ByMaj Gen Sukhwant Singh
IssueBook Excerpt: Indias War since Independence| Date : 24 Aug , 2013
The Indian Army expanded manifold in World War II to meet the ever-increasing demands of the British contribution to the overall Allied strategy, particularly in West Asia and Southeast Asia.
Drawing on our reservoir of manpower, newly raised units and formations were hurled into battle after short, but nonetheless concentrated, training. The Indian Army of that period was essentially British-led and manpower-oriented. The mechanisation that crept into it was only incidental. Its growth was unbalanced, especially in terms of supporting arms and air complement. On the credit side, Indian troops got an opportunity to fight first-class armies in different theatres of war from the Western Desert to Italy and from the mountains of Eritrea to the jungles of Burma, shoulder to shoulder with European and US troops. And battle is the best schooling for war.
The tactical concepts of the Indian Army of World War II conformed to the British requirements of the time. Basically, the underlying idea was to trade space for time initially to allow for equipping and training the formations, and to achieve the requisite buildup so as to turn the tide after completing preparations. It was easy for them as the traded space was in alien lands. In battle, the British believed in a step-by-step deliberate approach with local superiority of at least three to one.
The chief protagonist of this concept was Field Marshal Montgomery, but he represented the dictates of the military potential of the wartime armies. The citizen armies were not trained in war manoeuvres and after a series of defeats were hungry for success to tone up national morale. Defeat in battle was unthinkable at that juncture and Montgomery ensured success by creating deliberate and complete superiority over the adversary at a chosen point, and this involved protracted preparations. Surprise and audacity in battle were ignored both in planning and execution, and success solely relied upon the superiority of the blow dealt to the enemy. This was made possible by the free flow of US military aid and the British war industries catching up with defence production. At the end of the war, the bloated Indian Army came home for demobilisation and reduction to suit peacetime colonial requirements in the region.
Demobilisation had not been completed when the transfer of power was effected. Nehru’s interim government took office, but before it could take stock of future requirements it got entangled in internal dissensions which eventually led to the partition of the country. The government, wedded to the Gandhian philosophy of non-violence, did not take long to spell out the trend of its foreign policy. Nehru made it known that India intended to live in peace with its neighbours and firmly believed that political issues should not be settled by military means. He advocated mutual understanding and cooperation, and preferred negotiations as the main instrument of settlement. This resulted in some misgivings among the rank and file that the army would be drastically cut and that its role would be mainly ceremonial.
While the partitioned armies of India and Pakistan were still busy in dividing assets and escorting refugee caravans, tribal raiders made their way into the Kashmir Valley, blazing a trail of loot, rape and ruthless killings. The outnumbered Jammu and Kashmir forces holding the state border could not beat back the tribal torrent, and they were further weakened by defections in some units. Unable to stem the tide of the invasion, the Maharaja of Kashmir acceded to India, and as a result the responsibility for checking the invaders fell on the Indian Army, then still under a British Commander-in-Chief.
1 Sikh, the nearest unit available, was flown to Srinagar on 26 October 1947 with the aim of throwing back the raiders. Adequate information about the magnitude of the threat in terms of numbers, weapons and the direction of the thrust was not forthcoming, nor was there time to evaluate in detail the size and composition of the force required to meet it. There were no cohesive units and formations readily available for immediate induction, and as a result units formed by collecting returning elements from Pakistan were dispatched to the Jammu and Kashmir theatre piecemeal.
The late Lt Gen Kalwant Singh, then a major general and one of the few among the 90 or so King’s Commissioned Indian Officers (KCIOs) in service at that time who had held assignments of some consequence, was appointed theatre commander. The initial reaction was to send troops wherever raiders were reported. Operations conformed to the prevalent British mountain warfare tactics, which basically meant picqueting the heights dominating the axes to enable movement of administrative columns along them. The units and formations were led by young Indian officers who as the operations developed grew up with responsibility. Luckily, most of the troops were war veterans and knew the business of war.
A study of the Jammu and Kashmir operations does not reveal any overall strategy either for trapping and destroying the intruders or to block the routes of entry and exit along the state border or even to restore the integrity of these borders. These moves appear to have been expedients to cope with situations as they arose rather than designed to fit into a well-thought-out overall strategy. Two thrusts were developed in the Kashmir Valley, one towards Domel under Brig (later Lt Gen) L.P. Sen and the other towards Tithwal under Col (later Lt Gen) Harbakhsh Singh. As an offshoot of Sen’s offensive, a battalion under Lt Col (later Brig) Pritam Singh was inducted in Poonch along the Uri-Haji Pir Pass road. This unit was isolated immediately after induction with the routes leading to Poonch cut off by the raiders on all sides.
In other sectors of this little war, operations continued to be directed to link up with the beleaguered Poonch garrison. Poonch was saved because of the indomitable spirit and rare boldness Pritam Singh displayed. He carried out a series of forays deep into enemy–held territory to keep the raiders at bay. Such stunning blows of attrition were inflicted on them that they got scared of the garrison and its commander. But these actions depleted his regular strength to the extent that he had-to fall back on the local militia to meet his ever–growing needs of manpower.
Pritam Singh prepared a landing strip for aircraft near the town where Wing Commander Baba Mehar Singh and his men landed to supply the garrison with arms and ammunition and evacuate casualties. As the strip was under enemy artillery fire, landings were mostly at night without proper navigational aids. To feed the garrison and the loyal civil population, Pritam Singh organised harvesting of grain in the surrounding agricultural belts under hostile occupation.
The thrust from Jammu to effect a linkup with Poonch met stiff opposition near Jhangar and Kotli and took more time and many more troops than originally estimated. As the war dragged on, the troop buildup increased both north and south of the Pir Panjal range, and this command and control became unmanageable by force headquarters. Accordingly, the force was divided into two divisions, one north of Pir Panjal under Maj Gen (later Gen) Thimayya and the other in the south under the late Maj Gen Atma Singh. Kalwant Singh moved out to Army Headquarters as Chief of General Staff and Lt Gen Srinagesh took overall command of the theatre.
The entire Indian Army field force, excluding the minimal holding force, was by now committed in Jammu and Kashmir. Jhangar and Rajauri were secured in the south and a link with Poonch established. Zojila was secured in the north and linked with Leh. Induction of regular Pakistani troops all along the front stiffened resistance, and operations generally stabilised. At that time, international pressures forced a ceasefire on 31 December 1948, and as a result both armies settled down in penny packets to man the ceasefire line in an uneasy eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation under the supervision of the United Nations Military Observer Group for India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP).
Throughout the operations, Baba Mehar Singh and his men provided excellent support, flying day and night in rickety leftover machines of World War II in very hazardous weather and terrain. He had many firsts to his credit. He was the first pilot to land at Leh on a hastily prepared strip at that altitude, to use Dakotas on a bombing raid, and to land at Poonch at night under hostile fire. In fact, wherever there was an air fight Mehar Singh was in the lead, and he became a legend.
It goes to Kalwant Singh’s credit that he built up the administrative infrastructure from scratch, ensured smooth induction and husbanded his force well. He welded the hastily assembled units and formations into a fighting machine, and with his characteristic gruff, no nonsense mannerisms drove it hard. He was at the same time egoistic, positively rude in speech and intolerant of inefficiency, and as a result he made a lot of enemies both within and outside the Army. By no means a military genius, but certainly a man of iron will, he kept the force on the continuous offensive against odds and saved two-thirds of Jammu and Kashmir for India.
The Indian Army emerged from these operations as a cohesive fighting force. But it was still infantry-oriented, lacking the balance of supporting arms and administrative services, and equipped with World War II weaponry. It had fought for the first time under Indian commanders and acquitted itself reasonably well, and for this the credit must largely go to the war-tried rank and file and their British training as well as the all-pervading fervour for a national cause.
On the military plane, the operations were confined to the frontier warfare pattern against irregulars and were not of much use in the context of a modern war. The Air Force had no opposition, and as a result learnt to take more risks than would have been possible under normal circumstances. On the whole an air of confidence prevailed. But the worst was to follow, for policing the ceasefire line tied down two-thirds of the Indian field force to holding the dominating heights in penny packets, and this commitment continues till today. This defensive hibernation sapped the offensive spirit of the Indian Army as the years passed.
The end of the little war brought up another phenomenon character assassination. Petty jealousies surfaced among the general officers and intrigues flourished, leading to the trial by court martial of Pritam Singh, the hero of Poonch, for alleged connivance in the theft of two carpets from the local palace. Although Pritam Singh was ostensibly on trial, the conspirators were bent on implicating Kalwant Singh and Mehar Singh.
It is said that Thimayya, a defence witness, stated “without Pritam there would have been no Poonch, and with Poonch would have gone these carpets. Why are you crucifying this good soldier for nothing?” Pritam Singh was unceremoniously dismissed from service. Kalwant Singh was subsequently superseded by some of the generals involved in the plot who had not even heard a shot fired in anger. Baba Mehar Singh, by then a legendary figure in the services, resigned in disgust to become the personal pilot of a dethroned maharaja and this was to have serious repercussions later.
Meanwhile, Gen Cariappa replaced the British chief and the Indian Army settled down to peacetime soldiering. Kipper was a stickler for dress, spit and polish and soldierly deportment. He lived by rules and regulations and thrust this life on the Army to the extent that every officer was made to carry in his pocket the US Army cadets’ prayer and his personal letter to all officers. He believed in stability and insisted that the sole criterion for promotion was seniority. It was a joke prevalent among officers those days that even if you were a donkey asleep underneath a blanket, when your turn came your ears would be pulled and you would be given an extra pip.
Cariappa submitted to the dictates of the then Defence Secretary H.M. Patel. He accepted a new pay code whereby an Indian commissioned officer’s salary was reduced in relation to that of the civil services, while king’s commissioned officers continued to draw the old rates of pay according to the British conditions of service, including overseas leave. Such disparities affected officers’ morale to such an extent that some of our best talents like Col Leslie Sawhney left the Army for better prospects elsewhere. When questioned about the disparity of pay between KCIOs and ICOs, Cariappa replied: “After all, KCIOs are only a handful. Why do you grudge their privileges?” Good old Kipper belonged to the medieval period and refused to sense the winds of change.
As for operational preparedness, he leaned on three or four British advisers. Russell Pasha, an outstanding divisional commander of World War II, was the chief adviser and bore a grudge that he could offer advice only when asked, which was seldom. Wilkinson, an Armoured Corps officer, was director of Military Training. He was a pliable staff officer with hardly any war experience in command. Lentaigne, a forward-looking officer, was Commandant of the Staff College but was content with mass-scale production of quill drivers in minor staff duties. Macdonald, in charge of the Infantry School, was according to unanimous student opinion, “clueless”.
Between the four of them, they strove to train and prepare the Indian Army for the future, as if for another world war. It was not exactly their fault. The fault lay in not having been able to discern and enunciate the future tasks of the Indian Army. The politician as well as the soldier walked in a fog without set national goals, and as a result the Indian Army remained wedded to the past. Emphasis shifted from matters military to infructuous spit and polish and, as some other rank aptly remarked, to “badges, buttons and bands”.
Muchu Chaudhuri was considered one of the most polished and educated general officers of his time and was later to have a great influence in shaping the military concepts of the Army. He was Director of Military Operations for a brief while and had a hand in planning the police action in Hyderabad State, code-named ‘Operation Polo’. He was later called upon to command the Armoured Division and execute the plan. He remarked sometime after: “If the plan had failed I had no one to blame as I made the plan my- self.” Erstwhile Hyderabad State, domain of the legendary Nizam, covered a huge area in the Deccan Plateau of South India. It was landlocked with four main routes of ingress from the surrounding Indian territory. The Nizam had a military force of about one infantry brigade group and one horse cavalry regiment under the command of Gen El-Edroos, an Arab who had risen from the ranks of the ruler’s bodyguard.
He had spent his years in his master’s court looking handsome in colourful regalia and knew little about the business of war. A hurried effort was made to arm the force with modern weapons flown in by gun-runner Sydney Cotton from Pakistan, but only a trickle could reach the fighting units. A militant political organisation, led by a fiery rabble rouser, Qasim Rizvi, tried to raise a “people’s army” of Razakars to resist Indian “aggression” but was no match for our troops.
Chaudhuri had his armoured division and an additional force of about two or three brigade groups raised on an ad hoc basis from the Communication Zone Area troops. Most of the Indian Army was occupied in Jammu and Kashmir at the time. His plan was simple. He distributed his force almost mathematically along the routes of ingress, keeping the main axis of the Sholapur-Naldrug-Hyderabad road for his armour, and ordered a simultaneous advance towards Hyderabad, the seat of the Nizam Government. Despite the inflammatory speeches from the state radio urging the people to resist the Indian “invaders”, resistance collapsed after cursory border skirmishes and within three days the triumphant Chaudhuri marched along the streets of Hyderabad as a victor and was appointed Military Governor soon thereafter. Elements loyal to the Nizam felt badly let down by El-Edroos and dubbed him an Indian stooge who had sold out before the battle started.
Chaudhuri emerged as a national figure almost overnight. Personal power and the overwhelming adulation of the old Nizam’s court turned his head and he started imagining himself the Guderian of the East. For the rest of his service career be assumed and maintained the role of an expert on armour and a military strategist. He set his goals high and worked his way up through a series of key appointments, where he had the opportunity to influence Indian military thinking a great deal. He was no doubt a gifted man, but was very conceited, dabbled freely in influence peddling and ensured that his opinion prevailed. His pet ideas in operational planning of simultaneous multipronged thrusts along several routes of ingress into enemy territory was subsequently applied in annexing Goa and in the war with Pakistan in 1965.
In Jammu and Kashmir, when the military commanders thought they had the upper hand and could bring operations to a fruitful conclusion, Nehru went to the UN to seek a ceasefire, which was effected at midnight 31 December 1948. India’s national policy was clear: at home it wished to devote all its energies to develop the country economically so as to lift its people from a dismally low subsistence level to prosperity, and for this Nehru, following the Russian pattern, emphasised rapid industrialisation. Abroad, he projected India as an honest broker between the two hostile camps and became an ardent protagonist of non-alignment. He wished to live with neighbours in ideological friendship on the basis of the Panch Sheel and the Bandung spirit.
In this strategy to attain national objectives, military power did not fit in as an equal partner of political, economic and psychological means. But for the irritant of Pakistan’s geopolitics, he felt he could dispense with the expensive military establishment altogether. In this regard, he was content with maintaining a marginal edge over Pakistan in numerical military strength, and that too very grudgingly. He firmly believed in seeking political solutions without direct or indirect application of military power.
This attitude was evidenced by successive nondescript changes in the Ministry of Defence and the meagre allocation of resources for defence in the national budget. It is a poor commentary on the type of military advice available at the time that military power was not given its rightful place in national strategy. The pliable defence chiefs, who toed the line, were equally to blame for the criminal neglect of defence needs in the subsequent decade.
The war potential of a nation is an equation of manpower, weaponry, state of training and morale, and leadership. The British trained bureaucrat-and-soldier team started working according to this equation rather slavishly, little realising that Indian conditions were entirely different from those obtaining in Britain and needed their own solutions. Although India was, and still continues to be a huge reservoir of manpower, the services introduced a turnover of manpower in a seven-year cycle and increasing the limited army strength in the event of war through a citizen force, called the Territorial Army, on the British model. Neither of these innovations suited the Indian genius and the requirements of short wars.
The Indian soldier comes from a rural background with little education and mechanical aptitude or skill. It takes longer to train him to use modern sophisticated equipment, at times even four to five years. Thus his utility to the service is no more than three or four years, at the end of this period he goes on the reservist list, with liability to be recalled in the event of war. In the prime of life the soldier is thrown into the world of the unemployed to fend for himself. This embitters him, and when war needs him back on active service he gives grudging cooperation. The citizen army has not received such response and has remained under-subscribed.
The average territorial has enrolled to earn a living, and those who were already employed did not relish the idea of military discipline for the additional paltry emoluments it offered. They especially dislike uprooting of families in times of war. The agriculturist found the training period interfering with his cropping seasons. And the inordinate delay in mobilisation militated against the organisation’s use in short wars. The advantage derived from the army of war veterans soon began to peter out, and by the end of the 1950s it had completely vanished. As a result, the Indian Army was perpetually training its manpower, and when war came it fielded half-trained men in battle.
When the British left, the Indian Army was equipped with World War II weapons and other paraphernalia. There were adequate reserves in the various ordnance depots. They had also set up limited war industries to back up the Army by producing small arms and some varieties of ammunition for such arms and artillery, as well as some repair facilities. For understandable reasons, these sensitive industries were the exclusive preserve of the government, and the private sector was restricted to producing common user items like tents, uniforms, marching boots, etc. The military infrastructure in India was established for the conduct of World War II operations in Southeast Asia and had the essential ingredients of an overseas base of colonial power. But with the emergence of an independent India and Pakistan, the power equation in the subcontinent had changed, thus warranting the reorientation of our military infrastructure and defence production. Little or no change took place in this regard however during this period.
Training, to be purposeful, should always be task-oriented. It is a process of forging a weapon to achieve national goals when other means fail. Being the last means, it cannot afford to fail, for failure brings a humiliating national catastrophe and as such cannot be taken lightly. It is therefore imperative that the government in power should lay down clear directives about where military power fits national strategy, and what it is expected to achieve in terms of clearcut objectives. Based on the intelligence assessment of the external and internal threat, the military planners go to the drawing board to work out overall strategy and break it down to individual operational plans, laying down objectives, time schedules and so on.
Evaluation of the means required, such as weaponry, equipment and manpower to carry out the tasks then takes place. The commanders next collect the means to train for the tasks ahead. As training progress, snags are often discovered like paucity of resources and inadequacy of military concepts. Both shortcomings are brought to the notice of the higher command, whose job is to make up shortfalls or modify plans within the existing constraints of equipment and state of training of the force.
This was not so in this 1950s. The Government issued vague directives on the role of the services. The Army’s role was “primarily, to defend India against external aggression. Secondarily, to assist the Government, when asked to give such assistance, in order to enable it to carry out its function peacefully.” The only potential aggressor in the early 1950s was Pakistan. But the Government was so cautious in speaking its mind that the Army was asked not to name Pakistan as the enemy in its make-believe exercises. Instead, hostile forces were referred to under a code name.
Surrounded by such vagueness, the KCIOs in power interpreted the government directive in their own light and understanding. An unenterprising commander defends the country’s borders by sitting on them in a defensive posture, waits for the enemy to strike, and then plans his counter-offensive to meet the adversary’s thrust. This is a safe course when there is enough warning of the impending attack but intelligence is lacking as regards the enemy’s likely lines of thrust and their potential. But it has the inherent weakness of the likelihood of losing our own territory should there be set backs in battle because of the various imponderables of war.
The courageous commander preempts the enemy attack, carries the war deep inside the adversary’s territory, and by stunning blows either causes such attrition to his force or occupies such sensitive territories of his that the enemy is incapacitated to pursue the war fruitfully. This course required good anticipation on the part of intelligence and a very high state of preparedness in the way of a well-trained army and bold and competent military leadership. Such was not the case, and crossing our borders before the aggressor committed such an offence was unthinkable in Nehru’s “holier than thou” era. So KCIOs chose a third course to implement Nehru’s directive.
In 1954, the newly formed corps under the command of Gen Kalwant Singh, who had been rehabilitated by then, was directed by Army Headquarters to carry out the biggest military exercise after independence to translate the Government’s directive into action. The exercise was set by the British Director of Military Training, and two infantry and one armoured division participated with odd supporting independent formations.
The setting was typical of the outmoded British method of fighting a defensive war. Initially, a withdrawal was affected against the enemy advance for about 50 miles, using two to three water obstacles as intermediary positions and eventually resting the main position on a major river. After a deliberate buildup, a counter-offensive was launched by one armoured and one infantry division to regain the lost territory, with incidental attrition of the enemy. It was all right for the British to rely on such methods as the territory lost was an alien colony, usually so underdeveloped that the economy of the region was not affected.
And then the wars were so long that there was hope of regaining the territory with the full support of the home base, and even if the territory was eventually lost this meant only a loss of a part of a colony. Uprooting their own people was not involved, only the lives of British subjects being disrupted. In our context, loss of territory meant the loss of the Green Revolution belt of Punjab, the granary of India, and the population involved was the explosive Sikh community, most of whom had been uprooted from West Punjab at the time of partition, and there was speculation whether they would take the same treatment any more. The KCIOs were however oblivious of the realities of the situation and continued to fight outmoded colonial wars. It is a pity that no politician was associated with the exercise, as he would surely have pointed out the political repercussions of these military concepts.
Meanwhile, the United States had committed the United Nations to active war in Korea. India was asked to join the Commonwealth division. Nehru chose to send one filed ambulance company, a medical unit, more as a mission of mercy, displaying India’s self-righteous attitude in power politics. The Indian Army thereby lost the opportunity of a lifetime to see the Chinese Communists at first hand, beating modern weaponry, and perhaps thus missed a chance of gaining experience to face the Chinese in combat later in 1962. It should have been possible to send a few observers with the medical unit, but it was beyond the KCIOs to see so far ahead.
The 1950s were eventful so far as India’s armed forces were concerned. Its weapons, as well as its fleet of vehicles, were aging fast and becoming obsolescent. Our organisation of formations and units continued to be those the British had designed to fight their old wars in an overseas theatre. The military higher command had made no effort to present a long-term plan for its modernisation. Military dictatorships had been established in neighbouring Pakistan and Burma after the failure of short-lived democracies, thus setting a pattern for the underdeveloped countries.
As part of the Dulles plan to establish a ring round the communist world, Pakistan had joined both CENTO and SEATO, and as a result was being provided with sophisticated US armament to modernise its forces on a lavish scale. This aid included about 800 Patton tanks, modern guns, Sabre and Starfighter aircraft and B-57 bombers. In addition, a US base was established in Peshawar and sufficient stocks were built up in Pakistan to sustain a first-class war for six months.
It is said that similar aid was offered to Nehru, but he spurned it as his neutralist idealism did not approve of such pacts. The rapid buildup of the Pakistan Army was however a constant irritant to him and he tried to fight it on the diplomatic front, but US aid continued to pour into Pakistan, unabated. To gain parity in equipment, Nehru very reluctantly bought a few British Centurion and some French tanks to replace the aging Shermans. Some artillery units were raised to remove the existing imbalance in supporting arms at a considerable cost, which Nehru felt he could ill afford to divert from the economic development of the country.
Apart from this marginal requirement plan, apathy towards the armed forces continued. It was felt that Nehru was getting fearful of military power, which might swallow him and his much cherished democracy some day. Meanwhile, West Asia was the scene of the Arab-Israel war of 1956, and this set the trend for future wars. It showed that, fearful of the escalation of hostilities into a global war, the big powers would limit the duration of small wars to no more than two or three weeks. Time schedules being tight, political objectives have to be secured at lightning speed, and this required a highly trained and hard-hitting fighting machine under a competent and mentally agile higher command capable of taking swift decisions to suit the tempo of modern warfare. Our command however took only an academic interest in the Six-Day War as the Indian Army continued to fight according to outmoded doctrines in its exercises and war games.
At this stage, Nehru appointed a controversial figure, his close friend and confidant Krishna Menon, as Defence Minister. Gen Thimayya, affectionately known as Timmy, was then Chief of Army Staff. He was not much of a military brain, but he was certainly a soldier’s general. The troops loved him, and he inspired more confidence among the ranks than any other general of his time. The men looked up to him as a pillar of strength. He was no match for Menon in intellect and vision, but he was certainly not to be browbeaten either by him or Nehru so far as the interests of the Army were concerned.
Thimayya projected a dual threat from China and Pakistan. Menon dismissed this as a fantasy. Thimayya pleaded for replacement of the aging inventory, and Menon proposed setting up an indigenous production base. When Thimayya respectfully pointed to the lead time required for our production to materialise, Menon retorted that there would be no war tilt then, and so replacement of the inventory could wait. Thimayya advocated securing Western arms as the Indian maintenance and repair services were oriented in that direction, but Menon stood for Eastern bloc weaponry.
When Thimayya recommended certain higher command appoint- ments, Menon vetoed them and brought in Lt Gen B.M. Kaul, another controversial figure, as Quarter Master General. This is said to have been done to erode the Chief’s influence in the Army. All this apparently had the full accord of Nehru.
One afternoon Menon called Thimayya at very short notice for a meeting in his office. The message was conveyed to the Chief at a local golf club, where he was playing a match. Menon drew Nehru’s attention to this incident to brand Thimayya as a playboy. When Nehru casually mentioned this incident sometime later Thimayya replied: “Well, sir, you should be happy that I only play golf. Unlike others, I don’t sit under a neem tree and plan your overthrow.” The induction of Kaul, a relation of Nehru, sharpened the differences between the Government and the Chief and ultimately led to Thimayya submitting his resignation. On Nehru’s personal appeal he withdrew it. But this was a big mistake, for by doing so he lost the sympathy of the angered public and the confidence of the soldier. Menon’s supremacy over the armed forces was finally established, and this was soon to lead the country to disaster.
In 1959 the Dalai Lama’s flight from Lhasa1 completed the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Our intelligence reported the building of the Sinkiang-Lhasa highway through the Aksai Chin plateau in the Indian territory of Ladakh. Nehru kept this information hidden from the public, hoping to have the intrusion vacated through diplomacy. Enraged by the Indian grant of political asylum to the Dalai Lama, China refused to recognise the Indian delineation of the international boundary and was in no mood for a settlement.2 As a result, thought started to be given in South Block to a potential military threat from China. Military intelligence estimated that apart from their holding forces the Chinese could muster three to four divisions for an offensive in the east and up to a division in Ladakh. Since Nehru was very reluctant to augment the strength and capability of our forces at the cost of economic development, Menon and his secretariat, while accepting the threat, discounted its probability. As a precautionary measure, one division was however moved to the east and a brigade to Ladakh in the hope that this would keep both the public and the military brass quiet, at least for a while.
Our rail and road system ended at the foothills in the east. Between the foothills and the Himalayan watershed lay the hitherto closed area of the mountainous region of the Northeast Frontier Agency. Only foot and mule tracks led to the Himalayan passes. Induction of a sizable force in the area thus presented a major problem of maintenance from the administrative bases established at railheads and roadheads in the plains.
The politician and the military higher command were getting impatient at the slow pace of induction without considering the practical difficulties involved. The higher command failed to enunciate the concept of mountain battle against the Chinese and to evaluate the wherewithal required to fight it. No effort was made to review the organisation, equipment and establishment of the infantry division inducted for the purpose. It was left to the local commander to improvise on an ad hoc basis whatever was desired, but his troops should reach places known to the general public on the map so as to placate a vociferous parliament.
Lt Gen Thorat, then army commander in the east, submitted in his appreciation that an extensive roadbuilding programme should be undertaken in the region to enable the deployment of our heavier weapons with proper administrative backing. He did not want the roads to go right up to the international border, but to leave a belt of about 20 to 30 miles undeveloped between Chinese Tibet and our roadheads. He hoped that when battle was joined with the Chinese he would have the advantage of quicker buildup, while because of the barrier of the undeveloped belt the Chinese would suffer the proportionate disadvantage of indifferent communications. Making use of the local superiority in favour of the Indian Army he would achieve a decision in battle.
Little did Thorat know the roadmaking capability of the Chinese, and he failed to realise that they had all the time at their disposal to develop roads to the locale where the Indian Army was expected to give battle. Thorat had no means to intervene in the process, especially in the undeveloped region, as the Indian Army was neither trained nor equipped to undertake such tasks. An extensive roadmaking programme was undertaken all over the border areas, but no notice was taken of Thorat’s tactical concepts because the credit of Thimayya and his close associate Thorat with Menon was low by then.
Thimayya’s retirement gave Menon the much-sought-for opportunity to overhaul the entire military higher command according to his wishes. The politically acceptable Kaul emerged as the power behind the throne. He installed the mediocre Thapar as puppet Chief and himself became Chief of General Staff, responsible for all policies and planning for operations, intelligence and training in the Army. Sen took over from Thorat in the east, and Daulet Singh went to the Western Command. Kaul, although a KCIO, was unlike most KCIOs. He neither smoked nor drank, played no games, not even polo or golf, did not dance, was not seen in the capital’s social haunts and, unlike his ilk, was openly and fiercely nationalistic in outlook.
Due to his Army Service Corps and public relations background, he was not considered much of a soldier. But he had a burning personal ambition, to the extent that he saw himself as the man of destiny on the Indian horizon. By skilful manoeuvring of promotions and appointments he had managed to establish a considerable personal following of favour-seekers in the Army. As happens in such cases, to preserve his image as a decision-maker, Kaul surrounded himself with mediocrities and revelled in the naked and most unabashed flattery of his court.
Essentially a man of action, he enunciated what came to be known as the “forward policy” against the Chinese and tried it out in Ladakh and elsewhere. He was playing a game of military chess in the barren mountains of Ladakh. The Chinese had established some posts in what we claimed as our portion of Aksai Chin. Kaul ordered some Indian posts to be established to neutralize the Chinese tactical advantage.
This was done at considerable expense as all the posts could only be maintained by air. Daulet Singh objected to this policy on military considerations. He pointed out that before needling the Chinese in this manner it was necessary to build up depth tactical areas in strength so as to meet likely thrusts should the Chinese decide to react. For that Western Command had neither the resources nor the capability. He further argued that to push a forward posture in the hope that the Chinese would not go to war with India on the border issue was militarily unsound and should be resisted. Much against Daulet Singh’s judgement, Kaul’s will, with the full backing of Nehru, prevailed and set India on a collision course with China.
Between 1960 and 1972 Kaul pushed his forward policy all along the Indo-Tibet border with vigour, sacrificing strength in the depth area. Although very close contact was made with the Chinese in the process, almost leading to comical situations where the Indian and Chinese troops showed their eyes to each other, except for a single incident on the UP-Tibet border in the central sector, in which a police inspector was killed, no shooting incident occurred. Mean while, Nehru continued to seek a political solution to the problem, but despite his conciliatory mood it defied a solution acceptable to the Indian public, now getting restive at Nehru’s apparent inaction. While Kaul, the great salesman, was peddling his forward policy to the politician, Malik, India’s intelligence chief, assured Nehru that China would not go to war with us on this issue.
Emboldened by these assurances, Nehru adopted a tough attitude. On the reported Chinese intrusion across the Namka Chu near the McMahon Line in NEFA, he declared as he left on a visit to neighbouring Ceylon “I have ordered my Army to throw the Chinese back.” Accordingly, Kaul was appointed task force commander in the field. There was a little background to this appointment. Kaul had asked Gen Umrao Singh, commander of the corps and operationally responsible for the area, to send his assessment of the task. Umrao Singh, well known in army circles for his incom petency, had been promoted only on Kaul’s instructions as they were friends for long and Kaul, now in power, could bestow favours.
Umrao Singh’s staff submitted their appreciation of the task and stipulated the prerequisites in terms of additional resources and the time schedule for the operation. Kaul, knowing his friend’s professional weakness, felt that Umrao Singh was only dragging his feet. For this, as also to stifle the whispering campaign against him for not being a fighting soldier, he decided to take up personal command in the field. It was made clear that this arrangement was only temporary as his place as Chief of General Staff was not filled. Dhillon, a hanger-on in Kaul’s court, took over in an officiating capacity.
Kaul was given unprecedented powers, to the extent that on his arrival in NEFA he sent Umrao Singh and his headquarters packing elsewhere and raised another corps headquarters with handpicked staff for himself. With his characteristic drive, he pushed the leading brigade located at Tawang forward to the Namka Chu and deployed them in penny packets along a thin line of about eight miles frontage. He had neither the resources nor the time to build up in the rear. So when the Chinese struck with about a division the position fell in no time, ending in a disastrous local defeat while Kaul lay sick in New Delhi where he had gone on a visit. Gloom enveloped the entire nation and the neutralist Nehru pleaded for and accepted timely US military aid with gratitude. Most of the brigade was captured and the rest fell back in a disorganised manner.
Maj Gen Harbakhsh Singh was flown in to take over the battle. He decided to organise a divisional defended sector well in the rear with one brigade group at Sela, a formidable position on the pass, and another in depth at Bomdila, so that any outflanking move around Sela could be contained. Since the only road to Bomdila ran through Sela, it was felt that as long as Sela held this would deny its use to the Chinese. Thus the Chinese force in contact with the Bomdila defences, denied maintenance, could be defeated in detail.
To make up for the losses, 4 Infantry Division, operating in the area had suffered, Dhillon was scraping the barrel for manpower and material from all over India, and as a result ill-equipped units and detachments collected from here and there to make up ad hoc formations were thrown into battle. Mercifully, the Chinese did not pursue and gave about a fortnight to the Indian Army to settle down for the coming battle on ground of its own choosing.
As Harbakhsh Singh was getting down to the task, Kaul staged a comeback with the tacit consent of Nehru. Along with him came some highly decrated fresh blood in Pathania to command the division and Hoshiar Singh to take charge of the Sela brigade. He asked for Korla also, but he could not be made available readily. Kaul felt these great fighters would do better than educated and articulate officers like Dalvi, (commander of the ill-fated brigade at the Namka Chu position) with whom he had difficulties earlier. Little did he realise at that time that these gentlemen had won decorations as company and battalion commanders, but higher command needed leaders of different calibre and mettle. Pathania set up his divisional headquarters at Dirang Zong, between the two brigade-defended sectors at Sela and Bomdila, and waited for the coming battle.
Meanwhile, the Chinese pushed their Tibetan road system to link up with our roadhead at Tawang and built the road from Bomdila to Tawang in about ten days along an alignment our engineers considered almost impossible. After an adequate build-up, the Chinese, bypassing Sela, cut the road to Bomdila at two points. Pathania sent out troops to remove the blocks, thus denuding the Bomdila defences. Soon after, the Chinese struck Bomdila. Pathania lost control of the battle even before it had started, and as a result the units under him upstuck, shed their heavy weapons and equipment and made their way to the foothills, charting their individual courses.
Very few units retained their entity in the race backwards, and 4 Infantry Division, once a premier fighting formation, was reduced to shambles. This was a humiliating defeat and a naked failure of Nehru’s policies. Though Kaul became the scapegoat, he was not the only one to blame for this catastrophe. It was the result of years of neglect of our armed forces by the politicians in power and the utter bankruptcy the military higher command revealed in preparing for the contingency. The Indian Army was neither organised nor equipped nor trained to fight an enemy like the Chinese, who had gone through two decades of war and were disdainful of the Western methods of warfare to which the Indian Army was wedded.
Analysing our conduct with hindsight, I can say there was nothing really wrong with the concept of holding bottlenecks in depth along the line of communications in strength so long as a hard-hitting mobile force was available to operate off the roads, using these defended areas as pivots to destroy the enemy in contact. The main flaw in Kaul’s handling of the situation was that he did not have a mobile force, and so when the necessity arose he started denuding his depth-firm base. Moreover, the formation commanders were oversensitive to roadblocks. Instead of fighting from prepared positions they upstuck, ending in a disorganised race for the rear areas through successive ambushes, more so when the Indian Army remained roadbound. Above all, the leadership, as also the soldiery, had no heart in the fight. A decade of spit and polish and internal politicking in the higher command had sapped the fighting spirit of our Army.
Luckily for India and the higher command, the conflict remained localised, and the Chinese unilateral cease fire saved further embarrassment.1 Thanks to US assurances that Pakistan would not capitalise on India’s trouble with China, it was possible to move some troops ranged against Pakistan to face the Chinese. Otherwise, things would have been more difficult and beyond the control of the military higher command.
As a result of this humiliating defeat, heads rolled. Menon, Kaul and Thapar moved off stage, and ironically, Chaudhuri and Manekshaw, two generals whom Kaul had planned to ease out of the organisation, came to power. Chaudhuri took over as Chief and Manekshaw as a corps commander.2 The task fell on Chaudhuri to expand, reorganise and train the postwar army to face the double threat from China and Pakistan. Aid poured in from the US, Britain and other Commonwealth countries. The force level was raised to 26 divisions, out of which eight would be mountain, 17 infantry and one armoured, and indigenous production of defence requirements was speeded up to provide self-sufficiency in small arms and connected ammunition. A tank factory was set up and progress was made in developing an Indian mountain gun.
After this humiliating experience, Nehru was accused of callous neglect of the country’s defences. Weighed under by his failures and consequent loss of his halo of infallibility, Nehru died in May 1964. His successors, not enjoying the same supremacy in parliament, thought it better not to meddle with defence policy and left the field free for professionals. Liberal budget allocations, more than a poor country could afford, were made to modernise the armed forces.
Chaudhuri set about his task with energy and managed to infuse his men and officers with the determination to redeem their lost honour. A newly reorganised mountain division was turned into an experimental formation to test out the new equipment and organisations, as well as to evolve tactical concepts for fighting in the mountains with modern arms. The intelligence setup was refurbished and plans made for the balanced growth of the armed forces.
But, as generally happens in most other spheres in our country, the initial enthusiasm soon petered out, and Chaudhuri also reverted to the joy of wielding power. Meanwhile, Ayub Khan was being accused in Islamabad by hawks led by Bhutto of not having taken advantage of India’s preoccupation with China to solve the long-standing Kashmir issue militarily. On the contrary, Bhutto argued that with the rapid growth in quantity and quality of India’s armed forces the balance would soon tilt in favour of India and the chances of seeking a military solution for a politically insoluble problem would recede permanently.
The opportunity lay in forcing the issue before that happened. Pakistan accordingly evolved an ingenious plan, a combination of the Chinese and US military schools of thinking, and started shaping its forces to implement it. With political and military power vesting in one hand, it became easier to achieve a rare combination of the two. Taking tanks and other arms out of mothballs from the US theatre reserves, Pakistan raised one additional armoured division and two infantry divisions. In addition, it trained a guerilla force of about 150,000 for induction into Jammu and Kashmir to spark a revolt. This activity remained unknown to our intelligence till March 1965, when Pakistan struck and captured Sardar Post in the Rann of Kutch, then manned by the Gujarat Armed Police. It was reported that Pakistan had used tanks and artillery liberally and was penetrating Indian territory deeply.1
Chaudhuri was caught unawares and rather embarrassingly naked in a locale where, because of distance and insufficient administrative infrastructure, he could not react sharply. He followed the typical pattern of Indian military responses and, asking the nearest brigade at Jamnagar to contain the threat, flew the para brigade to reinforce the containing force. Recalling his friend Maj Gen Patrick Dunn from leave preparatory to retirement, he raised an ad hoc force headquarters to command the operation. Maj Gen Tikka Khan, then in command of Pakistan 18 Infantry Division and in charge of Kutch operations, made a thrust right up to Biarbet and returned.
His foray had made the intended point. It revived the hitherto dormant territorial claim, blooded his troops in battle, and gave much-needed prestige for the coming war. To relieve pressure on the Kutch front, Chaudhuri rushed troops to battle positions in Punjab as a counterpoise. In addition, the Army had captured a few heights from Pakistan in the Kargil area of the Kashmir sector to compensate for the lost territory in Kutch. Since the timing of these operations did not suit Pakistan’s overall war plan, a ceasefire was effected in Kutch and political negotiations followed, with Britain acting as mediator.2
Harbakhsh Singh, then GOC Western Command, had adopted a defensive posture all along the international border, basing his defences on typical British concepts. Leaving a thin screen ahead, he organised brigade-defended sectors in depth along the appreciated routes of ingress, mostly basing them on communication centres. These defended areas were up to 20 miles deep in our territory, and as they were far apart this led to the mathematical distribution of supporting arms and armour. Within the limited resources of mines and engineer troops, the defended areas could not be made anti-tank localities, and since these defences were not utilising natural and manmade obstacles, which abounded in the area in the way of canals and drains, they were liable to be overrun by armour. Luckily, the war did not start then.
Chaudhuri visited the front in May and, perceptive brain that he was, quickly grasped the shortcomings. He ordered our defences to be sited well forward so as not to lose an inch of territory. He directed that our defences should be based on obstacles for the optimum utilisation of their anti-tank potential. He insisted that armour should be concentrated in suitable locations to meet enemy thrusts from the flanks and rear, and as far as possible he wanted the war to be carried into Pakistani territory to provide a cushion for our sensitive areas.
Since a collision with Pakistan was in the offing, a plan was made to meet the impending threat, and Shastri, then Prime Minister, took some major political decisions which marked a significant change in military planning and the country’s attitude towards war. Knowing that to localise the war in Kashmir was to Pakistan’s advantage, New Delhi declared that any aggression on Kashmir would be considered an attack on India. As a result, any retaliatory action against Pakistan could be directed at any part of that country thus allowing Chaudhuri to hit wherever militarily advantageous. Secondly, it was decided to leave the business of war entirely to the soldiers. No political interference in planning or conduct of the war was to be exercised, and Shastri abided by this commitment throughout.
Fearful of Chinese intervention, Chaudhuri had to ensure that the force level of the holding troops against the Chinese along the northern border was maintained, although he did accept a risk on the UP-Tibet border and removed a division less one brigade for operations in the plains. The overall Indian strategy against Pakistan was to be defensive so far as East Pakistan and Punjab were concerned, while it was to be offensive in the Jammu and Kashmir sector. Since it was not possible to arrive at a decision in mountainous terrain, it was decided that, apart from some local actions to improve the defensive posture, the major offensive was to be in the Sialkot sector so as to remove the threat to the vulnerable lines of communication based on the Pathankot-Jammu road, which ran parallel to the border on an alignment of inconsiderable depth.
Chaudhuri decided to advance into Pakistani territory up to the Ichhogil Canal in the Punjab sector and lean on this formidable anti-tank obstacle for the holding task. This canal was built with Indian financial contributions under the Indus waters treaty. It is 150 feet wide and 15 feet deep and deliberately constructed as an anti-tank ditch to safeguard the approaches to Lahore. It runs parallel to the border between the Ravi and the Sutlej at a distance varying from three to 12 miles from the Indian side.
On or about 5 August 1965, under cover of extensive firing all along the 470-mile ceasefire line, raiders infiltrated in thousands throughout Jammu and Kashmir for guerilla and sabotage activity in support of the overall Pakistani operational plans.3 The infiltration remained undetected until the raids on sensitive targets all along the lines of commuication and the sparsely populated hinterland materialised. Most vulnerable points like strategic bridges, ammunition dumps and other administrative installations were guarded by state police and light army detachments. Some repulsed raids successfully and a few failed, dependin upon individual efforts. No effort was made to coordinate the various police and paramilitary forces employed to protect vulnerable areas under one command, nor were any uncommitted formations to be employed to deal with the new menace, due mainly to the UN limitation on the size of forces stationed in the state.
Although our intelligence had reported the raising and training of a Mujahid force with an estimated strength of 150,000 as early as June 1965, no effort was made to assess its potential, nor were steps taken to neutralise it. Typical of the Indian Army, its commanders moved only to meet events as they unfolded. Since the valley, with its explosive politics, needed immediate attention, two brigades were rushed there to undertake operations to seal the raiders’ routes of ingress and thus end a further buildup of strength and material. In this regard, the Uri-Poonch bulge was straightened with the capture of Haji Pir Pass and some heights in Kargil were taken.
Although the raiders did not meet with the resounding success the Pakistani military planners had envisaged, the menace persisted throughout the theatre, including the establishment of the invaders’ administration in the Kandi Budil area of the Rajouri sector, and this continued there till well after the end of the 1965 war. As and when troops became available from the hinterland, various little dragnet operations were launched throughout the length and breadth of the state, but so inept was the Indian Army in dealing with abnormal situations that the results achieved were not commensurate with the effort involved. In this context, it is pertinent that throughout the preparatory phase of the guerilla operations the creation of cells to provide the infrastructure and caches for administrative backing, which must have taken months to establish, went undetected by our intelligence. The first news about infiltration came from a grazier in the Gulmarg area on 5 August.
After some initial success, the guerilla force was not able on the whole to achieve any thing like a mass upsurge as it aimed to. In fact, lack of local support, dwindling administrative resources as time passed, coupled with the intensified anti-guerilla operations organised by the Indian Army, began to tell on the effectiveness of the force. To distract our troops from such operations, Pakistan struck in the Chhamb sector1 on 1 September with a strong mixed force, comprising an infantry brigade and two armoured (Patton) regiments supported by a large number of guns, against a lightly held brigade sector, a predominantly infantry-oriented force, in localities organised with scanty anti-tank defences.
The postwar Indian infantry were facing tank rushes for the first time. Their brigadier was killed and the units reeled back bewildered. Another brigade was rushed in to block the thrust in the general area of Jaurian with some Sherman tanks, and the Air Force was brought into play and managed to achieve quite a few tank kills. On contact, the brigade at Jaurian also broke line, apparently frightened of tanks and heavy artillery fire. Because of difficulties of their own, the Pakistanis did not pursue our retreating troops, otherwise Akhnur could have been in their hands the next day, cutting off the only maintenance route to the Indian troops deployed between the Chenab and Poonch. It is significant that the Pakistanis chose the only plain area along the ceasefire line for their thrust because technically this formed a part of the disputed territory in Jammu and Kashmir and was the only place where they could exploit their superiority in armour.
Instead of dancing to Ayub’s tune by reinforcing failure, Chaudhuri decided to go on the offensive in the plains of Punjab across the border and escalate the local battles in Jammu and Kashmir into a full-fledged war. Dhillon, an engineer officer with limited tactical ability, was then in command of a corps operating in the Lahore sector with the aim of securing the line of the Ichhogil Canal. He divided his force mathematically along the three approaches leading to Lahore, with one division less one brigade each, and himself sat in the middle with little in hand to influence the battle. Except along the Bhikiwind-Khalra axis, where the opposition was minimal, being only of company strength, Dhillon was not able to reach the canal line in full measure anywhere else.
To achieve surprise, the offensive in the Punjab involved formations moving from their peace locations to the assembly areas and on to cross their respective start lines in one go, and in this operation the farthest units were on the road up to 48 hours. The task involved securing the canal line, a linear obstacle, up to a length of 25 to 30 miles by each truncated division, and the destruction of concrete bridges by rapid demolition devices so as to make the canal an effective obstacle.
This action meant distributing the available force thinly in linear fashion, with a near vacuum behind. Once this line was pierced, there was nothing in depth to block enemy thrusts. Demolition devices, laboriously contrived, did not prove effective on the concrete construction of the Ichhogil bridges. This proved that the Indian Army had not learnt to match the tasks they faced with the means in hand. Chaudhuri explained the dispersal of effort later as the means to make the opposition distribute its resources, little realising that this also meant dispersing our forces. Such an advantage is only possible with reasonable superiority in numbers and quality of resources. Dispersal was redundant in the conditions of near parity that existed at that time.
The thrust along the Amritsar-Lahore axis initially reached Ichhogil, but soon recoiled against tank opposition. It could not lean on the canal again till the day before the ceasefire on 21 September. The central thrust along the Khalra-Lahore road overcame a company’s worth of opposition and reached the canal at Burki in two days, and these troops remained locked up there. It never occurred to Dhillon that there was a manoeuvre called regrouping to meet the requirements of battle as the enemy revealed his hand.
The southern thrust along the Khemkaran-Kasur axis encountered fierce opposition and was not able to progress much beyond the border. Some units broke the line under artillery shelling and fear of tanks, and the leadership found it difficult to reform and commit these units to battle again. The self-inflicted rate of attrition was so high that when the Pakistani Grand Slam offensive struck Khemkaran on 8 September, the division was left with no more than two battalions plus to face the onslaught of one armoured division and one infantry division.
Grand Slam was a bold and inggenious operational plan. It visualised establishment of a bridgehead by an infantry division to include Khemkaran, and the development of three-pronged thrusts towards Amritsar and the Beas along the line of three canals running east to west at right angles to the road axis. The thrust lines ran along the grain of the country, would have met no opposition along these unexpected approaches and, working into the rear of the corps, could have trapped Dhillon’s entire force, apart from getting possession of the prestigious Amritsar district. Till then, the where- abouts of Pakistan 1 Armoured Division and raising of 11 Infantry Division, used in this offensive, was unknown to our intelligence.
But this was nullified by a magnificent defensive action fought by 4 Mountain Division, by then reduced to two and a half battalions, with 2 Independent Armoured Brigade, consisting of a mixed force of Centurion and AMX tanks. The battle was fought by a combination of infantry, tank and engineer effort to better each other’s advantage. The infantry established an anti-tank locality to block the two axes emanating from Khemkaran with a liberal use of mines, recoilless guns and immobilised Sherman upgunned tanks. The flanks were covered by AMX tanks and clever use of flooding from local irrigation channels.
The Centurions were placed along the axes in depth to take on enemy armour from the flanks and rear, using our firm infantry base as a pivot. Flooding channelised the Pakistani thrusts to our killing areas and, apart from the earlier probing attacks, both by day and night, a fullfledged battle raged on 10 September. By the end of the day, the Pakistanis were severely mauled, had lost 108 Patton tanks, and cutting their losses, broke contact and withdrew towards Kasur. Later, efforts were made to retake Khemkaran, but all attempts failed and the town remained in Pakistani hands till the end of the war.
On 8 September, Chaudhuri launched an offensive in the Sialkot sector with his strike corps under Dunn. It consisted of the prestigious Indian 1 Armoured Division and two infantry divisions. The plan visualised advance from a secure base on a wide front between two anti-tank obstacles, the Degh and Tegh nadis. This advance was met frontally by Pakistan 6 Armoured Division, whose existence on the Pakistani Orbat was not known to our intelligence, and an infantry division under Yahya Khan. Confrontation and fierce battles continued despite the loud and rather tall claims of Maj Gen Rajinder Singh “Sparrow,” in command of 1 Armoured Division, that he had fought the biggest tank battle since the days of Rommel and had destroyed some 400 tanks.
A colourful personality, whose squeaky voice had been heard at tactical discussions of the Indian Army for two decades repeating armour jargon and cliches from World War II literature, in the end he could only account for an armoured advance of six-mile depth in 21 days. This worked out at approximately one mile in three and a half days, and about 40 derelict tanks opposed to 98 installed in Patton Nagar by 4 Mountain Division near Khemkaran. Both belligerents were exhausted in battle, with their reserves low, and hopefully waited for the ceasefire.
Immediately after the ceasefire, the Pakistan Army swarmed into unoccupied ground like a locust invasion in a grab for territory. To checkmate this, the Indian Army had to break up a tactically sound posture to find troops to meet the unorthodox moves of the enemy. This resulted in holding a thin line in some sectors with inadequate military backing in the rear. Such tactics, unsound in an uneasy period of no war-no peace, were forced on the Indian Army by political necessity as the territory was needed for bargaining at the negotiating table.
Both sides claimed victory in the war. The fact was that it ended without a decision. When the public and politicians asked what the Indian Army had to show in concrete gains, the articulate Chaudhuri told the press that his war aim was not to capture territory but to cause attrition of the Pakistan Army. The public was taken in, little knowing that attrition in battle only pays when it is carried out to the extent that enemy resistance collapses as a result. Then the doors are open to take as much territory as the victor desires. But where attrition cannot be achieved the planner must hit sensitive areas of the adversary in such a manner that it hurts the enemy economically or politically. India did not achieve either of these aims, and there lay the failure of Chaudhuri’s military concepts.
The Indian Air Force had a big role in this war, but on the basis of World War II concepts it went for strategic targets to destroy Pakistani airfields and maintenance facilities and effect deep interdiction. Priorities were so lopsided that the entire effort was consumed in performing these tasks, leaving hardly any sorties for close support. As a result, Pakistan disrupted our ground operations with telling effect while our forward troops seldom saw our planes overhead. IAF could not keep Pakistani planes out of our skies as Pakistan had so designed its network of airfields that, based on deep locations, its wings had the flexibility of using many forward airfields to suit a given tactical situation.
While our planes bombed deserted airfields in the vain hope of achieving superiority in the air, the Pakistani planes went for our forward airfields and supported ground operations, and this showed immediate results in battle. Although our propaganda, and the lavish distribution of gallantry awards, boosted IAF’s image, the ground troops went through the war with bitterness in their hearts and blamed our Air Force for some of their setbacks. Air Chief Arjan Singh failed to realise that achieving air superiority was a long-term process which did not fit the requirements of a short war. In this context, apart from local air defence of our air bases, the whole effort should have been directed to support the ground battle, especially in the form of close interdiction having an immediate effect on the battle.
Indian naval units had just returned from an exercise on the east coast and were reservicing when war broke out. The aircraft carrier was in dry dock undergoing major repairs. The Navy was caught unawares, but the enemy did not exploit this weakness. The Pakistani Navy did not venture farther than the west coast of Saurashtra, where they bombarded Dwarka and damaged one or two fishing boats.1 For the rest of the war, both the navies stayed out of battle.
Lavish praise for all the services and image building by the propaganda media clouded an objective analysis of the war which would have taught lessons for the future, and the Official Secrets Act hid many sins. India had not learnt to face the mirror squarely. The fact was that our intelligence could not indicate the preparations or forecast the kind of border incidents that might occur in the Rann of Kutch nor the infiltration in Kashmir. Our intelligence did not know Pakistan had raised 6 Armoured and 11 Infantry Divisions till the troops in contact established their identity. Nor could they foresee the Pakistani thrust towards Akhnur. Very little progress was in evidence after the India-China war of 1962 in the intelligence field despite the claims of Malik and his tribe.
There were numerous sackings of brigade and unit commanders in battle, especially in Dhillon’s corps. It was said that these were designed more to cover Dhillon’s mistakes by finding scapegoats rather than improve matters. It demoralised field commanders and bred uncertainty to such an extent that caution prevailed all round. Nobody was prepared to act lest they were blamed for mistakes. Lack of mutual confidence between higher and field commanders led to inactivity in war and profuse mudslinging at the end of it.
Much recrimination followed the cessation of hostilities. The field commanders accused the higher command of hustling them into action in haste without proper preparation and reconnaissance. As such, battle was joined in a disorganised manner, resulting in failure for which they were unjustifiably penalised. One example quoted was crossing startlines in Punjab after a long and arduous march. The fact was that both commanders and troops were not attuned to the requirements of a short war. The Army, trained over years according to the typical World War II step-by-step approach, found it hard to adjust to swift battle and mobile warfare. The result was a failure of military concepts and the resultant preparations for war.
This was apparent in our reaction to the Pakistani infiltration in Jammu and Kashmir. The Indian Army found it difficult to cope with any action which was unorthodox and unusual and was too slow to react. Our stereotyped military thinking and preparations were once again to blame.
Above all, Chaudhuri’s method of dispersing effort on all routes of ingress did not allow us to make much headway anywhere. One experienced Israeli journalist summed it up at the end of war thus: “The Indian tactical plans are very simple—they distribute their force equitably along all the routes of ingress leading into the enemy territory, advance rather sluggishly till they meet opposition, and then they sit there exchanging fire in anger and wait for the war to end.” He should also have added: “Then they claim success which did not exist.”
As for the higher direction of war, although a committee of service chiefs staff existed, even then there appeared to be little coordination at the top. Otherwise, it is inexplicable that the Navy should not have known of the impending war. If it had known, then it is equally inexplicable that it should have put major units of the fleet in dry dock. The Air Force fought its private war, with our forward troops being mauled by Pakistani warplanes without hindrance. No close air support worth the name ever materialised. These are some of the irrefutable facts which mutual backslapping on the part of the then service chiefs cannot conceal.
Our military concepts were outmoded, for they aimed at fighting a different type of war, and thus they failed. Our higher command and our system had ruthlessly stifled fresh thought and forward- looking planning. These deficiencies required to be remedied drastically.
It fell to Kumaramangalam to take over from Chaudhuri and improve the Army’s tactical concepts by drawing the lessons learnt from the 1965 conflict. But he was an insipid personality, militarily speaking, with a pronounced lethargic disposition, and so wedded to orthodoxy that original thinking was beyond him. The team he collected round him remained content with stereotyped routine. The only worthwhile achievement in his tenure as Chief of Army Staff was raising two independent armoured brigades and a change of emphasis from a foot army to gradual mechanisation. He also procured some pieces of Russian artillery to replace Second World War equipment. But the enhanced capability of additional firepower and mobility did not correspondingly change tactical thinking or usher in boldness in formulating operational plans at the national level. His tenure was on the whole colourless.
Lt Gen P.S. Bhagat, who then commanded a corps in Punjab, seriously mulled however over the lessons of the conflict, especially as applicable to his area of responsibility. He got the views of the participating commanders down to unit level regarding the difficulties they faced in battle both in tactics and administration. He asked politicians about the effect of the initial loss of territory and met a cross-section of the local population on his extensive tours to assess their reactions to past military operations.
Having been associated with the Henderson-Brooks inquiry after the NEFA debacle, he analysed the material gathered from various shades of public and military opinion and came to certain conclusions which were to shape the military concepts of the decade. He learnt that the politician as well as the local population were not prepared to risk the overrunning of their territory by Pakistan even briefly. It was therefore necessary to defend the border as far forward as possible to ensure that Pakistan, having the initiative to start a war, did not gain territory in the initial rush before the Indian forces went into action.
Bhagat also realised that occasions might arise where it might be difficult to regain lost territory within the tight schedule of a short war, and this would prove embarrassing in postwar bargaining. He therefore argued that an extensive system should be created all along the border to prevent Pakistan from rushing the border defences to develop deeper thrusts towards the interior of India.
For this purpose, he created a defensive system in Punjab which later came to be known as the ditch-cum-bund (DCB) type of defence. It consisted of an anti-tank ditch of a width could not be negotiated by a bridge-laying tank and would need a deliberate bridging effort to cross. The ditch was covered by a high bund, housing concrete fortifications, from where coordinated anti-tank as well as machine gun and small arms fire could be brought to bear on enemy troops approaching and negotiating the ditch.
The aim was to make an attacking force to establish a proper bridgehead to eliminate small arms fire and then construct a bridge to enable armour to be built up across the ditch to stage a breakout in the rear areas. From the time frame required to achieve this, Bhagat’s concept of defensive operation visualised that by successive interference and delay caused in negotiating the ditch the invader would not be able to build any sizable force of armour in daytime. This presupposed that construction of a bridge would invariably be carried out in darkness, especially in conditions of air parity.
Bhagat propounded that the attacker would be eliminated piecemeal in the process of building up across the ditch, where his full potential could not be brought into play. His arguments won over the politician and Kumaramangalam, and as a result he was able to fortify a major portion of the Punjab border before the next war with Pakistan. In the 1971 conflict, the DCB system was pierced only at one place in the Fazilka sector, but without much advantage. Otherwise, neither Pakistan nor India were able to negotiate the ditches throughout their length, and DCB proved its worth as a defensive measure against quick capture of territory. Local battles were mainly confined to the ground between DCB and the border, and the overall strategy of being on the defensive in the western theatre worked well on the whole in Punjab. But by that time Bhagat had moved over to Central Command as Army Commander and was not able to test his concepts firsthand.
On reorganisation of the Army after the 1971 conflict, Bhagat was brought to the newly constituted Northern Ccmmand.1 India had lost a sizable chunk of territory in the Chhamb sector and, apprehending similar Pakistani incursions elsewhere in the plains of Jammu and Kashmir, Bhagat energetically set about creating such defensive fortifications in his command and was about to complete DCB before the Government decided to pass him over to give yet another extension to Bewoor as Chief.
To run down Bhagat’s military reputation for his own advantage, Bewoor started decrying DCB as a Maginot line mentality, a cliche he had picked up from old British military journals. He argued that it would create a defensive outlook, not understanding that a nation like India, which always waits for an adversary to start a war, has no option but to adopt a defensive posture to take the initial blow. In that event, was it better to take the blow in fortifications covered by an obstacle or in the open? He next put forward the proposition that linear defence of the DCB type afforded little depth, and in the event of being pierced the attack would not encounter sufficient resistance to stop the developing thrustlines.
Bewoor did not understand the dynamism of defence. Defence is never static, and after the initial blow it must be reorganised and readjusted to block and then kill intruders. DCB has lateral depth in the initial posture, which on discerning the thrust needs transformation into conventional depth. Throughout, he and his followers decried Bhagat and his concepts. As a result, succeeding commanders who assumed office with Bewoor’s support took over the system without much confidence in its efficacy.
Asian Recorder, Vol XVIII, No 27, “Northern-Army Command Created,” p. 10855.