Military & Aerospace

1971 War: Battle of Shakargarh Bulge
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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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