Military & Aerospace

1971 War: Battle of Shakargarh Bulge
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Issue Book Excerpt: India\'s War since Independence | Date : 10 Oct , 2017

The Shakargarh bulge juts out like a tongue from the main landmass of Pakistan between the Chenab and the Ravi. It southern portion rests on the Ravi, the northern runs parallel to the Shivalik range, leaving a narrow segment between the international boundary and the hills, and its tip points towards Madhopur headworks and the Pathankot military base beyond. The main road and rail communications between Pathankot, Samba and Jammu run very close to the border throughout. In the south, the sensitive areas of Amritsar, Batala and Gurdaspur in Punjab state lie within easy striking distance across the Ravi.

The terrain in the bulge is generally flat and interlaced with numerous nullahs running north to south. Prominent among them from west to east are Aik, Degh, Basantar, Bein and Ujh. The bulge is generally well served with a network of roads and rail tracks emanating from Sialkot, Gujranwala and Lahore. The road system runs from west to east towards Shakargarh, passing through the important communication centres of Pasrur, Chaw- inda, Zafarwal, Dhamtal and Narowal. On the whole, the roads west of the Zafarwal, Dhamtal and Narowal line were of a higher grade compared with those east of it.

…it was apparent that the Pakistani military planners had built a cauldron of fortifications in a hollow square with its sides touching the border in the north…

In consonance with the overall Indian defensive strategy in the western theatre, the option of taking military action squarely rested on Yahya Khan. Unstable and unpredictable as he was, a preemptive Pakistani attack could not be ruled out, especially in view of their holding defensive field formations as also their strike elements being located in cantonments within easy reach of the respective battle locations. From what could be surmised from the discernible pattern of deployment and obstacle plan, it was apparent that the Pakistani military planners had built a cauldron of fortifications in a hollow square with its sides touching the border in the north, the line of the Zafarwal-Dham, tal-Narowal fortresses in the east and the Ravi in the south.

The Pakistani holding force on these three sides consisted of 8 and 15 Infantry Divisions supported by 8 Independent Armoured Brigade. Pakistan 15 Infantry Division held the northern border covering the approaches to Sialkot and Chawinda, and Pakistan 8 Infantry Division manned the Zafarwal, Dhamtal and Narowal fortresses and the approaches to Pasrur through the Gil ferry north of Ajnala.

To protect Zafarwal from outflanking moves from the direction of Samba, a ditch was dug in the general area of Supwal north of the Lalial forest, and some areas north of the Gil ferry were flooded. The convex tip of the bulge tongue east of the fortress line, including the communication centre of Shakargarh, was known to be defended by paramilitary forces supported by covering troops consisting of 20 Lancers and elements of the reconnaissance and support battalions. The known battle location of the Pakistani strike force, two brigades of 6 Armoured Division and 17 Infantry Division, was in the hollow of the cauldron in the general area of Daska-Pasrur.

In this posture, Pakistan had the advantage of reacting from the interior lines to an Indian move piercing any side of the cauldron. Offensively, Pakistan had the option of hitting up north towards Jammu or down south towards Amritsar without upsetting the balance of its defensive posture as it involved only pivoting movements. It had the option of recoiling into interior lines in case of failure or to meet the Indian counteraction from the opposite direction. But if the strike force was committed towards Pathankot or between Samba and Madhopur, east of the fortress line, it would stick its neck out to the extent of losing the defensive balance against any Indian counteraction from the northern and southern shoulders in the direction of Sialkot and Pasrur respectively. It would have been easily accessible as the strike force committed outside the cauldron would have found it difficult to recoil to fill the hollow of the square in time.

Although India intensified its diplomatic efforts in the international sphere to seek a political solution to the Bangladesh problem, the chances of this were receding.

If Pakistan chose to send its thrust lines into Indian territory through the sides of the cauldron either north or south, it could muster two or three additional brigades out of the holding force for further development of its offensive operation. But it could not do so in case of the lightly held tongue of the bulge east of the fortress line. Thus the resources left for an offensive directed against Pathankot and Madhopur did not permit deep penetration of any significance. In fact, Yahya Khan’s best bet lay in a pre-emptive attack when the Indian defensive posture was low because of lack of troops in the vicinity. The Indian planners had to prepare for this contingency.

The head of the Indian planning team was Maj Gen K K Singh, Director of Military Operations and General Officer Commanding-designate of 1 Corps, which was operationally responsible for the Shakargarh bulge. A dedicated professional who was universally respected for his competence and patriotic zeal, in all the crises the Indian Army had faced after partition he had held appointments of responsibility and had grown up with the realities of pragmatism. He had commanded an armoured briga- de in the Sialkot sector in the 1965 conflict and was fully conscious that any setback at the hands of the Pakistani Army in this region would greatly embarrass the Indian Government.

On assessing the enemy capabilities, particularly in the matter of reserves, it was apparent that the only areas where it could exploit the strength of its armour was in the plains of Chhamb-Jaurian and in the Shakargarh bulge. Having participated in the armoured battle in the previous conflict, which had ended in a talemate, KK Singh brought personal involvement into planning, especially when he knew that he himself was going to execute the plan in the field.

His corps consisted of three infantry divisions and two independent armoured brigades supported by two independent artillery brigades and connected administrative services. For want of accommodation in the nearby cantonments these formations were located in the Indian hinterland as far deep as Hyderabad. Our movement staff worked out a schedule of about three weeks to concentrate the entire corps in the peripheral areas of the Shakargarh bulge. The main constraints on this movement were funnelling the rail arteries on to a single line between Jullundur and Pathankot, because this limited the feedin capacity, and the provisions of the Karachi Agreement, which forbade additional induction of troops in Jammu and Kashmir. This worried the planners a great deal, especially because any premature concentration of field forces would lay India open to charges of warlike intentions, and if the movement started after a Pakistani attack it would be too late.

This dilemma was resolved by increasing the covering force to sufficient combat strength to withstand any pre-emptive Pakistani attack in July or August so as to take the field in the following campaigning period at the slightest indications of military preparations on the part of the enemy. Although India intensified its diplomatic efforts in the international sphere to seek a political solution to the Bangladesh problem, the chances of this were receding.

The Chiefs aim was quite clear: first, he wanted to ensure the security of the sensitive areas of Akhnur, Jammu, Samba, Madhopur, Pathankot, Gurdaspur and Amritsar; secondly, to safeguard road and rail communications between Pathankot and Jammu;

With the passage of time, Yahya Khan’s bellicosity was increasing, and this could not be ignored in the interest of India’s security. Orders were accordingly passed in early October to concentrate the field forces in Punjab so as to adopt a defensive posture at short notice. I met K K Singh near the Thakurpur ferry in the middle of October, when his leading elements had just moved in and the rest of his corps was trickling in at an agonizingly slow pace. He smiled and commented: “Our weakest hour is now. Another four days and Yahya would have missed his opportunity.” Yahya did exactly that, and by the third week of October K K was firmly poised in his defensive posture as follows:

  • 36 Infantry Division under Maj Gen Balwant Singh Ahluwalia to cover the approaches to Pathankot across the Ravi in the general area of Gurdaspur-Dinanagar.
  • 39 Infantry Division under Maj Gen B.R. Prabhu in the general area of Madhopur-Kottia Parol-Bamial-Ujh river-Dyala Chak to cover the approaches to Madhopur and protect rail and road communications in the area.
  • 54 Infantry Division under Maj Gen W.A.G. Pinto in the general area of Samba between the Bein river and the Degh nadi.
  • The Ramgarh-Nandpur-Samba area between the Aik nullah and the Degh nadi was held by about two brigades under an ad hoc headquarters.

The defensive plan was to strongly hold the likely routes of ingress in depth and have suitably positioned reserves for counteraction in the rear. In characteristic fashion, K K had prepa- red the following contingency plans to contain the expected Pakistani thrust:

  • If the thrust materialized between Samba and Jammu in the direction of Jammu, 26 and 54 Infantry Divisions were to contain it while 39 Infantry Division and one armoured brigade were to hit the lodgment area in Charwa-Ramgarh from the eastern flank.
  • If Pakistan struck between Samba-Bamial-Madhopur, 39 and 54 Infantry Divisions were to contain it, while 36 Infantry Divisions and one armoured brigade were to cross. the Ravi to disrupt the enemy’s lines of communication in the general area of Shakargarh.
  • In case of a major offensive across the Ravi, 15 Infantry Division would contain it, while 36 Infantry Division and one armoured brigade would counterattack bridges in the general area of Kalanaur-Dera Baba Nanak and Gill ferry. Simultaneously, 39 and 54 Infantry Divisions would launch an offensive along the Shakargarh and Narowal axes.

Contiguous to the zone defended by 1 Corps, the shoulders of the bulge were held in the north between the Chenab and the Aik nullah by 26 Infantry Division under XV Corps, and 15 Infantry Division under XI Corps covered in the south the Ranian and Dera Baba Nanak area, including Gill ferry. The overall coordination of the three corps operations involved in the defence of the bulge peripheral area was vested in Lt Gen Candeth. He had about six infantry divisions supported by four independent armoured brigades to fight the battle of Shakargarh bulge against Lt Gen Irshed Ahmed Khan, who had about three infantry divisions, one armoured division and one armoured brigade.

The allocation of Pakistani forces to the Shakargarh bulge and their assigned tasks were known to us with some exactitude, especially from the information obtained from defecting East Pakistani officers.

Besides numerical superiority, the nature of the bulge gave Candeth the advantage of three open sides served by good communications to develop thrusts along any combination of two to three directions, facing Ahmed Khan to split his strike elements and face defeat in detail. Pakistan had the river obstacle of the Chenab separating the Sialkot and Chhamb sectors, and this was a constraint on switching forces quickly from one sector to, another.

Before formulating the concept and pattern of the offensive operations in the bulge, much discussion had taken place between K K and his planning team, and later between the Chief and him. The Chief’s aim was quite clear: first, he wanted to ensure the security of the sensitive areas of Akhnur, Jammu, Samba, Madhopur, Pathankot, Gurdaspur and Amritsar; secondly, to safeguard road and rail communications between Pathankot and Jammu; thirdly, to so engage the Pakistani strike force that it could not be extricated for employment in other sectors and to cause as much attrition as possible in the process; and lastly, acquire as much territory, especially in the Pakistani heartland, as possible to be used as a bargaining lever in postwar negotiations.

In translating the Chief’s aims into action, KK projected that the enemy should not be given battle on ground of his choosing, that is the area of Pasrur and Quila Sobha Singh, where the Pakistani armour had the advantage of using the cauldron fortresses as pivots for manoeuvre, and the capability of bringing down massive artillery concentrations from prepared positions.

Moreover, he felt that any effort to pierce the cauldron by attacking the fortresses would be costly in attrition as well as for the operational time schedule. He preferred to draw out the Pakistani strike force (6 Armoured and 17 Infantry Divisions) from the cauldron and force an engagement of attrition outside it. Once the Pakistani armour was humbled in battle, the door would be open to the sensitive areas in the hinterland.The battle areas which met these requirements were either the tongue of the bulge east of the Zafarwal-Dhamtal-Narowal fortress line or the rear areas on either side of the Chenab. The dovetailed development of thrusts towards these areas, either simultaneously or one after the other, was bound to attract the Pakistani strike element and force it to split to meet the threats posed. Facing battle while divided against superior forces on ground not of its choosing, Pakistan could be defeated in detail. In pursuance of this concept, Candeth was asked to project detailed plans for a coordinated offensive to capture the Shakargarh bulge. He proposed to develop three divergent thrusts:
  • 1 Corps with 36 and 54 Infantry Division and armou-red brigades to attack between the Degh nadi and Ravi to capture the Pakistani strongpoints of Zafarwal-Dhamtal-Narowal-Quila Sobha Singh. It was hoped that this would force the enemy to commit his reserve formations (6 Armou-red and 17 Infantry Divisions) south of the Degh nadi.
  • After the enemy’s reserve formations had been committed thus, 39 Infantry Division, supported by one armoured regiment, was to break out of the general area of Nandpur-Ramgarh towards the enemy’s rear in the Pasrur area. But in view of the enemy’s known capability to mount a counteroffensive against the Nandpur-Ramgarh-Samba sector no risks could be countenanced, and consequently this area was to be held by 39 Infantry Division in a defensive posture till the enemy revealed his hand. This thrust was to be developed only when the Pakistanis committed their reserve formations south of the Degh.
  • Dovetailed with the above, XV Corps, with 10 and 26 Infantry Divisions supported by the affiliated armoured bri-gade, was to launch a two-pronged offensive simultaneously, or shortly before or after, with one thrust on either side of the Chenab. The intention was to encircle and destroy Pakistan 1 Corps if possible by multiple but converging thrusts by I and XV Corps.
  • In addition, depending upon the Pakistani reaction to these thrusts, if the rear areas of Pasrur and Quila Sobha Singh were vacated by the Pakistani reserve formations moving to meet either of the above thrusts and towards the Chenab, XI Corps with two infantry brigades and an armoured brigade was to develop an offensive through Gil ferry in the south towards Quila Sobha Singh and Pasrur, making Narowal fortress en route.

This offensive plan was on the whole approved with slight modifications. It can rightly be called K K’s plan as Candeth, not being much of a military thinker himself, was fed it in bits and pieces at various meetings with the Chief. Like most advanced planning, its working depended upon various assumptions which imponderables like the enemy’s reaction and the progress of operations in other sectors could upset. But on the face of it this plan was flexible enough to meet the fluctuating fortunes of war.

The allocation of Pakistani forces to the Shakargarh bulge and their assigned tasks were known to us with some exactitude, especially from the information obtained from defecting East Pakistani officers. Pakistan I Corps was operationally responsible for the defence of the Shakargarh bulge, and its mission was to eliminate the Indian enclaves on the Pakistani side of the Ravi in the general area of Narowal and simulate offensive actions which would draw the Indian strike force into the bulge so as to foil their timely extraction to meet the main Pakistani offensive in the Ganganagar-Suratgarh area.

To carry out this task Ahmed Khan had Pakistan 15 Infantry Division and 8 Infantry Division (four brigades) supported by 8 Armoured Brigade in the holding role for the defensive phase. Information regarding the likely area of operational responsibi- lity of the various brigade-defended sectors of the Pakistan 8 and 15 Infantry Divisions was known in some detail. 15 Infantry Division was to defend Sialkot by covering its approaches between the Chenab and the Degh nadi with one brigade each in the general areas of Chharprar-Gondal-Marala headworks, Suchetgarh, and Maharajke-Phillora, 8 Infantry Division was to hold the fortresses of Zafarwal, Dhamtal and Narowal with one brigade group each, with the fourth brigade (14 Infantry Brigade) in reserve. The bulge east of the Zafarwal-Narowal fortress line, including Shakargarh town, was to be defended by paramilitary forces supported by covering troops, consisting of 20 Lancers, with elements of reconnaissance and the support battalion operating in the area.

Pakistan 6 Armoured Division and 9 Infantry Division were known to have trained together in the past. The inference was that these formations, supported by 1 Corps Artillery Brigade, formed the Pakistani strike element in the area and was probably earmaked for a possible offensive role or for a counteroffensive in a defensive battle. As Pakistan 9 Infantry Division had been inducted into Bangladesh in March 71, it was presumed that 17 Infantry Division, which had recently been raised to take its place, would be similarly used although its war potential at that stage of raising was doubtful. This strike force was expected to be located in the general area of Daska-Pasrur, to be launched wherever required.

…the projected three-pronged thrust between the Chenab and the Ravi was reduced to one main thrust by I Corps.

In the event the expected Pakistani preemptive attack did not materialize. Occupation of the corps-defended sector was completed by about the end of October and the wait for the war started. As it dragged on into the next month our rank and file began to show impatience. Despite the confrontation all along the international border, no incidents occurred.

A stalemate ensued, and as the lull lengthened the Indian commanders, apprehensive of the Pakistani strike capability, went on magnifying the danger. Exaggerated intelligence reports of the Pakistani buildup continued to arrive in October and November. Being unprocessed, they were somewhat at variance with one another and did not convey a correct picture of the enemy dispositions and the strength in the Shakargarh bulge.

There was no reliable indication of the movement of Pakistan 7 Infantry Division, which was GHQ reserve, its peacetime location being in NWFP. Its allocation south or north of the Ravi would have revealed Pakistani intentions. Information was received that they had laid extensive minefields on the entire border laterally along the Nainakot-Ikhlaspur-Masrur Bara Bhai-Chak Amru line as well as across the Bein up to the Degh nadi.

In addition, two vertical minefields were reported along the banks of these two streams. Such extensive coverage in relation to the Pakistani resources in the way of mines, engineer troops and the time available appeared exaggerated. But no significant change was reported in the general deployment of their troops.

In view of the reported Pakistani buildup opposite the Poonch sector in XV Corps, the Chief ordered an infantry brigade of 39 Infantry Division to reinforce the sector in November. This, coupled with Candeth’s insistence on locating 36 Infantry Division south of the Ravi to counter any Pakistani threat in that direction, necessitated some modifications in the original plan of offensive operations.

…extensive coverage in relation to the Pakistani resources in the way of mines, engineer troops and the time available appeared exaggerated. But no significant change was reported in the general deployment of their troops.

Since the loss of 33 Infantry Brigade of 39 Infantry Division was to be compensated by 168 Infantry Brigade in I Corps sector, the 26 Infantry Division offensive south of the Chenab, which depended upon the availability of this brigade group, became the first casualty and was abandoned. Continuing fear of a Pakistani riposte in the direction of Amritsar and Gurdaspur tied up the available troops to such an extent in defensive tasks that the idea of an offensive through Gil ferry towards Quila Sobha Singh and Pasrur was also given up. Thus the projected three-pronged thrust between the Chenab and the Ravi was reduced to one main thrust by I Corps.

The corps was allotted the task of capturing Pasrur and then, developing operations west of it up to the Marala-Ravi link canal with the aim of coordinating with the offensive operations of XV Corps. The resources left on 1 December after chipping and chopping in November were about three infantry divisions, two independent armoured brigades, one independent artillery brigade and associated administrative units.

The expected enemy operational position was from covering troops in the Shakargarh salient with Pakistan 8 Infantry Division holding the Zafarwal-Dhamtal-Narowal fortress line with two brigade groups, and with one brigade group in depth in the general area of Quila Sobha Singh and Pasrur. Opposite Ramgarh and Nandpur, between the Aik and the Degh, there was one brigade of Pakistan 15 Infantry Division. And somewhere behind and west of Pasrur lay the Pakistani strike element consisting of 6 Armoured Division with elements of 17 Infantry Division.

According to the original plan, the corps offensive operations envisaged a two-pronged thrust from the north into the Shakargarh bulge by 54 Infantry Division with 16 Armoured Brigade less one regiment, 36 Infantry Division less one infantry brigade, and 2 Armoured Brigade less one regiment between the Bein and the Degh nadi. The interdivision boundary was to be the line of the Karir nadi, and the initial objectives of 54 and 36 Infantry Divisions were Zafarwal and Shakargarh respectively.

Launching 36 Infantry Division from the north was one of two contingency plans depending upon the flow of water in the Ravi and its navigability in the area of Thakur ferry. As a preliminary to the offensive, 39 Infantry Division, less one infantry brigade, and one regiment of 16 Armoured Brigade were to occupy a divisional defended sector in the general area of Samba-Ramgarh-Nandpur-Arnia to counter a possible Pakistani riposte, north of the Degh with the aim of developing a thrust towards Jammu.

The development of operations was generally to follow this pattern: the advance to the Zafarwal-Dhamtal-Narowal fortress line was to intercept and destroy the Pakistani covering troops on the line of the Basantar and east of it; by a systematic broad frontal advance to secure the general line of Damana- Bari-Dehlra-Harar Kalan-Harar Khurd in the first phase; capturing Supwal ditch and Shakargarh in the second; and f i nally stabilizing on the line of Zafarwal-Dhamtal-Narowal.

Yahya Khan opted for war and launched an air attack on Pathankot and other airfields in Punjab soon after last light on 3 December.

Although KK did not commit himself to any time frame, as he felt this would depend upon numerous imponderables, including whether, when and where Pakistan would commit its strike force, it was sensed that he planned to reach Zafarwat, Dhamtal by about D plus four to five days. Because 33 Infantry Brigade of 9 Infantry Division was detached to reinforce the Poonch sector, and the imperative need to maintain the security of the Thakurpur ferry area, these plans were subsequently revised.

Yahya Khan opted for war and launched an air attack on Pathankot and other airfields in Punjab soon after last light on 3 December. Pakistan Army units ingresscd into the Chhamb sector1 and mounted an offensive against 10 infantry Division. Since no Pakistani offensive materialized in the Shakargarh bulge, it was decided to launch the 1 Corps offensive on 5 December at dusk. The offensive set off at 1830 hours with an advance on a broad front between the Degh nadi and Basantar as follows:

  • 54 Infantry Division with 16 Armoured Brigade, less one armoured regiment, from the general area Mawa-Galar under the command of Maj Gen Pinto.
  • 39 Infantry Division, 72 Infantry Brigade (four battalions) of 36 Infantry Division and 2 Armoured Brigade, less one armoured regiment, from the general area Londi – Chak Dolna – Mangu Chak under Maj Gen Prabhu.
  • The remainder of the corps sector was to remain on the defensive, with 323 Infantry Brigade of 39 Infantry Division and 168 Infantry Brigade of 26 Infantry Division holding the general area of Ramgarh-Bajpur-Samba, organized as X-ray sector, 87 Infantry Brigade of 39 Infantry Division on a firm base in the general area of Bamial-Narot-Parol, and 36 Infantry Division (two brigades) with one armoured regiment looking after the general area of Thakur ferry.
For the advance into the Shakargarh bulge, K K had laid down certain operational imperatives for dovetailing the various thrusts in terms of time and space as well as ensuring flank protection and retention of firm bases in the rear until compensation pivots could be established ahead. This implied that large numbers of troops would hold ground in the way of firm bases and synchronize the speed of one formation with that of the other as the advance visualized a broad steamroller type of inching forward with adequate security against tactical imbalances resulting from the operational plan itself and subsequent enemy reactions.The experience of the war of 1962 with China and the India-Pakistan war of 1965 had made K K somewhat cautious. He did not wish to take any chances and insisted that the balance must be maintained at all times, especially because of the woeful lack of reserves in the corps sector. This caution unfortunately dissipated the strength of the divisional thrusts to the extent that not more than one armoured regiment and one or two infantry battalions were in contact with the enemy at one time.

Prabhu, an artillery officer, started the advance by capturing the border posts well in time and made good progress till he hit the Pakistani minefield around Harar Kalan and Munan late in the afternoon of 7 December. The enemy position at Harar Kalan was well fortified and possibly held by no more than an infantry company with some elements of reconnaissance and a support company. Prabhu ordered the leading infantry battalion to assault Harar Kalan at night with adequate armour support.

Having failed to carry Harar Kalan frontally, Prabhu decided to outflank the position by sidestepping 2,000 yards east of the village in the proximity of Shahbazpur.

The attack failed, with casualties of 24 dead and 65 wounded. As transpired later, the casualties were caused by an ill-conceived and badly managed assault because of inadequate planning and ineffective fire support although there was no shortage of artillery. Apparently, no provision had been made for the organized breaching of a lane through the minefield.

Having failed to carry Harar Kalan frontally, Prabhu decided to outflank the position by sidestepping 2,000 yards east of the village in the proximity of Shahbazpur. Owing to indifferent going, the armoured/infantry column reached Shahbazpur rather late in the afternoon of 8 December after a circuitous approach. The trawl tanks started breaching the minefield in broad day-light, and two of them got across while the third blew up on an old mine.

As it was getting dark, Prabhu, apprehending an attack by Pakistani tank-hunting parties, allowed the two forward tanks to be abandoned and endeavoured to get the two trawls back. The trawls were however ditched in the middle of the minefield and the attempt failed. There was no enemy pressure, not even mini-mal opposition, but Prabhu was bogged down by his own inability to control the battle. There was no shortage of resources, only lack of leadership and ability to manage the battle competently.

After the abortive attack on the night of 7/8 December, Prabhu ordered 72 Infantry Brigade to attack Harar Kalan on the night of 9/10 December. But this was later postponed to 10/11 December to coincide with 54 Infantry Division’s attack on Dehlra and Chakra, both on the western flank of Harar Kalan. The attack on Harar Kalan was quite successful, but further advance on 11 December was halted on encountering the mine barrier on the other side of the objective.

Efforts continued to breach the second minefield at various spots, but no headway was made. Even though seven days had elapsed from the start of hostilities, it seemed unlikely that at this rate 39 Infantry Division would be able to reach Shakargarh in the immediate future although it did not have far to go. Notwithstanding the abundance of resources and very light enemy opposition, Prabhu failed to make any headway.

Abreast of 39 Infantry Division, 54 Infantry Division under Pinto made good progress west of the Karir almost according to plan. Capture of Dehlra village had been originally allotted to 39 Infantry Division, which was located on their side of the interdivisional boundary southeast of the Karir. Dehlar occupied a pivotal position in this subsector on account of various tracks converging on it.

The enemy resisted fiercely at Chakra, but Dehlra was there- after taken almost without a fight. The enemy lost six tanks in this action.

It was discovered after contact that Dehlra derived much of its strength from a fortified position around Chakra village. The Chakra position also had its inherent strength on account of its obvious dominance of the surrounding area as well as by the presence of two streams on its immediate flanks which were partial antitank obstacles.

The enemy had sited and developed the Chakra defences with considerable skill and ingenuity. Until this position was reduced, the flanks of both 39 and 54 Infantry Divisions in their subse- quent advance were under serious threat. 39 Infantry Division had contacted Dehlra on 7 December and learnt that it was considerably strengthened by a protective minefield. To assault this position frontally was unthinkable, and the division’s capacity to take this position from the rear was impaired because of the failure of his abortive attempt to breach the second minefield west of Harar Khurd. Not to hold up the advance any further, the reduction of the Chakra-Dehlra position was entrusted to 54 Infantry Division.

Pinto launched a well-prepared attack on Chakra from the rear after last light on 10 December and breached the minefield. The enemy resisted fiercely at Chakra, but Dehlra was there- after taken almost without a fight. The enemy lost six tanks in this action. Their tracks indicated that they were part of the squadron which was withdrawing along the east bank of the Karir nadi. Making use of higher ground, this squadron sniped at our advancing forces on either side of the nadi. Consequent to the capture of Chakra and Dehlra, the flanks of both divisions were secured.

Since Pakistan had not committed its strike element anywhere in the bulge, it was decided to develop a thrust towards Shakargarh by 36 Infantry Division (two brigades) with one armoured regiment under the command of Maj Gen B S Ahluwalia across the Ravi through Thakurpur ferry. In the concentration phase, 18 Infantry Brigade had carried out an excellent approach march in civilian transport from Gwalior and had occupied a defended sector in the Thakurpur area within 48 hours or so. It had secured a bridgehead across the river in the Lasian enclave for the projected offensive by crossing the Ujh river.

115 Infantry Brigade was built up there on the night of 8/9 December, and by 0800 hours the next day the bridgehead had been established alone the Hir-Daulat Chak-Kotli-Sainan-Naurpur line. By this time Ahluwalia had managed to put two bridges with classifications of 40 and 9 across the Ravi without enemy interference. With the accelerated rate of buildup he was able to enlarge the bridgehead and capture Nainakot by the 10th afternoon, again without resistance. The enemy seemed to have vacated the town in a hurry.

The advance started along the Nainakot-Nurkot and Nainakot-Shakargarh axes on 11 December. Information was then received of an enemy armour squadron advancing along the Nurkot-Nainakot axis. 14 Horse gave action by surrounding the squadron, later identified as belonging to 33 Cavalry (Pattons). With a clever manoeuvre, the enemy left almost half his strength in the general area of Banot-Fatehpur Afghan-Malakpur. The remainder made their way west of the Bein.

Since Pakistan had not committed its strike element anywhere in the bulge, it was decided to develop a thrust towards Shakargarh…

115 Infantry Brigade, the leading formation under Brig Kaul, a cavalry officer, encountered very light opposition, possibly not more than two companies of paramilitary forces, some elements of the reconnaissance and support battalion, and one armoured squadron. The enemy neither held the Nainakot sector nor mined the Lasian enclave. Only three small minefields were encountered in the advance near the border in three separate locations astride tracks from the bridgehead to Nainakot, Nurkot and Shakargarh. They did not hold up the advance long, as they were neither effectively denied by the enemy troops nor had the gaps astride the tracks been blocked. And yet it had taken four days to traverse some 14 miles. Starting its advance on 8 December, it was only by last light on the 12th that 36 Infantry Division was able to lean on the Bein on both axes.

Meanwhile, on the night of 9/10 December, 87 Infantry Brigade, till then holding a defended sector in the general area of Bamial-Parol, crossed the Ujh and Tarnah on our side of the border and advanced along the Ilhlaspur-Shakargarh axis to secure Badowal unopposed. The brigade was placed under Command Headquarters 36 Infantry Division on 12 December 71.

Since 39 Infantry Division was not making much headway, K K ordered the following regrouping on 12 December to accelerate the pace of the advance:

  • HQ 39 Infantry Division assumed responsibility for the X-ray sector/west of the Basantar and remained idle throughout the operations.
  • 72 Infantry Brigade assumed responsibility for the 39 Infantry Division sector between the Karir and the Bein, and in turn came under the command of 54 Infantry Division as its fourth brigade.
  • To strengthen 36 Infantry Division, HQ 2 Armoured Brigade with 1 Horse was moved under the command, thus increasing the quantity of armour to two regiments.
  • 87 Infantry Brigade was placed under the command of HQ 36 Infantry Division so that the advance west of the Bein could be made as a coordinated effort.

115 Infantry Brigade had been leaning against the Bein from midday on 12 December and had time to carry out adequate reconnaissance the next night. Anxious to pursue the retreating enemy, Ahluwalia ordered 115 Infantry Brigade to attack Shakargarh on the night of 13/14 December. 4 Grenadiers, which had won the first Param Vir Chakra in the conflict of 1965 a Khem Karan, was holding the line and was asked to undertake the operation. A company plus force under Maj Chaudhry was sent ahead after last light on 13 December with the ostensible task of reconnaissance in force. Chaudhry managed to contact the enemy minefield on the far flank and found gaps in it.

By the first light of 16 December the bridgehead was extended up to Gazepur-Bara Pind village, and the division was well poised to break out towards Zafarwal.

Leaving guides in the gaps to lead the followup echelon, he went ahead and occupied a small village, Dinpur Khurd, with one platoon and some houses on the outskirts of Shakargarh with the remainder company unopposed. Having reported this encouraging progress, Chaudhry waited for the rest of the battalion to marry up for the attack on the town early next morning.

The battalion left its firm base east of the Bein and crossed the dry river bed with much noise from the accompanying tanks about midnignt. This invited retaliation from the enemy, mostly in way of artillery shelling and heavy machine-gun fire. Some troops scrambled, and in the resultant melee the leading tank was bogged in the soft ground about 1,000 yards short of the objective. This made the following armour cautious, and the squadron commander was reluctant to push on without adequate reconnaissance and engineer support.

The battalion commander, unwilling to operate on his own, wilted under difficulties of his own making and called off the attack, ordering Chaudhry to make his way back to the firm base. By first light on 14 December, 4 Grenadiers, less the troops already west of the Bein, had scrambled back to the base with some causalties. Getting wise to Ahluwalia’s moves, the Pakistanis surrounded Chaudhary’s troops in the builtup areas with an infantry company and a troop of tanks. Chaudhry held out stoutly long enough till 14 December afternoon without tank and artillery suppors.

To his great dismay, he lost his artillery observer at night. In the thick of the battle the observer was wounded in the eye and later taken prisoner along with the rest of the commpany, about 72 strong. In his debriefing on repatriation after the cease-fire, Chaudhry strongly felt let down by his battalion commander for not marrying up when he had established a sizable foothold in the town. He calculated there were no more than a couple of companies holding the town on that night. He saw only one troop of armour, but even if there was more armour strength in the vicinity it could not have been usefully employed against infantry in a builtup area like Shakargarh.K K was told of this attack only the next morning, when it had failed. He felt it was unnecessary. The casualties and loss of morale suffered in it were wholly avoidable, and all the more regrettable as K K had ordered action 24 hours later with full preparation and coordinated effort.About midday on 14 December the affiliated Air OP reported much transport moving away from Shakargarh. The enemy was apparently evacuating the town in a hurry. Eager to pursue, Ahluwalia planned another attack on Shakargarh, this time assigning the task to 115 and 87 Infantry Brigade. On the night of 14/15 December, 36 Infantry Division attacked Shakargarh from the southwest and the north with 4 Grenadiers and 3/9 Gorkha Rifles respectively. 4 Grenadiers, dispirited by the first unsuccessful attack, got stalled in FUP with only some casualties from shelling and machine gun fire, and the 115 Infantry Brigade attack never got going.The 87 Infantry Brigade attack was led by 3/9 Gorkha Rifles. They assaulted Chhatrana, a village on the periphery of Shakargarh town, with great spirit and struggled gamely on the wrong side of the minefield until orders were given to withdraw. The battalion suffered grievously and some men were taken prisoner. The mine-breaching force could not be assembled in time, nor was the breach successful. Ahluwalia had thus compounded two abortive attacks within 24 hours.It later transpired that the Pakistani vehicular movement reported by Air OP was in fact reinforcing the town with a battalion of troops. To make sure the next attempt would succeed, it was planned to launch an attack on the night of 17/18 December with proper coordination of armour and artillery and engineer resources. Shakargarh town is a heavily builtup area on raised ground with the Bein skirting the east and providing excellent fields of fire to weapons covering the approaches to the town from the same direction. Crossing the river away from the town and then developing operations to bypass it with requisite containment or taking it from the rear would perhaps have proved successful.

As it happened, the time and date of the next attack coincided with the ceasefire, and consequently the assault on Shakargarh had to be called off, even though Ahluwalia secured practically all the territory east of the Bein, albeit against very light opposition as Pakistan evidently did not wish to defend this portion of the salient. But these nominal gains did not offset the avoidable reverses suffered in the abortive attempts on Shakargarh. Since Shakargarh remained uncaptured, this division’s operation did not materially aid the other thrusts.

On reaching the Basantar, 54 Infantry Division struck an enemy minefield of some 1,600 yards depth laid in the river bed. On the night of 15/16 December, it managed to establish a brid-gehead in the general area of the Lalial forest of about 3,500 by 2,500 yards with some courageous actions, notably one at Japal by 3 Grendiers where Maj Hoshiar Singh won his well- merited Param Vir Chakra. By the first light of 16 December the bridgehead was extended up to Gazepur-Bara Pind village, and the division was well poised to break out towards Zafarwal.

Sensitive to the Indian move, GOC Pakistan 8 Infantry Division launched a series of counterattacks from 16 December till the ceasefire, after last light on 17 December, with elements of 24 Infantry Brigade and 8 Armoured Brigade. By then K K had inducted about three squadrons plus of Poona Horse and Hodsons Horse, who formed an iron ring on the perimeter of the restricted bridgehead. The Pakistani armour sallied repeatedly from the direction of Pinowal towards the Supwal ditch, exposing their broad side and thus presenting excellent targets to the Indian tanks and RCL guns.

The Pakistanis repeated the same pattern over and over again and reportedly lost some 48 tanks in the process. It was here that 2/Lt Khetarpal of Poona Horse won the Param Vir Chakra posthumously by destroying three or four enemy tanks singlehanded at the sacrifice of his life. The corps artillery particulary distinguished itself by its accurate shooting and was primarily instrumental in breaking up successive infantry and tank assaults.

Fazal Mugeem presents the Pakistan version of this operation thus: “The few counterattacks which 8 Infantry Division tried during the war were most noticeable by their lack of planning and preparations. The worst example of this attack was on 17 December, when against all protestations of its very gallant commanding officer 36 FF was sent into battle for almost certain massacre.”

Thus ended the battle of the Basantar, as also of the 1 Corps offensive, some 4½ mile from Zafarwal. The reported casualties were:

Tanks      Destroyed        Captured          Repairable

Pakistan         43                    10                       —

India                2                      —                       13

Personnel      Killed        Wounded         Missing/Prisoners

Pakistan           222          900 (estimated)          60

India                  169          506                             17

Commenting on the 1 Corps offensive, Fazal Muqeem writes: “`The Indian advance in this area was deliberate and slow. After contacting the covering troops, they had taken 12 days and 12 nights to contact the main Pakistani defences. During this time, the Pakistanis had fought with covering troops all along the eight miles distance between the main defensive position and the border. The Indians suffered heavy losses. One of the Indian divisions, 54 Infantry Division, with its motto ‘Bash on regardless,’ also took 12 days to cover eight miles.”

What is the overall evaluation of the battle for the Shakargarh bulge?

All the villages in the battle zone were found vacated and devoid of belongings. One old Pakistani, too feeble to walk, remained behind. He revealed that the villages had been vacated well before the outbreak of hostilities. The Pakistanis had apparently organized the evacuation of the border areas. The old man said that the Pakistani soldier, by comparison with the Indian, was arrogant, haughty and demanding. He confirmed that village labour was used to lay mines and prepare defences. He was grateful for the good treatment he received from the Indian Army.

What is the overall evaluation of the battle for the Shakargarh bulge? It can be said that Pakistan lost the peripheral territory east of the Bein, as also some area north of the Zafarwal Shakargarh road, but managed to keep the sensitive area inside the cauldron intact. The area surrendered to the Indians was underdeveloped and did not materially affect Pakistan’s capability to wage war. The only embarrassment at that stage to Pakistan. economically, and more so politically, was the refugee population of approximately 1 million.

On the credit side, India secured some territory to use as a bargaining lever in the postwar negotiations for settling outstanding political issues. This bargaining power increased with the passage of time as refuge pressure mounted against the Pakistani government for return to their homes. The economic resources required to rehabilitate the war-devastated region added to the difficulties of the politician in power.

Irshad Ahmed Khan, who was operationally responsible for the bulge, may be accused of not making full use of his resources in executing his defensive role. He lost Chicken’s Neck and the territories east of the Bein and north of the Zafarwal-Shakargarh road by offering resistance with no more than covering troops. He depended more on passive resistance in the way of extensive minefields, and hardly used these obstacles to cause attrition through offensive action by mustering superior forces at the point of contact.

It is apparent that our military thinking, its leadership and organisation need to be reshaped to introduce flexibility into our tactical plans and achieve greater mobility and heavier punch in our strikes.

Even in the bridgehead across the Bein, he counterattacked by committing his reserves piecemeal, and this resulted in heavy Pakistani losses not commensurate with tactical gains. His sucessive counterattacks did not in fact make any dent and caused incalculable damage both to 13 Lancers and 35 FF by way of loss of morale. Worst of all, his main strike force, 6 Armoured Division, elements of 17 Infantry Division and most of 8 Armoured Brigade remained uncommitted up to the cessation of hosti-lities. Such underutilisation of resources, especially in a short war, was a manifestation of poor generalship and inexcusable.

The Indian performance was only marginally better than in 1965. In that encounter, 1 Corps had traversed seven miles in 21 days against eight in the 14-day war of 1971. This progress was achieved against opposition mainly from Pakistani covering troops, and the gains were certainly not commensurate with the resources employed. What were the reasons for such slow progress?

KK Singh, although reputedly the finest conceptual brain in the Indian Army, was unduly cautious in the field. Perhaps his experience against China in 1962 and Pakistan in 1965 restrain- ed him from taking risks. He insisted on a solid tactical balance at each stage of battle. He was all the time apprehensive of the impending threat from the Pakistani strike force, consisting of 6 Armoured Division and 17 Infantry Division.

Perhaps this caution was forced on him by the abandonment of the thrusts from XV Corps after the Pakistani offensive in Chhamb and the inactivity of XI Corps at the Gil ferry. Candeth, like Ahmed Khan, also chose to husband his resources in passivity. As a result, K K tied up the major portion of his resources in securing the base, the line of communication and its flanks. The net result was that on each divisional front not more than one armoured regiment plus and one or two infantry battalions were ever put in assault at a time, and this in turn resulted in narrow jabbing operations on a broad front which made them liable to be split by a sharp enemy thrust. Luckily, Ahmed Khan was even less enterprizing.

The slow progress was also attributed to the extensive and mine barriers encountered on the route. Mainly, there were three lateral minefields running east to west parallel to the international border, with some 8,000 yards between them. The depth of the first was approximately 600 yards, the second 800 yards and the third 1,200. The mines were mainly antitank, with the density of the first two minefields one mine per yard front and the third 1½ mines. The mines were laid clumsily without anyeffort at camouflage and it transpired that this had been done with the help of village labour. They were marked by short wooden pegs, and low manila ropes indicated lanes through which Pakistani armour and reconnaissance and support elements functioned.

The sluggish advance was also the result of an effort at every step to match the pace of armour with the foot soldier or vice versa.

The minefields were by no means formidable, but the method 1 Corps employed to negotiate them was time-consuming. As a prerequisite, bridgeheads were established across the fields by infantry, necessarily by night, and this was followed by trawling, and then proving and preparing vehicle lanes. Since the lanes were few, the buildup was in a restricted space which could be contained by dominating strongpoints. More trawls crossing over a wide front, or assault crossings without trawls, would have accelerated the advance. Regrettably, K K insisted on the slow and laborious stage management of deliberate minefield crossings.

The main reason for the slow progress of operations was lack of sufficient strength in the main thrusts, which were no more than an armoured regiment and an infantry battalion group. Dissipation of the assaulting forces in clearing villages in systematic sweeps from one end to another well away from the axes of advance was time-consuming, and perhaps an unnecessary over-insurance. Deep thrusts from firm base to firm base would have ensured security, and the rapidity of movement would have thrown the enemy off balance. The Indian strike lacked spirit to force the pace against the enemy and failed to imbibe the truth that “the best balance lies in unbalancing the enemy,” as convincingly proved in Bangladesh.

The sluggish advance was also the result of an effort at every step to match the pace of armour with the foot soldier or vice versa. Their respective degrees of mobility being different, they impeded each other’s progress. The correct approach would have been to unleash the armour and mechanized infantry till they hit the next opposition and for the infantry to fetch up later to take over than move hand in hand. In this regard, there is a case for reorganising our striking formations into mechanized divisions with heliborne capability.

To cap it all, KK, although a fine military brain, was let down by poor generalship. Prabhu let the battle run itself and became a hapless spectator of one disaster after another till K K found it expedient to relegate him to a dormant sector, where he sat out the war doing nothing. Ahluwalia having traversed few sluggish miles, went on hurling troops in successive attacks on Shakargarh without any feel of the pulse of the battle. As a result, he got his nose bloodied again and again. Although nothing very spectacular was achieved by Pinto, he must be credited with carrying out his missions with praiseworthy zeal and he never had a repulse. He displayed good leadership and stage-managed his battles with skill.

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It is apparent that our military thinking, its leadership and organisation need to be reshaped to introduce flexibility into our tactical plans and achieve greater mobility and heavier punch in our strikes. Increasing heliborne capability is indicated. Our tactical concepts, training and planning should be oriented to achieve decisive and swift results in a short war. Slow, deliberate, cautious and time-consuming operations do not fit the present context and need to be recast.

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4 thoughts on “1971 War: Battle of Shakargarh Bulge

  1. Gen I was about to write something unpleasant in your article ”needs a rook” but decided to first know about you which I could not find on the net however decided to read what you had written about the battle of Shakargarh bulge wherein I happened to to fight under 36 Div as a young Officer and I find your total picture very correct and unbiased except where you have mention names of two journalist presumably having connection with 17H/1H/4H who painted pictures chivalrous Armoured charges in the then media.
    I would say Infantry showed showed better fighting spirit then the Armoured Corps but none of fault of the Armed forces we do not have the KILLING SPIRIT in us because all during peace time HAM KADDU MULI KAT KAR KHATE HAIN NO JHATKAS IN BATTALIONS OR REGIMENTS NOW EVEN JHATKAS ARE FORBIDDEN IN OUR RELIGIOUS PLACES WHEN WILL WE SEE FIRST BLOOD ON THE BATTLE FIELD BY WHEN IT WOULD BE TOO LATE and they HAR JUMME KO DHIRE DHIRE HALAL KAR KE BAKRE KHATE HAIN AUR KHOON BAHATE HAIN
    First time my troops saw blood was when we cut their Eid ke bakre they had left behind

  2. The brave soldier has written too many details which are hard to follow you read further and further into the paper. The battle action papers are better written if day to day action of individual fighting unit is included than the preparations and thinking of the higher command level, although the latter has its own importance and briefly included.

    Truly the above paper is Indian detailed account of a battle in very much on the same pattern as Major A H Amin (Pakistan) has written about the same battle. Mind it, the latter is the Pakistani version. Major Amin hides the weaknesses and shortcomings of Pakistani Army, writing detailed account of “nothings” and taking long to state that even the battle of Sakargarh Bulge was lost cause for Pakistanis.

    • This war should never have happened. I was on the Shahadra sector in the Pakistan Army at the foolish age of 23 but after all these years wisdom of my years has taken over. Pakistan and India MUST NEVER again engage in any future conflict. It is mindless stupidity to send our children to their deaths and leave a legacy of hatred behind us. Instead we must endeavour to build bridges and leave well enough alone, i.e. Kashmir. Look towards helping each other into a brighter future. Look where the rest of the world is headed and look at ourselves. Pakistan MUST take the first step to set it’s own house in order. Otherwise we know the alternatives.

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