The Meghna Crossing

 

 

“Battles are won by slaughter and manoeuvre. The greater the general the more he contributes in manoeuvre, the less he demands slaughter.
 
The masterpieces of the military art from whichhavebeen derived the foundation of states and fame of commanders have been battles ofmanoeuvre.
 
These often employ some novelexpedientor device, some queer swift unexpected thrust or stratagem.
 
Often the victor suffers few casualties and this is the contribution of the general. Hebrings not onlymassive common sense and reasoning power not only imagination but also an element of legerdemain an original and sinister touch which leaves the enemy puzzled as well as beaten”
 
-Winston Churchill.

 

 

THE GREAT AND GLORIOUS DAY ONE DAY OF OUR LIFE AND A LIFETIME FOR BANGLADESH

 

Preamble

If any one victory in battle were to be rated as the greatest victory in the history of warfare ever since man started recording history, then the criteria for judging it must be based on the following parameters;

1 Final outcome of the victory in battle.

2 Comparative strength of the opposing forces.

3 Losses in men and material.

4 Time interval between conception, planning, execution and victory.

         If the above factors and Winston Churchill’s quote are to be considered then the crossing on 9 December 1971 of the mighty Meghna by the Indian Army and Indian Air Force has to rank as one of the greatest and most brilliant feat of arms by any army and air force in the world since the dawn of history. No other single victory in battle has had amore profound an effect on the history of nations and mankind than this battle. In one swift masterstroke of brilliant conception, planning and execution that from the beginning to the end was over in one day, a small force of a few hundred brave soldiers and twelve helicopters and their valiant crew created conditions for the liberation of an entire country and its hundred million citizens from the yoke of tyranny and forced an enemy army of over hundred thousand soldiers, sailors and airmen to seek an abject ceasefire and surrender. This victory in a single operation helped create a new nation Bangladesh which had never before in history ever existed.

Forget the Battle of Kadesh that was fought in 1274BC between the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses the Great and HittiteKingMuwatalli,the Spartans under Leonides at Thermopylae 480 BC,the siege of Tyre and the Battle of Gaugamela between Alexander’s Greeks and the Persian King Xerxes in331BC ,the Islamic victory over Byzantium at Yarmouk in 636 AD, Napoleon at Jena, Marengo and Austerlitz, Wellington at Waterloo and the great battles of the First and Second World wars fought all over the globe. All these battles and many others are rightly considered as great battles which effected the course of history, but few can stand alongside our own feat of arms in 1971 if the measure of their merit was judged by the permanent resolution of the problem over which the twoantagonists went to war in the first place. Bangladesh is now a fact of life and no power on Earth can change it. It is also time for our country and people to shake off the negative and pessimistic mind set of the capabilities of our military leaders and soldiers, and acknowledge the fact that what others can do we can do even better.Having taken part in this operation this writer stakes his claim to tell the story of this operation not as just a witness but as a participant who had the privilege and honour of having been given the chance to domy duty to my country and to the people of Bangladesh as best as I could and thereby becoming a part of the history of this momentous victory.

   Besides the decisive outcome and end result of this battle there are other very important features which make this battle unique. First of all is the unimaginably short time frame in which the whole operation was conceived, planned and executed. The second was the small number of troops and airborne resources employed, the third was that unlike nearly all other operations this operation from start to the finish played out like clockwork with no glitches or surprises, fourthly this operation was done not only without the knowledge but in fact in defiance of orders of Army and Air Force Headquarters and lastly and perhaps most importantly the negligible casualties suffered by us, the Mukti Bahini and even the Pakistanis and yet they were forced to throw in the towel and beg for a ceasefire. Here it will not be out of place for me to insert a quote from Winston Churchill:     “Pre-requisites for victory are strategy and slaughter. Better the strategy less the slaughter and conversely poorer the strategy, greater the slaughter.”

If this is the yardstick by which one measures the performance of an army and its commanders then there can be no doubt that Gen Sagat Singh qualifies to be rated as one of the all-time great battle field commanders anywhere in the world. Gen Sagat Singh GOC IV CORPS was the master strategist who conceived, planned and mobilised the forces required for this operation and in GpCaptChandan Singh and Lt Col Himmeth Singh found the right persons to execute his plans, they in turn had willing and competent officers, pilots and soldiers to act as their sword arm and boots on the ground.

   This is a personal account of the operation in which I along with my own battalion that is 4 Guards, Armour and Artillery officers and men played the role of pointsmen. Much of what follows will probably be taken by some readers as an act of self-promotion and self- glorification, but fortunately there are still amongst us many officers from my own regiment and from other arms and services, some of whom have achieved the highest ranks in the Army and Air Force who will vouch for the veracity of every word that Ihave written, in many cases their names with their personal accounts also form a part of this book, their accounts will corroborate my story. However at the outset I wish to make clear that it is by chance and not because of any special merit that I found myself at the center of these momentous events, it could have also been any other officer of my seniority and experience from the Infantry, Armoured Corps, Artillery and Corps of Engineers who in my place would have acquitted himself similarly if not better.

Time to forget the many Panipats and Plasseys and start to celebrate the Meghna

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

One question about the 1971 War that has remained unanswered for half a century. Why was no direction and order issued nor any planning done by the Government and the Services Headquarters for the crossing of the Meghna and the liberation of Dacca? Air Chief Marshal PC Lal who was the Chief of the Air Staff during the war and prior to the war he had been the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, a post he had voluntarily and honourably relinquished in favour of the Army Chief Sam Manekshawwhen the clouds of war had started gathering and knowing that in the coming war the army would have to play the leading role. He would therefore been in the know of all the plans and operational instructions,but he too has written in his autobiography ‘My Years with the Air Force’ that no directions by the Government nor Army Headquarters for the capture of Dacca were ever issued and consequently the Liberation of Dacca did not form a part of the Indian Operational Plan. Lt Gen Jacob who was the Chief of Staff has also confirmed this in his biography ‘An Odyssey in Peace and War’. Both the Army and Air Force Headquarters came to know about the crossing after the first phase of the operation and successful securing of the bridgehead was completed. This can be confirmed from the fact that even Air Chief Marshal Lal in his biography mentions 12 Dec as the date of the crossing whereas it was on 9 Dec that my battalion 4 Guards crossed the river. Another unanswered question which only confirms my statement, is why did Gen Manekshaw on 13 December issue orders for us and the rest of the forward elements of 57 Mountain Division to withdraw to our original positions on the East bank of the Meghna we had occupied on 9 December prior the commencement of the river. Fortunately Gen Sagat Singh ignored the Army Chief’s missive for by then we had already entered the suburbs of Dacca(Adamjee Jute Mills at Demra) and our light mountain artillery guns had started shelling the Dacca Cantonment.

8 December

               SECURING THE EAST BANK OF THE MEGHNA

         Advance and capture of Brahmanbaria and Ashuganj

This was the day when the smell of final victory in the Liberation War was in the air. We knew we had had the enemy on the run and were confident that we would whip his backside all the way up to the Meghna and then to Dacca itself. We did not know how we or anybody else was going to cross the Meghna nor were we concerned, for firstly crossing the Meghna was not the allotted task of our Division or even our Corps and secondly if the task was given to uswe knew we would find a way and do it.Such was the confidence that we had in our Corps Commander Lt Gen Sagat Singh that we were certain that he would get usacross the river and finally to Dacca.

A river crossing operation has five parts, (a) Advance to and securing the home bank of the river. (b) The actual crossing (c) Establishing a bridgehead on the enemy side (d) Securing and expanding the bridgehead (e) The break out from the bridgehead and advance to the next objective.

The previous day by occupying Arhand on the Comila-Brahmanbaria Highway and destroying several vehicles and killing and capturing dozens of the enemy, we had effectively cut of the road communications between Pakistan 14 Division at Brahmanbaria and Pakistan 39 Division in Comila. At Arhand which had been a gun position of an enemy artillery battery the hastily retreating Pakistanis left behind a number of smouldering heavy vehicles which were used by them as gun towers and ammunition carriers. They had been destroyed by counter bombardment from our 5.5 Guns of 40 Medium Regiment. Also left behind by them were thousands of unexpended rounds of artillery ammunition fitted with proximity fuses supplied to them by the Americans. The proximity fuse causes the shells to explode in the air and inflict more casualties than any other type of ammunition. By isolating them from each other they could be tackled piecemeal and destroyed. Before the break of dawn our Brigade Commander Brig Mishra arrived at our location in a jeep with a protection party of a section of ten men mounted in a light Nissan truck, he was received by Col Himmeth Singh and myself. After a welcome mug of decently brewed hot tea Brig Mishra and Col Himmeth took off towards the Meghna River to reconnoitre for possible crossing places and I was left in charge of the Battalion, Col Himmeth’s parting words to me were “Paunchy you are in command till I return. Make sure that I find the Battalion in the same condition as it is now” or words to that effect. It was a great honour and privilege to command the Battalion in the midst of the war even though it would be only for a few hours. I immediately did a quick round of the Battalions position and gave instructions for Observation Parties consisting of one NCO and three other ranks to be sent ahead of the Battalions locality tocover all possible approaches as a precautionary measure. Although we knew that the enemy was on the run I did not want to take any chances and be surprised by the enemy.

During the round of the battalion’s position one thing that I noticed and which was also remarked by nearly everyone was the large numbers of used condoms that were littered around. There were thousands of them, we already knew that the Pakistani Officers right upto their High Command had not only ignored rape of Bengali women by their soldiers but actually encouraged it. But the extent to which it was carried out was a still a shocker. General Niazi when queried is reported to have told a western news correspondent “What do you expect my men to do. Go back to their wives in Sargodha West Pakistan for the weekend”

Major Tuffy Marwah with Charlie Company had been sent on a search and destroy mission towards the Meghna a day earlier and reported back on the radio that the area was clear of enemy troops and he had encountered only light resistance, Major Kharbanda and his B company had also left last evening for Sultanpur which is a suburb of Brahmanbaria and he too had not encountered any enemy. So I had with me besides the Battalion Headquarter my own A Company and D Company. With us was also Major ShamsherMetha and his 5 Independent Armoured Squadron who had joined us the day before. At about 0700 hrs I got a call on the radio that our Division Commander Maj Gen Ben Gonzalves wanted to speak to me, this was odd for rarely in battle do Divisional Commanders talk to lowly Company Commanders. Before the we knew it would be a fast moving battle of manoeuvre and there would be no time to change and memorise changing radio call signs so we had worked out a system that if there was notpossible to use the radio call signs we could communicate with each other by usingthe first name or the pet name of commanders at all levels there establish our identity and yet not give away our formation or units identities. So it was “Ben for Paunchy”, he said he was unable to contact either Brig Mishra or Lt Col Himmeth Singh and he wanted the Battalion to reach Brahmanbaria as soon as possible. I told him that both the Brigade Commander and my CO had gone on a recce and were out of range of our radio set so as soon as I was able to establish contact with them and got their orders I would move the Battalion, now the army has a well-established chain of command which must be always adhered to especially in War, I hated to think of what my Commanding Officer’s reaction would be when on his return from the recce he found his battalion missing. Sensing my hesitancy in implementing his order he said “Paunchy this is Ben, get your Battalion to Brahmanbaria immediately and I will meet you on the Bridge on the Pagla River, and I will ask the GSO1( the chief operations officer at the DIV HQ) who has a more powerful radio set to inform Himmeth.” Senior Commanders are not expected to break the chain of command and issue orders three levels down just as junior commanders are expected to first approach their immediate senior and not go over his head and approach directly commanders higher than him. As expected Himmeth on return to Arhand was not too pleased to find his Battalion missing and even though when explained the circumstances he still was a bit cross. But the GOC left me with no choice and I assembled the Bn and leaving a small party behind to receive my CO and Brigade Commander on their return and inform them of the GOC’s orders we took off for Brahmanbaria mounted on Shamsher’s tanks and some captured vehicles. Shamsher now had 17 tanks three more than his authorized holding. We had captured these three Pak PT-76 tanks at Akhaura. Shamsher’s men after repairing them got them on road and they were now a part of his Squadron. These same tanks had played hell into my Company a few days earlier, they supported by two companies of infantry had over run one of my platoons and captured seven of my men. But now they were a welcome addition to our force.Brahmanbaria was about 15 Kilometers fromArhand but the PT- 76 is a fast moving tank and we got to Brahmanbaria in less than an hour and met Gen Gonzalves at the Bridge on the River Pagla. Two spans of the bridge had been blown up by the retreating Pakistanis. With the General was his ADC, Helicopter pilot, MajGoraya BM of the Arty brigade and some other officers and men. It says something about the quality of our commanders that the first man in Brahmanbaria was the GOC himself, having been brought up on the stories of Rommel and Patton and now seeing the same qualities being displayed by our own commanders it was very inspiring. The General was fuming and fretting with Brig ML Tuli Commander of 73 Brigade and from what we could make out he was expressing his severe displeasure at Brig Tuli for not having closed in with the Pakistanis during the last twenty four hours. Not having sent out patrols Brig Tuli was not aware that Brahmanbaria had been evacuated twenty four hours earlier. Had he been more energetic we had a fair chance of capturing all elements of PAK 14 DIV at Brahmanbaria. It was only when the GOC flew over the town in his helicopter that he realized that the town had been abandoned by the Pakistanis. Brahmanbaria was an important objective considering the fact that here was located the headquarters of both PAK 14 Div and 27 Bde.

According to Major Ashok Tara VrC of 14 Guards a battalion in Tuli’s Brigade Tuli was both a bully and a coward as any school boy knows these two character traits are the traits shared by school thugs who wish to dominate their juniors by the threat and use of physical violence but are the first one to buckle down when accosted by an equal. Gen Gonzalves was keen to remove Tuli from command of the Brigade but the fast paced action taking place precluded him from doing so immediately and after the war when we in Dacca he wanted to do so butTuli pre-empted Gen Gonzalves by proceeding on leave on the pretext of a non-existent

medical emergency in the family and using Mrs Tuli’s influence with Manekshawwhom she knew well enough to be able to use her influenceto have him posted out and never returned to his brigade which was in Dacca. Any normal commander would have found it to be of great privilege and honour to be in command of a victorious formation in the capitol of a newly liberated country- but not Brig Tuli! In the euphoria of victory Gen Gozalves did not pursue the matter any further. Tuli went on to become a Lt General, but he was not the only senior officer whothough a failure in war went on to rise even higher in peace time. Wile, sycophancy and connections pay.

The GOC ordered me to take the battalion into Brahmanbaria and clear the town, but it was easier said than done, the bridge was down, the river was not fordable and the tanks though amphibious could not carry the extra load of infantry whilst swimming across.We had therefore to scrounge for some country boats which we found but with no oars. So some of my men had to swim across and by joining some bed lining ropes which are standard equipment of our jawans, we managed to organize a ferry service, pulling the boats to and fro across the river. In about an hour we had managed to get the battalion across. Shamsher had some problem getting the captured Pakistani tanks across as these tanks leaked because of faulty watertight seals. How he got them across I do not know for by then I had taken off with my men, in the meantime Brig Mishra and my CO, Col Himmeth Singh joined us and so had TuffyMarwah and his company, they had crossed the river a few kilometres downstream and also fought a few actions on the way to our rendezvous this very morning. By improving and lots of good luck we managed to cross the river. If the enemy had left behind even a small party to contest our crossing they could have delayed us by at least a day. But it appears that the stuffing had been knocked out of them at Akhaura and they wanted to find safety behind the Meghna.

We now fanned out and commenced securing Brahmanbaria, during our search of their Division Headquarter and in one of the HQ bunkers which according Gen Sagat Singh were built as if to withstand a nuclear strike and a siege of several months we found the bodies of six jawans of 10 BIHAR. They had their hands tied behind their backs and had been shot in the back of their heads. I pointed this out to our GOC, he was furious and declared that should we capture Maj Gen Abdul Majid GOC PAK 14 DIV he would have him tried by a court martial and sentenced to death for war crimes and violation of the Geneva Convention on treatment of prisoners, alas this was not to be because our political masters decided otherwise.We also saw the bodies of forty four local Bengalis probably Mukti Bahini lying in a ditch near the stadium, they had their hands tied and had been shot in the head. Today’s generation brought up on 24X7 Television and seeing the work of the ISIS in IRAQ and Syria may be able to understand the affect it had on us, we not only could not give them a decent burial or even cover their faces but the smell of rotting bodies bloated to unrecognisable shapesand the sight of bottle green flies buzzing over their faces and maggots crawling over and eating into their flesh is something one wants to forget but can never do. The butchered Mukti Bahini’s bodies were lying in the open and dogs and vultures had got to them, but having a job to do we had to move on leaving the bodies behind but taking the memories with us Over the years I have heard many people calling us war veterans as aggressive right wing war mongers whenever we espouse strong action against lawless anti national forces, my answer to them is that we who have seen the ugly side of war are the most pacifist of people for we don’t want to go through it again but if surgery is required to excise a sore to save the rest of the body it must take place and in time so that not is the body cured but a message is sent out that we are prepared to take timely and drastic action.

Mi-4 helicopters disgorging troops in the Sylhet area.

During the securing of Pak 14 Div Headquarters we recovered several TOP SECRET documents which indicated the haste in which the Pakistani HQ staff had abandoned their positions, these documents were handed over to the ADC to Gen Gonzalves. We now expected 73 Brigade to take over the advance from us as after the first day of the war when they had been involved in a supporting role they had seen no action, whereas our brigade that is 311 Bde had been involved in continuous fighting and needed time to rest and replenish our ammunition and food supplies, but it was not to be. Gen Gonzalves was still fuming at Brig TulitheCommander 73 Bde and in no uncertain terms conveyed to him Gen Sagat Singh’s displeasure at the tardy progress of his brigade.Having lost confidence in Brig Tuli’s ability to fulfil his task in the allotted time the Division Commander ordered us to resume the advance to Ashuganj about 20 kms away. Ashuganj is a large town on the East bank of the Meghna which is a twin to a still larger town Bhairab Bazaar on the West bank. Linking the two is more than a kilometer long Coronation bridge, the only bridge on the Meghna. At about midday we resumed our advance once more mounted on tanks, D company under MajKharbanda along the road and A Company which was my Company on the right flank. A and D company were mounted on Shamsher’s tanks but the rest of the Battalion was in some civilian transport and captured Pakistan Army vehicles. Our most prized and visible possession was a red fire engine from the Brahmanbaria fire station, this was requisitioned by TuffyMarwah OC C Company who donning a fireman’s shiny tin helmet and vigorously ringing the bell and sounding the hooter followed close behind, hoping to scare the Pakistanis or may be just for fun.

At first we met with slight resistance which we brushed aside but the constant shelling and exploding air burst shells was a constant danger. Just short of village Talashahar we hit the enemy’s screen position, Shamsher’s tank on which I and some my men were riding was fired upon by an anti-tank gun, fortunately the shell exploded a few feet away, we jumped off and Shamsher with another three tanks charged the enemy position capturing it and scattering the enemy troops, but Kharbanda OC B Coywith whom he was advancing on another axis was not so lucky.In an attempt to clear an enemy position he charged their machine gun post and received a burst in the upper leg, he also lost a few men killed and wounded. It was here that 2Lt Rajendra Mohan and his troop of tanks came to his rescue. They charged the enemy position and cleared it, otherwise Kharbanda and some of his men would have either been taken prisoner or killed. We advanced another kilometer or so and as the light was fading took up defensive positions for the night. There was no way that we could have got into a street and house to house fighting that night inside Ashuganj, because firstly we were just not prepared for it,we were tired, had carried out no reconnaissance, our Artillery had not fetched up because the Engineers had not yet bridged the Pagla River at Brahmanbaria but most importantly we had received no orders to do it. On the other hand the enemy was at Ashuganj in full force, their 27 Brigade with HQ14 DIV totalling about 6000 troops were against us and to make matters more difficult they had an Arty OP sited on top of a 300 feet high grain storage silo on the river bank inside Ashuganj. From his position he could observe and bring down effective fire for miles around as either 18 Rajput and 10 Bihar from our Brigade or 73 Brigade who had done no serious fighting till date had been earmarked for this task. Once my men had taken their positions and dug down, we could dig our fox holes in fifteen minutes flat in the soft and moist soil of Bangladesh, I went to the Bn HQ which was located in a Masjid in the hope that it would be marked as such on their maps and so the Pakistanis would not shell it.Our guess was right for though all our other positions were shelled that night the Masjid was spared. From the roof of the Masjid we could see the Mighty Meghna and so distant was the further shore that we could not even get a glimpse of it. On seeing the formidable width of the river we thanked our stars that crossing it was not our task. Little did we know at that time that God and Gen Sagat Singh had other ideas for us.

At the Bn HQ over whiskey which was miraculously produced by the CO’s batman Guardsman Hari Singh, Col Himmeth Singh told me that he had received orders to meet the Brigade Commander at Brahmanbaria at 0600hrs and I was to take charge of the Bn in his absence. After a hot dinner much appreciated by allfor we had subsisting on cold and wet shakarparas for over a week except for one day and even they had been finished some days ago I returned to my company. Here I was met by my Senior JCO Sub MakhanLal, he was a veteran of the Second World War and the Kashmir War, no one could have asked for a better senior JCO, he was cool, calm and a steadying influence on all including me. But now he was very agitated, on inquiring why?He let me know that the reason for his anger was that the four jawans from the Engineer Regiment who were attached to my Company had gone missing. He had asked them to dig their fox holes some distance from where my batman was digging a fox hole for me, but thinking that the safest place would be next to the company commander they had dug their fox hole close to mine, so he had given them a piece of his mind and asked them to move some distance away and dig fresh fox holes for themselves. They were not too pleased to have to dig once again and just then the company position was shelled. After the shelling ceased Sub MakhanLal had gone around the Company position to check if all was well with the men, he found the Engineer boys missing and in spite of his best efforts he could not trace them and he presumed they had run away and deserted. There was nothing that we could do at this time so I said we will resume the search in the morning till then let us get some rest. Early morning I took off to the Bn HQ where the Adjutant Capt Vijay Dewan popularly known as Glucose met me and informed me that the CO had left a few minutes earlier in a jeep which the engineers had managed to get across the Meghna on an improvised raft. This was the second time during the war that I was left in charge of the Battalion in the absence of my Commanding Officer.As soon as there was sufficient light I took a round of the Battalion’s position, the forward companies were occasionallystill being fired upon by the enemy with small arms but as it was doing no damage we held our own fire not wanting to expend our own ammunition as replenishment was not easy. We had been operating behind enemy lines for about nine days and therefore were particular about conserving ammunition which we knew was difficult to replenish. One difficulty that we were experiencing at this stage was the lack of sufficient officers for half of them had become casualties. It was when I was seeing my own company that Sub MakhanLal informed me that he had found the Engineer boys and that they were all dead. When the shelling had started a shell had fallen into their trench and they had all been blasted to smithereens, pieces of their bodies were strung up on the branches of trees above and around the trench.

Brig Saidullah the Commander of Pak 14 Brigade which was opposing us after his capture was interrogated by Brig Bawa the Commander of our 57 Mountain Artillery Brigade. Brig Saidullah stated “the occupation of Talashahar and Ashuganj by 4 Guards was as audacious and unexpected as their outflanking movement at Akhaura, it took us completely by surprise and Gen Majid GOC Pak 14 Div decided to withdraw all troops to Bhairab Bazar on the West Bank of the Meghna and blow up two spans of the great Hardinge Bridge.”

9th December 1971

CROSSING THE MIGHTY MEGHNA BY HELICOPTERS- THE MAGIC MOMENT

( according to Gen Sagat Singh 9 December was the most exciting day of his life)

At the outset I must put on record that the crossing of the Meghna was never planned nor tasked forby Eastern Command. In fact when Gen Aurora came to know that Sagat was planning to do so he explicitly ordered him not to cross the Meghna. There are several witnesses to this conversation on the radio on 7 Dec. Sagat told him that irrespective of orders he as the Corps Commander was going ahead with his plan. On 8 Dec Aurora flew to Sagat’s Headquarters in a helicopter and once again reiterated his earlier order not to cross the Meghna. Sagat again refused to heed his orders and stated that not only would he cross the Meghna but would now head for Dacca. The meeting turned extremely acrimonious and was once again witnessed by several officers including GpCapt( later Air Vice Marshal) Chandan Singh and Capt(later Lt Gen) Sihota.

If anyone operation has to be nominated as the most important, audacious and successful ever carried out by the Indian Army in fact by any army in the world it has to be and can only be the heliborne crossing of the Meghna. This one operation a brain child of Lt Gen Sagat Singh fully supported by Group CaptChandan Singh and his helicopter pilots is what prised open the door to Dacca and gave us victory in a fortnight which neither the Pakistan High Command nor our very own High Command had neither planned for nor expected, for that matter no one in the world expected to happen. The very next day General Niazi approached the United Nations and sued for peace.My Battalion was privileged to be the first across the Meghna and to my commanding officer Col Himmeth Singh and myself and the other men accompanying us in the first helicopteris the unique honour of being the first India soldiers to step into the Dacca Bowl a task considered impossible by almost anyone. The first man on the moon Armstrong had said when landing on the Moon “ A small step for man but a giant leap for mankind” this can also be said of our leap into the Dacca Bowl- in fact to the people of Bangladesh and India our steps and leap were far more important. This is not mere rhetoric for the moonwalk only made history, our leap not only made history but changed it forever by creating a new country Bangladesh.

At about 0900 hrs I received a radio message from the CO to bring the Bn back post haste to Brahmanbaria and he would give further orders there. I asked him as to whom I was to hand over our positions for we were in contact with the enemy and exchanging sporadic small arms fire. He told me not to worry about that as 18 Rajput and 10 Bihar from our Brigade and 73 Brigade were in the vicinity and they will be moving in from the North and from the South. Having collected the Battalion we started marching back after having to shed Shamsher’s tanks who joined 18 Rajput. This constant marching to and fro much like the famous ditty about the Duke of York marching his men up the hill and then down again was getting to be a bit irritating, but as every infantryman knows that this has always been the fate of the Poor Bloody Infantry. By about 1300hrs we had reached Brahmanbaria stadium which was our designated RV, here the CO met us and told us that we had been tasked to cross the Meghna and helicopters would be landing soon to take us across. My reaction to this is best summed up in Col Himmeth Singh’s own words in an article he wrote “Paunchy who has a wonderful sense of humour when told about the heliborne operation made this absolutely unbeatable remark. He said that Sagat always felt that the Battalion could do anything, thank God that this time he had chosen to give us helicopters and hadn’t decided that the Battalion should swim across the Meghna. For whatever the faith Sagat had in the capabilities of the Battalion the miles wide Meghna was outside our swimming capability”.

We were given new maps which covered the area from Brahmanbaria to Dacca and also included our next objective across the Meghna the Landing Zone at Raipura. Sagat displaying his usual foresight and initiative had got these maps printed at the Survey of India Press in Dehradun months before the war. We immediately started preparing our men for the task, the first thing to do was work out the load tables, we could load about fifteen troops and three or four Bengali porters who were carrying our extra ammunition in each helicopter, we had also to warn the men about being hit by the tail rotors of the helicopters which could be fatal.Fortunately for us nearly all our officers, JCOs,NCOs and many guardsmen had some experience of the MI 4 Helicopters first in 1964 at Hashimara on the borders with Bhutan and then in 1970 in Mizo Hills.This stood us in good stead. Whilst we were tying up loose ends the helicopters started landing and at the same time an unending stream of bodies of the dead and wounded jawans of 18 Rajput started arriving at the stadium. 18 Rajputs had met with a setback at Ashuganj after we had withdrawn.

The Rajputs had suffered hundreds of casualties and there was mutual mud slinging between Lt Col Ashok Varma the Commanding Officer of 18 Rajputs and the senior commanders. Varma felt he had been left alone to tackle the opposition from the Pakistani Army and that too without Artillery support, the senior commanders felt that the setback suffered by his battalion was on account of they not following the standard and time tested battle procedures. Lt Gen Sagat Singh had to personally visit the battalion both to admonish them and shore up the morale of the troops. On dispassionate post war examination of the incident it would be safe to assume that both had a point but the real blame must once again be put squarely on the shoulders of Brig Tuli whose full brigade was only two kilometers from where the Rajputs were at that moment and as had become his habit he did not come forward to extricate the Rajputs from the difficult situation they found themselves in. In all probability he was in the rear of his brigade and could not see what was happening, but this cannot be an excuse because at this moment his brigade was not in contact with the enemy and faced no opposition. It is more than likely that he must have been at least aware of the Rajput’s plight from the radio conversations but purposely chose not to intervene. His subsequent elevation to the rank of Lt General still rankles all of us who are in the know of his conduct.Maj Gen Randhir Singh in his biography of Gen Sagat Singh’s biography has mentioned Tuli’s tardiness and lack of initiative on several occasions.

Not a very auspicious way to begin a new operation particularly when undertaking something which the Indian Army had never done before.

In the next few minutes fourteen MI-4 helicopters were lined up in the stadium, all were without the rear boom doors of the holds to facilitate easy boarding and disembarking. Precisely at 1600 hrs four helicopters carrying a platoon plus some Mukti Bahini boys forming a sortie took off simultaneously after taxing a short distance as all helicopters were overloaded. My CO Col Himmeth Singh and I were in the first helicopter of the first sortie, the pilot was the Squadron Commander of 110 HU SqnLdr CS Sandhu and sitting at the far corner of the hold was Group Captain Chandan Singh the senior Air Force Officer in IV Corps theater. Col Himmeth Singh and GpCaptChandan Singh had already carried out a recce of our landing zone earlier in the morning along with Gen Sagat Singh and Brig Mishra, their helicopters had been shot at on the way home and Gen Sagat Singh received a bullet which passed through his beret grazing his forehead. A lesser man than him would have been perturbed but Sagat being Sagat it made no difference to him. As soon as we were airborne two Gnat fighters flying CAP(combat air patrol) joined us, with the several miles wide mightyMeghna below us. The setting sun was directly ahead of us and gave the impression that we were flying into the sunset. The scene and noise of the rotors was straight out of a Hollywood movie but we did not have even a box camera to record the event. It was our John Wayne or Earnest Hemingway moment. In about fifteen minutes we wereacross the Meghna and over Raipurawhere we landed on our designated Landing Zone, each helicopter only a few meters distance from the other. Such was the skill of the pilots that even when it got dark at night, with no or very primitive landing aids not one mishap occurred. As soon as we landed the platoon took up positions to secure the Landing Zone and Flying Officer DaljitShaheed startedto mark the LZ with dough made out of wet wheat flour so that it would not be blown away by the strong blast of wind from the rotors of the helicopters. Fortunately for my company we landed on solid ground which after sometime became a soggy mass due to the wear and tear of subsequent landings and take offs. The later sorties could not land and the helicopters had to hover several feet above the ground and the troops had to jump out of the helicopters. Fortunately no one got injured.

Before the second sortie carrying the rest of my company landed I was asked by my CO to take a recce patrol to Methikhanda Railway Station which was reported to be defended by a platoon of para-military. Like any recce patrol I had only a small party consisting of my radio operator VedPrakash and two men as protection, I was to approach the Railway Station stealthily and report back what I observed. I had gone only about a kilometer when from out of nowhere thousands of Bengali natives emerged, all of them were shouting Joy Bangla-Joy Indira,the crowd soon swelled to several thousand and I and my men were lifted on to their shoulders and carried forward.I,nor my men had ever experienced anything like this before. In our earlier actions the villagers would simply disappear but now sensing that the tide was firmly in our favour and the Pakistanis were on the run the locals had taken heart and were emboldened to come out openly in our support. The Bengalis are normally a noisy people but when excited a Bengali crowd can perhaps be even heard several miles away. All pretence at stealth was thrown away and I and my men were carried by the crowd right uptoMethikanda Railway Station. When we got to the station we found that the Pakistanis hearing our helicopters and then thecrowd shouting Joi Bangla Joi India had panicked, they hastily loaded their belongings into a goods wagon and collecting some locals at gun point to push the wagon they took off towards Narsingdi a large town about thirty kilometers away. When I reached the station I got a glimpse of the wagon in the distance and fired a couple of shots from my machine carbine just to hasten them on their way. With limited range of the carbine there was no chance that I would any Pakistani or the unwilling locals pushing the wagon. So that is how we secured our objective without firing a shot and reported thus to my CO on the radio. He said that he would soon be sending the rest of my Company to link up with me, they would be coming with D Company which was commanded by young Surinder Singh(also known asGranthion account of his untrimmed and unruly beard)in place ofUppal the regular Coy Commanderwho had been wounded on the very first day of the battle.

There is a saying in the army that nothing is more dangerous than a subaltern with a map and compass, sure enough Surinder got lost with my company and his own company. It should have taken him at most about forty five minutes to reach me, but even after five hours there was no sign of him. This caused me considerable anxiety because in the meantime we had got into a faceoff with some local Mukti Bahini boys who wereUrdu speaking as they were deserters from the Pakistan Army. The situation could have got out of hand and turned ugly and it took quite an effort to establish our identity. The leader of the group was a deserter from the Pakistan Navy and was fair and tall unlike most other Bengalis, initially I mistook him for a Pathan. It was sheer luck that we were able to identify each other and situation did not get nasty- there were only four of us and they were about twenty.

10 December.

When Surinder turned up in the morning he deservedly got a mouth full from me and Col Himmeth. It transpired that instead of depending on his compass and map he had relied on a local guide who instead of taking him toMethikhnda took them towards Bhairab Bazaar whereHq PAK 14 DIVand 27 Infantry Brigade had withdrawn to after blowing up a span of the Coronation Bridge on the Meghna. At Bhairab BazaarSurinder had hit their main defences and the Pakistanis reacted violently with heavy shelling, six of my men were wounded and D coy too suffered some casualties. But there was a positive outcome to this too. Maj Gen Abdul Majid thecommander of PAKISTAN’s 14 DIV thinking that we had put a large force across the Meghna and were attacking them went into a shell from which his Division emerged only on 17 Dec to surrender to Gen Gonzalves. In the meantime C Company under TuffyMarwahsecured the West bank of the Meghna to provide cover for 19 Punjab to cross over by ferry and it is 19 Punjab along with 2 East Bengal Regiment and 11 East Bengal Regiment of the Bangladesh Army who contained a superior force of 6000 enemy troops of 14 Pak Infantry Division at Bhairab Bazaar 6000 till their surrender on 17 Dec.

In the morning we were paid a visit by Gen Gonzalves and Brig Mishra. Their helicopter not finding a dry place to land near us landed on the roof of a school building. They came bearing several baskets full of oranges which were welcome but we would have preferred something more substantial. They briefed us about the subsequent plans of the Divisionwhich included the heliborne crossing by helicopters of the rest of our brigade and the advance to Dacca. Thoughtfully they brought along maps which covered the area from where we were right up to Dacca. As the original plans did not include our crossing of the Meghna or advance to Dacca the maps that we had covered an area only up to the Meghna and a little beyond. It is to the credit of Gen Sagat that he had visualised that that one day he would cross the Meghna and get to Dacca and had on his own initiative got the Survey of India Press at Dehra Dun to reproduce the Pakistani maps of this area a couple of months before the war.

   By mid-day MajTuffyMarwah and his company returned to the Battalion’s location after having covered the crossing by 19Punjab and 2 EBR of the Meghna by ferry. Our orders for the next day were to advance to Narsingdi and after capturing that town to secure the Landing Zone for the heliborne landing of the rest of 311 Brigade. Their landing was to take place a little South East of Narsingdi. Col Himmeth Singh decided to send D Company towards Narsingdi immediately with orders to take up position close to the town, to prevent any enemy interference from that direction and also to obtain intelligence of the enemy strength and disposition in the town.

At this time I faced a peculiar situation brought about by the fact that I was without my rucksack which contained all my worldly possessions of which what I required most urgently was my woollen coat parka for it was cold and after a cold water bath the first in ten days I was shivering. I had handed my rucksack to a local Bengali porter on landing and he was to bring it to me when the rest of the company joined me at the Methikhanda. However when my company along with Granthi’sBravo Company lost the way and came under artillery fire from Bhairab Bazaar this Bengali deciding that he had had enough of fireworks took off with my rucksack never to be seen again. It being the middle of December nights were cold and the only thing that I could find in the village shop was a saffron coloured bed sheet whichI purchased for a hundred rupees. I spent the next few days of the war till the time I got wounded on 11 December night at Narsingdi, wrapped in a saffron coloured sheet looking like a latter day Bajrang Dal member with a helmet on his head and a carbine in hand.

12 December

With PAK 14 DIV holed up at BhairabBazaar and showing no signs of attempts to breakout, the way to Dacca was clear, the enemy had no troops to stop us and it was only a question of building up our strength which was done on 11 Dec when 18 Rajput and 10 Bihar were heli-lifted to Narsingdi which we had cleared earlier in the day. This was a remarkable feat of putting across the river one full brigade with its supporting artillery consisting of over three thousand men. Before the war when Gen Sagat Singh had asked for permission to use helicopters for river crossing operations both Army and Air HQ had thought that with the number of helicopters available it was only possible to lift an infantry company of about 150 men. In the next two days these helicopters ferried another six thousand troops across the Meghna at Daudkhandi! I had no further role to play in the war as in the process of clearing the town of Narsingdi I picked up a bullet in the leg,but the show bar the shouting was over. In another four days of little or no fighting the Pakistanis surrendered, and though I would have liked to have witnessed the surrender it is not something that I regret. Having captured dozens of buses, trucks, cycle and auto rickshaws and one fire engine the perennial favourite mode of transport of OC C Coy MajMarwah’s favourite, he had used another oneto take him from Brahmanbaria to Ashuganj on 8 Dec. We were now well on our way to Dacca but this time on wheels and thank heaven not on our sore feet as hitherto. On the 12th evening we were in Demra three miles from Dacca and occupied the Adamjee Jute Mill. Our patrols accompanied by artillery OP officers had crossed the River SatyaLakha and on the 13th we had started shelling Dacca Cantonment, Niazi and the civilian Governor of East PakistanDr Mullik approached their Government in Islamabad and the United Nations asking for an immediate ceasefire which was followed by the surrender of the Pakistan Army, Sydney Schanberg of the New York Times and Jay Ullal of the Stern, two of the foreign correspondents who had joined us in Demra on 13 December have written two very fine accounts of the last battle and the final hours leading upto the surrender. This was without doubt Sagat’s show and his finest hour. We were his foot soldiers that he used grab the enemy by throat and cut his jugular. Group Captain Chandan Singh and the heroic band helicopter pilots deserve all the credit for making the impossible possible, without them my Battalion and other units of the army who followed could not have done it.

 

Maj Gen Majid of the Pakistan Army surrendering his pistol to Maj Gen B F Gonsalves, GOC 57 Mtn Division 


© Major Chandrakant Singh VrC