In the annals of military history, there are battles that stand out as defining moments, and one such battle occurred 58 years ago in the heart of Punjab, India. From September 8 to 10, 1965, the Indian Army faced off against the formidable 1st Armoured Division of the Pakistani Army in what would become known as the Battle of Asal Uttar.
A Clash of Titans
The Battle of Asal Uttar holds a special place in military history as the largest tank battle since the infamous Battle of Kursk during World War II. The intensity of this conflict earned the region around Asal Uttar the grim nickname, the ‘Graveyard of Patton Tanks.’ In fact, the village itself was renamed ‘Patton Nagar’ due to the significant number of US-made Pakistani Army Patton tanks left in ruins by the Indian Army.
The backdrop for this epic battle was the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War, which began on September 6 when the Indian Army crossed the international border into Pakistani Punjab, opposite Lahore. This move was in retaliation to Pakistan’s dual military operations – Operation Gibraltar and Operation Grand Slam – launched in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir.
A Strategic Shift
Initially, Pakistan gained ground with Operation Desert Hawk, infiltrating regular army troops disguised as guerrillas into Jammu and Kashmir. However, by the end of August, the Indian Army, with local support, had thwarted the infiltrators, securing the strategic ‘Haji Pir Pass.’
The loss of Haji Pir Pass and the failure of Operation Gibraltar prompted Pakistan to initiate Operation Grand Slam, aiming to capture Akhnoor, home to a crucial bridge vital for the supply route to Rajouri and Poonch.
In response, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri directed the Indian Army to launch a counter-offensive, crossing into Punjab. This move forced Pakistan to halt Operation Grand Slam and redirect its forces to confront the advancing Indian troops near Lahore.
Pakistan’s Tactical Gamble
To counter the Indian Army’s advance, Pakistan devised an ingenious strategy. Rather than launching a direct attack on Amritsar, which would involve crossing multiple canals and slow down the operation, they chose to move along the canals, bypassing Amritsar, and aiming for the vital bridges at Beas and Sutlej (Harike) rivers.
This tactical choice allowed Pakistan to achieve two critical objectives – cutting the Grand Trunk (GT) road to Delhi and flanking both Amritsar and Jalandhar. To further complicate matters for India, there were no reserves available after deploying the 2nd Armoured Brigade to the Bhikkiwind-Khemkaran area.
Adding to the challenge, Pakistani forces possessed advanced US-supplied tanks, including night-fighting capable M-47 and M-48 Patton tanks, while the Indian Army relied on Second World War-era Sherman tanks and AMX-13 light tanks, lacking night-fighting capabilities.
The Heroic Battle
Two days after the Indian troops crossed the international border, Pakistan launched its counter-offensive on September 8, capturing the Indian town of Khemkaran. However, due to a one-day delay in Pakistan’s operation, the Indian Army’s 4th Mountain Division managed to establish defenses in the area.
Employing ingenious tactics, the division flooded the region south of Valhota, trapping Pakistani tanks in marshy terrain. With resolute defense, bolstered by horseshoe-shaped positions, the Indian Army successfully repelled repeated attacks, capturing over 40 enemy tanks and destroying around 100 while losing only 10 of their own.
The Turning Point
The defeat of the Pakistani Army in the Battle of Asal Uttar significantly shifted the balance in India’s favor, ultimately leading to a ceasefire between India and Pakistan on September 23. This historic battle also saw Company Quartermaster Havildar Abdul Hamid’s exceptional valor as he destroyed four enemy tanks with his 105mm recoilless rifle before sacrificing his life in the line of duty, earning him the Param Vir Chakra (PVC), India’s highest military decoration.
The Battle of Asal Uttar remains a testament to the courage, determination, and strategic prowess of the Indian Army. It serves as a reminder of how, against all odds, a nation can triumph in the face of adversity, even in the most challenging of circumstances.
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