During the 1971 War, Sirsa acted as forward air base in Haryana for Squadrons normally operating out of Hindan. It was home to Mystere IVa fighter bombers of Nos 3 and 31 Squadron, as well as a dettachment of MiG-21s of No.29 Squadron. Wg Cdr Divakar Choudhari writes about his days at Sirsa during the war, acting as the Fighter Controller for the aircraft there.
Later half of December 1996 was full of newspaper reports and articles regarding the 25th Anniversary of the 1971 Indo-Pak War. These brought back nostalgic memories of some of the most exciting incidents and moments that I had handled/experienced as an Air Traffic Controller operating from SIRSA, then a satellite airfield for HINDAN. Despite the lapse of two & quarter decades, the picture of these is so vividly clear in my mind that these incidents still give me tremendous thrill & excitement whenever these flash across, to borrow from William Wordsworth, “the inward eye”.
THE PAF NIGHT RAID ON SIRSA
It was the evening of 4th Dec 1971 and I was on duty at the improvised makeshift 15Ft high Air Traffic Control Tower.
Around 2030hrs I had only two MiG from the base airborne, which were expected to rejoin around 2100hrs. I was admiring the crescent moon in an absolutely cloudless sky, when, in the background of the Moon I spotted the outline of an aircraft at quite a distance. Fixing my gaze I reconfirmed within myself that what I saw was right. Sure enough the aircraft kept closing in and instinctively I said that it had to be an enemy aircraft approaching from the ‘West’ as no other known traffic was expected from that direction.
I promptly informed the Base Commander, late Air Cmde KK Malik, then Wg Cdr on the Hotline. In utter disbelief he utterred “Impossible! (as no Radar had informed about any intruder)”. Keeping my gaze fixed at the aircraft I directed all the ATC personnel except the ops clerk, to take shelter in the respective trenches, and time & again kept reporting to the Base Cdr about the approaching aircraft urging him to act.
Lo and behold at 2033- 34 hrs the intruder arrived overhead and very cunningly dropped delay fuse bombs during this in-bound run, one of which fell a few yards away from my tower. Soon afterwards the first bomb-explosion was heard and a few seconds later I saw the same aircraft going back in the same direction from where it had approached dropping many more live bombs.
As the first bomb exploded, the Hotline buzzed and the voice in excitement asked, “what is it”, I said “the same aircraft on its way back after completing his mission” and he exclaimed “On Sh....”. And almost simultaneously, I saw the most beautiful sight, never seen before. The entire Airfield was covered with the tracer bullets fired by the Ack- Ack guns, as if by a Magic Wand the day had dawned. The entire airfield was momentarily illuminated, but in vain. The brave Pak Pilot had managed to harmlessly get away, & I watched helplessly. The MiGs, meanwhile contacted & were diverted to HINDAN as at that point of time, the damage to the R/W was not known.
Those 35 minutes of Utter Suspense Once the sound & fury of the bombardment and the Ack-Ack guns had died down, the Hotline buzzed & I was directed to go for Runway Inspection. I summoned the ALR jeep and commenced the R/W Inspection which took approx 35 mts driving at slowest possible speed. Those 35 mts I spent on the R/W appeared like never ending eternity, and were full of fear, tension and apprehension. Fear of inadvertently driving over an unexploded bomb, apprehension of a second attack, and tension due to the possibility of the unexploded bomb exploding in the close proximity of the jeep. In that deadly silence of the night even the sound of a passing vehicle sounded so loud giving an impression of an approaching “attacker”.
With the heart in the mouth and prayer on the lips, I completed that MOST nerve wracking Runway Inspection and on reaching back to the Tower heaved the biggest sigh of relief. To our utter relief and amazement not a single of the 16 Bombs had fallen on the R/W or the Taxi track. The Base Cdr must have heard a much bigger sigh of relief on hearing from me ! The silence of the night was broken 3-4 times during the night when the delay fuse bombs kept exploding.
BOGEY INTERCEPTION – NOT!
|Defence Minister Babu Jagjivan Ram visits Sirsa Airfield during the war. He is shown a damaged Mystere IVa fighter bomber that was flown back by one of the pilots of No.3 Squadron.|
It was probably 6th or 7th Dec 71. Two Mysteres led by then Wg Cdr ML Trehan & Flt LT Vashist, popularly known as Pundit, had got airborne for a dusk offensive mission. As a SOP the Dusk CAP of 2 MiGs was orbiting over the base. I was looking at the setting Sun and admiring the changing colour pattern that the setting sun was majestically creating. And suddenly I spotted two aircraft at a distance almost at tree-top level heading towards my base from the ‘West’. I immediately called the Mystere Mission on all channels, and after getting no response, informed the CAP aircraft.
One of the CAP pilots was the then Flt LT DS Sant heard some transmission between CAP 1 &2, and finally that Joyous call, “Bogey spotted, getting into position”.
And after few moments monitored the transmission from Sant “calling off”.
By this time the two aircraft had come overhead, and these were our own Mysteres !
It was later revealed that Sant had recognised these aircraft just before pressing the trigger! Why the Mysteres approached at tree-top level without R/T contact ? Yes, you guessed it right. They had complete R/T Failure. Why were they coming at virtually supersonic speed at tree-top level ? Because they were being chased by Pak Fighters and the Mysteres were running away for their lives & in that panic just carried on at the lowest level they could fly. I shudder still to think of the grave consequences if Flt Lt Sant had delayed the recognition by few seconds & fired his Missile ! Indeed a providential escape for the two Mystere pilots.
I do not now remember the exact date of this incident. It happened during the second week of December 1971. I was on duty at the Control Tower in the afternoon shift. I heard that someone is calling in very low voice “Chou” “Chou”.
I got up from my chair, looked around if someone was playing games with me. Finding no one around, I sat down and again heard the call “Chou” “Chou”. Realising that some one is calling on the RT, I put the volume control of all channels on Maximum. No sooner I had done that I recognised the voice of Flt Lt Vashist calling “Chou, chou” on Alpha Channel.
Flt Lt Vashist had been airborne in a Mystere for an operational Mission. I responded to his call. He was desperately wanting some kind of help as he was being chased by Pakistani Fighters and that he was already on the inbound leg. I spontaneously transmitted on Alpha and all other channels “Pundit do not worry, I have already scrambled two MiGs towards your direction & gave some calls to that effect to the two imaginary MiGs & kept repeating some instructions whatever came to my mind with the solitary air of boosting Pundits’ Morale & confidence and with a desperate hope that the Pakis do monitor my calls being transmitted on all channels!
As Vashisht came closer his transmissions became clearer and even the Homer started indicating. He was cleared to make a direct landing.
Soon after landing, probably the first thing that Vashisht did was to come to the Tower to meet me & thank me for firstly being able to monitor his faint calls and secondly for scrambling the MiGs. Before leaving he asked me the position of the MiGs. I said “which MiGs”. “The ones you had scrambled for me”. I informed him that no MiGs were scrambled and that all those transmissions to MiGs were bogey calls, which were made to boost up his morale. He was stunned and the complete facial expression reflected a deep sense of gratitude. As I write this, I still vividly recollect the glint of gratitude in his eyes and that smile which said so much without uttering a word !
This episode pertains to the 6th sense of human beings, specially of the wives and mothers. It is often said that when a bad thing happens, wives and mothers come to know about it almost immediately, even if thousand of miles away.
During one of those early days of the war, then Sqn Ldr JD Kumar & Flt Lt Mukerjee had gone across the border in Mystere aircraft for a day ops mission from SIRSA. Almost at the same time when I was expecting to establish contact with the Mission Leader on their in-bound leg, Pulok Mukerjee, who was No 2, transmitted asking for Homing. On enquiry by me regarding the position of his Leader, Pulok informed that No 1 had been shot down in Pakistani territory.
|Squadron Leader J D Kumar of No. 3 Squadron was killed in action on 13 Dec 1971. His Mystere IVa (IA-1331) on a was shot down during a photorecce sortie over the Fazilka area.|
Yes, relevant to mention here that most of the pilots and the ground staff had come to SIRSA from HINDAN, leaving behind the families at Hindan. As soon as Pulok finished his transmission regarding the shooting down of his Leader-Sqn Ldr JD Kumar—the Ops clerk informed me that Sqn Ldr Nayak, the Senior Accts Officer, Hindan wants to urgently talk to the DATCO. What Sqn Ldr Nayak asked me, baffled me. He said that Mrs. JD Kumar had asked him to find out from SIRSA the news about her husband.
With a deep sense of sorrow and guilt I could only say “presently he has gone for a Mission”. That call from Sqn Ldr Nayak on a fervent personal request of Mrs. Kumar was a mere coincidence or a perfect example of the 6th sense referred to earlier. Personally, I rule out co-incidence.
LOOKING BACK – DAY ONE
And to conclude, I must mention how in the early evening of 3rd Dec 1971, we were informed about the commencement of the Hostilities. A large number of officers had been positioned at SIRSA from middle of November 1971. 7-8 of us had formed a card-playing group and we played regularly in the afternoons. The game continued even when the airraid warnings were sounded, as few of the earlier one had turned out to be false alarms.
The same routine was in progress in the afternoon of 3rd Dec 71 too. We ignored the air-raid warning sounded on 3rd late afternoon. Suddenly an anxious and excited Base Cdr, the then Wg Cdr KK Malik barged into the room and shouted “You B... & Bs... are not getting up. The War has begun”. It stunned us all, and we got up all together to run for the nearest trench, forgetting about the Money, Purse & the Cards.
Those of the readers who had the privilege of working with late Air Cmde KK Malik, nicknamed as “Nibboo Malik”, kindly fill up the blanks yourself and pay a silent respect to the departed soul.
Note From the Author
All names & incidents mentioned are True. There could be an error of a day or so regarding dates.
- Reproduced from Safety Journal Published in Feb 1997 written by then Wg Cdr Divakar Chaudhri (Retd).