Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Saga of Captain P.K. Ghosh, VrC


The Saga of Captain P.K. Ghosh, VrC
            The exploits of Captain Prashanta Kumar Ghosh form an important part of the history of the Corps of Signals during the operations for the liberation of Bangladesh. Strangely enough, the story has never been told, partly because of the innate modesty of the person involved. For this lapse, the Corps also must share a part of the blame. Had he been from any other arm or service, there is little doubt that he would have been made much of.  The task entrusted to him required the highest standards of courage, initiative and resourcefulness. He not only completed the mission but exceeded the expectations of those who had planned it.  The fact that he was selected for the assignment, which involved the highest degree of risk – he had to go behind enemy lines, alone – is itself a tribute not only to him but to all signallers. His feat was recognised by the well deserved award of a Vir Chakra, which he almost missed, thanks to some misunderstanding about his parent formation. Mercifully, the confusion was sorted out in the nick of time and Ghosh got the coveted decoration.  
            Contrary to popular belief, Ghosh was not para-dropped with a signal detachment into East Pakistan. He crossed the border on foot, all by himself, with only a local lad of 14 years to help him with local dialects.  He crossed over in the area of  FJ Sector, then commanded by Brigadier Sant Singh, MVC**. The brigade major of the FJ Sector was a signaller - Major S.G. Mookerjee, who later became a lieutenant general and the SO-in-C.  Ghosh soon established contact with ‘Tiger’ Siddiqui near Madhupur, north of Tangail and set about carrying out his tasks.  Briefly, he selected the main and alternate dropping zones and with Siddiqui’s boys was able to secure them, and make sure that the drop by 2 Para was organized safely. He had to ensure that the  battalion was guided to Poongli Bridge without loss of time and all the ‘heavy drop’, meaning light vehicles, guns, ammunition and sundry logistics were recovered from water and deployed/hauled to appropriate locations. He established road blocks on Road Madhupur-Tangail, north and south of Poongli Bridge to prevent pressure building up on 2 Para before they were fully deployed and guns were in place. The drop took place on 11 December and everything went off well, thanks to the preparatory work done by Ghosh. Siddiqui disappeared on the evening of the air drop as he had no intention of taking orders from the Indian Army or anyone else. With his immediate entourage he moved quickly towards Dacca, on the night of 11 December, to exploit the situation to his best advantage.
            The saga of Captain P.K. Ghosh is best described in his own words:
“By May 1971, the General Elections were over and the situation in East Pakistan was boiling over. Refugees had begun to pour into India and voices frequently heard in the media and elsewhere that war with Pakistan could no longer be avoided. As the excitement was building up I was detailed for the Combined Course at Joint Air Warfare School in Secunderabad. By the time I returned to Calcutta (50 Para Brigade had been moved there in January 1971 in view of the Naxal threat to disrupt the Elections), Brigadier Mathew Thomas had taken over from Brigadier T.S. Oberoi. In October the Commander summoned me and said that I was to report to HQ Eastern Command and meet General Jacob, the Chief of Staff. I did so and was congratulated by the Chief of Staff for ‘volunteering’ for the ‘Mission’. Seeing the look of utter bewilderment on my face, General Jacob smiled and proceeded to put me at ease in the most avuncular fashion. I still recall his words, “Look young man, you’re a paratrooper, a signaller, a commando, a Bengali and your Commander says that you topped the last course at JAWS. I can’t think of a better lad for this job”. The ‘job’ as it turned out was to get into enemy territory as soon as possible in the event of a war breaking out, establish a good working relationship with Mukti Bahini (hereafter MB), locate a couple of good DZs for a possible airborne assault and, when the time came, to ensure the assaulting unit was led to the objective area and that all heavy drops were secured without loss. The Chief of Staff waved me off with a big reassuring smile and said orders would follow in due course.
          In the middle of November I was ordered to report to HQ 101 Communication Zone Area in Shillong along with CO 2 PARA, Lt Col KS Pannu and to come back to Calcutta thereafter. Travelling ‘hush hush’ in civvies we were met at Guwahati Airport by a shady looking character who took charge of our luggage and whisked us off to Shillong in his Amby. Depositing us at the Area Officers’ Mess he disappeared. Major Bammi the GSO2 (Ops) met us after dinner and asked us to be ready to meet the GOC next morning at 0400 hrs! When Pannu protested he was told that the Old Man liked to get an early start. We were ushered into General Gurbux Gill’s bedroom next morning at four. The General lay on his bed while we took up military postures. The bedroom looked more like a macho Command Post than a place for carefree slumber. Taking hold of a long pointer staff he briefed us with the help of the ‘ceiling to floor maps’ at the foot of his bed. He then asked us to immediately proceed to Garo Bhada in the Tura Hills District to be further briefed at HO 95 Mountain Brigade. When Pannu asked him for further orders he was told that he should collect as much info as he could and go back to Calcutta and wait for the ‘balloon to go up’. As for me, I was to be launched into East Pakistan without further delay! Pannu looked at me with a ‘better you than me, boy’ smirk on his face.
Landing up at HQ 95 Mountain Brigade, we realized that heavy and serious skirmishing was even then going on in border areas with East Pakistan. Brigadier H.S. Kler, the Commander (a former OC of 50 Para Brigade Signal Company) briefed us and for the first time it became clear to me that, of all the planned thrusts being aimed at Dhaka, the Northern thrust under 101 Communication Zone had a good chance of succeeding since there were no major water obstacles impeding its projected path. The role of the planned airborne assault in preventing a possible long drawn out ‘delaying battle’ at Tangail also became clear. Brigadier Kler, who knew me from my days in 19 Division at Baramulla/ Haji Pir, where he was the GSO1 (Ops) during 1965 War, then   discussed with me how I planned to get on with my job. Remarking that other than the fact that there wasn’t enough time for me to get circumcised, I did not have the foggiest notion of how to proceed in the matter. Brigadier Kler told me not to worry as he had had a chat with Brigadier Sant Singh of F-J Sector and that I was to immediately report to Major Mookerjee, the BM of F-J Sector for further briefing. Major Mookerjee turned out to be none other than S.G. Mookerjee of Signals who I knew from my days at Mhow while attending SODE Course. Now I came to grips with my ‘Mission’. I was given codename ‘Peter’, dressed up in a ‘lungi, a half torn shirt with a ‘jhola’ and a sheet to cover myself. I was also given Rs.10,000/- in Pak currency and an unmarked Sten Machine Carbine with two magazines of unmarked ammunition. Captain T.I. Donald, the Sparrow of F-J Sector then handed over a small little radio transreceiver which he called Radio Set HX. Working on battery cells, the crystal tuned set could be used to send and receive messages using Morse code. Two wire antennae came with the set, a normal end fed wire and another Y shaped centre fed. I was told that I could expect a range of about 10 to 15 Kms with the former and about 30 Kms with the latter. In the event I was able to get as much as 65 to 70 Kms on good days. Of course I took the precaution of discreetly passing it on to Donald’s boys that my Morse was a bit ‘rusty’.
I do not the recall the exact date on which I set course from Tura to cross the border; it was mid Nov or thereabouts. At a personal level I do recall being a bit uneasy. I was young but not so young as not to realize that my wife was in the family way with our second child. She was due in December and it would be hard on her if something were to happen to me. I had taken the precaution of writing out about seven odd letters and sent them back to the Company with Pannu, with instructions to ‘Bags’ (late General Andy Bhagat) to post them at regular intervals to my wife. (As it turned out, this ploy failed miserably since my letters were impossibly out of ‘sync’ with her letters, not to mention the well known ‘women’s intuition’ factor). At a professional level I realized that my Mission was important and that I ought to feel excited. I also realized that what I was doing was ‘clandestine’. General Gurbux had made it quite clear that once I crossed over, the Indian Army would disclaim all knowledge of my existence. Nonetheless, all in all, once I had spent 24 hours inside enemy territory, the urgency of ‘here and now’ completely took over my consciousness and thereafter it was more a question of thinking on my feet and getting on with the job.
I had with me ‘Badshah’, a 14 year old boy who I had picked out from the batch of MB trainees in F-J Sector. He came in handy as a local guide and as an interpreter, when required. I was after all a ‘Bong’, born and brought up in Kanpur but so far as local dialects of rural East Pakistan were concerned, I may as well have been of Greek parentage. I soon established contact with Siddiqui, the MB boss of the area. For the next 8 to 10 days we operated between Mymensingh and Tangail passing back all information, military and otherwise, to HQ F-J Sector. During this time I had recced two suitable locations for the para drop and had passed this information back to F-J Sector. Needless to add, operating mainly at night, we regularly ambushed Pakistani military convoys moving up and down the Kamalpur/Mymensingh – Madhupur – Tangail Axis creating as much confusion and insecurity in the Rear Areas, as we could. I have to say that the MB boys were in high spirits and fairly charged up.
I had earlier indicated to HQ Eastern Command via F-J Sector that, given the local situation, paucity of Pak troops in Tangail and road blocks that I had planned to establish, a morning drop would be feasible and advisable. The para drop, however, eventually took place after last light on 11 December. A dozen of our Signal Company boys (later called the Dirty Dozen) with a jeep based Tentacle formed part of the ‘2 PARA Battalion Group’. On looking back one does feel that with about 200 excited MB boys under my control on the DZ, we did contribute substantially to the success of the operations in terms of getting the battalion to Poongli Bridge, north of Tangail, without delay and recovering all the heavy drop including arty guns, ammunition, light vehicles and other stores to respective earmarked areas, with dispatch. By mid day on 12 December advance elements of 1 MARATHA of 95 Mountain Brigade commanded by General ‘Bulbul’ Brar with General Satish Nambiar as 2IC had linked up with 2 PARA. I would have to add that had the drop taken place in the morning we would have been able to cut off a major portion of the Pakistanis falling back from Mymensingh and Kamalpur and inflict far more casualties than we actually did.
By the evening of 12 December we had occupied Tangail and advance to Dhaka resumed without further delay. Brigadier Kler, speaking to all officers on 13th morning made it very clear that given the progress of XXXIII, IV and II Corps he was convinced that 101 Communication Zone with 95 Mountain Brigade leading, had the best chance of being the first to enter Dhaka and he expected nothing less from us. The ‘Race’ for Dhaka was now well and truly on! In the event we were the first to enter Dhaka on 16th morning. Since 2 PARA was leading the advance at that point of time, it was again the Red Berets who marched triumphantly into Dhaka on 16th morning to a tumultuous welcome by the populace.
This story would have turned out even better had it not been for a slight miscalculation on my part. It was the evening of the 16th Dec and the stage was set for the Surrender Ceremony at the Ramna Race Course. A contingent each of Indian and Pakistan Army had been constituted. The Indian Contingent was taken entirely from 2 PARA with self included. After General Niazi handed over his pistol to General Aurora and the latter reviewed the contingents, both Generals repaired to the table set up for the actual signing. The contingents broke off and surged forward to get a ringside view of the historic event. It was difficult to say who was the more excited, our boys for having trumped the enemy, or the Pakis, relieved that the whole sordid affair was over and they could now go back home!
Seeing that the crowd was too dense to penetrate, Nirbhay Sharma (Adjutant 2 PARA and an ex Signals officer) and I stepped aside and stood next to Niazi’s staff car. I casually stole a glance to my left to admire the shiny black Mercedes with Niazi’s flag still hoisted atop the bonnet. Suddenly it dawned on me that the flag was no longer ‘authorised’ and it was now a ‘finders –keepers – losers – weepers’ situation. This was my big chance! I saw a vision of this flag adorning the HQ Mess at Mhow (with my name in the small caption below!). As I was mustering courage and looking for a chance to swipe the thing there was a sudden swelling of the crowd with much shoving and elbowing. I soon regained proximity to the Staff Car again just in time to see a Naval officer disappearing with the flag. I believe that the darned thing is displayed prominently in the Eastern Naval Command Mess. Whenever I reminisce over the Dhaka days this incident still rankles. Who says life is fair?”
            As already mentioned, Ghosh was awarded the Vir Chakra for his exploits. The citation reads as under:-

“During the operations against Pakistan in December 1971, Captain Prashanta Kumar Ghosh was assigned a difficult task in the Eastern Sector which he completed successfully. He established road blocks, intercepted several enemy convoys and inflicted casualties on enemy men and equipment, thereby disrupting the smooth movement of the enemy.
Throughout Captain Prashant Kumar Ghosh displayed gallantry, leadership and devotion to duty of a high order.”

            Ironically, Ghosh almost missed the award. When his  name did not come up in initial lists of awardees, Brigadier Mathew Thomas took great umbrage and dashed off a DO (demi-official) letter to General Jacob, who immediately  took up this issue with 101 Communication Zone Area. It transpired that the confusion arose since General Gurbux Gill was injured in early December  and General Gandharv Nagra was brought in overnight from 2 Mountain Division to take over. As a result, no one was clear whether Ghosh had fought the war under 95 Mountain Brigade or F-J Sector, each assuming that the other formation was doing the needful. Fortunately, HQ Eastern Command intervened and ruled that Ghosh had fought the war under F-J Sector! Thereafter Brigadier Sant Singh had no hesitation in dashing off the citation.
            It will be noticed that citation is resoundingly silent on the para drop and dropping zone aspects of the tasks carried out by Ghosh, who gives a simple explanation for this. In normal airborne operations the dropping zone is selected off maps and suitability corroborated by other intelligence sources. It is then secured on the day of the drop by ‘Pathfinders’. However this was not a World War II ‘Operation Market Garden’ scenario and there was hardly any ground intelligence. Moreover, Major General Inder Gill, the Director of Military Operations was also the Colonel of the Parachute Regiment. This was going to be the first airborne assault of independent India and he wanted to make sure that it was a resounding success. If it took a lot of stage management on the ground then so be it. General Jacob in his initial briefing to Ghosh had said as much. His exact words were:  “Inder wants to make sure that nothing goes wrong for his boys”. Ghosh feels that any mention, publicly, of the dropping zone being fully or partly secure, in Gill’s view, would somehow detract  from the achievement of the airborne assault as a whole. It should be remembered that during late 60’s there was a periodic clamour for disbanding or reducing drastically the strength of ‘airborne’ element of the Indian army, for various nebulous reasons. A successful airborne operation would silence the detractors once and for all. Ghosh confesses that this is entirely his own view as gleaned in subsequent years of service and numerous para get-togethers. 32

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