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How IAF choppers helped General Sagat liberate Bangladesh

Last updated on: December 24, 2020 12:01 IST

The retreating Pakistani troops were heading towards Dacca and they had to be stopped at all costs.
The Eastern Army Commander, in his orders to General Sagat Singh, had reiterated that he did not want the troops of 4 Corps to cross the Meghna river.
But General Sagat had other plans to threaten Dacca and ensure that the pressure would make the Pakistani commanders capitulate.
This is where the IAF helicopters came in.

IMAGE: Mi-4 helicopters served the Indian Air Force from 1962 to 1983. Photograph: Kind courtesy bharat-rakshak.com

Air Commodore Ram Mohan Sridharan was born on November 6, 1947 at Cannanore (now Kannur) in Kerala. His father was the first of the paratroopers of the Medical Corps.

Passing out of the National Defence Academy in December 1967, 'Doc' Sridharan, as he is popularly known in the Indian Air Force, was commissioned as a helicopter pilot in the IAF in June 1969.

He was fully operational on the Mi-4 helicopter by the time the war started in December 1971 and flew a large number of missions as part of the 110 Helicopter Unit, then based at Kumbhigram (near Silchar in Assam).

He has amassed more than 8,000 hours of flying during his tenure in the IAF where he rose to the rank of Air Commodore before he retired in 2003.

The ace pilot has taken part in operations all across the country including the Op Pawan in Sri Lanka and Op Meghdoot in the Siachen Glacier.

He has been awarded the coveted Vayu Sena Medal for distinguished service to the nation by the President of India.

 

IMAGE: 'Some of us young pilots' at the 110 Helicopter Unit in Kumbhigram prior to the war,' Air Commodore Sridharan captions this photograph.

Air Commodore Sridharan reveals how the IAF helicopters played an important role in the liberation of Bangladesh. Continuing Air Commodore Nitin Sathe's year-long series on the Heroes of 1971:

The 8 helicopters with different VIPs on board had landed in East Pakistan late in the afternoon for the surrender ceremony. After the historic event, they were going to take off from a brand new country -- Bangladesh!

Each one of them had played a major role in the liberation and the birth of the new country, but this had been achieved at phenomenal human and other costs.

"We were excited and drove from Tezgaon (Dacca) airport to the race course in open jeeps to see history in the making," Air Commodore Sreedharan recalls. "As we drove out of the airport, we got a glimpse of how parts of Dacca had been damaged in the war."

"The historic monuments and important buildings had been spared, which spoke so much about the attitude of our armed forces even in war," the IAF veteran adds.


Lieutenant General Sagat Singh, Padma Bhushan, PVSM.

Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Arora, the Eastern Army Commander, Air Marshal H S Dewan, the AOC-in-C Eastern Air Command, and Vice Admiral Nilkanta Krishnan, the FOC-in C of the Eastern Naval Command and the most charismatic hero of 1971, Lieutenant General Sagat Singh, besides a large number of VIPs and staff of the Command headquarters located in Calcutta and Shillong, had been airlifted by the eight helicopters to Dacca for the ceremony.

"We were so happy that the war was finally coming to an end and we being part of such a historic event made us euphoric," the veteran helicopter pilot recalls.

"It was such an exciting time and as we went to the venue, thousands of locals cheered and shouted themselves hoarse. We had been so much a part of their happiness and we were their heroes," Doc sir remembers of the evening of December 16, 1971.

It was getting dark as the Indian military commanders headed back from the surrender ceremony.

The VIPs had to get back to India. As we waited for them to return to the helicopters, General Sagat Singh got us, pilots, into a huddle and told us, 'I am so very happy with the performance of the IAF in operation 'Cactus Lily' and 'Jackpot'. As I had promised you all before the operations began, we shall be celebrating our victory and usher in the new year at the Dacca intercontinental Hotel on the 31st of Dec. I want you to be a part of my 'Celebratory Champagne moments' on that day. So be seeing you there!'

The fall of Dacca had brought a swift end to the war and East Pakistan had capitulated in 13 days, thanks to some audacious offensive operations led by General Sagat Singh and his 4 Corps which was addressing the eastern border of East Pakistan.

The IAF had a major part to play in this decisive victory since they had carried out the massive troop insertion by helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft at places around Dacca to put pressure on the Pakistani military to surrender.

As per the literature available, the higher directions received from Army HQ to the Eastern Army Commander did not make a mention of the Capture of Dacca as a depth objective at all.

It had been decided that three-plus divisions located on the western borders of East Pakistan would attack all along the western front to threaten the immediate and depth objectives in their line of advance.

From the eastern side, it was the 4 Corps led by General Sagat Singh which was to move from east to west in the general line of Dacca.

General Sagat had other ideas right from the beginning; in fact, well before the war had started.

He had realised that it would be very difficult to cross the Meghna river which flowed almost north-south and was a natural line of defence of the Dacca garrison.

At that time, the Indian Army did not have the wherewithal of crossing rivers in such large numbers.

This is where the IAF would be roped in to provide the 'air bridge' to cross over a large number of troops and equipment so that our army could threaten Dacca from the eastern and southern side.

Being proactive, he had already procured a large number of maps of areas beyond the Meghna river so that operations could be progressed towards Dacca should his troops be successful in reaching the river in the first place.

From the west, the famous 'Tangail drop' was carried out by Indian Air Force fixed-wing aircraft in which 2 Para Battalion of the 50 Para Brigade was air paradropped at Tangail, about 100 km west of Dacca on December 11, 1971.

These 1,000 odd men and their equipment were transported by the IAF's An-12s, Fairchild Packets, Caribous and Dakotas in what would be one of the most successful airborne operations since the Second World War.

The retreating Pakistani troops from the north were heading towards west of Dacca to augment the defence of Dacca and they had to be stopped at all costs.

The Eastern Army Commander, in his orders to General Sagat had reiterated that he did not want the troops of 4 Corps to cross the Meghna river, but to capture and hold territory up to the Meghna river.

But General Sagat had other plans to threaten Dacca and ensure that the pressure would make the Pakistani commanders capitulate.

This is where the role of Group Captain Chandan Singh and the IAF helicopters came in, which Air Commodore Sridharan, then a 24 year old, explained to me.

Group Captain Chandan Singh was the Station Commander Johrat and in touch with all the army brass since a lot of flying under his command was being carried out by both the helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft in support of the army.

He was an extremely quick thinking and charismatic leader and got along very well with the commanders in the area of operation.

Well before the war started, Group Captain Singh had envisaged the use of large size helicopter troop insertions into Bangladesh to assist the army if the war was declared to free East Pakistan.

He had the full support of the Eastern Air Command HQ at Shillong and was appointed as the overall 'task force commander' for the special ops being envisaged and therefore, was able to take on the spot decisions.


Group Captain (later Air Vice Marshal) Chandan Singh, Mahavir Chakra, AVSM, Vir Chakra.

"It was sometime in October/November that my Commanding Officer Squadron Leader C S Sandhu and Flight Commander Flight Lieutenant P K Vaid went to the Corps HQ to meet General Sagat Singh," Air Commodore Sreedharan remembers.

"The idea to lift 57 Infantry Division by helicopters was discussed here and Group Captain Chandan Singh was left to do the detailed planning for the same."

"This requirement had already been visualised by Group Captain Chandan earlier and we had commenced training on Special Heliborne Operations with some of the army units well before this meeting took place," the IAF veteran recalls.

After the meeting, Group Captain Chandan wanted the Commanding Officer to train the unit pilots on Special Heliborne Operations by night since he envisaged that it would be much safer, both for the aircraft and the troops to be dropped into the area teeming with the Pakistani military," Air Commodore Sreedharan recalls.

Group Captain Chandan Singh was an amazing leader and was a great source of motivation for the young pilots who were getting ready to taste first blood.

He flew in and out of Agartala where the helicopters were located and saw to it that the missions were planned to the T.

"20 of us were posted to the squadron and had no experience in actual ops except the few on the top," says Air Commodore Sreedharan. The unit had been augmented by pilots who had just returned from Russia after training on the Mi-8 helicopter which was soon to be inducted in the IAF to replace the ageing Mi-4 helicopters.

"Our CO had so much confidence in our abilities that he decided to use the younger lot for the operations," Doc Sir remembers gleefully.

The Mi-4 was a piston engine helicopter with its engine in the nose section just below the cockpit.

"The only navigation aid it had was a radio compass and we were required to fly low level for all the missions even inside our territory. Navigation was not much of a problem since the area was riverine and these rivers helped us to get from one place to the other, provided we got to the correct one!" exclaims the Air Veteran.

The night operations were generally done in bright moonlight which did not hamper the navigation and landings on unprepared surfaces much.

The Mi-4 was a Soviet design medium-lift helicopter designed to carry 1,600 kgs of weight or 16 troops and had a maximum range of 500 km at typical speeds of 140 kmph to 160 kmph.

The helicopters could be loaded up to the maximum since the sortie durations were not more than an hour or so in duration and the missions could be flown with less fuel.

The Chetak helicopters were provided by the 'Kilo flight' which operated with some pilots of the Pakistan air force who had defected to our side. That interesting story I shall tell you dear readers another day.

"Wherever we operated during the war," says Air Commodore Sreedharan, "we stayed in whatever accommodation was available close to the aircraft. We just had to open our holdalls on the floor to get some sleep as and when we found the time to do so".

"Food was also so secondary. We ate when we got things to eat and sometimes in the heat of the operations, we forgot whether we had eaten or not," the air commodore adds.

"The war started on the western front on the 3rd of December and we were also all fired up and ready."

Air Commodore Nitin Sathe retired from the Indian Air Force in February 2020 after a distinguished 35 year career.
The author of three books, you can read Air Commodore Nitin Sathe's earlier features here.

Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com

Air Commodore NITIN SATHE (retd)