In September 1965, 4 Sikh was located at Ferozepur, having arrived there a month earlier after a tenure in Arunachal Pradesh, where the unit took part in operations against the Chines in the Walong Sector. It had arrived just a month earlier and was settling down to celebrate Saragarhi Day, on 12 September in a grand manner. On 3 September the call to arms was received and the battalion mobilised for war. I was then the Adjutant of the Battalion and thus had a ringside view into what transpired during those stirring times.
For Operation Riddle,7 Infantry Division, was tasked to advance on axis Bhikhiwind-Barki-Lahore and secure East bank of Ichhogil canal from Jallo to Bedian in the South. After clearing the border out posts (BOPs) astride the road axis, the leading troops of 48 infantry Brigade contacted Hudiara drain by the evening of 6 September. Simultaneously, 4 Sikh entered Pakistani territory after clearing two posts of Satluj Rangers – Theh Sarja Marja & Rakh Hardit Singh. This was achieved in complete stealth. Advance was held up on Hudiara drain where the enemy had blown up the bridge. The engineers were called forward to build an equipment bridge. 4 Sikh was following on the same axis. While two of our companies helped the engineers, rest of the battalion remained deployed along the road. During night 7/8 September, the battalion took up positions on the far side of Hudiara drain. Here, we were subjected to heavy shelling by enemy artillery directed by some stay behind OP parties of the enemy.
On 8 September, at around 8 a.m., Commander 65 Infantry Brigade appeared on the scene from nowhere and asked my CO, as to why we hadn’t captured Barki. Col Anant expressed surprise as no such task had been assigned to him. Obviously, there was a serious communication gap. Without clearing the air he told the CO to clear village Brahamnabad approximately three km west of road Barki–Lahore, where the Hudiara drain merged with Ichhogil Canal. The objective was to be cleared in broad daylight.
This village was actually to be cleared by another battalion, but Col Anant Singh took on the task and ‘D’ and ‘A’ companies attacked and captured Brahmanabad, suffering 4 dead and 19 wounded in the process. The enemy brought down intense artillery fire using variable time (VT) fuses. After securing the position, Major Manhas, the Company Commander of ‘A’ Company noticed a canal bank approximatelytwo km away. A reconnaissance patrol sent up to the canal found no enemy there. The day being hot and sultry the boys could not resist a dip in the cool water which was in fact the famous Ichhogil canal. The higher HQ, for some strange reason, refused to believe our report that this section of the Ichhogil Canal was not held by the enemy. Had we acted on this information, we could have secured both banks without a fight and used it as a base for launching a flanking attack on the occupied section of village Barki thus avoiding the subsequent costly operation.
On 9 September,the CO was called to the Division HQ for briefing on attack on Barki. It appeared that this task had been allotted to our division at least three days earlier, but somehow relevant orders had not been disseminated downwards. This task was now given to our brigade.
At this time, 4 Sikh was deployedin the open, in sugarcane fields, east of road, opposite village Barki. After a detailed discussion it was decided to use armour in an unorthodox manner with head lights on to assist the assaulting infantry. In Phase 1, 16 Punjab, our sister battalion was to capture the village while in Phase 2, 4 Sikh was to capture a section of the Ichhogil canal adjacent to the village. CO 16 Punjab was not confident of his troops’ ability to fight in built up area. On his request the tasks were interchanged.As per plan ‘D’ Coy 4 Sikh was to marry up with a squadron of Central India Horse (CIH) at Mile 16 at 1900 on 10 September and then the tanks were to advance with full head lights on, using main and secondary armament up to 400 yards short of Barki. Thereafter, ‘A’ and ‘C’ Companies were to attack West and East Barki respectively at 2000 hrs, assisted by tanks. ‘B’ Company was earmarked as reserve. After success of this phase, 16 Punjab was to pass through and capture the canal adjacent to the village.
Capture of Barki
During the day of 9 and 10 September, we were subjected to heavy artillery fire. Since we were well dug in, the casualties were light. Patrols sent out at night to ascertain extent of enemy’s defences and locations of his automatics invited immediate reaction in the form of extensive lighting up of the no man’s land. However, we got a rough idea of the enemy’s defences, from the liberal use of tracer ammunition made by the enemy at night. To mislead us, he was firing from roof tops whereas his actualdefences were in pill boxes at ground level, well camouflaged to merge with the back ground. The formidable nature of enemy defences was realised only next day after the objectives had been captured.
Close to H hour, two mishaps nearly upset the schedule of attack. The tanks failed to marry up with ‘D’ Company at Mile 16, at the appointed time. Repeated messages to brigade HQ yielded no response even as the H hour was approaching. This was a serious letdown. To add to the uncertainty, just then the Commander Artillery of our Division appeared on the scene, stood atop a nearby tube well and started shouting at the top of his voice,
“Stop the attack – the targets have not been registered”.
The CO faced a classic dilemma at this stage. Should he postpone the attack, or should he go ahead without the tanks and artillery support. Col Anant was not one given to doubt. Without hesitation, he designated each member of the attacking echelons as ‘a Centurion Tank’ and informed the brigade HQ that he was attacking without the support of artillery and tanks. Fortunately, just then, our own Battery Commander (BC) lived up to the gunners’ reputation and broughtdown accurate fire on the enemy positions. The attack went in at the scheduled time. The men charged forward like real tanks, literally believing the CO’s word.Both the companies came under effective automatic fire from the entire village front and various places on the Ichhogil canal. Enemy illuminated the entire area making itbright as daylight.
At 2025 hours, the assaulting companies were about 400 yards from the outskirts. The casualties were piling up but the tanks had still not fetched up. Yet, by sheer grit and determination, undeterred by enemy bullets the companies closed in. Now only a hundred yards separated them from the objective – the last hundred yards which is the ultimate test of infantry’s skill and guts. As the Sikhs let out their blood curdling war cry “Bole So Nihal” the enemy soldiers were paralysed in their bunkers. Some came out with their hands raised in surrender while others started running from their pill-boxes.‘A’ Company Commander was hit by a bullet in his thigh but refused to be evacuated and continued to command his boys.Gradually, the enemy’s resistance cracked and Barki fell to 4 Sikh. Time now was about 2110 hours. ‘B’ and ‘D’ companies too were called forward and the battalion redeployed to face the inevitable counterattack.
For some time after capture of Barki, confusion prevailed due to lack of coordination and communication gaps. At about 2200 hours, tanks came line ahead on the road and started firing into village Barki, not realising it had already been captured, resulting in own casualties. I immediately ran up to the road along with my Signal Officer to inform the tanks not to engage the village but switch fire to the canal bank left of the road. With the hatches closed it was impossible to get to the tank commanders. Even banging with rifle butts proved to be of no avail. After about 30 minutes one JCO popped his head out of the hatch. We grabbed hold of him and explained the battle situation. Even then it took him considerable time to obtain permission from his squadron commander to switch fire to the canal bank.
The leading tank which had reached close to the police station blew up on an anti tank mine thus blocking the forward move of other tanks. Presently the CO of CIH along with his squadron commander came forward. They jumped into one of our anti tank recoilless gun jeeps and reached the blown up tank. After assessing the situation, the CO ordered the rest of the tanks to move left of the road. On the way back the jeep with both the officers also blew up on a mine. We felt bad when we learnt that both the officers died of injuries in the hospital. The tragic loss hurt much more when we learnt later, that the deadly mines were Indian, not Pakistani. Some one acting prematurely had dispatched a load of anti tank mines in a civilian hired truck to be laid after capture of the objective. The truck was either not escorted or was poorly briefed. No one stopped it. The poor civilian driver drove straight into the hands of the enemy possibly a day before commencement of our attack. The Pakistanis made effective use of our gift against us. That was the fog of war.
My CO asked me to pass success signal to Brigade HQ to enable Phase 2 of the attack to be launched. To my horror, the signal operator informed me he was unable to pass the message as he had lost the aerial of radio set 62. The Battalion HQ area was under intense artillery shelling. While trying to locate the aerial I saw a few drops of blood on my shirt and thought perhaps my batman or signal operator had been hit and it was their blood. I realised I had been hit only when my batman pointed out there was blood all over my face. When I touched my face I couldn’t feel my nose, it had gone totally numb. A depressing thought struck me – “Naak jo kat gayee- ab main shaadi se gayaa – with the nose gone which girl would like to marry me?”
The shelling was so intense that we were forced to go to ground and take positions in an irrigation channel close by. My batman lay on top of me as a shield against shelling, saying “Sahib ji, gola pehalan mere te digu – the shell will land on me first.” Such was the unflinching loyalty of our troops. The incessant shelling continued for about two hours generating fear – ‘the next shell is bound to land on me’. At one time I prayed to God to finish me off but that was not to be. After the shelling stopped a team led by RMO, came to give first aid to the wounded. I refused to be carried on stretcher and preferred to walk. I was taken to a pill box where I had five of dead enemy soldiers for company. I didn’t want to be mistaken as the sixth one and asked to be moved to an alternate shelter. Around 4 a.m., our MT JCO evacuated me in my CO’s jeep to ADS at Khalra.After the battle I went on to see the site and found the place littered with huge craters except the place where we had lain. Our survival was a sheer miracle.
When 16 Punjab went through Phase 2 i.e. capture of Ichhogil canal they had a clean walk over. Apprehending a major offensive by us the enemy had vacated all positions on the canal and withdrawn to outskirts of Lahore.To capture Barki, 4 Sikh paid a heavy price – 23 dead and 94 wounded including two officers. In collective valour, feats of individual courage and devotion to uphold the good name of the unit and ability of the officers to inspire and lead from the front it was a saga in the same class as Saragarhi 68 years earlier. This was indeed a great victory achieved.
An alumnus of the 17th NDACourse and commissioned in 4 Sikh (Saragarhi fame),Col Surinder Sagar Duggal is a veteran of both the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak Wars. He served as the Adjutant of 4 Sikh for six years and later commanded the same battalion. 1971, in the Bangladesh War of Liberation, he took part in the battles of Chaugacha, Burinda (Jessore Sector) and Siramani (Khulna Sector).