DEFENCE NOTES

The Battle of Khulna

(10-17 Dec. 1971)


Brig (Retd) MUHAMMAD HAYAT recounts an epic saga of bravery by his isolated force in KHULNA, then EAST PAKISTAN

The brave and gallant deeds of the officers and men of the Pakistan Force who defended Khulna from 10 to 17 December 1971 are briefly recounted below. My primary object is to pay homage to those Shaheeds who are now lying in unmarked graves in and around Khulna (now a foreign land) and hope it will provide some solace and satisfaction to the relations of those Shaheeds. This article is also meant to salute the living veteran officers and men whose valour and sacrifices have given me pride as their commander at the time. The secondary purpose is explained in the following paragraph.

"Kill two birds with one stone" so the dictum goes! Some of my friends have been imploring me for a long time, that I should pass on my accounts of 1971 war for the benefit of the coming generation. So my friends, here is the first instalment.

I have chosen to narrate the battle of Khulna first. Though this was the last battle, yet it is the most epoch-making battle of my Brigade operations in the erstwhile East Pakistan. Secondly, being the last battle even the Indian commanders and historians have only published brief accounts of it. For they were carried away by the events of mass surrenders taking place elsewhere at the time. The foreign war correspondents who were accompanying the Indian Forces around Khulna had mostly rushed to Dacca to cover the big event of surrender, while this battle was raging with great intensity on 16 and night of 16/17 December. There were no Pakistani war correspondents nor has any Pakistani officer who participated in the battle has narrated or published his accounts. Hence detailed and authentic Pakistani version of this battle has not come on record. I hope this brief account of mine will fill in the void to some extent. These are some of the reasons that I have undertaken to narrate the battle of Khulna first, while, the other operations of the Brigade will be narrated in due course of time, Insha Allah.

The formations and units of both sides who took part in this battle are listed below. This will make it easy for the reader to follow the battle.

Indian Forces Pak Forces
9 Indian Infantry Division with under command; 107 Brigades with under command;
a. 32 Brigade=4 Battalions
b. 42 Brigade=3 Battalions
c. 350 Brigades=4 Battalions
d. 45 Para Brigade less Battalion in reserves
e. Divisional Artillery Brigade

f. Corps medium artillery regiment (130 mm guns)
g. 63 Cavalry Regiment (T-55 tanks)
h. Two squadrons 45 Cavalry (PT 76 amphibian tanks
I. Two Eng: battalions equipped with light alloy bridging equipment

j. One mechanized armoured battalion (7 Punjab)

k. Five border security force (BSF) battalions

a. 6 Punjab Regiment
b. 12 Punjab Regiment
c. 15 FFR
d. 22 FFR

e. 21 Punjab, (R & S) two companies only
f. Two M 24 Chafee Tanks 

g. 55 Field Regiment Artillery (Only  15 field guns)
h. No. 7 Engineer company of 10  Engineer Battalion.
I. One wing East Pakistan Civil Armed Forces (EPCAF) and Raza Kars
j. 150 Bengali Volunteers of Al-Shams (Students Organization of Jamate Islami)

 

Normal Divisional complements of services and administrative units. No air support
IAF air Sorties, ground support and intense interdiction Daylight movement impossible

a. A brigade of Mukti Bhaini
b. Bulk of the Bengali population was hostile to us

No intelligence about enemy plans or operations. Local sources no longer reliable.

Deployment of troops (see sketch)

On the afternoon of 10 December 1971 the above Forces came face to face outside Phultala, a town 17 K.M. north of Khulna. The Indians were poised for attack while we were deployed for defence. The main deployment of 107 Pak. Brigade and attached troops were as under:- (see sketch).

a. Two companies of 15 FFR and a company of 21 Punjab with Recoilless Rifles (R & S) under overall command of Major Nazar. He was an experienced and veteran officer of 21 Punjab. These troops were deployed at Phultala astride the main road.

b. 12 Punjab Regiment was deployed in the vicinity of Miksimil facing due west.

c. 15 FFR was holding position left of road at Daulatpur just north of Khulna.

d. 6 Punjab Regiment was holding position right of Road at Daulatpur.

e. 22 FFR was covering south with the major task to launch a deliberate counter attack on 6 Punjab and 15 FFR position.

f. 55 field Artillery Regiment was deployed in the middle so that it can cover all positions.

g. A wing of EPCF and Al-Shams were holding the river line in the south to prevent any river crafts coming up the river. This force was under command Major Nasibullah (Shaheed).

h. An Engineers Platoon was at the jetty with some Al-Shams personnel to patrol the river. The remaining company was laying mines and making obstacles on roads and tracks in front of main defence.

i. All the civilian inland water transport vessels were impounded.

The position occupied at Phultala was a screen position. The screen position is meant to impose delay on the enemy for specific time thus allowing time for the main force to prepare its defenses. Major Nazar had deployed his force in a sound tactical manner. All the likely approaches were mined and enemy assembly area were mined and booby trapped. These places were also registered as artillery and 3" mortars targets. Extensive and aggressive patrolling at night were carried out. The enemy tried to rush the screen position after midnight 10/11 December with support of heavy artillery fire but was effectively repulsed. We suffered a few causalities. Captain Bilal (Shaheed) of 15 FFR was adjusting his forward most position and was killed in action. Night 10/11 December was, thereafter mostly used by the enemy to probe the flanks of our screen position in order to make flanking manoeuvre. The right flank of this position was resting on river Bhairab in the east whereas its left flank on the West, was effectively covering a track leading out of Phultala towards the south-west. The enemy therefore perforce had to launch frontal attack along the Phultala-Khulna road so as to effect an opening.

A powerful infantry attack support by heavy tanks of 63 Cavalry and a mechanized company of 7 Punjab was launched at dawn on 11 December. The enemy had wrongly appreciated the Phultala screen position as our main brigade position, he therefore in addition to artillery, tanks and mechanized elements also employed considerable air support. The entire screen position was subjected to heavy artillery and air bombardment from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. When assaulting troops supported by tanks appeared, our recoilless rifles came into action. They knocked out two enemy tanks within minutes. Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC) of the enemy 7 Punjab Regiment which were following closely behind the tanks quickly withdrew towards the rear. The infantry assault automatically petered out with heavy losses. Captain Mehboob of R & S company was seriously wounded. A Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) and 12 men were also wounded. Maj. Nazar was confident of holding the enemy at bay. The enemy became quite cautious. This little breathing time that we gained was a God sent opportunity and we fully utilized it to our advantage in developing and strengthening our defence at Daulatpur and Khulna.

During the afternoon enemy tried to take a mechanized column from behind Phultala towards the South-West on a track leading to village Pipral. Our gunners and strong standing patrols from 15 FFR stopped this column. By evening, 11 December, this enemy column was back in Phultala.

During night 11/12 December there was intense activity in the rear area of the enemy which we appreciated to be preparation for a major attack on Phultala screen position. Enemy was also reported to be making a crossing on the Bhairab river toward the east. This was later confirmed to be 42 Indian Brigade and some PT 76 tanks, but this did not unduly disturb our screen position. The officers and troops in this position deserve the highest compliments for their tenacity and spirit in continuing to occupy their trenches. At midnight, the enemy mounted a strong infantry raid on the positions along the road. This raid was beaten back. At 10 AM. on 12th December the enemy mounted his third attack on the center of the screen position. We unfortunately suffered heavy casualties. Two of our officers were wounded (Major Eizaz and Lieut. Tariq Ahmad Hussain of 15 FFR). We were left with Major Nazar and an artillery officer who showed no anxiety about the situation. The two wounded officers and 12 men could not be evacuated because of the enemy strafing and shelling on the road. The screen position had achieved its purpose by this time. No re-adjustments were therefore required.

At 4 p.m. on 12 December orders to Major Nazar were issued to withdraw to the main position starting after last light. They were to make a clean break with enemy by midnight 12/13 December. Withdrawl operation when in close contact with the enemy is a most difficult operation. There is every likelihood of this operation turning into a running battle resulting into great confusion. Major Nazar was a seasoned officer and he saw to it that withdrawl was meticulously regulated. Soon after last light the wounded were dispatched to the Main Dressing Station established by our Field Ambulance at Khulna. Here surgical operations could be carried out under field conditions. After the wounded were cleared. Thinning out of heavy weapons followed by infantry was started. During the dark hours, the enemy usually kept on bringing heavy concentration of artillery prediction fire on to the road to harass our troops and prevent smooth replenishment and evacuation of wounded. Fortunately very little damage was done to our vehicles and the troops on the road. Soon after midnight the screen position had stealthily withdrawn out to the main position. An observation patrol of one section was left with wireless set and an artillery observer till dawn 13 December so as to pass on information about any follow up by the enemy.

The memorable screen position battle at Phultala from 10-12 December was over. This temporary position withstood three major attacks and in process suffered 100 casualties with most of the officers either killed or seriously wounded. It provided the badly needed time for the main defence at Khulna. A few minutes before the first light the enemy launched a full scale Brigade attack on the vacant screen position. This showed how stealthily we had vacated the screen position. The enemy must have been disappointed to discover that our stratagem was successful. This screen position battle was fought by a composite force of less than a battalion. It should therefore be recorded and recognized as a celebrated operation.

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