1971 War: How India Decimated Pak Thrust in Longewala


New Delhi: Ruling Bollywood as the major patriotic theme battle of Longewala has been portrayed by Director JP Dutta in the famous movie ‘Border’. However the utter sacrifice and velour of Indian soldiers had remained unmatched.

A handful 120 Indian soldiers on the fateful night of December 4 decimated a numerically far superior force of 2000 Pakistani soldiers.

The Battle of Longewala (4–7 December 1971) was one of the first major engagements in the Western Sector during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, fought between assaulting Pakistani forces and Indian defenders at the Indian border post of Longewala, in the Thar Desert of the Rajasthan state in India.

The “A” company (reinforced) of the 23rd Battalion, Punjab Regiment,under the Indian Army’s 30th Infantry, commanded by Major Kuldip Singh Chandpuri, was left with the choice of either attempting to hold out until reinforced, or fleeing on foot from a mechanised infantry Pakistani force. Choosing the former, Major Kuldip Singh Chandpuri ensured that all his assets were correctly employed, and made the most use of his strong defensive position, and weaknesses created by errors in enemy tactics. He was also fortunate in that an Indian Air Force forward air controller was able to secure and direct aircraft in support of the post’s defence until reinforcements arrived six hours later.

The Pakistani commanders made several questionable decisions, including a failure of their strategic intelligence to foresee availability of Indian strike aircraft in the Longewala area, exercising operational mobility with little or no route reconnaissance, and conducting a tactical frontal assault with no engineer reconnaissance. This led to the Pakistani brigade group being left extremely vulnerable to air attack, vehicles becoming bogged in terrain not suitable for the movement of armoured vehicles as they tried to deploy off a single track, these being more susceptible to enemy fire by using external fuel storage in tactical combat, attempting to execute a night attack over unfamiliar terrain, and infantry being surprised by obstacles to troop movement causing confusion and stalling the attack during the crucial hours of darkness, when the assaulting infantry still had a measure of concealment from Indian small arms and infantry support weapon fire.

The main thrust of the Indian Army during the 1971 war was directed towards the eastern theatre, with the western sector envisaged as a holding operation to prevent the Pakistan Army from achieving any success that would allow the President of Pakistan, Yahya Khan, any bargaining tool to trade against the captured territories in the east. By the last week of November 1971, the Indian Army had launched offensive manoeuvres at Atgram against Pakistani border posts and communications centres along the eastern border. The Mukti Bahini also launched an offensive on Jessore at this time.[8] It was clear to Islamabad by this time that open conflict was inevitable, and that East Pakistan was indefensible in the long run. Yahya Khan chose at this point to try to protect Pakistan’s integrity and to hold India by Ayub Khan’s strategy – “The defence of East Pakistan lies in the West”

Pakistan’s tactical plan was based on the assumption that an attack in the area would help Pakistan’s 1st Armoured Divisions task in the Sri Ganganagar area. Pakistan High command also felt that it was important to protect the North-South road link which they felt was vulnerable as it was close to the border. A Combined Arms Plan was decided upon. This involved two Infantry Brigades and two Armoured Regiments. A separate division, the 18 Division, was formed for this purpose. 18 Division Operation Orders required one Infantry Brigade (206) with an Armoured Regiment (38 Cavalry) to capture and establish a firm base at Longewala, a junction on the Indian road system and 51st Infantry Brigade and the 22nd Cavalry (Pakistan Army Armoured Corps) to operate beyond Longewala to capture Jaisalmer.

The Pakistani plan was to reach Longewala, Ramgarh and Jaisalmer”. The plan was far-fetched from the start, if only because it called for a night attack to be conducted over terrain that was not preceded by route or engineer reconnaissance, and the armoured troops were therefore unaware of the ground surface that could not support rapid movement towards the objective. As the day unfolded, Longewala would stand out as one of the biggest losses in a battle for Pakistan despite overwhelming superiority before commencement of the battle, largely due to the vehicles becoming bogged down in soft sand.

Indian defensive planning

On the Indian side, the Longewala post was held by the A company of the 23rd Battalion, Punjab Regiment, led by Major K S Chandpuri, the defences occupying a high sand dune which dominated the area that was largely intractable to vehicles. The post was surrounded by a barbed wire fence of three stands. The rest of the battalion was located at Sadhewala, 17 km north-east of the Longewala post. Chandpuri commanded an infantry company reinforced by a section each of MMGs and L16 81mm Mortar, and one Jeep-mounted RCL. His two other recoilless rifle teams of the anti-tank section were under training at the battalion headquarters. Major Chandpuri also had under his command a four-man team of the camel Border Security Force division.The Longewala post had no armoured vehicles, but artillery support was available from a battery of 170 Field Regiment (Veer Rajput) tasked in direct support to the battalion, and 168 Field Regiment which had been deployed to the area in secrecy just a day earlier. The direct support battery was attached to the 168 Field Regiment and served as its “Sierra” Battery. Immediately after PAF strikes on Indian airfields on 3 December, Chandpuri dispatched a 20-man strong patrol under Lieutenant Dharam Veer to Boundary Pillar (BP) 638, on the international border. This patrol was to play an important part in detecting the Pakistani forces.

During the night of the 4th, Lt. Veer’s platoon conducting a patrol detected noises across the border that suggested a large number of armoured vehicles approaching. These were soon confirmed by reports — from the Army’s Air Observation Post aircraft flown by Maj. Atma Singh — in the area of a 20 km long armoured column on the track leading to the post advancing in the general direction of the Longewala post. Directing Lt Veer’s patrol to trail the advancing armoured column, Chandpuri got in touch with the battalion headquarters requesting urgent reinforcements and armour and artillery support. Battalion HQ gave him the choice of staying put, and containing the attack as much as possible, or carrying out a tactical retreat of the company to Ramgarh, as reinforcements would not be available for at least six hours. Considering that Chandpuri’s command had no transportation, and was facing a mobile enemy, he decided to maintain the defensive position of the post where his troops at least had the benefit of prepared defensive works, rather than conducting a withdrawal at night that was a far riskier option.

The Pakistani forces began their attack at 12:30 am As the offensive approached the lone outpost, Pakistani artillery opened up across the border with medium artillery guns, killing five of the ten camels from the BSF detachment. As the column of 65 tanks neared the post, Indian defences, lacking the time to lay a prepared minefield, laid a hasty anti-tank minefield as the enemy advanced, one infantryman being killed in the process. The Indian infantry held fire until the leading Pakistani tanks had approached to 15–30 metres before firing their PIATs. They accounted for the first two tanks on the track with their Jeep-mounted 106 mm M40 recoilless rifle, with one of its crew being killed during the combat. This weapon proved quite effective because it was able to engage the thinner top armour of the Pakistani tanks from its elevated position, firing at often stationary bogged down vehicles. In all the post defenders claimed 12 tanks destroyed or damaged. The initial Pakistani attack stalled almost immediately when the infantry discovered the barbed wire which was unseen in the night, and interpreted it to signify a minefield. Firing for the Indian RCL crews was made easier by the flames of fires when the spare fuel tanks on the Pakistani tanks, intended to supplement their internal capacity for the advance to Jaisalmer, exploded, at once providing ample light for Indians located on higher ground, and creating a dense acrid smoke screen at ground level for the Pakistani infantry, adding to the confusion. Two hours were lost as Pakistani sappers were brought up, only to discover there was no minefield. However, at this time Pakistani infantry were required to make another attack, from a different direction, but in the dawn light. The Pakistani advance then attempted to surround the post two hours later by vehicles getting off the road, but many vehicles, particularly armoured personnel carriers and tanks, in trying to soften up the Indian defenders before attacking, became bogged in the soft sand of the area surrounding the post. Throughout the engagement Major Chandpuri continued to direct the supporting artillery fire.

Although massively outnumbering the Indian defenders, and having surrounded them, the Pakistani troops were unable to advance over open terrain on a full-moon night, under small arms and mortar fire from the outpost. This encouraged the Indians not to give up their strong defensive position, frustrating the Pakistani commanders. As dawn arrived, the Pakistan forces had still not taken the post, and were now having to do so in full daylight.

In the morning the Indian Air Force was finally able to direct some HF-24 Maruts and Hawker Hunter aircraft to assist the post; they were not outfitted with night vision equipment, and so were delayed from conducting combat missions until dawn. With daylight, however, the IAF was able to operate effectively, with the strike aircraft being guided to the targets by the airborne Forward Air Controller (FAC) Major Atma Singh in a HAL Krishak. The Indian aircraft attacked the Pakistani ground troops with the 16 Matra T-10 rockets and 30 mm cannon fire on each aircraft. Without support from the Pakistan Air Force, which was busy elsewhere, the tanks and other armoured vehicles were easy targets for the IAF’s Hunters. The range of the 12.7 mm anti-aircraft heavy machine guns mounted on the tanks was limited and therefore ineffective against the Indian jets. Indian air attacks were made easier by the nature of the barren terrain. Many IAF officers later described the attack as a ‘Turkey Shoot’ signifying the lopsidedness. By noon the next day, the assault ended completely, having cost Pakistan 22 tanks claimed destroyed by aircraft fire, 12 by ground anti-tank fire, and some captured after being abandoned, with a total of 100 vehicles claimed to have been destroyed or damaged in the desert around the post. The Pakistani attack was first halted, and then Pakistani forces were forced to withdraw when Indian tanks from division’s cavalry regiment the 20 Lancers, Commanded by Col Bawa Guruvachan Singh, and the 17th Rajputana Rifles launched their counter-offensive to end the six-hour combat; Longewala had proved to be one of the defining moments in the war.

The battle of Longewala saw heavy Pakistani losses and low Indian casualties. Since the Indians were able to use the defenders’ advantage, they managed to inflict heavy losses on the Pakistanis. Indian casualties in the battle were two soldiers along with one of their jeep mounted recoil-less rifles knocked out. Pakistani losses were 200 soldiers killed. The Pakistanis also suffered the loss of 34 tanks destroyed or abandoned, and lost 500 additional vehicles. The judicial commission set up at the end of war recommended the commander of 18 division Major General Mustafa to be tried for negligence during the war.

Notwithstanding the Indian victory, there were intelligence and strategic failures on both sides. India’s intelligence failed to provide warning of such a large armoured force in the western sector. Moreover, the defending post was not heavily armed to neutralise the enemy. Finally, they did not push home the advantage by destroying the fleeing Pakistani tanks, while the IAF had them on the run. They did, however destroy or capture some 36 tanks, remaining one of the largest disproportionate tank casualties for one side in a single battle after World War II.