Military Literature Festival

A giant leap that saved Srinagar in 1947

Prompt action by the Indian Armed Forces saved the beleaguered town when enemy was on its threshold

A giant leap that saved Srinagar in 1947

Karanvir Singh Sibia

On the night of October 20-21, 1947, nearly 5,000 trans-Indus tribesmen took over the bridge spanning the Neelam river on the Hazara road linking Muzaffarabad with Abbottabad (now in PoK), and occupied the first major town of Muzaffarabad by October 21, under their leader, Khurshid Anwar, and then moved further towards Uri in a fleet of buses and other vehicles. The Muslim League-run Pakistan government had inducted these trans-Indus tribesmen and codenamed this operation as “Gulmarg”. The 1947-48, first India-Pakistan War had formally begun, all at the behest of Pakistan.

On October 27, when the first wave of Indian troops, that is, the 1st Battalion of the Sikh Regiment landed at Srinagar, Pakistani invaders were already in Baramulla. Just 35 miles of tarmac road was all that lay between the invaders and Srinagar. Uncertainty prevailed about the fate of Srinagar, with negligible intelligence inputs having reached Delhi. Under these circumstances, the 1st Sikh Battalion flown from Delhi under Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Dewan Ranjit Rai, were given explicit instructions, “to circle over the airfield before landing and ascertain that the airfield had not fallen into enemy hands.” Instructions to Lieutenant Colonel Rai were not to land if there was any doubt, but to fly back to Jammu.

On instructions of Maharaja of Kashmir, Brigadier Rajinder Singh, Chief of Staff of the Kashmir State Forces, was rushed to Uri with 200 soldiers to stall the invaders, who were in Uri, 101 km from Srinagar. Brigadier Rajinder Singh led from the front and engaged the raiders for two valuable days. Ultimately he had to blow up a bridge that spanned the nullah on the main Muzaffarabad-Srinagar road to further delay the raiders. The Brigadier was killed in the ensuing battle on October 24. He was awarded the Mahavir Chakra posthumously, the first recipient of this award in Independent India.

Resuming their advance, the tribesmen captured Baramulla, 56 km from Srinagar on October 26. Khurshid Anwar, a tribal leader who was leading the tribal raiders heard the news near Baramulla that he had lost the race of becoming President of 'Azad Kashmir', because the Pakistani government had appointed Sardar Ibrahim Khan as the President. Khurshid Anwar was infuriated, he conveyed his anguish to the Pakistan authorities and slowed down the tempo of his advance, much to the dismay of Pakistan.

Legend of Sherwani

There is an untold story of extraordinary valour of 19-year-old Mohammad Maqbool Sherwani, who single-handedly thwarted the advance of thousands of raiders and gave valuable time to the Indian Army to land in Srinagar. The legend of Sherwani lives on in Baramulla. He went around on his bicycle telling the raiders who had stormed Baramulla on October 22, not to advance towards Srinagar as the Indian Army had reached the outskirts of Baramulla. The raiders later came to know of Sherwani’s game plan — that the Indian Army was nowhere near Baramulla. They shot him dead and crucified him. His body was brought down after the Army reached Baramulla several days later. Sherwani's bravado gave the Army precious time to prepare for the historic Battle of Shalateng. Acknowledging Sherwani's contribution, the Army has setup a community hall in his memory.

The act of accession

Meanwhile, action at the Army headquarters at Delhi was real fast. The Maharaja of Kashmir had been requesting the Indian Government for military aid. The Government conveyed to the Maharaja that it would be legitimate to send Indian troops to Kashmir only after it was formally acceded to India. It was only on October 26 that the Maharaja of Kashmir signed the Instrument of Accession, joining India. On the same day, the Indian Government took the momentous decision to send military aid to Srinagar. The decision of accession, if taken earlier, would have prevented the loss of vast territory to Pakistan, which is now the Pak-occupied Kashmir (PoK).

Bold decision

On October 27, the first batch of troops flew to Srinagar. Air Commodore Mehar Singh, AOC Operational Group, inducted troops in five days, a feat lauded by Lord Mountbatten also. More than 100 civilian mobilised aircraft were used to fly troops, equipment and supplies to Srinagar.

Instructions to send a battalion to Srinagar were received by the Delhi-East Punjab Command (now Western Command) at 1 pm on October 26, and the 1st Sikh Battalion employed on internal security duties at Gurgaon was ordered to concentrate at Palam airfield. By midnight of October 26/27, the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Dewan Ranjit Rai, managed to assemble his battalion headquarters and one company at Palam. Ammunition, clothing and rations were issued to the troops at the airfield. By first light, 1st Sikh was airborne. The remaining elements of 1st Sikh were still deployed and brought to Delhi to be flown to Srinagar on the next day.

On landing, Lieutenant Colonel Rai had to take a quick decision — whether to engage the invaders, which outnumbered his inadequate force, or wait till sufficient reinforcements arrived. He took the bold decision and dashed into the invaders column at Baramulla. Keeping one company in reserve, he launched an attack with the other company. The raiders were well-organised, equipped with machine guns and mortars. Lieutenant Colonel Rai decided to fall aback and occupy around Pattan, half way between Srinagar and Baramulla. He remained with the forward section to ensure all his troops move back safely. At this juncture, a sniper's bullet injured him. He had succeeded in halting enemy's advance. Meanwhile, the 161 Brigade Headquarters under Brigadier L.P. Sen, DSO, arrived in Srinagar and took over the command of all Indian and State Forces in Srinagar.

‘I shall not withdraw an inch’

On November 3, a company of 4 Kumaon, flown in under Major Somnath Sharma, went on a fighting patrol to Badgam. The company encountered 500-700 strong enemy forces, which attacked with 3" and 2" mortars. The encounter lasted for over six hours. Despite one arm being in plaster due to a fracture, Major Sharma inflicted many casualties on the enemy. His last radio message to Brigade Commander was, “the enemy is less than 50 yards from us. We are heavily outnumbered and under devastating fire. I shall not withdraw an inch…” was interrupted by a loud crash of a bursting mortar, killing him. He was awarded the first Param Vir Chakra of India and late Sepoy Dewan Singh awarded Mahavir Chakra posthumously.

In the Battle of Badgam, Major Sharma, one JCO and many other ranks of 4 Kumaon were killed.

Major General Kulwant Singh arrived in Srinagar on November 5, and established the headquarters for Jammu and Kashmir. Thereby he took over command of all the forces in Jammu and Kashmir. A squadron of armoured cars of 7 Cavalry under Major Inder Rikhye was inducted in through the perilous road from Ambala via Jammu and the 9,000 feet high Banihal Pass by negotiating over rickety bridges.

Spitfires were soon engaged in strafing of intruders beyond Pattan. During the first week of November, the enemy was strafed so thoroughly that it broke the backbone of their resistance. Notable among the Spitfire pilots was Flying Officer Dilbag Singh, who subsequently rose to the rank of Chief of Air Staff.

Battle of Shalateng

Tempests of Number 7 Squadron RIAF played a decisive role in the battle of Shalateng checking the advance of the raiders.

In the early hours of November 7, the enemy contacted the forward defended locations of 1 Sikh position. Thus commenced the Battle of Shalateng.

The troops available were 1 Sikh under newly promoted Commanding Officer Maj Sampuran Bachan Singh, who commanded the battalion from October 30 to December 12. Later, he was wounded in the Battle of Bhatgiran.

1 Kumaon commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Pritam Singh, a gallant officer, who had been wounded and a company of 4 Kumaon, 1 Punjab under Lieutenant Colonel G.I.S. Khullar and 6 Raj Rif, 2 Dogra , 37 Field Battery and a Squadron from 7 Light Cavalry under Major Inder Jit Rikhye. 1 Patiala Infantry (Rajindra Sikhs) and a troop of Patiala State Mountain Guns were also engaged in this battle.

The plan conceived was to encircle the enemy completely by a series of quick moves; an encirclement, from Shalateng in the extreme north west to the Rifle Range area in the south east and to the Hokar Sar area in the south, and thereby to completely annihilate him. A company of 4 Kumaon launched itself on the enemy as the right flanking company of 1 Sikh.

The final orders for attack were given by Brigadier L.P. Sen, DSO. All hell broke loose when the enemy was shot up in the rear by the armour troop commanded by Lieutenant Noel David, and attacked frontally by 1 Sikh.

Suddenly, 1 Kumaon commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Pritam Singh burst in on the enemy's right flank, with automatic weapons blazing, as they were fired from the hip, and with bayonets flashing. This stunned the enemy and resulted in complete confusion in the enemy positions.

The defectors of J & K State Forces Infantry, who had joined the enemy ranks, were now trying to escape the fire that was hitting them from three sides. Seeing the bayonet charge descending on them, the enemy rushed in all directions, and crashed into one another. Ultimately, they turned and fled westwards.

As they broke, 1 Sikh was ordered to attack and the rifle company of 4 Kumaon was thrown into the battle on the right flank of 1 Sikh. An immediate request to the Air Force to strike the fleeing tribesmen was answered with some telling blows. The Battle of Shalateng, which lasted for 12 hours, had been won. It was a major disaster for the tribesmen.

As the news spread about the defeat of the enemy, there was jubilation in Srinagar.

The civilian buses borrowed from the civil administration remained woefully unsuitable for the requirements of the army. Notwithstanding this drawback, and despite a number of casualties to own troops, Captain H.S. Bolina, the Company Commander of 4 Kumaon pressed home the attack. The disorganised and beaten enemy streaked across the fields towards Baramulla.

This was a devastating blow for the raiders, who left behind thousands dead and many wounded. The air support shattered the morale of the enemy and drove them beyond Baramulla and Uri.

With inputs from Brigadier Jagbir Singh Grewal

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