The men of steel

Courtesy:-  Samson Simon Sharaf

The early birds had not yet begun to chirp. The church bells were ringing at the Catholic Cathedral, Lawrence Road, Lahore, and the voice of the Muezzin echoing through the speakers of Al-Shams Mosque next door. It was the early morning of September 6, 1965. Suddenly, there was an interruption in the mosque public address system. India had attacked and Pakistan was at war! We boarders of St. Anthony’s were the first group of Lahoris to be wide awake as India crossed into Pakistan; their destination; a victory gala at Gymkhana the same evening with champagne and whisky. The party never came to pass and the Indian invasion was halted and rolled back by the blood of martyrs that soiled Pakistan. This is how I kept describing the war in 1965 in my articles as a 12-year old child. Heroism, valour and calls beyond the call of duty were what moulded our young minds to become combaters in Pakistan’s armed forces.  But as we grew, trained, read and learnt, romanticism gave way to the philosophy of war as an extension of state policy. We could now research and write commentaries on the conduct and lessons thereof. But one point always stood out. The Pakistani nation gave an excellent account of itself to the last sinew. It fought the war in its own dimension whilst rubbing shoulders with its brave shoulders and some inept generals. As time passed and we grew in years many childhood fantasies were eclipsed both by the loftiness of human spirit and fallibility of a human mind. The Indian secondary attack at Lahore was halted effectively by Pakistani protective detachments and the main defences at the BRB Canal. The linear form of defence on a water obstacle made Indian outflanking manoeuvres impossible. Despite petering out, this offensive manoeuvre against Lahore was also meant to tie and protect the flanks of Indian major operations in the Sialkot Sector. The secondary attack on Lahore was followed by an Indian diversionary attack in the Jassar Sector, where hastily deployed protective detachments of Pakistan Army were positioned on either side of the river. The quickness and intensity of the Indian offensive with brigade strength unnerved the Pakistani commanders, who blew up the bridge and immediately shifted the bias of the entire defence from the Chowinda Corridor to Jassar. Sialkot now lay open to unchecked invasion. On September 7, the Indians launched their major offensive astride Maharajke, Charwa and Chobara (Chowinda Corridor), a void left open by the shifting of troops to Jassar Sector. In the early morning September 8, Captain Niazi (later Lieutenant General) and Major Mahmud (later Brigadier) flew successively in the area to report a long column of Indian armoured vehicles and infantry moving astride axis Gadgor-Charwa-Chobara-Phillarauh. What remained between the Indians and Sialkot was 13 FF and a squadron of 25 Cavalry on the move. Local commanders called for air support from the PAF. Soon a flight of four F-86 Sabres led by Flight Lieutenant Cecil Chaudhry was over the area wreaking hell over the advancing Indian formations. Once this flight landed back in Lahore, it hardly had any fuel left in the tanks. Indian offensive had been halted and delayed for two hours by the PAF, air observers and artillery, while 13 FF held on stubbornly wherever it could against a force over 60 times its size. Once the Indians resumed the advance, they mistook a C Squadron of 25 Cavalry with 14 tanks moving in an extended formation as an armoured division. The Indian commanders fearing a Pakistani armoured division halted and went into retreat. This squadron engaged the Indian tanks frontally. Incidentally, the remaining 25 Cavalry moving back to Chowinda hit the Indians from the flanks of Gadgor. A fierce battle ensued for the next seven days and came to be called the biggest battle of tanks. Allah, air force, armour, artillery and army aviation had saved the days of September 8-16 for Pakistan. The Indians were rolled back to Chobara. Brigadier Mahmud, a military historian, writes: “The spirit of 25 Cavalry is hard to capture.  But I watched it, sensed it and emotionally shared with those who fought so gallantly, bravely and doggedly on the ground.  I think the annals of military history have no parallel to it.  I record this for posterity to remember.” The Indians had massed three Infantry Divisions, and more than an armoured division to secure a firm base by September 8. Beyond that, they had been mauled. By September 17, they could only make limited penetrations to a maximum depth of 10 miles at Butur Dogran Di and were desperate for air support and reinforcements. Pakistani armoured units, including 11 Cavalry, fought bravely to halt this juggernaut. Indian offensive formations petered out and lost the heart to fight. The morale was low and Pakistan could have taken the battle into the Indian territory had they counter-attacked, followed by a counter-offensive. A fleeting advantage gained by troops in the battlefield was surrendered to the unprofessionalism of the general staff through delay for four days, followed by acceptance of the ceasefire. But Sialkot was not an exception!In the same stride, excellent field manoeuvres by Pakistani armoured and infantry units at Khem Karan also became victims to indecisive minds. Lieutenant General Altaf Qadir, the nominated force commander, had negative observations about GOC 1 Armoured Division Nasir Ahmed Khan. Yet, Altaf was moved to Ankara and Nasir given the dishonour to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. This is in brief the story of the war that was preceded by the Kashmir war of 1965. It appears that the Pakistani rulers had decided to settle all issues with India in 1965. The Rann of Kutch conflict between India and Pakistan in April-May 1965 was a precursor to September 1965. Following a series of diplomatic failures, India had occupied Pakistani areas surrounding Biar Bhet. Pakistan reacted with a surgical and quick coup de grâce confronted by little or no resistance. The facile victory emboldened Pakistan’s policy planners to transit to war, as a continuum of its policy towards India. Lamentably, they ignored the reality that international, the US and Centcom pressure would never allow them to have their way. Operation Grand Slam in Kashmir was preceded by the launching of the Gibraltar Force in the Valley of Kashmir. It was based on the premise that the actions of Gibraltar Force will ignite a general rebellion in the Indian Held Kashmir (IHK); that the international reaction will be favourable; and that the war will not spill to the eastern border with India. All three assumptions proved wrong! Launched on September 1, 1965, Major General Akhtar Malik envisaged the capture of Akhnoor Bridge by the third. It was a mission that could be accomplished.  Yet, Major General Yahya Khan was pre-positioned to take over on September 2, 1965. This self-imposed delay of 24 hours ensured that Akhnoor could not be captured. A strong inference is that General Ayub Khan, either himself or under pressure from the Centcom, chose to peter out the operation. What implies is that Pakistan has always had very little leverage in chalking out its own destiny; something glaring in all its wars and major policy interests.  Yet, whenever it has attempted to break free, it has succumbed to international pressures and forced to retreat back. Unless and until Pakistan harnesses its full home-grown national power potential, it will be impossible to follow a home-grown policy. It is also noteworthy that Pakistan has always chosen a hostile international environment to make a conscientious decision to transit to war as an ‘instrument of policy’. Modern wars in a closely connected and interdependent world cannot be fought in isolation and without allies. Pakistan in 1965, 1971 and Kargil had to pay a heavy price for such miscalculations. Sadly, all such events have taken place under military regimes that preferred narrow operational strategy over a cohesive national policy. The spirit of the Pakistani field soldier, airman and seaman cannot be eclipsed. These are citizen combaters, who have repeatedly given an excellent account in battle and sacrificed their lives so that we may live. The spirit behind these soldiers has always been the nation that fully backs them in conflict. It is this seamless sea of emotions, identity and cohesiveness that binds Pakistanis together despite all odds. It is the fourth indomitable dimension of strategy we tend to forget so often during a conflict and yet that never lets the country down. The conduct and execution of war are two different disciplines. In 1965, the field formations of Pakistan Army gave an excellent account of themselves in the battlefield. Unfortunately, the conduct of war by the general staff and some generals lacked the mettle to match the tenacious ‘Men of Steel’. They gave in too easily to fallibility and pressures they were trained to resist.


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