Hodson’s Horse: Fight to the very end
This is the story of Hodson’s Horse, also known as 4th Horse, in the second India-Pakistan war perpetrated by Pakistan, in 1965. Hodson’s Horse is also the regiment in which Pakistan’s first dictator president, self-proclaimed Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s father, Risaldar Major Mir Dad Khan served, way back during its horse cavalry days.
In the 1965 war, Hodson’s Horse was equipped with World War II vintage Centurian tank. This armada of tanks is what destroyed the maximum number of enemy tanks (79) — most of which were newly acquired and technologically far superior Patton tanks from the US) and 17 recoilless (RCL) guns. It is also the only regiment in which the commanding officer’s (CO) tank destroyed four enemy tanks despite being 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. Reacting fast, the regiment was also a classic example of armour turning the flank and destroying superior forces by skilful manoeuvre and surprise. Despite great odds on the ground like enemy’s superior/newer tanks and lack of maps and other equipment moved to all required locations and fulfilled all tasks beyond higher commanders’ expectations. Outstanding bravery was displayed by all ranks, some died, some got severely wounded, and some were left disabled.
An excerpt from the comprehensive personal account of Hodson’s Horse in that war, written by its then CO, Lt Col (Later Brig) MMS Bakshi, MVC, about the Battle of Phillora is indeed relevant. For the first time since WW II, there were such intense tank to tank engagements at Asal Uttar and Phillora, which demolished a huge chunk of Pak army’s inventory of tanks and plummeted their men’s morale.
By September 11, 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 in sight. Meanwhile, 17 Horse had also fetched up from the direction of Libby 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, <g data-gr-id="83">Gadgor</g> and Phillora. One of our units has been overrun at Gadgor; we are pulling back to Fatehpur”.
The enemy had been unnerved. Not much of this force was, however, allowed to escape to Phillora as ‘A’ Squadron was lying in wait for it in the area. We choked 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 (Hodson’s) Horse accounted for 27. Our Brigade had suffered the destruction of six tanks, with nine damaged. Other than my tank, we had no tank losses in 4 Horse, and none was damaged seriously. 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 a great magnitude. Severely punished in his first big armour clash with us, his morale was shaken up so badly that his unit 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 skilful manoeuvre and surprise. By delivering this crushing blow, we had established our moral ascendancy 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. While the regiment got 43 gallantry awards, a brief mention about some personnel is relevant. 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 even four hits and bailing out only when the tanks actually caught fire. Pakistani tank crews bailed out on getting hit once, even if their tanks’ main guns and machine –guns were functional.
Lt Ashok <g data-gr-id="94">Sodhi,</g> became a victim of Pakistan armour’s poor gunnery when an armour-piercing round failed to hit the tank but grazed his skull shattering a 3 inches diameter part of it. He was in a coma in the Army Hospital Delhi for over 30 days, after which he recovered with a fresh lease of life and a plate covering the shattered part of his skull. Lt Charanjit Singh was killed by being hit in the head during air strafing. Capt Jasbir Singh Hundal, the Reconnaissance Troop Leader, had many near misses while operating in an open jeep throughout the duration of the war. Lt 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, the signal cum 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 Lance Dafadar Udham Singh, that too, posthumously. Maj Desraj Urs, C Squadron Commander, lost sight of one eye in which shrapnel hit him. Maj KS Dhillon, A Squadron Commander, was severely wounded by shell splinters from a near miss while gallantly directing fire onto an enemy OP (observation post meant for directing artillery fire). He suffers from a severe permanent limp.
While Maj Bhupinder Singh was admitted to Army Hospital, Delhi Cantt for severe burns, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri came there to meet the war-wounded personnel. When the PM approached his bed, Maj Singh expressed regret at not being able to salute him. Shastri praised his spirit repeatedly after that. And quite typically again, at the end Hodson’s Horse was most modest in projecting its achievements. Finally, also very relevant is an excerpt of Pak army’s Brigadier Shaukat Qadir (retd), who examined why Pakistan’s Operation Grand Slam failed. Perhaps the apt words on this are these lines. “Perhaps if Akhnur had been captured and the Indian lines of communication severed, the Indian attack on Sialkot could never have occurred! Perhaps! But that we will never know. What we do know is that Akhnur was not captured, and this led us into the attack on Lahore and later Sialkot in the wee hours of September 6, 1965. It is a matter of historical record that Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, then foreign minister, convinced Ayub Khan, the president, that the Indian response to our incursions in Kashmir would not be across the international boundary and would be confined to Kashmir. Secondly, the undertaking of guerrilla operations necessitates special conditions, not only must the terrain be suitable, which it was, but there must be guaranteed local support, without which guerrilla operations are not sustainable.
Preferably there should be a preliminary reconnaissance and liaison that sets the ground for such an operation. For some obscure reason, Pakistan undertook Operation Gibraltar, without preparing the grounds for it, or seeking guarantees of local support, or even attempting to assess the mood of the Kashmiri people. They only relied on the assessment offered by some adventurous element of Kashmiris from Azad Kashmir without verifying this assessment. Far from rising in arms, the local population denied any support and, in many instances handed over the infiltrators to Indian troops.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)