How our generals repeatedly bungled during the 1965 war, but junior commanders saved the day for us


According to official Indian figures, the total number of casualties during the conflict that began with the Rann of Kutch and culminated with the subsequent ceasefire violations that continued until February 1966 was 12,714, out of which 2,763 were killed, 8,444 wounded, and 1,507 missing. Of these, an estimated 2,000 casualties took place after the ceasefire, something that raised questions about the effectiveness of the UN as a global peacekeeping body. Pakistan’s official figure was never released but the Karachi-based Dawn newspaper quoted a senior Pakistani official in December 1965, who admitted to having lost 1,033 men in all. Pakistan also claimed, perhaps mainly to save face with its own people, that it had captured over 2,500 sq km of Indian territory. Neutral observers more or less agreed with the Indian casualty figures and, in the case of Pakistan, estimated at least 5,000 plus deaths. Defence Minister YB Chavan in the Rajya Sabha had estimated the total Pakistani fatalities at 5,800.

Considering the propaganda blitz in Pakistan both during and after the war, it would not be surprising if the regular Pakistani thought that India had been obliterated! To keep the public perception alive that the Indians had been walloped and each Pakistani soldier was equal to ten Hindus, Pakistan indulged in some deft footwork. In the Chhamb-Jaurian Sector for example, using an old photograph of bunched up AMX-13 tanks, Pakistan claimed it had decimated 20 Lancers; whereas in reality, the one lone squadron of light tanks had held up two regiments of the far superior Pattons. At the time, strangely, no one in Pakistan wondered if that had indeed been the case, why Operation Grand Slam failed to get to Akhnoor. In the case of the air force, where the Pakistanis had indeed destroyed almost three times the number of Indian aircraft, the perception war reached far greater heights. Squadron Leader Alam’s claim of having shot down nine Hunters being the icing on the cake!

The obsession with ‘who won the war’ almost as if it’s a cricket match has continued for more than half a century. Semantics apart, it is pretty obvious that all of Pakistan’s initial aggressive moves, starting with the Rann of Kutch to Operation Gibraltar and Operation Grand Slam were successfully checkmated by the Indians, which was extremely creditable because the timing, quantum of force, and the terrain was always of Pakistan’s choosing. The lessons in each case were fairly obvious, but the shrill propaganda drowned out any possibility of a sensible critical analysis at the time. The over-reliance on armour and the infantry’s hesitation to close the gap, obvious even in the brief skirmish in the Rann, time and again came back to haunt the Pakistani high command.

In offense, the Indians were stymied by a different factor — the Pakistani artillery was in a league of its own altogether. While all the pre-war hype centred around the F-104s and F-86 Sabres, and, of course, the ‘invincible’ Pattons, the real backbone of the Pakistan Army was its heavy, medium, and light guns with seemingly unlimited ammunition, that played havoc with Indian advances in all the 7 and 15 Infantry and 4 Mountain Division sectors. The seemingly unlimited amount of ammunition, combined with the fact that the PAF was fully committed to ground support and was always on call, played a major role in the final outcome in almost all battles. Whichever way one chooses to look at it, the coordination required between the Indian Army and the IAF simply did not exist.

General JN Chaudhuri, by virtue of being the army chief since November 1962, had become the single point of contact between the political leadership and the armed forces. With Defence Minister Chavan focussed on protecting Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru from being criticized for his handling of the 1962 fiasco, nothing had changed in the higher direction of war. Not only had no one been brought to book, most of those who had made glaring blunders were in critical positions, having since been promoted. Nehru, after the Chinese debacle, had continued the policy of keeping the military isolated from governance, as a result of which Chaudhuri emerged as the last and final word on politico-military issues. Though Air Marshal Arjan Singh was quite a favourite of Chavan’s, the government also treated the IAF and the navy as an extension of the army. After Prime Minister Nehru’s death, Lal Bahadur Shastri took over but he was careful not to change anything. Having made himself the most important cog with his pushy personality, Chaudhuri was ‘still the high flyer trapezing from swing to swing’, in the process bypassing the Chiefs of Staff Committee, the JPC (Joint Parliamentary Committee), and the JIC (Joint Intelligence Committee) and ‘decided to act entirely on his own’.

The disdain Chaudhuri had for the other two services was clear in his handling of affairs. Air Marshal PC Lal, who was at the helm of the IAF six years later, said later that one had to only listen to Chaudhuri’s comments to realise that he treated the whole business of fighting Pakistan or China as ‘his personal affair, or at any rate that of the Army’s alone, with the Air Force a passive spectator and the navy out of it altogether’. Chaudhuri also had much the same attitude when it came to dealing with his own headquarters, having contrived to even do away with the post of the chief of the general staff (CGS). None of the grandiose plans discussed during Operation Ablaze were ever committed to paper, and even the personal staff officers were more often than not kept in the dark. Those who were present at those meetings, as was the case with Jogi Dhillon, did little by way of assimilating local intelligence. Ground-level planning and logistics seemed to have little meaning, as did intelligence reports that Pakistan had in fact raised a second armoured division.

SP Verma, who had taken over as director of Intelligence Bureau from the infamous BN Mullik had, shortly before the fighting spread to the Punjab, warned Chaudhuri (and the army) in a detailed assessment that Pakistan had indeed surreptitiously used equipment earmarked as ‘reserve’ by the US administration and was planning to launch a major offensive in the Punjab plains. Chaudhuri, who stuck to his position that the Pakistanis only had the one division which was deployed in the Sialkot Sector, refused to pay heed to the warning. Having then moved India’s 1 Armoured Division to the north, he created a huge gap in India’s defences. Pakistan launching its armoured assault regardless of India’s advance in the Khem Karan Sector on 7 September confirmed that Verma’s appreciation of the situation had been correct. In what was close to blind panic, Chaudhuri then wanted to fall back on the Beas and abandon the Amritsar region, in what would have been a virtual re-run of the situation that developed in Tezpur and Assam after the fall of Bomdila in 1962.

With pressure building from all sides to cease hostilities, Lal Bahadur Shastri turned to his chief on 20 September and asked him if the army could achieve a decisive victory over the Pakistanis should the war be prolonged. Chaudhuri, without any recourse to the actual dynamics of battle logistics, advised the prime minister that the army was coming to the end of its ammunition stocks and that it would not be possible to fight on any more. ‘I heard about the conversation between the prime minister and the army chief from the previous home secretary,’ Ram D Pradhan would tell me half a century later. ‘We were all quite dumbstruck, for we knew even at my level that we had expended less than 20 per cent of our ammunition stocks.’(The real figure as revealed in post-war studies was close to 14 per cent. The Pakistanis, at the time, had expended 80 per cent of their stocks.)

‘The PAF had run out of steam, the Pakistani artillery was close to running out of ammunition, the war of attrition needed to give way to some bold moves, which the Pakistan Army would have been hard-pressed to contain. The IAF had absorbed the frenzy of attacks and just when we felt we held all the cards, though we were aware of it at the time, the army chief pulled the carpet from under our feet,’ says a bitter Philip Rajkumar. There were a few problems. Non-intensive sectors had had more ammunition trains clogging the marshalling yards, while others closer to the fighting were clamouring for more. It is highly unlikely that the army chief was not aware of this critical factor. ‘There were echoes here of 1962. Chaudhuri had probably not fully recovered from the shock of the near disaster at Khem Karan and was unwilling to take any risks. An easy option had been suggested by the prime minister, and he jumped at it. Instead of victory, the war ended in a stalemate that enabled both sides to claim victory.’

The ceasefire that came into effect on 23 September suited Pakistan on another level. While the guns fell silent, it could almost immediately regroup its forces and start probing into areas where it felt its forces could occupy maximum territory. The region immediately to the north of the Barmer Sector was a case in point where the Indus Rangers, combined with irregular forces including dacoits, began to occupy undefended villages. At the other end of the spectrum, in the 25 Infantry Division Sector, Pakistani commanders refused to vacate a dominating feature called Chhu-i-Nar on the Mendhar Ridge. The area in question was about 700 yards in length and was a major infiltration route and supply dump for the raiding columns. It was also an excellent point of observation of all Indian positions along the LOC extending from Bhimber Gali to Mendhar. With the infiltration routes in Gurez, Tithwal, and the Haji Pir area under Indian control, this was perhaps the last option for Pakistan to recover surviving elements of the raiding columns still trapped inside Indian territory.

Ever since Pakistani artillery had opened up in support of the infiltrating raider columns as a part of Operation Gibraltar, the near pinpoint accuracy of their guns suggested they had an observation post somewhere in the Chhu-i-Nar area. A 2 Dogra patrol had, in the second week of August, confirmed that the Pakistanis were holding the post in strength, and hence the name ‘Op Hill’ was given to the location. In less than a fortnight since the ceasefire, 2 Garhwal Rifles, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Ujagar Singh, was asked to launch a battalion strength attack and capture Op Hill and other related features around it. Though the Garhwalis successfully reached their objectives, surprisingly, no support troops had been earmarked for the operation, and they could not hold the objective in the face of Pakistani counter-attacks, and were withdrawn by first light on 7 October. The Garhwali lost two officers including the Alpha Company commander, Captain Satish Khera, and Lieutenant Bhim Sain, one JCO, Subedar Govind Singh Gariya, and nineteen other ranks, while four officers, three JCOs, and sixty-eight men were wounded.

It now seemed to Major General Amreek Singh that the Pakistanis were determined to hold Chhu-i-Nar with Op Hill and the surrounding features at all costs. Brigadier (later Major General) BS Ahluwalia’s 120 Infantry Brigade, a newly raised formation, was given the task of clearing them out. It was estimated that two Pakistani companies were holding the feature, and the main obstacle would be the minefields. In an operational plan fraught with risk, it was decided to launch the attack at night. On the night of 2 November, 5 Sikh LI, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel (later Brigadier) Sant Singh, and 2 Dogra, without a commanding officer, led the attack in phase one of what was to be yet another bloody battle. 7 Sikh, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Bhagat Singh Sadhu was the third battalion that advanced on the same objective in phase two, while elements of 2 Garhwal and 11 Kumaon were also involved as stops, which would allow them to mop up any retreating Pakistanis.

Despite the ridiculous planning at the brigade and divisional level, the units were outstanding, the men getting to their objectives despite scores being ripped apart by the mines that covered all approaches. Just how difficult the situation was can best be understood from Sant Singh’s description of the attack: ‘Late Naik Darshan Singh when told by one of his men, “ustad minefield aa gaya” (sir, we have entered the minefield), his reply was classic, and his courage infectious…“let us die and clear the way for others to succeed.” He then entered the mine field, had his left foot blown off by a mine, then continuing to crawl forward he cut the encompassing wire with a wire cutter, and continued his crawl forward. His left forearm was severed by another mine going off. He then crawled up to a BMG bunker, took out a grenade, pulled the pin with his teeth, and silenced it. His entire section was killed with him.’ In the pitch dark (the moon was in its first quarter during that period), there is little doubt that almost all units also suffered badly from friendly fire apart from the mines. The brigade losses were terrible—three officers, four JCOs, and 114 other ranks killed; five officers, ten JCOs, and 317 other ranks wounded. 2 Dogra, 5 Sikh LI, 7 Sikh, 23 Mountain, and 169 Field Regiment were later awarded the Battle Honour for Op Hill.

The fighting at Op Hill was, in a way, a microcosm of the war. Indian generals, in the actual conduct of operations, repeatedly bungled, often resorting to tactics that bordered on the bizarre. Time and again, it was left to the junior commanders and the men under their command to retrieve the situation. Almost all officers in the higher echelons of command were guilty of passing the buck and sacking those under their command for lapses they were guilty of. The case of Niranjan Prasad perhaps best illustrates this point—a former RIAF officer, he had been the forward air controller on various occasions in his career, and he knew the importance of coordinating with the air force. During Operation Ablaze while Generals Chaudhuri, Harbakhsh, and Dhillon played out their war games, he repeatedly pointed out this lacuna which would result in a situation where the high command would fail to harness the operational potential of maximum strategic effect. He was repeatedly snubbed, and subsequently humiliated, by the very men who had failed him. ‘As it was, what saved us in the Punjab was the high performance of our men and, most particularly, of our young officers. It was their courage and fortitude that turned a timid and sterile plan in our favour.’ It was a different matter that having opted for a war of attrition, when we did have the advantage in logistics, ‘the advantage was mindlessly thrown away by an impetuous and unthinking Army Chief.’

In the post-war drum beating and chest thumping, a picture was painted about the brilliant handling of the forces by the Indian leadership. Perhaps that was the need of the time, for it helped put balm on the scars of 1962, but we must face the reality. Recent comments by the newly created chief of defence staff, General Bipin Rawat, on the IAF being a supporting arm of the army, if reported correctly indicate that not much has changed. Fortunately, the rank and file did not know of the ‘bungling and faintheartedness at the top’. There was much to build on, which the army and the air force did, which then paid dividends six years later in the Bangladesh war of liberation. Half the battle, as we are repeatedly told in every profession, is won in the head!

Shiv Kunal Verma is a military historian and a documentary filmmaker. The article is an edited excerpt from his latest book, ‘1965: A Western Sunrise’ (Aleph publications).

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How our generals repeatedly bungled during the 1965 war, but junior commanders saved the day for us
How our generals repeatedly bungled during the 1965 war, but junior commanders saved the day for us
ASE News
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