The Battle of Khulna was one of the peripheral high-intensity tactical battles of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. It was a battle of attrition, devoid of a strategic aim, and continued until the wee hours of 17 December. I have a strong memory of it because the battle left me with a grudging respect for Pakistan Army Brigadier Muhammad Hayat.
Victory in the Bangladesh Liberation War was ensured by some of India’s visionary armed with a strategic outlook. They had disregarded peripheral tactical battles waging all around them because of their single-minded focus on the centre of gravity of East Pakistan – Dacca (now Dhaka).
In the Battle of Khulna, our formidable foe was Brigadier Muhammad Hayat. He was the Pakistani Commander of 107 Infantry Brigade, responsible for the defence of Jessore – Khulna Sector.
107 Infantry Brigade under 9 Infantry Division (Pakistan) had prepared its main defences around Jessore Cantonment, which was turned into a ‘fortress’ for the ‘final’ battle. Jessore covered the northern and the only viable approach to the port of Khulna and the western approach to Dacca via Goalundo Ghat and Faridpur ferries on Padma river. ‘Strongpoints’ (fortified defensive positions) had been pushed forward on the three approaches to Jessore — northwestern from Chowgacha, western from Boyra and southwestern from Benapole-Jhikargacha. These strong points were to fall back upon Jessore for the final battle. Goalundo Ghat and Khulna were defended by ad hoc 314 Brigade of paramilitary units. In case Jessore fell, the brigade was to fall back upon Goalundo Ghat to deny approaches to Dacca and to defend the port of Khulna. Given the paucity of resources, this was a sound military plan.
Pakistan’s reckless counterattack
Our 9 Infantry Division, the strongest in the eastern sector, was given the task of capturing Jessore and Khulna. The preliminary operations of 9 Infantry Division began on 10 November 1971 by capturing some Pakistani border posts. On 20 November, major operations were launched close up to the line of strongpoints covering Jessore. My unit, 4 Sikh, advanced 15 km deep to contact the strong point of Chowgacha, which was 15 km to the north-west of Jessore.
These operations drew a violent reaction from Pakistan’s 9 Infantry Division that counterattacked with 6 Punjab and a squadron of Chaffee tanks in Garibpur on 21 November. The Pakistani counter-attack was beaten back by 14 Punjab and a squadron of PT-76 tanks of 45 Cavalry. Pakistan lost 11 tanks out of 14 in this battle and 6 Punjab suffered heavy casualties. The next day, Pakistan lost three Sabres in the air battle over Chowgacha. This was a severe setback for the enemy, which was more due to the foolhardy counterattack ordered by the General Officer Commanding, Major General Mohammed Hussain Ansari and less due to Brigadier Hayat, who was only executing orders.
Despite the setback, Brigadier Hayat’s brigade gave an excellent account of itself on the line of the strongpoints. Despite an overall 3:1 superiority and absolute supremacy with respect to armour and artillery, the Indian Army could not capture any of the strong points in the next 10 days.
Once the war was declared on 3 December, we ‘left the highways and took the byways’ to get behind the enemy and attacked the strong points from the rear. Over the course of the next three days, severe battles ensued and the line of strongpoints collapsed. 4 Sikh operating on the western approach to Jessore captured the strong point of Burinda on the night 5-6 December. The ferocity of the battle can be gauged from the fact that in the three days from 3 to 6 December, the unit casualties were 27 soldiers killed and 86 wounded, including three officers.
On 6 December, two regiments of armour and one mechanised battalion 9 Infantry Division advanced towards Jessore. Higher commanders sent messages highlighting that we were entering a decisive phase of the war. Jessore was expected to be the mother of all battles in our area. To our surprise, we found that the fortress of Jessore had been abandoned in haste by Pakistan troops, who had withdrawn to the port of Khulna to the south.
Brigadier Hayat’s wise decision
Our Brigade Commander, Brigadier H.S. Sandhu, was a classmate of Brigadier Hayat at Military College Jhelum. He said “Hayat darr ke bhaag gaya (Hayat has run away out of fear)”. At the end of the war on 17 December, I mentioned this to Brigadier Hayat. With a wry smile, he said that this was a deliberate decision taken by him. He felt that Jessore could be easily contained and bypassed, so he would have played no further role in the war. This is why he decided to make a last stand at the port city of Khulna that was easily defensible, and also gave his brigade a chance to be evacuated by sea.
When asked why he did not withdraw to the east to deny the approach to Dacca via Goalundo Ghat — Faridpur ferries on Meghna river — Brigadier Hayat said that he would have got involved in a running battle in open terrain and been easily routed. I believe he took the correct decision.
To our north, 4 Infantry Division had made similar gains to capture Jhenaidah and the enemy brigade withdrew north towards the Harding bridge on Meghna river. The brilliant tactical victories by 7 December had created an operational-level opportunity for our 2 Corps under Lt Gen ‘Tappy’ Raina to focus on Dacca because no troops were now defending the western approach via Goalundo Ghat and Faridpur ferries.
Dacca had never been assigned or discussed as an objective for 2 Corps that had 9 Infantry Division and 4 Infantry Division under its command. However, even to a young Captain like me, it was clear that having forced Pakistan’s 9 Infantry Division to split and withdraw its two brigades (9 Infantry Division had only two brigades) towards the north and south, 2 Corps would now press on east to Dacca after leaving minimum forces to contain the two enemy brigades. Alas, 2 Corps remained enslaved to the ‘force-on-force’ strategy of attrition warfare and instead of racing to Dacca, it chased the Pakistani troops to the north and the south. This made it remain embroiled in high-intensity aimless tactical battles, which had no influence on the outcome of the war.
Pakistan Army’s position
After a planned withdrawal of 60 km, 107 Infantry Brigade had occupied a compact defended sector in the area of Daulatpur on the outskirts of Khulna astride the road and railway line connecting Jessore to Khulna. To the east, the defences rested along the Bhairab River, and 10 km to the west on interconnected marshes. Three battalions were defending the frontage. 6 Punjab was deployed to the east from Bhairab River up to the railway line, 15 Frontier Force Rifles (FFR) was to the west of 6 Punjab and 12 Punjab was further to the west of 15 Frontier Force (FF).
These battalions were supported by 21 Punjab, Reconnaissance and Support, two tanks that had survived the battle of Garibpur and one artillery regiment. 22 FF was deployed in depth for counterattack.
An unsung military hero
Brigadier Hayat fought a brilliant defensive battle from 10 December to 17 December. The terrain did not permit any manoeuvre. Attacks per force had to be frontal. Attack after attack was repulsed imposing very heavy casualties. On the night 15-16 December, 4 Sikh managed to establish a roadblock behind the main defence. The main defences held by 15 FFR were attacked by 13 Dogra at 9:30 am and two company localities were captured. Hayat quickly plugged the gaps with his reserves and held his nerves and the battle continued. When the surrender was taking place in Dacca at 4 pm on 16 December, some of the heaviest fighting in the entire war was taking place at Khulna.
Hayat finally surrendered on 17 December 1971 when he lost all hope of evacuation by sea. His was probably the last Pakistani formation to surrender in East Pakistan.
9 Infantry Division suffered more casualties in the seven-days fighting in Khulna than it did in the one month of fighting before that. Instead of being the first to enter Dacca, 9 Infantry Division remained engaged in a purposeless battle up to 17 December.
It is true that while victory has many fathers, defeat is an orphan, no one owns it. The brilliant Brigadier Muhammad Hayat faded away and died largely unsung in 2008.
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.