Remembering the Battle for Srinagar - November 8, was the 68th anniversary of the Battle for Srinagar
By November 2, the immediate threat to Srinagar had been contained although the raiders were still very much in evidence in the general area. Brigadier L.P. Sen had arrived to assume command of 161 Brigade and Colonel Harbakhsh Singh reverted to his own appointment as Second-in-Command.
A second Company of the 3/15 Punjab Regiment (MMG), commanded by Lieutenant Balbir Singh Jaijee, reinforced 1 Sikh on that day bringing its strength up to 6 rifle companies, in addition to the first company of the 3/15th under Capt JS Mandher which had joined them earlier. The 13 Field Battery, till now in the Infantry role with 1 Sikh, reverted to its role of gunners with 3.7" mountain guns. On November 3, the Battalion cleared Pattan of the enemy. Further south, in the area of Badgam, a strong party of raiders, who had come over the Pir Panjal Range, possibly reinforced by groups that had bypassed 1Sikh at Pattan, began to concentrate on the outskirts of Srinagar, with the clear intention of taking the airfield and possible Srinagar itself.
Battle of Badgam
On the morning of November 2, a report had come into Brigade Headquarters of a concentration of about 1,000 raiders near Badgam, a village close to the city, Colonel Harbakhsh Singh, the acting brigade commander, decided to attack them whilst they were concentrated.
A force of three Companies was quickly assembled under command of Major Somnath Sharma, whose Company of 4 Kumaon was to take part in the operation. The other two Companies came from 1 (Para) Kumaon. The force had moved out before midnight and, bypassing all inhabited area, reached the high ground above Badgam before first light on November 3. Patrols were immediately sent out to comb the village and the surrounding areas. Other than a large group of “Kashmiri refugees”, camping in a nullah close by, the patrols reported that all was clear. As nothing untoward had happened or enemy encountered, at 1400 hrs, the two Para Kumaonese Companies were ordered to return while Major Sharma was ordered to firm in where he was, astride the Badgam-Srinagar road.
At 1600 hrs, two hours after the two Companies had departed, Major Sharma's position came under 3-inch mortar fire. Within minutes, the position was assaulted under the cover of accurate LMG fire. The "innocent Kashmiri refugees" (the tribals in disguise), concentrated on the village perimeter, removed their weapons from under their firans (Kashmiri Cloaks) and launched their attack. The Kumaonese quickly deployed and beat off this first assault which was followed by more in quick succession. Major Sharma called for air and artillery support, to which the howitzers of 13 Field Battery responded magnificently — the gunners showing that they had lost none of their skills during their long attachment as infantry with 1 Sikh. Tempests from the airfield close by came in time and again with ground strikes. Nevertheless, the raiders, determined to take the position, kept up their pressure. Before long, Major Sharma was forced to call for reinforcements and reported that ammunition was running perilously low. Brigade Headquarters, anticipating this problem, had already despatched a civilian truck full of ammunition to him and had ordered the 1/2 Punjabies to go to his assistance. Before either could reach him, Major Sharma had been killed whilst assisting a wounded LMG No. 2 to fill his magazines. Soon after, the Company was overrun, losing 14 men killed and 22 wounded. For his extreme gallantry throughout the three-hour battle, Major Somnath Sharma received India's first Param Vir Chakra, its highest award for gallantry in combat.
Battle of Shalateng
Their success on November 3, at Badgam in which Major Somnath Sharma and his company of 4 Kumaon fought a magnificent action, gave the raiders the confidence to plan an attack on the airfield and Srinagar itself.
While briefing Brigadier Sen on November 3,(he had arrived in Srinagar late on the evening of November 2), Colonel Harbakhsh Singh, the acting Brigade Commander, suggested that 1 Sikh should be withdrawn from Pattan, as in the euphoria of success, the raiders wounded certainly threaten these two vital objectives. With the brigadier's approval, he flew to Pattan in an Otter aircraft, piloted by the legendary Air Commodore Mehar Singh DSO MVC DFC, and dropped a message for the Sikhs' CO, telling him to withdraw to Srinagar by 2000 hrs on November 4. This rather unusual means of communication was used to ensure secrecy.
Thus it was that by the evening of November 4, 161 Brigade's deployment was: 1 (Para) Kumaon : Airfield defence, 1/2Punjab In the village of Humhama, to block the approaches to the city. 1 Sikh, two companies at the Shalateng Bridge, and two at the Spill Channel, the latter being available to maintain law and order in the city, if required.
The disappearance of 1 Sikh from Pattan who had been ordered to withdraw, led to an advance by a force of raiders, some 3,000 men in 138 buses and trucks up the Srinagar road — a development that would in fact lead to the last nail being driven into the coffin of Pakistani ambition on November 7.
At 2200 hrs on the night of November 5/6, after an intense mortar and machine - gun bombardment, the enemy attacked Major Ajaib Singh's B Company of 1 Sikh. After a five-hour battle, during which a company of 1 (Para) Kumaon and a troop of the 7th Light Cavalry (7 Cav), commanded by Lieutenant Noel David, had arrived to reinforce Ajaib Singh, the enemy retreated leaving 80 dead and wounded on the field.
By 1200 hrs on November 6, confirmed reports of a large concentration of raiders, numbering between 2 and 3,000 men, close to Shalateng and below the Zainkut Ridge, had been received. A plan was immediately put on hand to attack this concentration by trapping it in front of the Sikh's position. Because of his previous involvement with the Battle of Badgam, and at his request, Colonel Harbakhsh Singh was given command of the planning and execution of this operation.
At noon on November 7, the Sikhs were told to keep the enemy engaged near the Shalateng bridge. 1 (Para) Kumaon, already concentrated near the race course, were ordered to move round the flank of 1 Sikh and to launch an enveloping attack. Lieutenant Noel David, who was out on a routine reconnaissance with his troop of armoured cars near Ganderbal, was ordered by radio to come up the Shaikhpur-Ganderbal road behind the raiders and a company of 1 Sikh was mounted in trucks at the bridge, ready to exploit any success in conjunction with the armoured cars.
Enemy on the run
The battle went like clockwork. The Kumaonese crossed their start line at exactly 1300 hrs and were on to the enemy before they knew what had hit them. Their bayonets soon had the raiders on the run. A number of haystacks in an adjoining field were the next bit of cover to be attacked by the IAF, the Tempests firing incendiary rockets and dropping bombs. With the haystacks on fire, the enemy broke in all directions, chased by the Sikh machine guns and with the armoured cars joining in with everything they had. Zainkut Ridge was secured by the Kumaonese by 1330 hrs, the mounted Sikh company and two armoured cars being pushed through to complete the rout. Surprising the enemy headquarters by the side of the road in an apple orchard near milestone 7, this company group captured 4 lorries, 1 station wagon, a bren gun, 4 x 3-inch mortars, and an MMG and a truck load of medical supplies and ammunition.
By 1400 hrs, all opposition had ended and the enemy was now on the run, hotly pursued by the Tempests of the IAF, who flew sortie after sortie until it became too dark to operate. The Sikh Company and its accompanying armoured cars then took over. 472 enemy dead were recovered from the battlefield at Shalateng and a further 146 on the cross-country tracks to Baramula over the next few days. The threat to Srinagar had finally been eliminated.
Brigadier Sen, who had been at the airfield all day receiving the reinforcements of troops, guns and equipment, reached Shalateng by 1400 hrs and at once issued orders for the pursuit to Baramula. To begin with the Sikhs were ordered to re-occupy Pattan. 1 Sikh moving out immediately occupied their original defences by 1930 hrs, where the Battalion firmed in for the night. At 2330 hrs an unsuspecting column of three enemy trucks loaded with troops and supplies drove into their position and were destroyed, the Sikhs killing 11 of the enemy and recovering 7 rifles. On their way in, Subedar Bishan Singh, 2ic of D Company bringing up the Battalion rear, had noticed movement in an orchard by the side of the road. He quickly surrounded it with a rifle section and challenged the people in it, to his surprise 11 fully armed Pathans surrendered without firing a shot. The morale of the raiders had finally broken.
161 Brigade's advance to Baramula started at 0400 hrs the next morning with 1 (Para) Kumaon and Noel David's armoured cars in the van, followed by 2/17 Dogras (who had only completed its concentration at Srinagar the Previous Evening) and a troop of 25 pr guns (which had also arrived the previous evening) making up the remainder troops of the Brigade. The Brigade in full cry, albeit on foot, as no transport was available, even the 3-inch mortars, MMGs and extra ammunition having to be man-packed, moved out in excellent spirits.
By 0800 hrs the next day, the relieving Battalion 1/2 Punjab arrived at Pattan followed by the rest of the Brigade at 0900 hrs. The Sikhs handed over the Pattan defences to the Punjabies and prepared to join the Brigade in its advance at 1130 hrs.
Baramula was taken unopposed by 1730 hrs on Novemebr 8.
By this time, 1 Sikh, the first battalion to have been flown in to Srinagar on October 27 (now celebrated as 'Infantry Day') had killed more raiders in the valley than the whole of the rest of the Brigade. Their exploits and dogged courage in battle had earned them the title given to them by the raiders, of Kali pagri wale kafir (the non-believers in black turbans).
Cost of recovering Baramula
On November 9, the bodies of Colonel Rai and Subedar Sajjan Singh, together with those of the other troops who had fallen in the battle of October 28, at Baramula, and were hidden in the paddy field where they fell that evening, were recovered and were cremated that very evening with full military honours.
The day's stay at Baramula proved a traumatic experience. The town was hushed and in deep shock after its occupation. Stories of rape, torture abduction and loot abounded. After the information given in that emotionally charged atmosphere had been sifted, it was officially estimated that the raiders had despatched anything between 200 and 250 truckloads of loot to their homes in far-off Chitral, the Swat valley and elsewhere in their tribal belt, in addition to the kidnapping and abduction of all the young girls of the town. A New York Times reporter who visited Baramula shortly afterward wrote that of the original 14,000 population of the city, just 3,000 remained.
Baramula had been retaken, but at what cost?