Remembering the enduring battles of Basantar and Chakra-Dehlra

Lt Col Dilbag Singh Dabas (Retd)

In the 1971 war on the western front, during the battles of Chakra-Dehlra and Basantar in the Shakargarh sector, the Indian Armoured Corps was at its best. During most of the intense tank versus tank battles, the Indian Centurian tanks took on the technologically superior Patton tanks of Pakistan and amply proved that it is the man behind the weapon and his training that decides the outcome of the encounter.

Along with Brigadier Arun Vaidya, MVC, Commander of 16 (Independent) Armoured Brigade, many young and not-so-young Bisons (tankmen) in black dungarees and signature dust goggles inflicted a heavy toll on the Pakistani Patton tanks at Chakra-Dehlra and Basantar.

A slice of history

  • 4 Horse was raised as Hodson’s Horse around 1857 by Captain William Hodson who, during the First War of Independence, captured Bahadur Shah and had him transported to Burma where he died in exile. Hodson also slaughtered the Emperor’s two sons. After Independence, there was strong resistance in naming the regiment after him. Its official designation is 4 Horse, with a formidable combination of one Dogra and two Sikh squadrons in its composition.
  • After the war, once even the enemy acknowledged the bravery of its adversary and bestowed the most befitting salutation. After the 1965 war, the Pakistan army bestowed upon The Poona Horse the title of ‘Fakhr-i-Hind’ (Pride of India), the only regiment in the Indian Army to have such a rare honour from the enemy.

The tank busters of 17 Horse (The Poona Horse) earned one Param Vir Chakra, two Maha Vir Chakras (MVC) and four Vir Chakras (VrC); one MVC and three VrCs were earned by 4 Horse.

The Tribune, December 18, 1971

Two of the Maha Virs, Lieutenant Colonel Hanut Singh and Major Amarjit Singh Bal, belonged to The Poona Horse, raised in 1817 at Corygaum, the present day Koregaon between Pune and Ahmadnagar.

Tall and lean with piercing eyes and an impressive moustache, Hanut came from Jasol near Barmer in Rajasthan from a family of cavalry officers. A product of Colonel Brown’s School, Dehradun, Joint Services Wing and the Indian Military Academy, he opted for The Poona Horse as his first choice. It was granted and on December 4, 1952, the scion of the Rathore Rajput clan from Jasol joined his first love, The Poona Horse, then a 135-year-old regiment that goes by the book and takes pride in grooming its officers and men in proper soldiering. The regiment was, and is, conscious that all that matters is war and therefore trains hard to win battles.

The Tribune, December 22, 1971

Hanut’s professional skills ensured his steady rise, and his moral standing inspired all. But perhaps his most memorable professional moment came during the 1971 war when he was in command of The Poona Horse during the battle of Basantar. In so many ways, he had prepared himself and his regiment for this moment.

Affectionately known as ‘Hunty’, Hanut, now a Lieutenant Colonel, was all too aware of the traditions of his regiment when he assumed its command in September 1971. The Commanding Officer (referred to as Commandant in Armoured Corps) of 17 Horse, he was tasked with establishing a bridgehead across Basantar Nadi in the Shakargarh sector and take on the enemy armour in furtherance of the operations by the infantry. He led his regiment across the heavily-mined dry bed of the river and successfully defended the bridgehead before the advance by the infantry. Despite repeated determined attacks supported by the armour, the Pakistanis could neither push back the infantry, nor dislodge The Poona Horse from the bridgehead.

Under the inspiring leadership of Lt Col Hanut Singh, the tank crews of the regiment inflicted a heavy toll on the Patton tanks, forcing the enemy to retreat. With a formidable combination of a squadron each of Jats, Sikhs and Rajputs and Lt Col Hanut leading boldly from the front, The Poona Horse had the lion’s share in destroying the Patton tanks. And winning one PVC, two MVCs and four VrCs in a single battle is proof enough.

During the battle of Basantar, Lt Col Hanut Singh, for his bold leadership and conspicuous bravery, was awarded the MVC. The excerpts from the battle account read:

“Lieutenant Colonel Hanut Singh was commanding 17 Horse in Shakargarh sector. On December 16, his regiment was inducted into the Basantar river bridgehead and took up positions ahead of the infantry. The enemy launched a number of armoured attacks in strength on December 16 and 17. Undeterred by the enemy medium artillery and tank fire, Lt Col Hanut Singh moved from one threatened sector to another with total disregard to personal safety. His presence and cool courage inspired his men to remain steadfast and perform commendable acts of bravery.”

Not mentioned in the battle account is a rare trait he exhibited against all possible odds; despite the Engineers frantically clearing the mines, the safe lanes for the tanks to cross over had not been created. Realising that dawn was fast approaching, he took a bold decision and ordered his squadrons to head for the bridgehead, with ‘Khusoob’, his command tank, in the lead. Hunty was truly a religious man and that day even Gods answered his prayers; while crossing the river bed, not a single anti-tank mine came in his way.

After almost four decades in olive greens/black dungarees, Hunty superannuated as Lt General. Also popularly known as the ‘Saint Soldier’, he possessed some extraordinary traits which not many commanders have been able to emulate — a considerate senior, a bold commander, a legendary General. Hunty, the Saint Soldier, a professional to the core, feared neither his enemies nor his superiors.

Major Amarjit Singh Bal of The Poona Horse also carried forward the rich legacy of the regiment in Shakargarh. Like Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal, PVC, he too was an alumnus of Lawrence School, Sanawar, and made his alma mater proud by winning the Maha Vir Chakra.

During the early hours of December 16, after having captured Jarpal, at a heavy cost in those killed and wounded, Major Hoshiar Singh and his ‘C’ Company of the 3rd Grenadiers blunted the immediate counter-attack by Pakistan’s 35 Frontier Force battalion without ceding an inch of the captured territory. Before the enemy regrouped to launch another counter-attack supported by tanks, the tanks of ‘B’ Squadron less two troops of The Poona Horse, under the command of Maj Bal, reached the western flank of Jarpal (on the eastern flank was Second Lieutenant Khetarpal).

With just eight tanks, Major Bal maneuvered in a manner that the superior armour force of the enemy was comprehensively held at bay, and also selectively carried out destruction of the enemy Patton tanks of 13 Lancers ex 8 (Independent) Armoured Brigade — thus not permitting them to interfere with our infantry operations, while the Grenadiers steadfastly held the ground beating repeated infantry counter-attacks.

During the intense tank versus tank battle that ensued, Major Bal, for his bold leadership and conspicuous personal gallantry, was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra. Excerpts from the battle account:

“Major Amarjit Singh Bal was commanding Bravo Squadron of 17 Horse during the battle of Basantar. On the morning hours of December 16, the enemy launched a number of determined counter-attacks supported by tanks to re-capture Jarpal, which had been captured by the 3rd Grenadiers after suffering unimaginable casualties. Though heavily outnumbered, Major Bal displayed exemplary courage, determination and aggressive spirit and by his personal example motivated his squadron to remain steadfast and resolute. He, along with his squadron tank crews, did not let even a single Patton tank reach Jarpal village, steadfastly held by the ‘Charlie’ Company of 3rd Grenadiers under command of Major Hoshiar Singh. Under the bold and aggressive leadership of Major Bal, his squadron repulsed all armour counter-attacks with heavy losses to the enemy.”

Along with Lt Col Hanut Singh and Maj Amarjit Singh Bal, there were four more diehard cavaliers: Major Ravender Datt Law, Second Lieutenant Avtar Singh Ahlawat, Naib Risaldar Mohan Singh and Sowar Mohan Singh, who too outperformed themselves in the battle of Basantar and made The Poona Horse proud by winning the Vir Chakra.

4 Horse saga

Bakshi Sant Ram Vohra from Shimla had four sons — all in the Armoured Corps, all rose to the rank of General. Raj Mohan, the third eldest, after Senior Cambridge from St Edward’s School, Shimla, joined the Joint Services Wing (present day NDA) and was commissioned into 14 Horse (Scinde Horse) in 1952. The professional competence of Second Lieutenant Vohra ensured his steady rise in ranks and he went on to command 4 Horse (Hodson’s Horse) during the 1971 war.

For his inspiring leadership and personal gallantry, Lt Col Raj Mohan Vohra was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra. The battle account reads:

“Lieutenant Colonel Raj Mohan Vohra was commanding 4 Horse in Shakargarh sector. His regiment spearheaded the advance capturing Bhairo Nath, Thakurdwara, Bari Lagwal, Chakra and Dehlra. Each of these positions was fortified with tanks, missiles and minefields. With complete disregard to personal safety, Lt Col Vohra moved well forward inspiring his squadrons. Lt Col Vohra, the Commandant, standing on the turret of his tank, often along with the frontline tank crews, greatly enthused his officers and men. Inspired by his personal example and courage, his regiment stood fast against repeated attacks by the enemy armour and destroyed 27 enemy tanks, the highest count during the entire war, with minimal losses to his regiment.”

Right from the capture of Bhairon Nath to Chakra-Dehlra, each enemy position fortified with tanks, all the three Squadron Commanders in 4 Horse — Majors Suraj Jit Chaudhary, Govind Singh and Kamal Nanda — led their squadrons boldly and earned Vir Chakra for the regiment.

Incidentally, Hanut Singh and Raj Vohra passed out together from IMA in 1952. Both rose to the rank of Lieutenant General

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