A SUBALTERN’S STORY

In April 1965, I was attending the Platoon Weapons Course along with 2/Lt AC Mahanta at the Infantry School, Mhow. We were both from the same battalion, 2/5 GR. During the course we came to know that the battalion had moved from Almora to Jullundur in Punjab and was in readiness for battle, should the situation in the Rann of Kutch worsen. We were told to rejoin at Jullundur on termination of the course and were excited at the prospect of going to war. We accordingly reported at our new destinationdestination— a place called Jhandusingha between Hoshiarpur and Jullundur, but the war clouds had dissipated by then and end July found us back at our permanent location in Almora. While in Punjab, the hospitality of the local village folks was indeed amazing. Although we were occupying their cultivable land and depriving them of their livelihood, they helped us in every way possible.

We had barely settled down in Almora when in early August, the battalion received orders to move to a battalion received orders to move to a place called Lalru near Ambala. We settled down once again in the open fields and were wondering if this would be  a repeat of our earlier stay atJhandusingha. Few officers even proceeded on casual leave, Lt KanwaljitSingh, the Adjutant being one. I took over his duties in addition to my own as ‘B’ Company Commander.

On 2 September, sometime in the afternoon, the Commanding Officer(CO) called me and told me to ready the Battalion in two hours for move to anundisclosed location. This appeared to be the real thing. Shortly thereafter, a number of 3-ton vehicles and some civilian buses arrived at our location to supplement our first line of transport.We moved out at dusk and mercifully, Kanwaljit arrived by then from his home in Delhi (his father Maj GenAmrik Singh, MC, the first Indian CO of the Battalion was then   Military Secretary in the Army HQ). I quickly briefed Kanwaljit about the latest situation, handed back the duties of the Adjutant and was back with my good old Bravo Company.

That night and through the next day, we moved through numerous towns and villages of Punjab. All through the route, we were cheered and offered water, lassi and sweets by the local populace. In the early hours of 4 September we were at Jasmergarh. From there we marched for about eight miles and then were transported in batches to a place named Bishna (near Jammu), thirty miles away. By the evening of 5 September, we had concentrated at Joian, a small village near the border in the Ranjitpur area. We had no rest in the previous four days but morale was high because we knew we were definitely going to see some action this time. Most of the officers in action this time. Most of the officers in the unit were subalterns — the result of the rapid expansion of the Army after the 1962 debacle against the Chinese. Besides the 2IC, Major PB Thapa, the only other field officer we had was Major DD Grover who had all of five years service. I had two years service atthat time and the rest of the subalterns were of my seniority or were junior tome. This placed a large burden on theCO, but he shouldered it with equanimity.

We were part of 99 Mountain Brigade of  6  Mountain Division and were informally told that we were to launch an attack on the border villages of Charwa and  Maharajke,  where,  in addition to the normal defences, Pakistan Army had established posts with some concrete bunkers. 4 Raj Rif(Rajputana Rifles) was assigned the task of capturing Maharajke while we were given the task to capture Charwa, on its left. The third battalion of the Brigade, 6Garh Rif (Garhwal Rifles), was to be the brigade reserve. Accordingly, all company and platoon commanders of our battalion went in small batches to reconnoitre the objective in daylight as well as in darkness. The CO had divided the objective into two halves and named the left half as ‘Machha’ and the right half as ‘Puchhare’ after the famous twin peaks in Nepal. The attack was to be launched on the night of 7 September. Lt Ghanendra Sinha’s ‘A’ Company was to capture Machha, with my ‘B’ Company in reserve. Major DD Grover’s ‘D’ Company was to capture Puchhare with Subedar Shiv Charan Rana’s ‘C’ Company in reserve.

Detailed orders for the attack were issued by the Brigade HQ only on the evening of 7 September, just two hours before the attack. The CO issued his orders thereafter, but that left little time for the company commanders to brief the men. By the time we completed our formal orders to the platoon commanders, the Battalion was already on the move to the FUP (Forming Up Place). The H hour was 11 p.m. We halted for some time as we were moving too fast and would have reached the FUP, well before time. Just then, we heard the cracking of our artillery guns behind us, followed by the whistling sounds of shells flying over our heads. In a moment, the whole skyline in the direction of Charwa was looking like a wall of fire. The time was 2245 hours and from where I was located, it was impossible to identify where Machha or Puchhare were. Radio net was active and I was on listening watch for the code word to move ahead. I had organised my platoons in assault formation and positioned myself with my radio operator, Lance Naik Jhar Bahadur Thapa and my ever faithful runner Sahabir, between the two assaulting platoons. The CO had told us that the troops would not advance when under fire unless the officers went with them. My only prayer at this time was that I would be worthy of the trust reposed in me. Then the artillery fire ceased and the radio set crackled, with the code word. The attack was now underway. Soon I heard the Gurkha war cry ‘AYO GURKHALI,’ followed by the noise of small arms fire. I realised that our assaulting 33companies had reached the objective and warned my troops to be in readiness to advance on my orders. I took out my compass and tried to align myself as per the reading taken during the reconnaissance and to my great relief I found that we were facing more or less in the correct direction. After about twenty minutes or so, the radio set crackled and the CO told me to move towards the objective. I shouted for everyone to rise and advance, and was relieved when the whole company rose as one on my command. There was no sound of fire ahead of us and the situation was much akin to what we experienced during mock exercises. The suddenly all hell broke loose and we came under heavy machine gun fire from a structure very close to us. Bullets were whizzing overhead and in a jiffy, Sahabir pulled me down to the ground.

“Goli Aundei Chaa Saab,” was his terse comment.

So there I was in the sugarcane field with my radio operator by my side and I could hear my CO’s voice blaring and asking me what was happening. I made a quick assessment and requested for artillery fire on the building where the medium machine gun fire seemed to be coming from.

‘Artillery Arranged. The shells are coming’, was the CO’s immediate response.

Soon I heard the whistling sound of shells in front of us. They fell around the building, masking the enemy fire, but unfortunately, some also fell short and landed on my men. My problem now was to stop the artillery before we suffered more damage from our own fire. My radio operator had unfortunately received splinter wounds, and I could not locate his radio set, though I could hear the CO’s voice calling for me on the radio. I groped around in the dark and finally managed to find the hand set.

“Stop that bloody fire. It has killed my men”.

I was hoping that the handset was still connected to the main set and mercifully it was, because our artillery fire stopped just a while later.

The screams of the injured men rent the air, some of them in unimaginable pain. I told Sahabir to carry the set and move forward with me. The moon was up now, though not too bright, but we could see objects to some extent. Quite a few men had been injured. There was Lance Naik Fatte Bahadur, our best cross country runner, lying with his thigh bone sticking out of his waist, the lower portion of the leg completely missing. “Saab molai goli marnus” (sir, please kill me), was all he said when I went up to him. Nearby was Rifleman Hari Lal, holding his intestines in both his hands. He was delirious with pain, shouting “Molai bachaunhos, saab” (Save me sir). There were many others, some screaming, some in control, but all in great pain, all in crying need for attention. The enemy was sniping at us once again and they had to be engaged too but it was important to get the wounded out earliest. But first I had to stop the screaming. I was all of 22 years old and had the responsibility of a 100 men on my shoulders. So I shouted at the top of my voice, telling them all to shut up as their screaming was giving away our position. And then silence descended, the wounded holding on to their pain in silence, some never to speak again. Then the stretcher bearers came and we managed to evacuate the wounded. Only later did I learn that Fatte Bahadur, Hari Lal and a few more men had died on the way to the Advance Dressing Station.

By this time our troops had got used to the situation and were engaging the enemy with sporadic small arms fire. It was the building in front of us which was a cause of concern so I told my 6 Platoon Commander, Naib Subedar Ganesh Bahadur Thapa to eliminate the enemy spewing fire from the window. He told me that he had already sent Lance Havaldar Bhim Bahadur for this task. Shortly, Bhim approached the window and lobbed two grenades inside, but then had to make a quick exit as he drew fire from adjacent areas in the near proximity. We needed a heavier weapon to bring down the building so I asked the CO if he could send us a 106 mm recoilless gun to blast the building. He told me to stay put as ‘C’ company had been moved to our left flank for an assault on the objective.

By now it was dawn and we could see the silhouette of the huge building in front of us and our jeep mounted recoilless guns had taken up position on the right flank. The guns fired, and the front walls of the huge building collapsed. Some enemy soldiers stood up and instantly ‘C’ Company charged, the war cry ‘AYO GURKHALI,’ renting the air. I saw khukries flash and heads roll. The scene was unbelievable and could have come straight from John Master’s famous book ‘Bugles and the Tiger’.

Soon, all the men in the building and the trenches around it came out holding their weapons over their heads in surrender. The building was a school of Charwa village. But resistance had not ceased as small arms firing continued from a bunker close by. A grenade was lobbed inside and there were cries from within. Rifleman Amar Bahadur of ‘C’ Company was sent to check, but when he peeped inside, he was shot under his shoulder by what appeared to be a pistol fire from inside. Their was a young Captain from the Pakistani Rangers holding out and he refused to surrender. We finally doused the bunker with kerosene and the last bit of resistance was overcome. The officer was however a brave soldier and he was rightly honoured by his country with a posthumous award.

We rounded up a large number of Pakistan soldiers with almost 300 US made .30 Springfield rifles and a fleet of civilian trucks loaded with anti-tank mines. Some while later, the Brigade Commander, Brigadier Dharam Singh came to the school building and congratulated us on our success. He asked the prisoners if they had any requirements and some complained that they were not allowed to ease themselves. I had tied their hands behind their back with telephone wire to prevent their escaping and had told them to relieve themselves in their trousers.

“Let the chaps go and pee, damn it!” was the Commanders response. I then ordered them to go one by one and relieve themselves. We stayed in Charwa for three days and found that the area had been well fortified with bunkers and inter connecting deep trenches. We had caught the enemy by surprise on 7 September and they were still in the process of setting up their defences. Had the attack been delayed by another two days, the scenario could have been quite different.

The enemy air strafed us on the tenth morning. The men seemed quite unconcerned, as they thought that they were our aircraft. When I saw the green and white insignia of the Pakistan Air Force under the wings, I shouted ‘Position’ and we all dived for cover. The bullets rained down on us from the sky but when it was all over, we found to our relief that no damage had been caused. Our ‘B’ Echelon vehicles finally fetched up and it was a relief to be able to have an apology of a bath and wear fresh uniform. While changing my uniform I found it full of blood stains at the back. I realised then that these were from my radio operator who had been hit by shrapnels during the attack on Charwa. Fortunately, he survived without any serious disabilities to his limbs.

On 11 September, we moved in 3 ton vehicles to Maharajke, which had been captured by the other elements of our formation. From there onwards, we moved on foot towards Phillora, where a fierce tank battle was in progress. Near Rukri Kalan, we were fired upon from a bushy area with small arms. I deployed the leading platoon to provide covering fire and assaulted the position with the rest of the company from the flank, but the enemy had fled. I realised then that this was but a delaying position of the enemy. Later, the whole battalion built up on this position.

Next morning the battalion left Rurki Kalan and proceeded towards Phillora, which by then had been captured by our forces. The objective of 6 Mountain Division was the town of Chawinda, and our immediate task was to hold the firm base at Phillora. We reached there by evening to find the place littered with knocked out tanks, jeeps and dead bodies. Barely had we arrived when we were greeted by a barrage of gun fire from the enemy. Three of our men were killed and five others including 2/Lt OP Kachhawaha were injured in that firing. We soon deployed on either side of the cross roads and started digging in amidst heavy intermittent shelling by the enemy artillery. By next morning, we were dug in fairly well and our tanks had also moved into our area and were deployed well camouflaged, in the periphery of our defences before first light. While the tanks gave us added confidence, they also drew the attention of the enemy air force, which shortly thereafter strafed us. Fortunately, they were not very accurate and we did not have any casualties. The IAF then came on the scene and chased the enemy aircraft away. From that day onwards, we witnessed a number of air battles, Including the ones where famous Trevor brothers and Sekhon (PVC) shot down the enemy planes. It was a treat to witness our Gnat Pilots shooting down the F-16 fighters of the Pakistan Air Force.

Having the tanks in our area had some perks too. The troop leader of the detachment in my company area, was the younger brother of one of my NDA course mates (Davar). He would bring Wills filter cigarettes for me from the harbour every morning and that was a real luxury. The CO came to know of my good fortune and being a person who enjoyed his smoke, made me part with some of my stock!

We aggressively patrolled the area to keep it under our domination.The villages had been abandoned by the enemy, but were full of granary and poultry. Some of the men supplemented their rations with poultry and basmati rice from these villages. My sahayak was not to be outdone and he joined in one of the forays, getting hold of a ceramic plate with a fork and knife, so that he could serve my meals brought from the B echelon, in a more befitting manner. Truly, the respect and affection of our men for their officers was unsurpassable.

We got inured to enemy strafing and shelling, and could make out where the shells would land from the whistling sound overhead. I was now joined by 2/Lt Ashok Malhotra, who happened to be on leave when the war broke out. Mallu (as we called him) was not just a Platoon Commander, but was (and still is) a very dear friend. He joined the National Defence Academy six months later than me, which was the reason why I was the company commander. His arrival added spice to my life. During patrolling one night, Mallu was nearly shot by 2/Lt Arun Mahanta of ‘A’ company when the patrols they were leading came in front of each other during hours of darkness. Fortunately, Mahanta recognised the silhouette of

Mallu’s hat which was a little awkward and challenged him before opening fire, which averted a great disaster. However, Mallu was destined to be hit. Shortly thereafter, on returning from the patrol, the enemy shelled us and the whistling sound indicated that the round would land too close for comfort. We jumped into the trench as the blast hit us, but a splinter pierced Mallu’s right hand. He was evacuated for treatment but rejoined shortly with a plaster on his hand and none the worse for wear.

In the meantime, the unit’s Advance Party led by Major PB Thapa returned from J&K and joined us at Phillora and Thapa took over as the Second-in-Command of the battalion. We had been in the area now for three days and had not had time to bury the dead. The bodies now started to rot, and I ordered my men to get on with the task of their burial. This was done in hastily dug graves, all of them marked, both enemy and own, for identification post the ceasefire.This helped the Jat Battalion which had fought there, to identify their dead officers and men after the ceasefire, for performing proper last rites.

Almost every day we were told that an attack on Chawinda would take place that evening. Accordingly, there was intense artillery fire by our guns on Chawinda and equally intense fire by enemy artillery on our location, but the attack on Chawinda never took place. The ceasefire between India and Pakistan came into effect at midnight of 22/23 September 1965. Both sides went into overdrive shelling each other and that was something to be experienced to believe. After the Tashkent declaration the Battalion moved back to Almora, and I was sent to Dharamsala as a Medium Machine Gun instructor in a Specialist Training School organised by HQ 1 Corps. By end January, I rejoined the Battalion and was granted two months annual leave. I was just in time to prepare for a month long trip to Nepal along with Kanwaljit, Bharpur and Ghanindra Sinha, and then go home for the remaining one month. My mother, who was keenly waiting at home to see me after the war, was fuming. But what could I do—my love for the Second Fifth and our men came before everything else!

An alumnus of RIMC Dehradun, NDA Khadakvasla and IMA Dehradun, Colonel Prosenjit Barua, was commissioned into 2/ 5 Gorkha Rifles (FF) in 1963. A veteran of both the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan, he assumed command of 2/ 5 Gorkha Rifles (FF) in December 1979 in Mizoram. On completion of command, he volunteered for deputation with Oil India Limited (OIL), a Public Sector Undertaking, and joined OIL in February 1982 in administration department. On completion of deputation, he was absorbed in OIL, where he served in various capacities till his superannuation as Director (Personnel) in 2003, a post he held for six years. Thereafter, he served as Senior Advisor in Directorate General of Hydrocarbons till final retirement in 2011. Post retirement he has settled down in Greater Noida.

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