the valley by staging a limited revolt against established authority could not be ruled out. To relieve D’Souza of internal security duties, a separate sector called V Sector was organised under Maj Gen Patankar and all the paramilitary forces deployed in the valley were placed under his command. Unlike in the 1965 conflict, D’Souza did not have to look back while fighting forward on the ceasefire line to ensure the security of the valley. This was done by Patankar.
Territorially, D’Souza’s area of operational responsibility ran in the shape of a horseshoe along the ceasefire line from Karobal Gali in the Greater Himalayan range in the north to Chor Panjal Pass in the Pir Panjal range in the south, a distance of some 338 kilometres. From Karobal Gali to Lunda Gali, the line was along the high range dominating the Kishanganga, running from east to west with heights varying from 12,000 to 14,000 feet. This area was poorly served by road. An indifferent jeep track connected Mini Marg and Dudgai, opposite Gurais, with Gilgit about 240 kilometres away, and another road in somewhat better shape ran along the Kishanganga valley connecting Muzaffarabad with Keran and thereafter to Doarian. Beyond that a mule track went to Dudgai Forest. On the Indian side, a road connected Bandipur on Wular Lake with Gurais and Chorwan beyond.
Unlike in the 1965 conflict, DSouza did not have to look back while fighting forward on the ceasefire line to ensure the security of the valley.
The terrain, high, rugged and jungle-clad, was unsuitable for organised military operations. But it was open to infiltration through numerous gullies leading to the valley, and the unfrequented countryside was ideal for developing guerilla bases and caches of arms. The northern gullies, of lower tactical priority, were held by about two wings of Northern Scouts, with one. wing in the general area of Mini Marg and the other wing in the area of Keran.
Indian matched this strength with about three battalions of BSF backed by one regular infantry battalion. The BSF battalions were to hold the picquet line from where the ceasefire line could be dominated, and the regular battalion was located at Kanzalwan, to be used for offensive tasks wherever required.
In the west the ceasefire line forms two distinct bulges west of the Shamshabari range. The Keran bulge on the Indian side runs 16 to 20 kilometres along the Kishanganga and dominates the Muzaffarabad-Doarian road. The Pakistani bulge of Bugina, north of Tithwal, provides a readymade bridgehead across the river to develop operations to eliminate the Indian bulges of Beran and Tithwal.
Although our troops in the Tithwal area dominated the stretch of road between Nauseri and Mirpur, it was known that Pakistan had made considerable progress in bypassing this stretch by connecting Nauseri with Bandi. The Tithwal bulge extended from the Bugina bulge to Tutmari Gali in the Pir Panjal range. The peripheral area around Tithwal was held by Pakistan 1 POK Brigade consisting of three POK battalions and a battalion worth of Scouts. Facing them was Indian 104 Infantry Brigade comprising four regular battalions and a battalion plus of BSF. Out of these, one regular battalion was held in reserve for offensive and counteroffensive tasks, while the remainder were committed on the picquet line.
From Garela Gali in the north to Jarni Gali in the south lay the Uri bulge on both sides of the Jhelum. A series of spurs emanating from the north and south Pir Panjal ranges fell into the narrow Jhelum Valley. Pakistan held the area around the Uri bulge, including the Haji Pir Pass area, with about four to five infantry battalions. D’Souza matched this deployment with 161 Infantry Brigade consisting of about five regular battalions and one BSF battalion holding the picquet line, and one battalion in reserve.
The terrain, high, rugged and jungle-clad, was unsuitable for organised military operations. But it was open to infiltration through numerous gullies leading to the valley, and the unfrequented countryside was ideal for developing guerilla bases and caches of arms.
In addition, Pakistan had POK 80 Infantry Brigade located somewhere north of the Jhelum for employment in this sector. Similarly, D’Souza had 268 Infantry Brigade as reserve within the divisional sector for offensive or defensive tasks. He broke up this brigade at the very outset by allotting one battalion each to the two brigades and actually moved the battalions in respective brigade sectors, and the third battalion was earmarked for the V Sector in the valley. He utilised brigade headquarters to command an ad hoc sector called Golf Sector established in Gulmarg with an ad hoc force of about a battalion plus consisting of odd regular and paramilitary units.
One approach to the valley from Pakistan lay through Muzaffarabad-Nauseri-Tithwal-Nastachun Pass. This involved crossing the Kishanganga and clearing the ridges on both sides of the Tangdhar valley right up to the pass, and was both troop-consuming and time-consuming. The second approach was the old Rawalpindi-Srinagar highway along the Jhelum. it involved clearing heights on both sides of the valley, prominent among them being Chhota Kazi Nag. This was a formidable position prepared over a quarter of a century and could only be tackled along with the third approach from Kahuta-Haji Pir-Uri. All these approaches were connected by laterals which enabled Pakistan to switch forces from one approach to another without much difficulty, while on the other hand reinforcing the Indian brigade sectors involved circuitous and lengthy routing.
In the entire mountainous and hilly sector in Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan had two reserve brigades, 26 and 80 Infantry, north and south of the Jhelum. It was unlikely that Maj Gen Akbar Khan, GOC Pakistan 12 Infantry Division, would unbalance himself by bunching both brigades together on either side of the. Jhelum. So the maximum threat expected opposite 19 Infantry Division was about two brigades worth, one reserve and the other created by denuding tactically less important areas within the sector as well as using troops located on the thrust line. But the imminence of snowfall at the time of commencement of hostilities and the rugged heights precluded any major operations in D’Souza’s sector. With only about two brigaded available for an offensive role, Pakistan apparently did not have capability to reach the main Shamshabari or Pir Panjal ranges under any circumstances.
Although intelligence reports indicated the presence of Pakistan 7 Infantry Division or a part of it in the general area of Muzaffarabad, it was highly unlikely that Pakistan, woefully short of infantry in its strike forces in the plains, would commit its only old, well-trained reserve division in the mountains, where results would not be readily forthcoming. But due cognisance of its likely employment against the 19 Infantry Division sector had to be taken at this stage. In addition, a major infiltration threat towards the valley was visualised and the deployment had to be counter-infiltration-oriented to cover routes of ingress and the location of reserves. All this was troop-consuming and not at all suited to the tactical tasks in hand.
It was planned to take such offensive measures on the outbreak of hostilities as would improve the present defensive posture. It may be recalled that the ceasefire line was held by the opposing forces in the form of defended localities all along in linear fashion, with little depth. These localities had been strengthened over a quarter of a century with minefields and the erection of wire and other obstacle belts. In addition, formidable fortifications had been developed to withstand artillery bombardment. There was thus a thick defensive crust on either side which was difficult to break. But as a result of years of eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation in a no war-no peace posture the weaknesses of each position were generally known and could be exploited in local actions.
Before hostilities began three such tasks were planned, one in Tithwal and the other two in Uri. Reconnaissance had been carried out, tactical plans made, resources earmarked and operations rehearsed. These operations were to be launched immediately after the outbreak of war so as to achieve complete surprise. But for some unknow reason HQ XV Corps intervened and insisted that in view of the overall posture postulated for the western sector they would be undertaken only on clearance from headquarters. As a result only one of the three operations was launched as scheduled and achieved complete success, while the other two, undertaken the next night, failed to make any headway as the Pakistanis had got wise to the Indian moves.
This exercise was undertaken to secure the Ghasla Top and Ring Contour features south of the Tithwal bulge with a view to dominating the approaches to Richhmar Gali northwest of the Chak Mukadam area, on the night of 3/4 December.1 It was carried out by 8 Rajputana Rifles in two phases. In the first, one company assaulted Ghasla Top from the north, but after initial resistance the enemy withdrew to depth localities. The second company immediately attacked the Ring Contour, but because of the restricted approach and withering automatic fire the assault halted and despite rallying could not get moving again.
…only one of the three operations was launched as scheduled and achieved complete success, while the other two, undertaken the next night, failed to make any headway as the Pakistanis had got wise to the Indian moves.
The OC 8 Rajputana Rifles thereupon manoeuvered his commando platoon to tackle the position from the rear. It was almost daylight by the time the platoon reached the objective, but the enemy was completely surprised and Ring Contour was carried with little resistance. The operation was completed by 0800 hours on 4 December, capturing one Pakistani JCO and 14 other ranks and killing 20, including the post commander, a captain. It appeared that the position was occupied by about platoon strength.
The Jhandi Mali feature was attacked so as to improve the defence potential of Chhota Kazi Nag in the Uri sector. It was believed to be occupied by about two platoons in well-constructed bunkers. On 4 December, in daytime the bunkers were pounded by mountain guns, which claimed to have destroyed about nine bunkers from where direct firing was expected on the assaulting troops. The attack was launched with one company of 8 Sikh after last light. Eight bunkers were captureed, but the assault was then stalled because of heavy automatic fire.
The reserve company was launched as planned to raise the momentum of the attack, but went to ground as well. As part of the plan, the commando platoon of the battalion was to establish a block between Jhandi Mali and Mali in the rear to prevent reinforcement of the locality. Although the platoon reported having established the block, the enemy was seen reinforcing the position under star shell illumination. Hope of making headway with the attack having waned, the attack was called off and 8 Sikh troops pulled back to their former positions. The formation’s losses were one other rank killed, one officer and 13 other ranks wounded, and nine other ranks missing or believed killed.
The third operation to capture the high point 10944 called Jayshree, south of the Uri bulge, was launched by 7 Sikh Light Infantry on the night of 4/5 December. The objective lay on a ridge running north to south of the feature called Ring Contour on the Indian side. The obvious approach to the point was by ascending the ridge. According to earlier reports, the height was held by about a platoon. Two assaulting companies from the battalion were mustered by arranging suitable relief in the line. The attack was launched from the north by one company and a commando platoon, but these troops had not yet emerged from the forming-up place when they came under heavy machine gun fire from the southeastern flank. The fire plan envisaged the engagement of the entire locality on the objective.
Discerning from the opening Pakistani fire that the objective was held in three distinct localities, the company commander decided to assault each locality in turn rather than simultaneously as originally planned. For some inexplicable reason, he failed to modify the fire plan accordingly. Thus, when one platoon locality was assaulted, fire was lifted from the other localities as well, causing casualties from the interfering localities.
The attack was launched with one company of 8 Sikh after last light. Eight bunkers were captured, but the assault was then stalled because of heavy automatic fire.
7 Sikh however managed to get a lodgment in the first two platoon localities, but the Pakistanis continued to hold on to the depth locality in strength. The attack was halted, and the commander personally led a section charge to get it going again, but was killed in the attempt. Soon thereafter the leaderless soldiery were thrown back from the objective by a spirited Pakistan counter-attack. The attack was called off and the troops pulled back to Ring Contour. 7 Sikh suffered one officer and 11 other ranks killed and 14 other ranks wounded in this encounter.
Having met with two failures in one night, D’Souza started having second thoughts regarding tackling the fortified heights. The easy success in capturing Ghasala Top and Ring Contour lured him to seek other weaknesses in the Pakistani defences in the area. He eventually decided to explore the Lipa valley through Tutmari Gali and to clear the areas of Shishladi, Wanjal and Jamua contiguous to Ghasla Top and Ring Contour. 9 Sikh, deployed in the area of Naugam and Tutmari Galiarea, a pass in the Shamshabari range, was ordered to carry out a reconnaissance in force west wards toward the Kaiyan bowl on the night of 5/6 December. These troops captured Tharda Pani, a village en route, and carried Kaiyan in a quick swoop by the first light of 6 December. Complete surprise was achieved and very fight opposition encountered.
The enemy left six dead and some ammunition and rations on the battlefield. Emboldened by the easy going, our troops continued their advance and took another position about 1,800 metres southwest of Kaiyan on the night of 6/7 December, but by then they had expended themselves in holding the captured area. To keep up the momentum, D’Souza inducted the remainder of 9 Sikh Battalion after relieving it of defensive commitments, including the holding of Tutmari Gali by a company of 3 Maratha Light Infantry moved from Pattan, which had earlier been earmarked for counter-infiltration operations.
After the induction of the remainder of the battalion had been completed, 9 Sikh secured points 9747 and 10175 to protect the flanks of the axis of advance by capturing the overlooking heights north and south of it on the night of 8/9 December. The battalion captured another height overlooking the village of Seranwali Baihik the next night. In addition, a roadblock was established by about a company strength along the Brithwari-Mandal road to stop the reinforcement of the Wanjal group of Pakistani defences.
Although the advance in the almost vacant Kaiyan bowl was going like a knife into butter, lack of increased administrative and fire support came in the way and slowed down operations to the extent that a lull followed from 10 to 13 December to enable the administration to catch up. The road from Handwara ended at the base of Tutmari Gali. From there all material required to sustain operations had to be humped across the gali at a height of 3,650 metres by ponies and porters with limited payloads suited to such high altitudes. The heights were snow-bound and generally inaccessible and the paths had to be beaten periodically to get the pony and porter chains working.
Winter conditions increased the requirements of the forward troops’ snow equipment and clothing but decreased the turnover of porters and ponies. Since civilian labour was not easily available in the combat zone about a battalion of soldiers humped the stores across Tutmari Gali to keep 8 Sikh going. As for artillery fire, the battalion was supported by an ad hoc battery of 4.2-inch mortars deployed on the home side of the gali.
8 Sikh was soon operating outside its range and it took quite some time to deploy it forward because facilities for carrying the awkward loads of mortar parts and ammunition were lacking. To overcome this shortcoming one medium gun was stripped and carried in lorries to the Tithwal bulge on 13 December to support 8 Sikh in the Kaiyan bowl at extreme ranges. Another gun joined it on 16 December, and this had a good psychological effect although it hardly made any difference materially. After the administration caught up with it, 9 Sikh got going on the night of 13/14 December, and secured the entire Kaiyan bowl north of Jinjar Nala by last fight on 15 December. All the successes 9 Sikh achieved were reportedly the result of surprise attacks from the rear.