Monday, February 14, 2011

I do not envy the job of the CSO: 100 Years of Signals

Maj. Gen. KK Tewari in 1961 in Tezpur

At a time when The National Military Strategy of the United States of America (2011) believes that: "assured access to the global commons and cyberspace constitutes a core aspect of US [military strategy]", it is worth looking back at the world history of communications.
The advent of the telegraph has been a major evolutionary step in communication which greatly changes the perspectives and possibilities of the Defence Forces. 
Let us not forget that it was only in 1868 that the first telegraph routes were built by the Army Signals, then under the responsibility of the Sappers and Miners.
However, on 15 February 1911, the Corps of Signals was formed as a separate arm. Since then, the world of communication has tremendously changed and
for the past 100 years, the Corps of Signals has followed this evolution keeping in mind its motto — Teevra Chaukas (Swift and Secure).
On the occasion of the 100 Years of the Corps of Signals and the 40 anniversary of the War for the Liberation of Bangladesh, we are publishing excerpts of the memoirs of Maj. Gen. K.K. Tewari (
A Soldier’s Voyage of Self Discovery), who commanded the Signals on the Eastern front in 1971. The author makes an interesting description of the set-up on the Eastern theater before the 1971 War.

Excerpts of A Soldier’s Voyage of Self Discovery
“About the time of the elections [in West Bengal] in mid February 1971, the Annual Signals Conference of CSOs [Chief Signals Officers] and Commandants was also held at Delhi presided over by the Signal Officer in Chief. The then Chief of the Army Staff, General (later Field Marshal) Maneckshaw addressed all of us. The remark he made while reviewing the situation in the country and with particular reference to Eastern Command, is worth quoting. He said, "I do not envy the job of the CSO, Eastern Army." He should have known only too well because he was the GOC-in-C [General Officer Commanding in Chief] of the Eastern Army before he became the [Army] Chief.
We had hardly heaved a sigh of relief, having successfully accomplished a most unusual and difficult task [supervising the Bengal elections], when trouble erupted in (then) East Pakistan. General elections had been held earlier in the whole of Pakistan under the military dictatorship of General Yahya Khan. Sheikh Mujibur Rehman's party from East Pakistan had secured a majority of seats, entitling his party to form the national government in Pakistan. This was not acceptable to the rulers in Pakistan who were mostly from West Pakistan. The denial of their rights brought the people of East Pakistan into the streets in protest. So a ruthless military clamp-down was ordered. It was enforced most brutally in Dacca and other places, starting in the last week of March 1971.
The result was that tens of thousands of poor miserable refugees-men, women and children flooded into India to escape the suppression which broke ail norms of decent human behaviour. We kept getting reports in Calcutta about the hell let loose by the military rulers in the whole of East Pakistan. The flood of refugees was unprecedented, nearly ten million ultimately had come into India in West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura. They blocked ail roads and caused serious problems for the already overcrowded state of West Bengal and others.
India could not possibly bear the burden of feeding and accommodating this massive influx. And with an unrelenting military regime in Pakistan, India's options were limited. It was obvious fairly soon that a military action might be inevitable. This possibility was a real nightmare. The monsoon, which broke in mid-1971, was a time when vast areas of Bengal got waterlogged. The only places which were free of water in the vast countryside other than some of the habitations were the roads and rail tracks and these were choked with refugees. How would the Army operate if it came to a military action?
It was also obvious that any military clash in East Pakistan would immediately involve a full scale war between India and Pakistan. Knowing also about the coming together of Pakistan and China-clandestinely with covert United States support, there was the added worry about a military collusion between these two countries and the possibility of a Chinese military action simultaneously on our Northern borders. Moreover, it was to be expected that insurgent activity in the border states of Nagaland and Mizoram would also increase. This would tie down more troops in a counterinsurgency role, besides the two fronts against Pakistan and China.
After the failure of an adventurist war against India in 1965, Pakistan had been feverishly preparing for the next round with the ample aid of sophisticated military hardware from their friends among the military bloc of which Pakistan was a part. It was not unreasonable to assume that the Pakistani Army in East Pakistan would have received a share of this weaponry, though the main threat was expected from West Pakistan along the Kashmir, Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat borders.
World attention had been focused on the mass uprooting and migration of population from East Pakistan to India. A large number of foreign correspondents from various parts of the world had gathered in Calcutta. There were also a number of dignitaries flitting in and out of Calcutta-not only those from the United Nations concerned with relief and rehabilitation matters and the World Health Organisation, but others too.
For strategic reasons, until then India's defence planners, had put the Eastern Command on a lower priority for allocation of resources, with the possible exception of its northern borders with Tibet. The disturbed law and order situation in our border states due to Naxalite and insurgent activities, as well as the almost insurmountable problems created for the local administration by ten million refugees, were potent additional factors to be taken into account in the operational planning at HQ [Headquarters] Eastern Commando. I personally used to feel deeply concerned.
The 29 years of my service then had been trouble free. There was also a justified sense of achievement in having done well till then with considerable operational experience in my field of work. The thought foremost in my mind was that if war were thrust upon us, there was no guarantee that we could deliver the goods; one would get the sack or 'get the bowler hat', as they say in the army.
Enough has been said by military writers about 'communications' being as vital for the success of any operation as are nerves for the human body. Here we were, dependent on the sparse, underdeveloped and indifferent P&T Department set-up for ail our trunk communications in the widely spread out areas in Eastern Command with the daunting challenge of a full scale war on more than one front ahead of us.
I had asked the Army Commander, Lt Gen Aurora in one of my earlier briefing sessions with him to let me have two things; firstly, more resources of men and material and secondly, more time to prepare and develop the necessary minimum telecommunications set-up. With a typical but affectionately understanding glint in his eyes, Gen Aurora had responded immediately by saying, "Krishen, I can give you an answer to your two requests right now. First of all, as for more resources, the answer is NA (stands for 'not available', a term commonly used by the Ordnance Corps with which most army units were particularly familiar at that time). I have been told clearly by the Chief that we have to make do with whatever we have got. I am sorry this is not in my hands. And as for your second request, I suggest that the only thing to do is for you to pray for it."
Underdeveloped and inadequate were terms which were equally applicable to the road and rail communications in different sectors in which the army would be required to operate. One can visualise the problems geographically with the wedge of East Pakistan driven into the area of responsibility of Eastern Command in North Bengal. Just to give an idea of air travel: whereas the flight from Calcutta to Agartala in Tripura took 55 minutes in an Indian Air Lines Fokker Friendship, later on when we could not fly over East Pakistan, the same flight via North Bengal took almost 5 hours.
Similar to that of the Army Commander, was the response from my departmental head in Army HQ, the SO-in-C [Signal Officer-in-Chief], Lt Gen E. G. Pettengell when I appealed to him for more resources or at least for retention of some of the resources which had been pooled from all over India in Eastern Command for the elections. His answer was, "Sorry, chum. I cannot give you anything, you have to lighten your belt yourself and redistribute the resources to meet your additional requirements." This was the stage when all planning was hush-hush (Top Secret in Army language) and one could not even scream openly for more. In any case, in the Army, the hierarchy is not used to being questioned too much about their decisions, however unpalatable they may be to those below. "Yours not to reason (question) why!"
There were other problems to be faced besides the internal security aspects of Naxalite disturbances in West Bengal. As mentioned already, there were frequent strikes and bandhs by the P&T and other essential services during which the Army had to provide aid to civil power. We had to send telephone operators to man the civil exchanges and mechanics to take care of the equipment, which in many cases was deliberately faulted. And these personnel had to be escorted to and from their places of work and guarded there too. In addition, there were frequent thefts of underground cables" and overhead copper wires used for the static civilian telecommunications set-up on which the Army was dependent.
The Army had its own, exclusive field communications only in the forward areas, but for their rearward communications the P and T provided the trunk set-up on which circuits, both speech and telegraph, were hired by the Army. Everything would get disrupted whenever there was a theft of copper on trunk routes. Even when the copper wires had been replaced by copper weld wire, after a short while the ingenious thieves, found an equally lucrative trade for copper weld wire, making coil springs out of it. It was suspected that some politicians were behind these organised gangs committing thefts. I used to be deeply concerned about the protection of the P&Ts microwave towers and had to make special arrangements for that, particularly for the one on Tiger Hill in Darjeeling on which ail our communications going to the North Eastern states depended. We did not have Tropo scatter equipment [a method of transmitting and receiving microwave radio signals over considerable distances] in the army at that time.
With the tremendous load of work and responsibilities on my jawans due to the shortages of manpower, we were suddenly faced, in the third quarter of 1971 in Calcutta, with a serious epidemic of conjunctivitis. Out of my five staff officers, three were down with this problem at one time. There was nothing one could do except to reduce further the hours of sleep for those not affected. This most acutely affected the cipher staff whose duties could not be performed by any other trade category.
This was then the scenario and backdrop to the operational situation in 1971. The third war between India and Pakistan since independence in 1947 was about to begin-the first in Jammu and Kashmir in 1947-48, the second in 1965. This narrative does not intend to cover the conduct of the actual operations for the liberation of Bangladesh. It would, however, be appropriate to reflect a bit on this war which split up Pakistan 25 years after its creation.
...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 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. I had mentioned earlier that I could not get adequate awards for some of the really deserving cases in the 1962 War against China. However, more than five years after my retirement, when I was invited by the Commandant of the Military College of Telecommunication Engineering at Mhow to conduct a discussion with a Senior Signal Officers Course on the Bangladesh operations, I was able to partly repay my gratitude to this officer. I insisted that Col Gill be invited from his retired life to assist me for the Senior Officers Study and thus relive those days together.
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 do ne and the P&T Department 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 ail 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. White 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.
I had asked one of the staff officers who had served with me earlier as a captain and was at that time posted as the Staff Officer Grade 1 (Signals) at Lucknow, for some help with resources during those planning days. We were told categorically that there were none to spare. The same officer, as luck would have it, was posted on promotion as a Colonel as the CSO of one of the newly created Corps in our Command for Bangladesh operations. As soon as he took over, he screamed for more resources. When he was told that we had tried all possible sources and the answer had been the same, namely 'NA', he promptly said, "Sir, I will tell you where you can get them from. You ask the CSO at Lucknow. They can easily spare …(such and such) items, as they do not need them." He was reminded what he had replied earlier but then such is human nature. We did ultimately tap that source successfully.
Another source of equipment which we tapped successfully was the Ordinance 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 practised 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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