Lt Gen Thapan, General Officer Commanding XXXIII Corps, was operationally responsible for the sector in addition to his commitments against the Chinese in Sikkim and Bhutan. His headquarters were at Siliguri, from where communicationwise he could adequately control both battles. A divisional commander in the Indo-Pakistani conflict in 1965, he was a copybook general and had the reputation of being overcautious.
In view of his reputation, the Army Commander tried to spilt corps headquarters in two on the analogy of IV Corps and place Bangladesh operations under Maj Gen J.S. Nakai, Thapan’s Chief of Staff, but Thapan would not hear of this. He insisted he would stay in charge of operations on both sides and was not countermanded. Personal relations between Thapan and his Army Commander were somewhat strained and led to irksome disagreements in the planning and conduct of operations throughout.
The strategic importance of the sector lay in its proximity to the Siliguri corridor in case Pakistan chose to choke Indian road and rail communications to Assam”¦
Territorywise, the sector lay north of the Padma and Jamuna in the shape of the western half of an hour glass. The Balurghat bulge pinched the waist. The grain of the country runs from north to south, as do the rivers and road and rail communication. The three perennial river obstacles in the sector, affecting movement from east to west, were the Jamuna, Atrai and Karatoya. East Pakistan trunk route No 3 ran along the alignment Titalaya-Pachagarh-Thakurgaon-Saidpur-Rangpur-Bogra-Raishahi. It was a tarmac one-way road capable of bearing heavy traffic. Several small feeder roads and tracks took off it, running east-west and connecting the border towns. The main broad-gauge railway line ran north to south from Hardinge Bridge via Ishurdi, Santabar, Hilli, Parbatipur and Saidpur to Chilabati. A metre-gauge network connected Dinajpur with Lalmunirhat and Rubed.
Because of poor road communications, indifferent tracks and frequent ferries, the Pakistani forces in the region placed great reliance on the railways and waterways for movement of men and material. The only connection with the other sectors was either the rail and road bridge at Paksay, called Hardinge Bridge, and the steamer services on the Jamuna from the ferry sites at Phulchari, Bera and Serajganj. The ground level in the sector was comparatively high and it was presumed that after the monsoon, when the surface dried, it could be negotiated by tanks.
Apart from ensuring the security of the corridor and the Balurghat bulge, Thapan was initially assigned the task of capturing all territory east of the Atrai in the northern part of the sector”¦
The strategic importance of the sector lay in its proximity to the Siliguri corridor in case Pakistan chose to choke Indian road and rail communications to Assam, and to the routes leading from Sikkim along the Tista Valley to the sector in case the Chinese chose to come to Pakistan’s aid in Bangladesh. In the overall Indian strategy, it would have been profitable to capture this sector with speed to eliminate both threats.
Apart from ensuring the security of the corridor and the Balurghat bulge, Thapan was initially assigned the task of capturing all territory east of the Atrai in the northern part of the sector, including the important towns of Pachagarh, Thakurgaon, Kantanagar and Dinajpur, within five days of the start of war. At the same time he was to capture Hilli and advance towards Gaibarda to cut off the waist and thereby sever the Pakistani lines of communication running north to south through it. Depending upon the situation, he was to capture either Rangpur in the north or Bogra in the south. As discussed earlier under the evaluation of plans, the war games in October 1971 brought to the notice of the Army Commander that the direct Hilli-Ghoraghat thrust line was the most obvious one, but being strongly held by the Pakistanis it would prove costlier both in time and casualties. Some alternatives were suggested to gain surprise and speed in advance, but he turned them down.
Thapan’s resources for the impending Bangladesh operations were 20 Mountain Division, under the command of Maj Gen Lachhmari Singh Lehl, a well-decorated combat soldier with a fair amount of war experience, and two loose independent brigade groups, of which 71 Mountain Brigade Group under Brig P. N. Kathpalia was moved from Nagaland and 340 Mountain Brigade Group from Southern Command. The second brigade had changed hands, the previous commander being replaced by Brig Bakhshi Joginder Singh, an instructor in the Counter-Insurgency School.
It appeared that the Pakistani deployment was primarily meant for internal security in a dispersed fashion to show presence in the entire area. It was later adopted to hold the routes of ingress in strength to prevent East Pakistan territory from falling into Indian hands.
In addition, Thapan was allowed one brigade from 6 Mountain Division, which was concentrated in the Siliguri corridor, for limited tasks from which it could be extricated within 24 to 48 hours for tasks against the Chinese if required. The final offensive plan the Army Commander approved was for 71 Mountain Brigade to advance along the Mirgarh-Pachagarh-Thakuraon axis to secure Pachagarh and Thakurgaon, and for one brigade from 20 Mountain Division to advance from the south along the Gangarampur-Dinajpur-Kantanagar road to link up with 71 Mountain Brigade in the vicinity of the bridge over the Atrai on the road to Saidpur.
Meanwhile, 20 Mountain Division was to advance with two brigades up using the Samjia-Phulbari-Palasbari and Hilli-Gaibanda axes, with onebrigade acting as firm base. The time frame for the capture of Thakurgaon, Dinajpur, the bridge on the Atari and Palasbari was five days from the start of hostilities. The subsequent development of operations towards Rangpur or Bogra was to be decided according to situation prevailing in the sector.
Niazi held the sector with Pakistan 16 Infantry Division under the command of Maj Gen Nazar Hussain Shah. This division was moved from the western wing with two brigades. On induction, it took over the third brigade of Pakistan 14 Infantry Division already deployed in the sector. The broad deployment at the outbreak of hostilities, as evidenced from a marked map captured in an ambush of the Divisional Commander, was primarily dispersed for internal security. 23 Infantry Brigade Group under Brig M. Shafi was operationally responsible for the area north of the waist. Having placed a light screen forward wast of the Atari and the Tista pocket at Lalmunirhat, he had organised the fortress defence of Dinajpur, Saidpur and Rangpur towns. He had two squadrons of 29 Cavalry (Chaffee tanks) and a field regiment in support.
Unable to overcome the opposition, the brigade managed to put up a battalion roadblock between the Pakistani-defended locality and Dinajpur on the night of 9 December. But that did not invite any Pakistani reaction as the line of maintenance remained open from the Saidpur side.
Brig Tajamul Hussain, in command of 205 Infantry Brigade Group, looked after the waistline. He held the Hilli cominplex organised as a fortress with a couple of battalions, adequately supported by a squadron of armour and a field regiment. He proposed to man the rear defences at Palasbari, Pirganj, Gobindganj and Bogra with his third battalion and troops falling back from Hilli. 34 Infantry Brigade Group under Brig N.A. Nayeem was operationally responsible for the area south of the waistline, with a battalion each at Panitola and Nawabganj, and Ishurdi. Nator had been organised as a fortress where troops falling back from any of these defended localities were expected to fight a last-ditch battle.
In addition, General Officer Commanding 16 Infantry Division had 12,000 to 15,000 paramilitary forces under his command which he had used to beef up the army garrisons. In appeared that the Pakistani deployment was primarily meant for internal security in a dispersed fashion to show presence in the entire area. It was later adopted to hold the routes of ingress in strength to prevent East Pakistan territory from falling into Indian hands. They planned to occupy rear defences on withdrawal but had no reserves to influence the battle at any stage.
By 1 November, Thapan was able to concentrate his force around the periphery of the northwestern sector, with 6 Mountain Division in the north in Cooch Behar district, 71 Mountain Brigade Group in the northwest in the Siliguri area, and 20 Mountain Division in occupation of the Balurghat bulge. Until the outbreak of hostilities a few preliminary operations were undertaken in support of Mukti Bahini. The pocket between the Dhudkumar nullah and the Dhurla river, known as the Bhrungmari salient, was occupied against marginal opposition.
The salient lay on one limb of the sector and was inaccessible to Pakistani armour and heavier weapons. The Tista pocket comprised the area between the Tista and Dharla rivers. Since movement across the rivers was not possible because bridging equipment was lacking in the pockets, Thapan took some time to shift his resources from the Bhrungmari salient to the Tista pocket. But he was still able to induct 9 Mountain Brigade into the northern portion of the pocket before the outbreak of hostilities. This brigade occupied Lalmunirhat and Kurigram by 6 December, and in conjunction with other measures of deception continued to pose a threat to Rangpur from these directions. As transpired later, Maj Gen Shah was indeed duped. To meet this threat he had created an ad hoc force under his Colonel General Staff, using a portion of divisional headquarters as brigade headquarters.
After his surrender he boasted: “My concept is to split one company into two, thus stretching one battalion into two. I never used my staff as staff. They were commanding troops. I had three brigades, but I was able to make five out of them. Actually, I had no headquarters except my A and Q branches.” No wonder the General was thin all over and nowhere strong enough to make a stand. And he had completely lost control of the battle even before it started.
The international border, running immediately west of the railway, divided the town in two. The town itself was thus on the Indian side and the railway station and a newly developed educational complex of schools and colleges on the Pakistani side.
71 Mountain Brigade Group under Brig Kathpalia made a spectacular advance of some 60 kilometres from Mirgarh to Thakurgaon and by 4 December had captured the towns of Pachagarh and Boda without significant opposition. His advance was pushed further south to capture Birganj on 5 December, and working along the Dinajpur road contact was made with the Kantanagar bridge the next day to find it demolished as expected. Pakistani troops were holding the area behind the Dhepa river in considerable strength and Kathpalia’s effort to cross this obstacle invited heavy casualties.
Unable to overcome the opposition, the brigade managed to put up a battalion roadblock between the Pakistani-defended locality and Dinajpur on the night of 9 December. But that did not invite any Pakistani reaction as the line of maintenance remained open from the Saidpur side. From then onwards, Kathpalia could not make much headway in overcoming the opposition. Not content with carrying out raids on the outskirts of Dinajpur town from the north, he decided to shift the direction of his thrust line towards Nilphamari.
He accordingly crossed the Dhepa river about ten miles up north and captured Khansama on 13 December, and by the time hostilities ceased on 16 December the brigade was within five miles of Nilphamari. The brigade cleared the entire area west of the general line of the corps. It was claimed however that Kathpalia’s relentless pressure tied down the Pakistani garrisons at Dinajpur, Saidpur, Parbatipur and Rangpur and prevented a pullout of troops to reinforce threatened areas farther south.
If these fortresses were not denuded to reinforce these areas, this was due more to the inept conduct of battle by the General Officer Commanding Pakistan 16 Infantry Division than to Kathpalia’s pressure. For at no time was 71 Mountain Brigade Group able to sever the routes of withdrawal of the Pakistani troops deployed in Dinajpur, Parbatipur, Saidpur and Rangpur fortresses. In the later stages, 9 Mountain Brigade and two battalions were also moved south of Dinajpur, but despite encirclement by both these brigades the garrison there held out till the end of the war.
The tip of the tongue, in which the Pakistan defences were sited, is about 4,000 to 5,000 yards wide.
20 Mountain Division was to advance along two axes, with a brigade on each, to cut the waist. One of the axes selected was the Hilli-Gaibanda road. Hilli is a small town on the tip of the tongue of the Balurghat bulge, sprawling along the north to south railway line. The international border, running immediately west of the railway, divided the town in two. The town itself was thus on the Indian side and the railway station and a newly developed educational complex of schools and colleges on the Pakistani side. The tip of the tongue, in which the Pakistan defences were sited, is about 4,000 to 5,000 yards wide.
The Hilli defences were held by putting up a screen of platoon-defended localities along the railway line at Naopara, Basudebpur BOP, checkpost and railway station complex, and Hilli BOP, while compact defended localities were sited in depth to cover all the routes of ingress into East Pakistan emanating from the tongue at Bara Chengram, Morapara, Baigram, Chandipur, a girls’ school at Dingapara North and South, deploying about six riffle companies of 4 FF and 13 FF battalions. The defensive position was supported by a field regiment, a mortar battery and a weak squadron of Chaffee tanks.The depth of the entire position did not extend more than 2,000 yards from the international border. 20 Mountain Division, having been concentrated in the Balurghat bulge by the end of October, was in contact with the position and, having access to Mukti Bahini elements operating in the area, should have known the layout and preparations carried out there in fair detail. The defended locality at Hilli formed the gateway which had to be opened if the Hilli-Gaibanda axis road was to be exploited.
Accordingly, it was decided to clear the Hilli defences as a preliminary operation forming part of Mukti Bahini actions. The Pakistani commanders had converted villages into strong points catering for all-round defence. Skilful use had been made of natural bogs and ponds as obstacles in siting their weapon pits and fortifications, which were solidly constructed to take on heavy shelling.
The Pakistani commanders had converted villages into strong points catering for all-round defence.
The defended localities were mutually supporting and interconnected with communication trenches to allow reinforcing if outrun or because of heavy casualties. Weaponswise, these localities had been further strengehened by moving in medium machine guns and recoil-less guns from reconnaissance and support elements. Administrative backing in the way of supplies and ammunition had been provided for by stockpiling material to last 30 days or so.
202 Mountain Brigade under the command of Brig Farhat Bhatti, who had earlier shown promise in the battle of Khem Karan in 1965, was given the task of capturing the Hilli defence complex in order to clear the axis for 20 Mountain Division’s advance to Gaibanda. Bhatti planned to tackle the defences from the north. One infantry battalion, adequately supported by a squadron of T-55 tanks and three assorted artillery regiments, was to clear Naopara, Morapara and Basudebpur BOP. The plan in outline was to capture Naopara as phase 1 of the operation and follow this up by capturing Morapara from the direction of Naopara as phase 2 while Basudebpur BOP was to be kept engaged from the Hindu Mission position. Some simulated activity by armour was also visualised from the south. The operation was to be carried out in darkness.
The surprised Pakistanis withdrew in good time, abandoning some equipment and ammunition. Our men suffered some casualties because of mine blasts, but on the whole the defenders offered no fight. Naopara was secured by about midnight.
Accordingly, 8 Guards moved out from their forward concentration area and launched an attack with one company at Naopara, which was held by a platoon of Pakistanis. In their endeavour to surround the village, the attacking troops encountered extensive marshes, paddy fields with standing water and occasional ponds which slowed the pace of advance. The surprised Pakistanis withdrew in good time, abandoning some equipment and ammunition. Our men suffered some casualties because of mine blasts, but on the whole the defenders offered no fight. Naopara was secured by about midnight.
The next phase of the attack, for the capture of Morapara, was launched by two companies from south of this target soon after. As they emerged from their forming up positions, they were subjected to withering machine gun crossfire from all the defended localities, which had by then come alive. In spite of this the companies managed to close in on the forward defended localities although they had to wade through waistdeep water. They were further impeded by mines, barbed wire obstacles and a heavy concentration of artillery, mortar and automatic fire.
The going was extremely slow and the casualties heavy. A company commander had fallen, and out of the entire rank and file only about 50-odd men reached the southern and western edges of the village to grapple with the defenders in hand-to-hand combat. The second company almost met the same determined resistance as the assault line approached the village from the northeast. Despite these impediments, the company managed to secure a foothold in the southeastern part of the village, but the Pakistani defenders tenaciously held on to the major part of the objective. Time was getting on and the operation was stalled.
Replenishment of the troops still fighting in Morapara and the evacuation of casualties became impossible because of the accurate Pakistani machine gun fire from neighbouring localities.
At this juncture, the battalion commander committed his fourth company to clear the rest of the objective. In a fast and fierce encounter, it secured the northern and western ends of the village, and for the rest of the night a hand-to-hand battle ensued in which the company commander was killed. Daylight was fast approaching, and the situation in Morapara was still in stalemate as neither side had achieved a clear success.
Bhatti decided to develop another thrust towards the objective from the east. He launched one company of 5 Garhwal Rifles under Maj A. S. Thapa, a spirited company commander, to capture Basudebpur BOP, a little fortress in itself with a ten-foot-high wall round it. The company however got over the wall in one rush and caught the dazed defenders in their bunkers. In a matter of minutes, the surprised garrison was rounded up and the objective captured.
The situation in Morapara still remained confused. 8 Guards had by now lost two each of company commanders, platoon commanders and two forward observation officers, killed or wounded. As day broke, the tank squadron sent forward to support the attackers got bogged down in the paddy fields as it emerged from its forward concentration area. Replenishment of the troops still fighting in Morapara and the evacuation of casualties became impossible because of the accurate Pakistani machine gun fire from neighbouring localities. Left to themselves, the exhausted troops fell back helter skelter on Hilli and Naopara. The brigade attack on the Hilli complex was stalled in its very first phase and the prospect of putting through the original plan looked gloomy.
Encouraged by his easy success at Basudebpur BOP, Bhatti planned a hurried attack on Morapara by the Garhwalis, but the Divisional Commander intervened and ordered a deliberate and well-prepared attack after thorough reconnaissance and preparation the next day. At night, the Garhwali patrol contacted Capt V. S. Sharma of 8 Guards, who unknown to all concerned was holding a little pocket on the objective with some 20 men. He had seen the Pakistani defenders vacate and reoccupy the Morapara defences. The next morning, 8 Guards was built up on this valiant party and managed to clear the village about midday. Total casualties suffered in this operation were four officers killed, three wounded, two JCOs killed and wounded, 61 other ranks killed and 85 wounded. All efforts to capture the Hilli complex had failed.
From then onwards, the Pakistani defences continued to be contained by 202 Infantry Brigade till 11 December, when it became possible to clear the opposition with the aid of Indian columns operating behind these defences. The Pakistani garrison, about a battalion plus, managed to hold a complete Indian brigade group for about 19 days despite the fact that the Pakistani defensive complex was only about 3,000 yards deep, that the Balurghat bulge tongue was in Indian hands, and that intelligence of the terrain and Pakistani deployment was available through Mukti Bahini and sympathetic locals. The initial heavy casualties had imposed caution on the Indian troops and commanders. The battle of attrition was proving costly in casualties and time schedule.
The way was now open for the advance to Pirganj, but Sharma had overstretched himself and was in no position to exploit the unexpected success of his rapid advance.
The battle for the Hilli complex has been described in some detail with a purpose. It was the only battle the Indian Army fought to reduce the Pakistani fortress in the entire Bangladesh operations. This operation demonstrated to the Indian higher commanders the futility of attacking heavily defended Pakistani strongholds. It enabled earlier plans to be revised, thus permitting Pakistani strongholds to be bypassed or contained instead of being cleared. The El Alamein concepts, so deeply ingrained in the old school of generals, met their doom.
In consultation with General Officer Commanding 20 Mountain Division, Thapan accordinly modifed the original plan of advancing on two axes to cut the waistline. They now decided to advance only on 128. It was in this sector that the divisional thrust met the stiffest resistance, the enemy defences being strongly constructed. In some places, entire railway coaches had been dug into the ground to serve as pillboxes, one axis, the Phulbari -Charkhai-Pirganj road. The plan visualised this advance by two brigades, 66 and 202 Mountain Brigade. 165 Mountain Brigade was already deployed south of Hilli for the security of the Balurghat bulge, and 340 Mountain Brigade Group, having shed two battalions, one each to 66 and 202 Mountain Brigades, was investing Dinajpur from a southerly direction.
Initially, the pressure on the Hilli complex was to have been maintained in the hope of misleading the Pakistani commanders regarding the change of plans. At a suitable opportunity, 202 Mountain Brigade was to link up with 66 Mountain Brigade in the Dangapara-Charkhai area after handing over Hilli to 165 Mountain Brigade and continue a concerted advance to cut the waistline. The bogging down of T-55 tanks in the Morapara attack had imposed constraints on their employability on their own. Thereafter, the armour was grouped in complementary combinations of T-55 and PT-76 tanks as ‘the cross-country performance of the PT-76s in marshy terrain was found to be better, thus overcoming to some extent the constraints of terrain and night functioning.
Lachhman Singh then thought of handing over the Hilli complex operations to either 340 or 165 Mountain to allow Bhatti to collect his brigade and resume the advance from the 6 Guards bridgehead as planned. But Bhatti showed his helplessness”¦
66 Mountain Brigade Group, under the command of Brig Sharma, advanced rapidly along the Nabogram-Bajai-Phulbari axis and covering about 20 kilometres contacted Phulbari in the afternoon of 4 December. The town was cleared an hour later. The Pakistani garrison had earlier withdrawn to Parbatipur, after having partially demolished the bridge over the Jamuna. The advance continued, led by a combat group of a composite regiment of T-55 and PT-76 tanks and a mechanised battalion equipped with wheeled APCs. It could not operate off roads and was employed in a normal infantry role towards Charkhai. The town was secured by the evening of 4 December after traversing some ten kilometres from Phulbari against minimal opposition.
As the advance progressed in depth, the problems of following it up with administrative echelons increased. Indian intelligence reported the Phulbari-Charkhai road as brick-paved, but it turned out to be only a wet dirt track which even tanks found difficult to negotiate. Most of the wheeled APCs were bogged down en route. These difficulties were reduced somewhat when engineers creditably converted the railway embankment into a high classification road in two days. While the build-up for crossing the Karatoya river was in progress, 6 Guards, the follow-up battalion, had on its own initiaive moved further north, and finding Nawabganj empty occupied it on 5 December evening. Pushing ahead at night, they also secured the ferry site at Kanchdaha and established a bridgehead by midday 6 December.
But this fact was not known at divisional headquarters. Joginder Singh was ordered to secure Nawabganj and advance farther south to secure Bhaduria and Hathbangi ferry site with 2/5 Gorkha Rifles. and 63 Armoured Regiment. 2/5 Gorkha Rifles found the ferry site unoccupied but mined indiscriminately. Moreover, the road leading to it was found badly broken and therefore considered unfit for heavy vehicular traffic.
The only force available with Joginder Singh on the afternoon of 6 December was his skeleton headquarters and himself. But he energetically set about assembling the troops allotted to him.
The way was now open for the advance to Pirganj, but Sharma had overstretched himself and was in no position to exploit the unexpected success of his rapid advance. Lachhman Singh had earlier planned a link-up between 66 and 202 Mountain Brigades north of Hilli, hoping that this would make 202 Mountain Brigade available to resume the advance from the Karatoya. An effort was therefore made to build up pressure from the north and south with both brigades. But for the capture of Khatta along the Charkhai-HiIli road by 66 Mountain Brigade, this plan yielded no meaningful progress.
Lachhman Singh then thought of handing over the Hilli complex operations to either 340 or 165 Mountain to allow Bhatti to collect his brigade and resume the advance from the 6 Guards bridgehead as planned. But Bhatti showed his helplessness and felt so inextricatably involved that he would not be able to collect himself for quite some time. Left with no option, Lachhman turned to Joginder Singh, affectionately called Jogi, commander of 340 Mountain Brigade Group, to execute the plan. The plan visualised the advance of the brigade towards Pirganj, capture of the town and establishing roadblocks to sever Rangpur from Bogra and Nator.