A group of eight Army veterans and four wives of soldiers posted in 185 Light regiment (Camel Pack) visited the battlefield of Longewala on 23 November where my regiment had fought a pitched battle in the 1971 India-Pakistan war from 3-6 December. It was a trip down memory lane after almost half a century. We visited the Longewala post and the gun positions we had occupied to provide fire support to the beleaguered post commanded by Major (later Brigadier) Kuldip Singh Chandpuri. He was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra for his exceptional leadership.
The Battle of Longewala is etched in our memories courtesy of J.P. Dutta’s 1997 film Border that romanticised the battle, highlighting the heroic actions of Major Chandpuri and the Indian Air Force ‘Hunters’ destroying the Pakistani tanks.
Sam Manekshaw’s charisma ::
In late October 1971, several hundred officers, including me, of the Battle Axe Division, were seated on tarpaulin sheets on the desert sands in Rajasthan’s Jaisalmer sector awaiting the address of then-Chief of Army Staff General (later Field Marshal) Sam Manekshaw. There was a table covered with a blanket, chair and a microphone set up in front. We heard his helicopter land. He breezed in, brushed aside the microphone, climbed on the table and stood facing us with his hands on his hips. His address was short and crisp: “Boys, I am sending you across. Victory must be ensured. I want you to remember three things. First, prisoners of war will not be ill-treated, second, there will be no plunder or booty hunting, and lastly keep away from the begums (Pakistani women).”
He jumped off the table, had a cup of tea with us in an enamel mug, standard Army issue, and flew off. His speech was succinct and left no doubts in our minds. He was not verbose. Sam Manekshaw’s address had us spellbound. He had incomparable charisma which is a strange alchemy of inner spirit, energy, fire, radiance, enthusiasm and spontaneity. It was a spark that ignited the fire within us.
The “Cold Start” ::
For several months, we had been rehearsing our role of breaking through the Pakistani defences with our objective being the town of Rahim Yar Khan, a rail and road communication centre in Pakistan. Our shortfall in vehicles, equipment and manpower was made-up. We began receiving new vehicles, reservists and ammunition, the markings on which we could not decipher. They were in Hebrew. Our camels had been replaced by vehicles as camels in modern warfare were an incongruity. It would have taken take us seven days of hard riding to travel from our location in Bikaner, where we were stabled, to our operational location in Jaisalmer. So much for ‘Cold Start’.
Our Commanding General, Major General J.F.R. Jacob, in 1968, was a great exponent of mobile warfare and disfavoured this medieval mode of transport. Once, after I had given him a demonstration of Camel-Mounted Artillery, in order to impress him, he asked me if there was any terrain which modern mechanical transport could not traverse. I told him there were several impenetrable dunes. He challenged me to find one where his jeep, fitted with ‘balloon’ tyres, could not traverse. I did so and on the appointed day, Majoral General Jacob, accompanied by his aide-de-camp, drove over the sand dune we had selected. That episode sounded the death knell for the camel regiment and we were ordered to shed them to the Border Security Force (BSF). We got gun-towing vehicles instead, much to the dismay and sorrow of our Rajasthani troops.
Pakistan’s surprise ::
One battery of the 170 Field Regiment, which I subsequently commanded, was deployed at Sadhewala to provide fire support to 23 PUNJAB that had company at Longewala, sans artillery support. This post had been established to check any outflanking attack by Pakistan during the Battle Axe Division’s thrust to Rahim Yar Khan (RYK) planned for 4 December 1971. RYK was our objective in the desert. We had to traverse rugged and inhospitable terrain.
The Sadhewala and Longewala posts protected the western flanks of the division. We also did not expect the Pakistanis to take the approach via Longewala. But they surprised us by taking it and surrounded our post on the night of 3/4 December 1971. This had been preceded by massive preemptive strikes on our airfields in the west, including Jodhpur. Our ammunition replenishment column was on its way from Jodhpur that night and reached us with great difficulty.
The night of massive confusion ::
The Battle Axe Division was concentrated further east at Tanot, preparing for a divisional thrust on 4 December 1971. The Pakistani armour, comprising Chinese Type 59 tanks of 22 Armoured Regiment, surrounded the Longewala post. The Pakistani armour had overshot its infantry elements, a cardinal error in warfare, and paused awaiting their arrival. They were also, probably, inhibited by the wire fence which they mistook as markers of a minefield. It was really meant to keep out dogs and stray cattle.
The post commander, Major Chandpuri kept his nerve and so did his commanding officer, Lt Col Khursheed Hussain at Sadhewala. Unfortunately, the movie Border depicted the latter in ambivalent light, probably to add grist to the mill and to project Indian Muslim soldiers in poor light. This was unfair and challenged by our armed forces personnel, who were in the know of actualities.
There was massive confusion on the night of 3/4 December 1971. We were asked to veer west from our assembly area north of Tanot and head for Longewala. The single arterial road was clogged and we were sitting ducks for the Pakistani Air Force. We called in our Air Force at dawn on 4 December 1971. We saw our ‘Hunter’ aircraft dive and play merry hell with the Pakistani armour, the bulk of which was decimated. 34 Pakistani tanks were destroyed or abandoned.
The artillery battery at Sadhewala was rushed and deployed to support Longewala. Major Chandpuri, not well-versed in artillery terminology, thus carried out the correction of artillery fire in Punjabi: “Reference Longewala Khu, Gole Barsa” and “400 sajje”, “200 khabbe”. The Artillery Officer Capt Santosh Datta reached the post at dawn on 4 December and subsequently controlled the fire. I moved with the remaining Regiment and deployed in support of the post by noon.
Pakistan’s plan foiled ::
We seized five field guns and three anti-aircraft guns. The burning tanks eerily lit the night sky. Every artillery piece in range brought down a barrage of fire and contributed significantly to the defence of Longewala. Had it not been for the Indian Air Force, our armour of obsolescent AMX-13 tanks — buttressed by a few Russian T-54 tanks — would have been no match for the Pakistani Armour.
The Pakistani plan was bold and audacious. They planned to outflank us and head for Jaisalmer, their objective. They, however, made the cardinal error, in execution, by allowing their armour to overshoot the Infantry and not allocating enough air resources for their thrust to Longewala.
The destruction of the Pakistani armoured regiment gave us respite and it took another two days for us to stabilise the situation. The Pakistani divisional commander, 18 Infantry division, was reportedly sacked. According to military tradition, the Commander on the spot gets credit for victory but must also bear the ignominy of defeat.