‘Asal Uttar' means befitting reply and the Indian Army, tasked to defend that sleepy town in Punjab during the 1965 war, was eager to give Pakistan such a reply knowing little that they would take on the mighty Patton tanks in a battle that would be remembered in military history.
After 56 years, this battle, fought between 8- 10 September, is still remembered as one of India’s greatest victories and is often compared to the Battle of Kursk in World War II for how it changed the course of the war in India's favour.
Captain Amarinder Singh, the chief minister of Punjab, who had also fought in the 1965 war, had once said that if the Indian Army hadn't stopped Pakistani advance at Asal Uttar, Amritsar would have fallen and it would have been all over for India.
We go back in time to recount this tale of unparalleled courage.
The First Phase
The Rann of Kutch is an 80-km-wide and 515-km-long stretch of land bordering on Sindh in Pakistan and Gujarat in India. The area was better defended from the Pakistan side. On the Indian side, police posts guarded the border. Despite Pakistani mischief in Kanjarkot in January 1965, India expected no major intrusion in this area.
On 7 April 1965, Pakistan overran two posts on the Indian border. On 23 April, Pakistan again struck on four border posts and captured Vigokot and Biar Bet. The hostilities ended on 1 July 1965, at the intervention of the British prime minister. Though no major gains accrued to either side, Pakistan felt elated by this adventure.
After this supposed success in the Rann of Kutch, Pakistan put into action her plan to grab the valley of Kashmir by infiltration and sabotage. The Pakistani army sent in thousands of soldiers in twos and threes into Kashmir.
Pakistan had assumed that the people of Kashmir would help the infiltrators launch a popular uprising against ‘Indian rule’. The plan, named Operation Gibraltar, failed spectacularly because the local people, far from helping them, helped the Indian Army to locate and capture the infiltrators.
The Indian troops took some quick measures and was able to contain the infiltrators within 15 days. But to remove the threat completely it was necessary to seal the entry points of the infiltrators. The Indian Army attacked Kargil (in Leh sector), Tangdhar (Tithwal sector) and Haji Pir (in Uri sector) with this intent.
To relieve pressure on their forces in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, the Pakistan army launched an all-out attack on 1 September against the Indian forces in the Chhamb–Jaurian region. The aim of Operation Grand Slam was to capture the Akhnoor bridge that straddled the fast-flowing river Chenab, which would lead to cutting off the Indian Army's formations stationed in western Jammu-Kashmir.
The Indian troops held on to Akhnoor, tenaciously at first, but with increasing confidence with every passing day.
It was then that the Indian troops were asked to take a defensive position in the Punjab town of Asal Uttar.
Pakistan's invading force, consisting of the 1st Armoured Division and 11th Infantry Division, crossed the International Border and captured the Indian town of Khem Karan.
Considering the situation, GOC Indian 4th Mountain Division Major General Gurbaksh Singh immediately ordered the division to fall back and assume a horseshoe-shaped defensive position with Asal Uttar as its focal point.
In the night, the Indian troops flooded the sugar cane field, and the next morning, the Pakistani tanks of the 1st Armoured Division, consisting mainly of M47 and M48 Patton tanks (which according to the Americans were unbeatable), were lured inside the horse-shoe trap.
The swampy ground slowed the advance of the Pakistani tanks and many of them could not move because of the muddy slush. Over 100 Pakistani tanks were destroyed and another 40-plus were captured while the Indians, by their account, lost only 10 tanks during this counter-offensive.
Abdul Hamid, The Patton Killer
Havaldar Abdul Hamid, who was later awarded the Param Vir Chakra for his unmatched bravery during the battle of Asal Uttar, was the soldier who took on advanced Patton tanks with his ordinary anti-tank jeep.
On 9 September, Hamid had destroyed two Patton tanks with the help of his jeep and had essentially become an eyesore for Pakistani soldiers.
On 10 September 1965, at 0800 hours, a battalion of Pakistani armour supported by Patton tanks attacked the 4th Grenadier positions but was unable to locate the battalion's defences. Nevertheless, they launched an intense artillery bombardment to soften the target, and by 0900 hours, the enemy tanks had penetrated the forward company positions.
Hamid knew that if the tanks weren't taken care of, it would all be over soon.
In a melee, Hamid saw a group of Pattons heading towards the battalion defences. Without caring for his life, he moved out of the flank with his gun mounted on a jeep. Heavy shelling didn't deter him and he continued firing, knocking out three Patton tanks back to back before the fourth one killed him.
Courageous Hamid tarnished the reputation of the mighty M48 Patton, forcing Pakistan to replace it with the M60 after the 1965 war.
Creation of Patton Nagar
The battle at Asal Uttar led to the creation of Patton Nagar, which is also known as the graveyard of Patton tanks after more than a hundred tanks were either destroyed or captured here.
According to military historian Steven Zaloga, Pakistan admitted that it lost 165 tanks during the 1965 war, more than half of which were knocked out during the "debacle" of Asal Uttar.
With inputs from agencies