THE BATTLE OF CHAMBB, 1971

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Episode – 8

[This is the eighth 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]

A Helmet for My Leftain Saab.

Our cup of fortune was not empty that night. I had forbidden even the inkling of sleep in the bloodshot eyes of our men. But even I knew that after such a long spell of battle it’s natural for men to doze off. The point was that not everybody should start napping at the same time. It was the night of 5th December and enemy had started the game during the night of 3rd December. They must be desperate to sweep us aside by now and I was aware that the night was the time to be on the lookout; when all the vicious affairs tend to manifest.

We were lucky that platoon havildar Teja Singh had heard movement and enquired, “Kaun ho tussi – who are you?” Their reply “Assan hi haan – it’s we only,” was not the way friends would have responded. If they were men of our company or our battalion, they would have replied with their names.

The quick-thinking body of Pakistani Commandoes, knowing that surprise was lost to them, charged at us firing from their hips. We were in trenches concealed by camouflage. There was no way an enemy creeping upon us from the rear could have judged our locations and their extent at 2 a.m. on a dark night barely illuminated by a weak sickle moon.

I saw those men come rushing at us, their steel-studded boot soles cluttering and scraping. I counted about fifteen assailants. My jawans were firing into them. They jumped over our kuraals like fleeing goats and ran across our line into the minefield in front of our defences. I was standing next to my LMG crew.

“Shoot them.” I prompted the crew; but the weapon was jammed. Grabbing it swiftly, I cleared the stoppage and managed to get it going. “Keep firing at them.”

The trouble was that everything was heavily clogged with sand, including our persons. We could barely see anything beyond our immediate front. It was all speculative firing as the khakhi-clad figures dissolved into the pitch dark night, shouting “Al nasr al Shahada – Victory or Death” and “La la, la,la, alaah, allah.”

I couldn’t figure out what those Pakis were up to. Were they tasked to finish off our platoon? Was it an infiltrating party that had lost its way? Was it a raiding party which was now extricating itself to its own side? I couldn’t guess. Whoever they were, our boys had given them enough to enthuse them to hotfoot it back to their lines.

The whole episode lasted just a few minutes. Someone came and told me that one of our men was badly wounded. Sepoy Rachpal lay groaning, the one with the RCL crew. “Paani, paani” he agonised. I asked around if anyone had rum. Someone darted off and came back with a bottle of Hercules. “Kaka, eh pee la, aram mill joo – Here lad, drink this up, you will feel better.” I gave him a stiff shot.

A stretcher party soon rushed Rachpal back to the Regimental aid post. I went back to my bunker and sat down. The sentries were awake and watchful like owls after that unexpected attack. We couldn’t afford to let our guard down, no matter how fatigued we were.

Slowly the night withdrew and the grey of the dawn began shading the eastern sky. I got up to take a look around and spotted my batman, Baldev Singh Sodhi, walking towards me. He saw me and started mumbling. “Tussi Saab ji ki bolna, kall raat nu tussi bacch gayey – Sir what do I say of you, you were lucky to escape unhurt last night. You must put this helmet on your head. I got it from the quartermaster for you.” He said handing me a heavy steel helmet. It looked somewhat different from our regular issue helmet. “Tussi iss noo apney sarr dey uttey laga lo – You please wear this helmet for your safety.”

I had just joined the battalion five-odd days ago and had come straight to the frontline trenches when the war had started. I hadn’t had the time to get possession of a helmet and later it had slipped my mind to get hold of one. But Baldev getting me a helmet, early in the morning while the battle raged, seemed rather unusual to me. I became suspicious when he took the quartermaster’s name and asked him, “Main khaya Baldev, kitthon lyada tu helmet – I say Baldev, where did you get this helmet from?”

“Saabji challo merey naal – Sir come with me, there are a few more.” He announced. Slightly puzzled by his reticence and the air of mystery he exuded, I followed him. He walked on until he stopped at a spot and pointed downwards. “Saabji aithon chakya si me helmet – Sir I picked up the helmet from here.”

Looking down where he had pointed, I saw three Pakistani soldiers lying in a heap down a declivity. Baldev Singh had reappropriated a steel helmet belonging to one of them and thought that his Leftain Saab should have one.

[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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