During the Kashmir War of 1947-48 Captain Lachhman Singh Lehl was serving with 11 Field Regiment equipped with the iconic Ordnance quick-firing 25-pounder field gun. During operations in and around Jhangar he was the forward observation officer (FOO) with units of 50 Parachute Brigade seeking to drive regular Pakistani troops from the area and liberate Rajauri and relieve Poonchh.
Throughout these operations he brought down accurate, well-timed artillery fire on enemy positions under most taxing conditions. On 15th March 1948, precise fire brought down by his battery helped extricate a company of 3rd Maratha Light Infantry (now 2nd Para SF), which had been pinned down by heavy fire from enemy automatic weapons and mortars.
Spotting and directing fire from a position exposed to the enemy’s observation and fire he continued to engage them for eight hours. Characteristically, he disregarded his own safety, remaining continually exposed to Pakistani sniper fire and bombardment by their 3-inch mortars. The Marathas were able to successfully disengage saving many casualties. Again, on 16th March, during the decisive battle for Jhangar at Thil, Lehl successfully engaged enemy defences, his battery’s fire support shooting 3 Maratha Light Infantry on to their objective. In the words of his Vir Chakra citation, ‘Captain Lachhman Singh Lehl showed calmness and courage in the discharge of his duties and distinguished himself in all the important battles in and around Naushera’.
Belonging to Hoshiarpur district, Punjab, he joined the Army in 1943 serving with the Artillery in Burma. After the war he was part of the occupation force in Indonesia. Serving with Punjabi Muslim troops he noticed the bonhomie among various ethnic classes in the Army. His battery’s senior Viceroy’s Commissioned Officer (VCO), a Subedar asked for a hundred rupees from the sub-unit’s funds to entertain the Dogra company lodging in transit in their camp. An affability which was sadly much impaired a couple of years later at Partition though the discipline remained.
Moving to 11 Field Regiment he fought in the battles of Chhamb, Rajauri, Uri and Zojila besides Naushera and Jhangar in 1947-48 for which he was decorated with the Vir Chakra. Going up the promotion ladder he commanded 3 Field Regiment (now 3 Medium and in the news for its fighting spirit in an infantry role in the recent clashes in Galwan) in the early 60s. The 1965 war saw him in the nerve-centre of military policy and planning, the Military Operations Directorate at Army HQ. A couple of days after the superb defensive battle at Asal Uttar he got a call from Major General GS Gill. Military Secretary to President S. Radhakrishnan. Apparently after a failed attempt to drive Pakistani forces from the territory they still held in Khem Karan sector some 130 officers and men from a Sikh battalion had been taken prisoner. Pakistan was milking the reverse for all it was worth, alleging that Sikh troops didn’t have their hearts in the fight (propaganda that we’re all too familiar with nowadays). The President wanted to know if there was any truth in the allegations. Always forthright and upfront, Lehl debunked the Pakistani propaganda pointing towards the good performance of Sikh soldiers in all sectors and the fact that a good proportion of higher commanders like Air Marshal Arjan Singh, Lieutenant Generals Harbaksh Singh and JS Dhillon and Major Generals Amrik Singh, Rajinder Singh ‘Sparrow’, Mohinder Singh and Gurbaksh Singh were Sikhs. For good measure he added that if Sikh soldiers on the frontline were to come to know that their Supreme Commander had doubts about them on account of enemy disinformation it would severely impact their morale.
After the war he commanded 301 Mountain Brigade in Assam and rose to become General Officer Commanding (GOC) of 20 Mountain (Kirpan) Division tasked with the defence of Bhutan. 1971 saw him taking the offensive with a view to liberating North-Western Bangladesh operating under XXXIII Corps.
Pakistan held the hour-glass shaped region with an infantry division and some paramilitary forces. XXXIII Corps’ aim was to tie down the enemy forces preventing them from withdrawing for the defence of the Dhaka bowl, their vital strategic ground. Lehl’s divisional plan envisaged holding the Balurghat bulge (located in the waist-line of the enemy’s territory) with a brigade as a firm base for developing thrust lines to capture important communication centres thereafter exploiting to the Ganga river (known as the Padma in Bangladesh). Initial operations in November were aimed along the Hilli-Gaibanda approach. Its importance lay in it being the shortest route to enter from the Balurghat bulge and sever Pakistani lines of communication. The prime objective was the major infrastructure hub of Bogra.
Costly frontal attacks made little progress. Lehl, always well up to get a proper feel of the battle, changed his approach, effecting a left-hook with another formation. His troops got behind the enemy with an outflanking move from the North and established a block in the rear of the Pakistani positions. Thereafter a series of outflanking cross-country moves got the better of the enemy. Though reinforced with another brigade by now, Major General Pir Nazar Hussain Shah, commander of Pakistan’s 16 Division had no choice but to surrender his command after the capture of the fortress-town of Bogra. Lehl, flexible and usually a step ahead in his moves had prevailed with his leadership. His achievement was recognised by the award of the Param Vishisht Seva Medal (PVSM). The enemy had been tied down, unable to go to the aid of the embattled Dhaka garrison and defeated in detail. They had fought well though and in a determined manner particularly at Hilli.
Lachhman Singh Lehl was Deputy Quartermaster General after the war at Army HQ looking after logistics and then commanded Bengal Area. His supersession in 1976 came as a great shock to professionals and fighting soldiers. He bowed out gracefully to start a new career as a writer. His first book, ‘Indian Sword Strikes in Bangladesh’ was a first-person account of his experiences in the 1971 war. The larger campaign in East Pakistan was the subject of his second book, ‘Victory in Bangladesh’. Both were very well received and are essential reference books for students of military history. His crowning achievement was his book on lessons learned from the 1965 war, ‘Missed Opportunities’, which should’ve been made a standard text-book. The General made a substantial contribution to the organisation of gallantry-awardees, the War Decorated India.
General Lehl passed away on 20th June. A generation of warriors who served this country well, defended the fledgling nation and insulated the military from politics is now on the verge of fading away. His memory brings back thoughts of the greatest feat of Indian arms – the establishment of a new country in under a fortnight. It is significant to note that the armies liberating Bangladesh were unleashed by a sagacious political executive on firm, lucid orders with their full backing.
Situation Report: Eastern Ladakh
How has the ground situation changed from last week after the Prime Minister’s statement at the all-party meeting on June 19? The Chinese seem to have been emboldened. Sources aver that an additional Chinese combined-arms brigade has moved into the theatre and is currently being held in reserve. The Indian XIV Corps has also deployed its reserves in depth positions. These are poised to destroy any further intrusions or strike to throw out Chinese troops currently holding our territory.
The Chinese have intruded two kms into Indian territory in the Hot Springs-Gogra area. Their tanks and mechanised infantry have been seen massed near the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Depsang posing a threat to Daulet Beg Oldi (DBO) and the lines of communication connecting it to the main Indian bases. The contentious tent destroyed near Patrolling Point 14 (PP 14) on 15th June has been re-erected by the Chinese. They are displaying a clear intention to occupy the area on a permanent basis. Satellite imagery has shown substantial construction activity at PP 14. These include new defences and accommodation for personnel. Construction of defences has also been noted in Galwan. All these developments indicate a firm intention to stay put. The deployment profile shows that the Chinese might bargain hard to retain their intrusion in Galwan Valley while agreeing to vacate Hot Springs and Eight Fingers in return. This could be their real objective.
Overall, if one flies along the LAC from DBO to Pangong Tso one can observe no less than fifteen PLA (People’s Liberation Army) troop concentrations or deployments with artillery, air defence, armour and logistics support. More than 10,000 PLA troops i.e. divisional strength are deployed along the LAC and in our territory. These are supported by mobile reserves currently held in depth positions.
There is enhanced tension in the conflict zone which has not been dispelled by marathon lieutenant general-level talks. Talks, back-channel contacts and diplomacy must continue of course. The jaw-jaw part of conflict resolution can safely be left to professional interlocuters, diplomats and politicians. The armed forces must be prepared for ‘war-war’. The stiff resolve and imminence of military action has always impacted political outcomes. How can the political executive help the military in their task? Clear, unambiguous orders need to be issued forthwith to the troops to carry weapons at all times and use them if attacked.
Last week I had mentioned three military options available to us – blocking, offensive operations and counter-salami slicing. Hard times are ahead unless we use the hard power of the military.
The Brave Bihar Regiment
We’ve recently seen the 16th Battalion of the Bihar Regiment backed by their comrades from the 12th Battalion and other units take on the invading Chinese in the Galwan Valley. It’s high time we learnt a bit more about this redoubtable regiment. Once in my school holidays my father sent me to play hockey with 1 Bihar. I was very impressed by the tough Biharis and their fast, aggressive game enhanced by a lot of short passing. No less stirred was I with the battalion’s impressive bearing.
The regiment was raised to meet the increased manpower needs of the Second World War, it made its fighting reputation in the Burma Campaign and became a permanent part of the Indian Army. The Biharis’ natural affinity to riverine and jungle terrain came in handy. Interestingly, the Bihar Regiment adopted the Lion Capital of Ashoka as its crest nearly a decade before it became the national emblem. The regiment recruits Biharis and Adivasis from Jharkhand and Orissa. They were formidable during the Kargil War too.
Biharis are tough and unassuming making good soldiers. They take naturally to boxing, wrestling and long-distance running. With so many rivers flowing through their state it’s unsurprising for them to be excellent swimmers and divers. The Bihari is ruthless in the field. Wielding weapons is second nature to them. Battalion armouries are full of their private licenced weapons deposited till they go home on leave.
Adivasis are hard men too being close to nature. They’re good at improvising animal and human traps. Navigation through jungles and mountains comes to them as a matter of course. Their officers fondly remember the tasty meals that they prepare from whatever’s available in the field environment. They’re ruthless, cold-blooded warriors. They have a reputation for beheading their enemies which stands them in good stead in the psychological operations which are an intrinsic part of modern conflict. Both classes are very good in close-quarter battle and operating at night.
The Chinese have stirred up a hornet’s nest by taking on the Bihar regiment and murdering their commanding officer. Retribution is at hand.
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