The Author atop a captured tank

“Gentlemen only God can stop this war from taking place” said Maj Gen Benjamin Franklin Gonsalves, General-Officer-Commanding of the 57th Indian Mountain (Mtn) Division (Div) as he addressed his Officers.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had returned from USA after making a last ditch effort to prevent a war from erupting. It was the first official indicator that war was imminent. 

I returned after his address to my post atop the Air Traffic Control at Agartala airport and watched as a Fokker Friendship F-27 of the Indian Airlines taxied to fly out with its new load of passengers. I wondered how many of them knew that war was imminent and how they would react if they knew.

The next fortnight was utilized in digging trenches, building bunkers, deploying guns, dumping ammunition, carrying out rehearsals and undertaking last minute checks of every piece of equipment we possessed. 78 guns including my own, from 5 regiments were deployed to the South of the Agartala airport to support the offensive.  Air Defence guns popularly called Ack-Ack guns were deployed around us to provide us air defence (AD) cover against Pakistani Sabre jets. 

Our Regiment was deployed just 200 metres from the border and we were thus under constant threat of attacks by the Pakistani Infantry and their Artillery.

I had put up a banner in my Command Post (CP) bunker to motivate my men which read – ON TO DACCA.  It was based on my misplaced impression that Dacca being 60 kms away as the crow flies would be our natural final objective.

So when the Brigade (Bde) Commander visited my position and saw it – he commented “So son you think you are going to Dacca” and I replied a bit cheekily “But where else Sir”. Not wanting to deflate my enthusiasm he just smiled, exchanged knowing looks with the Commanding Officer (CO) and Second in Command (2iC) and left wishing me luck.

The Brigade Commander was not wrong as our Division was then tasked to capture the strongly held Pak positions at Akhaura and Gangasagar . After this two Bdes would wheel South to capture Daudkhandi and later Chittagong.  While the Bde that was to capture Akhaura would thereafter move West along the River Titas and capture all areas up to Brahmanbaria and the Meghna River. This move was to prevent the Pak Army’s 14 Div deployed at Sylhet, Maulvi Bazar and Ashuganj from interfering with 57 Mtn Div’s plans for Daudkhandi and Chittagong or coming to the assistance of Pak 39 Div located at Comilla, Mynamati and Lalmai Hills. 

I with my battery (Bty) was affiliated with this Bde and was to therefore stay put where I was and maybe not even cross the IB and enter East Pakistan. No wonder my Bde Commander (Bde Cdr) was amused. Fortunately no one told me that and I remained focused on Dacca.

The Infantry as is the norm is tasked to capture ground objectives while dedicated Artillery and Indian Air Force officers accompany them to direct artillery and air fore jet fire.

It is where the action is. I was therefore disappointed to learn that I was not amongst the chosen few Ops to accompany the Infantry and was to be in reserve to be called up as and when required.

At 5 PM the Adjutant called and told us – Tally Ho at 1800 hrs (6 PM). It was the code word for commencement of Operations or the “H hour” as we say in the Forces. We accordingly got ready to fire. We then learnt that the Pakistan Air Force had launched air attacks on our airfields in the Western sector. This we knew meant it was PAYBACK time. At the appointed hour 78 guns of the 57 Mtn Div opened with a barrage directed at Pakistani posts on the border amidst cries of Bharat Mat ki Jai.

The Earth shook under our feet as our guns thundered and lobbed hundreds of shells (tons would be a better word) on to Pak defences at Akhaura and Gangasagar. THE WAR HAD BEGUN. 

The Pak artillery was quick to respond and its shells burst around us. Two of these shells came pretty close – One burst near a gun of ours and instantly killed three of our boys. They were our very first dead.

The next shell burst bang next to my CP bunker and took away half of its front. A piece of shrapnel whizzed through between my radio operator and me, to hit the sand bags behind us. We kept firing virtually nonstop the whole night till our gun barrels grew red hot. We then tied wet hessian to keep them cool and also kept the hessian continuously wet too. 

The morning of 04 December saw the first officer fatalities – both friends of mine. I who was till then with the reserves, suddenly found myself being asked to move up as replacement. I quickly bid good bye to all in the gun position and left to cross the Akhaura borde.

Mine was a small team of 4 in a 1 tonner Nissan moving to join the Infantry in its ongoing action at Akhaura where the two officer casualties had occurred.  My move involved travel over a `kuccha’ track through a very narrow corridor of real estate interspersed with ponds, nullahs and rivulets between the two main objectives under attack Akhaura and Gangasagar. 

  As I zigzagged West studying my map continuously a big “Whoosh” suddenly made me look right or North towards Akhaura. I saw our PT 76 tanks engaged in a shooting match with their Paki counterparts who also had PT 76 tanks. The whoosh was a Paki tank shell that had not only missed hitting our tanks but us too.

I must have travelled another 400 to 500 metres when I heard the unmistakable alarm signal of an air raid. I looked West and saw 4 specks on the horizon that were growing larger. I knew what they were, told the driver to stop the vehicle and told my team to jump off. 

We had barely left the vehicle when four PAF Sabre jets were overhead doing a barrel roll and breaking in to two sections of two aircrafts each. They then came in low flying South to North with their machine guns blazing. The next two Sabres used rockets in addition to their guns. As I lay on the ground and watched them attack I was wondering why was I the centre of their attention. The air was soon cleared when I realised that I was directly in their line of attack on our tanks and that they generally opened up near my vehicle, probably using it as a reference point. Either way it was not a comforting thought.

The air attack must have been in progress for 20 minutes or so and I was beginning to wonder where the IAF was when during the third run by the Sabres suddenly 2 Gnats and 2 MiGs of the IAF arrived. The attacking Sabres suddenly broke off and a dog fight soon ensued in the air before our eyes

The Sabres decided that disecretion was the better part of valour and soon broke off from the contest running tail towards Dacca. We cheered our IAF who decided not to chase the Sabres and instead to provide us with a CAP or Combat Air Patrol.

We reached the infantry position where I was to report around 1 PM. The troops had infiltrated through the same gap that I had travelled through and had deployed themselves behind the Pak defensive positions at Akhaura to cut them off.

I was to join the company (Coy) that were farthest away but due to the prevailing situation was held back with the elements where I had reported. 

The Paltan or company had completed its initial tasks and was readying itself for a counter-attack (CA) by the Pak troops which was not long in coming. It came some 30-40 mins later supported by tanks. Unfortunately for us the recoilless (RCL) guns of the Paltan had not managed to come up and with troops from both sides so closely intermingled, I could not bring down own artillery fire without causing casualties amongst our own troops.

Individual tank hunting teams of the Paltan then managed to climb on to two Pak tanks and neutralize them by lobbying hand grenades inside them. With two out of the four attacking tanks immobilized the Pakis chose to withdraw. 

Having beaten the CA back we found that we had a few Pak soldiers amidst us. These became our first Prisoners of War (POWs). Surprisingly there were no Pak officers amongst them.

My party had meanwhile dug two fox holes to take shelter in. Digging was surprisingly easy and was more like scooping the earth out since the top soil was extremely soft. The problem was that what lay beneath was pure slush. It was a Hobson’s choice – Dig out a damp hole or Die in the open and we chose the former.

The sun sets early in this part of the world and soon nightfall descended. It was my first night in foreign lands somewhere in the paddy fields of East Pakistan behind an obscure place called Akhaura which most in India would have never heard of.

We had broken in to the crust but had to still clear it before we could be on our way to Dacca. Leaving an armed enemy behind us was not militarily prudent. The rest of the Bde was therefore still busy in securing the Akhaura position and the fighting and shelling continued through the night. The morning which starts early brought with it the first fog of the season and the first CA of the day; 5 Dec 1971. The CA was weak this time and fizzled out as we launched a quick riposte.

By the time the fog lifted we had reorganized ourselves and the RCL Guns had been fetched up too. It was reassuring but by then the Pak defenders had lost heart and were more focused on either fleeing or surrendering and were not putting up any resistance at all.  

Just as we were moving to complete our tasks 2 Pak Sabres appeared overhead. Unknown to them four of our MiGs were waiting and as the prospects of a 4:2 dog fight appeared the Sabres turned tail and disappeared. I next saw them after the war – all lined up at the Dacca airfield.

Col. Pradeep Saxena is a decorated Indian veteran of the 1971 war.

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