By Colonel Anil Shorey © Sainik Samachar - Vol.49, No.8, 16-30 April 2002
One of the factors that led to the fall of the erstwhile East Pakistan in the 1971 war was low morale of the Pakistani armed forces. Various factors were attributable to this lowering of morale and one of them was the famous battle of Garibpur fought in India's favour at the early stages of the war, in fact even before the declaration of war. Located in Bayra Salient near the border inside Western Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), Garibpur lies astride the highway from India to Jessore via Chaugacha. In order to protect Indian lives and property from incessant enemy raids and air and artillery attacks, 14 Punjab (Nabha Akal), a veteran battalion under the able command of Lt. Col. R.K. Singh, moved inside East Pakistan to occupy Garibpur in mid-November 1971. The unit was supported by air, artillery, 'C' Squadron of 45 Cavalry consisting of 14 PT-76 tanks, platoon engineers of 102 Engineer Regiment and medical elements. To evict this Indian unit from Garibpur, Pakistan's 107 Infantry Brigade launched a massive attack on the night of November 21/22 with its 3rd Independent Armoured Squadron on the lead. Lt. Col. R.K. Singh was informed that since there was a likelihood of the Garibpur position being outflanked by the Pakistani battalion at Chaugacha, there would, in all probability, be a requirement of strong reaction. This factor had necessitated the grouping of tanks with 14 Punjab, a fact not known to the enemy.
A night before the attack, on November 20th, a strong patrol of 14 Punjab was sent across to the south to reconnoitre a suitable area ahead of Fatehpur which was four kilometres inside East Pakistan. Major (later Lt. Col.) A.P. Vishwanathan led this patrol which comprised elements of all rifle companies with a view to ensure that all these companies would have route guidance on arrival into positions. There was a clash with a Pakistani patrol which had moved south-west from Jessore. The Pakistani patrol pulled back after a fierce fight, but it was apparent that surprise was likely to be lost. There was just enough time for Lt. Col. R.K. Singh to issue orders on the radio to his Company Commanders before the early winter night settled in. By 3 a.m. on November 21st, the battalion was in position and the men were feverishly at work to get the defence ready before daylight. That very night a patrol with Captain G.S. Gill along with the artillery observer, Captain P.P. Chaturvedi, moved north to gain early warning and also to attempt to hit the Pakistani guns by an observed artillery shoot. In the cold and foggy hours, Captain Gill heard the unmistakable sound of enemy tanks moving south from the Chaugacha-Jessore road. The fog and poor visibility allowed the patrol to remain close to the enemy columns and report on them accurately to battalion headquarters.
The Pakistani thrust lines having become apparent, thanks to the good work of the patrols operating ahead of the defence, readjustments to muster the recoilless rifle and the PT-76 tanks at the required places were carried out. The men rose splendidly to the occasion and the well-organised drills and training stood to good effect in those crucial couple of hours. On the night of November 21st, the 14 Punjab initially attacked enemy positions in South Garibpur and later followed up to outflank the positions from south. These attempts were effectively foiled by 'C' company and the main attack came almost frontally on 'D', 'B' and 'A' companies around 3 a.m. The infantry-tanks attack, however, first came on 'D' company around 6 a.m., before fanning out. The enemy attacked confidently and one tank charged to within 25 metres of the Indian position. The enemy's artillery and tank fire had forced the recoilless crew of 'D' company back, but Havildar Lekh Raj, the crew leader, stayed on and fired to destroy two of the lead tanks. In another engagement, one of the Indian tanks which had by then moved to cover the developing threat, hit another Chaffee tank which turned out to be a troop leader's tank. The troop leader while attempting to clamber out was shot by Captain Gill. In the close fighting that ensued when the other Chaffees closed in, the Squadron Commander of 45 Cavalry, Major D.S. Narang was hit and killed but not without taking two Chaffee tanks. The enemy momentum of assault petered out by about 8:30 a.m. The winter sun, now up through the rising fog, revealed 11 of enemy's tanks destroyed and three abandoned in good condition.
In the afternoon, around 3:30 p.m., three Pakistani aircraft roared in. While they were circling over the border, Indian Air Force Gnats appeared and shot up all three. The troops on the ground had an uninterrupted view of this neat work by the Indian Air Force and saw the Pakistani pilots bailing out over Indian territory. The unexpectedly violent response of Pakistan's 107 Infantry Brigade to 14 Punjab's entry across the Bayra Salient was as surprising as the losses suffered in one battle. It led to interesting political results on both sides. On the tactical level, this battle forced the Pakistanis to vacate Chaugacha which resulted in Major General Dalbir Singh's 9 Infantry Division closing up almost half-way up to Jessore. Later, when the war was fully joined, the armoured personnel carriers of 7 Punjab were the first Indian elements to reach Jessore airfield. Thus, two battalions of the Punjab Regiment contributed effectively to the capture of Jessore. This unique battle of one battalion group defeating a brigade attack supported by armour and the Indian Air Force will go down in the annals of warfare as a classic example indeed.