General Heinz Guderian used his Panzer divisions to defeat the Allied armies during the Second World War, pioneering the concept of a blitzkrieg or flash war. Ever since, every general wearing the uniform of the Armored Corps, the black beret in the Pakistani army, has sought to imitate him.
The September 1965 war between India and Pakistan was no different. Both armies mounted attacks where their mailed fist, coincidentally called the 1st Armored Division by both sides. In Pakistan, the division was equipped with the US M-47/48 Patton. In India, with the British Centurion.
Pakistan mounted an offensive to cut off the Grand Trunk Road that connected Amritsar with New Delhi. India mounted its offensive on the Chawinda salient near Pakistani city of Sialkot. Both failed.
Pakistan’s Patton tanks were mounted with a 90-mm canon that could hit a target at 2000 yards, twice as far as India’s Centurions. The Patton was able to fire while in motion and was equipped with infrared devices for night fighting. India’s Centurion was heavier and blind after sunset.
Yet Pakistan’s 1st Armored failed to achieve its objective. The division had left quietly from its base in Multan unnoticed by India. Its tanks lay concealed in the Changa Manga forest. The cover was blown when a Pakistani ack-ack crew prematurely fired on the IAF’s Canberra reconnaissance aircraft. More troubles followed.
While progressing toward the border, a Patton fell off a bridge that was unable to take its weight. All the Pattons behind it crawled to a halt and became cannon fodder for the IAF. Eventually the bridge was repaired and the division advanced into India.
It took the small village of Khem Karan but then ran into a muddy sugar cane field. The Indian infantry had breached a canal which the Pakistani army did not even know existed.
In his book on the Patton tank, Steven Zaloga wrote:
Indian artillery and small arms fire clipped away what little infantry support the Pakistani Pattons had, leaving the tanks exposed to Indian anti-tank teams. The Pattons charged ahead, in spite of the poor visibility due to the [9-foot high sugar] cane. The Pattons were visible to the Indian [106mm. Jeep mounted] recoilless rifle and tank crews [equipped with Shermans mounting Canadian 76 mm. Guns] who could see the swaying of the cane as the enemy approached and the upperworks of the Patton’s turrets. …The Pakistani attack became bogged down [in the mush created by water released from a breached canal], and came under intense artillery and tank fire…By nightfall the ten square miles around the Khem Karan-Asal Uttar battle-field were littered with 97 Pakistani tanks.
There was little coordination in infantry-armor maneuvers, even less in ground survey and reconnaissance in depth. Pakistan did not send in its sappers to clear mines and make paths through the fields. Pakistani tanks moved south too quickly, leaving maintenance crews far behind. Pakistani commanders failed to keep the tanks in reserve and spray the field with machine-gun fire before moving up, as advised by the US.
Writing in Military Review, Leo Heiman noted that the “sheer modernity of the Patton was its undoing vis-à-vis the older, slower, weaker and simpler Centurions and Shermans used by the Indians…Pakistani tank crews fed misleading information into the electronic brains [of the Patton], the heavy guns had to be operated by hand, and the crews were so occupied by modern gadgetry that they had little time for fighting.”
Indian Lt.-Gen. B. M. Kaul said that some of the Pattons captured by the Indian Army had as few as 300 kilometers on them, a standard totally inadequate for troop training. Some of these Pattons appeared “so new that even the original US markings on them had not been erased.”
Air Marshal Asghar Khan observed, “Even senior commanders in the counter-attack force had been kept in the dark about their role, objectives and the exact area of operation. Large-scale maps, which are essential for fighting a land battle, were not available with commanders until about twenty four hours after the attack had been launched.”
Lt.-Gen. Gul Hassan noted in his memoirs that this Division had been put through a major peace-time exercise involving the crossing of a water obstacle during which “the most powerful brigade of this formation was launched into a well-known duck-shooting marsh … and never regained its balance.”
Even in the exercise, nobody had taken time to study the ground, even though “the bog was marked on our military maps.”
This episode presaged events leading to the cease-fire on the 23rd of September. Pakistani Maj.-Gen. Nasir Ahmad Khan, a non-armor officer, was the General Officer Commanding of the 1st Armored. He had a lack-luster track record, characterised by “aloofness and courts of inquires…during his tenure, there was not even a vestige of team work in this formation and hence complete absence of kindred spirit.”
Comments Pakistani Lt.-Gen. Attiqur Rahman, “we must not place anyone in command of a formation who is not intimately connected and brought up in the basic arm of that formation.”
A historian noted:
With the failure of this campaign, Pakistan’s Kashmir initiative was doomed to failure… Had the Pakistani counter-offensive succeeded, it would have cut off Indian forces between the Beas River and the border, exposing them to piecemeal destruction. East of that point, up to Delhi, the Grand Trunk Road lay open, practically undefended, with all our forces on the other side of the Beas—thus bringing within an ace of realization Ayub’s dream of ‘strolling up’ to Delhi.
The Indian attack on Chawinda was led by Lt.-Gen. Dunn. But he failed to define the tasks of the three divisions under his command, including the elite 1st Armored Division under Maj.-Gen. Rajindar Singh Sparrow and two infantry divisions. The attack failed due to poor coordination between armor and infantry units.
The IAF attempted to provide ground support to the Indian army but was held at bay by the much smaller PAF. During the fighting, Sparrow wanted to stage a classic armored thrust, but the cautious Dunn ordered him merely to press on to Chawinda where he was to cut the railway line to Sialkot.
Three days later the Indian armor cut the railway north of Chawinda but was unable to enter the town.
An Indian report noted that “Operation Nepal” consisted of “clumsy frontal attacks with no effect.”
The Armored Divisions of both India and Pakistan failed to pull off a blitzkrieg in the Heinz Guderian tradition. Neither succeeded. That honour would go to the Israelis in 1967.
Ahmad Faruqui is a defense analyst and economist. He has taught at the universities of Karachi, California at Davis, and San Jose State. Faruqui is the author of “Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan” (Ashgate, 2003). Contact him via Twitter @AhmadFaruqui