Military & Aerospace

1971: The Rajasthan Campaign - I
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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.

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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: the senior generals

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