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Tank Ambush at Kushtia

Squadron and Company Commander Dislocate a Corps Commander!  

Based on selected extracts from this scribe’s book  “The Pakistan Army Since 1965” the second volume of Pakistan Army history, presently under limited circulation within a select list of recipients, which the author decided to publish after the recent publication of Hamoodur Rahman Commission Report with the precise aim, that, real military talent in the Pakistan Army at squadron and company level in 1971, is not confused with military incompetence at brigade, division, corps and army level. The author is of the firm conviction that the 1971 War was a military as well as political failure but this had more to do with higher military incompetence than lower level military leadership. All things were not foul and stinking, but while failure is an orphan, victory has many fathers! This article is dedicated to the memory of those who were soldiers, not butchers, who fought well, who died, many of whom have no graves, and all those gave their lives for a better tomorrow that has eluded us to date!

Maj (Retd) AGHA HUMAYUN AMIN from WASHINGTON DC writes about a forgotten delaying action in then East Pakistan.

The tank battle of Kushtia is Greek to most in Pakistan. Ironically it was one of the most classic tank actions of 1971 war in which a vastly outnumbered tank infantry force of squadron company level inflicted such a punishment on the Indians that their corps commander lost his mental equilibrium and earmarked a whole division to deal with a Pakistani delaying force of squadron battalion strength.

Civil War followed by a mixed Civil War and Conventional War further compounded by atrocities, confused real military competence with abnormal psychology and even genuine heroism or resolution in face of tremendous adversity was forgotten while atrocities were remembered!

It is ironic that many purely military writers like Shaukat Riza and Fazal Muqeem Khan ignored this inspiring battle! Of all the people it was Siddiq Salik, more a journalist than a soldier who most precisely described the battle of Kushtia as  “the first and last battle that Brigadier Manzoor’s brigade  fought in the entire war1”! Siddiq, however, never knew the degree to which this battle influenced the higher commander’s perceptions and actions! But then Siddiq was more of a civilian and cannot be blamed for this lapse once we see so-called military historians making the same error! I came to know of the significance of this thought-provoking battle only after I read some Indian military accounts! No tribute to the cause of military history in Pakistan, which likes the politicians, has hit the rock bottom!

The Hamood Ur Rahman Commission found villains but ignored existence of heroes! It is again ironic that Hamood found villains not merely because they existed but because those who had ordered the inquiry wanted some villains to keep the men in Khaki in their place! Hamood thus unwittingly became the tool of politicians despite the fact that he was an illustrious judge! Pakistan’s legal or political history with the exception of one decision of the Sindh High Court and one single resolute Sindhi Muslim Chief Justice is after all little more than the confinement of all who matter in petticoats, in terms of resolution and heroic defiance since 1954! Robes or any other dress in the symbolic form are an illusion! Petticoats, are the essence! Chief Justice Hamood ur Rahman like all his predecessors or followers was a rubber stamp, as far as the big flies were concerned, since laws as the truest saying in English language states are like cobwebs through which the greater flies brake through! Hamood’s findings had no de facto value!   Ironically on the other hand the men who were identified as villains and cowards by the Hamood Commission were promoted while many real heroes were sidelined or superseded! Thus while Tajammul, Saadullah and Sher ur Rahman were sidelined Jehanzeb Arbab, Rahim Khan, Rahimuddin Khan, Admiral Sharif and many more did extremely well after the 1971 War and are doing well to date!


Opposing Strengths

2 Indian Corps (a newly raised corps headquarters) was tasked with the reduction of the SouthWest Sector of East Pakistan. The Indian 2 Corps was vastly superior to Pakistan’s 9 Division defending the Sector. It had two over sized infantry divisions (4 Mountain and 9 Infantry Division) and one independent infantry brigade (50 Independent Para Brigade). 4 Indian Mountain Division had three infantry brigades (7, 41 and 62) one of which (7 Brigade) was initially held back as corps reserve. In addition this division also had under command a tank squadron (45 Cavalry/PT-76), a Mechanised Infantry Company and an additional medium artillery battery apart from its integral divisional artillery. 9 Indian Infantry Division had three infantry brigades (33, 35 and 42) and one tank regiment less one squadron (45 Cavalry/PT-76) and one tank squadron (63 Cavalry/T-55). Lieutenant General Raina the Indian Corps Commander had seen action in WW II in North Africa and Burma. 

Pakistan’s 9 Infantry Division comprised two infantry brigades, 57 Brigade (Brigadier Manzoor) holding the northern half and 107 Brigade (Brigadier Hayat) holding the Central Approach i.e Jessore. An ad hoc brigade consisting of Para military forces of dubious military value was holding the southern approach (Khulna Sub-Sector). In addition there was the “Divisional Reserve” consisting of half battalion Recce and Support, one infantry battalion and a tank squadron of M-24 Chafee Light Tanks. The Pakistani 9 Division was commanded by Major General Ansari an artillery officer who proved in the war that he was an honest man and a  devout Muslim, but did little in the realm of commanding his division or anything in terms of leading from the front!

Opposing Plans

The operational task assigned to the 2 Indian Corps was to capture Khulna, Jessore, Magura, secure ferry sites over Madhumati and finally either capture the Golaundu Ghat or to secure Paksay Bridge (Hardinge Bridge) over the Ganga, whatever ordered. 4 Mountain Division was tasked with the capture of Magura and securing of Ferry Sites over the Madhumati and subsequently secure Goalundu Ghat or Paksey Bridge. 9 Division was tasked to capture Jessore in the first phase and Khulna in the second phase.

Pakistan’s 9 Division had employed five regular infantry battalions to hold the five main approaches running from West to East in between the Ganges River with 57 Brigade in the north and 107 Brigade in the centre. We will not discuss the details of these dispositions since these are beyond the scope of this article.

Summary of Operational Situation till Battle of Kushtia

The Indians had been actively conducting military operations against the Pakistani 9 Division since mid-November 1971. The pace of these operations was, however, extremely conservative unimaginative and timid! Indian victory in terms of tangible superiority in quantum of forces was a forgone conclusion in this sector as in any other sector of East Pakistan!

The reader may note that the ad hoc force at Khulna bolted towards Dacca around 4th/5th December without having been attacked!

The Indian tactics were based on establishing roadblocks in the Pakistani brigades rear with forces of battalion, tank squadron/troops strength while vastly superior tank and infantry forces attacked frontally and contained and pinned down the Pakistani infantry brigades. Brigadier Manzoor the 57 Brigade Commander made the Indian task easier by assuming that they would attack Chuadanga and denuded all other approaches while concentrating most of his troops to defend Chuadanga! Manzoor in the process, wittingly or unwittingly offered the Indian commander a golden opportunity to compromise the operational integrity of the 9 Pakistani Infantry Division. The Indians had logically assumed that the Pakistani brigades would withdraw eastwards and fight as a division. They did not know that both the Pakistani brigade commanders had decided to fight their private wars and had already decided to withdraw northeastwards and southeastwards! The next Indian move against Jhenida commencing from 4 December when the Indians established a tank infantry roadblock at a point halfway between road Chuadanga-Jhenida, thus came as a surprise to 57 Brigade which was effectively cut off from its parent formation i.e 9 Division. The 1971 war was over the 9 Division as a division from 4th December 1971! Its brigades continued fighting but they fought as brigades since the division commander had failed to goad and spur them into fighting as a division! The division commander who preferred sitting on his prayer mat2  rather than leave his headquarters and goad men like Brigadier Manzoor, remained plagued with inertia and inaction! There is not much to write about 9 Division’s operational role after 4th December! 41 Brigade after its brilliant success advanced to Jhenida supported by tanks. Jhenida, thanks to Manzoor’s Chuadanga blunder  was almost defenceless and the Indians captured it after some limited  fighting  on 7th December 1971. Meanwhile, 62 Indian Brigade advanced towards Kaliganj which was defended by a very small ad hoc force under colonel staff 9 Division. Kaliganj was captured by morning of 7th December. 9 Division’s story ends here. Its divisional headquarter withdrew to Faridpur while K.K Afridi’s ad hoc force delayed the Indians over the Madhumati!

The 2 Indian Corps which was commanded by as much of a windbag as the Pakistani divisional commander now finally released 7 Brigade  less battalion to 4 Mountain Division  on 8th December. The Indian Corps Commander, the readers may note, thought that 57 Brigade had withdrawn towards Faridpur along with Headquarter 9 Division.3  The 7th Brigade reached Jhenida during night 8th/9th December 1971 and was ordered to advance towards Kushtia on 9th December. For this purpose 7 Brigade was also assigned two tank troops of the 45th Cavalry. Tangibly everything was now excellent for the Indians .

Battle of Kushtia

9 Division was assigned with a squadron of 29 Cavalry for the defence of Hardinge Bridge.4  This squadron was commanded by one Major Sher ur Rahman.5  At this stage 57 Brigade was in the process of withdrawing across the Hardinge Bridge to Nator in 16 Division area. Manzoor tasked Sher ur Rahman along with an infantry company commanded by Major Zahid (18 Punjab) to delay the Indian force which was reported by the para-miltary Razakars to be on the way to Kushtia. Sher ur Rahman, as I many years later heard first hand from many soldiers of 29 Cavalry who had fought with him at Kushtia was no Manzoor! He selected an ambush site along with Major Zahid the infantry company commander inside Kushtia. The main road passed across a high embankment at this site and there was some open face on both flanks while some trees and buildings provided concealment and firing positions to Sher ur Rahman’s two tank troops6 and Major Zahid’s infantry company. The ground on  both sides of the road was boggy limited manoeuvre options of Indian tanks leading the 7 Brigade advance. The Indian tanks (two troops) leading the advance reached the outskirts of Kushtia at 2 p.m. and deployed outside the towns built up area. As per the Indian armoured corps historian precisely at this point in time the Indian 2 Corps Commander Raina along with GOC 4 Mountain Division arrived in a helicopter and “chided the commanders on the spot for their unnecessary caution when there was no enemy who was, in any case, on the run. He told them not to waste time on battle procedure but press on with tanks because there was no requirement to lead with infantry through the town”.7 The Indians commenced advance tanks leading and infantry very close behind. The first shot as per one 29 Cavalry veteran was fired once the sixth and the last Indian tank was in range and the infantry company (of 22 Rajput) was also within small arms range. The scene after this was one of total chaos. Most of the infantry company was gunned down within no time and as per Major General Gurcharan Singh Sandhu “within a few minutes the battalion (22 Rajput) ceased to exist as a fighting force” and “stragglers kept trickling away until the next day”.8 The Indian tank corps historian states that “The first shot from a Chafee (29 Cavalry) split open the fifth tank down the line”. Only one out of six tanks escaped the ambush. The battle was over! All that the Indian 7 Brigade Commander now did was to organise a defensive position with his second battalion behind a canal close to Kushtia. Gurcharan admitted  and this was stated by many 29 Cavalry veterans that “Pakistani tanks made contact with the canal and engaged the defenders. At last light they blew up the canal bridge and withdrew to Paksay”.9  57 Brigade was given the breather it needed to withdraw across the Ganges. Many years later I had the opportunity of hearing a first hand account of this withdrawal while under intense air attack from another direct participant Colonel Rathore from Engineers. Rathore was a very fine officer and a gentleman and when I heard him that he was staff officer with my father in 491 Brigade Group at Jaglot Farm. This was 8 years after the war i.e July 1979.                    

Reaction of Indian Corps Commander

The reactions of Indian 2 Corps Commander may be termed as typical reactions of any Indo-Pak subcontinental Corps commander! I will simply quote Indian military historians in describing this part of the battle!

Gurcharan Singh gives the following picture. “The Corps Commander received the news of the mishap on  return to his headquarter. He over-reacted and ordered 4 Mountain Division to halt its advance along the Faridpur axis and contain the enemy along Madhumati with one battalion. The rest of the division (i.e some two infantry brigades) was to back track to Kushtia, capture and clear the Hardinge Bridge. Two tank troops of 45 Cavalry were ordered to move from 9 Division to make up its “A” Squadron in Kushtia. Kushtia was bombed and strafed by the IAF on 10 and 11 December. Pakistanis had evacuated it during night 9-10 December. 4 Division concentrated outside the town by morning of 10 December. Elaborate plans were made for a divisional attack on 11 December, when the town was found clear”.10

I am quoting Praval a more balanced historian since some Indians may find Gurcharan’s more forthright criticism unpalatable! Praval states “Unfortunately Barar and Raina over reacted to the reverse. During the evening the former ordered 41 Brigade top move from Jhenida to Kushtia. Later during the  night Raina told Barar to move the third brigade too also, leaving a battalion on the Madhumati. Thus by evening of 10 December the whole division assembled in front of Kushtia”!11 

Now compare the Indians with what Shaukat Riza! Shaukat merely states without naming Sher or Zahid that “Enemy 7 Mountain Brigade attacked the position and suffered serious casualties”.12  Fazal Muqeem merely brushes the affair aside by stating that “the attack was repulsed and three tanks captured”.13  Is this the way military history is written? Its not difficult to figure that Gurcharan Singh and Praval were fairer with Majors Zahid and Sher ur Rahman than Shaukat Riza and Fazal Muqeem Khan. This is the sub-continental psyche! Talent must never be recognised! A conspiracy against originality and boldness! Heroism died in 1858! At least as far as higher level leadership was concerned!


Technical and Numerical Inferiority Nullified by Superior Tactics and Resolute Leadership

The battle of Kushtia proves that technical and numerical inferiority can be nullified by superior tactics and resolute leadership. Unfortunately while there were many Shers and Zahids there were no Lettow Vorbecks or Rommels commanding the Pakistani divisions or corps. There was one Rommel but he was on the western Front! Ask the troops who fought under him, not irresolute people who he kicked and abused in Chamb and you can find out .

Lack of Higher Planning at Divisional Level which led to independent withdrawal by brigade commanders and failure of 9 Division to function as a credible operational entity

The readers may note that the state of demoralisation and apathy in the 9 Division at higher level was such that no credible or concrete plan had been prepared for withdrawal of the division’s two regular brigades in case of an Indian breakthrough which was most likely, keeping in view the immense disparity between the Indian and Pakistani forces! It appears that both the regular brigade commanders i.e the 57 and 107 Brigade Commanders had made up their mind to withdraw northeast and Southwest to the safety of Rajshahi north of Ganges in 16 Division area and Khulna in the south! Whatever the motives of the brigade commanders this action resulted in rendering the 9 Division into an operational non-entity soon after the commencement of actual war on 5th December 1971! One of the brigade commanders was thus later condemned in the Hamood Report for this unauthorised withdrawal!

Even Fazal Muqeem 14  admitted this fact once he said “Headquarters 9 Division (Major General M.H Ansari) which had lost control earlier ...”.

Dislocation of Enemy Higher Commander’s Military Equilibrium

Two majors dislocated the enemy higher commanders mental equilibrium. What would have happened had there been some Sher ur Rahmans and Zahids in 9 Division Headquarter too. What would have happened had the Pakistani GHQ allocated a few more tanks for the Eastern Command earlier in 1971 or 1970! If the Indians could employ T-55/T-54 tanks why could not Pakistani T-59s have been employed there? And what did most of Pakistan’s T-59s in 1971 war do in the 1971 War apart from hiding in reserve forests or moving in trains!

Quality of Higher Military Leadership

The Pakistani 9 Division was commanded by Major General Ansari an artillery officer who proved in the war that he was a devout Muslim, but did little in the realm of commanding his division or anything in terms of leading from the front! Ansari sat on the prayer mat but did little else during the war! He was as good as any unit Pesh Imam of his division. His operational role was zero multiplied by zero in the war! Defenders of Ansari assert that he was a decent man, but there are so many decent men in this world, who don’t command divisions in battle but perform other minor roles more commensurate with their temperament or genius! There was no military leadership at divisional level in the Pakistani 9 Division. This over ensured that the battle was relegated to the two infantry brigade commanders, one bold but not interested in fighting a divisional battle, while another who was most keen to hit the Paksey Bridge and become a part of the 16 Division! Brigadier Hayat took his own decisions, mission oriented but ones which compromised his divisions integrity withdrawing his brigade to Khulna, fighting  an excellent brigade battle while also ensuring that the Indians were given an excellent gap to race forward towards Dacca in the middle! Brigadier Manzoor’s performance was “hopeless” in words of a participant and his role in the flight of his brigade cannot be over exaggerated!

A Battle of Offensive Defence or Clausewitzian Shield of Blows

The battle was a classic application of Clausewitz’s concept of offensive defence in which he described defence as a  shield of arrows!

A Case Study of Divisional Battle

The battle of 9 Division in 1971 illustrates the barrenness at divisional level. The absence of the GOC as a  decisive operational division makes at divisional level.


The South Western Sector of Eastern Command was not a really very decisive sector of the 1971 War. The significance of the “Tank Ambush at Kushtia” lies in the heavy odds involved and how certain military commanders at squadron company level through resolution ingenuity and sheer tenacity emerged at least tactically victorious against vastly superior forces. The true significance of the “Battle of Kushtia” lies in the fact that “ingenuity, resolution and a positive mental attitude could have enabled the Eastern Command to fight longer than it did”! That the seeds of the dramatic collapse of 16 December lay not in numerical inferiority alone but in phenomenal lack of military competence in the Eastern Command and those in the Military Operations Directorate in the Pakistani GHQ who insisted that the Eastern Command must conduct a rigid defensive strategy of holding every inch!  This article does not aim at proving that East Pakistan could have been a Pakistani victory but only that a more imaginative higher strategy could have resulted in a less humiliating defeat than what actually happened! The failure in East Pakistan was not a political failure alone but a military failure at the highest level!

Sher ur Rahman lives in the hearts of 29 Cavalry veterans as the ultimate war hero! This I discovered in the Rakhs of Qila Sobha Singh! In Pakistani military history he figures nowhere, since he was not from the trade union of guards! Wrong forever on the throne! Truth forever on the Scaffold!


1Page-145-Witness to Surrender-Siddiq Salik-Oxford University Press-Pakistan-First Published in 1977-Third Impression-Oxford University Press-Pakistan -1998.

2Page-145-Siddiq Salik-Op Cit.

3Page-439-The Indian Armour-History of Indian Armoured Corps-1941-1971-Major General Gurcharan Singh Sandhu-Vision Books-New Delhi-1993.

4Page-141-The Pakistan Army-1966-71-Major General Shaukat Riza (Retired)-Services Book Club-1990.

5 I first heard his name while talking with my squadron commander Captain Azam Niazi in October 1984 while serving in 29 Cavalry. I had been attached with this unit since around 25th September (following another attachment period with 15 SP from 09 August 1984 to 25th September 1984) due  to some disciplinary problem with my commanding officer in 11 Cavalry. Azam said that he joined the unit because he had been deeply impressed by Sher ur Rahman’s exploits in 1971 War. The time spent with Azam was memorable and we made good use of it by hunting around the Degh Nala and the marshes around Qila Sobha Singh and Dhamtal. At that time, thanks to Durga Devi and Terry Tyrant seemed imminent and 8 Armoured Brigade was deployed close to the border.

6 Page-439-Gurcharan Singh Sandhu-Op Cit. I have relied on the Indian general’s description in stating that the ambush force consisted of two tank troops!

7 Page-439-Gurcharan Singh-Op Cit.

8 Page-439-Gurcharan Singh -Op Cit.

9 Page-441-Gurcharan Singh-Op Cit.

10 Page-441-Ibid.

11Page-331-The Indian Army Since Independence-Major K.C Praval-Lancer Books-New Delhi-1992.

12 Page-142-Shaukat Riza-Op Cit.

13Page-179-Pakistan’s Crisis in Leadership-Major General Fazal Muqeem Khan-National Book Foundation-Lahore-1973.

14 Page-179- Fazal Muqeem-Op Cit.