In the Jaws of Death – Assault on Gazipur

THE KHUKRI ASSAULT ON Atgram had given us (4th Battalion the 5th Gorkha Rifles, 4/5 G for short) a decisive victory. Our khukris were bloodied and our minds hardened. However, in the larger game plan the attack on Atgram was a part of a deception plan of 8 Mountain Division under then Maj-Gen K V K Rao, GOC of the Division. Therefore we handed over captured area to a BSF battalion and moved about 75 to 100 kms further south to a place called Kadamtal. It was about the end of Nov ’71. From Sagarnal the 59 Mountain Brigade (of which we were a part) under Brigadier C A Quinn was to advance on Sagarnal – Gazipur – Kulaura – Sylhet axis (Refer to sketch 2). We found Sagarnal vacated by the Pakistanis without a fight, and we occupied the same on 30 Nov, ’71. But the Pakistanis had vacated Sagarnal only to strengthen Gazipur which was an important defended locality on Gazipur – Kulaura – Sylhet axis. Gazipur was also the last of the defended localities before the hilly area gave way to the plains of Sylhet. Besides the fall of Gazipur would make the position of Kulaura – an important rail junction on route to Dhaka and Comilla – untenable. Rail communications passing through Kulaura was important for the enemy as it was acting like a lifeline for transporting not only war like stories but also civil supplies for Sylhet.

Gazipur’s defences were based around a tea garden. Attacking a defended locality based around a tea garden on hilly slopes is a difficult proposition. Fully grown tea bushes are tick and broad. Their short trimmed branches are sharp edged and entwined into each other thus posing a strong natural obstacle which cannot be jumped over. Besides, a tea garden is laid out in vertical and lateral straight lines divided by narrow lanes provided for laborers to pluck tea leaves. Any movement is perforce restricted to these narrow lanes. It is elementary for any enemy to cover these narrow lanes by MMG and LMG fixed line fire and also by artillery/mortar fire from dominating heights. These difficulties are compounded during night attack. Tea garden lanes are a proverbial maze – the ins and outs of it are known only to the workers of that garden.

We had arrived in this area 2 to3 days earlier (around 1 Dec,’71) which provided us absolute minimum time to carry out reconnaissance and evolve a plan of attack. We could discern that the Gazipur defences were divided into three platoon localities based upon ‘Kela Ka Bagicha’, ‘Manager’s Bungalow’ and the ‘Factory’ (refer to sketch 3). All these three localities were obviously a part of a well co-ordinated company defended locality. Intelligence information indicated that one company of 22 Baluch Regiment plus a platoon (or more) of Thal scouts supported by a section each of Medium Machine Guns (MMGs) and Mortars were defending Gazipur. Cement concrete bunkers were noticed and scattered mines were suspected.

We had observed through binoculars, various approaches and evolved their importance. One important observation was that a small ridge line was going down from nearby our area and ending just short of Kela Ka Bagicha. Importance of this approach was twofold. Firstly, there were no tea garden bushes en route and secondly we were going down from higher to lower ground, which is always preferred by an attacker. However, on this approach, the Factory, which was the dominating ground, would be attacked last. Going first for the dominating ground in the first place is always preferred as it is like going in for the jugular! The Manager’s Bungalow defended locality was between the Factory and Kela Ka Bagicha. In fact   one arm of the Kela ka Bagicha seemed to be resting on the Manager’s Bungalow. The Factory was the dominating ground because unless we captured it, the road to Kulaura – Sylhet could not be opened. Besides, the Factory was a huge cement concrete building surrounded by a tall (10’ to 15’ high) fence all around it. There was an open ground – twenty to thirty feet wide – between the fence and the factory. There was only one gate for entry on the approach we had taken. The area immediately outside the fencing was a part of the tea garden with the tea bushes posing an obstacle. The name Kela Ka Bagicha was so given to it by us, as during our observations, we had noticed a small clump of banana trees thus facilitating easy identification. Each of these three objectives had reportedly a platoon each of regular Pakistani army and a section each of Thal scouts. Thus there would be four sections at each place with up to eight light machine guns (LMGs) and two MMGs. Close and guaranteed artillery support was there on call for the enemy. Enemy platoons (plus a section) at each place meant about 38 to 42 soldiers manning each objective and about 120 to 130 enemy soldiers in the Gazipur defences (refer to sketch 3).

Based on the above observations and information, a broad outline plan was formulated. One more factor which weighted on my mind was the fact that Alfa and Delta companies had shared the brunt of assaulting at Atgram and therefore Bravo and Charlie companies should be tasked to attack the Factory and Manager’s Bungalow whose defences seemed to be based more on concrete bunkers and therefore stronger than Kela Ka Bagicha. That is what we thought and we did not know that we were in for a surprise! Therefore Delta Company under Major Yeshwant Rawat was tasked to capture Kela Ka Bagicha in the first phase. Alfa Company under Maj Dinesh Rana was tasked to capture the Manager’s Bungalow in Phase two for which Kela ka Bagicha area (nearer to manager’s Bungalow) was Forming up Place (FUP). In Phase three, Factory area was to be captured by Bravo and Charlie Companies. This being a dominating ground and expecting stiff resistance, two rifle companies were tasked for its capture.

Here I would like to mention that, the Gazipur defences had been attacked by another gallant Battalion of our Brigade on the night of 3/4 Dec,’71. However, in spite of their best efforts, that battalion’s attack was not successful and it had to accept defeat with heavy casualties. In fact we realized how thin the line between victory and defeat is – when during our attack the next day (night of 4/5 Dec,) we came across bodies of dead soldiers (of the other Battalion) lying next to the enemy bunkers in the Factory area. We also felt that the approach selected by that Battalion, though leading to the Factory in phase one itself, was through the tea garden and probably that was the reason why the momentum of the assault could not be maintained. Thus, the morale of the enemy was high and expecting a second attack, they had reinforced their defences and were waiting for us. Therefore the element of surprise was no more with us. However, a different approach leading from higher ground to lower ground and reaching the dominating ground last, with different timings of attack, had an element of unexpectedness. Besides, we again decided for a silent attack with a slight difference. Difference was not seeking pre ‘H’ hour (ie prior to assaulting time) artillery bombardment to soften the objective area. But artillery fire was available ‘on call’ with our seasoned Battery Commander Maj Segan and his detachment accompanying CO’s (my_ party. Guns would be laid on the targets and fire would be brought down in seconds. The CO’s party was to follow Delta Coy which was the leading party. Bravo Company being ‘Reserve’ company for Phase one was following behind CO’s party. The other companies and specialist platoons were given appropriate order to march or deployment areas commensurate with their tasks. Reserves for other phases were also earmarked and orders passed.

Since we were expecting a stiffer resistance in phase three (Factory area) it was necessary to complete Phases one and two early so that Phase three could be completed much before first light. That would enable us to organize our defences and co-ordinate our fire so as to face any counter attack which was certain to be launched by the enemy. Thus on 4 Dec,’71 we left our concentration area at 2000 hrs after invoking the blessings of Durga Mata. It was a dark night. Delta Company started the advance. In front of the entire column there were two expert ‘scouts’. They were eyes and ears of the moving column. Behind them, and keeping certain distance but maintaining constant contact with forward scouts, was the leading section followed by the platoon commander’s group (it was either Capt Salgotra or Lt Yang Bharat’s platoon. Both were gallant officers and had already led their platoons in the khukri assault on Atgram. Lt. Yang Bharat was wounded while assaulting Kela Ka Bagicha. Lt Salgotra further participated in the heliborne operations in Sylhet where he again proved his sterling qualities of leadership), remaining two sections, company commander Maj Yeshwant Rawat’s group followed by two more platoons of Delta Coy. As we descended from the higher ground to lower ground and as we entered the plain ground between the hills behind us and Kela Ka Bagicha in front of us, we suddenly came under intense fire of rifles – LMGs and MMGs. It was almost simultaneously with the Delta Company charging forward with drawn khukris and the deafening war cry of ‘Ayo Gorkhali’. Obviously, it was only when the leading section was on the forward bunkers that the enemy realized what was happening. It was just about 2045 hrs and the enemy soldiers were all in their living cum fighting bunkers with our attack expected either that night or the next night. Therefore the enemy’s response was sharp, quick and devastating for us. How devastating it was could only be understood after the capture of the objective. But before that we were facing very heavy fire which was soon joined by enemy artillery fire. With heavy artillery fire, one could feel the tremors from the earth reaching our feet. This fire not only caused heavy casualties amongst us, but also disorganized our order of march, breaking contact with each other. Delta company personnel were now fighting hand to hand, from bunker to bunker. Though radio silence was automatically broken, everyone was in the process of taking cover and attempting to reorganize and get control of their sub units. There was confusion all around, with various sounds of explosions of grenades, mortar bombs, artillery shells and machine gun fire. Mixed with these sounds, were also the sounds of the wounded and the dying trying to seek first aid and evaluation. This perforce had to await complete control of atleast the first objective. (Maj Yeshwant Rawat had informed me that he, along with his company senior Subedar Bal Bahadur Lt Yang Bharat, radio operator and a large number of others were wounded. I had myself noticed large number of wounded lying scattered in the Kela Ka Bagicha area, but exact details were not known to any of us as yet). Soon the firing from Kela Ka Bagicha decreased and stopped with the commencement of firing from Manager’s Bungalow area on to Kela Ka Bagicha area, further increasing its volume and intensity. Delta Company had successfully captured their objective but Manager’s Bungalow area was not only bringing accurate fire on to Kela Ka Bagicha but even artillery fire was now coming on to the Kela Ka Bagicha. CO’s group (my group) had already reached Kela Ka Bagicha and I was apprehensive that the enemy may launch a local counter attack even before the Delta Company could organize. Therefore, it was essential to launch Phase two – ie attack on Manager’s Bungalow – by Alfa Company without loss of momentum. I called for Alfa Company on the Radio set. It (Alfa Coy) was physically expected on Kela Ka Bagicha which was its forming up place for Phase II. Either it could be waiting for Delta Company‘s completion of re-organization or could be that it had suffered heavy casualties and/or disorganized by heavy fire in the process of moving forward. There was no knowing what had happened as there was still no response from Alfa Company. Their radio set may have been damaged. However Bravo Company, which was reserve for Phase II, was already in the area of Kela Ka Bagicha and responded immediately on the radio. Bravo Company was under Capt Virendra Rawat. Bravo Company along with its detachments, and Charlie Company (under Maj Maney Malik) were earmarked for Phase III. This tow-company group was under Maj Shyam Kelkar, a daring officer who was Battalion second-in-command. He was moving with bravo Company (Few years earlier he had commanded the Bravo Company). It seemed to be the Day of Rawats to rout the enemy! Bravo Company was asked to charge on to manager’s Bungalow which they did with their khukris drawn, and were soon fighting hand to hand inside bunkers. But suddenly I heard another shout of our war cry of ‘Ayo Gorkhali’. For a millisecond, a thought flashed through my mind wondering if the Pakistanis had used the ruse of counter attacking with deceptively using our war cry but no, it was not so. It was our Alfa Company which had been forced to take a detour because of heavy firing, had been moving towards its original objective and had now charged the Manager’s Bungalow area. Because of loss of contact, I could not inform Alfa Coy about the changed plan of Bravo coy attacking. There was once again hand to hand fighting as Bravo and Alfa Company rushed from bunker to bunker killing all those whom they found there. In Phase II as well, we suffered heavy casualties. Battalion second in command (my colleague and dear friend from college and NCC days of yore from Kolhapur), Maj Shyam Kelkar a gallant officer leading from the font, made the supreme sacrifice (I didn’t know it then). Capt Virendra Rawat, the Company Commander, and a number of others from his company were wounded. At this stage, I found myself along with my group between Manager’s Bungalow and the Factory Gate. The Factory Gate was hardly 100 meters in front of me. But a MMG had covered this gate effectively by fire. I noticed a group of 5 to 6 jawans in front of me and some jawans behind me. We had all automatically taken cover in a longish (but narrow in width, like a drain) nullah which seemed to be dry and shallow. But its shallowness was adequate to protect us from flying splinters of bursting artillery shells and whizzing small arms fire. The Manger’s Bungalow was now in our hands and the enemy had added it to its artillery fire objective. The ground near us was constantly shaking with the pounding it received. Tremors were clearly perceptible. MMG fire was coming nonstop from Factory area. It had covered the gate effectively with its murderous fire. Obviously, it was a fixed line. There was no other visible entrance to the Factory defences as it was surrounded by high enmeshed wire fencing. It was the dominating ground and if we did not capture it immediately, it would become a strong launching pad for enemy’s counter attack. Only Charlie Company under its company commander Maj Maney Malik had so far not been committed by me in an assault. But I was not aware of what casualties it may have suffered in the relentless artillery pounding and the MMG firing continuously. It may have been pinned down somewhere between Kela Ka Bagicha and Manager’s Bungalow, I thought. And further delay in assaulting Factory area would tilt the balance in favor of the enemy. Some such thought process flashed through my mind and all I remember is the Factory gate drawing me like a magnet. I remember standing up and shouting “look at me. Nothing is happening to me. Durga Mata is with us. Follow me” and rushing forward towards the gate. I knew that I may not survive the next moment but I was certain that the Factory area would be ours; for hardly had I rushed forward a few yards than I found that the soldiers who had taken cover in front of me, were now rushing ahead of me, joined by others from behind and those emerging from the darkness. Before I knew what was happening, the small group in front of me had rushed through the gate – through the jaws of death. Who were they?5.  The dare devils? To this day I do not know. It was dark and I could not see the faces. Having rushed inside the factory area we were all dispersed inside in different directions to face any unforeseen circumstances. Enemy soldiers manning the MMGs and other defences fled leaving some of their dead and wounded besides weapons, ammunition and equipment. We had no time to think as artillery fire started pounding the Factory area itself. We had to reorganize ourselves very quickly. To my relief I found that the Charlie Company had also joined – unknown to me – the last charge on the factory area. ‘C’ company was a big and timely asset which could take on any counter attack. It was past midnight and I suddenly realized that my fringed, Maj Shyam Kelkar, who would be next to me at the first occasion, was nowhere to be seen. Something was amiss and I started enquiring about him. I came to know that he had made the supreme sacrifice. A most dedicated regimental officer, brave, and daring who was always concerned about the men under his command, was no more. Only on the night previous to the attack (on the night of 3/4 Dec, ’71), we both had spent time, sharing a temporary trench, reminiscing about our days together in 1953-54 in Kolhapur NCC camps, not realizing that he would not be there a night later. My mind flashed back to Aug’71 when I left J and K area to join and take over the command of this battalion (4/5 GR CFF) and enroute had stayed with Shyam Kelkar’s family in Jullunder. My wife and daughter were with me. In fact a few years earlier Shyam and his wife Shilaja had attended the naming ceremony of our daughter in Dehra Dun. Now in Jullunder, Shyam’s youngest daughter Geeta, hardly 3 to 4 years old, was missing her father and asking me to send her father home for Diwali which was soon due. She extracted a promise from me like all young children do. When Shyam left for Diwali, conscientious as he ever was – unasked – he assumed me that he would rejoin the battalion if war was to break while he was on leave. He need not have assured me for did I not know him> that was the last Diwali he had spend with his family. Suddenly, somebody came near me shouting ‘Sir come inside’ and pulled me inside thus breaking my reverie and jolting me back to reality. Factory area was now receiving very heavy artillery fire. I could feel the tremors under my feet caused by the artillery shells exploding all around. It was just about that time that my attention was also drawn by words ‘fetch Tiger, fetch Tiger’ coming form the wireless set on the back of the operator who was standing nearby. It was a call for the commander – myself – from Maj Yeshwant Rawat, who was himself lying wounded and unattended to in the surrounding darkness, a few hundred meters away from me in Kela Ka Bagicha. He had heard some vehicles moving in the distance and suspecting the arrival of an enemy counter attack force, was trying to warn me of the impending danger. Such were the officers and the men I was destined to lead! We quickly reorganized, alerted everybody and prepared to face any eventuality. But 22 Baluch having had the taste of our khukris dared not close in and thus Gazipur fell to us. It was past midnight of 4 Dec, ’71. We found 15 dead bodies of the enemy on the objective. The enemy must have carried away at least 40 wounded and another 15 dead before our phase three was launched. We ourselves suffered heavy casualties. Maj Shyam Kelkar and 10 other ranks made the supreme sacrifice while four officers (Maj Yeshwant Rawat, Capt Virendra Rawat, Lt Yang Bharat and Lt Shaharawat) two JCOs and 57 other ranks were wounded. (Sadly, Maj Yeshwant Rawat lost a leg which had to be amputed when he was evaluated to the hospital next morning). The Pakistanis got jittery and vacated Kulaura which we occupied the next day – 6 Dec,’71, Kulaura was they key to the enemy defences in this sector and its fall left the road to Fenchuganj open to us. The 22 Baluch was completely disorganized, its Brigade losing contact with the Battalion headquarters and later with its companies. Leaving behind their heavy weapons, the demoralized and shaken Baluchis fled to Sylhet in the north, there to meet us once again just two days later, along with 31 Punjab to whom we had taught a lesson at Atgram. We were to lock horns again from 7 Dec to 16 Dec, 71.