Inside a ‘Chakravyuh’ in Sylhet

Sylhet (now renamed Rajguru Nagar), is at the North-East corner of (now) Bangaldesh. It is an important place from military and geographical point of view. It was the district headquarters and its fall would be sever set back to the enemy, with the potential of international repercussions, as its loss would lead to the loss of a big chunk of its territory. Therefore to defend Sylhet, Pakistan had 202 infantry Brigade (with additional scouts’ battalions) with one artillery regiment of 105 mm guns and one battery of 120 mm mortars. A large segment of the population had been either evaluated or had fled. Keeping with their strategy Sylhet had turned into a ‘Fortress’. It is worth recalling that by this time – 7 Dec,’71 – Dhaka itself was being threatened and as our forces were closing on to Dhaka, the Pakistani forces were fighting and withdrawing towards it to defend it. It was around this time (6/7 Dec,’71) that our Eastern Command Headquarters in Calcutta intercepted a Pakistani wireless transmission which was in a code. From the intercept, one aspect was clear – one of the Pakistani brigades was ordered to move from its then location to an unknown destination. Our High Command, in light of Dacca being under serious threat, interpreted that it was 202 Infantry Brigade that the Pakistan army was withdrawing from Sylhet to Dacca thus vacating Sylhet. Based on this interpretation of the wireless interception it was decided to land a heliborne infantry battalion behind enemy lines in Sylhet and occupy it. (But unknown to us and in consistence with its concept of ‘Fortress defence’, Pakistan was moving its 313 Infantry Brigade from Maulavi Bazar to Sylhet on 7 Dec ’716, thereby increasing its strength to two brigades there). That was also the day that our battalion was destined to land in Sylhet. It would be worthwhile to have a peep into our battalion at this time. In the fighting at Atgram and Gazipur we had lost 7 officers (ie almost half the strength of the officers0, 3 JCOs and 92 other ranks. Out of this, 3 officers, 1 JCO and 13 other ranks were killed and others wounded. Almost all of them were from the four rifle companies. Our recalled leave parties returning from Nepal and our fresh reinforcements coming from our training centre at Dehradun were in the journey moving from Dehradun/Gorakhpur to Silchar, while we ourselves were moving form Atgram (near Silchar) to Gazipur and now poised to take off for Sylhet from Kulaura. Thus the rifle company strength was reduced to between 53 to 62 persons (ie less than half the normal strength). Platoons in these companies had barely 20 persons and sections consisted of 1 NCO and three or four other ranks. In view of this I had suggested that our four rifle companies be reformed into two. However this was not accepted.

Thus , on the morning of 7 Dec, ’71, around 0900 hours, Brig CA Quinn , our Brigade Commander, visited us at Kulaura and informed me that our Battalion had been selected to carry out the Indian Army’s (and Indian Air Force’s) first ever Heliborne operation into Sylhet. He informed me that since Pakistani Brigade at Sylhet (202 Infantry Brigade) has moved out of Dacca, Sylhet is expected to be devoid of regular troops. Our tasks after heli-landing in Sylhet were to occupy Sylhet air port, Radio Station and Raid-Road Bridge over River Surma. Link up with our own forces advancing on three different approaches was expected within 12 to 24 hours. Brig Quinn, an infantry officer of the famous Garhwal Regiment, besides being a competent professional soldier with vast military experience was a man of honor and trust and would always patiently listen to the views of his sub-ordinates. I commented to him my assessment that Sylhet is unlikely to have been vacated completely by regular troops. Land link up too, would not be feasible within 12 to 24 hours. (So far our Army had no practical experience of carrying out a heliborne operation. But it was taught in various Army schools of Instructions. Coincidentally enough, while I was at the Staff College, Wellington during 1968, I was made a syndicate leader to study all aspects of a heliborne operation). Brig Quinn returned to his headquarters after our meeting to co-ordinate various other aspects of our operation. There was not adequate time for us in the battalion for planning, preparations and issue of orders at various levels would normally have taken 2 to 3 days. I acutely felt the absence of Maj Shyam Kelkar who would have been of great help at such crucial times. He, having made the supreme sacrifice 48 hours earlier, there was no Second-in-command at this juncture, I missed him badly. I asked the adjutant Maj Karan Puri7 to inform and prepare everybody for the tasks ahead and got myself ready to carry out a heliborne reconnaissance of Sylhet for selecting an appropriate landing area for the tasks allotted. By about 10 a Brig Quinn, Gp Capt Chandan Singh (who was in charge of the heli-lift) and myself flew over Sylhet, selected a site at Mirapara across the River Surma for landing, hovered for observation over some places in Sylhet and returned to Kulaura (refer to sketch 4). We did not notice any military activity n or were we fired upon, thus confirming Higher Command’s belief that the 202 Infantry Brigade had left for Dhaka! I also felt relieved that my apprehensions mentioned to Brig Quinn were after all unfounded and that those were not based on any military data but were only gut feelings.

 

Sketch 4

The Helilift was to commence around 2:30 pm and therefore there was hardly any time even to hold a conference of the company commanders. There was battle confusion without a battle! At such times (when there is not adequate time) troops move with pouch scale of ammunition and shakkarparas as rations for 48 hours. During a war, troops constantly carry these things on their person/in pouches and haversacks. The scale of pouch ammunition, during an action, doesn’t last more than 20 to 30 minutes of a fire fight. This scale of ammunition is more appropriate when troops are deployed ‘In Aid of Civil Power’ during peace time civil disturbances. However, an outline plan was quickly evolved. Since M1-4 helicopters could carry around 6 to 7 persons (with their equipment, weapons and ammunition), a flight of 7 to 8 helicopters was expected to carry about 45 persons in one wave. Therefore itt was decided that Charlie company under its company commander Maj Malik and CO;s party should land initially followed by Bravo, Alfa and Delta companies. Control of the helipad (landing ground) being essential for subsequent waves to land. Charlie company’s initial task would be to fan out and control and area up to 1000 to 1500 meters all around it. *during a war, while physically moving into an enemy territory, we move tactically on the assumption that the enemy is holding out). It was also to send a platoon to ‘occupy’ the rail – Road Bridge nearby. Bravo Company in the following wave was to send on platoon to the radio station and the remaining company (ie company less a platoon – in military parlance) was to ‘occupy’ the airport. Alfa and Delta companies followed Bravo were to remain in heli landing area for any unforeseen contingencies. One wave (consisting of 7 to 8 helicopters) could take about 20 minutes flight time to reach Sylhet from Kulaura. Therefore, time lag between two flights (arriving at Sylhet) would be 40 to 45 minutes. It gets dark early in the evening in the east. Therefore it was also essential to ensure that the entire battalion concentrated in Sylhet by the last light (ie by sunset). This entailed that the first wave landed in Sylhet between 1400 and 1430 hours. There was hardly any time left for normal battle procedures to take place. First to land in Sylhet (from our battalion) was major portion of ‘C’ company led by a cool and courageous officer, Maj Maney Malik. On landing at Miraparam around 1500 hours, they were ‘received’ by the Pakistani regular troops with small arms fire. (In retrospect, it was obvious that our morning reconnaissance flight had given away our intentions and our hovering over Mirapara adjacent to an important bridge over the river Surma gave away likely site of landing. Thus, a part of their mobile reserves must have been earmarked to oppose any helilanding there). The first wave of Charlie Company thus on landing, had no time to organize itself. Its personnel, as they got off, went straight charging in the direction from where the firing was coming, raising the war cry of ‘Ayo Gorkhali’ as they went charging forward. We could also hear enemy’s war cries of ‘Allah – O – Akbar’ coming from different directions. Co’s party – my party – landed in the second wave consisting of remaining part of ‘C’ coy and a major portion of Bravo Company under Capt VK Sharma after about 40 to 45 minutes. Our sections and platoons as they jumped off the helicopters in twos and threes automatically ran to occupy their predetermined (practiced in peace time field exercises by their company commanders) areas in a ‘clock ray’ method. With the landing of our first wave, the enemy was left in no doubt about our landing ground for subsequent waves. The enemy now knew that we will try and quickly build up (get our remainder battalion to land) at this place. Therefore, control of the landing area and area around it was crucial to us and denial of the same was of equal importance to the enemy. In a Heliborne operation, an initial unopposed landing is important for heliborne troops to get control of the landing area. Thereafter, next 2 to 3 hours are crucial for subsequent flights to land, build up and dig in. but there were were facing opposition right from the time of landing. While our helicopters returned to base for subsequent flights, the enemy quickly started concentrating more and more troops against us, as slowly but surely, the increasing volume, intensity and spread of MMG fire indicated. However, in retrospect, I think what benefited us in those first crucial hours, was the enemy’s awareness that the Gorkhas were against them – as our war cries of Ayo Gorkhali indicated to them. It was only later – after the surrender – that we came to know that it was 31 Punjab personnel who happened to be opposing our initial landing, with 22 Baluch joining them that night. Thus, while we were kept under increasingly heavy fire with threatening war cries of Allah – O –Akbar and equally threatening charges of these enemy detachments, we noticed that they preferred to keep a respectful distance from us. (The only way the enemy could have evicted us was through a bayonet charge. But the enemy knew by its previous experiences with our battalion, that the price they will have to pay would be 10:1 as we were like a cornered cat fighting for its very survival). We had to be extremely careful not to waste our ammunition as we were carrying only a pouch scale of it. Our troops while pressing forward (to enlarge area of control around helipad) were equally careful to open fire only when they were sure to hit the enemy. As this ding dong battle was going on, essential for control of the landing pad, our second sortie having already involved in the goings on explained above our total strength (in Sylhet) at that time would  have been about 90 to 100 fighting troops. This consisted of complete ‘C’ company and part of Bravo Company besides my group. This total strength had about 15 LMGs an 4 MMGs all scattered in small detachments of 2 to 3 persons each. In spite of all these numbers of LMGs and MMGs we had to be extremely careful about ammunition expenditure. I could see these detachments moving from place to place trying to chase away Pakistani detachments who were trying ot contain us in a smaller and smaller circle, failing their effort to eliminate/evict us. Maj Segan and his detachment of 99 Mountain Regiment had been with us at Atgram and Gazipur. He not only volunteered but insisted on accompanying my party. He and his detachment played an important part in Sylhet battle.

Our returning flights to their base, showing visible bullet marks on the helicopters, carried some of the initially wounded persons back. This gave the first information to the Brigade and Divisional Commanders (8 Mountain Division Maj Gen KVK Rao) about the resistance we were facing at Sylhet. Obviously, 202 Infantry Brigade of the enemy was still in Sylhet and therefore airport, bridge and radio stations could not be ‘occupied’ but needed to be attacked and captured which was not within our capabilities. I needed to discuss the battle situation with Brig Quinn. When I looked around for our long range radio set, which had joined our battalion only for this purpose, I realized that it was still to catch up! This was a long range radio set, specially sent to us from the Division and therefore its detachment (not having been trained with our battalion) was not aware of our Standard Operating Procedures. Its absence at this time acutely brought home our isolation from our forces. We hoped that the detachment would join us in the next wave.

As time moved forward on its irreversible course the first indications of dusk were felt by the decreasing light and increasing cold. It was more than one hour since the previous ‘wave’ had landed and the third wave should have come at least 15 to 20 minutes back. In a short while, sun would set and with that our hopes of our battalion concentrating would also vanish, as helicopters then did not have night landing facility. With the strength of the enemy slowly increasing, our small detachments scattered in all directions were in danger of being eliminated piecemeal. It was necessary that these detachments continue their resistance in that fashion to retain control of the landing ground (and area around it) so as to enable the remaining battalion to land. But at the same time, to avoid increasing casualties and to be able to defend ourselves effectively it was also necessary to concentrate the existing strength and fight to the last man last round by occupying a proper defensive positions. The only defensible position around was a raised mound – a small high ground – nearby. Occupying a defensive position there would mean losing the control of the helipad, which also meant that as and when battalion lands, it is likely to be slaughtered while landing as I was not in communication with them. A Catch 22 position. Even today, almost 30 years after, I see myself standing in the dark with the sounds of bullets whizzing past, artillery and mortar shells landing around, war cries of Ayo Gorkhali indicating a touch and go situation making life and death difference all for of us and my mind torn between the two alternatives. I was confident that our remaining battalion will land by dawn the next morning. I had over a period of the earlier two battles, (Atgram and Gazipur) developed an implicit trust and confidence in Brig Quinn which now assured me that come what may, he will send the remainder battalion at the earliest. He will not leave us high and dry. In the meanwhile in the second wave our Adjutant Maj Karan Puri – a cool competent and confident officer, loved by men, was wounded while his helicopter was lading and had to be evaluated by the returning flight. Personally to me as well, the battalion, his absence at this crucial stage was a great loss (‘Karan’ was evaluated to Military Hospital in Lucknow. Even during hospitalization, his thoughts were all the time with the battalion, always enquiring regarding the latest information about the battalion. In spite of all our best efforts at the hospital, Karan could not be saved. After a quick confabulation between myself, Maj Maney Malik and Maj Segan, I decided to essentially continue the fight and retain control of the area around the landing pad till the next morning while simultaneously sending a small patrol to the nearby high ground to keep it under our control for an alternate contingency mentioned above. Maj Malik (Charlie Company commander) had organized his company (along with the portion of Bravo Company) in to detachments based upon 12 to 15 LMGs and 4 MMGs which by necessity were constantly moving all around to deal with increasing enemy pressure. These tactics (unknown to us at that time) created an impression amongst enemy that our entire battalion had concentrated. (This we came to know while talking to prisoners after the war and that therefore they wanted brigade strength to attack us!) I decided that if the battalion did no t arrive b early morning next day (8 Dec’71) then we would occupy a defensive position on the high ground (a little more raised ground that the surrounding area!) and fight a battle to the finish.

Thus, we had about 20 detachments based upon LMGs and MMGs moving in an expanding circle throughout the night trying to keep the enemy at bay and attempting to enlarge tour control the enemy had commenced its artillery fire. Bringing an effective and accurate artillery fire in the area where we were operating was easy for the enemy. The artillery fire – an area weapon – started slowly but surely, inflicting casualties on our men in the open. But our battalion had learnt at Gazipur, to tae position on hearing the first ‘boom’ (sound of firing) of artillery and mortar fire and before it explodes. It reduced causalities but did not stop it. Unfortunately, even the few casualties that we were suffering could not get medical help. Our Regimental Medical Officer and his medical platoon

(both of whom had proved a great asset in tending to 70 casualties at Gazipur) were to come in the later waves of helicopters. In the circumstances, we could do nothing more than apply first aid bandages (every soldier carries one such bandage on his person). Time stood still for us; we had lost all sense concept and awareness of time on that dark and cold night which must have enveloped us earlier. Mixed with the battle sounds of rifle fire, automatic machine gun fire and artillery fire (all from the enemy, for we had to be very careful with our limited ammunition) were the battle cries of ‘Ayo Gorkhali’ and Allah-O-Akbar. Thus, as the dark night was coming to an end with just the faint beginning of dawn on the horizon, at about 0400 hours 8 Dec’71, we heard in the distance, the sound of the helicopters. It was a sound of assurance, strength, relief and trust redeemed. But that sound was broken more violently and with vengeance by the artillery fire saturating the landing area. But eh brave IAF pilots with their superb skills and daring, landed the helicopters dispersed in various nooks and corners where artillery fire could not easily penetrate. The moment the helicopters touched the ground, the men began to jump off and in seconds the helicopters were gone to bring in the subsequent troops, before the day could break, the battalion was concentrated (it was only after the war that we came to know that the waves of the helicopters coming in on 8 Dec before dawn was interpreted by the Pakistanis that we had not concentrated a brigade!).

With the remaining battalion’s arrival, came the change of tasks from the earlier ones of occupying the bridge, the airport and the radio station, to the new on e of occupying a defensive position and conducing an offensive defence. Immediately on arrival, Alfa and Delta companies (respectively under Majs Rana and Kaul with young officers Pande and Salgotra) were pushed forward towards the bridge to keep the enemy under threat and pressure. Our Regimental Medical Officer, Capt Sengupta was a great asset and morale booster. Flight Lieutenant Sharma of AIF (forward Air Controller) came with his radio set (with which he would be directing IAF aircraft, flying overhead accurately on to the enemy targets). Capt Rana of the Army Supply Corps and Lt Mahapatra of Engineers were two young officers who came along with our battalion, became one of us and proved to be of assets. 2/Lt Mahapatra (Engineers) went straight FDL (Forward Defended Locality) with Alfa coy and had some of the most unforgettable experiences which he jotted down in his dairy. Capt Rana was given the command of an infantry platoon, which in itself was an honor for an ASC (Army Supply Corps) officer.

With the arrival of Alfa and Delta companies and part of Bravo Company (remaining behind the previous evening) the battalion was now concentrated in Sylhet and its tasks were changed. With the experiences of the previous evening and night, my mind had already considered various contingencies and had arrived at a plan of establishing a defensive position (a defended area in military parlance) which would act like a firm base. A firm base, from where w would be able to defend ourselves, from where sections, platoons and companies would go out and lay ambushes, raid enemy localities (outside the perimeter) establish road blocks to cut off road communications and generally harass the enemy with aggressive actions. Besides, this firm base would also provide a secured area where the wounded could be tended to and the helicopters could land to evaluate them. The firm base thus established was about 1 to 1.5 kms in depth and about 1.5 kms in width. On the west of this firm base were Alfa and Delta companies, facing the enemy on the bridge as well as blocking a road leading form it into Sylhet. Alfa company was on the left and Delta on the right (when facing the enemy). Road Sylhet – Khadim Nagar was running to the north of our firm base astride which Charlie Company established a road block (with Delta Company’s right flank also occupying/dominating that road). Charlie Company’s defences extended towards the east, there linking up with the Bravo Company. To the south of our firm base was the river Surma which provided a certain amount of natural protection. There was also a small hamlet in this area which was deserted. However that flanks (southern side) could not be neglected as the enemy defences were across the river and they could attempt to reestablish their foothold on our side of the river bank. Therefore Bravo company was given this area and to it was also included the eastern side of the firm base (linking up with Charlie Company). Mortar platoon, pioneer platoon, medical platoon and Battalion Headquarters were deployed scatted on the high ground which also physically dominated and controlled the helipad. MMGs and Anti Tank guns were already with their respective companies (a section each, consisting of two MMGs and two anti tank guns). The CO’s group – small and mobile enough – was located at the high ground. Capt Ravindra Singh, a young cheerful officer was acting as my Adjutant at this time. Besides he was made in charge of defences of this high ground. He was of great help to me in his dual capacities. Thus broadly, four rifle companies were forming the outer ring (with each company having its own dept) and elements located on the high ground was forming a small inner ring and provided depth to the battalion. Four rifle companies established physical link up on each other’s right, left and rear. Coordination of fire between neighboring platoons and companies was soon evolved. Incidentally such internal coordination takes place automatically as practiced in peace time field exercise with troops.

With Alfa and Delta companies having pushed towards the bridge (and the road leading from it to Sylhet), Bravo and Charlie companies pushed tow platoons each towards the enemy detachments pushing them further north and west respectively and securing and enlarging our own areas under occupation. The third platoon of these two companies started speedily digging for their entire companies respectively. (In the above description, events taking place have been explained in a simple manner for the lay readers). Situation was confused and fluid with actions taking place automatically based upon practices and instincts. Thus all the four companies were now aggressively pushing back enemy detachments and expanding their areas ((thereby expanding battalion’s perimeter all around). However throughout 8 Dec (day and night) the enemy was increasing the volume and intensity of artillery, mortars and MMG fire with the aim of inflicting maximum casualties and keeping us so imbalanced that digging of defense became a herculean task. Enemy artillery Ops (observation posts) became active as they could bring observed (and therefore accurate) artillery fire. This also meant that though the landing ground was in our physical control and dominated by us, the landing of the helicopters was nothing short of suicide! Thus our casualties neither could nto be evaluated nor could rations and ammunitions be replenished. But our helicopter pilots were dare devils and when with each passing day, our causalities mounted and ammunition stock dwindled, they landed (skillfully in nooks and corners for a few brief minutes adequate to evaluate casualties) their helicopter at great personal risks. Thus our battalion was able to tie down two Pakistani bridges (202 Infantry Brigade and 313 Infantry Brigade) from 7 Dec,’71 to 16 Dec, ’71. The far reaching effect of tying down these two brigades is clearly brought out by Lt Gen (retd) JFR Jacob in his book “surrender at Dacca – Birth of a Nation”8. In the twilight hours of 8 Dec, ’71, came another wave of helicopters, bringing in two mountain guns and one strong platoon of 9 guards under Maj Izzac (or David) as reinforcements. With two mountain guns only very limited ammunition could be brought it. Besides, due to lack of suitable deployment area, the angle needed for bringing down effective fire on the enemy at closer range was not available. Besides Alfa and Delta companies were so close to the enemy that any artillery fire in that area would have placed our own troops in the danger zone. In spite of these handicaps Maj Segan, our Battalion Commander made every effort and did give us the best support he could within above limitation thus raising the morale of our troops. Besides the existence of guns and their firing form our defended area, must have further confirmed the enemy in its assessment of the landing of an Indian brigade in Sylhet! However Alfa and Delta companies continued a relentless pressure on the enemy, charging forward with ‘Ayo Gorkhali’ and pushing back any enemy detachments. Thus Alfa and Delta companies reached within 0.5 to 1 km of the bridge. Any move further forward towards the bridge drew a stiff resistance and a heavy volume of enemy artillery and MMG fire. We started suffering casualties which we were able to evaluate. Though Capt Sengupta (our RMO) was doing his best, but his efforts were limited to giving first aid due to the lack of any specialized facilities. Almost all the wounded were in need of emergency surgical aid, blood transfusion and antibiotic injections, none of these were part of the Regimental aid post. Besides the limited availability of ammunition was another factor. Therefore Alfa and Delta companies firmed in their respective areas, in an eyeball to eyeball confrontation with the enemy. Bravo and Charlie companies while pushed back enemy detachments had also to keep in mind to be a part of the co-ordinated battalion defended area and not be isolated on a limb. Thus our defended area had loosely evolved form the above factors. With the darkness (8 Dec, ’71) came the concerted efforts of the enemy to force us into a fire fight and inflict casualties on us by artillery fire; for the enemy also knew the limitations of Heliborne troops – viz evaluation of casualties, shortage of ammunition and rations, lack of armor and artillery support. At this crucial time (sometime during 8 to 10 Dec, ’71, I do not recollect the exact date/time), Maj Cardozo joined us in Sylhet. He was already a decorated soldier (decorated for gallantry with the Sena Medal in NEFA in 1960). He was a dedicated regimental officer, respected by all ranks; his arrival at this juncture as battalion second-in-command, was a great asset to the battalion and also to me personally. We shared the same bunker in Sylhet and would turn to him for informal exchange of views. (Unfortunately, almost at the end of the war he became a casually of an anti-personnel mine due to which he lost one leg below the ankle. However he continued to serve the Indian Army with great competence and distinction rising to be a Maj Gen and adding a distinguished services medal – AVSM – to his existing gallantry award of a Sena Medal).

Our machine gun detachments, raiding parties, ambushes and patrols had continued their relentless offensive actions throughout this period. But our hopes of a link up were becoming remote with every passing day. Such Heliborne operations are undertaken only when link up is certain within 48 hours since such (Heliborne) forces are unable to militarily sustain their operations beyond that period. Now the question in my mind was how many more ‘hours’ we can hold on to the defences. By now, about 30 wounded soldiers were awaiting evacuation. Those who had made the supreme sacrifice needed to be evacuated for their last rites. Each person could literally count the few left over bullets, on the fingers of his two hands! Whatever ammunition was left over,, was redistributed within sections and platoons but it was like starving persons sharing their meal. These physical problems were affecting the morale of the troops. Lack of sleep had dulled the responses of all of us. Platoon and company commanders had to ensure that before a person reaches a break down point, he is mentally reassured and physically rested at least for a couple of hours. We were fortunate in having a close Air support of IAF. It was available to us with Flt Lt Sharma and his team. This boosted our morale. Particularly for Alfa and Delta companies who were under relentless fire from the enemy who had taken positions in the built up a real air support was God sent assistance! Flt Lt Sharma and his team could accurately bring down air support (rockets, machine gunning and bombs) on to the built up area. Those of the enemy who experienced that rocketing and bombardment must be getting nightmares even now!

We could no discern any rays of hope form any side. Alfa and Delta companies had repulsed two attacks on the nights of 8 Dec and 9 Dec. form a wireless transmission intercepted by Maj Kaul it was clear that 313 Infantry Brigade had arrived in Sylhet on 7 Dec and along with 202 Infantry Brigade were planning to mount another attack (with five companies) on Alfa and Delta companies which were posing a serious threat to the bridge, besides also being a road block. During my visit to Alfa Company, I had personally experienced the life and death struggle of Alfa and Delta company personnel in their makeshift trenches and realized the futility of continuing these companies in their positions dominated by the enemy from built up area. The mounting casualties further confirmed my assessment and therefore I asked both these companies to come back further inside the battalion perimeter after last night 11 Dec, ’71. I was frantically trying to get helicopters to land and evaluate the dead and wounded and also to provide us with replenishment of ammunition and rations. But the landing of helicopters was suicidal. The fresh radish, tomatoes, brinjals and beans from the kitchen gardens of Mirapara hamlet could not suffice us even for a day. The dry rations like rice and pulses left over in deserted houses was meager could not be cooked in the given circumstances and had to be eaten raw. The situation was grim and desperate. The link up which was to take place in 24 hours could not be effected even after seven nights and eight days. We had indeed entered a Ckaravyuh. Every passing day – nay every passing hour – was a life and death struggle. The only way seemed to be a final charge into enemy defences and thus dissolving ourselves into nothingness and in eternity.

Flt Lt Sharma was so moved by the plight of the wounded, that this pleadings with his helicopter pilots – his colleagues – would have moved anybody. No wonder, some daring pilots volunteered to undertake the suicidal missions of evaluating the wounded and the dead. On 12 Dec,’71 after the last night, in the darkness (without night landing capabilities) these ‘Angels form the skies’ landed for a few brief moments and took back our wounded and dead. Earlier on the same day, we received our first ‘air drop’ of rations and ammunitions. Thought, some of the air drops landed into areas held by the enemy but enough landed in areas held by us. This (air drops) and evaluation of the casualties raised our morale and gave us the wherewithal to fight with a renewed vigor. Our activities of ambushes, raids, patrols and road blocks picked up further momentum. We were revitalized and got a second lease on our lives. Our Brigade and Divisional forces advancing on the roads form Maulavi Bazar to Sylhet and Kulaura – Sylhet were closing in on Sylhet. Thus on 14 Dec,’71 after the last light, we saw a rowing boat coming slowly towards us from across the river Surma. In it were our sister battalion’s soldiers who had come over to establish a physical contact and the link up – after 8 days and 7 nights! It also meant that our won artillery guns were now within range to provide us close and intimate support. The “CHAKRAVYUH”’ was ultimately penetrated.

However on 15 Dec morning we faced an intriguing but interesting incident. That day, in the morning, I received a radio message from Maj Mali (Charlie Company commander) who informed me that there was a large visible concentration of the enemy troops about 800 meters in front of this FDL (Forward Defended Locality) and that there were a couple of white flags (indicative of surrender) in the hands of some of the persons. He had already put his company in ‘to stand’ position (ie everyone manning his fighting positing) as the Pakistanis were know to use such ruses to rush the defences. Besides, both the armies were still fighting all over Bangaldesh. It was only at 5 pm on that day (15 Dec, ’71) that a temporary cease fire was agreed upon. I immediately proceeded towards Charlie company FDL after informing Maj Cardozo (battalion second in command who had joined us in Sylhet on – I think – either 8 or 9 Dec). Maj Cardozo immediately alerted all the reminding companies and platoons who occupied ‘stand to’ positions. When I reached the Charlie company FDL (which was nearby_ I found that Maj Malik was already there, standing next to his forward most LMG post which was ready to open up fire instantly if required. He pointed towards the group which to me seemed to be 1000 to 1500 strong. We noticed two persons (later won we came to know that they were two captains) coming forward with white flags. The two persons came and handed over a note which stated that the station commander of Sylhet (ie the senior of the two Brigade commanders) wants to surrender the entire garrison of Sylhet. We informed them that their Brigadier himself needs to come over along with one more officer to discuss further details. The two officers turned back and as they were a little over half way towards their area, we noticed that all of a sudden, the entire gathering of 1000 to 1500 strong armed Pakistani soldiers were rushing towards Charlie company whose entire strength could not be more than 55 strong – out of the entire Charlie company only a section of 5 to 6 men were effectively facing the rushing onslaught. This could be a ruse. Therefore Many Malik instantly ordered LMG to open up a couple of bursts as warning shots. The moment the warning shots were fired, the rushing Pakistani soldiers went to the ground (ie took lying positions) Maj Malik shouted and informed them to go back as the surrender would be accepted only after its modalities are worked out. At around 3 pm the Pakistani station commander met our Brigade commander Brig Quinn at the bridge and worked out eh details of the surrender. It is interesting to note that this happened 24 hours earlier than the official acceptance of surrender by the Pakistani forces on 16 Dec at 1655 hours and 2 hours prior to the temporary cease fire. Brig Hasan Rana (Pakistani Garrison Commander of Sylhet) paid handsome compliments to our battalion when he mentioned to Brig Quinn that ”if this battalion (4/5 GR (FF))  was not there, we would have fought for at least another 10 days”. On 16 Dec morning we entered the town for the purpose of accepting the surrender. We saw heaps of weapons thrown all along the road. On 17 Dec, ’71, when the surrendered persons ere counted by us, we found that there were XXXX Brigadiers, 1 Colonel, 107 officers, 219 JCOs, XXXXX Pakistani soldiers and 39 non-combatants. At this time our battalion strength in Sylhet consisted of about 6 to 7 officers, 10 to 15 JCOs and about 300 to 350 soldiers. During the battle at Sylhet (between 7 Dec and 16 Dec) 1 officer (Maj Karan Puri, the Adjutant), 2 JCOs and 11 other ranks made the supreme sacrifice while 3 officers and 36 other ranks were wounded.

As I end this personal narration I take this opportunity to pay my homage to my comrades-in-arms (Officers, Junior Commissioned Officers and other ranks of the battalion) of the 1971 war. I can find no better words than to quote Professor RL Turner (in the preface to his ‘Dictionary of the Nepali Language’)

“As I write these last words my thoughts return to you who were my comrades, the stubborn and indomitable peasants of Nepal. Once more I hear the laughter with which you greeted every hardship. Once more I see you in your bivouac or about your fires, on forced march or in trenches, now shivering with wet and cold, now scorched by a pitiless and burning sun uncomplaining you endure hunger and thirst and wounds, and at least your unwavering lines disappear into smoke and wrath of battle. Bravest of the brave, most generous of the generous, never had country more faithful friends than you” (Professor RL Turner in the preface to his “Dictionary of the Nepali language”)