In 1947-48, India wasn’t able to hold on to the Uri – Poonch link via the Haji Pir pass and the resultant “bulge” in the Line of Control (LOC) gave Pakistan access to the Pir Panjal Range, much to the irritation of the Indian Army. This area was also one of the major infiltration routes into the vale of Kashmir. In 1965, it was decided to capture the Haji Pir Pass and the adjoining heights to open the road to Poonch.
The Poonch – Haji Pir Road was dominated by two enemy posts called Raja and Rani. Raja Post was 1.5 kilometres to the north of our post, which was known by its number, 405. The distance between forward defences was only one kilometre. Rani Post was one kilometre further to the north west of Raja. To establish the Poonch – Uri link, it was critical to capture these two posts. After the Haji Pir Pass was captured on August 28, 1965, the focus of effort shifted to capture of Raja and Rani. The operation’s code name was “Faulad”.
In 1969, as a newly-commissioned officer, I was the post commander of 405. Having heard of the battle of Raja Post while at the National Defence Academy, I now had the chance to study the battle in detail. The 1.5 kilometre ridge connecting 405 to Raja was full of chakor (also known as the chukar partridge) and a favourite haunt of mine with my shotgun. I used to be watched with binoculars by both sides and inspired amused interest. The Cease Fire Line (CFL), as the LOC was known then, passed through the centre of the ridge marked by two trees known as Bhai-Bhai. After the 1965 war, the CFL was not very active and our moral ascendency was predominant.
One day I was shooting near Bhai-Bhai when a covey of chakor flushed out. Instinctively my shotgun went up and I got what is called a wing shooter’s dream: a classic ‘right and left shot’, ie shooting two birds (both being in the air) on the wing, one with each barrel of a double barrel shotgun. Suddenly I heard clapping and a voice said, “Nishana achha hai, Laftain sahib!” (“You are a good shot, Lieutenant, Sir!”). A Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) of the Pakistani Army, from across the CFL, was standing there. We got talking and after routine soldier talk, I asked him, “Subedar sahib, ’65 mein Raja kyun chod diya?“. (“Why did you let go of Raja in 1965?”) He said that in 1965 he was not in this sector, but from what he had heard, his assessment was that the battle was going very well for the Pakistan Army defenders of the Raja Post. It was getting to be daylight and the attackers — the Indian Army — was pinned down 200 or 300 meters below the post, at the wire obstacles and minefields. Suddenly, everything changed and the attacker was galvanised into action and started moving up in small teams from multiple directions, disregarding the fire and casualties taking place, and closed in to destroy the bunkers. The troops at Raja, despite the best efforts of the commanders and a determined fight upto that time, collapsed psychologically.
What he’d told me were the barebones of one of the most remarkable and heroic infantry attacks in our military history. Here’s the story of how India wrested the Raja Post from Pakistan.
Most posts or defended localities in the mountains are located on dominant features, forcing an attacker to attack uphill – probably the most difficult tactical operation for the infantry. The attacker tries to overcome the disadvantages by establishing a firm base, multi-directional attacks at night, use of overwhelming direct and indirect fire, isolation by cutting off escape routes and higher ratio of manpower. However, combat is a battle of wills. Whoever is able to create the conditions to bring about the psychological collapse of the other, wins.
The 2 Sikh, (originally, 15 Ludhiana Sikhs) were raised on August 1, 1846, from the remnants of the Khalsa Army and saw action all over the British empire as part of the British Indian Army. At Independence, it was one of the most decorated units of the Indian Army. However, the unit saw no action in 1947-1948 and 1962. In 1965, led by Lieutenant Colonel NN Khanna, 2 Sikh was very eager for combat. It was initially operating in Chamb – Jaurian Sector, where it captured a number of small enemy posts between August 18 and 23. The regiment was specifically asked for by General Officer Commanding of 15 Corps, and was earmarked for Operation Faulad and ordered to move to Poonch.
As part of Operation Gibraltar, Pakistan had occupied the heights dominating the Rajouri – Poonch Road and were interfering with the traffic. It didn’t affect 2 Sikh. Apart from sending out patrols to protect the road, 2 Sikh used the Khalsa war cry from the convoy vehicles to psyche out the enemy and was safely inducted into Poonch on August 30, 1965.
Initially, 2 Sikh was tasked to capture Rani by 1000 hours, on September 3, while 3 Dogra was to capture Raja by midnight of September 2. However, the attack on Raja post on the night of September 1 did not succeed due to stiff opposition. Both the battalions marched for four hours, back to Poonch, by first light on 3 September. While taking stock at the Brigade Headquarters, it was concluded that Raja indeed was a hard nut to crack and the mood was gloomy. Lt Col Khanna put everyone out of their misery by saying, “Give it to me, sir. 2 Sikh will give you Raja.”
Khanna asked for time for reconnaissance and the attack on Raja was scheduled for the night of September 6, with 3 Dogra attacking Rani simultaneously. Simultaneity has its advantages, but it also meant division of meagre artillery support. Due to pressure from the Corp Commander, the attack was brought forward by one night, to September 5, giving 2 Sikh less time for planning and preparation. It didn’t dampen Lt Col Khanna’s conviction. He told his entire battalion, “I am sure 2 Sikh is going to capture Raja today!” (“Today” was used symbolically as the attack was actually launched after 24 hours.)
Both units again marched back five and a half hours to their assembly areas for the attack by 0930 hours on September 5.
Khanna’s 2 Sikh launched the attack from two directions: along the southern ridge connecting 405 with Raja with one company, and along the relatively gradual south-eastern slopes with two companies. The Commanding Officer’s party was in the centre to control the battle. Due to the difficult terrain, the movement from the forward assembly area to the forming up place got delayed and instead of 0400 hours, the attack commenced at 0505 hours, when dawn was just breaking.
Raja was held by a company of 4 Azad Kashmir Battalion and one platoon of Zhob militia. The post was alert and soon heavy small arms and artillery fire engaged the attackers. The company attacking along the southern spur encountered heavy fire and suffered many casualties. By default, it drifted eastwards towards the two companies to the right, but this area was also under heavy fire and casualties were mounting. At 0535 hours, all three companies of 2 Sikh were pinned down by heavy small arms and artillery firing, short of and below the Raja Post along the wire obstacles and minefields.
The attack had got stalled, the sky was brightening and combat inertia was setting in. Looking at the scenario around him, Lt Col Khanna concluded he must either rally the battalion and charge uphill, or pull back to reorganise and attack again or call off the attack. He stood up, took off his green and white jersey (issued to instructors at High Altitude Warfare School) stood on a rock and started waving it to attract attention of his troops. He also shouted the unit war cry of ‘”Jo bole so nihal, Sat Siri Akal!” and started climbing towards Raja Post.
First, a few men around him got up and started moving with him to renew the attack. Then the ones adjacent to them got up and followed suit, and so on. A chain reaction set in and very soon, 300 soldiers in small teams were climbing up towards Raja Post using fire and movement tactics. Led by Khanna, the commanding officer’s party forced the wire obstacle, ran across the minefield and attacked the first bunker lobbing grenades. Khanna was wounded in the upper arm by a splinter, but the Commanding Officer’s example had galvanised the unit. The junior leadership – young officers, JCOs and Non Commissioned Officers commanding platoons and sections – took charge and pushed ahead, against all odds. The enemy’s advance positions were pushed back and the unit closed up to the top of the Raja Post.
At this juncture, at 0550 hours, a burst of .30 Browning Machine Gun hit Lt Col Khanna and he was seriously wounded. He died while being evacuated to the Regimental Aid Post. The troops seeing their Commanding Officer fall pressed home the attack with renewed determination. For the next one hour, some of the fiercest fighting of the 1965 war took place. No quarter was asked, none was given. Soldiers fought like men possessed, the wounded continued to fight and those who died, “died hard”.
Notable was the action of Naik Chand Singh, the Javelin champion of the unit, who with his section cleared 10 enemy bunkers. Naib Subedar Darshan Sigh, a national level sprinter, known by the nickname “Anheri” (“dust storm”) did the only thing he knew how to do: he ran uphill leading his platoon and single-handedly cleared a machine gun bunker before being wounded. Space restrains me from recounting many other heroic actions of this saga.
Raja was finally captured at 0710 hours, on September 7, 1965. The body of the Pakistani platoon commander of the Zhob militia platoon was found and close to his corpse, lay the body of Sepoy Jarnail Singh. Apparently both had shot each other simultaneously. Jarnail had represented the Indian Army in basketball and was known for scoring impossible baskets. He had actually been left behind at the forward assembly despite his vehement protests because he’d entered a state of delirium and had been singing loudly. Disobeying orders, he joined the reserve company and entered the battle at 0615 hours, still singing. Suddenly, disregarding the immediate battle, Jarnail darted forward to the top of the post and engaged the Zhob militia platoon commander of Raja in what was virtually a duel. Both were killed in action, almost simultaneously.
Earlier, 3 Dogras had surprised and captured Rani Post and the Uri-Poonch link-up was completed on September 9, 1965. Lt. Col N N Khanna was awarded Maha Vir Chakra (Posthumous). The battle was aptly summed by a soldier of 2 Sikh who said, “Raja litta, raja ditta“. (“We won a Raja and we lost a Raja.”)
It always intrigued me as to what happened to bring about the dramatic change from failure looming large at 0535 hours to a stupendous success by 0710 hours, I found the answer when I went into the details. It was all due to the leadership of “the man” – Lt Col NN Khanna, MVC (P) the Commanding Officer of 2 Sikh.