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General Harbaksh Singh:Modern India's Greatest Soldier




Today, many don't know who Lt. General Harbaksh Singh was.

Being out of sight for 30 years - before he passed away in 1999 - put him out of mind as well.

Born in 1913 in Badrukhan in Sangrur and having graduated from Government College at Lahore, he was commissioned into 5 Sikh in 1935.

He was a graduate of the 1st course at the IMA after a year's attachment with a British battalion, The Argyl and Sutherland Highlanders, wherein he saw active service on the North-West Frontier. He commanded a company of 5 Sikh in 1942 in Malaya against the Japanese.

Severely wounded in the head, a steel plate which he carried to his last day was a constant reminder. He was in a military hospital when General A.E Percival, the Allied field commander, surrendered all Allied forces in Malaya and Singapore to the Japanese in 1942. Then followed three years of a miserable existence and near starvation as a Japanese prisoner of war.

Released at the end of the war in 1945, he remained in hospital for some months with beri-beri and other problems brought on by malnutrition and inhuman conditions in Japanese POW camps.

Posted as second-in-command of 4 Sikh on release from hospital, he was perhaps the only deputy ever to ride a horse on parade in an infantry battalion, as he was too weak to march.

We now come to three episodes in his brilliant military career which make him stand out as one of the most outstanding commanders in modern Indian history.

India became independent on August 15, 1947, and Pakistani-backed regulars, irregulars and tribesmen crossed into the state of Jammu and Kashmir on October 22. In spite of a determined effort by the J&K state forces and by the initially inducted Indian troops, the enemy reached the outskirts of Srinagar on November 20 and the fall of the capital city was imminent.

On November 21, reports came in of a concentration of around 3,000 enemy troops on the outskirts of Srinagar at Shalateng, just 4 miles from the city centre, preparing to attack the city. Colonel Harbakhsh Singh, then second-in-command of the newly inducted 161 Brigade, was given the task of conducting the battle. He attacked Shalateng on the November 22 with two infantry battalions, 1 Sikh and 1 (Para) Kumaon with a troop of armoured cars of 7 Cavalry and, in a brilliantly planned and executed operation, routed the enemy leaving 472 enemy dead on the field. The threat to Srinagar was now over. If the capital city had fallen, it would have been one of the greatest disasters in Indian history.

Promoted to command 163 Brigade, his was one of the two brigades launched by General Thimmaya, then in command of Sri Division (later 19 division), on May 17, 1948, to clear the enemy out of the Jhelum valley, up to Muzaffarabad and Domel. The first by 161 Brigade under Brigadier L.P Sen on the Jhelum axis, and the second in a flanking move by his 163 Brigade over the Nasta Chun Pass to Tithwal and beyond. While 161 Brigade was held up near Uri, Brigadier Harbakhsh Singh's offensive, as discussed by General Birdwood in his book, A Continent Decides, was a triumph.

"Pakistan's situation was now grim, and had India only used air supply more aggressively to maintain the impetus of this outflanking success, her forces would so severely have threatened Muzaffarabad as to force a Pakistani withdrawal from the whole of the northern sector. Luckily for Pakistan, they paused".

Tithwal fell on May 23. In six days, Brigadier Harbakhsh Singh had in a lightning move secured all territory starting from Handwara to the Kishanganga over the Nasta Chun Pass and Tithwal after fighting aggressive battles.

Finally after commanding 5 Division and 4 Corps for a while, during the Chinese operations of 1962, where many soldiers believe that had he been allowed to command the Corps during the second phase of the battle by the Chinese which started on November 20, the situation would have been quite different in NEFA. Sadly for the Corps, their old GOC, General B.M Kaul, was sent back to command, from a sick bed in Delhi, by Krishna Menon, the then Defence Minister [Kaul's biggest achievement to date being that he was a cousin of PM Jawaharlal Nehru!]

General Harbakhsh Singh was then given command of 33 Corps at Siliguri and he finally took over as the Western Army Commander in November 1964.

War clouds gathered once again in 1965. Pakistan took the offensive in April in Kutch and was successfully repulsed. In August, Kashmir became the target and on September 6 India went to war.

The western Army offensive across the Punjab border which started at 4.30 a.m. on September 6 went well till Pakistan counter attacked 4 Division on the 11 Corps left flank at Khemkaran.The 4 Division comprising 62 and 7 Brigades, a strength of six infantry battalions, had not quite recovered from the drubbing it received in 1962 at the hands of the Chinese, lost two-and-a- half battalions in a matter of hours, less through enemy action and  more by desertion, and was virtually overrun.

The situation on the 7th afternoon was grim, while the Division fell back to the village of Asal Uttar and hurriedly prepared a defended sector based on the surviving three-and-a-half battalions and the 2nd (Indp) Armoured Brigade. On the 9th, Pakistan's 1st Armoured Division, whose existence was not known to us, attacked the Division. Their operational order was captured by us. The plan was to attack and overrun the weak 4 Division while a strong combat group was to cut the lines of communication of both 4 Division, 7 Division on the Barki Axis and finally to cut the GT Road at the Beas Bridge, effectively sealing off 11 Corps HQs and Corps troops at Raya, and the LOFC of 15 Division in one sweep.

The situation was extremely grim and as a consequence Delhi panicked.

Having returned to HQ Western Army at Ambala from 4 Division at midnight on the 9th and after a visit to the operations room, the Army Commander retired for three hours rest before leaving at four' clock the next morning. The instructions to me, his ADC, was not to awaken him unless it was urgent. At 2.30 a.m. the Army Chief, General J.N. Chaudhary, called and spoke to the General and after a heated discussion centered around the major threat that had developed, the Chief ordered the Army Commander to withdraw 11 Corps to hold a line on the Beas river. General Harbakhsh Singh refused to carry out this order.

The next morning, 4 Division stabilised the position and when the Chief visited command headquarters at Ambala that afternoon, the 10th, the crisis was over and the subject was not discussed. Had the General carried out these orders, not only would have half of Punjab been under Pakistani occupation but the morale of the Indian Army would have been rock bottom, affecting operations in other theatres as well.

When Gen Harbaksh Singh died, his funeral was on November 15, 1999. Very few knew about it, therefore apart from his friends and contemporaries, former officers of the Sikh Regiment of which he had been colonel for over a decade, and others such as I, who had been on his staff, gathered at the Delhi cantonment to say our final farewell.

The Army did him proud by giving him a send off befitting a great soldier. And while the ceremonies were on, and six Lieutenant Generals removed the National Flag from the body which was to be cremated, I couldn't help wondering how fortunate it was for the country to have had the right man at the right place at the right time.

The words once used to describe Field Marshal Lord Wavell, seen apt for describing General Harbakhsh Singh: "He was essentially a soldier's soldier, and takes an assured place as one of the great commanders in military history".

The Last Post was sounded and the pyre lit, and as the smoke curled its way into the heavens and the bugle sounded reveille, transporting the General to Valhalla, to join the ranks of the many great soldiers who once trod this earth, there were moist eyes all around. As the mourners said their silent farewells, the words of Sir Walter-Scott from The Lady of the Lake came to mind:

Soldier, rest thy warfare is o'er,
Dream of fighting fields no more;
Sleep the sleep that knows no breaking,
Morn of toil, nor night of waking.

I said my final farewell, "Goodbye my General, till we meet again."

[Courtesy: The Tribune]

May 5, 2010

Conversation about this article

1: Devinder Pal Singh (Delhi, India), May 06, 2010, 10:02 AM.

Captain Amrinder Singh's tribute to General Harbaksh Singh seems to come from the heart. This is but natural for such a prolific figure. Many amongst us are aware that political backing is core to achieving promotions and recognitions and this pervades the services. Perhaps if there was a true and fair system, then perhaps we would have had General Harbaksh Singh achieving the top rank as the first Sikh C-in-C.

2: Harinder (Jalandhar, Punjab), May 06, 2010, 11:41 AM.

Punjab is proud of all such sons who have lived up to its highest cherished values. "Courage in the face of death!"

3: Jasbir Singh Sethi (Houston, Texas, U.S.A.), May 06, 2010, 12:33 PM.

I remember visiting the "Graveyard of Patton Tanks" in a border village near Amritsar after the 1965 war. There were rows and rows of disabled and captured Patton Tanks from the Pakistan Army. I had heard of this great General who had gone against his superiors' orders to withdraw, and had instead fought on and won and saved half of Punjab. If it hadn't been for him, imagine the worst shame the Indian army would have been subjected to. Loss to the Chinese in 1962 with virtually no supply line! And again, here a near-sure defeat from Pakistan in 1965. I have read in recent past some Indian journalist calling 1965 as the "Sikh War with Pakistan." I always wondered why this respected journalist called it a Sikh War and not India's war? Thanks to you, now we know the truth. As far as India is concerned, the then Army Chief had already mentally accepted defeat and had ordered this stalwart Sikh general to withdraw. The latter however not only had the courage to fight and win, but also the courage to openly disobey orders which were clearly against the best interests of the country. I only wish the Indian Army had more of such generals in 1984 - who had the courage and decency to disobey Indira Gandhi's orders which were clearly criminal and against the best interests of a country claiming to be secular and democratic. And later, come into action rather than keep hiding under the skirts of the Army Officers Club while India's capital was burning for 4 days in November 1984.

4: Surinder (Massachusetts, U.S.A.), May 06, 2010, 5:01 PM.

I was reading a few months about Gen. Harbaksh Singh. The article stated that the author talked to a bunch of gung-ho Sikhs about him. They said, "Gen. Harbaksh Singh who?" Sad to say, most of even the Khalistani Sikhs do not know of him. We are so caught up in our world of biases and peeves (especially Khalistan) that we miss genuine great fighters amongst us. One side note: Faced with the attacking Pakistani Army, there were large scale desertions in the Indian Army. That is a sad statement on the bravery of the average Indian. Sadder still is that the New Delhi govt. lost its nerve also and wanted to abandon Amritsar to the invading Pakistani Army. Now a Sikh can be anything, but will not let Amritsar fall to enemy forces. The great General stood his ground and saved us from a disastrous ignominy of the Pakistanis taking over most significant spiritual centre. [Editor: In the face of extensive desertions by the desi soldiers, they were immediately replaced by 100 percent Sikh soldiers on the front - who then went on to save the day under the command of Gen. Harbaksh Singh!]

5: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), May 06, 2010, 8:03 PM.

It was the lion, General Harbaksh Singh leading his army of lions, and not asses leading the lions. This sets the tenor for Sikh soldiers. Elsewhere, this is what the Pakistani General, Mukesh Khan, talked about his experience in 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. He paid a glowing tribute to Sikhs for their exceptional bravery and their formidable force that was the reason for the Pakistani defeat on 3 December, 1971 near the Hussainiwala border. It was just a small segment of the Sikh regiment who reverberated the air with Bole so Nihal' and resolutely opposed the Pakistani Army and made them lose their foothold. General Mukesh Khan lamented in his book: "Alas! A handful of Sikhs converted our great victory into a big defeat and shattered our confidence and courage. The same thing happened in Dhaka, Bangladesh. In the battle of Jassur, the Singhs opposed the Pakistani Army so fiercely that our backbone and foothold were lost. This became the main reason for our defeat and Sikhs' strength and safety and honour of the country became the sole cause of their victory." Then what goes wrong during peacetime? To keep ourselves fighting fit, it appears we fight among ourselves as fiercely to remain in good fettle. It is the double-edged khanda, when uncontrolled, is like nuclear fission.

6: Surinder (Massachusetts, U.S.A.), May 06, 2010, 8:34 PM.

I was wondering if we could have an article describing that battle, the desertions, the Sikhs sent in to replace, the impact of that battle, etc. That would be a great article if you can find someone to write it. Some photos might help too. Just a suggestion.

7: Balbir Singh Soodhi, JP (London, United Kingdom), May 06, 2010, 9:10 PM.

This is yet another example of the deeds of leadership and valour of a Sikh General demonstrated against tremendous odds on the unchartered terrain of the battlefields in the Second World War, during the Jammu & Kashmir operations in 1947, and during the 1965 India-Pakistan War. And during these operations, when the dignity and honour of his country required, he had the sole distinction of refusing to obey the direct orders of his immediate Commanding Officer,General J.N. Chaudhary, the Chief of the Indian Armed Forces; and then immediately later on, justified and proved his course of action by winning the war. But, despite his distinguished career, his approved promotion to be the next Indian Army Chief was withdrawn at the eleventh hour. This has been the fate of several other Sikh Generals and Air Marshals with illustrious service in their respective fields. The prominent examples are Lt-General Kulwant Singh and the legendary Air Ace, Air Commodore Mehar Singh both of Kashmir operations fame; the hero and "Liberator of Bangladesh, Lt-General Jagjit Singh Arora; and Air Marshal Shivdev Singh, amongst many others. In all these cases, the common factor was that despite their valour and distinguished services to their country, they all happen to be Sikhs. This bias against the Sikhs is clear by the mere facts that, in India's 63 years history, there has been only one Army Chief - only recently - and two Air Force Chiefs a few years back. All despite the disproportionate and extraordinary contribution of the Sikhs. The most important point, however, is that all these exceptions have come about long after the Nehru era.

8: Gurinder Singh Johal  (Amritsar, Punjab), May 06, 2010, 10:19 PM.

The greatest soldier, but today's youngsters are more interested to go to, among other places, Australia, and settle there than to join the Indian army. It will be the greatest tribute if the new generations follow the path of Gen. Harbaksh Singh.

9: Raj (Canada), May 06, 2010, 10:50 PM.

Here are some of the facts not covered by this article: The Chief of Staff at that time had asked Gen. Harbakhsh Singh to pull behind the Beas River. Which meant virtually handing over Amritsar to the Pakistanis, which he rightly refused and risked court martial. He was overlooked for the position of Chief of staff even though he was owed it, deserved it, and was promised the position after his gallant performance in the 1965 War. On the other hand, the incompetent Chief of the Army didn't dare to come to Ambala without being escorted by two MIGs... even though Ambala is almost 300 kms from the border. Gen. Harbaksh Singh's dispatches are now studied at the Pakistani Army's Officers' Institute. They are an inspiration to them but not to Indians! At the 1999 Vaisakhi Centennial celebrations, he was not even invited to attend, let alone honoring him as one of the greatest Sikh and Indian generals. He was no less than Gen. Patton of the U.S. His book, "In the line of duty" is worth a read.

10: N Singh (Canada), May 07, 2010, 3:23 AM.

When I was a little girl, my father told me about a General who saved the Punjab but I didn't remember his name! It must have been Gen. Harbaksh Singh! In 1965, I would have been a little girl in Punjab and it is this man to whom I owe my freedom and safety. He not only saved me but all the children of Punjab from slavery and bloodshed. I am sad I never got a chance to meet him. I salute you, General Harbaksh Singh ... THANK YOU from a little girl who grew up to be a healthy, strong and free woman!

11: Amitoj (U.S.A.), May 07, 2010, 1:00 PM.

I am in awe reading the account of the General's leadership and courage. I wish someone had written a biography or a book about the General so we could have read it in school. I will for sure tell my children about this inspiring Sikh personality. Bravo! A salute to the General.

12: Gurjender Singh (Maryland, U.S.A.), May 07, 2010, 6:41 PM.

This is our misfortune that Indian history books did not include these type of great Sikh army generals who sacrificed their lives for the welfare of the country. Even the Sikh leaders do not take this issue with the government. Thanks to Capt. Amarinder Singh for providing the heart-touching details about this great hero.

13: Raj (Canada), May 07, 2010, 10:29 PM.

Amitoj ji, his autobiography is available. It's published by Bharat Rakshak under the title, "In the Line of Duty". Dear N. Singh, I wanted to take my kids to India to meet him in Delhi. But, he passed away just before we were to arrive in Delhi. You guys should read all of Capt. Amrinder Singh's three books to date. He has covered some of the incidents that even Gen. Harbaksh Singh probably overlooked in his book. Every Sikh should have these books in his study.

14: Amarishwar Singh Grewall (Buena Park, California, U.S.A.), May 07, 2010, 11:07 PM.

All the Sikh generations must read about this Great General besides Maharaja Ranjit Singh (who saw all his subjects with 'one eye'), Phoola Singh and Banda Singh Bahadar. Sikh history makes your hair stand. In 1976 when I visited Chandigarh I was very fortunate to shake the General's hand since he and my father had worked together in Srinagar. What a towering personality, full of humility he was. It is an inspiration for me and for all the Sikhs to be proud of him. May God bless his soul.

15: Jodh Singh (Jericho, New York, U.S.A.), May 08, 2010, 11:02 AM.

This very inspiring story has reminded me of my days in PGI, Chandigarh. I used to read news in The Tribune but, more importantly, I was taking care of some injured soldiers and listening to them. We were very proud of the Sikh soldiers who fought under Gen. Harbaksh Singh. I am very happy to note the feeling-filled account by Captain Amarinder Singh, who is from my hometown, Patiala. And it is an important chapter in the annals of Sikh history of our times.

16: Sam (New York, U.S.A.), May 10, 2010, 3:25 PM.

A fighting man who led and commanded battles in the field rather than the safety of his HQ, he was well respected in the army. However, as many have rightly pointed out, the political elite was determined to keep him at bay, despite his extraordinary service to the nation. On the verbal communique that COS gave him over the phone, Gen. Harbaksh Singh writes in his autobiography, "In The Line Of Duty: A Soldier Remembers" - "The orders never came and I never withdrew". These men knew something about being sincere to a cause.

17: Anoop Singh Gill, Deputy, Fresno County. Sheriff (Fresno, California, U.S.A.), October 23, 2011, 1:34 AM.

I feel extremely proud to read about the great achievements of our great General Harbaksh Singh. If we did not have such a brave military commander, India would have been a laughing stock before the Pakistanis by losing Kashmir and half of the State of Punjab. We need to remember that only a brave Sikh General had the courage and leadership qualities needed to beat the Pakistani Armed Forces back. India has failed miserably to recognize the great sacrifices made by its Sikh army commanders, Sikh Regiment and soldiers. FYI, the great Sikh Regiment, when it was 100% Sikh and Punjabi, held the record for the most Victoria Cross medals for bravery than any other single regiment in the world. Today's Indian Army has become weak as it has poor leadership in its officer ranks and coward desis in its regiments. My tribute to another great general: Lt. General Jagjit Singh Arora! He holds the record of 96,000 soldiers' unconditional surrender to his command. What did he get for that? Nothing. He was retired. I am very fortunate to belong to a great lineage of high ranking officers in both the army and the police. I salute General Harbaksh Singh for his great leadership and magnificent personality that no one will ever match. He was the best of the best and made us feel very honored and proud to be Sikhs.

18: Rahul Singh (Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India), March 13, 2013, 12:12 PM.

Such a sorry state of affairs in our country that such war heroes are forgotten.

19: Kuldeep Gadhvi  (India ), October 09, 2013, 3:21 PM.

Strange ... but I had never heard about Gen Harbaksh Singh. Though so late in the day, I extend my deepest regards for the deceased general's family.

20: Capt Harbaksh Singh, SM (Delhi, India), May 20, 2014, 8:16 AM.

I Joined the Sikh Regiment in 1987 and knew I was the second officer in the regiment of the same name. I was very lucky to meet the great personality in one of the regimental get-togathers in Mamoon Cantt in 1988, and what a moment in my life when I introduced myself as Lt Harbaksh Singh! He hugged me and said with a smile, "Okay, nice to meet the second Harbaksh in this regiment!" It was such a proud moment/motivation for me. I know that I cannot even dream of coming close to his achievemens, but vowed one day I will make him proud. He was decorated with VRC and I too dreamt of the same decoration and prayed to Waheguru to give me a chance. God was great to me and gave me a chance to prove myself, but to my bad luck even though strongly recommended for MVC by my CO and later by reliable sources strongly recommended by Army HQ for VRC, I was awarded SM. Otherwise getting a VRC and then saluting the great personality with a VRC ribbon on the chest would have been history-making and a very proud moment in my life.

21: Manish Bhatnagar (India), October 25, 2014, 11:30 AM.

All Indians are proud of this brave general who had the courage to audaciously tell his superiors that not an inch of Guru's land would be surrendered. We as a nation owe so much to this legend. Sometimes, I wonder, had he been army chief, what would have been the course of the 1971 war. Though Field Marshal Manekshaw is a national hero and rightly so but I feel had it been Gen Harbaksh Singh, probably, we would have beaten Pakistan black and blue on the Western border too, with Pakistan being dismembered there as well.

22: Harpal Singh (India), December 25, 2014, 7:55 AM.

We should teach our children in school about our heroes. They will always pay respect to this great General.

23: Ajmer Singh Randhawa (New Delhi, India), March 06, 2015, 8:17 AM.

Jarnail Singh Bhindranwala was a brave man who, with his 200-250 Sikh young men, stopped the advance of a massive, invading Indian army and then killed more several thousand Indian soldiers and wounded many more. All his men fought to their last breath but none surrendered. The Indians were compelled to deploy heavy armor and artillery when its Infantry division surrendered in front of a handful Sikh youths. Hats off to him and all other brave Sikh soldiers who were martyred defending The Darbar Sahib in 1984.

24: S Krishnan (India), January 18, 2017, 5:44 AM.

In our schools, military history should be taught, especially the heroic deeds of the likes of Lt. Gen. Harbaksh Singh, Lt. Gen. Ranjit Singh Dayal, and Flying Officer Nirmaljit Singh Sekhon.

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