It surely is a daunting task for a modern military historian to choose India’s most accomplished and illustrious contemporary war-time general between K.S. Thimayya, Harbaksh Singh and Sagat Singh. However, on the 50th anniversary of the India-Pakistan war of 1965, the exploits of India’s steely Western Army commander during the 1965 war, Lieutenant General Harbaksh Singh, merit reflection. Blooded in combat as a captain in the steamy jungles of Southeast Asia against the relentless Japanese during World War II, Harbaksh’s early military personality was shaped by a contempt for the manner in which the Allied forces wilted in the face of the Japanese offensive, physical toughness and a steely determination as a PoW in Malaya, and circumspection about the military capabilities of the Indian National Army to defeat the battle-hardened British Indian army.
Much of the Indian army’s early aggression during the India-Pakistan conflict of 1947-48 could be attributed to Harbaksh, who, as a colonel and the second-in-command to Brigadier L.P. Sen in 161 Brigade, orchestrated a number of battles, including the Battle of Shalateng that had the Pakistani raiders retreating along the Srinagar-Baramula-Domel highway. As a brigade commander during the spring of 1948, it was his brigade that gave significant momentum to Thimayya’s offensive that sought to push the Pakistanis all the way to Muzaffarabad. His northern push in the Tithwal and Kishenganga sectors saw significant territorial gains being made, many of which were returned to Pakistan after the UN-sponsored ceasefire of January 1949.
When Lieutenant General B.M. Kaul, the controversial corps commander of the newly formed and ill-fated 4 Corps, took suddenly ill with high altitude sickness days before the Chinese attacked in October 1962, Harbaksh was flown in to replace him. It was too late, however, for him to influence the course of battle and all he could do was rally his troops to put up a tough fight in the given circumstances. The return of captured territory in 1947-48 and the setbacks of 1962 troubled Harbaksh and he vowed to set things right whenever presented with an opportunity to do so. He was to get his chance as general officer commanding of the Indian army’s premier Western Command as war clouds loomed on the horizon in 1965.
Tough, unyielding and a demanding commander, Harbaksh was in the thick of action July-August 1965 onwards, as he crushed Pakistan’s second attempt at infiltrating Kashmir with thousands of proxy raiders through multiple ingress points. Having operated extensively in the Kashmir Valley during the 1947-48 conflict, Harbaksh knew the terrain like the back of his hand and had regular forces waiting at almost all entry points. Actively complementing his surface force action were 10 Mi-4 helicopters operating from Srinagar airfield in armed helicopter and casualty evacuation roles. Not many know that this was the first offensive action by the IAF’s helicopter fleet and the story of their induction into Srinagar revealed the offensive mindset of Harbaksh. Though the helicopters only inflicted limited attrition on the infiltrators, their mere presence in the skies, Harbaksh acknowledged, acted as a morale booster and delivered the coercive effect he wanted. Success against the infiltrators gave him immense confidence to tackle subsequent battles on the western front with an aggressive mindset. Foremost among these was the recapture of Haji Pir Pass on August 28, 1965 by 1 Para Battalion under the leadership of Major Ranjit Singh Dayal.
When the guns boomed in Chhamb on September 1 and the Indian army’s forward defences wilted under the overwhelming firepower of Pakistani Patton tanks, artillery and Sabre jets, Harbaksh held firm and demanded that his forces counter-attack rather than hastily redeploy at Akhnur. It was at his insistence that the forward defensive line rallied around Jaurian and blunted the Pakistani offensive, while the main divisional defences were strengthened at Akhnur. This rearguard action allowed Harbaksh sufficient time to launch his offensive in the Lahore and Sialkot sectors and deflect the immense pressure building up in Chhamb.
A strapping six-footer with an intimidating presence, he was neither as charismatic as Thimayya, nor as innovative as Sagat Singh of Bangladesh fame. Renowned for his meticulous attention to detail and staff checks, and a relentless belief in counter-attacks and offence as the best form of defence, Harbaksh was more in the mould of the German generals of the Wehrmacht like Heinz Guderian and Gerd von Rundstedt. His operational account of the 1965 war, War Despatches, remains the most detailed account of the war from an Indian army perspective. By every yardstick, he was the epitome of good soldiering and leadership — tough as nails and strong as steel.
The writer, a serving air vice marshal in the Indian Air Force, is on the faculty of the National Defence College, Delhi