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India’s army dished out its own style of ‘Lightning War’ to free a nation.

When we think about modern war, we tend to think of the Western world. After all, modern wars require global reach, mass armies and high technology, and only the United States and some European nations have been wealthy enough to afford them. As a result, only their wars can offer us useful lessons in the military art. They are the only ones we need to study, right?

Wrong. Forty years ago two South Asian states fought a war that deserves more attention than it gets. India and Pakistan had already gone to war twice. Both had been indecisive encounters that amounted to little more than jostling along the northernmost sector of their mutual border. This one would be different, and for India the third time would be the charm. The 1971 war, now scarcely remembered, would see the Indian army pulling off one of the century’s most complete and decisive victories.

The 1971 war arose out of two factors. First, the troubled end of the British Raj in 1947 had created two rival states: the secular democracy with a Hindu majority known as India and the Islamic state called Pakistan. Fighting between the two soon broke out over the disputed northern territory of Kashmir—indeed, it has never really stopped to the present day. Pakistan’s original composition as a bipartite state comprising two “wings,” known as West and East Pakistan, was a source of much strategic concern for the Indians, who could at any time be confronted by a war on several fronts.

The second source of Indo-Pakistani tensions was domestic wrangling within Pakistan: Wealth and political power were concentrated in West Pakistan, while the Bengali people of East Pakistan increasingly came to see themselves as second-class citizens, even though they were a majority of Pakistan’s total population. A dissident political movement, the Awami League, gained popularity in the late 1960s under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and in March 1971 open revolt broke out in East Pakistan. Local units of the Pakistani army, elements of the East Bengal Regiment, joined the uprising, which soon grew into a full-fledged civil war.

Pakistani dictator General Yahya Khan responded to the revolt with a ruthless military crackdown known as Operation Searchlight. The army airlifted two infantry divisions, the 9th and 16th, into East Pakistan by civilian jetliners to join the 14th, headquartered in the capital, Dacca. The troops first secured Dacca, then fanned out into the provinces, subduing the rebels, restoring government authority and brutalizing the local populace. The operation succeeded in crushing the revolt by mid-May, but it also drove a wave of refugees over the border into India. Humanitarian crises are not uncommon in Asia and Africa, but this was among the gravest: India, barely able to feed its own population at the time, suddenly had to provide food, housing and medical care for some 10 million refugees.

India was not blind to the strategic opportunities offered by the breakdown of civil authority in East Pakistan. A chance to dismember your immediate rival comes along only rarely. The government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi immediately began discussing a military option. India had to tread carefully, however, as Pakistan had allies in both the United States and China. Indian army Chief of Staff General Sam Manekshaw was especially cautious. He could see a way to victory, he told Gandhi in April 1971, but only if she allowed him to choose the exact moment to strike.

Timing was a complex issue for India. The best strategy in such circumstances is almost always to land a quick blow, but the last thing Manekshaw wanted to do was to rush his army into a half-baked offensive. He well knew its strengths (tough and hardy soldiers), but he also recognized its weaknesses (planning and infrastructure). Preparing for a major drive into the east would take time. “I don’t like this fancy stuff,” he once said. “My formations are not the German panzer divisions. They take their own time to move.”

Over the next seven months Manekshaw oversaw myriad war preparations. Engineers constructed assembly areas for the anticipated thousands of soldiers and mountains of equipment, as well as roads in the communications-poor eastern provinces. The army topped off stocks of weapons, ammunition and spare parts. From remnants of the East Pakistani rebel units Manekshaw established three regular brigades—plus some 70,000 irregulars—which harassed the Pakistani army in the border regions. He also arranged to supply and train the existing Bengali rebel force, the Mukti Bahini. Most important, from June to November he ran a comprehensive series of war games on the divisional, corps and army levels.

These games generated an operational plan code-named Windfall. Largely the work of Lt. Gen. K.K. Singh, the army’s director of military operations, it called for a rapid, multicorps strike—the word blitzkrieg shows up repeatedly in the planning documents—into East Pakistan, with Indian formations advancing concentrically, bypassing resistance and overrunning as much of the country as possible. With East Pakistan essentially surrounded, Singh could take his pick of approaches: from the Indian state of West Bengal to the west, for example, from Meghalaya in the north, or from Tripura and Mizoram in the east.

The main challenge was terrain. To say that East Pakistan was a land of rivers is to understate the case considerably. Great rivers, where one cannot see the far shore from the near, and a myriad of smaller ones divided the region into four large sectors: the northwestern sector, north of the Ganges and west of the Brahmaputra; the southwestern sector, south and west of the Ganges and Padma; the northern sector, between the Jamuna and Meghna; and the eastern sector, east of the Meghna. Whichever approach the Indians chose, they would soon have to cross a Mississippi-like watercourse. It was crucial, therefore, to secure all crossing points controlling inter-sector movement, especially bridges and ferries. Doing so would cut off forward-deployed Pakistanis from reinforcement and prevent their retreat into the heart of the province. And once Indian forces had penetrated the border defenses, any formation in a position to do so would strike out for Dacca.

Pakistani planning was, by contrast, much more slapdash. The Pakistani commander, Lt. Gen. Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi, faced hard choices. He could offer a linear defense of the entire 1,349-mile border, or he could pull back his forces for a defense of some central position, perhaps a strategic redoubt around the capital known as the “Dacca bowl.” The former option risked Indian penetrations at one or more points; the latter required him to abandon 90 percent of the territory he was supposed to defend. In the end he chose to do a little of both. He deployed in strength along the border, intending to give the attackers an early bloody nose. At the same time he prepared a central redoubt of 10 fortress towns. His border outposts, he said, were “like the extended fingers of an open hand.” They would fight as long as possible, then retreat “to form a fist to bash the enemy’s head.”

Perhaps, but it is rarely a good idea to pursue two strategies at once. His immediate problem was how to cover his extended front with so few troops (perhaps 120,000–130,000 soldiers in all of East Pakistan). He managed, but only by taking a few men from this company and a few men from that mortar troop, dub them a “company,” and plunk them down in a border village. The Pakistani order of battle for the campaign remains surprisingly difficult to decipher, considering that only four divisions were present. One Pakistani analyst said it was possible to use the word “cavalier” to describe Niazi’s strategy, “if that word did not have the connotation of being at least stylish.”

The war opened on the evening of Dec. 3, 1971, with a dramatic but ineffective Pakistani air strike into India. Within hours the east and west fronts erupted into combat. Both sides initially concentrated their forces in the west, where fighting broke out all along the vast border from Kashmir in the north to Sindh in the south. The back-and-forth exchanges were brutal but yielded little strategic advantage to either side. It was, in other words, a rerun of previous Indo-Pakistani conflicts.

Things were different in the east, where an Indian force of 130,000 men invaded East Pakistan. In the southwest, II Corps, under Lt. Gen. T.N. Raina, deployed its 4th Mountain Division on the left, driving toward Jhenidah, and its 9th Infantry Division on the right, aiming at Jessore. In support were two armored regiments equipped with Soviet-built T-55s and PT-76s. The Pakistanis had tasked a single division, the 9th, with holding nearly 400 miles of front. It was impossible for such a tiny force to offer an effective linear defense, and Raina’s assault columns penetrated at will, driving to the Madhumati River. As the Pakistani defenses collapsed, so did the commander in this sector, Maj. Gen. M.H. Ansari. One report had him spending most of the day on his prayer mat, while another Pakistani officer later described Ansari’s operational rating as “zero multiplied by zero.”

To the north, XXXIII Corps was having a hotter time. Its commander, Lt. Gen. M.L. Thapan, was a cautious “copybook general.” Unconvinced of the newfangled tactic of bypassing Pakistani resistance, he decided to go right for it, launching a frontal attack on the fortress town of Hilli. Facing him, too, was a single Pakistani division—the 16th under Maj. Gen. Nazir Husain Shah—stretched out in a thin cordon defense. Shah actually bragged that he had increased the number of units in his command by reducing their manpower, splitting each company in half, and “thus stretching one battalion into two.” As inept as that sounds, Thapan’s blunt mode of attack simplified Shah’s problem considerably, and the strike against Hilli turned into a bloody frontal assault. The Pakistanis had been preparing fortified positions since May, with bunkers, tunnels and interlocking fields of fire. Thapan did manage to grind his way forward, but it was an indecisive triumph of old-school tactics.

It was in the east, in the sector of IV Corps, led by Lt. Gen. Sagat Singh, that India won the war. If any part of Operation Windfall can be termed a blitzkrieg, this was it. Singh had a formidable array of force by the standards of this war: three mountain divisions, three armored squadrons, two mechanized infantry battalions and nearly all of the organized Mukti Bahini battalions, supported by a preponderance of India’s tactical airpower. Singh planned three separate thrusts: one between Akhaura and Comilla in the center; one toward Sylhet, far in the northeast; and, situation permitting, a third to peel off almost due south, driving for the port of Chittagong. The result would be an arc around Dacca to the south and southeast.

Like so much the Indians attempted in this war, Singh’s plan worked like a charm. A full-scale assault from north to south, well supported by tactical airpower, cracked open the Pakistani defenses within three days. Indian columns flanked and surrounded the strongpoints they encountered, plastered them with artillery and air strikes using high explosives and napalm, then finished things up with a sharp frontal blow. It was almost always enough to force a surrender. Air mobility also played a critical role. To assist the 8th Mountain Division’s drive on Sylhet, the Indians airlifted the 4th Battalion, 5 Gorkha Rifles, into position south of the city, preventing a Pakistani retreat toward Dacca. Meanwhile, the 23rd and 57th Mountain divisions overran the frontier defenses between Akhaura and Comilla, reaching the Meghna River in a single bound. When elements of the Pakistani 14th Division managed to retreat across the Meghna, the Indians carried out another airlift, this one improvised. It began on the night of December 9–10 and put the 311th Mountain Brigade Group across the river. With the help of local civilian volunteers, the Indians got another full brigade across the Meghna by December 14, ready to drive on Dacca from the north. The Indian army had uncovered the top of the “bowl.”

Advancing alongside IV Corps were troops of the 101 Communication Zone under Maj. Gen. G.S. Nagra. Originally an ad hoc formation intended to cover the wide gap between XXXIII and IV corps, it was a small command—just two brigades. Pakistani forces in this sector were even weaker, however, with a lone brigade (the 93rd) trying to defend 111 miles of front. In this area the countryside was seething with guerrilla activity, with whole districts already in the hands of rebel forces under Bengali leader Kader Siddique. Any advancing Indian force could expect help from these “Kaderites.”

Cross-border attacks here had preceded the declaration of war, with the Indians taking the Pakistani frontier post of Kamalpur after a stiff fight and heavy bombardment. Once war had broken out, Nagra launched a two-pronged drive: one brigade toward Jamalpur and another toward Mymensingh. Mobile Indian columns engaged in a tough little firefight at the former before bypassing it to the Pakistani rear. On December 10 the Pakistanis evacuated both towns. With Indian forces already knocking on the door of Dacca, Niazi was trying to close “the extended fingers” and “form a fist.”

It was a bit late for that. The stage was set for the climax of the war. On the afternoon of December 11 the skies north of Tangail suddenly filled with foreign-built Indian transport aircraft: Russian Antonov An-12s, Canadian DHC-4 Caribous, American Fairchild C-82 Packets and Douglas C-47 Dakotas. Within minutes India’s 2nd Parachute Battalion hit the ground. The drop caught the defenders by surprise, and their confusion was total. Indeed, at least one report came into Pakistani headquarters that the paratroopers were Chinese, come to rescue Pakistan in its hour of need. That bubble soon burst. As the 93rd Brigade carried out a disorganized retreat toward Tangail, it ran squarely into Indian roadblocks at the Poongli Bridge over the Jamuna River. The slaughter from both Indian small arms and rocket launchers was terrific. Other elements of the 93rd Brigade decided to leave the road and move cross-country, but most of them fell into the not-so-gentle hands of the Kaderites.

Dacca was now under assault from five Indian columns, arrayed in a broad arc from northwest to southeast. The Indians were launching repeated air assaults on the capital, and it was clear an Indian victory was only hours away. Early on the morning of December 16 Nagra reached the outskirts of the city. He had once been the Indian military attaché in Karachi and knew Niazi personally. He now sent him a message: “My dear Abdullah, I am here. The game is up. I suggest you give yourself up to me, and I’ll look after you.” Niazi signed the surrender that evening at the racetrack in Dacca before a raucous crowd of 1 million people screaming themselves hoarse and toasting the independence of their new nation, Bangladesh. The Indians captured more than 90,000 Pakistani troops.

It was the speed of the campaign that shocked observers. The Times of London judged it by the Western world’s gold standard: “It took only 12 days for the Indian army to smash its way to Dacca, an achievement reminiscent of the German blitzkrieg across France in 1940. The strategy was the same: speed, ferocity and flexibility.” Indian commentary was jubilant, and that was especially true of the commanders. Maj. Gen. D.K. Palit called it the “the most decisive liberation campaign in military history—giving a nation of 75 million people its independence in one lighting strike.” Well-respected soldier-scholar Maj. Gen. Sukhwant Singh saw 1971 as an epochal event, India’s first military victory in 10 centuries, a turning point in its history, which up to now had been “replete with repeated defeats, humiliations and subjugation by more enterprising invaders.”

As the years passed, Indian analysts dropped the boastful tone and subjected the war to a more critical evaluation. Much of the victory had been due to Pakistani ineptitude, after all. Many noted that the campaign’s flashier elements— the heliborne transport missions and the airborne drop, for example—would have suffered heavy losses had there been an enemy air force present. Others criticized the length of time—nine full months— it took India to prepare for the war and argued that future conflicts would require a faster response. Finally, logistics had been wholly inadequate. It was possible in this war to see Indian troops, flush with victory, being supplied by rickshaw, bicycle or ox cart, “hardly a point of pride for any professional force,” as one complained. Manekshaw probably put it best: “To say that it was something like what Rommel did would be ridiculous.” Given the circumstances, he said, victory was inevitable. “It had to happen.”

The general was being modest, however. Manekshaw and his staff operated under a set of favorable circumstances, yes, but they fashioned a sturdy plan that recognized the Indian army’s strengths and weaknesses and allowed a high degree of flexibility. They were able to adapt to changing situations at the front, and in the end they achieved total mastery over their enemy in the chosen theater of war, and they did it in record time and with remarkably light casualties. Few armies in the 20th century can make such a claim. Perhaps Manekshaw was no Rommel—who is?—but he has something next to his name that Rommel never did: a victorious war.


For further reading Robert Citino recommends The Lightning Campaign, by D.K. Palit, and Witness to Surrender, by Siddiq Salik.

Originally published in the May 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.