Battle of Asal Uttar (1965) — Part 1 (Background)
The 1960s began a difficult decade for India.The euphoria of independence was fading,the economy was shaky,there was a food crisis,the morale of the Indian army had taken a beating after the humiliation of 1962 against China.Nehru had breathed his last in 1964 and his successor -the diminutive Lal Bahadur Shastri was viewed as a compromise candidate ,perhaps even a weak one.Indian legislations to integrate Kashmir constitutionally put political pressure on the Ayub Khan military government.To Pakistani strategic planners the time must have seemed ripefor a military solution to enforce their geopolitical ambitions.
Pakistan had since 1958 been an US ally in CENTO and recieved over 1.2 billion dollars worth of military aid in equipment and money.This had bolstered the strength of the Pakistani armed forces to very impressive levels ,bristling as it was by 1965 with hundreds of the latest Patton tanks,Sabre jets and 155 mm artillery guns.The Indian army expansion and reorganization begun after 1962 was still in transition,and while the modernization process was incomplete pakistan held a decided advantage .Pakistan had to strike before the Indians could catch upwhile it still had the chance to impose a decisive victory on her rival.Zulfiqar Bhutto,advisor to Ayub Khan and later PM summed up the situation as the
‘’Last chance to take Kashmir by force’’
Failure of Operation Gibraltar
Pakistan tested Indian resolve and its new weapons by probing constantly in the disputed Rann of Kutch area in repeated skirmishes during April 1965 ,this dispute was eventually settled by British mediation. Emboldened by its performance in the Rann of Kutch,from early August Pakistan launched Operation Gibraltar — thousands of pakistani soldiers and Commandoes infiltrated into Kashmir with the object of inciting a general uprising amongst the kashmiri population.It was believed the Indian Army would not cross the ceasefire line and merely defend itself.In the event it failed miserably,as locals informed the Indian army of the intruders which acted swiftly to contain them.In a daring attack the Indians crossed the ceasefire line took Haji Pir Pass-the main entry point of the infiltrators.Faced with a huge loss of face , Ayub unleashed his main conventional strategic scheme -Operation Grand Slam with the confident prediction -’’Hindu morale will not stand a couple of hard blows at the right time and place’’.
Operation Grand Slam
Pakistan launched a massive combined armour-infantry assault in Chamb sector aimed at capturing the bridge at Akhnoor — the only all-weather lifeline of India’s main Infantry division in J & K (with 20 battalions) and then used as a staging point for the capture of Jammu,the main communications and logistics hub connecting India with Kashmir.The meagre indian force holding Chamb consisted of 4 infantry battalions and 1 light tank squadron of amx-13s.These faced a a pakistani assault of 8.5 infantry battalions as well as 2 armoured regiments( equipped with pattons which couldn’t be penetrated by the AMX tanks )with a pakistani local superiority of 2:1 in infantry,6:1 in armour and 6:1 in artillery.
I Corps Offensive
Sorely pressed and on the verge of collapse at Akhnoor,India responded by crossing the International Border and launching its own offensive spearheaded by I corps in the Sialkot sector aimed at relieving the pressure on Akhnoor, carrying the war into the Pakistani heartland of Punjab and threatening Sialkot and Lahore, which would force Pakistan to divert its forces.In this it was succesful,as pressure soon slackened on Akhnoor which was held succesfully.As can be seen on the above map Pakistan’s great advantage in 1965 was that it possesed 2 large scale offensive maneuvre assets in 6th and 1st Armoured division.the 6th was facing the Indian offensive in Sialkot which contained India’s sole I Armoured division.Despite possesing a large overall numerical superiority in Infantry,in the actual battlespace this was reduced to near parity because as many as 38 battalions were tied up in Kashmir and several forces were on the China border.
XI Corps Offensive
Even before I corps launched its offensive in Sialkot sector,Indian XI corps launched a limited attack on 6th September on the Lahore-Amritsar axis.This formation composed of the 15th ,7th and 4th Infantry divisions launched a three-pronged attack aimed at establishing a forward defensive line on what was ironically considered Pakistan’s great defensive asset in Punjab -the Ichogil Canal.This would capture useful territory which could be used as a bargaining tool later,as well as secure a strong defensive line for the Indian infantry against pakistani armoured attack on the canal line.It would also set up a staging area for a possible later offensive towards Lahore by 15 division in conjunction with the Northern offensive by I corps. XI corps expected to be faced by two pakistani infantry divisions — 10th and the newly raised 11th . Unknown to them, the crack pakistani 1st armoured division was waiting for them (its exact location being not known to Indian intelligence)
The only reserve possesed by XI corps was the 2nd Independent Armoured Brigade near Amritsar.This formation was composed of 2 armoured regiments -3rd Cavalry and 8 Cavalry(equipped with AMX-13) . The former was the only Indian armoured formation in the sector equipped with Centurion tanks -the one Indian tank capable of going toe to toe with Pattons.India in 1965 had only 4 regiments of Centurions,and 3 of those were in 1st Armoured division(initially all 4) in Sialkot sector.Indian HQ recognizing AMX equipped brigade wouldn’t be combat effective against pattons had reinforced 2nd Armoured Brigade on the eve of the war by transfering one of the four centurion regiments from 1st armoured division in the form of 3rd Cavalry.This proved to be a far-sighted decision.
4th Mountain Division in Khem Karan Sector
4th Mtn Div was tasked to capture the Ichogil canal line from Bedian to Lohgarh with one armoured regiment of 9 Deccan Horse( 2 squadrons) equipped with shermans for infantry support.They were tasked also to blow the bridge from Kasur to Khemakaran over the Ichogil canal.
4th Mtn Div consisted of -
> 7 Mountain Brigade consisting of 3 battalions( 4 grenadiers,7 grenadiers,1/9 Gurkha was half strength)
> 62 Mountain Brigade consisting of 3 battalions (9 JAK,13 Dogra,18 Rajputana Rifles)
> Integral Artillery Brigade with one Field Regiment (25 pounders), two Mountain Regiments (3.7 inch howitzers), one Medium Regiment (5.5 inch Guns) and one Light Regiment (120mm mortars).
4th Mountain Division began its attack o the 6th making modest progress owing to strong pakistani defences and its superior long range artillery.However oblivious to the Indians,Pakistan had prepared to deal its primary thrust in this sector.Instead of facing a single infantry brigade ,4 Mtn found itself faced by 11th infantry division with 2 infantry brigades plus the elite pakistani 1st armoured division.Sharp pakistani counterattacks made by 11th division whose commander acted with alacrity(using helicopters to assess the situation rapidly) and its tenous defensive position led to a disorderly withdrawal of 4th Mountain Division to Asal Uttar,just North of Khem Karan where it prepared to make its stand against the incoming onslaught.
The 2 infantry brigades(7 and 62) of 4th Mountain division regroup around Asal Uttar,hastily preparing defences and laying anti-tank mines on the main tank approach routes.They aresupported in the defense by 2 squadrons of 9 Deccan horse (shermans).
The Pakistani operational plan was bold and ambitious,and reflected its need for a quick and decisive decision as it lacked the resources for a drawn out attritional struggle. The Pakistani offensive was to be launched in two phases.
Phase 1 entailed 11 Infantry Division to establish a bridgehead across the obstacle system in the area of Khem Karan. In Phase 2, 1 Armoured Division was to break out from the bridgehead in three axes.
The first was by 4 Armoured Brigade with two armoured regiments and a mechanized infantry battalion along Valtoha- Fatehabad and then astride the Sobraon branch canal, to capture the bridges of the Beas. This would cut off West Punjab from rest of India and sever XI corps main Line of Communications and supply.
The second axis was 3 Armoured Brigade with two armoured regiments and a mechanized infantry battalion along Khem Karan-Bhikkiwind-Taran Taran astride Kasur branch canal, to capture Jandiala Guru as also cut off the Grand Trunk road connecting Amritsar with Jallandhar.
The third axis entailed providing flank protection by 5 Armoured Brigade with one armoured regiment and an infantry battalion advancing west of axis Kasur — Khem Karan- Bhikkiwind.
It was planned to take Harike Bridge by 8th September and reach Beas Bridge by the evening of 9th.
If successful this would cut off Punjab West of the Beas,and allow for the encirclement and destruction of XI Corps by attacks from both flanks and rear,followed by the capture of Amritsar.The road to Delhi –a mere 24 hour drive would be open with no substantial reserves standing in the way. It had the potential to be what has been called India’s ‘Fourth Battle of Panipat’ in the plains of Punjab.
The Strategic Importance of Asal Uttar
Asal Uttar here assumed a position of prime strategic importance,it commanded the approaches to the 2 main Pakistani thrust lines.Importantly,once past the Asal Uttar area the Pakistani armour would have free reign as terrain was flat and the natural river obstacles would only serve to secure the flanks of their armoured thrust.However before asal uttar this was a liability,the Pakistani bridgehead was very constricted hemmed in between the Rohi nallah and Sobraon branch.The frontage of a Pakistani attack around this area was a small 7kms,with not much space for broad outflanking movements.However once past Asal Uttar this would expand very quickly into a 15km frontage around Patti and a large 45 kms on the Tarn Taran area.Once the numerically and qualitatively superior Pakistani armour penetrated into these areas it would be extremely difficult for any Indian defensive to contain them as the space would allow them to use multiple armoured thrusts from different directions which the Indians lacking sufficient armour would not be able to counter adequately.From the Indian point of view thus it wascritical that the Pakistanis be stopped cold at Asal Uttar in a forward defensive before the Pattons could break out into the plains.Indian defensive preparations were conducted accordingly.
Both armies had a common origin and a shared heritage — The British Indian Army , and in many respects were very similar.For the infantry, the Regiment was the basic organizational unit.As in British army practice,in both subcontinental armies the regiments were not actually battlefield formations –that role being assigned to battalions.The regiment’s role was to provide well trained and cohesive battalions to the front.Thus its not surprising to have battalions of the same regiment scattered over multiple fronts.
The regiments were recruited generally on a regional basis,with regimental histories dating back to the Raj -and the common soldier took immense pride in his regiment.The battalions were grouped into brigades with 9 battalions in 3 brigades per Division in Indian case and 7 battalions in 3 brigades in Pakistani case.(for 4th mtn div,its 3rd brigade was away in another sector)
The basic infantryman in both armies fought bravely and with tenacity,though lacking perhaps a bit in technical proficiency.Both armies used a mix of ww2 british equipment along with new equipment,in the case of pakistan particularly american material.The standard rifle for both armies was the .303 Lee Enfield SMLE ,though in Indian case this had been substantially replaced by the new Self-Loading Rifle (SLR) -a copy of the Belgian FN-FAL while Pakistan had begun equipping its infantry with smaller numbers of AK-56 kalashnikovs.The standard LMG was thegerman Mg-42 for PA and british Bren LMG for IA.Both sides used WW2 British Vickers in HMG role.For close combat better equipped units in Pakistan’s case had the German MP-5 submachine gun.Both sides used the British Sten gun and Sterling carbine.
In numbers,on the whole India had a large superiority of over 2:1 in infantry but this was heavily diluted in the actual battlearea due to large chunks of troops being tied down in Kashmir,the China Border and border with East Pakistan.In the actual Khem karan area,the reverse was true ! The Indians were at a disadvantage with 5.5 battalions facing 10 pakistani infantry battalions(3 of them Mechanized).
The anti -tank stopping power of infantry in this timeframe(before the era of anti-tank guided missiles) was quite low.Both sides relied primarily on handheld Bazookas and Jeep-mounted 106 mm Recoiless rifles as defense against tanks along with mines.Even here Pakistan enjoyed a much greater number of integral anti-tank weapons per infantry battalion than India,thanks to American aid.The Indian infantry battalion largely relied on 6 such jeep mounted 106mm Recoiless guns as anti-tank defense,but these were primarily defensive anti-tank ambush weapons incapable of going head on against tanks and could only take out the pattons at close range.It was in one of these vehicles that Quartermaster Abdul Hamid would perform heroics that would gain him immortality.
Pakistani Armoured Divisions were also provided with mechanized infantry on American built M113 APCs -1 mechanized infantry battalion per Armoured brigade.India didn’t have any mechanized infantry force.In Asal uttar,3 pakistani mechanized infantry battalions were involved to support the pakistani armoured attacks.These would operate in close conjunction with the armour disembarking the transported infantry squad close to the battle line and keeping up with the armored advance.
Both countries inherited an effective artillery arm with the excellent tradition of british artillery.On paper India entered the war with 628 artillery pieces and Pakistan with 552 artillery pieces.On the ground,Pakistan had a decided superiority.All of India’s guns were WW2 vintage british guns .The bulk being 450 odd QF-25-pounders(87 mm),66 of 3.7 Inch (93 mm) howitzers and around 100 of 140mm british heavy howitzers.Pakistan too deployed 240 odd 25-pounders,72 of 3.7 inch howitzers as well as 72 of 105 mm guns.But its main advantage rested in the excellent american artillery pieces it had acquired — 126 of the 155mm M114 Heavy Howitzers and around 50 of the 203 mm M110 very heavy howitzers with greater range and punching weight than the indian guns.The redoubtable 25-pounder ,a veteran of the second world war was reliable and efficient if somewhat dated and used in bulk by both armies.
Furthermore Pakistani artillery was trained to use the american method of using pre-timed fuzes ,so that projectiles fired at different trajectories would arrive at a target at very short interval for maximum destruction.This also allowed Pakistani artillery to disperse their guns a bit more and they also had better weapon locating equipment.Pakistani artillery performed very well throughout the war causing numerous casualities,particularly in the defensive battles against advancing indian forces.In Asal uttar their performance was to be lacklustre due to lack of proper deployment,co-operation and absence of proper intelligence on Indian positions.In contrast the Indian artillery,having these factors in its favour performed superbly.At Asal Uttar itself Pakistani artillery held a large advantage over India -The Indians could only muster 1 field regiment of 25 pdrs,2 x 3.7 inch gun regiments,1 x 140 mm medium regiment,1 sexton and 1 of 120mm mortar regiment.Pakistan could deploy 5 field regiments( 3 of them self-propelled) as well as 3 medium regiments(with 155 mm) and a heavy regiment with 203mm guns,plus 120mm mortar battery.This gave pakistan a numerical superiority in artillery 2 : 1 vis a vis the defending indian force as well as being superior in calibre.
Both armies inherited the conservative style of employment of armour from the british army which had been repeatedly embarassed by the german panzers in mobile combat in ww2.While defensively solid,offensively they often found themselves coming up short.None of the armies had any large scale experience on the use of armour,as all armour units used in North Africa and Italy where Indian soldiers had fought were manned by british personnel.This would be reflected in the often clumsy employment of tanks either spread out like infantry formations ,or attempting to charge enemy positions like horse cavalry of old.(something the british had done very often in north africa).Overall pakistan entered the war with a decisive advantage in armour -pinning its hopes on this arm to rout the indian army.
PAKISTAN ARMOURED CORPS
Pakistani armoured corps began as a small elite body after partition but rapidly expanded from the mid 1950s when american equipment started flowing in.Pakistani armoured officers had been trained in the USA ,and this would find expression in bold attempts at outflanking on the battlefield which nonetheless were poorly executed due to bad staff planning and diminished crew standards(due to rapid expansion).Armour training was imparted at Armoured Corps Centre and School in Nowshera, with emphasis on offensive and integration with infantry.Standards had been further affected due to the favouritism brought in by the Ayub Khan military government in selection of officers based on loyalty.The officer training curriculum also had irregularities,often lacking an examination on completion.The patton crews were often found technically not proficient/familiarized enough to handle all the sophisticated equipment -particularly the rangefinder targeting mechanism.Pakistan reorganized its armoured corps in the 60s from 10 armoured regiments of 75 tanks each to 18 regiments of 44 tanks.
Pakistan entered the war with 806 tanks and tank destroyers in 18 armoured regiments.These included 356 M47/M48 Pattons,308 Shermans,96 Chaffee light tanks and 50 M36 Jackson tank destroyers.9 regiments (ones with shermans) were parcelled out among the infantry and the rest -all Pattons formed Pakistan’s 1st and 6th Armoured Divisions.At Asal Uttar Pakistan had its disposal 5 Patton regiments,1 Chafee Recon Regiment,1 Sherman Regiment.Facing an Indian tank force of 1 Centurion Regiment,1 Sherman Regiment (lacking a third of its strength)and 1 light AMX regiment(lacking a third of its strength).With an overall 3 :1 advantage in armour and an actual 5:1 advantage (5 patton regiments facing 1 centurion) for an outisde observer it should have been a walkover.
Entering the battle with a formidable reputation,the Patton was considered one of the if not the best tank in the world with highly with a powerful 90mm gun and 2 heavy machine guns,night fighting Infra red capability,and a rangefinder for Long range single shot capability which allowed it to engage enemy armour at 2000 yrds.It had frontal armour upto 120 mm thick which could not be penetrated by the Indian shermans.The 106mm recoiless rifles,shermans,AMX had to rely on close range shots 500 yards from the sides to penetrate the tanks armour.Only the Indian Centurion had the armour and firepower to take on this machine head on.
INDIAN ARMOURED CORPS
Indian armoured Corps had only begun expansion after 1962,and thus most of the Indian units were more longstanding entities.High level Indian Officers were trained at Sandhurst Royal Military Academy In Britain,with Armoured Corps Training School at Ahmednagar,and further armour training centres in India.Tactics remained conservative,it involved establishment of a firm base from which to launch attacks and which acted as a fall-back position.These tactics provided for solidity in the defense but lack of boldness in offensive operations which could degenerate into frontal assaults.For crew training Indian army at this time mostly relied on British crew training manuals(particularly regarding centurions) with local improvisations .
India entered the war particularly inferior in the armoured component which could have had disastrous consequences.There were 14 Armoured Regiments in all with 186 Centurions,346 shermans,90 AMX and 90 PT-76.The 4 regiments of Centurions formed the hard core of the Indian armoured force.The Sherman was an obsolete infantry support tank and AMX and PT-76 were light vehicles capable of only reconaissance and support.India’s Armoured Formations were 1st Armoured Division and 2nd Independent Armoured Brigade.3 centurion regiments and 2 sherman regiments were in the former and 1 centurion and 1 AMX in the latter.Rest of the regiments were allocatted to the infantry divisions for support like 9 deccan horse to 4th mountain division.
Each Indian armoured Regiment was composed of 45 tanks in 3 squadrons . Each squadrons had 4 troops of 3 tanks each plus 2 command tanks for 14 tanks per squadron.Regiment has 3 command tanks.
The backbone of the IAC were the 4 regiments of british made centurion tanks.Sturdy,reliable,accurate and with commendable firepower it is now considered one of the best post ww2 armoured vehicles and became a favourite of both the Indian and Israeli armies(which used them to deadly effect in 1967 and 1973).It was affectionately called ‘Bade bhai’ (big brother) among Indian tank crews.
The design emphasized firepower and armour protection -heeding the hard lessons british tank designers faced against heavy german panzers throughout the war.It had very good armour ranging from 50–150mm and in 1965 was armed with a deadly accurate 20-Pounder(84 mm) Rifled tank gun(later replaced by the legendary 105 mm L7).It was not as sophisticated as the Patton lacking night fighting capability or rangefinder equipment.
The Indian Army improvised a simple but effective crew training method which did much to hone the skills of the centurion crews.The Field Miniature Range(FMR) was true to a scale 1:100 ground model including the half-inch square targets that represented enemy tanks.The firing end was a stripped down rifle externally slaved to the main 20-pounder gun on a mounting bracket which was operated by the tank loader.Tank actions would replicate crew drills used in live firing would carry out all tank shoots using this device.The gunner and commander could see the result of the shoot for real on the miniature targets which increased their confidence and proficiency.This method didn’t use up costly ammunition rounds but nonetheless provided extensive gunnery training.
The Indian Centurions developed the 3-round firing technique making full use of the centurions quick firing ability- where a competent gunner could fire 3 rounds in 12 to 15 seconds.At medium and close engagement ranges 600–1200 yrds the flat trajectory of the centurions super velocity ammunition required no range estimation and gunners could just set a mid range and fire away the 3-round set assuring a 90% hit probability.This superb rate of fire at mid-close ranges eclipsed the patton with its complicated rangefinder mechanism which being deadly in long range duels needed technically familiar and proficient crews,and were often unable to react in closer ranges to the unrelenting centurion fire before their tank was taken out .
India had 2 regiments of AMX-13 french light tank/tank destroyers in 1965.A cheap light vehicle it had very light armour but a sizeable 73mm gun.Though this could only engage pattons succesfully from the flanks at close ranges.One AMX regiment of 2nd armoured brigade(8 cavalry) joined the battle in the later stages but didn’t see heavy action,being largely employed for flank protection.It was mainly the 45 centurions of 3 cavalry that would be the main hope of Indian armour at Asal uttar.
Continued : Battle of Asal Uttar — Part 2
Written by Austerlitz on indiandefence.com.
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