Brigadier Pritam Singh: The Saviour of Poonch
This is a true story of a brave and resilient soldier, Brigadier Pritam Singh, MC who commanded 1 Para (Kumaon) in the Battle of Shalateng against a strong force of Pakistani raiders led by Pakistan Army officers which had almost reached Srinagar. Later, he led his battalion through the heavily defended Haji Pir Pass and reinforced the encircled Indian garrison of the border town of Poonch. The siege was broken by November, 1948 by a link up of the Jammu Division task force and Poonch force after almost one year.
Pritam Singh was born in a noble family of village Dina, Ferozpur, Punjab. He was commissioned in 4/19 Hyderabad Regiment (Now 4 Kumaon) at Secunderabad in 1938.The unit sailed to Tanglin, Singapore under 12 Indian Infantry Brigade in August 1939 as World War II clouds were on the horizon . Lt Pritam Singh was posted to 3/16 Punjab Regiment in 1941 at the same location on promotion as Captain. On 8 December, 1941 the Japanese 25 Army invaded Northern Malaya and his unit was moved to face the invasion. After bitter fighting, the unit suffered a defeat. Most of the troops were killed or taken POWs.
Captain Pritam Singh escaped from the Japanese fatigue camp at Tengah Airfield along with two more officers .They travelled through Thailand and reached Burma, where they split into two groups. The other two headed North to Myitkyiana, whereas Pritam, the lone wolf, headed west for Tamu through thick Jungles on 15 September 1942. He contacted the Indian piquet on 24 October 1942 and surrendered formally to the Post commander. By that time he had travelled 2000 miles across hostile terrain and Japanese held territories. He was despatched to Dimapur and then by train to Calcutta and admitted in Military Hospital .He was cleared by Military intelligence and on February 1943 was awarded the Military Cross for his daring act. Now a Major, he proceeded on long leave to Dehradun and got married.
On 15 August 1947, British divided India in to two nations. Maharaja Hari Singh of Jammu and Kashmir wanted to remain neutral but Pakistan annexed his principality with a Division plus covert force of Razakars led by Pakistan army officers. Finally the Maharaja signed the Instrument of Accession on 26 October 1947 and on 27 October, 1 Sikh was airlifted to Srinagar.
The same day, Major Pritam Singh had gone to Army Headquarters where he was given his promotion order to the rank of Lt Colonel, posting to 1 Para (Kumaon) as commanding officer and orders to join forthwith. He along with his HQ and two companies were airlifted to Kashmir under 161 Infantry Brigade. He did not get the time even to drop his wife to her hometown.
On 31 October 1947, the Indian army had deployed 1 Para, 1 Punjab,1 Sikh, D Coy 4 Kumaon and Alfa Squadron of 7 Cavalry with Daimler Armoured Cars in the Kashmir Valley.
A serious threat developed from Badgam on 3 November, where Delta Company of 4 Kumaon clashed with 300 raiders at Badgam. They fought to the last man and last bullet and saved Srinagar. The first highest gallantry award in independent India, the Param Vir Chakra, was awarded for this battle posthumously to Major Somnath Sharma of 4 Kumaon.
The raiders were in a jubilant mood and were advancing from Zainakot to Shalateng with 100 lorries on the Pattan-Srinagar road. Lt Colonel Pritam Singh was the selected to trap the enemy at Shalateng and stall the offensive. He was given “A” Company of 4 Kumaon and a troop of Armoured Cars. 1 Sikh was in holding role while a troop of Armoured Cars outflanked and established a road block in the rear.
Lt. Colonel Pritam Singh thus set a total trap and asked for fighter bomber cover also. The battle started on first light of 6 November. 1 Para attacked the raiders from south and the Armoured Cars fired from the west. The bombers destroyed the lorries. The raiders for the first time were hit so hard that they panicked and turned back. On 8 November, when the troops searched the battle site, they found 600 dead bodies of Pakistani troops and raiders in the ploughed fields, the road and in burning lorries. Operation Shalateng was a grand victory and the hero of the battle was Lt. Colonel Pritam Singh , Commanding Officer 1 Para, supported by valiant troops of his unit, “A” Company 4 Kumaon, 1 Sikh and “A” Squadron of 7 Cavalry.
1 Para and 7 Cavalry were then ordered to pursue the withdrawing raiders, they chased them and inflicted heavy casualties. The force established control over Baramulla on 14 November .The offensive now headed for URI that was cleared on 18 November after bitter fighting. The next objective was to assault Muzaffarabad and Domel.
On 20 November 1947, Lt. Colonel Pritam Singh was ordered to head south as Poonch was surrounded by the raiders in huge numbers and the garrison was expected to fall anytime since the Muslim troops of the State Forces had deserted and joined the raiders.
The Poonch saving Task force comprised 1 Para, 2 Dogra and a Armoured Troop of 7 Cavalry along with 24 vehicles with rations and ammunition. It started its long journey through enemy infested area on 20 November 1947. The team traversed through a link road from Uri to Poonch via Haji Pir pass and went through thick Jungles and steep gradients. The column was delayed en route due to mechanical failures and perforce the convoy had to be divided in to two halves. At first light ,the rear column was ambushed by the raiders near Haji Pir pass. The vehicle column was set on fire, 16 soldiers were killed and 14 were wounded. Lt. Colonel Pritam Singh was advised by the Brigade Commander to fall back if he wished. He directed the injured and rear column to fall back to Uri but decided that 1 Para would continue the advance to Poonch.
The raiders now realised that the Task force was still on the move and they destroyed a wooden bridge that fell en-route. An alternative crossing place was located by Col Pritam and 1 Para with few logistics vehicles negotiated through the ford under enemy fire. 419 paratroopers of 1 Para led by their beloved commanding officer entered Poonch town on mid-night of 21 November 1947. There was total silence since the region was completely cut off from the rest of India. When he reported to HQ JAK Force, nobody could believe it. This was an historical achievement. He immediately called for commanders of the depleted State battalions, who had orders to withdraw and were all packed to leave. He ordered that no one will withdraw as long as he was alive and that the garrison would fight to the last man and last bullet.
The situation at Poonch town was grim. The refugees from Mirpur and Kotli had abandoned their villages and had converged to Poonch due to atrocities of the raiders. The town had limited food supply and with additional 40,000 refugees, the food stock was depleting fast. Lt Col Pritam Singh visited the entire area and re-organised the defence of Poonch in a number of tiers. He kept 1 Para as an assault force and raided various enemy positions on surrounding hills.
He then decided to convert a small road into an air strip. It was a herculean task. He called all village elders, conveyed his plan and asked for manpower. He stressed that rations would finish in 10 days and the only alternative was air supply. The locals cheered and promised all help. The work started in full swing and by first week of December 1947 the airstrip was ready.
On 6 December 1947, Lt. Colonel Pritam Singh was promoted as Brigadier and appointed as Force Commander of the Poonch garrison. He continued strengthening the defence of Poonch. The first daring landing on the runway was made by the legendry Group Captain Baba Mehar Singh accompanied by Air Marshal Subroto Mukherjee in a Harvard Aircraft of RIAF. The same evening a Dakota aircraft landed with a section of 2.5 Pounder artillery guns. Soon an air bridge was created where supplies were flown in and refugees and injured were flown out. Air force pilots termed it as Poonching which implied flying through narrow valleys and landing on a small airstrip in the face of hostile fire. It required an ample measure of courage and guts.
Pakistan Army Plans were initially shattered at Shalateng and Badgam as they suffered heavy casualties and now the plan to capture Poonch was neutralised by strong defiance of Tiger Pooch. Locals fondly nicknamed Pritam Singh as Sher Bacha (young Lion). Brig Pritam Singh raised two militia battalions from able bodied youth of Poonch inhabitant to boost up strength of troops. The new units were called 8 and 11 JAK Militia. In February, 3/9 Gorkha was inducted to reinforce Poonch Force.
In March 1948, Pakistan Medium Artillery started heavy shelling on the airfield and did not permit aircrafts to land. Brig. Pritam Singh also suffered severe injuries during the shelling. There was a rumour that he had succumbed to his wounds. JAK HQ advised Poonch garrison to be abandoned. Brig. Pritam refused to be evacuated and recovered fast. He organised a raid at the enemy Gun positions and forced the raiders to withdraw as a result direct firing on the airfield stopped.
Sheikh Abdullah visited Poonch and reprimanded the Kashmiris for killing the Muslim raiders. The civil crowd bashed his group and the delegation was sent back unceremoniously.
A plan was then made to relieve the Poonch garrison from the Eastern approach via Akhnoor, Sunderbani and Rajouri. A Division level force with one armoured Squadron was raised under Brig Yadunath Singh. The operation, codenamed Operation Easy began on 7 November 1948. As the force approached Poonch the garrison also launched a breakout from the siege and linked up with 19 Infantry Brigade between Mendhar and Poonch. 77 Para Brigade and 161 Infantry Brigade could not secure Haji Pir before the ceasefire and.
On the Poonch side, India gained 2100 sq kms of area even as 40,000 refugees including Muslims, Pandits, Dogras and Sikhs were saved from the wrath of the butchers. The cease fire was announced on 1 January 1949. The diversion of forces to save Poonch was at great cost. Domel, Musaffarabad, Kotli, Mirpur could not be liberated and POK came into existence on the other side of the Cease Fire Line (CFL) now called Line of Control (LOC).
Sadly, the grand feat accomplished by the Indian army forces under Brig. Pritam Singh, which has few parallels in military history, remained unrecognised and he was instead court martialled on the basis of a case filed by the Raja of Poonch of theft of valuable heirlooms from his house that the Brigadier had converted into his Force Headquarter. If the Brigadier had done something wrong he had to be punished but it cannot even be forgotten that the Raja had run away in the face of the raiders, leaving his people high and dry.
What is of national importance is the dedication and single minded determination of Brig Pritam Singh who stood like a rock against the hordes of Pakistani Lashkars with a handful of troops in Poonch despite having been ordered to withdraw . He came as a saviour for the 40,000 refugees held at Poonch who required food, shelter and protection from the cruel raiders. His son Brig Jasbir Singh, SM, also from the Kumaon Regiment has penned down a wonderful book “POW, WHO SAVED KASHMIR”. It is time for India to put aside the misdemeanour of Brig. Pritam Singh and give due recognition to his military acumen.