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Sunday, December 05, 2021

The epic role of helicopter units in 1971 

In combat, the winners are always leaders with a vision, courage and the capability to get the best out of their soldiers

Written by Mandeep Singh Bajwa |
November 8, 2021 10:37:55 am
(From left): Lt Gen Sagat Singh, the undoubted architect of victory in Bangladesh; Air Vice Marshal Chandan Singh, MVC, VrC commander, helicopter operations in IV Corps in Bangladesh.

THIS IS the saga of the military genius of Lieutenant General Sagat Singh realised through the guts, professionalism and devotion to duty of helicopter pilots and ground crew, of risks taken and victory achieved. In the Bangladesh Campaign Sagat’s IV Corps was supposed to protect Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram from enemy attack. Any offensives it launched were in the nature of defensive posturing, to tie up enemy troops and distract attention from the main Indian attack to capture Dhaka to be launched by II Corps from the West. But Sagat had a greater understanding of resources and opportunities, and ways to marshal these for victory. He wanted to go for the enemy’s jugular — Dhaka — but kept his cards close to his chest.

Enter Group Captain Chandan Singh, then posted as commander of the transport base at Jorhat. A brilliant pilot and leader, used to taking calculated risks he had won a Vir Chakra for successfully carrying out a supply mission to troops in Ladakh in 1962 under heavy enemy fire. At the outbreak of war, he was detailed as the Air Force’s field commander with IV Corps which had no Tactical Air Centre for coordinating and controlling air support. Ultimately, under his and Sagat Singh’s planning and leadership, the helicopter force of 110, 111 and 105 Helicopter Units (HUs) airlifted enough troops and equipment, including mountain guns and ammunition, over the formidable, unfordable Meghna River to achieve victory.

IAF helicopters laden with troops landing at Narsingdi in the third heliborne operation.

The role of helicopter units

Our story begins with 110 HU at Kumbhirgram tasked for logistic support of the Army deployed on counter-insurgency operations in Mizoram and Tripura. It was equipped with eight Soviet Mi-4 medium-lift helicopters with Squadron Leader CS Sandhu in command. It had a number of inexperienced but enthusiastic pilots who were given rigorous training at low altitudes and at night. Initially the unit was flying communication, casevac and reconnaissance flights from Aizawl and Teliamura. The IAF had achieved total air supremacy by 6th December allowing our own aircraft to operate unhindered.

On December 6, 110 HU had concentrated at Agartala to be joined shortly by five Mi-4s from 105 HU ex-Chabua and 111 HU from Hashimara. The next day Chandan Singh ordered them to fly to Kailashahr Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) for a special operation. Two Pakistani brigades were in the Sylhet area threatening the fragile lines of communication between Silchar and Agartala which ran parallel to the border. Additionally, they could be withdrawn by road for the defence of the Dhaka Bowl. They had to be bottled up at Sylhet and their offensive potential diminished through a threat to their rear. Sagat envisaged that this could be achieved through vertical envelopment landing troops by helicopter.

Chandan Singh too had done meticulous planning. By noon the force was concentrated at Kailashahr along with a number of 200-litre additional fuel tanks. Thus began the helicopters’ epic war.

Gorkhas to the fore

4/5 Gorkha Rifles (FF), who were enjoying a brief period of rest and recuperation (R&R) after a tough battle, sprang to action on receiving orders. A total of 254 troops and 400 kgs of cargo were flown in between 3 and 5:45 PM in 22 sorties. By the time of the second sortie was completed, the enemy had taken up position and started firing at the aircraft with machine-guns. Chandan Singh was meanwhile orbiting the landing zone (LZ) in an armed Alouette helicopter, observing as well as attacking enemy positions. At 6 PM it was decided to cease air operations for the night.

There having been no time to plan their loads, 4/5 GR found themselves with just two companies, no heavy weapons, no high-frequency radio set and very little ammunition, food or water facing two well-entrenched and well-equipped Pakistani brigades . The perilous situation forced the battalion’s newly-appointed Adjutant (the commanding officer’s principal staff officer and coordinator of operations) to do some plain-speaking with Chandan Singh and Brigadier CA (Bunty) Quinn, the brigade commander. He even went to the extent of threatening to shoot them if the heli-lift was not resumed and his unit’s full complement of personnel, weapons and stores not provided to them. The young officer’s moral courage and his attachment to his battalion and his men made the senior officers do a rethink. A volunteer was called to undertake a hazardous night flight to Sylhet as a test case.

Flight Lieutenant Pushp Vaid, 110’s second-in-command, volunteered. Luckily the Forward Air Controller (FAC) on the ground, Flying Officer SC Sharma heard the helicopter and lit a fire for guidance. Vaid landed, dropped his load and flew back with enemy tracer bullets chasing him. This was the act that fetched him a Vir Chakra. His Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader Charanjit Singh Sandhu was also awarded a Vir Chakra for the same operation. The flights continued throughout the night and the next day. By 9th December the entire battalion and its stores plus supporting elements including two 75/24 howitzers with their ammunition had been dropped at Sylhet. The game was on!

A massive air effort was mounted to support the beleaguered Gorkhas. Hunters and Gnats launched air strikes to keep the Pakistanis’ heads down. An Otter and an Alouette from Kilo Flight were constantly overhead attacking targets. Replenishment of ammunition and rations was done by parachute from Caribous. All this immensely helped 4/5 GR in their incredible act of valour in not only containing a force six times their size but accepting their surrender a week later. The contribution to the ultimate victory by both infantry and helicopters was unsurmountable.

Further adventures now awaited the flyboys. The success of the Sylhet operation emboldened Sagat to go for his main chance – the capture of the nerve centre of enemy resistance, Dhaka. He proposed bypassing the impassable obstacles of terrain and the enemy through air assault. To put his plan into force the helicopter force lifted 4 Guards in the evening hours of 9th December from Brahmanbaria to Raipura across the formidable obstacle of the 5-km wide Meghna River, a distance of 25 km. The helilift continued throughout the night till 4 Guards and all their stores were safely across. It was another incredible achievement. IV Corps had bypassed the enemy’s 14 Division at Bhairab Bazaar and now had a clear run to Dhaka with no enemy troops in between. Fortune had indeed favoured the bold.

The incredible pilots

Sagat now wanted Chandan Singh and Sandhu’s intrepid flyboys to lift the rest of 311 Brigade plus the all-important artillery complement from Brahmanbaria but this time to be dropped off 20 km nearer Dhaka at Narsingdi. 75/24 mountain pack guns were broken down and transported by helicopter to provide fire support. Ten helicopters flew continuously on 11th, 12th and 13th December with infantrymen, guns, ammunition and equipment.

95 Mountain Brigade moving overland was investing Dhaka from the North with troops of 57 Mountain Division surrounding the capital from the East, North-East and South-East. Sagat now wanted Dhaka completely surrounded with 23 Infantry Division crossing the Meghna by helicopter at its widest part to cut off the capital from the South. This was by far the biggest air lift with 12 Mi-4s ferrying 2.408 troops and 73,230 kgs load of 23 Division from Daudkandi to Baidya Bazar, in Dhaka’s suburbs, a distance of 25 kms in 122 sorties flying a total of 62.20 hours on 14th and 15th December.

With Dhaka surrounded,  Pakistan Eastern Command had no option but to surrender in a historic ceremony on 16th December 1971. The helicopter force comprising 110, 111 and 105 HUs had proved their worth by carrying a total of over 6,000 troops and 2,02.810 kg of loads.
The Mi-4 helicopter performed magnificently. Engineers and technicians kept the helicopters airborne  with   very little resources. Sadly, the extraordinary contribution of the engineering staff was not recognized. Pilots were available round the clock sleeping whenever and wherever they could. Food was eaten when it was available. All pilots were raring to go. None of them ever pleaded to be excused on account of fatigue. They were truly magnificent! (Please contact the writer with your military story on msbajwa@gmail.com or 093161-35343)

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