By Sudip Talukdar
“The Pakistan sky above and around Charwa could be seen blazing with a deafening crescendo of fire” as the Indian artillery pulverized enemy positions, just before the 2/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force) and 4 Rajputana Rifles, launched an all out assault on the objective, at 11 pm on the night of September 7, 1965.
This stirring first person account of the ensuing battle in the Sialkot Sector and its aftermath, which runs into 16 dog-eared and yellowing foolscap sheets, emerged from the pen of Major Sukumar Talukdar. The handwriting is well formed and legible, conveying the twists and turns of war and of the hazards lurking around every corner, including the deadly sniper fire.
Major Talukdar, as the regimental medical officer (RMO) of 2/5 Gokha Rifles, one of the Indian Army’s finest and most decorated battalions, shared all their hardships and challenges during the 22-day campaign. The unit is the only one with an unmatched tally of three Victoria Crosses- the equivalent of Param Veer Chakra- besides winning many other gallantry awards.
The battalion had its first brush with the enemy fire before the Zero Hour on September 7, 1965. Sabre jets roared overheard, strafing and bombing its administrative box which resulted in a few casualties. The unit had assembled under a mango grove, listening to a pep talk given by the commanding officer, Lt Col ML Vig. He reminded the officers of the past glories and exhorted them to live up to the battalion’s formidable reputation.
The battalion as part of the 6 Mountain Division had rushed post haste from Almora to Joian in Punjab, concentrating there on September 5, 1965.Two days later, Alpha(A) and Delta(D) companies of the unit, spearheaded an attack on Charwa, a village across the international boundary in Pakistan. The reserve Bravo(B) and Charlie(C) companies and the Battalion Headquarters, with its Medical Team and stretcher bearers, under Major Talukdar, followed the assault group.
“The assaulting companies went through the objectives in fine style slashing all opposition with khukris and bayonets, making use of grenades and automatic weapons to clear up bunkers, fox holes and pill boxes,” writes Major Talukdar.
Following up on the attack, the reserve, B company ran into a veritable hail of medium and light machine gun fire at point blank range, which pinned them down past a mosque on the left flank of the village and close to the school building, from where the intense fire was being directed.
“The battalion headquarters (meanwhile) had taken up position in the mosque area. An enemy prisoner on being questioned said that five enemy tanks were positioned in the grove of trees within which the school was built and that the enemy headquarters was holed up in that building,” writes Major Talukdar.
The B company then blasted the school building with a 106 RCL (anti-tank gun) before engaging the holed up enemy. Eight Indian Other Ranks (Ors) sustained wounds, three of whom died later. The Pakistanis surrendered, yielding 18 prisoners, including a medical officer and booty of mines, munitions and rations. Still harried by a lot of enemy sniping the next morning, the battalion charged the village, capturing soldiers in civilian dress.
“There was a particularly gallant Pakistani Army officer who refused to surrender even after being wounded by a grenade which was thrown into his bunker. He was, as he probably wished, be killed by another grenade . . . . By the second day (of the assault) on September 9, all that one could find in Charwa were ashes and half baked bodies,” he recalls.
The medical officer, who acts as a great morale booster among the enlisted men, faced a number of limitations on the battlefield. “Here I must mention that I had a very tough and difficult time in handling and managing the stretcher bearers and they were not psychologically attuned to the tasks given to them,” writes Major Talukdar.
“The evacuation and treatment of casualties at dark night became very difficult because of absence of lighting. The vehicles could not be taken over the site because of operational reasons. Casualties were held up at the Regimental Aid Post (RAP) till the fist light.” (RAP is a frontline medical post in an infantry unit, tasked with immediate treatment of casualties).
The Medical Team comprised the RMO, nursing assistant, havildar, one OR, RMO’s orderly and some stretcher bearers. Stores adequate to cater to 100 casualties were equally distributed in individual man packs. Out of 12 stretchers, four were allotted to as many rifle companies and remaining eight were carried by the Medical Team.
Following the attack on Charwa, 1 Armoured Division moved into Pakistan through the front opened up by the Gorkhas and the Rajputs, concentrating in Phillaura on September 10. Around 11 pm “we could see beautiful fireworks going on ahead of us,” as the enemy counter-attacked “our Armoured Division,” in the far distance, writes Major Talukdar. Later that night, Pakistanis bombarded the positions held by D company. At 5 AM on September 11, the unit initiated movement, reaching Libbe, a village, where they had their first bath and a proper meal, 12 days after quitting Almora.
Marching further ahead, the battalion approached the crossroads to Phillaura. Pakistani Patton tanks materialized all over the place. Just as the Gorkhas were digging in around 3 pm, the enemy artillery opened up, killing three ORs and wounding an officer. His nursing assistant, ML Bhatt, sustained grievous injuries in the heavy shelling and died on the way to the Advanced Dressing Station.
“It was a great shock and personal loss to me. He was very obedient, amiable and courageous. He was very popular with the troops. Words are too inadequate to express my feelings at the sad demise-but one consolation to me is that he died in action. He was to be married in August 1965 and was on his way to Srinagar from Almora. On reaching Pathankot, he came back to the battalion, having heard the radio news that leave had been cancelled and all were called to join their units immediately,” writes Major Talukdar.
Major Talukdar made a number of suggestions, according the highest priority to the treatment of casualties in dark nights. He suggested that during exercises, medical officers should understand the fundamentals of tactics to enable them to appreciates the course of battle and make suitable plans for the collection, treatment and evacuation of casualties, including the use of choppers in very critical cases.
“No account of this glorious saga can hope to recount all the deeds of valour and heroism displayed on the front. I, by way of humble tribute to all those who with their blood, sweat and tears have made the conflict worthy of being remembered with pride by posterity,” Major Talukdar concludes.
(Sudip Talukdar is an author and strategic affairs columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com)