Riverine Operations of PN Gunboats in East Pakistan

By Captain Ejaz R Chaudhri SJ, PN

By late April 1971 the ongoing disturbances which had commenced in March 1971 in erstwhile East Pakistan had picked up momentum. The Indian trained Mukti Bahinis (Bengali freedom fighters) were all over East Pakistan waging urban and rural guerrilla warfare. The fre­quency of ambushes and sniper firing on convoys along road and river routes had led to disruption of supplies and means of com­munication. This caused continuous pressure on Pakistan army and navy elements deployed on various routes for convoy pro­tection duties.

At this stage the Pakistan navy gunboats were deployed on all riverine routes. The purpose was to support (ferry, escort and provide gun fire support) to the Pakistan army personnel in their mopping up opera­tions in rural areas and to supress the distur­bances. The navy personnel gunboats had been operating in warlike conditions eversince 23 March, there was no holiday, everyday being a working day. Ambushes, snipping and clandestine attacks by frogmen using limpet mines had become a daily affair along the routes and in the riverine ports. Barisal an important riverine town located on the inland river route, had been seized by the Mukti Bahini in the early days of April 1971 and was being used by them for staging operations on the Gab Khan Canal which served as a link between the eastern and western riverine ports.

It was under these circumstances that ‘Operation Barisal’ was launched to liberate the town of Barisal from Mukti Bahinis and the dissidents/armed personnel. The Eastern Command in Dacca selected the liberation of Barisal town on priority basis due to its strategic location on the river routes. Most of the riverine traffic in East Pakistan, that is passenger ferries and coastal barges transited through the narrow but deep Gab Khan canal which connected the north-eastern cities of Chandpur, Camilla, Narayanganj, Dacca and Chittagong with Khulna, Jessore and Chalna ports in the west. The eight-mile long Gab Khan Canal (known as the Suez Canal of East Pakistan) though very narrow and vul­nerable to navigational hazards, ambush and attacks was the shortest and the most viable river route for ferries, coasters and of course, the gunboats.

Deployment of Naval Forces for ‘Operation Barisal’ was coordinated by Headquarters, Eastern Command Dacca. The naval gunboats PNS Jessore and Rajshahi based in Chittagong were dispatched to Narayanganj at full speed to embark troops, The boats arrived there on 24 April 1971 and commenced embarking infantry elements of 6 Punjab Regiment. A ferry boat acquired from the forest department was also used for ferrying same troops of the 6 Punjab Regiment. About the same time PNS Comilla and a small ferry berthed at PNS Titumir at Khulna in the west commenced embarking troops of 22 Frontier Force Regiment.

Troops of both the regiments had recently arrived in former East Pakistan and were completely new to the terrain and environment. This being their first joint operation in former East Pakistan, the GOC had taken it upon himself, to personally brief the Battalion Commanders on the specifics of the operation. Interestingly, Major Raja Nadir Pervez SJ, who had won the first Sitara-i-­Jurrat of the 1965 Indo-Pak War was the Company Commander of the 6 Punjab Regiment troops which had boarded PNS Rajshahi.

The task assigned to the navy gunboats was to transport the troops/equipment of the infantry regiments to the area of operations and to land them at a suitable site on the out­skirts of Barisal; thereafter, the gunboats were required to patrol the river approaches to Barisal, whilst standing by to provide fire cover to the landed troops.

Having embarked officers JCOs and Jawans of 6 Punjab/22 Frontier Force Regiments onboard, the gunboats accompa­nied by the ferries sailed from their respec­tive locations at midnight on 25 April 1971 for ‘Operation Barisal’. The voyage of the respective craft from Dacca and Khulna to their destination Barisal remained unevent­ful, except for the navigational dangers asso­ciated with night sailing through rivers with their numerous bends and curves.

Gunboats Jessore, Rajshahi and the ferry coming from Dacca arrived at the outskirts of Barisal via river Meghna. Gunboat Comilla and the terry carrying 22 Frontier Force troops from Khulna, arrived Barisal from South­westerly direction. The operation com­menced at 0845 on 26 April 1971. The OTC (Cdr I. A. Khan) onboard Jessore tasked Jessore to select a suitable site for landing of troops embarked on the gunboats and accompanying ferries. PNS Rajshahi and Jessore were to be the first ones to disembark their troops and the ferries were to come alongside the gunboats during the disem­barking operation. PNSComilla was to stand guard and provide fire cover for the troops during the landing and break-out phases of the operation. Army troops onboard PNS Comilla were to be disembarked after the troops onRajshahi and Jessore had established a beachhead.

PNS Rajshahi and Jessore beached at 0900 on the river bank at a site located eight nau­tical miles northeast of Barisal. Two long wooden planks were placed on the bows of the gunboats and the troops commenced dis­embarking shortly thereafter. Barisal having been under the strong hold of the militants and Mukti Bahinis, the troop landing opera­tion was met by sporadic gun and mortar fire coming from the wooded area on the flanks of the landing site. PNS Comilla nevertheless provided effective fire power to overcome the resistance. After landing the troops, PNS Jessore and PNS Rajshahi commenced patrolling the south-west and north-east river approaches towards Barisal, while PNS Comilla proceeded to disembark the army troops embarked on her and the accompany­ing craft.

As soon as PNS Rajshahi moved towards Barisal it was ambushed and fired upon. The fire came from a river-steamer MV Ostrich anchored in centre of the Y-shaped river con­figuration. The bullets mostly hit the frontal bridge screen of PNS Rajshahi, the Commanding Officer (Lt. A. Q. Khan) who was seated on the bridge chair was hit in the chest and started bleeding profusely. The Executive Officer (Lt. C. D. Bhatti) informed the OTC and had the CO evacuated to his cabin. PNS Rajshahi meanwhile was maneu­vered close to steamer MV Ostrich and fire of the gunboat’s 4O/6O Boffors machine-guns was brought to bear upon the target ship. Soon after the Ostrich was hit several times, armed militants were seen jumping over­board towards the disengaged river bank side. They disembarked into small country boats and fled towards the river banks, dis­appearing into the wooded area, while the gunboats armament continued to engage them.

The resistance having been temporarily overcome, PNS Rajshahi was maneuvered back to the river bank spot where 6 Punjab troops had earlier in the morning been land­ed. The intention was to establish contact with Maj. Nadir Pervez and request him to arrange evacuation to Dacca of the injured Commanding Officer of PNS Rajshahi by Pakistan Army’s MI-8 helicopters which were ferrying remaining elements of Infantry troops from Dacca to Barisal. However, on arrival at the river bank site, it was observed that the troops of 6 Punjab were well inside the countryside and the jungle area, fighting their way towards Barisal city. Ship-shore communication was intermittent and more dedicated towards coordinating the covering fire being provided to the advancing troops by PNS Jessore from the south-west.

Realising the gravity of the situation, Lt. Ejaz Rasool PN (Navigator of PNS Rajshahi) volunteered to walk down towards the advancing troops. About this time however, Rajshahi again started to come under fire from the direction of MV Ostrich and a river bank hide-out to which same of the armed militants had escaped. Rajshahi informed the OTC of the worsening situation and request­ed that an air strike by PAF aircraft be called in. The OTC (Cdr. I A Khan) onboard PNS Jessore concurred with the proposal and sent a request to the Headquarters Eastern Command, whilst directing Rajshahi to stand­by for spotter duties.

Meanwhile, Lt. E R Choudhri PN along ­with two sepoys of 6 Punjab started walking towards the advancing troops. There being no map of the area available, the three kept walking in the general direction towards which the troops had headed. The firing in the area was the only indication of army’s line of advance. Rendezvous was achieved at about 1400 after about two hours of walk through armed militant inflicted area. Maj Raja Nadir Pervez when informed of the attack on PNS Rajshahi, immediately directed an MI-8 helicopter in the vicinity to evacuate the wounded Commanding Officer of Rajshahi and the same was done soon there­after.

Back at the river front the situation became highly eventful as PNS Rajshahi and Jessore repeatedly directed the air strikes of F-­86 Sabrejets from PAF’s No. 14 Squadron (Sqn Ldr P Q Mehdi) on the militant-occu­pied steamer MV Ostrich and on their hide­outs on the adjacent river bank. The pres­ence of the PAF aircraft greatly helped in not only putting down the fire of the militants, but also provided a respite to PNS Rajshahi for the aerial evacuation of its wounded Commanding Officer by army MI-8 heli­copter. Additionally, the PAF aircraft responded to the call for fire of 6 Punjab relayed through PNS Jessore and struck at least two Mukti Bahini bunkers located in the paddy fields which due to being obstructed by coconut trees could not be neautralised by the platoon weapons.

As regards the situation on the riverine town of Barisal, the infantry troops of 6 Punjab were advancing slowly, but cautiously towards Barisal, armed with semi-automation weapons, LMGs and mortars. They were spread over a wide area, under their respec­tive sub-commands of 2nd Lieutenants and Captains. The troops entered Barisal a little after sunset, took over the police station and liberated the premises of the local jail and a school where terrorists had been holding pro-Pakistani elements hostage. After this the rest of the town areas were flushed out of militants/Mukti Bahini presence and a call was given to PN gunboats to steam into Barisal and secure at the Pontoon River Jetties.

“Operation Barisal” was over with mini­mum casualities, the operation was indeed a classical example of Interservices cooperation and coordination at its hest. Being the first of its kind to have been undertaken in former East Pakistan in 1971, ‘Operation Barisal’ can be rightly termed as the pace setter for many a subsequent joint operations, in which the Pakistan Army/Navy units, same times assisted by the Air Force had to perforce undertake anti-insurgency measures in the erstwhile East Pakistan. The operations were very useful for the Navy as they amply high­lighted the significant role and capabilities of small craft in coastal warfare; they also brought to the fore laudable examples of courage, devotion to duty and sacrifices ren­dered by the young officers who under diffi­cult conditions served onboard the small craft.