Tank Battle at Chawinda - I

on one of the greatest armoured clashes in history, which took place in 1965

Tank Battle at Chawinda - I
On the previous anniversary of the 1965 War, I had written on the tank battle at Asal Utar where Pakistan’s offensive spearheaded by elements of the armoured division, stalled within kilometres of the border at Khem Karan. The article, which is available in the online archives of The Friday Times, covered the events leading up to a full-scale war including the Rann of Kutch skirmish, as well as Operations GIBRALTAR and GRANDSLAM. I also traced the evolution of Pakistan’s Armoured Corps, which, by the 1965 War, was not only larger and better equipped than its counterpart in India, it was also better organized.

This article is about the armour battle in the Sialkot Sector in which the Pakistan Armoured Corps redeemed its honour.

The first consignment of Pattons, the M47s had been issued to 1st Armoured Division on its raising. The consignments of M48s, that arrived in the early 1960s, were provided to the regiments of the 100th Armoured Brigade that had been raised at Nowshera. In 1964, the brigade was re-designated as 6th Armoured Division under the command of Major General Abrar Hussain. He was commissioned into the Baloch Regiment and had been a prisoner of war with the Japanese for 3 years. He refused to join the rebel Indian National Army (INA) of Subhas Chandra Bose and was awarded for his exemplary conduct. The Pakistan Army could not have chosen a more resilient commander to lead the division during the coming conflict.

At the advent of the war, 6th Armoured Division was under the command of I Corps and located north of Gujranwala. It had been structured as a light armoured division but with the redeployment of 11th Cavalry and 13th Lancers to the Chambb Sector, it was now just an armoured brigade with two tank regiments; 22nd Cavalry with three squadrons of M48s and the Guides with two squadrons of M48s and one of M36B2s. It also had a motorized infantry battalion, a self-propelled artillery regiment and an engineer battalion.

Sialkot Sector was defended by 15 Division. It had a brigade ahead of Sialkot that was being screened by the corps reconnaissance regiment of light tanks, while another infantry brigade with a Sherman regiment was in reserve behind the city. 25th Cavalry with 24th Brigade covered the Pasrur axis and another brigade with a Sherman regiment covered the approach over the Ravi at Jassar.

25th Cavalry ('Men of Steel') - in action at Gadgor on the 8th of September 1965 against the Centurion tanks of the Indian 1st Armoured Divi

When the Indians attacked the Jassar enclave on the morning of 6th September, it created an alarm in the local brigade HQs that infected the HQs of 15 Division. The division HQ assessed it to be a prelude of a major attack that could reach the GT Road through its flank and 25th Cavalry with an infantry battalion were sent for a counterattack on the night of 7/8 September. The Corps chipped in by redeploying a complete artillery brigade. It was an absolute blunder that left Chawinda-Phillaura badly exposed.

The previous commander of 15th Division had been Major General Yahya Khan and he had correctly predicted that Chawinda-Phillaura was the critical space where the battle for the Sialkot Sector would be decided. Fortunately, 25th Cavalry were ordered to return just when the leading elements had reached Narowal. It was just in time because early next morning the Indians launched Operation NEPAL, a corps offensive in the Ravi-Chenab Corridor spearheaded by their Black Elephant Division.

Insignia of the Indian 1st Armoured Division displayed on the rear of a captured Centurion tank

The Indian 1st Armoured Division had a Second World War organisation of an armoured and motorised brigade whose units were cross-grouped for the offensive. With only two brigade headquarters, it had a serious problem of articulation of command and the reserve of a tank regiment and a motorized battalion were controlled directly by the division HQs. The regiments of the armoured brigade group and the division reserve were equipped with Centurion Mk7s with a 20-pounder gun that had a smaller calibre than the 90mm of the M47/48s, but fired the APDS ammunition. The Centurion had better armour, but compared to the M48 it was 7 tons heavier and with a weaker engine – resulting in a maximum speed of only 33 km/h compared to 50 km/h of the M47/48.

At first light on 8 September, the armoured division advanced on the west of Deg Nallah on two axes. Its armoured brigade headed towards Chawinda and the lorried brigade further west, on an obscure route that led towards Phagowal. The tanks of the lorried brigade bogged even before they crossed the international border and its two armoured regiments became entangled.
The CO of 25th Cavalry, ‘Kaka’ Nisar, had the admirable quality of moving towards the sound of guns and was with the forward squadrons all the time

Nevertheless, progress was faster than anticipated because the surprise achieved was near total and opposition was minimal. The reconnaissance regiment of 1 Corps had been wasted covering the Sialkot axis where the Indians penetrated only 3-4 km in 15 days of fighting. It ought to have covered the expected direction of advance of the Indian main thrust to give early warning, and impose a delay. It had been a wild ride of 65 km at night to Narowal and back and 25th Cavalry was refuelling at Pasrur at dawn when it was ordered to block the Indian offensive.

The subsequent action is what legends are made of, and its defence of Phillaurah is a shining star in the history of the army and the armoured corps.

All three squadrons fanned out and the central one commanded by Muhammad Ahmed struck the two leading squadrons of 16th Light Cavalry forcing them to recoil. The regiment had already been shaken in an engagement with a platoon of anti-tank recoilless guns of 13th Frontier Force. Ahmed destroyed five Indian tanks but was seriously injured and subsequently awarded a Sitara-e-Jurat. A manoeuvre by the third squadron of 16th Cavalry stalled when it lost four Centurions and its squadron commander was badly injured. A timely air strike by F-86 Sabres, guided by an L-19, destroyed more Indian tanks. To the east of 16th Cavalry, Poona Horse which was to advance in parallel made a bad start when one of its tanks overran the command truck of the regiment. It lost its first tank when it ran into an infantry company, and a second when it was finally blocked by a squadron of 25th Cavalry along the line of the villages of Tharoh and Dugri – and this was after its higher HQ had ordered speeding up of the advance as no enemy opposition was expected!
“The action by 25th Cavalry on 9th September 1965 is what legends are made of, and its defence of Phillaurah is a shining star in the history of the army and the armoured corps”

The CO of 25th Cavalry, ‘Kaka’ Nisar, had the admirable quality of moving towards the sound of guns and was with the forward squadrons all the time. As the situation stabilized on his right flank, he launched the squadron of ‘Ginger’ Raza from the left towards Gadgor. When the CO of 16th Light Cavalry called upon his reserve squadron, he found it was miles behind, following the wrong regiment. The division came to the rescue by releasing a squadron of Hodson’s Horse. During the afternoon while there was desultory fighting in front of the other squadrons, ‘Ginger’ Raza collected an infantry company and launched a second attack which captured Gadgor. Though wounded in the head, he remained with the squadron until the area was secured and was awarded a Sitara-e-Jurat. The attack struck the unfortunate 16th Cavalry as it was withdrawing to laager for the night. In the resulting confusion, it abandoned a number of tanks, two with their engines running.

By the evening the offensive by the armoured division came to a grinding halt due to a combination of factors: of which the aggressive action by 25th Cavalry was just one, albeit the most important, because it convinced the Indians that they were up against much stronger opposition.

The F-86 Sabres of the Pakistan Air Force, which had been very active the whole day and destroyed many vehicles, caused a virtual breakdown of administrative support. The armoured division decided to take two days in reorganising and replenishing. This provided a critical respite to the defenders who till now were still unaware that they were facing the core of the Indian armoured division and regiments who were amongst the cream of the Indian cavalry: Hodson’s Horse, Poona Horse, and 16th Light Cavalry – all equipped with Centurion tanks.  n

(to be continued)