During the 1971 War, the Pakistani Army had left the roads to Dhaka, undefended, focusing on the bridge heads and some strong points. The tactic was to delay the Indian Army advance long enough, hoping for UN and international pressure to stop it. Two back to back operations by the Indian army foiled the plan, one was the Meghna Heli Bridge Airlift on December 9 and another the Tangail Airdrop on December 11.
Meghna Heli Bridge Airlift
Meghna one of the largest rivers in Bangladesh, one of the 3 that forms the Ganges Delta, and the only way to cross it was the Ashuganj Railway Bridge,which had become heavily fortified by the Pakistani army. This was the only bridge across the huge river which even at it’s narrowest point was around 4,000 yards wide
When the Dhaka campaign began, the first target was to capture the heavily fortified city of Comilla in Chittagong division. By December 8, the IV Corps and 57 Mountain Division, under Sagat Singh, had occupied the territory up to the Meghna River and only the Ashuganj Bridge stood in their way as a barrier. Lt Gen Sagat Singh, who headed theIV Corps realized the strategic importance of the bridge, once captured, it would make the advance to Dhaka much more easier. However couple of factors made this a tough task, one was the bridge itself that was heavily fortified, with the Pakistani army having dug in. Also an earlier motorable bridge across the river was blown up. The other one was at Kushtia, where the II Corps was held up by the Pakistani defences in one really intense conflict. Any operation to take the bridge, would be a long drawn affair, that would only delay advance and result in high casualties. Constructing a new bridge by Indian army engineers too was ruled, out due to the time factor involved. This was when Sagat Singh, came up with the idea of airlifting the troops along with Maj Gen B F Gonsalves.
However it was quite a risky idea, the troops to be airlifted had no artillery support, which meant they would be landing straight in enemy territory, open to fire. The assumption was made that the troops would face no or minimal opposition from the Pakistani forces at Raipura. It was one risky move that could backfire spectacularly too. And thus began one of the largest airlift of troops ever post World War II on Dec 9, 1971.
The troops were airlifted to Raipura, on the southern side of Ashuganj Bridge, and from there they would be airlifted again to Narsingdi, from where access to Dhaka was easy and not defended. PT 76 tanks were told to ford the Meghana River, to provide support to the airdropped troops. Gp Cpn Chandan Singh led the airlift to Raipura , and used Mi-4 choppers that were used in the Sylhet Air Lift earlier.
Around 600 troops were first airlifted on the night of December 9th to Raipura, and though there was resistance from Pakistani forces, they managed to hold their own well, with support from IAF. Over the next 36 hours, 110 sorties would be flown airlifting the entire 311 Brigade. The Mi-4 choppers that could normally carry only 14, carried as many as 23. While the 73rd Brigade moved across the Meghana River in amphibious crafts. It was one of the largest airlift of troops in military history, and carried out in 2 phases.
After Raipura was secured, the troops were again airlifted to Narsingdi, which was secured, while Daudkandi and Baidder Bazar were captured on Dec 14 and 15 respectively. One of the most successful airlifts ever in military history was carried out, giving Indian Army full access to Dhaka now.
The hero of the day was Lt. Gen Sagat Singh, from Bikaner, who had served in Iraq and Ahwaz( Iran) during World War II. Joining the 3rd Gorkha Rifles after independence, he would later command India’s only parachute brigade, and was the first to enter Panaji during the Liberation of Goa in 1961. Later as Major General, he led active counter insurgency operations in Mizoram too. He would be one of those present during the Pakistani surrender at Dhaka and was later honored with the Padma Bhushan.
Tangail was one of the major cities in the Dhaka division, the main objective here was to capture the Poongli Bridge( now called the Bangabandhu Bridge) across the other major river, Jamuna in Bangladesh. This was carried out by 2nd Batallion Special Ops of the Parachute Regiment under Lt Col Kulwant Singh Pannu on December 11, 1971. It was reinforced by an engineering team, and logistics team. Capturing the bridge, would cut off Pakistan’s 93rd Brigade which was retreating from Mymensingh to defend Dhaka.
The Paratroop unit also had to link up with the Maratha Light Infantry on ground that was advancing towards Dhaka. Landing on the ground at 4:30 PM on Dec 11, the paratroopers were greeted by a jubilant crowd of locals, some even assisting.
By 7 PM, the Para 2 secured the area cutting off Pakistan 93 Brigade from the North towards Dhaka. On the other side, the Maratha Light Infantry broke through Tangail defense, and linked up with the Paras establishing total control.1000 Paratroopers were airdropped at Tangail, one of the largest ever such post WW2. The operation involved An-12, C-119, 2 Caribous and Dakotas. IAF also did some dummy airdrops to fool the Pakistani Army.
Tangail Airdrop along with the capture of the Poongli Bridge, gave the Indian Army, space to take the undefended Manikganj- Dhaka route, sidestepping the more strongly defended Tongi- Dhaka route. The Army went all the way up to Mirpur Bridge right at gates of Dhaka.
The hero of Tangail was Lt.Col Kulwant Singh Pannu, who received the Maha Vir Chakra. Joining the 3 Gorkha Rifles in 1952, Pannu distinguished himself with his leadership during the Tangail airdrop. Consider this, the paradrop at Tangail was widely dispersed, and he had to move from location to location under enemy fire, to get all the scattered platoons together. And then guide them to capture the Poongli bridge, repulsing enemy counter atttacks. An exemplary display of leadership and courage under fire.