BATTLE OF HILLI – 1971
By SUDHIR K. ARORA
16 December 2021 marks 50 years of the greatest feat of arms of Independent India. On this day in 1971, Pakistan’s forces in erstwhile East Pakistan capitulated after being roundly outsmarted and soundly beaten. A new nation – Bangladesh was born as a result of Indian soldiers’ grit and valour. And The Garhwal Rifles Regiment was there, among the forefront, as they have been in every war India has fought. This is the story of the 5th Battalion The Garhwal Rifles (5 Garh Rif) which fought at Hilli – one of the bloodiest battles of the 1971 War – and emerged triumphant, winning Battle Honour ‘Hilli’ and Theatre Honour ‘East Pakistan 1971’.
While officially, hostilities between India and Pakistan commenced on December 3, 1971, the war for 5 Garh Rif and many other units had begun much earlier. The deluge into India of millions of refugees from East Pakistan since March 1971, fleeing Pakistani atrocities, along with East Bengal armed forces personnel who had quit the Pakistan forces and were thirsting for revenge, led to the formation of the Mukti Bahini. ‘Operation Jackpot’ was launched to train, arm and support the Mukti Bahini to harass Pakistani forces in East Pakistan, disrupt lines of communication and thus sap their morale. In the latter half of 1971, 5 Garh Rif was part of a formation tasked with supporting the freedom fighters. Pakistan not relenting in its genocidal activity, war clouds loomed and Indian Army units began active reconnaissance, clearing and occupying areas that were close to their jump off points in the event of hostilities breaking out. It was an undeclared war. 5 Garh Rif moved to Bazarpura and was in operations by 23 November 1971, being ordered to capture Basudebpur Border Out-Post (BOP), a strongly fortified area. ‘A’ Company Commander Major A.S. Thapa personally led the attack. Subedar Sujan Singh, finding his platoon objective blocked by a 7-foot high wall, covered by a medium machine gun, got his men to form human ladders, jumped over the wall and led a bayonet charge on the shocked enemy, lobbing grenades, clearing the post bunker by bunker. For his courage, initiative and leadership, he was awarded the Vir Chakra. Havildar Kunwar Singh Chaudhari, despite being wounded and bleeding profusely, charged and destroyed the machine gun bunker. For this act of bravery and determination, he was awarded the Vir Chakra. This brave soldier lost one leg due to his injuries. The surviving defenders abandoned their posts, leaving behind considerable arms and equipment, and fled. The War started in earnest on 3 December 1971. The next objective given to the Garhwalis was Debkhanda, to the North of Hilli. This area in the north of Bangladesh is mostly firm ground, hence terrain in which tanks could operate, unlike the southern part of the riverine, marshy country. The battalion attacked Debkhanda on December 3, supported by a troop of tanks of the 63rd Cavalry. The area was held in depth, with well sited machine gun bunkers and the battle was fierce. The next day, an artillery shell burst near a briefing being held of Company commanders leaving two officers – Major Ranjit Singh and Major HP Bajaj severely wounded, needing evacuation.
Next morning, preparatory to resuming the attack, a reconnaissance patrol was sent out under Second Lieutenant VK Puri. The patrol came under very heavy fire from a location, which young Puri decided to assault frontally. He received a burst of machine gun fire just metres short of his objective and was martyred. In another assault, Second Lieutenant Jayendra Jai Singh Rane (like Puri, commissioned just over a year earlier) who had taken over as Company Commander, led from the front. An enemy machine gun was taking a heavy toll on his men, so he decided to singlehandedly silence it but was killed in the attempt very near the machine gun bunker. For his bravery, over and beyond the call of duty, young Rane was posthumously awarded the Vir Chakra. (This brave soldier came from a martial family his maternal grandfather and his father had both served in the Army. His mother, an active social worker, was elected in 1980 as Goa’s first woman Member of Parliament of the Lok Sabha). The Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Subhash Chandra, leading from the front, was shot in the knee and had to be evacuated. Major M.S. Thapa, the 2IC, assumed command, kept on pressing the attack, and cleared the enemy from their fortified positions.
Next day, December 6, the battalion was placed under command of another Brigade and tasked to cut-off the Rangpur-Bogra Road at Raiganj, and thus rupture a major line of communication of the Pakistani Division holding this sector. Just when it was in position to launch the assault, it was diverted to take over Pirganj from another battalion which had been given another task.
This was done in time; meanwhile one Company of the battalion successfully took Sadullapur and Gaibanda, as part of a combat team with a squadron of tanks.
On 12 December, the battalion received new orders, placing it under command of yet another Brigade at Laldighi Bazar, and tasked to advance to Milestone 18, clearing the enemy along the route. After a night march over unknown territory, it took this well defended enemy position by a fierce assault, forcing the enemy to flee.
The Brigade advance now continued towards the important garrison town of Rangpur, the battalion being tasked to reach the Rangpur defences. On the way, On December 15, it fought a sharp engagement in the Dam Dama Bridge area, where the retreating Pakistanis had demolished the bridge over the Ghagat River. The next day, December 16, two Companies of the battalion were pressing home their final assaults when the enemy raised the white flag.
The Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel M.S. Thapa walked across to the demolished bridge and there found Lieutenant Colonel Mohammad Saleem Zia and officers and men of Pak 8th Punjab Battalion Group waiting to lay down their arms. The battalion took the surrender of 15 officers, 12 JCOs and 322 other ranks along with a large number of heavy weapons (including three tanks) and tonnes of ammunition.
The battalion was then ordered to move to Rangpur garrison and take custody of 3,500 Pakistani Prisoners of War which included the top brass of Pakistan 16th Infantry Division. Among them was the Division Commander Major General Nazar Hussain Shah, who had been commissioned in The Garhwal Rifles in 1943. He had opted for Pakistan in 1947 and joined the 13th Frontier Force.
On seeing who he was surrendering to, he said, “I am extremely happy to have commenced and terminated my army career with the Garhwalis”.
The Battalion’s Brigade Commanders were all praise for its steely determination and rock steady resolve in the face of heavy odds, inflicting considerable losses on the enemy (the battalion alone accounted for over 70 enemy dead). It had relentlessly advanced, fought and won a series of actions in which junior commanders displayed exemplary courage and leadership qualities. But all this came at a heavy price. Two bright young officers – 2/Lt J.J.S. Rane and 2/Lt V.K. Puri were killed in action, along with Naib Subedar Bir Singh Kaintura and 15 brave Bhullas. Of the 15 officers of the battalion, 7 were wounded, as were three JCOs and 69 other ranks, testifying to the ferocity of the fighting and the fact that the officers and junior leaders had led from the front, in the best traditions of The Garhwal Rifles and the Indian Army. The Battalion was awarded three Vir Chakras, three Sena Medals and seven brave Garhwalis were Mentioned-inDespatches.
5 Garh Rif fought and prevailed in some of the heaviest fighting of the War, in the face of an enemy strongly entrenched in fortified defences with tank and artillery support. The Indian Army’s actions in Hilli sector tied down over a Division of Pakistani troops, thus making them unavailable for the defence of the interior, where, in Blitzkrieg manner IV Corps of the Indian Army sliced through to the ultimate prize – what the Pakistanis had deemed impossible – Dacca!
(The author is a military historian and publisher.)