My Memories of War – Battle of Hilli
Brig (R) Asif Haroon Raja
Receding into the past, I find many sweet memories of various events through which the 4th Battalion the Frontier Force Regiment has marched ever the years. Mingled with them are the memories of many of our comrades, the best amongst us, who laid down their lives and thus made the supreme sacrifice in the defence of motherland. We live to remember the chivalry of late Major Muhammad Akram, the courage of the late Major Ijaz Mustafa, the valor of the late Subedar Gul Mohammad, the boldness of the late Subedar Inayat, late Subedar Abdullah, heroism of the late Subedar Hisab Gul, late Subedar Razaq, late Naib Subedar Amir, late Havildar Isaf Khan, late Naik Lal Khan, late LNk Faiz and so many others. We see the hollow gap amazed to see living a meager number. True, it brings us sorrow, nevertheless, our heads rise high with pride to see their names added to the honour roll of Shaheeds of Islam.
4 FF had seen and undergone the entire turmoil in erstwhile East Pakistan from 25th March 1971 to 16 December 1971. It had borne the brunt of many a critical situation, always to leap into another with fresh vigour and high spirit. I will not dwell upon the happenings from March to October 1971, but confine myself to the battle that raged around HILLI in November-December 1971 in which I was a company commander with five years’ service.
When there was left no other option but the military action to defend the cause of Pakistan in East Pakistan, 4 FF was assigned to hold the Hilli Sector, as the border between Pakistan and India had not been clearly demarcated. The railway line running in the area was taken as boundary between the two countries, though Hilli lay on both sides of it. In view of anti-state activities of the Mukti Bahinis and the Indian threat, 4 FF was assigned the dual task of internal security and defence of motherland against the Indian aggression.
North Bengal, with River Padma to the South and River Jamuna to the East, was the largest area that a division could be called upon to defend. It covered the northern half of the western border and the western half of the northern border. The terrain was generally dry – drier than the rest of the province. The only notable water obstacle was the Tista River, which ran from north-west to south-east cutting the Patgram, Bhurun-gamari, Kurigram and Lalmonir Haat area into a separate sub-zone. The rail and road communications ran in a north-south direction; the railway closer to the border and the road almost in the middle. Since it was not possible to run a train from south to north, all the divisional supplies were sent on the 103 kilometers Bogra-Rangpur road, about forty kilometers from the border.
Hilli area is a cultivated plain with thick population. There are hundreds of ponds with varying depths all around it, with vast marshy patches south of Hilli in general area Naogaon-Jaipurhat-Panchbibi (8 Baloch and 13 FF areas). The major brick tracks are there to allow free movement in fair weather, namely Boldar-Maheshpur-Hilli track, and the other Chorkai-Boldar-Ghoraghat track. Out of the three water channels the important one is River Karatoya whose banks are high enough to make a formidable obstacle. The railway line running south to north is also 20 feet higher than the ground level.
Order of Battle
The composition of own force was as under:-
- 4 Frontier Force Regiment
- 3 x M 24 tanks ex 29 cavalry (under command with effect from 25 November 1971)
- 1 x Reconnaissance and Support Platoon 34 Punjab
- Battery 80 Field Regiment Artillery
- 1 x Platoon East Pakistan Civil Armed Forces
- 50 x Mujahids
In view of the impending attack on Hilli, 4 FF located in area Maheshpur, was ordered to move into battle location on 21 November 1971.
The deployment was as under:-
- C Company-area Chorkai
- D Company-area Hilli
- Battalion less C and D Companies-area Maheshpur
The tasks assigned to 4 Frontier Force Regiment were as follows:-
- To defend area of responsibility by taking up defensive position as close to the border as tactically possible.
- To deny line Nawabganj-Maheshpur-Khetlal within the area of responsibility.
- To be prepared to detach a company on orders.
The Enemy Forces
Information available regarding concentration, strength and intentions indicated that the enemy would launch his major effort with approximately a division plus astride axis Hilli-Ghoraghat-Giabanda with a view to dividing our troops in the north into two and dealing with them one by one. The composition of the enemy force was as under:-
20 Mountain Division (ex 33 Corps); 340 Independent Infantry Brigade Group; 69 Cavalry Regiment (PT 76 tanks); 72 Armored Regiment (T55 tanks); 1 x Border Security Force Battalion; 3 x Mukti Bahini Battalions; 20 Divisional Artillery; 33 Corps Artillery in support; adequate air cover.
202 Brigade ex 20 Mountain Division pitched against 4 FF was composed as under:
8 Guards Battalion; 22 Marhatta Light Infantry Battalion; 5 Garhwali Rifles; Squadron 63 Cavalry Regiment (14 tanks); Squadron 69 Armored Regiment (14 tanks); One engineer battalion. In direct support: 100 Mountain Artillery Regiment and one Mortar Battery. In support: 97 Mountain Regiment and 38 Medium Regiment.
Conduct of Battle of Hilli
The First Encounter
On 22 November at about 1700 hours, the enemy divisional artillery started heavy shelling on Hilli position and continued intermittently throughout the night. This was a prelude to a major Indian offensive in this area. On night 22/23 November at about 0100 hours, the enemy, superior in men and material and every strategic advantage with him, charged with fury at Hilli where D Company, commanded by Maj (now retired Maj Gen) Julian Peter was located. The battalion attack came on the right forward platoon of D Company commanded by Second Lt (now retired Brig) Mohammad Salim Khan, Sitara-e-Jurat. The platoon held out with determination and successfully repulsed the battalion attack.
However, the second attack, which came at 0130 hours, was launched by a fresh battalion with even greater resolution. The enemy hordes plunged forward with almost irresistible force. The battlefield became a mosaic of sprawling humans locked in mortal combat. The platoon continued to resist even when isolated and encircled. They fell one after the other, fighting undauntedly a numerically far superior enemy, but never at any moment did they allow humility to get the better part of them. It was during this fight that the gallant Havildar Isaf Khan, Tamgha-e-Jurat, came with his section and charged the enemy surrounding the platoon position and successfully drove the enemy back. Isaf was later killed while engaged in hand to hand fighting.
Having broken the momentum of the attack, the platoon one again succeeded in beating back the subsequent attempts of the enemy to close with the platoon. So high was their morale that their shouts of jubilation could be heard at a distance of a thousand yards in spite of the noise of intense shelling. The third battalion attack came at 0630 hours on 23 November. But to the utter disappointment and frustration of the enemy, they found this body of troops as determined as before. The enemy was once again stopped in their tracks and the attack petered out altogether. At dawn, Capt (deceased Maj) Mushtaq Ahmed, one of the platoon commanders, was sent with twenty men to contact and reinforce the platoon of Salim. On the spur of a moment, he decided to put in a counterattack. With his men he drove the enemy away, killing forty of them. In the process, he himself got seriously wounded. Salim had also been seriously wounded.
Counter Attack on Naopara
Failing to make any headway in Hilli, the enemy established himself in village Naopara with a view to using it as a firm base for subsequent manoeuvres on the right flank of D Company. On 25 November the enemy started probing forward towards the complex of villages around Bara Chingram and by the evening occupied them. He thus threatened the flank of D company as well as indicated his intentions of developing operations along track Hilli-Boldar-Ghoraghat. Such a development could not be permitted as it would have enabled the enemy to:-
- By pass/cut off D Company at Hilli
- By pass main battalion position at Maheshpur, thus forcing the Bridge Commander to commit more troops to the ground prematurely.
- Open more than two axes for the enemy who, exploiting his superiority in strength would break through towards Gaibanda with speed on the weakly held approach.
With these considerations in mind, on 25 November, the Brigade Commander, Brig Tajammal Hussain, Hilal-e-Jurat, (later died as Maj Gen), ordered an immediate counterattack on Naopara Complex. In order to accomplish the task, A and C Companies were nominated for the attack. C Company under Maj Muhammad Akram, which was located 15 miles away at Chorkai had to be pulled back. At about 0430 hours on 25 November, only two platoons of C Company could reach Boldar.
Although day light had broken and it was suicidal to go into attack, never once did this force hesitate or waver. The Commanding Officer Lt Col (died as retired Brig) Muhammad Akhlaq Abbasi, Sitara-e-Jurat along with Battery Commander Maj Anwar was positioned in a bunker close to the site of the attack. The attack went in as planned and A Company recaptured villages around Bara Chingram. The company, however, could not capture Naopara, in spite of heavy casualties because:-
- Naopara was strongly held with about a squadron of tanks deployed in defence.
- The enemy was able to bring observed artillery, tank and small arms fire on the attacking troops in day light.
- Artillery support was inadequate and no air or tank support was available to the attackers.
Having repulsed the attack on Naopara, the enemy armour and infantry succeeded in driving them back from Bara Chingram complex as well. The company suffered about 30 casualties (10 killed and 20 wounded) including the Company Commander Maj (now retired Lt Col Iqbal Ahmad). The Commanding Officer as well as Battery Commander were also injured by artillery shelling and had to be evacuated. A Company was pulled back to take up defensive position in area Tulsi Minor while C Company was ordered to return to its initial position in area Chorkai, so that it could forestall any attempt by the enemy to advance towards Chorkai-Nawabganj.
On hearing that the Commanding Officer had been wounded and evacuated, Lt Col (now retired Brig) Mumtaz Malik, SJ a former Commanding Officer and then serving on the staff of Headquarters Eastern Command Dacca, volunteered to join the battalion. He took over on 27 November and remained in command till 7 December, when Lt Col Abbasi took over again.
Counterattack on Bara Chingram
B Company commanded by Captain (now retired Major) Halim located at Boldar was ordered to recapture Bara Chingram. The attack was launched on night 29/30 November and the company was successful in recapturing its objective.
On night 30 November/ I December the isolated positions at Boigram-Eidgah were also recaptured. A lot of enemy arms and equipment was recovered. Thus on this night, the entire 4 FF position was restored, except for one platoon position on the right flank of D Company at Hilli, on the home side of railway line.
On 30 November, the enemy, about battalion strength and supported by a squadron of tanks, advanced towards Dangapara railway station and established himself in area Raibagh. This manoeuvre was undertaken by the enemy with a view to threatening the right flank of Hilli position and also gaining access to Chorkai-Ghoraghat. Accordingly 4 FF was redeployed as follows:-
1. A Company commanded by Maj (now retired Brig) Asif Haroon along Tulsi Minor and to be prepared to attack Naopara.
2. B Company under Halim in area Bara Chingram-Bisapara-Boigram
3. C Company commanded by Maj Akram to advance from area Chorkai, clear area up to Raibagh and to push the enemy back into his territory. This action was planned to:-
- Eliminate and secure the enemy position on the railway line in front of B Company and partially in front of D Company.
- Eliminate the natural bridgehead as well as the covered approach and concentration area of the enemy at Hilli.
- Improve the overall defensive position of the battalion by basing the defences along a natural obstacle in the form of nullah passing through Hilli village.
- Threaten the enemy flank and rear, thus surrounding him from three directions and making his defence opposite Hilli untenable.
- D Company commanded by Maj (now retired Maj Gen) Julian Peter to continue to defend area of responsibility at Hilli.
Maneuver of C Company
C Company under the inspiring leadership of Maj Akram (Shaheed) performed prodigious feats of valour. This company succeeded in recapturing area up to Raibagh on night 1/2 December and continuously kept pushing the enemy back until by 3 December, it succeeded in throwing the enemy back into his territory. This phase of closing in with the enemy from a flank and rear entailed a daring, imaginative and strenuously tiring process of creeping forward by leap-frog tactics. This was performed with admirable skill and tenacity. The company finally took up defensive position, three platoons up between Raibagh and the nullah on its west, covering a frontage of about 4000 yards.
The threat, which had developed on its left flank and rear, was indeed a serious one and the enemy reacted violently. Aided by his preponderance in number, weapons and tanks, he exerted heavy pressure on this company and attacked again and again. The enemy attacked four times on night 4/5 December and continued till the morning of 5 December. All the attacks were directed against the left forward platoon commanded by Subedar Gul Mohammad (Shaheed) and where the Company Commander Maj Akram, NH (Shaheed) was also located. Despite the fact that the odds were so grossly uneven, the fire and spirit of this indomitable force kindled as brightly as ever. It kept the enemy at bay, knocking out many of his tanks, and inflicted heavy causalities on him. 2nd Lt (died as Maj Gen) Shakeel Tirmizi, the company officer, and Subedar Gul Mohammad (Shaheed) performed feats of outstanding bravery and valour.
The performance of Major Akram, NH (Shaheed) needs no emphasis whatsoever. A tall, lean officer, he neither raised his voice or swore; his calm voice, giving crisp orders to his men, never once wavered or shook. He was composed and strong at all times. His subordinates having an occasional look at him would get strong and calm in their turn. They continued to hurl back one assault after another and each attack was repulsed summarily and bloodily. Major Akram, after having destroyed three tanks and while attempting to engage a fourth tank with a 40 mm rocket launcher, was shot through his eye and throat by a .50 bullet. A great stalwart, who died with his boots on. Death comes to all, but great achievements raise monuments which endure.
While the attacks were continuing on C Company, the enemy having miserably failed to make any headway in Hilli area, launched a fresh offensive with 66 Mountain Brigade supported by 69 Cavalry through the gap between Dinajpur and Chorkai. This force succeeded in securing Phulbari and then advanced on to Chorkai, securing it by last light of 4 December.
While this manoeuvre was in progress my A Company, located along Tulsi Minor, was ordered to move to area Baduria and to take up defensive position by the morning of 2 December. This was to forestall enemy armour threat developing from that direction. I remained there till 5 December and during this period my position was subjected to heavy artillery fire and air attacks. On 5 December I was ordered to take over C Company since Maj Akram had been martyred in action and the company officer Tirmizi as well as the senior JCO Mohammad Din were wounded.
On my way to C Company, I saw the brave men of this company being evacuated. I saw some living with their skulls blown, others without jaws or arms or legs. On reaching the left forward platoon, which had been subjected to continuous attacks by the enemy and where Major Akram lay dead, I found the strength of the platoon reduced to the meager number of seven which included the wireless operator. Whatever strength I had, I quickly redeployed them and visited my other two platoons and gave them specific tasks. My presence cheered them up. The left forward platoon positions, where I was located, remained under intense artillery and observed tank fire. The enemy was positioned approximately 100 yards from my position. As such any movement brought observed fire.
At about 2000 hours, the intensity of fire increased manifold and I appreciated that another attack was in the offing. In order to make our presence felt to the enemy and to deceive the enemy about our strength, I thought that there was a requirement of returning the fire and that too from trench to trench. I quickly occupied the right forward trench and Sepoy Nawab, my intelligence Sepoy, occupied the left forward trench. As soon as I got into the trench, my apprehensions came true. In the moon-light I could distinctly see the figures of men lined up for the assault. I at once opened fire and so did the occupant of the other trench. We repeated this process for sometime from different trenches and soon I could see the enemy moving back and melting away. The attack had been repulsed. The little piece of convulsed earth was still held. The enemy again increased the intensity of their artillery and tank fire. I can recall the sky resonant with shrieking missiles of death and everywhere the stench and utter desolation of a stricken battlefield. This small body of troops had braved withering fire and resisted the opponent with tenacity.
The enemy force that had occupied Chorkai, turned south along Parbatipur-Hilli railway line in direction of Hilli till at about 2300 hours it gained contact with C Company position from the rear. My company was caught between the anvil and the hammer. Despite the heavy odds, the fire and spirit of these men under my command remained sky high. The remnants of the soldiers were not abandoning the fight as long as they lived and had the means to resist. At about 0100 hours on 6 December, I was ordered by my Commanding Officer to extricate my company from the closing jaws of the enemy and get deployed in area Boldar. In the light of new developments, C Company position had lost its tactical significance and as such it was pointless for it to remain there. The company had to fight its way out in small platoon groups, platoon by platoon. My most precarious experience was the evacuation of the dead bodies of Maj Akram and Sepoy Lal Khan, which were lying 50 yards ahead of forward trenches. I will narrate the details of this occurrence separately.
On 6 December, the enemy main column secured Nawabganj and succeeded in establishing bridgehead across River Karatoya. On 7 December, this column hit Rangpur-Bogra road at Pir Ganj.
At about 1500 hours on 11 December orders were received from Brigade Headquarters to extricate and concentrate in area Khetlal for further operations. The orders to withdraw came as a mortifying surprise. 4 FF had remained indisputably the “King of the Castle” at Hilli, despite the enemy’s repeated efforts. They yielded at time only to recoil with renewed vigour. Every offensive of the enemy was brought to a complete standstill. The withdrawal orders had to be given since the top brass well knew that every minute was seeing a new widening between the fighting groups. This would eventually lead but to one outcome – we would have been isolated and destroyed piecemeal. Thus Hilli was vacated on the evening of 11 December. The enemy could step in only once we had left. The battle of Hilli had come to an end.
The 26-mile march to Khetlal was indeed hazardous and onerous. It was a perilous task to get out of the noose which the enemy had tightened around us. However, we waited for the darkness to set in and then fought our way out, each company moving on different axis. Having reached Khetlal on the morning of 12 December, we were ordered to move to Bogra where the brigade Headquarters, the second battalion of the brigade, affiliated field regiment and other minor units had concentrated with a view to taking up fortress defence.
4 FF (popularly known as BAWANJA) has earned great laurels through its sacrifices. By way of causalities, 4 FF lost some of its finest and bravest and indisputably outstanding officers, JCOs and men. During the 19 days battle, we lost one officer, six JCOs and 100 men. Seven officers and 104 other ranks got injured in combat actions. They were our very best who proudly offered their lives for the supreme sacrifice. There is no greater eloquence to portray our humble contribution in the national cause other than the causalities that we suffered in the battle of Hilli.
This number indeed is appalling which has no parallel in the history of Pakistan Army. But this is the price 4 FF paid to buy some more dazzling pages of our proud history in general and to the PIFFERS in particular. Let these Shaheeds be our guides and illuminate the path to greater national glory. Their sacrifice shall never go in vain. Through the bloody haze of the last reverberating shot, we shall always see a vision of grim, gaunt, ghastly men of 4 FF, still unafraid. They died hard, not gently like a stricken dove folding its sings in peaceful passing, but like a wounded wolf at bay, with lips curried back in sneering menace.
The chivalry of 4 FF has been acknowledged by friend and foe. In the books titled “Crises in Leadership” written by Maj Gen Fazl-e-Muqeem, ‘Great Betrayal’ by Lt Gen AAK Niazi, ‘My Memoirs’ by Gen Gul Hassan and ‘The Story of My Life’ by Maj Gen Tajammal Hussain, a special mention of Battle of Hilli has been made. Similarly all authors from across the border and those who fought 4 FF at Hilli have lauded the fight put up by 4 FF in 1971 war. To quote some are: ‘Victory in Bangladesh’ by Maj Gen Lachman Singh, ‘The Lightening Campaign’ by Maj Gen DK Palit (pages 16, 74, 110 and 123); Surrender at Dacca by Lt Gen JFR Jacob and an article written by Lt Col Diljit Singh in Indian Defence Review, July 1994 and October-December 1994 editions.
N.K. Doval in “Times of India” of 13 March 1972 wrote: “During the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War, almost all battalions of the Guards Brigade (Indian 202 Brigade) were committed to the fronts. But it was at Hilli in North Western Bangladesh, that it fought its most intrepid action. In this battle, its men were pitched against the 4th Frontier Force, the crack battalion of the Pakistan Army”. Maj K.C. Praval wrote in his book ‘Indian Army after Independence’: “Hilli was amongst the hardest fought battles”. Maj Gen Rajendra Nath wrote in his book: “The battle of Hilli proved the futility of attacking well fortified places”. Dr Mankekar in his book ‘Pakistan Cut to Size’ (pages 45, 55, 77 and 121) writes at one place: “At Hilli, they held their ground with admirable tenacity. Battle of Hilli was the toughest of all”.
The significance of battle of Hilli can be gauged from the fact that after the termination of the war, a special team of experts was sent to Hilli on the express orders of Indian High Command to study in detail the siting and defence work of 4 FF. The team carried out thorough ground study of the said defences and put up a comprehensive report for their future benefit. The Bangladesh Army also included ‘Battle of Hilli’ in the syllabus of its National Defence College and other training institutes.
The writer is a freelance column writer, a defence analyst and a historian. His new book ‘Battle of Hilli’ is in the pipeline. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org