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Military Digest | 9 Para commandos and their exploits across enemy line

The Indian Special Forces came of age with the spectacular Mandhol raid destroying a Pakistani artillery battery at little cost in the 1971 Indo-Pak war

Lt Col OP Sabharwal and officers of 9 Para Commando in 1971

Conventional armies by outlook are wary of special forces. Most think commandos are glamorised, not worth the money spent on them and use up too many resources. The Indian Army was no different. Traditionally it had no special forces, not even in World War 2 (except for a lone mobile strike and reconnaissance unit). There is some thin evidence of a commando company having existed during the 1947-48 war, but that’s all. In 1965, Major Megh Singh volunteered to raise a commando unit to operate behind enemy lines in Pakistani-Occupied Kashmir and destroy infiltrators’ launching pads. Meghdoot Force, as it came to be known, was a great success playing among other things a vital role in the capture of the Haji Pir Bulge.

The Raising

As a result of the lessons learnt in 1965, 9 Para Commando was raised under Megh Singh’s command in 1966. It specialised in mountain warfare and was based permanently in Jammu and Kashmir. The Army had little experience with special forces. This meant that the commandos were on the same ration scales as conventional troops. Long forced marches with heavy loads at regular intervals meant that the troops were losing weight. A visit by the Western Army Commander, Lieutenant General Harbaksh Singh and his intervention mercifully brought about special enhanced scales of food for the commandos. Besides a high physical profile, the unit trained in infiltration, operating behind enemy lines, living off the land and high-altitude warfare. Overcoming its birth pangs, 9 Para Commando was poised to prove itself in 1971.

Alfa Group (what sub-units were called in the special forces) was deployed in Chhamb where it played a significant role in the defence of the vital bridge over the Munnawar Tawi. Bravo Group took part in the wringing of the Chicken’s Neck in the Jammu sector. Charlie Group under Major Chander Malhotra found itself at Poonch. In conjunction with the offensive in Chhamb Pakistan had planned to capture Poonch through infiltration and domination of ridges in the Indian rear. For this Major General Akbar Khan commanding the 12th Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir Division was provided with an additional two brigades in a strike role supported by no less than sixteen batteries of artillery. Capturing Poonch would provide depth to their Haji Pir defences as well as ready-made infiltration routes into the Kashmir Valley.

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The Pakistanis struck on the intervening night of December 3 and 4. The staff at 93 Brigade headquarters tried to reinforce the hard-pressed defences on the cease-fire line with the Para Commandos, the only troops at hand. Major Chander Malhotra, commanding the Group, was a forceful personality and an outstanding leader. He tried his best, sometimes unsuccessfully to prevent the deployment of his highly-trained troops on routine infantry tasks. From their encampment, the Commandos noticed unusual movement high above them on Nagali Ridge. Patrols sent to investigate found an enemy battalion along with elements of their Special Services Group (SSG) ensconced there having successfully infiltrated. A short sharp action saw the Paras killing forty of the enemy. They proved this to the sceptical brigade staff by producing forty bloodstained right-foot boots before them!

Having been located, the enemy were routed by reinforcements from the 33 Infantry Brigade. Naik Yashwant Singh and Second Lieutenant Ashok Tasker were awarded the Vir Chakra and Sena Medal, respectively. Malhotra having succeeded in keeping his command concentrated requested for some commando tasks.

Charlie Group was then asked to capture Madarpur post to plug a suspected infiltration route. Captain Mohinder Bhagat and his No. 8 Team (what the Commandos called their platoons) who were given this task, spent the whole of 6th December observing the post. Moving in stealthily at 8 pm, they swiftly killed all the three occupants of the position with shots from silenced carbines.

Op Mandhol

Pakistan’s heavy concentration of artillery was having an effect on the battle. The higher commanders decided to task the Commandos to neutralise at least one fire unit (a battery of six guns). Intelligence and locating equipment having placed a battery of Chinese 122-mm guns near Mandhol village, Charlie Group was moved to a launching pad for an effective search-and-destroy mission. Having completed their preparations, the Group left Dhip Post after nightfall on December 13. In an hour’s time, they had negotiated the fast-flowing, Poonch River in icy-cold, waist-deep water. Using the cover of darkness they infiltrated silently into enemy-held territory. After covering eight km they came to Mandhol village. Now they had to locate the battery. Just then the guns fired a concentration on our 14th Grenadiers attacking Daruchian to the south of Poonch giving away their position.

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Closing in on their target the commandos separated into six 12-man assault teams, one for each individual gun. Major Malhotra with his control team was alongside. The charismatic Captain Krishan Pathak (now Chandigarh-based) deployed his fire support team in a commanding position. A cut-off team established stops to take care of the enemy fleeing the scene or any reinforcements which might deign to interfere. Every man carried demolition charges. True to their training the Paras observed the enemy battery after crawling to within 20 metres of the guns. The time was now 1 AM on 14th December. And then it happened. A Pakistani gunner came out of the position to relieve himself.

Immediately Paratroopers Rajmal and Balwan Singh were onto him, the latter’s commando knife finding its target. Unfortunately, another Pakistani now landed on the scene. He was more alert and Rajmal fell to his bullets.

All hell now broke loose, to use a cliché. The commandos went through their oft-repeated drills almost automatically. Grenades were thrown towards the gun positions, weapons fired towards where gun crews were deployed. Pathak’s support team also fired. Soon Chander Malhotra’s voice could be heard ordering a cease-fire and then ‘Agey Badho!’ (Move Ahead!). The assaulters, all 72 of them ran towards the guns shouting ‘Dhawa!’ (Attack!). Into the gun pits, they went, the commanders shouting orders, ‘Take Position! Fix Charges!’ etc. Twenty minutes the first gun blew up with a blinding flash and a thunderous explosion. A round that had been in its breech at the time caused splinter wounds to five commandos. One by one all the other explosive charges went off destroying the guns. A gun-pit was found to contain the battery ammunition dump. It too was destroyed. In all, watchers on the heights on the Indian side counted seven flashes and explosions. The cut-off team’s stops had mowed down 12-15 enemy soldiers fleeing from the gun area. A score of enemy bodies lay around the guns.

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The withdrawal signal having been given an hour later, the Group moved to the rendezvous point near Mandhol village where stock-taking was done. One dead, five seriously wounded and fifteen walking wounded were the casualties. The success signal was sent out and the Brigade HQ requested to have a doctor and evacuation team waiting at the exfiltration point. Taking a different route, the commandos set out for home at 3 am. On the way, they came across an enemy supply transhipment site with ammunition and rations lying around. There was also nearly a score of mules standing idle their drivers having fled. These mules turned out to be extremely patriotic. They absolutely refused to cooperate in carrying the Indian wounded!

Ultimately the struggle was given up and the Paras went their way chomping on Pakistani dry fruit having blown up the ammunition. They were at their de-induction point at 5:30 am, a full 12 hours after they had set out on their successful mission.

Unfortunately, no medical team was waiting for them. Paratrooper Balwan Singh breathed his last at Dhip post. 9 Para Commando learnt their lesson well and now have a battlefield nursing assistant in each squad of ten men. The enemy was compelled to pull his artillery back from forward deployment reducing its range and effectiveness. Their offensive was blunted saving Poonch. Manpower had to be deployed for local defence of gun batteries. After the war more Mujahid battalions were raised for the purpose.

9 Para Commandos were the heroes of the moment; they had proved formidable force-multipliers. It was decided to give them a similar task. Therefore, they found themselves crossing into Pakistani territory in the Naushera sector on the evening of December 17. The target was another artillery battery in the Chauki area. Alas! It was not to be. The cease-fire was to be in effect from midnight. The commandos were recalled.

But they had proved themselves and more. Thereafter 9 Para Special Forces have done extremely well in Sri Lanka and in counter-insurgency operations and surgical strikes in Jammu & Kashmir. For their heroism, professionalism and battlefield achievements they received the battle honour Defence of Poonch and the theatre honour Jammu and Kashmir, 1971.

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Shockingly no gallantry awards were given for the Mandhol raid.

Earlier, Charlie Group had camped in the vicinity of a Mangala Mata temple at Jhangar. There a young devotee had blessed them prophesying that they would all come out unscathed from the war ‘save two who will serve to quench the thirst of the Goddess of War’. The prediction having come true, Mangala Mata has been the Group deity for the last 50 years. After the evening roll call, all personnel invoke her name. Her abode is in the Group lines. May She bless the Group forever.

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(Please contact the writer with your military story on msbajwa@gmail.com or 093161-35343)

First published on: 22-11-2021 at 09:21:03 am
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