At the end of the Jammu and Kashmir operations in 1948, the ceasefire line emerged from the hills west of Dewa and ran through the plain west of Manawar, where it joined the international border, and linked up with the Chenab east of the Marala headworks. This flat area included the largish village named Chhamb and had a predominantly Hindu population of some 20,00. It was important strategically to the Pakistani military planners. Should India take the initiative and resort to preemptive action, it could easily block the movement of a Pakistani strike force from the Kharian-Jhelum complex towards the Lahore and Sialkot sectors and interfere with any buildup along the main communication artery of the Rawalpindi-Lahore road-rail systems.
On the other hand, its early capture by Pakistan provided sufficient territorial depth to its sensitive areas and released troops in time for their effective employment elsewhere, especially to reinforce the neighbouring sectors of Sialkot and Lahore. Tactically, both Pakistan’s flanks were secured, by the hills in the north and the Chenab in the south, while the Indians were at a disadvantage with a river obstacle behind them. Possession of Akhnur would sever the main road communication with the Indian troops employed west of the Chenab and responsible for the general areas of Nowshera, Rajauri and Poonch. The capture of the bridge over the Chenab at Akhnur could open the way for operations directed at Jammu from the west.
Politically, the loss of Akhnur town and the agricultural tracts of Chhamb and Jaurian could cause considerable embarrassment to India, partly because of loss of prestige and partly the more tangible refugee problems, especially from Dogra quarters. Militarily, with the receipt of aid from the US, the Pakistani Army was armour heavy, and the only portion of territory along the ceasefire line where armour could be exploited with quick results was obviously the Chhamb sector.
Tactically, both Pakistan’s flanks were secured, by the hills in the north and the Chenab in the south, while the Indians were at a disadvantage with a river obstacle behind them
Topographically, the terrain in general is open and interspersed with seasonal nullahs. The Chenab, running northeast to southwest, is perennial and a major obstacle to trans-river movement except over the only road bridge, near Akhnur town. Halfway, another river, the Manawar Wali Tawi, flows north to south and drains into the Chenab above Marala headworks. For most of the year this river is fordable at certain points near Mandiala, Chhamb, Darh and Raipur. The area west of Chhamb is gently undulating and fairly open for employing armour.
The country east of Manawar Wali Tawi is comparatively lowlying with a profuse growth of sarkanda. It becomes boggy when the water level in the rivers is high. Otherwise, it is fairly dry and hard. The area to the north consists mostly of hills and ravines, with the precipitous Kalidhar range towering in the background. The inward convergence of hills in the north and the River Chenab in the south form a funnel towards Akhnur, where all roads and tracks meet and lead towards Jammu, across the river, over a light girder bridge. The population is predominantly Hindu, agricultural and comparatively prosperous.
The Karachi Agreement stipulated the number of troops India could keep in Jammu and Kashmir, and no additional induction could take place without reference to the chief of the United Nations Military Observer Group. In the event of allout war, the time frame for additional inductions from the Indian heartland over the vulnerable road communications from Pathankot to Akhnur running close to the Pakistan border was no less than two to three days. But it was easy for Pakistan to commit its strike force from the Kharian-Gujrat sector before Indian reinforcements materialised.
This sector was the operational responsibility of 191 Infantry Brigade Group before the 1965 war, and it was deployed with two battalions plus in the hilly portion of the sector north of Dewa to hold the main Kalidhar ridge and foothills, and similar strength along with one armoured squadron (AMX-13 tanks) in the plain portion of the sector. The broad deployment in the plain sector was to hold the ceasefire line with covering troops, consisting of four infantry companies supported by the AMX squadron, from Nathan to Burejal, a distance of obout 16 kilometres, and the main defensive position with two battalions, one holding the Mandiala heights overlooking the only bridge over Manawar Wali Tawi and the other, less two companies, posted at Sakrana. Brigade headquarters and the supporting artillery were deployed east of the river in the general area of the Kachrael heights north of Palanwala. There were no depth positions from Manawar Wali Tawi to Akhnur to cope with a breakthrough in the defences west of the river.
The Chhamb sector had seen considerable fighting in the 1965 conflict with Pakistan. Pakistani infiltration operations started on 5 August 1955 throughout Jammu and Kashmir.1 Our military camps were attacked as deep as Jaurian, necessitating anti-infiltration operations. Intermittent shelling of and raids on border posts followed. On 15 August, Brig B F Master, the brigade commander, was killed and some of our guns damaged by Pakistani shelling. Eight posts had been lost by 25 August,2 and the intensity of shelling increased to cover the buildup across the border for a full-fledged attack a week later. Headquarters 10 Infantry Division, which was in the process of raising, was inducted to take over the operational responsibility in this sector on 27 August.3 The same formation was to fight the 1971 battle in the same area.
Although no material damage was caused to the enemy, the introduction of IAF certainly proved a deterrent to the advance of its armour.
In the early hours of 1 September,4 the Pakistani shelled all the forward posts heavily and developed three armoured thrusts concurrently, one from the south towards Manawar, the second from the southeast towards Dalla and the third from the west towards Dhok, all converging at Chhamb. The tank squadron was ordered to contain these thrusts, which slowed down as a result of some tank casualties. Exploiting the movement of the armour to the south and southwest, Pakistan launched the main thrust, with a combat group of possibly a Patton regiment and a mechanised battalion, from the direction of Pir Manguwali Dewa towards Mandiala.
Because our armour was not able to come northwards, this thrust made rapid progress and attacked the battalion holding the Mandiala bridge by 1600 hours. But our RCLs took a heavy toll of the leading tanks and caution in their otherwise rapid progress. Meanwhile, our covering positions, bereft of anti-tank obstacles, were overrun by Pakistani tanks and fell back in disarray. About this time, the Indian Air Force was brought into the battle. Four sorties of Vampires were flown, followed by an equal number of Mysteres. These aircraft, especially the Vampires, being inferior in performance to the Pakistani Sabrejets, were soon shot out of the skies.
Although no material damage was caused to the enemy, the introduction of IAF certainly proved a deterrent to the advance of its armour. In the ensuing melee, our aircraft knocked out some of our own ammunition lorries. The enemy had crossed Manawar Wali Tawi with about a squadron of tanks by night. This was not however followed by infantry, otherwise the development of the thrust towards Palanwala could have trapped the entire brigade headquarters and most of the artillery elements.
Having secured all the territory west of Manawar Wali Tawi, Yahya Khan took too long to follow up 191 Infantry Brigade Group towards Akhnur.
But since the routes were still open that night, the remnants of the brigade group in the hill sector withdrew to the Kalidhar ridge, and in the plains to Akhnur, where they took positions in defence of the town and the bridge across the Chenab. It later transpired that in this attack Pakistan had committed its 7 Infantry Division, a part of its strike element, with two regiments of tanks, under the command of Maj Gen Yahya Khan.
Having secured all the territory west of Manawar Wali Tawi, Yahya Khan took too long to follow up 191 Infantry Brigade Group towards Akhnur. In fact, it was not till 4 September that he attacked our depth position on the Kalit-Troti heights, hastily prepared by a brigade brought from the valley a day earlier. Our infantry could not stand the armour rushes and this position was also overrun that night. Next morning, Pakistani leading elements captured Jaurian and contacted our depth position in the Kanik-Fatewal area, also prepared only on 4 September by another brigade rushed to meet the enemy thrust.
Mercifully, Yahya Khan did not persist in the pursuit towards Akhnur, and to meet the pressing demands in the Sialkot sector the Pakistani armour and a good portion of 7 Infantry Division were withdrawn. The front in the plains of the Chhamb-Jaurian sector was stabilised although there was some infiltration in the hilly area in a bid to cut the Akhnur-Rajauri road.
A more enterprising enemy would have enveloped 191 Infantry Brigade Group by crossing Manawar Wali Tawi at the uncovered fords at Darh and Raipur and would have made a dash for the Akhnur brigade before we could have mustered reinforcements. The road to Akhnur lay absolutely open on 2 September, reinforcements arriving only on 4 and 5 September. The battle for the Akhnur bridge could have thus been brought to a successful conclusion by that time.
The rapid Indian collapse in the Chhamb sector was due to lack of anti-tank potential in our defended localities. Since the main defences lay ahead of the river, a partial anti-tank obstacle, it was necessary to improvise artificial obstacles in the way of laying minefields. But for want of resources and time this could not be executed properly. India’s greatest inferiority lay in its lean armour. The only armoured squadron had about 11 AMX tanks, which were lost against two Pakistani tank regiments, superior in quality as well as numbers west of the river. Thus, when enemy tanks crossed the Manawar Wali Tawi there was not a single Indian tank opposing their advance. The Indian infantry, inept at dealing with tank rushes on their defences, broke line frequently, and as a result its resistance collapsed in no time. Thus ended the first battle of Chhamb.5
In 1971, XV Corps, operationally responsible for Jammu and Kashmir, was given the task of defending our territory, and on the outbreak of hostilities that of improving the defensive posture through local offensive actions without upsetting the overall balance within the corps zone. As part of the overall Indian military strategy in the western theatre, the corps was to launch a sizable offensive in the Sialkot sector so as to draw a portion of the Pakistan reserves away from the main Indian thrust in the general area of Shakargarh-Zafarwal.
The covering troops were not strong enough to cope with their allotted task of delaying the Pakistanis about 48 hours, involving a defensive battle somewhere near the Troti heights.
Lieut Gen Sartaj Singh, commander of the corps, decided to go on the offensive on both sides of the Chenab on staggered timings, depending upon the resources available on the induction of I Corps into the theatre. The formations were moved to battle locations sometime in the middle of October to frustrate a preemptive strike by Yahya Khan. I visited the formations on 26 October and found that both of them, 10 and 26 Infantry Divisions, had based their defensive postures on the British colonial war pattern, with their main defences well in depth and covering troops operating forward along the ceasefire line and the international border.
10 Infantry Division, then under the command of Maj Gen Jaswant Singh, had occupied the main defences in the general area of the Kalit-Troti heights with a brigade group and had pushed forward covering troops of about a battalion and one armoured squadron west of the Manawar Wali Tawi, and one armoured regiment less one squadron plus two infantry companies to southeast of the river to cover the approaches from the Nadala-Marchola salient of Pakistan. The remainder of the force was suitably grouped and kept ready in the rear for the impending offensive.
One of these brigade groups was located at Akhnur to cover any threat to the bridge through Chicken’s Neck, a Pakistani salient east of the Chenab. The offensive visualised the establishment of a firm base by a brigade group west of the Manawar Wali Tawi by D minus 2, crossing the ceasefire line by two brigade groups close to each other and securing a sizable lodgment area by D plus 2, and a breakout by an armoured brigade towards the depth objectives. The armoured brigade was located east of the Chenab and had to be ferried across the river in the hours of darkness, an operation which was expected to take five nights or so.
The opposition expected was about one brigade group of Pakistan 23 Infantry Division and a regiment of armour (Sherman 76 mm) initially, possibly to be built up with an independent armoured brigade. In that event, the deep thrust by our armoured brigade was to be reduced to containment. The plan had the blessing of the corps commander, and the GOC was confident of pulling it off. But there were two major snags. Firstly, the covering troops were not strong enough to cope with their allotted task of delaying the Pakistanis about 48 hours, involving a defensive battle somewhere near the Troti heights. This meant loss of the entire territory up to the main defensive position almost to the gates to Jaurian without giving a serious battle.
If it was intended to use the offensive as part of the defensive action to preserve our territorial integrity this was based on a mistaken premise. Since in the overall context the Indian Army was to conduct a holding action only in the west while decisions were being sought in the east, the initiative for starting a war rested with Pakistan. It would have been imprudent to assume that the start of our offensive would automatically ensure our territorial integrity since any preemptive action on the part of Pakistan would have resulted in certain loss of territory.
The rapid Indian collapse in the Chhamb sector was due to lack of anti-tank potential in our defended localities.
Secondly, the movement of the armoured brigade across the Chenab would have started by D minus 5 Day, and the strength of armour in 26 Infantry Division deployed in defence of Jammu would have progressively diminished till on D Day there would have been only one armoured regiment left to the divisions. This would have left the formation unbalanced in an offensive against Jammu in the critical period of suspense before the war.
These weaknesses in the plans were brought to the Chief’s notice. He accordingly flew to the sector on 1 November, met the corps and divisional commanders and gave the following on-the-spot decisions for immediate implementation. The pertinent aspects of these with regard to 10 Infantry Division were:
- The territory west of the Manawar Wali Tawi to be defended and our territorial integrity fully ensured.
- One additional armoured regiment (T-55), one independent armoured squadron (AMX-13), and one medium artillery regiment (130 mm) to be inducted into the divisional sector for the offensive, and the Jammu sector not to be denuded beyond the resultant force level.
- The scope of 26 Infantry Divisions offensive operations to be curtailed to what was possible within the available resources. No additional troops to be made available for the purpose.
Accordingly, GOC 10 Infantry Division pushed forward 191 Infantry Brigade Group west of the Manawar Wali Tawi on the night of 2/3 November. They occupied defences on the Mandiala heights-Gurha-Phagla ridge-Barsala-Jhanda-Manawar line west of the river, mainly to cover the approaches to the fords in three tiers, and Chhati Tahli-Nawan Hamirpur east of the river. The screens and patrols were maintained along the ceasefire line and the international boundary. One infantry battalion was deployed in the foothills on the Laleali-Point 707-Dewa-Nathuan Tibba line on the northern flank.
Warning was received on 2 December of the imminence of hostilities and as a result the deployment was readjusted to meet the threat to the sector.
The artillery units in support were deployed to cover our forward dispositions. The depth position near the Troti heights was occupied by the second brigade group with one of its battalions deployed for the protection of the Akhnur bridge in isolation, while the third brigade group was concentrated at Akhnur to be available as the leading brigade for the projected offensive. These troops remained in this posture throughout November and were possibly picked up by Pakistani intelligence.
Warning was received on 2 December of the imminence of hostilities and as a result the deployment was readjusted to meet the threat to the sector. This meant building up the Chhati Tahli and Nawan Hamirpur position by the second brigade less one battalion, and moving a battalion of the third brigade to Troti heights to take over the defences vacated by the second. Mines were laid ahead of the defended area, leaving a gap between Barsala and Jhande covered by a dummy minefield, through which gap the division planned to launch its offensive.
The Deccan Horse, the divisional armoured regiment (T-54), was broadly deployed to have one squadron west of the Manawar Wali Tawi, one in the area of Khaur to cover the Nadala salient, and the regiment less two squadrons in the area of Kachrael to reinforce both sectors. The second armoured regiment was concentrated in the rear and the independent squadron in the Akhnur area. This posture, whereby the bulk of the force remained uncommitted to the ground, was primarily offensive-oriented as the intention of the GOC was to attack at the earliest opportunity.
According to intelligence estimates, 20 Infantry and 4 POK Brigades of Pakistan 23 Infantry Division were employed opposite the sector in a holding role both in the plains and hilly areas. 26 Cavalry was known to be deployed in the general area of Tanda-Kuri-Mattewal-Hunj with one squadron in the area of Padhar. Apart from the integral artillery of these two brigades, one heavy regiment or a major portion of it was reported to be located in Tanda.
Pakistan 17 Infantry Division, comprising 66 and 67 Infantry Brigades, was located in the depth area of Jalalpur-Peroshah, with one battalion protecting the Marala headworks. An independent armoured brigade, comprising 10 and 11 Cavalry Regiments, was known to be located in the Kharian complex within access of the Chhamb sector. The presence of a few Patton tanks was noticed in the Nadala-Marchola salient. Some T series tanks were also seen on the Mattewal ridge, but their number and identity were not known.