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Lieutenant General Joginder Singh Dhillon (1914–2003) was the first post independence Sapper Army Commander (Central Army) and was a decorated and celebrated Indian and Sikh military war hero. Lt Gen Dhillon was the first Army Officer to be awarded the Padma Bhushan on 24 November 1965, for his role in the 1965 Indo-Pak War, where he was the General Officer Commanding Corps (XI corps).

The official citation given for the award was as follows:

“In this Sector, the enemy launched repeated counter-attacks and the conduct of day to day operations called for great tenacity, strong determination and robust mind. Lieutenant General Dhillon displayed all these qualities in abundance and the success achieved by his Corps was to a great extent due to the personality of the General officer”.

He was commissioned into Bengal Engineer Group in 1936, after receiving the Sword of Honour and Gold Medal at the Indian Military Academy in 1935, and standing first in the all-India entrance examination to the Indian Military Academy in 1933. Graduating in 1939 with honours from Roorkee s Thomson Civil Engineering College (now IIT Roorkee), he was soon sent overseas for the first four years of World War II. He saw active service in Iraq, Iran and Burma and, after a stint in the Staff College, Quetta, was again sent to command a field company in Malaya (1945–46), then onto Sourabaya, where he commanded 2 Field Company, before returning home. From 1946 to 1947 he was staff officer in the E-in-C s Office Army HQ, then went to Quetta as garrison engineer, before taking over as GSO1 in the E-in-C s Branch from October 1947 to February 1948 in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

The Bengal Sappers was one of the formations that bore the brunt of the division of the Indian Army during partition. Since the Indian Army’s Corps of Engineers had centres in Bangalore, Roorkee and Kirkee, under the terms of Parition the centres in Bangalore and Kirkee would remain in India, while the Roorkee centre’s assets would go to Pakistan. In the division on a two-third, one-third basis the majority assets in the Roorkee centre’s case went to Pakistan’s Engineers Centre at Sialkot, including plant and equipment and more than half its personnel, and one-third of the regimental fund.

The onus of resurrecting the Bengal Sappers fell to Colonel JS Dhillon, who was the first commandant of the Bengal Sappers after India’s independence. With minimal resources and limited personnel, Col Dhillon reorganized and rejuvenated the Bengal Sappers into the leading engineering group of the Army.

“In the two years after taking command in February 1948 of what was left of the centre, Dhillon turned the challenge of resurrecting it into a personal triumph that left everyone breathless. Combining organisational skill with drive, determination and steel, he rehabilitated the centre, streamlined its training and administration and integrated it into an efficient and war-worthy team”.

“A change of profound importance introduced at the centre which the newly independent nation s army as a whole eventually adopted was that whilst hitherto several messes for the other ranks had cooked food in each unit for a particular caste, Colonel Dhillon decisively ended this outdated practice. He decreed a single integrated mess would serve food to all men and not their caste”.

When Prime Minister Jawarharlal Nehru visited the regimental center at Roorkee in 1949, he was so impressed by the Bengal Sappers that he specifically asked for Col JS Dhillon to command India’s first Republic Day parade
Having taken the salute from Col Joginder Singh Dhillon, Commandant, Bengal Engineer Group and Centre on 25 November 1949 at the Centre Parade Ground, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru specifically asked for him to command the First Republic Day Parade to be held in Delhi.

The Parade was held on 26 January 1950 at the Irwin Stadium, Delhi, and was duly commanded by then Brig Dhillon. The Parade had contingents from Army, Navy, Air Force and the Police and it was one of the finest spectacles of the Independent India staged in Delhi during that period. Brig Dhillon later commanded two infantry brigades and also served as director of technical development and director of weapons and equipment at army headquarters before being promoted to Major General. As Major General, he was selected to attend a course at Imperial Defence College in the United Kingdom, and returned to a posting at the National Defence College and was later given command of a division in August 1960. JS Dhillon was Deputy Chief of General Staff at Army headquarters when he was promoted to GOC, XI corps in Punjab.

“The posting would be the culmination of everything that had gone into the making of this exceptional soldier. When on the morning of September 6, 1965, war with Pakistan broke out, with the XI Corps launching a massive retaliatory attack across the border in Punjab on several fronts at 4 am, the aim was to teach Pakistan a lesson for its unprovoked attack on India in the Chhamb sector a few days earlier”.

Lt Gen J.S. Dhillon was the Commander of XI Corps which was responsible for the Punjab sector during the 1965 Indo-Pak War. He is credited in producing and conducting the battle plan that destroyed or captured over 100 superior Pakistani battle tanks, turning a potentially dangerous defeat into an amazing victory, as the Pakistani tanks were poised to head for the Beas Bridge and then on to Delhi.

“The decisive tank battle of Assal Uttar, near Khem Karan, on September 10 does bear telling. Indian units hid their Sherman tanks 500 metres apart in a U-shaped formation in tall and unharvested sugarcane fields, and snared the enemy s vastly superior Patton tanks into this ambush, annihilating them to the last tank and deciding the outcome of the war.

The destruction of Pakistan s armoured pride and the casualties it suffered, including an artillery brigadier and many other senior officers killed or surrendered, destroyed the enemy s morale. At Assal Uttar, 97 enemy tanks of which 72 were Pattons and 25 Chafees and Shermans were destroyed, damaged or captured intact, of which 28 Pattons were in perfect running condition.

Facing the very modern M-48 Pattons were India s old and inferior Centurions and Shermans outgunned, outdistanced and far fewer in number. And yet Indian losses at Khem Karan were only 32 tanks” Frank Moraes, the editor in chief of the Indian Express, who spent time on the frontlines, wrote: “I was fortunate to spend some time with Lt General J.S. Dhillon, the corps commander in this sector, and to note and understand how greatly the spirit of all, from jawans to divisional commanders, depends on the calibre of the corps commander. Jogi Dhillon is an enthusiastic, intelligent soldier with a physical vigour, drive and combativeness which enable him to be extraordinarily mobile over his wide command and an inspiring presence and example to his officers and men”.

Lt. Gen Dhillon was awarded the Padma Bhushan for his role in the 1965 war and was promoted to Army Commander of the Central Command, from where he retired on August 4, 1970.

Lt Gen JS Dhillon’s counterpart Pakistani Generals who fought against him in the 1965 war, on hearing of his death in 2003, paid warm tribute to him as a great general and warrior.