A part from the British Raj in India, there were 565 princely States varying in size from a few square miles to a few thousand square miles. They were ruled, or misruled, by petty chieftains or rajas or maharajas, with whom the British had special treaties. The British appointed their own political agents in each of these states. When India gained freedom, these treaties were abrogated and the states were given the choice of joining either India or Pakistan. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was not just a politician but a statesman of shrewdness, sagacity and ability. He succeeded in persuading most states, depending on their geographical location, to join India. The three states which did not opt for either Dominion were Kashmir, Hyderabad and Junagadh.
The ruler of Jammu and Kashmir, Maharja Hari Singh, was a Hindu, but his state had and still has a majority Muslim population. He sat on the fence till the last moment, possibly with the vainglorious and unreal ambition of being an independent state.
Pakistan, as can be expected, had an eye on Kashmir. Instead of invading Kashmir outright with regular forces, Pakistan sent in about 15,000 tribal Pathans-they have a natural predilection for fighting, whether with others, or amongst themselves-under the clarion call of Jehad or a religious war of aggression by Muslims. Paksitan financed the expedition, armed the tribals with modern weapons, trained them and provided some leadership from the Pakistan Army. The preparations went on through September and the earlier part of October of 1947. It was called Operation Gulmarg and was led by a Maj Gen Akbar Khan, under the pseudonym of General Jebel Tariq, the original Moroccan name for Gibraltar. These hordes poured into Kashmir by the third week of October.
Instead of invading Kashmir outright with regular forces, Pakistan sent in about 15,000 tribal Pathans-they have a natural predilection for fighting, whether with others, or amongst themselves-under the clarion call of Jehad or a religious war of aggression by Muslims.
Maj Gen Douglas Gracy, C-in-C, Pakistan Army, informed the C-in-C Indian Army, Lt Gen Sir Rob Lockhart, of these happenings on the afternoon of 24 October. Lt Gen Lockhart informed the Viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten. Another six hours lapsed before Prime Minister Nehru was informed. The delay of each hour was costly to India, that much time for action being lost. Muzaffarabad and Domel had been invaded and occupied on 22 October. By the 24th the invaders were at Baramula, 35 miles west of Srinagar. They cut the power line to Srinagar from the power house at Mahura and plunged the capital city in darkness.
The Maharaja lost his illusions about independent Kashmir. His state forces were totally inadequate to check the invasion. He received this sad news at his Dusserah Durbar. Late at night on 24 October he asked the Indian Government for help. This help could not be given legally till he acceded to India. Mr. V. P. Menon, the able lieutenant of Sardar Patel in dealing with the States, was sent to Srinagar the next day along with Col K. S. Katoch and Wg Cdr H. C. Dewan. They were to make their own appraisal of the situation. The Maharaja signed the Instrument of Accession on 26 October and Mr. Menon advised H. H. Hari Singh to move from Srinagar to Jammu.
The good road from the plains of Punjab to Kashmir lay in Pakistan from Rawalpindi through the pine-covered hills via Murree, down the slopes to Domel on the river Jhelum through Kohala, Uri, Baramula to Srinagar. The road from India through Jammu at that time was not good, the tunnel at Banihal pass was built much later in 1955. To send the Army by that road would have taken too long. The threat needed to be met as soon as possible, the need was literally of the hour. Hence, there was no other way to render help but by an airlift of troops. Not that would be easy either because the airstrips both at Srinagar and Jammu, made for the small, light, personal aircraft of the Maharaja, were short and unpaved. There were no navigational or landing aids, no crash tenders, no proper refuelling facilities. High ranges, often covered with clouds or mist would have to be negotiated by Dakotas with their limited ceiling capacity. Each landing and each take-off would raise a cloud of dust thereby reducing visibility.
To airlift the number of troops and their equipment which would be effective in dealing with the situation meant several flights in quick succession, hardly allowing time for the dust to settle down. If there was any mishap, even this apology for a runway would be blocked, delaying further flights indefinitely. The enemy was, may be, five miles away. The Government of India or the Government of Jammu and Kashmir were not even sure that the enemy was not already at the airport! Twenty-eight sorties were flown on the very first day of the operation, that is, on 27th. The first contingent to arrive in Srinagar was the 1st Sikhs commanded by it Col Dewan Ranjit Rai. He and his men tried to stop the invaders from advancing from Baramula to Srinagar to fight a delaying action. He lost his life in this battle and his troops had to withdraw to Sri nagar to regroup.
The delay of each hour was costly to India, that much time for action being lost.
An entire brigade, 161 under Brig L. P. Sen, DSO, was airlifted within five days. Dakotas did the transportation and fighters and fighter-bombers, Spitfires, Tempests and even Harvards gave ground support to the Army—then and right through the year. The Airlines, their pilots, crew and technicians were also requisitioned to help with the airlift and they did a magnificent job. Air Mshl Elmhirst was at the helm of this emergency project and Air Cdre Meher Singh was at the head of the Operational Group. In the history of aviation, there are few events to match this achievement.
It was difficult for Spitfires to operate effectively from airfields outside Kashmir because of the limited range of the aircraft. It was even more so with Harvards. So these two types had to be based at Srinagar. Refuelling was a major problem, at times fuel had to be drained from the Dakotas to supply the fighters. Then a maintenance unit had to be set up at Srinagar airfield. Tempests were able to operate with more efficiency from Ambala or Amritsar.
On 3 November, a decisive battle was fought in the immediate vicinity of Srinagar airfield where the enemy managed to launch a surprise attack. Their numerical superiority was overwhelming. A Company Commander of Kumaonis, Maj Sharma was killed. At this stage, the Spitfires came to the rescue of the Army and saved the day and the airport. The tribal hordes and the Pakistanis beat a retreat. The next day’s major fighting was at Badgam, to the south-west of Srinagar, fought successfully by an Army-Air Force combined operation—the Air Force using the brigade commander’s maps! By the 7th, when an Indian armoured column managed to reach Srinagar by road, our troops took the offensive and went forward on the Srinagar-Baramula-Uri road. The main fighting took place at Shallateng. Baramula was cleared on the 8th and Uri on the 13th, although this last area changed hands even after this date. At each step the Army had the help and cooperation of the Air Force—in reconnaissance as well as fighting, the aircraft using rockets, guns as well as bombs.
This first Pakistani offensive in Kashmir, “The First Round”, was carefully planned and had the advantage of surprise as well. It was a simultaneous three-pronged drive. As one prong took the main Domel-Kohala-Uri-Baramula-Srinagar road, a second one was active at the Pakistan border area at Kotli, Jhangar, Naushera, Rajauri, Mirpur, Bhimber to the south of Poonch and the third at Rawalkot to the north-west of Poonch. In some of these places there were refugees who had come over from West Punjab. Some of the local inhabitants joined the Pakistanis, may be for the sake of earning benediction in a fanatic Jehad and perhaps also in the hope of loot—a good way to combine the spiritual with the temporal. Some of the Muslim elements of the State Forces, implicitly trusted by the Maharaja, treacherously murdered their Hindu comrades-in-arms.
The enemy had the advantage of initiative and surprise as well as easy access by road from their main base in Pakistan. Their strategy was to surround and isolate each place, wipe out the State garrison and Hindu population and then occupy it. At Rajauri alone about 30,000 people were massacred on 12 November. This strategy also served the twin purpose of keeping Indian troops and State Forces away from the State capital and the main valley of Kashmir. At all these besieged places the Air Force had to do the job of fighting with the enemy as well as supply-dropping urgently needed items of ammunition, medical goods and other requirements. Rawalkot was lost to the enemy, Mirpur and Kotli were in a precarious, desperate position. And all this was going on at the same time as the fighting on the main Srinagar-Baramula-Uri-Domel road. By mid-November the Indian Army was in a position to send troops to these places and fight the enemy there.On 3 November, a battle was won by the tribals and Pakistanis at a place called Mendhar, south of Poonch. Their next target was Poonch, situated south of the Haji Pir Pass.
Troops under Lt Col Pritam Singh managed to reach poonch but the enemy were well dug-in on all the hills around Poonch at the vantage points. Poonch is situated to the north of Bhimber, Mirpur, Rajauri, Kotli Mendhar, south-west of Srinagar, south-east of Bagh. It became the scene of the largest siege and battle in Kashmir which tested the courage, tenacity and guts of the both the Army and the Air Force.
To airlift the number of troops and their equipment which would be effective in dealing with the situation meant several flights in quick succession, hardly allowing time for the dust to settle down.
In Delhi members of the highest planning body, the Defence Committee of the Cabinet, Gen Sir Rob Lockhart and Lt Gen Russell, GOC-in-C Delhi and Punjab, appraised the situation in Poonch to be untenable and therefore, recommended evacuation. Panditji was adamant that Poonch was not to be given up to the enemy but the two British generals thought its defence to be a “suicidal” venture. It was an unusual circumstance: in the line of command and control in the Army during these operations Gen Sir Rob Lockhart, the C-in-C Army, decided what the Army in Jammu and Kashmir should do but he was prohibited from setting foot in that state.