We were sixteen and all of us had gathered at the Regimental Gun position (12 Field Regiment), at 1230 hrs sharp, on 03 December, 1971. The occasion was the farewell lunch for one of our Battery Commanders (Tara S Gill) and to welcome to our fold T N Konnar, straight from the DSSC Wellington. The Officers Field Mess was neatly tucked inside a cluster of 8 to 12 ft high “Sarkanda” shrubs, barely 1500 M North of village Chhamb. Guns of 18 Field Regiment were in their battle location in the space between Chhamb and our Guns. One battery of 120 mm Heavy Mortars were in their Pits, about 2000 M ahead of us. It was natural that their Commanding Officers too be invited to our Officers Mess, that afternoon. In the prevailing bonhomie, it was decided that we will field a team each for a Volley Ball match at 1630 hrs, in the 18 Field Regiment Gun Area and in the event, there were spectators from Chhamb village to cheer their “adopted” Regimental teams! Who could have imagined that the area around the volley ball ground would be the flash point of a fierce battle, a few hours hence?
…two of our JCOs and several Gunners were involved in hand to hand combat, literally, (a few critically wounded) to keep the emboldened Pakis at arm’s length from the Guns.
The volley ball game was fun and as we sat in the cool of December dusk, with cups of steaming-hot tea, laced with rum, there were sudden, muffled sounds of loud explosions from the hinterland. The very next moment, the Adjutant came on the run to announce that the PAF had signaled the War with pre-emptive strikes on our Air Bases. Lieutenant General O S Kalkat (on deputation with the RAW) had visited HQ 10 Infantry Division around 1100 hrs that morning and briefed the GOC, about the imminence of War,any moment. So, the GOC had decided to position himself at the Divisional Advance HQ (ad hoc) which was yet to be fully established, at Palanwala. Simultaneously, the Main Divisional HQ was to build on the Advance HQ that very night. In the event, when Pakistan launched its 23 Infantry Division in to Chhamb Sector on 3 December, with intense artillery concentrations around 2000 hrs, targeting all the Platoon Posts along the CFL/LOC as also the Gun Positions on both banks of Mannawar Tawi, the GOC found himself divorced from his functional,command apparatus and remained so, for the better part of that crucial, first night.
It did not require a military deliberation to arrive at the obvious conclusion, that in the Chhamb Sector Pakistan had achieved surprise, both tactical and strategic; they had completely concealed the readjustments/redeployments of their defensive formations into the offensive entities and in particular the forward deployment of its entire artillery. Our string of forward BOPs along the IB/CFL/LOC(and for that matter so also RAW/IB), had failed to detect any “straws-in-the-wind” of the Chhamb offensive, whatsoever. And at times as enemy on the strategic level may, Pakistan did the least expected by re-rolling out the very plan of attack (West to East) for the capture of the Akhnur Bridge, as was triggered in 1965. And as in 1965, their intelligence of our deployments (particularly West of Mannawar Tawi) and the ensuing intensity and precision of their opening artillery concentrations was enviable. The softening up and in many cases pulverization of our BOPs and the Forward Defended Localities (FDLs)by Pak Artillery fire in the first two hours, made the task of their Infantry a mere cake-walk. Their precise acquisition of our infantry and artillery locations, down to each Company/Battery level, was impossible without infiltratingsurvey elements well in advance, and later positioning commando artillery observers inside our village habitations, either under inducements or coercion. The degree of accuracy of target coordinates used by Pak Artillery, would match the expectations from the present day UAVs. Not just that, but no matter how often we changed our Gun locations to conform to the developing battle,we would be re-targeted within the next hour! I remember in particular that around 12 December, 38 Medium Regiment had redeployed in a depth Gun Area by night but come first light, they were strafed with precision by the PAF and their Command Post and one 5.5 inch Gun successfully bombed to smithereens.
The degree of accuracy of target coordinates used by Pak Artillery, would match the expectations from the present day UAVs.
To start with, a few of our FDLs in the 191 Infantry Brigade Defended Sector (8 JAK, 5 Sikh, 5 Assam and 3/4 GR) had stood their groundstoutly, but had they mounted just one, company-sized local counter attack in each Battalion Defended Areaand had they persisted with that resolve just for another 18 to 24 hrs, together with bold use of our Armor in collusion with the Anti-tank Missile Platoon, the Pak offensive in the Chhamb Sector may well have been checked in its tracks, if not stymied altogether.Our artillery ripostes were lethal, and meaningful both in delaying and disrupting the time schedule of Pakistani offensive time and again, and two of our observers in particular went on to earn the Vr C. However, our fire targeted at Pak depth areas was more speculative than precise. By whom or why 191 Infantry Brigade was ordered to up-stick to the East of Mannawar Tawi prematurely, remains unclear. The irony is, that contrary to all tactical precepts the last combat elements to pull back to the East bank of Mannawar Tawi on night 5/6 December, were neither Armor nor Infantry but the Guns of 12 Field Regiment, best summed up later by Lieutenant General KP Candeth, the GOC-in-C thus; “Guns of this Battery (Sic. 12 FIELD, Q Battery) were the last organized body of troops to withdraw across the Munawar Tawi bridge with great élan and in a copy book sequence, each 25 Pounder gun leap-frogged in a retrograde action, firing at point blank range till the pursuing enemy infantry were exhausted to sand still, before it (bridge) was blown by us as a part of our defensive plan”.In the process, two of our JCOs and several Gunners were involved in hand to hand combat, literally, (a few critically wounded) to keep the emboldened Pakis at arm’s length from the Guns. And so they did; but unfortunately and unknown to these valiant Gunners, their CO had fallen on 5 December mid morning under an aerial attack and never saw the sterling conduct of his Command. A few months after the cease fire, a modest memorial was built on the spot where the CO fell; a plaque bearing the names of the ten brave hearts was embedded in the memorial. The CO’s widow, now past 90, visits the memorial each December 5 accompanied by a few representatives from the Regiment.
At this stage, it appeared that this hasty retrograde action might induce panic among the Division as a whole and so the Corps Commander, Lieutenant General Sartaj Singh flew to the nearest ALG on 6 December and instructed the GOC that (a) there shall be no further retrograde movement, and (b) hold the line of Mannawar Tawi in strength. He next flew the GOC in the Austere aircraft over the Tawi to restore confidence that the Pak offensive had already, well neigh shot the bolt. And accepting the likely dissonance prevailing within 191 Infantry Brigade, he allotted to 10 Infantry Division the Corps Reserve, 68 Infantry Brigade whose Commander Brigadier Tom Morlin proved equal to the trust reposed in him. Their arrival not only rapidly stabilized but aided the resurrection of theDivisional Defended Sector and firmly thwarted further attempts by Pak to regain foot-hold on the East bank of Mannawar Tawi. It was popularly believed that when the CO of one affiliatedArmored Regiment expressed inability to dominate the East bank opposite the Bhucho Mandi hillock so that infantry could dig down, Brigadier Morlin pulled out his revolver to extract compliance of his directive. The rest is history; 10 Infantry Division held firm, thereafter.
From day one, on assuming command of 10 Infantry Division, the GOC was fired-up with the resolve of recapturing the territory lost to Pakistan in the Chhamb Sector in the 1965 War. Accordingly, he did train and enthuse the Division with his vision, with great vigor. My CO and I were tasked to reconnoiter an area around Pathankot with terrain similar to what obtained across the IB/LOC in theChhamb Sector. He personally conducted Sand Model discussions, put the Division (in skeleton), through his planned offensive, critiqued its performance and thereafter, almost the whole Division were put through their paces. So once the Army mobilized in November 1971, the 191 Infantry Brigade along with the bulk of Divisional Artillery adopted a new defensive posture, that is, leaning on to the CFL/LOC as the firm base for the Divisional offensive, even leaving adequate gaps in the defensive minefield ab initioto facilitate a jump-start, as it were. In the event, when Pak seized the initiative, 10 Infantry Division were caught in limbo; neither in defensive battle location nor in the“run-way-readiness” status for the offensive, per se.
The battle situation as it developed in the first 48 hrs provided ample opportunities to commanders with the audacity of a Patton or MacArthur but not a conservative Montgomery.
In hind sight it appears that had 9 Deccan Horse and the 2 (Indep) Squadrons of armor on the ORBAT were committed to battle West of Mannawar Tawi, on night 3/4 December (which was probable if the GOC and his staff and advisors had been in a huddle, considering that theyhad one more Armor Regiment held in reserve, in-situ), the tide of battle may well have reversed and subsequently, the Division may well have even launched on a limited counter offensive from its South-Western flank. The battle situation as it developed in the first 48 hrs provided ample opportunities to commanders with the audacity of a Patton or MacArthur but not a conservative Montgomery. Such are the after-thoughts indeed, almost after every war.
A Rarest of Rare Battle Episode
We had just emerged from trenches/bunkers after a ten minute long, intense counter bombardment on 12 December and were glad to get a confirmation that there was no loss of life or limb or damage to any Gun. All of a sudden, every eye turned to the Listening Post sentry from one flank, who was escorting at the point of bayonet, two tall, broad chested and be-turbaned Sikh peasants, in loose flowing “Kurtas” and billowing Punjabi “lungis” looking as though they had stepped off a Bhangra stage. They walked nonchalantly and on reaching me, without any ado, they took me in a tight Bear-hug, uttering “Oh! Bale Bale Bale!” And the entire Gun Position burst in to guffaw. A somewhat embarrassed Havildar Clerk (GD) Nirmal Singh emerged from the Regimental Command Post dug-out, to formally introduce his maternal uncles!! After a lengthy narration of how they hitched rides from Gurdaspur on wards, and gave a slip to every Military Police check Post, they ended with, “Assan socheya aneey ghamasan jung lagi hay, tay assan apnay bhanjay noo zaroor mil aaiya!”
Nirmal had joined the Regiment as an 18 year old, in 1958 at Poonch. He retired as an Honorary Captain, Subedar Major, Sahib from the Regiment that I commanded. He and his kind are the epitome of those who are attracted to the Indian Armed Forces as Philip Mason surmised“because it is “A MATTER OF HONOUR!” No less, no more.