Every year for the past fifty-five years, Pakistani nation fondly remembers a moment in the month of September, when in a short speech, President Muhammad Ayub Khan galvanized the nation to rise and stand as one solid rock to defend itself against a numerically superior enemy, which had surreptitiously launched an all-out attack across the international border on the outskirts of Lahore. 6th September is observed as Defence Day of Pakistan by the nation to mark that occasion and gratefully acknowledge the supreme sacrifices of its valiant sons and daughters, so that its future generation can live with honour and dignity.
Contrary to general perception, Pakistan made every effort to resolve the outstanding differences with its neighbor peacefully and through negotiations. President Ayub Khan invited Prime Minister Jawharlal Nehru to Pakistan in early 1960s and held discussions on Kashmir in the light of UN resolutions and Nehru’s own publically declared statements and commitment but Nehru displayed little enthusiasm for any meaningful talks. In 1962, during Indo-China War, Pakistan abstained from taking any advantage from India’s predicament as a gesture of goodwill and instead, in 1962-63, engaged India in at least four rounds of talks between Foreign Minister Mr. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and India’s Minister for External Affairs, Sardar Swaran Singh, but this exercise too ended in smoke due to ossified and calcified position adopted by India.
In 1964, President Ayub Khan then invited Sheikh Abdullah, Chief Minister of Indian Illegally Occupied Kashmir to Pakistan to explore ways of resolving the Kashmir dispute which was hampering normalization of relations between the two countries. Sheikh Abdullah’s engagement too produced no worthwhile result as at the beginning of the visit, he was labelled a Pakistani agent by India. Nevertheless, Sheikh Abdullah, reciprocally, invited Ayub to India to hold discussions with Prime Minister Nehru but divine intervention prevented any such meeting as Nehru expired suddenly. Indian stubborn attitude during all peace parleys virtually ended any efficacy they might have had.
India and Pakistan armies clashed in Rann of Kutch region in April 1965, an uninhibited salt marsh, over disputed boundary delineation. Nowadays, not much is written about these skirmishes but it had significant impact for a military solution to the Kashmir dispute, leading to ‘Operation Gibraltar’ in Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir and eventually a full scale Indo-Pak War a few months later. Had local populace of Kashmir shown a fraction of support for these forces, of what the world is seeing these days, the map of Kashmir would have been much different, but that was not to be.
It was in this obtaining environment on the morning of September 6, 1965, when a company size detachment of Pakistan Army, made contact with leading elements of Indian army’s XI Corps at the international border. The Corps level offensive, so constituted as to achieve its objective with certainty and in the face of all odds, known in military jargon as ‘main effort’, was launched on three axes: Amritsar-Lahore, Khalra-Burki-Lahore and Khem Karan-Kasur axis.
The Pakistani detachment had arrived at their war time locations only hours before and not even settled in their trenches when opening shots of the war were fired. As it turned out, both sides were surprised by the presence of the other – the Indians because they hadn’t expected to encounter Pakistanis till they had crossed international border and were well on their way to the objective of Lahore city, and Pakistanis because they had been given an assessment by their own Foreign Office that Indians will keep the ongoing skirmishes localized to Kashmir and not cross the international border. The past pattern of all skirmishes along Ceasefire Line had remained limited to Kashmir only, but this time India had much aggressive designs towards Pakistan.
It wasn’t long before Lahore based 10 and 11 Divisions of Pakistan Army launched articulated counter-offensives and checked the momentum of attacking force. Students of military history are well aware that a ‘main effort’, with its objective located only short distance away, would almost certainly succeed, but it goes to the credit of that small detachment which didn’t lose its nerve and fought back valiantly. Apprehending that a trap has been laid for them, Indians slowed down their offensive, thus providing valuable reaction time. The enemy did eventually capture the village of Burki after an intense fight and temporarily held embankment of Ichhogil Canal but was denied its main objective of Lahore Gymkhana before sunset which its army chief had the audacity to declare publically. In the next couple of days, Pakistan Army captured Khem Karan, a Tehsil level town five kilometers inside India, which remained with Pakistan till the end of the war.
There were to be further surprises in the north when in Shakargarh salient, a young army aviation aviator took off in his L-19 aircraft from a nearby airfield for an early morning reconnaissance sortie. Heading eastward, he suddenly saw first rays of winter sunrise reflected from what he thought was a huge lake, except that his flight plan had no such lake en-route. Suspecting a positional error, he quickly checked his map which confirmed no lake for miles. Edging closer, he noticed to his horror that an entire armor formation of Indian army, with sunlight bouncing off from dew formation over glistening tops of hundreds of tanks and vehicles, was getting ready for attack. Cynics, with the wisdom of hindsight of more than half a century, might see these developments in a negative light but it needs to be remembered that intelligence gathering and operational ecosystem, as a whole at that time, was not what it is today.
Soon Divisional Artillery from Sialkot Garrison and Pakistan Air Force jets from nearby airfield swung into action just as it had done on the Khalra-Burki-Lahore Sector to check the enemy in its tracks. What started off with the exciting sortie of the young army aviator, eventually led to the most famous tank battle of 1965 War at Chawinda a few days later. The battle was taught to students of warfare for years for its exceptional defensive tactics by a smaller force, backed by artillery and ingenious use of network of canals and streams in the area to act as barriers, along with prepared defences comprising minefields, dugouts and elaborate pillboxes.
Down south in the North Arabian Sea, Pakistan Navy ordered shore bombardment of Dwarka to be carried out at midnight September 6th/7th. It speaks volumes of the operational readiness of fleet as all seven ships, barring one under maintenance, sailed almost immediately on receipt of orders. They reached firing area in complete radio silence and passed operational instructions en-route. Once in position, each ship fired fifty rounds of high explosives causing extensive damage. The night-time action had tremendous impact on the war at sea as there were no further air strikes on Karachi and commerce continued to flow into Karachi Port without hindrance for the entire duration of the conflict.
The bombardment was also aimed at luring Indian Navy ships to come out into open sea where Pakistan Navy’s submarine PNS/M Ghazi had laid a trap for them. Pakistan Navy planners of that era need to be complimented for their vision as in 1965, Ghazi was the first and the only submarine in the entire Indian Ocean, and had effectively bottled up the entire Indian Navy fleet in its harbors. Today the same ocean space is swarming with submarines, both conventional and nuclear.
In the skies, air actions between Indian and Pakistan Air Forces started well before on September 1 and well before the outbreak of war on 6th September, when IAF launched four Vampire to attack Pakistan Army positions in Kashmir. They were intercepted by two F-86 Sabre jets and in the ensuing air battle, all four Indian aircraft were shot down, forcing the IAF to go on the defensive. Later, after the outbreak of war PAF’s Flying Ace, Squadron Leader M. M. Alam brought down five IAF Hunter aircraft within thirty seconds, which completely shattered the morale of IAF pilots. From there on PAF enjoyed complete air superiority in the skies and IAF never recovered from these early reverses. When the war ended, IAF had lost 104 aircraft as against 19 by PAF.
The immediate effect of the war was U.S. embargo for 10 years on both Pakistan and India, which had long-term and devastating effects – more for Pakistan than India because Pakistan had relied heavily on U.S. wherewithal, while India had diversified its sources of armament from Britain, France and the Soviet Union. India also invested in complete ground-based defensive radar coverage and an adequate supply of air-to-air missiles which held it in good stead six years later in 1971 War. Pakistan obtained second-hand F-86s from Iran, old Mirage IIIs from France and maintenance intensive F-86 aircraft from China but the effort fell well short to bridge the gap between the two air forces.
India and Pakistan signed a peace agreement at the end of the War at Tashkent in January 1966 which was facilitated by erstwhile Soviet Union, which unleashed its own dynamics for Pakistan. The Kashmir dispute, which was the primary cause of 1965 Indo-Pakistan War, not only simmers to this day but has gone worse. But the Defence Day of Pakistan on 6th September every year is a reminder of that golden moment when an entire nation stood as one entity in defence of its homeland.
The writer is a retired Vice Admiral of Pakistan Navy.
E-mail: [email protected]
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