Friday, May 14, 2010

The Battle of Asal Uttar - 1965

There is a very long story that leads to this particular battle. I will try and summarize it with the following points:

1. India had lost a war against China in 1962
2. Pandit Nehru had died in 1964
3. Pakistan saw this as an opportune moment to strike against India

This battle is of significance largely due to the fact that it was the battle which turned the tide of the 1965 war towards India. Until this point, Pakistan had made significant territorial gains. However it was with this battle, one involving some amazing tactical moves on part of India, that boosted the morale of the Armed Forces to such an extent that by the time the ceasefire was implemented, Indian forces had reached Lahore.

Some important points to note are:

1. Pakistan in 1965 had a superior artillery as compared to India
2. Pakistan was at it's strongest in terms of military preparation and countrywide stability
3. India was still recovering from the military loss to China and the loss of one of it's greatest leader post Independence and a Prime Minister of 14 years


The Battle of Asal Uttar (also called the Battle of Khemkaran in some sources) was of particular interest to students of armored combat. This battle was the largest tank on tank combat in the generational period between World War Two and the Arab-Israeli Six Day War.

On September 10, 1965 three Indian armored regiments with 45 old American M4 Sherman tanks, 45 light French built AMX-13 tanks, and 45 British-built Centurion tanks were arrayed outside the village of Asal Uttar in the western Punjab province of India. These tanks had set up defensive positions in a "U" formation and were superbly camouflaged by tall un-harvested sugarcane stalks. The Indian force was assembled to attempt to stop the invading Pakistani armored drive. The Pakistani force contained no less than 300 of the new American M47 Patton tanks along with a few M24 Chaffee Tanks. The 46-ton Patton was considered one of the best and most modern designs of the time and included a 90mm main gun that outranged the Indian tanks. The Indian tanks were largely outgunned (the Shermans and AMX-13s only having 75mm main guns) as well as grossly outnumbered by a factor of no less than 2:1. Four inches (100mm) of steel armor plating on the Patton's made them proof to all but the most close range or lucky shots

Advancing into an Indian artillery barrage, the Pakistani armor fell into the Indian trap. Much like the Americans at the Battle of Bunker Hill the Indian gunners held fast until they could 'see the whites of their enemy's eyes". Opening fire from their camouflaged hiding places at ranges of as short as five hundred meters the smaller Indian tanks were able to penetrate the Pakistani Pattons from all angles and shortly set dozens on fire. The Pakistanis left the field in disarray, leaving almost a hundred tanks behind. The Indians lost 32 tanks but gained a powerful victory, which led to a stalemate and a ceasefire that ended the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War on September 22nd.

Another tactical victory was luring the Pakistani tanks into areas with soft soil which completely ruled out a quick retreat for their tanks.

The battle also witnessed the personal bravery of an Indian soldier Abdul Hamid being honoured with the Param Vir Chakra, India's highest military award, for having knocked out seven enemy tanks with a recoil-less gun.

Participating in the battle was a young Lt. Pervez Musharraf, in the Pakistani 1st Armored Division. He later became the president of the Pakistani state. Today the site of the battle is referred to as Patton Nagar (Patton City) after the large number of Patton tanks captured there.



Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Battle of Rezang La

Let me start off with one battle whose stories I have heard since my childhood from various sources. Each time I read it or hear it from a source, it seriously moves me.

Some image(s) in this post will give you a sense of the dangerous and hostile conditions in which this battle, in 1962, was fought.

The battle of Rezang La has been listed as one of the ten greatest military battles of all time.

So here it is, the amazing true story of the brave Indian soldiers who fought for the country, last man... last round!


The Rezang La battle

On October 20, 1962, the Chinese launched a full-scale attack on the 7 Infantry Brigade, stretched as it was along the Namka Chu river in the Kaming division of North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), later renamed Arunachal Pradesh, and made rapid progress. However, in the Ladakh sector, nothing much happened during the next few weeks except that some of the forward Indian posts were driven back, though there were unmistakable signs of a build-up of forces.

114 Infantry Brigade had been assigned the task to defend the gateway to the Indus Valley at Chushul. The brigade had occupied defences on the heights dominating the Chushul plain and its airfield. It is a vast area and consequently the defences were widely separated with the companies occupying isolated positions, resulting in the break-up of the only artillery battery into troop deployment. One of the forward and important features called Rezang La was occupied by a company of 13 Kumaon, commanded by Maj Shaitan Singh.

He was a sombre, God-fearing, serious-minded officer. He took keen interest in the training and welfare of his men. He came from a military family, with his father having risen to the rank of a Colonel in the army.

Consequently, by training and tradition, he was imbued with a high sense of duty and responsibility and his character moulded to measure up to the trials and tribulations that lay ahead.

Rezang La is a rocky area in the desolate, barren and cold desert of Ladakh and an important post for the attacker to take before making any move towards the plains of Chushul. Its height is over 17,000 feet and dominates the surrounding area, thus making it a vital feature for the defender to hold.

Eventually, there was no better man to defend this outpost than Major Shaitan Singh. Both his commanding officer and the brigade commander (also from the Kumaon Regiment) knew that the enemy will require some considerable effort to dislodge him from Rezang La.

Finally on the night of December 18, 1962, the Chinese made their move around mid-night. The attack opened with a heavy barrage of artillery and mortar fire supported by medium machine guns. Shaitan Singh’s men were ill-clad for the freezing winter of Ladakh, their weapons were outdated and ammunition limited with no artillery support worth the name.

Frozen earth made digging very difficult and the defender had based his defences mostly on Sangars. Notwithstanding all that, these gallant men of Kumoan hills met the overwhelming enemy onslaught head-on.

Shaitan Singh must have been the most inspiring figure in that unequal fight; for his men fought to the last while he himself kept moving to wherever the situation was found getting out of control.

Shaitan Singh was seriously wounded in the legs and stomach, yet he declined to be evacuated by his men and decided to fight to the finish. All this time, the battle raged with unabated fury. Some of the section posts changed hands many times. With the ammunition exhausted the fighting took its most primitive and brutal form, that is hand-to-hand fighting with the Kumaonis refusing to yield ground.

Before dawn could break on the Ladakh hills, silence descended at Rezang La. The last of the men of that gallant company had fallen at their post. When all had been lost, three badly wounded men who had survived the fighting decided to evacuate Shaitan Singh, who by now was totally incapacitated. They carried him some distance, but the task was too much for the already weakened men.

Realising their state and the problem they were having in evacuating him, Shaitan Singh ordered his men to leave him to his fate and find their way to the battalion headquarters. Reclining against the rock, Shaitan Singh must have slowly bled and frozen to death, and that is the position in which they found him next summer.

Out of this gallant company of nearly 120 men, only these three seriously wounded soldiers came back to give the details of this heroic battle.

The Chinese had suffered heavy casualties and the momentum of their offensive in the Ladakh sector had been effectively checked by these handful of Kumaonis under that gallant company commander. Thereafter, the Chinese made no serious effort to push their drive towards the Chushul plain.

While military observers were stunned at the collective bravery of these men and that of Shaitan Singh, Joe Das, an authority on military history, drew a parallel between the battle of Rezang La and the battle of Thermopyalae.

Next summer, when Rezang La was revisited, Major Shaitan Singh’s body was found where the three men said they had left him. At Rezang La, the spread of dead bodies of the Kumaonis, with some still clutching their weapons and from the type and extent of their wounds one could picture the desperate nature of the struggle and the bravery of the men of 13 Kumaon.

Major Shaitan Singh was awarded the Param Vir Chakra (posthumous) for his valour.