A Forgotten Soldier – Brig Pritam Singh, Military Cross (MC)
Maj Gen Raj Mehta, AVSM,VSM(Retired)
“…It is an irony and a matter of grave concern that the Indian nation does not even recognise the man we worship…The people of Poonch still recall the services of the gallant Brig Pritam Singh, MC, during the Pakistani siege of Poonch in 1947-48…He was a great man. We owe our lives to him” said 80-year-old Muneer Hussain of Loran village, 35 kilometres north of Poonch town, at the foot of the Pir Panjal Mountains. “Brig Pritam Singh gave us salt,” said another grateful resident… “Restore his honour”; say these impassioned men and women. “Let posterity judge him for his matchless defence of Poonch…”
Extracted from an emotional appeal made by Hindu and Muslim inhabitants of this historic border town to the President in November 1998. “Poonch Locals unite for their hero’s honour. Arun Sharma. Indian Express. November 25, 1998.
The Saviour of Poonch; Brig Pritam Singh, MC
Brigadier Pritam Singh, MC, earned the sobriquet ‘Hero of Poonch’ and ‘Sher Baccha’ (Young Lion) when the picturesque, foot hills and historic border town of Poonch which is located in a bowl, was under siege by Pakistani Army irregulars and well armed tribal lashkars (battalions), and for all purposes, given up as lost by prevailing apex level military advisers. Poonch is a small town in Western Jammu. In September 1947, it was the seat of the Raja of Poonch, who was a vassal of Maharaja Hari Singh of Jammu and Kashmir. Prior to 1947, communications with Poonch were through the (now Pakistani Punjab) town of Jhelum; towns in the east such as Rajauri, Naushahra and Jammu being connected only by fair-weather tracks.
In the opening phase of what is now termed the first Indo-Pakistan War of 1947-48, the Pakistani raiders had sited themselves in strength with a plethora of heavy supporting weapons on the dominating heights surrounding the town. After participating in the climacteric battle of Shelateng; a bloody and victorious battle that saved the Kashmir Valley for India, Lt Col Pritam Singh, MC, who was commanding 1 KUMAON, the Parachute Battalion of the KUMAON Regiment, was diverted to the relief of Poonch. He reached the town just in time on 21 November 1947, after wading across the rising Chhanjal Nala, near Kahuta, a few kilometres north of Poonch. Its wooden bridge had been mistakenly blown up by the harried and outnumbered J and K state troops then defending Poonch, fearing that the troops approaching it in the gathering darkness were Pakistani lashkars. Nothing daunted, Lt Col Pritam Singh, took charge and safe guarded Poonch town, using ingenious methods for administratively and operationally maintaining its teeming population. In order to synergise the military effort better, he was shortly thereafter promoted as Brig. Poonch was at that time, swollen by refugees who had streamed into the town in their thousands to escape rapine, plunder and massacre by the Tribal (Kabaili – from Kabul) marauders unleashed by the Pakistani Government under Operation Gulmarg. A pre conflict population of 8000 was now in excess of 40,000; a five fold increase spread over a tightly packed town area of barely16 square kilometres.
Brig Pritam Singh, against all odds and gloomy professional predictions, kept the marauders away for one full year; protecting the town against savage and repeated attacks from the enemy. The bloody siege came to an end only after a dramatic linkup with the relieving forces of the Indian Army codenamed Operation Easy took place at Danna Ka Pir, 18 kilometers south of Poonch, on 21 November 1948. On 22 November, the relieving forces entered Poonch town, bringing a stirring chapter in the saga of the Indian Army, Indian Air Force and the people of Poonch to a happy end. Today, 21 November is celebrated with fervour each year by the Poonch Brigade, the civil administration and grateful generations of “Poonchies” as Poonch Day.
Against all odds, Poonch had been saved for India and for posterity, largely due to the resolve and grit of one man; two premier uniformed Services; the Indian Army and Air Force, and the deathless spirit of the inhabitants of the beleaguered town. Poonch was then referred to as the “Tobruk” of Kashmir, though, unlike its famous North African city of World War 2, Poonch never fell. This article examines the sterling military feats of the key protagonists led by Brig Pritam Singh, MC, as also the ironies, petty jealousies and fragile egos that have led to this bravest of brave and capable of soldiers dying unwanted, reviled and castigated by the vicissitudes of time and tide.
Early Exploits of Brig Pritam Singh, MC
Born to farming parents in village Dina in Ferozepur District, Punjab, Captain Pritam Singh, who was then in 5/6th Battalion of the Punjab Regiment was wounded in 1942 during World War 2, in the Battle of Singapore and later escaped from the notorious Nee Soon Prisoner of War (PoW) Camp. A recent book by Brig Jasbir Singh, SM (Retd), titled “Escape from Singapore” (Lancers Publishers, New Delhi. ISBN: 978-1-935501-206) tells the story of the daring escape from the PoW camp by three young Indian Army officers, Captain (later Brig) Balbir Singh the author’s father, Capt (later Col) GS Parab of 4 Kumaon and Capt (later Brig) Pritam Singh of 5/6th Punjab. The three officers(Capt Pritam chose to make his way alone) escaped from Nee Soon and made their way through Malaya, Thailand and Burma, reaching India, after over six months of life threatening experiences. In so doing, they traveled thousands of kilometres through enemy territory on foot, boat and train. Capt Balbir and Capt Pritam Singh were later awarded the coveted Military Cross for exemplary courage and resolve. Though the escape focuses on the exploits of Capt Balbir and Capt Parab, the reader will get a fair idea of the challenges Pritam overcame during this dash to freedom.
Pritam gets into Kashmir
Given the circumstances under which he thrived, it would not be unfair to say that Brig Pritam Singh was “born for battle”. The story goes that he was on leave and visiting the military Operations Directorate in Army Headquarters, Delhi, in end October 1947 when the Kashmir crisis occurred. He volunteered to lead troops to Kashmir even if they were not his own Punjabis. Placed in command of 1 KUMAON (Parachute), he took off the very next day. Within days of landing, the battalion was pitched into the “make or break” Battle of Shelateng, during which his battalion put up a stellar display. As the reader now knows, he was diverted for Poonch under the command of the Uri based 161 Infantry Brigade, the designated relief force. Delayed in departure till 20 November, ambushed after crossing the Haji Pir pass and faced with the blasted bridge at Chhanjal Nala, its resolute Commander, Brig LP Sen, nevertheless accompanied Pritam’s unit on foot for the relief of Poonch, assessed the situation, placed Pritam firmly in command of Poonch Garrison and thereafter headed back the next day as Uri was itself under serious tribal counter attack. The rest, as they say, is history.
Topography, Land use and Pre Independence History
At this stage, it is necessary to give the topography, land use and pre Independence history of Poonch leading to the Poonch conundrum, for the reader to understand why Poonch got into the eye of the storm the moment Independence was announced for India and Pakistan.
The mighty, snow clad Pir Panjal range of mountains separates Poonch valley from Kashmir valley. It forms the natural watershed for all rivers flowing westwards, particularly the Suran River and the Betaar Nala, which join at Poonch town. Across this watershed lies the famous Gulmarg bowl in Kashmir. Poonch is the smallest district of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The district is bound on its north by the districts of Pulwama and Baramula. Rajauri district bounds Poonch on the south and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) to the north west. The total area of is 1,674 square kilometers. The district has a single town, Poonch. Its villages are located in the Shivaliks while the rest of the district is occupied by mountains. The chief occupation of the people is agriculture and fruit farming. Poonch (population 23, 434) at nearly 1000 meters ASL is bowl shaped, with hills almost 1000 metres high dominating it. The historic town is located astride the famous Mughal Route, now rapidly coming up as a National Highway.
In 1947, when the issue of Poonch came up seriously, the population of Poonch principality was 4.36 lacs which included 76,000 Hindus and Sikhs; the rest being Muslims. Pakistan had purposely targeted Poonch district, which had a large population of Muslim serving and retired soldiers, as an important operational objective. The Pakistani forces comprised regular soldiers, ex-servicemen and Pashtun Tribals, along with Muslim Poonchies inflamed by reports of massacre of Muslim refugees during the communal violence of the partition. Poonch principality had thus become the centre of disturbances immediately after 15 August 1947.
Sardar Mohd Ibrahim Khan, started underground activities against Maharaja of J and K in June 1947. Initially he organized about 60,000 ex-servicemen of Poonch principality against the scattered forces of the Maharaja operating in Poonch principality. In August 1947 Ibrahim Khan went to Pakistan to seek armed help against the Maharaja’s forces. The Pakistani government not only provided him arms and ammunition, but also allowed about 30,000 tribesmen overall, officered by Pakistani Army regulars to participate in the carnage that followed in Jammu and Kashmir.
Strategic Deliberations Preceding the Political Decision to Defend Poonch
After the successful defence against the invading Pakistan sponsored and led Tribals in mid November 1947, the emphasis shifted completely to the Jammu Province and Poonch in particular. According to General ‘Tariq’ Akbar Khan, (codenamed after Jebel Tariq, the Moorish General who invaded Spain in 711 AD) the GOC of the invading force: “We overwhelmed the garrison at Bagh and took control of the tehsil. We sent lashkars to surround and isolate Poonch from Srinagar. We captured Kotli, Mirpur, Beri Pattan and the whole area astride the road between Jammu and Poonch…”
On 16 November, Maj Gen Kalwant Singh, GOC, J&K Division, ordered the relief of Naushahra, Jhangar, Kotli, Mirpur and Poonch. The Poonch link-up plan meant that the thrust of 161 Brigade, then fighting near Srinagar would be diverted to Poonch over the Haji Pir pass while 50 Para Brigade was to fight its way from the south. General Roy Bucher, the Indian C-in-C, considered the plan ‘dangerous, foolhardy and risky’. The Pakistani invaders, by this time, were on the dominating mountain tops and incessantly harassing Poonch town. Lt Col Pritam Singh, who had inveigled himself and 1 KUMAON into Poonch on 21 November, was ordered to abandon Poonch but refused.
At the crucial Defence Committee meeting on 3 December 1947, Nehru unequivocally stated that Poonch must be defended at all costs. Mountbatten had a different view, while the C-in-C wanted the final decision on Poonch to be taken by Lt Gen Russell, the Army Commander, who, for well considered tactical and logistic compulsions, wanted to pull out. On 6 December 1947, the PM met Gen. Russell at Jammu, and the final decision to defend Poonch was taken. On that day, Lt Col Pritam, MC, the Poonch Garrison Commander, was promoted as Brig. The die was cast.
The Prevailing Grim Situation in Poonch
Serious readers of the Poonch battle in 1947-48 would do well to read the short but riveting account of this momentous struggle by a military officer who was an eye witness; the intrepid signaler, Lt Col Maurice Cohen. Titled “Thunder over Kashmir”, the book covers the Poonch siege in the larger context of the war in graphic detail.
At that time of the Poonch crisis, there were only two battalions of Dogra troops in Poonch principality. One unit was at Bagh under Colonel Hakal and the other one was stationed at Palandri under Brig Krishan Chand. Both were low on ammunition; were militia troops hardly suited for fierce fighting and did not have their battalion support weapons as was the norm for regular Infantry battalions. Both units retreated under the intense pressure to Poonch town and were planning a breakout when Pritam arrived. He recalled that it took some doing on his part to get them to stick it out and fight.
The over 40,000 people, the major part being refugees who had come ill prepared for a long stay and with whatever cattle they could muster, were now in the grossly over crowded town. They were all badly demoralized. All the government and non-government buildings were fully occupied by them, with thousands of people and animals without shelter. Administration, basic services, hygiene, sanitation and food supplies had all broken down, compelling Pritam to start strict rationing. Apart from the food grains there was acute shortage of cloth, grocery items, salt, medicines, milk, oil, with even a basic need like salt selling at an exorbitant Rs 20 per seer (kilogram) or 1 Pound Sterling, its normal price being about one Anna (1/16th of a Rupee). The 6,000 milch cattle were no better off.
Brig Pritam approached his task with sense and sensibility as well as his trademark dynamism. He established a strong defensive perimeter and, at the same time, set up administrative systems and processes that brought order and control over the town, without compromising on its defence. He did all this by a “hands on” approach, by being present everywhere as well as by sensible decentralizing of authority and responsibility, once he had set up the systems.
Air Bridge to Poonch
With the road link to Jammu as well as from the Kashmir side cut off, the only option left to Brig Pritam was the establishment of an air bridge to Poonch. The non availability of a landing ground simply meant that one had to be created. Six thousand refugees volunteered and worked day and night under intermittent enemy fire and constructed a 550 x 30 metre Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) at 1100m ASL in a record time of six days, with IAF fighters providing overhead cover. AVM Subroto Mukherjee and Air Cmde Mehar Singh landed the first Dakota aircraft on the newly constructed airstrip at Poonch on 8 Dec 1947. The landing and take off at Poonch was not easy as the ALG was surrounded by streams from three sides and the approach was extremely steep. Despite these difficulties and against heavy odds, Air Cmde Mehar Singh created a record by landing a Dakota with three tons of load against the normal rated load of one ton. In the first flight, Sheikh Abdullah and Gopala Swami Ayer visited Poonch, met people, heard their problems sympathetically and reassured the people. In a span of six days, No 12 Squadron RIAF carried out 73 sorties, averaging more than two sorties per aircraft per day, carrying more than 210 tons of supplies to Poonch and evacuating hundreds of refugees during the return journey.
On 13 December it was realised that the raiders had moved up field guns and by the evening had the airfield bracketed by mortars and field artillery. The RIAF courageously flew in 3.7″ howitzers from the 4th (Hazara) Mountain Battery (F.F.) at Pritam’s request. The counter bombardment by the garrison reduced the frequency and effectiveness of the enemy shelling.
No.12 Sqn RIAF had by then come under the operational command of No.1 Operational Group with its headquarters at Jammu. ‘Baba’ Mehar Singh, a man larger than life, setting an example in almost everything he did, commanded the loyalty of the pilots in a manner that few men could ever hope for. On the other hand, Brig Pritam Singh was ‘a tough guy’, and one who was to display remarkable courage and determination right through the siege. Pritam Singh and Mehar Singh were symbolic of the determination and courage of the Armed Forces to save Poonch. The synergy between the two Services did not stop there. Around Poonch, the Indian pickets were well sited to meet the threat of the raiders from all sides. Based at Jammu, RIAF Tempest fighter bombers and Harvards attacked enemy positions. On 4 December Tempests subjected enemy positions north-east and north-west of Poonch to 20mm cannon fire and again on 7 December, enemy positions in the immediate vicinity of Poonch were subjected to rocket attack and strafing. On 8 December, an improvised Dakota aircraft bombed enemy targets north of Poonch by live fused bombs being rolled off the open tail gate. Such was the courage and enterprise of the Air Force pilots and crews.
Realising that grains would have to be provided for to sustain the garrison far beyond what the air bridge could bring in, Pritam decided to carry out raids in “enemy occupied” country. With a force of a battalion minus bolstered by Poonchi civilians acting as scouts and porters, he set a precedent by carrying out weekly forays in villages held by the raiders, snatching grains; even harvesting ripened grains and getting back the “loot” to feed his teeming thousands in Poonch town. He was never short of civilian volunteers in carrying out such risk laden but necessary operations. He also ensured that the Army was more than generous in sharing its rations with the besieged inhabitants.
Realising that he had militia troops who needed tough training, Pritam started realistic, risk laden exercises to bring up their fighting standards. One feared exercise was for an officer to pick up a live hand grenade whose safety pin had been removed dropped next to him, and, within four seconds, run, pick it up and throw it beyond a wall before it burst. A fumble would result in certain death. Another was to ride the local ponies bareback. The methods may have been ad hoc but re-energised the militia. Pritam also raised two J and K militia units from local volunteers, who later acquitted themselves honourably.
There were problems too, whose full impact was borne by Pritam as the siege advanced. 1 KUMAON (Parachute), later known as 1 PARA, was placed under command of his second in command, Major (later Lt Col) Dharam Singh. He was involved in unsoldierly conduct when an attack by the Unit on Khanetar Ridge, from which the raiders were causing severe dislocation to the garrison, was routed, with the CO and his Adjutant returning without their weapons. The command and control arrangements were ambiguous, creating an (unsubstantiated) feeling that Lt Col Dharam Singh was responsible for operations and Pritam for administration of the Unit; something totally unprecedented and against conventional military ethos.
The situation came to a head, leading to induction by air of a relieving battalion, 3/9 GURKHAS; Pritam getting wounded in battle and a wild rumour circulating that he had died. The Brig felt that the best answer to the demand from his Brigade that he pull out, lay in showing himself to the despairing garrison in full uniform, and, somewhat later, recapturing Khanetar Ridge from the raiders with 1 PARA and militia troops. In April 1948, Sheikh Abdullah and Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad visited Poonch. They had to be unceremoniously bundled out of Poonch in a Dakota by Pritam, to escape a restive mob that was baying for their blood. This, after a thoughtless remark by Abdullah about killing of Muslims by Hindu refugees inflamed the crowd. Change of command in May brought in Maj Gen Atma Singh as GOC 26 Infantry Division, who, as Pritam’s superior, had little time for him. Lt Gen KM Cariappa also took over at about the same time as the Western Army Commander. Both these appointments were in the chain of command that led to Brig Pritam Singh’s ignominious and savage career setbacks due to circumstances that were already under creation.
Notwithstanding that his personal difficulties were increasing by the day, Pritam continued with his basic approach of proactive defence and, with his regular Army as well as militia units, ensured that he was either in possession of, or dominating critical positions around Poonch town. 1 KUMAON had de-inducted but Pritam managed just as well with the new unit.
A Court of Inquiry (C of I) is Ordered against Brig Pritam Singh, MC
Reacting to a letter from the Army Commander that some effects of the Raja of Poonch may have been stolen, Pritam ordered the luggage of his departing battalion, 1 KUMAON (Parachute) to be searched. Nothing was found but the battalion’s izzat (self esteem) certainly was. There was already the problem of operational versus administrative command and control with the same unit and it’s CO. Other allegations pointing to conduct unbecoming of a senior Army officer – most of them unfounded, as it later turned out – led to the ordering of a C of I against this doughty soldier. The Presiding Officer, a Maj Gen Khanolkar, assisted by Brig BM Kaul amongst others, ended up with 26 charges against Pritam, ranging from murder, fraud, to stealing carpets. The C of I was ordered after the Army Commander had initially advised Gen Atma Singh against it, bringing out instead, that Pritam had done a brilliant job as Poonch garrison commander and deserved better. After subsequently telling Pritam as much, including making a statement that he would recommend him for a high award, Gen Atma had still gone ahead with the C of I.
Operation Easy; Poonch link-up
While these heart breaking activities were on, the defences of Poonch were strengthened by the day. Army Headquarters finally decided to launch Operation Easy (so codenamed to make the complex task look easy). A relieving force under Brig Yadunath Singh was assembled at Rajauri, which eventually grew to be division-sized, comprising 5 and 19 Infantry Brigade as well as “Rajauri Column” with supporting field artillery and two troops of Sherman tanks of the Central India Horse. Operations commenced on 1 November, 1948. The forces of Poonch garrison under the command of Lt. Col. Chandan Singh commenced a fighting break out from Poonch town towards Pir Topa on 19 November and after crossing Panj Kakrian Ridge reached Dhanna Ka Pir on 20 November. On 21 November 1948, link up was achieved. Poonch had been saved.
The Battle Casualties (BC) of the Azad Kashmir Regiment during 1947-1948 were 7301 as per Pakistani documents. The break down is: Killed: Officers 17, JCO’s 100, OR. 2516. Wounded: 4668. What is revealing is what the statistics reveal about the intensity of fighting in Poonch. As per the Pakistani web site of the Azad Kashmir Regiment, the District-wise breakdown of killed in action was: Muzafarabad 129, Poonch 1771, Mirpur and other Jammu districts 733. Figures for Northern Areas are not available. Source: History of the Azad Kashmir Regiment, Volume 1 (1947-1948).
General Courts Martial (GCM)
Post recording of the Summary of Evidence (S of E), the charges were reduced from 26 to 6, the rest being proved frivolous including the charge of murder. The GCM was presided over in early 1951 by Maj Gen JN Choudhury (later Chief of the Army Staff). Brig Pritam was found guilty of fraud of a small amount of money but absolved of the other charges. He lost his Independence Medal, his rank (he was only a temporary Brigadier, whereas an officer tried by GCM is tried in his substantive rank; in this case, the rank of Lt Col). His appeal against the award went unheard. It is believed that in later years he shifted to Panchkula. He died in 1978 at NOIDA, unknown and unlamented, except in the hearts and minds of the people of Poonch.
A Plea to those who sit in Power
Brig Pritam Singh, MC, like most great men who have adorned the pages of history, was a maverick. He was brave, selfless, a man who loved his country and its freedom above all. A stern, strict man who led by example, he placed himself at the service of the people of Poonch above all other considerations. 64 years on, the inhabitants of this town still remember with pride that when it was time to stand up and be counted, Brig Pritam Singh, MC, was unflinchingly their man. It is not without reason that his picture adorns every house in Poonch and those who lived through that year long ordeal and had a glimpse of soul, his resolve, courage and love for the country have passed on their deathless feelings for the man and his calling to the generations that have followed. Maybe the Supreme Commander of India’s Armed Forces can take the Mercy Petition of the people of Poonch to heart and reinstate Brig Pritam Singh, MC, in death, to the honour he so singularly deserves. Shrimati Pratibha Devisingh Patil, the Hon’ble President of India can forgive the officer his trespasses and reinstate his honour for posterity, for the people of Poonch and for India.
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