How Srinagar was saved in 1947
By M. M. Munshi
The division of the British administrated provinces as it eventually took place was on the basis of political considerations. Certain areas i. e Eastern part of Bengal, and western part of Punjab which were predominantly Muslim populated were allotted to Pakistan, Sind and Baluchistan were allotted in Toto to Pakistan. A referendum was held in NWF Province, which opted for Pakistan. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his followers boycotting the referendum as they like the congress party stood for secular democracy and would have preferred to exercise the third option of Independence which was not given to them in the referendum. On the transfer of power by British Paramountcy was retroceded from the king emperor to the 565 princely ruled states who had never exercised external affairs, defense and communications during the British rule. The biggest of the states exercised absolute, the intermediaries wide but not absolute powers, the rest were estates rather than states. Each of the 565 rulers was expected to accede to one of the dominions according to his choice and not on the basis of religious beliefs of the people of his state. Almost all the states acceded to either of the dominions some with apparent reluctance except Junagarh, Hyderabad and Jammu & Kashmir. The stories of the accessions of Junagarh and Hyderabad otherwise well known are beyond the scope of this article.
Lacking support from any but a small section of the people of Jammu & Kashmir, Pakistan brought pressure on the Maharaja, cut off all supplies of food, petrol, salt and other commodities on the import of which the State was dependant. In order to exert further pressure a series of several raids were made on the outposts of state forces in south western border of the state. Far from heeding Maharaja’s protests Pakistan sent a tribal force from NWFP led by regular Pakistani army officers proceeded towards Kashmir valley. On 22nd Oct 1947 it was joined by Mirpuri-Punchi deserters of the 4 J&K infantry at Domel, the town of Muzzafrabad was ransacked and the tribal force advanced towards Uri- Baramula.
The Maharaja finally realizing the situation evacuated Srinagar on the night of 25.10.47 reaching Jammu on the morning of 26th and signed the instrument of accession and Indian troops were flown from Delhi to Srinagar the first batch of 3 rifle companies and battalion HQs of the 1st Sikhs under Col. D. R. Rai landed at Srinagar on 27th morning at 9. 30 AM, further sub units of the 1st Sikh followed. With almost whole of his whole battalion available for operations by afternoon Col Rai after leaving a detachment of his command for the defense of the airfield he moved with his main force towards Baramula in transport provided by civil authorities and state forces head quarters. He thought that if he could reach Baramula before the enemy he could deploy his unit on the hills south of Baramula he could prevent the enemy from entering Baramula and proceeding eastward into the Valley. After reaching outskirts of Baramula with one of his platoon which he was leading from the front, his party was engaged by a medium machine gun manned by deserters of 4 J&K Inf. His jeep was hit and he had to beat a hasty retreat on foot along with the wounded when he was hit by medium machine gun fire in the face and was killed along with the platoon commander. 1 Sikh now left without a commander retreated to Srinagar Airfield where they were met by Major Sampuran Bachan Singh 2nd in command of the battalion who took over command and led the battalion back to Patan. After taking a defensive position and awaited the promised arrival of the enemy. But nothing like that happened for probably the Pakistani commander of the tribal force was unsure of what lay behind Patan defenses and avoided a frontal assault.. After a few days the enemy started bypassing the Patan defences by fanning out in all directions all over the valley. In the meantime it was decided to raise the strength of the troops to a brigade level and as such the airlift of troops to Srinagar was continuing unabated. The brigade was designated as 161 Infantry Brigade and Brig. J. C. Katoch [Later Maj-Gen and GOC Madras Area ] was appointed as its commander who left for Srinagar by air on 29th Oct 47 along with then Col L. P. Sen D. S. O, Dy. Director of Military Intelligence Army Hqs(Later Lt. Gen. and GOC Eastern Command who had commanded 16 Battalion of the Baluch Regiment with distinction as part of All India Brigade under Brigadier K. S. Thimayya (later Chief of Staff, Indian Army ) during the 2nd World war in Burma.
Brig Katoch was wounded and evacuated and L. P. Sen was appointed as the new commander of 161 Brigade. He had at his disposal (i) 1 Sikh [ reinforced by additional Sikh companies detached from Infantry regiments and gunners of a mountain battery allotted to Pakistan. The latter were organized as a rifle company ]. It was a very strong battalion of about 1200 men commanded by Lt. Col. Sampuran Bachan Singh, (ii) 1st Bn Kumaon Regt. A parachute battalion 650 in strength,commanded by Lt. Col. Pritam Singh (Later Brigadier Pritam Singh-Hero of Punch }This unit and two rifle companies of 4 Kumaon battalion were managing the defense of the airfield. Brig. Sen made 1 Kumaon responsible alone for the defence of the airfield and companies of 4 Kumaon were brought inside the perimeter of the airfield as reserve. 1st Bn Punjab Regiment also a parachute battalion was under-strength comprising about 450 men commanded by Lt. Col G. S. Khullar who were deployed on the left flank of the 1st Sikh on Magam road. Major P. N. Kak of the state forces who was assigned as liasion officer with 161 Brigade was instructed to find out deployment availability of the State Forces particularly the infantry at and around Srinagar. As per information collected by Maj. Kak there were no troops of the state forces available except about 100 troopers of the Maharaja’s bodyguard which was infact a ceremonial unit and had hardly any fighting value. The troopers of the bodyguard were ordered to report to 161 Bde Hqs. located near the airport which they promptly did. They were given a reconnaissance role to proceed on trot in a westerly direction direction for three quarters of an hour and then to retrace its steps with strict instructions to withdraw to the airfield if enemy was encountered, and not to get involved in any fighting. Immediately after the bodyguard left the Bde Commander moved with a small escort to a Karewah hill to watch from a vantage point how the body guards operated. He was surprised to see a mountain battery of Patiala State forces entrenched in a gap between two Karewahs invisible from the main road. They had been ordered by the J&K State forces Hqs to deploy themselves near the airfield, they had and could not register any targets as the entire battery was without dial sights. Infact at the request of Maharaja of J&K one infantry battalion and one mountaian battery of the Patiala state forces been and an infantry battalion had been to Kashmir valley ND jammu respectively by 12th Oct. The authorities at Patiala had told their gunners that dial sights would be provided by J&K State forces,and J&K state forces had expressed their inability to do so. In the meantime the troopers of the bodyguard returned without encountering the enemy. They were ordered to return to Srinagar and proceed next morning to Ganderbal and keep watch on the northern approaches to Srinagar. With the object of patrolling the western approaches of the airfield two rifle companies from 4l Kumaon under Maj. Somnath Sharma moved towards Budgam and secured a base one rifle company from 1 Kumaon under Capt. Wood moved west wards and after making contact with !st Punjab [Now 1st Guards ] at Magam returned to airfield via Srinagar without enncountering the enemy by 1. 00 pm without meeting the enemy. Out of the two companies of 4 Kumaon one withdrew by 2. 00 pm the other company was heavily fired upon by the enemy from inside of houses and attacked by a very strong force appearing from a depression between two karewas. Kumanis put up a devastating fire and fought gallantly but being heavily outnumbered fell back suffering many fatal casualties including Maj. Sharma, the enemy was apparently making for the airfield and probably also wanted to enter Srinagar from the south. The situation was saved by making air strikes on the enemy at Budgam and shifting 1st Punjab from Magam to Hamhom to block the approach to airfield as well as Budgam Srinagar road. Maj Somnath Sharma was awarded 1st Param Vir Chakra the highest gallantry award of the Indian Armed forces posthumously.
The enemy was avoiding a frontal assault on 1st Sikh at Patan but were on the move spreading in all directions in the valley. On 4th November situation looked very grim with the limited troops i.e. less than three battalions available with the 161 brigade it would have been very difficult to tackle small parties of enemy infiltrating into Srinagar from many direction. Reinforcements in the shape of two full strength infantry battalions, a squadron of armoured cars, a battery of field artillery together with other supporting troops was expected to reach Srinagar by road on the evening of 7th Nov. After giving due consideration to all pros and cons the Brigade Commander decided to withdraw 1 Sikh from Patan to Srinagar and shifting of 1st Punjab from Magam to Humhom to give the impression to the enemy that after the action near Budgam on 3rd Nov. the brigade had taken a crippling knock and was pulling its horns that would entice the tribal force to assemble,regroup and rush in their motor transport towards Srinagar.
The gamble worked after the withdrawl of 1 Sikh on by 5th November small partys of the enemy disappeared from the brigade front and reports poured in that all parties of tribal raiders big and small were heading for Baramula. It was planned that after the arrival of reinforcement s on 7th Nov. a wide encircling maneuver by two infantry, battalions from airfield via Magam to Patan and sandwich the enemy between Patan and Srinagar, subject the tribal force to attacks from the front and rear and annihilate it. It was expected that enemy attack on Srinagar defenses would materialize by 8th or latter, On 6th evening Major Inder Singh Rikhe [Later Maj. Gen. and Commander of UN Force at Cyprus] of the 7th light Cavalry with a troop of 4 armored cars and one rifle troop arrived at the brigade headquarters as an advanced party of the reinforcement convoy and was very much welcomed.. It was decided that out of the four cars a patrol of two cars and the rifle troop under Lieut. Noel David would proceed as a reconnaissance patrol via Ganderbal- Safapur road to Bandipur next day i. e 7th Nov. by first light and after collecting all possible information from the local police stations Maharaja’s bodyguard and others return to airfield by the evening.
Of the two battalions 1st Sikh was positioned west of Srinagar at the flood channel at Shalteng and 1st Kumaon in the rifle range (Chandmari) area. After David with his armored cars and rifle troop left brigade headquarters Commanding Officer of 1st Sikh informed Brigade headquarters on wireless that his forward companies were heavily engaged by automatic fire including that from medium machine guns. An immediate reconnaissance by air revealed that a force of several thousand was present across the flood channel, about 150 vehicles were parked on the road in the rear, but there was no moment on the road. The situation which was planned for 10th presented itself to 161 Brigade on the morning of 7th. Lieut. David’s patrol of armored cars and rifle troop was diverted from Ganderbal via Krahom to Sumbal and ordered to proceed towards junction of roads bifurcating for Baramula and Sumbal near Shalteng, and appear in the rear of the enemy as if it was part of the enemy forces. It took about 20 minutes for the armored cars to cross a rickety wooden culvert near Karhom which at first seemed to be impossible. After David reached the road junction roads at Shalteng, 1st Sikh opened up with rapid fire,Davids armored cars and rifle troop engaged the enemy from the rear 1st Kumaon burst on their right flank with a bayonet charge. The stunned enemy was wondering as to what was happening, there was complete confusion in its ranks. The tribal force with two companies of deserters of 4th J&K infantry in order to escape the fire which was hitting them from front, rear and right flank, rushed in all directions bumping into one another turned and fled westwards. 1st Sikh was ordered to attack, the armored cars and rifle troop in turn switched their fire west wards. The fleeing enemy was harried with telling effect by strafing from air, which had The battle of Shalteng was fought and won in less than half an hour and Srinagar was saved from death and destruction that had befallen the towns of Muzzafrabad and Baramula earlier. About 500 of the enemy were killed and another 150 lay dead between Shalteng and Baramula. Patan was occupied same day by eight in the evening and Baramula next day in the morningIt may not be out of place to mention here that no sound of the firing was heard in the uptown and airfield area probably due to thick mist and air currents blowing from east to west. In spite of the fact that sounds of automatic fire and bursting of mortar shells was clearly heard in the downtown area beyond the fifth bridge from wee hours of the morning, the residents of Srinagar were unaware that enemy was at their doorstep. Infact marriages were solemnized on the intervening night of 6/7 Nov. in Srinagar and in some houses mehandirat functions were going on. I as a resident of downtown very vividly remember hearing the sound of firing of automatics, bursting of shells and Chakri simultaneously. Some people who woke up at night were assured by National Conference volunteers patrolling the city streets that firing was from Indian army only to scare away any tribal forces which may have reached outskirts of Srinagar. It was only after air force started strafing the fleeing enemy that people climbed to upper storeys and roofs of their houses to watch the tiny Howard and Spitfire fighters in action.
While paying homage to the brave officers and men of the 1st battalions of Sikh and Kumaon Regiments together with two rifle companies of 4th Kumoan Regiment troop of 7th Light Cavalry let us not forget their local civilian Kashmiri drivers, guides, and informers especially those who along with the soldiers sacrificed their lives and saved the day.
*(The author is a noted Researcher)