Battles that made History
Sub Title : Battle honours of the Indian Army-19 The Battle of ASAL Uttar ; a fitting response
Issues Details : Vol 14 Issue 2 May – Jun 2020
Author : Maj Gen Harvijay Singh, SM (Retd)
Page No. : 70
Category : Regular Features
: June 1, 2020
Battle honours, are awarded as recognition and to record a unit’s active participation in battle against a formed and armed enemy. Units eligible to be awarded such honours are those whose purpose is to close with and defeat, neutralize, or destroy the enemy.
Pakistani President Ayub Khan boasted that obsolete Indian Sherman and Centurion tanks would be no match for Pakistan’s state-ofthe-art American Patton tanks, and, dreamt of a blitzkrieg that would take his forces to Delhi. His dream was however shattered, and Asal Uttar in Punjab became a graveyard of the Pattons. The foolhardy plans had failed to consider the inspiring leadership, tactical acumen, superior training, bravery and resourcefulness exhibited by the outgunned Indian Army.
Many would imagine ‘Asal Uttar’ to be a rhetorical phrase coined to describe the win. But Asal Uttar befittingly, was the name of the village where the extraordinary tank battle was fought.
In reply to the Pak aggression in Jammu and Kashmir in 1965, India launched a limited offensive with 11 Corps in Lahore Sector (Ravi-Sutlej Corridor) and 1 Corps in Sialkot Sector. In the Lahore Sector, Pak defences were based on the Ichhogil canal and it was appreciated that advance upto and capture of the east bank was possible.
Counterattack if any was expected in the Khem Karan Sector (located in the Southern part of the Ravi-Sutlej Corridor).
As a part of the 11 Corps offensive, 4 Mountain Division was tasked to capture areas east of the Ichhogil canal from Ballanwala to Theh Pannun North East of Kasur and destroy the bridge on Ichhogil on the Khemkaran – Kasur axis. The Division achieved early success on 6 Sep to which Pakistan reacted aggressively with armour, and, it was decided to fall back and occupy a defended sector north of Khem Karan to cover axes Khem Karan – Patti and Khem Karan – Bhikiwind in the general area of Asal Uttar – Bhura Kohna – Chima Khurd.
Pak Army plans involved an audacious breakout along axis Kasur – Khem Karan with 1 Armoured Division to encircle 11 Corps by capturing bridges at Harike (On road Moga – Amritsar) and Beas (On GT Road between Jalandhar and Amritsar). Then, destroy 11 Corps at will and set out for Delhi: audacious but foolhardy!
Two brigades of 11 Infantry Division with 5 Armoured Brigade would establish bridgehead in area Mastgarh-Bhura Kohna and 1 Armoured Division would break out with:]
- 3 Armoured Brigade of two armoured regiments and an infantry battalion in armoured personnel carriers astride Kasur Branch, capture Jandiala Guru on the GT road, cutting off Amritsar from the east.
- 4 Armoured Brigade of two armoured regiments and a motorised infantry battalion to advance along Kasur- Khem Karan- Valtoha -Nabipur (near Harike bridge) axis, and capture Beas town on GT road and cut off 11 Corps. On the way secure Harike bridge over the Beas river.
- 5 Armoured Brigade of one armoured regiment and an infantry battalion in armoured personnel carriers to assist 11 Infantry Division in establishing the bridge head, then advance on Khem Karan-Bhikhiwind axis to protect the left flank and isolate 7 Infantry Division.
They named their Operation ‘Mailed Fist’.
The terrain is flat with canals and nalas running in general direction North East to South East. Thrust lines were matched to grain of the country and no bridging effort was anticipated. The attackers planned to reach Harike bridge by 8 Sep andv Beas Bridge by the evening of 9 Sep. The enemy however failed to anticipate that; the area consists of well-irrigated plains which could easily be flooded by breaching irrigation canals making tank movement extremely difficult. The fields were full of tall sugar cane and other crops which offered excellent cover to the defender’s tank hunting teams.Military ‘Art of War’ demands a fair appreciation of the ground; the Pak commanders were perhaps obsessively overconfident of their machines to waste time and effort on such matters.
The Pak offensive began on 6 Sep, India’s 4 Mountain Division units fell back to Khem Karan. The belligerent Pakistanis hit their first roadblock in their own territory at the non-descript Rohi Nala. Failure to recce suitable crossings and some accurate artillery fire by Indian Army delayed the thrust.
Three armoured regiments with
- 45 American M4 Sherman Tanks.
- 45 light French AMX-13 Tanks.
- 45 British-built Centurion Tanks.
The Shermans and AMX-13s had 75mm main guns.
Six armoured regiments with
- 300 American M47 Patton Tanks
- A few M24 Chaffee Tanks.
The modern 46-ton Patton with its 90mm main gun outranged the Indian tanks. 100mm steel armour plating kept the Patton safe except at close range.
Indian tanks were outgunned and outnumbered by a large margin
Failure by Pak Armour to attack on 7 Sep gave 4 Mountain Division time to establish well prepared and coordinated defences by the morning of 8 Sep at Asal Uttar, the centre of gravity of a ‘fitting response’.
Deccan Horse the integral regiment of 4 Mountain Division less a squadron was deployed to deal with Pakistani tank assaults. The third squadron was protecting gun areas immediately behind the defended sector where one field regiment (25 Pounders), one medium regiment (5.5 inch guns), one light regiment (120 mm mortars) and two mountain composite regiments (3.7 inch howitzers) were deployed.
2 (Independent) Armoured Brigade, the Corps Reserve was placed in support, its 3 Cavalry deployed behind, covering the area Chima- Dibbipura while 8 Cavalry, the second regiment, was deployed on the flanks forming a horseshoe to ambush the Pakistani tanks.
On 8 Sep, Pakistan carried out Recce in Force with a combat group consisting of two squadrons of Chaffee (light) tanks, a squadron of Pattons and some motorised infantry. The squadron of Deccan Horse concealed in tall sugar cane waited in anticipation. A fierce tank battle ensued, and the enemy withdrew with 11 tanks lost; struck down with sniper like precision. Minor skirmishes continued throughout the day with little success for the enemy. The attack continued into the night and atleast five assaults were beaten back by the valiant 18 Rajputana Rifles supported by accurate Artillery fire including guns cleverly concealed in the sugar cane fields firing in the ‘direct fire’ role.
Major General Gurbaksh Singh, General Officer Commanding 4 Mountain Division ordered 2 (Independent) Armoured Brigade to deal with the Pakistani tanks which would try to bypass the defended sector by making outflanking movements. Indian tanks were cleverly sited behind tall sugarcane. Commander 2 Independent Armoured Brigade, Brig Theograj, issued strict instructions to his tank crews to wait until the Pakistani tanks had approached quite close to their hull-down positions before opening fire; the adage ‘shoot them when you see the white of their eyes’ describes the situation well.
On 9 Sep, Pakistan Air Force and Artillery tried to soften the defenders followed by tank assaults. Persistent attacks achieved no success and it was expected that having failed to overrun the defended sector, Pakistan would make a final effort to break out by making outflanking thrusts on 10 Sep.
On 10 Sep, the Pakistani armour and infantry attacked from the north which was repulsed after a fierce battle in which Havildar Abdul Hamid of 4 Grenadiers with his recoilless gun knocked out two Patton tanks and damaged one more. His gallantry was recognised by a posthumous award of the Param Vir Chakra.
By mid-day, the combat group which was attacking 4 Grenadiers was also trying to make a northern outflanking movement; a squadron of 3 Cavalry lay in wait. As the Pakistani tanks appeared, they were hit by well camouflaged tanks which took the Pakistani combat group by complete surprise. The tanks of Deccan Horse also fired on Pakistan’s tanks from the flank as they were heading east. The Pakistani combat group was pulverized by this sledge and hammer beating.
Foiled in the northern hook, Major General Nasir the Divisional Commander tried a wider southern out-flanking move and sent 4 Armoured Brigade with 4 Cavalry in lead with a motorised infantry battalion following behind. The Centurion tanks of 3 Cavalry were ready and waiting. The Shermans of Deccan Horse also fired upon from the northern side. Some areas had also been cleverly flooded. The Pakistanis were channelized into the mouth of a semi-circle with Indian tanks firing from three directions. It was an ideal trap and to complement this, the divisional artillery was ready to bring down maximum concentration of fire into this area too. The Pakistani tanks became dead ducks and a better part of 4 Cavalry regiment was shot to pieces in a boldly planned and executed ambush of their Goliaths.
Major General Nasir, who had been watching the battle from his helicopter came down and moved forward on Khem Karan-Bhikhiwind road to push his troops into a lastditch effort. He spoke to the Brigade Commander and the Commanding Officer of 4 Cavalry to bash on regardless. His radio signals were intercepted and at 6 PM General Nasir and his reconnaissance group came under heavy artillery fire in which Brigadier Shammi, the artillery commander was killed and General Nasir wounded; the Mailed Fist was crushed.
In the battle lasting 8 to 10 Sep, the pride of Pakistan’s army, their armoured division was humbled. Pakistan lost 97 tanks including 72 Pattons. Indian losses were 10 tanks of Deccan Horse and only two of 3 Cavalry. Lieutenant Colonels AS Vaidya and Salim Calib, the gallant Commanding Officers of Deccan Horse and 3 Cavalry were decorated with the Maha Vir Chakra and so were Major General Garbaksh Singh and Brigadier Theogaraj.
The 2 (I) Armoured Brigade had defeated a superior but clumsy opponent in the largest tank battle fought since the Second World War.
At the end of war, about 100 destroyed or damaged Pakistani tanks were collected at a place which was named ‘Patton Nagar’ (near Bhikhiwind). These tanks are now displayed as war trophies in various military cantonments.
Foreign military attaches were invited to the display. The Americans were shocked at the destruction of so many new Pattons and the British delighted at the performance of the Centurions. The Germ`an military attaché remarked that the ‘’Pakistani army’s plan had been bold, but perhaps only the German army could execute such a plan’’