50 years ago this day
CONSEQUENT to the Kutch incident of April 1965 and the increasing Pakistani activities in J&K, it was evident that a crisis would develop and culminate in hostilities. The threat to Punjab stemmed from the configuration of the canal and river systems which suggested a Pakistan offensive along the grain of the country in the Khem Karan-Khalra sector between the Ravi and the Satluj and aimed towards the vital bridge at the Beas. Accordingly, the defences in this sector were strengthened and 2 (Independent) Armoured Brigade was located at Tarn Taran to be available at short notice.
The security of Punjab was intended to be ensured by a surprise pre-emptive offensive up to the Ichogil Canal, denying bridges across it to Pakistan. Dera Baba Nanak was also to be captured.
The major Pakistani offensive by their 1 Armoured Division and 11 Infantry Division was also planned in the Kasur-Khem Karan area. These formations were accordingly concentrated in the Kasur area. While the 15 Infantry Division offensive opposite Lahore met partial success, 7 Infantry Division was able to progress operations as planned and captured Barki after a grim hard-fought battle. Operations of 4 Mountain Division, which culminated in the battle of Asal Uttar, commenced at 0500h on September 6 and secured the area up to the Ichogil Canal East Bank.
Pakistani forces were already poised for their own offensive. The enemy reaction was therefore quick and violent and by the afternoon of September 7, the enemy had built up intense pressure on the isolated defended localities ahead of Khem Karan.
At this stage, it was decided to readjust the dispositions of 4 Mountain Division and establish a defended sector astride axis Khem Karan — Bhikhiwind in Asal Uttar. The Rohi Nala in the north and Nikasu Nala in the south combined to form a horseshoe with little scope of bypassing the defended sector. This readjustment gave the division a clean break and forced the enemy to redeploy his artillery, thus giving 4 Mountain Division time to prepare the defences. While all troops were ordered to pull back to Asal Uttar, two companies of 9 Jak Rifles held out for the whole of September 7 on the Rohi Nala and 40 Medium Regiment refused to redeploy rear-wards as it did not want to abandon the large quantities of ammunition dumped in the gun positions and continued to engage the enemy concentrations around Kasur. “For Kasur, the war began on September 7, when an Indian column advanced to within 2 miles. For seven hours an artillery barrage rolled across the town bringing ruin and death”, Time magazine reported. The gap to the south of Valtoha was plugged by flooding the area by breaching the Khem Karan distributary. The Rohi Nala was also breached to flood the area.
The Pakistan offensive was to be spearheaded by its elite 1 Armoured Division. The enemy’s 4 Armoured Brigade operations order and maps captured later revealed the plan to capture Harike by 1430h on September 8; Raya-Beas by last light September 9; 3 Armoured Brigade to secure Jandiala Guru, thus cutting the GT Road by last light of September 9; and 5 Armoured Brigade to protect the left flank of the advance along the Khem Karan-Bhikhiwind road.
The stage was now set for the Battle of Asal Uttar.
At 1000h on September 8, the enemy attacked with two squadrons of Chaffees and one squadron of Patton tanks in an attempt to break through. The enemy withdrew with 14 tanks destroyed or damaged.
The initial attack was followed by an attack by a regiment of Pattons, one squadron of Chaffees and a motorised battalion in APCs but was intercepted by a squadron of 3 Cavalry lying in wait near Bhikhiwind. An attack on 4 Grenadiers was also repulsed with five enemy tanks knocked out.
With the enemy intentions becoming clearer and a major armour thrust being imminent, 2 (Independent) Armoured Brigade was moved on the night of 8/9 September to Bhikhiwind. Up to the middle of 1965, the regiments of the brigade were equipped with WWII vintage Shermans. Their 75/76 mm guns were largely ineffective against the Pattons' armour. The brigade was provided with a Centurion regiment (3 Cavalry) and an AMX regiment (8 Cavalry) prior to the outbreak of hostilities. This proved to be an extremely fortuitous decision. The regiment equipped with Shermans (9 Deccan Horse), though theoretically no match against the Pattons, yet proved invaluable in providing anti-tank defence to the defended areas at Asal Uttar. At night, extensive minefields were laid. In fact, 4 Mountain Division Engineers laid a record one lakh mines between September 7 and September 9.
On the afternoon of September 9, the enemy made an abortive attempt to bypass the defended sector from the southern flank. But the tanks were bogged down in the flooded area and destroyed. With enemy pressure mounting and the situation being critical, there was talk of withdrawing to the Beas.
The climax of the battle was reached on September 10. At 0700h, the enemy made yet another determined attempt with two armoured regiments and a motorised battalion to outflank the defences from the north and break into the gun areas at Chima. A squadron of 3 Cavalry, lying in wait amongst maize and sugarcane fields, engaged the enemy with a single executive word of command: ‘Maro’, when the line of Pattons presented their broadside. Meanwhile, the assault on 4 Grenadiers was beaten back with CQMH Abdul Hamid knocking out three Patton tanks and disabling another with his jeep-mounted recoilless gun, before he was hit by a tank shell and killed. His gallant action won him the PVC posthumously. Around midday, an enemy radio transmission was intercepted: “From Imam to Imam Baaz: In the name of Islam and Pakistan, push forward. Get through the b____s.” “Just can’t, sir. Indian tanks all round.” “All right. You stay put. I am coming forward.” Following this, at about 1430h, the ‘Imam’ was engaged by own artillery fire at Mile 37 on the Khem Karan-Bhikhiwind road. The GOC, Maj-Gen Nasir Ahamed Khan, was seriously wounded and the Artillery Commander, Brig AR Shammi, killed. The radio intercept now revealed “Hamara subse bada Imam mar gaye.” With that, the momentum of the enemy offensive petered out.
The decisive victory at Asal Uttar resulted in the decimation of Pakistan's 1 Armoured Division. The enemy lost 97 tanks, destroyed or abandoned, which included the virtual decimation of Pakistan’s 4 Cavalry (whose CO along with 12 officers and several ORs surrendered on September 11). The Tribune reported on September 15, 1965: “The battlefield presented the picture of a graveyard of tanks.”
1 Armoured Division, less 5 Armoured Brigade, was moved to Pasrur on September 11 to face the Indian offensive in that sector. This signalled the end of their offensive. The attempts to recapture Khem Karan on 11 and 21-22 September were unsuccessful. The ensuing ceasefire thereafter terminated the hostilities.
The peaceful green countryside around Asal Uttar gives no hint of the bloody battles fought in September ’65. The sugarcane and maize fields now grow paddy. In memory of those killed in action during the epic battle, the gram panchayat holds the Shaheedi Mela on September 9 each year. It is evocative of the couplet: “Shaheedon ki chitaon par lage ge har baras mele, watan par mar mitne walon ka yahe nishan hoga.”
— The writer is a former Deputy Chief Integrated Defence Staff