Operation Gibraltar: An Unmitigated Disaster? Part 1
By Group Captain S. M. Hali (R), S.I. (M)
Operation Gibraltar was the code name given to the clandestine raids carried out into Indian-Held Kashmir (IHK) in July/August 1965, which became the immediate cause of Pakistan-India War in September 1965. The operation itself may have been bold and audacious in its planning but immature and unprofessional in execution, which resulted in needlessly sacrificing hundreds of Pakistani soldiers, who remain unsung and unheralded. These valiant soldiers did not question their commanders, when they were dispatched to certain death like Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’:
“Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do & die,
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.”[i]
However, forty-one years later, it is still not too late to study the consequences of “Operation Gibraltar”, why it was an unmitigated disaster and to avoid recurrence of follies of this nature. Although if truth be told, had a bit of soul searching regarding “Operation Gibraltar” been carried out earlier, a fiasco like the Kargil misadventure in 1999 could have been avoided and hundreds of honourable soldiers would still be in the service of their country rather than going unflinchingly to the beckoning of their superiors on an ill conceived “Operation Badr”, ending up with their names adorning anonymous epitaphs, apart from a few like Captain Karnal Sher Khan, whose citation was written by the enemy because of his exceptional display of valour notwithstanding the news that initially Pakistan even refused to accept the bodies of its slain soldiers[ii].
Kashmir was an unfinished agenda of the partition plan of India. The Boundary Commission under its Chairman Sir Cyril Radcliffe, assigned the task to partition India, was heavily influenced by the Viceroy Lord Mountbatten. Sensing this prejudice, Pakistan’s founding fathers, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan concluded that the entire area of the Muslim majority population of Gurdaspur was being awarded to India, providing them access to Kashmir, Liaquat Ali Khan took serious note of the anomaly and sent a letter to Lord Ismay through Chaudhry Muhammad Ali. Ismay expostulated that “…the final report of Sir Cyril Radcliffe is not ready and therefore, I do not know what grounds you have for saying that Gurdaspur has been allotted to the East Punjab.”[iii]
However the conspiracy is visible from this vivid account by Chaudhry Muhammad Ali, who carried Liaquat’s message to Ismay:
There was a map in the room and I beckoned him to the map so that I could explain the position to him with its help. There was a pencil line drawn across the map of the Punjab. The line followed the boundary that had been reported to the Quaid-i-Azam. I said that it was unnecessary for me to explain further since the line already drawn on the map indicated the boundary I had been talking about. Ismay turned pale and asked in confusion who had been fooling with his map.[iv]
Chaudhry Mohammad Ali’s account is amply corroborated by Sir George Abell’s letter to Sir Evan Jenkins, enclosing a rough map of Radcliffe’s demarcation and the description letter by H.C. Beaumont, Radcliffe’s Secretary.[v] Christopher Beaumont’s private papers, released after his death by his grand nephew, reveal that Lord Mountbatten heavily influenced Sir Cyril Radcliffe to favour India in the partition plan.[vi]
India thus was enabled by Lord Mountbatten to have a direct access to Kashmir and occupy it by force through a blatant Indian military invasion of Jammu and Kashmir on October 27, 1947, even though it had a majority Muslim population. The Maharaja of Kashmir acceded to India but the Indian forces had occupied Kashmir before the accession papers were signed.[vii]
Pakistan sent its forces to aid the local Kashmiris liberate their homeland, resulting in the First Kashmir War. Pakistan managed to unfetter some portions of the Valley but before success could be achieved, the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru approached the United Nations, which had a cease fire promulgated; the fate of the Kashmiris was to have been decided through a plebiscite, ensured by UN Articles 47 of 21 April 1948 and 51 of 3 June 1948.
India's first head of state, Lord Mountbatten, is on record having said on October 27, 1947, that since the "question of accession [of Kashmir] should be decided in accordance with the wishes of the people of the state, it is my government’s wish that as soon as law and order have been restored in Kashmir… the question of the state’s accession should be settled by a reference to the people.” Again, one of India’s founding fathers and first prime minister, Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, whose government took the Kashmir issue to the United Nations, told the Indian Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1947, “In order to establish our bona fides, we have suggested that, when the people [of Kashmir] are given the chance to decide their future, this should be done under the supervision of an impartial tribunal such as the United Nations.” On June 26, 1952, Mr. Nehru announced, “If … the people of Kashmir do not wish to remain with us, let them go by all means; we will not keep them against their will, however painful it may [be] for us."[viii]
Conversely, both Mountbatten and Nehru reneged on their promises. Pakistan was looking for an opportunity to liberate the remaining Kashmir areas. An opportunity came its way following the Sino-Indian War in 1962, in which India got a drubbing, but Pakistan missed the boat. Subsequent to the war with China, Indian military decided to undergo massive up-gradation of its arms and equipment. Some Pakistani military and civil planners considered it an opportunity to take action in Kashmir before India completed the buildup of its military arsenal. Two developments acted as a catalyst to this thinking. The Rann of Kutch episode in the summer of 1965, where Indian and Pakistani forces clashed, with Pakistan achieving an edge and the December 1963, disappearance of a holy relic from the Hazratbal Shrine in Srinagar, created turmoil and intense Islamic feeling among Muslims in the Valley, which was perceived by Pakistan as conducive to stage an uprising in Indian Held Kashmir. These factors bolstered the Pakistani command's thinking: that the use of covert methods followed by the threat of an all out war would force a resolution in Kashmir[ix].
Evolution of the plan for Operation Gibraltar
The original plan for the Operation, codenamed Gibraltar, was prepared as early as the 1950s; however the conditions mentioned above, appear to have motivated Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry, headed by its young, brash and ambitious Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and the Foreign Secretary Aziz Ahmad to endorse the plan into action through the military.
Since most of the major players in this high stakes drama are no longer in this world to tell their side of the story, I have relied on relevant books, documents and articles available in archives and a series of interviews with Colonel Syed Ghaffar Mehdi, who commanded the elite force of Pakistan Army’s Special Services Group (SSG) and was privy to the plan and a witness to its bungled execution. Besides Colonel Mehdi, I also had the opportunity to obtain the views of Lieutenant General Lehrasab Khan (Retd), who as a young Lieutenant participated in the Operation Gibraltar and was able to provide invaluable first hand impressions of the situation and action, as he saw it in his sector of operations, while being actively engaged in the action in the Valley.
Before commencing describing the contents of my interview with Colonel Mehdi and his discourse on Operation Gibraltar, in order to place the honourable and legendary Colonel Mehdi in the correct perspective, it is imperative to present a memorable article on the subject by Lieutenant General Sardar FS Lodi, titled: ‘On the Quaid’s train to Lahore’[x] carried by the Defence Journal of April 1999.
“It was by chance that I discovered recently how Colonel S.G. Mehdi MC, of the Punjab Regiment, travelled to Lahore as a student to hear the Quaid-i-Azam's historic speech on March 22, 1940 in the very same train that the Quaid himself was travelling in. This was done at the Quaid's prompting.
I have had the privilege of knowing Colonel Mehdi for over 50 years. When I joined the newly established Pakistan Military Academy on the outskirts of Abbottabad along the foothills of Kakul, as a Junior 'Gentleman Cadet', I was assigned to Qasim Company, newly raised under the dynamic leadership of the newly promoted Major S.G. Mehdi, MC (Military Cross). He was also, perhaps affectionately referred to as 'killer Mehdi' by the British Commandant of the Military Academy, Brigadier F.H.B. Ingall DSO, a Cavalry officer, and his senior colleagues who came from the Indian Military Academy at Dehra Dun along with Major Mehdi after the partition of India. When we first saw him as he walked rather informally through the Qasim Company lines one afternoon, he certainly looked the 'killer' part with his ferocious bristling moustache, and general demeanour. But his soft and reassuring voice told a different story. Behind the outward manifestations of stern military authority was a simple professional soldier who wished to find out if we were settling down well in our new and unfamiliar surroundings.
After a passage of over 50 years I still remember Major Mehdi teaching us the finer points of becoming an officer and a gentleman. He went on to graduate from the British Army Staff College in England and teach a generation of officers, military tactics and the art of command, at the Army Staff College at Quetta. He was later selected to Command the Pakistan Army's Corps de Elite, Commando force, the Special Services Group (SSG). His former students and admirers often wondered why he was not promoted to General's rank. With my experience I can now only add, that not every good officer is.
Last year while sitting on the terrace at the Sind Club in Karachi, Colonel Mehdi eventually told me the story of the Quaid's train in March 1940. He did so over many cups of tea and plenty of coaxing as he is reluctant to talk about himself.
S.G. Mehdi was a student at the R.S.D. College in Ferozepore (now in the Indian Punjab), when he heard that the Quaid-i-Azam was passing through Ferozepore on his way to Lahore, on board the Frontier Mail in the early hours of March 22, 1940. This was a godsend opportunity to see the great Quaid in person and Mehdi was not going to miss it. He organized the Muslim students at the hostel where he was living and reached the railway station in a group.
When the train arrived it was easy to find the Quaid's compartment as his name was outside the first class coupe. Mehdi as leader of the group banged on the door in some excitement. When it was opened, he grabbed the Quaid's arm and while holding it aloft turned round and with his back to the compartment started shouting 'Quaid-i-Azam Zindabad'. He was expecting the other students to follow his lead but there was a half-hearted response only, while they kept pointing to the Quaid's compartment. When Mehdi turned around he found to his utter horror that he was not holding the arm of the Quaid but that of his sister Miss Fatima Jinnah, who seemed pretty amused with the whole incident. Mehdi quickly left Miss Jinnah's arm apologizing profusely and somewhat incoherently owing to his embarrassment.
In the meantime Mehdi saw the Quaid come out of the toilet wearing a dressing gown and walk to the door. He looked at Mehdi and said, 'Young man what do you want'. Mehdi was mesmerized, seeing the great man so close to him and even asking him what he wanted. 'We had not come with any plan or request for the Quaid but only rushed to the railway station to see him' said Mehdi in his now calm voice. But the great man was expecting an answer, so Mehdi, on the spur of the moment requested the Quaid to make a speech. The Quaid looked at Mehdi and his companions and said 'I am going to Lahore to make an important speech, if you want to hear me, come to Lahore'. Mehdi looked at his colleagues and a spontaneous cry went up 'Lahore Chalo' (let’s go to Lahore). The train started to move, the Quaid smiled and closed the door to his coupe, Mehdi and his colleagues jumped into the nearest compartments and were on their way to Lahore as the Quaid wanted, and on board the same train. Colonel S.G. Mehdi belongs to the fast diminishing group of persons who were present at Lahore and participated in the historic events of 22 and 23 March 1940. He is probably the only person alive who accompanied the Quaid-i-Azam from Ferozepore to Lahore in the same train at the Quaid's gentle prompting.
Mehdi remembers seeing the Lahore railway station packed to capacity by a large and enthusiastic crowd as the Frontier Mail with the Quaid on board steamed in. There were repeated shouts of 'Quaid-i-Azam Zindabad'. It took over an hour or more for everyone to leave the station. Mehdi and his colleagues made their way on foot to the Badshahi Mosque and the venue of the Muslim League meeting next door. There were crowds everywhere. There was a large tent (pandaal) erected for the purpose, which was full to capacity with the crowds overflowing on to the large park and the roads beyond. Muslim League national guards in uniform were everywhere controlling the vast crowd and entry to the tents. Mehdi remembers hearing the Quaid's speech. It started at about 2 p.m. and lasted maybe two hours or so. It was all in English and in the rear often difficult to hear owing to the disturbance in the loudspeakers. But the gist of it seems to have been getting through to the crowd as sometimes there was spontaneous applause at the right moments. What impressed the young students, the most, was the grand spectacle of Muslim unity which they had not witnessed before.
In the evening S.G. Mehdi and his colleagues had to pool their meager resources to have a meal together not having eaten anything since leaving Ferozepore in the morning. For the night some found places with their friends, others slept in the tents as many were doing, who had come from far off places. Next day since early dawn people were up and about, talking and discussing, a new mood had gripped the people. A separate homeland for Muslims was in the air, the Quaid in his speech the day earlier had asked for one.
In the afternoon under the Quaid's Chairmanship, S.G. Mehdi saw the Premier of Bengal Mr. A.K. Fazl ul Haque get up to move the resolution for a separate homeland, he was followed by others. The loudspeakers in the rear were still, often not too clear. The people asked each other, 'what did he say' (the speaker)? As an answer the following three words were being passed on from person to person and group to group amongst the people who had assembled all around, 'Pakistan ban gia' (Pakistan has been made). That was also the impression carried by Mehdi and his colleagues as they walked slowly towards the railway station. The problem was they had no money to purchase tickets. They had not paid for the outward journey either. So they formed themselves into an orderly group and walked in shouting 'Pakistan Zindabad'. Colonel Mehdi explained to me the atmosphere in Lahore which he said was politically charged, Muslims were on top and Pakistan was in the air – so the guards at the Lahore railway station looked the other way.
S. G. Mehdi later joined the British Indian army and was commissioned into the 1st Battalion of the 15th Punjab Regiment. He fought on the Burma front during the 2nd World War and was decorated for his brave and exemplary leadership in battle and awarded the Military Cross. On August 14, 1944, Colonel Mehdi wrote to the Quaid and said amongst other things that he hoped to see the day when the Quaid would unfurl the flag of Pakistan on Pakistani soil. He also offered to donate the two squares of land that had been given to him for the Military Cross, to the Muslim League. The date of his letter, 'August 14', is a remarkable coincidence. By writing to the Quaid, Colonel Mehdi was certainly overstepping the bounds of military protocol as prescribed by the British for the Indian Army not to communicate with politicians. To Mehdi, loyalty to the Quaid and to Pakistan that was soon expected certainly transcended loyalty to Colonial rule. He is probably the only Muslim officer of the British Indian Army to have written to the Quaid before 1947. To Colonel Mehdi's surprise he received a reply from the Quaid 10 days later. The letter ends in the following words, '… I know that when the time comes Muslims will give their all, if necessary, in order to accomplish our goal of establishing Pakistan. It is a matter of life and death for Muslim India and we will not rest content until we have, once for all, unfurled the flag of Pakistan, where our homelands to-day stand'. The letter is dated August 24, 1944, and addressed to Lieutenant S.G. Mehdi.