On this day, in 1971, the Indian Army, with support from the Indian Air Force (IAF) Mi-4 helicopters, conducted the first-ever heli-lift operation of the armed forces, in the eastern theatre in the Bangladeshi city of Sylhet in erstwhile East Pakistan.
Meanwhile, the IAF continued its counter-air campaign in the west, achieving complete air superiority in the eastern theatre.
Various high-value and strategic targets were attacked in the western sector, including Kohat in the depth. Additional bombing runs were conducted on airfields that had been attacked at the start of the war, significantly limiting the operational capacity of the Pakistani Air Force (PAF) and virtually shutting down their flying operations.
The IAF expanded its air campaign to target the entire country, not just troop concentrations or exclusively military sites.
Mangla Dam power house was destroyed by two waves of Hunters, while Vampires targeted military installations along the Leh-Kargil road.
However, the most significant operation was the heli-lift of troops from the 4/5 Gorkha Regiment into the city of Sylhet, where the Pakistani 202 Adhoc Brigade at Sylhet and the 313 Infantry Brigade at Maulvi-Bazaar near Sylhet were stationed.
This operation marked the first time the IAF used helicopters to transport troops directly to the frontline. Without established procedures, army troops and IAF air warriors wrote the manuals on the fly — literally.
In support of the army's operations, the IAF bombed numerous land targets in the east, including blowing key bridges and railway lines to cut-off or delay retreating Pakistani troops.
The air-superiority in the east enabled the army and IAF to conduct Sylhet heli-lift. The General Officer Commanding (GOC) 4 Corps, Lt. General Sagat Singh, received information of withdrawal of Pakistani brigades from Sylhet.
Singh who commenced operations from Agartala, took decisions to heli-lift troops of 4/5 Gorkha regiment to Sylhet. The heli-lift commenced on the evening of 7 December at around 1500 hours (3 pm). It was instantly welcomed with MMG and artillery fire by Pakistan.
This MMG fire signaled to the Gorkhas that the information regarding the Pakistani brigade's withdrawal was inaccurate. The battle-hardened Gorkhas, having already sustained heavy casualties in the battles of Atgram and Gazipur, withstood repeated attacks by Pakistani forces and successfully held their ground.
The heli-lift, conducted by Mi-4 helicopters from No. 105 and No. 110 Helicopter Units, continued till the morning of 8 December (0800hrs). The Gorkhas, through aggressive patrolling and effective use of MMG and LMG teams, created the illusion of a much larger force, causing the Pakistanis to adopt a defensive posture.
It was only at the war's end, on the morning of 16 December, when the Sylhet Garrison surrendered, that the Gorkhas realised they had held off two brigades of over 7,000 men with just a battalion of around 400 soldiers.
This also paved way for the helicopter-crossing of Meghna and the subsequent paradrop at Tangail.
In the broader context of the war, the Sylhet heli-lift operation kept two brigades engaged, preventing their redeployment to defend Dhaka and hastening the city's surrender.
Editorial Associate at Swarajya. Writes on Indian Military and Defence.
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