Airman or Tankman?
Brigadier Balram Singh Mehta recalls the exemplary courage and support of a former Pakistani Air Force officer in fighting the War of 1971 in his new work War Despatches 1971. An excerpt:
Having participated in the Tank vs Tank Battle at Garibpur on 21 November 1971 under Headquarters 42 Infantry, the ‘C’ Squadron 45 CAVALRY was subsequently entrusted by the Headquarters 350 Infantry to assist 4 SIKH in the capture of Burinda on the night of 4/5 December. Jessore was occupied by 9 Infantry Division on 7 December. To keep the momentum, the Squadron was placed under HQ 32 Infantry Brigade to outflank the enemy by undertaking a wide hook across a 40-kilometre stretch of riverine terrain to cut the Jessore-Khulna road at Ramnagar. By 10 December, faulty planning and differences in perception at Division, Corps, and Command level, elements of 9 Infantry Division were found strung out on the Jessore-Khulna highway.
The terrain configuration and defences taken up by elements of the Pakistani Headquarters 107 Brigade and stiff resistance by the well-entrenched enemy brought the 9 Infantry Division’s advance virtually to a halt. The PT-76 squadron was ordered to conduct another wide outflanking move to get behind the enemy defences at Siramani. The movement across the waterlogged paddy fields with high embankments, village tracks sinking into village ponds, and driving over deeply rutted bullock cart tracks where the tank would belly before the driver realised why his engine was stalling, or moving over bamboo culverts, not knowing when it would collapse due to the weight of the tank, was a nightmare. The driver was the worst-off, driving at night using the infrared night vision device. A hazy, blinkered field of view made worse by the unnatural greenish yellow light to decipher the lay of the ground ahead while advancing over enemy territory was every tank driver’s nightmare. Infantry, riding piggyback on the tank, had to suffer the effects of the rolling, pitching and yawing of the tanks, besides inhaling the diesel fumes and swallowing dust. Many fell victim to the low hanging branches and thorny bushes tearing away pieces of flesh and fabric. The radio operators were constantly at risk of tank antennas striking power lines to see sparks overhead or may be smoke rising from their radio sets. The tank commander and troop leader had the added responsibility to dismount and guide the tanks across vulnerable areas with their feet, boots and socks wet, shivering in the cold winter night. Every obstacle, bypass or change in direction demanded foot reconnaissance to keep the momentum of advance. Reversing the tanks or navigating it through the village, sometimes towing the tank out of the marshes and bogs, added to the stress and anxiety besides sapping your stamina and resolve.
After our last outflank, the squadron had deployed at Naopara a few kilometres short of Siramani. Due to terrain configuration, elements of Armour were deployed to shoot in the infantry while my squadron awaited fresh orders. For the 9 Infantry Division, the battle of manoeuvre had now become a slogging match demanding greater sacrifice of precious infantry lives, as battalion after battalion was launched to overcome the stiff resistance of enemy occupying the Siramani defences. While waiting for fresh plans of advance, I was accosted by a Bengali ‘Deserter’ of the Pakistani Defence Forces. A middle-aged, short-statured, dark, stocky cyclist, frantically waving a paper in the air caught my attention. On getting off his bicycle, he saluted to announce that he was an ex-sergeant of the Pakistani Air Force.
‘Can I do something for you?’ I asked.
‘No, Sir. You are already doing everything for us. Give me a chance to serve you.’ With that, he handed over the paper he had been waving earlier. It was a charge sheet in which his name, rank, and the offence of inciting mutiny was mentioned.
‘So were you cashiered or dismissed from service?’
‘Neither. I have been declared an absconder—to face court martial, if caught.’
‘Do you belong to this village?’
‘Sir, I belong to Naopara, I was born here.’
‘How can I help you?’
‘Give me a chance to join you and fight for my country.’ He appeared determined and resolved.
‘But we will not carry your bicycle,’ I told him, more in jest.
He burst out laughing, ‘No problem sir.’ He yelled across in Bengali for two boys who appeared and carried his cycle away, adding: ‘Tell them, I will stay with the tank regiment until the war ends.’
Though initially sceptical of his claims and talents, in time, I realised that he was a devoted patriot and proved to be of great help. Being an ex-Air Force serviceman, he understood and willingly accepted the discipline imposed on him. He soon merged with the tank crew and even learnt to load the gun and help the crew with odd tasks. His knowledge of the local terrain and cross-questioning of locals to verify and sometimes extract information proved invaluable. This devoted airman, true to his word, stayed with us until the end of the war to share with us the dangers and experiences, without making any claims or demands. On one occasion, he even suffered minor burn injuries from the tank exhaust. On another occasion, finding the .30 medium machine gun (MMG) unmanned, he fired at the retreating enemy infantry. He was with the tank column on the day the surrender ceremony took place at Khulna. We congratulated him on the victory of the allied Army and tears rolled down his cheeks. Yes, it had been a victory and he was grateful to all of us for having reposed trust and faith in him and provided him the honour to fight, not for the injustice done to him but for the honour and independence of his country. He did not want any certificate or citation for his contribution towards the war effort. The memory of the association and the pleasure of having served with ‘C’ Squadron 45 CAVALRY would sustain him through the years ahead. We left behind a reliable and dependable friend in him, an excellent guide, and a fine ‘airman-turned-tankman’ of the allied Army.