There’s hardly anyone who hasn’t seen the famous Bollywood blockbuster “Border” released in 1997, set to the story of the Battle of Longewala. Thanks to the movie it is now one of the most well known battles of the 1971 Indo Pak war. It was at Longewala that the enemy made his biggest armoured thrust with a view to capture a large chunk of the Indian territory. The Pakistani thrust was completely and comprehensively blunted.
Upto here, we all know the story.
But who was responsible for blunting the Pakistani attack? This is where there are differences in versions….
In the movie “Border” it was Major Kuldeep Singh Chandpuri and his small force of 120 brave men, who resisted the Pakistani onslaught throughout the night by fighting fiercely, till the Air Force arrived at first light the next morning, to assist them.
The Air Force however, has a different story to tell. Here is the story – told by none other than Air Marshal MS Bawa – PVSM, AVSM, VM (Retd.), who was the Base Commander of the Jaisalmer Airbase during the War.
In the early hours of December 5, 1971 the third day of the war, the Air base at Jaisalmer got a frantic message from the Commander 12 Division. His voice was grave with anxiety.
The GOC – Major General Khambatta – told the Air base commander that he suspected that an enemy armoured column was making rapid headway for Ramgarh. The Indian Army post at Longewala had heard tank noises throughout the night and seen tanks go past it with full headlights towards Ramgarh. General Khambatta wanted Wing Commander Bawa and his pilots to “investigate as early as possible."
While the aircrew were being put into the picture, the situation at Longewala was fast deteriorating. Enemy tanks carrying infantry elements had placed a ring around the post and had begun shelling it. The post was manned by a Company of the 23rd Punjab Regiment and the Company Commander at the post was Major Kuldip Singh Chandpuri.
Faced with this situation and being severely outnumbered and up against an armoured assault, he could at best appraise the Division of the magnitude of threat & clamour for help. He was advised to await the friendly Air Force at first light. Chandpuri kept low in his trench; a thin veil of darkness lay separating life from the death for all the besieged at this lonely outpost in the dark desert.
When the first two Hunters (of the total of four, based at Jaisalmer) of the IAF arrived on the scene at first light next morning, the enemy was still shelling the post but had not be able to damage anything worthwhile. The Hunters came low, piloted by Flt. Lt. D.K. Dass and Fig. Off. R.C. Gosain. With their with eyes peeled on the ground and also very ably guided by guided by an Air Observation Post aircraft piloted by Major Atma Ram, found the enemy's T-59 tanks. The fight between the IAF and the Pakistani armour began.
Within a matter of minutes the two pilots were able to seek and completely destroy two enemy tanks. Even as the first two Hunters were turning towards home, yet another pair of aircraft flown by Bali and Yadav was on its way to the target area. The first pair claimed two tanks destroyed and five others damaged. The second mission engaged those menacing monsters on ground and continued till it had exhausted all its war loads. The pilots claimed two tanks destroyed and six damaged.
Every pilot in the squadron got his turn to fly to Longewala and unleash a volley of rockets and bombs at the Pakistani tanks.
By the time the last mission over Longewala had completed its attack, the enemy force lay in shambles. The enemy's morale had evidently been completely shattered. There was no dispute that every single piece of armour and supporting vehicle which lay destroyed, crippled, burned or shattered were purely the result of air action.
At the end of the day the air ops and the Company at Longewala confirmed that 20 tanks and a large number of vehicles had been destroyed or damaged by the Air Force. The performance of a handful of gallant pilots had saved the day. The gratitude was most aptly worded in the message received at base from the Divisional Commander, Major General R.F. Khambatta at 10:00 P.M. on 05 December 71.
The battle of Longewala in fact was over. Longewala in this district of Jaisalmer of Rajasthan became the graveyard of Pakistani armour.
The above is the version of the Air Force. What we saw in “Border” was the Army glorified in its supposed action that night.
Finally, a war diary kept at the BSF post at Longewala gives a vivid account of the battle and sums up by saying that the BSF repulsed the armoured thrust with little support from the air force!
John F. Kennedy once said - "Victory has hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan!"
1."SAGA OF LONGEWALA" - by Air Marshal (retd.) M.S. Bawa, PVSM, AVSM, VM
From the Indian Air Force Journal, 1997
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