In the front lawn of my old school is installed the body of a Hawker Hunter fighter aircraft which was once donated by a former student who had risen to be an Air Chief Marshall in the Indian Air Force. The Hunter has a pride of place in Indian military history. It entered service in 1954 and was used till the turn of the century. But there is one incident with which it’s name is linked forever, the Battle of Longewala.
IAF Hawker Hunter
In 1971, India supported the Bangladeshi (then East Pakistan) demand for independence and war with Pakistan erupted. Pakistani command knew that East Pakistan was indefensible. Their strategy was based on the assumption that any war with India would be brief due to international pressure. Therefore they should aim to capture and hold as much Indian territory as possible for bargaining after the war.
With this in mind, they launched a major combined arms offensive with 2 armored regiments and 2 infantry brigades. In all, over 2000 soldiers and 45 tanks took part in the offensive which was aimed at going as far as the Indian desert city of Jaisalmer. Indian intelligence failed to pick up any signs of the build-up and the first that the Indian army learned of the attack was through a border patrol that actually heard armor movement across the border on the night of the advance.
In contrast, Pakistani intelligence had provided detailed information about the deployment of the Indian army with only one significant omission, the 120 soldiers of the Punjab Regiment entrenched at the top of a sand dune on a border outpost near the village of Longewala.
It was a full moon desert night on the 4th of December when Major Kuldeep Singh Chandpuri commanding the Longewala position learnt of the Pakistani attack. Telephoning headquarters, he was told that re-enforcements would take 6 hours to arrive. The IAF did not have night fighting ability so no air cover could be expected that night either. He was given the option to retreat but considering his lack of motorized transport, he opted to fortify his position and meet the enemy. He moved his medium machine guns, mortars and recoilless rifles to the front.
The Pakistani attack commenced at 12:30 in the night. The defenders allowed the tanks to reach within 30m before opening fire. The Indian forces were on higher ground and were surrounded by soft sand which slowed down the movement of heavy armored vehicles. The Pakistani tanks carried external fuel tanks for the expected long trip to Jaisalmer. These exploded under Indian fire and illuminated the whole force to the defenders who were also able to direct artillery fire from distant batteries.
The Pakistani attack finally stalled when the infantry discovered a 3 stranded barbed wire fence around the post. This was a small obstacle, but the Pakistani commander interpreted it as a minefield marker. The attack paused for two hours while sappers were brought up to clear the non-existent mines.
Next, they attempted to take their vehicles off road and surround the position. The heavy tanks soon became trapped in soft sand and some had to be abandoned. By this time, they had lost their most potent weapon, time. Dawn had come.
The IAF had 4 Hunter aircraft in Jaisalmer. Air to Surface rockets were loaded on them and 2 aircrafts were sent out on a sortie. By a stupendous error of judgement, the Pakistani forces had no air cover and had neglected to bring anti-aircraft guns. The Hunters closed in and fired their rockets devastating the tanks below. When they ran out of rockets, they started using their 30mm cannon which also proved effective.
The IAF flew 17 sorties that day with the four hunters launching and returning in groups of 2. The IAF pilots compared the fight to a “turkey shoot”. The aerial photograph shows the confusion of treads as the tanks tried to evade the aircraft.
Destroyed Pakistani tanks and their treads at the Battle of Longewala
The following Pakistani message was recorded:
The enemy air force has made life miserable. One aircraft goes and another comes in to dances above us for twenty minutes. 40% of the men and material is lost. Leave aside advance, even retreat is difficult. Send our air-force immediately or retreat will be impossible.
The Pakistani Air Force did not arrive and the army had to retreat by the afternoon. The IAF had destroyed 22 tanks and the army another 12. About 200 Pakistani and 2 Indian soldiers died in the fight.
Major Chandpuri was awarded India’s second highest gallantry award, the Mahavir Chakra while the Pakistani Divisional Commander was dismissed from service. The battle effectively ended Pakistan’s hopes of making a major incursion on the Western front. Within 2 weeks, on the 16th of December, Pakistani forces in Bangladesh surrendered and the war was over.
Indian soldiers celebrating on a captured Pakistani tank