Background to the Battle
Dacca the Capital of East Pakistan was a natural fortress well away from the borders with India. On the west it was protected by the formidable Jamuna, which after its confluence with Padma was a very formidable water obstacle indeed. On the east was the formidable Meghna. The northern approaches were guarded by the Bramhaputra, a distributary of the Jamuna and Turag, another distributary of the mighty Jamuna, which also provided depth from the West. The Balu and the Lakaya rivers provided depth to Meghna in the east. The shortest approaches were from the west via Calcutta – Bongaon -Jhenida – Faridpur – Goalondo Ghat and from the east from Agartala. Pakistan’s 9 Infantry Division was responsible for defending the western approach. It had two regular and one adhoc brigade.
The regular brigades, 57 and 107 Infantry Brigades were deployed in the Meherpur – Jhenida Axis and Bayra – Jessore Axis. Two infantry divisions guarded the eastern approaches. 14 Infantry Division in the north had two regular and one adhoc brigade. 202 Adhoc Brigade was located at Sylhet. 313 Infantry Brigade was located at Maulavi Bazar. The third, 27 Infantry Brigade, was located at Akhaura opposite Agartala. 39 Adhoc Division was responsible for the defence of the southern sector extending from Comilla – Laksham – Chandpur – Daudkhandi. This division had three brigades. Pakistan’s 16 Infantry Division held the area west of Jamuna and north of the Padma called the Northern Area with headquarters at Bogra. This division had three regular brigades, one adhoc brigade and four squadrons of armour. Though this area was not on the approach to Dacca, it had the maximum forces as it was appreciated by Pakistan that this was the area India would like to capture for setting up the Government of Bangladesh and resettling the refugees.
For the capture of East Pakistan, India had assembled a force of three Corps and the 101 Communication Zone, totalling a force of about seven divisions and the 50 Para Brigade. 2 Corps having 9 Infantry Division and 4 Mountain Division were employed on the western approach for capture of Jessore and Faridpur.
The northern approach to Dacca through Meghalaya – Jamalpur – Mymensingh – Dacca was not given much importance. Pakistan’s 93 Infantry Brigade initially guarded this approach with two regular battalions. The Pakistan army headquarters did not consider that India’s war aims included capture of Dacca. They were confident that India would be happy with capturing enough territory to set up a Bangladesh Government and to resettle the refugees. They were also confident that they would be able to hold the Indian Army long enough to enable the international community, including United States to pressurise India into accepting a cease-fire. Pakistani forces were thus deployed on a forward posture and Dacca, as was to be expected, was only held by a garrison battalion and some services units.
For the capture of East Pakistan, India had assembled a force of three Corps and the 101 Communication Zone, totalling a force of about seven divisions and the 50 Para Brigade. 2 Corps having 9 Infantry Division and 4 Mountain Division were employed on the western approach for capture of Jessore and Faridpur. 33 Corps with 20 and 6 Mountain Divisions were given the task of capturing the Northern Sector. 4 Corps with 8, 23 and 57 Mountain Divisions and 50 Para Brigade were deployed to advance on Dacca from the east. 101 Communication Zone under Major General Gill had only one regular brigade, the 95 Mountain Brigade and FJ Force of mainly Mukti Bahini battalions under Brigadier Sant Singh, MVC and had been given the task of capturing Jamalpur and Mymensingh.
The battle for East Pakistan did not go as per the Pakistani plan of battle. The Indian forces, brilliantly adopting the strategy of indirect approach, launched attacks from unexpected directions; bypassed, turned or isolated well-prepared defences, and made unexpectedly rapid progress. In the west, 4 Mountain Division bypassed the defences at Meherpur and captured Jhenida by December 6.9 Infantry Division captured Jessore on December 7. They reached the banks of the Madhumati by December 9. 57 and 107 Pakistani brigades were unable to fall back towards Dacca. Though Magaura and Faridpur continued to remain in enemy hands till the surrender on December 16, none of its troops were able to fall back for the defence of Dacca.
In the east, Akhaura fell to 57 Mountain Division on December 5, cutting off two brigades of Pakistan’s 14 Infantry Division at Sylhet. Bramhanbaria fell on the night of December 7/8. Bhairab Bazar was isolated and Narsingdi was secured by heli-lifting two infantry battalions by December 10. 311 Brigade was air-lifted to Narsingdi while 73 Brigade used river craft for crossing the Meghna. The buildup of these two brigades was completed by December 14 and the first artillery shell landed at Dacca the same day. Further south, 23 Infantry Division bypassed the defences at Laksham, Maynamati and Comilla bottling up two Pakistani brigades at Maynamati. The river ports of Daudkhandi and Chandpur were captured on December 9. 301 Brigade was air-lifted to secure Baidya Bazar on December 15 and moved towards Dacca. Thus none of the troops deployed in the east were able to fall back for the defence of Dacca.
In the 101 Communication Zone sector 95 Mountain Brigade was launched on the Kamalpur – Jamalpur axis and FJ Force on the Haluaghat – Mymensingh route. Kamalpur ‘was held by troops of a battalion of the Baluch Regiment. The garrison had repelled repeated attempts to capture it in November. It was surrounded by December 4 and subjected to repeated air strikes. The garrison was then advised to surrender but refused. The garrison commander asked for reinforcements. When none came, the garrison withdrew on the evening of December 4. Pakistan had another delaying position at Bakshiganj. But this garrison also withdrew without a fight. On December 5, Major General Gill, GOC 101 Communication Zone, went forward towards Bakshiganj with the 95 Brigade Commander in a jeep.
Unfortunately, the jeep struck a mine. General Gill was wounded and evacuated. Major General G C Nagra, GOC 2 Mountain Division along with his staff now took over the operations. The next objective on the axis was Jamalpur. General Nagra planned to take Jamalpur with an outflanking move from the west. Two battalions, 1 MARATHA LIGHT INFANTRY and 13 GUARDS, crossed the river 8 kms west of Jamalpur and moving in bullock carts, established blocks to the south of Jamalpur on December 9. The infantry available was considered to be inadequate for the capture of Jamalpur. 167 Mountain Brigade was made available and 6 SIKH LIGHT INFANTRY from this brigade joined the other two battalions south of Jamalpur on December 10. 95 Brigade now prepared for the attack on Jamalpur.
General Niazi had relied on troops falling back for the defence of Dacca. By December 10 he was in a panic. Indian 4 Corps troops had landed at Narsingdi and were getting ready to move on to Dacca. But none of his brigades had managed to fall back. Dacca was defenceless.
General Niazi had relied on troops falling back for the defence of Dacca. By December 10 he was in a panic. Indian 4 Corps troops had landed at Narsingdi and were getting ready to move on to Dacca. But none of his brigades had managed to fall back. Dacca was defenceless. He therefore ordered 93 Brigade at Mymensingh and Jamalpur to immediately withdraw to Kaliakir. The brigade commander reluctantly ordered his battalions to withdraw. The Mymensingh garrison was able to withdraw unmolested. However, the Jamalpur garrison had to make a fighting breakout on the night of December 10/11. This was largely unsuccessful and 380 prisoners were rounded up on the morning of December 11. FJ Force had by this time advanced to Mymensingh against light opposition and took the town unopposed on December 11. The path for the final push to Dacca was now open.
According to the original plan of General Niazi, Dacca was to have a double line of defences based on the Turag and Lakya Rivers. The defences were to be manned by the troops falling back from the various sectors. However, none had arrived. The withdrawal of 93 Brigade had been ordered too late. So whatever was available was mustered. There were about 1500 regular troops including service personnel available. In addition about 3500 police and paramilitary personnel were available. These were formed into groups and deployed. To support the troops were a few mortars, recoilless guns and a squadron of tanks. The morale was low. General Niazi had approached General Yahya Khan through the governor, Dr Malik on December 7 to arrange an early cease-fire. The Pakistani President authorised the Governor to do what he could. The Governor got in touch with Paul Mark Henry, Assistant Secretary General, the United Nations, who happened to be in Dacca and requested him to arrange a cease-fire. The request reached New York and received large publicity. As a result Pakistani Government disowned the request. Efforts were made to lift the spirits by talking of Chinese intervention and the move of the US Seventh Fleet. Both had very little effect.
The Indian Army now sensed the opportunity for the kill. 50 Para Brigade was removed from 4 Corps and allotted to 2 Mountain Division. In view of the approaching US Seventh Fleet, the tempo of operations were quickened. The troops available for the capture of Dacca were as under:
- For para drop, 2 PARA ex 50 Para Brigade.
- On the northern approach under Headquarters 2 Mountain Division.
- 95 Mountain Brigade.
- 167 Mountain Brigade.
- FJ Force.
On the eastern approach under 57 Mountain Division:
- 73 Mountain Brigade at Narsingdi.
- 311 Mountain Brigade at Narsingdi.
- 301 Infantry Brigade ex 23 Infantry Division at Daudkhandi for air lifting to Baidya Bazar.
The Indian Army decided to drop 2 PARA Group north of Tangail, on the night of December 11 to capture and hold the bridge on Turag River and stop enemy reinforcements from falling back on Dacca. Unknown to them, Headquarters and some elements of 93 Brigade had already fallen back on Tangail. The commander of the Pakistani brigade actually witnessed the para drop from the Circuit House at Tangail.
The timing of the para drop had been preponed to 1600 hours on December 11 on request from the Air Force. A strong wind had developed over Tangail. This dispersed the drop. Some equipment landed in ponds. One Dakota discharged its load 17 kms away from the dropping zone. Despite these difficulties, 2 PARA group concentrated early enough. The local population was very helpful. They helped in retrieving and carrying the loads. The Pakistani brigade commander ordered one of his companies to deal with the paratroopers. The company commander came back after half an hour and reported that the Chinese had landed. The locals had told him this. As the troops had been told that China and US were expected to come to their aid, he had believed the story. The thought that the Chinese had landed cheered up the group for a while. But the Commander soon realised that it could not be true. He had two options, to engage the paratroopers or proceed to Kaliakair as ordered. He chose the latter option. Unfortunately for him, one of the vehicles of his column was blown up a few kilometres south of Tangail on a mine laid by the Mukti Bahini. Some shots were also fired. The brigade commander panicked thinking the Indians had put up a roadblock. He and the troops accompanying him abandoned their vehicles, split into small groups and set out on foot for Kaliakair.
The 2 PARA Group, meanwhile, proceeded to their objective, the bridge on Turag River and captured it. They quickly dug in and Waited for the enemy. The first to appear at around 2030 hours was a Pakistani Light Battery (mortars). Its leading vehicle received a direct hit from an anti tank rocket and was destroyed. Thereafter, more troops of Pakistani 93 Brigade collected in the area. They organised an attack on the bridge during the night. The attack was beaten back with heavy casualties. That night and till 1300 hours December 12, the enemy mounted a number of attacks on the bridge. 2 PARA held firm. The enemy lost 344 soldiers, killed, wounded or taken prisoner. After 1300 hours, the Pakistani troops stopped trying to recapture the bridge. They abandoned their vehicles and equipment and tried to make their way across the Turag River in small groups by river craft.
95 Brigade commenced its advance from Jamalpur on the morning of December 12. Its leading battalion, l MARATHA LIGHT INFANTRY, linked up with 2 PARA at the bridge at 1700 hours. General Nagra reached Tangail on the night of December 12/13. 6 SIKH LIGHT INFANTRY resumed the advance on the morning of December 13. They cleared Kaliakair by 2200 hours. As per the map there were two routes to Dacca, one via Dhamri – Mirpur – Dacca and the other via Chandana – Tungi – Dacca. 6 SIKH LIGHT INFANTRY was ordered to continue its advance towards Chandana. Safipur was not held. The battalion advanced throughout the night and contacted enemy defences on the Turag on the morning of December 14. Here, the enemy had tanks and the advance was held up. An engineer reconnaissance party was sent to reconnoiter the bridge on Dhaleshwar. It brought welcome news that there was a tarmac road from Kaliakair via Dhamri to Mirpur Bridge on the outskirts of Dacca. The patrol also came upon the commander of the Pakistani 93 Brigade and nine other officers in a clump of trees. They had taken three days to reach the place. Hungry and exhausted, they quietly surrendered to the patrol.
By December 14, General Niazi’s senior staff officers and the Governor’s senior advisors had lost their will to fight. Another urgent message had been sent to the Pakistani President to arrange a ceasefire. There was no reply till December 14. That day a high level meeting was scheduled to be held at the Governor’s house to discuss options.
General Nagra now divided his force. He sent 167 Brigade to reinforce 95 Brigade on the Turag opposite Chandana. He sent FJ Force along the newly discovered route along with 2 PARA, 13 GUARDS and a mountain battery. 2 PARA took up the advance. They reached the vicinity of Mirpur Bridge by 2200 hours on December 15. A patrol trying to cross the bridge was fired upon.
Some troops of 4 Corps had also managed to cross the Meghna River and were poised to advance on Dacca from the east. The first elements of 57 Division had been heli-lifted to Narsingdi by December 10. Its 73 and 301 Brigades were building up across the Meghna using helicopters and river craft. Due to shortage of both, the buildup was slow. However, the buildup was completed by December 14. The advance commenced on 14th. The first artillery shell landed in Dacca on December 14. Further south 301 Brigade had concentrated at Daudkhandi. The ferrying of the Brigade across the Meghna by helicopter and river craft to Baidya Bazar was immediately commenced. The advance from Baidya Bazar to Dacca was commenced on December 15. 14 JAT attempted to clear the built up area at Narayanganj and suffered heavy casualties. However 1/11 GORKHA RIFLES was able to cross the Lakya River on the morning of December 16.
By December 14, General Niazi’s senior staff officers and the Governor’s senior advisors had lost their will to fight. Another urgent message had been sent to the Pakistani President to arrange a ceasefire. There was no reply till December 14. That day a high level meeting was scheduled to be held at the Governor’s house to discuss options. The Governor himself was to preside. A radio intercept alerted the Indian Government about the meeting. The Governor’s house was bombed by the Indian Air Force while the meeting was going on. The roof of the main hall collapsed. A terrified Governor rushed to the air raid shelter and wrote out his resignation. Soon after, the Governor, his cabinet and senior government’ servants moved to a neutral zone created by the International Red Cross at Hotel Intercontinental. General Niazi also received a message from General Yahya Khan to end the hostilities.
However, his request to the US Consulate General to negotiate a cease-fire with India was turned down. The Consul General agreed to forward the request, which reached New Delhi via Washington. General Manekshaw was himself willing to end the war. He had been making repeated calls to the Pakistani forces in East Pakistan to surrender. His reply to Niazi was firm. Cease-fire was possible only if the Pakistani forces in Bangladesh surrendered to the advancing Indian forces by 0900 hours December 16. The time was changed to 1500 hours December 16 at Niazi’s request. At midnight December 15, General Niazi’s Headquarters sent out a signal to all troops under his command to surrender. General Nagra drove to General Niazi’s Headquarters at Dacca at 1100 hours December 16. He was followed by 2 PARA and other units of 95 Brigade. The Indian troops were given a great welcome by jubilant crowds and shouts of Joi Bangla and Indira Gandhi Ki Jai rent the air. The surrender ceremony took place in the afternoon. A guard of honour was provided by 2 PARA and a Pakistani detachment. After he had signed the surrender document, General Niazi handed over his revolver to General Aurora GOC in C, Eastern Command. A total of 91,000 prisoners including 56,694 of the armed forces surrendered to the Indian forces. Indian casualties in the campaign totalled 1525 killed and 4061 wounded.
The Pakistanis completely misread the intentions and capabilities of the Indian Army. They believed that the Indians would be content with annexing a part of Bangladesh and never considered the possibility of their heading for Dacca.
There was no battle for the capture of Dacca. Unlike Berlin, or Stalingrad or even Rangoon, isolated from its fighting formations, defended by a motley demoralised garrison, it fell without a fight. The fall of Dacca was a remarkable victory. In a matter of 14 days, seven Indian infantry/mountain divisions with limited armour had routed an enemy force of three and a half division and advanced over 400 kms in riverine terrain, crossed some of the widest rivers ever crossed during war, and captured the state capital. It was perhaps the only instance where a nation had won a war without winning a single major battle. At the time of surrender, Magura, Faridkot, Khulna, Sylhet, Bramhanbaria, Maynamati were all holding out. Most of the Pakistani divisions and brigades were largely intact. How was it possible? There are many reasons and some of these are discussed in the subsequent paragraphs.
The Pakistanis completely misread the intentions and capabilities of the Indian Army. They believed that the Indians would be content with annexing a part of Bangladesh and never considered the possibility of their heading for Dacca. They thus opted for a forward posture without developing a viable plan for the defence of Dacca. The presence of even one infantry brigade at Dacca as reserve would have made its capture difficult and time consuming. Underestimating enemy intentions and capabilities can have disastrous results. Napoleon and Hitler underestimated Russia with disastrous results. We paid the price for a similar folly against the Chinese in 1962. Pakistan paid the price in 1971.
India achieved air superiority over East Pakistan within the first few days of battle. Though the air effort available over East Pakistan was limited, it was enough to carry out effective interdiction to demoralise the enemy’s forces and give a decisive edge to the Indian forces.
Adequate preparations and resources are essential for battle. General Manekshaw was able to resist political pressure and ensure adequate preparation before starting the offensive. Thus he won a remarkable victory with minimum casualties in minimum time. Unfortunately the same was not the case either in 1962 or in the battle for Jaffna in Sri Lanka in 1987. The results in both cases were disastrous.
Indian forces in Bangladesh adopted the theory of indirect approach to perfection. They were mostly able to avoid pitched battles at well prepared defences by bypassing these defences using approaches and tracks considered infeasible. They were thus able to surprise the enemy and turn well-prepared defences. They were thus able to capture objectives like Jessore without any resistance.
The Indian Army displayed a remarkable ability to improvise to maintain the momentum of advance. Local resources were used to the maximum. Troops used bullock carts, cycle rickshaws, all kinds of locally available river craft to maintain the momentum of advance. The Maynamati was bridged by a combination of folding boat and bailey equipment.
Support of the local population also proved invaluable. The information provided by them about the terrain and enemy dispositions was very useful and enabled the Indian forces to bypass well prepared positions. Locals willingly provided and operated locally available transport like bullock carts, cycle rickshaws and various types of river craft and thus enabled the Indian troops to cross the numerous river obstacles, often unopposed. This kind of support is only available to a liberation army.
Last, but not the least, the Indian Army, by and large, maintained the ultimate aim of heading for capture of Dacca. Despite aberrations like 4 Mountain Division’s involvement at Kushtia and 9 Infantry Division’s pursuit of Pakistani 107 Brigade to Khulna, other formations bypassed enemy strongpoint’s and headed for Dacca. Thus the war was won without winning most of the battles.