– Col Anil Shorey
The ‘Battle of Basantar’ is another famous battle fought during the 1971 Indo-Pak war. Basantar is a river which runs from the Shivalik hills of Jammu & Kashmir to flow down into Pakistan territory. It lies approximately mid-way between Pathankot and Jammu, in the Samba sector.
While supporting the Indian offensive in this sector, many Indian regiments and battalions made fairly deep inroads into Pakistan causing considerable loss to Pakistan infantry and armour. In the process, quite a few Indian units earned awards and laurels amongst them being 4 Horse (Hodson’s Horse), Poona Horse, 5 and 9 Engineer Regiments (Madras Engineer Group), 45 Air Defence Regiment, 121 Field Regiment, 6 and 16 Madras and 18 Rajputana Rifles.
The 9 Engineer Regiment, which comprised South Indian troops affectionately called ‘Thambis’, was placed under the command of 54 Infantry Division. The regiment comprised three field companies, namely 404, 405 and 406, which were individually allotted to each of the three Infantry Brigades of 54 Infantry Division. At the commencement of the 1971 Indo-Pak war, 9 Engineer Regiment was to assist its sister battalion, 5 Engineer Regiment, in support of its offensive in the Samba-Zafarwal sector. The advance was through a seemingly impassable terrain, fortified at a number of places by Pakistan forces which had also laid extensive minefields all along likely approach routes of ingress.
On December 5, 1971, at about 7.30 pm, 2/Lt NP Singh of 9 Engineer Regiment left with his task force for Dera Post from where they started laying an operational track for the Indian offensive. At about 9.30 pm, the leading task force entered Pakistani territory. The Regiment’s Commanding Officer, Lt Col BT Pandit, after briefly supervising this specialised task, proceeded ahead in order to guide his men. He came out very successfully in this delicate task. He was later awarded with the coveted Vir Chakra.
On December 6, at about 2.30 pm, the track was completed upto Badala-Gujran in Pakistan. On December 7, for breaching the minefield in area Thakurdwara, 404 Field Company of 9 Engineer Regiment was placed under the command of 47 Infantry Brigade from 8 pm onwards. Nearby, the other field company of 9 Engineer Regiment - 405 Field Company-in conjunction with trawls, breached a vehicle safe lane, five metre-wide and 500 metre-long, in one hour. Thereafter, a field company of 5 Engineer Regiment and a platoon of 404 Field Company widened this lane by one metre.
On December 8, 404 Field Compnay, on completing its task with 47 Infantry Brigade, was earmarked for providing engineer support to 91 Infantry Brigade. Simultaneously, 405 Field Compnay rendered engineering support for the advance of 16 (Independent) Armoured Brigade in the area south and south-west of Bari. Meanwhile, 406 Field Company extended the operational track beyond Tarakwal. On December 9, 404 Field Compnay was earmarked for 76 Infantry Brigade. The operational track was then connected to Bari following which the maintenance of the entire length of track continued.
On the night of December 10/11, a platoon of 405 Field Compnay, deployed with 16 (Independent) Armoured Brigade and commanded by Nb Sub Doraiswamy, was employed on minefield breaching task with trawls. At about 11pm, the build-up of armour into the bridgehead was seriously hampered as one of the damaged Indian tanks obstructed traffic through the lane. Reopening of the lane was of utmost importance in order to successfully ensure the defence of the bridgehead, which would have otherwise been seriously jeopardised.
Nb Sub Doraiswamy, on his own initiative, took a small party forward through the Pakistani artillery barrage and succeeded in hand-breaching a detour round the stalled tank ensuring speedy induction of Indian armour and essential infantry support weapons through the minefield and into the bridgehead. For displaying this exemplary courage he was honoured with Vir Chakra.
On December 11, a diversion on Road Mawa-Pangdaur was constructed for the free movement of vehicles. Three reconnaissance patrols of 404 Field Company advanced with 91 Infantry Brigade to three different points for minefield reconnaissance. A second minefield lane was lined with the operational track on December 12. Simultaneoulsy, 405 Field Compnay also cleared a minefield lane for the Armoured Brigade and, on December 13 night, it breached an enemy minefield with trawls 1,300 metre-deep, north of Lohara and further extended it up to Lohara.
On December 15, an Engineer Task Force comprising elements of 404, 405 and 406 Field Companies was grouped with 47 Infantry Brigade for crossing Basantar in Lagwal area.The task involved extension of the operational track from Lohara to Lagwal, breaching of an enemy minefield at Basantar, improvement of crossing places in the riverbed and construction of crossing places on two boggy nullahs which were subsidiary obstacles.
The work commenced at 8 pm on December 15 and was carried out under intense Pakistani small arms, tanks and artillery fire. The Task Force, under Maj VR Choudhary, was deployed for breaching minefield and constructing a passage for tanks and other vehicles through the river Basantar in Lagwal area. On reaching the obstacle at about 8.30 pm, the Task Force found the situation very confusing on account of intense shelling and small arms fire which was further aggravated because of scanty information about the obstacle itself. As conventional reconnaissance would have taken considerable time, the Task Force Commander decided to disregard normal drills and safety precautions and to send a small party on a wide frontage at normal walking speed.
Sensing the urgency of the situation, Capt Revinder Nath Gupta volunteered for this hazardous task and led a small party of junior commissioned officer and two other ranks right up to the far edge of the minefield. Despite the grave risk involved and very intense enemy fire, he and his party brought back vital data by 9.30 pm which enabled the task to be successfully completed by 2.30 pm on December 16.
This enabled 17 Horse with two companies to be inducted into the bridgehead by 3 pm, well in time to take on the enemy’s counter-attacks and eventually led to the destruction of his armoured formation west of river Basantar. Subsequently, when the enemy put up in a counter-attack, Capt Gupta personally guided tanks of 17 Horse through the cleared minefield lane for which marking was still in progress. While working on improving the crossing, he was among those killed on December 17 by enemy artillery fire which also claimed the lives of Majors VR Choudhary and SS Malik, 2/Lt KM Mandanna, two junior commissioned officers and two other ranks. Maj SP Sharma and 12 other ranks were also wounded in the shelling. For their exemplary bravery, Maj VR Choudhary and Capt Ravinder Nath Gupta were posthumously decorated with Maha Vir Chakra and Vir Chakra respectively.
Operations ceased at 8 pm on December 17. The War Diary of the regiment records: “After overcoming the initial shock of the death of our gallant officers and junior commissioned officers, the Thambis’morale is high and we are prepared to breach more Basantars.”