DEFENCE OF SARDAR POST
31 Infantry Brigade, which had recently been raised in Ahmedabad in March 1963 was responsible for the defence of the Rann of Kutch. At that time, I was posted as the GSO 3 of the brigade. Its three battalions were 1 Mahar, 2 Sikh LI and 17 Raj Rif, located in Ahmedabad, Bhuj and Jamnagar, respectively. Its affiliated artillery was 11 Field Regiment, located at Dharngadhra. In early March 1965, the brigade was carrying out its first annual training and field firing exercise in the Little Rann, located North of Dharngadhra, when it received orders on 29 March 1965 to move forthwith and concentrate at Bhuj. This was completed by the end of the month.
The move of the brigade was necessitated as reports of Pakistani troops infiltrating into the Rann of Kutch were regularly coming in. As a result, No 2 Battalion of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), was moved to Khavda in March. In addition, the Gujarat police despatched a strength of 30 men with one assistant commandant to man a deserted place called Karim Shahi. Both the CRPF troops and the local police, however, lacked equipment and training to carry out their assigned duties effectively. There was little habitation in the whole area, which was nothing more than an endless sea of sand, sand and more sand.
To prevent Pakistani intrusions, No 2 CRPF battalion established a company strength post near the border by mid March, which was named Sardar Post. The name had its origins in the fact that the company commander of the post was a Sikh officer, Maj Karnail Singh. The company occupied the area with two platoons forward and one platoon in depth. They had also been allotted two medium machine guns and a 3 inch mortar section from No 2 CRPF Battalion. A few personnel from 31 Infantry Brigade were grouped with this force in early April, with the sole purpose of providing information of enemy activities across the border to the brigade HQ. With the arrival of the CRPF company at Sardar Post, preparation of defences and patrolling activity commenced in right earnest. Our patrols then confirmed that Pakistan was building up their forces across the IB.
On the latter half of night 08/09 April, the Pakistanis launched a massive attack on Sardar Post supported by artillery fire. We received information of this attack from our signal operator at Sardar Post, at about 4 a.m.. It was pitch dark outside and the Commander decided to carry out an aerial reconnaissance of the area at first light. At this time, the Commander also received a call from Mr Sen, the DIG police, located at Vigokot, who asked for the entire area to be taken over by the army. However, as per existing instructions, no forward move of regular troops was to take place unless personally authorised by the GOC M&G Area, Maj. Gen. P.C. Gupta, MC.
The Commander, therefore, placed the brigade on short notice to move forward, but as an interim measure, ordered one company of 17 Raj Rif, which was located at Khavda, to move forward to Vigokot. 2 Sikh LI was placed on standby to move to Vigokot, once cleared by higher headquarters.
At first light, the Commander, along with his brigade major, took off from Bhuj airfield in an Air Observation Post (Air OP) aircraft to see first hand, the situation at Sardar Post. I was told to hop in the second Air OP aircraft. From my vantage point in the air, I could see the ground situation most clearly. As we flew over the area of Sardar Post, the sight which I saw was amazing. The pattern of the enemy attack of a few hours earlier was clearly discernible from the large number of dead Pakistani bodies that lay strewn on the ground. We came to know later that the attack had been launched by Pakistan’s 51 Brigade Group, commanded by Brigadier M Azhar.
The attack was codenamed Operation Desert Hawk 1. Two battalions took part in the initial assault, attacking from the northeast, with artillery and mortar fire support. 8 Frontier Force was given the forward platoon as its objective, and 18 (Pakistan) Punjab was given the eastern depth platoon. 6 Baluch was kept in reserve. During the course of the attack, 18 Punjab lost direction and stumbled into the 8 Frontier Force objective, compounding the confusion which seemed to prevail all around and 6 Baluch also joined in the melee. However, the Pakistanis did succeed in overrunning the forward platoon, but withdrew soon after. The CRPF company lost 9 killed in action and a few personnel were taken prisoner including the post commander, Major Karnail Singh.
Enemy losses, as seen from the air were much higher which perhaps broke their spirit to hold on to the area. Reflecting over the issue, it seems amazing that an attack launched by a regular infantry brigade of the Pakistan army with full artillery support could not overcome a company position held by the Indian armed police. It appears that the medium machine gunners of the CRPF put up a spirited resistance and extracted a very heavy toll on the Pakistani brigade,which sapped their will to continue with the operations.
In the previous nights operations, less the forward platoon which had been overrun, the rest of the company had held on to their defences. At daybreak however, they abandoned their defences, and I could clearly see people moving rearwards on foot. The situation was rather peculiar at this time. The Pakistanis had withdrawn from the area they had overrun, and now quite a few personnel from the CRPF were abandoning their defences. Perhaps they were unaware of the heavy losses suffered by the enemy. Also, the shock of artillery shelling and the sheer weight of the enemy assault had perhaps taken their toll. Most likely, in the absence of their company commander, who had been taken prisoner, there was no one to exercise control.
At this time, I observed that the pilot of the aircraft that I was travelling in was circling the area, in an apparent bid to land. Evidently, he had received certain instructions from the Commander, which I was not aware of as I did not have headphones and the noise in the aircraft made normal conversation impossible. As soon as the pilot found a suitable spot, he landed. He then scribbled a note for me, which read:
I now found myself in a most unenviable position of being all by myself in the desert, without a weapon, sans any means of communication, with no equipment and no transport. The CRPF personnel had probably not seen me deplaning from the aircraft and would not know who I was. Anyhow, I got on with the task and managed to get hold of a couple of stragglers. Thereafter, it took some more time to collect about 40 to 50 men and then convince them that Sardar Post was not occupied by the enemy and they were required to go back. I also told them that additional troops were shortly on the way and they would be reinforced. The situation was thus retrieved and we reoccupied the post.
This was fortuitous as the enemy had regrouped and regained some element of composure. We could see them forming up for a second assault on the post. The CRPF troops whose morale was already low had to be ordered back to their trenches, and thereafter they proceeded to engage the enemy with small arms fire. The enemy attack was broken before it could develop by the intense small arms fire brought down upon them, and they suffered some casualties. After some time, the enemy tried to come forward in vehicles flying ‘Red Cross” flags. They perhaps were trying to extricate their dead and wounded, but we were not sure of their intentions. This red flag vehicle column was also engaged and they withdrew.
“THE BRIGADE COMMANDER WANTS YOU TO GET HOLD OF THESE MEN ON THE RUN AND TAKE THEM BACK TO THE SARDAR POST. ADDITIONAL TROOPS ARE BEING SENT”
Some time later, an officer from 1 Mahar, who had moved in with some troops relieved me and I moved back to rejoin my brigade headquarter at Bhuj. At 3 p.m. on the same day, the enemy resumed shelling of Sardar Post and area North of Vigokot. The CRPF personnel were not in a position to hold on to Sardar Post and requested for army assistance. The personnel from the State Reserve Police (SRP), located at Vigokot also stated that they could not hold on to their post and requested to be relieved. The Commander then recommended move of 2 Sikh LI to Vigokot which was accepted. In the meanwhile, the CRPF vacated Sardar Post by 1530h and the SRP vacated Vigokot by 1930h. Shelling continued on these areas up to 2200h but the enemy made no attempt to capture them. Thereafter, the shelling continued sporadically throughout the night.
The brigade meanwhile was moving forward, and a company of 17 Raj Rif occupied Vigokot by 1945h. 2 Sikh LI arrived at Vigokot by 0300h on 10 April and took over the area from the Raj Rif company. On arrival at Vigokot, 2 Sikh LI despatched a patrol to Sardar Post and the patrol confirmed that Sardar Post had not been occupied by Pakistani troops. A standing patrol of company strength was then moved to Sardar Post, and was instructed to hold the post at all costs till relieved. 1 Mahar was ordered to carry out the relief and occupy Sardar Post and this was completed by first light, 12 April. The enemy made a few half hearted attempts to take the post but were beaten back every time. When the ceasefire was declare, Sardar Post was firmly in Indian hands.
Born on 27 May 1934, Colonel Puntambekar was commissioned in 1st Battalion The Maratha Light Infantry in June 1959. He has the distinction of participating in the Liberation of Daman in 1961, ‘Operation Kabaddi’ in Rann of Kutch in 1965 and in the Liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 (Operation Vijay – East). He resides in Mumbai and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org