Military & Aerospace

1971 War: Battle of Shakargarh Bulge
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The Shakargarh bulge juts out like a tongue from the main landmass of Pakistan between the Chenab and the Ravi. It southern portion rests on the Ravi, the northern runs parallel to the Shivalik range, leaving a narrow segment between the international boundary and the hills, and its tip points towards Madhopur headworks and the Pathankot military base beyond. The main road and rail communications between Pathankot, Samba and Jammu run very close to the border throughout. In the south, the sensitive areas of Amritsar, Batala and Gurdaspur in Punjab state lie within easy striking distance across the Ravi.

The terrain in the bulge is generally flat and interlaced with numerous nullahs running north to south. Prominent among them from west to east are Aik, Degh, Basantar, Bein and Ujh. The bulge is generally well served with a network of roads and rail tracks emanating from Sialkot, Gujranwala and Lahore. The road system runs from west to east towards Shakargarh, passing through the important communication centres of Pasrur, Chaw- inda, Zafarwal, Dhamtal and Narowal. On the whole, the roads west of the Zafarwal, Dhamtal and Narowal line were of a higher grade compared with those east of it.

…it was apparent that the Pakistani military planners had built a cauldron of fortifications in a hollow square with its sides touching the border in the north…

In consonance with the overall Indian defensive strategy in the western theatre, the option of taking military action squarely rested on Yahya Khan. Unstable and unpredictable as he was, a preemptive Pakistani attack could not be ruled out, especially in view of their holding defensive field formations as also their strike elements being located in cantonments within easy reach of the respective battle locations. From what could be surmised from the discernible pattern of deployment and obstacle plan, it was apparent that the Pakistani military planners had built a cauldron of fortifications in a hollow square with its sides touching the border in the north, the line of the Zafarwal-Dham, tal-Narowal fortresses in the east and the Ravi in the south.

The Pakistani holding force on these three sides consisted of 8 and 15 Infantry Divisions supported by 8 Independent Armoured Brigade. Pakistan 15 Infantry Division held the northern border covering the approaches to Sialkot and Chawinda, and Pakistan 8 Infantry Division manned the Zafarwal, Dhamtal and Narowal fortresses and the approaches to Pasrur through the Gil ferry north of Ajnala.

To protect Zafarwal from outflanking moves from the direction of Samba, a ditch was dug in the general area of Supwal north of the Lalial forest, and some areas north of the Gil ferry were flooded. The convex tip of the bulge tongue east of the fortress line, including the communication centre of Shakargarh, was known to be defended by paramilitary forces supported by covering troops consisting of 20 Lancers and elements of the reconnaissance and support battalions. The known battle location of the Pakistani strike force, two brigades of 6 Armoured Division and 17 Infantry Division, was in the hollow of the cauldron in the general area of Daska-Pasrur.

In this posture, Pakistan had the advantage of reacting from the interior lines to an Indian move piercing any side of the cauldron. Offensively, Pakistan had the option of hitting up north towards Jammu or down south towards Amritsar without upsetting the balance of its defensive posture as it involved only pivoting movements. It had the option of recoiling into interior lines in case of failure or to meet the Indian counteraction from the opposite direction. But if the strike force was committed towards Pathankot or between Samba and Madhopur, east of the fortress line, it would stick its neck out to the extent of losing the defensive balance against any Indian counteraction from the northern and southern shoulders in the direction of Sialkot and Pasrur respectively. It would have been easily accessible as the strike force committed outside the cauldron would have found it difficult to recoil to fill the hollow of the square in time.

Although India intensified its diplomatic efforts in the international sphere to seek a political solution to the Bangladesh problem, the chances of this were receding.

If Pakistan chose to send its thrust lines into Indian territory through the sides of the cauldron either north or south, it could muster two or three additional brigades out of the holding force for further development of its offensive operation. But it could not do so in case of the lightly held tongue of the bulge east of the fortress line. Thus the resources left for an offensive directed against Pathankot and Madhopur did not permit deep penetration of any significance. In fact, Yahya Khan’s best bet lay in a pre-emptive attack when the Indian defensive posture was low because of lack of troops in the vicinity. The Indian planners had to prepare for this contingency.

The head of the Indian planning team was Maj Gen K K Singh, Director of Military Operations and General Officer Commanding-designate of 1 Corps, which was operationally responsible for the Shakargarh bulge. A dedicated professional who was universally respected for his competence and patriotic zeal, in all the crises the Indian Army had faced after partition he had held appointments of responsibility and had grown up with the realities of pragmatism. He had commanded an armoured briga- de in the Sialkot sector in the 1965 conflict and was fully conscious that any setback at the hands of the Pakistani Army in this region would greatly embarrass the Indian Government.

On assessing the enemy capabilities, particularly in the matter of reserves, it was apparent that the only areas where it could exploit the strength of its armour was in the plains of Chhamb-Jaurian and in the Shakargarh bulge. Having participated in the armoured battle in the previous conflict, which had ended in a talemate, KK Singh brought personal involvement into planning, especially when he knew that he himself was going to execute the plan in the field.

His corps consisted of three infantry divisions and two independent armoured brigades supported by two independent artillery brigades and connected administrative services. For want of accommodation in the nearby cantonments these formations were located in the Indian hinterland as far deep as Hyderabad. Our movement staff worked out a schedule of about three weeks to concentrate the entire corps in the peripheral areas of the Shakargarh bulge. The main constraints on this movement were funnelling the rail arteries on to a single line between Jullundur and Pathankot, because this limited the feedin capacity, and the provisions of the Karachi Agreement, which forbade additional induction of troops in Jammu and Kashmir. This worried the planners a great deal, especially because any premature concentration of field forces would lay India open to charges of warlike intentions, and if the movement started after a Pakistani attack it would be too late.

This dilemma was resolved by increasing the covering force to sufficient combat strength to withstand any pre-emptive Pakistani attack in July or August so as to take the field in the following campaigning period at the slightest indications of military preparations on the part of the enemy. Although India intensified its diplomatic efforts in the international sphere to seek a political solution to the Bangladesh problem, the chances of this were receding.

The Chiefs aim was quite clear: first, he wanted to ensure the security of the sensitive areas of Akhnur, Jammu, Samba, Madhopur, Pathankot, Gurdaspur and Amritsar; secondly, to safeguard road and rail communications between Pathankot and Jammu;

With the passage of time, Yahya Khan’s bellicosity was increasing, and this could not be ignored in the interest of India’s security. Orders were accordingly passed in early October to concentrate the field forces in Punjab so as to adopt a defensive posture at short notice. I met K K Singh near the Thakurpur ferry in the middle of October, when his leading elements had just moved in and the rest of his corps was trickling in at an agonizingly slow pace. He smiled and commented: “Our weakest hour is now. Another four days and Yahya would have missed his opportunity.” Yahya did exactly that, and by the third week of October K K was firmly poised in his defensive posture as follows:

  • 36 Infantry Division under Maj Gen Balwant Singh Ahluwalia to cover the approaches to Pathankot across the Ravi in the general area of Gurdaspur-Dinanagar.
  • 39 Infantry Division under Maj Gen B.R. Prabhu in the general area of Madhopur-Kottia Parol-Bamial-Ujh river-Dyala Chak to cover the approaches to Madhopur and protect rail and road communications in the area.
  • 54 Infantry Division under Maj Gen W.A.G. Pinto in the general area of Samba between the Bein river and the Degh nadi.
  • The Ramgarh-Nandpur-Samba area between the Aik nullah and the Degh nadi was held by about two brigades under an ad hoc headquarters.

The defensive plan was to strongly hold the likely routes of ingress in depth and have suitably positioned reserves for counteraction in the rear. In characteristic fashion, K K had prepa- red the following contingency plans to contain the expected Pakistani thrust:

  • If the thrust materialized between Samba and Jammu in the direction of Jammu, 26 and 54 Infantry Divisions were to contain it while 39 Infantry Division and one armoured brigade were to hit the lodgment area in Charwa-Ramgarh from the eastern flank.
  • If Pakistan struck between Samba-Bamial-Madhopur, 39 and 54 Infantry Divisions were to contain it, while 36 Infantry Divisions and one armoured brigade were to cross. the Ravi to disrupt the enemy’s lines of communication in the general area of Shakargarh.
  • In case of a major offensive across the Ravi, 15 Infantry Division would contain it, while 36 Infantry Division and one armoured brigade would counterattack bridges in the general area of Kalanaur-Dera Baba Nanak and Gill ferry. Simultaneously, 39 and 54 Infantry Divisions would launch an offensive along the Shakargarh and Narowal axes.

Contiguous to the zone defended by 1 Corps, the shoulders of the bulge were held in the north between the Chenab and the Aik nullah by 26 Infantry Division under XV Corps, and 15 Infantry Division under XI Corps covered in the south the Ranian and Dera Baba Nanak area, including Gill ferry. The overall coordination of the three corps operations involved in the defence of the bulge peripheral area was vested in Lt Gen Candeth. He had about six infantry divisions supported by four independent armoured brigades to fight the battle of Shakargarh bulge against Lt Gen Irshed Ahmed Khan, who had about three infantry divisions, one armoured division and one armoured brigade.

The allocation of Pakistani forces to the Shakargarh bulge and their assigned tasks were known to us with some exactitude, especially from the information obtained from defecting East Pakistani officers.

Besides numerical superiority, the nature of the bulge gave Candeth the advantage of three open sides served by good communications to develop thrusts along any combination of two to three directions, facing Ahmed Khan to split his strike elements and face defeat in detail. Pakistan had the river obstacle of the Chenab separating the Sialkot and Chhamb sectors, and this was a constraint on switching forces quickly from one sector to, another.

Before formulating the concept and pattern of the offensive operations in the bulge, much discussion had taken place between K K and his planning team, and later between the Chief and him. The Chief’s aim was quite clear: first, he wanted to ensure the security of the sensitive areas of Akhnur, Jammu, Samba, Madhopur, Pathankot, Gurdaspur and Amritsar; secondly, to safeguard road and rail communications between Pathankot and Jammu; thirdly, to so engage the Pakistani strike force that it could not be extricated for employment in other sectors and to cause as much attrition as possible in the process; and lastly, acquire as much territory, especially in the Pakistani heartland, as possible to be used as a bargaining lever in postwar negotiations.

In translating the Chief’s aims into action, KK projected that the enemy should not be given battle on ground of his choosing, that is the area of Pasrur and Quila Sobha Singh, where the Pakistani armour had the advantage of using the cauldron fortresses as pivots for manoeuvre, and the capability of bringing down massive artillery concentrations from prepared positions.

Moreover, he felt that any effort to pierce the cauldron by attacking the fortresses would be costly in attrition as well as for the operational time schedule. He preferred to draw out the Pakistani strike force (6 Armoured and 17 Infantry Divisions) from the cauldron and force an engagement of attrition outside it. Once the Pakistani armour was humbled in battle, the door would be open to the sensitive areas in the hinterland.The battle areas which met these requirements were either the tongue of the bulge east of the Zafarwal-Dhamtal-Narowal fortress line or the rear areas on either side of the Chenab. The dovetailed development of thrusts towards these areas, either simultaneously or one after the other, was bound to attract the Pakistani strike element and force it to split to meet the threats posed. Facing battle while divided against superior forces on ground not of its choosing, Pakistan could be defeated in detail. In pursuance of this concept, Candeth was asked to project detailed plans for a coordinated offensive to capture the Shakargarh bulge. He proposed to develop three divergent thrusts:
  • 1 Corps with 36 and 54 Infantry Division and armou-red brigades to attack between the Degh nadi and Ravi to capture the Pakistani strongpoints of Zafarwal-Dhamtal-Narowal-Quila Sobha Singh. It was hoped that this would force the enemy to commit his reserve formations (6 Armou-red and 17 Infantry Divisions) south of the Degh nadi.
  • After the enemy’s reserve formations had been committed thus, 39 Infantry Division, supported by one armoured regiment, was to break out of the general area of Nandpur-Ramgarh towards the enemy’s rear in the Pasrur area. But in view of the enemy’s known capability to mount a counteroffensive against the Nandpur-Ramgarh-Samba sector no risks could be countenanced, and consequently this area was to be held by 39 Infantry Division in a defensive posture till the enemy revealed his hand. This thrust was to be developed only when the Pakistanis committed their reserve formations south of the Degh.
  • Dovetailed with the above, XV Corps, with 10 and 26 Infantry Divisions supported by the affiliated armoured bri-gade, was to launch a two-pronged offensive simultaneously, or shortly before or after, with one thrust on either side of the Chenab. The intention was to encircle and destroy Pakistan 1 Corps if possible by multiple but converging thrusts by I and XV Corps.
  • In addition, depending upon the Pakistani reaction to these thrusts, if the rear areas of Pasrur and Quila Sobha Singh were vacated by the Pakistani reserve formations moving to meet either of the above thrusts and towards the Chenab, XI Corps with two infantry brigades and an armoured brigade was to develop an offensive through Gil ferry in the south towards Quila Sobha Singh and Pasrur, making Narowal fortress en route.

This offensive plan was on the whole approved with slight modifications. It can rightly be called K K’s plan as Candeth, not being much of a military thinker himself, was fed it in bits and pieces at various meetings with the Chief. Like most advanced planning, its working depended upon various assumptions which imponderables like the enemy’s reaction and the progress of operations in other sectors could upset. But on the face of it this plan was flexible enough to meet the fluctuating fortunes of war.

The allocation of Pakistani forces to the Shakargarh bulge and their assigned tasks were known to us with some exactitude, especially from the information obtained from defecting East Pakistani officers. Pakistan I Corps was operationally responsible for the defence of the Shakargarh bulge, and its mission was to eliminate the Indian enclaves on the Pakistani side of the Ravi in the general area of Narowal and simulate offensive actions which would draw the Indian strike force into the bulge so as to foil their timely extraction to meet the main Pakistani offensive in the Ganganagar-Suratgarh area.

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5 thoughts on “1971 War: Battle of Shakargarh Bulge

  1. Gen I was about to write something unpleasant in your article ”needs a rook” but decided to first know about you which I could not find on the net however decided to read what you had written about the battle of Shakargarh bulge wherein I happened to to fight under 36 Div as a young Officer and I find your total picture very correct and unbiased except where you have mention names of two journalist presumably having connection with 17H/1H/4H who painted pictures chivalrous Armoured charges in the then media.
    First time my troops saw blood was when we cut their Eid ke bakre they had left behind

  2. The brave soldier has written too many details which are hard to follow you read further and further into the paper. The battle action papers are better written if day to day action of individual fighting unit is included than the preparations and thinking of the higher command level, although the latter has its own importance and briefly included.

    Truly the above paper is Indian detailed account of a battle in very much on the same pattern as Major A H Amin (Pakistan) has written about the same battle. Mind it, the latter is the Pakistani version. Major Amin hides the weaknesses and shortcomings of Pakistani Army, writing detailed account of “nothings” and taking long to state that even the battle of Sakargarh Bulge was lost cause for Pakistanis.

    • This war should never have happened. I was on the Shahadra sector in the Pakistan Army at the foolish age of 23 but after all these years wisdom of my years has taken over. Pakistan and India MUST NEVER again engage in any future conflict. It is mindless stupidity to send our children to their deaths and leave a legacy of hatred behind us. Instead we must endeavour to build bridges and leave well enough alone, i.e. Kashmir. Look towards helping each other into a brighter future. Look where the rest of the world is headed and look at ourselves. Pakistan MUST take the first step to set it’s own house in order. Otherwise we know the alternatives.

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