In early 1965, Pakistan’s first dictator president, self-promoted Field Marshal Ayub Khan and his coterie of commanders were feeling rather heady. America had doled out many squadrons worth of Patton tanks, Sabre jets etc. And Khan believed that following India’s defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian war, “Hindu morale would not stand more than a couple of hard blows at the right time and place.” Pak army brass were even dreaming of the ‘Gates of New Delhi’, when in early 1965 they experimented with Op Desert Hawk, by attacks in the salt-water plains of Gujrat’s Rann of Kutch, which were repulsed.
Next came Pakistan’s constant obsession, Jammu & Kashmir. The significantly codenamed Op Gibraltar was aimed at ‘annexing J&K’. Contrary to Ayub & co’s expectations, Kashmiris did not welcome the ‘mujahids’ inducted by Pak army with open arms and instead, reported their movements to the Indian Army. While the infiltrators gained a few areas in Uri, Tithwal and Poonch, Indian Army shocked the Pakistanis by capturing the Haji Pir Pass. And also contrary to then Pakistan’s foreign minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s ‘assurances’ to Ayub that India would not react to Op <g data-gr-id="67">Gibraltor</g> by opening any other front, Indian Army launched offensives, which decimated Pak army’s protective armour at both Asal Uttar and Phillora (in Pak Punjab) and demolished its morale much before it reached the outskirts of Lahore.
The Patton Wreckers, is an engaging account with photographs and maps of how Indian Army’s 3 Cavalry, commanded by Col (later Maj Gen) Salim Caleb, destroyed 58 Patton, six Chaffee and two Sherman tanks; two M113 armoured personnel carriers (APCs), eight recoilless guns and one F-86 Sabre jet, in the battle of Asal <g data-gr-id="76">Utar</g>. The Indian Army’s armoured regiments that operated with 3 Cavalry in this sector were 8 Cavalry, 9 Horse (also known as Deccan Horse) and 14 Horse (also known as Scinde/Sindh Horse) where 3 Cavalry, which faced the brunt of the armoured action, was only equipped with British Centurian tanks of World War II vintage.
Both the Patton tanks and Sabre jets provided to Pakistan by the US were quite new at that time. And both Pakistan’s tanks and aircraft took heavy bashings by India’s Centurians and Gnat aircraft respectively. The Pakistanis launched their offensive at 0830 hours on September 08. The bridgehead operations were undertaken with two squadrons of <g data-gr-id="77">Chaffees</g> and one squadron of <g data-gr-id="78">Pattons</g>.
Under cover of artillery fire, the advancing columns moved within 900 metres of the Indian defences. At this point, they were engaged by tanks of 9 Horse. The Pakistani armour broke up into smaller groups and tried to infiltrate into the Indian defences by carrying out an outflanking manoeuvre. At one stage, 1/9 Gorkha Rifles, 9 Jammu and Kashmir Rifles and Headquarters 62 Mountain Brigade were surrounded.
Utilising standing crops, the tanks were engaged by 9 Horse, medium guns and tank hunting teams. 9 Horse managed to destroy 11 tanks while losing four of their tanks. Medium guns and tank hunting parties managed to damage three other tanks. Such heavy losses compelled the Pakistanis to retreat, who despite possessing night fighting capabilities, did not attack by night and gave a chance to the Indian units to regroup for the next assault.
On 08 September 1965, Col Caleb had begun moving the regiment towards Asal Uttar even before orders for the same came from above. Tank crews of B Squadron of 3 Cavalry were exhorted by the squadron commander, Maj PS Belvalkar over the radio – “Press hard and get them before they turn and run back”. The first tank commander to destroy two <g data-gr-id="92">Pattons</g> in quick succession was Dafadar (<g data-gr-id="95">equivalent</g> of Havildar – three chevron stripes on the sleeve) <g data-gr-id="93">Wasan</g> Singh. The first of the Centurians to be hit by an armour piercing shot from a Patton was of 2/Lt Prakash Joseph.
It was well aimed but failed to penetrate the Centurian’s gun mantlet. Both these developments were greeted by cheers and further boosted the confidence of the tank crews. By September 10, the Pakistanis with numerous tank and human casualties were in a desperate situation. When they attempted to outflank Indian defences with two regiments of <g data-gr-id="79">Pattons</g>, a squadron of Chaffee tanks and a motorised battalion, they were encountered by the tanks of 3 Cavalry and 8 Cavalry that were camouflaged in the sugarcane fields. On 11 September 1965, Second Lieutenant (2/Lt) PJS Mehta, led a team of 20 soldiers of 1 Dogra to search a sugarcane field where <g data-gr-id="74">suspicious</g> movement was seen.
Surrounding the sugarcane field, 2/Lt Mehta shouted out for those inside to come out. And out came the CO of Pak army’s 4 Cavalry, two majors, one captain and 17 of its other ranks; Mehta captured all as prisoners of war. 3 Cavalry’s squadron under Capt Nagindar Singh (later Col) was attached to Scinde Horse in the area Atari-<g data-gr-id="82">Dograi</g>. After destroying the second Pak tank, a Patton, he recalls: “Troops under my command shot down a Patton tank as it came down the Lahore-Amritsar road and we never saw any <g data-gr-id="83">Pattons</g> again in that area”.
Seeing Pakistani tank crews abandoning their tanks, 3 Cavalry’s A Squadron Commander Maj <g data-gr-id="68">Sureesh</g> <g data-gr-id="69">Vadera</g> put together a small reconnaissance party and approached the tanks, some of which had their engines and radio sets still running. They captured nine <g data-gr-id="70">Pattons</g> in perfect running condition. Also captured was <g data-gr-id="66">a M113</g> armoured personnel carrier, from which was recovered Pak army’s 4 Armoured Brigade Operation Order (reproduced in the book), which hangs framed in 3 Cavalry’s Officers’ Mess.
Pakistan suffered a crushing defeat in Asal Uttar due to Indian troops’ resolute stance. It lost 97 tanks, including 72 <g data-gr-id="84">Pattons</g>; 32 tanks were captured in running condition. India in contrast lost only five tanks. Apart from the major shock of losing over 100 Patton tanks in this battle and as many during the same period around and at Phillora, further shocks to Pakistan in Asal <g data-gr-id="86">Utar</g> were that 58 of these Pattons were destroyed by 3 Cavalry commanded by Col Caleb and three others were destroyed by Company Quarter Master Havildar Abdul Hamid of 4 Grenadiers – both Muslims among many others, in an army branded as “Hindu” by Ayub Khan & co. A stretch near Khem Karan, where about a 100 destroyed Pakistani tanks were lined up, came to be known as the Graveyard of <g data-gr-id="87">Pattons</g>. With Battle Honour “Asal Uttar” and Theatre Honour “Punjab 1965”, 3 Cavalry was conveyed a ‘Shabash’ personally from PM Lal Bahadur Shastri, and a note saying “Well done Caleb, Well done the 3rd Cavalry” from India’s foremost soldier, Field Marshal K M Cariappa.