Military & Aerospace

The Indian Army: The first challenge - III
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Issue Book Excerpt: Indian Army After Independence | Date : 28 Jul , 2011

During a discussion of these recommendations by the Defence Committee, Prime Minister Nehru urged that the occupation of Domel was important and told the Army Chief to consider sending a force to at least destroy the bridge there. Before committing himself, the Army Chief wanted to consult Russell. The latter was all for an advance towards Domel but in the report that he submitted he laid down a pre-requisite for such a move. The pre-requisite was pulling out troops from Punch. According to him; the Indian Army could regain the initiative by these means, and then tackle the enemy at Uri. After driving him from there, Indian troops could follow up with a dash to Domel before he had had the time to recover.

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The essence of Russell’s plan was the evacuation of Punch. The fall of Mirpur, however, brought about a drastic change in the situation. The state forces troops holding the town had managed to withdraw with a large number of refugees. The latter brought reports of non-Muslim girls having been raped and of others having been sold in the market like slaves. This brought public opinion in India to boiling point; and Nehru was considerably upset. He did not want Punch to suffer the fate of Mirpur and ordered that it must be held at all costs. At the same time, reinforcements were ordered to Jammu. This political decision was to have far-reaching effects in the future.

The biggest nuisance to the garrison and the townspeople was the frequent mortaring they were subjected to. Only heavy mortars or howitzers could silence the enemy mortars.

Brigadier Pritam Singh,20 who had marched into Punch at the head of 1 (Para) Kumaon on 21 November, showed what a determined commander can do even under very adverse conditions. In 1942, after the fall of Singapore, he had escaped from Japanese custody and trekked through enemy-occupied Malaya, Thailand and Burma to reach India. This needed a good deal of courage, grit and resourcefulness. These qualities, the mark of a good leader, won him the Military Cross. Now, as Commander Punch Garrison, he brought into play the same qualities. In Punch about 3,000 of the hostiles were holding the heights around the town. Soon after Sen’s return to Uri, the tribesmen had occupied the Haji Pir Pass, cutting off Punch from the North. The Southern exit was already blocked. Thus, the garrison, the townspeople, and the refugees depended entirely on air-drops for their food and other supplies. The only other troops in Punch besides 1 (Para) Kumaon were a few hundred state forces troops belonging to 1 and 8 J&K Infantry. The town was swarming with refugees.

As a first step, Pritam Singh set up his own picquets on the Northern and Southern approaches to the town. To augment his strength, he began to train a local militia. The biggest nuisance to the garrison and the townspeople was the frequent mortaring they were subjected to. Only heavy mortars or howitzers could silence the enemy mortars. Using refugee labour, Pritam Singh built an air-strip and, on 13 December, the Air Force landed a section of 4 (Hazara) Mountain Battery (3.7-inch howitzers). With the arrival of the howitzers, the enemy was forced to pull its mortars out of their range. They also enabled Pritam Singh to drive the enemy from some of its strongholds. The air-strip assured supplies to the garrison, and on their return journey the aircraft took back refugees.

The enemy made several attempts to retake Chhamb but was repulsed every time.

Another bright spot on the horizon was the capture of Chhamb by 1 Patiala on 10 December. It was taken after a bold attack, supported by 7 (Bengal) Mountain Battery, a troop of armoured cars of 7 Light Cavalry, a troop of 11 Field Regiment and a platoon of machine-gunners from 1 Mahar. Two days later, this battalion came under 80 Infantry Brigade, a newly inducted formation which took over the Akhnur­-Chhamb sector. Besides 1 Patiala, the new brigade had 4 Rajput, 3 (Royal) Garhwal and 1/9 Gorkha Rilles. The enemy made several attempts to retake Chhamb but was repulsed every time.

The picture in the 50 (Para) Brigade sector was different. Here enemy pressure was much heavier and his immediate objectives were Jhangar and Naoshera both important communication centres. Soon after his return from Kotli, Paranjpe had been evacuated due to an earlier injury sustained while the brigade was at Gurdaspur. His place was taken by Brigadier Mohammed Usman,21 a man of great energy and devotion to duty. Within days of taking over, he mounted an operation to drive the enemy from the strongpoints held North of Naoshera. He also sent out a column to capture Chingas, a village on the road to Rajauri. But the strength at his disposal was inadequate for these tasks, and not much was achieved. The Jhangar garrison comprised 1 (Para) Punjab a platoon of Mahar machine-gunners and four armoured cars from 7 Light Cavalry. besides some ancillaries. The positions that it took up on the approaches to Jhangar could not support each other and the garrison had neither wire nor mines ­basic requirements in defence.

Jhangar was lost due to unpreparedness and the refusal of those in authority to face the fact that it was Pakistan they were fighting and not the tribals from the Frontier.

The enemy began its probes against Jhangar early in December, and kept the garrison under intermittent fire from mortars and machine guns. By the third week of December, it had established strong positions overlooking the Naoshera-Jhangar road. Even the Naoshera-Akhnur road was not free from interference. Requests for reinforcements brought no results. In fact. there were no reserves in the theatre.

The Indian Emergency Committee was against committing any more troops in Jammu & Kashmir. It had to think of other possibilities. There was the 1,700-kilometre border with West Pakistan. If the Frontier tribesmen and ‘volunteers’ from West Punjab could swarm into Jammu & Kashmir in thousands, they could also descend into the plains of East Punjab or debouch further South into Rajasthan and Gujarat. The state of Hyderabad had refused to accede to India and a paramilitary communal organization, called Razakars, was causing trouble in the state and along its borders. Any action to bring normalcy in the region would also need troops.

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