Let’s rewind to a great battle that the Indian army and armed forces won, with a bonus of a special POW
August 1971 onwards, we were living in interesting times. Talk of war was in the air and for young officers like me, in their early twenties, those were heady days. I was the Adjutant of 4 Sikh, which as 36 Sikh in 1897 had fought the epic battle of Saragarhi on the the Samana Ridge, where 21 soldiers fought to the last man while defending a post.
On November 11, 1971, my battalion commenced operations in East Pakistan on November 11, 1971. We advanced north from the Boyra salient, which is 30km west of Jessore and secured an area around Makapur village, 6 km inside East Pakistan.
We had some patrol clashes, but no worthwhile engagement took place. The main defences of Pak 107 Infantry Brigade were in a compact arc around Jessore, 30 km to the east. Since Pakistani troops were not offering battle, it was decided to advance further. On November 19, a squadron of brand new T 55 tanks of 63 Cavalry (CAV), joined us. On November 20, 4 Sikh advanced cross-country towards Chaugacha, along with the squadron of tanks of 63 CAV. One infantry company was mounted on the tanks and three other companies moved behind them on the trot. We were engaged by forward elements of Pak 107 Infantry Brigade. These were quickly scattered by tank and artillery fire. Our jawans were full of josh and were cheered by the locals who shouted “Joy Bangla”. Cries of “Jo Bole So Nihal”, the battle cry of 4 Sikh, also rent the air. Dust plumes were going high up in the air due to artillery fire and tank movement. The scene was reminiscent of the World War II movies like Battle of the Bulge.
By evening, we had advanced 20 kilometres in a north-east direction. We hit the Kabadak River at Chaugacha. Our D Company with tanks tried to rush the bridge, but it was blown up by the enemy. One of our tanks got bogged down in the loose earth at western end of the bridge. Heavy fire was coming from entrenched enemy positions located on high ground, east of the river. We firmed in on the western bank and planning commenced for attacking across the river.
The same night 14 Punjab, along with a squadron of PT 76 tanks of 45 Cavalry, had crossed the Kabadak River to the East of Boyra Salient and taken up defences around Garibpur village. This position was 10 kilometres south west of Chaugacha. At night, artillery and mortar duels continued.
At first light on November 21, 1971, Pak 107 Infantry Brigade attacked 14 Punjab with one infantry battalion and a squadron of Chaffee tanks. A fierce battle ensued, but the Pakistani attack failed. Eight Chaffee tanks lay smouldering at loss of our three. Three tanks were abandoned by Pakistanis. Major “Chiefy” Narang, our Squadron Commander of 45 Cavalry, was martyred. Captain Teji Sidhu his second in command, had a tank shell pass through his legs as he was directing tank fire, standing in his cupola. He was badly injured, but lived. These officers along with those of 14 Punjab led from the front.
As soon as the winter fog lifted, the Pakistani Air Force came down hard on us. During the day of November 21, about 16 sorties were flown primarily against the positions of 4 Sikh. The visible target for the Pakistani Sabres was our stranded tank on the demolished bridge. We repeatedly requested for fighter aircraft cover, but no clearance was given as war had not yet been declared.
On November 22, strafing by enemy Sabres continued. Four sorties each were utilised at 0811 hours and 1028 hours. Since the Indian air force was not allowed to operate, we engaged the aircraft with light machine gun and machine gun fire. At mid-day, I had gone four kilometres to the rear, to check on our logistics base. I was coming back in a jeep at about 1500 hours when I saw three Sabres coming in for the last sortie before sunset. The Sabres homed in on our positions and were carrying out high dive attacks, climbing upto 1800 feet and coming down to 500 feet for weapon release, like the Stukas one saw in the World War II movies.
Suddenly I saw a mission of four fighter aircraft come from the east and fly over me at tree-top level. My jeep swayed. At first, I thought that the PAF had thrown its entire 14 Squadron into battle to deter our impending attack on Chaugacha. I was also hearing the clatter of our medium machine gun and light machine gun fire engaging the aircraft. Then, the four fighters peeled out of formation and headed for the Sabres, which were oblivious to their presence and were continuing with the dive attacks. I realised that our Gnats had joined the battle. I stopped the jeep and stood watching wonderstruck.
Three Gnats chose one aircraft each and closed in. The Gnats fired long bursts of 20mm cannon and I saw flames erupting from the three Sabres and they plunged towards the ground. Having done their job, the Gnats gave wing salute to us on and headed back to Kalaikunda.
Now to the most interesting part of the story: two of the flaming Sabres plunged towards the ground and two parachutes opened up. The third Sabre limped back towards Jessore and made it to Dacca. One of the parachutes with the pilot drifted towards our defences. Our boys rushed out of the trenches towards the descending parachute. Sensing that in the heat of the moment, our jawans might harm the pilot, I also ran towards him as fast as I could. When I was 50 yards away, two of our jawans had knocked the pilot down and were hitting him with rifle butts. I shouted at them to stop. In the meantime, more jawans joined the fray. I had to physically move them away and shielded the pilot by standing in front of him. I calmed down the jawans and told the pilot that he was safe. A tall and fit man, shaken up, but he was putting up a brave face.
We walked to the Battalion Headquarters and the doctor dressed the cut that the pilot had sustained on his forehead. I ordered a cup of tea for him and commenced his interrogation. His name was Flight Lieutenant Parvaiz Qureshi Mehdi, aka Parvaiz Mehdi Qureshi or PQ Mehdi. He was the Squadron Commander of 14 Squadron PAF based at Dacca, and a Sword of Honour from the PAF Academy. His wife’s photo was in his pocket. I made a list of all of his items, which included his watch, 9 mm pistol, 20-30 rounds of ammunition and his survival kit. By this time, he was relaxed as he realised that he was safe. I told him that he was now a prisoner of war (POW) and would be treated as per Geneva Conventions. Surprisingly, he had not seen the Gnats and neither had our troops or other officers, as they had all ducked into trenches.
When my Commanding Officer asked him about the event, Flt Lt P Q Mehdi said that some fire hit him from below. Actually, he was climbing for the dive when the Gnat got him. Our officers and jawans claimed that our machine gun fire had brought the Sabre down. I was told to prepare an immediate citation for an award for the machine gunner. I whispered in my Commanding Officer’s ear that it was our Gnats and that I had seen the dog fight or the “Gnat Pounce”.
He was taken aback, but insisted on the citation. I packed away Flt Lt P Q Mehdi to our Brigade Headquarter. He did not say anything before going, but looked at me and his eyes said “Thank you”. His conduct, despite the shock of being shot down and taken POW, was stoic and dignified.
Eventually, our Gnat pilots and the flight controller were deservedly decorated. Our machine gunner was also decorated with a Sena Medal for his offensive spirit if not for the Sabre! Flt Lt Parvaiz Querishi Mehdi was a POW for one and a half years and had a illustrious subsequent career to become an Air Chief Marshal and Chief of Pakistani Air Force (1997-2000). His cockpit seat, parachute and some parts of his Sabre are still held by 4 SIkh as war souvenirs .He was the first POW of the 1971 war and I, Captain HS Panag of 4 Sikh, had been the one to capture him.