Tank Battle at Longewala: The Night the Indian Army Held the Line Against Pakistani Forces in 1971

When Maj. Chandpuri Defied Odds and Tanks to Secure Victory in 1971.

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Lt. Col. M.A Siddiqui (Retd.)
Lt. Col. M.A Siddiqui (Retd.)
Lt. Col. M.A Siddiqui (Retd.) was commissioned in the Corps of Signals in December 1957. He participated in the Wars against China in 1962, against Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. He was awarded 'Mention in Dispatch' in the Bangladesh Liberation War 1971. His contact details are: [email protected], Ph: 9818260900 * Views are personal.

Longewala is a dominating feature at the Indo-Pak border in the Barmer District of Rajasthan. It overlooks the desert terrain leading to the border. It had well-fortified defences held by a Company of 23 Punjab Regiment, commanded by Maj Kuldip Singh Chandpuri. The Company was poised to vacate their position and join their battalion, which was part of an offensive towards Rahim Yar Khan (RYK) launched by the 12 Infantry Division.

It was the evening of 04 December 1971 when Chandpuri heard the rumbling sound of tanks moving and reported the matter to the Brigade Major (BM) of his Brigade. They refused to believe such a thing could happen because the experts had long debated over a recently held sand model discussion. They concluded that any ingress by a major tank force from that direction is a remote possibility due to adverse terrain conditions for such an operation. Surprised at what Chandpuri was reporting, the BM asked him to send a patrol party to verify the correct situation. Chandpuri sent out a patrol under Lt Bhan, who confirmed the large-scale movement of tanks towards Longewala defences. Maj Chandpuri also reported the development to his CO, who initially did not believe what was being conveyed but later advised Chandpuri to stay put and organise his defences with available resources as any reinforcement could only reach him in six hours. Chandpuri had just two 106 mm RCL guns with a limited number of HEAT(anti-tank) and HE(high explosive) rounds, which was no match against a full complement of an armoured regiment. He waited for the tanks to close within range and then fired one HEAT shell, which was a hit. That took the Paks by complete surprise as they were told that Longewala was unoccupied, and they would walk in without any opposition. Their ultimate plan was to head for Ramgarh, which was the logistics base for the Indian Army. That would have cut off the troops deployed west of Ramgarh on the Pak front. They may well have succeeded had Chandpuri’s Company not stopped their advance.

Chandpuri quickly redeployed his RCL gun to a different position and fired another round, scoring a second hit. The RCL guns follow the drill of “shoot and scoot”, meaning that once the gun is fired, a huge ‘back flash’ occurs that gives their position away, making it vulnerable to being neutralised by another enemy tank. When their tanks reached closer to the defences, they came across barbed wire fencing, which they thought was an anti-tank minefield. Tanks are generally wary of the mines, and the convoy halted. The Paks thought that they had come against a well-fortified defence and halted their advance, waiting for the daylight when they would resume their advance under the cover of their own Air Force. 

Our own Air Force from Jaisalmer base and, to some extent, from the Barmer base, played merry hell with the Pak tanks. There was a squadron of Hunters at Jaisalmer and a squadron of HF 24, our indigenous production by HAL Bangalore, at the Barmer base. While the Hunters could do up to six sorties daily for each aircraft, the HF 24 could not manage more than four to five sorties for the whole squadron. The reason was their poor serviceability. The Jaisalmer base was commanded by Wing Commander MS Bawa, who did a commendable job in ensuring that the repairs, rearming and refuelling of the aircraft were done within 45 minutes, allowing their aircraft to maximise the number of sorties they could do during the operation. One HF 24 that was sent to Naya Chor was shot down. The pilot, Flt Lt Patel, bailed out but was shot by the Pak troops due to some confusion about his identity. 

For ease of identification, our own tanks tied two empty barrels at the back of each tank. As a decoy, the Paks did the same to their tanks, too, with the difference that their barrels were full of fuel. The result was that their tanks caught fire, leading the tank crew to abandon the tanks and run for their lives. They believed that if you die of burning, you are destined to go to hell. Their tank fleet comprised WW2 vintage Shermans and the Chinese T-55 and T-59 tanks. They lacked the manoeuvrability and mobility required for a fluid operation like the one they had undertaken. Some tanks got bogged down in the soft sand, and their engine seized due to overheating in trying to extricate themselves, forcing them to abandon the tanks. By the end of the day, all that remained was a graveyard of the tanks, with most destroyed or abandoned. The Paks had finally retreated from the scene.

While the Pak tanks retreated towards Pakistan, a lone figure with a white flag was seen walking towards the Indian border. He turned out to be one Lt. Chaudhury, a Bengali officer of the Engineer Regiment who wanted to defect to India. He was escorted to Jodhpur, where he met General Bewoor, the army commander of Southern command. He travelled in the same jeep as Vinay Khanna, commanding an air-support signal company like me in the Rajasthan sector. He knew the army commander well, being a golfer. The army commander asked Vinay Khanna to take the Pakistani officer to the market and buy him some civilian clothes, as he could not obviously be moving around freely, wearing a Pak Army uniform. Interestingly, decades later- Vinay Khanna, on a golfing visit to Dhaka, met this officer once again at a dinner where his host, being an Engineers’ Officer himself, had invited Chaudhury, who had retired as a Lt. Col. in the Bangladesh army.

Some writers have created a controversy over whether the Air Force won the Longewala battle. There is no denying the fact that on 05 December, the Air Force crippled the advancing armoured regiment. Still, the fact also remains that if Chandpuri had not held on to his defences during the night of 04/05 December, the Paks could have gone past Longewala, giving them a massive advantage. Several versions have appeared in the print media on the Longewala battle, all eulogising the role played by Chandpuri. No one, however, has mentioned why the promised air support by the Pak air force to their advancing armoured column did not materialise on the morning of 05 December. Research into the matter makes some startling revelations. It transpires that our own Navy had planned Operation Trident against Pak’s naval establishment in Karachi harbour.

The Indian Navy had, on the same night of 04 December, launched ‘Op Trident’ under a strike force commanded by Commander BB Yadav- which consisted of three Missile boats (INS Nipat, INS Nirghat and INS Veer) equipped with Russian surface to surface Vidyut missiles, two anti-submarine ships and a fuel vessel. The attack on Pakistan’s naval establishment started around 9:30 PM. INS Nirghat fired a missile at Pakistan naval destroyer PNS Khaibar, hitting their boiler room. The engine stopped, thus creating a panic, and in the ensuing chaos, the SOS signal that the ship sent out for help gave the wrong coordinates of its location. Thus, no help could reach the beleaguered ship immediately. A little while later, another missile sank the ship, which met its watery grave along with 200-odd sailors. The second ship, another destroyer named PNS Shah Jahan, was hit, making it completely ineffective. It could never be repaired and had to be scrapped a few years later. The third ship, PNS Muhafiz, a minesweeper, sank almost immediately, carrying with it 100-odd sailors. A cargo ship carrying ammunition and supplies exploded almost immediately after being hit. After that, the fuel storage tanks and other shore establishments of Karachi harbour were hit, causing extensive damage. The Indian naval attack on Karachi harbour was a complete success, and the Pakistanis were taken totally by surprise. India expected Pak retaliation, which did come the next morning. Not much damage was caused as we dispersed the missile boats to different locations, and they were saved. The only damage sustained was the destroyed fuel storage tank. The result of the Pakistan Air Force being diverted to deal with this emergency was that no air support was available to their armoured offences in the Longewala sector.

By the morning of 05 December, reinforcements of tanks of 20 Lancers and 17 Rajputana Rifles had arrived to bolster the defences further. Maj. Chandpuri saved the day for the country by using his limited resources intelligently and giving his men a pep talk to stay strong. He was awarded Mahavir Chakra’, the second-highest bravery award, for his bravery, valour and exemplary leadership. He rose to the rank of a Brig and recently passed away. A Vishisht Seva Medal (VSM) also came his way. A memorial has just been erected at Longewala to commemorate the memory of the great soldier. He was also associated with making the movie “Border” by the filmmakers as an advisor. 


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