Battles that Made History

Sub Title : Battle honours of the Indian Army-20 The Battle of Philora; Steely Guts and Glory

Issues Details : Vol 14 Issue 3 Jul – Aug 2020

Author : Maj Gen Harvijay Singh, SM (Retd)

Page No. : 70

Category : Regular Features

: July 28, 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.

The Battle of Phillora was one of the largest tank battles fought during the Indo-Pak War of 1965. It was the first major engagement between the two nations in the Sialkot sector and coincided with the Battle of Asal Uttar in Punjab. The battle started on 10 Sep, when India launched a massive assault with 1 Armoured Division (four armoured regiments, 45 X 4 = 180 Tanks) supported by a Lorried Infantry Brigade North of River Ravi in the Shakargarh Bulge. Pakistan’s 6 Armoured Division and 15 Infantry Division contested the Indian thrust at every stage.

The Shankargarh bulge juts out like a tongue from Pakistan into India between the Chenab and Ravi rivers. It is also known as the Sialkot Sector. On the Indian side, the highway and railway to Jammu and Kashmir run close to the border. The bulge offers Pakistan an advantage of striking Jammu towards the North and Amritsar towards the South. It also permits them to cut off vital lines of communications between betweenKathua and Jammu by advancing only a few kilometres. India has to have an offensive strategy in this sector to discourage any misadventure by Pakistan. The area of the bulge has no major water obstacles and is suitable for manoeuvre warfare; the defenders of the bulge would perforce have to construct numerous anti-tank obstacles. With mountain ranges running close and parallel to the border on the Indian side, there is very limited space for a large force to assemble quietly and retain surprise.

1 Armoured Division quickly concentrated in the area of Ramgarh to the west of Sambha and North of the DeghiNala on the night of 6/7 Sep. The initial objective of the formation was to capture Phillora, this would give them an option to extend the operations deeper into Pakistan. Two Self Propelled and One Medium Regiment of Artillery placed in Direct Support of the attack.

In his appreciation, the enemy anticipated the attack to come from either the Zafarwal – Phillora or Chobra – Phillora axis and had prepared his defences accordingly. General Officer Commanding of 1 Armoured Division, Maj Gen Rajinder Singh Sparrow of Zojilafame  instead chose a more direct and difficult cross country route full of paddy and sugar cane fields with an intention to surprise the enemy; the plan was supported by a well-coordinated deception. The deception involved creating a concentration in general area of Sabzpur strengthening the enemy’s belief that the assault will follow the Chobra – Phillora axis.

For its main assault, the Division concentrated in Gen Area Kalol – Rurki Kalan under the cover of tall sugarcane fields and by first light of 11 Sep, 4 HORSE had advanced beyond the village of Rurki Kalan with 17 HORSE taking the right flank. The aim was to encircle Phillora from both the directions in a pincer movement. The enemy was to be split into smaller groups and destroyed piecemeal. The frontage of advance was very narrow, being approximately 2000 yards per Regiment and the move had to be with one squadron up. 16 CAVALRY established a road block in area Kakhanwali to prevent any enemy interference from that direction (they were to play a crucial role in the capture of Phillora destroying many tanks of Pakistan’s 10 Cavalry attempting to link up with the Phillora defences) and 62 CAVALRY moved to area Bhagowal cross roads to protect the western flank of the division.

4 HORSE captured Rurki Kalan and commenced encirclement of Phillora. It eliminated all opposition claiming 29 tanks against only one of their own; surprise had indeed been achieved. Major Bhupinder Singh, B Squadron Commander, displayed exemplary courage and was successful in cutting off the retreating enemy along Gadgor-Phillora road; piecemeal dissemination of the enemy had begun. Later he was seriously injured and breathed his last in Army Hospital, New Delhi. While Major Bhupinder Singh was admitted in the hospital with severe burns, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri visited the hospital. Bhupinder expressed his regret for not being able to stand and salute him. The Prime Minister was moved and quoted this many times. He was posthumously awarded the MahaVir Chakra (MVC).

At first light on 11 Sep, in the wake of an intense artillery bombardment, C Squadron started its advance as planned. Within minutes the enemy artillery opened up and troops were also subjected to enemy air attack. The squadron Commander, Major DesrajUrs was hit by a shrapnel in the eye, but he refused to be evacuated, and gallantly led his squadron till Rurki Kalan was captured. He was evacuated thereafter, and the command of ‘C’ Squadron fell on the young shoulders of 2/Lt AK Nehra. Up to this point enemy resistance was minimal, as the enemy had fled in front of our advance. However, Rurki Kalan remained a thorn on our side for quite a few days. We found several days later that the enemy had a well-developed under ground trench system and shelters for Mujahids, stay-behind parties and artillery OPs, and they were well stocked with ammunition and rations for a prolonged stay. These parties proved to be of considerable nuisance value to vehicles and to the follow-up infantry, especially at night.  – Lt Col (Later Brig MMS Bakshi, CO 4 HORSE, awarded MVC during the Battle of Phillora)

17 HORSE was tasked to attack Phillora. Charlie Squadron acting as the vanguard established a pivot in area Libbe to Khaknanwali to support the assault. The Regiment commenced advance at 0800 H and soon faced intense enemy fire from Libbe. Charlie Squadron handed over the firm base to Bravo Squadron and moved on towards Phillora. With cavalier dash, it occupied the high ground dominating Phillora from the North East. On the reverse slope, 400 yards away, were seven Patton tanks; both sides suffered a nasty surprise and a quick draw encounter took place. Two Patton tanks were destroyed, whilst the remainder withdrew to the built-up area towards Chawinda. Meanwhile 5/9 GORKHA Rifles, under covering fire provided by Charlie Squadron, proceeded to clear Phillora.

Major Ajai Singh, B Squadron Commander; (Later Lieutenant General) was soon facing a threat from the direction of Alhar; an intense tank to tank battle ensued. Lieutenant Colonel AB Tarapore, CO 17 HORSE led from the front under continuous enemy tank and artillery fire. While the attack by Charlie Squadron on Phillora was in progress, Bravo Squadron was moved to cover Phillora from the North West, and Alfa Squadron deployed to cover the Libbe approach. The enemy Pattons were outgunned and out manoeuvred by the skillful handling of 4 and 17 HORSE, he was soon defeated and the strong crust of Phillora lay shattered.

43 Brigade Lorried was launched to exploit the situation with two battalions up (5/9 GORKHA Rifles and 5 JAT). The objective including the crossroads was secured by 3.30 PM and the battle of Phillora won successfully. The Pakistani forces retreated and regrouped to put up a last stand at Chawinda. The continued thrust by the Indian Army into Pakistani territory finally culminated in the Battle of Chawinda, On 22 Sep when the cease fire was declared, India retained almost 518 square Kilometres of Pakistan territory in the Sialkot sector.

The battle was hard fought with over 400 tanks slugging it out in an area of 50 square kilometres. Five officers and 64 other ranks of the Indian Army laid down their lives. Among them was Lt Col A B Tarapore, who was awarded the Param Vir Chakra, the country’s highest award for gallantry. Excellent training, gunnery skills, manoeuvre and exceptional leadership had won the day.

“….6 Armoured Division ordered Guides (10 Cavalry) and 14 Frontier Force to mount an attack from Bhagowal-Bhureshah area against the right flank of the Indians aimed at area Libbe-Chahr at 1130 hours on 11 September. The aim of this attack was to relieve pressure on 11 Cavalry. The Guides had a severe firefight with 16 Light Cavalry (Indian) losing many tanks as well as destroying some enemy tanks but was unable to make any impression and the main Indian attack against 11 Cavalry holding Phillora proceeded smoothly. Phillora was captured by the Indians on 1530 hours on 11th September. 11 Cavalry fought well and lost so many tanks that from 11 September onwards it ceased to function as a complete tank Regiment.” – Major Agha Humayun Amin, Pak Historian

In the battle of Phillora, Maj Gen Rajinder Singh Sparrow transcended Rommel’s record of destroying 70 tanks in the famous battle of Knightsbridge as the troops under him destroyed as many as 67 enemy tanks in a single day. Losing only 6 tanks of their own, as against Rommel’s 30.

In a short spell of 15 days, the First Armoured Division destroyed 250 enemy tanks. In the later stages of battle, enemy tanks avoided confrontation and had to be sought out to be destroyed. Brigadier KK Singh, Commander 1 Armoured Brigade and General Rajinder Singh Sparrow were awarded the MahaVir Chakra, the second time (MahaVir Chakra and Bar) for Sparrow; then the first Indian Army Soldier to be so awarded.

All participating units were awarded the Battle Honour ‘Phillora’.