Military & Aerospace

Indian Army: The first challenge - IV
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Issue Book Excerpt: Indian Army After Independence | Date : 30 Jul , 2011

The beginning of December brought the first snowfall to Uri. About this time, enemy troops in uniform appeared for the first time in this sector. On 11 December, all traffic to Uri stopped suddenly around 1000 hours when the enemy brought the entrance to the Uri bowl under machine-gun fire. It had occupied a ridge overlooking the road near Bhatgiran, South of Uri. A fighting patrol from 4 Kumaon discovered that an enemy battalion was in position on the ridge; Sen ordered 1 Sikh to clear it.

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Bhatgiran Ridge was held by a battalion of Pakistan’s Frontier Scouts. Its positions were so well concealed that when the Sikhs approached the hill on 13 December, no enemy was to be seen. The ­leading company commander, however, sensed that the enemy was there and advised the battalion commander that an attack should be launched. The latter chose to ignore this advice and ordered the battalion to return to camp. Even the withdrawal was not carried out as a tactical operation. The men were told to scramble down the side of a hill that ran down to the Uri-Haji Pir Pass road. The enemy which lay in wait held its fire till the leading company had gone into a re-entrant and then poured down murderous fire. Before the situation could be retrieved, the battalion had suffered 120 casualties – 61 killed and 59 wounded. Among the killed was Jemadar Nand Singh. In Arakan, during the Second World War, this brave man had taken three Japanese foxholes single-handed with only his bayonet and won the Victoria Cross. Here too, it was Nand Singh who saved the situation: he ordered his platoon to fix bayonets on their rifles and then charged headlong into the enemy. A posthumous MVC was later awarded to Nand Singh.

No consideration was given to Pakistans stake in Kashmir. The result was the loss of another opportunity to take Domel.

Many of the wounded who survived owed their lives to 3 Light Field Ambulance. Thirty-six of the seriously injured were operated upon in 27 hours at Uri, with the doctors and other staff resting only when the last patient was off the operation table.

The enemy vacated Bhatgiran on his own after some days. This first winter in Kashmir was particularly hard for Indian troops. For many of them it was their first taste of snow and of mountain warfare. Except for the sentries, who were issued ‘poshteens’ and Gilgit boots, purchased locally, the rest of the troops were in ordinary winter uniform. Snow-clothing had yet to make its appearance in the Army! Many of the localities were under several feet of snow, and there were frequent blizzards and avalanches. Both the Uri and Srinagar garrisons were completely cut off from the rest of India by 20 December 1947.

In January, the so-called Azad Kashmir troops began to arrive in the Mahura area in large numbers. Their objective was the powerhouse there since it supplied electricity to the valley. A company of 2 Dogra was already at Mahura, but Sen decided to clear the hills overlooking the powerhouse, and moved 4 Kumaon from Uri. The battalion marched to Mahura while a blizzard was blowing and its timely arrival fores- talled the enemy which, thereafter, was systematically chased from the surrounding villages.

“¦gave useful information about the Azad Kashmir battalion to which he belonged. According to him, it was organized on normal infantry lines, had a strength of about 800 men, and was commanded by a regular officer of the Pakistan Army.

A notable action of this period was the clearing of the Limber Nulla, a stream that joins the Jhelum East of Rampur. The enemy commander, who called himself ‘Khalil’, had for some time been collecting a force in the area. He had been doing this very quickly, his intention being to make a surprise crossing of the Jhelum and then seize the heights South of the river. Sen prepared his Brigade to give ‘Khalil’ a befitting welcome, but it was difficult for him to guess the exact timing of the enemy’s attack. Luckily, ‘Khalil’ himself helped Sen in this when, on the afternoon of 10 April, he spoke to his superior over the radio in Urdu and said: “Tomorrow night I shall change the map”.29

Sen put his own plan into action immediately. Features overlooking the Limber Nulla were captured in swift moves by 3 (Royal) Garhwal30 and 4 Kumaon. The enemy was thereafter treated to a plastering by field guns and mortars. ‘Khalil’ withdrew in great confusion to the hills in the North after suffering heavy losses. Sen exploited his success by attacking enemy positions to the West and North-West of Mahura where two Azad Kashmir battalions and some tribesmen were deployed.

Earlier in February, the enemy had made an attempt to infiltrate towards Srinagar by way of Tithwal and Handwara. Fortunately, its advance elements were detected in good time at Handwara, and swift action by 1 Sikh and 7 Cavalry foiled the venture. The battalion captured 15 prisoners, including an officer. The latter gave useful information about the Azad Kashmir battalion to which he belonged. According to him, it was organized on normal infantry lines, had a strength of about 800 men, and was commanded by a regular officer of the Pakistan Army.

In the first week of May, Indian forces in Jammu & Kashmir were reorganized. An offensive was in the offing and more troops were moving in. For better control of the ensuing operations, two divisional Headquarters were formed: one at Srinagar and the other at Jammu. The former, initially known as Sri Division and later as 19 Infantry Division, was under Major General Thimayya; the latter, at first named JA Division and later 26 Infantry Division, was under Major General Atma Singh. The crest of the Pir Panjal Range was made the boundary between the two, but Punch was retained for some time under Sri Division, although it lay South of the range. JAK Force Headquarters was abolished and Kalwant Singh left the scene to take over as Chief of the General Staff at Army Headquarters. Earlier, Delhi and East Punjab Command had been reorganized as Western Command.

The enemy was expected to make a stand on the pass, but the field guns could not move beyond Chowkibal, and the distance between the two places was just outside the range of the 25-pounders.

The operations that began in the 19 Division sector in the third week of May have come to be called the spring offensive. Thimayya had three brigades under him. The reader is familiar with Sen’s 161 Brigade, deployed in the Uri-Mahura area. Another infantry brigade, the 163rd 31, was raised at Srinagar from units already there and one or two that arrived after the Banihal Pass reopened. The third brigade, 77 Para, arrived in the first week of May.

The task given to Thimayya was to capture Domel, about 72 kilometres from Uri. The mission was too ambitious for one division. The Uri-Domel road ran parallel to the Jhelum Gorge and passed through high mountain ranges, where every advantage lay with the defender. Yet, Thimayya might have taken Domel had his hands not been fettered with extraneous responsibilities. It is axiomatic that a formation launched into battle should have no administrative or static tasks. In this case, Thimayya’s orders required him to continue to hold Uri, Baramula, Handwara, Skardu, Leh and Kargil, and at the same time, to secure the communications to these garrisons. As if all this was not enough, he was also made responsible for ‘the complete security of Srinagar’. Apparently, those at the helm had planned the operation on the assumption that Thimayya’s opposition would consist of Azad Kashmir troops and tribesmen. No consideration was given to Pakistan’s stake in Kashmir. The result was the loss of another opportunity to take Domel.

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