When Sparrows Flew Like Eagles: An Insight into Signal Communications and Warfare

The 50th anniversary of India’s triumph over Pakistan in the 1971 Indo-Pak war is being commemorated across the country. The conflict, which ended on December 16, 1971, resulted in the liberation of East Pakistan and the foundation of Bangladesh, a new country. It was one of the shortest conflicts in history, spanning only 13 days. The war was a total and demeaning failure for Pakistan, a psychological blow following a demise at the hands of rival India. A lot of documentation about the Indo-Pak war has been carried out over the years through various print and visual media focussing on various aspects of socio-political conflicts of the war and its warfare techniques. While a lot of these accounts largely focus on the political repercussions and ramifications of this war, hardly any light was shed on the warfare techniques and aspects.

In many respects, ‘When Sparrows Flew Like Eagles’ is quite remarkable because of its focus on Signal Communications during the Indo-Pak war. To begin with, this is likely the very first attempt to write about the importance of soldier-signallers in the eventual conclusion of a conflict, such as the IV Corps Operations in 1971 that led to Bangladesh’s liberation. Published on November 30, 2020, ‘When Sparrows Flew Like Eagles’ is a memoir of the accounts of a Signal Officer by M.R. Narayan.

It focuses on the manifold human behaviour under stress, particularly the psychological aspects of leadership abilities needed at the intermediate and senior management levels during war or warlike events when the stakes are quite high.

He explains why signal communication is a huge force multiplier and game-changer in achieving victory in battles and, eventually, the war. He also illustrates how it can save unnecessary operational combat while simultaneously save human lives and military resources when used strategically and effectively.

Aside from being an efficient historical account, the book is immensely beneficial as a military instruction manual. This book highlights the Mantra for successful signal communication. There are two ends to every signal communication channel. It is critical that we never complain about the other end of the line and instead accept responsibility for it as well. It’s best to stick to the chain of command and avoid circumventing your immediate superiors. Loyalty brings peace and harmony. In times of war, the nation always comes first, and the corporation or syndicate you serve comes second. Only if these two are not jeopardised can you be loyal to your superior.

The book is fascinating to read, particularly for signal personnel. Several officers who participated in the 1971 Bangladesh operations have written about their experiences, but this is likely the first testimony by a signal officer. Though the narrative covers a comparatively limited spectrum of engineering communications at the Corps level – operations and maintenance attributes such as signal centres, exchanges, and cyphers are not addressed – it provides insight into the challenges encountered by an intermediate officer during wartime and the industriousness shown in solving them.

The Corps of Signals use unique code words to carefully transmit messages so that when intercepted by the adversary party, the crux of the communication remains unclear to them. Sparrow is an alias for the Signal officer In the Radiotelephony (RT) procedure followed in the Indian Army. A Tiger is a code for Commander while Lion is for a General Staff Officer. These helped to hide the formation’s level of command; for example, Tiger refers to a commander, whether he is the commander of a Corps, Division, or Brigade.

The signal officers believe there is no precedent in history for a Corps Headquarters moving within enemy artillery shells as they entered Comilla. They couldn’t have moved there unless Brigadier Sidhu and his Corps of Signals had made sure of their communications. On the night of December 11-12, 1971, the entire Corps Headquarters moved, and the functioning would have been lost if they had not gone ahead and established communication within enemy firing range.

During warfare, communications take on a strange design. When things go wrong, everyone notices and they are frequently chastised for failures and shortcomings. When things go according to plan, it’s unusual that they’re mentioned. Signals were held responsible for a number of mishaps during the Sino-Indian conflict in 1962.

The Indian Army, on the other hand, breezed through the Goa operations in 1961 and the Bangladesh operations in 1971. As a result, communication issues were rarely acknowledged and largely overlooked during the course of the operations. This myth is debunked by Brigadier Narayanan’s account in this memoir. His life experiences have taught him vital lessons, which he has underlined at the book’s conclusion. These insights from Brigadier Narayan’s personal anecdotes make this book fascinating and truly one of its kind.

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