On 14 April 1938, a Cavalry Regiment of the British Indian Army named the Scinde Horse, led by its Commandant, Colonel Malcomson, went on parade at Rawalpindi on their horses. This was the last mounted parade of the regiment as it had been selected to be the first cavalry unit to be “mechanised.” The regiment shed its horses and was equipped with armoured carriers and later tanks. The Armoured Corps Day is celebrated each year on 1 May to mark this transition.
The Last Mounted Parade of The Scinde Horse
The Armoured Corp, as a part of the British Indian Army came into existence on 1 May 1941 to administer the existing Armoured units. Its headquarters was located at Ferozepore. With the outbreak of World War II and as a result of the mechanisation of all Indian cavalry regiments, a necessity was felt for a training establishment for All Ranks of the Corps. Consequently, the Fighting Vehicles School was established in the historical town of Ahmednagar, Maharashtra where it continues to function and thrive under the name of Armoured Corps Centre and School (ACCS).
Upon partition in 1947, the assets and personnel of the British Indian Armoured Corps were split between the Indian Army and the Pakistan Army, with two-thirds (including all the training establishments) becoming the Indian Army Armoured Corps and one third becoming the Pakistan Army Armoured Corps. Today the Indian Armoured Corps boasts upwards of 60 Armoured Regiments, including the President’s Bodyguards.
On mechanisation the Scinde Horse and subsequent regiments were equipped with Vickers light tanks and Chevrolet armoured cars. As World War II commenced there was a very fast change of equipment as the US started equipping the allies with their tanks. The M3 Stuart, was an American light tank whose improved version was inducted for service with the British Army as the M5 in 1942. Though called a light tank the Stuart was fairly heavily armoured with a 37 mm M5 gun and five .30-06 Browning M1919A4 machine guns. The next lot of tanks to enter service were the US made M3 Lee medium tanks called the “Grant.’ This tank, however, did not give satisfactory service and was soon replaced by the M4 Sherman.
The M-4 Sherman was a medium tank with a 75mm gun, a fully traversing central turret and a one-axis gyro-stabilizer. The tank could not fire accurately while on the move but its gun did stay stabilised in the given direction. This tank proved to be reliable and relatively cheap to produce, and was as such available in great numbers. The Indian Armoured Corps Regiments were predominantly equipped with the Sherman tanks at the time of Independence and it gave an excellent display of its capability during the Indo-Pakistan War of 1965 before being phased out.
The Shermans were joined by the British made Centurions. Weighing around 50 tonnes and armed with a 17-pounder main gun, the Centurion accommodated a four-man crew. The tank played a crucial role in the Indo-Pakistan War, 1965 as well as Indo-Pakistan War, 1971.
The Sherman and the Centurion Tanks
During the Indo-Pakistan War 1947-48, the Indian Armoured Corps achieved a historical feat. Pakistan had managed to capture the crucial Zojila Pass and Leh had been isolated from the Srinagar land route. The Army decided to transport tanks to Zojila to change the course of the battle.
The 7 Light Cavalry, equipped with Stuart Tanks, was ordered to move to Srinagar and onwards to Zojila in utmost secrecy, for which reason, the turret of the tanks was removed and carried in vehicles while that tanks, now considerably lighter, moved up by road but heavily camouflaged and under cover of darkness. The tanks had to be winched across many bridges.
After nearly a month, the tanks finally arrived at Zojila and were reassembled. Then began the assault with Gen Thimayya travelling in the leading tank and Infantry following with bared bayonets. The appearance of tanks came as a bolt from the blue for the enemy. Surprised, highly demoralised and blinded by snow, the enemy ran for their lives, Thus, Zojila Pass, Kargil and Dras were saved from Pakistan and the road to Leh was opened. Pakistan again tried to dominate the same road at Kargil in 1999 which led to the Kargil War.
By transporting the Stuart tanks, with utmost secrecy, to Zojila the Armoured Corps changed the fortune of the war in India’s favour. Nowhere in the world had tanks operated at such heights ever before, now of course they operate in Ladakh too.
In 1965, the Armoured Regiments of Pakistan had been equipped with the sophisticated US made Patton tanks while the Indian Armoured Corps had only 186 – Centurions; 346 – Shermans; 13 – 90 AMX; and 90 PT-76. These Tanks were technically quite inferior to the Pattons.
The Pakistani commanders were aware that India was in the process of acquiring the sophisticated T- 54/55 tanks from Russia and once they were inducted it would be impossible to engage the country in a conventional war. They therefore decided to launch a pre-emptive strike and wrest Kashmir and considerable territory on the Punjab border from India. It was for this reason that Pakistan launched Operation Gibraltar in Kashmir and followed it up by attacking India, leading to the Indo-Pakistan War 1965.
The war witnessed a series of tank battles of a volume and intensity not witnessed since World War II. The Battle of Asal Uttar was fought in the Khem Karan area of Punjab. It involved a huge invasion by the Pakistani forces with a considerable force comprising their 1 Armoured Division and 11 Infantry Division. It is notable here that both countries had only one Armoured Division each in their orbat and both were called 1 Armoured Division. The Indian forces made a tactical retreat and took up a horse-shoe shaped defensive posture with Asal Uttar as its pivot. The area had a standing sugarcane crop and was inundated by the Indian forces at night.
The next morning, when the Pakistani Armoured columns resumed their advance they got swamped. The full grown sugarcane inhibited their line of sight. They became sitting ducks and were destroyed by the Shermans and some other tanks that the Indians had in that area.
The second big engagement was the Battle of Chawinda and the Battle of Phillora which was the Indian riposte to the Pakistani invasion. The battles were conducted by the newly formed 1 Corps of the Indian army under Lt. General Pat Dunn. He had under his command the Indian 1 Armoured Division; 6 Mountain Division; 14 Infantry Division and 26 Infantry Division. I Corps was given the responsibility of capturing the Sialkot sector. The spearhead of the offensive was by I Armoured Division.
Lt. Col. AB Tarapore, PVC (Posthumous)
The high point was an extraordinary feat by an Armoured Regiment, the Poona Horse (17 Horse), equipped with Centurion tanks, under I Armoured Division and commanded by Lt. Colonel AB Tarapore. On being tasked to isolate Sialkot from Lahore, the Regiment, on 11 September 1965 launched an attack on Phillora from the rear. While advancing, it encountered a sudden Pakistani thrust from a place called Wazirwali. Lt. Colonel AB Tarapore, at the head of his regiment, defied the enemy’s charge and continued with his attack on Phillora with one squadron supported by an infantry battalion. The ensuing tank battle witnessed the destruction of approximately 60 enemy tanks, with the Poona Horse losing nine tanks. Lt Colonel AB Tarapore made the supreme sacrifice while fighting fiercely despite being wounded multiple times. For this gallant action Lt. Colonel AB Tarapore was awarded the Param Vir Chakra (PVC), the highest gallantry award in the country. Pakistan suffered unsustainable attrition to its military might due to the serious reverses in the Battles of Asal Uttar, Chawinda and Phillora, which made way for its acceptance of the Tashkent talks. The Indian armoured forces conclusively defeated the better equipped Pakistan armoured forces due to their better training and leadership of the officers. The humiliating defeat faced by Pakistan gave a military lesson that it is not the machine but the man behind the machine that helps win battles.
The T-54 and T-55 tanks are a series of Soviet main battle tanks introduced in the years following World War II. The T-55 was of superior quality due top fitment of a night vision equipment for the driver and a NBC (nuclear, biological, and chemical) protection system. These tanks were fitted with a 100 mm main Gun. After the 1965 war, the Indian Armoured Corps set course for being equipped by these Russian T-54/55 tanks and the gradual phasing out of the US and UK equipment.
During the Indo-Pakistan War-1971 the Indian Armoured Corps had many regiments equipped with the T-series tanks, however, the defining movement of the war, so far as the Armoured Corps was concerned, was the Battle of Basantar that was fought in the Shakargarh Bulge. In this battle once again the Poona Horse, equipped with Centurion tanks, excelled.
The Poona Horse had been tasked to support the build-up of a Bridgehead across the River Basantar. The Engineers were clearing the extensive mine field when the infantry on the enemy side of the mines reported intensive activity of enemy armour and requested for immediate armour support. 17 Poona Horse, most courageously, crossed the partially cleared minefield and linked-up with the infantry at the bridge-head.
2/Lt Arun Khetarpal, PVC (Posthumous)
On 9 December, Pakistan launched a series of counter attacks that were repelled by the regiment with heavy losses to the enemy armour. In one of these counter attacks the Tank Troop of Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal got into a fire fight with the technologically superior enemy Patton tanks against his Centurion. The tank of Arun Kheterpal was hit but he continued fighting since his Gun was in working condition and destroyed many enemy tanks. The last tank that he destroyed was barely 100 metres from his position. His tank was then hit for the second time and the grievously injured officer succumbed to his injuries while denying to the enemy the desired breakthrough which built for India a strong position in the Shakargarh Bulge.
For his conspicuous bravery Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal was awarded the Param Vir Chakra, posthumously. Interestingly, both PVC’s for the Armoured Corps have been won while fighting on the sturdy Centurion tank.
In the eastern sector, the aged but sturdy PT-76 convincingly neutralised Pakistan’s M24 light Chafee tanks and helped dominate the pitched battles of Boyra, Hilli and Rangpur (now in Bangladesh).
The Battle of Longewala, fought by a company of 23 Punjab (120 Indian soldiers) against 2,000–3,000 Pakistani soldiers accompanied by 30–40 tanks showcased the ineptitude of the Pakistani Armoured Corps that could not even manoeuvre tactically throughout the night and became sitting targets for the Indian Air Force the next day. The complete armoured element of the enemy was destroyed along with the loss of a few hundred lives and some vehicles.
The next tank to join the arsenal of the Indian Armoured Corps was the indigenously built Vijayanta. It was built on a licensed design of the UK made Vickers Mk.1 and was equipped with a state-of-the -art 100 mm gun whose accuracy was legendary in armoured circles. The prototype was completed in 1963 and the tank entered service on December 29, 1965. The first 90 vehicles were built by Vickers. In all more than 2000 Vijayanta Tanks have been built by the Heavy Vehicles Factory in Avadi. The Vijayanta was mostly utilised for equipping Armoured Regiments operationally integral to Infantry Divisions in a defensive role. It was phased out by 2008.
The Vijayanta – The first indigenous Tank of India
In the beginning of the 1980’s the next phase of modernisation of the Armoured Corps began with the induction of T-72 tanks. The first three regiments equipped with this tank underwent conversion training in Babina and then became a part of 1 Armoured Division. In Russia, the T-72 had entered production in 1969. They were used by the Warsaw Pact countries from the 1970s until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The tank is equipped with a 125 mm smoothbore main gun, a 1A45T fire-control system and a turbo-charged engine. It has all other facilities like thermal imaging, a navigation system and NBC protection etc. India has taken a license from Russia for production of its own version of the T-72 tank through transfer of technology. The Indian version is called ‘Ajeya’ and is being produced with Indian sub-systems. The tank greatly enhanced the strike capability of the Indian Armoured Corps.
The Arjun Main Battle Tank (MBT) is a third generation indigenous tank produced by the Combat Vehicles Research and Development Establishment (CVRDE) of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), for the Indian Army. It entered service in 2004. it is powered by a single MTU multi-fuel diesel engine and loaded with a 120 mm rifled main gun. It has a very sophisticated indigenously produced fire control system which has been incorporated in the Indian version of the T-90 also.
The latest addition in the tank arsenal of India is the T-90 also of Russian origin. The first 42 tanks were delivered in 2001 and were designated T-90 S. The tank scores over the T-72 with an upgraded engine even as the main armament continues to remais the 125 mm smoothbore gun. It also has an infrared anti-tank guided missile jamming system.
A follow-on contract with Russia was signed in October 2006, for the Indian version of the T-90 named Bhishma to be manufactured in India by the Heavy Vehicles Factory at Avadi. Bhishma is tailored for Indian service and has been developed with assistance from Russia and France.
Thus, the Armoured Corps of the Indian Army is currently equipped with the T-72 – M1 variant with Indian upgrades in Ajeya MK1/MK2; T-90 – M and S variants with DRDO made upgrades and the Arjun MBT.
Today, the Indian Army has Armoured Regiments and Mechanised Infantry units operating in Ladakh much to the consternation of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The armoured profile along the conventional border is dynamic and vibrant with use of the best equipment. The Government of India is leaving no stone unturned in ensuring that the cutting edge of the Indian Army is maintained at peak efficiency with the best equipment and trained manpower.
(Jaibans Singh is a defense and security expert)