Tank Battle at Khem Karan

Major General Syed Ali Hamid revisits some of Pakistan’s critical armoured clashes with Indian forces in 1965

Tank Battle at Khem Karan
“One of the greatest ironies of the 1965 War is the unjust criticism heaped on 1 Armoured Division after the War. The bitter truth of the 1965 War is that 1 Armoured Division was never fully employed either at Khem Karan or at Sialkot.”

(from History of the Indo-Pak War – 1965 by Lt. Gen. Mahmud Ahmed)

In our memory of the 1965 war, the names of two places standout – Asal Uttar/Khem Karan and Chawinda. Both are associated with tank battles fought by the Pakistan Army; the first a failure but the second a great success.

The failure of the counteroffensive launched from the area of Khem Karan was primarily due to the manner in which the armoured division was employed and the area selected for the offensive by the highest levels of command.

On the other hand, the success of the defensive battle at Chawinda was largely a result of the resilience of commanders and the determination of tank crews, as well as the excellent support provided by the artillery and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF).

Brig. Anthony (Tony) Lumb commanded the 4th Armoured Brigade at Khem Karan, 1965

Both battles were fought very differently by the two adversaries. In order for the reader to understand why the first succeeded and the second failed, I neeed to take us back in time to how the Pakistan Army grew after Independence and how its operational thinking developed.

Compared to India, the army that Pakistan inherited at Independence was badly fractured and poorly equipped. To support the Burma Theatre during the Second World War, the British had established the bulk of their training bases and logistical infrastructure in areas that formed part of post-Independence India. All of this went to independent India’s armed forces. Moreover, compared to the Indians, our leadership was inexperienced. Iftikhar Khan, who was being groomed as the first Pakistani Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C), was promoted from a lieutenant colonel to major general within two years after Independence. Consequently, in 1965, Indian commanders at the division level and above had some 8-9 years more service and experience than their counterparts in Pakistan.

Column of M47 Pattons with .50 anti-aircraft machineguns at the ready, Khem Karan Sector

The shortage of experienced officers was particularly pronounced in the armoured corps and until well past the 1965 war, the premier armoured formations of the Pakistan Army were mainly commanded by officers from the infantry – only a few of whom had any idea of the training and employment of armour.

Within our share of six armoured regiments, only three were equipped with Sherman tanks of Second World War vintage. The rest had light tanks and armoured cars. In 1952, when the Americans allowed us to purchase 352 up-gunned and refurbished Shermans and 75 M-36 Tank Destroyers at seven percent of their value, the Pakistan Armoured Corps became an all-tracked force. However, what gave us a big lead over the Indians in quality and quantity were 500 M-47/48 Pattons and 110 M-24 light reconnaissance tanks that were supplied through a US Military Assistance Program (MAP) during the 1950s and into the early 1960s. With this equipment, the armoured corps tripled in size to 18 regiments, of which 10 were equipped with Pattons. In comparison, the Indians had 16 regiments, of which only 4 were equipped with British Centurion tanks that could match the M-47/48s and the rest were mainly WW2-era Shermans. The Pakistani regiments were grouped into one heavy and one light armoured division and there were a number of regiments of Shermans supporting the infantry divisions. The artillery had done even better, with a fivefold increase from eight regiments at Independence to a staggering 41 by 1959.
Division commanders were hard pressed to find troops to defend their large frontages and though the army had devised a New Concept of Defense to address this, there were strong reservations on its viability and it did not survive the first shots of the 1965 war

There were two major weaknesses faced by our army that would have a significant impact in the 1965 war, particularly in the offensive at Khem Karan. Pakistan did not have the finances to add an additional corps headquarters to the one funded by the US and therefore, faced a serious problem in the control of the two armoured (including one light) and five infantry divisions facing the Indians in West Pakistan. The equipment and firepower of the infantry divisions improved substantially under the MAP but the number remained the same because the Americans were not willing to equip more – and again Pakistan ostensibly did not have the money. Division commanders were hard pressed to find troops to defend their large frontages and though the army had devised a New Concept of Defense to address this problem, there were strong reservations on its viability and it did not survive the first shots of the 1965 war.

The opening shots of the conflict were fired far south in the Rann of Kutch in March 1965. In a border clash, a regular infantry division of the Pakistan Army, supported by a regiment of new M-48s, put to flight what were primarily Indian border troops. Pakistan claimed a victory and erroneously decided that the Indians did not have the will to fight. This strengthened the hands of the hawks within the government and the army who conceived a plan for liberating Kashmir. The purpose of this article is not to trace the entire conduct of the war and it is sufficient to say that Operation GIBRALTAR, the plan conceived for launching raiders into Kashmir in August 1965, ended up as an unmitigated disaster. To retrieve the situation, the Pakistan Army launched Operation GRANDSLAM to capture Akhnur and sever the main Indian Line of Communication to Kashmir. The offensive was only a partial success and it not only sucked in 7th Division, which had been earmarked to support the 1st Armoured Division, it also led to an all-out war.

A .50 Brwning quad deployed in sugarcane fields around Khem Karan, 1965

Within a day of the Indian attack in the Lahore sector, the Pakistan Army launched a counter-offensive opposite Khem Karan with the 1st Armoured Division and 11th Infantry Division.

1st Armored Division was a heavy formation with three armoured brigades, an artillery brigade of self-propelled artillery and six combat and service support battalions. It was a well-trained formation which four years earlier had been tested during Exercise TEZGAM, when it advanced 180 km in an area north of Sargodha. Following TEZGAM, the optimists were of the opinion that the division could penetrate even further during a war. Since the Rann of Kutch incident, the armoured division had moved to Changa Manga Reserve Forest close its operational area and along with 7th Infantry Division carried out detailed planning and coordination as well as extensive border reconnaissance for a counteroffensive. The preferred option was the area of Fazilka where the terrain was suitable for tanks and lightly held by the Indian Army. However, when 7th Division was sent to Chhamb, GHQ made a last minute decision to group 11th Infantry Division with the armoured division and launch a counter-offensive from opposite Kasur. The armoured division was so unprepared for adopting this direction that as late as the 6th of September it did not have any maps of the area. The history of the Second World War is replete with examples where formations responded rapidly and efficiently to changes of mission and direction, but the Pakistan Army was not a battle-hardened force.

Lt Col Sahib Zad Gul of the 6th Lancers is considered one of the finest armoured regiment commanders during the 1965 War. He fell in battle while commanding his troops and was awarded the Sitara-e-Jurat

The area chosen for the counter-offensive was like a funnel with Khem Karan at the nozzle end. It was a poor selection. The funnel severely restricted the space for the armour to fan out and develop multiple axes to penetrate deep into the rear of the Indian defenses. The area was extensively irrigated and subsequently parts were flooded by the tanks breaking the banks of distributaries. In September it was heavily cultivated with sugarcane, which gave the Indian tanks and antitank weapons excellent cover to engage the large M-47s that the Pakistani armoured division was equipped with. Like most US tanks, the M-47s were fuel-guzzlers that were showing their age. They had been discarded by the Americans 10 years ago and had been extensively operated by our 1st Armoured Division in field exercises.

Headquarters of I Corps was controlling the battle in the area of Sialkot/ Chawinda and with no other corps headquarters, GHQ gave the overall responsibility of the counter-offensive to 11th Infantry Division. To add to its burden, 5th Armoured Brigade of the armored division was place under its command and the overall mission was to capture the line of Bhikiwind-Patti, 40 kilometres away. 5th Armoured Brigade, commanded by Bashir Ahmed, was a light brigade with only 24th Cavalry (which had cut its teeth in the Kutch operations with its Pattons) and 1st Frontier Force Battalion. The brigade was reinforced with 6th Lancers, an M-47 regiment and a reconnaissance squadron from 15th Lancers.

It was too much to expect of an infantry division that had been cobbled together as late as May 1965 with two under-strength brigades to defend the area south of Lahore. The situation was, on the whole, a recipe for disaster. The final straw was that no formation was assigned or took the responsibility of organizing the movement of a mass of vehicles – tanks, armoured personnel carriers, trucks, jeeps, etc. – from their assembly areas near Raiwind into the bridgehead. The only formation that had the resources to establish a traffic and crossing control organization was the armoured division which shed all responsibility for the operations of its armoured brigade. If a corps headquarters had been overseeing the operation, it would have tasked the armoured division from the outset.

The end result was a horrendous snarl-up, more on which later.

The bridge that the engineers constructed over the BRB Canal was delayed primarily because many of the vehicles carrying essential components of the bridge were caught in the snarl-up. 6th Lancers finally got the go-ahead to cross but its leading tank fell off the bridge – killing the the squadron commander – and all movement stalled. When the bridge was finally declared safe, the regiment pushed across but was held up just a kilometer ahead by the Rohi Nullah which had steep banks. The leading tank stalled and had to be towed as well as the rest. The presence of this nullah was unknown because there had been no time for reconnaissance which would have also revealed the presence of an excellent crossing site just a kilometre downstream. By now it was bright daylight and the congestion of a variety of vehicles attempting to get across presented a very lucrative target for the Indian Air Force (IAF). Three Mystère aircraft made a low pass but they were received by a hail of fire from heavy and medium machineguns and one was shot down. Thereafter, the IAF kept well away.

On the night of the 6th of September, the 2nd Frontier Force Battalion had created a lodgment a mile in length and breadth. It was no small achievement for a single infantry battalion, but nowhere close to the size required to achieve a bridgehead for an armoured brigade. This lodgment was very vulnerable and to improve the perimetre of security, it was decided to conduct a raid in the direction of Khem Karan. This raid, which began at 3 pm, was carried out by a company of 1st Frontier Force, a rifle troop of 15th Lancers and the first six tanks of 6th Lancers which had ultimately managed to cross the Rohi Nullah. Both the commanding officers accompanied the raid. It struck a troop of 9th Deccan Horse and two Indian companies that were being extricated from a position that they had been holding astride the main Kasur - Khem Karan axis. Two Indian tanks were destroyed and there are conflicting accounts to the casualties suffered by the Indian infantry.

5th Armoured Brigade was to breakout by 6 am on the morning of 7th September but with successive delays at the bridging site, the congestion of tanks and vehicles and heavy Indian shelling, at last light the leading elements were just two kilometres ahead of the customs post at Khem Karan. Ultimately, the brigade broke out a day later on the 8th of September on two axes. The M47s of 6th Lancers under their indomitable commanding officer Sahib Zad Gul made good progress on the right towards Valtoha and advanced about 10 kilometres. 24th Cavalry led by Ali Imam only arrived in the bridgehead on the morning of the breakout and, advancing on the left, met stiffer opposition from the Shermans of 9th Deccan Horse, the only Indian armoured regiment in the area.

By the afternoon, 24th Cavalry was hammering the western flank of the Indian 4th Mountain Division at Asal Uttar and a maneuver by two squadrons forced the 1/9th Gurkha Battalion to abandon its defenses in panic. Unfortunately, there was no infantry to occupy the captured area when the armoured regiments pulled back at night for an urgently needed replenishment. The success achieved by a hard day of fighting was lost and the environment had changed for the worst by the time the brigade resumed a delayed advance in the afternoon of the 9th of September. The defenses of 4th Mountain Division at Asal Uttar had been reinforced by 3rd Cavalry with its Centurion Mk7s along with the headquarters of the 2nd Armoured Brigade.

The 9th of September was also the day when the leading elements of 4th Armoured Brigade – which was commanded by Brig. Tony Lumb – started crawling into the bridgehead. The previous night, GHQ had decided to induct the armoured division with an open-ended mission to “overrun maximum enemy territory.” The vehicle congestion was still chaotic and from the bridge at Rohi Nullah it stretched three kilometres back to Kasur. The two armoured brigades were now compressed into a small area and controlled by different headquarters which violated the basic principle of unity of command. 5th Armored Brigade was operating astride the main road from Khem Karan and in the afternoon, 4th Armoured Brigade launched a wider maneuver from the west with two battle groups. The gains by the two brigades to skirt the Indian defenses at Asal Uttar were unspectacular, however: on the right the leading squadron of 6th Lancers managed to penetrate all the way till Valtoha and practically bypassed the Indian defenses at Asal Uttar.

To quote Napoleon, “There is a moment in every battle at which the least maneuver is decisive and gives superiority, as one drop of water causes overflow.”

This was possibly that moment, but neither the division nor the brigade made an effort to capitalize on this window of opportunity. Unfortunately, the commanding officer of 6th Lancers was martyred and with no orders being received, the tanks of 6th Lancers struggled back through the night. In three days of operations the armour had penetrated only 10 kilometres.

On the night of 9/10 September, 5th Armored Brigade finally reverted to the armoured division. Next morning the division launched a two-pronged advance which did not differ much from the previous day. However 4th Armoured Brigade swung even wider with 4th Cavalry to outflank the enemy and cut the road to Bhikiwind at Milestone 32. The Indian 2nd Armoured Brigade was well prepared for this thrust around its western flank and kept observing and engaging 4th Cavalry as it battled forward.

Having determined the direction of the thrust of 4th Cavalry, around midday the Indians deployed two squadrons of Centurions of 3rd Cavalry in an arc  ahead of Milestone 32 and backed them up with a Sherman squadron of Deccan Horse. The Indians held their fire until the tanks of 4th Cavalry were within killing range. In spite of taking more casualties and tanks being bogged, 4th Cavalry pushed forward and by sunset was within two kilometers of the elusive Milestone 32, but there “like a spent and bruised athlete it collapsed altogether.” Barely 10 tanks managed to reach the finish line, of which only six were fit to fight, three were bogged in a nearby field and the fourth had run out of fuel. The unit’s vehicles with fuel and ammunition had arrived in the brigade headquarters, but an unexpected withdrawal by some troops of another battle group created a panic and many vehicles rushed back to Rohi Nullah. During the night, a number of crews of 4th Cavalry abandoned their tanks and quite a few were taken prisoner. The regiment lost all but seven of its tanks – some destroyed, the rest bogged all along the route it had taken.

4th Cavalry cannot be faulted for lacking determination and was one of the few in the armoured division that arrived anywhere close to the assigned objective, albeit at a huge cost.

Like all the previous days, 5th Armoured Brigade made a late start. Its vehicles of fuel and ammunition used to get late coming forward and the regiment could only resume operations by midday. With 6th Lancers down to 21 tanks, the brunt of operations fell on 24th Cavalry, which was launched with three infantry companies to capture Asal Uttar and exploit up to Chima. The objective was the core of the defense of the Indian 4th Mountain Division, and the first attack was checked on the fringes by tanks and recoilless rifles.

Major Samiuddin, who was one of the squadron commanders, recollects that a cloud of dust raised by the intense artillery fire enveloped the combat zone, making it difficult for the tank crews to acquire targets. All that was visible were the barrels of the tanks’ guns and the flashes of their fire. A second attack was aborted when the brigade commander was ambushed.  His absence, coupled with a panic created by the return of some tanks which had been sent for his rescue, left the brigade in disarray. In a repeat of what had occurred with the other armoured brigade, a large number of vehicles including those of the headquarters of 5th Armored Brigade also rushed back towards the bridge over the Rohi Nullah.

The operations of the armoured division on the 10th of September were its swan song. A crisis had emerged in the Ravi-Chenab Corridor and the armoured division was ordered to suspend operations in this sector and with 4th Armored Brigade move north post-haste. As the withdrawal commenced, the Indians launched a number of attacks to recover lost ground. However, they seriously underestimated the strength of Pakistani forces. In the first attack on the 12th of September by an infantry brigade supported by a squadron, the large portion of a Sikh battalion attacking Khem Karan from the east was caught between the tanks of 6th and 15th Lancers and surrendered. Three companies of the Frontier Force supported by 24th Cavalry checked a second battalion attacking down the main road. Some Indian tanks managed to break through but Maj. Khadim Hussain who had brought up the supply echelons to replenish 24th Cavalry chanced upon an anti-tank recoilless rifle whose crew had been killed. Assisted by a Naik of 5th Frontier Force, he destroyed one tank at 500 meters and a second even closer but a third killed the officer and the Naik. The officer was awarded a posthumous Sitara-e-Jurat.

A few hours later, a third battalion supported by Shermans assaulted from the east of the main road and met strong fire from the defending companies of 5th Frontier Force. A squadron of M-24s from 12th Cavalry, commanded by Rafi Alam, was covering the right flank of the defenses and was ordered to support 5th Frontier Force. It swung west and as it reached the Khem Karan Distributary, it struck the flank of the Indian armour, destroyed two tanks and forced the others to withdraw. Rafi Alam was also awarded a Sitara-e-Jurat.

It seemed that the armoured corps was more adept at fighting a defensive battle and its subsequent performance at Chawinda restored its prestige.

One of the more famous maxims of Clausewitz, the father of modern military thinking is: “Errors of conception cannot be rectified on the field of battle.”

What this means is that it is very difficult for formations and units to compensate for serious errors in a plan and achieve their mission. There are no shortcuts to success, especially in war. That is exactly what the topmost leadership attempted to do. And so, unfortunately, GHQ laid the blame for the failure of the counteroffensive on 1st Armored Division.