By Raju Mansukhani
The annals of Indo-Pak 1965 War unfold legions of heroic iconic soldiers who fought in several wars across the south Asian military theatres: Lt Gen Harbakhsh Singh VrC is one such larger-than-life soldier whose stentorian voice can be heard from the pages of ‘War Despatches’.
“The operations in J&K have clearly brought into focus the vital importance of an efficient intelligence organisation to keep our finger continually on the pulse of a belligerent neighbour,” the Lt General wrote, aware that the publication of the ‘War Despatches’ was a wake-up call for the Government of the day, as well as lessons to be shared for posterity. “There is an urgent requirement for an alert and streamlined intelligence organisation,” he wrote, mincing no words as he recounted the significant successes, and failures, of the Indo-Pak War 1965.
After the failure of the infiltration campaign of Pakistan in August-September 1965, Lt Gen Harbakhsh Singh, as the Army Commander of the Western Army, was convinced the myth – created by Pakistan that the Kashmiris were impatiently waiting to be ‘liberted’ – was exploded. He enumerated several examples of the reluctance of the locals to cooperate with infiltrators. The best counter-action against an infiltration campaign, he said, was to strike at the root of the invaders, that is, the bases used by them for reinforcement and logistic support. The Hajipir and Kishanganga offensives clearly illustrated this lesson.
The story of Lt Gen Harbakhsh Singh VrC is worth recounting today for its sheer drama and the simplicity of a man who continues to be hailed as a’ soldier’s soldier’.
“India was fortunate that the Army Commander of the Western Army was Lt Gen Harbakhsh Singh,” in The Monsoon War, its authors Amarinder Singh and Lt. Gen Tajindar Shergill acknowledged his military record. “He was a very experienced soldier, having commanded a company of 5 Sikh in battle against the Japanese.” He suffered a serious head injury, remained a Japanese prisoner-of-war in Singapore for four years, but in 1947-48, he was back in action commanding the 1 Sikh and 163 Brigade in Kashmir.
It was Brigadier Harbakhsh Singh who was ordered to advance and capture Tithwal with a view to capturing the enemy’s base near Handwara valley and to cut off the advance from Muzaffarabad to Gurais.
“On the night of 16 May, Brigadier Harbakhsh Singh, leading his troops on foot, made a rapid advance through a very difficult terrain, including the crossing of the 11,000-ft. Nastachur Pass, and completely surprised the enemy who broke and withdrew in confusion and panic in all directions. Tithwal was thus captured on 23 May. The success of the operations was to a very great extent due to his personal leadership,” reads the citation of the Vir Chakra awarded to the Brigadier, Commander 163 Brigade.
During the 1962 invasion by China, he commanded the 5 Division in the NEFA, later 4 Corps for a while. It was an illustrious military career; the soldier in Lt Gen Harbakhsh Singh carrying the multiple battle-scars with as much ease as the insignia and stripes which he earned.
Taking Charge of Western Command: It was in 1964 that he took charge as General Officer Commander-in-Chief Western Command. The then Army Commander Lt Gen Daulat Singh was killed in a horrific helicopter accident in Poonch in November 1963, along with several senior Army and Air Force officers, while on a reconnaissance mission of an operational area.
In the ‘War Despatches’, Lt Gen Harbakhsh Singh provides an informed assessment of the Indian Army’s military capabilities when compared to Pakistan who had been receiving massive American military aid since 1956.
“Statistically we were in a bad shape,” he commented, adding, “of the various formations that participated during the conflict in the Jammu and Punjab Areas except for 1 Armoured Division, 26 Infantry Division and 2 (Independent) Armoured Brigade, the remaining were new raisings… Our indigenous production had not at that stage been geared to a pitch to meet even our minimum requirements. Thus, we found ourselves woefully short of certain essential weapons and vital items of equipment.”
With 352 Patton tanks, the Pakistan Army had an overwhelming edge over the Indian armour. The sophistication of the Patton tank was a by-word in armour circles of the world at that time. In contrast India’s most modern tank, the Centurion was of World War II vintage, the Sherman a discarded relic from the last World War formed the bulk of our armour potential. (The figure of 186 Centurions and 332 Shermans is mentioned in the ‘War Despatches’.)
After the Chinese invasion in 1962, India was being contemptuously referred to as a ‘paper tiger’ by Pakistan’s leaders and the media. This, according to Lt Gen Harbakhsh Singh was a miscalculation by Pakistan for they “underestimated the fighting qualities of the Indian Army.”
Meghdoot Force: Military historians have often commented that while the deeds of the Generals and top leadership certainly deserve documentation and made available for the new generations, the achievements of the Officers and jawans also need to be brought to light. The subaltern perspective to the war and its battles being equally significant.
Lt Gen Harbakhsh Singh introduces us to the Meghdoot Force and Major Megh Singh of Guards who had volunteered for a highly exciting and risky mission of operating behind enemy lines. The Lt General felt that no account of the operations in the Uri-Punch sector would be complete without a reference to the exploits of the Meghdoot Force whose activities though brief had a spectacular impact on the course of actions in this area.
Major Megh Singh had a checkered patchy career. During his tenure as Second in Command of 3 Guards some of his decisions came under a cloud. There was a disciplinary case made against him, as a result he was denied the promotion to Lieut Colonel. As the war broke out, the Major was marking his time serving as the General Staff Officer Grade Two (Training) at the Western Army Headquarters. He even applied for release from the Army which the Lt General recommended.
When hostilities broke out in J&K, the soldier in Major Megh Singh could no longer sit silent. He sought an interview with Lt Gen Harbakhsh Singh. He cited his experience in clandestine operations in Burma in the last World War, volunteered for service in the operational area of J&K at the head of a Special Group.
The Lt General appreciated his motive and promised that if he did well in J&K, he would be the one to pin a Lieut Colonel’s rank on his shoulders. Sure enough Major Megh Singh gathered around him a batch of young and hardy men from 3 Rajputana Rifles and 3 Rajput. After a short and intensive training schedule, he declared himself ready to operation ‘in the gut of the enemy’. So on 1st September 1965 was born the Meghdoot Force.
‘War Despatches’ singles out the following actions of the Meghdoot Group for mention:
An important culvert on the road Dwarandi-Bandigopalpur was blown up …the target was seven miles deep in enemy territory.
Two enemy picquets (Neza Pir NR2182 and Ari Dhok NR2183) were captured as complementary action to the main attack on Raja and Chand picquets.
The force went out to destroy an ammunition dump at Kahuta but found it empty; Major Megh Singh switched his troops to assist 3 Dogra who were in difficulty and through an audacious manoeuvre, the Meghdoot Force compelled the enemy to abandon the strategically important Kahuta bridge. In the fitness of things, Major Megh Singh was accorded the honour of establishing the link up with 68 Infantry Brigade south of Hajipir.
The Meghdoot Force proved that great success can be achieved by trained and resolute troops behind the enemy lines. Major Megh Singh had made a most creditable contribution towards the organization and training of this Force and his subsequent leadership in various missions was most inspiring. “For this he was very deservedly awarded the Vir Chakra. To fulfill my promise, on 16th September, I was happy to pin the Lieut Colonel’s rank on his shoulders in the presence of his Corps Commander,” wrote Lt Gen Harbakhsh Singh. Today, we can raise a toast to these military heroes with a robust Jai Hind!
The author is a researcher-writer specializing in history and heritage issues, and a former deputy curator of the Pradhanmantri Sangrahalaya.
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