Shakargarh is a small tehsil town on the West bank of the Ravi river, originally a part of the Gurdaspur district, but transferred to Pakistan after Partition as per the Radcliffe award. Pretty much a sleepy small town, like most in Punjab, it however was one of the major theaters during the 1971 India Pakistan War.
The battle theater was more specifically the Shakargarh Bulge, which is basically a protrusion of Pakistani territory into Indian one. This particular territory was surrounded on all three sides by India, and was strategically important for both the nations. The road to Jammu from Punjab passed through this area, which meant that Pakistan could cut off access here. Straddling the more fertile Indus river belt, made this area economically important too.
Battle of Basantar
Basantar River is a tributary of the Beas, flowing through Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, which is where one of the most intense battles was fought. Starting on December 4 the battle lasted for 12 long days, and was one of the major tank battles post WWII. It was one of the hardest fought battles, with both sides sustaining casualties, and one of the toughest resistance by the Pakistani Army. 2 Param Vir Chakras, 4 Maha Vir Chakras, and 4 Vir Chakras were awarded of which 5 were posthmous. The battle was known for the sacrifice of Lt. Arun Khetarpal, Major Hoshiar Singh, Major Vijay Rattan Chaudhary, Lt. Col.V.P.Ghai, Capt R.N.Gupta who laid down their lives in the course of action.
With the war intensifying on the Eastern front, Pakistan decided to open up the Western front to divert the Indian army and prolong the conflict. Shakargarh was crucial, as Pakistan had a military base nearby in Sialkot, and if it launched a major invasion, Jammu and Kashmir, would have been totally cut off from the rest of India. The Indian Army’s base at Pathankot was around 37 km form Shakargarh, and forces were quickly mobilized to defend it. Again much like the Battle of Asal Uttar, the Indian tanks though outnumbered, launched surprise attacks on the Pakistani tanks in the Jarpal area.
Pakistan’s I Corps had the 8th Infantry Division with 4 brigades, 15th Infantry Division, 8th Armored Brigade with 13th Lancers, 27th and 31st cavalry. Apart from this they had reserves of 5 divisions, commanded by Lt Gen Irshad Hassan Khan.
The Indian I Corps had 3 infantry divisions, 2 Armored brigades, 2 independent artillery brigades and the engineer brigade, which would play a crucial role. The objective was to bridge the Basantar River and secure the vital Shakhargarh sector.
Lt. Gen K.K. Singh from Rohtak, who had earlier won the MVC for his services during the 1965 War, headed the I Corps. Lt. Gen WAG Pinto headed the 54th Infantry, which led the main thrust during the battle, while Brigadier Arun Shridhar Vaidya was in charge of the 16 Armored Brigade( he would later head Operation Bluestar) while Lt.Col B.T.Pandit was in charge of the 9 Engineer Regiment.
The initial thrust was made by the 54th Infantry and 16 Armored Brigade led by Lt Gen Walter Pinto. They had to encounter minefields and a very still resistance. And this was the time the 9th Engineer Regiment played a crucial role.
9 Engineer Regiment
One of the most crucial role during the Battle of Basantar was by the 9 Engineer Regiment, which was nicknamed the Thambi Regiment, as it was staffed by Tamilians mostly. The regiment had 3 field companies each of which were assigned to the 3 infantry brigades of the 54 Infantry division. The Regiment had the challenging task of laying the operational track, for the Indian army, through some absolutely tough terrain and an area that was heavily mined.
December 5, 1971, 7:30 PM- 2nd Lt N.P.Singh started laying the operational track, and by 9:30 PM they were in the Pakistani territory. The Regiment’s CO Lt. Col B.T.Pandit who supervised this task was later awarded the Vir Chakra.
By December 6, the track was completed up to Badala Gujran in Pakistan and on December 7, a 600 m long, 6 m wide track was laid out in conjunction with the 47 Infantry Brigade.
December 8- 404 Field Company, was given task of providing support to the 91 Infantry Brigade, while 405 did the same for 16 Armored Brigade, while 406 extended the track beyond Tarakwal.
December 9-404 Field Company, was marked for 76 Infantry, and the operational track was connected to Bari.
December 10/11- Naik Subedar Doraiswamy, who had the task of clearing the minefields, found the path blocked by a damaged Indian tank. Taking an initiative, Doraiswamy, led a small unit through heavy Pakistani artillery barrage and succeeded in creating a detour, that enabled the Indian armor and artillery to move to the bridgehead. He was later awarded the Vir Chakra for this.
December 11- Diversion was created on the Mawa-Pandgaur road for free movement of vehicles, while 405 also cleared the minefield lane on December 12, and on December 13 it breached an enemy minefield with 1300 m deep trawls upto Lohara.
December 15- Engineering Task Force comprising the 3 units was grouped with 47 Infantry Brigade for crossing the Basantar River at Lagwal. This was the toughest part of the assignment, an operational track had to be constructed from Lohara to Lagwal, the enemy minefield had to be breached, and crossing places had to be constructed on two marshy nullahs.
The work started at 8 PM under heavy artillery fire from the Pakistani side.Major Vijay Rattan Chaudhary, heading the Task force, had to breach the minefield, and make the passage for tanks and other armored vehicles through the Basantar river. However the intense shelling and lack of information about the obstacles, threw the unit into confusion. With not much time for reconnaisance, the CO, decided to send a small unit, pretty much a risky proposition. Captain Ravinder Nath Gupta volunteered for this hazardous mission. Braving enemy fire, he managed to bring back vital information by 9:30 PM.
December 16- 2 companies of 17 Poona Horse, took on the enemy’s counter attacks, and destroyed the armored formation, on the west bank. Capt Ravinder Nath Gupta, guided the tanks, through the cleared minefield lane, and was killed in action along with Major Vijay Chaudhary, S.S.Mallik and 2nd Lt K.M.Mandanna. The ceasefire was called for on December 17 at 8 PM. For their heroic exploits, the Regiment was called the Basantar Regiment, given the battle honor Basantar and Theater Honor of Punjab.
“After overcoming the initial shock of the death of our gallant officers and junior commissioned officers, the Thambis’morale is high and we are prepared to breach more Basantars.”
One of the heroes of the Battle of Basantar was 2nd Lt, Arun Khetarpal, to date the youngest winner of the Param Vir Chakra, who died at the age of just 21 years in combat. Hailing from Pune, his father Lt Col M L Khetarpal was a Corps of Engineer officer. Arun joined NDA in 1967, and after graduating from IMA was comissioned to the 17 Poona Horse.
The 17 Poona Horse was the one in command of the 47th Infantry Brigade, during the battle and it’s main objective was to establish a bridgehead across the Basantar River. At December 15, 9 PM, the bridgehead was established, however the enemy territory was heavily mined, and the engineers were still halfway into the task.
Dec 16, 8 AM- The Pakistani 13th Lancers, having the state of art Patton Tanks, launched their first counter attack on the 17th Poona Horse at Jarpal. With the commander of the Poona Horse, calling for reinforcements, Arun who was with the A squadron, responded with his Centurion tanks. The first counter attack of the Pakistanis was repelled by the Centurion tank brigade, with every one right from the individual tank CO, to troop leader Arun playing their role to perfection.
The 13th Lancers launched two more attacks, and breakthrough the Indian defenses. Arun however launched right into the Pakistani attack, almost alone in charge against some very stiff resistance. He knocked out a Pakistani tank, however he was hit soon by enemy fire, and badly injured, while his tank was hit too. By this time however he stopped the Pakistani tanks from making a breakthrough, and gave the Indian Army a stronger position in the Shakargarh bulge. When his superior officer ordered him to abandon his burning tank, his last words over the radio were.
“No, Sir, I will not abandon my tank. My main gun is still working and I will get these bastards.”.
And in spite of being injured, and his tank damaged, Arun Khetarpal fought back hard, destroying around 10 Pakistani tanks, including one just 100 m away from him. However the second hit, destroyed his tank, and a badly injured Khetarpal succumbed to his wounds. His tank was named Famagusta, and the radio operator Nand Singh too was killed in the action. The driver Prayag Singh and the gunner Nathu Singh, were captured by the Pakistani troops, but released after the end of the war. Arun Khetarpal died a hero on the battlefield, denying the Pakistanis a breakthrough and giving enough time for the Indian Army to secure Shakargarh.
The other PVC awardee of the Battle of Basantar, was Brigadier Hoshiyar Singh Dahiya, from Sonepat district. Part of the Grenadiers Regiment, he was given the responsibility of establishing a bridgehead across the Basantar river. Heavily mined on both sides, and protected well by the Pakistani army, he was ordered to capture Jarpal. Under intense shelling, he led the assault on Jarpal, and after some fierce hand to hand combat, managed to secure the place. The Pakistan Army counter attacked with intensity, however Hoshiyar Singh, moved from trench to trench, encouraging his men to stand and resist. Though wounded badly, he refused to be evacuated from the battle field, till his company repulsed the Pakistani attack fully. Awarded the Param Vir Chakra, he later retired as Brigader.
Even though Lt Col Akram Raja, launched a frantic counter attack to retrieve the situation, leading an old style cavalry charge, the assault ended in a disaster. The Indian Army secured Shakargarh, and came pretty close to the Pakistani military base at Sialkot. And expecting another massive assault, the Pakistani army called for surrender, which led to the ceasefire. It was one of the most humiliating defeats for them after the Battle of Longewala.