Written By: Lt Gen Ali Kuli Khan (R)
This article recounts my experiences of 1971 in erstwhile East Pakistan and the Flight of 4th Army Aviation Squadron to Burma just prior to the surrender of our forces on December 16, 1971. It will be necessary to briefly recall some of the major happenings of the time, because it has been almost five decades since these events took place and our younger readers may not be familiar with the sequence of events which were precursors to the 1971 War and the subsequent emergence of Bangladesh. In December 1970, a devastating cyclone struck the East Pakistan in which millions of East Pakistanis either drowned or were uprooted from their homes. It was a colossal calamity which probably occurs once in a century. Unfortunately, despite Pakistan Government’s best efforts towards disaster management and the sympathetic support of almost the whole world, the devastation was so widespread and enormous that the overall impact of the rehabilitation efforts were considered grossly inadequate. These conditions allowed India to exploit the growing dissatisfaction amongst the affected populace to the detriment of East Pakistan.
The Pakistani general election of 1970 and its aftermath provided further grist for India to advance its nefarious designs against Pakistan. Resultantly, by March 26, 1971 East Pakistan was in the throes of a full scale rebellion/civil war against the Federation of Pakistan. In February 1971, India further added to Pakistan’s woes when her well planned ‘Ganga Hijacking Conspiracy’ gave her the opportunity to ban all Pakistani inter-wing flights over Indian territory. This greatly handicapped West Pakistan’s ability to reinforce its East Wing and counter India’s diabolical moves.
My involvement with the 1971 events started on April 8, 1971 when I, along with six army aviators, was ordered to immediately move to Dhaka and reinforce the Flight of 4th Army Aviation Squadron. At that time there were conflicting stories circulating regarding the fighting in East Pakistan and we did not know what to expect. On April 10, we took off from Karachi on a PIA flight and arrived at Dhaka around 2 a.m. Against our expectations, there was total peace at the airport. With some difficulty we located the Flight Headquarters nearby and settled down till such time our Squadron buddies woke up.
In the post-election period, political environment in East Pakistan was fast becoming hostile to the Government of Pakistan and the landing of Pakistani aircraft in an unsecured place was fraught with grave danger but after the action of March 25, 1971 it had become suicidal.
Helicopters have more moving parts than fixed-wing aircraft because of which they not only require more maintenance but are also more prone to malfunctions. In case of an emergency, larger helicopters in comparison to small helicopters are more difficult to auto-rotate/land safely.
Communication aids are essential for safe navigation of aircraft. Unfortunately, these aids were almost non-existent in East Pakistan. The absence of these navigation aids meant that Pakistani aircraft flying in East Pakistan had to resort to ‘Dead Reckoning’ which to say the least, was a very dangerous handicap.
Once open war was declared, the absence of navigational aids when coupled with the total Indian air superiority restricted Pakistani helicopters to only low-level night flying, which was akin to flying blind. When all these handicaps are put together, it created a near suicidal flying environment. In such a dangerous flying environment, it was nothing short of a providential miracle of Almighty Allah that Pakistani helicopters and the crew came out unscathed from the operations in East Pakistan.
I flew my first mission as a co-pilot on a MI-8 to Pabna in the northwest of Dhaka. Apparently, after the initial fighting at Dhaka on March 26, the Army troops had fanned out in different directions to quell rioting in the outlying areas. The flight to Pabna was uneventful and we returned to Dhaka by the afternoon.
Apart from the routine liaison, supply, and casualty evacuation missions, Heliborne Operations were the main type of duties, which the Army Aviation undertook during this period. In the Heliborne Operations, we transported Special Services Group (SSG) and Infantry troops for assault operations in difficult and inaccessible areas of the East Pakistani riverine terrain. Brief details of the prominent Heliborne Operations are given below: -
• Bhairab Bridge. This was a large prominent bridge on River Brahmaputra, which was strongly held by the rebels of East Bengal Regiment (EBR). Its early capture was important because all road communications to the North East ran through this bridge. A Heliborne Operation employing SSG and Army Aviation, with the PAF in support, was planned and such was the stealth and shock of the assaulting troops that the well dug in defenders were very quickly overwhelmed. The surprise was so complete that the defenders were unable to actuate the reserved demolitions and the bridge was captured intact.
Some smaller Heliborne Operations were also undertaken to overcome rebel positions at Patuakhali, Barisal and Khulna.
• Belonia. It is a small indentation on the International Border near Feni, which was occupied by an East Bengal Battalion. This position was an extremely well-prepared defensive position and was the last surviving rebel position within the territory. The position was so strong that earlier it had thwarted attempts by two regular Pakistan Army battalions to evict them. Finally, a small heliborne force of two ad hoc SSG and infantry platoons were put together and heli-dropped at night in the middle of this strongly held battalion position. The enemy troops were so taken aback by this daring operation that they literally ran away and abandoned some of their weapons and wireless sets. This successful operation was undertaken in June 1971, and was the last position which had been illegally declared as Bangladeshi territory after the rebellion of March 25, 1971.
By August ‘71 the Mukti Bahini and the rebel East Bengal Battalions had regrouped and with the close support of regular Indian Army troops again began making incursions inside the territory of East Pakistan. By October, almost two regular Indian Divisions had attacked Khulna, Comilla and Jessore Sectors and despite dogged defence of the thinly spread Pakistani troops, gradually achieved fairly deep penetrations inside Pakistani territory.
On December 2-3, 1971 all-out war was declared between India and Pakistan and as a result of the complete Indian air superiority; Pakistani Army aviators were compelled to resort to Nap-of-the-Earth night flying. This presented its own set of difficulties but I am proud to mention that we all coped most admirably with these difficult conditions.
We rested during the day and in the evening, our Commanding Officer (CO) visited the Eastern Command Headquarters to receive orders for our missions for the night. Sadly, the war was not progressing in Pakistan’s favour but all of us fulfilled our missions with great success. This routine continued till the fateful evening of December 15/16. When our Commanding Officer returned from Eastern Command Headquarters he brought the news that the surrender ceremony was to take place the next day at 11 a.m. and as such we were to prepare our helicopters for demolition at night. After we recovered from the shock, we suggested to our Commanding Officer that all of us were ready to escape from East Pakistan towards Burma or Nepal and as he should get us permission from Eastern Command Headquarters for this.
The Commanding Officer returned in a short while with an affirmative answer and after some discussions we decided to attempt the escape to Burma, which was agreed upon. The rest of the night was spent making last minute preparations. Our instructions were that every helicopter was to have one set of pilots and one crew chief/mechanic. Also, that this information was not to be shared with anyone else and that Eastern Command would undertake to inform our passengers consisting of women and children.
Since our helicopters were dispersed all over Dhaka Cantonment, it took us 10 to 15 minutes from our residences to reach these parked helicopters. This journey in vehicles was always very perilous because we encountered numerous nervous sentries enroute who were quite ready to fire at the smallest provocation.
For this journey to Akyab (Burma) on December 16, our helicopter was second in the order of take-off. Regrettably, since our helicopter was slightly damaged it was not cleared to carry any load; when we reached our helicopter we found ten women and children already sitting in the helicopter. We tried to explain the situation to them but they did not much care for what we said and replied that since we were taking the risk of flying this helicopter, they would also do so. A brave but wise decision which we accepted and proceeded as per plan. After approximately three hours plus of nervous low level flying we recognized Akyab Airfield but before landing we made a detour over the sea to dump our weapons and sensitive papers in the sea. After landing at Akyab, when I came out of the helicopter I was met by an armed Burmese soldier who enquired in Urdu if I was a Pakistani and a Muslim; when I replied in the affirmative he greeted me with an “Assalam-o-Alaikum” and smilingly informed me that he also was a Muslim and his name was Mustafa Kamal. He was probably a Muslim from Arakan, whom we have recently recognized as Rohingyas.
Within an hour and a half of our touchdown three other MI-8s and three Alouette-3s also landed at Akyab. We were a total of approximately 170 uninvited Pakistanis (mostly women and children) who had landed at Akyab.
All of us thanked Almighty Allah for our safe journey and having been saved the ignominy of being taken as Indian/Bangladeshi Prisoners of War (POW). Soon, an official of the Pakistani Consulate at Akyab arrived at the airport to take care of us. The Burmese Government was most kind to us and after three days the women and children were flown to Rangoon and another three days later they were repatriated to Pakistan. The men were kept in Akyab for a week after which we were allowed to fly our helicopters (under Burmese guards) to their Air force Base at Meiktila. We left our helicopters at Meiktila and were then taken in a Burmese Air Force aircraft to Rangoon. While at Rangoon, we were free to move around the city and make our first contacts with our families in Pakistan. After three weeks in Rangoon, a PIA aircraft was diverted to Rangoon, which took us all back to Pakistan. Thus ended our eventful sojourn of 1971 in the East Pakistan.
In all the tragedy that befell Pakistan in the fateful year of 1971 and the grossly unfair circumstances that our countrymen and soldiers faced, I am very grateful to Almighty Allah that He saved us all the ignominy of surrender to India/Mukti Bahini/Bangladesh. I am also proud to have been a member of 4th Army Aviation Squadron, the only Unit of Pakistan Army in East Pakistan which did not surrender. The soldiers and officers of Pakistan Army fought bravely and sacrificed their lives, but could not win the war fought under most unfavourable conditions. In all humility, I pray to Almighty Allah for presenting an opportunity for Pakistan to redress this slur from our history. Ameen.
Lt Gen Ali Kuli Khan (R) Commanded 10 Corps and Retired as Chief of General Staff, Pakistan Army.