THE BATTLE OF CHAMBB, 1971

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Lt Col Ashok Ahlawat

Episode – 10

[This is the tenth episode of a blog series we are featuring on the famous battle of Chambb of the 1971 War, as narrated by veterans of the 5th Battalion, the Sikh Regiment, one of the participant units in the battle. Continuing with the narrative of 2/Lieutenant Y S Rana.]

The Minefield Patrol

Late evening, 4th December: A thudding Pak salvo was petering out, the tremors gradually becoming more distant. The falling shells hopped deeper and deeper into our rear areas. The evening star came out pure and silver-washed, brighter than the moon that looked muddy with a hue of saffron. Invisible booming shells flew in the night, like a migration of deadly rodents on aerial highways. The darkness was being whipped by boomers of echoes as artillery duels see-sawed.

A pall of dust hung in the air like flour suspended densely in a village flour mill. I looked around for the canvas chagal that Baldev left hanging on a nail in the bunker. The white enamel mug stood on my black IMA trunk, the alphabets neatly painted recently, 2/Lt YS Rana, 5 Sikh. I thought my trunk was making a good companionable start with me. After the war it deserved a medal. The mug was silted with sand. I started scraping the sand with my fingers when I heard footsteps. It was Baldev.

“Saabji tenu pichey se hukum aaya si – Order has come from the rear for you.”

“What is the hukum?”

“Leftain Saab nu phejjo aggey – Send the lieutenant forward. He will go and check that enemy has not started breaching the defensive minefield in front of us.”

I wondered who had passed this order but as a one-pipper you couldn’t question whose order it was? It wasn’t to my liking. It’s definitely hazardous and like any rational human being, one was given to thinking of own safety. Well, I said to myself, if you have to go and do this job, you need to have at least a small team for protection.

One feels lonely and vulnerable in a puny section at the extreme fringe of a company position. Where should I look for help? I wasn’t in contact with the rest of the platoon and hadn’t seen anyone outside my section for hours. There were barely seven or eight men with me. In the day, Subedar Hazura Singh, the platoon JCO, had come to my section a couple of times. I didn’t know where he was now.

There was only one guy I could turn to for advice, my NCO, Naik Saudagar Singh. I said, “Saudagar, hun ke kariyey? – What do we do now? Hun chalna paina, hun dekhna paina – We have to go and have a look.”

Saudagar nodded. “Ji Saab ji, appan kuch karde han – Yes sir, we will think of something.”

“But I don’t even know where the minefield gap is. Do you know where it is?”

“Haan Saab mainu thoda pata haiga – Yes Sir, I have some idea where it is,” he replied.

“All right, then you come along with me.”

I told the MMG crew to cover us and keep a sharp lookout. Harassing my men who were resting to no end, I took out two of them for our mission. The four of us set out to check whether the enemy had begun breaching the minefield in front of our positions.

I was in front, leading, as we made our way forward crouching and walking. The occasional deviant shell flew overhead and solitary explosions rocked the stillness of the night. In the dark, every clump of breeze-rustled sarkanda loomed as if hiding the enemy. Naik Saudagar crept forward and whispered in my ear. “Saabji tussi saab ho, tussi aggey mat challo – Sir you are an officer and you shouldn’t be walking upfront.”

“Where should I be then?” I asked.

“Tussi aggey sipahi lagao. Aggey wo challey ga,oss nuh pata hai aggey kitthey jana hai – Please put a sepoy in the lead. He knows which way we have to go.” His suggestion made sense, so I put one of the men in front. I still remember his name; Sepoy Dalbir Singh. I walked behind Dalbir, followed by Saudagar and the fourth member of our team behind him, whose name I can no longer recollect. We inched along light-footed. The dusty, lustreless moon threw faint beams on the bombed earth, shedding enough light for us to work our way through the minefield gap.

I noticed that Dalbir would take one step forward, halt and the tilt his head to his right; then he would take another two steps, tilt his turbaned head and freeze. He would go on to repeat the process. I whispered to him, “Walk faster, this way we will spend the whole night here.” In compliance, he walked ten steps briskly and then froze again like a deer that had smelled the presence of a tiger in the grass. Then again, he tilted his head and strained as if he was looking backward.

I asked him, “Dalbir, Gall ki hai? – Dailbir, whats the matter with you?”

“Nahi, nahi Saab kuch nahi – No Sir, there’s nothing.”

It occurred to me that he was apprehensive about something, Saudagar behind, whispered to me. “Iske dil me shakk hai Saab – He is doubtful in his mind Sir. Mainu aggey karr diya, pichey aa bhi rahey hain ya nahin? – They have put me in the lead, but are they following me or not?”

So, I kept myself closer to Dalbir to reassure him that he wasn’t alone. We reached the forward edge of the minefield and had a look around. There was no sign of any enemy minefield breaching parties at work. We came back and I duly passed my report. Till date, however, I have not been able to ascertain who passed me that order.

On my return from the patrol, I found my batman Baldev in a state of indignation. “Saabji main dekhda haan keda dushman minefield check karda – Sir let me sort out whichever enemy has the gumption to intrude our minefield.”

“Tu ker kareyga Baldev – What are you going to do Baldev?”

“Min hun dushman noo tabah karda haan – I will destroy all the enemy right away Sir. How dare they come inside our minefield.”

“So, how do you propose to accomplish that, Baldev?”

“Saabji, mere koll khoob saare grenade paiyaan – Sir I have a heavy stock of grenades.’

Baldev, indeed, was also the bomber of the section. He was in a ferocious, quixotic temper. I told him to go ahead and make the enemy pay dearly. He went to his trench where he kept his boxes of grenades. After sometime I thought I would check how the singlehanded destruction of Pak army by our redoubtable Baldev was going on.

He was on all fours inside his trench when I saw him. I asked him.

“Kee gall hui – What happened?” He said sheepishly, “Saabji mainu josh aaya, me fire keeta par grenade naal merey taa discharge cap hi udd gayi – Sir I was raring to fire the grenades, but with my very first grenade the discharge cap got blown away. Without the discharge cap on the rifle, I cannot fire the grenades.”

I could immediately grasp that excited and in the dark, he had probably not aligned the discharge cap properly and tightened it fully. He must have fired the grenade with the discharge cap loose, and it could have got blown off with the grenade.

“Tu baitha kitthey si? – Where were you positioned?”

He indicated where he had fired from and I told him. “Go straight up for 15 yards and search; you will find it between 15 to 20 yards.” He sprang up and rushed out, and was back with the discharge cap after a while

“Saabji twannu tey bada pata haiga – Sir you are very knowledgeable.”

“What will you do now Baldev?”

” Me taa fire karangaa Saabji – I will get on with firing the grenades Sir.”

I pushed off to my bunker. The boys on the roof were lying behind the LMG, the square magazine on top of the gun silhouetted against the murky darkness under the reflection of a labouring moon. I poured some water in the mug from the chaggal and drank it without bothering to check whether it was clean or muddy. My mouth tasted of the Chambb sand. I sat on the ground and eased my weary legs that felt heavy.

[To be continued]

Lt Col Ashok Ahlawat
Lt Col Ashok Ahlawat is a serving officer of the Indian Army, who has extensively researched the role of 5 Sikh in the Battle of Chambb, interviewing many of the veterans, and created a minute-to-minute account of the action, as narrated by the veterans themselves in first person. He can be reached at ashahlawat@gmail.com
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