Col Vijay Yeshvant Gidh (Retd)
As we commemorate the Golden Jubilee of India’s decisive victory in the Bangladesh Liberation 1971, one of the earliest battles fought in the eastern sector was at Garibpur.
The Battle of Garibpur fought on 21-22 November 1971 was the first major battle during the Indo-Pak War 1971, where a single infantry battalion 14 Punjab (Nabha Akal), ably supported by a squadron of armour and intimate fire support, successfully fought a Pakistani brigade.
The situation on the Indo-Pak border was worsening due to genocide by the Pakistan army in early 1971. In view of the military actions by the Mukti Bahini, Pakistani forays and provocations inside Indian territory increased, leading to Indian casualties. 14 Punjab (Nabha Akal) was concentrated near the international border in the Bayra sector, so as to successfully dominate the ‘No man’s land’ across the Kabadak River. By end November 1971, the enemy actions had reached a level where it became necessary to protect Indian interests by occupying selected enclaves in East Pakistan.
14 Punjab under the command of Lieutenant Colonel RK Singh was tasked to secure area of Garibpur by first light 21 November 1971. The unit was allotted ‘Charlie’ Squadron, 45 Cavalry consisting of 14 PT-76 tanks, platoon engineers under command and artillery support.
Located 6 kms inside East Pakistan in the Bayra salient, the hamlet of Garibpur lay astride the highway from India to Jessore via Chaugacha. It was an important crossroad for both nations. In the event of the full military option having to be exercised, own 9 Infantry Division had planned to secure Jessore, and one of its axis of advance was the Chaugacha – Jessore highway. Its capture created a road map for Indian forces to eventually defeat Pakistani troops in December 1971.
14 Punjab along with ‘Charlie’ Squadron, 45 Cavalry crossed the international border near Bayra and occupied Garibpur by last light 20 November 1971. The move of the unit was supposed to be a surprise, but following a skirmish with an enemy patrol the previous night, the Pakistanis were alerted of the impending attack.
There was just enough time for the Commanding Officer to issue orders on the radio to his Company Commanders and the Squadron Commander, ‘Charlie’ Squadron 45 Cavalry before the early winter set in. Companies were allocated their area of deployment. The defences were ready by first light 21 November 1971.
As visualized, the Garibpur position outflanked the Pakistani battalion at Chaugacha and there was violent response by Pakistani 107 Infantry Brigade to 14 Punjab’s entry across the Bayra salient at first light 21 November 1971.
At 0600 hours on 21 November, the enemy launched a brigade-size attack supported by a squadron of armour equipped with M24 Chaffee tanks. Possessing numerical superiority, the Pakistani troops were in a position to decimate the Indian intrusion. But the Punjab Battalion, known for its long history of valour rose to the occasion splendidly and thwarted the attack, ably supported by armoured squadron, 45 Cavalry, and intimate fire support by own artillery. The enemy momentum of attack was broken up by fire of Defensive Fire (SOS).
Two more infantry-tank attacks which followed later were similarly beaten back resulting in heavy casualties to the enemy. An attack on the Battalion Headquarters, 14 Punjab had to be also repulsed by close artillery support DF (SOS). By about 1030 hours 21 November, the enemy momentum of assault petered out and it was clear that Nabha Akal with its affiliated units had carried the day. The winter sun, now up through the rising fog, revealed large number of enemy casualties, which included 10 of enemy’s tanks destroyed and three abandoned in good condition. The killing ground was strewn with the debris of the assault, with the dead and weapons lying where they had fallen.
Around 0925 hours on 22 November 1971, three enemy F-86 Sabres strafed the battalion defences, knocking out one PT-76 tank and injuring some troops on the ground. Another air attack later at 1400 hours fared no better. At about 1425 hours, three more Pakistani aircraft roared in, when suddenly, four Indian Gnats appeared in the sky. In the first aerial combat between the two sides since the 1965 War, all three enemy aircraft were shot down in the ensuing dog-fight.
Two of the Pakistani pilots Flying Officers Khalil Ahmed and Parvez Mehdi Qureshi ejected safely but were captured by the Indian Army and treated as Prisoners of War. Own troops on the ground had an uninterrupted view of this air battle, which gave the battalion a tremendous fillip.
Once more the diminutive Indian Gnats flown by the Indian Air Force pilots had established their mastery over the Sabre jets. The result was that since the interception of the three Sabres over Bayra, the Pakistan Air Force stopped sending fighter-bombers to support own troops and the subsequent Indian formations were now free to continue their advance towards Jessore.
The Battle of Garibpur had many national and international repercussions and led to interesting results on both sides. Gen Yahya Khan declared a National Emergency in Pakistan on 23 November 1971 and complained to the UN about India violating the UN Charter.
At the tactical level, the battle forced the Pakistanis to vacate Chaugacha without a fight. Later, when the war was fully joined in early December 1971, this development resulted in own 9 Infantry Division to close up almost halfway up to Jessore, which was its initial objective.
The Battle of Garibpur was a decisive victory, where 14 Punjab and attached troops fought magnificently. It not only blunted a brigade-size attack supported by enemy armour and PAF, but in the process two Pakistani infantry battalions and an independent armoured squadron were badly mauled. It became known later through the prisoners taken that Pakistan’s 6 Punjab, elements of 21 Punjab, 22 Frontier Force and 3 Independent Armoured Squadron of Chaffee tanks made up the attacking force. Three enemy aircrafts were lost in the air battle, while 11 Chaffee tanks were destroyed and three captured in running condition; 300 enemy soldiers were killed or wounded. Own losses were 28 killed and 42 wounded; while four PT-76 tanks were destroyed.
The Battle of Garibpur brought a total of 40 well-deserved gallantry awards to the battalion, its affiliated troops and the IAF. While Lt Col RK Singh was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra (MVC), the unit earned another MVC (Subedar Malkiat Singh) posthumously, two Vir Chakras (VrC) and two Sena Medals. The attached troops won one MVC (Major DS Narang) posthumously, two VrCs and one Sena Medal. The three IAF Gnat pilots (Flight Lieutenants RA Massey and MA Ganapathy, and Flying Officer Don Lazarus) who shot down the Sabre jets were awarded a VrC each.
The Battle of Garibpur was the first main battle of the 1971 War, which was a significant military victory that blunted the enemy’s counter-attack capability. The extensive damage and heavy losses suffered in the first encounter left a significant impact on the Pakistan Army’s ensuing operations.
One of the main factors leading to the fall of erstwhile East Pakistan was the low morale of the Pakistani Armed Forces. While various factors are attributable to this lowering of morale, one major factor was the famous Battle of Garibpur.
However, the unit was denied a well-deserved award of Battle Honour ‘Garibpur’ Battle, since it was fought prior to commencement of hostilities on 03 December 1971. One of these Pakistani Chaffee tanks captured in running condition by 14 Punjab occupies a place of pride in the Punjab Regimental Centre at Ramgarh Cantonment, Jharkhand today.
(The author is an ex-Commanding Officer of 14 Punjab (Nabha Akal).
Col Vijay Yeshvant Gidh (Retd)