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

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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