In 1947, at the time of the partition of India, six armoured regiments were given to Pakistan and twelve to India. By 1965 both nations had equal numbers, with seventeen armoured regiments each. However, the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s policy of non-alignment led to America wooing Pakistan which was only too happy to receive both financial and military aid from them.
The result was that the Pakistan Army gained technical superiority while the Indian Army continued to function mostly with World War II vintage weapons and equipment. The difference was apparent in the armoured regiments too. Only four regiments of the Indian Army had Centurions, while most others had Sherman tanks which were no match for the American Pattons and Chaffees.
Pakistan also had much better aircraft and state-of-the- art M47 and M48 guns. They had airburst fuses which did not rupture on impact but exploded 45 metres above the ground, causing greater damage. But what the Indian soldiers lacked in terms of equipment, they made up for in sheer grit, turning the tables on Pakistan.
The Battle of Phillora illustrates this perfectly. One of the fiercest tank battles of the 1965 war, it was the first major engagement between the two warring nations in the Sialkot sector and coincided with the Battle of Asal Uttar, where the Pakistan armoured regiments suffered heavily.The battle started on 8 September, when Indian troops crossed the border and launched a massive attack in the Phillora sector.
They faced stiff opposition from Pakistan’s 6th Armoured Division.
The Pakistanis also made air attacks but these inflicted little damage on the tank columns, though the lorry and Infantry columns suffered.
After one day of intense fighting, the beaten Pakistani troops made a tactical retreat towards Chawinda, where the last battle was fought before ceasefire was declared. In the Battle of Phillora, 1st Armoured Division destroyed fifty-one enemy tanks-of which 4 Horse destroyed twenty-seven-but in the process, it lost six tanks, with damages to nine more.
September 1965, Army Base Hospital, Delhi
The war of 1965 is over. A Sikh soldier is lying on his hospital bed, almost completely covered in blood. He is so severely burned that his wounds cannot be bandaged. He is waiting for Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to come up to him. The Prime Minister is walking from bed to bed, visibly anguished by the suffering of the brave soldiers-amputees, landmine victims, and those injured in shelling and bayonet attacks. When he reaches the Sikh officer, he pats his he pats his head affectionately and sees tears in his eyes. ‘Major, you belong to one of the finest armies in the world. This doesn’t behove you,’ the Prime Minister tells him. The Major, who can barely speak because of the intense pain he is in, replies, ‘Sir, I’m not pained because of any injury. I’m anguished that a soldier is not being able to salute his Prime Minister.’ A deeply touched Lal Bahadur Shastri goes on to quote the officer’s reply many times in public gatherings.
The officer succumbs to his injuries a few days later. He is Maj Bhupinder Singh, MVC, Bravo Squadron, 4 Horse, the armoured regiment that is credited with destroying twenty-seven enemy tanks in Phillora. On 19 September in the Battle of Sodreke, Maj Singh’s tank was hit by an enemy Cobra missile and caught fire. It had destroyed four enemy tanks by then. While the driver died on the spot, Maj Singh and his gunner Swr Vir Singh suffered grievous burns. Swr Vir Singh survived, while Maj Singh couldn’t. With dark, piercing eyes, a flowing beard and a proud moustache, Dfr Vir Singh of Bravo Company, 4 Horse, has an arresting presence. He is seventy-eight years old and lives in Chingar Kalan village of Dasua tehsil, Hoshiarpur district. In the summer months, he says, his skin crawls. In winter, it feels as if a thousand needles are pricking his body. Painful memories of the war have stayed with him these fifty years. He was so badly burned, he says, that his face was unrecognizable and most of his fingers had twisted backwards. For four months he was completely blind and regained his eyesight in a slow and painful process. The missile that had ripped his tank apart had even melted some of his bones. The pain was so excruciating that he would plead with the doctors to kill him and put him out of his misery. But all that is behind him now. When I meet him, he looks calm and composed in a white kurta-pyjama, a blue turban and leather jooties. His left hand is still stiff but he can effortlessly drive a tractor through his paddy fields. When people like me ask him about the Battle of Phillora, those days of September 1965 flash before his eyes, and he is twenty-eight once again-the trigger-happy foul-mouthed gunner of Maj Singh. ‘When I was running for help after the missile hit us, the Infantry guys who picked me up in their vehicle could not recognize me as my hair and skin had been charred. When I swore at them in Punjabi, they said, “Aye tan 4 Horse da Vir Singh haiga (This is Vir Singh of 4 Horse),”’ he says, smiling widely.
Dfr Vir Singh speaks chaste Punjabi with a generous sprinkling of expletives but when he remembers Bhupinder sahab, his Squadron Commander, his voice softens.
‘Memsahab used to cry when she visited him in Delhi Base Hospital where both of us were being treated,’ he remembers. ‘Bhupinder sahab would tell her to look at me. “Dekh use, woh mujh se bhi buri tarah jala hai; himmat rakh (Look at him, his burns are even worse than mine; be brave),” he would say.’ Swr Vir Singh’s condition was more critical than Maj Singh’s. Even though the doctors would speak in English, he could follow what they were saying. ‘Kehnde si, mar jayega, mar jayega (They would whisper that he will not survive).’ But Bhupinder sahab would scold them from his bed. ‘“Aye mera gunner si. Tussi mar jana, mar jana kehnde. Bolo bacha lange (He is my gunner. Don’t say he might die. Say we’ll save him),”
he would say, telling me, “Vir Singh, main tan zaroor ghar bhejanga (Vir Singh, I will ensure you go back home).”’ Maj Singh died the next Sunday, 3 October 1965. Swr Vir Singh survived and returned to his village after a year of treatment. ‘Sab kismet da khel hai (It is all destiny),’ he says philosophically.
Brig Jasbir Singh (Retd) is seventy-four. As a strapping twenty-three-year-old way back in 1965, he was a Captain and the Officer in Charge of Reconnaissance Troops for 4 Horse (Hodson’s Horse). While the squadrons moved in their Centurions, Capt Jasbir Singh would go around in his jeep, looking after regiment locations, food, troops and so on.
‘It has been a long time,’ he says, looking at the notes he has prepared for the interview, and points out places on the map to help me understand the Battle of Phillora better. With his friendly Labrador sprawled at his feet, he takes his time to patiently explain to me how the biggest tank battle that the Indian Army has fought unfolded that autumn.
About the book
In September, 1965, Pakistan invaded Chamb district of Jammu and Kashmir.
The invasion triggered a 21-day bloody conflict that saw one of the biggest tank battles since World War II. Ultimately, the cold courage of the Indian soldier prevailed.
This book recounts battles fought by the Indian Army over terrains ranging from Kashmir’s Haji Pir Pass to the paddy and sugar cane fields of Punjab.
With unprecedented access to war diaries, and interviews with survivors, Rachna Bisht Rawat brings to life the five grittiest battles of the 1965 war.
About the author
Rachna Bisht Rawat lives in Delhi with her son and her husband, Lt Col Manoj Rawat. Her husband's job has taken Rachna to some of the quirkiest places in India.
Rachna has worked for a host of newspapers and she is a 2005 Harry Brittain fellow and winner of the 2006 Commonwealth Press Quarterly’s Rolls Royce Award.
Her first story, Munni Mausi, was Highly Commended in the 2008-09 Commonwealth Short Story Competition.
Her first book was The Brave: Param Vir Chakra Stories, published by Penguin.