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[Image:1971 India-Pakistan War]

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Part Seven: Battle of Longewal

    An audacious Plan

[image: A destoryed Pakistani tank at Longewala] The Battle of Longewal, fought in the deserts of the Indian state of Rajasthan, merits inclusion in any account of the 1971 India-Pakistan war because of the sheer audacity of the Pakistani generals who had planned it. Had it succeeded, India would have lost thousands of kilometres of a vast expanse of desert. But there is a fine line between the daring and the foolhardy. Did Pakistani generals cross that dividing line?

The Rajasthan sector was rather thinly held by both the Indians and by the Pakistanis for the simple reason that the Thar desert is not conducive to vehicular movement. Unlike in North Africa where the desert surface is relatively hard and the coastal areas allow for easy movement of traffic, the loose shifting sands of the Thar cannot be crossed by wheeled vehicles and even tracked vehicles are liable to get bogged down. The region also has very few dirt tracks and even fewer paved roads. On the Pakistani side, the principal town is Rahimiyar Khan which is also an important railway junction connecting prosperous Pakistani Punjab in the north with the barren province of Sindh and its capital, Karachi, in the south. On the Indian side, the four principal towns are Jaisalmir, Barmer, Bikaner and Jodhpur. The major portion of Indian forces in 1971 were concentrated near the border towns of Barmer and Jaisalmir, both of which are supported by a forward air force base. The original Indian plan was to attack Rahimiyar Khan from Jaisalmir with a view to cutting off the main railway artery in West Pakistan.

The Pakistani plan was no less ambitious and a surprise attack was launched along the Gabbar-Longewal axis. The main axis lay to the north, connecting the Indian town of Jaisalmir with the Pakistani town of Islamgarh and Rahimiyar Khan beyond it. The intruding Pakistani armoured column and accompanying towed artillery was spotted by an Indian patrol on 4th December after it had come 16 km into Indian territory. The first reports were dismissed, until the enemy took up position just 300 metres away from the isolated Indian Army company located at Longewal. The unit had no anti-tank weapons or mines. The Pakistanis could have overrun the post within hours. But the Indian company commander, Major Kuldip Singh Chandpuri, showed presence of mind by bringing in the company's recoilless guns and heavy machine guns and directing concentrated and sustained fire at the enemy positions. The Pakistanis were taken aback by the extent of the fire and felt that the Indians must have a much larger force at Longewal than reported by their Intelligence. Instead of storming the post and carrying on to Jaisalmir as was the plan, the Pakistanis encircled the post and decided to set up their artillery to soften it up before attacking.

Destroyed Pakistani tank at Longewala By this time, the GOC of 12 Indian Infantry Division based at Tanot north of Jaisalmir was fully in the picture and realised that the Pakistanis had launched a full-scale armoured thrust to take Jaisalmir by outflanking 12 Division's main forces concentrated in the Tanot-Kishengarh area. Later it was discovered that the commanding officer of 18 Pakistani Army Division had planned to breakfast at Ramgarh and have dinner at Jaisalmir before proceeding on to Jodhpur. In complete contrast to the Pakistani divisional commander's audacity was over-cautiousness of the Indian generals. Confronted by the surprise attack, both the Indian divisional commander and his senior in charge of Southern Command dithered. They neither continued with their planned attack on Rahimiyar Khan nor did they send a large enough force to engage the Pakistani intruders. The job of relieving pressure on the beleaguered Indian company was left to the Indian Air Force.

Squadron. Ldr. R.N.Bali, Hunter pilot
Sqdr. Ldr. R.N.Bali
The IAF at that time had only two oldish Hawker Hunter aircraft positioned at Jaisalmir and that too mainly for reconnaissance purposes. Among the two pilots posted there was Squadron Leader R.N.Bali:"It was on the 4/5th night that we learnt of a change in plans and that we had to take on the enemy tank thrust at Longewal. It was sometime after midnight when we received our orders and it took 2 to 3 hours to change the role of our aircraft from air defence to ground attack. But we had to wait till first light to launch our mission...

"We saw enemy tanks strewn around in an area in a radius of more than 30 kilometres since the enemy tanks had started taking evasive action. We had to split our basic two-level missions into one level so that each aircraft could go in turn by turn. We were lucky in
Hunters at Longewal Battle: Gun camera shots
Hunter Taking off from Jaisalmir
Hunter launching rockets
Ground fire from desert
Rockets hit target
Burning Pakistani tank
the sense that there was no enemy air opposition in the first phase and we could afford to put in more time over the target and see what we were destroying."

Squadron Leader Bali and his colleague flew sortie after sortie all through 5th December and completely broke up the enemy formation. The second contingent of Pakistani armour following the spearhead too got bogged down and was shot up. On 6 December, the two Hunters were joined by another two Hunters and the air to ground battle continued. By 7 December the Pakistani column was in full retreat and the PAF had started flying sorties to cover them. The Indian Army should have pursued and destroyed the enemy force but it failed to do so because of the lack of initiative of the Indian generals.

But the Hunters had done their job well. Of the 54 or so Pakistani T-59 and Sherman tanks that had come in, as many as forty were destroyed or abandoned. Another 138 vehicles of all types were destroyed along with 5 field guns and three anti-aircraft guns. The desert around Longewal was a smouldering graveyard of tanks and vehicles. The Pakistanis replaced the commander of their 18 Division based at Rahimiyar Khan, well before the retreat probably because it was clear that he had not considered co-ordinating air support or even arranging for adequate air defence guns before launching his attack. The pity is that the Indian generals in that sector too failed to take advantage of the rout and in the end started the campaign far too late. 12 Division ultimately managed only to advance cautiously to the town of Islamgarh. In contrast, 11 Indian Army Division, operating from near Barmer about 240 km away towards the south, did a much better job and continued its advance across difficult terrain, which required the laying of duckboard before tanks or vehicles could advance. 11 Division was active throughout the war despite enemy air action, stiff enemy opposition and lack of water. At the cessation of hostilities, 11 Division was poised to take the town of Naya Chor about 50 kilometres inside Pakistan.

The lessons of Longewal are clear: success in any endeavour requires balancing caution with courage. The Indian commander in the Jaisalmir sector lost out because he was too cautious while his Pakistani counterpart lost his job because he threw caution to the desert winds. And war can at times be brutally unforgiving...  

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