BATTLE of Longewala-Retold Lest it is forgotten

This Pakistani tank at Longewala, was hit at this very spot.
  • The Battle of Longewala was fought from 4-7th December 1971 near Jaisalmer. Here is an account of the war written from a military perspective. Where did the Pakistanis go wrong? Learnings for all.  

If there is one battle that could have had far reaching consequences   on the final outcome of the war, politically as well as militarily - it was Battle of Longewala.


Had India lost this battle on the night of 04 Dec/05 Dec 1971 the Pakistanis would have an easy run till Ramgarh and Jaisalmer and could have had an upper hand during negotiations? Remember what the then President of Pakistan had said; “The defense of East Pakistan lies in the West.” The primary objective of Pakistani forces was to hold out in East Pakistan until Pakistan gained some strategically important area in the West, which could then be used to bargain.


So, in that sense, the soldiers who doggedly fought on ground, and those pilots from the IAF (Indian Air Force) who relentlessly carried out air attacks and denied the enemy this opportunity and made them run, did a fabulous job. There can never be enough words to explain their sense of duty, their bravery, their determination and their sacrifice and hence it needs to be retold year after year, lest it is forgotten.


Fighting such a battle is every soldier’s dream and it’s not often that one gets such an opportunity.



The DESERTS are conducive for mobile warfare as it allows Tanks to move unhindered. It provides them vast expanses of waste land, which is largely flat and devoid of any obstacle. There are very few towns/ cities and as a result there are few connecting roads and tracks.


Deserts are, because of scare resources, a logistician’s nightmare. Hence, even sources of water are a tactically important place because the defender may like to deny to the enemy/ attacker.


It is therefore, natural, that there would be large gaps in the defenses as it is pointless to hold every mile. The logic is even if the attacker moves his forces cross country avoiding roads and tracks, he will have to still come and capture the communication center in order to move his hundreds of logistic transport vehicles on that road, in support of his attacking troops, otherwise, his offensive will come to a grinding halt.

Hence roads, communication centers and water sources become tactically important and are defended.


The communication centers, are defended like yester year forts that were established on Hill tops.


The infantry in defensive role is therefore, employed for holding defenses around these communication centers on Sand dunes and in order to enhance the defense potential of the position, they lay extensive anti-tank mines around their position, thereby denying the attacker a change to employ their tanks in the assault role.


In an Offensive operation, infantry is employed in the final assault, as the tanks cannot be employed, due to the Anti-Tank mines all around the defensive position. As a result, during the offensive operations, it becomes important for the infantry and tanks to move together, which is off course difficult in deserts. Hence, without infantry tagging alongside the armour, the tanks may become sitting ducks. This necessity, later on gave birth to Mechanized infantry, which could tag along with Tanks in tracked vehicles.


But in 1971, the infantry that was immediately required for the protection of tanks and contain enemy was carried on the tank turret, the rest could follow on the trucks, once the track is laid by Engineers as normal trucks cannot keep pace with the tanks in deserts and may get stuck in sand or it may walk cross country. The latter option is ostensibly time consuming and risky in a plain country.


Thus, in an offensive operation in plains/ deserts the tanks are employed, to move rapidly as deep as possible into enemy’s area, exploiting those large gaps in defenses, bye passing minor positions and surround/ isolate those major forts i.e. the communication centers in depth with the help of infantry which is carried on the tanks and later on capture them, with the help of follow up infantry.


In all the wars that we fought with Pakistan 1947-48, 1965, nothing noticeable happened in the deserts. There was a general belief on both sides that major operations were not feasible in Rajasthan and Sindh deserts. And hence it was thinly held. Consequently, Pakistan had 18 Infantry division deployed opposite us, defending strategically important town of Rahim Yar Khan. We had 12 Infantry division defending an area north of Jaisalmer of more than 200 kms frontage. In deserts, it is normal, because of the peculiar nature of terrain, as described above.


Rahimyar Khan is an important communication center and a major city of Pakistan’s Punjab province, located opposite the Indian 12 Infantry division and is much closer to the border than Jaisalmer is. These days, Rahimyar Khan is part of the green belt. What Sri Ganganagar is to India, Rahim yar khan is to Pakistan! However, things were not like this in 1971.


The main thrust of the Indian Army during the 1971 WAR was directed towards the Eastern theatre (East Pakistan), while in the Western sector the primary aim was to prevent the Pakistan Army from achieving any success that they could use in post-war negotiations.


Scenario on the eve of war

The planning for war had commenced much before 03 Dec 1971, when Pakistani fighter aircrafts carried out an air attack in the evening. So, it was already planned that in the event of hostilities, the Indian 12 Infantry division, leaving its minimum troops in defensive role, would launch bulk of its force from area Sadhewala-Tanot-Kishangarh to capture Rahimyar Khan, which would disrupt rail-road link from Lahore to Karachi.

Victory Tower at Tanot. Behind is Tanot Temple. 

This Division was concentrated further East at Tanot, preparing for a thrust. However, when the units of 12 Inf Division started receiving new vehicles, new equipment and the troops moved from their peace locations to Tanot etc, the intentions of 12 Infantry Division became evident to the Pakistan army, like the Indian army came to know about the Pakistan army’s intentions in Siachen because both the armies were buying high altitude winter clothing and other items for High Altitude from almost the same vendors.


Indian army commanders believed that large scale military operations were not feasible in the Rajasthan desert so there would be no significant opposition.


The Pakistani’s side also worked on similar assumptions and also expected that since the Jaisalmer air base had not been activated there will be hardly any threat from the air.


The Plan

The Pakistan army commanders, in pursuance of the Policy ; The Defense of East lies in West , decided to launch a pre-emptive strike to not only blunt Indian attack on Rahimyar Khan but also to capture strategically important towns, by carrying out a bold and swift armour-infantry thrust through the Reti-Longewala-Ramgarh-Jaisalmer axis, thereby exploiting the large gaps in defenses. The chances of success, they assumed, were high as the bulk of Indian infantry division was concentrated East of Tanot for the impending attack at Rahim Yar Khan.


Their objective was to capture Ramgarh and Jaisalmer, which were almost 30 and 100kms from the International Border.

Longewala to Jaisalmer. 

The tarmac road connecting Longewal to Ramgarh and then to Jaisalmer was of vital importance for the enemy to move their logistic transport, Fuel for tanks, Artillery ammunition, and Big Guns, to support the tanks and infantry that intended to capture Jaisalmer and Ramgarh.


So, whilst the tanks could move cross country over the sand dunes the logistics to support the tanks in Ramgarh and Jaisalmer needed wheeled trucks which need a road.


However, the area between the international border and Longewala and further towards Sadhewalla was a high-density sand dune area.

Indo-Pak Border Floodlights.

The Indian army commanders had ruled out the possibility of any major armour threat originating from this sector . T his view has prevailed even till the 80s, when the author had an opportunity to serve there.


The sand dunes in this area are of loose sand and huge with steep gradients thereby making it difficult for even tanks, known for their cross-country mobility, to maneuver around these slippery sand dunes.


So, although, Longewala was barely 12-15 kms from the border and had a connecting tarmac road to Ramgarh, the possibility of any major tank threat originating from this sector was ruled out. .


During peace time it was guarded by a BSF company.


So, ostensibly, it was an excellent but an audacious plan to out flank the Indian Defenses and take the Indian army by surprise.


Pakistan Plan

Employ one armored regiment with an infantry battalion to capture Ramgarh and another armoured regiment with an Infantry battalion to move to Jaisalmer and capture it.


Initially, the plan was to bye-pass Longewala but subsequently realising its importance, they decided that it should be isolated and captured by 206 Infantry Brigade less a Battalion which would follow the advance and capture Longewala and establish a firm base.

Situation on Indian side at Longewala

Just prior to the war in 1971, as is the practice even now, the defences were reorganised and so the Longewala post was vacated by the BSF and occupied by “A” Company of 23 Punjab (about 120 soldiers) led by its Company Commander Major (later Brigadier) Kuldip Singh Chandpuri. The rest of the Battalion was moved to Sadhewala to eliminate a Pakistani border outpost, so as to facilitate the main attack of the 12 Infantry Division for the capture of Rahimyar Khan.


As the BSF was occupying Longewala as a Border Out Post, its defences were not well developed. There were no obstacles ahead of the Defences; No mines and no barbed wire. However, the Post was located on a Dominating Sand Dune.


There was, fortunately, a single strand of wire that was strung around the post by the BSF to deter their camels from straying. This wire later helped the Indian troops immensely as the Pakistanis seeing this wire, believed that a minefield existed around the post. 


The company of 23 Punjab in addition to its integral small arms, had two medium machine guns and two 81 mm mortars.


The Longewala post also had a battery of the 170th Field Regiment in Direct Support that was located at Saddhewala.


As regards the Airforce , a training flight of four Hunter fighters was moved from Jamnagar to Jaisalmer and formed into an ad-hoc squadron. Wing Commander (later Air Marshal) MS Bawa was the base commander. The primary role of this ad hoc arrangement was air defense. Allotment for offensive air support was never envisaged even for the attack planned by Indian army for the capture of Rahim Yar Khan. So, both sides were convinced that there will not be any air opposition and so had not planned for it in their operations.


Consequently, Pakistan army decided to undertake this audacious operation without air support including ground air defense of their own.


As the Indian attack could not go beyond its launch pad but Pakistan’s plan did, they paid dearly for overlooking this important aspect.


The Action Commences

Pakistan started the war on the evening of 3 December, 1971.


And soon thereafter, Company Commander Maj Kuldip Singh Chandpuri sent a strong patrol of a Platoon strength to the International Border under Lt Dharam Vir Singh.


On 4 December evening, this patrol which was near the IB, heard sounds of tanks on Pakistan’s side and so he immediately informed his company commander. Obviously, no one would have believed this information so the CO of 23 Punjab must have asked him to confirm it as no one in its wildest of dreams could have imagined a major tank threat from this sector. But when the patrol leader assured them, that he could see the dust and roar of hundreds of tanks as they neared the IB, Maj Kuldip Singh must have raised his voice and CO, would have thumped the table of the Brigade Commander. Kudos to the Commanding Officer of 23 Punjab Lt Col Khursheed Hussain who finally prevailed over the Brigade Commander to send an Air OP , under Maj Atma Singh, who observed from air hundreds of Pakistani tanks moving towards the IB.


However, it was still too early to take a decision and work out the precise objective of these enemy tanks. Because, attack on Longewala for Indian Commanders was still a distinct possibility.


Meanwhile, as it turned dark, the Patrol Leader Lt Dharam Vir could now observe in front of him a large force of tanks and infantry crossing the border. He stealthily shadowed the enemy force using the cover of sand dunes. He could now construe that this large force of tanks was heading towards Longewala. He continued to inform his company commander who in turn must have kept the CO informed.


The CO was now caught in a precarious situation. He was in no position to take a unilateral decision and send reinforcements to Longewala as his Battalion was poised for a different task; Capture of Pakistani BOP, which was part of the Division task. Any unilateral decision would jeopardize the Division’s operational plan and sending reinforcements to Longewala could have only been possible with the concurrence of higher ups; Brigade Commander/GOC. Moreover, sending reinforcements to Longewala was a race against time. If the reinforcements that would be vehicle bound do not reach on time they would find themselves in a precarious situation. Moreover, there were no tanks available with the formation that could match Pakis Pattons. It must have been a Catch 22 situation for the Commanding Officer.


However, the CO, 23 Punjab, Lt Col Khursheed Hussain decided to send the two RCLs, (Recoilless), Anti tank Jeep mounted guns to Longewala to support the beleaguered company. He must have surely kept his fingers crossed till they reached Longewala.


By now Major Kuldip Singh realized the enormity of the task as he was facing an enemy many times more in numbers; atleast 45 tanks and 1000 infantry men. He had hardly any choice left, with tanks just approaching him, he could not with his 120 men attempted a planned withdrawal on foot and that too in a desert.


Had he taken this approach, he and his troops would have been massacred by the enemy tanks as the tanks would have caught them in an absolutely indefensible position. So, he had only one choice; FIGHT.


Reportedly, Maj Chandpuri was given this choice of a tactical withdrawal. But, realizing the dangers of this withdrawal in deserts against tanks, he opted to fight it out.


Fortunately, as part of Engineer stores, he had anti tank mines which could not be laid due to paucity of time, as his company had just taken over the defenses from BSF. Hence, he ordered his men to throw those mines ahead in front of the defenses. There was no time available to lay those mines properly. Some of them were thrown even without arming them, implying that they would not have blasted even if the tank had passed over them.


Meanwhile, the artillery battery which was in direct support of the Unit started bringing down fire on the enemy but that was not very accurate as there was no Arty OP posted with the company.


By mid-night the enemy tanks closed in to the defenses at Longewala and brought down fire on the Company defenses. Pakistani medium artillery also opened up from across the border with, killing five of the ten camels from the BSF detachment.


Napoleon had once remarked; “Ability is of little value without opportunity, I had rather my generals be lucky than able.”


So, as the column of enemy tanks neared the post, the tanks halted when they saw that strand of wire, the same one, which the BSF had strung around, in order to prevent its camels from straying into open desert. As the minefields are always marked by a barbed wire so as to prevent own troops straying into it, the enemy tank men construed that this is an anti-tank minefield, So they stopped.


The enemy was not envisaging any worthwhile opposition so they were surprised by the minefield and in order to confirm they switched on the Headlights of the tanks. And to their surprise they could see the anti tank mines lying in open. Naturally, a thought must have occurred in their minds; if there are so many in open , as to how many would be buried under the earth.


Hence, the enemy tanks who had intended to overrun the BOP at Longewala came to an abrupt halt and waited for their infantry to launch an assault.


However at night, with heavy accurate fire coming from Longewala company defenses from an elevated position, it was not easy for the infantry battalion whose troops have been carried on a tank turret for 20 kms to gather their wits and reorganize so early to attack the defenses.


Meanwhile, another out of the ordinary happened that night.  The two RCL Jeeps that were sent to the beleaguered company by the CO, drove through the enemy tanks with head lights blazing and entered the company defenses past mid night. Hats off to the courage and ingenuity of those men driving the Jeeps and the RCL Commander.


This bolstered the anti-tank capability of the beleaguered company. The RCL guns knocked down a few tanks and that caused the extra fuel barrel loaded on tanks for the march ahead also caught fire. This made the task of Maj Kuldip Singh further easy as the whole battle field on the enemy side was now illuminated and his MMGs and RCLs could now bring down accurate fire on enemy’s infantry as well as tanks which was trying to form up for the attack.


This fire also created a dense smoke screen that added to confusion in the enemy lines and further delayed their assault.


The RCLs proved quite effective because they could hit at the thinner top armour of the Pakistani tanks from their elevated defensive position. They destroyed 12 tanks.

Although massively outnumbering the Indian defenders and having surrounded the Indian company of barely 100 odd men, the Pakistani troops were unable to advance over open terrain on a full-moon night. This speaks volumes about the grit and determination of an INFANTRY COMPANY–ALPHA COMPANY OF 23 PUNJAB.


By the time the Engineers of Pakistan Army came and could ascertain under heavy fire that this was no mine field it was already morning.


The Action from Air

By then Wing Cdr Bajwa was ready with his hunters and waiting desperately for the first light at the Jaisalmer air field. As soon as the first sun rays lightened up the sky, the Hunters took off from Jaisalmer air field and made a mincemeat of enemy tanks. The tanks without any air cover from their air force and any worthwhile air defense of their own were like sitting ducks.


The IAF Hunters flew sorties after sorties, they were only four but they refueled, rearmed and returned at such regularity that Pakistani tanks and trucks following them had no respite throughout the day. The tanks without the air defense ran around in circles to lift the dust so as to create a screen but it did not help them much in day time.


The enemy tried to marshal the troops and tanks for assault on the Post even during the day but the Hunters made sure that the Pakistanis do not succeed in this endeavor.

The Pakistanis because of the relentless action by the IAF Hunters left their tanks and vehicles stuck in loose sand and ran back to their side of International Border. 

Pic tells story as to how Pakistani tanks circled around to evade air attack. 

A Pakistani Radio message intercepted on 05 Dec says it all;

“The enemy air force has been creating havoc. One aircraft leaves, and another comes and stays overhead for twenty minutes. Forty per cent troops and tanks have been destroyed, injured or damaged. Further advance has become very difficult. Send Air Force for help as soon as possible otherwise even a safe withdrawal would be difficult.” 


Why did Pakistan Lose?

When I was attending the Staff course at DSSC Wellington, one of my course mates a Bangladeshi officer during a light hearted conversation after a Sand model discussion boasted that he is the only one here who has attended staff course with all our adversaries ; The Chinese as well as the Pakistan army. When I asked him about the difference he experienced. He remarked;


“The curriculum is by and large the same in Pakistan Staff College and Chinese Staff College but the Pakistan army encourages its officers to be unconventional in their plans, whereas, your training staff in India is very conventional in its approach, it discourages to be unconventional”.


His statement reminded me of Longewala Battle. Ostensibly, Pakistan has launched some very bold operations and has taken us by surprise in 1947, 1965, 1971 and even at Kargil.


But each time it lost because it overlooked some basic aspects-

1. A plan can be audacious and bold but the same can be executed with the similar audacity by the troops only when they have the where with all to execute that plan. 


They forgot the principle that the armed forces learnt in WW II; One who controls the sky controls the ground beneath. 


Consequently, they did not cater for any air support for its ground forces and as a result barely four hunters could play merry hell with their ground troops. Pakistan lost over 200 soldiers, 34 tanks, and hundreds of armoured vehicles and trucks. On the Indian side, only 2 men were killed.


Bravo. The plan may sound exciting but to make infantry march 200 kms prior to the FINAL ASSAULT is not an audacious but a stupid plan. In order to achieve surprise the Pakistanis ordered an approach march to the IB from its concentration area South of Reti on the night of 03 December so that they would thereafter cross IB on the night 04 December, and then continue moving towards Ramgarh and Jaisalmer. This is almost an impossible march of 200 kms in the desert. So, by the early hours of 4 December they were still almost 30 kms away from IB.


No wonder, the exhausted troops could not launch a coordinated attack on any of these objectives given to them. They marched Hundred Km and got rogered.


2. Undermining the audacity of the Indian troops is one big blunder Pakis have been committing again and again. Perhaps this myth of Islamic superiority has gone too deep into their veins. 


3. It is not understood why the armoured column that was tasked to move to Ramgarh and capture Ramgarh, bye passing Longewala, did not continue its advance and got involved at Longewala. 


May be, the commander of that Task force was a bit reluctant to move ahead without Longewala being secured. He might have felt that his troops, after reaching Ramgarh, would be placed in a dangerous situation i.e. without their rear being protected.


4. Moreover, it’s easy to order Infantry to be piggy bagged on tanks but at night to launch a coordinated attack immediately after experiencing the shocks and jerks while travelling on the turret of a tank for 20 odd kms is a daunting task, more so in deserts where some of them might have lost their orientation. 


Perhaps, that’s what happened with the Baluch Battalion whose troops were carried on the turret till Longewala.


5. The objectives and troops assigned to achieve those near impossible objectives were changed many a times by the Pakistanis which resulted in chaos, confusion and low morale. For instance;


“On 04 December, GOC 18 Infantry Division on a representation from Commander 206 Infantry Brigade, that the tanks of 38 Cavalry were mechanically unsound the Divisional Commander gave the task to neutralise Jaisalmer airfield to 28 Baluch (Recce and Support Battalion of 18 Division less company, with two additional companies from 206 Infantry Brigade). Later at the suggestion of Commander 51 Infantry Brigade the mission to Jaisalmer was abandoned.” 


“At about 0900 hrs one squadron of 22 Cavalry and two companies of 38 Baluch had again formed up to attack but the Brigade Commander came over and called it off”.


6. The enemy, in their haste and over confidence, allowed their armour to overshoot the Infantry and also did not allocate enough air resources for their thrust to Longewala.


As a result, once they hit the assumed minefield the whole operation got stuck in the loose sand of Longewala.



Yes, the claim by Pakistani army that they halted Indian Army attack and saved capture of Rahim Yar Khan can be accepted with a pinch of salt.


Secondly, is it not surprising that Maj Kuldip Singh Chandpuri’s company had only two casualties despite being heavily outnumbered numerically and in terms of quality of equipment. The Pakistanis had Chinese tanks and US Pattons, where as we had none. This puts the enemy’s fighting capabilities in doubt.


The enemy although surrounded the post but could kill only two, implying they were never able to bring down effective fire on the Company defenses. Even the enemy’s Medium artillery might have been inaccurate.


Bravo. Perhaps their morale was low or they lacked faith in the ambitious plan of their senior commanders and hence did not fight to their fullest potential. As a result, the moment they saw the strand of wire the tanks halted and infantry that was purposely carried on tank turret, took hours to reorganize and failed to launch even a single coordinated attack on a full moon light. The tanks halted instead of bye passing Longewala and moving on towards their assigned objective; Ramgarh, is an indicator that there was something more than what meets the eye.


It was an excellent plan that surprised the Indian army but could not be executed with the same flair by the Pakistani troops.

Memorial at Longewala in honour of 23 Punjab. 

So, there is a lesson for all;

You can send the troops to a battle field but cannot make them fight.


Just a caution here, we may have to face similar challenges with the AGNIVEERS. In next 10 years, bulk of Indian army will comprise of Four Year Contract; AGNIVEERS.


In the battle of skill over technology and brain over brawn, the former has always prevailed and the most recent examples of this is Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, manning a MiG-21 Bison, who shot down a much more technologically advanced F-16 in a dogfight.


After the Kargil war Gen Malik, the then Chief of Army while explaining the cause of Pakistani defeat, also said the same;


“The Pakistanis have always primarily relied on their equipment, which has led to their downfall on each occasion. We have beaten them time and again not due to weapons but by exemplary leadership and innovative battleground thinking of our men.”


In view of the above, this age old dictum still holds good;

“It`s not the machine but the man behind the machine that counts” And the Longewala battle bears testimony to this.


Last but not the least, this victory on 05th Dec, right in the initial days of the war must have boosted the morale of the whole Nation , leave aside the armed forces. If for Pakistan the defense of East lied in West, for India the Victory on the West assured Victory in the East too. 

Author Col N Bhatnagar (veteran) is an alumnus of NDA, Prestigious Def Services Staff College and XLRI, Jamshedpur. He served in Indian army as an Infantry Officer in all parts of the country and also in Sri Lanka and has also worked with Reputed Companies-Power, Hospitality and Health Care sector. He has also worked as a National Assessor of CII for its CII-EXIM Bank Award and authored three Books. 


Also read by author How Srinagar was saved in 1947

To read all articles by author

To buy book books by author


Battle pictures and maps provided by author. Others by Sanjeev Nayyar.  Purpose of writing is self-less sharing.  


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