“Rockline Control from 202, request permission to start-up.” “202 from Rockline Control, standby for permission.” “202 from Rockline, permission denied, vacate cockpits and contact on land line.” It was the 3rd of December, 1971 and I had strapped up in the front cockpit of the Sukhoi-7U trainer aircraft with the rear cockpit occupied by Squadron Leader Jiwa Singh, Flight Commander of 26 Squadron based at Adampur Air Force Station, Punjab, for my ‘dark night’ dual clearance sortie. We were in a hardened RCC aircraft shelter called ‘pens’, 16 of them located on either side of a taxi track that formed a huge semi-circular loop a distance from the runway. Outside, the dusk was fast disappearing into the pitch blackness that envelopes the fertile land of Punjab on moonless nights.
When we returned to the crew-room and I asked the Air Trafic Control reason for not granting permission for the sortie, it came to light that the PAF had carried out pre-emptive strikes against many IAF airfields and that Pakistan had initiated war against India. No one was surprised, as such action by Pakistan had been anticipated, because only a few days earlier, on 22nd November a four aircraft Gnat mission , led brilliantly by Flt Lt Roy Andrew Massey, had shot down three Sabres intruding into Indian airspace in the eastern sector. Roy and I had been squadron-mates in 23 Sqn before my posting to Sukhois.
The situation in the then East Pakistan had been worsening with atrocities of the Pakistani army against the predominantly Bengali-speaking population there. The flow of refugees across the border, fleeing the brutality of what was considered an ‘occupation army’, had put India into a difficult humanitarian and political situation. And as were to learn much later, a decision to intervene militarily had been taken, but postponed due to the insistence of General SHFJ Manekshaw, the Indian Army Chief, who wanted more time for preparations. Another operational reason was that the riverine terrain of the area would not be negotiable till winter set in.
In the pre-emptive strikes,Adampur airfield was not attacked, though it was fully prepared. The probable reason why the PAF did not strike Adampur was attributable to an event some weeks earlier. In late October that year, a Pakistani spy, equipped with a radio transmitter, had been apprehended near Adampur base and was in detention. The Intelligence Bureau and Air Force top brass decided to play a double game. The spy was made to transmit false information to his contacts back in Pakistan. It was rumoured that one element of this misleading intelligence transmitted back was about the impregnable air defence weapons network in and around the Adampur base. Whatever the reason, PAF found it prudent to leave out Adampur from its strike plans.
The Intelligence Bureau and Air Force top brass decided to play a double game. The spy was made to transmit false information to his contacts back in Pakistan.
Throughout the duration of war from 3rd November to 17th November, our base was not attacked, except an aborted raid by a PAF Canberra, which dropped its bomb load at least 15 km away, injuring a villager who was walking with a lantern in his hand. The pre-emptive attack was a failure, as lessons learnt from the 1965 conflict, when the PAF was able to cause fair amount of damage during its pre-emptive strikes in the eastern sector, especially Kalaikunda air base, where I was as a Pilot Officer during that war had been implemented and the IAF was ready. In 1971, all IAF aircraft operated out of hardened shelters resulting in the PAF’s pre-emption attempt going waste.
In any event, Adampur was ready for action. A tough no-nonsense officer, Air Commodore Randhir Singh, had taken over as the Air Officer Commanding of the base in February that year. Adampur was home to two Sukhoi-7 squadrons (Nos 26 and 101) and one MiG-21FL sqn (No 1). There was a lot of flying as aircraft serviceability levels were high. It was not uncommon for the three squadrons to fly more than 100 sorties in a day. The Sukhoi squadrons operated out of the loop taxi tracks on the north of the airfield, while the MiGs were in the southern dispersal. The SAM-2 missiles, which arrived well before the war, were deployed outside the airfield area.
The AOC’s first focus was on base security. Entry into the AF Station was restricted to one gate and the technical area of the base was literally made into a fortress. Passive air defence exercises were held regularly and more realisism was injected to train the personnel. In the flying training department, all our missions were now fully geared towards war. Pre-dawn strikes, dusk attacks and night operations increased in quantum. In the heat of summer, the Sukhois carried out hi-lo-hi strike missions against dummy targets located in the airfields of Rajastan. Despite ‘tropicalisation’, a process by which a cockpit intended for cold countries is made compatible with tropical weather requirements, the temperature inside the Sukhoi cockpit would shoot up to 50° Celsius. We would return from such sorties drenched in sweat and it would take a while for the pilot and the flying clothing to be fit for another mission. Sometimes there would be burn marks on the outside part of our thighs which were in contact with the metal handles of the ejection system.
The AOC questioned the pilot,”What was your target?” The pilot replied,Sir, the Base Operations Centre.” “Then why did you not hit the intended target? I will forgive you your mistake of pressing the trigger, but not your error of not hitting the target,” said the AOC.
August onwards all missions were flown on aircraft armed with 57 mm rockets and 30mm NR-30 gun ammunition. We were instructed not to press the trigger on any account to prevent the release of weapons. During one early morning mission, with the base itself as the intended target, four Sukhois got airborne. After flying a predetermined route of about 18 minutes at low level, they pulled up for a dummy rocket attack over the base. As the Number 4 attacked there was a very loud explosion and some level of consternation among people on the ground. Two lethal 57mm rocket projectiles had hit the area between the Base Operations Centre and the railway track that ran just outside the perimeter fencing. The AOC and the Sqn Cdr were at the aircraft pen to meet the pilot who had accidentally pressed the trigger resulting in rocket release.
The AOC questioned the pilot,”What was your target?” The pilot replied,’Sir, the Base Operations Centre.” “Then why did you not hit the intended target? I will forgive you your mistake of pressing the trigger, but not your error of not hitting the target,” said the AOC. When an informal inquiry was being carried out by him, a DSC jawan who was a witness, was summoned. Asked by the AOC to state what had happened, the jawan replied that, in true rural Indian tradition he was going with his ‘lota’(a small vessel) for his morning ablutions when he heard the roar of an aircraft overhead. Unfortunately, his description in rustic earthy Punjabi, of what followed, is unfit to be printed.
We also trained for ‘close air support’ or CAS missions. This involved obtaining targets from the Indian army and being directed by a ‘Forward Air Controller’ or FAC to reach and attack the target. Targets assigned by the army were generally tanks, gun positions, bunkers and enemy ammunition or supply dumps. As the terminology used, map types and scales and the perception of the target from ground and air were quite different, the FAC , a pilot, moving along with the land forces would use air force terminology and language while guiding the CAS missions. Similarly there was a Ground Liaison Officer or GLO from the army based at Adampur who would interpret the army’s operational requirements and inform the mission leaders. Our GLO was Major Poonia from the JAK Rifles. We carried out many small and large scale exercises with army formations to rectify communication glitches and fine-tune procedures. In short, the IAF had identified weaknesses in the system and weeded these out through training and exercises, procedures and tactics were refined and a sense of purpose and coordination permeated the pre-war planning.
Being the last, I saw No 1 pulling out after bomb release and No 2 in the dive. A few seconds later No 2″²s aircraft appeared to continue in the dive till it impacted with the ground. I saw the huge ball of fire followed by a plume of smoke.
In mid-November the squadron was instructed to carry out ‘night patrols’. These single aircraft missions required the aircraft to fly along the IB at low levels and pop-up at pre-designated points. While the Sukhois flew these sorties, the MiG-21s from 1 Sqn, armed with Ka-13 air-to-air missiles patrolled deeper inside to shoot down any PAF interceptors. This exercise carried on throughout the night with the intention of keeping the PAF on constant alert without our crossing the IB. We slept in the crew room and had to wake up bleary-eyed at odd hours to fly these missions. The bitter cold that grips Adampur in December compounded the difficulty factor. But hot cups of chocolate milk and chocolates cheered us up somewhat. And our stocks of these foods were plenty as the central and state authorities sent truckloads to all armed forces units. It was during this time that the Defence Minister, Babu Jagjivan Ram, with a large retinue of officials, visited the base. He spoke to all of us and promised to make sure all that we needed was made available in the shortest possible time. Later, I was given to understand that he delivered on that promise.
The Sukhoi-7 had a fuselage 16.8m long, wing span of 9.3m and height of 4.99m. Its wings were sharply swept back at 60 degrees. It was the first Soviet aircraft to use an all moving tailplane and had a movable cone in the air intake for managing airflow into the engine at supersonic speeds. Its engine, AL-7F1 developed a thrust of 6800kgf in dry engine and 9600 kgf with afterburner and was the most powerful fighter engine of that time. High fuel consumption affected radius of action. It had two hard points under the fuselage which could carry weapons load or fuel drop tanks of 950 or 600 litres. Four hard points were under the wing. The inner ones could carry weapons load or 600 litre fuel drop tanks, while the outer could carry only weapon load upto 250kg each side. Two cannons were at the wing roots, each with a maximumof 80 30mm gun ammunition. Some aircraft were fitted with AFA-39 cameras for photo reconnaissance missions. It was on this fighter aircraft that I flew 18 missions during the 1971 war, code-named Operation ‘Cactus-Lily’.
Our area of operations was mostly in the ‘bulge’ sector, north of Lahore and south of Sialkot. The terrain in this area is suitable for armoured vehicles to operate and Pakistan launched offensives here during 1965. My first mission was as No 2 to Sqn Ldr Jiwa Singh to assist a Madras Regiment unit near Husainiwala. We came over the target area as instructed by the FAC, but there was a complete undercast and we could not spot the target. After descending to almost 100m, and still having clouds below us, the mission had to be called off. During the return we expended our rockets against the alternative target. The same day I flew 2 more missions, to Chander airfield and to Dera Baba Nanak area. Chander base had been evacuated by the PAF and we hit the air traffic installation and other structures. At DBN the attack was against gun emplacements.
…ones professional training takes over. There is a sadness at losing your colleagues, but then they have died for a cause.
The entire area of interest to us used to be covered in the dust thrown up by convoys and tanks on the move. Target acquisition became difficult but under the guidance of the FAC we were able to accomplish most of the allotted tasks. There was intense activity on the ground and the entire airspace was full of lead ejected from guns of various calibers. After the first day’s missions were over, 13 out of 16 Sukhois of the squadron had small arms bullet damage, all of which was repaired overnight and the fighters were ready early morning the next day. The airmen slept in the loop area and worked through the night, refuelling and re-arming the aircraft. Their devotion and commitment was outstanding.
During those 17 days from 4th December to 17th I carried out missions against targets at Wagah, Shakargarh, Zafarwal, Darman, Nurkot and Narowal. The routing out had to be in a specified manner to permit friendly radars’ easy identification. Similarly, the return procedures were clearly stipulated. All this was to reduce the risk of fratricide. On the ground too, there was a method agreed upon so that IAF pilots could clearly identify Indian tanks. But in war one has to accept losses and carry on fighting. The Sukhoi-7, because of its size, presented a large target to anti-aircraft artillery and to enemy small arms. The IAF lost a total of 19 Sukhois during this war. 26 Sqn lost Sqn Ldr DS Jafa, on attachment from the office of the CAS, on the 5th near Ichchogil Canal. He ejected safely.
Sqn Ldr Jiwa Singh was killed in action (KIA) on the 7th, shot down by a Sabre or MiG-19 near Zafarwal, Flt Lt RG Kadam, on attachment from the squadron to TCDTS, was hit by ground fire near Risalewala. He failed to eject. Flt Lt DK Parulkar ejected after being hit by anti-aircraft fire near Zafarwal. He was taken as POW and returned a year later. Flt Lt KK Mohan was KIA after being hit by a wire-guided missile near Shakargarh. On 14th, Flt Lt L Pereira an FAC with 8 Tactical Air Centre, was killed on ground when attacked by a Sabre. From the 8th onwards many of the missions were ‘escorted’ by MiG-21 aircraft. On 16th December, Wg Cdr RK Batra, the Sqn Cdr, led a four aircraft bombing mission to the railway yard at Narowal.
In the west, the objective was to force the PAF on the defensive and permit our land operations to progress unhindered. This was achieved as 70 percent of PAF missions were flown to protect its own bases.
Flt Lt TS Dandass, a clssmate of mine from Delhi, was No 2, Flt Lt Ravish Malhotra who later trained as a cosmonaut, was No 3, with me as No 4. The mission was flown late in the afternoon, and visibility conditions were poor. The aircraft were heavily loaded and it was to be a steep glide attack from 4.2km height to give greater accuracy as the intent was to destroy the Narowal rail yard, a prime interdiction target. Due to navigational error, the formation drifted left of track and when we pulled up the target was displaced well to our right. The speeds had dropped during the pull up and we were lazily turning right to get into attack mode when the sky was filled by anti-aircraft fire. Despite our altitude, the ack-ack shells were bursting around and above us. The barrage of fire came from Chinese built quads. We rolled into the attack through the ack-ack fire and went into steep dive individually.
Being the last, I saw No 1 pulling out after bomb release and No 2 in the dive. A few seconds later No 2′s aircraft appeared to continue in the dive till it impacted with the ground. I saw the huge ball of fire followed by a plume of smoke. By now I had achieved release conditions. Bombs were released and I pulled out of the dive. Later when the formation was gathering up the leader asked for check-in on the radio. All but No 2 checked-in but the time was not right for me to volunteer any information as the images were still fuzzy in my mind. On landing I related what had happened. I could not confirm an ejection as I did not see any. Later it was conjectured that the aircraft could have taken a direct hit on the cockpit disabling the pilot.
Earlier in the week, a four aircraft mission was ordered to destroy a large conical tower in the Zafarwal sector which was suspected to be a lookout from where artillery fire was being directed. The mision was being led by Flt Lt Pant and we were instructed to carry out a single pass attack, two aircraft with rockets and the remaining two with bombs. A second pass was not to be attempted as we had lost three aircraft in that sector. The attacks were carried out and we turned towards base. Radar reported that we were being chased. As no instruction came from the leader, I, as deputy leader, ordered ‘reheat on’ to accelerate. But the radar reported that the track behind was gaining on us. We descended to about 50m and the landscape below flashed past at near supersonic speed. We reduced speed only when approaching overhead home base, which was put on air raid alert. We had to orbit nearby and then the mystery unfolded.
Future wars will be different. There has been a revolution in military affairs. Advancements in aerospace technologies have brought warfare to a different plane. The electromagnetic spectrum will be harnessed to ones advantage while denying it to the enemy.
The ‘chase’ revealed itself to be our leader who had carried out a second attack and was trying to catch up with the rest of the formation. He had by error changed over to another radio channel. After landing he had to literally run away to escape our combined wrath. This observation tower or whatever it was remained an enigma as even after many attacks by different missions with varying weapon loads, it continued to mock at us just by being there. This information was passed on to Western Air Command operations centre. One day when we passed that area on another mission, the entire area around the tower appeared to have been carpet-bombed. This was carried out at night by the AN-12 squadron. But, the tower still stood erect till the end of the war and we did not find out its purpose.
On the 11th, while returning after a CAS mission, my No 2 spotted a Pakistani army Bird Dog observation aircraft. We tried our best to manoeuvre and shoot him down, but his low flying and agility did not allow us to get close. We tried for about three minutes and as fuel was running low, had to abandon the chase. On 15th December very large crates arrived at the squadron dispersal. They contained the powerful S-24 air-to-ground rocket projectiles. The release conditions were marked on the crates in Russian language. Some of the officers and airmen who had trained in the Soviet Union and knew the language, deciphered the instructions. Instructions came down to send a two aircraft mission to attack Sulaimanke Headworks. Sqn Ldr TJ Fernandez and Flt Lt JS Ghuman carried out the mission. This was a first, as without any prior training or practice, completely new weapons were employed for live missions. The S-24 proved to be a deadly weapon.
There were some innovations during the war. Su-7 and MiG-21 aircraft of the Tactics and Combat Development and Training Squadron(TCDTS) would transit through Adampur for their night missions. They attacked PAF airfields deep inside enemy territory. Fuel limitations dictated that the route out and in to be direct. Such return at night at exremely low heights required the single aircraft mission to be given his ‘homing’ or the bearing he had to fly to get to base. While the Control or radar at base could get faint indications of their transmissions, its reply could not be heard by the fighter at low level. It was then that the ‘Sparrow’ control was established. This required an aircraft to climb and orbit overhead Adampur at about 8–10km height and transmit the homing to the TCDTS aircraft on its return leg. This worked very well and these night strikes caused considerable attrition to aircrew and aircraft of the PAF. After the war, Pakistan accused Israel and the Soviet Union of supporting India with AWACS aircraft.
The Pakistani forces in East Pakistan under General AAK Niazi, along with 94,000 army, navy, air force, para-military personnel and ‘razakars’ surrendered to General JS Aurora, GOC-in-C of Eastern Command, Indian Army at 1631 on 16th December at Dacca and the new nation of Bangladesh was born. The next day we heard General Yahya Khan, President of Pakistan in a drunken, rambling speech accepting an Indian offer of cease-fire in the western front also. The Air Force called off all offensive action on the evening of 17th December,1971 and the war came to an end.
Many have questioned me about my ‘feelings’ when I first crossed the border with hostile intent. Yes, there was some element of fear or apprehension, but
Many have questioned me about my ‘feelings’ when I first crossed the border with hostile intent. Yes, there was some element of fear or apprehension, but the requirements of flying the aircraft, of looking out for enemy interceptors and delivering the weapon load pushes all ‘feelings’ into the background and one’s professional training takes over. There is a sadness at losing your colleagues, but then they have died for a cause. And in this war the IAF and Adampur did exceedingly well. As compared to the stalemate of 1965, the Indian Armed Forces were the clear winners in the 1971 war. Jointmanship was evident in all operations and the forces were given clear objectives and allowed full freedom to attain those objectives.
Subsequent analysis revealed the meticulous planning and preparations carried out by Air HQ and WAC in the western sector. In the eastern sector the IAF had achieved total air domination after the first two days and its para-drop operations and accuracy of attack as demonstrated during the strike against the Governor’s House in Dacca on 14th December morning resulting in the Governor abandoning the building and taking refuge in a hotel under the UN flag, were instrumental in compelling Pakistan to surrender.
In the west, the objective was to force the PAF on the defensive and permit our land operations to progress unhindered. This was achieved as 70 percent of PAF missions were flown to protect its own bases. Future wars will be different. There has been a revolution in military affairs. Advancements in aerospace technologies have brought warfare to a different plane. The electromagnetic spectrum will be harnessed to one’s advantage while denying it to the enemy. The advent of nuclear weapons in our neighbourhood has added another more sinister dimension to war. But somethings will remain the same and these are training and preparations during peace for the next war.