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Military Digest | How the Marathas mastered Israeli mortars in 1971

The 36 Light Regiment took a week to do what was supposed to take two months

Written by Mandeep Singh Bajwa | Chandigarh |
Updated: November 17, 2021 11:10:03 am
The mortars arrived by ship at Mumbai in September and were immediately transported to Talbehat. (PIB)

The 1971 war and its build-up were marked by a great hunger for a decisive, strategic victory among the Indian population in general. After a thousand years of facing Central Asian and European invaders, the time was just right for the nation to enjoy the heady feeling of victory. The longing was highest among the chosen instrument of victory – the armed forces. Therefore, they worked extremely hard in the roughly seven months granted to them for preparation by the strategic planners. This involved very hard training and groundwork required for a successful feat of arms.

Having barely stepped into my teens and keenly interested in military matters I was witness first-hand to the tough training that my father’s formation, 36 Artillery Brigade, then located at Talbehat in Uttar Pradesh, was doing in preparation for the war they knew was coming. Gun-drill, field firing, exercises (with and without troops) and manoeuvres were the order of the day. Everyone worked very hard. But the story of 36 Light Regiment and its conversion to heavy mortars stands out.

To boost the Army’s firepower the government placed an order of 160mm heavy mortars with the Israeli firm Soltam. Since we had no diplomatic relations with Israel, the weapon system was routed through their Finnish collaborators, Tampella. 36 Light Regiment was chosen to be the pioneers in receiving, converting to and using the new mortars in war. The unit had started life as a battalion of the Maratha Light Infantry during World War Two. For a short while it was a unit of the Armoured Corps. It converted to an anti-tank regiment of the Artillery in January 1943 and fought with the Fourteenth Army in the battles of Letse, Mount Popa, Pyanbwe and in the Arakan during the Burma Campaign. After the war it became a parachute unit with its number changed to 36. During the Indo-Pak War, 1947-48 it remained deployed in Kashmir denying the main Uri-Muzaffarabad axis to enemy armour. Along with other anti-tank regiments it converted to 4.2-inch (107mm) mortars in 1956, With these it fought the 1962 war in the Namka Chu and Tawang-Sela sectors incurring heavy losses. Converting to the 120mm Brandt mortars, it took part with distinction in the 1965 war in Amritsar and Dera Baba Nanak sectors, showering death and destruction on the Pakistanis with accuracy. In 1971, it was commanded by the unflappable Lieutenant Colonel BB Kumar.

The mortars arrived by ship at Mumbai in September and were immediately transported to Talbehat. The School of Artillery sent a team consisting of two Instructors-in-Gunnery (IsG), Major Kultar Singh and Captain Pushpendra Singh to help in the conversion and formulate drills and practices. The Israeli manufacturers had specified two months for conversion and training, Army Headquarters felt it could be done in a month; my father, the brigade commander, was confident that 36 Light would be able to manage it in a fortnight. Anyway, let me use Captain (now Major General) Pushpendra Singh’s words to describe the situation as it developed. He writes about seeing the large crates in which the mortars were packed. And then, “What we next witnessed was amazing as the crates were opened, the personnel from the Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (EME) would identify and inspect the item and it was then duly receipted by the various Ordnance units from the Mumbai Depot all the way down to the Divisional Ordnance Field Park and then issued to the unit. Similarly, the EME would record their respective inspections in their particular echelons. Thus, in about a day, all inspections and receipts from Mumbai Embarkation Headquarters – which received the equipment at the port – through a long and complicated line of headquarters and units down to the regiment were completed, a process that would normally take several weeks. I have never in my service of 39 years experienced such efficiency before or since!”

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Meanwhile, the Maratha Gunners were busy figuring out how to operate the new system. The School of Artillery team aided by the Regiment’s own IG, Major Randhir Navet used the typical Indian imagination to figure out the workings and had within a day worked out a gun drill for bringing the mortar into action, recording a centre of arc and cease-firing. Training started in right earnest with the Regiment using all its strength to get things right. At about this time Major General KD Vasista, the Director of Artillery, visited to see things for himself. The regiment put on a grand demonstration. All this in just three days without the benefit of foreign experts. The Israeli experts, who included a technician, came next. Their two-month training programme was brushed aside almost contemptuously by the Regiment. Major Navet told them, “We’re going to accomplish our conversion and do a unit fire and movement exercise in a week’s time followed by live firing.”

The Israelis were stumped when 36 Light Regiment did just that. They completed their conversion and training in seven days flat, and did their field firing on the ranges on the eighth, while simultaneously preparing to move to the operational area. Captain (Now Colonel) Arun Thakur, the Adjutant (unit fire control officer) told me that the impact of the 38-kg bomb even 2km away in the observation post was simply breathtaking. A wonder weapon had been provided to the Artillery. The 36 Heavy Mortar Regiment were on the train on the ninth day to join the rest of the formation in North-West Punjab for the planned offensive into Shakargarh.

My father told me that the Maratha Gunners were simply awesome in their battle performance. As for the Soltams, suffice it to say that on the last day of the war a Pakistani station cut into the India radio net and plaintively beseeched, ‘For God’s sake please stop your shelling!’ Truly a battle-winning weapon in the hands of our indomitable Gunners.

A quarter century later the Soltams were still going strong. In 1996, Pushpendra Singh, now a Major general took charge of the artillery in Northern Command. The first task given to him was to silence some Pakistani 12.7mm machine-guns interfering with traffic on the National Highway between Srinagar and Leh. He had no hesitation in detailing a battery (six tubes) of Soltam mortars for the task. Within 48 hours the Pakistanis were forced to abandon their advance position. As Pushpendra Singh now writes, “Even 25 years after their induction, the Talbehat Mortars had crushed the enemy despite their vintage ammunition.” Earlier this year the Soltam were retired from service. As they were fired for the last time at the Mahajan Ranges, one could hear the echoes of ‘Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj ki Jai’ and ‘Har Har Mahadev’. The Maratha Gunners had lived up to the trust vested in them.

What explains 36 Heavy Mortar Regiment’s extraordinary performance in converting in record time belying all expectations? Professional pride is only one part. I would put it down to the Spirit of 1971, a spirit instilled in everyone who fought the war. So eager were they to rise to the expectations of their countrymen, that they gave freely of their all. It was truly a national victory.

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