12 June 2010

Sundry Air Support - 1971 War

Besides the raging battles in Shakargarh and Chamb, two other sectors in Punjab saw fierce exchanges resulting in minor, but potentially useful, gains by Pakistan Army’s IV Corps. Both in Sulaimanki and Hussainiwala Sectors, land operations were overlaid by negligible and, largely inconsequential air support.

Sulaimanki Sector

The precarious proximity of Sulaimanki Headworks to the international border dictated that Pakistan Army take offensive action at the outset, so as to pre-empt any Indian designs against the vital Southern Punjab waterworks. For Pakistan, any territorial gain would not only threaten nearby Fazilka, it could also provide a firm supporting base for the impending main offensive as it swung due north-eastwards into the Indian heartland.

The Pakistani 105 Independent Infantry Brigade (IV Corps) was pitted against Indian 67 Infantry Brigade (‘Foxtrot’ Sector )[1]. On the twilight of 3 December, the Pakistani brigade, under cover of intense artillery fire, charged through the Indian troops with such speed and ferocity that it was able to establish a foothold on the tank obstacle line of Sabuna Distributory six miles inside, within an hour. The Indian troops struck by total ‘pandemonium and bewilderment,’[2] had destroyed all but one of the 22 bridges on the distributory while withdrawing; this desperate action also foreclosed any chances of success of their subsequent counter-attacks.

The Indians counter-attacked five times over the subsequent nights,[3] but each operation resulted in complete failure, mainly due to intense and accurate artillery shelling by 105 Brigade. Such was the intensity of the artillery fusillade every time that the enemy granted undue strength to the attacking troops by imagining two attacking brigades. It was, thus, unable to plan properly and counter-attack confidently, much to the chagrin of the Maj Gen Ram Singh, Commander ‘Foxtrot’ Sector who thought that 67 Brigade was ‘discomposed and flustered, its men demoralised and put out.’[4] The brigade saw two of its successively changed commanders ram their heads, as it were, against the dogged resistance by Brig Amir Hamza’s brilliantly-led outfit.[5]

Since all Indian counter-attacks were foiled within hours of darkness, air support during day time largely served to mop up any stragglers, besides boosting own troops’ morale. No 17 Squadron based at Rafiqui flew 55 F-86E sorties, of which 33 were considered successful. In 22 sorties, either no targets could be found or, bombs were released on dead reckoning with questionable results. Half a dozen tanks and some vehicles were claimed as destroyed.

Hussainiwala Sector

Several enclaves nestled in the meandering loops of Rivers Ravi and Sutlej came to be exchanged during minor operations by either side. Difficult to defend across rivers, one such Indian enclave was Hussainiwala, which housed an important canal headworks by the same name. The psychologically significant Indian town of Firozpur lay a tantalising six miles from Hussainiwala.

At twilight of 3 December, Pakistani 106 Infantry Brigade (11 Division) attacked with two infantry battalions and a troop of armour. The opening barrage of artillery fire completely surprised Indian 15 Punjab (35 Brigade), a two-battalion strength unit tasked to defend the enclave. Consternation amongst the defenders knew no bounds when the Hussainiwala Bridge, which had been wired up by them for demolition just in case, purportedly blew up under Pakistani artillery fire. The Officer Commanding of 15 Punjab, safely ensconced in his headquarters south of River Sutlej, was too overcome by the devastating situation and pleaded with his superiors for a withdrawal. ‘Infected by his pessimism’ (as the Indian official historian puts it), the brigade commander was able to convince Commander 7 Division to pull back to the south bank of the river after having conceded about 20 square miles to Pakistani forces. Within 24 hours of start of the operation, Firozpur lay at the mercy of Brig Mumtaz Khan’s seemingly unstoppable brigade.

With the grave threat to Firozpur having developed in no time, IAF responded swiftly and, in full force, to keep 106 Brigade from making any further headway. Without low level radar cover, PAF’s presence in the air meant little and, IAF fighters had virtual freedom of action which they used to some advantage. It is easy to see why any advance towards Firozpur would have been disastrous. As in Chamb Sector, GHQ wisely decided not to expand the operation, since the basic objective of improving the defensive posture had been achieved.

With the Indian ground troops having hunkered down, PAF fighters on air support missions were unable to spot any worthwhile targets. A nominal 29 sorties were flown on the following days and, other than a mission claiming to have targeted Firozpur ammunition dump, all were unsuccessful.

Red Patrols

An important, though abortive effort, involved the move of 1 Armoured Division from its concentration area in Arifwala-Okara to its forward assembly area east of Bahawalnagar. This vulnerable move by rail and road was provided with top cover by standing patrols between 15-17 December. The aptly named ‘red’ CAPs lasted a duration of 30 daylight hours and involved F-86E and F-6 aircraft from Rafiqui, Sargodha and Risalewala. Given the paucity of resources, this was a commendable effort indeed. Its efficacy stood out in relief as no enemy aircraft were able to interfere during any of the 84 sorties flown. In all likelihood, the move completely eluded the enemy due to bad intelligence. Intriguingly, the unusual and intense air activity also failed to ring alarm bells and, the IAF missed an opportunity to undertake a profitable hunt that could have seen the hopelessly entrained armour routed thoroughly. Perhaps, the IAF commanders were completely overtaken by the imminence of the much-hyped Pakistani offensive that never came about.

[1] ‘Foxtrot’ Sector was a large four-brigade sized division.
[2] Indian Official History of 1971 Indo-Pak War, Chapter IX, ‘The Punjab and Rajasthan Front,’ Page 386.
[3] Indian counter-attacks were launched on the nights of 3-4 Dec, 4-5 Dec, 5-6 Dec, 8-9 Dec and 13-14 Dec.
[4] Indian Official History of 1971 Indo-Pak War, Chapter IX, ‘The Punjab and Rajasthan Front,’ page 387.
[5] Brig Surjit Singh Chaudhry was replaced by Brig G S Reen who was, in turn, replaced by Brig Piara Singh.