Travails of the Build-Up to War
War is eventful; the build-up isn’t far less either. My regiment had undergone what the army calls a ‘conversion’ during the six months prior to the war in 1971. It is the process of replacing old or obsolete equipments or weaponry held by a unit with new ones that are different in make necessitating the personnel being trained in the use and maintenance of the latter. We were an armoured regiment equipped with Russian, light amphibious PT-76 tanks which had seen service with us for a number of years in eastern India’s Siliguri Sector when the balloon went up with Mujibur Rahman choosing the warpath against Pakistani tyranny in its erstwhile eastern half. With the influx of refugees into India and war clouds looming in the horizon the army headquarters wisely judged that our ageing light tanks with its flimsy armour were not up to putting up a good fight. Neither did they consider it wise to replace us with another regiment equipped with heavier tanks since our years of experience with the muddy Bengal terrain was far too valuable. So the die was cast; we would be converted to T-55 medium tanks, a powerful 40-ton monster with a 100 millimetre gun as against our old lady, PT-76 that weighed a mere 14 tons and mounted a 75 mm gun.
The process was taken up on war footing. Our PT-76s were handed over either to some other units equipped with the same tanks needing replacements or salvage depots and we set off to take charge of the T-55s, which, we were told, had set sail from some Russian port and were expected at Bombay docks soon. Soon we were taking over these brand new tanks off wharf, loading them on to transporters to take them to the Base Workshop in Kirkee near Pune where they underwent ‘pre-delivery inspections’, weirdly called so since we had already taken delivery at Bombay. Inspected, they were transported to Ahmednagar, the Mecca of Indian Armoured Corps, 120 kilometres away, where the conversion training was on. The crews trained, each tank was taken to the firing range where their guns were ‘zeroed’, a process whereby we ensure that the gun and the aiming arrow on the gunner’s telescope are pointing at exactly the same point when the gunner lays the gun on a target. Guns zeroed, we began our travel back to Bengal with the tanks loaded on the open carriages designed for the purpose that we called ‘flats’ but came under the difficult railway nomenclature of MBFUs, the expansion of which remained an enigma all along. Since a single train couldn’t carry more than a dozen loaded flats, the 45 tanks of the regiment were split among 4 separate trains leaving one after the other. I happen to have been the adjutant of the first train to move and one of the two officers on board, the other one being a major who was in command.
By then the war was almost on us and all ‘Military Specials’ were running on ‘White Hot Priority’ which meant that we would be given priority of passage over all other trains including express passenger trains (Why it was called ‘white hot’ and not ‘red hot’ still remains a mystery). Those days as far as trains bound for eastern India were concerned all roads led to Barauni in Bihar which was the transshipment point wherein we switched over from broad gauge to metre gauge since beyond that point eastward the tracks were only metre gauge. Passenger trains did the transshipment at the Barauni Raiway Station whereas the goods trains and military specials (which were invariably a mixed bag of passenger coaches, transport carriages, closed cargo wagons and what have you) did theirs at the adjacent Gerara Yard which I was told was the largest such yard in Asia. One could believe that because as far as your eyesight could stretch it was all barren with multiple rail lines running parallel. There were some platforms in between which were more or less inconspicuous and some raised points from where they let individual wagons roll down on their own till they coupled with others down the stretch. This procedure which they called ‘loose shunting’ made it suicidal for one to cross any of the stretches on foot. Notwithstanding White Hot Priority the military specials were invariably held up in this yard indefinitely, simply because there were too many of them awaiting passage. Stuck up in this godforsaken no man’s land for days on in rainy weather and surviving on ‘dry ration’ of dal and roti from the train’s lungar the only recreation one could find was an occasional ride to Barauni Railway Station on one of the shunting engines, our only link with outside world. At the station one could savour the luxury of a masala dosa and restock cigarettes that kept getting exhausted. Mercifully the train always had adequate stock of rum which helped keep the morale up to some extent.
We had some interesting partners in distress as well. One which our men were mighty happy about was a couple of wagons carrying milch buffaloes. Most of our men belonged to the Punjab-Haryana belt and were pretty fond of milk and milk products. The attendant of the buffalo wagons had no way to dispose off the gallons of milk his animals were producing daily and our men were all too happy to carry away this favourite fare of theirs in its bucketfuls. The only compensation the poor fellow got for this principal produce of his which normally fetched him his livelihood and more was free food from the troops’ lungar and tots of rum the men generously offered him. The guy however seemed to enjoy the company of our men which certainly helped him stride over the gloom of the terrible loss he was incurring every day the train remained stranded. And so the endless wait went on with the strange mix of hot buffalo milk and stiff shots of rum as we whiled away our time playing cards, our ingenious Quartermaster Dafadar offering us a respite once in a while from the routine dry ration meals by hopping over to Barauni and fetching some fresh meat and vegetables.
After a long wait of more than a week our ‘rolling stock’ arrived; I never learned why empty wagons or carriages were referred to as ‘rolling’ as if they didn’t roll once loaded! Of all the days they had arrived on an exceptionally wet day in the afternoon while it rained cats and dogs. By the time they had done the shunting and placed the flats for loading it was almost dusk hour. Although the rain had somewhat abated the weather was still foul with a chilly breeze and drizzle. Loading tanks on a transporter or a railway flat is a tricky business even under the best of weather conditions. Now with daylight fading and such inclement weather it was certainly not prudent to proceed with the loading. The railways were of course willing to put off our loading till we were ready, which would mean they would substitute us with one of the many non-tank units in waiting in the time slot our passage had been cleared; and one never knew when our turn would come again. We had had enough of waiting that we were willing to take any kind of risk to see the last of the place. The tanks made a beeline for the loading ramp their main guns traversed rearward, fully depressed and yoked to the deck to give the driver optimum visibility and driving comfort.
So the nightmarish operation began with our best driver gingerly manoeuvring the lead tank on to the first flat. The poor guy had the unenviable task of negotiating the entire length of the train till he made it to the farthest of the twelve flats hitched in series to form the train. Each flat was shaped like a long vessel with a depressed bed in the middle which would hold the tank securely on its lashing, with both ends forming small elevated platforms at level with the loading ramp or such platforms of the adjoining flat. This meant that the driver had to climb up and climb down over and over again as he negotiated one flat after another. This was a nerve-racking business even on the broad gauge where the flats were broader and the tracks of a tank fitted exactly into the flat with neither a margin nor an overhang, requiring the driver to keep the tank accurately aligned with the flat, leaving absolutely no allowance for error. Now with the narrower flat of the metre gauge good about an inch of track width of the tank overhung the flat on either side leaving the tank precariously balanced. We also learned to our dismay that these metre gauge flats had never carried such heavy tanks. The coiled road springs of the flats were compressed so hard once the tanks were loaded that we feared they might altogether collapse or break. In fact apprehending trouble the railway mechanics were toiling the whole afternoon, checking and bolstering the suspension of each flat. Yet the whole of the undercarriages creaked and trembled as the lead tank crawled forward at a steady pace in the pitch-dark as night had fallen, the driver’s eyes focused on the torch beam shone by an NCO at the far end to guide him. He made it safely to the end to our collective relief and the next tank started the perilous journey, the NCO guide with the torch now standing atop the first tank safely placed. The second one made it too and the rest followed suit one after the other till it was the turn of the eighth tank when disaster struck.
Something happened which made the driver waver for the fraction of a second when he might have pulled one of his steering sticks harder than necessary – later it turned out that the NCO guide had accidentally tripped for a moment causing the torch beam swing to the right for a moment and the driver had reacted taking it as a signal to correct his course. The tank slid off the flat to the right and was wedged between the flat and the platform beside in no time. The wheels of the flat on the opposite side had sprung off the rails with the impact of the uneven weight and the flat itself was tilted rightward. The railway engineers who were at hand swung into action inspecting the mishap and soon gave the verdict that their crane would have to be summoned. It would take a couple of hours for the crane to arrive, they said, but they were confident that they could set it right. It was almost midnight when the crane arrived and they got to work in earnest. As the crane was being placed on the parallel line I happened to catch a glimpse of the writing on it in the glare of the search light they had switched on for the operation. It read ‘Capacity 32 tons’. Coincidentally the senior railway engineer overseeing the work who was beside me then asked me within the next minute or so as to how much did our tank weigh. I thought on my feet. If I told him it was 38 tons – which was its unladen weight without ammo and fuel as it was now – he might abandon the work pleading under-capacity of the crane. On the other hand if I gave a lesser figure closer to his 32 tons he might consider going ahead with it, given that any mechanical equipment has a safety margin; at least so I assumed. I wasn’t wrong because when I lied that the tank weighed 35 tons he cheerfully responded that a couple of tons extra shouldn’t make a difference. Young are young and they are bound to take foolish risks and I was barely 25. My reckless logic was 6 extra tons shouldn’t make a difference for a monster which can lift 32 tons and in any case it doesn’t have to lift the tank; it had only got to pull it up back to the flat. In my eagerness to get to the Bengal border where our regiment had been ordered to concentrate with war imminent and a real fear lurking in my mind that my men and I might end up missing the action while we were stranded in this hellhole, prudence was given a go-bye.
The railway engineers positioned the crane and hooked up the tank for recovery in short order. It was a treat to watch the tank being slowly hauled up and watching the operation going on I suddenly realized my folly in imagining that the crane was going to drag the tank back to the flat. Instead it slowly lifted it up and for a few seconds we had the amazing sight of the whole tank suspended in the air swinging lazily at the end of the crane’s boom. The crane operator seemed to be waiting for the tank to stop swinging so that he can place it gently on the flat when all of a sudden it came crashing down landing on the flat with a mighty thud. Once out of the shock I was relieved to find that the tank was after all placed safely on the flat. However there was some commotion going on among the railway men around the crane. Getting over there I found that the wheels of the crane had sunk into ground with the tracks they were standing on and its boom was almost resting on our tank.. By then our major, the OC train, who had been enjoying his rest in the comfort of his passenger coach, appeared on the scene to have a look at things. He had more or less left the operation to me, generally counted a ‘damn good driver’ among officers and more than qualified to handle it. As luck would have it right then the railway engineer made a rather loud, exasperated comment, “This tank can’t be 35 tons, has to be much more”.
“Who said it’s 35 tons?” The surprised major exclaimed.
“He did.” The engineer retorted promptly gesturing at me.
“You what!” The major was incredulous as he turned to me.
“I thought a couple of tons shouldn’t make a difference.” I mumbled.
“The tank is bloody 38 tons!” He gasped looking at the engineer watching us somewhat lost.
“Oh my God”, the guy blurted out in shock. “I’ll lose my job.”
Fear of losing his job or not he put his whole ingenuity into the task as his team went hammer and tongs at it digging, jacking up and doing whole lot of improvisations to resolve the crisis as the major retired fretting and fidgeting with a parting verdict on me, “You created this f****g mess, now sort it out yourself.”
The engineer turned out to be good sport cheerfully brushing off my apologies with a cavalier “it happens” as he went on with the work. Our lungar kept up a continuous supply of piping hot tea for the railway men at work and the engineer and I smoked endless number of cigarettes chatting about the work and its nuances for the next couple of hours till finally both our train and the crane were firmly placed back on tracks. I wouldn’t say I was altogether surprised by the highly cooperative attitude of the railway men since a new kind of camaraderie towards us soldiers had become the hallmark of the Indian Railways ever since the mobilization began and every day we were discovering a newer face of the grand organization which seemed to have adopted a policy of ‘anything for the soldiers’. It was past 3 in the morning by the time we had the remaining 4 tanks also loaded and safe, this time around with the advantage of the powerful railway search lights.
By then the major had again reappeared and the jolly old fellow he was, he wasn’t happy to let the engineer be merely thanked. “This calls for a drink”, he announced. Reminded that it was almost morning he ruled it was as good a time as any for a celebratory drink. So we took the engineer to our passenger coach which we had turned into our officers’ mess on wheels and had a couple of shots of rum to top all the buffalo milk tea we had had. And when the engineer, pleasantly high after two drinks, wanted to leave the major insisted on ‘one for the road’ and the guy was pretty high when he left wishing us good hunting. Our train had been cleared to leave at 0900 hours which gave us a couple of hours to grab some precious sleep and I hit the sack as if dead. Come morning we would be off to war.
The image shows the author (in dark overalls) with a friend and fellow officer beside his tank at the eve of the war.