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The might of the Thambis

The Indian armed forces are celebrating the golden jubilee of their victory in the 1965 war. This is an occasion to remember a memorable battle a battalion of the Madras Regiment fought and won during the closing hours of that war, 50 years ago to this month.

The Ichhogil Canal, or the Bambanwalla Ravi Bedian Link (BRBL) as Pakistan calls it, is a defence obstacle it built in the 1950s along the Indian border linking the Ravi in the north and the Sutlej in the south. Some 45 metres wide and 5 m deep with its western bank built higher, lined with bunkers overlooking the eastern bank, it was primarily designed to block an Indian advance on Lahore, barely 12 miles away.

In early September 1965, once India chose to go on the offensive and open new fronts to counter the Pakistani offensive in Jammu and Kashmir, the thrust of the Indian Army’s XI Corps towards Lahore was under way. By September 10, the troops and tanks had overrun the township of Barki, barely 500 m short of Ichhogil, around which the Pakistani defences of the canal were concentrated. Abandoning their positions, the Pakistanis withdrew into their bunkers on the western bank and blew up the bridge over the canal to check pursuit. However, during the ensuing melee, before the Indian troops could consolidate their hold on the east bank, they managed to reoccupy a part of the bund with a sizeable force. They hadn’t been dislodged till September 22 when the deadline was fixed for ceasefire from the following day.

Advance guard

The 9th Battalion of the Madras Regiment forming part of 65 Infantry Brigade under 7 Infantry Division of the Corps, which had been with the advance guard of the formation before the assault on Barki, was then holding the firm base for attack by the other two battalions of the brigade, 4 Sikh and 16 Punjab. The battalion, which was short of one Rifle Company that had been diverted elsewhere, was ordered at short notice to attack and evict the enemy from the bund.

It was a tricky mission that required the unit to assault in waves of one company at a time from the flank. The enemy, two-company strong, was entrenched along the bund with fire support from their comrades across the canal barely 150 feet away. Nevertheless, the battalion, with an abundance of young Thambis — as southern soldiers are affectionately referred to within the Army — and an equally young leadership, made short work of it with a lightning charge that bordered on the reckless. Guns and tanks backed them with steady covering fire to neutralise the enemy on the far bank. The enemy was virtually routed. A number of them jumped into the canal to escape the assault, while many were lifted and thrown in, if not shot down or bayoneted. It was all over in two hours and 30 minutes from the word go at 12-30 a.m. on September 23. By 3 a.m. the bund had been overrun. The enemy casualties were heavy: 48 dead and an estimated 80 washed away. Eleven, including an officer, were taken prisoner. An enormous amount of arms and ammunition, including two anti-tank guns, was captured. Indian casualties were heavy too; 49 including a JCO killed, and 65, including an officer, wounded.

Night of heroism

It was a night of heroism, layered with glorious acts and poignant scenes. There were two jawans of the lead platoon, Narayanan and Bhaskaran, who volunteered to silence a machine gun and crawled forward in the darkness. The gun was silenced in 20 minutes, but in the heat of the battle no one noticed their absence. They were found later, sprawled dead in front of the pillbox that housed the weapon. Sepoys Mallappan and Ramachandran were found frozen to death in sitting posture manning their machine gun, one on the weapon and the other belt-feeding.

The Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel B.K. Sathyan, was up on the bund, cheering his men. The night air was rent by the battle cry of the Madrassis, adi, kollu, or, strike, kill. The medical truck plied up and down, picking up the casualties, with the popular Medical NCO, ‘Rasam’ Thankappan, at the wheel.

The 9th Madrassis call themselves the ‘Terrors’ — that’s just what the Pakistanis found them to be that night. And for the battalion, which traces its origins to the erstwhile Travancore State Forces, it was quite an Onam, the traditional Malayali festival that the men of the whole Madras Regiment celebrate with zest in August-September.

Exploits over centuries

The history of 9 Madras is as fascinating as its exploits in the battlefield for over three centuries. Raised in 1704 as the Nair Pattaalam — later Nair Brigade — by the sovereign of Venad (later Travancore), it is the oldest unit in the Indian Army. The Nair Brigade under King Marthanda Varma trounced the invading Dutch forces in a decisive battle on August 10, 1741 at Colachel, putting an end to their imperialistic dreams in India; it was the first-ever victory achieved by an Indian native force over the Europeans. A number of Dutch officers were taken prisoner, among them Eustace Benedict de Lannoy, who was later to train the Travancore Army on modern European lines.

This army defeated Tipu Sultan’s forces in the Battle of Nedumkotta in December 1789, a battle which stemmed the Mysorean onslaught on Travancore. It left Tipu permanently lame. Though downsized and relegated to do police work following Travancore’s unsuccessful revolt against British domination in 1809 led by Velu Thampi Dalawa, it was later resurrected. In 1934 the Travancore State Force was formed by merging the Nair Brigade with the Maharaja’s Body Guard.

They saw action in Burma and West Asia during the Second World War under the British and were, after Independence, amalgamated with the Indian Army as the 9th and 16th Battalions of the Madras Regiment respectively. Both these battalions, now composed of troops from all over southern India, have fought with distinction in the wars Independent India fought. While 9 Madras crowned itself with glory at Ichhogil Bund in 1965, 16 Madras gave an equally brilliant account of itself in the Battle of Basantar in 1971.

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Printable version | Oct 22, 2021 5:11:10 PM |

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