Forgotten Sunrise: Shiv Kunal Verma's Epic History of the Second Kashmir War
1965: A Western Sunrise. Aleph Book Company, 2021. 926 pages
It sounds like a fantasy combat video game scenario. At the Battle of Asal Uttar, Pakistan had American M-47 and M-48 Patton tanks, while India had British Centurion tanks and some French AMX-13s, but both sides also used American Sherman tanks as well (see photo). Facing the superior Centurions, Pakistani infantry tried out the very first European-made anti-tank missiles. Overhead, Pakistani pilots in F-86 Sabres tangled with Indians flying Folland Gnats, but both sides used Canberra bombers from different nations of origin.
No proxy war, this clash of ‘nonaligned’ postcolonial powers with a la carte armaments had nothing to do with Cold War politics. In 1965, America was busy replacing France as the guarantor of South Vietnamese sovereignty, and the UK was still managing the decolonization of Southeast Asia and Africa. Their disinterest in taking sides left both Pakistan and India feeling spurned by their sponsors.
The intractable Indo-Pakistan conflict has only ever mattered to them. One result of this inattention is that English-language historiography on these battles has always suffered for a dearth of primary sources. As a result, the Indo-Pakistan War of 1965, also known as the Second Kashmir War, has not received due recognition in academic or popular military histories of the post-World War II era.
Military historan and documentarian Shiv Kunal Verma is the right person to fill this lacuna, at least on the Indian side. He has personally interviewed scores of pilots and soldiers, annotated memoirs, and searched through countless files. Aside from the odd cricket reference that will slip past Americans, his new work is an eminently readable and comprehensive combat history.
Picking up where he left off with his previous English work 1962: The War That Wasn’t, Verma shows how the sudden collapse of Indian forces in the high Himalayas tempted Pakistani leaders into aggression three years later. The very brief border conflict with China had exposed a hollow Indian Army command structure. But that also left New Delhi eager to strike a hard blow which would deter further attacks.
Neither side wanted a general war or a prolonged one. Both ultimtely chose a limited war. Escalations were responsive, especially in the air. Bad assumptions, mutual contempt, and flawed decision-making on both sides led first to the war, and then the missed opportunities in that war, leaving neither side satisfied — and both sides claiming victory.
Beginning with skirmishes in the Rann of Kutch during April, escalating when the Indian Army slaughtered a substantial cross-border force of Pakistanis dressed in civilian clothing, culminating in the bloody battles at Dograi, Barki, Khem Karan, and Chawinda, it was all over by November. Neither government had distinguished themselves and neither had the army commands. A patriot, Verma is nevertheless unstinting in his judgment of civilian and military leaders on both sides.
However, the bulk of his new book goes beyond the political history of all this operational stupidity. Mostly, 1965: A Western Sunrise is a record of tactical brilliance and individual heroism in a very contemporary, state-of-the-art conflict. That point is most manifest in the last section of Verma’s book as he reveals the shape of the electronic battlefield in 1965.
Although the IAF did not shine in this war, they did carry out a brilliant mission to attack the Pakistani early warning radar at Badin. On the other hand, India had only one radar set, a Soviet-made P-30(M) operated by 230 Signal unit operated at Amritsar, positioned to see inside Pakistani airspace and give early warning of enemy activity. It was the keystone to India’s entire air defense plan.
Going by the call sign Fish Oil, this plucky radar system survived 29 Pakistani missions to destroy it. One failed attempt on Fish Oil struck a decoy constructed from a phonograph turntable and a spare cot; the Pakistani press reported this as a great victory. Thanks to the skill of its crew, the radar was never out of action for more than a few hours as a result of any attack.
However, the Indian Air Force suffered from second-class status within the Indian military command structure, while the Army made no attempt to integrate air operations into its offensives. The story of Gen. Niranjan Prasad is poignant. He called attention to this shortcoming in prewar exercises only to be ignored and then scapegoated in defeat by Gen. Harbakhsh Singh and Gen. Mucchu Chaudhuri.
By contrast, the Pakistani Air Force was fully committed to interdiction and close air support missions in support of ground forces throughout the war, a glaring contrast of values. In the final days before the cease fire, the PAF made a questionable shift to bombing civilian areas, such as the town of Amritsar. Casualties and losses mounted as the IAF slowly came into its strength and began targeting Pakistani logistics. Overall, however, the PAF can justify their claim to a superior performance throughout the war because India did not seem to know how to use their air forces. For Verma, this lack of attention to combined arms “borders on the criminal.”
Indian artillery was also absent too much of the time, whereas “the Pakistani artillery was in a league of its own altogether. While all the pre-war hype centered around the F-104s and F-86 Sabres, and of course, the ‘invincible’ Pattons, the real backbone of the Pakistan Army was its heavy, medium, and light guns with seemingly unlimited ammunition, that played havoc with Indian advances,” Verma concludes.
Although he does not suggest the relationship, American doctrinal training explains this differential performance. Calls for fire are a fundament of the US infantry and armor training doctrines that go with American weaponry. After reading Verma’s sad litany of Indian small-unit actions under fire, it is clear that Pakistan’s American-style application of firepower forestalled a general defeat. That Pakistan exhausted 80 percent of their artillery ammunition supply, and India only 10 percent, is not so much a sign of faded strength as total dominance in this key phase of every battle.
Despite incredible heroism, Indian attacks without artillery or air support went exactly as one would expect. Even if a surprise attack succeeded, the position would immediately come under heavy fire, whereas any attack the Pakistanis detected would be hit by accurate gunnery as it attacked the position. Pakistan also dominated the counterbattery battle with American-made radars.
As a result, India had superior troop numbers but inferior firepower. Pakistan suffered marginally higher casualties, yet they stopped the Indian offensive well short of Lahore.
A few weeks after it began, both sides were eager to halt major combat operations. However, Pakistan continued attempts to infiltrate partisan forces into Indian territory until the next year. This was a conscious imitation of Maoist doctrine combining guerilla and conventional warfare, though it was a much less successful derivation than Dau Tranh, Ho Chi Minh’s strategy in Hanoi. Despite these failures at planting armed revolt across the disputed international boundary (IB) left by Partition and their first great clash of arms in 1947, 1965 was an early laboratory for later asymmetric conflicts, not just with India but in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Verma personally documented one of these, the Kargil War of 1999. His career as a military historian is built on the contacts and relationships that give one access to normally-secret archives, such as radio signals intelligence (SIGINT) reports on Pakistani tactical communications in 1965.
The Second Kashmir War was larger than its eponymous region. It raged over a vast, diverse landscape of high mountain valleys, scrubby deserts, verdant sugarcane fields, and low coastal swamps. By necessity, the narrative pauses and returns to various scenes, never dwelling anywhere for very long, but always with an eye for the details that tell the larger story. Recommended for summer military reading lists and tank combat afficianados, Shiv Kunal Verma has made a welcome addition to the western library on this understudied conflict.