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Straight shooting on the 1965 war

By Air Commodore (R) Sajjad Haider

As we honour the men who fought against all odds in 1965, we must also acknowledge the miscalculations of the army’s high command. Retired Air Commodore Sajjad Haider sets the record straight. Come September, Pakistanis are told how the gallant Pakistan Armed forces fought and thwarted the Indian Juggernaut which invaded Pakistan in a surprise move on September 6 ‘without any provocation’. For 49 years, the nation has been regaled by the stories of valor and ‘victory over the evil enemy’.

These stories are true, but the whole truth has not been told.Seldom has any attempt been made to tell the nation that the fighting elements of the armed forces achieved this spectacular success not because, but in spite of the visionless leadership which had perpetrated this senseless war on a flimsy, unprofessional and immature hypothesis. A soldier’s duty is to obey commands; theirs’ is not to question why.

So it was for 99 per cent of the Pakistani armed forces, professional fighting men who obeyed orders, often paying the ultimate price, while the one per cent issued orders from their safe bunkers and palaces, far from the discordant sound of guns, planes and the rattle of tanks. These knights in shining armour gave their lives so that their leaders, wearing suits of rusted mail, could cover themselves in glory.

In India, there is now a clear and coordinated attempt to paint the 1965 war as a great victory. Encouraged by the Modi government, which seeks to reverse historical humiliations by rewriting history, the Indian armed forces, top media outlets like the Indian Express and India Today, along with even renowned writers like Kuldip Nayyar are going all out to ‘prove’ that India came out on top in the ’65 war. This is an uphill task, given that even histories recorded by renowned Indian scholars say the opposite.

Ignored is the defeat of the Indian 31 brigade at Kanjarkot the Indian losses in the Kutch skirmish, the capitulation of its fighters to PAF interceptors in May 1965. The hopeless performance of the IAF in both the East and West, and the strident drubbing it received at the hands of a PAF that was one-third its size in particular stands out when you consider that our air force inflicted several times the attrition caused by the IAF.

The official IAF losses are chronicled in an award-winning air war history by military historian P.V.S Jagan Mohan and Samir Chopra, which details the 66 IAF operational aircraft lost to PAF action and the nine aircraft lost to accidents. By contrast, PAF attrition was 12 aircraft destroyed due to enemy action and five lost to accidents. This means that an air force 3.5 times the size of the PAF suffered an attrition ratio of 5:1 in favour of the PAF.

Thus, the ‘Big Picture’ that sections of the Indian media is trying to project vis-à-vis the ’65 war is in fact an ‘unreal picture.’ One can understand their frustration and the need for Indian Prime Minister Modi to rewrite history, but such fabrications cannot stand in the face of facts. But let’s leave India aside and focus on the facts about the war that we have not been told in Pakistan. After all, the first step in learning from your mistakes is to acknowledge those mistakes in the first place, and that is something we have not done.

Having been in a key operational command in both 1965 and 1971, I say with full confidence that irrespective of which branch of the armed forces they served in, the fearless spirit and valor of our fighting men was exemplary. Sadly, the laurels of victory in Pakistan were placed largely on undeserving heads, while the real achievers and heroes still remain deprived of their due accolades.

This was done due to the efforts and the pervasive propaganda unleashed by those at the highest echelons of the army and all the ‘King’s Men’ who, immediately after the cease fire, set out to successfully create a massive cover-up to bury deep the blunders that cost thousands of lives even before September 6. This may come as a surprise to many because the secret of those martyrs sent on Operation: Gibraltar, a one way mission to capture Kashmir, does not find mention during the celebration ceremonies.

Who was it who thought that an operation to capture Kashmir would not invite ferocious Indian action? It was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who, with Aziz Ahmed in tow, propounded “The plan to create an Algerian type revolution in the vale”, a plan that field marshal-turned-president Ayub Khan and his selected Commander in Chief (C-in-C) Musa Khan swallowed hook, line and sinker.

Thus, 8,000 or so men (mostly non-soldiers) were thrown into the fray without a thought as to the consequences of this action. These men were recruited largely from the Muzaffarabad area with the guidance of a single regular Azad Kashmir battalion and were interspersed with a smattering of highly trained commandoes. It was a folly reminiscent of Field Marshall Raglan’s ordering the light brigade to charge into the Russian guns during the Crimean War. The C-in-C at the time writes in his memoirs that the Azad Kashmiri irregulars were trained for six to eight weeks at Rawalpindi in the art of guerilla warfare. Let that sink in for a moment: six to eight weeks only. Ho-chi Minh, Chou en Li, Ben Bella and Che Guevara must have turned in their graves at this.

And so it was that, without a modicum of strategic vision or proper contingency planning or preparation; without any known networking with local elements or even their sympathy, Op Gibraltar was launched. Three Pakistani officers pose for a picture in front of the imposing structure of the ancient Rajasthan Fort at Gotaro. This was one of the chain of forts and other fortifications captured by Pakistan’s Desert Force during September 1965.  Dawn File Photo

In the last brief at Kharian, I think in late July, the President had asked for a brief on Op Gibraltar. Two most significant things happened in this briefing, as I learnt from Gen Gul Hussan as well as Gen Akhtar Malik separately much after the war. The President asked Gen Akhtar Malik why he does not go for Akhnur (the sole entry point and the jugular vein of the valley known as the ‘Chicken’s Neck’) and block off India from the Vale. Akhtar Malik replied that he could take Akhnur provided he is given a task force.

According to history, the 12 Div. was then allocated additional forces for Operation: Grand Slam. Resultantly, the capture of Akhnur through Op Grand Slam came on the menu only at that time. The second point would surprise many: Gen Sarfraz, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of 10 Division, meant for the defense of Lahore, implored the C-in-C to allow them to take full defensive measures in case of an inevitable escalation. He was curtly told ‘No, do not provoke the enemy, do not escalate a local operation (meaning the occupation of Kashmir)’. Gen Gul Hussan told me years later at my home that he had instructions from the C-in-C that every signal to operational units must end with “Do Not Provoke, Do Not Escalate”.

Thus a disaster foretold ominously was made reality by the national leadership and army high command. They thought in their limited ‘barrack to battalion’ knowledge of military strategy that India will lose Kashmir without a whimper, and will not dare to escalate the war. They believed that this resulting victory would then cement the insecure president’s position and ensure a bright future for all his courtiers.

How ironic that despite all the blunders and the lives lost to their callous incompetence and utter stupidity, yet these men flourished and remained unaccountable. In shameful contrast, the martyrs of Op Gibraltar who were sent on a one way mission were removed from the radar in perpetuity. What about their kith and kin? Should they not deserve the acknowledgment of their martyrdom?

Indubitably, the Indian invasion was not unprovoked; it was the direct consequence of the failed Operation: Gibraltar and the imminent threat posed by Op Grand Slam to Akhnur, the sole entry and the jugular of the valley known as the ‘Chicken’s Neck’. General Akhtar Hussain Malik almost achieved that herculean task.

In his war diaries, general officer commanding-in-chief (GOC-In-C) of the western front, General Joginder Singh writes: “Gen Akhtar Malik had steam rolled over Chamb and was heading for Akhnur with tremendous velocity; Akhnur lay like a ripe plum and undoubtedly he would head for Jammu after securing Akhnur; even today we hang our heads in shame that the officers and men of the 161 artillery regiment, stationed for the main defense of Akhnur had defected after hearing the news of Akhtar Malik’s onslaught on Chamb and heading for Akhnur. But suddenly there was eerie quiet and we wondered what Gen Malik was planning. A whole day passed and Providence came to our help as we heard the news that Gen Malik had been replaced.”

This has been a heart breaking event which my fingers quiver to write about even today. History would have been very different had the high palace intrigue not deprived the brave General Malik of his red letter day. Brig. Amjad Hussain, Comm. Artillery describes vividly the shock and rage at the removal of Gen Akhtar Hussain Malik and the turning of a victory foretold into a tragedy in perpetuity.

Yahya Khan, in a high intrigue drama was given command. In Yahya’s own words, spoken at the Quetta Staff College when he was the President and questioned by an irate chief instructor on why he did not take Akhnur on Sept 1, he replied curtly, “Because I was ordered not to do it”.

That day, we lost Kashmir forever, not due to the enemy’s strong riposte but due to the deceit and incompetence of our own leadership. It was not the high command, but the courage and resolute will of the fighting elements of the armed forces that saved the country.

As the Indian blitz on the 6th of Sept was developing against the city of Lahore, the heart and soul of Pakistan, it was met with the indomitable spirit, resolve and blood of a handful of soldiers (officers and men) who stood like the rock of Gibraltar to defend the their homeland with their blood, looking death in the eye.

Numerically, India had 4:1 superiority on land and 3.5:1 in the air. Besides, it had great geographical depth and a huge resource fountain. But what the enemy did not know was the fact that they had an unknown advantage accruing from Pakistan’s leadership. It would be instructive to understand the disadvantage our forces had suffered owing to the same failure of leadership and mindset. When Op Gibraltar was launched, 25 per cent of the army personnel were on home leave. The Divisional Commanders at Lahore, Kasur and Sialkot were not permitted to place defensive mines and other measures for the defense of the border; nor allowed full deployment on the border. The idea being not to provoke the Indians to avoid escalation, as the occupation of Kashmir was in progress.

Another colossal mishap requires attention: the president, in his infinite wisdom, along with his army chief decided not to bring PAF leader AM Asghar Khan, the father of a force he had trained to be amongst the best in the world, into the Kashmir misadventure loop.  Ayub Khan’s information czar, Altaf Gauhar, writes that the reason was that Ayub knew that Asghar Khan would give meaning and content to the war and make it decisive. (I have these comments if anyone is interested).

It was on the fateful day that Asghar Khan was completing his eight years of service on July 23, 1965, and handing the PAF command to Air Marshal (AM) Nur Khan, a brave and great fighter himself, but one who had been away for eight years winning laurels for his successes and who only took command when war was imminent. But national security was apparently an idea which had to be the exclusive domain of the supreme commander; everyone in crucial positions had to be amenable to the President. Luckily, AM Nur Khan inherited a formidable fighting machine.

As opposed to the depleted operational readiness status enforced by the design of the army leadership, the PAF had been kept on Phase 1 Operational Alert since the Rann of Kutch episode and it was buzzing with operational vibrancy. I often felt sorry for our gallant and professional army, where I knew lots and lots of great officers, who were not lucky enough to have leaders like the PAF had since its inception.

The PAF doctrine for war had been the master-mind of the visionary AM Asghar Khan and the operational strategy the work of a team working under the guidance of AM Rahim Khan, Chief of Operations. We, as young squadron commanders had been summoned to Air Headquarters along with Officers commanding, Wings and Base commanders on June 6, 1965 and given a comprehensive brief into the concept of air operations as the C-in-C opined that he saw war clouds on the horizon. (AM Asghar Khan had no inkling about the Kashmir Committee plan to de-freeze Kashmir).

Finally, each commander present was allocated his war missions. The tactical aspects of mission accomplishment were left to each squadron commander, such was the confidence level of the PAF high command in the junior commanders. This is leadership and the loyalty it evokes in the hearts of fighting elements to do and die for the country.

After the air battle over Kashmir, where the IAF lost five fighters, the next air action of the 1965 war came on September 6, at 9.30am. It was the first mission of war assigned to No. 19 Sherdil Squadron, which I had the honour to command. The target assigned was an enemy artillery regiment across the Jassar Bridge in the Sialkot-Shakargarh bulge.

The squadron had been custom trained to be second to none. Each pilot wore this dedication to excellence on his sleeve and understood well that excellence was not an option but an instinct in mission accomplishment. The narrative will prove what I mean here: five minutes away from the target area, the radio crackled and the voice of our Air Defence Commander was discernible.

He instructed us that our primary mission is cancelled and that we were to proceed to village Attari area and destroy enemy forces about to enter Lahore. He may as well have transmitted a million watts electric shock to us with the word ‘Lahore’. Here it would be prudent to mention that the Indian Express in its 23rd issue carries an irresponsible and highly manipulative article based on twisted facts which needs a strong riposte. It reads, “In Punjab, the army reached close to the outskirts of Lahore but did not press on.”

This is yet another fabrication, and a very condescending and flimsy one at that. I don’t want to dwell too much on my own role in a war where so many gave their all, but I was at the scene leading 6 Falcons of 19 Squadron as we were diverted to the GT road. Why would the Indian General Choudhary risk invading the heart of Pakistan and then circumvent it for some odd reason?

On the contrary, Gen Choudhary had held a conference late at night in which several foreign correspondents, including Mark Tully of the BBC, were invited to the Lahore Gymkhana for a victory drink. What really happened is best described in an account about our air action at Wagah by none less than Gen Lachhman Singh, Gen Sukhwant Singh and award winning historians Jagan Mohan and Samir Chopra, quoted here in parts:

“No.19 Sqdn. From Peshawar, led by (my name), flew a six aircraft strike mission at 0930 hours against the leading elements of Indian army thrust towards Lahore. The leading battalion of the division, 3 Jat, led by Col. Desmond Hyde had its columns strafed and rocketed by PAF sabres. The unit lost all its Guns and Sherman Tanks … (Lachhman) …. It was about 9.30am and the enemy aircraft shot up every vehicle for about 15 minutes undeterred by fire from our troops.”

I also read that after the drubbing at the hands of PAF there was a rout in the leading echelons of the Indian Strike force. Quoting Gen Sukhwant Singh, “the C.O. of the battalion ran back with just one sock and one shoe, deserting the battalion. His 2nd in command followed suit and escaped on a bicycle and took refuge in Amritsar.”

Here’s an interesting anecdote I would like to share: I was asked by Pushpindar Singh, a top air war historian if I knew whose Flag Jeep I had fired upon at Wagha on the morning of September 6. I replied that I recalled it was my sixth and last attack and while exiting the theatre, I saw a jeep with a flag which I shot I shot at and saw a figure jumping out before the bullets hit the jeep. Pushpindar confirmed that this was Major Gen Nirindera Parshad, the Div. Commander who abandoned his Division. Having set out for the Lahore Gymkhana, he instead ended up in Amritsar to be court martialled.

That same evening in our third mission of the day we obliterated the IAF base at Pathankot, destroying 13 fighters as part of the tragically failed magnum opus of the PAF planned by venerable AM Asghar Khan. It failed because hisJune 6 strategic plan was not followed through, owing to the negativity of a couple of timid air staff officers who misled the newly appointed C-in-C.

Had the plan, which had been fully rehearsed with aircrafts and the best pilots of the PAF made available, the IAF would have incontrovertibly lost over 50 fighters. Sadly, the command at two prime bases failed in their mission. We expect nothing from the Indians, but this nation and its rulers (I didn’t say leaders) owe so much to such few gallant fighters for their strident commitment to their country, a commitment they have always fulfilled with their blood, sweat and the tears of the families. As we fight a different war even today, we must not shy away from acknowledging the mistakes of the past. It is only by doing so that we can secure our future. The writer is a retired air commodore and author of the bestseller Flight of the Falcon: Demolishing Myths of 1965-1971 Senseless Wars.



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