The National Identity VIII – The Battle of Asal Uttar and the legacy of the ’65 war

In the current nuclear rhetoric between India and Pakistan, it is difficult to imagine a time when the conversation centered around conventional forces. It is even harder to conceive that India once had the inferior conventional strength. What isn’t hard to imagine is that Pakistan assiduously tried all the tricks in the bag to cut Kashmir off from the rest of India – including cutting off territory west of the river Beas, i.e. Amritsar. This is the story of the heroic stand put up by the Indian Army in the 1965 War in the Khem Karan sector in Punjab and the story of the largest tank battle since World War II – The Battle of Asal Uttar, and the lessons never learned.

Pakistan’s ruler, General Ayub Khan, sensed a great opportunity in 1965 – the Indian Army was still coming to terms with the devastating loss in the war against China in 1962, the morale of the armed forces was at its’ nadir and Pakistan had superior, American supplied, machinery and Jawaharlal Nehru was succeeded by a “weak” leader in Lal Bahadur Shastri. Thus Operation Gibraltar and Grand Slam were born.

“Indians know how to die for their country but not to win for their country” – Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, in the History of Warfare

General Ayub Khan planned to capture the vital Akhnoor bridge, and cut off Akhnoor from the rest of India, in Jammu & Kashmir – sanctioning Operation Gibraltar. The plan was to deprive the Infantry battalion stationed there any reinforcements. When India counterattacked and captured the Haji Pir pass, this plan came a cropper.

Meanwhile, something far greater was brewing in the plains of Punjab – Operation Grand Slam. General Ayub Khan envisioned the Fourth Battle of Panipat – and a march unto Delhi. Although this was ostensibly to relieve pressure on the Akhnoor sector, Pakistan had long held visions of the green flag flying on the Red Fort. Pakistan saw itself as the natural successor of the Mughal empire and never reconciled to its’ “moth-eaten” (in Jinnah’s own words) self.

India began on the back foot in the Western theater- being pegged back by Pakistan’s superior armoured and artillery elements. The Pakistani air force was also running amok. Pakistan’s thrust led them 5km into India territory in the Khem Karan sector. This set the scene for probably the greatest Indian victory in her Independent history.

Operation Grand Slam was trusted to Pakistan’s pride – its’ 1 Armoured Division. Mostly staffed with US supplied Patton tanks, they were probably the most advanced Armoured Division outside the US Army. The armoured elements of the Indian defenders of 4 Mountain Division were staffed with World War II vintage Sherman and Centurian tanks.

Under the able command of Brigadier Thomas Theograj, 2 Armoured Brigade and specifically 3 Cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel Salim Caleb, formed a battle plan to halt the Pakistani advance.

D-day for the Pakistani push was supposed to be September 7, 1965, which was, however, delayed by a day due to the damage caused to the bridge on Rohi Nala. This delay gave India’s 4 Mountain Division enough time to lay the area with mines. 4 Mountain Division also understood that the Great North Indian Plains would provide little resistance to a rolling armoured column and hence came up with the ingenious solution of breaching the Rohi nala and flooding the areas to the south and southwest of the sector.

Pakistan launched their offensive on the morning of September 8, 1965. Their attack on the central axis was thwarted by the Infantry battalions of 1/9 Gorkha Rifles, 4 Grenadiers and 9 Jammu & Kashmir Rifles. Even though at one point in the battle the India forces were outflanked, the tanks in the advancing Pakistani Army were engaged by India’s Deccan Horse, medium guns and tank hunting teams. This halted the Pakistani advance, and they were forced to retreat. In this melee, Company Quarter Master Havilar (CQMH) Abdul Hameed of 4 Grenadiers destroyed 5 tanks, and was later posthumously awarded India’s highest wartime gallantry award, the Param Vir Chakra.

After the initial failed thrust Pakistan again attacked at 1400 hrs and tried to outflank the Indian defenses. However, from the north this thrust was countered by tanks of 3 Cavalry – ably deployed by Brigadier Theograj. The Pakistani tanks were lured into marshy sugarcane fields which slowed their advance and 3 Cavalry with its’ Centurian tanks (only ones in the Indian Army which could match the Pattons for range) could pick their targets.

Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Salim Caleb, 3 Cavalry destroyed 58 Patton tanks of Pakistan’s 1 Armoured. Additionally, 3 Cavalary also destroyed 6 Chaffee and 2 Sherman tanks; two M113 armoured personnel carriers (APCs), eight recoilless guns and one F-86 Sabre jet, in the battle of Asal Uttar. 3 Cavalry faced the brunt of Pakistan’s armoured thrust, but was ably supported by other armoured regiments – 8 Cavalry, Deccan Horse (9 Horse) and Sindh Horse (14 Horse).

After a few days of fierce battle, Second Lieutenant (2/Lt) PJS Mehta, led a team of 20 soldiers of 1 Dogra to search a sugarcane field where suspicious movement was seen. When 2/Lt Mehta shouted out for those hidden inside to come out – the Commanding Officer (or rather Commandant in Armoured Corps parlance) of Pakistan’s 4 Cavalry came out along with two majors, one captain and 17 other ranks. 2/Lt Mehta captured all as prisoners of war. This momentous day was 11 September 1965.

In all, India destroyed 97 tanks in this sector, including 72 Pattons; 32 tanks were captured in running condition. India in contrast lost only five tanks in the Battle of Asal Uttar. A total of 165 Pakistani tanks were either destroyed or captured in the 1965 War

India also, never wanted to capture Lahore, as has been widely reported by the Pakistani media. This “failure” on India’s part gives Pakistan their reason to celebrate Defence of Pakistan day. India only wanted to threaten Lahore knowing all too well the pitfalls of being engaged in urban warfare. The memories of World War II and Stalingrad were still fresh in every military’s mind. Lahore could have become India’s Stalingrad and it was a very wise decision to circumvent it.

‘A lesson we need to learn is if you start losing the gains of war at the negotiating table, they become a disincentive for future wars,’ says Lieutenant General D B Shekatkar (retd), reviewing the lessons from the 1965 War.

This was, in many ways, a victory in easier times – when old fashioned courage and standing your post were rewarded, at least on the battle field. What remains the same is the political inaction and the lack of diplomatic nous, post war, that India can never seem to overcome.

The months leading up to the ’65 war were dominated by Lal Bahadur Shastri’s rhetoric that an attack on Kashmir is an attack on India. He invoked Nehru on the Parliament floor, saying that no battle will remain confined to the “hills of Kashmir, but spread to Punjab and Rajasthan”. He also had an able Defense Minister in YB Chavan who gave the Indian Army and Air Force a free rein in crossing the International Border. As Pakistan advanced on the Chhamb-Akhnoor sector, India started her march to the outskirts of Lahore. Pakistan thus learned a hard lesson, that India could back up words with action.

However, decision making once the heat of the war has subsided has always led India down. We saw this in the return of close to a million Prisoners of War in 1971 and we saw it in ’65 with the return of Haji Pir.

A simple inviolate rule of combat that India must pursue is that “no land won shall be ceded”. The occupation on the ground must always be so strong that the enemy must know you will not give up these gains – like the Siachen Glacier. Haji Pir is a prime example of India’s inept post-conflict political machinery. Haji Pir was won at a great cost and every single Army officer I have spoken to in my life (many hundreds of them), all agree that Haji Pir should never have been given back. Not because we now know that it is the prime route for infiltration, but because gains made in war in disputed regions are never given back – they lessen the seriousness of war.

“A lesson we need to learn is if you start losing the gains of war at the negotiating table, they become a disincentive for future wars” Lieutenant General D B Shekatkar (retd), reviewing the lessons from the 1965 War

India held large swathes of Pakistan’s grain producing areas after the 1965 War and if these weren’t handed back on a platter immediately, it would have put significant pressure on Pakistan. Our national and political aims for going to war, even one where we are defending ourselves, must be clear.

There is little doubt that the success in 1965 set up India for the grand success in 1971 – the liberation of Bangladesh. But India’s actions since have paid little homage to the Battle of Asal Uttar (Battle of “the real answer”), because India has stopped asking the right question, “is there another Bangladesh in Pakistan today”?