Tank Battle at Chawinda - II

Major General Syed Ali Hamid on one of the greatest armoured clashes in history, which took place in 1965

Tank Battle at Chawinda - II
After 25th Cavalry checked the Indian offensive on 8 September 1965, the 6th Armoured Division commanded by Major General Abrar Hussain was ordered to eliminate the enemy penetration. However, when an Operation Order found in a tank of 16th Cavalry revealed the presence of the Indian 1st Armoured Division, the mission was changed to defending the corridor between Aik Nallah and Deg Nadi.

General Abrar’s original plan was to hold Phillaurah in strength as a pivot but due to a suggested change, it was defended by a light force of 11th Cavalry (which was badly depleted after the operations in Chhamb and much exhausted after a long-move back), and 9th Frontier Force Battalion. 24th Brigade with 25th Cavalry was shifted back to hold the crossroad of Chawinda. The Guides commanded by Amir Gulistan Janjua covered the large gap between Chawinda and Sialkot on the left and the divisional reserves of 22nd Cavalry and 14th Frontier Force were sited behind at Narowal.

Both armoured regiments that opposed the Indian armoured division on the fateful day of 11 September belonged to the Piffers Group. Inset are the two commanding officers. L-R: Amir Gulistan Janjua, Guides Cavalry FF and Abdul Aziz, who was severely injured while leading 11th Cavalry FF in its defence of Phillaurah

The plan of Major General Rajinder Singh ‘Sparrow’ commanding the Black Elephant Division was based on the premise that he was already battling 6th Armoured Division. Since 25th Cavalry was operating with a mix of M47/M48 tanks, he concluded that there were two armoured regiments. More importantly he thought that the bulk of Pakistani armour was deployed further west between Gadgor and Chobara. In the renewed offensive on 11 September, his motorized (lorried) infantry brigade tried to fix elements of 6th Armoured Division in this area while his armoured brigade advanced with all three regiments in parallel to breakthrough towards Pasrur. The right regiment established a blocking position on the road to Sialkot and the other two attempted a double envelopment of Phillaurah.
“If the march of the Indian armoured division had not been checked on that fateful day of 11th Sep 1965, the Indians had a fair chance of reaching Pasrur, and the bloody battle around Chawinda need never have been fought by them” (History of the Pakistan Armoured Corps by Maj Gen Syed Ali Hamid)

The changeover at Phillaurah the previous night according to the revised plan of 6th Armoured Division was badly managed. In the absence of a brigade headquarter, the deployment of 11th Cavalry and 9th Frontier Force was uncoordinated with 24 Brigade and 25th Cavalry. Nevertheless, in the next few hours of intense combat, 11th Cavalry fought exceedingly well led by its battle-hardened CO, Abdul Aziz and his 2iC, Muzaffar Malik whose calm and firm orders over the wireless were a source of strength to the regiment. It had only 16 M48s and though its squadron of M36B2s was brought up to strength most were destroyed in the early stages of the coming engagement. However, it checked both Hodson’s Horse and Poona Horse destroying five Centurions in the process including those of both their COs. A manoeuvre by Poona Horse to outflank the regiment was also blocked.

Just when the Indian assault seemed to be wavering, disaster struck. An artillery shell injured both the commanding officer and second-in-command of 11th Cavalry and killed the CO of 1st Self-propelled Artillery Regiment that was so effectively providing fire support. In spite of this disaster and an obvious breakdown of command, by midday the remnants managed to extricate. In this fierce five hours, 11th Cavalry lost nine of its 11 M36B2s, and the other two squadrons lost seven M48s (out of 19) with another two damaged. Once again the Indians thought that they were facing a much larger force of two armoured regiments. They also thought they had overrun a brigade headquarters and the tactical headquarters the Armoured Division.

The two opposing commanders of the armoured divisions during the Battle of Chawinda in the 1965 war. L-R: Maj Gen Rajinder Singh Sparrow, commissioned into the 7th Light Cavalry in 1939 and Maj Gen Abrar Hussain, comissioned into Baloch Regiment in 1940

To release the pressure on Phillaurah, the Guides counterattacked with two squadrons of M48s from the line of the Sialkot-Narowal railway. Guides attacked within 45 minutes of being ordered but with no information on the strength or location of the Indian armour. All it knew was that the defences at Phillaurah were being overrun. One squadron headed for Chahr and after some serious fighting the objective was captured, but the squadron commander was seriously injured. So effective was a concentrated shoot by 1st Self Propelled Regiment that the Indians abandoned some of their tanks following. On the right, the squadron heading for Libbe unfortunately ran into tanks of Poona Horse that were heading for Phillaurah. While attempting a manoeuvre his squadron ZU Abbasi was martyred and soon after, his number two Hussain Shah the son of Colonel Pir Abdullah Shah also laid down his life.

With both the squadron commanders’ casualties, the momentum stalled, but the Fazle Haq, the 2iC and Shamim Manto took charge and pressed forward towards Bhagowal. Here they struck the Shermans of 62nd Cavalry which beat a retreat. The regiment lost six M48s but it engaged elements of three Indian regiments forcing two to withdraw. Unfortunately, by the time it attacked, Phillaurah had already fallen.

Maj Ziauddin Abbasi, Sitara-e-Jurat, who fell in battle while commanding a squadron of the Guides in an attack to relieve pressure on the defender of Phillaurah on 11 September 1965

Instead of rapidly exploiting the first major success it had achieved since crossing the international border, the Indian armoured division again paused for two days to re-plan and regroup. This enabled 6th Armoured Division to recover from the ill-conceived and ill-timed blunder of the relief at Phillaurah. It had been an expensive mistake. The Guides as well as 11th Cavalry were only left with a squadron of tanks each which were grouped under the Guides to protect the large frontage to the left of Chawinda. Alongside was 22nd Cavalry which was intact and 14th Frontier Force, a lorried battalion. These units were ultimately grouped under an adhoc HQ commanded by Wajahat Hussain who had arrived from Staff College.


24th Brigade and 25th Cavalry (which was down to two squadrons) was again pushed ahead to Chawinda and the engineers who until now had been under-utilised, laid 3000 mines around its defences. On the right flank, Zafarwal was occupied by 4th Frontier Force Battalion and a squadron of Sherman tanks. There was a sizeable number of artillery regiments in support including a self-propelled and a field regiment, a medium and a heavy. Their performance during the battle around Phillaurah was exceptional and though there was no artillery brigade HQ to Control and direct them, they delivered coordinated and concentrated fire. Before the coming battle of Chawinda, the artillery was reinforced with two self-propelled artillery regiments as 1st Armoured Division arrived from Khem Karn.

Along with its recce regiment, the division brought two light armoured brigades of one tank regiment of and one mechanised infantry battalion each. On arrival, the division was tasked to launch a counterattack but it was cancelled because of the apprehension by the corps headquarters that the Indians may breakthrough. A few days after it arrived, it’s GOC was replaced by Major General Sahabzada Yaqub.

The plan of attack by the Indian armoured division to capture Chawinda was in essence a repeat of Phillaurah with a flanking attack from the west by the armoured brigade followed up with an attack by the lorried brigade to dislodge 24 Brigade. 6 Mountain Division of two brigades was also placed under the command of General Sparrow. The first battle for Chawinda commenced at dawn of 14 September. Hodson’s Horse set off from Char in an outflanking manoeuvre of 15 km from the west aiming to cut the Chawinda-Pasrur road. Ahead of the railway track that defined the line of defence of Wajahat’s task force, it was engaged sequentially by a squadron of 22nd Cavalry and the Guides. In spite of a large gap of 3 km between the Guides and Chawinda that Hodson’s Horse could have driven through at this early stage (and further exploited by two Centurion regiments), the regiment was not allowed to proceed beyond the railway line the whole day.

At mid-day, Poona Horse advanced towards Chawinda to clear the ground for a follow-up attack by the lorried brigade. It was strongly opposed by the relentless fire of the Pakistani artillery as well as a troop of Shermans and 3rd Frontier Force. To close the gap towards Chawinda, the Guide’s sidestepped its squadron to the right and positioned the 11th Cavalry squadron in depth. The battle raged through the afternoon but by 6 pm, Poona Horse broke contact. Since this flank of the taskforce was weak, 6th Armoured Division was reinforced by the HQ of 3rd Armoured Brigade and 19th Lancers on the night of 14 September.

On 15 September the Indians tried to consolidate their gains and some fierce engagements took place around Chawinda in which 25th Cavalry was back in action with many of its tanks repaired. During the afternoon, the Indian Lorried Brigade decided on its own to clear the area ahead of Chawinda. Its two battalions were engaged by three regiments of Pakistani artillery while they were dismounting and forming up for the attack and suffered heavy casualties. In the evening, a squadron of 22nd Cavalry had a very successful engagement when it blocked an advance by 16th Cavalry to close up to the railway line. Almost immediately 16th Cavalry lost four tanks, received a pounding from the medium artillery and while it withdrew, was strafed by eight Sabres. That night the regiments of the task force were reinforced with infantry battalions to hold the line of defence at night.

Thus ended the first battle of Chawinda. The Indian armoured division was still north of the railway line from Narowal to Sialkot, and 6th Armoured Division had recovered its balance.

(to be continued)