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Episode – 6

[This is the sixth 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]

The Gnaw of Battle

Fourth of December 1971, hallowed morning of fate, the Goddess of War hovers above us.

The tanks are coming on like a phalanx of iron horses. I start counting one, two, three, four ……., there are six of them and probably more are waiting behind the saddle to spill out in a flood. A whole blighted armoured regiment, it seemed. The front tank veered and turned a bit to the right and I wondered what the Paki tank commander had in mind. Here I was, sitting like a partridge and just behind our narrow ridge was the battalion headquarters and the bridge over the river behind us. A straight rapier thrust on my platoon would breach our defences.

How am I going to stop them? A shell came and exploded ahead of us and kicked up a fine spray of dust. Shells began exploding behind us as well, as a new Paki battery started ranging. Shells were falling on Hill 303 to our left too. I raised my binoculars and saw the tanks just about 500 yards from us. The front tank started turning to his right and that would be my left. It dawned upon me that they just might be going for a flank attack on Hill 303, where Major Pannu’s company was. The clank of tracks and whirr of engines floated to my ears.

I shouted to the RCL gun crew.

“Get the RCL ready.”

A reluctant man answered to the tune, that why should sleeping dogs be disturbed or some such wisdom.

“Jaa rahey he, jaan do – They are going away, let them go.” If we fire on them, we will reveal our position and that would be fatal for us. The long back blast of a Recoil Less Gun is a sure-shot give away, visible from a mile. I understood the natural hesitation of a rabbit being asked to go and kick a tiger.

“Don’t worry about what will happen to us after you fire and kill that tank. You just keep firing as quick as you can, until I tell you to stop. I am with you. I am standing right here with you. Aim for the first tank on the extreme left. Range 450 Gazz.”

“Spotter maariyey hoon?” – Should I fire the .50-inch spotter round to determine the range? he was asking. We hardly had the time for peace-time leisurely drills of firing. The enemy was battering at the gates.

“Ranjit, there’s no time and no gunjaish (margin) for missing. No time for spotter. Bang the main round.”

The dust covered Sikh swivelled the ranging wheel with his arm going round and round.

“Luddh, Aim, Pharrahh – Load, Aim, Fire.”

The round whirred and cut through the barrel like a heavy arrow with a deafening explosion. The jeep jumped in the air like a basketball and a long runnel of blast fire escaped from the burning venturi. The blast churned the earth and a cloud of dust engulfed the jeep. The earth had been ground into fine porridge by the shelling of Pakistani artillery throughout the night. The dust was into everything, into our eyes, into our nostrils, on our skin, coating our clothes and clogging our weapons.
“Load, second round.”

Even before the first round had struck home, the crew extracted the long, perforated steel cartridge case, which fell on the ground with a zing and a clang. The jeep was lost in a mushroom of dust of its own making.
“Shabash, hoon second tank Ranjitey – Well done Ranjit, now for the second tank.”

The Sikh was rubbing his eyes with his shirt sleeves. Then I saw him spit on his palms and wipe the dust from his eyes with the saliva.

The jeep was in a curtain of dust. I wondered how the gunner could see anything through the sights. The Paki tanks must be searching for us through their periscopes. I raised my binoculars. The RCL round had caught the first Sherman just below the turret. The Paki Rommel who had been standing in the open hatch leading the tanks was thrown out and lay on the bare ground. Long tongues of flame, whiplashed from the tank as it started burning. Another man came out of its turret hatch, jumped down from the tank and started rolling on the ground. He was burning.

I heard the RCL crew at their drill

“Luddh, Aim, Phaaer.”

The second blast and another heavy arrow drilled onward through the golden dust. This shell caught the second tank smack on the turret. Its driver jumped out and ran like a mad man in circles, clutching his ears with both hands. Two or three men were running helter-skelter, trying to help the men who had collapsed. Hot flames danced on the iron pyres.

The Sikhs were engrossed in working their slight iron gun mounted on to the tiny jeep. Rachpal was shoving the third round in the venturi tube. Ranjit had pushed his turban back over his forehead. I returned to watching the scene ahead through my binoculars. A Paki tank was traversing its turret aiming at us.

“Tijjey noo – Take on the third one also, fast.” Before my shout reached the gun crew, Ranjit had fired the third 105 mm round. It streaked clear off the gun like a straight arrow and knocked the bogey wheel off the third Sherman. The other tanks started going round in half circles. Men jumped out of the third tank and ran helter-skelter, disoriented with their heads spinning. The remaining tanks turned and drove back beyond the saddle from which they had come. The RCL jeep was ready with the fourth round but the Paki squadron had melted away. Only the three smoking tanks marked the field in front.

The driver reversed the jeep and took it into its pit to save it from getting damaged by some stray shell and the crew began pulling the khaakhi camouflage net over it. Ranjit Singh jumped down from the jeep and I saw his moustaches and beard fluffed with the reddish sand of Chambb.

“Sabbji, ajj tey bacch gayey – Sir for the time being we are saved.”

He had not uttered the words too soon. There was a lull and enemy canons had fallen silent. A distant rip rose from the blue heavens. A new noise unknown to the men from 2.2 Mach supersonic starfighters boomed in the blue heavens. The three needle-nosed and short winged PAF fighter planes descended and, aligning with the line of the Munnawar Tawi, got ready to pepper our battalion with their 20 mm canon fire. We jumped inside our bunkers and the whole platoon disappeared below the earth like a colony of beavers. They fighters roared over us and flew away after expending their guns and bombs. We jumped out and ran to our trenches.

[To be continued]

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