50th Years Of The 1971 War

March to free Dhaka

Former Western Army Commander Lt Gen SS Mehta (Retd), who commanded a tank squadron that rolled into Dhaka as a greenhorn, remembers the epic battles beyond the brief

March to free Dhaka

The 5 Independent Armoured Squadron (63 Cavalry) making a victorious entry into Dhaka. Troops of assorted units and some correspondents can be seen atop tanks.

Former Western Army Commander

It is now only a four-hour journey by road but 50 years ago, the Akhaura to Dhaka march that redrew the map of South Asia and rewrote its military history took us 13 tumultuous days. After a brilliant 72-hour operation at Akhaura, the enemy’s formidable stronghold — defended by a battalion of their elite 12 Frontier Force and elements of 12 Azad Kashmir, supported by tanks, artillery and air service — wilted, and whatever was left of them were in retreat.

The credit for this remarkable victory goes to 311 Mountain Brigade Group, commanded by Brig RN Mishra. The operation was a brilliant success, with 4 Guards, commanded by the dashing and inspirational Lt Col Himmeth Singh, infiltrating the enemy lines, and the lead company, commanded by Maj Chandrakant Singh, repulsing a counter-attack of infantry and tanks. Maj Chandrakant earned an instant Vir Chakra for his brave leadership.

As a young Major, I was in command of 5 Independent Armoured Squadron (63 Cavalry), equipped with PT-76 tanks. In early November, the squadron had been ordered to assist the 61 Mountain Brigade in infiltrating behind Lalmai Hills in Comilla, 63 km west of Agartala. We had done all the reconnaissance and coordination to execute the operation but, after a change in plans on November 28, the squadron was tasked to move with the infiltrating column with 4 Guards on the night of December 1. We had no time to reconnoitre and gather terrain and enemy obstacle layout along our route. It was therefore no surprise that on the night of our infiltration, we were caught in a cleverly laid anti-tank ditch on the fringes of Akhaura. 4 Guards, ahead of us, was wading through deep slush. A ditch is no obstacle for the infantry but for the tanks, it is designed to separate the infantry from the tanks.

The writer, Lt Gen SS Mehta, then a Major (right), with Lt Col Himmeth Singh, CO of 4 Guards, in the eastern sector during the 1971 war. photos: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München/STERN-Fotoarchiv/Jay Ullal

After a night spent in recovery under intense enemy artillery fire, and faced with a relentless assault from the sky by the enemy Sabre jets next morning, we recovered in time to assist 18 Rajput, commanded by the gallant Lt Col Ashok Verma, in a successful day attack on the enemy defences guarding the Akhaura railway station. Earlier, a masterful frontal closing-in operation by 10 Bihar, commanded by the ever-cheerful Lt Col PC Sawhney — with lethal fire support provided by 65 Mountain Regiment, ably led by Col DS Bahl, and with the 57 Mountain Artillery Brigade fire support under Brig Jangi Bawa — the enemy was pulverised. Attack by infiltration was an unorthodox plan. It worked. For us, the start could not have been more propitious.

The masterstroke of crossing the Meghna river bypassing ground opposition is a classic example of an operational manoeuvre exercised targeting the enemy mind. It created shock and awe, a term now fashionable in Western capitals. The prospect of a captured Dhaka galvanised everyone up and down the security establishment. It saw Team India at its historic best. Indira Gandhi's statement — ‘Dhaka is the free capital of a free country’ — exemplifies 20th century’s most successful humanitarian intervention against genocide surmounting all odds

Routed Pak brigade on the run

The momentous fall of Akhaura triggered a hasty retreat by Pakistan’s 27 Infantry Brigade towards Meghna river. The tank squadron and 4 Guards were in hot pursuit. Having captured the enemy advance defences at Talashahar, 4 Guards were ordered to break contact with the enemy and assemble at Brahmanbaria in anticipation of a new task, as yet under active consideration. Breaking contact with a withdrawing enemy in battle amounts to having the enemy on the ropes, yet not delivering the knockout punch. However, this is where experience and military judgement take over. At the tactical level, such a direction seemed strange; however, at the operational level, as it later turned out, the stage was being set for a bigger blow — Dhaka.

Photo by the then ADC to Lt Gen Sagat Singh, (later Maj Gen) Randhir Singh

18 Rajput and 10 Bihar continued their relentless drive towards the bridge. This reinforced the enemy perception that our objective was to capture the bridge intact. Both battalions reached within 300 yards of the bridge on the Meghna. Such speed, always necessary when in contact with the enemy, is an adrenalin booster. So it was. However, the demolished bridges and culverts delayed their redeployment. Our troops were soon beyond artillery range; besides, our Forward Air Controller, Flying Officer Shahid, had been injured and his communication equipment destroyed. With an SOS from 18 Rajput, my squadron detached from 4 Guards and joined the firefight. When we arrived, the battle was raging. The enemy brigade commander had launched a spoiling attack with infantry and tanks, supported by anti-tank guns. A melee ensued. My squadron lost three tanks in the firefight. One of them was led by my brave troop leader Lt Rajindar Mohan, who was hit by an anti-tank gun after he had silenced two of the enemy’s. He escaped with severe burn injuries. The enemy was neutralised by our joint action and their counter-attack fizzled out. Some Pakistani soldiers were killed, others escaped over the bridge, while a few got across on country boats. However, due to the ferocity of our pursuit and to prevent the capture of the Meghna bridge, the Pakistani general in command of 14 Division, Maj Gen Majid, ordered its demolition. Commanders, who leave their troops stranded across an obstacle and order its demolition, tell the story of panic in the enemy garrison.

The masterstroke

With the bridge blown, our Corps Commander, Lt Gen Sagat Singh, was at the proverbial dead end. History is replete with instances when in a battle situation there is an unanticipated pause — because of one’s own actions, or that of the enemy’s. The former gives you food for thought; the latter invariably provides you a fleeting opportunity. Our GOC could have chosen to defer the advance and draw comfort from having completed his assigned task. However, Sagat’s lifetime experience of combat told him otherwise. It served only to stoke the flame within him. For him, an opportunity beckoned. He had Dhaka in sight. He knew it was the strategic centre of gravity, the focal point — although it was beyond his brief. His experiences of the past intuitively brought a glint in his eye. He later described that day as the most exciting of his life. He could not let a brilliant opportunity go unaddressed. He knew what Dhaka meant in the larger scheme. He wagered on his intuition.

Sagat conferred with his Air Force commander, Group Captain Chandan Singh, and ordered a battalion to be flown in helicopters across the Meghna for the march to Dhaka — this later came to be known as the ‘Helibridge over the Meghna’. The battalion was 4 Guards. There was some murmur about ground fire, to which Chandan retorted: “I will be in the leading chopper.” That provided closure to the debate. The heli-lift of 4 Guards was Air Force’s golden moment. 110 Helicopter Unit under Squadron Leader CS Sandhu’s leadership, supported by a band of brave young pilots, worked with precision and a tireless turnaround schedule. They positioned the battalion across the Meghna: a feat nonpareil.

Next, I was ordered to take my tanks across the Meghna. The Soviet-made PT-76 tank was designed to cross European rivers, which are generally 200-300 metres wide. In comparison, the Meghna was almost like a sea and in the midst of the battle and when ordered to cross it, to me, it seemed like an ocean! I could not see the other bank. However, my GOC’s intent was set in stone and when he asked me whether we could cross the river, my reply was in the affirmative.

Having said that, I was not sure of the ‘how’ part of the operation. I was a greenhorn and thank God for it! Greenhorns get smitten by commanders whose reputation and charisma settle for nothing less than the best. My answer had to be a ‘Yes sir’; and so it was. The speed of the water current in the Meghna was in double digits in knots. I don’t know exactly what it was, but I could see the flow was very swift. As the rivers get closer to the Bay of Bengal, they pick speed and the current is much stronger than what the PT-76 tanks could negotiate in a near perpendicular crossing across two banks, which is often the battle requirement when the opposite bank is held. Fortunately, in our case, the far bank was not held by the enemy. Anticipating that I would have to exit downstream of my entry due to the speed of the water current, I requested for a helicopter to do a reconnaissance of the river. It was granted. Not satisfied with the first sortie, I asked for a second sortie and that too was approved. In the meantime, my troop leader, Lt Raj Khindri, assisted by the locals, had reconnoitered the home bank and found a marsh-free entry route into the river. My aerial sorties helped me to mark out small islands in the river which would allow me to make short hops. The entry and exit points to the islands were laterally separated by miles. My idea was to move from island to island — island hopping, as it were. We hopped countless times and crossed.

Team India

The masterstroke of crossing the Meghna bypassing ground opposition is a classic example of an operational manoeuvre exercised by a military commander targeting the enemy mind. It created shock and awe, a term that has now become fashionable in the Western capitals. The prospect of a captured Dhaka galvanised everyone up and down the security establishment. It saw Team India at its historic best. It led to the march of a column, infantry, tanks and guns straight into the heart of the centre of gravity. Further, as part of the teamwork at Delhi and Kolkata, 2 Para, commanded by the daredevil Lt Col KS Pannu, was on standby to paradrop at Tangail with a column of 1 Maratha under Lt Col KS ‘Bulbul’ Brar gliding down from Tura in Meghalaya for a link-up. The Navy was punishing Karachi with missiles from ships, accompanied with Petya Class frigates. The Air Force, master of the skies in the East, having successfully flown an infantry battalion across the Meghna, was targeting the Government House at Dhaka where Pakistani options to surrender or fight till the last were perhaps under discussion. At that stage, we did not know which of the two options was finding favour. Leaflets were dropped over enemy emplacements, in which Pakistani soldiers were exhorted to surrender lest they should fall into the hands of those they had tormented — the unfortunate Bengalis of East Pakistan.

Behind the scenes, the staff were busy — Maj Gen Jacob in Kolkata was deliberating the Terms of Surrender. Lt Gen Jagjit Aurora at his HQ in Kolkata, Lt Gen Inder Gill, the DGMO, and COAS Gen Sam Manekshaw were monitoring the battlefield and the developing global reactions. They were conscious that time was at a premium.

The intelligence agencies and the diplomats were tracking the Nixon-Kissinger threat of deploying the US 7th fleet into the Bay of Bengal. The trump card of the Indo-Soviet treaty, signed in August 1971, came into play and India was supported with repeated vetoes by the USSR at the United Nations Security Council. Our diplomats were also fighting Bhutto’s canards at the UN. The administrators were gearing up for a temporary governance structure in the captured territory of East Pakistan, till Bangladeshis themselves took over. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her colleagues held their nerve amidst intense rumours of intervention by the powers beyond.

This sort of seamless synergy is an assured recipe for success. There were tasks cut out and delivered on all fronts — military, diplomatic, political, strategic, operational and tactical. It is this synergy that enabled the capture of Dhaka after Sagat’s breathtaking Meghna river-crossing manoeuvre. I learnt early in my service that initiative is not only a trait, it is a duty.

Mukti Bahini

In 13 days, 75 million were rescued from possible genocide; it emphasised the totality of victory; shock and awe with little or no collateral damage; a historical moment to be recorded in the archives of military history in India, and across the world. It was a lesson in the inextricable linkages between grand strategy and conflict-termination objectives. Unless the two are co-terminus, victory remains but a mirage.

In 50 years since, we have witnessed numerous military interventions where the absence of appropriate, thought-out conflict-termination objectives has resulted in face-saving withdrawals. If Dhaka had not been addressed, and its surrender not achieved, one more mirage would have been added to this ever growing list.

The Mukti Bahini kept the wheel turning, keeping the momentum in our favour. In today’s age we talk about battlefield transparency rendered possible by sensors, radars, artificial intelligence and satellites. In 1971, battlefield transparency was, whenever possible, provided by the Mukti Bahini. Their presence and their will to fight for a just cause made an outstanding contribution towards the capitulation of the enemy before the Joint Command.

Indira Gandhi’s statement in Parliament — “Dhaka is the free capital of a free country” —- exemplifies 20th century’s most successful humanitarian intervention against genocide surmounting all odds

WAR DESPATCHES

Sidney Schanberg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent of New York Times who rode into Dhaka with us, had this to say: “I don’t like sitting around praising armies. I don’t like armies because armies mean wars. But this (Indian) army was something. They were great all the way. There never was a black mark… I lived with the officers and I walked, rode with the jawans — and they were all great. Sure some of them were scared at first — they wouldn’t be human if they weren’t. But I never saw a man flinch because he was scared. There was a tremendous spirit in the Indian Army and it did one good to experience it.”

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