I did not know what exactly struck me. All I remembered was the intensity of the blow and the strange sound preceding it that almost ruptured my eardrums. It was as if a huge sledgehammer knocked me flat on the ground; though I didn’t remember falling down.

What I remembered next was that I was lying on the ground with my eyes closed, thinking that half of my skull had been chopped off; though I did not touch my head or face. I knew that I was not going to survive. So that was life; Short and abrupt. My twenty fifth birth day was about a month away. But I had no fear of death, nor did I have a repentance of any kind. I wasn’t thinking of my dear ones; neither the blood relations nor the friends. I knew I was either already or about to die. I tried to remember the sins I had possibly committed during my life, but neither a sin nor any good came to my mind. I wasn’t reciting Kalma or any other verse. I was just waiting –silently asking God to make it quick. It was a state of rapture and trans-like communion with the divine. I neither saw any angels nor the old dead relatives, nor heard any distant bells. I had no worries, or a strain of anything incomplete being left behind. I was dying a contended person. Next, a series of glimpses of my past life started to display like a kaleidoscope. Glimpses of my school, my teen age friends, my parents, my siblings, the giggles and laughter in the classroom, having supper at the dining table; how we would fight among ourselves for an extra kebab or the chicken thigh piece –something the favorite of everyone.

As I continued to think, lying still, nestled in the blood stained long green grass, with my eyes closed, my thoughts drifted from my past to the situation I was presently in. Suddenly my swaying senses started to work more profusely. It was then worries started to seep into my head. I hoped that my Company had captured its objective. I started praying in my heart for the success of the operation we were put into. At this juncture it suddenly occurred to me that I was thinking very logically. This meant that there was nothing drastically wrong with me. At that moment I thought of the letter that I had carefully tucked in my left shirt pocket before embarking on the operation. I then slowly tried to move my right hand. It took me a while to reach my left pocket. I gave it a gentle nudge with my trembling fingers. It was right there.  No sooner I felt its presence; the very sensation filled my heart with a subtle ecstasy of accomplishment and satisfaction. Bits of scattered memories started to fall in place like pieces of jigsaw puzzle. As soon as this thought came to my mind, I heard somebody calling me in a faint voice “Captain sahib, Captain sahib, Captain sahib.” And with that I immediately opened my eyes. I saw a wounded soldier lying at a close distance to me. My blacked out memory started to come back in a series of quick flashes. It was a dawn attack and I was hit by a piece of fast flying shrapnel from an artillery shell slightly before the first light. But now when I had opened my eyes the sun had come up a little. I guessed from the position of the sun that I had remained unconscious for about 20 to 30 minutes. I pulled myself close to the soldier and noticed that he was seriously wounded at the neck. I asked him as to how he was, but by this time his trembling lips could not utter a sound. I quickly pulled out a morphine injection from my pouch to stick it to his thigh to ease his pain, but the injection didn’t work and I threw it away in a fit of frustration and helplessness. Next I pulled out the surgical bandage to apply it on his wounds, but before I could do that he died in my arms. I looked around and found three other soldiers lying dead. So we were five who were hit by the shell and I was the lone survivor. I then got up and took a few steps to see if I had the strength in my legs to walk. I staggered for a while but then started feeling confident that I could walk. My wounds were bleeding profusely. I wrapped the bandage I was holding in my hand around the left portion of my face. I once more patted the letter in my blood soaked left shirt pocket gently. This time wondering whether, was it due to this letter that God kept me alive. It was written by my elder sister on the outbreak of war. In her letter she had prayed God for my safety, alongside very clear directions not to waver in the line of duty.

The dead soldier and his slowly diminishing calls “Captain sahib” continued to echo in my mind. What an irony that I did not know his name. What a shame on part of a Company Commander not to know the names of his men –a dying soldier calling his Company commander for help. He might have called me while I was unconscious –to help me out perhaps. My mind at that moment was a cauldron of frustration, anger and agony. I wished I had commanded the B Company of 19 Punjab, my original Regiment from where I was posted to 42 Punjab on its raising in April 1971. I would have known each and every soldier willing to lay his life on my orders. Having joined the latter just a few months back, I, for most of the stint remained Adjutant. However, owing to acute shortage of officers, just two days prior, was given the command of C company of 42 Punjab, part of 111 Brigade. The regiment was tasked to establish a Bridgehead on 9th December 1971 across river Tawi. The operation was undertaken to pump in and subsequent Breakout by 2 Armoured Brigade.

This was the story of Captain Naseer Mahmood (retired as Lt Col) who, despite the fact that his rank and experience did not envisage commanding an infantry company, not only took over its command at what could best be described as the ‘last-gasp’ in a ‘do-or-die’ situation but displayed an unswerving valour and courage in the face of heavy odds. He led the charge across River Tawi, fought right on the objective across the river, and almost laid his life. The guilt of not knowing the name of his dying soldier is a nemesis that continues to haunt him till today.

Whether the letter of a sister containing prayers and supplications for her brother had a role in saving young Captain Naseer Mahmood from what was an imminent death, is a matter of one’s preferential judgment. We leave here the story of his rescue and subsequent rehabilitation and move on to a yet another curious happening that took place during the course of the same operation. This time it was the Commanding Officer himself of the Battalion (42 Punjab) Lt Col Shushil Kumar Tressler kneeling down in supplication right in the midst of the assault on Chamb at a time when the shadow of death loomed large on his force. The ensuing events unfurled as to how subtly God’s hand may come into play, in so many mysterious ways, which are not only baffling to human mind but strangely weird.

Lt Col Shushil Kumar Tressler, better known by his initials SK Tressler was an exceptionally gifted Commander with an imposing and towering personality. In 1971 he was commanding Officer of 42 Punjab which was part of 111 Brigade placed under recently raised 23 Division being commanded by Major General Iftikhar Janjua. The Brigade was moved to Chamb sector (Chamb being on the other side of the Cease Fire Line). The Division had a limited role for which plans were made to open the front across the Cease Fire Line in the hope to avoid a full scale war on the international border and also deny Indians the use of Chamb as a springboard to strike and sever our main line of communication, that is the Grand Trunk Road which was just less than 40 miles from the border. 42 Punjab which was also a nascent Battalion (raised less than nine months ago) arrived in the battle location sometime in late September 1971 and occupied defensive/counter penetration positions. The Battalion saw its first virgin action on 3rd December 1971 when as right forward battalion of 111 Brigade it was to cross CFL and secure a lodgment in an area short of Chamb for subsequent induction and breakout by 2 Armoured Brigade. Owing to the absence of the 111 Brigade Commander Brigadier Rahimuddin Khan, who had to be away in connection with a sensitive duty elsewhere, Lt Col SK Tressler conducted the operation as Acting Brigade Commander but remained with the forward attacking Companies. On 5th December Brigadier Naseerullah Babar was appointed Commander 111 Brigade and SK Tressler returned to his Battalion. Corollary to the ongoing operation, the new Brigade Commander after having rehashed the plan gave fresh orders in which 42 Punjab while acting as the follow up Battalion of the Brigade was to capture Chamb.

 

As per the Brigade plan Lt Col SK Tressler was to follow the two leading Battalions of 10 Baloch and 3 FF in Phase 1 and through the gap created was to assault and capture Chamb in the second Phase. While the battalion was marching led by the Commanding Officer himself trailed by his officers and troops they suddenly came across an enemy minefield which was marked. Lt Col Tressler stopped at the barbed wire and along with his men tried to explore for any possible gaps but could not find any. This was a critical juncture and the stakes were too high. Any delay on his part could have jeopardized the whole operation. Certainly there was no time to stall and ask for the Engineers to come all the way and clear the route. It was a moment of acute helplessness. Going through the minefield meant annihilation of the entire force without even seen the actual action. It was a critical impasse. Time was of great essence and it was slowly ticking away. At this moment of indecision when no logic seemed to be working, Lt Col Tressler turned to God for His possible intervention. He asked God for the providence to lead his men unscratched through the minefield confronting his force. He begged God not to let him down at this defining moment. What happened next was something that one cannot make any sense of. There appeared a lone dog, limping as his one leg was injured, probably due to shelling. Col Tressler, being a dog lover patted him and softly nudged him a little forward to lead the way, hoping it might know the beaten safe route. The dog started trudging forward and Col Tressler along with his men trailed behind till he brought them to the bed of a sandy Nullah and started wading through it. Col Tressler leading his men kept walking behind the dog, though he cautioned his men to follow his footprints, till the time the dog delivered them to the safe zone.

Col Tressler and his men were able to reach their designated objective unscratched and were able to carry out their mission of attacking the objective of Chamb within the stipulated timeframe. On night 6/7 December, 2 Armoured Brigade along with 42 Punjab overran the enemy positions and by first light 7 December Chamb was captured. 

Sometimes, people feel that they can comprehend some of the events in which God had an obvious hand. Other times, however people cannot see how God intervened until they are looking back with the advantage of hindsight. There are events where God is obviously involved, but no one can quite make sense of why He chose to intervene in that specific way. This is in part because people seem to forget that God has a sense of humour.

Post Script: Following the capture of Chamb and sequel to the ongoing operations of 23 Division, the Battalion, as part of 111 Brigade (Southern Brigade), was next tasked to establish a Bridgehead across River Tawi on night 8/9 December alongside 4 Punjab of the Northern Brigade (66 Brigade). Col Tressler led his troops from the front wading through water, at places chest high. Despite the fact that 4 Punjab, the Battalion that was supposed to attack alongside 42 Punjab couldn’t reach in time, Col Tressler pressed the attack and reached right up to the objective. When Col Tressler received the message to return as the attack had been called off he was already fighting on the objective. This was a point of no return. He sent the message back that he and his troops were inextricably engaged in fighting on the objective, and that they would prefer to have bullets on their chests rather on the backs. The result was that his men stood their ground knowing that their Commanding Officer was with them. They inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy and by next day were sitting right inside their positions –but surrounded by the enemy from all around. Obviously this kind of disposition couldn’t have last long. Soon the entrapped force was counter attacked by tanks preceded by heavy artillery shelling. The extrication and journey back was tough and bloody. There were around 40 shaheeds and an equal number wounded while 12 were taken PWs. C Company Commander, Captain Naseer Mahmood was fatally injured and had half of his face blown up. On reaching back 42 Punjab was given the task of holding the area of Chamb. 9th December also witnessed the helicopter crash of 23 Division Commander Maj General Iftikhar Janjua. Later, Pakistan’s flag was hoisted and Chamb was renamed as Iftikharabad in the memory of the fallen General.

Acknowledgement: I am extremely grateful to Lt Col Naseer Mahmood for the extraordinary narration of this rare and personal experience delineating the battlefield trauma and how it felt to be a wounded soldier on the battlefield. I am thankful to his son Maj Bilal 32 Cavalry for providing some rare photos including the photo of the letter of his elder aunt Nighat bearing the bloodstains of his father, as well as sharing some random writings and valuable information picked out from his earlier meetings with Col Tressler who currently lives abroad and is now in a very ripe age.