Military & Aerospace

1971 War: Battle of Shakargarh Bulge
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To carry out this task Ahmed Khan had Pakistan 15 Infantry Division and 8 Infantry Division (four brigades) supported by 8 Armoured Brigade in the holding role for the defensive phase. Information regarding the likely area of operational responsibi- lity of the various brigade-defended sectors of the Pakistan 8 and 15 Infantry Divisions was known in some detail. 15 Infantry Division was to defend Sialkot by covering its approaches between the Chenab and the Degh nadi with one brigade each in the general areas of Chharprar-Gondal-Marala headworks, Suchetgarh, and Maharajke-Phillora, 8 Infantry Division was to hold the fortresses of Zafarwal, Dhamtal and Narowal with one brigade group each, with the fourth brigade (14 Infantry Brigade) in reserve. The bulge east of the Zafarwal-Narowal fortress line, including Shakargarh town, was to be defended by paramilitary forces supported by covering troops, consisting of 20 Lancers, with elements of reconnaissance and the support battalion operating in the area.

Pakistan 6 Armoured Division and 9 Infantry Division were known to have trained together in the past. The inference was that these formations, supported by 1 Corps Artillery Brigade, formed the Pakistani strike element in the area and was probably earmaked for a possible offensive role or for a counteroffensive in a defensive battle. As Pakistan 9 Infantry Division had been inducted into Bangladesh in March 71, it was presumed that 17 Infantry Division, which had recently been raised to take its place, would be similarly used although its war potential at that stage of raising was doubtful. This strike force was expected to be located in the general area of Daska-Pasrur, to be launched wherever required.

…the projected three-pronged thrust between the Chenab and the Ravi was reduced to one main thrust by I Corps.

In the event the expected Pakistani preemptive attack did not materialize. Occupation of the corps-defended sector was completed by about the end of October and the wait for the war started. As it dragged on into the next month our rank and file began to show impatience. Despite the confrontation all along the international border, no incidents occurred.

A stalemate ensued, and as the lull lengthened the Indian commanders, apprehensive of the Pakistani strike capability, went on magnifying the danger. Exaggerated intelligence reports of the Pakistani buildup continued to arrive in October and November. Being unprocessed, they were somewhat at variance with one another and did not convey a correct picture of the enemy dispositions and the strength in the Shakargarh bulge.

There was no reliable indication of the movement of Pakistan 7 Infantry Division, which was GHQ reserve, its peacetime location being in NWFP. Its allocation south or north of the Ravi would have revealed Pakistani intentions. Information was received that they had laid extensive minefields on the entire border laterally along the Nainakot-Ikhlaspur-Masrur Bara Bhai-Chak Amru line as well as across the Bein up to the Degh nadi.

In addition, two vertical minefields were reported along the banks of these two streams. Such extensive coverage in relation to the Pakistani resources in the way of mines, engineer troops and the time available appeared exaggerated. But no significant change was reported in the general deployment of their troops.

In view of the reported Pakistani buildup opposite the Poonch sector in XV Corps, the Chief ordered an infantry brigade of 39 Infantry Division to reinforce the sector in November. This, coupled with Candeth’s insistence on locating 36 Infantry Division south of the Ravi to counter any Pakistani threat in that direction, necessitated some modifications in the original plan of offensive operations.

…extensive coverage in relation to the Pakistani resources in the way of mines, engineer troops and the time available appeared exaggerated. But no significant change was reported in the general deployment of their troops.

Since the loss of 33 Infantry Brigade of 39 Infantry Division was to be compensated by 168 Infantry Brigade in I Corps sector, the 26 Infantry Division offensive south of the Chenab, which depended upon the availability of this brigade group, became the first casualty and was abandoned. Continuing fear of a Pakistani riposte in the direction of Amritsar and Gurdaspur tied up the available troops to such an extent in defensive tasks that the idea of an offensive through Gil ferry towards Quila Sobha Singh and Pasrur was also given up. Thus the projected three-pronged thrust between the Chenab and the Ravi was reduced to one main thrust by I Corps.

The corps was allotted the task of capturing Pasrur and then, developing operations west of it up to the Marala-Ravi link canal with the aim of coordinating with the offensive operations of XV Corps. The resources left on 1 December after chipping and chopping in November were about three infantry divisions, two independent armoured brigades, one independent artillery brigade and associated administrative units.

The expected enemy operational position was from covering troops in the Shakargarh salient with Pakistan 8 Infantry Division holding the Zafarwal-Dhamtal-Narowal fortress line with two brigade groups, and with one brigade group in depth in the general area of Quila Sobha Singh and Pasrur. Opposite Ramgarh and Nandpur, between the Aik and the Degh, there was one brigade of Pakistan 15 Infantry Division. And somewhere behind and west of Pasrur lay the Pakistani strike element consisting of 6 Armoured Division with elements of 17 Infantry Division.

According to the original plan, the corps offensive operations envisaged a two-pronged thrust from the north into the Shakargarh bulge by 54 Infantry Division with 16 Armoured Brigade less one regiment, 36 Infantry Division less one infantry brigade, and 2 Armoured Brigade less one regiment between the Bein and the Degh nadi. The interdivision boundary was to be the line of the Karir nadi, and the initial objectives of 54 and 36 Infantry Divisions were Zafarwal and Shakargarh respectively.

Launching 36 Infantry Division from the north was one of two contingency plans depending upon the flow of water in the Ravi and its navigability in the area of Thakur ferry. As a preliminary to the offensive, 39 Infantry Division, less one infantry brigade, and one regiment of 16 Armoured Brigade were to occupy a divisional defended sector in the general area of Samba-Ramgarh-Nandpur-Arnia to counter a possible Pakistani riposte, north of the Degh with the aim of developing a thrust towards Jammu.

The development of operations was generally to follow this pattern: the advance to the Zafarwal-Dhamtal-Narowal fortress line was to intercept and destroy the Pakistani covering troops on the line of the Basantar and east of it; by a systematic broad frontal advance to secure the general line of Damana- Bari-Dehlra-Harar Kalan-Harar Khurd in the first phase; capturing Supwal ditch and Shakargarh in the second; and f i nally stabilizing on the line of Zafarwal-Dhamtal-Narowal.

Yahya Khan opted for war and launched an air attack on Pathankot and other airfields in Punjab soon after last light on 3 December.

Although KK did not commit himself to any time frame, as he felt this would depend upon numerous imponderables, including whether, when and where Pakistan would commit its strike force, it was sensed that he planned to reach Zafarwat, Dhamtal by about D plus four to five days. Because 33 Infantry Brigade of 9 Infantry Division was detached to reinforce the Poonch sector, and the imperative need to maintain the security of the Thakurpur ferry area, these plans were subsequently revised.

Yahya Khan opted for war and launched an air attack on Pathankot and other airfields in Punjab soon after last light on 3 December. Pakistan Army units ingresscd into the Chhamb sector1 and mounted an offensive against 10 infantry Division. Since no Pakistani offensive materialized in the Shakargarh bulge, it was decided to launch the 1 Corps offensive on 5 December at dusk. The offensive set off at 1830 hours with an advance on a broad front between the Degh nadi and Basantar as follows:

  • 54 Infantry Division with 16 Armoured Brigade, less one armoured regiment, from the general area Mawa-Galar under the command of Maj Gen Pinto.
  • 39 Infantry Division, 72 Infantry Brigade (four battalions) of 36 Infantry Division and 2 Armoured Brigade, less one armoured regiment, from the general area Londi – Chak Dolna – Mangu Chak under Maj Gen Prabhu.
  • The remainder of the corps sector was to remain on the defensive, with 323 Infantry Brigade of 39 Infantry Division and 168 Infantry Brigade of 26 Infantry Division holding the general area of Ramgarh-Bajpur-Samba, organized as X-ray sector, 87 Infantry Brigade of 39 Infantry Division on a firm base in the general area of Bamial-Narot-Parol, and 36 Infantry Division (two brigades) with one armoured regiment looking after the general area of Thakur ferry.
For the advance into the Shakargarh bulge, K K had laid down certain operational imperatives for dovetailing the various thrusts in terms of time and space as well as ensuring flank protection and retention of firm bases in the rear until compensation pivots could be established ahead. This implied that large numbers of troops would hold ground in the way of firm bases and synchronize the speed of one formation with that of the other as the advance visualized a broad steamroller type of inching forward with adequate security against tactical imbalances resulting from the operational plan itself and subsequent enemy reactions.The experience of the war of 1962 with China and the India-Pakistan war of 1965 had made K K somewhat cautious. He did not wish to take any chances and insisted that the balance must be maintained at all times, especially because of the woeful lack of reserves in the corps sector. This caution unfortunately dissipated the strength of the divisional thrusts to the extent that not more than one armoured regiment and one or two infantry battalions were in contact with the enemy at one time.

Prabhu, an artillery officer, started the advance by capturing the border posts well in time and made good progress till he hit the Pakistani minefield around Harar Kalan and Munan late in the afternoon of 7 December. The enemy position at Harar Kalan was well fortified and possibly held by no more than an infantry company with some elements of reconnaissance and a support company. Prabhu ordered the leading infantry battalion to assault Harar Kalan at night with adequate armour support.

Having failed to carry Harar Kalan frontally, Prabhu decided to outflank the position by sidestepping 2,000 yards east of the village in the proximity of Shahbazpur.

The attack failed, with casualties of 24 dead and 65 wounded. As transpired later, the casualties were caused by an ill-conceived and badly managed assault because of inadequate planning and ineffective fire support although there was no shortage of artillery. Apparently, no provision had been made for the organized breaching of a lane through the minefield.

Having failed to carry Harar Kalan frontally, Prabhu decided to outflank the position by sidestepping 2,000 yards east of the village in the proximity of Shahbazpur. Owing to indifferent going, the armoured/infantry column reached Shahbazpur rather late in the afternoon of 8 December after a circuitous approach. The trawl tanks started breaching the minefield in broad day-light, and two of them got across while the third blew up on an old mine.

As it was getting dark, Prabhu, apprehending an attack by Pakistani tank-hunting parties, allowed the two forward tanks to be abandoned and endeavoured to get the two trawls back. The trawls were however ditched in the middle of the minefield and the attempt failed. There was no enemy pressure, not even mini-mal opposition, but Prabhu was bogged down by his own inability to control the battle. There was no shortage of resources, only lack of leadership and ability to manage the battle competently.

After the abortive attack on the night of 7/8 December, Prabhu ordered 72 Infantry Brigade to attack Harar Kalan on the night of 9/10 December. But this was later postponed to 10/11 December to coincide with 54 Infantry Division’s attack on Dehlra and Chakra, both on the western flank of Harar Kalan. The attack on Harar Kalan was quite successful, but further advance on 11 December was halted on encountering the mine barrier on the other side of the objective.

Efforts continued to breach the second minefield at various spots, but no headway was made. Even though seven days had elapsed from the start of hostilities, it seemed unlikely that at this rate 39 Infantry Division would be able to reach Shakargarh in the immediate future although it did not have far to go. Notwithstanding the abundance of resources and very light enemy opposition, Prabhu failed to make any headway.

Abreast of 39 Infantry Division, 54 Infantry Division under Pinto made good progress west of the Karir almost according to plan. Capture of Dehlra village had been originally allotted to 39 Infantry Division, which was located on their side of the interdivisional boundary southeast of the Karir. Dehlar occupied a pivotal position in this subsector on account of various tracks converging on it.

The enemy resisted fiercely at Chakra, but Dehlra was there- after taken almost without a fight. The enemy lost six tanks in this action.

It was discovered after contact that Dehlra derived much of its strength from a fortified position around Chakra village. The Chakra position also had its inherent strength on account of its obvious dominance of the surrounding area as well as by the presence of two streams on its immediate flanks which were partial antitank obstacles.

The enemy had sited and developed the Chakra defences with considerable skill and ingenuity. Until this position was reduced, the flanks of both 39 and 54 Infantry Divisions in their subse- quent advance were under serious threat. 39 Infantry Division had contacted Dehlra on 7 December and learnt that it was considerably strengthened by a protective minefield. To assault this position frontally was unthinkable, and the division’s capacity to take this position from the rear was impaired because of the failure of his abortive attempt to breach the second minefield west of Harar Khurd. Not to hold up the advance any further, the reduction of the Chakra-Dehlra position was entrusted to 54 Infantry Division.

Pinto launched a well-prepared attack on Chakra from the rear after last light on 10 December and breached the minefield. The enemy resisted fiercely at Chakra, but Dehlra was there- after taken almost without a fight. The enemy lost six tanks in this action. Their tracks indicated that they were part of the squadron which was withdrawing along the east bank of the Karir nadi. Making use of higher ground, this squadron sniped at our advancing forces on either side of the nadi. Consequent to the capture of Chakra and Dehlra, the flanks of both divisions were secured.

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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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