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The ‘12 Days to Dacca’ plan executed by a ‘moth-eaten brigade’ that helped India in 1971

Brigadier H S Kler's ‘12 Days to Dacca’ plan was war-gamed and executed to perfection and sent Pakistani forces on the run.

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In 1971, India’s political aim was to liberate East Pakistan and create Bangladesh. For that, it was necessary to capture its political and military centre of gravity — Dacca — which should have been the logical operational-level objective. Since politically and militarily we were not very confident that this aim could be fully achieved before a ceasefire was forced upon us by international intervention, the initial plan was conservative and focussed on capturing maximum territory up to the major river lines and the port cities of Khulna and Chittagong. Dacca, as the ultimate objective, remained at the back of higher and middle-level commanders’ minds and they waited for opportunities to be exploited as the campaign progressed.

Some brilliant staff officers and field commanders went a step ahead and planned for it from the word go and then created/seized tactical opportunities to race for the operational-level objective — Dacca. Notable among these were two senior staff officers — Major General Inderjit Singh Gill, Director of Military Operations and Major General J F R Jacob, Chief of Staff Eastern Command and two field commanders — Lt Gen Sagat Singh, General Officer Commanding, 4 Corps and Brigadier H S Kler, Commander 95 Mountain Brigade, operating under 101 Communication Zone.

Brigadier H S Kler, on 4 November 1971, conceptualised a plan — ‘12 Days to Dacca’ — which was war-gamed and approved by Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Arora, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief (GOC-in-C) Eastern Command, on 12 November. In execution, Brig Kler proved the plan to a fault and along with his General Officer Commanding, Major General Gandharv Nagra was the first to enter Dacca on 16 December.

Also Read: Govt and military owe India an authentic history of the 1971 Bangladesh War. Rest is mythology

‘12 Days to Dacca’ plan

95 Mountain Brigade, as part of the 8 Mountain Division, was engaged in counter-insurgency operations in Nagaland and only arrived in the northern sector at the end of October. The initial task given to the 95 Mountain Brigade was to capture Mymensingh as part of the ‘capture maximum territory’ plan, but Kler had other ideas.

Brigadier Kler had already made his mark as a brilliant and visionary professional in the 1965 India-Pakistan War as General Staff Officer 1 of 19 Infantry Division when he planned and coordinated the defeat of Pakistan’s infiltration columns, the capture of Haji Pir Pass and link up with 93 Infantry Brigade at Punch. He was awarded the Ati Vishisht Seva Medal, a rare honour for a Lt Col. In March 1969, as 95 Mountain Brigade commander, he organised the manhunt and forced the surrender of self-styled Naga General, Mowu Angami, along with 165 insurgents.

Pakistan’s Eastern Command correctly identified that Dhaka had to be defended. However, probably having got wind of India’s conservative plan, the vast territory ahead of Dhaka could not be given up to create a mini Bangladesh. The defensive strategy adopted by the Pakistan Army was a compromise. Cantonments and major towns were to be developed as fortresses guarding the approach to Dhaka. Depending upon the progress of the Indian offensive and the tactical situation, the formations were to conduct an orderly fighting withdrawal to wage a final battle around Dhaka. Due to the paucity of resources, this deployment created vast gaps open for infiltration to bypass, cut off and attack the strong points from the rear.

Seeped in attritionist culture, both armies pitched their strongest forces against each other. Consequently, both sides neglected the northern approach from Tura between Brahmaputra and Meghna Rivers where they faced each other with their weakest forces. The sector was defended by the 53 Infantry Brigade of Pakistan with two battalions — one each at Jamalpur and Mymensingh — along with paramilitary units. 101 Communication Zone had 95 Mountain Brigade and FJ Sector — an ad hoc brigade with one regular battalion and two/three Mukti Bahini battalions — for the offensive. It is ironic that the fate of East Pakistan was virtually decided by the battles between the weakest forces of both sides.

Brigadier Kler was quick to appreciate the situation and saw the opportunity to reach Dacca while the major formations of both sides locked horns. He assessed that Mymensingh was on a limb and his objective should be Jamalpur on the direct route to Tangail and Dacca. He did not stop at that and conceived the ‘12 Days to Dacca’ plan. The plan was made on D-Day (the day the operations commence) basis. Since the operations actually commenced on 3 December, I have added the actual dates in brackets. The plan:

  • D day and D+1 day (3-4 December) — isolate and capture Bakshiganj, and contact the north bank of a tributary of River Brahmaputra opposite the strong point of Jamalpur with one infantry battalion.
  • D+2 and 3 (5-6 December) — cross the river west of Jamalpur to place two battalions behind the defences to cut off routes of withdrawal and later attack from the rear.
  • D+4 (7 December) — lay siege to Jamalpur and tighten the noose.
  • D+5 and 6 (8-9 December) — attack and capture Jamalpur.
  • D+6 (9 December) — paradrop of one battalion at Tangail to secure the bridge on the Turag River and cut off routes of withdrawal from Jamalpur and Mymensingh.
  • D+7 and 8 (10 -11 December) — link up with the para battalion at Tangail.
  • D+8 (11 December) capture Tangail.
  • D+9 and 10 (12 – 13 December) — advance to capture the bridge on Turag River at Tongi.
  • D+11and 12 (14 -15 December) — advance and contact Dacca defences.

The challenge before him was to get the plan approved by his superiors. Providence brought General Aurora to the sector for a visit to the ‘Bangla Brigade’ (FJ Sector). In a style made famous by General Manstein, who directly presented the plan for the invasion of France to Hitler bypassing the German high command, Brigadier Kler tactfully broached the subject with General Aurora while driving him, even before briefing his immediate superior Major General Gill. Later in the day, he presented the plan to General Aurora and Major General Gill. Both Generals saw merit in the plan and asked for it to be war-gamed after a week.

On 12 November, General Aurora, accompanied by his staff, attended the war game. Brigadier Sant Singh acted as the enemy commander. The plan was analysed threadbare and eventually approved by General Aurora in toto who promised all assistance. These details are given in the book 12 Days to Dacca, written by Brigadier Kler and published in 2016.

Also Read:50 yrs of 1971 war: How forces, intel, politicians jointly made it India’s finest military hour

A moth-eaten brigade

95 Mountain Brigade was oriented to counter-insurgency operations. It did not have weapons, equipment or transport for operations in the plains. Two of its battalions were ‘I’ or special insurgency battalions that had never been trained for conventional operations. Maj Gen Gill, GOC, 101 Communication Zone,  which was a logistic formation, worked very hard to make up for the deficiencies and organise additional combat support and logistics units. Since Eastern Air Command was correlated he was able to organise excellent air support.

The next challenge before Brigadier Kler was to convince his own troops about his plan. He briefed all his officers about the plan in detail. One of the outspoken officers could not restrain himself and said in chaste Punjabi, “ Sir, lunda (lame in Punjabi) jea brigade, te kehnde ho Dacca jawange” (It’s a moth-eaten brigade and you say that you will take us to Dacca). Kler said that if they (his troops) had faith in themselves and him, they would be the first to enter Dacca. To instil confidence, he changed the number of his brigade from 95 to Roman VC — Victory for Certain Brigade.

Brigadier Kler got down to training and bloodied his unit by attacking two border posts. The results were a disaster due to the poor training of units. There were also leadership problems and one of the Commanding Officers had to be removed from command and replaced. 95 Mountain Brigade hardly looked like a formation that would shape history in less than a month’s time. But Kler remained confident, undaunted and undeterred. He addressed the entire rank and file to tell them that the worst was behind them. They should imbibe the lessons, rectify the mistakes and be ready for making history.

Also Read: Pakistan lost the 1971 war, but its project of Islamist violence won the larger conflict

History is made

Beginning at 22:00 hours on 3 December (D-Day), the plan was executed with clockwork precision with only 24-48 hours variations from the original plan.  The battle of Jamalpur is part of military lore with the letter for surrender by Brigadier Kler and Commanding Officer 31 Baluch, Lt Col Sultan Ahmed’s reply wrapped around a bullet that the fight will continue. After a grim battle, Jamalpur was captured on the night of 10 December. After that, the Pakistani forces were on the run.

The paradrop by a battalion — 2 Para — at Tangail took place at 16:00 hours on 11 December and the link-up was established on 12 December. The advance was resumed and the Turag River, on the outskirts of Dacca, was reached by 14 December mid-day. Thereafter, the advance was led by Brig Sant Singh, Commander FJ Sector. Maj Gen Nagra (who took over from Maj Gen Gill after he was injured on 5 December), Brigadier H S Kler and Brigadier Sant Singh were the first to enter the office of General A. A. K. Niazi.

The archaic English proverb — “cometh the hour, cometh the man” — aptly describes the exploits of Maj Gen H S Kler. In two of India’s wars — 1965 and 1971 — he seized the opportunity to make and shape history. He was one of the Indian Army’s best field commanders who became a legend in his lifetime. The race to Dacca was his finest hour.

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. He tweets @rwac48. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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