The Monsoon War: Young Officers Reminisce
By Amarinder Singh and Lieutenant General Tajinder Shergill
Publishers: Roli Books, New Delhi
Length: 528 pages
Price: Rs 1965/-
Monsoon War will probably find a place on military history library shelves as the definitive work on the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war by two co-authors who are uniquely qualified to write it.
Captain Amarinder Singh, now Maharaja of Patiala, was then earning his spurs as a regular officer in the army. After being commissioned in 1963, he served during the war as aide-de-camp to its most important commander, Lieutenant General Harbaksh Singh, who commanded all Indian ground forces that fought Pakistan. Besides his ringside view of Harbaksh’s decision-making, Amarinder’s perspective benefits from his subsequent political career, and his avocation as a military historian and author of well-regarded books on World War I and the 1999 Kargil conflict.
Amrinder’s co-author, Lt Gen Tajinder Shergill, brings to the book a different, but equally valuable, perspective. Shergill was a young armoured corps commander in the Khemkaran sector, which saw one of the campaign’s crucial battles in which a Pakistani armoured division was halted and destroyed. Shergill was taken prisoner at the end of the war, eventually spending months in a Pakistani prisoner-of-war camp. A thinking general, he provides insightful analysis on armoured warfare and higher military leadership during the war, which has been often criticised as timid, without viewing it through the prism of the time.
These two authors have produced a page-turner that can be criticised only for being overly detailed. Weighing a hefty 2.4 kilogrammes and choc-a-block with maps and bunker-by-bunker battle accounts, this book is not for the weak of wrist or short of attention. This is a one-stop shop for those seeking the complete story of 1965, including the international and sub-continental geopolitical landscape, personality sketches of the key protagonists (Spoiler alert: Field Marshal Ayub Khan was a coward), and riveting snippets of the politics of higher military command.
Monsoon War is handsomely produced. It is crammed with well-captioned black and white photographs, many from personal collections of soldiers who had participated in the fighting. Making it easier to follow are 136 detailed maps that illustrate the terrain and deployment of troops for various battles. There are also detailed appendices listing out commanders, orders of battle, lists of aircraft shot down, summaries of losses, and so on.
While unabashedly an Indian account of the war, the book adds authenticity by also drawing heavily from Pakistani documents. It concludes that India emerged the winner because Pakistan failed in its strategic objective of wresting Kashmir through force; and India’s military inflicted heavy damage on Pakistan’s vaunted war machine that the United States and its allies in North Atlantic Treaty Organisation had built up. This was where Ayub Khan’s skill lay, say the authors: in convincing a naïve Washington that Pakistan was its only true friend in the sub-continent and a bulwark against expansion of Soviet influence into South Asia.
Today, India is confident of its military superiority to Pakistan. But in the early 1960s, Washington’s friendship had equipped Pakistan with nine regiments of M-47 and M-48 Patton tanks that were clearly better than Indian armour, except for four regiments of Centurion tanks. In the air, Pakistan’s fighter fleet included eight squadrons of F-86 Sabres and one squadron of the world-class F-104 Starfighter; far more effective than India’s large, but obsolescent, fighter fleet. Yet, on the ground, at least three Pakistani armoured regiments were wiped out in the fighting, even as others were badly depleted.
Much is made today about a “two-front threat” to India from Pakistan and China acting in concert. Yet, as Monsoon War brings out vividly, the “two-front threat” seemed far more real then. The hiding of 1962 was fresh in Indian memories. The China-Pakistan axis was getting daily stronger after Islamabad ceded to Beijing the 5,000 square kilometre Shaksgam Valley, in Gilgit-Baltistan, in 1963. China’s vice premier, Marshal Chen Yi, was voicing his solidarity with Pakistan. And China was not just arming and training Naga rebels in Yunan province, but had also massed 15 army divisions along the Sino-Indian border. As the book brings out, India went into the Monsoon War weak, underequipped and under severe threat, but it emerged victorious.
Amongst the most readable parts of the book are the detailed battle accounts: Major (later lieutenant general) Ranjit Dayal’s heroic capture of the Haji Pir Pass with his troops from 1 PARA; the gritty, hand-to-hand battle by 2 SIKH to capture Raja picquet, high above Poonch; the audacious capture of Dograi, on Lahore’s outskirts, by Lieutenant Colonel Desmond Hayde and his heroes of 3 JAT; the decimation of Pakistan’s armoured division at Khemkaran by 3 CAVALRY and the slogging, tank-versus-tank battle at Phillora in which HODSON’S HORSE destroyed more Pakistani tanks than any other Indian regiment.
The book unsparingly describes the debacles too: an ill-prepared Indian air force that was out-thought and out-fought by the Pakistanis; and the inexcusable abandonment by Major General Niranjan Prasad of his jeep, and maps marked with battle plans, which fell into Pakistani hands.
It has taken 50 years to write a comprehensive history of the 1965 war. I hope the authors lose no time in starting work on a similar account of the 1971 war. They have only six years.