Military & Aerospace

1971 War on the Western Front: Observations, Comments and Lessons
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It was appreciated that in the West, Pakistan’s strategy would be to secure significant territory in Jammu and Kashmir which she could retain after the war and at the same time to launch a major offensive in the plains area of Jammu, Punjab or Northern Rajasthan with a view to capturing important territory and inflicting maximum possible destruction on India’s Armed strength. Such a strategy would prevent India from going all out in East Pakistan, providing time for intervention by United Nations/other friendly powers and compensates for any Pakistani losses there. The Indian strategy was to undertake a major offensive in the East and adopt a posture of offensive defence in the West. Such a strategy would enable liberation of East Pakistan and at the same time prevent Pakistan from making any significant gains in the West.

In the implementation of the strategy, Pakistan really launched two worthwhile offensives, one in the hill area of Punch and the other in the plains area of Chhamb. The Punch offensive made little progress mainly due to Pakistan not pressing home the attacks; and dogged resistance and timely reinforcements by the Indians. The Chhamb offensive partially succeeded, but was not fully exploited. Although the Indians initially did not organize themselves effectively for offensive in this sector (Chhamb) and lost grip, ultimately, they adopted a more aggressive posture and regained control. According to later reports, apart from these two offensives, Pakistan had planned a major offensive in the Fazilka-Ganganagar area with her Southern strategic reserve, with a view to securing objectives in depth and inflicting attrition on the Indian Armed Forces, However, this offensive did not materialize, as Pakistan had split up the available reserve, in order to reinforce the Sialkot Sector against the Indian offensive in the Shakargarh bulge, and also to reinforce the Sind Sector. Thus, Pakistan gained nothing worthwhile in the West; and at the same time lost her Eastern Wing. Although she had the initiative and was the first to strike in the West, she could not implement her strategy with determination and vigour and thus failed. In this connection, it would be worth quoting what Maj. Gen. Fazal Muqeem Khan said in his candid book, “Pakistan’s Crisis in Leadership”:

“It appeared only logical that in the event of an attack on East Pakistan, the Army would seize the initiative in West Pakistan immediately at the start of hostilities and launch an offensive with a view to capturing maximum possible Indian territory of strategic and political significance. At the same time, the Army was to deny similar territory in Pakistan to India. This was the mission, to achieve which the planners worked day and night and they succeeded in producing a very good plan indeed’.

“The plan, it appears, revolved around a counter offensive to be launched by a Corps with an armoured division and two infantry divisions. After its initial attack, if need be, this force was to be reinforced with more infantry and armour as a result of regrouping. The remainder of the Army was to perform mainly a holding role.

“…There appears to have been heated discussions on the timing of launching the counter offensive. One school of thought presumably led by the Chief of the General Staff, believed that the reaction to an Indian invasion of East Pakistan must start with an all-out offensive by the strike Corps, but it seems that he did not persist sufficiently in getting his view point accepted. The second school maintained that holding formations must first carry out preliminary operations to fix the enemy and to divert his attention to these operations in order to facilitate the subsequent launching of the offensive.

The plan approved was the latter one, consisting of preliminary operations followed by counter-offensive.

“…The plan produced by the General Staff, on the whole, was a good plan by any standard of judgement. It was most creditable for the planners that in face of Indian superiority, they had been able to muster so much reserve. The plan itself was bold, simple and easy to implement. There was also a tinge of gamble in it but all this suited the Pakistani character. General Yahya Khan called it a unique plan. The officers who knew the plan were most enthusiastic about it and were certain that it would succeed if launched on time and as a whole.”

Later on, Fazal Muqeem Khan continues:

“In short the preliminary plan had created a favourable situation for the counter-offensive to be launched. It would also be remembered that this was the most crucial time for our troops in East Pakistan where a success in West Pakistan would have galvanized the hard pressed garrisons in East Pakistan. No orders had however been issued to the reserve Corps for launching their counter offensive.

“…From December 7 onwards the pressure to launch a counter-offensive started mounting on the COS Army. The Director of Military Operations and his Deputy continued warning him that time was slipping by and gradually the initiative was being snatched away by India … After 33 Division had been split — a most unwise decision – the counter offensive plan had been revised and in anticipation of orders to launch the operation, the DMO and his Staff sat for whole night on December 12 and produced the operational instructions for the revised counter offensive plan. At last on December 13, at 9 A.M. the COS gave his approval for the attack to go ahead. Operational instructions were at once placed before him and after his signature, were flown by special air courier to all concerned. The attack was to go on the morning of December 16. Later it was postponed for 24 hours.

“On the evening of December 16, during a normal briefing, the COS abruptly said: ‘freeze Tikka’, and the loyal staff ‘froze’ the offensive without any argument. This was the same time when the President was broadcasting to the nation that, by accepting a ceasefire in East Pakistan they had lost only a battle and not the war and was assuring the people that war would continue.”

As far as the Indian strategy was concerned, in the East, it was a complete success, in that, East Pakistan was fully liberated and a new country Bangladesh was created In the West, the strategy of offensive defence comprised largerly remaining on the defensive all along the front and launching a few offensives, with a view to tying down the Pakistani forces and preventing them from making any worthwhile gains. Thus, in Jammu and Kashmir, largely, local offensives were undertaken to improve the defensive posture and these had generally succeeded. In the plains sector opposite Jammu-Pathankot-Gurdaspur, it was planned to launch a major offensive towards Gujarat-Marala Headworks-Shakargarh Bulge with a view to securing the line up to the Marala-Ravi link canal. This would remove the threat to the lines of communication of Jammu and Kashmir, and at the same time he down the Pakistani GHQ reserve in the North. In the Punjab, an adequate reserve comprising 1 Armoured Division was retained to counter any actions of the Pakistani Southern GHQ reserve and to undertake an offensive if an opportunity offered itself. Further South, in Rajasthan, a limited offensive was undertaken with a view to tying down the Pakistani forces in the area. In the implementation of the strategy, the Indians could have been more aggressive and vigorous. Due to the Pakistani attack in the Chhamb Sector, the planned offensive towards Gujarat and Marala Head works could not take place. In the Shakargarh Bulge, while the possibility of a Pakistani riposte was always there, it is for consideration whether a concentrated and deeper thrust, would not have automatically engaged the Pakistani reserve and thus prevented them from undertaking a counter offensive elsewhere. At the same time, it must be remembered that Pakistan could concentrate greater armour strength in the Sector.

While 54 Infantry Division was reasonably aggressive, the same cannot be said of the other formations of the Corps. All that was achieved was that, only the main covering position was contacted and engaged, and the Pakistani reserve did not really come into play. In the Punjab, there is no excuse for the reverses in the Ferozepur and Fazilka areas; and the situtation could have become quite dangerous, if the Pakistanis had fully exploited the opportunities that came their way. Further South in the Rajasthan Sector, it is for consideration whether a stronger offensive in one of the two Sectors (Jaisalmer of Barmer) and a basically defensive posture in the other Sector, would not have been more advantageous. As it happened, the main defences at Nayachor were contacted, but the Green Belt could not be reached. In the other Sector (jaisalmer), what could have developed into a very embarrassing situation, was prevented by the timely and effective counter-action by the Indian Air Force.

On the whole, the Indian strategy in the West generally succeeded, in that it prevented the Pakistanis from achieving their objectives. However, the results could have been more worthwhile, if the strategy was more vigorously implemented.

It will be recalled that the United States Seventh Fleet entered the Bay of Bengal towards the later stages of the campaign, ostensibly, to help in evacuating the Pakistani army from the East. It came to light later that the American intention in despatching the Fleet, was to send a message to the Indians, that they would not tolerate overrunning or dismembering of West Pakistan by the Indians, after completing their task in East Pakistan. Mr. Henry Kissinger, the United States Secretary of State, revealed this, in unambiguous terms in his Book, ‘The White House Years’: “In explaining the purpose of the fleet movement to Me! Laird, I pointed out that we recognized the Indian occupation of East Pakistan as an accomplished fact; our objective was to scare off an attack on West Pakistan,” The Anderson papers also bring out this aspect. However, it must be clarified, that the Indian intention was never to prosecute major offensive operations in the West or dismember West Pakistan. Right from the outset, it was made clear that the Indian intention was only to help the Bengalis liberate themselves in the East. Thus, as soon as the task in the East was accomplished by the Indian Armed Forces, the Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi announced a ceasefire on December 17 and terminated all operations. Under the circumstances, it is somewhat intriguing that the United States should have chosen to interfere in the war at all. The tilt towards Pakistan, culminating in the despatch of the Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal, created such an adverse impact on the Indian mind of American intentions, that it cannot be erased for a long time to come. When an oppressed people were .struggling for liberation from what they considered to be foreign yoke and when India had explored all possible avenues to avert war, the American stand of supporting the oppressor (Pakistan) became difficult to understand for the Indians.

Defensive Operations

As has been brought out earlier, Pakistan launched major attacks in really two Sectors, namely Punch and Chhamb. It has also been brought out that the role of the Indian Forces in Jammu and Kashmir was basically defensive. Different lessons emerge in the two Sectors, in Punch, it was a successful defensive battle, while in the Chhamb Sector, the planning and conduct of the defensive battle left much to be desired.

In the case of Punch, Pakistan concentrated and launched a force of over a division, with a view to capturing Punch. Apart from normal intelligence reports, the concentration of the forces could be observed by the defenders over a period of time; and hence, it could be stated, that they were forewarned. As far as the Pakistani plan of attack was concerned, they had quite rightly assessed the ground of tactical importance and planned for its early capture. If they had succeeded, they could have made things difficult for the Indian side. However, in the execution of the plan, they did not display adequate determination and aggressiveness. They had also not taken measures to interfere with the movement of the Indian reserves. Their infiltration operation which preceded the main attack, also did not achieve its objective.

On the other hand, the Indian side, having got timely warning of the enemy’s likely intentions, took necessary measures to reinforce Punch, in good time. 33 Infantry Brigade of 39 Infantry Division was inducted into the Sector although it meant depriving 39 infantry Division of Its punch. Prior to the arrival of this Brigade, the local Brigade (93 Infantry Brigade), was somewhat thin on the ground, defending a large sized Brigade Sector, with little depth. However, as troops of 33 Infantry Brigade started arriving, the important localities were reinforced and necessary depth was provided on the major approaches. As far as the conduct of the battle was concerned, the defenders on the important Picquets such as Picquet 405, gave a tough fight and repulse repeated onslaughts. They were assisted by their battalion and Brigade Commanders, by timely reinforcements of their localities or counter attacks as required. As far as the enemy’s infiltration operation was concerned, although initially it succeeded, the infiltrators were thrown out by successful attacks launched by the defenders, with the reinforcements that they received, such as the attack by 13 Mahar on Thanpir. Thus, by a combination of good intelligence, timely reinforcement and effective fighting, the Indian Forces frustrated the Pakistani attempt at capturing Punch.

In the case of Chhamb, the Pakistani intention of launching a major attack was not known to the Indians. One of the units (8 Jammu and Kashmir Militia) which was holding ground, had been reporting about enemy activities, but it would appear that a careful assessment was not made by the higher formation. Thus, Pakistan was able to concentrate a division plus, including Armour and Artillery, and launched these forces into an attack, more or less surprising the defender.

As far as the defender was concerned, as has been brought out, the original plan was to initially occupy defences further behind in the Troti-Dhon Chak area; and at the outbreak of hostilities, to launch an attack with 10 Infantry Division towards Gujarat. Subsequently, even after the task was clarified by no less a person than the Chief of the Army Staff on November 1, 1971, a forward posture to defend the Chhamb area was not adopted till December 1. As the Division was obsessed with its offensive task, it did not make the necessary defensive preparations, to be able to take on an attack by the enemy, in case he launched the offensive first. The deployment of the Division was defective, there was no overhead protection to the defences and there were inadequate minefields. Thus, when the attack did come on. December 3, 1971, the Division was ill-prepared to counter it. Pakistan was, therefore, able to gain some initial success aid at one time, the position of 10 Infantry Division looked desperate.

However, due to the timely intervention by the Corps Commander and launching of determined counter-attacks, the enemy was halted generally on the line of the Munawarwali Tawi river. Otherwise, the enemy might well have succeeded in advancing to and capturing Akhnoor, which could have created an uneviable situation for the Indians, in that he could have cut off the entire area to the West of Chenab river from the rest of India.

The only other area where Pakistan launched a fairly sizeable offensive and succeeded, was in the Fazilka area. Here, he basically used the holding formation for the attack. However, due to inept fighting by the local formation, the enemy was able to make some worthwhile gains. After considerable difficulty, the enemy was held from making further advances. It later transpired that Pakistan was to launch a major offensive in this area with its GHQ reserve.

Offensive Operations

The main offensives were undertaken by the Indian Forces opposite the Jammu and Rajasthan Sectors. These were launched by 1 Corps and Southern Command respectively. Neither of the offensives went in as originally planned; and had to be curtailed due to enemy initiatives and commitment/depletion of offensive forces in the defensive battle. In the case of 1 Corps, an Infantry Brigade each, had to be sent to Punch to restore the situation in that place and to Ramgarh Sector for the effective defence of that area. In the case of Southern Command, 12 Infantry Division’s offensive had to be called off due to the enemy action in the Longewala area: and only 11 Infantry Division could undertake its planned offensive.

As far as 1 Corps was concerned, the aim was to remove the threat to India’s logistic base at Pathankot and to the vital communications into Jammu and Kashmir. The Corps was to advance into Pakistan territory and capture area Zaffarwal-Dhamthal-Narowal-Pasrur; and to destroy maximum Armour of the enemy. Along with 1 Corps, 26 Infantry Division and 10 Infantry Division of 15 Corps, were also to undertake offensives into Pakistan. However, as has been brought out, one of these had to be given up (10 Infantry Division), while the scope of the other had to be reduced (26 Infantry Division and 1 Corps), due to enemy action.

While 1 Corps had superiority in infantry, Pakistan had an edge in armour. Further, although 1 Corps initially had a defensive task but was ordered to go on the offensive at the outbreak of the war, the formation all along had to cater for a likely offensive by the enemy with his 6 Armoured Division and an infantry division, anywhere in his Sector, particularly in the Ramgarh area, as its (l Corps) own offensive was to take place East of the Degh Nadi. Further, two Brigades of its 39 Infantry Division had to be committed to defensive tasks elsewhere (Punch and Ramgarh respectively).

Consequently, major changes had to be made in the original offensive plans of 1 Corps, in that, 39 Infantry Division had only one Brigade available to it for its offensive. Further, when the offensive was launched by the Corps, it had to contend with extensive minefields, of which adequate information was not available, nor the requisite mechanical resources to get through them speedily. As a result, the advance of the Corps became slow and sluggish. When the progress was not satisfactory, the Corps had to switch over 2 Independent Armoured Brigade to 36 Infantry Division Sector. However, this did not help much either, in speeding up the advance. Infantry divisions did not have the integral Armour and Regiments of the Independent Armoured Brigades to undertake this role. More concentrated use of Armour would no doubt have resulted in accelerating the pace of advance. Further, the enemy had gained time to reinforce the Sector with two brigades from his Southern Force. The net result was that 1 Corps could not secure even Zaffarwal or Shakargarh, leave alone, get to the depth objectives. However, it was able to achieve its primary aim of making the logistic base at Pathankot and the line of communications into Jammu and Kashmir, secure.

It was found in these operations, that Pakistan had made aggressive use of her Artillery and sometimes of her Armour also. Further, the minefields laid by her Engineers prevented speedy or deep advance into her territory. It was also found that Indian infantry could not hold on to its objectives in many cases, due to inability of Armour to fetch up within a reasonable time frame.

As far as the offensive in Rajasthan was concerned, as has been brought out, only 11 Infantry Division could undertake its task. Though reinforced with a Brigade from 12 Infantry Division, it could not get up to the green belt. However, the Division was able to secure up to Parbat Ali, which considering the difficult nature of the terrain, is a reasonable achievement. These operations have brought out what considerable scope exists for operations in the desert, provided suitable equipment was available.


As the Indian Forces were to adopt a basically defensive stance in the Western Sector, the availability of accurate intelligence with regard to the enemy deployment and reserves, became all the more important. The location of enemy formations which were assigned a defensive role, was generally available. However, what was more important was the location and movements of Pakistan’s reserves. It is these reserves that would he used by the enemy either to mount an offensive or a counter-offensive.

It was generally known that Pakistan had earmarked forces for defensive operations as under:–

  • Jammu and Kashmir – two Infantry Divisions, including 12 Infantry Division (one regular and five POK Brigades) and 23 Infantry Division (two regular and two POK Brigades). As shown, these divisions had additional brigades, and some of the brigades had more than the normal quota of battalions. In addition, the Karakoram and Gilgit Scouts were available for defence of the Northern areas.
  • Sialkot Sector – Pakistan 1 Corps with two Infantry Divisions (8 Division of four brigades and 15 Division) and an Independent Armoured Brigade (8).
  • Lahore Sector – Pakistan 4 Corps with 10 and 11 Infantry Divisions and 3 Independent Armoured Brigade.
  • Multan Sector – Pakistan 2 Corps with one Infantry Division (33) and two Independent Brigades (25 and 105).
  • Sindh Sector – 18 Infantry Division with two Armoured Regiments under command.

It was also known that Pakistan had certain reserves available. These were 6 Armoured Division and 17 Infantry Division grouped under her 1 Corps; and 1 Armoured Division and 33 Infantry Division grouped under her 2 Corps during peace time. At this time, 17 and 33 Infantry Divisions were reported to be under raising. In addition, Pakistan also had 7 Infantry Division, which could be used either with 1 or 2 Corps, or in Jammu and Kashmir. Information with regard to the location and movement of all these reserves was vital, as the employment of the Indian Forces depended on these. However, intelligence in this regard was either not forthcoming, or was faulty. It was reported that 7 Infantry Division had moved to Hajipir area, whereas itwas discovered much later that it had moved to the Changa Manga forest South of Lahore. Similarly, the location of 1 Armoured Division was not known for a long time after the war commenced. Equally, the movement of some Pakistan infantry brigade from the Southern area to the Sialkot Sector in the North during the war, came as a surprise.

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After the war started, identifications and other information obtained through radio intercepts or interrogation revealed that the troops launched in the Punch Sector belonged to 12 Infantry Division. Similarly, it came out that in the Chhamb Sector, elements of 23 Division and 17 Division were launched with some Armour from 6 Armoured Division, in addition to the integral Armour. However, no information was available with regard to Pakistan 1 Armoured Division and 7 infantry Division, for a longtime. Much later, that is, during the later stages of the war, it came to light that these formations were to be launched on a major offensive in the Fazilka-Ganganagar Sector. Fortunately for the Indians, their own 1 Armoured Division was suitably located to take on this threat, if it had materialized. After the war, it came to light that Pakistan planned to launch a sizeable offensive in the Amritsar Sector also, but for various reasons, this did not materialize.

The Army’s resources of intelligence, only enabled it to obtain information of the forces immediately opposite. It had no way of finding out information of forces located in depth and interior areas. The only agency which had the resources to obtain such information was the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). For the future, it is essential that this agency organizes itself effectively, to obtain reasonably accurate and timely intelligence, of the location and movements of enemy formations. Needless to stress, the entire plan for war and its outcome depend for their success to a considerable extent on such intelligence.

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