Sagat Singh’s talent for war reached its pinnacle in the 1971 Indo-Pak war. He was the commander of 4 Corps based in Tripura and 4 Corps operations are a classic case study (and will remain so) for officers at every level in the chain of command. One wonders how did they manage to advance 110 miles in 13 days over 5 water obstacles – the toughest being the river Meghna which was 2.5 times wider than the Brahmaputra river. It was perhaps the widest river crossing conducted ever, that too while the enemy was present on both sides of river!
Eastern command had 3 Corps (II, XXXIII and IV) and 101 Communication Zone under its command: -
- II Corps in South Western Sector was to capture Jessore, Jhenida and then secure Hardinge Bridge, Goalundo Ghat and Faridpur ferries and Khulna.
- XXXIII Corps in North-Western Sector was to cut the line Hilli-Gaibanda and to capture Bogra Rangpur.
101 Communication Zone in Central Sector was to capture Jamalpur and Mymensingh and subsequently Tangail.
IV Corps was to secure the entire area east of river Meghna.
But Sagat was not the one to stay satisfied by achieving his primary goal, he would always go beyond, think three moves ahead and go for the next possible objective. And that’s exactly what he did in ‘71, he not only secured the eastern side of Meghna river but created an Air Bridge to cross the mighty Meghna and started pounding Dacca with 2 Artillery guns.
Comparing the above listed objectives with the map of Bangladesh will make it absolutely clearly that Eastern Command was to capture the whole of East Pakistan. Dacca bawl was to be captured after the regrouping and reorganization of the forces.
Though all three Corps commanders had same advantages - complete air dominance by IAF, complete support by local population and overall demoralized Pak forces, only IV Corps could go for the aim plus. Because the 4 Corps was being led by a dynamic, bold, ruthless, focused, unconventional, imaginative, a hard task master and courageous commander – Lt Gen Sagat Singh.
It came naturally to Sagat to keep scanning the ongoing battles in his Area of Operations for any opportunity to exploit. When he saw a small window of opportunity, he took a calculated risk and ordered the first heliborne operation in the history of the Indian Army. Using just 10 Mi-4 helicopters (under command Group Captain Chandan Singh), he got a battalion (4/5 Gorkha Rifles) heli-lifted in Sylhet. Emboldened by its success, he got a whole Division landed across Meghna while the Pakistani forces sitting in Bhairab Bazar watched the spectacle. A remarkable feat that no one ever imagined.
Readers must note that such humongous operations need meticulous planning at the Corps or Command level followed by sand model discussions and exercises.
A great deal of staff and field work and inter-service coordination go into its preparation. But in 1971, Sagat literally pulled it off all by himself, a handful of his staff officers, Group Captain Chandan Singh and his small Air Force for 10 Mi4 helicopters.
Sagat’s moves on the battlefield were so fast and unexpected that Pak Army higher command did not get any chance to recover the situation. As Brig AR Siddique (head of Pakistan’s ISPR 1969-71) wrote in his book (East Pakistan: The Endgame: An Onlooker's Journal 1969-1971, page 195-196) –
“the enemy took the initiative and made the Pakistanis react to its moves…. It was obvious that generals and brigadiers at their tactical headquarters were hardly in command of the operation. …..They (Indian Army) followed the tested and proven tactics of ‘leaving the highways and following the byways’, to avoid, as far as possible, direct engagements with the Pakistan Army while pressing on towards their main objective, Dhaka, at a steady pace….”
Though Pak forces had adequate resources to keep fighting, the rapidly changing battlefield situation cost them their most important weapon – morale, their will to fight back. And East Pakistan fell sooner than expected.
A word about the plan
Contrary to the popular belief (and assertions of Gen Jacob), final objectives and the plan of Eastern Command evolved with the time. The situation of erstwhile East Pakistan changed dramatically after Pakistan Army’s crackdown started on 25th March 1971, so did the plan and objectives of Indian Armed Forces.
In Oct 1971, Maj Gen Sukhwant Singh visited 4 Corps to discuss the plan as a representative of the Military Operations Directorate. Gen Sukhwant had discussed the possibility of capturing Dacca within MO but it was not finalized yet. He knew Sagat well and was convinced that given a chance, Sagat would go for the ultimate objective. While discussing the 4 Corps plan, he suggested to Sagat, “General, why are you wasting your energies against the Lalmai height defences? Why don’t you secure the Brahmanbaria-Ashuganj area, and then the road to Dacca will be yours for a triumphant march?” Sagat replied, “But that is not my task". Sukhwant replied with a smile “I’m just suggesting”.
Sensing the silent signal, Sagat took him aside later and asked “Tell me, does India mean business this time or are they wasting our time?”. Sukhwant replied, “It appears almost a certainty,”. Pat came a reply, “Then leave it to me. I will get there.”
Sukhwant realized that he had successfully sown the seed in Sagat’s mind. As Sukhwant said, “We left it at that. I knew he would, orders or no orders.”
There were two formations that tightened the noose around the Dacca bowl – 4 Corps from the East and 101 Communication Zone from the north. As mentioned earlier, the initial objective of the 101 CZ was to capture Jamalpur and Mymensingh and Tangail.
But in Nov 1971, 101 Com Zone’s dash to Dacca was properly discussed and planned.
Maj Gen Gurbux Singh Gill was commanding the 101 Com Zone and had 95 Mountian Bridge under Command. Brig Hardev Singh Kler was commanding 95 Mountain Brigade. On 4th Nov 1971, Eastern Army Commander Lt. Gen. Aurora visited 101 CZ area. While driving him to an adhoc Bangla brigade, Brig Kler spoke to Gen Arora about a plan that would enable the Indian Army to contact Dacca in 12 days. After the visit to Bangla brigade, the plan was presented to Gen Arora in HQ 95 Mountain Brigade. Gen Aurora gave a week to prepare the detailed plan and to war game the plan on a sand model.
On 12th Nov, the plan was war gamed in HQ 95 Mountain Brigade in the presence of Lt. Gen Arora, his operational staff and GOC 101 CZ, Maj Gen Gill. Brig. Sant Singh, MVC played the part of the enemy commander in the war game. After thorough war gaming and discussion, the plan was finally approved.
That is why, during the last days of Nov, Sagat had realized that the Army had covered Dacca in its overall plan (against the earlier planning of Aug 71 when Dacca was left for the regrouped forces).
4 Corps’ dash to Dacca
The war started on 3rd Dec 1971.
And 101 CZ was moving more or less as per their plan. Though the objective of 4 Corps remained unchanged, Sagat had already envisaged a bigger objective for his Corps. His swift manoeuvring, Special Heli Borne Operations, extensive usage of helicopters leap frogging the infantry, by-passing Pakistani fortresses and dash towards river Meghna were speaking for intensions. Jaggi Aurora sensed that by 7th Dec and called Sagat, who was enjoying his promised breakfast at Burichang with Major Kaushik.
We will come to this later, first lets see how Sagat handled 71’ operations.
5th December onwards, Sagat started following a routine. He would call his Division Commanders as early as 5:30 AM to get a quick update. Soon he would take off in his helicopter and visit different units as per the itinerary given the night before. On the fly, he would sometimes ask his chopper pilot to go beyond our forward troops to conduct a personal reconnaissance. He would carry his lunch in the helicopter in a picnic basket with enough provision for the pilots. They would range the entire front whole day and come back to his HQ in the evening. After a quick bath, he would take an update from his staff in the ops room and from his Division Commanders. After analysing the development at each front, he would start instructing his staff for the next day. This would include not only his own travel plan but the change in plan for some of the units on the battlefield. He never stuck to the original timeline/plan and readjusted everything as per the changing battlefield scenario. This ability to adapt to the changing scenario and having courage of taking calculated risks made him unique.
During the 1971 war (like his previous campaigns), Sagat was omnipresent. Thanks to the IAF that destroyed PAF deployed in East Pakistan within the first 2-3 days and had total control of East Pakistani skies, Sagat could go anywhere he wanted in his helicopter. Threat from ground attack by enemy was always there (he had near death experience on a couple of occasions,) but it made no dent in Sagat’s resolve. He remained SARVATRA. So much so that it became a joke in 4 Corps that Sagat had changed more wounded helicopter pilots than he had changed his shoes.
By 5th Dec morning, 1/11 Gurkha Rifles had captured Buschi. Earlier they had ambushed two companies of 25 Frontier Force (25FF) unit of the Pak Army and captured their CO along with 200 men. Soon they found Sagat’s Mi4 helicopter landing near them. Sagat was very happy with the good start of 201 Brigade operations and wanted to have the captured Pakistani officers interrogated by own intelligence units. He did not wait for regular transport channels and got Lt. Col. Akbar Baig (CO of 25 FF) and Pak Artillery Officer in his Mi4 helicopter and flew back to Agartala.
After delivering the prisoners, he refuelled his helicopter and flew to Sagarnal, where 9 Guards had won a hard fought battle. After his Helicopter had landed, they realized that the area was not entirely cleared of the mines laid by the Pak forces. But helicopter had already landed safely, so soldiers started making frantic efforts to clear a lane to the helicopter. Sagat watched all this from his helicopter for some time and then he lost patience.
He had no time to waste so he got out of the helicopter and started walking towards the troops, while everyone watched him in disbelief as he could step on a mine at any moment.
On 5th Dec itself, Sagat asked his helicopter pilot to take a flight over Akhaura town. Fighting for the town was still on and the pilot was little cautious. Sagat persuaded him to fly over the Railway bund and saw Pakistani soldiers vacating their defences. He immediately turned south, located own forces deployed nearby, landed and got hold of the company commander Maj DP Singh and asked him to rush to capture the vacated position. And it was done in no time. This was not his last such courageous recce ride, actually its frequency increased as the war progressed.
On 6th Dec, his Chariot landed near 61st Mountain Brigade HQ. Brigade commander ‘Tom’ Pandey was not there and Sagat was received by the BM (Brigade Major) Maj OP Kaushik. The BM expected a whip from Sagat as the place was in total chaos but came a pleasant comment “Hello Pandit ji, kya ho raha hai?” Somewhat relieved, Kaushik saluted and replied that they were having lunch. Sagat asked for a plate and ate the simple field lunch with the men and officers. After lunch, Sagat asked Kaushik where they expected to reach the next morning? Kaushik replied with confidence “Burichang”. Pat came the reply “See you for breakfast then”.
True to his words, Sagat joined Kaushik and Tom for the breakfast next day in Burichang! this was the time when Jaggi Aurora called Sagat and asked him to stick to the plan and not to cross river Meghna.
Jaggi’s apprehension was logical as it was just 5th day since the war officially started with full force and crossing a wide water obstacle like Meghna required proper planning and adequate resources. Else the crossing could turn into a disaster. Maj OP Kaushik heard the conversation and Sagat said “Jaggi, I am a Corps Commander. I am expected to exploit an opportunity.
If an opportunity presents itself to cross the Meghna and give you an aim plus I will take it. I am not restricting You to the Eastern bank of the Meghna, I am giving you the Western bank and beyond; you should be happy."
But Gen Aurora was not convinced and he decided to meet Sagat the next day.
Unperturbed by the heated discussion, Sagat went around doing his usual business. He went straight to Brig Mishra (311 Brigade) and asked him to bypass the enemy waiting at Brahmanbaria and head straight to Ashuganj – to capture the bridge over river Meghna. This speaks volumes of his ability to stay focused on his objectives even when the higher command was uncomfortable.
Gen Aurora met Sagat on 8th Dec and there was a bitter argument between them.
Jaggi was not still not convinced and Sagat was not taking NO for an answer.
Finally, both boarded the helicopter and first went to fenny and then to Comilla. They were received by huge crowds of liberated and enthusiastic Bengalis. In Comilla, people lifted Jaggi on their shoulders and started chanting “Joi Bangla, Joi Hind”. This had a soothing effect and calmed down the raised temperatures. Then they flew to Akhuara and over the lunch, Sagat spoke to Jaggi again and explained his plan for the coming days. Just then a signal came from the Eastern Command that there were signs that enemy was on the brink of breaking down and Jaggi had to rush back to his HQ. There was no certain approval or disapproval but Sagat had the satisfaction that Jaggi left with an enhanced level of confidence in Sagat.
This episode shows the mettle he was made of, his strong character. Sagat’s belief in his abilities and his grasp over the battlefield was so strong that even the displeasure of the Army Commander and the heated arguments made no dent in his resolve and he went ahead with his plan to get Pakistani Army on its knees. Every unit of 4 Corps was doing its best because they would find their Corps Commander with them on every battlefield before and/or after the battle. Entire Corps was so charged up that 9th Dec onwards, it was like a hot pursuit of a fleeing enemy instead of “advance to contact”
First published in Indian Defence Review
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