PHILLORA AND ASAL UTTAR: TWO HISTORIC TANK BATTLES OF THE WAR


The two intense tank battles of this war, fought at Phillora (Punjab, Pakistan) by Hodson’s Horse (4 Horse) and Poona Horse (17 Horse) and at Asal Uttar (Punjab, India) fought by 3 Cavalry, 8 Cavalry, Deccan Horse (9 Horse) and Scinde Horse (14 Horse), debilitated Pakistan’s armour and demoralised their soldiers. Pakistani tank crews began to avoid engaging Indian armoured units and even abandoned many of their fully functional tanks which were captured intact. Many tank crews, hiding after abandoning their tanks, were also captured.

The Battle of Phillora is best related from excerpts of Commandant, Hodson’s Horse, Lt Col MMS Bakshi’s (later Brigadier) detailed personal account.

Account of Lt Col (later Brig), MM Bakshi, MVC

At first light on 11 September, in the wake of an intense artillery bombardment, C Squadron started its advance as planned. Within minutes the enemy artillery opened up and troops were also subjected to enemy air attack. The squadron Commander, Major Desraj Urs was hit by a shrapnel in the eye, but he refused to be evacuated, and gallantly led his squadron till Rurki Kalan was captured. He was evacuated thereafter and the command of ‘C’ Squadron fell on the young shoulders of 2/Lt AK Nehra. Up to this point enemy resistance was minimal, as the enemy had fled in front of our advance. However, Rurki Kalan remained a thorn on our side for quite a few days. We found several days later that the enemy had a well developed under ground trench system and shelters for Mujahids, stay-behind parties and artillery OPs, and they were well stocked with ammunition and rations for a prolonged stay. These parties proved to be of considerable nuisance value to vehicles and to the follow-up infantry, especially at night. Rurki Kalan was a big village of mud huts and it took several days for the infantry to flush out the hostile elements.

As soon as Rurki Kalan was secured by C Squadron, A and B Squadrons made a dash for their objectives. The task of ‘A’ Squadron was more vital, as they had to make sure that all enemy forces holding Chobara-Gadgor and particularly his armour was effectively intercepted, bottled up and destroyed.

As the two squadrons swung towards their objectives, the enemy realised what was happening and finding himself in a desperate situation, reacted violently with his tanks and mobile anti tankrecoilless (rcl) guns. Some sharp and intense tank versus tank encounters took place and we bested the enemy each time. The enemy now attempted to fall back on Phillora, but found the tanks of ‘A’ Squadron lying in wait for him. Elements of the Squadron had by now crossed the road to Saboke and encountered a stream of assorted enemy traffic, flowing back from Gadgor. In all, it accounted for 8 Patton tanks, 4 rcl jeeps, 5 MMG mounted jeeps and a large number of vehicles carrying infantry. A large amount of abandoned equipment fell into our hands intact. One of the captured jeeps belonged to Captain Raza, who was commanding the reconnaissance troop. Several maps were found in his jeep, which came in handy and were most welcome. These maps were more up-to-date than ours. I was moving behind ‘A’ and ‘B’ Squadrons, to keep control of the battle and the battery commanders tank, loaned from the 2IC was closelyfollowing me. The adjutant was trailing some distance behind. Further behind was the 2IC, following up in a jeep. He had got bogged down and was out of communication. I halted short of Dulmanwali, and from there, could clearly discern the Phillora- Libbe road, which was lined on both sides by very tall Shisham trees. This was a useful landmark for orientation in an otherwise featureless terrain. It was then that I spotted a couple of Patton tanks in position, under the trees with their guns pointing towards Libbe. They appeared to be deployed to cover the approach from the direction of Libbe towards Phillora and had not yet spotted me. It transpired that the enemy had a squadron deployed in this area, though I was not aware of that at the moment. I was about a 1000 yards from the enemy tanks and it was not possible to get away without inviting hostile attention. I therefore engaged the first tank and knocked it out with an APDS round. Then, before the second tank had a chance to react, the second round sent that tank too up in flames.

This was a most heartening sight for my crew. Meanwhile, the battery commander’s tank also picked on an enemy tank and destroyed it with the very first round. Having done this job, he managed to make a quick run to safety in high reverse. For a few seconds the enemy was too stunned to react, but he soon recovered and my tank came under fire. The enemy scored two hits on my tank but fortunately no major damage was done. I now engaged and destroyed a third enemy tank, but was now well marked by the enemy. A third hit on my tank jammed the turret, making it impossible to lay the gun. That made me virtually a sitting duck, unable to hit back at the enemy. Instinctively, I ordered the driver to charge full speed ahead, simply hoping for the best in this very tight situation. In a swirl of dust, we charged forward and crossed the road, passing between two blazing Patton tanks that were belching huge columns of smoke. After having crossed the road and feeling relatively safe, in another split second decision I ordered the driver to turn right, thereby hoping to link up with friendly forces which were advancing onto Phillora from that direction. However, that was not to be.

As soon as my tank turned right, it gota direct hit on the rear hull from the left flank. The engine and inside of the turret immediately caught fire, leaving me and my crew stranded in the open, in enemy territory surrounded by hostile tanks. The battery commanders tank and the adjutant’s tank had wisely decided to stay put in their respective positions, not realising what was happening ahead.

I now ordered the crew to retrieve the sten gun and bale out. It took some effort to find the sten, after which we jumped off the tank and rushed towards a sugar cane field across the road, a few hundred yards away. Captain Ravi Malhotra was with me along with the wireless operator, Daffedar Ajit Singh, the driver, Sowar Gurmej Singh and also Sowar Harbhajan Singh. This was indeed a dangerous situation and the enemy responded by letting loose a hail of artillery and machine gun fire on us. To top it all, the surviving crew members of the Pakistani tanks we had knocked out also got into the act, and tried to intercept us and prevent our entering into the sugarcane field, where cover was available. I turned and took two shots with my pistol at the Pakistani soldiers, keeping the remaining rounds for later. This cooled their ardour to a great degree and they lost their zeal, taking cover behind some trees and attempting potshots from there. I heaved a sigh of relief when we reached the sugarcane field, but that was short lived. We soon came under intense artillery and machine gun fire.

While this drama was raging, the regiment was oblivious of my condition, as sans my tank, I was not in communication with them. At this time, however,B Squadron under Maj. Bhupinder Singh had advanced as per plan around Rurki Kalan and was heading for Kotli Bagga and Dulmanwali. Enemy tanks were putting up stubborn resistance, but Bhupinder had two troops and with skilful fire and move, pushed the enemy back towards Kotli Khadam Shah, where a fierce tank versus tank battle ensued. These were the same tanks that had engaged me. ‘B’ Squadron was now deployed between Kotli Khadam Shah and Wachoke and C Squadron was asked to come up in support. In a fierce tank duel they destroyed five enemy tanks astride the road in area Kotli Khadam Shah and four more in area Wachoke, besides four jeeps mounted with anti tank rcl guns. This sharp and bold action broke the enemy’s back, but that was not the end.

Shortly thereafter, as if by a miracle, our own aircraft appeared overhead, probably attracted by thick columns of smoke from burning tanks. In a deadly attack, at least six enemy tanks were hit, going by the thick column of black smoke going up. That was the last straw for the enemy, who decided to pull back with his remnants. All the while I was in the sugarcane field and at the receiving end from both sides, though fortunately, in their attempt to engage with ‘B’ Squadron, the enemy had all but forgotten me. It was then that I heard the welcome sound of the tanks of 17(Poona) Horse, coming from the direction of Libbe. I moved out of the sugar cane field and there made contact with 17 Horse, whose 2IC also arrived there shortly thereafter. He picked us up and took me to my headquarter, where I once again assumed command from another tank.

By now Hodsons’ Horse had put a tight squeeze on Phillora. We were not only keeping the enemy’s Phillora defences fully engaged but also destroying everything falling back from the Gadgor defences. Meanwhile, 17 Horse had also fetched up from the direction of Libbe and made contact with Phillora from the South and Southwest. By 1530 hours, Phillora was taken by 17 Horse and 43 Lorried Infantry Brigade. Thus, our armour had virtually put a ring around Phillora, and threatened its life line to Chawinda.

By the end of the war, Hodson’s Horse had destroyed 79 tanks and 17 rcl guns of the enemy. While Maj. Bhupinder Singh was admitted to Army Hospital, Delhi, for severe burns, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri came there to meet the war-wounded personnel. When the PM approached his bed, Bhupinder expressed regret at not being able to stand and salute him. The Prime Minister never forgot that experience and for the short while that lived thereafter, he praised Maj Bhupinder Singh often and widely. Unfortunately, Bhupinder succumbed to his injuries a few days later.

Lt (later Col) Ashok Sodhi, became a victim of Pakistan armour’s poor gunnery, when, while he was directing fire with his hatch opened and head out, an armour-piercing round failed to hit the tank but grazed his skull, shattering a 3 inches diameter part of it. He was in coma in Army Hospital, Delhi, for over 30 days, after which he recovered with a fresh lease of life and a plate covering the shattered part of his skull.

Tank Battles of Asal Uttar

Pakistanis launched their offensive at 0830 hours on September 08. Their bridgehead operations were undertaken with two squadrons of Chaffees and one squadron of Pattons. Under cover of artillery fire, their advancing columns moved within 900 metres of the Indian defences. At this point, they were engaged by tanks of 9 Horse. Pakistani armour broke up into smaller groups and tried to infiltrate into the Indian defences by carrying out an outflanking manoeuvre. At one stage, 1/9 Gorkha Rifles, 9 Jammu and Kashmir Rifles and HQ 62 Mountain Brigade were surrounded. Utilising standing crops, the tanks were engaged by 9 Horse, medium guns and tank hunting teams. 9 Horse managed to destroy 11 tanks while losing four of their own. Three other tanks were damaged by medium guns and tank hunting parties. Such heavy losses compelled the Pakistanis to retreat. The Pakistanis, despite possessing night fighting capabilities, did not attack by night, giving Indian units the opportunity to regroup and be ready for the next assault.

On 08 September 1965, Lt Col Salim Caleb, Commandant, 3 Cavalry anticipating the situation, began moving the regiment towards Asal Uttar even before orders for the same came from above. Tank crews of 3 Cavalry’s B Squadron were exhorted by the squadron commander, Maj PS Belvalkar over the radio-“Press hard and get the b- – – – – – – s before they turn and run back”.

The first tank commander to destroy two Pattons in quick succession was Dafadar Wasan Singh. The first of the Centurians to be hit by an armour piercing shot from a Patton was of 2/Lt Prakash Joseph. It was well aimed but failed to penetrate the Centurian’s gun mantlet. Both these developments were greeted by cheers and further boosted the confidence of the tank crews.

By September 10, the Pakistanis with numerous tank and human casualties, were in a desperate situation. When they attempted to outflank Indian defences with two regiments of Pattons, a squadron of Chaffees and a motorised battalion, they were encountered by the tanks of 3 Cavalry and 8 Cavalry that were camouflaged in the sugarcane fields. On 11 September 1965, Second Lieutenant (2/Lt) PJS Mehta, commissioned into 3 Cavalry just before the war, led a team of twenty soldiers of 1 Dogra to search a sugarcane field where some suspicious movement was seen. Surrounding the sugarcane field, 2/Lt Mehta shouted out for those inside to come out. And out came the CO of Pak army’s 4 Cavalry, two majors, one captain and 17 of its other ranks, all of whom were captured by Mehta as prisoners of war.

3 Cavalry’s squadron under Capt. Nagindar Singh (later Col), was attached to Scinde Horse in area Atari-Dograi. After destroying the second enemy tank, he recalls: “Troops under my command shot down a Patton tank as it came down the Lahore-Amritsar road and we never saw any Pattons again in that area”.

Seeing Pakistani tank crews abandoning their tanks, 3 Cavalry’s A Squadron Commander, Maj Sureesh Vadera, mustered a small reconnaissance party and approached the tanks, some of them with their engines and radio sets still running. They captured nine Pattons in perfect running condition. Also captured was a M113 armoured personnel carrier, from which was recovered Pak army’s 4 Armoured Brigade Operation Order, which hangs framed in 3 Cavalry’s Officers’ Mess.

Pakistan suffered a crushing defeat in Asal Uttar due to the resolute stance of the Indian troops. It lost 97 tanks, including 72 Pattons; 32 tanks were captured in running condition. India in contrast lost only five tanks. Near Khem Karan, a stretch where about a 100 destroyed Pakistani tanks were lined up, came to be known as the graveyard of Pattons. Out of 471 Pakistani tanks destroyed in the war, as claimed by India, over 100 each were destroyed in battles of Phillora and Asal Uttar and 38 were captured.

3 Cavalry was conveyed a ‘Shabash’ personally from Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, and a note saying “Well done Caleb, Well done the 3rd Cavalry” was sent by General (later Field Marshal) K.M. Cariappa.

Lt Col Anil Bhat

Col Anil Bhat (retd) is an independent defence and security analyst he is also an Editor at Word Sword Features

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