Indo-Pak war 1971

The Indo-Pak war of 1971Setting:

The partition of the Indian Subcontinent in 1947 created two independent countries: India and Pakistan. India, which became independent on 15 August 1947, stood for a secular, equitable polity based on the universally accepted idea that all men are created equal and should be treated as such. Pakistan, which officially came into existence a day earlier, was based on the premise that Hindus and Muslims of the Subcontinent constitute two different nationalities and cannot co-exist. The Partition created two different countries with most Muslim majority areas of undivided India going to the newly created nation, Pakistan (Land of the Pure). Pakistan was originally made up of two distinct and geographically unconnected parts termed West and East Pakistan. West Pakistan was made up of a number of races including the Punjabis (the most numerous), Sindhis, Pathans, Balochis, Mohajirs (Muslim refugees from India) and others. East Pakistan, on the other hand, was much more homogeneous and had an overwhelming Bengali-speaking population.

The Roots of Discord:
Sheikh Mujibur Rehman

Although the Eastern wing of Pakistan was more populous than than the Western one, political power since independence rested with the Western elite. This caused considerable resentment in East Pakistan and a charismatic Bengali leader called, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, most forcefully articulated that resentment by forming an opposition political party called the Awami League and demanding more autonomy for East Pakistan within the Pakistani Federation. In the Pakistani general elections held in 1970, the Sheikh’s party won the majority of seats, securing a complete majority in East Pakistan. In all fairness, the Sheikh should have been Prime Minister of Pakistan, or at least the ruler of his province. But West Pakistan’s ruling elite were so dismayed by the turn of events and by the Sheikh’s demands for autonomy that instead of allowing him to rule East Pakistan, they put him in jail.

Origins of the Crisis
Pakistani Army Troops Gunning Down Bengali Protestors

The dawn of 1971 saw a great human tragedy unfolding in erstwhile East Pakistan. Entire East Pakistan was in revolt. In the West, General Yahya Khan, who had appointed himself President in 1969, had given the job of pacifying East Pakistan to his junior, General Tikka Khan. The crackdown of 25 March 1971 ordered by Tikka Khan, left thousands of Bengalis dead and Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was arrested the next day. The same day, the Pakistani Army began airlifting two of its divisions plus a brigade strength formation to its Eastern Wing. Attempts to dis-arm Bengali troops were not entirely successful and within weeks of the 25 March massacres, many former Bengali officers and troops of the Pakistani Army had joined Bengali resistance fighters in different parts of East Pakistan.

Mukti Bahini Volunteers

The Pakistani Army conducted several crackdowns in different parts of Bangladesh, leading to massive loss of civilian life. The details of those horrific massacres, in which defenceless people were trapped and machine-gunned, is part of Bangladeshi history. Survivors compare it to the Nazi extermination of Jews. At the same time, the Pakistani Administration in Dhaka thought it could pacify the Bengali peasantry by appropriating the land of the Hindu population and gifting it to Muslims. While this did not impress the peasantry, it led to the exodus of more than 8 million refugees (more than half of them Hindus) to neighbouring India. West Bengal was the worst affected by the refugee problem and the Indian government was left holding the enormous burden. Repeated appeals by the Indian government failed to elicit any response from the international community and by April 1971, the then Indian Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, decided that the only solution lay in helping Bengali freedom fighters, especially the Mukti Bahini, to liberate East Pakistan, which had already been re-christened Bangladesh by its people.

Pakistan felt it could dissuade India from helping the Mukti Bahini by being provocative. The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) in East Pakistan took to attacking suspected Mukti Bahini camps located inside Indian territory in the state of West Bengal. In the Western and Northern sectors too occasional clashes, some of them quite bloody, took place. Pakistan was suggesting that should India continue with its plans it should expect total war as in 1965. Only this time, the Pakistanis would concentrate their forces in the West and thereby aim at capturing as much as Indian territory as possible. The Indians, on the other hand, would be fighting a war on two fronts (while at the same time keeping a fearful eye on the Chinese borders). Given this scenario, the Pakistanis felt that India at best would be able to capture some territory in East Pakistan and lose quite a bit in the West. In the end, the Pakistanis knew that the Western powers would intervene to stop the war and what would matter is who had the most of the other’s territory.

Indian Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi at the Front

Confident that another war would be as much of a stalemate as the 1965 Conflict, the Pakistanis got increasingly bold and finally on 3 December 1971 reacted with a massive co-ordinated air strike on several Indian Air Force stations in the West. At midnight, the Indian Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi in a broadcast to the nation declared that India was at war with Pakistan. As her words came on in million of Indian homes across the Subcontinent, the men at the front were already engaged in bitter combat.

. PAF Strikes
Burnt-out trucks

For all practical purposes, the war started at about 5:40 pm on 3 December when Pakistan Air Force (PAF) combat aircraft struck nine Indian airfields along the Western borders. The air strikes were followed by a massive attack on the strategic Chhamb sector in the north. In the East, it was the Indian Army which went on the offensive. By late that night, artillery shells were raining down all along the Western and Eastern borders. India and Pakistan were locked in a two-front war.

In the West, the Indian Army had very limited offensive aims and was relegated more to a holding role. The initiative lay with Pakistan. In this theatre, Pakistan had near parity with India in armour and artillery while India had more infantry divisions. Pakistan’s most successful thrust was in Chhamb where the 23rd Pakistani Division (along with two additional infantry brigades, one extra armoured brigade and Corps artillery units) under the able leadership of Major General Iftikhar Khan completely overwhelmed the forward defensive positions of the Indian 10 Division commanded by Major General Jaswant Singh. Chhamb village was taken and the Pakistanis threatened to advance towards Jammu, the summer capital of the state of Jammu & Kashmir. Heavy fighting continued in this sector for a week until the indecisiveness of the Indian Divisional commander forced the Indian Corps Commander to intervene personally and launch heavy attacks to push the Pakistanis back to a non-threatening position. The Pakistanis surprisingly failed to take advantage of their initial successes in this sector and actually depleted the forces available to their commander, who was killed on 10 December in a helicopter crash.

Pakistani Attacks on Western Front

Acting in accordance with its strategy to grab as much territory in the West as possible, Pakistan also launched a major attack on Punch in the state of Jammu & Kashmir. This attack, unlike the one on Chhamb, was completely repulsed, although here the Indian Army was at a locational disadvantage since the Pakistanis controlled the heights around the town. Smaller attacks were launched by Pakistan in Punjab at Fazilka and Hussainiwala. Here the forward Indian defences were breached but the Pakistani Army could not sustain its attacks. A more ambitious armoured thrust in the deserts of Rajasthan was similarly stopped in the famous Battle of Longewal. In all, it appeared that the Pakistani military high command could not make up its mind as to where it should deliver its main punch and kept pulling back until it was too late.

The Indian Army chief, General Sam Maneckshaw, had a completely different set of problems. His strategy had to take into account the Chinese, with whom the Indian Army had fought a full blown war only nine years earlier. The Chinese were now firm Pakistani allies and had been making threatening noises ever since India resolved to intervene in the East Pakistan issue. General Maneckshaw, despite the disappointment of his Corps and divisional commanders, had to hold back his Army in the West, keep a watchful eye on the long and difficult Chinese borders and, at the same time, ensure that his Eastern Army secured its objective of grabbing a good chunk of East Pakistani territory within 2 to 3 weeks. The Indian aim was to install a Bangladeshi interim government in East Pakistani territory before the cessation of hostilities. It was not all clear in the beginning whether things would work out quite the way as planned.

Modest Aims, Ambitious Action

General Sam
General Sam Maneckshaw

One of the less remarked upon aspects of the 1971 war was the varied character of the key men who planned and executed the operations. Best known was of course the flamboyant Indian Army Chief, General Sam Maneckshaw, a Parsee who had won the Military Cross in WW II. To the Indian public, it was General Maneckshaw with his twirled moustache, Gorkha cap and baton, who was the symbolic hero. Yet, there were below him, an equally varied and extra-ordinary set of men, who planned and executed their own battles. The Western Army was commanded by an Anglo-Indian Lt. Gen. K.P.Candeth and the Eastern Army, headquartered at Calcutta, by a Sikh, Lt. Gen. J.S.Aurora. General Aurora’s a brilliant Chief of Staff was Major. Gen. J.F.R.Jacob, the scion of an old Jewish family of Calcutta. Together these men planned and executed the lightning operations of December 1971.

The 4th morning saw Indian forces and Mukti Bahini guerrillas ready for battle with the Pakistanis, who were by now well dug in and waiting for the Indian assault. The Indian forces easily outnumbered the Pakistanis by a ratio of about 2:1. However, according to conventional infantry wisdom, an attacking Army requires a three-is-to-one superiority in numbers to attack. India did not have that. Besides, the Pakistani Army commander in the East, General A.A.K.Niazi, was determined merely to delay the Indian advance. For, in this war, the real battle was against time. The longer it took the Indian to secure their limited objectives, the greater the probability of the United Nations intervening to stop the war and effect a stalemate. Pakistan was confident that a stalemate was all that the Indians could get. Towards this strategy, General Niazi, had fortified the towns and approaches to the East Pakistani heartland and had boasted before the war began that should hostilities begin, he would take the battle inside India.

Natural Regions The brief given by the Indian Army chief, General Maneckshaw, to the Eastern Command was very limited. The aim was to occupy only two areas of East Pakistan – Chittagong and Khulna – so that an interim Bangladeshi government could be established. The capture of the whole of East Pakistan was not even conceived. A major problem was the geography and terrain of East Pakistan. Three major rivers – the Brahmaputra, the Ganga and the Meghna – divided East Pakistan into four natural regions. Each of the rivers were major ones – all of them wider than any European river. Each sub-region was further divided into several pockets cut by smaller rivers and their tributaries. The idea that an attacking army could bridge these, fight the enemy and then take territory, all within a couple of weeks, was ludicrous.

Major General J.F.R.Jacob
Major. Gen. J.F.R.Jacob

Lt. General Aurora’s Chief of Staff, Major General Jacob, however, did not entirely agree with the Indian Army top brass. “I think the aim of the government was to take as much territory as possible in East Pakistan so as to establish an Bangladeshi government in their own territory,” he recalled in an interview with SAPRA INDIA. “Army Headquarters issued an operations instruction according to which our main objectives were to take Chittagong and Khulna ports, which were termed the entry ports. But we at Eastern Command felt differently. We felt that Dhaka was the geo-political centre of Bangladesh and therefore any campaign to be successful had to capture Dhaka.”

Initial Indian Attacks The Eastern Command went ahead with its own plans, although Army Headquarters felt it was too ambitious and could not be achieved. Jacob’s commander, Lt. Gen. Aurora, provided full support for his Army’s own plans and allowed Jacob to pull down troops kept in reserve for a possible attack by the Chinese. Some of these troops had to be brought into battle so hurriedly that the only way was to paradrop them. This was accomplished with the help of the IAF and soon soldiers geared to fight the Chinese in the high mountains found themselves in the tropical riverine areas of Tangail in East Pakistan.

“We realised that any campaign to be successful had to be swift. The United Nations was putting great pressure on us and also the Russians had indicated that they did not want to exercise their veto any more,” Jacob explained. “Therefore any campaign had to be quick. We realised that Niazi (the Pakistani Army commander in East Pakistan) was going to fortify the towns and defend them in strength. We therefore decided not attack any towns but bypass them using subsidiary tracks to get to our objective: Dhaka.”

Indian Army Soldiers building pontoon bridge The immense practical problem of moving thousands of troops and tonnes of equipment across rivers and marshes was accomplished largely due to the efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers, and with a lot of local help. The IAF chipped in by using helicopters to lift entire battalions across larger rivers that could not be quickly bridged by the Engineers. In most places, the swiftly moving contingents quickly overcame enemy resistance and moved forward. The Pakistanis for the most part, were completely taken by surprise.

Within 6 days of the war, Indian troops were deep inside East Pakistani territory and moving fast. The Mukti Bahini section of the advancing forces played a crucial role in guiding the Indian Army through the treacherous riverine areas and providing critical intelligence. It is doubtful whether the Indian Army could have moved so fast and decisively without the help of the Bangladeshis. At any rate, by the seventh day of the war, the Using Sea Power
Aircraft taking off from the Vikrant, circa 1971

The 1971 war was the first, and only, occasion when the Indian political leadership exhibited a proper understanding of the use of military power for achieving a clear national aim. In past conflicts, Indian leaders either had no clear aim in mind and were merely reacting to events or they were confused about how best to use the military power available to them. During the 1962 India-China war, for instance, the Indian government ordered the Indian Air Force to withdraw its fighter bomber squadrons from the north east and not to hit the invading Chinese. IAF bombers could have changed the course of the 1962 war had it been allowed to hit the thin and tenuous Chinese logistics lines. Similarly, in the 1965 India-Pakistan conflict, the Navy was ordered to keep its ships in port and not engage in any offensive action against Pakistan. The Pakistani Navy was given a free hand and it managed to lob a few shells at one point in the Western Coast. The Indian Navy’s chance to see some action came only in 1971 December.

Since East and West Pakistan were two separate geographical entities more than 1,600 miles apart, the only way Pakistani forces in East Pakistan could be sustained was through the sea. The Indian Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, decided that the Navy would be given the strategic task of denying both East and West Pakistan access to war supplies. The aim in short was a complete naval blockade of both parts of Pakistan. The bigger aim was of course to ensure that the conflict was not perpetuated beyond the time required to capture a chunk of East Pakistani territory.

The Indian Navy’s best and biggest warship at that time was its sole aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, a carefully preserved World War II vintage carrier built in Britain. Ideally, a task force centred around the Vikrant should have been used to block Karachi, which at that time was West Pakistan’s sole deep water port. However, one of Vikrant’s main boilers was out of operation and the ship could not maintain the kind of speed required for manoeuvring in a situation where the air threat would be considerable. It was decided that the Vikrant would be used to blockade the ports in East Pakistan, and destroy the riverine craft used by the Pakistanis there.

Vikrant in Action
INS Vikrant, c.1971

The day war was declared, the Vikrant, which had been anchored off the northern-most tip of the Andaman & Nicobar chain of islands, moved towards the principal East Pakistani port, Chittagong. The Pakistanis, having learnt that Vikrant was positioned in the Bay of Bengal, despatched one of their submarines, PNS Ghazi, to the east. The Pakistani submarine thought it could sneak into Vizag harbour, the principal naval port in the Indian east coast. It was, however, detected and sunk before it could cause any damage. The Vikrant continued unhindered. Rear Admiral (retired) P.D.Sharma, who was then an aviator aboard the Vikrant, recalls what it was like:

“Fighter pilots practice for years and when they finally get an opportunity to see real action, it is thrilling – it is the moment one has been waiting for all one’s life. And it was so for us aboard the Vikrant on 4th December 1971…

Naval Aviator, Rear Admiral (Retd.) P.D.Sharma

“The first sortie was mounted against Cox’s Bazaar. Eight Sea Hawks went in led by the squadron commander. I was in the second sortie which attacked Chittagong. This was in the afternoon of the 4th because it took some time for the Vikrant to close in the range to Chittagong.

“We went in low level, pulled up and carried out repeated attacks on the airfield. In the first attack itself we inflicted considerable damage. We withdrew for the night and sailed towards the Mangla-Khulna area. Our next attacks were on those harbours. Then we came back to Chittagong. And by the time we were through with that area, especially Chittagong harbour, Chittagong airfield and the approaches to Chittagong, the scene was something to be seen. The place had been devastated. There were ships that had turned turtle, there were half-sunk ships by the quay side, the airfield was pockmarked with craters and no ship could even think of approaching the place.”

East Pakistani Port After Air Attack The Attack on Karachi

The most dramatic naval plan was drawn up by the Western Naval Command. It was decided that the main attack on Karachi harbour would be launched by tiny PT-15 missile boats instead of regular warships. There were several reasons for this decision. Regular ships without air cover would be vulnerable whereas the tiny missile boats would present difficult, fast-moving targets. Moreover, the Navy wanted to try out the missiles to see how effective they could be in real action, although this kind of use of missile boats, which were designed for coastal defence and not for long range offensive action of any kind, was highly unorthodox. At any rate, three missile boats were chosen for the mission and despatched in the dead of night from Bombay harbour.

Leading the missile boat squadron was Commodore (Retired) Babru Bahan Yadav:”The task given to us was not easy. Our ships were little more than boats and did not have the range to go all the way to Karachi on their own steam. So an oiler was placed about half-way to the target and we were able to refuel and carry on.

Missile Boat leader, Commodore, Babru Yadav

“As we neared their coast, we found some of their ships patrolling the area. The boat on my left was detailed to engage the contact. That boat was the first Indian warship to fire a missile in anger. Two missiles were fired and both were direct hits. It is interesting to recall that the radar contact which was on our screen slowly diminished and then suddenly disappeared. We were very jubilant at that time. Later, we found that this has been a Pakistani destroyer.

Very soon another ship was located right in front of my boat. We fired a couple of missiles as well but did not sink it. The boat on our right was ordered to attack the ship. It did so and managed to cripple it completely. We thought we had sunk it but later the Pakistanis claimed that the ship had been badly crippled and put out of action but not sunk. Anyway, as we continued, both the other boats could not keep up and had to turn back. Only Nipat, the boat I was on, could proceed towards Karachi harbour. We pressed on and fired missiles on Karachi which hit the oil installations there. The attack took place just 1 minute before midnight and we could see the flames from the oil installations lighting up the sea. It looked like Diwali (Indian festival of lights and firecrackers).”

It took a few more days for Commodore Yadav’s boat to return to harbour as they had to take evasive action and ran out of fuel. In the meanwhile, the Pakistanis who were hunting for the boat put out a message that an Indian vessel had been sunk. Nipat, the only boat not accounted for at that time, was presumed sunk. But Nipat returned, thanks to the ingenuity of its engineers who managed to take out pump oil and use it to run the engines.

The Indian Navy accomplished the task assigned to it within the first few days of the war. No enemy shipping could move in or out of its harbours. Merchant ships did not dare approach Karachi. Control of the seas around both wings of Pakistan was with the Indian Navy.

Pakistani Army High Command, headquartered in Rawalpindi, was in a complete panic.

An audacious Plan

A destoryed Pakistani tank at Longewala]

The Battle of Longewal, fought in the deserts of the Indian state of Rajasthan, merits inclusion in any account of the 1971 India-Pakistan war because of the sheer audacity of the Pakistani generals who had planned it. Had it succeeded, India would have lost thousands of kilometres of a vast expanse of desert. But there is a fine line between the daring and the foolhardy. Did Pakistani generals cross that dividing line?

The Rajasthan sector was rather thinly held by both the Indians and by the Pakistanis for the simple reason that the Thar desert is not conducive to vehicular movement. Unlike in North Africa where the desert surface is relatively hard and the coastal areas allow for easy movement of traffic, the loose shifting sands of the Thar cannot be crossed by wheeled vehicles and even tracked vehicles are liable to get bogged down. The region also has very few dirt tracks and even fewer paved roads. On the Pakistani side, the principal town is Rahimiyar Khan which is also an important railway junction connecting prosperous Pakistani Punjab in the north with the barren province of Sindh and its capital, Karachi, in the south. On the Indian side, the four principal towns are Jaisalmir, Barmer, Bikaner and Jodhpur. The major portion of Indian forces in 1971 were concentrated near the border towns of Barmer and Jaisalmir, both of which are supported by a forward air force base. The original Indian plan was to attack Rahimiyar Khan from Jaisalmir with a view to cutting off the main railway artery in West Pakistan.

The Pakistani plan was no less ambitious and a surprise attack was launched along the Gabbar-Longewal axis. The main axis lay to the north, connecting the Indian town of Jaisalmir with the Pakistani town of Islamgarh and Rahimiyar Khan beyond it. The intruding Pakistani armoured column and accompanying towed artillery was spotted by an Indian patrol on 4th December after it had come 16 km into Indian territory. The first reports were dismissed, until the enemy took up position just 300 metres away from the isolated Indian Army company located at Longewal. The unit had no anti-tank weapons or mines. The Pakistanis could have overrun the post within hours. But the Indian company commander, Major Kuldip Singh Chandpuri, showed presence of mind by bringing in the company’s recoilless guns and heavy machine guns and directing concentrated and sustained fire at the enemy positions. The Pakistanis were taken aback by the extent of the fire and felt that the Indians must have a much larger force at Longewal than reported by their Intelligence. Instead of storming the post and carrying on to Jaisalmir as was the plan, the Pakistanis encircled the post and decided to set up their artillery to soften it up before attacking.

Destroyed Pakistani tank at Longewala

By this time, the GOC of 12 Indian Infantry Division based at Tanot north of Jaisalmir was fully in the picture and realised that the Pakistanis had launched a full-scale armoured thrust to take Jaisalmir by outflanking 12 Division’s main forces concentrated in the Tanot-Kishengarh area. Later it was discovered that the commanding officer of 18 Pakistani Army Division had planned to breakfast at Ramgarh and have dinner at Jaisalmir before proceeding on to Jodhpur. In complete contrast to the Pakistani divisional commander’s audacity was over-cautiousness of the Indian generals. Confronted by the surprise attack, both the Indian divisional commander and his senior in charge of Southern Command dithered. They neither continued with their planned attack on Rahimiyar Khan nor did they send a large enough force to engage the Pakistani intruders. The job of relieving pressure on the beleaguered Indian company was left to the Indian Air Force.

Squadron. Ldr. R.N.Bali, Hunter pilot
Sqdr. Ldr. R.N.Bali

The IAF at that time had only two oldish Hawker Hunter aircraft positioned at Jaisalmir and that too mainly for reconnaissance purposes. Among the two pilots posted there was Squadron Leader R.N.Bali:”It was on the 4/5th night that we learnt of a change in plans and that we had to take on the enemy tank thrust at Longewal. It was sometime after midnight when we received our orders and it took 2 to 3 hours to change the role of our aircraft from air defence to ground attack. But we had to wait till first light to launch our mission…

“We saw enemy tanks strewn around in an area in a radius of more than 30 kilometres since the enemy tanks had started taking evasive action. We had to split our basic two-level missions into one level so that each aircraft could go in turn by turn. We were lucky in

Hunters at Longewal Battle: Gun camera shots
Hunter Taking off from Jaisalmir
Hunter launching rockets

the sense that there was no enemy air opposition in the first phase and we could afford to put in more time over the target and see what we were destroying.”

Squadron Leader Bali and his colleague flew sortie after sortie all through 5th December and completely broke up the enemy formation. The second contingent of Pakistani armour following the spearhead too got bogged down and was shot up. On 6 December, the two Hunters were joined by another two Hunters and the air to ground battle continued. By 7 December the Pakistani column was in full retreat and the PAF had started flying sorties to cover them. The Indian Army should have pursued and destroyed the enemy force but it failed to do so because of the lack of initiative of the Indian generals.

But the Hunters had done their job well. Of the 54 or so Pakistani T-59 and Sherman tanks that had come in, as many as forty were destroyed or abandoned. Another 138 vehicles of all types were destroyed along with 5 field guns and three anti-aircraft guns. The desert around Longewal was a smouldering graveyard of tanks and vehicles. The Pakistanis replaced the commander of their 18 Division based at Rahimiyar Khan, well before the retreat probably because it was clear that he had not considered co-ordinating air support or even arranging for adequate air defence guns before launching his attack. The pity is that the Indian generals in that sector too failed to take advantage of the rout and in the end started the campaign far too late. 12 Division ultimately managed only to advance cautiously to the town of Islamgarh. In contrast, 11 Indian Army Division, operating from near Barmer about 240 km away towards the south, did a much better job and continued its advance across difficult terrain, which required the laying of duckboard before tanks or vehicles could advance. 11 Division was active throughout the war despite enemy air action, stiff enemy opposition and lack of water. At the cessation of hostilities, 11 Division was poised to take the town of Naya Chor about 50 kilometres inside Pakistan.

The lessons of Longewal are clear: success in any endeavour requires balancing caution with courage. The Indian commander in the Jaisalmir sector lost out because he was too cautious while his Pakistani counterpart lost his job because he threw caution to the desert winds. And war can at times be brutally unforgiving…

The air war began on 22 November, 1971, several days before the formal start of hostilities. The first encounter was so dramatic and happened in full view of so many ordinary people on the ground that it would endure in public memory as one of the most vivid moments of the war. The concept of air battle, so remote till then to ordinary Indians, would become an integral part of the concept of warfare. Rupak Chattopadhyay describes what happened…

[PAF F-86 Sabre]
PAF F-86 Sabre

The scene of action was in the eastern sector, a few minutes flying time away from Calcutta, the largest Indian metropolis in the east. The provocation was the repeated intrusion by groups of PAF F-86 Sabres into a salient inside Indian territory. This salient called Boyra was being used by Bangladeshi Mukti Bahini guerrillas to launch attacks inside East Pakistan. The Pakistani Army in the east had reacted angrily by launching a full scale attack in that sector but had had to beat a retreat after losing 13 tanks and many men. The job of messing up the Mukti Bahini was given to the PAF Sabres which began crossing into Indian territory, strafing the area and slipping back into Pakistani air space. The IAF had to get them while they were in Indian air space. The window was small: barely a couple of minutes wide, and the PAF fighters had to be intercepted over a 3 km wide corridor surrounded on three sides by Pakistani territory.

Four IAF Gnats were ordered to scramble at about 2:49 on 22 November afternoon to take on four Sabres strafing the Indian salient. The Gnats got three Sabres. The IAF formation leader, Flight Lieutenant R. Massey; Flight Lieutenant M. A. Ganapathy and Flying Officer D.Lazarus each got one Sabre. One Sabre crashed into a pond in Chaugacha on the East Pakistani side of the border, while the other two went down over Indian territory. Flt. Lt. Parvez Mehdi Qureshi and Fg Offr Khalil Ahmed, the two PAF pilots who ejected over India were captured and produced before a crowded press conference the next day. The action was splashed in newspaper front pages all over the country and the three pilots who scored hits became national heroes overnight. This encounter set the tone of the air battles that were to follow. News of the incident and the famous gun camera shots were splashed across newspaper headlines the world over and the tiny Gnat acquired a reputation of being the Sabre killer. Conversations picked up in the air suggested that PAF fighters were instructed not to engage with Gnats, although this small aircraft could easily be out flown by Sabres and Starfighters. The PAf also subsequently withdrew some its aircraft from East Pakistan leaving a sole squadron of Sabres to grapple with the eleven IAF squadrons positioned in the east.

[Massey, Ganapathy and Lazarus]
Flt Lt R.Massay Flt Lt M.A.Ganapathy Fg Offr D.Lazarus
Hunter Attack
IAF hunter releasing rockets

Protecting the Skies

A major reason for India’s rapid successes in the 1971 conflict was the excellent co-ordination effected between the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Army. Air Chief Marshal P.C.Lal, the IAF’s low profile chief, appreciated that the IAF’s primary role would be to fly in support of the Army. Achieving complete air superiority was not the primary aim, especially on the western front where the Pakistani Air Force (PAF) had massed its squadrons, leaving only one squadron of F-86 Sabres for the defence of the east.

The Indians had more aircraft but most of them were generally much older than the aircraft in the PAF’s inventory. The IAF’s pride and the most advanced aircraft of the time was the MiG-21. But the MiG-21 required long runways not always available in many of the frontline air bases and required expert handling. The IAF’s primary interceptor continued to be the Folland Gnat, a tiny but highly maneuverable aircraft that had been passed over by its British manufacturers. The Gnats flew the highest number of sorties during the war. The IAF’s primary ground attack aircraft were the old British built Hunters, the positively ancient Canberras and the spanking new Sukhoi-7s (acquired in 1968). The IAF also operated the indigenous Marut HF-24 fighters, which were somewhat under powered and difficult to manoeuvre, and a number of other obsolete types including the Harvard IIR’s, the Vampires and Mysteres.

The PAF’s mainstay was the F-86F Sabre, which was in service with many NATO countries although it belonged to a line that had been in production since the time of the Korean War. The Sabre was an excellent aircraft and had been substantially modified over the years to keep up with evolving Soviet combat aircraft. In 1971, the PAF Sabres included the ones upgraded to ’40s’ standards and newer Mk.6s from Canada. Pakistan also had the F-104 Starfighter, touted as the most sophisticated aircraft of the day. The rest of PAF’s inventory was made up of Mirage-IIIs, newer Chinese variants of the MiG-19 (F-6s) and American B-57 bombers. A few IAF pilots had flown Sabres in the United States and knew the fine handling properties of their enemy’s main combat fighter. The Indians rated the Mirage-III as the best PAF fighter but that aircraft was not seen as much as it was hoped. The IAF, despite its superiority in numbers, knew it would be a tough fight but was fully prepared for a no-holds barred contest.

PAF airfield cratered by IAF fighters
PAF airfield cratered by IAF bombers

Air Superiority in the East

The IAF’s strength in the east was made up of 4 squadrons of Hunters, one of Su-7s, 3 of Gnats and 3 of the newer MiG-21s. The IAF also was prepared to hit any Chinese incursions into Indian territory in the eastern Himalayas. As it turned out, the Chinese did not stir and the IAF managed to knock out the PAF squadron within 2 days of the outbreak of war.

The IAF had gone into action within hours of Pakistan’s pre-emptive strikes of 3/4 December 1971. Counter air sorties in the east were so successful that the PAF was neutralized within hours of the outbreak of war. In their first raid on the 4th of December a four ship formation of MiG-21FLs from the No.28 Squadron took out the runways at Tezgaon air base near Dhaka. Three Sabers attempting to intercept the MiGs were taken out by a combination of cannon fire and K-13 missiles. For the remainder of the war, round the clock attacks on the Kurmitola and Tezgaon air bases kept them, and the PAF non-operational.

Meanwhile, later that day Hunters from No.14 Squadron struck Chittagong Harbour as a prelude to strikes from the carrier INS Vikrant. The Hunters were to continue flying interdiction missions for the remainder of the war in, shooting up ammunition dumps and other fixed installations. Gnats and Sukhoi Su-7s flew many missions in support of army units as they moved swiftly towards Dhaka, delivering ordnance such as iron bombs to take out enemy bunkers which occasionally posed an obstacle to advancing infantry. Canberras repeatedly struck Jessore forcing the enemy to abandon this strategic city. On the 11th of December three converted An-12s from the No.44 Squadron struck the Jaydebpur Ordnance factory in East Pakistan. Once Kurmitola and Tezgaon were put out of action the IAF had gained complete air superiority over East Pakistan.

The story of the old Caribou transporters speaks a lot about the mood of the times. Two of these old Canadian transporters were posted at Hashimara during the war and were used during the Tangail air drop and for minor missions. The Caribou air crew were getting restless. They wanted a piece of the action. Finally, Eastern Air Command agreed by allowing them to bomb Dhaka by night. The PAF had been knocked out by then but the Pakistanis still had plenty of Chinese made multi-barrel anti-aircraft guns, which could be pretty devastating. The Caribous were fitted with old World War II bombs and told to circle Dhaka for as long as they could during the night. While the pilots droned over Dhaka along with the occasional AN-12 keeping the Pakistanis awake, an airman aboard the Caribou once in a while pushed out a bomb from the open back. None of the bombs caused significant damage but they kept the Pakistani generals getting much sleep. After the surrender, one Pakistani general was to angrily remark about the damned aircraft which did not allow any of them to sleep for a week or more.

The Western Air Situation

Pakistani military analysts writing after the War tried to make out that the Pakistani Air Force (PAF) was heavily outnumbered even in the West. One writer claims that Pakistan had just 10 squadrons against 44 fielded by India. Such absurd assertions notwithstanding, fact is in 1971 the Indian Air Force (IAF) had a total of about 34 effective combat squadrons plus three under strength Canberra bomber squadrons and one AN-12 transporter squadron, which as it turned out played a remarkable role as modified bombers during the War. Of these Indian squadrons, ten were in the East (plus one Canberra squadron) and four were kept as reserves for protecting the inner cities. This meant the IAf had about 20 front-line combat squadrons in the West. Some of the front-line Indian squadrons were broken up and posted at different stations. This could be one reason for confusion on the Pakistani air intelligence side – and considerable exaggeration.

Rows of parked F-86 Sabres of the PAFThe Pakistanis, according to the IISS (International Institute of Strategic Studies) Military Balance 1971, had 19 squadrons including two B-57B light bomber and one recce squadron. According to our studies, the Pakistanis had about 14 effective combat squadrons in the West excluding the B-57B bombers and recce aircraft. However, PAF squadrons tended to have more aircraft per squadron than the IAF. This was further bolstered by the acquisition of an unspecified number of F-86 Sabres, Mirage IIIs, Starfighters (from Jordan) and about 15 Chinese F-6s in the months prior to the war. These aircraft were not accounted for the IISS in its 1971 Military balance or in any other report. Also, the serviceability of PAF Sabres was much higher – meaning more aircraft could be fielded. The Indians had 16 aircraft per combat squadron but the effective availability during the war was 12 per squadron. Bomber and transporter squadron had 10 aircraft each of which about 6 to 8 were serviceable at any given time. Many PAF squadrons, in contrast, had as many as 25 aircraft. Thus, while the PAf was outnumbered in the West, at no point was it ever fighting against overwhelming odds.

More important, the PAF on the whole was far better equipped to fight a modern air war than the IAF. The Pakistanis, for instance, had very effective air-to-air missiles which the Indians lacked. American made Sidewinder missiles were fitted on Chinese-made F-6 aircraft, on Sabres and on Starfighters. These were accurate missiles and accounted for at least three kills by PAF fighters in air-to-air combat. The Indians had only their guns and cannons to rely on. The Soviet-made MiG-21 was the only aircraft in the IAF’s inventory fitted with missiles. But the missiles – the infamous K-13 – were a poor copy of the American Sidewinders and were so useless that they were scrapped after the war.

The other major advantage, and a critical one, the Pakistanis had was their radar and communication system built by the Americans. In most parts, particularly Punjab, the PAF had a real time radar surveillance system, the ability to track low flying aircraft coming over Pakistan and the means to guide their aircraft right to intruding enemy aircraft. India had nothing in comparison. Instead of low level radar, the IAF had to rely on men posted near the borders. Every time a suspected enemy aircraft flew over, the observation post had to call in on their high frequency radio sets to warn the sector controllers. Even the medium and high level radar cover available to the IAF was poor with the result that each forward base had to earmark between one to two combat squadrons just for air defence. It was a primitive and wasteful system – and the Pakistanis knew it. The technologically inferior but numerically superior Indian Air Force could be tackled quite easily by a smaller but more modern force. This is what prompted the PAF to launch pre-emptive strikes against forward Indian air bases on 3 December 1971.

IAF Gnats in their Hardened Shelters
IAF Gnats in their Hardened Shelters

IAF Counter Strike

Within 30 minutes of the Pakistani President General Yahya Yahya Khan’s declaration of war against India at 1630 hours on 3rd December 1971, Pakistani fighter bombers struck five Indian airfields – Srinagar, Avantipur, Pathankot, Amritsar and the advanced landing ground at Faridkot. More strikes by PAF B-57 bombers followed at night against Ambala, Agra, Halwara, Amritsar, Pathankot, Srinagar, Sirsa, Adampur, Nal, Jodhpur and Jamnagar. Not a single aircraft was destroyed in these raids and runways damaged were repaired within a matter of hours.

IAF Hunters Bombing
IAF Hunters On Bombing Run

The IAF’s counter strike in the west was mounted on much greater scale than in the east. Within hours of the first PAF strike, converted An-12s from No.44 Squadron (led by Wg Cmdr Vashist) struck ammunition dumps in the Changa Manga forests. In one of the first counter air sorties of the war, Sukhois from No.222 Squadron struck Risalwala air field, while aircraft from the No.101 attacked Pasrur. The No.101 was to later become involved in providing support to the 10 Infantry Division in the Sialkot Sector, eventually destroying over 60 enemy tanks. Keamri oil installations near Karachi harbour were struck twice on the 4th by a three ship Hunter formations. And No.27 Squadron’s Hunters continuously strafed enemy positions around Poonch and Chhamb. The four antiquated Harvard/Texans of the IAF also joined in ground support missions, their slow speed being particularly useful in hitting enemy gun emplacements in the valleys and gorges of Kashmir. Three counter air strikes were mounted on the 4th by Hunters of No.20 Squadron against PAF airfields at Peshawar, Chaklala and Kohat. The raids left 8 aircraft destroyed on the ground, including at least 1 Mirage III. Maruts from No.10 Squadron were heavily involved in counter air operations, hitting targets upto 200 miles inside Pakistani territory.

The second day of the war began with a Canberra strike against Masroor air base and other strategic installations around Karachi. A force of eight Canberras flying lo-lo over the Arabian sea set strategic and military installations around Karachi alight. A similar raid was mounted on the 6th. The success of these missions being confirmed by Photo Recon. Canberras reporting “the biggest blaze ever seen over South Asia”. On the 5th , one four-ship formation from No.20 struck Chaklala for a second time in as many days destroying a C-130 and an Twin Otter on the ground. A second four-ship formation went for radar installation around Lahore and Walton. And a third raid by No.20 was mounted against the radar site at Sakesar, unfortunately two Hunters were lost during this mission. Later that day Maruts from the Nos. 10 and 220 Squadrons, and their MiG escorts moved against rail heads at Sundra, Rohri and Mirpur Khas. Between the 5th and the 12th , two Sukhoi squadrons flying form Halwara and Adampur repeatedly struck railway marshalling yards around Lahore.

Bombed Pakistani Railway YardOne of the most celebrated actions of the 5th and 6th December is contribution of four Hunters from the ATW in the defeat of a Pakistani armoured force at Longewala. A previous section covers this in great detail. The AN-12s were also quite busy on the 6th. A bombing raid by the AN-12s early in the day destroyed a Pakistani brigade in the Haji Pir salient. Later that day HQ 18 (Pakistan) Division at Fort Abbas was bombed, as were areas around Bhawalpur.

The 7th of December got off to a rather bizarre start; a Marut from the No.220 Squadron, on its way back from a bombing raid against Rohri, actually engaged and brought down with cannon fire an F-86 sent up to intercept it. Surprisingly no Maruts were ever lost to enemy aircraft, although four were downed by ground fire. Two days later an enemy Shenyang F-6 was to be brought down by a ground attack aircraft – this time a Su-7 from No.32 Squadron. Between the 7th and the 12th, Sukhoi and Mystere Squadrons were engaged in support of I and XI Corps in the Fazilka-Ferozepur sector. The Indian Army’s efforts in the Fazilka area were also assisted by bombing raids by No.44 Squadron’s AN-12s. A four-ship formation flying at 180 ft above sea level struck Pakistani installations across from Fazilka on the 9th.

As fighting in the west intensified, the Pakistanis launched an offensive against Poonch on the 10th. To break up this offensive Canberras dropped 28,000 lbs. of ordnance on the enemy. On the 11th, in even larger interdiction sorties the Canberras delivered 36,000 lbs. of ordnance against enemy emplacements and tank farms. Despite the damage, the Canberras inflicted on the enemy, four of the force were lost to ground fire.

The war in 1971 revealed the true air-air combat capabilities of the MiG-21, altering perceptions held about it as an outcome of its disappointing performance in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. The MiGs on both fronts had ample opportunity to engage the enemy in aerial combat. The five squadrons that served on the western front conducted frequent armed reconnaissance missions deep into enemy territory to lure out PAF fighters. All Su-7 and Marut raids were given MiG-21 cover. Unfortunately for the Indian pilots who flew in the northern sector (Western Air Command) there was little by way of aerial engagements. On the 11th a Gnat of the No.23 Squadron engaged and severely damaged a Mirage over Pathankot. Those who flew with the South Western Air Command were luckier. On the 12th a Jordanian F-104A Starfighter, on loan to the PAF was shot down by cannon fire by a MiG-21FL of No.47 Squadron flying from Jamnagar.

A Marut strike against Naya Chor on the 16th was intercepted by three PAF Shenyang F-6s. In the ensuing dogfight one of the F-6’s was brought down by cannon fire from one of the two MiG escorts from the No.29 Squadron. No Indian aircraft were lost in the engagement and the Maruts were able to hit their targets. The following morning a low flying Starfighter was destroyed by a MiG-21 scrambled from Utterlai. A few hours later MiG-21 escorts of a Marut mission near Umarkot destroyed a pair of Starfighters.

While the hi performance MiGs were shooting down enemy fighters, the lumbering Antonovs were contributing more than their share to victory in the West. The Rohri railway yards which had remained under attack from day one of the war were hit by a pair of An-12s at dusk on the 13th. The following day the Antonovs delivered their coup-de-main against the enemy’s fighting capabilities. On the evening of the 14th a three-ship formation of the Antonovs flying from Jodhpur struck the Sui Gas Plant. The damage caused by these aircraft was so extensive that it took six months to restore gas production at Sui to even 50% of capacity. Happily all three aircraft taking part in the mission were recovered safely, landing at Utterlai. Sadly however, that very night, Fg Offr N.S.Sekhon of the No.18 Squadron lost his life as he gallantly engaged 6 enemy Sabres over Srinagar by himself. Before being shot down Sekhon’s Gnat managed to score hits on two of the enemy for which he was awarded the Param Vir Chakra posthumously.

Param Vir Chakra winner Fg. Officer N.S.Shekhon and the Gnat (left)
Param Vir Chakra winner Fg. Officer N.S.Shekhon and the Gnat


The An-12s flew in the bombing role for the last time on the 17th. A mixed formation of Canberras and Antonovs commanded by Vashist sortied against Skardu air field in Pakistani occupied Kashmir. Of the thirty six bombs dropped on the runway by the Antonovs, twenty eight hit the target while two fell within yards of it (this was confirmed by a PR sortie later the same day). On the way back, Vashist’s aircraft was chased by two Mirages. In order to evade them he climbed down into a valley and kept circling for twenty minutes until the Mirages gave up and left. The most astonishing thing about the An-12 bombing raids is that none of the eleven (ten bombers and one flying command post) converted aircraft were lost, although many were peppered by ack ack. The ease with which these rather slow aircraft could strike deep into enemy territory is testimony to the ineffectiveness of the Pakistani Air Force during the winter of 1971. Only the absence of modern weapons delivery systems for its air-to-surface weapons prevented the Indian Air Force from causing more damage than it did.

Who Won the Air War?

One of the last enduring debates on the 1971 War is the outcome of the air war. Both sides continue to claim that it won the air war. This debate continues because victory in the air is more difficult to quantify than victory on land or sea. In the land and sea wars, India emerged as the clear victor both in terms of objectives attained and losses/gains versus the enemy. In the air war, even estimates of losses on both sides are widely divergent. Immediately after the war, the official Indian Government figures given out were 86 Pakistan Air Force (PAF) aircraft destroyed as against 42 Indian Air Force (IAF) lost. The Pakistanis later claimed that they had actually won the air war by destroying over a 100 Indian aircraft while losing only 36 of their own. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between.

PAF F-104 Starfighters
Pakistani Air Force F-104 Starfighters
The Starfighter was touted as the most modern and dangerous aircraft in the PAF’s inventory. Just before the War, Pakistan beefed up its Starfighter fleet with the help of some friendly countries. But the aircraft proved utterly incapable of standing up to the IAF. At least 8 of these aircraft were shot down by IAF pilots.

Unlike in 1965, the Indian Air Force in 1971 handled claims of aerial victories by its pilots with great maturity. No “kills” were awarded until all claims could be verified, preferably by photo reconnaissance missions. Almost immediately after the War was over, the Air Chief asked the Halwara station commander, Air Marshal C.V.Gole, to visit every IAF station in the West to ascertain the performance of various squadrons. “Later, we had access to other information as well and we worked out a pretty accurate picture of losses on both sides”, he explains. But discrepancies could well remain. For instance, Gole recalls that one SAM battery had fired missiles at a couple of attacking Pakistani B-57 bombers. One was hit and streaming smoke. A few hours later, some villagers called to say that they had found the debris of the Pakistani aircraft. On investigation it was found that what remained was not the debris of an aircraft but that of a missile. The hit was not taken into account. It was only much after the war that some Pakistani report spoke about a B-57 pilot who had become “Shaheed” after he tried to bail out his burning aircraft but could not make it.

Pakistani claims of their own losses are less than reliable. The main cause of this confusion has to do with various “Official” histories of the PAF quoting different figures. It has been estimated by some observers, based on signal intercepts from the PAF, that the PAF lost at least seventy-two aircraft (including at least fifty-five combat types). Pakistan itself admits to the loss of twenty-nine combat aircraft on the ground. Only 16 were claimed to have been shot down over India. Add to this the 13 Sabres destroyed by the PAF itself at Dhaka. Even then the figure comes to 58. However, a lot of this is inaccurate.

After almost a year’s of research, we at SAPRA INDIA believe that the losses of combat aircraft on both sides were as follows:

Combat Aircraft Losses
Description Pakistan India
Air to Air 19 19
Ground Fire 15 35
On Ground 29 2
Total 63 56
* Combat aircraft and bomber losses only. Transporters and Recce PAF aircraft shot down or destroyed on the ground not included.
** PAF losses include 13 aircraft destroyed by PAF on the ground at Dhaka.

The PAF lost many more aircraft on the ground not only because the Indians launched many more counter air operations than the Pakistanis but also because the PAF itself destroyed 13 of its Sabres in Dhaka within a few days of the war. PAF’s No. 14 squadron with about 18 aircraft felt it had been abandoned by its higher command and left to face the onslaught of ten full Indian squadrons. After a couple of gallant actions by Pakistani pilots, the PAF commanders in East Pakistan appear to have decided that the game was not worth the effort. The last aerial engagement in East Pakistan took place on 4 December.

Even if the Pakistani claim that the Indians lost more aircraft is accepted, does it suggest that the Pakistanis won the air war? The answer is a clear no. Because war, in the ultimate analysis, is not a numbers game. Winning a war has to do with achieving clear objectives. For the IAF, the aim was twofold: first, to prevent the PAF from messing with the Indian Army’s advances, logistics and launching points; and second, to seriously impair Pakistan’s capacity to wage war. The PAF’s job was to do the opposite. The pre-emptive air strikes on 3rd December were aimed at knocking out a good part of the IAF while it was on the ground. This failed for the simple reason that the Indians had learnt their lessons of the 1965 war and had constructed fortified pens and bunkers to store their aircraft. More important, young IAF fliers proved they had the grit to go out and fight, even if it meant losing one’s life.

By the end of the first week of the war, PAF fighters in the West appeared to have lost their will to fight. By this time, the IAF was repeatedly hitting secondary targets including railway yards, cantonments, bridges and other installations as well as providing close air support to the Army wherever it was required. The most dangerous were the close air support missions which involved flying low and exposing aircraft to intense ground fire. The IAF lost the most aircraft on these missions as is proved by the high losses suffered by IAF Sukhoi-7 and Hunter squadrons. But their pilots flew sortie after sortie keeping up with the Army and disrupting enemy troop and tank concentrations.

Once it was known that the Indian Army was knocking at the gates of Dhaka, the PAF in the West virtually gave up flying. During the last few days of the war, the IAF brass ordered attacks on PAF airfields with the sole purpose of drawing out their aircraft. But that rarely succeeded as the PAF aircraft for the most part remained secured inside their pens, refusing to come out and fight. The strongest indictment of the Pakistani Air Force was made not by an Indian but by the Pakistani leader, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who took over from General Yahya Yahya Khan after the 1971 defeat. On taking over, he made a speech in which he castigated the PAF chief Air Marshal Rahim Khan and several other officers by name.

A better analysis of effectiveness of the two air forces is provided by the losses per sortie figure. The IAF flew at least double the number of combat sorties per day than the PAF, thereby exposing itself to ground fire and enemy interdiction. Despite this, the IAF’s attrition rate of 0.86 per 100 sorties during the 1971 War compares favourably with the Israeli rate of 1.1 in the Yom Kippur War. The PAF’s overall attrition rate works out to 2.47 (including transporters and recce aircraft lost on the ground). If aircraft destroyed on the ground are not taken into account, the rate works out to 1.12, which is still very high given that PAF aircraft never really stood back to fight.

The question of loss is important but, in the ultimate analysis, secondary. Achieving air superiority cost the IAF dearly in 1971 but in the end it managed to achieve complete dominance over the skies in both East and West Pakistan.

Limited Plans

The Indian Army HQ’s plans on the western front clearly demonstrate that India’s aim was not the destruction of Pakistan. Operations instructions issued to commanders on the western front were quite limited and the larger aim was to ensure that the Indian Army took as much as territory from the Pakistanis and conceded as little of Indian territory as possible. India felt that whoever held the most territory would end up as the winner because the final word on the war would only be spelt out during the post-war negotiations that were expected to follow.

Pakistani commanders were aware of this basic dynamic and had concentrated virtually all their forces in the West. Their Air Force was equipped with Starfighters, new Chinese F-6s and newer versions of the F-86 Sabre. Their Army had a lot of fire power in the form of heavy artillery, new Chinese built T-59 tanks, and US-built Patton tanks. India had been preparing for war for some months but the Pakistanis were not perturbed. They felt that any Indian advance in the East could be held up for a while during which their concentrated forces in the West would seize strategically important Indian territory. In the end, India would be forced to negotiate and, the Pakistanis hoped, India’s strategic designs would be frustrated. Bangladesh would never come into being.

The First Blow

Maj. Gen. Z.C.Bakshi, GOC 26 Infantry Division
Major. General. Z.C.Bakshi

Pakistan struck the first blow by attacking nine Indian air bases on 3 December 1971 and followed up by a massive attack on Chhamb (see “War is declared”). The Chhamb attack was stopped – but at a cost. Many of the major battle plans drawn up before the outbreak of war had to be hastily changed – even abandoned in some cases. One very disappointed soldier was Major. General. Z.C.Bakshi, commanding the 26 Indian Infantry Division. “I toured the front-lines in my jeep, flying my flag, and there was no problem,” recalls the General. “At one or two places, Pakistani soldiers even saluted my jeep. And I knew we could break through these lines and threaten Sialkot town, which was the objective given to my Division.”

Major. General. Bakshi had a reputation of being a fighter and had done brilliantly in the previous war. When he took over 26 Division, in the southern part of the state of Jammu & Kashmir, a major worry was a dagger-shaped strip of territory measuring 170 square kilometres under Pakistani control that protruded into the Indian side. This “dagger” threatened an important link town called Akhnur. After studying the map a few times, Bakshi told his subordinates that this was no “dagger” but a chicken’s neck:”We shall squeeze this part like a chicken’s neck as soon as the war begins.” And he did just that. Within two days of the outbreak of the war, the “chicken’s neck” had been wrung by one brigade under 26 Division. But the more ambitious plan to move towards Sialkot was never effected. “After the Pakistani thrust at Chhamb, headquarters was in a in flap and they took away one of my brigades and told me to not to attack,” says Bakshi. “All those brilliant plans prepared before the war went to waste all because people could not keep their cool in the heat of battle and let one temporary reverse cloud their judgement.”

An Indian section holding out in a lonely stretch of land

The Indians had prepared just two other offensive plans for the entire western sector, which stretches from Ladakh (Jammu & Kashmir) in the north to the salt water marshes of the Runn of Kutch (Gujarat) in the south. The terrain in this sector is highly varied and begins with tall snow covered mountains in the north, then turns into riverine flats before moving to scrub covered stretches and rich farmland further south in the plains of Indian Punjab. Below Punjab, is the state of Rajasthan, made up mostly of desert. The desert stops short of the state of Gujarat and gives way to vast dry flat lands ending with the marshes of Kutch, which eventually merge into the Arabian Sea. The western border is long – more than the distance between Paris and Moscow – and many an army has perished in the past in these areas. Taking territory here is a costly enterprise and the Indians knew it. This is why the overwhelming majority of its Army divisions were (and continue to be) termed as ‘holding” formations as opposed to “strike” formations. The emphasis traditionally has been on defence rather than offense. The responsibility of defending the entire western sector was the responsibility of two Indian Army commands – the Western Command and the Southern Command. In 1971, India had just one strike formation, the 1 Corps. The other divisions under the Western and Southern commands were all designated holding formations. Though the holding corps also engaged in offensive action, these were all limited and not geared to carry the battle deep into enemy territory.

The three offensive missions drawn up by Indian Army Headquarters included the aborted 26 Division plan to move towards Sialkot, a major thrust by 1 Corps to capture the 30 km thick Shakargarh bulge which juts into the region between north Punjab and south Jammu & Kashmir, and a plan to move across the deserts to cut off the rail link between Pakistan’s Punjab and Sindh provinces. The first two of these actions were to be carried out by Western Command, the largest of the two commands. The other command – Southern Command – was responsible for the borders south of Anupgarh at the northernmost edge of Rajasthan right down to the Arabian Sea. Due to the difficult terrain in the south, only two Indian Army divisions from Southern Command took part in the fighting and their battles is part of the story of Longewala (see section on “Battle of Longewala”).

All the battles that took place in the Western sector are two numerous to be recounted here but the fight for Shakargarh deserves mention. For, here the fighting was particularly bitter with the most lives lost on both sides. As for the Pakistanis, despite grandiose pre-war plans, their only notable success was in Chhamb. In other areas, Pakistani units fought tenaciously but got nowhere because of the failure of their higher command.

Attack by 1 Corps
Sikh Regiment attacks in Shakargarh Area

The Shakargarh Bulge points to the north Punjab town of Pathankot, which is squeezed between the mountains rising in the east and the Pakistani border on the west. Pathankot is strategically important for the defence of Jammu & Kashmir and the northern parts of Himachal Pradesh. This was also the Headquarters of India’s only strike corps, commanded at that time by Lt. General. K.K.Singh. His forces included three infantry divisions, two independent armoured brigades, two independent artillery brigades and the equivalent of about two engineers brigades. The corps was, however, tied down due to defensive commitments that took up more than a division’s worth of troops. The Pakistanis too had a formation designated 1 Corps opposite its Indian counterpart. This too was a heavy formation possessing considerable strike force. It was made up of two infantry divisions and four independent armoured brigades, apart from artillery and other support units. The Pakistanis also had committed considerable reserves for this sector, which they were able to bring in with surprising agility.

The Indian corps commander decided to attack the bulge from three sides: one division (54 Div) was to attack from Samba, a town in the north of the bulge where he had shifted his HQ; another (39 Div) was deployed more towards the western tip of the bulge; and the other (36 Div) was to commence from the southern part of the bulge. All these divisions had far less than their full complement of units and in practice had to operate at the brigade level. The fighting showed that in the end it is not only plans but hard fighting that decides the course of battles.

The advances of 39 Division under Major General B.R. Prabhu was a series of disasters right from the beginning. Although his units crossed the enemy lines easily enough, they got bogged down in minefileds and could not secure their objectives. To be fair, the Div commander had none of his brigades and had to make do with one brigade and two independent armoured brigades less a regiment. This made him a little cautious and somewhat disinclined to rally his forces forward. This caused major problems for the other two depleted divisions which were pressing ahead only to find their flanks exposed because of 39 Div’s lack of progress.

54 Div attacking from the north was the most active although during the initial days of the war two of its three brigades had been taken away for the protection of Chhamb. Nevertheless Major General W.A.G.Pinto, commanding the Div, and his able armoured brigade commander, Brigadier A.S.Vaidya (later General Vaidya, who became Chief of Army Staff), made tremendous progress. By 15 December 1971, the Div had control of all the points overlooking the Shakargarh-Zafarwal road. The big test was the crossing of the Basantar river, which had been mined by the Pakistanis and the minefield continued for 1,400 metres. The Pakistanis also had more than four independent armoured brigades worth of armour to throw at the Indians, which was far more than what the attackers had. The most formidable task was the river crossing.

By this time, the Pakistanis had got wind of the plan and had thrown in two infantry brigades and one armoured brigade to prevent the formation of a successful bridgehead. The Pakistani Air Force too was called in to fly relentless sorties against the Indian build-up. The Indian battalions and the brave engineers literally had to run through a wall of fire to establish crossing points and move across. The bridgehead was secured but the enemy was not dispersed. One Indian battalion had its commanding officer shot by Pakistanis infiltrating the bridgehead. Other units suffered horrendous losses in the concentrated artillery fire and aerial bombing. The Indian units pressed on regardless and by 15 December had established a bridgehead.

The Pakistanis tried to destroy the bridgehead by launching a series of counter-attacks headed by tanks of Pakistan’s 8 Independent Armoured Brigade. Indian tanks were rushed in to stop the Pakistanis from breaking through. Two Indian tank regiments tried and were virtually decimated. Finally, the third Indian armoured regiment (17 Horse) held the Pakistanis with the help of three Indian infantry battalions. The fighting here was easily the most desperate in the war with the Pakistanis losing as many as 46 tanks in less than a days of fighting. The Pakistanis counter-attack was eventually stopped by nothing less than sheer grit. If anybody could tell the story best, it was Major Nisar, squadron commander of Pakistan’s 13 Cavalry.

The Pakistani armoured counter-attacks were stopped by 17 Horse and in the end it was just 3 tanks of a troop commanded by Captain V.Malhotra that ultimately took on one of the final Pakistani assaults from an entire squadron of tanks. Leading the Pakistani squadron was Major Nisar. He was amazed to find his advance stopped by just three tanks. But before he could get over his surprise, he found most of his tanks hit. One of the Indian tanks, commanded by young Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal was responsible for most of the damage. Even after both the other tanks or their commanders were put out of action, Khetarpal continued to fight until his tank was hit by Major Nisar’s tank and caught fire. He was ordered to abandon his tank but he refused. He kept engaging the Pakistani tanks and stopped Major Nisar’s tank with a hit. Although Nisar’s tank ground to a halt it managed to fire one last shot at Khetarpal’s stricken tank, killing the Second Lieutenant instantly. Major Nisar escaped by leaping out of his burning tank. The attack was stopped but out of the three squadron commanders only one lived to tell the tale – Captain Malhotra. After the cease fire, Major Nisar paid a courtesy calls across the lines to pay his complements. He only found Captain Malhotra. Khetarpal was one of the few Indians in the country’s 50 year history to have received the highest award for gallantry, the Param Vir Chakra. His posthumous citation read:”His calculated and deliberate decision to fight from a burning tank was an act of valour and self-sacrifice beyond the call of duty.”

But that is just what thousands of other soldiers did in the fighting in the Shakargarh bulge. The Pakistanis too fought to the man and in many areas, the fighting often ended up in hand-to-hand combat. From all accounts, this is the area where the Pakistanis fought for every inch of soil and the Indian shed blood for every yard they captured. The Indians clung on to every inch of territory they had conquered and the Indian Army’s third Param Vir Chakra was won on these very killing fields. Major Hoshiar Singh led the forward company of the 3 Grenadiers into battle into the bridgehead and took a village called Jarpal. The Pakistanis counter-attacked later the same day. Hoshiar Singh undaunted went from trench to trench to rally his men disregarding the bullets flying all around him. His behaviour so encouraged the men that they took on a battalion sized attack the next morning even after being pounded by artillery in which Hoshiar Singh was seriously wounded. He continued to move amongst his men and kept up the fire against the enemy. When one of his machine gun crews was knocked out by a shell, he personally took over and shot a number of Pakistanis. At the end of the days fighting, over 85 Pakistani soldiers were found dead in front of their trenches.

Indian Tank inside the Shakargarh Bulge]

That was the end of the Pakistani counter-attacks but the Indians could get no further as the cease-fire came into effect on the same evening. The Indians had halted their advance just 7 kilometres short of Zafarwal. Some Indian military historians have been critical of 1 Corps’ actions, arguing that much more could have been achieved had the corps commander not dispersed his resources and had not been forced to tie down a major chunk of his assets for defensive purposes. But this is not quite fair considering that the actual offensive was late in starting and the Indians had actually less than a week to gain their objectives. Besides, this area was traversed by numerous rivers, ditches and defended embankments. The enemy had re-inforced the area in depth and laid extensive minefields all over the place. They also had significant artillery fire and were supported by the PAF. Making headway under such conditions in so limited a time was difficult.

Soldiers on both sides fought hard and if, in the end, the whole affair was a stalemate, it was justly so. Had the war dragged for even a week more, things would certainly have been very different. That is why the Pakistani high command despite having lost all its strategic objectives readily agreed to a cease-fire. The Indian Army in the west proved that the regimental colours its men carried were still a matter of honour. The stories of the 1971 War ensured that those traditions would be carried on by many generations of fighting men in the years to come. Most of all, Indian troops had learnt that after all was said and done, honour in battle meant standing one’s ground and fighting – even to the last man or tank if necessary.

Modest Aims, Ambitious Action

Dhaka’s fall was imminent. Everybody concerned including the Pakistani generals holed up in that city knew it was only a matter of time before the Indian Army and the Mukti Bahaini would get in. General Tikka Khan after killing a few million East Pakistanis had fled to Rawalpindi, leaving a professional soldier Lt. General A.A.K. Niazi in charge. He wanted to avoid a carnage but could not disobey the orders from Rawalpindi asking him to hold on. For the Indians, it was simply a question of how to speed up the surrender process.

The Indians got just the break they were looking for thanks to the Mukti Bahini intelligence. “Early on 14 December, the IAF got a message through the Mukti Bahini that an important meeting was scheduled in the Governor House (now ‘Banga Bhaban’) that morning. Four MiG-21s of No. 28 Sqn from Gauhati were tasked to attack the Governor House. As Dr. Malek, the puppet Governor of the then East Pakistan, along with his cabinet and high officials were in session, the MiGs came screaming down and accurately fired salvos of rockets into the Darbar Hall. The Governor was so traumatised that he resigned then and there, and rushed to the Hotel Intercontinental (now Sheraton), to seek shelter under the UN Flag. The Pakistani civil administration in the East ceased to exist. Of and on, between 12-14 December, the IAF transport planes came over Dhaka and dropped leaflets urging the Pak forces to surrender…By 15 December, at the request of the Pakistani Commander in the East, all air operations ceased and the negotiation for the surrender of the Pak forces started. On 16 December morning, the IAF helicopter carrying the Indian negotiating team landed in Tejgaon”, wrote Air Cdre Ishfaq Ilahi Choudhury (Retd).

On the morning of 16th December, Major General Jacob flew into Dhaka to persuade the East Pakistani Army commander, Lt. General A.A.K.Niazi, to accept an unconditional surrender. The Pakistanis still had about 24,000 troops to defend Dhaka. He could have held on and some military eperts in Pakistan have criticsed him severely for accepting what is considered a “shameful surrender”. But Niazi needs to be applauded for saving the lives of thousands more and effectively rescuing the 94,000 Pakistani armed men who became POW and later returned unharmed to Pakistan. Had the Pakistanis decided to fight on, they would have been massacred to the man. For, General Niazi had been offered, and had accepted, fair treatment from the Indians. The Indians had promised to protect him and his soldiers. The Mukti Bahini wanted the Indians to hand over the Pakistanis to them for trial and reprisals. If left to the Mukti Bahini and the general populace, the Pakistanis would have been butchered. Not surprisingly, General Niazi accepted the surrender terms and signed the unconditional surrender document at a public ceremony in Dhaka on 16 December 1971.

The act of surrender marked the birth of a new nation: Bangladesh. Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was released and returned triumphant to Dhaka after a brief stop-over at New Delhi where he was warmly embraced by Indian leaders. In Dhaka, a grand ceremony was held with the Indian Eastern Army commander, Lt. General J.S.Aurora, in attendance with Sheikh Mujib. This was the Indian armed forces’ finest hour. From a rag-tag, left over colonial remnaint, the three services had evolved into a new and formidable fighting force. The East Pakistan campaign would always be remembered as a model in innovation and would serve to inspire generations of soldiers of the future. The country’s hero was Chief of Army Staff, General Sam Maneckshaw, who later went on to become the country’s first Field Marshall. Indian had also won a great moral victory, for it had fought what was basically a liberation war. And as the Bangladeshi crowds and guerilla fighters rejoiced in the streets of Dhaka, it was clear that yet another round in the battle for liberty and justice had just been won.


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