Recalling epic tank battles of 1965 war: When Pakistan Army began avoiding Indian Army tanks

The two intense tank battles of the 1965 Indo-Pak war, matching those in World War II, fought at Phillora (Punjab, Pakistan) by Hodson’s Horse (4 Horse) and Poona Horse (17 Horse), and at Asal Uttar (Punjab, India) fought by 3 Cavalry, 8 Cavalry, Deccan Horse (9 Horse) and Scinde Horse (14 Horse debilitated Pakistan’s armour and depressed it men’s morale

Col Anil Bhat (retd) Jan 04, 2021
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The two intense tank battles of the 1965 Indo-Pak war, matching those in World War II, fought at Phillora (Punjab, Pakistan) by Hodson’s Horse (4 Horse) and Poona Horse (17 Horse), and at Asal Uttar (Punjab, India) fought by 3 Cavalry, 8 Cavalry, Deccan Horse (9 Horse) and Scinde Horse (14 Horse debilitated Pakistan’s armour and depressed it men’s morale.

So much so that Pakistani tank crews began to avoid engaging Indian armoured units and even abandoned many of their fully functional tanks which were captured intact. Many tank crews hiding after abandoning their tanks were also captured.

Historical tank battles

Interestingly, Pakistan’s then first dictator president, self-promoted to the rank of Field Marshal, Ayub Khan, was the son of Risaldar Major Mir Dad Khan, of 9th Hodson’s Horse, the same regiment of Indian Army which topped in destroying Pakistan Army tanks and more.  

An Indian television channel, Times Now, televised a series ‘Tales of Valour,’ highlighting exceptional gallantry in all wars fought by India since Independence. It was conceived, curated, and anchored by Maroof Raza. The series aired the episode of the Battles of Phillora and Chawinda.

Disaster for the enemy

An excerpt from the account of the Regiment covering the 1965 war, written by Lt. Col (later Brig) MMS Bakshi, MVC, who was commanding officer of 4 Horse during that war and aptly recorded the events leading to the capture of Phillora. “By 11 September Hodsons' Horse had put a tight squeeze on Phillora. We were not only keeping the enemy’s Phillora defences fully engaged but also destroying everything falling back from the Gadgor defences. Meanwhile, 17 Horse had also fetched up from the direction of Libbe and made contact with Phillora from the South and South West. Thus, our armour had virtually put a ring around Phillora and threatened its lifeline to Chawinda. Just after midday, we intercepted an enemy wireless message. ‘We are pulling out from Chobara, Gadgor, and Phillora. One of our units has been overrun at Gadgor, we are pulling back to Fatehpur’.

“The enemy had evidently been unnerved. Not much of this force was however allowed to escape to Phillora as ‘A’ Squadron was lying in wait for it in area Wachoke-Saboke and decimated the bulk of its mobile elements moving by road. By 1530 hours Phillora was taken by 17 Horse and 43 Lorried Infantry Brigade. Much booty was left behind by the enemy at Phillora. A jeep belonging to GOC 6 Armoured Division complete with his flag and star plates was captured intact. Besides a map lorry with a good stock of maps and the usual paraphernalia of a hurriedly abandoned HQ was found littered all over. Thus, our problem of maps was solved for good.

“In this battle, 51 enemy tanks were destroyed by 1 Armoured Brigade, of which 4 (Hodon’s) Horse accounted for 27. Our Brigade had suffered six tanks destroyed and nine damaged. Other than my tank, we had no tank losses in 4 Horse, and none were seriously damaged. This was the first big day for the Regiment and all the squadrons had done their job magnificently.

“For the enemy, it was a disaster of the first magnitude. Severely punished in his first big armour clash with us, his morale was so badly shaken that he gave up the fight for Phillora which could otherwise have been a tough nut to crack. It was also a classic example of armour turning the flank and destroying superior forces by skillful manoeuvre and surprise. By delivering this crushing blow, we had established our moral ascendency over the enemy to such an extent that from then on he fought shy of facing us with his armour in a mobile battle. In the days that followed he repeatedly abandoned his tanks as soon as our tanks challenged him to a duel. Many such tanks later fell into our hands intact.”

War heroes 

While the regiment got 43 gallantry awards, few words about some personnel are worth mentioning. The actions of the tank crews of Lt Col MMS Bakshi, Maj Bhupinder Singh, and many others reflect the fearlessness of fighting with cupolas open and not abandoning their tanks despite taking up to even four hits and bailing out only when the tanks actually caught fire. Severely burnt, Maj Singh was evacuated to Army Hospital, Delhi Cantt, where he died about ten days later.

Pakistani tank crews bailed out on getting hit once, even if their tanks’ main guns and/or machine-guns were functional. Lieutenant (later Colonel) Ashok Sodhi was a victim of Pakistani armour’s poor gunnery, when an APDS (armour-piercing discarding sabot) round failed to hit the tank but went over it and grazed his skull shattering a three inches diameter part of it. He was in a coma in Army Hospital Delhi for over 30 days, after which he recovered and got a new lease of life with a plate covering the shattered part of his skull. 

Lt Charanjit Singh was killed by being hit in the head during air strafing. Capt (later Brigadier, Sena Medal, 1971) Jasbir Singh Hundal, the Reconnaissance Troop Leader had many near misses while operating in an open jeep throughout the duration of the war. Lt. (later Lt Col) SC Mathur, Mentioned in Despatches for bravery, an emergency commissioned officer then, received release orders during the war. On strong recommendations for his valour, he was eventually retained and granted permanent commission. Capt Ravi Malhotra, Regimental Signal Officer/Intelligence Officer in Col Bakshi’s tank, was recommended for Vir Chakra but got mentioned in despatches. The only Vir Chakra for outstanding valour was given to Lance Dafadar Udham Singh, that too, posthumously. Maj Desraj Urs lost sight of one eye in which he was hit.

Even though Hodson’s Horse was pitched into the 1965 war almost four and a half decades after World War I, it retained and displayed its typical fierce fighting spirit while adapting swiftly to fast-changing situations and almost always, achieving aims beyond its higher commanders’ expectations. The regiment’s tally of destroying 79 tanks and 17 RCLs (recoilless guns) of the enemy was most likely the highest during that war. And, quite typically in the end, the regiment maintained its utmost modesty in projecting its achievements.

Then prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri visited Army Hospital, Delhi Cantt to meet the army personnel injured in the war. When he came near the bed of the severely injured Maj. Bhupinder, the braveheart said he was sorry he could not stand and salute the Prime Minister. Shastri never forgot this incident.

In the few months before his unnatural and untimely death in Tashkent, Shastri had often mentioned Maj Bhupinder’s words and his lively spirit.  

(The author is a former spokesperson, Indian Army and Ministry of Defence. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at wordsword02@gmail.com) 

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