In May 1965, my CO promoted me to the rank of Acting Major and sent me to Ferozepur to take over the brigade signal company affiliated to 7 Mountain Brigade. The brigade had moved to Ferozepur and thence to the border, in anticipation of hostilities developing as a consequence of the conflict in Kutch. After suffering the heat and dust for some time, we reverted to Ambala sometime in July. After Pakistan launched its offensive in Chhamb, we were ordered to move to Khem Karan on 4 September 1965.
We were part of 4 Mountain Division which had two brigades – 7 Mountain Brigade and 62 Mountain Brigade. 7 Mountain Brigade was tasked to capture Theh Pannu and Ballanwala on the home side of the Ichhogil canal, in the Khem Karan Sector of Punjab. The brigade further sub allotted the task to 4 Grenadiers for the capture of Theh Pannu and to 7 Grenadiers for the capture Ballanwala. The third battalion, 1/9 GR was deployed in depth at Bhura Kunha, located between Chima and Khem Karan villages, to act as the firm base for launch of operations by the other two battalions.62 Mountain Brigade was also given objectives on the Ichhogil canal further south, which were sub allotted to 9 J&K Rifles and 13 Dogra. The third battalion, 18 Raj Rif was deployed at Asal Uttar to act as a firm base for the above attacks.
These attacks were launched on night 5/6 September, but only the attack by 4 Grenadiers was successful in capturing Theh Pannu. The enemy appeared to be much stronger than we expected, Ms Rasoolan Bibi, widow of CQMH Abdul Hamid, receiving the Param Vir Chakra from the President of India, Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnanbecause unknown to us then, its 1 Armoured Division was concentrated at Kasur. Due to the reverses suffered by us in the initial attacks, the effective fighting strength of the division was whittled down to about three to four battalions, and now this force took up a defensive position to halt the expected offensive by the enemy’s 1 Armoured Division. 1/9 Gr and 18 Raj Rif continued to stay in their defences at Bhura Kunha and Asal Uttar and 4 Grenadiers was withdrawn from Theh Pannu which it had captured and was deployed across the Khem Karan Bhikiwind road, near village Chima. HQ 7 Mountain Brigade was deployed at 11r in Chima village, and my signals company was deployed around it to the north. The defences of the division thus resembled a horse shoe, with 7 Mountain Brigade covering the Bhikiwind axis and 62 Mountain Brigade covering the Khem Karan – Valtoha axis.
The enemy began their assault astride both the axes at 0800h on 8 September. In 7 Mountain Brigade sector, the enemy overran our defences at Bhura Kuna and by 1100h, launched an attack on 4 Grenadiers at Chima. The attack was however repulsed with machine gun and anti tank fire causing heavy losses to the enemy. The enemy tank troops were mostly sticking to the narrow road, so quite a few tanks were damaged and abandoned, further choking those roads. That evening, I accompanied the commander to have a look at these invincible tanks. Our boys pulled out some radio equipment along with their instruction books which were still wrapped in polythene bags. I forwarded these to the regimental HQ. Luckily, like in the Mahabharata, there was no fighting that night as the enemy tanks pulled back to laager and rested for the night.
Next morning, on 9 September, the enemy came close to probe our defences, but 4 Grenadiers were ready. On this day, showing exceptional courage and guts, CQMH Abdul Hamid destroyed three tanks, mounted on his 106 mm anti tank recoilless gun. Brig. Sidhu was impressed with the valour shown by Hamid and directed me to send an ‘Emergency’ Signal, recommending him for Maha Vir Chakra. Later in the day, some tanks outflanked us from the west but got stuck up in the flooded fields where the drains had been ruptured by artillery fire. Their crew surrendered to the infantry platoon of 4 Grenadiers sent to round them up.
The enemy once again resumed theirattack in earnest on 10 September, but were halted at a distance. On this day, Abdul Hamid continued with his heroics of the previous day, accounting for another enemy tank. Tragically, soon thereafter, his jeep got a direct hit and exploded, killing him instantly. The commander then asked me to send a ‘Flash’ message, amending the earlier citation to read ‘Param Vir Chakra, posthumous’ in place of ‘Maha Vir Chakra’. That same evening, the posthumous award of Param Vir Chakra was announced to CQMH Abdul Hamid by All India Radio.Meanwhile, in an effort to speed up the attack, Pakistan’s armoured division commander moved up to the front. He was spotted by the troops of 4 Grenadiers and his vehicle was destroyed by machine gun fire. The general survived but his commander artillery, Brig. Shami was killed and the Grenadiers recovered his body, along with his fully marked artillery map. It appeared that the enemy was confident of reaching Delhi within a few days!
In the afternoon, one Pakistani tank had reached behind our location but was abandoned when bogged down on a bund near the water tank along the road. Shortly thereafter, we were hit by heavy machine gun fire from behind. It appeared that enemy tanks had surrounded us, but then I heard some shouting, which sounded like our own troops. I crawledforward along the grove and there met Maj. Vohra of 3 Cavalry. They had been told that our position had been overrun and had come to ‘liberate’ us. Luckily, no damage was done.
An eerie silence prevailed as day broke on 11 September. We were all on tenterhooks, not sure what the day would bring. I was manning the operations room when an early morning call broke the silence that prevailed. The corps commander was on line.
‘Oye!’ he said, in his typical accent, ‘this is Corps Commander General Dhillon. Your boys have done extremely well; we are proud of you all. Call your commander. Chhetti.’
The last word was Punjabi, meaning ‘quickly’. We were all justifiably proud of having broken the back of an armoured division attack. Having witnessed the war, I can but salute the leadership and courage shown by Brig. Sidhu and the grit, determination and fighting spirit of 4 Grenadiers. The enemy commanders proved rather inept, and grossly underrated Indian capability. Leaders like Brig. Sidhu and Col Farhat Bhatti, CO 4 Grenadiers and troops like CQMH Abdul Hamid showed exemplary courage against great odds, which saved our country the blushes and resulted in the destruction of a significant part of the enemy’s offensive potential – a feat for which all of us who took part in the operation can feel justifiably proud of.
Lt Col Naresh K Rastogi was commissioned in the Corps of Signals in 1957. He joined the Madras Regiment in 1971, after the Army Chief asked for volunteers to join the Infantry and took part in the Bangladesh Liberation War with 8 Madras in the Jessore Khulna Sector. On leaving the Army, he moved to Nigeria, where he worked with an MNC for 12 years. He is now settled in Noida.