Armoured Thrust in the East 1971
The Untold Story of the Tankmen in Bangladesh
The popular narratives on the Bangladesh War of 1971 carry only passing mention of tanks in action here and there, which does not do justice to the immense contribution that our armoured units made in achieving India’s swift victory. Bangladesh is a riverine country that does not offer a tank-friendly terrain, and the operation had necessarily had to be infantry oriented. Therefore, the entire lot of formations that took the field were infantry ones. The overall armoured element integrated with these formations consisted of only three regiments, two independent squadrons and one ad-hoc squadron, possessing between them a total of 139 tanks and 14 scout cars. Of the 139 tanks only 45 were medium tanks with the requisite armoured protection for tank-to-tank combat, while the remaining 94 were light amphibious tanks, the thin armour of which offered protection only against small arms fire. The 94 light tanks, PT-76s, belonging to the two regiments, 45 Cavalry and 69 Armoured Regiment, and the two independent squadrons, 1 IAS (7 Cavalry) and 5 IAS (63 Cavalry), had the great advantage of their manoeuvrability in the marshy terrain crisscrossed by rivers and rivulets, because of their low weight (14 tons) and floating capability; but were terribly handicapped by their vulnerability to any kind of antitank fire and a low-calibre gun (76 mm) that did not carry enough punch to take on tanks in combat. These were essentially designed for a reconnaissance role. The 45 medium tanks, T-55s, belonging to 63 Cavalry, were robust tanks weighing 38 tons and mounting a 100 mm gun, but being heavier, were restricted in mobility in the Bengal terrain. Despite these inherent setbacks, all these armoured units that took the field in Bangladesh often proved the cutting edge of the different formations they fought under, which bore testimony to the outstanding prowess of Indian tankmen and their capability to improvise and adapt to overcome the odds.
The bulk of the Indian armour, all three regiments, were deployed in the western half of Bangladesh, with only the two independent squadrons and one ad-hoc squadron operating in the eastern half. This was because Pakistan had more troops deployed to the west and fortified their defences that side, expecting India’s main offensive to come from that direction, since comparatively, the western half formed better tank country. Pakistan had also deployed the bulk of their armoured component to the west. With that kind of thinking on both sides, it was inevitable that western Bangladesh should witness some of the fiercest battles of the campaign. In fact, one such battle broke out during late November itself, in the Southwest Sector, where 45 Cavalry was deployed along with a squadron from 63 Cavalry. With the operations imminent, units and formations had been given the green signal to make limited probes into enemy territory. 9 Infantry Division, under which these armoured units were operating at that stage, had been gradually closing in on the enemy stronghold of Jessore for a while. On 20 November, Pakistan launched a massive counterattack with a squadron of Chaffee tanks on our forward troops, resulting in a major tank battle. While the PT-76s of 45 Cavalry gallantly stood their ground, despite their thin armour, and managed to destroy several enemy tanks that had superior armour, taking some losses of their own; the T-55s of 63 Cavalry proved their mettle as reliable MBTs, when a single tank knocked out three Chaffees and the squadron emerged unscathed from the battle. In the overall count, eight Pakistani tanks were destroyed and three captured, against a loss of four PT-76s of ours. An enemy attempt to retaliate by an air strike with Sabre jets was eminently foiled by the Gnats of our air force, Pakistan ending up adding a couple of aircraft to their losses. This early Indian victory in an iconic tank battle had a tremendous impact in lowering Pakistani morale, so much so, that they never again dared to engage us in a tank-to-tank battle during the entire campaign.
9 Infantry Division went on to exploit the advantage to the hilt and swarmed in to occupy the strategic Jessore airfield early in the war. Meanwhile the armoured units that were placed under it were fighting on multiple fronts, with various formations advancing on different axes. One characteristic of armour deployment in Bangladesh was that the regiments and often squadrons were never operating as singular entities. With so many infantry formations in the field, armoured units were split up and distributed, resulting in even individual troops finding themselves operating independently with an infantry battalion or company. Even during the major engagement in November only one squadron of 45 Cavalry and a troop of 63 Cavalry was available. The 13-day campaign saw 45 Cavalry and B Squadron, 63 Cavalry, the sole armoured elements available to the entire II Corps operating in the Southwest Sector, leading, or supporting the advance of numerous infantry units engaged in the sector. The successful sweep by the various infantry formations in that sector all the way up to the banks of the river Padma could not have happened in such a short span of time but for the tanks keeping them constant company.
The all-terrain manoeuvrability and floating capability of the PT-76s proved increasingly effective once the full-fledged advance of the troops commenced in all sectors. These tanks took on the multiple roles of leading, carrying troops, and supporting the infantry during the fast-paced advance, as situation dictated. Meanwhile the T-55s, with their superior armour and firepower, were proving to be the formidable Indian element Pakistan had nothing to counter with. 63 Cavalry had had also been equipped with PT-76s like the rest of the two regiments in the east, until civil war broke out in erstwhile East Pakistan in March 1971. With war clouds looming, the army HQ decided to reequip the regiment, which had had seen service in the east the longest, with T-55s on a war footing. Although it was primarily done to counter the possibility of Pakistan deploying Patton tanks in the east, which did not happen thanks to the effective naval blockade; it was probably the wisest preparatory move the planners made. Even given the fact that Pakistan had only Chaffees and Chinese-made PT-76s in the east, launching an offensive solely with PT-76s could have proved disastrous. Lack of medium armour with us could have made our task prohibitively costly, given the defender friendly terrain available to the enemy. This was particularly evident in the Northwest Sector under XXXIII Corps, where we faced the toughest opposition from the enemy, and luckily, the terrain was the most tank-friendly by Bengal standards, with harder soil and less water bodies. The swift outflanking of the enemy stronghold at Hilli, which an infantry attack had failed to dislodge, by C Squadron of 63 Cavalry, complemented by its A Squadron joining it in a pincer movement isolating Hilli that led to its fall, was one of the most dynamic actions of the war. Meanwhile 69 Armoured Regiment that had been singlehandedly braving the odds of the marshy terrain around Hilli, trying to support the infantry and bearing casualties, struck out to join the two medium squadrons that had taken up a fiery drive to overrun the enemy defences. Together the T-55s and PT-76s of these units swept their way across the entire sector, pulverizing the enemy pockets all the way up to Bogra, where A Squadron, 63 Cavalry joined the final battle on 17 December that culminated in a massive surrender of enemy troops. The fact that 63 Cavalry did not lose a single tank during the entire operations, while its two sister regiments with PT-76s suffered a number of tank casualties, proved the superiority of its equipment. Nevertheless, the crews of these tanks had a harrowing time with tank after tank getting bogged down for their heavier weight, rendering the entire operation a drivers’ nightmare.
While the three regiments battled it out in western Bangladesh, the two independent squadrons, the 1st Indep Squadron of 7 Cav and the 5th Indep Squadron of 63 Cav, deployed in the Southeast Sector, were facing the formidable challenge of negotiating the world’s worst waterlogged landscape. Their PT-76s, designed to cross European rivers that are hardly a kilometre wide and flow with moderate currents, were now having to cross rivers like Meghna that appeared ocean like, rapidly gushing on their seaward journey. The crews rose to the challenge devising innovative means to get on with their mission, often hopping over from one river island to another and even getting their tanks towed by tugboats or barges. The saga of these two squadrons across the riverine expanse of Southeast Bangladesh, braving enemy fire and casualties, was to aid in no small measure to the success of the blitzkrieg of Indian IV Corps that delivered the coup de grace to the enemy. Deservedly, the tanks of one of these squadrons, 5th Indep, were the only Indian armour elements to be present in Dacca at the historic surrender. Interestingly, they had positioned one of the Chinese-made Pakistani PT-76s, which they had captured and put to use, to guard the Intercontinental Hotel in the city housing the who’s who of the moment.
The story of the Indian armour in Bangladesh would not be complete without that of the 5 (I) Ad hoc Squadron of 63 Cavalry. As the name implies it was an ad hoc raising done at the last moment to provide some armour element to the peace establishment, the Shillong-based 101 Comn Zone, which was mobilized at the eve of the war to advance into Bangladesh from the Northeast, creating a fourth axis of advance. The squadron was equipped with Ferret Scout Cars, with which 5 Indep Squadron had been deployed on counter-insurgency role in Nagaland prior to the war. With the squadron converted to PT-76s for war, these scout cars became available for the ad hoc unit, raised with manpower scrounged from regimental resources. Ferret scout cars were fast moving vehicles with a high-speed Rolls Royce engine that gave it a maximum speed of 150 miles per hour and great driving ease with a pre-selective gear system and 4-wheel independent suspension. It had armour plating that gave protection against small arms fire and run-flat tyres that could go on for fifty miles after being shot up. The vehicle had a 360-degree traversable turret mounting a .30-inch Browning machine gun, and was manned by a crew of two, a driver and a commander-gunner. Being wheeled vehicles without main armaments, these couldn’t have had much use in operations except as morale boosters for the accompanying infantry. However, as it turned out, the crews of these vehicles proved a determined lot, managing to keep up with the advancing infantry for the most part, manoeuvring their vehicles in the hostile terrain with great skill and versatility, providing fire support with the machineguns; all the way till the leading units of the formation rendezvoused with Indian paratroopers landing at Tangail near Dacca. They went a step further and tried their hand in deception by tying bamboo poles to the turrets of their cars, to make those look like tanks if viewed from a distance and went on to parade those in sight of the enemy, wherever possible. The ruse worked on many occasions, causing the enemy to abandon their positions without putting up a fight. 63 Cavalry, which had fielded five squadrons in all, with this ad hoc squadron and the independent squadron, along with its three regular sabre squadrons, operating in all four sectors, went on to earn the epithet ‘The Ghost Regiment’ from the enemy, for its simultaneous presence on all fronts.
In the final reckoning, the three armoured regiments spearheading the advance of the infantry formations in western Bangladesh enabled them to score decisive victories, resulting in Pakistan losing that entire segment of the country, which amounted to two thirds of its territory. It was the sledgehammer blow that made the enemy lose his hope and catalyzed his ultimate surrender. Meanwhile, the two independent squadrons and the ad hoc squadron added their mite to the final outcome at Dacca.
Note: With victory in sight, B and C Squadrons of 63 Cavalry were pulled out of the Eastern Theatre and rushed by rail to the Western Front, on 10 and 12 December, respectively, since they were badly required for the tank battles still raging there.