Battle of Sylhet 1971 War
Background to the Battle
Following the military crackdown in East Pakistan in March 1971, over one million refugees poured into India. The Government of India had decided in April 1971 to go to war to stop the genocide and to enable the refugees to return to their homes. However, General Manekshaw, the Chief of Army Staff, had persuaded the Government to postpone the offensive till the Indian Army was fully prepared. Thus the preparations including acquisition of equipment from Russia and other countries, development of infrastructure at the proposed launching areas, mobilisation, training, dumping of ammunition, ordnance and engineer stores had commenced immediately. A Mukti Bahini had been raised from the officers and men from the East Bengal Rifles and other para military forces, trained, equipped and used to wage irregular warfare against the Pakistani Forces in East Pakistan. In November, a number of localised battles were fought at Bayra, Atgram and other places to eliminate enclaves and enemy interference and secure bridgeheads which would facilitate operations once they began. By December, Indian forces were concentrated and ready to launch operations for the capture of East Pakistan. They were also successful in provoking Pakistan into launching an offensive in the western sector on December 3.
4 Corps sector provided the shortest approach to Dacca, which was only 80 kilometres from Agartala. 4 Corps task was to liberate all Bangladesh territory east of Meghna River. The Corps was also tasked to cut off the road and rail link to Chittagong, which was the most important port in Bangladesh. Most of the military supplies coming from Pakistan and abroad came through Chittagong. 4 Corps had three divisions to carry out the task: 8 Mountain Division was in the north, 57 Mountain Division in the centre and 23 Infantry Division was in the south.
Sylhet town was located at the northern end of the sector and was connected to Dacca by both road and rail. 8 Mountain Division under Major General KV Krishna Rao was responsible for operations in the area. There were some preliminary operations in the sector. It was considered necessary to capture the Karimganj Bulge, which was a hot bed of Pakistani saboteurs and a source of interference to the buildup of Indian forces. To achieve this, it was necessary to capture Atgram and Zakiganj and the area east of the road connecting these places. Atgram and Zakiganj were held by a company each of 31 Punjab and Razakars. The enemy position at Atgram was based on the Surma River. The task of clearing the Bulge was first given to the Mukti Babini. Once they had failed, the task was given to 59 Mountain Brigade under Brigadier CA Quinn. 4/5 GORKHA RIFLES of the Brigade was given the task along with 1 East Bengal Battalion and one Field Company of 108 Engineer Regiment. The Battalion was able to cross the river in assault boats provided by the Field Company, undetected by the enemy. They put in the attack on the night of November 20/21. There was heavy fighting and eventually the Khukris came out and most of the enemy was wiped out and a large amount of arms and ammunition was captured: The defences at Zakiganj were based on the Kushiyara River. The attacking force consisted of 9 GUARDS and two companies of 87 BSF Battalion. The attacking force, while crossing the river in assault boats, was detected and fired upon. Lt Gopalakrishnan of the engineer platoon in support of the battalion quickly changed the site of crossing and assaulting troops were able to cross the river undetected. After a fierce battle Zakiganj was captured on the morning of November 21. The Army Engineers now reconstructed the Keane Bridge on the Surma River. The engineers also constructed a class 18 bridge at Kailashahar over River Manu during the preparatory period.
A group called E Force had been formed with 5/ 5 GORKHARIFLES and two battalions of East Bengal Rifles of the Mukti Bahini. This Force was deployed on the road Jaintiapur – Sylhet and exerted pressure on Sylhet from the North.
The activities of the E Force and the action at Atgram led Pakistan to believe that the attack on Sylhet would come from the North and East. The enemy defences on these flanks were reinforced. But General Rao had other plans. He assembled his two regular brigades for an advance from the south. 59 Mountain Brigade was concentrated at Dharmanagar and 81 Mountain Brigade at Kailashahar. The enemy had two brigades of 14 Division in the sector. 202 Brigade was located at Sylhet and 313 Brigade at Maulavi Bazar. The third brigade of the division was located at Akhaura. General Rao’s aim was to cut off the Pakistani 202 and 313 Brigades thus preventing their falling back on Bhairab Bazar.
The advance for capture of Sylhet was carried out on three axes as under (Map):–
- E Force was to advance along Axis Jaintiapur – Muktapur – Darbast – Haripur – Sylhet.
- 59 Mountain Brigade was to advance on axis Dharmanagar – Gazipur – Kalaura – Fenchuganj – Sylhet.
- 81 Mountain Brigade was to advance along axis Kailashahar – Shamsher Nagar – Munshi Bazar – Maulavi Bazar – Sylhet.
The advance commenced on the morning of December 4. E Force reached Karimnagar after brushing aside minor opposition and crossing a number of minor water obstacles on December 8. The East Bengal battalions were 4 hours behind schedule. 5/5 GORKHA RIFLES launched the attack on Karimnagar. As troops were short, 380 Field Company ex 108 Engineer Regiment was asked to join the assault. Major NM Sharma of Engineers led the attack and seized a major portion of the built up area of Karimnagar on December 10. He was awarded Sena Medal for his leadership in the attack. Havildar Surendra Das of 380 Field Company was awarded the Sena Medal for outstanding dedication in the face of enemy fire while ferrying and bridge construction under enemy fire.
6 RAJPUT led 59 Mountain Brigade advance. The battalion captured two border outposts at Pt 320 and pt 318 on the nights of December 1/2 and 2/3 respectively. Further advance was held up at Gazipur, which was strongly held by the enemy. 6 RAJPUT of the Brigade was ordered to capture it on the night of December 3/4. The Battalion captured Gazipur after a stiff fight in which it lost 9 killed including the second in command and had 64 wounded. The battalion was pulled out for a proposed offensive in Dacca area. 9 GUARDS captured another locality on the flank at Gazipur on the same night. The 4/5 GORKHAs now advanced and captured Kalaura, an important road and rail junction without much resistance. The fall of Kalaura left the enemy in disarray. 6 RAJPUT was re-inducted on December 5 and took over the advance to Sylhet. It established a roadblock in area Rajapur – Maheshjhuri on December 5/6, captured Halaichar on December 7 and caught up with 22 Baluch, the retreating Pakistani battalion after a 45-km chase at Fenchuganj on December 10. On its withdrawal from Gazipur the enemy had heavily mined the road Gazipur – Kalaura – Sylhet. However, 484 Field Company ex 108 Engineer Regiment cleared these mines within two days. In the process, two of their vehicles were blown up by mines.
81 Mountain Brigade also commenced its advance on December 4. Their first objective was Shamsher Nagar, which was an important enemy location on the Si1char – Sylhet Highway. There was an airfield at Shams her Nagar, which was being extensively used by the epemy. The task of capturing Shamsher Nagar and the adjoining Chatalpur Tea Garden was given to 81 Mountain Brigade. To carry out this task, it was essential to bring the guns forward. To make this possible, a class 18 bridge was constructed by the Engineers at Kailashahar in Indian territory. Chatalpur Tea Factory was captured by 10 MAHAR after a stiff fight on December 5. Shamsher Nagar and its airfield were captured by 4 KUMAON assisted by two companies of 3 PUNJAB after a two-day battle on December 6. The airfield was heavily mined and cratered. The engineers removed the mines and the airfield was repaired with the help of a Border Roads Task Force. 3 PUNJAB captured the next objective, Munshi Bazar the same day. 81 Mountain Brigade now moved towards Maulavi Bazar, which was subjected to heavy shelling and air attacks. The enemy withdrew from Maulavi Bazar on the night of December 8/9. Indian forces thus captured Maulavi Bazar on December 9 unopposed. They also secured the crossings on Kushiyara River on December 10.
The noose was thus closing on Sylhet. The enemy was becoming panicky. Radio intercepts indicated that Pakistan was planning to pull out 202 Brigade from Sylhet and concentrate it at Ashuganj. The Corps Commander was intent on preventing this and decided to capture Sylhet by a heli-borne operation. Sylhet was a district headquarters on both the banks of the Surma River with a road and rail bridge.
Pakistan was reported to have 202 Brigade for the defence of Sylhet Sector. Some of the troops had been deployed at Karimnagar, Gazipur and other forward areas. Thus possibly one battalion and remnants of troops falling back were available for the defence of Sylhet. Later, after surrender, it was also found to have remnants of two brigades as 313 Brigade had fallen back on Sylhet from Maulavi Bazar on December 9. The Pakistani forces were mostly facing the northern and eastern approaches.
The Indian 8 Mountain Division had two regular brigades, the 59 Mountain Brigade and 81 Mountain Brigade and the E Force. However, only 59 Mountain Brigade and E Force were directly involved in the battle of Sylhet.
The plan for the Battle of Sylhet was based on the assumption that the enemy was withdrawing and Sylhet town was lightly held. The plan of battle was as under:–
- 4/5 GORKHA RIFLES were to be lifted in helicopters and landed north of the Surma River, close to the road cum rail bridge at Sylhet. Thereafter the battalion was to capture the bridge, the airfield and the radio station.
- 59 Mountain Brigade and E Force were to link up with the Battalion within two days.
- 81 Mountain Brigade was to head for and capture Maulavi Bazar and bottle up all enemy forces in the area.
After an aerial reconnaissance on December 7, the 4/5 GORKHAs along with a troop of mountain guns and a weak platoon of engineers were air lifted by 14 MI 4 helicopters and landed at a pre-selected spot on the east bank of Surma River at Mirapara, about one and half kilometres from the bridge. The landings started in the afternoon and took the enemy by surprise. But the area soon came under small arms fire and further landings after the second flight had to be suspended. Only the Commanding Officer and about 90 men had been landed. They somehow held the enemy at bay. The flights were resumed and rest of the force was landed during the night of December 7/8 and the bridge was captured. The situation remained very tense for the airborne force for some time. A company of 9 GUARDS were landed on the night of December 9 as reinforcements for the besieged garrison. From December 9 to 12, no further landings were possible. Only on December 12 were two helicopters able to get through with some ammunition and evacuated some of the casualties. The battalion remained surrounded on three sides, the fourth side being protected by the river. It is amazing that the battalion was able to survive without any link up for seven days behind enemy, lines. Fortunately, no major attacks were launched on them. The enemy possibly did not have adequate reserves and thought it unwise to pull out troops from the front line for the attack. Else they were too demoralised to act offensively.
To reduce pressure on 4/5 GORKHAs, 59 Mountain Brigade and E Force were told to increase the pressure on the Pakistani defences north and east of Sylhet. Intense air and artillery attacks were brought on the Sylhet defences. The Pakistanis were unable to launch an attack on the airhead. The link up finally took place on the night of December 14 from the south when 6 RAJPUT of 59 Mountain Brigade reached the southern end of the bridge from Fenchuganj. In the process 6 RAJPUT had to capture Fenchuganj on December 11, Moghul Bazar on the night of Dec, ember 13/14 and fight a tough battle at Kolabil on December 14. A column of 81 Mountain Brigade also reached Sylhet on December 15.
The Sylhet Garrison of the Pakistan Army surrendered to the Indian Army on the morning of December 16 as a part of the overall surrender of Pakistani troops in East Pakistan. It consisted of 107 officers including three brigadiers,’ 219 junior commissioned officers and 6190 other ranks of Pakistan’s 202 and 313 Brigades and supporting troops. The numbers were far in excess of the assessment of the Indian commanders.
During interrogation after surrender, the commander of 313 Brigade told that on December 6, he had been ordered by the General Officer Commanding, 14 Pakistani Division to pull back and link up with 27 Brigade at Akhaura – Bhairab Bazar. He had expressed his inability to do so as he was under pressure from Munshi Bazar and the Indian Air Force, which was strafmg Maulavi Bazar heavily. As a result he decided to fall back on Sylhet. He had reached there on December 7 and his troops followed him a day later.
It is a mystery as to why, with two brigades available at Sylhet, the Pakistanis could not mount a major attack on the GORKHAs. The only explanation is that they were completely demoralised. It is also reported that the engineer platoon with 4/5 GORKHA RIFLES took part in an assault on the bridge with the battalion on the night of December 7. Thus the battle cries of “Jo Bole so Nihal, Sat Sri Akal” and “Shivaji Maharaj Ki Jai” rent the air along with “Ayo Gurkhali”. This led the enemy to believe that an entire Indian brigade had landed. They were therefore content to contain the airhead.
Sylhet was an outstanding victory. Two Pakistani brigades remained bottled up at Sylhet and were unable to take part in the defence of Dacca. The strength of the surrendered enemy was more than the attacking Indian forces. The troops, which took part in this operation, were awarded the Battle Honour “Sylhet”.
It is true that the surrender of the Sylhet garrison was a part of the surrender of all Pakistani Forces in Bangladesh on December 16, 1971. The Indian Army did not have to physically capture Sylhet. But the Indian Army was able to get deep inside the enemy territory in most difficult riverine terrain in a short period of seven days and isolate two infantry brigades of the Pakistani Army and finally obtain their surrender.
It is worth analysing as to why Pakistan lost the Battle of Sylhet. The Indians did not enjoy any significant advantage in strength over the Pakistanis. It had two regular brigades and one adhoc brigade against two brigades of the enemy. That is by no means a decisive advantage. Some of the possible reasons are discussed in the succeeding paragraphs.
The Pakistani Forces were fighting thousands of kilometres from their homes in West Punjab. The local population was hostile and attacked them at every opportunity. They had been in operation for about a year and were battle weary. They were on the defensive and cut off from their country. Their morale was low. And the morale became lower by the day as the Indian Army made rapid progress on all fronts. They just did not have enough fight left in them.
India enjoyed complete air superiority within the first days of the war. Thus the Indian Air Force was able to attack the Pakistani positions at will without any interference. Movement of vehicle columns was particularly hazardous. This situation had a very adverse effect on the morale. Commander 313 Infantry Brigade of Pakistan Army admitted after surrender that he was unable to fall back on Akhaura as desired by his Division Commander due to interdiction by Indian Air Force.
The Indian troops succeeded in keeping the enemy off balance by getting behind their defensive positions and isolating them. Very few prepared defences were assaulted. They were able to threaten rear areas and forced the troops deployed in forward defences to withdraw. This indirect approach paid handsome dividends. The enemy was not able to put up a coordinated defensive battle at a brigade level at any stage of the campaign.
The Indian troops were also able to advance much faster than expected by the Pakistani commanders by quickly clearing the mines laid and bridging the numerous water obstacles. The Corps of Engineers deserve credit for being able to modify their drills and improvise effectively. Unfortunately, the methods employed for clearing roads of mines, particularly on the Gazipur – Kalaura – Sylhet axis have not been analysed and accepted as battle drills. The current manual mine breaching drills are too laborious and time consuming to be used in actual battle.
The air landing of 4/5 GORKHA RIFLES was the first such operation attempted by the Indian Army during war. The landings were successfully carried out but it is doubtful if it played ,any significant part in the fall of Sylhet. Against a more determined and aggressive enemy, the landings without a link up for seven days could have been a disaster. A similar attempt during the Battle of Jaffna against the LITE did end in disaster, as linkup could not be effected in time. Such operations must be planned with care and linkup must take place within an acceptable time frame possibly within 24 to 48 hours. The force must be given an objective that is within their capability.
The Corps of Engineers have often occupied defensive positions in battle. But in the advance to Sylhei, one of the field companies were asked to lead an attack at Karimganj and succeeded in capturing a major portion of the town. The company commander was awarded the Sena Medal. In another action not covered in this book Lt TS Roy assaulted and captured an enemy position along with a medium machine gun and a recoilless gun in the battle for Afra in Jessore Sector during 1971 war and was awarded a Vir Chakra. It is strange that despite these instances, the Corps of Engineers is not authorised bayonets, which are invaluable in hand to hand fighting.
Battle of Sylhet is another example of the importance of close co-ordination and co-operation between infantry and its supporting arms, the Regiment of Artillery and the Corps of Engineers and Air Force in battle. 1971 war in East Pakistan, because of the riverine terrain has sometimes been called a Sappers’ War. The troops of 108 Engineer Regiment not only played their part by speedy execution of engineer tasks like clearing mines and constructing bridges and ferries but also acted in infantry role with aplomb whenever the situation required them to do so. Even the Border Roads Organisation was successfully integrated into the war effort and played a significant part in rehabilitation of Shamsher Nagar airfield. Even the BSF took part in the operations for the capture of Zakiganj. Unfortunately the importance of close co-ordination and co-operation between the fighting arms and the supporting arms and services is often lost sight of during peacetime.
Battle of Sylhet also highlights the importance of thorough planning and preparations for any battle. The engineers bridged over 1100 ft of water obstacles and ferried troops and guns over a number of large water obstacles. The bridging equipment and river crossing equipment, track materials along with supplies and ammunition had to be stocked and moved. The logistic planning and preparations for the battle had been excellent. Large scale heliborne operations were also carried out during this operation for the first time. That the operations could be carried out without any hitch was again due to good preparations and joint training.