50 Years ago in Lahore and Silakot

50 Years ago in Lahore and Silakot

Written By: Brian Cloughley
Exactly fifty years ago Pakistan Army distinguished itself in the 1965 War with India. There are many accounts — and disagreements — about the causes of that conflict, and it is not my intention to go over well-worn country, but it is appropriate at this half-century anniversary to reflect on some aspects of the war itself, most notably the fighting in the Lahore and Sialkot sectors. The following descriptions are taken from my book on Pakistan Army which is to be published again, updated and much revised, in New York in October this year.

Several people have expressed disagreement with some of my descriptions which I obtained from reminiscences, published and unpublished, and from official sources, and there can be no objection to that, as we all have our points of view about battles. What cannot be denied, however, is the fact that the greatly outnumbered army of Pakistan fought courageously and well.

It was apparent that India’s priority was the Akhnur area and it was essential to relieve Pakistani pressure in that sector. If Pakistan Army had cut the road leading to Indian-administered Kashmir and established a defensive position of even modest dimensions it would have been difficult to dislodge them, and had the army managed to advance only another ten miles, matters might have been critical for India. The Indians, however, had contingency plans for an attack in Punjab “based on the hypothesis that Pakistan would have the initiative in launching an attack in Kashmir with possible diversionary attacks in other sectors.”

This 1949 plan, approved by the Indian Cabinet, was prescient. Among other things it stated: In the event of such actions Indian troops in Kashmir would seek to contain the opposing forces while the main Indian field army made a determined and rapid advance towards Lahore and Sialkot, with a possible diversionary action towards Rawalpindi or Karachi to prevent a concentration of Pakistani forces in the major operational theatre in the West Punjab. The primary aim of this strategy was to inflict a decisive defeat on Pakistan’s field army at the earliest possible time and, along with the possible occupation of Lahore, to compel the Pakistan government to seek peace.

Although India’s immediate concern was to prevent Pakistan severing the link with the north, the aim of their advance into ‘West’ Punjab was clear: to defeat the Pakistani army. On September 6 at 0530 hours their forces crossed the border towards Lahore; on the night 7/8 September, the advance began in the Sialkot sector. The main battlefields were to the south and east of these cities. India’s XI Corps mounted an offensive about fifty miles wide on the Lahore front along three main axes:

• 15 Division from Amritsar astride the Grand Trunk Road leading to the heart of Lahore;

• 7 Division north-west on an axis leading from the Patti area to Lahore via Burki; and

• 4 Mountain Division north-west from the Harike area towards Bedian/Rohiwal (near Kasur) with the Ferozepur-Kasur Road leading to Lahore approximately on the left flank.

Headquarters I Corps moved from Delhi only on September 3, 1965 to command the operation in Sialkot sector, which involved 1 Armoured Division, 6 Mountain Division, and 26 Infantry Division. 14 Division was brought from Saugor in central India but had been attacked by the PAF en route and had received severe blows that rendered it temporarily off balance. The axes were:

• 26 Division striking south-west astride the Jammu-Sialkot road; and

• 6 Division and 1 Armoured Division (the latter the main threat to Pakistan) moving further south of 26 Division from the Jammu area towards Chawinda.

In describing these battles, it is pertinent to keep in mind the observations by the historian Dr. Anthony Wright that: An initial difficulty in discussing both the Lahore offensive and the later one against Sialkot is the disputed nature of India’s overall objectives. There can be no doubt that India’s immediate objective was to relieve the pressure on Akhnur and that it decided to achieve this by mounting operations against the territory of West Pakistan. It is the territorial goals within West Pakistan of these operations that the belligerents dispute. Indian and Pakistani accounts not only contradict each other but are sometimes also internally inconsistent; neither government has published nor assisted in the publication of a balanced study of the war. Instead, semi-official, selective accounts have been put out which play up successes and gloss over failures.

Terrain is always important to both attacker and defender but the nature of the country around Lahore was especially significant, there being a major obstacle in the shape of the Ichogil Canal, also known as the Bambanwala-Ravi-Bedian-Depalpur (BRBD) Canal, east of Lahore, which runs north-south for some 65 miles from the Upper Chenab Canal to the River Sutlej, passing underneath the River Ravi. This, and the many other irrigation canals in the area that had been constructed in the time of the Raj and later, assisted and hindered both sides, but overall the Ichogil was an asset to the defenders — which it had been designed to be when it was built immediately after partition. It was a medium-sized obstacle, having steep walls of about 4 metres in height, being about 3 metres deep (depending on the width), and from 25 to 40 metres wide. There were ten bridges and two other possible crossing points formed where the canal narrows to pass under rivers. To the layman it may seem like a formidable blockade; to well-trained troops, however, it was not an impassable obstacle and could be overcome with care and good equipment to establish a series of crossing points, if attempts at rushing the bridges failed. Not a pushover, especially if facing well-established defences, but not a barrier on the scale of the river Jhelum or the Ravi.

The first Pakistani elements to detect the attack were parties of Rangers who were quickly overrun by the Indians who also ran into parts of 10 Division’s screen, which at that time was not fully deployed. Major Arif Jan and his thirty soldiers from various units held their position around Wagah to literally the last man. That the screen was not where it should have been when it should have been was the fault of the superior headquarters, not the commander of the division. Orders for 10 Division to move out of barracks were not received until the afternoon of September 5. Deployment began shortly after midnight, just as the Indians were preparing to move. By dawn on September 6, according to a British intelligence report written in 1966:

India’s central axis in the Lahore sector was directed north-west towards Lahore and was intended to cross the BRBD Canal near Burki, a hamlet about 400 metres on the eastern side of the canal defended by a company of 17 Punjab, part of the two-company covering force of 13 Infantry Brigade. The company commander, Major Aziz Bhatti, thoroughly deserved the award of the Nishan-i-Haider, and his men also fought bravely.

When the forward elements of the Pakistan Army were concentrating behind the BRBD canal preparatory to taking up defensive positions they found with astonishment that the Indian Army forward elements were on the opposite bank. Frantic efforts were then made to blow the bridges, some of which had been prepared for demolition. All were eventually blown except for that carrying the Grand Trunk Road, where the proximity of the Indians prevented further engineer effort. There then followed a tactical operation which possibly changed the course of the battle. The GOC 10 Pakistan Division appreciated the urgency of demolishing the bridge and accordingly ordered a counter-attack in broad daylight across the canal using the bridge to the north where the siphon carried the canal under the River Ravi. This move was carried out by 17 Baluch with a squadron of tanks in support and though some losses were suffered, the Indians, threatened in their flank, withdrew and the bridge was blown.

The 15 Indian Division advance towards Lahore from Amritsar was led by 54 Brigade, made up of 3 Jat, 15 Dogra, and 13 Punjab infantry battalions. The advance was slowed by intense Pakistani artillery fire directed by forward observers whose accuracy was assisted by prominent concrete pillars along the border. These had been positioned over the years by survey units for just this eventuality. 3 Jat pushed ahead and crossed the bridge over the BRBD Canal at about 1000 hours on September 6, but were repulsed by 3 Baloch in fierce fighting around the Bata shoe factory and withdrew to the area of Dograi on the east bank. They were followed up by 3 Baloch and about fifty men got trapped on the west of the canal when Pakistani sappers blew up the bridge (and most of the other as well) during the night of September 6/7. Throughout the day the PAF conducted ground attack missions on elements of 15 Division with considerable effect, thus lessening the pressure on 10 Division’s forward localities.

India’s 50 Paratroop Brigade moved up on September 7, to relieve 54 Brigade which had shot its bolt. Its forward troops had been permitted to advance beyond artillery range and suffered more casualties than would otherwise have been the case. It is amazing that 3 Jat were allowed to cross the main obstacle and, apparently, establish a bridgehead, without armour and artillery as far forward as possible. It can be assumed only that either no orders were given to CO 3 Jat concerning his limit of exploitation, which is so unlikely as to be discounted; or that he advanced without orders to do so, which indicates a breakdown of command, which there was not; or, and this seems most likely, there was lack of coordination between artillery and armour with the infantry. It appears that artillery fire could be brought down as far west as the canal line to support 3 Jat’s advance, but no gun positions had been made available closer to the front line. Whatever the cause, the battles on the line of the canal were savage. 50 Brigade attacked the isolated group of 3 Baluch on 7 and 8 September but failed to dislodge them. The commander of 15 (Indian) Division was replaced (coincidently as later his counterpart in the Pakistan 15 Division was removed from the Sialkot sector), for failure to reinforce success in crossing the canal and for withdrawing under pressure. ‘Under a new GOC,’ says a neutral country’s intelligence report, ‘the Indian forces on this axis probed and counter-attacked continuously up to September 23, but made no headway.’ This is correct as far as it goes, but the battles were see-saw, with both sides’ infantry and armour attacking and counter-attacking under artillery fire and suffering heavy casualties whose evacuation was extremely difficult. Gallantry was not as one-sided as claimed by the historian Gulzar Ahmed. Describing the Batapur-Dograi fighting, he wrote: The Indian commander now calculated the economics of killing Pakistani soldiers in terms of rupees and felt that considering the family pensions and children’s allowances to be paid to the families of the dead it was cheaper to confine to artillery shelling. It was also a safer method of passing the day.

This type of diatribe does not befit a gentleman and is regrettable as it demeans the soldiers of both sides, who fought bravely and with skill. It is true that an Indian writer states, ‘in a series of actions up to 18 September, battalion and brigade commanders in 15 Division sector displayed a conspicuous lack of the killer instinct and a marked disinclination to take risks,’ but attacks were put in against 16 Punjab and 18 Baluch on 12 September and again between the 14 and 16 and on the night of the 21/22 September. All were repulsed, but 3 Jat’s attack of 22 September, just before the cease-fire, got through to Dograi. Risk-taking succeeded in the end; but over five hundred men (about 250 from each side) died for the sake of a few square miles of ground.

India’s central axis in the Lahore sector was directed north-west towards Lahore and was intended to cross the BRBD Canal near Burki, a hamlet about 400 metres on the eastern side of the canal defended by a company of 17 Punjab, part of the two-company covering force of 13 Infantry Brigade. The company commander, Major Aziz Bhatti, thoroughly deserved the award of the Nishan-i-Haider, and his men also fought bravely. Claims that the area of Burki and Nurpur/Hudiara (half-way between the border and the BRBD Canal) was strongly defended appear incorrect. If an examination is made of units available to Pakistan Army on 6–10 September, and where they were in other sectors according to Indian and independent sources, it can be calculated that the Burki-Nurpur area was not well-defended — indeed, to the point of indicating poor planning. There were, however, about a dozen pill-boxes camouflaged to resemble huts, each occupied by three-man heavy machine-gun teams, and the area was mined. Perhaps it should have been obvious that the three main roads leading to Lahore from India would be important to an advance because the bridges crossing the BRBD Canal along these routes would be of a higher load-carrying capability than any others in the area. Militarily, it was not exactly brilliant to choose them as axes because, if an advance is aligned to a straight-line road (thus making it easier for planners and logisticians to calculate the times and places of the attacking troops to facilitate the business of movement, communications and resupply), once it is detected by the opposition it can work to the advantage of the defender rather than the attacker. HQ 1 Corps Pakistan Army did not appear to realize this tactic, although it certainly was gauged correctly by the PAF, whose attacks were devastating.
Gulzar Ahmed observed that “The battle of Burki shall ever remain an epic story of intense heroism, cool courage and dauntless spirit of a handful of men opposing immensely larger forces,” and that summed it up very well.
It appears that the Indian advance towards Lahore via Burki was slowed by Pakistani troops and the Rangers in the Nurpur-Hudiara area and along the axis to the canal at Burki, but that their numbers were not as large as claimed by some commentators, although there was a strong Pakistani artillery presence in the shape of two regiments, one each of field and medium guns, and a battery of 8-inch heavy guns. The Nurpur-Hudiara area could be seen from specially-constructed observation posts in Burki, and artillery observers directed fire on the advance to the rear and flanks. The reason for the advance being slow is probably that forward troops were hesitant about pressing on through or around the opposition, not realizing that the area was very lightly defended. In difficult country with poor observation, as in the flatlands around Burki, it is not possible to assess immediately what size of force might be blocking an advance. A quick platoon attack might flush out an infantry section placed specifically to delay an advance, and after having done so another platoon can press on without the momentum of the advance having been interrupted for any appreciable time — or the intended ‘quick’ platoon attack might run into a battalion, in which case there is always a muddle in trying to extricate the unfortunate platoon whose commander was simply bearing in mind Field Marshal Slim’s dictum that the first duty of an advance guard is to advance. The Indians did not advance quickly and could not take Burki on the run. The Pakistanis failed to reinforce the company at Burki and relied on artillery to break up the attacks, which it did for the initial three days. “Enemy artillery,” says one Indian commentator, “fired more than 2000 shells in 30 minutes,” but at 2000 hours on 10 September the Indians put in a brigade attack (4 Sikh and 16 Punjab) which succeeded in reaching Burki. The bridge across the canal had been blown and, in spite of drawing up to the canal, the Indians could not force a crossing. There was stalemate on the central axis, as on the northern.

India’s advance was blunted and the defenders were able to hold their positions and prevent penetration of the vital ground between Sialkot and Lahore. It appears that the Indian aim was simply to attack where it considered the enemy was weak and to gain as much ground as possible while endeavouring to keep their enemy off balance. Exploitation would come later, were either the Lahore or the Sialkot offensive to be successful. This is a perfectly understandable aim, and one that might just have been achieved had it not been for the stubborn resistance and remarkable gallantry of numerically inferior Pakistani formations.

The war ended on September 23, 1965. Both countries’ economies were badly affected and their defence forces had suffered casualties and losses. There was no victor, in the classic sense of the word, but important military lessons had been learned. Let us hope that, fifty years later, they will not have to be put into practice.

The writer is a France based retired officer of Australian Army and is an expert on South Asian affairs. He is also author of various books, and contributes extensively in international media.