The Bigger Picture
1965 war: How India almost lost to Pakistan
This is what Lt Gen Harbakhsh Singh had to say about the main thrust to Lahore that faltered on day one itself.
- Total Shares
It is said that Indians pass off myth for history, while the Chinese mythologise their history. It is not surprising that both subcontinental cousins share the trait when it comes to the 1965 India-Pakistan war.
Pakistan has long celebrated September 6 as Defence of Pakistan (Youm-e Difa) Day. This was the day when, it says, it defended itself against the Indian Army that had been launched on three axes towards Lahore. For this myth to take life, they gloss over Operation Gibraltar, the attack on Kashmir by thousands of irregulars on August 5, and Operation Grand Slam of September 1 where Pakistan's six armoured divisions came close to cutting the highway connecting Jammu to Poonch.
The Indian myths are only being unveiled now, when the government has decided on a large-scale celebration of the event. A celebration implies an achievement, but if the truth be told, the Indian performance during the 1965 war was just a shade better than that of Pakistan. And in that was our victory.
This is what the commander of the main effort, Lt Gen Harbakhsh had to say about the main thrust to Lahore that faltered on day one itself, largely due to incompetent leadership of the division and its brigades.
On September 6, XI Corps launched a surprise attack at 4am, led to the crossing of the Ichhogil canal and the capture of the Bata shoe factory on the outskirts of Lahore by 11am. But the senior commanders could not cope with the situation and ordered a withdrawal to the east bank of the canal by that evening.
Despite capturing some 140sq mi of land, and crippling Pakistan's 1st armoured division at Khem Karan, XI Corps performance, Singh says it was "a sickening repetition of command failures leading the sacrifice of a series of cheap victories."
The performance of India's premier I Corps, built around the 1st armoured division, was no less disappointing. I Corps captured 200sq mi of territory and destroyed a great deal of Pakistani armour. But it did not deliver what it was meant to - a decisive battlefield victory.
"With the exception of a few minor successes… The operational performance was virtually a catalogue of lost victories." Singh praised the performance of units like the Poona Horse, but was harsh in his judgement of the higher commanders.
Harbakhsh's third corps - the XV Corps, which then, as now, looks after Kashmir, fared better. It gained an unambiguous victory in capturing the Haji Pir Pass and in defeating Operation Gibraltar.
However, it was battered by the surprise attack launched by Pakistan in the Chamb sector on September 1. India also launched an offensive in the Rajasthan sector with a view of tying down Pakistani forces in Sind. But the plan was poorly conceived and executed. There was no joint planning, leave alone coordination, between the Air Force and the Army. This led to the Lahore fiasco when Pakistani air strikes disrupted the Indian offensive on September 6.
Despite seeing action on September 1 in Chamb, the IAF was unprepared for the strike on September 6 when the Pakistan air force (PAF) destroyed 13 aircrafts in a raid on Pathankot, including two new MiG-21s. Similar raids found the IAF station Kalaikunda in the east unawares leading to the destruction of eight aircraft on the ground.
Intelligence was equally shoddy. India failed to pick up the fact that the Pakistanis had surreptitiously raised an additional armoured division and the IAF could not locate the PAF aircraft in East Pakistan.
There are of course, bigger questions. Indian accounts claim that there was no plan to capture Lahore. If not, then why were three divisions thrown at it? And if the plan was to just carry out shallow attrition attacks, it nearly came a cropper in Khem Karan when Pakistan launched its 1st armoured division in a bid to reach the Beas bridge that would have cut off Amritsar. Fortunately, they were trapped at Asal Uttar and defeated.
Perhaps the biggest blunder India made was to terminate the war when it did by accepting the UN mandated ceasefire on September 22, which also happened to be the date in which the Chinese ultimatum expired.
While these were important considerations, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri wanted to know from Army chief JN Chaudhuri whether India could gain any great victory if it continued to fight. In his typically offhand style, the general declared that India had run out of ammunition and it would be okay to accept the ceasefire.
But later it was found out that only 14 per cent of the front line ammunition had been used and the number of tanks India still had was double that of Pakistan.
We can still be proud of the bravery and grit of our fighting men in 1965, but we can only pray that the higher management of our armed forces has improved.