Thus, Thapan’s force was depleted by one brigade group at the very outset, further reducing the edge it enjoyed in strength. Moreover, clearing the area south of the Hilli-Gaibanda road was not planned, and as such Thapan’s operations in the sector could not influence the projected operations of 11 Corps in the southwestern sector in any way. In fact, it left the door open for Niazi to reinforce the sector or withdraw from it whenever he chose to do so.
The division could thereby fight a concerted action along two mutually supporting axes with adequate reserves in hand. This would help separate the Pakistani forces deployed in the sector and lead to their piecemeal destruction.
At that stage, a suggested improvement on the plan was that only three thrust lines should be developed. One brigade group was to operate along the Islampur-Rurea-Thakurgaon-Atrai Brigade axis to secure the Siliguri corridor. A second was to move along the Phulbari-Nawabganj-Palasbari axis to protect the northern flank of the main divisional thrust with the inherent flexibility of joining hands in the reduction of Rangpur or Bogra, as the opportunity aftered itself. It was also suggested that the main divisional thrust should develop along the Hilli-Jaipur Hat-Bogra road and the Balurghat-Patnitola-Naogaon-Bogra road axes. The division could thereby fight a concerted action along two mutually supporting axes with adequate reserves in hand. This would help separate the Pakistani forces deployed in the sector and lead to their piecemeal destruction.
Since it visualised the clearance of the southern portion of the sector, it also influenced 11 Corps’ operations in the southwestern sector. Because the main thrust was to be lanuched from the firm bases in the Balurghat bulge, the security of the area would be automatically ensured as the divisional thrust line progressed deeper towards Bogra. It would also release one brigade group committed to the security of the bulge, giving greater punch to the division’s main thrust line. But Thapan’s view prevailed and he hung on to his own plan with all its inherent disadvantages.
The main objectives in the southwestern sector were the inland ports of Chalna and Khulna, Hardinge Bridge, the only link between this sector and the northwestern sectors, and Golandoghat/ Faridpur, connecting with communications leading to Dacca. Great weightage was given initially to Chalna and Khulna, but with the naval blockade envisaged in the overall plan priority for securing them had receded. This sector was held by Pakistan 9 Infantry Division, comprising about two infantry brigade groups with proportionate supporting and service elements and paramilitary forces.
The above operations were to be supported by freedom fighters of the Siddiqi group operating in the Tangail area and disrupting the lines of communication serving the Pakistanis in the area.
This was a well-trained formation, but its command had recently been entrusted to Maj Gen M.H. Ansari. It is believed that there was some controversy over his promotion, and it was said that he became a general for reasons other than merit. The division was deployed to defend the sector with one brigade group protecting Jessore and its approaches and the second covering the northern approaches to Megura and Kushtia, with one battalion deployed along the Satkhira-Khulna axis in the south.
The force allocated to capture the sector comprised 4 Mountain and 9 Infantry Divisions, which had been performing internal security tasks in West Bengal earlier. These formations were to function under Headquarters 11 Corps, still to be raised under Gen Raina. But before Raina could come on the scene the operational planning had gone well ahead under the direction of Headquarters Eastern Command.
The command plan visualised the simultaneous development of two divisional thrusts. 4 Mountain Division was to advance along the Karimpur-Hardinge Bridge axis and secure the bridge by D+2 day with one brigade group. The second group was to develop a thrust along the Meherpur-Kushtia road to secure Kushtia by D+9 day. The third brigade group was to provide the firm base for these two thrusts in the general area of Karimpur and Meherpur, and on command reserve for the sector. In the second phase, 4 Mountain Division was to capture Jhenida, an important communication centre, by D+4 day and, depending upon the situation, was either to secure Golandoghat and Faridpur or reinforce XXXII Corps sector.
9 Infantry Division, after establishing a firm base with one brigade group, was to develop two simultaneous thrusts towards Jessore along the Bongaon-Jessore and Bogra-Chuagacha-Jessore axes, securing Jessore and its airfield by Dt 10 day. The brigade group committed on the firm base was thereafter to be lifted to secure Barisal by Dt 21 day.
The effort was so dispersed under this plan that it was not possible to make use of the available armour, artillery and engineer resources in a concerted manner. But for one mountain brigade which would be available after completing the first phase of 4 Mountain Division’s operation, there were no reserve in the hands of the divisional commanders to influence the immediate battle. Moreover, the limited resources in the way of bridging equipment and engineer personnel did not permit exploitation of a large number of routes of ingress. There were numerous water obstacles on each axis. Bridging them would have retarded the momentum of advance, especially as adequate transport was not available to put the required equipment on wheels. Ferrying the equipment would have been time-time consuming.
According to intelligence estimates, the eastern sector was likely to be held by about two infantry divisions in a war situation.
To overcome these shortcomings, it was suggested that 11 Corps should break in on a narrow front, with a division each on the Bongaon-Jessore and Chuagacha-Jessore axes, capture the town and the airfield, and then fan out north and south to secure Kushtia and Khulna. Depending upon the prevailing situation, they were to then secure Faridpur and Barisal. The whole operation was to be completed in 21 days. This plan ensured the launching of both formations in mutual support, thus strengthening the initial thrust by concentrating artillery and engineer resources. It also ensured the capture of Jessore, the key objective in the sector.
Its capture would also separate the troops defending Khulna and Kushtia, thus enabling their piecemeal destruction. It ensured flank protection in the initial stages, and the line of thrust would have the least number of water obstacles, thus saving time and engineer effort. Adequate reserves also became available with formation commanders to influence the battle. Raina eventually used this plan with some modifications.
Gill was confident of capturing Mymensingh, but he felt that within the available resources he had no scope to develop a worth while threat to Dacca.
In the northern sector, the routes of ingress from India ran north to south towards Dacca. The Brahmaputra ran diagonally from northwest to southeast and presented a major obstacle for an advance southwards. This sector was to be held in the event of war by Pakistan’s 93 Infantry Brigade Group, with one battalion each holding Jamalpur and Mymensingh along the Brahmaputra, and with paramilitary forces holding the international border, stiffened by one regular infantry battalion north of the river.
This force was visualised as falling back on Jamalpur and Mymensingh for the main defensive battle in the sector. The brigade group with its headquarters functioned under Maj Gen Mohammed Jamshed Khan, General Officer Commanding of the newly constituted 36 Infantry Division which was responsible for the defence of Dacca. This division remained with only one brigade as others brigades, which were to be formed by grouping loose units, were not raised by the time war came.
On the Indian side, this sector came under a controversial figure, Maj Gen Gurbux Singh Gill, General Officer Commanding 101 Communication Zone Area, based at Shillong. A burly Sikh, well known for his gruff and rather abrasive manners, he was considered professionally sound and a determined man who could produce results. He had earned notoriety in the Army for wielding his stick like a sergeant major, and as a result ran a rather unhappy team. But he had tremendous drive and was expected to reach his objectives anyhow.
Another constraining factor in this sector was the shortage of bridging equipment and other engineer resources. The situation could not be redressed quickly during operations.
His plan was simple. He proposed to develop three simultaneous thrust lines. One Indian brigade group was to advance along the Rajendra Ganj-Jamalpur-Mymensingh axis. This brigade was given one Bangladesh battalion to strengthen its reconnaissance element. The axis ran north of the Brahmaputra, which could be exploited by infantry carried in boats for outflanking the opposing forces astride the road. Country craft could be utilised to a certain extent to provide logistic support to the column.
The second thrust line was to be developed by one Bangladesh brigade group, suitably beefed up by one Indian infantry battalion along the Tura-Phulpur-Mymensingh axis, while the third thrust line was to be implemented by the advance of one BSF battalion along the Baghmara-Maila-Kanda-Mymensingh axis. The above operations were to be supported by freedom fighters of the Siddiqi group operating in the Tangail area and disrupting the lines of communication serving the Pakistanis in the area.
Gill was confident of capturing Mymensingh, but he felt that within the available resources he had no scope to develop a worth while threat to Dacca. It was possible that Niazi, apprehensive of the potentiality of this threat towards Dacca, especially after the capture of Mymensingh, might rush some resources from Dacca to meet it. This should have been welcome as it would proportionately ease out IV Corps operations. On the other hand, if the thrust in this sector was further strengthened after crossing the Brahmaputra, it had a chance of leaning on the Dacca defences the earliest.
The brigade group allocated for the task was not likely to make much headway on its own.
But more troops were just not available, at least not till the possibility of active Chinese collusion had dissipated, when the thrust could be reinforced with one more brigade group without jeopardising the border defence in the Himalayas. Another constraining factor in this sector was the shortage of bridging equipment and other engineer resources. The situation could not be redressed quickly during operations. Such resources have to be positioned beforehand, but because of the overall shortages and the priorities in other sectors this could not be done.
The eastern sector comprised the districts of Sylhet, Comilla and Chittagong and the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The main rail and road communications south and north from Chittagong to Sylhet lay parallel and close to the international border, running the gauntlet at Feni. The only connections with the road and rail systems in the northern sector were the bridge at Ashuganj over the Meghna and the ferry services from Chandpur and Daudkandi.
In the southern portion of this sector, control of the Meghna bulge between Chandpur and Ashuganj was of prime importance as its capture would isolate Dacca from Chittagong and Comilla. It would further facilitate operations for the capture of Dacca. The three key points along the river line were Chandpur, Daudkandi and Ashuganj. In the northern part of this sector, the Shamsher-nagar airfield and the communication centres of Maulvi Bazaar and Sylhet town were of strategic importance. Sylhet could easily be isolated from the rest of East Pakistan as its communications by surface transport passed either through Maulvi Bazaar or Habibganj and could therefore be dealt with at a lower priority.
According to intelligence estimates, the eastern sector was likely to be held by about two infantry divisions in a war situation. The southern portion was the operational responsibility of Headquarters 39 Infantry Division, a new formation under Maj Gen Rahim Khan. One infantry brigade group held the general area of Comilla, including Maynamati and Lalmai Hills, with some elements at Laksham. The second brigade group was likely to hold the general area of Feni, while the third occupied the vital seaport of Chittagong.
Chittagong Hill Tracts was the operational responsibility of paramilitary forces, suitably beefed up by regular elements under a controlling headquarters. The Pakistani deployment in the northern portion was likely to be one brigade group in the general area of Sylhet, the second group in the general area Maulvi Bazaar-Shamshernagar, and the third group in the general area of Akhaura and Brahmanbaria. This was under the overall operational control of Headquarters 14 Infantry Division under Maj Gen Qazi Abdul Majid Khan.
Operations in the Sylhet sector were to be undertaken by 8 Mountain Division, withdrawn from Nagaland. It was to pose a threat to Sylhet with the development of two simultaneous thrusts towards the town with one battalion along the Dawki-Sylhet axis and one brigade group along the Latu-Charkhai axis. After securing Charkhai with one infantry battalion, the remainder of the group was to clear the Kharimganj-Kanairgha bulge eastwards and advance from there along the Charkhai-Gopalganj-Sylhet axis. The operation aimed at eliminating the threat to the Indian lines of communication in the Karimganj-Badarpur area.
It was expected that this would induce Niazi to strengthen his border defences at the cost of the interior and, in the process, dissipate his reserves.
The second brigade group was to advance along the Dharamnagar-Kalaura-Maulvi Bazar axis and capture Maulvi Bazaar by D±12 day and Shamshernagar by Dt 14 day. The aim of this thrust was to capture the airfield of Shamshernagar and eliminate interference with the India lines of communication in the general area of Dharamnagar. Depending upon how the situation developed, this brigade group was to capture Sylhet in conjunction with the brigade operating east of Sylhet. Operating from the Kumbigrarn airfield, IAF was finding it difficult to strike deep into Pakistani territory, especially in the Chittagong area. The new airfield in the vicinity of Agartala not having become operational, it was necessary to capture one of the Pakistani airfields in this sector—Shamshernagar or Comilla for this purpose.
Capture of the Shamshernagar airfield as late as D+14 day did not fit this requirement. This was pointed out to Sagat Singh, who argued that since he was in a position to capture Comilla earlier, the timing of securing Shamshernagar had no bearing on future air operations. In any event, the Air Force would require four to six days to rehabilitate the airfield and establish the necessary maintenance facilities before it could be accepted operationally. By that time, he felt, he would secure his objectives. But when the importance of denying its use to the foe was pointed out to him he did some rethinking on his priorities.
It therefore became imperative to draw as many Pakistani troops as possible from this triangle towards the border, leaving the geopolitical heart land weak.
In the Agartala sector, 57 Mountain Division was to capture Akhaura with one brigade group to ensure the safety of Agartala. Simultaneously, the rest of the division was to advance along the Kasba-Chandla axis and then assist 23 Mountain Division in capturing Comilla. Akhaura lay across a major river obstacle and appearedto be beyond the capacity of one brigade group to secure. Maj Gen Ben Gonsalves, General Officer Commanding 57 Mountain Division, who was to carry out the task, felt that the maximum he could achieve was to dominate the river line. That however did not eliminate the threat to Agartala as four routes of ingress from Pakistan-held territory led from the north to the city. The Kasba-Maynamati-Comilla axis was about 30 miles long, had 16 water obstacles en route, and was liable to disruption from the northwest since a large number of tracks and roads join the axis from that direction.
As the brigade group at the firm base could not be moved without jeopardising the security of Agartala, the force which could be spared for the advance to Comilla was no more than a brigade group, and this would expand itself on the security of its line of communication before it reached anywhere near Comilla. The security of Agartala lay in the capture of the Brahmanbaria-Kalashahr area. Once that was in Indian hands the threat to Agartala and the Kasba-Maynamati axis was automatically eliminated. This would release two brigade groups unnecessarily tied up for the defence of Agartala and opposite Akhaura.
The strategy that finally evolved from the war games at all levels was that the Pakistani Army in Bangladesh should be drawn out by keeping the border alive through continuous and vigorous skirmishes in all sectors under cover of Mukti Bahini action.
It was put to Sagat Singh that the greater priority lay in capturing Brahmanbaria rather than in reducing Comilla, a well fortified position. The capture of Brahmanbaria opened the door for the seizure of the vital Ashuganj Bridge and the wider horizons for the race to Dacca beyond. He saw the point, and the very mention of the promised race to Dacca brought a glint in his eyes, but he said that unless the task assigned to him by Headquarters Eastern Command was changed he would have to go for Comilla, and in that event there was little he could do to change the already projected operational plan. But it could be assumed that once battle was joined Sagat Singh was not the one to be bound by petty constraints of terms of reference of allotted tasks. He would head the race to Dacca himself although this had never been specified as one of his tasks. When goaded, he said he would keep this in mind.
In the Comilla sub-sector, 23 Mountain Division was to capture Comilla by D+14 day and, depending upon the situation, also clear Feni by D+18 day. On the fall of Comilla, 57 Mountain Division was to secure the airfield frontally with one brigade group so as to deploy artillery to support operations on the Lalmai-Maynamati Hills. The short range of the Indian mountain gun, 75-mm/24, was to restrain bolder action over and over again in the Bangladesh operations.
Thereafter, one brigade group was to advance along the Dharampur-Lalmai axis and secure Temple Hill by D+2 day, while the third brigade was to capture Lalmai Hills, excluding Maynamati Cantonment. As described earlier, one brigade group from 57 Mountain Divisions was to advance and secure Maynamati, working along the Kasba-Jafarganj axis. While the operation to secure the Comilla complex was on, one Bangladesh brigade group was to secure Feni, and one of its battalions was to secure Laksham by D + 3 day by advancing along the Chandagram-Laksham axis.
Its defence potential was so great than it needed a comparatively small force to hold the entire Indian Army deployed in the theatre for months.
In the subsequent phase, after securing Lalmai and Laksham with one brigade group each, the advance was to continue towards Chandpur and Daudkandi with the same strength so as to secure them by D+14 day. Meanwhile, one battalion group from the Laksham brigade was to clear the Noakhali area of Pakistani troops. It was felt that priority should be given to taking Comilla so as to be able to choke the river routes at Daudkandi, Chandpur and Noakhali. This operation could cut off Dacca from Chittagong and the southern portion of the eastern sector, but on its own could not achieve the capture of the provincial capital.
It needed a fleet of river craft to mount a sizable threat to Dacca from this direction, yet the bulk of the strength available in this corps zone was employed in developing this thrust, which was bound to fizzle out on reaching the Meghna river line. On the other hand, tilting towards Brahmanbaria and Ashuganj would open better opportunities for exploitation in the direction of Dacca, especially if we were able to secure Ashuganj Bridge intact. But at that stage the higher command had serious misgivings about its capability to reach Dacca. It was hoping to achieve the city’s surrender through a prolonged siege rather than direct assault.
Dacca lay in a triangle formed by the Jamuna, the Meghna and the Brahmaputra, with its apex resting south of the city. The entire triangle formed a natural defensive position. Its defence potential was so great than it needed a comparatively small force to hold the entire Indian Army deployed in the theatre for months. It therefore became imperative to draw as many Pakistani troops as possible from this triangle towards the border, leaving the geopolitical heart land weak.
All thrust lines led to Dacca, some better than others. The city could be approached from the northwestern sector, after the capture of Bogra, from Phulchari Ghat and Sirajganj Ferry sites across the Jamuna, and thence to Tangail. This involved securing the Hilli-Gaibanda line and the area south of it. Access was also possible from the southwestern sector through Jessore-Jhenida-Megura-Faridpur-Golandoghat. This entailed crossing two major river obstacles, the Madhumati and the Padma. The approaches from the eastern sector through Chandpur-Daudkandi-Bhairab Bazaar involved crossing the Meghna and the Lakhya.
..every effort was to be made to create the impression that India was interested only in the capture of a niche where the Bangladesh Government could be installed, and no more.
The approach from the north generally followed the grain of the country, but it was the longest approach. The land along this approach was mostly inundated and the Brahmaputra, flowing diagonally across the area, was estimated to be over 1,000 feet wide along most of its length, thus presenting a formidable obstacle. It was apparent that to reach Dacca within the planned schedule of 21 days would require a high degree of mobility, short, snappy actions to overcome Pakistani resistance, and a large quantity of bridging and rafting equipment as well as engineer resources to cross the formidable river obstacles. The required engineer resources could not be mustered along all the approaches but could with some effort be collected for the main thrust when required.
Because of these limitations the higher command, in assigning tasks to Eastern Command, did not spell out the capture of Dacca but left it to be considered during the conduct of operations as and when opportunity offered itself. There was some differnce of opinion as to the relative weightage of resources to the various sectors. The overall superiorty in the theatre was no more than about 7 to 4, which by no means could be termed overwhelming. As such, it was considered prudent to give more importance to the eastern sector, especially its southern portion, for valid reasons. This approach was not expected because of the difficulty of buildup over long and precarious lines of communication. It was closest to Dacca, and crossing the rivers was relatively easier here than from the northern and southwestern sectors. Further, an offensive in the eastern sector provided indirect security to Tripura.
The formation war games conducted in October amply brought out that if speed in operations was to be achieved the Indian Army had to learn to bypass fortified defence and operate off main roads along indifferent country tracks.
The experience gained in reducing certain fortified border outposts in, various sectors had proved that these posts were difficult to tackle because they resulted in disproportionate casualties and were time-consuming. It appeared that if the step-by-step concept hitherto followed by the Indian Army was persisted in the campaign would end in stalemate in a short war. The formation war games conducted in October amply brought out that if speed in operations was to be achieved the Indian Army had to learn to bypass fortified defence and operate off main roads along indifferent country tracks.
After a few abortive attempts at reducing fortified border out posts, the younger elements vehemently advocated the concept of bypassing such localities, which Headquarters Eastern Command later successfully sold as the concept of the “expanding torrent” enunciated in the mid-1930s by Liddell Hart.
The strategy that finally evolved from the war games at all levels was that the Pakistani Army in Bangladesh should be drawn out by keeping the border alive through continuous and vigorous skirmishes in all sectors under cover of Mukti Bahini action. At the same time, every effort was to be made to create the impression that India was interested only in the capture of a niche where the Bangladesh Government could be installed, and no more. It was expected that this would induce Niazi to strengthen his border defences at the cost of the interior and, in the process, dissipate his reserves.
As a result of this appraisal, the final objectives of each formation were spelt out to enable them to work out various permutations and combinations to finalise the plan. A careful watch was kept throughout on the day-to-day political and military developments in Bangladesh so as to modify the operational plan where necessary.When the crunch came, our thrust lines would aim at securing the key communication centres in the interior so as to disrupt the enemy’s command and control completely and paralyse the capability of his forces to fall back on positions of depth. His formations and units would be cut off from each other and would become incapable of giving a concerted battle. Scattered in penny packets, they would be easy to mop up. Should the opportunity arise, any of the thrust lines across the Meghna, the Jamuna and the Padma could be rapidly developed in conjunction with the northern thrust along the Jamalpur-Tangail route to capture Dacca.