THE BATTLE OF CHAMBB, 1971

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Episode – 5

[This is the fifth 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]

Into the Eye of the Storm

It was quarter past eight and the urad daal tasted good as I sat on an ammunition box and ate my dinner. The date was third of December. They said that war could start any moment now. I enjoyed the peaceful hour disturbed by nothing except the sound of Baldev tinkering around outside the bunker.

The shells whistled overhead, explosions judderred the earth. Heavy crumps followed long whistling trails of sound. Men shouted, mouthed abuses to give Dutch courage to each other. They took sips from long, secretively preserved rum bottles, resuscitation for the final show. Dust rose and blotted out the sky. The brooding black night rudely sat awake as heavens cracked and yellow explosions flashed again and again. A sudden chill travelled through the company like an electric pulse.

I was four days old in these trenches, what the Khalsas call a Kuraal; the deep labyrinthine trenches in which you could carry a wounded man on a stretcher. I had just about eaten my daal roti that Baldev, my batman, had brought me and, keeping aside the mess tin, raised my white mug for water to drink, when I heard a distant thunder. Rain would make our trench systems miserable to live in. I rose and went out of my bunker and looked up. The sky was glittering with lance beams of starlight. A dim curved chopper moon hung low towards the east in the starry firmament. An eerie rumble of thunder rose from the west and streaming shells flew in parabolic pathways over my head. I stood fascinated and felt the sweet, close, terror of danger. Something vast and big grazed my soul. The beast of wariness woke and spread in my limbs. It appeared that the proverbial balloon was going up right in front of my eyes.

I ran back inside the trench. Mine was the last section of Delta company on Phagla ridge. Towards my east was Point 303 after a couple of hundred yards of inter-company gap. The broad broken patch of sand and tall clumps of sarkanda grass swayed and trilled as the wind passed through those. The silverish plumes of the tall grass reminded me of homely ornaments, its stalks stirring up my childhood, when I made writing reeds out of it.

Our own artillery started returning the casus belli to the enemy side. The gunners’ duel went on throughout the night. The cold morning sun of 4th December was greeted by a fine powdered mist that hung on the indented earth. The soldiers, who had spent the night in the open trenches, rubbed their hands and blew into them to warm them up. I made a quick round of the trenches. Everything seemed all right or just about. A reverberating drone came from the north, like those of jet fighters. Three aircraft swooped down over the Mandiala ridge, over Gurra and soon they would be over us.

“Down, down,” I shouted as the three enemy aircraft came tearing up the ground with machinegun fire and rockets that ploughed through everything. And before one could turn one’s neck, they were climbing into the eastern sun. As soon as the aircraft had gone, the enemy artillery opened up again on our positions and shells started crumping around us.

Someone shouted, “Saabji, vo dekho uthhey, jodaa tekri dey – Sir, look yonder at the twin hills.” I raised my binoculars and scanned westward. There were two hills which formed a low saddle in between. Tanks were crawling out of this saddle with an air of sinister purpose and coming straight towards us. I started counting one, two, three, four, five. I estimated the distance; those were about 1200 yards away. Incredibly, they were coming through our minefield. I was dazed. How could they drive on so recklessly through an area that was a mined?

Ahh! the realization struck me. The enemy hadn’t been sitting idle during the night. They had breached the minefield and cleared a lane for its tanks to cross over. How was I going to stop them? Six tanks upon my four-day long Clausewitzian service!

[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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