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The lighter side of war – Chamb 1971

The writer shares a series of events that occurred in the 26th Cavalry while it operated in Chamb during the 1971 War

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PUBLISHED December 24, 2023

War is a serious business but not without its lighter moments. However, often the humorous side of an event is appreciated later when the participants get time to reflect. The incidents narrated in this article occurred in 26th Cavalry which operated in Chamb during the 1971 War. The regiment was based in Jhelum and under the command of 23 Infantry Division. As the situation in East Pakistan deteriorated, it moved to its concentration area north of Gujrat and settled down in a large forest known locally as a ‘rakh’. The month's stay in the rakh was saturated with extensive coordination with the infantry brigades and reconnaissance. The officers and JCOs departed early in the morning with a ‘haversack’ lunch of ‘parathas’ (fried flatbread), and roast chicken or omelettes. Returning late in the evening they collected in the RHQ to share information and update maps.


These recces were tiring but entertaining; the weather was pleasant and the terrain varied. However, they could also be dangerously funny. I and a group of JCOs were returning along a border track close to dusk and were challenged by a jittery sentry at a platoon post. He leapt into the beam of the headlights, pointed his rifle and shouted “HALT!” Our Dodge truck came to a sliding stop and was enveloped in a cloud of dust. As it cleared, the sentry’s figure re-emerged firmly positioned in the middle of the track.

In a commanding voice, he shouted “PASSWORD?” Of course, we didn’t know the password he was asking for and a JCO stepped out of the dodge to tell the sentry to move out of the way. There was the ominous double click as the sentry chambered a round into the breach of his rifle and the JCO froze.

The sentry again shouted “PASSWORD” and everyone held their breaths expecting the crack of a bullet. However, the JCO quickly recovered his composure and delivered a string of the choicest abuses in Punjabi while telling him to lower his weapon.

For a few tense moments, the sentry hesitated. He then decided that the password had been suitably stated and lowered his rifle. As we drove past, he probably realised that an officer was sitting in the front seat and in the best English he could muster said, “Paaaass frrrriend. Aaaaall is vell.” (Pass friend. All is well).

Triple handshakes and school ties

The Chamb Sector had no natural or man-made obstacles on our side of the border. Consequently, the squadrons had to prepare several defence lines by digging hull-down positions in which only the turret with the gun of a tank was visible. Though the squadrons had bulldozers, finishing each position required time-consuming manual effort. Major Shamshad had recently been posted back on promotion and was commanding a squadron. Shamshad was a lively and energetic officer and the life and soul of the gatherings in the mess and club. Within a week of taking command, the GOC arrived to inspect the positions prepared by his squadron. Maj Gen Eftikhar (Shaheed) had already commanded an armoured division in Kharian and had the reputation of being a hard taskmaster.

It was intimidating for a young major to be inspected by a larger-than-life figure of Gen Eftikhar along with his retinue of brigade commanders and staff, but the squadron had worked hard and the GOC complimented Shamshad and shook his hand. However, as he walked to his Jeep, Gen Eftikhar stopped and turned.

“Which school did you study in?” he asked Shamshad.

“St Anthony’s High School, Lahore. Sir” replied Shamshad.

“Oh! That’s my school too!” exclaimed the general. “Let’s shake hands again”.

The GOC again turned towards his Jeep and then had another afterthought. “Who is your father?” he enquired.

“Brig Ahmed, AMC” replied Shamshad.

“Oh!” exclaimed the general. “You are Col Nasrullah’s nephew. Let’s shake hands again”. Col Nasrullah was one of the icons of the Armoured Corps and was much admired.

Shamshad’s face was still glowing with pride when an hour later he walked into the mess for lunch. The news that the GOC had shaken hands with him thrice had preceded him and the captains decided to rib him by one asking the other, “Which school did you study in?” and the other replied, “Sir! I studied in government High School, Chichawatni”. To this the first captain would say, “Oh! That was my school too. Let's shake hands.” Shamshad took it all in good spirit.

In Rommel’s fashion

On 3 December, the 23 Division launched an attack to seize the Chamb Salient and cross the River Tawi. While the main thrust was in the northern portion of the salient, C Squadron advanced with an infantry brigade on the central axis that led directly to the village of Chamb. After capturing one of the intermediate objectives the squadron was told to consolidate its position along a nallah. One of the troop leaders was Captain Hasnain who wrote an unpublished account of his experiences during the war. An extract from this relates to the night he spent on the nallah alongside the infantry.

“During that night, the news that the GOC was coming to meet the troops was rife in the ranks. The GOC was very popular and all the soldiers were excited and keen to see their general. The supply trucks had not arrived and the men were hungry. I was moving about within my tank troop trying to keep their spirits up. In the exuberance of youth, I had attired myself to look like my idol, Rommel in a peak cap, knee-length greatcoat and carrying an officer's cane. As I passed by the nallah where the infantry was concealed, a figure emerged from the dark and executed a salute which would have been admired in a drill square. In all modesty, I returned the salute in a soldier-like manner and listened patiently as he crisply and briefly, gave an account of the day’s battle emphasising his role. I had met this major in the morning when my troop had been placed under his command. When he finished his report, I informed him that I was not the GOC but the troop leader he had just mentioned in his account. The major was very annoyed and chastised me for my attire. I saluted and walked nonchalantly away into the night, swinging my cane and whistling.

If a capital offence was not punishable by death, I think he would have shot me in the back.”

Humour keeps a man going in times of stress and humour is one thing that Hasnain did not lack.

The tank crew takes charge

Two days later, C Squadron and an infantry battalion made an unsuccessful bid to capture the portion of the Phagla Ridge which lay astride the main track leading towards Chamb. A second attack was planned for the next morning but the officer commanding the squadron had a high fever and I was told by the CO to temporarily replace him. After a heavy artillery barrage, the infantry battalion and the squadron again advanced astride the track. It had encountered stiff opposition a day earlier and my tank crew was on edge. While I was busy controlling my three tank troops on the wireless, my crew decided to take matters into their own hands.

Loader: “Aur left Nishan lo. Aur left Nishan lo”. [Aim more left. Aim more left]. “Fire! Fire!”

Gunner: “Firing Now!”

“BANG!” The main gun fired startling me and while I was trying to see what they were firing at, the loader again passed an order to the gunner.

Loader: “Gun Neecha Kar. Gun Neecha Kar”. [Depress the gun. Depress the gun]. “Shot loaded two. Fire! Fire!”

Gunner: “Firing Now”.

“BANG”! A second round streaks towards the Phagla Ridge and ricocheted off a mound.

Loader: “Theak Hai. Theak Hai”. [It’s OK, It’s OK]. “Shot loaded three”.

By now I had collected my wits and could see that there was no enemy where they were firing. The gunner sits just below the tank commander and I pulled off his headphones and I shouted into his ear. “Kis cheez par fire kar rahe ho?” [What are you firing at?]

Gunner: “Saab. Kal udhar aik dusman ki tank thi.” [Sir! Yesterday there was an enemy tank over there].

I shook him by his shoulder): “Magar ajj nahin hai. Mein tank commander hun. Mein tumhe bataunga kab fire karma hai. Fire band karo.” [But it is not there today. I am the tank commander. I will tell you when to fire. Stop firing]. Calm returned to my tank.

The badge that saved the day

In fact, during the previous night, the Indians had withdrawn across the Tawi but my squadron rolled down the ridge towards Chamb, we were ordered to stop because another of our tank regiments had occupied it. With nothing left for the squadron to do for some time, I was recalled to the RHQ leaving Hasnain temporarily in charge. However, sometime later, he saw a tank regiment advancing towards Chamb from the right and realised that till now it had not been occupied so he ordered his C Squadron to enter the village. On its fringe was a large grove of mango trees where the squadron tucked itself in and Hasnain decided to take a breather and explore the deserted town. It was a ‘bad decision’ and the scene is better described in his words:

“I walked down the main street of Chamb and entered its police station which bore scars of shelling and wore a deserted look with papers strewn about all in Hindi. There was nothing else to attract my attention except a bookstall. I browsed through a few books but again they were all in Hindi. As I sauntered out, I saw an officer of 28 Cavalry in his jeep who was busy directing his tanks on the wireless set. Seeing me appear in the unfamiliar attire of a peak cap and greatcoat, he pulled out his pistol and ordered me to raise my hands. When I hesitated, he went ‘hyper’ and started shouting at me and waving his pistol dangerously. Reluctantly I raised my arms. Life is so precious. Then with a grin, I pointed to the badge of 26 Cavalry on my peak cap and told him my name and unit. He then lost all interest in me and started looking busy again giving orders on his wireless set.”

Recalled from retirement

Following the cease-fire, the division remained in Chamb to defend the area it had captured with two infantry brigades holding the home bank of the River Tawi and a third in reserve along with our tank regiment. As part of the reserve force, we had several contingencies and every month we rehearsed a couple of them. On receiving a codeword around sunset, before moving out the CO held an ‘Orders Group’ in which the squadron commanders were briefed on their tasks and timings of the operation.

We had under command the remnants of an independent squadron of Tank Busters of WW2 vintage that had been pulled out of storage just before the 1971 War and had suffered more casualties in breakdowns than in combat. The squadron was commanded by an old major who had been recalled from retirement and bore the nickname of ‘Sutha’ [in Punjabi it means a long inhalation] because of the manner he smoked his cigarette. He held it between his ring and little finger, wrapped his hand into a loose fist and pulled the smoke through the hole. Unfortunately, Maj Sutha was a compulsive drinker and used to start consuming liquor early in the evening. He had a large stock of poor-quality Rum that was supplied to the Indian troops in their rations and had been collecting it from abandoned Indian bunkers during and after the war.

That evening Maj Sutha was ‘higher’ than usual and dozed through most of the briefing held in the large canvas shelter attached to the regiments Command Vehicle. The briefing was by Col Manto, our CO who had served in the SSG with Maj Sutha and ignored his sad condition. However, at the end of his briefing after confirming from all those present if they were clear on their tasks, he made the mistake of also asking Maj Sutha.

“Maj [name withheld]. Have you understood what your squadron will do?”

Maj Sutha pulled himself out of his stupor. “Oooohhhh yas sirrrrrrr,” he replied in a drunken drawl. “Vary cleaarrrr.”

There was pin-drop silence. The CO tried to keep a straight face but ultimately smiled and everyone in the tent laughed. However, Maj Sutha was never again called to rehearse a contingency.



Syed Ali Hamid is a retired Pakistan Army major general and a military historian. He can be contacted at syedali4955@gmail.com

All facts and information are the responsibility of the writer