Sunday, June 17, 2012
BASANTAR A STORY RETOLD
by Arun Prakash
Soon after the 1965 war General Headquarters ordered all formations and units of the Pakistan Army to destroy their respective war diaries and submit completion reports. This was done and their destruction was an irreparable national loss and an intellectual suicide. Then came 1971 and in its aftermath Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto came to power only to be pushed out in 1977 and soon after coming to power the Zia administration directed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to reconstruct the events of the 1965 war from its archives. Surprisingly all the relevant records were found missing stated to have been destroyed in the routine course. The destruction of the war diaries and the disappearance of war time records could not be a simple coincidence. It is logical to suspect ulterior motives behind these misdeeds. These were premeditated acts of a sinister master plan prepared by those who wielded authority.
Origins from 1965
The story of the 1971 battle of Basantar actually begins in 1965 in the region spanning two major towns, Jammu in India and Silakot in Pakistan that lies between the rivers Ravi and Chenab with foothills towards the east, through a narrow stretch of which close and parallel to the international border runs the only road connecting Jammu and Kashmir to the rest of India. This makes the area vital and very vulnerable. The terrain across the border is generally flat and intensively cultivated, bisected by Degh Nadi (Basantar River) that flows from Samba in India to the south of Pasrur in Pakistan. It was in this area that the stage was set for the decisive phase of the 1965 war. For ten vital days in September that year the strip of land between Eik Nadi and Degh Nadi was the scene of attacks and counter attacks by the opposing sides in the biggest tank battle since Second World War.
The Battle of Chawinda
“September 16, was a day of heavy fighting and fluctuating fortunes. Village Jassoran fell to the enemy. So did Village Sodreke. The western flank of Chawinda got partially denuded when 3rd Frontier Force could not hold part of its remaining battalion. After a fierce fight Village Buttur Dograndi was lost to
the enemy. The enemy was desperate to envelope Chawinda, the troops defending this town were no less determined to prevent this breakthrough. Lieutenant Colonel AB Tarapore Commanding Officer 17th Poona Horse made a brave effort and came within one mile of his objective when his tank was hit and destroyed. ”
Lieutenant Colonel Ardeshir Burzorji Tarapore was assigned the task of delivering the main armoured thrust for capturing Phillora. To surprise the enemy he launched an attack on Phillora from the rear but suddenly faced a counter-attacked by the enemy's heavy armour from Wazirwali. Tarapore defied the enemy's charge, held his ground and gallantly attacked Phillora with one of his squadrons supported by an Infantry battalion, remaining unperturbed even though under continuous enemy tank and artillery fire throughout. When wounded, he refused to be evacuated. On September 14, 1965, he led his regiment to capture Wazirwali. Unmindful of his injury, he again led his regiment and captured Jassoran and ButturDograndi on September 16, 1965. In this battle his own tank was hit several times. Despite the odds, he held ground at both these places and helped the supporting infantry to attack Chawinda from the rear. Inspired by his leadership, the regiment fiercely attacked the enemy armour and destroyed approximately sixty enemy tanks, suffering only nine tank casualties, however, his tank hit and enveloped in flames and he died a hero's death bringing to an end six days of sustained and extraordinary valour, for which he was awarded the Param Vir Chakra.
This was the battle of Chawinda at Zafarwal near Bara Pind seen with both Pakistani and Indian eyes. Six years later the famous battle that Indians call Basantar and Pakistanis call Bara Pind, which is really our main story it is interesting to note that both were tank battles fought in the same general area; both featured the Poona Horse and both witnessed very daring acts of bravery; one by a veteran a Commanding Officer and the other by a young subaltern, both to be posthumously rewarded with the highest gallantry award, one cannot but fail to see a connection. Before we proceed with our main story let us see what happened during the intervening years and also throw some light from the first years after independence.
Between the War Years
The main expansion of the Indian Army took place during 1963 – 65 as a direct fall out of the 1962 Chinese invasion. The soul exception was armour, whose modernization began only after 1965. Beginning with twelve armoured regiments in 1947 there were only fifteen by 1965 as compared to seventeen in Pakistan. The acquisition of Centurion tanks could hold in check Patton tanks in 1965. Pakistani propaganda during and after the 1965 war made extravagant claims and successively convinced its people that major victories had been won. Only a few knowledgeable officials were aware of the true state of affairs and the general public did not realise how their army fared until after 1971. Altaf Gauhar, Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in Field Marshal Ayub’s Government writing in the foreword to Air Marshal Asghar Khan’s book, ‘The First Round’, “… few people outside the Armed Forces realise how close Pakistan came to disaster in the 1965 war …” To the Indian armour with inferior equipment and lesser numbers must go the credit of forestalling Pakistani armour which was their main hope for Operation Grand slam and victory.
Both countries increased their defence potential after 1965. By 1971 eight regiments were equipped with T-55, three with T-54 tanks and six with indigenously manufactured Vijayantha tanks and two regiments of PT-76 tanks. Four regiments of the ageing Centurions still retained their tanks. Apart from six independent armoured squadrons and four reconnaissance squadrons, one regiment of AMX-13 tanks and a missile regiment were also on the ‘orbat’. Unlike 1965, in 1971 Indian armour was superior in numbers as well as technical capability in terms of equipment compared to Pakistani armour, which turned out to be their major weakness. This was because after 1965 the Americans stopped aid to both India and Pakistan. While it did not affect India’s capability Pakistan being fully equipped with American tanks was seriously handicapped. She tried as best as she could from other countries and from the international market but to fully make up the heavy losses of 1965 was not possible.
1971 the Pakistani buildup
Pakistan’s strategy was to remain on the defensive in the east and launch an offensive in the west. Their belief was, “The defence of the East Pakistan lay in the west”. India on the other hand sought to achieve a quick victory in the east and carry out holding operations in the west. By the middle of 1971 Pakistan had finalized its plans for war with India, the broad strategy being to prevent India from making major gains in the east and launch a major offensive in the west and achieve a decisive success so that any gains India might make in the east were nullified. As late as in August after a war game they felt their offensive capability was to be augmented and made some organisational changes one of them being to withdraw from some of the infantry divisions armoured regiments integral to them. In the west they had three corps (I, II and IV), two armored divisions (1st and 6th), ten infantry divisions, two independent armoured brigades (2nd and 8th raised as a result of the reorganisation as explained earlier), two artillery brigades and one independent infantry brigade group. Out of this force it was proposed to deploy seven infantry divisions in the holding role, leaving two armoured divisions and three infantry divisions for conducting offensive operations. Pakistan’s 12th and 23rd infantry divisions each holding eleven infantry brigades between them with a brigade in reserve were to defend the cease fire line in Jammu and Kashmir. They were capable of launching limited offensives on their own.
The Shakargarh bulge (Pakistani territory that juts into India) extending from the Chenab to the Ravi - the stage on which our story was enacted was in the charge of 8th and 15th infantry division under I Corps, whose hands were strengthened by the 8th independent armoured brigade. The defensive position of this area was improved by creating artificial obstacles like anti tank ditches, improved natural obstacles and minefields. Concrete defences were constructed around Zafarwal, Pasrur and a few others along with three obstacle belts laid with anti tank mines running west to east somewhat parallel to the border. The 8th had three armoured regiments 13th Lancers, 27 Cavalry, 31 Cavalry equipped with M 47/ M 48 Patton tanks and an armoured infantry battalion (M 113 APCs) was to act as a counter attack force in Chawinda area. The I Corps was in effect holding their area guided by the American concept of mobile defence, that visualizes holding strong nodal points and defending the line beyond which no enemy penetration was permissible. This task fell on the 8th independent armoured brigade which was to counter attack any intrusion across this sacred line.
The Indian buildup
At the start of the 1971 war India employed twenty two armoured regiments in the western front as against three in the east. As in 1965, the Indian I Corps area of operations lay between the Ravi and Chenab. Then it operated between the Aik Nala and Degh nadi but in 1971 it advanced into Pakistan between the Ravi and the Degh nadi lying in the southern half of the sector. This time with the construction of the railway line to Jammu the narrow corridor assumed greater importance. The Indian I Corps established itself in that area to carry out its operational responsibilities in October and took up defensive positions on arrival. 54 infantry division was to look after the area between the Bein river and Degh nadi and Samba. Several contingency plans were prepared to deal with a pre emptive strike by the Pakistan I Corps. The general idea was simple, troops not under attack would carry out flank attacks and the two independent armoured brigades (16th and 2nd), either of them was to attack from the rear if the other faced any Pakistani attack in their area.
The 16th under the command of Brigadier Arun Vaidya who later became the Army Chief had three Centurion regiments and one of them the Poona Horse central to our story.
As we have observed both the opposing sides were led by their 1 Corps, Pakistan's commanded by Lieutenant General Irshad Hassan Khan, the Indian’s by Lieutenant General KK Singh. The latter an armoured corps officer decided to maintain a strong defensive posture with five infantry brigades and two armoured regiments. With the two flanks held in strength the advance was to be carried out in the middle. 54 infantry division along with 16th armoured brigade was to advance between the Degh Nadi (Basantar) on its right and Karir nadi on the left. The task was to capture the Zafarwal – Dhamtal complex. According to information available then, the enemy’s first line of defence was based on the Supwal ditch – Basantar nala – a formidable obstacle laid with mines along both its banks and covered by armour and infantry supported by artillery massed within the two fortified towns. As details of the obstacle were not there it was decided to form a mobile combat group of Poona Horse, 18 Rajputana Rifles in Armoured Personnel Carriers to undertake an encounter crossing over the obstacle. The 47th infantry brigade crossed the border after last light on December 5 at Chamana Khurd south of Sambha. From then till December 15, the advance continued towards the selected site where the crossing of the Basantar was to be attempted. During the night of 15/16 the assault crossing was planned. After the infantry had carried out the assault, the Poona Horse was to breach it with tank trawls, the Engineers to prove it and mark the tank lane. Poona Horse was standby at the bridgehead ready to ward off an expected counter attack by the 8th Pakistan armoured brigade.
Thus was set the stage for the battle of Basantar. The proposed bridgehead was west of the village Lagwal across the river; Ghazipur on the forward edge; Jarpal was at its southern end and about 1200 metres to its south and close to the southern bank of Basantar lay the village of Bara Pind. Around 200 metres away was Sarak Chowk village with Lallial reserve forest adjacent. The first phase of the plan was to capture them both to it after which trawling was to take place and one tank lane could be cleared. The second phase was to capture Jarpal. Phase one began after dark and at 2030 success was reported. Though the forest was captured the village was still held by a company of the enemy and the battalion proceeded a kilometre ahead. By 2330 Jarpal was captured by 3rd Grenadiers who had met very stiff resistance unlike the other battalion that captured the reserve forest. The same night 8th Pakistani armoured brigade received fresh orders to counter attack to be launched on the night of 16/17 and recapture all territories lost. While preparations for attacks were being made they were informed that the Basantar minefield was breached and an infantry battalion had established a bridgehead across the Basantar. 13 Lancers received orders at 0515 to move to the Jarpal area and contain the Indian advance.
The 13th Lancers and Poona Horse, sister regiments of the Bombay Cavalry, were now about to clash as enemies. The wait for Poona Horse was over when smoke shells began to land ahead of the tree line at Lallial. The tank engagement between ‘C’ squadron of Poona Horse and ‘A’ squadron of 13th Lancers was short and sharp. Withdrawing northwards the latter left behind eight tanks, two officers were killed and two wounded. Around 0830 their Commanding Officer ordered ‘C’ to counter attack west of Jarpal. Before the squadron moved out fresh orders were issued to ‘B’ and ‘C’ squadrons to advance to Bara Pind and attack the tanks and infantry holding Jarpal. ‘C’ squadrons attacked from the southwest of Bara Pind and ‘B’ squadron attacked from south to north. They were met by ‘B’ squadron 17 Horse (less two troops) and half of ‘A’ squadron. In the ensuing battle the tanks came under machine gun and RCL fire from a bunker; three tanks charged the enemy bunkers dismounted on top of them and demanded the occupants to surrender. Here it is important to record the last words of Risaldar Sagat Singh who was hit by a machine gun burst, to his tank crew, “Support troop leader Arun Khetarpal. He has only six months service and has not even done the tank course for young officers.” This half squadron dashed into Jarpal as the Pakistani units were pulling back after their first unsuccessful assault. All seven tanks of ‘A’ squadron under the impression that they were going to miss on the action gave chase and shot two tanks before their squadron commander managed to contact and ordered them back to fall in line. The Centurions turned around with three tanks in the rear when about that time the Pakistanis launched their second assault and their main target were the three closest tanks which had halted in the open to engage the enemy. These three tanks calmly picked out their targets and began destroying them one by one. The second assault came to a grinding halt with tanks turning back looking for the nearest cover. The third assault too met a similar fate. Meanwhile two Indian tanks were hit and Khetarpal’s tank was hit but miraculously the shot ricocheted off. A second hit set the tank on fire but he ordered his gunner to continue to engage the enemy because his was the lone tank that now stood between the enemy and a breakthrough. Ordered by his troop commander to abandon the tank but, as his gun was still functioning, steadfast he held on like a modern day Abhimanyu and continued the fight. By then 13th Lancers had only four or five tanks and these pressed forward. Khetarpal’s tank engaged them one at a time until the last tank was hit and destroyed 75 metres away. At the peak of their glory the tank and his gallant young commander met their end. A fourth hit penetrated the turret through its closed port. The loader was killed, Khetarpal mortally and the gunner seriously wounded. The driver opened his hatch, removed the gunner to the other tank that had come alongside and in the process received a machine gun burst on his leg. Disregarding his wound he reversed his still burning tank behind cover where he put out the fire and helped by another tank’s crew he began to pull the young officer out of the tank who however, collapsed and passed away. Thus came a glorious end to a short but gallant life of one who acted beyond the call of duty and made the supreme sacrifice for the honour of his country and was awarded the Param Vir Chakra. In this engagement alone, two squadrons of 13th Lancers had lost more than twenty tanks, three officers were killed and two wounded. Elsewhere in the area at the end of an eventful day the 8th armoured brigade lost over fifty Patton tanks, a figure accepted by the Pakistani sources.
On the 17th evening came news of a ceasefire and here it is worthwhile to acknowledge that the Shakargarh sector saw the most significant encounter between the armour of Pakistan and India in both 1965 and 1971. In 1971 Indian armour had local superiority in all areas except at Basantar where it was a repeat performance of 1965 between Centurions and Pattons. The Indians had greater numbers of infantry deployed that gave them an edge to be bold in conducting offensive operations. The battle of Basantar earned for the Commanding Officer of Poona Horse Lieutenant Colonel Hanut Singh a Maha Vir Chakra and the brigade commander Arun Vaidya a bar to his Maha Vir Chakra. This was a singularly distinguished performance as opposing sides met on an absolutely equal tactical setting. All in all this battle of the Shakargarh was the toughest one fought between units of 54 infantry division and their Pakistani counterparts. Indian casualties were 54 killed and 272 wounded while Pakistanis were 64 killed, 75 wounded and 12 missing at Jarpal alone and 13th Lancers casualties exceeded 50.
The international strategic community considers South Asia to be the region most likely to witness advertent or inadvertent nuclear war. Avoiding such a cataclysm is therefore high on the agenda of many countries especially the United States. Actually conflicts between these two nation states have been very civil, characterized by much restraint with the unmistakable sharing of history, ethnicity, language and culture, so much so whether these gentlemanly spats could be labeled as wars as the world knows it is a point to dwell upon. A distinguished Indian General described wars in South Asia as “communal riots with tanks!” This rather an extraordinary statement finds support with some startling facts. The riots in the aftermath of the partition in 1947 took the heaviest toll in human lives – some 800,000 civilian dead. The three Indo-Pak wars have in comparison been fairly ‘non violent’ affairs with both countries losing 20,000 military personnel but few civilians. 11 This is indeed surprising considering that these wars featured some of the biggest tank battles since the British Eighth Army clashed with Rommel’s Afrika Korps in the Maghreb desert. Further strategic bombing and air raids on civilian population was scrupulously avoided.
Looking at these figures a little more closely, during 1947-48 over 500 miles in Kashmir, casualties were 2000 on both sides, the 1965 war fought along the entire western border of 1500 miles (the east was left untouched) caused 7000 dead and in 1971 with 1500 miles of eastern borders added caused 11000; numbers being higher on account of Mukti Bahini the guerilla force; In Kargil 1999 official estimates are around 1500. Compare these with Arab-Israeli wars: 8000 dead following the partition of Palestine in 1948; 16000 dead in the Yom Kippur War 1973. This apart South Asian wars are generally of a different variety. Disputed territory captured has been promptly returned unlike in the Middle East for example. This business of pulling in their punches in the sub continental wars is a geo cultural reality of sub continental wars – all the more amazing considering there is very little military to military contact besides occasional flag meetings at the borders. Exceptions are there no doubt; for instance the Commanding Officer 3rd Grenadiers at Jarpal 1971, Lieutenant Colonel VP Airy wrote the citation for his counterpart Lieutenant Colonel Muhammad Akram Raja Commanding Officer 35 Frontier Force and the Commanding Officer of 13th Lancers, who was all praise for young Arun Khetarpal’s courage, hosted Arun’s father in Pakistan thirty years later. These are but individual and rare instances that show the spirit latent in South Asian milieu but rarely get expression due to official reserve. Once that reserve dissipates with winds of the new century blowing across the subcontinent the future promises to be bright indeed.
Commander Arun Prakash Bhattacharya VSM (Retd) (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes under the pen name Arun Prakash. Commissioned in the Navy in 1965 he left in 1989 for literary pursuits. He has written eight books, over 4200 spiritual poems and has translated 5018 Prabhat Samgiit, spiritual songs of his preceptor Shri Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar from Bangla to English. He has also written many feature articles, short stories and plays which have been published.