Military & Aerospace

1971: The Rajasthan Campaign - I
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Issue Book Excerpt: India\'s War since Independence | Date : 28 Apr , 2011

After commanding an artillery brigade in Ladakh, I was selected to take over an infantry brigade, quite a feat in those prejudice-ridden days of early 1969. My General asked me: “Where do you think you will go now?” He knew I had exhausted my quota of service in the inhospitable field areas of the time. I replied promptly: “It could be the desert, sir.” But this was not to be for some months. I was posted to Amritsar, my home town, to command another artillery brigade.

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When I questioned the wisdom of this move, I was assured that it made sense. After a couple of months I would be fitted into an infantry brigade in Amritsar itself in a post falling vacant about that time. I moved there, and exactly after 12 days somebody with much pull eased me out of that job. I was posted to the desert instead. My brigade was part of 11 Infantry Division located in Gujarat, but it was operationally responsible for part of the Rajasthan desert border. The brigade was stationed at Jamnagar, once a major princely state of Saurashtra.

The Pakistani Air Force was served by the forward airfields of Badin, Rahim Yar Khan and Jacobabad, while we had fields at Barmer and Jaisalmer.

As the aircraft in which I was travelling with my wife and children was descending to land, my wife, who knew my knack of landing myself in trouble spots, said with a sigh of relief: “What can go wrong here?” On landing, I was however told that Ahmedabad was in the grip of unprecedented communal riots and the brigade was already on the move to the city to aid the civil authorities. I drove through burning streets littered with dead and the debris of loot the next day, and soon thereafter I was in command.

Maj Gen MG Hazari, General Officer Commanding 11 Infantry Division, had been recalled from Bombay, where he was on his way to attend a war game at Pune. I met him in Ahmedabad for the first time, our first handshake immediately brought us immensely close to each other: “Ideal situation for two soldiers to meet—a crisis.” He was an ideal boss to have in a crisis, one who left you alone to tackle your job and stood by you when you needed him. A podgy figure is uniform, he had one of the most profusely medalled chests. Behind that plump exterior he carried a stout heart and a sharp intellect, backed by vast war experience.

He was not to be hustled and took his own time to decide, but his decisions were always sound. He took the worst news calmly, and in his inimitable cool manner took practical steps to meet changing situations. It is a pity that our systems bypassed him for higher command for decrepit and insignificant personalities, but such are our systems. He had been in command for about three years by then and knew the desert and his operational tasks backwards. He told me what I was required to do.

One look at a map of the region should have convinced a military mind that the Rajasthan sector ran along the underbelly of the Pakistani province of Sind and had many strategic objectives.

The riots over, I took the road to the desert. Militarily, the Rajasthan sector comprises the districts of Bikaner, Jaisalmer and Barmer in Rajasthan State and most of the Little Rann and Great Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. The total distance covered lengthwise was about 1,400 kilometres, partly along the desert tracts of Rajasthan and partly in the watery flats of the Rann. Topographically, the area can be broadly divided into Rajasthan and Kutch.

In Rajasthan, the international boundary runs through a desert tract separating the Indian districts of Bikaner, Jaisalmer and Barmer from the West Pakistan districts of Bahawalpur, Rahim Yar Khan, Khanpur and Mirpur Khas. The whole region is a vast expanse of shifting sands with occasional rock exposures. These rocky outcrops suddenly jut out of the sands and break the monotony of the drab desert stretching for miles. The area slopes towards the Indus Valley and the Rann of Kutch. Short, intermittent streams interlace the area. The dry beds of lakes are occasionally visible.

The shifting sands pile up in dunes of various shapes, which run northeast to southwest, parallel to the prevailing winds, and are mostly swordshaped. They are extensive on either side of the border. Vegetation is scarce, with only a few small trees here and there. Large areas are covered with thorny and stunted scrub. Grass grows in places after the monsoon and provides fodder for cattle and sheep.

Despite our superior overall strength in the region, Pakistan got the better of us.

The climate is characterized by extreme temperatures and low seasonal rainfall. The winter is quite cold, the temperature at places falling below freezing point. Frost occurs, while in summer the heat is intense and scorching. The hot weather starts by the middle of March and prevails till June. Dust storms are common and bring down the temperature, and an occasional shower of rain provides relief from the unbearable heat.

The distribution of population and the way of life of the people in this region is largely governed by the availability of water. Some agriculture is possible around perennial wells. But a large section of population which cannot derive its sustenance from the land concentrates on rearing cattle on the desert vegetation. Agriculture is poor and precarious, and the region is always in the grip of famine or in dread of it.

 While our army fought copybook, set-piece battles, Pakistan used paramilitary forces and local militia to overrun the vacant desert, thereby securing the advantage of territorial gains for political bargaining in subsequent negotiations.

The area is poorly served by rail. A metre-gauge track runs from Luni Junction to Munabao through Gadra Road in the southern part of the region, another from Merta Road to Suratgarh in the north, and a third from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer. The only line which, but for a break of about six kilometres, connects with the Pakistan system is that to Munabao. The others terminate well within Indian territory.

An extensive network of strategic roads now cover the area on our side of the boundary, the main one connecting Ahmedabad with Barmer, Barmer with Jaisalmer, Jodhpur with Bikaner, and Jodhpur with Barmer and Jaisalmer. Roads emanate from these laterals all along the border. But on the Pakistani side of the desert belt, varying from 48 to 64 kilometres in width, had been left underdeveloped except for a few sandy tracks which could not take sustained traffic. The Pakistani Air Force was served by the forward airfields of Badin, Rahim Yar Khan and Jacobabad, while we had fields at Barmer and Jaisalmer.

One of my battalions was located at Bhuj, in Kutch, and on my first visit there I got to know the Rann of Kutch. It is a vast marshy, salt plain scarcely above sea level, stretching about 320 kilometres east to west and at places 160 kilometres north to south. It lies between Sind, in West Pakistan, and the Kutch mainland. The western limit of the Rann is the Arabian Sea, through Kori Creek and other mouths of the Indus. These salt flats are punctuated by occasional islands called bets. The Rann gets flooded in the monsoon rains as well as by the numerous streams draining into it. Seawater also enters it, particularly at high tide. In this period, the Rann becomes impassable. But a hard layer of salt forms on the surface in the dry season and movement by light vehicles is then possible almost anywhere, and by heavier vehicles and tanks with some reconnaissance.

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Bhuj, the district headquarters, is also a railhead. From here all-weather roads lead to the Great Rann, especially towards Khavda and Luna. Important locations on the margin of the Little Rann are accessible from Viramgram all the year round. A number of tracks traverse both Ranns in the dry season. After the monsoon, about the beginning of October, the Rann drains into the sea, leaving lakes of salt water in depressions. The Rann generally dries up by December, and stays so till the rains come again in July. The desert phenomenon known as mirage is encountered in the Rann and navigational aids are required for travel. The problem of water supply is acute.

The Indian planners realised the existing constraints of mobility and the difficulty of sustaining troops without water and set about overcoming them earnestly.

One look at a map of the region should have convinced a military mind that the Rajasthan sector ran along the underbelly of the Pakistani province of Sind and had many strategic objectives. First, the rail and road communications connecting Karachi, then the only seaport in the western wing, with West Punjab, ran parallel, though at considerable depth, to the border from west to east and were prone to disruption all along the route. The Sukkur Dam at Rohri irrigated the entire green belt north of the desert, and any damage to it could cripple the entire agricultural economy of the region. Besides, the naval and air force installations at Karachi, Badin and Malir presented attractive military targets. But the inhospitable desert belt acted as a cover for these strategic objectives.

It is perhaps for these reasons that the Indian military planners had always rated the Rajasthan sector a low-priority area. Up to 1965, the sector had been divided into two areas of operational responsibility. Bikaner, Jaisalmer and Barmer districts were placed under Headquarters Delhi Area, with one infantry brigade group located in the Jaipur-Jodhpur-Nasirabad complex. Kutch was directly under Headquarters Southern Command located at Pune, with one infantry brigade group in the Ahmedabad-Jamnagar-Dhrangadhra-Bhuj complex. This was an altogether unsatisfactory arrangement, but the general attitude was that so long as military decisions were to be sought through local actions in Kashmir any arrangements would suffice in the desert.

This dormant sector suddenly became active with the probing Pakistani attack on Sardar Post at Kanjar Kot, then manned by the police, on 9 April 1965 followed by a thrust towards Bier Bet and Point 84. Maj Gen PO Dunn was then recalled from retirement leave, promoted Lieutenant General overnight and put in charge of the Kutch operations directly under Army Headquarters. By the time he could muster his force of about two brig ades, a ceasefire had been effected and he was moved north in command of a newly formed corps, and affairs in the sector reverted to the former state.

This was an altogether unsatisfactory arrangement, but the general attitude was that so long as military decisions were to be sought through local actions in Kashmir any arrangements would suffice in the desert.

The incident brought to light the existing gap in our military posture. As a remedy, the newly raised 11 Infantry Division, under Maj Gen (later Lt Gen) N C Rawlley, was rushed to Barmer district and was also to cover the Rann, which was now completely inundated. Thus, before the start of the 1965 war, the Rajasthan sector became the responsibility of two different commands.

Despite our superior overall strength in the region, Pakistan got the better of us. While our army fought copybook, set-piece battles, Pakistan used paramilitary forces and local militia to overrun the vacant desert, thereby securing the advantage of territorial gains for political bargaining in subsequent negotiations. Our weaknesses revealed shortcomings of command and control of operational responsibility, and this was remedied by placing the entire Rajasthan sector, including the Rann, under Headquarters Southern Command. Headquarters 12 Infantry Division was raised at Jodhpur to take over the operational responsibility of the Delhi and Rajasthan Area, which was renamed Delhi Area.

The Rajasthan sector differed in many ways from the Western Desert, about which the Indian Army had been educated by a study of World War II in the Middle East. In the Western Dcsert, the ground surface was hard, enabling large columns of vehicles to move cross-country at will. Our desert was sandy and soft, and very little wheeled movement was possible off the roads. One of the flanks of the Western Desert rested on the Mediterranean Sea, and there was a continuous coastal road along which operations developed, while a few hundred miles beyond a port was available from where logistics could be supported by seagoing ships.

Book_India_wars_sinceIn Rajasthan, both flanks were open, and the only common factor of the two deserts was lack of water. But in our case this lack was not so acute as water from the green belt irrigated by a network of canals was available in abundance in Pakistan after traversing the desert belt of 48 to 64 kilometres of sand. The Indian planners realised the existing constraints of mobility and the difficulty of sustaining troops without water and set about overcoming them earnestly. But the steps decided were half-heartcd in conception and sluggish in execution. We could have learnt a lot from Israel and its experience of operations in the Sinai Desert, but we chose to follow our own course of compromises, with unsatisfactory results.The entire desert force of 11 and 12 Infantry Divisions and the supporting units were issued khaki uniforms instead of the olive green of the rest of the Indian Army as khaki merged better with the sandy background. Vehicles and other equipment were also painted the same colour. This helped to some extent, but it also let to some confusion and embarrassing identification with the police, especially during the Ahmedabad riots. Balloon tyres were introduced to improve the performance of wheeled cross-country traffic, but because of low production priorities and other manufacturing delays, only a trickle found its way to the formation. When I joined, only a few jeeps and Nissan one-tonners had been fitted with them while the main load-carrying three-tonners had none. Typically South Block in Strategic Calculations, the issue of these tyres was the same as for normal duty, namely five per vehicle, one for each wheel and one spare.

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Situated as our formations were, by the time these vehicles reached the sandy tracts after traversing hundreds of miles of blacktop roads the thin balloon tyres were worn out. The formations were issued three-ton water bouzers on the lines of petrol tankers, but as these vehicles had two-wheeled drives and as such could move only along roads the water had to be humped to the troops from roadheads. No serious thought had been given to carriage and storage of water other than in bulk. Infantry battalions were on Modification P as for operations in the plains. The typical Indian compromises prevailed.

Except for a vital ingress, for which regular troops would be allotted, it would defend its border primarily with paramilitary forces.

Drawing on the experience of 1965, when we lost considerable territory to the enemy, our planners decided to carry the fighting this time into the adversary’s territory, and this envisaged defensive-offensive operations all along the Rajasthan sector. It was known that Pakistan 18 Infantry Division, with headquarters at Malir, was operationally responsible for the area. Desert and Indus Rangers estimated at a strength of 3000 held the international boundary with border outposts while the field forces were quartered in cantonments in the interior. It was felt that Pakistan could not initially afford to thin out its reserves in Punjab but would have some contingency plans to reinforce this sector with field force reserves in the event of a serious threat developing towards Hyderabad and Bahawalpur, as well as if an offensive/counter-offensive in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir did not make much headway. If so, some Pakistani resources could be diverted to the Bahawalpur sector to achieve a military counterbalance.

The likely pattern of Pakistani operations and the allocation of troops to various sectors was assessed. It was felt that because of the length of the border and limitation of resources, Pakistan’s deployment had perforce to be initially dispersed, but not necessarily defensive. Considering that Pakistan had the initiative to start a war at a time of its own choosing, and also because of its basic aggressive character, it was felt that it would undertake a limited offensive to create a diversion or to pre-empt an Indian offensive. Except for a vital ingress, for which regular troops would be allotted, it would defend its border primarily with paramilitary forces.

In overall planning, it was a strange situation that I was to sit in my defences for about seven days in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation waiting, and perhaps hoping, that Pakistan would not start a war before the rest of the division fetched up

To assess the threats, the entire Rajasthan sector was divided into four sectors—Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Barmer and Kutch. Because of poor road communications and the desert terrain of Bikaner sub-sector, no more than border raids by Pakistani para-military forces were expected. In Jaisalmer and Barmer sub-sectors, where road communications were somewhat better, Pakistan could muster infantry brigades and one armoured regiment, less one squadron, either in Jaisalmer or Barmer sub-sectors at any time. The main approach to Jaisalmer lay along the axis Rahim Yar Khan-Sadigabad-Kanderi-Tanot-Ramgarh-Jaisalmer, and to Barmer along either the Khokhrapar-Munabao-Gadra Road-Barmer axis or the Gadra City-Gadra Road-Barmer axis. Local ingress by paramilitary forces to capture border posts was expected in the period of inundation in the Kutch sub-sector because of the difficult terrain and poor road communications across the Rann. In the dry spell from December to June a battalion group supported by some armour could carry out deep forays up to Khavda.

Based on these threats and the number of troops available and noticed in the sector, our intelligence reported the following locations of Pakistani formations:

  • oppositee Bikaner sub-sector: paramilitary force only;
  • opposite Jaisalmer sub-sector: one infantry brigade group and one squadron of armour;
  • opposite Barmer sub-sector: one infantry brigade group and one squadron of armour;
  • opposite the Rann: paramilitary force only; and
  • sector reserve: one infantry brigade group and one armoured regiment less two squadrons somewhere in Hyderabad or Nayachor, and one infantry brigade group at Bahawalpur.

Thus it would be seen that our assessment had split the force available into two mathematical groups having equal strength against both sectors. This view assumed only the defensive role of Pakistan 18 Infantry Division, an assumption which later proved erroneous. In addition, the strike element in Pakistan II Corps was poised northwest of Bahawalpur-Sulaimanke and could take the offensive in the Ganganagar-Fazilka sector under a certain operational contingency. In that event, a small portion of this force could be dispatched to raid Bikaner sub-sector.

 Considering that Pakistan had the initiative to start a war at a time of its own choosing, and also because of its basic aggressive character, it was felt that it would undertake a limited offensive to create a diversion or to pre-empt an Indian offensive.

The employment of Pakistan 1 Armoured Division in the Jaisalmer, Barmer and Kutch sub-sectors was considered unlikely, but it was felt that a part of 33 Infantry Division could have some contingency tasks in these sub-sectors, particularly to restore any unfavourable situation that might arise from an Indian offensive in one of them. Although the movement of a portion of Pakistan 33 Division to the desert would yield an overall advantage in the context of the conduct of war in the western sector, it would certainly make Southern Command’s task more difficult in view of near parity in numbers.

On the basis of this appreciation, the task assigned to Southern Command was to intercept Pakistan rail and road communications in the general area of Khanpur-Rahim Yar Khan Khairpur. The intention apparently was to isolate West Pakistan from Saidpur and Karachi, and it was hoped that the Pakistani troops deployed in and around Rahim Yar Khan would be destroyed before they could be reinforced. Subsequent to the capture of Rahim Yar Khan, it would be open to develop operations either towards Bahawalpur or Sukkur. And if need be it would enable the occupation of the maximum Pakistani territory in the sector. Meanwhile, the Barmer sector was to remain on the defensive, imposing severe attrition on the Pakistan forces in it and depending upon the progress of operations in other sectors to develop operations towards Hyderabad.

To execute these tasks, Lt Gen GG Bewoor, who had taken over as General Officer Commanding-in-Chief Southern Command, had two infantry divisions (11 and 12) and a loose brigade. Armour strength amounted to one regiment (AMX 13) and one squadron (Sherman). There was no intermediate corps headquarters for command and control of operations and hardly any administrative services to back them. For this purpose Headquarters Southern Command was supposed to establish a battle headquarters on its own, and an ad hoc administrative setup was to be created from a larger number of static administrative installations within the command.

For want of cantonments in Gujarat State, 11 Infantry Division formations were located in stations deep in the hinterland. 31 Infantry Brigade was stationed in the Jamnagar-Bhuj complex, 85 Infantry Brigade in the Pune-Bombay complex, and 301 Infantry Brigade in Bangalore. The divisional headquarters of some troops were in Ahmedabad, the remainder being distributed to formations. The artillery brigade was located nearest at Dhrangadhra. Except for my brigade (31 Infantry) the move involved long rail moves with transhipment from broad to metre gauge at Sabarmati, a suburban station outside Ahmedabad.

Since the Pakistanis were aware of the various possibilities, I wanted to exploit still another unexpected move.

The move plan for concentration of 11 Infantry Division was worked out on an emergency basis, and the time frame to complete the concentration worked out at approximately ten days. And we were promised an ample warning period of 21 days or so.

My role in the event of war was initially to rush to Barter sub-sector by whatever additional transport I could muster from civil sources, and this was to take about 36 to 48 hours. My task was to take up a brigade-defended area in the general area of Gadra Road and Munabao, initially to cover the concentration of the rest of the division, and later to act as a springboard for the divisional thrust towards Nayachor.

I was to capture Gadra City on the outbreak of hostilities so as to improve the defensive posture of the Gadra Road complex by achieving greater depth. The task involved the occupation of the general area of Munabao with one battalion group and Gadra City with a brigade less one battalion. One field regiment (25 pr) and one medium battery (130 mm) were allotted in support. The armoured squadron was to join much later, and that too only for the divisional offensive.

In Jaisalmer and Barmer sub-sectors, where road communications were somewhat better, Pakistan could muster infantry brigades and one armoured regiment, less one squadron, either in Jaisalmer or Barmer sub-sectors at any time.

In overall planning, it was a strange situation that I was to sit in my defences for about seven days in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation waiting, and perhaps hoping, that Pakistan would not start a war before the rest of the division fetched up. Especially so when I had no armour while the enemy, the potential aggressor, had the option of concentrating his strike element with impunity and literally encircling me, thus scuttling the divisional concentration. I pondered over this and many other connected problems of desert warfare, and ideas gradually crystallised one by one.

Firstly, my problem was to ensure that before Pakistan could react to my move to the area I should be able to achieve such a degree of anti-tank potential that the enemy would not be able to rush my defended localities. I envisaged a night move to the defended areas by stealth and occupation and preparation of defended localities, including minefields, with minimum acceptable anti-tank potential by first light the next morning. Since the desert roads were liable to widespread disruption, there was a compulsive necessity to site our soft administrative elements well outside the immediate strike distance of the enemy armour and so stock the localities with water, food and ammunition that they could exist and fight without replenishment for limited periods.

Since I had no tanks, it was my endeavour to exploit the anti-tank potential of each article in my weaponry, and towards that end deployment of 25-pr and 130-mm guns assumed greater importance so as to achieve indirect security by location, especially from tank forays in the flanks and rear. 2 Field Regiment, in which I had served in my early years, was now self propelled, and had achieved distinction in the Western Desert by destroying 35 German tanks in the battle of Bir-Heichan, and I had heard of the effectiveness of the 130-mm Russian gun against tanks.

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I wanted to maximize the benefit of the secondary role of these guns. I had considerable experience of fighting the Pakistan armour at Khemkaran in 1965 and wanted to draw upon it in abundance in executing my role. The second problem which agitated me was the capture of Gadra City. The previous experience of this operation was not altogether pleasant. In 1965, frontal attacks on the city had failed twice, leading to the sack of the brigadier concerned. At the third attempt, the then Commander Artillery, in temporary command of the participating infantry brigade, had carried the objective by a flank attack, achieving a complete surprise. Since the Pakistanis were aware of the various possibilities, I wanted to exploit still another unexpected move.

The terrain around Jamnagar was typically black cotton soil with an occasional rocky outcrop, and there was no problem of water and mobility off the main roads

Regrettably, not much thought had been given to the details and intricacies of such contingencies in my own formation. So I set out to look around outside it. Maj Gen JFR Jacob (later Lt Gen), a progressive military thinker of the time, had done a lot of work on the subject when he commanded 12 Infantry Division at Jodhpur. I got hold of those training notes and found them very useful, especially in the use of medium machine gun and recoilless anti-tank gun mobile teams for reconnaissance, protecting flanks, presenting a false front, reinforcing threatened localities, and as tank-hunting teams. He visualized raising an ad hoc reconnaissance and support troop by pooling one MMG and one RCL mounted jeep at the scale of one such team per battalion without unduly sacrificing the inherent military potential of the infantry battalions. I ordered raising and training of such a troop under a spirited young officer.

Book_India_wars_sinceThe stage was now set for trying out my ideas and those of others in conditions as close as possible to those obtaining in my operational area. The terrain around Jamnagar was typically black cotton soil with an occasional rocky outcrop, and there was no problem of water and mobility off the main roads. So I took my formation straight into the desert for a spell of some tank-oriented training although, since the level of training enunciated by higher direction was confined only to unit training, it was not mandatory for me to do so. I wanted to be fully prepared for war should it come in my tenure.Gadra City lies in a bowl formed by high sand dunes. Like a second quadrant of a quadrangle, the international border runs east and south of it at a distance of four to five kilometres. Three tracks converge on the city from India, and the exits to Pakistan led west and northwest. The command appreciation estimated that Pakistan would defend the city with one infantry battalion and elements of reconnaissance and support elements.

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Considering the terrain and lay of the land, it was surmised that apart from holding a screen close to the border with the Rangers, Pakistan would defend the routes of ingress with one company each closer to the city, and would have one company on a commanding dune in the rear of the city blocking the exits. To experiment in taking such a position in the desert under similar circumstances, I chose the area of Dorimana, south of Barmer, which approximated to the conditions obtaining in and around Gadra City, and set a two-side exercise named Iron Fist with troops.

Three tracks converge on the city from India, and the exits to Pakistan led west and northwest. The command appreciation estimated that Pakistan would defend the city with one infantry battalion and elements of reconnaissance and support elements.

The exercise gave a free hand to one battalion commander who was to play the part of the Pakistani defender of Gadra City. He was given three or four days to develop his defences before the rest of the brigade group moved at night and took up the brigade-defended sector close to the border almost unnoticed. In the next three to four days both sides carried out deep patrolling, and the side representing India even left a small observation party in enemy territory which reported all movements. The enemy deployment was picked up and was more or less on the lines expected in the event of a Pakistani deployment in and around Gadra City. The emphasis on obstacles and defences lay in covering the approaches frontally and needed an audacious plan which, exploiting this weakness, would outwit the defender. The stage was now set for the attack.

The Army Commander landed one afternoon in a dust haze and was briefed about the exercise and visited the troops poised for attacks. He felt the artillery deployment rather bold, being immediately behind the firm base battalion-defended locality. He was told this was done with a purpose, firstly to see whether it could support the entire operation without movement, and secondly whether by virtue of its location it could afford anti-tank insurance from the rear and flanks. He did not seem convinced but said nothing as he was talking to a gunner who had come straight from the successful command of an artillery brigade.

The plan of attack was simple. On the outbreak of hostilities, the two battalion groups would advance along the routes of ingress after eliminating the border outposts to contact the main defences and lean against them aggressively. The next night, the third battalion, after a wide outflanking move, would attack the key defended locality in depth from the rear, thus bottling up the entire enemy force in the city. The battalion on the north-east flank would act as a reserve for the attack.

This manoeuvre had many advantages. It went on the ground and from the direction it was least expected, it prevented an orderly withdrawal by the adversary to save fighting the same troops over and over again, it suffered fewer casualties at the assaulting troops avoided most of the fire and obstacles sited to cover the approaches frontally, and above all it achieved complete surprise.

The next war with Pakistan would be a war to the finish and may last years. You will get all the time to carry out your battle procedures.

Apparently, the Army Commander was not satisfied. He favoured systematic step-by-step tackling of the localities frontally in phases. This, he argued, would ensure that each commander down to a section would be able to see his objective in daylight. He was prepared to accept a 24-hour delay between the phases but would not sacrifice this requirement. When Hazari emphasized the advantage of attacking from the rear, he reluctantly agreed, but still insisted that the attacking troops, after having reached their firm base for the attack, should wait the next day there so as to point out objectives in daylight.

With as much tact as I could muster, I pointed out that such pinpointing of objectives in the desert, where shifting sands change the shape of dunes in hours, is redundant. At night, the troops could be, and were, guided by artillery covering fire and other navigational aids like tracer on the flanks. After a successful outflanking move at night, I would capitalize on the surprise achieved and carry through with the manoeuvre in attack rather than lose everything waiting for daylight only to point out the shifting sands.

The countrywide revolt against the military dictatorship in what was then East Pakistan and Gen Tikka Khans suppressive operations foretold the gathering of war clouds in the Indian subcontinent.

I also stressed that in the context of the short wars of today tight time frames did not allow a leisurely approach of time-consuming battle drills and systematic attrition tactics. On this, the Army Commander got visibly annoyed and said: “You boys have queer notions of short wars. The next war with Pakistan would be a war to the finish and may last years. You will get all the time to carry out your battle procedures. Let me be absolutely clear, I don’t want any shortcuts.” Hazari winked at me to keep my mouth shut.

While leaving the exercise area, Bewoor remarked to me: “You think your Army Commander is orthodox.” I kept quiet, but my face perhaps revealed my feelings. Later in the year, I had an opportunity to conduct an exercise discussion on the ground in his attendance. There was hardly any contribution from him. By that time, I had learnt not to argue with one who lived in the rigidities of his past, and such unfortunately was the case with some general officers of his seniority.

Bewoor lacked war experience and did not have the flexibility to follow the ever-changing trends of modern warfare. He still lived in tunes of World War II happily believing that his views were in tune with the present context. After a brief and very perfunctory combat experience as a company commander in Burma, he cooled his heals in South Block for the rest of the war years. Independence and the subsequent Indianisation of the armed forces found him in command of a battalion for a few months in the Kashmir operations, but it remained uncommitted during his tenure. He commanded two brigades, both in peace, a division in 1962 and a corps in 1965, but remained out of battle. Thus, within the parameters of our promotion systems, he floundered his way up the steps of the ladder of promotion without anything to show for this in the way of professional achievement. Such was the curse of our systems. I shuddered to think of him directing a modern war, which he was to do thereafter.

As the crisis in East Pakistan gradually escalated, certain precautionary measures were necessitated in the west to meet any Pakistan initiative in this regions.

A few days later, I received a demi-official letter from my Army Commander saying how much he enjoyed visiting my exercise. He spoke about the great interest he had in it, adding that after the visit he felt educated. There was no mention of any weakness noticed or directions on concepts and tactical doctrine. Much later, when I met Maj Gen Satinder Singh, his Chief of Staff and an old friend of mine, he told me that Bewoor remarked after his visit to my exercise: “Sukhwant believes he can achieve everything by sheer drive and push.” In the Army, where these two characteristics were sadly lacking, I took this as a compliment and left it at that. A year later, events led me to recognize the two facets of his personality: one with a charming smile, endearing words and profuse compliments, and the other stabbing you in the back. And he lacked the moral courage of a soldier to say frankly what he felt about events and personalities.

Bewoor was a self-appointed protagonist of infantry supremacy in our Army. He had a hand in both covert and overt moves which led to giving unfair advantage to the infantry over other arms in the way of reservation of seats at the Staff College. This was the first step towards sowing the seeds of professional communalism, which led to simmering discontent among deserving and competent officers of other units. Armies all over the world had realized that modern wars are fought on an all-arms combat basis, to which the infantry also contributes. But unfortunately Bewoor and his type had not done so, and their failure was to have serious repercussions affecting the national interest.

Independence and the subsequent Indianisation of the armed forces found him in command of a battalion for a few months in the Kashmir operations, but it remained uncommitted during his tenure.

Meanwhile, Hazari was replaced by Maj Gen AN Mathur, a signals officer who had made it through our systems the hard way. He was able and extremely hardworking. Perhaps motivated by the desire to prove himself, he drove everybody to tie up the loose ends in training and staff duties. With his professional knowledge and urge for dispatch, he could have achieved a lot more, but he failed to carry his team with him because of his petty ways of dealing with his command. He was a good staff officer but a poor commander.

It is essential to keep operational plans under constant review. Since the parameters of planning—political objectives, the enemy threat and our capability—are everchanging factors depending upon the national aspirations, plans need to have either the inherent flexibility to meet the demands of these changes or must be made afresh. In this regards, Southern Command, like others, held war games once a year. These meets generally coincided with the Pune racing season, when the Army Commander presented the coveted Command Race Cup. The get-together meant for a serious review of our plans, thus turning into a social event. Perhaps it was because of the rigidity of Bewoor’s professional mind, or maybe the conformist attitude of his generals, but it is amazing that despite the changing parameters of planning his plan remained static. We were to explore the ill effects of this rigidity later.

I left to join Army Headquarters as Deputy Director of Military Operations in March 1971. The countrywide revolt against the military dictatorship in what was then East Pakistan and Gen Tikka Khan’s suppressive operations foretold the gathering of war clouds in the Indian subcontinent. Planning started for a possible war. As described in earlier chapters, the overall strategy was to be initially defensive in the West while the war in East Pakistan was to be carried to its rightful conclusion.

In the briefing, he referred to me frequently as “Sams spy” despite my pointing out that we were all batting for the same side.

Towards this end, the resources for fighting in East Pakistan were created by denuding areas of lower priority. In the process, Bewoor lost 340 Mountain Brigade group and one medium regiment (130 mm) but was compensated with two independent armoured squadrons (T-55). In the middle of the year when a revised draft of Army Headquarters operational instructions was ‘circulated to army commanders for their comments before they were finally issued, Bewoor insisted that despite the depletion of his resources his plans should remain unaltered. He was obviously confident of their success. The instructions, laying down objectives, gave him leverage to choose the timings of offensives in each sector, thus allowing him to switch his resources from one to another, depending upon the opportunities offered by the tide of war. In the intervening months, Bewoor kept pointing out the lack of reserves in his command whenever he was told to cut his coat according to his cloth.

As the crisis in East Pakistan gradually escalated, certain precautionary measures were necessitated in the west to meet any Pakistan initiative in this regions. 330 Infantry Brigade was accordingly moved from Bangalore to Desa, on the boundary of ujarat and Rajasthan, by the end of August 1971. This was followed by the movement of troops guarding the airfields and connected early warning installations. The administrative build-up was also ordered to commence with the movement of elements from static depots within the command.

“¦they would have enough uncommitted reserves to influence the battle in unforeseen contingencies. And such a modification was within the purview of the tasks allotted by Army Headquarters.

The rest of the formations and units, as also Command Advance Headquarters, fed forward in a trickle so as not to create premature alarm in Pakistan camps but yet retain the tactical balance at each successive stage. Bewoor objected to control of movement by Army Headquarters off and on, but then he did not realize that this movement was part of a mature plan thoughtfully worked out by the planners at headquarters and superbly executed by the railways without causing panic to the civilian population. By 25 October, Bewoor was poised to meet the offensive and defensive contingencies in the Rajasthan Desert.

Towards the beginning of November I was sent to Southern Command. The aim of my tour was to get the feel of the reaction of our operational plans at the execution level and verify on the ground the progress achieved in the build-up of troops and our preparedness as well as logistic backing. I landed one fine wintry morning at Jodhpur and visited Command Advance Headquarters. The headquarters were comfortably settled in an unit area, with a well-organized operation room.

Satinder Singh briefed me about the command plans. He was once regarded as an up and coming man but had recently been bypassed for promotion. He was very bitter and showed it in his thinking and actions. In the briefing, he referred to me frequently as “Sam’s spy” despite my pointing out that we were all batting for the same side. A loyal staff officer, he showed complete personal involvement in the command plans with his boss, but this was going to be his first serious war experience, like Bewoor. Although he had commanded 12 Infantry Division in the area, his orientation was still towards the Western Desert campaign of World War II.

Satinder Singh recapitulated the command’s overall plan, which in a nutshell meant two simultaneous divisional thrusts in two widely separated axes with one infantry battalion and a squadron of anti-tank guided missiles as command reserve. There was no change in Bewoor’s plans of almost three years before. This was no place for me to comment on the Army Commander’s plans,. and I listened in dutiful silence. The plan broadly envisaged 12 Infantry Division, concentrated in the Jaisalmer sector, intercepting rail and road communications in the general area of Khanpur-Rahim Yar Khan-Khairpur to destroy the Pakistani forces operating in this sector before they could be reinforced. On completion of these tasks, further operations were to develop towards Sukkur or Bahawalpur as ordered.

The air support set up in this command was a departure from accepted norms in a way, but was still workable.

At the same time 11 Infantry Division was to take the offensive in the Barmer sector to capture Gadra City and Khokhrapar and then advance towards Nayachor to destroy the maximum Pakistan forces in the Nayachor-Umarkot area. The offensive was to start at the outbreak of hostilities at 72 hours notice on the orders of Command Headquarters. Later is the evening, when he got a little animated over drinks Satinder Singh emphasized the importance of the Rajasthan sector as compared with the western sector so far as worthwhile political aims were concerned and accused the Chief of giving it a low priority, perhaps with a purpose.

Without attributing motives, I explained that there were reasons for allocating op: rational priorities which he was not aware of, but he should have faith that the authorities concerned knew their jobs and were aware and equally zealous of national interests. In any case, my mandate was limited to identifying the difficulties faced in his sector, and he was free to state these frankly. He thereupon drew attention to the woeful lack of uncommitted reserves to influence the battle, to which I replied that they should so modify their overall plan so as to be able to create suitable reserves at various stages of the battle.

In this regard, I emphasized that the existing plans distributed the offensive effort into two widely separated sectors without sufficient punch in either to achieve decisive results. Concentrating the effort in one sector at the cost of remaining dormant elsewhere could perhaps yield better dividends. Thus, they would have enough uncommitted reserves to influence the battle in unforeseen contingencies. And such a modification was within the purview of the tasks allotted by Army Headquarters. He apparently remained unconvinced, and it seemed that the die was cast for the three-year-old plans.

Then he complained about the change of command of both divisions just before battle. I explained that such changes were often done even in mid-battle. The changes hardly mattered so long as the persons chosen were professionally adequate and good commanders of troops. He gave me a cynical smile and cursed our systems, which he said brought up only “the dirt.” He had some other difficulties regarding transport and administrative units which were remedied immediately on my return.

Book_India_wars_sinceEarly next morning I flew along the railway line to land a couple of hours later at Jaisalmer airfield. It was heartening to find a warlike atmosphere at the air base under Wing Commander MS Bawa. Along with Uttarlai, this field had been activated recently by providing staff and aircraft from the training establishment at Jamnagar. The air support set up in this command was a departure from accepted norms in a way, but was still workable. Air support from Southern Command was planned and allotted by Headquarters Western Air Command at Delhi while the senior Air Force officer with whom the Army Commander had to deal with on air matters in Rajasthan was Air Officer Commanding at Jodhpur. Control of air effort was exercised through Officer Commanding Tactical Air Centre (TAC) located at Command Advance Headquarters.

Continued…: 1971: The Rajasthan Campaign – II

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One thought on “1971: The Rajasthan Campaign – I

  1. It is amazing to see how petty prejudices manifest in books written after retirement. Calling names such as ‘back-stabbing’ General Bewoor,’ who was his army commander, his GOC Maj Gen Mathur, “a good staff officer but a poor commander.” – when none of these officers could respond to his personal criticisms. I wonder if these dignified officers would even deign to respond to such petty observations! If Maj Gen Sukhwant Singh – Sukhi – (he dabbled in poetry where he wrote under that pen-name) were so great and able, he would have at least commanded a Corps, let alone an army or be the Chief. If Lt Gen P O Dunn (Gen. Sukhi did not even spare him!) could be recalled from leave prior to retirement) the author could have been recalled to command higher formation if were that as brilliant as he claims himself to be!
    Talking about ‘communalism in the army’ where, in his opinion, infantry officers were given precedence over other (mainly Artillery – Gen Sukhi being a gunner!), he is equally scathing against infantry or cavalry! In his disdainful attitude towards all and sundry, he has undermined the role of para-military like BSF in 1971 ops. His prejudice against the ‘Khaki’ is clear in the few pages here, where he says that it was embarrassing for the army to don Khaki uniform!”
    To be fair, one must say however, that Gen. Sukhi’s style of narration is fluid and simple; that only makes his personal perception of people or organizations he did not like crystal clear.

    Read more at:
    http://www.indiandefencereview.com/spotlights/1971-the-rajasthan-campaign-i/4/when the senior generals

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