Special Heli Borne Ops - Sylhet and Meghna

 

07 – 09 Dec 71

At Agartala, early morning on 7th Dec, Chandan Singh briefed Sandhu and I, that we are to proceed to the Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) at Kailashahar, north of Agartala, to undertake a Special Heli Borne Operation’(SHBO) to pick up troops from Kalura [21], and induct them at Silhet, both places in East Pakistan. We had many questions to ask (were the places under enemy control, were there helipads, was there enemy air defence and if so where, how about refuelling,………..many such deeply troublesome questions). Chandan Singh was ten steps ahead of us, had planned the operation well, had made arrangements, and therefore gave us satisfactory assurances. We immediately got down to flight planning and by noontime, as desired by Chandan Singh, Mi-4s, some with additional 200 ltr fuel drums and Sudan Pump for emergency, and part of our ground support staff (Eng Offrs and Air Men) positioned ourselves at Kailashahar, about 100 km north east, using tactical routing away from the border were fighting was still going on.

In the Liberation War, we carried out four Special Heli Borne Operations, between 7th and 15th of Dec 71. We moved over 6000 + soldiers, 202 + tons of miscellaneous equipment, small arms ammo, water, Kerosene, rations and Artillery with its heavy ammo, right into the battlefields, even across the mighty (over 5 km wide) Meghna river, nonstop, day and night, as well as evacuated hundreds of causalities of both friend and foe on the return leg .

I don’t remember now the exact number of soldiers we ferried, or the load we carried. It was war, there were no load manifests !! Nobody was keeping a count, or weighing the load, there was no time or facility. The figures I have quoted is from a small pocket diary that I used in war, for mission planning of the entire helicopter force from approxximate load tables given by army units, as also post war debrief of aircrew and operational report submitted by the unit. I still have the diary and my logbooks. The number of troops carried may also include those lifted forward, as well as those causalities lifted backward, I don’t remember.

Nobody looked at the charts to see what we can carry. We just filled up the helicopter and coaxed it to get airborne. We were overloaded most of the time. I can tell you MI-4 helicopter was amazing, it never let us down. What a wonderful workhorse. We were very fortunate that we had no accidents.

I am also very grateful to our engineers and technicians, who kept all the helicopters flying, all the time during the war. They had very little resources, and they were doing all kinds of maintenance in the field, with some support from our base at Kumbhigram. Sadly the extraordinary contribution of our engineering staff were not recognized or rewarded.

The pilots and flight engineers were all amazing. I was 30 then, and most were in their 20’s. What a pleasure it was, to have all these wonderful motivated folks, toiling with me cheerfully. Wherever we landed, the local ordinary Bengali folks, even women and children, would turn up in large numbers to help unload the helicopters, and offer simple food and water from their own mud pots.

We were available 24/7. We slept an odd hour here and there, wherever we could find place, whenever there was lull in activity. We ate whenever there was food available. All pilots were eager to fly, not one pilot refused a sortie, and I don’t remember anybody complaining of hunger, thirst or sickness.

Wherever we landed, there were arms and ammunition lying around, abandoned by fleeing Paki army. In their youthful exuberance, I saw some of my pilots walking around with grenades tucked into their belts. It dawned on me that it was very dangerous, and I had to order the pilots to hand over the grenades to our army. I had no problem with the pilots collecting weapons or mementos as long as they were not armed. We were all armed with 6 rounds Smith & Wesson revolvers, WW-II vintage, in a holster, and secured around the neck with a lanyard. It wasn’t much to fight Pakis, but it did help us to feel soldierly in war!

As I said earlier, our first SHBO was ordered by Gp Cpt Chandan Singh early morning on 7th Dec 71. So five Mi-4s of 110 positioned ourselves at Kailashahar by 0900 hrs. Three more Mi-4s from 105 HU (Chabua), joined us at Kailashahar before noon (total 8 Mi-4s at the ALG). By then, to our big relief, Fg Offr Arun Karandikar of 43 Sqn Jorhat, flying a Kilo Flight Dakota all by himself, started positioning both patrol and kerosene fuel, as well as oil drums 15 x 200 ltr, in each shuttle, between Agartala and Kailashahar. He also brought some more of our personnel from Agartala.

Because of frequent shuttles we were doing, during previous days, to resupply all sorts of military stores including water, food and ammunition, and casualty evacuations on return, we knew that there was a raging battle still going on at Shamsher Nagar, Ghazipur, Kalura and Moulvibazar area, not far from Kailashahar. We had been asked by Chandan Singh to leave four of 110’s Mi-4s at Agartala for the same purpose of battlefield support at these places.

05 Kalura Map

At Kailashahar we came to know that the troops to be lifted were from 4/5 GR and their task was to bottle up about 1 ½ Brigades of Pak Army then at Sylhet, threatening the road and rail supply route from Silchar to Agartala, which ran parallel and close to the border. In Sagat’s perception, they could perhaps also make an unpredictable break to run to Dacca. At Kailashahar we saw an Air OP Krishak / Alouette helicopter, as well as Kilo Flight armed and unarmed Otter aircraft and similar Alouette helicopters, flown by Bengali and IAF [22] personnel who had been operating from there for several days. With our arrival Kailashahar was chock-a-block.

Brig Bunty Quinn [23], with Chandan came around 1100 hrs in a Chetak and took Sandhu and I for reconnaissance of suitable landing sites at Kalura and Sylhet. We chose large paddy fields at both places. The paddy by then had been cut and Bengali farmers were tilling the dry land. The landing site at Kalura was just north of the railway station, adjacent to the rail and road. At Sylhet, the landing zone was about two to three km south west of the railway station, and two important bridges across river Surma, which led to the town and military garrison well to the right. During the reconnaissance we carefully avoided going near the railway station, town or military garrison, to prevent Pakis getting suspicious. Brig Quinn perhaps had complete intelligence briefing, and did caution us, that the Railway Station and bridges are well defended, and that we are to keep well away during the troop induction.

06 Kalura Map2

We decided to follow a straight line tack to and fro between Kalura and Sylhet, without any tactical routing, based on the assurance of Brig Quin and the fact that we had not spotted any enemy activity during the reconnaissance. Sylhet was approx 41 km to north west from Kalura.

Past noon we moved from Kailashahar to Kalura and waited for 4/5 GR troops to arrive. The landing ground was fairly even and hard. The 4/5 GR troops started arriving around 1430 hours, with sunset expected around 1730 hrs. My briefing to all the pilots, was to fill up the helicopter and get airborne keeping a gap of 3 or 4 minutes from the helicopter in front. Every helicopter had a number, I was number one and so on. We were going to have only one helicopter on ground at Sylhet at any one time, so as not to give a bigger target to the enemy. From about 1500 to 1745, a total of 22 sorties were flown into the enemy held terrain and carried a total of 254 troops and 400 kgs of freight of 4/5 GR. For the first and second rotation we used 7 helicopters and for the third rotation we used 8 helicopters. We had enough fuel in the piggy back saddle tanks to do three rotations each. We couldn’t use all the helicopters because one was reserved for doing cas-evac from other battle fields ex Kailashahar. Cas-evac always had priority. By the time we went for the second rotation, Pakistan army had taken vantage positions at Sylhet railway station and began firing at us with small arms & LMGs. We could see hundreds of tracer bullets coming towards us. Due to the secrecy and surprise of our operation, the enemy did not try to hamper our operation from Kalura.

06 Sylhet Map

Meanwhile, Flt Lt Singla and Chandan Singh were orbiting our landing zone in Sylhet in the armed Kilo Flight Alouette helicopter, keeping an eye on us at a higher altitude and also attacking enemy gun positions pointed out by Flt Lt Sharma, the FAC whom we had dropped with 4/5 GR in the first rotation.

Around 1800, well after sunset, we returned to Kailashahar ALG and shut down for refuelling. It was pitch dark by now. When the helicopters were being checked, one engineer came and told me that one helicopter had not come back. We called him on the radio and discovered he had got lost. We then fired a flare, the pilots saw it, came over and landed. I now don’t now remember the name of the crew who got lost.

When we got ready to do our next rotation to Sylhet, Chandan Singh said no more flying during the night because it was too dangerous and we would be sitting ducks to the fusillade aimed at us. Perched above us in the armed Alouette, he could perhaps have seen all the bullets (and tracers) being fired at us, while we could only see the ones which came towards each of us. It was indeed very frightening.

4/5 GR, commanded by Lt Col AB Harolikar, under Brig Bunty Quinn, had been fighting continuous battles with great valour for over two weeks without rest. 4/5 GR had lost many soldiers and officers including their 2 i/c and experienced Adjutant in battle, many were walking wounded, was low on everything including ammunition, food and water. So early morning on 7 Dec 71, the Bde Cdr realising their plight had given a 24 hr rest and recuperation to them. They had been withdrawn from battles of Ghazipur and Kalura, and allowed to rest in a barn close to Kalura and were sleeping it off when Gen Sagat Singh rescinded the R&R of 4/5 GR and ordered their airlift to Sylhet by us at 1 hr notice. Therefore, 4/5 GR, tired, sleepy and with not too high morale had not had the time to plan for their heli-lift to Sylhet, as to who would go first and who would go next, what was to be carried with each of them, and what replenishments they required to continue fighting at Sylhet.

So, when the night flying was called off, there were just 254 Gorkhas at Sylhet, without a HF radio set, with very little or no water, food or ammunition, no heavy infantry weapons like mortars, facing annihilation from 1½ Brigades of Pakis.

Reason why the new inexperienced young adjutant of 4/5 GR got so upset that he pointed his pistol on his Brigade Commander Quinn and Chandan , and threatened to shoot them if the heli-lift was not recommenced, and rest of his unit and their equipment were not lifted and taken to Sylhet immediately. In the annals of war, there could not have been a greater story of a young officer with moral courage and love for ‘Namak & Nishan’ of his ‘Paltan’ and brethren in distress.

So it was that, after a lot of discussion between Quinn and Chandan, it was agreed to send one helicopter to Sylhet. If it came back safely, the SHBO was to restart from Kalura. Chandan then asked me to get one crew ready. I volunteered to go. He was sure I was going to be shot down and won’t come back. I went to meet the aircrew and asked for a volunteer to come with me. Every one of the pilot’s put their hand up. Wow, wow. Our morale was sky high. I randomly picked Fg offr Kanth Reddy to be my Co-Plt. We got loaded with essential equipment and soldiers of 4/5 GR and got airborne around midnight.

It was pitch dark, and all we had was a compass to navigate and 20 minutes of flying time to Sylhet, by our watch. Of course I knew what and where the helipad was in day time. I had no idea how I was going to find it at night. I knew the river Surma was there and the railway station and two big bridges over Surma, but of course everything looks different at night in blacked out conditions.

Luckily for us, Flg Offr SC Sharma, the FAC with 4/5 GR, whom we had dropped in the first rotation, came on the GRU radio set when he heard the helicopter and said ‘about time you guys came back’. I was so glad to hear Sharma. I asked him what the situation was like on the ground and he said it was ‘quiet’, and that he would light a fire for us so we would know where to land.

When I saw the fire, I headed straight for it. My briefing to the troops in my helicopter was very simple; as soon as I landed, everybody to jump out with their equipment and I would be airborne in 30 seconds. We had removed our clam shell doors for the duration of the war, made it much easier to load and unload the Mi-4 helicopter. That also meant that there was a big hole at the back of our cabin. When I was on finals, I saw tracer bullets coming towards me from all directions, I was sure we would have dozens of bullet holes.

We landed at Sylhet, dropped our load and got airborne within a minute, climbed very quickly and set course back to Kalura where the rest of 4/5 GR was waiting. Kalura was now lit up by four Goose Necks. I asked my flight engineer to look for bullet holes, and few minutes later he came back with a big grin and said that there was not even one bullet hole. I was amazed! The enemy could not see us – they could only hear us, that’s why they were just firing with no target in view. I contacted Kailashahar, and told the rest of the helicopters to proceed to Kalura and recommence the SHBO ASAP. I picked up the next load from Kalura, and dropped them at Sylhet, and came running back still with no bullet holes, picked up the third load and dropped it at Sylhet.

After dropping my third load, when I got airborne from Sylhet, I noticed that our fuel gauge was showing zero fuel. The helicopter was still flying, so of course we had fuel. Three of us in our Mi-4 prayed to whoever was up there to get us back safely. We got back to Kalura without much ado, very fortunate. Four helicopters had got ready and arrived at Kalura when I came back from my third flight.

Our engineers had a Jerri can, so they drained some fuel from each of the 4 helicopters at Kalura and put it in my helicopter. I took off from Kalura, landed at Kailashahar ALG and switched off to check why my fuel gauge was showing zero.

At Kailashahar my engineers discovered a bullet had cut the cable to the fuel gauge. That was changed quickly, we refuelled, and once again joined others and the operation continued throughout the night. We did a total of 14 sorties with 5 helicopters between 0000 and 0500. We carried 124 troops and 2500 kg equipment

During the next day we did a number of flights to Sylhet, including a new 2 i/c for 4/5 GR, the incredible soldier Maj Ian Cardozo. We finished moving all the soldiers and load of 4/5 GR to Sylhet by 9 Dec morning including two 75/24 Howitzers, its gun crew & pioneers, along with first line ammo, sent by Maj Onkar Goraya BM of 57 Mtn Arty Bde to Kailashahar [24]. In addition, Chandan got everything additional asked for by 4/5 GR air dropped by a Caribou of 33 Sqn operating from Kumbhigram. The armed Otter and Alouette remained overhead Sylhet day and night to take pot shots, targets of opportunity. Repeated air strikes were done by Hunters and Gnats during day guided by the FAC on the Sylhet Garrison and anything that moved out towards the twin bridges north of Surma. Herein lies the tale of incredible act of the depleted 4/5 GR who not only contained 1 ½ Bde of Pakis at Sylhet, but also accepted their surrender a week later.

During the Sylhet ops three of our helicopters were hit by ground fire, but the crew were able to bring the helicopters back to Kailashahar and the engineers were able to fix them, nobody was injured. For having volunteered to do a dangerous mission at night, act as a guinea pig, Chandan forwarded my name for a gallantry award. I was awarded a Vir Chakra few days later.

Throughout the Sylhet SHBO, all the pilots flew both by day and night. Having completed the Sylhet mission, by 1100 hours on the 9th Dec, all the MI-4’s returned to Agartala, where other adventures awaited us.