2 Corps: (South-Western area of operations)
Like other senior commanders of the time, Lieutenant General Raina, Commander 2 Corps, had had his first battle experience during the Second World War. After service in the Middle East he had fought in Burma. We have earlier seen evidence of his leadership in the defence of Chushul in 1962. There Raina had fought against heavy odds. Things were different this time; with a corps of two divisions plus, he now faced Pakistan’s 9 Infantry Division, which had only two regular brigades, one ad hoc brigade, two field regiments of artillery and one reconnaissance and support battalion. Major General M.H. Ansari commanded this division, with Headquarters at Jessore. Given to piety and prayers, Ansari had during the counter-insurgency operations earned the Hilal-i-Jurat and promotion to major general, which had earlier been denied to him.
The border in this sector ran for about 600 kilometres, from the South bank of the Ganga to the Bay of Bengal. A North-South railway that had its terminus at Chalna in the South ran by way of Khulna, Jessore and Kushtia over the Hardinge Bridge to Bogra and Rangpur in the North-Western Sector (see Fig. 13.2). Another line, running West-East, connected the Indian border by way of Darsana and Kushtia to Goalundo Ghat and Faridpur, both ferry points for Dacca. The main arterial road ran between 50 and 80 kilometres from the Indian border and almost parallel to it. It connected Khulna, Jessore, Jhenida and Kushtia.
Barar had done well in defensive actions during the semi-war period.
A West-East road ran from Meherpur, on the border, to Jhenida, Magura and across the Madhumati, to Faridpur. The Madhumati was unbridged. Next to Dacca, Jessore was the most important town in East Pakistan. It was also the strongest fortress in Niazi’s defences. Fourty-six kilometres North of it was Jhenida, another fortress and road junction. Ansari had placed his ad hoc brigade at Khulna. Of his regular brigades, 107 was deployed for the defence of Jessore and 57 was guarding the Meherpur-Jhenida axis, with Headquarters at Jhenida.
Raina’s plan was to employ 4 Mountain Division, under Major General M.S. Barar, for an advance on Magura by way of Majdia, Jibannagar, Kotchandpur and Jhenida, so as to secure the ferry on the Madhumati. Thereafter this division was to be in readiness to secure Faridpur and the ferry at Goalundo Ghat; or, if the situation so demanded, carry out mopping-up operations in the Kushtia-Hardinge Bridge area and even further North around Bogra (in 33 Corps Sector). The main task of 9 Infantry Division, under Major General Dalbir Singh, was to capture Jessore, after which one of its brigade groups was to advance South to Khulna, while the rest of the division was to be in readness to assist 4 Division. Of the armour under him, Raina had given a squadron to 4 Division and the rest was with 9 Division.
Barar had done well in defensive actions during the semi-war period. As a result, the morning of 4 December found his 41 Mountain Brigade, under Brigadier (later Major General) A.H.E. Michigan, poised for the capture of Darsana, while his 62 Mountain Brigade, under Brigadier (later Major General) Rajendra Nath, was making for Kotchandpur. The division had already taken Jibannagar and Uthali. Its 7 Mountain Brigade under Brigadier Zail Singh, was in corps reserve.Darsana was not on the division’s line of advance, but lay on its Northern flank. It was known to be held in some strength by the enemy; Barar had, therefore, decided to remove this thorn from his side. The way for the capture of Darsana was cleared by 22 Rajput, who secured Akandabaria in a preliminary action. Darsana fell to a very young battalion, 5/1 Gorkha Rifles, supported by two troops from 45 Cavalry. It was a hard-fought action that saw much gallantry on the part of junior leaders. Uthali too had fallen to this very battalion. Lieutenant Colonel C. Venugopal (later Major General Venugopal, PVSM, MVC), the Battalion Commander, played a crucial part in both action. In both cases, after capturing the objective assigned to his battalion, he pushed on to take the objective allotted to other battalions in the second phase of the operation. The quick follow-up deprived the enemy of the chance to reorganize and make a further stand.9
Moving guns and bridging equipment for building a bridge on the Chitra was a tremendous task.
The battle for Kotchandpur was fought near an obscure village called Suadih. The enemy had bunkered defences astride the Uthali-Kotchandpur route and the fighting among them lasted throughout 4 December, 62 Brigade suffering heavy casualties. The brigade entered Kotchandpur the next day and received a tumultuous welcome from its people.
After Darsana. the Pakistanis thought that the next target would be Chuadanga, a town to the North which happened to be the native place of Dr. Malik, Governor of East Pakistan. Brigadier Manzoor Ahmed, Commander Pakistan’s 57 Infantry Brigade, had accordingly moved his troops there after their withdrawal from Darsana. Barar, however, had no intention of going further North and had set his sights on Jhenida. To block Manzoor Ahmed’s movement, he ordered 5 Guards and the armoured squadron to lay ambushes on the Chuadanga-Jhenida route. With these in position, 41 Brigade advanced for the kill.
The brigade moved by way of Kotchandpur and Talsar. Beyond Kotchandpur only a dirt-track existed and there were many water obstacles on the way, including the Chitra River which had no bridge at Talsar. Moving guns and bridging equipment for building a bridge on the Chitra was a tremendous task. The leading battalion, 5/1 Gorkha Rifles, set out from Uthali at dawn on 5 December. Continuing non-stop, they reached the Chitra the next morning, after covering a distance of 40 kilometres. The move beyond Kotchandpur had to be on foot. After the Gorkhas had gone over the Chitra the Engineers put up a bridge over it.
Indian intelligence about the enemy was poor despite the friendly attitude of the local population. It later came to be known that Major General Ansari had moved his Headquarters to Magura on the very first day of the war.
The brigade’s second battalion, 9 Dogra, set out in the early hours of 6 December from Kotchandpur, and reached the Chitra by the evening against minor opposition. Their advance continued during the night and by 0930 hours the next morning they were knocking upon the gates of Jhenida, The enemy was completely surprised by their unexpected appearance. A troop of tanks had by then joined the Dogras from one of the ambush sites while another troop was to join them by midday. With the defences held by only two enemy companies, the battalion was able to overcome all opposition by 1430 hours. Two of the bridges on the road to Kushtia were taken intact and the enemy left behind much booty: 30 vehicles, 500 lorry-loads of ammunition and the complete Headquarters of 57 Brigade together with maps and other documents.
The quick fall of Jhenida had its immediate impact in the enemy evacuation of Meherpur. Simultaneously with the advance of 41 Brigade to Jhenida, Barar had ordered 62 Brigade to capture Kaliganj, an important road junction South of Jhenida. As in the case of Kotchandpur, the battle for Kaliganj was fought on the road to that town. The enemy fought fanatically and suffered heavily as a result. Kaliganj was entered before noon on 7 December.
On the same day 9 Division entered Jessore. Eastern Command thereupon ordered Raina to capture Magura straightaway and placed 50 Independent (Para) Brigade (less a battalion) at his disposal. Aurora anticipated that Pakistani troops withdrawing from Jessore would fall back on Magura. As it was, Barar had also despatched 62 Brigade to Magura immediately after the fall of Jhenida.
The Para Brigade took the Churamankti-Khajura-Simakhali route which was long and difficult. While clearing some bunkers at Khajura on 8 December, its leading battalion (7 Para) lost four officers, including the commanding officer, and seven other ranks. On arrival near Arpara the next day, the brigade was ordered back as 62 Brigade had already taken Magura by then.10 The Pakistanis had evacuated the town without firing a shot.
The enemy fought fanatically and suffered heavily as a result. Kaliganj was entered before noon on 7 December.
Indian intelligence about the enemy was poor despite the friendly attitude of the local population. It later came to be known that Major General Ansari had moved his Headquarters to Magura on the very first day of the war. Also, 107 Brigade did not fall back on Magura after the fall of Jessore but withdrew to Khulna.
After Magura, 62 Brigade continued its advance and reached the West bank of the Madhumati around noon on 9 December. The stage was thus set for an advance to Faridpur. Instead of crossing the Madhumati, however, Barar got embroiled with Kushtia. This town, about 45 kilometres North of Jhenida, was not one of the objectives specified for 4 Division; it was meant to be taken as part of the mopping-up operations after the ferry on the Madhumati had been secured.
However, the quick fall of Jhenida and the release of 7 Brigade, till then in corps reserve, prompted Barar to despatch this brigade for its capture. He expected that with Kushtia in the bag, he would be able to cut off 57 Brigade’s withdrawal towards Goalundo Ghat, the only way open to it to rejoin its division at Faridpur. General Raina approved the plan and 7 Brigade was sent forward from Jhenida on the morning of 9 December with two troops of tanks and some artillery.The leading battalion (22 Rajput) and the tanks arrived in the vicinity of Kushtia around 1400 hours and debussed. Shortly thereafter Raina and Barar landed there by helicopter. The Corps Commander’s expectation was that Kushtia would fall as easily as Magura. Unfortunately, this was based upon conjecture, not firm intelligence. As it was, most of the enemy 57 Brigade was concentrated at Kushtia on this day as Manzoor Ahmed had brought it there on finding Jhenida in Indian hands. While 7 Brigade was making for Kushtia, some Razakars had rushed to Ahmed with the information that an Indian brigade was moving up. He quickly got ready to meet it.
The Pakistanis let the Rajputs and the tanks come forward till they were in the built-up area, where the tanks could not manoeuvre. Then they opened up with all they had: tanks, artillery, automatics and recoilless guns. Only one Indian tank managed to get away – the rest were either knocked out or captured. The vanguard company of the Rajputs suffered heavy casualties and the unexpectedly strong reaction of the enemy created some panic in the leading troops, which soon spread to those in the rear.
The area abounded in bils (lakes) and marshes; the Pakistanis made good use of them to throw up a defensive line by connecting them with anti-tank ditches and laying mines.
Zail Singh asked for air support but it took hours to materialize. He ordered the follow-up battalion to take up a firm base in the area where the brigade had earlier debussed, so that the Rajputs could withdraw and reorganize. This battalion (5 Jat) foiled several attempts by the Pakistanis to throw 7 Brigade further back. The day’s battle cost 111 casualties, including 6 officers. The loss was the result of neglecting normal battle procedures on the unfounded assumption that there would be no opposition.
By the evening the situation had stabilized. Unfortunately, Barar and Raina over-reacted to the reverse. During the evening the former ordered 41 Brigade to move from Jhenida to Kushtia. Later during the night Raina told Barar to move the third brigade also, leaving a battalion on the Madhumati. Thus by the evening of 10 December the whole division had assembled in front of Kushtia.
Meanwhile, finding things getting too hot with air-strikes and shelling, Manzoor Ahmed slipped out of Kushtia during the night. He was able to withdraw with most of his equipment across the Ganga by way of Hardinge Bridge, which had been roughly decked. The brigade thereafter came under Pakistan’s 16 Infantry Division. Zail Singh entered Kushtia the next day. On 12 December, 41 Mountain Brigade took Hardinge Bridge and Bheramara, unopposed. Both had well-prepared defences but the Pakistanis had withdrawn after blowing up a couple of spans of the bridge.
Barar now turned his attention to the ferry on the Madhumati. By the evening of 14 December, he had deployed two of his brigades on the river: 62 Brigade North of the Magura-Kamarkhali road and 7 Brigade South of it. The enemy had an ad hoc brigade of two weak battalions and a battery of 105-mm guns on the East bank. It had no tanks.
By the morning of 15 December, Barar was able to establish bridgeheads North and South of Kamarkhali, after a silent crossing during the early hours. Thereafter, 62 Brigade drove the enemy from its positions North of the Kamarkhali-Faridput road, while 7 Brigade blocked its escape route. The Pakistanis made determined attempts to break through the block, resulting in stiff fighting and heavy casualties to them.
On 16 December, Major General Ansari and his divisional staff surrendered to Barar at Kamarkhali, while his garrison at Faridpur, more than 3,000-strong, laid down arms before Brigadier Rajendra Nath. The 9 Infantry Division had to fight hard for Jessore. The Bayra action had given a lodgement to the division’s 42 Infantry Brigade under Brigadier J.S. Gharaya (see Fig. 13.3). After that clash, Pakistan’s 107 Brigade had fallen back to the general line Afra-Jhingergacha. The area abounded in bils (lakes) and marshes; the Pakistanis made good use of them to throw up a defensive line by connecting them with anti-tank ditches and laying mines. After the outbreak of open hostilities Major General Dalbir Singh launched 42 Brigade towards Arpara, North-West of Afra, to outflank the enemy defences. However, the enemy held this move. At the same time, 350 Infantry Brigade, under Brigadier H.S. Sandhu, which had been ordered to attack the centre of the defence-line also met very stiff resistance.Dalbir Singh now decided to swing the full weight of his division on the North-Western approach. He brought up most of 32 Infantry Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Tewari, till then held in reserve at Bangaon, to Bayra, his plan being to launch this brigade with all available armour and artillery after 42 Brigade had punched a hole in enemy defences.
The vanguard company of the Rajputs suffered heavy casualties and the unexpectedly strong reaction of the enemy created some panic in the leading troops, which soon spread to those in the rear.
The punching was done by 2 Sikh LI with a daylight attack an 6 December. In a short, sharp action, a Pakistani position North-East of Afra was captured at 1000 hours. Soon after, lanes were cleared through the minefield and around noon, 32 Brigade, led by 7 Punjab (Mechanized) and a squadran from 63 Cavalry, pushed through the gap. Earlier, Brigadier Gharaya had been wounded by an enemy shell, but refused to be evacuated till his brigade had completed its task.
The going was not too easy for 32 Brigade, the ground being marshy. However, by first light on 6 December, the armour had cut the ChaugachaJessore road, nearly six kilometres East of Afra. But the Pakistanis were still holding Afra and they could be driven from the area only by midnight. The clearing of mines thereafter took time and it was only on the morning of 7 December that 7 Punjab took the Jessore airfield. The city was occupied during the day.
According to Pakistani accounts, their 107 Brigade was holding positions East of Bayra, and Jessore itself had no regular troops. Before the Indian breakthrough, the brigade commander, Brigadier Makhmad Hayat, sought permission to withdraw to Jessore as he foresaw that it would be impossible to do so once the Indians had breached his defences. His request was, however, turned down owing to Niazi’s prerequisite of 75 percent casualties before any withdrawal. Shortly before the Indian breakthrough, Hayat took a bold decision. Concluding that in case he now withdrew to Jessore the Indians would not give him the chance to evacuate it later in an orderly manner, he decided to make for Khulna instead. This was a wise move as the marshy terrain an the route would make his pursuit difficult. The withdrawal began around 1500 hours on 6 December. Though there was same initial confusion due to his sudden decision, most of Hayat’s brigade was able to pull out unoalested.
This was a wise move as the marshy terrain an the route would make his pursuit difficult.
With both Jessore and Jhenida in the bag by 7 December, General Raina was well placed for a quick advance to Dacca. He was in a position to contain the remnants of Ansari’s two brigades in the Kushtia and Khulna areas with two of his own brigades, and push on to Faridpur and Golunda Ghat with the rest of his corps. However, as we have seen, he allowed 4 Division to get involved at Kushtia. In the event, 9 Division also got stuck on the road to Khulna. The opportunity to reach Dacca was thus lost.
Major General Dalbir Singh sent his 32 Brigade with a squadron of tanks in pursuit of the Pakistanis withdrawing to Khulna. The Indian estimate was that only about 500 of the enemy had gone that way and that the bulk of 107 Brigade had withdrawn towards Magura. Hayat carried out his withdrawal with skill by occupying successive delaying positions. Tewari found the terrain getting more marshy and wooded as he advanced further South. This made it difficult for him to use his armour. It was only on 11 December, when he cleared one of Hayat’s delaying positions after considerable fighting, that he realized he was facing almost the whole of 107 Brigade.
The next day, arriving in front of Daulatpur, a town about 14 kilometres from Khulna, Tewari found himself firmly held. The Pakistanis were occupying a position that had extensive marsh on one flank and the Bhairab River on the other. At this stage Dalbir Singh decided to move the rest of his division forward to reduce Daulatpur. A divisional attack was put in on 15 December and the operation was still in progress when the cease-fire came into effect on 16 December. It is interesting to note that Khulna had been evacuated by the enemy on the night of 6/7 December when the ad hoc brigade there made for Dacca after getting news of the fall of Jessore.
33 Corps: (North-Western area of operations)
We have mentioned earlier that only a portion of 33 Corps was committed to the operations in East Pakistan. Lieutenant General Thapan, the Corps Commander, was a veteran of the Second World War and had commanded 26 Division during the 1965 conflict. He was known for a certain dourness of demeanour and adherence to set procedures. Aurora had suggested during September that Thapan’s Chief of Staff should take charge of the corps’ operations in East Pakistan, so that the corps commander could devote his attention entirely to the border. Thapan, however, did not agree.11 The suggestion was perhaps unfair; no commander worth his salt would like to keep out of action when his troops are committed.
The terrain in this sector was drier than the rest of East Pakistan. For this reason both India and Pakistan gave the maximum allotment of armour to their forces here. The Hardinge Bridge linked this sector by rail to the Jessore-Jhenida area in the South. An all-weather road ran North-South to connect the border areas in the North to some of the main cities of the region: Rangpur, Bogra, Nator. Other important towns, like Thakurgaon, Dinajpur, Saidpur, Rajshahi and Pabna were linked to this artery by lateral roads (see Fig. 13.4). The only major river within the sector was the Tista, which flowed North-West to South-East and joined the Brahmaputra at Chilmari.
The only regiment of armour with the enemy in East Pakistan was located in this sector, its four squadrons distributed among the regular brigades of 16 Division and other ad hoc formations.
In the Northern portion of the sector, fingers of enemy territory ran towards the Siliguri corridor, while its Western boundary caved inwards around the middle. The fingers in the North were a source of worry for the Indian planners but the curve in the West had its advantages. It provided Indian forces with jumping-off ground close to the enemy’s North-South lines of communication. The Indian city of Balurghat, situated in this curve, became the Headquarters of Major General Lachhman Singh, vrc, GOC 20 Infantry Division.
Pakistan’s 16 Infantry Division, commanded by Major General Nazar Hussain Shah, defended this sector; his Headquarters was at Bogra. One of his three regular brigades was deployed in the North, with Headquarters at Rangpur. A second held the centre and had its Headquarters at Bogra. The third brigade was in the South at Nator. An ad hoc brigade held Rajshahi. The only regiment of armour with the enemy in East Pakistan was located in this sector, its four squadrons distributed among the regular brigades of 16 Division and other ad hoc formations.
The operations in the Northern part of the sector were directly controlled by 33 Corps till 3 December. They were conducted by 71 Mountain Brigade, under Brigadier (later Lieutenant General) P.N. Kathpalia. Subsequently, this brigade came under 6 Mountain Division under Major General P.C. Reddy together with 9 Mountain Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Tirath Verma, and some Mukti Bahini elements. As part of India’s defensive measures, the two brigades removed Pakistani trouble-spots with considerable skill, using manoeuvre and superior force. By 3 December, Pachagarh, Patiram and Bhurungamari had been cleared. In fact 71 Brigade had by then reached Thakurgaon and 9 Brigade was in Kurigram.