None but the Bold
The Story of my Squadron in the Bangladesh War 1971
Arrogance is not a virtue; but for a tank soldier, it’s often not possible not to feel absolutely arrogant; especially so if you were one riding a T-55 tank in Bangladesh during the war of 1971. I have been a military history buff all my life and when I rolled into Bangladesh with my squadron of T-55s, I couldn’t help comparing myself with one of the commanders of the German Tiger tanks during the Second World War; may be even with the Black Baron, Michael Wittmann, himself. The pity was that Wittmann had 128 kills to his credit and the Pakistanis did not even have that many tanks in the whole of Bangladesh. Nevertheless, I was cocksure that I was going to make mincemeat out of whatever they could throw against me; of course, knowing too well that all they had by way of tanks were poor Chaffees, which couldn’t do any better against our T-55s than the Shermans did against Tigers at Normandy. The point I am trying to make is that we had gone into Bangladesh with an absolute sense of invincibility for our superiority of equipment and trust me, we were invincible.
Take this for instance: When one of our NCO tank commanders spotted a Chaffee about 1000 metres or so away, his gun, as everyone else’s, was already loaded with an HE round, as most of the opposition we were facing were from infantry with RCLs or in bunkers. With no time to unload and reload AP, lest he lost sight of the Chaffee in the surrounding vegetation, he let fly. And lo! We saw the turret of the Chaffee up in the air and thrown off a fair distance away. With that kind of clout, who was going to take us on!
We, I mean my squadron, was catapulted in an outflanking swing just about the time the war was formally declared, during the afternoon of 3 December; to threaten a place in Northwest Bangladesh called Hilli from the rear, where a stalemate had developed following an infantry attack on the enemy stronghold there the previous night. Don’t ask me why the hell they had to attack in the first place, if the position could have been outflanked. That was for the senior commanders to answer. Where would I figure, a mere captain and just the 2IC of a squadron? Racing northward along the border, distancing ourselves from Hilli, we wheeled eastward to enter Bangladesh unopposed and drove hell for leather until sunset, when we were reigned in to harbour for the night on the banks of a stream.
It was a fordable rivulet and the night promised faint moonlight offering adequate visibility for us to drive on; but such factors didn’t seem to shake off the fixation to play by the book that we had inherited from the British. Nevertheless, I found myself on a rescue-and-recovery mission after nightfall; leading a four-tank group across the stream, looking for a lieutenant of a sister regiment of ours stranded with his lone PT-76 tank about a kilometre ahead of where we were.; after having ventured out there on a recce with his troop. The hurried briefing that I got gave no scope to find out where the remaining tanks of his troop were or what his exact location was, except that he was close to a road that led from across the stream. We didn’t find him; but we did find the enemy whom we ran smack into, that too while I was dismounted with a couple of my men doing a foot recce off the road. We had walked right into their FDL, when I couldn’t say which side was more surprised. There was a shootout and we managed to extricate ourselves and foot it back to our tanks, except that one of my men was shot in the fracas. He was lying there right out in the open with para flares lighting up the whole scene. He had to be pulled out and we did it, crawling under fire; which was hailed a brave act later, but to me, it was that or living the rest of my life with the shame of having left a man behind. We weren’t leaving his death unavenged either. We drove our four tanks forward right up the road, lined those up facing the location we had drawn fire from and opened up with everything we had, main gun, MG, the works. If they did shoot back, we barely felt it, as we pummelled them mercilessly into submission. A Maratha LI battalion that soon came up occupied the place without further ado. It turned out that it was a township called Phulbari, which had been earmarked as a brigade objective, to be attacked and captured at first light. That was probably how it would be officially recorded, notwithstanding the comedy of errors wherein our four tanks pulled off a coup; but then of course, we had T-55s.
We resumed the advance at first light heading for a place called Charkhai, 12 kilometres further up, where the brigade HQ of the enemy was reportedly located. On hard ground, our tanks could have covered that distance within an hour; but it was marshy terrain and tank after tank began getting bogged down, turning the advance into quite a drivers’ battle. To add to our woes, enemy had thrown in nuisance mines for good measure and had been imaginative to have the ground covered by arty OPs; who smartly targeted crews attempting to mend tracks shed over mines. It was a nightmare that I could never forget that it seemed almost a miracle that we managed to labour our way across to face the defences of Charkhai towards sunset. We went in for a blunt, frontal assault in the fading light, Charge-of-the-Light-Brigade style, except that the Pakis had no guns to mow us down. Instead, they fled and a Gurkha battalion charging on our heels promptly occupied the place. The squadron went into harbour at one corner of the town, the crews fatigued to a man and hungry, hoping like mad for the adm echelon to fetch up at least for the breakfast next morning, which they didn’t.
The war went on with us on mission ‘Advance to Contact’ for the next four days, when we advanced a lot but there was no contact; because the Pakis kept packing off at the sight of us, the braver ones taking a potshot at us as a parting gesture hoping to delay us. The ground was good and we could have raced all the way up to Dacca, if someone could ferry us across the river Padma, the extension of the mighty Ganges that bisects Bangladesh into two halves. However, as it happened, we never even made it to Padma since we were reigned in time and again, either for coordination between our different formations sweeping forward on multiple fronts or for fear of extending the line of communication too far. Hunger was our principal enemy with only tea and biscuits to calm our guts most of the time. Eventually, on 9 December, a real contact happened. Pakis were holding a road junction at a place called Bhaduria in strength, and they tried to put up a fight, countering us with antitank fire. It soon fizzled out however, when they found their antitank shots were none too effective against our armour. We overran the place and, on the following day, 10 December, stopped over for the night at a place called Maheshpur, reinforcing a defensive position a Madras battalion had taken up there at the end of their day’s advance. The enemy counterattacked past midnight and we had a good firefight, our infrared lamps coming into use, repulsing the attack with the battalion.
Next morning, we were rushed back to Bhaduria Crossroads that we had overrun the previous day. It turned out that our infantry guys left the place unoccupied and the enemy was holding it again. A Kumaon battalion had staged a first-light attack suffering heavy casualties, but had failed to dislodge the enemy. Arriving at the scene around noon, we went straight into an assault. The enemy seemed to mean business there as they brought down pretty accurate antitank fire on us. The front armour of our squadron commander’s tank was scooped; my ack-ack MG was knocked down; but we closed in on them like a pack of wolves and hammered the hell out of them. Targets weren’t clearly visible amidst the dense vegetation, so we kept firing, mixing AP shots intermittently with HE, pretty sure that they had tanks hull down and concealed. I had to give it to the Pakis; they showed some guts that day, might be just to show they still had teeth. Nevertheless, it was brave of them and a mighty last stand. The sight was gruesome, when we rode up on to the objective. Dead bodies were strewn around; there were two chaffees, blown to bits, the charred remains of the crew sticking to its innards. That was our last battle and the hottest we fought in the entire war, although it barely lasted ten minutes.
We did advance for one more day, 12 December, to arrive at a place called Khetlal, where the enemy arty shelled us for a while. We harboured there for the night and finally enjoyed the luxury of a hot meal as the adm echelon fetched up. Orders came for us that night to pull out, to be transported by rail to Punjab. Apparently, with victory in sight, we were no longer required and our tanks could be put to better use at the Western Front, where battles were still raging. We heard of the surrender at Dacca and ceasefire on board the train, which met with a tumultuous welcome at stations all along, the crowds going rapturous in their revelry, hailing us with sweets, garlands and hugs; heroes coming home from a war well won!