“It was still dark when the enemy with approximately two companies formed up at a distance of about 700 metres. The tanks came within 100 yards of the mortar position and Sep Charan Dass, one of the mortar numbers, was killed in a direct hit from the enemy’s tanks. As a result, the other tanks stopped…” Col (Retd) Dharam Vir’s words ring loud in your ears as the war hero recalls the Battle of Longewala of which he was an important part – so much so that JP Dutta’s iconic film, Border, had actor Akshaye Khanna essaying his character.

And so, as the legend goes, exactly 47 years ago on December 4-5, 1971, “a strange war”, in his words, was fought in the Thar desert at Longewala near Jaisalmer by the troops of 23 Punjab and other supporting troops of Infantry, Armour and Artillery, including Air OP along with the Indian Air Force.

Longewala rose to prominence on that day, when an armoured regiment and a squadron of tanks followed by an Infantry group crossed the international border and surrounded Longewala post, which was held by the Alfa Company of the 23 Battalion of the Punjab Regiment.

“The war started on 3 December 1971 with pre-emptive air strikes on our forward airfields by Pakistani Air Force along the Western border. The Jodhpur airfield was also one of their targets. At about 0900 hours on December 4 the commanding officer, Lt Col MK Hussain, briefed his company commanders about the latest situation. After the briefing by the CO, Maj Kuldip Singh Chandpuri returned to the company at Longewala at 0930 hours on 04 December and ordered me to take out a strong patrol with 30 other ranks and proceed to the international border with a task of surveillance of enemy’s movements into our territory, reporting back, shadowing the enemy’s column and finally joining at the post to fight the main defensive battle,” recalls the former commanding officer of 23 Punjab (Longewala). 

The patrol left Longewala on foot at 1030 hours and was in position by 1700 hours on December 4. The communication between the patrol and the post was on ANPRC-25 Set.

“Few minutes past midnight, the patrol heard tank noises across the border. It appeared that the tanks were coming in our direction. I immediately passed this information to the company commander on the radio set and also told him that the tanks were heading towards the post and he should immediately ask for air support by next morning.” This information, however, was initially discounted at all levels.

War hero Col (Retd) Dharam Vir had by then confirmed that the tank column had already crossed the international border near BP 638 and in all probability was heading towards Longewala. “It was undoubtedly a complete infantry brigade plus this formidable force of tanks and infantry was seen moving along the track leading straight from post 638 to Longewala post.”

It was at that moment that the enemy’s assault became clear, and Col MK Hussain ordered two detachments of 106RCL guns to move to Longewala.

After Sep Charan Dass was killed, it was at 0700 hrs on December 5 that two Hunter aircraft came over Longewala post and commenced rocketing enemy tanks. Within 15 minutes, five enemy tanks could be seen going into flames about 500 yards away from Longewala post. The enemy tanks started taking evasive action and were seen going in circles, emitting smoke as they were trying to hide themselves behind the sand dunes.

The Colonel credits timely intervention of the Air Force for the victory. “Now the Air Force again swung into action and did an excellent job; it was only with the timely help of the Air Force that Longewala was saved. They were extremely skillful and daring; not even a single rocket missed the target. The moment the rocket hit the tank it burst into flames much like a funeral pyre. It all happened in front of my eyes…”.

There were many moments of danger, but each brave heart fought the battle to the very end. “At one stage enemy infantry was within 100 yards when Sep Jagjit Singh, LMG No 1, took a position in the open after his bunker was destroyed by the enemy fire. He continued firing on the advancing enemy and refused to pull back to a safe position saying that he had a very good field of fire. Shortly afterward he was hit but he continued to fire till he collapsed.” The Sepoy was awarded Vir Chakra (Posthumously).

Sep Bishan Dass, Lance Naik Mathura Dass, and Sep Charan Dass are the other brave hearts he makes a special mention of.

In this historic battle, the enemy lost 37 tanks and about 200 vehicles. “Our 5 other ranks including two of 80 Armoured Delivery Regiment were killed while 5 other ranks were injured seriously, whereas enemy losses were much higher – about 200 vehicles including 43 tanks destroyed, 100 dead, and 150 injured.”  The GOC of Pakistan’s 18 Infantry Division, Maj Gen Mustafa, was sacked the next day, on 6 Dec 1971, in the Colonel’s words, “for his total loss of sight of his aim, incompetence, and utter failure.”

It would also be pertinent to mention here that as per family tradition, Col Dharam Vir’s son Lt Col Gaurav Bhakhri has also joined the Elite Armoured Corps and is presently very proudly serving with an Armoured Regiment in a field area.

As Lt Gen JS Aurora (Retd), the architect of Bangladesh and Eastern Army commander during the 1971 Indo-Pak war, would later sum up, “The Battle of Longewala in the Western Theater stands out as a classic example of well fought and well-coordinated ground and air battles which have no parallel in the post-Independence history of Indian Army.”

MyNation salutes Col Dharam Vir and all heroes of the 1971 Indo-Pak war – an example in the best of India’s military might and camaraderie between hardened troops, commanders at all levels and the Indian Air Force.