Comilla-Chittagong Axis (1971 War)

Columnist Maj (Retd) SHAMSHAD ALI KHAN looks at a particular battle area of 1971.

The purpose of this article is to record the events, as a participant, to make a part of history for those who wish to know the facts. Although, as a nation, we seldom look back and try to learn from history. Our favourite slogans are, forget the past, forget and forgive, matti pao (bury under the sand), Mucmucca (to settle an issue without reference to justice and fair play)
It is very seldom, in present times that a soldier goes to war. More so in our case. Our wars are short and before entire army is committed it comes to an end. During this short period not more than ten percent enrolled manpower comes face to face with the enemy. Out of this ten percent some die in action others are sacked and remaining are so few that their views get lost in the high sounding and fabricated stories of those who never faced a bullet.
It is a sacred duty of all those soldiers who have taken part in combat to record the facts without adulteration and exaggeration for the future generation of service men of this country. It is in this spirit that I shall describe the operation although serious fighting was not involved. Whatever I am going to write is from the script I had prepared in reassembly camp at Manser after repatriation when details were fresh in my mind

For description see sketch, ‘A’,. It is a corridor bounded by sea on the west and range of hills on the east. The corridor is narrow in the south, about 1000 meters wide in the area of Foujdar Hat and becomes broader as we go up north. In the north is Fanny River with two bridges one for rail and other for road. In the south is Chittagong port. Road and and railway line run parallel to each other from Chittagong to Comilla.
Major settlements are given in sketch with approximate distances. The ground is broken with innumerable water channels running from east to west. Tanks will find difficult to move freely except on the road, which is higher than surrounding area, and therefore wheeled vehicles cannot get off the road. Growth is thick and the visibility is limited up to 200 meters.There are innumerable small villages in addition to major settlements.

Following forces were available for the defence of Chittagong peninsula starting from Fanny River down to the sea in the south.
(a) 24 FF
(b) A company of SSG
(c) 3 wings of EPCAF
(d) One wing of VP (vulnerable point) force
(e) One wing of ISF (Industrial security force)
(f) A Battery of 120 MM mortar
(g) Few gun boats with Navy
(h) One west Pakistan Ranger wing
(i) One Infantry Battalion (Bloach) for protection of port
Altogether there were 6,000 men. But considering their morale, equipment, physical fitness, motivation, training and fighting capability it was on more than a Brigade.
In the month of November 71 this force was divided in two groups and placed under two
ad hoc Brigade HQ
(a) Brig Taskeen’s Brigade
(It was called as such)
-An Infantry Battalion commanded by Lt./Col. Raja Iqbal of Punjab Regiment (Three companys of EPCAF and one of 24 FF.
-A Mujahid Battalion commanded by Lt./Col. Aftab of Blouch Regiment and later by Lt./Col. Tajik of Artillery
.- All troops deployed North of Chittagong.
(b) Brig Atta’s Brigade
- Port Battalion commanded by a major
- 3 Company of 24 FF commanded by Lt./Col. Ashiq of FF
- All troops deployed in hill tracks, Rangamati and Captai commanded by Lt./Col. Haneef of SSG.

Taskeen Force was to deny all approaches to Chittagong from north i.e., Comilla-Chittagong and Ramgarh axes.-Atta force to deny all approaches from east i.e., Paptai- Chittagong and Cox’s Bazaar - Chittagong axes.
Col. Ghulam Hussein arrived at Chittagong in early Nov 1971 from West Pakistan charged with responsibility to organize the defence of Chittagong itself.
In the month of November a conference was held in log area HQ, which I attended as a representative of EPCAF, to organize the defence of Chittagong City. Col. Ghulam Hussein was in the chair. In the conference it was decided that I and a Col of EME (OC Workshop) will plan and prepare the defences on Comilla -Chittagong axis for occupation by the troops falling back from Dhomghat area.
The fact that a Col from services was assigned the job which should have been the responsibility of an officer from fighting arm, and there were quite a few of them available in Chittagong, was an indication how serious our high command was in defending East Pakistan. In fact Col Ghulam Hussein (FF) should have done the planning himself. Since OC workshop was also not much interested the responsibility was shifted to me.
The plan was made after proper reconnaissance and was submitted to Col Ghulam Hussein but defences were not prepared on ground due to lack of resources.

DECEMBER 03,1971
On this day I was at Chittagong looking after rear HQ of EPCAF and also running a summary military court. In the evening through Radio Pakistan I came to know that war has formally been declared. Shortly after the broadcast I received a phone call from Col. Raja Asghar who ordered me to report at Karar Hat on the next day, 4th Dec.

The night passed very peacefully as compared to the preceding ones in the sense that there was no small arm firing all around as it was a normal happening those days.
On first light I was preparing to move to Karar Hat when I heard the crash of bombs being dropped by Indian war planes in port area. This was first air attack of 1971 war against Chittagong. I decided to first visit the port and then go to Karar Hat. The Indian aircraft were coming consecutively in fours. There were no Pakistani war planes to oppose them. There were few AA guns which fired without results.
I visited Dawood Petroleum, two oil tanks were burning and a ship in the dockyard was hit by enemy aircraft. The port was completely deserted and so was the city. People remained confined to their houses. Road to Kara Hat was also deserted. I reached Karar Hat at about 1000 hours to act as 2nd in command to Lt./Col. Raja Asghar as the actual 2IC Major Fakhar was taken away by Brig Teskeenudin to act as his BM. The Battalion Command post was located a mile short of Karar Hat and the Brigade HQ was in area level crossing (see sketch A).
Three companies were deployed along the home bank of Fanny River while the fourth one, commanded by Major Hafeez, was in area Zurar Gang.The company from FF was commanded by Capt. Tariq, 2 Wing EPCAF by Major Saud and 11 Wing EPCAF by Major Bungush. A wing may be considered a heavy company with 200 men each. Apart from two wings mentioned above, about 1000 men were scattered all over Chittagong Division in the form of vulnerable point (VP) force and industrial security force (ISF). These people were sent from West Pakistan for the protection of bridges, sensitive installations and industrial complexes. They were armed with .303 rifles. Officially I was sent from West Pakistan to command this force.
Communication facilities were not as good as that of a regular Battalion. There were no signal resources in Chittagong except those available with EPCAF Sector HQ and T&T lines.
No fighting took place on our front except sporadic Artillery fire on our leading troops. However, bombardment was heavy on distant Fanny Area. Upto 8 Dec our main activity was to listen news bulletins from all over the world and proceedings of United Nations Security Council meetings. Fanny fell on 7th or 8th Dec and the Taskeen Force was ordered to withdraw and take up position for the defence of Chittagong.

The entire force was to uproot from Fanni area and take-up position between Fojdar Hat and Komira on night 8/9 Dec. Two screens were to be established one at Mirsarai and other at Sitakond to cover the withdrawal.
According to initial orders the screen at Mirsarai was to withdraw at last light 9 Dec and that at Sitakond at last light 10 Dec giving two clear days to main force for preparing the defences.The screen at Mirsarai was to be commanded by Major Hafeez of EPCAF and that at Sitakond by myself. I was acting as 2 I C of the Battalion and had no knowledge about the troops I was to command.

Before I could locate the troops I was to command and move out to take up position at Sitakond, I was ordered to lay out the main defences between Komeera and Faujdarhat. I reached somewhere in the middle of Komeera and Faujdarhat around 1600 hours accompanied by the Raccee party of the main force which comprised of a representative of each wing and the company 24 FF.Capt Sarfaraz of EPCAF was part of the Raccee party. The defence was organized in two layers. Left forward layer was manned by Major Bungush force starting from the sea in the east up to the road in the west. Right forward company of 14 FF was commanded by Capt. Tariq starting from the road on the left and foot of the hill on the right. Behind Capt. Tariq was deployed Capt. Sarfaraz with his force in second layer. The defences behind Major Bungush were left unoccupied for me to take up position after withdrawal from Sitakond. A perfect plan as per book. What actually happened is a different story.
Once finished with lay out of main defences I was ordered to deploy Major Saud’s force as advance position in area Komeera. I along with Major Saud mounted the high ground where TB sanatorium stood.
The corridor was narrowest here. It was about a mile starting from the sea in the east and ending at the foot of the hill in the west. I looked towards the sea but could not see the water due to thick growth. I found myself in terrible need of a binocular. Being from armoured corps I was accustomed to extensive use of binocular and it was one thing I longed to have throughout the war. Such non-essentials were not issued to us. All the same, I briefed Maj. Saud in a cursory manner and advised him how he could best deploy his force.
I reach Karchat after dark where three platoons were waiting for me. We immediately started moving and reached Sitakond where we had to establish a screen. After reaching there, late at night, we made ourselves comfortable in the school building. Here I pinched some time to visit my quarters at Panchlaish in Chittagong to collect some important papers, which were left behind on 4th Dec. I spent that night at Hafeez Jute Mills and after a sumptuous breakfast joined my force at Sitakond on the morning of 9 Dec.

It was on the morning of this day that I had a good look, for the first time, of the men I was going to lead in battle ahead.
They were EPCAF men I had never seen before. I cannot use the expression ‘troops’ in relation to these men. Because troops normally denote a body of men which, one can hope, will give fight. These were men of old age and raw recruits with .303 rifles as their personal weapon. All of them belonged to West Pakistan.
They revealed to me that the recruiting authorities had told them that they were going to East Pakistan to perform guard duties on factories. They were taken aback when I told them that they were to face the Indian army. The force also had few LMG / SMG and two 3 inch mortars without sights and fire controller. The crew was totally untrained.
There were no wireless sets to start with. We had some civilian trucks and a Datsun pick up for my use. We were responsible for own administration. Enough ammunition and ration was collected from Chittagong, which was loaded in trucks. Our only communication link with Brigade HQ at Faujdarhat Cadet College and the Battalion HQ, about a mile away in the north on Cadet College, was through T&T line which ran parallel to railway track. My forward communication was also through the same line. Only one telephone set was installed in a trench cited on the main road, which was forward most communication point. My communication with the platoons and inter-platoon communication was through voice or runner.
All the four telephones, i.e. leading trench, myself, Major Saud in Komira. Battalion HQ and Brigade HQ at cadet college were on the same line in series. Major Hafeez withdrew from Mirsarai at first light on 9th as planned.Three platoons of Al-Shams/Al-Badar reached as reinforcement. A wireless set was also sent which never established communication with the rear. The Behari operator had no knowledge of the set. After surrender I came to know that the higher HQ had great hopes in my force and considered it formidable for the Indians to overcome. What a naivete.
Here lies the fault with our commanders who did not know about the fighting capabilities of the troops under their command and lived on imaginations. However, I had no illusions and informed my superiors that the reinforcements and the troops under command are not likely to give a fight to a regular army.
In clear words I was to conduct rear guard action with the force which was most unsuited for such an operation. In teaching we were told that rear guard operation require young and energetic, highly trained, well-equipped, highly mobile, having adequate communication arrangements and tenacious troops. Apart from the absence of above mentioned prerequisites, I did not know the men at all. I was apprehensive of their behaviour under fire.
Never the less I deployed the six platoons as shown in sketch B.The platoons covered a frontage of 2000 yards. Between the sea and the left extreme platoon there was a gap of two miles. Area on the left of the road was comparatively open while on the right of the road it had thick growth and the visibility was restricted to two hundred yards. On the right in the foot of the hill, across the railway line, there was a small village, which was not occupied by us. Mortars were deployed 500 yards behind the front line. Another 500 yards in the rear was the school building where my command post was located.
To be continued.