Between the two world wars there was a significant development of aircraft, both transport and combat, in Germany and elsewhere. Military planners of all erstwhile warring nations were seeking a solution for the static trench warfare of World War I. Along with achieving mobility in battle by outflanking static defences by manoeuvre on land, thought was given to vertical envelopment by dropping troops from the air by parachute. The Russians first gave this idea concrete shape. In the early 1930s, para-dropping from high towers had become a national sport in the Soviet Union.
The German General Staff, ever quick to follow new ideas, developed this still further and had by the start of World War II raised full-fledged airborne divisions. They were the first to carry out an airborne assault, in Crete, and captured this island with unqualified success. The British and the Americans followed and raised such formations in their armies which were later employed with some success in the invasion of Europe, notably at Arnheim.
One such airborne division was also raised in the Indian Army for operation in the Southeast Asian campaigns towards the end of the war, but this formation did not get an opportunity to be trained or used in a classic airborne role before the war ended. On the eve of independence and partition this formation was broken up, and it was decided to retain one parachute brigade group on the Orbat of the Indian Army without giving much thought to the actual operational requirements or the adequacy of the compatible air capability of the Indian Air Force.
Aircraft for para-dropping heavy equipment need rear ejection facilities, and those for dropping troops require either rear or two side doors to speed up ejection over the dropping zone.
A classical airborne operation by para-dropping involves the delivery of troops, heavy weapons, ammunition and supplies from transport aircraft in enemy territory. It is desirable to drop as many troops, weapons and equipment in one wave as possible so that the dropping zones are fully secured before receiving the follow-up waves for a subsequent buildup. Since the troops are tactically required to organize into subunits as soon as possible after the drop, it is preferable to reduce its spread.
This in turn requires the employment of transport aircraft capable of flying slowly at low height. As armada of slow-moving transport aircraft hovering over the dropping zone presents a tempting target both for ground-to-air and air-to-air weaponry. It therefore becomes imperative to undertake such operations in a favorable air situation or in such weather conditions when interceptors cannot operate against the transport fleet. Such a situation is however very rare at present, when interceptors have night capability.
Aircraft for para-dropping heavy equipment need rear ejection facilities, and those for dropping troops require either rear or two side doors to speed up ejection over the dropping zone. Parachute-dropping equipment is expensive and bulky, and this limits the carrying capacity of the aircraft, and consequently more planes are required to lift the same number of men with parachutes as without. To give an idea of the magnitude of the problem, about 50 assorted transport aircraft were used to drop one battalion group at Tangail, in East Pakistan, in 1971.
The requirements of para-dropping aircraft and civil passenger planes are so conflicting, especially since the introduction of jet and turbojet transports, that it becomes difficult to combine both functions in one aircraft. As a result, it becomes incumbent for a country seeking airborne capability to maintain a fleet for the purpose, but this is very expensive for a poor country like India. Our policymakers therefore strive to arrive at a compromise. They attempt to maintain a fleet for normal commitments of para-dropping supplies and transporting men and equipment to snowbound garrisons along the northern border, and in support of counterinsurgency operations in Nagaland and Mizoram.
This operation was known as establishing an airhead from where offensive and defensive operations could be carried out deep in enemy territory.
After catering to the optimum lift requirement for the year, the aircraft are required to service administrative and operational demands. This force level in aircraft and servicing crew, with all the financial liability of initial and recurring costs, is provided for, and any increase above this level is considered unproductive from the point of view of cost effectiveness. Thus a nation’s lift capability in one wave of airborne operations reduces itself to the force level of military transport aircraft of parachuting characteristics. Another constraint is the availability of para-dropping equipment and maintaining its serviceability at all times. The Indian Air Force was originally equipped with aging C-119s, and a few Caribous and C-47s were added after the Chinese invasion, but at no time did the capability of lifting more than one battalion group in one wave exist, and yet the parachute brigade group continued to feature on the Orbat.
Airborne force had been used in the Second World War in two ways. One method was in conjunction with air-transported troops, in which troops flown in the first wave were dropped by parachute in an air assault to secure either an already existing airfield or to get hold of terrain where an airfield could be constructed within a reasonable time to allow follow-up troops and equipment to be airlanded with ease. This operation was known as establishing an airhead from where offensive and defensive operations could be carried out deep in enemy territory. Examples in the Second World War are Wingate’s operations in the heart of Burma on the Allied side and the capture of Crete on the side of the Axis powers.
In such operations, the staying power of the para-dropped troops was considerably enhanced by a timely follow-up of air transported troops, who by virtue of landing on the forward airfields could carry heavier weapons and equipment than could be dropped by parachutes. Since the size and weight of the weaponry and equipment depended upon what the available aircraft could carry as their basic payload, the weaponry carried had of necessity to be lighter than what could be ferried on wheels by land. Guns, vehicles and other equipment were initially of a light nature because of the difficulty of carrying weighty and bulky articles. In some cases, such weapons and equipment had to be specially manufactured.
After the Second World War, rapid strides were made in developing transport aircraft in size, weight and carrying capacity as well as quick loading and unloading facilities. Special tanks manufactured for the purpose could be carried by heavier air craft available to the great powers. The introduction of air re-fuelling further enhanced the range of these operations from the mounting bases. At one time, the US could at short notice fly a large force of corps strength, consisting of up to three divisions, to distant overseas theatres of war in a matter of hours. The weighs, size and speed of heavier aircraft needed longer runways which might not be easily available at the receiving end. To overcome this difficulty, much work has gone into cutting down landing and takeoff distances through the development of short takeoff and landing (STOL) and vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) jet and turbojet aircraft. These types of aircraft can operate from improvised airfields in underdeveloped areas with inadequate airlanding facilities. The latest aircraft in this field are the American C-130 (Hercules), the Canadian Buffalo and the Russian AN-14.
Airborne operations, as visualized by this concept, need a colossal effort in the way of a large number of transport aircraft, a complex of airfield facilities as mounting base, security of the airlines en route and of the air zone over the airfields at the destination, and a complex of facilities. The magnitude of such resources and organization is beyond the reach of underdeveloped nations, but this should not however preclude such operations on their part with some modifications and reduction in scope.
The depth of para-operations in enemy territory therefore became dependent upon the capability of own troops operating on land to advance within the stipulated time frame to connect with the paratroops.
The other concept of airborne operations was to drop troops with adequate weapons and equipment by means of parachute in air assaults to secure technically important ground until a linkup is effected with land-based advancing forces. Since paratroops are most vulnerable in descent and in the process of assembling, it was considered essential that the dropping zone selected should be outside the immediate interference capability of the enemy.
After assembling and organizing, these troops, being lightly armed, were only capable of holding tactical areas which were not occupied or only lightly held by the enemy. Because they lacked adequate firepower and logistic support, their resistance to strong enemy action was limited. As such, it was imperative for the linkup with land-based troops to be effected within 48 to 72 hours.
The depth of para-operations in enemy territory therefore became dependent upon the capability of own troops operating on land to advance within the stipulated time frame to connect with the paratroops. And this in turn depended upon the terrain, the opposition en route, the degree of inherent mobility of land forces and their fighting potential. For example, in the Israeli campaign in 1967, paratroops were dropped deep to secure Mitila Pass while the advancing armoured column was about 80 to 100 miles away. The linkup took place about 36 hours later, but the Israeli Army had the capability to do so. The Israeli forces had complete mastery of air space because they had crippled the Egyptian Air Force by their preemptive strike. This enabled the airborne operation to secure the pass to proceed unhindered, and whatever fire support was required to beat back the halfhearted Egyptian reactions was provided by timely strikes by the Israeli Air Force.
The only achievement of the airlift was to establish the presence of Indian troops at the passes and in tactically sensitive areas in the rear.
The troops thus ferried could not carry their transport, heavy weapons and other combat equipment, and as a result they were not fully effective till the heavy baggage party carried by rail and road married up. This was accepted under the circumstances as the troops thus carried were required only to prepare depth positions in NEFA or occupy hitherto undefended passes in Sikkim.
In both cases, there was no contact with the Chinese, and there was reasonable time available to await the arrival of the heavy baggage. The only achievement of the airlift was to establish the presence of Indian troops at the passes and in tactically sensitive areas in the rear. The combat potential of these troops from the time of arrival to the time of marrying up was marginal. The American airlift of arms, ammunition, clothing and equipment in this operation from Western Europe and the US was a great success, and was faster than Indian unloading agencies could cope with.
During the Indo-Pakistan conflict of 1971, it was considered necessary to reinforce the western sector by about a brigade group. At that time, the war in East Pakistan had reached the conclusive stage and denuding the eastern sector could be accepted to that extent. 50 Independent Para Brigade Group, less the battalion group which had been dropped at Tangail, was immediately available near Calcutta and was flown to Delhi by a combination of IAF and Indian Airlines aircraft. Heavy weapons, transport and other combat equipment were to follow by rail. Although the brigade was concentrated in Delhi within a matter of hours, it could not be made operational till the heavy baggage arrived after two days. The troops might as well have traveled with their baggage by rail.
Such airlifts of troops, divorced from their combat equipment, save time only if weapons and other equipment can be made available simultaneously at the destination. For this purpose, sector dumps must be created, but poor countries which find it hard even to equip their standing armies properly can ill afford this. Thus the advantage of shifting strategic reserves from one end of the country to the other cannot be fully exploited because of the inherent lack of heavy-lift capability of India’s air transport resources.
The advantage of shifting strategic reserves from one end of the country to the other cannot be fully exploited because of the inherent lack of heavy-lift capability of India’s air transport resources.
As a result, the specialized parachute formation, maintained over a quarter of a century at considerable cost, has hardly been used in its classic role. In the Jammu and Kashmir operations in 1947-48, the para-brigade group was employed in a ground role like any other infantry brigade, and so too in the operation undertaken to liberate Goa. The brigade was partially airlifted to Bhuj, in the Rann of Kutch, when the Pakistan Army intruded into Indian territory at Chhad Bet in April.1965.2 It had been employed in a sort of fire brigade role, but then any other formation conveniently placed near a mounting air base would have carried out the task equally well. Later, in 1965, the group was committed in the Amritsar sector in a ground role. Its para capability was thus not used in any war or crisis India faced after independence till the war in 1971, and then too to a very limited extent. This operation and its effectiveness are discussed later.
The inherent flexibility of airborne operations and their ability to strike objectives at considerable distances in the adversary’s depth area poses a potential threat far greater than proportionate to their numbers. It is this predominant and attractive characteristic which probably lured Gen Cariappa and his military associates to advise the Government of India to retain a para-brigade group on the Indian Army Orbat. Little did they visualize that to exploit the main characteristic of flexibility and depth strike the corresponding prerequisites of airlift capability, ability of land forces to link up, and above all achievement of a favorable air situation, also needed to be developed at par to exploit the para formation in its classic role.
The KCIOs newly installed in power were far too inexperienced in higher military planning to foresee the implications of the momentous decisions of far-reaching consequences that destiny had designed them to make. The attitude then seemed to be that if the British had a para formation there must be some good in it. So let us have it too, without deeper appreciation of the requirements of future warfare on the subcontinent or its cost effectiveness. Roughly, it may be said that at the cost of maintaining one para-brigade group and its attendant air force complements an army could keep two standard infantry brigade groups. The costs add up with specialized para pay to troops, maintenance of paradrop equipment, and other lift facilities. But what is the use of maintaining an expensive facility which cannot be utilized? This did not seem to have occurred to the Indian military hierarchy at any stage.
The parachute brigade, being a specialized formation and one which offered a little adventure in the humdrum routine of peacetime soldiering, attracted good talent, and eventually produced some excellent combat leaders. The first who came to notice was Brig Pritam Singh of Poonch fame. His exploits as an indomitable leader of a beleaguered garrison became a legend. The other who had outshone himself in the Jammu and Kashmir operations in 1947-48, was Brig Usman with his gallant defence of the Naushera-Jhangar area. Less known but equally good combat leaders of proven quality in the above operations as battalion commanders were Rawind Singh Grewal and Harbans Singh Virk. All of them were original paratroopers of the erstwhile Indian Airborne Division. There were also some black sheep among the originals. For example, there was Brig Paranjpe, who lost Kotil more through his own fears than enemy pressure.
The most-discussed original paratrooper was however Digamber Singh Brar from Moga, commonly known in the Indian Army as Jumper. It is said that he took his famous 1 Maratha Light Infantry Battalion for initial para training to Chaklala. And before making the first jump he addressed the jawans of his battalion thus: “Jumping is very easy. The only thing you have to do is to follow me.” Off he went in the first sortie, but everybody jumped except Jumper. Brar came from over the dropping zone safely back in the aircraft. Both Paranjpe and Brar rose to be divisional commanders.
The parachute brigade group became a prize command for various reasons. It was an independent formation, operationally earmarked as Army Headquarters reserves, without too many senior bosses over the commander’s head. It was housed in excellent cantonments providing good schooling facilities and other amenities of soft stations. The para group, a small formation, had the ideal atmosphere of a well-knit, happy family. Most of its commanders came to the notice of the military hierarchy and achieved higher commands.
One was Maj Gen Naranjan Prasad, the unfortunate commander of the troops at Namka Chu river in NEFA whom the Chinese struck in 1962. Later, he commanded 15 Infantry Division in 1965 in the Amritsar sector. The capture of his brutally frank diaries by the Pakistanis in the action made him world famous but lost him his command in battle. On the other hand, Lt Gen Sagat Singh proved himself a daring and unorthodox leader, and as a corps commander in East Pakistan used his dash and ingenuity to bypass strongly held Pakistani pockets on his race to Dacca and paved the way for a decisive victory in that theatre.
Earlier, he had in command of the para-brigade spearheaded the advance in the annexation of Goa in 1962 and won acclaim as a dashing commander. Another notable product of the para-brigade who outshone himself was Lt Gen Inder Singh Gill as Director of Military Operations in the Indo-Pakistan conflict 1971. He bore the burden of the conduct of this war with admirable devotion and efficiency. There is an endless list of paratroopers, both of those who made the higher ranks and those who fell by the wayside, but it is certain that the para-brigade produced excellent soldiering material.
Despite the glaring shortfalls of paradropping requirements, the Indian military hierarchy has been blind to the cost effectiveness of maintaining the group
Unfortunately, because of inherent constraints of aircraft and shortage of paradropping equipment, it has never been possible to train collectively more than one battalion group at a time. The remainder of the para brigade is usually moved in troop-carrying lorries as make believe follow-up waves.
Despite the glaring shortfalls of paradropping requirements, the Indian military hierarchy has been blind to the cost effectiveness of maintaining the group, knowing fully well that it is. not possible to use this formation in its appropriate role. The greatest culprit in this respect was Gen Kumaramangalam, an artillery officer who had earlier served in the Indian Air borne Division and later commanded the para brigade. In his rapid rise in the higher command, he assumed the self-styled role of chief promoter of para matters in the Indian Army. Unfortunately, Kumaramangalam was more soaked in sentimentality than in the pragmatism of the realities of modern warfare.
The development in the 1960s of rotary wing vertical takeoff helicopters had made paradropping in short and medium operational ranges completely redundant. The operational usefulness of the helicopter had been proved in Indochina to the extent that the US had raised an air cavalry division. It had become possible to introduce armed helicopters which functioned like flying tanks. And their increased loan-carrying capacity had made it possible to carry guns slung under their carriages from one battlefield to another.
Yet when Kumaramangalam became Chief of Army Staff he found it expedient to order organization of the second para-brigade group. Ostensibly, this was to facilitate the relief of the para-battalion committed in field areas for operational experience, but according to para sources close to him it was an inspired step to pave the way for eventually raising an airborne division. The Indian Army, under Kumaramangalam’s steward ship, was looking backward to Second World War concepts, so shortsighted were our policies.
…the para group was also to interdict any Pakistani reinforcements rushed to this sector from Dacca.
The first post-independence airborne assault on enemy territory took place on 11 December 1971 at Tangail1 in East Pakistan. 50 Independent Para Brigade Group was assembled around the mounting airfields at Barrackpur, Panagarh and Kalaikonda at the outset of hostilities to be used for various airborne tasks to be decided by the Army commander. Hostilities started on 3 December, and by about 7 December the Pakistani Air Force elements operating in the eastern sector had either been shot out or driven out of the skies. Mastery of the air having been won, the para-brigade could be utilized at will from then onwards, but it was not till 10 December that the commander made up his mind and ordered one para-battalion group to be dropped in the Ellenga village area about seven miles north of Tangail.
The operational task allotted to the group was to capture and hold the Poongli bridge and adjacent ferry across the Lehaganj river with a view to destroying the Pakistani forces withdrawing from Jamalpur and Mymensingh towards Tangail in the northern sector, thus assisting the advance of 101 Communication Zone Area troops along the axes. An opportunity was also to be sought to contact the Freedom Fighters operating in the area under the leadership of Tiger Siddiqi and occupy in conjunction with them Tangail, if this town was not held or lightly held by the Pakistan Army.
In the process, the para group was also to interdict any Pakistani reinforcements rushed to this sector from Dacca. The battalion selected for the task was 2 (Maratha) Para Battalion under the command of Lt Col Kulwant Singh Pannu. Both fire and administrative support elements were found from parent units affiliated with the para-brigade group to make the assaulting force a composite, self-reliant combat group.
The tactical situation in the northern sector on 10 December, when the decision on the drop was taken, was that 101 Communication Zone Area had started advancing with 95 Mountain Brigade Group along the Tura-Jamalpur-Tangail axis and with an ad hoc brigade group known as FJ Sector along the Rajhmara-Mymensingh-Tangail axis. Having traversed 30-odd miles, they were encountering resistance from the Pakistan ad hoc 93 Infantry Brigade Group at Jamalpur and Mymensingh. This resistance took long to overcome because the group’s defences were based on the formidable obstacle of the Brahinaputra.
The Tangail area chosen for dropping the para battalion group lay terrainwise east of Madhupur forest and consisted of the typical marshy plains of Bengal, where villages occupy the ground clustered round’trees, with the inevitable village ponds on their outskirts. The group took off from Dum Dum and Kalaikonda airfields at 1430 hours on 11 December in an assortment of 50 aircraft. Dum Dum being essentially for civil aviation, was not intended for use for security purposes, but later had to be used in this manner on the insistence of IAF. The aircraft were loaded and flew out in full gaze of the world press, which helped spread exaggerated reports of the para strength used.
Right up to the end of hostilities, Niazi and his associates believed that India was employing the brigade strength of its paratroops, and this further unnerved him. The pathfinders dropped in broad daylight on the selected zone, surrounded by villages well away from the main road. There was no Pakistani troop interference at the time of the drop as Fazal Muqeem has written. But the inhabitants of the neighboring villages panicked and began to run away from the area. When the cry of “Jai Bangla” from the paratroopers reassured them, they later flocked to the dropping zone, all eager to carry loads and act as guides.
The enemy platoon, which had seen the daytime drop, must have thought discretion the better part of valour and retreated, but the battalion group chose to take up defences on both sides of the Poongli bridge.
Following the pathfinders came the supply drop, then the heavy drop, and finally the paratroops. The movement of the entire battalion group, with attendant supply and heavy drop, was completed by 1605 hours, still without interference. On the whole, the drop went off quite satisfactorily. Two aircraft out of 50 could not drop their loads. The paratroopers in one of them were dropped about 1600 hours the next day. The other aircraft load of one para field gun never materialized.
Of the remaining 48 aircraft, 46 discharged their loads correctly and two went astray. One dropped its troops near Kali Hati, about 15 miles north of the dropping zone. These men were fired upon in descent. They had to fight their way out and rejoined the battalion group the next day. This was perhaps the party Fazal Muqeem refers to in his book. The other aircraft discharged one jeep about four miles south of the dropping zone, and this was retrieved subsequently. Because some heavy loads were discharged away from the dropping zone, only four para field guns became available, and of the rest four jeeps landed in ponds about six to seven feet deep and had to be pulled out with the help of local inhabitants the next day.
Similarly, about half the supply drop on skid boards also fell either in water or in villages. These were retrieved throughout the night by the villagers and were delivered to the battalion group the next day. The paratrooping spread was well over two and half miles and some of our men, including Pannu, fell into ponds, where they nearly drowned. Despite this, within two hours of the drop the whole battalion group had fetched up at the rendezvous carrying their loads. Darkness had by now descended, but enough local guides were available to direct the assaulting troops to their respective objectives.
The fighting echelons moved off in three groups as shown in the sketch. One company group, having crossed the Lohajang river south of Akua village, proceeded to the ferry site and occupied it without any opposition by about 2000 hours on 11 December. A combat team of one infantry section under an energetic officer strengthened by MMG and RCL detachments went towards the Mulia bridge to establish a roadblock and provide advance information of enemy movement along the Jamalpur-Tangail road.
- Asian Recorder, Vol XVIII, No 3, “Diary of Events,” p. 10571.
About 2000 hours on I1 December, when the battalion was settling down to coordinate its defences, a long line of vehicle lights was seen approaching the area it was defending from the north, correctly guessed to belong to the Jamalpur or Mymensingh garrisons withdrawing to Dacca. The column was allowed to approach to within a hundred yards or so, when the forward company opened fire. The leading vehicle, towing a heavy mortar carrying ammunition, blew up instantly, and then there was a close-quarter battle for half an hour or so. Three or four follow-up vehicles were also damaged, but on the whole the remainder of the column managed to reverse and withdraw northwards.
The Pakistanis made one or two halfhearted efforts to remove the roadblock at the Poongli bridge, but they were beaten back. The battalion claimed 143 enemy killed, with their own losses four killed and two wounded, and concluded that they were attacked by two battalions, 33 Punjab and 31 Baluch, supplemented by about a thousand Razakars. This was a typically exaggerated estimate based on reports from troops in contact, to whom every enemy section appeared a battalion, especially in the hours of darkness.