“It’s about regimental pride,” said my friend, “I will send you a video regarding this.” I was speaking on the phone with my classmate Chengappa after thirty-five years. I remember him as a superb sportsman in school but I must confess our paths did not cross much then, boys tend to be self-absorbed in their own cliques. However, I’ve been taking advantage of the current stay-at-home situation to reach out to classmates with whom I have not spoken for years. When we speak, the years just melt away, there are no awkward pauses, it’s like we have always been in touch. After talking about various topics our conversation had veered towards the Indian armed forces. Chengappa is an avid outdoorsman and scuba diver and his pictures on Facebook are evidence that he is still as fit as he was in high school. His father had served with distinction in the 1971 war with Pakistan. As an army kid, he is a treasure trove of information when it comes to the Indian armed forces. I had mentioned that I had visited Amritsar and seen a portrait of Brigadier Desmond Hayde in the War Memorial and Museum at Amritsar and that led him to mention the video. True to his word, he sent me the video immediately after we hung up.
The video (which is embedded at the end of this blog) features Capt Raghu Raman, a soldier, corporate leader and a motivational speaker. He is very articulate and his talks are inspirational. This video is especially important during these times since it illustrates the diversity of the Indian armed forces. He speaks of Lt Col Desmond Hayde the commanding officer of 3 Jat battalion whose exploits in the 1965 war with Pakistan have gone down in the annals of Indian military history. Even though the Indian troops were outnumbered and outgunned in terms of artillery power they overcame these odds to win a famous victory at Dograi and Batapore, literally on the outskirts of Lahore.
While this video is certainly inspirational, it intrigued me for another reason. In 2018, I had visited Amritsar along with my brother and sister-in-law. After watching the “Beating Retreat” ceremony at the Attari-Wagah border, we visited the Amritsar War Memorial and Museum. The museum is dedicated to the battles in which the people of Punjab have fought and starts from Alexander’s invasion in 325 BC and leads up to the Kargil war in 1999. Photography is prohibited inside the museum and I scrupulously followed the restriction until we came to an exhibit of the 1965 war. My brother looked at the portrait of Brig Desmond Hayde and noted excitedly that he was an old boy of our high school. This was certainly interesting and I requested the security guard to allow me to take a picture and after explaining the reason he graciously allowed me to do so.
My interest in Brig Desmond Hayde and the battle of Dograi was rekindled after watching the video that Chengappa sent me. Brig Hayde’s account of the battle, penned as, “The Battle of Dograi and Batapore” is not available on Amazon but I was able to order the book from a bookstore in the UK. It arrived last week and I read it over a few evenings. The book is written as a soldier would – matter of fact, precise and with no hyperbole.
Chengappa had mentioned that the British colonialists had figured out that they could get the best out of their Indian soldiers by dividing them into regiments based on regions and then appealing to and relying on their regional and family pride. A few infantry regiments in the Indian army still trace their lineage to the East India Company era. Desmond Hayde was a Lt Colonel during the 1965 war. He starts the book with a brief description of the Jats, a martial race from the North West of India who have been fighting since time immemorial. Lt Col Hayde was the Commanding Officer (CO) of the 3rd Battalion of the Jat regiment, in short, 3 Jat. The battalion was comprised of four rifle companies. Throughout the book, he refers to himself as the CO. I refer to him as Lt Col Hayde while describing the battle and as Brig Hayde when referring to him after the war.
He traces the evolution of the Indian army from independence in 1947 to the war with China in 1962. Even though there were a few outstanding Indian officers, primarily graduates of the Indian Military Academy at Dehradun, their numbers were few due to the fact that the British, prior to independence had not promoted enough Indian officers. When the British left, the vacuum created in the officer ranks was filled with inexperienced soldiers or worse from clerical ranks. He also writes about the shortage of supplies and arms and the myopic outlook of the Indian bureaucrats that did not invest in the army. There is a reference to the 1962 war with China that unfortunately caught the Indian army underprepared and ill-equipped, though the soldiers fought with valor and did their best with what equipment and arms they had.
Pakistan launched “Operation Gibraltar” in August 1965 with the aim of fomenting an insurrection in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. This involved sending para commando forces disguised as Kashmiri locals into the Indian state. The infiltration was discovered by Indian forces and the resulting response sparked the 1965 India-Pakistan war. Pakistan then launched “Operation Grand Slam” to isolate and pressure the Indian forces in Kashmir by sending in additional Pakistani troops to Kashmir. In order to draw some Pakistan forces away from Kashmir, India decided to open a front to the South in Punjab by threatening Lahore, which is just 15 miles from the border. Key to Indian plans was the capture of the Ichhogil canal and the town of Dograi which are just west of the border and form the gateway to Lahore.
The book as its name suggests is about the battles of Dograi and Batapore. Lt Col Hayde goes into details of planning, infantry movements and maneuvers and the actual fighting. I would not be able to do justice or capture all of it in this blog but will describe the battles briefly. Lt Col Hayde mentions that a sense of urgency and impending war was markedly absent until the unit crossed the international border on Sept 6, 1965. Any advance towards Lahore would have to begin with crossing the Icchogil canal which served the dual purposes of irrigation as well as a defensive barrier near the border. 3 Jat was to have been the reserve and two other battalions were to advance towards the canal. However due to the inability of the other battalions to cross the canal, 3 Jat was asked to advance. The first shots were fired by the CO himself and the unit soon found itself under heavy fire. After crossing the border and engaging in a series of firefights, they reached the Icchogil Canal and crossed the bridge which had been partially destroyed by the retreating Pakistanis. There the battalion, to their surprise, came to the large industrial complex of Batapore, a place that did not even exist on Indian maps.
The battalion had lost most of their recoilless guns and mortar to Pakistani air attacks. Expected reinforcements and artillery components had not arrived and the battalion had to hold its ground with limited firepower. At this point, Lt Col Hayde was struck in the small of his back by shrapnel and wounded. He resumed fighting wrapped in bandages from the small of his back to his chin. The companies continued to come under intense fire and were ordered to fall back which they did on Sept 8th to the village of Santpura.
Meanwhile the COs of the other two battalions identified as “X” and “Y” who had not risen up to the task were replaced by their juniors. The objective of these battalions had been to attack Dograi, however, Brigadier Kalha who commanded the brigade felt that they were not ready and asked Lt Col Hayde for advice on the 12th of Sept. The latter offered to attack Dograi with 3 Jat that very night. He was asked to wait for a few nights. Ironically, unknown to them, Dograi lay undefended that night and could have been captured. Patrols were sent out each night to assess the Pakistani defenses. While these were initially for reconnaissance they were later instructed to engage the enemy in battle and to let them know that the Indians were spoiling for a fight.
It was decided that Dograi would be attacked on the night of Sept 21/22. Lt Col Hayde writes that he and Major Shekhawat went to the trenches and spoke to each of the men. Naik Siri Ram (equivalent rank of a corporal) told his section, “If I am wounded, you will carry me forward and put me down only at the objective”. This was overheard and the word went around, each Jat telling the other “Carry me to the objective if I am wounded”.
Battalion “X” had been engaging the Pakistanis and drawing an enormous amount of firepower in retaliation. Four companies of 3 Jat advanced towards Dograi. They had to run through minefields, jump over or cut through wire entanglements and brave an expected thunderstorm of bullets and shells. They had to walk in a single file through the minefields, it would have spelled disaster for them had they been discovered at this point. The four companies entered Dograi and split up in different directions to engage the Pakistani army which was manned by the 16th Punjab Regiment. The Pakistani troops initially thought this was yet another nightly patrol until they realized that this was an invasion.
What followed was a savage battle fought on the streets, alleys and in the houses of Dograi. It was fought in the dark and involved firearms, bayonets, knives, stones and hand to hand combat. There were many heroes that night. Heroes like Subedar Pale Ram (a decorated WW 2 veteran) who led his men into attack braving heavy small arms automatic fire and personally destroyed two machine gun bunkers by lobbing grenades into them. He received six bullet wounds but survived. Lance Naik Arjun Ram attacked what he thought was a bunker with a petrol bomb but he discovered it to be a machine gun pillbox. He emptied his pistol into the aperture of the pillbox. He was shot from within the pillbox but he grabbed the machine gun barrel and tucked into his stomach, not letting go as he slumped lower with each shot.
The battalion captured Dograi during the early hours of 22 Sept. The battle raged for another day as there were counterattacks by the Pakistanis which were staunchly repulsed. Just a day later, on the 23rd of Sept a ceasefire was declared between the two countries and the hostilities ceased. 3 Jat had however proved that the Indians were capable of launching an offensive on Lahore. They helped erase some of the memories of the 1962 war. The ultimate compliment to 3 Jat was paid by a Pakistani soldier, an erstwhile member of the Jat regiment prior to partition who now found himself fighting for 16 Punjab. When he found out from a captured injured Indian soldier in a field hospital that he was a member of 3 Jat, the Pakistani soldier stood across the waters of the Ichhogil canal and shouted “Only my old battalion could have done this!”
Lt Col Hayde was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra, India’s second-highest military decoration, for his leadership and actions during the first capture of Dograi. In fact the award was announced during the war when the battalion had fallen back to Santpura. He writes that he told his men that the award was not just for him but for each of the men he commanded. The battalion was awarded 3 Maha Vir Chakras, 4 Vir Chakras and 7 Sena medals, the most for any battalion in the 1965 war. In all, the battalion (of 548 men) lost 88 men and 231 were wounded. Lt Col Hayde estimates that the 16 Punjab casualties were eight times those of 3 Jat.
There are certain things that stood out in the book to me. For one, Lt Col Hayde mentions that the Indian maps showed Dograi as a small village but it was a bustling town of 20,000. The large shoe factory at Batapore was not even on the maps. It’s hard to imagine this today given satellite imagery and the ability to fly unmanned drones. He also mentions that the Pakistani guns outnumbered Indians 5:1. He says that given the overwhelming superiority in firepower, the Pakistanis were reluctant to engage the Indians in close combat preferring to bombard the troops from a distance. The Indians on the other hand were willing to engage in close combat. The Pakistanis did not expect the Indians to attack Dograi again and were taken by surprise. Critical equipment malfunctioned and at times Indian soldiers had to resort to lobbing Molotov cocktails at tanks or firing at tanks and aircraft with their guns. Lt Col Hayde sustained another injury in the second battle but continued to lead from the front. We talk of tactics and game plans in sports and corporate meetings today and like to infuse war terms in our daily life. As I read the book and the dizzying pace at which events unfolded, I marveled at the composure, clarity of vision, singular focus and the leadership qualities of Lt Col Hayde as he commanded 500 odd men during the thick of the battle. He was not at the back radioing instructions, he was in the thick of the action with his men.
I’ve wondered what quality in men makes them face certain death on the battlefield especially when they have the option of avoiding it. Subedar Khazan Singh was recovering from jaundice when he received word that his battalion had been deployed to the front. He left the hospital to rejoin his battalion without informing the doctors and was recorded as a deserter. He was wounded twice in the battle and received a Vir Chakra. Major Durjan Singh Shekhawat had been posted away from the battalion to the staff of Corp HQ but he kept pushing his case through to rejoin his battalion and eventually did. Lt Col Charles Campagnac, the CO of the Gurkhas was in England visiting his ailing father when the war broke out. He asked to be flown back to rejoin his regiment and when he was refused, tried to raise the Rs 6000 he would need to buy his own tickets on a commercial flight. He was able to join the Gurkhas. To these men, the thought of missing the war, something for which they had trained for all their life was unimaginable. Each of the 523 men on the night of Sept 21/22 could have taken cover or turned away from the battle, but they fought on with no thought to their own lives.
Perhaps there were other motivations too. Captain Raghubir Singh Sandhu was on leave when the war started. He desperately tried to rejoin his battalion taking any mode of transport available to him and eventually managed to get to the front just in time for the second battle of Dograi. His conversations in the book are punctuated with the term “Pritam”. Now “Pritam” typically means “lover” and as I read the book, I assumed that it was just his style of speaking. A noted Indian actor of the 1950s and 1960s, Raaj Kumar interspersed his dialogs with the term “Jaani” (darling). However, in the counterattack at Dograi, Capt Sandhu had to take on a much larger Pathan in hand to hand combat. He yelled “Hai Pritam, Priitaamm” as he stabbed the soldier repeatedly. Capt Sandhu had witnessed his uncle, Pritam, stabbed to death during the violence that engulfed Punjab during the partition. That memory haunted him for years, this was his moment of closure.
This book is completely focussed on the battle and there is no reference to Lt Col Hayde’s personal story. For that, I would have to read his other book “Blood and Steel” which is unfortunately out of print. An Anglo Indian, he was born in Ireland in November 1926. His father worked for the Railways in India. He spent his early childhood in Asansol in undivided Bengal before joining the boarding at St Josephs Boys High School in Bangalore. In his excellent book “Faith & Toil” written to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the founding of the school, Col Christopher Rego dedicates a substantial section to the battle of Dograi. He corresponded with the retired Brig Hayde who wrote to him that his days at the boarding and interaction with his fellow boarders, some stronger and others weaker helped him give out as much as he got. Besides having a military heritage, he also credits interactions with his teachers and Jesuit priests for laying the foundation for his leadership qualities. A memorial in my school commemorates old boys who have laid down their lives in battle since World War I. Brig Hayde, who graduated from the High School in 1945 was one in a line of several students who have served in the Indian armed forces with distinction in several wars. My brother’s batch saw four students join the armed forces, Lt Gen Bansi Ponappa and Maj Gen Paul Deepak Naidu amongst them. My batch saw a solitary contribution, Manish Bhandari who currently serves in the Indian navy.
Wars are messy affairs. In an ideal world, nations would coexist in peace and soldiers would not have to lay down their lives in the defense of their country. However, history has proved that this utopian world has never existed. So-called periods of golden ages in history were often accomplished by military domination that allowed their populace to thrive in relative peace while fighting sometimes went on at the borders. It is leaders like Brig Hayde and the gallant soldiers who follow them that give us the liberty to live our lives in peace. The internet and social media is rife with keyboard warriors and armchair generals who bay for blood and would start a war for any provocation, real or imagined. I’m not sure if these “warriors” have ever put their lives in danger or sacrificed anything of note in their life. How then do we honor soldiers like Brig Hayde? A couple of lines in my school song may be instructive:
Substitute “school” with family, community, state, regiment, country and it is a good start. We have a tendency to laud our heroes and enjoy the fruits of their labor without really emulating them in our daily lives. As Demosthenes, the famous orator in his speech “On the Liberty of the Rhodians,” while asking Athenians to support the democratic factions in Rhodes, said: “Reflect, then, that your ancestors set up those trophies, not that you may gaze at them in wonder, but that you may also imitate the virtues of the men who set them up”. Athens did not heed his words, but these are wise words of counsel that we would do well to heed in our daily lives. (Full disclosure, I have not read Demosthene’s works, just brief excerpts when I have encountered them elsewhere)
Brig Hayde’s leadership qualities will have no doubt have been analyzed and adopted by the Indian armed forces or for that matter by corporates. He commanded the respect of his men and earned their trust by leading them from the front. During the first battle of Dograi a few soldiers of 3 Jat had returned without orders. Lt Col Hayde told his men that they had all fought valiantly that day but some had returned without orders which could have resulted in the rest of the battalion being captured or killed With a lot more fighting left, he said “Don’t let this happen again. If ever this battalion falls back without orders, I, your CO, will remain behind and fight alone if necessary”. He went on to add that if he was killed, his men would have to live with the ignominy of having left their CO to die. They would never be able to face another Jat again. During the second battle of Dograi, he again led from the front and not one of the 523 men under his command fell back.
Ultimately, the answer to my question, what motivates men to lay their lives for their country is answered by Brig Hayde in his book. “In war, the soldier gets no reward but honor, that of the regiment, and if at all he knows why he is fighting, it is only because of the tug of that invisible thread”. The “invisible thread” in this case being the regimental spirit. Chengappa was right, it is about regimental pride!
The Featured Image for this blog is a rare doodle of Lt Col Desmond Hayde by the noted artist M.F. Hussain. I took this picture with permission at the War History Memorial and Museum in Amritsar