Guts, Grit and Glory | Braveheart’s Victory

How Major Ranbir Singh won the landmark Battle of Burj, 1971

Maj. Gen. R.S. Mehta (retd)Maj. Gen. Raj Mehta (retd)

Among the most decorated regiments, the Maratha Regiment has, in the pre-Independence era, earned two VCs, 72 MCs; four Bars to MCs, 49 IOMs and 128 IDSMs. Post-Independence, the Regiment has earned five ACs, 15 KCs, five MVCs, 44 VrCs, 64 SCs and three Bars to SCs.

During the 1971 Indo-Pak War, 14 regular and three TA battalions of ‘Ganpats’ (an affectionate name for soldiers of the Maratha Light Infantry) took part in both the Eastern and Western Theatres of war, earning three coveted Battle Honours. These were ‘Jamalpur’ to 1 Maratha LI (Jangi Paltan); ‘Suadih’ to 5 Maratha LI and ‘Burj’ to the newly-raised 15 Maratha LI along with Theatre Honour ‘Punjab’. 22 Maratha LI was awarded Theatre Honour ‘Hilli’.


An Ace, Newly-raised Battalion

One MVC was earned and 15 VrCs by the Maratha Regiment in 1971 of which 15 Maratha LI was awarded the MVC posthumously to deathless Sepoy Pandurang Salunke and 3 VrCs among major awards. The battalion was also given the sobriquet ‘Best Performing Battalion’ during the 1971 Indo-Pak War in the 11 Corps Zone by the GOC, Lt Gen. N.C. Rawlley, PVSM, AVSM, MC. This helps to place into true perspective what exactly this brave-heart Ganpat battalion did to earn such accolades.

15 Marathi LI has on its honour board, brave-heart Lt Navdeep Singh who was a Ghatak Platoon Commander at Gurais in August 2011 when he led an ambush of Afghan terrorists in which 12 of 17 were shot, Navdeep accounting for four before he was shot on his forehead. He was posthumously conferred with the Ashok Chakra, the peacetime equivalent of the Param Vir Chakra.

Left & Right: Sepoy Pandurang Salunkhe, Maha Vir Chakra ( Posthumous); Then Maj Ranbir Singh, VrC

Every military victory has a hero who was inspirational and central to the action that took place. In the case of Battle Honour Burj this person was Maj. (later Brig.) Ranbir Singh, AVSM, VrC, who carries with him, not just sepia memories of what he did but also a serious battle wound as a reminder of this battle that tested all he had on offer. Before we go on to recount what happened at Burj, a word about the Ganpat legacy where ‘Duty, Honour and Courage’ is a default DNA and Chattrapati Shivaji is recalled each time the Marathas remind the enemy that they are India’s oldest ‘Light Infantry’ and the fourth oldest in the world.


Ganpats are Special

Headquartered in Belgaum since 1922, the Maratha Light Infantry traces its proud lineage to 1768. In the founding years, Infantry Battalions had a ‘Light’ Company composed of hand-picked, wiry soldiers able to move swiftly to reinforce or surprise an enemy when the need or a chance arose, and these became ‘crack’ companies. Later, the title ‘Light Infantry’ came to be identified with soldiering excellence.

The hardy, frugal and disciplined Maratha recruits come mainly from Maharashtra with some sourced from Marathi-speaking areas of Karnataka including Coorg. The Regimental Battle Cry is ‘Bol Shri Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Ki Jai’ in recall of the great Guerilla warrior. The story goes that while fighting the Italians at Gallabat, Sudan, in World War II, the Ganpats, till then on the receiving end, were electrified by Company Commander Capt Boomgart’s vocal recall reminding them of their world-class leader Chattrapati Shivaji and his deathless legacy of winning against adversity. The transformed Ganpats took the Italians out and have never looked back since.

Shivaji figures among the 100 best warriors of all time along with Alexander the Great, Lord Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, Emperor Akbar, General Hari Singh Nalwa and Maharaja Ranjit Singh among others.


Overview of the Battle of Burj

The Pakistan enclaves of Fatehpur and Bhago-Kamo lie across the Ravi River North West of Amritsar and have tactical and strategic value. They provide launch pads for both India and Pakistan to threaten each other’s high value tactical and strategic objectives and therefore need denial or exploitation, depending on the objectives the protagonists have in mind of attacking or defending. At the apex level of course, the objectives that could be threatened were Amritsar or Lahore and that concern affected war-fighting strategies on both sides of the International Border during the 1971 Indo-Pak War.

15 Infantry Division was the Indian holding formation in the Amritsar theatre. The GOC could have chosen to eliminate these enclaves and give offensive options to 11 Corps/Western Command. He chose instead to take up a defensive posture and block possible Pakistani offensive options with 96 Infantry Brigade. 15 Maratha LI was nominated to take up a Battalion Defended Area centered on Madh, astride the Saki Nala to deny Axis Fatehpur-Lopoke.

The Unit threw out screens at Chhan Kalan, Tur and Bhindi Aulakh villages and positioned a fighting patrol at Vera (Vehra). It also strengthened the Border Security Force (BSF) outposts of Fatehpur, Burj and Ghoga in its area. The formation was allotted a field Regiment in direct support and had a Vijayanta Squadron of 66 Armoured Regiment under command.

A second Battalion was also deployed to deny enemy clear access towards Amritsar with the third Battalion taken away for deployment in Gurdaspur Sector. It may thus be noted that 96 Infantry Brigade was rather widely dispersed in its area of defensive deployment.

Pakistan attacked two Battalions up, with 43 Baluch facing 15 Maratha LI. Commencing 2300hours on the night 3/4 December 1971, the Pakistanis secured Ghoga, Behlol, Gulgarh and the entire Dhussi Bund from Chhan Kalan in the South to Bhindi Aulakh in the South as well as BSF post Fatehpur. The villages, however, remained in Indian hands and that proved to be fortunate as they ended up being used as pivots for the re-capture of the Dhussi Bund.

The Ganpats absorbed the falling back BSF personnel in the line Dug-Bhindi Aulakh and kept the Armour on board with their moves on December 5. The Pakistanis inexplicably did not advance further. On the same day, a company plus of East Bengal Rifles (150 odd) surrendered to 15 Maratha troops at Dug and Bhindi Aulakh and brought with them a lot of intelligence about Pakistani aims, objectives, deployment and intent. The same day, orders were received by the Battalion that with Pakistan showing no intent to advance further, the Dhussi Bund was to be recaptured.

The focus hereafter will be on the Battle of Burj and avoid other than incidental references to the other battles before and after the climacteric battle which resulted in the disbanding of 43 Baluch, the Pakistani unit that confronted the Ganpats and lost out so savagely and completely to the progeny of Chhatrapati Shivaji.


The Battle of Burj

There are competing versions of what happened at Burj to make it such a landmark battle. The writer has read these versions over time and has preferred to base his take on inputs that have come ‘from the horse’s mouth’ — Major (later Brig.) Ranbir Singh, the brave-heart company commander who captured it and was evacuated after he suffered serious gunshot/splinter wounds but only after his success signal of capture had been fired.

Ranbir was 2IC 15 Maratha LI doubling up as a company commander when a company 43 Baluch attacked Burj post on December 6 in daylight in eminently open tank country but inexplicably without armour. The Ganpats brought on withering fire and caused heavy casualties on the Pakistanis who fell back shell-shocked.

Ranbir, who was awarded a delayed VrC for his brilliant, hands-on leadership in the battle, says he decided then and there that he must attack and retake Burj and do it as an integrated combat team with armour under his command. He made a simple, impromptu plan which his CO, Lt Col HC Sachdev, SM (later Maj Gen) accepted without hesitation because its essence lay in its simplicity and force-multiplier effect of a concerted push involving infantry, armour and shelling.

Ranbir’s assaulting troops comprised just four platoons. However, also available to him was a troop of tanks from 66 Armoured Regiment under 2/Lt AS Cheema, VrC along with a dedicated FOO, Capt V Cherian, VrC. Also available was BSF SI Ajit Singh, VrC who had fallen back from Burj and a few of his men. He helped Ranbir in carrying out innovative tactical deception which fooled the enemy.

Planned for much earlier, the attack with minimum recce, went in at 1645h on December 6. It involved the Infantry attacking Burj from two directions with the troop tanks approaching Burj from the rear and cutting off both the post and retreat.

The fighting on the Dhussi Bund and beyond was brutal and bitter. Sepoy Pandurang Salunkhe, seeing an RL about to fire at a 66 Armoured Regiment tank from close quarters, went and got hold of the weapon, shooting the firer but losing his life by taking a burst on his body; a dare-devil act like no other. He was awarded MVC posthumously.

Sepoy Hanumant More took on an MMG emplacement and destroyed it with SA fire and grenades, again a daring act. Ranbir himself was shot on his left hand and elsewhere but he had work to do and disregarded his injuries as he was in full control of all his faculties.

2/Lt AS Cheema, BSF SI Ajit Singh, FOO, Capt Cherian were all awarded VrC’s for carrying the torch of victory through despite non-stop hand-to-hand fighting even as the tanks swung to do their job, aided ably by anti-tank mine necklace warnings by an observant Maratha soldier. By the time night dawned, Ranbir had done his bit and Maj. Sher Singh’s company had arrived in place to find Ranbir’s boys re-organised on the objective. Sher would also get a VrC for continuing the battle with his Ganpats pouncing on the demoralised enemy. Its wounded CO, PTC 3294 Lt Col Syed Hassanuddin left in a hurry, leaving marked maps and suitcase behind for the Ganpats to hand over to field intelligence agencies.

Ranbir lost eight dead, 26 injured. Pakistan left behind 24 dead, many injured. Several Pakistanis tried to swim across the Ravi with a few getting drowned.

Between 6 and 17 December 1971, the Burj Post was central to several close quarter skirmishes hovering around it. There were the battles for Vera (Vehra) and Bhindi Aulakh with the Ganpats holding on; the recapture of Chhan Kalan which ended successfully on 17 December 1971. Post war, the enemy was rendered hors de combat — unfit for battle. Such serious loss and mauling eventually led to disbanding of 43 Baluch, a disgrace which shamed the Pakistanis.

As a fighting entity, the Ganpats won 16 awards of which most were won by Ranbir’s company (13) including 1 MVC and six VrCs. Ranbir recovered from his wounds and, on discharge from MH in June 1972, accompanied GOC 11 Corps on a helicopter to explain the Burj battle to him after which he was awarded a delayed VrC. He later did a land tour and carried out Battle Study Burj for GOC 15 Inf Div, all Brigade Commanders and COs. Immediately after that, he was posted as CO 4 Maratha LI to Tanot.

In terms of recoveries and cumulative enemy casualties, Ranbir’s lads between 3 and 9 December captured 11 BMG’s, 17 rifles, 9mm sten-guns, 2 RLs, 1 RCL, and mainstream Signals equipment. The enemy suffered 52 dead, several times that number wounded with two companies rendered unfit for war. The December 9 Vera (Vehra) attack had 32 Baluchis dead. The Ganpats overall had 30 killed against over 200 killed and wounded for 43 Baluch. Ready to capture Bhago-Kamo, the Ganpats were chagrined because cease-fire intervened.

As Battle Honours go, Burj will remain a landmark battle like few others. That said, it is hard to understand why the formation did not take the lead in capturing the enclaves and posing a serious threat to Pakistani lines of communication and their vital communication centres/nodes. Clearly, the formation had very capable troops and leadership and should have taken the plunge to use them brilliantly in offensive operations.

(After completing of the Badami Bagh Cantt War Museum [2004], Yol War Museum [2006], Punjab State War Heroes Memorial and Museum, Amritsar [2016], the writer is now working on the Madras Regiment War Museum with his Sarthi Museum Consultancy)


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