Military & Aerospace

Escape Attempt from Rawalpindi POW Camp
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Issue Book Excerpt: My Years with the I.A.F. | Date : 26 Oct , 2018

By the time this stage was reached, D.P. Dhar had come and gone, and it was about April, 72. As for me, every time I looked up at the sky I felt like breaking free. But since I was quite skinny then, I wondered whether Dilip would permit me to join in. Since I could only know by asking, one day I said to him, “Dilip, if you think I will not be, a liability, please do consider letting me come along. Incidently, I did very well in the Jungle and Snow Survival course.” The next day, when Jafa was told of my request, he raised his eyebrows doubtfully at me. I bluffed that I had come first in the J&SS Course and that the report said that although I looked weak I coped up extremely well. Although only partially reassured, Jafa gave his OK. To get me into Cell No. 4, we requested the guards to let the four of us  play bridge till late as we couldn’t sleep. They agreed. This was repeated for three or four nights and thereafter eveyone thought I had got official permission to shift to Cell No. 4.

The camp was a tiny one. A small road turned off the Rawal­pindi-Peshawar road. This was known as the Mall. About 100 yds after leaving the highway the P&S Flight gate came on the left. Inside, on the left was the guards office where the Police Corporal on duty used to sit. Then there were about four proper cells and a bathroom.

The ‘gully’ between Cell No. 4 and the lavatory was a narrow gap between the two buildings. The southern end of the gully had barbed wire. Beyond the barbed wire was the com­pound of a Recruiting office and petrol pump. In other words, freedom lay beyond the barbed wire or behind Cell No. 4— and the security of this region was 1eft to the chowkidar of the petrol pump. But from within, the guards would frequently look into the gully during their rounds.

Around this time, while playing volley ball, Chati sprained his ankle rather badly. In addition, an old tooth injury turned septic and he started getting fever. Sqn Ldr Jafa gave this development a good thought and decided that Chati would not go. Instead, the unenviable but essential task of showing signs of life in the Cell after the escape fell upon him.

Luck seemed to favour us for one day Dilip received a parcel from his sister and in it were, quite providential1y, two shirts and a pair of trousers. Clothing in parcels is not permitted, but here it was! So before anyone could say ‘Jack Robinson’, these items were hidden under Dilip’s mattress. Apart from these, Dilip had quietly managed to get a light green kurta pyjama stitched from his monthly allowance. This was achieved with the assistance of a local lascar by giving him a line about the need for comfort and a tip. So our clothing was fixed. Dilip would wear the green kurta pyjama. Gary would get the light brown terylene shirt and blue woolen pants. I got the greenish blue shirt and would wear the same brown pants that all POWs were issued. For footwear there was no choice—we would wear canvas shoes.

We all decided to carry our POW Identity Cards, so that as a last resort we may seek protection under the Geneva Conven­tion. We chose identites for ourselves. Dilip was LAC John Masih, Gary LAC Ali Ameer, both of PAF Station, Lahore. Since my Urdu was worse than my Hindi, I posed as Mr. Harold Jacob, an Anglo Pakistan drummer working with Flamingo Band, La Bella Hotel, Hyderabad. I was to have given a performance in Lahore where I made friends with these two airmen.

Our gear could not have been prepared but for the tremen­dous support and enthusiasm of Kamat. Kamy had fractured each leg in two places and both were in plaster. Had it not been so, he would surely have been with the gang. Stuck in this predicament, he rendered invaluable assistance. He improvised a compass by using transistor batteries, a bit of wire, some polythene, and magnetising a needle which he passed through a pressbutton from the issue shirt so as to provide a point for balancing it. When this pressbutton-needle was balanced at the head of a ball pen nib, the needle swung around to show north. The needle was carried within the pen itself. Wg Cdr Coehlo drew out a compass rose to go with this.

Then we got hold of Chati’s parachute on the pretext of repairing the volley ball net with the nylon cords in the chute. Using the silk of the parachute, Kamy stitched two neat haver­sacks and we got a piece of parachute which we could use to cover ourselves with. . . unfortunately this had some of Chati’s bloodstains on it. For water we removed the ‘G’ bags from a

French ‘G’ sult. After filling it with water we put it into a pillow case. For food we carried mainly dry fruits and condensed milk. The latter was from the Red Cross parcels.

Around mid-July the work commenced. We started removing the filling between the bricks. This task done by Dilip and Gary by turn. Chati and I kept track of the guards. We gave ‘KV’ whis­pers to signal danger and ‘clear’ for go ahead. This work com­menced at about 2200 hrs after a sham bridge session. First the bulb was removed, then the bed was shifted to make room for the digger to lie down. Around 0200 hrs the work generally stopped; the dust was collected into empty gift cartons and the bricks replaced. This scraping was done with various imple­ments—a table knife, the barber’s scissors, a pointed piece of iron and, most successful of all, a screwdriver. Every second or third morning, the ‘dust boxes’ would be exchanged for gift boxes in the store cell.

The last brick was removed on 27 July 1972. It appeared that a thin layer of plaster was all that was left and that a knock would bring it down.

On Friday, 28 July 1972, Dilip wanted to go. Gary wanted to wait another two weeks because once again there were rumours, and hopes, of repatriation. This was when Dilip expressed his innermost feelings, “I do not want go back through repatria­tion. If the repatriation is tomorrow, I will attempt an escape today! We have wasted enough time already!” When he asked me for my opinion I said that tomorrow would be a better day as the next day would be a Sunday and the search attempts would have a slower start. But Dilip was determined, and so we all got ready to go. We removed the bulb, and filled the ‘G’ bag with water. We packed our rations and dressed up in our ‘Civvies’. We made dummies in our beds and covered them with our blankets and bid Chati farewell. We made some sketch maps showing that we were heading south to Sind, crumpled them up and threw them into a corner of the room to mislead the inevitable search party.

Gary got down to break the plaster layer. It seemed a bit hard. So he pushed with all his might. It would not budge! By then luckily, it began to rain. Gary kicked with his muscular heel. No joy. Then he got hold of a cricket bat lying in the Cell, and made a desperate attempt. He banged and banged. A small fist-sized hole appeared.

Just then I saw a guard running through the rain towards us. I gave the KV signal and everyone leapt into bed, alongside the dummies. Old Shamsuddin, the guard, came straight for the light switch which was located outside the cell door. “Click. Click. Click. Click.” We asked Shamsuddin very casually if anything was wrong, and why he was roaming about in the rain at this time of the night. He only muttered that the light was duff. Hearing all our voices, he seemed to be a bit puzzled. We added quickly that we had complained about the bulb just that evening. By and by he calmed down and went towards the guard room. We did a supersonic undressing and were ready for him if he came back with the keys. But he did not return. What we had thought to be a film of plaster had turned out to be a thick layer of cement.

Before going further, I’ll make a small clarification on the duffing operation itself. The southern wall of Cell 4 was selec­ted. A rectangle was marked out close to the barbed wires near the floor. Except when work was in progress, a bed with blankets draped over the sides so that the rectangle was completely concealed was placed next to the wall. A row of shoes and slippers was neatly placed just under the bed to dis­courage the sweeper. We kept the cell clean and normally turned the sweeper back on this pretext.

Now we had a problem on our hands—a fist-sized hole was visible on the rear wall of Cell No. 4. We knew that the employ­ees of the recruiting office parked their bicycles along this wall. It was now a question of luck—and lady luck was on our­side. For over two weeks the hole was not noticed: nobody­ suspected a thing.

The scraping operation was again done by Gary and Dilip. by turns, they scraped the periphery of the rectangle to get the borders thin enough so that the block could eventually be knoc­ked out. As a precaution, we had stuffed a bit of parachute cloth into the hole. One, night, Dilip was on the job and after the preliminary bit of work of removing the bricks, we found he was very still for a longish time. After a while he whispered, “Somebody’s on the other side of the wall ! He’s pulling the cloth !” Dilip also had a grip on the cloth and an intermittent tug of war went on. All of us inside the cell were in a sweat. We anticipated that after playing cat and mouse with us for a while, the person would come around and the game would be over.

In the midst of this tenseness, the cloth was pulled so sud­denly that Dilip could not hold on. He whispered, “He’s pulled the cloth off!” We wanted to jump into bed and pretend everything was normal, but Dilip stayed down and tried to peer though the hole. Again there was a tense pause until Dilip hissed, “It’s that damned Cat!” referring to the stray cat we used to frequently feed with powdered milk. With a tremendous sense of relief we resumed the work.

All this while, I had kept one thought unexpressed—I had just about been included in the escape, I did not want to voice my dread of drowning since the plan included a crossing of the Jhelum. When I couldn’t keep this to myself any longer I casu­ally told Dilip that I did not know how to swim. Dilip said that I needn’t worry, for I could fill the ‘G’ suit bag with air and float on the Jhelum while Dilip and Gary would tow me across. I said fine but I didn’t like the idea at all. In addition, around this time there were plenty of reports of Mujahids and Pak army men being blown up by mines. We realised that the area was heavily mined but at this point our attitude was: “Our minds are up—don’t confuse us with facts !” We brushed this obstacle aside with a vague plan of tying a plank to a bamboo pole and beating the ground ahead before crawling or walking over it.

That was the state of things while we continued the scrap­ing operations. By the end of the first week of August, when we were ready to go, Gary came down with fever and so we had to hold our horses.

The next lot of parcels included a batch of books. Having nothing better to do I picked up a book called, Murray’s book of Travel for India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon. Going th­rough it I found several sketch maps one of which was Rawal­pindi, Peshwar and beyond the Khyber pass. I happened to glance at the scale, and was rather astounded to find that the distance from Peshawar to the border was only about 24 miles—­and, joy of joys, there were no rivers to cross! I remembered the guards mentioning that there were night buses on that route. It seemed too good to be true. Standing near the cell door, I showed Dilip the sketch map and volunteered: “I feel this is a better route. No Mujahids, mines or rivers. What do you feel?” Dilip paused, and and I could hardly believe it when he said, “That makes two of us, pal! So let’s go and tell Gary of the change.” We went to Gary who was lying down, and when we told him he too was most relieved. I think that with the Jhelum now out of the plan, I was the happiest of all!

The new plan was to get out around midnight, and walk to where we knew the buses were—Chati, on his way to the dentist, had been able to get this information. We planned to board a Peshwar-bound bus. Since Peshwar was only about 90 miles. away, we should be there before daybreak. From there, we should try and find out the Jamrud road and get there along the railway line. We would hide till nightfall and then walk along this railway line going from Peshawar to Jamrud and then into the hills of Landikotal and on to a place called Landi Khana. From Landi Khana, the border at Torkham was shown as being only a mile away. We had Rs. 180 with us for the bus ride and any other requirement. In general, the idea was to avoid contact with any other human after we left Peshawar. All we required to swing into action was Gary’s, recovery.

Saturday 12 August: it was the beginning of a long week­end, since 14th was Pak Independence Day. The Camp Com­mandant was on a trip to Murree, a hill station. The Warrant Officer in Charge, Rizvi, lived at the other end of town. The Camp was in the hands of a dim but lovable Corporal called Mehfooz Khan. Gary was well and the enemy security set-up ­ideal for escape. During the early evening stroll, Jafa spotted a flash of lightning and told Dilip that a storm was building up. “Go around midnight or earlier if the storm hits before that”, he advised. After quick last minute consultations, we moved off to­ our cells. To avoid unnecessary excitment, only Kamy and Kuru were told about it, as both lived in Cell No.7 and Kuru was required to ask to be taken to the toilet at midnight. Till he was locked up again, the guards would be farthest away from where we would be knocking out the cement block.

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Air Chief Marshal P C Lal

Former Chief of the Air Staff.

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