1965 War: The Last Gentlemen’s War

Maroof Raza is consulting editor, strategic affairs, at Times Now and an author
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Indian pilots spared Pakistani civilians in the 1965 war that started after a wily Zulfikar Ali Bhutto instigated General Ayub Khan to send soldiers to create trouble in Kashmir. Fifty years later, the author revisits the war for lessons learnt and tales of bravery
Following their failed invasion of Kashmir in 1947-48, for which the Pakistan army blamed the indecisiveness of their politicians, the country’s armed forces decided that in future, they would call the shots over Kashmir in particular and India in general. War was too serious to be left to spineless politicians. And by 1962, after the Chinese invasion of India, Pakistani leaders—a towering General Ayub Khan along with his young and wily Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto—were convinced that Kashmir was ripe for the picking. So in an unexpected departure from his successes at home—with his model of basic democracy—Ayub Khan decided on another invasion of Kashmir, prodding him on to first create an Algeria-like uprising in the Kashmir Valley (later called Operation Gibraltar) and if need be, to back it up with a military invasion of Punjab (later called Operation Grand Slam).

With Pakistan having entered a deep embrace with the US for strategic security and become part of US-led alliances such as the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and Central Treaty Organization (CENTO)—as part of a link-chain of countries that the US wanted to surround the Soviet Union with—it had far superior tanks and aircrafts compared to India. Even then, some wise men like the then Governor of Pakistan’s Punjab, the Nawab of Kalabagh had warned Ayub Khan: “Do not listen to Bhutto. His father or grandfather did not handle a sword or a gun. I warn you that if you attack India, you will face reverse.” Bhutto soon prevailed on Ayub Khan to have the good Nawab removed. And with India’s large-scale military modernisation following the Chinese invasion yet to be completed, Pakistan felt that this was its last chance to capture Kashmir and settle the problem. Ayub Khan thus went ahead with his plans, which was initiated in two parts: the first being Operation Gibraltar that saw the infiltration of over 5,000 Pakistan soldiers (some say, there were 15,000) dressed as irregulars, who were to incite a rebellion in Kashmir with the help of Kashmiri locals. In part two, he would launch a military operation—from Punjab and up to Akhnoor north of Jammu—across the border to cut off Kashmir from India.


Like most Pakistanis, Ayub Khan had delusions about the superiority of Muslim warriors over meek Hindus. With Nehru’s death in May 1964, his successor Lal Bahadur Shastri was assumed to be weak. Ayub Khan even referred to him as a ‘mouse’. Also, Pakistanis had watched India’s military humiliation in 1962 with glee, and felt that with China too as an adversary, they could squeeze Kashmir out from India. Moreover, Pakistan’s assumptions were also based on the grounds that (a) following India’s military defeat in 1962, its morale was low; (b) so, Pakistan must attack before India’s post 62 military modernisation was complete; and that (c) the defeat had shown that India’s political leadership lacked strategic vision, a coherent understanding of issues related to matters military and there was little civil military interface so essential to respond to a military attack. As Bhutto had later recalled: “There was a time when militarily we were superior to India… that was the position up to 1965.”

However, before doing so, Pakistan decided to test India’s nerves by probing India’s borders in the desolate Rann of Kutch in April 1965. India’s response was measured and Pakistan interpreted it as a lack of confidence, following the drubbing India had received from the Chinese in 1962. Furthermore, the 1964 disappearance of Kashmir’s symbol of Islam, the Mo-e-Muqaddas (the Prophet’s hair), had caused riots in the Valley. Pakistan chose to interpret this as a Kashmiri demand for secession and a reflection of pro-Pakistani sentiment. And finally, a crisis war game carried out in Washington in February 1965 had indicated that if Pakistan were to invade J&K once again, it was ‘likely to gain Kashmir or large parts of it’, so long as it made a few modifications to its 1947-48 invasion plan. Most interestingly, though, Ayub Khan’s decision to launch Operation Gibraltar was influenced by the young Bhutto and his gang, who were confident that India wouldn’t fight back.

However, things didn’t go as per plan. Launched around 5 August, Op-Gibraltar met little success as Pakistani aggressors— whose job was to blow up bridges and carry out commando raids—got little support from local Kashmiris, who chose to help the Indian police and military, resulting in a serious setback for Pakistan’s war plans. But undeterred, Pakistan launched another 30,000 soldiers (dressed as irregulars) into the Valley to keep up the façade that Pakistani troops were not violating the cease-fire line (CFL). And even though Op-Gibraltar had failed, Ayub Khan was informed otherwise. Assuming that Kashmir was ready to secede, Ayub followed it up with the second part of its plan, Operation Grand Slam, on 1 September. This was to allow Pakistan’s quasi- guerrilla force to take over J&K once it was cut off by an infantry and armoured attack in the Chhamb sector, where the International Border ended and the CFL began.


India responded after an initial phase of some shock and confusion, but eventually quite effectively once Pakistan’s game plan became clear. The Indian Defence Minister, YB Chavan, took the service chiefs by surprise when he took a few minutes to give the go-ahead for an all-out air-land counter offensive, without consulting the cabinet or the Prime Minister. And then, to the surprise of Pakistan, and even Indian generals, the mild mannered Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri surprised a boastful Ayub Khan by ordering Indian forces to retaliate right across the Indo-Pak border. This was Pakistan’s ‘moment of truth’. Pakistan had the world on its side, with the US and UK fearful of its growing alliance with China, and as India hadn’t yet agreed on a treaty of friendship with the Soviets (which was in done 1971), they all ganged up to declare India the ‘aggressor’. But apparently Shastriji didn’t mind it.

Many in India say it was a 22-day war, fought mostly in September 1965. As India’s tanks raced towards Lahore and Sialkot, perhaps the biggest tank battle since World War II took place in and around Khem Karan and Asal Utar in Punjab. This lasted for 15 days, inside Pakistani territory, and had a big impact on Pakistan’s psyche as its superior tanks and fighter jets were given a resounding reply by India’s forces. But by abandoning his plans to cut off Kashmir from India, Ayub Khan managed to divert his forces from Chhamb to prevent the fall of Lahore. And on the basis of this, Pakistan now claims, that the 1965 war was a victory!

The truth is that America and the Russians had forced India to accept a ‘ceasefire’. The biggest lesson that came of this war was that any future conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir would be fought all across the Indo-Pak border. The other was the decision of the then Western Army Commander Lieutenant General Harbaksh Singh to disagree with the Army chief, General JN Chaudhuri, when he refused to withdraw to the east of the river Beas. Had he done so, India would have lost Gurdaspur district for good, and then clearly given Pakistan the edge in this war, and in later years.

Based on neutral claims, the report card when a ceasefire was finally agreed upon reads as follows: India lost 540 sq km of territory (mostly in the desolate Rann of Kutch) with 3,000 casualties, whereas Pakistan lost 1,840 sq km of territory (in its precious Punjab and Kashmir) and had 3,800 casualties. India lost more aircraft (60 to 75) and fewer tanks (150 to 190) compared to Pakistan’s losses of aircraft (20) and tanks (200-300). The figures given by both sides were higher. However, historians regard this war a draw at best. Even the date it began is still in dispute. In fact, Pakistan had gained a lot more in its first campaign for Kashmir in 1947. Ayub Khan was even blamed by many disillusioned military commanders for having miscalculated and for having lost more during the Tashkent agreement, brokered by the Soviets. He was soon booted out of power and replaced by General Yahya Khan, who had led the 1965 attack on Chhamb Jurian in Punjab. (However, the latter also fell from grace after the 1971 war, having listened to the ambitions of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who pushed him towards a crackdown in East Pakistan after the 1970 elections, which led to the crisis and war in what became Bangladesh).


But as we look back at the 1965 war, in its fiftieth anniversary year, there are a few tales of valour that need to be recalled, most of which are still recounted in military circles with respect.

As Pakistan pushed its quasi guerrilla force to create an uprising in Jammu & Kashmir, Indian troops along the then cease-fire line were surprised at the ferocity of the guerrilla force and its attacks. This led to an Indian decision to block their roots of ingress, like the favoured Haji Pir pass. The pass lies well within Indian Kashmir but was occupied by Pakistani troops following the invasion of 1947. Thus, in August 1965, before the start of full-fledged military operations in Punjab, a band of gutsy paratroopers, led by Major (later Lieutenant General) Ranjit Singh Dyal, were tasked with capturing Haji Pir. Major Dyal and his 1 Para men moved over several days and nights, under rain and icy winds, in wet clothing with sheer grit and determination and little food supplies to achieve their goal. Living off the land, they crawled and clawed their way to the top of Haji Pir and fought hand-to-hand with the Pakistanis before Major Dyal along and his team captured the Pass to give India the edge in the battle for Kashmir Valley. Major Dyal was rightfully awarded the Mahavir Chakra for exceptional gallantry, but sadly India’s decision makers returned Haji Pir back to Pakistan after the war.

Further south of Kashmir in the plains of Punjab, one of the biggest ever tank battles after World War II was fought. But before the rout of Pakistani tanks in Khem Karan, a lonely act of valour stands out for the courage of one man, an inspiration to generations of Indian soldiers, in an appropriately named village, Asal Utar. As their famous Patton tanks rolled towards India, the Pakistanis were confident that it was only a matter of time before they would cut off Kashmir by capturing Punjab. But they miscalculated the grit and determination—despite their inferior equipment—of Indian soldiers. Since tanks move well on dry and hard ground, some Indian commanders decided to flood the fields and create marshy ground that would hinder the movement of Pakistani tanks. They opened water dykes and canals and watered the fields heavily with tube wells. This resulted in Pakistani tanks getting stuck in water logged fields. Sensing an opportunity to do something exceptional, an unassuming Havildar (CQMH) Abdul Hamid of 4 Grenadiers jumped into action. He was in charge of the anti-tank gun detachment, and without waiting for orders, he drove his jeep within effective range of the leading Pakistani tanks and knocked out one tank after another, swiftly reversing his jeep after every shell he fired, and moving from one hiding spot to another. It took the Pakistanis completely by surprise and they were several tanks down before one of their tanks shot at Abdul Hamid as he positioned himself to take aim at his last target. Abdul Hamid died but rightfully earned a posthumous Param Vir Chakra. And as a reminder of his gallantry, his destroyed anti-tank Jeep is displayed at the Grenadiers Centre in Jabalpur. What followed thereafter were some fierce tank-to-tank battles on the plains of Punjab, where several Indian tank regiments acquitted themselves with distinction in the battles of Phillora and Sialkot.

But as the war raged on, the leadership of one man is still remembered as the stuff that legends are made of. As the newly appointed commanding officer of 3 Jat, Lieutenant Colonel Desmond Hayde and his battalion crossed Icchogil Canal ahead of Amritsar, and captured Dograi inside Pakistan. His action took even his own bosses by surprise in the division headquarters, and as the GoC of his division deliberated on what to do next (it was known to be the indecisive sort), India failed to take advantage of Hayde’s initiative. He was soon ordered to pull back and asked to cool his heels on the Indian side of the border.

A few weeks later, an attack was finally launched on the Amritsar-Lahore access and Desmond Hayde and his highly motivated troops were in the lead again. He eventually not only recaptured Dograi but also Batapore, and by his own account, he killed over two dozen Pakistanis, before earning for himself the Mahavir Chakra and giving his battalion a reputation that still commands respect.

Finally, no account of this war is complete without an acknowledgement of the superb performance of Indian Air Force fighter pilots. They fought against Pakistan’s far superior American F-86 Sabre jets, and in a rare feat, the Keelor brothers Denzil and Trevor both won Vir Chakras in this war for their show of gallantry in the air as they shot down Pakistani Sabres. Importantly, IAF pilots did everything to avoid hurting innocent civilians. To that extent, the 1965 war was perhaps the last gentlemen’s war.

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