THUNDER OVER DACCA: 1971
Aerospace, January 1997
We were at the aircraft at 0635 hours. The Squadron Engineering Officer, Flight Lieutenant B.S. Ahluwalia, was at the tarmac with his efficient look and ever present smile. "Sir, all aircraft are ready, armed and double tested." I returned his smile, "Thanks". Technical airmen standing around looked grim and somewhat differently but there was an air of good-will and affection in that charged atmosphere. They wished us good luck.
I was choked with emotion and could only nod my head and wave back at them from the cockpit of my MiG-21. We lined upon the runway, which was still largely obscured with fog, not more than a third of its length visible. Flying control cleared me for take off, and stated that visibility was 600-700 yards.
Four MiG-21s got airborne through the fog and headed for the target. Soon we left the fog below. Hills, in front which stretched up to the East Pakistan border were in all their glory in the morning sun, calming one's nerves.
We flew past them and entered enemy territory, which was flat land covered with a thick sheet of fog. Ground features were not visible, map reading was useless we had no choice but to press on guided by the planned time and course. It was actually delightful to be skimming over the white sheet of fog below, with my No.3 and No.4 stretched to my right and slightly above in broad front battle formation, while from time to time, I could see our escorts, Flt. Lt. Manbir Singh (Bunny) and Flt. Lt. D.M. Subiya, their MiG-21s fitted with air-to-air missiles, some distance behind us, and a clear blue sky above us. God was in His heaven and all was well with the world.
However, such serenity was rudely disturbed by a crackle on the R/T with a hushed voice saying, "careful". I recognised it to be that of Wing Commander Gole, warning me of the presence of hostile aircraft over Dacca, perhaps a CAP. Barely two minutes before we reached our pull-up point, the fog suddenly cleared and I saw the ground, some roads, and a big factory at the river bend spewing white smoke, which was our last check point. We were, now, less than a minute away from Tezgaon. I broke R/T silence.
"Tiger One pulling up. RPM 90%. Target on our left 10 o'clock." My No.3 confirmed, "Tiger Three, contact." As I gained height I saw the entire expanse of Tezgaon airfield stretched to my left with its single runway hangars flying control, and zigzag pathways leading to camouflage aircraft pens. There seemed no activity, except for one Sabre getting refueled next to their ORP at one end of the runway. Then I spotted another Sabre rolling down the runway for take-off.
"Buzzy, there is a badmash (enemy) on the take-off run, middle of the runway." I told our escort leader.
Whoosh.....one more Sabre passed below me, flying from left to right.
"There is one more below us, Bhoop Sir. In contact with both. Tail of your formation is cleared."
That relieved me of keeping track of the Sabres and allowed me to concentrate on the task in hand. I was not in position to attack the Sabre which were getting refueled but looked for any other aircraft in the open - there were none in sight. Flying low level, at the speed of over 900km/h, it was not easy to scan an unknown airfield and look for small targets.
I went in for the hangers, radio and communication installations. We made two passes each and fired the 57mm rockets and left with smoke rising from a number of places on the airfield. It was difficult to assess the exact damage done. The excitement of the first attack on the enemy airfield had not ebbed, when I heard Bunny calling his No.2, Dadoo (Flt. Lt. D.M. Subiya).
"Dadoo where are you?"
"Dadoo report position, we are heading back."
A laboured and excited transmission from Dadoo announced,
"I am in combat with a Sabre over Dacca."
By then we had already set course for home. Dadoo was alone, far behind us, in aerial combat over enemy country. I intervened "Tiger One Dadoo, your fuel state."
"Nine hundred litres."
Heavens, even if he shot down the Sabre with this fuel state he would hardly make it back to Tezpur. I ordered,
"Dadoo disengage immediately. Climb to 6km on course to base."
A few seconds later he called,
"Dadoo at 6 km fly for range."
I asked my formation to throttle back, reduce speed, spread out, and look for Dadoo's aircraft. I informed our radar control of the situation and requested them to scan for Dadoo. Soon the radar reported Dadoo's position as 6 o'clock, 20km behind us. And his tail was clear.
To me it looked a very grim situation, touch and go. I called up Gauhati.
"Bull Dog Tiger One. Formation returning 6 km. Ten minutes away. Escort 2 very low on fuel. Alert rescue helicopter, and direct approach and landing for him."
"Tiger, Bull Dog. Roger".
A little later I saw Dadoo's MiG-21 at 9 o'clock to me and we were just crossing into our own territory. The Meghalaya Hills were below us. At least one problem of ejecting over enemy territory was over. Now it was a matter of Dadoo's skill and will power to coax his aircraft back to base on the limited fuel remaining in the tank.
"Dadoo, your fuel?"
"Not bad. Maintain height and power. I am at 3 o'clock, 2000 yards, level. Descend only after airfield is in sight".
As the airfield neared, his fuel state became lower and lower and finally he said that the fuel indicator was reading zero. By then he was on finals, but held on to his courage with both hands. Although he had the choice to eject to safety, he did not exercise that option and decided instead to bring the aircraft home intact. I kept my fingers crossed and prayed.
He was on short finals, appeared normal. With a great sigh I saw him touch down on the runway. As he turned off at the end of the runway his engine stopped. It could have happened in the air some seconds before and with what results! Difference between life and death was not more than 20 litres of fuel. A two second delay in disengagement from air combat would have meant the story with a different end. Who does not believe in luck?
When we entered dispersal after landing, I saw the ground crew gather around my aircraft touching the rocket rails, which were now empty. There were two bullet holes in the rear fuselage. A hurrah went up. Like the pilot's satisfaction of having reached the target and destroyed it, for the first time it dawned that the joy of our Airmen who had toiled for hours to make the aircraft cent per cent fit for flying and ensured that the weapons were loaded and tested with utmost care, was no less when they found the weapons gone and the aircraft had performed flawlessly. We pilots could now relate as equal partners with the Airmen in the common task in safeguarding our country.
I flew two more missions to Tezgaon later in the day. We fired at vital installations but saw no aircraft on the ground or in the air. However during the third sortie, I saw a medium sized transport aircraft parked near a hanger which I destroyed. Unfortunately there was little intelligence available on aircraft dispersal areas and location shelters and important installations on Tezgaon airfield.
Perhaps we were achieving little except for harassing the Pakistanis. I conveyed the above observations to Headquarters, Eastern Air Command through our station with a suggestion that instead of rocket attacks, we should go in with heavy bombs, attacking the runways at Tezgaon and Kurmitola. It was difficult to pick up aircraft in camouflaged shelters and then destroy them, but should instead make the runways unusable, thus grounding enemy aircraft and preventing any reinforcements from flying in.
The runways at Kumritola showing bomb damage after the "First Supersonics" raid
The above decision came on the 5th evening. The 'First Supersonics' was given the task to mount the first strikes to bomb the runways of Tezgaon. Options available were to make one low level, high speed pass at about 45º angle to the runway and drop bombs. In near level flight which was a recommended method, more to ensure safety of one's own aircraft against the anti-aircraft fire but at the cost of accuracy and damage to the target. This would have required comparatively large number of sorties to hit and damage the runway, a good method provided there were those many resources and time at one's disposal.
The other option was to undertake a steep glide bombing attack along the length of the runway. This method ensured much greater accuracy, deep penetration of the bombs before exploding and, therefore, causing far greater damage. The disadvantage was that this was far more risky where anti-aircraft guns would have more lethality as the aircraft stayed much longer in their gun-sights.
This also removed the element of surprise and varying direction of attack, as one just had to attack along a fixed direction thus increasing the vulnerability. We debated this issue at great length and opted for the steep glide mode as a calculated risk vis-à-vis the assured results and quick denial of runways for use of the PAF fighters and keeping them on the ground for the rest of the war.
I led the first bombing mission on the morning of December 8th. It was a fog free and clear day with unlimited visibility. Four MiG-21s took on and at headed low level; skimming at tree heights to avoid radar detection. Navigation had ceased to be a problem after so many trips to and from Dacca in the previous days, it was akin to a home base by now.
We arrived at our usual pull up point (IP) unhindered. From there we were to get behind each other in a stream, pull up in a steep climb to attain a height of about 4500 metres before assuming a near 60º dive, aiming at the runway. We had allotted certain portions of the runway for attack to each member of the formation in order to spread its damage along the full length. We had practiced this often at our firing practices.
At the IP breaking R/T silence I called "Tiger One. Switches on RPM 100%. Pulling up".
I heard the click ... click ... click indicating acknowledgment by numbers 2, 3, and 4 going up. In a zoom I saw the runway appear on my left at about 1030 position. It seemed all quiet on the airfield, no movements of any kind. I looked for any CAP-found none. At over 4km height, my speed had dropped from 900 to 450 km/h, controls felt heavy and sluggish. I rolled over on my back and dropped the nose of the aircraft.
The Tezgaon runway was appearing in front of me, I seemed to be in a near vertical dive, that is how it appears at 60º. I slowly aligned the nose of the aircraft along the length of the runway aiming the gun sight at a point about top quarter of the runway and held it steady there. I was in a screaming dive now, speed was fast increasing to 700, 800, 900 and approaching 1000 km/h.
I felt stationary, as if suspended with a thread on top of the runway. Suddenly a large number of black and white puffs started appearing in front of me and than all around me....fast firing, A-A guns were firing away. I was nearing the bombing point, gun sight rock steady on the target.
Wait, wait, NOW!! I pressed the trigger and felt the bomb release as the aircraft became lighter by 1000kg. I pulled out of the dive and turned hard left to get out of the firing line of the A-A guns. It was gratifying to see two smoking craters on the runway, right in the middle of the top quarter.
I climbed up to 5km to see results of the other three MiG-21s. It was hard to believe, eyes could not have lied, all bombs had fallen on the runway, along its entire length and a great pall of dust and smoke was rising from Tezgaon.
"Good Show Tiger formation. I think we have done it." I heard the clicks on R/T acknowledging my transmission. We must have left the Pakistanis stunned with our unconventional mode of attack and results. This attack had actually sealed their fate. I led another bombing attack late in the afternoon on the same day. On approaching the Tezgaon airfield I saw reddish brown patches on the runway.
They apparently had done some emergency repairs on the craters. We scored direct hits again along the length of the runway leaving another eight fresh craters to keep them busy for the night. There was fierce anti-aircraft fire encountered. But aircraft returned undamaged. Not to give them breathing space, I once again led another bombing mission to Tezgaon the next morning, December 7th.
The runway had not been repaired during the night and we added to their plight by adding another eight craters to the previous eight. During these attacks, we had also given enough practice to their anti-aircraft gunners and so at last they scored a hit on the left wing of my aircraft. I felt a big thud and the aircraft shook violently.
By then I was nearing my firing range, pressed on and released the bombs and pulled out of the dive. I looked inside the cockpit - aft instruments read normal, aircraft responded to controls and throttle. All was well. The gunner would have been delighted had he known that he had scored a pin point hit, but there was no way that I could have told him. The damage was a 9 inch hole.
Since Tezgaon runways were not repaired after December 7th, we shifted our attention to Kurmitola which was the second airfield at Dacca. It was possible that the Pakistanis might shift their aircraft by road to this airfield and operate from there.
This time I took my personal 35mm camera with me to take snaps of the damage caused to Tezgaon and to take pictures of the airfield for general study of its layout, important locations, dispersal of aircraft and the location of their shelters, because we had no such information from our Command or Air Headquarters.
Copies of these photographs including one showing bombs exploding on Kurmitola runway were sent to Headquarters, Eastern Air Command with the compliments of the First Supersonics. EAC felt satisfied with the results and did not feel the need to mount any more sorties to damage the runways further, and these remained out of commission till the end of the war.
When I visited Dacca a day after the surrender, I went to see the runway at Tezgaon. From the ground, it looked like the surface of the moon, full of craters along its length, with high mounds of earth around their periphery. I took some photographs of those. These craters measured about 22 feet in diameter and 20 feet in depth.
No runway in the world could survive as many craters of that size with temporary repairs. This was clear from the fact that when I went to see the PAP Operations Room and crew room of their Sabre Squadron (No.14), date of the last briefing on the board read as 5 Dec '71. No flying took place at Tezgaon from the morning of December 6th, when we dropped first of the bombs the airfield being neutralized within 48 hours of war.
On December 7th, the US Government wanted to evacuate their nationals from Dacca and asked Pakistan's permission to land a Boeing 707 at Dacca. Pakistan told them that the Indian Air Force was very active in that region and they could not assure safety of the Boeing. The fact was that they did not want to announce that their runways had been knocked off as it would have demoralised both the military and the nation.
Instead they asked the Americans to request India for safe passage. The Indian Government called the Pakistan bluff and promptly agreed to cease air operations over Dacca for a given period of 4 hours. Those four hours went by and no Boeing arrived - no further requests were made by the Americans either. However, the U.S. thanked India for its gesture, but this was another proof of total destruction of the PAF airfields in the East by December 6th.
Amazingly, as soon as I alighted from a chopper at Tezgaon on the day after surrender, the first person who came rushing to me was a Russian. He had learnt from another member of our party that I had flown one of the MiG-21s which had bombed the runways. He asked me point blank to tell him honestly which kind of bomb sight we used for such pinpoint bombing and effectiveness.
He said he saw bombs falling for days nowhere else but on the runways. I thanked him for the compliment and reminded him that we were flying their MiG-21s and they should know as to which gun sights they had provided to us. He shook his head in disbelief. He had read the PAF claims that Indian MiG-21s in the east were using laser gun sights. No one was ready to believe the truth that what we actually only used the same old primitive fixed gun sight for our bombing.
The accuracy achieved was through our extensive training practice orientation, selection of attack techniques appropriate to the situation, sheer determination, motivation and guts in the face of enemy fire. The No.28 'First Supersonics' were soon named 'Runway Busters' by the C-in-C of EAC, Air Marshal H.C. Dewan. We had earned our spurs and found a place in the history of air warfare.
Absence of air-support to the Pakistani Army in Bangladesh severely limited their operations. The Indian Army on the other hand were relieved of the fear of air attacks by PAF aircraft. The Indian Air Force had complete freedom of the air in East Bengal.
Besides the Indian Navy which had asked for such an assurance before they would commit their aircraft carrier in The Bay of Bengal, was given that guarantee on December 7th. INS Vikrant then lent its might in no small measure. This had been a classic counter-air operation with few parallels.
In the east, It was a war of movement. The Pakistani forces had to be encircled, if possible destroyed or captured and thus made ineffective. The aim was to liberate Bangladesh. By now, international pressure, specially from the Americans, was mounting to stop the war in the east, perhaps in an effort to bale out Pakistan and prevent its disintegration.
The Seventh Fleet of the United States Navy was heading for the Bay of Bengal, indicating such an intention. The Soviets, who were batting for us with vetoes in The United Nations were urging India to hurry up. Urgency, therefore, was growing to expedite the fall of Dacca. There were innumerable rivers and streams in East Bengal. 500 bridges of these were blown up by Pakistani troops to stop or slow down advance of the Indian Army.
Pakistanis had built strong defences along the other routes to stoutly resist the advancing Indians. From 7th to 14th December, the 'First Supersonics' flew a very large number of missions in close support of the Army in Maulvi Bazar, Commila, Narsingde, Lalmai, Mainamati and Dacca University, using both rockets and bombs to destroy the Pakistani Army's heavily defended positions and thus defeat their will to resist. This more than helped in ensuring an early passage to Dacca and the rest is history.
On 14th December I had just returned from a close-support mission in the morning from Mainamati Cantonment when Group Captain Wollen came rushing to our operations room and said, "Bhoop, a very critical and urgent task has come from Air HQ. There is a very important meeting going on at Circuit House, Dacca and this building needs to be attacked at 1120 hrs."
I told him that, first it was already 1055 and it required 21 minutes to be at Dacca and then "Where in God's name is the Circuit House located in Dacca?"
He said, "If you hurry up you can just about make it. Here, I have tourist map of Dacca and here, next to this road crossing is the Circuit House." I looked back at him, the Circuit House was part of a densely populated area of Dacca and from the air one could see hundreds of road crossings, how was one to pick that one? I simply said, "Yes Sir, it shall be done." I borrowed that map from him to be taken along and with this, search for that Circuit House after getting overhead Dacca.
For this mission I was taking four MiG-21s loaded with 32 high explosive rockets each. I was strapped in the cockpit of the aircraft and started the engine, just when I saw one of our Flight Commanders waving a paper and run towards me. "Sir, this is for you." It read, Target is Government House, repeat Government House and not Circuit House. Confirm understood. Best of luck and good shooting. Mall."
I raised my thumb to confirm that I had noted the change. I quickly scanned the tourist map in my lap and located the Government House and taxied out. At this stage I did not inform of the change to the other three members of my team which consisted of Flight Lieutenant Vinod Bhatia, Flight Lieutenant Raghavachari and Flight Lieutenant Malhi as I did not want to announce this on R/T for the whole world to know.
Airborne and as we were approaching Dacca and had barely a minute to go, I gave the new target to my numbers 2, 3 and 4. I described the rough location of the target and asked them to look for it. Flight Lieutenant Bhatia spotted it first, calling that the target was at 11 o'clock, 500 yards away. It was a magnificent old styled palatial building with a high dome, situated in the middle of a lush green compound. There were quite a few vehicles inside the entrance gate.
I did a "chakkar" around it to reconfirm its identity and then ordered the attack taking the building from broad side. I aimed at the room below the dome, others took on other portions. We did two passes each and fired 128 rockets into the Government House.
By the second attack smoke and dust could be seen rising from many locations from the abode the mightiest in East Pakistan. It obviously broke the backbone of the civilian Government. Two days later General Niazi, the Supreme Commander of the Pakistan Military in East Pakistan was to surrender to the Indian Defense Forces along with 93,000 troops.
On December 14th evening we were told that the Pakistani Army from their headquarters in Dacca Cantonment had shifted to the buildings of Dacca University, inside the town. They had to be flushed out in an operation dubbed "Street Fighting".
On the morning of 15th, I led two missions of four MiG-21s each. In addition, No.28 Squadron mounted another eight missions. Dacca University was in the middle of the town and had very high buildings around it. We had to fly in between and below their tops.
It was a great experience flying at 1000km/h thru these narrow corridors and having people actually looking below from the windows above. An unusual sight to say the least. We made two passes each and struck hard delivering 256 rockets without compliments to the Pakistani Army housed there. A total of 1280 57mm rockets were fired into Dacca University buildings by the 'First Supersonics' on that day.
I was later told that the same evening, the top brass of the Army from University Camp had shifted to the International Hotel which was a safe haven declared by the Government of India. General Niazi who until the previous day was claiming that he could go on fighting for months, was left with little choice and had to face the realities.
He was made to take the ultimate decision to surrender and salvage whatever honour remained. He conveyed his desire to do so on the morning of 16 December 1971, and the actual surrender was taken the same evening. Pakistan's flag was lowered, not to be raised again. 'Sonar Bangla' had become a reality.
Air Chief Marshal P.C. Lal, Chief of Air Staff, gave a press briefing at Vayu Bhawan in New Delhi at 1130 hours on 19th February 1972 and fielded media questions. Following are some of the extracts relating to the major events of air operations in the Eastern Theatre;
(a) Taking the Eastern front first the aim was absolutely clear - we had to achieve quick victory in order to bring the war to a close.
(b) By the evening of December 13th, the Indian Army was encircling Dacca, still at a distance of 10 to 15 miles. At that time it would have taken the Army perhaps another week or ten days to bring in heavy artillery and tanks needed for the siege of Dacca.
Air reconnaissance had shown that strong points had been built up on its out-skirts with a garrison well-armed, well supplied with food. The Pakistan Army was apparently capable of holding off our land forces for quite a period of time. That apparently was their intention.
(c) On December 14th morning.....we got information in New Delhi that the Governor of East Pakistan, Dr. Malik, was holding a meeting in Government House Dacca at noon (Dacca time) that day. The 14th, when certain policy matters were to be discussed and Islamabad would be informed of the decisions.
We picked up this message about 11:45 (Dacca time). We sent out the message to our Headquarters, Eastern Air Command at Shillong to "please put on a strike as soon as you can after noon" (Dacca Time) against Government House. Our MiG-21s got across at 20 minutes past 12 (Dacca Time). 35 minutes from the time we picked up the telephone at Air Headquarters. They hit the Government House pretty accurately.
Dr. Malik resgned forthwith. He went into an air shelter (as we have been told by a UN official, Mr. Kefly who happened to be with him at that time). The moment first rockets struck Government House, he got out a paper and with his ball point pen wrote out his resignation. It was a dramatic incident. That really spelt the end of Pakistan's regime in Bangladesh. I believe that cut the ground under General Niazi's feet.
(d) General Niazi was later given the same treatment. We heard intelligence again from our sources, that the Army had moved out of Kurmitola. We had kept Kurmitola under constant air attacks day and night. They got fed up and moved into Dacca city and occupied a part of the Dacca University Campus.
After giving the treatment to Government House, we switched over to the University campus and between the aftenoon of 14th and evening of 15th, the IAF put 1500 rockets and several thousand rounds of ammunition into the Campus....calling on Niazi to surrender - which he did on the 18th and the war came to an end.
I am told by the Air Force people who were at the surrender that Niazi was asked as to why he packed off so quickly after having made a very definite statement on the 13th evening about defending Dacca for months. He was unable to speak at that time, possibly for emotion or the lack of ability to speak. But he turned around and pointed to the Wings of our Air Force Officers.
Later he said he had not slept for the past 12 nights, and just could not carry on, nor could his troops. We also have intercepts of messages passing between Dacca and Islamabad which make very interesting reading. "We have been bombed as nobody has ever been bombed."
In one case, an enquiry went out to the Operations Room at Dacca for the Officer-In-Charge. Colonel Ajawan answered. "Colonel Sahib has gone to International Hotel. The Major has gone, the Captain has gone, the Lieutenant has gone, in fact, I am only here, they have all gone now."
So you can see this was the situation brought about in Dacca by the Indian Air Force long before the Army could actually tackle Dacca itself. In the final surrender, I think, we have a right to claim an honourable part.
NOTE: The First Supersonics were awarded "Battle Honours" in recognition of their share in the victory for Bangladesh.
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