On November 22, 1971, a major battle ensued on India’s eastern front and it happened before the official declaration of war on December 3, 1971. This battle took place between India and Pakistan.
On those fateful days of November, the first major confrontation took place in a land battle and an air encounter that defined the first victories in the eastern sector in the war. Later on, people named the war as the War for the Liberation of Bangladesh.
Hostilities, however, had erupted earlier in the year on the volatile India-East Pakistan border, and skirmishes had been on the rise from October onwards. Garibpur was a finger-shaped land protrusion into India from erstwhile East Pakistan in the Boyra Salient.
The Pakistani artillery was using Salient and Garibpur protrusion to launch artillery fire assaults and raids into Indian positions along the border and in the depth areas.
With war imminent, both the Indian Army and the Mukti Bahini were active and engaged in aggressive domination of the enemy by patrolling and raids.
In military parlance, improvement of defensive posture is synonymous with actions both sides take to secure their positions for defensive integrity, or also hold and develop a launchpad for intended offensive operations.
The leaders took a decision to prepare for the Indian offensive by securing the area by denying the Pakistanis use of Salient by capturing Garibpur. 14th Battalion, The Punjab Regiment (Nabha Akal) along with ‘C’ Squadron, 45 Cavalry were tasked for the operation.
The attacking forces planned a silent attack on night 20–21 November and moved a patrol ahead of the main body of troops to be the eyes and ears of the main force.
The patrol unfortunately encountered an enemy patrol and a clash ensued thus losing the element of surprise. The commanding officer Lt Col R. K. Singh ordered the troops to close in onto the objectives swiftly so as to regain the initiative.
Four companies of the battalion and the squadron of tanks swiftly occupied Garibpur by 3 am on November 21 after fierce fighting. They expected the enemy to react violently and resort to a counter-attack to retake the position.
Captain M.S. Gill sent a reconnoitring patrol under and an artillery observer ahead of the position in the cold foggy wintry night. The patrols picked up the sounds of approaching Pakistani tanks as they thundered down the road to Garibpur.
A message was sent to the battalion and the troops and tanks then readjusted to face the enemy from the expected direction of attack. The infantry with its recoilless guns held the area of Garibpur and tanks were sent ahead to meet the Pakistani charge.
The counter-attack came as expected and the enemy moved 107 Infantry Brigade and 3 (Independent) Armoured Squadron of American made M24 Chaffee tanks from Jessore, which was nine kilometres to the north of Garibpur.
The first attack came at 6 am and the Squadron Commander of ‘C’ Squadron 45 Cavalry Major D. S. Narang was well prepared. He had skillfully deployed his PT-76 light tanks to defend the newly captured areas.
The assault by Pakistan was stopped in its tracks by the accurate and lethal fire from the much lighter and inferior PT-76 tanks, as the enemy lost tanks and infantry.
The section of Gnats was flown by Flight Lieutenant M.A. Ganapathy and Flying Officer Donald Lazarus. The MIGs were flown by the formation leader Flight Lieutenant Roy Andrew Massey and Flying Officer S.F. Soarez as his wingman.
This battle was a victory and a decisive one at that – both on the ground and in the air. Garibpur was held in a bold and decisive move by ground troops, one battalion beat back an enemy brigade.
In the first aerial combat of the war witnessed from the ground and cheered on by hundreds of troops and locals, a flight of Sabre aircraft was annihilated with three aircraft destroyed compared to none lost by the IAF.
Since then, Pakistan did not use aircraft in this sector during the entire war. This was the first battle fought because of the Bangladesh Liberation War.