Military & Aerospace

1971 War: The Battle of Fazilka
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Fazilka, a prominent border town in Ferozepur district, Punjab, lies at the end of a rectangle formed by the international border with a corner resting on the Sulaimanke headworks in Pakistan. These headworks tap the remaining waters of the Sutlej, from where a complex of canals emanate from both side of the river and irrigate sandy tracts of Pakistan.

Defence of the headworks has always been one of the most important commitments of Pakistan’s military planners. Their proximity-1.5 kilometres or so from Indian territory made the area very vulnerable and largely influenced Pakistani concepts of its defence. Pakistan had no choice but to gain some cushion of depth by extending operations into Indian territory at the very outset. This was achieved in 1965 and was likely to be repeated in the next encounter, especially when the initiative for hostilities lay with Pakistan.

Since Pakistan had committed its strike force north of the Sutlej in the general area of Khemkaran in 1965, the importance of Fazilka was later reduced to a local level operation. In 1971, Fazilka assumed a special significance for Indian military planners because of the potential threat posed by Pakistan’s concentration of forces, comprising 1 Armoured Division and one or two infantry divisions opposite in the general area of Montgomery-Okara. This force could be employed to develop thrusts towards the sensitive Indian depth areas of Bhatinda-Faridkot either across the Sutlej between the Hussainiwala and Sulaimanke headworks, in the general areas of Mamdot and Jalalabad, or along the open southern flank in the Ganganagar-Sarupsar area. In either eventuality, Fazilka was an essential pivot at the juncture of two flanks for launching a counter-offensive against an invasion of Indian territory. 67 Infantry Brigade Group under Brig Surjit Singh Chowdhary, an infantry officer, was accordingly allocated for the defence of Fazilka. He was assigned the task of containing the Pakistani bridgehead at Sulaimanke and defending Fazilka at all costs. Chowdhary’s group was housed in improvized accommodation in the Fazilka-Mamdot complexes, and as it had trained in the area it may be assumed that it knew the parameters of the task involved and the local terrain quite well.

His resources comprised three infantry battalions, one field regiment and one medium battery by way of artillery support with connected administrative units. He was, in addition, allotted one independent armoured squadron of Sherman-75s from the Infantry School equipped with obsolete tanks of World War II vintage and of dubious mechanical reliability. To offset this disadvantage, another armoured squadron equipped with T-54 tanks was also placed under his command. Two battalions worth of the Border Security Force were holding BOPs along the border with about two companies in reserve in each case.

Pakistan had 105 Infantry Brigade Group deployed opposite Chowdhary in defence of the Sulaimanke headworks. Although military intelligence about detailed enemy dispositions was rather scanty, it could be safely assumed that leaving one battalion’s worth in close defence of the headworks the Pakistani commander would endeavour to develop thrusts towards Fazilka so as to extend his bridgehead, preferably from the headworks side. For this operation, he had the offensive potentiality of about two infantry battalions and a squadron or two of armour supported by artillery deployed on the Pakistan side of the Sutlej. In addition, one or two Ranger groups of paramilitary forces deployed on the border could also be employed to support this offensive.

Fazilka was a vital communication centre from where road and rail arteries ran to Ferozepur, Malout and Abohar. If it fell into Pakistani hands this would offer options to develop various variables of thrust lines into Indian territory. It was imperative that in any defence plan the security of Fazilka should be assured at all costs.

There were four main approaches to Fazilka from Pakistan. Starting from the north, one from Muazzam running along the Shamsha nullah was the shortest, about six to eight kilometres long the second was along the main road from Sulaimanke to Fazilka with subsidiary parallel tracks, the third along the dismantled railway track from Amruka station, and the fourth from the south along the main Shitriwala-Fazilka track.

The countryside was generally flat, with occasional sand dunes under cotton cultivation. The going on the whole was good for tracks and wheels except for the narrow strip near the creek running from BP 259 to Qabul Shah. As a result of the 1965 war experience, an anti-tank obstacle in the form of the Sabana distributary with attendant fortifications was constructed to cover all the approaches from Muazzam. Its alignment was parallel to the international boundary at a depth of about 4,500 to 5,400 metres. In addition, some strongpoints were developed ahead of the distributary to dominate the area between the border and the obstacle. These points were designed to hold out against tank rushes.

To use the Sabuna distributary and its fortifications, the defence of Fazilka had a forward poise on the distributary with three battalions deploying their own forward strongpoints dominate the territory between the border and the main defence line, and with adequate depth to contain any likely penetration of the distributary defences. Since the distributary ran parallel to the boundary, the strongpoints could be supported at the depth mentioned above from the main line of defence ease, and as such had considerable staying power. Infiltration with through the strongpoints could be contained at the ditch line and suitably dealt with in the conduct of battle. This was the original plan, which was changed to conform to higher directions just before the 1971 conflict.

As part of the overall concept of the XI Corps defence plan, Chowdhary was required to organize a fortress defence in the Fazilka sector. He organized the built-up area of Fazilka town into a fortress with about two battalions and put forward 3 Assam as a covering force along with 15 Rajput, less two companies, in the Shatriwala area with about one battalion’s worth of a composite BSF formation. 3 Assam was to man the strong points of Choriwala Chisti, Pakka and Qadir Bakh with one company each and Jhangar with a platoon. Choriwala Chisti and Pakka were developed into formidable company-defended localities with antitank moats and minefields of considerable depth. Battalion headquarters along with one company were to’ man the bridges along the Sulaimanke-Fazilka and Boriwala-Fazilka axes.

The Sherman squadron was deployed to cover the Muazzam approach, with early warning elements of about one platoon’s worth in Muazzam town itself. The T-54 squadron was split up, with the squadron less two troops near Fazilka town disposed southwards, and the two troops located in the Chananwala area. These plans were war-gamed and approved by the corps commander, Rawlley, and the GOC F Sector, Maj Gen Ram Singh. The brigade group moved to Fazilka on 9 October as part of the precautionary measures the Indian Army adopted against pre-emptive action on the part of Pakistan.

In the intermediate period from 9 October to the start of hostilities, Chowdhary developed his defences by strengthening obstacles, laying mines and similar activities. He was supposed to rehearse various contingencies of counterattacks for a defensive battle. I visited F Sector about 25 October and saw the preparation of bridges for demolition deep in our territory, so defence-oriented were our planning and preparations.

Ram Singh discussed two of his offensive plans for the capture of the headworks. One envisaged a frontal armour assault along the restricted space between the bund and the Eastern Sidioya Canal funnelling towards the headworks from Pakka, and the other crossing the Sutlej upstream and developing a thrust towards the canal colony from the rear and thence to the headworks. For this contingency planning, he could muster no more than a couple of battalions and an assorted grouping of two to three squadrons of armour. Both these plans were contingent on Pakistan remaining dormant in other parts of the sector, but this could not be the case in view of the limited potions it had.

I told Ram Singh my views after the briefing. I felt both plans suffered from serious drawbacks. The first could perhaps work if the initiative was in Indian hands. But since hostilities were to start on Pakistani initiative it would have been suicidal to attempt such a move along the most obvious approach. The second plan involved crossing the river obstacle into uncharted country full of tall grass and then making a long detour in enemy territory.

This could perhaps work with a larger force than Ram Singh could muster, but in the context of the accepted defensive posture and the creation of this attacking force out of troops already utilized in defence it would have seriously weakened the sector, especially when the force across the river could not be expected to restore the lost balance by a timely movement to the sector to meet a counteroffensive from the southern flank.

About 1820 hours on 3 December, Pakistan started systematic shelling of all the BSF posts.[1] Although shell bursts could be heard at brigade headquarters, actual information about the areas shelled started coming in about 1830 hours. The war was on. After about half an hour the officer commanding 3 Assam reported Jhangar under attack. Chowdhary at once ordered his troops to pull back from the position, leaving behind marginal strength to maintain contact with the enemy.

About 1930 hours, he reported that the Beriwala bridge had been attacked, and soon after announced its occupation by the enemy. The defences had fallen rather rapidly as the bridge was held by an ad hoc platoon created with clerks and military transport drivers. The Sabuna distributary defences had been pierced by an ingenious infiltration attack, while our strong points at Pakka and Qadir Baksh were still holding. About 2030 hours, 3 Assam confirmed that the Pakistanis were occupying the distributary from the creek to about 250 yards south of the bridge.

As part of his contingency planning, Chowdhary ordered the T-54 squadron, less two troops and D Company 4 Jat, to counterattack immediately and throw back the enemy west of the distributary. The counterattack materialized about 2330 hours in between the distributary and the Sabuna drain from the southeast. Some tanks were bogged down between the start line and the objective while three were destroyed by grenades and medium artillery fire.

The counterattack was only partly successful in that D Company 4 Jat managed to secure the area of the outfall where the distributary took off from the creek and the bund about 135 metres from there towards the bridge. By midnight, the situation at the bridgehead stabilized, with Pakistan holding approximately 135 metres north and 320 metres south of the bridge. About this time, one troop of T-54s was ordered to move from Pakka to Mandi Hazura Singh.

Since establishing a foothold in the area of the Beriwala bridge had opened the way to Fazilka, and no activity was reported south of Kerian, Chowdhary ordered 15 Rajput less two companies to move about 2030 hours to Fazilka and strengthen the fortress defences. The BSF element earlier located along with 15 Rajput were left at Shatriwala under its second in command. Reports of attacks on BSF posts trickled in throughout the night. Some of them were overrun and others were asked to pull back to depth localities on the creek and the distributary. About 2130 hours, some tank noise was heard developing from Dab Wali Sharaq towards Choriwala Chisti and appeared leading to the establishment of a roadblock along the Sulaimanke-Fazilka road.

The strongpoint at Pakka was attacked about midnight, and the commander of 3 Assam, fearing his troops would be trapped by the block, ordered the strong points at Pakka, Choriwala Chisti and Qadir Baksh to withdraw to the distributary defences without giving fight. Since most of the troops came back, this proved that the roadblock was only imaginary. In fact, most of the casualties were caused by clashes between our withdrawing troops and those manning the distributary defences.

By the first light of 4 December, when the situation became clear, it transpired that 3 Assam was holding the distributary from approximately 320 metres south of the Beriwala bridge to Kerian with depleted strength as a large number of troops were still missing. All localities west of the distributary, including BSF BOPs, had fallen to the enemy with the exception of Muazzam and three in the Yusuf Bhami enclave. 15 Rajput, less one company, had by then taken over the defence of Fazilka town.

The adverse effect of the initial reverses now started telling on Chowdhary. He ordered the demolition of about 23 bridges along the main and village roads over the Sabuna distributary and the creek. This was done in the early hours of the morning. He ordered the withdrawal of D Company 4 Jat from contact with the Pakistani lodgment area near the Beriwala bridge and halfheartedly moved two platoons of infantry and a troop of Sherman tanks to cover the creek against infiltration. He also 4 Jat, less two companies, to counterattack and ordered eliminate the lodgment by the first light of 5 December.

4 Jat, with a squadron of T-54s less two troops, assaulted the lodgment area about 2130 hours on 4 December from the creek towards Gurmukha Hera village and the right shoulder. Although the village was captured in the first phase of the operation, the attack could not make further headway because-of strong resistance from Pakistani artillery and machine gun fire. The battalion suffered 14 killed, 21 wounded and eight missing in this attack.

There was some enemy activity in the south near the Bandiwala bridge on the distributary, but nothing of consequence. The BOPs at Muazzam and north of it were withdrawn. The fortress was further strengthened by the induction of one field-company to compensate for pulling out the Jats for the counterattack.

In daylight on 5 December, 4 Jat consolidated its hold on Gurmukha Hera and the drain, and to make up for its casualties one of its companies was moved in from Fazilka. On the night of 5/6 December, a determined attack was launched on the Beriwala bridge position by 4 Jat supported by two troops of T-54s and considerable artillery concentrations. Some leading elements under Maj Narayan Singh managed to reach the objectives and emboldened the battalion commander to give a success signal. But in the ensuing hand-to-hand clash Narayan Singh was killed. Some assaulting elements clung to the foothold established on the right shoulder while the rest withdrew to the drain, having suffered heavy casualties.

Giving the Pakistani version of the fight, Fazal Muqeem writes: “That night in another counterattack, the Indian tanks closed up to two yards of 6 FF positions after having destroyed all the antitank guns in the area. They were only repulsed by artillery fire and 3.5 Energa grenades. During all these fiercely fought battles, Commander 6 FF, and particularly its B Company led by courageous Maj Shaber Sharif, rose to the extreme heights of bravery and skilful leadership.” Five 8 Cavalry tanks were bogged down here, and four of them were destroyed by enemy artillery and infantry antitank weapons. 4 Jat suffered 19 killed, including one officer, and 45 wounded.

Chowdhary had compounded three counterattacks by 6 December without making any dent on the Pakistani lodgment. Two of his battalions, 3 Assam and 4 Jat, had suffered heavy casualties and were dispirited. The T-54 squadron, having lost several tanks, was reduced to only troop strength. Most Bops had fallen back. By destroying all the road and foot bridges over the distributary and the creek, Chowdhary had jeopardised himself and his troops and confined his action to the small area limited between the distributary and the Fazilka defences.

The higher command began to cast doubts on Chowdhary’s ability to handle the battle. It was proposed that he should be deprived of his command, but it was ultimately decided to let him continue rather than demoralize the brigade further. But Maj Gen Ram Singh, the General Officer Commanding is charge, moved to the area accompanied by his artillery adviser, Brig G S Reen, and virtually took over the battle.

From 6 to 8 December, Ram Singh had an opportunity to make a fresh appraisal of the situation and plan a recovery. The brigade was in contact with no more than a company or two of 6 FF in the restricted lodgement area, and this was suitably contained by the depth position along the creek and the drain. 3 Assam was holding the distributary reasonably well.

Apart from minor patrol activity against the distributary defences, the Pakistanis made no effort to cross the obstacle. Shatriwala on the southern flank was still holding out. It also became known that Patistan was holding the Dab-Wali Sharaqi and Bham Jagga areas in strength. Some pressure was also developing from the north from the general area of Muazzam.

Ram Singh immediately started reinforcing the sector at the cost of other equally important sectors not yet in contact. The fortress was further strengthened with about two battalions of infantry, and the weakened squadron of T-54 tanks was replaced by a fresh unit. There was time and enough resources to clear the lodgement and carry the battle into Pakistani territory, but for some inexplicable reason the general and his adviser decided to repeat the earlier counterattack plan, but with newer troops and greater weight of artillery and tank support.

On the night of 8/9 December, 15 Rajput, supported by two medium, three field and two mortar units and a squadron of tanks, attacked the Beriwala bridge lodgment about 0130 hours from the same direction as the earlier counterattack. The Pakistani 6 FF troops knew the mechanics of the Indian frontal attack. They chopped up the assaulting echelons with crippling machine gun and artillery fire and the fourth high-power- directed attack also failed. The Pakistani defenders openly challenged the attackers in. taunting tones. To Ram Singh’s credit, it must be said that he was well up with the attacking troops and was wounded by enemy shelling.

The Chief was visibly annoyed with the conduct of the Fazilka battle and decided on immediate changes in the command. Brig Reen was asked to take over from Chowdhary till a suitable substitute was found. Maj Gen Onkar Singh Kalkat,. a renowned fighting soldier, was recalled from a backseat job to take over the sector from the wounded Ram Singh and Brig Piara Singh, a tried war veteran who was cooling his heels as Director NCC, was picked to replace Chowdhary. On the night of 10/11 December 3/11 Gorkha Rifles’ mortar position was attacked on the outskirts of Fazilka town itself. Pressure was building up from the north. Salem Shah strongpoint, occupied by 3/11 Gorkha Rifles, was attacked the same night.

Piara Singh took over on 11 December, but Kalkat was moved to another division whose commander had been seriously wounded. Ram Singh stayed in command of the sector, but had a smaller say in the conduct of the battle. Seasoned soldier that he was, Piara Singh at once sized up the situation, realized that frontal attacks on the Pakistan lodgement were futile, and that the chances of a fruitful offensive across the distributary had been barred by the indiscriminate destruction of the bridges across it.

He at once ordered the exploitation of the only open northern flank towards Muazzam. Accordingly, Muazzam was secured by 3/11 Gorkha Rifles and Alam Shah by 15 Rajput by first lighton 12 December. Both were found to be held by Rangers with a weak fighting potential.

On the night of 13/14 December, giving way to persistent pleading by the commanding officer of 4 Jat that it should be allowed to redeem its honour, Piara Singh attacked the Beriwala lodgement area for the fifth time with the Jats. The attack encountered stiff resistance and failed to make any headway, with the attackers once again suffering heavy casualties. 1S Rajput had captured the Gazi post complex of Pakistan defences in the north, taking a platoon’s worth of prisoners and plenty of equipment, including one Sherman tank in running condition. Things were improving though the planned linkup from the Alam Shah side could not be effected.

To consolidate his gains in the Gazi complex, Piara Singh inducted one Sherman troop to increase 15 Rajput’s antitank potential. About 1515 hours on 14 December, Pakistan counter- attacked the Gazi post. Within few minutes, 15 Rajput disintegrated and fell back. Piara Singh and Rawat, his affiliated artillery regiment commander, rushed to the scene of action but failed to rally 15 Rajput back to the objective. Piara Singh rushed to it with one platoon of 3/11 Gorkha Rifles hastily mustered from Muazzam and found the Gazi post without any trace of the enemy. He tried in vain to get 15 Rajput to reoccupy it. Disgusted, he returned and in the process recovered an RCL gun abandoned by the retreating troops.

On the night of 14/15 December, the Nurshah complex of BOPs was lost and the BSF elements withdrew with the loss of some automatics and machine guns. An adventurous officer of Pakistani Armoured Corps, Maj Majamil Warsi, was apprehended roaming about on the outskirts of Fazilka town and made some interesting revelations. While being taken to brigade headquarters blindfolded, he informed his captors that there was no need to cover his eyes as he knew every street of Fazilka like the palm of his hand. When questioned, he replied that through the courtesy of BSF units manning the border he saw one Indian film a month before in the town. He then named one which had been screened only four days before the outbreak of hostilities.

It was apparent that the prisoner had seen the Indian defence layout firsthand. He revealed that Pakistan 105 Infantry Brigade Group, operationally responsible for the area, had no plans to take the Fazilka fortress or do anything else of the kind. Their task was confined to seizing such tactical ground as would improve their defensive posture as part of an offensive defence corps plan. This had been amply achieved for them by the Indian destruction of bridges over the Sabuna distributary, thereby resulting in self-surrender of our offensive capability. The broad Pakistani deployment as disclosed was: 18 Baluch in the Dab-Wali Sharagi area, 7 Punjab in Bhamb Jagga and 6 FF opposite Beriwala and Nur Mohammed, and a battalion worth of Rangers opposite Muazzam and the Gazi post. A squadron of armour, mostly upgunned Shermans, with adequate artillery was in support.

Having seen the enemy’s hand, Piara Singh decided to exploit the weak Pakistani Ranger wing so as to develop a threat to the headworks from the north. But his troops had suffered casualties to the extent of 190 killed, 425 wounded and 196 missing, and having gone from defeat to defeat were much too dispirited to be put into an offensive thrust again. Even the fighting leadership of this illustrious soldier could not restore the life of this demoralized soldiery.

But, undaunted by these difficulties, he continued to prepare for a turn of the tide and urged his defence-oriented troops to be more aggressive. The ceasefire however brought hostilities to a close too early for him-to show results. Nevertheless, within a day or two from 15 December, he recaptured part of the Nurshah complex, and mauled an 18 Baluch patrol badly opposite Kerian and gained some equipment. Thus ended a fine military career, albeit disappointingly, as he retired soon after.

I was sent to Fazilka after the ceasefire to identify the causes of our poor showing. Piara Singh was an old comrade-in-arms and I had admired his combat sense and courage in battle from the days we had fought shoulder to shoulder in the crucial battle of Khemkaran in 1965. He showed me around the battlefield and allowed me free contact with those intimately connected with the Sabuna distributary clash, as also with those who supported them in one way or the other.

I did not meet Chowdhary as he had been relieved by then, and I hardly knew him earlier. But the impress of his personality was all over the battle, and it was rather unflattering. But he had my sympathy as it was the fashion to run down a failure and find scapegoats. My aim was to find out the truth.

I feel the higher command was faulty in assigning such diver- gent tasks that Chowdhary did not clearly see where to fight his battle. His primary task was to defend Fazilka with six companies at all costs, and then to contain the Pakistani bridgehead at Sulaimanke if possible. The defence of Fazilka town with almost half his resources was mandatory, leaving the rest to carry out the next possible task. The only way to contain the bridgehead was to lean on it with a tight cordon so that it became impossible for the enemy to break out and develop a thrust to the sensitive Indian areas in the rear.

This task divided the brigade group into two parts separated by about 16 kilometres. Moreover, there was no guarantee that the Pakistani would present a restricted bridgehead. As later events proved, his deployment was suitably balanced on the centre as well as the wings to exploit the open flanks. It was as well that Chowdhary did not take the task seriously and dismissed it. He went on to the next task, to occupy the Sabuna distributary as part of the main defensive position to deny the approach to Sabuna.

The distributary and the concrete fortifications on it were constructed at considerable expense after the 1965 conflict with the sole aim of affording security to the cotton-rich agricultural tract in and around Fazilka. There were doubts whether the higher command wanted to defend this economically valuable territory or Fazilka town itself.

The distributary lay six miles from the town, and by no, stretch of imagination could the town defences be integrated with those of the distributary except in the loose terminology used in. assigning the task. Fearful of his open southern flank, Chowdhary detached about a battalion worth some 20 kilometres away at Shatriwala. Thus the initial defensive posture left his brigade group in three islands, separated from each other by ten to 20 kilometres outside the range of mutual support, and a more enterprising enemy could have tackled it piecemeal.

To crown it all, the higher command had given another task to the brigade: to be prepared to hold a covering position based on Chand Bhan drain. This visualized an overall withdrawal in the corps zone to obstacles somewhere deep in the rear. These conflicting tasks must have left the poor Brigadier utterly confused. He did not know whether to look forward or rearward. He obeyed these conflicting orders with no clear cut concept of the ensuing battle. For this, all the higher commanders up to the Army commander must accept the blame as Chowdhary’s plan was war gamed several times and accepted as such by the Indian generalship at successive levels.

The ditch-cum-bund concept of defence was tested in this sector for the first time. It visualized that the main battle would be fought on the distributary. To deny free access to the main ditch line to the enemy, some strongpoints which could withstand a battalion attack were to be organized to dominate the territory between the international border and the ditch-cum-bund line. To ensure that any piercing of the line was contained, some defences were necessary in depth, perhaps on the line of the Sabuna drain.

Within the constraints of three divergent requirements, Chowdhary committed 3 Assam to the ditch-cum-bund defences, but with lopsided priorities. He deployed three companies forward at strong points and left the main defence line, where the real battle was to be given, wear: with one company and some ad hoc elements mustered from cooks, clerks and drivers. Chowdhary’s allocation of troops was faulty, and worse was to follow.

Having occupied the strongpoints in requisite strength, he withdrew from them all at the first contact without a fight. The strongpoints were suitably fortified to enhance their defence potential and were capable of holding out on their own and acting as pivots for any counteraction on the part of our armour/infantry groups. Infiltration between the widely separated strong-points should have been expected and contingency plans to deal with such an eventuality should have been worked out. The piercing of the ditch-cum-bund defences seemed to have so unnerved the Brigadier that he retreated hastily from the strong- points, suffering unnecessary casualties, with the resultant demoralization of a failure at the very outset.

On the night of 3/4 December, immediately after reports that Pakistan had effected a lodgement in the Beriwala bridge area, Chowdhary ordered an immediate counterattack with two troops of tanks and a company of infantry, but this failed mainly because the tanks got bogged down. The counterattacks were supposed to have been rehearsed in the preparatory period. What sort of rehearsals were they when our own tanks bogged down on our side of the distributary, and in our own territory? The direction of the attack left little room for dispersion or manoeuvre as it was sandwiched between the distributary and the drain funnelling towards the objective, and this forced our troops to face enemy fire from the lodgement area frontally and resulted in crippling casualties.

So obsessed were the Indian commanders with the elimination of the Pakistan lodgment that between Chowdhary and Ram Singh five counterattacks were launched for this purpose. All failed miserably as troops were committed piecemeal in the expected direction and over ground having a funnelling effect on the assaulting troops. These unimaginative attacks resulted in inordinately heavy casualties and eroded Indian morale. On the other hand, our failures made heroes of the men of B Company 6 FF holding the lodgement. Indeed, they deserved the praise showered on them.

What was the overall effect of the lodgement on the conduct of the Fazilka battle? It was no more than 400 by 560 kilometres, with both shoulders held by us. There was a strongly defended locality on the drain as well as in Gurmukha Hera in depth which effectively contained any fruitful expansion of the bridge- head. Pakistan had shown no indication of wanting to exploit the lodgement. In fact, the strength of the Pakistani troops never increased to more than a company throughout the operations. The wanton destruction of 23 bridges over the distributary and the erosion of morale through successive failures and heavy casualties had destroyed the chances of a meaningful counteroffensive.

I met Brig Reen, who in later years was to become a self-proclaimed expert on ditch-cum-bund defences, and asked him how he subscribed to the stupidly executed counterattacks, especially when he was virtually in command of the brigade from 7 to 11 December. He told me that under orders from Gen Rawlley he was to command a task force created out of the sector reserves to retake Pakka.

For this, he had a plan in his pocket which visualized an attack on Pakka by an infantry battalion/armoured squadron group from the direction of the disused Fazilka-Amru railway line. From the pattern of the Pakistani defensive posture it may be said that this move could not have achieved success as it visualized the column proceeding towards Pakka in front of two Pakistani battalion-defended areas, thus presenting tank targets on the broad side within range of antitank weaponry. It was good that this plan never came out of his pocket.

The truth is that 67 Infantry Brigade was caught off balance in an initial defensive pose because of the conflicting requirements of its tasks. Undue importance was given to defence of the fortress while the distributary fortification prepared at considerable expense and effort was virtually left unoccupied. Very large resources of mines and other obstacle stores were wasted on the outskirts of the town, killing our own people, while forward strong points and the distributary defences were woefully denuded of these items. Fazilka was a casualty of the basic concept of fortress defence. The rest was due only to the inept conduct of a local battle.

It would have paid to be more aggressive in defence of our territory. This could have been achieved easily by holding the distributary with about a battalion plus and mustering the remainder of the brigade group so that the brigade commander could have gone over to the offensive with Bhamb Jagga as the objective. Having thus split Pakistan 105 Infantry Brigade Group in two, Chowdhary could have had the option of developing operations towards the headworks or Dab Wali Sharqi.

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This offensive-defensive move would have saved this rich agricultural tract from Pakistani occupation and prevented unnecessary casualties in personnel and the resultant erosion of morale in futile counterattacks. If the lodgment was an obsession with the higher command, it could have been dislodged by a manoeuvre from the northern flank through Nur Mohammed. But this was not to be as our military thinking was devoid of imagination.

Viewed in the context of the Pakistani counteroffensive against Foxtrot Sector on 15 December, it would be seen that while the emphasis and concentration of reserves had shifted to the Fazilka sector Tikka Khan could have had an easy run to his objectives. There was nothing Ram Singh could do about it.

It is now known that Tikka Khan was poised for a counter- offensive with deep objectives in Foxtrot Sector on about 13 December or so. Luckily for India, Abdul Hamid reduced its scope by splitting Pakistan 33 Infantry Division and diverting its formations towards the Sind sector. The scope of the Pakistani counteroffensive was reduced accordingly and was to have been launched on 15 December, but because of a holdup in crossing the river delay in induction in the launching area resulted in its postponement by 24 hours.

On 16 December, while Yahya Khan was telling his people that “by accepting ceasefire in East Pakistan they had lost only a battle and not a war,” implying thereby that the war would continue, his Chief of Army Staff Abdul Hamid ordered Freeze Tikka. The unilateral ceasefire offer by India had by then been accepted by Pakistan. As a result Foxtrot Sector, except Fazilka, was not involved in active operations.

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[1] Asian Recorder, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, “Diary of Events,” December 3, p. 10570. 

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