BHARAT RAKSHAK MONITOR - Volume 4(3) November-December 2001

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Remembering Sagat Singh (1918-2001)

P V S Jagan Mohan

 

Amidst the turbulent events of September 11th and its aftermath, when the world’s attention was fixed on the global war on Terrorism, the death of Lt. General Sagat Singh, Padma Bhushan, PVSM on the Sept 26th, 2001 at the Army Hospital Research and Referral in Delhi went relatively unnoticed.  The total lack of news of his demise in the national media or in the press was in no way reflective of the dynamic and illustrious career that Sagat Singh had during his tenure with the Army. He was a soldier's soldier, a brilliant tactician and above all, a good performer and leader who fetched great results in the times of war. He had a fine reputation as a frontline soldier  and was known to have an unorthodox and aggressive attitude to military matters, especially in times of war where most commanders tend to go strictly by the rule book.

Sagat Singh started his career in uniform  when he was commissioned in the Jaipur State Forces. On the amalgamation of the State forces with the Armed Forces of the Indian Union in 1950, Sagat Singh was posted to the 3rd Gorkha Rifles Regiment, joining the 3rd Battalion as its 2nd in Command. Sagat’s association with the 3 GR Regiment was to last the rest of his career and when he retired he was holding the Colonel of the Regiment title for 3GR.

Sagat’s first command came in February 1955, when on promotion to Lt. Col., he was posted as the CO of  the 2nd Battalion , 3 Gorkha Rifles Regiment, then located at Ferozepur. 2/3GR was a well renowned fighting unit, with the battle honors of Pir Kanthi during the 1947-48 Kashmir War. His command lasted just over an year. He was posted as the CO of the 3/3GR in March 1956, then located at Dharamsala.

Pegasus Beckons

His career was till then was nothing out of the ordinary . But one fine day in September 1961, He was promoted to the rank of Brigadier and posted as the Brigade Commander of India’s only Parachute Brigade, the 50th. This was a bolt from the blue. The 50 (Independent) Parachute Brigade, known as the Pegasus brigade was considered an elite formation, It was a prestigious formation and had the unique distinction of being one of the very few Independent Brigades under the direct command of Army HQ. Considering the fact that the Indian Army had only Six Infantry Divisions , 50th Brigade enjoyed a special status and privilege under the Army’s Orbat. What was amazing was not that Sagat Singh was selected to command it, but the fact that Sagat was an infantry man, a non-paratrooper. The Brigade till then had as its commanders only officers who were paratroopers and served with the para forces at one time or the other. And here  was a hardcore infantry man from a rifle regiment who never had para experience being asked to command India’s most prestigious and only airborne formation. On taking over command of the Para Brigade, what struck Sagat Singh the most was the outstanding comradeship, zeal and espirit-de-corps prevailing among all ranks of the Brigade. Not wanting to waste time in being accepted by the members of the Brigade , Sagat Singh went about earning his “Para Wings” in record time, even making four Para jumps in a span of two days to reach the requisite number of jumps required to earn the wings.

Liberator of Goa

Immediately afterwards earning his maroon beret and para wings,  Sagat was called to the DMO’s office in Delhi sometime in November 1961. There he was briefed on his first operational assignment of his career, To be part of  the advance of the Indian Army to liberate the territory of Goa from the Portuguese. His Para Brigade was to form the northern prong , while 17th infantry Division was to advance from the west and south in two prongs. Though a planned parachute landing by a battalion of the formation was given up, the tasks given to Sagat was  to assist the main effort of 17th Division under Maj. Gen. K P Candeth. Since there were atleast four major riverine obstacles in the Para Brigade’s path to Panjim, not much was expected out of Sagat Singh’s effort. The Army’s whole attention focussed on the main force under Candeth.

Sagat Singh surprised everyone by making a lightning advance against the Portuguese forces, when the operations began on Dec 18th, 1961. Even though his main task was only a supportive role and the capture of the Goan capital of Panjim was never tasked as its objective, his troops overwhelmed the Portugese forces and achoieved objectives that were beyond his initial purview. Using improvised resources wherever possible, the troops of his Brigade crossed its riverine obstacles by rafts and local boats and were the first troops to enter Panjim by Dec 19th, 1961. On Sagat Singh’s orders, the troops entering the capital removed their steel helmets and wore the Parachute Regiment’s maroon berets. This was Sagat Singh’s way of making a statement . The people of Goa welcomed Sagat Singh and his para brigade as liberators. When the army started redeploying the Para Brigade to Agra, numerous telegrams and petitions were sent to the Prime Minister Nehru to reinstate what they called as the “Maroon Beret Friends” back in Goa.  Under popular pressure, Nehru ordered the Para Brigade back to Goa.

The rapid capitulation of the Portuguese saw that there were a large number of POWs with the Indian Army. Sagat Singh’s Brigade was tasked with the job of looking after them till the time of repatriation. Sagat Singh’s fame as the  liberator of Goa was carried all the way to Portugal. Soon after his brigade moved back to Agra, one day Sagat was visiting the Clarkes Shiraz Hotel in Agra. He was in civilian clothing when four American tourists approached him and enquired if he was “Brigadier Singh”. When a surprised Sagat asked them how they recognised him, they told him that they had just come in from Portugal. Apparently  they saw posters with his photograph in many café’s and restaurants announcing an award of Ten Thousand US Dollars for anyone who captures and delivers Sagat Singh to the government of Portugal! Sagat Singh made a good natured offer to surrender to the tourists and asked them to take him and hand him over to the Portuguese. The offer was declined.

The Para Brigade moved back to Agra in Mid 1962. Sagat Singh was still in command when the Indo-China Border war erupted. However the Brigade was not called upon for action even though a couple of its sub units were requisitioned away to NEFA.

Counter insurgency in Mizo Hills

Sagat Singh left command of the Para Brigade in 1964  and went on to XI Corps HQ as its Brigadier General Staff. He was with XI Corps during Operation Ablaze, when the Kutch incursions took place in  April 1965. Soon afterwards, he was promoted to major General and posted to the North-East as the GOC of 17th Mountain Division. As the GOC of the Division in the troubled Mizo Hills, most of his time was taken up in Counter Insurgency operations. It was here that Sagat renewed his close relationship with the Indian Air Force and began to understand the application of Air Power and logistics in a ground campaign. Sagat fully appreciated the use of Helicopters in movement of ground troops, and support of ground operations and he was to apply his learnings to effect when his next big assignment came up.

From the command of the Mountain Division, Sagat Singh was posted briefly to command the static formation of 101 Communication Zone located in Mizoram. Though he had a change of formation, it was no change in terms of operational requirements. He was involved in counterinsurgency operations in the Mizo Hills throughout the period. For his distinguished services and pivotal role in quelling the insurgency in Mizoram,  he was awarded the Param Vishist Seva Medal.

In December 1970 he was promoted to Lt. General and took over the command of IV Corps HQ[i]. IV Corps was at that time located at Tezpur. With the looming of warclouds in 1971, The area of operations earmarked for Sagat Singh was the entire East Pakistani territory west of the River Meghna. IV Corps HQ was split into two. The Advance HQ under Sagat Singh moving down to near Agartala. Sagat Singh  had under him , three Mountain Divisions. 8 Mtn Div in the Sylhet Sector.   57 Mtn Div in the Agartala Sector and 23 Mtn Div in the Comilla Sector. Once again the task given to him was the occupation of East Pakistani territory west of the River Meghna. Dacca was never mentioned as an objective when allocating the tasks for Sagat Singh and his IV Corps.

Op Cactus Lily : the liberation of Bangladesh

Maj. Gen. Sukhwant Singh, who was the DDMO during the 1974 War, recollects the meeting when they were discussing the plans for IV Corps. Sagat Singh  was insisting that the primary task of his Corps be the reduction of the fortress at Comilla while the DMOs office was insisting that it should be the capture of the Ashuganj Bridge over the Meghna River.  Ashuganj Bridge was the only bridge that spanned the huge Meghna River which at its narrowest point was more than 4000 yards wide. Sagat Singh saw no point in its capture when Dacca was never given as an objective for him. But when someone mentioned that its capture would enable “IV Corps win the race to Dacca”, It bought a “glint into his eyes. One could safely assume that once the battle was joined, Sagat would join the race to Dacca  himself even though this was never been specifically assigned as his task”

Dacca as it happened was the objective of II Corps[ii] which was to advance from the east in the Jessore Sector.  Besides II Corps, no other formation was tasked with the objective of capturing Dacca. As it happened, when hostilities broke out in December, II Corps failed to reach its objective. Even though the battle in its sector was going on fine, a reversal at Kushtia saw an overreaction from the Corps and Divisional Commander which diverted the attention of the corps from its major push towards Dacca.

The Flying General

In the northernmost subsector of his area of command, the Sylhet Sector, the objective was to take command of the maximum Enemy territory as possible. With tasks laid out on capture of important towns and cities. 8 Mtn Div under Maj. Gen. K V Krishna Rao carried out the tasks in due course of time. It was here for the first time that the corps employed heliborne troops for the first time. When at one point the advance bogged down, Acting on some information that Sylhet town was being lightly held, Sagat wanted to airlift a battalion to just outside Sylhet to throw the Pakistanis regrouping there offbalance and possibly capture the town. After   a drop zone was identified by Gp Capt Chandan Singh, who commanded all the aviation resources allocated to the corps, 8 Div helidropped an two infantry companies in the outskirts of Sylhet between Dec 7th and 9th.  A Force of just Nine Mi-74 Helicopters airdropped 584 Troops  in some 60 sorties by Dec 9th, when the heli-effort was diverted to Meghna.,  However the helidropped troops found themselves countered by Pak troops in the vicinity and with due reinforcements and supplies they were able to settle down and keep the pocket which were holding secure for the rest of the war.

The Southernmost subsector of Comilla, the rapid advance of the 23 Div saw that all Pakistani troops in the area withdrew to the fortress town of Comilla where it was contained successfully till the end of the war. Major objectives like Chandpur and Daudkondi were captured virtually without a fight, as the enemy was in total confusion regarding the location of Indian troops and preferred evacuation rather than battle. Lt. Gen. Sagat Singh was continuously monitoring by helicopter the operations along his wide front.

While on a visit by helicopter to Daudkandi,  Sagat Singh wanted to take a look at Chandpur to see how our troops were faring. Arriving over Chandpur, flying at low level, they could see no ground activity in Chandpur. Lots of civilians were waving flags. Observing this, Sagat instructed the pilot to land the helicopter at a field nearby, and getting down from the helicopter walked down to some locals standing nearby to get information. The locals managed to communicate to him that the Pakistanis have already vacated Chandpur.  Immediately Sagat got back to the helicopter and made to the nearest Indian army post at Laksham. There he instructed the ground troops to go to Chandpur and take up positions. By the evening of 7th December Chandpur was in Indian Hands and Sagat Singh was credited with having captured Chandpur single-handed![iii]

The fact that Sagat Singh was pushing himself and taking chances by his low level Helicopter sorties became apparent one day , when on another one of his recce sorties over Bhiarab Bazar, the Alloutte in which Sagat Singh was flying was straddled with ground fire. The pilot Flt Lt. Sodhi of No.115 HU was severely wounded and the helicopter was flown back to base by the co-pilot. Sagat Singh himself had a bullet graze his hand and forehead, becoming the only corps commander to be wounded[iv] during the war. This however did not deter him from carrying on with his campaign.

Psychological Warfare

One of Sagat Singh’s innovative ideas was to harrass the Pakistani troops round the clock. He knew that there were two Caribou STOL Transport aircraft stationed at Agartala during the time. These aircraft were primarily tasked with Casualty evacuation. Sagat suggested to Group Captain Chandan Singh that the Caribous be used as nuisance bombers. They were to load up with 500lb bombs and fly over where Pakistani forces were concentrated in fortresses, like Maulvi Bazar, Bairab Bazar, Lalmai, Comilla. The Caribous flew at high altitudes, out of range of small arms fire. They circled their targets and randomly dropped one bomb at a time, thereby keeping the Pakistanis on their toes all the time. When one Caribou had exhausted all its bombs , the second aircraft would come and take over the station. The airforce had only conceptualized the usage of An-12s as bombers. But Sagat Singh takes the credit for taking this concept to the Caribous.

Sagat’s flying army

It was in the central sector of Agartala that Sagat Singh’s formation undertook the most  brilliant move that very rapidly hastened the outcome of the war. The task in this sector for 57 Mtn Div (under Maj. Gen. B F Gonsalves) was to occupy the territory leading upto the wide Meghna river. The only way across the river was over the Ashuganj Bridge which very soon became a fortress where an enemy division had consolidated itself. Though the objectives in the sector were achieved, Sagat had a bigger prize in mind. He wanted Dhaka. Accordingly he convinced Gonsalves to airlift troops across the 4000 yard Meghna River and drop troops on the other side.

Once a significant force had been built up, there was no recognisable enemy force between the helidropped force and Dhaka. Brilliant in its conception, the idea was fraught with risks and dangers. First the Pakistani troops north of the identified dropzone at Raipura should not interfere with the buildup. Second the Airforce could hardly muster 14 Mi-4 Helicopters for the task. The troops that were helidropped will not have artillery or armoured support. Even then, Sagat Singh went ahead with the decision and starting December 9th, Troops began to be airlifted to Raipura which was just south of the Ashuganj Bridge, and once the position was consolidated, the troops were helilifted straight to Narsingdi. From Narsingdi the road to Dacca lay bare for IV Corps to take. To provide support for the heliborne troops, PT-76 Tanks were told to ford the Meghna River. The tanks broke down after overheating in the water midstream and were towed to the other side using mechanised boats.

By December 14th, Sagat Singh had accumulated a force of over 2000 troops, airlifted by the Mi-4s after carrying out more than 200 sorties. He planned to add another brigade before mounting the assault on Dacca itself. However by that time the Pakistani High command in East Pakistan had lost its nerve. Faced with troops at its doorstep in the east, and also from the north (By the paradrop at Tangail), Niazi sued for peace and had to surrender by the evening of December 16th. Sagat Singh had the honour of witnessing the surrender ceremony as Lt. Gen. A A K Niazi signed the Surrender deed.

Honors and Accolades

For his leadership and command for the race to Dacca, the Indian Government honored Sagat Singh through an award of Padma Bhushan, Sagat Singh being the only other corps commander besides T N Raina and Sartaj Singh to be so awarded in 1971. Sagat Singh attributed his successes to the close working relationship with the Air Force during his counterinsurgency and para days and he remained the favourite of the Air Force Brass during the war.

After the war, Sagat resumed the peacetime operational duties of combating insurgency and taking care of the Chinese threat.  Sagat Singh retired from the army on 30th November 1976. Not before enduring the tragic demise of his son Captain Digvijay Singh in May 1976. Digvijay traced his father’s footsteps and was  commissioned into the 3 Gorkha Rifles regiment in 1971. During a frontline posting with his regiment at Poonch, Digvijay had a Jeep accident and died of injuries soon after. This was the only personal setback faced by this soldier in his career with the Indian Army.

Many books that appeared after 1971 are all  praise for Sagat Singh and his push to Dacca by IV Corps. Lack of space here prevents us from reproducing the praise heaped on Sagat’s planning and execution by many military writers post 1971.   There was no doubt that in 1971, If Gen Niazi had decided to make his stand in Dhaka instead of prematurely surrendering, It was Sagat Singh who was posed to strike first. His formation was the only formation with the means and the leadership to do so.

After retirement Sagat led a quiet life, apart from penning his experiences for authors who approached him for information on his role in Goa and in 1971.  Lt. Gen. Sagat Singh, Padma Bhushan, PVSM breathed his last at the Research and Referral Hospital, New Delhi on 26 September 2001. Bharat Rakshak takes this moment to salute one of India’s greatest soldiers and a legend of his times.


Notes

[i] It was about the same time that he also took over as the Colonel of the Regiment of the 3GR. Taking over from Lt. Gen. Patrick Dunn.

[ii] Under command of Lt. Gen. T N Raina MVC, later COAS

[iii] P. C. Lal’s My years with the IAF

[iv] Sagat Singh was given the Wound Medal for the wounds sustained in this incident

 

Bibliography

 Col. C L Proudfoot Flash of the Khukri : History of the 3rd Gorkha Rifles Regiment , Vision Books

Air Chief Marshal P C Lal My Years with the IAF , Lancer International

Maj. Gen. Afsir Karim  The Story of India’s Airborne Troops Lancer International

Siddiq Salik  Witness to Surrender  Vikas Publications

Maj. Gen. Sukhwant Singh The liberation of Bangladesh Vikas Publications

Maj. Gen. Lachman Singh Lehl Victory in Bangladesh  Natraj Publications

Armed Forces History Div. History of the Indian Armed Forces in the 1971 Bangladesh War , Unpublished

 

 

Copyright © Bharat Rakshak 2001