Background to the Battle
As we have seen in the last chapter, with the failure of OPERATION GIBRALTAR and faced with an Indian counter offensive across the cease-fire line in the Hajipir Bulge and Tithwal Sector, Pakistan launched OPERATION GRAND SLAM on September 1, 1965. It was a major attack with one infantry division and an armoured brigade at Chhamb with the aim of capturing Akhnoor and cutting off the Jammu – Srinagar Highway. While fighting a defensive battle at Chhamb, the Indian Army decided to launch counter offensives on a broad front in Punjab on September 6. The main offensives launched were as under:–
- 1 Corps consisting of 1 Armoured Division, 6 Mountain Division, 26 Infantry Division and 14 Infantry Division launched an offensive in the Jammu – Sialkot Sector on the southern bank of Chenab.
- 15 Infantry Division of 11 Corps attacked along GT Road Axis (Amritsar to Lahore).
- 7 Infantry Division of 11 Corps attacked along Axis Bhikkiwind – Khalra – Barki.
- 4 Mountain Division less 33 Mountain Brigade of 11 Corps attacked along Axis Khem Karan – Kasur.
Initially it had been planned to launch both 1 Corps and 11 Corps offensives simultaneously. However, in view of the difficulties of concentrating 1 Corps, its offensive had to be delayed by one day to the night of September 7/8, 1965. The troops available to 1 Corps were as under:–
- 1 Armoured Division.
- 6 Mountain Division. This formation was raised in 1963 and had only two brigades. It had been deployed on the Indo-Tibet border till August 1965 and had no experience in operating in the plains.
- 14 Infantry Division.
- Normal supporting arms and services.
The Pakistani 4 Corps, which was supposed to be responsible for defence of the Sialkot – Shakargarh Sector, consisted of 6 Armoured Division and 15 Infantry Division with the normal complement of supporting arms and services.
The outline plan of 1 Corps offensive was as under (Map):–
- Establishment of Bridgehead. This task was given to 6 Mountain Division with one infantry brigade from 14 Infantry Division under its command. The division was to secure the area Maharajke – Charawa and exploit up to Ahmadpur – Nauni. 6 Mountain Division planned to attack two brigades. 99 Mountain Brigade was given the task of capturing Charawa and 69 Mountain Brigade was given the task of capturing Maharajke.
- Simultaneously with the establishment of the bridgehead, 26 infantry Division was to launch an offensive and contain enemy forces in the Sialkot sector and thereby provide flank protection to 1 Corps’ offensive.
- The Breakout. 1 Armoured Division was to breakout from the bridgehead established by 6 Mountain Division and capture Phillora and then proceed towards Pagowal and Chawinda and secure the area up to Marala Ravi Link Canal. 26 Artillery Brigade and an additional medium regiment were placed in support of 1 Armoured Division over and above its integral artillery resources. 14 Infantry Division was given the task of capturing Zaffarwal and Chawinda.
Following the Pakistani attack on Kutch in May 1965, 1 Armoured Division had moved forward to Punjab from its peacetime location at Babina. By September, the state of alert had been reduced considerably. About 25 percent of all ranks were away on leave and courses. There were also shortages of some tanks, armoured recovery vehicles and mechanical transport. Most of the equipment was old and adequate radio sets were not available for communications with the supporting arms. The Division was put on 6 hours notice to move to concentration area on September 2. The advance parties moved to the concentration area the same day. The armoured regiments moved forward on September 3 and 4. The tanks were detrained at railway stations between Madhopur and Pathankot. Thereafter, the tanks moved forward on their own tracks for about 60 kms. By dawn of September 6, most elements of the Division had reached the concentration area. Pakistani Sabre jets overflew the concentration area and Headquarters 1 Armoured Brigade came under air attack.
The attack for establishment of the bridgehead commenced on the night of September 7 with a terrifying barrage of artillery fire on the Pakistani border out posts. 99 Mountain Brigade attacks were well executed. The initial objectives were captured by 0300 hours on September 8. Charawa however was a fortified stronghold and was defended with determination. But it too was captured during the night. Some pockets of resistance held out for two more days. 69 Mountain Brigade also captured Maharajke the same night. Break in battle was meticulously planned and well executed. The enemy lost 3 officers and 238 other ranks while 2 officers and 89 other ranks were taken prisoner. The Indian losses were one officer and 19 other ranks killed and 4 officers and 63 other ranks wounded. Mines intended for laying at the defences were found dumped but had not been laid. It was clear that the enemy was not expecting the attack. The concentration and preparations for the attack had gone undetected. 26 Infantry Division also succeeded in capturing its objectives.
The break out commenced as planned on two thrust lines as under:–
- 1 Armoured Brigade group consisting of two armoured regiments, 16 Cavalry, 17 Horse and one squadron ex 62 Cavalry, 5/9 GORKHA RIFLES and supporting troops were to advance on the left on axis Ramgarh – Chak Jasu – Bhagiari – Kangre – Sabzkot – Chorba – Phillora.
- 43 Lorried Brigade Group with 2 Lancers, 62 Cavalry less squadron, two lorried infantry battalions less one company and supporting troops were to advance on the right along axis Salehriah – Saidan Wali – Chak Atma – Cross Roads – Mastpur – Ahmadpur – Salowal – Pagowal.
- 4 Horse and one company 9 DOGRA were the divisional reserves.
Even though some enemy resistance remained in the bridgehead, the break out commenced as planned at first light September 8. 1 Armoured Brigade made some initial progress. But by 0930 hours September 8, the leading armour of 16 Cavalry encountered enemy opposition in the form of tanks, recoilless guns and dug in infantry in area Gadgor. In the action that followed, the regiment destroyed eight enemy tanks and two recoilless guns while 16 of their own tanks were damaged. 17 Horse also ran into a similar opposition in area Tharoh south east of Phillora. They knocked out three enemy tanks and one recoilless gun for the loss of one tanle Our armour made little progress thereafter. In this adverse tactical situation, 4 Horse located at the concentration area as divisional reserve, was ordered by the GOC 1 Armoured Division to proceed to Chorba with all speed and wait. However, this column got enmeshed into the column of 43 Lorried Brigade, which had been diverted into the route of 1 Armoured Brigade at the Brigade Traffic Check Post. The Regiment nevertheless managed to quickly extricate itself and headed toward Chorba. En route, the regiment overtook columns of Pakistani refugees fleeing the border areas. Pakistani Mujahideen and irregulars who had intermingled with the civilian refugees started sniping at the 4 Horse column. By 1130 hours September 8, the regiment was fully deployed facing Chorba. 17 Horse was deployed on the left of 4 Horse facing Gadgor and Tharoh. 16 Cavalry had redeployed on the right of 4 Horse facing Hasrin. In the afternoon, 4 Horse launched a mounted assault on village Nar Singh which the enemy abandoned without a fight. Meanwhile, 1 Armoured Brigade was unable to make any further progress in the face of determined resistance from the enemy. The Brigade remained in the area for two days, September 8 and 9. There were frequent enemy air attacks on the Indian tanks, which were mostly in the open with very little cover. Fortunately, the damage due to these attacks was light.
43 Lorried Brigade made even less progress. The initial route of the Brigade lay along a canal bank. Overnight rain had made the track slushy. The leading tanks of 2 Lancers got bogged down bringing the move of the brigade to a halt. As a result, the route of the Brigade had to be changed via Ramgarh and vehicles of 1 Armoured Brigade and 43 Lorried Brigade got mixed up. Turning about the whole column took time and the advance could only be resumed by 1330 hours. The Brigade then cleared Salarian and then captured the Cross-Roads south of Sabzipur. By 1630 hours September 8, they had been able to advance only 2 kms ahead of Maharajke up to Kalo1. The break out had stalled within hours. The Brigade’s advance towards Pagowal began next morning along the motorable Maharajke – Pagowal track with 62 CavalIY less one squadron acting as advance guard. The enemy air force was very active and repeatedly attacked the forward troops and gun areas. The Brigade succeeded in taking Kaloi but could not reach Pagowal. In the opinion of Lt Gen Harbakhsh Singh, the Army Commander, this was due to faulty tactical concept and incompetent handling of forces by the brigade commanders. During the day’s engagements, 1 Armoured Division had lost 12 tanks and claimed 20 of the enemy.
On the night of September 9/10, one additional infantry brigade and one infantry battalion were I released to 1 Armoured Division. 1 Armoured Bligade spent the day, September 10, reconnoitering the defences of Phillora. No mines were encountered in the area. The engineers were required to improve the surface communications consisting of narrow cart tracks that had turned into quagmires due to rain. This formidable task was completed by working round the clock braving enemy air and artillery attacks and despite many casualties. 4 Horse was relieved by 2 Lancers and they pulled back to Kotli Lala and awaited further orders.
The Pakistani Forces in Pasrur – Sialkot Sector consisted of 6 Armoured Division, 15 Infantry Division and 7 Infantry Division. 6 Armoured Division had four armoured regiments including one ex 7 Infantry Division. Three of these, 10 Cavalry, 13 Lancers and 22 Cavalry were equipped with M 48 Patton tanks’ and one, 11 Cavalry, with M 36 B2 tank destroyers. 15 Infantry Division had three armoured regiments, 20 Lancers, (Chaffees) in Area Zaffarwal, 25 Cavalry (M 48 Pattons) and 31 Tank Destroyer Unit (Shermans). It had three infantry brigades having seven infantry battalions and one Reece and Support I Battalion. 7 Infantry Division had one armoured regiment 33 Tank Destroyer Unit (Shermans)’ and four brigades each of two infantry battalions.
The enemy armour opposition on the Phillora axis was estimated to be two armoured regiments composed of M 48 Patton tanks and Sherman tank destroyers. 24 Infantry Brigade was located at Chawinda and some elements of the Brigade were located in the area of operation of 1 Armoured Division.
1 Armoured Division had five armoured regiments (Centurians) for the operation. However two were deployed for flank protection and 2 Lancers were left with 35 Infantry Brigade for holding the firm base at Sabzipur. Thus 1 Armoured Brigade had only two armoured regiments, 4 Horse and 17 Horse, for capture of Phillora.
It will thus be seen that the Indian forces did not enjoy any significant superiority in either armour or infantry. There was air parity and enemy air force was very active. Even rain played spoilsport and severely hampered the operations of 43 Lorried Brigade. The Pakistanis, however, had failed to lay mine fields. Perhaps they were not expecting such a quick and violent reaction from India to their Chhamb Offensive. The absence of mines was a great boon to the Indian armour.
Phillora is at a distance of about 25 kms to the south of Sialkot. It is located at the junction of two important roads: the Sialkot – Dhamtal and Pasrur – Sabzipur roads.
On September 10, General Officer Commanding issued fresh orders for the capture of Phillora. The salient features of this plan were as under:–
- 43 Lorried Brigade less 8 GHARWAL RIFLES were to secure area Rurki Kalan by first light September 11. Thereafter, depending on the progress of armour action, they were to move to Nathupur for launching an attack on Phillora.
- 1 Armoured Brigade was to burst out from its assembly area in Rurki Khurd with three regiments up. From Rurki Kalan, two armoured regiments, 4 Horse and 17 Horse, were to break out and encircle Phillora by a pincer movement from both flanks.
- 16 Cavalry in conjunction with 62 Cavalry and 8 GHARWAL RIFLES was to establish itself in the Area Kak and provide flank protection from the direction of Sialkot.
The orders for the capture of Phillora were issued by Commander 1 Armoured Brigade at Kaloi at 0330 hours September 11. The salient points of this plan were as under:–
- 4 Horse was to advance along Axis Kotli Lala – Rurki Kalan – Saboke. It was to protect the eastern flank of the advance of 1 Armoured Division, establish a road block at Saboke and threaten the rear of Phillora position and support 43 Lorried Brigade attacks from fire base in area Wacheke – Saboke.
- 17 Horse was to advance along route Kaloi – Chak Shakur – Libbe and support attack on Phillora by 43 Lorried Brigade.
4 Horse started its advance on Rurki Kalan at 0600 hours on September 11 with C Squadron. Within minutes, the enemy artillery opened up. The Squadron also came under an air attack. None of the tanks were hit but the squadron commander, Major Urs, was wounded in the eye by shrapnel. He refused to be evacuated and led his squadron till the capture of Rurki Kalan. There was hardly any resistance from the enemy at Rurki Kalan, which was taken by 0645 hours. This was perhaps due to the fact that enemy tanks and recoilless guns were unable to fire effectively due to the morning haze. However, the enemy left “stay behind” parties to harass the mechanical transport and infantry. The other two squadrons now moved forward towards Saboke. The enemy reacted strongly with its tanks and mobile recoilless guns. There were many tank to tank engagements in which the Indian Centurions out performed the Pakistani Patton tanks. A Squadron soon completely dominated the Gadgor – Saboke Road. This forced the enemy forces in Gadgor area to withdraw. This they did in total disorder. A Squadron made merry. They knocked out 8 Patton tanks, 4 RCL jeeps, 5 MMG mounted jeeps and a large number of vehicles carrying infantry. Most of the equipment was abandoned as the Pakistanis fled on foot. Meanwhile, the Regimental Headquarters of 4 Horse had moved up to Dulmanwali. From there, the Commandant of the Regiment spotted some Patton tanks among the Sheesham trees along the Phillora – Libbe Road facing towards Libbe. Though out numbered, his and his battery commander’s tanks opened fire on the enemy knocking out three enemy tanks in seconds. Having done the damage, the Regiment Headquarters tried to make a getaway. But the enemy was soon after them. Desperate, the Commandant charged the enemy. But his tank took a direct hit and he and the crew had to abandon the tank and take shelter in a nearby sugarcane field. He and his team miraculously survived in the midst of the enemy till tanks of 17 Horse picked him up and returned him to his regiment. In the meantime B Squadron had managed to keep advancing against enemy opposition to Kotli Khadam Shah and Wachoke. C Squadron had also moved up. Here there was a fierce tank duel in which 9 enemy tanks and four recoilless guns were destroyed. An attack by the Indian Air Force resulted in the destruction of 6 more enemy tanks. The enemy now pulled back his remnants in great hurry. 4 Horse pursued the enemy and soon circled Phillora from the east and south. They kept the Phillora defences engaged and also destroyed all enemy elements falling back from Gadgor.
17 Horse also made good progress. Their task at Libbe was made considerably easier by the actions of 4 Horse. They now moved up and surrounded Phillora from the west and south-west and cut off its lifeline from Chawinda. The Khakanwali – Kalewali position was eminently suitable for defence as the country abounded in sugarcane fields. The enemy armour could lurk in the tall crops and when sure of a kill, fire the fatal shot. Our own armour, however, by skilful manoeuvring at troop and squadron level, lured out the enemy tanks from the crops and then systematically shot them up through some excellent gunnery.
43 Lorried Brigade led by 5 JAT commenced advance at 0645 hours and immediately came under a heavy air strike. Once the aircraft had left the scene, the JATs came under heavy shelling. But the JATs pressed on and captured Rurki Kalan in spite of heavy casualties. Libbe was captured by 0900 hours by 5/9 GORKHAs. But no further advance could be made due to heavy and accurate fire from enemy tanks and infantry. Theprigade commander was forced to change the direction of attack on Phillora. Thus by mid-day September II, the outer crust of the defences at Phillora had been breached. 43 Lorried Brigade now moved up and assaulted Phillora with two battalions, 5/9 GORKHA RIFLES and 5 JAT. The GORKHAs captured Khakanwali and Phillora Cross- Roads while 5 JAT took Wachoke. By 1530 hours September 11, the Battle of Phillora was over. For several hours after the capture of Phillora, the Pakistanis made a number of small uncoordinated counter attacks with their armour. These were successfully beaten back. On the morning of September 12, an enemy helicopter attempted to land south of Phillora. 17 Horse shot down the helicopter. The General Officer of Pakistan’s 15 Infantry Division was killed in the engagement.
The Battle of Phillora on September 11, 1965 has been described as the biggest tank engagement since the Second World War. The enemy armour was badly mauled in this battle. 1 Armoured Division claimed 60 enemy tanks damaged or destroyed for the loss of six of its own Centurion tanks. 1 Armoured Brigade claimed 51 enemy tanks. 4 Horse claimed 23. It was an impressive victory. The recommendations for the Battle Honour Phillora read:–
- “The Battle of Phillora was the first major tank battle. The enemy’s 6 Armoured Division was so severely mauled in this mobile action by an unexpected and concentrated attack from the rear by 4 Horse and 17 Horse, that its offensive power was thoroughly crippled; thereafter the enemy’s armour dared not contest us in mobile action, but stayed put in previously prepared hull down positions. This was the biggest battle fought and was made all the more memorable by the fact that an enemy superior in tank strength was engaged by inferior numbers and skillfully out manoeuvred by superior and inspired leadership at all levels and then mauled by some superb tank gunnery in a mobile battle that lasted hours”.
A description of the Battle of Phillora remains incomplete without a mention of Lt Col AB Tarapore, Commanding Officer 17 Horse and Lt Col MMS Bakshi, Commanding Officer 4 Horse. These two regiments dominated the battlefield. This was in no small measure to their leadership and personal courage. Throughout the action, they led their regiments in one assault after another. Lt Col Tarapore was wounded at Phillora. He refused to be evacuated and directed his regiment in the battles at Wazirwali, Jassroran and Butur Dograndi till his tank was destroyed by enemy fire. For his outstanding leadership and gallantry in the actions at Phillora and Chawinda, he was posthumously awarded the Param Vir Chakra. Lt Col MMS Bakshi engaged an enemy squadron with just two tanks of the regimental headquarters. He not only succeeded in destroying three enemy tanks for the loss of his own but also completely upset the enemy plan of battle. Major Bhupinder Singh of 4 Horse was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra posthumously for his gallant leadership in the Battles of Phillora and Sodreke.
The Battle of Phillora shall always rank high in the annals of Armour Warfare. In this battle, two regiments of the Indian Army equipped with Second World War vintage Centurion tanks damaged or destroyed almost two regiments worth of Pakistani tanks, most of them being the state of the art M48 Patton tanks. This feat was performed in terrain covered by tall sugarcane crops, which favoured the defender as we have seen in the Battle of Assal Uttar and in the face of frequent strikes by enemy aircraft. The Indian forces did not enjoy air superiority. In fact, Indian aircraft were rarely seen in the battle zone. How was this possible?
General Harbakhsh Singh attributes the success to excellent junior leadership, skillful manoeuvre of tanks at lower echelons and outstanding gunnery. But he was not happy with the handling of armoured forces at the higher levels of command. However, it is perhaps worth noting that 1 Armoured Division did not reinforce failure. Having been stalled in its initial attempt to break out from the Charawa Bridgehead, it switched its direction of advance from the north from Maharajke – Kaloi area. This paid handsome dividends and turned the enemy defences in Gadgor – Tharoh area that had stalled the initial break out.
The Battle of Phillora proved once again that technology by itself cannot win wars. The man behind the gun is more important. The Pattons, as tanks, were far superior in firepower, protection and night fighting capabilities than any of the Indian tanks on the battlefield. But the Pakistani tank crews were inadequately trained and unable to adapt to the terrain obtaining in the region and were unable to take advantage of the sugarcane crops to ambush the Indian armour. Their motivation and leadership was questionable. This is borne out by the fact that 51 enemy tanks were found destroyed on the battlefield for the loss of only six Indian tanks. The Indian armour commanders and tank crews were much better trained. They were able to draw out the enemy armour from their cover through skillful manoeuvre. Their shooting was fast and accurate.
The gallantly, leadership and tactical skills of the officers of the Indian armoured regiments, particularly those of Lt Col Tarapore and Lt Col MMS Bakshi was outstanding. Such heroic leadership can inspire troops to outstanding and battle-winning efforts. In war, heroic leadership is perhaps the most important battle-winning factor.
The Pakistani’s failure to lay mines cost them dearly. They were unable to restrict the mobility of Indian armour. Their lay back positions were not based on obstacles and hence not very effective. For fighting a successful defensive battle, it is essential that defensive and tactical minefields be laid. Laying of large minefields requires time and detailed planning. Pakistanis learnt this lesson well and made extensive use of minefields during 1971 war to great effect.
The bogging down of the breakout by 43 Lorried Brigade and the confusion caused by intermingling of the troops of 1 Armoured Brigade and. 43 Lorried Brigade on September 8 was avoidable. More care should have been taken in selection of routes. Use of the same route by two armoured formations should be avoided.
The Battle of Phillora also highlights the importance of dedicated and effective peacetime training. The manoeuvring skills of the Indian armour came from long hours spent in unit and sub-unit level training. Excellent gunnery comes from regular firing at miniature and tank ranges. If victories are to be won on the battlefields, manpower shortages and austerity measures must never be allowed to impinge on battle worthiness training. And this applies not only to armoured units but also to all arms and services. Paying lip service to training is a certain invitation to disaster.