MAJ GEN JAGATBIR SINGH, VSM (RETD)
Many excellent writers wrote books that became classics in their own life time. Many of them then could never quite bring out another book of the same class partly because they had set the bar at a level where it was well-nigh impossible for them to improve upon their earlier work.
In the non-fiction genre, Shiv Kunal Verma’s 1962: The War That Wasn’t, also redefined the art of recording military history in India. Superbly researched and packed with the knowledge of a virtual insider, his documentation of events was remarkable mainly for two reasons; first, it was the story of a terrible defeat and as a rule no one likes to read about how they got defeated. Second, the book was willing to look at political developments side by side with that of the military. Most writers on military matters in the past, had taken the ‘apolitical’ aspect of the armed forces in a literal sense. This book had broken that glass barrier.
Five years down the line, Aleph has released Verma’s 1965: A Western Sunrise, which is once again a masterpiece in documenting military history in a manner where–even though it sounds like a cliché– the reader simply cannot put the book down! By far one of the most detailed and lucid accounts of the war, Kunal has raised the bar considerably. As a writer who is also a story teller, he has the ability to go over every painstaking detail, after which he sits back and presents the pen picture which even though are his interpretation and views, are woven together from the strategic, operational, tactical and personal perspective. The end result then is a narrative which gives a unique clarity to events otherwise buried in the fog of war, leaving one with the feeling that it could have happened only this way.
What is remarkable is the sheer scope of this book. It seamlessly moves from the Rann of Kutch, where the first salvos were fired, to the icy heights of Kargil. Op Gibraltar then unfolds in J&K, after which the Indian’s clear the Haji Pir Bulge. This is followed by Op Grand Slam in Chhamb, after which the plains of the Punjab and the deserts of Rajasthan come into play, each sector with its unique set of challenges from the terrain to the weather, and the type of opposition both in quantity and quality. The story involves both the army and air force, the nuggets regarding the higher directions of war, the personalities involved and the courage, commitment and capabilities of our soldiers, sailors and airmen; the book has it all.
Unfortunately, this review cannot cover all aspects of this extraordinary book but I will attempt to touch upon a few key issues. The 1965 story opens with Flight Lieutenant Alfred Tyrone Cooke and his wingman in Hawker Hunters taking on four F-86 Sabres over Kalaikunda on 7 September. In a dazzling display of aerial skills honed though endless hours of practice, Cooke creates aviation history, claiming two Sabres while a third barely got away thanks mainly to a tactical blunder where practice ball ammunition instead of high explosive (HE) shells had been loaded.
In Book-I, the duplicity of the British post 1962, particularly that of Mountbatten and Duncan Sandys (Churchill’s son-in-law) is brought to the fore. The British were determined to link Western military help after the Sino-Indian clash with the resolving of Kashmir. Mountbatten had convinced Nehru that the only real workable solution was an independent and demilitarized Kashmir Valley, a deal in which India would have to make a large share of concessions to Pakistan. Even the maps giving part of the Valley had been prepared, but fortunately for India, Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was after even bigger game and his actions repeatedly queered the pitch. The ceding of the Shaksgam Valley to the PRC in 1963 had then sabotaged any chance of an Agreement being reached.
That the Chinese were actively involved in instigating Pakistan to act against India has also been exposed once again. Kunal claims that it was Mao Zedong who had sold the idea of Op Gibraltar to Bhutto, who at the time was on a high in Ayub Khan’s government. The blue print of the infiltration put in place in July/August subsequently carried the Chinese imprint wherein villages rather than the towns were to be the main target, a typical Maoist tactic. With both Mao and Chou Enlai expressing their readiness to support Pakistan incase India opened up a second front, the Pakistani’s were just raring to go for India’s jugular.
An emboldened Bhutto was directly in touch with Major General Akhtar Malik, GOC 12 Infantry Division ‘considered to be one of Pakistan’s ﬁnest generals’, who oversaw and planned both Operation Gibraltar and Grand Slam. Strangely Malik was replaced when on the cusp of success by Major General Yahya Khan, a favourite of Ayub, just a day after the Pakistani’s launched their attack into the Chhamb-Jaurian-Akhnur region.
Though the Indian Navy was not directly involved in the 1965 War, Kunal argues that the alarm bells started ringing in Pakistan when the Indian Navy’s aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, with its compliment of escort ships, Sea Hawks, and Alizes appeared in the Gulf of Kutch on 26 March 1965. The Indian Navy said it was a familiarization exercise, but from the Pakistani perspective it signaled serious intent. Kunal points out that in 1947 the Navy had conducted three separate amphibious landings at Porbandar, Jafarabad, and Mangrol after the Nawab of Junagadh, instigated by his Prime Minister Diwan Sir Shah Nawaz Bhutto, the father of Zulﬁkar Bhutto, had acceded his predominantly Hindu state to Pakistan. Bhutto was now the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, and one of the key players on the Pakistan side–which would have underlined the feeling of apprehension.
With the Pakistani’s initially going on the offensive in the area around Kanjarkot in the Rann of Kutch, GHQ Pakistan decided to implement its much vaunted doctrine of ‘New Concept of Defence’, put into place by General Musa after the influx of weapons from the United States in the mid-1950s. The Major General Tikka Khan-led 8 Infantry Division, duly supported by Patton tanks not only violated the established International Border in February 1965, it also assaulted Sardar Post that was held by a handful of CRPF men. In the limited actions fought in the Rann where the geographical conditions favoured Pakistan, the lessons drawn by Pakistan would prove to be erroneous in the extreme. Events would then overtake the situation repeatedly. Ambassador Rasgotra quotes an American embassy ofﬁcer who said “This is a diversionary tactic and a bigger attack is planned in the North.”
We are then witnessed to the gallant action by on the icy heights of Kargil in May 1965 and the capture of key features by 4 RAJPUT & 1 GUARDS only to give it away following a negotiated settlement brokered by the British in June. For the men, the returning of the features they had captured where their comrades had been killed was a huge betrayal. Little did the men realize then that Kargil was to be a precursor to Haji Pir, Gurez and other sectors that would be returned as part of post-War political settlements.
The book then looks at the operations by 15 Corps under Lieutenant General K. S. Katoch, who had played a critical role in the Kashmir Valley during the 1947–48 tribal invasion. The Indian army units in the Valley were not only able to stop the infiltrators but also achieved spectacular success in various operations including the capture of Haji Pir by 1 PARA as part of 68 Infantry Brigade where Brigadier Zoru Bakshi decided to go ahead with his plan in spite of his GOC’s reservations. The exploits of Major Ranjit Sigh Dayal in this action are wonderfully illustrated as also the exploits of 4 KUMAON under Lieutenant Colonel Salick at Trehgam, and the gallant action of 2 SIKH under the outstanding Lieutenant Colonel N. N. Khanna who captured the impregnable Raja defences.
1 Corps commanded by Lieutenant General P. O. Dunn was operating directly under Army Headquarters and was only subsequently placed under General Harbakhsh, the Western Army Commander. The offensive punch was able to divert and destroy a major portion of Pakistan’s armour. 26 Infantry Division under Major General M. L. Thapan, were methodical in achieving their aims and the actions of 52 Infantry Brigade commanded by Brigadier R. D. Hira and 7 JAT under Lieutenant Colonel R. K. Jasbir Singh have been wonderfully written.
11 Corps commanded by Lieutenant General Joginder Singh Dhillon bore the brunt of Pakistan’s offensive in the Khem Karan Sector. Major General Niranjan Prasad, GOC 15 Infantry Division, had to be removed from command for the second time after his earlier failure in Arunachal Pradesh in 1962. Yet the bravery and determination of 3 JAT under Lieutenant Colonel Desmond Hayde who crossed the Ichhogil Canal not once but twice threatening Lahore speaks volumes of this battalion. 7 Infantry Division under Major General H. K. Sibal at Ferozepur advanced on the Barki axis, the exploits of a Company of 19 MARATHA LI commanded by Major M. A. Zaki is also very well recounted. 4 Infantry Division under Major General Gurbaksh Singh had suffered at the hands of the Chinese just three years earlier but were resolute in defence. 4 GRENADIERS under Lieutenant Colonel Farath Bhatty were instrumental in destroying a large number of Pattons for which CHM Abdul Hamid was awarded a PVC, the killing of the Commander of Pakistan’s 1 Artillery Brigade by the same battalion brings out the fog of war.
In 1947, as per the 2:1 ratio adopted, India had twelve Armoured Regiments while Pakistan had six. Operation Ablaze suddenly hammered home the reality that India’s ﬁfteen cavalry regiments were up against Pakistan’s eighteen. To make matters inﬁnitely worse, it wasn’t just the numerical imbalance even qualitatively, Pakistan had the upper hand. What is important is how these Regiments fought, you have the tale of the outstanding Major Bhaskar Roy of 20 LANCERS, deploying his AMX-13 tanks in a copybook manner and holding up two of Pakistan’s oldest Regiments–11 Prince Albert Victor’s Own Cavalry and 13 Duke of Connaught’s Own Lancers, at Chhamb-Jaurian. 18 Cavalry commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Hari Singh literally knocking on the doors of Sialkot, unfortunately the 26 Infantry Division thrust was never exploited. 1 Armoured Division under General Sparrow, involved in one of the greatest tank battles at Chawinda, with both Poona Horse under Lieutenant Colonel A. B. Tarapore who was subsequently awarded the PVC and Hodsons Horse under Lieutenant Colonel M. M. S Bakshi destroying a large number Pakistani tanks. Lieutenant Brijendra Singh of Scinde Horse ably supporting 3 JAT at Dograi, Central India Horse advancing to Barki and 2 (Independent) Armoured Brigade stopping the Pakistani offensive at Asal Uttar with 3 Cavalry and Deccan Horse together creating a graveyard of Pattons. The positioning of 3 Cavalry with their Centurions with 2 (Independent) Armoured Brigade was a masterstroke.
The air aspects have been covered with a great deal of clarity, the view from the sky is expansive. Our air warriors excelled themselves, from the photo reconnaissance missions by Flying Ofﬁcer Barbara in Kutch and Wing Commander Jag Mohan Nath in Punjab to the bombing run of Peshawar by the Canberas, the missions flown over Pakistan and aerial combat. Unfortunately, we lost more aircraft on ground which exposed a weakness in our air defence capability but in aerial combat our pilots always emerged on top, despite the limitations in their aircraft due to superiority of tactics and levels of training.
When you put the book down you are well aware that after the initial setbacks, we had Pakistan on the ropes. However, we failed to deliver the knockout punch. There were plenty of reasons which are dealt with honestly and if I may say so, fairly ruthlessly. Kunal is known for the depth of his research and the brilliance of his writing but most importantly he is brutally honest. In the history of warfare, many decisions are unorthodox. Some are bold decisions, some are timid; some work brilliantly, some result in complete disaster; but in almost all cases there is a chain of thought that is discernible when examined in hindsight. The value of a book can only be judged by its own life span. Both the 1962 and 1965 books are here to stay as the most definitive works on the two wars. For any author, this is no mean achievement in a single lifetime!