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Introduction : Behind the Book

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India-Pakistan Air War of 1965

A Behind the Scenes look at the Making of the Book 


"India-Pakistan Air War of 1965", P.V.S Jagan Mohan and Samir Chopra, Manohar Publishers. 

Introduction: Military Aviation History in India

Military Aviation History in India is a sadly neglected field. It has been five decades since India attained independence, but the number of books published on Military Aviation in India still makes a sad listing, perhaps fifty or so. That is, an average of just one book for every year of Free India’s existence!

The lack of literary effort in this field has been blamed on a variety of factors. Some of it is blamed on our unique “ahistorical” culture, the ‘Indian’ way of not recording what happens in the past. One constant disincentive takes the form of the Official Secrets Act, which hangs as a sword above the heads of both serving and retired officers who want to write about their experiences. Even though over 30000 officers have served with the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy’s Air Arm since 1947, the number of autobiographies that have been written has barely approached double digit figures! The fear of God, or perhaps worse, bureaucrats, has been struck into the hearts of men who have fought wars.

In this bleak landscape, there are occasional flashes of light: a few individuals have made writing of Indian military aviation history their forte.  Among these are Pushpindar Singh Chopra, Air Vice Marshal S. S. Malhotra (Retd) (a.k.a Mally Douglas) and Gp. Capt. Ranbir Singh (Retd), who have over the years penned many books and articles in various magazines.

But these are exceptions. It is not surprising that in this scenario, there have been no true histories that have been written about the air wars that the Indian Air Force has fought. The works that have come out are mostly anecdotal, compilations of unconnected stories, or the worst, propaganda oriented ‘quickies’ written to take advantage of a just concluded conflict.  Take for example the 1971 war. The only worthwhile book on this war is Air Chief Marshal PC Lal’s My Years with the IAF. But the details in ACM Lal’s appear as part of an autobiography, and while providing a synoptic perspective on the war, do not serve up the level of detail that a serious student of the conflict would desire. Some scanty details have appeared in Air Marshal Chaturvedi's History of the Indian Air Force - once again as part of a larger history. Some articles on the war have been written by the participants themselves - and as expected these are narrow in their scope. But there is no book dedicated to a focus on the IAF’s role in that war. And we are talking about a war in which India achieved an outstanding victory.  One may wonder here about the fate of the lesser known wars that resulted in stalemates or had less desirable results? Will the men who fought in those wars be forgotten by all?

Genesis of the 1965 Book

Cover Image "The India-Pakistan Air War of 1965"  

In 1989, Jagan, an avid aviation enthusiast, and yes, a schoolboy, tried to find an authoritative account of the Air Force in the 1965 conflict and unsurprisingly met with little success. There were numerous accounts of the 1965 conflict, but none specific to the air war and most of them were vague or contradicted each other. The search for such an account went on even as Jagan started work on an undergraduate program in History.

Something had to be done to fill the void. Thus, the history of the 1965 India-Pakistan air war started off as an amateurish venture by an aviation enthusiast to sate his own curiosity. The process of compiling such a history started with the collection of various published accounts of the war from existing books and magazines. These were collected in the 1991-1992 time-frame. By 1994, the first four chapters were had been written in some basic form.

It was when Jagan saw Rupak Chattopadhyay's Indian Air Force site in April 1998, that the  thought occurred to him of putting all the existing information on the web. Rupak helped out, offering valuable advice and support. Rupak's co-webmasters at the Bharat Rakshak site (www.bharat-rakshak.com), L.N. Subramanian and Rakesh Koshy provided much needed encouragement as well.

Take-Off - the Veterans Connection

It never occurred to Jagan that research on the 1965 war would benefit from the stories from those who had fought in its frontlines. The first breakthrough in this matter was initiated by Gus Sheridan of the UK , who did an initial proxy interview with the 1965 war hero, Pete Wilson (Gus’ father-in-law!), and Dr Shiv Shankar Sastry, who went out and interviewed Air Marshal M.S.D. Wollen.  

Air Marshal and Mrs P.S. Pingale after retirement in Pune. Interviewed by Jagan, Pingale's is another pilot whose aircombat is one of the lesser known stories of the war. Not many people can claim to have slugged it out with 'Ace in a Day' Alam and come out equal , if not better!  

This provided the impetus to go out and start interviewing veterans from that war - directly or via proxy. Jagan started tracking down and interviewing retired officers and men of the IAF who had taken part in the war. Meeting these officers provided him with a tremendous amount of satisfaction. Not only at sharing their experiences, but also at ensuring the accuracy of events depicted in the book. It didn’t hurt that IAF officers are great hosts and for an aviation enthusiast, there is no better way to spend an evening than to be relaxing with a drink, listening to an aviator talk about his experiences!  

The Team Expands

Halfway through the effort, Jagan was fortunate in establishing contact with Samir Chopra. Samir’s father Sqn. Ldr. P.C. Chopra had fought in the war and earned a Vir Chakra but Samir knew little of his role in the war. Like Jagan, he was curious about the war. Given the presence of the Internet, perhaps the two were destined to meet. As Samir notes:

“In 1998, while working as a System Administrator for an online brokerage I browsed the web looking for information on the Indian Air Force. I’d been an aviation history enthusiast since childhood; growing up in air force bases will do that to you. I found Jagan’s site on the web and was fascinated to see an entire site dedicated to the 1965 conflict. I made an entry in Jagan’s guestbook supplying some information and carried on. Jagan wrote back, sparking off a correspondence between us on matters of air force history.”

Samir helped in tracking down some documents like war-diaries and arranged some interviews. Busy with his doctoral work, he still maintained an interest in the project. Two years later, he had moved to Australia , where he received a draft of the book. Samir went through the draft, and offered to edit the document. But histories have a way of sucking people in. Samir soon became involved in locating many veterans of the conflict (there is a large community of retired IAF officers settled in Australia ) and interviewing them. He managed to accumulate numerous first person accounts, unofficial wartime documents from veteran’s collections and a number of rare photographs.

“As I continued to work on the book, I fell deeper into the task of getting the history right, of accumulating more details, of contacting veterans and conducting interviews. Soon I found myself co-author of the book.”

The quantum of work he put in the book was enough to warrant his inclusion as the co-author; anything less would not have done justice to his contribution.

 Samir sums up their collaboration: 

“I don’t think I’ve ever engaged in a more pleasurable and rewarding collaboration. Jagan and I would exchange emails frequently, checking with each other, clearing each change, sending each other snippets of information as and when they became available. We collaborated on the writing of the book in purely electronic fashion. To date, we have not met each other in person but hope to do so someday.”

Jagan and Samir’s collaboration was unique, involving a blizzard of emails back and forth, checking, and cross-checking, and swapping portions of the book to work on. They maintained two separate backups of the document individually, and the latest version on a website for the each author to peruse and check. Changes were made in highlighted text and discussed endlessly before final incorporation. Phone calls were made when something just had to be discussed in that fashion. But they’ve never managed to meet yet.

Samir came on board in 2001, and by mid-2003, the book was rolling into final shape. It was hard to find publishers in the US or UK that were interested in this conflict, and it was felt that it would be best to find an Indian publisher as the demand was likely to be greatest in local markets. Finally, the manuscript was accepted by Manohar Publishers in Delhi India ’s oldest and largest academic publishers. Jagan and Samir were gratified to hear that reviewers (both military history experts) had given the book high ratings and recommended unqualified acceptance.

A Synopsis of the Book

So after about six years of research (1998-2003), the final product was the 380 page book ‘The India-Pakistan 1965 Air War” published by Manohar Publishers in New Delhi .  In this book the air component of a war that was triggered by the issue ofKashmir in 1965 is described in detail. While the Pakistani side of the story has been told, the Indian story has not.  

The book begins with a brief historical background to the Indian Air Force (IAF) and provides a look at the events that drove the IAF’s developments in the years leading up to the war. This analysis enables some appreciation of the challenges that faced the IAF as it strove to develop the aviation component of its military. The political circumstances of India and Pakistan drove their purchasing policies: American aces from the Korean War had trained the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) whose main strike force consisted of F-86 Sabres - the stars of the Korean War - and B-57 Canberras; the Indian Air Force flew a mixture of British, Russian and French jets. The orders of battle in 1965 are examined with some brief technical detail. India was often using untried and untested aircraft beyond their designated performance profiles. India persisted in attempting self-reliance in military matters – a process that continues to this day as can be witnessed in its manufacture of nuclear weapons and the development of an indigenous aviation and space program.

After a brief look at the events that eventually triggered the war in September 1965 - the battles in the disputed Rann of Kutch territory and the Pakistani intrusion into Kashmir by Operation Gibraltar – the book moves on to a day by day recounting of the war, from the Pakistani attack in Jammu to the Indian retaliation across the Punjab border to a blow by blow account of the escalation of the air war on the western front. It makes sobering reading to realize that the Kargil conflict in 1999 began in almost exactly the same fashion. The book also provides a detailed description of events in the Eastern Sector i.e., on the border between India and the erstwhile East Pakistan , something that no book on the conflict has ever attempted.

In subsequent chapters, the air component of the war is explained in detail along with the  three-week long inconclusive slugging battle on the ground that employed tanks and artillery and that was only brought to a halt after intense international pressure for a ceasefire involving all the major superpowers (the US, the USSR and China) and the United Nations. The book concludes with an evaluation of the performance of the respective Air Forces and an epilogue on the men who fought the war.

The main source of information on the book has been interviews with Indian Air Force personnel that fought in the war. The account is unique in providing Indian eyewitness accounts of the major actions of the air war. Jagan and Samir utilized material from various sources, including  war diaries of squadrons, material made available from both Indian and Pakistani sources, including magazine articles, fictionalized accounts and other books – mainly by Army personnel on both sides of the border – that chiefly addressed the conflict on the ground.  As a result of conducting interviews - in the USA , the United Kingdom Australia and India - they were able to get a unique perspective on the war.

They faced challenges: some IAF personnel could simply not be located - some had migrated and left the country to become members of the Indian diaspora, some were reluctant to talk about a subject that could often evoke painful memories; some had passed away before we began the book, and others sadly left us as the book was being written. Lastly, the Indian Air Force itself has not made public its records of the war. Still, contact with ex-IAF personnel provided them with unique information: pilot’s logbook scans, never before published photographs (close to 100) including gun camera photos and personal details on the men who fought the war. The Indian Government’s Official History of the 1965 War was used to crosscheck details and verify claims.  The Authors did not however, have access to the Indian Air Force’s history cell, even though they did receive support from serving IAF officers in an unofficial capacity. 

Sabre Slayer : Alfred Cooke (right) tangled with four Pakistani F-86 Sabre and had shot down one of the aircraft and so severely damaged another that it was written off after landing back at its base. Cooke left the airforce in 1967 and migrated to Australia where he was interviewed by Samir.  

The book is of value in understanding the deployment of airpower of the 20th century. Furthermore, the 1965 war represents a turning point in Indo-Pakistan relations. India had already realized its military vulnerability after the 1962 war with China . This war took it further down the path of military modernization and re-equipment. Its air force was rapidly undergoing an expansion program in the mid-sixties; it took the lessons from this war into its next campaign: the highly successful war to liberate East Pakistan in 1971. The lessons learned from the 1965 war still drive military aviation in India , which has embarked on the Light Combat Aircraft project and recently inducted the Sukhoi-30MKI, the most advanced jet aircraft in the world today in active service. Understanding this war will help dispel some notions the West has about the countries that find themselves still locked in battle over Kashmir. One of these is the misconception that the countries are not militarily sophisticated. On the contrary, as this book will show, the two have had practice in developing military tactics over a period of time that are unique to the theaters that they will fight in. The two countries have fought fiercely, with no quarter given and certainly none asked for. The armoured battles in the Sialkot sector in 1965 were the most intense since the Second World War – rivaled only by Israeli-Egyptian battles in the Sinai in 1973, and the air battles often took place at low-altitudes in high performance aircraft.

Each country appointed heroes; here the book tells some of the Indian stories. For the first time the story of Alfred Cooke, the Indian pilot who tangled with four PAF Sabres and shot down two of them is told in detail. Cooke is peacefully retired in Australia – this is the first time his story has been recorded. Some legendary raids that have made their way into the aviation lore of the Indian subcontinent are described for the first time in print such as Pete Wilson's raid on Badin, the Pakistani pilot admiringly dubbed '8-Pass Charlie' by Indian pilots and the story of the daring clandestine reconnaissance missions flown by Jaggi Nath in broad daylight at low level over Pakistan - prior to the outbreak of hostilities.

Author Samir Chopra with Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh DFC whom he interviewed in Delhi  

The war had a unique edge to it: men fought in the war that prior to the creation of India and Pakistan had served in air academies together. The Air Chiefs in the war - Arjan Singh and Nur Khan - were friends before the war and remain friends to this day. Indian pilots flew across the border and over the villages that their grandparents and parents had lived in. More than one Indian pilot was to comment on the incongruity of fighting against men who might have been his squadron mates had the history of the subcontinent been even marginally different.

With the publication of this book, the history of the 1965 war will be complete. The Book does not spend much time on political details, commentary or historical background that is non-aviation related. Much has already been written on these matters. 

This is not the final word on the 1965 air war; new facts will come to light and mistakes in existing accounts and versions will be discovered. The authors hope to update the book constantly by enhancing it with more personal experiences of the people who fought in the war and more details and pictures from that era.

The authors started this project with a certain boyish enthusiasm and have used that as a balance to the seriousness of the project. Still, they have striven to do justice to the facts, to present history with respect for its players and with the fervent hope that the future history of the subcontinent will not require the kind of cost that appears to be imminent in these grim days. 

 

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