Major General Freemantle, General Officer Commanding 7 Infantry Division, was operationally responsible for the security of the southern half of the Bari Doab area between the Ravi, Beas and Sutlej. The area is generally flat and crisscrossed by irrigation canals and drains extensively constructed to prevent water logging. The anti-tank-obstacle belt had been extended about six to nine kilometres deep in our territory all along the international border.
Freemantle was assigned the task of defending the sensitive areas of Harike and Hussainiwala headworks and Ferozepur town by denying the main routes of ingress from Pakistan into the area of his operational responsibility, namely Khalra-Patti Harike, Khemkaran-Patti-Harike, Khemkaran-Bhikhiwind -Amritsar, and Hussainiwala-Ferozepur. The main defences were to be based along the obstacle belt with covering troops deployed between the border and the belt. The contingency plan envisaged the capture of the Sehjra bulge.
Opposing Freemantle, Pakistan had deployed Pakistan 11 Infantry Division under Maj Gen Abdul Majid, with one brigade up to and inclusive of the Lahore-Khalra-Bhikhiwind axis, the second brigade in the general area of Khemkaran up to the Sutlej, and the third in the Kasur area in and around Hussainiwala. Freemantle’s deployment almost conformed to that of Majid, 65 Infantry Brigade holding the Khalra area, 48 Infantry Brigade the Khemkaran and 15 Punjab the Hussainiwala enclave, while 29 Infantry Brigade less one battalion was located in depth in the general area of Patti-Harike as a corps reserve.
65 Infantry Brigade was holding the defences along the Mari Megha drain from Bhuchar headworks on the Upper Bari Doab Canal to Bherowal. The front extended about 26 kilometres and was held on the main obstacle line by two battalions, while the third battalion provided screens and covering troops west of the drain with about two companies as brigade reserve for offensive and defensive tasks. In view of the paucity of troops and the extended sector, the brigade commander planned to withdraw the border outputs on commencement of hostilities and fill the gaps in the main defences based on the Mari Megha drain.
At approximately 1830 hours on 3 December, the Pakistanis started shelling the Indian BOPS Soon after, 103 Pakistan Infantry Brigade exerted pressure on them and their defenders were withdrawn to the main defences as planned. The Pakistani commander followed these moves swiftly and was soon leaning on the Upper Bari Doab Canal, especially opposite the Khalra area. The villages of Narli, Dode and Kalsian were contacted in no time. Farther north, Pakistan occupied the village of Chhina Bidhi Chand. To secure the post across the canal and clear the Pakistanis from the area, it was decided to recapture Chhina Bidhi Chand. This was expected also to relieve pressure on Khalra. To use troops familiar with the area, 14 Rajput was relieved in the line by a reserve battalion about 1800 hours on 7 December. 14 Rajput patrols ascertained that Pakistan had about company strength in the general area of Chhina Bidhi Chand supported by about eight artillery gun units. 14 Rajput attacked the village after last light on 7 December and captured it by midnight.
It was then learnt that two companies were fiercely resisting the attack with intense automatic and artillery fire from the outskirts of the village, and they were later counter-attacked. Firmly entrenched in the village, 14 Rajput withstood a couple of counterattacks. According to Fazal Muqeem, the area was fought for three times and lost and gained twice that night.
As 8 December dawned, 14 Rajput awaited the much-needed reorganisation stores, particularly ammunition, and tank support. But none of these materialized till midday, when a spirited counter-attack by Pakistan 3 Baluch forced it to vacate Chhina Bidhi Chand. Reorganisation stores could not be supplied as the route to the village was under intense and effective Pakistani shelling. Tanks were unable to cross the canal because of waterlogging. Without this much-needed support, 14 Rajput was withdrawn to the main defence line the same afternoon. The battalion suffered one officer and five other ranks killed, one officer, one JCO and 23 other ranks wounded, and three JCOs and 22 other ranks missing. This area remained comparatively quiet throughout the rest of the war.
The easy Pakistani success in this brigade sector and the failure of the Indian attack on Chhina Bidhi Chand may be attributed to the premature withdrawal of BOPs and loose coordination between infantry and armour in the plan of attack as well as in its execution. Even though 14 Rajput was familiar with the area, patrolling had not been extensive enough to locate the well-sited Pakistani automatics which hampered the movement of reorganisation material. And there was no excuse for not marrying up the armour, with the battalion next morning when the enemy tanks going near the canal, being well deep in our territory, should have been familiar to the Indian armour. This ill-planned and poorly executed action resulted in the loss of a good agricultural tract without worthwhile resistance.
Apart from sporadic shelling and minor skirmishes, the Pakistanis did not launch any serious operations in the Khemkaran sector. The Indian BOPs were subjected to heavy shelling, but no attempt was made to assault these positions. Pinpricks however continued throughout the war.
The Hussainiwala enclave in the Ferozepur sector was held by 15 Punjab before 14 Infantry Division was inducted into the area, and it continued to be under command of 7 Infantry Division. On the induction of 14 Infantry Division, one of its brigades, 35 Infantry, was placed under Freemantle’s command for close defence of the town. It was deployed with two battalions holding the Gang Canal and the Ferozepur feeder, covering the southwestern and southern approaches, while its third battalion was initially held in reserve for counter-infiltration tasks. But later, on the fall of the Hussainiwala enclave, it was deployed along the northern bund to deny approach from the north.
To improve the defence posture in the Khemkaran sector, it was planned to eliminate the likelihood of a Pakistani attempt to outflank the 48 Infantry Brigade defences in the area or of organizing a raid on Harike headworks by capturing the Sehjra bulge. Although the attack was scheduled for the night of the outbreak of hostilities, it was launched only on the night of 5/6 December.
The Sehjra bulge juts out of Indian territory as the international boundary closes on the Sutlej. It runs on both sides of the river, with the major portion north of it. The key tactical ground is Sehjra village itself. It stands on an escarpment with some 800 houses, dominating all approaches to the bulge. North of the village, Pakistan had constructed a bund between nine and 12 feet high, futher improving the village’s defence potential and making it a virtual fortress. Three companies of paramilitary forces, boosted with one regular company and elements of reconnaissance and support battalion, were estimated to be holding it.
The plan of attack envisaged the establishment of a roadblock by one company of 6 Mahar near Mahiwala village, situated to cover the narrowest portion of the neck of the Sehjra bulge, as a preliminary to the main attack. The main attack was to be launched by 1/5 Gorkha Rifles from the south along the Pakistani route of maintenance after a wide outflanking movement. Meanwhile, one company of 9 Sikh LI was to capture the peripheral Pakistani BOPs at Mabbuke, Bhukkiwala and Nagar Aminpur. It was a bold, unorthodox and audacious plan which worked smoothly and successfully.
The roadblock was established about 2000 hours, and the main assaulting force under the commanding officer of 1/5 Gorkha Rifles reached the selected FUP by midnight. The attack on Sehjra commenced soon after. The Pakistani troops manning the Sehjra defences were completely surprised by the sudden Indian attack from an unexpected direction. But the Pakistanis put up a brave fight, and it was only after daybreak on 6 December that 48 Infantry Brigade was able to secure the bulge. This attack was supported by all the divisional artillery which could be brought to bear on the village. The Indian attacking force suffered two officers, one JCO and ten other ranks killed and 26 other ranks wounded against about 30 Pakistanis killed and 65 taken prisoners. In addition, a large quantity of arms and ammunition came into our hands. Since all the routes of with- drawal from the bulge were blocked, it may be surmized from the Pakistani casualties that the bulge was held with not more than two companies.
The wisdom of postponing this attack has already been questioned in the earlier discussion on the withdrawal from the Hussainiwala enclave. If it had been carried out on the night of 3/4 December or even the following night, it would have made a significant contribution to the chances of holding the enclave. But this was not to be.
Pakistan tried to edge forward on the night of 12/13 December by infiltrating one company of 41 Baluch through the neck of the Sehjra bulge across Indian minefields in the general area of 12r, about 2,740 metres east of Mahiwala. One company of 1/5 Gorkha Rifles, along with one platoon each of 6 Mahar and BSF, surrounded the intruders from all directions. Initially, the Pakistani troops resisted fiercely, but they were subsequently overrun with the help of a troop of tanks. The enemy suffered 30 dead and 15 wounded against the Indian losses of four other ranks killed and one JCO and six other ranks wounded. Fazal Muqeem describes this action thus: “On December 5, the Indians attacked the Sehjra bulge in strength, and captured Sehjra village after suffering heavy casualties. After that this front was kept active by aggressive patrolling and small raids.”
The attack on the bulge was well planned and resolutely executed although with greater strength than necessary, but then its success was ensured. In the context of overall operational direction, it would however have paid greater dividends to carry out this operation one or two nights earlier.
Army Headquarters reserve comprised 1 Armoured Division and 14 Infantry Division. This force was inducted into Western Command about the third week of October. As described earlier, it was located in the general area of Muktsar-Kot Kanpura-Faridkot as a counterpoise to Pakistan II Corps located opposite in Montgomery-Okara.
No sooner had it been inducted when Candeth started distributing it to fill the gaps in the command’s defensive posture. Fortunately, Maj Gen Gurbachan Singh, Gene ral Officer Commanding 1 Armoured Division, fiercely resisted all attempts to distribute his formation into penny packets, arguing emphatically that it would take considerable time to collect himself before meeting seen and unforeseen contingencies and he would not be responsible for any mishaps caused by unwise dissipation of his forces.
These arguments carried the day, but at considerable cost to his personal relations with Candeth and Rawlley. On the other hand, Maj Gen Harish Bakhshi, a weaker character, resiled and saw 14 Infantry Division spread widely over Western Command. 35 Infantry Brigade was deployed in defence of Ferozepur town and took 15 Punjab, the battalion holding the Hussainiwala enclave, under its command. This brigade was placed under the command of 7 Infantry Division Headquarters, located about 112 miles away at Patti. Another brigade group was sent to Ajnala to organize a defended sector to deny cross- ings of the Ravi in the vicinity of the Gil ferry and the approaches from it to Amritsar. This brigade came under Command Headquarters 15 Infantry Division, operationally responsible for defence of the area. In the end, Bakhshi was left with one brigade group in the Muktsar area. His task was to contain and eliminate, in conjunction with 1 Armoured Division, any enemy penetration south of the Sutlej. If a major Pakistani thrust developed south of Fazilka, its task was to block its advance northward and eastward by taking up a defensive position on the line of the Chand Bhan drain and the Rajasthan Canal. He little realized that a solitary infantry brigade group, even if commanded by a general, was no match for a thrust developed by a strike force comprising one armoured and two infantry divisions plus.
The only reinforcements available in the event of a Pakistani attack in the area were one brigade group deployed at Ajnala or the corps reserve of one brigade group less one battalion located at Patti. Since both brigades were committed on the ground in one way or the other, the time frame of their availability with 14 Infantry Division worked out from 48 to 72 hours. By then, a decision would have been reached in battle. This state of affairs was very unsatisfactory, but Bakhshi seemed to be quite happy to please his seniors irrespective of the predictable consequences for national security.
After the fall of the Hussainiwala enclave on 5 December, Rawlley became wiser and placed 35 Infantry Brigade under its parent formation, and operational responsibility was readjusted to give 14 Infantry Division the general area from Harike headworks along the Sutlej to north of Fazilka and then along the Chand Bhan drain to its junction with the Rajasthan feeder.
The division was given the task of defending Ferozepur and holding bridgeheads across the Bikaner Gang Canal on the Ferozepur-Guru Harsahai and Muktsar-Jalalabad roads. Why the defended sector was held deep in our territory is incomprehensible as much politically prestigious and economically valuable agricultural land would have been lost before a Pakistani offensive could have been halted. This reflected the cautious attitude of the higher command in the corps zone, utterly unrelated to national aims. This formation was to dominate the area between Ferozepur and Fazilka from the general line of the Chand Bhan drain in the west up to the line of the Sutlej in the north.