I was commissioned in the Regiment of Artillery in August 1964 and was posted to 39 Medium Regiment located at Jullundur. Like my other batch mates from the NDA and the IMA, I too was a starry-eyed youngster, all charged up and brimming with ideals. In early August, news started coming in of Pakistan infiltrators coming into J&K and the BBC reported that infiltrators masquerading as locals were offering money for army information. Soon thereafter, the border areas in the Valley were subjected to sustained small arms and artillery fire. The accuracy of enemy shelling made it plausible to assume that some of the fire was being directed by OPs who had come in with the infiltrating force and who had mingled with the local population. Our own retaliatory fire did not seem to overtly concern the enemy. The regiment then moved to Ranbir Singh Pura, on the border near Jammu. At this time, a medium regiment consisted of two batteries, each having two troops. Each troop had four 5.5 inch Howitzers. We had one troop in the Valley, thus leaving twelve guns in the regiment.
Ranbir Singh Pura with its close proximity to the borders always enabled free movement of locals living on either side. To them, the concept of an imaginary line between the two warring countries separating them meant little. As part of their daily routine they grazed their cattle, mingled together for family functions and crossed sides at will. This was a perfect foil for the more aggressive Pakistanis to infiltrate informers, mischief mongers and intelligence men. Rumour mills had it that the entire area was rife with small raiding parties and snipers. So, when our regiment drove in and occupied a large dispersed area to harbour in transit, we were asked to be wary of possible surprise infiltration and attacks. It was obvious to all of us that something big was to happen beyond Jammu, in Chhamb-Jaurian in particular. Information obtained by civilians, whispered among troops, suggested the presence of a large number of infiltrators in the Chhamb-Jaurian area and of Pakistan amassing forces across the border. Why our intelligence agencies could not pick up such obvious signs remains a mystery. This led to a major disaster on 15 August in 191 Infantry Brigade.
On India’s Independence Day, Brig. B.F. Masters, the Commander of 191 Infantry Brigade. was at Dewa with his Brigade Order Group. That was the time when the enemy brought down a murderous barrage of artillery fire on the area. We were later told that fire had been directed by an enemy air observation post. I am not too sure. The fire was so accurate that only a Pakistani OP, possibly in civilian clothes, could have visually wreaked such havoc. Many enemy OPs had infiltrated long before and established themselves at vantage points to help direct fire. Surprisingly, they had considerable local support. The damage was incalculable. Brig. Masters, along with three officers, one junior commissioned officer and four jawans, was killed, and two officers and thirtyeight other ranks were wounded. The artillery ammunition dump located at Dewa was also hit and blew up, causing further damage and rendering six guns of 14 Field Regiment out of action. Consequently, my Battery Commander (BC), ordered me to move immediately to Chhamb, giving me a map grid reference to reach by noon. This meant nothing to me since I had no map of the area. I needed at least two sets of maps of the entire area, if not many more, if we were to be of any use at all. It was the first time that I was moving out for war, and I had no intention of doing so without maps. I made quite a vocal protest, and fortunately, the adjutant intervened. The maps were provided later that evening and I set off the next day to the designated area.
We made steady progress until we reached the approximate designated area by about 1400h and stopped. I was not aware of it at the moment, but we were actually about a thousand yards short of where we were supposed to be. This was fortuitous. As we wiped our brow, dusted our faces and waited for an odd straggler vehicle to join us, we saw two corteges coming directly our way. In deference and respect for their right of way, I got the convoy off the road, and as an afterthought, got the guns to deploy. Close by, we could hear an exchange of small arms fire, which was rather disconcerting. I deployed the guns with the centre of arc obtained from the approximate centre of the emanating Pakistani firing. A little later, rather anxious in an imagined role, I loaded the guns much against sagacious advice from my Troop Havildar. At that moment, I forgot that an artillery gun can be unloaded only in one way – and that is by firing! As the cortege drew near, we learnt that the bodies of Brig. Masters and his staff officer were being taken away and we doffed our caps in respect to the departed soldiers. As dusk was settling in, I closed in all personnel and vehicles and deployed as per the book. Before long, three jeeps drove up and stopped amid a cloud of dust, and a thick set man strode out and summoned me. He wore no badges of rank, but had an authoritative air about him. He asked me a few preliminary questions, identified himself as Brig. Surat Singh, Commander of the 15 Corps Artillery Brigade, called CC Arty in short. It was a relief to have a senior officer around. He demanded to know how and why I had deployed and seemed entirely satisfied by my explanation. However, his brow was knit when told I wasn’t in communication with my BC, or indeed with anyone at all. Then I told him that I had loaded my guns out of excitement or perhaps a bit of fear too and his face creased into a broad smile. My sacrilege was apparently forgiven!
Those were the days of the temperamental antiquated Radio Set 62 that didn’t work for love or money. He told me to tune in to his frequency, and voila, I was finally through to someone in authority. That night, on the orders of the CC Arty, our troop fired our guns for the first time in anger against the enemy. Three days later, the remainder of the regiment moved up and went past our troop to deploy near Mandiala. Next morning, my troop was ordered to move up and build upon them, much to the North near Dewa. The relief and security to be with the rest of the regiment meant the world to all of us.
August was drawing to a close. I was back with my troop but not for long. I was soon detailed to go to Sunderbani, to receive an unnamed visitor. The helicopter landed and a tall Major General stepped out. He was accompanied by another officer, with a bag of papers. I made bold to ask the General who he was and his reply was memorable.
‘I am 10 Infantry Division and my name is Chopra’.
Thus was born a new infantry division in the Indian Army. We drove to Akhnur where he was greeted by a larger reception party, and as I followed in my jeep, he was taken to a PWD rest house. It was simply amazing how soon an entire formation can come up and become operational. When the sun rose on 31 August 1965, it was like any other day, with sporadic small arms fire in close proximity and beyond, peppered with short bursts of seemingly undirected artillery fire. That was to change in the next twenty-four hours.
The Pakistani offensive started at about 3 a.m. on 1 September. For the next few hours, till dawn, we were subjected to a harrowing bombardment, with more than a hundred guns spitting their venomous load on us. Their widespread area bombardment was quite unimaginable and left us shaken mindless. As dawn broke, the assault began with all ferocity, led by the enemy tanks. Fierce battles raged all along the front but by mid day, the forward crust had been breached and the enemy was now pressing on to Mandiala, which was held by 15 Kumaon along with the Brigade HQ. Air support was asked for, but our own Air Force reacted only that evening. Just before dusk, four Vampires from the IAF swooped down on the area. There was some confusion about the bomb line and our aircraft ended up hitting some of our own vehicles and troops as well. The Pakistani Sabres then came on the scene and in the ensuing dogfight the Vampires were bested. That was the end of IAF’s close ground support to us in that sector for a long time to come. As night fell, the forward battalion, 6 Sikh LI had been overrun by the assault of two armoured regiments and two infantry brigades, but an invaluable delay had been imposed on the enemy and Mandiala was still holding out. That night, it was decided to withdraw from Chhamb and the Brigade withdrew in good order to Akhnur, less the two battalions in the hill sector to the North which continued to hold on to their defences.
Strangely, the enemy did not pursue their attack for the next two days and an unreal lull seemed to pervade over the battlefield. This was fortuitous for us as it gave time for 41 Mountain Brigade to be moved up to Jaurian and establish an intermediate position there withits two infantry battalions. 161 Field Regiment, which was affiliated to 28 Infantry Brigade, was also sent forward in support of the defences at Jaurian. By 5 September, own troops had withdrawn from Jaurian and had fallen back to the line of the Fatwal Ridge. With the launch of Operation Riddle by India on the morning of 6 September, the operations stabilised in this sector, and Pakistan’s push to Akhnur was effectively thwarted. An alumnus of the National Defence Academy, Khadakvasla, Lt Col Anil Heblewas commissioned in the Regiment of Artillery in 1964. A veteran of the 1965 War, he had the privilege of serving both at the gun end and during the later part of the war at the OP end with 39 Medium Regiment in the crucial battles which took place in the Chhamb- Jauriyan Sector and was also the OP with 1/ 1 GR, when the unit captured the Manani feature.