The presence in the general area of Montgomery-Okara-Bahawalpur of the Pakistan strike force, II Corps, consisting of 1 Armoured Division and 33 Infantry Division, and the possibility of building up this force with 7 Infantry Division, posed a potential threat to the sensitive Indian areas of Ganganagar-Suratgarh-Bhatinda, the southern flank, and Faridkot-Kotkapura in the centre. Up to 1965, the Pakistani strike force was known to consist only of 1 Armoured Division with one infantry division and was housed in the United States-made cantonment complex of Kharian.
Its employment was feasible only between the Chenab and the Ravi and the Sutiej. The conflict revealed that Pakistan had surreptitiously raised another armoured division, 6 Armoured, out of the US theatre reserve of tanks in the area. That endowed Pakistan with the capability of posing a threat on both sides of the Ravi. In the event, Ayub Khan used 1 Armoured Division in Khemkaran and 6 Armoured Division in the Sialkot sector. As a result, the Ferozepur-Fazilka-Ganganagar sectors were on a low priority up to 1965, and till then looked after by only one brigade group with some additional troops.
A threat could develop to his sector, using the narrow desert tract between the Sutlej and the Eastern Sadiqiya Canal running along the international boundary as a launching pad for a Pakistani offensive.
From 1965 to 1971, the positioning of the strike force in the area of Montgomery-Okara indicated its possible use south of the Sutlej between Ferozepur and Fazilka, and in the desert tract between Fazilka and Anupgarh, especially in wet weather when the countryside elsewhere is boggy and impassable by tanks and other vehicles. To fill the security gap in this open southern flank, it was considered necessary to raise a division worth of holding forces to look after this area. Within the manpower and financial restraints, it was decided to raise a sector headquarters under a major general to which loose formations lifted from the holding troops in the dormant sectors would be allot. ted as required.
Foxtrot Sector headquarters was accordingly raised in July 1971, and 67 Infantry Brigade Group, already deployed in the Fazilka area, was placed under its command. Later, when sector headquarters moved to its operational location in early October, it was allotted two more brigades, and its supporting and administrative elements were made up from here and there.
On a visit to sector headquarters in the third week of October, I met Maj Gen Ram Singh, General Officer Commanding, at Abohar and was briefed on his plans. A threat could develop to his sector, using the narrow desert tract between the Sutlej and the Eastern Sadiqiya Canal running along the international boundary as a launching pad for a Pakistani offensive.
The whole defensive action was based on destroying the invaders by launching a powerful counter offensive with armour on the enemy’s flanks.
Induction into the launching pad from north of the Sutlej was possible only along the bridges starting from the north at Sulaimanke headworks, Machhi along the Montgomery-Bahawalnagar road, Islam headworks, and from Bhawalpur. This segment was served by rail and road systems running parallel and south of the Sutlej from Bhawalpur to Macleod Ganj Road, connected with similar systems north of the river over these bridges. In addition, a peripheral rail and road system ran from Bahawainagar to Fort Abbas, parallel to the boundary at an average depth of 19 to 25 kilometres. Fort Abbas was also connected directly with Bhawalpur by road.
The main routes of ingress from the Pakistani side were the Sulaimanke-Fazilka, Minchinabad-Mandi Sadiq Gunj-Hindu-malkot-Abohar, Bahawalnagar-Ganganagar, and Fort Abbas-Anupgarh-Suratgarh roads. The terrain between the Indian Gang and Pakistani Eastern Sadiqiya Canals was an irrigated agricultural tract firm enough to take wheels and tracks with ease, while the areas west of the Bahawalnagar-Fort Abbas line in Pakistan and south of the Suratgarh-Anupgarh line were desert tracts without tracks where going was difficult both for tanks and wheeled vehicles.
The area opposite Foxtrot Sector was held by two independent Pakistani brigades, Sulaimanke, opposite Fazilka, with Pakistani 105 Infantry Brigade group and Pakistan 25 Infantry Brigade group in the Bahawainagar-Mandi Sadiq Ganj area holding the border up to Fort Abbas.
The optimum threat of a Pakistani offensive in the area was of the magnitude of one armoured division supported by two infantry divisions if Pakistan 7 Infantry Division was committed on this side. Since the other division, Pakistan 33 Infantry Division was a new raising and was known to have only two brigades, the threat of deeper penetration was no more than about 48 kilometres.
It was argued that for a reasonable offensive Pakistan had to develop at least two complementary thrusts. Each would require establishing two firm bases with about one brigade each. Thus for the actual offensive there would be only one armoured and one infantry division available, curtailing its overall capability in terms of development of its thrust in any significant depth. It certainly had no hope of making such progress west of the Gang Canal.
Ram Singh decided to hold his vast sector in the form of fortress defences on the Russian pattern in World War II. This involved converting the nearby builtup areas along each likely route of ingress into fortresses, turning them into antitank localities with minefields, ditches and other obstacles as at Stalingrad. It was calculated that to develop its offensive thrusts Pakistan would have to reduce these fortresses, which would cause such attrition to manpower and equipment that its potential for any further offensive would be proportionately reduced. And while the Pakistani thrusts were contained by these fortresses a counter-attack to envelop the invading force would be launched, using fortresses as pivots for manoeuvre.
Ram Singh accordingly developed the built-up areas of Fazilka, Ganoanagar and Suratgarh with a brigade group each, and Abohar was occupied with an ad hoc formation of three engineer regiments and two infantry battalions. Each fortress had thrown some weak early warning detachments forward near the boundary.
Ram Singh decided to hold his vast sector in the form of fortress defences on the Russian pattern in World War II.
Ram Singh had in the way of armour one regiment of T-54 tanks and two independent squadrons, one upgunned Shermans and the other AMXs, both vintage models. He allotted one Sherman and one T-54 squadron to Fazilka, one T-54 squadron to Ganaanagar, one AMX squadron to Suratgarh, and positioned T-54 regiment less two squadrons as sector reserves in The fortresses were widely apart and had no mutual support whatever. This concept of fortress defence, as well as the deployment, was approved by Ram Singh’s superiors, Rawlley and Candeth.
These Generals failed to realise that the Russian concept of mobile defences in World War II did not apply to the conditions obtaining in Foxtrot Sector. Firstly, Russia had a vast landmass to trade for the time needed to build up its military strength. In our case, both time and territory were at a premium. The loss of the agricultural tract west of the Gang Canal would cause much political embarrassment to New Delhi and would be difficult to explain.
Stalin on the other hand was not answerable to anybody but himself. Russian cities like Stalingrad had extensive built-up areas, which could not be bypassed and had to be fought for house by house. Our towns were small and could be easily by-passed without hampering the momentum of advance to any significant extent. Their investment by Pakistani forces was not therefore a pre-requisite for developing their thrusts.
The end result was a seak and unbalanced posture in each brigade sector which was to tell on the conduct of the defensive battle later.
The whole defensive action was based on destroying the invaders by launching a powerful counter offensive with armour on the enemy’s flanks. The Russians launched army groups for the purpose, but Ram Singh had no more than roughly a squadron of tanks and a company of infantry for such actions, and these would have been easily bounced by a superior invading force. But 1 Armoured Division and 14 Infantry Division, the army headquarters reserve, located somewhere in the rear in the Faridkot-Kotkapura-Muktsar area, could be used for a counteroffensive as soon as the aims of Pakistan II Corps offensive were revealed. But the time frame for such a counteroffensive from their location was spread between 24 and 72 hours, depencing on the strength of the punch required. It was feared that within that time the harm would have been done as Ram Singh would have lost the area west of the Gang Canal even without making contact with his fortresses.
These snags in the sector plans were pointed out to the Chief on my return. He flew to Ferozepur a few days later and stressed the need for a forward posture as the loss of Indian territory was neither acceptable to him nor to the Government. He ordered the plans to be reviewed and the deployment adjusted accordingly. But by that time much effort and resources had gone into the Preparation of the fortresses.
For instance, Ram Singh had laid about 200,000 mines. Rawlley and Ram Singh were both sold on the idea, but rather than disobey the chief they arrived at a compromise whereby they put forward a battalion group strength from each brigade close to the border and continued to occupy the fortresses with the remainder. The end result was a seak and unbalanced posture in each brigade sector which was to tell on the conduct of the defensive battle later. This was amply demonstrated in the battle of Fazilka, which I shall discuss later.