Throughout the winter of 1947-48, and the summer that followed, the Punch garrison had remained cut off. Under Brigadier Pritam Singh it continued to wage its lonely battles against the besieging hordes. During the last ten days of January 1948, the enemy put in six detemtined attacks against Indian picquets but the garrison was able to fight the enemy back.
In the new year, Punch received some reinforcements. Two companies of 3/9 Gorkha Rifles were air-landed in the first week of January. Later in the month, the remaining guns of 4 (Hazara) Mountain Battery arrived and in February, the rest of 3/9 Gorkha Rifles joined the garrison. The arrival of these reinforcements enabled Pritam Singh to undertake operations against enemy strongholds. Feeding the refugees was a big problem for him. The food requirements of the civil population were met to some extent by foraging. Pritam Singh called it Operation ‘Grain’. Foraging parties included women and children and went under escort to harvest grain from enemy-held territory. Some of these expeditions were elaborate military operations, costly in men. In a single venture on 8 February, 1 (Para) Kumaon lost 53 men (19 killed, 34 wounded). More lives would have been lost but for the gallantry of one of the company commanders.
“¦it would be impossible to hold the enemy any longer. The battalion commander knew that the situation was critical and ordered a withdrawal.
Khanetar, a village South of the Punch River, had been the objective of this particular mission. Besides three weak companies of this battalion, the expedition included two companies of 1 Kashmir Rifles and one company of Punch Scouts. The plan was to capture a ridge that overlooked the village with a two-company attack by the Kumaonis, while the rest of the force would secure other features simultaneously. The refugees were thereafter to do the foraging. It so happened that the enemy strength on the ridge was much more than what intelligence reports had estimated. The result was that after two abortive attacks, the hunter became the hunted, and the Kumaonis found themselves under attack from the flanks as well as the front. After two enemy counter-attacks had been repulsed at heavy cost, Major Malkit Singh Brar, whose company had suffered the most and who himself had been wounded, went over to the battalion commander during a lull and told him that it would be impossible to hold the enemy any longer. The battalion commander knew that the situation was critical and ordered a withdrawal.
As Brar was returning to his company, a third enemy attack had started. He saw one of his machine-gunners lying beside his gun, dead. He shouted the withdrawal order to his company, pushed the dead gunner aside, picked up the gun, and began to blaze away at the advancing enemy. The company withdrew, but not Major Brar. He died fighting. “Well done, B Company!”were the last words he was heard to utter. A posthumous award of the MVC was the tribute the country paid to this soldier.39
The arrival of enemy howitzers at Punch on 17 March created a crisis for its garrison. The first shell fell during the evening and landed very close to the air-strip.
Three weeks later, this reverse was avenged when the Kumaonis and the J&K Infantry raided Khanetar again. This time they were better prepared, being supported by the Hazaras’ howitzers and the Mahar machine-gunners. The documents on the enemy dead showed they were paratroopers from Pakistan’s 3/16 Punjab Regiment.
The 3/9 Gorkhas also played their part in Operation ‘Grain’. In a three-day expedition, mounted on the night of 14/15 February, in which a company of the Kumaonis also took part, 1,000 quintals of grain were collected from Kosalian, a village West of Punch.
The arrival of enemy howitzers at Punch on 17 March created a crisis for its garrison. The first shell fell during the evening and landed very close to the air-strip. About 400 shells fell on Punch that night. However, due to the poor marksmanship of enemy gunners, little damage was done. Shelling continued the next day, though not with the same intensity. 25-pounders were the only answer to the howitzers, and Pritam Singh made an urgent request for two of them. The landing of these guns at Punch was itself an event.
When they saw one of the Dakotas put out of action, they ordered postponement of the landing till the night. The
Pritam Singh was told that the guns would arrive around midday on 21 March. The Dakotas carrying the guns, their ammunition, and the gunners arrived punctually over Punch. The enemy was, however, lying in wait and immediately opened rapid fire on the air-strip. Group Captain Mehar Singh and Major General Kalwant Singh had earlier taken off in a Harvard and were watching the landing from the air. When they saw one of the Dakotas put out of action, they ordered postponement of the landing till the night. The air-strip at Punch had no facilities for night landing; it would require a lot of skill and nerve to attempt it. The Dakota crew had both, and the 25-pounders were landed that night.
While the 25-pounders took care of the enemy howitzers, the Air Force did not let the day’s mischief go unpunished. The next day (22 March), Tempests and Dakotas came in repeated sorties to bomb and to strafe. The slaughter was great, and the enemy was seen carrying away its dead and wounded from the Rangur Nulla area towards the West. Mehar Singh, who was then commanding No.1 (Operational) Group, had converted some of his Dakotas to bombers. Each aircraft carried four 250-pound bombs, and he himself undertook the first bombing mission. The heavy punishment meted out that day brought a welcome respite to Punch. Pritam Singh took advantage of the lull to send out a long-range patrol towards Madarpur, an enemy-dominated locality West of Punch. Another trouble-spot was Tetrinot, a village across the Rangur Nulla. The 3/9 Gorkhas captured the hill in a night attack on 17 May.
By the middle of June, when the Punch garrison had consolidated itself, Atma Singh, the Divisional Commander, decided to carry out a reconnaissance in force of the Southern route to this town. At the same time 1 (Para) Kumaon, which had been in action for many months, was to be brought out for a brief rest. It was a bold decision considering that the whole area between Punch and Rajauri was in enemy hands. The plan, codenamed Operation ‘Gulab’, called for the simultaneous move of two columns—one from Rajauri, the other from Punch—to Surankot. After a rendezvous there, the combined force was to move South-West, raid the enemy base at Mendhar and thereafter push off to Punch. The column was then to return to Rajauri with 1 (Para) Kumaon.
The whole population ““ men, women and children ““ lined up to greet them, cheering and waving them in. The air resounded with cries of “˜Jai Hind.
On 15 June, the two columns moved out. The Rajauri column consisted of 1 (Para) Punjab, 1 Kumaon Rifles, a troop from the Central India Horse, 5 Mountain Battery, some Engineers, a platoon of Mahar machine-gunners, some lorries, mules and a porter train. The tanks and the lorries were to be used only up to Thanna Mandi. The attitude of the local Muslims had by this time undergone a remarkable change. They were disenchanted with the Pathan tribesmen and the jawans were pleasantly surprised when, at Bafliaz, the locals turned out in large numbers to greet them and brought sweets and milk. The column commander, Lieutenant Colonel K.S. Dhillon, of the Kumaon Rifles, accepted the gifts and gave them to the refugees who had joined the column on the way.40
The Punch column was commanded by Brigadier Pritam Singh, and consisted of 1 (Para) Kumaon and a few medium machine guns. It met some opposition at Potha and two companies of the Kumaonis had to go into action. After the link-up, an air-strip was constructed at Potha and casualties were evacuated. Thereafter the combined force made for Mendhar. Stiff opposition was met on the way. Though Mendhar was entered in the early hours of 20 June, fighting continued throughout that day for the control of the hills overlooking the town.
The operation was kept a closely guarded secret. Except for the formation commanders concerned and a couple of staff officers at Command Headquarters, no one knew of it. Even Army Headquarters were not told during the planning stage. When Bucher, the C-in-C, later came to know of it, he became furious and threatened to take ‘Kipper’ to the Prime Minister for mounting an operation without prior approval.
While the area was being consolidated, the jawans were able to show the local population that they were not the ogres that Pakistani propaganda had made them out to be.
The operation itself was well executed and the enemy was taken by surprise. The Kumaon Rifles, 2 Rajputana Rifles, some light tanks and a battery of mountain guns moved North from Rajauri on the night of 20/21 September, after pretending initially to go South towards Sadabad. Point 7710 (later named Kailash) was the highest hill in the Thanna Mandi-Darhal area, and the Kumaonis captured it on 22 September, a thick fog screening them from the enemy’s view while they made the final scramble to the top. With this hill in Indian hands, enemy positions at Thanna Mandi became untenable, and the town was entered on the same day. Two enemy battalions had been operating in the Riasi-Budil area in small detachments. Liquidating them was no problem now. While the area was being consolidated, the jawans were able to show the local population that they were not the ogres that Pakistani propaganda had made them out to be. Thousands of them had earlier left the Darhal Valley. Receiving sympathy and considerate treatment at the hands of Indian soldiers, most of them returned to their homes.
The permanent link-up with Punch was an elaborate affair. It was the last of the Indian Army’s offensive operations in Jammu & Kashmir and was also the biggest of the campaign. Its successful completion led to the liberation of 4,800 square kilometres of Indian territory. Some wit had codenamed it ‘Easy’. Before it could be mounted, more troops had to be inducted and, at the planning stage, alternative approaches were considered. The Uri-Haji Pir route had its advocates while others championed the Jhangar-Kotli approach. After considering all aspects, however, the Rajauri-Mendhar route was selected. While additional troops were on the way, Cariappa decided to clear his flanks.
The enemy held it in strength. Making it a base, the enemy could pose a threat to Indian lines of communication between Naoshera and Rajauri.
South-West of Rajauri stood Pir Badesar, a 1,656-metre sentinel guarding both the Seri and Naoshera Valleys. The enemy held it in strength. Making it a base, the enemy could pose a threat to Indian lines of communication between Naoshera and Rajauri. Pir Badesar dominated the Jhangar-Kotli route also. Its capture would, therefore, serve the dual purpose of securing the advance from Rajauri and, at the same time, induce the enemy into thinking that the Indian Army was making for Kotli. The task of capturing the feature was assigned to 268 Infantry Brigade. Commanded by Brigadier Harbhajan Singh, this formation had relieved 50 (Para) Brigade at Jhangar during July.
The advance to Pir Badesar began from Darhal after last light on 14 October. Harbhajan Singh employed only 1/1 Gorkha Rifles from his brigade. The other two battalions for the mission – 1 (Para) Punjab and 1 (Para) Kumaon – came from Jammu. Native Sikhs of Darhal acted as guides to the brigade, and the Gorkhas led the advance up to Giran. The Punjabis took over from there, and in the final bound the Kumaonis were the vanguard. By 1700 hours the next day, Pir Badesar had been taken. Artillery and the Air Force had a big hand in this quick success.
On 20 October, 5 Brigade reached Rajauri under Brigadier (later Lieutenant General) Umrao Singh. It comprised 4 Madras, 5 Rajputana Rifles and 1/4 Gorkha Rifles. To strengthen the lines of communication between Pathankot and Naoshera, two battalions were moved from Hyderabad—1 Maratha Light Infantry and 6 Jat.
To give the new brigade a feel of the terrain and the enemy, it was given the task of taking Pir Kalewa. This feature straddled the right flank of the route to Mendhar and it was essential to capture it before beginning the main advance. The brigade did well, and Pir Kalewa was in Indian hands by midday on 28 October.
To confuse the enemy and divert his forces, the unit occupying Kailash was to advance towards Thanna Mandi, and the battalion at Pir Badesar was to demonstrate towards Kotli.
With the capture of Pir Kalewa the stage was set for Operation ‘Easy’. Atma Singh’s plan envisaged a two-pronged thrust against Bhimbar Gali, the first major enemy position on the way to Mendhar. The heights overlooking this pass had been fortified and were held in strength. To capture these positions, 5 Brigade was to advance from Pir Kalewa on the right flank while 19 Brigade, consisting of 1 (Para) Punjab, 2 Rajputana Rifles and 1 (Para) Kumaon, was to strike from the left. To confuse the enemy and divert his forces, the unit occupying Kailash was to advance towards Thanna Mandi, and the battalion at Pir Badesar was to demonstrate towards Kotli. An ad hoc brigade had been formed under Lieutenant Colonel (later Brigadier) A.S. Sodhi from the garrison troops at Rajauri with 2/2 Punjab, 3 Assam and 6/8 Gorkha Rifles. This brigade was to seize Naghun, an enemy strongpoint West of Rajauri, and then capture, the Ramgarh Fort before D-day, which was fixed for 8 November.
Brigadier Yadunath Singh was placed in command of Operation ‘Easy’, and Lieutenant Colonel (later Lieutenant General) Jagjit Singh Aurora of 1 (Para) Punjab took over 19 Brigade temporarily. Yadunath Singh was an unusual soldier. A man of great piety, his daily routine included many hours of prayer and meditation, which he did not give up even during military operations. He took every opportunity to remove caste prejudices. Lieutenant General Maurice Cohen41 of the Corps of Signals relates how one day the brigadier organized a barra khana for both officers and men. “Under his instructions the food was cooked by the sweepers only. It was very good and enjoyed by all”.42
Yadunath Singh did not let his godliness come in the way of soldiering and establishing his Headquarters at Rajauri, he began to conduct the operations with great vigour. Besides the infantry element already mentioned, he had two troops of light tanks from the Central India Horse, 16 Field Regiment (less a battery), a battery from 13 Field Regiment, a battery from 22 Mountain Regiment, detachments of 3 Mahar machine-gunners, Engineers and ancillaries. Air support of a squadron of Tempests, five Dakotas, and an Auster (for air observation) was also available.
The 6/8 Gorkhas captured Naghun on 5 November with a spirited charge, in which the element of surprise was fully exploited. The fort of Ramgarh proved a little more difficult, and 2/2 Punjab captured it on 9 November after a series of operations. which were supported by the Air Force. Meanwhile, the main advance had begun on schedule.
The country between Rajauri and Punch is ideal for defence. “Looked at from the air, it presents an awesome spectacle of lofty mountain ranges torn by deep ravines, through which flow swift nullas”. There was no road at the time connecting the two places and only a mule-track snaked along the nulla-beds. It climbed up the mountains at Bhimbar Gali.
The enemy held it in strength, and there were bunkers at the top.
The enemy had done all it could to fortify the approaches to the pass. The first objective of 19 Brigade was Point 6307, a hill West of Dheri Dara. The enemy held it in strength, and there were bunkers at the top. Yadunath Singh maintained strict secrecy about the operation and had ordered that Point 6307 should be taken with a ‘silent’ night attack. No reconnaissance was permitted. A night attack is difficult business at any time, but launching one over unreconnoitred territory is particularly risky. That the brigade’s leading battalion – 1 (Para) Kumaon – succeeded in taking it on time was ample proof of the courage of its men and the leadership of its commanding officer.
The Kumaonis fired their success signal as dawn was breaking on 8 November. Soon after, 2 Rajputana Rifles passed through and, after a stiff engagement, captured the next objective: Point 6274. The enemy held a still higher feature to the North-West – Pir Saiyid Fazal Shah (Point 6945). From there it continued to snipe and mortar the Rajputana Rifles, and it was impossible for them to hold on to Point 6274 so long as Pir Saiyid Fazal Shah was in enemy hands. The task of capturing the latter was given to 1 (Para) Punjab.
To be continued