A Fitting Reply: The Battle of Asal Uttar
The 1960s were a tumultuous decade for India. Tensions began for India with the Indian Army thwarting the Chinese attack in 1962. As the Indian military was coming to terms with the ‘62 war, 1964 saw Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru breathing his last. He was succeeded by Lal Bahadur Shastri, during whose tenure, in 1965, the Pakistan military possessed American supplied ammunition, far more superior than India. Pakistan saw this as an advantageous opportunity to achieve their geo-political ambition which was to jeopardize India’s control of Kashmir, sans war. Thus, Operation Gibraltar was born. Operation Gibraltar was the brainchild of Pakistan’s then foreign minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
Using surreptitious methods, Operation Gibraltar aimed to sow seeds of hatred against Indian control in Jammu and Kashmir. They planned to do so by infiltrating Pakistan Army regulars from Kashmir Regular Force (now Azad Kashmir Regiment) through gaps in the cease-fire line (Operation Nusrat), who would start a rebellion against Indian control by forming an insurgency among Kashmiri Muslims, using guerrilla warfare. A number of events, like clashes between India and Pakistan in 1965 (Operation Desert Hawk) and the disappearance of a holy relic from Hazratbal Shrine in Srinagar, proved to be catalysts in the execution of Operation Gibraltar. A multi-pronged attack was planned wherein the infiltrators would mingle with the local crowds to celebrate the festival of Pir Dastagir Sahib, brainwashing them as they concurrently destroyed bridges, tunnels, military headquarters and airfields with the help of guerrilla warfare.
Although a seemingly well planned operation, Gibraltar was an immense failure. Poor execution and inaccurate intelligence that the Kashmiris would revolt against Indian forces led to its collapse. The Indian Army was, in fact, provided with sufficient data about the operation from the local population. Subsequently, Haji-Pir Pass (Pakistan’s logistics base for Operation Gibraltar) was captured, along with several infiltrators and later, the Indian Army retaliated with their trademark guts and determination. The capture of Haji-Pir Pass (Operation Bakshi) was an astounding success.
Haji Pir Pass
This created panic in the Pakistani rank and file, as further advancement of the Indian Army meant giving back a part of Kashmir, captured in 1947. This led to General Akhtar Malik demanding Operation Grand Slam which was executed on 1st September, 1965.
The aim of Operation Grand Slam was to relieve pressure on Gibraltar forces in Kashmir and thus, the Chhamb-Jurian-Akhnoor sector of Kashmir was attacked. Pakistan planned to seize Akhnoor Bridge, the lifeline of an entire infantry division and an important logistical point, which could prove to be a threat for Jammu. Operation Grand Slam took India by surprise. Low on ammunition, the Chhamb-Jurian sector was lightly defended by the 191st (Independent) Infantry Brigade, comprising three battalions and supported by a squadron of 20 Lancers, which was equipped by AMX-13 tanks.
In artillery, the Pakistan Army had an advantage with its 8 inch guns. The AMX-13 tanks were no match for the Pakistani M47 and M48 Patton tanks and consequently, Indian forces had to retreat.
Although Grand Slam was an initial success, the Pakistan Army delayed their advance on the second day of the battle as the GOC of the 12th Infantry Division, Major General Akhtar Hussain Malik was replaced by Major General Yahya Khan, the GOC of the 7th Infantry Division. This impromptu delay helped the Indian Army to send forth reinforcements to Chhamb, causing mayhem in the lower level units of the Pakistan Army. By 3rd September, 1965, the Indian Army, though unable to launch a full scale counter attack, defended Akhnoor fiercely and restrained Pakistan from any further advancements. Having reached a dead end, the Indian troops crossed the international borders near Wagah on 6th September, 1965, forcing the Pakistan Army to relocate troops and resources, thus easing pressure on the Indian Army at Kashmir. Three tank regiments of 2nd Independent Armoured Brigade were involved in the attack on Lahore. Pakistan thrust their forces about 5 kms into the Khem Karan sector leading to Indian forces taking a defensive position at Asal Uttar, resulting in a fierce tank battle between the two countries. This came to be known as the Battle of Asal Uttar.
Pakistan’s aim was to capture the Indian territory to the west of the river Beas. According to this plan, Pakistan aimed to capture Harike and the Beas bridges. If accomplished, they would cut off Amritsar from the rest of the country. Only 4 Mountain Division stood in the way at Asal Uttar.
On 10th September, Major General Gurbaksh Singh, GOC 4 Mountain Division ordered the troops to assume a “U” or horseshoe shape defensive position with Asal Uttar as their focal point. The Indian Army, which consisted of three armoured regiments, arrayed 45 old American M45 Sherman tanks, 45 French AMX-13 tanks and 45 British built Centurion tanks outside the village of Asal Uttar. These tanks, however, were no match for the mighty Patton tanks with 90mm main guns and advanced firing system.
Nevertheless, the Indian forces devised a strategy to lure the enemy into areas with soft soil, which would completely rule out a quick retreat for their tanks. Strategically camouflaged by un-harvested sugarcane stalks at night, the soldiers from 4 Grenadiers patiently waited for the right time to attack. The Pakistan Army resorted to long-range firing, hoping that retaliation from the Indian Army would reveal the latter’s position. However, the Indian Army chose to attack with the enemy tanks clearly in sight. Pakistan’s unabashed advance towards the Indian cannonade resulted in their entrapment. With the enemy tanks no further than 500 metres, the Indian Army opened fire from their camouflaged positions. The enemy tanks were hit by the Indian Artillery first and were then attacked by tanks as well as anti-tank ammunition. The swampy fields prohibited any movement of the M47 and M48 Pattons. Unfamiliar with the modern machinery, the Pakistanis had to take 3 hits as compared to one of theirs by the superbly trained Indian gunners. The Pakistanis left the fields in trepidation, abandoning almost 100 Patton tanks. Major General Nasir Ahmed, GOC of Pakistan’s 1 Armoured Division was also killed in action in the Khem Karan-Bhikkiwnd area, along with his entire recce group.
An excerpt from ‘The Monsoon War: Young Officers Reminisce – 1965 India–Pakistan War’ by Captain Amarinder Singh and Lieutenant General Tajindar Shergill states, “According to Indian estimates, the Indians lost 32 tanks — two PT-76, three AMX, 12 Centurions and 15 Shermans. Indian commanders claim that Pakistan lost 97 tanks, a large number of them (about 72) were Pattons. 28 Pattons were captured intact; the remaining were either destroyed or disabled. All the Pak tanks were numbered under the arrangements of HQ XI Corps and there can be no doubt about the Indian claim.” A humongous victory for the Indian forces, the Battle of Asal Uttar was a turning point in the 1965 Indo-Pak war, which ultimately resulted in a ceasefire and subsequently, ending war on 22nd September, 1965.
Left: Captain Amarinder Singh (currently Punjab Chief Minister) during the War
Right: 18 Rajputana Rifles
The Battle of Asal Uttar also witnessed the bravery of Company Quarter Master Havaldar Abdul Hamid, an eyesore for the Pakistan forces. A brave soldier from 4 Grenadiers, he was martyred as he fought valiantly against the enemy force.
Param Vir Chakra recipient CQMH Abdul Hamid
The Indian Army faced probing attacks by the enemy on 8th September, 1965. Camouflaged by lush sugarcane fields, CQMH Hamid, along with a recoilless gun, sat on the passenger seat of the jeep and destroyed two tanks on the same day, resulting in more than 4 Pakistani soldiers abandoning their tanks. On 9th September, an airstrike by Pakistan’s sabre jets took place, causing little damage to Indian ammunition. Once again, CQMH Abdul Hamid and his company destroyed two more tanks. On 10th September, 1965, 4 Grenadiers were attacked again. The enemy tanks had penetrated the forward company positions and had moved closer towards the battalion defences. Sensing danger, CQMH Hamid jumped into the jeep with his gun and furiously attacked the enemy. The continuous firing by him destroyed three tanks amidst intense shelling. As he was preparing to strike the 4th tank, his jeep was struck by a 90mm enemy shell, destroying it to bits. His contribution to the Battle of Asal Uttar was extraordinary and he was awarded India’s highest military award, the Param Vir Chakra, posthumously.
Jeep used by CQMH Hamid to attack the enemy. Source: Ministry of Defence
The Battle of Asal Uttar led to the establishment of Patton Nagar or Patton city, a graveyard for the Patton tanks destroyed and captured in 1965. Located in Bhikkiwind village at the Khem-Karan sector in 1965, Patton Nagar is a memorial of India’s triumph over Pakistan and taking the edge off of Pakistan’s overhyped war machine, the Patton.
Displayed at Patton Nagar for a while, the tanks were later shipped to numerous army establishments for display. Steven Zaloga, a military historian states that Pakistan admitted to losing 165 tanks during the 1965 war, more than half of which were destroyed during the “debacle” of Asal Uttar.
According to author Peter Wilson, Asal Uttar was the greatest defeat faced by Pakistan in the Indo-Pak war of 1965. Collectively, the number of tanks used to fight the Battle of Asal Uttar was approximately 400. Vastly outnumbered by both men and tanks, Indian forces were victorious due to a successful strategy, high morale, ferocious fighting potential, superior leadership and better tactics.
In addition to being regarded as one of the largest in the history of tank battles fought worldwide, the Battle of Asal Uttar goes down in history as one of the Indian Army’s most heroic battles, owing to the daring and valor of our Indian soldiers. While we turn the pages of history rapidly, let’s remember to look at, acknowledge and remember the Battle of Asal Uttar.