Military & Aerospace

1971 Air War: Battle for Air Supremacy
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Issue Book Excerpt: Indian Air Force in Wars | Date : 15 Nov , 2017

Crossing the border into East Pakistan at 1605 Hours, 11 December, for airborne operation

The IAF had initially deployed 10 squadrons in the East; four squadrons for air defence and six squadrons in strike role capacity. This against one squadron of F-86 of the PAF, although some inputs from defecting Bengali officers of the PAF pointed to a larger deployment by the PAF.1 But this lone squadron could operate from a number of airfields, the most likely being Kurmitolla and Tezgaon in Dhaka area and others being Chittagong, and Jessore.

In addition, air strips at Barisal and Rangpur were also bombed to prevent operation by Pak transport aircraft. Sabres could relocate between these bases in the event of their mother bases being bombed. So the IAF’s task in gaining control of the air by neutralizing this one Squadron of F-86 was not so straight forward as it would seem at first glance.

The Sabres had been attacking the Mukti-Bahini and often violated Indian air space.

The planners expected to achieve air supremacy by D+2. However, on 22nd November, the IAF managed to intercept a formation of three Sabres in Boyra salient near Calcutta. The Sabres had been attacking the Mukti-Bahini and often violated Indian air space. On this day four Gnats engaged the three Sabres and shot down all of them. Two Pakistani pilots ejected over Indian territory and were captured. They were Flt Lt Parvez Mehdi Quereshi and Fg Offr Khalil Ahmed.2 This opening round of air combat was akin to what had transpired on 1st September 1965 at Chhamb, except this time the fortunes were reversed. This was an excellent start to air operations, though the formal start of the air war was much later. The IAF pilots shooting down these Sabres were Flt Lt MA Ganapathy, Fg Offr D Lazarus and Flt Lt R Massey. This action reduced the PAF’s frequent attacks on the Mukti-Bahini and curbed their tendency of air violations.

In response to PAF’s pre-emptive on 3rd December the IAF started the air war in the East by Canberras of 16 Squadron night bombing the airfields of Chittagong, Jessore, Tezgaon and Kurmitola on the night of 3rd–4th December, flying 5 raids.3 However, the honor of initiating the air war was given to the Mukti-Bahini Air Force. Their lone Otter and Alloutte attacked the oil installations at Narayanganj and Chittagong and set them on fire.

From 4th morning onwards airfield attacks were launched by Hunters and Sukhoi-7s with MiG-21s providing escorts. On 4th a total of 109 sorties were flown for counter-air. In the night, once again the Canberras bombed the airfields in five raids. Yet, on 5th morning IAF pressed into service eight MiG-21s with 500 kg bombs on Tezgaon and Kurmitola airfields. These strikes were highly successful in cratering the runways and, thereby grounding the PAF. This also enabled 18 Hawker Sea Hawks and four Briguet Alize turbo prop anti-submarine warfare aircraft aboard the Indian Navy aircraft carrier Vikrant full freedom to attack targets along the coastal areas and ports of Cox Bazar and Chittagong.4 Total control of air had been attained. But all the PAF Sabres were not yet destroyed. Therefore, to sustain this control of air, airfield strikes would continue till the 12th December.

…on 5th morning IAF pressed into service eight MiG-21s with 500 kg bombs on Tezgaon and Kurmitola airfields. These strikes were highly successful in cratering the runways and, thereby grounding the PAF.

Indeed the IAF had total control of air, as per its planned objectives and this enabled the subsequent blitzkrieg type operations resulting in the fall of Dhaka on 15th December. With twenty by twenty hindsight, while giving full credit and acknowledging all the good work, let us now review this counter air campaign critically. First let us examine the Canberra strikes. Official history states that the Canberra strikes on the nights of 3–4 December and 4–5 December over Tezgaon, Kurmitola and Chittagong were ineffective. So the MiG-21s had to be tasked on 5th December with 500 kg bombs. The MiGs did an excellent job of cratering these two runways, which suggests that even the strikes by the Hunters and Sukhois on 4 December did not match expectations. The reasons were two-fold: one was the attack inaccuracy; the PAF was active on 4th December over these airfields, thus diminishing attack accuracy and foiling the attacks;5 the second was the losses suffered by strike aircraft on the 4th.

The IAF lost four Hunters, one SU-7 and one Canberra. Both these points need further scrutiny, the first being the attack inaccuracy. Runways are usually of a  large area which can be disabled even with fairly large errors in bombing. What about the bombing accuracy of the Hunters and the Sukhois? Their bombing accuracy must have been good, but they were tasked with rockets for counter air mission! So one wonders as to what were the aim points (DMPI — Desired Mean Point of Impact) assigned to them? In fact, Air Chief Marshal Lal admits poor intelligence about Pak air fields: “Intelligence gave no information regarding the actual location of dispersal area and aircraft pens… the pens were discovered with just nets on top, only after the surrender.”6 It is reasonable to presume that in the absence of detailed intelligence regarding airfield layout one would automatically choose the runway for attacks. Is the rocket a proper weapon to bombard a runway?

Obviously not as admitted by PC Lal in his memoirs. At this point let us co-relate another statement of PC Lal: “Air HQ took care to leave enough leeway for the commanders in the field to use their initiative and imagination tactically.” On the face of it the above idea appears to be an excellent one. But it needs to be understood that air warfare is quite different from other forms of warfare. What may be a sound principle in other warfare may not necessarily be so for the air war. Weapon to target matching is an exact science. There can only be so many best combinations of weapons to target for a desired effect. And once arrived at after theoretical study and practical trials, it has to be applicable throughout the Air Force. In this no leeway should be permitted to field commanders. So the question — Why did the IAF task airfield strikes with rockets if the objective was to make the runway surface unusable? And why the trial of MiG-21s in a bombing role on 5th December?

If IAF, during the seven months of preparation time available had done proper weapon to target matching and learnt to saturate enemy defences by launching large strike packages embedded with air defence escorts, it could have achieved Air Supremacy in a matter of hours with probably lesser attrition.

The answer to the latter question is given by PC Lal indirectly: “….They (MiG-21s) could, if necessary, fight their way out again if they encountered any Pakistani aircraft.”7 Which is an admission that Hunters and Sukhois could not fight their way out — this impression is probably a result of the loss of four Hunters and one SU-7 on 4 December in these missions. This belief  is also reinforced by the PAF claims of disrupting Hunter strikes. The PAF claims to have flown 32 sorties on 4 December and 20 sorties on 5 before being fully grounded. After this PAF fighter pilots were flown out to West Pakistan via Burma on 8–9 December.8

The losses need further investigation. Wg Cdr Chatrat, Commanding Officer No 17 Squadron flying Hunters was of the firm conviction that the Hunter was a very capable aircraft and did not need any air defence escorts.9 So he led a 3 aircraft mission (one aircraft having become unserviceable) against Dhaka and got bounced by four Sabres. He claimed shooting down one Sabre. Chatrat was lucky in that his No 2 and 3 barely managed to get away, executing a last-ditch manoeuvre. Other Hunter formations were not so lucky, even though they were escorted by MiG-21s. The argument of a Hunter in strike configuration versus a Sabre in air defence configuration was long over in the 1965 War when the IAF had lost 5 Hunters to Sabres. The PAF had claimed much more.

Therefore, the more important question was why not use Gnats and MiG-21s as air defence escorts properly integrated, particularly when they were available? It is easy to suggest a better way of doing things in hind sight — however, we still need to ask questions. If IAF, during the seven months of preparation time available had done proper weapon to target matching and learnt to saturate enemy defences by launching large strike packages embedded with air defence escorts, it could have achieved Air Supremacy in a matter of hours with probably lesser attrition. The Israeli Air Force, also with the similar acronym IAF, had demonstrated this very idea on 5 June 1967 when it attacked 24 enemy airfields, some of them 3–4 times, plus 16 radar sites and destroyed close to 271 Arab aircraft in a matter of just four hours.10

That is why one gets perplexed when one reads, “On 5 December Station Commander M Wollen suggested replacing rockets by bombs for runway attacks,”11 and “Photographs taken with a hand held camera by one of the MiG pilots showed the bombs exploding on the runway. This pilot also brought back photographs of Tezgaon airfield clearly indicating the layout, and it was most useful for briefing pilots detailed for subsequent missions.”12 With the refugee population being 10 million, which included personnel defected from the PAF, and the forays of the Mukti-Bahini into Pakistan, was detailed intelligence on airfield layout so difficult to come by? After all the IAF had done extensive photo work from 24 October onwards for the Army. Why didn’t it do a few photo recce sorties of these airfields before the war started? And what about the concept of battlefield damage assessment after these crucial strikes? In summary, therefore, it wasn’t smart planning, but the overwhelming strike force that dominated the air battle in the East.

…IAF had done extensive photo work from 24 October onwards for the Army.

Counter Surface Force Operations (CSFO)

“Due to fast moving battles and our by-passing tactics, we used air support mainly for interdiction, isolation of battlefield, and prevention of movement along the river bank of Dhaka. Close air support for ground targets was almost negligible. However, the interdiction effort was very credible… Our major problem was full utilization of unexpended sorties due to the fast moving nature of operations. However, we were able to get maximum results by switching sorties from one sector to another.” This is exactly the way IAF advocates CSFO.  —Maj Gen JFR Jacob, Chief of Staff—Eastern Command for 1971 War

East Pakistan fell in a matter of 12 days. When General Niazi surrendered on 16 December, he still had 93000 personnel who became POW.13 Terrain wise, the countryside was full of riverine obstacles, a tremendous help for any defender to slow down the attacker and inflict severe casualties, no matter how much superior the attacker was in numbers. Major General Fazal Muqeem Khan of the Pakistan Army had estimated that this excellent defence potential would force the war to last 6–9 weeks.14 Yet this did not happen. This most successful campaign for the Indian Armed forces, comparable to the best in the world anywhere, merits serious study to learn how such lightning success was achieved. And it definitely is a good template to fashion the future structure of services to counter any conventional spectrum of threat.

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PC Lal summed it up succinctly by stating, “It was the complete command of air, without any danger of interference by the PAF, that enabled our Army to move as freely as it did.”15 We have already seen how the command of air was won and, thereafter, sustained. But what is remarkable is that our ground war and air war commenced simultaneously because of the time factor. The ground war did not wait for the IAF to first achieve command of air. The IAF was confident about attaining quick control of air because of its overwhelming numerical and qualitative superiority. And also simultaneously providing the Army as much offensive air support as it needed. Simultaneous campaigns were also the fundamental philosophy of the Luftwaffe in World War II, which when combined with bold armored manoeuvres created the Blitzkrieg.16

Once the IAF attained command of air in 36 hours, it released additional squadrons, both from air defence role and counter air role, in support of the Army. Over and above this re-tasking, the IAF relocated two squadrons to the West on 5 and 7 December itself — one Hunter and one MiG-21. A few days later it again moved a SU-7 Squadron to the West. No 30 Squadron on MiGs moved on 5th December; No 7 Squadron on Hunters moved on 7th December and No 221 Squadron flying SU-7 moved West on 14th December. Nearly all air defence squadrons of MiG-21s and Gnats were now given the role of offensive air support of the Army. In fact, they continued with the multi-role tasking between sorties. That is what the flexibility of air power is all about. Thus, 60 per cent of air effort was allotted for the support of the Army.17

Nearly all air defence squadrons of MiG-21s and Gnats were now given the role of offensive air support of the Army.

For once the Indian Army operated under similar air conditions as the US Army since World War II. That is, without worrying about the enemy air force. Most of the times the air support aircraft were merely orbiting in the air,  awaiting resistance on ground so that they could provide aerial fire power in a matter of minutes. The FACs were highly effective as they operated from helicopters, Krishak aircraft of the Army Observer Posts and tall buildings.18 Often, when not demanded by the army, the strike aircraft proceeded to alternate targets, to fire their armament before returning to base.19 Two areas named Range A (Lalmai Hills, east of Dhaka) and Range B (Bhairab Bazar) were declared “open targets.”20 The following table gives the major highlights of the offensive air support by the IAF to the Indian Army:

CSFO Summary: East Pakistan

Date Effort Losses
04 Dec 61 sorties; photo recce for DZ selection 2 Hunters lost to ADA
05 Dec 104 sorties plus 4 Canberra sorties (30 x 1000 pounder bombs)
06 Dec 120 sorties plus 5 Canberra sorties (33 x 1000 pounder bombs) against Jessore 1 MiG-21 lost to ADA
07 Dec 120 sorties;  Pak Army vacated Jessore without a fight which was expected to last for a week 1 Hunter lost to ADA
08 Dec 120 sorties; extensive Canberra photo recce
09 Dec 140 sorties; river traffic sealed: 100 plus coastal vessels, barges, gun boats, ferries destroyed
10 Dec 152 sorties Two Hunters lost to ADA; one Hunter lost during force landing
11 Dec 82 sorties; CAS demands reduced; Pak tanks and a Brigade near Comilla neutralized
12 Dec 100 sorties Hunter lost during T/O at Hasimara
13 Dec 110 sorties
14 Dec 90 sorties; Hunters operating from Jessore in Pakistan One Hunter lost in landing
15 Dec 140 sorties plus 12 Canberra sorties (87 x 1000 pounder bombs)

Commenting on the excessive aircraft losses, PC Lal stated, “These young pilots, in their enthusiasm to do a job well, took more risks than they should have and tempted fate.”21 Whereas Air Marshal (Retd) CV Gole concluded, “…Most of them (the losses) were because of either wrong tactics or over confidence, the majority going down to small arms fire.”22 Also we must take into account the aircraft suffering battle damage. 30 Hunters and 20–25 MiG-21s had battle damage. Though they were repaired, better tactics must ensure no damage to begin with.23 The lesson for air warriors is clear — the job has to be done well and at the same time preserve the scarce precious pilots and aircraft. Only that can ensure that all the jobs, throughout the war, can be done well and the air force does not run short of pilots and planes. To do so, stay outside the lethal zone, and adapt tactics and weapons which will permit safe attack. If and when the situation warrants extra risk taking at a specific time, do so.

The ground troops, on few occasions identified tall buildings from where the Pak artillery observer was directing artillery fire accurately. Gnats, available close by, were pressed into service with good results.

The details of the number of sorties indicates two things. First, as control of air was attained, larger air effort towards the support of the Army was made available. Second, with more than adequate numbers of available aircraft, support was available in minutes. There is no other solution to speedy air support and the nation needs an Air Force with sufficient numbers for all tasks.

There is another interesting bit of air support by Gnats. The ground troops, on few occasions identified tall buildings from where the Pak artillery observer was directing artillery fire accurately. Gnats, available close by, were pressed into service with good results. A shortcoming noticed was the inability of Napalm to catch fire on release. Thereafter, Hunters fired their guns into the Napalm jelly to set it on fire. In addition to the above, there are two more events which need going over in some detail. One is the air support to No 4 Corps of Lt Gen Sagat Singh involving tremendous helicopter support and the other is the Paradrop at Tangail.

IAF and No 4 Corps

Similar to the arrangements with other Corps, No 4 Corps had readily available air support from two MiG-21 Squadrons; and a flight of Hunters deployed at Kumbhigram. In addition it had No 105 and No 110 Helicopter Units operating Mi-4s. Later on, two helicopters from No 111 unit also joined in. Thus, at a time these units could muster 11–13 helicopters between them for army support. The helicopters were used extensively to heli-lift the troops across rivers. This facilitated speedy movement, more so in the absence of adequate bridging equipment in relation to the large number of rivers in East Pakistan. These heli-lifts also enabled Psy-ops and helped in deceiving the Pakistanis.

Air Chief Marshal PC Lal wrote, “The airlift of a battalion of troops, by the helicopter force from Kailashahar, to a point north of Surma river virtually in full view of Sylhet to the south of the river, began late afternoon on 7 December. The noise of the helicopters and the fact that they continued to land the troops late in the night gave the impression of a large force having brought in by air. This heli-lift continued during 8th and 9th December. The Pakistani brigade at Sylhet and another brigade had moved on rapidly from Maulvi Bazar. This Pakistani force spent the rest of the war ‘holding’ a heliborne battalion, which never launched an attack against the town. The feint locked up the Pakistanis in an area of no great tactical importance and also cleared the way for a battalion to move towards Sylhet from Dawki in the north.”24

The bridge on Meghna river had been blown up by the enemy. To continue the momentum of advance, Indian troops needed to be heli-lifted across the Meghna.

Discussions and planning for such eventualities had already been done before hand. Lt Gen Sagat Singh was all praise for the planning help extended by Gp Capt Chandan Singh.25 The next requirement for heli-lift came within 24 hours. The bridge on Meghna river had been blown up by the enemy. To continue the momentum of advance, Indian troops needed to be heli-lifted across the Meghna. For tactical reasons this had to be done under the dark cover of the night. The darkness in the battle zone surrounded by the enemy posed one serious problem — all aircraft and more so the helicopters, while coming into land need to see the runway/ground. It is most essential for the pilot to arrest the rate of descent to a bare minimum, and this happens when the aircraft is almost at the ground level. If not gauged properly, it results in a heavy landing, or a crash. This depth perception being completely thwarted at night, pilots make use of runway lights/helipad lights to judge their descent.

But during war, lighting up the landing place, or using landing lights is sure to draw quick enemy counter. Therefore, in this situation, the pilots innovated. They arranged for a ‘H’ to be lit by hand-held torch lights, with the reflector of the torches removed to minimize the glare at the pilot’s eye. Thereafter, in four corners of the ‘H’ separated by 200 meters, four landing zones were earmarked to enable simultaneous operation by up to four helicopters. This way, the helicopters ferried some 650 troops (18 Rajput, 4 Guards, 1 Rajput and 10 Bihar) across the Meghna river at Sylhet from the evening of 10th December to the morning of 11th December.

The Mi-4s initially carried 14 troops in each lift; this figure increased to 23 troops by reducing the weight of fuel. The heavy equipment was moved by boats. Similarly, on 11th December another battalion was heli-lifted across the Meghna at Daudkandi. This continuing demand on heli-lift resulted in aircrew flying continuously for 36 hours. It resulted in 409 sorties without a single mishap and ultimately a total of 5000 troops and 51 tonnes of equipment was heli-lifted.26 The Meghna heli-lift was considered the most significant war-winning factor.

There was another unique use of Caribou transport aircraft to exert psychological pressure on the Pakistani troops. This short take-off aircraft was diverted from its primary task of casualty evacuation and used as a bomber.

Major General Lachhaman Singh concludes that the Air Force and Army jointness was very good because, “Both these officers — Lt Gen Sagat Singh and Maj Gen BF Gonsalves, (Air OP) the Div Cdr, were familiar with the employment of helicopter and transport aircraft because of their long association with the Air Force.” This conclusion is dangerous if it conveys that without a long association Army officers cannot understand and implement good army–air plans!27

There was another unique use of Caribou transport aircraft to exert psychological pressure on the Pakistani troops. This short take-off aircraft was diverted from its primary task of casualty evacuation and used as a bomber. During the night, flying well above the enemy’s anti-aircraft fire zone, it occasionally dropped bombs in ones and twos over Pakistani ground troops at Maulvi Bazar, Bhairab Bazar and Lalmai, with a view to constant harassment and keeping the enemy awake.28 In this role it proved highly successful.

Brig (Retd) Attri, the Pakistani commander in Comilla and Lalmai area admitted the considerable psychological effect of air attacks, even though these caused little physical damage.29 Another psychological warfare was by way of flying the helicopters near and over enemy positions by night. The highly magnified noise of the helicopter, added to the scare factor.

Special Missions

We have gone over campaigns for Air Superiority and Counter Surface Operations. The other two campaigns in a normal war are Strategic Attacks and Interdiction. However, the war in the East, with an aim of securing territory for the provisional government of Bangladesh, dictated preserving infrastructure, industry and ensuring absence of unnecessary damage — ‘Collateral Damage’ as it is called today. But there were some targets which demanded precise attacks and affected the “will” of the target audience. The IAF executed these missions with precision — even though Precision Guided Munitions were yet to be inducted. A brief description of these missions follow:

Attack on Governor’s House: Dhaka

Dr AM Malik, Governor of East Pakistan, was to chair an important meeting regarding the progress of war on 14th December at 1200 hours at the Circuit House. The IAF came to know about this meeting barely 45 minutes before the scheduled time. It at once diverted a force of 6 MiG-21s with rockets for the task. The pilots were briefed on a hurriedly procured tourist map of Dhaka. As they were taxing out, new intelligence input pointed to the changed location of the conference venue to the Governor’s House.

The same was indicated to the strike leader. It is to the immense credit of Wg Cdr Bishnoi and his team that they were able to locate the Governor’s House in the busy and congested landscape of Dhaka; identify the conference room in the Governor’s complex and then fire their rockets with pinpoint accuracy. The shattering explosion caused by the flying rockets had the desired impact on all those present at the meeting. It totally shattered their morale and broke the “will” to continue resisting the advancing Indian Military. Lt Gen Niazi though, had already been defeated mentally by 10 December in the face of a superior enemy backed with enormous aerial firepower.30

The IAF was tasked to attack this building at once. The first attack faced heavy small arms fire. Next day, about 40 attack sorties were launched on this building, totally neutralizing the Pakistanis.

Then and there, Dr Malik and the entire Cabinet decided to resign and accept Pakistan’s defeat.31 Thus, this precise attack by a handful of strike aircraft produced a decision of overwhelming significance. It brought the war to a quick end, avoiding further casualties. It nullified the still effective Pakistani Army, which became POWs numbering 93000. This was an attack on the brain, which having been paralyzed was unable to control and co-ordinate the rest of the body. Air Marshal (Retd) Shivdev Singh, who was the VCAS, recalled that as this intelligence report came to him, personally delivered by the head of the Indian intelligence, he asked HQ EAC to start planning and await the ‘GO’ signal. Then they asked the Defence Minister, who busy in a meeting with the Chiefs, permission to attack this “civil” target. They got instant clearance.

However, the two different editions of the Dhaka tourist map, one of them being a 1928 vintage, did cause confusion. Eventually when the attack took place, one of the rockets entered the Governor’s House through a ventilator and then glanced off, destroying the underground Billiards room — the place where the Governor and his cabinet colleagues had taken cover when Dhaka sounded its air raid sirens!32

Dhaka University

On 14th December Pak troops occupied the campus of Dhaka University to seek refuge from the IAF’s relentless air attacks. The troops were concentrated in a particular building. The IAF was tasked to attack this building at once. The first attack faced heavy small arms fire. Next day, about 40 attack sorties were launched on this building, totally neutralizing the Pakistanis. However, numerous other buildings around were declared “protected places” since they did not harbor hostile troops. Therefore, these attack sorties had to be executed with precision, and that is exactly how the attacks were carried out by Wg Cdr Bishnoi and other pilots.

Joydebpur Ordnanace Factory

Since this ordnance factory was producing war ammunition, it was earmarked as an interdiction target. It was attacked on 8th December, 9th December and again on 13th December. In these attacks, apart from MiG-21s, Hunters and Canberras, even AN-12 transport aircraft were used to increase the weight of attack and ensure the factory’s complete destruction. This curtailed ammunition supplies to the Pak forces.

Well before the war began, contingency planning for a battalion paradrop at four places had already been effected —  Tangail being the ‘priority one’ drop. Brigadier Mathew Thomas then planned the para aspects. However, as things turned out later, the paradrop was required only Tangail.

Para drop: Tangail

Tangail was an important town approximately 70 km north of Dhaka, in the Central sector between the Jamuna and Meghna rivers. Forces under 101 Comn Zone were advancing in this sector. They had bypassed the town of Jamalpur on 9 December. The objective was to capture the Poongli Bridge on the Jamalpur–Tangail road to block the retreating Pakistani forces and trap them, lest they reinforce the Dhaka garrison. The Pak troops in other sectors had already been bypassed and cut off from Dhaka. Therefore, a battalion group paradrop was planned north of Tangail. It included a Para Field Battery, an Engineer Platoon and Signal and Medical detachments.33 Tangail’s another advantage was a friendly population and the hold of the Mukti-Bahini forces in the area, operating under Brigadier Siddiqui.

Well before the war began, contingency planning for a battalion paradrop at four places had already been effected —  Tangail being the ‘priority one’ drop. Brigadier Mathew Thomas then planned the para aspects. However, as things turned out later, the paradrop was required only Tangail. The paradrop was scheduled on 11th December. It was expected that ground forces proceeding on this north–south approach would take D+7 days to reach the Tangail area and effect a link up soon enough with the paradropped force. The time selected was 1600 hours — close to last light. This day drop was possible because the IAF had attained total command of air and no air opposition, whatsoever, was likely from the PAF. Failing to attain air control would have dictated the para drop time to shift to night hours for troop safety. No 2 Para Battalion (Maratha LI) was earmarked for the para drop and comprised 784 personnel.

It was commanded by Lt Col Kulwant Singh Pannu. Photo recce missions were flown on 4 December to select the suitable DZ (drop zone). The DZ measured 2.5 km. To undertake the drop, the IAF assembled a transport fleet of 22 Dakotas, 20 Packets and six AN-12s. These were assembled at Gorakhpur, Paphamau and Bhita on 10 December. However, some aircraft were assembled at Bhita and put on standby from 6 December. The para troops were airlifted from Dum-Dum and Kalaikunda for the drop. In addition, two Caribous were used for the purposes of decoy drop, para dropping dummies 16 km from the actual DZ. On 11th December this transport fleet proceeded in a line astern formation for the drop. However, half an hour earlier two Packets had dropped the Pathfinder party, which quickly marked the actual DZ in less than half an hour. The entire drop took 50 minutes. The main drop commenced with AN-12s delivering the heavy loads, followed by Packets with platform loads and troops.

The Dakotas brought up the rear carrying mostly men, though some had door loads of 250 kg. However, a few things did not go as per plan. One Dakota with 19 troops para dropped them 11 miles north of the DZ due to some problem. It took these men 24 hours to join the main body thereafter. A Packet aircraft carrying one howitzer and two Jeeps dropped them four miles south of the DZ. Four Jeeps landed in a pond. One AN-12 was hit by ground fire, though it recovered safely. Another Packet with 40 paratroopers returned to Dum-Dum as it developed engine trouble. Next day these paratroopers, along with further supplies on board five AN-12s were air dropped.

Hunters bombed the Chittagong airfield on 4th December and confirmed the absence of PAF aircraft, thereby, opening up air space for naval aircraft.

Meanwhile Col Pannu organized his battalion group and set up a trap for the Pakistanis if they decided to withdraw towards Dhaka. Sure enough, that night the Pakistanis were ambushed. Pakistanis launched a series of attacks by night as well as the next day, but each time they were beaten back by the Maroon Berets. Ultimately, Brig Qadir of the Pak Army surrendered to the Maroon Berets having suffered heavy casualties, including 223 dead. In retrospect, the Para drop on 11th December at Tangail seemed simple and straightforward. Yet we need to remember the involved and time consuming planning that had gone in earlier. Salient aspects are recalled below to emphazise the type of joint planning that must precede execution. The exact task assigned to the Airborne Group was:

  • First to secure a firm base upon being para-dropped
  • Second was to capture the Poongli Bridge and hold it and the adjacent ferry with a view to destroy enemy forces withdrawing from Jamalpur and Mymensingh towards Tangail. This would assist the advance of the troops of the 101 Communication Zone area along these axes
  • Third was to link up with Siddiqui forces in the area with a view to occupy Tangail if not held or lightly held by the enemy
  • Lastly, to pose a threat to Dhaka by interdicting re-enforcements ex-Dhaka–Jamalpur and Mymensingh via Tangail

The planning started as early as 21 October 1971 with detailed Army–Air discussions at Air HQ. Detailed planning at Battalion level started a fortnight before the date of the Para drop. Changes in numbers of aircraft for drop are a possibility that must be catered to while planning the air loads and sequence of load/drop. Even in reality deviations from planning occurred during execution as brought out earlier. In addition at Tangail, the friendly local population was also of great help, which is seldom the case in most cases.

In Support of The Navy

The primary, though indirect support of the IAF for the IN, was attaining air superiority, so that Naval aircraft, namely Sea hawks and Alizes, could operate freely without any fear of encountering Sabres and MiG-19s. Hunters bombed the Chittagong airfield on 4th December and confirmed the absence of PAF aircraft, thereby, opening up air space for naval aircraft.

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The other aspect was to co-ordinate air operations with naval air, for which latitude 22o25’N was decided as the separating boundary. In his memoirs, PC Lal states that co-operation with the Navy left a little more to be desired. “For instance, when the UN aircraft flew into Dhaka, Sea Hawks from the aircraft carrier Vikrant fired on the C-130 despite the advice from Eastern Air Command Headquarter. Luckily they missed.”34 Also, during the planning stage the Indian Navy had given assurance of providing air support to No 4 Corps, operating in south-east Pakistan since this area was at the extreme of the IAF fighters’ range. However, when the hostilities commenced, this support did not materialize because the Navy felt its pilots had not been trained to support land operations.35

Notes:

  1. Vayu VI/91, p. 15.  CV Gole, Air Marshal, “Reflections On An Air War – The Air Operations of December 1971”.
  2. “1971 India-Pakistan War : Protecting the Skies;  Air War in the East” file : // A: \ Skies.htm. p. 1.
  3. SS Hussain, “History of the Pakistan Air Force 1947-82”, (PAF Press, Karachi, Pakistan, 1982), pp. 173-193.  Also see CV Gole – Vayu VI/91 p. 16.
  4. Jon Guttman, op.cit. p. 44.
  5. Fazal Muqueem Khan, op.cit. p. 239.  As per this writer the IAF launched 21 strikes over Dhaka on 4th  December.  The PAF intercepted six of these, shooting down 9 aircraft.
  6. PC Lal, op.cit. p. 202.
  7. Ibid. p. 177.
  8. Siddiq Salik, op.cit. p. 131.  Also see Jon Guttman’s “Sub Continental Aerial Rematch”, p. 47.
  9. PC Lal, op.cit. p. 196.
  10. AK Tiwary, Air Commodore, “Attrition in Air Warfare”, (Lancer International New Delhi, 2000), pp. 77-79.
  11. PC Lal, op.cit. p. 203.
  12. Official History, op.cit. p. 45.
  13. DR Mankekar, op.cit. p. 76.
  14. Fazal Muqeem Khan, op.cit. p. 191.
  15. PC Lal, op.cit. p. 178.
  16. Fazal Muqeem Khan, op.cit. p. 143.  This Pakistani Military historian compared the Indian Campaign in East Pakistan to the German Blitzkrieg against Poland in Sep 1939.
  17. PC Lal, op.cit. p. 186.
  18. Lachhman Singh, Major General, “Indian Sword Strikes in East Pakistan”, (Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi, 1979), p. 138.
  19. PC Lal, op.cit. p. 211.
  20. CV Gole, op.cit. p. 17.
  21. PC Lal, op.cit. p. 17.
  22. CV Gole, op.cit. p. 17.
  23. Vayu II/91, “With Gnats in Peace and War”  Air Marshal MM Singh, p. 25.
  24. PC Lal, op.cit. pp 210-229.
  25. Lachhman Singh, op.cit. p. 197.
  26. CV Gole, op.cit. p. 17.
  27. Lachhman Singh, op.cit. p. 290.
  28. Internet, Sapra site “1971 India-Pakistan War : Air War in the East”, p. 2.
  29. PC Lal., op.cit. p. 211.
  30. Siddiq Salik, op.cit. p. 206.
  31. CV Gole, op.cit. p. 18.
  32. Vayu I/94. p. 32
  33. CV Gole, op.cit. p.17
  34. PC Lal, op.cit. p. 187.
  35. Ibid, p. 210.
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5 thoughts on “1971 Air War: Battle for Air Supremacy

  1. Let the Navy train with Army and IAF for joint operations. I am told Admirals of our Navy frequently visit our Himalayan Heights for familiarization. Let us hope this kind of logic we will not hear in future operations.

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