The Tangail Landings: A signal for victory
I travelled to Tura, the capital of Meghalaya, three times during the war as a representative of Tangail Mukti Bahini to bring arms and ammunitions. Brigadier Sanat Singh was my contact and host. He arranged my meetings with Gen Gill and Brigadier Klair during my first and second visit in June and July, respectively. During my third visit, I had the honour to meet Lt. Gen. Aurora, the GOC of the Eastern Command of the Indian Army, at the office of Gen Gill in Tura on November 7th.
In the meeting, Gen Aurora indicated that Indian paratroopers could be dropped in Tangail by the end of November or early December. He asked me to return to Tangail as soon as possible and make arrangements to secure an area so that Indian paratroopers could land safely. He also disclosed that several officers of the Indian Army would come to the liberated zones in Tangail and stay with us. We would be responsible for their security.
At the end of the meeting, General Aurora warned me that under no circumstance, should I share this information with anyone other than Kader Siddiqui. He further mentioned that I was the first Bangladeshi person privy to the details of this top secret military operation. He reminded me repeatedly of the importance of this message and asked me to comply accordingly.
As we shook hands to say goodbye, General Aurora mentioned, “This is the Liberation War of your motherland. I am certain you will be able to make good on your promise to your country. I hope to see you in Tangail.”
I evaluated my meeting with Gen Aurora as a signal for our impending victory.
Accordingly, an Indian officer crossed the border and arrived in Tangail. He was perhaps the first Indian Army officer to infiltrate more than one hundred miles into the Bangladesh free zone before the war started. I met him on 3 December in Baroiotol, a village on the Dhaleshwari River near Bhuapur. He introduced himself as Peter and we exchanged passwords. I came to know that he was a Captain in the Indian Army and that he was a Bengali from Kolkata. He had arrived in the free zone just a night earlier, escorted by five freedom fighters, three of whom were trained wireless set operators. His mission was to contact Kader (Tiger) Siddiqui and select the strategic locations for the landing of the Indian paratroopers. All relevant information was to be sent back to his controlling headquarter.
The next morning, Kader left to oversee the massive preparation for the impending attacks. On December 7, Peter and I left the boat and camped by the side of Nikrail School. Kader showed up in our camp. He formally put me in charge of communication regarding all subsequent attacks and placed one hundred fifty freedom fighters under my command. My job was to coordinate communication among the different companies, to maintain constant contact with Kader, and to help Peter in his work. Kader's presence and the news of India's recognition of Bangladesh created a feverish excitement amongst the people. After the evening prayers, thousands of people assembled at the school ground. Kader gave a passionate speech.
Captain Peter was deeply impressed by the large turnout, and the support and enthusiasm of the population. We left Nikrail to move towards Ghatail. We reached West of Ghatail by early morning on December 9 and set up a temporary camp at the house of Abdul Halim Chowdhury. With Madhupur captured, the road for the Indian Army to move from Jamalpur to Tangail was clear and Captain Peter relayed this information to his command.
On the morning of December 10, Brigadier Kader Khan's troops, after their defeat at Jamalpur and Mymensingh, were fleeing towards Dhaka.
That afternoon (December 11), Peter received a coded message from his headquarters and burst into joy. He told me that the paratroopers would be landing shortly. I, then, sent a message to Kader which simply said, “They are coming,” alerting the commanders of the area.
At five in the afternoon, two Indian Air Force MiGs flew very low over Ghatail and Kalihati.
We did not know which dropping area they would choose as the MiGs circled a very wide area. Then we saw the cargo planes, flying above the circling MiGs. Suddenly, the two MiGs shot up towards the stratosphere as the cargo planes slowly descended. They were Indian Air Force transport planes, AN-12, C-119, and CD-3. The planes descended in waves. As they approached their lowest point of descent, they came to a slow hover. It was as if they were floating in the air. Suddenly their bellies opened and parachutes began dropping.
The southeastern sky, as far as we could see, was covered with what looked like big balloons. On a sunny and breezy afternoon, the blue sky of Tangail was brilliantly recomposed with a spectacular view created by the paratroopers. For those who were lucky enough to watch, it was an unforgettable moment.
At eight in the evening, Kader stopped by our camp. He reassured Peter that the landing was successful and that the paratroopers had made contact with the Mukti Bahini. Kader told us that the highways connecting Madhupur, Gopalpur, Kalihati, and Sholakura were now all under the full control of the Mukti Bahini. The fleeing Pakistani soldiers had been attacked from various positions on the Tangail-Madhupur Highway. About twenty vehicles of the Pakistan Army had been destroyed and more than fifty soldiers had been killed. The Mukti Bahini had been able to capture a number of vehicles as well as a huge quantity of arms and explosives.
At five in the morning, Kader headed out with his troops to Tangail along the Mymensingh-Tangail Highway. Peter and I were also with him. We were welcomed at the liberated Kalihati headquarters by Commanders Nabi Newaz, Riaz, and Samad Gama. They reported that their forces were in full control of the Kalihati Police Station and that Tangail Highway was in our control as far south as Sholakura.
We then moved to Sholakura but were halted at the Sholakura Bridge by enemy fire. At this time, several volunteers arrived escorting a contingent of paratroopers. Behind the force of last night's gusty winds, these paratroopers drifted away from their targeted position and thus they could not join in the battle fought the previous night. Captain Peter was delighted to meet his colleagues, amongst whom was a young Captain.
Captain Peter then left us and joined up with the paratroopers and we resumed our advance to Phultala. Kader attacked Phultala with mortars and then sent about 300 fighters to take the village. By afternoon, the enemy fled and Phultala came under our control.
We learnt through radio contact that Brigadier Klair of the Indian Army was on his way to Tangail. I, with a team of freedom fighters, left for Pungli Bridge to meet the Indian paratroopers. As we walked on the road to Pungli Bridge, I came face to face with the bone-chilling scenes of last night's battle. Corpses of hundreds of enemy soldiers littered the road; the bodies sprawled from one side of the bridge to the other. We walked with care so as not to step on the dead. All around was a mass of twisted mangled bodies and body parts. Never in my life had I seen so much death in one place.
It was about three in the afternoon. When Brigadier Klair and Kader Siddiqui stepped down, five hundred freedom fighters and paratroopers received them with thundering applause.
Brigadier Klair came over to me and thanked me for the help and cooperation extended by the Mukti Bahini.
From the Indian officers I learnt that in the battle around Pungli Bridge, three hundred-seventy Pakistan soldiers were killed and more than one hundred injured. Six Indian paratroopers achieved martyrdom and 15 were injured. Over 600 Pakistani troops were taken prisoner.
After the meeting, Kader and Klair decided to move on to Tangail that same evening. Most of the town of Tangail was in the hands of the Mukti Bahini. However, a small contingent of Pakistani forces at the new Tangail town garrison had not yet surrendered though it was cut off from all sides. An attack was launched at four o'clock that evening with about 200 Freedom Fighters, supported by mortar and machine gun fire. Very soon, the enemy guns were silenced and the last remnants of resistance at Tangail ceased.
By that evening, the whole town stood liberated. By now, tens of thousands of people had begun assembling around the Awami League premises to see Kader and to celebrate our victory. Brigadier Klair then came over to join in the celebrations.
This for me was the last major action of the war. The Pakistan army was on the run and its eventual defeat was now simply a matter of time.
Reflecting on the War, I think Captain Peter's infiltration deep inside the enemy territory reveals a well thought out deception plan that has not been fully appreciated by analysts.
As Indian forces were not concentrated here, the Pakistani leadership presumed that no major attack was envisaged by the Indian Army through this sector and so an elderly Pakistani officer, Brigadier Kader Khan was left in charge. In my view, this was an intentional move by General Aurora to mislead the enemy into thinking that the Indian Army advance into Dhaka would take place through the Comilla border.
Meanwhile, on December 11th, General Jacob, the Chief of Staff of the Indian Army, arranged a press conference in Calcutta. He declared to the national and international press that the night before, Indian paratroopers had landed surrounding Dhaka city. He claimed that Dhaka was then a besieged city, waiting to fall any day.
On the insistence of reporters, General Jacob reluctantly disclosed that a division of joint forces had surrounded Dhaka city.
However, in reality, the division he referred to was actually only single battalion of paratroopers who had landed, not in Dhaka, but rather some seventy miles to the north, in Tangail district.
Pakistani command was distressed by this bluff. It created a tremendous amount of psychological pressure on General Niazi to surrender. The joint force strategy worked just as planned.
This Para drop at Tangail caught the Pakistani leadership on the wrong foot and hastened the end of the war. For Brigadier Khan, this was the second surrender of his military carrier. During our interrogation, we came to know that he had also surrendered to the Indian Army on the West Pakistan border during the India-Pakistan War of 1965.
The inclusion of the Tangail Mukti Bahini in the original war strategy to conquer Dhaka was an important historical event. One of the most significant components to this plan was the landing of a battalion of paratroopers in Tangail.
Arguably, I was the first person in Bangladesh to have had the privilege of knowing this vital secret plan.
I was lucky and honoured to be associated with such a clever war strategy. It was also a great testament to Kader as well as to the Tangail Mukti Bahini.
The writer is a Freedom Fighter and scientist.