A Driver who led the Combat

The month was Ramadan and it was a Sunday afternoon at Rawalpindi. In Officers’ Mess, we two were dozing off the afternoon effects of Ramadan fast. It was one of those characteristic humdrum afternoons that are typically encountered while fasting. A discussion on Potohar started and suddenly I had Sawar Muhammad Hussain Shaheed, Nishan e Haider in mind. A brave son of Potohar who was buried somewhere around Gujjar Khan, exactly where, I had no clue. That urge to find the great soldier’s final resting place pulled two of us out and the ‘Third One’ joined from Chaklala Garrison. The sole reason for adding on the company was that the ‘Third One’ had a good resolution camera. The literal conversation was “what camera do you have … okay hop in”. No questions were asked by the ‘Third One’ on the likes of “where to?”, no need was felt by us for any ‘operational briefing’, and we were on the road (p.s. that was my first interaction with this gentleman, the ‘Third One’). Catching the trail from a seasoned patwari from Gujar Khan, following the remote routes into the rural heart of Potohar, refueling our car from an unorthodox gas station with quite an unorthodox filling mechanism, we eventually knocked at the doorsteps of Sawar Muhammad Hussain Shaheed, Nishan e Haider around iftar. Ladla was my regular companion on such pilgrimages, but it was Kaboom, ‘The Third One’, who got officially added to the group that day (carefree attitude being the sole membership qualification, camera came as a bonus). We were out to pay homage to the one and only Sepoy of Pakistan Army bestowed upon with the singular honour of the highest gallantry award of Pakistan Armed Forces, Nishan e Haider. Sepoy is the first rank of a foot soldier in Pakistan Army, an equivalent of Sepoy in an armoured regiment is Sawar. Muhammad Hussain was a Sawar in 20 Lancers who rose to glory during December War of 1971. That evening we were at Dhok Sawar Muhammad Hussain Shaheed, a village that was renamed from Dhok Pir Bakhsh to honour the soldier. But it wasn’t Dhok Pir Bakhsh where the solider was initially buried.

Sawar Muhammad Hussain Shaheed
Sawar Muhammad Hussain Shaheed

Back in 1971, a few weeks after December War Ceasefire, Roz Ali, a humble farmer from Mohra Hiyat, father of his only son Sawar Muhammand Hussain Shaheed, visited Shakargarh, a border town on Sialkot front, where in a military makeshift graveyard, our hero was buried interim. He got the soldier’s body excavated from the Shakargarh graveyard and re-buried Sawar Muhammad Hussain in his native village Dhok Pir Bakhsh. He also received his son’s belongings that contained a letter addressed to him and Rs. 500 recovered from the pockets of Sawar Muhammad Hussain Shaheed. The letter referred to a sum of Rs. 100 being sent to Roz Ali to pay off a debt. At the time of his Shahadat, Sawar Muhammad Hussain had a daughter who was a little over 2 years and a 3 months old son. Muhammad Hussain never saw his son in this life. On the day we offered Fateha on Shaheed’s grave, we were greeted by his son, Munawar Hussain, a smart, well built gentleman. I saw Muhammad Hussain in him that day. I saw a hero who had fought valiantly on Shakargarh Front. Munawar Hussain wore a smile on his face; the exact same smile that became the distinguishable trademark of an enthusiastic Muhammad Hussain on the battlefront, the one that was preserved on the soldier’s face, even after his Shahadat on the battlefield of Gajgal…

December War: The Shakargarh Bulge

In 1971, the war on the Western front started much after the events on Eastern front had gone out of control. The built up of military forces by both sides had initiated towards the end of last quarter of 1971 and it was in December that Pakistani forces initiated the operations on Kashmir front. Indians responded by initiating an offensive on the Shakargarh salient in Ravi – Chenab Corridor. Shakargarh Bulge threatens the vital road and rail links between Eastern Punjab and Indian Held Kashmir, that run parallel to it at close distance varying between 9 – 13 kms. It poses a direct threat to the important communication centers of Gurdaspur, Pathankot, Kathua, Samba and Jammu. Poised as a natural springboard, an offensive launched from Shakargarh bulge inside Indian territory would cause serious limitations on Indian Army’s maneuvering ability. This vulnerability of Indian Army was the driving force to have Indian main offensive planned and executed onto Shakargarh Bulge, both in 65 and 71 wars.  In December of 1971, Indian 1 Crops sensing Pakistan’s potential ingress into their territory initiated main offensive action at Shakargarh Bulge. The plan was to advance from north and east, with one Infantry Division supported by an Independent Armoured Brigade on each axis.  Indian 39 and 54 Divisions each supported by Armour were to capture Shakargarh and area Zafarwal – Dhamtal respectively. Later on the plan would be modified and 36 Infantry Division will also join the attack effort on to Shakargarh from south east.

On Pakistan side it was also 1 Corps that was poised on the defensive and had offensive formations to initiate an attack, that unfortunately was never launched. Expecting enemy thrust in the area between Degh Nala and Bein Nala, Pakistan’s 8 Infantry Division’s defences were based on the towns of Zafarwal-Dhamtal and Shakargarh converted to strong points. The area ahead of Zafarwal – Shakargarh was to be defended by covering troops formed as “Changez Force” under Brigadier Nisar. Changez Force consisted of two tank regiments, 20 Lancers and 33 Cavalry and one infantry regiment 13 Punjab, and was supported by 12 Medium Regiment Artillery. They had to fight a delaying battle to cause maximum possible attrition on the enemy. There was no formidable obstacle in the area and the water channels like Degh Nala, Bein Nala and Basantar Nala were used in combination with man-made ditches and bunds. The defence was further strengthened by well laid out minefields by 9 Engineer Battalion on various layers. These minefields coupled with some valiant action by Changez Force were to prove quite a handful to the attacking enemy. 20 Lancers was equipped with Sherman, M-36-B-2 Tanks and it was to delay the advancing enemy along the first minefield belt, towards Zafarwal on the eastern bank of Degh Nala. Our hero of this article Sawar Muhammad Hussain was the driver of dodge in 20 Lancers and we shall explore the battle actions of this battalion in detail, but in a while.

Attack from North & East: The Delay at Harar Kalan

39 Division was commanded by Major General Prabhu and had 72 Infantry Brigade supported by 2 Independent Armoured Brigade less one tank regiment. It was given the task of capturing Shakargarh commencing operations from north. On the morning of December 5, Pakistani observation post at Sukhmal was destroyed by Indian Artillery shelling and on the night 5/6 December, the border outposts were captured by the units of Indian 72 Infantry Brigade. Pakistan artillery played effective role in slowing down the advance of the leading Indian brigade and it was only on the afternoon of 7th December that the leading Indian infantry battalion, 1 Dogra was able to make contact with Harar Kalan. There they met the Pakistani Covering Troops, 20 Lancers and 13 Punjab Regiment of the Changez Force.

20 Lancers was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Tufail Muhammad and as part of Changez Force was responsible to delay the enemy advance onto Zafarwal in area east of Degh Nala. The regiment supported by the elements of 13 Punjab had delaying positions along the line Bari Minhasan – Dehlra – Harar Kalan. Sawar Muhammad Hussain was part of Major Muhammad Akram’s Squadron. This squadron faced the attack of Indian 1 Dogra on night 7/8 December. The attack was repulsed back with determined fire support leaving 25 Dead and 65 wounded on the enemy side. The minefield combined with effective fire had prevented the Dogras to even initiate their assault from the forming up place. It was a major set back to the attack effort of Indian 39 Divison. The time period from 8 – 10 December on Harar Kalan front was spent in Artillery bombardment and probing attacks by 39 Infantry Division to bypass the location, that were effectively repulsed. The next determined attack would come on night 10/11 December led by Indian 1 Mahar Battalion supported by tanks that would result in capture of Harar Kalan. December 10th would be the day Sawar Muhammad Hussain will breath his last. Let us review the actions by the gallant soldier that would earn him the highest gallantry award in Pakistan Armed Forces, Nishan e Haider.

Sawar Muhammad Hussain: Volunteer, Fearless, A Hero

Sawar Muhammad Hussain was a driver by profession, not that of a tank but a dodge. His responsibilities included transporting the supporting infantry troops and ammunition as and when required during the conduct of Battle. Within the squadron he was attached to the troop being commanded by Second Lieutenant Farasat Ali who was one of the two officers recently commissioned from the military academy, experiencing the live action for the first time. Major Akram’s squadron was located in area Gajgal short of village Harar Kalan. 20 Lancers 2IC (second in command) Major Amanullah was coordinating the battle actions of this squadron. Muhammad Hussain talked to his Squadron Commander and volunteered for participating in live action while not on driving duty. He also requested for a machine gun to be provided. Looking at the motivation and selfless devotion, the request was duly granted. Not only this, Muhammad Hussain also volunteered to be part of the reconnaissance petrol that was sent on 7th December to the village of Giddarpur for early information of enemy activity.  As per regimental records Sawar Mir Alam, ALD Zahoor and ALD Shabbir accompanied Muhammad Hussain. From the observation cum listening post of Giddarpur, Muhammad Hussain provided valuable information of enemy preparations and impeding assault on more than one occasions. On the night of December 7/8, Muhammad Hussain was phenomenal in locating enemy tanks and indicating the same to Recoilless Rifle (RR) firers bringing down effective anti tank fire. For the better observation he had placed himself on the rooftop of a house in Harar Kalan village. He was the vibrant soul who, with utter disregard to personal safety, was seen fearlessly scaling the battlefront, under the heavy artillery shelling, providing vital observation directing anti tank fire of RR guns. On 9 December, he played a key role in moving forward of Harar Kalan and locating an enemy artillery observation post (OP) prepared on a tall tree. The same was effectively neutralized by own troops. On 9th December, Muhammad Hussain was the guide of a fighting patrol sent under Second Lieutenant Bashir Khakwani to Harar Khurd. He also guided the Engineer Party that was sent forward to lay minefield ahead of Harar Khurd. During enemy’s determined preparations for a full scale attack on 10th December, Muhammad Hussain not only fulfilled his duty of distributing ammunition among the bunkers, but played a key role of observing and directing the anti tank fire, a role he had mastered over past few days. While doing so he was injured in face by the back blast of own RR gun, but that did not deter him a bit. The motivated soldier kept raising slogans to raise the morale of own troops and continued with observing and directing the anti tank fire onto enemy. 20 Lancers’ 2IC was monitoring the battle action of this squadron and had already contacted CO 20 Lancers Lieutenant Colonel Muhammad Tufail over wireless, recommending Muhammad Hussain for the highest gallantry award. Little did he know then that the time of Muhammad Hussain was already counted. A little later than 30 minutes after that wireless call was made, Muhammad Hussain while directing the fire of an RR Gun was mortally hit on his chest by a volley of machine gun fire from enemy tank. The lively, vibrant and fearless soldier had embraced martyrdom. His body was picked up by Naib Risaldar Ali Nawab and Lance Daffedar Abdur Rehman who remember that his characteristic lively smile was preserved on his face even after death.

Attack from South & East: Fiasco at Dinpur Khurd

The slow rate of advance onto Shakargarh from the north approach by 39 Infantry Division and the delay imposed on it’s battalions in the capture of Harrar Kalan had forced a change of plan on December 12th. Since no offensive was undertaken by Pakistani Strike formations, it also encouraged Indians to develop an attack effort onto Shakargarh from south and east, committing into offensive Indian 36 Infantry Division, that was initially retained in a defensive role.  This divsion developed a bridgehead and crossed river Ravi with almost no resistance from Pakistan side. Further down south, Indian 115 Infantry Brigade had already captured Nainakot by 10th December but their further advance was effectively checked by Pakistan 33 Cavalry of the Changez Force. This put Indian Forces under caution and it took them four days to traverse a distance of around 14 miles. By 12th of December, 36 Infantry Division was able to lean on the Bein River. At this point they were reinforced with 87 Infantry Brigade and Headquarters 2 Armoured Brigade with 1 Horse (elements from 39 Infantry Division initially committed to the attack effort from north). Division Commander Major General Ahluwalia ordered 115 Infantry Brigade to attack Shakargarh on the night 13 – 14 December. 4 Grenadiers (of Param Vir Chakra fame from Khem Karan in 1965) was tasked to lead, and a Major Choudhry leading a company plus force made contact with minefield and exploiting the gap captured Village Dinpur Khurd. The remaining battalion supported by tanks came under fire from Pakistani artillery and had to retreat. Major Choudhry surrounded by Pakistani troops gave a tough fight holding on for the day of 14th December but was eventually taken prisoner with a company minus strength of about 70 individuals. A second wave of attack by Indian 87 Infantry Birgade was undertaken on night 14/15 December with 3/9 Gorkha Rifles leading but the same was repulsed by effective minefield defence and retaliation by Pakistani troops. 36 Infantry Division lost their men to half hearted attacks and failed to secure Shakargarh until ceasefire was reached on 16th December.

Attack on Zafarwal: Suicide at Jarpal-Barapind

54 Infantry Division supported by 16 Independent Armoured Brigade was to advance east of Basantar Nala with the task of capturing Zafarwal – Dhamtal. Owing to the slow progress of operations by Indian 39 Infantry Division on their east, 54 Infantry division was also transferred the task to secure the village of Dehlra that occupied a pivotal position in the area . The defence of Dehlra was strengthened by the neighbouring village of Chakra that gave a tough fight to Indians. Dehlra was reduced followed by Chakra on night 10/11 December. After that 54 Infantry Brigade’s advance was halted by a deep minefield in the river bed of Basantar Nala. On night 15/16 December a Bridgehead was established and the village of Jarpal was heroically taken by 3 Grenadiers, Major Hoshiar Singh earning Param Vir Chakra in the action. The bridgehead extended to the village of Bara Pind by midday 16th December. This was the very killing ground where Pakistan’s 8th Infantry Division launched a series of suicidal counter attacks where our soldiers fought with unmatched valour. A detail of these actions can be referenced in my blogpost here. Indians could not develop any further effort towards Zafarwal – Dhamtal.

The Indian Attack on Shakargarh form multiple axes was effectively contained, thanks to the gallant action of Changez Force, employed as covering troops on Zafarwal – Shakargarh front. 20 Lancers, being part of the Changez force was tasked to contain enemy advance between Degh and Bein Nullahs for 48 hours. The regiment stood fast and held Indian Attacking Divisions for almost two weeks, losing sixteen precious lives in the execution of assigned mission. In recognition of his undaunted courage, Sawar Muhammad Hussain Shaheed of 20 Lancers was awarded the highest gallantry award, Nishan e Haider. The regiment earned the battle honour Shakargarh 1971 and in 1990 was allowed to add suffix Haidri to it’s title.The regiment proudly calls itself 20 Lancers, The Haidri Battalion. 20 Lancers is also affiliated with Punjab Regiment in recognition of their joint battle action with 13 Punjab Regiment during 1971 on Shakargarh front.

Sawar Muhammad Hussain Shaheed

Dear reader, If you happen to travel on GT Road from Rawalpindi, just after crossing Mandra there originates Mandra-Chakwal Road. A drive of a little over 25 kms will take you to the prominent bus stop of Jatli. From Jatli now leads a metalled road all the way to Mohra Hiyat, where now stands Government Model Primary School Sawar Muhammad Hussain Shaheed Nishan e Haider. Continue further and after about 3 kms, you shall come across the small village of Dhok Sawar Muhammad Hussain Shaheed (a.k.a Dhok Nishan e Haider). In this tiny village of Potohar plateau, in a small graveyard is this prominent tomb, where our beloved soldier is resting in his eternal abode.

!اے راہِ حق کے شھیدو! وفا کی تصویرو
تمھیں وطن کی ہوائیں سلام کہتی ہیں

Books and Authors
Indian Gunners at War: The Western Front-1971 By Maj Gen Jagjit Singh Spantech & Lancer, New Delhi, 1994
Battle of Barapind-Jarpal 16 Dec 1971 by Maj (Retd) Agha Humayun Amin, published in Defence Journal, Oct 1999 issue
India’s Wars Since Independence, Volume 2 by By Maj Gen Sukhwant Singh; Lancer Publishers, Atlanta GA, 2013
Sowar Muhammad Hussain Shaheed, Nishan e Haider, webpage at Pakistan Army Museum, accessible here
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author bio

Imran Saeed

I am a teller of old tales. History, folklore, military, and more. Mostly covering Pakistan, my homeland, but also the Great White North, where I am currently settled.
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Rizwan Ali Khokhar

Remarkable explanation. Your posts are mesmerizing. Thank you for pointing out exact route, will visit the revered soldier’s resting place soon Inshallah.

Zarrar Khan

These Nishan E Haider receiver’s are my childhood heroes..I haven’t found substantial record’s of their heroics and tribute to their ultimate sacrifices until i came across to your writing’s
Thank you