Military & Aerospace

Liberation of Bangladesh: War in Northwestern Sector
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Issue Book Excerpt: India\'s War since Independence | Date : 18 Jul , 2019

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.

Joginder Singh’s brigade was at that time, on Lachhman Singh’s earlier orders, scattered all over the divisional sector. One battalion was allotted to 202 Mountain Brigade, another investing Dinajpur from the south, and the third spearheaded Sharma’s advance. 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. straight away, he collected his original battalion, 2/5 Gorkha Rifles, which was already in the area, took over 6 Guards, which was holding the bridgehead under his wing, and ordered 5/11 Gorkha Rifles to pull out expeditiously.This regrouping and the movement of the allotted armour and artillery took some 36 hours to complete, an inexcusable delay in mobile operations. From then onwards both Sharma and Bhatti continued to edge forward towards the linkup without making substantial progress. Sharma captured Bhaduria, a defended locality held by about company strength, on 11 December at considerable cost.

17 Kumaon suffered two officers, three JCOs and 67 other ranks wounded in that action without achieving any tactical advantage. It was claimed that 82 bodies, including one major and one artillery officer, were counted in all. The attrition rate in fighting for prepared defences was high on both sides and did not yield commensurate results.

The ambush surprised his party greatly and nearly cost him his life. In a hurry to get down and escape, the General sprained his ankle and had to lie in a bamboo clump for quite a while till a search party found him.

Jogi commenced the advance after midday on 7 December from the bridgehead over the Karatoya with one combat group of 2/5 Gorkha Rifles and 69 Armoured Regiment (PT-76 tanks), less one squadron, along the Nawabganj-Chandipur-Lal Dighi Bazaar-Pirganj axis. One squadron led the advance and the followup squadron carried 2/5 Gorkha Rifles, an infantry battalion, on tanks. The second infantry battalion was to catch up by marching flat foot. The combat group made rapid progress and secured Chandipur town in a couple of hours or so by overcoming minor opposition. It pushed ahead speedily and captured Pirganj by afternoon without a fight. A few troops were seen fleeing the town when our forward tank columns started enveloping the position.

Roadblocks were soon established along the Rangpur-Bogra highway at Lai Dighi Bazaar in the north and close to Barabila lake in the south in addition to the crossroads at Chandipur in the west and Bahadurpur in the southwest. The roadblocks were in the process of occupation when a Pakistani jeep column travelling from Rangpur towards Pirganj hit the block at Lai Dighi Bazaar and was fired upon by the tanks there. One jeep blew up, but the rest managed to escape in the darkness prevailing at that time. Next morning two jeeps, including one belonging to Nazar Hussain Shah, and one soldier, some marked maps and other valuable documents fell into our hands.

After his surrender the General gave a colourful account of his narrow escape from death. Along with Brig Tajamul Hussain, Commander 205 Infantry Brigade, he was on his way to Bogra to prepare for the fast-developing Indian threat towards Pirganj. Since nothing had happened for almost 36 hours to 48 hours after the capture of Nawabganj, he did not endow the Indians with the capability of disrupting the highway so far. The ambush surprised his party greatly and nearly cost him his life. In a hurry to get down and escape, the General sprained his ankle and had to lie in a bamboo clump for quite a while till a search party found him. The same night, on the way to Rangpur, his jeep collided with another vehicle. Once again, Shah was lucky to escape unhurt.

The Pakistani assault was soon broken by concentrated fire from Indian tanks, artillery and mortars. Unable to make much headway, the force withdrew.

On hearing of the roadblocks, the Pakistani garrison commanders at Rangpur and Bogra reacted sharply. Two companies from 32 Baluch led by their commanding officer, rushed from Bogra and hit the 2/5 Gorkha Rifles roadblock near the lake a little past midnight. In the ensuing exchange of fire the Pakistani commander was killed. His body was recovered the next morning. The rest of the force withdrew before dawn. It transpired later that they were advance elements of 32 Baluch ordered to occupy the Pirganj defences before the Indian thrust reached the place. They arrived too late. About the same time, two companies of Pakistan 8 Punjub, accompanied by tanks, came from Rangpur and attacked the Laldighi roadblock in a spirited charge.

By then, two companies of 5/11 Gorkha Rifles had also arrived and adequately strengthened the block. The Pakistani assault was soon broken by concentrated fire from Indian tanks, artillery and mortars. Unable to make much headway, the force withdrew. This perhaps constituted the search party for the General, and he went back to Rangpur with it. Shackled by constraints on using 6 Guards, the closest troops available, and undue caution to hold Pirganj in strength, Jogi wasted a precious 24 hours there and could resume his advance only at first light on 9 December.

With the occupation of Gaibanda and the ferry, the Pakistani troops were denied an escape route. Simultaneously, other task forces which had contacted the Pakistani defences east of the Karatoya in Ghoraghat area, cleared the opposition on the home bank of the river”¦

By that time another battalion had been fetched up, and by lifting 6 Guards from the bridgehead he divided these two battalions and his armour into four composite task forces. The infantry being carried on tanks, these highly mobile and hard-hitting groups swept the entire countryside in no time. Sadhullahpur was occupied at 1000 hours and Palasbari captured by midday. Except for odd nuisance mines, there was no organised resistance.

On 10 December, news was received that the Pakistani garrison in the Rangpur-Saidpur area was expected to withdraw across the Jamuna towards Dacca. To thwart such an eventuality, Joginder Singh ordered a roadblock to be set up in the area of Gaibanda. The town was occupied at 1600 hours on 10 December. His men moved the same day across to the Phulchari ferry, where they destroyed the jetties and uprooted the rail track serving it. With the occupation of Gaibanda and the ferry, the Pakistani troops were denied an escape route. Simultaneously, other task forces which had contacted the Pakistani defences east of the Karatoya in Ghoraghat area, cleared the opposition on the home bank of the river by 1730 hours.

Attention now turned towards the main task of capturing Bogra. The immediate objective was Gobindganj, a small town lying along the Rangpur-Bogra highway south of the Karatoya. The Air Force had reported that the river obstacle and the town were held by a weak battalion with some tanks and guns. After leaving strong firm bases in the general area of Pirganj, Laldighi Bazaar and Chandipur to meet any threat from the Rangpur side, Joginder Singh decided to tackle the Gobindganj defences by pushing one combat group along the main highway to exert pressure from the north while the second combat group, comprising one armoured regiment less a squadron and an infantry battalion less a company, was to make a wide outflanking movement over some 56 kilometres to tackle the defences from the south and southeast.

The Pakistani garrison tried to escape, but was trapped by Joginder Singhs block at Kamar. The whole operation was a brilliant envelopment manoeuvre, boldly executed by 340 Mountain Brigade Group

The advance on both axes started at 1100 hours on 11 December. Contact was made about midday on the highway. The outflanking column crossed the river in the east in the Kajla area, where it split in three. One group moved south to establish a roadblock in the area of Kamar along the highway, and the other two moved independently to tackle the defences from the south and southeast. The advance elements reached the crossroads immediately south of the town without detection.

The Gobindganj garrison was taken completely by surprise, but put up determined resistance. Night fell, and fighting continued throughout it. The position was mopped up by T-55 tanks giving fire support at night, using an infrated sighting system. By the first light of 12 December, Gobindganj was in Indian hands. In this action, 340 Mountain Brigade Group killed 90 Pakistanis and captured 12 other ranks in addition to a booty of five 105-mm guns, three Chaffee tanks, 35 vehicles of sorts, and about 20 odd truckloads of gun ammunition, a large dump of mines and some anti-tank guns. It appears that this position was under preparation for occupation by a battalion group, but when attacked it was manned by an assortment of five companies from odd units. The Pakistani garrison tried to escape, but was trapped by Joginder Singh’s block at Kamar. The whole operation was a brilliant envelopment manoeuvre, boldly executed by 340 Mountain Brigade Group, and it paid good dividends.

The advance was resumed at 1130 hours the next day by 69 Armoured Regiment and 5111 Gorkha Rifles group along the highway to Bogra. Contact was made with the Pakistani defences holding the Ichhamati river by the same evening. The northern bank was soon cleared, and on discovering a gap in the Pakistani defences a company was infiltrated to establish a roadblock in the rear before tackling the main defences. The company on the way to the road lock accidentally stumbled on the battalion headquarters. They took it by surprise and captured Maj Mohammed Ajmal, the officiating commanding officer, the adjutant and the regimental medical officer of 32 Baluch.

They also destroyed the communication links with their forward troops, thus disrupting the entire Pakistani command and control structure in the area. The Ichhamati position was cleared by midday on 13 December, and a detachment which hurried to capture the bridge over the Karatoya at Mahasthian the next morning caught Pakistani engineers in the act of priming demolition charges. A couple of them were shot and the others fled. The bridge was captured intact.

…destroyed the communication links with their forward troops, thus disrupting the entire Pakistani command and control structure in the area. The Ichhamati position was cleared by midday on 13 December…

The Pakistanis had prepared defences for a company or so as a strong delaying position, but they did not get the chance to occupy it either because of the speed of the Indian advance or the general lack of troops in the area, as the troops holding the Hilli complex had not fallen back by then. The brigade claimed about 97 killed in both actions, but produced small arms worth only about a platoon or so as booty. It may be assumed that both positions were held by remnants of 32 Baluch elements falling back from Pirganj.

The 340 Mountain Brigade Group operations in the rear areas had by then outflanked the Hilli complex defences. It had forced the Pakistanis to withdraw their troops to hold their sensitive areas in depth. As a result, the forces at Hilli had been gradually thinned and withdrawn to Bogra. Exploiting this thinning process between 10 and 12 December, 66 Mountain Brigade advanced and occupied Ghoraghat. After a stalemate of about 20 days, 202 Mountain Brigade had cleared Hilli and having linked with 66 Mountain Brigade had advanced along the Ghoraghat-Saidpur-Khetlal axis. It captured the town of Khetlal after a sharp action.

Originally, this brigade group was to have advanced towards Bogra and helped Joginder Singh in reducing the garrison there. This became all the more necessary as Headquarters Eastern Command asked for the release of 340 Mountain Brigade Group after the fall of Bogra for induction across the Jamuna to reinforce the thrusts converging on Dacca. But this plan had to be changed for two main reasons. Orders came from the higher command for the transfer of the T-55 squadron allotted to the brigade.

The Pakistanis had prepared defences for a company or so as a strong delaying position, but they did not get the chance to occupy it either because of the speed of the Indian advance or the general lack of troops in the area

Bhatti was reluctant to advance without support from armour, and any regrouping of armour from the Pirganj-Bogra axis would have resulted in inordinate delay. The argument was however put forward that the Khetlal-Bogra road had been badly damaged and this would delay the advance to the extent that Bhatti would not be in time to join Joginder Singh in the reduction of Bogra. In any event, 340 Mountain Brigade Group made such rapid progress that Bhatti’s encircling movement was considered infructuous. 202 Mountain Brigade was then ordered to concentrate in the general area of Ghoraghat as a divisional reserve. Meanwhile, by the evening of 13 December, 165 Mountain Brigade had also progressed towards the south of Hilli and had occupied Panchbibi and Jaipurhat unopposed.

Bogra was reported to be held by Baluch with some artillery and tanks in support, although the exact dispositions were not known. Pakistan 205 Infantry Brigade Headquarters were also to move to the town, but whether it had already reached it was not known as on the previous day the Brigadier had visited the detachment holding the Ichhamati river and given them a pep talk. Emboldened by his earlier success, Joginder Singh rapidly moved along the highway and encircled the town from all directions on the night of 13/14 December. He outflanked the town with a combat group and established two blocks in the south along the Sirajganj-Bogra and Singra-Bogra roads. 2/5 Gorkha Rifles worked its way with one squadron of armour along the highway from the north, clearing the city block by block and house by house up to the railway line. At the same time, two battalions tackled the town, one from the south, using the road-blocks as their firm base, and the other from the northeast. The area north of the railway line was cleared by 1300 hours, although the Pakistani defences on the rail embankment were still active. The divisional and brigade headquarters also fell into Indian hands. The town was surrounded by a tight cordon and the position of the Pakistanis was hopeless. The capture of Bogra was an inounced at that time although isolated pockets continued to hold out.

Large numbers of Pakistani troops gave themselves up. They reported that Headquarters 205 Infantry Brigade, along with elements of 4 FF, 13 FF and Baluch, were bottled up in the town. The tight cordon drawn by Joginder Singh foiled all attempts at escape. The relentless pressure of the Indian mopping up operations and the psychological affect of the encirclement, coupled with the frequent appeals by loudspeaker to Pakistani soldiers to surrender had some effect, but on the whole the resistance continued till the first light of 16 December.In all five officers, 56 JCOs, 1,613 other ranks and 33 civilians surrendered in the town. Three large ammunition dumps, one supply depot, one workshop and about 500 numbers of small arms, ten guns and five Chaffee tanks fell into Indian hands. It appears that although this position was meant to be held by brigade strength it was actually held by only one battalion and elements of other units which managed to withdraw from forward positions when they fell.

By 14 December, Pakistani resistance in Bogra was crumbling and the potential threat from the south was completely eliminated. It was then decided to capture Rangpur. Plans were made for a two pronged attack on this town by Sharma and Bhatti simultaneously, along the Mitapukar-Rangpur and Mitapukar-Nasirabad-Fatepur-Rangpur axes. Sharma secured Mitapukar by midday on 15 December and reached the outskirts of Rangpur town by the time the ceasefire became effective on 16 December. The start of Bhatti’s advance was held up by perpetual delays in regrouping armour.

…shows that most of the Pakistani units were up to operational strength and had a considerable potential to continue the war if Niazi had not accepted such an early ceasefire.

At first light on 16 December, Bhatti pushed his advance guard forward to clear minor opposition some distance away, but by the time his main body started moving the ceasefire was announced. Thus Bhatti’s brigade never became effective in the offensive tasks of the division. It appeared as though the spirits of Bhatti’s troops had been sapped in the defensive operations at Hilli.

Some 450 Pakistani officers, 670 JCOs, 16,800 other ranks and 250 enrolled non-combatants surrendered to XXXIII Corps during and after the ceasefire with abut 3,000 rank and file of the paramilitary forces. Unfortunately, the actual figures of prisoners taken in the hostilities are not available, but it is believed that the total was no more than about 2,000. This shows that most of the Pakistani units were up to operational strength and had a considerable potential to continue the war if Niazi had not accepted such an early ceasefire.

The Indian casualties in the sector were 16 officers, 11 JCOs and 344 other ranks killed, 54 officers, 33 JCOs and 874 other ranks wounded. Most of the casualties were suffered in attacks on prepared defences in Hilli and Bhaduria. 340 Mountain Brigade Group, which bore the major burden of winning the war in this sector, suffered only 46 ranks killed and 95 wounded, proving the point that a war of manoeuvre is less costly in attrition.

What contribution did the campaign in this sector make towards the overall collapse of the Pakistan forces in the eastern wing? According to Niazi, he had made up his mind to effect a ceasefire around 12 December.

What contribution did the campaign in this sector make towards the overall collapse of the Pakistan forces in the eastern wing? According to Niazi, he had made up his mind to effect a ceasefire around 12 December. At that time, the leading elements of Thapan’s offensive thrust were near the Ichhamati river delaying position, well away from the Bogra defences where Nazar Hussain Shah was to give battle to the already overstretched 20 Mountain Division. Niazi testified later that the threat to Bogra, or even its eventual capture, was so distant from Dacca, the area of decision, that Thapan’s campaign had a very insignificant influence on his decision.

Did Thapan capture territory? At the time of the ceasefire, he had captured all territory east of the Atrai river and north of the Balurghat bulge as well as a substantial area of the waistline, but all important towns like Dinajpur, Saidpur, Rangpur, Rajshahi and Nator were still holding out and had the capability of sustained resistance.

Did this campaign achieve the degree of attrition of both manpower and equipment which would cripple the will and potential of the opposing force? Apparently not, as no more than 500-odd rank and file out of a total of some 20,000 who surrendered after the ceasefire fell into Thapan’s hands. The equipment captured or damaged in actual combat was marginal and in no way impaired the Pakistani force commander’s military capability. It would thus be seen that the campaign in the northwestern sector did not make a significant contribution to bringing about Niazi’s collapse.

In the conduct of operations, Thapan failed to exploit his combat power to the full. Of some six brigades employed in his sector after 7 December (after three days of war) only one brigade group was on the offensive, the other five remaining on the defensive and laying siege to the Pakistani town fortresses.

Why was this so? The failure lies in the ambiguity of the tasks allotted to Thapan by his Army Commander. These tasks were to secure the general area of Thakurgaon, Dinajpur and Hilli and cut the Hilli-Gzibanda waistline by D plus eight days and then, the situation permitting, be prepared to converge on Rangpur or Bogra. It is difficult to discern what the Army Commander was trying to achieve. Did he intend to ensure added security to the Siliguri corridor? With about division strength already deployed in the corridor, no such assurance was warranted. In any event, Shah was not capable of mounting such an operation in the direction of the corridor with the Indian division plus strength deployed in the Balurghat bulge threatening his waistline.

Was the Army Commander’s intention to prevent the whole of Pakistan 16 Infantry Division or the major part of it from falling back on Dacca? Then the early capture of the ferries at Phulchari, Serajganj and Beraghat should have been planned, and not only that portion which fell north of the waistline. Did the Army Commander intend to push Thapan’s thrust across the Jamuna towards Dacca? Certainly not at the time of initial planning, but it appears that he had some after-thoughts.

Between 12 and 15 December, when Dacca presented an easy target, the Army Commander made frantic but futile efforts to move one brigade group with some tanks and medium artillery across the river. The only ferry site Thapan’s troops captured, that at Phulchari, had been severly damaged by air and ground action and was unusable. The other sites at Serajganj and Beraghat had not been secured. These were well away from Bogra, where the leading elements were still fighting. But their capture did not form part of the corps’ tasks.

The use of combat groups, consisting of tanks and tank-mounted infantry, enabled him to move faster and reach the Pakistani contingency positions earlier than the troops earmarked to occupy them.

It appears that the Army Commander’s conception of the overall plan, and the contribution to it of each sector, was not directed and dovetailed for its achievement. For instance, the initial planning made no effort to ensure an early link with II Corps at Hardinge Bridge so as to develop a concerted threat towards Dacca from the sector which offered better facilities for such action at that time. And at no time did the Army Commander stress the importance of the tight scheduling of operations so as to finish the war before there was outside political and military intervention and compel the early surrender of the Pakistani forces. It looks as though he vacillated between what he wanted his troops to achieve and his assessment of their capability to do so, and as a result failed to enunciate his war aims. His subordinate commanders and their troops fumbled from objective to objective without any substantial contribution to the overall aim.

In the conduct of operations, Thapan failed to exploit his combat power to the full. Of some six brigades employed in his sector after 7 December (after three days of war) only one brigade group was on the offensive, the other five remaining on the defensive and laying siege to the Pakistani town fortresses. It was only after 12 December, when 340 Mountain Brigade Group had already disrupted the rear areas, that two more brigades became available, but they played a very insignificant part in expediting the end of hostilities. They were rushed to invest the Rangpur fortress, which would have remained within the defensive bars of Pakistan’s basic concepts. But this move of Thapan made no difference at all.

Whatever tangible gains were made in the way of developing the thrust line some 130 kilometres deep in Pakistan territory up to Bogra can be attributed to the decision of Joginder Singh to break away from typical Indian World War II concepts and restore the power of manoeuvre on the battlefield. The use of combat groups, consisting of tanks and tank-mounted infantry, enabled him to move faster and reach the Pakistani contingency positions earlier than the troops earmarked to occupy them.

The Pakistani movement might have been hampered by lack of transport and Indian air supremacy, but Shah did not appear to have even made an effort.

It also allowed prepared defences to be outflanked, encircled and effectively contained while the main thrust developed well behind their rear and unnerved the defenders. Joginder Singh exploited unused routes of ingress and appeared from unexpected directions, mostly from the rear, to deliver his final blow. He also made extensive use of roadblocks to interrupt the Pakistani withdrawal. These highly unorthodox moves by Indian Army standards paid dividends far greater than the resources employed.

The Pakistani defensive posture in the sector did not show much resilience either in concept or execution, and thereby Shah, General Officer Commanding 16 Infantry Division, failed his country and his command. Initially, in pursuance of Niazi’s policy of not allowing any territory to fall into Indian hands, Shah had deployed his troops in the form of strengthened BOPs near the border and for internal security in the inferior to cope with Mukti Bahini operations up to the middle of November. When Indian pressure started building up on the periphery of the border in support of Mukti Bahini to annex weakly held areas, Shah pulled to the prepared town fortress areas, blocking the main routes of Indian ingress in three distinct complexes.

These were the Dinajpur-Saidpur-Rangpur complex in the north, the Hilli-Ghoraghat complex in the centre, and the Bogra-Nator-Rajshahi complex in the south. Approximately one brigade group was stationed in each. All these fortresses were located on nodal points of internal communications and had elaborately prepared and well-coordinated defences. The main routes of ingress into the northwestern sector ran from the north between the Tista and Atrai rivers and were covered by the Saidpur-Rangpur complex, from the Balurghat side between the Dhopa and Bhelmati rivers, which were blocked by the Dinajpur complex; the waist by the Hilli-Ghora- ghat complex; and the approaches from the south through Hardinge Bridge by the Nator and Bogra complexes.

The strength mustered by Joginder Singh at that time was thin, and any spirited, violent and strong reaction on the part of Shah would have put the Indian offensive out of gear.

This posture endowed Shah with the ability to halt the Indian thrusts before they reached sensitive areas in the interior from whichever direction the threat materialised, and after the threat was discerned, to create reserves from the uncommitted complex and frustrate their further progress. But the Pakistani General tailed to comprehend this fully and instead allowed each complex to fight its own battle independently.

After his surrender, Shah boasted that by splitting an infantry company in two he had increased the strength of some battalions so as to occupy more sensitive areas. He also explained how he had dirtributed his divisional headquarters staff and communications to create more ad hoc formation headquarters, and he himself functioned from tactical headquarters comprising no more than three or four vehicles. This was his first mistake, for the dilution of integrated units and ad hocism adversely affected the combat power of the fighting units and achieved nothing more than adding to the number of thinly held defended localities with low potential. This lent itself to defeat in detail.

His second and bigger mistake was not to react strongly after having been ambushed north of Pirganj. Even at the cost of pulling out the entire Rangpur garrison, he should have counterattacked Pirganj, if not the same night at least by first light on 8 December. The strength mustered by Joginder Singh at that time was thin, and any spirited, violent and strong reaction on the part of Shah would have put the Indian offensive out of gear.

Between 8 and 12 December, Thapan could deploy only one brigade group along the Rangpur-Bogra highway and no more. Shah had the option of strengthening the Bogra-Ichhamati complex by moving the brigade from the Nator-Rajshahi complex as by then Hardinge Bridge had been demolished and no threat could possibly materialise to such depth areas. If nothing else, he could have diverted 57 Infantry Brigade from Pakistan 9 Infantry Division, which had become available from the 11 Corps offensive along Hardinge Bridge. Instead, Shah let Tajamul Hussain withdraw his brigade from Hilli and at the same time do battle in the rear areas up to Bogra.

The battle was lost not because the Indians had gained a victory, but because the Pakistani’s had conceded it without even a fight.

As a result only one battalion, earmarked to prepare and look after the rear area defences, opposed 340 Mountain Brigade Group operations throughout. However heroic the actions of 8 Baluch and its commanding officer, they were not equal to containing a brigade group with a regiment of armour. They invariably reached the prepared defences a little too late to be effective. The Pakistani movement might have been hampered by lack of transport and Indian air supremacy, but Shah did not appear to have even made an effort. No determined armies can be completely immobilised by such constraints.

There was also a possibility of mustering a brigade group by denuding the garrisons at Dinajpur, Saidpur and Rangpur to stage a counteroffensive to disrupt the lines of communication serving 340 Mountain Brigade Group, functioning about 65 kilometres from Pirganj. Shah talked vaguely about plans for a limited offensive towards Farakka and Balurghat. The threat to Farakka had been nullified by the Indian occupation of the territory east of the Atrai, but the option to carry Malda-Bansibari in the Balurghat bulge with two brigades available in the south was however still open.

Book_India_wars_sinceSuch an offensive at this juncture, when Thapan’s entire force was committed deep inside East Pakistan, with no reserve nearby to restore the situation, would have paid heavy dividends. It would have forced 20 Infantry Division to withdraw, but Shah was not of the mettle of commanders who use such opportunities in war. There lay Pakistan’s weakness in leadership. The battle was lost not because the Indians had gained a victory, but because the Pakistanis had conceded it without even a fight.

Notes:

  1. Progress made by the northern thrust in the northwestern sector was also very slow on account of enemy resistance.
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