Saturday, December 3, 2011

Forty Years after: Reflections on the Bangladesh War

Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw talking to the troops

Swift and Secure

Reflections on the Bangladesh war by the Chief Signal Officer (Eastern Command)

The advent of the telegraph has been a major evolutionary step in communication which greatly changes the perspectives and possibilities of the Defence Forces.
A hundred years ago, on 15 February 1911, the Corps of Signals was formed as a separate arm. Since then, the world of communication has tremendously changed.
Keeping in mind its motto — Teevra Chaukas (Swift and Secure), the Corps of Signals has followed this evolution,
As we are celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the War for the Liberation of Bangladesh, the only War India took victorious to its end, we are presenting some excerpts of the memoirs of Maj. Gen. K.K. Tewari (‘A Soldier’s Voyage of Self Discovery’), who was the Chief Signals Officer on the Eastern front in 1971. The author’s reflections on the set-up in the Eastern theater before the 1971 War, are unfortunately still valid today.

When one does not have adequate resources for various tasks, one is forced to make various contingency plans. What is amazing, on reflection now, is how one was able to push through some of these plans against all odds and resistance at the time.
The resistance was at times even in the form of accusations that one was being unrealistic and too ambitious in hoping that the plans would work out. We were preparing for operations which could start any day at short notice; yet, one could not put things/resources on the ground where they would actually be required in war, for security reasons. All planning was still shrouded in the utmost secrecy and preparations had to be made in a clandestine way or as part of an overall deception plan. While the date of operations was not known, planning had perforce to cater for sudden short-term contingencies, even though one could go on with preparations for long-term contingencies.
On my staff in the CSO's [Chief Signal officer] branch, among others I had a very bright and capable Staff Officer Grade 2, who was a great support and strength to me, Major AJS Gill. One of my regrets in the service at that stage had been the failure of all my efforts to get his worth recognized through a suitable award.
Just one example for the planning and development of telecommunications would be worth quoting. For the launching of operations from Tripura as the nearest route to Dacca, we had first to establish a static civil multi-channel telecommunication station in Tripura to link it to the national network on Microwave, which terminated at Shillong. Long arguments ensued on this crucial issue because of numerous technical and other objections.
But we insisted that this had to be done and the P&T Department [later Department of Telecommunications] was persuaded to establish a VHF station at Teliamura in Tripura to give us multi-channel links from Calcutta via Shillong. After this proposal was approved, a bright P&T officer who had just returned from a course in the United States and who had been put in charge, stated categorically that this was not technically feasible.
There were three main objections raised by this officer which are worth listing. This has relevance to the question of executing projects in peace time without the overall emergency powers available during active war. One was, that this hook-up would not provide the reliable long-distance communications needed in spite of heavy expenditure. To counter this objection, we demonstrated its viability practically by using field type of portable army VHF radio relay equipment, proving that communications could be established satisfactorily from the height of Shillong, the long range notwithstanding.
The second objection was the non-availability of the required spare equipment in the country. We were told that orders for the new equipment from abroad would take many months to materialise. We could not wait. Therefore, we got a set of this equipment lifted from Nagaland area, which was under Eastern Command army control for counter-insurgency operations. We replaced that with our own army field type of radio relay equipment.
The third was the most serious objection from the security point of view. This link would be operating right across East Pakistan territory (Sylhet area) and would, therefore, be liable to interception by Pakistan. It was said that this might jeopardise operations due to premature leaks. This could not be answered easily. Our main argument was that it was better to have communications which could be 'protected' by other means such as codes and ciphers, rather than no communications at all which would result in operations not taking off properly.
This was not the end of the story. After all the clearances had been obtained, the same P&T officer insisted that a proper building be provided for the installation of their equipment. This was also done by a crash programme through the courtesy of Army Engineers. But when it was all ready, our U.S. trained friend came to 'inspect' the building. He summarily disapproved of it, saying that the roof of the building was not high enough for the racks to be fitted.
One can visualise the patience one needed at that time with so many other things happening at once. To cut a long story short, the Engineers were persuaded to raise the roof by two feet. Our troubles did not end there. We had to have the equipment moved from where it was, together with a 200-line switchboard. While all this was being moved in a ferry across a river, the boat capsized resulting in the switchboard getting 'drowned' and lost. But fortunately the other equipment was saved.
The entire incident has been described at length because it is just one example of the type of problems we faced in Eastern Command even when decisions had been painstakingly arrived at.
The point is that whatever the difficulties were and however daunting they appeared at each stage, ultimately they got resolved and I do believe it was due to another 'force' which had come into play.
Immediately after the surrender of the Pakistani Army in Bangladesh in December 1971, a Military Study Team under a senior army officer (Lt Gen Eric Vaz, later an Army Commander) was appointed to study and record various aspects of the just concluded operations, for lessons.
On the telecommunications aspects, I was asked to give one example each of the most important/momentous ‘Decisions, Achievements and Mistakes’ in my sphere of responsibilities.
My reply went as follows: Decision: the establishment of the VHF station by the P&T Department in Tripura before the launching of operations; Achievement: the judicious distribution of available meagre communication resources (men and material) in spite of a great deal of opposition from different sources including some of the formation commanders; Mistake: not to have thumped the table hard enough for more resources which were deserved by us.
Of the last, a live example can be quoted.
A source of equipment which we tapped successfully was the Ordnance Depot at Agra. As the Staff Officer Grade I (Signals) at Lucknow between the years 1957 and 1959, I had occasion to visit this Depot. It was found that a lot of World War II vintage signal equipment was lying unrecognised and unmarked in the huge sheds at this Depot. These sheds were given the name of 'LAN', standing for Local Agra Number, as they were not in the inventory of current equipment. In the middle of 1971, we had obtained permission from the Army HQ at Delhi to organise a team of technical personnel to go to the Central Ordnance Depot at Agra and recognise and pick out such equipment as could be of use to us, even though obsolete. This was done and some of this equipment proved to be of immense help during operations.
…Mention has also been made earlier about my conscientious approach to the work. In the past, during war situations or other times, and it happened on numerous occasions that difficulties would arise, I would adopt an attitude of 'fatalism'. But this time, I had a strange but powerful experience of peace in the midst of extreme uncertainty, confusion and tension and many a time amidst frayed tempers and frustration. A marked determination and self-confidence had developed in me. It is difficult to describe it in words but it can be said that it was unlike my normal self. There was a feeling and a conviction that whatever was being done was all right and that my efforts and plans would not be wasted nor fail.
The pace of work was fast and whatever resistance there was at various levels to anything we wanted to do would crumble, and smooth solutions follow all the initial turbulence. For months, the schedule was more than 15 to 16 hours of work a day with no holidays and frequent disturbances even during the rest periods. This did not consist of just sitting at an office table in air-conditioned comfort, but of travelling almost constantly to see results after instructions had been issued and making modifications on the spot where necessary.
I have always practiced a maxim learned early on in the service, namely, giving of orders is five per cent, seeing that the orders are carried out is the other ninety-five per cent. An unaccountable energy helped me to keep this frantic pace day after day without a break.
After the Bangladesh war was over, the Army Commander, Lt Gen Aurora, while talking informally at the Corps of Signals birthday dinner party at which he was the Chief Guest on 15 February 1972, remarked as follows: "What has been achieved by Signals is really a miracle. But I do not believe miracles happen. It is the hard work and devotion to duty of all ranks. Resources were extremely meagre yet excellent results were produced…"

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