Military & Aerospace

1971: The blitzkrieg in East Pakistan - I
Star Rating Loader Please wait...

When Tikka Khan landed in the political turmoil of East Pakistan on 7 March 1971 as governor-designate of the province, he combined in himself the office of Martial Law Administrator (MLA) and General Officer Commanding in Chief Pakistan Eastern Command. The quantum of troops on the command Orbat was one infantry division, a training establishment at Chittagong, and attendant supporting arms and services. The Pakistani Air Force had only one Sabre F-86E squadron operating from Dacca airfield. There was a navy establishment at Chittagong, but the naval presence in East Pakistan waters was negligible.

Click to buy:India’s wars since independence

14 Infantry Division, comprising four brigades, was the traditional formation located in the east wing from the inception of Pakistan to meet external and internal contingencies. At the time Tikka Khan took over, Maj Gen Khadim Hussain Raza was its commander. To cope with the Awami League-inspired insurgency, he deployed his troops in far-flung areas to show a presence and, should the situation demand, take firm action. 53 Infantry Brigade was located at Comilla and was operationally responsible for the entire area east of the Meghna river.

The armoured and artillery units had mixed rank and file, the ratio being 30 per cent of Bengalis to 70 per cent of West Pakistanis.

31 Punjab was stationed at Sylhet in the north, 2 East Bengal Regiment (EBR) at Brahmanbaria opposite Ashuganj, brigade headquarters, along with 4 EBR and 24 FFR Battalions, in the Comilla-Maynamati complex, and 20 Baluch with 8 and 9 EBR Battalions in the Chittagong area. In addition, there was the EBR Training Centre at Chittagong with about 2,500 instructors and recruits under training. This included the rank and file of 9 EBR, which was under raising at the time. 23 Infantry Brigade was operationally responsible for the northwestern sector, north and west of the Padma and Jamuna, with 25 Punjab at Rajshahi, 26 FFR at Dinajpur and EBR at Saidpur. 107 Infantry Brigade controlled the southwestern sector, south of the Padma and west of the Jamuna, with 25 Baluch and 1 EBR, later reinforced by 12 Punjab, at Jessore. 57 Infantry Brigade was concentrated in the general area of Dacca, with 2 EBR located in Joydebpur, north of Dacca.

There were some supporting arms units, namely one armoured regiment, five field artillery regiments, one anti-aircraft regiment, and two mortar batteries. It may be presumed that they were also distributed along with their respective affiliated brigades. In addition, there were 16 wings of East Pakistan Rifles of a total strength of about 13,000, mostly manning outposts along the border with neighbouring countries.

The airlift was however halted on the threat of mutiny by the Bengali personnel of the Pakistani Air Force, constituting about half the strength of the force in East Pakistan.

Thus it may be seen that out of a total strength of 18 infantry battalions six were completely composed of Bengalis. Of the remaining 12 battalions, Bengalis formed about 30 per cent of the officer cadre in each unit. The armoured and artillery units had mixed rank and file, the ratio being 30 per cent of Bengalis to 70 per cent of West Pakistanis. Fazal Muqeem explains in his book that of the 12 West Pakistani battalions two were to return to the western wing on relief. As such, their strength was as low as 400 all told because large advance parties had been sent westward earlier.

The shortage of troops to implement the planned crackdown on the Bengali nationalists was realised by Gen Yaqub Khan, Tikka Khan’s predecessor, and he had asked for an additional division as early as the beginning of February. By the end of the month an infantry brigade from 16 Infantry Division at Quetta was earmarked for induction in East Pakistan. About two battalions were airlifted to Dacca without heavy weapons and baggage in reduced strength in the first week of March 1971. The airlift was however halted on the threat of mutiny by the Bengali personnel of the Pakistani Air Force, constituting about half the strength of the force in East Pakistan.

After the severe counter insurgency operations described earlier, whatever remained of the Pakistani Army and a few loyal elements of Bihari troops were committed to border defence.

Tikka Khan had a threefold problem. Firstly, there was the ever-present possibility of mutiny in the services in his command. This required firm surprise measures to disarm the disaffected Bengali elements, without at the same time alienating loyalists. Secondly, there was the threat of a province-wide armed revolt against established authority, and for this the army had to be widely dispersed. Because the paucity of unmixed West Pakistani units and the operational necessity of dispersal had reduced the strength of isolated pockets, they became vulnerable to rebel groups.

Tikka Khan contrived to bolster the strength of such isolated garrisons by reinforcing them with artillery in an infantry role. Thirdly, the civil administration had completely collapsed and the day-to-day routine of this administration was falling upon the Pakistani Army. On the day of launching the crackdown, code-named Operation Blitz, the army strength went down from 18 to 12 infantry battalions and the supporting elements by about three artillery units. Worst hit were the paramilitary forces. Disaffection in EPR, whose strength was about 13,000 rank and file, left the border outposts unmanned. After the severe counter insurgency operations described earlier, whatever remained of the Pakistani Army and a few loyal elements of Bihari troops were committed to border defence.

Till the outbreak of full-scale war on 3 December, reinforcements continued to arrive in East Pakistan.

At this stage, in the first week of March, Pakistan 9 Infantry Division was airlifted eastward at the cost of denuding the strike force in the western wing. The formation was inducted without heavy weapons and baggage and was deployed against the insurgents immediately on arrival. Maj Gen Shaukat Riza, General Officer Commanding 9 Infantry Division, was made responsible for the whole area east of the Meghna, where he took over 53 Infantry Brigade from 14 Infantry Division, already operating there.

His broad deployment was 313 Infantry Brigade in the Sylhet and Maulvi Bazaar area, 117 Infantry Brigade in the general area of the Comilla-Maynamati complex, and 53 Infantry Brigade from Comilla was pushed to the Feni-Chittagong area. 27 Infantry Brigade, belonging to 9 Infantry Division, was sent to the Mymensingh area and placed under the command of 14 Infantry Division. The induction of Pakistan 16 Infantry Division under Maj Gen Nazar Hussain Shah soon followed. This division came with only two brigades and was made responsible for the area west and north of the Jamuna and Padma. 23 Infantry Brigade from 14 Infantry Division, already operating in the area, was placed under the command of this formation.

Niazi tried to put up a false front of armed strength by assigning the names and numbers of battalions in West Pakistan to the “Azad Kashmir” and Mujahid battalions. This confused Indian intelligence, which accordingly estimated the Pakistani strength at about 35 regular battalions.Eventually, this division was so deployed that 23 Infantry Brigade was operating in the north of the Dinajpur-Saidpur complex, 205 Infantry Brigade in the general Hilli-Gaibanda area, and 16 Infantry Brigade in the south in the Rajshahi-Nator-Ishurdi area. As a result of the induction of these two divisions from West Pakistan, and the resultant bifurcation of operational responsibility, 14 Infantry Division was left with the northern sector covering Mymensingh and Dacca and the southwestern sector covering Jessore and Khulna. Efforts continued thereafter to induct more manpower to meet the ever-growing needs of counterinsurgency operations.

A new paramilitary force called the East Pakistan Civil Armed Forces (EPCAF) with about 6,000 rank and file enlisted from loyal elements, mostly Biharis, was raised in April. Maj Gen M. Jamshed, an ex-Director General of the erstwhile EPR, was appointed to raise and command the force. Hurriedly collected and committed to border duties, this force suffered from chronic shortages of equipment and manpower and lack of training. About five Mujahid battalions were also raised, but their war potential remained doubtful. In addition, some Razakar units were brought into being to protect vulnerable points in the rear, but since their members were mostly Bengalis their loyalty was uncertain and as a result their contribution was rather marginal.

Till the outbreak of full-scale war on 3 December, reinforcements continued to arrive in East Pakistan. The Frontier Scouts, a paramilitary organisation employed on the northwestern frontier, contributed substantial strength, while one field regiment and two “Azad Kashmir” battalions arrived in November. It is estimated that the total strength of the Pakistani Army in the east wing was never more than about 30-odd infantry battalions, one armoured regiment, six artillery regiments and three to four mortar batteries. Niazi tried to put up a false front of armed strength by assigning the names and numbers of battalions in West Pakistan to the “Azad Kashmir” and Mujahid battalions. This confused Indian intelligence, which accordingly estimated the Pakistani strength at about 35 regular battalions.

Niazi’s decision to hold the border in strength put further pressure on the existing resources of regular troops and caused their wider dispersal. As the struggle for the border posts increased in magnitude and intensity, Niazi discovered the paramilitary forces and newly mustered Mujahids and Razakars were not able to hold out on their own against the Mukti Bahini attacks, especially when backed by Indian support. He thought it expedient to strengthen these posts with a hard core of regular army element. The process was carried so far that by the time war came all the fighting formations and units, from brigade downwards, were mixed. Even in a company it was common to find a platoon of regulars, a platoon of EPCAF and another of Mujahids.

This expedient grouping no doubt increased the number of fighting subunits, units and formations, but it reduced their military potentital greatly. The accompanying dispersal in deployment also diluted the supporting arms units. It was not uncommon to find single tank-and-gun supporting detachments well away from their parent units. This affected the command and control aspects, and in his effort to rationalise the situation Niazi organised two ad hoc divisional headquarters and three or four brigade headquarters. But these hurriedly organised headquarters suffered the attendant shortcomings of ad-hocism, lacking adequate communications, trained staff and other ancillary units, and were therefore not fully effective.

Niazi had obviously not learnt from Lt Gen B.M. Kauls mistakes in the Indian debacle against the Chinese in 1962, when stray formations were hurled into battle under 4 Infantry Division to face inevitable disaster.

Ad hoc 36 Infantry Division, under Gen Jamshed, was allotted operational responsibility for the northern sector, including the defence of Dacca. The troops employed in the general area of Mymensingh and Kamalpur were grouped into ad hoc 93 Infantry Brigade. The eastern sector was divided in two, the northern half, from Sylhet to Akhaura and Brahmanbaria, going to Maj Gen Qazi Abdul Majid, General Officer Commanding 14 Infantry Division. To make up his third brigade, the troops deployed in the general Sylhet area were grouped into ad hoc 202 Infantry Brigade. The southern half of the eastern sector from Comilla to Cox’s Bazaar was placed under the command of Maj Gen M. Rahim Khan by grouping it into ad hoc 39 Infantry Division. The troops deployed in Chittagong complex were grouped into ad hoc 97 Infantry Brigade.

For some inexplicable reason Headquarters 9 Infantry Division, under Maj Gen Ansari, were moved to the southwestern sector to take over two brigades originally belonging to 14 Infantry Division, while Headquarters 14 Infantry Division were commanding two brigades of 9 Infantry Division in the eastern sector. 16 Infantry Division under Gen Shah, who was responsible for the north-western sector, was perhaps the least disturbed. Otherwise, from 25 March the command of all divisions, and perhaps of some brigades, changed hands, and about one-sixth of the brigades were commanded by alien divisional headquarters and lacked mutual understanding, so very essential in battle. These hotchpotch arrangements of Niazi did not help matters but compounded his difficulties. Niazi had obviously not learnt from Lt Gen B.M. Kaul’s mistakes in the Indian debacle against the Chinese in 1962, when stray formations were hurled into battle under 4 Infantry Division to face inevitable disaster.

Click to buy

Niazi finally had about 30 regular infantry battalions which bad been grouped into infantry brigades. Four of these brigades belonged to 14 Infantry Division, three each of 9 and 16 Infantry Divisions were inducted in 1971, and the remaining two brigades were raised by grouping some loose battalions, augmented by about a battalion strength of paramilitary forces. To rationalise command and control, Niazi raised two additional divisional headquarters, but because of poor communications and logistic resources they remained only in skeleton form.

1 2 3 4
Rate this Article
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

More by the same author

Post your Comment

2000characters left