On 4 December — also my birthday — memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War invariably flood my mind. From 30 November to 6 December, my unit — 4 Sikh of Saragarhi fame — was engaged in a grim battle, eight kilometres west of the enemy bastion of Jessore. No quarter was given and none asked for. Victory came in the wee hours of 6 December at a very heavy cost — two JCOs and 25 ORs killed in action and three officers, six JCOs, and 77 ORs wounded. Most of the casualties were from Bravo, or the B Company that led the last charge.
Pakistan’s 107 Infantry Brigade, under the command of Brigadier Muhammad Hayat, was responsible for the defence of Jessore Sector. Jessore was a major communication hub with three critical roads — 117 kilometres north to Harding Bridge on Padma river, 100 kilometres east to Goalundo Ghat/Faridpur ferries on Padma river and then, on to Dacca, and 65 kilometres south to the port city of Khulna. It was the permanent location of HQ 9 Infantry Division (Pakistan) along with 107 Infantry Brigade. The cantonment and the airfield was to the west of Jessore town. Over the years, permanent defences had been prepared with a concrete anti-tank ditch around the cantonment and the airfield.
The plan of 107 Infantry Brigade in 1971 was to fight the main battle from the fortress of Jessore, which was to be defended at all costs. To give depth to the defences, strongpoints (fortified defensive positions) had been pushed forward to cover the three approaches to Jessore — Chowgacha to cover northwestern approach, Burinda-Kaemkola to cover the western approach from Boyra, and Jhikargacha to cover the southwestern approach from Bangaon. These strong points were to fall back upon Jessore for the final battle. Further west, reconnaissance elements were deployed to delay the Indian forces. Given their limited resources, it was a sound military plan on part of the adversary.
The preliminary operations of our 9 Infantry Division, which was assigned the mission of capturing Jessore and Khulna, began on 10 November 1971 by capturing some Pakistani border posts. On 20 November, the division advanced up to the line of Pakistani strongpoints covering Jessore. These operations drew a violent reaction from 107 Infantry Brigade, which culminated in a foolhardy counter-attack at Garibpur on the morning of 21 December in which the enemy lost 11 tanks out of the 14 it had in the sector.
During this phase, my unit had rapidly advanced to contact Chowgacha on 20 November. Here, on 22 November, we witnessed the famous air battle in which three Sabre F-86 were shot down and we captured one of the pilots who later became the Chief of Air Staff of the Pakistan Air Force. The failed counter-attack at Garibpur made the defences of Chowgacha vulnerable and my unit captured it on the night of 22-23 November. However, the enemy recovered quickly to establish another strongpoint at Afra, 8 kilometre further to the southeast.
After this, 9 Infantry Division readjusted its formations for the capture of Jessore. 42 Infantry Brigade was to advance/attack from the northwest along the Chowgacha-Jessore road, 350 Infantry Brigade, of which my unit was a part, from the west along road Boyra-Jessore, and 32 Infantry Brigade from the southeast along road Bangaon-Jhikargacha-Jessore. See Map 1.
Battle of Burinda
The strongpoint of Burinda-Kaemkola was held by three companies. Burinda was the most dominating position and it was held by one company plus a platoon. To prevent it from being outflanked from the east, Barakuli and Chotakuli were held by one platoon each. To prevent outflanking from the south, one company was deployed at Kaemkola – Manoharpur. Six kilometre further to the west, one company was deployed at Muhammadpur.
Burinda was a typical Bengal village — about 1,000 metres long (north-south) and 300 metres wide (west-east) — with mud houses and thatched roofs. There was thick vegetation in the form of banana and bamboo groves, and a number of ponds with high bunds. The biggest pond — 150 metres by 100 metres — was to the southwest of the village with 15-feet high bunds.
The bunds of all ponds had been used for making bunkers. A large number of houses had also been modified for defence. Mines and booby traps were very cleverly laid along all approaches of the attacker. After the battle, one could not help but admire the ingenuity of Major Hamid Ali, Second in Command of 12 Punjab, who was the officer commanding the three companies in and around Burinda. The defences were organised in depth in north to south direction with a number of delaying positions. The main defences were around the biggest pond of the village.
Burinda was first attacked by 1 Jammu and Kashmir Rifles on the night of 28/29 November. One company along with three tanks attacked from the west, assuming that the position was lightly held. The attack was beaten back with heavy casualties. Three JCOs and 16 ORs were killed in action and 50-60 soldiers wounded.
On 30 November, 4 Sikh was given the task of capturing Burinda. We established a firm base in village of Pasapol. For our own and enemy deployment see Map 2.
It was planned to attack in phases from north to south to make use of the cover available. In Phase 1, D Company — supported by the fire of entire divisional artillery (90 guns) and one squadron of armour —attacked on the night of 30 November/1 December. The small village of Matsyaranga — an extension of Burinda to the north — was captured. However, no further progress could be made due to stiff resistance. It was also discovered that Matsyaranga was only a delaying position.
During the next 24 hours, the firm base was further extended to south. However, it was decided by higher HQ that further operations would commence once the war was declared. Consequently, the attack was resumed on the night of 3/4 December, once the war was declared on 3 December. A Company commenced the attack from Matsyaranga and captured another platoon position. Once again, it turned out to be a delaying position.
So far, due to overwhelming artillery and tank fire, our casualties were rather light. The enemy had fought a clever battle, making excellent use of the built-up area and the ponds. The delaying positions forced us to attack and withdrew once we closed up. At night, progress was very difficult due to a maze of ponds and houses, and thick foliage. It was then decided that main defences of Burinda would be attacked by day. The next 36 hours were spent in extending the firm base and reconnaissance.
B Company attacked south into the village at 1345 hours and C Company, along with seven tanks, commenced an outflanking movement from the east to attack from the southeast. Both companies ran into stiff opposition. Two tanks were crippled by mines and one tank was hit by a rocket launcher. B Company came under heavy machine gun fire and casualties were mounting by the minute. However, sections and platoons continued to press forward by fire and movement. The enemy had mined and booby trapped all likely positions where troops would take position during fire and movement. Despite the heavy casualties, B Company continued the attack.
By 1800 hours, the resistance started giving in. C Company had cut off Burinda from the east and southeast and B Company had reached the main pond with one platoon. There was hand-to-hand fighting on the bunds of the pond. C Company also attacked from the southeast. Sporadic fighting continued upto 0400 hours. When the last bunker was cleared, B company had only 20 soldiers left, out of the 100 that commenced the attack. Twenty-two soldiers were killed in action and 60 were wounded. The enemy left behind 25 dead bodies and four wounded who were taken prisoners of war.
On 6 December, we commenced our advance towards Jessore and secured the airfield by 1500 hours on 7 December. Due to overcommitment in the battle of the strongpoints, Commander 107 Infantry Brigade had taken the decision to withdraw from Jessore.
As the adjutant of 4 Sikh, my primary responsibility was to carry out control and coordination functions for the attack. However, since on commissioning in December 1968, I had joined B Company, I went to meet them before the attack. I knew all soldiers personally. There was no sign of fear or apprehension. Preparations were meticulous and spirits were high. The unit religious teacher moved around distributing prasad. I shook hands with the entire company and noted with absolute certainty that this fine body of men would do the unit and the nation proud.
Next day, we held a mass cremation for the 27 JCOs and ORs killed in action. Twenty-two of them were from B Company. Military history will probably record that Burinda was just one of the hundreds of battles that were fought as part of an operational-level campaign to create the conditions for the psychological collapse of the Pakistan Army. But those of us who were there remember it as an exceptional feat of human endeavour.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.