In November 1968, three fresh commissions from PMA, arrived in Jhelum to join 26 Cavalry – Syed Hassan Zaheer from Karachi, Pervez Khan from Abbottabad and myself from ‘Pindi. I did not know Hassan well at the academy and only became aware of him when the B-57 Bomber of his uncle Air Commodore Masroor Hussain crashed at Mauripur. The news spread through the academy that Zaheer (for some reason he was not addressed by his first name), was being sent to Karachi to attend the funeral. Masroor was a distinguished war veteran and his death was a major loss to the PAF but it must have been as big a loss to Zaheer since his mother had been widowed many years earlier. Zaheer had followed in the footsteps of his uncle by joining the 43rd GDP at Risalpur prior to the 1965 War but could not make the flying grade and transferred to the Military Academy. During the war the cadets from the PAF Academy were deployed to protect airbases and Hassan proudly wore the 1965 campaign medals that were awarded to them.
Our regiment had been raised the same year to support 23 Division and since we were the only ‘armour boys’ in town, we stuck together whether cycling to the regiment, or an evening in the club or to a movie downtown. Zaheer had a very attractive personality and in spite of being elder to me, I was drawn to him. He was tall and slim with rakish features, an endearing smile and a large mop of hair that he carefully tended. His ever-present comb could slide into the pocket of his tight ‘teddy’ trousers but not his packet of cigarettes which were tucked inside his shirt. He was ‘Urdu speaking’ to the core and a cricket fan to boot. Much of his teens had been spent playing street-cricket and he was one of the most energetic members of the regiment’s cricket team formed by our vibrant commanding officer, Akram Hussain Syed.
In between attending courses at Armoured Corps School at Nowshera, Zaheer and I shared a room in our mess in Jhelum and before falling off to sleep, I occasionally smoked one of his cigarettes. Zaheer was a heavy smoker and used to warn me against acquiring this bad habit. As I came to know him better, I found that he was honest to a fault. One night while I was enjoying one of his cigarettes, I asked Zaheer, “Why is it that I have never heard you fib?” With a whimsical smile he narrated an incident. His bat broke while playing cricket as a teenager. It was an important match and he rushed home, opened his mother’s trunk where she kept his father’s monthly pension and took out enough to buy a new bat. On arriving home after the match, his mother asked about the money and when Zaheer feigned ignorance, she started beating him with her slipper. With tears streaming down her face she kept repeating, “Never tell a lie. Never tell a lie.” This incident was a life-changer for Zaheer and the reason for his very upright nature. However the downside was that he could not stomach nonsense and had a quick temper that got him into scraps from which he had to be rescued.
One evening five of us crowded into my two-seater Sunbeam Alpine and went to see a movie. While I was parking in the narrow alleyway, Zaheer jumped out of the convertible to buy the tickets. It was a mistake that we would not allow him to repeat again. There was an unruly crowd at the ticket booth and within minutes Zaheer was involved in a scuffle. Before it could develop into a free-for-all, the rest of us elbowed our way in and dragged him away.
Since Zaheer was far from his family in Karachi, I used to often take him home to Rawalpindi for weekends. My family enjoyed his simplicity and gentle humour and grew very fond of him. Someone else who also grew fond of him was a very pretty lady doctor who was serving in the Military Hospital at Jhelum. Within a few months they were engaged and Zaheer took her to call on our commanding officer (CO) and his lovely wife Sameena. The next morning the CO walked into my office and with a little smile said “Zaheer brought his fiancé to meet us yesterday.”
“I know sir,” I replied, “He borrowed my car.”
Then with a little twinkle in his eyes Akram continued “Very nice girl but I wish she wasn’t chewing gum all through the evening”.
When I mentioned this to Zaheer, he threw up his hands in exasperation. “I told her to throw it away before we drove into the CO’s gate”, he lamented “but she wouldn’t listen to me.”
Within a couple of years I was adjutant of the regiment and Zaheer the quartermaster. “I don’t like the job” he complained to me. “I have to deal with the sweepers, cooks, the barber, canteen contractor, cobblers and laundry man.” It was not something he was cut out for and to his relief when war clouds started gathering in 1971 and we moved out to our operational area north of Gujrat, he was temporarily given command of Bravo Squadron by Colonel Manto who was now our CO. There was a war coming and our division was training to launch an offensive to capture the Chhamb Salient.
Capt. Tanveer Shah, a company commander of 14 Punjab, was close to Zaheer’s tank and advised the officer to pull back because the terrain was devoid of cover. Zaheer in half jest replied “If I pull back, you infantry guys will say that the amour has withdrawn from the heat of battle”
It was an exciting time for us young officers but I noticed a change in Hassan. He smiled less and smoked a lot more probably because he had a premonition about his death. On returning from leave in Karachi, he gave an inspiring talk to the squadron telling them that the time for honoring their debt to the nation was approaching. He shared with them that he had told his mother that he may never return. Within a month, a major arrived from the Armored Corps School to command Bravo Squadron and Zaheer was told to revert to the Regiment Headquarters. “I didn’t join the Army to fight as a quartermaster” Zaheer pleaded and the CO relented. Hassan wasn’t even prepared to be the squadron second-in-command. “I did not remain in the squadron to command a jeep in war,” and the squadron commander assigned him to lead a tank troop. Step by step he was heading towards immortality.
20 Infantry Brigade with Zaheer’s squadron of 14 vintage Shermans under command was defending opposite the southern flank of the Chhamb Salient. Its secondary mission was to support the division’s offensive further north and capture six Indian border posts and strongpoints. When war broke out on 3 December, a reinforced troop was sent to capture the Nadala enclave across the River Tawi leaving the squadron with 10 Shermans. For the next three days, it was constantly on the move either supporting infantry battalion attacks or rushing to repulse counterattacks that did not materialize. These moves and countermoves took their toll whittling the squadron down to seven tired Shermans that were constantly breaking down.
On the evening of 5 December, the squadron was ordered to support 14th Punjab in a dawn attack on the strongpoint of Jhanda and thus secure the right flank of an armored brigade making a decisive assault on the main Indian defenses on the Phagla Ridge. The JCO from the infantry battalion sent to guide the squadron to the rendezvous at night led the tanks through treacherous gullies and ravines in the dark. Three tanks including Zaheer’s broke down but in spite of the dark and cold of the night he managed to have one repaired and rejoined the squadron which had by now linked up with 14th Punjab.
The attack commenced at 6:45 am towards a line of trees a kilometer away. The objective was overrun but there was little evidence of the enemy. This didn’t seem like Jhanda Post and after conferring with the CO, Ashraf decided to exploit further. 800 meters further, the tanks came up against a minefield and suddenly the squadron was under fire. Artillery explosions around the tanks were accompanied by sharp cracks of narrow misses by armour-piercing rounds of tanks. It didn’t take the squadron much convincing that they were now up against the actual defences of the Indian Jhanda Post.
The infantry went to ground and the tanks tried to find whatever little protection the terrain offered for the 3-meter-high frame of the Sherman. Fortunately, between them and the enemy, there was a slight bulge in the ground and the tanks were not fully exposed. After assessing the situation, the squadron commander sent his co-driver with a hastily scribbled note instructing Zaheer to engage the enemy while the remaining three tanks would side-step to locate a gap in the minefield. Shelling was continuous as well as direct fire from tanks and RRs and the occasional ATGM whizzing past.
Zaheer resolutely kept Jhanda and its surroundings under fire. Capt. Tanveer Shah, a company commander of 14 Punjab, was close to Zaheer’s tank and advised the officer to pull back because the terrain was devoid of cover. Zaheer in half jest replied “If I pull back, you infantry guys will say that the amour has withdrawn from the heat of battle.” Ultimately his luck ran out and he was killed by an artillery round that landed close to his tank.
That evening, Zaheer’s body was buried as ‘Amanat’ in a small graveyard at Karianwalla where his squadron had been before the war. After the ceasefire I met his batman Hanif who was accompanying Zaheer’s coffin to Karachi and carrying his personal effects. I had given Zaheer a jacket that had been worn by my grandfather and because of its sentimental worth, I asked Hanif if I could have it back. “Saab was wearing it when we lowered him into the grave,” Hanif replied.
A few days before hostilities broke out, I had received an unexpected letter from Zaheer whose squadron was located an hour away. “Dear Ali,” it began. “This is the last letter I am writing to you. There is a war coming and I know that I am going to die. You have been like a brother to me and your family has given me great affection.” Zaheer was prophesying his own death and to my everlasting regret, I tore up the letter because I thought it was just an emotional outburst. However, I remember the last line so well. “If there is one thing I regret” he wrote, “I gave you the habit of smoking.”
I cannot blame anyone for my bad habits, especially Zaheer who I remember with great fondness. In fact, every time I used to light a cigarette, I thought of him.