1971 Bangladesh War

Heliborne Operations by Sylhet Gorkhas Leads to Early Surrender at Dacca

With the turmoil in (then) East Pakistan, the arrest of Sheikh Mujib-u-Rehman and declaration of  Martial Law, by the end of April 1971, it had became evident that Indian Army would be  required to prepare for war against East Pakistan. Accordingly, Eastern Command was directed to start planning for the operations. By the end of May 1971, a plan formulated at Eastern Command level enumerated an offensive along three major thrust lines. These were:

  1. II Corps (4 and 9 Divisions) as Western Thrust towards Jessore
  2. North-eastern thrust by part of XXIII Corps (20 Mountain Division and couple of brigades from Army reserves) towards Dinajpur/Bogra
  3. Eastern thrust by IV Corps (8 (less a brigade), 57 and 23 Mountain Divisions).

The plan at this stage talked of Dacca as the final objective, but neither direction nor force level/formation was defined. By July 1971, at Army Headquarters level,  a broad framework of a plan was made, which enumerated blockade and isolation of East Pakistan, segmenting Pakistani defences to prevent withdrawal or reinforcements and finally bypass fixed defences and secure important communication centres. Dacca, in these deliberations, was not defined as an objective.

Map showing river basins of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan)

Map showing river basins of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan)

In August, then COAS General, later Field Marshal SHFJ Manekshaw, accompanied by then DGMO Major General K K Singh, visited the Headquarters of Eastern Command to discuss the plan. The team, as well as Army Commander, Lieutenant General J S Aurora, were sceptical about capturing Dacca within the time frame of a short war and felt that the orthodox techniques and shortage of bridging equipment would make Dacca unattainable. Finally, Khulna {II Corps} and Chittagong {IV Corps} were made terminal objectives, without mention of Dacca. At a later stage, the Navy agreed to blockade Chittagong in support of IV Corps operations. As a result of  further discussions, a modified plan emerged.  In this plan, objectives were divergent; II Corps to contact Padma River, XXIII Corps was to slice Hilli-Gaibanda Neck. Northern thrust of 101 Comn Zone was to be given a brigade (59), tentatively allocated a battalion para drop and the formation was to advance towards Jamalpur/Mymensingh/Tangail and had only River Brahmputra (500 metres wide) to cross to reach centre of then East Pakistan. IV Corps was to contact Meghna River and contain Sylhet. Even at this stage, no clear directives were given for capture of Dacca. However, the plan talked about regrouping of the forces after II Corps reaching Goalunda Ghat on Padma River, XXIII Corps reaching the confluence of Ganga and Brahmaputra called  Hilli-Gaibanda Neck, while IV Corps was not expected to go beyond Meghna River and much was not expected of 101 Comn Zone. On 16th August, Army Headquarters issued Operation Instruction based on which Eastern Command issued instructions for objectives for each thrust. Even at this stage, Dacca was not mentioned in any of them. In this plan, the two formations that could reach Dacca were 101 Comn Zone and IV Corps, once it crossed Meghna River. But this was not defined. By this time, Mukhti Bahini forces, grouped under various sectors, were operative. Their results were as expected, but in spite of their best efforts, lacked the ability to hold ground for longer period(s). By the end of September and beginning of October, even Indian Army sub units went inside the East Pakistan territory in support of Mukhti Bahini operations; like Sarkar Bazar, Charkhai- Sylhet, Banga etc. These forays were more of harassment tasks, rather than contributing to the objectives enumerated in the Eastern Command plan. By the end of November, own troops had launched so called 'Knife Thrusts', aiming at attacking Pakistani regular troop positions; to capture territory and cause attrition. Dhalai, Atgram, Zakiganj etc. were some of such actions, which were successfully undertaken prior to declaration of war on 3rd December 1971. By this time, most of the formations had captured areas, which nearly positioned them ahead of their launch pads and many of these places were either their initial objectives or closer to them.

From this point onwards, this paper will deal with the main topic as to how Dacca became the terminal objective, ground and heliborne operations leading to the surrender at Dacca; mainly discussing the operations of 101 Comn Zone and IV Corps, which finally knocked on the doors of Dacca Cantonment. 101 Comn Zone had its objectives as Jamalpur/Jaidevpur with possible para drop at Tangail, to pose a threat from Northern direction. No time line was given to them and initial thrusts of this force, duly supported by Mukhti Bahini, progressed satisfactorily. After 9th December, an additional brigade (167) was given to them. IV Corps, as per plans, had planned to capture Comilla by D + 7, secure Meghna River Line by D + 18, secure approaches to Sylhet and if possible capture Sylhet (No time frame was given for the capture of Sylhet. D Day being the day War breaks out/offensive is launched). Akhaura was to be captured for the security of Agartala and finally Chittagong was to be isolated/ captured after completion of all other tasks. As the operations progressed in the 8 Mountain Division sector, 81 Mountain Brigade captured Shamsher Nagar Airfield, 4/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force) captured Gazipur on the night  of 4/5 December, after an attack the night before by 6 Rajput had failed. By 6th December morning, 4/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force) had secured the Kalaura rail head leading to Sylhet.

On the evening of 6th December, IV Corps was directed by Eastern Command to launch Heliborne Operation at Sylhet on the next day (7th December). This heliborne operation was planned and launched on the presumption and information that troops from Sylhet had withdrawn, various axes leading to Sylhet secured and there would be no or nominal resistance to the heliborne force. Also, satellite reconnaissance from a friendly country had revealed that Sylhet was unoccupied. However, confirmed and corroborated information was that 22 Baluch had prematurely withdrawn from Kalaura, after an attack on Gazipur by 4/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force), to Sylhet, which was indicative enough that Sylhet was occupied ab-initio by reasonable strength and further strengthened.  Actually at Eastern Command a Pakistani message from Dacca to Pakistani 14 Infantry Division was intercepted, which gave orders to the division to move a brigade of the division to Meghna River. The assessment at Eastern Command level was that the only brigade which could be withdrawn from the Pakistani 14 Infantry Division had to be from Sylhet proper, giving an assessment that Sylhet was or would soon be vacated. At IV Corps Headquarters, Corps Commander Lieutenant General Sagat Singh, never mentioning about the directive of the Eastern Command, gave the impression that Sylhet Garrison wanted to surrender and hence a  Heliborne Operation by a Battalion, which would be walk-in for the Battalion. The Corps Commander had discussions with Major General K. V. Krishna Rao, GOC 8 Mountain Division, and it was decided to launch 4/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force) for the operation. As per General Rao, in spite of heavy casualties in two successful attacks at Atgram and Gazipur, "It was the best battalion in my Division. It has great pride and esprit de corps; a feeling that nothing will deter and are prepared to make any sacrifice."  Based on these inputs, the first reconnaissance flight to Sylhet was carried out on the morning of 7th December at about 1000 hours, when Commander 59 Mountain Brigade Brigadier C. A. Quinn, Group Captain Chandan Singh Commander 6 TAC, 4/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force) Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel A. B. Harolikar, and Wing Commander R. S. Sandhu flew over Sylhet. No fire was drawn, reinforcing the idea that Sylhet was vacated.

With a plethora of intelligence information, confidence at higher level was that Sylhet was vacated. Two companies under a Commanding Officer took off from Kalaura and landed at Mirpara on the outskirts of Sylhet, at 3 PM on 7th December 1971. The landing was contested by Pakistani troops, heavy MMG fire and artillery shells, indicating that Sylhet was occupied and well defended. The landing troops held ground in spite of strong reaction and counter attacks.  There were no further flights on 7th December and the balance of the Battalion build up happened only on the next morning (8th) and adopted wider deployment to give the impression of a larger force having landed. The media added further inputs by reporting that a brigade had been heli-landed at Sylhet.

Heli landing Sylhet - 7th Dec. 1971

Heli landing Sylhet - 7th December 1971

(Click on image to enlarge)


Surrender Ceremony - 16th Dec. 1971, 4 PM

Surrender Ceremony - 16th Dec. 1971, 4 PM

(Click on image to enlarge)













On 8th December, the forward company commander of the heliborne force (Major Kaul) switched on his radio set and  picked up a clear conversation of 313 Infantry Brigade having been in Sylhet and planning a counter attack on the heli-landed force. Due to wider deployment adopted by the Battalion, the Pakistanis were under the impression that a  full brigade had landed and they were trying to regain some of the area with this counter attack. To quote Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel A. B. Harolikar (in the book, Bravest of the Brave): "From a wireless  transmission intercepted by Major Kaul, it  was clear that 313 Infantry Brigade had arrived in Sylhet on 7th December and along with 202 Infantry Brigade, were planning an attack (with five companies) on Alfa (Major Rana) and Delta (Major Kaul) Companies, which were posing a serious threat to the bridge, besides also being a road block."

Lt. Gen J.S. Aurora with Hav. Dil Bahadur Chettri, MVC and Lt. Col A. B. Harolikar, MVC, after the war

Lt. Gen J. S. Aurora with Hav. Dil Bahadur Chettri, MVC, and Lt Col A. B. Harolikar, MVC, after the war.

(Click on image to enlarge)

The information of the radio intercept was duly passed on to the higher formations. In the Pakistani plans, Pakistani Brigade (313) was meant to defend crossings over Meghna River, Coronation Bridge and approach to Dacca. Instead this brigade withdrew to Sylhet, on orders of the GOC Pakistani 14 Infantry Division (Qazi Majid) and 4/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force) had now to tackle two brigades (202 and 313). The higher thinking on receipt of this information from the Battalion can be best summed up in the words of Lieutenant General JFR Jacob, PVSM (in the book, Birth of a Nation): "On 7th December, 4/5 Gorkha Rifles of 59 Mountain Brigade had been  lifted by helicopters to the South-East of Sylhet across the Surma River. The Pakistanis had evacuated the civilian population from Sylhet and fortified the town. The Pakistani 202 Infantry Brigade held the defences. Pakistani 313 Infantry Brigade, ex-Maulvi Bazar, joined the Sylhet Garrison, bringing the strength up to six battalions, one regiment of 105 mm. guns and one battery of 120 mm. mortars. The move of Pakistani 313 Infantry Brigade from Maulvi Bazar to Sylhet had not been anticipated by us at Command Headquarters and came as a surprise. We had expected this brigade to fall back to Coronation Bridge on the Meghna River, for the defence of the Meghna crossing and Dacca. Had they done so, IV Corps progress across the Meghna would have been difficult. When we got the radio intercepts confirming their move to Sylhet, we were relieved. It meant for all practical purposes, that two infantry brigades were out on a limb at Sylhet, where they could be contained and their effectiveness neutralised. After the war, whilst interrogating the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Pakistani division (14), Major General Abdul Quazi (Qazi Majid), I asked him why he had moved this brigade to Sylhet. He replied that he was determined that he would not let us capture Sylhet. Niazi’s fortress strategy and the divisional commanders implementation of this policy speeded up the disintegration of Pakistani defence capabilities and facilitated the capture of Dacca."

Late Lieutenant General A.A.K Niazi narrates this move as treason (in the book, Betrayal of Pakistan): "Within the overall defensive plan of the sector, 14 Division had been entrusted with the task of defending Narsingdi-Narayanganj Sector. They were to fall back, when ordered, from Sylhet and Ashuganj. Sylhet Brigade had come down to Maulvi Bazar. Majid (GOC 14 Infantry Division) had been given the mission to fall back on Dacca after the destruction of the Bhairab Bazar Bridge. I ordered him to fall back to Narsingdi. He regretted his inability to do so. He was specially given six ferries for the move to Dacca and the railway line was also available to him - it was later used by Indians, and his troops watched the spectacle. He could easily have reached Dacca, but he never even made (an) attempt. It appears his disobedience was part of the plan to let the East Pakistan garrison face ignominy. He knew that the defence of Dacca was vital. Still he failed to obey. I, therefore, removed him from the command of his division and put his troops under the command of 36 Division." (After the war and repatriation, Major General Qazi Majid was tried by a Court Martial for treason).

Lt. Gen Sagat Singh and Maj. Gen. K. V. Krishna Rao with Hav. Dil Bahadur Chettri at Sylhet

Lt. Gen. Sagat Singh and Maj. Gen. K. V. Krishna Rao with Hav. Dil Bahadur Chettri at Sylhet

(Click on image to enlarge)

On the morning of 9th December, on receipt of information at Command Headquarters and IV Corps, it was decided, that 4/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force) having tied down two Pakistani Brigades at Sylhet (202 and 313), all resources must be geared to establish link up with the heliborne force. It was also appreciated that the Pakistanis had no force available to defend the Meghna crossings. What was the worry was that how far 4/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force) could continue to hold the two brigades at Sylhet and advance to Meghna river. Lieutenant General Sagat Singh had his vision now fixed on Dacca, since the Meghna river would not be defended strongly and gave an opening towards Dacca. As per the earlier plans, contact of Meghna river by IV Corps was to be made by 21 December (D + 18 - D Day being 3rd December). At this stage, the plan of the IV Corps  advance only upto the Meghna River was suddenly changed to be the first to cross the Meghna and race towards Dacca. Even at this stage, the surrender of Dacca was not envisaged. To implement this revised plan to cross the Meghna river, all helicopter  resources meant for 4/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force) were diverted on the 9th for ferrying operations of 311 Infantry Brigade and 57 Mountain Division and 4/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force) left on its own, with no link up for next 8 days. In fact, Heliborne Operations of 4/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force), now fondly called Sylhet Gurkhas, had tied down the brigades who would have defended Meghna/Dacca and this opened the route for an unopposed crossing of the Meghna river by IV Corps troops to enable them to pose a threat to Dacca from the Eastern Thrust Line.

Sylhet Trophy unveiled in 1983

Sylhet Trophy Unveiled in 1983

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The movement of IV Corps towards Dacca gained momentum and where the plans were to contact Meghna river on D + 18 (21st December), IV Corps troops reached and crossed Meghna river much earlier (14th December). On the 14th, 101 Comn Zone was placed under command of Advance Tactical Headquarters of IV Corps, in situ, at the behest of IV Corps, who were now around Meghna river. In the meantime, GOC 101 Comn Zone (Major General G. Nagra) along with his GSO 1 (Lt. Gen. Y. M. Bammi, PVSM, AVSM), and some forces (Company 2 Para,  6 Sikh LI and Mukhtis under Brigadier Sant Singh, MVC), reached Dacca on the morning of 16th at about 10 AM and established contact with General Niazi. In fact, Major General Nagra sent a small note on the scribbling pad of his GSO 1 to Niazi for an early meeting. They knew each other when Major General  Nagra was Defence Attaché in Pakistan and Niazi was a brigade commander.  At about 11 AM, Lieutenant General J. F. R. Jacob arrived and met Niazi and the surrender ceremony planned for the same evening. When this was happening at Dacca, Sylhet Gurkhas (4/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force)) had been inside Sylhet town for nearly 24 hours, having had the surrender ceremony completed on 15th December at 3 PM, when IV Corps troops were nowhere close to Dacca. Then, on the morning of the 16th at 9 AM, they (Sylhet Gurkhas) took the physical charge of 3 Brigadiers, 1 Colonel, 107 officers, 219 JCOs  and 6190 soldiers and 39 non-combatant Pakistanis.

An analysis of the Heliborne Operations by Sylhet Gurkhas will indicate that the operation was mounted in an intelligence vacuum, in an area appreciated to be devoid of Pakistani troops. The Sylhet Gurkhas landing was opposed and not withstanding strong opposition, held ground till the two Pakistani brigades surrendered on 15th December, even before the official ceasefire. Had 313 Pakistan Infantry Brigade not moved into Sylhet, things would have been different at the theatre level. This could have been all the more different if Sylhet Gurkhas had not tied down the two brigades from the 7th to the 15th of December. Possibly, if Lieutenant General Niazi had succeeded in getting this brigade (313) to defend the Meghna river and Narsingdi, making movement of IV Corps as well as 101 Comn Zone  towards Dacca difficult, the Dacca surrender may not have taken place on 16th December.

On a conservative estimate, the Heliborne Operation of Sylhet Gurkhas (4/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force)) made it possible for Indian Army and Mukhti Bahini to reach Dacca much earlier than planned; at least by 8 days. On the 16th, when the surrender ceremony was going on at Dacca, Sylhet Gurkhas were celebrating with a toast, in honour of three fold success of the Battalion:

  1. First Ever Successful Heliborne Operation of  Indian Army, which tied the two brigades from the 7th to the 15th of December.
  2. Surrender of two Pakistani Brigades (202 and 313) on 15th December 1971.
  3. First major surrender to own forces in the Eastern Theatre.

But the fourth larger toast, unknown to them at that time, was reserved for surrender at Dacca, which was thought unattainable. For 'Early Dacca Surrender' was made possible by Sylhet Gurkhas tying down the Pakistani Meghna River Brigade (313), in addition to 202 Pak Infantry Brigade at Sylhet from the 7th to the 15th.

The Battalion by now had three successful major operations to its credit: Atgram, Ghazipur and Sylhet. However, the degree of valour and contribution to the early creation of free Bangladesh, credit also goes to the men of the Sylhet Gurkhas, but not without a price. The cost of glory over the 27 days (20th November to 16th December) was not meagre. Thirty one (4 Officers, 3 Junior Commissioned Officers, 7 Non-Commissioned Officers  and 17 Riflemen) sacrificed their lives. Ironically one officer (Major Puri) and one Rifleman (Rifleman Kanta Bir Thapa) were injured during the 1965 War also, but this time they sacrificed their lives. Another 122 (7 Officers, 2 Junior Commissioned Officers, 32 Non- Commissioned Officers  and 81 Riflemen) were injured. A total of 153 casualties, including 11 Officers, constituted nearly 25 percent of the Battalion strength, out of which 55 were leaders at different levels (Officers, Junior Commissioned Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers); nearly 8 percent of the Battalion strength. This was the leadership and lead provided by Company, Platoon and  Section Commanders. Sylhet is the Battle Honour of The Sylhet Gurkhas and East Pakistan as Theatre Honour and nobody can deny that Heliborne Operations by Sylhet Gurkhas lead to early surrender at Dacca in December 1971.


Brigadier Kaul was Assault Company Commander (D Company) during the infiltration Khukri attack at Atgram and Forward Company Commander during the Battle of Sylhet. He was seriously injured during the battle of Sylhet.


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