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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

CQMH Abdul Hamid – the Hero of Asal Uttar



As the COAS visits the village of CQMH Abdul Hamid, PVC on the 52nd anniversary of his epic anti-tank battle, here is an extract from my book “Brave Men of War” about the hero of Asal Uttar.

In an Infantry Company, the Company Quarter Master Havildar (CQMH) is responsible for the logistics – rations, clothing, and other necessities troops need to keep fighting. An essential but not very glamorous job when there’s a war going on, because it keeps you away from the battle itself. Abdul Hamid, the newly appointed CQMH of C Company, 4 Grenadiers, was therefore only too happy when he was ordered to return to the role he had recently been in – that of a 106mm RCL anti-tank gun detachment commander. This was only in order, as he was one of the most experienced RCL gunners in the battalion, having spent five of his nine years of service in the anti-tank detachment. Preferring the glory and adventure of a soldier’s life over his family profession of tailoring, he had joined the army in 1954. He was a veteran of the 1962 war, and had witnessed many of his close friends and comrades falling to the Chinese onslaught at Namka Chu. Abdul Hamid himself was one of the few who succeeded in making a fighting breakaway and survive the battle. Now was his chance to prove himself in another war, and he was glad he wasn’t going to spend it supplying rations.

The battalion, 4 Grenadiers, had been part of the 4 Mountain Division offensive and had successful in securing the Theh Pannu Bridge, its objective, on 6 September. It had even managed to hold on to its objective through heavy enemy shelling and attacks supported by tanks. But then the entire division was ordered to withdraw and establish a defensive sector around village Asal Uttar, as a major Pakistani offensive was anticipated in this area. C Company was deployed on the road leading from Asal Uttar towards Bhikiwind and onwards to Amritsar, near a small village called Chima. They reached this area on the night of 7 September and spent the night digging trenches in the fields close to the village. The standing sugarcane crop was a great help, because the enemy would not be able to spot them easily from ground or from the air.

Crouching in the shallow trenches which were all they could hurriedly dig during the night, the men of 4 Grenadiers heard the rumbling of what seemed to be a large column of enemy tanks heading in their direction at 0730 hours on 8th  September. They could make out some dust at a distance, but could not see the tanks, as visibility was very low. This suited them because it meant that the tanks would not be able to spot them either. Soon the ground started rumbling as artillery shells started landing all around them. Exploding shells spewed deadly shrapnel along with clouds of smoke and dust, restricting the visibility further. In the next few hours the enemy had overrun some positions of 1/9 Gorkha Rifles, the forward battalion, and an attack on the Grenadiers’ position became imminent.

C Company was being commanded by Lt HR Janu, a young officer whose enthusiasm and grit made up for the relative lack of experience. Actually, the battalion was in the process of moving to a new location on the Tibet border when the sudden orders to mobilise for war came. As a result, most of the Company Commanders were away to the new location, and throughout the war the companies were led by young officers or senior JCOs. The young Company Commander ordered Abdul Hamid to deploy his RCL detachment on the road leading to Chima village, and the rest of the company to hold their fire. He was relying on surprise provided by the concealment of the company in the tall sugarcane fields to allow the tanks to get into their range before discovering their presence. Since the tanks had a much longer firing range, if they spotted the infantry before coming into the shorter range of the latter’s weapons, the tanks could engage them with impunity without fear of return fire.

Abdul Hamid and his RCL crew took up a concealed position and waited with growing anticipation as the rumbling steel monsters seemed to grow bigger and bigger in size as they approached. The ground under them trembled and the dust raised by artillery shelling made breathing difficult. It was a different thing to fire during practice on the ranges at empty fuel barrels painted to look like an enemy tank, but this was the first time they were almost face-to-face with an actual steel monster. Unlike the barrels, it could fire back at them, or even close in and crush them to oblivion. The crew was well trained, and knew that it was imperative to hit the tank on the first shot, otherwise the tank crew would spot them and fire back immediately, and they had no protection against the deadly tank fire. And even if they did get a first shot kill, they would need to immediately change their position to avoid being fired upon by the other tanks.

The crew spotted three tanks advancing menacingly through the fields, their guns traversing slightly to the left and right as the gunner sitting inside scanned for threats and targets. Abdul Hamid raised his hand to alert the crew and gave orders for the gunner to engage the leading tank. They waited with bated breath as the RCL fired, and within seconds they saw the flash of its round hitting the enemy tank. Saying a silent prayer, the crew quickly jumped into the jeep and the driver reversed it with practised ease as Abdul Hamid pointed to the next selected firing position. But they did not need to fire from the second position as the crew of the other two abandoned their tanks and fled on seeing the first one being hit. The Pakistani attack seemed to have been stalled for the time being.

The attack resumed after two hours, led by two troops of tanks. Abdul Hamid and his crew went into action, knocking down another enemy tank with similar effect on the crews of the surviving tanks, who either abandoned their tanks, or withdrew. A third attack came in around 1430 hours, but this was on B Company and was beaten back by them. By nightfall the Pakistanis seemed to have had enough for the day, and though they had not been able to capture any of the Grenadiers’ posts, they had caused casualties and kept the ‘Grinders’ on their toes. Abdul Hamid and his crew had had quite a successful day – their tally was two enemy tanks destroyed and four abandoned by the crew. They spent a large part of the night tending to and cleaning the gun, getting it ready for what they expected to be another day of hard fighting. The night also gave the engineers an opportunity to plant some scattered anti-tank mines ahead of the defences.

The next day, 9th September, played out to a similar script, with Pakistanis repeatedly trying to rush the Grenadier defences with their tanks leading, and the defenders holding steadfast. Abdul Hamid and his detachment destroyed two more enemy tanks and several more fell prey to the anti-tank mines.

On 10th September there was an apprehensive air of anticipation throughout the battalion, as by now they had realised that this was a major offensive. The battalion came under heavy shelling again in the morning, and they expected the enemy infantry to attack. Every man was manning his trench, weapon cocked and ready. But instead of an infantry attack, the Pakistani tanks made yet another attempt at overrunning the defences. A troop of three tanks were spotted moving astride the road while heavy artillery shelling tried to suppress the Indian anti-tank weapons. Undeterred, the irrepressible RCL crew under Abdul Hamid got its fifth and sixth kills, quickly changing their positions after each kill despite the artillery shells raining all around them.

In the third engagement, the intensity of artillery fire was so heavy that it was extremely difficult to man the RCL gun. Abdul Hamid ordered his crew to take cover from the shelling while he operated the gun himself, laying it on the advancing enemy tank. Single-handedly loading and firing the weapon, he got his seventh kill. He did not have the luxury of changing position now, as the following tank had apparently already spotted them, and was traversing his gun towards them. Abdul Hamid quickly reloaded the gun and took aim at the tank. He fired and so did the tank, almost simultaneously. Abdul Hamid got his eighth tank kill, but paid for it with his life.

The nation recognised his bravery with the award of the highest gallantry award, the Param Vir Chakra. Even today, a memorial marks the place near the Chima village on the road from Bhikkiwind to where Abdul Hamid fought his epic battle against Pakistani tanks and was martyred. Abdul Hamid’s RCL jeep is displayed at the Grenadiers Regimental Centre at Jabalpur in his honour.

For more stories of heroes of the 1965 Indo Pak War see “Brave Men of War – Tales of Valour 1965″

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