1971 Bangladesh War

Battle of Sylhet

Battle of Sylhet (East Pakistan) - 07 to 16 December 1971

First Ever Heliborne Operation of Indian Army

by 4/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force)

* Brigadier Rattan Kaul (4/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force))

"Even God lends a hand to honest boldness" - Meanander

History in the Making

Some Respite or History in the Making: Gazipur Tea State near Kalaura of Sylhet District of then East Pakistan, defended by a company plus of 22 Baluch, had been annihilated on the night of 4/5 December 1971. A tough nut to crack, the resistance was fierce, for the Pakistanis knew that after the failure of attack by 6 Rajput a day earlier, they were in for another one very soon with more vigour and force. After the assault, 15 dead bodies of the enemy had been counted and at least 40 of their wounded soldiers, including their company commander, were reported to have been carried away. We too suffered heavily; Major Shyam Kelkar, our Second-in-Command and 10 other ranks had made the supreme sacrifice. Four officers; Major’s Yashwant Rawat, Virender Rawat (both Company Commanders), two young officers, two JCOs and 57 other ranks were wounded. With the attack on its Gazipur position, 22 Baluch was completely disorganised; lost communication with its sub units and left for Sylhet without giving any orders; to meet us again at Sylhet, two days later. The Pakistanis vacated Kalaura, which was occupied by the battalion by mid-day 5 December. With Kalaura key to the defences in this sector, Juri secured (59 Mountain Brigade), the road to Fenchuganj / Maulvi Bazar was open to own troops. 59 Mountain Brigade had 4/5 GR (FF) and 6 Rajput at Kalaura, 9 Guards were on Juri axis. 81 Mountain Brigade, of the division (8th) had reportedly contacted Maulvi Bazar. Sylhet now appeared to be 8 Mountain Division's final objective. 4/5 GR (FF) was the only battalion in the division having achieved successes in two decisive battles {Atgram and Gazipur} and it appeared Kalaura was to be a sojourn but unknown it was history in the making on 7 December 1971.... by Four Five (4/5 GR(FF)).

The Depleted Team: The Battalion had fought two decisive actions at Atgram and Gazipur, purely with Khukris; they wiped out B Company 31 Punjab (Pakistan Army) at Atgram including the Company Commander (Major Alvi; posthumously awarded Pakistan's bravery award- Hilal-e-Jurat); caused disintegration of the 22 Baluch at Gazipur. Khukri, as a weapon of the Gurkhas, had struck deep into the enemy psyche, which Pakistanis were unlikely to forget. However, the Battalion by now, had suffered heavy casualties (7 Officers, 3 JCOs (Junior Commissioned Officers) and 92 other ranks) out of which 3 Officers, 1 JCO and 13 other ranks were killed and the rest seriously wounded including Second-in-Command. Leave parties, reinforcements had not fetched up and the strength of a rifle company had  come down to 53-62 persons, with a platoon barely having 20 persons.

Pakistani Deployment And Defence Strategy

Pakistani Deployment in Sylhet Sector: The Pakistanis had two brigades of its 14 Infantry Division in the Sector (General Officer Commanding (GOC) Major General Qazi Majid), with its Headquarters at Bhairab Bazar. One brigade was deployed outside Sylhet District with the second Infantry Brigade (313; Brigadier Iftikar Rana) at Maulvi Bazar, covering the approaches from Dharmanagar/Shamsher Nagar - Kalaura / Juri. Initially, it was also to look after the approaches to Sylhet with 31 Punjab under its command. It also had 22 Baluch (Lt Col Yasin) (Gazipur and Kalaura)and 30 Frontier Force (Lt Col Amir Mukhtar), covering/defending axis Shamsher Nagar - Maulvi Bazar. 31 Punjab (Late Lt Col Riaz Hussain Javed; Battalion Headquarter at Charkhai) was also initially under this brigade and looking after the Eastern approach (Atgram/Karimganj – Charkhai). The Brigade also had Wing Frontier Corps less two companies, 210 Mortar Battery (120 mm Mortars) and Battery 105mm Howitzers (4 (Lahore) Battery). On 1 October 1971, 202, an adhoc Infantry Brigade (Brigadier Saleemullah) was created with its Headquarters at Sylhet and tasked to defend Sylhet town and guard approaches from North (Dauki) and East (Atgram/Karimganj – Charkhai). 31 Punjab ex 313 Brigade, 91 Mujahid, 31 Field Regiment (Artillery) Company 12 AK Battalion, two Companies of EPCAF and half Wing Frontier Corps (Two Companies of Khyber Rifles and one company of Bajour Scouts/Thal and Tochi Scouts) were part of this brigade (202). 31 Punjab were placed under the command of 202 Brigade in the beginning of December, after having been mauled at Atgram, vacated Charkhai axis and relocated at Sylhet (Khadim Nagar). 500 Razakars, mostly  Bihari Mohajirs, had been incorporated with the regular troops. Not much was known about deployment before 1 October 71, probably held by garrison/static units or 313 Infantry Brigade located at Sylhet and moved to Maulvi  Bazar. By the first week of December 1971, Brigadier S A Hassan was sent to Sylhet.

Pakistani deployment at sylhet 

Sketch Showing the Pakistani Deployment in Sylhet Sector Before 7th December 1971

Actually, Lieutenant General Niazi, Chief Martial Law Administrator, East Pakistan gave orders to GOC 14 Infantry Division to re-deploy 313 Brigade on Coronation Bridge over River Meghna, enroute to Dacca. This would have caused command and control problems for the division; 202 Infantry Brigade looking after a vast area and defending as many as five axes. He (Niazi), therefore, decided to send one brigadier to look after the defences of Sylhet, while GOC 14 Infantry Division could suitably employ 202 Brigade to cover major axes. Brigadier Hassan, found himself amongst two more brigadiers (Rana and Saleemullah) and being the senior-most officer, took over command of  Sylhet Sector, to coordinate ‘Sylhet Fortress Battle’ as envisaged by East Pakistan Military Command Dacca. GOC 14 Infantry Division, however, did not allow 313 Infantry Brigade move to Coronation Bridge and instead moved it to Sylhet, Niazi terming it as disobedience of his orders.

Fortress Sylhet: By 6 Dec 71, key points in the Karimganj- Atgram salient (Eastern Axis) and Gazipur- Kalaura (South-eastern axis) were already in our hands. Further South (Southern Axis), 81 Mountain Brigade had captured Munshi Bazar by 5 December 71 and by the next day (6th), Maulvi Bazar had been isolated/contacted. Pakistani 313 Infantry Brigade with its units had withdrawn to Sylhet; on 7 Dec . This move to Sylhet had not been anticipated or known as on date and came as a surprise. It had been expected that this brigade would fall back to “Coronation Bridge on Meghna” for the defence of the Meghna crossing; an approach to Dacca, making progress of IV Corps operations across Meghna towards Dacca very difficult. Around this time (6th / 7th ) Headquarters Eastern Command is reported to have intercepted a Pakistani wireless transmission that one of the Pakistani brigades in the area, around Sylhet, had been ordered to move out from its location to an unknown destination. This information created an opening for planning an airborne or heliborne assault to capture Sylhet.  If this brigade (313) had reinforced Sylhet; it needed a viable and strong force to capture Sylhet. Noted Pakistani Defence Analyst and Historian, Major General Fazal Muqueem, in his book, “Crisis In Leadership”, mentions the situation as such; "After the fall of Shamsher Nagar, Sylhet had come under heavy pressure from the North and the East. On December 7, 202 Adhoc Infantry Brigade in Sylhet (created on 01 Oct 71) was reinforced by 313 Brigade which had operated in Sharmshernagar area."

Terrain and Approaches to Sylhet: Sylhet Town, a district, communication centre was approachable from four directions from India; Meghalaya, Cachar District (Shillong- Dauki and Atgram-Karimganj- Charkhai), Northern Tripura (Dharmanagar) and was an important place from a military and geographical point of view. Its fall would be a severe set back to Pakistanis, with potential of international repercussions. The sketch above shows the deployment of troops before 7 December 71 in Sylhet; 31 Punjab looking after the area. The other troops, as they withdrew, took defensive positions inside and around Sylhet, the process continued until 7/8 December, when nearly six battalions strength of troops defended Sylhet holding strong points and defended localities. Reconnaissance and Support elements had been pre-positioned at various open places, crossing places from 7 December itself, to deny and intrusion of our forces. They had also observed withdrawal of own regular troops from Atgram – Charkhai axis during the end of November, axis given low priority and troops redeployed. Even 1 East Bengal Brigade under Colonel Zia-ul-Rehman (later General and President of Bangladesh) deployed along this axis did not deter the Pakistanis from readjustment. 

Strategy and Overall Planning Of  First Ever Heliborne Operations

Strategy and Overall Plan of Heliborne Operations: With a plethora of intelligence information, Pakistani troop movements and vacation of Kalaura, plan of 8 Mountain Division capturing Sylhet with a heliborne operations, with ground forces (two brigades) moving along axes to link up, was mooted. This was on the presumption and information that as a result of our multi pincers, threat towards Dacca, troops from Sylhet had been withdrawn and Pakistani troops deployed along various axes leading to Sylhet evicted, badly mauled, disintegrated and there would be no or nominal resistance for the heliborne force. It is also talked that Satellite reconnaissance by Soviets had revealed that Sylhet was unoccupied. However, 22 Baluch having prematurely withdrawn to Sylhet; information confirmed and corroborated from all accounts could have been indicator of the strength at Sylhet. The higher thinking of this plan can be best summed up in the words of Lieutenant General JFR Jacob, then Chief Of Staff Eastern Command; “On 7 Dec, 4/5 Gorkha Rifles of 59 Mountain Brigade had been (This quote is post operations and hence in past tense) 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, 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 commander’s implementation of this policy speeded up the disintegration of Pakistani defence capabilities and facilitated the capture of Dacca.” The strategy would have definitely benefited the overall Eastern Command plan, however, with six battalions in and around Sylhet, with only two brigades of 8 Division (59 and 81) it was not an easy job even for the entire force of the division, least of all for a weak battalion to secure Sylhet,  held by nearly two brigade strength. Echo Force (5/5 GR (FF)) and rag tag of 1 East Bengal Rifle Brigade, assisting the division, could increase numbers but not potential.

Plan: On the evening of 6 Dec, Lieutenant General Sagat Singh, GOC IV Corps met Brigadier CA Quinn (Bunty Quinn), Commander 59 Mountain Brigade, at Kalaura helipad and told him that Sylhet was reported to have been evacuated and it was for just a battalion to be helilifted, next day, to occupy Sylhet. Major General (Later General and COAS) K V Krishna Rao, GOC 8 Division was informed by of this plan by the Corps Commander. On the morning of 7 December, at about 0900 hours, Brigadier Quinn, visited the battalion (4/5 GR (FF)) at Kalaura and informed CO- Lt Col later Brigadier A B Harolikar, MVC (Harry) that the battalion is planned to be helilanded at Sylhet, reported to be devoid of regular troops, on the same afternoon, with a link up by ground forces within 12-24 hours. The CO had reservations about Sylhet being devoid of regular troops and also on link up assurance within 12-24 hours and put up a stout argument that the town was strongly held, link up with 12-24 hours far fetched in view of the slow progress of our ground forces so far and distances to be traversed. Bunty Quinn, in his best soldierly way, disarmed the CO of his apprehensions and prevailed. After some time orders were passed for the impending task. The plan of operation, in outline, was:-

  • A battalion (4/5 GR (FF)) to be helilifted, landed at Mirpara (Outskirts of Sylhet), to secure the railway bridge over River Surma, probe enemy defences and occupy Sylhet,  reportedly vacated by Pakistani troops and also  occupy Sylhet Airport and Radio Station.
  • Multi pronged advance of 8 Division ground forces to establish link up with within 12-24 hours. 81 Brigade to advance along axis Shamsher Nagar- Saistaganj - Maulvi Bazar. 59 Mountain Brigade less a Battalion to advance along axis Kalaura/Jury - Sylhet.
  • 1 East Bengal Brigade (Under Colonel Zia-ul-Rehman) advance along axis Charkhai -Sylhet.
  • 5/5GR (FF) with Mukti Vahini of Echo Force to advance along axis Dauki- Sylhet.
  • Landing on the afternoon of 7 December 1971.

Reconnaissance and Pakistani Strength: By about 10 AM, 7 December, Brigadier Quinn, CO, Group Captain (Later Air Marshal) Chandan Singh, in charge helicopter unit, flew over Sylhet and selected a landing site near Mirpara on the northern bank of the Surma River, east of the railway bridge. The trio hovered for observation over Sylhet and returned to Kalaura. No military activity was noticed, nor was the helicopter fired upon, thus somewhat confirming the belief that the Pakistani 202 Brigade had left Sylhet. The CO (Harry) also felt that his apprehensions ‘seemed’ to be unfounded and that (quote); “Those were not based on any military data, but were only a gut feeling.” His gut feeling was to prove right in the time to come; unknown Pakistanis had increased its strength to two brigades. Late Lieutenant General Niazi in his book ‘The Betrayal of Pakistan’ gives the reasons; “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 Dhaka 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 Dhaka 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 Dhaka, but he never even made (an) attempt. It appears his disobedience was part of the plan to let East Pakistan Garrison face ignominy. He knew that the defence of Dhaka 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.”

Preparation and Conduct of Heliborne Operations- 7 Dec to First Light 8 Dec 71

Preparation and Battalion Plan: There was not enough time to give detailed orders before the CO left for reconnaissance, except that the battalion had to be ready to move in the afternoon by helicopters, with pouch ammunitions and Shakarparas for 48 Hours. On his return the following was the plan and order of landing:-

  • Landing zone Mirpara; outskirts of Sylhet, close to Railroad Bridge over Surma River.
  • Flight of MI – 4 Helicopters with travel time of 25 to 30 minutes; approximately 50 persons per wave.
  • Charlie Company (Major later Colonel) Maney Malik (Maney Malik) first wave followed by Bravo ( Captain VK Sharma (Sharma)), Alfa (Major Dinesh Rana (Dinesh)) and Delta (then under Captain  V K Salgotra (Sally Salgotra) as Company Commander, Major Rattan Kaul (Kaul) as well his relief  Major Yashwant (Yashwant) had been evacuated to Hospital; in that order.
  • To ensure entire battalion landed before last light, with 40-45 minutes turnaround per wave, first wave would take off between 1400-1430 Hours.
  • Charlie Company to secure area around the heli-landing area and also occupy/secure Railroad Bridge.
  • Platoon Bravo Company to secure Radio Station and remainder company to occupy airport.
  • Alfa and Delta Company to remain in heli-landing area for any contingency tasks.
  • CO’s Reconnaissance Group to land with second wave of Charlie Company.
  • Air and artillery support to be planned later.

Epoch Heli-Landing: After taking off from make shift Helipad at Kalaura, the first to land in Sylhet at 1500 hours was a major portion of C Company led by Maney Malik. On landing, they were fired upon by Pakistani regular troops with mounted machine guns. In retrospect, it is obvious that the morning reconnaissance flight and hovering over Mirpara adjacent to an important bridge over river Surma, may have had possibly given away intentions and interest in this particular area and thus the reaction. The first wave, on landing, had no time to organise itself; and went straight charging with the war cry of 'Ayo Gorkhali' in the direction of the enemy. We could also hear enemy's war cries of 'Allah-o-Akbar' coming from different directions. With the landing of first wave, the Pakistanis were left in no doubt about the landing ground and would have also appreciated that we will try and quickly build up with more troops. Therefore, control and denial of the landing area and the area around was crucial to both sides. After about 40-45 minutes, the remaining part of C Company, Commanding Officer’s party and a portion of B Company landed. As troops jumped off, they automatically ran to occupy ground around the landing area.

CO (Harry) Speaks of the Operation till Last Light 7 Dec 71: It will be best to recount what Harry had to recount of this operation.  To quote; “The next 2-3 hours are (were) crucial for subsequent flights to land (after landing of first wave) for build up and dig in, but here, we were facing opposition right from the time of landing. While our helicopters returned to base for subsequent flights the enemy quickly started concentrating more and more troops against us, as slowly but surely, the increasing volume, intensity and spread of MMG fire indicated. However, in retrospect, I think what benefited us in those first crucial hours was the enemy’s awareness that the Gorkhas were against them, as our war cries of Ayo Gorkhali indicated to them. It was only later- after the surrender - that we came to know that it were 31 Punjab personnel, who happened to be opposing our initial landing, with 22 Baluch joining them that night. Thus, while we were kept under increasingly heavy fire with threatening war cries of Allah-o-Akbar and equally threatening  charges  by  these  enemy  detachments; we  noticed  that  they  preferred  to  keep  a respectful distance from us. The only way the enemy could have evicted us was through a bayonet charge. But the enemy knew by its previous experiences with our battalion, that the price they will have to pay would be 10:1 as we were like a cornered cat fighting for its very survival. We had to be extremely careful not to waste our ammunition as we were carrying only a pouch scale of it. Our troops while pressing forward (to enlarge area of control around helipad) were equally careful to open fire only when they were sure to hit the enemy. As this ding dong battle was going on, essential for the control of the landing pad, our second sortie having already involved in the goings on explained above; our total strength (in Sylhet) at that time would have been about 90-100 fighting troops. This consisted of the complete C Company and part of Bravo Company besides my group. This total strength had about 15 LMGs (Light Machine Guns) and 4 MMGs (Medium Machine Guns), all scattered in small detachments of 2-3 persons each. In spite of all these numbers of LMGs and MMGs, we had to be extremely careful about ammunition expenditure. I could see these detachments moving from place to place trying to chase away Pakistani detachments who were trying to contain us in a smaller and smaller circle, failing their effort to eliminate/evict us.”  The returning flights of helicopters, with visible bullet marks, must have given some first hand information to higher headquarters about the resistance at Sylhet. Pakistani 202 Brigade was still in Sylhet and therefore airport, bridge and radio stations could not be 'occupied' and required a planned attack to capture them. This, at this stage, (afternoon of 7th December) was beyond the capabilities of the battalion less two companies. The situation needed discussion with Commander 59 Mountain Brigade (Brigadier Quinn) by the CO. However, the rear link provided to the battalion by the divisional signal regiment for communication, had not fetched up. Its absence, at this stage, brought home isolation from our forces and controlling headquarters.

sylhet actual site photograph

Actual Site Photograph with Digitalised Annotations.

Again to quote Harry; “As time moved forward on its irreversible course, the first indications of dusk were felt by the decreasing light and the increasing cold. It was more than one hour since the previous 'wave' had landed and the third wave should have come at least 15-20 minutes back. In a short while, the sun would set and with that, our hopes of our battalion concentrating would also vanish, as helicopters then, did not have night landing facility. With the strength of the enemy slowly increasing; our small detachments, scattered in all directions, were in danger of being eliminated piecemeal. It was necessary that these detachments continue their resistance in that fashion, to retain control of the landing ground (and the area around it), so as to enable the remaining battalion to land. But at the same time, to avoid increasing casualties and to be able to defend ourselves effectively, it was also necessary to concentrate the existing strength, and fight to the last man last round, by occupying a proper defensive position. The only defensible position around, was a raised mound - a small high ground -nearby. Occupying a defensive position there would mean losing the control of the helipad. Which also meant that as and when battalion lands, it was likely to be slaughtered while landing, as I was not in communication with them. A Catch 22 position! Even today, almost 30 years after (The impressions were penned down by Brigadier Harolikar in 2001), I see myself standing in the dark with the sounds of bullets whizzing past, artillery and mortar shells landing around, war cries of Ayo Gorkhali indicating a touch and go situation, making life and death difference for all of us, and my mind torn between the two alternatives. I was confident that our remaining battalion will land by dawn the next morning. I had over a period of the earlier two battles, (Atgram and Gazipur) developed an implicit trust and confidence in Brigadier Quinn which now assured me that come what may, he will send the remainder battalion at the earliest. He will not leave us high and dry……”. Maney Malik had organised company (along with portion of Bravo Company) into detachments based on 12-15 LMGs and 4 MMGs, which of necessity were constantly moving in an expanding circle all round. This created an impression amongst Paki’s that entire battalion had concentrated. At this stage it was planned that if the remaining battalion did not arrive by early morning next day (8 Dec ) then we would occupy a defensive position on the high ground closer to the landing site and fight a battle to finish. Bringing an effective and accurate artillery fire in the area where we were operating was easy for the Paki’s and enemy and the few casualties that we were suffering could not get medical help as Regimental Medical Officer and his medical platoon  were to come in the later waves of helicopters. CO reminisces of that night; “Time stood still for us. We had lost all sense, concept and awareness of time on that dark and cold night which must have enveloped us a few hours earlier. Mixed with the battle sounds of rifle tire, automatic machine gun fire and artillery fire, all from the enemy, for we had to be very careful with our limited ammunition were the battle cries of' Ayo Gorkhali and Allah-O-Akbar.” There were no further flights that day and night, after these initial waves, as the battalion was trying to retain the toe hold.

Pakistani Reaction To the Landing (Pakistani Version): There is an interesting version from Major Mumtaz Hussain Shah OC C Company 31 Punjab, who had been entrusted with the local defence of Sylhet before 7 Dec 71. Quote; “At about 4 PM (East Pakistan Time) on 7 December, my troops spotted enemy helicopters flying at a safe height towards SE (South-East) heading towards Surma River rail/road bridge, south of town (Sylhet). I was ordered by the Brigade Major (BM) to take reconnaissance patrol and find out more about the helicopter movement. I commandeered a civilian pick up and rushed towards possible landing site. Luckily the landing was far away from the bridge. Nine to ten helicopters had landed, after offloading the troops flew back to ferry the second contingent. Later the landing force was identified as 5 Gurkha Rifles with approximately 400 men including the Commanding Officer. The new development was really threatening. The possible objectives of this force were to capture of ‘Y’ Junction South of Sylhet and the Rail Bridge intact. The successful culmination of which could have cut off withdrawal route of 31 Punjab and also denied 313 Brigade entry to the town from the South for eventual Sylhet Fortress battle” (Major Mumtaz Hussain Shah also surrendered to the Battalion during formal surrender of the Sylhet Garrison on 16 December morning).

The assessment by Pakistani’s of landed troops, as on 7 Dec 71, was much more than the actual landed strength. Next trip of helicopters on 8th would have further increased assessment of strength to more than a battalion. This account also confirms the move of Pakistani 313 Brigade to Sylhet earliest on 7th night or latest on 8 December. There was brighter side of this reconnaissance by Major Shah OF 31 Punjab. Pakistani 202 Infantry Brigade appreciated that eviction of the force was beyond their capabilities and their effort was restricted to counter-attacks, isolation, artillery firing and interdiction by their mobile fire elements of Reconnaissance and Support (Recce & Sp) elements. Possibly situation at Sylhet, further accelerated withdrawal of  Pakistani 313 Brigade though seeds for their withdrawal had been sown soon after marauding of 22 Baluch at Gazipur by the Battalion, increased pressure along Juri axis and then at Maulvi Bazar. Unfortunately our higher headquarters had not correctly assessed the Pakistani Army strength and movements, propounded by strange orders by Niazi and action contrary to his orders by GOC Pakistan’s 14 Division.

8 December: The fire fights around the landing ground continued through the night 7/8 Dec, though troops had inched forward and incorporated areas towards the town in its secured zone. Just at the beginning of dawn, at about 0400 hours, Alfa (Rana) and Delta (under Salgotra) landed. The Pakistanis pounded the landing area with artillery, but the helicopters with the skill of the pilots landed, haphazardly though, to avoid areas that were being pounded and offloaded their load.  By break of the day, the battalion had concentrated. Pakistanis interpreted this additional flight of helicopters as the landing of the remainder part of the brigade. With the concentration of the battalion, tasking of the companies was rescheduled to the main task of occupying a defensive position and conducting an offensive defense as under:-

  • Battalion establish a firm base, about 1 –1.5 kilometres long and in depth troops to lay ambushes, raid enemy localities, establish roadblocks, cut off road communication and harass Pakistanis.
  • In the West Alfa (Rana), on left, and Delta Company, on right, to block the roads leading from and into Sylhet; push forward towards the bridge and the main town respectively and keep the enemy under pressure (See diagram below) (Major Kaul on discharge from Dharmanagar Section Hospital flew in from Kalaura to Sylhet on 8 Dec morning) and assumed command of Delta Company.
  • Alfa Company to bias defences towards bridge and possibly deny its use to Pakistanis. Delta Company to secure built up area in its vicinity and incorporate in their defenses.
  • Charlie Company (Maney Malik) defenses to extend towards East, dominate road  and establish roadblock on road Sylhet–Khadim Nagar, north of firm base.
  • Southern flank could not be neglected as the enemy defences across the river could attempt to re-establish their foothold on our side of the riverbank. Therefore, Bravo Company (Sharma) was given responsibility of this area.
  • CO’s Group Battalion Headquarters and other platoons deployed on the high ground, which dominated and controlled the helipad. Captain Ravindra Singh, acting Adjutant, in charge of defences of this high ground. MMGs and Anti Tank guns (57 Millimetres) were already with their respective sub units.
  • South of firm base was the river Surma, which provided certain amount of protection to high ground in particular and to battalion firm base in general from that direction.
  • Thus broadly, four rifle companies formed the outer ring with each company having its own depth. Elements located on the high ground formed inner ring and provided depth to the battalion.

Deployment Blues: The dilemma to the commanding officer, after landing of remainder of the battalion, was perceptible, options being to go for a compact defended area or a wider aggressive one; both with advantages and disadvantages. Compact defenses would have ensured that paucity of fighting strength was minimised, actions and command and control well coordinated. The wider aggressive deployment, preferred  and done by CO (Harry) had following advantages:-

  • The landing zone, essential for maintenance, stood in the centre of the area could well be defended protected from Pakistani attacks. Alfa and Delta Companies were in contact with enemy and breaking contact for compact redeployment would have emboldened the Pakistanis to move in.
  • Charlie Company had the Charkhai-Sylhet road within striking distance. Readjustment would have denied the opportunity of blocking the road, which was done under Malik on 9 Dec.

Alfa Company was close to bridge over Surma and could interdict it, making things difficult for Pakistani Garrison at Sylhet. Delta Company was at the edge of the landing zone, in possession of some Built Up area close to the road. Part of their defences based on built up area made it difficult for Pakistani’s to launch coordinated assault from a single direction through this built up area. In this deployment, Southern flank was held by Bravo Company and the areas behind Alfa, Delta and Charlie Companies could become a killing ground. It was not an easy decision, but the way Pakistani’s were reacting, definitely gave an indication that they thought more than a battalion that had landed. Wider ground deployment, even in lesser strength, would give similar indication. This deployment enabled the forward companies to conduct their defense aggressively, though Pakistani artillery fire rose in intensity and frequency. The main concern in this deployment was increasing causalities viz depleting strength, low on ammunition and rations and only words of progress on link up without any firm indication. This also meant that though the landing ground was in physical control and dominated, the landing of helicopters was extremely difficult.

sylhet actual site photograph2

Actual Site Photgraph with Digitalised Annotations

Section Guns Find Place: During the twilight hours of 8 Dec, came a wave of helicopters, bringing in two mountain guns (75/24mm) and B Company 9 Guards (Major David) as reinforcements. The strength of this company was also barely 65-70 and the Company was deployed in the depth along the banks of Surma River, behind Bravo Company. With two mountain guns, limited ammunition, lack of suitable deployment area, the angle needed for bringing down effective close fire on the enemy at closer range was not feasible and thus, the forward companies were deprived of close artillery support. Besides Alfa and Delta companies being in contact with the enemy, any artillery fire in that area would have placed our own troops also in danger. Long range guns deployed around Kalaura and Maulvi Bazar were at extreme or out of range to provide fire support. However, the existence of guns and their firing from our defended area, further reinforced Pakistani suspicion of a brigade strength.

Counter Attack 8 December Night: An hour or so after last light, Alfa and Delta Companies heard the Pakistani war cry of "Allah-O-Akbar", followed by heavy artillery and MMG firing. The Pakistanis had launched a counter attack. Both Companies were low on ammunition and it was imperative that the counter attack was repulsed with adequate conservation of ammunition. They knew how to do it best: unsheathed Khukris and a thunderous counter war cry, "Ayo Gorkhali". 30-45 minutes later the firing and shouts decreased, as there were indications that the counter attack had been repulsed. An eerie silence followed thereafter, with sporadic firing through the darkness.

Quinn’s Confrontation with Krishna Rao: On 7th morning Major Ian Cardozo reported to the Battalion rear on posting from Staff College and immediately prepared himself to move to the battalion operational area and on the way, dropped at Dharmanagar Section Hospital to meet the casualties. In the meantime, I (Kaul) had been discharged from the hospital and left in the company of Cardozo. We stopped at the Battalion rear at Shamsher Nagar, picked up weapons and essential equipment and moved towards Kalaura. It was nostalgic to travel past Sagarnal and then, Gazipur Tea Estate. We arrived at Kalaura Helipad just after last light and as the last of the helicopters flew off. Late Bunty Quinn, Commander, was there, pacing around the helipad. After greeting Cardozo and enquiring about my health, he told us the ground situation. He seemed to be tense and apprehensive. He was apparently waiting for the GOC, General Krishna Rao, who was to arrive any moment by helicopter. Once GOC arrived, there was some discussion on the helipad between the two and after some time it was a bit animated. I could pick up some of the conversation, indicating the predicament of the brigade commander, delay in providing helicopters, slow progress of ground troops for link up, battalion being low on ammunition and rations and pressure on the battalion by Pakistanis. Bunty Quinn, known to us all as a cool person, it was the ground situation at Sylhet, which was worrying him. There was some more animated discussion as I could hear Bunty Quinn say something like this; “If there are no immediate measures taken to replenish the battalion and to link up I will resign my commission”. At this stage Cardozo led me away from the helipad.  Soon General Krishna Rao left and Bunty Quinn came closer to us and told us that helicopters will be coming next morning to take us to Sylhet and arrangements are being made for aerial replenishments. Soon he left and we spent the night on the fringe of the helipad. Early in the morning, two helicopters arrived and both of us boarded the helicopter with about fifteen men and left for Sylhet, where we had to jump from the helicopters, amidst heavy shelling of the helipad. Major (Later Major General) Cardozo, SM (Cardozo) on arrival at Sylhet met CO and was immediately given the job of coordination of defences, air supply and evacuation of wounded. All said and done, Harry needed someone senior to share his thoughts and burden and that is what Ian Cardozo did. Major Kaul went to his company (Delta), which was already in the thick of it.

Road Blocks and Pakistani Counter Attack - 9 December

Own Companies at a Limb: Alfa and Delta Companies were now deployed within l/2 - 1 km. of the bridge. Any move further forward towards the bridge drew stiff resistance and a heavy volume of enemy artillery and MMG fire. Bravo and Charlie companies while pushing back enemy detachments, had also to keep in mind, to be a part of the co-ordinated battalion defended area and not be isolated. Thus, the defended area had loosely evolved from the above factors. The first thing in the morning CO did was to ask Maney Malik (C Company) to lead a combined strong patrol towards the road Charkhai-Khadim Nagar-Sylhet and lay an ambush. Alfa and Delta were also to send a weak section to C Company for this task. He also directed Alfa and Delta to send patrols in their front. The patrol of C Company was led by Maney Malik and soon after they had laid the ambush, they ambushed a Pakistani convoy. The sight on the road was complete chaos for the Pakistanis, as the drivers abandoned their vehicles and ran away. This would have given added signals to the Pakistanis of our resolve. Alfa Company (Dinesh Rana) sent a patrol towards the road leading from Sylhet to Rail/Road Bridge and engaged Recce and Support elements, which had been deployed along the road by Pakistanis. A (10) Platoon of D Company was deployed partly in the built up area and the remainder two platoons along the Nallah (Sethe road Charkhai-Khadim Nagar-Sylhet) and lay an ambush.

 deployment sketch 7 11 dec

Sketch Showing Deployment - 7 to 11 December

Maney Malik, who was looking after the security of Helipad as well, informed all Company Commanders to be on the look out for an air drop and gave the frequency on the set, for communication with the aircraft. We switched onto the frequency, but after some time, out of curiosity, when I switched on again, to my surprise, I heard a telephonic conversation of Pakistanis on the set. Apparently, the call from forward elements of Pakistanis with their rear/headquarters were transmitted by radio and then onto the telephone. For the next few hours, I was hooked on to it. Suddenly, I heard a conversation that a Pakistani Observation Post (OP), deployed somewhere close by, had picked up movement of Indian Imam (Tiger; our CO) and were to engage him. Initially, I did not know whom they were referring to. I checked from Battalion Headquarters and found that Harry, with his party, was moving towards Alfa Company and his movement had apparently been picked up. I informed Tiger and before I could say "Jack Robin", we heard artillery shelling in that general area. A couple of hours later, I picked up another clear conversation of 313 Brigade having been in Sylhet and their planning of an attack on 9 Dec night. The conversations gave indication that Pakistanis thought that a brigade had landed and they were trying to regain some of the area with this counter attack. To quote CO (Harry) on this: “From a wireless transmission intercepted by Major Kaul, it was clear that 313 Infantry Brigade had arrived in Sylhet on 7 Dec and along with 202 Infantry Brigade and (sick) were planning an attack (with five companies) on Alfa and Delta Companies, which were posing a serious threat to the bridge, besides also being a road block”.  One more day gone, there were no more flights or airdrop and the battalion continued to be low on ammunition rations. The artillery firing had also taken a toll, with a direct hit on the signal platoon bunker, killing the Signal Platoon Commander and two other operators. I had a section of Engineers and about a hundred NM 14 mines. I spoke to CO and he allowed me to lay a nuisance minefield with no wiring in the gap along the Nallah.

Half an hour after last light came the concerted artillery fire on Alfa and Delta Company, followed fifteen minutes later by shouts of "Allah-O–Akbar." Two mounted Recoilless Gun (Rcl) detachments appeared behind Delta Company and began firing on Alfa Company as well, indicating an attack on both companies. Low on ammunition, only few burst of MMG were fired, with limited support of our own guns. "Allah-O-Akbar" shouts were countered by shouts of "Ayo Gorkhali." After another half an hour we could hear the movement of jeeps followed by eerie silence. The intensity and force of the counter attack was much more than that of 8th Dec but it had been beaten back squarely. One could hear the screeching movements of vehicles in the far distance. To quote Harry; “Now the question in my mind was how many more 'hours' we can hold on to the defenses. By now, about 30 wounded soldiers were awaiting evacuation. Those who had made the supreme sacrifice needed to be evacuated for their last rites. Each person could literally count the few left over bullets, on the fingers of his two hands! Whatever ammunition was left over was redistributed within sections and platoons but it was like starving persons sharing their meal. These physical problems were affecting the morale of the troops. Lack of sleep had dulled the responses of all of us... During my visit to Alfa Company, I had personally experienced the life and death struggle of Alfa and Delta Company personnel in their makeshift trenches and realised the futility of continuing these companies in their positions dominated by the enemy from built up area.” Though this in Harry’s mind, he never gave any indication of redeployment and instead encouraged us to send more patrols in front. Inspite of it all this we moved into morning of 10 Dec; fourth day without any signs of link up except that ‘everyone was next to us’, as per them, but next day these words were repeated. Actually all of them were still far from our location.

10 December - Air Drop and Close Air Support, 11 and  12 December

10th- Air Drop and Close Air Support: As the day broke, came a news that one transport aircraft would drop supplies and ammunition. We had ACT (Air Control Team) under Flt. Lt. (Flight Lieutenant) SC Sharma (He was awarded the Vir Chakra for his role in this operation) with the battalion. At about 1200 hours, the flying angel appeared and dropped some supplies, though scattered all over the dropping zone. Immediately, the Pakistanis engaged it with fire and it took time for the battalion collection party under Ian Cardozo to collect the supplies, mainly artillery ammunition. However, a proper replenishment of small arms ammunition and rations eluded us. The companies continued with aggressive patrolling. The Pakistanis had deployed elements all around the Battalion and sporadically fired on our positions. This night was somewhat quieter, but depleting strength, evacuation of casualties, replenishment of ammunition and rations was a major concern. In the afternoon, three of our fighter aircrafts appeared and effectively engaged the Pakistanis just ahead of our company locations. All was quiet and we came out of our trenches to watch the strafing by our aircrafts for the first time in this operation. Suddenly my mind went to 17 Sep 65, when it were the Pakistani Sabres, which played hell with us at Galuti (Jammu and Kashmir).

11 December: Morning was no better but soon brought the news of fighter aircrafts being pressed into service to engage Pakistani forces around the battalion, their gun positions and troop concentrations. We all watched the fun when three Hunters, directed by FAC Flt. Lt. S. C. Sharma engaged the enemy positions in front of Alfa and Delta Companies. The firing stopped and the rest of the afternoon was quiet. CO told us that the link up was expected that evening; apparently based on the information from advancing forces. However, I switched on to the Pakistani net again and this time with my Urdu penetrated up to Imam’s net (Tiger’s net- but could not decipher which Tiger’s net I had got through. I, for some time, could get some information and when I became bolder to one outstation to know their plight, there was a sigh and “Parvardigar Bus Kher Kare” (May God help)”. This indicated the Pakistani plight, though our own situation, waiting for link up, was equally demanding. By about 1400 hours CO spoke to Dinesh (A Company) and me (Kaul - D Coy) and informed that the battalion was to go in for a compact deployment around battalion headquarters, after last light, and we should move in accordingly. At about last light, hell broke loose in front of Alfa and Delta Coy; heavy artillery and MMG firing onto their positions. The Pakistanis started a fire to the tall grass in front of Alfa Coy. In the near distance, movement of vehicles and men could be heard. The companies were getting ready for move, when it was apparent that a counter attack was imminent. Contact between Delta and Alfa Company broke down and the only communication was through the CO, who was apprised of the situation by and postponement of readjustment sought and agreed till the situation stabilised. Most of us were outside our trenches, waiting for physical assaul,t so that we could now use our hand weapon: the Khukri. It is at this stage that the CO came on the line and was seeking information about the state of counter attack and suddenly, while holding the set with left hand, I felt a jerk like an electric current passing through my left arm. Looking down, it was bleeding and I knew I had been hit. There was no first field dressing close by and my senior JCO, Subedar Tirtha Bahadur, SM tied his handkerchief around the wound. The CO was on line and I was in no position to speak to him and handed over the handset to Tirtha Bahadur, who informed the CO that I had been hit. Soon Salgotra, my company officer joined us. The shouts of Allah-O-Akbar rose, with all our weapons firing with whatever ammunition we had accompanied by our war cry, Ayo Gorkhali. It continued for some time and the noise started lessening, giving an indication that the attack had been repulsed. The situation in Alfa was similar. Their Company Senior JCO, Subedar Karne Thapa, had been killed and many more injured. In case of my Company (D), three Jawans had been injured. Once the firing ebbed out and the situation stabilised, we slowly started moving to our new location. As I, with three more walking wounded, trudged with my company to Battalion headquarters with the Company, the command of the company shifted to Salgotra.  On arrival I was ushered into a make shift Medical Inspection (MI) room. Captain (Doctor) DK Sengupta, SM, was there and attended on me. He had found that there were through and through two bullet injuries next to each other, a major blood vessel of the arm had been cut and the bone was shattered. He immediately tied it with a gut knot and applied a dressing. I asked him to give us some food, as we had not eaten for nearly 24 hours. He gave me few Shakarparas, which I could barely munch and after, I think third one, fell asleep. I believe I had gone to sleep with a Shakarpara in my mouth and the doctor had to take it out lest it choked me. It was the combined effects of lack of sleep and pain killer morphine, which had lulled me to sleep. By about midnight Battalion had now redeployed around the High Ground in compact defence. This was essential due to falling strength, low on ammunition and no news of link up.

12 December: As the day broke, it was the same, but with the Battalion in one place. During the day, we had one more airdrop of supplies and ammunition and a welcome one that too. The casualties were mounting and the wounded needed immediate check up, while dead bodies had to be sent to the rear for last rites. In the evening, two helicopters hovered and we all were taken to the helipad and so also dead bodies. Due to heavy shelling of the helipad, the first one did not land and went away, the second MI 8 just touched the ground with rotors on. Ian Cardozo was shouting at the pilots to wait, as he and his party lifted casualties into the helicopter and also the dead bodies. We were about seven injured, while many more were waiting close by. The helicopter load having partly been filled, it took off. When I looked around, as it rose, I could see dust created by the Pakistani shelling. However, I could not control myself as I saw Bhim Singh, Samar Bahadur and Lal Jung’s bodies dumped next to us. What an end and what a loss to people who knew them so closely. It was a battle for fame, but I never thought it will demand so many of our brave soldiers. My thoughts wandered to days of 1963 onwards when these very men were moving with élan and helping the battalion to rise towards apical level. Bye Bhim Singh, Samar Bahadur and Lal Jung ... and so many of our comrades. As the helicopter arrived at Shamsher Nagar, Capt DD Sharma (Dee Dee DeGaulle, as he was fondly called and our Quartermaster) and Subedar Major Dachiring Gurung received us before we were whisked away to the hospital, where I was straightaway wheeled into the operation theatre and operated upon.

Slow Crumbling of Pakistani Garrison, Own Link Up and Final Surrender

13–14 December - Patrol ex 6 Rajput Establishes contact: There was no radical change in the situation, though there was news that Maulvi Bazar had been cleared by 81 Mountain Brigade (3 Punjab) and the remainder of 59 Mountain Brigade was tasked to move ahead to establish contact with the Battalion. In the North, 5/5 GR(FF) (Lt. Col. Vishnu N. Rao) progress was somewhat behind schedule, due to various factors, including number of streams and rivers they had to cross. They, as on 13 Dec., were still away, even from the outskirts of Sylhet. Echo Force, under whom they were operating, were giving exaggerated reports of link up, almost every day from 11 December onwards, to higher headquarters. On 14 December, after last light, a small boat slowly came towards the battalion location. This was a weak section of 6 Rajput who had come to establish contact and the link up - after 8 days and 7 nights. This too cannot be called a classical link up, which connotes proper integration of a unit with the heliborne force. The major part of this battalion was still away. However, there was a silver lining; guns from our formation could now support us.

We had handed over the Atgram salient to BSF. 1 East Bengal Rifle Brigade under Colonel Zia-ul-Rehman (EBR) had taken over the salient and had moved up to Charkhai and were there for quite sometime. 31 Punjab Headquarters, which was located there, had withdrawn to Sylhet and there was no major opposition to their advance. It is another thing that as on the day of surrender by the Sylhet Garrison both; 1 EBR and Echo Force were yet to even reach outskirts of Sylhet. We were not in communication with the outside world, so news of our achievements trickled only, with headlines of landing on 7th December.

15 December - Sylhet Garrison Feels Heat and Buckles: The battalion had endured and entered the 9th day and 8th night. Yet, there was still no significant link up except 6 Rajput elements, having reached the South Bank of Surma River.The pressure, both physical and psychological, on the Pakistani Garrison must have been enormous. Four to five failed counter attacks, a determined Commanding Officer and the Khukri yielding troops transforming the COs vision into reality. The assurances of the CO to the troops that the link up was literally few hours away kept everyone going. The replenishment on 12 December had improved the state of ammunition supplies. Unknown to us, the Pakistanis realising their predicament of a thorn in their flesh in the midst of their garrison, had its effect. The events that unfolded now on was a chapter of glory and best narrated in CO’s own words: “However on 15 December morning we faced an intriguing, but interesting incident. That day, in the morning, I received a radio message from Major Malik (Maney - Charlie Company Commander), who informed me that there was a large visible concentration of enemy troops about 800 meters in front of his FDL (Forward Defended Locality) and that there were couple of white flags (indicative of surrender) in the hands of some of the persons. He had already put his company in 'stand to' position (i.e. everyone manning his fighting position) as the Pakistani’s were known to use such ruses to rush the defences. Besides, both the armies were still fighting all over Bangladesh. It was only at 5 PM on that day (15 December 1971) that a temporary cease-fire was agreed upon (Sic: between the two forces)”.

pakistani orbat sylhet sector

Pakistani ORBAT/Deployment Sylhet Sector and Progress of Own Thrust Lines

He continues, “I immediately proceeded towards Charlie Company FDL after informing Major Cardozo (battalion second in command who had joined us in Sylhet on, I think either 8 or 9 December). Major Cardozo immediately alerted all the remaining companies and platoons, which occupied 'stand to' positions. When I reached the Charlie Company FDL (which was nearby), I found that Major Malik was already there, standing next to his forward most LMG post, which was ready to open up fire instantly, if required. He pointed towards the group, which to me seemed to be 1000-1500 strong. We noticed two persons (later on we came to know that they were two captains) coming forward with white flags. The two persons came and handed over a note, which stated that the station commander of Sylhet (i.e. the senior of the Brigade Commanders) wants to surrender the entire garrison of Sylhet. We informed them that their Brigadier himself needs to come over along with one more officer to discuss further details. The two officers turned back and as they were a little over half way towards their area, we noticed that all of a sudden, the entire gathering of 1000-1500 strong armed Pakistani soldiers were rushing towards Charlie Company, whose entire strength could not be more than 55 strong - out of the entire Charlie company only a section of 5-6 men were effectively facing the rushing onslaught. This could be a ruse. Therefore, Maney Malik instantaneously ordered the LMG to open up a couple of bursts as warning shots. The moment the warning shots were fired the rushing Pakistani soldiers went to the ground (i.e. took lying positions). Major Malik shouted and informed them to go back as the surrender would be accepted only after its modalities are worked out. At around 3 PM, the Pakistani Station Commander (Hassan) met our Brigade Commander Brigadier Quinn at the bridge and worked out the details of the surrender. It is interesting to note that this happened 24 hours earlier than the official acceptance of surrender by the Pakistani forces on 16 Dec at 1655 hours and 2 hours prior to the temporary cease fire.”

opposing forces own line 16 dec 71

Opposing Forces and Own Line of Troops: 16 December 1971

The Defeated Garrison and Triumphant Entry into Sylhet: The modalities completed on 15 December between the two commanders and it was decided to have proper surrender next morning (16th), The surrender of the entire  Sylhet  Garrison,  including  their commanders and officers was taken in the same area on 16 December morning.  When the surrendered persons were finally counted, there were 3 Brigadiers, 1 Colonel, 107 officers, 219 JCO's   and 6190 Pakistani soldiers and 39 non-combatants. During the battle at Sylhet (between 7 and 16 December) 1 officer (Major Karan Puri, Adjutant) 2 JCOs (Subedar Karne Thapa A Company and Naib Subedar Bhim Singh Khatri, Signal Platoon) and 11 other ranks made the supreme sacrifice, while 3  officers (Cardozo, Kaul  and  Malik) and 36  other  ranks  were  wounded. At this time our Battalion strength in Sylhet consisted of about 6-7 officers, 10-15 JCOs and about 300- 350 soldiers. Brigadier S. A. Hassan (Pakistani Garrison Commander of Sylhet) paid compliments to our battalion when he mentioned to Brigadier Quinn that "If this battalion (4/5 GR(FF) was not there we would have fought for at least another 10 days." After the surrender of the Pakistanis, the Battalion triumphantly entered the town and saw heaps of weapons thrown all along the road. It is when this march towards the town was taking place, Major Ian Cardozo stepped over a mine and lost his leg. He had been a citadel of support to the Battalion and the CO, had moved into the battle zone directly on 9th December, without any preparation and for 8 days, he had endured himself to the entire battalion.

flag and staff brig s a hassan sylhet

Flag and Staff of Brigadier S.A. Hassan,

Garrison Commander, Sylhet,

Which Finds a Place of Pride in 4/5 GR (FF) Officers Mess

Analysis of the Epoch First Ever Heliborne Operation: Until 7 December 1971, little or no attention was given in our Army for any planned worthwhile heliborne operation in a battlefield, involving sizeable troops. A few days before this epoch helilanding, helicopters had been used in IV Corps Zone to cross a river, over which the bridge had been blasted off, a mere transport operation and nothing more. 6th December intelligence information, whatever its worth, prompted the Command Headquarters to plan this heliborne operation based on three assumptions. First: Sylhet had been vacated; Second: link up would be made within 12 to 24 hours and Third: dedicated helicopter and air maintenance would be available for the force. As the events unfolded, all three parameters could not be fulfilled and consequences thereof would have been disastrous not only for the unit, but for the entire Corps and Army, as its failure would negate the gains made ever since 20/21 November by the units and formation in the Corps Zone. No one was expert in this operation, troops were not trained, none knew about the planning parameters of such operations and with unknown ground realities, it was a gamble. 

Tiger Harolikar After Surrender of Pakistani Garrison Sylhet

Tiger Lt. Col. A. B. Harolikar, MVC, After Surrender of Pakistani Garrison at Sylhet

What paid off when helicopter effort was not fully available, linkup was not made in the time frame and not even for more than a week and lastly but not the least the ground information of the enemy strength and movements in the area? Well there were many factors, which helped to achieve this difficult, in fact most difficult, mission. A persuasive and noble commander in Brigadier C. A. Quinn, a bold and lucky commander in Brigadier Harolikar, MVC. Harry’s gamble to go in for wider deployment which paid off, his time to aggressive time assurances to his command that things were under control and link up few hours away, grit of the commanders at all levels and the indomitable Khukri yielding soldiers, without distinction of rank or post, of 4th Battalion The 5th Gorkha Rifles(Frontier Force). Last but not the least, all commanders efforts to maintain the Izzat of the Battalion and their own. There are some factors of the first ever heliborne operation:-

  • Up to 1971, heliborne operational concepts had neither been evolved nor practised during peacetime. No single unit had been earmarked or trained in the Eastern Theatre, though Parachute operations had been planned and 2 Para earmarked. Till then helicopters had been used only once, around 5 December 1971; to ferry troops just across the river obstacle. Admittedly it remained a fascinating method of operation, discussed during peacetime.
  • Intercepts on 6th December about withdrawal of the Pakistani brigade from the Eastern part of then East Pakistan was welcome news. Its interpretation, application and actualities on ground were never seriously gone into. Sylhet was one of the biggest divisions of then East Pakistan, gateway to Dacca and would not have been left bereft of troops. The fact that 202 Brigade had been created at Sylhet on 1 October should have given ample indication of the Pakistani resolve to defend Sylhet, where the GOC of the Pakistani 14 Division had planned a fortress battle with two brigades. Yes, he countermanded orders of Late Lt. Gen. Niazi by shifting 313 Infantry Brigade to Sylhet instead of Narsingdi-Narayanganj. Even if he had obeyed the orders, Sylhet had at least a brigade plus strength based on Pakistani 202 Infantry Brigade. It appears that at higher-level existence of Pakistani 202 Infantry Brigade at Sylhet was not known, indicating a vacuum in the intelligence information.
  • The selection of 4/5 GR (FF) for this ‘cakewalk operation’ was done with good intentions of the brigade commander, Brigadier C. A. Quinn, thinking the battalion would have rest and refit, occupy vacated Sylhet and be rewarded for its valour and extra exemplary battles fought at Atgram and Gazipur. The tasking had been communicated to him by the Corps Commander and he took it at its face value.
  • The shifting of fulcrum of operations from Atgram-Zakiganj Sector to Dharmanagar-Shamsher Nagar-Juri/Maulvi Bazar Sector was a planned one, so that two brigades of the division would be operating close to each other and if required, augment each other’s effort where there were strong defences expected. It is noteworthy that some pressure was exerted along Dauki Axis (Echo Force/ 5/5 GR (FF)) and Atgram Zakiganj/Karimnagar Axis (1 EBR Brigade under Colonel Zia-ul-Rehman). This also indicates that in the initial planning, certain strong points/fortresses like Maulvi Bazar were envisaged and if so, it was naïve to think that Sylhet would have been defended meekly.
  • Once the information was available on 6th December, the theatre planners could have gone for extensive photo and visual reconnaissance both on 6th as well as 7th December. It is understood that information available could be a fleeting opportunity and needed to be exploited at the earliest. It is not advocated that the mission should have been aborted, but the planning part and effort required from landing to linkup could have been well planned.
  • Troops of 8 Mountain Division had to fight their way through in Sylhet Sector and were in contact with Pakistani Forces at different locations and at considerable ground distance from Sylhet. In this scenario assurance of link up within 12-24 hours was absolutely debatable.
  • Credit goes to the CO for accepting this challenging task even though his gut feeling was that Sylhet was not vacated. He was proved correct.  It goes to his credit that in-spite of being low on manpower, lack of rest and refit, like a true soldier he agreed to the task. His faith in his Commander, Brigadier C. A. Quinn, was unshakable and so had Brigadier Quinn in Harry.
  • It was for the first time many of our soldiers were entering a helicopter (We had done some helicopter training drills during Counter Insurgency Training at CIJW School at Vairangte in Dec 70) and none knew about jumping from a hovering helicopters.
  • Knowing that the battalion fighting strength, not the fighting spirit, was less, the first sortie should have catered for two companies and CO’s group in the first wave, remainder two in second with battalion headquarters and third with guns and ammunition on the very first day. This was not done and the battalion landed in piecemeal; second wave came two hours after initial landing and third one next day, nearly after 14 hours. This planning parameter was grossly overlooked and could have been disastrous. It is the grit of the initial landing force that catastrophe was avoided.
  • Preparation time was too short at all stages for such an important task. The air support came only on 10th December and air maintenance to a limited degree same day and adequately on 12 December. Both these aspects should have been given top priority. A daily-dedicated effort for immediate replenishment and evacuation of casualties was not there.

victory memorial sylhet

Victory Memorial of the Battalion at Sylhet at the Landing Site

Now for the conduct of operations at the ground level:-

  1. The initial most important place was the landing area and Charlie Company held it at all costs, keeping away the Pakistanis from overrunning the area.
  2. Once the remainder of the Company, B Company and CO’s Group arrived, rightly the periphery of the landing area was enlarged and weapon detachments deployed to provide security to the landing area and keep the Pakistanis at bay. Continuing in this way till next morning when A and D Companies arrived, talks of the determination of supreme level of the troops who landed on the first day.
  3. The CO had two options after the remainder of the battalion had fetched up, both with a dilemma, to either go for wider aggressive deployment or compact deployment of the battalion. He opted for unconventional wider aggressive deployment with sound reasoning, which paid dividends and achieved surprise.
  4. There were four counter attacks launched by the Pakistanis; on 7th on the landing force of C Company; on 8th, 9th and 11th on Alfa and Delta Companies. All were repulsed, which talked volumes of the grit of the troops and commanders at all levels. It was a question of Izzat.
  5. Personal example of Harry and his leadership was extraordinary, which kept his sub unit commanders going, with ample faith in his decisions.
  6. The privations undergone by the troops could have broken the spine of even a well-trained force. The men stood out in this respect. Admittedly, there was physical and mental strain at all levels, but the CO ensured that this did not effect the functioning of the sub units.
  7. After the death of CO 2 (Shyam Kelkar) at Gazipur and injury to the Adjutant (Karan Puri), Harry had to undertake more duties than that of the CO, until Ian Cardozo joined the battalion.
  8. Bad luck for CO 2 got repeated with the death of Shyam Kelkar and injury to Ian Cardozo. Was 65 repeating itself?

Pakistani Facades and Fudging of the Truth: When the victory is at one's feet, there are many who would like to claim the credit, or go in for crumbs, or try to save their faces. Major (Retired) Mumtaz Hussain Shah Coy, Commander C Coy, 31 Punjab of Pakistan Army, was  also deployed at Sylhet. He also surrendered with his troops. Possibly, he forgot that he was also present in the surrender parade on 15/16 December and had to write this: “I don’t know when I slept (16 December). It was around 6-30 in the morning when the sound of field phone woke me. Naib Subedar Sardar Ali, commanding a forward locality, was on line. Without usual pleasantries or salutations he jolted me,‘ Sir, an Indian Officer wants to speak to you.’ Surprised and infuriated, I asked, “An Indian Officer! How the hell is he there with you? Has your post fallen to Indians’ No Sir, back came the reply. ‘My post holds on, Dacca has surrendered yesterday!’ This was the storm that rocked us in the hushed silence of 17 December morning.” Possibly Shah forgot that from the night of 15/16th December, he was sleeping in a  make shift camp of POWs, in the company of his own 3 Brigadiers, 1 Colonel, 107 officers, 219 JCOs , 6190 Pakistani soldiers and 39 non-combatants. It was not only some Pakistanis who have tried to save their face. 1 EBR Brigade, from 24 November onwards, had just gone few miles ahead of Charkhai and were nowhere close to Sylhet Town as on 15 December, though this axes was least defended. And then there was Echo Force who tried to hijack the credit, again nowhere near the scene (read above).

CO 2 Designated as Vazir: After the loss of two 2 ICs, and injury to the third, in matter of months (Sep 65 to Jan 66) the Second–in-command of the battalion was designated as CO 2 in 1966. The jinx, even on CO 2, started on 4 December 71 when Major S. G. Kelkar was killed in action during the battle of Gazipur. On 16 December 71, Cardozo while leading a column to the Sylhet Town, stepped over a mine and was injured and lost his leg. It was after the surrender that Vazir designation was suggested by Maney Malik and was accepted. Since he was the senior most officer next to CO, he truly is the first Vazir of the Paltan. And God Bless Vazirs of the battalion, the designation continues.

New Team and New Year: The battle over, it was time to get to the normal, reinforcements were received, leave parties had mostly rejoined. A few of those injured had rejoined the Paltan and all were at Sylhet. At the political level, there were indications that we may to withdraw soon to enable the fledgling country, Bangladesh, to take over its country. The situation of officers in the battalion was acute. We had lost three officers (Johri and Hawa Singh (Atgram; 21 November), Shyam Kelkar (Gazipur; 4 December)); 7 officers had been injured and were in various hospitals in the country (Yashwant Rawat, Virender Rawat, Sahrawat, Yang Bharat (Gazipur; 4 December), Karan Puri (Sylhet; 7 December, who died later), Rattan Kaul (Sylhet; 11 December), Maney Malik and Ian Cardozo (Sylhet; 16 December), 3 JCOs (Subedars Bobi Lal Pun Mortar Platoon Atgram; 21 Nov; Karne Thapa A Coy and Naib Subedar Bhim Singh Khatri at Sylhet) and 3 JCOs injured (Subedar Bal Bahadur Thapa Senior JCO D Coy and Naib Subedar Siri Bahadur Pun C Coy; Gazipur). The present Subedar, Major Dachiring Gurung, was completing his term and senior most Subedar (Subedar Bal Bahadur Thapa Senior JCO D Coy) was in hospital. While the vacancies of JCOs could be filled with inner promotions, the dwindling strength of officers was a worry. However, five officers were posted and they reported to the battalion at Sylhet. Two more posting in were also received that of new Vazir (Kartar Singh). With the change in situation and emergence of Bangladesh, orders were received at Sylhet to de-induct. The advance party left for Nagaland on 7 January 1972, while the battalion reached its old location Panchgram (fondly called Char Panch Gram) on 11 January 72. On 19 January, the battalion left by train for its remaining tenure in Nagaland.


Only the bravest of braves could understand the achievements, well summed by a known gallant and highly decorated soldier, who has PVSM, MVC, Vr C, VSM, Mcgr Medal as addendums to his diminutive frame; Lieutenant General Zoru Bakshi, the Hero of Haji Pir in 1965, the Colonel Of The Regiment 5 Gurkha Rifles (Frontier Force): ‘This youngest battalion of the regiment in less than nine years of existence has crowned itself with glory, which possibly for others would take decades and many more wars to come up to their mark’.

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit" - Aristotle

(The above is from the author's compilation, "AS WE GREW UP WITH FOUR FIVE". Quotes of Brigadier A. B. Harolikar, MVC, are from his work "Bravest of the Brave")

Brigadier Rattan Kaul was Forward Rifle Company Commander (Delta Company) during the Battle of Sylhet and was seriously injured in the Battle. He was also the assault company commander during the Khukri assault on Atgram.