It was September of 2005 when, as part of Defence Day Commemorations, I accompanied my Brigade Commander to a wreath laying ceremony at Ladian, a village that is more near to Kharian as compared to Gujrat. I was a captain posted to an infantry brigade as Grade 3 Staff Officer and that was the first time I was in attendance at the Bhattis, a compound where amongst other landmarks (the ancestral house and the courtyard), there exists the grave of Major Raja Aziz Bhatti Shaheed, Nishan e Haider. The second time I visited the compound was a couple of years later, when on a military exercise with my cadets of Pakistan Military Academy, we camped in a neighboring locality. Taking an evening break from routine, my military driver brought me here and we offered our tribute. I was to visit the shaheed officer one more time and that was to happen during the days I was enjoying my leave pending retirement. I was visiting a very dear friend Major (now retired) Qaisar Mahmood who was then stationed at Mangla Cantonment. A time well spent recalling the memories of “days at Kharian”, prompted us to head out of the confines of Mangla. It was an hour or two to sunrise, and we decided to drive all the way up, not to Kharian, but Ladian. It was as if Major Bhatti had sent us a personal invitation. At the tomb, beside Major Sahib’s grave, post our salute we offered Fateha. The rays of the rising sun, having gone past our hands raised in prayer, reflected on marble; the words on the headstone glowing…
Major Bhatti fought valiantly on Lahore Front, untiringly for 6 days and nights, defending village Barki and then the Ditch Cum Bund (DCB) of Bambanwala Ravi Bedian Link (BRBL) Canal, offering supreme sacrifice in the execution of the mission assigned to him. He stayed with his troops till the very end, declining the offer of relief from his commanding officer. He was awarded the highest gallantry award for the Armed Forces of Pakistan, and is the solo recipient of Nishan e Haider in the September War of 1965. A war, dear reader, that quite interestingly, is equally celebrated by both the adversaries, Pakistan and India.
Some thoughts on the September War
On 6th of September, 1965 (as we were and are told through our textbooks) the “cunning” enemy attacked Lahore without a formal declaration of war. A war that is glorified by the portrayal that we, a nation with a small army, fought the military might of Hindustan, a country numerically far superior to us, and defeated them. Much of the preceding narrative would be a cosmetic illusion quite distant from the facts on ground, but let me clarify to my readers that this post does not debate on the argument stated above. It would also be beyond the scope of this article to discuss the logical conclusion of the war, as to who won or lost it. Those who want to deliberate on these questions are cordially invited to comprehensive military literature on Operations Gibraltar, Grand Slam and the strategic and tactical analysis of the September War, by the analysts on both sides of the border. In this post, dear reader, we shall revisit the war as it progressed on the Lahore front, and highlight a few actions that inspired some gallant performances by soldiers at both individual and regimental level. We shall talk about the follies and blunders that are characteristic of the battlefield confusion. Let us feel the very pulse of esprit de corps, of the heroics performed under the very face of danger; danger, that is unknown and when encountered is unkind. My readers of this article, will find select narratives from the grand theater of operations at Lahore front which are primarily inspired by my wanderings, whereby, I came across a number of war memorials, at Lahore, in Ladian, in Rawalpindi and across the border (through virtual tours and interactions) to the sleepy town of Khem Karan and up ahead to Asal Uttar.
The battle in Ravi – Sutlej Corridor had Indian eyes set on Lahore. The three divisions of Indian 11 Corps were to advance; 15 Infantry Division on Wagah – Lahore Axis, 7 Infantry Division on Barki – Lahore axis and 4 Mountain Division on Khem Karan – Kasur axis. On Pakistani side, the main defensive line for Lahore was organised on the alignment of home bank of BRBL Canal (Indians call it Ichhogil Canal in their accounts of September War). BRBL Canal, that was specifically constructed with defence of Lahore in mind, was a formidable obstacle, the distance of which from International Border varied between 1 mile (from Bedian in the south), 7 miles (from Barki in the center) and 5 miles (from Wagah in the north). Indian attack primarily aimed at securing BRBL Canal with its bridges intact, more importantly the BRBL bridges at GT Road, Jallo and Barki. The defence of Lahore was undertaken by 10 Infantry Division with main defences on BRBL Canal from Syphon on Ravi in the north upto Bedian in the south. 11 Infantry Division defended the area form Bedian down south to Hussainiwala Headworks. The available space ahead of BRBL Canal was loosely contested with Rangers outposts and delaying positions comprising of regular Pakistan Army troops. Although, during the course of war (6 – 22 September) Indians were never able to capture any of the bridges or cross BRBL, it’s the space ahead of this canal, that has interesting tales of some swift actions, battlefield confusion and missed opportunities.
The War is Commenced
The Indian attack on Lahore in the wee hours of 6 September 1965, should have been an anticipated response to Pakistan’s military ingress into Kashmir, interestingly it did however achieve a degree of almost total surprise. The troops on Lahore front, having marched on the night of 5 – 6 September, were still in the process of occupying their defences when the marching columns of Indian Army crossed international border. The leading elements of Indian advancing troops were endeavoring to cover space in their race with time. Apart from their encounters with few reconnaissance elements and delaying positions, what Indians were least expecting was the dedicated fire from Pakistan artillery. Although the infantry troops were still in the process of deployment, and the medium and heavy artillery had not been mobilized yet, it was the initiative of forward officers that brought about the fire of direct support field artillery, causing considerable damage to the enemy marching columns.
Apart from artillery what really put Indians off balance, right in the beginning of their advance was the entry of the Pakistan Airforce in the Lahore theater. Pakistan Airforce was on the scene at Lahore front even before medium and heavy artillery could open their fire. The first sortie of PAF aircrafts was there by the ‘hand of God’ as states Lieutenant General Mahmud Ahmed in his narrative of September war. It is Air Commodore (Retired) Syed Sajad Haider, Sitara e Jurrat (famously known as Nosy Haider) who puts our records straight here. He was commanding the mission assigned to No.19 Sherdils Squadron that morning of September 6, which was initially aimed at enemy artillery regiment across Jassar in Sialkot – Shakargarh sector.
Along with the support elements of artillery and air force, the pieces of military deployment were taking shape on our side. In these early hours, it was the valiant fight put up by the delaying positions, though few, and Pakistan Artillery and Air Force that caused havoc by their sheer volume of firepower that the momentum of Indian forces was lost much before it could take the shape of a formal attack. On the next few days Indians were to merely re-organize and renew their attack effort multiple times without any gains on the BRBL Canal. What Indians would compensate themselves with, would be the self-lauded capture of otherwise less significant villages of Dograi and Barki. Barki; dear reader, where a tough fight was put up by Major Raja Aziz Bhatti, Commanding A Company of 17 Punjab Regiment.
Delay at Hudiara and Barki : Saviours of Lahore
I was working with a private limited company and got relocated to Lahore. It was one calm Sunday afternoon, that I visited the place of shahadat of Major Raja Aziz Bhatti on the BRBL Canal. The site with a solemn monument erected on the home bank of canal, was calm under the shady trees in a quiet October afternoon. Just across the bridge on BRBL lies the village of Barki that was attacked by Indian 4 Sikh Battalion during the September War. As I roamed the streets of Barki, came across a lot many multi storey houses. Back in 1965, there was only one three storey house that was chosen by Major Bhatti as observation post with the aid of his artillery observer. It was from that vantage point, he brought down effective artillery fire on to the Indians who were preparing to advance towards BRBL Canal. But before Major Bhatti, there was another effective check put up on enemy’s advance on the very first day at Hudiara Drain, around 4 kms ahead of Barki village. Dear reader, from the comfort of an afternoon wandering at Barki, let’s head back to the battlefield on its first day of September 6 in the very center of Lahore Front.
It was enemy’s 7 Division advancing on Barki – Lahore axis, that faced D Company of 17 Punjab Regiment sent to Hudiara Drain around three miles from International Border. The Company Commander was Major Shafqat Baloch of Hudiara fame, a ghazi of 1965 war (later retired as Lieutenant Colonel). It was the pure leadership that even after getting wounded himself upon arriving at the location, Major Shafqat was able to keep his wits and soldiers intact and engaged leading elements of enemy’s 48 Infantry Brigade. It was one of those rarest moments when mere company sized strength effectively delayed the advance of a brigade sized force. The magnitude of the casualties imposed by this delaying position was such that Indians had to switch the leading brigade.
A video recount of the events by Major Shafqat can be viewed here. Major Shafqat was awarded Sitara e Jurrat for his valiant action.
Major Bhatti was commanding A Company of 17 Punjab, which apart from holding the main defensive line along BRBL Canal was to perform additional task of acting as Battalion Screens with two platoons in area village Barki. The task of screens is obtaining early information on enemy’s advance and causing delay to a degree possible within the battalion’s resources. He had his artillery observer Captain Mahmood Anwar from 24 Medium Regiment. Some of the remnants of a company of 12 Punjab also reinforced the delaying position. Barki, being a built up area had an inherent strength as a defended locality. What came as an ingenuity of mind, and later proved to be an effective measure of bringing down accurate artillery fire, was the positioning of Major Bhatti with Captain Mahmood on the vantage point, reportedly a three storey house in Barki Village. Being an effective Observation Post for Pakistani troops it was conspicuous target for Indians and did come under artillery fire. This speaks for the steadfastness on part of Major Bhatti and Captain Anwar, who with disregard to personal safety continued manning the observation post and were successful in causing requisite delay. The attack on Barki would not come up until the night of 10/11 September, as Indian forces under accurate artillery fire were cautious enough to secure preliminary positions in the surrounding villages of Barka Khurd and Barka Kalan.
On night 10/11 September, 4 Sikh supported by tanks assaulted the location that was held by company minus strength. Major Bhatti along with his troops was successful in retreating to the home bank of BRBL eventually blowing up the bridge. The gains of 4 Sikh were consolidated by Indian 16 Punjab upto the eastern bank of BRBL but the bridge was lost to timely demolition by the retreating Pakistani troops. The attack on Barki, which Indians claim to have been fiercely launched and fought onto the objective, was in fact onto a mere delaying position ahead of main defences. Barki, that gets trophied by the Indians as one of the great achievements in Lahore sector, is of lesser significance as compared to their main aim. The fact remains that Indians failed to achieve their objective of securing a foothold on the main Pakistani defences along the BRBL canal, and we shall talk about that as the battle progressed to the daylight of September 11, 1965.
The daylight on September 11 saw a daring counter-attack led by Major Habib with the remnants of his company from 12 Punjab Regiment onto a 16 Punjab Post. Major Aziz Bhatti was supporting the counter attack taking over the role of artillery observer. Capt Mahmood was earlier replaced by a Junior Commissioned Officer Sher Dil, who during the crucial counter-attack had lost communication with his guns. Major Bhatti thus took over the role of artillery observer, utilizing the skills acquired from sharing the Barki Observation Post with Captain Mahmood. In doing so, he was exposed to the enemy fire, and was mortally hit by the splinters of an enemy artillery shell that exploded near him. Major Habib, while leading the daring counter attack also embraced shahadat along with 7 other soldiers of 12 Punjab.
Major Aziz Bhatti was awarded Nishan e Haider, the highest gallantry award for Pakistan Armed Forces for his undaunted courage and relentless resistance to the enemy attack for 6 days and nights. The common belief that he was hit by a tank shell is incorrect. It was an enemy artillery shell, whose splinters caused a mortal blow to the officer. The claim by Indians that he was killed during the attack on Barki by 4 Sikh, as mentioned by Lt Gen Harbakhsh Singh, the Commander in Chief Western Command in his book “War Despatches: Indo–Pak Conflict 1965” is also not true.
Major Aziz Bhatti was buried in the courtyard of his ancestral house at Ladian, a small village near Gujrat. It is also interesting to note that as Major Bhatti was awarded the highest gallantry award, at the same time the daring counter attack by Major Habib and his troops, the very action Major Bhatti was supporting through artillery fire, went unnoticed. A war action, and a war hero who remained unsung under the foggy mist of war.
Wagah – Lahore Axis : The Battle of Batapur
In the graveyard of Pakistan Air Force Base Chaklala (Rawalpindi), other than the graves of shuhadas and officers from sister service, there is one grave that is a bit different. It belongs to a Pakistan Army shaheed, Major Muhammad Fazil from 11 Frontier Force (FF) Regiment (which was the Reconnaissance & Support Battalion of Pakistani 10 Division), who fought and embraced shahadat during September war on Lahore front. The officer was leading a platoon position sent out to the village Ichogill Uttar on the night 5 / 6 September and was amongst the first elements to check enemy advance along Dhilwan – Bhaini – Lahore axis. In this sector, Indian 15 Division was advancing on the main artery, Grand Trunk Road. The leading elements of 15 Division having crossed the border were effectively checked on two locations. At village Dial 3 Jat met the D Company of 11 Frontier Force Regiment less one platoon. That was the first intense, yet brief action of the day, in which Major Muhammad Arif Jan, Commander D Company ex 11 FF embraced shahadat. Major Muhammad Fazil was commanding the platoon of D Company that was positioned at Ichogill Uttar, north of Wagah. The platoon, having caused delay to the advance of 1 Jat Regiment was able to withdraw to the main defences astride BRBL Canal. It was at the main defences that, on the morning of September 8, Major Muhammad Fazil embraced shahadat as a result of enemy bullet on his forehead.
Attack by 15 Divsion on Wagah – Lahore axis was on two prongs. Along GT Road it was 53 Infantry Brigade that was aiming at BRBL Bridges on GT Road and Jallo both being defended by 3 Blaoch Regiment and C Company of 16 Punjab Regiment respectively. In the north a Battalion Group attack was lead by 1 Jat and was directed onto the BRBL bridge at Bhaini.
3 Jat leading advance of 54 Brigade had arrived at the bridge on GT Road by mid day, but were denied securing of the bridge by 3 Baloch. In the north 1 Jat failed to reach upto BRBL Canal and their assault was effectively repulsed through artillery fire and 11 Baloch. 15 Division attack, right from the outset was plagued by the loss of communications and control on the advancing troops. A major part was played by the timely and accurate Pakistan artillery and air force fire support, that almost devastated the advancing Indian columns. Indian headquarters at both brigade and division levels had no idea on the progress made by the advancing troops and the losses borne by them in the process. This was eventually to result into the sacking of Indian 15 Division commander in the days to come, and on 6 September it denied 3 Jat Regiment the vital reinforcements after reaching Dograi, just beside the BRBL Canal bridge on GT Road. It was also the resilient fight put up by 3 Baloch Regiment that prevented 3 Jat from securing any foothold onto the bridge. A fact that is celebrated in the accounts of Battle of Batapur both by 3 Baloch and 10 Division. An interesting element was the fact that the bridge on GT Road could not be demolished once the first assault wave of 3 Jat arrived. Amidst the battlefield confusion, it was 3 Balochis’ tenacity that they denied enemy any ingress onto and beyond the bridge as engineer elements were busy trying to trigger the demolition sequence.
There is a monument right on the BRBL Canal Bridge on GT Road to commemorate the Battle of Batapur, whereby 3 Balcoh stood fast and did not loose ground inspite of renewed attacks by Indian 15 Division. The story was shared on my facebook profile, and is linked here for the readers of this post.
Khem Karan – Kasur Axis
If you happen to be in Kasur, the city of Baba Bullhey Shah and Noor Jehan, on the second round-about inside the city at Ferozepur road, there originates Shahbaz Khan road that leads to the shrine of Baba Bullhey Shah. From the same round-about, in exact opposite direction leads Khem Karan road which, having covered around 3 miles, due to political limitations gets intercepted by the international border between Pakistan and India. Across the border, after an eroded patch of roughly 150 yards, the road resumes and in three and a half miles reaches the sleepy town of Khem Karan. This was the place that was secured by Pakistani assaulting troops in the early days of September War. On the southern axis, Indian 4 Mountain Division attacked on Khem Karan – Kasur alignment. As per historians it was a relaxed assault by Indians as compared to other two axes on Lahore front, and failed to make a significant impact. Indians had no clue this was the very avenue for Pakistan’s strike corps to open up operations inside Indian territory, and dear reader, we shall come to that in a moment. For now we shall head back to our journey on the Khem Karan road. Having crossed Khem Karan, the road takes a semi circular turn and heads North-East, passing through the town of Bhikiwind all the way upto Amritsar. On this road if one drives from Khem Karan, after about 4 miles, a little short of the village Cheema Khurd, on the left side of the road, comes across a shrine of Abdul Hamid. Company Quartermaster Havildar Abdul Hamid of 4 Grenadiers, who was awarded Param Vir Chakra in 1965 war for his heroics in destroying 3 Pakistani Tanks from his recoilless rifle mounted jeep. He is the legendary Tank Buster for Indians, who contributed to the Pakistani armour fiasco in the area. The shrine is at the very place, where the soldier had embraced shahadat after being hit by a shell from a Pakistani Patton tank. In the vicinity of Abdul Hamid’s shrine are the villages Bhura Kohna, Cheema Khurd, Asal Uttar and Valtoha, arranged in almost a horseshoe pattern. This was the very killing ground where Pakistan’s 1st Armoured Division met its Waterloo and it was at Asal Uttar that Indians built the graveyard of abandoned and destroyed tanks of Pakistan Army (ranging between 60 – 90 through a careful estimate) and named it Patton Nagar.
On Khem Karan – Kasur Axis, it was Indian 4 Mountain Division’s attack that was well repulsed by Pakistan’s 11 Division. This was the very area from where Pakistan’s 1st Armoured Division, concentrated at Changa Manga, had to launch an offensive with some wishful objective of reaching out to Jullundhur. The very objective was over ambitious as highlighted by A H Amin, and other military analysts. Regardless of an unrealistic objective, the attack when launched got plagued by the inadvertent delays and failed to make any impact being decentralized in approach. Indians had failed to estimate the exact location of 1st Armoured Division, and as their assault made little headway, they never expected a counter offensive from the defenders, which when came, put them off balance. 11 Division other than defending BRBL canal ahead of Kasur, had the dual task in offensive support of 1st Armoured Division. They were to secure a bridgehead in area Khem Karan from where 1st Armoured Division was to break out.
By mid-day Sep 6, Pakistan’s 7 Punjab Regiment supported by tanks launched an effective counter attack breaking the line of 13 Dogras, the left forward battalion of Indian 62 Brigade. A number of other battalions under heavy artillery fire were also forced to retreat. This disoriented the attack effort of Indian 4 Mountain Division and put them critically off balance. The stage was all ripe for Pakistani offensive to begin, but what actually followed were delays and indecisiveness on the part of armour commanders. On 6 September around 1630 hours, Pakistan’s 1 Frontier Force Regiment was ordered to capture a bridgehead over Rohi Nullah, which was inside Pakistani territory from where 6 Lancers was to break out on the morning of 7 September. The construction of bridge on Rohi Nullah was delayed and when complete presented its own challenges to the crossing tanks.
On 7th of September we could manage just a squadron size force of armour (6 Lancers) across Rohi Nullah. This was the time when 4 Mountain Division was still off balance and busy seeking permission to withdraw to the rear and establish their defences around Asal Uttar, more than 6 miles inside Indian border. On 8th September, 6 Lancers under the heroic leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Sahibzad Gul made a dashing advance onto Valtoha Railway Station and secured it. There was only one platoon of 1 Frontier Force with them, and being unable to hold ground they had to fall back. Lt Col Sahibzad Gul was killed the next day while 6 Lancers resumed assault on to Valtoha. The officer was observing enemy positions from his tank turret. Lieutenant Colonel Sahibzad Gul was posthumously awarded Sitara e Jurrat. That was the only valiant display from Pakistani side. 24 Cavalry kept bumping into Cheema Khurd and Asal Uttar from where it was repulsed by some determined defences of 4 Grenadiers supported by armour. One of the soldiers from 4 Grenadiers was to raise to unmatched heights, by destroying three tanks and embracing shahadat while engaging the fourth. Abdul Hamid, of whom we have talked about a few lines above, was buried around 100 yards from the place of his martyrdom and posthumously awarded Param Vir Chakra, the highest award for gallantry in Indian Armed Forces. 4 Grenadiers also launched a daring ambush on the Command Rover moving on Khem Karan – Bhikiwind road, that carried Armoured Brigade and Divisional Artillery Commanders, killing Brigadier Shami, the 1st Armoured Divisional Artillery Commander. By 10th of September, Indian’s had regained balance and organized their defences with requisite armour support. Indian 3 Cavalry Regiment was effectively guarding the flanks of Indian defences. This was to prove a valley of death where Pakistan’s 4 Cavalry was pushed into. On 10 September Pakistan 4 Armoured Brigade was ordered to outflank Indian defences by securing Mile 32 on Khem Karan – Bhikiwind road and clearing Cheema. Around 1600 hours, 4 Cavalry had reached its objective, Mile 32 on Khem Karan – Bhikiwind road with 11 tanks but lost contact with Brigade Headquarters. In the absence of any link up with the rest of the Brigade, the regiment along with its commanding officer eventually surrendered to Indians.
An attack that began with overambitious objective of reaching deep inside enemy territory was routed in the very neighborhoods of Asal Uttar. The assessment of losses showed a total of ninety tanks lost. This armour asset lost to Indians was on display in the neighborhood of Asal Uttar, whereby Indians named it Patton Nagar. A graveyard of Pakistan’s much sported Patton tanks that were lost in battle to India’s inferior Shermans and Centurions.
September war began with misadventure of Indian attack on to Lahore. Pakistani defences based on the formidable water obstacle of BRBL Canal coupled with determined fire support of artillery and air force and the heroics of armour and infantry defeated the very aim of Indians in securing a foothold on the main defensive line. It was a tale of missed opportunities and lack of determination on the Indian side. Ironically the same traits were witnessed on the Pakistan’s armoured assault launched from Kasur. Lack of infantry support to Pakistani armour, India’s concentrated defences and determined defenders around Asal Uttar, coupled with the cover in the shape of standing sugar cane crop and boggy terrain at selective locations proved too much to tackle with. September war in the Lahore sector does not have anything in terms of significant gains, both for India and Pakistan. What it does offer are the tales of heroism and bravery from both sides. The Nishan e Haider of Major Raja Aziz Bhatti and the Param Vir Chakra of Company Quarter Master Havildar Abdul Hameed. The heroics of 3 Baloch, 3 Jat, 17 Punjab, 4 Sikh, 6 Lancers and 4 Grenadiers, and many more. What we commemorate on 6 September is the bravery and undaunted courage with which the soldiers stood up and fought. We remember these fearless souls every year so that their names live on. Lest we forget …