Battle of Basantar- the fiercest tank battle fought in history of Indian armed forces.
Just how fierce can be gauged from the fact that Pakistan lost a staggering 48 Patton tanks in the epic battle that took place in its own territory, completely wiping out its 8 (Independent) Armoured Brigade. In fact, by the end of the war, India’s Black Arrow Brigade (comprising the Poona Horse and Hodson’s Horse regiments) had won 79 gallantry awards to become the most highly decorated formation of the Indian Army!
With one Param Vir Chakra, 5 Maha Vur Chakra and 12 Vir Chakra.
Here’s the story of the legendary battle and the hero who led India to a thumping victory.
“Whenever I see the Famagusta, I remember Arun saheb, my commander, who fought like a tiger”, says Nathu Singh.
During the Indo-Pak War of 1971, Nathu Singh served as the gunner of this historic tank under the command of 21-year-old Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal – who died in his arms.
Hon.Capt. Nathu Singh while taking part in the Basantar day celebrations, Described the mixed feelings evoked in him by the sight of Famagusta JX 202 — the historic Centurion Mark 7 tank that decimated seven Pakistani Pattons during the greatest tank battle fought by the Indian Army – the Battle of Basantar.
The incredibly courageous Khetarpal, who belonged to the Poona Horse regiment, was posthumously awarded the Param Vir Chakra for his actions during the fiercely-fought Battle of Basantar.
When the Pakistan Air Force launched pre-emptive strikes on Indian airfields on the eve of December 3, 1971, India immediately responded by formally declaring war in the wee hours of December 4.
Hours later, IAF Canberra aircrafts struck Pakistani airfields as ground battles immediately commenced in nearly every sector.
Arun Khetarpal had just joined the Indian Army as a second lieutenant when he was called to the war front in 1971. Born on October 14, 1950, in Pune, he came from a family with a long tradition of service in the army. His grandfather served in the British Indian army during World War I and Arun’s father, Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal, served in Indian Army’s Engineering Corps till he retired from service.
Unsurprisingly, Arun always aspired to become an army officer, right from his childhood. After his schooling from Sanawar’s prestigious Lawrence School,where he was popular for being an ace swimmer and saxophone player, and a schoold prefect, Arun joined the National Defence Academy (NDA) in 1967 and was commissioned in the 17 Poona Horse on June 3, 1971.
the 17 Poona Horse was assigned to the command of the 47th Infantry Brigade of the Indian Army.
Among the tasks set for the 47th Brigade was to establish a bridgehead across the River Basantar. By 15 December, the brigade had captured its objectives. However, the place was extensively mined, which prevented the deployment of the tanks of the Poona Horse, and the engineers clearing the mines were halfway through their tasks when Indian troops at the bridge-head reported alarming enemy armour activity, asking for immediate armour support.
It was at this critical juncture that the 17 Poona Horse decided to push through the mine-field. The regiment was able to link-up with the infantry at the bridge-head by first light the next day.
The Pakistani 13th Lancers, equipped with the then state-of-the-art US-made 50 ton Patton tanks, launched the first of their counter-attacks under the cover of a smokescreen at ‘B’ Squadron, The Poona Horse, at Jarpal.
Its squadron commander urgently called for reinforcements. Arun Khetarpal, who was in ‘A’ squadron and was stationed close by with his Centurion tank troop, responded with alacrity, as did the rest of his regiment.
The first counter-attack was decimated by accurate gunnery, coolness by Indian tank troop and individual tank commanders, Lt Col Hanut Singh down to its troop leader, Arun Khetarpal.
The 13th Lancers desperately launched two more squadron-level counter-attacks and managed to achieve a breakthrough.
Khetarpal rushed to meet the Pakistani armour and launched right into the Pakistani attack. With his troop, he was able to run over the enemy advance with his tanks.
However, the commander of the second tank was killed in this attack. Alone in charge, Khetarpal continued his attack on the enemy strongholds. The enemy did not retreat even after taking losses.
Disappointed by his failure so far, Arun Khetarpal desperately attacked the incoming Pakistani troops and tanks, knocking out a Pakistani tank in the process. However Pakistani forces regrouped and counter-attacked. In the ensuing tank battle, Lt. Arun Khetarpal with his 2 remaining tanks fought off and destroyed 10 tanks.
The skirmish however took its toll on the lieutenant as he was hit by enemy fire, but instead of abandoning the tank he fought on destroying one final tank.
His actions had denied a vital breakthrough for Pakistani forces and instead put the Indians in a stronger position in the Shakargarh bulge. His final words over the radio to a superior officer who had ordered him to abandon his burning tank were,
“No, Sir, I will not abandon my tank. My main gun is still working and I will get these bastards.”
Then he set about destroying the remaining enemy tanks. The last enemy tank, which he shot, was barely 100 metres from his position. At this stage, his tank received a second hit and he was seriously injured. The officer met his death trying to deny the Pakistani Army its desired breakthrough.
Khetarpal’s body and his tank, named “Famagusta”, were later captured by Pakistan and eventually returned to the Indian military. This tank is on display now.
For his conspicuous bravery and extreme gallantry in the face of fierce and unrelenting attacks and assaults by the enemy, Khetarpal was honoured with India’s most-prestigious and highest-standard military medal for courage and gallantry, the Param Vir Chakra, posthumously.
Arun Khetarpal’s body was cremated on 17 December near the Samba district and his ashes were sent to his family, who were unaware of his death until 26 December.
Here’s some interesting trivia,
As a result of the humiliating defeat at Basantar, Pakistan removed the commanding officers of 1 Corps and 8 Division as well as the commander of the armoured brigade.
In contrast, the then-commander of the 47th Brigade, Brig AS Vaidya, won his second Maha Vir Chakra in the 1971 war and rose to become the country’s Army Chief.
The 47th Infantry Brigade — whose motto “Bash on Regardless”sums up its fighting spirit —was also renamed the Basantar Brigade in honour of its thumping victory in 1971 and is today regarded as one of the most decorated Brigades of the Indian Army.
Arun Khetarpal, had influenced another brave son of India, as a young boy whose favourite thing to do was stand in front of Arun Khetarpal’s house and promise to serve country like him one day. Capt Vijayant Thapar, Vir Chakra, kept his promise, and he became a decorated war hero of Kargil. He too laid down his life serving the nation.
Source: TOI report on Basantar day celebration and Better India
Dr. Sindhu Prashanth