OK. Here are 4th Corps operations in East Pakistan that led to the surrender of Dacca. Now that you all understand Operational Art see how it was done in East Pakistan by Lt Gen Sagat Singh.
The task of liberating Bangla Desh, then called East Pakistan, was given to Lieut General Jagjit Singh Aurora, GOC-in-C Eastern Command. Under him, he had 2 Corps, commanded by Lieut General (later General) T.N. Raina; 33 Corps, commanded by Lieut General M.L. Thapan; 4 Corps, commanded by Lieut General Sagat Singh; and 101 Communication Zone Area, commanded by Major General G.S. Gill. The terrain in Bangla Desh was riverine, which favours the defender. The rivers were interspersed with rice fields and marshes, which made cross country movement very difficult, especially after the monsoons. Major troop movements had to be confined to the roads, and ferries or bridges over the rivers, if defended, or destroyed, could hold up advancing columns for long periods. Inland water transport was also used, for transportation of goods. Pakistan had three infantry divisions, comprising about 42 battalions of regular troops, and five squadrons of armour, for the defence of the region, and more than 2000 kilometres of border. Lieut General A.A.K. Niazi, who was commanding the Eastern Command of the Pakistan Army, had appreciated that the Indian advance would have to be along the major road axes, and had deployed his troops accordingly. Strong points had been created along the likely axes, and it was visualised that unless these were cleared, the advancing enemy could make little headway. This proved to be a costly mistake.
The territory in East Pakistan is divided by major riverine obstacles into four distinct parts. The first part comprised all territory East of the Meghna river, including Sylhet, Brahman Baria, Comilla , Noakhali, Chittagong and Cox's Bazaar; the second comprised the territory between the rivers Jamuna (Brahmputra) to the East and Padma (Ganges) to the West, including Rangpur, Bogra and Rajashahi; the third comprised territory West of the Padma, including Kushtia, Jessore and Khulna; and the fourth was the Dacca Bowl, surrounded by rivers on all sides - the mighty Meghna and Lakhaya to the East, the confluence of Meghna and Padma to the South, Padma and Burhi Ganga to the West, and a branch of the Jamuna, which joins the Meghna, to the North. Due to its geostrategic importance, Dacca had always been chosen as the capital by successive kingdoms.
The task allotted to Eastern Command by Army HQ was to destroy the bulk of Pakistani forces in the theatre, and occupy the major portion of East Pakistan. The capture of Dacca was not included in these instructions. Based on this, Eastern Command evolved its operational plan, and allotted tasks to its subordinate formations. 2 Corps was given the task of advancing from the West and capturing all territory West of the river Padma; 33 Corps was to advance from the North West and capture all territory upto the confluence of the Padma and the Jamuna; and 4 Corps was to advance from the East, and capture all territory East of the river Meghna. The task of capturing the area of Mymensingh, between the Meghna and Jamuna rivers, was allotted to 101 Communication Zone Area.
Though this had not been spelt out in the instructions issued by Army HQ, Sam Manekshaw had visualised that after all three corps had achieved their tasks, re-grouping would be carried out, and forces launched for the capture of Dacca from the West, after crossing the Padma at Golundo Ghat. For this re-grouping, 4 Corps was to shed 23 Mountain Division, all its medium artillery, and two squadrons of PT-76 tanks. In the event, 2 Corps could not cross the Madhumati, and 33 Corps could only reach Bogra. As a result, the re-grouping did not take place. Dacca was captured purely by chance, by forces which had never been intended to reach there.
The operation commenced on 4 December 1971, after Pakistan launched air strikes on a number of Indian airfields, in the early hours of the morning of the previous day. According to plan, 2 Corps entered East Pakistan from the West, 33 Corps from the North, and 4 Corps from the East. Under Sagat's command in 4 Corps were three mountain divisions, with their normal complement of supporting arms and services. In addition, he had been allotted two ad hoc squadrons of light PT-76 tanks, and a medium battery of 5.5 inch guns. The divisional commanders were Major General (later General) K.V. Krishna Rao (8 Mountain Division); Major General R.D. 'Rocky' Hira (23 Mountain Division); and Major General B.F. Gonsalves (57 Mountain Division). The main task given to 4 Corps was to destroy Pakistani forces East of rivers Meghna and Bulai.
Sagat decided to send in three divisional thrusts, across the 250 kilometre stretch of border on which his Corps was deployed. In the North, 8 Mountain Division was to advance along the line Dharmanagar-Kulaura-Maulvi Bazar, and head for Sylhet; 57 Mountain Division was to advance along the axis Akhaura-Ashuganj, and capture Daudakandi; and 23 Mountain Division, in the South, was to capture Maynamati, Comilla and the major river port of Chandpur. Subsidiary tasks were allotted to 61 Mountain Brigade Group and Kilo Force, to assist the Corps operations. There was a rail bridge over the Meghna at Ashuganj, but the road alignment did not follow the railway. Though not spelt out in the Corps Operation Orders, Sagat was determined to 'bounce' the river, in case the opportunity presented itself, and race for Dacca.
In November, a number of preliminary operations had been carried out, with the aim of removing Pakistani elements which could interfere with the advance, once it began. A Pakistani post at Dhalai was cleared by 61 Brigade, after two attempts, and some casualties. The Belonia bulge, a tongue of Pakistani territory which jutted about 10 kilometres into Tripura, and was a constant irritant, was cleared by 23 Mountain Division. A Pakistani post at Atgram, on the North East approach to Sylhet, had to be eliminated by 59 Brigade, after heavy fighting.
Operations started on night 3/4 December 1971. In the North, 81 Mountain Brigade secured Shamshernagar, and 59 Mountain Brigade captured Ghazipur, followed by Kulaura, on 6 December. The same day, 81 Brigade captured Munshi Bazar. In this sector, Maulvi Bazar was held by a Pak brigade, which was occupying a strong defended position on a prominent high ground. From the very beginning, Sagat tasked the Hunter aircraft, operating from Kumbhigram airfield, to constantly bomb Maulvi Bazar with napalm. He appreciated that this would prove very costly to the Pak brigade, in terms of casualties, and break their morale. At this stage, Sagat was informed by intelligence sources that the Pakistanis were pulling out of Sylhet, in a bid to reinforce Ashuganj. Sagat saw in this an opportunity to seize Sylhet, and decided to do so by a heli-borne operation. On 7 December, 4/5 Gorkha Rifles were landed South East of Sylhet, by a special heli-borne operation. This so unnerved the Pakistani Command that the Maulvi Bazar brigade group was moved away to Sylhet, which already had a brigade group, of four battalions. This was reported by the Air Force, which flew a tactical reconnaissance mission over Maulvi Bazar next day. Sagat immediately ordered Krishna Rao to occupy Maulvi Bazar, which he did. In a Pakistani officers mess, they found lunch laid on the table, uneaten.
This was the first time an 'air bridge' had been employed by the Indian Army. Being a paratrooper, Sagat knew the potential of a heli-borne force, and could appreciate the immense advantages that accrued from its employment, at the opportune moment. The enemy was demoralised, and made no efforts to attack 4/5 Gorkha Rifles. As he had visualised, the noise of the helicopters misled the Pakistanis, and they over estimated the strength of the troops who had landed by helicopter. By resorting to a clever, unorthodox ploy, Sagat was able to capture Maulvi Bazar without a shot being fired.
In the Central Sector of 4 Corps, 57 Mountain Division commenced its advance with two brigades. 73 Mountain Brigade, under Brigadier M.L. Tuli, went for Gangasagar, while 311 Mountain Brigade, under Brigadier Misra attacked Akhaura. It was during the battle for Gangasagar, which was captured after a stiff fight, that the only PVC of the Bangla Desh campaign was won by Lance Naik (a naik is the Indian equivalent of a corporal) Albert Ekka, of 14 Guards. Akhaura also fell on 5 December, to 4 Guards and 18 Rajput, of 311 Mountain Brigade. At this stage, it was reported by patrols that one pair of lines of the double track railway line running to Brahmanbaria had been removed, making it usable by vehicles, and that the captured bridge over the Titas was intact. Sagat promptly changed the task of 57 Mountain Division, and ordered it to make for Ashuganj, by way of Brahmanbaria, instead of going for Daudkandi. This was a crucial decision, and led to a quickening of the operations of 4 Corps, and its crossing of the Meghna.
Brahmanbaria, in the loop formed by the river Titas, was strongly defended. However, the Pakistani troops holding it were expecting a frontal assault, from the South East, and when 73 Brigade sent columns to the West and South, they evacuated the town, and began to withdraw towards Ashuganj. 311 Brigade of 57 Division pursued the withdrawing enemy, upto the East bank of the Meghna, and the leading elements of 57 Division contacted Ashuganj on December 9. At Ashuganj, the Pakistanis were well dug in, and not prepared to give up without a fight. They let the Indian troops enter the built up area, and then opened up. The Indians were taken by surprise, and had to fall back, after suffering heavy casualties, and losing four tanks. The Pakistanis also blew up the bridge over the Meghna, leaving the Pakistani brigade commander and some troops on the East bank of the river.
At this stage, it was clear to Sagat that the enemy was in desperate straits. Having blown up the Ashuganj bridge, he intended to fall back across the river, and hold Bhairab Bazar, with whatever little he had left. Chandpur and Daudkandi had also fallen, and Pakistani resistance in the Eastern Sector had almost ceased to exist. Sagat flew over Daudkandi, Chandpur and Ashuganj in a helicopter on 9 December, and discussed the situation with the local commanders. He then decided to heli-lift his troops across the Meghna, and make for Dacca. He appreciated that the capture of Dacca would end the war, and the only way to achieve this was to contain Bhairab Bazar, and cross the Meghna further to the South, where no opposition was expected. He had twelve MI-4 helicopters, and he reckoned that the element of surprise would more than make up for the deficiency in numbers, that he would be able to get across. He had used helicopters in Mizo Hills for the last three years, and knew their worth. He had planned for such a contingency, if the opportunity presented itself, and had practised his troops and helicopter pilots for night landings, using torches. Fortunately, Gonsalves, who was commanding 57 Mountain Division, was also a pilot, and well versed in their use, in Mizo Hills, where his division had been deployed. Sagat had also commandeered several steamers from the river port at Chandpur and the Titas river, and these had been fuelled and positioned, for the crossing.
The air lift began on the afternoon of December 9, and continued for the next 36 hours. A total of 110 sorties were flown, from the Brahmanbaria stadium, and crossed the Meghna, which was 4,000 yards wide, to land at helipads which had been marked by torches, with their reflectors removed. During day, the troops were landed in paddy fields, with helicopters hovering low above the ground. The first battalion of 311 Mountain Brigade, 4 Guards, was landed in Raipura. while 9 Punjab crossed the river using country boats. Next day, the troops were landed directly at Narsingdi. Meanwhile, 73 Brigade had started to cross, using boats, which had been rounded up. The ferrying of artillery and tanks was a serious problem, and required considerable ingenuity on the part of the Engineers. By 11 December, both 311 and 73 Mountain Brigade had crossed the Meghna, and were ordered to advance to Dacca, on different axes. Using all modes of transport, including bullock carts and cycle rickshaws, both brigades advanced rapidly, and on December 14, the first artillery shell was fired on Dacca. On 15 December, 311 Mountain Brigade was poised to enter Dacca, when orders were received from HQ Eastern Command to halt further advance. Tactical HQ 101 Communication Zone Area, 95 and 167 Mountain Brigade Groups, and 2 Para were placed under command 4 Corps the same day. On night 15/16 December, Dacca was subjected to shelling by Sagat's artillery, and this hastened the surrender. On December 16, the cease fire was declared.
In the Southern sector of the Corps, 23 Mountain Division commenced its advance towards Comilla, and the Lalmai Hills. On December 4, 301 Brigade captured over two hundred prisoners of the 25 Frontier Force, including the battalion commander, near Comilla. Simultaneously, 181 Brigade cut the road and rail line between Laksham and Lalmai, enabling 301 Brigade to capture Mudfarganj, on December 5. The Pakistanis made an attempt to re-capture the town on December 7, but failed. Comilla was taken on December 8, and so were Daudkandi ferry site and the major river port of Chandpur. The brigade group garrison at Laksham, comprising four battalions, had been encircled by December 8. It disintegrated and headed for Maynamati on 9 December. Almost a thousand of these were captured, before they could reach the brigade group defences based on Maynamati, which was heavily defended, and defied capture, till the cease fire, and surrender on December 16.
As had happened in the operations for the liberation of Goa, it was not the main column, but a subsidiary thrust which claimed the final prize. In Goa, Sagat's 50 Para Brigade had a secondary role, but he managed to reach Panjim before the troops of 17 Mountain Division. In the Bangla Desh operations, 2 , 4 and 33 Corps constituted the main thrusts, while 101 Communication Zone Area had been assigned a complementary role, in the Mymensingh-Tangail area. Ultimately, it was this column which managed to reach Dacca first, and won the race. However, this was made possible only by the operations of 4 Corps, in crossing the Meghna, and the minor rivers of Balu and Satlakhya, and its imminent entry into Dacca. 120 Pak Brigade, which was facing 101 Communication Zone Area, was hurriedly withdrawn for the defence of Dacca, after the crossing of the Meghna. The Pakistanis had prepared defences around Dacca which had been christened 'Fortress Dacca'. Pak 120 Brigade disintegrated after occupation of Tungi by 73 Mountain Brigade of 57 Mountain Division. Niazi's predicament can be gauged from the fact that he had to employ 'walking wounded' from military hospitals, to occupy positions on the perimeter of 'Fortress Dacca'.
The rapid advance of 101 Communication Zone Area, under the command of Major General G.S. Nagra, who had replaced Major General G.S. Gill, after the latter was wounded, was also facilitated by the para drop at Tangail, on 11 December. On that day, 4 Corps was in Narsingdi, 35 Km from Dacca, while the leading elements of 95 Infantry Brigade, commanded by Brigadier H.S. Kler, were in Jamalpur, 160 Km from Dacca. Two days later, on 13 December, 95 Infantry Brigade and 2 Para were still at Tangail, almost 100 Km from Dacca, while Sagat's troops had reached the Satlakhya river, and were just 10 Km from Dacca. Nagra was lucky to find a tarmac road running South, a few miles West of Safipur, which led to Dacca via Sabhar, without having to cross the water obstacles of Turag and Dhaleshwari. Even at midnight on 14 December, when 95 Infantry Brigade was still on the Turag river, elements of 57 Infantry Division of 4 Corps had crossed the Satlakhya, and had started shelling Dacca. Sagat would have reached Dacca first, but this honour went to Nagra, though the latter had been placed under Sagat's command on 15 December, and hence technically was part of 4 Corps when he entered Dacca. Though Nagra was the first across the finish line, in the race for Dacca, the real winner was undoubtedly Sagat. If the Pakistanis had not surrendered, there is no way 101 Communication Zone could have taken Dacca earlier, since it would have required a major assault. Since Sagat had firmed in at Narsingdi, and already planned the attack for December 16, in all likelihood the honour of taking the city would have gone to him. That he lost the chance does not in any way detract from his brilliant performance. Sagat was also anxious to avoid entering the built up area of the city, where the Pakistanis would have an advantage.
Sagat's decision to cross the Meghna proved to be crucial to the entire operation. This was also the first instance in military history of an 'air bridge' being used for crossing a major water obstacle, by a brigade group. In his book, 'Victory in Bangla Desh', Major General Lachhman Singh, who commanded 20 Mountain Division, which was part of 33 Corps during the campaign, writes, "It was here that Sagat Singh exhibited the genius and initiative of a field commander. It was this decision which finally and decisively tilted the scale in our favour and led to the early surrender of the Pakistani forces at Dacca." It was a bold decision, fraught with risk, and if he had failed, the responsibility would have been entirely his. However, battles are not won by those with weak hearts, as military history as proved, time and again. Every military operation is a gamble, and stakes are invariably high. Sagat was one of those who played for the jackpot, and won.
After the war, B.B. Lal, who was the Defence Secretary, told Sagat an interesting story. On 10 December 1971, at 1300 hours, there was a meeting being held in South Block, chaired by Sardar Swaran Singh, the Minister of External Affairs. Attending the meeting were the Defence, Home and Foreign Secretaries, the Director of the IB, and the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister. The meeting had just commenced when the message arrived that Sagat had crossed the Meghna. The Defence Minister, Babu Jagjiwan Ram, rushed in soon afterwards, while the Prime Minister's Principal Private Secretary ran to her office to inform her. According to Lal, very soon afterwards, Indira Gandhi was seen running down the corridor, her hair and saree flying. They were all surprised, to see the Prime Minister, bubbling with joy, and for him, this was the most unforgettable moment of the 1971 war. This was also the one day that Sam Manekshaw could not take credit for having ordered the operation, quipped Lal.
Sagat's contribution in the liberation of Bangla Desh was recognised by the award of a Padma Bhushan, a non gallantry award which is normally given to civilians. (The three awards in the Padma series are Padma Vibhushan, which ranks just below the Bharat Ratna, the highest in the land; the Padma Bhushan; and the Padma Shri). The majority of awardees are artists, writers, scientists, bureaucrats and politicians. Soldiers are rarely given the award, and that too for contributions in non-military fields. Thimayya was awarded the Padma Bhushan, and Thorat the Padma Shri, for their performance in United Nations assignments in Korea. Sagat's sterling performance in 1971 was in military operations, against the enemy, and a gallantry award would have been more appropriate. Perhaps the military hierarchy did not recommend him for a gallantry award, and as a compromise, the political leadership decided to compensate him by giving him a civilian award, since he had already been awarded the PVSM, just two years earlier. It was ironical that the most successful Corps Commander in the 1971 War had to be content with a civilian award, while several others, whose performance was much below par were decorated for gallantry, and became war heroes.