Lt Gen Raj Sujlana (Retd)
Two memorable defensive battles were fought south of Banihal Pass, amidst the rigours of the Pir Panjal mountains of Poonch and the undulating rough plains of Chhamb-Jaurian west of Munawar Tawi. The assaulting enemy numbered several times the men who manned the defences; however, they were met squarely with rare steadfastness, valour and dedication, inflicting crushing defeats on the enemy in both these encounters.
6 Sikh (‘Chhe’, as popularly known) occupied defences over a 13-km frontage on the heights above Poonch; two of these, Points 405 and 406, were of strategic importance, standing as sentinels. Loss of these would directly threaten Poonch town itself. Pakistan always prized this option, and on the night intervening December 3 and 4, it launched a heavy punch with two brigades (six battalions). Coincidently, one of these was 5th Frontier Force, originally the 53 Royal Sikhs! Two enemy battalions launched feint attacks, while one infiltrated to cut off the road leading to Poonch. ‘Chhe’, fully entrenched, lay in their path to upset their well laid out plans.
The artillery bombardment announced the enemy’s intent; an advance position at the helipad, held by two platoons under Captain Mamik, received the heavy rush, but they stood rock solid. A young Sepoy, Sampuran Singh, manning a Light Machine Gun (LMG) stood out. ‘He poured ceaseless rapid fire on the incoming enemy; a head injury didn’t perturb him, he stuck to his assigned task till he was unconscious due to loss of blood and was only then evacuated.’ Repeated attacks were beaten back, the heavy casualties inflicted held up the attack. These troops achieved their task to delay the enemy and as planned, pulled back to the defences on Point 405.
Soon, the next position at ‘Tund’ was under bi-directional attack. Major Punjab Singh, the company commander, ‘was the man of the moment; he quickly readjusted the defences and beat back the enemy on the first night. The next night, when the enemy returned, Punjab Singh had skillfully positioned the reinforcements and rushed forward.’ Two junior leaders, Havildar Malkiat Singh and Naib Singh, need special mention who with disregard to their own safety struck the enemy where most wanted. The enemy withdrew, their bodies and weapons scattered all over. Desperate, the enemy sent in their Special Forces (SSG), who managed to come within 30-40 metres of Point 405, but were also forced back.
From December 3 till the dawn of December 7, on display was the true mettle of Lt Col (later Maj Gen) KL Rattan — ‘unmindful of the heavy shelling and firing, he was present wherever an attack developed; with his skillful professionalism, he ensured the right moves, his hearty words kept the men in high morale and charged up throughout.’ He was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra. His motivation energised Sepoy Safaiwala Mangat Ram, ‘who without any fear or adversity continuously supplied ammunition to points under attack till his last breath, and was killed in the act.’
Five Vir Chakras were awarded to Maj Punjab Singh, Havildar Malkiat Singh, Sepoy Sampuran Singh, Naik Naib Singh and Sepoy Safaiwala Mangat Ram (the latter two were posthumous).
The defence of Poonch has gone down as one of the most successful defensive actions by a battalion; they were deservedly awarded the Battle Honour ‘Defence of Poonch’ and Theatre Honour ‘Jammu and Kashmir’. After the war, special appreciation of outstanding valour displayed by an enemy soldier, identified as Lance Naik Noor Shahjahan, was conveyed to the enemy, which led to his being awarded the ‘Sitar-e-Jurat,’ the third highest Pakistani award for gallantry.
The Chhamb-Jaurian sector, west of Jammu bulging towards Pakistan, in military terms, is considered a ‘soft belly’ of the defences, as Pakistan has tremendous advantage which they have repeatedly exploited. 1971 was no different as Pakistan launched their major offensive here, aiming to capture Akhnoor and cut off the main Rajouri-Poonch axis. Pakistan employed its 23rd Infantry Division with five infantry brigades (15 battalions), three armoured regiments (approximately 150 tanks) and paramilitary forces.
5 Sikh went on to fight an epic defensive battle here.
Earthquake-like, the ground shook on and around the Indian forward posts around 2100 hours on December 3 as Pakistani artillery opened its barrage. The initial targets were our posts at Pir Jamal and Moel and by midnight, the posts at Phagla, Mandiala and Point 303. These posts and Point 303 were under the command of Maj DS Pannu, an intrepid soldier and outstanding sportsman, with a special passion for riding. Like a true aggressive horseman, not caring for personal safety, he rushed to join his forward troops at Pir Jamal and Moel, which were soon under intense attack with tanks and infantry. The small Indian force beat back three attacks, which delayed the enemy for 16 hours and upset their overall plan.
The casualties were heavy, but Maj Pannu, with a handful of survivors, pulled back to his main position at Point 303, which too soon came under attack. The enemy was held up through December 4 and on the evening of December 5, Maj Pannu was killed. Point 303 fell for a short time, but the gallant Capt Kamal Bakshi rose to the occasion and counter-attacked; the post was regained but he went missing in action, reportedly killed. In the entire surroundings could be seen the bodies of enemy soldiers; two MMGs and 70 rifles were recovered.
Simultaneously, Phagla, some distance away, also came under heavy attack. The company was led by the dynamic Maj Jaivir Singh, who was at the forefront. The battle raged for 72 hours; repeated attacks were beaten back. The enemy managed penetration at one point, but ‘Maj Jaivir Singh led a counter-attack, stiff hand-to-hand fighting followed, the enemy withdrew. If this was not enough, a nearby post overrun by the enemy was counter-attacked and regained’. The officers and troops were near exhaustion but the inspiring leadership of Lt Col Prem Khanna, ‘whose cool calculated courage, skill and imaginative tactics ensured that incessant attacks by overwhelming numbers of infantry and armour were beaten back, his directions and personal touch ensured a high level of will of his men!’
5 Sikh lost two officers, a JCO and 39 other ranks but the enemy paid with 586 killed and a costly lesson in battling the Sikh troops. An issue of Pak Defence Journal in 1999 acknowledged ‘the tenacious courage of 5 Sikh and troops of 9 Deccan Horse’ and remarked, ‘If the Indian commander now knows full details of what was coming for him on the morning of December 5, he can rightly congratulate the CO of 5 Sikh and the tank troop commander… they saved a sad day for him!’
5 Sikh was decorated with ‘Theatre Honour Jammu & Kashmir’, Lt Col Prem Khanna and Maj Jaivir Singh with the Maha Vir Chakra, and Maj DS Pannu and Naik Richhpal Singh with Vir Chakra. Capt Bakshi was Mentioned in Dispatches.