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Episode – 1

[This is the first episode of a series we will be featuring in the coming weeks, 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]

Moel Protective Patrol, 3 DEC 1971

The night isn’t pitch dark; some lambent illumination hangs in the sky like a street light filtering through a curtain that makes seeing outlines possible in a bedroom. The place where soldiers pitch up or dig in also becomes like their own room. Seeing the same objects, the same outline of things day after day, the penumbra of the earth stays in that sense-making chip embedded in human heads.

A jeep crept forward in the darkness from the company HQ at Point 303 to Moel PP. In that jeep rode the company commander and since he was at the time the man who had supervised the defences of his company’s frontage, let’s say he was also the Edwin Lutyens of all that lay between Moel and Point 303; the architect whose subterranean trench systems and catacomb like defences were soon to face an invasion.

Twelve years ago, this writer had, in a different era of his life, visited Lawrence School Sanawar. The School has beautiful architecture and next to the ivy-covered walls of its chapel is a small obelisk forming a war memorial. It has the names of the gallant alumni of the school, who hold awards for valour and gallantry. I had read the first name on one of the obelisk’s pedestal slabs. The name had stayed in my mind as it had slotted itself with the fact that the village next to my village in Haryana was one of Pannu Jats, albeit of the Hindu strain. Anyhow, that’s how his name remained on the shelf of my memory.

Major Pannu had waited until dark to go to the advance platoon at Moel. The jeep was fully loaded and he had to disallow his constant mate, Caesar the dog, which was trying to clamber onto the vehicle. He motioned to his batman to restrain Caesar while the jeep moved off. Caesar had a habit of bounding after hares and partridges. Life was in the thrill of a hunt and retrieving for him; he was a game dog. The Commanding Officer had objected to Caesar following Pannu to the Officers Mess tent at the battalion HQ. Pannu had stopped going to the Mess, rather than leave his companion behind. That the CO had ticked him off once for being improperly turned out when he wore a scarf, didn’t deter him from wearing a non-regulation jacket the other evening, one he had taken off a friend of his while he proceeded on a course. More about Pannu, the lion, later.

My narrator is Darshan Singh Lattada. I hand over the mike to this spellbinding old raconteur of the Battle of Moel.

Every man in a Sikh Paltan has a nickname. They called me Lattada, because Lattada was my village. My trade was radio operator. But ours was a dhuaandhaar sports battalion full of jabbardast khilaadis. I was a footballer of no mean repute, fleet on my feet and running with the chequered leather ball to stay in practise when not playing with the hob knobs of my radio set. I got enrolled at eighteen at Meerut and joined Five Sikh. My father was also from the same Paltan; in British times it was called 5/11 Sikh. He served in Iran, Cheen, Burma wagairah. Sadda janam hai 8 Farvary 1948 daa.

Jangg de waqt, saddi Paltan was deployed all four kompany up. Jarnail Mannak Shah bhi aaya see; othey kehnda see sadda kamm defense haiga. I saw him there for the first time and ek baar firr sey dekha, baad me. Badaa chhanga sohna admi see. Haans ke gallan kardaa see. Punjabi changi bolda see.

The Pakistanis started their build up in early November. We had two sections of Alfa Kompnee, one section of BSF and an Arty OP officer with his men at Moel. Alfa kompnee was do teen kilometre maggron in the rear at Point 303. When we started noticing the sounds and unceasing vehicle movements and indications of a massive enemy build-up, we started reporting to battalion headquarters. They were building up for an attack on us; but when we passed that information, our adjutant Multani saab said,

“Tum log darpok ho, dartey rehtey ho. Udhar kuch nahi hai. You people are frightened, there is no enemy build up over there.”

We noticed a lot of enemy movement of big lorries, guns, tanks and reported it to headquarters. The adjutant thought we were panicking and chided us, “Faltoo me daree jaandey ho, aithey tank ho he nahi sakkdey – you chaps are scared for no reason, there can’t be any tanks here.”

Koi gaur nahi kardey see – they didn’t pay heed to our warnings. Gall eh hai saab, jaddon intelligence plan ton match nahi kardi, taan fauji badde afsar intelligence no faaltu kehandey – Sir if facts on ground don’t match the plan of higher HQ, the facts are labelled to be false; such is the practise of our army.

There is an old pre partition raasta, a kuccha road that leads from Moel to Point 303 and onward to Chambb. On the night of 3rd December 1971 our Company Commander, Major Pannu Saab, came in an Artillery OP jeep with a nawan Artillery da Captain Saab. Sadda Kompane Commander Sher seega, Daleron ka Daler afsar – Our Commander was a daring officer, bravest of the brave. They had come to relieve the earlier Arty OP Captain Saab who was staying at Moel with us. Battalion Havaldar Major Sardul Singh and Havaldar Mahender Singh Daddamba, the Javelin thrower, had also come with Major Pannu Saab. Major Pannu Saab had brought some antitank mines with him to lay on the track. This time Pannu Saab had come without his pet dog. The dog Caesar never left his side and went with him everywhere, loping behind him. Caesar was an English retriever. It was hard to imagine Pannu saab without his dog.

Third December was a moonlit night, I think. Not much but some sort of light was there now that I close my eyes and picture it all. We saw the imperceptible yellow down-pointing shafts of the jeep’s light. It hardly made a sound, that jeep as it crept silently to the post. Barely had the Jeep stopped near the post HQ when a simulated rumble rose in the sky, like a dam burst and a roar filled the sky. Flares lit the sky over Chambb. Shells whistled over us and detonations came from the ridgeline of our Paltan’s main defences.

Pannu saab said “Chalo lagta hai Jung shuru ho gayi hai.” He walked calmly to the field telephone to ask for an artillery shoot at enemy concentrations opposite Moel. He was totally in the know of things. Soon we made out that the enemy guns were firing from the Pakistani side on to our post also.

Pannu saab asked the arty observer Captain saab to get arty fire from their regiment. They tried but could not get a shoot onto the Pakistani side. Nobody gave them a shoot in the confusion. Pakistan had opened up all along the front. Then Pannu Saab got through to the Brigade HQ on radio and got a shoot and directed fire on the amassed Pakistanis across us.

“Taan hi thodi thandd payi – This subdued the Pakistani vigour for a while.”

Again, the enemy started shelling our post. We had dug deep kuraal trenches all along our defences. When the shells fell on us, we would crouch in the kuraal. Then we would get back to our trenches and fire at running shadows in the foreground. This silsilla continued till about midnight. Around midnight Pannu saab realized that the Pakistani’s were breaching the defensive minefield laid by us and establishing a crossing and lodgement. Then they would attack our company at first light. It was imperative that he should get back and take charge of the company to meet the Pakistani attack that would come at first light. He suddenly came to my trench to say “Shasbash, morcha nahi chhadna. Me aapko kall kaddha karr lay ke jaunga. Mera abhi kompanee pahunchna jaroori hai.” Then he went to each and every trench of Moel to tell the men.”Shaabash dattey raho.”

He assured us that he would ask for a company from CO saab and, “kall tumm sabb ko kaddh ke lae ke jaaunga.” – He would come tomorrow with a company and take us back to our company with him. Till then our job was to keep fighting and not let the enemy capture our post.

He left on foot along with the BHM and Daddamba. All this while Pakistani shells were falling on our position and my ears had started to pain. Soon, I became nearly deaf and a strange electronic static kept vibrating in my head. “Bass sarr vich ekk goonj se chall payi si – An echoing sound had started going round and round in my head.” A shell would explode, the earth would shake and sand and pebbles would fall like rain from the sky. If one was alive, one wondered when one’s time would be up. The whole place became clogged with dust clouds.

I felt that a few men had descended into our trench. I turned with fixed bayonet on my rifle and was about to press the trigger. I thought Pakistanis had come. I was ready to kill them at point-blank range. If need be, I would run my bayonet through them. To my surprise I discovered just in time, these were sardars of the BSF section. I abused them and said why hadn’t they called out the password. I had almost shot them. They were rattled thoroughly.

“Kee gall hui, what happened?” I asked them. “Why have you left your morcha and come here?”

“Paani mukk gaya – the water is finished.” They were carrying an empty pakhaal with them. They had come to take water for their gun.

The BSF had water-cooled Vickers machineguns. I came out of my bunker to show them the water. A shell came whistling and landed on square on my bunker. The roof of my bunker flew and it took the pagdi from my head also. Somehow, I was all right. That’s how I got saved from a direct hit and certain death.

Later on, I came to know that the trenches to the extreme right edge of our defences had been overrun by the enemy that night by sheer numbers. They were attacking with a battalion. They gathered some of our troops and lined them up, whomsoever they could lay their hands on. “Line me khadey karr ke unko brustt maar diyey – They shot them with bursts of machine gun fire. Saarey shaheed karr ditty – All were killed. Only one man survived this shooting; he fell as he caught the burst on his shoulder and posed as he was dead.” The Pakistani sepoys came “Usko thood marr ke vekha, jinda hai ke marr gaya – They kicked all the corpses to make sure that all were dead.” This man’s name was Balbir Singh. He used to be the Turnee of the BHM; his job was to fill the parade state etc. (Evidently, Turnee or Returnee is the man assigned to fill up the parade states and various official returns). Later on, when the enemy troops had passed on, he crawled and escaped from there. That’s how we came to know, much later, what the enemy had done to some of our comrades that night. But this was war and men do many beastly things in jungg.

Major Pannu and the two men ran squarely into the enemy who had already cut off the track and was busy establishing a crossing. In the confusion of the night, they joined the columns of Pakistani infantry moving about, going about their business in the darkness. Nobody noticed them. When past danger, they ran away, crawled at places and reentey reengtey, reached Alpha Kompnee. Pannu saab knew the ground like the back of his hands and I am sure he would have reached the company even blindfolded in the night.

Somehow, we got through this long night and held on without being overrun by the enemy. Subah hui, dinn chadd gaya. Pannu saab had said that he would come to extract us. We would hold our position till he returned to take us. He always did what he said. In the meanwhile, the artillery Captain saab loaded his wounded men “kandam bandey” onto the jeep and set off to return to Alfa kompnee. They had not driven far on the track before running squarely into the enemy. The enemy shot up the jeep and I think all of them perished. Had they stayed with us, the chances are that at least some of them might have survived.

The Pakistanis were surprised to see a jeep emerge from Moel. They had thought that Moel had been flattened and taken care of already. The sudden darting of the jeep betrayed the presence of more Indian troops at Moel. After some time, we saw a body of troops advance towards our positions in extended line formation. They were combing the ground as they came. They had an officer leading them. They were searching and moving towards us slowly and cautiously. We thought it was our Company that had come to extract us. We were jubilant. We would get back to our company finally. When these men came closer, we realized to our horror that these were not our troops but enemy ones. What were we to do? There were just a handful of us left and the enemy were far too many.

Naib Subedar saab, our platoon commander, then came up with a bright and bold idea. Instead of engaging the enemy with step-by-step fire, he ordered us, twirling his moustache.

“Hoon taam as gaya hai.”

“Hoon dhaawa bolaangey.”

We fixed our bayonets, checked our magazines that had the last few rounds remaining after blazing away throughout the long night. We took the name of Waahey Guru, took a long breath, jumped out of our trenches, shouting “Bolley Soo Nihaal.” and charged at the enemy. The enemy line broke and ran back when they saw us charging. A funny thing happened in the meantime. After the enemy ran, we also ran back to our trenches, but our Naib Subedar saab who had ordered us to do dhaawa was not to be found anywhere. One of our men had seen him jump into a nallah followed by two more of our jawans. After ordering us to do Dhaawa, he jumped into a nallah along with two more jawans and ran away like a bat out of hell in the direction of our company. He made good his escape and reached Alpha Company. Later on, the Pakistanis told us, “Unka peecha bhot kiyaa salon kaa, parr sardar bahut tejj bhaagey aur haath sey nikal gayey – We gave hot pursuit but the sardars were very swift runners and slipped out of our hands.”

The frontline of the enemy scattered and he melted into the ground. At this time, I noticed our injured Captain saab, the other Artillery OP officer lying on the ground, badly injured and bleeding. With another boy to help, I dragged him into a trench and applying field dressing to his wounds, gave him water to drink.

The enemy again started shelling our post heavily. The shells fell like rain. I would run here and there trying to outwit the next shell. It was only a matter of time before my time also would come. I was crouching in a trench half buried in sand. I realized the shelling had stopped. I don’t know for how long I had been like that. It could be one minute, it could have been an hour, it could have been two hours. I stood up in the trench and opened my dust clogged eyelids. A Pakistani jawan stood looking at me, wondering whether I was zinda ya murda, I turned my head. I was surrounded by enemy on all sides. That is how I became a prisoner of war on the 4th of December 1971.

[To be Continued]

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