Special Heli Borne Ops - Sylhet and Meghna

01 VaidSpecial Heli Borne Operations (SHBOs) by Mi-4 In 1971 “Liberation War” by Sqn Ldr Pushp Vaid, VrC.  


The Background 

Let me at the outset state my conviction, after half a century, that this Liberation war in Dec 1971 was won so quickly by India, not only by the military genius of late Lt Gen Sagat Singh, Padma Bhushan, PVSM [1], and brilliant performance of the Indian army, navy and the air force elements involved in the theatre under his command, but also because of the unstinting patriotic help and support of the ‘Mitro Bahini’ [2], for liberating and converting East Pakistan to their new democratic country ‘Bangladesh’. The incredible feat of arms by Indian armed forces could not have been achieved without the vigorous blood, sweat, tears, and ultimate sacrifices of the Bengali population of East Pakistan, who were ethnically, culturally, philosophically and linguistically different from the Punjabi dominated West Pakistan. Why the war came about, and the genocide that followed, which compelled India to military intervene in East Pak, I will let someone else, more knowledgeable, tell.

My lesser-known, remembered, acknowledged or sung history below, is about a few helicopters, pilots and technical personnel of IAF, who rose to the occasion to help the soldiers of IV Corps of Indian Army, with embedded Mitro Bahini, to leap over the riverine and marshy areas quickly in four ‘Special Heli Borne Operations’ (SHBOs) , with no precedent or doctrine, learning on the run. In my view the helicopter operation shortened the war and contributed to the quick victory, thus saving lives and the agony of long war - before the sanctimonious world powers intervened to stop and call for ceasefire.

110 Helicopter Unit (HU) of IAF, with M-4 helicopters, were born at Tezpur, in the cataclysm of 1962 Sino Indian war, but re-located to Kumbigram advanced landing ground (near Silchar in Assam), in primitive living conditions, on the commencement of the Mizo insurgency around 1966. Sagat Singh, at that time responsible for quelling the insurgency and bring prosperity to Mizoram, as Cdr 101 Com Zone, was quite familiar and adept at the efficacy of the use of the Mi-4 helicopters of 110 HU for quick ‘troop induction’ albeit in small numbers, ‘communication’ [3], casualty evacuation, and other tasks in difficult jungle, mountainous and riverine terrain with poor road access.

 Gp Capt (later AVM)  Chandan Singh, MVC,  AVSM,  VrC  Stn Cdr Jorhat,  O i/c Kilo Force &  SHBOs  

02 Sagat

Lt Gen Sagat Singh, GOC, IV Corps

From the history of the Liberation War, I am now given to understand [7] that the initial war plans by Army HQ8 & HQ Eastern Command (EC) [9] in Jun/Jul 71, did not envisage any role for IV Corps except a defensive one to protect the Indian states of Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram from Paki counter-attack. So when a wargaming was held by EC at Sukhna (with II & XXXIII Corps), Sagat was not even invited. Sam / Gill’s plan basically envisaged the capture of as much territory as possible to push back 10 mill refugees to form their own country, with help of IN/IAF. But Sagat did his own war planning, with a more expansive mind, cards held close to his chest, of even capturing Dacca, go for the jugular. One of the strange things he did was to shoot off a message to HQ Eastern Air Command [10] asking “How many troops and associated war stores can IAF airlift by helicopters over difficult terrain over a distance of about 20-25 km [11]. Despite several reminders, EAC did not reply. The answer was finally given by a lowly officer in Directorate T&M at Air HQ, ‘One or two Platoons” !! My story is about how wrong IAF commanders were. Because of leadership persuasion from the front lines, Lt Gen Sagat Singh and then Gp Capt (later AVM) Chandan Singh [12], a bunch of helicopters from 110 HU (ex Kumbhigram), 105 HU (ex Chabua) and 111 HU (ex Hashimara) airlifted over 6000 troops and their equipment including mountain arty brigade with its ammunition - almost 40% of IV Corps over the formidable, unfordable Meghna river to capture Dacca and liberate East Pak, and form the democratic republic of Bangladesh.


 

My Career

I , Pushp Vaid, 6892 F(P) , was pipped (commissioned) as a Pilot Officer in IAF in Jan 63 in the corridor of AF Stn Race Course, by the Chief Ground Instructor, after intermediate training on T-6G (Havards), and along with nine coursemates from 83rd PC, immediately sent to UK for training on helicopters.

03 VaidAged 29, in Jun 1970, I was posted to 110 HU at Kumbigram as ‘Flt Cdr’ (2 i/c), with several thousand hours on Mi-4s, under the Officer Commanding (OC), Sqn Ldr Kenny Dutton. During previous years, since 1966, our task was primarily to provide logistic and communication support for anti-insurgency operations in Mizoram and Tripura. Sqn Ldr CS Sandhu took over from Kenny Dutton on 1 Feb 71 as the OC. During Apr-May most of the experienced aircrew of 110, adept at unit’s task, were sent to USSR to train and induct Mi-8s and their replacements were very young and inexperienced 21-22 yr old pilots. Though not a Qualified Flying Instructor (QFI), with the help of Sandhu and senior pilot Flt Lt Jayaraman, I undertook vigorous action to train them and qualify them by end-Nov 71. 110 HU went to war with such young boys and it makes my heart swell with pride that they performed marvellously well.

Kumbigram[13] in 70-71 was a laissez-faire AF Stn under the command of Gp Capt JP Latta [14]. There was very little of permanence, or amenities, in the airfield. The Mess and married living quarters were in ‘Bashas’ (thatched huts with mud walls). 110 HU was the only unit in Kumbhigram, besides 5-6 Dakotas of 49 Sqn based in Jorhat, who came on rotational detachments for air maintenance tasks in Manipur , Meghalaya and Mizoram.

04 110HUPilots

From Medium Wave All India Radio broadcasts, Army friends, as well as an increasing number of causality evacuations all along the Indo-Pak border, I was aware of clandestine guerrilla warfare taking place within East Pak from Sep 71`. But our helicopter operations were restricted only up to the international border. EAC Air II15 had called Sandhu to Shillong in Sept 71 and briefed him to train pilots for low flying and at night16. Since such training was not possible at Kumbigram due to hilly terrain and lack of facilities, the younger pilots were sent to Chabua (105 HU) to not only train low flying at night but also be categorised by the Mi-4 examiner Sqn Ldr Rama Rao [17] . While the pilots were away, the technical staff had a field day at maintenance and achieved 100% serviceability. So by the time the war was declared during the night of 3-4th Dec 71, pilots of 110 HU were not only fully categorised but also current to undertake night flying and we had all our 10 Mi-4s fit to fly.

Mi4 Z633

The Trusty Steed - An Mi-4 Z-633.  (Photo Via Wg Cdr Subir Sen) 

Due to fear of attacks on Kumbigram airfield by Paki Sabres from Dacca, 110 HU was ordered to disperse all its helicopters to Aijal18 and Teliamura (by then HQ IV Corps) about 40 km east of Agartala airport, located very close to the border. Agartala, a commercial airport, visited occasionally by an IA Fokker, was being constantly shelled by Paki artillery from Akhura, which was also located close to the border, west of Agartala. From Teliamura and Aijal, during the last week of Nov to first week of Dec 71, we were extensively flying all day, all along the IV Corps frontage from Hailakandi19 to the Feni salient, for communication and reconnaissance of army senior officers as well as evacuating casualties to field hospitals. Serious casualties were taken from field hospital Teliamura to Kumbhigram, from where Otters, Caribous, Daks and Packets were evacuating them to hospitals in Gauhati and far fields in the interiors of India.

05 agartala

The author, Flt Lt Pushp Vaid (on left) with Army personnel at Agartala - during the operations. The Officer on the right appears to be a Forward Air Controller. 

Though we didn’t know it then, during the first 3 or 4 days, perhaps by 7th Dec, the IAF fighters and bombers had grounded the Pakistan Air force (PAF) at Tezgaon (Dacca)20. This may have helped the helicopters to fly safe without worrying about Paki fighters. But worry we did, since we had no idea of IAF’s total air superiority. So we kept our eyes peeled looking out for Paki Sabres. Such fear did not hamper or deter our operations in 71 war, especially our operations at night since we knew that the foe had no night fighting capability in the air, except Air Defence Guns.

06 Dec 71

On 6th Dec 110 HU was ordered by Gp Capt Chandan Singh to gather its flock and move to Agartala. After the capture of Akhura, the enemy shelling of Agartala had ceased. By afternoon hours on 6th Dec, all 9 Mi-4s of 110 HU were deployed at Agartala. On 7th Dec we were joined by 3 Mi-4s of 105 HU from Chabua, and on 11th Dec, 2 Mi-4s of 111 HU from Hashimara joined us. Details of personnel are given in a table, placed as Appendix -A.


 

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.


9-10 Dec 71

Gen Sagat Singh was from the famed parachutist brigade, a proponent of manoeuvre battle, vertical envelopment, bypassing the Maginot lines of terrain and enemy. The success of the Sylhet operation must have given him the confidence to now go for the jugular, at Dacca, across the formidable obstacle of Meghna river, which neither friends nor foe had deemed possible. Our second SHBO was from Brahmanbaria to Raipura, to air lift the battalion of 4 Guards in the evening hours of 9 Dec 71, over a distance of 25 km, deep into East Pak’s under belly.

Another interesting incident then happened.

07 Meghna

Sometime around 11-1130 hrs on 9th Dec, Gen Sagat Singh took Brig Mishra25, Col Himmeth Singh CO 4 Guards, my OC Sandhu and I, in an unarmed Alouette of 115 HU, flown by Fg Offrs Sidhu and Jitu Sahi to reconnoitre a suitable landing area across the Meghna near Raipura which Sagat / Mishra had chosen from terrain map as suitable for inserting 4 Guards – our next SHBO.

On the flight out, the Alouette climbed up to 5000 feet to stay away from small arms fire. After we had selected our landing zones, two open paddy fields a km apart, about 3-4 km south of Methikanda Rlwy Stn, we returned. Half way back, abeam Ashuganj, Sagat told the pilot that Ashuganj was under Indian control and that he wanted to go low to take a look at how 10 Bihar and 18 Rajput, with 2 EBR support group were fairing. It was Sagat’s habit to overfly and get an immediate first-hand view of all battles in his corps sector on an hourly basis. When we were perhaps 1000 feet or below, nearing a bund at Ashuganj, suddenly we heard “phut-phut –phut” noise, and there were bullet holes in the Alouette – at least a dozen if not more. Fg Offr Sidhu was hit by a bullet that had come through the instrument panel and went through his shoulder and got buried in backrest behind him. Another bullet or shard of the Perspex creased Sagat’s forehead.

I was just two feet behind the pilot’s back rest! Very close. Fg Offr Jeetu Sahi immediately took over controls, climbed rapidly and landed back at Brahmanbaria.

After surveying an open stadium [26], next to a stream [27] south of Brahmanbaria as a suitable launch pad, we returned to Agartala, where Sidhu was evacuated to Teliamora field hospital. I discovered later that there were 38 bullet holes in that helicopter ! Wow - and only one person who got injured was Sidhu. Sagat was “Monk” like, absolutely unfazed, didn’t even blink. Later, we heard 10 Bihar (or perhaps 18 Rajput) boasting that they had shot down a Paki Alouette. But we joked that they deserved ‘battle honours’ at Ashuganj, for trying to shoot down their own Corps Cdr and Bde Cdr !!

08 Meghna

I then took my lot to Brahmanbaria stadium. When we landed there and shut down, we saw hundreds of dead bodies near the riverside where we had landed. We asked the locals what had happened and they told us that the Pakistan army had rounded up all the people from the village, as well as Prisoners of War, and shot all behind their head before withdrawing. It was my first horrifying sight of wanton Paki genocide that left an ever-lasting impression in my mind.

For our SHBO that evening to Raipura, I split up the helicopters in two groups of four. We had planned two landing sites, once again large paddy fields devoid of crop, across the Meghna river, about one kilometre apart. I was to go across the river, land to discharge the troops and their cargo. And after take-off, turn left to come back to Brahmanbaria. My group of 4 helicopters was to follow me 2- 3 minutes apart. The other group following was to take off and land on the right field and after take-off – go right and come back to Brahmanbaria the same way. The briefing was “no overshooting”. If the preceding helicopter was still on ground, those following were to slow down, or land slightly to one or the other side. All this was to be in fading light and in pitch darkness afterwards.

4 Guards, fighting a battle on the outskirts of Ashuganj, were ordered to withdraw to Brahmanbaria. So it was about 1600 by the time they got back and loaded the Mi-4, within half an hour. They were an outstanding organised and feisty bunch, adept at SHBOs into Bhutan in their earlier days with 111 ex Hashimara, as also with 110 in Mizoram prior to 71 war.

I was in the first helicopter on the left, with Chandan, and Coy Cdr Alpha Coy Maj Chandrakant with his troops from Alpha Company. Also on board was FAC Flg Offr Dinky Shaheed with his GRU radio set. I got airborne, crossed Meghna and landed at Raipura 25 km away. 4 Grds jumped out quickly, and I was just going to pull up my collective, but my instinct told me to wait. Thirty seconds later, sure enough I saw the helicopter behind me overshoot, right on top of me. If I had pulled up, I would have gone straight into him. Very lucky day for Chandan returning with us. I didn’t blink either, such things do happen in the excitement of war.

We used 8 helicopters, did 27 sorties, and ferried 4 Grds Alpha Coy and their load from Brahmanbaria to Raipura. In total, we ferried 309 troops and 2200 kgs. The FAC had quickly heaped two straw mountains and set fire to it. It burned and smouldered all night and acted as a beacon. Between 9 at night and 10 in the morning of 10th Dec, we continued the airlift, now we had 10 Mi-4s and we ferried 347 troops and 6000 kgs of load.

At about 0300, when we were loading up our helicopters at Brahmanbaria for the next shuttle across Meghna, one pilot called up on radio to say he had no load, then another, a third one and the 4th one too. I told everybody to shut down and have a break. I went to meet CO 4 Guards Lt Col Himmeth Singh, who was supposed to be supervising the despatch of his troops in our helicopters to check what was going on.

Himmeth told me rather sternly that he wanted all 10 helicopters for his Battalion to cross Meghna immediately. I got very annoyed and gave him a piece of my mind.

After couple of minutes he got my message. Thereafter, he organised quick loading, and we continued our flights. I did not know then that the feisty 4 Guards had to do a fighting retreat on foot over rough terrain of more than 25 km to get back to Brahmanbaria in time, with all their ammo and mortars, tents, bloody utensils, rations, even a 105 mm RCL, heckled by the Pakis with intense fire all the way. That Himmeth would not go to Raipura without his last man, while the head of the column Maj Chandrakant was racing from Methikanda towards Narsinghdi. He was an incredible commander. 4 Guards were the vanguards in the race to Dacca, fighting their way on foot, cycles, rickshaws, fire engine, and even a rail wagon pushed by cheering Bengali populace. By next day they were in Narsingdi, on the way to Dacca.

We kept flying the whole night and finished the mission of ferrying the entire Battal-ion of 4 Grds, Bengali pioneers, and their loads, to Raipura and returned to Agartala. That was just the beginning. Sagat and Chandan now wanted us to cart half of IV Corps cross Meghna supported by Arty and run to Narsinghdi. That was to be our next destination, for our third SHBO from Brahmanbaria to Narsinghdi to lift 10 Bihar, 18 Rajput, 311 Mtn Bde, 82 Lt Arty Rgt, followed by 59 Mtn Arty Rgt, and 65 Mtn Arty Rgt of 57 Mtn Arty Bde. The armour (Indp Armr Sqn with PT 76s) under Maj Shammi Mehta was to swim across Meghna and race forward to catch up at Narsing-di. Such an audacious plan would not even have struck Guderian, Rommel , Patton or Yamamoto in WW-II !

10 – 14 Dec 71

All our ten helicopters proceeded to Brahmanbaria with ground crew on 10th evening and spent the night there, There was no accommodation. So we managed to find an empty hall near the stadium and all 60 of us, officers and airmen squeezed into it for the night. There was nothing to eat and so we slept on empty stomach. Two more helicopters joined us from 111 HU on the 11th.

The task early on 11th Dec morning was to airlift two battalions (10 Bihar and 18 Rajput) and balance of 311 Bde + an artillery regiment (65 Mtn Rgt) involving 110 sorties. The field guns were to be broken down to fit into the Mi-4s. Now there was no Pakistan Army in the area to worry about - so we were flying and landing together in pre-reconnoitred big paddy fields, just south west of Narsinghdi..

The first wave of Mi-4s took off from Brahmanbaria at 0530 on 11 Dec and kept flying till 0720. We had ten helicopters and did three sorties each and we carried 321 troops and 7200 kgs of load to Narsinghdi. We then had little break and refuelled at Agartala. Our next rotation started at 0915 and continued till 1145. Again we had 10 helicopters - We lifted 252 troops and 16700 kgs of load. The load was mostly the Arty guns and its ammo. Miscellaneous logistics, including rations were being airdropped by Caribous at Narsinghdi with continuous top cover (close air support) by armed Otters & Chetak of Kilo Flight.

Our third rotation started after we had refuelled at Agartala around 1330. Again we had 10 helicopters and we carried 190 troops and 24,500 kgs of load. The focus was on Arty Guns.

After refuelling at Agartala our fourth rotation must have started around 1730 – we had 9 helicopters and each did one sortie, this time, and carried 54 troops and 8600 kgs of load including infantry weapon’s ammunition. So total for 11 Dec 71 was 815 troops and 65,200 kgs load and we did 99 sorties.

On 11 Dec 71, we also sent one helicopter back to Sylhet for casualty evacuation. Fg Offr BK Sharma and Fg Offr PVR Murthy did the evacuation at night because it was felt safer to land at night. Both pilots showed great skill and courage and evacuated 30 casualties in two sorties in spite of heavy ground fire. They also flew in urgently required ammunition required by troops. Z-349 helicopter came back with a number of bullet holes.

Another helicopter, Z-613, flown by Fg Offr B L Kanth Reddy - on its way back to Kumbhigram for maintenance inspection had an engine fire en-route and had to force land. The helicopter was completely burnt after landing, but the crew managed to escape unhurt.

09 Helilift

We continued our SHBO on the 12th Dec from Brahmanbaria to Narsinghdi. First detail had 8 helicopters and they carried 138 troops and 13,820 kgs load. Second detail we had 4 helicopters and lifted 96 troops and 5600 kgs of load.

A total of 35 sorties were done involving 35.15 hours flying and we carried 234 troops and 19,420 kgs of load from Brahmanbaria to Narsinghdi on 12th Dec. On 13th Dec, we continued our SHBO from Brahmanbaria to Narsinghdi. We did a total of 30 sorties involving 25 hours of flying. We had 10 helicopters and air lifted 282 troops and 14,850 kgs load.

Over all, a total of 1331 troops and 99,470 kgs load was carried from Brahmanbaria to Narsinghdi; that involved 164 sorties and 141.45 hours of flying.

From reconnaissance report of armed Kilo Flight Chetak over Daudkandi and Bhairab Bazar, it was reported that large number of ferries and country boats were still available at Daudkandi and that Pakis had run away across the Meghna to Dacca. On 13th Dec morning, Sagat Singh took Chandan and went to visit Maj Gen Rocky Hira, GoC 23 Mountain Div, trying to cross Meghna at its widest part at Chandpur. Sagat was impatient at the slow progress of 23 Div, and wanted them to cross over quickly and blockade the southern part of Dacca. So it was that Sagat and Chandan planned the 4th and the largest SHBO across the widest part of the mighty Meghna to take 23 Div across.

12 EPakMap

 


 

14-15 Dec 71

In the evening on 13th Dec, when we returned from Narsinghdi to Agartala, I was ordered to plan for the biggest SHBO next day from Daudkandy to Baidya Bazar and deliver 23 Div to the southern suburb of Dacca. By then the Indian army and Mitro Bahini had already reached Tongi in the north, and Demra area in South east. They had started shelling Paki army garrison in Dacca. A recce in an Alouette helicopter was carried out to locate open fields at Daudkandy and Baidya Bazar.

10 Z331Narsingdi

11 ArtyGunsOffloaded

13 Behl Gun

We had 12 Mi-4 helicopters and positioned ourselves at Daudkandi at 0730 on 14 Dec to take 23 Div troops and their load to Baidya Bazar. However, due to marshy terrain and exhaustion, the first lot of troops arrived at only around 1030 hrs. 12 helicopters and its crew sat and fretted for three hours at Daudkandi, deep within enemy lines, with each minute appearing like an hour.

We had made three groups of 4 helicopters each. The first group was called Black, second one was called Red and third one was called Green – no idea why we did that. Must have sounded like a good idea at the time.

Between 1100 and 1630 we did a total of 79 sorties crossing the Meghna river at its widest part, and carried 810 troops and 22,650 kgs of load from Daudkandi and Baidyabazar, a distance of about 25 km. Daudkandi is 66 km, south west of Agartala. Baidya Bazar is north of Narayanganj, southern outskirt of Dacca. A large part of 23 Div personnel crossed by boats. We carried the rest with their stores and guns which had been left behind.

On 15 Dec 71, early morning, before a cease fire came into effect, we used 7 helicopters and continued our airlift of the stragglers of 23 Div from Daudkandi to Baidya Bazar. We did 43 sorties and carried 402 troops and 16,650 kgs of load.

Between 14 & 15 Dec, we had ferried a total of 1212 troops and 89,300 kgs load of 23 Div from Daudkandy to Baidya Bazar in 122 sorties flying total of 62.20 hours. Army Engineers with 23 Div had managed to capture ferries and country boats. While we did the quick hops across effortlessly, we could see troops of 23 Div laboriously crossing the mighty Meghna flood plains struggling up steam. During this combined operation, on receipt of an SoS from army, we sent one helicopter to carry vital equipment and ammunition to Narsingdi as well as evacuate serious casualties.

Another helicopter – Z-640, on its way to Kumbhigram for servicing had a transmission failure just six miles short of Kumbhigram. They forced landed short of Khumbhigram. The air crew escaped unhurt and helicopter was recovered later.


TOTAL HELICOPTER AIR LIFT BY Mi--4s Add Table

 

TOTAL HELICOPTER AIR LIFT BY Mi-4s

FOUR CONTINUOUS (24 X 7) SHBOs 7- 15 DEC 1971

Sector

Troops Air Lifted Forward

Load (kg)

Lifted

Sorties

Hrs Flown

Kalura to Sylhet

649

13,000

113

66:15

Brahmanbaria to Raipura

1,286

12,530

57

33:50

Brahmanbaria to Narsingdi

1,570

1,00,650

166

152:05

Daudkandi to Baidyabazar

2,408

73,230

129

64:20

TOTAL

6,011 (+)

2, 02,810 (+)

465

316’:30”

 

Notes

  1. Sorties / Hrs above do not include Cas-evac & misc communication sorties flown (it is only for SHBOs). For 110 HU alone total additional (approx.) for Casevac from battle fields 61 sorties / 93’:05”. There were also large numbers of Alouettes of 112 / 115 Hus, and Mi-4s of 105/111 HUs, who did these tasks too more often, about  which I have no record.
  2. The load indicated does not include the weight of ‘Troops’. Army ORBs show a much higher number including around 3000 odd Mitrobahini unarmed pioneers, able bodied young men recruited from refugee camps. They were not included in load tables. No manifests were made during SHBOs, due to vagrancies of war26.
  3. The figures are modest and approx, as noted by me in my pocket diary, as reported by the pilots daily in after action briefings as well as Adjutants / Despatch coordinators of army units. In reality we actually had to fly more sorties  daily, than my daily flight planning figures, to ensure that we did not leave anyone or anything behind.
  4. Perhaps 20% of those taken forward were returned to field hospitals as casualties (max 4/5 GR from Sylhet, and 4 Grds, 10 Bihar, 18 Rajput from Narsingdi). Number of sorties flown for cas-evac from other battlefields in IV Corps sector, from mid Sep to mid Dec 71, also not included in the table.

 


 

16 Dec 71 Surrender Day

Back at Agartala, on 16th morning, we heard that Maj Gen Jacob was being sent from Calcutta to Dacca to discuss surrender terms. With Paki garrisons in Dacca surrounded from west, north, east and south, no place to run to, and the whole Bengali population hostile to Pakis, we stayed tuned into pocket radios confident that by the end of the day the sun would set on East Pakistan, and rise over a new democratic country called Bangladesh. Our morale went sky high when an Avro arrived at Agartala from Calcutta with Gen Aurora, his wife, V Adm Krishnan and their entourage. Soon another Avro arrived from Guhati with Air Msl Diwan and large number of IAF officers. Two more Avros brought journalist. By 3 O’clock Agartala was chock-a-block with Avros, Kilo Flt Dak, Alouettes from Tezpur & Bhagdogra, Air OP Chetaks and Krishaks from 659 Sqn, besides the valiant Mi-4s of 110, 105 and 111. Having done his job well, Chandan returned to Jorhat.

Dacca (Tejgaon) runway had been severely bombed, with many large craters, and was unfit for use except by helicopters. Therefore, it was decided to fly the VIPs to Dacca in Alouettes with white seat cover. The war was over for us. Mi-4s had no seat cover and besides VIPs didn’t like to fly in our cocktail shaker.

However, there were large number of lesser men, and the press reporters. So I was asked to fly them to Dacca in Mi-4s. I was told that my pilots not needed for flying duties should be left behind. However I ignored the instructions – I reasoned that after risking their lives and flying to their limit, my pilots and flight engineers deserved to see this once-in-a-lifetime surrender ceremony.

Therefore, all pilots and flight engineers, besides other personnel, who fought the war together with me were “smuggled” on board five Mi4s which followed the long line of Alouette helicopters heading for Dacca.

A tumultuous reception awaited us. Flying Officer S Krishnamurthy, called “Kruts” in 110, in his exuberance also managed to “photobomb” Gen Niazi signing the surrender document in presence of General Aurora and the who’s who of Indian military brass. Much to the chagrin of Gen Jacob, Kruts even had his hand over the General’s shoulder, in my opinion, a right display of camaraderie and exuberance of winning a war.

We took as many reporters as we could. There were, men and women reporters from so many different parts of the world. There was no restriction. We still had no clamshell doors or seat belts for passengers- they hung on to anything they could find, or to each other, can you imagine that ? We made no passenger manifest!

When we landed at Dhaka, and parked next to Pak International Terminal at Tezgaon, there were thousands of Bengalis milling about cheering us, each wanting to shake our hands or carry us on their shoulders. A multitude of cars, buses, rickshaws, cyclists, even bullock carts awaited to take us to witness the public surrender ceremony at Ramna Race Course.

It was like the movies, when the Americans drove into Paris at the end of WW2. It was a wonderful feeling of success and victory in war. There were so many Bengali peoples, with guns, firing in the air in jubilation. It is a wonder that none got shot.

Less than two weeks after the declaration of war, the Pakistani army surrendered with over 93,000 troops.

I have no recollection of how I came back to the airport from Ramna Race Course – just that we flew back at night to Agartala. After Bangladesh was formed – our helicopter kept going to Dacca and other locations in Bangladesh to help the Govt of Bangladesh and Indian Army maintain law and order. Well that is another story.

14 DaccaMap

The whole Bangladesh war was one of the most wonderful experience of my life. I also had the good fortune to working with Lt Gen Sagat Singh and Gp Capt Chandan Singh – two of my heroes during the war.

(The SHBOs and Sagat’s actions didn’t end there. On the departure of the VIPs from Dacca on 16th evening, Sagat Singh was left behind as Military Administrator to bring Law & Order, care for PoWs & Bengalis alike, keep a control of the Mitro Bahini from executing Paki PsOW and await the Govt of BD in exile to come and take control. During the night of 16 Dec 71, Military Intelligence reported to him that a large number of Mizo rebels who had been sheltered by Pak army in the Chittagong tract- Rangmati area were making a break to Burma. Immediately he ordered another Mi-4 SHBO by 110 to airlift 2 Jat and other elements of Indian army from Chittagong to Parva and Lawngtlai (Mizoram) to intercept the Mizo rebels (Op Battle Axe, Dec 1971). But by the time the IA moved in to take control, the Mizo rebels escaped. Op Battle Axe lasted for a while. Another story by itself ! )


 

Appendix - A 

 The SHBO Teams

110 HU  (1-16 Dec 71)

105 HU (7- 16 Dec 71)

111 HU (14-16 Dec 71)

Pilots

Pilots

Pilots

1.  Sqn Ldr  CS Sandhu, OC

1.  Sqn Ldr PN Chabra, OC

1. Sqn Ldr Nanda Cariappa , OC

2. Flt Lt  PK Vaid (Flt Cdr)

2.  Flt Lt RV Singh

2. MR Handa

3. Flt Lt T Jayaraman (Dy Flt Cdr)

3.  Sharma

3. V. Singh

4. Flt Lt PN Rao

4. Francis Gomes

4. PP Rajumar

5. Flt Lt SS Hundal

5.  IM Simoes 

Flt Eng  & Tech Air Men

6. Fg Offr HS Chatwal

6. Shiva Krishna

Approx  8

7. Fg Offr BLK Reddy

7. RS Murthy

8. Fg Offr C Dsouza

8. NLK Reddy

9. Fg Offr  MM Ali

Flt Eng  & Tech Air Men

10. Fg Offr SB Mohan

Approx  16

11. Fg Offr  Srinivasan

12. Fg Offr V Sampath

13. Fg Offr  JN Awal

14. Fg Offr Jagdip Singh

15. Fg Offr SS Krishnamurthy

16. Fg Offr HS Sodhi

17. Fg Offr RV Chitnis

18. Fg Offr AK Oberoi

19. Fg Offr M Ramakrishna

20. Fg Offr RM Sridharan

Tech Officers

1.       Flt Lt A Shankaran

2.       Fg Offr SK Katiyar

3.       Fg Offr PK Kamra

4.       Fg Offr RH Borikar

Flt Eng  / Load Masters

WO Alexander

Sgt KS Bindra

Sgt Gurbux Singh

Sgt HB Kalra

Sgt Sehgal

Sgt Subramanium

SNCOs

WO J Majithia  (Eng Fitter)

Flt Sgt Tewari (Air Frame Fitter)

Sgt Mukundan (Eng Fitter)

Total Mi-4 Ops (110, 105 & 111 HUs)
32 Pilots. (2 VrCs)
4 Tech Offrs
84 SNCOs & Air Men
14 Mi-4s.

 

 


 

End Notes