The Glorious Tale of Lt Harpal Singh Ahluwalia
This article was first published on Newslaundry: Read original article here: https://www.newslaundry.com/2016/10/25/the-glorious-tale-of-lt-harpal-singh-ahluwalia
He may not be decorated, but this soldier was a hero. Listen to this tale from the 1971 war
On December 8, I971, 4 Sikh was camping on the outskirts of Jessore, a military cantonment in erstwhile East Pakistan. One month earlier, in November, through preliminary tactical operations, 9 Infantry Division of India had drawn forward Pakistan’s 107 Infantry Brigade out of the bastion of Jessore into a defensive arc 10 -15 kilometres to the West, to cover the three axes leading to the cantonment. These gaps were exploited using General Aurora’s operational strategy of “leave the highways and take the byways”. After some intense fighting to clear selected defences, breakthrough was achieved on December 6 and Jessore was in our hands by December 7.
To our surprise, the Pakistani 107 Infantry Brigade withdrew towards the port of Khulna (70 km to the South) instead of withdrawing to cover the ferry at Goalanda Ghat on the Meghna River, 120 km to the North West, which opened the axes to Dhaka. Dhaka had never been discussed as an objective, but even to young Captains like me, it was clear that the strategic objective was Dhaka.
These were the circumstances in which Lieutenant Harpal Singh Ahluwalia reported to yours truly, the Adjutant, on the afternoon of December 8, decked up for battle like a military Christmas tree – camouflage paint on his face; four grenades hanging around his neck; four loaded magazines stuffed in pouches; a khukri hanging from his belt; and his carbine held up in the air in true Hollywood movie style.
“Where is the action, when do I join battle?” he demanded impatiently. I explained to him that there was a lull in battle and we were awaiting further orders. He was visibly disappointed. “I have missed it,” he lamented. “This goddamned army has made me miss the war. How will I tell my kids that when 4 Sikh was in the thick of battle, I was learning the nuances of the radio waves at Mhow?” Harpal was referring to the Signal (a wireless radio communications) Course, which he had been attending at Mhow. By evening, Harpal was even more emotional and cursed the higher commanders for not exploiting the operational opportunity of racing to Dhaka and denying him the action. We were high on rum and I too joined him in heaping curses on the higher commanders.
I had known Harpal for the past 10 years. He was a class junior to me at school – St Mary’s Academy – in Meerut Cantonment. He was good at his studies and a good cricket player. What stood out about Harpal was his cool demeanour and devil-may-care attitude towards life. I joined the National Defence Academy in December 1964, after completing school, and was commissioned into the 4 Sikh in December 1968. Harpal did his graduation from Agra and them joined the Indian Military Academy. He was also commissioned into the 4 Sikh in December 1969. Except for a full beard, little had changed in his core character. His calm attitude was his signature. Nothing ever ruffled him. I was the senior subaltern who is supposed to mould and groom the newly-commissioned in the unit. But more than that, as per our unit traditions, we were more like friends and I was only first among equals.
Harpal and I soon became great friends. Despite the conservative military life, we were both enamoured with the hippies and Beatles, and that catchphrase from Love Story – “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”. Che Guevara, Kahlil Gibran, Gandhi and Bhagat Singh were endlessly discussed. Religious and societal conservatism were daily flogged to absurdum. Bell bottoms were the flavour of the day and we secretly gave a little curve to open up our uniform trousers below the knees. Much to our amusement, the unit tailor was hauled up for “poor tailoring skills” by the Commanding Officer.
Harpal and my attitude was that war was always around the corner. We had imbibed the lessons of Vietnam War from the United States Infantry Magazine and newspapers of the day. We had chatted with the veterans of the unit about their experience of the past wars. We still had Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) who had taken part in the Second World War and the bulk of the officers (JCOs and non-commissioned officers) had participated in the 1962 and 1965 wars. We did hard soldiering with the troops and honed our skills and tactics. Last but not the least, we drank hard but read military history even harder. The latter was the reason why we were instinctively looking at Dhaka while our higher commanders in 2 Corps were turning North and South to engage in peripheral battles.
By December 7, a similar situation was prevailing on all the battle fronts: to the North West (33 Corps), North (101 Communication Zone), East (4 Corps) and West (2 Corps ), and we had operational level opportunities (a level of war that lies at one step below the strategic level of war) to threaten/capture the Centre of Gravity of East Pakistan – Dhaka. Only General Sagat Singh, GOC 4 Corps, and Brigadier H S Kler, Commander 95 Mountain Brigade under 101 Communication Zone, seized these opportunities, and the rest is history. 2 Corps and 33 Corps remained bogged down in peripheral, but high intensity, tactical battles
On our front, 32 Infantry Brigade made its way to Khulna, covering troops of 107 Infantry Brigade, which fought a brilliant withdrawal battle. By December 10, the advance came to a grinding halt as 107 Infantry Brigade had created a formidable defensive position in the area of Phultala and Daulatpur, on the outskirts of Khulna. This was the situation on December 12 when 4 Sikh as part of 350 Infantry Brigade received orders to move to Khulna.
I rang up Harpal and informed him about the impending action. He said, “At last!” and celebrated by firing a full burst of 32 rounds from his carbine. He was a platoon commander in ‘A’ Company. In the next six hours, the unit was in the vicinity of Khulna. A grim battle was in progress. Brigadier Muhammad Hayat, Commander of Pakistan’s 107 Infantry Brigade, was a thorough professional and in his own words (as narrated during his interrogation as a Prisoner of War) “waiting to settle scores with Major General Dalbir Singh, General Officer Commanding, 9 Infantry Division”.
107 Infantry Brigade had occupied a compact, defended sector in Daulatpur, on the outskirts of Khulna, astride the road and railway line connecting Jessore to Khulna. To the East, the defences rested on the Bhairab River and 12 kilometres to the West, on interconnected marshes. Three Pakistani battalions were defending the frontage. 6 Punjab was deployed to the East from Bhairab River upto the railway line, 15 Frontier Force Rifles (FFR) was to the West of 6 Punjab and 12 Punjab was further to the West. These battalions were supported by 21 Punjab (Reconnaissance & Support) less a company, two tanks that had survived the battle of Garibpur and one artillery regiment. 22 FFR was deployed in the depth for counter attack.
The plan was for 350 Infantry Brigade to attack from the North and 42 Infantry Brigade to attack from the East from across the Bhairab River, using assault boats to get behind the enemy defences. 26 Madras attacked from the North on night December 13/14, but the attack was repulsed. 42 Infantry Brigade’s attack on December 14 also did not make any headway. Commander 350 Infantry Brigade, Brigadier H S Sandhu, then tasked 1 Jammu and Kashmir Rifles (JAK) to attack along Bhairab River and create a corridor 1.5 km deep and 1 km wide. 4 Sikh (our unit) was to pass through the corridor and turn West to get behind the defences and establish a road block. The main defences were then to be attacked by 32 Infantry Brigade.
In the early hours of December 15, 1 JAK launched their attack. No quarter was asked and none was given. The battle continued ensued for four hours. Despite suffering heavy casualties, 1 JAK cleared the corridor by mid-day. At last light on December 15, 4 Sikh started moving stealthily along the river. As Harpal went past me, he quietly whispered, “Death or glory!” I gave him the thumbs up sign.
After 1.5 km, 4 Sikh drew fire from the enemy’s rear defences. After placing B Company to the South to act as the flank guard, the unit turned towards the West. We were behind the defences of 6 Punjab (enemy unit) and had to traverse 2 km to reach the road block site; 22 FFR the reserve of 107 Infantry Brigade was still deployed to our South. Both 6 Punjab and 22 FFR readjusted their positions to oppose us. After our C Company cleared 700 meters, at mid night, the leading troops heard tank noises. Such is the psychological impact of the tank noises at night that the attack was stalled. I was tasked to contact our tanks and bring them forward.
I contacted a troop (three tanks) of PT 76 amphibious tanks, but they did not know where we were. I told them to get into the Bhairab River and swim South until they saw our torches. I ran back one km to the river to signal to them. The plan worked. I mounted on a tank and we made our way forward. However, the noise of tanks attracted artillery fire. There was confusion all around. We were under fire from 6 Punjab in the North and 22 FFR in the South. Our B Company, acting as flank guard, was firing back. My signal operator was hit by a burst and collapsed in my arms. I took over the radio set and told the tank troop commander to make haste.
In the meantime, troops of C Company were engaging the enemy tanks. One tank was knocked down by a rocket launcher. Actually the enemy had only one tank. But the tank noise and absence of night vision devices had created the panic.
As our tanks reached the area to join the battle, D company resumed the attack and secured a set of buildings by 0700 hours. The stage was now set for the coup de grace by A Company, led by Harpal’s platoon, to launch the final attack to establish the block.
Harpal’s platoon, supported by our tanks, moved from building to building, under cover of smoke shells. There was an open patch of 150 meters in front of A Company. Under cover of tank and machine gun fire, Harpal’s platoon raced forward. Suddenly they came under intense artillery and mortar fire. I saw Harpal being lifted five to six feet in the air due to a shell blast and fall to the ground. I thought that the worse had happened, but he stood up, despite being wounded, and urged the platoon forward. The men who had hit the ground also got up and followed him. Harpal collapsed after 30 yards, but his troops continued the attack and secured the highway and the railway line after a close quarter battle.
I got hold of the Commanding Officer’s jeep – the first vehicle to link up – and drove to Harpal. His head was a mess with a nasty gash. As we picked him up, he said, “Patch me up, I have to go to the road block.” I told him the mission had already been accomplished. We patched him up with a field dressing and he insisted that we first evacuate the more seriously wounded to the hospital, rather than him. As we put him in the jeep, his fainting spells had begun. His last words were a question to me, “Death or glory?” I said, “Glory it shall be”, with my fingers crossed.
Next morning, the remaining 107 Infantry Brigade surrendered. 4 Sikh suffered 23 killed and 79 wounded in the operation and earned the Battle Honour – Siromony – a prominent village in the main defences. The unit was also awarded the Theatre Honour – Jessore.
Harpal lived to fight many more battles with 4 Sikh (which he commanded), before retiring (he now lives in Australia and is a successful realtor). Like many other unknown heroes, he received no decoration, but had the privilege of leading troops in battle, from the front. I was right – glory it had been.
This article was written by Lt Gen HS Panag, PVSM, AVSM (Retd.) for Newslaundry. Read original article here: https://www.newslaundry.com/2016/10/25/the-glorious-tale-of-lt-harpal-singh-ahluwalia