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Outside the house of a Pakistani Brigadier

Akhaura having been secured we were then ordered to move towards Brahmanabaria which was some 25 kms North West of our location. We started our advance along the railway track which was on a bund , some 10-15 feet above the rest of the low-lying land. It was the driest patch of earth that we had encountered so far in East Pakistan.

Somewhere my battery was also ordered to move up and join us, which it did on 07 December. We then crossed the Titas River and reached the outskirts of Brahmanbaria on 08 Dec.  We now had to cross the Pagla River to enter the town but were asked to stay put and not cross till further orders. 

Sometime before noon we saw one Chetak helicopter of our Airforce come in from Agartala side to carry out an aerial recce over the Meghna River.

A short while later another Chetak helicopter appeared and soon both landed.  

We did not know at that time that a momentous decision had been taken between two daring military leaders which was to result in the creation of Bangladesh earlier than planned. The first helicopter had carried our GOC Maj Gen Gonsalves who on hearing of Pak Army withdrawal from Sylhet and Maulvi Bazar towards Bhairab Bazar realised a golden opportunity had presented itself and which his Division could exploit. 

The second helicopter had carried the GOC 4 Corps Lt Gen Sagat Singh who was equally daring. So when Gen Gonsalves shared the information with him on the radio, Sagat could not believe his luck and came rushing. A joint recce confirmed what Gonsalves had seen. They rushed back to make a fresh plan and sent it to their boss, the Army Commander Lt Gen JS Aurora. 

Fortunately for the Indian Army all three Generals – Aurora, Sagat and Gonsalves -were Paratroopers and had served with each other and so knew each others’ mind. Lady luck was certainly on our side and a crossing of the Meghna River was planned. The Pakis having seen the recce by the two helicopters panicked and blew up the only rail-road bridge across the Meghna at Ashuganj. 

The Paltan I was with was resting when my CO fetched up on 09 Dec morning and told me join him in a trip to Brahmanbaria town. We crossed the Pagla and drove towards the Stadium. As we drove along the river we found bodies being taken out from the bunkers that lined the river.  There were 42 bodies which had been taken out from some 9 or 10 bunkers. One of them was still alive and told us that the Pak Army had pulled out 42 intellectuals of the town in the wee hours of the morning and had shot them point blank. He was a serving Judge of the Brahmanbaria district courts and died shortly thereafter. Those shot included Doctors, Judges, Lawyers, chartered accountants, Professors, Businessmen etc. It was a grim reminder of how Pak Armymen behaved towards their own countrymen.

When my CO and I reached the Stadium we were joined by a number of top leaders including our GOC and an IAF Group Capt. They told us of plans for the launch of the first ever Heliborne Assault by the Indian Army in a War across a mighty river obstacle.

The Paltan I was with was chosen to lead. I was thrilled to say the least and got about readying myself for the momentous op. 

By 2.30 PM, the first Mi-4 helicopters had landed in the stadium. They were to ferry us across the mighty Meghna river. By 3.30 PM, we were airborne and on our way in two inverted “V” formations of 5 Mi-4 each. The helicopters were open from the back and we were told to hold on to whatever we could to avoid falling-out; so much for air safety.

The Meghna is nearly 5000 yards wide, a width most can’t swim and most certainly not in full battle gear of 25 kgs on our backs plus our weapons. We were half-way over the Meghna when Pak ack-ack guns and machine guns opened up from below. The choppers zigzagged like writhing snakes and gained and lost height like a giraffe’s nodding head while we inside tried to hang on to whatever we could for dear life.

Our Gnats escort went after the guns and silenced them. I mentally added “Facing the Flak” to my growing list of Firsts.  

We reached our dropping zone (DZ) some 30-40 min later and looked forward to some happy landings. Our hopes were soon dashed as the choppers stopped mid-air, hovered over the DZ and the co pilot asked us to jump down some 10-12 ft below. He had been my senior in the NDA and we hadn’t parted as the best of friends. I thought he was getting his own back at me, so gave him the dirtiest look I could manage and jumped out, followed by the others.  

On hitting the ground we realized why the choppers had not landed. It was a paddy field, wet and slushy and had the choppers landed they would have got stuck in the mud and not been able to take off again. As I got up, I waved back to my old senior who gave me the traditional thumbs-up as his chopper banked away and gained height to rejoin others in the air. 

Pak guns were soon firing on us and we raced across the open fields towards our immediate objective – the Methikanda railway station. A fire fight ensued and an hour later the Pakis withdrew towards Bhairab Bazar. By the time we had reorganized ourselves, the next sortie of choppers flew in bringing in the Infantry CO and more troops. The ferrying of more troops followed all through the night. It also ferried in 3 guns of my Battery with 300 rounds.

As the buildup continued the Infantry CO called for his “O” Group for a briefing. I was part of it and attended sitting in the open on the railway platform in enemy territory. The CO had just finished his reading out his Orders when we heard Pak radio make two absurd pronouncements. These were – that they were closing on to Teliamura – the location of HQ 4 Corps – and were about to capture it and that a “desperate attempt by the Indian Army to heli-land troops in the interiors had been thwarted and all those involved in it had been killed and bodies were being counted. Two choppers had also been downed”.

The CO felt that a drink was called for in “honour of our announced death” and soon bottles of whisky, brandy and rum materialized from nowhere. We all had our choice of drink poured in to our white enameled mugs, which utilityware was multi-purpose and served for our not only our daily cup of tea, shave and bath but also certain unmentionables too. Water being “rationed” was dispensed with. This Heliborne assault resulted in the surrender of Pakistan Army’s 14 Inf Division at Bhairab Bazar.

Meanwhile on 10 Dec afternoon we started our advance towards Narsingdi, some 30 kms away. As we marched along the railway track hundreds of locals joined us shouting `Joi Bangla’ and offered to help us. It certainly lifted our spirits but being aware of Pak Army supporting elements called Razakars, we politely declined. Midway we found a few empty railway wagons, so we loaded our guns and ammunition in them and pushed them along the tracks. Our march was uneventful except for the few times we had to dive for cover when we heard aircraft overhead, only to realize that it was the IAF heading for Dacca. 

A few kms short of Narsingdi, we came across an abandoned diesel engine in running condition. One of the officers with us knew something about running them and soon the bogies we were pushing were attached to it. We then chugged slowly towards Narsingdi blowing the engine’s whistle both in excitement as well as in celebration even as some men ran ahead to change the signals and tracks to ensure our little train’s smooth passage. We however stopped 2 kms or so short so that we could join a military formation to capture the town before entering it.

We captured Narsinghdi around 4 AM the next day, viz 11 Dec. We had by then walked nearly 60-65 kms from Agartala, some 30 km from Methikanda, were 42 kms North East of Dacca and were also woefully short of sleep.

We therefore dropped to sleep where we could in the open unmindful of the bitter winter cold. We did not know then that we were ones closest to Dacca.  

I was in deep slumber when I was woken up some two and a half hours later by my unit’s 2ic.  He had brought us some tandoori chicken and hot tea as welcome breakfast. He then disappeared to return with a motley collection of transport consisting of auto rickshaws, tractors, small and big civilian trucks.

We all piled up on this `armada’ and resumed our advance towards Dacca. Somewhere on the Narsinghdi-Dacca road we crossed the milestone “Dacca 40 kms” which was truly energizing.

Later that day, 12 Dec, two things happened – one we had an IAF Caribou carry out a para drop and the other was the news that the US Navy’s 7th Fleet with its nuclear powered aircraft carrier the USS Enterprise then the most feared warship in the world was steaming up the Bay of Bengal towards us.

That night we got our first letters which was what the Caribou drop was all about. I got two letters, one from my Mom from Delhi and the other from my uncle who was posted at Military Hospital at Tezpur. Both letters informed me that my younger brother was now in the thick of things at some God forsaken place called Hilli in North West East Pakistan and that my Uncle too had moved in to Bangladesh to some location with the hospital. So now the war had become a family affair with three of us involved in it. 

13 Dec was an eventful day as that was the last one to one encounter my boys and I had with Pak Army before the war ended. Nothing much had happened during the day as we raced our Infantry and Artillery forces towards Dacca. By the last light we were on the banks of the Lakhya River which was the last obstacle between us and Dacca and ultimate victory.

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

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