Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Story of 50 Para Brigade Signals during 1971 Ops

50 Parachute Brigade Signal Company

            50 Parachute Brigade Signal Company had moved from Agra to Calcutta in February 1971 for Operation ‘Hot Spot’, in connection with elections being held in West Bengal. After it became known that Operation ‘Cactus Lily’ was likely to be conducted in the later part of the  year, all specialist vehicles and medium power radio sets were called up from Agra to Barrackpore near Calcutta where 50  Parachute Brigade was located. The company commander, Major Manmohan Bhatia, joined the company in early November 1971. The three other officers in the company were Captain P.K. Ghosh, Lieutenant A.S Bhagat and Lieutenant I.P. Singh. The brigade commander, Brigadier Mathew Thomas had also assumed command a few days earlier.

            At Barrackpore local telephones were provided from the automatic exchange already existing. Due to the non availability of underground and overhead permanent pairs for extensions, these were provided on cable laid by linemen of the company. The scale of telephones was also reduced to two for each major unit. Towards the end of November 1971 Major Bhatia was informed by Brigadier Thomas that Captain P.K. Ghosh was to go on a special mission. Apparently it was a toss-up between two Bengali officers and finally Ghosh was selected. On 28 November Ghosh moved by air along with Lieutenant Colonel K.S. Pannu to Shillong for an operational conference from where they proceeded to HQ 95 Mountain Brigade. Pannu returned on 1 December whereas Ghosh was sent on the special mission, details of which have been described elsewhere. 
            Another important action in which the company was involved was the para drop that was planned near Tangail. The battalion earmarked for the drop was 2 Para, communications for which were planned as shown below:
G = GU 734
F =  GR 345
P = PRC 25
R = R 2009
            The personnel and equipment that were earmarked to be dropped were as under:-
·                     Pathfinder  - One radio operator with RS  734                     
·                     Air support tentacle comprising eight personnel, including a driver, with a jeep and trailer. They were to carry one RS GU 734, one RS GR 345, one RS AN/PRC-25 and one receiver R 209. 
·                     A radio detachment to work as out station on B1 link, comprising three operators and two RS GR 345. 
On 3 December a one to one link was established between 2 Para and HQ 95 Mountain Brigade at Gauhati to check the radio sets and confirm suitability of frequencies. The detachment earmarked for the para drop was attached to 2 Para next day and preparations began to prepare the jeep and trailer for heavy drop.  Line detachments were moved to Kalaikunda and Dum Dum air fields for establishing line communications to the mounting bases.  On 5 December information was received that 2 Para was to operate under 101 Communication Zone. Since signal instructions of this formation were not held, an officer was sent by air to Shillong to collect them.
            Being Army HQ reserve, 50 Parachute Brigade had not been assigned any specific role before the commencement of hostilities. It was only on 5 December that the brigade commander was called by the Chief of Staff, HQ Eastern Command and briefed about his mission to capture Jessore from the rear. They were to form part of 9 Infantry Division, under II Corps. Major Bhatia immediately left for the CSO’s Branch in HQ Eastern Command to get the signal instructions for the operation. However, his visit was fruitless. The CSO,  Brigadier Tewari told Bhatia that he was not aware of this operation and advised him to contact the concerned formations.  After informing the brigade commander and the BM, Bhatia left by road for HQ 9 Infantry Division on 6 December.  He reached their location in the night and since the shelling was intense, decided to stay the night there. On his return to Calcutta next afternoon he found the brigade all packed up and ready to move into Bangladesh. However, by this time Jessore had been occupied. GOC 9 Infantry Division decided to divert the 50 Parachute Brigade thrust to Khulna and ordered it to advance to Magura.
            On 7 December the brigade less 2 Para moved along axis Dum Dum – Basirhut – Bangaon – Jessore and concentrated at Abdulpur 5 km short of Jessore. On 8 December the brigade was placed under 4 Mountain Division and commenced its advance with 7 Para leading on Axis Pakhuria-Kajura-Simkhali, maintaining communications on D1 and D2 nets. Bhatia was at the start point when Lieutenant Colonel R.P. Singh, CO 7 Para got into the first tank. At about 1130 hours they came under intense fire from Pakistani troops occupying a defensive position at Khajura. Taking them to be Razakars, and being unaware of the strength of the enemy, CO 7 Para decided to launch an attack. In the ensuing skirmish, three officers including Colonel R.P. Singh and three OR were killed and one officer and three OR were wounded. Bhatia was at the B-1 control and fully in the picture.  The ill fated action came to an abrupt halt. The brigade commander was also in the B-1 vehicle trying to fathom what happened. He spoke on the D-1 for immediate award of a Param Vir Chakra for CO 7 Para. Bhatia was asked to rush to HQ 9 Infantry Division to arrange a helicopter for evacuating the casualties. Fortunately, the officer commanding the helicopter squadron was Bhatia’s course mate and the helicopter was promptly made available.
            Resuming the advance that evening, they entered the domain of 4 Infantry Division which was also advancing towards Magura.  Though the company had their frequencies, the operator at the D-1 control of 4 Division refused to let them join the net, since he did not have any instructions. On Bhatia’s insistence, the operator agreed to get an officer on the set. The officer turned out to be Major G.L. Chadha who was well known to Bhatia. They decided on a code sign extract for seven days and thus we were able to join the net. However, next morning 50 Parachute Brigade reverted to 9 Infantry Division and was ordered to return to its old location near Jessore.  Lines were laid in the harbour and communications again established with 9 Infantry Division on D1 and D2. On 10 December the brigade moved to concentrate at Barrackpore from where it was to be air lifted to the Western Theatre. At a conference held the same evening it was informed that the brigade less 2 Para that was to carry out the para drop on 11 December would be air lifted to Palam, sorties for which would commence at 6 am next morning. Next morning the company was airlifted to Delhi with all its equipment. The jeep carrying the brigade commander’s rover and one line jeep were also airlifted. 
            The drop by 2 Para took place on 11 December, while the company was in Bararckpore. As has been mentioned elsewhere, the battalion was not in communication throughout the night and came up on the radio only at about 0715 hours on 12 December. While the Adjutant of 2 Para attributed the failure in communication to a mix up in the frequency being used, Major Bhatia has this to say:-
            “Regarding communications after the para drop, one has to view all the facts in totality. The communications were not a failure as they were not opened!!! I had talked to the operators after they got back to the Company. The night of the para drop was pretty chaotic and on landing, they were immediately on the move. They were not given time to stop and erect the aerial for the comn link up. Knowing the force commander very well, I can fully appreciate his priority in getting on to the objective by first light. This was the reason why there was no news from them that night. In fact we too were on listening watch that whole night at Barrackpore. I did not expect much as the directions were totally different. I was hoping for some stray radiation or the remote possibility that the detachment may try to contact us in case of any emergency. This did not happen on ground and the force just pushed ahead to get to the objective. (By then it was clear that the objective was to get to Dacca first and claim the “first to enter tag”). 
            In response to a query whether the cause for the link not getting through could be use of an incorrect frequency and the reason for not using alternate means such as the air support net, Bhatia has  clarified :-
“We had tried out our communications with 95 Brigade prior to the operations as also the tentacle frequencies were tried out. So it stands to reason that had our detachment been given time to establish communications, we would have been through. The fact that they ‘mysteriously’ came up the next morning proves my point. How come just over the night when they were running like hell towards their target all the confusion got sorted out?? Elementary - they did not stop for anything since they had it going so good and did not want to waste time on communications - they had to get there first! The members of the communications detachment were handpicked, very capable persons who could be trusted to take all possible actions to ensure communications come what may - using alternate frequencies, other nets etc. and I don't doubt their competence, capability or integrity even for a second.”
            Though Tewari confesses that he could never really get to the bottom of the story as to why it happened, he feels that the reason may be similar to that given above by OC 50 Parachute Brigade Signal Company. He writes:-

“There was a bit of a muddle because soon after the drop, they were rushed off to the West without or before any investigation into the so called lapse could be carried out. There was such a rush by different operational thrusts to reach DACCA first that certain obligations of informing the higher authorities were given a go-bye. With the “success” of operations in the air, there were lapses in passage of information and I was a worried man in the final stages even though I had the full backing of my Army Commander.”

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