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Battle of Garibpur: How did Indian PT-76 tank defeat American tanks in Pakistan?


The Battle of Garibpur was a strategic battle in which the troops of 14 Punjab exhibited rare courage, grit and determination. It was the first main battle of the 1971 War, which was a significant military victory that blunted the enemy’s counter-attack capability. The extensive damage and heavy losses suffered in the first encounter left a significant impact on the Pakistan Army’s ensuing operations and adversely affected their morale.

by Col Vijay Gidh (Retd)

The ‘Lightning Campaign’ to liberate Bangladesh during the Indo-Pak War 1971 was one of the finest moments in Indian history. One of the main factors leading to the fall of erstwhile East Pakistan was the low morale of Pakistan Armed Forces. While various factors are attributable to this lowering of morale, one major factor was the famous ‘Battle of Garibpur’ fought in India’s favour in the initial stages of the war.

This key battle fought on 21-22 November 1971 before the Indo-Pak War was officially declared on 03 December 1971, was the first major battle in East Pakistan where a single infantry battalion 14 Punjab (Nabha Akal) supported by a squadron of armour successfully fought a Pakistani brigade.

Amphibious tank PT-76 manufactured by the Soviet Union
Amphibious tank PT-76 manufactured by the Soviet Union

The situation on the Indo-Pak border was worsening due to genocide by the Pakistan Army in early 1971. In view of the military actions by the Mukti Bahini, Pakistani forays and provocations inside Indian Territory increased, leading to Indian casualties. 14 Punjab was concentrated near the International Border (IB), where it was tasked to train the Mukti Fauj volunteers, as also neutralize an enemy Border Out Post, so as to successfully dominate the border and ‘No man’s land’ across the Kobadak River. By end November 1971, the enemy actions had reached a level where it became necessary to protect Indian interests by occupying selected enclaves in East Pakistan.

14 Punjab (Nabha Akal) under the able command of Lt Col (later Brig) was initially tasked to occupy a Battalion defended area in Fatehpur, located 6 kilometers inside East Pakistan which was well dominated by enemy patrols. The task was later revised “To secure area of Garibpur by first light 21 Nov 1971”. Located in Bayra salient, Garibpur lies astride the highway from India to Jessore via Chaugacha. The village located in the north-west of what was East Pakistan, was an important crossroad for both nations. Its control created a road map for Indian forces to eventually defeat Pakistani troops in December 1971.

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14 Punjab, along with ‘C’ Squadron, 45 Cavalry equipped with 14 PT-76 tanks occupied the Garibpur position by last light on 20 November 1971. The defences were ready by early morning 21st. The move was supposed to be a surprise, but following a skirmish with an enemy patrol on 20th morning, the Pakistanis were alerted of the impending attack. A Battalion of Pakistani 107 Infantry Brigade was located at Chaugacha, while the remainder Brigade and 9 Infantry Division was in Jessore. Since the Garibpur position outflanked the Pakistani Battalion at Chaugacha, there was violent response by Pakistani 107 Infantry Brigade to 14 Punjab’s entry across the Bayra salient.

At 6 am on 21 November, the enemy launched a Brigade size attack supported by a squadron of armour equipped with M24 Chaffee tanks. Possessing numerical superiority, Pakistani troops were in a position to decimate the Indian intrusion. But the Punjab Battalion, known for its long history of valour rose to the occasion splendidly and thwarted the attack, ably supported by the armoured squadron. Two more infantry-tank attacks which followed later were beaten back resulting in heavy casualties to the enemy. By about 8:30 am, the enemy’s momentum of assault petered out and the winter sun, now through the rising fog, revealed large number of enemy casualties and destroyed tanks.

PT-76 Tank
PT-76 Tank

Around 9 am, three enemy F-86 Sabres strafed the Battalion defences, knocking out one PT-76 tank and injuring some troops on the ground. Another air attack later at 10 am fared no better for the Pakistanis and it was clear that Nabha Akal had carried the day. Around 2:30 pm the same day three more Pakistani aircraft roared in. Suddenly, four Indian Gnat aircrafts from No 22 Squadron based in Kalaikunda appeared in the sky. In the first air combat between the two sides since the 1965 war, all three enemy aircraft were shot down in the ensuing dog-fight. Two of the Pakistani pilots Flying Officers Khalil Ahmed and Parvez Mehdi Qureshi ejected safely but were captured by the Mukti Bahini and handed over as Prisoners of War.

The troops on the ground had an uninterrupted view of this air battle, which gave the Battalion a tremendous fillip. Once more the diminutive Indian Gnats flown by the three IAF pilots had established its mastery over the Sabre jets. The result was that since the interception of the three Sabres over Garibpur, the PAF stopped sending fighter-bombers to support own troops and the Indians were now free to continue their advance towards Jessore.

Mi-4 helicopter with two PT-76 tanks as part of 1971 war
Mi-4 helicopter with two PT-76 tanks as part of 1971 war

Interestingly, Khalil Ahmed’s elder brother Aziz Ahmed was later one of Pakistan’s most popular High Commissioner to India. Parvez Qureshi, a Sword of Honour at the PAF Air Force Academy, later on became the Chief of Air Staff of the Pakistan Air Force in 1997. Don Lazarus (then a Flying Officer) who had shot him down in 1971, sent him a congratulatory letter to which Qureshi kindly replied and complimented Lazarus for the ‘fight’ shown by IAF pilots that day. Gp Capt Lazarus still preserves this letter and it speaks volumes of soldiering, chivalry and honour on both sides!

The Battle of Garibpur had many national and international repercussions and led to interesting results on both sides. Gen Yahya Khan declared a National Emergency in Pakistan and complained to the UN Secretary General, U Thant, about India violating the UN Charter. On the Indian side, Mrs Indira Gandhi announced India’s determination to match the Pakistani response.         On the tactical level, the battle forced the Pakistanis to vacate Chaugacha without a fight. Later when the war was fully joined in early December, this resulted in own 9 Infantry Division to close up almost halfway upto Jessore, which was its initial objective. The Battle of Garibpur was a decisive victory, where Nabha Akal and attached troops fought magnificently.

It not only blunted a Brigade sized attack supported by enemy armour and PAF, but in the process two Pakistani infantry battalions (6 Punjab and 22 FF) and 3 Independent Squadron were badly mauled. It neutralized 14 Chaffee tanks including three captured in running condition, large number of arms and ammunition. Six enemy Prisoners of War apprehended by 14 Punjab confirmed the identity of these Pakistani units. Three enemy aircraft were lost in the air battle while 300 soldiers were killed and wounded. Own losses were 28 killed and 42 wounded and four PT-76 tanks destroyed.

Indian army soldiers on Captured Pakistani Tank M-24
Indian army soldiers on Captured Pakistani Tank M-24

The Battle of Garibpur brought many well deserved gallantry awards to the Battalion. While Lt Col RK Singh was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra, the unit earned another MVC posthumously, two VrCs and two Sena Medals. The attached troops won one MVC, two VrCs and two Sena Medal. The three IAF Gnat pilots who shot down the Sabre jets were awarded a VrC each.           After the War, Pakistan ordered a Commission under Chief Justice Hamoodur Rahman on the defeat of the Pakistani Army during the 1971 conflict. An extract of the report mentioned that Brig Mohammad Hayat, former Commander 107 Brigade, 9 Infantry Division, East Pakistan be tried for by court martial for not formulating a sound plan for the defence of the Jessore fortress and failing to properly plan and command the Brigade counter-attack at Garibpur.

During Vijay Diwas 2013, Brig RK Singh was part of an Indian delegation consisting of 1971 War Veterans which visited Bangladesh, where he got an opportunity to visit the battlefields at Garibpur after 42 years! A small memorial with an epitaph commemorating the Battle of Garibpur is located astride the road leading to Garibpur, a tiny and predominantly agricultural hamlet. A high school has been constructed at Garibpur village, and another monument erected near a mango tree in an open patch in the school premises to commemorate the martyrs – both Mukti Bahini and Indian soldiers of the Liberation War.

The people of Garibpur and surrounding areas are ever grateful for the contribution and sacrifice of the Indian soldiers. Some villagers say that a few graves of Indian martyrs are located there and the farmers still recover tank shells and odd bullet empties from their fields – a stark reminder of the fierce tank and infantry battle between the Indian and Pakistan armies during November 1971. During his interaction with the Bangladesh Chief of Army Staff and other dignitaries, Brig RK Singh suggested that a War Memorable be constructed at Garibpur in honour of the martyrs. Some Bangladesh officers mentioned that the Battle of Garibpur is enacted by their battalions as part of an exercise organized for troops to draw many useful lessons. There is a war museum at Jessore Cantonment which contains artifacts, photographs and other items from the ‘Liberation War’.

Brig RK Singh had written a book, ‘The Battle of Garibpur, Indo-Pak War 1971’ in 2013, which is the Commanding Officer’s account and personal reminiscences of the Battle of Garibpur.

After a brief account of the 268 year old history of the unit, the erstwhile Nabha Akal Infantry before independence and events leading to the Liberation of Bangladesh, the book vividly describes the conduct of the battle.

A unique feature of the 2014 revised edition of the book is the Chapter on ‘Battle of Garibpur in Retrospect’, in which he lucidly describes his visit to Bangladesh in 2013. Inclusion of original photographs of the battle area, the air battle at Bayra and the author’s recent visit to Bangladesh enhance the attractiveness of the book.

One of the photographs depicts 14 jubilant officers and men of the unit atop a captured Pakistani Chaffee tank bearing number 14 in Urdu. Some veterans of the Battalion including Brig RK Singh were planning a trip to the battlefields of Garibpur in 2015. However, the proposed visit could not materialize and unfortunately Brig RK passed away in February 2016. During the recent visit of the Bangladesh PM, Sheikh Hasina to India, Sub Malkiat Singh, MVC (Posthumous) was one of the martyrs of the 1971 Liberation War, whose families were honoured by the PMs of both the countries. The Commanding Officer and Subedar Major of the unit were invited for the ceremony in New Delhi on 08 April 2017.

The Battle of Garibpur was a strategic battle in which the troops of 14 Punjab exhibited rare courage, grit and determination. It was the first main battle of the 1971 War, which was a significant military victory that blunted the enemy’s counter-attack capability. The extensive damage and heavy losses suffered in the first encounter left a significant impact on the Pakistan Army’s ensuing operations and adversely affected their morale.

This eventually paved the way for the Indian victory over Pakistan 43 years ago. One of these Pakistani Chaffee tanks captured in running condition by 14 Punjab occupies a place of pride in the Punjab Regimental Centre at Ramgarh Cantonment today.

Col Vijay Yeshvant Gidh, VSM (Retd), an alumnus of RIMC and NDA was commissioned in 13 Punjab (Jind) in June 1976. He has served as an Instructor in NSG Training Centre, Manesar and BM of an Mtn Bde in high altitude in Sikkim. He was 2IC of 14 Punjab (Nabha Akal) during the UN Mission in Angola, and later commanded the unit for four years – in J&K, Manipur and Nagaland. Col Gidh has also been Commandant, The Punjab Regimental Centre, Ramgarh Cantt. He enjoys writing and travelling to remote places. The family visited the Italian battlefields where their unit had fought during World War II.

SOURCE : faujiindia


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