Onward to Dacca: The Great Meghna Crossing Leading to Dacca Surrender

“We made the Night Heli Borne Operations a reality and our entire ‘Operation Jackpot’ ensured that East Pakistan fell in record time despite all hurdles put by their blowing up the bridges on the massive Meghna river."

Onward to Dacca: The Great Meghna Crossing Leading to Dacca Surrender

The first night special Heli-borne Operations were over, and I had a short nap after returning from the last sortie to Sylhet and back. The spirit and enthusiasm of the 110 Helicopter Unit was infectious. The fuel had run out for us, yet our technical staff innovated refueling from barrels which had just stood for 24 hours against the normal of 48. The fuel was pumped through the MI-4 auxiliary fuel tank to the service tank! Thus, this problem was innovatively overcome by our engineering officer and his men.

Throughout this operation none of us were not concerned with rest or meals we just did whatever sorties came our way - whether day or night. The clampshells were fitted back on all our helicopters and we were ready to move to our next destination - Agartala from Kailashaher. I was detailed with Flt Lt PN Rao to carry out casualty evacuation of some casualties of the Sylhet operation to Teliamura and then reach Agartala with another helicopter doing the same.

Rest with the CO, Flt Cdr and the air and ground crew set course for Agartala. It was another beautiful clear day and we continued with our missions flying at deck level just clear of any obstructions to reach Agartala after offloading our Gurkha casualties who were in high spirits. Our entire complement of 10 helicopters were at Agartala including the one badly shot up at Sylhet.

Once on ground at Agartala with all the helicopters parked on the side of the runway the Clampshell doors were removed once again. All aircrew were housed in an old ATC building and ground crew in tents. Once settled, the CO and Flt Cdr went on a ‘Recce Mission’ by a Chetak to select landing areas at Raipura, Narsingdi, and Bhairab Bazar deep into Pakistani Territory.

In the meanwhile, two helicopters each with air and ground crew joined our force from 105 and 111 helicopter units led by Sqn Ldr PN Chabra and Sqn Ldr Nanda Cariappa. So, we had a total of 14 helicopters for the missions to come.

The Recce Chetak Helicopter returned, and we rushed to discover that the helicopter had been hit badly by ground fire but miraculously only the Copilot Fg Offr GPS Sidhu had been shot in the leg. The Chetak had 38 Bullet shots but Lt Gen Sagat Singh, Gp Capt Chandan Singh along with our CO and Flt Cdr escaped unhurt. All looked quite shaken but Gen Sagat was cool and he wanted the Chetak to evacuate Sidhu to Teliamura and after external checks the Chetak went onto Teliamura Hospital. GPS did not take any further part in the war, but he recovered to regain his fitness.

The landing grounds had been selected and this episode made us all more determined to press on with our task. We were briefed that 57 Mountain Division under Gen Ben Gonsalves was to be Heli-lifted from Brahmanbaria to Raipura in Stage 1 of our Task. Brahmanbaria was a few Kilometers inside East Pakistan already with our 57 Div. We positioned our helicopters at Brahmanbaria and briefed 4 Guards about Heliborne Operations. None of the battalions that we operated had any Experience of operating with us. But they all learned on the job with us and soon were most proficient.

“Throughout this operation none of us were not concerned with rest or meals we just did whatever sorties came our way - whether day or night.”
Flying in Victory formation: Picture from the authors personal collection

Me and PN positioned at Brahmanbaria for further lift of troops and equipment to Raipura. Ample briefing was given by our CO Charu Sandhu and Flt Cdr Palokha Vaid about the Landing Zones at Brahmanbaria and Raipura. Initially we flew in Vics of three helicopters like Sylhet Flying at Deck level the LZ 's were like Sylhet with some dust and dry grass as crops had been cut recently. Once again, our engineers and gunners briefing the troops was spot on this the Army learnt amazingly fast and we operated without any accident or incident. There were however some close shaves.

The LZ at Brahmanbaria and Narsingdi were quite comfortable and after initially operating in Vic's of three we started operating with four and five helicopters in ‘Line Abreast Formation.’ The clearance between Helicopters was tight as we did not want the troops and equipment too spread out. For night operations the LZ's were suitably lighted with glim lamps and goose necks set up by our FAC, Pilot Officer DS Shaheed.

On the 9th I flew four sorties by day to Brahmanbaria and two to Narsingdi with PN. Navigation to Raipura was comfortable with the river Meghna as the reference. I also kept a sharp lookout for enemy gunboats on the river. I was generally flying the helicopter which was carrying the wheeled Arty gun which took time to load and off load as loading ramps were to be used.

This did pose a problem at night when due to poor lighting the delay would pose problems of at times navigating back to Brahmanbaria individually even at times to Raipura on the way up. But the Army Battalions and the Artillery elements displayed great understanding and coordination. I also did carry back army casualties on the return.

On the 10th I flew four sorties with Palokha Vaid carrying the Arty gun load. Those sorties gave me great confidence in both station keeping in formation flying and landing with load and squeezing into the corners of the LZ’s at Narsingdi.

On 11th December I flew six sorties by day and seven by night with PN and later with Fg Offr Shiv Krishna- Shibu - of 105 HU. The bright and clear moonlight was a good help to me but haze closer to landing while landing and taking off was problematic at times. l found that during our sorties at Narsingdi the locals were great help in off-loading our helicopters and helping and guiding our troops on the ground. On 12th December I did not fly any sortie as I was given a task on ground with our ground crew.

One of our Helicopters flying back to Kumbhigram had to force land due to transmission failure safely but there was a fire in the engine. There were no casualties, but the Helicopter was not available for operations. In between there was a shortage of engine oil for helicopters which was brought from Kumbhirgram by the Dakota of Kilo Flight flown singly by Fg Offr Arun Karandikar.

I resumed flying on 13th Dec when I flew with Fg Offr Jagdeep to Narsingdi 7 sorties from Raipura. By then we were Heli lifting 10 Bihar and 18 Rajput who also became remarkably familiar and good at Heliborne Operations both by day and night. I carried out eight sorties on 14 Dec to Baidya Bazar from Daudkandi with Fg Offr BLK Reddy. Now we had come close to Dacca and at the end of 14 Dec we were told that the next army objective would be Dacca.

The next morning, we had a briefing by Task Force Commander Gp Capt Chandan Singh who said that now the fighting would be on the streets of Dacca and helicopters would become easy targets and we better be prepared for attrition a plenty. But the situation changed due to our Special Heli-borne Operations that had Heli-lifted 57 Mountain Division with their Artillery element and three Battalions across the Meghna as the Bridges had been blown up by the retreating Pakistan Forces.

But the brilliant strategy of Gen Sagat Singh who found a gaping hole in the Pakistan Defence with the rapid movement of 57 Division coupled with the para drop at Tangail that on 15 December we received news that a surrender was being brokered in Dacca by Lt Gen Jacob with the enemy Pakistan on 16 Dec there would be a surrender ceremony.

The onslaught to Dacca which was given the codename ‘Operation Jackpot’ had succeeded. So, India would be victorious, and a ceremony was planned at Dacca on 16 Dec 1971. Palokha Vaid made the crew for the five MI-4's which would carry the surrender party to Dacca from Agartala in the late afternoon. No 1 would be Charu Sandhu our CO with Lamboo Ali, No 2 was Nanda Carriappa with Self, No 3 was Pran Chabra with NL Verma, No 4 was Palokha Vaid with Chippy Desouza and lastly No 5

Jaya with BLK Reddy. Three Chetaks would be carrying all the army commander Gen Arora, The Air Force AOC, C-in-C & the Naval FOC-in-C, Gen JS Arora, Air Mshl HS Dewan and Vice Adm Krishnan besides Gen Sagat, Gp Capt Chandan Singh and other Generals & some Command Staff from Calcutta and Shillong. Our outstation VIP'S arrived after lunch & we set course late afternoon for Dacca in formation with our CO in the lead. The copilots were selected by the maximum sorties done during the war. So, I was fortunate to get selected to fly with Sqn Ldr Nanda Carriappa to Dacca for the historic surrender ceremony.

Feverish activity went around all the eight helicopters which were about to depart for Dacca! All aircrew were feeling relieved that the war was about to end but I was on top of the world as I was to fly with Sqn Ldr Nanda Carriappa, whom we young helicopter pilots idolized as a smart, suave & dashing CO of 111 Helicopter Unit. I had met him a few times but now I would be flying with him on this historic sortie taking the surrender party to Dacca.

Our unit had worked extremely hard prior to the war to attain standards of excellence and all that had paid rich dividends and we made the strategic plans of the master genius General Sagat Singh happen!

We made the Night SHBO a reality and our entire ‘Operation Jackpot’ ensured that East Pakistan fell in record time despite all hurdles put by their blowing up the bridges on the massive Meghna River. The army on its part conducted their operation very professionally aided by the local Bangladeshi’s as also with assistance from Kilo Airborne Attack Flight created by India for Bangladesh, providing crucial support against enemy positions and other enemy installations.

The entire ‘Victory Formation’ of eight helicopters were ready for takeoff with our CO Charu Sandhu fittingly in the lead. It was late afternoon on 16 Dec that we set course for Dacca, 40 minutes away from Agartala. It was a bright and clear day as all helicopters headed to Dacca for the grand finale. The outbound flight was uneventful as we flew low across all the territory that our forces had captured as also places that had been so familiar for us as we had Heli-lifted the 57 Div across the Meghna onward to Dacca.

As we approached Dacca, Nanda asked me if I could spot the Dacca Golf Course close to the Kurmitola Airfield. He was an avid golfer then while I just hated that game then. Ahead I spotted the Tejgaon Dacca Airfield and as we approached saw the big craters made by our fighters and bombers.

They were the ones that gave us and the army the freedom to operate in whatever way we chose to. The air superiority edge that we held from the second day of ‘Operation Cactus Lily’ helped our armed forces to speed up ‘Operation Jackpot’ to seize East Pakistan and force Gen Niazi & Pakistani Army to lay down their arms on 16 December.

We saw the reception party on ground and adjusted to land one by one with our CO leading the way. Once on Ground all 8 Helicopters switched off & the Pakistani entourage led by Gen Niazi & Farman Ali came forward to receive our three service heads led by Gen JS Arora.

"Wild cheering went on as the signing ceremony was on. I was talking to some Bangladeshi Air Force Officers who were giving graphic accounts of the cruelties of the Pakis and the Indian Army's victory moves into the streets of Dacca with authority. They wanted us to stay back and celebrate our triumphant onslaught."
The iconic ‘Instrument of Surrender ‘marking India’s Watershed Victory; Archival Image

There was loud cheering by the locals as we all were herded into different cars and vehicles to be taken to Dacca Racecourse. Nanda, Cariappa, and I were in an open Jeep as we rushed towards the ground. The road was lined with cheering Bangladeshi Crowds as also we could see the ravages of the war caused by our Air Force and Army enroute. By the time we reached the huge Racecourse ground it was early evening and the surrender ceremony was getting set with all the dignitaries gathering around the tables that had been laid out by our forces.

Gen Niazi took his seat along with the civilian governor and across the table sat Gen Arora and all the other commanders of all three services crowded around the table with surrender document in front of them. There was plenty of pushing and pulling while I tried to get a look in at the proceedings.

Only Fg Offr Kruts Krishnamurthy amongst all of us small fry spectators could make it to the front, to push Gen JFR Jacob the Eastern Command Chief of Staff, the man who negotiated the surrender with Gen Niazi, almost out of the historic picture. We all were left at the back peering over tall hefty figures of the army and other local people.

Wild cheering went on as the signing ceremony was on. I was talking to some Bangladeshi Air Force Officers who were giving graphic accounts of the cruelties of the Pakis and the Indian Army's victory moves into the streets of Dacca with authority. They wanted us to stay back and celebrate our triumphant onslaught. But we had to get back to the Dacca Airfield to return to Agartala after these massive historic moments that we all would cherish for all our lives. A new nation Bangladesh was born, and we had helped in creating this new country.

The surrender ceremony got over and it was getting dark by that time. On our return road journey spotted the Dacca Intercontinental Hotel Building and a Huge White Dacca Jamma Masjid Mosque amongst the few heritage buildings that had been unaffected by our bombings. The Jeep brought us back to the airport with our army in escort and I ran to my helicopter. All the other dignitaries and our passengers returned to the 8 Helicopters at the dispersal. Gen Sagat Singh met all of us aircrew before boarding the helicopter.

He said that he was very happy with our performance in ‘Operations Cactus Lily’ and ‘Op Jackpot’ and as promised before the war, He invited our unit to the Hotel Dacca Intercontinental for the New Year’s Eve party, each and every one of us as we were; as he put it, the champagne moments of his glittering successful strategic march to eventual swift victory to Dacca. We took off soon afterwards and flew back by night to Agartala and 40 minutes later all eight helicopters were back in India after liberating People from the clutches of tyranny to a brand-new country in the World - Bangladesh.

Link to Part-1

(Air Cmde Sridharan is a 71 War Veteran and renowned IAF Helicopter pilot with over 8,000 flying hours. He has served in HQ Comm Sqn where he flew top dignitaries among other important appointments.)

(Views expressed are the authors own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')

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