Battle Lore – A Rifle Company in Defence at Khem Karan

By Major Mohammed Abdur Rahman,  S.J, FF Regiment

Introduction

On 8th September 1965 our formations had captured Khem Karan. Our battalion advanced along road Kasur-Amritsar with a view to capturing Assalutar, which is about three miles from Khem Karan. An attempt to capture Assalutar was not successful and the battalion was ordered to fall back and organize defences (on 10th September) along Khem Karan distributary.

Terrain

The ground was flat interspersed with a number of water channels and minor distributaries. The Khem Karan Distributary running from east to west was more prominent. It was about 8 to 10 feet wide with 3 to 4 feet high banks of sand. Wherever smaller drains branched off from it, there were culverts. Towards north and south the banks of the distributaries were higher than the surrounding area. The ground was soft, which could take all types of vehicles in dry weather. The cotton and sugar-cane crops had restricted visibility. Small groves scattered all over the countryside, provided good cover from air and ground. Road Kasur-Amritsar was a two way metalled road running through the area. The Khem Karan-Amritsar Railway line passed through the area and its embankments were of tactical significance.

The Enemy

We had failed to capture Assalutar because the enemy was holding the place in strength with an estimated infantry brigade supported by a tank regiment. They were well dug in and their front and flanks were protected by mines and anti-tank guns. From the intercepted wireless messages and interrogation of the prisoners of war it was revealed that the enemy was planning a counter attack to recapture Khem Karan. Village Assalutar was to be the base for this counter offensive.

Own Troops

When the battalion withdrew from the village Assalutar at about 2200 hrs on 10th September, it was ordered to take defensive position along Khem Karan distributary by first light 11thSeptember. The commanding officer, therefore, without detailed reconnaissance gave orders off the map to his company commanders and allotted areas of responsibility. D company (whose action is described in this article) was assigned the task of covering the main road Khem Karan-Amritsar. Because of darkness the company commander ‘D’ company had to issue orders off the map and allotted areas to the platoon commanders. This, he did to cover a large frontage. On receipt of orders, the troops started preparing their defensive positions.  Their morale was high, but co-ordination with flanking companies could not be established due to darkness. At dawn the company commander carried out readjustment of the defences since certain ………with flanking companies was established and forward observation officer was briefed. At this time the company commander had to request the commanding officer for an additional recoilless rifle, some machine-guns and anti-tank mines, which were provided.

The day was spent in improving the defences. It was a problem to find suitable places for the deployment of recoilless rifles and machine-guns. These had to be deployed on the side of the canal bank and fields of fire created for them through the standing crops. Due to wide frontages and the little time we had at our disposal for preparing the defences no patrols were sent out nor any screens established and this made everyone apprehensive about the time and direction of the impending enemy attack. At this stage no plans existed at the battalion level for a counter-attack or counter penetration. In the absence of screens and patrols the defences were a little naked.

The Battle

On 12th September while the company commander was going round the defences, he received a message from his commanding officer, who said, “I want all of you to be very vigilant and active. Khem Karan has to be defended at all cost.” The die was cast and we were all determined to defend the conquered territory. The enemy guns opened up at 0700 hours and the shell continued for half an hour. The shells blasted the trenches, uprooted the trees and damaged the banks of the distributaries. Gradually the intensity of the shelling decreased but this was followed by enemy’s smoke limiting the already poor visibility still more. Behind the smoke screen, thesound of tank engines became audible.The enemy was forming up, it appeared, astride road Kasur-Amritsar. As the tanks came nearer own anti-tank guns opened up, and were also joined by the recoilless rifles of C company. The enemy tanks were advancing in proper formation by fire and movement. One of our anti-tank guns which opened up at long distance, was spotted and destroyed by the enemy tank. Immediately afterwards one of our anti-tank gunners destroyed three enemy tanks in succession. This had sudden effect on the morale of our troops. Shouts of “Narai Takbeer – Narai Haidri” rang through the bullet ridden field.

As the battle progressed the enemy pressed on with infantry and tanks. Their tanks came within 200 yards of our defences. Now, probably they were waiting for the infantry to catch up. At this stage it is worth mentioning the individual action of Major Khadim Hussain of 24 Cavalry who arrived on the scene from the rear and took over control of one of the recoilless guns whose gunner had been killed. He engaged a number of enemy guns with this gun destroying one of them until he received a direct hit and was killed. This officer was awarded posthumous Sitara-i-Jurat. The enemy infantry now started coming closer and closer but the sustained and determined fire of our own defensive weapons managed every time to halt and break up the enemy attack. The company commander moved from position to position encouraging his men and directing the operation. At one stage ammunition was running short. Quickly a party was organized, and sent in the rear to get replenishment, which arrived in time. The battle had now waged for nearly six hours. The enemy had failed to penetrate. We could see the enemy infantry withdrawing at about 1300 hrs under cover of tanks. Later their tanks also followed the withdrawing infantry.

Diversionary Move

While the above attack was developing the enemy had pushed a battalion i.e. 4/11 Sikh regiment along Kasur-Amritsar Railway line. This gap had been left unprotected. The battalion was to pass through this gap in our rear. The unit was given the following tasks [1] :

              – To cut our line of communications and establish in our rear.

– If possible to attack the gun positions or any administrative installations.

Their plan was to create chaos in our rear, but it was not properly executed. They passed through the gap as if they were moving on a peacetime route march. They came in single file, knowing fully well that a battle was raging in the vicinity. It appeared that they were expecting a free run or they were not mentally prepared for combat.

As this battalion came in our rear, it was spotted by our tanks hidden nearby in the crops. The moment our tanks opened fire the whole regiment surrendered without any resistance. Some of them ran towards our gun positions to surrender.

The Second Attack

Though the enemy had withdrawn there was a great deal to be done by the company commander who quickly got busy in reorganizing his company. The dead were removed and the wounded were attended to. Ammunition was replenished and damaged or defective weapons were replaced. The company commander wanted more anti-tank guns but none was available, and he had to make use of what he had. The immediate need of his troops was water and food, which was quickly provided. Their morale was high as they had withstood the determined enemy infantry tank attack and made them to withdraw with heavy losses. They had just completed resorting and replenishing, when the enemy launched his second offensive. Their artillery shelling was intense and accurate, because they had come to know the lay out of our defences. The volume and intensity of fire showed that a divisional artillery supported the attack. Their advance was on the same pattern as in the first phase of the attack. Our anti-tank guns opened  up when their tanks came with in range. Two enemy tanks managed to escape and overran our forward most trenches. Seeing this one of our tanks [2] quickly engaged the leading enemy tank and destroyed it. Their second tank surrendered, which yielded two officers[3] who were made prisoners of war. The enemy infantry now started putting in a determined attack, but our well coordinated and determined fire every time broke up the enemy onslaught. Throughout this phase the company commander was present in the front conducting the battle and encouraging his men. Our own artillery fire had to be brought quite close to our positions at the closing stage of the battle. The risk had to be taken in order to beat back the enemy attack which ultimately ceased and the enemy withdrew leaving behind 600 wounded and dead. Ten enemy tanks had been destroyed and three were captured intact. Large amount of small arms and ammunition were left behind when they ran back in panic. Our own casualties were two junior commissioned officers and 25 other rank killed and wounded. The loss of equipment included six vehicles and two recoilless rifles.

This was an action of infantry company fighting a defensive battle within a battalion defensive area. It had beaten back an attack launched by a brigade supported by tanks. [4] Due to wide frontage of troops the company was on its own. It did get fire support from its flanking units and administrative support from the battalion headquarters. However most of the time the had to be fought by the company commander and his company with whatever supporting weapons they had and with their integral company resources.

Lessons Learnt

Leadership

Appropriate and timely action by a junior leader will always help not only the sub-unit but will have direct bearing on the overall success of the battle. During combat a situation rapidly develops into a major crisis and unless dealt with quickly and with determination, can have serious consequences.

It is during the initial stages of the battle that constant vigilance is required on the part of junior leaders and it calls for personal leadership. Such battle situations demand that the junior leaders must remain with forward troops for conducting the battle and encouraging their men.

Need of Security Elements

In this case the battalion had not sent out screens or patrols and therefore were ignorant of the time and direction of the enemy attack. This enabled the enemy to plan his attack without any interference.

Covering the Gaps

There will always be paucity of troops for defence. Gaps between localities must be accepted and covered by small arms fire. Troops must be earmarked to seal off enemy penetration if it occurs due to wide frontage. In this case the enemy was able to penetrate a battalion without difficulty. It was fortunate that some tanks happened to be there and out-witted the enemy’s otherwise good move.

Fire Control

During the first encounter with the enemy our anti-tank gunners opened up at longer ranges, which caused the loss of some anti-tank guns. Fire Control during combat is a difficult task but it has to be insisted and personally supervised by junior leaders.

Reorganisation

Immediate co-ordination and re-adjustment is a must after enemy attack. Often the enemy repeats his attack immediately providing little time for defenders to carry out readjustments. Once the attack is beaten back ammunition must be replenished, dead and wounded removed, weapons checked and readjusted where required, and prisoners of war sent back.  These actions were carried out by the company commander and therefore, he was able to meet the second attack successfully.


[1] Later Confirmed from prisoners of war.

[2]Three tanks supported us in this operation.

[3] Lt. Dhani Ram and Lt. Sher Dil Sharma, both from Deccan Horse.

[4]Later confirmed from prisoners of war and our infantry and artillery observers.

Published in ‘Soldiers Speak, Selected Articles from Pakistan Army Journal 1956-1981′, published by Army Education Press, GHQ, Rawalpindi