The Liberation War officially broke out on 3 December 1971, when the Pakistan Air Force carried out preemptive strikes against 11 Indian air bases, in an operation codenamed Operation Chengiz Khan. But what is not that well known is that in the Eastern theatre, hostilities had started much earlier. In this war, I was the Brigade Major of 350 Infantry Brigade, under 9 Infantry Division. The units under 350 Infantry Brigade were 1 Jammu and Kashmir Rifles (JAK RIF), 4 Sikh and 26 Madras. Prior to the crackdown by the Pakistan military in March 1971, the task of 9 Infantry Division, in the event of outbreak of hostilities with Pakistan, was to make rapid advance to contact, isolate and bypass Jhenida and Jessore with a view to secure Goalundo Ghats.
A rapid thrust was also to be launched from Boyra Salient to Jhikarqacha, a distance of 28 kilometres, in one night, to cut-off all enemy forces east towards Benapole.
The Pakistani Plan
Prior to March 1971, the defence of Dhaka Bowl was the end strategic objective for the army in East Pakistan. The troops available to carry out the above task were Pakistan’s 14Infantry Division, 17 Wings of EPR/EPCAP, 7 Wings of West Pakistan Rangers, Razakars, Al Badr/Al Shams irregulars, one Squadron of F-86 Sabres (20 aircraft), four Gunboats (PNS Rajshahi, Comilla, Sylhet and Jessore), one Patrol boat and 17 armed boats.
The Pakistani military assessment was that the main Indian offensive would be along the Calcutta–Benapole–Jessore axis with a secondary thrust along either the Krishnanagar–Darshana–Chuadanga axis or the Murshidabad–Rajapur–Kushtia axis. Accordingly, they planned for three lines of deployment as under:
- Line roughly running from Khulna–Jessore–Jhenida with troops from Jessore falling back to the Madhumati River to defend the area between Magura and Faridpur.
- Secondary Line was Khulna, Jessore and Jhenida. This line was however, not to be defended in force.
- The final defence kine was based on the Dhaka bowl, encompassing the area between the Jamuna, Padma, Meghna and Old Brahmaputra Rivers. This line was to be held until Pakistan defeated India in the West.
Following induction of two additional divisions during May 1971, Pakistan HQ 9 Infantry Division was moved to Jessore with 107 Infantry Brigade in Jessore Sector and 57 Infantry Brigade in Jhenida Sector. Jessore and Jhenida were prepared as fortresses. BOPs and strong points would fight delaying action, while falling back to the nearest fortress. The strategic objectives were revised in July 1971 to include:
- Containment of insurgency and to prevent the formation of a Bangladesh government inside the province.
- Force Indian Army to deploy 15 divisions against East Pakistan to enable Pakistan forces in the West to achieve victory against India.
- Launch attacks towards Tripura, Calcutta or the Siliguri corridor, if needed, to secure as much Indian territory as possible, should the opportunity arise.
- Attack the Mukti Bahini (MB) training camps across the border inside India.
In October 1971, the Pakistan GHQ redefined strategic objectives to defend every inch of the territory in East Pakistan, and thereby deny the rebels an opportunity to declare establishment of “Bangladesh” government on its own soil. Out of available options, the “fortress” concept of operations was adopted with the BOPs and strong points defending the forward line imposing maximum delay and inflicting casualties prior to the defence of Dhaka Bowl.
By October 1971, Pakistan 107 Brigade with six battalions was deployed in the Jessore Sector with 22 Frontier Force (FF) guarding Benapole axis, 38 FF guarding Chaugacha-Jessore axis at Afra, 21 Punjab in area Satkhira and 6 Punjab, 12 Punjab and 15 FF in Jessore. Opposite the Indian 350 Infantry Brigade, 38 FF less three company’s was deployed in Chaugacha. One company of this battalion with one company irregulars was located at Barni. Another company minus one platoon along with one platoon irregulars was at Sanchadanga. One platoon with one platoon irregulars was at Maslia Grove. 22 FF was deployed South of Boyra salient covering the main road Benapole-Jessore. One company less one platoon of this battalion was deployed at Chuttipur with one platoon and one platoon irregulars at Dosatina.
HQ 2 Corps was raised in Krishnanagar in September/October 1971 and 9 Infantry Division was placed under its command, along with 4 Mountain Division. The plans were now recast with 4 Mountain Division tasked to operate towards Jhenida and Goalundo Ghats besides Kushtia in the North. 9 Infantry Division was tasked to conduct offensive operations towards Jessore as under:
- 350 Infantry Brigade to launch a deep strike to Jhikarqacha and cut off withdrawal of Pakistani troops on the main axis.
- 32 Infantry Brigade to advance along main road axis Benapole-Jessore.
- 42 Infantry Brigade advancing further South opposite Satkhira.
In early November, 2 Corps received higher directions to capture weakly held border outposts (BOP) and secure lodgement areas to establish the Bangladesh government on its soil to gain political credibility and mileage. 2 Corps, accordingly, planned to eliminate weakly held enemy posts in the proximity of the border with a view to force the enemy to carry out dispersed static deployment of his available forces in border security role. 9 Infantry Division altered its plans and directed 350 Infantry Brigade to capture Maslia BOP, which was deployed 2.5 km behind the border, opposite Boyra, West of River Kabadak on the road leading to Chaugacha instead of BOPs deployed on the thrust line to Jhikarqacha. This was done to maintain surprise on the outbreak of war. The brigade plan to accomplish the task was as under:
- 4 Sikh to simulate attack on Barni BOP during night 12/13 November
- 1 JAK RIF with one squadron PT-76 tanks and one company MB to capture Maslia BOP by morning of 13 November.
- 26 Madras to secure the firm base at Boyra and expand its influence towards South.
Battles of Boyra
The Battle of Boyra consisted of a series of battles were fought in succession of each other. These, inter alia, included invest operations against Maslia and Barni BOPs, advance to Chaugacha culminating in its capture, meeting engagement at Garibpur, followed by establishment of a ring around Jessore Fortress and the first and the only aerial engagement in East Pakistan also known as “Air Battle over Boyra.”
The planning for the battle started in the last week of October 1971. 45 CAV less one squadron (PT-76s) and ‘B’ Squadron 63 CAV (T-55s) besides 102 Engineer Regiment, 14 Field Regiment reinforced by divisional artillery brigade, and 268 Engineer Regiment played a key part in battles. Mukti Bahini (MB) forces provided support at various stages of the battles. As the battle progressed, even 22 Rajput was deployed but reverted to its parent formation barely after 24 hours. Similarly, before 1/3 GR Battalion was on its way to join the brigade, it was withdrawn for launching amphibious assault to cut off troops withdrawing from Cox’s Bazaar.
Preliminary operations started on 9/10 October when 1 JAK RIF sent its troops with MB elements to establish a firm base opposite Boyra salient against Pakistan’s Maslia BOP held by one platoon of 38 FF and one platoon of para military forces. Yet another last minute political directive received was to avoid own soldiers being captured as prisoners by Pakistan, which would be presented to international agencies to gain sympathy and support and to justify its offensive on the Western Front. Accordingly, changes were made to “invest”and simulate feint attacks as opposed to capturing Maslia BOP.
On night 11/12 November 1971, 1 JAK RIF established a firm base with ‘D’ Company and one MB company, opposite Maslia BOP on the Western Bank of River Kabadak. On 12 November, by day, tanks and recoilless guns were employed to destroy bunkers in the BOP by direct fire. Patrolling skirmishes and exchange of artillery and small arms fire followed throughout the day. On night 12/13 November, 1 JAK RIF reinforced the firm base with ‘A’ Company and one MB Company. ‘C’ Company with one MB platoon was deployed in Dighalsingha to cover the approach along the Eastern bank of River Kabadak. The MB platoon moved to lay a road block on the Western bank of River Kabadak. An enemy column moving to reinforce Maslia BOP contacted the MB advance elements that had crossed the river in a country boat. Under heavy exchange of fire, the MB platoon made an attempt to deploy at alternate road block site and was engaged once again by enemy. The move to establish the road block was abandoned. However, ‘C’ Company was deployed in Dighalsingha covering the Eastern bank approach to Chaugacha.
Meanwhile, by 13 November, 4 Sikh made deep ingress into East Pakistan territory and firmed in opposite Barni BOP in Makapur, Ballabhpur, Naodapara, Nyrapara and Hijuli and dominated areas Muchipura, Kankuria and Andulia by aggressive patrolling. On 13 November, a MB company simulated a feint attack on Maslia BOP after intense artillery fire from the West. Subsequently, two more feint attacks were simulated from the South. Meanwhile, enemy concentrated his efforts to evict the company at Dighalsingha under cover of heavy artillery fire. After deploying ‘B’ Company at the Ferry in line with the company positions on the Western Bank Dighalsingha, C Company rejoined and occupied depth position behind the forward line opposite Maslia BOP.
At 0500 hours on 15 November, enemy launched attacks on 1 JAK RIF positions opposite Maslia BOP after intense shelling. Enemy attack was repulsed by around 1000 hours. Dead bodies of one Pakistan Major, CHM, Havaldar and one Jawan were recovered in forward line of trenches. As per civilian sources, enemy casualties were 87 killed and approximately 100 wounded. 1 JAK RIF suffered six killed and 22 wounded.
Extract of debriefing of Brigadier Hayat Khan in the POW Camp in Ranchi are reproduced: “As there were no crossing places on River Kabadak opposite Chaugacha, I did not visualise a major threat. However, I did not rule out the possibility of infantry forces operating in that sector. Therefore, I deployed one company less two platoons at Barni BOP with one platoon each at Sanchadanga and Maslia BOP from 38 FF reinforced by one to two platoons of Razakars and Mujahids. Towards North of the main axis, I had deployed one company 22 FF at Chuttipur and Dosatina covering the approach from Boyra Bulge. As the battle progressed, I was very apprehensive of your advance in Dighalsingha as it led directly to Chaugacha. Therefore, I decided to counter attack Dighalsingha with two companies 6 Punjab (ex divisional reserve) in Phase 1, followed by attack with one company each ex 38 FF and 6 Punjab on elements opposite Maslia BOP.” The Time Magazine of November 1971 had most aptly summed up the battle: “an embarrassing victory for India at Boyra.”
Advance to Chaugacha
On 20 November, on receipt of information of withdrawal of Pakistan troops from Maslia and Barni BOPs, both 4 Sikh and 1 JAK RIF were asked to pursue withdrawing troops in their respective areas which the units successfully accomplished within eight hours, covering 15 km by 1600 hours. As per debriefing of Brigadier Hayat Khan, 6 Punjab, 38 FF, one company of 22 FF, and on arrival, 12 Punjab were deployed covering approaches from Chaugacha towards Jessore. 38 FF occupied well prepared positions astride the bridge in Chaugacha that dominated Western bank of River Kabadak.
4 Sikh with ‘B’ Squadron 63 Cavalry (CAV) advanced to contact Chaugacha and establish a bridge head across River Kabadak, which was at a distance of 15 km. As ‘C’ and ‘D’ companies of 4 Sikh, with one troop of tanks, approached the bridge at Chaugacha, enemy engaged them with anti tank and artillery fire. With leading tank in flames and abandoned by its crew, infantry closed in and secured the Western Bank of River Kabadak. At this stage, orders were received to halt launching of operations across the River Kabadak and secure all areas on the Western side of the river. Thereafter sporadic exchange of fire continued. 1 JAK RIF was redeployed East of River Kabadak in areas Dighalsingha and South of the marshy area and West and South of Garibpur. Also, 26 Madras advanced from Boyra Salient on the West bank of River Kabadak and established contact with 22 FF troops in Chuttipur and Dosatina. Later, on 22 November, 4 Sikh secured Chaugacha by 23 November.
Battle of Garibpur
Meanwhile, on night 18/19 November 1971, 14 Punjab with one squadron of 45 CAV was inducted in East of Garibpur and a Krupmann pontoon bridge constructed over River Kabadak. Next night, 19/20 November 1971, ‘C’ Company 14 Punjab was inducted and deployed ahead in general area Garibpur, supported by ‘C’ Squadron 45 CAV. In response, Pakistan’s 107 Infantry Brigade launched a counter attack on the morning of 21 November with 3 Independent Armoured Squadron rushing headlong into our deployed troops.
After first light, ‘C’ Squadron tanks were in position to stop enemy counter attack. When the fog lifted, enemy tanks were spotted at very close ranges and engaged. 10 Pakistani tanks were destroyed during the initial engagement. Major D.S. Narang, Squadron Commander known as Chiefy, led the engagement personally standing with his half body outside the cupola. He was hit by enemy MMG fire and died. After a fierce 30 minutes engagement and loss of 10 tanks, remaining enemy tanks retreated and reappeared on the flanks. On being engaged, enemy crews abandoned three tanks and the sole remaining tank retreated.
45 CAV initially lost two tanks in the encounter at Garibpur and followed later by two more tanks during engagements. The Battle of Garibpur became known as the “Grave Yard of Pakistani Tanks”. The destroyed Pakistani tanks were recovered and moved inside Boyra Bulge. Jagjivan Ram, Defense Minister, addressed troops congratulating them for their valour.
Air Battles over Boyra
On two occasions, Pakistani F-86s fighter jets carried out ground attacks in Boyra sector. In the first attack at 1050 hours on 19 November, a flight of four F-86s attacked the bridge and destroyed one pontoon. Pilot Officer Imarti as the Forward Air Controller (FAC) with 350 Infantry Brigade called for counter air support, but by the time the Gnats based at Kalaikonda appeared overhead, the F-86s had crossed back into Pakistani air space. Since the IAF was forbidden to cross the border, they did not pursue and engage hostile enemy aircraft. Subsequently, one flight of Gnats was deployed in the forward air base at Dum Dum to reduce the response time to bare minimum.
In the second attack at 1450 hours on 22 November, four Pakistan fighters returned to engage forces deployed in lodgement areas across the border. The flight of Gnats at Dum Dum was scrambled and appeared over Boyra as the Pakistan fighters were dive bombing troops on ground. In less than few minutes, Gnats appeared on the tail of hostile aircraft and destroyed them. Flight Lieutenant Parvaiz Mehdi Qureshi, who later served as the PAF Chief of Air Staff from 1997 to 2000 and led the PAF during the 1999 Kargil War, was captured by 4 Sikh.
Build Up to Capture Jessore
Subsequently, 42 Infantry Brigade was inducted into the bridge head and tasked to contact Jessore Fortress from Chaugacha and Jhenida roads. 350 Infantry Brigade was tasked to enlarge the bridge head opposite Burinda towards Western part of Jessore Fortress to deploy divisional artillery. 32 Infantry Brigade was retained as reserve to advance along the main road axis Benapole-Jessore on orders. 9 Infantry Division waited for orders for the final push.
The foregoing narrative clearly exposes two key myths or mystery surrounding 1971 war. One, it is unfair to deny the due credit for the valour, courage and sacrifices made by troops that gained crowning victories prior to 3 December 1971. For those formations and units, it was a 36 day war and not 14 day lightning campaign as recorded in official history.
Next, it is also a myth that armed forces were given a free hand to conduct operations in the Eastern Front from day one. Political directions dictated plans and course of battle from time to time. For example, orders to “invest” BOPs instead of capturing them and halting advancing columns first at Chaugacha and later at Afra came as a surprise to troops mentally prepared and trained to launch deep penetration thrust. For troops at grass root level, it implied political interference which denied to them to seize fleeting opportunities to deliver crushing blow on opposing forces.
On receipt of orders to launch offensive after the pre-emptive Pakistan air strikes on the Western Front, 107 Infantry Brigade withdrew towards Khulna when 14 PUNJAB with squadron armour bypassed and cut off axis towards Faridpur. 32 Infantry Brigade pursued the enemy to the gates of Khulna and firmed in for the final assault. Whilst 350 infantry Brigade waged a fierce battle in built up area, 42 Infantry Brigade attempted an outflanking thrust towards South of Khulna. And, the operations were called off when Pakistan forces opted for surrender.
(Pic Caption): The First Operational Krupmann Bridge constructed at Boyra by 268 Engineer Regiment.