Swarnim Vijay Varsh 2021: The Victory Flame Reaches Bhimber Gali (BG)!
By: M S Nazki
This has been a stunning story of raw courage, exemplary bravery, supreme art of fighting, granite will and determination, devotion to duty and supreme art of fighting! Therefore the celebrations have to be mammoth!
There are times for meeting fire with fire, and others for meeting it with ice. On the battlefield, calculation behind every move we make does count. You are a technician of a chess player at that time but so is the enemy. With your stature you must invoke fear in the enemy, using your position to every advantage. We have to find out the Achilles heel in the enemy, exploit it and get into it. Trust me the victory is not far off. The same happened in 1971 Indo-Pak war. Our commanders played a splendid game of chess and outwitted the aggressive enemy.
It’s just an instant idea and lo! A fairy tale is constructed where fire is meeting fire, the instinct that gives the hopeless hope, but sometimes a little hope is all people need to get through the day. Imagine a unit of soldiers under heavy enemy fire. They are told by their superiors to hold their position, even in the face of overwhelming firepower. The soldiers are being told that reinforcements are on the way, and that thought alone gives them the hope and courage to continue fighting, even if ultimately the reinforcements never arrive. I think some people simply need to believe that someone is sending them reinforcements, to get through another day. That is all that matters in winning the battle and subsequently the war and that is what happened in 1971 in Poonch sector. No one is born brave; one needs to learn to muster courage, the courage especially so under fire and that is the birth of a chivalrous character.
Soldiers fighting it out in the face of bullets are always applauded by other soldiers in different part of the world and belonging to different armies. They are a sort of family and they love passing down anecdotes and individual skills in joint exercises held internationally, specialized training stints, peace keeping missions and other ventures. This is a story that many would have read and many would not have but I will love to relate the same as this really was courage under brutal and ruthless fire. So here we go, D-Day at Tarawa occurred during one of only two days in 1943 when the moon’s apogee (Every month, the moon’s eccentric orbit carries it to apogee, its most distant point from Earth and then, some two weeks later, to perigee the moon’s closest point to Earth in its monthly orbit) coincided with a neap tide (Seven days after a spring tide refers to a period of moderate tides when the sun and moon are at right angles to each other. A spring tide is a common historical term that has nothing to do with the season of spring) , resulting in a tidal range of only a few inches rather than several feet. The actions of these Marines trapped on the reef would determine the outcome of the battle for Tarawa. If they hesitated or turned back, their buddies ashore would be decimated. But they didn’t hesitate. They were Marines. They jumped from their stranded landing crafts into chest-deep water holding their arms and ammunition above their heads (the way to do it). In one of the bravest scenes in the history of warfare, these Marines slogged through the deep water into sheets of machine-gun bullets. There was nowhere to hide, as Japanese gunners raked the Marines at will. And the Marines, almost wholly submerged and their hands full of equipment, could not defend themselves. But they kept coming. Bullets ripped through their ranks, sending flesh and blood flying as screams pierced the air. Japanese steel killed over 300 Marines in those long minutes as they struggled to the shore. As the survivors stumbled breathlessly onto shore their boots splashed in water that had turned bright red with blood. This type of determination and valor among individual Marines overcame seemingly hopeless odds, and in three days of hellish fighting Tarawa was captured. The Marines suffered a shocking 4,400 casualties in just seventy-two hours of fighting as they wiped out the entire Japanese garrison of 5,000. This really sets the adrenaline pumping. In 1971 there were several similar sequences where the Indian soldiers thwarted each and every Pakistani design. Trust me nothing was given but plenty was taken.
The Pooch sector saw many great battles where the display of heroism by Indian soldiers was the thematic undercurrent. These men fought like possessed individuals with eyes reflecting as to how the blood was boiling inside. Pakistan attacked in waves but each and every attempt of theirs met with massive lead cruising at supersonic speed in the air. The following anecdotes will tell you more. These are the episodes that I collected and jotted to now knit them as the Indian army celebrated 50 years of the 1971 war.
I. Bhimber Gali:
Bhimber Gali is a village in the Poonch district of Union Territory Jammu and Kashmir. It is often called BG locally as an abbreviated form of Bhimber Gali. It is one of the passes connecting Rajouri with Poonch. Bhimber Gali is the point at which four roads meet, one from Hamirpur Balakote, second from Rajouri via Manjakot, third from Mendhar Tehsil and fourth from Poonch Via Surankote. This area borders Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and thus the surrounding areas often used to remain in news for cross LoC ceasefire violations but now the guns have fallen silent.
II. 25 Infantry Division / Ace of Spades Division:
The Ace of Spades is the card of death. When the Apex or point of the Spade points up in the reading it means a conclusion, an ending. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s story ‘the Suicide Club” (1878), the Ace of Spades is the ‘sign of death’ in a secret society whose members submit to be killed if they draw the Ace of Spades from a pack of cards during a club meeting. The Ace of Spades has been employed on numerous occasions in the theatre of war. In the Second World War, the soldiers of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the American 101st Airborne Division were marked with the spades symbol painted on the sides of their helmets. In this capacity, it was used to represent good luck. The ace of spades was featured in many movies about the Vietnam War. The symbol is also depicted on various unit crests, special operations privately-made patches, collar insignia, and on flags and painted vignettes on military aircraft and gun trucks.
General Kulwant Singh, General Atma Singh, and Gen. Yadunath Singh were responsible for undertaking the operations, Poonch link-up and re-raising of 25 Infantry Division, respectively. Brave army-men of all ranks and civilians who have rendered valuable services and sacrificed their lives for the liberation of Rajouri and Poonch. Brave soldiers and civilians have proved their mettle in wars with Pakistan in the year 1947, 1965 and 1971. As many as 2 PVCs, 48 MVCs, 75 Vr Cs and 30 SMs have been awarded to the valiant heroes in this divisional sector of Rajouri and Poonch.
III. The Night Long battle at Krishna Ghati (as a soldier recalls)
The Operation in the Western Sector Pakistan having failed to capture Poonch in 1947 and 1965 wars, had made this a prestige issue, and a third attempt to annex it was made in 1971. One of the roads that leads to Poonch is from Mendhar through Krishna Ghati where a battalion was deployed. The intention was to capture Poonch and cut it off from the rest of J&K and thereby block reinforcements to the Indian forces. Captain K. Sashidharan, a young Observation Post Officer, was given the task of providing Arty Support to the Company of 9 Raj Rif at Point 468. He recalled later, ‘Our Regiment 11 Field Regiment (Now 11 Medium Regt) was in support of 33 Infantry Brigade, a part of 39 Infantry Division and deployed initially in Samba Sector but later moved overnight to Poonch/Rajouri Sector perhaps due to its importance. Moving 25 Pounder Guns at night over a distance of 250 odd Kms in mountainous terrain without headlights and no accidents was no mean task. The’ Thambis’ of 11 Field Regiment did an outstanding job in getting the guns, vehicles and ammunition safely to Krishna Ghati area by first light the next day. On December 3, 1971 evening, Pakistan Air Force had carried out strafing missions on 11 of our airfields in the Western Sector. Recounting the action in a bitterly cold winter, Capt. Sashidharan says, ‘at 8 pm Pakistan commenced shelling our position from their post across the LOC and overlooking our post. I got our guns to promptly respond, after about an hour Pakistan launched its first wave attack. More attacks were launched intermittently till 2 am next morning. All these attacks were repulsed by resorting to what was then called DF Red Red Red or SOS- basically means you call for fire onto your own position (when your position is almost being overrun) in order to deny it to the enemy. The enemy used the gaps between the various attacks to remove most of their dead under the cover of darkness. The enemy had however managed to get onto our Picket and was perched on one of our bunkers (small arms ammunition bunker) with a rocket launcher- the first rocket fired missed the Command Post we were in, before the second was fired we got the HMG gunner to fire a burst in the direction of the bunker- it was spot on and next morning we found the two of them dead (apart from several other smoldering bodies) with the launcher loaded ! The decision to call for this fire and the precision and accuracy of our gunners, saved the day. The Raj Rif Jawans under the Company Commander, then Maj Tomar put up a very spirited fight and held the battalion flag flying high. An eventful and unforgettable night that was. Had the enemy attack been successful, they would have had a clear run up to the Brigade Headquarters at Surankote. Capt Sashidharan states that the major challenge was the location/commanding position of the enemy post and the need to neutralize them before overrunning our post and giving them an opportunity to advance towards the Brigade Headquarters.
IV The stubborn, arrogant sheer audaciousness shown by 6 Sikh:
One of the fiercest battles of the 1971 war was actually fought to protect the town of Poonch in Jammu and Kashmir. The 6th Sikh Battalion heroically defended the strategically important town against a numerically superior Pakistani force 44 years ago. Officials said that during the 1971 conflict, the heroic stand of the battalion against a numerically superior enemy saved the politically important town of Poonch. The battle was fought from December 3-6. As India joined the war on behalf of then East Pakistan on December 3, 1971, Pakistan attacked on the Western front. Pakistani brigades in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (PoK) comprising 5 Frontier Force Rifles, 7 POK Battalion and 51 Punjab Regiment were given the task of capturing two piquets as also the helipad in Poonch which were held by the 6 Sikh. The assault began on the evening of December 3 but 6 Sikh, with artillery support, held them off for three days after which there was no major attack. The battalion suffered eight casualties and 33 were wounded. For their action, the battalion won one Maha Vir Chakra (MVC) and five Vir Chakras and the battle honour ‘Defence of Poonch 1971.’ Maj. Gen. K.L. Rattan, then a Lt Col commanding 6 Sikh, was awarded MVC for gallantry and leadership of the highest order. He had praised the infantry-artillery cooperation in defending Poonch. His words, ‘Infantry-Artillery cooperation has to be a well-planned and well mixed concrete. So it was at Poonch. Our artillery was truly a battle winning factor,’ he is quoted as having said in the book Indian gunners at war: The Western front 1971 written by Maj. Gen Jagjit Singh (retd).
V. Operation ‘Mandhol’ forced Pakistan to change its war plan!
This was skillful and was exrcuted with sheer audacity. The operation ‘Mandhol’ was carried out by 9 Para Commandos units in Poonch sector of Jammu and Kashmir and it was the only classical commando raid executed by special forces in the war. In this operation, the Para Commandos or special forces of the Indian Army had carried the first raid after their formation by entering enemy territory and eliminating their artillery guns. Chandigarh-based Colonel (retd) K D Pathak was then a captain and second-in-command of the company of 120 men who had carried out the remarkable operation, which made Pakistan change its war doctrine. Operation ‘Mandhol’ is also part of the curriculum in the Indian Military Academy (IMA), Dehradun. What Col. KD Pathak said, ‘recalling the night of December 13 and 14, 1971, Col Pathak, 73, said his unit was posted at ‘Nangi Tekri’ post at the height of 4,665 feet in Poonch sector and was assigned the task of destroying Pakistan’s artillery guns positioned near Mandole village, which was around 19km southwest of Poonch. Six 122mm Chinese guns of Pakistani battery were creating trouble for 93 and 120 infantry brigades of the Indian Army. We started around 5.30pm on December 13 with one company comprising six officers and around 120 men of 9 Para Commando unit led by Major C M Malhotra. According to Col Pathak, it was a cold night and they had to cross waist-deep water of Poonch river to reach Mandole. On reaching the village, they found it completely deserted, but the raiding party located the enemy guns with the help of an old man. After tracing the gun positions, the party was split into six groups with each attacking one gun. After a fierce battle with the enemy all guns were destroyed with the help of pencil-cell connected timer explosives. During the fight, many soldiers of the Pakistan army were killed while several fled. The raiding party of Indians lost two of its men while 20 were wounded. It was also an uphill task to return to our territory with wounded soldiers and the body of a soldier. Cots, taken from villages, were improvised and turned into stretchers to carry the wounded soldiers. We reached our post at 6.30am. He, however, has one grouse that their feat was recognized only when the delegations of the Pakistan Army, after ceasefire, narrated the heroic act carried out by the Indian troops at Mandhol. The act of the raiding team did not fetch it many gallantry awards, but for the overall operations in the Poonch sector, the Para Commandos were awarded the ‘Battle Honor’ in the 1971 war. What can be more proud for the Para Commandos is that the operation carried out by them is part of the curriculum of IMA. The ‘Mandhol’ operation had so deep an impact on the Pak Army that it had to raise a second line of troops to secure their artillery guns thereby making a change in its war doctrine. This was a raid that was carried out on foot.
Well some great special forces raids have been glorified in history, this one too deserves a place amongst the most daring. For example, Trojan Horse, Assault on Eben-Emael, Entebbe Raid, Operation Neptune Spear, The Raid on Son Tay Prison Camp, Operation Flipper, Operation Oak, Operation Nimrod and Moscow Theater Rescue are often quoted as the best nut the Mandhol raid was equally great if not better and one behind the enemy lines.
V. 1971 war and operations in Poonch:
- From 1947 onward, the defense of the Poonch area had been the responsibility of Headquarters 93 Infantry Brigade, commonly known as the Poonch Brigade. In the peculiar no peace no war situation prevailing in Jammu and Kashmir, Indian and Pakistani troops faced each other in close confrontation, manning pickets all along the line in the form of a hard crust, with some positions in depth in the rear.
*The defense potential of these pickets had been progressively increased over the years by laying mines and improving field fortifications, but their location and strength were known to the opposing side fairly accurately. Moreover, the roads from Hajira and Darwandi leading to Kahuta, the administrative base, from the Pakistani pickets were under observation from the Indian side, and any movement along them could be noticed.
- Two main roads led to Poonch from the Indian side, one from Surankote and the other from Mendhar via Krishna Ghati. The Pakist ani plan for the capture of Poonc h was hatched sometime in August or September 1971.
- To this end Akbar Khan, commanding Pakistan 12 Infantry Division in the area, assembled about two brigades and ran an operation-oriented exercise sometime in October in the Sudan valley in Pakistan occupied Kashmir, in terrain similar to that around Poonch.
*The exercise practiced attack by infiltration based on Chinese tactics and ended on 16 October. In summing it up, Akbar Khan emphasized the security aspect to his officers and ordered all papers connected with it to be destroyed.
*The force was later inducted opposite Poonch in the Kahuta area in November. The buildup comprised constructing a road from Kahuta to the Pakistani forward pickets, deployment of about 14 to 16 artillery fire units, dumping ammunition, concentrating the two chosen brigades 26 Infantry and 2 POK-in the area, and relieving some regular and POK troops with Mujahids in the picket line.
- Despite the spread of this buildup over a month and a half, our troops had noticed this unusual activity and the presence of Pakistan 26 Infantry Brigade in the Kahuta bulge. But they could not grasp whether it would be used against Poonch or Uri, across the Haji Pir Pass.
- It was known that Pakistan 7 Infantry Division had moved out of Peshawar, but its destination had not yet been ascertained. Some personnel wearing 7 Div formation signs were noticed in Muzaffarabad, and this indicated that a part of it might be used in Jammu and Kashmir, and perhaps against Poonch.
*This apprehension led to the induction of 33 Infantry Brigade into the area in November to reinforce the Poonch sector, and eventually this proved a wise move. Its deployment was rather dispersed, with one battalion at Banawat near Poonch, another in the Krishna Ghati, and the third at Jarna Wali Gali, presumably as reserves in their respective subsectors.
- The Pakistani intention appeared to be to capture Poonch and subsequently to develop operations with a view to securing all the territory up to the Pir Panjal range. The road from the Changal bridge to Kirni Gali was completed in record time just before the outbreak of hostilities.
- The construction of this road enabled Akbar Khan to deploy three medium and three field batteries well forward to support the operations.
But these plans remained great on paper only because on the ground they confronted the stonewall in the form of the Indian Army. Poonch was defended so was the entire ridge line from Krishnaghati, Mendhar, BG, Keri, Kanga Gali, Tarkundi down to Bir Badesar. With the Indian Army on the job, Pakistan stood no chance though the made efforts by some relentless attacking which by the end of the war proved fruitless and at the most meaningless!
VII. The celebrations that were held with the arrival of the victory flame:
- As part of commemorations of Indian Army’s 50 years of victory in the 1971 war, the Victory flame reached the area of responsibility of Bhimber Gali Brigade today.
- It was a matter of great pride and honor for Keri Battalion as it received the eternal flame on the commencement of its journey along the historic Bhimber Gali Brigade where the Indian Army had fought many gallant battles since independence.
- The eternal flame celebrating the golden jubilee of the Bangladesh war arrived in the Neakka and Tarkundi region of the Gambhir Battalion first along the Line of Control on 17 May.
- It is a rare honor for the unit as it itself had formed part of the War attaining glory in the famous Battle of Garibpur in Bangladesh. Respect was accorded to the flame in the form of wreath laying at the main war memorial and a torch relay to a forward post on the Line of Control.
- Also few ex servicemen from the region graced the occasion and children from the villages of Tarkundi, Datote and Neakka paid their respect as the flame traversed the old and much revered Shrine of Pir Ditta Shah.
*Wreath laying by serving soldiers and war veterans was carried out at Keri to pay homage to the brave martyrs and thereafter the victory flame procession moved through the Keri battalion and reached the famous Veer Badesar temple where blessings of the almighty were sought.
*Indian Army salutes the brave warriors who sacrificed their lives for the nation and attained glory. Great words and great celebrations indeed!
So the potential soldiers who have the fire burning in their bellies must tell themselves, we seek the fire of the spark that is already within us like these greats who said when the onus of defending the country fell on them. This victory flame is telling the youth a spark of every fire we seek is already within us. It’s only that we feel the heat. I once did hear a warrior father telling his son in a village in RS. Pura, scars don’t matter, little one. They are the marks of the battles we have won. And finally you will never ever be successful until you turn your pain into greatness until you ally your pain to push you from where you are, to push you to where you need to be. The secret weapon of the Indian soldier is his true grit!