Early life and military career
His younger brother Lt. General Raheel Sharif is currently serving as Corps Commander Gujranwala in Pakistan Army.
Attack on Gurmakhera Bridge
The General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi launched an attack on India from the western front (West Pakistan) on 3 December 1971. The primary purpose of the attack was to force India on transferring their military strength in East Pakistan to the West, easing pressure on the East. Before the transfer, it was expected that the West Pakistani forces would gather enough territory to negotiate with India after the war for areas in the East. It was also expected that if the Western front attack was successful, it would cause India to pull out of the war due to severe loss of territory. While the Pakistani attack commenced in the localities of Azad Kashmir, Chamb, Sulemanki, the area inclusive and surrounding Shakargarh (Pakistan) and Rahim Yar Khan, was to be defended. During a defensive posture, the army in this area was supposed to facilitate the launch of the Army Reserves, a 5 Division strong section of the Pakistan Army which was commanded by Lt. Gen. Tikka Khan. Even at Solemanki, two companies (100 men each) of 6 Frontier Force, one commanded by Sharif, were initially supposed to make the attack by the Army Reserves possible by making sure that a certain obstacle was removed.
The obstacle was created by India to prevent Pakistani forces from penetrating into Indian territory. They had created an artificial ridge (small mountain), steep on the Pakistani side, but with a low inclination towards the Indian side. This was to prevent the Pakistani forces from easily climbing up the ridge, whereas the Indians could do so with ease. Result being that the Indians could get an aerial advantage over Pakistan. In front of the ridge on the Pakistani side, there was also a river dug up. This was to slow down the Pakistani forces and also to prevent any tanks or heavy artillery from entering Indian territory. There were only two bridges which were making any vehicular movement across the river/ridge possible and India was controlling them both. Inside the ridge there were camouflaged cemented bunkers which would enable the Indians to fire on any Pakistani troops.
It was extremely important for Pakistan to neutralize this ridge, for it would not only pave the way for the Pakistani attack, but it would also make sure that the Indians themselves cannot attack through this area. The ridge was called Saboona Ridge, and the bridge attacked was called Gurmakhera Bridge.
At 5:45 PM, 3 December 1971 Sharif launched the attack against Gurmakhera Bridge. Before reaching the bridge Shabir’s men had to pass next to the Indian village of Beriwala. This village was reasonably well protected by the Indian Army, and they had also installed landmines
in the region next to it for the inconvenience of bypassing troops. Bravo Company knew that there were landmines in the region, but a safe route through was not known. In practice, Bravo company passed through this area safely.
When the company reached the bridge, Farooq Afzal was given the task to take a few men and launch the initial attack. Afzal hence departed from the rest of the party and took a few men closer to the bridge. Two Indian soldiers could be seen standing in front of the bridge. When the Pakistani soldiers killed these men, they were surprised by fire from camouflaged Indian bunkers overlooking the bridge, two of which had the entire bridge area under their firing range. The Indians burst fire upon the Pakistan soldiers hence retarding their progress.
After asking Sharif by radio to provide him with covering fire, Afzal decided to attack the bridge from the front despite the Indian firepower. Breaking up his men into a group of three, he told them to attack with the slogan of Allah O Akbar
, basically to distract the Indians from three different sides, hoping that at least one of the three would crawl up to the bridge and reach the area directly beneath the bunkers, where the Indian guns could not reach. The plan was successful, but in the process 6 Pakistani soldiers were killed. Having reached directly beneath the two bunkers which were covering the bridge, the Pakistani soldiers took them down by lobbing hand grenades inside. Once the two bunkers were neutralized, Sharif and his men joined Afzal. It was time to destroy the rest of the bunkers.
An intense battle developed as the Pakistani soldiers started raiding the bunkers. In some cases where the Indian soldiers finished their ammunition, they started throwing out their wireless sets on the Pakistanis. Hand to hand combat
was also seen occasionally, while in a few cases the Indians ran away, leaving their supplies behind. The most common scene, however, was one in which grenades were lobbed out, and if the Pakistanis survived they would in turn lob one back in. Sharif also had to clear two bunkers himself. While at the first one, he stood next to the bunker and called out the personnel inside to come out. The usual happened and a grenade was tossed out. Sharif, without being able to see properly due to the darkness, reached out, got hold of the explosive, and threw it back inside, stunning the two other men who were neutralizing the bunkers with him. This action was to become the topic of discussion in the entire company for the next two to three hours, and he was unfairly criticised later for being too close to the bunkers in the first place. However, if Sharif hadn’t done this, he would have lost his right arm and leg at least. The second bunker was cleared without any daredevil tricks.
The entire operation of clearing the bunkers and taking control of the Saboona Ridge took 30 minutes. Shabir then took out the signal gun
and fired a success signal straight up in the air. The other companies were now aware that Sharif and his men had taken control of the Gurmakhera Bridge and the Saboona Ridge. The other companies were to proceed with their attacks, one of which involved capturing the Beriwala village that Sharif had bypassed earlier. It was pitch dark. Sharif and a few men started collecting the bodies of the Pakistani soldiers who had died in the assault. Digging of new bunkers, this time on the opposite side of the ridge than the one facing Pakistan also began simultaneously. It was at that time that an old man’s voice was heard from a distance. “We need to go back to Gurmakhera village. The Pakistanis have attacked Beriwala.” Shabbir went closer to the old man. The man could not recognize the Pakistani army uniform due to the darkness. He believed he was talking to an Indian soldier. “I brought my son’s barat (wedding procession) to Beriwala in the afternoon. The Pakistanis have captured the village. We had to run during the rukhsati (last ritual of the wedding).” “Don’t you know that there is a war going on?” Shabbir asked in Punjabi. “This is a silly time to have a wedding, that too when you are so close to the border.” “Please protect us. I have a whole procession with me here. Even the girl’s family is here. We need to get back to our village. The Pakistanis are coming in this direction.” Sharif decided not to waste time, or unnecessarily panic the old fellow. “We will take care of the Pakistanis. You hurry up and get all your people across. And listen to the radio more frequently for any important announcements.” He then called alerted all of his people manning the positions at the bridge that a wedding procession was going to be passing through, and there should be no fire on it. While the procession was crossing over the ridge, a soldier asked Sharif: “Sir. These people are legitimate POWs. Why are we letting them cross?” Shabbir smiled. “Have a heart soldier. This is the happiest day of their lives. Let’s not make them spend it inside a cell.” When the news of the Pakistani attack reached the opposing brigade commander, Brig. Surjeet Singh, he immediately ordered the Delta company of 4 Jat Regiment (150 men), and a squadron of T-54 tanks to recapture the lost land, specifically the Saboona Ridge and the Gurmakhera Bridge. Although the number of soldiers in the attacking force was more than Shabbir’s men, it was the lack of any armour (tanks) on the Pakistani side that made this move appear to be extremely threatening. At 11:00 PM, one of Shabbir’s men informed him that he could hear tanks approaching the Gurmakhera Bridge. After Shabbir himself confirmed the noises, he positioned his rocket launchers near the bridge. There were three rocket launchers at his disposal, and two men were required to man each one. There was also some ammunition that had been taken from the defeated Indian forces on the ridge. Two of the rocket launchers were placed in such a manner that the tanks would have to go past them before they could come near the Gurmakhera Bridge or the Saboona Ridge. The third was positioned near Shabbir, to be used as a back up in case the first two failed. When the tanks eventually came in pitch darkness, Shabbir was stunned to see that they passed by the first two positions without any fire from the Pakistani soldiers. Shabbir immediately called the men through wireless, and asked them why they didn’t shoot? “Sir, these are Pakistani tanks,” a soldier replied from the other side. “No they are not,” Shabbir screamed, “Why would our tanks come from the side of the other bridge? That is not in Pakistani control. And I have not been informed of their arrival either from our headquarter. Shoot!” Despite the clarification, there was so much confusion amongst the ranks that no one fired. Shabbir knew that if these had been Pakistani tanks they would have crossed over the ridge 3 km to the West and come as a reinforcement on the Indian side. He got hold of the rocket launcher which was near him, and fired at one of the tanks. When the tank caught flames and illuminated the scene, Sikhs were seen coming out of it. It was at that time that the entire Pakistani force started firing on the Indians. The Indian foot soldiers were closer to the tanks, and they could be easily spotted due to the flames and also due to the aerial advantage that the Pakistani forces had. From the initial 14 tanks that were ordered to attack, only 8 had managed to reach the bridge, and 4 of them had been destroyed in the first 5 minutes of the battle. The others too were safe only because they were out of range of the rocket launchers and Anarga grenades (mounted on G3 rifles) which were at the disposal of the Pakistanis. These adverse circumstances made anything else but the Indian retreat a nonviable option. During this skirmish, 10 Pakistanis were killed and 13 injured, while on the Indian side there were 43 killed, numerous injured and 10 were made POWs, including an officer. Despite the victory, Sharif knew that this was only the beginning, and that having invested so much time in the development of the ridge, the Indians would definitely try to retake it. He immediately contacted the battalion headquarters and asked for further ammunition and landmines. Another mystery surrounding the situation was why the Indians had not blown away Gurmakhera Bridge, which is usual in such war conditions. Around 4:00 AM, an ammunition jeep arrived at the site. There were no confusions on this occasion about its origin. In between, there had been a small attack on Sharif and his positions, but had been easily repulsed as the Indians were much less in number, and there were no tanks involved. When day broke, a search was carried out to find out any Indian soldiers hiding in the captured area. 55 men were rounded up, 3 being officers. Add to these the 10 POWs captured the last night, and Shabbir now had 65 POWs in all. “We should organize a party that escorts them back to our headquarters,” an officer suggested to Shabbir. “It is a long walk. Plus I need every one of my men to be here. No point in unnecessarily tiring my men,” Shabbir replied. “But they have to be sent back, we cannot keep an eye on them over here forever.” After a quiet moment, Shabbir said to the officer: “Ask them to take off their shoes” “What? Shoes?” exclaimed the officer in confusion. “What are we going to do with their shoes?” “Have you ever tried to walk in this area without your shoes?” Shabbir asked. “I have, and I tell you, it is next to impossible to go far without them. Firstly you cannot run very fast, and chances of getting serious injuries on the foot are very high.” The officer assembled all the Indian POWs, and asked them to take off their shoes. “They will try to run in any case,” the officer privately remarked to Shabbir. “Yes I know,” Shabbir said, “I will take care of that as well.” He then addressed the Indians. “Listen, you see that tree. You will make a line, put your hands above your heads and run to that tree. Our headquarter is over there. Tell them that you will have been sent by Shabbir Sharif. Now, if anyone tries to run away, or break away from the line, I will shoot him and also the man in front and behind him. From this height I will be able to see all that is happening. If everyone starts running at the same time, I will ask my men here to take part in some duck shooting and we will shoot all. So do not push me.” The POWs reached the headquarters without any escort. None tried to escape. Once the POWs had been sent back, Shabbir’s men searched the bunkers thoroughly. A wireless set was found, and although it had fixed frequency, the Indians had forgotten to change it during the attack. This gave a tremendous advantage to Shabbir, as he could now listen to the plans that were being made on the Indian side to recapture Gurmakhera Bridge. The other interesting item that was found was a bundle of Indian currency. This was perhaps the salary that was to be distributed amongst the Indian soldiers but had not been done so due to the Pakistani attack. Shabbir ordered the currency to be sent back to the headquarters so that they could give it back after the war, although due to the lack of firewood, a small amount of the currency was burnt to make tea. At 8:30 PM on 4th Dec. 1971, the Indians (4 Jat Regiment) attacked again with a squadron of T-54 tanks. Shabbir knew that they were coming, courtesy the wireless set that had been captured. He was also in a much better position ammunition wise, with now having 102 millimeter anti tank guns, and landmines. The fight took place for only 30 minutes, with the Indians retreating with 14 dead, 21 injured and 8 MIAs
. The Pakistani side suffered minor injuries but no casualty. Having suffered three defeats in their effort to retake the Gurmakhera Bridge or the Saboona Ridge, the Indians finally launched a major attack on Shabbir’s men on the night of 5th Dec 1971. This attack had the support of 4 Jat and 3 Assam regiments, and T-54 tanks amidst heavy artillery shelling. This was the biggest attack to date on the site, with around 800 men from the Indian side being involved. A company commander from the 4 Jat Regiment, Major Narayan Singh, had sworn before going on this attack that he would either retake the bridge, or would never return. Narayan Singh was also interested in defeating Shabbir Sharif, as for the last two days he had been hearing from his own men that the Pakistani side had a very tough commander with them (something which Singh could not afford to have if he was to keep the morale of his men high). While the battle was going on, Narayan Singh, with a few men, came very close to Shabbir’s position. “Where is Shabbir Sharif?” he called out, “If he has the courage, he should come out right now and face me like a man.” Shabbir Sharif, being as hot headed as Singh, left his position and jumped in front of him upon the call. Perhaps Narayan Singh could not make out that it was Shabbir Sharif, as it was very dark, and he lobbed a grenade in his direction. The grenade exploded a few feet away from Shabbir, and his shirt caught fire. A few Pakistani soldiers also came out and tried to put out the fire, as Shabbir himself was only obsessed with Narayan Singh’s call. Seeing the Pakistani soldiers coming out, some of the Indians accompanying Singh were about to open fire when Singh stopped them. “No firing,” he said, “This is a man-to-man fight.” Shabbir too, for his part, told his men to step back. The fire on his shirt had been extinguished. Both the Indian and Pakistani soldiers stepped back, but at the same time never took their guns off each other, or their fingers off the triggers. A hand to hand combat followed between Sharif and Singh. The soldiers in the direct vicinity were standing close by as armed spectators. The rest of the soldiers, on the ridge, were at the same time involved in the fierce battle that was taking place due to the Indian attack. Singh had his sten gun in his hand, and Shabbir held his wrist to prevent him from firing. After a short struggle, Shabbir managed to throw Singh on the ground and put his knee on his chest. Taking the sten gun from his hand, he emptied it in Singh’s chest. While the Pakistani soldiers came to Sharif to check whether he was alright, those accompanying Singh disappeared in the darkness. The attack subsided yet again in an Indian retreat, although this was done after testing Shabbir’s men to their fullest of capabilities. During this attack, there were 3 killed and 11 injured on the Pakistan side, while there were 19 killed, 45 injured, and 34 taken as POWs on the Indian side. 9 Indian tanks were also destroyed in this attack by the Pakistani artillery shelling and anti tank guns (2 or 3 of these tanks were rendered useless for they got stuck in the land before they were taken out). Later, it was revealed that Major Narayan Singh was given Vir Chakra by India, a medal that is equivalent to the Pakistani Sitara-e-Jurrat, for his performance on the battlefield in 1971. Shabbir’s right shoulder was badly burnt due to the fire that he had caught while fighting with Singh. When asked by one of his subordinates to go back and get some treatment, he said: “I didn’t leave men fighting on the battlefield when I was not responsible for them. This time around I am their commander. Do you think I am going to go back leaving these men who I am supposed to command?” He was referring to the 1965 war, when he, as an ordinary Lieutenant, had been injured severely in the arm. Having gone back to the hospital to treatment, his arm was put in plaster and he was told that he could not take part in the war anymore. He, however, escaped from the hospital and went to the battlefront, where he fought the rest of the war with one arm in plaster! The 5th December attack created a lot of despondency amongst the Indian forces. Terming it a crisis, both GOC Major Gen. Ram Singh, and his Artillery Advisor G.S. Rain took effective charge from Brigadier Surjeet Singh. The Indians attacked yet again at 11:00 AM on 6th Dec. 1971. Shabbir was manning a 102 millimeter gun when a tank fired in his direction. He fired back at the tank and took it out. With a second tank lurking nearby, Shabbir could have abandoned the gun and saved his own life. He instead decided to keep firing at the tank in an attempt to render it useless before it caused any further damage. However, the tank’s shell landed only inches away from Shabbir and exploded, throwing Shabbir and two other Pakistani soldiers 5 feet up in the air. Shabbir died seconds after he fell on the ground. His last words were: “Don’t lose the bridge.” Having seen Shabbir dead, the Pakistani soldiers fought with even more vigor, more out of revenge than for anything else. The Indian attack was beaten back, but at a grave cost. One of the bravest soldiers in the history of the Pakistan army had died. He was given the country’s highest gallantry award, Nishan-e-Haider for his actions and eventual sacrifice for his country. This is perhaps the only case in Nishan-e-Haider history, where the gallantry award was given, not for a specific act, but for his inspiring performance throughout the war, until he died. After the War, one of the Indian commanders, Col. Shashi Pal, came to the headquarters in the Pakistan area for talks. He was given the currency that Shabbir had sent back from the bunkers, with due apologies for the currency that had been burnt for making tea. Shashi Pal shook his head slightly and said, “Politics apart, he was a fine soldier.” Later it was also found out that the Indians did have the explosives in place to blow up Gurmakhera Bridge. But the remote detonation had not worked for one reason or the other.
There were a number of attacks on Saboona Ridge and Gurmakhera Bridge by the Indians between 6 December and 8 December which were repulsed. Pakistani soldiers also captured Gurmakhera village and successfully defended it against an Indian attack on 15–16 December 1971. The army high command for some unknown reason was totally numb. They could not take the decision to attack through the Army Reserves, and take advantage of a situation that Sharif and his men had created for them till the 5th of December. Even the brigade and corps commanders of the Solemanki sector suggested an attack to GHQ, but it took the high command three days just to review and reject it. They have been duly condemned for this hesitancy in the Hamood ur Rehman Report. The reversal during the Longewala, Shakargarh and Sialkot sectors also meant that most of the Army Reserve troops had to be sent to replenish those forces which had been on the losing side. Hence depleted, it was never in a position to attack. Another problem that the GHQ mentioned for their inaction was the lack of coordination between the Air Force and the Army, and also between 2 Corps and 4 Corps which were operating in this area (2 Corp was supposed to attack India). General Niazi’s incorrect reports being sent from East Pakistan from 6 December onwards could also have made the GHQ think that perhaps it was pointless to attack India if Niazi could not hold on to East Pakistan. After all, the point of the Western Theatre attack was to diminish Indian forces in the East, and also to make them retreat out of that territory. General Niazi was later recommended for court martial in the Hamood ur Rehman report. The recommendation, however, has not been carried out as yet.
He is the only person to have been awarded both the Sitara-e-Jurrat and Nishan-e-Haider, although they were given on separate occasions.