Written By: Tariq Burki
From the diary of an infantry officer who participated in the war on Eastern Front as a Captain
Our troops deployed ahead of us were continuously repulsing enemy attacks and were raising the slogans of “Naara-e-Takbeer – Allah o Akbar” and “Pakistan Zindabad”. These slogans raised our morale and filled us with excitement and enthusiasm to confront the enemy. We asked for volunteers to place mines under enemy tanks and fire rockets at them from close ranges. These were to be suicidal missions. A number of soldiers volunteered themselves for the task.
Indeed, the greatest fantasy a soldier may have is to face the enemy in battle and pitch his skills against him. The soldiers with no practical experience of a real battlefield, often wonder what it would be like to be in actual combat. Likewise, ever since my induction in the army, I was also curious about the real feel of war. And more importantly, to know where we stood as an Army, as far as professionalism, dedication and courage were concerned. My father had the bitter experience of being part of a war which was ultimately lost. He and his comrades in the field were not responsible for the political and diplomatic reasons which ultimately pushed East Pakistan towards separation and brought about the defeat of Pakistani forces in the Eastern Theatre. Yet, they were destined to experience the agony of a defeat and the humility of a surrender. Pakistan Army was, however, made up of courageous, devoted officers and men, who despite being aware of the situation on ground, did not hesitate to sacrifice their lives for the motherland. History will not judge them by the yardstick of victory or defeat but by that of their devotion, selflessness and sacrifice. All these sons of the soil deserve recognition and our gratitude.
My father, Major (retired) Muhammadi Shah, was part of 15 FF Regiment during the war on Eastern Front, as a Captain, with hardly two years of service. Despite having a rural background, he somehow adopted the habit of maintaining a diary, which he regularly updated with his day-to-day observations and experiences. Being very young, whereas it would not be realistic to expect a mature analysis of the war as a whole, or the national policy thereof, his observations, feelings and experiences as a subaltern, could be of value and interest to our young officers.
15 FF Regiment was employed in Khulna/Jessore area in East Pakistan. The unit had the honour of having continued operating even after the bulk of the army surrendered under the instructions from the General Headquarters, on December 16, 1971. The regiment did not make part of the surrender ceremony and subsequently handed itself over on December 18, 1971, after having destroyed/disposed of its weapons and equipment at will. In succeeding paragraphs, I have tried to reproduce few of the experiences of my father during the said war. These have been extracted from his personal diary which he maintained from the beginning of the war till the final days.
Events of 1971 War
September 19, 1971:
We moved to Karachi from Lahore, by train, as part of the Advance Party.
September 26, 1971:
We moved from Dhaka to Khulna, by Steamer, at 1130 hours.
September 27, 1971:
Reached Khulna at 1600 hours local time and boarded a train for Jessore which dropped us at Jessore at 1800 hours.
September 29, 1971 (Jessore):
Went for reconnaissance of the area where we had to take up defensive positions. Returned from the reconnaissance on the same day.
October 7, 1971 (Jessore):
Additional troops started reaching Jessore from West Pakistan by C-130.
October 16, 1971:
After completing handing/taking over of stores with 25 Baloch, moved to Satkhira, where our B Echelon was located.
November 19, 1971:
Curfew imposed in Satkhira.
November 22, 1971:
One of our soldiers, Sepoy Isra Khan and an East Pakistani volunteer, embraced shahadat due to enemy fire. We had our first contact with Muktis, and killed 5 Muktis in the encounter. Could not sleep the whole night due to cold weather.
November 23, 1971:
We are improving our defensive positions on daily basis. Remained busy in liaising with the neighbouring
November 26, 1971:
Killed one Mukti through sniping.
November 30, 1971:
Killed four Muktis across the river.
December 4, 1971:
Indian fighter planes crossed the international border. We could see them flying above our area.
December 8, 1971:
Jessore falls to the enemy. All troops deployed ahead of us thus fell back. We kept waiting for the enemy’s arrival at night. At 0030 hours, enemy reached our location. As per the instructions, we moved back to a new position in order to be able to take up defences at a more defensible ground and to be in a position to attrite the enemy.
December 9, 1971:
At around 0200 hours, reached at a new position in front of Khulna. Took some rest at the new defensive position. In the morning, sited some riflemen trenches and digging started. Occasionally the enemy fighter aircraft kept visiting our position. We observed that they were closely followed by our aircraft, but they were probably informed of the arrival of PAF fighters by their radars, and thus before the arrival of PAF jets, they used to make an escape towards their side of the international border. In any case, we carried on with the preparation of our defences uninterrupted as the enemy was still far away. The next night those deployed ahead of us came back. One of our companies was deployed ahead of us as a screen.
December 10, 1971:
Lieutenant Tariq from our unit, along with two sepoys, got injured and were sent back. Our troops deployed ahead of us were continuously repulsing enemy attacks and were raising the slogans of “Naara-e-Takbeer – Allah-o-Akbar” and “Pakistan Zindabad”. These slogans raised our morale and filled us with excitement and enthusiasm to confront the enemy. We asked for volunteers to place mines under enemy tanks and fire rockets at them from close ranges. These were to be suicidal missions. A number of soldiers volunteered themselves for the task. Everyone decided that this would be the last line, beyond which the enemy will not be allowed to advance. Although we had been ordered to move to this position as part of an overall plan, yet, the fighting soldiers were not satisfied with the arrangement, as they were not privy to the overall strategic thought-process going on at the Eastern Command level. When these troops were offered an opportunity to sacrifice their lives, while preventing enemy tanks from advancing, smiles came to their faces spontaneously. The enemy planes attacked our positions five times during the day, but by the grace of Almighty Allah none of our soldiers were injured. At around 1100 hours, we heard explosions and shelling behind us in the direction of Khulna. In the evening we came to know that two enemy boats, with Pakistani flags fixed over them (as deception), entered our area. Meanwhile, enemy aircraft also arrived and then the boats and the aircraft jointly attacked our positions. In the engagement, the enemy lost one of its aircraft and one out of the two boats. Our troops captured the other boat and made two officers and fourty eight other Indian Navy personnel Prisoners of War (POWs). At around 1700 hours, the enemy came into contact with our company deployed in front of us. Artillery shelling started along with intense automatic fire. Till morning, the enemy had launched four attacks, all of which had been repulsed. Captain Ahmad Bilal, who volunteered to go to the front, engaged a tank with a rocket launcher while standing out of his trench. He received three bullets in his chest and embraced shahadat.
December 11, 1971:
We had made contact with the enemy on December 10. We destroyed three enemy tanks on the same day. Intense enemy artillery shelling and small arms fire commenced early in the morning. By now we had become indifferent to the enemy shelling. We only had a paddy field in front of us. It was an open area. Just about 2000 yards ahead of us, our troops were engaged with the enemy. We could see the smoke rising from the destroyed enemy tanks and could also hear the “Naara-e-Takbeer” and “Pakistan Zindabad” slogans of our colleagues. We were eager to find out what was going on at the front and were watching through binoculars, but owing to thick vegetation, we could see nothing. The shelling continued throughout the day and night.
December 12, 1971:
In the morning, we could hear the sounds of automatic fire and artillery shelling from all directions. But despite this, everyone was in high spirits. Everyone was ready to sacrifice. We were all determined to fight till the last man, last bullet. We all wished to make history on this front. The shelling continued in intervals and enemy fighter aircraft were also flying over our positions four to five times a day. In the evening, intense enemy shelling commenced, followed by an attack, which was successfully repulsed. Our troops kept raising the slogans of “Naara-e-Takbeer” and “Pakistan Zindabad”. Around 0030 hours, the same night, enemy launched another attack under the cover of intense artillery shelling. The attack was repulsed. The enemy attacked again at 0430 hours, but could not dare to advance in our area. During this night, the enemy shelled the area so much that in the morning the whole ground in front of us was dotted with shell craters. A number of local civilians and cattles died due to the shelling. A number of houses were also destroyed. Two of our men got minor injuries. We found a Bihari whose throat had been slit, surely by Muktis.
December 13, 1971:
Sporadic shelling continued. Enemy fighter aircraft often flew over our defences, but being unable to identify our positions, returned without any engagement. At 1230 hours, enemy aircraft attacked our position with rockets and machine guns but could not cause any damage or casualties. The enemy aircraft rocketed their own positions also (probably by mistake), after which smoke could be seen rising from the area. The enemy kept engaging our positions with artillery, but at a very slow fire rate. In the evening, however, the shelling commenced with such intensity that one felt as if the rounds were being fired from a machine gun. The enemy tried to launch an attack under the cover of this intense bombardment. We opened artillery and mortar fire in response. One could hear the sounds of shelling and automatic fire in all directions. The enemy attack was repulsed. Intense enemy shelling continued for 15 minutes. At night, the enemy kept firing one odd round, which had a sedative effect on us and we fell asleep. The enemy used air, artillery and armour in succession. When artillery would pause, tank fire would commence and when tanks would take a break, air would start engagement. Despite all this, somehow we managed to have a sound sleep and were in high spirits. At around 1130 hours, five Gnat fighter aircraft of the enemy attacked our positions with rockets, machine gun fire and bombing. They attacked our position five times, but failed to cause any casualty. At around 2100 hours, enemy attacked again under the cover of heavy artillery shelling but the attack was repulsed. During the attack, our artillery fired star shells which illuminated the whole area in front of us and we were able to engage the enemy with accurate fire. The enemy would turn on the tank engines, move them forward a bit and then pull them back, just to demoralize our troops. But our troops, despite knowing that they were surrounded by the enemy, were in unbelievably high spirits. The area where the enemy wished to make a dent, was so heavily shelled that it appeared as if the land over there had been turned upside down. Had the enemy troops been exposed to such a volume of fire, they would probably have even doffed their uniforms, considering them heavy, and fled away. Mysteriously, despite this intense artillery shelling, we did not suffer any significant damage. After having failed to make any breakthrough, the enemy attacked the unit on our flank at around 0730 hours (December 15) but the enemy did not achieve anything there either except failure and disappointment.
December 15, 1971:
On this front, the enemy had so far lost around 500 men and hundreds must have been wounded (the communication through wireless sets indicate these losses). Today again at 0715 hours, the enemy started shelling our positions with artillery as well as mortars. The enemy guns took a break at 0900 hours. Mortars continued engaging our positions at a very slow rate. Enemy aircraft flew over our positions ten times, but except for sporadic rocket and machine gun fire, did not cause much damage. SU-7 aircraft also flew over our positions for the first time. At 1740 hours the enemy artillery started engaging our positions and the fire continued through the night.
Captain Arjumand Yar Khand, 15 FF Regiment mentioned later in this article, embraced shahadat on this day (December 15, 1971). Here's a narration of his brave fight and ultimate martyrdom, by Brigadier Mehboob Qadir:
“Captain Arjumand Yar Khand1 was a young and very handsome, rather feminish, officer from an infantry unit. He was known as the ‘baby of the battalion’. He was assigned the task of setting up a strong delaying position2 ahead of this defensive position to cause as much attrition and loss of time on the advancing enemy as possible. This officer, along with a handful of men, held his ground against repeated Indian armor and infantry assaults, hours of air bombing and straffing for nearly three days just as Headquarters Eastern Command was negotiating terms of surrender with Calcutta. On the third day, Arjumand’s delaying position was overrun after a pitched battle; not a soul returned. That day probably on December 15th, we received orders from Eastern Command to surrender. Brigadier ‘Makhmad’ Hayat refused to obey this order and we fought on for the next three days till literally the last bullet was left in our rifle chambers. We were facing 9 Indian Mountain Division whose officers told us the story of the incomparable bravery of Arjumand and his men after the war was over. During three days of pitched battle his men were being killed and seriously wounded, machine guns and anti-tank guns were being knocked out one after the other but Arjumand and his small force stood fast. On the last day Arjumand was the only one left in the delaying position. His men were either all killed or seriously wounded. Attacking Sikh infantry surrounded his trench and asked him to surrender as he was profusely bleeding from his shattered legs that had probably absorbed a direct Mortar shell hit. In dire need of medical aid, he refused. After a lot of persuasion he finally agreed. With one hand he lifted his weapon and with the other he was about to lob a hand grenade when they spotted him and had to kill him. This fearless young officer died fighting extremely bravely; so much so that even the enemy was full of praises for him. They had buried him with honor.”3
December 16, 1971:
The enemy shelling continued till morning. The battalion on our right withdrew after having caused significant damage to the enemy. After the withdrawal of the said battalion, the enemy encircled us and cut our route of withdrawal from behind. Around 1115 hours, while I was in D Company, busy in liaison, an order was received to move a platoon from D Company to the depth location. After about five minutes another order was received that the whole of D Company was to be moved to another location. I started moving towards my own company which was about 600 yards from D Company's location. After having moved for about 400 yards, I saw my buddy approaching me from the direction of my platoon location. He told me that my platoon had been ordered to move to the location of the Company Headquarters. I reached my platoon Headquarters, and found my platoon ready to move. When I reached at the location of the Company Headquarters, the Company Headquarters had already left the place. I enquired about further orders on wireless and was asked to move backwards, staying away from the road. I was not aware of the situation at that moment. On the route which I adopted during my move back, I could hear some artillery shelling and automatic fire. I therefore adjusted my route a bit. I could, however, make out from this fire that the enemy had cut our route of withdrawal. The shells were landing at a distance of about 400-500 yards away from us. I increased my speed. There were two routes available. One passed through a forest, which was being engaged by the enemy with artillery and the other one passed through a marshy area, with paddy fields. We adopted the route passing through the paddy fields. While moving through the marshes, an artillery shell landed in the middle of my troops but no one got hurt. I got worried considering that probably the enemy Observation Post had located our movement. I was also concerned about my troops, as there was neither any cover available from air observation, nor could we run for safety in case of an air attack. It was difficult even to carry our equipment and luggage in these marshes, carrying a casualty would have been an uphill task. Initially, everyone tried to move as fast as possible and clear this open, coverless patch as quickly as possible, but very soon everyone got exhausted and the pace became slower. Meanwhile, enemy fired four more rounds on the field which we were crossing but luckily no one got hurt. By around 1230 hours, we were able to reach the forest, after having crossed the marshy patch. I gathered my men, took some rest and asked for further instructions from the Company Headquarters. We were asked to report at a certain location on the road. On my way back, I came across my Commanding Officer and 2nd-in-Command. They asked me to give my troops some rest in the Khulna High School. In the meantime, I accompanied Commanding Officer and the 2nd-in-Command to reconnoiter my new company position. It was around 1300 hours. After having chosen my new defensive position, I deployed my company there. The trenches were already available in the position. Then I went to the Battalion Headquarters. There I had conversation with other officers of the battalion and we discussed the overall situation. I stayed at the Battalion Headquarters till the evening. Our men kept getting out of the enemy encirclement. At around 1500 hours, we received the news of ceasefire. We were ordered not to fire unless the enemy attacked us. At 1730 hours, we reorganized A and C Companies and took stock of the injured and missing personnel. Four of our officers were inside the enemy’s encirclement. Owing to the deficiency of officers, I was appointed as Company Commander of C Company at 1800 hours. And I shifted from my company to C Company. We had given enemy a tough resistance and caused them numerous casualties, but after the fall of Dhaka, the Eastern Command appeared to be left with no option but to surrender.
December 17, 1971:
Around 2355 hours in the night, we received orders to leave our company position and move back to Battalion Headquarters. We prepared to surrender the next day (December 18) as per the instructions (but did not fail to destroy all weapon and equipment that we thought should not fall in to enemy hands).
Escape Attempt from POW Camp India:
My father was part of a small group of officers who dug an underground tunnel in order to escape from the Bareli Prisoner of War Camp, India. When one night’s digging was left and they were set to escape, the matter was reported by an insider to the Camp authorities, who came the next day and filled the whole tunnel, ruining the efforts made by the group over a period of several weeks. The story of this escape attempt was published in Sayyara Digest issue of September 1975 with the title “Surrender se Surang tak”.
December 18, 1973:
I came from India to Pakistan. I was the Luggage Officer and was travelling in an open truck, but due to excitement and happiness, I did not feel any cold. We were warmly received and were taken to the Reception Camp. There we had some tea, sweets and meat. I was having meat for the first time in two years (that too in abundance). We then moved to Lahore “A” Mess. There we were treated with love and care. After filling some forms we went to Captain Arjumand Yar Khand Shaheed’s house. I could not face his mother. Because, while leaving for East Pakistan, she had kissed the forehead of her son and myself, being his friend. I still remember how she had kissed her son. Probably her sixth sense had told her that her son will not return. I had seen this on her face. I shed tears in their house because I could not control myself. From her attitude and the way she talked, I am convinced of her greatness. She is indeed a great mother of a great son and a great nation.
Diplomatic chatter and political rhetoric does not interest soldiers as much as the dribble of artillery shells or the rumbling of air strikes. During wars, field soldiers seldom, if ever, bother themselves with what is going on at the strategic level. They are neither judgmental about the planning process nor comment on the orders. They struggle on the battlefield with whatever they have at their disposal to accomplish the assigned tasks. A host of circumstances, influencing the overall battlefield environment, may then ultimately bring about either the victory or defeat of an army. Even the most splendid armies in the history of mankind suffered reverses on the battlefield. British, Germans and Japanese, to name just a few, all have had their share of defeat at some stage of their histories. Armies learn from their and others’ mistakes and build on their strengths through a process of evolution. In the battle of Al-Jisr (Persian Campaign – October 634 AD), for example, during the era of Caliph Umar bin Khattab (R.A.), Muslims suffered a setback and were routed from the battlefield. The Muslim fighters, who had thus fled the battlefield, were concerned as to how Hazrat Umar (R.A.) would deal with them. But to their surprise and against all the expectations, to the contrary, he protected them, solaced them and honoured them, because he understood the circumstances at the battlefield in that particular war. The same army got refitted and continued the tide of Muslim conquests.
In 1971, our armed force fought a desperate war under impossible circumstances; in a battlefield entered with insufficient resources and an unreliable supply line from the outset. At several places, individual units fought isolated battles, despite having been encircled and cut off from their bases. Neither the incessant bombing, however, nor the poor supply conditions, nor the political and diplomatic failings, could affect their morale or waiver their resolve. They remained committed and steadfast till the last moment. With enemy in front and enemy at the back, they fought with honour, courage, dignity and professionalism; bearing the brunt of intense shelling and bombardment.
1 All we know about Captain Arjumand Yar Khand is from enemy’s mouth as neither he nor any of his men, returned from the post which they were assigned. He was recommended for Nishan-e-Haider, but the tragic end of the war shrouded the story of this hero of the nation, who did his best till the last of his breath for the defence of the motherland.
2 This delaying position was located in area Siramani on Khulna-Jessore road.
3 Mehboob Qadir, Fall from Grace, The Centre for Policy and Media Studies, (http://cpmspak.org/pdf/Fall%20from%20Grace.pdf)