DEFENCE NOTES

Battle of Dhalai:
The Bangladesh Campaign 1971

DJ is re-printing the 'enemy's' point of view about the Battle of Dhalai and then following it with a first personal account by Col (Retd) Mukhtar who commanded B coy 11 FF that resisted all Indian attacks successfully.


Col (Retd) Ahmad Mukhtar Khan


Quoted from Indian DEFENCE REVIEW from an article by Col (Retd) DALJIT SINGH

While formal hostilities during the 1971 war commenced on 3 December, the Indian Army was already in the process of nibbling into the border areas of East Pakistan. A situation had developed which the Germans would call Kriegpermanenz (undeclared but standing war).

Lt. Gen. JS Aurora had laid down that one brigade attack would be launched per week during the twilight period before the commencement of formal hostilities. These attacks were primarily to sharpen the claws of the Mukti Bahini (Freedom fighters). Whenever the Mukti Bahini came to grips with the enemy 'waging war silently and anonymously', the Indian Army was to be close by, virtually breathing down its neck. Rightly, reverses were unacceptable.

61 Mountain Brigade (Brig SDS Yadav, Commanding) was deployed in Tripura (under 4 Corps GOC Lt. Gen. Sagat Singh. It did not find much difficulty in selecting a suitable objective. Kamalpur was a small Indian town in Tripura which was serviced by a small air strip. It was overlooked by the Pakistan post at Dhalai which was located some 900 m from Kamalpur. Dhalai was primarily a tea garden complex. It had overgrown tea gardens in the North and West while the South and South-east areas were covered with paddy fields. Due to tension on the border, the tea garden labour had already fled. The Pakistani post was located in the tea factory which was on relatively higher ground. There were two garden tracks - one from the post leading North towards Patrakhala and the other westwards.

The Pakistani Army had done a good amount of spadework on the Dhalai post. The complex included, besides the main Dhalai Border Outpost, the tea factory and Officers' bungalows extending approximately 750 m. There were other defended posts at Twin Hut, Red Hut and Coolie lines extending approximately 950 to 1100 m, the posts had concrete bunkers with wire and punjees laid all around. The bunkers were strong enough to withstand medium artillery shells.

INDIAN PLANS

The Indian Army had learnt much from the forays of the East Bengali irregulars. Preliminary operations carried out in October/November 1971 as in Pachagarh, Hilli and Kamalpur were based on the requirements of straightening out bulges there by providing launching pads and more importantly, to destabilise the Pakistani Army's forward deployment plans. In almost all cases, they had adopted an aggressive attitude of opening fire across the border at the slight pretext. The neutralisation of Dhalai was one such preliminary operation. It was for this fish that 61 Mtn Bde threw a series of baited hooks.

The Mukti Bahini was initially given the task of capturing Dhalai, the assumption being that it was a weakly held position well within the capability of the Mukti Bahini. Accordingly, they raided the Tea factory area but were unsuccessful.

It was then revealed that Pakistan was holding the Dhalai complex as below:

  • Dhalai BOP-one regular platoon reinforced with Razakars.
  • Patrakhala - one regular company plus Razakars.
  • Kurma Chara - one regular platoon plus Razakars.

61 Mtn Bde, now ordered 1st Battalion of the East Bengal Rifles (EBR) to capture Dhalai on the night 27/28 October '71, but 1 EBR was also repulsed.

However, the Dhalai 'hook' had a 'line' attached. In retaliation, Pakistani artillery opened fire on Kamalpur. The Indian Army was fortunate in having Sagat at the helm of affairs. 'A host,' said the Roman poet Horace, 'is like a general; it takes a mishap to reveal his genius.' When Pakistani guns opened up on Kamalpur, Sagal ordered 2 JAT to go forward to Dhalai and silence the guns. I was present when this news of 2 JAT's impending action to silence the guns at Dhalai was mentioned to Lt Gen. ML Thapan, 33 Corps Commander in the Alfa Mess at the lunch table. Thapan was the colonel of the JAT Regiment and we all expected that of all the people, the Colonel of the regiment would be electrified by the news of one of his units being given the honour of going at the enemy's throat. Thapan cleared his mouthful of roast chicken to exclaim, 'What's this silencing of guns? Never heard anything like this!' (exact words).

2 JAT was then commanded by Lt Col Dalal. It was an old unit - steeped in glorious traditions. Its correct honorific was 2nd (Mooltan) Bn, the Jat Regt from the 2nd Anglo-Sikh War days.

Getting back to the battlefield, on 28 Oct, '71, at 1100 hours, 1 EBR attack had failed; 1 EBR's failure had followed soon after the reverses suffered by Mukti Bahini. Gen Sagat Singh was not the man to take these reverses lying down. He ordered 2 JAT to attack Dhalai the same day by 1430 hours. In this fast moving scenario, it would be interesting to take a look at the deployment of 2 JAT at 1200 hours on 28 Oct., '71, which was as below:

(a) One Rifle Coy-Kamalpur Airfield.

(b) One Rifle Coy-Ganganagar to protect 1 EBR fire base.

(c) One Platoon-Guarding the gun positions.

(d) Rest of the Bn-at AMBASA

Thus 2 JAT was deployed over an area of approximately 30 Kms. The operation was, from the beginning, jinxed. To make matters worse the JATs were required to attack dressed in 'Lungis' - to confound the enemy regarding the real identity of the attackers. The JATs were to impersonate the Mukti Bahini: Dalal refused. He wanted his battalion to attack in battle order; not lungis.

The battalion commander wanted time for reconnaissance for himself and his subordinate commandant. Reverses suffered by the Mukti Bahini and 1 EBR had made senior Indian Army Commanders impatient. Maj. Gen. Gonsalves, GOC 57 Mtn Div. was convinced that the enemy strength at Dhalai was only one platoon and hardly needed the staff college taught procedures. It needed, in his opinion, rough and ready treatment - 2 JAT to attack without reconnaissance and battle procedure. A military operation without 'recce', is like a colour - blind person trying to operate a Rubik's Cube. It is, unfortunately a trait of some Indian top brass - that the higher they go, the less rational they become.

ACTION - 28/29 OCT

Dalal hurriedly made his plan off the map - to attack Dhalai from the East. Dalal gave orders to his (O) group - less like a confident field commander and more like a harassed husband. No subordinate commander was able to give out his orders or brief their 'O' groups or 'F' echelons. One coy was dispatched to secure the FUP in a grove at 2030 hours. To its consternation, it found the grove was occupied by Pakistan.

CHANGE IN PLANS

As a chameleon changes its colours in consonance with the threat and surroundings, Dalal changed his plans. He now changed the direction of attack from the East to West at 0300 hours on 29 October. The unit marched to Baligaon to attack from the western direction. The JATs had to go through tall, uncut and thick tea bushes which had not been pruned for over six months in the absence of labour. They negotiated a labyrinth formed of big tea bushes. It was really heavy going, what with the leaves and buds having grown nasty sharp edges. The tea bushes had a steely and spiky consistency like the antlers of a moose. The sturdy JATs tried to hack their way through with 'dahs' and very soon the whole area was littered with broken pieces of 'dahs'. Dalai had had lost control over his subunits. Tea which normally cheers and does not inebriate, had a different effect on Dalal - it just demoralised him. He, in golf parlance, just could not tee-off.

At 0900 hours on 29 October, Dalal spoke to Maj. Gen. Gonsalves with a request to break off the engagement a heinous and unpardonable crime amongst JATs. Gonsalves acquiesced with the plea of the commanding officer that the unit could not make any headway through the thick tea plantation and that he could not risk an 'encounter battle' against a well prepared enemy. As everything else of military teaching was lying prostrate, old staff college shibboleths took much beating before better sense prevailed: 2 JAT was withdrawn to reassess the situation.

The 'Dhalai' hook now had not only a 'line' but also a 'sinker'.

Five patrols were sent out on the night of 29/30 October and it was confirmed that Pakistan was holding the following posts in the Dhalai complex with 3 coys:

(a) Dhalai BOP-one coy.
(b) Twin Hut
(c) Red Hut-one coy
(d) Coolie Lines-one coy.

Unknown to 2 JATs, Pakistan had also moved in 30 Frontier Force Rifles (FFR), on a counter - attack role and placed them in the Coolie lines.

THE SECOND ATTACK

A two phased attack was planned from the East on the night of 30/31 October as below:

  • Phase-1: A coy to establish a road block behind Dhalai com plex while B and C coys capture Coolie Lines and Twin Huts.
  • Phase-2: D coy to capture Dhalai BOP Area.

It would be noticed that there were no reserves and everything was being put in the kitty.

The attack rolled in with a coy establishing the road block on the night of 30 October. B coy under Maj. R Kanwar captured Coolie Lines where each house had been fortified into a bunker. C coy, however, ran into serious trouble. Maj JPS Panwar personally led the assault on the Twin Huts, but a bullet stopped him in his tracks and he could not reach the objective. Sub Siri Chand, coy second in command (21C), then led the assault. Twin Huts was captured, but C coy had not yet consolidated on their objectives when Pakistan counter attacked with artillery and MMG support. But our Forward observation officer not to be seen. He had decided to return to the unit firm base along with the wounded Maj Panwar. C coy suffered heavy casualties. Bravery has only one face; cowardice, many facets. Naib Sub Umed Singh and 15 dead OR were picked up later. The Pakistani counter-attack pushed C coy back to Ganganagar.

This counter-attack and the Pakistani strength in the Coolie Lines area and Red Hut made Dalal again change his plans. He decided to use D coy to capture the Red hut area instead of the Dhalai BOP. He was perhaps not aware that the Red Hut had a 3 tier set up of bunkers and was held by one coy strength as remnants of Pakistani defenders withdrawing from Coolie Lines had also concentrated there. Major Pritam Singh, coy commander of D coy was wounded in the leg in the early stages of D coy action. Coy 21C Sub Diwan Singh, who led the attack himself was killed. Sub Adjt Gulzari Lal followed up the attack but was also wounded. The artillery again let the JATs down as the battery commander decided to return to the firm base. Desertion seemed to be the best form of valour. After a stiff fight, portions of the Red Hut area were captured. 2 JAT had no anti-tank weapons to destroy the bunkers. Therefore, the attack was not pressed further.

The disturbing truth was that 2 JAT had suffered very heavy casualties and its morale was at a low ebb. Dalal wanted to shy-off. There was no fight left in him, for Dalal had developed cold feet.

To make matters worse. Brig SDS Yadav was wounded near the Coolie Lines and one coy of 7 Rajputana Rifles (Raj Rif) had to be detailed under Maj Avtar Singh to evacuate the commander. Pakistani morale was high and they were infused with the spirit of a Gazi. To rub in the point, Pakistan shot up the Raj Rif coy en route, wounding Maj Avtar Singh.

The reins and whip were both being applied on Dalal from above but he had enough. Yadav had been evacuated and his place had been fortuitously, taken over by Brig KP Pande who introduced himself as 'I am Pande. Call me Tom.' If Dalal was a pussy, Pande was a tomcat. Tom was a brave gunner who believed in out fighting the enemy. We were also lucky to have Sagat there. He was that bull which won't be cowed down. Sagat knew that defeat brings demoralisation.

The Indian Army was fighting a battle which was going to alter its destiny. The Mukti Bahini, were watching wide-eyed the 'Khans' who, what to speak of retreating, were giving bloody noses to the cream of the Indian Army. They wondered if this was the Indian Army which was going to liberate Bangladesh for them? And what kind an army is this that cannot capture Dhalai? They looked up with admiration and awe at 30 FFR which had blunted our repeated assaults and nick-named it 'Dhalai-Ka-Sabun' (washing soap). This nick-name was sinister and as innuendo for - if the Pakistani Army was soap, the Indian Army was dirt. Sagat assumed command of the situation. 'If we call it a day, what will the Muktees think of our fighting qualities', he argued. For him, better a foreign grave than native scorn.

At 0900 hrs on 31 October, the situation was as given below:

(a) Twin Huts position was lost and the enemy had cut off the Coolie Lines from the East.
(b) B coy had captured Coolie Lines.
(c) D Coy had captured portion of Twin Huts Area.
(d) A coy was still occupying the road block.2 JAT had by then paid too a heavy price. The Bn had gone into battle with 75 as the fighting strength of each coy. The unit had suffered heavy casualties, the bulk of which were suffered during the first attack on 31 October as below:

Date Killed Wounded Total
Bullet Shell Bullet Shell Bullet Shell Bullet Shell  
31 Oct. 23 2 28 14 67
1st Nov. 6 2 6 5 19
3rd Nov. 7 4 3 6 20

Total:

106

Thus the total killed were 44 including 2 JCOs. The total wounded were actually 89 including 3 officers (but - 27 wounded personnel had returned to the Battalion (Bn) before 3 Dec. 71). It will be noticed that the Bn had just on one day, ie 31st October got one coy written off as casualties. With one coy on the road block, the Bn had to fight the coming battle of attrition and beating back enemy counter-attacks with just two coys.

The unit had been smeared with blood; worse, its name was smeared in mud.

THE BATTLE OF ATTRITION

Dalal was in no mood to continue. He was pleading to retreat. A lesser commander than Sagat would have vacillated - but Sagat was made of tougher material. His forefather, Rana Sangha, had once fought on with 80 wounds on his body. He vetoed any idea of withdrawal - even nominal. He ordered 2 JAT to firm in the Coolie Lines and take on the enemy counter-attack. 7 Raj Rif was given the task of capturing Dhalai BOP on 1 November. Sagat's grit paid off as on 31 October Pakistan mounted fierce counter-attacks on the JAT positions. All counter-attacks were repulsed with heavy casualties. However, a brave enemy must be given his due. 60 Pakistani dead were physically recovered. The 21C of 30 FFR with a Subedar was killed just 5 metres from the JAT trenches. Maj Gen Kazi Majid, GOC, and Brig Rana, personally conducted the battle from the Pakistani side. To their misfortune, they had to deal with Sagat in person tapping the broad shoulders of the JATs. Dalal was not permitted to look over his shoulders.

2 JAT had redeemed itself. The Bn was decimated due to heavy casualties but it had won the Battle of Dhalai by beating back 30 FFR's counter attacks. 61 Mtn Bde's attack, launched later was a coup-de grace.

LESSONS

The Battle of Dhalai was one of the first major actions of the Indian Army which left a bitter taste in the mouth. It even cast serious doubts about our fighting ability. Eyebrows have rightly been raised considering the reputation of 2 JAT which remains one of the famous Bns of the Indian Army. Its list of Battle Honours reads like the long-Roll of Honour. The official account of this battle lays the blame for the debacle on Dalal in these words, '2 JAT failed to capture the objective, because of weak leadership on the part of the CO.'

Dalal, with some justification, maintains that he was ordered to attack on 28 October at two hours notice with no reconnaissance and proper issue of orders. To make matters worse, the Bn was deployed in an area of 30 Kms. In all fairness to Dalal, Brig SDS Yadav had agreed with the views of Dalal but had added, 'The attack has to go on because these are the orders of GOC 4 Corps'.

The Indian Army was baring its teeth in Bangladesh. It had to prove that when it opened its jaws, it was to bite and not bark. Once the Mukti Bahini had been repulsed initially, the Battle of Dhalai was more like a football match between two first division club sides with the Mukti Bahini as spectators. Any one familiar with Bengali psychology will vouch that spectators in the Eden Gardens cheer the winning side only. Reverses suffered by 2 JAT were creating a strange psychosis chemistry in the minds of the Mukti Bahini. Hatred was changing into fear, then to awe, and had the rot not been stemmed, it would have been converted into admiration for the erstwhile enemy. There is a saying that 'doubt is a flame, which if not extinguished in time may become a prairie fire.'

Talking of 'recce' and other battle procedures, these are desirable, but it does not mean if infantry School precis is not acted upon, doomsday will follow. This reminds one of a Coy Commander who had learnt by rote in the memories form, the sequence of verbal orders K-l-T-B-A-G (Khabar, Irada, Tariqa, Bandobast, Androoni Milap and, finally Ghari Milao) - the standard format for orders of subunit operations.

But unfortunately, this officer got mixed-up and could recollect only the acronym B-1-S-T-R-A (instead of KITBAG). He did fumble and falter, but his wits did not fail him. He coined his orders readily on the spot as they occurred to him, sequence notwithstanding. He therefore started off with B for Bandobast, I for Irada, S for Signals, T for Tariqa - a mockery of Infantry School precis. His subordinates were getting more and more confused. Now to make matters worse, he got stuck with the last letters R and A. He was non-plussed as to what to make out of 'R' and 'A' till the 'soldier' was rouse in him. He pushed his papers away, pulled himself up full length, turned a stern stare at his 'O' group and commanded in a firm tone 'Run and Attack'. His troops charged at the enemy and captured the objective as ordered. He had followed no precis, and perhaps because of that, he captured the objective.

It cannot be gainsaid that Dalal had panicked. He lacked resolution and grit. He was a good example of a belly-acher. In military operations, everything cannot be out of the textbook, Dalal talked of recce. The Dhalai post was a permanent Pakistani post and the Mukti Bahini and 1 EBR had bashed their heads against it. Did Dalal take any guides from Mukti Bahini or 1 EBR? The Dhalai post was on a higher ground facilitating direction keeping. Dalal had lost the battle before it had even started. It seems the tea bushes had unnerved Dalal more than the enemy.

The CO wavered at every stage. His change of direction from East to West on the night of 28-29 Oct was a fatal mistake. 7 Raj Rif also got jolted in the night attack. Devesan, the CO, was removed from command; what about Dalal? Dalal was sacked allright, but he escaped deeper condemnation as he had wisely chosen to be the son-in-law of the Speaker of the Haryana Assembly.

The assessment of the enemy's strength was badly under-estimated. Even till 30/31 October, the enemy strength was assessed as only one plus razakars whereas Pakistan had one full Bn in the Dhalai complex. Mathematically, 2 JATS had attacked one Pakistani Bn with 3 coys only. Economy of force does not imply use of less troops but a correct quantum of troops. It's not harmful to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut - particularly when outsiders are watching. It is worth recording that Brig. Yadav had initially suggested a Bde attack on the Dhalai complex, but he dropped the plan for reasons best known to him. Homeopathic doses in attack are not effective, surgical operations are.

When 1 EBR was attacking, 2 JAT should have been kept concentrated within whistling distance for any contingency. In the present context while 2 JAT was pulled in from 30 Kms, 7 Raj Rif was located 100 Kms away.

Div. and Bde HQ hardly functioned. One officer of 12 Kumaon was pulled out to officiate as BM of 61 Bde. it will not be out of place to mention that Dhalai was a one man show - Sagat Singh's.

The enemy had 45 bunkers which needed destruction. 2 JAT had two 57 mm recoilless guns but without sights. They only held two 3.5 Rocket launchers serviceable. Thus they could not neutralize enemy fire.

The artillery had also come under criticism in this battle. Dalal had been criticising the artillery for not coming to the support of the Bn. But it is a well known fact that Major Ved Parkash Khatri, Battery Commander of 85 Light Regt was killed in this action. On 1 November, one Krishak Air OP aircraft, flown by Major Menezes of 6 Air OP flight, was hit by Pakistani small arm fire damaging the under-carriage and fuel tank. The pilot could only land the aircraft safely with great skill. Jangi Bawa, Commander Artillery 57 Mtn Div. was a dedicated gunner and he ensured full artillery support. It is obvious that Dalal was looking for scapegoats. 2 JAT neglected digging in which exposed the troops to Pakistani shelling.

End of QUOTE FROM INDIAN DEFENCE REVIEW


DHULLAI OPERATIONS

Col MUKHTAR'S VIEW as the officer commanding the company that was the core of the Pakistan force bearing the brunt of the Indian attack

This operation is a unique example of the valour and steadfastness of a Coy plus of 30 FF with a Coy of Razakars EPCAF, who gave 'bloody nose' to the cream of the Indian Army (Enemy version). a Brigade group supported by complete div. arty, 2 Jats and Raj Rif kept on attacking this position for 4 days but couldn't break through. The brigade Comd, 2 Commanding Officers were removed Ultimately, the Corps Comd Lt. Gen. Sagat Singh had to personally take over the command of the brigade and conduct of the battle.

I am enclosing a copy of an article written by Col Daljit Singh 'Battle of Dhalai' Bangladesh Campaign 1971' It is very exhaustive account of this battle, where 'he says' 'the Mukhti Bhani were watching wide eyed the 'Khan's who what to talk of retreating were giving bloody nose to the cream of the Indian Army.'

Dhullai was a net of few tea gardens, east of Sri Mangal, with few labourer huts (Sketch attached).

Although the Indian narrative says that 30 FF was occupying this area, the facts are that initially, I had 2 Pls. 30FF, and a weak Coy of Razakars/EPCAF in this area, under command Capt. Saif Afridi. 30 FF was deployed from Mantala to Moulvi Bazar, a front of 60 km.

The enemy used to lob in a few artillery shells on this BoP daily since June'71. In Oct.' 71, this shelling was intensified. Enemy OP was loc at a place from where movements in the BOP were visible and answered with a shell or two.

On 14 Oct.' 71, I sent Major Muhammad Arshad to this BOP, to relieve Capt. Saif for a few days rest. The moment he got out of the jeep, the enemy OP, saw him, and an artillery shell landed dead on him and he was blown into pieces. On 26 Oct/ 71, enemy intensified the shelling and complete Div. artillery fire was concentrated on the BOP. shelling continued for the whole day of 26 Oct., 27 Oct' 71.

I anticipated an attack, and sent 2 Pls. under command my 21/c Major Raja Javed Akhtar (Staff College Camberley and pride of performance in mountaineering). Enemy attacked the BOP with 2 Battalions, 2. Jat and Raj Rif and sent one battalion in the rear of the BOP, to block any further reinforcement.

In the ensuing battle, some area was lost to the enemy. As there were no reserves with Maj. Javed, he collected one section under command sub Amal Din and counter attacked. According to enemy version, his body was found 5 meters from the enemy trenches. Another counter attack was launched by young 2/ Lt. Mushtaq Nawaz and Sub Said Akbar, but they also attained Shahadat. The BOP was repeatedly being attacked, and their rear was blocked by the battalion in the blocking posn.

GOC Gen. Abdul Majid Qazi and Brig Rana, both moved into my tac tical HQ (Comd Post) which was in the rear of the enemy blocking battalion. As I had no reserves, the GOC arranged for a coy of Baluch Regt, a platoon of Punjab and some SSG. A counter attack was launched on the enemy battalion in the blocking position, but no breakthrough could be made. I must mention here that this counter attack was personally led by the GOC.

Eastern Comd was asked to allow this force to cross the border and hit the enemy's rear. This request was not granted. Even artillery fire across the border was not sanctioned. As no reinforcement could reach the BOP, ammunition being exhausted, orders for falling back on battalion Command post area were issued. Men were to be on their own and trickle back through enemy position. So an area of about 3-4 sq km was lost to the enemy.

1 recommended Major Javed, Capt. Saif, 2/ Lt. Mushtaq two JCOs and about half a dozen ORs for immediate awards, but unfortunately none was granted for the reason. As the orders were that not an inch of land was to be given up,

Eastern Command was not prepared to admit to GHQ that an area of 3-4 sq. km was lost. This battle was, therefore, shown as a minor skirmish. The hundreds of casualties suffered by 30 FF and troops under command were staggered to show a dozen or so Casualties on odd days,

as from March till declared war, every unit suffered 10-12 casualties daily, due to mines, ambushes and enemy artillery fire. My sitreps of 26-31' Oct. 71, showing actual Casualties i.e. 4 officers, 3 JCOs, 61 ORs 30 FF and 89 ORs EPCAF/Razakars, Shaheed were amended at Eastern Command and number of casualties staggered over a long period.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Col. (Retd) Mukhtar, was born in 1928. Graduate of the Islamia College Peshawar. Commissioned Sept 1952 in 1st Pathan Regt (now 11 FF). In 1965 he fought all the three brigades of Indian 10 Div. commanded 30 FF in 1970. Commanded FF Centre in 1977. Retired in 1980. Presently Vice Chairman of Senior Citizen Forum (a registered NGO) Peshawar working for social welfare and eradication of evils.

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