Battle of Asal Uttar – The Largest Tank Battle Since World War II

The battle of Asal Uttar was one of the largest tank battles in history which eventually paved the way for Pakistan’s decisive defeat in the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965. More than 100 Pakistani tanks were destroyed or captured by the Indians who also took a large number of Pakistani officers and men as prisoners of war

By Neeraj Mahajan

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Fifty-seven years ago the battle of Asal Uttar fought in the Khem Karan sector of Punjab in the month of September 1965 is often compared to the Battle of Kursk in the Second World War. The battle witnessed one of the largest tank battles in history which eventually paved the way for Pakistan’s decisive defeat in the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965.

The battle started with an offensive by the 1 Armoured Division and 11th Infantry Division of the Pakistan army equipped with brand new, state-of-the-art M-47 and M-48 Patton tanks in the Khem Karan sector about five km from the International border.

In comparison, the Indian troops with their outdated American M4 Sherman tanks, French AMX-13 light tanks and British Centurion Tanks stood no chance against the formidable Patton tanks known for their better speed and armour protection. The Indian World War II vintage Centurion Mk VII main battle tanks were no match against the Patton tanks in terms of firepower, range and mobility.

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The 46-Ton Patton Tanks named after General George S. Patton Jr., commander of the U.S. Third Army during World War II and one of the earliest advocates of the use of tanks in battle were virtually invincible with their sophisticated fire control systems and 90 mm main guns which were much better than the 75mm main guns of the Indian tanks.

The odds were heavily in favour of the advancing Pakistanis who had moved in with an Armoured Division tank strength of 300 tanks as compared to about 135 tanks deployed by three Indian regiments with 45 tanks each.

Pakistan’s aim behind the attack was to capture strategically important Indian cities of Amritsar, Harike, Raya and Beas and cut off the road links between Punjab and the rest of the country by securing the bridge over the River Beas.

Pakistan’s aim was to capture important Indian cities and cut off Punjab and the rest of the country. It would have been suicidal to confront the enemy face to face. So Maj. Gen. Gurbaksh Singh, GOC, ordered his troops to fall back and live to fight another day

It was a really grim state of affairs and would have been suicidal to confront the enemy face to face. Considering the gravity of the situation, Maj. Gen. Gurbaksh Singh, GOC, 4th Mountain Division ordered his troops to fall back and ‘trap’ the advancing Pakistani tanks in a horseshoe-shaped defensive position.

In keeping with the age-old maxim – live to fight another day the Indian troops tactically withdrew and flooded the sugar cane fields in the night.

The next morning, the so-called formidable M47 and M48 Patton tanks of the Pakistani 1st Armoured Division, literally walked into the trap and bogged down in the muddy slush — many of them could not move.

It was now up to the Indian soldiers to aim and shoot down the Pakistanis many of whom fled leaving their fully functional tanks behind. Almost 100 Pakistani tanks- mostly Pattons, Shermans and Chaffees, were destroyed or captured by the Indians who lost only 10 tanks in the battle.

After three days of bitter fighting, the battle ended with the Pakistani forces being repulsed near Asal Uttar. The commander of Pakistani forces Maj. Gen. Nasir Ahmed Khan was killed and the battle ended in a decisive victory for India and a large number of Pakistani officers and soldiers were taken prisoners of war.

One of the greatest lessons to be learnt from the battle of Asal Uttar is that it is not the weapon but the man behind it – who is the ultimate battle-winning factor. Pakistan lost the war because its soldiers were ill-trained, de-motivated and badly led, while the Indian turned the table because of their superior leadership, coordination, motivation, morale, and fierce fighting ability, as well as better tactics, strategy and understanding of warfare in the plains.

Interestingly, even Field Marshal, Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s self-promoted president and first dictator was the son of Risaldar Major Mir Dad Khan, of 9th Hodson’s Horse — the regiment of the Indian Army which destroyed the maximum number of Pakistani tanks.

Even Gen Pervez Musharraf, who went on to be the Army Chief and President of Pakistan, participated in this battle as a lieutenant in the 16 (SP) Field Regiment, 1st Armoured Division Artillery.

As far as the Indians are concerned, Captain Amarinder Singh, the son of the last Maharaja of Patiala and Chief Minister of Punjab from 2002 to 2007 also fought in the 1965 war.

The battle led to the creation of Patton Nagar or Graveyard of Patton tanks near Bhikhiwind in the Khemkaran district of Punjab where a large number of Pakistani Patton tanks were abandoned, captured or destroyed.

Pakistan’s brand new Patton tanks were far better than the outdated Indian tanks in terms of firepower, range and mobility. Still, one of the greatest lessons to be learnt from Pakistan’s defeat is that it is not the weapon but the man behind it – who is the ultimate battle-winning factor

Initially, the name of the village was pronounced as ‘Aasal Utaad’ in Punjabi but was changed to Asal Uttar (meaning real reply in Hindi).

Maj Gen Gurbaksh Singh, GOC, 4th Mountain Division was awarded Mahavir Chakra (MVC) for his superlative leadership which turned a near-certain defeat into victory.

But no narrative of the Battle of Asal Uttar would ever be complete without mentioning the act of bravery of CQHM Abdul Hamid of 4 Grenadiers who knocked out seven enemy tanks with a recoilless gun and paid the price for it by sacrificing his own life.

Abdul Hamid was leading a detachment of Recoilless Guns mounted on a jeep when he came across Pakistani tanks in a sugarcane field near Asal Uttar village. Abdul Hamid fired at them from a point-blank range, destroying seven enemy tanks before being blown to death by a nearby enemy tank which scored a direct hit on his jeep.

Abdul Hamid was awarded Param Vir Chakra, the nation’s highest gallantry award for his supreme act of gallantry.

The Indian Army has built a war memorial in the Tarn Taran district of Punjab where the Battle of Asal Uttar was fought and won. Every year Asal Uttar Day is celebrated at the Shaheed Smarak near Asal Uttar village. A captured Pakistani Patton tank is placed at the entrance of the memorial, with its turret down, as a tribute to the brave Indian soldiers who fought and died in the Battle of Asal Uttar.

The inscription on the war memorial aptly reads:

“Shaheedon ki chitaon pe lagenge har baras mele, watan par marne walon ka yahi baki nishan hoga…

 Every year fairs will be held on the pyres of martyrs, this will be the fate of all those who die on their homeland…”

-The writer is a seasoned media professional with over three decades of experience in print, electronic, and web media. He is presently Editor of Taazakhabar News