Encouraged by victory in the Rann of Kutch conflict Field Marshal Ayub Khan set out to conquer Kashmir. His plan was to send 5,000 infiltrators into Indian Held Kashmir (IHK) to incite the Muslim population to rise in rebellion, then deliver the knock- out blow by cutting India’s road link with IHK at Akhnur on River Chenab north-west of Jammu, although Major General Akhtar Malik had planned to exploit up to Jammu to sever its link with Srinagar. That these two provocations would precipitate a general war with India was ruled out by him and his advisors.
When the Special Service Group (SSG) the army’s unit that specializes in special operations was taken into confidence, they made the following points: the Muslims in IHK said they would whole heartedly support the infiltrators only if they would defend them against the inevitable Indian reprisals - the force that is planned to be inserted was too small to give this assurance - only a large force of at least 150,000 fighters capable of throwing the Indian forces on the defensive would inspire confidence in them - and creating this force would take at least two years.
However, when it became clear that the planners’ belief in their plan had blinded them to the faults in it, the SSG warned them in writing that the operation as planned would turn out to be Pakistan’s ‘Bay of Pigs’.
On the night of 5/6 August1965, the raiders infiltrated into IHK on a broad front. They were Kashmiri Mujahids and a sprinkling of Azad Kashmir and Pakistani soldiers. They were the Gibraltar Force. They carried out a series of daring operations all over IHK, blowing up bridges, raiding Indian forces headquarters, ambushing enemy’s columns and mining roads and tracks.
But when the Indian forces started targeting Muslim villages, the villagers not only refused to cooperate with the raiders, they also started to assist the Indian forces to flush them out. With its fate sealed, Gibraltar Force disintegrated within three weeks of their launch and its few survivors limped back to Azad Kashmir, hungry, tired and defeated. In the meantime, the Indian forces began to launch offensives capturing Kargil, Haji Pir pass, Tithwal and threatening Muzaffarabad.
In order to release the pressure being put on Azad Kashmir by Indian forces, Operation Grand Slam was launched on 01 September 1965 in Chenab – Jhelum corridor to sever the road link between India and IHK by seizing the bridge on River Chenab at Akhnur. Inspite of making a brilliant start, the operation failed due to the infamous change of command from Major General Akhtar Malik to the then Major General Yahya Khan which consumed 36 precious hours and enabled the grateful Indians to stop the rout and reinforce the area. In his book ‘Behind the Scene’ Major General Joginder Singh, then Chief of Staff of Western Command writes “The enemy came to our rescue.” Lt General Harbaksh Singh, Commander of Western Command (I Corps, XI Corps, XV Corps) in his book ‘War Despatches’ writes “The operation was aptly named Grand Slam, for had it succeeded, a trail of dazzling results would have followed in its wake, the infiltrators would have had fresh lease of life, the troops of 25 Infantry Division would have been bottled up and those north of Banihal completely isolated.”
Maj Gen Yahya Khan who was aspiring to become the C-in-C should have known better and prevailed upon the field marshal to defer the change of command until the capture of the bridge. But this was not to be. When on 6 Sep 1965, India’s XI Corps consisting of nearly four infantry divisions and an armoured brigade opened up the Lahore front, Operation Grand Slam was terminated.
The surprise attack in Lahore sector had created opportunities for XI Corps commander, Lt Gen JS Dhillol, to exploit towards Lahore by reinforcing the Indian troops who had managed to get across the BRB canal near Batapur and by conducting flanking manoeuvres to force a battle with reversed front on Pak defences on the western side of BRB canal. But thankfully, he kept attacking frontally and kept getting repulsed. He had the force to force a decision but clearly he was not mentally equipped to command a large formation in battle.
XI Corps operations were characterized by large scale desertions by Indian rank and file and some unit commanders. Lt Gen Harbaksh Singh writes, “Irresolute and indifferent leadership at all levels continued to be the bane of operations in this sector.”
On 8 September 1965, I Corps (Indian) consisting of an armoured division and three infantry divisions launched Western Command’s main offensive in Ravi-Chenab corridor (Sialkot sector) after crossing the Ravi at Madhopur Headworks. These headworks connect India to IHK. The mission assigned to the Corps was to capture the area upto Marala Ravi Link canal (MRL).
As in XI Corps, in I Corps too, there was a surfeit of foul ups. Apart from these it soon became clear that Indian commanders at all levels were averse to conducting flanking manoeuvres which have the potential of forcing the enemy to fight with reversed front. This aversion was clearly due to manifest fear of the unknown. Hence, here also, they kept attacking frontally and kept getting repulsed with heavy casualties.As a result the Indian armoured division could penetrate seven miles only in Pakistani territory in 21 days, that too before the arrival of reinforcements. Maj Gen Joginder Singh writes in his book, “The failure of this high power formation rests squarely on the division commanders. Their combined professional delinquency ended in a big ‘butcher’s’ bill. Lt Gen Harbaksh Singh and COAS Gen J. Choudhry remained in splendid isolation. In other words, there was no worthwhile higher direction.” He further writes “India was critically close to achieving its military objectives. Such wonderful operational chances were missed after 11 September that some of the directing commanders should have been compulsorily retired”
On 8 September 1965, when India’s I Corps was poised to launch the main offensive, Pakistan’s capital formation I Armoured Division was poised to embark on a counter offensive from Khem Karan area, which if accomplished, would trap India’s I Corps, XI Corps and XV Corps, operating in Sialkot sector, Lahore sector and in IHK respectively, by severing their lines of communication. The mission assigned was to secure the line of River Beas on both sides of the GT road by the evening of 9 September. The attack began on 8 September and by evening the leading armoured brigade had secured a line 12 miles away. The stage was now set for exploiting this success. Instead, the leading tank units were suddenly ordered by the brigade commander to fall back to Khem Karan for re fuelling and re arming in conformity with an outmoded WWII concept in which armoured vehicles fall back at nightfall and set up a night leaguer where the vehicles are replenished. This madness was once again repeated on 9 September. On 10 September morning, when the brigade advanced yet again, it ran into strong opposition as the enemy had, in the meantime, reinforced the area with tanks and anti-tank guns covering the front and flanks. Since the uncommitted brigade too could not achieve a breakthrough, the counter offensive was terminated. It is inconceivable the counter offensive, after making a brilliant start, was allowed to fail by commanders at all levels in the division and General Staff in GHQ. “It was fortunate that Pak army failed in her grand design in the Khem Karan sector. A blitzkrieg deep into our territory towards the GT road and Beas Bridge would have found us in a helpless position. It is a nightmarish feeling even when considered in retrospect” – Lt Gen Harbaksh Singh.
Pakistan cannot afford to surrender time, space and initiative to the enemy. If it does, its limited military assets will get consumed in defensive battles. Therefore, once the decision was taken to provoke the Indians, the Pak high command should have known that Operation Gibraltar would evoke a strong response and Grand Slam, even a stronger one. They should therefore, have planned to fight the 1965 war on their own terms.
Consequently, Gibraltar should have been followed up 24 hours later by Grand Slam and another offensive in Ravi-Chenab corridor to capture Madhopur Headworks and the area west of it. The Ravi could then have been flooded by releasing water in it from the headworks to preclude a counter offensive by the Indians across it. On the same night the SSG could have destroyed Harike Headworks and the bridges on River Beas to further curtail the options to India.
The field marshal and his high command had squandered away the opportunity to inflict a crushing defeat on the enemy and take Kashmir. In the final analysis, the valour of its jawans and junior officers, the clinical efficiency of its artillery and the daring exploits of its air force saved Pakistan.
n The writer is a former armour and SSG officer.
Once the decision was taken to provoke the Indians, the Pak high command should have known that Operation Gibraltar would evoke a strong response and Grand Slam, even a stronger one.