To begin with, Poonch had no airfield, not even an airstrip. So arms and ammunitions, food and medical stores had to be airdropped, not only for the troops but for 40,000 refugees as well. Part of these valuable, vital supplies were lost because all that was dropped could not be recovered in that very restricted area. So Lt Col Pritam Singh set about making an airstrip on which Dakotas could land. With hardly any mechanical equipment available for a job of that size, service personnel helped by the refugees, built an airstrip on the J & K Militia parade ground. It was 600 yds long, and it took six days to build.
The Air Force fighters kept vigil over and around the area so that surrounding enemy did not, could not, interfere with the progress of the work. In the second week of December when the strip was ready, the intrepid and expert pilot Air Cdre Meher Singh landed the first Dakota there, carrying Air Vice Mshl Subroto Mukerjee and a large load of essential supplies. This short airstrip was on the flat top of a hill with rivers running on three sides and a precipice on the fourth. The approaches were steep. Landing safely there needed skilful, careful flying; the pilots also had to brave the enemy all around and risk their small arms fire which riddled the Dakotas with bullets. No. 12 Squadron pilots managed to do the job very well indeed. They flew not just for a day or a week but the whole year round. In the first week they averaged a dozen trips per day; on the return journey they evacuated casualties and refugees.
One of the first things landed there was a mountain battery of guns. But the enemy soon brought up field guns with longer range. So by the middle of March Lt Col Pritam Singh asked for two twenty-five pounder guns. Dakotas carrying these guns found it extremely difficult to land by day, in full view of the enemy lobbing shells at the airstrip. As though it was not a difficult enough task by day, Air Cdre Meher Singh decided that the landing would have to be attempted at night, with the help of a few oil-lamps. Everybody down the line cooperated and they succeeded. The names that I remember particularly in this connection are the late Wg Cdr K.L. Bhatia (ex 7 Sqn, CO Transport Wing at Agra) Fg Offr L.S. Grewal and Sqn Ldr D.E. Pushong.
An entire brigade, 161 under Brig L. P. Sen, DSO, was airlifted within five days.
Air Cdre Meher Singh’s imaginative innovation was to convert some five Dakotas to carry and deliver bombs, as was done earlier with Lysanders by Sqn Ldr K.K. Majumdar in the Burma campaign (this was also done later with AN 12s in 1971). Meher Baba was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra as were Wing Commanders M.M. Engineer and H.S. Moolgavkar. Vir Chakras were awarded to Wg Cdr K.L. Bhatia and also Squadron Leaders S.B. Naronha and Zafar Shah who commanded No.7 and 10 Squadron respectively. The Indian Army finally managed to relieve poonch at the end of November 1948.
The checkerboard of Kashmir operations was so complicated, there were actions going on at so many different places at the same time, that it is difficult to visualise the totality in a chronological pattern. When the prolonged “Punching Operation” was going on, several other battles were being fought simultaneously. During December 1947 the Army and Air Force had managed to clear the sensitive area of Chhamb (which later suffered the brunt of Pakistani attack in two successive Indo-Pak wars as well). Battle raged in many of the places mentioned earlier right through the winter. By the end of January and early February 1948 a big enemy concentration was fought near Naushera under Brig Mohammed Osman. The Air Force, as usual, gave full ground support. The battle was won by the Indians. Unfortunately Brig Osman was later killed in action on 3 July at Jhangar.
At the end of winter, another operation was a two-pronged drive towards Muzaffarabad, the enemy headquarters. One axis was along the valley of the Kishenganga, through Tithwal in the north, the second along the main Srinagar-Domel road further south. Tithwal was taken by our troops in a month’s time. The other column down the main road failed to fulfil its objective.
On 3 November, a decisive battle was fought in the immediate vicinity of Srinagar airfield where the enemy managed to launch a surprise attack.
Further north, the Pakistanis occupied Guraiz in the Kishenganga valley for a while but the Indian forces succeded in winning it back by June. Later the Air Force visited Gilgit airfield and put the wireless station there out of action; they left their visiting card on Chilas airport as well in this region.
To the east of the Kashmir valley lies the district of Ladakh with its headquarters at Leh on the banks of the Indus. In contrast to the verdant valley this area is stark and barren—a replica of a moonscape. The rocks in some places are tinged with unusual, beautiful colours—light shades of yellow, mauve, maroon—may be due to their mineral contents. Cultivation is possible only along parts of the river where small villages cluster and grow their crops and some fruits, mainly apricots. Buddhism is the predominant religion amongst the inhabitants; monasteries such as Remis, the Gumpa at Leh and the famous Lamayaru between Kargil and leh with their valuable treasure of Buddhist art stand witness to this. At this time, the handful of State forces that were in the north, in places such as Baltistan, evacuated their posts and moved south into Leh.
On 24 May, taking Maj Ger K.S. Thimayya, GOC 19 Division as his passenger, Meher Baba negotiated the mountains towering upto 24,000 ft. In his ancient Dakota, with no de-icing facilities, no pressurisation, no route maps, he reached Leh height 11,500 ft above sea level, and put his aircraft down deftly on an improvised strip constructed by a Ladakhi engineer, S. Narboo. It was apparent that there was no way out but another big airlift operation if the Indian Army was to reach the emergency spot in time along with their weapons and equipment, food, clothing, medical stores, tents and whatever else was necessary.
For the next three days the weather was bad. But on 28 May No. 12 Squadron was at its job. This height, and the rarified air on the bare mountains was an entirely new environment to fight in. Let alone fighting, even breathing, eating sleeping, are difficult till one gets acclimatised. Lack of oxygen causes loss of appetite, sleep and energy. Pulmonary oedema, which affects the lungs at that altitude, was another hazard to beware of. By the time the enemy arrived, our soldiers were ready for them. The Pakistanis lost and retreated. But they dug themselves in at the Zojila pass. And till that was cleared, there could be no road link between Srinagar and Leh. The road going eastward from Srinagar upto the pass and beyond was an old caravan route. It was improved and the Army column arrived with tanks, fought, routed the enemy and opened up the pass. By the end of November, the Indian Army reoccupied Dras and Kargil and cleared the entire road to Leh.
And the Air Force was always there, doing the supply-dropping, bombing, strafing, in short, fighting alongside the Army, and wherever required. The story of the Kashmir operations would have been very different if it were not for the Air Force. And thanks to personalities like Wg Cdr M.M. Engineer, who had the asset of a friendly disposition, the inter-Service relationship was good.The events leading to the airlift of troops to Leh in May 1948 are best related in his own words:
It was early spring in Srinagar valley in 1958. The army had lost two platoons of gurkha who were sent earlier by Gen Kalwant Singh, GOC JAK DIV to relieve the garrison at Skardu. This is a fortress town located on the upper region of the Indus valley in Ladakh.
The two Gurkha platoons were unfortunately ambushed before they could reach the flat region surrounding Skardu.
Panditji was adamant that Poonch was not to be given up to the enemy but the two British generals thought its defence to be a “suicidal” venture.
The Colonel of the State Forces commanding the Skardu fortress realised after the two Gurkha platoons were annihilated, that reinforcement from the Srinagar Valley was doubtful till the Dras Valley was cleared of the infiltrators. This clearance operation could only be undertaken when the Zojila pass was open. The Garrison Commander also realised that he could not get water or supplies if the Skardu fort was surrounded by the invaders.
Realising his predicament, he quickly prepared a fair weather airstrip beside the Fort in the hope that the Air Force Dakotas could land and bring reinforcement and supplies.
Emergency wireless messages were received from the Garrison Commander requesting the Air Force to land Dakotas before the fort was encircled by the invaders. The Air Officer Commanding, Operational Group, Air Commodore Meher Singh, was of the opinion that the performance of Dakota Mark III to operate from high level airstrip 9500 ft was not known. Moreover, there was no oxygen for passengers and crew. Meher Singh did not think it advisable to accept the Skardu commitment due to aircraft performance limitation, although panic messages for heIp were also being received by Prime Minister Nehru.
Meher Singh, however, agreed to drop supplies by Tempest fighter-bombers which were operating in the area. The supply cannisters were dropped over the fort. Some of the supplies landed outside the Fort due to strong wind, but we were not informed whether they were retrieved. In any case it was doubtful whether the Garrison could be maintained solely by supplies dropped by Tempest aircraft.
The Fortress Commander finally surrendered to the invaders. We heard later that the garrison was sent to Pakistan, as prisoners of war.
After the capture of Skardu, the raiders planned to march onto Leh, the capital of Ladakh. A small force was despatched shortly thereafter towards Leh with two mountain guns.
In the second week of December when the strip was ready, the intrepid and expert pilot Air Cdre Meher Singh landed the first Dakota there, carrying Air Vice Mshl Subroto Mukerjee and a large load of essential supplies.
In the meantime, the Army formation in J&K area was reorganised into two divisions, i.e., the Srinagar Division and the Jammu Division. General Thimayya was given command of Srinagar Division with his HQ at Baramula. His first priority was to save Leh. He could only achieve this aim with the cooperation of the Air Force.
General Thimayya realised that he had to convince Meher Baba that the fall of Leh would be a strategic blow for India. He also realised that Baba had a weakness for strawberries and cream which were both available in abundance at Baramula.
Baba was invited to Baramula. A red carpet reception was given to him. Thimayya and Baba settled down to a strawberries and cream party, under cherry trees in blossom beside the banks of the river Jhelum.
After the pleasantries were over, General Thimayya touched on the urgent requirement to save Leh. Meher Singh explained to the General that the Army did not realise the risk involved in flying and landing an aircraft at high altitude crossing two passes—Zojila and Fatula. The Dakota was never designed for this role.
General Thimayya quickly retorted that he was prepared to risk his own life with the Air Force to save Leh. Meher Singh had no answer and agreed to pilot the first aircraft to Leh. Actually the strawberries were superfluous in making Meher Baba accept the challenge. The flight was a great success, and a small reinforcement of fully equipped troops was subsequently despatched by air to Leh, on good weather days.
Leh was saved, but it is debatable whether the Air Force could also have saved Skardu.
Both Meher Singh and Engineer won their MVCs for these operations.
In our military set-up, the system of command and control has its own imperatives. Its inherent checks and balances are its strong points but there are also certain difficulties which have to be guarded against, specially on the field of action where speed is one of the most important contributors to success. For example, when detachments from 161 Brigade were badly needed at Leh and Kargil, the planning was done at Srinagar but it had to be approved by Headquarter J&K Forces at Jammu, under Gen Kulwant Singh. In the process, the despatch
of the detachment was delayed by several days. And yet, when a unit is in need of reinforcement of trained battle-hardened manpower or supplies whether of sophisticated, specialised equipment such as armour, artillery or signals equipment or simple but urgent needs such as clothing and footwear to protect the men from being frost-bitten and gangrene-ridden when fighting in the unaccustomed heights and cold climate, the provision has to be done by the higher formations. As in most walks of life, it is an important to judge where, when, how to strike a balance for optimum efficiency.
During this difficult period, the resignation of Air Cdre Meher Singh came as a grievous loss to the Air Force. He was no fool. He was fully conscious of his own rare abilities and his unique contributions. Any danger that he expected his officers and men to face, he first faced himself. But all this made him somewhat uncompromising, “a born dictator” as he himself admitted. There was a difference of opinion with his seniors in the Air Force and the government, and he felt that he was not being treated fairly, that his merit was not being recognised. Be that right or wrong as it may, he put in his papers in August. He was an uncut diamond, of sterling value but without the spit and polish of sophistication. The Defence Minister, Sardar Baldev Singh, accepted his resignation in September 1948. He took up a civil flying job and was killed in a flying accident on 11 March 1952. It was a great loss.
Finally the dispute over Kashmir between India and Pakistan was taken to the United Nations and a cease fire was agreed upon along the line of actual control as on 31 January 1949.