It is not often that the enemy praises you on a battlefield. But the Indian Army’s Ghost Regiment in the 1971 war got Pakistan’s grudging admiration.
A T-55 tank of 63 Cavalry during the ‘Heritage Review’ of the armoured regiment’s diamond jubilee celebration in 2016 | Photo: Defence Forum India
Indian Army units strive for recognition and legacy, which come in the form of the Army Chief and Army Commander’s citations. The most coveted are battle and theatre honours, awarded after campaigns. However, even rarer is earning the enemy’s appreciation.
Poona Horse, the regiment led by Lt Gen. Hanut Singh that fought bravely in the 1971 war, earned the honorific ‘Fakhr-e-Hind’ (Pride of India) from the Pakistan Army. Capt. Vikram Batra was honoured with the title of ‘Sher Shah’. We are celebrating Swarnim Vijay Varsh or Golden Jubilee of the 1971 operations. It will be appropriate to recount the story of an armoured regiment that received the title of ‘Ghost Regiment’ from its adversaries. Pakistanis were so confused that they called it ‘khalai makhlooq’ (aliens or space creatures in Urdu) in sheer desperation and grudging admiration.
East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), surrounded by India, lent itself to multi-pronged offensives. Hence, operations were designed on four thrust lines and spearheaded by tanks, appropriately termed as Blitzkrieg. From the west, 2 Corps charge was led by 45 Cavalry equipped with amphibious PT-76 light tanks weighing just 12 tonne. In comparison, recently fielded Chinese Type-15, the so-called light tanks, weigh nearly three times, 34 tonne. Pakistan referred to PT-76 tanks disparagingly as ‘pipa’ (Punjabi for container). This prong was strengthened with a squadron of T-55 medium tanks of 63 Cavalry, inducted just before the operations.
The offensive resulted in the capture of Jessore, after a bloody battle in the town of Dograi near Lahore. Interestingly, 2 Corps (Kharga Corps) was raised only for the 1971 offensive and was to be disbanded when the war ended. But it not only carried on, it is also now the main strike punch against Pakistan.
Creation of an ad-hoc squadron
In the north, 33 Corps prong was led by 63 Cavalry with two squadrons with T-55s, having loaned one squadron to the western thrust. The 69 Armoured regiment with PT-76s was also on this axis. They overcame very stiff resistance at Hilli and orchestrated capitulation of Bogra. The 63 Cavalry had the rare privilege of having an independent armoured squadron, 5 IAS, as well. While converting from PT-76 to T-55, old tanks of the regiment were handed over to 5 IAS.
The 5 IAS, in turn, created an ad-hoc, fifth squadron with armoured cars, its original equipment, giving the Indian Army yet another additional prong. It is sheer ingenuity of the regiment that it found crews for all its equipment with administrative personnel taking on combat roles. No soldier wanted to be left out of the battle, referred disparagingly as LOB. This squadron captured Akhuara and, pushed by legendary commander Lt Gen. Sagat Singh, exploited the amphibious capability to swim across the mighty Meghna.
The so-called pipas raced to Dhaka. PT-76 tanks of 5 IAS were the only ones to reach, leading the advance of Indian forces. Surpassing all expectations, the ad-hoc squadron also assisted in the capture of many objectives. Radio and visual reports of sighting 63 Cavalry on multiple prongs and with three different types of platforms, from different directions, spooked the Pakistanis, who reportedly started referring to the regiment as ‘Ghost Regiment’. This was largely in despair and frustration, but also with some degree of reluctant awe and admiration, hence the Khalai regiment.
How ‘Ghost Regiment’ operated
In the aftermath of Operation Vijay in 1999, when war clouds were looming large, concern about the vulnerability of tank columns at night, with their contour lights on turret, giving away their location was flagged. These lights are basically meant for safety to prevent collisions during pitch dark nights. In stark deserts, they can be seen for miles. They are also identification aids with distinctive colours — green, red, amber and blue, consequently, are referred to as GRAB/RABG. Different regiments used different radio codes — Jugunu, RAB-Gi, RAG-Bajao — to operate them.
The ‘Ghost Regiment’ was directed to undertake night manoeuvre, which was to be witnessed by the Corps Commander. We had trained ourselves to operate without lights and switch them on only in extreme emergencies. This was contrary to our Brigade Commander’s caution, who had expressly instructed us to give safety paramount importance and keep the lights switched on. His favourite phrase was, “No night move without RAB-Gi.” As Commanding Officer, I was confident of the training and skill of the crew, hence I decided otherwise and took a bit of panga.
We crossed our designated vantage points, where senior commanders were sitting on grandstands, totally undetected. Wind direction, weather and limited availability of night vision devices aided us. We reported crossing the mandated report line, code-named ‘Changa-Panga’ (meaningful prank). This code name besides conveying our audacity, rhymed with ‘Changa Manga’ reserve forest, near Raiwind, where Pakistani armour normally hides.
Naturally, the column was chided for losing its way. Our counter was simple radio transmission, ‘Jugunu-Dikhao’, to show our location. Those present on the grandstand just couldn’t believe it, because we had gone past them like ghosts. Our Corps Commander christened our advance as ghost manoeuvre. He promptly ordered others to learn it. It was a panga well taken, keeping up the spooking legacy of the Ghost Regiment.