Book Review/ The Burning Chaffees
By Anil Bhat
Author: Brig B.S. Mehta (retd)
Publisher: Knowledge World
Pp: 338 pages in hardback
Price: Rs. 1060/-
The 1971 India-Pakistan war , the third one waged by Pakistan, since its painful birth, stands out on many counts. It was a barely two weeks long war fought in two separate theatres that severed off the distant Eastern half of the then 24 years old Pakistan and also which liberated that Eastern chunk to become Bangladesh. Two other reasons for the military uniqueness of that war was that it featured amphibious tanks actually fighting afloat and it ended with 93,000 Pakistan armed forces personnel surrendering to Indian Army, after being surrounded by it from all around. It was this West Pakistani force, aided by local Razakars, which had killed over 3 million Bengalis in the largest ever genocide since the Holocaust and raped up to 4,00,000 women. A determined group of Bengali youth who formed the MuktiVahini (freedom force) were trained by Indian Army and became a valuable asset in operations against the rogue and barbaric Pak army.
The title of the book refers to Pak army’s Chaffee tanks of American make deployed in East Pakistan.While there are some books and writings on the 1971 Indo-Pak war, including armour actions in the Western sector, this is the first book to focus on the operations of Indian Army’s three armoured regiments deployed in the Eastern sector during that war, beginning with leading the advance of Indian Army into East Pakistan.These regiments were 45 Cavalry (Cav) and 69 ArmouredRegiment (AR), equipped with amphibious PT-76 and 63 Cav, equipped with T-55 tanks- both manufactured and sold to India at political prices by the former USSR.
Another aspect of this book is that it records the combat experiences of young officers and their troops, the ‘cutting edge’ of the nation’s military power. The junior leaders– blooded in battle- lead, performed, accomplished and also, some died, to bring victory and glory to their unit and the nation. How despite contrary orders, deficiency in planning and paucity of logistics, the miracle of success was achieved,remained, as it often does, under a veil of secrecy. The author, then a young officer, lifts that veil to present an accurate and unbiased account of how 45 Cav, the only regiment raised post- independence with a mixed class composition, led the Indian advance into erstwhile East Pakistan and fought there.
After 45 Cav’s C squadron commander got killed, the author took command. This squadron completely destroyed Pak army’s 3(Independent) Armoured Squadron and badly mauled its two infantry battalions and a company of the reconnaissance and support battalion, at Garibpur on 21 November 1971. The squadron then led the advance of HQ 9 Infantry Division through Burinda – Jessore – Ramnagar - Daulatpur- Khulna until ordered to halt tanks from assaulting across Bhairab River, for capture of Khulna on the afternoon of 16 December 1971.
While war brings out the best in soldiers and junior leaders, in higher echelons it also unfortunately gives way to the worst of double talk, duplicity, and deception. At unit level there is no myth or mystery as every action is transparent and every officer an open book, accepted for his true worth of merit, professional integrity and above all, character. An officer’s spoken reputation precedes him during his service and lives on even after he is no more. In top brass even the tallest may have chinks in their armor and feet of clay. It is the unit, which can and should be like afortress impregnable to all outside influences. Therein lies the strength of the Indian Army.
The book’s battle account is noteworthy for the wide range of combat situations experienced by tank crews. Some of the nightmares the author relates are destruction of enemy tanks at a range of 30 metreson a foggy winter morning; the reactions of tank crews trapped between date trees while under rocket attack by F-86 Sabres; driving through 800 metres of anti-tank minefield where trailing tanks have become mine causalities; and floating down a tidal river in an amphibious tank, with jammed water propellers and enemy’s 6 pounder coastal guns coming into full view. Such combat experiences provide valuable lessons to serving personnel. To that extent, the book not only informs and instructs but also entertains and educates the reader about the very basics of men in combat.
There is an interesting account of then Defence Minister ‘Babu’ Jagjivan Ram arriving to address a gathering of over 100 Indian and foreign journalists to brief them about Pak army’s suicidal attack plan. In an unusual display of happiness over the victory of the Indian armed forces, the Defence Minister had brought his wife along. The two together were photographed mounting a destroyed Chaffee tank. This picture fired the imagination of the Indian masses andsubtly conveyed India’s resolve to invade and destroy the Pakistani forces and ensure the birth of a new nation – Bangladesh. The other picture which reflected the mood of the nation and glorified Indian Army’s success was of Sikh troops doing an energetic Bhangra dance on the Chaffee tank with the Defence Minister standing on it.
The book also exposes Pak army’s barbarism and glaring leadership lacuna. The driver of a destroyed Pak tankcaptured by 45 Cav personnel, was cowering and when given tea by them, broke down cursing his officers and blurting out
their misdeeds.Lt Chandavarkar, the youngest of 45 Cav officers, caught by Pak army, was tied to a tree and for each question that was not answered, he lost a limb or organ. The (Pak) JCO in charge chopped off his ear lobes, fingernails, toes, and fingers and finally gouged out his eyes before shooting him in the chest.
The cruel inhuman conduct of the Pakistani troops in the presence of their officers’ was in sharp contrast to the manner in which Indian Army treated Pak PsOW. The 93,000 Pak PsOWwere pleasantly shocked at the humane treatment they got in their POW camps in India, as promised before their surrender by then Indian Army Chief, Gen, later Field Marshal, SHFJ Manekshaw.
This book, worth reading by general public, must be read by all Indian armed forces serving and retired officers,as well as those of foreign armed forces, particularly Pakistan’s.