Tuskers raid Peshawar: Indo-Pak War 1965
This is an account of a few audacious Canberra crews who flew almost 600 NMs into the enemy territory at night, trailing one another at near medium levels without any escort and without any radar cover, to bomb a very formidable airbase of Pakistan Air Force (PAF) in 1965 war with Pakistan. Unlike IAF in 1965, PAF with its US built F 104 Starfighters equipped with Sidewinder AIM 9B missile had night intercept capability and vintage Canberras practically were sitting ducks against this supersonic, state of the art interceptor. PAF also was fortunate to receive from US an effective radar chain for early warning purposes. Against this background, planning a mission to Peshawar for Canberras was suicidal as it entailed flying to a target at its extreme flying range, through the enemy heartland with no allowance of fuel for any tactical routing. Fuel constraint also meant limited payload.
Attacking Peshawar became important for India as PAF had moved bulk of its attack force to its rear airfields and almost the entire B 57 ac bomber force was shifted to Peshawar immediately after IAF carried out retaliatory strikes on most of PAF bases with its Hunters and Mysteres on 07 Sep 1965. PAF considered Peshawar to be outside the range of Indian strike aircraft and hence a safe haven for its strategic force of US made B 57 long range bombers. Yet, as night fell at Peshawar on 13 September 1965, 08 (Eight) Canberras of 5 Squadron stealthily approached Peshawar. The typical profile of a Canberra raid was to approach to a pre –calculated pull up point between 200 and 500 ft AGL, pull up steeply to about 12,000 feet to drop the load and then climb progressively to 40,000 ft, to escape from Pakistani territory.
As Canberras closed in to their target, the ack -ack batteries opened up signaling raiders have been detected. PAF pilots and ground crew ran to take shelter in trenches and they had the rare privilege of seeing the first Canberra drop flares to illuminate the airfield and then thunder down the main runway at 200 feet, before pulling up at its end in an wingover to turn back and drop its bomb load at the end of a dispersal of parked aircraft. Had luck favoured the Tuskers, they would have wiped out the entire strategic strike component of the PAF with a single blow as the entire force of sixteen B 57s were lined up wingtip to wingtip on a dispersal. Unfortunately for IAF, the single 4000 lb bomb that fell closest to the parked B 57s hit soft soil and its explosive force was dissipated. However, bombs dropped from other members of Tusker force found their marks as fuel dumps were set ablaze, ATC building was flattened and aircraft on ground were damaged.
As Canberras set course for home, the inevitable happened. A lone Starfighter was vectored for an intercept on to the retreating bomber force. Canberras did all that was possible to do to prevent a massacre. Sqn Ldr Gautam saw a streak of flame appear in the darkness and made its way towards the bombers as the Starfighter launched its missile. However, luck favored the brave and the missile exploded harmlessly, possibly due to its proximity fuze malfunctioning. All eight Canberras landed safely at Agra.
The raid shook the PAF out of its complacency. No airfield or town was out of range of Indian bombers. No one in Pakistan had thought that the IAF would bomb Peshawar with impunity. The raid also forced the Americans (USAF), that had maintained a full- fledged Signal Intelligence base about 20 miles South of Peshawar, to evacuate all its personnel with families through Iran and return only after cessation of hostilities.
Tuskers raid of Peshawar will certainly go down as one of most audacious bomber attack in history of military aviation. The significance of the raid was a symbolic gesture, less material damage. Even John Fricker, the PAF commissioned hagiographer was moved to an effusive turn of phrase in describing the raid as, ‘the most effective Canberra attack of the war’.
The real heroes of the raid were undoubtedly the Navigators whose chances of survival without an ejection seat for them in Canberras were very close to nothing. It is, therefore, rightly so that Navigators Sqn Ldr SN Bansal and Flt Lt P Dastidar were awarded Vir Chakras for their acts of exceptional gallantry and Commanding Officer Wg Cdr PP Sing was decorated with a Mahavir Chakra, country’s second highest gallantry award.
Other members of the raid were Sqn Ldr JC Verma (Leader), Flt Lt Deshpande, Wg Cdr PP Singh, Sqn Ldr CR Mehta, Sqn Ldr VC Godwin, Navigators Ahluwalia and S Kapoor.
My painting “Tuskers raid Peshawar” was inspired by the account I read in the book “The India-Pakistan Air War of 1965” by Jagan/Samir duo. So it was initially composed entirely on impressions created in my mind of the attack as it was narrated in the book. I was very fortunate to have received more inputs from Capt Vivian Goodwin who was one of the members of this fateful raid of 1965 war. I am also glad that Canberra gang of veterans has appreciated my painting. I am told that they are an extremely close knit lot and thick as thieves. It was wonderful to interact with few of them through e mail and very sincerely hope the painting evokes some memory for those remaining ‘Few good men’ of 5 Squadron and JBCU of September 1965.