BATTLE OF LONGEWALA: BEST OF BRAVES
By Colonel Anil Shorey (Retd)
© Sainik Samachar - Vol.52, No.4, 16-28 February 2005
The Battle of Longewala goes down in the annals of military history as a classic case of human resolve and motivation in the face of extremely heavy odds. In this battle a handful of troops, numbering approximately 100, not only faced a brigade attack supported by a regiment and a squadron of tanks but successfully stalled the same after incurring heavy losses on the enemy at the cost of negligible casualty to the defenders. In addition, as a result of the subsequent combined Army-Air Force effort, the enemy suffered more casualties thereby turning the tides against the superior force of the attackers. The enemy had no option but to withdraw from the battle area. In 1971, Major K N Chandpuri was commanding 'A' Coy of the 23 Punjab Regiment which was occupying a defensive position at Longewala, a small hamlet in Rajasthan situated in the Thar desert. The rest of the battalion was at Sadhewala, about 17 km to his north-east. While Major Chandpuri had under his command a detachment of the Border Security Force (BSF), a section each of medium machine guns (MMGs) and 81mm mortars and his two recoilless gun detachments were under training at the battalion headquarters. He had no armour and artillery support. Defences were sited on a high sand dune.
Immediately after Pakistan's pre-emptive air sorties on Indian airfields on December 3, 1971, Major Chandpuri dispatched a strong patrol of 20 men under Lieutenant Dharam Vir towards Boundary Pillar (BP) 638, erected right on the international border. On the night of December 4/5th, Lieutenant Vir reported noises from across the border suggesting a major armour movement. Since this development was totally unexpected and uncorroborated by Indian intelligence, the initial reaction to this news up the channel of command was casual. Shortly afterwards, Lieutenant Vir reported a very large number of tanks and other vehicles crossing the border and heading towards Longewala. Soon the Pakistanis started shelling the Longewala position by medium artillery guns from across the border, killing five BSF camels. When Major Chandpuri heard the enemy tanks advancing, he directed his patrol to shadow the enemy forces and sent an urgent message to his battalion headquarters for reinforcements, armour and artillery support.
|A Chinese-built T-59 tank, of Pakistan's 22nd Cavalry, destroyed by RCL gunners of the 23 Punjab.|
At 4:00 a.m. on December 5th, the enemy armour was seen enveloping a prominent dune south of BP-638, ostensibly to overrun the Longewala defences. These forces were later identified as the 22nd Cavalry consisting of Chinese-built T-59 tanks, plus a squadron of US-built Shermans. Following close behind the armour was a long column of assorted vehicles including agricultural tractors, towing trailers filled with combat troops belonging to what was later identified as the 20th Frontier Force battalion of the 51st Infantry Brigade forming part of Pakistan's 18th Infantry Division. Later, it was discovered that Pakistan had not only intended to overrun Longewala but had also planned an attack on Jaisalmer. The frightening prospect of being overrun by the enemy caused trepidation among some jawans for whom it was to be the first baptism of fire. Sensing this, Major Chandpuri told his men in chaste Punjabi, "Any one who is afraid to face the enemy is free to run away now, although it will be a shame to the battalion and its ancestors," and added, "but remember, I intend to stand and fight to the last." This touched them, and soon they all reassured that they would fight and die till the last man. Major Chandpuri, although apprehensive, had complete faith in his men and took a silent pledge not to vacate Longewala under any circumstances. This act made a tremendous impact on his men and they were determined to live up to the expectations of their company commander, battalion commander and the regiment.
The enemy armour was closing in fast. There was no time for laying the mines. At about 4.30 am, the leading tanks crept forward within effective RCL range and the RCL detachments were ordered to fire. Once RCL gun scored a direct hit on a T-59 tank which immediately burst into flames while the other knocked out a jeep carrying a senior officer. After the first few casualties, the bulk of the remaining tanks turned around and took cover behind some sand dunes. Some tanks started making a detour to the south-west in order to attack the company from the left flank and rear. During this critical manoeuvre, while withholding all small arms fire, Major Chandpuri ordered his MMGs and mortars to open up and took a heavy toll of the Pakistan infantry. Surprisingly, some troops were still on the tanks while others were running about, seeking cover. In spite of innumerable odds, the attack was courageously held. The tanks then attempted to assault and started closing in. It was at this juncture that Sepoy Bishan Dass, with his detachment of pioneers, started placing anti-tank mines along the route of the assaulting tanks. He unfortunately made the supreme sacrifice in the process, but not before blowing off the tracks of three tanks.
A tank destroyed by mines thrown along its tracks by Sepoy Bishan Dass.
The RCL guns again opened up and knocked out two more tanks but, in the bargain Sepoy (later Naib Subedar) Mathra Dass suffered a machine gun burst from another tank and was severely wounded. One of enemy's infantry assaults, too, had been checked due to the sheer courage of Sepoy Jagjit Singh who continued firing his light machine gun from the open till he was killed by a tank round. The platoon under Subedar Rattan Singh took the brunt of this very assault with great fortitude. Every soldier performed his duty, including the cook Bhagi Ram who ferried ammunition to the gun positions without a break. Major Chandpuri felt that unless he was reinforced quickly, his company position would be overrun by the sheer weight of enemy tanks and artillery. He sent another request to his superiors, this time for immediate close air support. However, the IAF pilots at Jaisalmer airfield had to wait for day break to launch any operations. The first sortie of two Hunters appeared over Longewala and spotted tanks all over, some on the sand-dunes, some heading towards Ramgarh and some just bogged in the sand. Flying low, the sortie leader rocketed the first tank, a T-59 creeping up towards Chandpuri's defended locality, and scored a direct hit. He then knocked out five other tanks.
The Pakistani armour panicked and began taking evasive, albeit futile, manoeuvres, mostly in circles, in order to ward off direct hits by IAF fighter planes. Having run out of rockets, the two IAF Hunters started firing their 30mm cannons and saw many tanks go up in flames when their projectiles hit the diesel tanks. Sortie after sortie began arriving in pairs, knocking out several tanks. Soon, eight enemy tanks were seen heading towards Ramgarh in a single file, or 'line ahead', and were easily rocketed. The IAF, having immobilised all enemy armour near Longewala, spotted a train carrying tanks, guns, other assorted vehicles and infantry towards Khairpur railway station in Pakistan. The Indian Air Force blasted off train and the station by rockets and cannons. Meanwhile, Major Chandpuri's position had been reinforced by Lieutenant Vir's patrol by 11:00 a.m., and, soon after, two companies of 17 Rajputana Rifles, a troop of AMX-13 light tanks and some artillery support was also made available to Major Chandpuri. The Pakistanis made a second desperate bid to capture Major Chandpuri's position, but were repulsed with heavy casualties.
Before quitting after midday, the enemy made one last effort to capture Longewala which, by then, had been considerably reinforced. A battalion attack supported by armour and artillery was launched but, this too, was beaten off by the combined, relentless efforts of 'A' Coy 23 Punjab, the Indian Air Force and deadly artillery. With this failure, the enemy lost the initiative and the will to fight and soon abruptly broke contact and commenced withdrawing towards Gabbar, some 25 km inside Pakistan. During the battle, Major Chandpuri's men had completely destroyed 12 enemy tanks and the Indian Air Force accounted for 25 tanks and a railway train. The Pakistani retreating force was seen moving with only eight functional tanks out of a totally 59 tanks. The battle at Longewala became famous overnight and received nation wide publicity. Major Chandpuri was honoured with Maha Vir Chakra while Subedar Rattan Singh and Sepoy Jagjit Singh were awarded Vir Chakra, the latter posthumously. Sepoy Mathra Das, the RCL gunner and the dare devil Sepoy Bishan Dass were awarded Sena Medals, the latter posthumously. Lieutenant Dharam Vir received Mention-in-Dispatches for his splendid patrol action. The heroic performance of the BSF also did not go unrewarded as Bhairon Singh of the BSF was conferred with the Sena Medal. Seventeen IAF pilots took part in the battle, six of them won Vir Chakra while the Jaisalmer base commander, Wing Commander M S Bawa, received the Ati Vishisht Sava Medal. The 23 Punjab Regiment had also the proud distinction of being awarded the battle honour 'Longewala' and the theatre honour 'Sind'. All this was achieved by the unit at the cost of just three casualties, while three soldiers sustained injuries.
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