THE BATTLE OF CHAMBB, 1971

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Episode – 13

[This is the thirteenth 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.]

Forgotten in a Silent Night

The day is 6th of December and I have not been away from my section for three days. The Pakistani aircraft came and strafed us, flying three at a time with unchecked impudence. They roared and danced, firing at anything that moved. I don’t know where the IAF was. It seemed that we didn’t have an air force. At such a sitch, it was best for infantry to stay hidden. Our camouflage bunkers were solidly thick overhead. We watched our front from the portholes, secure in the knowledge that there was a three-foot thick layer of mud above us.

I had the jeep-mounted recoilless gun sent to the rear. It might just reveal our positions and God alone knew where the Paki tanks were. They hadn’t come up in front of us again. Their three burnt-out tanks stood spread out across our foreground like storm-tossed vessels at sea. The enemy activity had slackened, but off and on, the unpredictable shell came whistling and fell with a loud, solitary thump. Evening drew near; the sun hung like a heavy, orange disc in the west for a few minutes; then in obeisance to its own mystic, sank at the horizon by inches. The daylight faded; darkness crept discreetly across the open. Like a chameleon, the brown earth turned an ashen, ink-stained anonymity.

The section stood in its trenches. Men looked drily over the monotonous earth that could bristle with enemy movements unexpectedly. There was no sign of life anywhere except that of the tiny ants that ran on the carved trench walls, carrying on with their business. The chapati-seeking crows had vanished and so had the stray dogs that hung about the post, once the shells began landing.

The men spoke in inaudible whispers. Some men wrapped themselves in coarse, horsehair, barrack blankets. They slept while they stood, they slept while they sat; and there were those who stood and those who sat. Tired, filthy and grimy though, they could still sleep; but they were shell shocked too, which made them sluggish to react and heavy-footed. The bang and burst of the shells were vicious and hammered their heads and battered their eardrums. Yet, like good soldiers they rested while they could, because there was no guarantee when they would find another respite.

The night wore on. A still and opalescent moon came out and hung low over the eastern hills. I sat absorbing the stillness all around me. It was the first real, clean, silence since the enemy shelling started on the 3rd evening. Everything lay still and there was the dark peace of the night all around. I sat gossiping with the men. We had been here three days in our trench home and we had survived.

“Saab, how long will this go on?” asked one of the men. An officer, it was perceived by men, knew better than them. I had not left the place for three days and was not in communication with anybody. In the morning, which already seemed far receded to the past as it could have been in 100 BC, the 2IC of the battalion, Major Malhotra, had appeared all alone in my section. I had shown him the dead Pakistanis and explained how the enemy had assaulted us during the night. He stopped over to assess the situation. He was a man of few words. While leaving he said as a parting shot, “Hold your position at all costs.” So far, we had held on. The men were hungry. I heard a man talk of food and clean drinking water. We had consumed whatever we could get from the company langar in a tin bucket. I couldn’t even remember when I had eaten last. The lone visitor we had had in three days was the 2IC that morning. A good man, I thought; but he spoke so little.

I didn’t know whether I was awake or asleep. I shook myself out of that transitional state and stood up; the day was breaking. I walked in the communication trench. Everything was still. There was nothing around us for miles it looked. To my right was the rest of the platoon and then the next platoon. They all must be in their trenches, maintaining steadfast discipline. No sound came from the rest of the company.

What I didn’t know was that Subedar Hazura Singh and the rest of the platoon had ploughed their way up to Sakarna, where our battalion HQ was located, having been ordered to move back the whole platoon there. The battalion was falling back. There were tanks of the Deccan Horse pulling back too. The Subedar shouted to a man who stood head and shoulders out of the turret of a tank that rolled past him. “Where are you headed for?”

“We have to fall back to Munnawar Tawi.” The Indian Army was vacating Chambb.

“My men will ride on your tank – dhik hai?” The Sikhs clambered on to the tank. Once all the men were on board, the Subedar asked Havildar Teja Singh, “Teja Singh Leftain Saab kithhey aa – Where is the lieutenant?”

“Saab, I don’t know where he is?” replied Teja Singh.

The Subedar was too experienced not to suspect something was amiss.

“Teja Singh, did you pass the message to Leftain Saab?”

“Saabji, I forgot.” admitted Teja Singh.

The Subedar was furious. “I will hold this tank here.” He shouted at Teja.

“Go to Leftain Saab and tell him to come here with his section.”

Teja Singh appeared frozen. “Get going Teja Singh, on the double. You have been goddam negligent. Move on before I do something rash. A full section is left behind along with an officer.” Teja Singh set off on his mission with Sepoy Pargat Singh given to him for company. He made his way back to the now-deserted company headquarters and sent Pargat Singh forward to my section to deliver the message. I was standing in a trench and keeping an eye out when Pargat got to me.

“Saab you have been called to the battalion headquarters with the section. Please get your weapons and ammunition and come with me.”

I assumed that we were being called to reinforce some other position or to put up an attack somewhere. So, I summoned my section and we walked over to the company headquarters. I asked Pargat. “You came alone?”

“Havildar Teja Singh is with me Saab.”

“Call him here.” Teja Singh held himself back, trying to slip away, reluctant to face me.

“Dhahro! Come here, Teja Singh.” I shouted. I walked up to him and asked, “Now tell me what the exact orders are. Where is the counter attack to take place?” He spoke. “Saabji, we have to fall back and we are not coming back here.”

“What do you mean Teja Singh? Are you out of your senses?”

“Haan Saabji. Have a look all around. Do you see anyone here? The whole battalion has pulled back.”

“Teja, why the hell didn’t you pass this message earlier? Sadhu Singh and Tara Singh are still back there with the MMG, engaging the enemy.”

“Hoon kee karr sakdey hain Saab – Sir, what use is it now? We can’t do anything. The enemy is closing in rapidly. We have to get out of here Sir.”

“No, I cannot leave my men behind.” The section spread out in a defensive cordon and I sent a jawan to the MMG detachment. “Tell Sadhu and Tara to get back here with the MMG fast. Tell them to bring as many tick tickys of ammunition as possible also along. Ab bhago – Run.”

Sadhu and Tara emerged from the communication trenches after a while, shouldering the MMG and lugging the steel boxes of belted ammunition, the tick tickys.

[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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